A. L. French
[In the essay that follows, French analyzes the characters and structure of Richard II, maintaining that the play presents an inconsistent rendering of one of the key events in the play— the deposition of Richard. French states that in the first half of the play, there is little to indicate that the king will be deposed, but in the second half of the play, other characters clearly view Richard as having been deposed.]
A couple of years ago I saw a competent amateur performance of Richard II. As it happened I had not read the play for some time, and I naturally approached it with certain assumptions in mind—assumptions derived ultimately, no doubt, from scholars such as Tillyard. But as I watched, I first felt puzzled, then irritated, and finally astonished. The play was not making sense in the only way in which (I had thought) it could make sense; nor did it seem to be making sense in any other way. Afterwards, I re-read the piece, to see where I or the actors had been stupid; but to my further surprise I found that the puzzlement I had felt was quite justified. The blur was not in the performance and not in my mind, but in Shakespeare's play. The present article is an attempt to describe this blur.
The assumptions we take to Richard II are, I have said, derived from Tillyard and others. The most important one is that Richard was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who by his...
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Richard II presents several aspects of kingship, including the notions of the legal right to rule as king, the divine right to rule, and the effectiveness of one's rule as king. The "divine right" of kings refers to the notion that the right to rule is ordained by God, not by the popular consent of the people. Lewis J. Owen observes that the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke each represent an important aspect of kingship in relation to Queen Elizabeth. Richard stands for the divine right to rule and Bolingbroke represents effective, "kingly" leadership. Owen argues that Shakespeare takes care in the play to treat both Richard's and Bolingbroke's claim to the throne sympathetically. Our sympathy for Richard is generated by three factors, Owen states. The first is the fact that Richard is surrounded by "evil" advisors. Owen notes that while to modern readers this may seem like a flimsy excuse, Elizabethans would have been more likely to judge a monarch less harshly than we would if that monarch made poor decisions based on the advisement of corrupt counselors. Another factor Owen cites is Richard's own personal weakness. Again, Owen observes that Elizabethans would have been more sympathetic to a ruler who was weak, rather than one who was evil. The final factor that Owen believes draws the audience's sympathy to Richard is that he is in fact the rightful king. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is shown to be a king by his deeds, Owen...
(The entire section is 11814 words.)
Language, Imagery and Symbolism
The language of Richard II and the images and symbols it contains can help illuminate the significance of the play's themes. Arthur Suzman and Andrew Gurr both examine the ways in which the imagery highlights important themes and supports the action of the play. Suzman argues that the play is primarily concerned with the fall of Richard and the rise of Bolingbroke. A parallel theme, Suzman states, is the spiritual rise of Richard, which follows his political fall, and the spiritual fall of Bolingbroke, precipitated by his political rise. The imagery of the play reflects this theme of rise and fall. The action of the play as well, Suzman notes, is closely linked with this imagery. In almost every scene, the imagery of rise and fall is used, Suzman explains. Word pairs such as "ascend" and "descend" or "sky" and "earth" are often employed to emphasize rising and falling, and images such as ladders or "two buckets in a well" are used for the same purpose. Suzman traces the usage of such language and imagery from the play's beginning to end, noting that one of the scenes where this language and imagery is powerfully employed is Act III, scene iii, when Richard, standing high on the battlements, looks down on Northumberland and Bolingbroke below. Richard has told Bolingbroke that he shall acquiesce to his demands. Richard then descends from the battlements to Bolingbroke's "base court" (III.iii.180). Bolingbroke kneels before Richard, but Richard replies,...
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King Richard has met mixed reviews from audiences and critics. His character has generated pity and sympathy as well as disdain and condemnation. In an essay reprinted in the Overview section, A L. French observes that Shakespeare seems to treat Richard in two different ways in the play. In the first half of the play, there is little indication that Richard will be deposed by Bolingbroke, French argues, but in the second half of the play, other characters seem to be of the opinion that Richard has in fact been deposed. Yet Richard deposes himself, French stresses. French states that it is as if Shakespeare presents two different truths in the play (that Richard will not be and has not been forcefully deposed by Bolingbroke, and that he has indeed been unjustly deposed), rather than presenting a consistent truth throughout.
To others, Richard appears to be presented more consistently. Lewis J. Owen, in an essay reprinted in the Kingship section, examines the ways in which Shakespeare's characterization of Richard drew, if not the sympathy of modern audiences, at least that of Elizabethan audiences. Owen observes that Richard is shown to be a weak king who falls prey to evil advisors but is nevertheless the rightful ruler. Owen also states that although Richard falls politically, he grows personally, and that the opposite happens to Bolingbroke. As some evidence of Richard's growth, Owen points to the fact that Richard is finally moved to act when he kills...
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Although Bolingbroke accepts a crown that legally belongs to Richard, Bolingbroke is often seen in a heroic light, as the man who rescues the kingship and the commonwealth from Richard's weak and ineffective hands. Critics such as Lewis J. Owen (whose essay appears in the Kingship section) and Arthur Suzman (whose essay appears in the Language, Imagery, and Symbolism section) argue that despite Bolingbroke's political rise, he experiences a personal or spiritual decline. Owen explains that Bolingbroke loses dignity when he takes the crown which is rightfully Richard's.
Barbara J. Baines argues that while some critics have attacked Bolingbroke, Shakespeare presents him in a favorable, sympathetic manner. The play itself does present both sides of Bolingbroke, Baines notes, that of Bolingbroke who acts the king through his deeds, and that of Bolingbroke the traitor. Baines suggests that the former, sympathetic attitude is given more weight in the play. Baines argues that Richard loses the crown (in fact deposes himself) as a result of his disregard for the laws of the commonwealth, that he disinherits himself through his role in Gloucester's death and his confiscation of Gaunt's estate. Although some critics feel that Bolingbroke does not make his motivations known, Baines argues that he returns not to regain his inheritance (his father Gaunt's estate) but to claim his right as a subject to be ruled by a responsible king. Bolingbroke's actions, such...
(The entire section is 7198 words.)