Richard II (Vol. 39)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Richard II, see SC, Volumes 6 and 24.
The first play of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, Richard II, chronicles the conflict which started the century-long War of the Roses. Richard II, however, is much more than a chronicle of events. The play debates the nature of legitimate kingship, explores the swirling eddies of political power, and demonstrates the power of language to create and depose a king.
Twentieth-century critics have often focused on the nature of kingship in Richard II, particularly the ways in which Shakespeare juxtaposed Richard's understanding of himself as divinely appointed with his failures as a human being. According to John R. Elliot (1968), Richard believes that as king he is directly aided by God, that he is not subject to human frailty, and that England is his to with as he pleases. Elliot argues that this mistaken notion of his role as king ultimately leads to Richard's failure. John Halverson (1994) also connects the source of Richard's failure with his own misunderstanding of kingship, maintaining that while the play presents Richard as a bad king, it is less certain about the notion of divine rights of kings. He asserts that Richard II neither "condemns" Richard nor "extols" Henry, but rather demonstrates the inherent problems in the nature of kingship itself.
Other scholars have attempted to distinguish between the divinity of the Crown and the person wearing the crown. H. M. Richmond (1967) has carefully examined the character of Richard and that of Bolingbroke, demonstrating how Richard's understanding of kingship represents the medieval view, while Bolingbroke is representative of the early modern, pragmatic sense of politics. Allan Bloom (1981) has similarly noted that Richard II brings to light the end of the old order of medieval chivalry and points toward the new order of politics and pragmatism. Robert Jones (1991), conversely, has asserted that Richard's failure is not that he represents an old order, but rather that he fails to pay heed to the lessons of the past.
The subversive nature of Richard II has continued to attract critical attention. Several commentators, including David M. Bergeron (1991), have discussed the way medieval Christian cultures embraced the topsy-turvy world of carnival in order to contain and control subversion. Bergeron maintains that it is the carnivalesque—embodied in the language, the structure, and the politics of the play—which makes Richard II an exploration of stability and subversion. Other scholars have contended that politics in Richard II reside in the family and in the patriarchal structures that maintain and reproduce the culture. Sharon Cadman Seelig (1995), for example, has demonstrated that family politics underscore national politics. She asserts that although Richard II is often read as a power struggle between the king and a usurper, it is also a play about the power struggle between fathers and sons.
Language also plays a role in the construction and the deposition of a king. Critics have compared Richard's poetic, hyperbolic, lovely language with the plain style of Bolingbroke, contending that the differences in their language styles reflect their characters and their conceptions of kingship. Further, scholars often associate Richard's language with that of medieval chivalry and Bolingbroke's with that of modern dynamism and competition. For instance, R. P. Draper (1989) has demonstrated that the rhetorical construction of Richard's last speech reveals the overturn of a particular type of world view, one in which duty to one's superiors is paramount. He argues that Richard's play with language leads him ever closer to self-knowledge; however, self-knowledge does not provide salvation for Richard. Rather, Draper asserts, the closer Richard comes to understanding that kingship is a role he has been playing, the closer he comes to understanding his own culpability for his actions.
John R. Elliott, Jr. (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "History and Tragedy in Richard II," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Spring, 1968, pp. 253-71.
[In this essay, Elliott argues that Richard II is representative of a distinct genre, the political play, and that it differs from tragedy in several important aesthetic features, including dramatic structure, characterization, and thematic development.]
Students of the Elizabethan history play have been able to agree only that it is an ambiguous dramatic genre. Since the editors of the 1623 Folio set apart ten of Shakespeare's plays and distinguished them from Comedies and Tragedies by labeling them "Histories," it has been recognized that for Elizabethans these plays and others like them must have differed in some significant way from the more conventional forms of drama. Just what this difference was, however, remains unclear. Historical content alone cannot be the answer, since several of the plays in the First Folio that were based on history, such as Hamlet and Macbeth, were nevertheless not classified as "Histories." Nor does the genre seem to be distinguished by any characteristic form. In his survey of historical drama throughout the sixteenth century Irving Ribner has concluded that "the history play cannot be defined on the basis of dramatic...
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H. M. Richmond (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Richard II," in Shakespeare 's Political Plays, Random House, 1967, pp. 123-40.
[In the following excerpt, Richmond demonstrates a shift from the medieval notion of kingship represented by Richard to the early modern idea of kingship represented by Bolingbroke.]
Richard II may be related to King John by its deliberate choice of yet another reign whose erratic character invited an ambiguous response in Elizabethan Englishmen, like the "saintly" incompetence of Henry VI's administration, or the feebly crafty yet anti-papal orientation of John's. The play also achieves a more exciting recombination of the political resources previously shared between John and the Bastard, which are now shown to be not in alliance but in opposition. John's cunning and the Bastard's pragmatic political sense fall to the lot of Bolingbroke, while the verve and rhetorical color of the Bastard combine, in Richard, with a certain rashness and moral casualness that had been shared by both John and his supporter. The result is a striking increase in dramatic tension; whatever the dates of composition of the two plays, Richard II is superior both in its language and in its political sophistication, not to mention its subtlety of characterization. Indeed, the hypnotic rhetoric of Richard and the progression of his personality and his career...
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Politics And Power
David M. Bergeron (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Richard II and Carnival Politics," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 33-43.
[In the following essay, Bergeron argues that the carnivalesque language and rituals in Richard II account for the Elizabethan perception of the play as a politically subversive drama.]
Why did Charles II think it necessary or desirable to suppress Richard II in the 1680s?1 Had Queen Elizabeth's government similarly suppressed a portion of the text nearly a hundred years earlier? What is there about this play that may seem threatening to governments? Why did the Essex rebels in 1601 choose to have this play performed on the eve of what turned out to be their abortive rebellion against the queen? Does such an event illustrate the power of drama and the place of the theater in Elizabethan culture? Are the new historicists correct when they agree with Stephen Greenblatt that "Shakespeare's plays are centrally, repeatedly concerned with the production and containment of subversion and disorder"?2 Was the central part of the deposition scene in Richard II omitted or censored; and if so, by whom?
As one way of understanding the presumably threatening, subversive quality of Richard II, I will focus on the carnival nature of this play, especially the deposition scene. I do not...
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Language And Imagery
R. P. Draper (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Wasted Time in Richard II," in Critical Survey, Vol. I, No. 1, 1989, pp. 33-42.
[In the essay below, Draper demonstrates the ways in which Richard's use of language reflects the downward spiral of his career as king.]
In his last great soliloquy before his murder in the castle of Pomfret Richard II debates with himself the tragic irony and pathos of his situation as a king and no king, one who has enjoyed the greatest power accorded to man on earth and yet now sees himself reduced to nothingness. 'I wasted time,' he reflects, 'and now doth time waste me' (V.5.49). The figure of speech is typically rhetorical. Its technical name is anti-metabole, a 'cross' figure in which words are repeated in inverse order: abba—in this instance 'waste' and 'time', followed by 'time' and 'waste'. There is also a third element of repetition in the form of the first-person singular which is a little less obvious because of the change from T (subject) to 'me' (object); but this is, if anything, even more important since it highlights Richard's change of role from active agent, T, to passive sufferer of action, 'me'. The placing of T at the beginning of the line and 'me' at the end further emphasises this change of role: the man who starts by being in command, ends by being commanded.
This line and its rhetorical patterning sum...
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Bennett, Kenneth C. "Climax and Anti-Climax in Richard II." Essays in Theatre 6, No. 2 (May 1988): 123-35.
Illustrates how Shakespeare structures Richard II to accommodate the anti-climax brought about by Richard's deposition.
Bloom, Allan. "Richard II" In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 51-61. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.
Explores the problems of kingship in Richard II, arguing that kingship has at its core both the divine and the criminal.
Bolton, W. F. "Ricardian Law Reports and Richard II" Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 53-65.
Discussion of legal terms and laws used by Shakespeare in Richard II.
Brooke, Nicholas. "Richard II" In Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, pp. 107-37. London: Methuen and Company, 1968.
Maintains that the play is structured rhetorically, which supports the notion of divine order, and suggests that readers should resist focusing on Richard's character at the expense of rhetorical analysis.
Cowan, Louise. "God Will Save the King: Shakespeare's Richard II" In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 63-81. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.
Asserts that while politics and power...
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