Study Guide

Richard II

by William Shakespeare

Richard II Essay - Richard II (Vol. 39)

Richard II (Vol. 39)

Introduction

Richard II

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.

Kingship

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 have encouraged critics to think of the play as essentially the individual tragedy of his fall from eminence. This is a distortion, for from the first scene to the last the real issues are never based on Richard's exclusive concerns, but bear directly on his role in the body politic. In fact, the commentators' over-concern with the idea that tragedy is based on the convention of a flawed hero, coupled with their rather casual attitude to the complex political tensions throughout the play, have often resulted in their misreading not only the action of the play, but equally the character of Richard himself.

The opening scene, for example, establishes a masterly counterpoint between the bravura of formal political debate in the medieval style and the treacherous, indeed murderous events and instincts that really govern these highly rhetorical performances. In line with that preservation of the distinction between the absolute integrity of the Crown and the personal fallibility of its human component that we first noted in King John, Bolingbroke's challenging of Mowbray appears to be merely an example of one local lapse in the administration of government resources, thereby entirely avoiding the formal involvement of the king's reputation in such matters. Yet at the heart of Bolingbroke's challenge of Mowbray lies a veiled threat to Richard himself, as the implied initiator of Mowbray's actions, and particularly of the assassination in Calais of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who was the uncle of both Richard and Bolingbroke. Richard is thus in certain senses both judge and defendant in Bolingbroke's somewhat specious case against Mowbray, as Gaunt unhappily admits to Gloucester's widow at the start of the next scene:

Alas, the part I had in Woodstock's blood
Doth more solicit me than your exclaims,
To stir against the butchers of his life!
But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven.

(I.ii.1-6)

The implicit ambiguity of Richard's position in the opening scene may thus seem to invite an unsympathetic response toward him on our part, and indeed, at one level of interpretation, Bolingbroke plausibly appears to be the champion of family honor and loyalty.

Unfortunately, at another level he is chiefly concerned with undermining Richard's authority and even the very basis of his survival. In this, Bolingbroke's course proves analogous to (but more discreet than) that goal of deposing and even assassinating Richard, which had historically forced the king to arrange in self-defense for his uncle's assassination. As a further complication it turns out, later in the play (IV.i.80-2), that Mowbray is in fact to be held as innocent of the murder of Gloucester as he earlier protested, even while recognizing that there were indeed valid grounds for such an act:

For Gloucester's death,
I slew him not; but to my own disgrace
Neglected my sworn duty in that case.

(I.i.132-4)

This statement may be readily understood to mean that loyalty to Richard as King of England requires all his subjects to protect him from the mischievous plots of such envious relatives as Gloucester. In one way, therefore, we may with justice begin to wonder whether Richard's situation is not closer to that of the doomed young Edward V in Richard III than to that of the would-be assassin who wears the crown in King John. Richard's father was a hero—the Black Prince, heir to Edward III; but since he had died before Edward, Richard had succeeded his grandfather on the throne at the tender age of ten, with consequent strain on his relationship with his gifted and experienced uncles. Their resentment, both veiled and open, surrounds Richard like a sinister miasma from the very opening of the play, often breaking out into savage vituperation, as in Gaunt's dying speeches:

O, had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye
Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possess'd,
Which art possess'd now to depose thyself.

(II.i.104-8)

There needs only a little extension of this sentiment to justify such acts as those meditated by Gloucester; it is hard not to see in Bolingbroke's challenge to Mowbray the calculated jostling of the throne by a rival cousin who hoped to shake down the fortunate heir to the crown.

In fact, in the context of these intense family pressures, it is surprising that Richard manages to maintain his poise as well as he does in the opening scenes. If anything, Richard's self-possession reflects the dangerous assumption that he enjoys unlimited freedom of action. Despite an unmistakable intellectual superiority to those around him, Richard fails to concern himself sufficiently with the political currents that are swirling just beneath the surface. He stops to reason and argue instead of taking a decisive role, as Bolingbroke so arrogantly does in the analogous situation that arises, when he begins to assume command of England (IV.i.86ff.). Richard continually reflects that almost casual freedom of expression and action of the Bastard Faulconbridge that had remained incidental to the central pattern of most of King John, but which in Richard II becomes a fatal complication in the needful impersonality of Richard's administration.

Richard's fault thus does not lie in any simple defect of private personality. He is certainly not as deeply vicious as Gaunt would have us believe in his famous deathbed denunciation (II.i.93ff), for Richard's return from Ireland to his kingdom is marked by almost as intense a statement of devotion to his native land (III.ii.4ff.) as that of Gaunt in his famous celebration of "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" in Act II, Scene i. Nor is Richard incapable of the most graceful gestures of kingly mercy, as when he spares Bolingbroke the full term of his exile, remitting four of his ten years of exile in consideration of the grief of Bolingbroke's father, Gaunt. Nor will it do to censure the judgment passed by Richard on the intended combatants at the tournament, since it is clearly established that this is in no sense the result of a spontaneous gesture on the part of the king. Richard orders them to hear, not his personal verdict, but "what with our council we have done" (I.iii.124); and, in the case of Mowbray at least, the council's decision is one "Which I with some unwillingness pronounce" (I.iii.149), so that there seem some justification for Richard's resentment at Gaunt's response to his son's reduced sentence:

Thy son is banished upon good advice,
Whereto thy tongue a party-verdict gave:
Why at our justice seem'st thou then to lour?

(I.iii.233-5)

Altogether there seems, if anything, too great a spirit of conciliation and spontaneous good nature in Richard's actions during these early scenes, rather than any moral weakness or viciousness.

The one point on which he has been censured on plausible grounds is the manner of his conduct, which inflates the actual status of an issue to the disadvantage of a swift and decisive settlement. Richard mistakes the visibility of an action for the effective accomplishment of its aim. In King John we have already seen how effective government offsets the apparently fatal consequences of a poor public showing. In Richard II, on the other hand, we see that neither legitimate authority nor a dashing public figure is enough to sustain an effective administration. Bolingbroke lacks Richard's intellectual verve and imaginative potential, as we can see in his dreary response to the consolations offered for his exile:

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?

(I.iii.294-7)

On the other hand, Bolingbroke has the tightest grasp on political realities and can therefore turn every occasion to personal advantage, as Richard quickwittedly, but altogether too contemptuously recognizes. At Bolingbroke's departure, Richard tells how he has

Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune.

(I.iv.24-9)

The fact is that Richard would have been well-advised from the start to redirect his own freeswinging personality toward a similar exploitation of his political advantages. While Richard despises such narrow considerations, his casualness results in hasty administrative judgments, as when he sells off his resources of taxation for ready cash (I.iv.42ff.). In such matters, he is often guilty of flippancy and even of bad taste, as in his jibe at the news of Gaunt's decline:

Now put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish Wars.

(I.iv.59-62)

Richard's primary tactical mistake in the play is to translate this unfortunate inspiration into action, under the spur of the dying Gaunt's own vehement wish to dispossess Richard himself of his birthright. York's feeble attempt to soften the king's resentment by arguing that Gaunt loves him as dearly as does Bolingbroke sets off in the king's alert mind an exactly antithetical reaction to the one that was intended:

Right, you say true: as Hereford's love, so his;
As theirs, so mine; and all be as it is.

(II.i.145-6)

Under the emotional tension of the recurring threats of deposition arising out of the hatred of his relatives, the king as usual acts spontaneously and without weighing the political consequences. He too readily shrugs off York's laborious exposition of them:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not tomorrow then ensue to-day;

Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?

(II.i.195-9)

Richard is continually being betrayed by the family rivalries into courses of conduct such as this one which invites further calculated challenges to his authority. The murder of Gloucester, plausibly ascribed to Richard (though this is never proved in the play), would thus be no random act of viciousness, but a desperate gesture of self-defense on Richard's part. In its turn, the murder lent color to the diffusion of Gloucester's rebellious mood throughout the entire family.

While it must be acknowledged that Richard's seizure of the dead Gaunt's lands constitutes a dangerous precedent and reflects Richard's poor political tact, we must also recognize that it cannot be the original pretext for Bolingbroke's return in the play, even though he is shown characteristically to twist it to this advantage, upon landing. For the very scene in which Richard announces his seizure of his uncle's estate, and is thereupon admonished by York, concludes with Northumberland's revelation that Bolingbroke has already left the Continent, to which he had been exiled, and is thus launched on his armed return to England well before Richard's politically unfortunate act. Bolingbroke has a group of distinguished followers, listed by Northumberland, and:

All these well furnish'd by the Duke of Bretagne
With eight tall ships, three thousand men of war,
Are making hither with all due expedience
And shortly mean to touch our northern shore:
Perhaps they had ere this but that they stay
The first departing of the king for Ireland.

(II.i.285-90)

Thus, if Richard is fighting—often brutally but with some traces of dignity and much immediate justification—to preserve his legitimate authority, Bolingbroke from the start sustains Gloucester's anarchistic initiative, and ultimately becomes a traitor, greedy for power, even though he is masterful in finding plausible color for all his actions. He unquestionably incarnates all that coarse but efficient opportunism that Richard's finer character instinctively fails to cultivate, and into which he lapses awkwardly, and only when under acute pressure. The tragedy of Richard is not what nineteenth-century critical fashion would have him share with Hamlet—the failure of the merely "poetic" temperament to cope with realities. It is much rather the disaster that results when opportunism is not curbed by superior cunning, achieved at perhaps an even higher cost to private moral worth than Richard resentfully pays.

The famous garden scene establishes the universal necessity for the sort of brutal rigor that the high-minded ruler must cultivate in order to sustain his other, more civilized resources. The Gardener symbolically maintains a ruthless order in his little Commonwealth, telling his fellow servants:

Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ'd, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers.

(III.iv.33-9)

The discussion then progresses naturally to the king's failure to maintain a similarly firm discipline in his larger territory:

O, what a pity is it
That he had not so trimm'd and dress'd his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruittrees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty.

(III.iv.55-63)

The reproach is thus that Richard is too lenient and generous. The Gardener is clearly concerned primarily with expressing approval of Bolingbroke's execution of Bushy and Green; but the generalizations might apply equally to anyone (including Bolingbroke himself) who had raised his head too high for the king's (and the kingdom's) peace.

In fact, Bolingbroke's severity against Richard's supporters is shown to be little more than a caricature of justice: his accusations are vague, for the most part: "You have misled a prince" (III.i.8), or fatuous, as when he accuses them of having "Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him" (III.i.12)—a fault, incidentally, of which he may be later accused far more legitimately himself (V.i.51-102). Bolingbroke's most precisely urged charges against Richard's men are also the most private and local:

. . . you have fed upon my signories,
Dispark'd my parks and fell'd my forest woods,
From my own windows torn my household coat,
Razed out my imprese, leaving me no sign,
Save men's opinions and my living blood
To show the world I am a gentleman.

(III.i.22-7)

The charges are plausible enough, but if Richard is initially tainted in Act I for judging a case (and comparatively how mildly!) to which he was himself a party, then Bolingbroke is here far more culpable for usurping a judicial role to which he has no title whatsoever, as well as being overtly compromised in the case, in which he appears as plaintiff, prosecutor, and judge.

Bolingbroke is basically a ruthless manipulator of political forces, indifferent to any larger issues than those dictated by expediency, as he is later made to confess on his deathbed to his son:

God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect and crook'd ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.

(2HIV, IV.v. 184-7)

In many ways Richard is the exact opposite of this antagonist: fluent and generous, where Bolingbroke is constrained and surly; ideologically sophisticated, rather than grimly pragmatic; loving free debate and discussion, whereas Bolingbroke is either unctuous or blunt and ruthless. Above all, Richard is a man who is more deeply aware of the possibilities of human volition: he perpetually gives the impression of a man who chooses his course of conduct consciously, however metaphysically or abruptly he may seem to do so. By contrast, Bolingbroke moves almost without volition through the currents of political life, deciding his conduct instead by instinctive reflexes, as in his clever tactics during the deposition scene.

The limitations of Richard's temperament are best illustrated by his earlier behavior, on his return to his kingdom from Ireland, when his sense of his own nominal authority is sharply juxtaposed with the consequences of overmuch dependence on the consistency of attitude of those to whom he has too confidently trusted the kingdom during his absence abroad (perhaps his worst strategic error). Richard's notorious overconfidence at the start of this scene is not quite as grotesquely unrealistic as it might appear. It is true that he has an almost ecstatic conviction of his own power:

This earth shall have a feeling and these stones
Prove armed soldiers, ere her native king
Shall falter under foul rebellion's arms.

(III.ii.24-6)

and it is also true that Aumerle reinforces the bishop's admonition to Richard not to depend only on God's will, but also to use "the means that heaven yields." It has been a theme of reproach to Richard that he replies to his "discomfortable cousin" by reiterating his faith in the principle that "heaven still guards the right." In the context of this argument, it now appears somewhat ironic that, in the proposal for a tournament with which the play begins, Richard was not content to leave the matter to such arbitration. However, it remains doubtful whether Richard's confidence on his return to England is even then considered fairly to be based on trust in providence alone. At this point he still quite reasonably expects more than adequate military resources to be supplied by Salisbury and York, whose vacillations and incompetence defy any anticipation. One would be almost as unfair to blame Richard for his early optimism while awaiting the arrival of these armies, as for being cast down and pale thereafter, when he learns that they do not exist:

But now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;
And, till to so much blood thither come again,
Have I not reason to look pale and dead?

(III.ii.76-9)

It is scarcely surprising that his thoughts now turn to "sad stories of the death of kings"; he knows his enemy too well to hope for such mercy as he himself had accorded Bolingbroke in reducing his exile. Bolingbroke's reflexes will be, as always, toward ruthlessness; his mercies are merely calculated.

Richard's sole remaining weapon lies in his maturing psychological subtlety, as we can see this reflected in his formal intellectual and rhetorical power. Wherever possible, he uses such resources boldly and with increasing political impact as he accumulates bitter firsthand experience. His public posture after his capture at Flint is only momentarily imposing, but by the time of the famous deposition scene his impact, both political and emotional, on the court and on the play's audience matches Bolingbroke's more evenly than ever before. This is prefigured in the Bishop of Carlisle's powerful attack on Bolingbroke's brusque announcement, "In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne" (IV.i.113).

The naked power that alone vindicates Bolingbroke's proceedings continually conflicts with the human intensity and increasingly bitter self-awareness of Richard. He even manages to resist the relentless pressure of Northumberland to recite his "grievous crimes." Boling-broke backs down when he begins to realize the potency of Richard's rhetoric in his resistance to humiliation:

Must I do so? and must I ravel out
My weaved-up folly? Gentle Northumberland,
If thy offences were upon record,
Would it not shame thee in so fair a troop
To read a lecture of them? If thou wouldst,
There shouldst thou find a heinous article,
Containing the deposing of a king
And cracking the strong warrant of an oath

Mark'd with a blot, damn'd in the book of heaven: . . .
Mine eyes are full of tears, I cannot see:
And yet salt water blinds them not so much
But they can see a sort of traitors here.
Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself,
I find myself a traitor with the rest;
For I have given here my soul's consent
To undeck the pompous body of a king;
Made glory base and sovereignty a slave,
Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant.

(IV.i.228-36,244-52)

The stature of Richard here begins to approach the heroic, as his self-realization and indignation fuse his personality into a coherent whole, in which mind and action become one. Shakespeare is too wise, of course, to present us with the spectacle of an alert young man matured instantly and irrevocably into a powerful and commanding personality. Not only has Richard by now completely lost the physical initiative to Bolingbroke, just at the moment when he attains the moral authority to which he aspired in the opening scenes, but Richard still favors discursive debate at the expense of the immediate issue. He has attained to a clear sense of the conceptual order of which the English crown has traditionally been the keystone, only to digress speculatively on more subjective meditations along tangents in which Bolingbroke is only too happy to encourage him:

Bolingbroke: The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd
The shadow of your face.
King Richard: Say that again.
The shadow of my sorrows! ha! let's see:
'Tis very true, . . .

(IV.i.292-5)

Thus it is Richard's intellectual vivacity that deflects him from his last opportunity to translate his now highly tuned awareness of the philosophy of politics into direct action. Only in his last moments will Richard finally achieve a tigerish physical potency of the kind that earlier would have been able to render ineffectual all of Bolingbroke's tough, insinuating strokes.

Nevertheless, Richard unmistakably commands the last scenes, just as Gaunt seems to dominate the opening ones. When the grimly phlegmatic Northumberland separates Richard abruptly from his queen, the deposed king launches into a precise political forecast of his enemy's fate, fully vindicated by the action of the first part of Henry IV:

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is ere foul sin gathering head
Shall break into corruption: thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
And he shall think that thou, which know'st the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urged, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death,

(V.i.55-68)

One has only to compare the authoritative tones of this analysis with Richard's superficial plausibility in the opening scenes, to recognize how much he has matured. He no longer commands respect by his status, which is now negligible, but by his innate resources of personality. While he continues to be publicly humiliated, he carries this off with a dignity superior to the best he can muster at his deposition, as even the turncoat York ruefully admits. After sketching Bolingbroke's triumph, he describes Richard memorably:

But dust was thrown upon his sacred head;
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combating with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience,
That had not God, for some strong purpose, steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted
And barbarism itself have pitied him.

(V.ii.30-6)

The new order of Bolingbroke is rightly characterized in York's account as one that is enforced by hard hearts and barbarism. York himself does not see the irony of his making new oaths of eternal loyalty to a new king so soon after betraying the old one, nor does he fully recognize the new emotional climate that civil strife has induced. In this new order there will be less inclination for fathers to seek, as did Gaunt, their sons' well-being. Not only does York himself hound his son mercilessly for political reasons, but Bolingbroke's own son apparently revolts against loyalty to so disloyal a man as his father:

Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since I did see him last:
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found:
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent,
With unrestrained loose companions, . . .

(V.iii.1-7)

The slack structure of this degenerate new society can never hope to recover the finer temper that had characterized Richard's court, for all its strains and tensions. Richard aspired to reason and to gallant generosity, even if he did stoop to forced taxation and to revenge for injuries offered or sustained. And while in all other ways Henry's kingdom is to be worse than Richard's, Henry himself is no more innocent of the instincts of the assassin than was Richard, and far more culpable in practice, since he invites Richard's murder, not so much in response to sustained threats of his own assassination, such as had motivated Richard against Gloucester, as to protect his stolen kingdom against even the possibility of its restoration to the rightful ruler by such figures as York's son Aumerle.

It is ironic that under the new king the bravest acts are those that are associated with the deposed king. Richard's last scene is the best evidence of that evolution of his personality from a facile mustering of kingly dignity, perpetually at odds with youthful optimism and spontaneity, to a new, bitterly wise, and ruthless maturity. This last scene is marked by an extraordinary fusion of resigned self-knowledge with physical resolution, a fusion that is completely incompatible with the view of Richard as an oversensitive poet, incapable of action. Richard's long soliloquy is a more complete recognition of himself than Shakespeare allows many of his political heroes:

Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disorder'd string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;...

(V.v.41-9)

There is no longer any discrepancy between Richard's refined awareness and a firm grasp of effective reality. Not only does he instantly perceive the plot to poison him, but he reacts with extraordinary physical promptness to the assault by Exton and his servants. In Holinshed, Richard kills four of his nine assailants; in Shakespeare, only two, out of a presumably smaller number required for satisfactory staging. Either way we are presented with a figure who is no longer tragic but epic. Whatever the character of the historical Richard (and he was apparently at least as complex and impressive as Shakespeare makes him), there is no doubt that the dramatist follows Holinshed in wishing Richard's last moments to be an heroic apotheosis, a vindication of that archetypal authority that he had far too casually lost to Henry.

This is a tragedy for all concerned—for Richard, for England, and for Henry. Exton has barely epitomized Richard's final state of mind: "As full of valour as of royal blood" (V.v.114), before we are confronted with Henry's uneasy announcement of the difficulties his own example has invited:

Kind uncle York, the latest news we hear
Is that the rebels have consumed with fire
Our town of Cicester in Gloucestershire;
But whether they be ta'en or slain we hear not.

(V.vi.1-4)

These, the first of a long series of rebels, prove to have been defeated. Yet the play ends on Henry's attempt to shrug off any responsibility for Exton's murder of Richard, in a speech that closely echoes that of King John to Hubert, the supposed murderer of Prince Arthur:

They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour.

(V.vi.38-41)

Yet not so long before, according to Exton, Henry had said: "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?" (V.iv.2). Nor do we have Exton's word alone: Shakespeare is careful to corroborate the fact that Henry spoke the words twice, by providing the testimony of the servant to whom Exton is speaking. Henry's guilt is thus explicit in a way that Shakespeare has previously taken pains to ensure was not the case with Richard's involvement in the death of Gloucester.

One can only take consolation from the repercussions of Henry's dawning sense of his own guilt, which encourages a new element of mercifulness toward those who are more loyal than he was: Aumerle and Carlisle, Richard's best allies. Since they are "traitors" to the new king, policy might well argue for their deaths; but with the attainment of his ends there appear hints of new potentialities in Henry—the office begins to impose its own higher discipline on the man. However, the dignified rhetoric of...

(The entire section is 13765 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 13771 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 11770 words.)

Further Reading

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.

...

(The entire section is 653 words.)