Richard II (Vol. 70)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Richard II, see SC, Volumes 6, 24, 39, 52, and 58.
Richard II is the first play of Shakespeare's second tetralogy, a series of four plays based on English history. Unlike the other plays in the series, and despite the political and historical nature of the play, Richard II contains no battles; rather, it focuses on the more subtle and psychological aspects of political power. In addition to the scrutiny of the play's historical and political issues, other topics of critical examination include the play's structure, as well as the characters of Richard, his rival Bolingbroke, and the often overlooked York. Additionally, Richard II has a lengthy stage history, and is still a popular choice for modern productions.
Often viewed as an intense and focused study of Richard's political fall and Bolingbroke's rise to power, Richard II is commonly studied in terms of the conflict between these men and the values each represents. Derek Traversi (see Further Reading) sees the play as the downfall of a traditional conception of royalty, represented by Richard, and the uprising of a new political force, represented by Bolingbroke. In Traversi's analysis of the play and its characters, he concludes that Richard betrays his political office, which he has ineffectively filled, and Bolingbroke, not unlike Richard, proves to be divided between political virtue and the quest for power. Like Traversi, C. W. R. D. Moseley (see Further Reading) is interested in Richard's decline. Moseley focuses on Shakespeare's source adaptations as well as his development of the play's characters, demonstrating the ways in which the audience is led toward sympathy for Richard, despite his failures and faults. While critics such as Moseley concentrate on Richard's personal tragedy, John Palmer (1961) complains that too often, the play is seen solely in terms of Richard as a private individual. Palmer maintains that Richard's actions should be viewed within the context of their political and public ramifications as well. Through the course of his examination, Palmer demonstrates how Shakespeare portrayed Richard as an unfit, futile politician who was unable to effectively deal with the group of ambitious politicians surrounding him. Additionally, Palmer assesses the political motivations and performances of Bolingbroke and others, including Gaunt, Mowbray, York, and Aumerle. While York is sometimes dismissed as weak and feeble, some critics have found his role in the play to be significant. Michael F. Kelly (1972) contends that York serves a pivotal role in the thematic and dramatic development of the play. Specifically, Kelly studies York's position as a staunch but intimidated ally of Richard, and York's subsequent transfer of loyalty to Bolingbroke, arguing that York's shift in attitude spurs a similar response within the audience. Like Kelly, James A. Riddell (1979) finds York to be a crucial character in the play in that he serves as a representative of Christian stoicism and magnanimity. In York's dedication to the principles of magnanimity, Riddell asserts, Shakespeare highlights Richard's deficiencies.
For Elizabethan audiences, Richard II was rife with political implications, as it dramatized the conflict between the divinely ordained right of monarchs and the question of the legitimacy of the right to usurp. Robert Ornstein (see Further Reading) explores the appeal of the play's treatment of medieval history to Elizabethan audiences, maintaining that Shakespeare's evocation of this medieval past was not done with political intentions, but simply for artistic pleasure. According to Ornstein, Shakespeare portrayed the complexity of this conflict without offering a solution to the problems associated with political loyalty and disloyalty. Taking another approach to the play's treatment of history and politics, Leeds Barroll (1988) studies the relationship between the play and the Earl of Essex rebellion. Barroll documents the commissioning of a performance of the play just prior to the Essex rebellion (1601), and the subsequent punishments suffered by those involved with the production. In conclusion, Barroll claims that Richard II was not a potentially dangerous piece of political propaganda; rather, the individuals who commissioned the performance and the players performing it were thought to be dangerous and engaged in possibly treasonous actions. Critics have also focused on the ceremonial, formal language of Richard II, and how such language supports the carefully constructed structure of the play. Margaret Shewring (1996) centers her study on the complementary relationship between the play's patterned poetic language and the artfully balanced structure. Shewring explains that in order to achieve this type of focused structure, Shakespeare simplified history as he found it in his sources, omitting much of the factionalism displayed by the nobility.
Like modern critical analyses of Richard II, modern productions also often scrutinize the historical elements of the play, as well as the performances of Richard and Bolingbroke. Ace G. Pilkington (1991) assesses the 1979 BBC production of Richard II, directed by David Giles and staring Derek Jacobi as Richard. Pilkington notes the ways in which the production may have been improved with greater resources, comments on the production's concern with history, and praises the performance of Jacobi. Michael Feingold (1998) reviews the Theatre for a New Audience production directed by Ron Daniels, which was paired with a staging of Richard III. Feingold finds that the production was less than effective due to this pairing. Feingold also reviews a production of the play staged at the Pearl Theatre, directed by Shepard Sobel, noting that it had a better grasp of the play as poetry than did Daniels's production, although Daniels's staging is described as more vivid. Robert L. King (1995) reviews The National Theatre production, directed by Deborah Warner, which cast a woman as Richard. King praises Fiona Shaw's depiction of Richard and also applauds the production's respectful and illuminating take on Shakespeare's text. Charles Isherwood (2000) reviews Ralph Fiennes's performance as Richard in Jonathan Kent's production of Richard II at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Isherwood finds Fiennes's portrayal of Richard to be somewhat silly and pompous.
Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Palmer, John. “Richard of Bordeaux.” In Political Characters of Shakespeare, pp. 118-79. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1961.
[In the following essay, Palmer challenges critics who view Richard II as the tragedy of one man, and explores the fall of Richard as a king and political figure.]
Shakespeare's Richard II is too often read as the tragedy of a private individual. Attention is focused upon Richard's personality and upon elements in his character which would have been just as interesting if he had never been called upon to play the part of a king. We are fascinated by the unfolding of his brilliant, wayward and unstable disposition, his pathetic lapses from bright insolence to grey despair, the facility with which he dramatises his sorrows and takes a wilfully aesthetic pleasure in his own disgrace. The political implications of the play are correspondingly neglected. And this is only natural. In all simplicity—and in essentials no tragedy was ever simpler—Richard II is the story of a sensitive, headstrong, clever, foolish man, graceless in prosperity, in calamity gracious. But this simple story has a setting and the setting is high politics. The fact that Richard is a king not only enhances the pathos of his fall, but sets him in a political environment in which the dramatist is not seldom interested for its own sake.
Men living under...
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SOURCE: Kelly, Michael F. “The Function of York in Richard II.” Southern Humanities Review VI, no. 3 (summer 1972): 257-67.
[In the following essay, Kelly studies the crucial role York plays in the dramatic and thematic developments of Richard II. Kelly contends that York's shift in attitude and loyalty, from Richard to Bolingbroke, encourages a parallel response in the audience.]
The thematic and dramatic development of Richard II depends on the pivotal role played by the Duke of York. While he guides audience response, structurally he is also a pivot upon which the transfer of power turns, and thematically he appears for a time to be a spokesman for the play's political lesson. Many scholars who have written on Richard II have been able to dispose of him with a sentence or two, usually to the effect that York is a pitiable old man who is simply caught in the middle of a political revolt.1
Although the play's structure and theme have been the subject of critical debate, York is consistently ignored.2Richard II is, as I see the play, structured on three different turning points. As early as the second act Bolingbroke has led a successful invasion of England, and he is a de facto king, which he demonstrates in III.i, with an act of semi-regal authority, the execution of Bushy and Green. The “transfer of real...
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SOURCE: Riddell, James A. “The Admirable Character of York.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 21, no. 4 (winter 1979): 492-502.
[In the following essay, Riddell defends the character of York against negative criticism, and asserts that York exemplifies the Christian ideal of magnanimity.]
Coleridge's high opinion of the character of York in Richard II has been shared by few critics in the past century. Although it is unlikely that anyone today would be as shrill (but at the same time obsequious) in disagreeing with Coleridge as Swinburne finally was, the essense of his view persists today. The figure of York, said Swinburne, “is an incomparable, an incredible, an unintelligible and a monstrous nullity. Coleridge's attempt to justify the ways of York to man—to any man of common sense and common sentiment—is as amusing in Coleridge as it would be amazing in any other and therefore lesser commentator.”1 It seems often to be the case that the more a critic admires Richard, the less he admires York. Swinburne thought that Shakespeare's “attention and sympathy” were directed away from other characters because his interest “was wholly concentrated on the single figure of Richard” (Study, p. 41). If, like Pater and Yeats,2 one finds Richard to be a poet (therefore sincere and attractive), one may subsequently find York to be a politician (therefore...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Pilkington, Ace G. “The BBC Richard II.” In Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V, pp. 29-63. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Pilkington offers a detailed assessment of the highlights and deficiencies of the 1979 BBC production of Richard II, directed by David Giles and starring Derek Jacobi as Richard.]
FACTORS SHAPING THE PRODUCTION
John Wilders told me in a June 1987 interview that two of the constraints on the BBC Richard II were (as might be expected from the general background of the series) time and money. He used the Mowbray-Bolingbroke confrontation as an example of a scene where “the camera tended simply to shift in a rather automatic way from one to another.” And he went on to argue “that if more had been done with having many more cameras and many more camera angles and more interesting lighting and so on, it wouldn't have been quite such a routine, workaday production.” He pointed out, however, that “we would not only have needed a bigger budget, a much bigger technical crew, but it would also simply have taken a very great deal more time in rehearsal and the actual recording it.”
As John Wilders indicates, the production could have been improved with more time to rehearse and film. The coordination required among director, actors, and camera crew...
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SOURCE: King, Robert L. Review of Richard II. The North American Review 280 (November-December 1995): 41-2.
[In the following review, King offers a positive assessment of the National Theatre's staging of Richard II, directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw as an impressive Richard.]
The National Theatre presented Richard II in repertory with Skylight in the smallest of its three houses, the Cottesloe. Of all Shakespeare's kings, Richard is the most dependent on speech to assert a self because for much of the play he has no real power. The director, Deborah Warner, who had her King Lear enter in a party hat and wheelchair, cast a woman in the title role, the justly acclaimed Fiona Shaw. Richard seemed ready to take a wild ride. From the seating arrangement to Shaw's forceful resistance to death, however, the production honored and illuminated Shakespeare's text. The audience at floor level was divided into four sections, two on either side of a rectangular space with open areas at either end and small spaces between them. Boarded in the front, they were slightly oversized jury boxes, apt places for evaluating competing speech. I think that the Warner/Shaw Richard sprang, almost literally, from Henry IV's characterization of him in 1 Henry IV: “The skipping King, he ambled up and down / With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits.” In one exit, Shaw did indeed skip...
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SOURCE: Feingold, Michael. “Here's Richardness.” The Village Voice 43, no. 10 (10 March 1998): 141.
[In the following review, Feingold appraises two productions of Richard II, one by the Theatre for a New Audience at New York City's St. Clement's Theater, directed by Ron Daniels, and the other staged by the Pearl Theatre. Feingold observes that while both plays had their strengths as well as effective scenes, each seemed to lose something as it went on. Reviewing Pearl's production, directed by Shepard Sobel, Feingold states that while it was not as vivid as Daniels's production, it had a stronger grasp of the play as poetry.]
To have one company play Richard II and Richard III in alternation makes sense. The two unheroic heroes are opposite extremes on the spectrum of kingship: the king who gives up all too easily and the shameless one who stops at nothing. Each has an antagonist, too, with a slight resemblance to the other, which makes double-casting logical: Tough, pragmatic Bolingbroke is a Richard III with moral scruples, while “deep revolving” Buckingham shows twinges of Richard II's faintness of heart. Richard II—often, though not here, played as a crypto-queer—sloughs women off, preferring his “caterpillars”; Richard III, embittered by his ineligibility as a wooer, takes pleasure in abusing them, for which they exact due revenge in curses and confrontations....
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “Fiennes Plays Politics at BAM.” Variety 380, no. 5 (18-24 September 2000): 45, 47.
[In the following review, Isherwood comments on the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of Richard II, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Ralph Fiennes as Richard. Isherwood focuses on Fiennes's performance, finding that while it was “compelling,” Fiennes's portrayal of the king was silly and pompous.]
It's probably just a coincidence, but the Almeida Theater Co.'s current engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is wittily timed. As the peculiar form of theater known as election-year politics heads into its third act, the company is performing two stern Shakespearean essays on political no-no's. Coriolanus offers a lesson in the importance of pandering to public opinion (hardly a necessary admonition these days, admittedly), while Richard II warns strongly against the dangers of presuming too much on dynastic privilege—a fault attributed to both of our presidential hopefuls at some time.
But it's hardly their topicality that has made the shows a virtual sellout for the company's monthlong run: It's the presence in the rifle roles of Ralph Fiennes, the movie star who is also an Almeida regular. Fiennes, who won a Tony for the company's Hamlet on Broadway, is here delving into more exotic Shakespearean territory, and delivers...
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SOURCE: Barkin, Leonard. “The Theatrical Consistency of Richard II.” Shakespeare Quarterly 29, no. 1 (winter 1978): 5-19.
[In the following essay, Barkin studies the emotional impact of Richard II, and claims that the play possesses inherent theatrical and logical unity in terms of the emotional responses displayed by the characters on stage and the emotional interaction between the characters and audience members.]
For some years, critics analyzing Shakespeare's plays and teachers teaching them have labored under a self-induced pressure to approach the plays as theatre. Such an injunction is properly justified by appeals both to the historical circumstances under which the plays were composed and to the theatrical liveliness of the texts themselves. And some of the finest Shakespearean criticism of the post-war period has been inspired by this theatrical awareness.
Though theatrical criticism embraces a great range of approaches, it often involves a tendency to equate theatre with theatrical effects. Consequently, we have come to look to this school of criticism for an explanation of the path between the text and the theatrical result, whether in gesture, blocking, visual matters, actors' approaches to individual roles, or directorial conception. But it is important to remember that creative artists in the theatre do not spend all their time producing...
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SOURCE: Barroll, Leeds. “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 4 (winter 1988): 441-64.
[In the following essay, Barroll investigates the relationship between the Earl of Essex rebellion and Richard II.]
History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long, and through which it found its anthropological justification: that of an age-old collective consciousness that made use of material documents to refresh its memory; history is the work expended on material documentation (books, texts, accounts, registers, acts, buildings, institutions, laws, techniques, objects, customs, etc.) that exists, in every time and place, in every society, either in a spontaneous or in a consciously organized form. The document is not the fortunate tool of a history that is primarily and fundamentally memory; history is one way in which a society recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is inextricably linked.
Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge
Because what we see as “history” is focused, hued, elongated, and foreshortened by our own sense of what we are scanning, we bring back from our viewing something of what we have brought to it.1 Yet it is just this redundance that holds so much promise as we seek to reassemble our sense of...
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SOURCE: Pye, Christopher. “The Betrayal of the Gaze: Theatricality and Power in Shakespeare's Richard II.” ELH 55, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 575-98.
[In the following essay, Pye analyzes the relationship between political power and theatricality in Richard II.]
I would like to begin this analysis of the relationship between theatricality and power in Shakespeare's Richard II by invoking one of those significant and nameless characters who inhabit the margins of Elizabethan political intrigue. In May 1582, during a renewal of Catholic “enterprises” against the English Queen, the crown uncovered its first threat from abroad in the form of a treasonous plot involving the Duke of Guise and the imprisoned Mary. Something caught the eye of Elizabeth's agent at the border. Arthur Kinney recounts that one of the crown's spies,
keeping watch along the border of Scotland, stopped a suspicious man who posed as a tooth-drawer, discovered he was a servant of [the Spanish Ambassador] Mendoza's, and learned he was carrying letters for Mary and Guise hidden behind the little looking-glass. This was the first indication the English government had of Guise's enterprise.
J. E. Neale adds a further note. Apparently, the suspect was able to bribe his guards and escape with his baggage, but “as luck had it” managed to leave behind...
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SOURCE: Shewring, Margaret. “A Question of Balance: The Problematic Structure of Richard II.” In King Richard II, pp. 2-20. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Shewring maintains that the language of Richard II, patterned and poetic in its nature, complements the play's purposefully and carefully balanced structure.]
Of all Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II is arguably the most difficult to accommodate on the twentieth-century stage. Once ‘the most dangerous, the most politically vibrant play in the canon’ (Berry, p. 16), this tightly structured, poetic account of monarchy in the late Middle Ages is deeply rooted in the political and cultural moment of the 1590s. Such Elizabethan topicality, potentially subversive in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, makes the play difficult to stage today.
THE CHALLENGE OF RICHARD II
Shakespeare's history plays all pose challenges on the contemporary stage. By their very nature they are retelling events from the past, interpreted through the eyes of an Elizabethan playwright. Any subsequent restaging of the play is, inevitably, both an engagement with its general issues and an interpretation rooted in the moment in which each production is presented. In addition, Richard II assumes specific knowledge on the part of its...
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Axline, Kim. “‘Sad Stories of the Death of Kings’: The Revelation of Humanity in Richard II.” On-Stage Studies 22 (1999): 108-21.
Examines the way in which Shakespeare, in Richard II, used historical fact and political rhetoric as a means of revealing serious human concerns and issues.
Barbour, David. “The Bard Off Broadway.” TCI 32, no. 5 (May 1998): 26-8.
Assesses some of the technical aspects of the Theatre for a New Audience's performance of Richard II and Richard III, finding that the set design allowed for each play to have its own strong identity, and that both the set design and lighting accorded with the production's vision of the play.
Berninghausen, Thomas F. “Banishing Cain: The Garden Metaphor in Richard II and the Genesis Myth of the Origin of History.” Essays in Literature XIV, no. 1 (spring 1987): 3-14.
Maintains that the play's garden scene (III.iv) is properly understood within the context of a grander Biblical scheme in which it is suggested that England be viewed as a parallel with the Garden of Eden.
Calderwood, James L. “Richard II to Henry IV: Variations on the Fall.” In Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry, pp. 10-29. Berkeley: University of...
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