Richard II (Vol. 81)


Richard II

Richard II (ca. 1595) is the first drama of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, a sequence of chronological narratives based on events in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries that chronicle the ascent of the Lancastrian line to the throne of England. In the play, Richard, an ineffectual monarch and the last of the Plantagenet kings, is deposed and imprisoned after his cousin Henry Bolingbroke launches a successful coup to usurp the English crown. Following Richard's assassination, Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, the subject of the following two plays in the sequence. Written entirely in verse, Richard II features what numerous critics perceive as Shakespeare's most brilliantly realized rhetorical tragedy, a work centered on the poetic, introspective persona of King Richard II. Devoid of the spectacular battles, much of the violence, and the epic sweep of Shakespeare's subsequent historical works, the play has sometimes been faulted for dramatic unevenness, but is nevertheless highly regarded for its moments of superbly crafted and penetrating poetic dialogue. Dorothy C. Hockey (1964) compares the dramatic language of Richard II to Shakespeare's later dramas, noting that while his later dramas use a masterful plain style that seamlessly incorporates prose and verse, the ornate and elevated rhetorical manner of Richard II elegantly matches the play's high style and regal subject.

Character-based study of Richard II has overwhelmingly focused on its title figure, and on the relationship between Richard and his usurping rival, Henry Bolingbroke. In general, Richard has been viewed in sharp contrast with Shakespeare's other English kings. Louise Cowan (1981) characterizes Richard II as a dignified but brooding monarch whose irresponsibility as a ruler is an affront to his hereditary authority. His political mistakes and personal disloyalty lead to his downfall, according to this reading, making Richard's abdication the only means of restoring both personal dignity and historical balance. Raphael Falco (1999) focuses on the concept of charisma in his comparative analysis of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. For Falco, both men possess this unmistakable mark of leadership, but in very different forms. Bolingbroke challenges and subverts existing authority; he is a revolutionary and defiant hero who, Falco acknowledges, is paradoxically drawn to seek the royal power he will destroy with Richard. Falco notes that Richard's authority derives from heredity; as the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty he links himself with permanence, tradition, and the corporate power of many individuals as one. In two complementary discussions of character in Richard II, Charles R. Forker (2001, 2002) examines the sources and tragic consequences of Richard's destabilized, mutable personal identity and the results of Shakespeare's deeply ambivalent rendering of both Richard and Bolingbroke in the drama. Forker first illuminates a central dichotomy between Richard's self-indulgent, despotic rule and Bolingbroke's courageous and expeditious capacities as a natural leader who positions himself as England's savior. The critic continues by probing the ways in which Shakespeare subverted this simplified opposition in order to expand his play into not merely the representation of two sorts of individuals, but of two complex approaches to power. The story of Richard II, therefore, relates the clash of competing ideological doctrines as personified by their respective standard bearers.

Although there are many challenges to a successful staging of this play—such as the elaborate verse, complex political themes, and interpretation of Richard's character—Richard II has proved to be popular in recent years and has been revived frequently on the stage. Carol Chillington Rutter (1997) reviews a 1995 production of Richard II directed by Deborah Warner that featured a female lead in the title role. Rutter contends that Warner's Richard II—a significant one in Rutter's estimation despite much critical denunciation—played effectively with the feminization of Richard and highlighted the emotional undercurrents of the work, including the grief-laden relationship between this declining monarch and his usurping cousin. Reviewing Director Jonathan Kent's 2000 staging of the drama with the Almeida Theatre, featuring film star Ralph Fiennes, Ben Brantley (2000) maintains that Fiennes's scowling interpretation of Richard, while probing and powerful, was perhaps a bit overdone. Although intellectually stimulating, it lacked emotion and pathos in Brantley's appraisal. Offering a different view of the production, Richard Hornby (2000) admires Fiennes's skill with Shakespearean verse, as well as his flippant and petulant characterization of the deposed monarch. However, Hornby contends that the supporting cast's inability to reach the level of Fiennes severely weakened the project. Sheridan Morley reviews Tim Carroll's 2003 all-male production of Richard II at the Globe in London. Morley praises the casting, especially Mark Rylance's exceptional interpretation of Shakespeare's “weak, callow, and ultimately defeated king,” but faults the production for failing to marshal a strong Bolingbroke or other cast members to support Rylance's subtle and majestic Richard. Elvis Mitchell (2001) reviews director John Farrell's modern-dress, ninety-minute film adaptation of Richard II. Mitchell finds little merit in this adaptation, citing weak individual performances and a lack of directorial vision, and claims that it “stands meekly in the shadow of film versions that have come before.”

The subject of kingship has attracted a large share of scholarly comment on Richard II. Maynard Mack, Jr. (1973) outlines the antiquated notions of sovereignty professed by the major figures in Richard II, from the ordered, traditionalist views of York and Gaunt to Richard's divinely authorized and idealized, but irrevocably weakened, ruling ideal. In Mack's appraisal, Shakespeare opened such archaic perspectives to scathing criticism by consistently foreshadowing Richard's abdication and the ascent of Bolingbroke. Henry E. Jacobs (1986) also examines the role of kingship in the play. For Jacobs, Richard II dramatizes a theoretical shift from medieval and feudalistic ideals of primogeniture, succession, and divine authority in favor of Renaissance realpolitik—power politics in the terms of Machiavelli. In his analysis, Jacobs summarizes the ways in which Shakespeare depicted the transition from an old ethos to a new one using prophecy as his principle dramatic device. Thomas F. Berninghausen (1987) views the metaphorical relationship between gardening and kingship dramatized in Act III, scene iv of Richard II as the thematic touchstone of the drama. Berninghausen contends that Richard II “derives its frame, rhetoric, and vocabulary from the myth of the origin of history described in Genesis,” including the stories of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel. Thus, according to Berninghausen, the drama reenacts the Christian theme of the Fall by introducing the sins that Henry IV and his son, Henry V, must expiate through their future stewardship of the English people. Kenneth C. Bennett (1988) evaluates the dramatic structure of Richard II and contends that it depicts the two parallel tragedies of Richard and Bolingbroke, who are “tied ultimately by their underlying prideful errors, their failures to set limitations on their powers.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Dorothy C. Hockey (essay date summer 1964)

SOURCE: Hockey, Dorothy C. “A World of Rhetoric in Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 3 (summer 1964): 179-91.

[In the following essay, Hockey surveys the rhetorical effects and devices of Richard II, suggesting that the drama represents a significant development in Shakespeare's use of dramatic language.]

From two equally interesting, but contradictory, views on the style in Richard II have come two quite different interpretations of the play. One, suggested by Hardin Craig as early as 1912 and incorporated into a fuller interpretation of the play by E. M. W. Tillyard in 1944, reached the boards in the 1951 Shakespeare Memorial...

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Kenneth C. Bennett (essay date May 1988)

SOURCE: Bennett, Kenneth C. “Climax and Anti-Climax in Richard II.Essays in Theatre 6, no. 2 (May 1988): 123-35.

[In the following essay, Bennett evaluates the dramatic structure of Richard II and contends that it depicts the two parallel tragedies of Richard and Bolingbroke.]

Every drama presents a problem in construction, and what Shakespeare had to face in dramatizing the origins of the Wars of the Roses was the anti-climax inherent in the deposition of Richard, a weak but an anointed king. The rise and fall of fortune's wheel in the de casibus tragedies from medieval times on up through the Mirror for Magistrates was likely to be...

(The entire section is 6533 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Louise Cowan (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: 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, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Cowan characterizes Richard II as a dignified but brooding monarch whose political mistakes and personal disloyalty lead to his downfall.]

God save the king! will no man say amen?
Am I both priest and clerk? well then, amen.
God save the king! although I be not he;
And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me.(1)


Despite the attention given to Richard II in recent years, it...

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Raphael Falco (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Falco, Raphael. “Charismas in Conflict: Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke.” Exemplaria 11, no. 2 (1999): 473-502.

[In the following essay, Falco focuses on the concept of charisma in his comparative analysis of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke.]

Shakespeare's Richard II is an anatomy of charismas in conflict. Pure personal charisma, lineage or dynastic charisma, and several kinds of office charisma—to use Max Weber's terms—confront each other throughout the play. These different stages of charismatic authority, according to the Weberian model, reflect a progression (or regression) from revolutionary personal leadership to increased rationalization...

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Charles R. Forker (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “Unstable Identity in Shakespeare's Richard II.Renascence 54, no. 1 (fall 2001): 3-22.

[In the following essay, Forker attributes Richard II's “unstable and mutable personality” to the tension between his position as king by divine right and his mortal fallibility.]

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
.....Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape. …

(Antony and Cleopatra 4.14.9-14)1

Antony's sudden, shaky sense of his own identity raises an issue that besets several of Shakespeare's tragic...

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Charles R. Forker (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: King Richard II, edited by Charles R. Forker, pp. 1-170. London: Thomson Learning, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Forker explores the complex, subtle, and ambivalent means by which Shakespeare renders the principal characters of Richard II.]


Shakespeare inherited divergent and competing interpretations of Richard and Bolingbroke. In the interests of simplification—indeed over-simplification—these have been referred to conventionally as ‘Yorkist’ (pro-Richard) or ‘Lancastrian’ (pro-Henry) according to the...

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Criticism: Production Reviews

Carol Chillington Rutter (review date autumn 1997)

SOURCE: Rutter, Carol Chillington. “Fiona Shaw's Richard II: The Girl as Player-King as Comic.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 3 (autumn 1997): 314-24.

[In the following extended review of director Deborah Warner's 1995 production of Richard II starring Fiona Shaw in the title role, Rutter highlights the significance of this feminized, cross-gender, and comic stage interpretation of Shakespeare's play.]

… Richard, that sweet lovely rose,
… this thorn, this canker Bolingbroke.

(1 Henry IV, 1.3.173-74)1

Even before it opened at the National Theatre in June 1995, every major British newspaper had an...

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Evelyn Gajowski (review date autumn 1998)

SOURCE: Gajowski, Evelyn. Review of Shakespeare in Performance: King Richard II. Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 3 (autumn 1998): 328-30.

[In the following review, Gajowski appraises Margaret Shewring's Shakespeare in Performance: King Richard II, praising the work's broad scope, including nineteen theatrical productions over four centuries, but faulting its limited attention to the theoretical aspects of contemporary performance.]

“I am Richard II, know ye not that?” Elizabeth I famously remarked to William Lambarde regarding Shakespeare's history play. Margaret Shewring appropriately devotes the introductory chapters of her book for the Shakespeare in...

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Ben Brantley (review date 11 September 2000)

SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Uneasy Leaders Whose Downfall Lay Within Themselves.” New York Times (11 September 2000): B1, E1.

[In the following excerpted review of Jonathan Kent's 2000 productions of Richard II and Coriolanus in London and Brooklyn, Brantley concentrates on the performance of film star Ralph Fiennes in the role of Richard as a petulant, bombastic, and affected king.]

If anyone could elevate petulance to the status of tragic flaw, Ralph Fiennes would seem to be the man. Throughout his fertile career in movies as the bluestocking's heartthrob, he has consistently found the combustibility in being sullen, taciturn and socially ill at ease....

(The entire section is 1249 words.)

Richard Hornby (review date autumn 2000)

SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. Review of Richard II. Hudson Review 53, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 488-94.

[In the following excerpted review, Hornby praises the performance of Ralph Fiennes in the title role of Richard II as directed by Jonathan Kent in 2000, but laments the substandard quality of his supporting cast.]

Coriolanus opened too late for review here, but I did manage to catch a preview of Richard II, a play that has special meaning for me. Forty-three years ago, when I was an undergraduate, a friend recruited me as an extra for a college production of the play. I carried banners for the armies of both Richard and Bolingbroke, shifted...

(The entire section is 697 words.)

Elvis Mitchell (review date 27 July 2001)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Elvis. Review of Richard II. New York Times (27 July 2001): B21, E22.

[In the following review, Mitchell finds little merit in director John Farrell's modern-dress, ninety-minute filmed version of Richard II, emphasizing weak individual performances and a lack of directorial vision.]

John Farrell's film adaptation of Richard II features a group of actors cowed by the breadth of material that calls for performers to float on the martial breathiness of the dialogue. A recent Signet version of the play includes an essay by the scholar Richard D. Altick, in which he quotes Walter Pater's assessment: “It belongs to a small group of...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Sheridan Morley (review date 9 June 2003)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. Review of Richard II. New Statesman (9 June 2003): 46.

[In the following review of director Tim Carroll's 2003 production of Richard II at the Globe in London, Morley congratulates Mark Rylance's outstanding Richard, a performance regrettably unmatched by those of the remaining cast members.]

The new, all-male, Tim Carroll production of Richard II is an excellent idea. The production aims to be as close as possible to its first production in 1595 (the Globe calls this “original practices”), and is performed in the Elizabethan costume of Shakespeare's time rather than the medieval dress of the play's setting, roughly...

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Criticism: Themes

Maynard Mack, Jr. (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Mack, Maynard, Jr. “This Royal Throne Unkinged.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Richard II, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 37-46. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1973, Mack outlines the antiquated notions of sovereignty professed by the major figures in Richard II, from the ordered, traditionalist views of York and Gaunt to Richard's divinely authorized and idealized, but irrevocably weakened, ruling ideal.]

Richard II tells the very simple story of the deposition and death of the last Angevin king. The first act sets the situation as the king exiles his cousin,...

(The entire section is 3694 words.)

Henry E. Jacobs (essay date January 1986)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Henry E. “Prophecy and Ideology in Shakespeare's Richard II.South Atlantic Review 51, no. 1 (January 1986): 3-17.

[In the following essay, Jacobs traces Shakespeare's shift from medieval to Renaissance political ideologies in Richard II.]

Though Justice against Fate complain,
And plead the antient Rights in vain:
          But those do hold or break
          As Men are strong or weak.
Nature that hateth emptiness,
Allows of penetration less:
          And therefore must make room
          Where greater Spirits come.

(Marvell, “An Horatian Ode,” 37-44)

It is a commonplace to observe that Shakespeare's...

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Thomas F. Berninghausen (essay date spring 1987)

SOURCE: Berninghausen, Thomas F. “Banishing Cain: The Gardening Metaphor in Richard II and the Genesis Myth of the Origin of History.” Essays in Literature 14, no. 1 (spring 1987): 3-14.

[In the following essay, Berninghausen views the metaphorical relationship between gardening and kingship dramatized in Act III, scene iv of Richard II as the thematic touchstone of the drama.]

In the years since E. M. W. Tillyard's classic study of Richard II,1 the garden scene (III.iv) has become a focal point of controversy. The scene draws attention to the metaphorical equation of gardening and kingship. This equation, in concert with the...

(The entire section is 5643 words.)

H. R. Coursen (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Coursen, H. R. “Theories of History in Richard II.Upstart Crow 8 (1988): 42-53.

[In the following essay, Coursen examines the competing views of history associated with Gaunt, Richard, and Bolingbroke in Richard II.]

I do not believe that Shakespeare's history plays emerge from a theory of history, either providential or Marxist. A theory of history would tend to reduce the plays to thesis or allegory. The plays work their way out, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, on darkling plains “where ignorant armies clash by night.” I will grant that Richmond's victory at Bosworth Field does signify an allegorical ending to decades of civil butchery, but...

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Further Reading


Berg, James E. “‘This Dear, Dear Land’: ‘Dearth’ and the Fantasy of the Land-Grab in Richard II and Henry IV.English Literary Renaissance 29, no. 2 (spring 1999): 225-45.

Emphasizes the historical threat of scarcity and currency devaluation to monarchical power in Richard II and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Richard II 3.2: An Exercise in Imaginary Audition.” ELH 55, no. 4 (winter 1988): 755-96.

Views Richard as a complex cipher of despair who effectively victimizes himself.

Cohen, Derek. “History and Nation in...

(The entire section is 588 words.)