Study Guide

Richard II

by William Shakespeare

Richard II Themes


Shakespeare's examination of kingship in Richard II focuses mainly on the conflict between the legal and divine right to rule, and the effectiveness of the ruler. Many critics agree that in Richard II King Richard is legally the rightful king; that he is commonly recognized by other characters in the play as having the divine right to rule; and that despite these rights, King Richard does not show himself to be an effective ruler. It is this opposition between Richard's right to rule and his failure to do so effectively that is the subject of much critical debate. In addition to examining this conflict within the play, some critics conjecture that the way in which Shakespeare presents these issues reflects his thoughts on the rule of the monarch who served during Shakespeare's lifetime: Queen Elizabeth. It has been noted that Bolingbroke and Richard both represent aspects of kingship which can be related to Queen Elizabeth: Bolingbroke acts like a ruler and has the popular support of the people, whereas Richard holds the right to rule. Additionally, the historical Richard II was often compared to Queen Elizabeth in the later years of her reign as she, like Richard, had no heirs, and the problem of succession was on the minds of the people. Due to the similarities between both Bolingbroke and Richard to Queen Elizabeth, some feel that Shakespeare felt compelled to render both Bolingbroke and Richard in a sympathetic manner. The audience is drawn to Bolingbroke's power and kingly air and has a sense that he has been unjustly banished and disinherited. At the same time, we may feel pity or sympathy for Richard. He is viewed by many to be weak, but not evil, and he receives bad counsel from corrupt advisors. Additionally, he is the rightful king, even though it is argued that he deludes himself into thinking that having the noble appearance and rights of a king override his responsibility to his people. Some critical commentary suggests that Shakespeare did not favor either view of kingship and that he presented both Bolingbroke and Richard in an ambiguous manner so as to explore both sides of the issue.

Just as critics have debated the question of whether or not Shakespeare advocates the rights of the king over the king's effectiveness, others have questioned whether the divine right overrides the sovereign's legal obligations. Is Richard above the law, since he and many other characters believe he has been ordained by God to be king? Some critics have noted that even while characters such as Gaunt and York acknowledge Richard's divine right to rule, the same characters also recognize that Richard has failed to act like a king. The play cites several instances where Richard breaks the law: he is implicated in the death of Gloucester, and he breaks the inheritance laws by confiscating Gaunt's estate rather than allowing the transfer of Gaunt's money, land, and title to his...

(The entire section is 1194 words.)