In Shakespeare's Richard II, what are the differences between Richard and Henry Bolingbroke?  

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The play Richard II is one of Shakespeare's History Plays and, therefore, isn't bound to the requirements of tragedy.  This is an interesting fact to note, because it releases the reader from needing to cast either Richard or Henry as Hero or Villain of the story.  Richard was, in real life, king; and Henry, in real life, did contest his rule and win the crown for himself.

The play, rather than concerning itself so much with an examination of the internal workings of either character as the "central" figure, aims to explore the nature of rulership itself.  What does a king need to be considered a wise and just ruler?  Should a king's right to rule be considered "divine"--that it, is it God that, by birth, confers kingship, or should it be assigned according to the qualities of the man?

In this play, Richard is seen as the debauched ruler.  Favoring some of his advisors over others, taxing his people to pay for his own pleasures,  concerning himself more with the pomp and circumstance of his position, rather than the hard work of  governance.  He does not have the favor of the people.

In contrast, Henry is quite the common folks' favorite.  He acts swiftly and with purpose in order to render judgement in a morally upright and honest way.  He is highly involved and invested in the workings of the government, rather than simply enjoying title and privilege.

For more on these two fasicinating characters, please follow the links below.

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Shakespeare presents the two rivals as both being unfit to rule England, albeit for different reasons. Richard believes himself entitled to rule by divine right, that is to say chosen directly by God himself. Unfortunately, this makes him rather complacent, taking his throne for granted instead of following Machiavelli's advice and acting like a cunning fox to maintain his grip on power.

That's not a problem that Bolingbroke (Henry IV) ever has to encounter. He's possessed of a natural instinct for power which makes him such a formidable opponent. He's also a much more dynamic character than Richard, not hesitating to act to secure what he believes is rightfully his. When Henry puts together an invading army, instead of springing into action, Richard literally sits around doing nothing.

There's a bluff honesty about Henry that further distinguishes him from his rival. It's invariably the case that when he says something, he means it. In the opening scene, for example, he doesn't hesitate to come right out and accuse Mowbray of treason. Richard, on the other hand, is a good deal more circumspect in his words and in his actions, making him much harder to figure out.

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