The Lamentable Comedy of Richard II

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10998

John Halverson, University of California, Santa Cruz

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Although all the quartos of Richard II use the word "tragedy" on the title-pages, the First Folio prefers the more noncommittal "Life and Death of Richard II." This may have no particular significance, but it is evidently not just a matter of conformity with the category of "history" since the Folio does keep the designation "tragedy" for Richard III (the only history play so titled). It may be that Heminge and Condell, from their intimate experience with Shakespeare's mature tragedies, decided that the traditional genre designation was inappropriate. Not that it is likely to have mattered much to Shakespeare: Polonius' famous excursus on dramatic genres suggests that his creator did not take the issue very seriously. In any case, the Elizabethans seem to have had no dramatic theory to define tragedy or the tragic hero more precisely than, in the first instance, a play that ends unhappily and, in the second, a person of some standing who falls from felicity to grief and death the (de casibus inheritance).1 the quartos' titular usage probably means no more than that. But modern critics have not settled for such simple standards, which in a way is Shakespeare's fault, for within a few years of Richard II he began to write plays called "tragedies" that gave the name a new, much richer and more exalted connotation. Whatever this new meaning may be—and it defies precise definition—it clearly involves a great deal more than the late medieval notion. For many, probably with the great model of Lear in mind, it involves, most importantly, psychological complexity and development and a deep awareness of the human condition.

Almost all commentators on Richard II have taken it for granted that the play is a tragedy in this later mold—or very close to it as a kind of prototragedy. But I suggest that Richard II is not that kind of play at all, and that the assumption that it is has led to a great deal of forced reading. Seen without tragic spectacles, the play looks more comic than tragic, at least in the broad sense that theater of the absurd is essentially comic. Richard II is more than anything else a study of absurdity: rhetorical, historical and political. Its famous poetry mocks itself by serving shallow thoughts; ceremony is trivialized; treason is presented farcically; majesty is reduced to rhetoric and posturing. If this does not sound like the stuff of tragedy, nevertheless generations of astute critics have insisted that Richard II is a tragedy—although not without qualifications: indeed, there has been a persistent strain of underlying ambivalence in both readers and audiences.

What is it that has been found tragic in the play? What makes it a tragedy? Although voiced with occasional hesitation, the tragic quality almost regularly attributed to the play is Richard's redemption through self-knowledge and an awakening of his human compassion. For such an interpretation, Richard is prima facie a hard case, for everyone agrees that he is vain, foolish, posturing, callous, melodramatic, selfish, self-pitying, neurotic, mean-spirited, and untrustworthy, a poor excuse for a king and a poor excuse for a man, surely "not of the stuff of which great Where tragic are made."2 where is redemption to be found For those who do find it, it is mostly in the penultimate scene of the play (with a few preliminary anticipations for some). There, after a reflective soliloquy and a "tender" moment with a groom, he finally takes bold action against his attackers and dies bravely. This is a slim basis for making a tragic hero out of Richard, but it has not prevented Jan Kott's heady claim that "Just before being hurled into the abyss, the deposed King reaches the greatness of Lear."3 At the other and of the scale there is Harold C. Goddard' judgement: "It is just the reflex action of a man without self-control in the presence of death, as little willed as the galvanic twitching of a frog's leg."4 Most critics are unwilling to go quite so far as either Kott or Goddard. Hardin Craig, who sees the whole play as the first "tragedy of character" in English drama, expresses the uneasiness about this scene that most readers probably feel: "Thus in the last seconds of his life Richard II strikes an honest blow in his own defense, and we somehow feel that our belief has been justified, that somewhere in this vain and ineffectual king there was hidden the soul of a man."5 The "somehow" and "somewhere" are fairly typical of the uncertainty of this kind of response with its hesitant, almost grudging concession that in his last moments Richard achieves heroic or tragic stature. But on the whole there does appear to be prevailing critical agreement, however qualified, that something like this does indeed happen.6 But the fact that Richard unexpectedly goes down fighting, even though it may retrieve some of his manliness and win some admiration from the audience, is hardly enough to elevate him to tragic stature. Indeed the final violence is precipitated by nothing more than a fit of pique when his jailer refuses to taste Richard's food. Then as the murderers rush in, Richard cries out, "How now! what means death in this rude assault?" (5.5.105).7 Peter Ure notes that the meaning of this line is obscure and cites Vaughan's plausible emendation "what means't thou in this rude assault?" (p. 175). Stressing "rude" in the original, Lois Potter sees it as an utterance of "sheer arrogance."8 Is Richard accusing a personified death of rudeness to his majesty? Or is he referring to the inferior status of his attackers? Either way, it is indeed an expression of Richard's unquenchable arrogance. There is little in this scene, including Richard's banal last couplet, to suggest a tragic death.

However, Richard's death is but the climax of Scene 5, and it may take on a tragic quality from what has gone before, most notably Richard's dungeon soliloquy, where some commentators find the culmination of a process of self-knowledge achieved through suffering which is essential to "real" tragedy. Thus Derek Traversi, hedging a bit, finds in the Pomfret soliloquy "something like a tragic statement about life."9 For Donald H. Rieman, "The crucial scene in our awareness of Richard's self-knowledge and his elevation to tragic stature is, of course, the prison scene in Pomfret Castle," where Richard learns "the true nature of his limited human condition."10 For M. M. Reese, "It is not true self-knowledge that he has attained, for that will always be beyond him, but it is some sort of reconciliation." Here again is the vague qualifier "some sort." But he is more specific later: "He knew that he had failed without ever understanding why."11 Even this may be doubted, but is in any case a long way from tragic anagnorisis. Richard's soliloquy may be "brilliant"12 in its way, but whether to the it "raises tragic hero is open to debate," as Stanley Wells observes.13

The substance of this meditation on his own thoughts is that they bring him no satisfaction, and the first half of the soliloquy closes with the fine-sounding, philosophical lines:

                 But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eas'd
With being nothing.

But is this a "tragic statement about life" or merely a gratuitous generalization of Richard's private despair to the rest of mankind? Is he aware of his humanity, or is he not rather saying in effect, "I will find no satisfaction except in death—and that goes for everyone else?" It is hard to be persuaded that there is much self-knowledge or sense of common humanity exhibited in this passage. Even if we were to be moved for a moment, any feeling of sympathy would be difficult to sustain through the labored conceits on time that follow as the second half of the soliloquy; the first part is rhetorical enough, but in the rest everything is contrivance.

One explanation for the peculiarity of the soliloquy and the ambiguous feelings it often evokes is that Shakespeare had not yet sufficiently honed his poetic skills, that he was still too enamored of rhetorical showmanship to realize his intentions. R. F. Hill is not alone in thinking that the soliloquy "betrays early composition in its obtrusive rhetoric. Zest for the artifices of language here imperils the successful communication of the tragic experience."14 John Baxter also has argued for a failure of Shakespeare's style.15 And in similar vein, John W. Blanpied finds too much rhetorical control of dramatic energy throughout: "'art' … stands between us and the play." Of the Pomfret scene in particular, he believes "there is no way to pretend we are participating in a compelling tragedy."16 But it will be evident that such assessments of failure rest on the assumption that Shakespeare was trying for a tragic finale. This, to my mind, is a gratuitous assumption. it may simply If the . in tragic "fails … in tragic impact,"17 it may simply be because it was never meant to have tragic impact. If the penultimate scene of the play is the locus of the "tragic experience," as so many critics seem to agree, and if it lacks tragic substance, as the preceding arguments indicate, then it may reasonably be concluded that Richard II is not a tragedy.


But if not a tragedy, what is it? An alternative point of view is that it is a history play with a tragic vector, revealing not a failure of skill on Shakespeare's part, but rather an experimentation in tragic form that, fully developed, will result in the great and genuine tragedies soon to come. This is an attractive position, for as James Winny rightly says, "The Histories are works of an indeterminate literary kind, capable of extension towards either the comic or the tragic," noting, for example, that Richard III has a claim to be considered a tragedy and Henry IV an ironic comedy.18 There are some, then, who see this indeterminateness as an opportunity Shakespeare seized to develop new, although still inchoate, ideas of tragedy, and Richard II as an experimental stage in a movement towards the mature tragedies. Thus in her astute structural analysis of the play, Ruth Nevo observes that while the first two acts are in an episodic historical pattern, the focus shifts in the third act to a "study of tragic character," the distinctive element, for her, of mature Shakespearean tragedy. We can almost see the experiment in tragic form unfolding before our eyes in the middle of the play with "Richard's discovery of self; self-awareness and a "redemptive" death are the essential elements that turn the history play into a tragedy.19 Certainly the peripeteia of Act 3 is striking, even startling, and a new side of Richard's character suddenly emerges for which we have had little or no preparation. But his "self-knowledge" seems no more than the shock of recognition that he is about to lose his throne, and the study of character reveals him as manic-depressive, alternating bombast with maudlin self-pity—a scene more grotesque than tragic. Moody E. Prior takes a similar approach—"In investing the fall of Richard with tragic significance, Shakespeare was exploring new territory"—but is more inclined to limit the play to conveying "a sense of movement toward a new idea of tragedy." As for many others, his notion of tragedy requires that "the action leads the protagonist to self-knowledge and to the kind of anagnorisis in which he experiences an understanding of his own tragedy."20

The idea of experimentation with tragic form is appealing, but whether the movement is in fact toward tragedy depends, as these critics make clear, on the issue of "self-knowledge." Now from the third act on, Richard reveals his thoughts and feelings with considerable frequency, fullness, and eloquence, providing an abundance of introspective information. It may be said first of all that there is nothing inaccurate or self-deceptive about his assessment of his situation. In spite of intermittent grandiose claims to divine support, he understands clearly, as soon as he is made aware that he has no military backing, that he is as good as deposed; in fact, he seems to grasp the reality more quickly and thoroughly than anyone else, including Bolingbroke himself. If Richard is ready to surrender and abdicate before he is asked to—something that greatly disturbs Carlisle, Aumerle, the Queen, and us—it is from a politically shrewd perception of what "grim Necessity" entails. That this realization puts him into an emotional (and rhetorical) tailspin is quite understandable for someone who has never really known what it is not to be a king. But is this the kind of self-knowledge that tragedy requires? Clearly there must be more to it, particularly the recognition of personal responsibility for tragic events and an awareness of the human condition. As for the first, there is no hint that Richard is aware of any responsibility for what has happened to him. On the contrary, it never occurs to him that he did anything wrong to the house of Lancaster or to England. He is powerfully moved by the necessity of acceding to Bolingbroke's just demand for restitution—

O God! O God! that e'er this tongue of mine
That laid the sentence of dread banishment
On yon proud man, should take it off again
With words of sooth!

—but there is no admission here of error or wrongdoing. That the king can do no wrong is Richard's unvarying rule. The closest that he comes to an admission of fault is in a couple of trivially vague and pious expressions about "our profane hours" (5.1.25) and the waste of time: "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me" (5.5.49). When pressed to confess his "grievous crimes," he responds, "must I ravel out / My weav'd up follies?"—as if they were the merest peccadillos—and immediately turns the accusations against the accusers, "Pilates" all, who deliver him to his "sour cross" and whose "sin" water cannot wash away (4.1.228-42). In his own fantasy he is as innocent as the crucified Christ. Evidently Richard feels no guilt about his reign, indeed has no notion that he might have misruled in any way. His present pass is simply the work of "traitors."

Michael E. Mooney locates the critical moment of self-knowledge in the deposition scene (4.1), where the shattered mirror is a symbol of Richard's own broken self-image whereby he is "forced into self-analysis," and "at this moment … Richard II becomes a tragedy."21 But what is this "self-analysis?" It comes in response to Bolingbroke's somewhat cynical remark, "The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd / The shadow of your face."

        Say that again.
The shadow of my sorrow? ha! let's see—
'Tis very true, my grief lies all within,
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur'd soul.

Evidently Richard is caught off guard for a moment, but he quickly recovers his conceit and his riposte. But all he "understands" is the reality of his grief; there is no other awareness of self implied. The symbolism of the mirror has, it seems to me, the opposite force to that suggested. It is of a piece with the immediately preceding demands by Northumberland that Richard read aloud the charges against him which Richard is too blinded by his tears to see. He can see "a sort of traitors here," but he cannot see any faults of his own. Richard's purpose in requesting the mirror is to read "Where all my sins are writ, and that's myself." But his sins are exactly what he does not see; all he finds is a "brittle glory." Like his blinding tears, the smashing of the glass is tantamount to a refusal to acknowledge any error or fault of his own.

The putative realization of common humanity again rests on questionable passages. About the Pomfret soliloquy I have already expressed my doubts. Halfway through that soliloquy Richard is maddened by the sound of music but invokes a "blessing on his heart that gives it me, / For 'tis a sign of love," a passage which has been read as an acknowledgment of "his kinship with the rest of humanity".22 But he is thinking only of himself: "love to Richard is a strange brooch in this all-hating world" (5.5.64-66). It is not he who loves. In the same scene and in the same vein, a redemptive moment has been found "in the brief shared moment of love and loyalty between the dispossessed monarch and the groom" (Cowan, p. 81). But, as Potter notes, the groom is greeted with a "stale pun" (p. 40), and is given no word of gratitude or affection by Richard. Another passage concludes the famous (and lugubrious) quasi-soliloquy of 3.2:

For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Casual reading may suggest that Richard equates himself with any ordinary human being, but the implication is that a king would somehow be above all these things, which apply to subjects (characteristically Richard cannot resist a punning opportunity). And the one thing that Richard can never accept is that he is not a king or could ever not be a king. He may be "deposed," but only in a material sense: mortal men can take away his crown, his throne, his power—this he understands all too well—but "Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king" (3.2.54-55). True kingship comes from God and is infallible and inviolable. Thus even at the end, deposed, imprisoned, and mortally wounded, he can exclaim to Exton in his dying breath, "thy fierce hand / Hath with the king's blood stain'd the king's own land" (5.5.109-10). He is still and always the King.

This unassailable conviction of the divinity of his kingship makes it impossible for Richard to identify with common humanity. His conviction of royal infallibility makes it impossible for him even to entertain the idea of wrongdoing, let alone understand or accept it. Although both his venerable uncles spell out his misdeeds for him with the greatest clarity, he is impervious. As for self-knowledge, he apparently is unaware that he has himself failed in any way, for he attributes his downfall entirely to treason and betrayal; the only crime or sin he sees is the deposing of a king. His "self-knowledge" is self-pity and self-righteousness. It is questionable whether Richard has any "self to know. For him "self is "king": that is what he is and all he is. Unkinged, he is unmanned; he is "nothing." Not no one, but nothing at all, "and he can find no escape from this sense of his unreality."23 It has been said that he has "no reserves of personality," no "resources of character," to fall back on in his distress, which is perhaps another way of saying there is no man behind the royal title.24

Thus far, the tragic nature of Richard's character has proved thoroughly elusive. But there is one more proposal to be considered: that in his suffering, "the raw material of tragedy,"25 Richard can be accounted tragical, particularly in the link between the suffering Christ and the suffering king.26 Since the king is God's anointed deputy, it is argued, Richard's self-identification is justified: he is "touched with divinity" and gains tragic dignity through Christlike suffering (Bogard, p. 256). However, it is only Richard who implicitly compares himself to Christ and always in the hardly edifying context of denouncing the Judases and Pilates who have betrayed him. Most would regard this as just more of Richard's posturing, and on reflection, the comparison is fairly bizarre. Among other things, we can hardly forget Christ's majestic silence at his trial, while Richard does nothing but talk and talk and talk. Of course Richard does suffer, and there is no reason to think his suffering is not genuine. But although "real enough," as Robert B. Pierce says, "it is almost entirely egocentric."27 It is all self-pity, and so loudly, so rhetorically, and so frequently proclaimed that even a sympathetic observer must become uneasy. "True dignity" is just what Richard's suffering lacks. It may elicit some sympathy but hardly awe or even respect.

In sum, by any even moderately sophisticated definition of the word, Richard II does not qualify as tragedy. I do not mean that it is failed tragedy or half tragedy or "obscure tragedy"28 or "radical tragedy"29 or trying to be tragedy, but that the play lacks any pretensions to tragedy. This is of course not true of its protagonist, whose tragic pretensions are, from the third act on, the dominant feature of his characterization. But it is Richard who has cast himself in the role of tragic hero, a role that no one else in the play takes seriously. If we take it seriously, seduced perhaps by his poetic eloquence, it is at the cost of over-looking how frequently his eloquence mocks itself and how consistently he is revealed as a shallow poseur. Richard is a wonderful character, but not the tragic hero he imagines himself to be. At best, as Reese has put it well, "Men like Richard win the tribute of an idle tear, may rise, at their finest, to a certain pallid splendour, but they do not breed great tragedy, nor even stirring history" (p. 260).


If the word "tragedy" had never appeared on the quarto title-pages, perhaps critics would not have strained so hard to force it into an anachronistic mode, and perhaps we would have fewer ambivalent feelings about the play in general. And if the word "tragedy" in 1595 implied little more than the fatal fall of the mighty, there can surely be no justification for retrojecting the tragic expectations created by later Shakespearean drama. Actually, if we must have a genre, Polonius' "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" fits the play pretty well. In any case there is good reason to try to approach the play without any genre expectations or presuppositions, as we do for the most part and easily enough with modern drama.

In so doing, I think most readers and audiences would agree that nothing in the first two acts suggests that the play is going to be anything but a straightforward historical drama. Richard gives the impression at first of being a fairly reasonable and responsible sovereign in his handling of the quarrel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke.30 Ostensibly at least, his judgment is based on a concern for the peace of the realm. To be sure there are a few slightly jarring notes, as when he refers without embarrassment to "The unstooping firmness of my upright soul"—here is a king who thinks well of himself—or when he attempts a little witticism: "Our doctors say this is no month to bleed" (1.1.121, 157). But in the second scene we learn that Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester are convinced of Richard's responsibility for the death of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. In the fourth scene Richard's jealousy and suspicion of Bolingbroke are revealed, and then in short order we learn of his readiness to "farm our royal realm" (1.4.45) for his Irish adventure, and hear his cruel and blasphemous hope that God should put it into the physician's mind to help Gaunt to his grave. So by the end of the first act we know that this is a play about a bad king, willful, arrogant, domineering, but also firm, decisive, and independent; despite later accusations, he is never seen as in any way manipulated by his favorites (Ornstein, p. 108). A bad king, but a strong king. What we do not see is the famous "poet" and "actor," the grandiloquent and maudlin royal weakling who appears only and unexpectedly in the third act.

With Richard's reemergence in 3.2, there is a distinct change of mood, a change not in the direction of the tragic but of the comic. The play begins to take a satiric turn that will build up to near farce at several moments. It starts with Richard's salute to his "Dear earth."

As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in
So weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favours with my royal hands.

In an audacious reversal of the traditional metaphorical relationship (compare Bolingbroke's "England's ground … / My mother and my nurse" [1.3.306-07]), Richard makes himself the mother, and the earth his child and possession: "My kingdom," "my earth," "my gentle earth." And he condescends to do it "favours." How? Merely by touching it with his "royal hands?" Surely this is pretentiousness gone wild, and evolves into mere inanity as Richard enjoins the earth to put spiders, toads, nettle, and adders in the rebels' way—"a muster of underbrush irregulars," in Harry Berger's delightful phrase.31 An unlikely way to win a war, and a silliness that the others notice ("Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords" [3.2.23]). Bishop Carlisle, in an editorially trying passage (omitted in the Folio), comments:

The means that heaven yields must be imbrac'd
And not neglected; else, heaven would,
And we will not; heavens offer, we refuse
The proffered means of succour and redress.

The punctuation (Ure's) seems to extract the best sense from a passage sufficiently convoluted that Aumerle feels obliged to explain to Richard: "He means, my lord, that we are too remiss" (3.2.33), suggesting in plain English that they had better start doing something. But this only prompts Richard to a giddier flight of fantasy. Identifying himself with the sun, he expects that his mere presence will scare off Bolingbroke, and in any event God will send angels to fight on his side. Now Salisbury arrives to announce the first bad news that all the Welshmen have deserted, and Aumerle bemusingly inquires of Richard, "why looks your grace so pale?" Scroope arrives with more bad news, and Richard falls into melodramatic despair: "Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs. . / . . For God's sake let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings" (3.2.145-56). But once again his hopes rise, and once again are dashed when he learns of York's defection. So he will go to Flint Castle, and "there I'll pine away" (3.2.209).

The whole scene is bizarre, and much of the language seems to be calculatedly ludicrous. Whether Richard's mood is high or low, his speech is exquisite rant. The scene is all the more bizarre for being so unexpected. This is not the King we had met before. That Richard was arrogant and willful, but commanding, self-assured, and relatively succinct and plain-spoken. This Richard is fantastical and lugubrious, hysterically indecisive, and verbose. This new Richard comes as a shock, and is far more embarrassing than sympathetic. He continues in this way into the next act, where his fanciful imagination and grandiloquence soar to their highest pitch in the long speech beginning, "What must the king do now?" (3.3.143) with its "Handsome, leisurely parallels" so contrived and overripe that "one cannot even trust his self-pity" (Weiss, pp. 236-37). Richard will give his jewels for a set of beads, his gorgeous palace for a hermitage—a passage "perilously near fustian," says Reese, also pointing out "the absurdity of the picture Richard proposes: no man would have had less relish for the cloistered life" (Reese, p. 245). But Richard has only begun, for now he will give his "large kingdom for a little grave, / A little little grave, an obscure grave" (3.3.153-54). How the repeated "littles" wring his heart. And swept on by pathos, he entertains the alternative of being buried in the king's highway, "where subjects' feet / May hourly trample on their sovereign's head" as they now tread on his heart (155-56). Does Aumerle, "tender-hearted cousin," weep? Then they will weep together until—another inspiration—their tears have "fretted us a pair of graves" (167) and there they will lie, "Two kinsmen digg'd their graves with weeping eyes" (169). I dwell on this speech because of its patent absurdity and sentimentality, where the rich, flowing language is mocked by the content. It is surely intended to make Richard look ridiculous, as it does for the onlookers: "Well, well, I see / I talk but idly and you laugh at me" (3.3.170-71). It is a wonderful speech but a risible performance.

In the odd scene that follows the Queen's two gardeners sagely allegorize on the state of the realm—odd because it is so artificial and static sandwiched between dramatic events, and odd too as being the only place in Shakespeare where such humble folk are allowed formal, dignified language as well as sententious wisdom (Reese, p. 255). Nicholas Brooke observes that "the scene is embarrassing nowadays and could never have been very lively," but grants it a thematic function (p. 129). Tillyard believes it illustrates the different expectations of modern and Elizabethan audiences. "The first thought of an Elizabethan would have been: what is the symbolic meaning of these words, spoken by this king of the garden, and how does it bear on the play?"32 The Elizabethan would not have to wonder long, for the Gardener immediately provides his own exegesis: Richard should have lopped away a few "great and growing men" (3.4.61) when he had the chance. Of course he misses the cause and remedy for the country's ills as completely as Richard had, for the disorder of the realm is not the result of ambitious nobles but of the King's own follies: the allegory is as misguided as it is solemnly pretentious. Furthermore, given the uniqueness of such a stage presentation, is it not quite as likely that an Elizabethan audience would also think that this is a ridiculous way for a gardener to talk, a gardener, incidentally, who seems as intimately informed of recent events of state as any high-placed courtier: "Letters came last night / To a dear friend of the good Duke of York's …" (69-70)? Shakespeare is probably playing here on the wise-shepherd tradition33 to make fun of it, and that the scene continues the strain of absurdity introduced earlier in Act 3.

Act 4 opens with a scene of multiple challenges to combat that threatens to turn into low comedy. The barrage of thrown gages and high-flown threats makes the scene difficult to play without the audience laughing.34 Aumerle to Bagot: "There is my gage, the manual seal of death, / That marks thee out for hell" (4.1.25-26). Fitzwater (who is he?) to Aumerle: "There is my gage, Aumerle, in gage to thine" (34). Percy to Aumerle: "there I throw my gage" (46). Another Lord: "There is my honour's pawn; / Ingage it to the trial if thou darest" (55-56). Surrey to Fitzwater water: "there is my honour's pawn; / Ingage it to the trial if thou darest" (70-71). Poor Aumerle runs out of gages to throw: "Some honest Christian trust me with a gage" (83). Bolingbroke terminates the discussion with an order that sounds almost comical in the circumstances: "Your differences shall all rest under gage[!] / Till we assign you to your days of trial" (105-06). This whole farrago derives from just a few sentences in Holinshed, but sentences that seem to have tickled Shakespeare's imagination and given him an opportunity to mock chivalric custom.

The banished Norfolk is a key figure in the dispute, and Bolingbroke proposes to recall him to England, but Bishop Carlisle, in his orotund style, points out that in Venice, Norfolk "gave / His body to that pleasant country's earth / And his pure soul unto his captain Christ" (97-99). Bolingbroke's response might raise at least a smile if not a laugh: "Why, Bishop, is Norfolk dead?" (101). So might his response to Richard, who now enters to abdicate, but babbles about crowns and wells and buckets of tears to Bolingbroke's evident befuddlement: "I thought you had been willing to resign" (190). There is also more than a hint here of a comic tug-of-war with the crown.35 Richard's frantic verbosity also comically overmatches Northumberland's persistent efforts to get Richard to read aloud the accusations; four times he tries to stem the royal tide of words before giving it up at Bolingbroke's command.

In Act 5 Richard is in his "sad stories" mood again as he recommends to the Queen that when in the grievous future she is sitting by the fire with good old folks, she should "Tell thou the lamentable tale of me" (5.1.44)—a line worthy of Bottom. The whole speech shows Richard's unwavering self-pity and outrage at "the deposing of a rightful king" (5.1.50), for that is what the lamentable tale is about. There follows the infamous wrangle in the York household, two scenes that most agree, including Bolingbroke, are very close to farce, and for some, "fully intended farce."36 The spectacle of old, shaky York trying to get his boots from his hapless servant and then trying to get them on while his Duchess in the meantime is shouting at him, the servant and her son; the subsequent siege of Bolingbroke with each member of the family trying to outshout and outkneel the others—all of this rises to "comic chaos" (Barkan, p. 15). It is not at all surprising that these scenes, along with the earlier gage-throwing episode, are the most frequently omitted in theatrical production. They are almost impossible to play straight and maintain an atmosphere of high seriousness. (Barkan has thoroughly and ably analyzed the elements of farce in these three scenes especially for their comic stage potential—suggesting, for example, that the Duchess might well illustrate her vow to walk upon her knees forever by doing so on stage.)

In these fifth-act scenes we also see the final transformation of York into a comic character. He began in Act II as a perceptive observer, wise counselor, and impassioned critic of Richard's behavior, a serious figure, speaking in the same kind of rich, measured cadences as his brother Gaunt. But as soon as he is burdened with the governorship, he begins to dither, and his language begins to take a folksy turn: "If I know how or which way to order these affairs … / Never believe me"; "everything is left at six and seven" (2.2.109-11, 121). The same thing happens when he confronts Bolingbroke: "Tut, tut! grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle" (2.3.86). Soon, although protesting neutrality, he is inviting the lately scolded rebels to repose the night in his own castle! In Act 3 he rebukes Northumberland for referring to Richard without his royal title, yet it is the same York who shortly after announces to Bolingbroke, in a deliciously irreverent phrase, that he has just come from "plume-pluck'd Richard" (4.1.108). We are not, then, unprepared for the farcical scenes of the last act.

Indeed, these scenes are only the climax of a series of scenes and speeches animated by a sense of the absurd and grotesque, a sense that continues into the presentation of Richard's death, as I have already suggested. And even in the last scene of the play, which is on the face of it somber enough, elements of the grotesque creep in. First there are the bland announcements of all the heads being sent to London and Henry's equally bland thank-yous in each case; then the arrival of Richard in his coffin—certainly a macabre touch (and not in Holinshed); and finally, there is Henry proclaiming his regret in a series of insipid couplets. "Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe / That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow" ( This protest comes a little ironically after his evident pleasure in the six heads making their way to London. One may suspect that this is still the ever-politic Bolingbroke finding the right thing to say at the right time. If sincerity does not ring loudly in these weak lines and their gravity is dubious, they nevertheless and for that very reason provide an appropriate conclusion to the play.


In the present reading, then, Richard II is a history play that extends into a predominantly comic mode. This is not to say it is a funny play, although it has funny moments, or that it is not serious, although it can be taken too seriously—certainly Richard can. But the current of mockery and the spirit of the absurd are very strong, continually undermining the seriousness of dramatic events and the tragic pretensions of Richard himself. This current seems to me egregious in the second half of the play, and although more subdued in the first half, not entirely absent there either (the fulsome respects to the King by Bolingbroke and Mowbray in 1.1 are a good example). From the time of Richard's return to the end of the play there is scarcely a scene or episode in which the sound of mockery cannot be heard. Sometimes it is in the actions of the characters, as in the burlesque of the gage-throwing, but mostly it is in their language. Richard II has always been recognized as a highly rhetorical, linguistically exuberant, and poetic drama, full of wordplay, conceits, alliteration, rhyme, elaborate parallelism, careful cadencing, complicated syntax, and striking imagery: a language "at times almost too rich, too full for the thought."37 The language often overwhelms the thought.

This is above all the case with Richard, whose mellifluous tongue has mesmerized generations of readers and playgoers despite his manifestly shallow character and banal mind. And understandably, when some of his finer set pieces are recollected in isolation. For example, his speech "Let's talk of graves" (3.2.145ff.) has been called "lovely," and by itself perhaps it is lovely. But as soon as we remind ourselves that it is Richard who is speaking and only seconds after he has been shouting curses at his henchmen who have "made peace" with Bolingbroke with their heads, the speech becomes grotesque. Again, the earlier declamation with the extravagant sun conceit (3.2) is poetry as dazzling as its guiding metaphor, but in Richard's mouth it is preposterous. Or take again the speech "What must the king do now?" (3.3.143-75): at least the first sixteen lines might be found beautiful and moving if we could forget who was speaking. But here Shakespeare shows us just what he is doing, for inspired by Aumerle's weeping, Richard elaborates his baroque conceit of tear-dug graves into mere preciosity, evoking contemptuous laughter and virtually forcing us to see the absurdity of the whole speech. In this instance it is quite clear that the combination of rhetorical ingenuity and banal content is not simply an accident of early Shakespearean exuberance, but is deliberate, purposeful, and revelatory. And I believe this to be more or less demonstrable for all of Richard's speeches, which characteristically take a parodic turn. They are the verbal equivalent of Richard's beautiful physical appearance: the outward fine show of a mean and meagre soul.

Richard's astonishing eloquence seems to have been Shakespeare's invention—none of his sources credits the king with a reputation for fine speech, although they do regularly mention his handsome features and dress. It was a brilliant invention, to dress the King in splendid words that have no more substance and no more essential regality than the robes of state. But unlike the visual trappings of majesty or even the body itself, the words allow us to look through them to see the inner man. Such a use of speech, it may be noted, is on quite a different level from lying, hypocrisy, insincerity, or deceptiveness in general. The nicest irony of Richard's language is that it is sincere. He may have moments of bluster, but he does sincerely believe in the divinity of his kingship, sincerely believes his downfall to be solely the work of traitors, and is sincerely sorry for himself. Nor is this "acting." Certainly Richard has a histrionic style, a weakness for melodrama and a fondness for the limelight, but he is not consciously playing a role. What we see—and more importantly hear—is what he is.

That Richard II is, or becomes, a character study has been generally acknowledged since Coleridge, and marks a relatively new enterprise for Shakespeare. The kind of character studied here—Richard's—is an uncommon one for drama, and Shakespeare attempted an uncommon, actually quite new, way to represent it, almost entirely from the personage's own speech. Richard's character, as distinct from his behavior, is virtually never described or commented on by anyone in the play. There is ample criticism of his actions from Gaunt, York, Bolingbroke, and Northumberland, and some less direct criticism of his inaction from Carlisle and Aumerle, but there are no Theophrastian asides or expressed judgments of his personality by others. The audience, however, is inevitably led to such judgments, and almost entirely through Richard's own words. This may be the principal dramatic experiment of Richard II. It was a bold experiment—perhaps too bold, judging by critical responses over the years—for Richard has obtained a great deal more sympathy than he deserves or, I suspect, than was ever intended. Of course we feel sorry for Richard by the time he dies, and we justify the feeling by calling the play a tragedy. But we feel sorry for Falstaff too when he dies and even when he is snubbed by the King, yet we are not tempted to make him over into a tragic figure. And Richard has no more redeeming features than Falstaff does, in fact considerably fewer. It would seem, then, that Shakespeare's experiment with Richard II may not have been altogether successful. But I think the fault is more ours than his, ours for allowing sonorous poetry and "symphonic" imagery to cloud our discernment of what is actually said and done in the play.


What gives the play its unique flavor and at the same time generates ambivalent emotional responses is the way it alternates between attraction and repulsion, involvement and detachment, solemnity and burlesque. It is a common observation, and surely true in a general way, that tragedy needs to involve our feelings deeply with the characters and events of the drama, whereas comedy requires detachment. In Richard II both forces operate to pull us in different directions. Again and again we are first lured into sober involvement and then pushed away by an immediately following absurdity; this is the characteristic progress of Richard's speeches, many scenes of action, and the character development of Bolingbroke and York. The sequence defines it as comic. It is not the pattern of tragicomedy or of "comic relief" within a tragedy, but something more or less unique to Richard II and its experimentalism. Its essence is mockery: giving solemnly and taking away with a laugh or snicker.

Obviously Richard II is not comedy pure and simple. It is a history play (this classification, traditional since the First Folio, still suits it best), but like the succeeding plays of the Henriad, a history play with a comic tenor, provided here by clear and persistent strains of irony and satire, the absurd, the grotesque, and the mocking tone which are present throughout the play and dominate the latter half. Taking account of this may help us perceive its political import in a somewhat different light. And it surely is a political play.38 Only very minimally dependent on the chronicle sources, Richard II is a highly imaginative recreation of particular historical events represented from a particular interpretive point of view. Having borrowed the title of this essay from Bottom, I might also adopt Puck's phrase "What fools these mortals be" to suggest Shakespeare's perspective on these events, understanding the expression in Puck's relatively benign sense, neither cynical nor arrogant nor compassionless.

The rise-and-fall motif and structure of the play have always been obvious. Richard uses the rather unsublime image of two buckets in a well to describe it. It is perhaps worth noting that the traditional and loftier image of Fortune's Wheel is never used, although readily available and, as some mink, implied.39 It seems likelier that Shakespeare deliberately avoided it, because fortune—mere chance—does not govern events here: nothing could be clearer than that Richard's fall is directly due to his own folly. Nor can he plead bad counsel, for although the favorites loom large in the sources (in Woodstock especially they have major roles as evil buffoons in a buffoonish play), in our play the Lancastrian disinheritance is plainly Richard's own ill-conceived and disastrous idea. Shakespeare does not extenuate. He does, however, greatly simplify the case against the King. He makes no allusion at all, for instance, to "the filthie sinne of leacherie and fornication, with abhominable adulterie, especiallie in the king" that he found in Holinshed.40 It is remarkable, in fact, how much history Shakespeare left out of his play. There is no mention of Bolingbroke's earlier role as one of the Lords Appellant who had dominated Richard for a decade, that it was Bolingbroke who had led the military forces that defeated the King's army at Radcot Bridge, that he was party to Gloucester's conspiracy, that Bolingbroke, in short, had long been one of Richard's chief enemies. This background would surely have put the Lancastrian confiscation in a different light, for by it Richard was preventing the greatest resources of power in England from falling into the hands of his greatest adversary and possible pretender. The role of Gloucester in earlier events is also passed over in silence, although according to Holinshed he too was Richard's enemy and indeed conspired to assassinate the King. Thus if the means used to dispose of Gloucester were unsavory, yet he clearly was a traitor and his death therefore justified. This is just hinted at by Gaunt: God's "deputy" (Richard is not directly named) "Hath caus'd his death; the which if wrongfully, / Let heaven revenge" (1.2.39-40). Gaunt's little "if" suggests that Gloucester's death may not have been wrongful.

The omission of so much "prehistory" of the drama has the effect of trivializing Richard's motives. No reason is given for the murder of Gloucester, leaving the impression of gratuitous malice. The seizure of Lancaster's properties is made to appear an act of caprice and greed. His disposition of the quarrel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, although it can be interpreted as deeply politic, suggests rather a willful display of power as its principal motivation: "such is the breath of kings" (1.3.215). That Shakespeare shifts emphasis from politics to personality, or rather regrounds politics in personality, is indicated too by the virtual omission in his history of the English Parliament. In Holinshed, Parliament has a major role, perhaps the major role, in the story of the deposition and succession, as it had earlier in the days of the "Merciless Parliament" and the ascendancy of the Appellants. The Lords in Parliament had once even threatened to depose the King on their own. It was in Parliament that the thirty-three charges against the King were drawn up, in Parliament that the King was deposed and Henry proclaimed king. In the play Parliament scarcely exists, and all these public political events have been shifted to almost private venues. It is true that the First Quarto and the Folio introduce the decisive fourth act with the stage directions "Enter … to parliament" and "Enter as to the Parliament" respectively, but only a small group of lords make an entry with no hint that any others are present, least of all the Commons who in Holinshed ratify Henry by acclamation. Unless some revealing stage props were provided, audiences would hardly have guessed they were witnessing a scene in Parliament. The result of Shakespear's adaptation of Holinshed is to focus on individual persons and personalities—partly as a dramatic necessity, no doubt, but perhaps also an indication of his perspective on politics as ultimately the actions of individuals.

Evidently Shakespeare was intrigued by the question of how Richard could have made so fatal a mistake in confiscating the Lancastrian patrimony, which could only alienate all the nobility and invite rebellion, and makes the point explicit by inventing a speech for the Duke of York which lays out very clearly the wrongness of Richard's decision and its dangerous consequences. The answer he found lies in Richard's misconception of kingship. In this matter there is virtually universal critical agreement: Richard never understands that kingship entails responsibilities. For him it is not an office and a trust but a personal exaltation by divine powers, "a special preference of God for one man" (Quinn, p. 173), whose realm and subjects are personal possessions to do with as he pleases. Thus he has no understanding of Gaunt's accusation that he has become "Landlord of England … not king," and dismisses York's passionate admonitions with a casual "Think what you will" (

The play leaves no doubt that Richard is a bad king, that his conception of kingship is false, and that it is this false conception that causes his downfall. More problematic is the question of "divine right," whether even a bad king may be legitimately deposed; this is the question that has chiefly exercised politically-oriented criticism of the play. Within the play itself different opinions are expressed or implied. The question comes up almost immediately in the second scene, where the Duchess of Gloucester urges Gaunt to avenge his brother's death. But Gaunt, regarding the king as God's "deputy anointed," says that he "may never lift / An angry arm against His minister" (1.2.38, 40-41). It is difficult to guess here whether Gaunt is voicing his genuine convictions about the sanctity of the King's person or using the argument as an excuse for not taking an action he would resist on other grounds anyway. The only other person besides Richard himself to take up the matter is Bishop Carlisle, in whose impassioned but somewhat confusing protest (4.1) it is not altogether clear whether he is claiming that subjects may not judge their sovereign at all or whether they should not do so in his absence. But like Gaunt, he does at least attribute special status to the King as "the figure of God's majesty, / His captain, steward, deputy elect" (4.1.125-26), and both clearly echo the official line of the Tudor Homilie Against Disobedience and wilful Rebellion.41 However, the Bishop has already put himself in a logically uncomfortable position by reassuring Richard earlier, "Fear not, my lord. That Power that made you king / Hath power to keep you king in spite of all" (3.2.27-28). In retrospect, the implication must be that God in fact did not choose to keep him king. Thus we will have York's faute-de-mieux resolution of the providentialist problem: "heaven hath a hand in these events" (5.2.37). These are also God's will. If God makes kings, he also unmakes them, and makes new ones.42 This is of course not a thought that ever occurs to Richard, who is finally the only unambiguous spokesman for "divine right" and the "sin" of deposing a king. And his views, based on a perverse idea of kingship and tainted by self-serving rhetoric, can hardly carry much weight. As for Bolingbroke and the other rebels, they all seem quite indifferent. Of course they are operating on the premise that Richard has voluntarily resigned and named Henry his successor.43

And indeed it was always Richard who insisted on handing over the crown before any overt suggestions were made by others, even over their protestations, confirming Gaunt's prophetic insight: "[Thou] art possess'd now to depose thyself (1.2.108). Yet the same Richard makes "the deposing of a rightful king" his continual plaint (5.1.50). It is an ideological muddle. But the muddle is, I believe, much to the point of the play, where no position at all is taken on the legitimacy of Henry's succession, not even whether or not it is a "unsurpation." Shakespeare plays teasingly with such ideas but finally leaves them in the air, with the implication that they are of little importance. They are part of the royal follies in his Puckish perspective. No idealogue and certainly no spokesman for "Tudor orthodoxy" (if anything, he "is testing and exposing latent deficiencies in the premises of Tudor thinking"),44 he is rather a bemused realist who knows that whether or not subjects have a right to judge their sovereign, they will anyway. And so will the audience of the play.

The subtle mockery of divine right would appear to fit exactly Greenblatt's definition of "radical subversiveness" as a challenge not just to authority but to the principles on which authority is based.45 This mockery pervades the play; it is by no means limited to the textually controversial deposition scene,46 although it does reach a certain peak there. Weighted with imagery of inversion, the scene suggests to David M. Bergeron47 a carnivalesque topsyturvydom. Carnival is virtually by definition institutional production and containment of subversion. Whether the play as a whole can be said to fall into such a category depends on its reception. For some, the subversive implications may indeed be contained by the bounds of the theater or book—the play is just a play. Others, however, may be influenced by the absurdist representation of royal politics to take a skeptical or even cynical view of regal pretentions in general, including Tudor claims of divine right. Elizabeth's seeming dislike for the play may have had its origin not in apprehension about any actions it might arouse but in the suspicion that it might inspire "incorrect" attitudes.

If there are in the play "providential" and "Machiavellian" poles of thought about political history,48 the first at least makes a poor showing. The chief spokesman for the providentialist position, Richard himself, is an unconvincing advocate, whose sometimes hysterical and often ludicrous providentialist rhetoric is difficult to take seriously and thus undermines the ideology it means to assert. But the position has a built-in paradox in any case: if all events are providentially ordained, no one can do anything that is not God's will—including Bolingbroke. Appropriately, it is the increasingly comic York who draws attention to this essential vacuity of providentialism. The political realists of the play ("Machiavellians") are not necessarily any more attractive, but they are intelligible and consistent. They have no articulated theories, but they understand power and opportunity; at least their politics are not absurd.


It is not surprising that no one comes out a hero in Richard II. As Allan Bloom has said, "The play's impact is not such as to induce reverence for the king (either the old one or the new); rather, there is a subversive element in the detachment it induces."49 We do not come away from the play with any strong sense of right or wrong—"political agnosticism"50 is Shakespeare's consistent position—except for the clear judgment that Richard is unfit to rule. But is Bolingbroke much more fit? It has been said that Shakespeare "is clearly on the side of Bolingbroke,"51 but I believe the play also leaves that question open. Although it is common to contrast the two kings in respect to their fitness to govern, the most we are allowed to see is that Bolingbroke is a very different personality, not that he has kingly virtues Richard lacks. When we see him in administrative action, no great contrast appears. He executes Bushy and Greene, a decisive act but taken largely out of personal revenge because of their feeding on his signories; Richard would have done the same. He forgives Aumerle at his mother's plea; Richard is also capable of mercy, as shown when he shortens Bolingbroke's term of exile, moved by his father's sorrow. In adjudicating the quarrels of his nobles (4.1) he fares no better than Richard did. Is he a man of action? Yes, but so is Richard when he has the power to act: it is only when he has lost that power that he retreats into verbal fantasies. (And in the early scenes of the play, incidentally, Bolingbroke shows himself quite as capable as Richard of high-flown, self-serving rhetoric.) If Bolingbroke is willing to receive good counsel, in contrast to Richard, we are shown no instance of it. He seems to be motivated entirely by his personal fortunes and prospects, and expresses no more concern for the common weal than Richard ever did. He is more prudent and circumspect than Richard, but then in his situation he has to be. He is undoubtedly a superior politician: he is a clever manipulator of men and circumstances, an opportunist, and a smooth talker (Hill, pp. 108-13), but are these particularly kingly virtues? When he consolidates his power, will he be any more responsible than Richard? There seems no way to know. Close examination of his royal potential reveals nothing more than his popularity and political savoir faire. Unlike Richard, he is a politician, but whether he is a king remains in doubt.

If the play condemns the old king, it is yet so far from extolling the new one that we might be excused for hearing an echo of Mercutio's exasperation: "A plague a' both your houses." All in all, Richard II takes an unflattering view of kingship and kings, of royal pretensions and royal ambitions—not a particularly hostile view nor a tragic one, but a realistic one that recognizes that kingship has little to do with divinity: the king is but a man after all. Kingship is shown by negative but clear implication to be above all a responsibility. Richard never understands this, nor is it clear that his successor does. But it does not follow that kingship itself is viewed as" merely "a matter of highly sophisticated posturing" or a "nothingness" or that the play is a "deconstruction of monarchy"52 for there are kings and kings, a Richard II and a Henry V. It might be closer to the mark to say that Shakespeare consistently demythologizes kingship, here and elsewhere.53 He ridicules "divine right" and deflates "majesty." The traditional ceremonies of government that Tillyard made so much of, "however decorous and impressive at the start, are shown to be impotent and farcical at the end."54 In the universal spirit of comedy Shakespeare mocks the trappings and ceremonies and pretensions of the kings of the past. It is therefore difficult to perceive Richard II as even in part a "historical pageant colored by nostalgia" (Rackin, p. 119). The play looks at the past with an eye on the absurdity of it all. This is not nostalgia. Politically, the story of Richard is that of a "majestic imposture" exposed (Winny, p. 61). Such a subject is usually basic material for comedy. The fact that it is a self-exposure, of which Richard is never aware, adds further dimensions of irony. What this comédie humaine elegantly demonstrates is that, like all other mortals, kings too can be fools. I think it is not paradoxical to suggest that the real, radical power of the drama lies primarily in its comic, absurdist perspective, which pervades, sometimes subtly, sometimes egregiously, the whole fabric of the play.


1 Ruth Nevo, Tragic Form in Shakespeare (Princeton, 1972), p. 59.

2Richard II, ed. John M. Lothian, New Clarendon Shakespeare (Oxford, 1938), p. 14.

3 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Garden City, 1964), p. 35.

4 Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), p. 159.

5 Hardin Craig, An Interpretation of Shakespeare (New York, 1948), p. 134.

6 Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's "Histories": Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, 1947), p. 210; H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Tragedy (Cambridge, Eng., 1948), p. 46; Karl F. Thompson, "Richard II, Martyr," Shakespeare Quarterly, 8 (1957), 161; Michael Quinn, '"The King is not Himself: the Personal Tragedy of Richard II," Studies in Philology, 56 (1959), 184; Theodore Weiss, The Breath of Clowns and Kings (New York, 1971), pp. 256-57; Nevo, Tragic Form, p. 95; C. W. R. D. Moseley, Shakespeare's History Plays (Harmondsworth, 1988), p. 85; Kenneth C. Bennett, "Climax and Anti-Climax in 'Richard II,'" Essays in Theatre, 6 (1988), 122; R. P. Draper, "Wasted time in Richard II" Critical Survey, I (1989), 42; Robert C. Jones, These Valiant Dead (Iowa City, 1991), p. 89.

7 Citations from King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, Arden Shakespeare (London, 1961).

8 Lois Potter, "The Antic Disposition of Richard II," Shakespeare Survey, 27 (1974), 40.

9 Derek Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Palo Alto, 1957), p. 47.

10 Donald H. Reiman, "Appearance, Reality, and Moral Order in Richard II," Modern Language Quarterly, 25 (1964), 40-41.

11 M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (New York, 1961), pp. 240, 244.

12 Nicholas Brooke, Shakespare's Early Tragedies (Harmondsworth, 1988), p. 85.

13 Stanley Wells, "The Lamentable Tale of 'Richard II,'" Shakespeare Studies [Tokyo], 17 (1978-1979), 22.

14 R. F. Hill, "Dramatic Techniques and Interpretation in 'Richard II,'" in Early Shakespeare, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3 (London, 1961), pp. 116-17.

15 John Baxter, Shakespeare's Poetic Styles (London, 1980), p. 143.

16 John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark, Del., 1983), pp. 140, 137.

17 Hill, "Dramatic Techniques," p. 117.

18 James Winny, The Player King (London, 1968), p. 10. Ronald R. MacDonald, "Uneasy Lies: Language and History in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy," Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 22-39, makes the same point, although for him the tragic pole is represented by Richard II.

19 Nevo, Tragic Form, pp. 60-61, 69, 95.

20 Moody E. Prior, The Drama of Power (Evanston, 1973), pp. 159, 181. See also

21 Michael E. Mooney, Shakespeare's Dramatic Transactions (Durham, N.C., 1990), pp. 70-71. Along very similar lines, see also

22 Louise Cowan, "God Will Save the King: Shakespeare's Richard II" in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham, N.C., 1981), p. 77.

23 Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), p. 121.

24 Winny, Player King, p. 56; Prior, Drama of Power, p. 166.

25 Travis Bogard, "Shakespeare's Second Richard," PMLA, 70 (1955), 208.

26 J. A. Bryant, Jr., "The Linked Analogies of Richard II," Sewanee Review, 65 (1957), 420-33.

27 Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays (Columbus, Ohio, 1971), p. 166.

28 A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (New York, 1961): "What makes such tragedy 'obscure' is a kind of stupidity in events (in men and things)," p. 37. But could such a world view ever be the stuff of tragedy?

29 Cf. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Brighton, 1984). However, as I will argue below, Richard II is a radical drama in Dollimore's sense.

30 S. Schoenbaum, '"Richard II' and the Realities of Power," Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 1-13, goes so far as to say that here "Richard brilliantly demonstrates his political skill under conditions of grave disadvantage" (p. 12); similarly, Larry S. Champion, The Noise of Threatening Drum (Newark, 1990): "he has masterfully transformed personal vengeance against the last lords appellant into an act of statesmanship and princely concern" (p. 107).

31 Harry Berger, Jr., Imaginary Audition (Berkeley, 1989), p. 80.

32 E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1959), p. 249.

33 See Ure, pp. liv-lv.

34 Stanley Wells, "John Barton's Richard II," in Richard II: Critical Essays, ed. Jeanne T. Newlin (New York, 1984), pp. 163-83: "The scene of the gages … has often caused embarrassment in the theatre" (p. 174).

35 Leonard Barkan, "The Theatrical Consistency of Richard II," Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (1978), 15.

36 Sheldon P. Zitner, "Aumerle's Conspiracy," Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 14 (1974), 243.

37 E. K. Chambers, "Introduction" to The Tragedy of King Richard the Second (1891), reprinted in Richard II, Critical Essays, ed. Newlin (1984), p. 214. Not surprisingly, actors (Gielgud and Jacobi, e.g.), have found the gorgeous language of the play a problem in their attempts to actualize character and action on the stage: Malcolm Page, Richard II, Text and Performance (London, 1987), p. 49.

38 E.g., John Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1945); John R. Elliott, Jr., "History and Tragedy in Richard II" Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 8 (1968), 253-71.

39 John Dover Wilson, "Introduction" to King Richard II, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, Eng., 1939), p. xx.

40 A view reported by Holinshed—his own opinion of Richard was much more favorable. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland [1586] (London, 1807), vol. 2, pp. 868-69.

41 Roy Battenhouse, "Tudor Doctrine and the Tragedy of Richard II " Rice University Studies, 60 (1974), 31-53.

42 This is also Holinshed's view, or rather that of his editor Abraham Fleming: "But in this deiecting of the one, &; aduancing of the other, the prouidence of God is to be respected, &; his secret will to be woondered at. For as in his hands standeth the donation of kingdoms, so likewise the disposing of them consisteth in his pleasure." Chronicles, 2. 855.

43 Holinshed's account is also untroubled by any legal, moral, or theological questions about the propriety of the deposition.

44 Battenhouse, "Tudor Doctrine," p. 32; Cf. C. G. Thayer, Shakespearean Politics (Athens, Ohio, 1983): "It is no exaggeration to say that Shakespeare takes aim at the heart of Tudor political-theological-legal theory, and he doesn't miss" (p. 34); and Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (Chicago, 1967): "against ideal and wishful dramatic images of Tudor political ideals Shakespeare poses a powerful sense of Realpolitik" (p. 81). Graham Holderness, Shakespeare's History (New York, 1985), argues that the play exposes divine right as "a historical myth" (pp. 59-64).

45 Stephen Greenblatt, "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion," Glyph, 8 (1981), 41.

46 Leeds Barroll, "A New History for Shakespeare and his Time," Shakespeare Quarterly, 39 (1988), 441-64.

47 David M. Bergeron, "Richard II and Carnival Politics," Shakespeare Quarterly, 42 (1991), 33-43.

48 Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History (Ithaca, 1990).

49 Allan Bloom, "Richard II," in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham, 1981), p. 52.

50 Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968), pp. 158 ff.

51 Irving Ribner, "The Political Problem in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy," Studies in Philology, 49 (1952), 179. But John Wilders, The Lost Garden (London, 1978), believes that "Shakespeare cannot be said to have taken sides with either man" (p. 109), and also reminds us that Holinshed was "fairly unsympathetic to both parties" (p. 107).

52 Hill, "Dramatic Techniques," 108-13; Draper, "Wasted Time," p. 41; Ned Lukacher, "Anamorphic Stuff: Shakespeare, Catharsis, Lacan," The South Atlantic Quarterly, 88 (1989), 895; Champion, Noise, p. 101.

53 The Shakespearean perception of kings as essentially role-playing actors contributes to a demystification of kingship according to Geraldo U. de Sousa, "Semiotics of Kingship in Richard II," in Shakespeare and Deconstruction, ed. G. Douglas Atkins and David Bergeron (New York, 1988), p. 187; R. A. Martin, "Metatheater, Gender, and Subjectivity in Richard II and Henry IV, Part I," Comparative Drama, 23 (1989), p. 255; Jeanie Grant Moore, "Queen of Sorrow, King of Grief: Reflections and Perspectives in Richard II" in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (Metuchen, N.J., 1991), p. 28.

54 Philip Brockbank, On Shakespeare (Oxford, 1989), p. 115.

Source: "The Lamentable Comedy of Richard II," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 343-69.

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The Crown, the Mirror and the Clock: Shakespeare's Richard II