The first play of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, Richard II, chronicles the conflict which started the century-long War of the Roses. Richard II, however, is much more than a chronicle of events. The play debates the nature of legitimate kingship, explores the swirling eddies of political power, and demonstrates the power of language to create and depose a king.
Twentieth-century critics have often focused on the nature of kingship in Richard II, particularly the ways in which Shakespeare juxtaposed Richard's understanding of himself as divinely appointed with his failures as a human being. According to John R. Elliot (1968), Richard believes that as king he is directly aided by God, that he is not subject to human frailty, and that England is his to with as he pleases. Elliot argues that this mistaken notion of his role as king ultimately leads to Richard's failure. John Halverson (1994) also connects the source of Richard's failure with his own misunderstanding of kingship, maintaining that while the play presents Richard as a bad king, it is less certain about the notion of divine rights of kings. He asserts that Richard II neither "condemns" Richard nor "extols" Henry, but rather demonstrates the inherent problems in the nature of kingship itself.
Other scholars have attempted to distinguish between the divinity of the Crown and the person wearing the crown. H. M. Richmond (1967) has carefully examined the character of Richard and that of Bolingbroke, demonstrating how Richard's understanding of kingship represents the medieval view, while Bolingbroke is representative of the early modern, pragmatic sense of politics. Allan Bloom (1981) has similarly noted that Richard II brings to light the end of the old order of medieval chivalry and points toward the new order of politics and pragmatism. Robert Jones (1991), conversely, has asserted that Richard's failure is not that he represents an old order, but rather that he fails to pay heed to the lessons of the past.
The subversive nature of Richard II has continued to attract critical attention. Several commentators, including David M. Bergeron (1991), have discussed the way medieval Christian cultures embraced the topsy-turvy world of carnival in order to contain and control subversion. Bergeron maintains that it is the carnivalesque—embodied in the language, the structure, and the politics of the play—which makes Richard II an exploration of stability and subversion. Other scholars have contended that politics in Richard II reside in the family and in the patriarchal structures that maintain and reproduce the culture. Sharon Cadman Seelig (1995), for example, has demonstrated that family politics underscore national politics. She asserts that although Richard II is often read as a power struggle between the king and a usurper, it is also a play about the power struggle between fathers and sons.
Language also plays a role in the construction and the deposition of a king. Critics have compared Richard's poetic, hyperbolic, lovely language with the plain style of Bolingbroke, contending that the differences in their language styles reflect their characters and their conceptions of kingship. Further, scholars often associate Richard's language with that of medieval chivalry and Bolingbroke's with that of modern dynamism and competition. For instance, R. P. Draper (1989) has demonstrated that the rhetorical construction of Richard's last speech reveals the overturn of a particular type of world view, one in which duty to one's superiors is paramount. He argues that Richard's play with language leads him ever closer to self-knowledge; however, self-knowledge does not provide salvation for Richard. Rather, Draper asserts, the closer Richard comes to understanding that kingship is a role he has been playing, the closer he comes to understanding his own culpability for his actions.