(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard II

Chronologically the first play in Shakespeare's series of eight history plays centering on the genesis and history of the conflict between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, Richard II was written circa 1595. Shakespeare had already written Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, and Richard III—the second tetralogy, chronologically speaking. Arguably the primary moral transgression that initiates the bloody events of the eight plays is the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. The murder takes place prior to the opening of Richard II, but in the play, King Richard is implicated in having ordered the murder. Not only is Richard believed to be responsible for Gloucester's death, but he is also shown to be a weak and inefficient ruler who has squandered the royal coffers on the public display of the regality of kingship. For such reasons, some critics, including M. M. Reese (1961), have argued that the kingdom has been tainted by Richard's rule, and that Bolingbroke's rebellion, while wicked itself, is a “diseased product of a diseased condition.” Pamela K. Jensen agrees, maintaining that Richard's abuse of power provokes Bolingbroke's rebellion. Jensen contends that following Richard's political fall, he experiences a personal rise, in which he redeems himself by the end of the play. At the same time, Jensen observes, Bolingbroke's political rise to power is paralleled by an inward, moral decline. “Each man,” Jensen states, “is only ever half a king; neither is kingly when he is king.”

In addition to the moral implications of Richard's and Bolingbroke's actions, modern critics are concerned with the issues in the play related to Elizabethan politics. Of particular interest is the scene in which Richard, in front of Bolingbroke and Parliament, gives up the crown to Bolingbroke. This scene (IV.i), commonly known as the deposition or abdication scene, was not printed in any of the Elizabethan editions or reprints of Richard II. It finally appeared in the fourth quarto of 1608, during the early reign of James I. Many critics, including Janet Clare (1990), maintain that evidence exists to support the contention that the scene was excised from print and performance due to its depiction of the deposition and usurpation of a legitimate monarch. While acknowledging that it is conjecture as to whether or not the scene was censored out of the play, Cyndia Susan Clegg (1997) contends that it is unlikely that the scene was excised for the reasons most often given by critics: due to parallels between the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the misrule of Richard, or due to the dangers of the dramatic portrayal of political rebellion during the 1590s. Rather, Clegg argues, the scene may have been viewed as subversive and was therefore censored because it portrays a Parliament that urges, rather than simply consents to, Richard's abdication. Clegg explains that this implies that Parliament may act without the King, that Parliament, in fact, presides over the King and may dictate terms to him.

Other critics have focused on specific aspects of the play's language and imagery, particularly the rhetoric of Gaunt's deathbed speech and the play's mythological allusions. Donald M. Friedman (1976) analyzes Gaunt's speech and argues that although many have viewed these verses as a “national panegyric,” Gaunt is immersed in the questions he presents regarding the “preservation or destruction of the national character;” he is not a “disinterested commentator on the glories of England.” Friedman maintains that through the use of rhetorical conventions that are purposefully unfulfilled, Gaunt's speech demonstrates his own penetrating frustration at being powerless to insure his conception of “England's essence.” George D. Gopen (1987) also closely examines the rhetoric of Gaunt's dying speech, observing that it marks Gaunt's transformation from Richard's “yes-man” into a man unafraid to challenge the king. Gopen further contends that Gaunt's personal transformation presages another transition in the play, from a kingdom concerned with tradition and duty with Gaunt as its spokesman to a kingdom ruled by “humanistic” rather than “conventional” political judgments, with Gaunt's son Bolingbroke as representative of this position.

A variety of mythological allusions in the play have been the focus of some critical commentary. Georges Lamoine (1986) studies the parallels between elements of the Fisher King myth and certain aspects of the play. Lamoine suggests that the myth supplies a “deeper dimension” to the play's warning concerning the deposition of the king, and that the Fisher King myth, with its focus on the spiritual quest for the Holy Grail, heightens the play's own religious implications. Clayton G. MacKenzie (1986) examines how the language and imagery used in the play refer to the mythology of England as paradise, even as the Biblical paradise. MacKenzie also demonstrates that a second mythology is alluded to in the play as well: that of the “fallen paradise.” This fallen paradise, MacKenzie shows, is referred to in Biblical, iconographical, and classical terms, which together emphasize “a central mythology of an English transgression and of a paradise lost.” Taking another approach to the play's mythological allusions, Robert P. Merrix (1987) reviews Richard's reference to the Phaëton myth, as presented in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Merrix maintains that the myth incorporates themes—including the search for one's identity, pride and its fall, and the chaos resulting from “ambivalent leadership—that make this myth a “nearly perfect vehicle for Shakespeare to use in Richard II.

M. M. Reese (essay date 1961)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Richard II,” in The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays, London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd, 1961, pp. 225-60.

[In the following essay, Reese examines the plot and characterization in Richard II to support the contention that although Bolingbroke's rebellion is wicked, the rebellion itself is a symptom of the kingdom's disease, a sickness that has generated from Richard's complicity in the death of Gloucester and his general inability to effectively rule his kingdom.]

Richard II always occupied a special place in the Elizabethan mind. Until he relinquished his crown of thorns to Charles I, he was the archetypal English...

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Pamela K. Jensen (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beggars and Kings: Cowardice and Courage in Shakespeare's Richard II,” in Interpretation 18, No. 1, Fall, 1990, pp. 111-43.

[In the following essay, Jensen studies the development of Richard and Bolingbroke throughout Richard II,arguing that Richard's political fall is paralleled by a personal rise marked by his self-redemption. At the same time, Jensen argues, Bolingbroke's political rise to the kingship is followed by an inward, moral decline.]

Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Richard II depicts the simultaneous decline and fall of one king and the meteoric rise of another.1 The exalted King Richard becomes a beggar, and...

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Janet Clare (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Censorship of the Deposition Scene in Richard II,” in The Review of English Studies XLI, No. 161, February, 1990, pp. 89-94.

[In the following essay, Clare reviews the debate regarding the issue of the possible censorship of the deposition scene in Richard II, and maintains that strong and persuasive evidence exists to support the view that the scene was suppressed by the Master of the Revels due ot its “explicit portrayal of deposition and usurpation.”]

The question of Elizabethan censorship and its impact upon Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists is one which has evoked cautious responses of ‘not proven’. Apart from the clear...

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Cyndia Susan Clegg (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘By the Choice and Inuitation of Al the Realm’: Richard II and Elizabethan Press Censorship,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 48, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 432-48.

[In the following essay, Clegg maintains that it is unlikely Richard II’s deposition scene was censored because of any parallels with Queen Elizabeth's reign, or because of a danger of dramatizing a rebellion during the 1590s. Rather, Clegg suggests the possibility that the scene was censored because of its implication that Parliament may act without the ruling monarch and can in fact dictate terms to the monarch.]

Shakespeare's Richard II has come to serve as a touchstone for...

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Georges Lamoine (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Richard II and the Myth of the Fisher King,” in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 30, October, 1986, pp. 75-8.

[In the following essay, Lamoine reviews the parallels between elements of the myth of the Fisher Kingand Richard II. Lamoine suggests that an understanding of such parallels can inform one's reading of the play by emphasizing the play's religious issues as well as the seriousness of the crime of deposing a king.]

In his introduction to the Arden Shakespeare, Peter Ure analyses the “question of political allegory” of the play, in terms of its relevance to contemporary situations and problems at the end of Elizabeth's...

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Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Paradise and Paradise Lost in Richard II,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1986, pp. 318-39.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie explores the manner in which the language and figures of English mythology and “anti-mythology” are developed into the visions of England as paradise and as an “English paradise lost” in Richard II. MacKenzie observes that while Gaunt refers to England as a mythological and Biblical paradise, the play also refers to England as a “fallen paradise” in Biblical, iconographical, and classical terms.]

With his country in the grasp of a king whose manoeuverings have verged on misrule, his son...

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Robert P. Merrix (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Phaëton Allusion in Richard II: The Search for Identity,” in English Literary Renaissance 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 277-87.

[In the following essay, Merrix investigates the implications of Richard's reference to the Phaëton myth, arguing that this allusion incorporates various themes appropriate to the characterization of Richard, including the search for self, pride and its fall, and the chaotic results of “ambivalent leadership.”]

When confronted by Bullingbrook at Flint Castle, Richard II cries: “Down, down I come, Like glist’ring Phaëton, / Wanting the manage of unruly jades” (3.3.178-79).1 Discussion of the...

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Donald M. Friedman (essay date 1976)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration,” in ELH 43, No. 3, Fall, 1976, pp. 279-99.

[In the following essay, Friedman studies the form and content of Gaunt's dying speech and argues that the speech reveals Gaunt to be deeply frustrated with his inability to insure the existence and stability of his particular view of “England's essence.” Friedman emphasizes that Gaunt's speech is more than the national panegyric it is often taken to be and that Gaunt does not simply serve as an objective commentator on England's glories.]

This teeming womb of privilege, this feudal state,
Whose shores beat back the turbulent sea of foreign anarchy.
This ancient...

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George D. Gopen (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Private Grief into Public Action: The Rhetoric of John of Gaunt in Richard II,” in Studies in Philology LXXXIV, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 338-67.

[In the following essay, Gopen analyzes the rhetorical structure of Gaunt's deathbed speech and discusses how this speech informs other issues in the play.]

John of Gaunt's Deathbed Speech

31 Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus, expiring, do foretell of him:

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Barroll, Leeds. “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, No. 4 (Winter 1988): 441-64.

Suggests that some “confusions” exist within the field of “new historicism” and that these affect the endeavors to understand Shakespeare and his work within the context of the period in which he lived. Barroll examines Richard II within this framework, focusing specifically on the presentation of the play the night before the Earl of Essex's attempted rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, and on the attitude toward the theater under King James I.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Ars Moriendi in Progress, or John of Gaunt and the Practice of...

(The entire section is 596 words.)