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Richard II

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Richard II is the first play of Shakespeare's second tetralogy, a series of four plays based on English history. Unlike the other plays in the series, and despite the political and historical nature of the play, Richard II contains no battles; rather, it focuses on the more subtle and psychological aspects of political power. In addition to the scrutiny of the play's historical and political issues, other topics of critical examination include the play's structure, as well as the characters of Richard, his rival Bolingbroke, and the often overlooked York. Additionally, Richard II has a lengthy stage history, and is still a popular choice for modern productions.

Often viewed as an intense and focused study of Richard's political fall and Bolingbroke's rise to power, Richard II is commonly studied in terms of the conflict between these men and the values each represents. Derek Traversi (see Further Reading) sees the play as the downfall of a traditional conception of royalty, represented by Richard, and the uprising of a new political force, represented by Bolingbroke. In Traversi's analysis of the play and its characters, he concludes that Richard betrays his political office, which he has ineffectively filled, and Bolingbroke, not unlike Richard, proves to be divided between political virtue and the quest for power. Like Traversi, C. W. R. D. Moseley (see Further Reading) is interested in Richard's decline. Moseley focuses on Shakespeare's source adaptations as well as his development of the play's characters, demonstrating the ways in which the audience is led toward sympathy for Richard, despite his failures and faults. While critics such as Moseley concentrate on Richard's personal tragedy, John Palmer (1961) complains that too often, the play is seen solely in terms of Richard as a private individual. Palmer maintains that Richard's actions should be viewed within the context of their political and public ramifications as well. Through the course of his examination, Palmer demonstrates how Shakespeare portrayed Richard as an unfit, futile politician who was unable to effectively deal with the group of ambitious politicians surrounding him. Additionally, Palmer assesses the political motivations and performances of Bolingbroke and others, including Gaunt, Mowbray, York, and Aumerle. While York is sometimes dismissed as weak and feeble, some critics have found his role in the play to be significant. Michael F. Kelly (1972) contends that York serves a pivotal role in the thematic and dramatic development of the play. Specifically, Kelly studies York's position as a staunch but intimidated ally of Richard, and York's subsequent transfer of loyalty to Bolingbroke, arguing that York's shift in attitude spurs a similar response within the audience. Like Kelly, James A. Riddell (1979) finds York to be a crucial character in the play in that he serves as a representative of Christian stoicism and magnanimity. In York's dedication to the principles of magnanimity, Riddell asserts, Shakespeare highlights Richard's deficiencies.

For Elizabethan audiences, Richard II was rife with political implications, as it dramatized the conflict between the divinely ordained right of monarchs and the question of the legitimacy of the right to usurp. Robert Ornstein (see Further Reading) explores the appeal of the play's treatment of medieval history to Elizabethan audiences, maintaining that Shakespeare's evocation of this medieval past was not done with political intentions, but simply for artistic pleasure. According to Ornstein, Shakespeare portrayed the complexity of this conflict without offering a solution to the problems associated with political loyalty and disloyalty. Taking another approach to the play's treatment of history and politics, Leeds Barroll (1988) studies the relationship between the play and the Earl of Essex rebellion. Barroll documents the commissioning of a performance of the play just prior to the Essex rebellion (1601), and the subsequent punishments suffered by those involved with the production. In conclusion, Barroll claims that Richard II was not a potentially dangerous piece of political propaganda; rather, the individuals who commissioned the performance and the players performing it were thought to be dangerous and engaged in possibly treasonous actions. Critics have also focused on the ceremonial, formal language of Richard II, and how such language supports the carefully constructed structure of the play. Margaret Shewring (1996) centers her study on the complementary relationship between the play's patterned poetic language and the artfully balanced structure. Shewring explains that in order to achieve this type of focused structure, Shakespeare simplified history as he found it in his sources, omitting much of the factionalism displayed by the nobility.

Like modern critical analyses of Richard II, modern productions also often scrutinize the historical elements of the play, as well as the performances of Richard and Bolingbroke. Ace G. Pilkington (1991) assesses the 1979 BBC production of Richard II, directed by David Giles and staring Derek Jacobi as Richard. Pilkington notes the ways in which the production may have been improved with greater resources, comments on the production's concern with history, and praises the performance of Jacobi. Michael Feingold (1998) reviews the Theatre for a New Audience production directed by Ron Daniels, which was paired with a staging of Richard III. Feingold finds that the production was less than effective due to this pairing. Feingold also reviews a production of the play staged at the Pearl Theatre, directed by Shepard Sobel, noting that it had a better grasp of the play as poetry than did Daniels's production, although Daniels's staging is described as more vivid. Robert L. King (1995) reviews The National Theatre production, directed by Deborah Warner, which cast a woman as Richard. King praises Fiona Shaw's depiction of Richard and also applauds the production's respectful and illuminating take on Shakespeare's text. Charles Isherwood (2000) reviews Ralph Fiennes's performance as Richard in Jonathan Kent's production of Richard II at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Isherwood finds Fiennes's portrayal of Richard to be somewhat silly and pompous.

John Palmer (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: Palmer, John. “Richard of Bordeaux.” In Political Characters of Shakespeare, pp. 118-79. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1961.

[In the following essay, Palmer challenges critics who view Richard II as the tragedy of one man, and explores the fall of Richard as a king and political figure.]

Shakespeare's Richard II is too often read as the tragedy of a private individual. Attention is focused upon Richard's personality and upon elements in his character which would have been just as interesting if he had never been called upon to play the part of a king. We are fascinated by the unfolding of his brilliant, wayward and unstable disposition, his pathetic lapses from bright insolence to grey despair, the facility with which he dramatises his sorrows and takes a wilfully aesthetic pleasure in his own disgrace. The political implications of the play are correspondingly neglected. And this is only natural. In all simplicity—and in essentials no tragedy was ever simpler—Richard II is the story of a sensitive, headstrong, clever, foolish man, graceless in prosperity, in calamity gracious. But this simple story has a setting and the setting is high politics. The fact that Richard is a king not only enhances the pathos of his fall, but sets him in a political environment in which the dramatist is not seldom interested for its own sake.

Men living under Elizabeth would think it strange that anyone should need to insist that Richard II is a political play. To Shakespeare's audience its political significance was immediate and tremendous. It went to the heart of a burning question. Ministers of State wrote letters about it. It was years before the censor of books would allow the most famous of its scenes to be printed. It was played on one occasion as a propaganda piece and became the subject of a state trial. Queen Elizabeth, inspecting the Tower records with William Lambarde at Greenwich, was moved to exclaim: ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’ and to add with displeasure that ‘this tragedy was played forty times in streets and houses.’

We are shortly to concentrate on the political aspects of the play which are significant for all times and places. First, however, it seems necessary to ask why Richard II should have struck Shakespeare's contemporaries so forcibly not merely as a political play, but as by far the most topical political play of the period.

The ordinary Englishman who saw Shakespeare's tragedy in 1595 had lived in peace under a strong Government—and, what is even more important, an incontestably legitimate Government—for over a hundred years. But he still remembered the government of the house of Lancaster, which had been neither strong nor legitimate, and the hideous interim of civil war before Henry of Richmond married Elizabeth of York and provided England with a dynasty acceptable to God and man. In the years following 1595 the whole kingdom was on tenterhooks. Who was to succeed Elizabeth Tudor? The Virgin Queen was as coy of her successor as she had been of the suitors who years before, in despite of the gossips and in the teeth of her physician, might have helped her to solve the problem in the way of nature. Many were called but none was chosen. All that the Englishman held most dear had found a satisfying symbol in the Tudor monarch, ruling by divine right, holding a sacred office, to question whose authority was treason, to trouble whose peace was an impiety. But the Tudor monarch was about to die childless. Was England to fall back into the old disorder, horror, fear and mutiny which had followed the usurpation of Bolingbroke?

Shakespeare chose this moment to write a play in which a legitimate king is deposed and the dreadful consequences of a disputed succession to the crown foretold with eloquence and particularity. This play, moreover, which was topical enough in 1595, when Robert Cecil was invited to witness it at Channon Row, became yet more topical when in 1601 Essex had it ostentatiously performed at the Globe theatre on the eve of his rebellion. This was miching mallecho and meant mischief. There was no treason in the play, as Elizabeth and her Privy Council well knew, but there was undoubted treason in this particular performance. Essex had already cast himself for the part of Bolingbroke and had even gone so far as to accept in 1599 the dedication of a prose history on the reign of Henry IV in which he was addressed in effect as heir apparent to the throne. The prose history was suppressed and the gentleman who procured the performance of Shakespeare's play in 1601 was afterwards hanged. Neither Shakespeare nor his company, however, was molested. Shakespeare was no more responsible for the scandal caused in London by his Richard II in 1601 than for the scandal caused in Paris by his Coriolanus in 1935. He had written in each case a political play recognisably true of any period for the kind of situation and the type of public persons presented. Elizabeth disliked the play and very properly, according to her lights, regarded its performance before a select body of conspirators as a hanging matter. But for once the right persons were hanged—not the author, nor even the players, but certain members of the audience, who thus paid the penalty, which some might consider excessive, for confusing a work of art with a political manifesto.

Apart from the special circumstances which gave a topical interest to the play in the last years of Elizabeth, Shakespeare's Richard was bound to make a very strong appeal to his contemporaries on more general grounds. Richard of Bordeaux had towards the end of the sixteenth century become a legendary figure. His deposition had acquired a mystical significance. For over two centuries he had stood to poets and historians, both in England and in France, for a supreme example of that tragical fall of princes which appealed so strongly to the imagination and conscience of the post-mediaeval world. To the legitimists he was a martyr and his enforced abdication a sacrilege. To the Lancastrians his removal was a necessary act of providence. To all alike he was a tragic symbol of the instability of human fortune. Those who took the mystical view of his fall did not hesitate to compare his passion with that of Christ. Even those who, in deference to the house of Lancaster, affected to regard his deposition as a salutary act of state, were deeply affected by this saddest of all stories of the deaths of kings and tended to regard its protagonists as blind agents of a divine purpose rather than conscious masters of the event. Bolingbroke and Richard, in the Tudor imagination, played their parts as in a mystery, Richard accepting his humiliation as a cup that might not pass away and Bolingbroke, unconscious instrument in bringing about a second fall of man, achieving his triumph as a thing pre-ordained. This sacramental approach to the tragedy, which Shakespeare inherited and to which he gave exquisite humanity in the person of Richard, was an essential element in its contemporary appeal.1

To most of Shakespeare's countrymen this contemporary aspect of the play is still alive. The English, in dealing faithfully with their kings for over a thousand years of history, have contrived to retain a mystical respect for the royal office without in any way forgoing their right of judgment on the royal person. The waters of the rough rude sea of English politics have washed the balm from half a dozen anointed kings without in any way detracting from the consecration of their successors. God save the King—but God help him if his subjects should find him troublesome. When the occasion arises—and it has arisen no less than four times since Richard died at Pomfret—the English people can always be trusted to demonstrate that a sincere reverence for monarchy is compatible with a distinctly uncivil treatment of the monarch. Nothing in fact so signally illustrates the force of English sentiment for royalty than its successful survival of so many royal persons who have left their country for their country's good. The emotions aroused in an Elizabethan by the enacted deposition of a king have outlived two revolutions and the importation of two foreign princes.

The central situation in Shakespeare's play thus retains much of its original appeal. But even if this were not the case, the political interest of the play and its relevance to the public life of our own or of any time would be scarcely affected. For Shakespeare's handling of the sacramental aspect of royalty is only one component of his tragedy. His main purpose is to exhibit in Richard the qualities which unfitted him to rule, to show his exquisite futility in dealing with public affairs, to present a playboy politician coping ineffectually with men seriously intent on the business of getting what they want, to contrast the man of imagination who lives unto himself with men of the world who adapt themselves to the event. A play with such a theme is necessarily a political play. Richard II, for all its lyrical quality, is concerned with public affairs and with the kind of men who in every generation delude themselves into the belief that they are making history. Over against Richard, whose personal disaster touches the heart of the spectator, Shakespeare has set in juxtaposition a group of politicians and an analysis of political events which claim the attention no less forcibly.

With these preliminary observations in mind let us consider for a moment the opening scene of the tragedy.

Henry, surnamed Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and son to John of Gaunt, has publicly accused of high treason no less a person than Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Richard summons them to a hearing. The two men decline to be reconciled and the King is reluctantly obliged to make arrangements for a trial by battle. Such is the bare outline of this short scene of some two hundred lines. It serves its dramatic purpose well enough if we see in it no more than a robustious squabble between two angry noblemen who refuse to be pacified by their sovereign. The essential ingredients of this short scene are crystal clear on the surface—a king who is plainly not master in his own house; two haughty subjects who huff it in the royal presence, professing a reverence for Majesty which nevertheless stops short of obedience; a suggestion that this Richard, who is not sufficiently sure of himself to call his troublesome subjects to order, is quick to see through their assurances of respect; a promise of exciting and turbulent events shortly to follow. Here, surely, is matter enough to fill the first two hundred lines of any play.

But there is more to it than that. Look a little more closely at the political environment into which the dramatist, with his customary abrupt felicity, introduces the hero of his tragedy.

Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of complicity in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. He knows perfectly well, however, that Richard himself is by many held responsible for Gloucester's death. In accusing Mowbray, Bolingbroke is covertly attacking the King's government. He is playing the party game of His Majesty's Opposition, using the gestures of the period. Mowbray, of course, knows what Bolingbroke is driving at. So does everybody else. But nobody would think of admitting it. The real issues are not even mentioned. Bolingbroke, attacking the King, accuses his opponent of treason to the King, Mowbray, who is of the King's party and who, if he did not murder Gloucester himself, was at least an accessory to the crime by negligence, affects to be defending himself against a merely personal charge. All that full-blooded talk by Bolingbroke about the devotion of a subject's love and by Mowbray about his spotless reputation is no more than the impassioned rhetoric of two rival politicians assuming in public the attitudes required of them by the situation. The other persons present are equally aware of the facts, but they, too, are expected to assume that Bolingbroke and Mowbray really mean what they say. These are two loyal gentlemen and their good faith must in decency be accepted. Each of them is lying and everyone present knows that they are lying, but each, according to the rules of the game, must be believed. The scene thus reveals itself on examination to be a notably accurate presentation of a familiar—and indeed typical—situation in public life, in which the outward professions of the persons concerned bear little or no relation to their real purposes and passions.

Mowbray has the better platform manner. It has a certain dignity:

A jewel in a ten-times-barr'd-up chest
Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.
Mine honour is my life; both grow in one;
Take honour from me, and my life is done.

Bolingbroke is less fruitily impassioned, but no less ready to maintain with conviction that his actions are wholly determined by the loftiest motives. He calls on heaven to be the record of his speech. His divine soul is ready to answer in heaven for the truth and justice of his cause.

Shakespeare here presents the normal behaviour of notable persons discussing a political or diplomatic issue in public. The uninstructed onlooker enjoys the quarrel for its own sake. But the spectator who knows that all this high-and-mighty bickering has no more bearing on the facts of the dispute than the mutual recriminations of rival candidates for a parliamentary seat or the notes exchanged between foreign ministers in a time of international crisis, has, in addition to his enjoyment of the superficial cut-and-thrust of the formal encounter, the extra pleasure of understanding what it is all about. He sees through the pretences of the performers to the real subject matter of the performance.

Shakespeare leaves no doubt in the mind of an alert and intelligent spectator as to the facts of the dispute, but he does not rely on the ability of his audience to grasp them at a first performance. He does not, in fact, let us know immediately, if we did not know it before, that Richard was himself implicated in Gloucester's death. He lets that cat out of the bag at a later stage. Shakespeare has the fact well in mind, but it was not essential for him to stress it in the opening scene, where our attention is rightly concentrated on the more superficial aspects of the quarrel and on Richard's manifest inability to quash it. The subtler political implications of the incident are unfolded progressively. Shakespeare was too skilful a dramatist to demand the attention of his audience for more than one important thing at a time.

There is another aspect of this first scene which can only be fully appreciated at a later stage. Its main dramatic purpose is to show Richard facing a political situation with which he is unable to cope successfully. Towards the end of the play we are to see Bolingbroke confronted with a situation precisely similar at all points. We shall then see the usurper dealing promptly and effectively with this mediaeval equivalent of a cabinet crisis. He calls his refractory noblemen to order and successfully handles in five minutes an incident such as had cost Richard his throne.

There is yet another level on which this first simple episode of the play may be appreciated. On the political facts, almost every word uttered by Bolingbroke and Mowbray is a wilful misrepresentation. They nevertheless play their parts with complete conviction and everybody present accepts their posturing as the outcome of a genuine passion for truth and justice. This raises a point which crops up repeatedly in Shakespeare's political plays: how far does he deliberately satirise in his politicians the inconsistency of their professions with their performance? Mowbray is presented as a fine figure of a man and we shall shortly be quoting with admiration some of the moving things he has to say as a patriotic English gentleman. Did Shakespeare intend thereby to emphasise only the more effectively that he was a lamentable impostor?

It is on this third level of appreciation that Shakespeare provides us with surprising examples in many plays of his effortless grasp of the realities of political life. Mowbray and Bolingbroke are not presented as consciously fraudulent persons. They play the game according to the rules of their time and class. Mowbray loves his country, is loyal to the King and entirely convinced of his own honesty. Bolingbroke no less sincerely sees himself as a faithful public servant. He is morally sure of himself and prepared to hazard his life in defence of an honourable cause. Both are equally mistaken in themselves; and the facts, as presented by the dramatist, are not in accord with the pretensions of either party. But no satire is intended. The two men are presented without malice. They are political persons and that is how political persons behave.

The spectator's interest in the scene is naturally concentrated on the part played by Richard himself. The King has little to say, but every word is significant. He promises himself a bad quarter of an hour. The appeal is ‘boisterous’ and the appellants will be difficult to manage:

High-stomach'd are they both, and full of ire,
In rage deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.

He accepts the rules of the game and plays it with dignity. To Mowbray, who asks leave to present his case against a kinsman of the King, Richard gravely rejoins:

Now, by my sceptre's awe I make a vow,
Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him, nor partialise
The unstrooping firmness of my upright soul:
He is our subject, Mowbray; so art thou:
Free speech and fearless I do thee allow.(2)

After listening patiently to the accuser and the accused, he attempts with an assumption of playful good humour to reconcile the parties:

Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed;
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.

He appeals personally to Mowbray:

                                                                                Rage must be withstood:
Give me his gage: lions make leopards tame.
Yea, but not change his spots:

Neither will consent to a peace and Richard finally accepts the inevitable. He closes the proceedings with a set speech in which the formal decencies of a false situation are solemnly maintained:

We were not born to sue, but to command:
Which since we cannot do to make you friends,
Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert's day:
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate:
Since we cannot atone you, we shall see
Justice design the victor's chivalry.

Shakespeare makes it very plain that Richard is fully alive to all the political implications of the situation. In his first words to the contending parties he drily dismisses their professions of respect:

                                                  Many years of happy days befal
My gracious sovereign, my most loving liege!
Each day still better other's happiness;
Until the heavens, envying earth's good hap,
Add an immortal title to your crown!
We thank you both: yet one but flatters us,
As well appeareth by the cause you come;
Namely, to appeal each other of high treason.

The reproof is shrewd and neatly turned. Richard's position requires him to accept the pleadings of the parties. But he is not going to let anyone imagine that he attaches the slightest value to their professions and, in asking Bolingbroke to state his case, he covertly warns his cousin to remember that, in attacking Mowbray, he is sailing dangerously near the wind:

What doth our cousin lay to Mowbray's charge?
It must be great that can inherit us
So much as of a thought of ill in him.

Bolingbroke prefers his charges and concludes with a vigorously complacent picture of himself as appointed by heaven to chastise an injurious villain by whose contriving his uncle Gloucester had sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood:

Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth,
To me for justice and rough chastisement;
And, by the glorious worth of my descent,
This arm shall do it, or this life be spent.

Richard is thereby provoked to a further disclosure of his private mind. Bolingbroke is professing his loyalty, but he is in fact challenging the King's man. In a bitter, penetrating aside Richard exclaims:

How high a pitch his resolution soars!

He already divines in Bolingbroke an ambition which reaches instinctively beyond its immediate purpose, and, in assuring Mowbray that he may fearlessly answer the charges brought against him, Richard puts the predestined usurper in his place with a crushing exactitude:

Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears:
Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom's heir,—
As he is but my father's brother's son—
Now, by my sceptre's awe I make a vow,
Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him.

This king is already showing qualities of mind that put him in a different class from the noble persons surrounding him. He is contemptuous of the game which he is required to play, but plays it becomingly and with a sidelong smile. He may blunder fatally in his handling of persons and events, but there is never any doubt of his intelligence. It is equally clear from the outset that he has the courage of his fitful genius. He sees through these proud, turbulent and practical men of affairs, and he is not afraid to let them know it.

Mowbray's answer to the charges brought against him by Bolingbroke clearly illuminates the harsh political background against which the tragedy of Richard is to be unfolded. Mowbray has been accused of peculation and murder. He admits to having pocketed a quarter of the sum which was earmarked to pay the King's soldiers at Calais, but this, he pleads, was only to recoup himself for expenses incurred on a previous account. Let that pass. On the accusation of murder, he seems unnecessarily candid—until we realise that he is merely stating facts that were common knowledge:

                                                            For Gloucester's death,
I slew him not; but to mine own disgrace
Neglected my sworn duty in that case.
For you, my noble lord of Lancaster,
The honourable father to my foe,
Once did I lay an ambush for your life,
A trespass that doth vex my grievèd soul;
But ere I last receiv'd the sacrament
I did confess it, and exactly begg'd
Your grace's pardon, and I hope I had it.

What could be fairer than that? Mowbray's ingenuous apology is a fair measure of the accepted political standards of the time. He was not guilty of Gloucester's murder, he merely did nothing to prevent it. He had tried to murder Gaunt, but he had apologised to the party concerned and hoped that the incident was closed. It is necessary to keep these facts in mind if we are fairly to judge Richard's less amiable reactions to some of the later speeches and to the conduct in general of his noble kinsmen.

The second scene of the play, which is devoted to a conversation between John of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester, has no other purpose than to underline the political implications of the first. The widowed Duchess urges Gaunt to exact retribution for her husband's death. She belongs to that long line of noble dames used by Shakespeare in his political plays to remind the spectator that there are human, and even moral, considerations which should not be altogether ignored in public life. Gaunt has decided to let the matter rest and, in defending his decision, explicitly insists that Richard himself was a party to the crime:

But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven.
God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death; the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.

The Duchess is unconvinced:

Call it not patience, Gaunt; it is despair:
In suffering thus thy brother to be slaughter'd,
Thou showest the naked pathway to thy life,
Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee:
That which in mean men we intitle patience
Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts.

The political wisdom of the bastard feudalism of fourteenth-century England could not be more lucidly expressed.

The scene between Gaunt and the Duchess, which discloses the political realities of the dispute between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, is followed by the famous scene in which we are invited to enjoy for its own sake the pagentry of the royal lists at Conventry, where these impressive champions, plated in habiliments of war, commit their several causes to heaven and proceed with high solemnity to face the ordeal by battle. It is a gallant show and Shakespeare is too good a dramatist to spoil its effect by insisting unseasonably that it is also, in effect, an amusingly veracious study in the public deportment of men in high places. Richard ceremoniously invites the champions to declare their business. The defendant in armour and the appellant in armour respond according to the protocol. Each professes his truth and nobility of purpose. Each takes a devoted leave of his sovereign. Mowbray still has the better platform manner:

However God or fortune cast my lot,
There lives or dies, true to King Richard's throne,
A loyal, just, and upright gentleman:
Never did captive with a freer heart
Cast off his chains of bondage and embrace
His golden uncontroll'd enfranchisement,
More than my dancing soul doth celebrate
This feast of battle with mine adversary.
Most mighty liege, and my companion peers,
Take from my mouth the wish of happy years.
As gentle and as jocund as to jest,
Go I to fight; truth has a quiet breast.

The more vigilant spectator may detect a subtle difference in Richard's addresses to the two men. Surely there is a touch of irony in his words to Bolingbroke:

Cousin of Hereford, as thy cause is right,
So be thy fortune in this royal fight;

and a touch of affectionate approval in his valediction to Mowbray:

Farewell, my lord; securely I espy
Virtue with valour couchèd in thine eye.

But these are hints to the wary. The simple onlooker is absorbed by the knightly courtesy of it all and is as eager for the fight as the champions themselves.

Then comes the grand surprise. The charge is sounded. But stay, the King has thrown his warder down! Defendant and appellant are bidden to lay aside their spears and Richard withdraws with his council while the champions disarm. Presently he emerges and announces his decision. The King, to save his peace, banishes them both—Bolingbroke for ten years and Mowbray for life:

                                                                                Draw near,
And list what with our council we have done.
For that our kingdom's earth should not be soil'd
With that dear blood which it hath fosterèd;
And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect
Of civil wounds plough'd up with neighbours' swords;
And for we think the eagle-wingèd pride
Of sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts,
With rival-hating envy, set on you
To wake our peace, which in our country's cradle
Draws the sweet infant breath of gentle sleep;
.....Therefore, we banish you our territories.

It is a veritable sensation in court.

It should be noted that the King's decision is no sudden freak of temperament but a considered act of state. Richard is acting with the approval of his council and Gaunt himself is a consenting party to the arrangement. When the old man laments that he may not live to see his banished heir again, Richard pertinently reminds him:

Thy son is banish'd upon good advice,
Whereto thy tongue a party-verdict gave.

Richard's interruption of the ordeal by battle at the eleventh hour has often been cited as evidence of his impulsive disposition. But the scene has a greater and very different significance if we suppose that Richard had decided beforehand to quash the proceedings. For him the whole elaborate to-do, with its heralds and trumpets, solemn appeals to heaven, ceremonious farewells and heroic attitudes, was matter for a May morning. He knows that these doughty champions are inflating themselves to no purpose. The actor playing Richard should watch them with a twinkle, impishly awaiting the moment when he will knock the bottom out of all these political high jinks. There is a merry side to the puerility of Richard, the boy-king who would never grow up. The whole scene is in the nature of a practical joke.

We should like to have been present at the cabinet meeting which found so discreet a remedy for a situation which was as embarrassing for Gaunt, leader of the King's opposition, as for the King, leader of his own government. If Mowbray had killed Bolingbroke, Gaunt would have lost his son. If Bolingbroke had killed Mowbray, the King would have lost a loyal servant. All the sleeping dogs, which it is the whole art of politics to let lie, would in either case have been set barking to the discomfiture of both parties. Shakespeare must have been sorely tempted to show us the King and his ministers discussing at length the real issues of the dispute. But he chose to concentrate upon his grand surprise of the interrupted combat and to fix the interest of his public on the gorgeous preliminaries of the tournament. He preferred to present Mowbray and Bolingbroke to the simple spectator as bona fide champions and to reveal them to the more judicious as figures of fun only at the eleventh hour.

The dramatist, in the final result, has it both ways—the tournament for what it is worth and, for those who look below the surface, the political comedy as well. It is the reward of an artist who sees things as they are that his rounded achievement defies all the categories. It can be enjoyed as a true and faithful presentment of men and things, as an emotional experience and as an act of judgment. The general effect is a combination of all three.

Shakespeare, having sprung his grand surprise on the audience in the lists at Coventry, instinctively refrains from bringing his champions to earth. From silver trumpets to brass tacks would have been too steep a fall. Bolingbroke and Mowbray maintain their heraldic attitudes to the last. Mowbray in particular is permitted to make a dignified and sincerely affecting retirement from public life:

The language I have learn'd these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo:
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringèd viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now:
What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

He is to the last a faithful subject. He had every right to protest that his sentence was unjust. Richard would undoubtedly have preferred to banish Bolingbroke for life and Mowbray for ten years. But he had been obliged to secure Gaunt's consent to the arrangement and Mowbray had to be sacrificed to the opposition. Mowbray understands and accepts the situation. He cannot explicitly defend himself without exposing the King to further embarrassment. He submits loyally to the decision, though he cannot refrain from suggesting that it was unmerited:

A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,
And all unlook'd for from your highness' mouth:
A dearer merit, not so deep a maim
As to be cast forth in the common air,
Have I deservèd at your highness' hands.

Bolingbroke presses his case to the end:

Confess thy treasons ere thou fly the realm;
Since thou hast far to go, bear not along
The clogging burthen of a guilty soul.

But Mowbray is not to be pricked, even at this bitter moment, into making things difficult for his master and confines himself to warning Richard against his enemy:

No, Bolingbroke, if ever I were traitor,
My name be blotted from the book of life,
And I from heaven banish'd as from hence!
But what thou art, God, thou, and I do know;
And all too soon, I fear, the king shall rue.

One cannot help reflecting that, if Richard, for his time of need, had retained by his side so devoted a servant as Thomas Mowbray, Bolingbroke would less easily have compassed his designs.3

Bolingbroke's manner of accepting the King's award is highly characteristic. He persists, as we have just noted, in re-affirming the justice of his cause and receives his sentence with a forced humility in which there lurks an element of sly defiance:

Your will be done: this must my comfort be,
That sun that warms you here shall shine on me;
And those his golden beams to you here lent
Shall point on me and gild my banishment.

You will look in vain, however, for any suggestion that Bolingbroke yet aims higher than a subject should. Richard is alive to his ambition; Mowbray warns the King that he is dangerous. But Bolingbroke gives no sign of his purpose—and for an excellent reason. He is that most dangerous of all climbing politicians, the man who will go further than his rivals because he never allows himself to know where he is going. Every step in his progress towards the throne is dictated by circumstances and he never permits himself to have a purpose till it is more than half fulfilled. From first to last his friends and enemies alike are always more clearly aware of his intentions than the man himself.

This is especially true of Richard, who divines in Bolingbroke the secret, unsleeping treachery of one who plays instinctively for his own hand. Richard's distrust is covertly conveyed in the present scene by his suddenly requiring both parties to swear upon his royal sword that they will not conspire against him in exile. The admonition, administered to Mowbray as well as to Bolingbroke, is in fact addressed to Bolingbroke alone:

You never shall, so help you truth and God!
Embrace each other's love in banishment;
Nor never look upon each other's face;
Nor never write, regreet, nor reconcile
This louring tempest of your home-bred hate:
Nor never by advisèd purpose meet
To plot, contrive, or complot any ill
'Gainst us, our state, our subjects, or our land.

Bolingbroke swears the oath and Richard appears to be satisfied. He even indulges his essential good nature by remitting four years of Bolingbroke's sentence out of consideration for the sorrowing Gaunt. Bolingbroke's comment on Richard's mercy is to observe how fine a thing it is to be an absolute monarch:

How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of kings.

Bolingbroke maintains his enigmatic silence even after Richard has departed. His friends press round him with expressions of condolence, but he is not to be drawn into speech. Gaunt is moved to protest against his almost inhuman reticence:

O! to what purpose dost thou hoard thy words,
That thou return'st no greeting to thy friends?

Bolingbroke's answer is to play for sympathy as an unhappy man condemned to exile. Gaunt is thereby diverted into uttering words of comfort, exquisitely moving but addressed, we feel, to the wrong person:

All places that the eye of heaven visits
Are to a wise man ports and happy havens.
Teach thy necessity to reason thus;
There is no virtue like necessity.
Suppose the singing birds musicians,
The grass whereon thou tread'st the presence strew'd,
The flowers fair ladies, and thy steps no more
Than a delightful measure or a dance.

It is difficult to imagine Bolingbroke consoling himself with the accents of divine philosophy or to picture him as taking any pleasure in singing-birds. He quits the stage on a political peroration:

Where'er I wander, boast of this I can,
Though banish'd, yet a trueborn Englishman.

So for a moment we take leave of Henry, surnamed Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and son to John of Gaunt. During his temporary absence from the scene let us look a little more closely into his character and place in the tragedy.

There are two apparently opposite views of Bolingbroke's conduct in this first of the three plays in which he figures. But the opposition is superficial and it disappears as we begin to grasp his fundamental qualities. Coleridge, significantly enough, puts forward now one and now the other, without seeming to be in any way aware of their inconsistency.

Critics who keep exclusively to the first view describe Bolingbroke as a long-headed conspirator, consciously bent on obtaining the crown from the outset, concealing a fixed purpose under a show of false humility, deliberately advancing step by step to the achievement of his purpose. Coleridge, when he writes of the ‘preconcertedness of Bolingbroke's scheme’ and the ‘decorous and courtly checking of his anger in subservience to a predetermined plan’ appears to favour this interpretation. Hazlitt, too, comes very near it when he describes Bolingbroke as ‘seeing his advantage afar-off, but only seizing on it when he has it within his reach, humble, crafty, bold and aspiring, encroaching by regular but slow degrees.’

Critics who whole-heartedly espouse the second view see in Bolingbroke a man who, in the words of Dr. Dover Wilson, ‘appears to be borne upward by a power beyond his volition.’ According to this reading of the character there is no premeditation in the conduct of Bolingbroke, no indication of a deep design. He takes in Shakespeare's tragedy the part assigned to him in the chronicles which saw in the deposition of Richard something more than a story of successful ambition at the expense of an unsuccessful king. It is a view of Bolingbroke in relation to Richard which comes from Holinshed himself, who wrote: ‘In this dejecting of the one and advancing of the other, the providence of God is to be respected and his secret will to be wondered at.’

Shakespeare has created in Bolingbroke a character which fits perfectly into this mystical view of the tragedy, but which can at the same time be enjoyed as faithfully portraying a political opportunist in almost any period or environment. Shakespeare's Bolingbroke, in following his fortune, instinctively adapts himself to the moment. His intentions remain obscure, even to himself, till they are in effect fulfilled. He thus conveys the impression that he is just as much the victim of necessity as master of the event, and Coleridge, who diagnoses premediation, can without essentially contradicting himself also describe him as ‘scarcely daring to look at his own views or to acknowledge them as designs.’

For confirmation of a reading in which instinctive premediation is reconciled with an equally instinctive yielding to circumstance we have the final word of Bolingbroke himself. It is the word of a dying king. He looks back over the troubled years of his reign and, though pregnantly conscious of the ‘indirect crook'd ways, whereby he had achieved the crown, he nevertheless meditates on the blindness with which he once pursued his infant fortune, and he goes on to state explicitly that he had acted throughout undesignedly, as a man thrust on by force of circumstance:

Though then, God knows, I had no such intent,
But that necessity so bowed the state
That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss.(4)

The noblemen who assisted Bolingbroke to win the crown also take this view. More than once, telling the story in retrospect, they comment on the way in which circumstances conspired to smooth his way to the throne, so that at the last he only needed to accept what destiny had thrust into his hands. Worcester, for example, meeting the King years later at Shrewsbury, describes the whole process as it struck the men who had contributed to the event:

                                                            You swore to us,
And you did swear that oath at Doncaster,
That you did nothing purpose 'gainst the state;
Nor claim no further than your new-fall'n right,
The seat of Gaunt, dukedom of Lancaster:
To this we swore our aid. But in short space
It rain'd down fortune, showering on your head;
And such a flood of greatness fell on you,
What with our help, what with the absent king,
What with the injuries of a wanton time,
The seeming sufferances that you had borne,
And the contrarious winds that held the king
So long in his unlucky Irish wars,
That all in England did repute him dead:
And from this swarm of fair advantages
You took occasion to be quickly woo'd
To grip the general sway into your hand.

This reading of Bolingbroke is consistent with all that we have yet seen of him in the first Act of Richard II. It will become even more explicit as we follow him through the play.

It is Shakespeare's way to concentrate on one thing at a time. The stage is now clear for a firm handling of the political issues which lay behind the King's sentence of exile.5 The hints already conveyed that Richard divines the character and intentions of Bolingbroke more clearly than Bolingbroke himself now blossom into direct and vivid statement. Richard, King by divine right, has noted in his rival the arts whereby a man may aspire to rule by popular favour. He has observed Bolingbroke's courtship of the common people:

How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy.
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With ‘Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends’;
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope.

Unfortunately Richard's perceptions have little relation to his conduct. Bolingbroke is dangerous, but Richard, in the Elizabethan sense, is secure. He anatomises in Bolingbroke the qualities that crave wary walking, but carelessly embarks upon a career which is to cost him his life and crown. The Irish are in rebellion. He will cross the sea in person to suppress them, leaving his kingdom open to invasion and his subjects to foot the bill:

We will ourself in person to this war:
And, for our coffers with too great a court
And liberal largess are grown somewhat light,
We are enforced to farm our royal realm;
The revenue whereof shall furnish us
For our affairs in hand: if that come short,
Our substitutes at home shall have blank charters;
Whereto, when they shall know what men are rich,
They shall subscribe them for large sums of gold,
And send them after to supply our wants.

This is bad enough, but worse is to follow. News is brought that John of Gaunt is sick. Richard blithely embraces the occasion:

Now put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!

Richard's treatment of the dying Gaunt is one of the prime causes of his downfall. It is also the least amiable episode of his career. Shakespeare, writing the famous scene in which Gaunt with his dying breath celebrates the glories of England, tarnished by an unworthy king, seems deliberately bent on setting us against his hero. Why this exaltation of Gaunt at Richard's expense? No character in Shakespeare has a finer end. The prologue is rich in promise:

O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony.
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last;

and the promise is nobly fulfilled in lines quoted by generations of Englishmen, that can never be worn threadbare:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out,—I die pronouncing it,—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

For this prophet, new-inspired, Richard has neither respect nor mercy. Clearly he is deeply moved by the speech, but that only makes him all the more savage in retort. He rounds on the sick man in a flash of temper:

And thou a lunatic lean-witted fool,
Presuming on an ague's privilege,
Dar'st with thy frozen admonition
Make pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood
With fury from his native residence.
Now, by my seat's right royal majesty,
Wert thou not brother to great Edward's son,
This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head
Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.

It may be urged in extenuation that Richard had small reason to spare the father of Bolingbroke. When York protests:

I do beseech your majesty, impute his words
To wayward sickliness and age in him:
He loves you, on my life, and holds you dear
As Harry, Duke of Hereford, were he here:

Richard retorts with a touch of shrill hysteria:

Right, you say true: as Hereford's love, so his;
As theirs, so mine; and all be as it is.

There is, however, neither haste nor temper to excuse his reception of the news, a minute or so later, that Gaunt is dead. His comment is touched with feeling for the common lot of man:

The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that;

but there is no yielding on the personal issue. Gaunt is dead. So much for that—and Richard at once announces that he will seize his uncle's plate, coin and revenues.

Critics who insist that Shakespeare has an ethical purpose in his tragedies tend to regard this scene, in which Richard shows us the worst of his character, as a deliberate preparation for the retribution which is to follow. But the world in which Shakespeare's characters move is not a moral gymnasium. It is a world in which men and women reveal their hearts and minds, engage our sympathy and evoke our perpetual wonder at the intricate working of simple or subtle souls. The dramatist, in this present instance, while he uncompromisingly exposes the flaws in Richard's character which lie at the heart of his tragic failure, is not bringing him to judgment, but presenting him with a compassionate understanding of his frailty. Richard does not forfeit our sympathy. We feel that his rash, fierce blaze of riot cannot last and this mitigates our censure. Nor is his conduct altogether unjustified. Richard saw in this Galahad of the sceptred isle a political enemy masquerading as a patriot, a cantankerous nobleman whose son had already made mischief in the land and was to make more. Richard's behaviour, heartless and unseasonable enough in all conscience, is that of a spoiled child of fortune, as he then was, resenting a rebuke peculiarly exasperating in that it was, in the specific instance, deserved but, from such a man, misplaced.

The question still remains: why does Shakespeare weight the scales so heavily against Richard in this scene? Why give to Gaunt, at the very moment when Richard is to behave so badly, the finest speech in the play? Why did Shakespeare permit himself an outburst of lyrical ecstasy whereby he risked putting his hero irretrievably in the shade and thus killing his play dead in the first Act?

The answer is to be found in the mood and structure of the tragedy. Gaunt, in his dying speech, is but one of many voices to which a single tune is given: the voice of Mowbray, mourning his exile from England; the voice of Gaunt, declaring his love of England; the voice of Richard, saluting with his hand the dear earth of England. To all these voices is given in turn the chorus-theme which serves as background to the political figures of the story. In every one of Shakespeare's political plays we feel the constant presence of a country and a people. In Richard II it assumes a lyrical form, flowering through the texture of the verse on all possible occasions. Shakespeare, coming to Gaunt on his deathbed, saw a magnificent opportunity and seized it without misgiving. He was confident, if he gave the matter a conscious thought, that our sympathy with Richard would survive this splendid interlude and he even contrived that it should reveal the character of his hero to better effect than the more cautious approach which common prudence would have dictated to a journeyman playwright.

The political implications of Richard's decision to seize his uncle's property have now to be considered. But here we must pause to make the acquaintance of a new character, the most important person in the play after Richard and Bolingbroke, and one of the most interesting in the whole gallery of Shakespeare's political portraits.

Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, belongs to a type of politician which has made more English history in the bulk than any other. He is a public figure not from choice but by nativity. Shakespeare found him in the chronicles in the shape of a man who loved hunting and good cheer and avoided the council chamber—just the kind of person, in fact, to provide a contrast in temperament with Richard and in ability with Bolingbroke. York has no refinement of understanding and no political ambition. He is a sturdy, honest, well-meaning man, prompt with sensible advice but easily flustered, shrewd enough to see what's coming but not clever or resolute enough to prevent it. He stands for the average gentleman amateur in public life, as true to his friends and as firm in his principles as the times allow. Normally he makes the best of a bad business—which is usually not so bad after all, either for himself or for the nation. Such men are loyal to a government as long as it has legal or traditional status and the means to enforce it. With every appearance of probity and devotion—by no means wholly assumed—they contrive to find themselves in the long run sturdily swimming with the tide. These men of moderate intelligence and average sensibility are normally the backbone of the English political system. Every now and then a member of this class, of more outstanding ability than the rest, will step forward from the ranks when it becomes necessary to direct the allegiance of a party, a government or a people to new fountains of authority. English history has two illustrious examples of the type in James Monk, who served the Commonwealth till it was time to bring King Charles back to Whitehall, and in John Churchill, who served King James till it was time to call King William from The Hague. The politician who saves his country by turning his coat is God's most precious gift to a people which prefers a change of government to a revolution.

Such a person is Shakespeare's Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. He stays with Richard till Richard can no longer usefully be served and he serves Bolingbroke with an equally good conscience as soon as Bolingbroke has successfully assumed the crown. He needs careful watching, for Shakespeare fits him so smoothly into the pattern of the play that his importance is apt to be overlooked. We discover him, upon his first effective appearance, urging Gaunt not to waste breath in admonishing his wilful nephew:

Direct not him whose way himself will choose.

This very sound advice comes at the conclusion of a speech engagingly appropriate in the mouth of so representative an Englishman. Richard, York contends, is too full of foreign notions. The royal ear is no longer open to wholesome English counsel:

No; it is stopp'd with other flattering sounds,
As praises, of whose taste the wise are fond,
Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound
The open ear of youth doth always listen,
Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy apish nation
Limps after in base imitation:
Where doth the world thrust forth a vanity—
So it be new, there's no respect how vile—
That is not quickly buzz'd into his ears?
Then all too late comes counsel to be heard.

But nobody ever listens to York. Gaunt rejects his warning and, when Gaunt is dead and his property attached, Richard pays no attention to his uncle's protests. York wisely insists that, if the King of England, ruling by right of birth and the feudal law, deprives Bolingbroke of his succession to the estates of his father, he will be destroying not only his own title to the crown but everybody's title to anything at all. The barons of England hold their stake in the country by primogeniture:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights,
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposèd hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.

York speaks like a true conservative in defence of the traditional rights of property. It cuts him to the heart that his sovereign, apex of the feudal pyramid, should have such small respect for the broad base on which it rests. He might have added that Richard, in seizing the estates of Bolingbroke, was providing his enemy with an excellent pretext for unlawfully returning to England to claim a lawful inheritance.

Richard's answer has the urchin brevity and wilfulness which characterise all his acts of sovereignty:

Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.

York departs, shaking his wise old head. If Richard is determined to ruin himself, he can only wash his hands of the business: ‘I'll not be by the while.’

York, however, is not permitted to escape into private life. Richard sends off messengers to effect the seizure of Gaunt's property and announces that to-morrow he will sail for Ireland. What follows is almost a stroke of humour in a play that but rarely invites a smile:

And we create, in absence of ourself,
Our uncle York lord governor of England;
For he is just and always loved us well.

York has just scolded Richard roundly, proffered him advice which has been discourteously rejected and retired with ominous allusions to what must come of the ‘bad courses’ of his nephew. All this has passed clean over Richard's head. York is his uncle and York shall therefore act as his regent. Richard is quick to utter more than his mind on all occasions and, as is common with free speakers, he attaches little or no importance to what anybody else may say. He is in no way disconcerted by his uncle's reproaches and abrupt retirement. For he is just and always loved us well.

The argument urged upon Richard by York is picked up immediately by the Lords Willoughby, Ross and Northumberland as soon as Richard leaves the stage. Our lives, our children and our heirs are threatened, exclaims Northumberland. But he knows of eight tall ships, well furnished by the Duke of Brittany, which are waiting to bring over Bolingbroke and his friends. Here, then, is a means of making things secure for themselves and of serving the nation:

If then we shall shake off our slavish yoke,
Imp out our drooping country's broken wing,
Redeem from broking pawn the blemish'd crown,
Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre's gilt
And make high majesty look like itself,
Away with me in post to Ravenspurgh.

This is the first effective appearance of a character whose fortunes Shakespeare is to follow through three successive plays. Northumberland, the man who helps to put Bolingbroke on the throne and who afterwards does his best to unseat him, is a man in whom disloyalty is almost a matter of principle. He lives in perpetual discontent with himself, his friends and the world at large. He abandons every cause as soon as he has persuaded his colleagues to take it up. He has thoroughly mastered the art of identifying his private interests and temperamental grudges with a zeal for the public welfare and he performs this act of identification so easily that it needs a wary eye to take and keep the measure of his suave iniquity. He is the sort of political leader who starts a rebellion and leaves his partners to face the consequences. He will take to his bed when his son is fighting at Shrewsbury and steal across the border into Scotland when his friends are marching south to meet his enemies. He is Shakespeare's presentation, valid for any generation, of the malcontent without a cause, the rebel without a conviction. To-day he speaks boldly for the Opposition and abstains from voting against the Government.

The report that Bolingbroke has landed at Ravenspurgh comes to London simultaneously with the news that Northumberland and his party have absconded. York, Richard being by this time away in Ireland, receives the news in a fluster. The nobles are fled. The commons are cold. The coffers are empty. Posts must be sent to the King. Arms must be collected and men mustered.

                                                                                          If I know
How or which way to order these affairs,
Thus thrust disorderly into my hands,
Never believe me. Both are my kinsmen:
The one is my sovereign, whom both my oath
And duty bids defend; the other again
Is my kinsman, whom the king hath wrong'd,
Whom conscience and my kindred bids to right.
Well, somewhat we must do.

York is as distracted in conscience as in counsel. His bewilderment is admirably conveyed. The very verse is disjointed and breathless as the old man turns this way and that. Note the touching futility of the abrupt, disconnected order to his servant:

Go, fellow, get thee home, provide some carts
And bring away the armour that is there.

It is a masterly little scene and serves, better than pages of explicit commentary on Richard's fecklessness, to expose the levity with which the King has left his kingdom unprovided.

Meanwhile Northumberland is meeting Bolingbroke at Ravenspurgh. Their first colloquy is a model of political deportment as between masters of the game. Evidently Bolingbroke has not been sparing of his charm and Northumberland, as they come upon the scene in the wilds near Berkeley Castle, repays him in kind:

I am a stranger here in Gloucestershire:
These high wild hills and rough uneven ways
Draw out our miles, and make them wearisome;
And yet your fair discourse hath been as sugar,
Making the hard way sweet and delectable;

and Bolingbroke returns:

Of much less value is my company
Than your good words.

To them enters Harry Percy, who in years to come will aptly remember this first meeting with Bolingbroke. It is for all present an occasion big with consequence and the use to be made of it by Shakespeare in two histories as yet unwritten affords a remarkable instance of the continuity with which he follows his political characters from play to play. Harry Percy, Bolingbroke and Northumberland, firmly rooted already in his imagination, though they may grow and put forth the shoots proper to their growth, can never change their essential quality.

Northumberland introduces his son:

Have you forgot the Duke of Hereford, boy?
No, my good lord; for that is not forgot
Which ne'er I did remember: to my knowledge
I never in my life did look on him.
Then learn to know him now: this is the duke.
My gracious lord, I tender you my service,
Such as it is, being tender, raw and young,
Which elder days shall ripen and confirm
To more approvèd service and desert.
I thank thee, gentle Percy; and be sure
I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends;
And as my fortune ripens with thy love,
It shall be still thy true love's recompense:
My heart this covenant makes, my hand thus seals it.

The Lords Ross and Willoughby are then presented. Percy stands apart and, if the actor knows his business, will seem a trifle impatient of these civilities:

Welcome, my lords. I wot your love pursues
A banish'd traitor; all my treasury
Is yet but unfelt thanks, which, more enrich'd,
Shall be your love and labour's recompense.
Your presence makes us rich, most noble lord.
And far surmounts our labour to attain it.
Evermore thanks, the exchequer of the poor;
Which, till my infant fortune comes to years,
Stands for my bounty.

The scene is well enough in itself, however carelessly we read. But observe how already it hints at a significance for all concerned which only a distant sequel will in the fullness of time reveal. Harry Hotspur describes this very incident years later in terms which show that, tender, raw and young as he may have been at the time, he has already taken the measure of Bolingbroke's ingratiating ways. Hotspur has a natural dislike of humbug and a keen flair for its presence. Forestalling four years of troubled history, let him speak for himself:

Why, what a candy deal of courtesy
This fawning greyhound then did proffer me!
Look, ‘when his infant fortune came to age’,
And ‘gentle Harry Percy’, and ‘kind cousin’;
O, the devil take such cozeners!

Hotspur almost remembers the very words of Bolingbroke—almost, but not quite perfectly, as is only natural.6

The short scene which follows the meeting between Bolingbroke and the absconded peers provides us with a further example of Shakespeare's sureness of touch in the handling of a political situation.

York has come to meet the rebel lords as the King's regent. Bolingbroke respects his loyalty. He does not attempt to force the issue, but with consummate skill he so conducts the interview that York first finds himself committed to neutrality and subsequently drawn into an ambiguous acceptance of the usurper. Bolingbroke does not ask for his support, but York, before he knows it, is being gently urged in the direction of acting as intermediary in procuring Richard's voluntary abdication.

When Bolingbroke kneels to his uncle, York bluntly challenges his false obeisance:

Show me thy humble heart, and not thy knee,
Whose duty is deceivable and false.
My gracious uncle—
                                                                                                    Tut, tut!
Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle:
I am no traitor's uncle; and that word ‘grace’
In an ungracious mouth is but profane.
Why have those banish'd and forbidden legs
Dar'd once to touch a dust of England's ground?
Com'st thou because the anointed king is hence?
Why foolish boy, the king is left behind,
And in my loyal bosom lies his power.

But Bolingbroke has taken the measure of this honest champion of things as they are—or ought to be. He strikes instantly at the weak joint in his uncle's armour. He was banished as Hereford. He returns to claim his rights as Lancaster:

Will you permit that I shall stand condemn'd
A wandering vagabond; my rights and royalties
Pluck'd from my arms perforce and given away
To upstart unthrifts? Wherefore was I born?
If that my cousin king be King of England,
It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster.
                                                                                                                                  I am a subject,
And challenge law: attorneys are denied me,
And therefore personally I lay my claim
To my inheritance of free descent.

This is too much for a feudal prince who, as Bolingbroke reminds him, has also a son who looks to inherit his father's lands. York will not admit that Bolingbroke is in the right, but cannot deny that he has a grievance. The rebel lords are prompt with assurances that Lancaster has come only to claim his lawful dues and York throws in his hand:

Well, well, I see the issue of these arms:
I cannot mend it, I must needs confess,
Because my power is weak and all ill left;
But if I could, by Him that gave me life,
I would attach you all and make you stoop
Unto the sovereign mercy of the king;
But since I cannot, be it known to you
I do remain as neuter.

Bolingbroke at once presses his advantage:

But we must win your grace to go with us
To Bristol castle, which they say is held
By Bushy, Bagot and their complices,
The caterpillars of the commonwealth,
Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.
It may be I'll go with you: but yet I'll pause;
For I am loath to break our country's laws.

Thus York, the champion of lawful authority, is drawn into the camp of the usurper and becomes his intermediary with Richard. He goes to Bristol; he is present at the condemnation to death of the caterpillars of the commonwealth, thus condoning what is in effect an act of sovereignty on the part of Bolingbroke; and, before Richard has set foot in his kingdom, he is sending letters to Richard's queen on Bolingbroke's behalf.

Shakespeare, having dealt faithfully with the political issues of his play in the foregoing scenes, now fixes our attention on the absorbing spectacle of a gifted, sensitive and undisciplined character exposed to the high tension of a tragic destiny. Politics, for a while, fall into the background. The reactions of Bolingbroke, York and Northumberland are still worth watching; there is always an interest in observing how public persons demean themselves in the presence of emotions which exceed their comprehension or experience. But the mood of the play changes abruptly at this point. Richard enters upon the coast of Wales; drums and a flourish of trumpets die away into silence; history pauses and tragedy takes the stage.7

Richard himself establishes the change of key:

                                                                      I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs:
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So, weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favour with my royal hands.
Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense;
But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom,
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet
Which with usurping steps do trample thee:
Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies;
And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign's enemies.

It should be borne in mind that the speaker of these lyric numbers has just landed on the shores of his kingdom. He is confronted with a political situation which calls for immediate action. But Richard has no mind or will to spare for the business in hand. He has started upon that dramatisation of himself as a tragic figure which will be henceforth the dominant theme of the play. Narcissus is already absorbed in the contemplation of his royal image. From that nothing will turn him aside. Looking round on his followers, he notes their astonishment that he should be thus wasting the precious hours:

Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords,

he exclaims and starts off again in full career:

This earth shall have a feeling and these stones
Prove armèd soldiers, ere her native king
Shall falter under foul rebellion's arms.

The Bishop of Carlisle respectfully reminds his sovereign that God preferably helps those who help themselves:

The means that heaven yields must be embraced,
And not neglected; else, if heaven would,
And we will not, heaven's offer we refuse,
The proffer'd means of succour and redress.

Aumerle is more explicit:

He means, my lord, that we are too remiss;
Whilst Bolingbroke, through our security,
Grows strong and great in substance and in friends.

But Richard's mind and fancy are otherwise engaged:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press'd
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel.

This is Shakespeare's first direct tribute to the sacramental tradition which for his contemporaries was part of the legend that had grown round Richard's deposition. Richard, in his reference to a legion of angels on which he can call for his defence, suggests an analogy between the passion which he is called upon to suffer, and from which he makes no real effort to escape, and that of Christ. These references will become more explicit as the tragedy proceeds.

Bad news now comes by every post. Salisbury reports that the Welshmen who were to have supported Richard are dispersed and fled. Scroop enters. His face promises more evil tidings. All is grist to the mill of Richard's self-centred artistry:

Mine ear is open and my heart prepared:
The worst is worldly loss thou canst unfold.
Say, is my kingdom lost? why, 'twas my care;
And what loss is it to be rid of care?
Strives Bolingbroke to be as great as we?
Greater he shall not be; if he serve God,
We'll serve Him too, and be his fellow so;
Revolt our subjects? that we cannot mend;
They break their faith to God as well as us:
Cry woe, destruction, ruin and decay;
The worst is death, and death will have his day.

Scroop tells his lamentable tale. Bolingbroke has a mighty following; the whole kingdom is in arms against the crown. Where, then, asks Richard, are the men of my party? Where is Bagot? What is become of Bushy? Where is Green? Have they, too, made peace with Bolingbroke? Mark what follows:

Peace have they made with him indeed, my lord.
O villains, vipers, damn'd without redemption!
Dogs, easily won to fawn on any man!
Snakes, in my heart-blood warm'd, that sting my heart!
Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas!
Would they make peace? terrible hell make war
Upon their spotted souls for this offence!
Sweet love, I see, changing his property,
Turns to the sourest and most deadly hate.
Again uncurse their souls; their peace is made
With heads, and not with hands: those whom you curse
Have felt the worst of death's destroying wound
And lie full low, graved in the hollow ground.

Richard's vehement cursing of his friends upon an ambiguous report of their behaviour has often been quoted by critics as an instance of the unstable impetuosity of his character. It is even more significant as revealing in Richard a self-absorption so complete that he cannot properly attend to what is being said. No one could possibly have mistaken the meaning of Scroop's ‘Peace have they made with him, indeed, my lord’ unless he were wholly self-engrossed, or could have failed to receive the news of the death of his hapless followers without some word of regret. But Richard hasn't a syllable or a thought to spare for Bushy or for Bagot. The announcement of their summary execution by Bolingbroke is just another fillip to his climbing sorrow:

Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

He sees himself walking in a long procession of kings born to illustrate the tragical fall of princes, who are set on high but who in the end must live with bread, feel want, taste grief, need friends and refuse to be mocked with solemn reverence:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and humour'd thus
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

The Bishop of Carlisle again ventures a rebuke:

My lord, wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes
But presently prevent the ways to wail.

Richard, for a moment, condescends to business. His uncle York has an army. Where is he to be found? Scroop informs him that York has abandoned the field. Richard's cup is now full. There is nothing left to mar the luxury of his grief:

Beshrew thee, cousin, which didst lead me forth
Of that sweet way I was in to despair!
What say you now? what comfort have we now?
By heaven, I'll hate him everlastingly
That bids me be of comfort any more.

Richard discharges his army and takes refuge in Flint Castle. Thither marches Bolingbroke with York and Northumberland in attendance. York is still loyal to Richard in spirit. Bolingbroke has as yet no formal right to his allegiance. Nor has Bolingbroke laid claim to it. He still entertains the wilful stillness of the man who waits upon his fortune. But Northumberland knows what Bolingbroke will do before Bolingbroke has confessed it even to himself. York knows it, too. There is a characteristic passage between them in which Bolingbroke contrives to remain graciously neutral:

The news is very fair and good, my lord:
Richard not far from hence hath hid his head.
It would beseem the Lord Northumberland
To say ‘King Richard’: alack the heavy day
When such a sacred king should hide his head!
Your grace mistakes me; only to be brief,
Left I his title out.
                                                                                The time hath been,
Would you have been so brief with him, he would
Have been so brief with you, to shorten you,
For taking so the head, your whole head's length.
Mistake not, uncle, further than you should.
Take not, good cousin, further than you should,
Lest you mistake the heavens are o'er our heads.
I know it, uncle, and oppose not myself
Against their will.

Bolingbroke's message to Richard is a masterpiece of political statement. He comes in all submission, but with an army which he ostentatiously parades before the walls. He comes with a humble request, but, if the request be not granted, he will enforce it at the point of the sword. Let Richard rage in fire, Bolingbroke will weep his waters on the earth:

Henry Bolingbroke
On both his knees doth kiss King Richard's hand
And sends allegiance and true faith of heart
To his most royal person; hither come
Even at his feet to lay my arms and power,
Provided that my banishment repeal'd
And lands restored again be freely granted:
If not, I'll use the advantage of my power
And lay the summer's dust with showers of blood
Rain'd from the wounds of slaughter'd Englishmen:
The which, how far off from the mind of Bolingbroke
It is such crimson tempest should bedrench
The fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land,
My stooping duty tenderly shall show.

This is the cue for Richard to resume the stature of a king. York, looking up to the battlements, comments on his royal appearance and yearns to think on what must follow:

Yet looks he like a king: behold, his eye,
As bright as is the eagle's, lightens forth
Controlling majesty: alack, alack, for woe,
That any harm should stain so fair a show!

Northumberland stands forth to deliver Bolingbroke's message. Richard checks him with a superb gesture:

We are amazed; and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
If we be not, show us the hand of God
That hath dismiss'd us from our stewardship;
And though you think that all, as you have done,
Have torn their souls by turning them from us,
And we are barren and bereft of friends;
Yet know, my master, God omnipotent
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,
That lift your vassal hands against my head
And threat the glory of my precious crown.

Northumberland delivers his master's message, concluding with a solemn oath:

His coming hither hath no further scope
Than for his lineal royalties and to beg
Enfranchisement immediate on his knees:
Which on thy royal party granted once,
His glittering arms he will commend to rust,
His barbèd steeds to stables, and his heart
To faithful service of your majesty.
This swears he, as he is a prince, is just;
And, as I am a gentleman, I credit him.

To which Richard very civilly replies:

Northumberland, say thus the king returns:
His noble cousin is right welcome hither;
And all the number of his fair demands
Shall be accomplish'd without contradiction:
With all the gracious utterance thou hast
Speak to his gentle hearing kind commends.

But the strain of royally maintaining a false show of courtesy is too great. He turns to Aumerle. Has he not debased himself in speaking the traitor fair? Should he not rather defy his enemy? Aumerle counsels prudence. Fight the intruder with gentle words till time brings friends and forces with which to meet him on a more equal footing. Richard, no longer a king who weighs advice, but a man whose pride has been wounded to the quick, cries out:

O God! O God! that e'er this tongue of mine,
That laid the sentence of dread banishment
On you proud man, should take it off again
With words of sooth! O that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!

Northumberland brings back an answer from Bolingbroke, but Richard cannot wait to receive it. He is again the man of sorrows and has thrown his dignity to the winds:

What must the king do now? must he submit?
The king shall do it: must he be deposed?
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o' God's name, let it go:
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer's walking-staff,
My subjects for a pair of carvèd saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave;
Or I'll be buried in the king's highway,
Some way of common trade, where subjects' feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign's head.

He grows more exquisitely fanciful as self-pity entices him from one conceit to another. He scatters himself, as Coleridge expresses it, into a multitude of images and endeavours to shelter himself from that which is around him by a cloud of his own thoughts. He finds Aumerle, his tender-hearted cousin, weeping beside him and brings him into the picture:

Or shall we play the wanton with our woes,
And make some pretty match with shedding tears?
As thus, to drop them still upon one place,
Till they have fretted us a pair of graves
Within the earth; and, therein laid,—there lies
Two kinsmen digg'd their graves with weeping eyes.

One of the most moving touches in Shakespeare's delineation is Richard's bleak perception, now and then, that his fancies are regarded by those about him as foolishly irrelevant. We have heard him exclaim on a former occasion: Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords! Now, again, he becomes abruptly aware that he has lost touch with the real world and is playing his part on a stage before spectators who find him fantastic or even ridiculous:

                                                                                Well, well, I see
I talk but idly, and you laugh at me.

These moments, in which Richard sees himself as possibly the only appreciative witness of his tragedy, are the more affecting as they aggravate rather than restrain his excess of feeling. A brief moment of lucidity is in the present instance followed by an outbreak of almost intolerable hysteria:

Most mighty prince, my Lord Northumberland,
What says King Bolingbroke? will his majesty
Give Richard leave to live till Richard die?
You make a leg, and Bolingbroke says ay.
My lord, in the base court he doth attend
To speak with you; may it please you to come
Down, down I come; like glistering Phaëton,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
In the base court? Base court, where kings grow
To come at traitors' calls and do them grace.
In the base court? Come down? Down, court!
          down, king!
For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should

Northumberland's comment is drily expressive:

                                                  Sorrow and grief of heart
Makes him speak fondly, like a frantic man.

King Richard, in the base court, brushes aside Bolingbroke's sustained pretences of respect. He sees himself as the royal martyr, victim of circumstance and the strong hand. Bolingbroke kneels to him:

Up, cousin, up; your heart is up, I know,
Thus high at least, although your knee be low.
My gracious lord, I come but for mine own.
Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all.
So far be mine, my most redoubted lord,
As my true service shall deserve your love.
Well you deserve: they well deserve to have,
That know the strong'st and surest way to get.
Uncle, give me your hand: nay, dry your eyes;
Tears show their love, but want their remedies.
Cousin, I am too young to be your father,
Though you are old enough to be my heir.
What you will have, I'll give, and willing too;
For do we must what force will have us do.

We come now to the famous scene of abdication in Westminster Hall. It is remembered necessarily as a supreme exhibition of Richard's quality. But the political background is worth attention if only for its faithful rendering of the reactions of public men to the impact and artistry of human emotion expressed in beauty and without reserve. Shakespeare, though his eyes are fixed on Richard, never loses sight of the dramatic contrast between his practical politicians and the suffering, wayward spirit of the fallen King. The scene opens, as so many scenes at this particular point in Shakespeare's plays, with an episode apparently novel but in fact recalling and developing the main initial theme of the tragedy. Bolingbroke is dealing masterfully with precisely the same political situation which confronted Richard at the beginning of the play. Bolingbroke in the first Act charged Mowbray with being privy to the death of Gloucester. Bagot, in the fourth Act, confronts Aumerle with precisely the same charge. Bagot, like Mowbray, denies Aumerle's accusation. Challenges are flung down on either side, but Bolingbroke firmly suppresses the unruly peers:

                                                                                          Lords appellants,
Your differences shall all rest under gage
Till we assign you to your days of trial.

He takes complete control of the situation and incidentally—a revealing touch, this—he adopts the royal ‘we’ in announcing his decision.

Into this scene, clearly designed to show that Bolingbroke has the political tact and resolution in which Richard has proved so grievously deficient, comes York to announce that an abdication has been arranged:

Great Duke of Lancaster, I come to thee
From plume-pluck'd Richard; who with willing soul
Adopts thee heir, and his high sceptre yields
To the possession of thy royal hand.
Ascend his throne, descending now from him;
And long live Henry, of that name the fourth!

Not by a single word or gesture, though he is already behaving like a king, has Bolingbroke laid any explicit claim to the crown. But now his destiny is plain. His chance has come and he seizes it with the readiness of a patient man who, moving deviously to his journey's end, at last sees the road clear before him:

In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne.

But stay; there is a hitch in these well-ordered proceedings. The Bishop of Carlisle bars the way of the usurper. Richard, he protests, is still the King. There is none present noble enough to judge his royal master and, even if Richard were a common thief, he should not be condemned unheard:

What subject can give sentence on his king?
And who sits here that is not Richard's subject?
Thieves are not judged but they are by to hear,
Although apparent guilt be seen in them;
And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy-elect,
Anointed, crownèd, planted many years,
Be judg'd by subject and inferior breath,
And be himself not present?

The Bishop goes on to warn the rebel lords of what must follow the elevation of a traitor:

Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call'd
The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.
O! if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursèd earth.

Northumberland takes it upon himself to order the instant arrest of the Bishop, but Bolingbroke intervenes. It must not appear that he is taking the kingdom by force; there must be no doubt that Richard has in fact voluntarily surrendered his rights. He turns to York:

Fetch hither Richard, that in common view
He may surrender; so we shall proceed
Without suspicion.

Thus is Richard called upon to play the famous scene in which he unkings himself and he plays it with a vengeance. These men have summoned him to comply with a formality. He will shame them, if he can; wring their hearts, if it be possible. In any case, he will make it a bad quarter of an hour for everyone concerned:

Alack, why am I sent for to a king,
Before I have shook off the regal thoughts
Wherewith I reign'd? I hardly yet have learn'd
To insinuate, flatter, bow and bend my limbs:
Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me
To this submission. Yet I well remember
The favours of these men: were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry, ‘All hail!’ to me?
So Judas did to Christ.

York explains the purpose for which he has been called:

To do that office of thine own good will
Which tired majesty did make thee offer,
The resignation of thy state and crown
To Henry Bolingbroke.

‘Here, cousin, seize the crown’, cries Richard and his fancy takes wings. The crown is a deep well; he and Bolingbroke are two buckets—his own deep down and full of tears, Bolingbroke's empty and mounting aloft in the air. Bolingbroke twice interrupts. Somehow Richard must be kept to the point. ‘I thought you had been willing to resign,’ he protests. Richard flashes back:

My crown, I am; but still my griefs are mine:
You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

He invites Bolingbroke to meet him in another flight of fancy but Bolingbroke is not to be put off. Bluntly he asks:

Are you contented to resign the crown?

Richard is contented, but after his own fashion:

Now mark me, how I will undo myself:
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear.
God save King Henry, unking'd Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!
What more remains?

Bolingbroke has brought Richard to the point and his work is done. What more remains he leaves to the callously officious Northumberland. Richard's abdication must be justified to the people of England. No one knows that better than Bolingbroke. But this supple, audacious and secret man has the politician's art of allowing others to do the ignoble things necessary for his advancement while he himself remains in the background to reap the profit and show to advantage in gestures of mercy, magnanimity and honest care for the public weal.

A document has been prepared setting forth the misdemeanours of the fallen king. Northumberland suggests that Richard should read the charges:

That, by confessing them, the souls of men
May deem that you are worthily depos'd.

Richard replies:

Must I do so? and must I ravel out
My weaved-up follies? Gentle Northumberland,
If thy offences were upon record,
Would it not shame thee in so fair a troop
To read a lecture of them? If thou wouldst,
There shouldst thou find one heinous article,
Containing the deposing of a king,
And cracking the strong warrant of an oath,
Mark'd with a blot, damn'd in the book of heaven.

He looks round upon the assembled lords. They are obviously feeling the strain. They have no liking for scenes and there has never been such a scene as this. They stand about awkwardly, uneasily, a little pitifully. And Richard, for the third time in the play, sees himself as the Christ betrayed:

Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,
Showing an outward pity; yet you Pilates
Have here deliver'd me to my sour cross,
And water cannot wash away your sin.

Northumberland is inexorable and finally drives Richard to a sudden blaze of human temper, in striking contrast with the mood in which he adorns and cherishes his grief:

My lord, dispatch; read o'er these articles.
Mine eyes are full of tears, I cannot see:
And yet salt water blinds them not so much
But they can see a sort of traitors here.
My lord,—
No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man.

Soon, however, his imagination is at work again and inspires him to one of his most striking images:

O, that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water-drops!

Finally comes his last command:

An if my word be sterling yet in England,
Let it command a mirror hither straight,
That it may show me what a face I have,
Since it is bankrupt of his majesty.

For the men about him how unexpectedly frivolous is this request! And yet how appropriate! Narcissus has reached the supreme moment of his tragedy and calls for a looking-glass.

Bolingbroke sends an attendant for the mirror. Northumberland still presses Richard. Let him read the paper while the glass is fetched. This is too much even for Bolingbroke:

Urge it no more, my Lord Northumberland.
The commons will not then be satisfied.
They shall be satisfied: I'll read enough,
When I do see the very book indeed
Where all my sins are writ, and that's myself.

The attendant returns and Richard is allowed his most memorable gesture:

                                                            Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face:
As brittle as the glory is the face;
                    (Dashes the glass against the ground.)
For there it is, crack'd in a hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,
How soon my sorrow hath destroy'd my face.

Bolingbroke's comment—

The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd
The shadow of your face—

is not intended as a sneer, though behind it lurks the contempt of a realist for the imaginative exercises of the artist. He is not insensitive to the scene and, in reaction against the impression it has made upon him, he is prompted to reflect that it has no dynamic relation to the world of action. He suggests that Richard's sorrow is largely of the imagination. The sorrow may be real, but its expression is histrionic—in fact, a shadow. Richard acknowledges the force of this observation but construes it with a difference:

                                                            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 laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul.

And now suddenly he is tired of the shadow-show and asks leave to go. ‘Whither?’ asks Bolingbroke, and Richard, with the petulance of a hurt child, replies: ‘Whither you will, so I were from your sights.’

So ends a scene in which Shakespeare's gifts as poet and dramatist are for the first time perfectly united. It goes instantly to the heart, but yields its treasures the more abundantly as it is the more closely studied. It is full of wonders. Not the least is the way in which it combines the sacramental, the aesthetic and the purely human elements in the dramatic character of Richard and the situation in which he finds himself. The speech in which Richard divests himself of crown and sceptre is likened by Walter Pater in his ‘Appreciations’ to an inverted rite, a rite of degradation, a ‘long, agonising ceremony’ in which the order of coronation is reversed. The sacramental analogy with Christ's passion has already been noted. The rebel peers who deliver up their lord to his sour cross are thrice stigmatised as Judases in the course of the play. It is Shakespeare's supreme achievement to have retained this mystical aspect of the tragedy and yet in no way to have impaired its humanity. The consecrated king, impiously discrowned, shades away into the poet king, in whom suffering induces a lyric ecstasy; who, in his turn, gives place to the mere human victim of misfortune, subject to everyday infirmities of mind and will, with whom we can live in fellowship. This Richard, who undoes himself with hierophantic solemnity, who humbles, or pities, or exalts himself in imagination, is also the man who turns on Northumberland in a flash of temper and reveals himself, all at once, as a very ordinary creature. Nor do we feel any incongruity or rift in the total performance. The three elements are completely fused. The king, the artist and the man are the person we have come to know as Richard. No play of Shakespeare has a more perfect unity of tone, texture and feeling. Yet no play has drawn upon a greater diversity of thematic material. Shakespeare, deriving from tradition, from recorded facts and from his own mind a bewildering complex of emotions and ideas, has produced a play which is all of a piece.

The scene of Richard's deposition fills, as it should, the whole fourth Act of the tragedy. It is the summit of the play and of Shakespeare's dramatic achievement at the time when it was written.8 From this summit we descend in the fifth Act to the foregone conclusion of Richard's death and premonitory hints of the expiation which will be required of the usurper in future histories. The descent is well-contrived and there is much to be observed on the way down.

First we are taken to a street in London. Richard, being led to the Tower, is intercepted by his queen.

This is the third appearance of the Queen as a speaking character and her first appearance in a scene with her husband. Shakespeare, happily misled by his authorities, has given her a part in the play for which there is no warrant in history. Richard's first queen, Anne, dearly loved and extravagantly mourned, had been dead seven years. His second queen, Isabella, was only nine years old. Shakespeare, in presenting Richard as a king who failed in his public office, felt the need of showing him also in a more intimate relationship. Here, too, was an opportunity of adding a touch, here and there, to that English background against which the whole tragedy is played. The Queen, in her garden at Langley, lies full in the fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land, which, like Prospero's island, is full of noises heard above the brazen clamour of its barons and in the hushed pauses of their plotting. From the scene in which a pride of rebel lords sets forth to meet Bolingbroke we are taken to a scene in which a forsaken wife is grieved and anxious for ‘sweet Richard’. From the scene in which Richard comes lamentably down to the court where kings grow base we are taken to where a queen and her ladies devise pastimes. A gardener binds up his dangling apricocks and thinks it a pity that the commonwealth cannot be trimmed and dressed as neatly as his hedges and borders. No one can fail to feel in his heart, though he may not be aware of its peerless cunning, the effect of the speech with which the scene at Langley concludes. The Queen has heard that Richard is deposed. The gardener, who has commented so wisely and gently on the faults which have ruined his master, looks sadly after his mistress:

Here did she fall a tear; here, in this place,
I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace:
Rue, even for ruth, here shortly shall be seen,
In the remembrance of a weeping queen.

Dynasties change; the masters of England have opened the purple testament of bleeding war, which will not be closed for a hundred years to come; a simple plain man, in compassion for a weeping queen, sets a sweet herb. Only a moment before she has upbraided him as a ‘little better thing than earth’ for his evil tidings and called down God's curse upon his flowers. He has accepted her rebuke and bears no malice. In this garden at Langley England is wise and kind; there is here a fragrance which will outlive the futilities of history.

Shakespeare thus prepares us for a last meeting between husband and wife and we realise, when the Queen speaks, if we have not already done so, that Richard is a man beloved:

But soft, but see, or rather do not see,
My fair rose wither.
                                                            Thou most beauteous inn,
Why should hard-favour'd grief be lodged in thee,
When triumph is become an alehouse guest?

Shakespeare here gives us but a glimpse of that lovely quality in Richard which fascinated the chroniclers and survived a hundred years of Lancastrian detraction. Yet he does not falter in his portrayal of Richard's blemishes of mind and will. Now or never Richard should forget himself and speak from the heart. But no; he is still the absorbed spectator of his own tragedy, in which he is now all set to play the penitent:

                                                            Learn, good soul,
To think our former state a happy dream;
From which awak'd, the truth of what we are
Shows us but this! I am sworn brother, sweet,
To grim Necessity, and he and I
Will keep a league till death. Hie thee to France
And cloister thee in some religious house:
Our holy lives must win a new world's crown.

The Queen very naturally resents this performance:

What! is my Richard both in shape and mind
Transform'd and weaken'd? hath Bolingbroke deposed
Thine intellect? hath he been in thy heart?
The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw
And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage
To be o'erpower'd; and wilt thou, pupil-like,
Take thy correction mildly, kiss the rod,
And fawn on rage with base humility,
Which art a lion and a king of beasts?

But Richard is incorrigible:

Good sometime queen, prepare thee hence for France:
Think I am dead and that even here thou tak'st,
As from my death-bed, thy last living leave.
In winter's tedious nights sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages, long ago betid;
And ere thou bid good night, to quit their griefs,
Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds.

At this point Shakespeare brings on to the stage the man of all others most fitted to impersonate the new political order. Northumberland arrives with fresh instructions from Bolingbroke. Richard is to be taken to Pomfret. This is Richard's cue for prophecy. Retribution inevitably attends the success of wicked men. Triumph, the alehouse guest, has no abiding place:

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is, ere foul sin gathering head
Shall break into corruption: thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
And he shall think that thou, which know'st the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urged, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deservèd death.

Northumberland is not, however, a man to be moved by premonitions. He has come to execute an order. ‘My guilt be on my head and there's an end,’ he answers curtly, and, when the Queen begs that Richard may go with her to France, he retorts with a shrug for her simplicity: ‘That were some love, but little policy.’

We are not to see Richard again till we find him playing his last part in the solitude of his prison at Pomfret. But Shakespeare has much to do in the interval. He has first to show us two celebrated companion portraits, one of Bolingbroke in his triumph and the other of Richard in his fall. It is York who executes the commission. Here is Bolingbroke:

Then, as I said, the duke, great Bolingbroke,
Mounted upon a hot and fiery steed,
Which his aspiring rider seem'd to know,
With slow but stately pace kept on his course,
Whilst all tongues cried ‘God save thee, Bolingbroke!’
You would have thought the very windows spake,
So many greedy looks of young and old
Through casements darted their desiring eyes
Upon his visage, and that all the walls
With painted imagery had said at once
‘Jesu preserve thee! welcome, Bolingbroke!’
Whilst he, from the one side to the other turning,
Bareheaded, lower than his proud steed's neck,
Bespake them thus: ‘I thank you, countrymen’:
And thus still doing, thus he pass'd along.

And here is Richard:

As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-grac'd actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious;
Even so, or with much more contempt, men's eyes
Did scowl on Richard: no man cried ‘God save him!’
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home;
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head;
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combating with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience.

York has accepted the situation and finds God's purpose at work even in the humiliation of his late master:

That had not God, for some strong purpose, steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted,
And barbarism itself have pitied him.
But heaven hath a hand in these events,
To whose high will we bound our calm contents.

Nor has he long to wait for an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the new dynasty. For Bolingbroke is already threatened with conspiracy. Richard's friends, headed by the Abbot of Westminster, are plotting a restoration and York's own son, Aumerle, is involved. His father counsels him to accept the accomplished fact:

Well, bear you well in this new spring of time,
Lest you be cropp'd before you come to prime.

But York, even as he delivers this advice, sees dangling from his son's bosom a seal. He demands to see the writing and presently he is spelling out proof that his son, and a dozen other lords, have sworn to kill Bolingbroke at Oxford. He calls for his boots. The King must be warned. It is bad enough that Richard should have been deposed. And now before anyone has had time to settle down under the new dispensation, here is yet another attempt to upset the established order. Is treason to become the fasion in England?

The scenes in which Aumerle's conspiracy is plotted, discovered, reported to Bolingbroke and suppressed are usually omitted on the stage. It is assumed that the interest of the audience is so strongly absorbed by Richard's personal tragedy that the political results of his abdication can be ignored. This was not Shakespeare's intention. It must again be insisted that Richard II is a political play, with a political theme which had a poignant interest for an Elizabethan audience. Bolingbroke has deposed a king ruling by right of birth and consecration. The consequences were to be written red in the history of England for the next hundred years and to haunt the memories of Englishmen for as long again. The scenes in which Bolingbroke is confronted with civil war as an immediate result of his usurpation are essential to Shakespeare's design. It is, moreover, dramatically interesting to see how Bolingbroke handles this dangerous conspiracy while we still have vividly in mind the conduct of Richard in a similar situation. Bolingbroke thanks York for his intelligence:

O loyal father of a treacherous son!
Thou sheer, immaculate and silver fountain,
From whence this stream through muddy passages
Hath held his current and defiled himself!

Bolingbroke is fulsome in his acknowledgment of a service rendered and turns the moral situation inside out. York, who deserted Richard, is praised for his loyalty. Aumerle, who has remained true to his allegiance, is abused for treachery. Bolingbroke pardons Aumerle, but suppresses the insurrection with an iron hand.

Shakespeare's presentation of Aumerle's conspiracy has yet another dramatic purpose. It supplies the crowning motive for his instigation of Exton to the murder of Richard. Characteristically it is an ambiguous instigation:

Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?

He looks round and there is Exton to overhear and execute his thought. He has been moved to the deposition of a king without explicitly avowing his intention. He is moved to the crowning act of murder in the same somnambulist fashion and, when the deed is done, can in a sense, disavow the intention:

They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murderèd.

He can even regard the act as though it had been performed not by, but upon, him:

Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.

Richard, soliloquising in his prison at Pomfret, is like an actor reviewing the scenes in which he has played and reflecting on their relation to reality. He is still dramatising his own introverted responses to the tragedy that has befallen him and he discusses how these histrionic introversions may be prolonged into the solitude in which he finds himself:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world.
Thus play I in one person many people
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.

How apt is this annihilating conclusion of a self-centred mind, brooding in a wilful seclusion from its kind! These still-breeding thoughts are doomed to sterility and can bear no fruit! The man who lives in imagination only has no place in the world of experience. Richard is himself aware at last of the cause of his ruin. The friendly music that breaks upon his solitude sets him thinking how different his story might have been if he had kept his ears open to the harmonies and rhythms of the life about him:

                                                                                          Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disorder'd string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;

and he concludes upon a note of genuine human feeling:

This music mads me; let it sound no more;
Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me!
For 'tis a sign of love.

It is not without significance that this sign of love has come to Richard from a man whom he did not even remember, a poor groom of the stable who with much ado had obtained leave to visit his royal master. This poor groom had seen Bolingbroke in his coronation, riding on roan Barbary. Richard has here the cue for a last exquisite fancy. But what he has to say is for the first time touched with a wistful charity towards man and beast:

Rode he on Barbary? Tell me, gentle friend,
How went he under him?
So proudly as if he disdain'd the ground.
So proud that Bolingbroke was on his back!
That jade hath eat bread from my royal hand;
This hand hath made him proud with clapping him.
Would he not stumble? would he not fall down,
Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck
Of that proud man that did usurp his back?
Forgiveness, horse! why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be awed by man,
Wast born to bear?

For Richard now it is finished. There is a brave blaze of anger at the last. He beats the keeper who comes to him with a poisoned dish. He strikes down two of the men who come to murder him and it is Exton himself who strikes him down. He dies a king, whose sanctity no abdication can compromise before God:

That hand shall burn in never-quenching fire That staggers thus my person. Exton, thy fierce hand Hath with the king's blood stain'd the king's own land. Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high, Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.

The character of Richard has provoked comparisons which, however, only serve to stamp him as unique among the creations of Shakespeare. His futility as a man of action has led many critics to put him in the same gallery with Henry VI, Marcus Brutus and Hamlet. But to none of these three men does he bear any real resemblance except for the fact that they, too, were men unfitted to play the part imposed on them by circumstance.

Henry was a saint and a scholar, required to assert his authority over a full-blooded, termagant queen and as graceless a set of political ruffians as ever reached high office in the land. He loved books, hated war, sought peace and believed in justice. He grieved not for himself, but for a kingdom in disorder and cruelties committed in his name. His weakness, as the world assesses weakness, was that of the altruist. He was a model of non-resistance and a pattern of humility in a society which believed only in power. Hazlitt once observed how Shakespeare, dealing with men who on a superficial view seem much of the same complexion and who appear in almost identical situations, presents characters wholly distinct. It is possible to go further. These characters, who tend to be hung in the same gallery, are often more remarkable for their essential differences than for any real similarity. Even when appearing to make the same speech to the same occasion, they talk a different language in a different mood and with a wholly different meaning. Turn back to the speech in which Richard rejects the splendours of royalty:

I'll give my jewels for a set of beads.

Consider the catalogue of precious things which Richard is prepared to discard—his gorgeous palace, his gay apparel, his figured goblets. His subjects he will exchange for a pair of carvèd saints. Every epithet expresses the sophistication of an aesthete whose hermitage is presented as pleasantly to the fancy as the palace for which it is bartered. Consider, too, the flagellant self-pity of the epithets that come last of all—the little, little grave, an obscure grave. The words themselves and the fall of the lines in which they bloom like flowers in an exotic garden betray their derivation. This is not the utterance of an afflicted heart, seeking peace in surrender and simplicity, but of a man who finds consolation in a wilfully induced luxury of grief. We follow the working of an imagination that wantons in the pleasures of the humble.

Read now the similar, but how different, speech of Henry on the battlefield at Towton. Henry sorrows, not for himself, but for the strife and treachery in which he is entangled. He has so little wish to be king—a part in which Richard postured as readily as in any other—that he feels he is doing well for his family in agreeing that his son shall be disinherited. He sincerely envies a man who can live remote from great affairs and, unlike Richard, who, seeing himself in a bedesman's grown, merely changes his apparel, he shares with all his heart the rustic joys and sorrows of a simple hind. His imagination looks abroad into the world for things outside himself, whereas Richard looks always within himself for his own reflection.

The speech in which Henry's mood is crystallised is of a limpid simplicity. There is hardly an epithet. The picture is seen for itself and needs no touch of the self-conscious artist:

O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain.
So many hours must I tend my flock,
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean;
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece.
And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couchèd in a curious bed.(9)

The comparison with Brutus serves only to mark an equally essential contrast. Brutus failed as a politician because he had fixed principles and a rigid mind. Richard failed because he had no principles at all and a mind of quicksilver. Brutus misjudged political events and public persons because he saw them always in the light of his own convictions. Richard could read the hearts and purposes of the men about him, but having no convictions, only imaginative reactions to events and persons, was unable to use his insight effectively. Brutus was shut off from the world by his philosophy, Richard by his absorption in the play of a self-regarding fancy.

The comparison with Hamlet, more often drawn by the critics, is more delicately fallacious. Goethe compared Hamlet, on whom a tragic duty has been imposed, to a beautiful vase in which an acorn has been planted. The acorn in growing shivers its frail container into fragments. Yeats compares Richard to a vessel of porcelain, contrasting him with Henry V, the vessel of clay, which Shakespeare was to fashion later. Here are two poets, writing respectively of the two characters, using quite independently the same image.

Hamlet and Richard are admittedly alike in their nervous sensibility, their preoccupation with things imagined rather than things experienced, their habit of dramatising the issues presented to them, their constant outpouring of heart and mind in words of incomparable felicity, their chameleon changes of mood and temper, their stultification and defeat by grosser spirits. But how superficial are these likenesses compared with the fundamental difference in texture of the two characters! To put them together is to compare a wilful child ‘pretending’ in a playroom with a grown man searching into the depths of his nature and the ultimate mysteries of human life. Richard is interested only in himself and the figure he cuts in a world of his own contriving. Hamlet's interest is universal. Unlike Richard, who moves always from the general to the particular—the particular being his own destiny and passion—Hamlet moves as inevitably from the particular to the general. The tragedy in which he is immersed is his cue for infinite speculation. His personal wrongs are viewed as an epitome of all the ills that flesh is heir to. His hesitations and misgivings prompt him to analyse the source of all the hesitations and misgivings which distract the human mind. There is no character in all Shakespeare's plays so self-centered as Richard; no character less self-centered than Hamlet, who, in brooding on his own problem, sees it instinctively as the problem of every man; who, in the bitterness of his own suffering, can lose himself in the woes of Hecuba or follow the dust of Alexander till it be found stopping a hole to keep the wind away. No character in all Shakespeare's plays is less capable than Richard of meeting and speaking with men as they are. Hamlet, on the contrary, meets every man for what he is and is instantly on speaking terms with them all—from Osric, the waterfly, to a ghost from the grave. Richard's imagination, governed by his sensibility, turns perpetually inward as inevitably as Hamlet's imagination, governed by his intellect, turns perpetually outward. To Richard nothing has interest or significance but what concerns himself. To Hamlet nothing has interest or significance till it can be related with the scheme of things entire.

If these characters, superficially alike, prove on closer acquaintance to be essentially different, it is equally true that characters superficially different often prove to be in essentials more truly comparable. No two men could seem more unlike in their disposition and fortune than Richard of Bordeaux and Richard of Gloucester. Yet here, surely, are two portraits which might with advantage be hung side by side. The contrast between them serves only to emphasise their fundamental kinship. Both are men of the artist type, the first working in imagination and the second in action. Both are egocentric, the one concentrating upon a self-created image within the mind which changes its form to reflect sensations and experiences passively received, the other concentrating upon the impact of his mind and will upon the external world of men and events. Each is the child of Narcissus: Richard, the fair rose, who calls for a mirror that he may see the brittle glory of a face that did keep ten thousand men every day under his household roof; Richard Crookback, enamoured of his own deformity, who calls on the fair sun to shine out that he may see his shadow as he passes from one piece of mischief to another.

Thus, the two Richards present in their contraries the same fundamental truth. The man who is self-centred in imagination and the man who is self-centred in action are equally out of touch with reality, and equally doomed to destruction. The first withdraws from reality to live in a false world of his own creation. The other loses the real world in an effort to fashion it according to his own will and pleasure.


  1. The blending of the mystical and the realist approach to the tragedy of Richard is finely described by Dr. Dover Wilson in his introduction to the play in the New Cambridge Edition. This introduction, in its handling of the sources of the play, relating them to the finished tragedy and throwing into relief the contemporary ideas and tendencies from which it emerged, is a masterpiece of Shakespearean criticism.

  2. Note the political irony of this rejoinder. Mowbray is defending the King. Richard graciously gives him permission to do so and assures him that he will not allow himself to be moved by any partiality for his kinsman, Bolingbroke, who is attacking him.

  3. Shakespeare undoubtedly had this thought in mind. Years later Mowbray's son, in rebellion against Henry IV, recalls the lists at Coventry and the part played in that scene by his father:

    The king that loved him, as the state stood then,
    Was force perforce compell'd to banish him:
    And then that Henry Bolingbroke and he,
    Being mounted and both rousèd in their seats,
    Their neighing coursers daring of the spur,
    Their armèd staves in charge, their beavers down,
    Their eyes of fire sparkling through sights of steel
    And the loud trumpet blowing them together,
    Then, then, when there was nothing could have stay'd
    My father from the breast of Bolingbroke,
    O, when the king did throw his warder down,
    His own life hung upon the staff he threw;
    Then threw he down himself and all their lives
    That by indictment and by dint of sword
    Have since miscarried under Bolingbroke.

    This is only one of many references back to Richard II which occur throughout the two succeeding plays. Shakespeare's tetralogy—Richard II, the First and Second Parts of Henry IV and Henry V—is a sequence not only in history but in theme and motive. In all four plays the dramatist looks forward and backward and carries in his mind all that has gone before and all that is to come. Thus we are able to find in the fourth Act of the third play of the series a passage which reveals what was present in his mind, though not explicitly stated, when he was writing the first Act of the first play.

  4. See below, p. 210.

  5. The editors who divided Shakespeare's plays into Acts should, as Dr. Johnson has pointed out, have concluded Act I with the banishment of Bolingbroke and started Act II with Richard's subsequent comments on the episode. They chose instead to include in Act I the short scene with Aumerle. This scene in time, temper and subject should obviously be Scene I of Act II and not, as printed in all editions, Scene IV of Act I.

  6. The scene in which Hotspur recalls his first meeting with Bolingbroke (I Hen. IV, Act I, Sc. III) is more extensively quoted in the chapter on Henry of Monmouth. See below, p. 201.

  7. Again the division into Acts is injudicious and illogical. The scene in which Bushy and Green are condemned to death, which is Act III, Sc. I, of the play, should quite obviously be Act II, Sc. IV. This scene concludes the political manoeuvres of Bolingbroke and his confederates and leaves all clear for Richard's return, when he will take the centre of the stage and focus our attention henceforth on the tragedy of his fall from power.

  8. The scene has, of course, a long and curious history. It was omitted from early published editions of the play and not printed till 1608, five years after the death of Elizabeth. There is no reason to believe, however, that it was not acted upon the stage in 1595—indeed, it was almost certainly this scene which made the play so dangerously topical and accounted for its performance no less than forty times in the years immediately following its production. Another fact about this scene of interest to the literary historian is that it drew from Dr. Johnson perhaps the most unfortunate of his comments upon Shakespeare. Part of it he declares is ‘proper’, but part ‘might have been forborne without much loss’. He concludes with the observation: ‘The author, I suppose, intended to write a very moving scene.’ The eighteenth century has never so unhappily condescended to the genius of the sixteenth than in Johnson's criticism of this particular play. He seems to have had no idea, first to last, what it was all about. He found Richard ‘imperious and oppressive’ in prosperity, but in his distress ‘wise, patient and pious’—a view of the character which makes complete nonsense of the tragedy from start to finish and which drove Dr. Johnson to his final conclusion: ‘nor can it be said much to affect the passions or enlarge the understanding.’

  9. Hazlitt, comparing these two speeches, writes: ‘This (Henry's speech) is a true and beautiful description of a naturally quiet and contented disposition and not like the former (Richard's speech) the splenetic effusion of disappointed ambition.’

Michael F. Kelly (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4438

SOURCE: Kelly, Michael F. “The Function of York in Richard II.Southern Humanities Review VI, no. 3 (summer 1972): 257-67.

[In the following essay, Kelly studies the crucial role York plays in the dramatic and thematic developments of Richard II. Kelly contends that York's shift in attitude and loyalty, from Richard to Bolingbroke, encourages a parallel response in the audience.]

The thematic and dramatic development of Richard II depends on the pivotal role played by the Duke of York. While he guides audience response, structurally he is also a pivot upon which the transfer of power turns, and thematically he appears for a time to be a spokesman for the play's political lesson. Many scholars who have written on Richard II have been able to dispose of him with a sentence or two, usually to the effect that York is a pitiable old man who is simply caught in the middle of a political revolt.1

Although the play's structure and theme have been the subject of critical debate, York is consistently ignored.2Richard II is, as I see the play, structured on three different turning points. As early as the second act Bolingbroke has led a successful invasion of England, and he is a de facto king, which he demonstrates in III.i, with an act of semi-regal authority, the execution of Bushy and Green. The “transfer of real power,”3 in the words of Peter Ure, has occurred. In IV.i, Richard's self-deposition accomplishes the de jure transfer of power. The power does not, however, pass directly from Richard to Bolingbroke, but passes from Richard to York to Bolingbroke. Between the de facto and de jure transfer of power York gradually moves from a position as a staunch though fearful ally of the diminishing Richard to a new role as a loyal supporter of Bolingbroke. And while York moves, he carries the audience with him, i.e., his shift in attitude stimulates a similar response in the audience. He likewise becomes a spokesman for the nation. Thus while the central focus of the play is on Richard's decline, Shakespeare makes the audience aware of the political implications of the action, namely that the doctrine of divine right may be inadequate. As a pivotal character York affects what this play has to say about politics and how we respond to what it has to say.

The significance of York is initially suggested by the gradually developed contrast between him and Gaunt. In the opening of I. ii, when the Duchess of Gloucester is urging Gaunt to seek justice for the death of her husband, Gaunt indicates his unwillingness to cooperate with her:

God's is the quarrel—for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death; the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.(4)

(11. 37-41)

The expression of faith in the divine right is mirrored frequently by Richard and Carlisle, and enacted by Gaunt himself in II. i as he is about to die. This latter scene demonstrates most vividly the difference between Gaunt and York. The following exchange occurs at the opening of II. i:

Will the King come, that I may breathe my last
In wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth?
Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath;
For all in vain comes counsel to his ear,

(11. 1-4)

and he concludes his comments to Gaunt:

Direct not him whose way himself will choose:
'Tis breath thou lack'st and that breath wilt thou lose.

(11. 29-30)

Although York says nothing in these lines to indicate that he will shift allegiance, he reveals himself as a man of more realistic perception than Gaunt, who performs the limited role of spokesman for divine right. York's realistic attitude enables him in the later stages of the play to accept Bolingbroke, though he ultimately accepts him on other grounds. After the encounter between Richard and Gaunt and after Gaunt is removed, Richard announces his intent to confiscate and use the whole estate of Gaunt. At this point York himself delivers his lament:

How long shall I be patient? ah, how long
Shall tender duty make me suffer wrong?
Not Gloucester's death, nor Hereford's banishment,
Nor Gaunt's rebukes, nor England's private wrongs,
Nor the prevention of poor Bolingbroke
About his marriage, nor my own disgrace,
Have ever made me sour my patient cheek
Or bend one wrinkle on my sovereign's face.

(11. 163-170)

York is, of course, speaking for himself, but the grievances he cites are generally such that they touch all England. Richard has, in effect, violated the justice for which the King should stand. In this speech, a ritualistic lament with its repetition and parallelism, York achieves symbolic value as a spokesman for a suffering England, and he sustains this value through the rest of the play. This scene is also extremely important in that York here gains audience sympathy and acceptance as a wise and realistic man, in effect a moderator of audience response.

Further on in this same scene York pointedly tells Richard that by seizing Gaunt's estate he has violated the principle of succession, the principle on which his own kingship rests (11. 186-208). (York is later able to ignore this principle in his support of Bolingbroke, whose possession of the crown does not depend upon proper succession but power.) York warns Richard where he stands in the kingdom and in his personal estimation:

You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.

(11. 205-208)

He senses that his allegiance to Richard is weakening and in his comment foreshadows his coming shift. The logic does not affect Richard, but it does convince the audience.

In a later scene the test of York's honor and allegiance is more fully delineated in the conflict between duty which binds him to Richard and conscience which would lead him to support Bolingbroke. Near the end of II. i, after York has warned Richard of impending disaster, the king appoints York Lord Governor of England while he goes to the war in Ireland. This appointment is significant for several reasons. First, York's role as symbol of England is underscored as he becomes an official representative of England. Second, he is acting in an official capacity for Richard which is later balanced by his acting officially for Bolingbroke. When Richard makes the appointment, he does so because York “is just and always lov'd us well” (1.221). His appointment of the “just” York mirrors one of the larger ironies of Richard's character, his failure to carry thought into action, as he here implicitly recognizes the necessity for justice but in his own behavior acts unjustly. The fact of York's appointment should dispel the view of York as a doddering old man. Donald Reiman, commenting on this question, notes that “Richard, contrary to popular opinion, is not behaving foolishly when he creates York lord governor during the King's absence in Ireland, for he recognizes that York, despite his reservations about Richard's reign, will do all in his power to fulfill his oath to defend the kingdom and York is the only man whom the king can trust, who has any support among the country at large.”5

York next appears in II.ii, where he is described by Richard's Queen as entering “with signs of war about his aged neck” (1. 73), as he is now aware of what the arrival of Bolingbroke at Ravenspurgh bodes for his country. York comments in woeful tones:

Here am I left to underprop his land,
Who weak with age cannot support myself.
Now comes the sick hour that his surfeit made,
Now shall he try his friends that flatter'd him.

(11. 82-85)

York's self-deprecating comments ought not be taken as a literally accurate description of himself. Certainly York is old, but he does have a strength of character which he reveals in his confrontation with Bolingbroke, and he has a strength of body which enables him later to make a furious ride to the king to accuse his son of treason. He is able to support himself, though the overwhelming burden of supporting the reign of Richard in its “sick hour” arouses in him a sense of weakness. York further laments his difficulties:

God for his mercy, what a tide of woes
Comes rushing on this woeful land at once!
I know not what to do. …

(11. 97-99)

The final statement of this passage is one of the first real statements of the ambiguity of York's situation as well as the hopelessness of it. He enlarges upon this ambiguity a few lines later, echoing his earlier statement on honor and allegiance:

                                                  Both are my kinsmen:
Th' one is my sovereign, whom both my oath
And duty bids defend; th' other again
Is my kinsman, whom the King hath wrong'd,
Whom conscience and my kindred bids to right.

(11. 111-115)

In this comment York is clearly going beyond the blind and unthinking acceptance of divine right as expressed earlier by Gaunt. Yet he cannot easily resolve this conflict by making an abrupt shift in allegiance. His loyalty is not easily displaced, but all he can do is say, “Well, somewhat we must do” (1. 115), and he orders Bushy, Green, and Bagot to “muster up your men” (1. 117). York's refusal to relinquish his role as Lord Governor and to give up the cause of opposing Bolingbroke underscores his basic loyalty to Richard and emphasizes the significance of his coming shift in allegiance. Even the men who have been the flatterers and false counselors of Richard admire York's constancy and sympathize with his plight as Green comments after York has left the scene:

Alas, poor Duke! The task he undertakes
Is numb'ring sands and drinking oceans dry;
Where one on his side fights, thousands will fly.

(11. 144-146)

Green's estimate of York's situation is, of course, accurate. The images of “numb'ring sands” and “drinking oceans dry” help to draw audience sympathy to him as an impossible underdog who in spite of overwhelming odds is willing to enter the fray. Of course he never really fights, but he is nonetheless the most sympathetic character on the scene. Richard at this point gets no sympathy, since he has put York in this unenviable position of defending a defenseless country.

York next appears in an encounter with Bolingbroke in II.iii, when he comes to learn Bolingbroke's intent. When York enters, Bolingbroke kneels to him as the Lord Governor, but York, seeing the pretense immediately, upbraids him:

Show me thy humble heart, and not thy knee,
Whose duty is deceivable and false.

(11. 83-84)

When Bolingbroke later asks York what his offence is, York unhesitatingly tells him treason and rebellion. Even after Bolingbroke declares as his sole intent the regaining of his stolen inheritance, York remains adamant, helpless as he is to back up his words with act:

My lords of England, let me tell you this:
I have had feeling of my cousin's wrongs,
And labour'd all I could to do him right.
But in this kind to come, in braving arms,
Be his own carver, and cut out his way,
To find out right with wrong—it may not be.
And you that do abet him in this kind
Cherish rebellion, and are rebels all.

(11. 139-146)

In addressing himself to the “lords of England,” he is extending his accusation, and in the formal introduction to his speech he is acting as the Lord Governor. Yet York, as we have already seen, is a realist. He understands the character of Richard and knows he is deaf to any sound advice. He understands the situation confronting him:

Well, well, I see the issue of these arms.
I cannot mend it, I must needs confess,
Because my power is weak and all ill left.
But if I could, by Him that gave me life,
I would attach you all, and make you stoop
Unto the sovereign mercy of the king;
But since I cannot, be it known unto you
I do remain as neuter.

(11. 151-158)

Here, for the first time, York makes a definite shift in his position going from loyalty to Richard to neutrality. He realistically recognizes that he can do nothing against Bolingbroke but nevertheless tells him what he would do if he could. At the close of this scene York agrees to go with Bolingbroke to Bristow Castle, but he is still unwilling to commit himself to Bolingbroke's position:

It may be I will go with you; but yet I'll pause,
For I am loath to break our country's laws.
Nor friends, nor foes, to me welcome you are.
Things past redress are now with me past care.

(11. 167-170)

In his adoption of neutrality York is abdicating his authority as Lord Governor and recognizing that Bolingbroke is the de facto king. He is now “loath to break our country's laws,” but he sees that they are going to be broken. Through his eyes we see the situation as unfortunate but unavoidable. York's course of action is the only one, or at least we are made to think so.

By the end of Act II, York has gone from simple loyalty to a loyalty in ambiguity, to neutrality. He appears next at Bolingbroke's camp at Bristol in III.i, in which Bolingbroke orders the execution of Bushy and Green. York plays no role and voices no opinions, but by his silent presence he acknowledges Bolingbroke as the de facto king. De jure, York himself possesses the power which Bolingbroke is exercising, but in his silent acceptance he gives proof of his neutrality and abdication of authority. In III.ii Richard returns to his kingdom only to find himself all but dispossessed. After vacillating between hope and despair, he seems to gain control of himself:

This ague fit of fear is overblown;
An easy task it is to win our own.
Say, Scroope, where lies our uncle with his power?

(11. 190-192)

This optimism is promptly dispelled by Scroope who, after an ominous preface, responds to Richard:

Your uncle York is join'd with Bolingbroke,
And all your Northern castles yielded up,
And all your southern gentlemen in arms
Upon his party.

(11. 200-203)

York's shift in allegiance has finally occurred and the news of it is a crushing blow to Richard's hope, as he is now no longer able to generate within himself even the false hope of success, nor do his followers, Carlisle and Aumerle particularly, make any attempt to rouse him to defend his position. In reaction to Scroope's information he simply says. “Thou has said enough” (1. 203). Richard seems to recognize the significance of York's change of allegiance. When the man of whom he said earlier, “he is just and always lov'd us well” (II.i. 221), has deserted him, he no longer can hope for success. Richard concludes III.ii with a despairing lament:

                                                            He does me double wrong
That wounds me with the flatteries of his tongue.
Discharge my followers; let them hence away,
From Richard's night, to Bolingbroke's fair day.

(11. 215-218)

Richard at this point abdicates de facto his role as king of England, almost simultaneously with his knowledge of York's shift of loyalty from Richard to Bolingbroke.

In the next scene, III.iii, Richard and Bolingbroke meet before Flint Castle where Richard gives himself over into the power of Bolingbroke. But before Richard enters York makes several relevant comments. Northumberland, in addressing Bolingbroke, says, “Richard not far from hence hath hid his head” (1. 6). York immediately picks up the mode of reference to the King and says:

It would beseem the Lord Northumberland
To say “King Richard.” Alack the heavy day
When such a sacred king should hide his head.

(11. 7-9)

Even though York has joined Bolingbroke, he still maintains respect for the King as divinely anointed. His shift has been political and not philosophical, as is later revealed more fully in his comments on the necessity for loyalty to Bolingbroke. The tone of regret in York's statement significantly places him in contrast with others, notably Carlisle, who continue in their rhetorical proclamations of divine right. When Richard does appear later in the scene, York again expresses a similar sentiment:

Yet looks he like a king. Behold, his eye,
As bright as is the eagle's, lightens forth
Controlling majesty. Alack, alack, for woe,
That any harm should stain so fair a show!

(11. 68-71)

Saddened though he is, implicit in his statement, “Yet looks he like a king” and his phrase “so fair a show,” is York's recognition that the image of the king is not sufficient to meet the demands of political necessity, or, as Traversi states it, his consciousness “of the gap that already separates appearance from reality.”6 In saying this York is again controlling audience response. Certainly it is regrettable that Richard has lost his power; York even encourages our sympathy. Yet he has made us aware that Bolingbroke's ascendancy is an unavoidable political reality.

York next appears in IV.i, after Bolingbroke has for the moment settled the contention between Bagot and Aumerle. He enters in an official capacity to address Bolingbroke:

Great Duke of Lancaster, I come to thee
From plume-pluck'd Richard, who with willing soul
Adopts thee heir, and his high sceptre yields
To the possession of thy royal hand.
Ascend his throne, descending now from him,
And long live Henry, fourth of that name!

(11. 107-112)

York functioned as Lord Governor of England in the absence of Richard, thus acting for Richard. In the above passage he is functioning as a mediator between Richard and Bolingbroke, thus acting for both men. Later in this same scene, Bolingbroke asks that Richard be brought in and York offers to “be his conduct” (1. 157). In making this suggestion, he is offering himself to the service of Bolingbroke. When Richard and York re-enter, Richard asks why he has been sent for and York again responds, as a spokesman for the new king:

To do that office of thine own good will
Which tired majesty did make thee offer:
The resignation of thy state and crown
To Henry Bolingbroke.

(11. 177-180)

York's shift in allegiance is now complete. And he has brought the audience to the same point, namely a recognition that Bolingbroke's rise and Richard's decline have been the necessary product of the political situation created by Richard himself. In Act II he had solemnly warned Richard of what lay ahead if he pursued his intended course. York's subsequent actions as representative and mediator have kept him before us, and they have grown out of his premise that Richard's behavior has pricked his “tender patience to those thoughts / Which honour and allegiance cannot think” (II.i. 207-208).

In the final act of the play, York enacts his loyalty to the new king. Previously he has given only vocal or official support, but in Act V he tries to have his own son Aumerle executed for his treasonous plot. Even before this, however, York appears with the Duchess of York in his castle describing the triumphant entry of Bolingbroke into London at a “stately pace,” “Whilst all tongues cried ‘God save thee, Bolingbroke!’” (V.ii. 11). The tone of this description is, of course, an indication of his admiration of the new king, and it also amplifies the relationship between York and the people of England. He has seen Bolingbroke from the same point of view as the common people, and his tongue seems to be one with theirs as they cry “God save thee, Bolingbroke!”

After describing Bolingbroke, York comments on how dust was thrown upon Richard's “sacred head” (1. 30). In a passage highly relevant to the thematic issues of the play, York continues:

Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combating with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience,
That had not God for some strong purpose steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted
And barbarism itself have pitied him.
But heaven hath a hand in these events,
To whose high will we bound our calm contents.
To Bolingbroke are we sworn subjects now,
Whose state and honour I for aye allow.

(11. 31-40)

This speech emphasizes, on one hand, one of the central paradoxes of the play, namely that while Richard is losing his royal and official stature, he simultaneously gains sympathy, ironically through York. While inducing audience sympathy, York is also attempting to hold a providential view of history in which the deposing of a rightful monarch by power politics can be regarded as a working out of a divine plan for England. The sympathy expressed is York's, not the commoners' of England, because “God for some strong purpose steels / The hearts of men.” In his further comments York again explicitly states his new allegiance and his motivation. Earlier he seemed to act out of political necessity as a part of the working of God's “high will.” In adopting this position York places himself in a dilemma. He desires to have both the old and the new, a king to whom loyalty is divinely required, but also a king who has achieved his crown through political power and military force. Even in his ambiguous position, York acts contrary to the orthodox Tudor doctrine in his support of a king who has gained his throne by deposing a divinely ordained king. Yet it is at this point that York disqualifies himself has a spokesman for the play. He sees Bolingbroke perhaps as the nation saw him, but seemingly not as Shakespeare saw him.

Later in V.ii York questions Aumerle about the letter protruding from his garment. When Aumerle refuses to respond to York's satisfaction, he snatches the letter and, upon reading it, reacts violently with “Treason, foul treason! Villain! Traitor! Slave!” (1. 73). The spontaneity of this reaction to the letter is indicative of his new kind of acceptance of Bolingbroke. Earlier in the play he gives evidence of an emotional attachment and affection for Richard, but until this point he has offered primarily an intellectual acquiescence to Bolingbroke. His response to the letter suggests that now he possesses a similar kind of wholehearted, emotional devotion to his new ruler. His response is not, as Coleridge suggested, one of “abstract loyalty,”7 however misguided the loyalty may be. In the ensuing action York vows to reveal the treasonous plot to Bolingbroke, but his wife makes an emotional appeal to York as the father of Aumerle. He is deaf to all such appeals and responds:

Away, fond woman! Were he twenty times my son,
I would appeach him.

(11. 101-102)

York's willingness to have his son executed implies, of course, that his confused loyalty is destructive, but the great irony here is that his loyalty is to a man who is king not by virtue of his being divinely anointed but of his possessing political and military power. Yet the basis of York's loyalty is something akin to divine right, the working of God's “high will.”

The ensuing scene in which York and his Duchess alternately appeal to the king for justice and mercy is a ritual enactment, superficially of York's new loyalty and, more profoundly, of the confusion of York's position. He demands of his son a complete loyalty to Bolingbroke. Aumerle is, in a sense, doing the same thing Bolingbroke has done, except that Aumerle is attempting to place Richard, the divinely anointed, back on the throne. York is condemning the very action he himself has only shortly before condoned. Thus, York's answer to the question of the right to depose is ambiguous. The answer of the whole play is correspondingly ambiguous since at the play's end Bolingbroke has brought some greatly needed stability and strength to the throne, but the ominous warnings of Carlisle (IV.i. 115-149) and Richard (V.i. 55-60) temper any optimism about a glorious and peaceful reign for Henry IV.

Some significance may also be attached to the fact that, in this same scene, Bolingbroke gives York an official function in the new government. After granting pardon to Aumerle, he orders York:

Good uncle, help to order several powers,
To Oxford, or where'er these traitors are.

(11. 140-141)

Whereas earlier York had acted for Bolingbroke in a ritualistic capacity in speaking for the court at Richard's deposition, he now assumes an active role in the defense of the new king. He thereby balances his earlier role as Lord Governor without means to fulfill his function. Now as a deputy for Bolingbroke he is again in the role of the defender of his country, but, we may assume, with the necessary means.

This analysis of the multiple and interdependent functions of York in Richard II provides both some new insights into the complexities of that play, and also some insights into Shakespeare's dramatic art. Shakespeare's handling of York demonstrates, I believe, his concern with how an audience responds to character and action. In a general sense, York is some indication of Shakespeare's intention while still being an integral part of the action.


  1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures on Shakespeare, etc. (London: Everyman Library, 1907), pp. 116-117; Peter Ure, intro., King Richard II (Cambridge, Mass.: Arden Shakespeare), p. lxxiii; Derek Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford, 1957), p. 45.

  2. Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare's Histories (San Marino, 1947), p. 211, sees the central issue of the play as the deposition of a king and the central scene as the deposition scene, a scene of sacrilege which produced the War of Roses. E. M. W. Tillyard in Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944), p. 261, views the play primarily as a struggle between Richard and Bolingbroke climaxed in the deposition scene, and he concludes that “in doctrine the play is entirely orthodox.” Irving Ribner in The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, 1957), p. 156, observes that “when Shakespeare came to write Richard II he could regard the deposition of Richard as an historical fait accompli which was sinful and which ultimately resulted in the horror of the War of Roses, … but which in its immediate effects was good for England because it replaced a weak and ineffective king with a strong and efficient one.” Peter Ure, in his introduction to the new Arden Richard II, commenting on the structure of the play, notes that the political climax of the play occurs when the news arrives that Bolingbroke has gained control of the land.

  3. Ure, p. lxii.

  4. All quotations from the play are from King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure (Cambridge, Mass.: Arden Shakespeare, 1956).

  5. “Appearance, Reality, and Moral Order in Richard II,MLQ, [Modern Language Quarterly] XXV (1964), 36.

  6. Traversi, p. 35.

  7. Coleridge, p. 117.

James A. Riddell (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4314

SOURCE: Riddell, James A. “The Admirable Character of York.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 21, no. 4 (winter 1979): 492-502.

[In the following essay, Riddell defends the character of York against negative criticism, and asserts that York exemplifies the Christian ideal of magnanimity.]

Coleridge's high opinion of the character of York in Richard II has been shared by few critics in the past century. Although it is unlikely that anyone today would be as shrill (but at the same time obsequious) in disagreeing with Coleridge as Swinburne finally was, the essense of his view persists today. The figure of York, said Swinburne, “is an incomparable, an incredible, an unintelligible and a monstrous nullity. Coleridge's attempt to justify the ways of York to man—to any man of common sense and common sentiment—is as amusing in Coleridge as it would be amazing in any other and therefore lesser commentator.”1 It seems often to be the case that the more a critic admires Richard, the less he admires York. Swinburne thought that Shakespeare's “attention and sympathy” were directed away from other characters because his interest “was wholly concentrated on the single figure of Richard” (Study, p. 41). If, like Pater and Yeats,2 one finds Richard to be a poet (therefore sincere and attractive), one may subsequently find York to be a politician (therefore hollow and repellent). As Mark Van Doren puts it: “[Richard] is a touching person. … And the Duke of York, fussing like old Capulet over the grievous state of the realm, … is not so much a sorrower as a worrier; he is perhaps a parody, in the decrepit key, of Richard's full-noted grief.”3 In the years since Van Doren's judgment York has even been seen as so feeble and spineless that he must reflect some reservations Shakespeare had about traditional notions of order and ceremony.4 Or (when York's inner feelings are analyzed rather than Shakespeare's) he has been seen as doggedly pursuing the punishment of his son as a way of expiating his own guilt.5 More charitably, and most commonly, York has been seen as being merely weak and/or confused.6

To be sure, a few modern critics have expressed higher opinions of York's character, notably Peter Ure and Norman Rabkin. Rabkin sees York as being one of “Shakespeare's ‘reflector’ characters, who … epitomizes and directs our shifting sympathies. Like us York begins with a poignant sense of loyalty to the crown; like us he soon finds his sympathy virtually exhausted and declares an end to his former approval.”7 Ure refers us to Coleridge's observations, saying that they “are not likely to be bettered.”8 Perhaps they will not be bettered; however, they are no more than lecture notes and are so brief that they stand merely as assertions, with no evidence to convince anyone not already disposed to agree with them. Coleridge's fragmentary comments are:

The admirable character of York. Religious loyalty struggling with a deep grief and indignation at the king's vices and follies; and adherence to his word once given in spite of all, even the most natural feelings. …

York's character. The weakness of old age and the overwhelmingness of circumstance struggling with his sense of duty; and the function of both exhibited in boldness of words and feebleness in act.9

Coleridge was right, but for reasons that may never have entered his mind.

Before I proceed, however, I should like to mention that critics of York, those who disagree with Coleridge, exist entirely outside the play of Richard II: no character in the play has a bad word to say about York, either to his face or behind his back.10 Indeed, when anyone in the play has occasion to characterize York, it is always in terms of approbation. The Duchess of Gloucester, Woodstock's widow, calls him “good old York.”11 The gardener, whose comments on the state of the realm appear to be so sane, talks of the “good Duke of York” (III.iv.70). Richard, wisely or not, does leave York in charge of his kingdom. Bolingbroke, sincerely or not, is always respectful of his uncle York, as Richard is not of his uncle Gaunt. (As I discuss the character of York in this article, I hope that it will become clear that Richard could have been wise in placing trust in him and Bolingbroke could have been sincere in respecting him.)

Those who contend that York is feeble, or worse—often much worse—usually fault him for his behavior on two occasions: when he takes Bolingbroke into Berkeley Castle after withdrawing himself from conflict between Richard and Bolingbroke, and when he discloses to Henry that his son Aumerle has subscribed to plot against Henry. These are taken to be examples of his feebleness of spirit and feebleness of wit. It is, however, on precisely these two occasions that York demonstrates Christian stoicism and magnanimity (the former being an aspect of the latter), as would have been more immediately apparent to a sixteenth-century audience than to a modern one. Almost every contemporary author who touched upon the conduct of great men emphasized the significance of magnanimity, and it is from the point of view of this virtue, as it was perceived by Shakespeare's contemporaries, that I wish here to consider York's actions.12 The classical antecedents for the sixteenth-century writers who dealt with magnanimity were preponderantly Roman, rather than Greek, and among the Romans none so important as Cicero, and then Seneca. Two qualities of magnanimity that Cicero stresses are that it is a passive as well as an active virtue and that its chief end is not personal satisfaction but rather the sustaining of the commonweal.13 As an active virtue magnanimity involves heroic exploits. As a passive virtue it involves an aloofness towards either the praises or the scorn of others, and, furthermore, a stoical capacity to accept one's own strengths or weaknesses, one's fortunes, indifferently. Thus, for instance, one faces death, as any other misfortune, with equanimity. As La Primaudaye says: “When a man is past all hope of saving his life, … perfect Magnanimitie alwaies knoweth how to finde out a convenient remedie and wise consolation, not suffering himselfe to be vexed therewith.”14

If a man is to face the loss of his life without suffering himself to be vexed, he surely must face any lesser calamity with patience and resolve. In the light of this consideration, it is plausible that York's behavior towards Bolingbroke when they meet in front of Berkeley Castle is a manifestation of York's magnanimity. In Thomas Lodge's translation of Seneca there is a passage that bears on this aspect of magnanimity:

These things which we undertake are to bee estimated, and our forces are to be compared with those things which wee will attempt. For there must alwais be a greater force in him that beareth, then in the burthen. These waights must need beare him down, that are greater then he is that carrieth them. Besides there are some affaires that are not so great as they are fruitfull, and breed many other businesse, and these are to be avoyded, from whence a new and divers occasion of trouble ariseth: neither must thou adventure thither, whence thou canst not freely returne againe. Set thy hand to these things, whose end thou mayest either effect or at least-wise hope. These things are to be left that extend themselves farther then the act, and end not there where thou intendest they should.15

What York is able to undertake, admonition and rebuke, he proceeds with; what he is unable to undertake, armed resistance, he abandons. Helpless to control events (through no fault of his own but age), he resigns himself to them, and in the conflict between Richard and Bolingbroke declares himself “neuter”:16

Well, well, I see the issue of these arms.
I cannot mend it, I must needs confess,
Because my power is weak and all ill left.
But if I could, by Him that gave me life,
I would attach you all, and make you stoop
Unto the sovereign mercy of the king;
But since I cannot, be it known unto you
I do remain as neuter. So, fare you well,
Unless you please to enter in the castle,
And there repose you for this night.
An offer, uncle, that we will accept.
But we must win your grace to go with us
To Bristow castle, which they say is held
By Bushy, Bagot, and their complices,
The caterpillars of the commonwealth,
Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.
It may be I will go with you; but yet I'll pause
For I am loath to break our country's laws.
Nor friends, nor foes, to me welcome you are.
Things past redress are now with me past care.


Given the circumstance in which York finds himself, his observation in the last line amounts to an expression of “perfect Magnanimitie.” He has assessed his opportunities, has realized that the burden is too great for him possibly to bear, and has acquiesced, without recrimination, without distress.

This is a quality of York which was introduced into this part of the story by Shakespeare. It is well known that he altered the role of York from that which he found in his sources. In Holinshed, the reasons given for York's action (or inaction) when he was to confront Bolingbroke are quite different: “The Duke of Yorke, whome king Richard had left as governour of the realme in his absence, hearing that his nephue the duke of Lancaster was thus arrived, and had gathered an armie, he also assembled a puissant power of men of armes and archers … but all was in vaine, for there was not a man that willinglie would thrust out one arrow against the duke of Lancaster, or his partakers, or in anie wise offend him or his freends.”17 The significant effect of Shakespeare's alteration, I suggest, is to place emphasis on York's making a decision rather than having his troops make it for him, and, more important, to place emphasis on the reason York made his decision as he did. What we see in the play but do not see in Holinshed is York's patience, his magnanimity.

If York is perceived as being magnanimous, his actions in “appeaching” his son of treason are not only consistent with his character, but also provide further evidence of its excellence. I do not mean to suggest that the York-Aumerle-Henry episode reflects only York's magnanimity. York, as is the case with other venerable counselors in Shakespeare, is shown to be occasionally foolish, even ridiculous. Like Gonzalo in The Tempest, he becomes a victim of his own high-mindedness by persisting too narrowly in it. York neglects to eschew anger in his diligent attempt to provide for the good of the commonweal. His excess, however, should not subvert our understanding of his virtue. I think that we should see York as an example of magnanimous man, but one who is slightly flawed—ironically by a passionate devotion to a virtue the central quality of which is dispassion. Beyond this, however, we see York taking action when there is every reason to believe that the action will be fruitful. Furthermore, the action he takes is at the expense of his personal benefit, for the benefit of the king, the law, the commonweal. In this he is something like the prince whose virtue provides an example in the courtesy book of Bertrand de Loque:

Zaleucus enacted his lawes, that whosoever should bee found to commit adultery, should have both his eies put out: it fell out that his owne sonne was convinced of this crime, wherefore his father would in any wise have the law executed upon him: and sure so it had bin, had not the importunate praiers of his people, entreating him to remit wholly the culpe, moved him some thing in the matter: but see what hee accorded unto the people, because he would not have his lawes violated, and to be made without effect: to satisfy the law, hee put out one of his own eies, and commaunded that his sonne should have one of his eies put forth in the like manner.18

Fully as persistent as Zaleucus in upholding the law of the state, York demands the death of Aumerle for treason. Here, again, Shakespeare's use of his sources is instructive. There is nothing in the chronicles to suggest that Aumerle was an only son, and indeed historically he had a younger brother. However, Shakespeare focuses our attention on the absolute nature of York's commitment by making Aumerle an only son and by causing the Duchess to dilate upon the implication of the fact, in particular emphasizing that she and her husband can no longer have children. York is willing, in short, to sacrifice his entire posterity for the sake of the commonweal.

If, indeed, Shakespeare intended his audience to perceive York as being magnanimous, what is the purpose? I think that Rabkin's notion about York being a “reflector” character is close to the mark. However, I would alter his evaluation somewhat, and would suggest that York is a kind of measure against which Richard—or one significant quality of Richard—can be judged. I suggest that Richard's chief failing is his lack of magnanimity as a king. It is now a commonplace that in Richard II Henry's decisiveness as king is set off against Richard's indecisiveness. But there is a much more comprehensive statement about Richard's character implicit in the contrast between him and York. York is not a king, and so the contrast is not one to be drawn between men of equal station. Nor is York a gardener, and so the contrast cannot be seen as allegorical, drawn between one at the top and one near the bottom of the order of mankind. We are to be informed by the quality of York's spirit, and that can be seen through his devotion to the principles of magnanimity. The more we are reminded of York's devotion to those principles, the more we are invited to recognize Richard's indifference to them. Jacques Hurault's rather full description of a magnanimous man is virtually a catalogue of qualities Richard should possess but does not:

Magnanimitie or noblemindedness is the meane betweene bacemindednes and overloftines. … The nobleminded man advanceth not himselfe for honor, riches, or prosperity, neither maketh he the greater account of himself for them; if he fall from his degree or loose his goods, he stoopeth not for it; for he is upheld with a certain force and stoutnes of mind. Contrariwise, the baceminded or faint-hearted man, becometh wonderfully vainglorious of every little peece of good fortune or advauncement that befalleth him, and at every little losse that betideth him, he shrinketh and is cast downe like an abject, as if he lost al, because he hath not the force of mind, to beare his fortune either good or bad.19

Richard, however, is not borne up by stoutness of mind when he falls from degree. His stooping behavior in the deposition scene, furthermore, is the opposite of York's behavior when he reflects upon the losses Richard has exacted from him, and from his brothers and Bolingbroke as well. York has asked:

How long shall I be patient? ah, how long
Shall tender duty make me suffer wrong?
Not Gloucester's death, nor Herford's banishment,
Nor Gaunt's rebukes, nor England's private wrongs,
Nor the prevention of poor Bolingbroke
About his marriage, nor my own disgrace,
Have ever made me sour my patient cheek,
Or bend one wrinkle on my sovereign's face.


York refuses to make public, or even to take personally, his private losses; tender duty compels that he forbear. Richard, on the other hand, insists upon making personal his public losses, and, worse, upon making a public display of his personal grief. It is an understatement to say that he has not “the force of mind to beare his fortune either good or bad.”

Hurault continues with a list of qualities that a magnanimous man should possess:

The nobleminded man hath six properties: the first is, that he thrusteth not himself into perils rashly and for small trifles, but for great matters, whereof he may have great honor and profit. … The second propertie of the nobleminded, is to reward vertuous persons, and such as have imploied themselves in his service. Whereunto a king ought to have a good eie. … The third propertie of the nobleminded, is to do but little, and not to hazard hisself at all times. For a man cannot do great things easily and often. The fourth property, is to be soothfast, and to hate lying and all the appurtenances thereof, as flatterers, talebearers, and such others, which ought to be odious, most cheefly unto princes, who should be a rule to other men.

(sigs. Vl-Vlv)

Although there is not at every point a convenient comparison to be made between York and Richard, the pattern is apparent; there are, of course, more examples of Richard's behavior than of York's. In Hurault's summary, the first and third properties are much alike, as are the second and fourth. In both (or all) respects, Richard's faults are clear. He pursues his Irish wars, where the gain to be realized cannot be great but where the hazard to himself is likely to be, and does prove, disastrous. His eye for good service, as shown many times in the play, is altogether false. The seductive flattery of Bushy, Bagot, and Greene is preferred to the sound advice of counselors such as Gaunt or York, as York reminds Gaunt just before Richard pointedly ignores Gaunt's appeal from his deathbed. York poses his argument in explicitly patriotic language; the distinction between indifference to flattery and susceptibility to it is set in terms of sound English values as opposed to frivolous foreign ones. When Gaunt hopes that his “death's sad tale may yet undeaf [Richard's] ear,” York replies:

No, it is stopp'd with other flattering sounds,
As praises, of whose taste the wise are fond,
Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound
The open ear of youth doth always listen,
Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy-apish nation
Limps after in base imitation.


Later in the scene, when Northumberland, Willoughby, and Ross determine to join forces with Bolingbroke, they do so citing Richard's being “not himself, but basely led / By flatterers” (ll.241-42) as justification. Through the very fact that he is not a “rule to other men,” he is perceived as an example of misrule, an invitation to rebellion.

Hurault's final properties are also relevant:

The fifth property of the nobleminded, is that he is no great craver nor no great borrower; assuring himself that nothing is so deerly bought, as that which is gotten by intreatance. … The sixt propertie of the nobleminded, is that he passeth not whether he be praised or dispraised, so long as he himselfe do well.

(sig. VlV)

Richard is a great craver, as witness, for instance, his seizure of the “royalties and rights” of Bolingbroke, which subsequently will contribute greatly to his own danger, as York accurately predicts:

If you do wrongfully seize Herford's rights,
Call in the letters patents that he hath
By his attorneys-general to sue
His livery, and deny his off'red homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.


The sixth property touches upon all of those in Hurault's catalogue, and is the one most obviously wanting in Richard. Richard's love of praise is, if anything, doubly evident in his inability to distinguish praise from flattery, as we are reminded throughout the play. Richard, in fact, courts attention of any sort, so long as it is personal. When he looks into the mirror in the deposition scene he is searching for praise or dispraise, rather than disinterested counsel. And in his final appearance (V.v), the implied dispraise of even an animal causes Richard dismay, and provokes his trivial lament that his royal horse, Barbary, has willingly borne Bolingbroke to be crowned.

I do not mean to suggest that Shakespeare rigorously followed Hurault, or any other guide to the proper behavior of magistrates. Nor do I insist that at all times York is held up as a figure against which Richard can be measured. I do believe, however, that both characters are more accurately perceived if one considers how the principles of magnanimity apply to each. Magnanimity is a state of mind; although its manifestations in a prince are of necessity different from its manifestations in lesser creatures, they are the result of the same impulse. Therefore when we see York's exemplary devotion to the principles of magnanimity, we are reminded of Richard's neglect of those principles—if, as members of a sixteenth-century audience would be, we are aware of what the principles are.


  1. A. C. Swinburne, Three Plays of Shakespeare (London: Harper, 1909), p. 71. In this volume, published in the year of his death, Swinburne carried to an extreme the misgivings he felt about the character of York some thirty years previously: “It is for me at least impossible to determine what I doubt if the poet could for himself have clearly defined—the main principle, the motive and the meaning of such characters as York, Norfolk, and Aumerle” (A Study of Shakespeare [1880; rpt. London: Heinemann, 1920], p. 39).

  2. Walter Pater, Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (London: Macmillan, 1889), pp. 196-212 passim; W. B. Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil (London: Bullen, 1903), pp. 156-67 passim.

  3. Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York: Holt, 1939), p. 95.

  4. S. C. Sen Gutpa, Shakespeare's Historical Plays (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 117; Sheldon P. Zitner, “Aumerle's Conspiracy,” SEL [Studies in English Literature], 14 (1974), 254-56.

  5. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 158; James Winny, The Player King (London: Chatto and Windus, 1968), p. 76; Roy Battenhouse, “Tudor Doctrine and the Tragedy of Richard II,Rice University Studies: Renaissance Study in Honor of Carroll Camden, 60, No. 2 (1974), 46.

  6. For instance: Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), p. 28; A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (London: Longmans, 1961), p. 27; M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London: Arnold, 1961), p. 250; A. Norman Jeffares, “In One Person Many People: King Richard the Second,” The Morality of Art: Essays Presented to G. Wilson Knight, ed. D. W. Jefferson (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969), p. 56; Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 123.

  7. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 87.

  8. King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, New Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1956), p. lxxii, n.2.

  9. Coleridge's Shakespeare Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (London: Constable, 1930), I, 153, 154.

  10. It may be argued that York's wife faults him. That argument, however, turns against itself, as the essence of her complaint is that he acts too much upon principle, rather than upon sentiment as she does. Her dispraise, I intend to demonstrate, does more to call attention to a strength of York's character than to a weakness of it.

  11. I.ii. 67. All references to Richard II are to Ure's edition.

  12. The term magnanimity can be applied not only to a concept, but also to various manifestations of that concept, and, depending upon context, could refer to qualities as diverse as physical courage, generosity, or humility. It is the concept with which I am concerned here; although a discussion of it must necessarily be made in terms of its manifestations, no one of those should be construed as its full definition.

  13. De Officiis, I.65 and I.88. Section numbers are from the Loeb edition (London: Heinemann, 1913). In Honor and the Epic Hero (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1960), Father Maurice B. McNamee points out differences between Aristotelian and Ciceronian concepts of magnanimity (chap. 3). The views of Cicero, and of Romans in general, are those which most affected political and moral treatises of Shakespeare's time.

  14. Pierre de la Primaudaye, The French Academie, trans. T[homas] B[owes], 4th ed. (1602), sig. T7.

  15. The Workes (1614), sig. Hhh4.

  16. This term, it is well to observe, has a precise political meaning; see OED [Oxford English Dictionary]: “2. Taking neither one side nor the other; not declaring oneself on, or rendering assistance to either side.” It is perverse, I think, to argue as Wilbur Sanders does that the political meaning is subverted by “grammatical senses of the word” (The Dramatist and the Received Idea [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968], p. 184). He finds the sense of neuter gender particularly damaging, “for it is a man who speaks, claiming a kind of ‘neutrality’ which is proper only to inanimate nature, impossible to man,” as though a political act were impossible to man. Zitner's wry comment, “‘I do remain as neuter,’ says York with formidable insight” (p. 245), makes a point only if one forces onto the term a definition unknown in Shakespeare's time. York's invitation to Bolingbroke, issued to one who is neither friend nor foe, is quite consistent with York's mere acceptance of that which is beyond his control.

  17. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, III (London: Routledge, 1960), pp. 398-99.

  18. Bertrand de Loque, Discourses of Warre and Single Combat, trans. J[ohn] Eliot (1591), sig. D4. The chief concern throughout the text was indicated by Eliot, in his dedication to Essex. It was, he hoped, “now as fit to be perused as patronized by some magnanimous Martialist of our own Countrie. It may please you then (Right Ho.) to reade these Treatises in a rude stile, and shew them your favourable countinance, that they maie passe to the view of all valiant warriours (in whose number our countrie counteth your Lo. formost for your forwardly indevours and approved magnanimitie)” (sig. A2v).

  19. Jacques Hurault, Politicke, Moral, and Martial Discourses, trans. Arthur Golding (1595), Sig. V1.

Ace G. Pilkington (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16582

SOURCE: Pilkington, Ace G. “The BBC Richard II.” In Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V, pp. 29-63. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Pilkington offers a detailed assessment of the highlights and deficiencies of the 1979 BBC production of Richard II, directed by David Giles and starring Derek Jacobi as Richard.]


John Wilders told me in a June 1987 interview that two of the constraints on the BBC Richard II were (as might be expected from the general background of the series) time and money. He used the Mowbray-Bolingbroke confrontation as an example of a scene where “the camera tended simply to shift in a rather automatic way from one to another.” And he went on to argue “that if more had been done with having many more cameras and many more camera angles and more interesting lighting and so on, it wouldn't have been quite such a routine, workaday production.” He pointed out, however, that “we would not only have needed a bigger budget, a much bigger technical crew, but it would also simply have taken a very great deal more time in rehearsal and the actual recording it.”

As John Wilders indicates, the production could have been improved with more time to rehearse and film. The coordination required among director, actors, and camera crew cannot be achieved without careful planning, no matter how capable the artists involved may be; the choreography required on a soundstage must be almost balletic in its precision. Actors must, of course, hit marks to remain within the effective range of the camera. This is complicated when an actor crosses from one part of the set to another; it becomes still more complex when groups are involved. For instance, in a three shot, the actors must carefully restrict their movements and stay close together. They must also keep to the prearranged schedule, delaying or speeding up their dialogue and inserting pauses to allow the camera the time it needs for changes of movement and focus.1 It is worth remembering in this context that the BBC productions were sometimes taped in blocks of as much as fifteen minutes.

There are, indeed, many signs in Richard II of the haste that lack of money creates. The framing is often sloppy, the actors sometimes shuffle to get out of the way of the camera and each other, there is a worrisome sameness to the camera angles, and, especially in the early scenes, actors are often crammed into shots for no reason other than to add more costumes and bodies. Thus, through most of Bolingbroke's early speeches, he is in two and three shots with stony-faced actors who look blankly away from the action and even down at the floor in what seems much closer to actors' boredom than courtiers' embarrassment. Reaction shots in general tend to be slow (and with the notable exception of Jacobi's) not well thought out. There is perfunctory pointing of a camera at an actor as an illustration to go with a particular line instead of using the reaction shot as a means (like lines and often equally important) of advancing plot and characterization.

Here, for example, are some of the problems that occur in the first three scenes:

At 1.1.36, “And mark my greeting well,” the back of a head bobs between Bolingbroke and the camera and then moves away again. At 1.2.9, “Finds brotherhood in thee no sharper spur?” there is an unsteady camera movement. At 1.2.58, “Yet one word more,” Gaunt is partly out of the frame, the most common type of trouble.2

At 1.3.7, “Marshal, demand of yonder champion,” Richard's face is too distant to be clearly visible in the shallow focus this production often employs. This too is a frequent difficulty, as the following examples show. At 1.3.78, “God in thy good cause make thee prosperous,” Richard is visible in the background during Gaunt's speech, an excellent idea that comes to nothing because the king's features are so blurred as to be indistinguishable. At 1.3.116, “Attending but the signal to begin,” Richard signals, but his face is again unclear.

At 1.3.141, “Till twice five summers have enriched our fields,” there is a cut to Richard, but in the background Gaunt's shoulder and a fringe of hair rock in and out of the frame, partly, no doubt, as a result of the crowded acting conditions. At 1.3.166, “Within my mouth you have enjailed my tongue,” Mowbray is in a two shot with a bored actor who looks down. This is a repeated difficulty; there are many useless faces. Shortly after this, for example, Bolingbroke is in a shot that should belong to him, but two less important actors are seen more prominently than he is. At 1.3.179, “Lay on our royal sword your banished hands,” Gaunt is the cause of a similar problem; he is visible, shuffling from one foot to the other in a way unmotivated by anything but finding an unobtrusive place to stand.

At 1.3.268, “Will but remember me what a deal of world,” there is a more complicated difficulty than sloppy framing. Bolingbroke turns upscreen to speak to Gaunt, and as a result, we lose most of his expression. This would be an excellent place to employ a reverse angle shot, perhaps giving the film a three-dimensional feeling by shooting the reverse angle over Gaunt's shoulder. The result of that strategy would have been to add visual variety plus give us more of Gaunt's expression than we had of Bolingbroke's and all of Bolingbroke's reaction as well.

The difficulties I have so far listed might most readily be ascribed to a too-short shooting schedule. However, there is an overall problem of attitude as well, which appears most clearly in 2.1. This scene should, in my opinion, have been reshot, but, as I'm about to argue, it should first have been rethought. It follows the most cleverly filmed of the early scenes, the king and his courtiers in the baths, and has in addition Shakespeare's excellent stage (and even better screen) transition from Richard's “Pray God we may make haste and come too late!” to Gaunt's “Will the King come” to start things off. One of Giles's better ideas was the juxtaposition of the informalities at the baths with the informalities we see in the dress and attitudes of the two brothers. It is a vital scene for the plot, containing important confrontations and strong performances, made more prominent still by the decision to use this scene (or at least the first two-thirds of it) as the end of part 1 in the three-part structure, which the BBC imposed on the play. But the filming is marred not only by absence of time but also by the presence of Messina's conception of television Shakespeare as a “front row in the stalls with two fine actors shouting at each other.”3

For instance, at 2.1.11, “More are men's ends marked than their lives before,” York crosses downscreen between Gaunt and the camera on Gaunt's line for no discernible reason, and then Gaunt looks back to where York had been to deliver his next line. Surely something odd must have happened to leave two veteran actors in such straits. At 2.1.72, “What comfort, man? How fares it with aged Gaunt?” there is a desperate camera movement to bring a sliver of Richard to the screen while he speaks his line. At 2.1.113, “Landlord of England art thou now,” there is another example of confusion. Gaunt, who has been advancing on Richard during his speech, steps back at this point, which happens also to be the time when the camera switched to Richard for a reaction shot. Since Gaunt and the camera operator had not synchronized their movements and since only one camera appears to have been involved, Gaunt was left very clumsily out of frame before an equally clumsy cut to Richard.

At 2.1.117, “Darest with thy frozen admonition,” the camera is shooting over Gaunt's shoulder at Richard, who is upscreen, but instead of a shot that might have given us the two of them reacting to each other, all we get is the back of Gaunt's head. In fact, we do not see Gaunt's face from this point until the last half of 2.1.124. Far too often in this scene we are deprived of Gaunt's face, of Richard's, or of both. At 2.1.141, “I do beseech your Majesty, impute his words,” there is a similar problem. York is shouting upscreen at Richard, who is facing the wall.

Much in this scene was not caught by the camera. At 2.1.148, “Nay, nothing, all is said,” we fail to get Richard's first reaction to Gaunt's death because Richard is out of focus. At 2.1.151, “Be York the next that must be bankrout so!” we have only the back of York's head. At 2.1.155, “So much for that,” Richard moves quickly offscreen and then back; the camera can't keep up. At 2.1.175, “Than was that young and princely gentleman,” York moves completely out of frame. At 2.1.181, “Which his triumphant father's hand had won,” we have the back of Richard's head, while York is turned upscreen with his hand blocking what little we might otherwise have seen of his profile. At 2.1.184, “O, Richard, York is too far gone with grief,” York now turns downscreen and his face falls out of the frame. At 2.1.200, “Now afore God—” York follows Richard behind the other actors and neither is visible.

Many of the problems with what otherwise could have been a very strong scene come directly from giving the audience a seat in the stalls while two actors shout at each other. There is plenty of shouting, and the camera (there often appears to be only one) does seem to have been confined to the front seats of a hypothetical theater: it is capable of moving in for close-ups but not of shooting from the wings, from the back of the stage, or from anywhere overhead. As a result, we are burdened with the difficulties of the stage and television together. We have not the freedom of watching anything the director does not show us, and the sight lines are so clumsy and the camera's freedom of access so limited that much of the scene is not visible to anybody. Undoubtedly many of these problems could have been corrected with longer shooting time and more retakes, but many of the difficulties could also have been eliminated if the initial idea had been to film television rather than to record a stage production from the front rows.

In fairness to David Giles and his company, I should point out that the problems I have so far listed are at their worst in the early scenes of Richard II. There is a steady decline in the number of technical mistakes through the four BBC Shakespeares he directed and a corresponding increase in the flexibility of camera placement. In addition, the efficient handling of many specialized group shots in the difficult circumstances of Richard II demonstrates his expertise.

Several critics commented on Giles's skill. For Clive James, Giles “showed his firm hand immediately, framing the actors' faces as closely as possible while they got on with … speaking the text.”4 Jorgens similarly praises the “scene where Bolingbroke sentences Bushy and Green to death.” He points to “the confident use of the camera, which includes and excludes characters with precision,” providing “a striking contrast with the randomness of earlier productions.”5 I have indicated that it also provides a contrast (if not a striking one) with some other scenes in this production, but I do not mean to deny Giles's effectiveness. He should certainly be credited with the victories and finesses that emerged from a rough process.

In addition to the neat juxtaposition of informal scenes from Richard in the baths to Gaunt and York alone together, Giles has made other interesting connections. The last part of 2.1, from 224 to the end (the plot of the three conspirators), was cut away and set at the beginning of part 2, in Westminster, the Cloisters.6 And this whole miniscene was cleverly handled. We begin with Northumberland in close-up, speaking, it would seem, to himself. Then Ross, on his first line, turns back into the screen to make it a two shot, and finally Willoughby neatly steps in for a three shot. There is movement provided soon after by Northumberland crossing correctly behind prior to the three of them walking off as a group. Once they are all onscreen, their three faces are adroitly crammed together, providing a visual illustration for Ross's “We three are but thyself, and speaking so / Thy words are but as thoughts” (2.1.275-76). This visual concentration also helps to make them seem more positive, more certain of the success of that coming man (in two of the word's senses), Bolingbroke. The elimination of the first ninety-nine lines of 2.2 gives Giles an all-but-perfect jump cut from the absolute plan for action of Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby to York's plaintive “I know not what to do” (2.2.100).

That Giles is also capable of handling larger groupings is proved with the arrival of Bolingbroke in 2.3. The whole scene is nicely done, with especially crisp camera movement between Bolingbroke and York during their confrontation. At 2.3.122, “If that my cousin king be King in England,” we get a three shot with Northumberland cannily watching Bolingbroke's persuasion from the background. When Ross and Willoughby are added, we have a neat five shot with Bolingbroke standing silent in front while other voices speak his arguments for him. It is a visual summary of the progress from the three conspirators' certainty to York's dithering, Bushy, Bagot, and Green's fear, and the arrival of Bolingbroke himself. The film has told us, even without the text, that one of the next moves will be against the favorites.

Michael Manheim points to the symbolic use of long shots and close-ups as the strength in the filming of 3.3: “That both Richard and Northumberland are seen at a distance establishes the highly political, patently insincere nature of their exchange.” When “close-ups take over … Richard speaks his real feelings to his entourage.”7 A similar juxtaposing of private and public takes place in 4.1 when Bolingbroke, who has been using his private voice, switches at 4.1.199, “Are you contented to resign the crown?” to a public style of declamation, a contrast that the intimacy of television easily heightens. Giles has demonstrated his skill by achieving more than might be expected in such difficult circumstances.

In addition to time and money, there were other factors in the construction of the BBC's Richard II. The decisions made by the designers and directors in that first season reflected the concerns of the producer and his corporate sponsors, which were in turn dictated by the audience expectations they perceived and hoped to fulfill. Messina's initial idea for the series had involved an open-air production of As You Like It, which meant, according to set designer Tony Abbott, “that the studio productions must be able to go alongside the ultra-realism of the location productions.”8 Here again is the feeling of restriction I noted earlier. Despite William Walton's music for the opening, despite the reassuring presence of John Gielgud, there is a sense of smallness, of sameness, so that there will be fewer visual styles in a whole season of different plays than in Olivier's Henry V. The decision, however, was part of the producer's concern for the expectations of his audience. And according to at least one reviewer, Messina may not have been conservative (or consistent) enough. Philip Purser complained that if the BBC had decided to limit itself to “reliable texts in a straightforward studio setting—an acoustic cube as the modern equivalent of Shakespeare's wooden ‘O,’” it should not then go “frolicking off on location in Scotland for ‘As You Like It.’”9

Tony Abbott describes the style that finally emerged in Richard II as “stylised realism.”10 That there were distinct limitations both on the realism and the stylization is clear from the handling of the tournament scene (1.3). David Giles says the scene was “an absolute swine.” He goes on to explain the impossibility of doing the scene realistically in a television studio but points out that they used real horses to avoid the alternate danger of too much stylization, because “if we had gone too stylised with the list scene we would have had to stylise the play all the way through.” Giles is apparently aware that a mixture of styles in the same film (or the same season) was not one of his options.

He is also suspicious of too much stylization because “on television where what you see is a real head against a bit of stylised background you can only stylise if you design it shot by shot.” Though later productions in the series, such as The Winter's Tale (and his own Henry V), tend to contradict Giles's initial assumption, it seems to me that his comments are another example of the pressure of truncated rehearsal and shooting schedules. He continues, “There certainly wasn't time for that here and I'm not sure I'd have wanted to do that anyway.”11 He is slightly defensive and almost apologetic about the only part of the filming that was noticeably unusual.

Perhaps David Giles has good reason to sound apologetic. It was, in fact, this sequence that prompted those remarks by Cedric Messina about “arty-crafty” shooting, which I have already quoted. After discussing what he saw as the healthy habit of shooting for fifteen minutes without a break, Messina mentioned that Richard's soliloquy had been cut into ten different shots; he then went on to defend this seeming deviation from his policy of plain shooting: “We've done nothing sensational in the shooting of it—there's no arty-crafty shooting at all.”12

Again, such comments indicate Messina's attempts to fulfill the expectations of his mass audience. He says he hoped the productions would “stimulate people who … notice Hamlet advertised in their neighborhood theatre to say, ‘I saw it on the box; I think it's a good play. Let's go in and see it.’”13 Apparently, as Messina envisions the viewing experience, his audience must be introduced to art gradually, with no visual shocks to warn them that they have switched to something different from their ordinary fare.14

David Giles's decision about the costumes for Richard II, which brought him into conflict with the overall costume policy and with Robin Fraser-Paye, the costume designer for the production, tends to support my reading of Messina's remarks. Giles said he did not want the costumes to resemble The Book of Hours but

to look as much like clothes as possible.15 Robin … said to me, “But they're extraordinary clothes.” I said, “Yes, I know … and I do know Richard spent £2000 on one suit … but I want them to look real—everyday clothes that the audience can accept.”16

In this case the goal for the costumes in the histories “to be historically accurate to the period in which the play is set”17 had to give way to what Giles (and Messina behind him) thought his “unsophisticated” audience could accept as real clothes.18 Robin Fraser-Paye solved the problem by toning down the color palette and omitting the more extreme fashions.19

Many of the decisions that moved the production toward realism and away from “arty-crafty” shooting were also designed (as might be expected) to reduce the director's impact and importance. David Bevington, for example, calls Giles's direction (of 1H4 but the description applies equally well to R2) “low-key” and his “interpretation less insistent than that in the [stage] productions of Burrell, Seale, Hall, Hands, Nunn and others.”20 I see this reduction of the director's influence as designed because of Messina's obvious desire to avoid “arty” direction and let “the plays speak for themselves.” Of course, plays do not speak, actors do, and this too is clearly one of Messina's designs—to let the actors speak to the audience with as little interference as possible. In the process David Giles has become much less important than some of his stage counterparts, while the actors have emerged as—to some extent—auteurs.

There is nothing particularly unusual about the actor as auteur; both Olivier and Welles might—by stretching a point—be so described. Indeed, Patrick McGilligan argues that a performer who “shifts meanings, influences the narrative and style of a film and altogether signifies something clear-cut to audiences despite the intent of writers and directors” is an auteur.21

Obviously, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier do much more than this, while the actors in the BBC Shakespeares do less. But McGilligan discusses an intermediate situation, where the actor may also be an auteur. In the work of three Warner Brothers directors of the thirties and forties—William Keighley, Roy Del Ruth, and Lloyd Bacon—McGilligan identifies a straightforward, quick style of making movies, which “gave the actors … free rein to interpret their roles: indeed, there was little time for anything else.”22 Bacon, for example, shot Picture Snatcher in fifteen days,23 a feat that is perhaps comparable to filming a Shakespeare play in six (allowing for the relative difficulty of the material and for the fact that Bacon had no time for separate rehearsal).

In short, given the preconceptions of the producer (including a bias toward realism that foregrounds the individual performance at the expense of any overall pattern), the extremely brief time allowed for shooting, the tendency to film the plays in large chunks when possible and to do retakes only when absolutely necessary, and keeping in mind that many of the actors had more experience with the material than the director did, it makes sense to look at the BBC Richard II (and the other plays of the second tetralogy) as the result of a combined effort. Of course, any film is a combined effort of many artists, but in the circumstances I have just described, the impact of any one of the chief players might be as great or greater than that of the director, and any analysis of the film must be arranged accordingly.

A clear example comes in Michael Manheim's review of Richard II. It is one of the most favorable reviews the production received, and it is undoubtedly strongly influenced by Manheim's admiration for the cast in general and Jacobi in particular. He ascribes the film's success to “the superb realization of the characters” and goes on to say, “Derek Jacobi is for me the best Richard witnessed in over thirty years.”24 Cedric Messina had to some extent anticipated this, calling the play “the tragedy of one man.”25

What emerges from this description of the making of the BBC Richard II is the clear subordination of an individual production to an overall “house style.” It might well be argued that such subordination is dangerous. As Messina himself had said, “Each play creates its own problems,”26 and shaping Richard II perforce to fit the preconceptions of BBC television realism meant rejecting a number of other forms the production could have taken. It might have been more logical to look first at the text and only then to determine the film to be made from it.

In examining Shakespeare's aims in the play, Stanley Wells says, “Shakespeare made a decision of fundamental importance. He decided to write this play entirely in verse.” He goes on to discuss the effects of this degree of “stylisation and artificiality in the language,” maintaining that “a number of the characters are so lacking in individuality that they seem mainly or entirely choric in function.”27

However, since pointing up such a choric function or foregrounding the stylization of the language can be undertaken by actors only when directorial decisions have paved the way, certain elements in Richard II were, of necessity, played down or shut out. Messina no doubt viewed this as part of the process of meeting the expectations of his various audiences, “what the layman would expect to see when he hears the name of … Richard II.” Hence, “in all the histories the aim is to be historically accurate to the period in which the play is set.”28 This principle (violated only when even stronger audience expectations got in the way) emerged in tragedies with historical settings as well, even when the tight budget might not have seemed able to support it. Russell Miller “was told by a disgruntled employee” that during the making of Romeo and Juliet, the only researcher was in the British Museum, “wading through Italian books to try and find out what a town square was like in Italy in the fifteenth century. And she can't even speak Italian.”29

Costume designer Odette Barrow indicates the kind of detail that was expected in the “semidocumentary style” for 1 Henry IV:

I had a problem with Hotspur. Historically, when his mother died he incorporated her arms with his. But Shakespeare manages to have her appear in Part 2 after Hotspur's death; so we thought, well, we'll have to give him his arms as they were before she died. So far as history is concerned his arms at the battle of Shrewsbury are therefore inaccurate, but as far as Shakespeare is concerned, they're right.30

Clearly, David Giles was not meant to be an auteur, making Shakespeare's material his own after the fashion of Orson Welles. Many of the options that would have made a directorial imprint possible had been eliminated. There was not even the inspiration of continuity, of seeing Richard II as the beginning of a four-part sequence. Despite Cedric Messina's description of the histories as a “sort of Curse of the House of Atreus in English,”31 there was initially no plan to produce the plays in the second tetralogy as a group. It is true that many of the actors do continue throughout the series, and Giles did direct all four; however, at the time he made Richard II, he “was not expecting to continue with the three Henrys.”32 Thus, it is not safe to regard decisions in Richard II as direct preparations for the later plays. The omission of Henry's reference to Hal, the inclusion of his mention of Glendower, and the change of actors in the part of Hotspur are therefore likely to be influenced by factors other than the connection between Richard II and 1 Henry IV. For example, the choice of Tim Pigott-Smith for Hotspur was probably the result of his success as Angelo in the first season's production of Measure for Measure.

The central interpretation that grew from David Giles's Richard II was, as I have indicated, as much a matter of what could not be done (or what was not allowed) as of what could. It had to fit (or at least seem to fit) Messina's vision of audience expectations, and it had to take into account the naturalism of the production and the interpretive importance (and even control) of the actors, especially Derek Jacobi. It also had to fit in with the BBC's emphasis on the history of the period in which the play was set. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the central interpretation which emerged was the result of cooperation between Giles and Jacobi (who had read history at university) and that it used the play's historical background as a starting point. In a way, Giles's creative use of history anticipated Jonathan Miller, who was able to work within the restrictions of BBC house style by focusing on the history of Shakespeare's period. Miller said, “It's the director's job, quite apart from working with actors … to act as the chairman of a history faculty and of an art-history faculty.”33


One logical means for charting the central interpretation of the BBC Richard II is to look at the critics' reactions. Often, the unfavorable responses are even more revealing than the favorable ones because they show where the critic's expectational text has been revised by Giles and company. Malcolm Page is right when he says, “Commentators gave moderate praise to the television Richard, grudgingly observing that it was rather better than others of the first six.”34 But as Manheim's judgment makes clear, Page is describing a consensus or average from which individual conclusions diverged widely.

The most sweeping condemnations were made (as might be anticipated) in those instances when Giles seemed to be deliberately revising the expectational text. Sheldon P. Zitner criticizes the whole of the BBC second tetralogy and Richard II in particular for “the effort to ‘clarify’ the text.” However, the example he gives is surprising: “the camera cuts to Bolingbroke in exile, informing us that before he returns to England he knows about the death of his father and about Richard's proposal to confiscate his property. Not so in Shakespeare.”35 And not so in the BBC Richard II either. As happens disconcertingly often in Shakespeare film criticism, a check of the production in question fails to verify the description of events. Bolingbroke's first appearance after the death of Gaunt is in 2.3 with the scene's first line, “How far is it, my lord, to Berkeley now?” There simply is not an interpolated French scene, and, in any event, how would such a scene without lines indicate Bolingbroke's royal ambitions? But Zitner's hypersensitivity to the remote (and in this case nonexistent) possibility is revealing.

At least part of Zitner's objection is expressed more directly by Martin Banham: “When a television (or, to be fair, a film) director … shapes our image of the action, he is intruding his own interpretation of what is significant.” Banham sees in this the danger that the director will “interfere with our imaginative liberties” and may even destroy “the sensitive integral framework of the play itself.” He maintains that one result of this interference “has been to give these Shakespearean productions on television a linear feeling.”36

This comment seems to me to come (on one level at any rate) from an uncritical idealization of the stage and an equally uncritical condemnation of television and film. Surely, as John Barton's 1973-74 production of Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company makes clear, a stage director may also interfere with the audience's “imaginative liberties.”37 In fact, as David Bevington's analysis indicates, David Giles's “low-key” direction results in an interpretation that is “less insistent” than that of many of his stage counterparts.

Nevertheless, several factors contribute to the feeling that Giles has more control than is actually the case. I have already pointed out that the shooting schedule and the conscious decisions of Messina and of Giles himself effectively reduced the impact of the director on the films of the second tetralogy. But the large number of close-ups, the small number of reverse-angle shots, and the use of “a very long lens on the camera, so what you see in focus is clear but everything else is blurred” for exterior shots,38 all added up to what Samuel Crowl called a “claustrophobic Richard II.39 While that adjective may be too strong, there is a closeness (and even, perhaps, a visual flatness) about the production that can give the misleading impression of a linear progression imposed on the viewer by the director.

I do not, of course, wish to suggest by this that David Giles did not make directorial decisions, some of which had strong impact. It is likely to be certain key decisions Giles made that are annoying Banham, even though he does not directly say so. Michael Manheim, who approves of those decisions, praises Giles for serving “as teacher as well as director.” We are, he says, being taught history we may not have learned “when, following Bolingbroke's accusation that Norfolk has murdered the Duke of Gloucester, Giles has the camera switch not to Norfolk but to Richard, the real culprit in Gloucester's death.”40 Such a camera movement will not work, of course, unless the actor playing Richard is ready for it and shares the director's vision of the historical events that preceded the opening of the play. But Giles and Jacobi did have a shared vision that shaped the film.

It is in all probability this shape that Banham dislikes. He finds the “linear feeling” uncomfortable because the line moves away from his expectational text. One of the strongest objections to the production from another critic hits at this precise issue of the interpretation of the history behind the history play. Pointing to Cedric Messina's conventional description of the history plays and a television talk given by Paul Johnson as a curtain raiser for Richard II, Graham Holderness argues that “the second tetralogy emerges from this production as a constituent element in an inclusive and integrated dramatic totality, illustrating the violation of natural social ‘order’ by the deposition of a legitimate king.”41 Additionally, he maintains that the naturalistic conventions which Messina and Giles favor further endorse this ideology,42 and he contrasts this with what he sees as the more open and radical version of history and history plays that emerged from Jane Howell's direction of the first tetralogy.43 I find some of Holderness's assumptions concerning the BBC Richard II useful because, though I believe his reading to be incorrect, I think the part of the filmtext that makes him uneasy is the center of the interpretation which Giles and Jacobi created.

Certainly, a naturalistic style of production can be used to endorse Tillyard's thesis, but style does not guarantee the political nature of content. As Henry Fenwick points out, “television casting is able to open up hitherto neglected portions of the play,” and one of the examples he gives is “the tiny part of the Duchess of Gloucester played by Mary Morris.”44 The naturalistic television scene (1.2) foregrounds the Duchess of Gloucester's grief, Richard's guilt, and John of Gaunt's expressed belief that God will avenge Richard's crime as emphatically as the same scene was foregrounded in John Barton's stylized and nonnaturalistic stage production.45 A good Tillyardian or even a director who wanted to simplify characterizations might have been expected to cut the scene.

Despite Cedric Messina's remarks about an English Curse of the House of Atreus, there was no concerted effort to produce a version of the second tetralogy conforming to Tillyard's Elizabethan world picture. In fact, the emphasis on the history of the period resulted in the contradiction of many of Tillyard's points.

Paul Johnson did say (as Holderness indicates), “According to the orthodox Tudor view of history the deposition of the rightful and anointed King, Richard II, was a crime against God, which thereafter had to be expiated by the nation in a series of bloody struggles.”46 But shortly before that he had called Richard “an ideologue, a fanatic, an early supporter of the theory that kings ruled by divine right.” He also accused Richard of “illegal exactions and confiscations” and of exploiting parliament “to commit judicial murder against the nobles and despoil their estates.”47 It would seem that the “orthodox Tudor view of history” was not shared by Paul Johnson.

His remarks do, however, fit the interpretation of history that Giles and Jacobi had worked out. To understand how far this is from the “world picture” it is necessary only to contrast it with Tillyard on the same subject: “Shakespeare knows that Richard's crimes never amounted to tyranny and hence that outright rebellion against him was a crime. He leaves uncertain the question of who murdered Woodstock.”48

The radio curtain raiser to the BBC Richard II was given by Ian Richardson, who, with Richard Pasco, alternated the roles of Richard and Henry in John Barton's “radical” stage production. Richardson also failed to adhere to the Tillyardian party line, saying on the subject of Gloucester's death, “Richard had ordered it and so Mowbray from sheer loyalty keeps his mouth shut.”49 He committed further heresies when he suggested that “Richard plucks defeat from the jaws of victory and wilfully destroys himself,” and “It's important for Henry Bolingbroke to have had no hand in Richard's overthrow, at least as direct instigator, if he is to maintain the audience's sympathy within Shakespeare's moral framework.”50

If, in fact, Cedric Messina and the other administrators of the series were bent on “an inclusive and integrated dramatic totality,” they seem to have consistently chosen the wrong people for their purposes. David Giles and Derek Jacobi agreed early in rehearsals that Richard was indeed guilty and that his emotion in the first scene is, in Giles's words, “high tension because it is the moment he's been waiting for so long,”51 with the clear implication that what Richard has been awaiting is revenge. Nor would the two of them have found a defender of Tillyard's orthodoxy in the series literary consultant, John Wilders.

Wilders's wide range of responsibilities included trimming “the texts to fit the two-and-three-quarter hour time slot allotted for productions,” plus advising “directors of the series … on interpretation of difficult passages, rhythms, cuts, and relevant bibliographical sources” and “holding a ‘literary clinic’ to help actors make sense of Shakespeare's language.”52 It is probably safe to assume that one reason for John Wilders's appointment to the post of literary consultant was the appearance in 1978 of his book The Lost Garden, an elegant study of Shakespeare's English and Roman history plays that strongly attacks Tillyard's thesis.

It is, nevertheless, correct, I think, to see the BBC version of the second tetralogy and especially Richard II as productions of the history plays which are very much concerned with history. The background material I have presented up to this point indicates no less. Robert Hapgood said, commenting on Richard II, “The best of the Shakespeare Plays histories have been enlightened costume dramas, at ease with their historical ambience yet not at the expense of … dramatic strengths.”53

I also agree with Holderness (with the reservations my discussion so far makes clear) when he says that the emphasis on history is the result of the plays being “produced in ‘classic drama’ style with predominantly naturalistic devices of acting, mise-en-scène, and filming.”54 Extreme stylization of the kind Stanley Wells discusses was ruled out by Messina's house style. At the same time, the emphasis on history and the semidocumentary style that went with it would have pushed many directors (as it later did Jonathan Miller) to consider the historical possibilities inherent in the current play. David Giles and Derek Jacobi created their interpretation within the imposed limits of the BBC Shakespeares, but despite that (and, in fact, partly because of that) they produced a new Richard and an original Richard II.

As might be expected in the circumstances, Giles and Jacobi have done their best to maintain the interpenetration that has long existed between Shakespeare's histories and history itself. As Peter Saccio says in Shakespeare's English Kings, “far more than any professional historian … Shakespeare is responsible for whatever notions most of us possess about the period and its political leaders.”55 Or as J. L. Kirby, himself a professional historian, writes in Henry IV of England, “From Shakespeare, of course, we can never escape whether we wish to or not.”56

More important, though, for this study than the effect of Shakespeare on the writing of history is the impact of history on Richard II in its BBC incarnation. David Giles assumed that a modern audience was at a disadvantage because “the first third of the play depends on a circumstance which isn't fully explained in the play and which was close to the Elizabethan audience—the murder of Gloucester. To them it was the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.”57

While this is hardly a startling position from which to begin,58 it pushes the performance in definite directions. For example, in 1963, John Gielgud talked of Richard being “only lightly sketched at first in a few rather enigmatic strokes.”59 This attitude pushed to its extreme (as it was by John Neville, playing the role at the Old Vic in 1955)60 leads to the idea of two Richards—a pre-Ireland and post-Ireland one—the relevance of character in the latter half of the play having no relevance to the actions in the first half.

David Giles and Derek Jacobi took a precisely opposite view. As Giles says, “Derek and I both agree that the key section for Richard is the opening section of the play—the first three scenes.”61 This at once introduces a series of subtextual messages into the performance, which may be expected to alert even audience members who come to the play unprovided with the historical background. Instead of an impartial king attempting to resolve a dispute between two important nobleman—well or ill, weakly or powerfully, as actor, as poet, or as aesthete, according to the nature of the production—we now have a politician, manipulating royal justice to serve his own partly concealed purposes.

In a careful analysis of these subtextual (and in the case of historical information, extratextual) possibilities, John Russell Brown pointed out in 1966 that in the first scene Richard's protestations “may carry subtextual impressions of irony, apprehension or antagonism. Bolingbroke's accusations may seem aimed at the King rather than Mowbray, and Mowbray's confidence to stem from royal support rather than his own innocence.”62

Brown's words could easily serve as a description of the relevant portion of the BBC Richard II. Only one significant element is missing, and Brown picks that up in his comments on scene 3: “Bolingbroke's submission … may seem to veil a rivalry with the King himself.”63

Such a shift in perspective makes for what amounts to a reinterpretation of the motives for various actions in the play (and behind it) and a reassessment of Richard himself. Thus, as Andrew Gurr, editor of the New Cambridge Richard II, notes concerning the duel, “Richard cannot afford to have either man win, and therefore chooses to send both into the silence of exile for his own political safety.”64 Such a view of the character is a long way from the picture of a histrionic Richard who stops the fight to make himself the center of attention and is even further from the vision of a political incompetent who makes dim and whimsical decisions. If this Richard belongs in the company of Hamlet and Coriolanus, where Yeats placed him,65 it is because he too is involved in a battle of mighty opposites. In that case, even his most seemingly self-indulgent moments may shield something more than emotion. Gurr argues, for example, that “Richard calls for the mirror in order to evade Northumberland's insistence that he read the Articles listing his misdeeds.”66 Gurr is not commenting on the BBC Richard II, but his words are an accurate description of what happens in the production, nevertheless. In fact, the Richard who emerges from these critical comments, the BBC film, and recent histories67 is an altogether more dangerous character than a man who, as Theodore Weiss put it, “is Shakespeare's most thoroughgoing study of the absorption in words.”68


The version of history Giles and Jacobi used (and which became a kind of parallel text behind the filmtext) differs from that of Tillyard and other familiar sources in the placing of emphases and the conclusions it reaches. Despite the fact that Giles and Jacobi were contradicting the expectational texts of some of their viewers (including not a few critics), the coherent historical text that was available to them provided a workable interpretation for the play and also fitted in neatly with the BBC emphasis on history. This was true in part because the play is much closer to being historically accurate than many literary critics have realized.

Richard's whole career is seen in this view as a struggle to impose his royal (and therefore divine) will on his recalcitrant subjects. There was an escalating series of clashes between Richard and his nobles. The first—in 1386—involved Arundel and Thomas, duke of Gloucester, and left Richard fuming under the rule of an executive commission for one year. He was compelled to accept this by the threat of deposition, and one chronicle says Richard thought of asking the opposing lords to dinner and murdering them but gave up the idea as unworkable.69

The second clash came in November of 1387, when Richard challenged the commission with a royal army in Cheshire and the signatures of many of the country's justices on a document that declared the commission imposed on the king to be not only illegal but also treasonous.70 Gloucester and Arundel joined with Warwick, swiftly bringing their own troops to London and “appealing” five of Richard's closest advisors (who were supposedly behind the king's dangerous policies) of treason. Caught without an army of his own, Richard agreed to put the matter to Parliament and until that time to “take the case into his own hands.”71

However, as soon as the three “appellant” lords had withdrawn their army, Richard let his favorites escape and summoned the royal army of Cheshire archers.72 It was at this point, in December 1387,73 that Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray joined the appellants. The king's men were defeated at Radcot Bridge, and again Richard found himself pressured to agree to demands by the threat of deposition.74

It took Richard ten years to prepare his revenge, building up his royal power to the point of tyranny. He now had a formidable force of Cheshire archers, and Parliament had, at his request, redefined interference in the royal household as treason.75 Bruce suggests that Richard “had never fully recovered from the trauma of the Apellants' revolt,”76 and the meeting of the five appellants for dinner at this time (and Mowbray's report of it to Richard) pushed him into action. In July of 1397, the three original appellants were themselves appealed of treason. Warwick confessed and was banished, Arundel was executed, and Gloucester, imprisoned in Calais, died mysteriously, almost certainly on Richard's orders.77

The next step was to compel Parliament to repeal the general pardon granted after the 1388 Parliament and, in effect, to brand “anyone who had interfered with the king's prerogative, or had persuaded him to do anything against his will”78 as a traitor. Parliament was forced to agree to what Richard wanted by the presence of four thousand archers with bent bows and arrows drawn to their ears.79 The repeal of the general pardons put most of the people of southeast England in Richard's power,80 a power he employed in various profitable ways. He sold pardons, neglected to record the sales, and sold pardons to the same men (and whole counties) again; and, finally, he had blank charters81 drawn, signed, and stored in chests for later use.82

With Richard censoring all foreign mail and “sheriffs … being made to swear to imprison at once anyone whom they heard speak ill of the king,”83 Mowbray told Bolingbroke of Richard's intention to punish them for their part in Radcot Bridge.84 Remembering Mowbray's hand in the destruction of the three elder appellants, Bolingbroke reported his words to John of Gaunt, who, in turn, reported them to the king. Then, it was simple for Richard to force a quarrel and banish both men.85

Giles and Jacobi have made their view of Richard's history clear. Speaking of Richard and the five appellant lords, Giles says,

One he has executed, one is in the tower, Gloucester has just been murdered, and now of the five only Mowbray and Bolingbroke, the two youngest, are left. Derek and I both agreed that the key section for Richard is the opening section of the play—the first three scenes. He said, “Why is he so angry in the first scene?” and I said, “He isn't—it's just high tension because it is the moment he has been waiting for so long.”86

Giles goes on to give additional insights into his view of Richard and also his directorial decisions: “it's easier on television … because by focusing on Richard … and by using a major actress like Mary Morris … in a part that's usually skimped over on stage, the audience does gather something of what has happened.”87

As Giles's remarks indicate, the entire production and not just Jacobi's performance was affected by the historical interpretation (or reinterpretation). Part of the originality of accepting this plausible and well-documented version of history as the blueprint for a production of Richard II is that it means treating Shakespeare's play as a serious attempt to set out the facts as well as to get at the truth, an attitude that many critics have been unwilling to adopt. The play is, in fact, more accurate than many critics believe it to be,88 and this accuracy fitted in neatly with the semidocumentary style the BBC Richard II employed.

F. W. Brownlow (among others) finds the play unhistorical, objecting to the view of Thomas of Woodstock as a “plain well-meaning soul” and maintaining that John of Gaunt was never noted for public spirit or high principle. He believes “such changes of character are more damaging to the play's historical truth than are details like the alterations of Queen Isabella's and Henry Percy's ages, because they mean that Shakespeare can never treat properly the political realities of the reign.”89 Saccio is similarly unhappy with Gaunt, since Shakespeare has not followed Holinshed, “who with far greater historical accuracy, depicts Gaunt as a contentious and ambitious baron.”90

Surely in the special circumstances of 2.1.128 Gaunt ought to be allowed to call his murdered brother a “plain well-meaning soul.” “Plain” after all, may be used to describe behavior such as Kent's in King Lear 2.2, where he is repeatedly called “plain” by Cornwall and by himself. Just such plain speaking seems to have been one of Gloucester's faults. Kirby says he “possessed neither common sense nor the respect for the King's estate which had been shown by his brother, John of Gaunt.”91

But perhaps in Gaunt's last moments, when he himself has been doing some plain speaking to the king, Gloucester's freedom of speech seems more attractive and his critical viewpoint the correct one. It is often dangerous for any critic to assume he knows history better than Shakespeare shows it.92 As Marie Louise Bruce says about Gloucester, “From a twentieth century viewpoint a curiously unattractive character, at the time his honesty of purpose was to make him seem to many … ‘the best of men’ and ‘the hope and solace of the whole community of the realm.’”93 In that light, John of Gaunt's words are not only historical but also moderate.

The portrait of Gaunt himself is equally easy to defend. Even Saccio admits that he was “fundamentally loyal to his nephew, and remained Richard's faithful advisor throughout the 1390s.”94 Both Kirby and Bruce see him as a moderate influence, whose absence in Portugal allowed more extreme factions to chart the country's course.95 The critical confusion about Gaunt comes from paying too much attention to his early career and not enough to his later one. His reputation (if not his nature) seems literally to have suffered a sea change. In the summer of 1381, as Kirby says, “John of Gaunt had become the best hated man in England.”96 But by the time he was preparing to leave for Portugal “with the prospect of seeing the last of him for a while everyone liked the duke of Lancaster.”97 On his return to England, as a result of his vast new wealth and his daughters' powerful marriages on the Iberian peninsula, he assumed precisely the role in English politics that Shakespeare gives him. The former hatred of Gaunt “paled into insignificance.” He became “a legendary figure admired by nearly all, and with this new image went a new, more sober approach to politics. In England from now on he was to play the part of the most respected elder statesman.”98

Even in the minor details, Shakespeare's picture is accurate. The Duchess of Gloucester suspects Gaunt's motives for peacefully accepting her husband's murder, telling him, “That which in mean men we entitle patience / Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts” (1.2.33-34). In his campaign of terror, Richard put York and Gloucester in fear of their lives, and they were both “to besmirch the memory of their dead brother”99 as a result of that fear. It seems safe to say of many of Shakespeare's historical figures what Marie Louise Bruce says of his York, that the portrait “of the bumbling, well-intentioned duke unhappily trying to choose between duty and inclination and in the end taking the only course open to him appears to be remarkably accurate.”100 Though there are clearly elements in the play that benefit from the kind of stylization John Barton's production gave it, there are also elements that can be most easily seen when the emphasis is placed on history and naturalism, as it was in the BBC film.


Giles's interpretation of Richard II and his emphasis on history has not only produced an effective Richard but also given other characters firmer ground to stand on than they usually have. I have previously mentioned the Duchess of Gloucester, but two other characters were specially important to this production, the Duke of York and, of course, Henry Bolingbroke. In Michael Manheim's words, “Charles Gray brings new dimensions to the character of York, that loved but lightly regarded political weathervane whose rationalizations of his gross betrayal of Richard never make him forfeit the affection his avuncular bumblings draw from us.”101

Partly, of course, this is because David Giles and Derek Jacobi have given us a different kind of Richard, but partly too it is because York has been allowed his full part, including the semicomic 5.3, which is often cut. We thus have the full range of the character from the man who, despite his fear of the king, is pushed by his brother's death into speaking the truth, to the bemused uncle who first berates and then befriends Bolingbroke, and finally to the bewildered husband, father, and subject whose shifting loyalties have brought him literally to his knees.

Stanley Wells says that in the scenes “concerned with Aumerle's conspiracy and his mother's attempts to save him from its consequences” there is a not altogether successful attempt “to achieve a subtle fusion of seriousness and comedy for which he [Shakespeare] cannot command the necessary technical resources, so that the comedy tends to submerge the seriousness.” But as Wells goes on to argue, “there are good reasons for including the scenes, and the awkwardnesses … can be mitigated by tactful acting.”102 One of the strengths of the small screen is evident here because the comedy can be underplayed in a fashion that would not work in a large theater and because York can be pointed out and his character deepened in other scenes in ways that would be difficult if not impossible on stage. For instance, at 4.1.238, “Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,” we have a close-up of York bowed over his clasped hands, which he is clearly washing with his own tears.

The same grief emerges in this very different setting as York sits, wearing an informal robe and telling the Duchess the story of Richard's humiliation while she stitches at her embroidery. At 5.2.30, “But dust was thrown upon his sacred head,” York's tears begin, and he unsuccessfully searches both of his sleeves for a handkerchief, which the Duchess then supplies. Aldous Huxley says, “We participate in a tragedy; at a comedy we only look.”103 But there is a sense in which we participate more fully in this tragedy of a fallen king because we see it, in part, from the vantage of a domestic comedy. Very few members of Shakespeare's audiences now or at any time will have been firsthand participants in royal intrigues; almost everyone, however, will have experienced the varieties of family tensions. In the context of this naturalistic production, the scenes fit neatly, and the historical footnote of the handkerchief (invented by Richard himself and typical of the attention to historical detail in this film) adds an extra bit of intimate irony.

We are also given a chance to see Bolingbroke from a new perspective. (In this context, it is unfortunate that his reference to his problems with his own son was cut.)104 At 5.3.64, “And thy abundant goodness shall excuse,” he puts his hand on York's shoulder and shakes him affectionately. It is the kind of gesture not often associated with Henry IV, and certainly not with the stiff, self-contained king whom Finch has created. However, throughout the scene Finch manages an undercurrent of exasperation and humor, and at the end, it seems entirely right for him to add the monosyllable “Ha!” to Shakespeare's text while clutching his head.

The praise for Jacobi's Richard usually includes kind comments for Finch's Bolingbroke as well. According to Jack Jorgens he “brought his tough, terse manner from his performance in Polanski's Macbeth.105 For Clive James, Jon Finch was “the revelation of the evening.” He went on to argue that if the actor playing Bolingbroke was to do more than look worthy and staunch, “he must play the role on two levels, speaking what is set down for him and transmitting his ambitions … by other means.” According to James, Finch found those means: “even when he was standing still you could tell he was heading for the throne of England by the direct route.”106 For Michael Manheim also, Finch was a paradigm of political ambition: “Finch's Bolingbroke is a full embodiment of the new Machiavellian ideal in Shakespeare's time.”107

Finch was probably chosen for Macbeth because “Polanski was insecure about the idea of working with anyone strongly identified as a Shakespearean actor,”108 and Finch, in his turn, “was understandably insecure when he came to work alongside Sir John Gielgud and Derek Jacobi.”109 But when Gielgud praised Finch's verse speaking at the read through, Finch says, “I couldn't believe it. It immediately made me feel better and I was relaxed during the rest of the rehearsals.”110

In fact, Finch's limited Shakespearean experience and his lack of drama school training may in some ways have been an advantage for his role in this production. In their Macbeth “Polanski and Tynan … insisted that the lines be spoken almost as natural speech,”111 which was a suitable style to bring to the naturalistic BBC Richard II. Perhaps an additional advantage for Finch was that he did not bring a firm “expectational text” with him; his Bolingbroke was not already set in a pattern that would have clashed with Jacobi's Richard. As David Gwillim (the BBC's Prince Hal) points out, “Knowing the play … cuts both ways: if you have a clear vision of the play that's fine, but on the other hand you can have a set vision of the play as opposed to any sense of exploration.”112

However, despite critical “readings” of Finch's performance that are colored by memories of the dark ambition he showed in Polanski's film, he appears to be a relatively unambitious Bolingbroke. Critical responses to both Finch and Jacobi are here being dictated at least partially by the expectational text: Richard is often weak and so Jacobi's Richard is; Bolingbroke is just as often pointed toward power, and so that must be Finch's direction as well.

There is, though, more to it than that, and while Clive James and Michael Manheim have (I think) got their explanations slightly muddled, I have no serious quarrel with their perceptions. Because of the strength of Jacobi's Richard, because Jacobi is playing so thoroughly to the subtext of the conflict between Richard and his cousin, there is a greater than usual political tension between the two of them, which can easily be misread as Bolingbroke's desire for the crown. In fact, Bolingbroke is locked in a political struggle with the king that is far more complicated (and certainly less superficially ambitious) than any Machiavellian desire to charm the people and harm the king on the way to the throne.

The historical reinterpretation of Richard that this production invites also requires a reinvestigation of Bolingbroke, and because of this, Finch's almost unreadable sternness becomes an advantage. Clive James says “there is a good case for asking the actor playing Bolingbroke to content himself with standing around looking worthily staunch.”113 This production makes the case for doing so stronger than usual, and on one level Finch's performance could be described in just those terms. His reactions to his banishment comprise realistic exasperation, not the frustrated ambition he reveals as Macbeth. Even when Richard puts the crown into his hands, he looks as he might have looked if, when they were boys, his cousin king had just given him a favorite toy—there is a mixture of surprise and joy.

On another level, of course, Finch's Bolingbroke is moving purposefully—and even perhaps virtuously—toward the crown. When I say virtuously, I mean to suggest that there are arguments by which he had a right to act as he did. Historically, there was disagreement (and this production certainly emphasizes Shakespeare's references to the subject) as to whether Mortimer or Lancaster was the rightful heir. In the event, the burden of restoring law fell on the adult claimant, Henry Bolingbroke, and much of England saw him as a savior.114 Whether or not he later felt guilt for taking and keeping the crown (and Shakespeare, history, and the BBC suggest that he did), many Renaissance political theorists would have absolved him of guilt, as Roland Mushat Frye indicates in an extended discussion of the subject. As he says in commenting on John of Gaunt's refusal to act against Richard, literary historians have used “passive resistance as the panacea for too many problems and ills.” He points to “the influence of E. M. W. Tillyard and Lily B. Campbell” but concludes that “developments in the history of political thought have made such major advances since the time of Tillyard that reassessments can and must now be made.”115

Tillyard's thesis requires us not only to ignore theories of politics but also to suppress facts of history. One of the values of this Richard II and of Finch's Bolingbroke is the chance to look at both in a new light. Finch may be especially effective here because he did not bring with him into the production a preconceived notion of the nature of Bolingbroke, because he was not during this performance planning to carry the role forward into the two parts of Henry IV and was not therefore affected by the pressure of the other role, and because the part he was playing was rather close to the “usual heroic, rather swashbuckling parts he plays in films.”116


In a production where the acting consistently received greater praise than anything else, Derek Jacobi has equally consistently been praised as the outstanding performer. Jack Jorgens found him “superb at rendering the arc of Richard's development.”117 And Clive James said, “Derek Jacobi gave intelligent, fastidiously articulated readings from beginning to end.”118

Clive James goes on to point up one of the sources of the strength of Jacobi's performance: “each turn of thought [was] given its appropriate vocal weight by the actor and its perfectly judged close-up by the director.”119 Such a critical comment offers evidence of the success of the Giles-Jacobi partnership and also indicates the value of their shared interpretation. Jacobi, who had played the part of Richard II on radio but not on stage, was probably chosen for the role by Messina because of the triumph of “his television Claudius and his stage Hamlet.”120 And while, as Clive James says, this Richard “managed to make you not think of Jacobi's Claudius,”121 Jacobi's Hamlet was waiting in the wings and from time to time doing a bit of prompting. While every actor must draw from his own central image to fill the mirrors of his roles, and Jacobi's Benedick, Prospero, Hamlet, and Richard have their overlapping edges, there seems a special connection between Jacobi's active, political Hamlet and his other king involved in a struggle of mighty opposites.

From Derek Jacobi's point of vantage as actor, the part of Hamlet has one of the same difficulties that he found with Richard: “So much has happened in Hamlet before the play starts.”122 About the same problem in Richard II, he said, “the first three scenes all contain allusions to the death of Gloucester, which happened before the play started.” Jacobi goes on to elucidate the problems: “He [Richard] doesn't say very much … but the man's got a lot to hide and a lot to lose and a lot to gain from the situation, and it's completely understated by Shakespeare.”123 Given this vision of two characters who must play to the subtext as a means of explaining what has happened before the start of the action, of two men who are striving against great odds to fulfill themselves as kings and who find themselves in deadly political battle as a result, it is not surprising that Jacobi should use some of the same devices. The comparison not only illuminates Jacobi's acting style, but it also helps to explain the Richard that Jacobi as star and Giles as director created.

Thus, faced in both productions with the problem of successfully communicating a subtext, of suggesting that the character he is playing is at once more complicated and more powerful than he immediately appears to be, Jacobi has employed the device of sarcasm. Indeed, for Jacobi, sarcasm is more than a device, it is a whole armory of weapons—broadsword, rapier, dagger, and even shield. His Hamlet is arguably the most consistently sarcastic version of the Danish prince yet committed to film, and his Richard is also to this manner born. Jacobi's sarcasm as a means of emphasis has two major advantages: it sends a message of hostility that is easily read by the audience, and it announces itself as either the expression of superior power, superior insolence, or the two together.

So, in Hamlet, Jacobi's “Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun” (1.2.67) immediately signals Hamlet's hostility toward the king, even (in my experience) for student audiences who have never seen the play before and who do not understand the pun. With “I shall in all my best obey you, madam” (1.2.120), which is delivered with all the nastiness of a knife blow and which Claudius is compelled to meet smiling, the battle is truly joined, and the audience settles down to watch the outcome.

The effect Jacobi achieves in Richard II is similar, allowing for the difference in his position. Here his attack is softer, less abrasive because he is king and his position adds emphasis, but the harsh message is still there. He does, of course, send other messages too. At 1.1.15, “Then call them to our presence,” he sounds more eager than apprehensive because this is a confrontation he has been awaiting. Following Bolingbroke's compliments at 1.1.20-21, Richard turns to Mowbray, expecting more of the same, not even commanding the flattery but only waiting for it. The attitude is very much like the one Ian Richardson cultivated for the part. In his words, the sovereign “never needed to ask for anything. … I never looked to see if my commands were executed because I knew they would be.”124 That Jacobi bothers to look is the only sign of his tension.

Giles and Jacobi gradually build up the connections between Richard and Mowbray. At 1.1.79, “Which gently laid my knighthood on my shoulder,” there is a cut from Mowbray to Richard. At 1.1.84-86, we get the first full flash of Richard's sarcasm in defense of Mowbray (though it can also be taken as an incitement to Bolingbroke, a stirring of the quarrel and a means of pushing it to extremes). At 1.1.100, “That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester's death,” there is (as Michael Manheim has noted) a cut to Richard and only then to Mowbray. At 1.1.109, Jacobi's slightly worried reading of “How high a pitch his resolution soars!” suggests that there is something more than a well-pointed camera that links him to Mowbray. There is still more evidence at 1.1.131, “Since last I went to France to fetch his Queen,” where a cut to Richard suggests satisfaction on his part and complicity or at least an understanding with Mowbray. In the same speech there is another cut to Richard and an even stronger signal. At 1.1.134, “Neglected my sworn duty in that case,” Richard looks at Mowbray in what must (by now) be taken as a stern warning.

Jacobi has, however, sarcastically signaled that there is another, equally important issue. He puts Bolingbroke in his place at 1.1.116-17, “Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom's heir, / As he is but my father's brother's son.” The camera cuts to John of Gaunt as a visual explanation of the relationship, but Richard's sarcasm suggests that something more is happening than meets the camera's eye. That impression is confirmed at 1.1.122, when Richard says, “He is our subject, Mowbray, so art thou,” with a special emphasis on “subject” that clearly implies that someone somewhere has doubts about that subjection.

Historically, Shakespeare, the BBC production, and Derek Jacobi are essentially right; the issue was uncertain. As Bruce says, “Since William the Conqueror no one as distantly related to the king as the earl of March had succeeded to the throne and the custom of primogeniture had not always been followed.”125 So there was a reason for Richard to remind his audience of what he considered to be the proper order and succession of things. When Roger Mortimer, earl of March, died in Ireland on 20 July 1398, leaving only a child heir,126 preparations for the combat between Mowbray and Bolingbroke were going forward; Richard had an even stronger reason on 16 September 1398, the day of the duel,127 to get his dangerous cousin away from the throne.

With such preparation, the second scene will be watched more closely than it often is, clearly the intention of both Jacobi and Giles. Jacobi continues to build on what are now textual as well as subtextual impressions in the third scene. His hand-holding with the queen may be taken as an indication of the health of their relationship and a refutation in advance of the charge of homosexuality; it may also be seen as his indifference to a ritual he has already decided to abort. At 1.3.119, “Let them lay by their helmets and their spears,” his decision seems firm, and there is no indication of sudden impulse or the process of thinking to a decision, two reactions at which Jacobi is particularly adept.

In addition, his antipathy for the House of Lancaster, father and son, has come much closer to the surface. The embrace he has for his cousin at 1.3.54 is extremely sketchy, and at 1.3.224, “Why! uncle, thou hast many years to live,” he is as close to being sarcastic as he is far from being sympathetic. Almost he anticipates his wish for Gaunt's death. With Mowbray's half-spoken sense of betrayal by the king he trusted (1.3.155, “All unlooked for from your Highness' mouth”) and Richard's cynical determination to be rid of Mowbray and Bolingbroke, we are left with a relatively dark public portrait of the sun king.

The public portrait of the king becomes effectively (and viciously) private in 1.4. The scene begins with Jacobi's laugh climbing above and dominating the laughter of his courtiers. It is the first indication we have had that the king may lose control, but, oddly, this seemingly unplanned mirth soon emerges as one more device in the power struggle. Jacobi has forged a link between Richard's insecurity and his attempts to make himself even more powerful than he already is.

Jacobi employs laughter as a weapon in Hamlet as well as Richard II, and again its use is broader and more obvious in the prince than the king. In Hamlet, for example, at 1.2.94, “‘Tis unmanly grief,” Hamlet laughs at the king in a thoroughly disrespectful but slightly hysterical and therefore presumably forgivable manner. He tries a similar ploy on the king after the play within the play. At 3.2.275, “Give me some light,” the king approaches Hamlet, studies him by the light of a torch, and in response, Hamlet covers his face with his hands and then laughs foolishly. The silly laughter turns to triumph as the king exits.

The BBC Richard II describes the setting for 1.4 (their scene 5) as “Interior. A Room in the King's Palace.”128 It is clearly, however, a representation of Richard's famous bathhouse, with the king and his favorites draped Roman fashion. This at once makes a number of suggestions not necessarily present in Shakespeare's text.

At 1.4.11, Aumerle's report of Bolingbroke's “Farewell,” there is a cut to Jacobi for an extended reaction shot. Lying on his back with his head over the edge of a table and the camera shooting down at him as he looks awkwardly up, he appears particularly vulnerable, while his long fit of laughter seems a part of that vulnerability. The laughter is, though, both a sign of his uncertainty and one means to his ends, the ridicule and destruction of Bolingbroke and Richard's other enemies. Again, the insecurity and the attempt to gain greater power are presented as cause and effect.

Richard's resentment (or at least his show of it) continues to build throughout the scene. At 1.4.31, “Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench,” he uses a parodic gesture and sarcastic emphasis to suggest his disgust. By 1.4.35, “As were our England in reversion his,” his emotion has reached to royal rage, a danger to his self-control and his control of others and, more than that, an indication of his true feelings and insecurities. At this point Jacobi's Richard disguises himself in the same mask of laughter that his Hamlet uses. It is a means of undermining the seriousness of his own emotion, of reducing the importance of the situation, and as he had done earlier in the scene, of making the very suggestion of ambition in Bolingbroke seem ridiculous, a laughable stupidity. Coming as it does shortly after this, Richard's decision to go to Ireland himself has an air of relief about it. It follows Green's “Well, he is gone, and with him go these thoughts” (1.4.37) and suggests a brief vacation for Richard from his long revenge.

That there is to be no such vacation, that, in fact, Richard's vengeful, insecure nature and central position will not allow it, becomes clear with the news of Gaunt's illness. Jacobi's taking of the news is one of his neatest bits of characterization. From 1.4.59, “Now put it, God, in the physician's mind,” he moves from a quiet acceptance of the news to the thought of Gaunt's death, the satisfaction that death will provide, and the use he can make of it. And he does all of this, arcing from stillness to an almost childish glee, with an eye on his courtiers to make sure they share his antipathies and intentions. The strength of Jacobi's performance as Richard is clearly visible here. In a scene that is not too far removed from the melodrama of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and his “Would the cook were o' my mind!” (1.3.68), Jacobi conjures a Renaissance prince and a charming tyrant.

I emphasize that Jacobi's Richard is a legitimate king who maintains himself by tyrannous means, a dispenser of justice who suborns murder, and a man whose power has become so great that it must decline. The tension in the early scenes between the Richard who accepts absolute obedience as his due and the Richard who carefully maneuvers to conceal his crime has already begun to send these messages. Like those other Shakespearean tyrants Richard III and Macbeth, Richard II falls as a result of harshness, not weakness. In trying to grasp all, he threatens too many people and ends by clutching nothing. As A. R. Humphreys puts it, “at the beginning he is decisive even to ruthlessness, and it is his very energy of action which, when ill-directed, endangers his kingdom.”129

One of the specially interesting facets of Jacobi's performance is that he manages to demonstrate that the Richard in the second half of the play is the same as the Richard in the first half. This Richard has always oscillated between a vision of himself as a divinely supported, all-powerful king and a picture of himself as a nameless beggar. In trying desperately to rise to the height of one, he has fallen almost to the depth of the other.

By 2.1, the family contentions and Richard's tyrannous intentions are very much out in the open. In this production Gaunt's accusation is coupled with the strong memory of the Duchess of Gloucester's, and their two dying voices convict Richard of a crime that his casual acceptance of Gaunt's mortal illness has helped us to believe he could easily commit. The first of several strong reactions to this situation from Jacobi's Richard comes at 2.1.123, where the last line of that verbal assault on Gaunt, “Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders,” has a regal ferocity that explains his two uncles' fear of him and lets us know that Gaunt's death is near indeed when he dares to challenge the king as he does. At 2.1.145-46, “Right, you say true, as Hereford's love, so his, / As theirs, so mine; and all be as it is,” Richard's voice is under control, but his anger is still stinging him into telling the truth without his usual rhetoric. He has calmed down for 2.1.153-55, and we have another of the excellent Jacobi-Giles reaction shots; there is some shock for him in this death he has wished for, perhaps even a suggestion that his wish is the cause, but again we see him thinking, walling himself off from everything but his royal purposes. The message that emerges is a deadly callousness: “So much for that” (2.1.155). He is not to be deflected by his Uncle York's tears or even by what seems to be semirebellion from this most placid of his relatives. There is nothing undecided about this Richard or about his “Think what you will, we seize into our hands / His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands” (2.1.209-10). It needs only his casual dismissal of the queen to send him off to Ireland as an unsympathetic tyrant.

One of the advantages of this Giles-Jacobi strategy now becomes apparent: the two halves of the play, pre-Ireland and post-Ireland, hold together. The audience has been asked to work out the nature of Richard before his military voyage, and the clues provided by Shakespeare and the production have proved pretty conclusively what he is.

As I have already pointed out, Jacobi's Richard (and Shakespeare's Richard, for that matter) is clearly identified as a tyrant. For the historical Richard, the use of the Cheshire archers or mercenary troops was one such indication. Shakespeare's Richard repeatedly makes decisions that are enforced by his power as kind and not supported by the people or advisers such as York and Gaunt. As a result, Richard's fear of the love the common people have for Bolingbroke, like “Claudius' twice stated recognition of Hamlet's popularity … indicates the tyrant's fear of being supplanted.”130 Also like Claudius, Richard surrounds himself with flatterers and wastes the substance of his country, in his own words, on “too great a court / And liberal largess” (1.4.43-44). Gaunt's condemnation of him rises to the height of wishing for his retroactive deposition: “O, had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye / Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons, / From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame, / Deposing thee before thou wert possessed” (2.1.104-8). In the crime of murder to which Gaunt refers and in the crime of seizing Lancaster's lands just after Gaunt's death, Richard commits the tyrant's unforgivable sin of destroying the order of the commonwealth he is set to rule and preserve.131

The rest of the film is (at least from Richard's point of view) a matter of why and wherefores. It is one thing to create and label a tyrant;132 it is another to explain him, especially if that explanation is, as Richard's must be, something more than the itch of ambition or some other tragic flaw of the flesh.

Richard's return in 3.2 becomes in this production the means to an explanation; the stress of crisis is used to break through to the why of his earlier actions. Part of Richard's complexity (and no doubt one of the sources of the many suggestions that he is an actor-king)133 comes from the control he exercises over his words and emotions and from the use he makes of them even when they are not in his complete control. Until now Richard has had no reason, either political or personal, to talk about the divine rights of kings. Now his private obsession becomes public; nor can it rightly be called an obsession, an abnormality, except in the intensity of his belief and the insensitivity of his actions. Gaunt and York share his point of view,134 and even those very practical politicians, Bolingbroke and Northumberland, want Richard's acquiescence and royal sanction for his own deposition. In this production his speeches to the English earth and his dependence on plagues and angels must be seen not as vain posturing but as the misty periphery of his beliefs, a mixture of wishful fantasy and literal expectation. For Jacobi's Richard, like his historical counterpart, the boundaries of the world are immense, stretching from fear of being deposed and becoming nothing to an ecstatic state in which all his royal words could come divinely true. It is the arc of alternation between these two states that Jacobi has managed to travel.

In the context of 3.2, Richard's appeal to God to end Gaunt's life and Jacobi's almost stunned pause when he receives the news suggest Richard may have been willing to believe in the power of his own prayer. His actions through the rest of the production argue a vacillation between faith in his practical political (and, failing that, divine) support and a desperate uncertainty caused by the fear that at long last he will conclusively lose the battle to hold his throne (his identity as person, priest, and king) while holding down his subjects; thus the alternation between hope and despair, frenzied activity and passive suffering in 3.2. A particularly effective collaboration of director and star to demonstrate this occurs at 3.2.63, “How far off lies your power?” when Richard in an anxiety of optimism thrusts his arm out of the frame (at last an effective use of what has happened often accidentally), reaching to Salisbury as to a more than physical savior.

The danger in the man is demonstrated once more at 3.2.129, “O, villains, vipers, damned without redemption!” as Jacobi works himself up to a terribly active anger that ends in the threat of political execution, which he clearly means to carry out. If another revolution of the wheel (always possible while life remains) brings Richard to the top, Bolingbroke will certainly suffer the fate Richard had momentarily intended for Bushy, Bagot, and Green.

At 3.3.132-40, which begins with “O God! O God! that e'er this tongue of mine,” the fury of Jacobi's Richard is again obvious and indeed barely contained, but he follows Aumerle's advice that it is wiser to delay to a better time than to force battle now and so die. This is very much the sort of policy Richard has pursued before, and always, in spite of humiliations and threatened depositions, he has been able to emerge more powerful in the end. No doubt he hopes beneath all the words of despair that this new deposition will prove impermanent. One of Jacobi's neatest demonstrations of this part of Richard's nature comes at 5.5.105, “How now! What means Death in this rude assault?” He turns his back to the murderers, reading the line as though he is resigned to die without a struggle. Then suddenly, on the next line, he turns to face the murderers again, beating them and making use of the surprise to seize a weapon.

The historical interpretation begun in the early scenes carries through consistently and successfully in the second half of the play. The tension between Richard and Bolingbroke does not relax, though the roles are reversed. Jacobi's Richard (like his Hamlet) is adept at maintaining political pressure even when he is at a disadvantage.

At 3.3.71, he has already insisted on an obeisance from Northumberland. At 3.3.171-72, with double-edged irony he has called Northumberland “Most mighty prince” and his hated cousin “King Bolingbroke.” As he marches energetically down a stone staircase, Richard describes himself (equally energetically) as Phaethon, a sun king “Wanting the manage of unruly jades” (3.3.178). This is not self-pity but a simple act of placing the blame where he feels it belongs; he is a divinity betrayed by baseness, as his reference to Christ and Judas (where, interestingly, Christ's situation is found to be preferable, His troubles less severe) makes plain in 4.1.170. The same point is made in a different way at 5.1.35-36, “A king of beasts indeed: if aught but beasts, / I had been still a happy king of men.” In each of these instances Jacobi's sarcasm is itself a judgment; he is categorizing and chastising what he sees as political injustice. His will is still active, still struggling against circumstance, and though waves of despair wash over him, he is not yet ready to sink.

Thus, in his encounter with Bolingbroke in 3.3, he repeats and expands his earlier accusations against his cousin. “Up, cousin, up, your heart is up, I know, / Thus high at least” (3.3.192-93). In his fuller accusation, which begins at 3.3.198, he reaches with “Cousin, I am too young to be your father, / Though you are old enough to be my heir” (3.3.202-3), an almost exact restatement of his earlier indications of Bolingbroke's royal ambition. Far from giving up, this Richard is naming Bolingbroke's crime as his only immediate means of combating it. Part of the strength of Richard's conviction of his own divine mission is clearly visible once we realize that he cannot totally accept the possibility of being deposed. For Jacobi's Richard, naming the crime—which is also a blasphemy—should almost have the power to stop the criminal, as he has earlier said that his very presence in England will stop “this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke” (3.2.47).

Perhaps the greatest strength of this production and of Jacobi's acting is the coupling of the sympathy that these scenes usually generate for Richard with a firm conviction in the audience that Bolingbroke is ending a tyranny; the very lines that make us pity Richard's loss of power show us how dangerous he has been and would be again in wielding it. This is especially true in 4.1, where we seem to see Richard breaking down, stripping away the layers of pretence that have surrounded his essential personality, but at the same time we perceive (in this production at any rate) his political maneuverings and his outmaneuvering of both Bolingbroke and Northumberland, who must win by force what Richard has kept them from gaining by any other means.

Jacobi's Richard takes command of the scene immediately on his entrance, and his bitter reading of the biting lines, his taunting emphasis at 4.1.181, “Here, cousin, seize the crown,” show him to be an exceptionally dangerous adversary still.135 He does everything that can be done in the circumstances to undermine Bolingbroke. He is compelled to give some small support to the new king, but he retracts everything he says both before and after he says it. Jacobi believes that though Richard is at “rock bottom” in the deposition scene, “he gives a marvellous account of himself.” Jacobi sees Richard as an actor thinking, “‘If I've got to go, I'm going to go in style,’” an attitude he says he found “fascinating. … All the emotions are absolutely real for him—but he can switch it on.”136 This is an explicit statement of what we have earlier seen Jacobi's Richard do, that is, turn a real emotion, fear or doubt, for instance, into a weapon in a political situation.

Indeed, much of Bolingbroke's silence seems enforced by the energy of Richard's speech, and only that withdrawal into stillness keeps the new king from being made to look ridiculous. Northumberland too, who tries to force Richard to read a list of his crimes and, in fact, claps the king on the shoulder just after 4.1.220, like a buff-jerkined officer apprehending a malefactor, is repeatedly baffled. Richard first turns against him the accusation of deposing a true king then delays with “Mine eyes are full of tears, I cannot see” (4.1.243), at which point Northumberland casts his eyes up to heaven in frustration. At last Richard tears the list of crimes from his hands and throws it to the floor. The request for the looking glass is another tactic of delay and another opportunity to display the perfidy of his enemies.

The end result of the historical, naturalistic interpretation that Giles and Jacobi have created has been a more coherent and complex protagonist than is sometimes the case. This Richard is a legitimate king whose insecure position, echoed in his oscillations between confidence and despair, makes him a tyrant. His belief in his divine right to power and his fear lest he lose all are at once terrifying and pathetic. His insecurities—internal and external—force him to reach for absolute power and finally mean his downfall. In the desperate attempt to make himself perfectly secure financially, militarily, and therefore personally, he has threatened and alienated most of his supporters. Bolingbroke does not succeed because of his own superior ability or because of Richard's incompetence but because he offers an alternative to tyranny. The production succeeds because it offers a consistent and believable Richard who is set in an understandable historical context.


  1. Mary Ellen O'Brien, Film Acting: The Techniques and History of Acting for the Camera (New York: Arco, 1983), 100.

  2. It happens, for instance, at 1.3.183, 207, 216, 242, 249, 254, 295, 303, 305, and 307.

  3. Cited Carr, Review of Measure for Measure, 5.

  4. Clive James, The Crystal Bucket: Television Criticism from the “Observer,” 1976-79 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981), 158.

  5. Jorgens, “BBC-TV Shakespeare,” 414.

  6. BBC R2, 49.

  7. Michael Manheim, review of Richard II, by William Shakespeare, BBC-TV/Time-Life Inc. Production, PBS Stations, 28 March 1979, “The Shakespeare Plays on TV: Season One,” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 4, no. 1. (1979): 5.

  8. Fenwick, R2, 19.

  9. Purser, “Going Round Again,” 13.

  10. Fenwick, R2, 20.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Cedric Messina, “Interview,” 136-37.

  13. Ibid., 137.

  14. In Messina's defense, I note that even some reviewers were by no means eager for the Bardathon. Philip Purser described the project as “an admirable service to Shakespeare, but not necessarily a service to television” (“In Tight Focus,” Sunday Telegraph, 17 December 1978, 15). And Russell Miller felt that at least some of the plays could be dispensed with. “Titus Andronicus [sic] is widely considered to be unwatchable and Timothy of Athenea [sic] is unlikely to attract a mass audience. So why include them?” (“BBC's Schoolgirl Juliet,” 32).

  15. Evidently one other motive here is to avoid copying the Olivier Henry V, which had used The Book of Hours.

  16. Fenwick, R2, 20-21.

  17. Ibid., 20.

  18. A similar example emerges from the first season's production of Julius Caesar. The director, Herbert Wise, was chosen by Messina largely because of his experience with I Claudius. “‘If anybody knows a toga, he does,’ says Messina” (Henry Fenwick, “The Production,” in The BBC TV Shakespeare: “Julius Caesar” [London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1979], 20). Wise rejected the idea of dressing the play in Elizabethan costume with the words, “I don't think that's right for the audience we will be getting. … For an audience many of whom won't have seen the play before, I believe it would only be confusing” (20).

  19. Fenwick, R2, 21.

  20. David Bevington, The Oxford Shakespeare: “Henry IV, Part I” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 84-85.

  21. Patrick McGilligan, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur (New York: Da Capo Press, 1979), 199.

  22. Ibid., 202.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Manheim, “Shakespeare on TV,” 5.

  25. Fenwick, R2, 24.

  26. Wilders, “Shakespeare on the Small Screen,” 57.

  27. Stanley Wells, Royal Shakespeare: Four Major Productions at Stratford-upon-Avon (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979), 68-69.

  28. Fenwick, R2, 20.

  29. Russell Miller, “BBC's Schoolgirl Juliet,” 32.

  30. Fenwick, 1H4, 21.

  31. Ibid., 19.

  32. Ibid., 20.

  33. Jonathan Miller, “Interview; Jonathan Miller on The Shakespeare Plays,” with Tom Hallinan, Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 137.

  34. Malcolm Page, “Richard II”: Text and Performance (London: Macmillan, 1987), 55. Sean Day-Lewis said, for example, “In my view the first season has contained three duds (‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘As You Like It,’ and ‘Julius Caesar’) and three successes (‘Richard II,’ ‘Measure for Measure,’ and ‘Henry VIII’)” (“Years of the Bard,” Daily Telegraph, 5 March 1979, 11).

  35. Sheldon P. Zitner, “Wooden O's in Plastic Boxes: Shakespeare and Television,” University of Toronto Quarterly 51 (1981): 7.

  36. Banham, “BBC Television's Dull Shakespeare,” 50.

  37. For discussions of this much-praised production, see Peter Thomson, “Shakespeare Straight and Crooked: A Review of the 1973 Season at Stratford,” Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974): 151-54; Wells, Royal Shakespeare, 64-81; Page, R2, 57-68; and Richard David, Shakespeare in the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 164-74.

  38. Fenwick, 1H4, 20.

  39. Samuel Crowl, Review of Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare, BBC-TV/Time-Life Inc. Production, PBS Stations, 26 March 1980, “The Shakespeare Plays on TV: Season Two,” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 5, no. 1 (1980): 3.

  40. Manheim, “Shakespeare on TV,” 5.

  41. Holderness, “Radical Potentiality,” 197.

  42. In Holderness's own words, “Messina saw the history plays conventionally as orthodox Tudor historiography, and the director employed dramatic techniques which allow that ideology a free and unhampered passage to the spectator” (Ibid., 197).

  43. Ibid.

  44. Fenwick, R2, 24.

  45. In 1973, “Gloucester's widow was played as a ghost, emerging from the downstage grave-trap with a skull in her hand, and speaking with the aid of echo effects” (Thomson, “Shakespeare Straight and Crooked,” 152). “This created a melodramatic impression which exemplified the dangers of stylisation, and in 1974 she simply entered from the wings and spoke quietly, though she still carried the skull” (Wells, Royal Shakespeare, 69).

  46. Paul Johnson, “Richard II,” in Shakespeare in Perspective, ed. Roger Sales vol. 1, (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1982), 35.

  47. Ibid., 34.

  48. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951), 261.

  49. Ian Richardson, “Richard II,” in Shakespeare in Perspective, ed. Roger Sales vol. 1, (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1982), 39.

  50. Ibid., 41, 43.

  51. Fenwick, R2, 22.

  52. “Wilders Interview at MLA,” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 4.1 (1979): 3.

  53. Robert Hapgood, “Shakespeare on Film and Television,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 279.

  54. Holderness, “Radical potentiality,” 197.

  55. Peter Saccio, Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 4.

  56. J. L. Kirby, Henry IV of England (London: Constable, 1970), 2.

  57. Fenwick, R2, 22.

  58. Richard David, for example, maintains that the issues in Richard II “cannot be appreciated without some identification with the Elizabethans” (Shakespeare in the Theatre, 45).

  59. John Gielgud, “King Richard the Second,” in Shakespeare “Richard II”: A Casebook, ed. Nicholas Brooke (London: Macmillan, 1978), 77.

  60. In John Neville's words, “there are two different characters. … We quite blatantly made no attempt to link the two; he came back from Ireland a different man” (cited in Page, R2, 20).

  61. Fenwick, R2, 22.

  62. John Russell Brown, “Narrative and Focus: Richard II,” in Shakespeare “Richard II”: A Casebook, ed. Nicholas Brooke (London: Macmillan, 1978), 84.

  63. Ibid., 85.

  64. Andrew Gurr, ed., King Richard II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 22.

  65. W. B. Yeats, “At Stratford-on-Avon (1901),” in Shakespeare “Richard II”: A Casebook, ed. Nicholas Brooke (London: Macmillan, 1978), 70.

  66. Gurr, King Richard II, 22.

  67. J. L. Kirby's Henry IV of England (1970) and Marie Louise Bruce's The Usurper King: Henry of Bolingbroke, 1366-99 (London: Rubicon Press, 1986) share this vision of Richard. I am not making the claim that Kirby's book influenced the production or that the production influenced Bruce's book. I am using them only as parallel examples of a particular interpretation that can be a means of organizing both historical and theatrical materials.

  68. Theodore Weiss, The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories (London: Chatto and Windus, 1971), 260.

  69. Bruce, Usurper King, 69.

  70. Ibid., 71.

  71. Ibid., 72.

  72. Ibid., 73.

  73. Kirby, Henry IV, 25.

  74. Bruce, Usurper King, 75-76, 80.

  75. Ibid., 156.

  76. Ibid., 160.

  77. Kirby, Henry IV, 45.

  78. Bruce, Usurper King, 164.

  79. Ibid., 165.

  80. Ibid., 172.

  81. “So called not because it was empty of words … but because it gave Richard carte blanche to do more or less as he wished with the property of the unfortunate person whose name appeared on it” (ibid., 172-73).

  82. Ibid., 172-73.

  83. Ibid., 173.

  84. Kirby, Henry IV, 46.

  85. Ibid., 47-49. Mowbray's punishment was more severe in fact than Shakespeare shows it to be. Mowbray was allowed to live only in Prussia, Bohemia, Hungary, or among the Saracens (Bruce, Usurper King, 188). As Kirby rather caustically remarks, “There would soon be insufficient countries in Europe to house all the exiles whom Richard fondly hoped to keep apart” (Henry IV, 49).

  86. Fenwick, R2, 22.

  87. Ibid., 23.

  88. Richard Last writes in his review of the BBC Richard II, “Apart from historical shortcomings (Shakespeare seems to have stood in the same relationship to the Tudors as Shostakovich to the Soviet tyrants)” (“‘Shakespeare’ Creates Boxed-In Feeling,” 15).

  89. F. W. Brownlow, Two Shakespearean Sequences: “Henry VI” to “Richard II” and “Pericles” to “Timon of Athens” (London: Macmillan, 1977), 98.

  90. Saccio, Shakespeare's English Kings, 20.

  91. Kirby, Henry IV, 24. Bruce says he “outspokenly criticised Richard, whom he despised as an incompetent ruler” (Usurper King, 62). But his criticisms could well have been the plain truth. In Kirby's words, “Richard had already shown himself completely lacking in all those qualities of tact and statesmanship that were required of a king” (Henry IV, 24).

  92. Even that other Gloucester in Richard III, which is sometimes supposed to be the least historical of the history plays, has gotten support in Desmond Seward's 1983 biography, Richard III: England's Black Legend (London: Country Life Books, 1983). Seward says, “Shakespeare was nearer the truth than some of the King's latter-day defenders” (15).

  93. Bruce, Usurper King, 62.

  94. Saccio, Shakespeare's English Kings, 20.

  95. Kirby, Henry IV, 23, and Bruce, Usurper King, 61.

  96. Kirby, Henry IV, 18.

  97. Bruce, Usurper King, 59.

  98. Ibid., 96.

  99. Ibid., 166.

  100. Ibid., 211.

  101. Manheim, “Shakespeare on TV,” 5.

  102. Wells, Royal Shakespeare, 74.

  103. Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), 324.

  104. Cutting the reference to Hal is curious in a production of Richard II that was to be followed immediately by 1 Henry IV. Perhaps the cut was designed (like the omission of Exeter's penitence and his praise of Richard at 5.5.113-18, and the list of executed traitors given to Henry IV at 5.6.5-18) to present Bolingbroke in a favorable light.

  105. Jorgens, “The BBC-TV Shakespeare Series,” 413.

  106. James, Crystal Bucket, 158-59.

  107. Manheim, “Shakespeare on TV,” 5.

  108. Barbara Leaming, Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 121.

  109. Fenwick, 1H4, 24.

  110. Ibid.

  111. Leaming, Polanski, 121.

  112. Fenwick, 1H4, 24.

  113. James, Crystal Bucket, 158-59.

  114. Bruce, Usurper King, 204.

  115. Roland Mushat Frye, The Renaissance “Hamlet”: Issues and Responses in 1600 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 45.

  116. Fenwick, 2H4, 20.

  117. Jorgens, “BBC-TV Shakespeare,” 413.

  118. James, Crystal Bucket, 158.

  119. Ibid.

  120. Fenwick, R2, 25. Messina says, “I wanted from the first to get Derek Jacobi,” and Jacobi was, in fact, the first actor to be cast (Fenwick, R2, 25).

  121. James, Crystal Bucket, 158.

  122. Derek Jacobi, “Hamlet,” in Shakespeare in Perspective, ed. Roger Sales vol. 1, (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1982), 186.

  123. Fenwick, R2, 22-23.

  124. Richardson, R2, 40.

  125. Bruce, Usurper King, 149-50.

  126. Kirby, Henry IV, 52.

  127. Bruce, Usurper King, 185.

  128. BBC R2, 43.

  129. A. R. Humphreys, Shakespeare: “Richard II” (London: Edward Arnold, 1967), 31.

  130. Frye, Renaissance “Hamlet,” 38-39.

  131. Ibid., 40.

  132. As Marie Louise Bruce puts it “to disinherit Henry was even more perilous, because the injustice of it outraged public opinion and made the king seem more than ever a tyrant” (Usurper King, 194). This is an unthinkable thought, to which even York has been pushed.

  133. The historical Richard was, as perhaps all kings must be, an actor. But there is evidence that hypocritical performance was part of his nature. Marie Louise Bruce refers to “yet another of the king's beloved charades. … With artistry he acted the part of the wronged monarch finally driven to magnanimous mercy at the pleas of his stricken subjects” (ibid., 125).

  134. Gaunt himself was a “staunch believer in royal absolutism” (ibid., 153).

  135. Bolingbroke is, as Shakespeare is about to demonstrate, peculiarly vulnerable to counterrevolutions. As Ruth Bird relates, “while Richard was a captive at Conventry, a deputation arrived from London to beg for the execution of Richard before he is brought any further,” because they feared his retaliation if he regained power (The Turbulent London of Richard II [London: Longman, Green and Co., 1949], 110).

  136. Fenwick, R2, 26.

Robert L. King (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: King, Robert L. Review of Richard II. The North American Review 280 (November-December 1995): 41-2.

[In the following review, King offers a positive assessment of the National Theatre's staging of Richard II, directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw as an impressive Richard.]

The National Theatre presented Richard II in repertory with Skylight in the smallest of its three houses, the Cottesloe. Of all Shakespeare's kings, Richard is the most dependent on speech to assert a self because for much of the play he has no real power. The director, Deborah Warner, who had her King Lear enter in a party hat and wheelchair, cast a woman in the title role, the justly acclaimed Fiona Shaw. Richard seemed ready to take a wild ride. From the seating arrangement to Shaw's forceful resistance to death, however, the production honored and illuminated Shakespeare's text. The audience at floor level was divided into four sections, two on either side of a rectangular space with open areas at either end and small spaces between them. Boarded in the front, they were slightly oversized jury boxes, apt places for evaluating competing speech. I think that the Warner/Shaw Richard sprang, almost literally, from Henry IV's characterization of him in 1 Henry IV: “The skipping King, he ambled up and down / With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits.” In one exit, Shaw did indeed skip like a boy miming a horse ride, and she did an impromptu jig to mock the Irish before her courtiers, “shallow jesters” whose flattering emptiness came through strongly. In the first scenes, Shaw seemed like an adolescent boy, bemused by all the serious talk going on around her. She was a youth reciting a well-worn truth, smug and casual, when she told the banished Mowbray, “It boots thee not to be compassionate.” The delivery of many of her early lines was equally self-satisfied, specifically when Richard exercised or delegated power, and this tone sharply and appropriately set up the longer and more desperate speeches as kingly power wanes and is transferred. In a more direct anticipation, Warner had Shaw admire herself in a small mirror in scene one; when this image is later smashed, we appreciate its deeper meaning for Richard. Swathed in bolts of white, her hair close-cropped, Shaw—taller by far than the historical Richard—never exploited her sex. She did kiss Bolingbroke full on the mouth in scene one, held him in a full embrace and kissed him in the deposition scene. They kept the contested crown between them by the pressure of their waists. The suggestion that Richard is physically attracted to Bolingbroke and Shaw's actual clinging to him offered fresh insights about Richard, one part “skipping” and one part “king,” enamored of the power he would not use effectively. Surely Shaw conveyed much of the role's poignant ambivalence because she is a woman but mostly because she acts so well. …

Michael Feingold (review date 1998)

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SOURCE: Feingold, Michael. “Here's Richardness.” The Village Voice 43, no. 10 (10 March 1998): 141.

[In the following review, Feingold appraises two productions of Richard II, one by the Theatre for a New Audience at New York City's St. Clement's Theater, directed by Ron Daniels, and the other staged by the Pearl Theatre. Feingold observes that while both plays had their strengths as well as effective scenes, each seemed to lose something as it went on. Reviewing Pearl's production, directed by Shepard Sobel, Feingold states that while it was not as vivid as Daniels's production, it had a stronger grasp of the play as poetry.]

To have one company play Richard II and Richard III in alternation makes sense. The two unheroic heroes are opposite extremes on the spectrum of kingship: the king who gives up all too easily and the shameless one who stops at nothing. Each has an antagonist, too, with a slight resemblance to the other, which makes double-casting logical: Tough, pragmatic Bolingbroke is a Richard III with moral scruples, while “deep revolving” Buckingham shows twinges of Richard II's faintness of heart. Richard II—often, though not here, played as a crypto-queer—sloughs women off, preferring his “caterpillars”; Richard III, embittered by his ineligibility as a wooer, takes pleasure in abusing them, for which they exact due revenge in curses and confrontations. As those suggest, both plays are feats of rhetoric, studies in the poetics as well as the ethics of kingship. Visions, dreams, and prophecies dog the characters' tracks; in more than one dispute, the moral victor is the one with the quickest verbal comeback. If the action, in its bleakness and violence, suggests a prelude to King Lear, the language rings with echoes of the innocently playful Love's Labour's Lost.

The other reason R2 and R3 should be played in rep is that the undertaking is big, bold, and difficult. New York, the most complacent and money-minded of all the world's great theater cities, doesn't face such a challenge very often. Our serious companies hang on by a shoestring, while what should be our major theaters cozy up to the public with anodyne new plays and sentimental rehashes of Broadways past, leaning on star actors and making no pretense of forming a company—essential for Shakespeare, who created his plays for one.

Theatre for a New Audience has assembled for its two-play rep a core group of strong professionals with a supporting cast mostly of non-Equity newcomers. The inevitable imbalance in the playing makes an apt reflection of Ron Daniels's productions, each of which is full of strong choices and effective scenes but seems to diminish as it goes on; pairing the two has given each a bit less than it deserves.

Neil Patel's set is dominated, for R2, by a vast, circular cathedral window—removed, for R3, to create a gaping hole, ruins from the Yorkist wars still smoldering in it. So we know this is a land where kingship is sanctified by God, and dethroning a legitimate king will catapult us into moral chaos. The only problem is that Richard II isn't much of a god-king, and Daniels's perspective doesn't give us a clue to his inner failings, which are the source of his toppling. While Richard strives manfully to be just and wise during the Mowbray-Bolingbroke feud, his heart is elsewhere, and any interpretation depends on which elsewhere the director chooses. The true king whom Richard becomes at the end is a soul of a different order.

Not much of this is visible in Daniels's treatment, busy adumbrating an absolute moral order to which none of the characters, not even John of Gaunt, really subscribe. While this relativism might set up Richard's downfall—he's disillusioned when he sees that it's all a pose—Daniels doesn't use it that way. We don't get a Richard bearing the seeds of self-destruction at the start, nor a transcendent Richard at the cursory end. So we aren't prepared when the astonishing thing happens: In the middle, Richard is in love with poetic irony, and in Steven Skybell we have an actor for whom poetic irony is like a second central nervous system. From the despair before his surrender through the desperate farewell to his queen, Skybell is enthralling—burning the way tears can burn, funny as only the blackest despair can be funny.

If Daniels is uncertain about the nature of R2's rise and fall, R3 leaves him even more constrained: Here is a character who never alters, morally or otherwise. Shaw's image of the play as an ultimate version of Punch and Judy points unerringly to its only source of tension: Richard's relations with the audience. Unlike his coevals, we know what he's up to. If there's no surprise for us in how he's received, no change in tone from the tragedy he inflicts to the comedy he shares with us, the actor has nowhere to go. Christopher McCann, a great hand at chilling mordancy, is no ingratiating comic. A cool, close-to-the-vest Bolingbroke, his moral disquiet bubbling up from below, he makes an oddly monochrome Richard, seemingly entangled in an inner agenda almost as complex as his physical twists and hobbles. He drives forcefully down this one-lane path, barely stopping to deceive the others, let alone amuse us. Skybell, his Buckingham, can hardly get a word of encouragement in before his almost automatic rejection.

Luckily, R3 is woman-hounded, and Daniels supplies three splendid actresses to stop him in his tracks. Laurie Kennedy, Duchess of York in both plays, rings as true in the comedy of Aumerle's pardon in R2 as she does while cursing her own son in R3. Pamela Payton-Wright's slow, grave ferocity is the next best thing to the grandeur Margaret of Anjou requires. R3's Elizabeth has to mix canny strength with suppressed hysteria; my only quibble about Sharon Scruggs, towering in her strength, is that at points she lets the hysteria out.

Helmar Augustus Cooper comes off strongly as both a bluff Northumberland and a ruefully empathetic Brakenbury. In R2, Graham Brown is a movingly crestfallen Duke of York; Robert Stattel, as John of Gaunt, handles the famous speech with such elegant theatricality that it nearly renews itself. The rest are negligible, except for Tom Hammond, a touching Bagot and a creepily servile Catesby. Patricia Dunnock's strained Queen Isabel and Lady Anne confirm what Strictly Dishonorable revealed: her gift is for light comedy.

Stattel, doubling as the Bishop of Carlisle, does less well with R2's visionary foreshadowing of the civil wars to come. That John Wylie, taking on the same dual role in the Pearl's R2, succeeds hauntingly with it shows you what a small-scale troupe can bring Shakespeare that those who think bigger often can't. Directed by Shepard Sobel, the Pearl's version is stiff-jointed, nowhere near as vivid in its physicality as Daniels's. But Murrell Horton's designs—lush gold and ochre costumes against bare black panels—rivet the eye, and the sense of the play as poetry is often a good deal stronger than at St. Clement's. Bradford Cover has seized on just the aspect of Richard that Daniels downplays: his actorish manner. Cover is a showy performer, and R2 loves showing off; for him every event is a new role, exploited by Cover with skill and vocal grace. Though lacking Skybell's fiery anguish, he's actually more moving at the end, as Hope Chernov's delicate, restrained Queen is throughout. (Caveat: In prior seasons, I've translated for the Pearl.)

Here, too, the supporting cast is often less than it should be—Seth Jones, the Bolingbroke, is so good in quiet moments that you wonder why he yells so much—but the presence of a permanent company gives a feeling of everyone working together, on a mission both important and pleasurable, that show-by-show enterprises can never quite evoke. The final argument against Daniels's exciting conception is that it would make most sense for a resident acting troupe.

Such a troupe, of course, requires actors, which was one of the two things wrong with Gregory Wolfe's ingenious, misguided R3 for the young company called Moonwork Inc. The other was the central premise—that Shakespeare only makes sense if you dress it in glib contemporary analogies, like turning the kings into Mafia dons. Yeah, you can predict the rest: The Lord Mayor's plea was covered on CNN, and Margaret's curse came via Internet. It would all be very convincing, if John Gotti lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Or if the cast had had the suppleness of voice and passion that you need for Shakespeare—which it didn't, except for Gregory Sherman's Pacino-ish Richard and Paula Stevens's crisp Elizabeth. Still, a young group's reach should exceed its grasp. Criticism, like R2's gardener, just has to bind up the unruly children sometimes.

Charles Isherwood (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “Fiennes Plays Politics at BAM.” Variety 380, no. 5 (18-24 September 2000): 45, 47.

[In the following review, Isherwood comments on the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of Richard II, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Ralph Fiennes as Richard. Isherwood focuses on Fiennes's performance, finding that while it was “compelling,” Fiennes's portrayal of the king was silly and pompous.]

It's probably just a coincidence, but the Almeida Theater Co.'s current engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is wittily timed. As the peculiar form of theater known as election-year politics heads into its third act, the company is performing two stern Shakespearean essays on political no-no's. Coriolanus offers a lesson in the importance of pandering to public opinion (hardly a necessary admonition these days, admittedly), while Richard II warns strongly against the dangers of presuming too much on dynastic privilege—a fault attributed to both of our presidential hopefuls at some time.

But it's hardly their topicality that has made the shows a virtual sellout for the company's monthlong run: It's the presence in the rifle roles of Ralph Fiennes, the movie star who is also an Almeida regular. Fiennes, who won a Tony for the company's Hamlet on Broadway, is here delving into more exotic Shakespearean territory, and delivers compelling—if not equally satisfactory—performances in pair of roles that at first blush appear to be entirely antithetical.

Richard is a sort of proto-Hamlet, a man who's inept and heedlessly immoral in action but (eventually) touched with genius as a poet; Coriolanus is brilliant whenever battle is joined, but self-destructive when he lets his words expose his proud soul. The plays themselves, in fact, are as divergent as their central characters. Richard II is written entirely in verse, and for a play that depicts a civil war, it's oddly free of alarums and excurions. Its chief interest lies in its lyrical depiction of the spiritual awakening of the title character. By contrast, the later tragedy Coriolanus and its hero are notably short on lyricism. It's a play of deeds, not words, of politics more than poetics.

The two make an intriguing pair, and Fiennes and Jonathan Kent, who directs both, allow the audience to take in both the concordances and the discordances between them. On a superficial level, both Richard and Coriolanus are miserable players of politics, Richard because he feels his divine right places him above consideration of the public weal, Coriolanus because he believes his martial prowess and his honor are all-justifying—and can only be tainted by the humbling necessities of political maneuvering. But it's how these two men, similarly ill-suited to their public roles, meet their similarly unhappy fates that distinguishes them. One is undone because he cannot betray his integrity; the other discovers his integrity only when he is undone.

Kent's Richard II unfolds in the twilight gloom pierced with sharp shafts of light that seems to be de rigueur for Shakespeare productions these days. Here the dank atmosphere is certainly justified by the play: The England of Richard II is a country in deep decline, a place where the golden light of regency has been dimmed by evil influences.

Fiennes, an actor who has specialized in both good and bad guys with an aura of sensitivity, would seem a natural fit for Richard. Perhaps that's why he seems to go out of his way to de-emphasize this trait. From his first entrance, sitting with stiff pomp on a gothic throne, attired in florid silks that set him strikingly apart from the rest of the court, Fiennes' Richard is a distinctly silly king. His petulance comes most strongly to the fore when Richard reacts with childish peevishness to Gaunt's deathbed reprimands: Fiennes adds his own flourishes to Shakespeare's boldly drawn picture of a royal tantrum—he sticks out his tongue at the dying man before gleefully usurping his wealth to fill the royal coffers.

Fiennes' showily comic, nearly hysterical Richard certainly gives the production a vivid focus, particularly amid a supporting cast too prone to loud and generic declaiming. And it's certainly grounded in the text of the first two acts, in which the ineptness and immorality of the king is plainly seen to be draining the lifeblood from the kingdom. But Shakespeare's Richard begins a journey toward illumination well before Fiennes' does; Fiennes' decision to accentuate Richard's antic neuroses intermittently throughout many of the character's great lyrical speeches leaves the play without any consistent emotional depth—any poetry of the soul to match its magnificent words—until virtually its last moments.

Suffering turns a miscreant monarch into a poet who sees deeper into the nihilistic corners of existence than almost any of Shakespeare's characters, and certainly anyone in the play. So it's a pity that Fiennes continues to obscure this spiritual awakening almost indefinitely, negating it with trivializing comic shtick all the way into the play's penultimate act (a sarcastic hand to his ear awaiting a royal greeting that he knows will not come, for instance, in the renunciation scene). “My grief lies all within,” says Richard toward the close of this scene, and Fiennes has suggested that it's here that the character's transformation finally takes place; but this is to ignore too much of the reflective poetry that precedes it, and to rob us of a more psychologically nuanced—to say nothing of sympathetic—portrait of a man spiritually ennobled by grief and misfortune.

What is lost becomes instantly clear in Fiennes' last scene, when Richard, robbed of his royal robes, stands chained to the floor of his cell and imprisoned in a shaft of light. Fiennes delivers the deposed king's last great speech with great sensitivity, meticulously navigating his way through its dense philosophy with both a clear-sighted intelligence and a bruised, spiritual majesty. “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” he says with a piteous humility. The play's emotional impact finally arrives in its full measure, but it's too little, too late.

There is a similar, and more apt, emphasis on comedy in Kent's Coriolanus. The play has at times been pegged as a satire, and Fiennes gives full and delicious scope to the warrior Coriolanus' wry, disgusted encounters with the Roman tribunes and the people. Also delightfully dry is Oliver Ford Davies as Menenius. Indeed, Davies plays similar roles in both plays—as the Duke of York in Richard II, he displays much of the same fatigued, ironical pragmatism that he does as the peace-making Menenius in Coriolanus. While great leaders rise and fall, and revolutions wax and wane, the subtle, unassuming performances of this capable actor suggest that there will always be men of intelligence, effort and good will who are ground beneath the wheels of the state even as they are instrumental in keeping it on course.

On the whole, the company fares far better in Coriolanus than in Richard II (with the curious exception of Linus Roache, who makes little of the major role of Bolingbroke in Richard II and scarcely more of Aufidius in Coriolanus; his classical verse technique seems to consist primarily of twisting the volume knob up and down haphazardly). David Burke's Comidius and the wily tribunes of Alan David and Bernard Gallagher are effective, but the standout supporting performance in Coriolanus comes from Barbara Jefford as a fire-breathing Volumnia, a mother who most willingly suckled a bloodthirsty warrior and just as willingly betrays him.

But it's Fiennes' mesmerizing Coriolanus that gives the production both its energy and, more surprisingly, its humanity. Fiennes does not offer us merely a bellowing warrior whose excessive pride is his single and simple tragic flaw. He's suitably bloodthirsty as needed (in Kent's boldly drawn conception, Fiennes looks spookily like Carrie at the prom during the Romans' initial battles with the Volscians), but there is a vivid, quixotic nobility in this warrior's pride, and his disdain for public approbation seems to stem from an authentic sensitivity rather than simple churlishness.

With his eyes afire and, in a particularly effective piece of staging, his back turned to public ceremony, Fiennes' Coriolanus is also loyal to a vision of human possibility that everyone else has long since forsaken in favor of more smudged, dissimulating, dishonest personae. Shakespeare's attitude toward the vacillating populace in this play is more nuanced than in others, but in an age when politicians are too wont to follow rather than lead the public, the proud integrity of Fiennes' Coriolanus asserts itself as admirable—even thrilling—and his treatment at the hands of the Romans' is consequently more pitiable.

We share his benumbed march toward vengeance, and when Volumnia bears down upon him with her plea for mercy to Rome, this most political of Shakespeare plays reaches a devastating emotional climax. The hero's mother's strange love, it's easy to see, resulted in a man whose pride may just hide a bone-deep insecurity—he still needs a mother's approval more than anything else. Fiennes plays the scene with shattering stillness, finally crumpling into Volumnia's breast as he capitulates, making us aware that Coriolanus' assent is both an act of mercy and a plea for mercy: Both know his capitulation will cost him his life. It's a deft, brilliant stroke that crowns a thoroughly captivating performance.

Shakespeare productions ultimately rise or fall on their allegiance to the playwright's greatest gift, the truths he tells of the curious workings of human hearts. It's here, surprisingly, that Fiennes' Richard II falls a little short, while his Coriolanus, the manifestly more inhuman hero, succeeds—much like the warrior who bested a city of Volscians—against all odds.

Leonard Barkin (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Barkin, Leonard. “The Theatrical Consistency of Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 29, no. 1 (winter 1978): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Barkin studies the emotional impact of Richard II, and claims that the play possesses inherent theatrical and logical unity in terms of the emotional responses displayed by the characters on stage and the emotional interaction between the characters and audience members.]

For some years, critics analyzing Shakespeare's plays and teachers teaching them have labored under a self-induced pressure to approach the plays as theatre. Such an injunction is properly justified by appeals both to the historical circumstances under which the plays were composed and to the theatrical liveliness of the texts themselves. And some of the finest Shakespearean criticism of the post-war period has been inspired by this theatrical awareness.

Though theatrical criticism embraces a great range of approaches, it often involves a tendency to equate theatre with theatrical effects. Consequently, we have come to look to this school of criticism for an explanation of the path between the text and the theatrical result, whether in gesture, blocking, visual matters, actors' approaches to individual roles, or directorial conception. But it is important to remember that creative artists in the theatre do not spend all their time producing theatrical effects; in fact, they also expend a great deal of energy looking for theatrical causes. If in theatrical criticism we choose effects as our only goal, we omit a crucial phase in theatrical practice: the search for inherent theatrical values or meanings in the text without any prejudice as to their specific realization on stage.

Foremost among these theatrical causes is what we might call “emotional consistency.” Dramatic action, besides being the raveling and unraveling of a fictional narrative, consists of a sequence of emotional responses, both among the characters on stage and between stage characters and members of the audience. In Shakespeare's dramas, these responses are ordered by a grand design; I call this design the play's “consistency.” As used here, “consistency” has two relevant meanings: texture and logical continuity.

In scrutinizing Richard II, I aim to describe its emotional texture and to prove its theatrical continuity. For evidence inside the play, I rely heavily on systems of emotional response, both among the characters and between them and us. Analysis of theatrical causes can point to particularly apposite theatrical effects. Once we understand a play's theatrical causes and effects, we will have gone a long way toward defining a stage meaning for the play—that is, a way of seeing the play's totality that is at once true to the spirit of the work and susceptible to theatrical realization.

The emotional consistency I propose for Richard II concerns a history of violent or passionate energies suppressed and then released in both physical violence and comedy. We do not tend to think of Richard II as a violent play, of course. Whether in the study or in the theatre, Richard II has a justified reputation for being poetic, cerebral, wistfully tragic. But when we concentrate our attention exclusively on the mellifluous language, the history of ideas, the suffering misfitted king, we close our eyes to much of the power, and specifically the stage power, contained in the text.1 The early parts of the play, both in events and in theatrical style, are characterized by an increasing emphasis on violence and passion desired or imminent but not realized. The personality of Richard and the ritualistic style of the drama act, each in its own way, to inhibit such realization.2 Once Richard is excluded from control of England (and the play), however, all the passionate energies explode with a force all the greater for their suppression. The result is a transformation of England and—more important for our purpose—a change in the drama's ritualistic style. As Richard II concludes, we find ourselves in a dramatic world where violence is real, joined with new forms of complexity and that familiar close relative of violence, comedy.


The play opens with two powerful noblemen who want to slaughter each other. We soon learn that the violence they desire is itself due to an act of violence, the murder of the king's uncle. But the original event stands in the past, where throughout the play its actuality—its course, motives, perpetrators—remains hopelessly elusive. Meanwhile, the present desire for violence is suppressed in various ways. At first, the king tries simply to cancel all eruption of violence. Having heard the word “blood” eight times in some hundred lines, he tries to stop the blood before it flows:

Let's purge this choler without letting blood—
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision.
Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed:
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.(3)

(I. i. 153-57)

Indeed he is no physician. Ignoring the very proper medical value of bleeding, the king fails in his efforts to convince his patients to abjure violence altogether.

If we try to be alive to theatrical “causes,” we can hardly fail to notice that throughout the first half of Richard II much of the dramatic power results from the confrontation between passion or violence and some sort of chilling force bent on their suppression. Consider in the opening scene, first, the immense passion of the two combatants, second, what we might call the genius loci (that is, the awesome decorum of the throne room, where violent passion does not belong), and, third, a quality peculiar to this particular occupant of the throne room, an infuriating, almost flippant self-possession that suggests he is deaf and blind to the passions around him. Virtually all of Richard's responses to the outbursts of Bolingbroke and Mowbray can be effectively delivered in a cool, almost playful, and altogether inscrutable way, an insouciant style in which the king tries to deny violence but ends by provoking it all the more. To the first ceremonial well-wishing by the two disputants, Richard answers, “We thank you both, yet one but flatters us, / As well appeareth by the cause you come” (I. i. 25-26). Richard toys with the intensity and gravity of their concerns, reducing their great argument until it concentrates upon him and upon the trivial and court-centered issue of flattery. The tone of Richard's other comments (which, by the way, are very few in number) is much the same:

What doth our cousin lay to Mowbray's charge?
It must be great that can inherit us
So much as of a thought of ill in him.

(I. i. 84-86)

After a particularly complete and violent accusation by Bolingbroke, Richard muses “How high a pitch his resolution soars!” (I. i. 109). The king persists in a kind of aesthetic appreciation of the passions he is observing, as though the disputants were a pair of successful actors.

Richard chills the emotions but does not pacify them. When absolute peace fails, he resorts to a compromise between peace and war, the trial by combat, which amounts to a postponement and a ritualization of the disputants' desires for violence. The scene in the lists at Coventry offers us the perfect theatrical metaphor for the emotional tension we observed in the first scene. What has been a merely conversational conflict now becomes the keystone of the stage business itself. Shakespeare develops the formality of the trial proceedings to their ultimate extension by using repeated expressions, formal constructions, old-fashioned language, and all the trappings of verbal ceremony. Lest we be hypnotized by the printed page, however, we should remember that the theatrical requirements of the scene are likely to rigidify the formality of the ritual even more than the language does. The vertical structure of the set composition, the ubiquitous armor, the trumpets and banners, the presence of a large number of supernumeraries who are dehumanized into absolute military posture: all of these elements offer an unavoidable sense of chilling indifference to the passions that originated the quarrel and the violence that may arise from it. The emotions that surface from under all the armor and ceremony are still fiery hot, but the king has succeeded in containing them even more effectively than in the first scene. His decision to terminate the trial by combat is no more than a natural outgrowth of the institution itself: he reduces it entirely to its ritual aspects and deprives it of its natural, and bloody, resolution. In one action he attempts to separate the two combatants from each other and, just as important, to separate the whole problem of violence—including Mowbray, Bolingbroke, and the murder of Gloucester—from himself and his court.


But the emotional tension between violent desires and chilly suppression is not limited to the principal scenes of Richard's kingly ascendance. Virtually every scene in the first two acts of Richard II is characterized by the same sort of affective tension. The conversation between the Duchess of Gloucester and John of Gaunt, which occupies the second scene, is swimming in violence, with many repetitions of words like “blood,” “slaughter,” “murder,” and “butcher.” The subject here, of course, is violence in the past, but there is no dearth of onstage passion from the Duchess, who wants to see her husband's death avenged. For this scene, then, she is the Mowbray-Bolingbroke figure:

O, sit my husband's wrongs on Herford's spear,
That it may enter butcher Mowbray's breast!
Or if misfortune miss the first career,
Be Mowbray's sins so heavy in his bosom
That they may break his foaming courser's back
And throw the rider headlong in the lists.

(I. ii. 47-52)

All this passionate intensity is again contrasted with a figure in possession of more practical power who refuses to respond to the emotions. “Venge my Gloucester's death,” says the Duchess; Gaunt responds, “God's is the quarrel.” A desire for violence is once more thrown against unshakable inaction, and a firm intention not to act has the practical power to contain the violence.

In his death scene, however, Gaunt shifts from his earlier position and becomes the passionate figure playing to a flippant and unresponsive Richard. The king reverts to his tone at the play's opening, a light-hearted sort of teasing that attempts to treat Gaunt's death as an aesthetic experience. For the first time, Richard's composure is actually breached:

                    A lunatic lean-witted fool,
Presuming on an ague's privilege,
Darest with thy frozen admonition
Make pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood
With fury from his native residence.

(II. i. 115-19)

The image is a significant one. The suppression of violence is beginning to tell, even on Richard; and the royal blood, which has already been insistently connected both with continuity and with violence among the Plantagenets, is asserting itself, if only negatively, in the king's involuntary responses. But again the suppression of violence wins out. Gaunt's privilege to speak passionately in the king's presence is due only to the imminence of his own death, an event over which the king has no power. Gaunt's death soon silences the outburst.

The second scene of Act II is clearly intended to parallel the second scene of Act I. Again a passionate woman, in this case the Queen, confronts rational and unresponsive comforters who do not comfort her. Bushy does not urge her to appeal to God, as did Gaunt to the Duchess of Gloucester, but rather offers a consolation much like Theseus' speech in Act V of A Midsummer Night's Dream, suggesting that her imagination is creating more griefs than she has any real reason to feel. Considering that this consolation comes just when Bolingbroke's first successes against Richard are about to be announced, the viewer will see that the Queen's imagination is far more reliable than Bushy's reality. Realizing that her fears are justified, the Queen turns on her comforters with a violent image of her own:

So, Greene, thou art the midwife to my woe,
And Bolingbroke my sorrow's dismal heir;
Now hath my soul brought forth her prodigy,
And I, a gasping new-deliver'd mother,
Have woe to woe, sorrow to sorrow join'd.

(II. ii. 62-66)

This monstrous birth, and the passion of its expression, are contrasted with the chilliness of Bushy's “Despair not, madam” and the passive piety of York's “Comfort's in heaven and we are on the earth, / Where nothing lives but crosses, cares, and grief” (II. ii. 78-79).

In the next scene, it is again York who acts as the chilling force. Of all the characters in the play, he is the one who is most extremely torn between opposing points of view, capable of speaking with the greatest passion about both the wrongs of King Richard and the crime of usurpation. The result of these conflicting passions is an internal suppression of violence. “I do remain as neuter” (II. iii. 158), he says, reminding us that he is himself the product of an immovable object and an irresistible force and that he will try to take his stand against the rising tide of rebel violence. By the end of Act II, just before Bolingbroke's triumphs begin, we have witnessed a considerable increase in the ability of the blocking individual to suppress passion and violence; but we have not left behind the emotional tension between violent desires and an opposition to them that declares itself neuter.4


The middle of the play becomes a series of provocations to violence; Richard meets them with retreat and self-denial. While Bolingbroke is executing villainous Plantagenet allies, Richard is making his own deposition inevitable by yielding to all demands before his rival can even make them. All of Richard's great speeches are concerned with escapism, with undoing, with self-annihilation. So this is the one play in the tetralogy that has no battles. In an almost Chekhovian way, any form of decisive narrative action is eschewed. Thus, the main event of the plot, Richard's deposition, is never actually introduced as a possibility. Around the middle of the play it is suddenly taken for granted. Shakespeare has deliberately rejected the powerful theatrical effect of a discovery, a single instant when either Richard or Bolingbroke first confronts the possibility of deposition.5 When the decisive moment actually arrives, it is almost comically anticlimactic. Almost as if he had just thought of it, Bolingbroke says, “In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne” (IV. i. 113). Shortly thereafter Richard interrupts the formal abdication ceremony to say, “Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown” (IV. i. 181).

Through this central phase of the play, significant changes take place in the theatrical mood of the drama. The great scenes for which the play is often remembered—Richard's passionate lyrical performances in III. ii, III. iii, and IV. i—represent the high point in the play's ritualistic style, but they also mark the beginning of its obsolescence. Up through this point Shakespeare has realized a ritualistic form of drama by banishing violence (indeed any form of decisive action) from the narrative. The result has been a remarkably decorous dramatic structure, one that is free of such elements as comic subplots, multiple points of view, and villains we love to hate. But just as Bolingbroke becomes increasingly powerful, and rebellion, with its violent implications, is loose in the land, the mode and style of the play become more diffuse.


As we move toward Acts IV and V, the nature of the theatrical experience changes in three interconnected ways. First, violence ceases to be effectively suppressed. Though it is not until the end of the play that blood is actually shed on the stage, the offstage presence of violence is more imminent; meanwhile, potentially violent human passions become frequent on stage. Second, comedy becomes possible in the world of the play. As actions become more extreme and reality more distanced from ritual, the incongruities turn toward irony and even laughter. Third, the play's concentrated focus upon the king as single individual and as political/cosmic principle is eased, and the view of the world is much broadened. As the range of interest widens in this latter part of the play, there are frequent ironic attempts to deflect our concern about monarchic and historical questions, deflating the seriousness with which such questions can be handled.

The clearest manifestations of these new dramatic qualities are to be found in the multiple challenges in the first scene of Act IV and in the Aumerle rebellion in Act V. For years stage producers have looked at these episodes and despaired. Faced with seemingly manic scenes in the final minutes of such a sublime drama, they have had a number of choices. They could (and often have) cut the scenes, since they seem unnecessary to the plot. They could stage them in a solemn fashion befitting the high tragic tone of Richard's own final scenes, even though such solemnity seems completely out of place and must be justified by appeal to such untheatrical notions as the history of ideas or the quaint oddity of the distant past. Or they could follow their theatrical instinct and present these scenes in a raucous style, running considerable risks with both critics and audiences. It seems to me that there has been no need to fear incongruity. The frenzy, the bathos, the comedy of these episodes represent Shakespeare's most salient demonstration of the fact that passion and violence have been loosed into the world. The more hectic and funny the staging of these scenes, the more powerful the message.6

The judgment scene at the opening of Act IV parallels the first scene of the play. In both instances, the ruler is engaged in the solemn business of ascertaining the truth by means of a type of legal proceeding. Richard handles it clumsily, of course, and, what is more serious, cannot deal justly, since (like the judge Oedipus) he is himself the culprit. Bolingbroke has none of these problems, and the later scene begins by glorifying his order and rationality just as these qualities were glorified at the opening of Act III, when Bolingbroke was judging Bushy and Greene. But things get out of hand. Aumerle is accused of complicity and throws his gage down. Bolingbroke tries to prevent Bagot from responding in kind (in one rather helpless line, and he will not speak again for another sixty lines), and all he gets for his trouble is to have Fitzwater throw his gage down. Soon others jump into the fray. Percy throws his gage down. “Another Lord,” whom Shakespeare does not even bother to name, throws his gage down. Then a new party, Surrey, is heard from, and new reversals begin:

My Lord Fitzwater, I do remember well
The very time Aumerle and you did talk.
'Tis very true; you were in presence then,
And you can witness with me this is true.
As false, by heaven, as heaven itself is true.
Surrey, thou liest.

(IV. i. 60-65)

Surrey seems to be cooperating and corroborating; Fitzwater is delighted to have an unimpeachable witness; Surrey says exactly the opposite of what the set-up has led us to expect; and Fitzwater ought to be the absolute picture of frustration.

Now I am not saying that this scene is irrepressibly hilarious, but I do think it has strong comic properties. Surely it becomes a parody of the play's opening. The repetition of a single physical action often leads to laughter in the theatre, and the throwing down of gages in this scene has the effect of mocking all the pomposity that we, as members of the audience, have been willing to swallow for three acts. In addition, there is a strongly comic quality to the chain-reaction effect in the scene. We begin with Bolingbroke and Bagot; Bagot involves Aumerle; Aumerle involves Fitzwater; Fitzwater involves Surrey. Aumerle even runs out of gages and has to borrow one. Each time a new combatant becomes involved, the previous ones drop out of the picture and are left, as I see it, standing awkwardly around. The climax comes when the argument reduces itself to a battle between Surrey and Fitzwater, who are, after all, non-entities with only the remotest connection to the original scene in which Gloucester's death was plotted. An uncontrollable domino effect of relatively trivial human passions has deflected the play from its central thematic concerns and the new ruler from the serious business of ordering England. It is significant for both the meaning and the chaotic humor of the scene that Bolingbroke, who sets it in motion, becomes a silent and almost helpless spectator by the time the scene ends.7

The episode involving Aumerle and the Duke and Duchess of York occupies a quite remarkable amount of space in the closing scenes of the play.8 From the moment when York discovers his son's involvement in the conspiracy against King Henry, circumstances produce the release of violent energies. “Treason, foul treason! Villain! Traitor! Slave!” (V. ii. 72), the Duke calls out, and we begin to see the incongruous image of an aged man—indeed, one who has vehemently defined himself as neutral—in a physical frenzy. From here on, the frenzy is accompanied by rough humor. Again, the bathetic comedy derives from deflection. Just as the gage-throwing deflects our attention from the real issue (the murder of Gloucester) to a repeated chivalric act and to individuals who are increasingly remote from the murder of Gloucester, so here, in both the Aumerle scenes, our attention is deflected from the real issue of rebellion and the family bond. The first deflection concerns York's boots:

Bring me my boots: I will unto the king
His man enters with his boots.
Strike him, Aumerle. Poor boy, thou art amaz'd.
Hence, villain! never more come in my sight.
Give me my boots, I say.

(V. ii. 84-87)

We are invited to forget about Aumerle, about rebellion, and even about York's journey to the king. Instead the focus is on a mute servant, involved in the action in a remote and inconsequential way. The Duchess, taking out her frustration on the servant and the boots, is all the more frustrated because she cannot induce her son to beat up the poor servant. The Duke, oblivious to the meaning of the boots, just continues wanting them.

Then the Duchess, in her eagerness to save Aumerle from his father's wrath, deflects the issue in a new direction:

But now I know thy mind: thou dost suspect
That I have been disloyal to thy bed,
And that he is a bastard, not thy son.
Sweet York, sweet husband, be not of that mind;
He is as like thee as a man may be,
Not like to me, or any of my kin,
And yet I love him.

(V. ii. 104-10)

Cuckoldry, particularly with the resulting issue of dubious parentage, is a stock comic topic, and in this situation, the advanced age of the participants renders doubly absurd the Duchess' assumptions about passionate jealousy. The speech culminates in a series of comic reversals. Since the Duchess is so passionately defending her son, we assume that she is very close to him in spirit and, presumably, in stage position. But the climax of her argument depends on her proving that the young man's real closeness is to his father (imagine her pushing the inert Aumerle up against his father). Then in a fit of hyperbole, the Duchess asserts that she has no stake in him at all (perhaps pushing the two of them further away from her). Finally she recognizes the absurdity of arguing passionately for her son and denying her maternity, so she reverses again, says “And yet I love him,” and, following this little staging of the scene, pulls son, and perhaps father too, back to herself. All the while—judging from York's next comment, “Make way, unruly woman!”—she is blocking the door. The scene culminates in a rush of great energy as all three characters, two of them quite aged, engage in a race to reach the king.

When the York frenzy is transferrd from its own home to the king's palace, its mood becomes even more incongruous. With the entrance of the Yorks, a low-keyed, wistful scene about a wayward son is interrupted by a piece of slapstick about a wayward son. If at first the matter of Aumerle's pardon is treated solemnly, it is soon rendered absurd by the stage business of the kneeling. The kneeling here is precisely equivalent to the gage-throwing in Act IV, scene i: it is a repeated physical action producing a chain reaction.9 Aumerle's first genuflection is accompanied by a slightly incongruous physical image:

For ever may my knees grow to the earth,
My tongue cleave to my roof within my mouth,
Unless a pardon ere I rise or speak.

(V. iii. 29-31)

The unmistakable hyperbole in this plea is properly deflated when Bolingbroke gives the pardon with greater alacrity than Aumerle expected. As a consequence, this eternal cleaving of knees and tongue to their respective grounds lasts approximately fifteen seconds.

But the main event is yet to come. The Duchess enters and kneels immediately:

Rise up, good aunt.
                              Not yet, I thee beseech:
For ever will I walk upon my knees,
And never see day that the happy sees
Till thou give joy—until thou bid me joy,
By pardoning Rutland my transgressing boy.
Unto my mother's prayers I bend my knee.
Against them both my true joints bended be.

(V. iii. 90-96)

The king is tired of petitioners who get their way by kneeling, but the Duchess is relentles and goes her son's hyperbole one further by vowing to walk on her knees—an action she might even illustrate to prove the seriousness of her intent. With the corroborative kneeling of Aumerle and the counter-kneeling of York, we reach comic chaos. The immense long-windedness of the Duchess—38 lines, all spoken from her knees—reinforces the absurdity, especially since we know the pardon has already been given. Again there is a deflection from the main issues and individuals. At a time when our attention ought to be focused on the idea of rebellion and on the opposition of Bolingbroke and Aumerle, we are concerned instead with kneeling. Aumerle is altogether silent, and the King of England is reduced to saying nothing but “Rise up, good aunt,” “Good aunt, stand up,” and “Good aunt, stand up.” Frenzy has invaded the king's sanctuary, and bathos has invaded the sanctuary of the play.


But what has become of Richard in the midst of all this bathos? As the protagonist in a tragedy of personal suffering and insight, he does not belong to the chaotic Lancastrian world. It is therefore interesting to note that Richard is not immune. In the same scene (IV. i) that includes the multiple gage-throwing, Richard himself stage-manages an episode that might profitably be realized in the theatre as cynical, comic, or at least bathetic:

Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown.
Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.
I thought you had been willing to resign.
My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine.
You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs: still am I King of those.
Part of your cares you give me with your crown.
Your cares set up, do not pluck my cares down.
My care is loss of care, by old care done;
Your care is gain of care, by new care won.
The cares I give, I have, though given away,
They 'tend the crown, yet still with me they stay.
Are you contented to resign the crown?
Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.
Therefore no “no”, for I resign to thee.

(IV. i. 181-202)

Richard has been asked to resign his “state and crown / To Henry Bolingbroke.” Though he is generally a master of the abstract statement, he chooses on this occasion to construe “crown” not as metonymy but as the physical object itself. He then subjects Bolingbroke to a tug-of-war which either lasts for the whole twenty lines or else forces his antagonist into the rather sheepish gesture of letting go of the crown during one of his impatient one-line speeches. Meanwhile Richard trivializes his language, eschewing Christ and the heavens and concentrating for the moment on buckets going up and down in a well.10 Richard even captures the seesaw effect of a tug-of-war in the language he uses. The image of one bucket up and one down is complemented by a rash of contrasts, contradictions, oxymorons, and lines broken in two halves by caesuras. “Ay, no; no, ay” (IV. i. 201) serves as the climax of this style and sentiment. All these linguistic effects seem perfectly suited to the stage business of a wavering tug-of-war.

However we might stage the scene, it is at least clear from Bolingbroke's responses that he thinks Richard is taunting him. Richard is daring his rival to hold on to the crown, and Bolingbroke is forced to recognize and take part in the charade in a vividly physical way. Richard holds on tight, first as an act of physical defiance, to prove that he is still alive and still a man, and second as a means of forcing Bolingbroke to re-enact, in an almost self-parodic fashion, his usurpation. Bolingbroke begins the episode half-heartedly, as if humoring a madman, but continues the tug-of-war because he too comes to recognize its symbolism; he has been trapped into doing battle for his manhood. Just when the new king's actual strength is about to win out, Richard willingly lets go, making it clear that his imagination has moved to other, more abstract charades. Bolingbroke is left with a victory so childish and (suddenly) unsymbolic that it is worse than a defeat.

These associations of Richard with the physically chaotic in the last acts are, of course, the exception rather than the rule. Shakespeare is not content merely to transform a ritualistic play into a bathetic one; instead, he uses the last two acts to polarize his theatrical styles. As more violence and comedy enter the new world of Bolingbroke's rule, Richard's part in the drama becomes increasingly pure and abstract. By the end of the fourth act, Richard has reduced himself imaginatively to nothing; his poetry has reached a pinnacle of solipsism and abstraction; as a consequence, he has become sequestered from the frenzy of the narrative and from the play's new styles. When we see him in his last scene, soliloquizing in prison about matters of the greatest intellectual abstraction, he forms a very striking theatrical contrast to the kind of drama that is becoming typical of the Lancastrian rule.

Yet abstraction and physicality are yoked together again in Richard's death scene. Consider the stage direction and Richard's gloss upon the stage business:

The murderers rush in.
How now! what means death in this rude assault?

(V. v. 105)

Shakespeare has made enthusiastic use of the historical tradition, derived from Holinshed and Hall, that Richard slew a number of his would-be murderers. In a decisive break with the philosophizing and elegiac mood of the previous hundred lines, Shakespeare injects physical energy into Richard's last moments. Richard has just cursed Henry and struck his jailor for refusing to act as a food taster, and he is now clearly preparing for a last burst of violent energy. The scene ought to become frenzied, as the original stage directions suggest. “Here Exton strikes him down,” we are told, and we observe the play's first onstage act of violence. In the theatre, this act produces at last a real release, in blood, of tensions that the whole play has been building, and it would be a mistake to shrink away from a considerable fight amongst Richard and his three assassins. If I wanted to produce the play in a radically arresting fashion, I would make Exton a half-comic bungler who has found the physical task of murdering Richard no easy matter. He laboriously decides in the previous scene to commit the murder; he accomplishes it in a clumsy way with macabre humor; and he brings his good deed to the new king only to be severely reproved. He is a picture of the little man who tries to play by the rules only to find the rules changed. If the scenes are staged properly, we can come to see their similarity to the kind of frenzied semi-comic dramaturgy in the Aumerle episode.

Once the onstage murder has occurred, violence is truly loosed into the world of the play:

Kind uncle York, the latest news we hear,
Is that the rebels have consum'd with fire
Our town of Ciceter in Gloucestershire. …
                    (Enter Northumberland) …
The next news is, I have to London sent
The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt and Kent. …
                    (Enter Fitzwater.)
My lord, I have from Oxford sent to London
The heads of Broccas and Sir Bennet Seely,
Two of the dangerous consorted traitors
That sought at Oxford thy dire overthrow. …
                    (Enter Percy …)
The grand consiprator, Abbot of Westminster, …
Hath yielded up his body to the grave.

(V. vi. 1-21)

This represents the real grand guignol or satyr-play ending of Richard II. Violence and theatrical bathos unite. A lengthy series of violent deaths is underlined by a succession of vivid announcements about the victims' heads being shipped to London. Meanwhile, the entrance of breathless messengers reminds us of the earlier sequences involving gage-throwing and kneeling: the repeated mechanism of these sequences suggests that violence and comedy are, in this play at least, potentially close relatives.11


I have tried to draw a line of stage affinities, an underplot of theatrical causes, along with some possible theatrical effects, in Richard II. The motif of suppressed passion in the early part of the play is balanced and resolved in the later portions of the play by a series of explosive releases, including the judgment scene and the tug-of-war with the crown in IV. i, the Aumerle episode in V. iii, the murder of Richard in V. v, and the bloodbath (V. vi) to which the rebels are treated at the end. What all these explosive releases have in common is a kind of theatrical mood or emotional consistency, and this mood demands realization on stage. But the effect of these episodes goes beyond the realm of mood: they help establish Shakespeare's vision of kingship in the modern world. While the world has become raucous and destructive, the new king has tried to dissociate himself from violence at every turn. He has disdained the multiple gage-throwing by appealing to evidence rather than to mere strife:

These differences shall all rest under gage
Till Norfolk be repeal'd—repeal'd he shall be,
And, though mine enemy, restor'd again
To all his lands and signories.

(IV. i. 86-89)

He has dissociated himself from the multiple kneeling by uttering some of the most perceptive dramatic criticism of the play to be found within it:

Our scene is alt'red from a serious thing,
And now chang'd to “The Beggar and the King” …

(V. iii. 77-78)

And he has tried in the same scene to avoid Richard's mistakes by going beyond mere banishment of his enemies—that is, Aumerle's fellow-conspirators:

Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels. …
They shall not live within this world, I swear.

(V. iii. 137, 140)

Finally, in punishing Exton, he has tried to dissociate himself from the murder of Richard:

They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee. Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murtherer, love him murthered.

(V. vi. 38-40)

There is no doubt that Bolingbroke has been to some extent justified in each of these dissociations. Shakespeare takes great pains to establish the newly violent world, but he also seems intent on reminding us that the new king is a man of order, reason, and sensitivity. But the violence is already beginning to taint the king. He will never find out the truth about the murder of Gloucester because the one man who could tell all has slipped through his fingers and died in Venice. He cannot completely rid his realm of dangerous people; he is trapped, for instance, into pardoning Aumerle. He even ends the play with a series of banishments, since he is unable to execute Carlisle and Exton. In all these respects he resembles his predecessor. Richard could not or would not get at the truth about Gloucester; he was condemned to fostering enemies; and he was foolish enough to banish enemies instead of committing the clean break so eloquently favored by the gardener. Finally, Bolingbroke will be plagued to the end of his days by Richard's death, precisely as Richard was by Gloucester's.

Yet if the figures are similar, they relate very differently to the ground. Henry IV has, by accident or design, created the style of the modern world, though he is personally unsympathetic to that style. The plays named after Bolingbroke will celebrate that combination of comedy and bloodshed. What we need to recognize is that the modern world actually begins earlier than the Henry IV plays, with the birth of Henry's kingship in Richard II.


  1. The present argument runs against the tide of a good deal of criticism tending to see Richard II as extremely unified. Walter Pater is perhaps the most passionate exponent of this view: “The play of Richard the Second does, like a musical composition, possess a certain concentration of all its parts, a simple continuity, an evenness in execution, which are rare in the great dramatist. … It belongs to a small group of plays, where, by happy birth and consistent evolution, dramatic form approaches to something like the unity of a lyrical ballad, a lyric, a song, a single strain of music” (Appreciations [London: Macmillan, 1901], pp. 202-3). We remake Shakespeare in the image of our own times; and while Pater may have yearned for the lyric unity he saw in Richard II, we may be erring in our own desire to find twentieth-century tensions and paradoxes in everything. Writing a half-century later, John Dover Wilson nonetheless agrees with Pater: “the tragedy of King Richard the Second has all the air of being composed in a single mood” (Introduction to King Richard II [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1939], p. xiv). But a number of twentieth-century critics do find a multiplicity of materials and styles in the play. M. C. Bradbrook, in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951), pp. 135-40, bases her whole discussion of the play on a certain kind of complexity: “It is the multiplicity of points of view which gives its tragic character to this play: even as on the early stage a multiple setting allowed the dramatist to set several scenes on the stage side by side, so this multiple characterization allows the dramatist several centres of sympathy” (p. 136). As my argument will show, I do not find this thesis entirely convincing. Much of the material in the play is powerfully homogeneous; hence, the effectiveness of the heterogeneous elements. A. P. Rossiter (Angel with Horns, ed. Graham Storey [London: Longmans, 1961]) goes even further, declaring that “most critics” have felt “some kind of discontinuity, or inconsistency” in the play. For his own opinion he declares, “Whether you approach Richard II from the angle of the texture of the verse, the verse-styles, character, plot or themes, you encounter what geologists call ‘unconformities’” (p. 23). He sees these largely as between the first two acts and the last three, a point of view I share in some respects.

  2. It is interesting to note that those who argue for a homogeneous Richard II nearly always see the unified tone as being one of pure ritual, a style in which the play has often been staged. John Dover Wilson, for instance, tells us that “Richard II ought to be played throughout as a ritual. As a work of art it stands far closer to the Catholic service of the Mass than to Ibsen's Brand or Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan” (p. xiii). Not surprisingly, this approach has appealed greatly to theatre people: it seems to offer a direct theatrical key to all the action. Sir John Gielgud begins his fascinating little essay saying that “Richard the Second is a ceremonial play” (Stage Directions [London: Mercury Books, 1963], p. 28). John Russell Brown, in Shakespeare's Plays in Performance (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), uses a discussion of the play to illustrate the theatrical value of emblematic ceremony. He feels that the visual power of these ceremonies is so great that it has the natural effect upon an audience of inspiring belief, particularly in the case of the Bolingbroke ceremonies near the close of the play. I believe very firmly in the theatrical power of these rituals, but I think that they exist in a state of dynamic tension with (a) anarchic, non-ritual forces and (b) corrupted values that cheapen the ritual. A. P. Rossiter (p. 38) points out that “only six scenes out of nineteen can be called ‘ritualistic’ or formalized”; and Paul Jorgensen (“Vertical Patterns in Richard II,Shakespeare Association Bulletin, 23 [1948], 134) questions the rituals themselves: “There is something not entirely convincing about the pomp and gorgeous decorativeness of the play. Its most exalted scenes leave one uncertain as to the dignity of the participants, uneasy as to the appropriateness of solemn emotion.” Let us then see Richard II as a play of attempted ritual.

  3. Citations are to Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II, the Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1956).

  4. Even the language the characters use testifies to the presence of violence and the effort to suppress it. Theoretically, language offers an alternative to violence: Bolingbroke and Mowbray are invited to talk their differences out, so that they will not come to blows; and in another sense, later in the play, Richard's linguistic artistry demonstrates his distance from the world of violent action. Language indeed seeks to contain violence, then, particularly when Richard uses elaborately formal constructions in order to regulate the passions around him: “Face to face, / And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear / The accuser and the accused freely speak. / High-stomach'd are they both and full of ire, / In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire” (I. i. 15-19). The formal language precisely parallels the formal ritual; and like the ritual, it is broken by what it attempts to contain. But language, far from containing violence, may be the means by which violence enters the play (the frequent repetitions of “blood,” for instance). Or else words may be violent acts in themselves. Richard responds to Gaunt's tongue-lashing: “Wert thou not brother to great Edward's son, / This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head / Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders” (II. i. 121-23); and York attacks Northumberland for failing to use the proper title of respect for the king: “The time hath been, / Would you have been so brief with him, he would / Have been so brief with you to shorten you, / For taking so the head, your whole head's length” (III. iii. 11-14). In both cases, language is aggression, and it is met with an equal, physical counter-aggression.

  5. Brents Stirling, in “Bolingbroke's ‘Decision,’” Shakespeare Quarterly, 2 (1951), 27-34, does a very interesting job of tracing the complex ways in which the notion and then suddenly the reality of deposition enters the world of the play. To his argument it might be added that in the theatre this circuitous path can be very surprising, like the forcible omission of an obligatory scene.

  6. My theatrical understanding of the second half of the play is heavily influenced by an interest in the “Northern” tradition of comedy, bloodshed, and in chaos, often associated with the later Middle Ages. The classic treatment of this tradition is, of course, Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (London: Edward Arnold, 1924): “Towards the end of the Middle Ages feudal and hierarchic pride had lost nothing, as yet, of its vigour; the relish for pomp and display is as strong as ever. … So violent and motley was life, that it bore the mixed smell of blood and of roses. The men of that time always oscillate between the fear of hell and the most naive joy, between cruelty and tenderness, between harsh asceticism and insane attachment to the delights of this world, between hatred and goodness, always running to extremes” (pp. 18-19). Better than anything, these images describe my sense of the play's multiplicity; and were I actually producing it along these lines, I would make heavy use of the chaotic atmosphere of late medieval Europe, juxtaposing blood and beauty, prophecy and farce. It is interesting that Peter Brook (The Empty Space [New York: Avon, 1969], p. 78) speaks in much the same terms about Shakespeare: “It is through the unreconciled opposition of Rough and Holy, through an atonal screech of absolutely unsympathetic keys that we get the disturbing and the unforgettable impressions of his plays. It is because the contradictions are so strong that they burn on us so deeply.”

  7. Bolingbroke's handling of this quarrel is often taken as a sign of his political effectiveness. John Russell Brown (Shakespeare's Plays, p. 142) finds Henry's silence to be one of “his most arresting contributions,” but to me it reads otherwise.

  8. The Aumerle episode has had a very bad press. It is often cut in production, and those who argue for the ritual homogeneity of the play not infrequently resort to justification by multiple authorship or multiple sources. For some theatrical history, and also a negative opinion on both the Aumerle and the gages scenes, see A. C. Sprague and J. C. Trewin, Shakespeare's Plays Today (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1970), pp. 41-43. The most enthusiastic treatment, and one that parallels many of my conclusions here, is Sheldon P. Zitner's “Aumerle's Conspiracy,” SEL [Studies in English Literature], 14 (1974), 239-57. I very much agree with the basic premise: “The Aumerle scenes, with the exception of the set pieces that open each, are I think fully intended farce, sometimes roaring, sometimes savage, but farce with such salt and savor as to distress the taste for pageant, pathos, and elevated death the play otherwise appeals to and satisfies” (pp. 243-44). Some of Zitner's most eloquent arguments concern the ways in which the episode acts as a kind of mock-heroic, “a deliberate send-up of the Elizabethan big bow-wow style, the Senecanizing ornamented bombast that was first the liberation and then the plague of English tragedy” (p. 250).

  9. In this connection, Zitner makes a valuable point about the historical Richard II's “obsession with genuflection” (p. 250). With or without real history, we ought to note that kneeling is a highly charged symbolic issue in a play about definitions of royalty; and so, while kneeling deflects attention from the main concerns, it also symbolizes them.

  10. Wolfgang Clemen, in an extremely persuasive treatment of the play (The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery [London: Methuen, 1951], pp. 53-62) takes the tug-of-war quite seriously as an example of Richard's ability to create a kind of acted-out imagery that arises directly from real situations. I agree with the seriousness of the content but wish to emphasize the potential bathos of the dramatic event.

  11. Eric Bentley (appropriately enough a Brechtian) is one of the few to spot the essential brutality of this final scene. He sees it as “the spirit of politics and war—dog eat dog” (In Search of Theater [New York: Knopf, 1953], p. 127).

Leeds Barroll (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14517

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

[In the following essay, Barroll investigates the relationship between the Earl of Essex rebellion and Richard II.]

History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long, and through which it found its anthropological justification: that of an age-old collective consciousness that made use of material documents to refresh its memory; history is the work expended on material documentation (books, texts, accounts, registers, acts, buildings, institutions, laws, techniques, objects, customs, etc.) that exists, in every time and place, in every society, either in a spontaneous or in a consciously organized form. The document is not the fortunate tool of a history that is primarily and fundamentally memory; history is one way in which a society recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is inextricably linked.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge

Because what we see as “history” is focused, hued, elongated, and foreshortened by our own sense of what we are scanning, we bring back from our viewing something of what we have brought to it.1 Yet it is just this redundance that holds so much promise as we seek to reassemble our sense of Shakespeare's relationship to his time. Our awareness of the varying histories to be drawn from texts that have survived from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—an awareness achieved by our entertaining, if only for heuristic purposes, a number of different narratives—cannot but invert assumptions, add possibilities, and raise those doubts through which one sharpens historical understanding.2

In our renewed efforts to relate Shakespeare to the period in which he lived, it is important, I think, to avoid some of the confusions plaguing the new historicism. Unless these confusions are addressed, our efforts to study Renaissance drama in any new way may drift from what I take to be the original intent of new historicists: an approach to historicity as it bears on the study of Shakespeare. So I propose here to consider certain difficulties with which we must deal before we can take full advantage of the exciting options that the new historicism has presented to us all. In this essay I am specifically concerned with whether certain approaches that we have come to identify with the new historicism accord with what historians are calling not the “new historicism” but the “new history.”3 Pursuing this question, I will engage some of our new historical positions in argument; this will be done not to disparage the positions themselves but rather to honor the spirit informing them, even though, at times, their letter seems to me to reside in dubious texts.

Specifically, I shall focus on two historical loci, noting here that I define an historical “locus” as that portion of a surviving text from which an interpreter creates “fact” and derives narrative. The “locus,” in this sense, becomes epistemologically interesting because it serves as a differentia of various approaches to history: various kinds of historicism, if we will. Any operation with the locus inevitably generates from it an historical “event” already implicit in the terms that formulated the operation. Both the loci to be considered here have been entered by critics prominently associated with the new historicism and have—unfortunately, I think—been offered as exemplary of the importance and pertinence of new historicism itself.

One locus derives from the reign of Queen Elizabeth: the presentation of Shakespeare's Richard II at the Globe on the day before the Essex rebellion. According to one narrative built on these events and appropriated by several approaches to the new historicism, the Earl of Essex frightened the authorities about the political possibilities of drama by using Richard II in his effort to seize the crown. The second locus has more widely involved the delineation of an atmosphere, resulting in an assumption about the nature of the new royal court established at the accession of James I. This view emphasizes James I's own relationship to the activities of professional actors and dramatists in an effort to structure larger assumptions about the nature of the early Stuart monarchy, assumptions that have inevitably politicized Shakespeare's drama by relating it to the programs of King James himself.4


Moving first to that locus associating Shakespeare's Richard II with the Essex uprising, I note that it has received a particular interpretation in the writing both of Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Dollimore as they construct rationales for their approaches to the study of English Renaissance drama. As a result, the sequence has become something of a cliché in current historical discussions of Shakespeare. In Greenblatt's Introduction to the 1982 anthology The Power of Forms, he describes the essays contained therein as giving voice “to what we may call the new historicism, set apart from both the dominant historical scholarship of the past and the formalist criticism that partially displaced this scholarship in the decades after World War Two.” Greenblatt states that “the earlier historicism tends to be monological,” while the new historicism “tends to ask questions about its own methodological assumptions and those of others.” In presenting his own historical example, Greenblatt devotes all but the final paragraph of his Introduction to a description of Shakespeare's Richard II in its 1601 context. Modern historical scholarship, he observes, does not see Shakespeare's Richard II as a threat:

But in 1601 neither Queen Elizabeth nor the Earl of Essex were so sure: after all, someone on the eve of a rebellion thought the play sufficiently seditious to warrant squandering two pounds on the players, and the Queen understood the performance as a threat. Moreover, even before the Essex rising, the actual [deposition] scene (IV.i.154-318 in the Arden edition) was carefully omitted from the first three quartos of Shakespeare's play and appears for the first time only after Elizabeth's death.5

In the 1985 anthology Political Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Dollimore's essay entitled “Introduction: Shakespeare, Cultural Materialism and the New Historicism,” employs the locus similarly:

A famous attempt to use the theatre to subvert authority was of course the staging of a play called Richard II (probably Shakespeare's) just before the Essex rising in 1601; Queen Elizabeth afterwards anxiously acknowledged the implied identification between her and Richard II, complaining also that “this tragedy was played 40 times in open streets and houses.” As Stephen Greenblatt points out, what was really worrying for the Queen was both the repeatability of the representation—and hence the multiplying numbers of people witnessing it—and the locations of these repetitions; “open streets and houses.”6

Quoting Greenblatt, Dollimore reiterates: “Can ‘tragedy’ be a strictly literary term when the Queen's own life is endangered by the play?” (p. 8).

This continual adduction and uniform interpretation of the Essex locus presents, I think, important reasons why any historical method must first deal with its own theoretical premises—especially given the seeming solidity of the “fact” that serves as the cornerstone of the foregoing remarks. J. G. Droysen long ago suggested that the use of any historical text to establish the immutability of a fact is redundant; thus, this curious privileging of one account of the Essex conspiracy in approaches opting for new ways of making history about Shakespeare's milieu produces an ironic effect.7 For the statements about Shakespeare's Richard II uncritically organize and promulgate from one Essex locus nothing more than a time-honored and traditionally tendered narrative about the earl and his connection with Shakespeare's drama, a narrative promoted by a nineteenth-century aristocratic ideology that constantly sought to raise Shakespeare to the status of confidant with the peerage.

To comment on the univocal readings of the Essex locus now characterizing some approaches to the new historicism, I shall offer an alternate account of the Essex affair as it might impinge upon Shakespeare's Richard II. For though acknowledging that no single narration (or many single ones) can rise above the theoretical problems inherent in the structuring of narrative itself, I urge that it is methodologically important to break this traditional story of the Richard II performance out of its amber, that we must de-ossify a narrative before it is ironically re-ossified through our own efforts to use it as the way to illustrate the analytic promise of the new historicism.

There has been, since the 1930s, little systematic study of the texts detailing the entire episode in which the Earl of Essex attempted to seize control of Queen Elizabeth's person and of her closest advisors, but the pertinent documents have long been calendared. Fifty years ago, in fact, they caused a lively (and now surprisingly ignored) debate regarding the relationship of Shakespeare's Richard II to the Essex uprising.8 And circumstances offer not one “basic history” of the Essex situation but two sets of texts. One set (only a portion of which is currently in use) is that describing Richard II in its relationship to the Essex conspirators. But another—very different—set of documents presents information about other Crown activity vis-à-vis Essex, again connected with the story of the unthroning of the historical Richard II, and this set has nothing to do with drama or the playhouse. Both groups of material further illustrate, I think, those methodological complexities in the making of narrative currently being addressed by historical theory.9

Let us look at the material. The first set of records alludes to the performance of Richard II and pertains to the Essex conspiracy. As I read them, these records tell, very briefly, that on the Thursday or Friday before the Essex uprising of Sunday, February 8, 1601, five or six of the followers of the Earl of Essex visited several members of Shakespeare's company and offered them 40s., more than twice as much as the players would usually earn for a play, if they would consent to perform the out-of-date Richard II on Saturday afternoon.10 The actors agreed. On Saturday, February 7, eleven of the conspirators had a midday meal together in London and crossed the Thames by boat to the Bankside theatre area where they went to the Globe and saw the play Richard II (presumably Shakespeare's). On Sunday morning the Essex uprising began. After it had been quelled, the Privy Council began to collect testimony. Eight to ten days later three depositions separately describing the Richard II performance had been taken. The first two depositions were by two conspirators, while the third was by one of the Lord Chamberlain's players, Shakespeare's fellow actor, Augustine Phillips. In aggregate, all three depositions make up the record of the events I have just recounted. They constitute the locus.

From this composite narrative (often, in much current commentary on the subject, treated as having derived from one account) critics have been quick to build an interpretation that emphasizes the importance of drama as a “power to subvert.” But certain questions put to these same documents may complicate any monological history recently inferred from the Richard II performance. For example, how did the Crown dispose of those persons involved with the Richard II performance? The answer seems to be that of the eleven conspirators known to have attended the performance or who could be considered connected with it, all were punished for their involvement in the uprising as well as for whatever was offensive about their attending the play. Four of those associated with the performance were executed, but they had been closely involved in the Essex conspiracy as a whole. The large majority were punished by being fined various sums, presumably scaled according to their ability to pay, and then were freed within six months.

One of the executed playgoers was Gilly Meyricke, Essex's steward, who showed in the total of his testimony that he was privy to almost everything Essex had been planning. Another of the four executed conspirators who attended the Richard II performance was Christopher Blount, brother to Charles Blount (8th Lord Mountjoy and Penelope Rich's lover) and husband to the Countess of Leicester, the Earl of Essex's and Penelope's mother; in the Essex plot Christopher Blount had accepted a definite assignment in the seizing of the royal palace. Another executed playgoer was Captain Thomas Lea, who actually tried to enter the privy chambers to assassinate the queen. Also executed was Henry Cuffe, to whom Lea reported. But although these four conspirators, Meyricke, Blount, Lea, and Cuffe, were closely involved in the plot, their specific relationship to the performance of Richard II seems incidental. Cuffe, for instance, did not go to the play, only to the midday meal beforehand. Lea did not go to the midday meal, only to the play, while Gilly Meyricke arrived at the play late.11

Another question that might be asked of the material constituting this locus is: who were involved in the plot but did not attend this performance of Richard II, and how were these men disposed of? The absences—perhaps caused by great responsibilities in the conspiracy—suggest again the complex limitations of the texts in hand. Absent from the group named by the deponents as involved in Richard II were the Earl of Essex and Sir Charles Danvers (both executed); the earl closest to Essex, Southampton (not executed but sentenced to the Tower for life); and two other earls close to Essex and Southampton: the Earl of Rutland and the Earl of Bedford. Both were spared but paid huge fines.12 Absent from the play, then, were the most prestigious conspirators of the Essex plot.

To ask a different kind of question: assuming a minimal correlation between a person's attendance at the Richard II performance and his presumed involvement in the conspiracy, what evidence do we have as to how the Privy Council viewed the subversive performance itself? For example, how did the Privy Council dispose of those who, according to testimony, actually instigated the Richard II episode? According to the player Augustine Phillips, the chief instigators and bargainers who actually came to the playhouse to arrange and pay for the performance were three persons not described as having attended: the two younger Percies (brothers of the Earl of Northumberland) and Lord Monteagle (married to the sister of one of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, who would hold Sir Thomas Egerton prisoner at Essex House on the morning of the rebellion). These three nobles—Charles and Jocelyn Percy, third and sixth sons of the Earl of Northumberland, and William Parker, Lord Monteagle—were neither executed nor put in the Tower for life. Despite the fact that they were part of the Essex conspiracy and, in addition, had actually caused Richard II to be performed, they were fined only moderate amounts and freed within six months to walk the streets, long before Elizabeth's death.13 If the performance of Richard II was indeed dangerous to the state, those who raised the danger were treated rather lightly.

To put a final question to the locus: The original depositions that long ago alerted scholars to a possible relationship between Richard II and the Essex conspiracy do not indicate which of the original deponents were then required to return for a second deposition, a not unusual order when the Council wished to follow up a line of inquiry; which conspirators in this instance did Council members wish to question further? They were Gilly Meyricke and William Constable. But in his later appearance, Meyricke, Essex's steward, was questioned about almost everything concerning the uprising except the Richard II performance. William Constable, operating in a much more restricted sphere than Meyricke (Constable had been to the play, spent the night for the first time in his life at Essex's house, and marched with the rebels the next day), was not asked about the play again either. He was queried exclusively about his friends and co-conspirators in Yorkshire.14 In other words, once identified as a conspirator via the play incident, Constable was now questioned not about Richard II but about his knowledge of northern conspirators who would have had nothing to do with a play at the Globe.

The direction of this interrogation suggests to me that, from the Privy Council's point of view, commissioning Shakespeare's Richard II just before the Essex uprising was not a severely punishable offense in itself, and thus the play may not have been regarded as dangerous propaganda. In the papers of the Privy Council of England, furthermore, minutes of the discussion on March 11, 1601, about what to do with the remaining persons imprisoned for the Essex plot are followed by notations in the text matter-of-factly authorizing pay to John Heminge and the rest of Shakespeare's fellows “for their interludes and plaies” shown during the recent Shrovetide following the Essex uprising. Behind this notation lies the fact that the acting company gave the traditional play at court before the queen on Shrove Tuesday night, February 24, the day Elizabeth had again signed Essex's death-warrant and the eve of Essex's execution on Ash Wednesday, February 25.15

Another example of the complications that the documents introduce into too straightforward a narrative is Francis Bacon's pamphlet about the conspiracy written in 1601. In the pamphlet he inveighed against Gilly Meyricke and charged that Meyricke personally “procured to be played” the performance of Richard II—but not, presumably, as Greenblatt and also Dollimore seem to have implied, for the purpose of “wrest[ing] legitimation from the established ruler” by infecting the populace (Greenblatt, p. 3). Bacon wrote, rather, that Meyricke commanded the performance because “so earnest hee was to satisfie his eyes with the sight of that tragedie which hee thought soone after his lord should bring from the stage to the state.”16 Francis Bacon's words suggest that the performance had a primary psychological function that might be of great interest to a Habermas, but Bacon seems not to have seen it as a dangerous incitement to revolution in the streets.

But what of Queen Elizabeth's own alleged claim that “I am Richard II”? This too plays a major part in the traditional narrative that associates Shakespeare's Richard II with the Earl of Essex. The story comes from a manuscript held by the Lambarde family—quite a different source than Privy Council records. It tells, in the third person, of William Lambarde, who on August 4, 1601, six months after Essex's death, was presenting the queen with a list of manuscripts contained in the Tower. Her eye fell upon the “Richard II” subdivision of the listing and she remarked, “I am Richard II. know ye not that?” Lambarde, according to the manuscript, responded, “Such a wicked imagination was determined and attempted by a most unkind Gent. the most adorned creature that ever your majestie made”—meaning, perhaps, that Essex had tried to make a Richard II out of Queen Elizabeth. The manuscript then tells us that the queen answered, “He that will forget God, will also forget his benefactors; this tragedy was played 40tie times in open streets and houses.”17 Let us waive here an interesting problem in the hermeneutics of historical narrative to grant the manuscript's accuracy and timeliness—Lambarde himself died on August 19, 1601, fifteen days after the interview. Let us also grant for the moment the possibility that Queen Elizabeth was personally disturbed by the Richard II story. Let us even grant the improbable supposition that plays (by the Lord Chamberlain's Servants?) were acted (free) in the public streets and that in 1601 Richard II, though old, was acted forty times. Given all of this, was Shakespeare's play the force behind the queen's sensitivity to the Richard II model?

Such need not have been the case. As early as January 9, 1578, Sir Francis Knollys, and at some time before 1588, Henry Lord Hunsdon (future patron of Shakespeare's company) each wrote remarks protesting that he would not give flattering advice to his sovereign, both expressing this sentiment by saying that they would not play the part of “Richard the Second's men.” The Richard II model was an old one.18

Surely, however, we cannot dismiss Shakespeare's play from the context of contemporary politics, one might object, for Shakespeare's Richard II had in it a deposition scene that was suppressed until 1608. At least so goes the traditional narrative.19 But considering what we can know only from the texts of Shakespeare's quartos of Richard II themselves, the concept of a deposition scene as “suppressed” is a curious and distressing intellectual position for critics who are interested in new approaches to and apprehensions of the history of Shakespeare's time. For the traditional view of a suppressed deposition scene is based on a limited concept of textual transmission in Shakespeare's quartos as well as on formalist assumptions about Richard II itself.

To advert to the textual situation briefly: the “deposition scene” is absent from the 1597 and the two 1598 quartos of Richard II (all printed well before the Essex uprising),20 but in the next two quartos (1608 and 1615) as well as in the First Folio (1623), 160 added lines—what we call “the deposition scene”—appear. It has been concluded by many critics that because these additional lines were absent from the first three printings of Shakespeare's play, they were, in fact, excised from these first three printings. Because, in other words, 160 lines describing Richard's resigning of his crown appear for the first time in the 1608 quarto of Richard II, their absence from the former quartos has been thought to mean that the sequence was actually suppressed. The generalization that would follow from such a premise is that all new material in revised editions of Shakespeare's plays would represent the surfacing of previously censored sequences—a proposition that can be neither supported nor refuted.

The difficulty of supporting such a proposition may be why the premise of suppression in the case of Richard II has traditionally been buttressed by formalist criticism, an approach succinctly illustrated in the words of E. K. Chambers, who in 1931 observed that “the excision” of the deposition scene from the early quartos of Richard II left an “obvious scar.” And although David Bergeron questioned both the critical and textual assumptions underlying this traditional approach to the Richard II quartos over a decade ago, the myth of a suppressed deposition scene still colors some historical perceptions.21

At the same time, we must entertain the possibility (implicit, for example, in the premise of two King Lear texts) that Shakespeare revised his plays. Shakespeare may have revised Richard II—and not necessarily for purposes of subversion. He may have wished to expand the characterization of Richard himself, the 1608 quarto appearing at a time when Shakespeare had recently written King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, plays exploring other tragic figures coping with the dilemma of regal status as an objectification of psychic identity, a problem implicit in the Richard II addition.22

Whatever may be the case with the “deposition scene” itself, the larger question of Richard II and the Essex conspiracy can be viewed from an alternate historical locus—and at this point we move to a second set of available documents. These texts embody a response by the authorities to a different version of the story of Richard II, a prose history published in 1599, two years after Shakespeare's play was first printed in quarto and two years before the Essex rebellion. This history, written by the scholar John Hayward and entitled The first part of the life and raigne of king Henrie the IIII, covered only the first year of Henry's reign and described at some length the deposition and the killing of Richard II. (Contrary to another traditional assumption in Shakespeare criticism, the surviving documents indicate that it was the depiction of the murder more than of the deposition that always concerned authorities.23

The publication of Hayward's book correlated with the activities of the Earl of Essex as follows: Briefly, on January 9, 1599, almost two years before the Essex uprising, John Hayward's Life of Henry IV was entered in the Stationers' Register for printing. The book appeared by March 1 with a fulsome Latin preface addressed to the Earl of Essex, a preface that had already “given offense” and been ordered excised after 500-600 copies of the book had been sold. The remainder of the issue, another 500-600 copies, nevertheless sold quickly thereafter.

On March 27, 1599, Essex left London for the Ireland campaign with great éclat. By April 8 Hayward's book was still much in demand, and a second printing, including a new “Epistle Apologetical” by Hayward, was planned. Fifteen hundred copies had been produced by Whitsunday (May 27) when the Wardens of the Stationers' Guild confiscated the run and delivered the books to the Bishop of London (in effect censor-in-chief), who had them burned. Then the printer, John Wolfe, was imprisoned for two weeks.24

Over the next several months Essex, in Ireland, began having those difficulties with the Crown that resulted in his unauthorized return to London on September 28, 1599, after an absence from England of only six months: March 27 to September 28.25 As a result of his unwarranted homecoming, Essex was confined to York House, beginning a long period in more or less stringent custody that would be ended only by his rebellion sixteen months later. Confined through the fall of 1599, he became quite ill from December through March, and this illness prevented arraignment for his conduct in Ireland until June 5, 1600. On that date Essex was tried at York House and dismissed from all his offices, remaining still in loose confinement.

It was after this first trial that the Crown began to move in on John Hayward and his Life of Henry IV, more than a year after the book's publication. On July 11, 1600, about a month after Essex's trial and nine months before the uprising, Hayward confessed to a court made up of such personages as the Earl of Nottingham, Sir Thomas Egerton, Robert Cecil, and Sir John Fortescue—respectively, the Lord Admiral, Lord Privy Seal, the Secretary of State, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—that he had inserted spurious material into his history of Henry IV. Several days later, on July 13, 1600, the author was imprisoned. In that same July, according to Dudley Carleton, because of Hayward's book the queen also took away from Essex the liberty of leaving London that she had granted him hitherto:

My Lord of Essex remains prisoner, but at his owne custody. the Queen had given him liberty to go into the cuntrie, but recalled it againe upon the taking of Doctor Hayward who for writing Henry the forth was committed to the tower.26

The same day Hayward was committed to the Tower, Hayward's printer, John Wolfe, was examined by Sir Edward Coke, who on July 20, seven days later, also examined the censor who had allowed the book.27 When the articles to support this earlier charge of treason against Essex were drawn up on July 22, 1600, the articles used Essex's alleged implication in Hayward's Life of Henry IV as one among a list of points that might strike us as more important items, such as Essex's suspiciously lax campaigning in Ireland.

Months later—seventeen days before the Essex rebellion—Hayward was still in the Tower. He was again exhaustively examined twice, first by Sir Edward Coke and Sir John Peyton, Lieutenant of the Tower, and then by Coke again, about the historical sources for his Life of Henry IV. The Crown's interest in Hayward's book makes the attention they will later bestow upon the Richard II performance seem, by comparison, trivial.28

After the rebellion itself, Hayward's book seems to have remained in the minds of those who proceeded against Essex. In all the testimony before the Privy Council about the performed play, for example, the play was referred to as “Richard II” only by Augustine Phillips, Shakespeare's fellow-actor, who would naturally have been alive to the difference between Shakespeare's Richard II and his Henry IV plays. But Gilly Meyricke, arch-conspirator, and Sir Edward Coke, the Crown prosecutor (the only Crown official known to have referred to the performed play by its name), spoke of the play as “Henry the 4th” and “a play of Henry the 4th” (Chambers, WS, Vol. 2, 324-26). This, as we know, was the title of the book by John Hayward about King Richard's deposition and death.

After the accession of James I, Hayward's book was reprinted three times, each time fraudulently dated “1599” by three different publishers.29 Such was, it seems, the remembered notoriety and ongoing demand for this publication. In crucial contrast, there is, first, no evidence that either Shakespeare or his printer was ever arrested or questioned about the printed version of Richard II or the performance of the play; nor was there any great demand for the text of Shakespeare's drama at the time immediately preceding or following the rebellion. Nor did the accession of James I immediately provoke editions of Shakespeare's Richard II. As we have seen, a quarto was not published until 1608, and, after that, not another until 1615 before the 1623 First Folio.30

Indeed, as I read the records, any political relevance Shakespeare's play possessed could well have derived from its similarity to Hayward's history. For it was this book that seems most publicly to have given the topic of Richard II its application to the Essex uprising.31

If the Privy Council showed in its responses more concern for the danger represented by Hayward's book than for that occasioned by Shakespeare's drama, then the link between Shakespeare's Richard II and the Essex conspiracy is at best an ambiguous representative example in arguments that wish to stress the connection between drama and the power of the state. If one looks beyond the locus that has been used to demonstrate the subversive value of Shakespeare's play, one finds other loci that add new readings of history. One could argue, in fact, that the Elizabethan authorities perceived in connection with the Essex plot a threat much more serious than acted plays: i.e., the printed book.

Since we are concerned with the question of premises underlying the new historicism, it is important to stress this point. The acting of plays was not a social novelty in 1601. The English monarchs had had companies of actors at least since the year 1450, as we can discern from payments made from the accounts maintained at Selby Abbey32; the printing of books, while not new and revolutionary, was still a social proposition difficult for the authorities to deal with (as the Marprelate situation of the 1590s reminds us). As Francis Bacon, one of those who held Hayward's Life of Henry IV against Essex, observed in the Novum Organon, Aphorism 129:

We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.33

The public playhouse as invented by James Burbage was perhaps equally new, but not, in any event, capable of replicating its product in the way available to the printing press. Thus the printed book's inherent primacy as “media” for the Richard II analogue is certainly witnessed in the remarks made by the printer of Hayward's Life of Henry IV: “No book ever sold better”; “The people having divers times since called to procure the continuation of the history by the same author.”34 On the other hand, if we can believe Augustine Phillips, Shakespeare's company was reluctant to put on his Richard II in this same period because it “was so old and so long out of use as that they should have small or no company at it.” Offer a printer Shakespeare's Richard II or Hayward's Life of Henry IV in 1601, and there could be little doubt which manuscript would be more attractive. The Life of Henry IV was topical, current, scandalous, and suppressed, and it was written, as John Pocock has reminded me, by Sir John Hayward, Doctor of Law, more socially conspicuous than a common player. Shakespeare's Richard II was old—apparently not even worth producing on a Saturday afternoon in 1601.

Finally, the impression made by Hayward's Life of Henry IV on the minds of Shakespeare's contemporaries is tellingly indicated, I think, by an unwitting confusion exhibited in the abstracts following the earlier trial of the Earl of Essex in 1600, when he was arraigned for leaving Ireland without permission. Even then Essex was berated for his “underhand permitting of that most treasonous booke … Henry the fourth to be printed and published, being plainly deciphered not onely by the matter, and by the Epistle itself, for what ende and for whose behoof it was made, but also the Erle himself being so often present at the playing thereof, and with great applause giving countenance and lyking to the same.”35 This fascinating statement can be read many ways, perhaps even suggesting that Shakespeare's play was thought to be a dramatization of Hayward's book.

Because the epistemic problems posed by the question of historical “evidence” are so great, any description of Essex's relationship to the Richard II story is open to doubt and to complication; there is no way that we can know the “true” story. But it is at least possible that drama may have been significant to the Essex conspiracy not because of the impression the authorities thought plays might make upon the populace, but because of the impression plays made upon certain figures in the circle about Essex. Indeed, one reads of a supper given at Essex House on February 15, 1598, a year before the earl's Irish troubles began, where Essex and his circle saw “two plays which kept them up till 1 o'clock after midnight,” plays that in the usual course of events would have been arranged and paid for by the host, who that evening was Essex's steward, Gilly Meyricke, the future playgoing conspirator and the man whom Bacon accused of instigating the Richard II performance. In the fall of 1599, after Essex had returned without permission from Ireland and was awaiting trial in London, we hear of the two earls closest to Essex whiling away this time of inactivity in similar pursuits. “My Lord Southampton and Lord Rutland come not to court … they pass away the tyme in London merely in going to plaies every day.”36 While, as we have seen, these two nobles were not (ostensibly, at least) involved in the Richard II performance, obviously others in the same circle (Essex's steward and those who paid for Richard II) seem to have been fascinated by the power of stage plays—upon themselves, at any rate.

Accordingly, in dealing with the Richard II incident, we might set aside a theory that foregrounds drama's power over the populace to focus instead on a theory that views the interesting influence of drama upon certain minds. Perhaps the “fact” that we should extract from the situation is the belief by some conspirators that the fictions they viewed on stage had the same power over others as such fictions had over themselves. In analogue, perhaps, to the methodology adopted by Foucault in his history of madness, one might wish to examine the power of drama as it was misconstrued by certain members of the Essex circle. Such a study would also take into account the Earl of Bedford's and the Earl of Essex's commitment to shows of chivalry embodied in the Accession Day tournaments, and it would consider the importance of mimetic and quasi-mimetic forms to an Essex group that included in its number so many patrons of the arts, a group led by an earl who had married Sir Philip Sidney's widow. Members of such a group would not be the first to have believed that literary forms and pageants constitute a political power that can influence events.

One might wonder, then, whether the performance of Shakespeare's Richard II just before the Essex rebellion caused the Privy Council much concern about the power of drama itself. That Richard II was a suggestive subject in these years is, I think, beyond debate. To try to present the story in any form, as Matthew Black and Peter Ure remind us in the commentaries they have gathered in their respective New Variorum and New Arden editions, is often to incur suspicion. But if we compare the documents surrounding the publication of Hayward's Life of Henry IV with those surrounding the 1601 performance of Richard II, we find, I think, that they suggest very different political points. In Hayward's case, a book was deemed quite dangerous as a medium; in Shakespeare's case, not the play but the persons involved in the production—both players and those who commissioned the performance—were deemed dangerous because they were doing something they thought to be seditious.


In the end, current interpretations of the Essex locus seem to be functions of a more general approach to the social role of drama in Shakespeare's lifetime. For if some critics practicing the new historicism have seen Richard II as significant to a single political plot in Elizabeth's reign, others writing of James I have implicated drama in the whole fabric of the new king's theory, policy, and practice. Thus, in this more general claim about the political significance of drama to the time of Shakespeare, documents bearing on the king's own tastes, personality, and writing have constituted a pertinent locus. Organized into one familiar narrative, this locus presents a situation in which Shakespeare's dramas, the plays of others, and court masques became important as part of a political dialogue between James I and certain dramatists, or as propagandistic material in the policy programs of the Crown. And crucial to this argument has been the idea of James's personal preference for plays and masques—i.e., of a monarch who was intellectually inclined to the writing of poems, to the reading of history, and therefore to drama too.37

“When King James came to the throne,” writes Jonathan Goldberg, “his first act in the literary realm was to take the theatres under his patronage,” for “as part of his entertainment, James demanded court performance of plays.”38 Indeed, argues Stephen Orgel, “King James wanted the theatrical companies under royal patronage because he believed in the efficacy of theater as an attribute of royal authority.” Players, by this token, were the “outward and visible signs of James's sense of his office.”39

A central text in Goldberg's reading of King James's theatrical orientation has been the Basilikon Doron, the long essay on kingship James wrote and dedicated to his then five-year-old son, Prince Henry. Goldberg has emphasized in particular that section of Basilikon Doron in which James likens a king to “one set on a stage whose smallest actions and gestures all the people gazingly do behold.” To read James's printed statement as a witness to his personal inclinations is in itself troubling. Yet, even if one assumes that in this passage King James is promulgating his partiality to professional acting rather than his sense of kingly responsibilities and techniques, the Basilikon Doron is at best ambiguous in showing James's attitude toward actors and plays. Consider a short passage from the Basilikon that has not been cited in recent discussions:

… abuse not youreself in making youre sporters youre counsaillouris; specialie delyte not to keepe ordinairlie in youre cumpanie comœdians, or balladins, for the tirans delyted maist in thaime & delyted to make comœdies & tragedies thaimeselfis, [whereupon] the ansuere that a philosophe gaue ane of thame [there-anents] is nou cum in a prouerbe, reduc me in latomias.40

To make his point, James turns to the bad example of Nero, a ruler traditionally associated with drama and performance and, of course, with capricious tyranny.

Such a passage, if passages can indeed reveal a writer's personal opinions, serves to complicate the claim that King James held any special brief for drama. But my use of this counter-example is meant primarily to emphasize methodological dangers in assessing the tastes and inclinations of a person removed from us by centuries. Because the complexities of the intertextual relationships between biography and statement are, as I think Dominick LaCapra might agree, beyond our current achievements, it is best not to look for James's person in his Basilikon Doron.41

However, the question of King James's attitude towards drama (and thus, ultimately, of his attitude towards the plays of Shakespeare) is worth pursuit, and it is therefore worth our time to dissolve the binding rust of “facts” that have long seized up the potential play of other narratives. One such “fact” is the increase in the sheer number of plays presented during the holidays at court after King James came to the English throne, for this surge has traditionally been cited to suggest King James's interest in drama, and, by implication, in the other arts.42 Before dealing directly with this matter, I shall begin by suggesting that a more general reference to the systematic records of the Scottish Crown and Privy Council—despite their potential for ambiguity and slanting for social purposes—can produce earlier and as potentially relevant documents about King James and drama. In 1589, for instance, when James planned to marry Anna of Denmark in Scotland, he requested of Queen Elizabeth that the acting group Queen Elizabeth's Servants travel to Scotland to provide entertainment at the Scottish royal wedding.43 This request could suggest that James was intensely interested in drama; it could just as well suggest that he did not support actors in his own household, or that he thought English actors far superior to Scottish. Since I can find few records of dramatic performances at court in James's early Scottish reign, I favor the “absence of household actors” interpretation. Such records as survive from James's Scottish days suggest no great passion in King James of Scotland for plays.44

It is extremely important, therefore, that rather than assuming James's great interest in the drama when he ascended the English throne, we seek some indication of this interest. One obvious sign has traditionally been taken to be the patenting of Shakespeare and his fellows as the Servants of the King in May 1603, an event that I have found to be extremely complicated but not necessarily any more indicative of the king's personal interests than was an early grant of the office of the Keeper of the Manor House and Park of Temple-Newsham in the County of York, given by the Crown to Thomas Pott, for life, on May 14, 1603 (five days prior to this patenting); or the grant on May 17, 1603, to Sir Amias Preston, of the Office of the Keeper of Stores and Ordnance in the Tower of London. In these cases, specific financial opportunities had been awarded, as was not the case with the patenting of the King's Servants. Indeed, although the general scholarly assumption has been that King James was the instigator of a relationship between Shakespeare's fellows and the Crown, my own reconstruction of the patenting of the acting company suggests that the king could have had little to do with it—that the event was more in keeping with the style of the Earl of Pembroke, who, with Southampton, became early on one of James's inner (social) circle. Because the basis for this assertion requires too extended a demonstration to rehearse here, I shall merely suggest at this time that our rush to place King James at the center of the patenting process has perhaps led us to ignore other possible narratives describing the creation of Shakespeare's company as “Servants of the King.”45

But what of the upswing in performances at court after James's accession? As I noted, this is a fact often adduced in our assumptions regarding James's interest in drama. When we put this fact in context, we recall that James, as king of England, now inherited quite a different tradition of court entertainment than obtained in Scotland. In England, the Declared Accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber had listed Christmas holiday payments to adult players at the English court since 1567.46 Thus, when a number of plays were performed at Hampton Court during James's first Christmas season (1603-04), this was no great departure in custom. In the Christmas season just before her death the year previous, for example, Queen Elizabeth saw eight plays by five different companies of players between December 26 and Shrovetide, including one on Shrove Sunday, March 6, less than three weeks before her death. Thus, the Venetian ambassador spoke true when he noted that in James's first Christmas season “All these days have been devoted to fetes, banquets, jousts, as is usual in England from St. Stephens [December 26] to Twelfth Night.”47

It is also true that the number of these dramatic performances during James's Christmas seasons at court was high. But existing financial records suggest that the number of plays seen by the king as compared with the number seen by other members of the royal family when the king was absent complicate our reading of James's response to theatre. During the first and celebratory Christmas of his reign, for example, James personally attended eleven plays by five companies. (As I noted above, during the last Christmas of her reign, Queen Elizabeth saw a total of eight plays by five adult professional companies.48) Seven additional plays of that first season, the number that so importantly swells James's reputation as a patron of the drama, were seen not by King James but by the queen and by Prince Henry.

Moreover, an interesting indication of King James's level of enthusiasm for the plays he did see comes from the courtier, Dudley Carleton—the future Lord Roscommon. Describing that first Jacobean holiday season, he wrote John Chamberlain:

The first holy days we had every night a public play in the great hall, at which the King was ever present and liked or disliked as he saw cause, but it seems he takes no extraordinary pleasure in them.49

If Carleton is to be believed, one might ask why James watched plays at all. An important reason, as I see it, was the role of these plays in court activity. Ambassadors, usually at court during Christmas festivities, were especially numerous during the first season of James's reign. Special envoys were present to offer formal congratulations on behalf of their sovereigns upon James's accession to the throne.50 The first two nights after Christmas, when plays were traditional at the English court, James honored such ambassadors—from Spain and from Savoy on December 26, and from Florence and Poland on December 27. Their entertainment was presented in the form of dinner and a play, as was often the custom.51 On other evenings during the holidays, the Crown paid for many more performances, but neither James nor the ambassadors were in attendance for many of them.

For example, James missed two plays during the famous Hampton Court Conference, a series of meetings with the prelates of England on January 12, 16, and 18, 1604, to settle matters of religion. Indeed, his own language about holiday entertainment describes not the plays but a battle with the Puritans at this conference:

We have kept such a revel with the Puritans here these two days as was never heard the like, where I have peppered them as soundly as ye have done the Papists there.52

It is interesting that James himself applied the word “revel” (ordinarily used to describe holiday court festivities) to describe instead his sense of pleasure in dealing with advocates of the Puritan religious position. Since the conference was held during the winter holidays, James speaks of this activity as if it were his true “revels,” showing in his language an exuberance not to be found in Carleton's description of his responses to plays.

After viewing his sixth and seventh plays in this, his first, royal Christmas season, on January 21 and February 2 (Candlemas) when the ambassador from Florence was entertained, the king left the London area, to which he did not return until February 19, Shrove Sunday, when he presided over the traditional celebration of Shrovetide,53 a celebration made more important by the fact that Shrove Sunday was this year the young Prince Henry's tenth birthday. In the three days before Lent there was one play by the King's Servants, two plays by two children's companies, one by the Prince's Servants, and bearbaiting. But after these events James did not watch another play from Shrove Tuesday, February 21, 1604, until the celebration of All Saints' Day on November 1, 1604. In fact, throughout his reign King James seldom, if ever, saw plays between Shrove Tuesday and All Saints' Day, a period of more than seven months. Nor had his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, who, however, waited past All Saints' Day to Advent before she had plays at the palace.

If, then, there was a surfeit of plays during the first Christmas season of James's reign, the surfeit may have been largely enjoyed by the ten-year-old Prince Henry and by his mother, the queen. For if, by the time Prince Henry's birthday had come around on February 19, Shrove Sunday, his father had hitherto presided over seven plays, Prince Henry, who had presumably seen these eight, had also presided himself over seven more on December 30, January 1, 2, 4, 13, 15, and 22. Both king and prince together must have seen the four additional plays at Shrovetide, for Prince Henry would surely have attended his own birthday celebration. Thus the young Prince Henry himself presumably saw eighteen plays, as compared to King James's eleven.54

In short, writers who urge King James and his interests as arguments for a role played by drama in King James's philosophy of kingship have not, I think, shown how such a penchant for drama in James is to be found. Indeed, the documents I have presented can be read to suggest that King James held no great brief for plays. The use of the Basilikon Doron, then, and of traditionally construed statistics in support of a fundamentally traditional view of James's tastes as centered on drama narrows the opportunity for new narratives that might refine our conception of the scope and role of plays at the royal court. For, as I have urged, a departure from the traditional (parts of) documents and from traditional narratives might lead to a greater variety of contexts in the same documents and even to new texts suggesting different possible relationships between the Crown and drama at court.

One such set of texts—the final set to be considered in this essay—suggests (as I read them) that, under James, the royal “solace” offered by the players was, in fact, replaced by a new kind of restorative. The writings—letters from the collection at Hatfield House and papers held in Italian archives—appear early in James's reign, during the second series of Christmas holidays (1604—05). “Solace” was the term applied to that recreation considered necessary to a monarch who otherwise might become dull and demoralized and, through his or her own ill health, in turn bring sickness to the body politic of which the monarch was the head. This concept of “solace” was integral to many of the documents of the late sixteenth century that dealt with entertainment at court. For example, the Privy Council notice to the Aldermen and Mayor of London of November 1581 urged the financial relief of players to expedite their readiness for court entertainment “with convenient matters for her highnes[s'] solace this next Christmas, which cannot be without their usuall exercise therein.”55 Indeed, the rubric under which the actors were paid for court performances with Crown money was precisely the necessity of the sovereign's solace. Moreover, it was a concept that was not necessarily confined to specific performances at the palace. The players had to perform when not at court in order to be well-rehearsed for the Christmas solace; therefore players needed their own playhouses and audiences before whom to “practice.” In sum, as has long been understood, the idea of the monarch's “solace” was of some importance to the survival of professional drama in the City, and greatly helped to sustain professional drama up to 1642. The concept was well enough known even to be burlesqued in 1626 in a story of the visit of the queen's ape to Looe in Cornwall.56

It is, therefore, highly interesting, when we attempt to gauge King James's own attitude towards the drama and towards “solace,” to note what the Venetian ambassador Nicolo Molino wrote in code to the Doge of Venice on January 31, 1605, a month or so after James first saw Othello and Measure for Measure. James had apparently written a letter to the Privy Council reminding its members that he had been in London for nearly three weeks over Christmas (seeing, among other presentations, the plays I have mentioned). But, Molino's report continues, the king “finds this sedentary life prejudicial to his health”:

… for in Scotland he was used to spend much time in the country and in hard exercise, and he finds that repose robs him of his appetite and breeds melancholy and a thousand other ills. He says he is bound to consider his health before all things, and so he must tell them that for the future he means to come to London but seldom, passing most of his time in the country in the chase; and as he thus will be far away from court he cannot attend business, and so he commits all to them, relying fully on their [the Council's] goodness and ability.57

Corroboration for Molino's account comes from several sources—principally from King James himself, who wrote the Privy Council as early as January 9, 1605, that during his absences “for necessary recreation” they should assemble to conduct business at the court of the queen. In a letter to Robert Cecil, the king later wrote that he would return to London only “if my continual presence in London be so necessary, as my absence for my health makes the Councillors to be without authority or respect.”

All this occasioned much comment at court. For example, John Chamberlain wrote to Ralph Winwood on January 26 that “the hunting life” is “the only means to maintain his [James's] health” which must be “spared too much business.” For it is this health which is “the health and welfare of us all.” Even the Earl of Worcester spoke of hunting and referred to the king's health “that doth necessarily require these recreations.”58

What seems to have happened, interestingly enough, is that the instrument of solace moved in January 1605 from the domain of stage plays and courtly entertainments to the domain of hunting. And though this new and explicitly stated pre-eminence of the chase would hardly be a death threat to the drama, which had now established itself as a viable commercial enterprise, the statement by James about the importance of the outdoor life to his health must inform any historical approach to the early seventeenth century that posits a special relationship between the king and the arts. It is clear that any such relationship, if inferred from a view of James as patron and admirer of plays during the period when Shakespeare wrote his great tragedies, will not be a wholly convincing narrative. As far as we can judge from surviving documents, for James, hunting, not plays, was the approved solace.

Whether this publicly stated attitude was a reliable indication of James's private feelings is beside the point. It is enough that a public rhetoric served as a conceptual basis for his absence from palace life and from the attendant ceremony of which drama, in the season we have glanced at, was a significant part. When James was absent from various performances that the queen and the prince attended during the first Christmas of the reign, James was at his hunting lodge at Royston. So we must consider seriously an alternate concept of King James's early reign, a narrative in which hunting (and prelate-baiting) seem to have been entertainment more important to him than ever were the plays that he saw only in the winter holiday season.


In the latter part of this essay, I have brought forward a segment of the Basilikon Doron, records of payments to players at court during the reign of Elizabeth and the first year of James, and a group of letters both domestic and foreign for the year 1604 to suggest new narratives describing the relationship of the early Stuart Crown to the drama in the time of Shakespeare. As in the previous case of Shakespeare's Richard II, where similarly espoused traditional narratives project drama into political importance, I have been questioning the theoretical foundations of some recent approaches to drama and society in the writing we think of as the new historicism. For even though we must value their rhetoric for its power to remind us that the practice of history is a never-resting effort, many of the narratives presented by new historicists are disturbingly unself-conscious and static, constricted by old narratives that tell a traditional story of the drama in a special relationship to the state or to the person of the monarch. The theoretical implications of this problem are very complex,59 and the ramifications for Shakespeare studies far-reaching, as scholars continue to accept histories formulated many years ago. Even so perceptive a Marxist critic as Walter Cohen, in his Drama of a Nation, depends upon old narratives to support his contention about what he describes as the crisis of the public theatre in England in the early seventeenth century. He writes, for example, that

Following the suppression of playing near the end of the 1590s, the public theaters of England and Spain reopened under tighter royal control. In England, between 1598 and 1604 the state narrowed the right to patronize acting companies until, in the latter year, this privilege was restricted to the royal family. The number of professional troupes was correspondingly reduced, although especially outside London the absolutist intention of the policy was partially thwarted.60

Here he is “citing” unspecified historical texts that indicate a “suppression of playing” in England near the end of the 1590s, although recent historians of the drama have not noted such a phenomenon. Indeed, Cohen's narrative method seems to marginalize those documents that describe instead the expansion of the number of permissible companies in London in 1602 and in 1604—once to accommodate the Earl of Worcester's Servants at the time when their patron had recently been made Master of the Horse and joined the Privy Council, and once to accommodate the Duke of Lennox.61

It is not my own intent here to deny drama a crucial social role during the career of William Shakespeare. Rather, I am suggesting that those premises underlying some of our recent approaches to Shakespeare seem finally to evade the concerns raised—to cite only a few examples—by Fernand Braudel as long ago as his 1950 survey of the state of post-Rankean historiography, or more recently by Lawrence Stone, or lately by Hans Kellner in his discussion of poststructuralist approaches to narrativity.62 For to write literary history in terms of any ideology (in other words, to write literary history at all) without a concurrently examined historical method is to fail to consider such points as are at issue between J. L. Gorman and Paul Veyne (most recently expressed in Gorman's review of Veyne's Writing History): the problem of the very nature of the material we are to take—or to define—as “history.”63 Such material, such texts, salvaged through the particular narrative predispositions of those individuals who created them during Shakespeare's era and culled by critics today according to their own story-making propensities, inevitably exist in a worrying instability if taken as the unexamined bases of any historicism. And, in the end, any method that accords epistemologically with such aims of “the new history” as are, for instance, finally imagined by Foucault in that avowed rethinking of his own work, his Archaeology of Knowledge, must remind itself that what we choose to see as records—or materials for the construction of new narratives—offer only multiple interpretive possibilities.64 Otherwise we begin our historical narratives by having privileged supposed events into basic “facts,” grammatically (in Wittgenstein's sense) reifying what have been only our own causal constructs. The result is not a freeing but a freezing of our conceptual options.

As to the cases I myself have discussed, while I have tried to complicate what I see as a pre-Marxian dependence on the historical roles of dominant personalities such as the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth, or King James I, and while my proposed narratives have attempted to de-center Crown affairs in Shakespeare's drama, I certainly acknowledge the possible existence of a more general truth. Drama, while not necessarily involved topically in court politics, as Jean Howard has put it to me in correspondence, can be political in the sense of being implicated in ideology and in the production and reproduction of power relations. But the documents that are now before us do not allow us to infer a narrative in which the monarch as authority-figure views drama as a special and vital medium with potentialities for subversion, or for the enhancement of the royal image, or for intellectual entertainment; for such a narrative, we must find out yet other loci, evolve other narratives than those we have examined, and must eschew argument based on formalist criticism of the plays. For the social relevance of drama may have reached beyond political purviews, and the drama of Shakespeare's time may have been used to serve more complicated ends.

If the Essex story indicates a group of nobles and gentlemen whose own inclinations toward drama predisposed them to exaggerate what plays could do, the impetus to bring about the early promotion of Shakespeare and his fellows to the status of “King's Majesty's Players” is even more suggestive. It may have come not from the king but from the peerage. Whether this impulse was as political as the later involvement of the peerage with drama in the 1620s is something I cannot speak of with certainty, although Jerzy Limon's recent study of The Game at Chess is extremely suggestive in this respect.65 But if, for example, we wish to speak in terms of subversion-and-containment models for Shakespeare's time, we might want to think of an agency somewhat different from that suggested by Stephen Greenblatt. For it may have been James, the new-fashioned monarchist with absolutist notions, who was in England, as he had been in Scotland, the subversive force: threatening the established power and order of a circle of oligarchs in the earldom. We might, in fact, wish to consider whether it was the earls of that period, not the king, who attempted to use drama to contain subversion of their own financial and political positions by the monarch and his favorites. James's theories of monarchy were not, after all, traditional ones.

Finally, we might also consider how these interactions were complicated by the advent of another force, the court of James's spouse, Anna of Denmark. With her accession a number of powerful countesses and their husbands, high-ranking earls, came to reside in or around the court for the first time; many of these nobles, of both sexes, had been strong patrons of the arts. It was, in fact, the countesses with Queen Anna who sponsored and enacted the masques Ben Jonson is so often said to have written for King James. Because traditional study of the reign of James has not been a study of the powerful women who were part of the scene, because our interpretations of these years have been skewed in patriarchally inclined directions, our efforts at a new historicism may have overlooked an obvious source of power and patronage that may even have extended to the drama presented at court.66

In other words, there are many open questions waiting for engagement with the opportunities of what I think of as the new history. It would be unfortunate were we to restrict the new historicism to those approaches to Shakespeare built upon the unquestioning acceptance of an extremely narrow set of documents, creating a configuration of “events” ensconced in traditional narratives and premised upon elementary concepts of political process. In our effort to work in terms of a new history, we must take care not to succumb to a postmodern form of historical positivism, no matter what its ever-changing faces and modes of appeal. I can only invoke the spirit of the passage from Foucault with which I introduced this essay. A new history does not ask us to follow one overarching theory of culture; it asks us to deal with the profound problems posed by the notion of the historical “event.”


  1. Cf. J. L. Gorman, The Expression of Historical Knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1982).

  2. I am using “narrative” in the sense that Arthur Danto applies it to Hegel's Reason in History: see Arthur C. Danto, Narration and Knowledge (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), p. 357.

  3. See the series of essays, including that by Jacques Juilliard, “Political History in the 1980's: Reflections on its Present and Future,” in The New History: The 1980s and Beyond, eds. Theodore K. Rabb and Robert I. Rotberg (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982). But see also Louis O. Mink, “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension” (1970), now Chapter 2 of Historical Understanding, ed. Brian Fay et al. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), and Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978). See also the debate occasioned by J. H. Hexter's 1967 review of Morton White's The Foundations of Historical Knowledge and Danto's Analytical Philosophy of History in The New York Review of Books (Feb. 9, 1967), p. 28, and (Mar. 23, 1967), p. 31.

  4. See below, pp. 454-61.

  5. The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1982), p. 4; cf. Stephen Orgel's similar use of Richard II in the same volume (p. 45).

  6. Political Shakespeare, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), p. 8. See also Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 88.

  7. Droysen, Historik, ed. Rudolf Hubner (Munich, 1967), pp. 133, 167. Claude Lévi-Strauss expands on the concept in The Savage Mind (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 257-62, as does Paul Ricoeur in “Objectivity and Subjectivity in History” in History and Truth (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 21-40.

  8. See E. M. Albright, “Shakespeare's Richard II and the Essex Conspiracy,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], 42 (1927), 686-728, followed by an exchange over several years initiated by Ray Heffner, “Shakespeare, Hayward, and Essex,” PMLA, 45 (1930), 754-80. Much of the pertinent material in the debate is available in the Appendix to the New Variorum Richard II (1955).

  9. These complexities have been well described in Jean E. Howard's definition in “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies,” English Literary Renaissance, 16 (1986), 13-43. See also the issues adverted to by Hayden White in “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory” (1984), now Chapter 2 of White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987) and “Historical Pluralism,” Critical Inquiry, 12 (1986), 480-93, as well as Louis Mink's “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument” (1978), now in Historical Understanding.

  10. I am assuming that their offer of two pounds meant two pounds more than their maximum possible take. The actual sum might be important in establishing the actors' motivation as partisan or mercenary. (From 1592-97 the total take for the Rose playhouse—the only Elizabethan playhouse for which statistics are available—averaged 30s. a day: see E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923], Vol. 1, 368-69, hereafter cited as Chambers, ES.) According to the player Augustine Phillips, the conspirators offered the actors “xls. more than their ordinary.” Does this mean 40s. + 30s.? If so, then this was an extra day's profit, and financial incentive would appear as strong as any partisanship, assuming the Rose figures are representative of Shakespeare's Globe.

  11. For the relevant materials, see E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), Vol. 2, 323-27, hereafter cited as WS.

  12. See Acts of the Privy Council of England, 45 vols. (London: HMSO, 1890-1960), Vol. 31, 228, 249, 250, 483-89, hereafter cited as Dasent; and Great Britain: Calendar of State Papers (Domestic): Elizabeth, 7 vols. (London: HMPRO, 1856-1871), Vol. 5, 553, 573, hereafter cited as SPD. For the Crown's sense of the roles assigned to the various conspirators, see Francis Bacon's Declaration (London: Robert Barker, 1601), sigs. K3 ff.

  13. For Tresham, see DNB article on Tresham by A. F. Pollard. Monteagle would later be the first person to alert the Crown to the “Gunpowder Plot” in 1605 when warned in a letter by his still-seditiously-active brother-in-law, Francis Tresham, not to go to Parliament on November 5.

  14. For the relevant documents, see Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Honourable the Marquess of Bath, ed. G. Dyfnallt Owen, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1980), Vol. 5, 281-82, hereafter cited as Bath. For Monteagle, see Complete Peerage, ed. H. A. Doubleday and Lord Howard DeWalden, 13 vols. (London: St. Catherine Press, 1910-59), Vol. 9, 113-19. See also Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Hon. the Marquis of Salisbury, 23 vols. (London: HMSO, 1883-1976), Vol. 10, 214; Vol. 11, 127, 214; Vol. 14, 170; hereafter cited as Salisbury. For Constable, see SPD, Vol. 5, 548, 573, 576. For the list of those executed, see Salisbury, Vol. 11, 215; for the list of all those implicated in the plot, see Bath, Vol. 5, 281-82, and Dasent, Vol. 31, 159.

  15. Dasent, Vol. 31, 216-17. This “coincidence” is widely discussed in the debate about Richard II and Essex (see note 8, above).

  16. Chambers, WS, Vol. 2, 326.

  17. John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. (London: John Nichols and Son, 1823; originally pub. 1783), Vol. 3, 552. Most scholars who quote this passage break off at this point, but we should note that the queen was not yet finished with talking about Richard II. Here is what follows “in open streets and houses”:

    Her Majestie demanded “what was praestita?”

    W.L. He expounded it to be “monies lent by her Progenitors to her subjects for their good, but with assurance of good bond for repayment.”

    Her Majestie. “So did my good grandfather King Henry VII. sparing to dissipate his treasure or lands.” Then returning to Richard II. she demanded, “Whether I had seen any true picture, or lively representation of his countenance and person?”

    W.L. “None but such as be in common hands.”

    Her Majestie. “The Lord Lumley, a lover of antiquities, discovered it fastened on the backside of a door of a base room; which he presented unto me, praying, with my good leave, that I might put it in order with the Ancestors and Successors; I will command Tho. Kneavet, Keeper of my House and Gallery at Westminster, to shew it unto thee.” Then she proceeded to the Rolls … (p. 553).

  18. Outside of drama, the fall of Richard II appeared in the Mirror for Magistrates in the 1559, 1563, 1571, 1578, and 1587 editions, the last ones before 1610. The fall was also chronicled in 325 stanzas of the first three books of Daniel's Civil Wars, published twice in 1595 and once in 1599 and 1601-02. Halle's Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Families of Lancaster and York told of Richard II, but there were no editions after 1550. Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland also described Richard's fall, but there were no editions after 1587. For remarks about “Richard II's men,” see Thomas Wright, Queen Elizabeth and Her Times, A Series of Original Letters, 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1838), Vol. 2, 75; and A. Strickland, Lives of the Queens of England, 8 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1857-1860), Vol. 4, p. 728.

  19. For one re-telling of the narrative about the suppressed scene, see the Greenblatt quotation early in this essay. On the question of why the scene was repressed, and by whose agency, is never made clear. We know that the Master of the Revels had to review scripts for objectionable material before they could be staged (the Sir Thomas More fragment is the best illustration of this process), but he did not necessarily peruse printed copies of plays; the censorship of printed books was within the purview of the Bishop of London. Yet despite the problem inherent in this distinction, the traditional view of an excised deposition scene has never specified whether the “deposition scene” was never acted, or whether it was simply never printed.

  20. See Richard the Second 1597: Shakespeare Quarto Facsimiles, ed. Charlton Hinman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), sig. H2, for the earlier state of the text.

  21. See David Bergeron, “The Deposition Scene in Richard II,Renaissance Papers 1974 (1975), pp. 31-37. A. W. Pollard and P. A. Daniel have also commented on the non-inflammatory nature of the added lines that present not a deposition but an abdication. For these matters, see Richard II: The Variorum Edition, ed. Matthew W. Black (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1955), pp. 369-77. See also note 22, below. In the long run, the whole excision/addition issue revolves around the meaning of the phrase “woeful pageant” that the friends of Richard say they have beheld. In the early (1597) version, the pageant beheld can only be the show by which Bolingbroke has just ascended the throne so unctuously. But the 1608 addition requires this “pageant” to be the attitudinizings of Richard in the 160 added lines. Proponents of the censorship theory, however, argue formalistically that “pageant” makes sense only if it refers to Richard's 160 added/restored lines. But Shakespearean usage most often has “pageant” implying artifice, as when the Venetian senate speaks of the Ottoman naval feint as “a pageant to keep us in false gaze.” Having said this, however, I can only reiterate that the issue reduces itself to competing interpretations of dramatic “intent.”

  22. Ten copies of the 1608 (Q4) edition survive. All ten copies have the 160-line addition. Of these ten, three have title pages missing, six have the original title page, and one has a new title page. The new title page reads “with new additions of the Parliament Sceane, and the deposing of King Richard as it hath been lately acted etc.” Of the next (1615) edition (Q5), all fourteen surviving copies have the new title page. The Shakespearean passage, finally, should be compared to the Marlovian passage dramatizing the (apparently uncensored) abdication of a king in Edward II in a play published in 1594 and again in 1598.

  23. Gilly Meyricke, testifying as to his activities in going to the play said: “the play was of Kyng Harry the 4th, and of the kyllyng of Kyng Richard the second” (Chambers, WS, Vol. 2, 324). Sir Edward Coke, in his prosecuting speech against Gilly Meyricke, used his presence at the Shakespeare play as an item in his guilt and referred to “the story of Henry IV being set forth in a play, and in that play there being set forth the killing of the King upon a stage” (pp. 325-26). Again, Coke in a speech at the trial of Essex: “Note but the precedents of former ages, how long lived Richard the Second after he was surprised in the same manner?” (p. 325). See also Robert Cecil's speech in SPD, Vol. 5, 556.

  24. For these matters, see SPD, Vol. 5, 165, 451.

  25. It is during this six-month period that one could assume Shakespeare wrote the chorus to Act V of Henry V anticipating a general's triumphant return from Ireland: “The Mayor and all his brethren in best sort, / … Go forth and fetch their conqu'ring Caesar in; / As by a lower but loving likelihood, / Were now the general of our gracious Empress, / As in good time he may, from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broached on his sword, / How many would the peaceful city quit / To welcome him.”

  26. For Essex's activities, see SPD, Vol. 5, 447-48, and Dasent, Vol. 30, 351. For Hayward's confession, see SPD, Vol. 5, 449. Hayward's imprisonment was reported by Robert Whyte, who wrote to his master, Sir Robert Sidney, Sir Philip Sidney's brother and part of the Essex circle (Essex had unsuccessfully supported him for the Lord Chamberlainship), that “the scholier that wrytt Harry the 4th is commytted to the Towre.” For Whyte's letter, see Report on the Manuscripts of Lord De L'Isle and Dudley Preserved at Penshurst Place, 6 vols. (London: HMSO, 1914-1966), Vol. 2, 475. Carleton's letter is quoted by Margaret Dowling, “Sir John Hayward's Troubles over his Life of Henry IV,Library, 11 (1930), 212-24, esp. p. 212.

  27. The censor who allowed the book was, interestingly enough, the Samuel Harsnet who was later so zealous in exposing exorcism in a volume Shakespeare is assumed to have read prior to writing King Lear. Harsnet had finished the first of his imposture exposés by May 15, 1599, several weeks before the reissue of Hayward's Life of Henry IV was burned by the Bishop of London, and during a time when Harsnet wrote a letter begging the Privy Council's forgiveness for his offence.

  28. For these matters, see SPD, Vol. 5, 449-51, 455, 539, 553. In addition, there also exist two undated lists of notes, one made by Sir John Popham, Lord Chief Justice, and another by Sir Edward Coke, of detailed questions to be put to John Hayward about the text of his Life of Henry IV. SPD conjecturally dates these notes as February, 1600, but they could have been taken at any time before Hayward's hearing. Coke's notes, reproduced by Dowling, observe, for example, that Hayward “selecteth a storie 200 yere olde, and publisheth it this last yere.” For the references to Richard II as “Henry the 4th,” see Chambers, WS, Vol. 2, 324-26.

  29. William A. Jackson, “Counterfeit Printing in Jacobean Times,” Library, 15 (1935), 372-76. Pantzer, in the revised Short Title Catalogue, numbers the genuine edition as STC 12995 (entered in the Stationers' Register: 9 January 1599). Four other editions are falsely dated 1599 (STC 12995.5-12997a). Further indications of the seriousness with which Hayward's book was taken are the Crown's direction to preachers about the line to take with their congregations about the Essex uprising. These directions included: “Two years since, a history of Henry IV. was printed and published,” etc. (SPD, Vol. 5, 567). Not only were the preachers directed to argue against this book, but the book was also used by Cecil as part of his speech against Essex; Cecil alluded to Essex's countenancing of the Hayward book and his thinking of himself as Henry IV (SPD, Vol. 5, 583-84).

  30. Shakespeare's Richard II appeared in print in editions prior to the First Folio that were published 1597, 1598, 1598, 1608*, 1615* (* 160 lines added). It should be noted that if ten years intervened between 1598 and 1608 (the time between Q3 and Q4), and seven years intervened between 1608 and 1615 (the time between Q4 and Q5), Richard II was not in great demand.

  31. The disparity in the treatment of Shakespeare and Hayward by the authorities has led Annabel Patterson to conclude that drama therefore enjoyed a favored position with the Crown. In Censorship and Interpretation (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984), she observes (p. 47) that while the Bishops' Order of 1599 directed that “‘noe English historyes be printed excepte they bee allowed by some of her majesties Privie Counsell,’” drama was not mentioned. But the Bishops' Order of June 1, 1599, 1) forbade the publication of any satires; 2) required permission not by the Bishop of London but by the Privy Council for the publication of any history; and 3) forbade that plays be published “except they be allowed by such as have authority.” The 1599 orders, then, prohibited satires, made the “allowing” of histories much more difficult than heretofore, and maintained the power of the Bishop of London over printed plays. Meanwhile, acted plays continued to be censored by the Master of the Revels. Thus drama had no privileged position with the Crown as regarding censorship. For the text of the 1599 orders, see A Transcript of the Registers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, ed. Edward Arber, 3 vols. (London, 1876), Vol. 3, 316.

  32. Appendix C in Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages: 1300-1600, 3 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959), Vol. I, 332-39.

  33. Quoted by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979), Vol. 1, 43.

  34. SPD, Vol. 5, 450-51.

  35. Chambers, WS, Vol. 2, 323.

  36. L'Isle and Dudley, Vol. 2, 401.

  37. The case was argued over thirty years ago by Glynne Wickham, who wrote that at James's accession “almost at a single stroke, the leading actors of the day were snatched out of the hands of their enemies into the sanctuary of the sovereign's personal protection, or that of his family.” See Wickham, Vol. 2, part 1, 90-91. For more recent expressions of this assumption about James and the drama, see David Mathew, James I (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967), p. 234; and Ronald D. S. Jack, “James VI and I as Patron,” in Europäische Hofkultur im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, eds. August Buck et al., 3 vols. (Hamburg: Kongress des Wolfenbutterler Arbeitskreises für Renaissanceforschung, 1981), Vol. 2, 179-85. For a recent statement to this effect, see Leonard Tennenhouse, “Strategies of State and political plays” in Political Shakespeare, p. 116.

  38. James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 231-39. See also Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display (New York: Methuen, 1986), pp. 159-60.

  39. “Making Greatness Familiar,” Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, ed. David M. Bergeron (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), pp. 22-23.

  40. The Basilikon Doron of King James VI, ed. James Craigie, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1944), Vol. 1, 197-98.

  41. Dominick LaCapra, “History and Psychoanalysis,” Critical Inquiry, 13 (1987), pp. 222-51, especially on the problem of transference, p. 229 ff.

  42. See Wickham, Vol. 2, part 1, 94.

  43. Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Scotland, 13 vols. (Edinburgh: HMSO, 1898-1969), Vol. 10, ed. M. S. Giuseppi, 157, 179, hereafter cited as SPS. Queen Elizabeth's Servants had been in existence since 1582, but after the death of their star, Richard Tarleton, and the rise of Edward Alleyn's company with Marlowe in their repertoire in 1588, this group became somewhat marginal, and operated primarily in the provinces. They were in Carlisle from September 12 to 22, 1589, and were entertained, along with Queen Elizabeth's cannoniers, by the Earl of Bothwell. The company appeared in Scotland and was shown hospitality by one of James's earls, but the group then returned to England. James had gone to Denmark to claim his bride in October 1589 but could not return to Scotland until the spring of 1590 because of the weather, so the players did not perform. Anna Jean Mill, Mediaeval Plays in Scotland (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1927), reproduces payment-entries for entertainment in the “Account of the Lord High Treasurer” of Scotland. Between 1581 and 1603 I find three entries: one for dancing, one for a lion-keeper, and, in February 1602/03, one for scarlet cloth to be given to actors. This last warrants further investigation.

  44. Eight years later James would strongly overrule the Kirk's attempt to block a performance by actors in Edinburgh, but, as I shall discuss at greater length elsewhere, James was using the actors as a commodity to emphasize and assert the power of Crown over Kirk. See SPS, Vol. 13, 569-71. Arthur Melville Clark, in Murder Under Trust (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1981), has brought together useful references to the role of drama in Scotland before James's accession to the English throne (see pp. 127-64). Clark's narrative, however, does not end but begins with the assumption of the king's interest in plays, nor does Clark use the modern Calendar of State Papers … Scotland. Had he done so, he would have found, for example, that the players brought up for James's wedding to Anna of Denmark were never received by him and never performed; see above, note 43.

  45. This argument was first presented in a paper read to the Shakespeare section of the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles at the annual meeting, 1983.

  46. Dramatic Records in the Declared Accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber, 1558-1642, eds. David Cook and F. P. Wilson, Malone Society Collections, 13 vols. (Oxford: The Malone Society, 1961), Vol. 6, 1-42, hereafter cited as MSC.

  47. See Calendar of the State Papers of Venice, ed. Horatio F. Brown, 38 vols. (London: HMSO, 1864-1947), Vol. 10, 129, hereafter cited as SPV.

  48. MSC, Vol. 6, 35-41.

  49. See Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain, ed. Maurice Lee, Jr. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1972), p. 53.

  50. Plague had kept the majority of these special ambassadors from making their ceremonial visits because the new king had moved so often from place to place in England during the previous summer and autumn. Ceremony required formal honors and entertainment to be extended to such visiting dignitaries: as Arabella Stuart, the king's first cousin, remarked in a letter to her uncle, the Earl of Shrewsbury, just before these holidays, “the King will feast all the ambassadors at Christmas.” See E. T. Bradley, Life of the Lady Arabella Stuart, 2 vols. (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1889), Vol. 2, 195. Volume 2 is an edition of Arabella's letters.

  51. An unretrieved dramatic gem entitled Murderous Michael (Machiavel?) was acted by the Servants of the Earl of Sussex before Queen Elizabeth and the French ambassador as far back as March 3, 1579, when Shakespeare was fifteen, for example. See Chambers, ES, Vol. 4, 96. For ambassadorial attendance at plays in the season under discussion, see SPV, Vol. 10, 128-29.

  52. Letter to Lord Henry Howard (the future Earl of Northhampton) in Letters of King James VI and I, ed. G.P.V. Akrigg (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984), pp. 220-21.

  53. See the Earl of Worcester's letter to the Earl of Shrewsbury in John Nichols, The Progresses of King James I, 4 vols. (London: J. B. Nichols, 1828), Vol. 1, 317, and see also Carleton, pp. 53-55.

  54. MSC, Vol. 6, 113b-120a.

  55. Chambers, ES, Vol. 4, 283.

  56. For a discussion of this well-known theory, see Chambers, ES, Vol. 1, 267, 292. John Taylor, in Wit and Mirth (London: 1629), wrote that the ape needed practice throughout England to be “better enabled to doe her majesty service thereafter.”

  57. SPV, Vol. 10, 218-19.

  58. See SPD, Vol. 8, 186; Salisbury, Vol. 16, 399; Memorials of Affairs of State, ed. Edmund Sawyer (London: 1725), Vol. 2, 46; Edmund Lodge, Illustrations of British History (London: 1838), Vol. 3, 136.

  59. A recent and very interesting discussion of these implications from the viewpoint of a member of the Konstanz school is H. R. Jauss's Towards an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982).

  60. Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), p. 265.

  61. See Henslowe's Diary, ed. W. W. Greg (London: A. H. Bullen, 1904), Vol. 1, 108-90 for numerous references to normal dramatic activity from 1599 on. For Worcester and Lennox, see Chambers, ES, Vol. 2, 220, 241.

  62. The studies I allude to are Howard, “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies”; Louis Montrose, “Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History,” ELR, 16 (1986), 5-12. See also Edward Pechter, “The New Historicism and Its Discontents: Politicizing Renaissance Drama,” PMLA, 102 (1978), 292-303. For Braudel and Stone, see Fernand Braudel, On History, trans. Sarah Matthews (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 6-22, and Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), Part I, as well as his review of Gertrude Himmelfarb's The New History and the Old in NYRB, December 17, 1987, pp. 59-62. For Hans Kellner, see History and Theory, Beiheft 26: The Representation of Historical Events (1987), pp. 1-29. Of special pertinence to Tudor and early Stuart history is the distinction raised by Marshall Sahlins in his study of Hawaiian culture, Islands of History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 34, in his reiteration of Emil Durkheim's suggestion that societies may not only have their own different human courses but may also require different particular historicities. See E. Durkheim's review of A. D. Zenopol's book in L'Année Sociologique, 9 (1905-06).

  63. See Gorman's review-article of Paul Veyne, Writing History (trans. Mina Moore-Rinvolucri [Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1984]) in History and Theory, 26 (1987), 99-114. Gorman's own views of the nature of historical accounts are to be found in Chapters 3-6 of Gorman, The Expression of Historical Knowledge.

  64. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (London: Tavistock, 1972), esp. pp. 202-4, where Foucault succinctly summarizes his aim of allowing history “to be deployed in an anonymity on which no transcendental constitution would impose the form of the subject.”

  65. Dangerous matter: English drama and politics in 1623/24 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986).

  66. I have argued this point most recently in a paper presented at the conference “The Mental World of the Jacobean Court,” The Folger Shakespeare Library, March 18, 1988.

Christopher Pye (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: Pye, Christopher. “The Betrayal of the Gaze: Theatricality and Power in Shakespeare's Richard II.ELH 55, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 575-98.

[In the following essay, Pye analyzes the relationship between political power and theatricality in Richard II.]

I would like to begin this analysis of the relationship between theatricality and power in Shakespeare's Richard II by invoking one of those significant and nameless characters who inhabit the margins of Elizabethan political intrigue. In May 1582, during a renewal of Catholic “enterprises” against the English Queen, the crown uncovered its first threat from abroad in the form of a treasonous plot involving the Duke of Guise and the imprisoned Mary. Something caught the eye of Elizabeth's agent at the border. Arthur Kinney recounts that one of the crown's spies,

keeping watch along the border of Scotland, stopped a suspicious man who posed as a tooth-drawer, discovered he was a servant of [the Spanish Ambassador] Mendoza's, and learned he was carrying letters for Mary and Guise hidden behind the little looking-glass. This was the first indication the English government had of Guise's enterprise.

J. E. Neale adds a further note. Apparently, the suspect was able to bribe his guards and escape with his baggage, but “as luck had it” managed to leave behind the incriminating glass.1 There is nothing particularly mysterious about this “suspicious man.” Indeed, the treasonous puller-of-teeth who escapes with everything except what he has to hide remains inscrutable precisely because he exposes the evidence of his crime a bit too openly. If his deed is uncovered it is only because the investigator of political crimes knew to look closest to home, in the “little looking-glass” where he recognizes himself.

Richard II bears quite directly on this smaller drama of power. It too is preoccupied with treason, with transgressed boundaries, with mirrors that both conceal and betray too much. The anecdote can also help us recognize, however, the outline of a larger drama in the story of a king's fall. For the cunning political go-between, caught on the border with his letters and his glass, can be seen to emblematize the relationship between power and theatricality in Renaissance England. The image of the letter on the other side of the looking glass is an apt figure for the textual and visual structure of theatrical production itself. Moreover, that obscure and in this case treacherous intersection between gaze and text also represents an ideological structure. The glass of the messenger at the threshold, with its power to captivate and betray every inquisitive gaze, would have been an absorbing object for the Renaissance subject insofar as it marked his own political and fundamentally theatrical condition. Ultimately, that may be the function and allure of Richard II as well.

The pleasing symmetry between authority and transgression conveyed by the story of a messenger who betrays himself, but in a form that mirrors and implicates any who would search out the crime, might lead us to suspect that we have uncovered a brief moral allegory, not an historical account at all. The self-betraying betrayer was a real enough phenomenon in the age of Elizabeth, yet he often raises the suspicion that the investigator has entered into the workings of some unfathomable fiction. Quoting Muriel Byrne, Lacey Smith comments that “whatever face it assumed … Tudor treason tended to be not only unbelievably maladroit but also ‘more wildly fantastic than any fiction.’ Embedded in this current of deviant malcontent was a self-destructiveness and hysteria that far exceeded mere artless mismanagement and bordered upon the neurotic. … Almost without exception, [traitors] behaved … as if they were asking to be destroyed.” W. K. Jordan suggests that the traitor Seymour “was more than a little mad,” and Neville Williams comments that the fourth Duke of Norfolk “behaved as one possessed.”2 What strikes us as “mad” about these real-life figures is precisely their disquieting willingness to conform to their proper role in an ideological fiction, as though each were intent on proving to the death the myth of the sovereign's indestructability. And yet if Richard, a fictitious sovereign, can be taken as evidence, the king himself can be strangely “possess'd … to depose [him]self.”3 If there is complicity between authority and transgression it cuts both ways, and if there is an ideological production unfolding it takes possession of the king as much as it does of the traitor.

The concerns I touch on here—authority, subversion, theatricality—have been elegantly drawn together in the recent work of Stephen Greenblatt. In the Renaissance, Greenblatt argues, “power … not only produces its own subversion but is actively built upon it.” In reference to Shakespeare's sovereigns he writes that the “ideal image [of the king] involves as its positive condition the constant production of its own radical subversion and the powerful containment of that subversion … order is neither possible nor fully convincing without the presence and perception of betrayal.”4 A power thus engaged in staging and overcoming its own subversion depends upon a mobile, improvisatory, and vicarious structure such as theater to realize itself, Greenblatt suggests.5 Greenblatt's account of the aims of Renaissance power is both accurate and contradictory. If subversion is the “positive condition” of power—if it enables the possiblity of power—how can power be said to “create” that subversion? The contradiction should not be too quickly resolved, either in the direction of authority or subversiveness, for it suggests the possibility of a theater which exceeds the power that institutes it, one which, like the traitor's equivocal glass, betrays the very authority it reflects and confirms. The apparent indeterminacy of such a structure does not at all place it beyond the politics of representation. Insofar as it catches up the subject in its resolutely specular snares, theater sustains the dread that sustains the monarch.


Richard II certainly lends itself to Greenblatt's theory of power, for the central question in the drama is whether sovereignty can prove itself absolute by mastering its own subversion. That formulation is severe, particularly since Richard often seems drawn more to the pathos of his fall than to any affirmation of his glory. Yet Richard's rule does assume its most irrefutable form through negation. “Now mark me how I will undo myself,” Richard says, as if announcing a sleight of hand:

I give this heavy weight from off my head,
And this unwieldly sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths;
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues, I forgo;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny.


As Bolingbroke knows, if power is to be transferred legitimately only the king may unking himself. And that is an impossible act. Pompously forswearing all pomp, decreeing the end of all decrees, the king speaks an oath that can't affirm itself except by refuting itself—that can only be spoken in endless self-mockery. At this thoroughly performative moment, Richard's power cannot be denied.

The cunning performativeness of the king's self-subverting oath suggests the grounds of the ancient claim that the king's words have the power to enact what they signify.6 The speech also suggests that, for all its elaborate hysteria, Richard's more overtly theatrical deposition of himself—his mirror game—reflects some of the serious requirements of absolutism. In the mirror scene, too, the king seems to defy his onlookers to read the moment of his undoing. “Mark,” he says again, after dashing the mirror to the ground, “How soon my sorrow hath destroy'd my face” (4.1.290-91). The scene is, of course, an overt bit of theatrics; Richard shatters only the “shadow of [his] face,” as the remote and knowing Bolingbroke calmly remarks (4.1.293). But the king's sport beguiles nonetheless.

Give me that glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? …
.....… O flatt'ring glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me. Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That like the sun did make beholders wink?
Is this the face which fac'd so many follies,
That was at last out-fac'd by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face;
As brittle as the glory is the face,
                                                                                                    [Dashes the glass to the ground]
For there it is, crack'd in an hundred shivers.

(4.1.276-77, 279-89)

Richard's melodramatic finale merely confirms his cool mastery of this mirror game. Absorbed perhaps more than the king himself in the specular play of his rhetoric, we had not caught the moment the “flatt'ring” and concealing glass became the brittle face itself. As a result, shattering the fragile glass merely serves to affirm its deceptive powers. The problem for the onlooker is not that Richard's sport seems real, but that its theatrical illusion seems limitless.7

The deception is not easily undone. If shattering the hollow glass merely seems to extend its domain, it is because the mirror never-was separable from the response it elicited. Conflating the king's glorious face and its effacement, sovereignty and its negation, the radically indeterminate glass reflects back from the outset nothing more than the marking of it. And as a fathomless mirror of reading, the regal glass proves the king's powers to be unassailable. Richard had set out to “read … the very book indeed / Where all [his] sins are writ” (4.1.274-75). Through his self-reading, Richard does indeed mark his cardinal sin—“undeck[ing] the pompous body of a king”—but only by way of an elusive reenactment that erodes all distinction between the king's reading and the event it laments. Through his limitlessly theatrical sport, Richard shows himself still king of his griefs, and still irrefutable master of his own demise.8

While all this makes perfect sense in theory, and follows a certain implacable logic, Richard's theatricalizing nevertheless continues to feel diversionary, a desperate antic set against a larger political drama over which he has no command. In fact, the king's claim that he “will read enough” by reading himself, that he is “the very book indeed where all [his] sins are writ,” is in itself a disavowal. At all costs, the king would avoid reading his crimes in another text, the paper recounting his transgression against the state that Northumberland has been insistently pressing upon him. Richard's self-deposition satisfied all demands but that one. “What more remains,” the king asks. “No more,” Northumberland replies, “but that you read / These accusations, and these grievous crimes / Committed by your person and your followers / Against the state and profit of this land” (4.1.222-25). Richard's reluctance seems understandable enough. If through his spectacular self-reading Richard can elude all who “stand and look upon [him],” the formal writ would separate the crime from the punishment and thus expose the king indeed.

Still, in seeking to deny his real condition, the king unmasks the more fundamental truth of his theatrical one. For here too Richard confronts a text of his sins that cannot be marked, but whose performative effects even the sovereign now cannot escape. “Gentle Northumberland,” Richard says,

If thy offences were upon record,
Would it not shame thee, in so fair a troop,
To read a lecture of them? If thou wouldst,
There shouldst thou find one heinous article,
Containing the deposing of a king,
And cracking the strong warrant of an oath,
Mark'd with a blot, damn'd in the book of heaven.
Nay, all of you, that stand and look upon me
Whilst that my wretchedness doth bait myself,
Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,
Showing an outward pity—yet you Pilates
Have here deliver'd me to my sour cross,
And water cannot wash away your sin.
My lord, dispatch, read o'er these articles.
Mine eyes are full of tears, I cannot see.
And yet salt water blinds them not so much
But they can see a sort of traitors here.
Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself,
I find myself a traitor with the rest.
For I have given here my soul's consent
T'undeck the pompous body of a king.


Richard's teary-eyed blindness feels like an evasion, a means of turning a blind eye to the articles being forced on him and of turning from the inscribed history of his crimes against the state to the present occasion of his self-betrayal. Yet Richard's self-protective tears betray him more than he knows. His assertion that his tearsoaked eyes blind him to the text of his crimes directly follows his pronouncement that “water cannot wash away [the] sin” of those who, “with Pilate, wash [their] hands, / Showing an outward pity.” Richard's tears do indeed show him to be “a traitor with the rest,” but they expose him in spite of himself; the king betrays himself even as he seeks to know himself for the self-betrayer he is.

The curious redundancy of Richard's response inheres in the nature of the crime itself. Richard's tears may blind him to the text of his sins, but in doing so they mimic the “heinous article / Containing the deposition of a king.” For that crime is itself “marked” only with a “blot,” only by its effacement. In Richard II and Elizabethan culture generally the most unspeakable of crimes is always marked in that unmarked form.9 “If ever I were traitor,” Mowbray exclaims, “My name be blotted from the book of life” (1.3.201-2). When York makes Bolingbroke read the “heinous … conspiracy” he cannot describe—“Peruse this writing here, and thou shalt know / The treason that my haste forbids me show”—the new king discovers a crime that can be pardoned but still not shown: “thy abundant goodness shall excuse / This deadly blot in thy digressing son” (5.3.47-48, 63-64). The digressing son's own attempt to answer to the sin committed against Richard is doomed to errancy and self-contradiction by the nature of the transgression he would amend. “Is there no plot / To rid the realm of this pernicious blot?” Aumerle asks, after viewing the “woeful pageant” of the king's deposition (4.1.324-25). To “rid” the realm of this “blot” would be to erase it, and to erase a blot is of course to renew it once again. The unmasterable persistence of treason's blot suggests that the mark of the king's undoing had always underwritten his absolute power; when Richard insists that “water cannot wash away” the sins of his betrayers, and that “salt water” blinds his own eyes, he unwittingly echoes his earlier pronouncement, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king” (3.2.54-55).

Ultimately, Richard cannot be the master of his subversion because the crime is inscribed from the outset in his attempt to know it. Richard's tear-blinded sight is intimately bound up with the divisive and self-eluding gesture through which he would see himself for the traitor he is. Self-reflection once again reenacts the loss it would mark, but now the king's response to the text of his sins opens the more extravagant possibility that his grief, and his crime, are not his own. Yet despite the apparent political risks, Richard II gravitates toward the galvanizing pathos of these moments when inscription and speculation intersect. In the next section, I will consider a scene that opens out the drama of the betraying gaze in terms of an optical trope—anamorphosis—that bears on the politics of theater itself.


At a point well before the king's deposition, the play offers a bolder, though more marginalized, version of the theatricality of grief, one which more explicitly undermines our certainty about the origins of Richard's fall but which also suggests that such evocative drift need not be confined to the drama of sovereignty. During the brief interlude between her husband's departure for the Irish wars and Bolingbroke's usurping return from banishment, Queen Isabel feels a strange, premonitory sorrow: “Yet again methinks / Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune's womb, / Is coming towards me” (2.2.9-11). In this scene, more dramatically, “blinding tears” disturb the boundary between the cause and the effects of loss; the queen's sorrow begets the event that prompts it as its “dismal heir” and “prodigy.” And here, too, grief itself assumes an unlocatable form, a “shadow” at once inward and alien. The account of Isabel's prescient sorrow is more than a passing testament to the power of womanly intuition. Disrupting sequence and reference radically, the scene raises the possibility that the play's entire narrative of usurpation and betrayal reflects a more fundamental drama concerning the origins of the political subject.

According to the queen's companion Bushy, Isabel's sense of foreboding does have a source and reference in her husband's departure. Like Bolingbroke, Bushy would reduce grief's elusive power to a play of shadows, here the magnifying and distorting effects of “false sorrow's” tear-stained eye on this recent parting. His account of sorrow's gaze in fact shows just how potently inexplicable the queen's grief is.10

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so.
For sorrow's eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which, rightly gaz'd upon,
Show nothing but confusion; ey'd awry
Distinguish form. So your sweet Majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord's departure,
Find shapes of grief more than himself to wail,
Which, look'd on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not; then, thrice-gracious queen,
More than your lord's departure weep not—more's not seen,
Or if it be, 'tis with false sorrow's eye,
Which, for things true, weeps things imaginary.


As editors have noted, Bushy's oddly overelaborate conceit seems to modulate confusedly between two distinct optical devices. He alludes initially to the properties of a “multiplying glass cut into a number of facets each giving a separate image” to describe the way “sorrow's eyes, glazed with blinding tears, / Divides one thing entire to many objects.”11 Then, turning from the medium to the object of sight, he transforms the perspective glass to a perspective image—an anamorphic representation that assumes a coherent form only when viewed obliquely. Bushy's final application of the extended conceit conflates the two devices, for now “looking awry” on the king's departure errs both because it finds multiple shadows and because it resolves these fragments into recognizable shapes. The double perspective explains how grief can at once create false shadows and take them for the truth. Yet by suggesting that the view that fragments and the one that perceives coherency are equally forms of deception, Bushy raises the possibility that the queen's sorrow is more radically groundless than he intended; seen rightly, grief may be a shadow not of any prior substance at all but simply “of what it is not.”

The difficulties extend to Bushy's own discourse, which has a tendency to turn “awry” of its own accord. Contradictions of number and reference in the passage suggest how easily the multiplying and resolving devices slide into one another: “Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows, / Which shows like grief itself”; “shapes of grief … looked at as it is, is nought but shadows.” The slippage between the optical figures also seems to entail a confusion between the viewer and the object viewed. When Bushy says that these “perspectives … ey'd awry / Distinguish form,” the perceived form seems to take on the properties of the discerning eye. At the same time, the viewer becomes as multiple and fragmentary as the scene she views: “Your sweet Majesty / … Find shapes of grief.”

The slippages in the account arise because the two optical structures Bushy describes are in fact one and the same. Pivoting without comment from one perspective device to the other, Bushy at once describes and mimics the moment sorrow's eye turns awry to view its own self-fragmenting vision rightly and in doing so renews the fragmentation it would discern. Seen as a reflexive and endlessly divisive moment, Bushy's anamorphic figure dissolves the distinction between the object and the source of sight. It also undoes the distinction between being caught up in grief's illusions and seeing them for what they are, between grieving and commenting on grief. Because the eye is fundamentally complicit in the fragmentation it would know—because that fragmentation is the condition of seeing truly—looking directly comes to coincide with looking awry; by virtue of his very desire to objectify sorrow's forms, to see grief's confused shadows “as it is,” the disinterested analyst of woe remains all the more caught up in the grieving eye's captivating effects.

“In this matter of the visible, everything is a trap,” Jacques Lacan remarks, speaking specifically of an anamorphic image—Holbein's “The Ambassadors.”12 Lacan's analysis of the relationship between desire and sight suggestively relates Bushy's apparently marginal and misguided commentary on the optics of sorrow to an entire set of preoccupations marking the advent of the modern subject. According to Lacan, the unitary and self-sufficient Cartesian subject is founded on a visual illusion—the notion that consciousness is capable of “seeing itself see itself” (80, 83). Such a dream of reflexive completeness is possible, Lacan suggests, only through the active suppression of a function of sight that disrupts the very distinction between seeing and being seen, a function Lacan terms “the gaze.” In the most general sense, the gaze attests our constitution as fundamentally social beings. Before we are seers, Lacan says, “we are beings who are looked at in the spectacle of the world” (75).

Lacan's point, however, is not simply that we first conceive ourselves as objects under the gaze of others, for such a formulation would merely displace the problem of the origin of consciousness to other subjects. In a more radical sense, the gaze is the manifestation within the domain of sight of castration's central role in the organization of human desire, and as such recalls in especially palpable form the division and contingency that defines the subject in its essence. According to Lacan, the sensation of being looked at, of falling under a masterful gaze, arises from an alterity and invertedness informing the scopic drive itself; because a condition of being “given-to-be-seen” necessarily precedes and determines the possibility of seeing, sight will always be haunted by its own uncanny reversal into spectacle. As the sign of this division which inhabits and constitutes sight, the gaze amounts to an insistent reminder of the eye's absorption within a function that exceeds and masters it: “it grasps me, solicits me at every moment” (96).

The anamorphic device represents this captivation in pictorial terms. According to Lacan, the anamorphic form asserts its peculiar fascination for the first time “at the very heart of the period in which the subject emerged and geometral optics was an object of research” (88). It does so precisely because it conveys the true relation between sight and desire in the eliding movement beyond those geometrical and perspectival structures that sought to define the subject in a determinate and controlling position. Lacan describes the way Holbein's vanitas painting yields its secret—the perspectivally elongated image of a skull floating in the foreground—at the moment when the viewer gives up on the obscure form, moves past the painting, and then catches an oblique glimpse of the skull in passing. The skull represents the subject's nothingness, but it conveys this annhilation specifically in the form of a fatal entrapment within the field of pictorial representation. For it is in the movement of escaping the “fascination of the picture” that the observer finds himself inscribed within it, “literally called into the picture, and represented there as caught” (88, 92). The anamorphic viewer renews his captivation and loss just insofar as he seeks to evade it.

By representing sight as something divided and contingent, the anamorphic image evokes the thoroughgoingness of the subject's immersion within what Lacan terms the symbolic order, that is, within the purely differential economy of language; the anamorphic device suggests that even vision is a function of difference. But the conjunction of sight and signifier can work in more than one way. While anamorphosis unsettlingly demonstrates the eye's implication within language, the specular conceit also makes the irrecoverable moment of the subject's entry into the symbolic order legible by casting it in a recursive form, as an instance of loss endlessly returning upon the self.13 The captivating effects of Bushy's reflexive conceit carry over into the obsessive “turns” of the queen's language:

'Tis nothing but conceit, my gracious lady.
'Tis nothing less: conceit is still deriv'd
From some forefather grief; mine is not so,
For nothing hath begot my something grief,
Or something hath the nothing that I grieve—
'Tis in reversion that I do possess—
But what it is that is not yet known what,
I cannot name; 'tis nameless woe, I wot.


For Isabel, Bushy errs because he fails to recognize just how causeless her grief is. Not merely conceit, it is also “nothing less” than conceit; a signifier without a signified, divided and derivative in its essence, the queen's sorrow is the shadow not of anything that has gone before but solely of “what it is not.” Grief's “substance” lies in that movement of self-difference itself, conceived and sustained here in the form of a chiasmic reversal and return. Isabel too mimes the loss she would signify in the empty recurrence of her words: “Though on thinking on no thought I think”; “For nothing hath begot my something grief, / Or something hath the nothing that I grieve”; “But what it is that is not yet known what.” Like sorrow's reverting gaze, the queen's words seem to reverse and undo themselves even as they return, to deny even as they echo and affirm themselves.

“'Tis in reversion that I do possess,” Isabel says of her own grief. “As were our England in reversion his” (1.4.35), Richard says of Bolingbroke, recalling the departing betrayer's power to “woo” the populace with “craft of smiles / And patient underbearing of his fortune, / As 'twere to banish their affects with him” (1.4.28-30). The idea of possession in “reversion,” evolved out of the groundless specularity of the queen's sorrow, also lies at the heart of the play's central political event: the traitor's usurpation. By perplexing causation itself, however, the legal term also unsettles the distinction between Isabel's shadowy grief and the event it anticipates.14 Paradoxically, the queen feels that her “forefatherless” grief will nonetheless revert to her as to an original possessor, that her unborn sorrow is also a returning sorrow:

                                                                                Yet again methinks
Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune's womb
Is coming towards me.

As though viewing its conception through an anamorphically divided gaze, the queen feels her grief at once as something that will emerge in the ripeness of time and as something that comes toward her from an already established futurity. Conflating these forms of temporality, Isabel's uncanny evocation gives the impression that her grief generates itself through the movement of its coming back, as if it had the power to undo the course of time itself.

The strangely “banished” form of the queen's own “affects”—her sense that her sorrow originates neither from within nor from without, but in “reversion”—lends credence to her assertion that she has actually given birth to the outward event she foresees:

So, Greene, thou art the midwife to my woe,
And Bolingbroke my sorrow's dismal heir;
Now hath my soul brought forth her prodigy,
And I, a gasping new-deliver'd mother,
Have woe to woe, sorrow to sorrow join'd.


Isabel imagines her delivery as the joining of inward and outward sorrow at the moment her intimations are borne out by events. But she also feels that her grief has given rise to the event it anticipates. As her “sorrow's dismal heir,” Bolingbroke is at once a separate figure to whom sorrow is transferred and the progeny brought forth by grief itself. A yielding up of what has already taken place, the return of what hasn't occurred before—the “prodigality” clearly lies in the manner of this indeterminate birth, not in the figure it brings forth.

Perceived in terms of the queen's premonitory sorrow, the traitor's crime does not involve turning against an already established origin. More baffling, he mocks and derides origination in the manner of his coming forth. But we need not look obliquely through the queen's sorrow to see that this is true. In the course of events, Bolingbroke's return makes Richard's fall a foregone conclusion. From that moment all is lost. Furthermore, for the king, the traitor's arrival is itself a fait accompli. By the time Richard returns from his exploits abroad, Bolingbroke has already intruded at home. York speaks to the grieving queen: “Your husband, he is gone to save far off / Whilst others come to make him lose at home” (2.2.80-81). Richard's missing the moment of Bolingbroke's return is not the result of contrivance or contingency, but instead reflects the originless nature of a loss that, from the moment it is realized, has already occurred within. Bolingbroke's return precipitates, or coincides with, a flood of belatedly recognized internal woes. A servant follows on York's heels to announce his son's dereliction—“my lord, your son was gone before I came”—and his wife's death—“my lord, I had forgot to tell your lordship … an hour before I came the Duchess died” (2.2.86, 93-96). When Richard does arrive, he first realizes his doom not in Bolingbroke's return but in his own untimeliness. Hearing rumors and reading the prodigal signs that “forerun the death or fall of kings,” Richard's troops had abandoned him before he appeared: “One day too late, I fear me, noble lord, / Hath clouded all thy happy days on earth. / O call back yesterday, bid time return, / And thou shalt have twelve thousand fighting men!” (3.2.67-70). Perceived at once too soon and too late, the king's loss is as causeless as the queen's. It is time itself, not any event, that effaces sovereignty: “Time hath set a blot upon my pride.”

We should be wary, however, of the momentousness this missed moment retains in the drama of kingship. Isabel's prescient grief suggests that that moment possessed solely in reversion may have more to do with the constitution of the subject than with the claims of any sovereign power. Still, for all its disruptions, that scene too has a resonant pathos about it that ultimately feels more comforting than subversive. What is its function? We have seen the way Bushy's visual conceit figures the subject's inscription within the symbolic register in terms of a structure of entrapment. There are prospects for dread in that specular capture. But possibilities for consolation as well. Where there is self-betrayal, even endless self-betrayal, there is a self to be betrayed.

Indeed, conceived as a function of theater explicitly, all that had been a source of prodigal dread can become proof of an equally strange benignity. Thomas Heywood offers a sure proof that theater can be a force for the good in terms that recall Richard II's preoccupation with invasions and critically missed encounters:

As strange an accident happened to a company … who, playing late in the night at a place called Perin in Cornwall, certaine Spaniards were landed the same night unsuspected, and undiscovered, with intent to take in the towne, spoyle and burne it, when suddenly, even upon their entrance, the players (ignorant as the townes-men of any such attempt) presenting a battle on the stage with their drum and trumpets strooke up a lowd alarme, which the enemy hearing … amazedly retired, made some few idle shots in bravado, and so in a hurly-burly fled disorderly to their boats. At the report of this tumult, the townes-men were immediately armed, and pursued them to the sea, praysing God for their happy deliverance from so great a danger, who by providence made these strangers the instruments and secondary means of their escape from such imminent mischife, and the tyranny of so remorcelesse an enemy.15

Heywood's inclusion of this fabulous tale of coincidental victory among his three sure examples of theater's powers will seem less whimsical if we see in it another account of that prodigal intersection of inward and outward events that marked Isabel's treacherous “birth.” Far from being a “strange … accident,” the story would represent something of the strange truth of the political subject's own theatrical origins.16 Just as “strangers” can be made the “instruments” of a miraculous escape, theater, then, seems able to fend off the very usurpations it threatens.


The elusiveness of the betrayal and loss in Richard II does not make it any less an agonistic drama—a drama of guilt and shame. For despite his critics' and Richard's own claims that he is the cause of his undoing, one comes to feel that the king is being accused of a more far-reaching transgression—the crime of making the cause of his crime unknowable. That decidedly redundant form of shame ultimately depends, I will suggest, on the specular nature of theatrical exorbitancy, and lies at the center of theater's power to “new mold the hearts of the spectators.”17

Gaunt, Richard's most aggrieved critic, spells out the king's transgression in the most explicit and, for our analysis, familiar terms. Richard has reduced England to a kingdom of writs. “This dear, dear land,” Gaunt says,

Is now leas'd out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat'ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!


Gaunt will accuse the king of the far more dramatic sin of murdering his brother, Richard's uncle, Gloucester. That crime against kindred is no less a self-destructive act. “Like the pelican,” Richard has “tapped out” his own blood (2.1.126). Yet according to Gaunt, Richard's binding England with “inky blots and rotten parchment bonds” is the more scandalous sin. We have seen that a blot can be deadly: Bolingbroke speaks of “this deadly blot in thy digressing son.” We have also sensed what might make it worse than death—that it figures an event which can't be marked without mimicry and which therefore can't be situated at all. “I die pronouncing it,” Gaunt says.

In fact, the marked and unmarked “inky blots” Gaunt describes give such discursive effects a specific judicial and political context, for they draw together the two contradictory aspects of the legal transgression of which the king is accused. Even as Richard submits his rule to the law he voids the law. To supply the war in Ireland, Richard says, “We are enforced to farm our royal realm,” and “If that come short, / Our substitutes at home shall have blank charters, / Whereto, when they shall know what men are rich, / They shall subscribe them for large sums of gold” (1.4.45-50). According to Holinshed, these “blanks” or open-ended charters caused “great grudge and murmering” because the “king's officers wrote in the same what liked them, as well for charging the parties with paiment of monie, as otherwise.”18 The blankness of the writs gives Richard a certain omnipotence. He can assert his power at a remove through substitutes and surrogates, and he can command futurity, subscribing men for their “large sums of gold” as they acquire them. But Richard also depends on “parchment bonds,” the contractual agreements between landlord and tenant, to lease out his own royal realm. The danger arises when we draw together these two forms of entitlement. To supply his wants, the king binds himself to the terms of a law which at the same time he makes perfectly arbitrary and groundless.

The contradiction of a law that is as indeterminate as it is binding can be seen to arise from a single act: the king leases out all that he possesses. In doing so, he inscribes himself within the reign of the law he institutes:

Why cousin, wert thou regent of the world,
It were a shame to let this land by lease;
But for thy world enjoying but this land,
Is it not more than shame to shame it so?
Landlord of England art thou now, not king,
Thy state of law is bond-slave to the law.


Critics have argued over whether Gaunt here laments a debasement of the king's divine prerogative or a transgression of the state of law, whether Richard II conveys the tragic abridgement of a theory of sovereignty based on divine right or on contract.19 In fact, Gaunt articulates an infraction that problematizes the origins of power altogether by unsettling the distinction between king and law. If Richard were regent of the world, Gaunt suggests, it would be shame enough to let England by lease. But this is a shame beyond shame because the king possesses nothing beyond the land he contracts out. The scandal is that the king has instituted a legal agreement that somehow exceeds and compasses everything, including the act that institutes it, and thus makes his law subject to itself: “Thy state of law is bond-slave to the law.”

The exorbitancy of Richard's act is reflected in the exorbitancy of the response it provokes. Gaunt's question, “Is it not more than shame to shame it so,” directly follows his evocation of the prophetic grandsire who would have robbed Richard of his shame before he had committed it:

O had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye
Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possess'd,
Which art possess'd now to depose thyself.


Moments later, Gaunt himself adopts the voice of the vengeful prophet, condemning Richard to live with the foresight that his shame will exceed him: “Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee! / These words hereafter thy tormenters be!” (135-36). The consequences Richard must suffer for his shameful act—to know that his shame will pass beyond him—echo the doom of the prophet who, foreseeing Richard's act, would lay his shame from him before it occurs. And both are reflected in the shame beyond shame that marks the deed itself. The loss of origins and agency implicit in the notion of a law that encompasses the gesture which institutes it is borne out by the elusiveness of the response the transgression prompts; Richard's shame is to be dispossessed of his shame, to experience shame as something that exceeds him from the outset. Richard's self-conquering act robs him even of the power to claim his guilt as his own.

In a sense, the king executes the perfect crime—one that elides itself as it is committed. We can easily enough imagine how such a transgression might work to prove the irrefutable nature of the king's power. In fact, Richard's “crime” simply unmasks the origins of his power, for in its ideal form sovereignty is embodied exclusively in the self-contradiction of those who seek to undo it. In a passage that draws together the captivations of the anamorphic gaze and the displacements of affect prompted by Richard's act, the king reminds the doubting Aumerle of his ancient power to betray—to expose and undo—treasons with a glance:

Discomfortable cousin! know'st thou not
That when the searching eye of heaven is hid
Behind the globe, and lights the lower world,
Then thieves and robbers range the world unseen
In murthers and in outrage boldly here,
But when from under this terrestrial ball
He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines,
And darts his light through every guilty hole,
Then murthers, treasons, and detested sins,
The cloak of night being pluck'd from off their backs,
Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves?
So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,
Who all this while hath revell'd in the night,
Whilst we were wand'ring in the Antipodes,
Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.


The king's penetrating gaze uncloaks the traitor's secret crimes. Furthermore, simply by exposing his deeds the sovereign debilitates the traitor, who is emboldened to commit his outrages only because they remain concealed from himself. In this sense, illuminating the criminal's sins directly, the king's gaze also lets the traitor betray himself through his own trembling self-fearfulness and shame. In a more baffling way, however, the passage suggests that it is the traitor's shame alone that betrays him. The myth of the king as a seeing sun whose gaze is tangible conveys the sources of the sovereign's power in the active subversion of the relation between sight and visibility, and between seeing and being seen. The reversals of sight are conveyed here in the ambiguities of Richard's reference to the “sight of day”—at once the traitor's sight of the king and the king's sight of the traitor—and, more boldly, in the way the blush that rises in the traitor's face to expose him mimics the king's rising as the glowing sun in the east. Later, on the battlements, Richard appears “as doth the blushing, discontented sun” (3.3.63). Seen in this reverting light, the traitor is self-affrighted indeed. The “sight” which he is “not able to endure” is neither the distinct gaze of the king, nor even his secret crimes, but the spectacle of his own revealed, and revealing, shame. Exposed solely by his shame at being exposed, the traitor is betrayed by the very groundlessness of his response. In that sense, there is no secret sin, only a spectacular self-betrayal; if treasons themselves “sit blushing in his face,” and “tremble self-affrighted” as though they had a peculiar life of their own, it is because the traitor enacts his crime fully in the hollow and dispossessed mask of his shame.20

The sovereign's magic gaze compels the traitor to see that his crime was never anything more than a desire to betray himself. Of course, Richard articulates a myth of sovereign power. It is mythic not because its effects are fanciful, however, but because their potency can't be claimed by the king. In a moment, with the announcement that his own troops have already abandoned him, the king visibly proves the truth of that dispossession he had merely described:

One day too late, I fear me, noble lord,
Hath clouded all thy happy days on earth.
O, call back yesterday, bid time return,
And thou shalt have ten thousand fighting men!
To-day, to-day, unhappy day too late,
O'erthrows thy joys, friends, fortunes, and thy state,
For all the Welshmen, hearing thou wert dead,
Are gone to Bolingbroke, dispers'd and fled.
Comfort, my liege, why looks your grace so pale?
But now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;
And till so much blood thither come again,
Have I not reason to look pale and dead?
All souls that will be safe, fly from my side,
For time hath set a blot upon my pride.


Time blots the king quite vividly—right before our eyes. According to Richard, his sudden pallor is fully self-explanatory: but now the blood of twenty thousand men triumphed in his face, and now it is gone. For the sovereign who embodies all power, betrayal can only ever have its own cause. But Richard's sudden change is more redundant still. The king's transformation is unsettling because it seems to fulfill the premonition that prompted his troops' flight, and thus it amounts to being at once effect and cause of his fall. As a response which is simultaneously the event that prompts it, the king's change of face momentously demonstrates the irreducibility of the belatedness that haunts him; rather than signifying the king's death, Richard's loss of affect enacts that event directly in its own self-eluding occurrence. It is time's blot, but also a blotting elision of time itself.

Then again, one might argue that this unlocatable sign is actually no sign at all. We know of the king's pallor only through his on-looker's words, for in the theater no player could act such a transformation. But we should be wary of denying the presence of a blot. If Aumerle sees paleness in the place of blushing health, he merely repeats the undecidable form of reading that provoked foreboding in the first place: “The pale fac'd moon looks bloody on the earth” (2.4.10), said the Welsh captain, recounting those equivocal signs which foretell the death of kings. Like Aumerle, we too may be tempted to see death in the king's living face. Our vague misgivings over Richard's reference to the “blood of twenty thousand men” triumphing in his face are compounded a few scenes later when, rising “as doth the blushing, discontented sun” above the battlements for all to read—“mark Richard how he looks”—the king expresses his indignation at Bolingbroke's trespass: “Ere the crown he looks for live in peace, / Ten thousand bloody crowns of mother's sons / Shall ill become the flower of England's face, / Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace / To scarlet indignation” (3.3.96-99). Richard's words confuse the distinction between betrayer and betrayed: the triumphant blood of twenty thousand men is also the blood of the faithful that bedews England's “maid-pale peace,” and it is England's “scarlet indignation” at being betrayed that turns her face to blood. They also confuse the distinction between life and death.

The king's spectacular presence is then a spectacularly equivocal one—it is strictly a matter of interpretation. Indeed, the regal presence remains irredeemably “untimely” because, like the sign of treason, it is a sight that cannot be separated from the response it provokes. Does that reduction of the king's living presence to something ghostly and unlocatable—an interpretive phantasm of sorts—make Richard II a subversive play? In fact, sovereignty's ideological hold may be most complete at the moment it becomes nothing more than a stagey ghost. The first example Heywood provides of theater's benign potency, as unlikely as the tale of Spanish usurpers, focuses on theater's capacity to captivate the viewer, not the invader:

To omit all farre-fetcht instances, we wil prove [theater's powers] by a domesticke, and home-borne truth, which within these few years happened. At Lin in Norfolk, the then Earle of Sussex players acting the old History of Fryer Francis, & presenting a woman, who insatiately doting on a yong gentleman, had (the more securely to enjoy his affection) mischievously and secretly murdered her husband, whose ghost haunted her, and at divers times in her most solitary and private contemplations, in most horrid and fearfull shapes, appeared, and stood before her. As this was acted, a townes-woman (til then of good estimation and report) finding her conscience (at this presentment) extremely troubled, suddenly skritched and cryd out Oh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband fiercely threatning and menacing me. At which shrill and unexpected out-cry, the people about her, moov'd to strange amazement, inquired the reason of her clamour, when presently un-urged, she told them that seven years ago, she, to be possest of such a Gentleman (meaning him) had poysoned her husband, whose fearful image personated it selfe in the shape of that ghost: whereupon the murdresse was apprehended, before the Iustices further examined, & by her voluntary confession after condemned. That this is true, as well by the report of the Actors as the records of the Towne, there are many eye-witnesses of this accident yet living, vocally to confirm it.21

Though we have shifted to the more intimate politics of the home front, this account represents a juridical fantasy not unlike Richard's; self-affrighted, treason will out almost of its own accord. Now, it is the ghost of patriarchy, not its dazzling presence, that compels the betrayer to betray herself. In both cases, however, the potency of the spectacle derives from the instability of the theatrical threshold itself. Like the blotted apparition of the king, the phantom husband marks the exact point where the viewer can no longer draw the line between her truth and the theatrical mirror in which she sees herself exposed. She would be possessed of such a gentleman, one like that one on the stage, but she is haunted by that very ghost. Indeed, the passage hints that it is the phantom of theater itself that inspires dread and compels truth. The ghost of the husband doesn't appear in the shape of that image, his “fearful image personate[s] itself in the form of that ghost”; if a specter is raised here it is that representation might assume a life of its own.

Like the self-betraying betrayer, the phantom king was a real enough figure. According to the theory of the king's two bodies, the prince is most truly present when he is present in his most irreducibly theatrical form—in effigy at his demise.22 Indeed, when Richard makes his last appearance “all breathless” in the coffin borne by his murderer, the audience would have known that this thoroughly undecidable king had been exhumed forty years after his death and conveyed through the streets of London “in a roiall seat … covered all over with blacke velvet, & adorned with banners and divers armes.”23 The phantasmal king may have a certain advantage over the more spectacularly dispossessing figure of the regal sun, for a ghost prompts conscience and so can transform a purely representational effect into a controlled drama of betrayal and shame.

Ultimately, however, the royal phantom's capacity to elicit unreasonable fear and shame depends on the paradoxical nature of its represented presence. While Richard's ghostly transformation amounts to an interpretive moment—something to be read rather than seen—his change of affect nonetheless remains intensely focalized and theatrical, as if inscription were somehow a spectacularly unmarkable occurrence.24 That ambiguous crossing of sight and sign, inscription and speculation, recalls the betrayer's looking glass. But it also underlies the sovereign's theatrical powers, his or her ability to solicit a peculiarly groundless sense of exposure and shame.

We may be able to recover a glimpse of that elliptically specular kingship by recalling that there were in fact two probable sources for Shakespeare's preoccupation with anamorphosis: Holbein's attentuated death's head, of course, but also a ghostly king. Jurgis Baltrušaitis points out that Shakespeare was probably familiar with the famous anamorphic portrait of King Edward VI that hung in Whitehall, where the playwright's company had performed on occasion. The association between anamorphosis and regal portraiture extended back to the origins of the art; the association between anamorphosis and regal ghosts becomes explicit with the proliferation of anamorphic portraits of Charles I after his execution, some joining king and skull in the form of a perspectival riddle.25 A telling slip in the inventory description of the Whitehall portrait hints at the source of the power of these images. The portrait, which included a sighting hole at its edge through which the viewer could obliquely resolve the apparition, is listed: “Edward ye 6th lookeing through a hoole.”26 The possibilities for dread and solace inherent in that fleeting reversal of the gaze—a reversionary possession of sorts—lies at the heart of sovereignty's seductive ensnarements. The specter of sovereignty is a marvelously efficient ideological construct because, along with the threat of its presence, it carries with it the threat that it might disappear.


  1. Arthur F. Kinney, Elizabethan Backgrounds: Historical Documents of the Age of Elizabeth I (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975), 138; J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1957), 271.

  2. Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986), 3, 31; W. K. Jordan, Edward VI: The Young King (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), 381; Neville Williams, Thomas Howard Fourth Duke of Norfolk (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1964), 256. See Smith, 31.

  3. King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, The Arden Shakespeare (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1956), 1.1.108. All citations of King Richard II are to this edition and will be included parenthetically in the text.

  4. Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion,” in Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 24, 30.

  5. On the relationship between power and improvisation, see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), 222-54.

  6. On the self-subversive negativity of the performative utterance, see Shoshana Felman, The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), 51, 141-45.

  7. For a fine account of the “all-pervasive theatricality” of the sovereign presence, see Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), 148.

  8. Extending Ernst Kantorowicz's reading in The King's Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), Murray Schwartz argues that Richard's act of violence in the mirror scene entails a fragmentation that leads both to purely theatrical assertions of regal identity and to a first recognition of the individual behind such theatricalizing (“Anger, Wounds, and the Forms of Theater in King Richard II: Notes for a Psychoanalytic Interpretation,” in Assays: Critical Approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts, vol. 2, ed. Peggy Knapp [Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1982], 120).

  9. Only the most famous of dozens of blotted betrayers, Essex was purportedly urged not to reenter England “because he was not only held a patron of his country, which by this means he should have destroyed; but also should have laid upon himself an irrevocable blot, having been so deeply bound to Her Majesty” (“A Declaration Touching the Treasons of the Late Earl of Essex,” in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Ellis, and Douglas Heath [London: Longmans, 1862], 9: 315).

  10. Ernest B. Gilman sees the ambiguous optics of the scene as a figure for the double vision required by the play as it calls on us to accommodate a providential view of history and a view acknowledging the “controlling majesty” of the crown (The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978], 94-128). Scott McMillin also takes this scene to be central in the play and associates it with Richard's deposition, discerning in it an acknowledgement of unseen dimensions of inwardness and loss that cannot be conveyed by theater (“Richard II: Eyes of Sorrow, Eyes of Desire,” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 [1984]: 40-43).

  11. See Ure's note to 2.2.18.

  12. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), 93; further citations are given parenthetically. Stephen Greenblatt also discusses the Holbein portrait, analyzing its systematically estranging effects especially in relation to More's self-conscious theatricalism (Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 17-21). On the Holbein image, and on anamorphosis generally, see Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Anamorphic Art, trans. W. J. Strachan (New York: Abrams, 1977) and Gilman (note 10), 38-60. Timothy Murray offers a provocative account of anamorphosis as a model for the reader's voyeuristic, projective relationship to a literary text (“A Marvelous Guide to Anamorphosis: Cendrillon ou la Petite Pantoufle de Verre,Modern Language Notes 91 [1976], 1276-95).

  13. Joel Fineman argues that in the Renaissance a distinctly visionary language ensured a structure of specular reflection through which representation could be seen to “iconically … replicate whatever it presents” and within which subversion and difference could be subsumed specifically as its difference, as “the difference of likeness” (“The Turn of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Geoffrey Hartman and Patricia Parker [New York: Methuen, 1985], 151, 153). I am suggesting that the intersection of specular and linguistic structures works to subvert vision, even while it allows that subversion to be figured recursively as a moment of loss returning upon the subject.

  14. “Reversion” is “a legal term for the reverting of property to the original owner at the expiry of a grant or on the death of the lessee” (Ure, note to 1.4.35). On the legal concept, see Paul Clarkson and Clyde Warren, The Law of Property in Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Drama (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1942), 72-75.

  15. Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (1612), ed. Richard H. Perkinson (New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1941), G 2.

  16. In this realm of originally missed occurrences, the true may not be altogether distinct from the accidental. According to Lacan, because it plays a constitutive role, the “encounter, forever missed”—what he calls the “tuché”—remains unassimilable to consciousness and thus always appears to the subject “as if by chance,” imposing on all that follows “an apparently accidental origin” (54-55).

  17. Heywood, B 4.

  18. Geoffrey Bullough, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), 3:394.

  19. Donna B. Hamilton summarizes the debate before arguing for a law-based reading of the passage (“The State of Law in Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 [1983]: 5-6).

  20. My claim that the seeing sun conveys power through the subversions of the gaze should be compared with Joel Fineman's argument that the motif represents an ideally self-inclusive structure joining beholder and beheld and allowing language to “embody its ideal” (Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986], 12, 13).

  21. Heywood, G 1-2.

  22. Ernst Kantorowicz (note 8), 426. On the revival of the theory during Elizabeth's rule, see Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977). My argument coincides with Stephen Orgel's account of the monarch's ambiguous relationship to royal display—his or her dependency on an inherently subversive form (“Spectacles of State,” in Persons in Groups: Social Behavior and Identity Formation in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, ed. Richard C. Trexler [Binghamton: Medieval Texts and Studies, 1985], 102-20). See also David Kastan's account of the threat posed for sovereignty by theater's “counterfeit” representations (“Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacles of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 [1986]: 459-75).

  23. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London: Johnson, 1808), 3:62.

  24. Julia Kristeva describes such a visual cathexis of “symbolic activity itself” as “the hallucination of nothing” (Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982], 42).

  25. Baltrušaitis (note 12), 16, 19, 28, 107. Anamorphic portraits of the Emperor Charles V had been particularly popular.

  26. Inventories and Valuations of the King's Goods, 1641-1651, ed. Oliver Millar, Walpole Society 43 (1972), 197. See Gilman, 248 note 9.

Margaret Shewring (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6584

SOURCE: Shewring, Margaret. “A Question of Balance: The Problematic Structure of Richard II.” In King Richard II, pp. 2-20. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Shewring maintains that the language of Richard II, patterned and poetic in its nature, complements the play's purposefully and carefully balanced structure.]

Of all Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II is arguably the most difficult to accommodate on the twentieth-century stage. Once ‘the most dangerous, the most politically vibrant play in the canon’ (Berry, p. 16), this tightly structured, poetic account of monarchy in the late Middle Ages is deeply rooted in the political and cultural moment of the 1590s. Such Elizabethan topicality, potentially subversive in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, makes the play difficult to stage today.


Shakespeare's history plays all pose challenges on the contemporary stage. By their very nature they are retelling events from the past, interpreted through the eyes of an Elizabethan playwright. Any subsequent restaging of the play is, inevitably, both an engagement with its general issues and an interpretation rooted in the moment in which each production is presented. In addition, Richard II assumes specific knowledge on the part of its audience: knowledge of the theological and political significance of a medieval king's ‘Divine Right’ to rule, and knowledge of some of the ways in which King Richard II violated that right, undermining morality and justice by his involvement in a plot to murder his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Shakespeare, writing Richard II in 1595, may well have assumed that his audience would be familiar with the anonymous Woodstock, a morality play on the same dangerous subject, staged in London in the early 1590s. Richard II also assumes a wider knowledge: an understanding of the ways in which issues raised by the historical events of Richard's reign were current in the political thinking of the 1590s. These issues are, in turn, both specific—the extent to which Elizabeth I may be seen to parallel Richard II (see below …), and general—debating the roots of monarchical power and its relationship to both religious and secular authority as well as to inherited right and nobility.

Furthermore, Richard II is written entirely in a formal verse that is the play's very essence and strength: a mode unfamiliar to a modern audience. This patterned poetic language complements a deliberately balanced structure in which episodes are juxtaposed, mirrored or contrasted as Richard gradually loses the respect and authority appropriate to kingship while Bolingbroke's influence increases and he ascends the throne as Henry IV. The strong narrative line through the play constantly juxtaposes the fates of the two men, not in the ambitious ascent of a ‘Grand Staircase’ of power (Kott, p. 9) but in the balanced motion of opposed buckets in a deep well. The King sets up this symbolic action, saying to Bolingbroke:

                                                            Here, cousin, seize the crown,
On this side my hand and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water.
That bucket, down and full of tears, am I,
Drinking my griefs whilst you mount up on high.


Throughout the play Shakespeare gives Richard a language that allows him consciously to shape his personality to fill the role of a king by Divine Right, deposed by a more pragmatic regime. The play's poetry heightens that presentation of kingship through its ceremonially expressive discourse.

The awareness that kingship is a self-conscious, even theatrical, creation is further reinforced by the fact that everyone around Richard speaks to him, and of him, in iconic terms. So Gaunt acknowledges that Richard is ‘God's substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight’ (I.ii.37-8) and Bolingbroke envisages his encounter with Richard on an elemental stage:

Methinks King Richard and myself should meet
With no less terror than the elements
Of fire and water when their thundering shock
At meeting tears the cloudy cheeks of heaven.
Be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water.


Even the Gardeners (an invention of Shakespeare) have a symbolic rather than an everyday role. They too speak in carefully measured verse, not in the colloquial language of the rustic folk in 2 Henry IV. Moreover, Shakespeare's script frequently emphasises the way in which characters play out their assigned roles, even to the extent that York's description of the change of monarch draws explicitly on theatrical terminology:

As in a theatre the eyes of men
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious …


So Shakespeare draws attention to the theatrical skills required by a monarch while providing the player of Richard's role with all the clues necessary to represent a king on the public stage, whether playing the ruler by Divine Right, the petulant nephew of Gaunt, or the suffering individual who once played the king.

Playing a role that confers political authority is, at any moment in history, a matter of political consequence. Arguably this was particularly so in the turbulent context of the 1590s. Perhaps the most notable instance of such role-playing in these years was the role created for himself by the Earl of Essex in his rebellion against Elizabeth I (see below, pp. 24-8). Shakespeare's contemporaries would have been alert to the significant parallels and contrasts between their own time and the 1390s. His interest in a narrative drawn from two centuries earlier can, therefore, be seen to be political rather than merely antiquarian.

E. M. W. Tillyard has drawn attention to a range of source materials (including Shakespeare's debt to John Bourchier, Baron Berners' early-sixteenth-century translation of Jean Froissart's Chronicles of England, France, etc.) to create what Tillyard calls an ‘intuitive rendering’ (Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 253) of a medieval world order. From the perspective of the 1590s such a world order could be seen as representing a nostalgically conceived alternative to current factional and ideological conflict. The aesthetic and artistic achievements of the past, exemplified by the elegance of the perpendicular architecture of the original Palace of Westminster (built in Richard's reign), held a retrospective fascination for some, at least, of Shakespeare's contemporaries—as did the world of chivalry and romance offered by Chaucer and Gower. In Richard II the prettified medieval court, with its ceremonial qualities that constituted the public face of medieval kingship, offers a theatrical language for what must have seemed, however inaccurately, the alternative culture of the 1390s. The play juxtaposes two styles of rule, one backward-looking and one pointing to the future. As Robert Ornstein comments:

Creating through poetic manner the medieval ambiance and setting of his play, Shakespeare is less concerned to individualize the voices of his characters than to project in their sentences the collective consciousness of an age which treasured formality and order, and which found their analogical and symbolic expression everywhere in the universe. More than a dramatic protagonist, Richard is also the poetic voice of his era and the quintessential expression of its sensibility. When he falls, a way of life and a world seem to fall with him.

(p. 102)

In some respects, this attention to the formal concerns of ceremony led Shakespeare towards a simplification of history as he discarded documentary chronicle in favour of a clearly structured, balanced script for performance.


Shakespeare patently knew the details of Richard's life from his accession to the throne in June 1377 at ten years of age (as the eldest surviving son of the Black Prince) to his death on 14 February 1400. He made use of the second edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, printed in 1587, an account indebted to previous histories, notably Edmund Halle's The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke, itself dependent upon Polydore Vergil's history of the Tudor succession, written in 1534 and published, posthumously, by Grafton in 1548. But Shakespeare was selective in his use of this material, drawing directly on less than one-third of Holinshed's narrative.

One aspect of Shakespeare's selectivity is the clarity of focus he gives to the narrative by concentrating almost exclusively on the fortunes of Richard and Bolingbroke, omitting much of the complex factionalism and manipulation of power among the other nobility. So, for example, the contribution made by Northumberland to Bolingbroke's victory is not emphasised in the play. Indeed, when Richard accuses Northumberland of personal ambition and prophesies his impatience in the future (V.i.55-68) it comes as a surprise to the audience in the context of the play's presentation of his character. This is a clear instance of Shakespeare's omitting and reshaping incidents from his sources. No mention is made of the account in Holinshed of Northumberland's duplicity in tricking Richard into leaving Conway Castle and ambushing him, thus putting Richard completely in Bolingbroke's power. In its place Shakespeare develops further the parallel, opposing motion of the fates of the two men as played out in the ‘base court’ of Flint Castle, where Bolingbroke has found the King not as a result of ambush but by chance. As Bolingbroke, belatedly, kneels to Richard, the King acknowledges the inevitable:

Fair cousin, you debase your princely knee
To make the base earth proud with kissing it.
Me rather had my heart might feel your love
Than my unpleased eye see your courtesy.
Up, cousin, up. Your heart is up, I know,
Thus high at least, although your knee be low.

(III. iii.189-94)

All that remains of the Northumberland portrayed in the sources is his support for Bolingbroke's cause—both personal and military—and his grating insistence, in the deposition scene, that Richard read out the Articles setting down his ‘grievous crimes’ (IV.i.222).

In a similar way, Shakespeare is selective in his inclusion of roles for Richard's friends and advisers. Throughout his reign the historical Richard was shielded from the people by his Councils. The modern historian Anthony Steel outlines the way in which a group of ‘professionals’ led Richard's household (see Richard II, pp. 220-5). This group, headed by Sir Thomas Percy and including William Scrope, Sir John Bushy, Sir William Bagot and Sir Henry Green, were all active members of their own local communities and were, to a large extent, instrumental in shaping the way in which Richard and Richard's authority were perceived in the country as a whole. In contrast, Shakespeare does not allow his audience to be distanced from Richard by such ‘professionals’. Rather, he includes these men only as planets to Richard's sun. Shakespeare's quixotic Richard is personally responsible for his public image and, hence, for the country's judgement on his fitness to rule.

No sub-plot is allowed to distract from the main narrative, a narrative that Shakespeare has chosen to restrict to the last three years of Richard's reign. Steel, summarising the relevant historical evidence, concludes that psychologically ‘Richard was clearly not normal in his last three years’ (p. 111). Lacking modern historical sources, Shakespeare intuitively documents the emotional strain behind the King's public persona. So Richard, King by Divine Right, gradually loses his right to that God-given authority until he comes to realise, poignantly, in his uncrowning,

                    I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But 'tis usurped …


The trappings of the public role discarded, the closing scenes present the deposed King isolated in his sorrow and trying to come to terms with his own identity: a private man alone with his private grief.

This juxtaposition of public role and private individual ensures that the play's focus is on the tension between the ideal of monarchy and the idiosyncratic personality of the monarch. Shakespeare makes that tension explicit in an encounter of his own invention, on the occasion of Gaunt's death at Ely House. Shakespeare's Gaunt tries out on York some of the arguments he wants to put to Richard in order to force the young king to understand the consequences of his erratic behaviour and self-conceit. The result is the famous ‘sceptred isle’ speech (II.i.31-68) which has since been frequently quoted out of context, even to the point where ‘in the patriotic 1940s … [it] was a standard elocution exercise’ (Elsom, p. 79). In the 1590s Gaunt's words would surely have been heard with a greater sense of political urgency. A most telling indication of the dramatist's control of his audience's attention here, and in Gaunt's subsequent encounter with Richard, is that Shakespeare has Gaunt's death take place off stage. The audience's attention is thus focused on the dying Gaunt's last heroic effort to ‘undeaf’ (II.i.16) the King's ear with ‘wholesome counsel’ (II.i.2) and on the content of that advice with all its implications for ‘time-honoured’ right and compromised allegiance that preoccupy both York and Gaunt at their last meeting. Human sympathy is not then elicited by the presentation on stage of the moment of Gaunt's death. Rather, the audience's instinctive support for the absent Gaunt ensures that Richard's wilful disregard for his death is shockingly brutal:

The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he.
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that.


In a similar reshaping of his sources, Shakespeare develops the role of York as the ageing Gaunt's trusted confidant, as he tries to restrain Richard from seizing on Gaunt's ‘plate, his goods, his money and his lands’ (II.i.210) and thus disinheriting Bolingbroke, Gaunt's exiled heir. Shakespeare's York serves as a barometer of opinion as his personal loyalty, as well as his whole concept of the appropriate authority of God's deputy on earth, is stretched to the limit by Richard's callous actions. Moreover, Shakespeare extends York's role as a loyal and reasonable subject by implicating the whole York family in the issues raised by the deposition of a rightful king, augmenting the historical source material to include scenes showing the Duke's discovery of his son's treachery to the new king. An important function of these scenes is to ‘demonstrate the effects of revolution’ (Brown, p. 127) as Richard's fate reverberates through his country, affecting the lives of individual subjects and setting son against father, father against son.


Shakespeare includes scenes which demonstrate the implications of decisions of state as they affect the lives of a small group of noble women—scenes which are (as far as we know) entirely Shakespeare's invention. No direct source has been identified for Gaunt's meeting with the Duchess of Gloucester (I.ii), nor for the Duchess of York's intervention in the fate of Aumerle. Above all Shakespeare has, it seems, conflated Richard's two queens—Anne of Bohemia and Isabella of France—into the person of Isabella in the play. Another printed source, the first edition of Samuel Daniel's epic poem The First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke (1595 version), may have suggested the basis for such a ‘composite’ persona for the queen. But Shakespeare develops the idea more fully, presumably with performance in mind. Following Richard's formal, public abdication of authority the Queen's grief does much to readjust the audience's balance of sympathy in favour of the deposed King. Historically, Isabella was just twelve years old when Richard was deposed. The depth of emotion expressed in Richard's brief encounter with his wife while on his way to prison does not seem to be appropriate to a child bride. Rather, it seems to derive much from the close relationship of the historical Richard with his first wife, Anne, who was a few months his elder. The encounter in the play reinforces sympathy for Richard's isolation and vulnerability, rather than deflecting that sympathy on to the Queen as might well have been the case had the abandoned Isabella been presented as no more than a child left to fend for herself in her enforced return to France. (The emotional maturity suggested by the writing here may also have been a conscious attempt on Shakespeare's part to add weight to lines to be spoken by a boy player—suggesting adult womanhood rather than emphasising the performer's youth.) In general, Shakespeare's inclusion of parts for strong female characters in Richard II (however brief their roles), along with the Groom's visit to the prison cell, ensures a depth of emotion beyond the immediate issues of political expediency.

Equally notable in the context of Shakespeare's selective focus is the absence of a wider range of female characters. Northumberland never mentions Henry Percy's mother, nor does she appear. Nor is there any reference to Bolingbroke's wife (mother of Prince Hal), although Shakespeare's York does refer to some interference by Richard in a planned match between Bolingbroke and a cousin of the King of France (II.i.167-8). Presumably the inclusion of such roles would have dissipated Shakespeare's chosen focus, distracting attention from Richard and his eclipse by Bolingbroke. Above all, Shakespeare's treatment of the historic narrative ensures single-minded concentration on Bolingbroke's rise as the inevitable consequence of Richard's fall. The strength of Shakespeare's script, however, does not lie in its structural clarity alone but in its sense of history's significance in the context of England—‘the king's own land’ (V.v.110).


Shakespeare's evocation of the country as a whole can provide one of the greatest challenges in subsequent stagings of Richard II. Shakespeare takes care to establish a sense of space, with constant allusion to locations encompassing all of England, from the border counties in the north to the south-west and south-east, as well as Wales and Ireland. Yet the very references that contributed so much to a sense of involvement in ‘England’ and English values for a Elizabethan audience can sometimes prove more difficult to convey today. This change in performance resonance between Elizabethan times and the twentieth century may serve to confuse rather than to clarify. For example, Richard returning from Ireland sees Barkloughley Castle—not Berkeley but Harlech. The resonances even of familiar names have also been muffled. So the fact that many of the noblemen's (and clergy's) names imply their home seats—Carlisle, Northumberland, Wiltshire, Worcester, York and Lancaster, Salisbury and Norfolk—all too easily escapes a modern audience. Today, titles evoke social status rather than close identification with specific regions and landed estates, and a person's identity is less likely to be defined by strongly regional roots than by a general sense of being English. We regard the whole of the country as conveniently accessible from its capital. There is little sense of open, rough countryside or of journey-times of several days to travel across the land.

It is in this context that one needs to view a play that, deriving resonance from the allusiveness possible on the essentially bare Elizabethan stage, moves from palace to palace the length and breadth of the country. Scenes are set in such noble homes as Langley, Ely and Pleshey and in the castles of Bristow, Harlech and Flint as well as in the Tower. The seat of government shifts from its traditional location in Westminster Hall to Coventry and Oxford. Travel is undertaken from ‘Ravenspurgh to Cotshall’ (II.iii.9), London to Pontefract. Indeed, the play frequently refers to journeys—from escorting Hereford to the next ‘highway’ to his travel to Brittany. York's servant travels to Langley via Pleshey and then to Harlech. The Queen goes to Langley Place (and eventually returns to France). Norfolk (Mowbray) undertakes a series of holy crusades before retiring to Venice, where he dies. Early on, references to travel are merely reported; as the play progresses and the political momentum gathers, we see people in transit—Green, Bushy, Bagot, York and, of course, Harry Percy and his father, Northumberland. In the context of movement and confusion it is not surprising that some information comes too late. The Welshmen have waited ten days and the news they have received is at best muddled, at worst contradictory (II.iv). Bolingbroke himself stumbles upon the King by accident when he seeks shelter at Flint Castle (III.iii). The complex geographical sense conveyed in the play is more than an accumulation of historical detail for its own sake. It serves a structural purpose in embodying the confusion surrounding the final months of Richard's rule as the old order breaks down, in the troubled transition of power leading to the accession of Henry IV.

The names that pose such a challenge to modern interpretation reverberated with significance in the 1590s, carrying associations of space, distance, allegiance, faction, even treason. A good example of the range of implications evoked by the discourse of names is the rapid accumulation of significant historical incidents that are distilled from Holinshed and crowded into a single episode preceding the formal uncrowning ritual that is the play's linguistic, emblematic and political fulcrum. Within these first 150 lines of Act IV Bagot and Fitzwater challenge Aumerle (implicating him in plotting Gloucester's death in Calais), Surrey implicates Fitzwater in the conspiracy, Bolingbroke repeals the banished Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, only to learn from the Bishop of Carlisle that Norfolk has died in Venice, York arrives with news of Richard's abdication and Carlisle challenges the validity of such an abdication, thus opposing Bolingbroke's move to ascend the throne. Much of this material is often cut in modern productions in acknowledgement of the need to make concessions to a more limited understanding of the play's historical, geographical and political location.

What audiences past and present need to share, in some measure, is a sense of what it means to be in England. So, in the ‘sceptred isle’ speech, Tony Church, playing Gaunt in John Barton's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973/74, found his truth in the speech by emphasising the words ‘this England’—not with the hollow poetry of rhetorical celebration often infused into the familiar ‘set’ speech, but with the emphatic repetition of serious identification with one's own land, belonging to the earth, even in death. Unable to draw on the full strength of implication in Elizabethan performance convention, John Barton's production found a way to substitute an immediacy of reference which urged the audience's involvement with a country whose infinite possibilities are being pawned before their eyes for short-term political expediency.


Shakespeare was writing for performance in a context in which he was familiar both with the individual members of the Chamberlain's Men—including his fellow sharers—and with the opportunities inherent in the playing conventions of his day. These conventions made possible visual reinforcement of the play's verbal and structural parallels. Shakespeare was in a position, that is to say, to exploit the resources and performance languages of the Elizabethan stage to the full.

For many critics of Richard II, an awareness of the ways in which the patterned poetry of the play's language parallels the structural symmetry of the narrative stops short of an understanding of the script's full theatrical potential. For example John Palmer, in common with most critics, emphasises the political incompetence of Richard in the first scene, in contrast with Bolingbroke's skill in controlling a comparable situation later in the play, in which Bolingbroke ‘successfully handles in five minutes an incident such as had cost Richard his throne’ (p. 124). But Palmer stops short of developing his case into an analysis of the challenges such parallelism offers in performance. ‘The main dramatic purpose’ (ibid., my italics) of the play's opening scene, for the audience in the playhouse, is unlikely to be dependent upon an incident much later in the play. On the bare stage of the Elizabethan popular theatre the opening scene allowed the visual establishment of all the spectacle and pageantry of a strongly hierarchical court, a pageantry shortly to be reinforced by the tournament (I.iii). Of course Shakespeare intended the scene to be memorable—even to reverberate in the audience's memories as Bolingbroke copes with a parallel crisis later in the play. But above all the opening of the play establishes Richard in his public, ceremonial role as king—using all the performance languages available to the Chamberlain's Men performing in an open-air playhouse to a popular audience.

The tournament scene in the Lists at Coventry is the first of a series of key scenes in which the visual and linguistic possibilities of ceremony and authority are exploited to the full in confrontations between Richard and Bolingbroke. These scenes demonstrate significant shifts in the balance of power from the occasion of the Lists to the negotiation at Flint Castle, the capitulation of Richard in the deposition scene and his death in prison with its consequences for Bolingbroke (now Henry IV) in the closing moments of the play. Each scene poses a considerable challenge on the modern stage, as each is conceived primarily in terms of the full potential of Elizabethan theatre conventions.


Shakespeare's script repeatedly indicates the need for ceremonial entries, often involving processions. The tournament affords an excellent example of the formality befitting a state occasion where language complements and is complemented by visual display. Each contender presents himself, answering the Marshal's call and formally stating his cause. Each receives his lance from the Marshal and each reiterates his challenge through a Herald. It is in the context of this public language of ceremony that Tillyard's assertion that some of the play's verse is ‘indifferent stuff’ (p. 168) needs to be understood. Frequently quoted out of context as an assessment of the overall quality of the play's verse, this is rather an acknowledgement of Shakespeare's understanding of the place of repetitive and patterned public language. Such speeches as the challenges formally announced in the Lists are not great poetry; they are an integral component of an occasion in which ceremonial discourse replaces action (the tournament is not fought). Moreover, the verse here does not stand alone; it would have been reinforced by costume appropriate to state pageantry. On the Elizabethan stage ‘costumes were the most substantial of the portable properties’ used for performance (Gurr, p. 43) and, although we have little detailed knowledge of specific costumes, it seems likely that the Chamberlain's Men would have used rich, colourful robes for the courtiers. These would in all probability have been supplemented by appropriate heraldic devices on banners, standards and flags. Many among the Elizabethan audience would have been aware of the details of heraldry and the hierarchical implications conveyed in the fabric and detail of individual costumes—implications reinforced by Queen Elizabeth I's 1597 Edict ‘Enforcing Statues and Proclamations of Apparel’ which set out in precise terms what people were permitted to wear, according to their social status and degree. The players, presenting some of the highest nobility in the land, including the monarch, had licence to wear costumes above their own social rank and appropriate to the social positions of the characters they represented. These costumes would have been appropriate to the wealth, order and magnificence of the court, comparable to the clothes worn by courtiers themselves in the streets of London on royal Entries, at aristocratic funerals or for the annual Accession Day Tilts. The stage would have been filled with colour: a splendid show reinforcing Richard's pre-eminence. The supreme demonstration of Richard's control of the public discourse of the tournament is his ability to disrupt the whole formal occasion, causing confusion by the single gesture of throwing his warder down.


An equally strong visual statement is made by the pivotal scene in which Richard, standing ‘on the walls’ of Flint Castle, negotiates with Bolingbroke who waits for him in the ‘base Court’ (III.iii). The physical structure of the Elizabethan playhouse complements the emblematic significance of this scene as Richard appears ‘above’ (on the gallery over the rear of the stage), expecting Bolingbroke and Northumberland, on the main stage, to respect his authority and to kneel to him. The blocking (i.e. the positioning and movement of the players on the stage) mirrors not just the formal hierarchy but the relative position of the two main protagonists in relation to the populace. Richard's position is elevated, as he stands at a point traditionally associated with power and divine authority—but distant from the majority of the people. Bolingbroke has already taken over the main stage with its greater proximity to the people (the groundlings). As Richard descends, ‘like glistering Phaëton’ (III.iii.178), attended by Aumerle, it is he who comes into Bolingbroke's space, where Bolingbroke already has control. The scene exploits, too, the tension between public statement and private emotion. Richard's formal exchange with Bolingbroke, with all its political ramifications, is set alongside the private comments of each to trusted companions. Thus the stage picture becomes an eloquent emblem of the play's central concern—the division between the office of king and the fitness of a particular individual for that office. (Shakespeare's control of the timing of the action in this scene is so masterly that the moment of Richard's descent, covered by no more than two lines of script (III.iii.184-5), has been taken by the committee of academics and architects attempting to reconstruct Shakespeare's Globe in Southwark as a measure of the distance behind the stage between the gallery and the entrance on to the rear of the stage.) In removing the player of Richard, however briefly, from the audience's view while the player of Bolingbroke commands the forestage, Shakespeare allows the audience a prophetic glimpse of what is to come as King Richard retreats into private space, leaving Bolingbroke in control of the public arena.


It is in the deposition scene that all the resources of the play's performance languages come together, posing a challenge to actors and directors alike as Shakespeare presents a ceremonial reversal of ceremony. Drawing on established reversals of ritual used to take away honours conferred by the Church as well as by military and secular authorities, Shakespeare makes the formal declaration in the play's deposition scene a reversal of investiture and coronation. (See Ranald, pp. 170-96). In a play so preoccupied with ceremony, ‘the ritual stripping away of Richard's symbolic attributes is infinitely more than mere formality’ (ibid., p. 195). Underlining the implications of the deposition by allowing Carlisle to speak passionately about the nature of royal power, Shakespeare goes beyond the chronicle accounts and transmutes the action of Richard's resignation ‘into a quasi-religious returning to God of his kingly office’ (ibid., p. 191). He even allows Richard to draw parallels between himself and Christ:

                    I well remember
The favours of these men. Were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry ‘All hail’ to me?
So Judas did to Christ, but he in twelve
Found truth in all but one, I in twelve thousand none.


Shakespeare's sense of stage rhythms and space ensures that the very structure of the scene as a whole underlines the political consequences of the process of deposing a king whilst reasserting the authority of the monarchy. Andrew Gurr's note on the opening moments of IV.i makes this clear. He discusses the processional entry, the need for the royal regalia to be carried in to this judicial meeting of Parliament, and the requirement for ‘the presence of the throne, since Parliament was formally rex in parliamento, the king, lords and commons together’ (p. 137). … M. M. Mahood underestimates the significance of this scene which, she argues,

for all its brilliance, adds very little to the total effect of the play. If Richard II was ever acted in the mutilated text represented by the first and second Quartos—and the long and rather irrelevant ‘gage’ scene which precedes the deposition reads like the padding to an abbreviated text—the loss, though serious, cannot have been structural, for the deposition only repeats the contrast, made in the scene at Flint Castle, between the reality of Richard's inward grief and its sham appearance in a profusion of words.

(p. 87)

This argument depends more on literary interpretation than on a visualisation of the text in performance. It needs to be set against the sense of pageantry and spectacle integral to the structure of the script.

The scene begins with Bolingbroke hearing challengers speak against Aumerle. Far from being ‘irrelevant’, this episode parallels the opening of the whole play when Richard hears Bolingbroke challenge Mowbray. The narrative parallel invites a visual parallel on stage, suggesting that Bolingbroke should be sitting on the throne at the start of Act IV as Richard is at the opening of the play. ‘On the evidence of [line] 113, however, he [Bolingbroke] must stand uncomfortably in front of the empty seat while acting as judge’ (Gurr, p. 137). Thus the visual structure implicit in the play is used, in advance of the un-crowning, to separate out the office of kingship from the person of the king. The empty ‘state’ sharply focuses the potential national crisis.

Alongside the public spectacle and pageantry Shakespeare allows Richard an element of poetic self-indulgence and self-awareness as he confronts the problem of his own identity. The ‘mirror scene’ within the deposition sequence is Shakespeare's invention, alluding perhaps to the familiar Mirror for Magistrates tradition. It offers far more than a contrast between Richard's deep-seated personal grief and ‘its sham appearance in a profusion of words’ (Mahood). The moment is focused by Shakespeare with the choice of one single domestic, personal property in a context which is dominated by the public trappings emblematic of kingship. Yet even in this personal reflection of self there is also a reflection of the public persona, for the mirror with its framed image of the king's face may suggest, also, the framed portrait or miniature painted by the enhancing hand of a creator of public identity. Bolingbroke's enigmatic yet intensely personal reaction to his cousin's plight emphasises the fragmentation of Richard's self as clearly as Richard's gesture in shattering the mirror:

The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed
The shadow of your face.


The role has destroyed its own theatrical presentation, or mask, as the trappings necessary to the identification between the player and the role are systematically removed and the symbols of royal authority change hands.


Richard's grief and isolation towards the close of the play find full expression in the performance languages of the Elizabethan popular stage. The trappings of ceremony—the rich costumes, the royal regalia, the deferential language and the presence of friends and favourites—are stripped away. The evocation of the country at large, extending to the invasion of Ireland, is replaced by the confinement of the prison. We are hardly aware of the move from London to Pontefract. With Richard we visualise the bars of the cell. And with Richard we experience his extreme desperation when even that tiny refuge is threatened and invaded. In these closing scenes two facets of the play that have been kept at arm's length—love and violence—are now present. The Queen, previously seen with Richard only on crowded public occasions, turns an empty street into the personal space in which to share her husband's pain. Public ‘policy’ (V.i.84) has deprived them of their private marriage as well as their royal place, and Richard's memory of the ‘pomp’ (V.i.78) and pageantry of the wedding now increases the sadness of their separation. The visit of his Groom serves to underline Richard's isolation. The affectionate memory of a retainer can only emphasise Bolingbroke's power to take away all that had supported Richard's authority—even ‘roan Barbary’ (V.v.78). Similarly the gift of music, as ‘a sign of love’, is soured by Richard's pain (see V.v.41-67). Yet in his vulnerable isolation Richard finds a personal strength that is both spiritual and physical. The only on-stage violence in the whole play is saved for Richard's attack on his murderers. He kills at least two of them before Exton strikes him down. In that moment Shakespeare ensures that the full consequence of the action is seen for what it is—regicide:

                                                                                                    Exton, thy fierce hand
Hath with the king's blood stained the king's own land.



With regicide go rebellion and conspiracy. Shakespeare ensures that Richard's personal tragedy does not, on its own, constitute the play's closing image. The last scene underlines the national significance of the act of deposition as Bolingbroke struggles to control the public presentation of the change of power: a struggle in which he is forced to engage from the moment he ascends the throne. Once again, use of stage space (including the number of players on stage) reinforces the wording of the text. In this final scene Bolingbroke is not seen alone, ruling confidently and securely as King Henry IV; he is embroiled in the consequences of the authority that he has usurped. In a scene reminiscent in structure of that following the return of Richard from Ireland (III.i) York, then Northumberland, then Fitzwater, then Percy and Carlisle and finally Exton, come into the King's presence to bring news. Whereas the news brought to Richard was negative and increasingly dispiriting, each bulletin for the new King confirms Henry's power while also underlining the fact that this power depends upon the use of physical force. Understanding that the force is all too likely to lead to violence on a country wide scale, Henry tries to intervene, at least on a personal level. His punishment for the Bishop of Carlisle is not to be death. Rather, Carlisle is distanced from the sphere of national influence. The presence of Carlisle on stage to hear his sentence is important in terms of the play's structure. It must surely recall for the audience his earlier objections to the reported abdication of Richard and his prophecy that, if Bolingbroke is allowed to ascend the throne of state,

The blood of English shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act.


The final stage picture depends, as in so many key scenes in the play, on the presence of both Richard and Bolingbroke on stage. Richard is brought, once again, into Bolingbroke's presence. The Chamberlain's Men presumably carried the player of the murdered Richard onto the stage on a bier (as would be usual for Elizabethan corpses). If so, at least a proportion of the audience would have seen the faces of both players. Richard's bier alone would have been enough to invoke the memory of regicide and its ability to influence the minds of the living. Even as King Henry gives order for King Richard's state funeral, the threat to national peace is clear:

Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.
Come mourn with me for what I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent.
I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.
March sadly after. Grace my mournings here
In weeping after this untimely bier.


To an extent the patterned structure of Richard II, even in its evident disequilibrium, has provided the audience with some sense of historical order. The new reign, we now learn, may be disturbed in a more comprehensive and turbulent fashion. This is indeed the case in the structural language of the Henry IV plays.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693


Axline, Kim. “‘Sad Stories of the Death of Kings’: The Revelation of Humanity in Richard II.On-Stage Studies 22 (1999): 108-21.

Examines the way in which Shakespeare, in Richard II, used historical fact and political rhetoric as a means of revealing serious human concerns and issues.

Barbour, David. “The Bard Off Broadway.” TCI 32, no. 5 (May 1998): 26-8.

Assesses some of the technical aspects of the Theatre for a New Audience's performance of Richard II and Richard III, finding that the set design allowed for each play to have its own strong identity, and that both the set design and lighting accorded with the production's vision of the play.

Berninghausen, Thomas F. “Banishing Cain: The Garden Metaphor in Richard II and the Genesis Myth of the Origin of History.” Essays in Literature XIV, no. 1 (spring 1987): 3-14.

Maintains that the play's garden scene (III.iv) is properly understood within the context of a grander Biblical scheme in which it is suggested that England be viewed as a parallel with the Garden of Eden.

Calderwood, James L. “Richard II to Henry IV: Variations on the Fall.” In Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry, pp. 10-29. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Explores Shakespeare's depiction in Richard II of the fall not only of King Richard, but of “kingly speech.”

Carr, Virginia M. “The Power of Grief in Richard II.Etudes Anglaises XXXI, no. 2 (April-June 1978): 145-51.

Argues that while sorrow is endured without consolation in the play, it serves to teach the characters, giving them both knowledge and dignity.

French, A. L. “Richard II and the Woodstock Murder.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 4 (autumn 1971): 337-44.

Claims that while other critics have dismissed the significance of the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester in Richard II, the event, while not portrayed, is of vital importance to the understanding of the play.

Jacobs, Henry E. “Prophecy and Ideology in Shakespeare's Richard II.South Atlantic Review 51, no. 1 (January 1986): 3-17.

Demonstrates that a shift occurs within Richard II from the medieval view of an essentially ordered cosmos held by Richard and his loyalists, to a conception of power as essentially lawless. Jacobs contends that this shift is emphasized through changes in the characters' language, actions, and attitudes.

Moseley, C. W. R. D. “Passing Brave to be a King: Richard II.” In Shakespeare's History Plays. Richard II to Henry V: The Making of a King, pp. 112-28. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

Details Richard's decline throughout the course of Richard II, demonstrating the ways in which Shakespeare utilized his source material and crafted his characters in order to develop sympathy for Richard despite the kings shortcomings and transgressions.

Ornstein, Robert. “A Kingdom for a Stage.” In Richard II: Critical Essays, edited by Jeanne T. Newlin, pp. 45-72. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984.

Argues that Shakespeare's recollection of medieval history in Richard II is done for the purposes of artistic pleasure rather than out of a political longing for medieval times.

Rackin, Phyllis. “The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare's Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 36, no. 3 (autumn 1985): 262-81.

Traces the development of the role of the audience throughout the play, and examines the method by which Shakespeare controlled the process of the audience's interaction with the production.

Rutter, Carol Chillington. “Fiona Shaw's Richard II: The Girls as Player-King as Comic.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 3 (1997): 314-24.

Provides a critique of Shaw's portrayal of Richard II in Deborah Warner's production of Richard II in June, 1995, for the National Theatre, contending that Shaw's innovative performance offered new insights on the “player king.”

Traversi, Derek. “Richard II.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Richard II: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Paul M. Cubeta, pp. 41-57. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971.

Examines Richard II as the conflict between a traditional conception of royalty, represented by Richard, and the uprising of a new political force, represented by Bolingbroke.

Zitner, Sheldon P. “Aumerle's Conspiracy.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 XIV, no. 2 (1974): 239-57.

Studies the significance of the two Aumerle scenes in Act V, which are frequently omitted from performances of Richard II. Zitner identifies the farcical elements of the scenes, noting the ways in which the scenes both diminish and enrich the play.

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Richard II (Vol. 58)


Richard II (Vol. 81)