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Richard II

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Richard II (ca. 1595) is the first drama of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, a sequence of chronological narratives based on events in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries that chronicle the ascent of the Lancastrian line to the throne of England. In the play, Richard, an ineffectual monarch and the last of the Plantagenet kings, is deposed and imprisoned after his cousin Henry Bolingbroke launches a successful coup to usurp the English crown. Following Richard's assassination, Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, the subject of the following two plays in the sequence. Written entirely in verse, Richard II features what numerous critics perceive as Shakespeare's most brilliantly realized rhetorical tragedy, a work centered on the poetic, introspective persona of King Richard II. Devoid of the spectacular battles, much of the violence, and the epic sweep of Shakespeare's subsequent historical works, the play has sometimes been faulted for dramatic unevenness, but is nevertheless highly regarded for its moments of superbly crafted and penetrating poetic dialogue. Dorothy C. Hockey (1964) compares the dramatic language of Richard II to Shakespeare's later dramas, noting that while his later dramas use a masterful plain style that seamlessly incorporates prose and verse, the ornate and elevated rhetorical manner of Richard II elegantly matches the play's high style and regal subject.

Character-based study of Richard II has overwhelmingly focused on its title figure, and on the relationship between Richard and his usurping rival, Henry Bolingbroke. In general, Richard has been viewed in sharp contrast with Shakespeare's other English kings. Louise Cowan (1981) characterizes Richard II as a dignified but brooding monarch whose irresponsibility as a ruler is an affront to his hereditary authority. His political mistakes and personal disloyalty lead to his downfall, according to this reading, making Richard's abdication the only means of restoring both personal dignity and historical balance. Raphael Falco (1999) focuses on the concept of charisma in his comparative analysis of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. For Falco, both men possess this unmistakable mark of leadership, but in very different forms. Bolingbroke challenges and subverts existing authority; he is a revolutionary and defiant hero who, Falco acknowledges, is paradoxically drawn to seek the royal power he will destroy with Richard. Falco notes that Richard's authority derives from heredity; as the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty he links himself with permanence, tradition, and the corporate power of many individuals as one. In two complementary discussions of character in Richard II, Charles R. Forker (2001, 2002) examines the sources and tragic consequences of Richard's destabilized, mutable personal identity and the results of Shakespeare's deeply ambivalent rendering of both Richard and Bolingbroke in the drama. Forker first illuminates a central dichotomy between Richard's self-indulgent, despotic rule and Bolingbroke's courageous and expeditious capacities as a natural leader who positions himself as England's savior. The critic continues by probing the ways in which Shakespeare subverted this simplified opposition in order to expand his play into not merely the representation of two sorts of individuals, but of two complex approaches to power. The story of Richard II, therefore, relates the clash of competing ideological doctrines as personified by their respective standard bearers.

Although there are many challenges to a successful staging of this play—such as the elaborate verse, complex political themes, and interpretation of Richard's character—Richard II has proved to be popular in recent years and has been revived frequently on the stage. Carol Chillington Rutter (1997) reviews a 1995 production of Richard II directed by Deborah Warner that featured a female lead in the title role. Rutter contends that Warner's Richard II—a significant one in Rutter's estimation despite much critical denunciation—played effectively with the feminization of Richard and highlighted the emotional undercurrents of the work, including the grief-laden relationship between this declining monarch and his usurping cousin. Reviewing Director Jonathan Kent's 2000 staging of the drama with the Almeida Theatre, featuring film star Ralph Fiennes, Ben Brantley (2000) maintains that Fiennes's scowling interpretation of Richard, while probing and powerful, was perhaps a bit overdone. Although intellectually stimulating, it lacked emotion and pathos in Brantley's appraisal. Offering a different view of the production, Richard Hornby (2000) admires Fiennes's skill with Shakespearean verse, as well as his flippant and petulant characterization of the deposed monarch. However, Hornby contends that the supporting cast's inability to reach the level of Fiennes severely weakened the project. Sheridan Morley reviews Tim Carroll's 2003 all-male production of Richard II at the Globe in London. Morley praises the casting, especially Mark Rylance's exceptional interpretation of Shakespeare's “weak, callow, and ultimately defeated king,” but faults the production for failing to marshal a strong Bolingbroke or other cast members to support Rylance's subtle and majestic Richard. Elvis Mitchell (2001) reviews director John Farrell's modern-dress, ninety-minute film adaptation of Richard II. Mitchell finds little merit in this adaptation, citing weak individual performances and a lack of directorial vision, and claims that it “stands meekly in the shadow of film versions that have come before.”

The subject of kingship has attracted a large share of scholarly comment on Richard II. Maynard Mack, Jr. (1973) outlines the antiquated notions of sovereignty professed by the major figures in Richard II, from the ordered, traditionalist views of York and Gaunt to Richard's divinely authorized and idealized, but irrevocably weakened, ruling ideal. In Mack's appraisal, Shakespeare opened such archaic perspectives to scathing criticism by consistently foreshadowing Richard's abdication and the ascent of Bolingbroke. Henry E. Jacobs (1986) also examines the role of kingship in the play. For Jacobs, Richard II dramatizes a theoretical shift from medieval and feudalistic ideals of primogeniture, succession, and divine authority in favor of Renaissance realpolitik—power politics in the terms of Machiavelli. In his analysis, Jacobs summarizes the ways in which Shakespeare depicted the transition from an old ethos to a new one using prophecy as his principle dramatic device. Thomas F. Berninghausen (1987) views the metaphorical relationship between gardening and kingship dramatized in Act III, scene iv of Richard II as the thematic touchstone of the drama. Berninghausen contends that Richard II “derives its frame, rhetoric, and vocabulary from the myth of the origin of history described in Genesis,” including the stories of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel. Thus, according to Berninghausen, the drama reenacts the Christian theme of the Fall by introducing the sins that Henry IV and his son, Henry V, must expiate through their future stewardship of the English people. Kenneth C. Bennett (1988) evaluates the dramatic structure of Richard II and contends that it depicts the two parallel tragedies of Richard and Bolingbroke, who are “tied ultimately by their underlying prideful errors, their failures to set limitations on their powers.”

Dorothy C. Hockey (essay date summer 1964)

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SOURCE: Hockey, Dorothy C. “A World of Rhetoric in Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 3 (summer 1964): 179-91.

[In the following essay, Hockey surveys the rhetorical effects and devices of Richard II, suggesting that the drama represents a significant development in Shakespeare's use of dramatic language.]

From two equally interesting, but contradictory, views on the style in Richard II have come two quite different interpretations of the play. One, suggested by Hardin Craig as early as 1912 and incorporated into a fuller interpretation of the play by E. M. W. Tillyard in 1944, reached the boards in the 1951 Shakespeare Memorial production of the Lancastrian cycle. In his edition of the play Professor Craig attaches particular importance to the emergence in Richard II of a plain style, related to the more ornate style elsewhere in the play much as prose is to poetry in the later plays. Richard, his Queen, Gaunt, and Mowbray usually speak in the highly rhetorical style, while Bolingbroke, Northumberland, and “others of their party”, speak “more directly and simply” to contrast them as “practical men with the more sentimental and less practical” royal party. Emotional stress or its opposite, prosaic circumstance, can produce a heightened or a plainer style in either group.1 Similarly, in suggesting a possibly “dangerous and forced theory of the play's significance”—Richard II as a portrait of the Middle Ages, where “means matter more than ends”—Tillyard notes a ceremonial style in Richard and his party.2 As further evidence for his interpretation he points to the number of arrested motions in the play—the Coventry lists ending without combat, the Welsh soldiers withdrawing without battle, and the promised clash at Flint Castle concluding without shock. Contrasting with all this static ceremony is the “new kind of vigour” which, according to this same interpretation (p. 259), enters the play at II.i.224. It is too narrow, says Tillyard, to contrast the “‘poetry’” of Richard with the “common sense” of Bolingbroke, for, he continues,

the “poetry” of Richard is all part of a world of gorgeous tournaments, conventionally mourning queens, and impossibly sententious gardeners, while Bolingbroke's common sense extends to his backers, in particular to that most important character, Northumberland. We have in fact the contrast not only of two characters but of two ways of life.

(P. 258)

Though the direct influence of this view on the Stratford director in 1951 must remain conjectural, the “conception” of the production, as Mr. Worsley relates it, suggests a close connection. At Stratford Richard II became mere prologue to the swelling act of the imperial Lancastrian theme, with a pastel-costumed Richard set against a somber Bolingbroke—the one a man of many words and poses, the other a business-like man of the world of action. The followers of each were crowded into the same rather confining molds, much as if—to change the figure—the “caterpillars of the commonwealth” had turned into butterflies.3

Yet studies of the imagery of the play—notably those of R. D. Altick and W. H. Clemen—comment on the unity of tone throughout the play. Professor Altick sees the “symphonic” recurrence of key images, such as those of earth, a garden, blood, sun, and tears, as harmonizing both idea and tone, and notes frequent paralleling of Bolingbroke's and Richard's imagery.4 Professor Clemen sees a “new unity of tone and feeling” in this play.5 More recently, S. K. Heninger, Jr., shows the important use of the sun-king image by both Bolingbroke and Richard and the dramatic-thematic significance of its passing from king to usurper. In Richard II, thus, he sees a “pervasive poetic quality”, and regards the play as a “milestone marking Shakespeare's mature drama.”6 We have suggested, then, a clash of worlds and styles or, on the other hand, a “vast arabesque of language” where harmony of tone prevails.7

Though imagery is unquestionably the most vital aspect of style and Shakespeare's artistry in using it to reveal his deepest meanings is certainly the richest discovery of modern criticism, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were equally interested in a vast number of other stylistic elements, all of which, taken together with imagery, produce tone. Perhaps a closer examination of aspects of style other than imagery is needed—a backward glance at style as Shakespeare might have viewed it. T. W. Baldwin and Sister Miriam Joseph have abundantly demonstrated Shakespeare's knowledge of the Tudor rhetoricians and their borrowed wisdom,8 derived ultimately from Aristotle's Rhetoric through, as Sister Miriam Joseph's study indicates, Erasmus, Agricola, Melanchthon, Ramus, Quintilian, and Cicero. In her synthesis of this sizeable body of material, she postulates two general groups of Renaissance rhetoricians—one treating rhetoric, logic, and a few figures, and another treating only figures of speech, the number of figures ranging from 90 to 180. (Figure here is used in its widest sense to embrace variations from plain, direct statement for stylistic effect.) Underlying both groups, however, is a basic likeness—the derivation from Aristotle. In Shakespeare she found the entire range of figures.9 A close study of a number of these figures points to a resolution of the contradictory interpretations of style in Richard II and illuminates some aspects of the poet-playwright's increasing awareness of the possibilities of language.

Fortunately, one may safely pass over a large number of the 180 figures. Those dealing with changes of a letter or syllable in a word and the omission of a word clearly understood in context such as a verb, a subject, or a conjunction may “satisfy and delight the ear”,10 as Puttenham remarks, but they exert no effect on tone, particularly that of the spoken language of drama. They are used primarily for metrical purposes. On the other hand, unusual word order, interrupted sentence movement, the conspicuous use of synonym or “contraries”, the verbal quibble, and various patterns of repetition—all lovingly described and assigned their rather forbidding Latin or Greek names by the Tudor rhetoricians—do contribute to tone, importantly so in Richard II. If style is to suggest two tones and two “worlds” in the play, we should expect to find a noticeable difference in their distribution between the two groups of characters.

Departures from normal word order, under the generic name hyperbaton, are commented on and illustrated by the Tudor rhetoricians. Sister Miriam Joseph's analogy of walking and dancing (p. 54) vividly suggests the heightening effect of these rhetorical patterns. The particular pattern of importance in Richard II is anastrophe, unusual or inverted word order. In this play all characters from Gaunt to the Gardener speak in inverted word order where as metrically smooth a line would result from direct order.11 Another effect, then, was Shakespeare's aim—a heightened, more elaborate, style throughout the play. For example, Gaunt's lines to York before Richard's entrance in II.i, employ Shakespeare's favorite inversion—object preceding subject and verb—and another favorite—adverb, verb, subject:

He that no more must say is listened more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose.
More are men's ends mark'd than their lives before.


If anyone in the play should represent a direct, active, plain-speaking new world, it is Northumberland; yet from him come these deliberate inversions:

His glittering arms he will commend to rust


or in his first appearance in the play, when he announces Gaunt's death:

Words, life, and all, old Lancaster hath spent


or when he plots with Ross and Willoughby after Richard's seizure of Gaunt's property:

More hath he spent in peace than they in wars.


Willoughby, too, another of Richard's opponents, is given deliberately inverted word order:

Quick is mine ear to hear of good towards him.


Examples could be multiplied, but to no further purpose, for the speech of every character in Richard II is marked by anastrophe. As Puttenham remarks about “figures of grammaticall construction”, “the eare may receive a certaine recreation, although the mind for any noueltie of sence be little or nothing affected” (p. 174). Sister Miriam Joseph points out that this stylistic pattern increases in Shakespeare and is particularly marked in The Tempest (p. 54). It is worth noting, however, that it is not used extensively in Julius Caesar, where the plain style predominates. As a figure to distinguish between characters in Richard II and, hence, to suggest a theme of conflicting worlds, anastrophe must be dismissed.

So, too, must interrupted movement, for here as well the general tone of the play is heightened, rather than the tone of Richard's speeches or those of Richard's “world”. From plain-speaking Bolingbroke in the heat of passion comes this long interruption:

Besides I say, and will in battle prove—
Or here, or elsewhere to the furthest verge
That ever was survey'd by English eye—
That all the treasons for these eighteen years
Complotted and contrived in this land
Fetch from false Mowbray their first head and spring.


It is somewhat characteristic of Bolingbroke that the movement of his speech is interrupted by oaths (another set of “figures”) throughout Act I, when he repeatedly affirms his good faith. In fact, Bolingbroke's oaths are an important, though neglected, aspect of his character. Clustered in the first act of the play, most markedly in Scene One, they constitute both a testament of fidelity which his later action belies and a warning of the kind of man he is. Even as he pledges his loyalty to his sovereign or takes an oath by his own “glorious” ascent, Bolingbroke couples a threat with his oath. His first oath is an affirmation of his truthfulness, classified by rhetoricians as orcos (I.i.30). Turning to Mowbray, he interrupts himself with a kind of oath—or threat—to defend his charges with his life, classified as euche, a promise (I.i.35-39). In the same speech he again interrupts himself to pledge his loyalty to his king, eustathia (I.i.45-46). His next long speech in the same scene furnishes three more promises—or threats—of violent action as well as an interruption to vow “by the glorious worth” of his “descent” (I.i.92-97, 98-100, 107-108). Commenting on this speech, Richard vows by his “sceptre's awe” (l. 118), an interesting thematic contrast. Two more instances of Bolingbroke's oaths or vows occur in this scene (ll. 187, 190-194), both similar to those already discussed. In the lists at Coventry Bolingbroke three times insists upon his good faith in an oath (I.iii.37-38, 41, 84). Interestingly enough, in III.iii after a pledge of allegiance to Richard (not, however, in the form of an oath), Bolingbroke now more clearly speaks in threats. A number of these oaths appear as interruptions.

From Northumberland, too, we hear at least once a marked example of interrupted movement, among other rhetorical flourishes as he greets the king at Flint Castle:

And by the royalties of both your bloods—
(Currents that spring from one most gracious head),
And by the buried hand of warlike Gaunt. …


That Shakespeare employs this same rhetorical pattern in Richard's speech, too—but to no more marked degree proportionately than in the others' speech—simply reflects the poetic playwright's attempt to achieve the high style or tone for a regal theme. As Hoskyns remarks of parenthesis, one kind of interruption, it “makes your discourse fair and more sensible. …”12

Equally appropriate to fair discourse and a regal theme, according to Tudor rhetoricians, is synonym, discussed as a means of “amplification”. Listing this “ornament” among those appropriate to oratory, Puttenham elevates it further by his choice of illustrative quotation—lines from the Aeneid—and by his comment: [This] store, neuerthelesse, doeth much beautifie and inlarge the matter” (p. 223). As both Kittredge and Professor Black comment, the device is used everywhere in Richard II; examples are “almost countless”.13 Richard's “oath and band”, “high stomach'd … full of ire”, “conclude and be agreed”, “plot, contrive, or complot any ill”—to name only a few—are balanced by Bolingbroke's “traitor and a miscreant”, “Fair and crystal is the sky”, “false traitor and injurious villain”, “complotted and contrived”, “their first head and spring”. Even Northumberland is not content to call the news of the Welsh defection from Richard merely “very fair”, but must add “good”. Ross, another of Bolingbroke's supporters, sees the latter as “bereft and gelded of his patrimony”—to Kittredge “a striking instance of the use of synonyms for emphasis” (p. 134). As eloquent as his betters, the Gardener's unnamed assistant refers to “law and form and due proportion”. It is significant that all the characters in Richard II make free use of this emphatic device, synonym, with a resultant general elevation of tone, an oratorical effect.

“Contraries”, too, are significant in this play. In fact, Sister Miriam Joseph is particularly struck by Shakespeare's use of privative terms here. Richard II, she says, “pre-eminently illustrates Shakespeare's skill” in the use of contraries. Citing dying Gaunt's “undeaf my ear”, Scroop's “Again uncurse their souls”, Richard's “unking'd Richard”, “unking'd by Bolingbroke”, and “unkiss the oath”, as well as Bolingbroke's “By you unhappied and disfigured clean” in his charge to his prisoners, she makes the very penetrating observation that this stylistic device emphasizes the theme of disorder in the play (p. 141). One might add Northumberland's “uncivil arms”, Bagot's “unsay / What once it hath deliver'd”, and the Duchess of Gloucester's series of contraries in “unfurnish'd walls, / Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones” to emphasize the breadth of its use in the play.

The verbal quibble, likewise, is the private mannerism of no single character, despite Gaunt's usual assignment to the role of master quibbler. This bad eminence is undoubtedly due to the timing of Gaunt's quibbles and to Richard's calling attention to sick men's playing so nicely with their names. The fact is that York takes over Gaunt's office both as symbol of loyalty to the throne and as master quibbler. But he, too, holds only a precarious title, for Carlisle plays on the word noble through three lines (IV.i.117-119), Bolingbroke catches up Harry Percy's ripen and gives it a new application in his courtly reply (II.iii.48), and Ross five lines later catches up Bolingbroke's enrich'd and turns it to rich in his reply (II.iii.63). In this same scene, where the plotters, being alone, have no reason to put on a show of courtliness before a king, Northumberland plays on the words sweet and sweetness (ll. 7, 13). The respectability of such word-play stems, of course, from Aristotle, who comments on the pleasant “surprise” we experience from word-play, similar to that derived from metaphors and apothegms. Further, he says, “the more antithetical the expression, the greater the applause. The reason is, that our new perception is made clearer by the antithesis, and quicker by the brevity.”14 Tudor rhetoricians simply extended his treatment. As Miss Mahood points out, it boots us little today to attach the forbidding Greek names to the various sorts of word-play.15 It may be worth-while here, though, to note that they all appear in Richard II.

It is only partially true, as Wurth suggests, that the quibbles mainly “represent the sorrow and grief of the king over the loss he has suffered.”16 The element of truth in the statement stems from the play's emphasis on a rightful king's deposition and his resultant grief, and from Shakespeare's focusing so closely on his central character in this play. More accurately, the quibbles in Richard II occur especially at crucial moments in the play's action, whether Richard himself or someone else speaks. This use of word-play “to gain relief from a state of emotional tension” Miss Mahood found as early as Two Gentlemen of Verona (p. 32). In the quibbles of Gaunt and Carlisle cited a moment ago, this principle holds; both men are speaking from full hearts. York, too, quibbles at similarly emotional moments, as when he faces exiled Bolingbroke before Flint Castle (III.iii.12-15) or when he faces his new king to accuse his own son of treachery (V.iii.70-71). Both the Duchess of Gloucester and the Queen speak in verbal quibbles to express grief, just as the Duchess of York does to express her anxiety over her son's safety (V.iii.78-79). Likewise, Richard's word-play is clustered in his two scenes of public humiliation and defeat—the scene at Flint Castle and the deposition scene. With less to mourn than these characters, Bolingbroke quibbles less, but his minor indulgences occur, too, at emotional moments—his parting from his father and his reception of Sir Piers of Exton's report of Richard's murder at the close of the play. Though Miss Mahood found no pattern in the plays as a whole in kind of character or situation calling forth word-play (p. 164), a pattern clearly exists in Richard II.

To sum up, one might say that Shakespeare uses the quibble in Richard II for two purposes—a general heightened effect (according to Renaissance thinking) and a more particular kind of heightened effect in emotional scenes. Since grief is so frequently involved, Shakespeare thus provides a kind of accompaniment to the theme of Richard's grief. If it is true, as W. H. Clemen has shown us, that Shakespeare's imagery at this time is becoming more symbolic, is more artistically suggesting the meaning of a scene (p. 54), it is also true that word-play is becoming functional, rather than merely ornamental. And just as images are later to become submerged, to become more subtly buried in the context, so too are quibbles. In both instances, Richard II represents a significant point in Shakespeare's development.17

Closely akin to quibbles is rhetorical repetition in its many forms—so closely, in fact, that it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. However, since the effect on tone is more important here than labeling devices, this difficulty is minor. Unquestionably the most prominent figure in Richard II, repetition for a rhetorical effect is present in every scene and is heard from every character. More than any other rhetorical device, it heightens the tone of the play.

Its simplest, least contrived form—ploce, repetition with intervening words18—of course occurs most frequently. Addressing his fellow-plotters, Northumberland employs the device twice:

Nay, speak thy mind; and let him ne'er speak more
That speaks thy words again to do thee harm.


‘Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.

(Ibid., 245)

Bolingbroke, in one of his many stylistic parallels to Richard, uses “arm to arm” (I.i.76, paralleling Richard's ll. 15-16). Later—even to the last scene of all—come other noticeable uses of ploce from Bolingbroke:

Four lagging winters and four wanton springs


Near to the King in blood and near in love


Sweet peace conduct his sweet soul to the bosom
Of good old Abraham!


They love not poison that do poison need.


Richard's own use of this repetitive pattern is no more prominent proportionately than Bolingbroke's. To conclude, then, a rhetorical effect employed by Northumberland, Bolingbroke, Richard, the Queen, the Duchess of York, Gaunt, York, Carlisle, Green, Fitzwater, Surrey, Exton, and even the unnamed Welsh captain and Another Lord must surely be said to heighten the tone of the play as a whole and of particular actions rather than that of any separate faction.19

Anaphora, too, probably the most emotional pattern of repetition, grows more out of circumstance than character. It is, for example, the most noticeable figure in Gaunt's death speech, in York's outcry against Richard's misdoings, especially his seizure of Gaunt's property, and in Richard's deposition speeches. That Richard makes fuller use of the figure than any other character evidences Shakespeare's sympathy with a wronged king. It is more significant to note that Northumberland, too, uses the figure when he addresses the king at Flint Castle:

And by the honourable tomb he swears
That stands upon your royal grandsire's bones,
And by the royalties of both your bloods
(Currents that spring from one most gracious head),
And by the buried hand of warlike Gaunt,
And by the worth and honour of himself. …


Of further importance is the fact that anaphora—most arresting of repetitions—is used by almost the complete dramatis personae.20

The relative prominence, too, of the most complex of the repetitive patterns, antimetabole (repetition in transposed order), is doubly significant in this play. First, like the preceding patterns, it is widely distributed among the characters,21 appearing particularly in moments of wrath or sorrow. Gaunt's death speech (II.i.13, 74, 107-108), Carlisle's outburst before Richard's deposition (IV.i.132), and York's lament over Richard's seizure of Gaunt's land (II.i.180-181, 182-183, 187-188, 193-194) instance such uses of antimetabole to heighten an emotional effect. But from Ross, too, in a relatively unemotional moment, comes this:

We see the very wrack that we must suffer,
And unavoided is the danger now
For suffering so the causes of our wrack.


Bolingbroke, too, uses the figure when he demands that Mowbray acknowledge his guilt:

By this time, had the King permitted us,
One of our souls had wand'red in the air,
Banish'd this frail sepulchre of our flesh,
As now our flesh is banish'd from this land.


But something more than heightened tone is achieved by antimetabole in Richard II. As York and Richard use the figure—“a favorite with our learned knight” (Sidney), according to Hoskyns (p. 15)—it becomes an instrument to underscore the wheel-of-fortune theme running through the play. In York's lament over Richard's seizure of Gaunt's lands is the first hint of this rhetoric-theme connection:

                                                                                His noble hand
Did win what he did spend, and spent not that
Which his triumphant father's hand had won.


His hands were guilty of no kindred blood,
But bloody with the enemies of his kin.

(Ibid., 182-183)

In a more subtle way, two of Richard's deposition speeches suggest the same turn, as he addresses King Henry IV, the second instance a complex, double antimetabole:

Good king, great king, and yet not greatly good


Fair cousin? I am greater than a king;
For when I was a king, my flatterers
Were then but subjects; being now a subject,
I have a king here to my flatterer.
Being so great, I have no need to beg.


And in his last scene Richard reinforces the relentlessness of fortune, as well as its basis in human character:

I wasted time and now doth time waste me.


The prominence of both ploce and antimetabole in reinforcing the formal pattern of the romantic tragedy in Romeo and Juliet noted by Professor Levin22 further confirms the point that Shakespeare was using both rhetorical patterns for a heightened effect. In Richard II he has advanced the further step of reinforcing a theme of his play as well.

If one were to examine Bolingbroke's speeches without any thought of Richard's, one might well use old York's expression to describe him—“a well-grac'd actor”. From his first appearance to his last, with three important exceptions, Bolingbroke speaks a courtly, rhetorically polished language, marked by extensive use of alliteration and synonym, by almost habitual use of rhetorical questions and exclamations, by apt and frequent use of various kinds of repetition, and, finally, by tropes. The three significant exceptions may be what Mark Van Doren had in mind when he described Bolingbroke as “for the most part a man of few words” and as a former poet “before Richard's muse triumphed over his and made him content with plainness”23 Bolingbroke speaks little in III.iii at Flint Castle after he and Richard meet, in the opening of IV.i, during the baron's quarrel, and later in the same scene during the deposition ceremonies. Thereafter he returns to repetition, alliteration, rhetorical exclamations, synonym, and tropes.

Speaking little, however, is not the same as speaking plainly, and the reasons are likely to be different. Bolingbroke's meager part in the first and third of these passages is dictated, I believe, by the need to defend the Lancastrian and the Tudor houses as well as an important figure in the rest of the cycle of plays if Shakespeare had them in mind at the time, as many think. In these two scenes Richard is dealt with rather harshly, but at the hands of Northumberland, Bolingbroke's (and Shakespeare's) tool. There was no need to protect Northumberland—“that ladder”—from audience wrath since he is to step in as rebel in Henry IV, Part 1. On the occasion of Bolingbroke's second loss of words—that is, during the barons' quarrel in IV.i—Shakespeare is building up his dramatic parallel with the Bolingbroke-Mowbray quarrel at the opening of the play. However one interprets this parallel—to favor Richard or to commend Bolingbroke—the fact remains that the argument among the nobles at Bolingbroke's court had to grow sufficiently heated to need intervention. Hence, Bolingbroke is a man of few words on this occasion by dramatic necessity.

Similarly, Northumberland's language is characterized by rhetorical figures—anastrophe, word-play, repetition of various sorts, and occasional extended tropes. In fact, his first speech in the play employs a quibble on say and said, as he announces Gaunt's death. To Richard's question, “What says he?”—that is, Gaunt—Northumberland replies in a quibble, a metaphor, and anastrophe:

                                                                                Nay, nothing; all is said.
His tongue is now a stringless instrument;
Words, life, and all, old Lancaster hath spent.


Significantly, this is his only speech during the first half of the scene until Richard leaves. Then in the plotting scene, as he speaks with Ross and Willoughby, first sounding them out and then revealing Bolingbroke's return from exile, he does not descend to the plain style of a new, bustling, active world. Instead, he continues in the high style, using polyptoton, anastrophe, word-play, and two extended metaphors. In the following, for example, balance clearly heightens the effect of the figures:

But, lords, we hear this fearful tempest sing,
Yet seek no shelter to avoid the storm.
We see the wind sit sore upon our sails,
And yet we strike not, but securely perish.


As was also true of Bolingbroke, Northumberland has his big speech at Flint Castle. But for its subject, it might have been delivered by Richard himself, so highly “colored” is it rhetorically by repetition, polyptoton, interrupted movement, synonym, anaphora, two noteworthy metaphors, and epithet (inevitable in this play):

The King of Heaven forbid our lord the King
Should so with civil and uncivil arms
Be rush'd upon! Thy thrice-noble cousin
Harry Bolingbroke doth humbly kiss thy hand;
And by the honourable tomb he swears
That stands upon your royal grandsire's bones,
And by the royalties of both your bloods
(Currents that spring from one most gracious head),
And by the buried hand of warlike Gaunt,
And by the worth and honour of himself,
Comprising all that may be sworn or said,
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 barbed 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.


The catalogue in lines 116-118 is an interesting foreshadowing of Richard's speech a few lines further on, divesting himself of his royal habiliments.

From here to the end of the play Northumberland's speeches are brief. As a character he does not seem to have interested Shakespeare. His function is chiefly to interpose a line here and there to keep the action moving while Carlisle, the Queen, and especially Richard voice the theme and emotion of the play. Even so, however, his style is not always plain. Synonym (“sorrow and grief of heart” in III.iii.184), inverted order (IV.i.150), and hendiadys (“the state and profit of this land” in IV.i.225) belong to the rhetorically polished style, not to the plain. Like both Richard and Bolingbroke, Northumberland reaches greater heights of rhetoric with heightened emotion, but like them, too, he begins his rise from a high plane.

One may, then, by attaching particular importance to Bolingbroke's three exceptions and Northumberland's latter brevity, say that a plain style is emerging in Richard II. Whether it is related to prose in the later plays, as Craig suggests, is a more difficult question since little agreement on the prose-verse problem exists. It seems more likely, as I have suggested, that each instance in Richard II presents its own solution, usually in terms of the focus of the particular scene.

When every character thus is the master of the rhetorical paintbox, including particularly both of Richard's enemies, it is difficult to conclude that Richard II is written in two styles to suggest two warring worlds. Linguistic history alone would call this interpretation into question, for the new language of the English Renaissance with all its love of novelty and innovation is Shakespeare's English. Too, the industry of the Tudor rhetoricians would cast serious doubt upon the suggestion that the new world was plain. Charles Sears Baldwin's two studies—one of Medieval rhetoric, the other of Renaissance theory—evidence a continuing influence of some of the same rhetoricians. One effect of printing, he observes, was “to prolong or widen the influence of books characteristically medieval”; he indicates particularly the “hackneyed” De Inventione, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and the “hardy perennial” Horace.24 The conventional classical three styles of oratory were transferred to poetry in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.25 But more specifically the play itself everywhere reflects Shakespeare's attempt to use what the rhetoricians of either period called a high style.26

Richard himself, of course, remains the precious stone set in this silver sea of rhetoric. Though he uses few rhetorical effects not found in the other characters—climax, for example27—he nevertheless is distinguished from Bolingbroke. The important distinction is, as it should be, given to us in Act I—more precisely, in the father-son farewell at Coventry. To Gaunt's suggestion that his banished son make his imagination the master of his woe—that he imagine, for example, that he travels for his health, Bolingbroke makes his most revealing speech in the play:

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December's snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?
O, no! The apprehension of the good
Gives but the greater feeling to the worse.
Fell sorrow's tooth doth never rankle more
Than when he bites, but lanceth not the sore.


Though he speaks in images and tropes and uses the series of rhetorical questions that mark the technique of “pathos”, Bolingbroke is no poetic visualizer. Shakespeare is telling us exactly that.

Only Richard can rise and fall by the power of imagination alone, as he does on his arrival at Wales, before Flint Castle, at the deposition scene, and in his lonely prison. Possessing the poet's double vision, Richard can see a situation on two planes. His comment, however, derives from the second—the deeper, visionary plane. Appropriately at such moments he speaks almost entirely in metaphor. Thus, his return to his native land resembles “a long-parted mother with her child”, his loss of power before he even meets Bolingbroke at Flint Castle portends graves, worms, and epitaphs. Only deposition and death, this deeper vision tells him, can lie ahead. And in the end what does he have but “death / And that small model of barren earth” to cover his bones? Then when he faces his destroyer at Flint Castle, he sees the intermediate step, the long drawing-out before the final end—the loss of all the pride, pomp, and circumstance of a king. In his rarest moment of insight, at his deposition, Richard sees his downfall completely in terms of his own character:

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 duty's rites.


Twice the reactions of others suggest this quality in the king. “Mock not my senseless conjurations, lords”, says Richard as he returns to the everyday plane in his homecoming speech (III.ii.23). And he returns from his visionary interpretation of Bolingbroke's arrival, seeing only “an obscure grave” in store for himself, with the words

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


Richard's style, thus, from III.ii onward, far from being “metaphorical mouthings”, marks the play's rise from the historical to the tragic plane. Like Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, Richard falls because of the kind of mind he has—his, the poetic visualizer's “magic lantern”, in Shaw's words as he prefaces St. Joan. Also, like many of the heroes and villains, Richard has supreme and appropriate power of expression. His poetry, then, is single in this play in that he alone visualizes. No one else in his “party” does so; no one in the opposition does so. All, however, are accomplished speakers, masters of the elaborate language patterns described by Tudor rhetoricians. Thus, a kingly woe is lamented in an appropriately regal atmosphere.


  1. Richard II, ed. Hardin Craig (1912), pp. xiv, xv.

  2. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (1944), pp. 252-259.

  3. T. C. Worsley, “The Plays at Stratford”, in J. Dover Wilson, Shakespeare's Histories at Stratford 1951 (1952), pp. 24, 35. The theatrical appeal of this striking contrast is obvious. To name another and very recent instance of its influence, the production at Stan Hywet Hall, Akron, during the summer of 1960, with Donald Moffatt as Richard, followed the same costuming and acting pattern.

  4. Richard D. Altick, “Symphonic Imagery in Richard II”, PMLA, LXII, 339-365. Altick parallels Bolingbroke III.iii.42-44 and Richard III.iii.95-100, Bolingbroke III.iii.62-64 and Richard III.ii.37, ff. Different groupings are also possible.

  5. W. H. Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (1951), p. 53.

  6. S. K. Heninger, Jr., “The Sun-King Analogy in Richard II”, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], XI (1960), 319-327; p. 326.

  7. Altick, p. 340.

  8. T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke (1944); Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (1947). See also W. L. Rushton, Shakespeare and “The Arte of English Poesie” (1909), for parallels between Shakespeare and Puttenham. G. H. Mair, ed., Wilson's Arte of Rhetorike [1553], (1909), terms Books I and II “a judicious compilation of Quintilian” (p. xx), and judges that Book III owes “almost as much to Cicero” (p. xxi).

  9. Sister Miriam Joseph, pp. 4-18.

  10. George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie [1589], ed. Edward Arber (1869), p. 155.

  11. Though the style of the play is marked by inversion, I have confined myself sharply to those lines where meter is clearly not involved in order to make my point clear. Kittredge's single-play edition (1941) is cited throughout.

  12. John Hoskyns, Direccions for Speech and Style [ca. 1599], ed. Louise Brown Osborn (1937), p. 44. By sensible here Hoskyns seems to mean what Puttenham distinguished as sensable, reaching the “conceit” rather than the ear (p. 171).

  13. Variorum, note to II.i.; Kittredge, p. 102.

  14. Aristotle, Rhetoric, tr. R. C. Jebb (1909), III, 11, 1412.

  15. M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (1957), p. 19.

  16. Variorum, p. 535.

  17. Interpreting R. II as “a play about the efficacy of a king's words”, in which a poet's faith in words is set against a “politician's” faith in action, Miss Mahood comments on “the play's verbal ambiguities which nearly all have to do with language” (pp. 73-74). From this point of view, too, then, R. II is a landmark, for, as Miss Mahood remarks later, the pun “in which the secondary meaning gives emphasis to a dominant idea of the play as a whole” begins about the time of R. II (p. 169).

  18. Puttenham's terminology (p. 211). Other rhetoricians sometimes call this epanodos or traductio (Sister Miriam Joseph, p. 85).

  19. Not to weary the reader with needless cataloguing, yet to be complete, I shall merely note here that other somewhat simple patterns of repetition serve a similar function. Epizeuxis, repetition with no intervening words, often in exclamation, comes from Bolingbroke, Carlisle, the Duchess of York, the Duchess of Gloucester, Salisbury, and Gaunt as well as from Richard. So, too, is polyptoton, repetition of different forms of a word, widely distributed. A general heightening results.

  20. Richard, Bolingbroke, Northumberland, Gaunt, York, the Duchess of Gloucester, Bagot, the Groom, the Gardener, Exton, the Queen, and the Duchess of York.

  21. Ross, Carlisle, the Queen, the Duchess of York, Gaunt, Bolingbroke, York, Northumberland, and Richard.

  22. Harry Levin, “Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet”, SQ, XI (1960), 7-8.

  23. Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (1939), p. 87; p. 88.

  24. Renaissance Literary Theory and Practice (1939), pp. 9, 10.

  25. Medieval Rhetoric and Poetic (1928), p. 144; Renaissance Literary Theory and Practice, p. 15.

  26. Puttenham mentions the usual three levels—the high, the “meane”, and the base, distinguished by subject matter. The high is appropriate for gods, princes, and “the notable accidents of time” such as war and peace (pp. 164-165). Wilson's “great or mightie kind”, “small kind”, and “lawe” (p. 169) correspond to Puttenham's levels. Though the Tudor rhetoricians do not describe each style in great detail, Puttenham lists certain figures more appropriate to the orator, to the poet, or to both. Where pertinent, I have indicated such distinctions.

  27. Richard's uses of this “marching” or “clyming” figure (Puttenham, p. 217) occur at moments of emotional stress—when he descends “down, down” to the base court (III.iii.178-182) and when Northumberland hastens his farewell from his Queen (V.i.66-68). It is perhaps coincidental, but interesting, that in this same speech Richard calls Northumberland “thou ladder …” and Puttenham describes climax as a ladder (p. 217).

Kenneth C. Bennett (essay date May 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6533

SOURCE: Bennett, Kenneth C. “Climax and Anti-Climax in Richard II.Essays in Theatre 6, no. 2 (May 1988): 123-35.

[In the following essay, Bennett evaluates the dramatic structure of Richard II and contends that it depicts the two parallel tragedies of Richard and Bolingbroke.]

Every drama presents a problem in construction, and what Shakespeare had to face in dramatizing the origins of the Wars of the Roses was the anti-climax inherent in the deposition of Richard, a weak but an anointed king. The rise and fall of fortune's wheel in the de casibus tragedies from medieval times on up through the Mirror for Magistrates was likely to be anti-climactic, if not monotonously predictable, and Shakespeare must have been aware of the pitfall. While some critics have pronounced Richard II anti-climactic, most have been content to use words like “ceremonial”, “ritualistic”, and—rather to the same effect—“elegiac”. Much has been said, too, about the “lyrical” nature of Richard II, aligning it with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, which were most likely written about the same time; but not so much has been said about the elaborate architectonics of the play, the dramatic force Shakespeare achieves by careful coordination of tragic patterns with scenic contrasts and parallels.1 Yes, Richard II is elegiac, ceremonial, and ritualistic, but it is also a forcefully constructed tragedy that works through a singular articulation of unusual means to build up a strong sense of the disaster, both personal and national, caused by a multiplicity of tragic errors.

The most obvious device that Shakespeare employs to counteract the fall of Richard is the resurgence of the banished Bolingbroke, whose career seems to be a marked exception to the ineffectual attempts at rebellion that clutter the pages of English history before and after Richard's reign. Although the primary pattern is that Richard's weakness gives way to Bolingbroke's aggressive opportunism, this is cleverly undercut by Shakespeare insofar as Bolingbroke's ascension is marked immediately by a tragic catastrophe not unlike or unrelated to Richard's own. Both Richard and Bolingbroke are tragic figures in this play2 in the traditional sense that they are exceptional figures—well above the mean—yet flawed; they both commit grievous errors which result in worse consequences than they foresaw (the classical peripeteia), come to a recognition (anagnorisis), and fall into a state of misery as a result. The fact that Bolingbroke's career has marked parallels to Richard's has not been a commonplace of modern criticism, nor, especially, has the fact that Bolingbroke's accelerated recapitulation of Richard's error is used by Shakespeare to intensify the tragic effect.

Those who find Richard II more poetic than dramatic are perhaps influenced by a number of forces: there is relatively little physical action in the play until Act V, the magnificence of Richard's speeches tends to be the most immediately impressive aspect of the play, and the rhyme bulks larger in this play than in any of the other serious dramas by Shakespeare—only Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream have more. While the lack of physical action should not really bother anyone who is used to the long speeches of either Shakespeare or Shaw or anyone acquainted with speech-act theory, it can be a problem for modern audiences. But it seems to me that the reduction of Richard to nothing but sheer physical rebellion against his fate is the most dramatic illustration of his attainment of increased stature despite his resignation of political power. When he was king he needed to take no physical action; his word was enough to make things happen, and he fell prey to thinking that no matter what he did, the name of king would always call up the forces necessary to sustain him in power. By Act V, Richard has recognized his mistake but the damage cannot be undone. However, instead of resigning himself, as before, to wretchedness, he lashes out in Act V, ironically just at the point where such self-defense is most futile. One interesting point in this respect is that Richard's closing lines show an implicit faith that he will go to heaven—a belief unchallenged either by anyone in the play or by its commentators. There seems to be a tacit assumption that although Richard has sinned, his repentance has resulted in absolution—such is the strength of emotion Shakespeare has succeeded in creating for this unhappy king.3

A study of Shakespeare's possible sources, especially Woodstock, shows that Shakespeare could have painted Richard II in some of the same colors he used for Richard III, but he softens history and reduces Richard's errors to one or two, which clarifies the causality in the audience's eyes and palliates his substantial crimes. He may be behind Gloucester's murder—Gaunt clearly agrees with the Duchess of Gloucester on this point—but Shakespeare never makes us absolutely certain of it.4 Shakespeare chooses to focus on Richard's seizure of Gaunt's property as the culminating act of mismanagement. Here Richard's intentions are made as open and as lawless as Richard III's. Even when he might have been accused of other wrongs to his kingdom and his queen, Shakespeare chooses to exculpate him, at least partially, through the words of his harshest enemy, Northumberland, who blames Richard's failings on his associates.5 Henry himself surprises us when, at the end of the play, he says to Exton, “I hate the murderer, love him murdered” (; surely there is no need for Henry to express any love at all; he needs no Machiavellian lies at this point to win hearts. More convincingly, a lie at this point would be inconsistent with Henry's frank, impassioned tones in this scene. Here the irony is purely situational, i.e., dramatic: Henry now finds the murder of Richard as horrifying as the death of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, was to his father, John of Gaunt. The final bit of stage action—the unexpected appearance of Richard's coffin—provides a climactic revelation and recognition for Henry that not only strengthens the ending but creates sympathy for the late king. Shakespeare makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for the audience to take a vindictive attitude towards Richard—or, for that matter, to Henry.6 It is clear that no matter what history might say, Exton is the scapegoat at this point. He has committed the unforgivable crime, and he will suffer the banishment of Cain. Henry is quick to realize that the guilt spills over onto him and stains him ineradicably.

Similarly, Shakespeare could have chosen to paint Bolingbroke blacker than he does throughout. Despite his pride, his opportunism, and ambition (all of which seem quite human flaws) he seems to be a person of sense (if not sensibility) who is concerned with justice as well as with power. The much-criticized quasi-comic scenes in the Aumerle episode are necessary to create this effect. If, as Socrates maintained, what man really wants is justice, then Bolingbroke is largely an appealing figure. His error, however, is clear: he overreaches himself in seizing the crown. Besides, even if he doesn't indirectly bring about the death of Richard, he must realize that his new role as usurper has made him accountable for this act. By the end of the play Bolingbroke has unintentionally fallen into some of the same unhappy traps that Richard did. In the gage-throwing episode in Act IV, Bolingbroke is confronted with the same rebellious dissension that Richard faced in Act I, and he must deal with even greater disorder, symptomatic of the rebellions that will increasingly plague his reign when he actually becomes king. Although Bolingbroke does not lose control in this scene, he can deal with the situation less effectively than Richard can simply because he is not legitimately the monarch. And even after he has ascended the throne, the sequence of scenes with the Duke and Duchess of York, as well as Aumerle, show him the same difficulties Richard faced when forced to hear conflicting cries of “Traitor!” Just as Richard is virtually forced to alleviate Bolingbroke's sentence of banishment for Gloucester's sake, so Bolingbroke is virtually required to pardon Aumerle for the sake of the Duchess' pleadings even though it means going against the frenetic, vengeful pleas of the ordinarily mild and indulgent York. (York, it will be noted, is quick to call his son a traitor even though he quite casually leaves Richard's side to go with Bolingbroke in Act III.) And at the last, Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, must deal with Exton, as we have seen, just as Richard had to deal with Mowbray, by a form of banishment. A further parallel between the two can be seen in Henry's concern over his son's wastrel ways. Do not these threaten to become the same ways that Richard followed? Is Henry IV, like Edward III, likely to be succeeded by a son most unlike him? History may seem to Henry to be repeating itself uncomfortably soon. The chief difference between his and Richard's careers is that for him events occur in a much more accelerated way.

The analogous patterns of tragedy then serve to strengthen what might have been anti-climactic if Shakespeare had chosen to follow only the fortunes of Richard in the latter part of the play. Both kings have the potential for heroism but each is lacking: Bolingbroke has the power but not the legitimacy; for Richard, just the opposite is true. Clearly Shakespeare implies what the essentials are for successful kingship, a simple but fundamental reality not less true in his time than at the end of the fourteenth century. But perhaps there is a subtle suggestion here that the proper use of power is more important than its legitimacy, that the administration of justice is more crucial than how the administrator came to power. Though Bolingbroke was banished, he returned to become not only Lancaster but king; and though he overstepped his power and suffers from guilt and an uneasy crown, his power, transmitted to his son, takes on new strength in the next generation. For his error, Henry is condemned to mental sufferings that culminate, in Henry IV, in death without undertaking his pilgrimage—in effect, a self-imposed banishment—to the Holy Land, where, ironically, his old enemy Mowbray had, according to the Bishop of Carlisle, attained a “pure soul” by fighting against “black pagans” under the colors of Christ (IV.i.92-100).

By repeating the tragic pattern of Richard in Bolingbroke and by accelerating its course so that Henry's recognition comes hard upon Richard's demise, Shakespeare doubles the dramatic impact. The endpoint of the play is not the death of Richard but the anagnorisis and peripeteia of Henry, when, just after he has reached the pinnacle of his success, the coffin containing Richard is borne in by Exton, and the usurper must face the consequences of his acts. Though the tragedy does not have the finality of King Lear, to which, incidentally, it is similar in showing the disasters attendant on arbitrary and selfish kingship, it gains strength by showing the cumulative and long-ranging effects of compounded tragic errors. Shakespeare also establishes a subtle symmetry by making Henry's tragic error echo that of his father, Gaunt, in Act I. Despite the fact that Shakespeare's Gaunt is portrayed as much more virtuous and less contentious and self-seeking than his counterpart, Shakespeare involves him very slightly but very clearly in his own tragedy. When in Scene iii Richard rightly wonders why Gaunt should take offense at the sentence of banishment passed on Bolingbroke, Gaunt replies,

You urged me as a judge, but I had rather
You would have bid me argue like a father.
O, had it been a stranger, not my child,
To smooth his fault I should have been more mild.
A partial slander sought I to avoid,
And in the sentence my own life destroyed.
Alas, I looked when some of you should say
I was too strict, to make mine own away.
But you gave leave to my unwilling tongue
Against my will to do myself this wrong.


The whole exchange between Richard and Gaunt might have been handled more economically, but Shakespeare chose to place more than casual emphasis on Gaunt's involvement in his own misfortune. What develops is a rhythmic pattern in which, to use Eugene O'Neill's phrase, possessors are self-dispossessed: first Gaunt, then Richard, then Henry, give away what, they finally realize, is most important to them—a son's presence, the role of King, and peace of mind.


The scenic structure which Shakespeare establishes in Richard II seems almost calculated to aggravate the problem of anti-climax rather than to alleviate it. Scenes of pomp and colorful ceremony are followed by intimate, often static or stylized exchanges that might dissipate the impetus of action. Early on, the depiction of helplessness and personal sorrow seems inevitably to follow the scenes of public confrontation. But Shakespeare's handling of the device tends to heighten the dramatic tension and ultimately leads to a reversal of order in Act V that reinforces and harmonizes with the dual tragic patterns we have seen. The structure is not simple, as Tillyard claimed,7 but both complex and subtle; what appears to be anti-climactic can be a source of strength and intensity, what appears to be disunity can be dramatic shift of focus and reversal of tone.

In Act I the treatment of the first scene sets up the pattern of frustrated action that is to prevail: the high-sounding threats of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the imperious commands of Richard, seem prelude to some decisive action; the gage-throwing seems only one step away from deadly physical contact. If, at the end of the scene, the audience feels let down, there is, at least, a sense that the combat will take place at a later date. Scene ii has only the barest connection with Scene i—chiefly the presence of John of Gaunt—but it shows immediately how much more pertinent truth can be revealed in one intimate exchange than in all the formal accusations at court. By contrast, the emotions here gain an intensity from their genuineness, not merely something straining to a pitch of rhetoric; and the motives are clear, not bewildering, as in Scene i. Besides the intensity generated, Scene ii, as short as it is, comes to a quick and decisive completion. John of Gaunt persuades the Duchess of Gloucester that she must leave vengeance to heaven, and in the process she runs the emotional scale from sharp reproach to Gaunt for not acting against Richard to resignation to her grief. Although she cannot be called heroic, she can be seen as a dignified tragic victim, the first in the play, for her lonely death is imminent. Because she is the first innocent bystander to be hurt by the action of an agent of the king, she is the emotional antecedent of Queen Isabel, who is similarly bereaved of her husband; in fact, she becomes the model for all the weeping women left destitute by the internecine Wars of the Roses.

Scene iii of Act I, by reassuming a formal tone and coming to a climax in aborted action like Scene i, sets up the alternating rhythm characteristic of the play as a whole: the public, then the private; the ceremonial, then the intimate. Once more physical violence is threatened, seems indeed more sure, but it ceases when Richard throws his warder down. This act, and Richard's descent from his throne, are the only physical actions taken by Richard in this scene, but though the motions are small and few (as they are in general throughout the drama), they are symbolic, and here they are proleptic of Richard's abdication in Act III. His act of self-dispossession has in effect begun. Richard's warder is his symbol of power as the official of the royal lists, and although the act is overtly authoritative, there are undertones of casually and voluntarily throwing away his command. (The latter is certainly true in that Richard has now missed two chances to deal effectively with Mowbray and Bolingbroke.) Richard's pattern of reversing himself continues with his mitigation of Bolingbroke's term of banishment so that even the passing of the sentence is touched with anti-climax. It is in the intimate sub-scene between Gaunt and his son and in the private conversation between Richard and his courtiers that the audience experiences the undisguised feelings of the opposing factions. As in Scene ii, the conversation between Bolingbroke and Gaunt renders, with considerable pathos, the feelings of father and son at point of separation. At the end of the scene, incidentally, Shakespeare prepares us for a later irony: Bolingbroke bids farewell to the soil of England, but later, when both he and Richard return to their native land, it is Richard, not Bolingbroke, who salutes it with his royal hand. Perhaps it is not coincidental, then, that many critics have sensed a shift in sympathy to Richard at this point. Scene iv is the most intimate and revealing of all: finally we are apprised of Richard's true feelings regarding Bolingbroke, particularly the disdain that the courtiers have for Bolingbroke's courtship of the common people. It is also notable because Richard takes his most decisive action—to enter in person into the Irish wars and “farm” his realm for revenue. The announcement of the imminent death of Gaunt makes Richard even more emphatic in his haste to raid Gaunt's coffers; thus here, at the end of the first act, Richard commits his chief tragic error. Richard certainly has committed many errors and continues to commit them, but this particular misjudgment is the crucial one structurally as the play is arranged, since it is clearly the chief cause of Bolingbroke's rebellion.

Act II begins with yet another closely focused subscene between Gaunt and his brother York (though Northumberland and others are present), a prelude to the ceremonial confrontation with Richard that forms the central body of the scene. Here Gaunt takes over the elegiac and prophetic role that the Duchess of Gloucester played in Act I, Scene ii, and it is York who tries to persuade him of the futility of his intent, as Gaunt persuaded the Duchess of the folly of revenge. It is worth noting that Shakespeare chose to place Gaunt's “sceptred isle” speech in this more intimate conversation, where indeed it seems almost like a soliloquy, before the entry of the King with his train. The public exchange between Gaunt and Richard with all its quibbles on Gaunt's name would seem pale by comparison, were it not for the increasing acerbity that Shakespeare develops in the conflict. In the middle of the scene Gaunt goes out, and his death is reported by Northumberland only nine lines later. The rest of the scene might have been anti-climactic, but Shakespeare gives it forward motion by having York take over as Richard's antagonist, and the public aspect of the scene ends with Richard's announcement that he will seize Gaunt's effects and lands, as anticipated in his private conversation at the end of Act I. After the King and his train exit, there is, following the established pattern, another subscene in which the lords Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby give vent to their true feelings about the confiscation of Lancaster's estate. Though this segment of the scene has little of the color or the conflict of the preceding sections, it gives a forward thrust to the action by providing a quick insight into the conspiracy that is rising in response to Richard's corruption.

Like the second scene of Act I, the second scene of Act II depicts the vulnerable, this time focusing on the Queen instead of the Duchess of Gloucester. Although Bushy tries to cheer her up, her premonitions of grief are proven all too true by the news Green brings of the rebels' invasion of England, York's announcements of defections by both nobles and commons, and, finally, news that the Duchess of Gloucester has died. Yet again after the more public part of the scene, a subscene follows in which the even deeper fears of Bushy, Bagot, and Green are voiced, anticipating not only defeat but their own deaths. Ordinarily such a conversation might seem anti-climactic, but Shakespeare's skillful handling gives the drama an accelerated thrust towards the courtiers' catastrophe.

The third scene of Act II portrays the swelling progress of Bolingbroke towards complete command, a fact dramatized symbolically by the simple yet effective device of increasing the number of characters about him—first there is only Northumberland, but then Harry Percy appears and learns to recognize the future king.8 Then Ross and Willoughby enter, followed shortly by Berkeley. At first Berkeley appears to be an opponent, addressing Bolingbroke as “Lord of Hereford” rather than Lancaster, but he quickly switches to a submissive posture when Bolingbroke corrects him. The last figure to come on stage is York, to whom, quite ironically, Bolingbroke kneels. Ultimately, of course, it is York who capitulates despite his principles. Seeming to defy the rebels at first, York makes an anti-climactic—even casual—aboutface by inviting Bolingbroke to enter the castle. In his final speech here, York seems ready to reverse himself when he says, “For I am loath to break our country's laws” (l. 168), but, as he well realizes, it is too late to protest, so off goes the regent meekly with his nephew's train.

Once more the closing scene of the act is the most intimate and the most threatening. Although neither Salisbury nor the Welsh Captain has appeared in the play before, their brief exchange focuses on the continuing issue of Richard's decline in power. There is even the rumor of his death, and the whole force of the scene moves sharply downwards towards dispersal and ruin.

Act III begins with another brief scene in which Bolingbroke, now acting as the law though not yet king, brings Bushy and Green to judgment, and gives orders to execute them. The brisk action here is a dramatic contrast to the melancholy musings of Salisbury on the fate of Richard in the preceding scene. Bolingbroke's verdict on the “caterpillars of the commonwealth” is harsh and dismissive—prideful, too. By contrast, Bushy and Green bear themselves well when they hear orders for their execution. Bolingbroke, in some ways, seems to echo Richard's judgment of Gaunt, and his lines at the close sound similar to Richard's words when he, at the end of Act I, urges his adherents on to the Irish wars. Though Bolingbroke's actions are quite the opposite of Richard's in most ways, Shakespeare indicates by the verbal echoes the similarities of their ultimate tragic positions.

The motion of Scene ii is just the opposite of that in Act II, Scene iii, where Bolingbroke's forces were gathering strength. Here, with Richard's return to England, we see, through successive messengers, his supporters defecting from him; and the rise and fall of his emotions as he finds encouragement or discouragement in the news and in the reminders of his position by Aumerle and Carlisle. The oscillations between high and low, the motions from climax to anti-climax, reach their greatest frequency and intensity in this scene, and they continue like aftershocks into Act IV. Despite the debacle that threatens Richard, there is a new dignity about him.9 Though his external fortunes are failing, his spiritual nature seems to be rising, thus countering any anti-climactic tendencies towards pettiness or dishonor. Partly this stems from his concern for the kingdom. His salute to the earth, though physically he stoops, raises him in the audience's estimation—yet another example of Shakespeare's use of the ironic gesture. Richard's whole first lengthy speech gives him further luster, not only through its beauty but through its echoes of John of Gaunt's apostrophe to England. The positive impression is reinforced by the sun-king speech, which succeeds in affirming his right to kingship despite external evidence to the contrary. In such ways, Shakespeare begins to evoke pathos for Richard rather early in the drama, and though in the falling action of the scene he embraces despair, he does not lose his audience.

All this is a prelude to the central scene of the tragedy at Flint Castle, where Richard stands insecurely on the walls, all too ready to descend into the base court below. The paradox here is that for Richard the climax of the play, which is usually thought of as a rising motion, is, quite literally, a falling one. For Bolingbroke, however, it is a rising motion, though ironically he is the one who bends his knee. This is the most broadly public scene of the whole drama, taking place, as it does, outside the castle and in the fields surrounding it, and requiring the movement of Bolingbroke's army across the stage. Both factions are there in full force in a panoply unmatched by any other scene. Hence the sudden switch to the Queen and her ladies in the final scene of the act once again seems anti-climactic. There is no grand scale confrontation nor any histrionic abdication of power. The scene has been criticized as stylized and allegorical, but although it is both these things, the purpose seems to be to show in an intensely personal way the pathos of individual victims of large-scale political acts. The Queen's voluntary sadness seems to parallel Richard's self-destructiveness when she says to her lady, “But thou shouldst please me better wouldst thou weep” (l. 20). Like her husband, she anticipates the griefs to come, yet she must learn from overhearing the gardener what everyone else in the kingdom, she feels, already knows. The scene expertly portrays the sorrow spreading throughout the garden-land by showing the intensity of feeling not only in the Queen but in the gardener: although Isabel curses him for telling her the dreadful news, his spirit turns in sympathy to her. Incidentally, the scene itself is a miniature drama in four brief acts: the search by Isabel and her ladies for something to drive away care (the exposition), the overhearing of the gardeners' conversation concerning the decay of the land and the deposition of the king (the introduction of the problem), the clash of the Queen and the gardener over the bad news (the climax), and the final words of the gardener when the Queen and her ladies have gone (the denouement).

Act IV consists of only one long scene, but this can be subdivided into four parts, all public and ceremonial until the very last. The action takes place in Westminster Hall, the building recently constructed by Richard for the Parliament, whose first meeting there, historically, was to depose him. After Bagot's accusations against Aumerle, which result in a gage-throwing scene reminiscent of Act I, Scene i, the second section centers on the Bishop of Carlisle's protest against the deposition, which culminates in his arrest for treason. The Bishop takes over the role of John of Gaunt as truthteller in the drama, and, like him, suffers the extreme displeasure of the person in political power. Like Richard at the beginning of Act III, he echoes Gaunt's concern for the earth of England, the diction and the accents of his prophecy picking up those of Gaunt's as well. The tensions of the act build up, then, to the appearance of Richard, whose transfer of the crown to Bolingbroke is filled with the same oscillations up and down that marked his earlier speeches. Since Richard has already abdicated de facto, the whole action seems fated to be anti-climactic, yet once more Shakespeare's treatment of his materials makes even Richard's continuing vacillations climactic, most notably through the mirror scene, in which Richard destroys his “face”—his public image—by dashing down the glass. As he makes clear himself, from this point on he is in the paradoxical state of gaining more control over his situation now that he is no longer king:

I am greater than a king;
For when I was a king my flatterers
Were then but subjects; being now a subject
I have a king here to my flatterer.
Being so great, I have no need to beg.

(ll. 304-08)

Now it is Bolingbroke who is controlled by the crime he has committed, and now Richard, his subject, actually rises to become his superior. The court have all become “conveyors” in Richard's eyes, an opinion that carries such conviction that it gives Richard a new dignity. In the brief and final segment of this long scene, Shakespeare gives us another close conversation: just as Northumberland, Willoughby, and Ross could see some hope in rebellion in Act I, now Aumerle, the Abbot of Westminster, and his custodial prisoner, the Bishop of Carlisle, foment an uprising against the usurping king.

In Act V the scenic arrangement changes markedly: here the intimate scenes precede the public ones, and the climax builds to Richard's death in Pomfret Castle (Scene v) and Bolingbroke's recognition of guilt and consequent reversal of mental fortune in the sixth and final scene. The private conversations of Scenes i and ii contrast with the third, the court scene at Windsor. Scene i is an idyll of sadness, a transference of the mood of the garden scene at the end of Act III to the streets leading to the Tower of London. Although the essential motion of the scene is divisive, there is the suggestion of possible renewal. Queen Isabel sees her fair rose Richard withered, but she says,

Yet look up, behold,
That you in pity may dissolve to dew
And wash him fresh again with true-love tears.

(ll. 8-10)

Richard himself vows, too late, to change: “Our holy lives must win a new world's crown / Which our profane hours here have thrown down” (ll. 24-25). Like Gaunt and Carlisle before him, Richard now turns prophet, warning Northumberland against the contention for a divided realm that will occur in Henry IV, Part 1. Like Gaunt, too, who must offer comfort to the banished Bolingbroke in a strained and futile fashion, Richard must console his queen, though both of them sense that their state is, finally, inconsolable. Richard's humility has bred resignation, and relinquishing his role as king of beasts (“If aught but beast / I had been still a happy king of men” [ll. 35-36]) has elevated him, made him capable of dispassionate insight. Instead of snuffing Richard out, then, or letting him decline into abject misery, Shakespeare allows Richard to recover and rise from his extremity of weakness in Act IV.10

Scenes ii and iii, the Aumerle episode, have been criticized as digressive or superfluous, but they show in their continuous rising action how the divided loyalties of the two generations in the York family over the plot to kill Henry IV at Oxford burst into the public scene and present a considerable problem in dispensing justice for the new king. The Duke of York is so nervously loyal to Henry that he wishes to expose his own son's treachery, whereas the Duchess is more loyal to her family and determines to save her son by begging mercy. Their private quarrel that develops with accelerating energy in Scene ii is taken posthaste to the King in Scene iii and settled there in almost comic fashion by the wryly benign forgiveness of Henry. But this rather boisterous play within a play is not without its undertones. We learn that Henry, like York, has a problem son who may threaten the smooth continuation of power and peace of mind he strives for. Ironically, Henry pardons his cousin Aumerle at the emotional pleas of his aunt, the Duchess, as Richard cut short the banishment of his cousin, Henry himself, at the sadness expressed by his uncle Gaunt in Act I. Even the Duchess of York's “A god on earth thou art” (l. 135) echoes Bolingbroke's earlier “such is the breath of kings” (I.ii.215). And there is an echo of the regenerative note sounded by Richard and his queen in the first scene when the Duchess concludes the miniature comedy by saying to Aumerle, “Come, my old son. I pray God make thee new” (l. 145).

The fourth scene, a brief eleven lines, between Sir Piers of Exton and his man is the last onward-thrusting conspiratorial dialogue in the play. The threatening tone of the urgent questions and answers shifts the dramatic key from the almost comic interlude preceding and propels the play into the denouement. Richard's soliloquy, which constitutes the first segment of the fifth scene, shows his vulnerability to the threat proposed by Exton, thus increasing the fear the audience feels for his safety. Throughout this most private section of the play, Richard's recognition of his past wastefulness, his sensitivity to broken time and music, and most of all his Lear-like concern for nothingness, make him rise in our estimation, as does his democratic tone with the groom in the next episode concerning his horse Barbary. When the murder does occur, then, Richard's ascension is amply prepared for. It is only Richard's fleshly shell that he leaves behind.

Mount, mount, my soul. Thy seat is up on high,
Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward here to die.

(ll. 111-12)

The sixth and last scene is once again public and ceremonial, but after hearing news of the defeat and beheading of various rebels and the pardoning of the Bishop of Carlisle, Henry must confront Exton bearing the coffin containing Richard. Suddenly, at the climax of his triumph, he is forced to deal with the unpleasant truth and overwhelming guilt attendant on his usurpation. The swiftness of the conclusion is no detriment to the full realization of Henry's own tragedy. In the end his story and Richard's converge to create a doubly powerful effect. By concluding the fifth act with two public scenes, Shakespeare reverses the pattern he has used in the preceding four; in both, he uses a swelling action, the fifth scene culminating in the onrush of Exton and his men, the sixth, after the successive entrances of various lords, in the appearance of Exton with the coffin. This strategic shift of pattern creates a cumulative energy at the end, and serves as a climactic close to the rhythm of alternating public and private scenes that works to such dramatic effect throughout the rest of the play. The tragedies of Richard and Bolingbroke thus flow together, linked externally by the villainous action of Piers of Exton, but tied ultimately by their underlying prideful errors, their failures to set limitations on their powers. Just as Queen Isabel has assumed the role of grieving widow from the Duchess of Gloucester, so Bolingbroke assumes the roles of both Gaunt and Richard: like Gaunt, he repents his own complicity in his misery, and like Richard, he feels keenly the stings of guilt for his own behavior.


  1. Dr. Johnson, who in his Preface to Shakespeare criticized Shakespeare's haste in concluding his plays, said of Richard II specifically, “… it is not finished at last with the happy force of some other of his tragedies nor can be said much to affect the passions or enlarge the understanding” (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. 7, ed. Arthur Sherbo [New Haven, 1968], p. 452). Those that praise the play, like Pater, tend to find its impressiveness more in its poetic than its dramatic qualities: “… in fact, 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.” (Walter Pater, Appreciation: With an Essay on Style [London, 1889], p. 210.)

  2. It is well to remember that this play was titled The Tragedy of King Richard the Second until the First Folio appeared, when it became, rather palely, The Life and Death of King Richard the Second.

  3. Richard's detractors are in a distinct but very vocal minority. The extremely harsh criticism of Richard seems to have begun in the nineteenth century with the severe moral strictures of Gervinus and Kreyssig, quoted and echoed by Edward Dowden—see his Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (London, 1875), pp. 193-95, 203. This opinion has not completely died in the twentieth century; see, for example, A.P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (London, 1961), pp. 24-25, and Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), pp. 113-17.

  4. Though the accusation that Richard has caused Gloucester's murder comes from Gaunt, to whom Shakespeare gives something of the role of seer, Richard never confesses to this, never suffers remorse as he might in Act V. One might well argue that Gaunt, on this point, is influenced by his affection for his son. For the contention that Richard is plainly guilty, see Samuel Schoenbaum, “Richard II and the Realities of Power,” Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 1-13. I feel that Shakespeare purposely leaves some shadow of doubt, just as he does regarding the complicity of Henry IV in the murder of Richard.

  5. See II.i.240-41: “The King is not himself, but basely led / By flatterers. …” This and all other quotations are taken from the New Penguin Shakespeare edition, King Richard the Second, ed. Stanley Wells (Harmondsworth, 1982).

  6. If Richard is seen as a murderer, he is seen as less a one than Macbeth, yet Macbeth commands considerable sympathy from audiences.

  7. E.M.W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944), pp. 244-45.

  8. The idea of an incremental scene is discussed by James Hirsh, who makes a substantial argument for eliminating the traditional act divisions, and simply numbers the scenes (James E. Hirsh, The Structure of Shakespearean Scenes [New Haven, 1981], pp. 167-74.) I agree that the scene divisions are more important, but would include subscenes and segments as significant units of dramatic meaning. Hirsh in effect does this, for example, when he treats Bolingbroke's judgment upon Bushy and Green (pp. 129-31).

  9. John Russell Brown provides a good description of what happens here: “The scene of [Richard's] return (III.ii) is antithetical to that of Bolingbroke's: Richard is joined by other friends, as his rival had been, but they bring bad news and not an easy courtesy; and, whereas the rebel's course was clear, the King's is makeshift. Yet from this point to his death the dramatic focus grows more and more intent upon Richard for his own sake, whenever he appears; the audience sees progressively deeper into his consciousness. Sometimes the more stable Bolingbroke is a potential rival for attention in the centre of a crowded stage, but after his opponent has surrendered he says very little: he assumes the crown, but never mentions his intention to do so; he deposes Richard, but leaves most of the business and persuasion to Northumberland and York. The audience is continually aware of Bolingbroke's presence, but he seems to stand further away from them than Richard, or than he himself had done formerly. Such is the cunning of stage perspective.” (John Russell Brown, Shakespeare's Plays in Performance [London, 1966], pp. 120-21.)

  10. Note that Bolingbroke has now committed the same crime that he accused Bushy and Green of (III.i), namely separating Richard from his queen, thus reinforcing the parallel between his own and Richard's reign. See Hirsh, pp. 129-30.

Louise Cowan (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8757

SOURCE: Cowan, Louise. “God Will Save the King: Shakespeare's Richard II.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 63-81. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Cowan characterizes Richard II as a dignified but brooding monarch whose political mistakes and personal disloyalty lead to his downfall.]

God save the king! will no man say amen?
Am I both priest and clerk? well then, amen.
God save the king! although I be not he;
And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me.(1)


Despite the attention given to Richard II in recent years, it remains a puzzling and enigmatic work. Careful studies by political and historical scholars have established its importance in Shakespeare's canon, along with that of the other histories.2 Even so, granting the intellectual seriousness of the play, the reader is none the less hard pressed—if he relies on either of the views of it now dominant—to account for its haunting and unforgettable power. One tendency is to see Richard as a kind of exemplum demonstrating the misuse of kingly office. The successive plays of the second tetralogy, according to this view, work through the resultant upheaval in the realm until finally Henry V, Richard's conqueror's son, learns sufficient prudence to handle the intricacies of royal authority. The other tendency is to interpret Woodstock's and Richard's assassinations as crimes against the commonwealth, their expiation requiring centuries and several different regimes—and hence the placement of the other nine history plays in the order of their sequence in time rather than composition. In this accounting, the moral disorder ends with the triumphant founding of the Tudor dynasty.

Yet neither of these readings, for the most part sound and even illuminating in their close attention to the text, can account for the disturbing element of the drama: Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard's interiority with such intensity that the audience must share his humiliation and devastation. Did Shakespeare, in writing one of a series of history plays, simply realize that, among the other materials provided him, the chronicle of this murdered king could most effectively be presented as biography, as Peter Ure suggests?3 If so, this choice would of course necessitate the employment of artistic devices for gaining sympathy from the spectators. What seems more likely is that Shakespeare as poet is doing here precisely what he does in King Lear, Hamlet, and the other tragedies: drawing the audience into the magnetic field of suffering and causing his viewers, along with the protagonist, to enter that realm where humanity confronts the mystery of divine order.

But if attention is shifted from the state of the polity to the state of Richard's soul, can the play still be read as having a predominantly political intent? It is quite true, of course, that its subject matter is the politics of statecraft; but its central concern seems to lie with human destiny itself, touching upon metaphysical and spiritual regions that far transcend the political. Nor is its issue primarily historical; for to place Richard II within the structure of the “Tudor Myth” hypothesis, “by which events evolve under a law of justice and under the ruling of God's Providence, of which Elizabeth's England was the acknowledged outcome,”4 is to run the risk of reducing the complexity of Shakespeare's tragic vision and, in this instance, his view of history. Surely the play itself hardly justifies the assumption that Shakespeare, along with Hall and Holinshed, equated the workings of Providence with temporal reward or punishment. But, further, even apart from the question of whether English history as Shakespeare depicts it shows any genuine moral advance (a serious question indeed, which one must eventually attempt to answer), there are in Richard II too many images of anguish, too much regret at something lost, to allow us to regard it as a mere way-station along the road to political progress. We complete the play with compassion for Richard and with terror at the sacrilege committed against his person. Prophecies throughout the play (spoken by Gaunt, York, Richard's Queen, Glendower, Salisbury, Carlisle, the gardener, and Richard himself) have prepared us for a dire and terrible end; and finally even Exton, Richard's murderer, and Bolingbroke, his usurper, are granted a moment of appalled foresight into the consequences of their crime. The play, finally, makes us see the contradictory and unthinkable: that Richard has been a bad king who abused his power, but that his deposing is an offense that could destroy all England—and that, in fact, the royal “balm” cannot be removed. Richard and his murderer, as well as we, the readers, all at his death acknowledge his kingship: “Exton,” the dying monarch charges, “thy fierce hand / Hath with the King's blood stain'd the King's own land” (V.v.109-110). And Exton replies, “As full of valour as of royal blood. / Both have I spill'd; O would the deed were good!” (V.v.113-114).

The difficulty in the play, then, centers on its protagonist. But any effort to analyze Richard's character seems futile as an attempt to account for the “meaning” of the play. For Richard appears in so ambiguous a light that he has provoked almost as widely diverse interpretations as has Hamlet; and certainly one may say that Hamlet criticism reached a point of near-exhaustion in its virtually exclusive focus on the idiosyncratic personality of the Danish prince. One is almost tempted to declare of Richard II what T. S. Eliot said of Hamlet: that it has an inadequate “objective correlative,” containing, as it seems to, a mass of feelings insufficiently accounted for by the plot and characterization.5 Eliot's critical judgment that Hamlet is a “failure” stemmed from his frustration at finding Hamlet the person unbelievable. But the real question is one that C. S. Lewis raises in asking whether it is after all “the prince or the poem” with which we should be concerned.6Hamlet is not, he says, the study of a peculiar temperament so much as the depiction of a situation: a man is given a task by a ghost. And for Shakespeare “the appearance of the spectre means a breaking down of the walls of the world and the germination of thoughts that cannot really be thought.” We are interested in Hamlet, then, because he describes for us “a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed … rather than because of our concern to understand how and why this particular man entered it.”7

It is the universality of Hamlet's (and Richard's) experience by which we are captured and which we are consequently obligated to understand. Aristotle is helpful in elucidating the relation between character and the general experience. He makes quite clear in the Poetics that poetry “tends to express the universal,” that the kinds of poetry (epic, tragedy, comedy, and “dithyrambic”) are all “modes of imitation,” that tragedy (and therefore the other genres) is the “imitation of an action,” that an action “implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities,” that plot “is the first principle and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy.”8 It is not then that character is revealed in action, but the reverse: character is the agent of the action. The action is revealed through the character, with the end of our concern being what it is that happens rather than who it is that it happens to. The governing form of the entire drama, in other words, is the action, of which the plot is only the imitation. The action must necessarily be some archetypal movement of the soul, we might add, else it could hardly evoke the pity and terror which must be its final purpose.

In his remarks Aristotle is implying what later critics will call the “symbolic imagination,” which, as Allen Tate has said, conducts an action from one level to another by means of analogy.9 Plot, character, thought, language, spectacle, and song—all the elements of the play, as Aristotle names them, imitate in their own way this hidden and seminal action, which is what the play is “about.” Everything within the play works by the obliquity of metaphor and the condensation of symbol to engage in the process of lifting the mind to that philosophical contemplation which makes poetry “a higher thing than history.”10

What the literary reader has as his task in contributing to an interpretation of Richard II is thus indicated within the Poetics: first, he should attempt to ascertain the action behind the play, remembering that the plot best imitates that action and that characters are agents of it. This process in itself will necessitate some sense of “polysemousness,” of several senses in which the text may be taken, these meanings contained within and implied by the literal sense.11 Second, the literary reader ought to satisfy himself about what kind of poetry he is dealing with—tragedy, comedy, epic, or lyric, for the tone of the work is governed by its genre; and, third, he needs to address himself to the universal embodied within the poem, keys to which are to be found in dominant metaphors, or symbols, expressing the action. For the critic these operations should be undertaken in an effort to ascertain the unity of the play and should be used to overlay the careful analysis of the literal level of plot and character that has been provided by historians and political philosophers.

The plot of Richard II—the deposing of a king—imitates a larger, transcendent action of which Richard's temperament and character are only agents. That action is the attempt by a mortal being to remove from his soul an indelible mark placed there by God—an act of gross impiety, indeed of sacrilege, regardless of his own merit or lack of it. For Richard believes that, sacramentally, he is a king forever; and we must grant him the dignity of that conviction, even if his conception of the invulnerability of his kingship is naive and presumptuous. For instance, when he returns from Ireland, to be greeted by the Bishop of Carlisle and Aumerle with the sobering news that Bolingbroke has returned from exile and is gathering around him a strong force, Richard speaks with pious disdain of any attempt to unseat him:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off 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: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.


In the first four lines of this speech Shakespeare means to express, I think it may be argued, the generally accepted medieval and Renaissance understanding of the sacramental nature of monarchy.12 He is interested in establishing the difference between man and office. The “balm” of an “anointed king” is not material, cannot be removed. One cannot depose God's “deputy” without incurring moral guilt. Others in the play besides Richard seem also to take the sacral nature of his office for granted. John of Gaunt, speaking to the widow of his slain brother Gloucester, staunchly opposes any vengeance to be exacted of the royal monarch:

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


Can a king be deposed? Gaunt would say not. Yet old Lancaster hardly holds the king in such awe as to fear rebuking him for having conceived of his office as privilege rather than responsibility. He warns Richard that “a thousand flatterers sit within [his] crown,” playing the part of poor physicians in concealing from him the seriousness of his illness. In his alienation from the people, Richard is “sick,” Gaunt insists; and in leasing out his realm he has become “landlord of England,” not king. These are the sins with which Richard is charged throughout the play: of being ruled by “favorites” rather than by truth and justice, of separation from the commons, and of using the lands and goods of the realm for the king's benefit rather than the commonwealth's. For a royal monarch, these are incapacitating flaws, as most of the lords well know. Yet Gaunt, for one, would not lift a hand against the king, however unworthy he might be.

The Bishop of Carlisle shares Gaunt's horror at those who would rebel against God's deputy and like Gaunt unsuccessfully attempts to lesson Richard. But later, after Bolingbroke has taken Richard prisoner and charged him in Parliament with crimes against the state, Carlisle speaks in defense of the king's “noblesse”: “What subject can give sentence on his king?” he asks. “And who sits here that is not Richard's subject?”

And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judg'd by subject and inferior breath
And he himself not present?


If in criticizing Richard, Gaunt has emphasized piety toward England and the Bishop piety toward that which God has ordained, the Duke of York speaks up boldly to the king in defense of property rights and due succession:

Take Herford'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?


The entire order of things will collapse, he implies, if Richard appropriates Bolingbroke's property. And, after Henry's return, ostensibly to reclaim his inheritance, the lords of the realm must in fact choose between the consecrated king and his challenger, whom most of them consider justified. York clearly states the dilemma:

                                                                                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.


York has familial obligations to both Richard and Henry, and he must balance his sense of justice against his “oath and duty.” Left in charge of Richard's kingdom during the king's absence and confronted by Henry's strength, he speaks out vigorously against “rebellion” but finally, acknowledging his own powerlessness, declares himself “neuter.” York will later describe the piteousness of Richard's plight when the dethroned monarch follows in the triumphal procession of Bolingbroke; but in a quick turn of loyalty to the new king he will report his own son for treason. Quite obviously York's allegiance is more conventional than that of Gaunt or Carlisle. If we see in Richard some of the lineaments of the Hamlet to come, then York is a kind of Polonius, adapting himself to whatever regime is in power. But even he has spoken out, when he can, in favor of the anointed king and has called those who oppose him “rebels all.”

Several other characters in the play share this view of Richard's spiritual kingship and the consequent moral offense of the rebellion against true authority. It is not a question of whether the king can do no wrong; no one in the play considers Richard above the law. The issue at stake is what to do with a monarch who has committed serious and habitual offenses. The play does not advance a belief in the “Divine Right of Kings,” a theory which is not to be encountered, strictly speaking, until the seventeenth century.13 It sets forth instead a thoroughly traditional English concept of the sacredness and authority of the office, with the king deemed answerable not only to parliament and law but to the higher powers of justice and love. Yet Shakespeare is neither advancing a political theory nor depicting a factually accurate account of fourteenth-century legal and political writings on the limitations of kingly power. He is instead exploring things that are eternally true, as they manifest themselves in specific situations. If a man has been anointed king, and both he and his people have recognized the analogies between the sacerdotal and the royal office, then within the given outlines of history the inner shape of events will be as Shakespeare here depicts them.

It is the work of the entire play to show that, rather than illustrating any particular theory of kingship, Richard commits the sin of hybris. For, if the first four lines of his boastful speech on the coast of Wales express the general understanding of monarchy, the last five, by their presumption, come dangerously near to being belief in the “divine right.” They imply that the king is always, because of his office, right. Even further, they maintain that God will necessarily protect his deputy on earth. Other characters do not so oversimplify the situation. The Bishop of Carlisle acknowledges God's sovereignty but avoids the sin of presumption when he says to Richard, “that Power that made you king / Hath power to keep you king in spite of all”; still, “the means that heaven yields must be imbrac'd / And not neglected” (III.ii.27-30). Aumerle interprets the Bishop in terms that have no reference whatever to divine protection: “He means, my lord, that we are too remiss; / Whilst Bolingbroke, through our security, / Grows strong and great in substance and in power” (III.ii.33-35). Even Carlisle in his dire prophecy of internecine strife for England does not pretend to speak for God: “The blood of English shall manure the ground,” he laments, “And future ages groan for this foul act.”

O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child's children cry against you woe.


It is from his moral wisdom that the Bishop gives this impassioned warning rather than from a religious conviction that God will punish the sinners who oppose Richard. Raising “this house against this house” will prove the “woefullest division” that man has ever known—because of the nature of man and of society, not because of God's vengeance. Richard's speech, in contrast, boasts of God's certain retribution. In his vanity he implies that a king will always be victorious. He knows better; he is not quite a hundred lines away from his melancholy meditation on the death of monarchs:

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill'd,
All murthered—for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court. …


Richard has not been so naive as he has pretended; he knows the king's office to be a dangerous business. His presumption has come from having assumed to himself the timeless, permanent invulnerability of kingship; the dark hidden side of this “mystical” elevation is a heightened awareness of death. Here the crown, in being the obviously immortal part of sovereignty serves to emphasize the pitiably mortal body of the king who wears it.14 From this point on throughout the play until after his deposition, what we shall see in Richard is a fluctuation between his “two bodies,” his identification with the one promoting presumption, with the other, despair.

But for all his pride, for all his vacillation and self-glorification, Richard bears the unmistakable mark of royalty. As M. M. Reese has commented, “Shakespeare's royalty is an essence that clings inalienably to failures like Richard II and Henry VI, even when they have forfeited the right to rule, and it is never attainable by usurpers like Bolingbroke.”15 Reese sees this essence as more than a kingly dignity: “It is the voice of a common consciousness of the mystery in the soul of state.” The sacrilege committed against this sacramental order is the action of Richard II, and royalty is its dominant symbol. Shakespeare portrays this quality in two later “kings” who are separated from their royal power: Lear and Hamlet. All three testify to the anguish induced by royalty, to the virtually unbearable burden placed on their souls by the contrast between the dignity of their station and the dishonor in which they are held by others. Erich Auerbach has likewise written of Shakespeare's portrait of indestructible royalty, pointing out that this quality is accompanied in the plays by a medieval mixture of styles, so that the tragic and comic shift back and forth in the language and style of the kingly characters. Of Hamlet he writes:

He jumps from the obscene to the lyrical or sublime, from the ironically incongruous to dark and profound meditation, from humiliating scorn leveled at others and himself to the solemn assumption of the right to judge and proud self-assertion.16

Auerbach comments similarly on Lear's “bitterly grotesque histrionics,” in which he humiliates himself in front of others by conduct unbecoming his dignity. Yet “his nature is so unconditionally royal,” Auerbach maintains, “that humiliation only brings it out more strongly.”

Like Hamlet and Lear, Richard shifts from the lyric and exalted to the self-pitying or the brutally callous. He engages in theatricality, mocks himself and others with exaggerated irony, and like Lear and Hamlet, conducts himself in an unpredictable and inconsistent manner until he comes to understand the true nature of his royalty. It is this “antic disposition,” marking a double vision, that is the plague of kings, as though the grace of office propels them in their vicissitudes away from the normal path, toward wildness and the borders of the irrational.

Richard's royal dignity is apparent at the beginning of the play, public and iconic, his “upright soul” manifest until, on hearing of John of Gaunt's illness, he drops his public manner to utter his base and unworthy prayer: “Now put it, God, in the physician's mind / To help him to his grave immediately!” The prodigal and unfeeling king would appropriate “the lining of his coffers” to “make coats / To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars” (I.iv.59-62). Richard's lack of piety for the bonds of kinship as well as of common humanity has already been foreshadowed in his implication in the death of his uncle, Woodstock. His callousness and irresponsibility are progressively revealed in his response to the news of Gaunt's death, his confiscation of the old man's goods, his lack of prudence in placing the weak York in charge of the realm during the king's absence, his theatrical return from Ireland to Welsh soil. When he hears of the threat to his reign, he reacts in wildly melodramatic fashion to whatever is said to him by his followers, alternating between hope and dejection. It is as though he is acting out before heaven, with his companions merely overhearing, the discrepancies between the way things ought to be and the way they are. His two soliloquies are poetic posturings in which he titillates his fancy with the possibilities of death and renunciation and yet is not truly touched by them.

By the time he appears in stark and brooding majesty on the battlements of Flint Castle, however, Richard is apparently undergoing an interior change. His mystical claim to inviolable kingship has been challenged; his temptation to self-pity and despair has been confronted; neither of these postures has represented his true identity, which he is just beginning to discover. Bolingbroke compares him to the “blushing discontented sun” when he sees the “envious clouds are bent / To dim his glory.” And York replies: “Yet looks he like a king. Behold, his eye, / As bright as is the eagle's, lightens forth / Controlling majesty” (III.iii.68-70). Richard is haughty and proud in his greeting to Bolingbroke; but his threat this time makes no mention of divine protection for himself; he has relinquished his invulnerability and speaks instead of divine retribution:

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.


In the scenes immediately following, Richard alternately threatens, yields, rages, raves, holds himself up for pity, and engages in bitter irony. The significant transformation begins in him, however, after he is requested by Northumberland to come down to the base court. “Down, down I come,” Richard says, “like glist'ring Phaeton.” Something equivalent to the sun's being removed from its course in the heavens is happening to Richard, something so incredible and outrageous that he is impelled to race toward it, taking a perverse joy in debasing his “highness.” He has been speaking fantastically, “fondly, like a frantic man,” as Northumberland says. But when he appears “in the base court,” he is again majestic, terse, straightforward, anticipating Bolingbroke's demands. When Henry would pretend that he has come but for his “own,” Richard's reply is curt: “Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all” (III.iii.197).

Richard's true agon begins when he is summoned by Bolingbroke to a meeting of Parliament in Westminster Hall, where he is expected publicly to abdicate his office and name Henry his successor. He enunciates the key to the play in the lines, “Alack, why am I sent for to a king / Before I have shook off the regal thoughts / Wherewith I reign'd?” (IV.i.162-64). The mystery of how one can still be, within, a king while confronting, without, the person now considered to hold that office raises the most painful questions of identity. Neither of the king's “two bodies” with which he has been familiar is now available to him. He has “no name, no title.” And yet, ironically, in being deprived of the power of the crown, he begins to feel himself all the more genuinely a king in the hidden recesses of his soul. The difference between being and doing occupies Richard's thoughts all through this scene. It is not merely levity and mockery that animate his ironic comments, but an anguish that gives him a strange detachment from events, so that he seems not to know where reality lies:

God save the king! will no man say amen?
Am I both priest and clerk? well then, amen.
God save the king! although I be not he;
And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me.


What Richard comes to in this apparent verbal quibbling is the realization that it is not man's power but “heaven's” that determines kingship. If he is not the king, then he assents to the honor and protection of whoever holds the office; if he is still the king in the eyes of God then he is able to utter a fiat mihi to the martyrdom his position will entail. What he is certain of is that kingship is not a mere name, as it is being made out to be; it is an interior reality, a mark set upon one who becomes God's steward on earth. If at his accession the change in the king's soul is permanent, as Richard has before carelessly assumed and as he is now beginning to perceive in earnest, then it cannot be revoked, even when the outward habiliments are taken from him. To Bolingbroke's “I thought you had been willing to resign,” Richard replies, “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.” Richard is unmistakably the master in this abdication scene, unpredictable in his speech and action and no doubt acutely embarrassing to Bolingbroke, who has hoped for a peaceful transition. Yet there is a genuine dignity to Richard's demeanor and an authentic suffering, the most acute aspect of which comes from discovering himself a traitor along with the others:

For I have given here my soul's consent
T'undeck the pompous body of a King;
Made glory base; and sovereignty a slave;
Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant.


Does one have the right to resign a kingship? Is it not taking part in the treasonable act of deposing a king, even if that king be oneself? All Richard's banterings posit a deep self-division in this scene, along with his growing awareness that he can never change his larger royal identity. The analogy to a marriage is pointed out by Richard in the next act, when he takes leave of his wife:

Doubly divorc'd! Bad men, you violate
A two-fold marriage—'twixt my crown and me,
And then betwixt me and my married wife.


No more than he can cease being his wife's husband, even if the two are separated, can he leave off the kingship.

But before the abdication scene is over Richard takes part in a further bit of pageantry: he asks for a mirror to see what face he has, “since it is bankrupt of his majesty.” Here, before the entire assemblage, he ponders his face, marveling at his unchanged visage, in which a “brittle glory shines.” Afterward, he throws the glass down, breaking it into “a hundred shivers.” It is not glory he seeks in its surface but some sign of his diminishment, some reflection in his outward visage of the “sorrow” that has struck “so many blows upon this face of mine, / And made no deeper wounds” (IV.i.277-279). This mirror scene is not an indication of Richard's narcissism, as some have indicated. It is, rather, his searching examination of the external show of things and his final renunciation of glory. Bolingbroke with a casual remark provides Richard with a way of understanding his situation: “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed / The shadow of your face.” Richard suddenly sees that, just as the mirror was but the outward reflection of his face, so his posturings, his “external manners of laments” are only “shadows to the unseen grief, / That swells with silence in the tortur'd soul” (IV.i.296-298).

Taken from Westminster Hall, where he has renounced all of the kingly potestas, he is alone, finally, in Pomfret Castle, his solitude at this point merely a literalization of his previous alienation, when he had conceived of his kingly prerogatives for himself and not his people. His degradation and debasement have given him access—of a kind he has not had before—to the psychic reality which has governed his destiny. Enclosed in prison, unkinged, stripped of every luxury by which he has defined himself, he engages in the tragic search for identity and responsibility which will later occupy Lear. For it is not merely a matter of the “king's two bodies,” the office persisting, the individual holder of office passing away. Richard was and remains in some sense king, just as a priest, even when removed from his ecclesiastical duties, is a priest forever. There is a moral bond between king and subjects that cannot be broken, even if the one has ignored it and the others wish to be rid of it. In desperate awareness that he is now cut off forever from any actual relationship with his people, Richard turns inward. But whereas, in the earlier part of the play, his thought has been prescriptive, pictorial, rhetorical, histrionic, it is now fertile and generative, not with the dialectic of philosophy but with the dynamic of the imagination:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world;
And, for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it.


What Richard has learned by now is that there can be no king without community. “Yet I'll hammer it out,” he declares:

My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world;
In humours like the people of this world.


He finds within himself the fulness of both the masculine and feminine actions: his mind, which previously dominated his soul, moving as it did from thought to thought with a superficial facility, now becomes passive and receptive to the secret part of himself, the soul, wherein lies his royal largesse. Hence his soul can engender in his brain offspring that, “still-breeding” (ever-breeding), beget others and so “people this little world,” in the way that Adam and Eve first peopled it. Richard here is far from the attitude which at first glance he resembles, that expressed by Sir Edward Dyer in “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is,” wherein the speaker rejoices in the happiness of a mind that can rise above adversity. The title of Richard's “poem” would have to be “My Soul to Me a Kingdom Is,” since, deprived of his realm, he fills his prison-cell with soul-begotten images of human life, images which speak not of man's triumph over circumstances but of his implication in search, failure, and death. What Richard discovers in this dark psychical engendering is the paradoxical nature of human life. Both “beggars and kings” suffer the same calamities. Even “the better sort” of thoughts, those of “things divine,” are contradictory, setting “the word itself / Against the word.” One is commanded, “Come, little ones,” and yet is told how hard it is to enter. In all the modes of human life which he ponders, the imperative call to blessedness and the impossibility of achieving it have equal force:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. … But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleas'd, till he be eas'd
With being nothing.


He has come to the limits of mortality: whether king or beggar, he is “but man” and, as man, cannot rest until he becomes “nothing.”

What is beginning to happen to Richard in this prison scene is a participation with the body of humanity, accomplished through the imagination. The imaginative act occurs in times of disjunction, threshold situations, transitions. Richard is moving from one state of being to another. He knows now that he has taken too little thought of the subjects to whom he is bound in charity and duty. It is this communion with a reality outside himself that readies him for love and death. He moves from an image of the communal body to an image of time: someone is playing music for him, that Shakespearean symbol of harmony and the divine life. It is apparently played badly, for Richard comments:

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 disordered 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.


Since he did not “hear the concord of [his] state and time,” did not keep the proper harmony and measure in his realm, he has become, as he goes on to say, the “numbering clock” of time. He has missed the opportunity for living in time, organically and harmoniously, with the measure and proportion of music, and now must by “sighs and tears and groans / Show minutes, times, and hours.” He has become, in the new time now organized around the usurping monarch, Bolingbroke's “Jack of the clock,” time's fool. He has not, as a king should have, “redeemed the time.”

“This music mads me,” he cries out; “let it sound no more.” But though he would like it to cease, he blesses the heart that provides it for him, “For 'tis a sign of love; and love to Richard / Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world” (V.v.65-66). This is the first occasion, one senses, on which Richard has acknowledged his kinship with the rest of humanity, his first instance of blessing anyone for anything. This strange jewel—love and music—in its incongruity with the rest of the world enables him to see that, in a fallen state, charity and benevolence are gifts rather than one's rights. Richard's recognition of love heralds the peripeteia of the drama: the appearance in his cell of a member of his former entourage, the groom of his Barbary horse, who slips in to see him just a few moments before his murderers are to arrive. The groom brings with him not only devotion and sympathy but also the reverence that Richard's subjects should feel for their king. “Hail, royal Prince,” this anonymous and humble fellow greets his unfortunate sovereign, just as Cordelia greets her broken father with “How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty?” In each of these instances the salutation is directed toward the restoration of dignity, addressed not to the private person but to that larger self which each still is. “I was a poor groom of thy stables, king,” the visitor declares, “when thou wert king.” He has thus skilfully distinguished the two realms of authority and power by saying in effect, “King, you were once king” (you were once in power), and so restores his moral kingdom to the powerless monarch. The two grieve together that the horse nurtured so carefully for Richard pranced under Bolingbroke “so proudly as if he disdained the ground.” Richard at first lashes out, “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?” (V.v.87-89). But then, after establishing the analogy between himself and the horse, the new Richard softens:

Forgiveness, horse! why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be aw'd by man,
Wast born to bear? I was not made a horse
And yet I bear a burthen like an ass,
Spurr'd, gall'd, and tir'd by jauncing Bolingbroke.


Richard's momentary outrage that the horse did not display the loyalty that human sentiment would desire is quickly dispelled at the recognition that the horse behaved according to his station in the hierarchy of existence. In contrast, he, Richard, has behaved not at all like a king but responded to Bolingbroke's goading like a lesser beast than the horse. With his kingship confirmed, no longer can he play the ass; he responds as a man to the fresh insult that follows immediately, striking his keeper and killing two of Exton's servants who enter, armed, with their master. Richard rushes to his death as he has rushed to his abdication; but now his impulsive action is to right the previous wrong, knowing that only in death can his royalty, which cannot be removed in life, be preserved. He is able at this moment to separate the king's two identities properly: “Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high; / Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die” (V.v.111-112).

Richard's death completes the action of the play: the attempt by mortal hands to erase an ineradicable mark on the soul. Plot, character, thought, language, spectacle, and even music depict that action. But the power of the drama lies in its ability to engage the successively higher dimensions to be found in the greatest poetry. Its literal sense, as we have indicated, is the deposing—and disposing—of a king. The other three senses are all analogical, the second concerning the loss of the medieval order and the movement to modernity; the third, the inevitable loss of innocence that is entailed in moral growth; the fourth, the painful death to the things of this world to prepare the soul for its ultimate destiny. The symbol of royalty encompasses all these meanings and of course on its highest level signifies the divine presence in man, the imago dei, which cannot be obliterated.

But all these analogies point to an archetypal parallel. Behind Richard's story of irresponsibility and presumption lies the dominant Western myth: the Fall of Man. Imaginatively, England is a garden: “This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty … this other Eden, this demi-Paradise, … this happy breed of men, this precious stone set in the silver sea / This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” (II.i.40-50), as John of Gaunt on his deathbed expresses his piety. To be exiled from England is to breathe English air in a strange land, as Bolingbroke asserts; to “engaol one's tongue,” making it an “unstringed viol or a harp,” according to ill-starred Mowbray. Richard is aware of the sacredness of English soil, even if he interprets that sacredness possessively and subjectively, as he is wont to do at least throughout the first part of the play. Springing from the genuine love of the land which permeates the play is a piety for the bonds established between men: and the severity of the loss of these bonds can be realized only when one views the loss by means of the typology of the Fall.

Richard's Queen and the gardeners are familiar with the analogy; and, with the simple wisdom of the folk, the gardeners know that even a paradise needs pruning and care. The Queen, in her distress, speaks more sharply than is her probable custom, addressing the gardener as “Old Adam's likeness” and demanding of him “What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee / To make a second fall of cursed man? / Why dost thou say King Richard is depos'd?” (III.iv.75-77). The gardener answers her gently, pitying her anguish. If Richard does become symbolically an Adam figure, as I think likely, then with his fall also occurs the fall of nature and of England. The folk are no longer unified by a common purpose; they can be flattered into consent by an ambitious monarch; faction rises against faction among the lords; what finally ensues is cousin against cousin and father against son. This general decay has been occurring all along during Richard's reign, marked by the murder of Woodstock, the gradual falling away of the people, the alienation suggested between Richard and his wife, the extravagant expenditures of the court, the appropriation of private property by the king, the intrigues between proud and arrogant leaders. But, as the Bishop of Carlisle knows: once Richard is deposed, once a new king is crowned, England is exiled from the garden, from royalty. What the next three plays will present is the struggle to regain the authority of the king's identity.

That the kings Richard II and Henry V are entirely different sorts of rulers almost every reader will acknowledge; but that kingship itself is a very different thing in the two plays is less often argued. The world of Richard is ceremonial, chivalric, medieval, poetic, essentially static; whereas the world of Henry is pragmatic, modern, competitive, dynamic. The king in one is God's steward, in the other a man among men. Richard is the last of the medieval kings; Shakespeare, looking back on that time from his own day, imaginatively portrayed the England of John of Gaunt as the happy “Edenic” time, with Richard the first offender against blessedness. In Richard's “fall” into egotism and presumption lies the beginning of modernity; for Bolingbroke's coup is a response to a possibility already prepared for him. Indeed, it is in apprehending in Richard II the reenactment of the Fall that we are given a clue to its relation to the other plays of the second tetralogy. The entire series comprises an almost complete cycle of genres, depicting the recurrent quest for right order in a fallen world. Richard II, though in itself a tragedy, is largely lyric in mood, as though the England of the Garden, the true state of happiness, is still fresh in men's memories. The cycle moves from Richard's abuse of royalty and his fall, which leads to the usurpation of the kingdom by a man of ruthless will; through the nocturnal world of 1 Henry IV, where no real authority welds the people together and dark comedy reigns; through the diseased state of a regime in 2 Henry IV, wearing itself out in insurrection and moving toward purgation with the “old” man rejected; to the energy and purposiveness in Henry V of a new king, ready for the epic task of establishing order, able to bring his people together in common cause, victorious in battle, wooing in the style of high comedy a French wife who will aid in the annexation of France for England and hence enlarge the kingdom.

Shakespeare's “history plays,” then, have indeed a historical significance: they present a carefully worked out vision of history, showing the way in which divine Providence operates in the world of human affairs. Certainly this pattern is presented in the second tetralogy, beginning with the fall of Richard. The pattern is the endless cycle of human action, repeated in time, with no apparent moral progress being made, since the same human imperfections exist and the same wrongs are committed in different circumstances. Yet in the move from order to chaos and back again to order Shakespeare has seized upon the fundamental figure of history which, in enacting a constant death and resurrection, impels man, in all his imperfection, toward that final end to which all things tend in the fulness of time. Alvin Kernan has noticed this enormous “motion” underlying the plays, seeing in Richard II “in political and social terms a movement from feudalism and hierarchy to the national state and individualism.” He continues outlining the dimensions of this movement:

In psychological terms it is a passage from a situation in which man knows with certainty who he is to an existential condition in which any identity is only a temporary role. In spatial and temporal terms it is a movement from a closed world to an infinite universe. In mythical terms the passage is from a garden world to a fallen world. In the most summary terms it is a movement from ceremony and ritual to history.17

I should maintain even more: in this second tetralogy Shakespeare has envisioned the story of mankind, as repeated in the history of the English people. We are not meant to be dismayed by the loss of royalty or by Hal's democratic pragmatism. No man is able to perform his task perfectly; in the Biblical tradition within which Shakespeare's imagination works, all earthly things are flawed and yet all are carriers of something flawless. Shakespeare sees the human enterprise as a series of catastrophes, brought about by the clash of human wills; yet within this turbulent and painful chronicle he testifies to the gradual mysterious growth of the kingdom.

Shakespeare shows us that human communities and political regimes exist in order to further what Allen Tate has called the “one lost truth that must be perpetually recovered—the supratemporal destiny of man.”18 It is in the constant rediscovery of shared love—between all sorts and conditions of men—that the true meaning of human history lies concealed. In Richard II it is in John of Gaunt's suffering and his love for his land, in Richard's Queen's love and loyalty, in the gardener's compassion for the tears of a queen, in the Bishop of Carlisle's courageous defense of a monarch, in the Duchess of York's impassioned plea for her son, in Bolingbroke's kindness to the Duchess and his respect for Carlisle. Between the interstices of events, so to speak, men perform virtuous actions in a creative response to each other and so do not merely discover but augment blessedness among men. It is Shakespeare's genius as dramatist to depict the invisible “by the things that are seen.” He demonstrates in the brief shared moment of love and loyalty between the dispossessed monarch and the groom the re-establishment, on another level, of Richard's kingdom.


  1. William Shakespeare, Richard II, Arden Edition, ed. Peter Ure (London and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956). Citations will be indicated in the text by act, scene, and line.

  2. The most influential study of Richard II in the context of the other history plays is of course E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespearean History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1944). This, along with Lily B. Campbell's Shakespearean Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington, 1947), established the relation of the history plays to Elizabethan providential theories of history. More recent studies of importance considering the same issues are Henry Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), Robert Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971), and Moody Prior, The Drama of Power (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

  3. Introduction, Richard II, p. lxiii.

  4. Tillyard, p. 321.

  5. “Hamlet and His Problems,” Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1950), p. 125.

  6. “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” Proceedings of the British Academy (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), XXXVIII, 147-52.

  7. Lewis, p. 151.

  8. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher (New York: Dover, 1951), pp. 7, 25, 27.

  9. “The Symbolic Imagination,” Essays of Four Decades (New York: William Morrow, 1968), p. 427.

  10. Aristotle, p. 35.

  11. This analogical thinking, implied in Aristotle, was worked out only later in the Christian Middle Ages by biblical exegetes and expressed for students of literature most clearly in Dante's famous letter to Can Grande della Scala: Letter 10, Translations of the Later Works of Dante, trans. P. H. Wicksteed (London: J. M. Dent, 1904).

  12. Fritz Kern makes clear that in the early Middle Ages consecration of the monarch was considered a sacrament: “Consecration, which according to the early mediaeval Church, was a vehicle of supernatural virtue, brought results, expressed in symbolical form, which were both psychological and religious on the one hand, and ecclesiastical and legal on the other. Its external symbols were seen in the ministrations of the priest who crowned and anointed; its inner efficacy was in the soul of the princely recipient; its outward efficacy was manifested in the ‘character’ that it conferred upon the person of the crowned and anointed prince.” (Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, trans. S. B. Chrimes [New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1956], p. 36). Later, Kern points out, after the kingly anointing was no longer defined by the Church as a sacrament, the idea of the sacramental character of consecration persisted on into the Renaissance and even, to some degree, into modern times (pp. 50-58). See also Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957); Edward Peters, The Shadow King (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970); and Edna Zwick Boris, Shakespeare's English Kings, the People, and the Law (London: Associated University Presses, 1978).

  13. See Kern, pp. 1-145; as well as John Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1970), first published in 1896; and J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London: L. MacVeagh, The Dial Press, 1928).

  14. In his impressive study The King's Two Bodies Kantorowicz has assembled documents tracing the growth of a concept, encountered in Tudor times, that the king has two bodies, the body politic and the body natural, the one being immortal, the other mortal. “The legal concept of the King's Two Bodies cannot,” he maintains, “be separated from Shakespeare. For if that curious image, which from modern constitutional thought has vanished all but completely, still has a very real and human meaning today, this is largely due to Shakespeare” (p. 26). In a brilliant analysis of Richard II (pp. 24-41) Kantorowicz seems to equate Richard's thinking with Shakespeare's. I should like to suggest that the idea of an immortal character angelicus associated with kingship but existing apart from the individual king is, as Kantorowicz himself indicates in his citation of sources, a Renaissance doctrine. What Shakespeare is concerned with is the sacramental nature of monarchy, which is a quite different matter.

  15. The Cease of Majesty (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961), p. 121.

  16. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953), pp. 316-317.

  17. “The Henriad: Shakespeare's History Plays,” Modern Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Alvin Kernan (New York: Harcourt, 1970), pp. 245-256.

  18. “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” Essays of Four Decades, p. 16.

Raphael Falco (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10741

SOURCE: Falco, Raphael. “Charismas in Conflict: Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke.” Exemplaria 11, no. 2 (1999): 473-502.

[In the following essay, Falco focuses on the concept of charisma in his comparative analysis of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke.]

Shakespeare's Richard II is an anatomy of charismas in conflict. Pure personal charisma, lineage or dynastic charisma, and several kinds of office charisma—to use Max Weber's terms—confront each other throughout the play. These different stages of charismatic authority, according to the Weberian model, reflect a progression (or regression) from revolutionary personal leadership to increased rationalization and finally bureaucratization. Weber maintained that all the modifications of personal charisma have basically the same cause: “[t]he desire to transform charisma and charismatic blessing from a unique, transitory gift of grace of extraordinary times and persons to a permanent possession of everyday life.”1 The transformations of charismatic authority inevitably result in conflicts since the different forms of charisma are incompatible. In Richard II, such conflicts—in particular between personal authority and permanent, depersonalized authority—contribute to the tragic circumstances, not only pitting leaders against each other but also dividing the sources of each leader's legitimacy. The different kinds of charisma interpenetrate and overlap, producing ambiguous figures of shifting status.

The chief examples are Richard and Bolingbroke. The personally charismatic Bolingbroke rises to power partly through subversion of traditional hierarchy and partly through an appeal to traditional hierarchical and genealogical values. The paradox of this situation resounds in such self-defining speeches as

                                                                      I am a subject,
And I challenge law; attorneys are denied me,
And therefore personally I lay my claim
To my inheritance of free descent.(2)

This passage highlights the near-contradiction of making a personal extralegal claim—a charismatic challenge of the law—and at the same time invoking the traditional authority of genealogical privilege. Unlike such low-born usurpers as Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Bolingbroke can claim a birthright to justify his rise to power, and his ambiguous rationalizations implicitly promise a revolutionary restoration of conservative aristocratic governance as a result of his usurpation of the crown. Treason dissolves into salvific heroism, defiance of law into institution-building, and charisma into traditional authority.

Richard's relation to his own charismatic claim is equally ambiguous, although from a different angle. Ruth Nevo once noted that “behind the regal bearing and the regal gesture is revealed Richard's dismal lack of that inalienable personal power which a later age would come to call charisma, and which alone could carry him through.”3 Nevo is referring to pure or personal charisma, the undiluted form that we see in Bolingbroke at crucial moments. But Richard's true charismatic claim is dynastic, a diluted but effective form of charismatic domination. As a lineage king Richard bases his authority on hereditary charisma and post-feudal convention. Yet, despite his evident belief in the permanence of kingship, Richard too makes ambiguous statements regarding his status, confusing and sometimes enraging his followers, as when the Bishop of Carlisle must admonish him that “wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes” (3.2.178). Richard's kingship keeps disappearing behind his human vulnerability, and his reactions to his fluctuating status are contradictory and manipulative:

God save the king! Will no man say amen?
Am I both priest and clerk? well then, amen.
God save the king! although I be not he;
And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me.


One critic has suggested that Richard's ironic comments in this passage give him “a strange detachment from events, so that he seems not to know where reality lies.”4 But I would say that his sense of reality is acute: anger and near-hysterical frustration notwithstanding, he treads a difficult line with superb intuition of the group dynamic. His performance is charismatic despite his apparent weakness, personal rather than a product of his office. He is even rebellious in the circumstances, summoning his personal charisma in response to Bolingbroke's sudden legalism. But, like Bolingbroke's, Richard's personal claim is also paradoxical. While he asserts divine auspices (“heaven do think him me”), he also relies for his royal legitimacy on the antitheses of personal charisma—hereditary charisma and traditional authority.

Richard and Bolingbroke are not interchangeable, yet they seem at times to occupy a similar imaginative space, a limbo between improvisational personal power and established traditional rule. Bolingbroke's subjecthood weaves in and out of the smoke of his parvenu kingship, while Richard seems most kingly when stripped of royal trappings, when (to use his own distinction) he is more clerk than priest. In the end both of them must acknowledge the conflict between traditional and charismatic authority, but only Bolingbroke adapts his conduct to balance the antithetical sources of his power. Richard's tragedy, at least in part, is a tragedy of individuation, manifest in his failure to reconcile his lineage claim with his personal impulses.


To analyze the conflict between Richard's personal charisma and his lineage authority—as well as between his person and his office, which is a slightly different relation (though in kind the same)—it is important first to understand the properties and structure of lineage charisma. I will rely primarily on a Weberian definition, but with adjustments to bring empirical data (mostly Shakespearean) to bear on the ideal type. Weber speaks of lineage charisma as a “depersonalization” of pure charisma (Versachlichung des Charisma), literally an “objectification” or perhaps even a “neutering” of a personal gift of grace.5 “Depersonalization” is a signal concept, marking the transition in a charismatic movement from the often revolutionary personal management by a central figure to the administration of the movement after the loss of that figure. The need to depersonalize the original charisma and routinize it, making it available as a continuing benefit to the surviving followers, causes inevitable conflicts between forms of authority. Because of later generations' dependence on traditional or bureaucratic authority, or a mixture of the two, depersonalization can lead to a diminution of charismatic authority. Charisma obviously loses its original and originary force when integrated with traditional or bureaucratic authority. Rather than a power of disruption and change, transformed charisma becomes an institution-builder. And lineage, especially aristocratic lineage, is one of its most successful institutions.

“The most frequent case of a depersonalization of charisma,” according to Weber, “is the belief in its transferability through blood ties.”6 The charisma of a house replaces the individual inheritance of an original charisma, at the same time diluting it and preserving it into succeeding generations. Logically, charisma cannot be heritable, since a unique gift of grace—and particularly one that manifests itself in the management of unstable social structures—should die with its possessor. Thus Weber explains that charisma is hereditary “only in the sense that household and lineage group are considered magically blessed, so that they alone can provide the bearers of charisma.”7 Although charisma provides the supernatural endowment of elite families, the power which that endowment helps to maintain tends to be traditional or legal rather than heterogeneously charismatic. Lineage charisma provides a clear example of this filtering-out process inasmuch as stability and permanence are its chief reasons for being. It depends on depersonalization to obviate the incalculable elements that kept the original charismatic group in disequilibrium, dependent on a unique supernaturally endowed leader.8 Lineage replaces the unique leader with the impersonal—and presumably more stable—authority of a family.

But, as Richard II demonstrates, the stability of lineage claims can be challenged, albeit at great cost both to the general political stability and to the myth of hereditary charisma. Lineage and the offenses against it furnish a moral backdrop to the play. Within the first hundred lines of act 1 Bolingbroke calls attention to his blood lines, deliberately separating royal descent from violence. “There I throw my gage,” he challenges Mowbray, “Disclaiming here the kindred of a king, / And lay aside my high blood's royalty” (1.1.69-71). He implies that there is a moral conflict between being a king's cousin and wanting to fight “arm to arm.” Replying to Bolingbroke, Richard puns on the subject of blood descent, at the same time acknowledging the moral gravity of the accusation:

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 of him


The king does not overtly refer to Bolingbroke's “disclaiming” of kindred, but the word “inherit,” here meaning “make us heir to,” marks his recognition of the several related subtexts of the challenge: the succession to the throne, the king's unkindred-like treatment of uncles and cousins, and particularly his part in Gloucester's death.9 “Inherit” also contains a bit of a dig at Bolingbroke, who is in no position to bequeath anything to Richard, and indeed would very much like the Lancastrian line to have inherited the throne. At a supersubtle level Richard may be taunting Bolingbroke with his possession of the crown, acknowledging the subtexts of his cousin's disclaimer while playfully inverting the roles of bequeather and heir. But the playfulness, if that is what it is, serves chiefly to emphasize Richard's birthright (and Bolingbroke's subjecthood vis-à-vis that birthright). It is difficult to determine whether Richard or Shakespeare is in control of the language in these lines, although Richard seems pointedly conscious of his royal authority. The scene ends with his stern and deeply resonant statement, “We were not born to sue, but to command” (1.1.196); and the punning reversal of “inherit us,” which cannot withstand the finality of Richard's succinct description of his birthright, has the force of a conscious taunt when read in tandem with the king's last remark.

That Bolingbroke invokes the royal blood line only to reject it in favor of his own actions, his unaffined moral agency, provides a clear picture of the conflict between charismas. The lineage charismatic authority represented by Richard will not suffice to accomplish true justice, so Bolingbroke dissociates himself from his “kindred of a king.” Courtesy or public humility may require that he characterize his challenge of Mowbray as morally inconsistent with royal blood. But the implication of Bolingbroke's attitude is somewhat different: he probably dissociates himself from his royal cousin not because arm to arm combat is anathema to kingship per se, but rather because—and this becomes the Lancastrian position—proper justice is alien to Richard's rulership.10 Satisfaction through personal combat was a vexed ethical issue which Shakespeare often exploited for dramatic purposes. But Bolingbroke's nod to the impropriety of associating the throne with violence seems rather perfunctory. The stronger implication of his statement is that he simply cannot get satisfaction or justice from the present incumbent of the royal seat. From this early scene Bolingbroke casts his personal charisma into conflict with Richard's lineage claims, even though the Lancastrian line itself depends on similar claims to sustain its ascendancy. Bolingbroke declares, “what I speak / My body will make good upon this earth” (1.1.36-37), suggesting that his natural body will provide the source and sole limit of his power—another disclaimer regarding hereditary charisma. Bolingbroke here exhibits the personal charisma with which he will capture both the public imagination and the throne. But his natural-body claim is ultimately disingenuous despite its charismatic force, since, as is soon clear, the ostensible criterion for his triumphant return from France will be outrage over his abused lineage privileges.

As the play progresses the conflict of charismas, or of kinds of charismatic claims, seems to motivate the action. Nothing can stem this conflict, not even the reversal of power. Richard betrays his lineage trust, thereby weakening his only significant charismatic claim. But that very weakening inspires a manifestation of his personal charisma, especially once the challenge to his lineage rights has become a fait accompli at Flint Castle. The conflict between these two antithetical forms of charisma is most pronounced after the deposition. As Louise Cowan has pointed out, “in being deprived of the power of the crown, [Richard] begins to feel himself all the more genuinely a king in the hidden recesses of his soul.”11 Because those around Richard also sense this incipient conviction of genuineness, there is confusion regarding the source of kingly and ex-kingly power. In the end the demystification of Richard's vested authority—accomplished in part by neutralizing his depersonalized charismatic claim—serves only to remystify the myth of lineage charisma, clouding rather than resolving the relation of traditional to charismatic rulership.

The myth of the transferability of charisma through blood ties is the foundational myth of aristocracy. Its prevalence in Elizabethan culture is so wide as to be something of a commonplace, a consensus gentium reaching to every level of society.12 Shakespeare exploits the myth in Richard II, and, as so often in his writing, also manages a metacommentary on the myth while remaining inside it. Bolingbroke's disclaimer of royal kinship and Richard's taunting use of “inherit” suggest this dual approach. Still more revealing is the itinerary of the imagery of blood ties, the stock and trade of genealogical myth. The first elaboration of this imagery comes from the Duchess of Gloucester. She invokes and superbly mystifies the dynastic blood lines when urging Gaunt to avenge her husband's murder:

Finds brotherhood in thee no sharper spur?
Hath love in thy old blood no living fire?
Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one,
Were as seven vials of his sacred blood,
Or seven fair branches springing from one root.


This speech is a good illustration of lineage as moral backdrop. The Duchess castigates Gaunt for disregarding the supernatural—and charismatic—unity of the patriarchal blood line. Her image of Edward's blood passed on in seven filial vials, along with the image of the family tree, reflect a working definition of lineage charisma.13 The peculiar amalgamation of blood and tree celebrates the myth of the transferability of charisma through blood ties. And Gloucester's death folds back metaphorically into the institutional fiction:

One vial full of Edward's sacred blood,
One flourishing branch of his most royal root,
Is crack'd, and all the precious liquor spilt,
Is hack'd down, and his summer leaves all faded.


This is a normative moral allegory, and one which Gaunt will remember. It operates on ascending levels of figuration. At a nearly literal level, Gloucester's blood (inherited from Edward) has been spilled, thus weakening the generational connection; more figuratively, the lifeblood of the nation is lost in the cracking of the vial. The alternating lines of the speech (which suggest a scribal transposition) link sacredness to earthly rootedness. The depersonalization of Edward's charisma could not be more explicit: his blood thrives in seven other bodies, thus preserving the charismatic magic but filtering out the subjectivity of the original bearer.14

Although the blood-ties myth has a central metaphorical role, Richard himself scarcely alludes to it except in passing reference to his “sacred blood” when proclaiming his impartiality to Mowbray (1.1.119). It is difficult to know what Richard's silence on the subject means. Shakespeare relies on somewhat peripheral, older-generation speakers to re-mystify the past and preserve tradition, the significance of which fact should not be overlooked in regard to charisma. For example, in his pelican speech Gaunt harps on Richard's wantonness while invoking the blood imagery:

O, spare me not, my brother Edward's son,
For that I was his father Edward's son;
That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapp'd out and drunkenly carous'd.


The Duchess's image of Edward's blood as “precious liquor” reappears in revised form here. Richard has tapped it out of the keg and drunkenly “carous'd” it, notionally a wanton grandson ruining the family cellar. Moreover, the image of the young pelican Richard sucking dry his nurturer's blood has a shock value beyond the fact of royal gluttony. Not only has the sacred vial been cracked but also, thanks to Richard's delinquency, the sacred myth of the vials has lost its immutability and coherence. Gaunt's rhetorical manipulation of the myth implies a parallel between fact and figuration, an almost Cratylan contiguity, as if Richard's moral failure had caused a sympathetic faultline in the mythification of aristocratic blood ties.

As the itinerary of the blood-ties imagery leads from the Duchess's myth of the seven vials through Gaunt's rhetorical manipulations in the pelican speech, the mythical status of Edward's blood remains the same. And in this sense Shakespeare operates exclusively from within the myth of dynastic blood ties. But the metaphorical shifts—from sacred vials to quaffed tankards—also suggest a temporary detachment from mythological orthodoxy, a brief experience of myth as malleable fiction. This temporary detachment is what I earlier referred to as Shakespeare's metacommentary, although the term is not crucial. More important is the effect that the inside-outside shift can have on our perception of Richard's lineage charisma.

Both the Duchess and Gaunt historicize the myth of blood-ties, introducing a diachronic element into the synchronic field. But Gaunt's historicization contains an internal contradiction. It pits the hereditary ruler against the hereditary ideal, and, ironically, it enhances the importance of Richard's actions. The king's moral agency and his natural body become necessary to the continuity of his charisma—and to others' experience of him—even though his charisma is supposed to be depersonalized and inherited. I doubt that it is Gaunt's intention to weaken the validity of lineage charisma; his aim seems to be simply to make Richard more accountable to tradition for his actions. But by mutating the myth Gaunt distinguishes Richard's natural body from both the corporate body which he heads and from the lineage charisma which he should unproblematically inherit. The obvious contrast is Gloucester, who in the Duchess's historicization inherits his father's blood without any contingency for action, as is normal in the transference of blood ties. On the other hand, Gaunt's manipulation of the myth tends to suppress the depersonalized quality of Richard's charismatic authority while activating its subjective element.


The subjective element of Richard's authority, as opposed to what might be called the objective reality of lineage rulership, is manifest in the subtle relationship between the king's natural (or mortal) body and the immortal body politic. I would characterize this relationship as interdependent, even intrasubjective. Subjectivity must be redefined to accommodate the charismatic experience because the natural body of the charismatic leader functions on two levels at once, acting as the center not only of the disposition of individual power but also of the mythification of group power.15 Richard's gradual isolation from his political cohort provides a glimpse of this double function, confirming rather than annihilating the interdependence of the king's two bodies. It may be true that, in contrast to the ongoing group myth of lineage privilege, Richard's personal magnetism fails to bind his group or to satisfy extraordinary group needs. And it may also be true that as a result of his increasingly subjective outbursts Richard's mind and natural body seem to be separate from his inherited political being. Yet that separation is less than meets the eye—to inflate its definitiveness is, in my view, a sign of Lancastrian optimism. In point of fact, the two interdependent king's bodies constitute a sort of corporate ambiguity.

But corporate ambiguity blurs the clean structural lines associated with de casibus tragedies. In consequence there is a tendency among critics to overpolarize the body natural and the body politic, despite Ernst Kantorowicz's careful tempering of the polarities in The King's Two Bodies. It is indeed tempting to see these two bodies as somehow discrete, one natural and mortal, the other supernatural and immortal. But our conception of kingship in general—and Richard's kingship in particular—suffers if we insist on excessive polarization of the body natural and the body politic. Moreover, if we confuse the opposition between kingship and subjecthood in English discourse for the independence of one from the other, we will incorrectly characterize Richard's subjectivity as an aberration, rather than as an integral, if temporarily unsynchronized, component of his authority. Kingship and subjecthood should be seen as interdependent, both in the wider social sphere and in the king himself. One of many proofs of this interdependence, as Kantorowicz aptly notes, is found in Richard's “duplications” in “the King, the Fool, and the God”: “Those three prototypes of ‘twin-birth’ intersect and overlap and interfere with each other continuously,” he observes, concluding that in the crucial scenes of the play—in Wales, at Flint Castle, and at Westminster—we encounter a “cascading: from divine kingship to kingship's ‘Name,’ and from the name to the naked misery of the man.”16

This “cascading,” which really is a manifestation of interdependence, is especially visible in the operation and transformations of the king's charismatic authority. Charisma connects kingship to subjecthood ambiguously but inextricably, in consequence affecting the relation of king to subject, of body natural to body politic, and of person to office. In regard to this last connection, Wolfgang Iser recently remarked that Richard II contains a “vehement” clash between person and office in which “the norms by which the ruler's position is defined are made subservient to the quest for the self.”17 It would probably be better to speak of a “concomitant” relationship, or series of relationships.18 The absolute opposition of person and office, like that of body natural and body politic, tends to oversimplify the structure of Richard's authority. Such polarized or binary categories obscure the interdependence of the forms of authority that constellate in both poles of the opposition. As the play progresses the lineaments of Richard's authority dodge and shift, as if his subjectivity were spontaneously activated in response to martial defeat, deposition, and imprisonment. Indeed, charismas are in conflict in Richard II not only because Richard's lineage clashes with Bolingbroke's personal force, but also because different forms of charismatic authority coexist in Richard.

Richard himself characterizes the revelation of his subjectivity either as moral weakness or as a species of vocational confusion. For instance, at one point he remarks:

I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?


At another point (as noted above) he asks, “Am I both priest and clerk?” (4.1.173). These are similar questions in that both concern essential identity and both polarize the relations of group leader to group membership. Neither Richard nor anyone else in the play can satisfactorily determine whether he is ever not a king because all questions of royal identity are also questions of group function. Members of the group cannot detach themselves from the group without destroying it, and the group's destruction would on some level mean their own destruction as well.

Because Richard is the head of a lineage charismatic group, his rejection or deposition constitutes a dismemberment of the group, creating an interesting conundrum: how can the lineage group function or even continue to exist without a hereditary leader? The solution is a powerful abstraction: specifically, that there exists an absolute distinction between the office and the person of the king, and that the two can be separated without damage to the permanent glory of the former. This argument resonates in the legalistic justifications for Richard's deposition and, most significantly, in metaphors alluding to the myth of the bodies natural and politic. But Shakespeare is at pains to show that there can be no absolute separation of the two bodies, nor of person and office.19 If there could be an absolute separation, then the impact of Richard's tragedy would be diluted by the idea that some aspect of his being eludes suffering and death in the abstraction of ongoing “kingship.” Yet nothing of the kind seems to happen. Richard “tastes grief” and the rest of us certainly encounter, in Kantorowicz's phrase, “the naked misery of the man.” Indeed, it may well be a conscious objective of Shakespeare's tragedy to expose the limits, even the futility, of mutually exclusive political categories in human drama.

The categories themselves are quasi-legal fictions. Citing Edmund Plowden's Reports, Kantorowicz illustrates how in English law a king's mortal body could be seen as separate from his immortal political being:

The King has two Capacities, for he has two Bodies, the one whereof is a Body natural, consisting of natural Members as every other Man has, and in this he is subject to Passions and Death as other Men are; the other is a Body politic, and the Members thereof are his subjects, and he and his Subjects together compose the Corporation … and he is incorporated with them, and they with him, and he is the Head, and they are the Members, and he has the sole Government of them; and this Body is not subject to Passions as the other is, nor to Death, for as to this Body the King never dies, and his natural Death is not called in our Law … the Death of the King, but the Demise of the King, not signifying by the Word (Demise) that the Body politic of the King is dead, but that the Body politic is transferred and conveyed over from the body natural now dead, or now removed from the Dignity royal, to another Body natural.20

There is no mention of heredity in this passage, or of the safeguarding of succession. The body politic is simply “transferred and conveyed over from the natural body now dead … to another Body natural.” We can see how such a thesis would support dynastic claims, but also how it might foster confusions, particularly when, as in Richard II (and also King Lear), there is no “Demise of the King” before the body politic is conveyed over. The miraculous transition from dead body to living may confirm the immortality of the mystical body politic but it does little to resolve political and moral crises such as the one that leads to Richard's deposition.

As I suggested at the beginning of this section, the corporate charismatic relationship in Richard II is ambiguous. Partly because Richard is not himself a forceful charismatic figure and partly because his authority derives from diluted forms of charisma such as lineage and kingship, it becomes impossible in the play to separate the bodies natural and politic from their dependence on the mutuality of group function. Richard must be seen as simultaneously a representative of divine order and of what Edward Shils calls “institutional charisma.” Shils explains the origins of the highest authority in this way:

Great earthly power has a manifold, obscure affinity with the powers believed to inhere in the transcendent order. Those who believe in divinely transcendent orders also believe that earthly powers, to enjoy legitimacy, must have some connection with transcendent powers, that rulers are necessarily involved in the essential order of things.21

This connection to the “essential order” is a charismatic sanction. It makes the ruler a separate and unique figure, while at the same time establishing his or her dependence on group membership to survive. Likening the ruler to the soul and the ruled to the body, Edward Forset, in A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique, characterizes the functioning mutuality of the ideal monarchy as “the surest bond of human societie”:

so both the ruler should wholy indeuour the welfare of his people, and the sujiect ought (as in loue to his owne soule) to conforme vnto his soueraigne; that both of them mutually like twinnes of one wombe may in the neere and deare nature of relatiues, maintaine vnuiolate that compound of concordance, in which and for which they were first combined.22

The notion of twins in one womb is difficult to reconcile with the kind of kingship we encounter in Richard II, and not just because Richard has tyrannical tendencies. The king's royal authority rarely if ever seems a matter of concordance with his subjects.

Richard enjoys legitimacy, in Shils's terms, above all through his “connection with transcendent powers”—the blood-ties myth is supposedly the proof-positive of this connection. As Larry Champion points out, the king “touts himself as an embodiment of the religio-political principle of divine right, constantly invoking God and legal doctrine to validate his political power.”23 He gets a good deal of support from others in this area. Gaunt calls him “God's substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight” (1.2.37-38), translating the Latin vicarius Dei. And Carlisle asserts transcendental auspices, saying to the apprehensive Richard, “That Power that made you king / Hath power to keep you king in spite of all” (3.2.27-28). Bucked by Carlisle's speech, Richard himself declares his divine charisma:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.


Shakespeare sets these last two speeches against the onslaught of bad news which Richard receives after landing on the Welsh coast. There is consequently something strained about the assertions of divine connection, as if when other forms of authority have failed, when the relation between leader and led has begun to break down, the king and his close followers must invoke the irrational and patently disproved notion that Richard has a privileged connection to the order of things. Everyone protests too much in this scene, with the result that the so-called divine deputation, faced with the fact of revolt, seems little more than hollow rhetoric.

The painful and embarrassing oscillations in act 3, scene 2, between the puffed-up royal Richard and the defeated, “subjected” Richard are reflected in stark contrasts between the immortal body politic of the realm (now escaped from the king) and the feeble natural body of a man who talks “of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” (3.2.145). Kantorowicz argues regarding this scene that “the kingship itself seems to have changed its essence. … Gone is the oneness of the body natural with the immortal body politic.”24 If we take “oneness” to mean interdependence, resting on mutual concordance and group function as legitimating criteria, then Kantorowicz is probably right about the changed essence of the kingship. If, on the other hand, we understand “oneness” to mean a quasi-legal theological autonomy that eschews group function, or is superior to group needs, then I think we are in danger of positing a condition that never really exists in Shakespeare's play.

Despite the apparent autonomy of Richard and Bolingbroke in their decisions, changes in group status have a significant effect on the barometer of their political successes and failures. On the coast of Wales with Richard and his entourage, the barometer falls precipitously as the cohesion of the king's forces breaks down: York has betrayed him, the Welsh army has abandoned him, and he soon learns that his favorites have been executed. Unable to use this moment of severe disequilibrium to his charismatic advantage, Richard himself breaks down, draining what little personal authority he commanded and relying erratically on his diluted lineage claims to confront the overwhelming threat of Bolingbroke's rebellion. Indeed, Richard's palpably self-indulgent narcissism in the scene in Wales, whether we regard it as a cause or an effect of the crisis, is emblematic of “oneness” or theological autonomy hoist with its own petard: the king's poetizing individuality is clear evidence of political isolation (as Carlisle and Aumerle recognize). The veneer of intrasubjective group dependency has peeled off, leaving only the weak king and a few followers loyal not so much to Richard as to the myth that his kingship represents. Richard suffers a detachment from his royal image, and in his desperation counts more heavily than ever on the rhetoric of anointment and divine connection. But the detachment is deadly, not only separating the twin bodies of the king but, more significantly, dividing Richard from the traditional (and somewhat ossified) symbols of his charismatic claim to authority. Thus the decay of group cohesion leads to a breakdown in group meaning itself, heightening the conflict between the kinds of charisma that Richard has relied on and presaging tragedy in the failure of the shared charismatic experience of his rulership.

The breakdown in meaning confuses the question of the king's two bodies, since both the natural man and the political body have significance to the royal supporters. There is a curious irony in this. Richard does not become less a king merely by becoming more a man. Rather, he becomes less a king by relying too much on himself as a symbolic figure—by seeing himself too exclusively as a product of divine anointment—asserting for instance that

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press'd
.....God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel.

3.2.58, 60-61

In other circumstances, coming from a different monarch, such language might be inspiring. In Richard's mouth, and given the present logistical difficulties, it is pathetic and absurdly impractical (as Aumerle tries to suggest earlier in the scene). The recourse to symbolic rather than personal authority reveals a gap between the needs of Richard's group members and their leader's ability to fulfill those needs.

Missing from Richard's authority is the institutional charisma with which the modern ruler maintains power. Although Richard, “in the Elizabethan sense, is secure” in his indisputable lineage claim to the throne, he nonetheless loses his rights (and life) in confrontation with a superior charismatic movement.25 Paradoxically, his best defense would have been not less but more diffusion of charismatic authority. Richard lacks a corporate organization in which he as the incumbent in the role of authority would be “enveloped in the vague and powerful nimbus of the authority of the entire institution.”26 This would constitute institutional charisma, a diffused form of charismatic organization considerably more stable than lineage charisma since it demands a wider membership:

it is not a charisma deduced from the creativity of the charismatic individual. It is inherent in the massive organization of authority. The institutional charismatic legitimation of a command emanating from an incumbent of a role in a corporate body derives from membership in the body as such, apart from any allocated, specific powers.27

The only membership Richard actually shares is that of his lineage group. But while the aristocratic bond of the blood-ties myth has enormous force in early modern culture, as does the providentialism with which it is associated, in pragmatic political terms the lineage group is too easily fragmented and reduced in size. Richard himself causes the first cracks in his lineage bond when he steals the dead Gaunt's estate, a mistake whose far-reaching implications York immediately recognizes: “Take Herford's rights away,” he warns, and you will “Be not thyself. For how art thou a king / But by fair sequence and succession” (2.1.195, 198-99). Shakespeare exposes the fragility of dynastic charisma in this episode, particularly its group vulnerability. Richard is both the author and the prisoner of this vulnerability. He has neither the personal resources nor the political necessity (until it is too late) to achieve the legitimation of power derived from membership in a corporate body “apart from any allocated, specific powers.” Such a form of corporate authority will have to wait for modern monarchs, or so we infer from Richard's tragic isolation. Perhaps Bolingbroke is the first evolutionary mutation toward that new ideal, a creative charismatic individual who is also the harbinger of institutional charisma.28


Critics have often described Bolingbroke as a Machiavellian politician, a practitioner of realpolitik.29 His attitude toward the crown as a material possession, rather than as a magical, divinely imbued symbol of anointment, seems to confirm such a view. But we should bear in mind that Bolingbroke too depends on otherworldly auspices. In fact, he is not so much a normal male figure in the play as he is a charismatic experience. His supernatural authority simply has not yet been ossified into a set of symbols, as Richard's has, so that Bolingbroke's followers can count on an identity between the aims of their leader and the meaning of his charismatic rebellion.

The most striking example of Bolingbroke's personal charisma comes from Richard himself. The king claims to have watched the banished duke setting out from London toward foreign exile. “Ourself and Bushy,” he announces,

Observ'd his courtship to 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,
As 'twere to banish their affects on him.
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.


Richard's speech contains equal parts of jealousy and contempt, although it is difficult to say how worried he really is about Bolingbroke's becoming “our subjects' next degree in hope.” The burden of Richard's description is Bolingbroke's craftiness, his calculated and (to Richard's mind) patently insincere populism. Yet even Richard, who sneers at the duke's “supple knee,” seems quietly awed by the way in which “he did seem to dive into their hearts / With humble and familiar courtesy.” The sources of this passage in Froissart, Holinshed, and Daniel all describe the people's behavior toward Bolingbroke.30 In contrast, using Richard's bias as a fulcrum, Shakespeare describes Bolingbroke's “wooing” of the masses, as though the duke somehow engineered the group bond. There is more threat and perhaps more delusion in the Shakespearean version, and therefore greater capacity for drama. But no amount of royal bias can mask the group experience of Bolingbroke's charismatic presence. Richard's negative characterization of the people's response to the departing duke only underscores the bond between Bolingbroke and his followers—“‘my countrymen, my loving friends.’”

Yet the threat of Bolingbroke's charisma and of its potential to bring on a popular revolt is never quite fulfilled. Despite his evident popularity, the duke succeeds not as a populist but consummately as an aristocrat. “As I was banish'd, I was banish'd Herford,” he says on returning from exile, “But as I come, I come for Lancaster” (2.3.112-13). The followers upon whom he depends are also aristocrats, and he casts his rebellion in terms of shared privilege and family rights. “Wherefore was I born?” (2.3.121) he asks York, who has just accused him of “gross rebellion and detested treason” (2.3.108). Bolingbroke invokes the protection of the lineage charismatic group, describing an analogous situation in which Aumerle might have been deprived of his rights and inheritances: “Had you first died, and he been thus trod down, / He should have found his uncle Gaunt a father” (2.3.125-26). Fatherhood, blood-ties, and dynastic charisma all meet in Bolingbroke's justification as the duke marshals the most powerful myths of his milieu to organize a group of followers, finally declaring himself a subject who challenges law: “And therefore personally I lay claim / To my inheritance of free descent” (2.3.133-34).

As so often in the play, different kinds of charisma conflict in the Bolingbroke experience. His rebellion justifies itself as an instrument of the retrenchment of traditional authority, whose laws and tenets Richard has abrogated in stealing Lancaster's property. At the same time, however, Bolingbroke displays a magnetic personal charisma, a disruptive force which is essentially antagonistic to traditional authority. It is to this latter disruptive force that York responds in condemning the man who would “Be his own carver, and cut out his way, / To find out right with wrong” (2.3.143-44). The balancing of these conflicting forms of authority distinguishes Bolingbroke as a leader. His abilities come to light in crises of group cohesion, a fact that supports Thomas Spence Smith's observation that some charismatic groups may be unable to function without an element of decay. Such groups thrive in dissipative structures, and their leaders, like Bolingbroke, capitalize on the entropy of the social structure to achieve and maintain ascendancy.31 But Bolingbroke publicly eschews socially dissipative situations, representing himself as the hero of homeostasis. His rebellion paradoxically offers political stability, official respect for lineage authority, and a return to traditional rulership. The governmental chaos which he helped foment—and which parallels Richard's emotional state—provides Bolingbroke with the opening to appear “as a double-visaged Janus, projecting himself on the one hand as the omniscient repository of ancient wisdom and on the other as the new man of the people.”32

The double visage and its political implications are particularly clear in Shakespeare's main source. According to Holinshed, Bolingbroke addressed Parliament after Richard's deposition with these words:

I Henrie of Lancaster claime the realme of England and the crowne, with all the appurtenances, as I that am descended by right line of the blood comming from that good lord king Henrie the third, and through the right that God of his grace hath sent me, to recouer the same, which was in point to be vndoone for default of good gouernance and due justice.33

Even in the Chronicles the figure of Bolingbroke thrives on the threshold of different kinds of charisma that are not so much in conflict as in hopeful tandem. In this passage he invokes both his lineage and his personal charismatic claim. He offers to restore “good gouernance” and “due justice,” in Weberian terms fulfilling extraordinary social needs by transcending the sphere of everyday routines. This he will accomplish “with the helpe of my kin, and of my freends,” an acknowledgment of group function, or more precisely, the cooperation of two different groups: one the product of lineage connections, the other of personal bonds. In claiming the crown, Bolingbroke calls attention to his charismatic leadership while simultaneously presenting himself as a scion of traditional authority, a legitimate hereditary ruler.

Ironically, the contradiction implicit in these appeals to different forms of authority works to Bolingbroke's tactical advantage. In Holinshed's account Bolingbroke stands up in a literally kingless meeting of Parliament: Richard has refused to attend the session and in his absence the “speciall commissaries” list his crimes against the realm and “depriue him of all kinglie dignitie and worship, and of any kinglie worship in himself.”34 They depose him in absentia with his personal resignation to take place the following day. At this point in the proceedings the Parliament and indeed all England have no head. An extreme crisis of political disequilibrium faces the assembled house, providing the ideal moment for an intervention of charismatic management:

Immediatlie as the sentence was in this wise passed, and that by reason thereof the realme stood void without head or gouernour for the time, the duke of Lancaster rising from the place where before he sate, and standing where all those in the house might behold him, in reuerend manner made a signe of the crosse on his forhead, and likewise on his brest, and after silence by an officer commanded, said vnto the people there being present these words following.

The duke of Lancaster laieth challenge or claime to the crowne.35

Bolingbroke's response to the situation—even if we reckon the crisis to have been stage-managed for him36—places him at the focal point of the dissipative government structure, a heroic institution-saver.

The duke solemnly invokes his genealogical descent, but the valence of his authority favors personal charisma, a form of leadership “specifically salvationist or messianic in nature.”37 This valence, necessary to Bolingbroke's political survival, results from the weakness of his lineage claim. Although he can trace his bloodline beyond Edward III to Henry III, and although he is at the same first-cousin level as Richard in the kinship group, he is not the first son of a first son and therefore does not have the same mystified claim to the family's charismatic endowment.38 Consequently he must count on integrating a combination of destabilizing elements with the highly stable idea of a kingly office to effect the political homeostasis he implicitly promises when he “laieth challenge or claime to the crowne.”

Despite his personal charisma, or because of it, Bolingbroke remains a genealogical compromise. Thus in reading Richard II it remains impossible to decide whether Richard can justifiably be deposed, whether “God's substitute” can be replaced by someone chosen on earth. This problem supplies the content of the play's political debate. Richard himself provokes the issue when he is brought before Bolingbroke for his abdication. “God save the king!” he exclaims blackly, “although I be not he; / And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me” (4.1.174-75). But, both in the deposition scene and generally throughout the play, Shakespeare does more than merely oppose the anointed and the unanointed. Bolingbroke's charismatic presence has the force of a divine gift—if not a Tamburlainian superiority then at least a fresher sanction than Richard's lineage claims. As Weber suggests in one of his more extreme characterizations of pure (i.e., personal) charisma, “Instead of reverence for customs that are ancient and hence sacred, [charisma] enforces the inner subjection to the unprecedented and absolutely unique and therefore Divine.”39 Although, as we have seen, Bolingbroke pays reverential lip service to old and sacred customs, his disruptive, revolutionary mission demands of his followers what Weber calls an “inner subjection” (innere Unterwerfung) to the divine.40 Consequently Richard's anointed status must confront the divinity of his challenger's charismatic auspices.

Moreover, because Bolingbroke has better administrative skills, not to mention a better strategic imagination, he manages his charismatic claim more perceptively, taking less for granted regarding his followers' duty to him. We might say (with due acknowledgment to Pierre Bourdieu) that Bolingbroke possesses charismatic capital, and that experiencing his charisma means sharing in a process of its distribution. Perhaps it is worth recalling in this context that Saint Paul speaks of distribution when describing the human manifestations of the nine charisms. In the Geneva Bible Paul claims “there are diuersities of gifts” (I Cor. 12:4), but the term “diuersities of gifts” is in fact diaeresis de charismaton in the Greek New Testament and divisiones gratiarum in the Vulgate. The Greek diairesis means a dividing-up, just as the Latin divisio suggests both dividing and distribution of available material. This sense is lost somewhat in the word “diuersities” in that the notion of difference occludes the connotation of distribution. But the Bolingbroke experience restores the original notion of charismatic distribution which tends to be effaced by such diluted forms of charisma as those associated with lineage and office. Simultaneously conserving and disrupting the social equilibrium, Bolingbroke measures his individual power against group satisfaction and enhances his personal aggrandizement with the distribution of charismatic capital.41

Bolingbroke's word for this distribution is “love.” At the end of act 2 he meets Northumberland in Gloucestershire and travels with him to link up with other allies. Northumberland is unctuous, apparently enthralled by Bolingbroke's very presence:

                    I bethink me what a weary way
From Ravenspurgh to Cotshall will be found
In Ross and Willoughby, wanting your company,
Which I protest hath very much beguil'd
The tediousness and process of my travel.
But theirs is sweet'ned with the hope to have
The present benefit which I possess,
And hope to joy is little less in joy
Than hope enjoy'd.


These words seem uncharacteristically effusive for Northumberland. His hyperbole echoes the language of courtly love: he “protests” that Bolingbroke's company has “beguil'd / The tediousness and process of my travel,” the hendiadys doubling not only the difficulty but also presumably the “present benefit” which he possesses—hope and joy combined in “hope enjoy'd.” There is little doubt, I think, that Shakespeare means for us to recognize this scene as a demonstration of Bolingbroke's magnetism, the root and controlling factor of his charismatic authority. An undercurrent of religious, and maybe amorous, devotion resonates in the words “hope” and “joy,” and in Northumberland's fantasy that Ross and Willoughby, like the biblical Magi, are travelling in “sweet'ned” anticipation of the epiphany to come when they will meet the savior-duke.

Bolingbroke's return fulfills the salvationistic promise of the charismatic bond, satisfying his followers' charisma hunger and instantly reorganizing the symbolic order around his charismatic mission.42 His followers, of whom Northumberland is emblematic, begin to experience their own unattainable ambitions through Bolingbroke's leadership—a group phenomenon Smith, following Heinz Kohut, refers to as “transfers of omnipotence to idealized self-objects, … manifestations of the hunger for powerful figures.”43 Northumberland promptly fits the returning duke into an idealized symbolic scheme. His lover's enthusiasm, hinting at the aim-inhibited libidinal ties of group cohesion, animates the scene and provides the proof of Bolingbroke's ability to satisfy extraordinary needs and to feed charisma hunger while managing the functional disequilibrium of a rebellious movement.

Bolingbroke's response to Northumberland's enthusiasm is properly humble (as un-Tamburlainian as it could be): “Of much less value is my company / Than your good words” (2.3.19-20). This is the Bolingbroke of the supple knee, acknowledging the interdependence of his relationship to Northumberland. His magnanimity continues when Harry Percy rides up, at which point we glimpse an exchange of vows between political lovers. After his father has introduced the duke, Percy begins:

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 approved service and desert.
I thank thee, gentle Percy, and be sure
I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul rememb'ring 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.


Talk of happy souls, true love, hearts, and hands echoes the language of courtly fin'amors.44 Moreover, as H. R. Coursen has pointed out, Bolingbroke also invokes the “reciprocal nature of the feudal oath,” promising to reward Percy as “my fortune ripens with thy love.”45

It has often been noted that the promises made here are later condemned by Hotspur as the “candy deal of courtesy” (cf. I Henry IV 1.3.251-55). But the feudal character of the meeting in Richard II, and of the reciprocity implied, confirms the charismatic status of Bolingbroke's authority. Feudal relations tend to have a charismatic basis insofar as fealty eschews economic rationality. Knights depend on their lords' pleasure for their survival; rewards and spoils come from an irrational relation between their oath and the king's good will. The bond between Percy and Bolingbroke has traces of this kind of irrational economic conduct, this charismatic management of payment.46 Thus the unspecific, easily misinterpreted promise to give “thy true love's recompense,” while speeding Bolingbroke on his way, also causes problems later when the routinization of his charismatic movement has begun in earnest.

The magnanimous duke repeats the same vague promises to Ross and Willoughby, with the same emphasis on their love:

                                                                                All my treasury
Is yet but unfelt thanks, which, more inrich'd,
Shall be your love and labour's recompense.


“Your presence makes us rich,” answers Ross. “And far surmounts our labour to attain it,” chimes in Willoughby. For the third time we hear the same attitude toward Bolingbroke's “presence” and an identical staging of his charismatic experience. Through it all Bolingbroke continually speaks of love as a service rendered which deserves recompense. He vows to distribute the capital he gains, presumably both material and honorific, as his fortune “ripens” and fills his treasury with more than “unfelt thanks.” In this sense, as I mentioned above, Bolingbroke manages the accumulation and distribution of what might be called charismatic capital. The duke may speak airily of such tangibles as exchequers and fortunes, treasury and enrichment, but at this point in the play his value to his followers is primarily symbolic.

Bolingbroke's value as a bearer of charismatic symbols remains more or less in suspension throughout Richard II. The strain of routinization does not occur until the Henriad. Given the conflicting forms of authority which Bolingbroke exploits in his rise to power, it is no wonder that his charismatic idealization increasingly suffers damage as he establishes himself as a traditional ruler. But that conflict is not the tragedy of Richard's play, if indeed it can ever be termed a tragedy at all.


  1. Max Weber, Economy and Society, 2 vols., ed. Günther Roth and Claus Wittich, with various translators (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 2:1121.

  2. Richard II, Arden edition, ed. Peter Ure (London: Methuen, 1956; repr. 1984), 2.3.132-35 All subsequent references to the play appear in the text. References to Ure's commentary appear in the notes.

  3. Ruth Nevo, Tragic Form in Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 65.

  4. Louise Cowan, “God Will Save the King: Shakespeare's Richard II,” in John Alvis and Thomas G. West, eds., Shakespeare As A Political Thinker (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), 75.

  5. Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie, 2 vols., ed. Johannes Winckelmann (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1956), 2:679.

  6. Weber, Economy and Society, 2:1136

  7. Ibid.

  8. See Thomas Spence Smith, Strong Interaction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 185. Smith has noted that in Weber's theory “social life beyond the charismatic circle was founded on ways not of retrieving charisma but of preventing its return, or, perhaps more accurately, of filtering it out” because rationality and traditionalism “were incompatible with the radically dependent, subjectively fused, unstable and incalculable forms of personal charisma.” This is not the place to discuss Smith's theory, except perhaps to note that he sees charismatic group function as the management of a nonequilibrium system, exactly the sort of social interaction in which Richard falters and Bolingbroke flourishes.

  9. The anonymous play called Woodstock also contains a kinship pun in its opening scene. An incredulous Duke of York exclaims, “God for thy mercy! Would our cousin king / so cozen us, to poison us in our meat?” (1.1.8-9). By equating “cousin” with “cozen,” the passage frankly associates cheating and betrayal with kinship. Indeed, both words are spelled “cussen” in the manuscript of the play, as seen in Wilhelmina Frijlinck's transcript of Egerton MS 1994 (Malone Society, 1929). A. P. Rossiter modernized the spelling in his edition, Woodstock, A Moral History (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946).

  10. But it should be noted that dueling and personal combat among aristocrats or courtiers were discouraged in Elizabethan England, and therefore (anachronistically) Bolingbroke's dissociation of the throne from personal combat would have had some legitimate justification. See Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 13-17.

  11. Cowan, “God Will Save the King,” 73.

  12. See Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 23-25; Anthony Wagner, Pedigree and Progress: Essays in the Genealogical Interpretation of History (London: Phillimore, 1975), 45; and also my Conceived Presences: Literary Genealogy in Renaissance England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 6-8.

  13. Cf. Ure, Arden edition, 17 n13-21, on the notion of the family tree.

  14. The Duchess's mystification of Edward's blood may have its source in Woodstock 1.1.37-45.

  15. A full discussion of subjectivity and charisma in Richard II is beyond the scope of this essay. But it should be noted that, although Richard cannot be said to demonstrate a continuous interiority, it is also inaccurate to characterize his subjectivity in the sharply polarized terms of some recent criticism. See, e.g., Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985), especially 33-34 and 39-40; also, Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). In reviling “essentialism” and “liberal humanism,” these critics (among many others) posit both an evolutionary model of the “unified subject” (Belsey's term) and an either/or pattern characterizing a protagonist as either a continuous interiority or a discontinuous collocation of exterior impressions. But the either/or pattern fails to account for the ambiguous status of group identity and intrasubjective dependence, as is evident in both Bolingbroke's and Richard's relations with their followers. Moreover, the evolutionary model of subjectivity is unconvincing. As Alan MacFarlane showed about twenty years ago, in The Origins of English Individualism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), the evolutionary historical model of judging the emergence of individualism does not have much credence in England. By extension, we should be skeptical about the sudden emergence of subjectivity, let alone about the putative dark ages of its nonexistence.

  16. Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 27.

  17. Wolfgang Iser, Staging Politics: The Lasting Impact of Shakespeare's Histories, trans., David Henry Wilson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 69.

  18. I borrow the notion from Nicholas Brooke, who remarks that “Shakespeare does not [in Richard II] … make a simple distinction between the man and the office: the office is the necessary concomitant of the man”; Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London: Methuen, 1968), 133. In a similar vein, Philip Edwards observes that only as Richard's authority slips away does the king “begin to learn the true nature of his person and his office, that true nature being the identity of those two things”; Edwards, “Person and Office in Shakespeare's Plays,” Proceedings of the British Academy 56 (1972): 100. Perhaps Brooke's “concomitant” is a better word than Edwards's “identity,” but the fundamental point is the same: only at the risk of destroying the concept of kingship can we separate person and office.

  19. It should be noted that Weber speaks of office charisma (Amtcharisma) as a form of depersonalization distinct from lineage charisma; office charisma, he explains, is transferred from person to person “through artificial, magical means instead of through blood relationship” (Economy and Society, 2:1139). In a sense, therefore, lineage charisma adds a third or middle term to the polarizing opposition of person and office—and also perhaps to the two-bodies concept. We might compare Louis Marin's concept of the image or portrait of a king as his “sacramental body.” See Portrait of the King, trans. Martha H. Houle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 14:

    the king has only one body left, but his sole body, in truth, unifies three, a physical historical body, a juridico-political body, and a semiotic sacramental body, the sacramental body, the “portrait,” operating the exchange without remainder (or attempting to eliminate all remainder) between the historical and political bodies.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reader for Exemplaria who recommended Marin's study.

  20. Kantorowicz, King's Two Bodies, 13. Kantorowicz depends heavily on this passage, but it should be noted that not everyone agrees with the importance of the “two bodies” concept in England. For example, Richard F. Hardin has objected that Kantorowicz's thesis “bears more directly on Continental than English history,” and that we should be skeptical about its application to Elizabethan drama; see Hardin, Civil Idolatry: Desacralizing and Monarchy in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), 24. In an earlier study Marie Axton had noted that in Elizabethan England “‘The king's two bodies’ was never a fact, nor did it ever attain the status of orthodoxy; it remained a controversial idea”; Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977), x. Axton adds that this controversial idea came to prominence in the sixteenth century especially among lawyers and chiefly in response to the succession crisis. The notion of a natural body distinct from the body politic was substantially a forensic point, part of a larger argument used to oppose Elizabeth. (In addition to his Reports, Plowden also wrote an influential manuscript treatise supporting the right to the English throne of Mary Queen of Scots; see Axton, 19). Hardin acknowledges Axton's documentation of the “two bodies” concept in the period, but disagrees with her interpretation of the evidence (see 210 n25). Hardin's skepticism is salutary. Moreover, there is the question of whether Kantorowicz's model is too indebted to medieval sources. But, despite the uncertainties, I am still inclined to accept Axton's general conclusion that the notion of the king's or queen's two bodies was sufficiently in circulation to have been fair game for Inns of Court dramatists as well as for Shakespeare and other professionals.

  21. Edward Shils, The Constitution of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 131.

  22. Edward Forset, A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique (London, 1606), 3-4. Forset's notion of the ideal monarchy owes a good deal to Saint Paul's discussion of the nine charisms, or gifts of grace, in 1 Corinthians 12. Cf. Forset's Preface: “The like comparison [of the body natural to the body politic] is most divinely enlarged by a much better Orator, and in much more important poynt of the inseparable union of the members of Christ with their head, and of the necessary communion of their distinct gifts and works amongst themselves” (no page number). The Pauline text links the most famous use of the human body as a metaphor for a political entity to the original discussion of charisma, a juxtaposition that should resonate in any criticism of Richard II.

  23. Larry S. Champion, “The Noise of Threatening Drum”: Dramatic Strategy and Political Ideology in Shakespeare and the English Chronicle Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 101-2. H. R. Coursen notes that “[t]he historical Richard—more than had monarchs before him—insisted on anointment as the sacramental action that confirmed his absolute right to rule”; Coursen, The Leasing Out of England: Shakespeare's Second Henriad (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982), 35. Holinshed's extensive treatment of Richard's coronation seems to bear out this idea; Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, 1807), 2:713-15.

  24. Kantorowicz, King's Two Bodies, 30.

  25. John Palmer, Political Characters in Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1948), 138.

  26. Shils, Constitution of Society, 131.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Compare C. Stephen Jaeger on the conflict between what he terms charismatic and intellectual culture in The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in Medieval Europe, 950-1200 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), especially 4-9; see also his recent article, “Charismatic Body—Charismatic Text,” Exemplaria 9 (1997): 117-37. In neither study is Jaeger concerned with group function per se, but his notion of the preservation of charisma in art (“Charismatic Body,” 121) as well as his discussion of “enfabulation” (ibid., 132) are interesting to consider in connection with the separation of a charismatic leader from the symbols of his or her charismatic movement. On the other hand, the polarization of charismatic and intellectual culture leads Jaeger to doubtful assumptions regarding the transition from one form of authority to another; and I think that he aestheticizes charisma unnecessarily in his view of the human body as a work of art in charismatic culture.

  29. Cf. Champion, “Noise of Threatening Drum,” 146 n10.

  30. Ure, Arden edition, 43 n24-36.

  31. Smith, Strong Interaction, 110-11.

  32. Ann Ruth Willner and Dorothy Willner, “The Rise and Role of Charismatic Leaders,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 358 (1965): 87. The quotation does not appear in the context of Richard II.

  33. Holinshed, Chronicles, 2:865.

  34. Ibid., 2:864.

  35. Ibid., 2:865.

  36. In Samuel Daniel's version Bolingbroke brings the charges himself: “And all these faults, which Lancaster now brings / Against a King, must be his owne, when hee, / By vrging others sinnes, a King shall be.” See Civile Wars 2.98, in Daniel, The Complete Works, 5 vols., ed. Alexander Grosart (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), vol. 2.

  37. Robert C. Tucker, “The Theory of Charismatic Leadership,” Daedalus 97 (1968): 743.

  38. He mentions Henry III because with his reign begins the unbroken accession to the throne of first sons, until Richard who is a grandson: Henry III, 1216-72; Edward I, 1272-1307; Edward II, 1307-1326; Edward III, 1326-77.

  39. Weber, Economy and Society, 2:1117.

  40. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, 2:666.

  41. On conserving and disrupting, see Charles Camic, “Charisma: Its Varieties, Preconditions, and Consequences,” Sociological Inquiry 50 (1980): 20.

  42. On charisma hunger see Smith, Strong Interaction, 169.

  43. Ibid., 174-75; cf. Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (New York: International Universities Press, 1971), 302.

  44. Cf. Tamburlaine's battlefield meeting with Theridamas, Part I, 1.2:224-31. My interest is in the contribution of aim-inhibited libidinal ties to group function. For a different approach, attempting to discern uninhibited homoerotic ties in the masked language of the Henriad, see, e.g., Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualties (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 145-75; and also Valerie Traub, “Prince Hal's Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body,” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 456-74.

  45. Coursen, Leasing Out of England, 78.

  46. The concept of irrational economic organization is central to Weber's ideal type of pure charisma, in particular in contrast with bureaucracy. Charisma can either reject owning or making money, as among mendicant friars, or, as in the case of pirates or political heroes, charisma may in fact seek booty. “The point,” Weber emphasizes, “is that charisma rejects as undignified all methodical rational acquisition, in fact, all rational economic conduct” (Economy and Society, 2:1113). But the rejection of rational economic conduct, while providing the charismatic leader with vital nonequilibrium components for the management and control of his or her followers, also threatens to destroy the movement. As Weber concludes, “Every charisma is on the road from a turbulently emotional life that knows no economic rationality to a slow death by suffocation under the weight of material interests: every hour of its existence brings it nearer to this end” (2:1120).

Charles R. Forker (essay date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “Unstable Identity in Shakespeare's Richard II.Renascence 54, no. 1 (fall 2001): 3-22.

[In the following essay, Forker attributes Richard II's “unstable and mutable personality” to the tension between his position as king by divine right and his mortal fallibility.]

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
.....Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape. …

(Antony and Cleopatra 4.14.9-14)1

Antony's sudden, shaky sense of his own identity raises an issue that besets several of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists. In this essay I want to consider the character of Richard II as a case in point,2 to suggest that Richard's struggle to come to terms with the several aspects of his unique self not only lies at the heart of his personal tragedy but also symbolizes a shift from the relative stability of his medieval worldview to a more modern, relativistic, and disturbingly uncertain one. The psychic turmoil that the play dramatizes has traditionally given actors difficulty, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because post-enlightenment audiences have been insufficiently cognizant of and sympathetic with the religious and theological assumptions about kingship that would have been taken for granted in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. Consequently, as theater history shows, more secular and even psychosexual strategies for expressing Richard's predicament have been appropriated as the usual means of expressing the character's weakness or shallowness in the face of political adversity. And the tendency has become increasingly prominent in an age when kings are disappearing altogether as national leaders and nowadays, for the most part at least, retain only ceremonial status. My thesis is that Richard's emotional volatility and psychological complexity, frequently discussed in other contexts, stem essentially from conflicts inherent in his dual role as king and man—as both rex imago Dei and as fallible mortal.

Much of Richard's psychic instability comes with his title as a monarch by divine right, for he regards the political attack upon him by Bolingbroke as a violation of the authority vested in him not by men but by God. The political theology of the king's two bodies, borrowed originally from the early concept of the Church as the Body of Christ and articulated and popularized in the writings of the legal scholar Edmund Plowden, became deeply implicated in the Tudor definition of monarchy. The King's natural body incorporated his humanity and was thus subject to the frailties and mortality of the flesh like that of any other man; but his body politic embodied the state and so set him apart from all others, being immortal and ubiquitous. If the doctrine were applied uncritically, particular actions of a king might be interpreted as possessing a mystical and almost unchallengeable authority. The historical Sir John Bushy is supposed to have claimed, for instance, that the “Laws are in the King's mouth, or sometimes in his breast” (qtd. by Kantorowicz 28, who discusses its provenance). Holinshed (III. 502) makes a version of this comment one of the items (no. 14) charged against Richard in Parliament. Thus Henry V in Shakespeare's play can speak of himself as double-natured—a “god” that suffers “mortal griefs” and so is “twin-born” (Henry V 4.1.233, 241-42). In her first words to the Privy Councillors after her accession in 1558 Elizabeth I adopted the familiar vocabulary, speaking of her sorrow for the death of her sister Queen Mary as a function of her “bodye naturallye considered” but of her power to govern England as proceeding from her “bodye politique” (State Papers Domestic 1558-1566, I, art. 7; qtd. in Axton 38).

Kantorowicz sensitively interprets Richard II as a tragedy of royal christology during the course of which the title figure progressively confronts his peculiar crisis of identity: Richard's dual nature not only defines but magnifies his sufferings, forcing him in stages to come to terms with the fatal disuniting of his human from his mystical body as occasioned by his political situation, and pushing him ultimately to self-deposition and self-annihilation. Kantorowicz speaks of the inevitable “duplications” inherent in kingship and shows how Richard struggles self-consciously, even theatrically, with them: “Thus play I in one person many people” (5.5.31). According to this critic, the most prominent roles that Richard acts are those of “the King, the Fool, and the God”—these dissolving finally “in the Mirror,” an emblem of death:

Those three prototypes of “twin-birth” intersect and overlap and interfere with each other continuously. Yet, it may be felt that the “King” dominates in the scene on the Coast of Wales (III.ii), the “Fool” at Flint Castle (III.iii), and the “God” in the Westminster scene (IV.i), with Man's wretchedness as a perpetual companion and antithesis at every stage. Moreover, in each one of those three scenes we encounter the same cascading: from divine kingship to kingship's “Name,” and from the name to the naked misery of man.


Kantorowicz's formulation reminds us of King Lear, Shakespeare's supreme embodiment in one colossal figure of the tragic nexus of king, fool and god, whose sufferings traverse the full range between the extremes of human misery, the degradation of man nakedly exposed on a heath, and the near-divinity of supreme earthly power sumptuously enrobed and crowned—as implied in Lear's phrase, “every inch a king” (4.6.107). And it should be remembered that James I, the monarch in whose reign Lear made his first appearance, announced to his parliament that “Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Divine power upon earth” (James 307). Also in Hamlet Claudius is ironically able to calm Laertes' rebellious rage with the assurance that “There's such divinity doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will” (4.5.124-27). That Shakespeare's Richard is psychologically wedded to such a mystical concept of kingship (he believes at one point that God will protect him from merely human agents with a battalion of “glorious angel[s]” 3.2.61) is obvious in his language—as, for instance, in his reference to himself as the “deputy elected by the Lord,” whom “worldly men cannot depose” (3.2.56-57) and in his several comparisons of himself to Christ. But the same idea is also supported by Gaunt, who uses similar terminology (“God's substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight” 1.2.37-38) and by Carlisle (“the figure of God's majesty, / His captain, steward, deputy elect, / Anointed, crowned, planted many years” 4.1.126-28). York refers to Richard as “the anointed King” (2.3.96) and even after his defection to Bolingbroke can still speak of him as “sacred” (3.3.9), a word that crops up more often in Richard II than in any other of Shakespeare's works. Bolingbroke himself partly endorses Richard's iconic conception of monarchy when, invoking imagery from the hierarchy of nature as enshrined in the Great Chain of Being, he envisages their meeting at Flint Castle as the “thund'ring shock” of a cataclysmic storm with Richard as the reigning element of “fire” or lightning and himself as “the yielding water” (3.3.56-58). Of course this sacral and absolutist emphasis reflects only one aspect of the play's complex political vision, but it must nevertheless be the starting point for any analysis of Richard's identity problems.

In the opening scene, where he presides as judge over the quarrel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, Richard seems at least superficially secure in his conception of himself as a divinely sanctioned monarch, even to the point of interjecting a touch of levity: “Our doctors say this is no month to bleed” (1.1.157). He refers to his “sceptre's awe” and the “unstooping firmness of his upright soul” (1.1.118-21), asserting magisterially, “We were not born to sue but to command” (1.1.196). Nevertheless, he is forced to yield against his will to subjects who refuse to compose their differences peacefully, and who demand a trial by combat. In the tournament scene his demeanor is again impressively regal, but his throwing down the warder to stop the combatants (even though his decision to banish them is supported by his council) conveys an ambiguous impression of capricious theatricality mingled with fear of their possible future disloyalty. Richard embraces Bolingbroke, apparently a gesture of affection as well as an acknowledgement of kinship, before the contestant dons his helmet for battle; but then, privately, he seems jealous and even apprehensive of his cousin's popularity, when he speaks sarcastically of his courting the favor of commoners on his way to exile—“As were our England in reversion his, / And he our subjects' next degree in hope” (1.4.35-36). The heartless frivolity of Richard's reaction to the news of Gaunt's impending death, and the callous confiscation of his properties once death has come, show us another facet of Richard's unstable psyche. Revealingly, his face becomes the reflector of his volatile emotions. Gaunt's rebuke of his nephew's misrule produces anger in the young King, “chasing the royal blood” (2.1.118) from his naturally ruddy face; and the pallor returns later in Wales when onslaughts of bad news drain from his countenance “the blood of twenty thousand men” (3.2.76). Also on his return from Ireland, when Richard's sufferings begin, tears become a regular manifestation of his feelings.

If the first two acts disclose erratic elements in Richard's personality, Act 3 dramatizes the crisis of identity to which these earlier symptoms have been the prelude. Upon landing on the shore of his own kingdom, Richard at first indulges in a fantasy of royal omnipotence, invoking toads nettles, and poisonous spiders as defenders of his realm against the invading troops. His speech at this point (3.2.12-26) takes on a noticeably hieratic tone. He salutes the ground of Wales like a mother fondling a child from whom she has been long parted, nevertheless doing the land “favours with his royal hands” (3.2.11) in what seems like a variation on the “royal touch,” the ancient and miraculous action of curing scrofula traditionally administered by the hands of an anointed sovereign; Richard's saintly predecessor, Edward the Confessor, whose arms Richard adopted, was famous for the practice (see Macbeth 4.3.141-56), and a liturgy for the rite was published in 1597 about the time Richard II was first staged, being afterwards incorporated in some copies of the Book of Common Prayer. Finally after waves of unjustified elation and despondency, in reaction to the encouragement of his friends and the mounting catastrophe of wholesale desertions from his cause, Richard capitulates self-indulgently to the “sweet way” of “despair” (3.2.205). Anticipating in his “doom-eagerness”3 a totality of defeat that has yet to be visited upon him, the unstable king is the first person after Bolingbroke's return to pronounce the fatal word deposed, obsessively repeating it four times (3.2.56, 150, 157, 158) before his enemy can even suggest such a measure. And attraction to the martyrdom of abdication causes him to ritualize the abandonment of his sacred body, the body symbolized by his throne, to sit upon the ground, where he can meditate on death and the common humanity that unites him in his physical body to his subjects and all other mortals:

Throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?


As a monarch Richard never appears weaker, more self-absorbed or more in love with defeat than in this scene, which ends in his renouncing politics altogether: “Discharge my followers. Let them hence away, / From Richard's night to Bolingbroke's fair day” (3.2.217-78). Yet tragic sympathy for Richard begins to emerge with the challenge to his authority, and self-knowledge begins to accompany self-pity. The brittle confidence, arrogant self-possession, and careless indifference—dominant elements in the facade of the earlier Richard—have melted to disclose a richer and more vulnerably complex personality. The much-quoted “hollow crown” speech reveals that the speaker's untested faith in the divine protection of his title has been shattered as completely as the mirror he will later break. The new ingredient is Richard's own questioning of the integrity of the King's two bodies—a unity that heretofore he had shallowly assumed. Attack from without has sparked dividedness within. And the result is a protagonist of greater capacity for self-understanding and emotional depth than has yet been disclosed. Here Shakespeare draws upon the memento mori tradition of late medievalism—the Dance of Death as famously illustrated by Hans Holbein the Younger in his widely circulated series of woodcuts, Imagines Mortis (1538), in which Death the leveler (who “Keeps … his court” within the golden circlet that “rounds the mortal temples” of its wearer and scoffs “at his pomp” 3.2.161-63) is depicted as unexpectedly summoning persons of all ranks and classes but especially the great (kings, emperors, bishops, cardinals, nobles), thus provoking a frisson of heightened metaphysical consciousness and erasing all earthly distinctions sub specie aeternitatis. This is the macabre vision, engendered by a sudden reverse in his fortunes, that triggers Richard's doubts about the fancied efficacy of his inherited status and the supposed guarantee of his divine-right powers. At this crucial moment of disorientation Richard could well ask Lear's poignant question: “Does any here know me? … Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (1.4.226-30).

The fracturing of Richard's royal identity continues in the Flint Castle episode (3.3), where the figure of “Controlling majesty” (3.3.70), who dazzles his subjects like the sun and who reminds his beholders that “no hand of blood and bone / Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre, / Unless he do profane, steal or usurp” (3.3.79-81), nevertheless descends from his royal eminence into “the base court” (3.3.176) at the request of a mere vassal and not only grants Bolingbroke's demands but yields his person to the enemy, all the while indulging in histrionic and unkingly self-pity:

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 carved 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;
For on my heart they tread now whilst I live,
And, buried once, why not upon my head?


And through the effective use of anaphora Shakespeare exploits the paradox of a monarch who is theoretically absolute, yet nevertheless constrained by lesser mortals—a king who “must”:

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? I'God's name, let it go.


For Richard's frustration at this point, the dramatist probably imitated the similar rhetoric of Marlowe's Edward II, who expresses similar sentiments, e.g., “Am I a king and must be overruled?” (Edward II 1.1.134); “I see I must, and therefore am content” (Edward II 1.4.85); “Must! 'Tis somewhat hard when kings must go” (Edward II 4.7.83). But the seeming contradiction between monarchical absolutism and limitation was inherent in the doctrine of divine right: when Elizabeth I was mortally ill in 1602-03, her secretary Robert Cecil implored her: “Madame, to content the people you must go to bed,” to which her withering reply was, “Little man, little man, the word must is not to be used to princes” (Jenkins 323).

One unmistakable evidence of Richard's increasingly disunited self is his plangent clinging to his rank. As Donald Friedman puts it, “Richard, like Lear, must assume that his title is indistinguishable from his identity, just as his will is indistinguishable from the act that it wills” (295). Thus the tragedy of his reduction to “nothing” (4.1.201, 5.5.38, 41) becomes coextensive with his loss of title: “Is not the King's name twenty thousand names? / Arm, arm, my name!” (3.2.85-86); “O, that I were as great / As is my grief, or lesser than my name!” (3.3.136-37); “Must he lose / The name of King?” (3.3.145-46); “I have no name, no title—/ No, not that name was given me at the font—/ But 'tis usurped …” (4.1.255-57). For Richard, ceasing to be king in name is equivalent to non-existence, a point with which York sympathizes when he rebukes Northumberland for omitting the royal title (3.3.7-8). Richard's obsession with his name betokens his essentialist conception of language—a view of words that allows for no space between signifier and signified, like the priest who transmutes the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ by saying the words of institution: “this is my body … this is my blood.” The mystical uniqueness of his voice, an aspect of his “sacred” status, differentiates it in kind, he believes, from that of ordinary mortals who have no power to annul his divinely conferred authority: “The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” (3.2.56-57). At times, Richard's words take on something of the force of the Word in Saint John's sense of logos. Thus, when he banishes Mowbray, he assumes that his voice possesses an almost supernatural power to enact the sentence physically: “The hopeless word of ‘never to return’ / Breathe I against thee, upon pain of life” (1.3.152-53). Richard takes for granted the absolutism and inevitability of his language's effect—a painful truth also bitterly acknowledged by Bolingbroke when he reacts to the capricious shortening of his own exile:

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.


The great pageant of Richard's self-unkinging in Act 4 constitutes the emotional climax of the play, exploring the problem of Richard's struggle to define himself in richest complexity. Here Shakespeare contrasts two kinds of power—the political and the theatrical. Bolingbroke may hold the reins of sovereignty, but Richard is the master of self-dramatization with its attendant arts—command of rhetoric and metaphor, the power to embarrass enemies, ironic wit and quicksilver fancy, the capacity to evoke both pity and irritation, the tactic of associating his own sufferings with the passion of Jesus, and the histrionic skill to make the narcissistic contemplation of his own identity coterminous with a ceremony of monarchical renunciation that communicates a sense of desecration and the loss of sacred tradition. Richard manages to endow his own fall with cosmic significance—with the fracturing of an ancient and venerable world order in which the King is seen as a vital link in the great chain that connects the celestial with the earthly. The player-king now triumphs theatrically over the king of realpolitik but at the cost of half-annihilating both himself and the beautiful principle on which he had believed his royalty to be founded.

A certain doubleness of perspective, rooted in the sacramental theology of kingship itself, pervades the episode of discrowning; for paradoxically, Richard contrives to assert the sacred inviolability of his office while simultaneously divesting himself of its symbols and thereby violating it himself. Although Richard has the talents of an actor, inventing “a great ceremony for his humiliation,” as Philip Edwards puts it, “kingship is for him no actor's part, put on and put off at will” (102), but rather the definitional ground of his being. The man who had grandly claimed that an ocean of sea-water could not “wash the balm off from an anointed king” (3.2.55) now affects to remove it “With his own tears” (4.1.207). In rituals of priestly and episcopal degradation, only those who have been anointed themselves can presume to officiate in the scraping off of the holy oils and chrism. Yet it is equally clear that such degradations only prohibit the subject from lawfully exercising his sacramental powers since the gifts of the Holy Spirit conferred by anointing at consecrations and ordinations are permanently valid and beyond the power of human beings to revoke (see Ranald 183-96; Pater, qtd. in Forker, Critical Tradition 297-98). Richard's equivocal answer to Henry's question of whether he is “contented to resign the crown” (4.1.200) encapsulates concisely his divided attitude:

Ay, no. No, ay; for I must nothing be.
Therefore, no no, for I resign to thee.


Stripped of its quibbling intricacy, Richard's fundamental response to Bolingbroke's straightforward (and probably impatient) question is that he cannot disentangle “yes” from “no” in the disoriented psychic state to which the questioner has consigned him.

The inverted rite of discoronation to which Walter Pater called attention in his famous essay,5 and which Richard languishingly draws out to such liturgical length, expunges in a psychological sense the very identity of the speaker. As Ranald observes, the ceremony “is infinitely more than mere formality,” constituting as it does “his annihilation as a kingly person, his reduction to the rank of knave, the destruction of his achievements, and, as Richard sees it, his excision from the roster of English kings, since he has become a traitor to the office he had held” (195). Yet at the same time Richard cannot but asseverate the timeless legitimacy of his kingship—his claim to the body mystical that cannot theoretically be sundered from the body physical until death. He condemns the “heinous” act of “deposing … a king / And cracking the strong warrant of an oath, / Marked with a blot, damned in the book of heaven” (4.1.233-36); he compares himself twice to Christ, the King of all creation, whose Godhead is sempiternal; and he condemns himself for cooperating in the inversion of an immutable hierarchy—for consenting “T'undeck the pompous body of a king,” for having made “Glory base and Sovereignty a slave, / Proud Majesty a subject, State a peasant” (4.1.250-52).

Of course the episode exposes also the fallible side of Richard's nature so that a tragic divide opens up between the semi-divine dignity of the rank he once held (and still glorifies) and his own solipsistic exhibitionism. The comparisons to Christ have a double edge. Looked at from a merely human perspective, Richard's claim that his sufferings exceed those of his Savior, since Jesus had only one Judas while he has had to cope with “twelve thousand” betrayers (4.1.172), reveals a degree of presumption approaching blasphemy. At the same time, however, the analogy between the dethroning of an anointed sovereign and the Passion contains a certain theological validity according to the christology of divine-right doctrine. The windlass image of the two buckets (4.1.184-89) carries something of the same doubleness about it. Richard applies it to his own advantage by making the high bucket (Bolingbroke) dance emptily, carelessly and illegitimately in the air while the low bucket, representing himself, is heavy with grief and the weight of sacred tradition. The analogy is tactically clever since it apparently exasperates Duke Henry as intended; but the verbal wit displayed also casts doubt upon the profundity of Richard's grief since the deepest kinds of suffering do not usually accommodate such ostentation. The same point can be made about the emblematic mirror into which Richard gazes before he smashes it in a climactic coup de théâtre—an action he himself can refer to as “this sport” (4.1.290). At one level the episode can be read as extravagant escapism, a means by which Richard narcissistically evades a reality he himself has invited. The Epistle of James likens a Christian who hears the word of God but, self-deceivingly, fails to translate it into action “unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass” for “he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was” (James 1.23-24). This is the meaning that Bolingbroke imputes to Richard's gesture as he refers with a hint of contempt to “The shadow of his sorrow” (4.1.292). But the mirror, as a reflector of truth (as well as of vanity), also allows the fallen King a moment of deeper insight into his own nature. It becomes for him “the very book … Where all his sins are writ” (4.1.274-75) and the means of representing, as through a glass darkly, “the tortured soul” (4.1.298) that lies beneath the youthfully handsome and as yet unwrinkled countenance. John Nichols quotes a report that in her final illness Queen Elizabeth “desired to see a true looking-glass, which in twenty years she had not sene, but only such a one as was made of purpose to deceive her sight: which glasse, being brought her, she fell presently into exclayming against those which had so much commended her, and took it so offensively, that some which had flattered her, durst not come into her sight” (3. 612). The brittleness of the glass becomes for Richard a symbol of the fragility and impermanence of life itself and links up thematically with the “hollow crown” speech of 3.2 with its effect of expanded consciousness and deepened self-perception. And throughout the fallen monarch's quasi-tragic performance, Bolingbroke has been reduced to the role of a “silent King” (4.1.290), who can only regain a measure of assurance by “conveying” his rhetorically potent enemy “to the Tower” (4.1.316).

Act 5 further explores Richard's identity problems and finally resolves them with his murder. In the scene of parting from his Queen (5.1), Richard communicates another kind of dividedness—on the one hand, sincere grief for the ending of a devoted and mutually enriching relationship (since husband and wife are never to see each other again), and, on the other, an egoistic need to project his own tragedy of dethronement upon her through literary artifice. He instructs her to imagine him dead after their final separation, and, as she sits by the fire in a French cloister listening to stories of “woeful ages long ago betid,” to add to the accumulating narratives “the lamentable tale of me”—a story that will outdistance all the others in pathos and send “the hearers weeping to their beds” in grief for “the deposing of a rightful king” (5.1.42-50). Emotionally, Richard is still caught up in the sweet-sour pleasures of literary self-identification, in the “sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.156) that had occupied his imagination on returning from Ireland, and, in his self-absorption, cannot wholly separate love of his spouse from the aesthetic appreciation of his own fall. Yet he also recognizes that their “former state” was but “a happy dream” from which “grim Necessity” has at last awakened them, “the truth of what we are” finally emerging only through the insight that suffering prompts (5.1.18-21). Again an element of self-recognition mingles with unacknowledged self-regard.

Our final encounter with Richard in his prison at Pomfret, the only episode of the play to stage physical violence, ends by restoring some sense of wholeness to the King's identity, at least as regards the reintegration of his two bodies. The overall purpose is to create as much sympathy as possible, thus muting or helping us to forget his role in Gloucester's death and the other tyrannies that had earlier alienated our responses to his character. And when Richard manfully strikes down two of Exton's assistants before falling himself to the assassin's blade, Shakespeare leaves us with the impression of a man who finally claims the martial tradition of his royal ancestors from which his uncles had seen him as shamefully defecting (compare the speeches of Gaunt and York at 2.1.104-08 and 2.1.171-83, which invoke Richard's heroic forebears, Edward III and the Black Prince). Here Richard reasserts his infrangible identity as King, heroically repossessing the sacred title for which his birth had destined him.

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


These words contain no hint of a guilty conscience nor any suggestion of unorthodox doubt about the King's two bodies: Richard's body mystical will rise to rejoin the divine source of its sacramental power, while his body natural will sink down and dissolve to earth like that of other mortals. Regnal flaws notwithstanding, eternal condemnation is for regicides, not for legitimate monarchs. If Colley Cibber had adapted this play instead of Richard III, he might have added at this point, “Richard's himself again” (66). The touching loyalty of the Groom, the mixed humor and pathos of the “roan Barbary” incident, and the surliness of the Keeper, who, unlike the King, treats the visitor badly, combine to bring out Richard's humanity and personal charm. And the Keeper's refusal to taste Richard's food on the orders of Exton, who has “lately / Come from the King” (5.5.100-01), suggests the possibility that instructions from Windsor are being obeyed. Obviously, Shakespeare rehabilitates Richard in this scene by making him seem more attractive than the politically abler usurper who has unseated him.

The long meditation on identity, isolation, time and harmony with which the scene opens, Richard's only soliloquy, is, however, less unitary in its effect. Here uniquely we see Richard without an onstage audience. His island realm has now shrunk to the enclosure of a prison cell, and, psychologically speaking, to the confines of his own fanciful mind. Now he must “hammer … out” the imaginary contours of a new kingdom of introversion, peopling it with a “generation of still-breeding thoughts,” fragmenting himself into a collection of listeners to his own performance, all of them discontented (5.5.5-11). The imaginary roles include the better and worser aspects of himself, the higher and more divine thoughts being “intermixed / With scruples” and with his consciousness of former pride and worldly luxury. He “set[s] the word itself / Against the word” (5.5.13-14), wrestling with two seemingly incompatible passages of scripture, one of which encourages him to rely on the offer of salvation to the innocent (see Luke 18.16) and the other of which appears to deny redemption to the rich (see Luke 18.25). He ransacks ingenuity to invent analogies for the competing facets of his own personality, exhausting his rhetorical skills in a bewildering confluence of fugitive ideas and speculative associations. See-sawing between opposite conceptions of himself, he must simultaneously be actor and audience, king and beggar, free spirit and frustrated prisoner. But the competing roles engendered by his fancy tend finally to obliterate each other, reducing him to nullity:

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 kinged again, and by and by
Think that I am unkinged 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.


This, of course, is a reprise of Richard as the “mockery king of snow” melting himself away “in waterdrops” (4.1.260-62) and of the histrionic narcissist dispersing his identity in the smithereens of a shattered looking-glass.6 The nothingness on which the King muses is the psychological equivalent of death. But Richard's tragic limitation is that, even in defeat, he cannot break free of his own crippling self-consciousness from which only murder can release him.

The intrusion of music awakens him to the disharmony and disproportion that have defined his reign: “I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me” (5.5.49). Here he acknowledges slackness or self-indulgence as a cause of his fall, but paradoxically, his confession occurs in a long rumination that, by elaborately pursuing over-strained conceits, constitutes in itself a form of self-indulgence. Yet of this point also Richard seems aware, for, still resentful of his enemy, he contrasts Bolingbroke's world of political activism to his own enforced stasis: the false king in his “proud joy” has usurped the “time” that should have been Richard's by right, while the legitimate king must “stand fooling” in a cell, the puppet or “jack o'the clock” to an upstart (5.5.58-60). Richard's attempt to come to terms with his own tragedy seems flawed and incomplete, too deeply mired in pain, regret and frustration to allow for full moral self-recognition or access to the larger, more metaphysical significances of his experience. He remains still obsessed with “this all-hating world” (5.5.66). But at the same time he is able to bless the unidentified musician whose playing offers him “a sign of love” (5.5.65) and thereby to show that he has shed enough of his egoism to be capable of gratitude. Moreover we have already been made aware that Richard's thoughts have recently been turning to eternity, for in parting from his Queen, he had referred to “the new world's crown” (see 2 Timothy 4.8) that the couple's “profane hours” have endangered (5.1.24-25). These religious sentiments undoubtedly represent more than a flight to mere platitude since Christian piety was a well-documented aspect of Richard's historical personality (see Saul, 293-326) available to Shakespeare in his sources.

The mercurial and volatile personality that the protagonist of Richard II so compellingly projects—by turns commandingly royal and neurotically supine, wilfully blind and penetratingly insightful, occasionally arrogant, sometimes maudlin, often witty, engagingly fanciful, capable of friendship and love, ever eloquent—has seemed to many critics, going back to the Romantics and Victorians, to reflect an essentially feminine component or at the least a want of virility. Coleridge spoke of Richard's “intellectual feminineness, which feels a necessity of ever leaning on the breast of others” (Forker, Critical Tradition 131) and Swinburne of the character's “inspired effeminacy” and of his being “the unmanliest of Shakespeare's creatures” (Forker, Critical Tradition 396). In 1888 Frank Marshall, a friend and colleague of the great actor Henry Irving, went so far as to use the term “epicene” in attempting to account for Richard's blatant inconsistencies—especially his mixture of tenderness and vindictiveness shown towards Gaunt (Forker, Critical Tradition 290). These commentators seem more or less to have ignored the emotional conflicts created by Richard's struggle with the human and divinely ordained aspects of his role as a sacramentally instituted ruler—the root cause of the instabilities dramatized in Shakespeare's play. Extreme manifestations of human weakness, after all, are scarcely surprising in a character who is born to be what both the Duchess of York in our play and the title character in Sir Thomas More refer to as a “god on earth” (5.3.135; Sir Thomas More, Addition II, scene 4, line 227), yet who at the same time is unsuited by temperament to wield the awesome national authority to which his blood has called him and which the ancient liturgy of his coronation has ritually sanctified. The very premise of the tragedy virtually guarantees wide swings of Richard's emotional pendulum from grand self-assertion to expressions of the deepest personal inadequacy. Moreover, the Victorians and their successors who reprobate Richard for unmanliness tend to forget the King's “rash fierce blaze of riot” and “violent fires” (2.1.33-34) of which Gaunt speaks and “the young hot colt” (2.1.70) to which York likens him.

Among twentieth-century actors, however, the tradition of playing Richard as homosexual has steadily evolved—one obvious, if misguided, means of conceptually unifying a role that incorporates imperious demeanor, personal vanity, histrionic flamboyance, wit, love of ceremony and display, weeping, artistic sensibility, deep-seated insecurity, physical handsomeness, selfishness, cruelty, masochism, and, ultimately, martyrdom.7 In addition to the historical unawareness that this theatrical tradition reflects, the tragedy itself as Shakespeare conceives it may seem to encourage such a misemphasis. Richard II, being the least plot-ridden of Shakespeare's chronicle plays, eschews heroic action in favor of psychological nuance, rapid shifts of tone, and passive suffering; the American drama professor, George Pierce Baker, could therefore regard it as “a play without a hero” (Forker, Critical Tradition 428). Shakespeare's text also stresses a certain weakness and immaturity in the protagonist—his addiction to flattery, for instance (2.1.17); his distaste for armed conflict and tendency to “yield” “basely … upon compromise” (2.1.252-55), the campaign in Ireland notwithstanding; his youthful fondness for spendthrift luxury and indulgence in “Lascivious metres” and Italian “fashions” (2.1.19-21)—traits that superficially fit the modern stereotype of the homosexual and might appear to justify Northumberland's phrase, “Most degenerate King” (2.1.262), even though the Earl applies it not to Richard's sexuality but to his tyrannous taxation and confiscation of Gaunt's estates. Although no tendency to sexual misconduct is ever staged in the play (Richard is portrayed throughout as passionately devoted and faithful to his consort), supporters of the homosexual interpretation have seized upon Bolingbroke's charge, when he condemns them to death, that Bushy and Green have been erotically involved with the King:

You have in manner with your sinful hours
Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him,
Broke the possession of a royal bed
And stained the beauty of a fair queen's cheeks
With tears drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs.


In context this allegation must be taken as an act of political scapegoating on Bolingbroke's part, a device introduced to turn audience sympathy away from the usurper by making him appear more expediently propagandistic and Machiavellian at a moment in the action when the dramatist needed to prepare his audience for a somewhat warmer response to Richard. The detail itself, like numerous others in Richard II, almost certainly derives from Edward II, Marlowe's earlier drama on the deposition of a weak king, which clearly served Shakespeare as a model.8 Marlowe's grim tragedy of sexual politics, which attributes Edward's fall to his obsessive passion for Gaveston and, later, for the younger Spencer, does indeed portray a king whose overt homosexual attachment to favorites ruins his marriage and creates grief and jealousy in his rejected queen. Significantly, however, Marlowe's play shows no interest at all in the sanctity of kingship, an emphasis wholly singular and original with Shakespeare. I would suggest, indeed, that Shakespeare's strong attraction to divine right as the key element in the psychic conflicts and identity problems that define Richard's tragedy may have come about in part through reaction to its absence in Edward II.

Though one may acknowledge touches of the feminine in Richard's unstable and mutable personality (his almost maternal approach, for instance, to embracing Bolingbroke at Coventry, his touching the ground of Wales like a mother emoting over her baby, his evasion of Northumberland's written charges by the shedding of tears), it is clear that the central conflict in his tragedy, as Shakespeare presents it, is the progressive intensification of his own self-consciousness about the perplexities of royal identity. It is out of this circumstance that his behavior as a player-king exfoliates, prompting his imagination to probe the significances of the buckets and well, of the melting snowman, and of the mirror that reflects inner torment. The loss of political control to his illegitimate cousin forces him to confront the paradox of his being at once a king and no king, on the one hand a divinely appointed sovereign to whom all his countrymen owe fealty and on the other a man humiliated and stripped to the barest essentials, his spacious realm diminished to a cell. Bolingbroke's allusion to the ballad of “The Beggar and the King” (5.3.79) hints at the chasm that has opened up in Richard's psyche between his being both highest and lowest, everything and nothing—an antithesis echoed ironically in the prison soliloquy where again the words “king,” “beggar” and “nothing” recur (5.5.32-41).

Ruth Nevo comments on the “disintegrating experience of a total breach between name and self” as expressed in Richard's “snow-king metaphor” (4.1.260-62), calling attention to “the sensuous contraries expressive of Richard's fluctuating states of mind—hot and cold, sweet and sour, pale and red, high and low, solid and melting (or brittle or liquid), harsh and tuneful” that make the characterization so “entirely admirable” (86-87). And in view of the “unmanly” aspect of the character, so insistently invoked by critics and sedulously taken up by actors, perhaps we might add to the list of contraries “male and female” or “active and passive”; for Richard introduces his long prison speech by splitting off his “female” brain from his masculine soul (“the father”) in order to “beget” the “generation of still-breeding thoughts” with which he peoples the shrunken kingdom of his interior self, his “little world” (5.5.6-10). For Richard, all these antinomies are anchored in the doctrine of the king's two bodies, in the mystical dualities of divine right which can be dissolved only by the finality of death. But for Shakespeare's audience resolution of the political and intellectual issues raised by the problem of divinity in kingship was probably less assured or complete.

The uncertainties and instabilities of character that Richard II dramatizes so powerfully and that would have been dangerously incipient in any play staging the dethroning of an anointed sovereign may point perhaps to larger uncertainties and instabilities in a shifting conception of the state. In terms of the historical period represented, Shakespeare in his staging of Richard's downfall, depicted the tragic slippage from a unified world order in which king, bishops, peers and commoners theoretically cohered in a cosmic harmony of linked dependencies ordained by and presided over by God. From Richard's perspective, the deposition of a legitimate monarch signaled the irreparable crack-up of this order with the implication of terrible consequences to ensue, both to individuals and to the body politic. But Bolingbroke's practical success as a usurper, despite the guilt and skepticism about future happiness that accompany it, seems also to signify the inevitability of flux and mutation in political affairs. A more utilitarian, individualistic, and less corporate understanding of the state appears to replace Richard's concept of royal order and perhaps to symbolize the unhappy but necessary transition from medieval to more modern ideas about how governments and societies should be organized. The gardeners, for instance, voice their sorrow about Richard's fall but tacitly accept the new, more pragmatic order under Bolingbroke, and York with even greater reluctance does the same. To Elizabethans, this dramatization of sad but ineluctable change—a fracturing of the “unity and married calm of states” (Troilus and Cressida 1.3.100)—must have resonated powerfully.

In 1595 when the play was first mounted, the Virgin queen was nearing the end of her reign; no successor had been designated nor, officially at least, was a successor even allowed to be publicly discussed. Elizabeth was trying to hold together in questionable stability a society riven on the right by Catholic plots to unseat her and on the left by radical Puritans who detested the Anglican settlement with its liturgical reminders of the old religion. To this end she had been forced to shed the blood of her anointed cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, as Henry IV had done in Shakespeare's play. Surrounding herself with virile male courtiers, she delighted in keeping them subservient and teasingly unsatisfied sexually. New men, weary of the Queen's notoriously unpredictable and increasingly erratic decisions, were itching for fresh and more forward-looking reconfigurations of power and authority. By the turn of the century, Essex was foolish enough to attempt to impose his individual will upon the monarchy by force; and his supporters bespoke a revival of Richard II, obviously regarding it as effective propaganda for their cause. The identity problems of Richard himself, as well as of courtiers like York whose allegiance he unsuccessfully claimed, could be taken to reflect the troubled politics of the age in which Shakespeare was composing. But, as befits tragedy, profound loss rather than dubious gain was the burden of his song.


  1. Except for Richard II (quotations from which come from my forthcoming Arden 3 edition) all citations of Shakespeare are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare.

  2. Curiously, Swinburne applies Antony's speech not to Richard II but to minor characters of the play, specifically York, Mowbray, and Aumerle; see Forker, Critical Tradition 256.

  3. Harold Bloom uses this term (2): “Richard is both his own victim, or rather the victim of his own imagination, and the sacrifice that becomes inevitable when the distance between the king as he should be and the actual legitimate monarch becomes too great” (Bloom 3).

  4. Richard's chop-logic turns on two elaborate quibbles: first, a double entendre on I, meaning both ay (= “yes”) and also the personal pronoun; and second, a pun on no and know. In the first instance the Folio copytext (the deposition scene does not appear in the early quartos) uses the spelling “I” for both meanings, as is characteristic of Elizabethan orthography (cf. Romeo and Juliet 3.2.45-50). In his narcissistic distress, Richard toys with ambiguous significances which can only emerge in heard speech. Although the nuances of his wordplay tend to blur into each other, at least two ways of understanding these lines may be suggested, which perhaps operate simultaneously: first, “Yes, no. No, yes. But “no” is the equivalent of “I”; for, having lost my identity as king, I am now nothing (= no thing). Therefore the double negative, “no no” (= my not being permitted to say “no”), amounts to a “yes, so I resign to you.” Second, “I, no. No, I”, which in delivery can sound like “I know no I”; in this reading, we may paraphrase: “Since I am now reduced to a nonentity, I cannot even know who I am, and therefore whatever I say is meaningless: given such erasure of distinctions, “no” “no” (or “no” “know”) might just as well mean “yes”.” See also Mahood 87 and Gilman 88.

  5. In “Shakespeare's English Kings” (originally published in Appreciations, 1889; partially reprinted in Forker, Critical Tradition 293-300) Pater called attention to the ritualistic, lyrical, and exquisitely tonal aspects of Richard II in a way that substantially modified interpretations of Richard's character both in the study and onstage. Pater's emphasis on Richard's aesthetic refinement and artistic sensibility significantly influenced such critics of the play as W. B. Yeats, C. E. Montague, and, later, John Dover Wilson and Ernst Kantorowicz, as well as the distinguished actor F. R. Benson, who helped revive Richard as a popular role in the theatre (see Forker, Critical Tradition 21-23).

  6. Shakespeare gives us another image of fragmentation in Bushy's likening of the Queen's “eyes, glazed with blinding tears,” to “perspectives” (glasses cut to produce the optical deception of multiplied images), which “Divide … one thing entire to many objects” (2.2.16-18). The Queen's tear drops form tiny mirrors which, like shards of a shattered glass, convert a single object into many.

  7. John Gielgud, one of the greatest Richards of theatrical history, imparted a certain languid effeminacy to the role when he played it at the Old Vic in 1929 and later at the Queen's Theatre in 1937. Michael Redgrave in his Stratford-upon-Avon interpretation of 1951, “using a shaky tenor voice, a foppish smile, and damp, uncertain eyes to summon up … instability” and looking “exquisitely over-mothered” (Tynan 11), portrayed the King (in Laurence Olivier's words) “as an out-and-out pussy queer, with mincing gestures to match” (Page 49); another observer of the same production contrasted Gielgud's more sympathetic portrayal with Redgrave's “harsh, unsentimentalized portrait, sharp with cruelty, spite and envy”—the figure of a “feline homosexual” (Findlater 252). Harry Corbett acted Richard in a Theatre Workshop production of 1954-55 as “a weak, treacherous, decadent pervert” (Page 51), while, according to a London Times reviewer (18 November 1959), John Justin, “effeminately … over-demonstrative to his decorative male friends” (4), also exaggerated Richard's supposed homosexual tendencies in his portrayal at the Old Vic. A French production in 1970 at the Odéon-Théâtre de France with Patrice Chéreau in the lead stressed Richard's “homosexual lust” (Roberts 2. 420); and when John Barton's celebrated Royal Shakespeare Company production (in which Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson alternated in the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke) reached the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1974, American reviewers noted that Richardson played the king “as a kind of drag queen” or “a distasteful, flaming queen” (Grebanier 535). The BBC television Richard II (1978) starring Derek Jacobi, showed the King relaxing with his minions in a state of semi-nakedness in a bath-house; homoerotic overtones were clearly intended. Finally Zoe Caldwell's 1979 production at Stratford, Ontario (with three different actors in the title role on different evenings), made much of the homosexual theme: in the scene at Flint Castle (3.3) “Richard took Aumerle's hand for comfort, and then Aumerle stealthily put his arm round Richard's waist. Richard also gently put a hand on Bushy's knee, while always keeping his distance from his Queen—slight hints towards seeing Richard as homosexual” (Page 70). By the time of Shakespeare's quatercentenary, when David Warner played the King in an RSC production at Stratford-upon-Avon, the tradition of effeminate Richards had become so ingrained that an anonymous reviewer for the London Times (16 April 1964) commented on the “unexpected masculinity” of the interpretation, noting also its near-absence of “narcissism” (6). Nor have actors been alone in their emphasis on the homoerotic. In 1961 A. P. Rossiter noted “something in Richard which calls out the latent homosexuality of critics” (24). Deborah Warner's controversial Royal National Theatre production of 1995 attempted to counter the long tradition of interpreting the title character as homosexual by casting the Irish actress Fiona Shaw as the King, by portraying the relationship between Richard and Bolingbroke as intensely intimate as well as adversarial, and by thus conceiving the protagonist, in the words of Carol Rutter, as “a kind of androgyne” (317), a figure whose “psychic doubleness” could be conveyed by a woman playing the title character without impersonating a man or affecting male behavior, whose “womanishness,” far from being deviant, was resonant and integral to the various “duplicities” of the tragedy—its politics, its rivalries, its divided loyalties (316-17).

  8. Holinshed, it is true, mentions Richard's “lasciuious liuing” (3. 502) and the sexuality of his court: “there reigned abundantlie the filthie sinne of leacherie and fornication, with abhominable adulterie, speciallie in the king, but more cheefelie in the prelacie” (3. 508); but he says nothing specifically about homoeroticism. The same is true of The Mirror for Magistrates, which merely refers to Richard's “lecherous minde” and predilection to “Venus pleasures” (113). Richard fathered no children by either of his marriages, but his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, may have been barren, and his second, Isabelle of Valois, was a mere child at the time of his deposition (see Saul 457). In addition to Marlowe, a possible influence at this point could have been the anonymous play Woodstock (1591-95), which served Shakespeare in other ways as a source. This drama depicts Richard as especially intimate with Green (see, for instance, 2.1.8-10, 2.2.202-04, 218-19, 3.1.76-80, 4.1.216-18, 5.4.25-35) and the Queen, Anne of Bohemia, as hostile to his minions (see 2.3.10-37). Like Holinshed and the Mirror, however, Woodstock is unspecific about homosexuality, though it is possible to detect hints of it in the Duchess of Ireland's comment that Richard “was the cause” that her dead husband “left her bed” (2.3.12), and in Richard's lament over Green: “Hard-hearted uncles … That here have murdered all my earthly joys!” (5.4.29-30).

Works Cited

Anonymous. Woodstock: A Moral History. Ed. A. P. Rossiter. London: Chatto and Windus, 1946.

Axton, Marie. The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare's “Richard II.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Cibber, Colley. The Tragical History of Richard the Third. London, 1718.

Edwards, Philip. “Person and Office in Shakespeare's Plays.” Proceedings of the British Academy 56 (1970): 93-109.

Findlater, Richard. The Player Kings. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.

Forker, Charles R., ed. Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition: “Richard II.” London: Athlone, 1998.

Friedman, Donald M. “John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration.” ELH 43 (1976): 279-99.

Gilman, Ernest B. “Richard II and the Perspectives of History.” Renaissance Drama 7 (1976): 85-115.

Grebanier, Bernard. Then Came Each Actor: Shakespearean Actors, Great and Otherwise, Including Players and Princes, Rogues, Vagabonds and Actors Motley, from Will Kempe to Olivier and Gielgud and After. New York: David McKay, 1975.

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. 2nd ed., 3 vols. in 2. London, 1587.

James I. The Political Works of James I, reprinted from the edition of 1616. Intro. Charles Howard McIlwain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1918.

Jenkins, Elizabeth. Elizabeth the Great. New York: Coward-McCann, 1959.

Kantorowicz, E. H. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Mahood, M. M. Shakespeare's Wordplay. London: Methuen, 1957.

Marlowe, Christopher. Edward the Second. Ed. Charles R. Forker. The Revels Plays. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1994.

Mirror for Magistrates, The. Ed. Lily B. Campbell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1938.

Nevo, Ruth. Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Nichols, John. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. New ed. 3 vols. London: J. Nichols, 1823.

Page, Malcolm. “Richard II”: Text and Performance. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1987.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. “The Degradation of Richard II: An Inquiry into the Ritual Backgrounds.” English Literary Renaissance 7 (1977): 170-96.

Roberts, Josephine A. “Richard II”: An Annotated Bibliography. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1988.

Rossiter, A. P. Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961.

Rutter, Carol Chillington. “Fiona Shaw's Richard II: The Girl as Player-King as Comic.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 314-24.

Saul, Nigel. Richard II. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Ed. John Dover Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1939.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Ed. Charles R. Forker. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Thomson Learning, 2002.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. B. Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Shakespeare, William (and others). The Book of Sir Thomas More. Ed. W. W. Greg. Malone Society Reprints. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1911.

Tynan, Kenneth. Curtains: Selections from the Drama Criticism and Related Writings. New York: Atheneum, 1961.

Charles R. Forker (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: King Richard II, edited by Charles R. Forker, pp. 1-170. London: Thomson Learning, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Forker explores the complex, subtle, and ambivalent means by which Shakespeare renders the principal characters of Richard II.]


Shakespeare inherited divergent and competing interpretations of Richard and Bolingbroke. In the interests of simplification—indeed over-simplification—these have been referred to conventionally as ‘Yorkist’ (pro-Richard) or ‘Lancastrian’ (pro-Henry) according to the dynastic factions that subsequently fostered them for their own political advantage. From the Lancastrian point of view (represented by the majority of English chroniclers), Richard was a weak, incompetent and despotic king, extravagantly self-indulgent, deaf to wise counsel, dominated by corrupt and selfish favourites and altogether ruinous to his country. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, was a justly popular and wronged nobleman, a strong and capable leader, the darling of fortune and destiny, the politically natural successor to Richard, a man who responded boldly to the needs of his time and the saviour of the nation. This essentially is the view of his career that Henry himself voices in 2 Henry IV when, indulging in the luxury of hindsight, he disclaims any ambition for the throne: ‘then, God knows, I had no such intent, / But that necessity so bow'd the state / That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss’ (3.2.72-4).1 But according to the Yorkist writers, who naturally wished to discredit the Lancastrian revolution, the youthful Richard was more victim than villain—a generally devout and well-meaning monarch, misled into wrongful policies and exploited by false and self-seeking friends. Bolingbroke tends to emerge in this interpretation as an ambitious, unscrupulous, opportunistic and dissimulating politician.2 The French chroniclers, who sympathized with Richard on account of his birthplace and his Gallic wife, promoted the image of a royal martyr betrayed by his own subjects and dethroned by a shrewd and cruel usurper. The complex intersection, assimilation and overlapping of these contradictory traditions in the writings that must have influenced Shakespeare, whether directly or indirectly, have been well described and analysed by Duls.3

Even in Holinshed, a chronicle compiled of diverse materials, Shakespeare encountered mixed attitudes to Richard and Bolingbroke. There we read that Richard ‘began to rule by will more than by reason, threatning death to each one that obeied not his inordinate desires’; given to ‘furious outrage’, he was ‘a man destitute of sobrietie and wisedome’ who wickedly ‘abused his authoritie’ (3.493). Yet the same chronicler can also refer to him as a ‘bountifull and louing souereigne’, victimized by ‘ingratitude’ (3.508) and lied to by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pilate-like Arundel, who had promised that he should be safe from ‘anie hurt, as touching his person’ (3.501). In general Holinshed treats Bolingbroke benignly—as courageous, politically adept, deservedly popular and carefully respectful of the King. Yet it is equally clear that the Duke is ruthless in destroying Richard's friends. Accusing Bolingbroke of ‘ambitious’ and ‘tigerlike crueltie’, Holinshed also says that he ‘wanted moderation and loialtie in his dooings’ for which he was afterwards duly punished: ‘What vnnaturalnesse … was this, not to be content with [Richard's] principalitie’, ‘his treasure’, ‘his depriuation’, ‘his imprisonment’ and ‘wooluishlie to lie in wait … and rauenouslie to thirst after his bloud, the spilling whereof should have touched his conscience[?]’ (3.508). Referring specifically to the scene at Flint Castle where Richard and Bolingbroke have their all-important encounter, Talbert observes that such ‘antithetical attitudes … are so closely juxtaposed’ by Shakespeare ‘that for all intents and purposes they fuse with one another, and that fusion accords with the way in which two attitudes toward kingship have been kept alive’ throughout the play: ‘Even as Richard lacks the vigorous and wise [capacity to govern] …, his right by inheritance, by the hand of God, by a simplified world-order, is expressed forcefully’ (168-9). What is true of this crucial scene is true in a broader sense of the tragedy as a whole.

Shakespeare partly accomplishes the ‘fusion’ to which Talbert points by subtly undercutting or rendering ambiguous the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke as divine-right monarch and irresistible challenger. This technique is clearest in the Flint Castle episode where Richard, a figure of ‘Controlling majesty’ (3.3.70) who dazzles his subjects like the sun, nevertheless descends from his royal eminence into ‘the base court’ (3.3.176) at the request of a mere vassal and not only grants Bolingbroke's demands but, in his ‘doom-eagerness’,4 yields his person to the enemy, all the while indulging in histrionic and unkingly self-pity. Nor does Shakespeare fail to balance the mixed portrayal of Richard with an equally mixed image of Bolingbroke. The Duke approaches the castle with the full force of his army and the sound of ‘brazen trumpet’ (3.3.33), yet ‘without the noise of threat'ning drum’ (3.3.51). He protests ‘allegiance and true faith of heart’ to his sovereign. He offers to lay his ‘arms and power’ at Richard's ‘feet’, at the same time issuing an ultimatum to his liege lord that if his demands are not ‘freely granted’, he will ‘use the advantage of [his] power’ to create ‘showers of blood / Rained from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen’ (3.3.37-44). He kneels before Richard with a show of submission and kisses the royal hand; but the elaborate courtesy and tactful observance of protocol, although minimizing imputations of ambition, in no way alter the military and political facts. And in Northumberland's dropping of Richard's title (3.3.6-9) and failure to kneel (3.3.75-6), Shakespeare subtly conveys a hint of the usurper's ultimate goal. Bolingbroke accomplishes his purpose of regaining the status of Duke of Lancaster and of taking Richard prisoner without creating the impression that he openly seeks the crown. Yet Richard's sarcastic address to him as ‘King Bolingbroke’ (3.3.173), taken in conjunction with Northumberland's unceremonious behaviour, creates just the opposite impression. Has Richard masochistically delivered up himself and his throne to a hypocritical enemy who would have seized power in any case? Or has Bolingbroke through luck, percipience, a heroic temperament and skilful manoeuvring simply placed himself in a position to have greatness thrust upon him? The scene leaves these equivocal issues unresolved.

Shakespeare, indeed, contrives to promote ambiguous impressions of both antagonists throughout the drama and to manipulate audience responses in such a way as to keep approval and disapproval, or sympathy and alienation, in a more or less constant state of flux. According to Rackin, the audience is made to play ‘a carefully calculated role’ not listed among the cast of characters, ‘complete with motivations, actions, errors, and discoveries’ (263). Rabkin goes so far as to allege that ‘keeping our sympathies in suspense’ constitutes the play's ‘primary technique’ (86). These minor fluctuations, of course, do not disturb the general drift towards increased emotional identification with Richard, as befits a tragic protagonist, or the gradual distancing from Bolingbroke that naturally accompanies it. Nevertheless, the progressive disclosure and complication of character adopted in Richard II represents a new and subtler technique than anything observable in earlier plays, especially the histories.

There is space here to touch only on high points by way of illustration. While the opening act presents a generally negative impression of Richard (his weak yielding to subordinates, his apparent responsibility for Gloucester's death, his unjust caprice as judge, his implied jealousy of Bolingbroke, his farming the realm, his callousness towards Gaunt), it simultaneously qualifies the effect by dramatizing his royal demeanour, his shrewd capacity to assess enemies and Gaunt's principled refusal to take vengeance against ‘God's substitute’ (1.2.37). Although the portrait of Bolingbroke is contrastingly positive, emphasizing courage and patriotism, the action also raises doubts about his loyalty since, while protesting concern for ‘the precious safety of my prince’ (1.1.32), he seems to threaten Richard by accusing Mowbray and suggesting (in opposition to his father's doctrine) that the duty of avenging Gloucester falls specifically to him. The play promotes further uncertainty by Richard's reference to the opponents' ‘sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts’ (1.3.130) and to Bolingbroke's political craft in wooing commoners ‘As were our England in reversion his, / And he our subjects' next degree in hope’ (1.4.35-6). An additional ambiguity arises when Gaunt, asserting that Richard has ‘caused’ Gloucester's death, adds the phrase, ‘if wrongfully’ (1.2.39), thus blurring the issue of royal guilt.5 Although Richard later acknowledges his ‘weaved-up follies’ (4.1.229) and refers to his ‘sins’ (4.1.275) in general terms, he never expresses the slightest guilt for the killing of his uncle, an action carried out by subordinates. Shakespeare leaves the question of Richard's bad conscience for the death unresolved just as, at the end of the play, he applies a balancing ambiguity to the murder of Richard at the hands of Exton—a deed which King Henry may or may not have secretly authorized despite his combination of relief and guilt after it has been accomplished.6

By dramatizing the King's arrogance, his deafness to wise counsel, his heartless response to Gaunt's death and the confiscation of Bolingbroke's inheritance, Act 2 brings Richard to his nadir in the sympathies of the audience; Northumberland's ‘Most degenerate King!’ (2.1.262) seems justified. Yet our dismay at Richard's tyrannical incompetence is immediately balanced by the news that Bolingbroke has already raised an army and plans to invade England, violating his oath of fealty and delaying only until Richard has left for Ireland.7 In his phrase, ‘Redeem from broking pawn the blemished crown’ (2.1.293), Northumberland seems to hint enthusiastically at usurpation. If the ‘anointed King’ (2.3.96) has demonstrated unfitness to rule, the alternative to the passive obedience which Gaunt had endorsed is the backing, in Bolingbroke's own phrase, of ‘a banished traitor’ (2.3.60)—what York later calls ‘gross rebellion and detested treason’ (2.3.109). Moreover, Shakespeare now introduces the Queen, who acknowledges nothing of her husband's misrule, as a means of evoking sympathy for her ‘sweet Richard’ (2.2.9). In emotional terms, this prepares for York's dilemma, torn, as he is, between his two ‘kinsmen’—the one his ‘sovereign, whom both my oath / And duty bids defend’, the other a nephew ‘whom the King hath wronged, / Whom conscience and my kindred bids to right’ (2.2.111-15). Worcester's defection and the flight of Bushy, Bagot and Green, who apparently ignore York's order to ‘muster up … men’ (2.2.118), only increase our sense of Richard's vulnerability and further emphasize the King's isolation. Richard's power to command the loyalty of friends now looks significantly weaker than his cousin's.

On his return Bolingbroke conveys mixed impressions—attractive humility in response to Northumberland's fulsomeness but also self-assurance and promises of reward as his ‘infant fortune comes to years’ (2.3.66); the metaphor suggests his long-range strategy. He speaks also of ‘my treasury’ (2.3.60) as though he were already a monarch. York's horror of ‘braving arms against [the] sovereign’ (2.3.112) reincorporates the orthodoxy of passive obedience voiced earlier by Gaunt. Moreover, the speciousness of Bolingbroke's argument that his new title, Duke of Lancaster, has annulled the crime of his early return, since he was banished only as Hereford, has an alienating effect. The situation nevertheless allows him to describe with eloquence the legal injustice of which he has been the victim—an injustice that is seen once more (as in 2.1) to weaken Richard's implied position that inheritance alone is enough to make and protect a king. Then York's futile assertion of authority, his wish to make Bolingbroke ‘stoop / Unto the sovereign mercy of the King’ (2.3.156-7), proves hollow, as he collapses into a stance of neutrality and offers the rebels whom he has just so roundly scolded the hospitality of his castle. York's failure of nerve recapitulates Richard's earlier failure (1.1.196-9) to make Bolingbroke and Mowbray obey his will. Although York is ‘loath to break our country's laws’, he seeks to evade the political untenability of his position by welcoming the invaders as neither ‘friends nor foes’ (2.3.169-70). Act 2 concludes with Salisbury's gloomy forecast of Richard's setting sun, ‘weeping in the lowly west’ and the political ‘storms’ in prospect (2.4.21-2). Up to this point, Shakespeare has so manipulated responses that audiences can hardly be sanguine or approving of either Richard or Bolingbroke.

In Act 3, as Stirling observes, Shakespeare presents Bolingbroke and Richard in two consecutive scenes that individually dramatize their ‘utter difference’ of ‘temperament’ (29), finally making them confront each other in the third scene, which settles dispositively the issue of Richard's removal from the throne. All three scenes encourage ambivalent responses to both antagonists. In the first Bolingbroke is shown to be decisive, efficient, brisk and diplomatically prudent, condemning Bushy and Green, sending courteous commendations to the Queen, and setting in motion a military expedition against Glendower and the remaining loyalists. But by executing the favourites, he ruthlessly exceeds his authority, behaving already as though he were king; he also makes them scapegoats, trumping up charges of sexual misconduct and blaming them for Richard's injuries to him personally, just as he had earlier attacked Richard through Mowbray for Gloucester's death.8 The parallel scene of the King's return from Ireland develops the sentimental side of Richard, showing his histrionic oscillations between unjustified elation and the ‘sweet way’ of ‘despair’ (3.2.205). Self-indulgently anticipating total defeat, Richard is the first person after Bolingbroke's return to pronounce the word ‘deposed’, obsessively repeating it four times (3.2.56, 150, 157, 158). Attraction to the martyrdom of abdication causes him to ritualize the abandonment of his sacred body, the body symbolized by his throne, to sit upon the ground, where he can meditate on death and the common humanity that unites him in his physical body to his subjects and all other mortals:

                                                                                Throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?


As a monarch Richard never appears weaker, more self-absorbed or more in love with catastrophe than in this scene, which ends in his renouncing politics altogether: ‘Discharge my followers. Let them hence away, / From Richard's night to Bolingbroke's fair day’ (3.2.217-18). Clearly the scene functions to contrast the King's emotional instability with the icy and rigorous control of his adversary. Yet tragic sympathy for Richard begins to emerge with the challenge to his authority, and self-knowledge, though incomplete, begins to accompany self-pity. The brittle confidence, arrogant self-possession and careless indifference of the earlier Richard have melted to disclose a richer and more vulnerably complex personality. The ‘hollow crown’ speech (3.2.160-77) reveals that the speaker's untested faith in the divine protection of his title has been shattered as completely as the mirror he will later break. The new ingredient is Richard's own questioning of the integrity of the king's two bodies—a unity that heretofore he had shallowly assumed. Attack from without has sparked dividedness within. And the result is a protagonist of greater capacity for self-understanding and emotional depth than has yet been disclosed. Meanwhile, Bolingbroke has remained a closed book—a figure whose inner self has been carefully screened from our gaze. Paradoxically, the ineffectual King appears to be a more interesting, interior and multifaceted human being than the figure who threatens him. But most importantly, the scene near the Welsh coast serves as a significant watershed in Shakespeare's dramaturgical scheme, clarifying the lesson that the political conflicts of the play are inseparable from the psychological and moral complexities of the men who contend for dominion. Tragedy, even if its historical subject is a revolution, must concern itself as much with human beings as with political theory.

The pivotal scene at Flint Castle continues to show both figures in a double light. While Bolingbroke presents himself as the loyal proponent of justice (‘My gracious lord, I come but for mine own’), thus gaining our approval, Richard's bitter response, ‘Your own is yours, and I am yours and all’ (3.3.196-7), embraces a more far-reaching truth. Richard becomes a prisoner, knowing that London can mean only dethronement and probable death; and when he adds, ‘For do we must what force will have us do’ (3.3.207), Bolingbroke revealingly fails to contradict him.9 Our impression of Richard is equally mixed. While theatricalizing his own humiliation in the ‘base court’, behaving like a spectator at his own tragedy,10 Richard nevertheless clings to that exalted conception of royalty that supplies the foundation for his grief in having to forfeit it. Richard's majesty, which impresses even his opponent and causes York, now fully committed to Bolingbroke, to weep for what has been lost, emerges as something more than romantic illusion. At the same time both antagonists are to some extent victims of self-delusion. Richard remains unable or unwilling to confront the flaws of character and policy that have brought him to his unhappy pass, however realistically he may now assess his present danger; and Bolingbroke seems equally unable to acknowledge (perhaps even to himself) the thirst for sovereignty that underlies his self-restraint and calculated realism, even though his upward momentum towards the throne is now more obvious than ever.11

The garden scene, which immediately follows, confirms objectively what was implicit at Flint Castle—that ‘Bolingbroke / Hath seized the wasteful King’ (3.4.54-5) and that his deposition at ‘London’ is imminent (3.4.90). Sympathy for Richard is renewed through the Queen's distressed reaction to the baleful news she has overheard. But at the same time the Gardeners elaborate a patterned explanation of how badly the fallen King had tended his ‘sea-walled garden’ (3.4.43) and, by implication at least, defend the usurpation of power as a sad necessity. The Queen, moreover, voices the momentous implications of her husband's dethronement by comparing it to the Fall, thus endowing Richard's tragedy, as did the chronicler Hall, with the significance of a mythic and long-lasting national disaster.

Bolingbroke's status as king de facto becomes clearer early in Act 4 where the Duke, using the royal ‘we’, presides impassively over his squabbling nobles and exerts his control by deferring their ‘days of trial’ (4.1.106-7). By reviving the matter of Gloucester's death, Shakespeare muddies the waters more disturbingly than before. Although Bolingbroke says little, his resolute demeanour contrasts with Richard's inability in the analogous opening scene to make his quarrelling subjects obey him.12 Yet only when York announces that ‘plume-plucked Richard’ has willingly adopted him as ‘heir’ (4.1.109-10) does Bolingbroke for the first time acknowledge his claim to sovereignty: ‘In God's name I'll ascend the regal throne’ (4.1.114). This is the dramatic moment in Shakespeare's brilliant recasting of Holinshed that elicits Carlisle's divine-right protest and the prophecy that crowning Bolingbroke will transform England into a Golgotha of national slaughter for generations yet unborn. Carlisle's brave defence of the inviolable sanctity of kingship causes Bolingbroke to hesitate;13 and although the prelate is instantly arrested for his reactionary loyalty, he nevertheless forces the usurper, most inconveniently, to summon the fallen King into Parliament so that his abdication may be witnessed and Bolingbroke's accession accepted ‘Without suspicion’ (4.1.158). For once, Bolingbroke has been placed on the defensive. And, once he appears, there Richard manages to keep him for the remainder of the act, dominating the stage in his improvised pageant of self-unkinging. This scene, as Palmer rightly says, ‘is the summit of the play’ (167).

Thus Shakespeare contrasts two kinds of power—the political and the theatrical. Bolingbroke may hold the reins of sovereignty, but Richard is the master of self-dramatization with its attendant arts—command of rhetoric and metaphor, the power to embarrass enemies, ironic wit and quicksilver fancy, the capacity to evoke both pity and irritation, the posture of associating his own sufferings with the Passion of Jesus, and the histrionic skill to make the narcissistic contemplation of his own identity coterminous with a ceremony of monarchical renunciation that communicates a sense of desecration and the loss of sacred tradition. Richard manages to endow his own fall with cosmic significance—with the fracturing of an ancient and venerable world order in which the king is seen as a vital link in the great chain that connects the celestial with the earthly. The player-king now triumphs theatrically over the king of Realpolitik but at the cost of half-annihilating both himself and the beautiful principle on which he had believed his royalty to be founded.

Yet again a certain doubleness of perspective, rooted in the sacramental theology of kingship itself, pervades the episode of discrowning; for, paradoxically, Richard contrives to assert the sacred inviolability of his office while simultaneously divesting himself of its symbols and thereby violating it himself. Although Richard has the talents of an actor, inventing ‘a great ceremony for his humiliation’, as Philip Edwards phrases it, ‘kingship is for him no actor's part, put on and put off at will’ (102), but rather the defining ground of his being. The man who had grandly claimed that an ocean of sea-water could not ‘wash the balm off from an anointed king’ (3.2.55) now affects to remove it ‘With [his] own tears’ (4.1.207). In rituals of the degradation of priests and bishops, only those who have been anointed themselves can presume to officiate in the scraping off of the holy oils and chrism. Yet it is equally clear that in such degradations the subject is prohibited only from lawfully exercising his sacramental powers, since the gifts of the Holy Spirit conferred by anointing at consecrations and ordinations are permanently valid and beyond the power of human beings to annul. ‘Ay, no. No, ay’, Richard's equivocal answer to Bolingbroke's question of whether he is ‘contented to resign the crown’ (4.1.200-1), encapsulates concisely his divided attitude. The inverted rite of dispossession to which Pater famously called attention (see Forker, 298), and which Richard languishingly draws out to such liturgical length, expunges in a psychological sense the very identity of the speaker.14 As Ranald (195) observes, the ceremony ‘is infinitely more than mere formality’, constituting as it does ‘his annihilation as a kingly person, his reduction to the rank of knave, the destruction of his achievements, and, as Richard sees it, his excision from the roster of English kings, since he has become a traitor to the office he had held’. Yet at the same time Richard cannot but asseverate the timeless legitimacy of his kingship—his claim to the body mystical that cannot theoretically be sundered from the body physical until death. He condemns the ‘heinous’ act of ‘deposing … a king / And cracking the strong warrant of an oath, / Marked with a blot, damned in the book of heaven’ (4.1.233-6); he compares himself twice to Christ, the King of all creation, whose Godhead is sempiternal; and he condemns himself for cooperating in the inversion of an immutable hierarchy—for consenting ‘T'undeck the pompous body of a king’, for having made ‘Glory base and Sovereignty a slave, / Proud Majesty a subject, State a peasant’ (4.1.250-2).

Of course the episode exposes also the fallible side of Richard's nature so that a tragic divide opens up between the semi-divine dignity of the rank he once held (and still glorifies) and his own solipsistic exhibitionism. The comparisons to Christ have a double edge. Looked at from a merely human perspective, Richard's claim that his sufferings exceed those of his Saviour, since Jesus had only one Judas while he has had to cope with ‘twelve thousand’ betrayers (4.1.171-2), reveals a degree of presumption approaching blasphemy. At the same time, however, the analogy between the dethroning of an anointed sovereign and the Passion contains a certain theological validity according to the christology of divine-right doctrine. The windlass image of the two buckets carries something of the same doubleness about it (see 4.1.184n.). Richard applies it to his own advantage by making the high bucket (Bolingbroke) dance emptily, carelessly and illegitimately in the air while the low bucket, representing himself, is heavy with grief and the weight of sacred tradition. The analogy is tactically clever since it apparently exasperates Bolingbroke as intended; but the verbal wit displayed also casts doubt upon the profundity of Richard's grief since the deepest kinds of suffering do not usually accommodate such ostentation. The same point can be made about the emblematic mirror into which Richard gazes before he smashes it in a climactic coup de théâtre—an action he himself can refer to as ‘this sport’ (4.1.290). At one level the episode can be read as extravagant escapism, a means by which Richard narcissistically evades a reality he himself has invited. The Epistle of James likens a Christian who hears the word of God but, self-deceivingly, fails to translate it into action ‘unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass’ for ‘he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was’ (1.23-4). It is this self-deception that Bolingbroke imputes to Richard's gesture as he refers with a hint of contempt to ‘The shadow of [his] sorrow’ (4.1.292). But the mirror, as a reflector of truth (as well as of vanity), also allows the fallen King a moment of deeper insight into his own nature. It becomes for him ‘the very book … Where all [his] sins are writ’ (4.1.274-5) and the means of disclosing, as through a glass darkly, ‘the tortured soul’ (4.1.298) that lies beneath the youthfully handsome and as yet unwrinkled countenance.15 The brittleness of the glass symbolizes for Richard the fragility and impermanence of life itself and links up thematically with the ‘hollow crown’ speech of 3.2 with its effect of expanded consciousness and deepened self-perception.16 And throughout Richard's quasi-tragic performance, Bolingbroke has been reduced to the role of a ‘silent King’ (4.1.290), who can only regain a measure of assurance by ‘conveying’ his rhetorically potent enemy ‘to the Tower’ (4.1.316). Nor is it other than by masterly design that Shakespeare concludes the scene of Richard's ‘woeful pageant’ (4.1.321) with the Abbot of Westminster's counter-revolutionary plot. Having permitted Richard to usurp the spotlight emotionally, thereby casting the political usurper into shadow, the dramatist now revives the possibility, perhaps even the distant hope, of an actual reversal in the power structure of the state.

Mixed reactions to Richard continue in Act 5. In the largely private farewell of the royal lovers (dramatically, the Guard and the Queen's ladies are non-presences), Richard's devotion to his wife comes over as deep and genuine; yet Richard still acts the player-king, emoting over his own tragedy and transmuting it into literary artifact—‘the lamentable tale of me’ (5.1.44). But the self-conscious language of both speakers may be read in part as a psychic effort to control the rawness of grief adopted in the spirit of mutual protectiveness. However we receive Richard's egoism, it contains an element of self-recognition. He can speak of their ‘former state’ as a ‘happy dream’ from which present cruelties have awakened them, at the same time acknowledging ‘grim Necessity’ and hoping for the ‘new world's crown’ that will deliver them from the ‘profane hours’ of earthly existence (5.1.18-25). Richard's thoughts of an incorruptible crown probably represent more than a flight to platitude since piety was an aspect of his historical personality well documented in the sources available to Shakespeare. Finding his resigned passivity unroyal, the Queen rebukes him for playing the submissive schoolboy rather than the lion, ‘king of beasts’ (5.1.26-34), to which Richard wittily responds that he has indeed been overthrown by ‘beasts’ rather than ‘men’ (5.1.35-6). In coming to terms with his fall, Richard still lashes out at subjects rather than blaming himself. Northumberland's entrance returns us instantly to Bolingbroke's world of Realpolitik, the impingement of the public realm upon the private being a pervasive theme of Shakespeare's histories.17 And Richard's shrewd forecast of Northumberland's treason under Henry dramatizes the painful truth that the fallen King is a better judge of his enemies than of his friends. The scene shows Richard in defeat as a loving husband and perceptive analyst of the Bolingbroke-Northumberland alliance without diminishing our awareness of his self-absorption or his continuing belief in the rightness of his inherited role. The emotional parting between husband and wife also balances the drawn-out leave-taking between Gaunt and his son in 1.3.

York's evocative description of Bolingbroke and Richard in the London streets provides a final contrast between the antagonists. His lingering sympathy for the King he has deserted makes his rigorous commitment to Bolingbroke and, later, his condemnation of his own son in proof of it, doubly ironic. York's finely contrasted vignettes delineate political success and failure, at once underscoring the de casibus theme of mutable fortune and the volatility of popular opinion.18 Bolingbroke, who receives the prayers and accolades of the crowd with gestures of humility, is clearly the master of public relations, nor does the portrait necessarily suggest insincerity despite our memory of what Richard had said about his ‘Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles’ (1.4.28). Still, York's metaphor involving the difficulty of following a ‘well-graced actor’ (Bolingbroke) onstage because the next actor (Richard) will be received as tedious by contrast (5.2.24-6) again suggests political manipulation in the usurper. And in view of Richard's histrionic character, already so thoroughly developed, it is also piercingly ironic, for the contrasting description of the martyr-king, on whose ‘sacred head’ dust is thrown and who bears his humiliation with ‘grief and patience’ (5.2.30-3), seems to embody unvarnished authenticity while it is Bolingbroke who has succeeded to the role of player-king. Despite his engaged feelings, York comments gnomically on the providential nature of the power-shift without assigning blame or innocence to either winner or loser: ‘heaven hath a hand in these events, / To whose high will we bound our calm contents’ (5.2.37-8). Such resignation could be interpreted as York's final evasion of responsibility for pusillanimously capitulating to the stronger of two leaders—to his prizing of a settled order above all else.19 But the lines are chiefly choric and emphasize a theme that undergirds Shakespeare's histories as a group—namely that the tragic currents of political change lie finally outside and beyond the power of men to control.

The eruption of conflict between York and Aumerle dramatizes a tragic effect of revolution—division within nuclear families (staged emblematically in 3 Henry VI, 2.5). Like Bolingbroke, York also has a rebellious child. The vehement condemnation of a son for treason to one king, by a father who has already committed the same offence to his predecessor, is obviously replete with irony. But the play implies that there is an important difference between Aumerle's immature act of rashness and York's bowing to unalterable circumstance. Moreover, Aumerle, once exposed, is so desperate to save his own skin that he makes no attempt to plead for his confederates whose secrecy he had religiously sworn to protect. Before the dangerous discovery, however, his parents comment tartly on the slippery footing of a courtier's life in a way that would resonate meaningfully with Tudor audiences.20 When his mother inquires casually about those currently in favour with the new regime (the latest ‘violets’ of ‘the new-come spring’), Aumerle replies suspiciously that he neither knows nor cares, prompting his father to urge caution lest the boy ‘be cropped before [he] come to prime’ (5.2.46-51). Once Aumerle's secret has been bared, the urgent relevance of these remarks becomes frighteningly clear: in great agitation York calls for his boots to accuse the traitor openly, while his duchess tries to prevent him in a panicky effort to spare her child's life.

Shakespeare complicates our response to the fresh crisis, and to the conflict between family and state that it precipitates, by allowing the parental disagreement to degenerate into farce. Ridiculously trying to cope with contradictory orders, York's servant is baffled, while Aumerle stands impotently mute, transfixed by confusion and despair. Then the son, the father and the mother, each having ridden independently and in sweaty haste to Windsor, successively enter the royal presence, flinging themselves down in a contest of kneeling that elicits an amused couplet even from King Henry: ‘Our scene is altered from a serious thing, / And now changed to “The Beggar and the King”’ (5.3.78-9). The suppliants plead passionately for opposite decisions—the father for his son's death, the mother for his life—and all three embarrass the King by refusing to rise until he has acted on their conflicting petitions. Their begging, couched mostly in a jingling doggerel, cannot but undercut the gravity of the matters in hand—somewhat as the Bastard's unceremonious tone in King John undermines the fustian of other characters in that play. The rhetoric becomes absurdly formalistic and antiphonal—a virtual burlesque of court protocol. Henry disposes of the first real threat of his reign with masterful self-possession, implacably executing the most dangerous members of the conspiracy while showing mercy to Aumerle, who no longer poses a security threat. But as Zitner observes, the farcical elements modify the tone and import of the drama in a significant way and therefore, inevitably, of its politics: the scenes of Aumerle's conspiracy parody magniloquence and the courtly ceremoniousness insisted upon elsewhere, even hinting at Shakespeare's growing ‘disaffection’ with the genre in which he was working and with the ‘illusion’ that stylized ‘historical tragedy’ is adequate to its purpose (255).21 Zitner believes that the Aumerle scenes, often cut in production, ‘enrich the play’ by introducing a new perspective characteristic of Shakespeare's ‘complexity and toughness of mind’ (257) and thus anticipate the tension between comedy and tragedy, between high and low, that the Henry IV plays were to realize so fruitfully. Perhaps Zitner overstates the revisionary effect of these scenes upon audiences (the comic material passes rather quickly); but there can be no question that the episode encourages a response to political crisis different from that evoked in the more elevated parts of the play. A certain thematic continuity is nevertheless preserved for, to quote Nevo (94), York's ‘loss of inner coherence’ in his unsuccessful struggle to reconcile his role as a loyal subject with his humanity as a father ironically prefigures the similar problems of identity that beset Richard in his prison soliloquy and that lead up to his confrontation with ‘being nothing’ (5.5.41).

The small episode (5.4) in which Exton explains what he takes as King Henry's command to murder Richard prepares us for the death scene. It besmirches Henry's character as damagingly as any of the play, still leaving the tiniest doubt as to the precise degree of his culpability because the incriminating words, not themselves fully explicit, are reported rather than heard directly from the King's lips. Like Richard, who never admits to having Gloucester destroyed, Henry clings to a stance of deniability by repudiating and then exiling the agent of his villainy. When Exton later protests that he had acted in response to words from the King's ‘own mouth’, he is answered with Machiavellian equivocation: ‘Though I did wish him dead, / I hate the murderer, love him murdered’ (5.6.37-40).22 A few moments afterwards, of course, King Henry confesses his responsibility in general terms, hoping to ‘wash this blood from off my guilty hand’ by means of ‘a voyage to the Holy Land’ (5.6.49-50). But in Shakespeare's handling of the matter, we never know whether King Henry consciously arranged his rival's death or merely encouraged it by innuendo. It is worth noting nevertheless that even in the final episodes, when sympathy flows naturally to Richard as tragic victim, the dramatist gives us reason to identify in certain respects with the private emotions of his destroyer, thereby muting the contrast between them. He slightly mollifies the impression of Henry's cold-hearted ruthlessness and political realism by showing also his concern for his son, his compassion for Aumerle and his bad conscience for the murder he has authorized, whether wittingly or no.23

Even in the scene at Pomfret, the only episode to stage physical violence, Shakespeare preserves a certain ambivalence of attitude towards Richard. The overall purpose is to create as much sympathy as possible, thus muting or helping us to forget his role in Gloucester's death and the other tyrannies. And when Richard manfully strikes down two of Exton's assistants before falling himself to the assassin, Shakespeare leaves us with the impression of a man who finally claims the martial tradition of his royal ancestors from which his uncles had seen him as shamefully defecting.24 Richard also reasserts his infrangible identity as King, heroically repossessing the sacred title for which his birth had destined him.

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


These words contain no hint of a guilty conscience nor any suggestion of unorthodox doubt about the king's two bodies: Richard's body mystical will rise to rejoin the divine source of its sacramental power, while his body natural will sink down and dissolve to earth like that of other mortals. Regnal flaws notwithstanding, eternal condemnation is for regicides, not for legitimate monarchs. If Cibber had adapted this play instead of Richard III, he might have added at this point, ‘Richard's himself again’ (66). The touching loyalty of the Groom, the mixed humour and pathos of the ‘roan Barbary’ incident and the surliness of the Keeper, who, in contrast to the King, treats the visitor badly, combine to bring out Richard's humanity and personal charm. And the Keeper's refusal to taste Richard's food on the orders of Exton, who ‘lately / Came from the King’ (5.5.100-1), suggests the possibility that instructions from Windsor are being obeyed.

The long meditation on identity, isolation, time and harmony with which the scene opens, Richard's only soliloquy, is, however, less unitary in its effect on audience response. Here uniquely we see Richard without an onstage audience. His island realm has now shrunk to the enclosure of a prison cell, and, psychologically speaking, to the confines of his own fanciful mind. Now he must ‘hammer out’ the imaginary contours of a new kingdom of introversion, peopling it with a ‘generation of still-breeding thoughts’, fragmenting himself into a collection of listeners to his own performance, all of them discontented (5.1.5-11). The imaginary roles include the better and worse aspects of himself, the higher and more divine thoughts being ‘intermixed / With scruples’ and with his consciousness of former pride and worldly luxury. He strains ingenuity to invent analogies for the competing facets of his own personality, exhausting his rhetorical skills in a bewildering confluence of fugitive ideas and speculative associations. See-sawing between opposite conceptions of himself, he must alternately be actor and audience, king and beggar, free spirit and frustrated prisoner. But the competing roles engendered by his fancy tend to obliterate each other, reducing him to nullity:

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 kinged again, and by and by
Think that I am unkinged 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.


This, of course, is a reprise of Richard as the ‘mockery king of snow’ melting himself away ‘in water-drops’ (4.1.260-2) and of the histrionic narcissist dispersing his identity in the smithereens of a shattered looking-glass.25 The nothingness on which the King muses is the psychological equivalent of death. But Richard's tragic limitation is that, even in defeat, he cannot break free of his own crippling self-consciousness from which only death will release him.

The intrusion of music awakens him to the disharmony and disproportion that have defined his reign: ‘I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me’ (5.5.49). Here he acknowledges slackness or self-indulgence as a cause of his fall, but, paradoxically, his confession occurs in a long rumination that, by elaborately pursuing overstrained conceits, constitutes in itself a form of self-indulgence. Yet of this point also Richard seems aware, for, still resentful of his enemy, he contrasts Bolingbroke's world of political activism to his own enforced stasis: the false king in his ‘proud joy’ has usurped the ‘time’ that should have been Richard's by right, while the legitimate king must ‘stand fooling’ in a cell, the puppet or ‘jack o'the clock’ to an upstart (5.5.58-60). Richard's attempt to come to terms with his own tragedy seems flawed and incomplete, too deeply mired in pain, regret and frustration to allow for full moral self-recognition or access to the larger, more metaphysical significances of his experience. He remains still obsessed with ‘this all-hating world’ (5.5.66). But at the same time he is able to bless the unidentified musician whose playing offers him ‘a sign of love’ (5.5.65) and thereby to show that he has shed enough of his egoism to be capable of gratitude.

Summing up the political ambivalences that Richard II seems designed to generate, we may note several features of the play's characterization, structure and thematic emphasis that contribute generally to the mixed effect. One such is Shakespeare's technique of making subordinate characters bear the heaviest onus of disapproval—disapproval that would otherwise fall directly upon the chief antagonists. Bushy, Bagot and Green, the ‘caterpillars’ of Richard's ill-tended garden, are meant to function chiefly as self-aggrandizing parasites and the givers of bad counsel to a youthfully impressionable and emotionally unstable king, although in the action this is merely implied rather than shown.26 As such, they help to soften and explain, if not wholly excuse, the King's most egregious tyrannies. Yet, even here, there is a measure of ambiguity, for we never see the favourites behave treasonably; Bushy and Green are apparently the victims of scapegoating, and Bagot, who survives the usurper's accession, charges Aumerle with responsibility for Gloucester's death, thus bringing his own loyalty to Richard into question. On the other side, Northumberland serves increasingly as the usurper's hatchetman, allowing the audience to displace some of its gathering hostility to Bolingbroke onto his more nakedly ambitious second-in-command. York's ambiguously conceived character serves also to complicate our attitude towards the two principals. Early in the play the old Duke stands with Gaunt as a venerable and justified, though fervently loyal, critic of Richard's follies. Then, thrust into an impossible predicament during the King's absence, he collapses into attempted neutrality from which circumstances quickly push him into treason (from a legitimist's perspective) or into acquiescence to necessity and the good order of the realm (from a Lancastrian point of view). Shakespeare sets York's nostalgic reverence for Richard's sanctity (even after his capitulation to Bolingbroke) against his almost fanatic condemnation of his own son for disloyalty to the new king. And the semi-comic elements in his character make it possible for an actor to portray him as either a frail, well-meaning old man pathetically driven to choose between two nephews who both have a valid claim on his loyalty, or a foolish parcel of self-justifying ineptitude blown hither and yon by the winds of change. The somewhat featureless portrait of Aumerle complicates responses further still. In the first three acts he behaves as one of Richard's most loyal and intimate friends. Then, with his fierce denial of Bagot's charge that he was involved in Gloucester's murder and that he had wished for Bolingbroke's death, we are forced, temporarily at least, to reconsider his fidelity to Richard's cause. His rush, later in the scene, to take part in the plot against the usurper reconfirms his loyalty to Richard; but he is so quick to seek his own safety, pleading that his ‘heart is not confederate with [his] hand’ (5.3.52), that he seems finally more expedient than even his father. Carlisle, the Queen and the anonymous Groom emerge as the only supporters of Richard whose devotion to principle can be counted on.

Certain of the play's ‘unconformities’, as Smidt terms them, conduce also to a blurring of the play's politics. Smidt argues that the tragedy ‘underwent … major changes of design in the course of its shaping’ (89). Whether or not the text betrays different phases of composition (as Smidt believes), it is nonetheless true that curious shifts of thematic emphasis and plot direction are observable. For the first third of the play we are left with the impression that Gloucester's death is Richard's most heinous crime and that the action to follow will surely involve retribution as well as, perhaps, some depiction of the King's tortured conscience. Bolingbroke, Gaunt and York all refer in turn to the malicious spilling of Gloucester's blood, and Richard's banishment of both combatants at Coventry seems motivated, at least in part, by his need to silence Mowbray and to defend himself against revenge at the hands of his threatening cousin. A tragedy of nemesis would appear possible. But even before 2.2.100-2, where York alludes in passing to the victimization of his brother, the theme of crime and punishment is already being supplanted by a heavier emphasis on Richard's more public misrule—his farming the realm, his oppressive tax policies, his ignoring wise counsel and, worst of all, his wanton seizure of Bolingbroke's inheritance. In effect the play drops the murder charge, shelving the unsettled mystery of Gloucester's death until it resurfaces briefly at the beginning of Act 4 where Bagot implicates Aumerle in the murder. But even here, at a point where Richard has already been imprisoned and is facing certain dethronement, the issue of his guilt for murder goes unpursued.27 As mentioned already, the monarch himself suffers no torment of conscience for the death. At this point Richard's tragedy seems to be defined by a clash between political ineptitude or volatile temperament and hostile circumstance. After the King's return from Ireland, the thematic emphasis shifts again—now to royal martyrdom at the hands of a politically shrewd enemy, who never again charges his adversary directly with any crime whatsoever. And Exton's murder of the fallen ruler, far from being a punishment for past offences, is meant to be received by audiences as a tragical outrage against divine-right legitimacy. To quote Smidt's summing up, ‘The misgovernment theme is … more and more effaced by the sacrilege theme and the conflict between divine right and mortal frailty’; ‘the central issue becomes not the king's guilt or his irresponsibility, but the sacredness of his office’ (101-2).

Tomlinson in a shrewd analysis of the dramatist's shaping hand concludes with a statement with which it is hard to disagree:

The pressure of Shakespeare's critical scrutiny does not let up at any point, either in his treatment of authority or of rebellion. He approaches each new situation without rigid ideological preconceptions or pointers. We are used to finding ‘contraries’ in his work, but this approach has rarely been applied to the great political question of order and rule. Shakespeare's consolidation and development of different attitudes to monarchy leads us to the conclusion that there can be no model kings or adequate model conceptions of kingship, and no univocal doctrines of social allegiance.


From Rabkin's point of view, the ambivalences of the play are not only vital to its structure but lie also at the heart of its tragedy. ‘On one level Richard II is a play about political success and the ideal of the commonwealth’, a level on which ‘Bolingbroke is admirable; on another it is about what it is to be a fully sentient human being’, a level on which ‘only Richard commands our respect’ (92). The tragic conception of politics and history embedded so powerfully in this contrast springs from ‘the complementarity of [the] protagonists' virtues’—virtues that are ultimately seen to be irreconcilable or ‘incapable of being commingled’ (95).


  1. Cf. Holinshed, who remarks on the ‘verie notable example … that this Henrie duke of Lancaster should be thus called to the kingdome, and haue the helpe and assistance (almost) of all the whole realme, [who] perchance neuer thereof thought or yet dreamed’. Supernatural powers are ultimately responsible for Richard's fall and Bolingbroke's success: ‘in this deiecting of the one, & aduancing of the other, the prouidence of God is to be respected, & his secret will to be woondered at’ (3.499).

  2. Cf. 2H4 [King Henry IV, Part 2] 4.5.183-5: ‘God knows, my son, / By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways / I met this crown’. It should be remembered also, as Smidt (98) reminds us, that ambition was considered to be a ‘serious … vice … in the Elizabethan moral system’. Cf. Baldwin's dedication of the Mirror (63): ‘Well is that realme gouerned, in which the ambicious desyer not to beare office.’

  3. See Duls, especially 7-8, 112-90, 196-203.

  4. Harold Bloom (2) uses this term: ‘Richard is both his own victim, or rather the victim of his own imagination, and the sacrifice that becomes inevitable when the distance between the king as he should be and the actual legitinate monarch becomes too great’ (Bloom, 3).

  5. Rabkin comments: ‘If the unthreatened rule of the King is the principle of the state's survival, there may be some justification for what he [Richard] has caused to be done. At any rate, to take arms against God's minister is to Gaunt an even more egregious crime than Richard's’ (83).

  6. Morse finds Shakespeare ‘specific and explicit on the crisis in 1399, but tacit and inferential about responsibility; he managed to keep interpretation open and to avoid fixing blame’ (123).

  7. See 2.1.289-90n. As early as 1852 Hudson could speak of Bolingbroke's ‘noiseless potency of will’, of ‘his most silent, all-pervading, inly-working efficacy of thought and purpose’ (Forker, 193).

  8. See 3.1 headnote and 3.1.11-15n.

  9. Act 4 makes it clear that ‘London’ means not only Parliament but also ‘the Tower’ (4.1.316). Stirling notes the ‘economy and understatement’ as well as the ‘taciturnity’ of Bolingbroke's ‘discursive self-revelation’ in the falling action of the play: Bolingbroke's most significant decisions regarding Richard tend to be ‘embodied in a terse statement’, each time another character having ‘either evoked it from him or stated its implications for him’ (33-4).

  10. Pointing to such moments of self-consciousness as Richard's ‘Well, well, I see / I talk but idly, and you laugh at me’ (3.3.170-1), Palmer observes that the King is ‘possibly the only appreciative witness of his tragedy’ (159); he is echoing Chambers, who says of Richard that he ‘becomes an interested spectator of his own ruin’ (Survey, 91).

  11. Bolingbroke ‘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’ (Palmer, 134). He ‘does not attempt to think through his position clearly or persistently’ (Baxter, 112). See also the discussion of Daniel (pp. 143-4).

  12. Berger (‘Perspective’, 264-5) argues that the contrast redounds to Richard's credit rather than to Bolingbroke's: sitting ‘quietly through most of the scene’ Bolingbroke, unlike his counterpart, refuses to ‘intervene in the volatile factionalism that bodes ill for future stability’. Although I regard Bolingbroke's silence during the quarrel as evidence of his shrewdness and politic restraint, not of his weakness, Berger's contrary interpretation serves to illustrate the shifting and ambiguous responses that both characters seem designed to elicit.

  13. It is debatable whether Bolingbroke actually occupies the throne at this point. See 4.1.114n.

  14. See Ranald, 183-96; also 4.1.203n.

  15. Nichols quotes a report that in her final illness Queen Elizabeth ‘desired to see a true looking-glass, which in twenty years she had not sene, but only such a one as was made of purpose to deceive her sight: which glasse, being brought her, she fell presently into exclayming against those which had so much commended her, and took it so offensively, that some which had flattered her, durst not come into her sight’ (3.612).

  16. See, 287-8n., 292-3n. and 294n.

  17. Benthall's production starring John Neville emphasized the intimacy of the King's encounter with his wife by having the lovers sit on the ground—a recapitulation of Richard's posture in the ‘hollow crown’ speech (3.2.160-77). Trewin (Neville, 57) comments on the ‘heartbreak’ in Neville's voice at this point.

  18. See 4.1.184-9n.

  19. See 5.2.37-8n.

  20. It was well known, for instance, that Leicester, Raleigh and Essex, each of them particular favourites of Elizabeth, had several times fallen in and out of her good graces.

  21. Black disagrees with Zitner, arguing that the near-farcicality of the conspiracy scenes, far from ‘undercutting or mocking the seriousness of the play’, ‘intensif[ies] that seriousness by contrast or counterpoint’ as in the relationship between masque and antimasque (‘Interlude’, 112).

  22. See 5.6.40n.; also Berger, ‘Perspective’ (266-8), where the ambiguities of the Bolingbroke-Exton relationship are explored in detail.

  23. Barton's RSC and Warner's National Theatre productions both stressed the similarity, even the symbolic identity, of Richard and Bolingbroke; in the first of these Irving Wardle referred to the two kings as ‘fatal twins’ (The Times, 11 April 1973, 13).

  24. Cf. the speeches of Gaunt and York at 2.1.104-8 and 171-83; see also 2.1.172-83n.

  25. The symbolic identification of the mirror with death was enforced visually in Pimlott's RSC production, in which a long wooden casket served as both a coffin and, when turned vertically, a looking-glass.

  26. Both the play and the principal sources stress Richard's immaturity, influenced by his accession to the throne as a boy of ten and by the earlier domination of his uncles over him. In later ages and even in his own time, writers made much of Richard's minority and the dangers to national security of a child king. When Henry IV succeeded, Archbishop Arundel preached a sermon on 1 Samuel, 9.17, stressing the new king's adulthood and supporting it with a passage from 1 Corinthians, 13.11: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child … but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Arundel was exploiting a Lancastrian myth; in physical age, Bolingbroke was actually junior to Richard by three months. See Aston, 306-7.

  27. Campbell (200) discerns an analogy between Gloucester's death and the execution of Mary Stuart. Perhaps the shedding of royal blood by a legitimate monarch with its implied evil consequences for the perpetrator was too dangerous a subject to carry to its natural conclusion in the theatre.


Margaret Aston, ‘Richard II and the Wars of the Roses’, in F. H. R. Du Boulay and Caroline M. Barron (eds), The Reign of Richard II: Essays in Honour of May McKisack (1971), 280-317

T. W. Baldwin, On Act and Scene Division in the Shakespeare First Folio (Carbondale, Ill., 1965)

John Baxter, Shakespeare's Poetic Styles: Verse Into Drama (1980)

Harry Berger, Jr, ‘Richard II: A Modern Perspective’, in Mowat & Werstine, 237-72

James Black, ‘The Interlude of the Beggar and the King in Richard II’, in David M. Bergeron (ed.), Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater (Athens, Ga., 1985), 104-13

Harold Bloom (ed.), William Shakespeare's ‘Richard II’, Modern Critical Interpretations (New York and New Haven, Conn., 1988)

Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, Calif., 1947)

E.K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (New York, 1926)

Samuel Daniel, The First Four Books of the Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York (1595)

Louisa D. Duls, Richard II in the Early Chronicles (The Hague and Paris, 1975)

Philip Edwards, ‘Person and Office in Shakespeare's Plays’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 56 (1970), 93-109

Charles R. Forker (ed.), Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition: ‘Richard II’ (1998)

Raphael Holinshed, The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 2nd edn, 3 vols in 2 (1587)

Ruth Morse, ‘Telling the Truth with Authority: From Richard II to Richard II’, Common Knowledge, vol. 4, no. 1 (1995), 111-28

Ruth Nevo, Tragic Form in Shakespeare (Princeton, N.J., 1972)

John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, new edn, 3 vols (1823)

Allardyce Nicoll, Shakespeare (1952)

John Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare (1945)

Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York, 1967)

Phyllis Rackin, ‘The Role of the Audience in Richard II’, SQ, 36 (1985), 262-81

Margaret Loftus Ranald, ‘The Degradation of Richard II: An Inquiry into the Ritual Backgrounds’, ELR, 7 (1977), 170-96

Kristian Smidt, Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays (1982)

Brents Stirling, ‘Bolingbroke's “Decision”’, SQ, 2 (1951), 27-34

Ernest William Talbert, The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare's Art (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1962)

Michael Tomlinson, ‘Shakespeare and the Chronicles Reassessed’, Literature and History, vol. 10, no. 1 (1984), 46-58

J.C. Trewin, John Neville: An Illustrated Study of His Work (1961)

Sheldon P. Zitner, ‘Aumerle's Conspiracy’, Studies in English Literature, 14 (1974), 239-57

Carol Chillington Rutter (review date autumn 1997)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7487

SOURCE: Rutter, Carol Chillington. “Fiona Shaw's Richard II: The Girl as Player-King as Comic.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 3 (autumn 1997): 314-24.

[In the following extended review of director Deborah Warner's 1995 production of Richard II starring Fiona Shaw in the title role, Rutter highlights the significance of this feminized, cross-gender, and comic stage interpretation of Shakespeare's play.]

… Richard, that sweet lovely rose,
… this thorn, this canker Bolingbroke.

(1 Henry IV, 1.3.173-74)1

Even before it opened at the National Theatre in June 1995, every major British newspaper had an opinion about Deborah Warner's Richard II. “Gimmick casting,” said the Independent on Sunday: “The sort of thing you might expect to see at the end of term in a boarding school.”2 A “Kingdom under siege,” observed the Guardian.3 The Observer Review asked about “a career in crisis,” and three weeks later the Independent felt compelled to publish a “second opinion” to “defend … Richard II from the baying critics.”4 This silly season among reviewers did not end when the play opened. First-night notices found critics—such as Benedict Nightingale in the Times—writing as if addled, their imaginations filled “with panicky images: the Maggie Smith Falstaff, the Nicol Williamson Desdemona, the Raquel Welch Titus Andronicus.”5

What was all the fuss about? Deborah Warner's Richard was being played by “a girl.”6 And not just any “girl.” Fiona Shaw is one of the most remarkable actors of her generation.7 Fiercely intelligent and endlessly articulate—interviewing Shaw is like having the top of your head taken off and your cranium scoured out with a brillo pad—she brings that intelligence to every part she plays. Whatever her role—Kate Minola, Hedda Gabler, Electra—her character is quite simply the smartest person on the stage. It was clear from the anxiety rattling around in those pre-publicity interviews—and nothing rattles critics quite as visibly as a smart woman onstage—that the “girl” was not going to play the Richard they knew from a dozen previous productions, the wastrel, the gormless poltroon outmaneuvered by his barons, the “girly” king.

It was also clear that this performance was not going to be reverential about the idea of the English sovereign. Shaw is Irish. Cork is in her blood and, despite Shaw's professional training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Cork survives in her voice, in her accent, in her witty, ironizing intonation. Hers is a voice that triumphs in comedy but that also interrogates politics. Given the history of the English in Ireland in the 1590s and the 1990s, and given, in 1995, the shabby daily spectacle of the English monarchy savaging itself in newsprint and on television, raveling out its “mystery” before the wearied eyes of its subjects, an Irish voice speaking an English king was bound to register skepticism if not downright mockery.

So Shaw's Richard was always going to be subversive but not in the clichéd ways the critics imagined. For what mattered wasn't that a woman was playing the king. What mattered, as Shaw saw it, “was that a woman was playing the king and refusing to play by ‘boys' rules.’” Her Richard—and this is an issue I want to return to—“acted like being a king wasn't serious.”

For Deborah Warner the cross-gender casting was always a nonissue: Fiona Shaw was “the most exciting and suitable Richard I could think of.”8 For Shaw the project was an “experiment,” although not the one attributed to her by the hysterical Independent on Sunday journalist who saw Warner and Shaw conspiring in “a long-term … attempt over the coming years to ‘appropriate’ Shakespeare's male characters on the grounds that he didn't write enough decent parts for women.”9 “It was nothing to do with that,” Shaw replies. “Ten years ago I couldn't have played Richard II without the political overtone of feminism attaching to it. But that moment is gone. It's over. We're beyond that now. So the antifeminist criticisms of the production were completely passé criticisms. We're into another area which is much bigger than men playing women or women playing men, bigger because it's not about the nature of gender, it's about the nature of being.

Why the need for experiment? Because, says Shaw, “the theater right now is pretty dull. Shakespeare, the roles in Shakespeare, the theater: they're all at a place which is dull. The National Theatre has just revived as ‘new work’ a production they did fifteen years ago. The Royal Shakespeare Company has publicly declared that they don't think it's their role to be innovative. This is very worrying. Because the nature of theater is to be innovative; any repeated moment in the theater is a dead moment. The theater needs to try to aim into the area that's unknown. We don't need any more productions of Shakespeare as a rendering of the known, as a rendering of a ‘cultural text.’ In experimenting with Richard II, I wanted to take a pearl of some imaginative extraordinariness and drop it into the cultural pool to see what ripples might occur. It's rather fantastical to free someone from their gender. So what happens, what is released, if a woman plays Richard II? That was the experiment.”

The experiment, then, had as much to do with reanimating a stagnant theater as with discovering a “female” Richard. Instructed by “the latent prompting” of the text, Shaw found her “femaleness [to be] very near to the heart of the play, and the world of the play [to be] very near the heart of the theatre.” Theater, Shaw thinks, “is often released by its opposite: something is released when a man-king is played by a woman non-king.” Further, “the theatre's role is to show things by reflection not by direct representation … to create totalities that people can look at, accept, reject, be changed by.”10 The lines that came to resonate most powerfully for the (female) actor inside the (male) role were ones like Richard's meditation on the paradoxical end of human being:

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


“There is something marvelous,” says Shaw, “about a woman speaking these lines, about a woman saying something about the nature of manhood—because that something is also about the nature of personhood. And that is really what is at play in this play.”

For the record, then, and drawing on my interview with Fiona Shaw midway through the play's run, I want to document several choices the Warner/Shaw Richard made as a way of accounting for some of what the production released. As it turned out, the cross-gender casting was the route to a paradoxical return: by estranging the title role, it allowed the audience to reinterrogate, to reimagine, what previous performances had made us feel was familiar in the role; what, indeed, those previous performances had made us feel the role was about: a “girly” king and a double act. Fiona Shaw's innovation was not so much to re-gender the role as to put a new spin on what it means to be the “player” king.

There should have been nothing disconcerting about a woman playing the part since Richard has traditionally been perceived as something of a girly role. In early criticism Richard II was the tragedy of the effeminate king: for Coleridge, Richard's “inherent weakness” was “an intellectual feminineness, … feminine friendism”; for Dowden it was his “‘boyishness,’” his “want of true and manly patriotism.” What repelled Hazlitt—Richard's failure of “manliness”—Swinburne cherished: the “inspired effeminacy” of this “unmanliest of [Shakespeare's] creatures.” It was Walter Pater who invented Richard as the poet-king,11 a sort of eloquent but effeminate “lassy-lad,”12 and it was Pater's Richard that became the standard reading of the role in the theater; indeed, the standard was so universal that alternative readings stood out. In 1964 the unidentified Times reviewer started from the position that Richard II was so “fixed in the mind as a lyric tragedy centred on the narcissistic poet-king” that David Warner's RSC performance was remarkable for its “unexpected masculinity.”13 Five years later Michael Billington celebrated Ian McKellen's 1969 Prospect Theatre Richard for “its radical rethinking of a role that had been swamped in effeminate glitter.”14

Since the 1970s, however, starting with John Barton's landmark RSC production in 1973, the theater has become more interested in Richard II as a play of doubles: internal doubles, intertextual doubles, theatrical doubling. Barton, famously, saw Richard and Bolingbroke as “fatal twins” (in reviewer Irving Wardle's unforgettable phrase).15 He had Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson double the roles, playing the king and the usurper on alternate nights. The effect of this was to literalize the duplicities Barton found in the play's text: not just in its plot and roles but in its system of verbal and visual exchange.

Syntactically, this is a play that constantly “set[s] the word against the word”: language switchbacks on itself in cumulatively grotesque puns (on gaunt, for instance), and the text grows thickets of curious riddles, some that involve identity swaps. Outrageously, Bolingbroke can legitimate his return from exile because he was Hereford when he left but Lancaster coming home.

A language that formalizes duplicity is exactly right for this play of cross and double cross. (Who killed Woodstock? Whose side is Aumerle on? What does loyalty to “the king” mean, given the experience of, say, York?) But duplicity, an essential doubleness, is likewise mysteriously located at the heart of things in Richard II, so Bushy's “perspectives,” his glass of tears that “Divides one thing entire to many objects” (2.2.18, 17), is precisely the right optical instrument to focus spectatorship in this play. “Double” is how Richard sees himself: composed of two bodies, the “gorgeous” king and the private man who “live[s] with bread” (3.2.175). He is double in another way, too, for he figures himself as a kind of androgyne: “My brain … the female” and “My soul the father” couple to “beget / A generation of still-breeding thoughts” (5.5.6-8) that are themselves “double” in that they are at once teeming and stillborn. It is the body's failure to represent materially his psychic doubleness that maddens Richard in 4.1: gazing in the mirror, he is struck by the duplicity of his face, which refuses to register on its surface the grief his self feels. Then, as he requires his cousin to “seize the crown” (4.1.181), he figures the crown as “a deep well” and himself and Bolingbroke as twin “buckets”: all that distinguishes them is their emptiness or fullness. So Richard and Bolingbroke are doubles throughout, twins by antithesis (the “rose” versus the “canker,” or the “comet” that “could not stir” but it “was wond'red at” versus the “skipping King,” who “ambled up and down, / With shallow jesters” [1 Henry IV, 1.3.175-76; 3.2.46-47, 60-61]). But they are also twins by synthesis, as we see when Bolingbroke replays in 4.1 the gage scene Richard presided over in 1.1.

By doubling and alternating the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke, John Barton made doubleness the production's organizing metaphor but then went on to intensify its reference by using it to explore the metaphor of the player-king. What Richard knows and Bolingbroke learns is that to play the king is to play a part. Kingship is acting, acting is playing, and politics is theater. The players—mere histrions, hypocrites, antics—are interchangeable. The “O” that is their playing space is metonymized in the hollow circle of their crown, and it makes no difference who plays the king since “Antic” Death will outplay them all. So the golden ceremonial mask, which abstractly signified the king at the beginning of Barton's production and that (in a sequence of three coronations enacted onstage) ritually transformed the face of the individual into the facelessness of the monarch, was replaced by its double at the end: a skull.16

Other productions have seen doubles differently, as traffic between role and role, certainly, but also as dialogue between text and text. On tour in 1969, the Prospect Theatre Company played Richard II opposite Edward II with Ian McKellen in both title roles. At the RSC in 1990, Alex Jennings played Richard II in the main house opposite Simon Russell Beale's Edward II in the Swan. Alan Howard alternated Richard II with Richard III at the RSC in 1980. Each of these Richards explored virility: McKellen held the orb with such a stiff military wrist that it looked as though rigor mortis had set in; Howard, tethered to the floor at Pomfret, used his chains like a thug's garrote on his assassins.

But these Richards also toyed with aspects of effeminacy: McKellen was sometimes “given to hysterical anger”; Howard carried a blue satin handkerchief; Jennings stood limp-kneed.17 So while none of these Richards was a “lassy-lad,” there was enough in their performances that readmitted and recirculated Pater's notion of the effeminate poet-king. More to the point, these Richards were being seen as half of a double act, companion plays in a repertoire that invited audiences to read Richard II intertextually against either Edward II or Richard III. The paradoxical effect of this was to set up analogies that worked by association or disassociation: on the one hand, to somehow normalize Richard—each of the “shadow” kings was more extreme in his habits—and, on the other, to foreground Richard's sexuality and make it a problem. Read intertextually, that monster of deformed and excessive masculinity, Richard Crookback, came to be seen as the ultimate product of Richard Plantagenet's more delicately deformed deficient masculinity. And Edward (who is both his own poet-maker of excessive fantasies of homosexual pleasure and Gaveston's abject muse of sodomitical enthrallment) projected a lurid sidelight onto Richard, fawned over by his less-demonstrative minions. Both sets of intertextual doubles made for strange traffic between text and text; both doubles sensationalized Richard. The effeminate king was deviant, abnormal. Given the performed intelligence of the companion play, this had to be so; for in these productions of Richard II, there was no position from which Plantagenet's male and female selves could be seen as coherent, integrated. In these productions he had to remain “queer.”

Deborah Warner's Richard II revisited these ideas—and remapped them. Cross-casting profoundly reconfigured the “queer,” stripping it of camp “effeminate glitter” and putting in place a “determinedly fresh optique.18 Like Bushy's “perspectives,” this optique positioned spectators to eye things “awry” to “distinguish form,” and so to make a new kind of sense of Richard II. That a woman was playing the king without impersonating a man or male behavior meant that the audience saw a Richard who was androgynous rather than effeminate, whose “womanishness” was not deviant but integral and resonant, inscribing within the role an alternative personal and political orientation. In this production, tears belonged to Richard as “naturally” as rage did.

Cross-casting likewise offered this production material to re-think and re-present the duality/duplicity of Richard and Bolingbroke. Irving Wardle, who twenty years earlier had called them “fatal twins” in John Barton's production, observed of this production that the mirror Richard called for in the abdication scene was “superfluous”: “with victor and vanquished gazing into each other's eyes. … Bolingbroke himself [was] Richard's mirror.”19 Partly this depended on the uncanny physical resemblance between Shaw and her Bolingbroke, David Threlfall. (“We must be from the same family somewhere,” says Shaw. “But in fact we discovered the double in rehearsal. Deborah Warner didn't cast for it.”) Even more uncanny was the sense that Richard and Bolingbroke were not just twins but male and female sides of what once had been a single self, now violently ruptured. Wardle saw them “magnetically circling each other like a platonically divided creature seeking to unite its two halves.”20

Wardle saw, too, that the “theatrical fascination of this process [was] that it operate[d] simultaneously as a love journey and a power struggle.” The tragedy this Richard II heartrendingly divulged was not concerned with male (or even failed male) heroics. It was concerned with failed love. “Theirs is a love story,” says Shaw. “Its tragedy is that one of them gives his crown away to one who ultimately may not even want it.” This tragedy revolved around the kinship of two same-but-different cousins and around the kinship of two same-but-different genders. It was the story of a wrecked love affair.

Shaw knew from the outset that it was this story of wrecked love that she wanted to explore. “I was not interested in the Richard who was king,” she says. “I was interested in the private love affair between Richard and Bolingbroke. I wanted to play a Richard who loves Bolingbroke. If he hates Bolingbroke, if his cousin is his archenemy, then the play is about one cousin who hates another cousin destroying him. That's not interesting. What's interesting is when the person you're destroying is the person you love.”

Pitching this production on emotional rather than political ground was foremost among Deborah Warner's directorial claims for Richard. Warner, says Shaw, “is wonderful at releasing the emotional heartbeat of a play. She feels that that's where the essence lies. She's apolitical. But of course if you hit the emotional heartbeat of the play, you also hit the chaotic area—the problematic area, the area you're going to have to examine. If you hit that, the politics will follow.” Warner and her designer, Hildegard Bechtler, created a playing space in the 170-seat Cottesloe Theatre which felt both public and private and which managed to suggest itself as some sort of elegant but austere antechamber to the gorgeous state rooms seemingly just beyond, where the mystery and majesty of monarchy customarily performed. A narrow traverse stage in bare, honey-colored wood was flanked by steeply raked seats that rose behind barricades. The audience might have been sitting in choir stalls, on benches in the House of Commons, behind barriers at a joust, in grandstands at tennis. Their position on either side of the action configured the idea of “seeing double”: there could be no consensus viewpoint here, no single way of looking at things “from the front.” Every scene was played to a double audience, and spectators were aware of seeing across the playing space a mirror image of themselves.

In this way, spatially, Bechtler's design located an attitude toward performativity. But it also evoked a world: a medieval world that was as spare yet gorgeous as monastic black letter illuminated in gold. Before the action began, the center of the playing space was set with a row of seven burnished stands, each of them displaying a miniature—a lion, a dagger, a crystal ball, a gold coin. A black-cowled figure tended (and eventually removed) them. He might have been a monk: a plainsong Kyrie Eleison hung faintly in the air. Or he might have been Death. We seemed to see, spaced out before us in those icons, the seven sons of Edward III, all but two of them wasted by death. Or maybe we saw a different kind of waste. That rich collection of gemlike miniatures perhaps represented Richard Plantagenet's exquisite profligacy: Richard (the program notes told us) spent the medieval equivalent of a million pounds a year on ceremonial display. Did the tokens signify how little the wastrel had to show for his squandering of the kingdom?

As the action began, spectators were again invited to see double, this time in dumbshow, when, at the far end of the playing space, behind a gauze curtain flickeringly backlit by candles, actors-as-actors entered in ones and twos and began warming up. Eventually they lifted down the coronation robe that stood against the back wall and invested Richard. Themselves transformed by the act of this transformation, they genuflected deeply to the body-made-king. That all this took place behind the gauze mystified the action. Majesty was slightly unreal: a performance that exaggerated its own theatricality like the shadow-play on the back wall which loomed larger than the figures that cast it. This ambiguity was intensified moments later when Shaw, now robed as King Richard, turned as if to make the big ceremonial entrance. But she didn't walk on. She walked off. Astonishingly, majesty ducked out by a side door! (When Richard reappeared moments later to start speaking the play, Shaw no longer wore any of those ostentatious trappings.)

Unlike the metatheatrical opening of John Barton's production, then (an opening that consciously foregrounded the transformation of actor into “character,” and an opening that Warner seemed to be quoting in order to deconstruct it), this moment was designed quite deliberately to resist registering any such move between actor and role: instead it stubbornly, even insolently, insisted on their separateness. In this production the (female) actor would in no sense “become” the (male) king. Moreover, the iconoclasm of the jokey deferred entrance laid down a marker for the rest of the production: the player-king in this performance would do a lot of “playing around.”

This opening saw Warner and Shaw chancing things in a major way. That the gamble was worth taking began to be clear when Richard and Bolingbroke, king and cousin, faced each other in the opening scene. The two stood at opposite ends of the playing space: Bolingbroke, dark, brooding, ponderous under a costume as heavy as the chain mail it evoked; the king, skittish in a costume that put a free-moving white robe over a torso tightly wrapped in white bands, as if Richard's body were already swaddled in a winding sheet that was meant to suggest his conceit on the sacredness of the “flesh that walls about our lives.” Behind Richard lounged a gaggle of pretty youths dressed in Florentine taffetas: Aumerle's flame-colored hair curled toward his green-satin shoulders. Behind Bolingbroke stood men in leather, rivets, coarse wool. A court of lightweight adolescents ranged itself against a caste of heavies, a king whose feet swung off the ground when she sat on her throne placed against a cousin planted foursquare. What could two such different creatures as Richard and Bolingbroke possibly have to say to each other?

But this was the stunning discovery. As the scene played, it emerged that, far from being strangers to each other, the cousins were symbiotically connected. They shared a secret language. It was a language of gesture, of game, of child's play, of fooling around at the margins of the deeply serious. (Where did this language come from? In rehearsal Shaw invented a prehistory for Richard and Bolingbroke: “I made up all sorts of secret games in my head about their childhood, like the fact that Bolingbroke had always been Richard's protector physically—in school fights—that he'd always taken care of his weak and inadequate little runt of a cousin. So when Northumberland starts to bully Richard about signing the articles of confession in the abdication scene, of course Richard hides behind Bolingbroke, of course Bolingbroke puts his arms around Richard. He's shielding Richard. He's the closest thing to a mother Richard has. That area of confusion was something our production could achieve because we were in a world where the king wasn't masculine and so where Bolingbroke could play his ‘feminine’ weakness rather than his strength, his vulnerability to Richard and Richard's vulnerability to him.”)

This exclusive language put them in an exclusive world, even surrounded by the court. “It was one of those languages,” says Shaw, “that exists underneath language. Not a subtext. A secret language that discloses secret histories.” Ultimately it was this secret language, expressed in child's play and clowning, that told the love story between Richard and Bolingbroke. But it was also this secret language that, when love failed, Richard would redeploy to the business of critiquing politics. Then, unabashedly the player-king, Richard would use that language to instruct Bolingbroke—and the audience—in the same brand of savage political lesson the Fool teaches Lear.

Four instances made this language explicit to the audience. In the opening scene, Bolingbroke, upping the ante of accusation against Mowbray, as though goaded by the mocking raised eyebrow of his cousin-king into an adolescent game of “chicken,” finally blurted out the business about the murder of Woodstock. His strangled cry was an act of playground desperation, a bid by the abject for love, not power. There was a palpable sense in the scene that Bolingbroke had been estranged from the king, that this meeting was about “two lads” and a lost “boy eternal” that had been displaced by newer, more glamorous favorites. The scene was about yearning and nostalgia, about personal, not public, politics.

Second, at Coventry. As the lists were set, Bolingbroke interrupted the ritual by asking to “kiss my sovereign's hand” (1.3.46). There was no trace of triumphalism in his voice. And he was certainly not upstaging the king—or Mowbray—in personalizing the politics of the moment so as to force Richard to descend into the lists and take him on face to face. (Threlfall's Bolingbroke was never so politically aware; he was never the machiavel understudying as player-king.) Instead he was simply a man who knew that one of the appellants in this contest was minutes away from death: “a ceremonious leave / And loving farewell of our several friends” (1.3.50-51) looked that death in the eye. His simplicity was breathtaking. Again, there was a language—a love language—underneath the lines. He needed to embrace his cousin one last time. So Richard descended. She brought with her a bowl of holy water and solemnly anointed Mowbray's forehead with the sign of the cross. She turned to Bolingbroke, but instead of repeating the ceremony, she mockingly paddled her fingers in the water and flicked it in his face. Then, setting aside her crown—and her jokes—she put her arms around Bolingbroke, and she kissed him. All the unspoken past, all the unimaginable future, hung on that lingering kiss.

This kiss was repeated with the same perplexing crossovers between high seriousness and kid stuff in 3.3 at Flint Castle. Richard spoke the lines on civil war as a solemn prophecy of apocalypse—but then she cut the ground out from under the warning by giving Northumberland no chance to deliver Bolingbroke's submission. In a childish fit of self-destructive, self-theatricalizing petulance (“What must the king do now?” [3.3.143]), she seemed about to throw herself off the parapet. Instead, outrageously, she sent her crown spinning down a length of drapery into the court below like a child on a slide, while she made an anticlimactic joke entrance down the back stairs. Her exit from the scene (“Set on towards London, cousin … ?” [l. 208]) ludicrously mimed a game of horsey-horsey. Yet against such funny business, Bolingbroke's gravity—“My gracious lord, I come but for mine own”—was answered with equal seriousness—“Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all” (ll. 196-97)—and with an embrace from behind that put Richard literally in Bolingbroke's shadow. The kiss Richard gave now was one Bolingbroke was in no position to return: a kiss from behind, a kiss from the past.

Finally, the deposition scene. Richard entered carrying the crown in a wicker basket. She sat with her knees stiffly together and her hands flat upon them like a schoolchild before the class register is called. When she ostentatiously recognized “The favours of these men” and dared them with “God save the king!” she cocked her hand around her ear, mockingly waiting for “Amen.” The joke on Judas and “All hail!” was funny, disconcerting: plain bad behavior (4.1.168-73). A king who clowned around caught everybody out. She made the grown-up antiritual of royal resignation that York and Northumberland were so seriously attempting to improvise nothing more than a parlor game, a farcical charade, child's play. As if to underline this, “Here, cousin, seize the crown” (l. 181) was Richard's cue for a game of paddy-whack where the crown—which she'd set on the ground between herself and Bolingbroke, an improbable “bacon” for filching—was the prize. The cousins had obviously invented this game, had choreographed its overelaborate routine of slapping hands and thighs, had played it a million times before when the stake they were grabbing for was the best piece of cake, the best tennis racket. Part of the game was that Richard always won. Now the game was grotesque. The stake made it so. The fact that Bolingbroke wouldn't play did not mean he was salvaging prestige for the crown. He'd won without playing. Bolingbroke understood that by winning, he'd made the prize meaningless.

Shaw's disconcerting moves between royal play and child's play were central to her interpretation of Richard II. “The play is massively to do with childhood,” she thinks, and quotes “let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.155-56) to explain that “Richard II is about fear and childhood. About telling stories. Bolingbroke is Richard's childhood. There was a real sense in our production that we were each other's playfellows. And always had been.”

Shaw's Richard “adored Bolingbroke. He's the biggest, most heroic man in the world. But he is also the person who makes Richard feel the weakest, the most inadequate person in the world. He is the man Richard is most jealous of and the man Richard most loves; and Richard is the one he most admires, because he admires kingship, does Bolingbroke, and then he corrupts himself by stealing it. Because the moment he's stolen it, he's destroyed it. He can never be the kind of king that Richard is.”

Shaw's Richard grasped this long before Bolingbroke did. “Richard is so much quicker than Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke can return from exile claiming ‘I've come only for my own, only for Lancaster.’ But he can't have his lands back and Richard remain king, because Richard is king only because Bolingbroke agrees that he is so, because Bolingbroke acquiesces to the concept of divine right. If that goes, if absolute authority goes—and it does go if Bolingbroke can repeal his own exile—so does the king as a role and as a person. So Richard snookers Bolingbroke. He says, ‘You know you can't take your little without taking my all, because in taking that little, you've undermined the fundamental contract that keeps me king.’” Achieving that awareness, Shaw's Richard achieved politics. She understood the whole political process—which had eluded her at court, at Coventry, at Gaunt's death bed, on the coast of Wales—in one stunning revelation. And all of what Richard now understood was gathered up in the compressed obliquity of that line, “Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?” (3.3.208). Drily, Shaw observes what her Richard knew: “Bolingbroke wanted the crown. He wanted it more than anything in the world. But he didn't even know it.”

The riskier discovery this production made was to represent Richard's clowning as likewise achieving politics. Shaw wooed the audience's laughter in the abdication scene, and she refused “for Richard to be sentimentally aware. That scene is certainly not sentimental. The pain in the scene is released by a man who won't have other people take responsibility for his pain. And of course that goads and galls Bolingbroke.” So her Richard came into the scene fully aware of the irony of the situation: “‘So, here we are in Parliament and somebody's king. I wonder who it could be? Because it used to be me. My cousin, whom I've agreed to make king (insofar as one can make him king), is here, too. So what would you like me to do? Give the crown away? Okay—there it is. In the basket.’ The absurdity of it all unmakes the moment, and Bolingbroke is left knowing that all his best things—such as ‘I will ascend the throne’—are completely meaningless. All the big heroic gestures are meaningless because he's emptied out the meaning of what he's achieved.”

Her clowning put Bolingbroke's agenda into high relief. It infuriated him: by the end of the scene, he was so angry that he nearly threw the crown at Richard's head. Laughter was provocative. But it was also interpretative: the audience saw Bolingbroke making the monarchy—the idea of the king—an absurdity. Mordantly, Shaw notes, “This scene was not the one Bolingbroke envisaged. If only Richard could say, ‘I, Richard of Bordeaux, give you …’ in a solemn, pompous voice, everything would be fine. Pomp is a fantastic disguise for feeling. Pomp would make people bow and scrape, and that would disguise the emotion. And then Bolingbroke would be covered. But the fact that Richard says, quite casually, ‘Right. Well. Have it,’ leaves a whole vacuum waiting to be interpreted. The moment Richard crowns Henry is the ultimate declaration that the crowning means nothing. ‘God save King Henry, unking'd Richard says’ (4.1.220). ‘Unkinged’—that's a wonderful word. You can't unking someone.”

As she played it, Shaw “unkinged” herself in a mime that turned the procedure into comic business. She sat primly on her throne, her crown at her feet, and, in exaggerated gestures, item by item divested herself of the illusory accoutrements of monarchy: “this heavy weight from off my head … this unwieldy sceptre from my hand” (ll. 204-5). There was nothing there, nothing in her hands: the emperor had no clothes. But as the clowning got serious, as the voice picked up power and momentum, as Shaw's hands swept the crown up off the floor and rammed it painfully down on Bolingbroke's head, the audience's laughter died. What the audience might read from this mime was a radical political awareness: “Richard discovers that the whole thing has been a complete illusion. There isn't anything real about being a king. The mimed anti-investiture is a way of pointing up that absurdity; of saying, ‘Here, Bolingbroke. Put this illusion (of power) onto your illusion (of power). Then you can have the illusion.’” Bolingbroke's face contorted with pain as the crown was thrust down onto his temples. The pain was real enough, and where it would take him was signaled moments later when Richard, refusing to utter the articles of confession, took refuge behind Bolingbroke, spreading out their arms, back to back. Their double bodies were transformed into a cross—or perhaps into bodies hanging from it.

Ultimately it was Fiona Shaw's irreverent child's play, not her gender, that critics objected to in her performance: “When Shaw sits on the ground to tell sad stories of the death of kings, she sucks her thumb. It's all a ghastly travesty”; “Her king is a man-child … unfitted to rule anything larger or older than Enid Blyton's Famous Five”; “This playfulness not only makes Shaw unconvincing as an anointed king—she'd have to be more authoritative to make a believable queen of St. Trinians.”21

Shaw is unrepentant. She had plenty of textual prompting to authorize her license. “There are piles of jokes in Richard II, and they're real jokes, real wit. For example, ‘subjected thus, / How can you say to me, I am a king?’ (3.2.176-77). The brains of people who have the ability to fashion ironic jokes while saying something serious—that's a very attractive quality to me. I was delighted by the jokes in our Richard. I was also delighted by the way we used bad taste. (For example, the way Richard bustled into Gaunt's death scene already wearing a black armband and carrying a funeral wreath that had to be ditched because Gaunt wasn't dead yet.) Bad taste was a tool. It highlighted something. I had great fun acting bad, and I wished the audience could have laughed more with Richard for being bad. People were so appalled at how bad he was that they kind of got protective on behalf of England. The death of Gaunt—that was very bad behavior, but the point was, the worse the behavior, the bigger the payoff when Richard comes to remorse of such size.

Shaw did not see the collapse into comedy that some reviewers complained of in her performance. Rather, comedy intensified and complicated the focus. It was a “demonstration that so many of the games we're deadly serious about show themselves to be absurd if you slant them, if you skew them just a little obliquely. If a man had been doing what I was doing in the part, reviewers would have been thrilled. But a woman playing that sort of thing was more than a little sacrilegious. You can't have a girl playing a king and then acting like being a king isn't serious. Because it's very serious—as we men know!”

Did Deborah Warner's cross-gender casting finally matter? Sometimes, yes. There were certain areas of the production where the effeminization of Richard worked to stunning effect, as in the trial by combat at Coventry (1.3). Shaw played the scene with “feminine” irresolution, which meant that Richard actually listened to Bolingbroke and took on the imminence of death. In full royal regalia, elevated on the backs of her courtiers, Richard watched as the barriers slammed down, the heralds bellowed out the appeals, the trumpets brayed, the spectators began drumming and chanting, the lists became a bearbaiting pit. Richard looked on, appalled, in an agony of watching that worsened as the noise rose deafeningly, the beating accelerated, the blood lust surged. When “womanish” Richard threw down the warder, it was because she couldn't stand any more. The incredulous look on her face made this male ritual of combat an act of mass lunacy. Could men genuinely intend to settle their affairs this way? Her gesture read as a wholesale indictment of male “order,” male protocol.

Mostly, though, gender did not seem to matter, for it was not the nature of gender that Shaw's performance was deconstructing so much as the nature of politics—the politics of politics—the nature of kingship. “Kingship: It's such a protected English word! The mystification of words such as kingship is incredibly conservative and fundamental in the British imagination. The British would rather protect the word than investigate it or play with it.” So perhaps gender did matter after all. Perhaps only a woman playing the king could estrange the role sufficiently for this demystification to happen and to permit a British audience to consider what a very odd idea a “king” is.

Perhaps her finest achievement in the role turned out to be the way that, by putting a new comic spin on the player-king, Fiona Shaw poignantly and tragically opened up the joke plot, the comic paradox that lies at the heart of Richard II. Richard wins everything by losing, and Bolingbroke loses everything by winning. “The double bind that is the play,” says Shaw, “is that you have an England that has the wrong king, but you cannot cure England of the wrong king. The only thing you can do is to appeal to the king to be a better king. But the only way you can make him be a better king is to make him go through the process of the play that is going to kill him. The tragedy of the play—and of all our lives—is that we have to give up the thing that we feel is our essence, the thing we are most proud of, in order to gain ourselves. I think it's fascinating that somebody gives his crown away to somebody who, by the time he gets it, may not even want it. That taps into our emotional lives, where we give our hearts away to people who don't want them. And then we're sad that we've given them away. Richard's grief is ‘all within’ (4.1.295): his grief is that his love for Bolingbroke cannot be spoken. When he says ‘I thank thee, king’ to Bolingbroke in the abdication scene (l. 299), it's wholly without irony. He's saying ‘Thank you. You've taught me the biggest lesson in my life. You've taught me betrayal.’ It's a sad thing to thank him for. He could do without the burden of it. But poor old Bolingbroke. If God really is sitting on top of the cosmic structure, then God's cruelty is that he makes Bolingbroke, who is Richard's biggest champion, also Richard's killer.”

The Shaw/Warner Richard II was the National Theatre's most talked-about production in a decade, but after playing the role for over a year in London, Paris, and Salzburg, Fiona Shaw's verdict on her performance was characteristically laconic: “It came. It went. It was a little gift, I hope, to the cultural world.”22


  1. Quotations of 1 Henry IV follow the Arden text edited by A. R. Humphreys (London: Methuen, 1970); quotations of Richard II follow the Arden text edited by Peter Ure (London: Methuen, 1985). Quotations of all other Shakespeare plays follow the Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. Andrew Temple, The Independent on Sunday, 21 May 1995, p. 23.

  3. Claire Armitstead, The Guardian, 31 May 1995, sec. G2, p. 10.

  4. Michael Coveney, The Observer Review, 21 May 1995, p. 2; Paul Taylor, The Independent, 14 June 1995, p. 23.

  5. Benedict Nightingale, The Times, 5 June 1995, p. 15.

  6. Fiona Shaw, interviewed by the author, London, 15 August 1995. All subsequent quotations of Shaw are, unless otherwise noted, drawn from this interview.

  7. Shaw's stage credits include The Rivals, The Way of the World, Machinal, and The Good Person of Setzuan at the National Theatre; As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, Philistines, Liaisons Dangereuses, Mephisto, The Taming of the Shrew, The New Inn, Hyde Park, and Electra with the Royal Shakespeare Company; and Hedda Gabler at the Abbey Theatre. Among Shaw's film credits are My Left Foot, The Butcher Boy, Three Men and a Little Lady, Super Mario Brothers, and Undercover Blues.

  8. Warner, quoted in Armitstead, p. 10.

  9. Temple, p. 23.

  10. Quotations of Shaw in this paragraph are drawn from an article by Georgina Brown, The Independent, 26 May 1995, p. 25.

  11. These nineteenth-century assessments of Richard's character are quoted here from Nicholas Brooke, ed., Richard II: A Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1973), 30, 31, 41, 37, 74, and 55. To Pater, Richard was (if “nothing else”) “an exquisite poet …, from first to last, in light and gloom alike, able to see all things poetically, to give a poetic turn to his conduct of them, and refreshing with his golden language the tritest aspects of that ironic contrast between the pretensions of a king and the actual necessities of his destiny” (quoted in Brooke, ed., 55). C. E. Montague, reviewing Frank Benson's Richard in the Guardian (4 December 1899), wondered “whether anyone who hears Mr. Benson in this part with an open mind can doubt that Shakespere meant to draw in Richard not only a rake and muff on a throne and falling off it but, in the same person, an exquisite poet, to show with one hand how kingdoms are lost and with the other how the creative imagination goes about its work; to fill the same man with the attributes of a feckless wastrel in high place and with the quite distinct but not incompatible attributes of a typical, a consummate artist” (quoted in Brooke, ed., 64). In the 1950s John Gielgud continued the theatrical tradition of Richard as the poet-king: see his comments on the role, first published in Sir John Gielgud, Stage Directions (New York: Random House, 1964), and reprinted in Brooke, ed., 77-81.

  12. This phrase comes from Tony Harrison, another poet who had problems squaring poetry with masculinity; see Carol Rutter, Tony Harrison: Permanently Bard (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1995), 15.

  13. The Times, 16 April 1964, p. 6.

  14. Michael Billington, The Modern Actor (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973), 70.

  15. Irving Wardle, The Times, 11 April 1973, p. 17.

  16. To my mind, the best record of this production is Miriam Gilbert's “Richard II at Stratford: Role-Playing as Metaphor” in Philip C. McGuire and David A. Samuelson, eds., Shakespeare: The Theatrical Dimension (New York: AMS Press, 1979), 85-101. See, too, Stanley Wells, “John Barton's Richard II, 1973-74,” Furman Studies N.S. 23 (June 1976): 64-81 (reprinted in Wells, Royal Shakespeare: Four major productions at Stratford-upon-Avon [Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1977]).

  17. Billington reports on McKellen's performance in The Modern Actor, 78. Recollections of the other two productions are my own.

  18. Billington, 70; Wardle, The Times, 11 April 1973, p. 17.

  19. Wardle, The Independent on Sunday, 4 June 1995, p. 21.

  20. Wardle, The Independent on Sunday, 4 June 1995, p. 21.

  21. John Gross, Sunday Telegraph, 11 June 1995, “Arts,” p. 5; Nightingale, p. 15; Rhoda Koenig, The Independent, 5 June 1995, “Arts,” p. 22.

  22. Shaw was both right and wrong. Her Richard II did not just go away when the final theater blackout fell. The production was subsequently filmed for television, by Illuminations for NVC Arts in association with BBC Television and La Sept/ARTE, and shown on 22 March 1997 in the BBC2 Performance series. This gives us a permanent record of Shaw in the role. But this record, interesting as it is, turns out to be only a partial document of a production whose most extraordinary achievement of interpretation was in the Richard/Bolingbroke double act. David Threlfall was not available to play Bolingbroke in the film. The part was played instead by Richard Bremmer, who, for all his excellences, could not reproduce with Shaw what she and Threlfall had created. In a real sense, then, the production I have been writing about in this essay came and went exactly as Shaw said.

Evelyn Gajowski (review date autumn 1998)

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SOURCE: Gajowski, Evelyn. Review of Shakespeare in Performance: King Richard II. Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 3 (autumn 1998): 328-30.

[In the following review, Gajowski appraises Margaret Shewring's Shakespeare in Performance: King Richard II, praising the work's broad scope, including nineteen theatrical productions over four centuries, but faulting its limited attention to the theoretical aspects of contemporary performance.]

“I am Richard II, know ye not that?” Elizabeth I famously remarked to William Lambarde regarding Shakespeare's history play. Margaret Shewring appropriately devotes the introductory chapters of her book for the Shakespeare in Performance series to the “dangerous matter” of Richard II: deposition and regicide. The politically subversive nature of the play's challenge to political stability was exploited by the supporters of the earl of Essex, who commissioned a special performance on the eve of their abortive coup against Elizabeth in 1601. When Nahum Tate adapted Shakespeare's play as The Sicilian Usurper eight decades later, he distanced the issues of deposition and regicide by changing the names of the dramatis personae and setting the play in Italy. Despite this fact, these issues were, three decades following the execution of Charles I, still controversial: Tate's version was banned after only two performances.

Shewring's discussion of the subversive potential of staging deposition and regicide resonates with her central discussion in chapter VI, “In the context of English history.” Here she focuses on three twentieth-century productions that emphasized power politics by staging complete cycles of various history plays: Anthony Quayle's 1951 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre production, starring Michael Redgrave; Peter Hall's, John Barton's, and Clifford Williams's 1964 Royal Shakespeare Company production, starring David Warner; Michael Bogdanov's 1987-88 English Shakespeare Company production, starring Michael Pennington. When Richard II is staged together with other history plays, Shewring points out, “the full narrative dramatises the fate of the English Crown from the reign of Richard II to that of Richard III” (92-93). Individual characters no longer dominate; instead, each play “takes its place in a complex discussion rooted in power politics, and individual characters are seen in relation to their ability to seize or to retain power” (93). The program notes for the Quayle/Redgrave production emphasize that the second tetralogy presents “not only a living epic of England” through the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V but also “a profound commentary on Kingship” (95). The Hall/Warner production of the Wars of the Roses emphasized the national crisis triggered by Richard's deposition; that crisis was presented “not in terms of who ruled, but how they ruled” (102). Richard II was not so much “the dramatisation of an old order” in this production as “a seedbed of potential violence” (104). Bogdanov and Pennington wanted to demonstrate the history plays' immediacy by seeking out their implications for an audience in the 1980s.

A history of theatrical performances, like a history of literary criticism, is a history of the construction of different meanings in different periods. Shewring is adept at presenting not only a performance history of a single play but also at suggesting larger developments in theater history constituted by shifting political, social, and aesthetic ideologies. Chapter IV, “The spectacle of history,” details the nineteenth-century-antiquarian approach to Shakespeare's plays which fetishized the medieval world of Richard II and was concerned to paint a pretty picture; productions such as Charles Kean's 1857 Princess's Theatre production emphasized visual display and ceremony. In reaction, the personality of the king and the actor playing him dominated twentieth-century productions, as Shewring points out in chapter V, “A play of personality.” In productions such as Frank Benson's 1896 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre production, Harcourt Williams's 1929 Old Vic production starring John Gielgud, Gielgud's 1937 Queen's Theatre production, and Richard Cottrell's 1968 Prospect Theatre Company production, the ultimate concern was with “the personal tragedy of the man” (63). In turn, however, twentieth-century productions of Richard II which were a part of a larger cycle of history plays deemphasized Richard as a tragic figure and instead emphasized the complementary plot—the fall of Richard and the rise of Bolingbroke.

Although Shewring appreciates the significance of power politics, she gives female characters, feminist criticism, and gender politics short shrift. Because Shakespeare invented the female characters' roles and speeches in Richard II, they deserve a modicum of theatrical and critical attention. Shewring, however, devotes only a one-page section, “The play's female roles” (8-9), to the subject in chapter I, “A question of balance: the problematic structure of Richard II.” As recent feminist criticism has demonstrated, the female characters in Richard II provide an alternative perspective on the political events with which the text is centrally concerned, privileging familial over political bonds, as Katharine Maus points out; this gendered disparity of perspectives brings home the point that England's political crisis is also a familial one.1 With the exception of brief remarks regarding the Yorks and Aumerle as recipients of inappropriate audience laughter and (therefore) as targets for deletion, Shewring offers no analysis of the alternative perspective that the queen, the duchess of Gloucester, and the duchess of York provide.

It is not a huge leap, I suppose, from experimental casting decisions such as that employed by John Barton in his landmark 1973-74 Royal Shakespeare Company production, which alternated Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson in the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke, to cross-gender casting in Deborah Warner's 1995 Royal National Theatre production, starring Fiona Shaw. Shewring devotes an afterword to the Warner/Shaw production, which was produced when her book was going to press. Doubling the roles of king and usurper on alternating nights in the Barton/Richardson/Pasco production “literalize[d] the duplicities” in the play's plot, its roles, and its system of verbal and visual exchange, as Carol Rutter puts it.2 Among the most extraordinary achievements of the Warner/Shaw production was likewise Shaw's and David Threlfall's Richard/Bolingbroke double act. Their Richard II involved a different kind of shifting, however, revolving around “the kinship of two same-but-different cousins” and around “the kinship of two same-but-different genders.”3 What is the significance of cross-gender casting? There were certain areas where the effeminization of Richard worked to stunning effect, as in the trial by combat at Coventry. Rutter observes:

When “womanish” Richard threw down the warder, it was because she couldn't stand any more. The incredulous look on her face made this male ritual of combat an act of mass lunacy. Could men genuinely intend to settle their affairs this way? Her gesture read as a wholesale indictment of male “order,” male protocol.4

Cross-gender casting was obviously germane to the Warner/Shaw production, yet Shewring curiously denies that it is. While she appreciates that kingship is concerned with theatricality and role-playing, she denies that the decision to cast a female actor to play the role of a male monarch has anything to do with the “f-word”: Warner and Shaw “do not rely upon the controversial politics of feminism,” she claims (181). Her ambivalence regarding feminist criticism and the gendered meanings it makes possible in Richard II attenuates her analysis where a deployment of feminism could have enriched it. She fails to understand the way in which power politics and gender politics intersect and inform one another in society and in the Warner/Shaw production: “It is not the fact that the King is played by a woman that is significant; it is that the presentation of kingship is, in itself, an elaborate theatrical charade” (182). Women in a patriarchal society are, like monarchs, expected to play prescribed roles: a woman is expected to play the role of social inferior to a man, while a monarch is expected to play the role of social superior to her and to his subjects. The Warner/Shaw production problematizes this apparent contradiction, as Rutter notes: “perhaps gender did matter after all. Perhaps only a woman playing the king could estrange the role sufficiently for this demystification to happen and to permit a British audience to consider what a very odd idea a ‘king’ is.”5 Shewring concludes her book with the claim that Warner's and Shaw's “compelling, essentially apolitical interpretation will earn its place in the collective memory of performance history” (184). Her notion that the Warner/Shaw production is “apolitical” depends on the assumption that politics and gender are mutually exclusive: according to this formulation, “politics” is for boys, while “gender” is for girls. When a female director and a female actor collaborate to interrogate the confluence of Elizabethan and contemporary power-and-gender politics, it is unfortunate that Shewring denies that these meanings exist.

Shewring does have a keen eye for the visual language of Richard II and a good appreciation of directors' different uses of various components of design. Her understanding of how staging, blocking, and costuming reinforce the issues of power politics is noteworthy. The Quayle/Redgrave production, for example, used the downstage-right placement of the throne and the downstage-center placement of those characters in quest of it to emphasize political instability and jockeying for power. The effect, as she puts it, was “to open a central area of the performance space to a flexible blocking which put the focal emphasis on the changing pattern of relationships within that space, a space that marked the way across the stage to and from the throne” (102). Traditional staging and blocking, in contrast, use the upstage-center placement of the throne to reinforce a Tillyardian ideology of symmetrical, hierarchical stasis. Ariane Mnouchkine's 1981 Théâtre du Soleil production attracts Shewring's attention, as well. Noting Mnouchkine's use of Japanese costume and movement, Shewring points out that Richard's physical dimensions gradually diminish until he appears nearly naked in the prison scene, while Bolingbroke's physical dimensions gradually increase. The unusual effect Mnouchkine produced was an original variation on the thematics of heights and depths, which the play's action, language, and theatrical history have traditionally insisted on.

More ambitious in historical scope than other volumes in the Shakespeare in Performance series, Shewring's book considers no less than nineteen productions from 1680 to 1995, including three Continental productions, two television productions, and several in-depth analyses. Unlike other authors in the series, she concentrates on neither post-World War II stage productions nor film productions. Although she analyzes two French and one Italian production in part III, “Richard II in other cultural contexts,” she ignores American productions; it is as if the American continents do not exist. Shewring also draws on a variety of source materials: her own experience as a theatergoer; reviews of performances; interviews with and materials of directors, designers, and actors; and critical opinion on the history plays. Among the most significant developments in contemporary performance criticism is the influence on theatrical practices of recent theoretical developments in Shakespeare studies; the intersection of the theoretical and the theatrical has been explored in recent years in books, articles, and Shakespeare Association of America plenary sessions and research seminars. While Shewring notes the influence of Tillyard on the Quayle/Redgrave production and the influence of Brecht and Kott on the Hall/Warner production, she largely ignores the impact of the theoretical on the theatrical.

Despite its shortcomings, the book has a wide appeal. It will be most valuable to scholars, teachers, and students of Shakespeare and of theater studies, as well as directors, actors, and playgoers. It will also be useful to those who study performances in the theater or as adjuncts to the classroom, or use student performance groups as a pedagogical tool. If you are interested in cogent analyses of a range of primarily British productions of Richard II from the late-seventeenth through the late-twentieth centuries, then this is the book for you. If you are interested in the impact of contemporary theoretical developments—particularly feminist criticism and gender studies—on recent theatrical practices, then it is not.


  1. Katharine Eisaman Maus, Richard II in The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1997), 948.

  2. Carol Chillington Rutter, “Fiona Shaw's Richard II: The Girl as Player-King as Comic,” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 314-24, esp. 316.

  3. Rutter, 318.

  4. Rutter, 323.

  5. Rutter, 323.

Ben Brantley (review date 11 September 2000)

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SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Uneasy Leaders Whose Downfall Lay Within Themselves.” New York Times (11 September 2000): B1, E1.

[In the following excerpted review of Jonathan Kent's 2000 productions of Richard II and Coriolanus in London and Brooklyn, Brantley concentrates on the performance of film star Ralph Fiennes in the role of Richard as a petulant, bombastic, and affected king.]

If anyone could elevate petulance to the status of tragic flaw, Ralph Fiennes would seem to be the man. Throughout his fertile career in movies as the bluestocking's heartthrob, he has consistently found the combustibility in being sullen, taciturn and socially ill at ease. Think of those unhappy adulterers he played in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, in which he struck erotic sparks just by peevishly knitting his brow.

So the idea of casting Mr. Fiennes in the title roles of both Richard II and Coriolanus, Shakespeare's most pout-prone heroes, does make inspired sense. That Mr. Fiennes, who cut his actor's teeth on the classical stage and won a Tony for his Hamlet six years ago, is thoroughly at home with long blank verse soliloquies is beyond doubt. Who better, among his generation, to claim sympathy for two self-destructing sulkers who make Hamlet seem like a charm school recruiter?

Mr. Fiennes boldly took on both Richard, that most ineffectual of Shakespearean monarchs, and Coriolanus, the contempt-driven Roman warrior, in repertory for the Almeida Theater in London this summer. New Yorkers can now assess the results, if they can still get tickets, at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the company is in residence through Oct. 1. Be advised, though, to lower your expectations a notch. As marriages of actors and roles go, these turn out to have been made not so much in heaven as in an upper tier of purgatory. Unlike many film stars, accustomed to courting the camera at close range, Mr. Fiennes doesn't shrink as a presence onstage. Those who know him largely through his subtle, inward work on film may be jolted by the brazenly exterior performances he is giving here, especially in the more soul-searching role of Richard. The actor's signature moodiness is certainly in evidence, but stylized, enlarged and spotlighted, as though part of some public monument.

His energy, charisma and command of language are formidable. Yet he only rarely seems to dig beneath his characters' skins, or at least to take you there with him. You know what he's trying to convey—the signals go off like flares—but you don't necessarily feel it.

Similarly, as staged by the Almeida's artistic director, Jonathan Kent, both the Richard and Coriolanus are strong in their pacing and accessibility and they make persuasive cases for the enduring relevance of Shakespeare's vision of the harsh vagaries of politics. But deeper interpretive revelations are faint, as is any sure emotional grip. It is telling that the melancholy Richard II often registers as cynical comedy. The productions engage your interest, but they don't hold it captive.

The tragedies, written a dozen years apart, are not obvious soul mates, any more than their heroes, on the surface, would appear to be. Richard II is an elegiac, strangely static play written entirely in verse; its title character is correspondingly contemplative, a decadent monarch who loses his crown to find himself as a philosopher of dispossession. Coriolanus is far more dynamic and plain-spoken, befitting a martial leader who is allergic to introspection and comes fully alive only in battle.

Yet the works share more than you might first think: elitist central figures undone by their unwillingness to court the common populace; and a questioning, even despairing overview on the government of nations. In politics, according to Shakespeare here (and who these days would disagree?), clear-cut heroes don't exist.

The plays refuse to take unconditional sides: with Richard or his pragmatic usurper, Bolingbroke (later Henry IV); with Coriolanus or the plebeians he antagonizes. And there is throughout an awareness of the ever-present “slippery turns,” as Coriolanus puts it, of a world in which alliances and friendships shift with the winds of self-interest.

Mr. Kent, who directed Mr. Fiennes in Hamlet, presents the realpolitik aspect of both plays with clarity and vigor. Paul Brown's spare sets—originally designed for the vast, hauntingly derelict former Gainsborough film studio in London—have of necessity been scaled down for the Harvey. But both his grassy Eden for Richard II (in which a single tree symbolically sheds its apples) and his industrial temple for Coriolanus retain the sense of empires under siege.

Though their costumes (also Mr. Brown's work) irritatingly suggest something culled from the expensively bohemian departments of Barney's, the ensemble members effectively highlight the plays' back-and-forth rhythms of changing allegiance: of both the fickle, frightened mobs of Coriolanus and the uncertain, opportunistic aristocrats of Richard II. Twenty-first-century political pollsters, transported to the eras of these plays, would find the daily, even hourly, changes in popular opinion all too familiar.

To Mr. Fiennes fall the tasks of embodying the principal causes of such vacillation. He makes it thunderingly clear that the protagonists of both works are political blunderbusses. They are both doomed by their arrogance and childishness, though the forms these traits assume are as opposite as yin and yang. Mr. Fiennes's aggrieved scowl and haughty profile turn out to be serviceable for either side of the equation.

In the opening acts of Richard II his monarch is rendered with extravagant effeteness, almost to the point of caricature. Arbitrating a dispute between feuding nobleman in the play's opening scenes, he regards the proceedings with the distaste of a debutante dissecting a frog in biology class. His arched fingers hover restlessly over the buttons of his embroidered white robe; his eyes roll skyward.

It is all a bit too much, as is Mr. Fiennes's trilling giddiness as Richard discusses with his cronies the prospects of appropriating the lucre of a dying lord. These affectations pay off, at least partly, when Richard learns that his subjects have turned against him. Though stung and sorrowful, this wayward king also appears to be experiencing something like relief at being able to drop a pose unnatural to him.

It is at this point, well into the third act, that Mr. Fiennes's performance finally glides toward the empyrean. Freed of the blinders of his royal identity, this Richard discovers a knack for metaphysical speculation, and he surprises himself with his skill at it.

Mr. Fiennes luxuriates in the character's exquisite monologues, like a precocious teenager introduced to the bleak pleasures of existential philosophy. When this Richard's considerations of life inevitably lead him to the nothingness of death, he scares himself, but he also enjoys his fear.

It is great fun to watch Mr. Fiennes work his way through this process, but the pleasure is almost entirely intellectual. Because there is no convincing emotional bridge between Richard with and without his crown, you don't feel moved by his suffering. Nor do you ever believe in his relationships with anyone else onstage: most crucially, with his queen (the stilted Emilia Fox) and his canny rival, Bolingbroke (Linus Roache, best known as the star of the movie Priest).

The production as a whole often keeps its characters (especially inept connivers like Oliver Ryan's Aumerle) at a satiric distance. Among the supporting players Oliver Ford Davies, as a duke whose high principles turn out to be all too adaptable, and Barbara Jefford, as his feisty duchess, provide the most warming notes of humanity.

Richard Hornby (review date autumn 2000)

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SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. Review of Richard II. Hudson Review 53, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 488-94.

[In the following excerpted review, Hornby praises the performance of Ralph Fiennes in the title role of Richard II as directed by Jonathan Kent in 2000, but laments the substandard quality of his supporting cast.]

Coriolanus opened too late for review here, but I did manage to catch a preview of Richard II, a play that has special meaning for me. Forty-three years ago, when I was an undergraduate, a friend recruited me as an extra for a college production of the play. I carried banners for the armies of both Richard and Bolingbroke, shifted furniture about, and tried to look serious and warlike when standing at attention. I helped carry John of Gaunt in a sedan chair (I got the back); when he soared into the great “This other Eden, demi-paradise” speech, I was never certain whether I should act interested, or bored, or severely disapproving. I myself had not a single line to speak.

Unaware that there were two Shakespearean Richard plays, I was disappointed to find no hump, and only one murder, of Richard himself. Richard II is a static play, ploddingly adapted from Holinshed; the big inciting event is a joust that does not take place. (Richard stops the trial by combat between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, unfairly banishing both, which ultimately leads to Bolingbroke's coup d'état.) I had not realized that something so purely lyrical could be so dramatic. Spellbound, I listened again and again to the famous abdication scene, even though it contains no suspense whatever, since Bolingbroke by that time has total control of the country. Richard is defeated, sarcastic, and self-pitying, yet his beautiful speeches make the underlying issue of the Divine Right of Kings versus realpolitik so clear and poignant that they become universal. The problem of what legitimizes government affects every age and culture.

Subsequent Richards whom I have seen never sounded so good as my memory of that undergraduate actor long ago, whose name I cannot even remember. Was he really that good, or was I just naive? Now it no longer matters, because Ralph Fiennes has surpassed him and all the others on a fast track.

Fiennes is a beautiful speaker of verse, as any actor playing Richard, Shakespeare's most poetic role, would have to be. His voice is light but resonant, with excellent diction, and dazzling variations and contrasts, despite a fast pace. The opening trial scenes were staged in a formal, ritualistic manner, against which Fiennes was flippant, even laughing at times. Yet he could also be magisterial, as when he suddenly roared at Bolingbroke, “We were not born to sue, but to command!” at the end of the first scene. He was wonderfully petulant in the deposition scene, clutching the crown to his chest like a child with a toy, yet serenely poignant in his final, death scene. I have always been impressed with Fiennes's screen acting, but it was inspiring here to see (and hear) how much more he is capable of.

The theatre at the Gainesborough Studios resembles the Théâtre National Populaire in Paris, a big unadorned space with many rows of seats on scaffolding, in front of a huge open stage. Jonathan Kent directed the show, with designs by Paul Brown, who covered the stage with grass. Otherwise, there was little except bits of furniture brought on and off, sometimes as part of the action, as when Richard entered at the beginning on a gothic sedan chair. Nonetheless, the building itself, with its high ceilings and decaying brick walls (with holes blasted through for stage entrances and exits), provided a medieval atmosphere that was profound.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast for Richard II was not up to Fiennes's level. David Burke overacted horribly as Gaunt, bellowing his way through “This other Eden” until I wanted to weep in frustration. Oliver Ford Davies was a forgettable York, sibilant in speech and undercharacterized. Perhaps the Almeida, which has rarely before done large cast shows, much less Shakespeare, cannot attract a company on a par with those of the RSC or RNT, or perhaps it is just too early to tell.

Elvis Mitchell (review date 27 July 2001)

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SOURCE: Mitchell, Elvis. Review of Richard II. New York Times (27 July 2001): B21, E22.

[In the following review, Mitchell finds little merit in director John Farrell's modern-dress, ninety-minute filmed version of Richard II, emphasizing weak individual performances and a lack of directorial vision.]

John Farrell's film adaptation of Richard II features a group of actors cowed by the breadth of material that calls for performers to float on the martial breathiness of the dialogue. A recent Signet version of the play includes an essay by the scholar Richard D. Altick, in which he quotes Walter Pater's assessment: “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.”

All we get in this filmed version of Richard II is the strain with performers gasping like landed trout trying to get the intonations right. They don't seem to be listening to each other, but instead wait for the opportunity to blurt.

Mr. Farrell has his cast in contemporary military garb, clutching machine guns close to their pectorals and narrowing their gazes: Richard (Matte Osian) wears a flashy red silk around his neck that is similar to the ascot Robert Duvall's Colonel Kilgore wrapped around his clavicle in Apocalypse Now.

At the very least, this Richard, which opens today at the Two Boots Den of Cin (44 Avenue A, at East Third Street, East Village), stands meekly in the shadow of film versions that have come before. In offering his rendition of the medieval English king whose wisdom comes only after he is deposed and condemned, Mr. Farrell seems to have gone over Julie Taymor's Titus with a fine-toothed comb. He's given it a more updated psychological spin by showing us a shattered Richard II, curied into a fetal ball and prone on a floor in the dark. It's a startling way to begin the play, because it suggests that he wants to offer it to the camera in flashback, contrasting the proud ruler to the man stunned into second sight.

It's a test of the filmmaker's mettle to stage Richard II in this way. And as much as we might admire his ambition, Mr. Farrell's misfire becomes a test of the audience's resolve. The film was shot with digital cameras, which has the unfortunate effect of making Richard II seem as if it's unfolding in streaming video from the Internet; you might give this look the benefit of the doubt on your laptop, but it quickly becomes annoying in a theater.

Mr. Farrell's updating is a pro forma way of making Richard his own: it is not entirely clear why he's moved the play up to the present, since the staging carries no resonance. Mr. Farrell wants to shake up the testosterone quotient by casting a woman as the banished Duke of Aumerle, but Ellen Zachos struggles more than anyone—she's not quite capable of the “daring tongue” Shakespeare attributes to this lord.

When Mr. Farrell frames one actor at a time, his Richard II is easier to watch, particularly when Mr. Osian is onscreen. Though he's a bit too eager to feel Richard's pain, he's perfectly good at expressing it. With the exception of these moments. Richard II is like watching a digital version of a master's thesis.

Sheridan Morley (review date 9 June 2003)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. Review of Richard II. New Statesman (9 June 2003): 46.

[In the following review of director Tim Carroll's 2003 production of Richard II at the Globe in London, Morley congratulates Mark Rylance's outstanding Richard, a performance regrettably unmatched by those of the remaining cast members.]

The new, all-male, Tim Carroll production of Richard II is an excellent idea. The production aims to be as close as possible to its first production in 1595 (the Globe calls this “original practices”), and is performed in the Elizabethan costume of Shakespeare's time rather than the medieval dress of the play's setting, roughly 200 years earlier.

Movement, music, speech, dance and design are all shaped to the original productions. Even the curtain call, a dance beautifully choreographed (by Sian Williams) and including the entire cast, is in keeping with the additional entertainment that Shakespeare's audiences would have expected. As happens all too often, however, the Globe's good idea is defeated by its execution.

A cast led magnificently by Mark Rylance as the weak, callow and ultimately defeated king is otherwise woefully underpowered, and the playing is dogged rather than committed. It is hard to differentiate Aumerle from the myriad other noblemen who routinely change sides between Richard and Henry Bolingbroke throughout the play. Having his (adoptive?) parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, plead successfully for him at the end is odd, to put it mildly.

As the anti-hero, Rylance communicates Richard's delight at his power, and his outrage at the notion that the divinity of kings is less than immutable. Nothing becomes him like the manner of his going, however, and his abdication scene is a masterpiece of subtlety. One of his most felicitous notions is to dress himself in all the paraphernalia of royalty, a gorgeous golden concoction of an outfit, while he learns that he will henceforth no longer be king. As his courtiers recount the disasters visited on him by the exiled Bolingbroke, he strides around, preening, glancing frequently at himself, as though the possession of such glorious raiment in itself proves him to be king. Despite the shallowness of a bad and careless man and the misdeeds of a useless ruler, he has been anointed by God. Without fuss, this is a bravura performance. Would that the others were in the same league.

Maynard Mack, Jr. (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: Mack, Maynard, Jr. “This Royal Throne Unkinged.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Richard II, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 37-46. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1973, Mack outlines the antiquated notions of sovereignty professed by the major figures in Richard II, from the ordered, traditionalist views of York and Gaunt to Richard's divinely authorized and idealized, but irrevocably weakened, ruling ideal.]

Richard II tells the very simple story of the deposition and death of the last Angevin king. The first act sets the situation as the king exiles his cousin, Bolingbroke, because of a mysterious dispute relating to the murder of their famous uncle, Thomas of Woodstock; the first scene of the next act supplies the motive for Bolingbroke's return, when Richard seizes his inheritance. The rest of the play shows Bolingbroke rising and Richard falling until the deposed king is murdered at Pomfret Castle.

Many of Shakespeare's plays tell of the death of kings, some of two or more deaths in one play, but no other play deals so thoroughly and exclusively with the subject—politically conceived. There is hardly a scene that does not cast its political weight directly on Richard's shoulders; not a single character in the play remains isolated from the central political action. Nor are there the many probing soliloquies and supernatural elements that in Hamlet and Macbeth, for example, expand the central action of killing the king to a general philosophic and intensely metaphoric concern. In its fundamental outlines, therefore, Richard II is above all a play about political struggle.

To say only this, however, is to leave out what is most interesting in the play: the background of images in front of which, and often in terms of which, the conflict is waged. This is what I have called [elsewhere] the structure for king killing, the imaginative setting in which the action occurs. To this setting I now turn.

Gaunt's deathbed eulogy of England, the royal throne of kings, has always stood out from the rest of the play—partly because it is a remarkable piece of writing, and partly because it is carefully set in a context calculated to give it maximum resonance. Richard, fresh from having stopped the combat between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, receives the news that Gaunt is dying. As he leaves the stage with the brutal comment “Pray God we may make haste and come too late!” (1.4.64), he and his companions are replaced by representatives of a different world: “Enter John of Gaunt sick, with the Duke of York.” Gaunt asks:

Will the king come that I may breathe my last
In wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth?
.....O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Inforce attention like deep harmony.


Gone here are Richard's confident jests and nasty ridicule, and in their place is a helpless question followed by a different kind of confidence, the quiet confidence of age that has seen much. Though Gaunt is physically weak and politically helpless, he feels himself filled with the spiritual power of the “prophet new inspir'd” (2.1.31). He speaks a formal, frequently rhymed verse that we have heard before in the ceremonious accusations of treason. But there is a new note of rhetorical pattern, sententiousness, and adage-making. As Gaunt talks with York, he piles up pithy phrases as if he were seeking the precisely correct statement.

Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listened more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;
More are men's ends mark'd than their lives before.
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past.


Or else he repeats proverbial wisdom, apparently willing it to be true through the cumulative power of the rhetoric.

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last.
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder;
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.


Then suddenly in the next line the tone changes, and the rhetoric, though no less formal, breaks free of its didacticism into the rhythm of pure hymn.

This royal throne of kings, this scept'red 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 blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son.


These lines place England in an optimistic but complex perspective. The heavy emphasis on royalty shows kingship to be the central issue of Gaunt's thoughts, as of the play in general. England's insularity is also stressed and this underscores both the precariousness of its natural and political situation and its symbolic status as a nation isolated from lesser breeds and destined to stand or fall alone. Two further aspects of Gaunt's words are especially important. One consists in the suprapolitical images which tie his thoughts about England's kings to a long-standing natural and religious tradition. From “Eden, demi-paradise” Gaunt's thought flows on uninterruptedly to “This fortress built by Nature for herself.” Two traditions, one Christian, one possibly but not necessarily pagan, are here blended to mark England as the choice of both God and Nature. The Christian tradition is picked up ten lines later in “Christian service” and “blessed Mary's Son,” while the close connection with Nature underlies the image of England as “This nurse, this teeming womb.”

The idea that brings the whole speech to its climax is that of a Christian heroic service. It is, we notice, a service rugged, fierce, and energetic, based on a tough-minded conception of the world and of England's place in it. In Gaunt's view England is great because of its great strength both at home and abroad. “This other Eden” is first of all “this seat of Mars,” a fortress; its insularity serves it as a “wall,” a “moat” against assault. It is an order fiercely defended. Its fame is based not on its justice or its culture, as the modern audience might prefer, but on its deeds of strength, specifically in the Crusades—though these Crusades no doubt serve here as expressions of all three national virtues. So long as its kings are feared, the precious jewel is safe. Such is the England Gaunt praises, the kind of Christian service he remembers. And it is from this exalted state that England is falling.

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
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 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.


These may be the words of a weak and dying man, but there is nothing weak or helpless in their conception of the world. Even Neptune is apprehended as an “envious” attacking force to be resisted. And now the rugged power, the spare frugality suggested even in Gaunt's name (ll. 73-83), is being destroyed from the inside by foolish waste and shameful bonds that commit England's revenues to favorites of the king. The harmony of discipline that made this other Eden both God's and Nature's chosen home is threatened by the discord created and allowed by a willful misled king. Richard is a king but no Mars renowned for his deeds; he is Christian but has failed in “service”—because he has also failed in strength.

What Gaunt says in this speech and the lost ideals he stands for inform the whole play. From its very first line he is “Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster,” who like an ancient landmark chiefly functions to measure change. Later in the first scene he loyally obeys his king in trying to calm the angry disputants, and in the second scene with the Duchess of Gloucester, he reveals the yet fiercer loyalty that has kept him obedient to Richard though he knows the king is responsible for his brother Woodstock's death. His manner of refusing the Duchess's demand that he avenge her reveals a firmly established hierarchy of loyalties and priorities, surviving from a world now all but gone. He rates the fact that Gloucester was his brother above the widow's “exclaims” (1.2.2), but rates his duty to Richard higher still because of his supreme duty to God, whose deputy Richard is.

Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven,
Who, when they see the hours ripe on earth,
Will rain hot vengeance on offenders' heads.


His words may appear at first evasive and inadequate to the situation in the light of the angry charges of treason in the preceding scene, in which all parties have invoked heavenly support. But Gaunt's conservative faith cannot be rejected as merely “poignant impossibility” unless we are prepared to ignore a good deal of evidence. The necessary criticism of his view is already implicit in the Duchess's comment “Call it not patience, Gaunt, it is despair” (1.2.29), and Shakespeare provides no easy judgment between the two claims. Like the royal widows in 3 Henry VI and Richard III, she invokes images of the specific natural womb that bore both the murdered man and Gaunt (1.2.22), while his thoughts tend toward God and the more general teeming womb that bears England's kings.

When Richard arrives to see Gaunt die, the old man is quick to warn him in clear terms of what is happening to England, though, in the king's presence, his style changes significantly. The prophetic rhetoric of his earlier hymn to the royal throne of kings takes second place to an ironic wit that seems to come, with Richard, from the preceding scene of jests against “high Herford” (1.4.3). But the substance of his address is the same: “Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land” (2.1.95). Apart from one indirect mention of his son's banishment (ll. 79-81), his thoughts are filled solely with the health of England and the potential greatness of both country and ruler. In this vein, he evokes his memories of Edward III and the Black Prince:

O, spare me not, my brother Edward's son,
For that I was his father Edward's son.


And York evokes similar memories as soon as news of Gaunt's death is announced.

I am the last of noble Edward's sons,
Of whom thy father, Prince of Wales, was first.
In war was never lion rag'd more fierce,
In peace was never gentle lamb more mild,
Than was that young and princely gentleman.
His face thou hast, for even so look'd he,
Accomplish'd with the number of thy hours;
But when he frown'd it was against the French,
And not against his friends.


Here is an image of the good prince that hovers in the background of every scene. It is a picture of energy and also of order. It is an ideal of rigorous balance between opposites, not necessarily subtle but reliable and restrained. In this prince, as in imagined England-Eden, lamb and lion lie down together.

The view of kingship held by Gaunt and York, and, we discover later, by Carlisle, corresponds, in one way of understanding it, to the very order of the universe. As Tillyard, C. S. Lewis, and so many others have shown, kingship was simply another dimension of the general hierarchical order that prevailed in the Elizabethan world-picture. York voices the pure doctrine when he warns Richard that rebellion in one area will cause trouble in others.

Take Herford'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?


Three vastly different areas of experience are here linked. Inheritance, time, and kingship are all presented as analogical. As one critic [Sigurd Burckhardt] has described this kind of thinking, “Everything was like everything else; beneath the diversity in degree there was a remarkable likeness in kind.” York exploits this view as a means of ordering and imaginatively controlling the rapidly changing facts that confront him. Spotting Richard on the walls of Flint Castle, he says:

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!


The heavy use of simile and the word “show” may hint at an imaginable breakdown in the analogies by which the king can appropriately be signified as God on earth, or the eagle among birds, the lion among mammals, the diamond among stones, and so on. But the lines alert us also to the whole implicit structure of royal correspondences that run throughout the play and define one conception of kingship.

This structure of correspondences emphasizes primarily unity and power. On the highest level the king is seen as closely linked with God, as “God's substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight” (1.2.37-38):

                                        the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years.


God's aid is invoked lest “in a Christian climate souls refin'd / Should show so heinous, black, obscene a deed” (4.1.130-31) as killing his viceregent. “Stirr'd up by God thus boldly for his king” (4.1.133), Carlisle utters the famous prophecy of the disastrous effects for England if the divine and natural hierarchy is disturbed.

Richard himself of course relies on the connection between God and king throughout. He claims that “God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay / A glorious angel” (3.2.60-61); he asks Northumberland to “show us the hand of God / That hath dismiss'd us from our stewardship” (3.3.77-78); he asserts that his “master, God omnipotent” (3.3.85) will prepare armies of pestilence in his defense. In the deposition scene he explicitly calls upon God to pardon the oaths that had been broken in the transfer of power from old to new king. His frequent comparisons of himself to Christ in the hands of Pilate and Judas further enlarge the web of divine connections that in this play surrounds the idea of the king. Even at the moment when the nature of Bolingbroke's demands is at last revealed, Northumberland continues to invoke the sanctity of the royal person: “The King of heaven forbid our lord the king / Should so with civil and uncivil arms / Be rush'd upon” (3.3.101-3).

The imagery of relationship between God and king is paralleled on a less specifically Christian level by imagery of relationship between the king and Nature. The most obvious imagery of this sort, as many critics have pointed out, is the traditional comparison of sun and king which Richard frequently makes, calling himself “the searching eye of heaven” (3.2.37), describing how thieves and robbers who thrive during the night “Stand bare … trembling at themselves” (3.2.46) when the “day”—both sun and king—dawns. Other images implying sympathy between the political and natural worlds abound. Richard imagines a powerful conspiracy of the elements to help him in the face of danger (3.2.4-26). He animates the earth, expressing sympathy for the pain she suffers from the hooves of rebels' horses. He calls upon the earth to oppose to Bolingbroke her spiders, toads, nettles, adders. He supposes that her very stones, like the dragon's teeth in the Jason story, will turn to “armed men” to protect his throne. When Bolingbroke says at their first encounter “be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water” (3.3.58), the comparison sets the conflict of king and rebel in a context of hierarchic natural elements that comments tacitly on Bolingbroke's own soon-to-be-accomplished inversion of hierarchy in the human world.

When the Welsh captain alludes to withering bay trees and falling meteors as foreshadowing Richard's doom, his words take us again into that web of sympathies which secretly embrace the anointed king. The Queen's striking description of her husband—“Ah, thou, the model where old Troy did stand” (5.1.11)—looks in a similar direction. Though it emphasizes his fallen state, it does so in an image genealogical, architectural, geographical even, that glorifies and magnifies his mysterious significance. The conception of London as “New Troy” lies of course behind her conceit, but into it seems to flow also some of the feelings that the Renaissance had absorbed from Virgil about the ruined city beside the sea that fathered Rome and thereby civilization.

In this particular play, which comes early in his career and rather quickly on the heels of his earlier historical tetralogy, it is not easy to exaggerate the role that Shakespeare's imagination assigns to these and other standard fixtures in the lore of kingship. Richard asserts his power, for example, by comparing himself to the king of the beasts, “lions make leopards tame” (1.1.174), and his Queen urges him on reminding him that “the lion dying thrusteth forth his paw / And wounds the earth” (5.1.29-30). Later he discovers that his horse Barbary has betrayed him by not protesting against a new rider, the usurping Bolingbroke, and exclaims: “Would he not stumble? would he not fall down?” (5.5.87). But he catches himself: “Forgiveness, horse!” (l. 90). The episode is revealing. It tells us something about Richard, who has obviously gained in self-knowledge, for while his questions presuppose the sympathetic support of nature, his answer recognizes that he has forfeited such support precisely by not behaving like a king, or even like a man.

Forgiveness, horse! why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be aw'd by man,
Wast born to bear? I was not made a horse,
And yet I bear a burthen like an ass,
Spurr'd, gall'd and tir'd by jauncing Bolingbroke.


Perhaps the passage also tells us something about Shakespeare. “Forgiveness, horse!” is a phrase that today actors find themselves inclined to muffle, cut, or throw away. Its appeal to an equine moral sense touches modern risibilities. To the extent that the effect was different for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience, as we have reason to believe it was, it must have been made so by the seriousness with which the system of sympathetic forces joining natural, human, and divine could still be taken. At another level, the dogged loyalty of the groom who appears in Richard's cell for no other reason than “To look upon my sometimes master's face” (5.5.75) makes the same point. Even in prison, the king's face merits a pilgrimage.

Most important, however, of all the dimensions of ideal kingship is not the divinity that doth hedge it, but its capacity to maintain a stable, just, and energetic order through ordinary political acumen and force. Carlisle seconds Richard's faith in divine support but urges too that “the means that heaven yields must be imbrac'd” (3.2.29). The brief lyric glimpse we get of Mowbray later in the play celebrates his having fought “Many a time … For Jesu Christ in glorious Christian field” (4.1.92-93), only after which, “toil'd with works of war,” he “retir'd himself / To Italy” to die (ll. 96-97). Similarly, in York's memories the Black Prince is “that young Mars of men” (2.3.100). In his own image of himself, Richard was “not born to sue, but to command” (1.1.196); “the king's name” is “twenty thousand names” (3.2.85); “Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers' sons” (3.3.96) must stain the land before his throne can be usurped. In short, to borrow a phrase from the Duchess of York, the efficient king who roots out traitors and resolves civil and familial strife is “A god on earth” (5.3.134). When he is less than this it is because “The king is not himself, but basely led / By flatterers” (2.1.241-42), and the country must “shake off [its] slavish yoke, … And make high majesty look like itself” again (2.1.291-95). As we saw earlier, only in the king's own name can the king himself be uncrowned.

In all these forms, Shakespeare keeps the official lore of kingship before us throughout the play. It is not, of course, all that he keeps before us, for there are crosscurrents of irony and qualification on every page, which will be noticed in their proper place. All that needs to be said here is that though these crosscurrents qualify the system of references at which we have been looking, they do not cancel them out. In poetry, no strand of meaning ever wholly disappears however much it may be colored by other elements in the context. Hence, though the official lore I have just now summarized, the idea of a divine, natural, and human axis with the king its center, is often enough objected to in the play, and either undercut with ridicule or overlaid with disbelief, it is never entirely obliterated from our apprehension of the play's imaginative meaning. Though it fails to find again so clear a spokesman as the dying Gaunt, it survives him to become, in its turn, an ironic comment on a new kind of kingship. To put this matter more succinctly, all the images and actions of kingship we have traced, the network of correspondences and dynamic energies, establish a definition of kingship which, for want of a better term, we might call nostalgic. It is a definition filled with imaginative power, but embodied primarily in warriors either dead or dying. Like the Golden Age it seems most visible when it is moving away, into the past.

Henry E. Jacobs (essay date January 1986)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5789

SOURCE: Jacobs, Henry E. “Prophecy and Ideology in Shakespeare's Richard II.South Atlantic Review 51, no. 1 (January 1986): 3-17.

[In the following essay, Jacobs traces Shakespeare's shift from medieval to Renaissance political ideologies in Richard II.]

Though Justice against Fate complain,
And plead the antient Rights in vain:
          But those do hold or break
          As Men are strong or weak.
Nature that hateth emptiness,
Allows of penetration less:
          And therefore must make room
          Where greater Spirits come.

(Marvell, “An Horatian Ode,” 37-44)

It is a commonplace to observe that Shakespeare's Richard II traces out a fundamental shift in the nature of kingship and the justification of rule.1 This movement, which reflects both Tudor perspectives on history and Elizabethan political theory, signifies the transition from a medieval to a Renaissance concept of kingship and power. In this theoretical matrix, Richard II plays the role of the unsuccessful medieval monarch while Bolingbroke acts the part of a successful Renaissance prince. The basic distinction here is not merely political or ideological; rather, it encompasses two comprehensive yet distinct world views. Richard and his loyalists, for all their failings, present an essentially ordered and medieval view of the cosmos based in the rule of law. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, provides an exemplum in the exercise of power which has no basis in law whatsoever.2

It is not my intention to assert that the recognition of this dialectic is original or, for that matter, worthy of further extended discussion. Rather, I suggest that this shift is recapitulated throughout the play in a series of smaller and more discrete changes in language, action, and attitude. We see a parallel transition, for example, in the way in which trial-by-combat is transformed from a vehicle which theoretically reflects divine judgment to a political tool through which courtiers may provide a show of allegiance to Bolingbroke.3 Perhaps the most interesting of these discrete and focused recapitulatory shifts occurs in the play's treatment of prophecy. It is here that we shall look for a map and a representation of the greater changes embodied in Richard II.

Maynard Mack convincingly argues that “Hamlet's world is preeminently in the interrogative mood. It reverberates with questions, anguished, meditative, alarmed” (504).4 In a similar manner, Richard II is “preeminently” in the prophetic mood. The play abounds in prophecies and prophetic warnings. Most of these are marked linguistically and grammatically by the use of “shall” or “shalt” as auxiliary modals or by an implied “if … then” construction. “Shall,” as distinguished from “will,” is used to express what is inevitable, what seems to be fated or decreed, or what seems likely to occur in the future. David Bevington points out that “will, which originally expressed intention, determination, or willingness, was … beginning to encroach on shall for the expression of futurity in the first person” during Shakespeare's lifetime (77). This encroachment does not usually occur in Richard II however; here, Shakespeare is careful to exclude “will” (in the sense of “shall”) from most of the prophetic passages and to use “shall” almost exclusively to indicate the inevitability of future events. A good example of this usage is Carlisle's prediction of the Wars of the Roses (3.3.85-100), where “shall” appears four times within seven lines (137, 139, 141, and 143) and is followed by an implied “if … then” construction. Thus, the play textualizes and verbalizes a specific grammar of prophecy that helps to establish the dominant prophetic mood.

Some of the prophecies in Richard II are simply tossed off in passing. In Act 1, for example, the Duchess of Gloucester correctly predicts her own fate. She asks Gaunt to invite York to Plashy, and then prophesies her own death before his visit:

Alack, and what shall good old York there see
But empty lodgings and unfurnish'd walls,
Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones,
And what hear there for welcome but my groans?
Therefore commend me; let him not come there
To seek out sorrow that dwells everywhere.
Desolate, desolate, will I hence and die:
The last leave of thee takes my weeping eye.


In this minor prophetic moment, the Duchess indicates the inevitability of her own death through the “shall” that begins the passage and her willing acceptance of that death in the “will” that almost closes it. We find another instance in the next scene when Mowbray correctly predicts that Bolingbroke will cause trouble for Richard in the future: “But what thou [Bolingbroke] art, God, thou, and I do know, / And all too soon, I fear, the king shall rue” (1.3.204-205). Mowbray's prophecy, delivered as he prepares to go into exile, reverberates throughout the entire play. It predicts the major action of Richard II just as Richard's last prophecy predicts the action of Henry IV and Carlisle's prophecy the action of Henry VI.

A similar moment occurs later in the same scene when John of Gaunt foretells his own death before Bolingbroke's return from exile:

For ere the six years that he hath to spend
Can change their moons, and bring their times about,
My oil-dried lamp and time-bewasted light
Shall be extinct with age and endless night,
My inch of taper will be burnt and done,
And blindfold Death not let me see my son.


Richard's Queen also exercises prophetic powers; in Act 2 she predicts “[s]ome unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune's womb / Is coming towards me” (2.2.10-11). And at the close of Act 4, the Bishop of Carlisle offers a short two-line summary of his earlier and much longer prescient vision of civil war: “The woe's to come; the children yet unborn / Shall feel this day as sharp to them as thorn” (4.1.322-23).6

These moments augment the prophetic mood of Richard II. The mood is more firmly established, however, by the five major prophecies that are delivered in the play. These prophecies—uttered by Gaunt, York, Carlisle, and Richard—all represent critical points in the fall of Richard and the development of the play; they provide a chart for the movement from a medieval to a Renaissance world view and the shift from law to power. This model of a world in transition is not achieved through the prophecies themselves. Rather, it is to be found in the conceptual foundation on which specific prophecies are based or in the ideology they reflect.

The first of the major prophecies is spoken rather early in the play by John of Gaunt before he is carried off to his death bed. Here, Gaunt predicts the destruction of Richard II as a result of the king's own violent behavior:

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last.
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder;
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.


Hardin Craig suggests that Gaunt's prophecy reflects the Elizabethan conviction that “those near to death or weakened by old age, since they are less hindered by bodily sensation, are capable of divination” (45). More to the point, the prophecy is expressed in a series of five progressively more emphatic metaphors of self-consumption, all based on the proverb “nothing violent can be permanent” (Dent 184).7 Tilly (N321) and Wilson (581) trace this proverb back to 1562, when it appeared in Norton and Sackville's Gorboduc, but we may assume a more ancient provenance. The most significant aspect of this prophecy, however, remains its ideological basis. Gaunt's prediction that Richard II will “burn himself out” is based partly on his own reading of Richard's personality and partly on proverbial lore. Both of these bases reflect a medieval rather than a Renaissance orientation in Gaunt's thinking. In commenting on these lines, Robert Ornstein notes that “it is the ‘orthodox’ [or medieval] Gaunt who speaks contemptuously of Richard's failings” (112). Additionally, this first prophecy is limited in scope; it focuses on the individual rather than the state and it predicts a personal rather than a national disaster. Gaunt does go on, in his paean to England, to consider the national implications of Richard's behavior; nevertheless, the prophecy itself is limited to King Richard.

The next three central prophecies in Richard II shift the focus from personal to national concerns; all predict civil war and national chaos. York's prophetic warning against seizing Gaunt's properties is the most limited of these:

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 honor and allegiance cannot think.


The rhetoric of prophecy is signalled here by York's three-part “if … then” construction. Three parallel “if” clauses are balanced by three implied “then” conclusions, each of which predicts future ills for Richard. York warns Richard II that the latter's illegal appropriation of Gaunt's property will result in personal danger. The first two “then” phrases are quite generalized, promising “a thousand dangers” and the loss of “a thousand well-disposed hearts.” The third is much more specific; it accurately predicts that York himself will abandon Richard's cause.

York is, as Robert B. Price suggests, a “fading remnant of the old order” (156). The basic foundation of his prophecy is clearly this old order—specifically the medieval law of “fair sequence and succession” coupled with the parallel law of primogeniture:

Take Herford'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?


Ernst H. Kantorowicz notes that the laws of primogeniture and succession were accepted and acknowledged “de facto” quite early in England: “England in 1272 recognized that the succession to the throne was the birthright of the eldest son” (330). And Irving Ribner correctly asserts that “fair sequence and succession” are the key to York's prophetic warning: “Richard himself, as York makes clear, is denying the great system of law, both human and divine, upon which his own claim to kingship depends. It is he, not Bolingbroke, who first disturbs God's harmonious order, who first attacks the divinely sanctioned principles of ‘fair sequence and succession’” (162). The significant factor in this prophecy is thus its basis in medieval law and a medieval conceptualization of the state. In warning Richard, York founds his prophecy on his own reading of the old order: the medieval cosmos.

The third and fourth extended prophecies spoken in Richard II are almost identical in content, cultural context, and ideological basis. Both predict generations of civil war and internecine slaughter.8 The first and more generalized of these is Richard II's own vision of England's future:

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 …


In these lines, the prophetic idiom and the inevitability of future chaos are established by the verb “shall” (87). Richard clearly predicts future rather than present retribution through his reference to “children yet unborn and unbegot” (88). In the rest of the passage, however, the focus wanders away from the distant future of unborn generations to the immediate future of Bolingbroke. At line ninety-one, Richard shifts from generalized prophecies of bloodshed to specific warnings aimed at the usurper. He accuses Bolingbroke of “dangerous treason” (93) and again prophesies massive social and political disruption:

But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers' sons
Shall ill become the flower of England's face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation, and bedew
Her pastures' grass with faithful English blood.


We might be tempted to read these lines as a prediction of immediate opposition to Bolingbroke and salvation for Richard—a prophecy that would be pathetically wrong. Several features of the entire passage, however, preclude such a reading. One is the explicit futurity of the first four lines (85-88) which shape and direct our response to the remainder of the prophecy. The second, and more telling, is Richard's implicit and syntactic placement of the crown in an unspecified future time when it is no longer explicitly his; it is “the crown he [Bolingbroke] looks for” and it “shall” not “live in peace.”

The Bishop of Carlisle offers a strikingly similar prophecy in Act 4 immediately after York has announced the “abdication” of Richard II and the de facto crowning of Henry Bolingbroke. Carlisle is another “remnant of the old order” (Price 156); he sees Bolingbroke as a “foul traitor” and explicitly prophesies disaster as a result of usurpation:

The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act,
Peace shall go to sleep with Turks and infidels,
And, in this seat of peace, tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin, and kind with kind, confound.


This part of Carlisle's prophecy is as unfocused as Richard's earlier one; it predicts generalized bloodshed and “tumultuous wars” that will destroy peace, plague future generations, and divide families. As the Bishop continues, however, the prophecy becomes chillingly focused and specific:

O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child's children, cry against you woe.


Grammatically, this section of prophecy illustrates the encroachment of “will” (146) on “shall for the expression of futurity” (Bevington 77). Shakespeare may employ the word here to suggest that such a division of houses is both willful and inevitable. In any event, the idiom of prophecy is sustained in the implied “if … then” construction of the warning. Thematically, these five lines embody the political core of the Bishop's prophecy; they specifically articulate the dangers inherent in setting two branches of Edward III's family against one another, and they prophesy the bitter opposition of the future houses of York and Lancaster. In addition, the lines warn that such a “division” will sunder families as well as the kingdom. Ultimately, Carlisle predicts the Wars of the Roses.9

Significantly, these two prophecies share a common foundation in medieval law and in the medieval view of kingship. Both are based entirely on the idea of the king as “rex imago dei” (Kantorowicz 34).10 Richard makes the ideological basis of his prophecy absolutely explicit in an assertion of his divine stewardship immediately before delivering his prediction:

                                                  … show us the hand of God
That hath dismiss'd us from our stewardship;
For well we know no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre,
Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.


Carlisle also prefaces his prophecy with a clear reference to divine sanction and is equally explicit in invoking the concept of the king as God's anointed minister. Thus, his prophecy is also built on the foundation of divine election:

And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judg'd by subjects and inferior breath,
And he himself not present?


We see that the prophecies of Richard II and the Bishop of Carlisle are profoundly medieval in their ideology. Both are derived from a medieval perception of kingship and succession. Again, Kantorowicz notes that Carlisle “plays the logothetes” and “constrains … the rex imago Dei” to appear in his speech; his definition of kingship (and consequently Richard's) enumerates “in good mediaeval fashion, the features of the vicarius Dei” (34).

Up to this point in the play, the central prophecies have been significantly consistent in their medieval bases and orientation. Other elements have already introduced the counter-view, including some of Richard's statements about kingship and most of Bolingbroke's actions since his return from exile. The prophetic utterances of Gaunt, York, Richard II, and the Bishop of Carlisle, however, have shared an unchanging medieval ideology as their basis. With the single exception of Gaunt's proverbial vision of Richard's future, these crucial predictions have also rested on a common foundation of medieval law and the medieval conceptualization of primogeniture, succession, and kingship.

It is, in fact, this very consistency that makes the final prophetic moment of Richard II so surprising and significant. In this last prophecy, Richard II predicts the future course of the relationship between Bolingbroke and Northumberland:

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;
He shall think that thou, which knowest the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urg'd, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.


Here, Richard II prophesies the very events of Bolingbroke's reign and of Shakespeare's Henry IV: the falling out of “thieves,” the alienation of the Percy family, and the rebellion against Henry IV.

Richard's final prediction is a remarkable example of the grammar of prophecy that creates much of the mood of the play. His lines are studded with four repetitions of “shall” and “shalt.” The single use of will (as “wilt”) in line sixty-three signifies both inevitable future action and Northumberland's willing and willful action against Henry IV. The prophecy is still more remarkable, however, in its foundation. This prophecy, unlike the previous four, is based in neither a medieval view of kingship nor a sacramental reading of the laws of succession and primogeniture.11 Instead, it finds its basis in Richard's new understanding of the dynamics of power.

Shakespeare seems to acknowledge and emphasize the singularity of this prophecy. Richard's is the only prophetic statement in the play that is recapitulated and discussed later in the Second Tetralogy. It plagues Henry IV, and he repeats it with commentary to Warwick and Surrey in Act 3 of Henry IV, Part Two.12 In response, Warwick attempts to explicate and belittle Richard's prophetic insight:

There is a history in all men's lives
Figuring the nature of the times deceas'd;
The which observ'd, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, who in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time:
And by the necessary form of this
King Richard might create a perfect guess
That great Northumberland, then false to him,
Would of that seed grow to a greater falseness,
Which should not find a ground to root upon
Unless on you.


Warwick suggests here that Richard II's words were merely a lucky guess based on his reading of Northumberland's personality and Northumberland's recent betrayal of Richard himself.

Warwick's interpretation of Richard's last prophecy as a “perfect guess” is certainly mandated by the political realities of Henry IV; it would be most unwise for anyone in Henry IV's court to grant Richard too much visionary insight into England's future. It is, nevertheless, an inaccurate and reductive reading of Richard's “text.” Richard's prediction of the division between Bolingbroke and Northumberland is not simply a lucky guess. Nor is it a logical extrapolation based on Northumberland's betrayal of Richard. Rather, it is founded on a radical shift in the world of the play and in Richard's understanding of that world.

Throughout the first three acts of Richard II, Richard attempted to play a double game; he used “Realpolitik” when it was convenient, but he attempted to maintain his theoretical footing in the medieval laws of succession and kingship.13 Even in the midst of his machinations, Richard never clearly understood the dynamics or the consequences of power politics. Most significantly, he failed to articulate the medieval interdependence of law and power. Ruth Nevo asserts that “Richard must rule, in his circumstances, either by what the Elizabethans, following Machiavelli, called virtu, or by that older dial of princes called virtue. He must govern by either power or justice, since the breach between them already exists” (63). Richard's problem, however, is never a simple “either … or” situation. Instead, it is the problem of articulating both justice (or law) and power simultaneously—of dressing power in the law, or, conversely, upholding the law with power. Richard's reign in Shakespeare's play rests on a basis of law without the power necessary to substantiate that law. In his attempts at power, however, he abandons the appearance of law completely, and thus invalidates the very system that made him king and kept him king. Once he himself violates the law, his reign has absolutely no basis of authority.14

After all his power has been stripped away, Richard paradoxically gains a much clearer understanding of himself and the new order. Harold C. Goddard observes that “our respect for Richard rises also, for uncrowned, he is free to be a man instead of a king. … He learns through suffering” (157). In the framework of tragedy, such learning is necessary; it indicates a new awareness of Richard's own errors and it comprises part of his anagnorisis. From a political point of view, however, this knowledge enables Richard to comprehend the world that will replace his own. At the point of his final prophecy, this new understanding of “Realpolitik” crystallizes into an accurate and detailed analysis of the dynamics of power as they will alter the relationship between the new king and the king-maker.

It is here, in this final prophetic moment, that we see in microcosm the old order give way to the new. The final prophecy neither produces nor signals this change; it is simply a marker. Transformational momentum has been mounting since Act 2 and the news that “[t]he banish'd Bolingbroke repeals himself” (2.2.49). The actual shift from law to power and from Richard to Henry is impossible to pinpoint; it has certainly occurred by Act 3, when Bolingbroke assumes the rights and role of the king in the trial of Bushy and Greene. The distinction between the four earlier prophecies and Richard's final prophecy, however, delineates the distinction between these two orders. The medieval ideology that serves as the foundation for the prophecies of Gaunt, York, Richard, and Carlisle is replaced by Renaissance concepts of power and politics. Thus, the prophecies of Richard II trace out in miniature the larger movement in the play from the medieval ethos of the Plantagenets to the new Lancastrian rule by power.


  1. The research for this essay was made possible by funding from the Research Grants Committee of The University of Alabama.

  2. Tillyard is one of the major spokespersons for the reading of Richard II that sees the deposed king as the representative of “the world of medieval refinement” which is “threatened and in the end superseded by the more familiar world of the present” represented by Bolingbroke (259). A significant number of scholars agree that two worlds, two orders, or two ideologies are juxtaposed in the play. There is much less agreement, however, concerning the nature of this dialectic. Phialas sees an “old” and a “new” England in the play, but his distinction is between “Richard's enfeebled and devitalized England on the one hand and, on the other, England's national strength and international prestige during the reign of Richard's ancestors” (308). These two Englands represent “two reigns within the Middle Ages” (310). In rebuttal, Hapgood reaffirms the medieval-Renaissance dialectic in Richard II by equating Richard's ancestors with an ordered medieval world, Richard himself with a disordered medieval world, and Bolingbroke with a “new era, in which the function and the status of the king depends ultimately on the manipulation of public opinion” (282). Elliot claims that Richard “represents not a medieval king, but a Renaissance monarch with pretentions to divine right and a divine power which no medieval ruler could have claimed” (26). He does not, however, deny the medieval basis for much of Richard's action. Ornstein affirms that Richard and his noble uncles consistently evoke a “medieval ethos,” but he contends that Bolingbroke and Northumberland are equally medieval: “when the old order gives way to the new, there is no radical change in the mortal temper of English politics” (103-104). Porter recasts this opposition of worlds, time, or ideologies into a linguistic dialectic. Richard's medieval milieu is identified as a “univocal, unilingual, absolutist world of nomenclature [and] ceremonial performatives.” In opposition to this, Bolingbroke's world of power is characterized by varying “tongues and silence” (47). Most recently, Hamilton has argued against any juxtaposition of “eras” or “worlds” or “orders” in Richard II. She asserts that “the presence of these ideas about law and commonwealth in Richard II suggests that the dramatist saw in Richard's story an example of something that had happened once in England and might happen again” (16). In the body of her essay, however, Hamilton illustrates the very real medieval basis for the theory of kingship advanced in Richard II through her citations to such medieval writers and theoreticians as John Gower and Henry of Bracton.

  3. Contrast, for example, the traditional and sacramental imagery woven into the first trial-by-combat between Mowbray and Bolingbroke (1.3.6sd-118) and the blatantly political challenges offered to and from Aumerle during the interrogation of Bagot (4.1.8-85). Aumerle, Fitzwater, Percy, “Another Lord,” and Surrey throw down their gages in this latter scene with the full expectation that Bolingbroke will not allow the trials-by-combat to occur. While the effect of this scene is surely comic—the repeated sound of mailed gages hitting the stage punctuates the duplicated action—the motivation for most of the characters is purely political. All the nobles involved in the challenges (on both sides) realize that Bolingbroke plans to use Bagot to discredit Richard. In consequence, the providential basis of the trial-by-combat is effectively cancelled and the challenges become empty political gestures.

  4. In The Question of Hamlet, Levin expands and elaborates this argument at length, asserting that Hamlet “parses every affirmation by the grammar of doubt” (43).

  5. Unless we assume that John of Gaunt is willing his own death, the diction of this prophecy illustrates the incursion of “will” into the linguistic territory of “shall.” “Shall” (222) establishes the prophetic inevitability of Gaunt's death; “will” (223) seems to recapitulate this inevitability. Further consideration, however, suggests that Gaunt is both foretelling and willing his own death. He is, after all, caught in an insoluable conflict between medieval theory and political “reality.” Additionally, he has been rendered powerless and superfluous through Richard's actions, attitudes, and banishment of Bolingbroke. Gaunt, like the Duchess of Gloucester, may finally be willing to accede to the inevitability of his death.

  6. This prophecy (and couplet) is Carlisle's last utterance in the play. Although the Bishop is on stage in 5.6, and is commanded to “[c]hoose out some secret place, some reverend room / More than thou hast, and with it joy thy life” (25-26), he is mute in this scene. Thus, the couplet, while not signalling the end of Act 4, does indicate the loss of Carlisle's prophetic voice from the play.

  7. For a detailed treatment of the rhetoric of Gaunt's prophecy, see Friedman's “John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration.”

  8. Campbell notes the similarity of these two prophecies but does not pursue her investigation beyond this basic point (207-208).

  9. Battenhouse may be correct in asserting that Carlisle's prophecy “ignores traditional Christian theory regarding the relation of church and state” and that the Bishop thus “misses his opportunity to act as a mediator” (42). He is surely misreading, however, when he argues that Carlisle “helps make his own doleful prophecy self-fulfilling. Not simply by his defective counseling, but afterwards by joining a conspiracy to unseat Bolingbroke by military means, he himself sets flowing the bloodshed which his speech has warned against” (42-43). Carlisle is clearly foretelling the events of Henry IV, specifically the Wars of the Roses. His participation in the Oxford plot against Henry IV has virtually no effect on the veracity or fulfillment of a prophecy that leaps over one generation and fifty-six years.

  10. Editors have pointed out that much of the language in these two prophecies is derived from the first part of “An Homilie Against disobedience and wilfull rebellion” in Certain Sermons or Homilies appointed to be read in Churches. This specific homily, number twenty-one in The Second Tome of Homilies, was written in 1570 and added to the collection in 1571. It asserts that “Kings, Queenes, and other Princes … are ordeined of God, are to be obeyed and honoured of their subiects: that such subiects, as are disobedient or rebellious against their Princes, disobey God, and procure their owne damnation” (2.227). It is evident, however, that the basis for this homily is entirely medieval in its theory and its dependence on biblical exegesis. Rickey and Stroup point out that “the Homilies … provide an admirably complete introduction to the full range of medieval exegesis. In them, every member of the Established Church would again and again, year after year, have heard some two hundred quotations from the fathers, alluded to by name, encompassing virtually all of their distinctive ideas” (xi-xii).

  11. Champion links Richard's final prophecy with his earlier one and with Carlisle's two prophecies as anticipations of the Wars of the Roses. He goes on to argue that all four of these “passages obviously fortify the religious dimensions of the play because they suggest God's ordinance beyond Bolingbroke's usurpation” (87). Champion fails to make any distinction whatsoever between Richard's last prophecy and those that precede it. Other critics are more willing to recognize the distinction between the earlier prophecies and this one. Kelly, for example, observes that Richard's final prophecy is “based on a natural rather than a supernatural evaluation of the situation” (213). Kelly, however, does not go far enough in noting the very real distinctions between Richard's last prophecy and all the predictions that have come before.

  12. Henry IV's verbatim knowledge of Richard's final prophecy is literally inexplicable in terms of Richard II. Few of the characters on stage during this prophetic moment would have the inclination to repeat Richard's words to Bolingbroke. Only Northumberland has the opportunity, and he has every reason not to pass Richard's warning on to Henry. Nevertheless, Shakespeare wants this prophecy to resonate through Henry IV; thus, he arranges (after the fact) for Henry to hear about Richard's prediction. In 2 Henry IV, the king supposes that Warwick overheard and reported Richard's warning: “… But which of you was by—/ You, cousin Nevil, as I may remember—/ When Richard, with his eye brimful of tears, / Then check'd and rated by Northumberland, / Did speak these words, now prov'd a prophecy?” (3.1.65-69). This, of course, is inaccurate. As Humphreys points out, “no Warwick appears in Richard II” (92n). Henry IV's explanation of the transmission is phrased as a question, and it is made even more conditional by the “may” in the second line; these syntactic strategies might represent Shakespeare's sotto voce admission that no such observer was present. But Warwick's silent assent to the role of observer-listener represents a retroactive revision of the events in Richard II. No matter that the transmission of Richard's prophecy could not have occurred; Shakespeare revises events so that it must have occurred. Such revision underscores the importance of both Richard's initial articulation of the prophecy and Henry's repetition of it. Humphreys observes that the transmission and repetition of this warning are “a notable part of the chain of prophecies and reminiscences which unify the historical sequence” of the Second Tetralogy (93n).

  13. We see Richard's attempts to bypass medieval law and use power politics or “slovenly Machiavellianism” (Manheim 56) in his interruption of the trial-by-combat and his confiscation of Gaunt's property. Although both acts are within the king's power, they are not within the law or the tradition of the medieval world. For a detailed study of Richard's historical problems with law and the foundations of kingship, see Jones (88-112).

  14. In Henry IV, Bolingbroke learns Richard's lesson in reverse; he discovers that power always needs to have (or to appear to have) a basis in law. The resolution of these symmetrical failures in the Second Tetralogy occurs in Henry V, where King Henry demonstrates a genius for using theatricality to represent power always in terms of law, right, and the ethically appealing.

Works Cited

Battenhouse, Roy. “Tudor Doctrine and Richard II.RUS 60 (1974): 31-53. [Ward, J.A. Renaissance Studies in Honor of Carroll Camden. Houston, Texas: Rice U, 1974. 169 pp.]

Bevington, David. “General Introduction.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1980. 2-95.

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1968.

Champion, Larry S. Perspectives in Shakespeare's English Histories. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980.

Craig, Hardin. The Enchanted Glass: The Elizabethan Mind in Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1936.

Dent, R. W. Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981.

Elliot, John R., Jr. “Richard II and the Medieval.” RenP 1965 [Renaissance Papers] (1966): 25-34.

Friedman, Donald M. “John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration.” ELH 43 (1976): 282-87.

Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951.

Hamilton, Donna B. “The State of Law in Richard II.SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 34 (1983): 5-17.

Hapgood, Robert. “Three Eras in Richard II.SQ 14 (1963): 281-83.

Humphreys, A. R., ed. King Henry IV, Part 2. London: Methuen, 1966.

Jones, Richard H. The Royal Policy of Richard II: Absolutism in the Later Middle Ages. Oxford: Blackwell, 1968.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Kelley, Henry Ansgar. Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970.

Levin, Harry. The Question of Hamlet. London: Oxford UP, 1959.

Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.YR [The Yale Review] 41 (1952): 502-23.

Manheim, Michael. The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Plays. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1973.

Nevo, Ruth. Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Ornstein, Robert. A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972.

Phialas, Peter G. “The Medieval in Richard II.SQ 12 (1961): 305-10.

Porter, Joseph A. The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancanstrian Tetralogy. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Price, Robert B. Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1971.

Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. 1957. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1965.

Rickey, Mary Ellen and Thomas B. Stroup, eds. Certain Sermons or Homilies appointed to be read in Churches. Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968.

Shakespeare, William. King Henry IV, Part 2. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. A. R. Humphreys. London: Methuen, 1966.

———. King Richard II. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. Peter Ure. London: Methuen, 1956.

Tilley, Morris P. A Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: A Collection of Proverbs found in English Literature and the Dictionaries of the Period. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1950.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1944.

Wilson, Frank P. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1970.

Thomas F. Berninghausen (essay date spring 1987)

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SOURCE: Berninghausen, Thomas F. “Banishing Cain: The Gardening Metaphor in Richard II and the Genesis Myth of the Origin of History.” Essays in Literature 14, no. 1 (spring 1987): 3-14.

[In the following essay, Berninghausen views the metaphorical relationship between gardening and kingship dramatized in Act III, scene iv of Richard II as the thematic touchstone of the drama.]

In the years since E. M. W. Tillyard's classic study of Richard II,1 the garden scene (III.iv) has become a focal point of controversy. The scene draws attention to the metaphorical equation of gardening and kingship. This equation, in concert with the Adam/Cain/Abel dynamic of Genesis, defines the rhetoric within which the verbal battles of Richard II are fought. Tillyard has argued that the garden scene acts as an objective commentary on the remainder of Richard II, with the chief gardener's speeches giving “both the pattern and the moral of the play” (p. 250). Subsequent interpreters conceded the gardeners' “choric function,”2 though they tended not to see the Gardener's moralizing as circumscribing the entire play. Paul Gaudet has recently argued that in fact, “The Gardener's simplistic formula is at odds with the ambiguous world of concealed motive and undeclared intention that Shakespeare has been cultivating throughout the play.”3

The apparent conflict between Tillyard and Gaudet is somewhat eased when we consider the implications of Richard II's having been “the last king of the old medieval order,” the last to rule “by hereditary right, direct and undisputed from the Conqueror.”4 Henry IV, no matter how good his reasons for assuming the throne, was a usurper, a king recognized essentially after the fact and on condition by his supporters. Richard II, the last medieval king, ruled by divine right, whereas Henry IV, the first Renaissance king, ruled through political power. The grave irony in Shakespeare's portrait of Henry IV is that while it shows that because the king's power is politically based his is a Renaissance kingship, Henry, oblivious to this fact, continues to think of his reign in medieval or mythic terms. Gaudet's “world of concealed motive and undeclared intention” is none other than the political world so clearly evident in Henry IV, pts. 1 & 2 and Henry V, but it of course first comes to light in Richard II. While the political world grows increasingly important during Richard II, the rhetoric of the old medieval order still determines the play at the surface level, and Shakespeare gives voice to that order largely through the chief gardener's moralizing. Gaudet is therefore correct to the extent that the rhetoric of the old medieval order does not prevent the play from portraying the emergence of the new political order; yet Tillyard's point is well taken, for the principal characters, Richard and Bolingbroke, though they may no longer believe in the myths that underwrite their rhetoric, are still trapped within it. In this essay I would like to consider in some detail not only the rhetoric of the famed garden scene, but the larger issue of the rhetoric surrounding the institution of what Tillyard calls the “authentic gardener-king” (p. 250), the image which circumscribes, if not the entire play, at least the two kings of Richard II.

The garden scene, an important key to the rhetoric of Richard II, can best be understood in terms of a larger Biblical schema. This central scene, in a garden tended by “Old Adam's likeness” (II.iv.73)5 is one of many instances in the play which suggest an equation between England and the Garden of Eden. In fact, this play about the end of medieval history derives its frame, rhetoric, and vocabulary from the myth of the origin of history described in Genesis, chapters 2 through 4.

The Genesis myth of the origin of history may be broken into three stages. The first stage would be Adam and Eve's tenure in the Garden of Eden—“And the Lord God pláted a garden Eastwarde in Eden, and there he put the man whome he had made” (2:8).6 God plants the garden for man, requiring of man only that he “dresse it and kepe it” (2:15). Adam and Eve are essentially harvesters in a garden which manages itself. The second stage begins with the Fall/expulsion, when Adam and Eve are cast out and Adam becomes himself a gardener—“Cursed is the earth for thy sake: in sorowe shalt thou eat of it all the dayes of thy life. … ye Lord God sent him forthe from the garden of Eden, to til the earth …” (3:17, 23). The third stage occurs when the second Genesis gardener, Cain, a “tiller of the grounde” (4:2), murders his brother, Abel, and thus loses his ability to draw strength from the earth.7 The connection between blood-guilt and infertility is quite clear in God's curse upon Cain:

The voyce of thy brothers blood cryeth vnto me from the grounde. Now therefore thou art cursed fró the earth, wc hathe opened her mouth to receiue thy brothers blood from thine hand. When thou shalt til the grounde, it shall not henceforthe yelde vnto thee her strength: a vagabonde and a rennegate shalt thou be in the earth.


The progress through the three stages of the Biblical schema describes the medieval rhetoric of the gardener-king so important to Richard II. In the terms of this rhetoric, Adam, as gardener in the fallen world, is an emblem of ideal kingship, while Cain, carrying his curse of infertility, represents a kingship gone hopelessly awry. Richard II ideally represents England, in terms of the Biblical schema's first stage, as pre-lapsarian Eden, but when Gaunt calls England, “This other Eden, demi-paradise” (II.i.42), it is clear that “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm” (II.i.50), is only a replica of Eden. Where pre-lapsarian Eden managed itself in the service of Adam and Eve, this later replica requires a gardener. Gaunt's England needs a gardener-king in the image of Adam as described in the second stage. When York's chief gardener is described by the Queen as “Old Adam's likeness,” she identifies him with the ideal of the gardener-king. The play's other two ideal figures are Edward III, and his son, the Black Prince. In his final exhortation, Gaunt holds up Edward III to Richard as a model king; Richard falls far short of this ideal (II.i.103-08). York makes a similar case for the Black Prince in a later censure of Richard:

… His noble hand
Did win what he did spend, and spent not that
Which his triumphant father's hand had won.
His hands were guilty of no kindred blood,
But bloody with the enemies of his kin.
O Richard! York is too far gone with grief,
Or else he never would compare between.


York's comparison of Richard and the Black Prince, be it “too far” or not, is straight to the heart of the matter. The Black Prince continues his father's good husbandry in accordance with the second stage of the Biblical schema—by giving more than he takes. He manages well—“His noble hand / Did win what he did spend, and spent not that / Which his triumphant father's hand had won”—but even more importantly, he does not progress into the third stage, that of Cain—“His hands were guilty of no kindred blood.” The question implicit in York's comparison is whether Richard has gone “too far,” whether he has slipped into the third stage and inherited Cain's curse.

The mark of Cain, that of blood-guilt and infertility, frames Richard II, appearing once in the play's first scene (I.i.104-05) and again in the play's final scene ( With Adam standing at the center of Richard II in the garden scene, the poles of the rhetorical battle between Richard and Bolingbroke are clearly established. This is a struggle over names, each attempting to cast himself as Adam, the “authentic gardener-king,” while placing on his opponent the mark of Cain. And not surprisingly, this battle is waged through the play's chief rhetorical figure, the gardening metaphor. This rhetoric has its own inherent logic, one that moves progressively through the play. It is set in motion when Bolingbroke first identifies Mowbray with Cain:

Further I say, …
.....That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester's death,
.....Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood;
Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth.


In response to Bolingbroke's charge, Richard attempts to banish Cain, assigning Mowbray's banishment with the “hopeless word of ‘never to return’” (I.iii.152), but it remains uncertain whether Richard will himself retain the mark of Cain for his own part in Gloucester/Abel's blood. Clearly, in terms of the rhetorical struggle between Bolingbroke and Richard, the major questions of Richard II focus on the image of the king: Is Richard like Adam, the good gardener, or has he slipped into the role of Cain and thereby become a curse upon the garden? If Richard has received the mark of Cain, then the issue of succession becomes very tricky. Genesis states that “whosoeuer slayeth Káin, he shalbe punished seuen folde” (4:15). This progressive curse raises the question, assuming that Richard has the mark, as to whether Bolingbroke can remove Richard without bringing similar vengeance upon himself and, by association, upon England. And yet a third question arises: Is Richard's slide irreversible; can the stain be lifted? Tracing the development of the gardening metaphor through Richard II will answer these questions as it reveals how the logic of the play's medieval/Biblical rhetoric is played out.

Aside from the implicit comment in Bolingbroke's accusation of Mowbray as a Cain figure, the first gardening metaphors in Richard II appear in the play's second scene, the conference between John of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester. Though the Duke of Gloucester is referred to twice in the opening scene, once as “Duke of Gloucester” (I.i.100) and later simply as “Gloucester” (I.i.132), here Gaunt significantly chooses to recall his dead brother as “Woodstock” (I.ii.1). In the context of the gardening metaphor and the association of Mowbray with Cain for the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, the name “Woodstock” is highly suggestive. Addressing Gaunt, the Duchess elaborates on the organic puns in “Woodstock” through her parable of “Edward's seven sons” (I.ii.11):

Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one,
Were as seven vials of his sacred blood,
Or seven fair branches springing from one root.
Some of those seven are dried by nature's course,
Some of those branches by the Destinies cut;
But Thomas, my dear lord, my life, my Gloucester,
One vial full of Edward's sacred blood,
One flourishing branch of his most royal root,
Is cracked, and all the precious liquor spilt,
Is hacked down, and his summer leaves all faded,
By envy's hand and murder's bloody axe.


Several important themes are drawn together in the Duchess's impassioned speech, a speech which deplores the lack of good gardening in Richard II's realm. The Duchess evokes the spectre of Cain by attributing Woodstock's death to “envy's hand.” She also enhances the significance of Richard's carelessness by adding to the organic image of Woodstock as a branch of Edward's tree the apocalyptic image of Woodstock as one of the seven vials in The Revelation of St. John the Divine. The breaking of the vials in Revelation brings the ultimate Apocalypse and the end of man's history. As Woodstock's blood stains Richard (and thus Richard has implicitly slid into the role of Cain), the apocalyptic association expands the image of Cain's personal suffering to the suffering of the whole kingdom for Richard's breaking of the vial. Richard's fall is thus much more than a personal defeat; it has resounding implications for the entire realm. While all this is understood by the Duchess and Gaunt, it is apparent in the third scene of the first act that Richard believes he can still avoid responsibility for Woodstock's blood. There he asserts himself as the good gardener and attempts to banish Cain.

In the meeting of lists at Coventry, Richard arranges for the trial by combat between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, only to call it off at the last instant. When he reconvenes to pronounce fate upon the combatants, his words ironically recall those of the Duchess in the previous scene. To justify his having stopped the combat, Richard declares that “our kingdom's earth should not be soiled / With that dear blood which it hath fosterèd” (I.iii.125-26). Richard claims to be an Adam restraining two would-be Cains provoked by “rival-hating envy” (I.iii.131). He banishes both Mowbray and Bolingbroke, though it is most emphatically in the unlimited banishment of Mowbray that Richard seeks to banish Cain: “Then Káin went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod towarde the Eastside of Eden” (4:16). In response to Gaunt's tears, Richard reduces the sentence on Bolingbroke, seeking to appease his uncle and to reassert his claim to the title of the good gardener. Nonetheless, just as he was fatal to Woodstock—that “flourishing branch of [Edward's] most royal root” (I.ii.18)—Richard has begun to work a “gnarling sorrow” (I.iii.292) on Gaunt.

The contribution of the first act's fourth scene to the gardening metaphor is brief but significant. In the third scene, Richard, surrounded by rivals, had assumed the rhetoric of the good gardener, but in the fourth scene, attended by his flatterers, he is more frank: “… our coffers, with too great a court / And liberal largess, are grown somewhat light, / We are enforced to farm our royal realm” (I.iv.43-45). Richard has overextended himself and yet he fails to take appropriate measures. Ironically, he sees the need “to farm” the “royal realm,” but he has no interest in doing the necessary weeding. This court, grown too great, needs pruning, as is clearly the case with the herbivorous parasites who have punning names like Bushy and Green.

The second act begins with Gaunt's deathbed plea that Richard manage the realm with greater care. In the Renaissance allegory, three beasts—the lion, the fox and the pelican—form an image of ideal kingship. The pelican in particular is connected with the image of the conscientious gardener because it represents the king's feeding of the realm. Gaunt's accusation is that Richard should be like the pelican, but rather than feeding his realm, Richard feeds upon it. Richard is not the pelican; rather, he is the cormorant, and Gaunt warns, “With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder; / Light vanity, insatiate cormorant, / Consuming means, soon preys upon itself” (II.i.37-39). The allegorical cormorant represents Richard's sins against the land, sins which Gaunt will soon describe more concretely. He challenges Richard's management, saying that England “Is now leased out … / Like to a tenement or pelting farm” (II.i.59-60). Not only has Richard mishandled affairs, he has at this point abandoned his responsibility as a ruler. He attends to his personal concerns, but “The Earl of Wiltshire hath the realm in farm” (II.i.256). Gaunt puns on his own name in his accusation: “O, how that name befits my composition! / Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old. / … / And therein fasting hast thou made me gaunt” (II.i.73-81). The name Wiltshire also suggests a pun. Wiltshire, by taking the realm in farm, wilts the shire of England and thereby confirms Gaunt's charge of negligence against Richard. Having specified the sin, Gaunt remarks upon the consequences. At first he hopes the stain will be lifted—“Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life, / How happy then were my ensuing death” (II.i.67-68)—but in his final curse he recalls the myth of Cain—“Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee! / These words hereafter thy tormentors be” (II.i.135-36). Richard has become Cain because he did not respect “spilling Edward's blood” (II.i.131). The curse will survive Richard because “whosoeuer slayeth Káin, he shalbe punished seuen folde” (4:15).

With the passing of Gaunt, Richard continues his mismanagement by confiscating Gaunt's land, and thus interrupting the normal line of inheritance. Bolingbroke, finding that Richard has “felled [his] forest woods” (III.i.23) returns early from his banishment to reclaim his inherited lands and to do some pruning of his own. Though Bolingbroke never really decides at any point to usurp the crown, he nonetheless adopts the gardening metaphors on his return to England and thus casts himself as a good king. On meeting with York, Bolingbroke is offered lodging for the night, but before he can see to his own comfort he must go to Bristol Castle and deal with “Bushy, Bagot, and their complices, / The caterpillars of the commonwealth, / Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away” (II.iii.165-67).

When Richard returns to England in Act III, he finds that, in his absence, Bolingbroke has come home and now presents a threat to his kingship. Richard's immediate response is to call to his aid the land to which he has given so little care:

Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
.....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 mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign's enemies.


Although Richard has great confidence in the power of his curse—“Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords. / This Earth shall have a feeling, and these stones / Prove arméd soldiers ere her native king / Shall falter under foul rebellion's arms” (III.ii.23-26)—his mismanaged realm does not respond. After a series of setbacks, he begins to see what little of the land remains his: “Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke's, / And nothing can we call our own but death / And that small model of the barren earth / Which serves as paste and cover to our bones” (III.ii.151-54). Aumerle attempts to rekindle Richard's spirit, suggesting that the garden is not beyond repair. Recalling the Duchess's parable of Edward's seven sons, “seven fair branches springing from one root” (I.ii.13), Aumerle reminds Richard that York “hath a power. Inquire of him, / And learn to make a body of a limb” (III.ii.186-87). Richard takes solace and for a moment seems to think that he can be the good gardener and nurse this remaining limb to replenish his garden. But when Scroop tells of York's power being grafted with Bolingbroke's, the game is up. Richard closes with an acknowledgement of his infertility: “That power I have, discharge; and let them go / To ear the land that hath some hope to grow, / For I have none” (III.ii.211-13).

When Richard and Bolingbroke finally meet at Flint Castle, they cast their alternate threats in the gardening metaphor. At first Bolingbroke concedes Richard's husbandry, noting “The fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land” (III.iii.47). Yet later in the metaphoric conflict of fire and water, Bolingbroke asserts his own fertility as opposed to Richard's consumption: “Be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water; / The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain. / My water's on the earth, and not on him” (III.iii.58-60). One obvious pun here suggests usurpation—“whilst on the earth I” reign. At the same time Bolingbroke expresses his desire not to extinguish Richard's fire and thus inherit the mark of Cain. With “my water's on the earth,” Bolingbroke suggests his watering of the garden, while he portrays Richard as a consuming fire. Bolingbroke's characterization of Richard's rapacity recalls Gaunt's speech in Act II, where Richard is the “insatiable cormorant” who feeds on England, and Bolingbroke the pelican who will feed the realm. Richard responds to Bolingbroke's charge of waste, claiming that he is England's true shepherd. He argues that Bolingbroke “is come to open / The purple testament of bleeding war” (III.iii.93-94) and that his rebellion will “bedew / Her [England's] pastor's grass with faithful English blood” (III.iii. 99-100). Imaging himself as England's “pastor” or shepherd, Richard aligns himself with Abel—“and Hábel was a keper of shepe” (4:2). At the same time Richard attempts to cast Bolingbroke as a latter-day Cain: “The voyce of thy brothers blood cryeth vnto me from the grounde” (4:10). To round out his description of Bolingbroke as Cain, Richard gives his version of the curse of infertility: “Our sighs and they shall lodge the summer corn / And make a dearth in this revolting land” (III.iii.162-63). While the issue is not finally settled at Flint Castle, the rhetorical exchange clearly shows that both Bolingbroke and Richard attempt to characterize themselves as good gardeners and their opponent as a scourge upon the land. Though Bolingbroke has sufficient military power to defeat Richard, he still needs to win the rhetorical battle over his image before he can assume the throne.

In terms of the gardening metaphor, the climax of Richard II comes with the garden scene (III.iv). There, in York's garden, the Queen overhears three gardeners discussing the condition of the realm. When the chief gardener issues orders to his men, he makes use of the metaphorical relationship between good government and good gardening:

Go thou and, like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too-fast-growing sprays
That look too lofty in our commonwealth.
All must be even in our government.
You thus employed, I will go root away
The noisome weeds which without profit suck
The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers.


These lines carry a variety of implications for Richard's rule, but we need not gloss them, for the gardeners soon do it for us. The first assistant complains of his master's orders, asking why they should “Keep law and form and due proportion” (III.iv.41) in their garden when Richard's

… sea-wallèd garden, the whole land
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?


The reference to caterpillars recalls Bolingbroke's description of Bushy and Bagot as caterpillars (II.iii.165-66). The chief gardener repeats that description in large measure, only substituting the image of weeds for that of caterpillars, and in so doing, he implicitly aligns himself with Bolingbroke:

The weeds which [Richard's] broad-spreading leaves did shelter,
That seemed in eating him to hold him up,
Are plucked up root and all by Bolingbroke—
I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.


Richard has mismanaged the realm, amongst other crimes having felled Bolingbroke's forest, but here the defoliation is of Richard: “He that hath suffered this disordered spring / Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf” (III.iv.48-49). The chief gardener here appropriates the Duchess's metaphor, making Richard a royal tree as Edward had been that “most royal root” (I.ii.18) of a flourishing tree. Here Richard is the tree and his flatterers are “dangling apricocks /, Which, like unruly children, make their sire / Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight” (III.iv.29-31). Bolingbroke has come to trim the “too-fast-growing sprays” (II.iv.34), but Richard has already suffered “the fall of leaf” and it seems that it is too late for him to recover. The image of “the fall” suggests Adam's initial fall from grace, but the Queen's questions for the chief gardener argue for another association: “What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee / To make a second fall of cursèd man? / Why dost thou say King Richard is deposed?” (III.iv.75-77). The Queen's association of Richard's fall with the “second fall of cursèd man,” Cain's fall, suggests Richard's slippage into the image of Cain.

The question remains, however, as to what caused the fall. There are three possible sources: Richard's negligence, Bolingbroke's desire for power, and/or the bad advice of Richard's flatterers. Richard cites in his own defense Bolingbroke's ambition, but it is worth noting that the chief gardener sees things differently. Bolingbroke is not blamed; in fact, he is implicitly praised as a good gardener for having rooted up Wiltshire, Bushy, and Green. Clearly these “weeds” are at fault, but much of the blame falls to the “wasteful king” (III.iv.55). The gardener laments Richard's negligence at some length:

… O, what a pity is it
That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,
Lest, being overproud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself.
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear, and he to taste
Their fruits of duty. Superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live.
Had he done so, himself had bourne the crown
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.


The gardener argues that Richard had not “bourne the crown,” had been the king and yet, in an important sense, had not been the king. As God's anointed, he had failed to discipline lesser men, and thus had caused their destruction, and ultimately his own.

The Queen, having failed in her challenge of the chief gardener's conclusions, leaves him with a curse of infertility: “Gard'ner, for telling me these news of woe, / Pray God the plants thou graft'st may never grow” (III.iv.100-01). This curse implicitly raises the question of succession. Bolingbroke is about to be grafted onto the royal tree as a replacement for pruned Richard. The principal question is whether this grafted branch will bring with it infertility and the curse of Cain, or fertility and the good gardening of Adam. This central question about the possible character of Henry IV's rule resonates in the gardening metaphor for the remainder of the play.

In the fourth act, which is taken up entirely by the deposition scene, the gardening metaphor is employed by a variety of speakers. But it is Carlisle who uses it to greatest effect. Infertility and the spectre of Cain inform his speech:

My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford's king;
And if you crown him, let me prophesy,
The blood of English shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act; …


Carlisle foresees the civil wars which will plague Henry IV's reign and casts them in a metaphor of infertility. Gardeners manure the ground to fertilize it, but Carlisle sees the ground manured with English blood, which, like the blood of Abel, will cry up from the ground and bring infertility. Cain's contamination of future generations is echoed in the warning against the crowning of Bolingbroke, which will make “future ages groan for this foul act.” Later Carlisle is more specific about the perils of internal strife:

O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child's children cry against you woe.


That Carlisle should choose to portray this division as a fall “upon this cursed earth” is highly reminiscent of the Queen's calling it “a second fall of cursèd man” (III.iv.76). Carlisle presumes that the earth is already cursed, that it is post-lapsarian, and therefore that this usurpation would be in the image of the second fall, that of Cain. When he argues against the crowning of Bolingbroke—“Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so”—he urges the court to prevent the mythic progression from the third book of Genesis, the descent from Adam to Cain. The convincing yet contradictory arguments presented by Carlisle and the chief gardener highlight Bolingbroke's double bind. Following the logic of the gardening metaphor as defined by York's chief gardener, Bolingbroke must wrest control of the realm from the “wasteful king” and manage it in the spirit of Adam, the good gardener. On the other hand, to seize the realm from Cain-like Richard, Henry must unseat his own cousin and therefore inherit the curse of Cain.

In the opening scene of the final act, Richard offers to Northumberland a version of Carlisle's prophecy. Describing Bolingbroke as a “foul sin gathering head” (V.i.58), Richard warns Northumberland, “[Bolingbroke] shall think that thou, which knowest the way / To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again, / Being ne'er so little urged another way, / To pluck him head-long from the usurped throne” (V.i.62-65). Using the verb “to plant,” Richard here figures Northumberland as a gardener, one who sows corruption at that. Richard propounds a logic of imminence and, like Carlisle, his prophecy is true. Nonetheless, Northumberland's response also has import. He answers: “My guilt be on my head, and there an end” (V.i.69), and, in so doing, he implies that the chain created by Richard's logic of imminence, the inherent logic that moves up from Adam to Cain, can be broken. But, of course, the question remains as to how it can be broken.

Bolingbroke's plan to break the chain and avoid the curse by holding Richard indefinitely imprisoned at Pomfret castle rather than by spilling kindred blood comes to nought when he finds his Cain in Sir Pierce of Exton. Ironically Exton thinks that by murdering Richard, he will gain favor with Henry and thus he presents Richard's corpse saying, “Great king, within this coffin I present / Thy buried fear” ( Rather than burying or laying to rest Bolingbroke's fears as Exton presumes, he has resuscitated the curse. The play begins with Richard finding his Cain in Mowbray and by association receiving blood-guilt for his part in the murder of Gloucester; now, much to Henry's horror, the cycle is completed. Bolingbroke, in supplanting Richard, has fallen into Richard's pattern, and where Richard banished Mowbray, now Henry banishes Exton: “With Cain go wander through shades of night, / And never show thy head by day or light” (

Bolingbroke's defeated conclusion, “I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand” (, echoes oddly through all his speeches in Henry IV, pts. 1 & 2. Blood-guilt poisons Henry's reign and his uncompleted quest for absolution fittingly occupies his final thoughts:

Doth any name particular belong
Unto the lodging where I first did swoon?
'Tis called Jerusalem, my noble lord.
Laud to be God! Even there my life must end.
It hath been prophesied to me many years
I should not die but in Jerusalem,
Which vainly I supposed the Holy Land.
But bear me to that chamber; there I'll lie.
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.

(Henry IV, pt. 2, IV.v.232-40)

Clearly Henry IV, who still conceives of his kingship in terms of the rhetorical tropes of the medieval/Biblical schema, cannot break the chain. But where Henry IV is unable, Prince Hal finally disrupts the chain with the aid of Falstaff, the lord of misrule. Though C. L. Barber gives a slightly different emphasis to the introduction of Falstaff's comedy into the Lancastrian history plays, his comments are remarkably to the point:

The Falstaff comedy, far from being forced into an alien environment of historical drama, is begotten by that environment, giving and taking meaning as it grows. The implications of the saturnalian attitude are more drastically and inclusively expressed here than anywhere else, because here misrule is presented along with rule and along with the tensions that challenge rule. Shakespeare dramatizes not only holiday but also the need for holiday and the need to limit holiday.8

Falstaff's “saturnalian attitude” breaks the rigid imminence of the medieval/Biblical schemata at every opportunity. It resists any teleology, any naming of an ultimate end, by its “comic resource and power of humorous redefinition.”9 Defying deterministic history with his extemporaneous holidays, Falstaff balances Hal's nature by showing him the value of holiday. Holiday's disruption of the flow of history allows Hal to be at once aware of the claims of mythic history while not being overwhelmed by those claims. Hal's prayer before the battle of Agincourt recalls the mythic claims implicit in the taint of blood-guilt: “Not to-day, O Lord, / O, not to-day, think upon that fault / My father made in compassing the crown!” (Henry V, IV.i.278-80). But while the prayer remembers the guilt, it seeks to limit or defer the guilt's significance. Hal's very hope for victory, his belief that his father's blood-guilt will not of necessity poison his own reign, breaks with the rigidly binding medieval/Biblical schemata. In so doing he enters fully into the Renaissance. Distancing himself from the claims of mythic history, he becomes the first self-consciously political monarch.


  1. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1938), pp. 244-63.

  2. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), p. 12. And Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London: Methuen and Co., 1968), p. 129.

  3. Paul Gaudet, “The ‘Parasitical’ Counselors in Shakespeare's Richard II: A Problem of Dramatic Interpretation,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 33 (1982), 152.

  4. Tillyard, p. 253.

  5. All quotations of Shakespeare come from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, general ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

  6. All Biblical quotations come from The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, intro. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

  7. Nicholas Brooke's account of Richard II quite properly focuses on the play's “blood and plant emblems” (p. 121), but it does not bring to light the way in which the spectre of Cain makes a vital connection between the two. Blood and plant emblems may be treated separately, but in the world of Richard II they are interdependent.

  8. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), p. 192.

  9. Barber, p. 198.

H. R. Coursen (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4822

SOURCE: Coursen, H. R. “Theories of History in Richard II.Upstart Crow 8 (1988): 42-53.

[In the following essay, Coursen examines the competing views of history associated with Gaunt, Richard, and Bolingbroke in Richard II.]

I do not believe that Shakespeare's history plays emerge from a theory of history, either providential or Marxist. A theory of history would tend to reduce the plays to thesis or allegory. The plays work their way out, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, on darkling plains “where ignorant armies clash by night.” I will grant that Richmond's victory at Bosworth Field does signify an allegorical ending to decades of civil butchery, but that exception occurs, in Shakespeare's career, before his profound examination of the sources of the Wars of the Roses in the Second Henriad. If Shakespeare has a theory of history, it expresses itself in two ways: a) the meaning of an event cannot be known until its ramifications have worked their way outward across the years, and b) even the most powerful politicians usually function only in response to the ramifications of their own actions. If Henry the Fifth seems to be the exception to the second premise—and he is, to some extent—we must remind ourselves that his French War represents a fulfillment of his father's advice to “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (2HIV, IV. v. 213-214)1, that the goal of the Cambridge Conspiracy was to replace Henry with Mortimer, the heir Richard II had named long before, that Henry would just as soon not fight at Agincourt, and that he prays the “God of battles” would not remember “the fault / My father made in compassing the crown!” (HV, IV. i. 290-291). The victory at Agincourt may represent an heroic expiation for the death of Richard. The marriage of Henry and Katherine may seem almost a “comic ending” to this historical sequence. But the Wars of the Roses wait in the wings, as the final Chorus to Henry V warns.

One could argue that Cranmer's blessing of the infant Elizabeth at the end of Henry VIII (V. vi. 15-63) represents the final step in the teleological thrust of Shakespeare's vision of history. Cranmer's prophecy hearkens back to that delivered to Elizabeth's grandfather, then the young Richmond, by Henry VI (3HVI, IV. vi. 68-76). Tempting as that thesis may be in its pressure towards a restoration of sacramental monarchy in England, it seems to me to make the history plays too cohesive, too much the function of a single creative act. And I speak as one often accused of seeing the Second Henriad just that way. Shakespeare had to function out of his own history, and it may be that Will Kemp's departure from the company in 1599 meant that Falstaff could not “die of a sweat” in France (2HIV, Epilogue. 28).

Whatever Shakespeare's theory of history may or may not have been, his characters do have theories of history. Three primary theories of history exist in Richard II, and several secondary viewpoints emerge in response to these primary theses. It could be argued that all theories of history in the play are reactive, in that they respond to actions Richard has already taken—his commissioned murder of Gloucester, for which no motive is given, although motives abound in the sources, and his leasing out of royal lands—or that Richard takes within the dramatic context. Competing theories of history in Richard II, regardless of their origin, create the conflicts that make the play dramatic, in other words, that make it a play.

The three primary theories are those of Gaunt, the sacramentalist, Richard, the master of ceremonies, and Bolingbroke, the pragmatist—pragmatism being a theory that denies the value of theories, as in a way, Richard II does, qua play.

Gaunt's England is a timeless zone which constantly returns the energy of the grace of God and within which benevolent context the kingdom lives. It is an “other Eden, demi-paradise” (II. i. 42), a generator of chivalric combat and of crusades to “the sepulcher in stubborn Jewry / Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son” (II. i. 55-56). England, for Gaunt, is itself a sacramental entity, a visible manifestation of the invisible power and grace of God. But the land has been debased from inestimable quality to commercial quantity, “is now leas'd out … Like to a tenement or pelting farm,” and Gaunt dies “pronouncing it” (II. i. 59-60).2

Richard has denied the sacramental continuum to himself and his royal plurality. The exchange of positive energy between England and God has been cut off by Richard's spilling of Gloucester's “sacred blood” (I. ii. 12 & 17) and by his reducing “this blessed plot” (II. i. 50) to “rotten parchment bonds” (II. i. 64). Ritual—or God-contacting activity—cannot occur in Richard's kingdom. That does not mean, as I have been accused of arguing, that a mass is necessarily inefficacious because conducted by a corrupt priest. It does mean that “God's substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight” (I. ii. 37-38) has committed sacrilegious acts which prevent him from being a channel through which God's positive energy can flow into England. If Gaunt's argument to the Duchess of Gloucester in I. ii. is correct, only God can resolve the issue of England's alienation from His benevolence. For man to attempt to do so will compound the problem. Gaunt's positive thesis is never allowed to materialize. His negative adumbration does, it seems, come true.

Richard can only preside over ceremonies drained of their significance, like the aborted trial-by-combat between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. That combat does not occur, of course, but even if it had, it would not have rendered the judgment of god. God's justice, if it exists at all, indicts Richard, who would pretend to preside over an adjudication of his own crime. Richard can only cancel the trial with makeshift and transparent politics:

And for we think the eagle-winged 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;
Which, so rous'd up with boist'rous untun'd drums,
With harsh-resounding trumpets' dreadful bray,
And grating shock of wrathful iron arms,
Might from our quiet confines fright fair peace
And make us wade even in our kindred's blood. …

(I. iii. 129-139)

Here, peace frightens peace.3 Richard is like Neville Chamberlain, waving a “rotten parchment bond” with Hitler's signature upon it, and speaking of “peace in our time”—in 1938. Richard is correct at some unconscious level of his rhetoric. His hastily crafted compromise will fright fair peace from England for generations to come. But, then, Richard is already compromised.

Later, drawing on his self-selected role of martyr, Richard will dictate a devastating anti-ceremony calculated to show Bolingbroke and England that the all-important intangibilities of kingship are now as meaningless as images in a mirror, indeed, lie “crack'd in an hundred shivers” (IV. i. 290). “God save King Henry, unking'd Richard says” (IV. i. 221). Richard forces a reluctant Bolingbroke into a mime that captures the latter's rise to power: “Here, cousin, seize the crown” (IV. i. 182), and tells everyone just what such a seizure is worth: “God pardon all oaths that are broke to me! / God keep all oaths unbroke are made to thee!” (IV. i. 215-216). But Richard's was the antecedent disruption of continuity—in his arrogant confiscation of Bolingbroke's inheritance—and Richard must find himself “a traitor with the rest” (IV. i. 249). Later, Pistol will reiterate the loss of intrinsic value in the kingdom in a line that also glances at the emptiness of sacrament: “For oaths are straws, and men's faith are wafer cakes” (HV, II. iii. 50).

While it can be argued that both Richard II and Henry V preside over kingdoms devoid of the most significant intangibles, that each admits as much, and that both represent a version of “the cult of personality,” Henry V masters the hollow crown he inherits. He knows how to marshall power and his own superb manipulative and rhetorical skills into his ceremonies, but not how to restore those ceremonies to ritual significance. His attribution of his successes to God is merely another evidence of his political skill. Henry obviously knows how to enlist public support for his war of aggression. George Jacobson, a special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam during the 1968 Tet offensive draws this conclusion in a recent Newsweek interview: “the moment you learn your country is not 100٪ behind you, you get the hell out—no matter what the losses may be.”4

I don't hold with current revisionist opinion that the American public was somehow responsible for the Tet offensive. It seems to me that it was General Giap's idea and that the offensive emerged from a nation 100٪ behind the concept of its own liberation. Richard II, on the other hand, is in no position to conduct a foreign war:

The commons hath he pill'd with grievous taxes,
And quite lost their hearts; the nobles hath he fin'd
For ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts.

(II. i. 246-248)

If he does wish to “deck our soldiers for these Irish wars” (I. iv. 62), he must, anticipating Lyndon Johnson, order the self-destructive seizure of the Lancastrian estates.

While Bolingbroke becomes Richard's victim as the latter's theatrics describe an empty crown, Bolingbroke emerges the consummate opportunist. An ambitious young man, scion of a virtual principality within the kingdom, Bolingbroke poses first as justicer, usurping the king's abandoned role, listening to the blood of Gloucester crying to him like “sacrificing Abel's” (I. i. 104). Bolingbroke knows what he is doing, even if his immediate goal is to create fissures of unrest within which he can maneuver. He has discussed all of this with his father, as we learn at the beginning of the play. We learn in the play's second scene that Gaunt has command of the facts the first scene obscured: Richard, “God's substitute, … Hath caus'd [Gloucester's] death” (I. ii. 37-39). Bolingbroke himself becomes the victim of injustice, of course, but engages in legalisms upon his return to England, elevating himself within a world where other names are reduced or erased: “As I was banish'd, I was banish'd Hereford. / But as I come, I come for Lancaster” (II. iii. 113-114). He quickly takes retribution for the erasure he has suffered, telling Bushy and Green that they have

From my own windows torn my household coat,
Ras'd out my imprese, leaving me no sign,
Save men's opinions and my living blood,
To show the world I am a gentleman. …

(III. i. 24-27)

Reassuming the role of justicer, this time for wrongs done to him, he orders his enemies “dispatch'd” (III. i. 35) by his hatchetman, Northumberland.

Bolingbroke is, of course, reacting—against Gloucester's unpunished murderers and to the seizure of his inheritance. His reactions, however, seem to have a personal goal which his pose of righteous indignation does not obscure. He moves blithely ahead, embracing his motives as they present themselves, defining his goals only when they are virtually within his grasp, responding to the cues that even Richard provides:

Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?
Yes, my good lord.

(III. iii. 208-209)

York admonishes him: “Take not, good cousin, further than you should / Lest you mistake the heavens are over our heads” (III. iii. 16-17). In responding, Bolingbroke does not claim exactly to be an agent of God's will. He breaks off before his need for instant intelligence: “I know it, uncle, and oppose not myself / Against their will. But who comes here” (III. iii. 18-19)?

Again, Bolingbroke knows what he is doing. If power no longer derives from above, it must be developed from a system of contracts. We observe Bolingbroke employing his as-yet-unattained wealth almost like a character in Vanity Fair, engaging in agreements that build a base that belies his disclaimers, as when Ross and Willoughby offer their services to him:

Evermore thanks, the exchequer of the poor,
Which, till my infant fortune comes to years,
Stands for my bounty.

(II. iii. 65-67)

The feudal contract was hardly a new concept in the early 15th Century, but represents the reinvention of the only model available to Bolingbroke. Geographical considerations alone would argue that the linkage of Lancaster and Northumberland represents more than merely a feudal contract.

A conservative defender of the ancient right of inheritance, Bolingbroke finds himself leading a revolution based upon the principles of a prior age. But he is falling into the historical trap of which York warned Richard:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not tomorrow then ensue today.

(II. i. 195-197)

Soon, as Henry IV, Bolingbroke is compromised by Mortimer's superior claim, and dismisses his already disgruntled supporters with caustic complaints about majesty's inability to “endure / The moody frontier of a servant brow” (1 HIV, I. iii. 18-19). Bolingbroke's ability to “make history” is severely limited. He repeats Richard's mistake by undermining the already shaky premises of his kingship. Even after having Gloucester killed, Richard was still king “by fair sequence and succession,” as York tells him (II. i. 199). Even after having Richard killed, Bolingbroke remains king de facto. He had posed originally as a redresser of grievances, but that course forced him to enormities—usurpation and regicide—which made power the sole premise of kingship and elicited a seemingly endless sequence of rebellions. His attempt to behave as an absolute monarch, in neglect of many contracts and covenants—including the increasingly specific and troublesome Oath of Doncaster (cf. I HIV, V. i. 41-46)—mirrors Richard's desperate summoning of the divine and legal principles he has himself violated. But Bolingbroke is a better politician than was Richard. “This new world,” as Fitzwater calls it (IV. i. 79), is both made by and made for Bolingbroke. Much as he would enjoy the sanctions and continuities that Richard inherited and destroyed, Bolingbroke learns that his crown is the focal point of a “common 'larum bell” (2 HIV, III. i. 17) and that all he can do is to confront “necessities” (2 HIV, III. i. 93) in the sleepless middle of his nights.

The other characters in Richard II either resist the advent of “this new world” or go with its flow, as does the opportunistic Northumberland. In a world in which time is no more than money, Northumberland, a modern “communicator,” can claim, “only to be brief / Left I his title cut” (III. iii. 10-11). York replies, “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). But that time is no more. It is Bolingbroke who is taking heads. The play's two duchesses argue on the familial grounds that both Gaunt, in the cases of both brother and son, and York, in the case of his son, reject. Bolingbroke cannily employs the argument by reminding York of his son and telling York what Gaunt would have done for Aumerle had he been wronged as Bolingbroke has been (II. iii. 125-128). Aumerle and his party take the sacrament to seal their conspiracy to kill the king at Oxenford. The most sacred of rituals sanctifies the most heinous of crimes. But the murder would occur in the name of a rightful claimant to the throne, as would the assassination of Henry V by Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey at Southampton.

York can only catalogue his patience—it is too late for anything but such rationalizations—as he objects to Richard's act of confiscation. York argues that time is the context which gives meaning to human activity. We are in a different world than that imaged by Gaunt, a world like that described by Michael in Book XII of Paradise Lost. York's, however, is still a world in which the microcosm can disturb the macrocosm. To interfere with one sequence—that of lawful inheritance—is to disrupt the rhythm of time itself. If Gaunt argued England's cooperation with positive supernatural powers, York argues an equally valid, if diminished, principle. Time is a manifestation of a nature prior to and superior to any action that even a king may take. York espouses a theory which, belatedly, argues that man's law is a codification of natural law. York is ignored, of course, and, later, in a frantic burst of loyalty towards Bolingbroke—perhaps a compensation for York's failure to save Richard—insists on the execution of his own son.

Hotspur, who is “Percy” in Richard II, has no theory of history. Nor does he develop one. He accedes to Bolingbroke's neo-feudalism, but soon rebels, to become an agent of disorder within an already unsettled commonwealth. His personal code of honor is narrow and selfish. A great warrior, he cannot lead other men, as we may be reminded when we hear Henry V before Agincourt: “if it be a sin to covet honor, / I am the most offending soul alive” (HV, IV. iii. 28-29). Henry dusts off the old concept, holds it aloft for admiration, then generously bestows it upon his “band of brothers” (HV, IV. iii. 60). Hotspur is a magnificent anachronism, a Black Prince living a century too late. He can sneer at Prince Hal's brand of chivalry:

His answer was, he would unto the stews,
And from the common'st creature pluck a glove,
And wear it as a favor, and with that
He would unhorse the lustiest challenger.

(V. iii. 15-18)

But Hotspur describes Prince Hal's subsequent career and his own demise. The combat at Oxford is cancelled because of the threat of regicide. Politics override the chivalric arts and “The better part of valor is discretion,” as Falstaff says (I HIV, V. iv. 119-120). If Hotspur learns the lesson, the revelation lies in phrasing just beyond the sentence Hal completes for him. A theory of history other than anarchism might not have saved him. But without one he is doomed. “If we live, we live to tread on kings” (I HIV, V. ii. 85) is a call to chaos, not to arms.

Mowbray is a special case. He believes that the confession he made to Gaunt “'ere [Mowbray] last receiv'd the sacrament” (I. i. 139) has cleared him of an intended crime. In the excellent BBC-TV version of the play, John Gielgud's Gaunt nodded as Richard Owen's stalwart Mowbray turned to him. The banished Mowbray lives out England's crusading past ironically, an existential sliver of Gaunt's embracing vision of what all of England once was:

Many a time hath banish'd Norfolk fought
For Jesu Christ in glorious Christian field,
Streaming the ensign of the Christian cross
Against black pagans, Turks, and Saracens;
And, toil'd with works of war, retir'd himself
To Italy, and there at Venice gave
His body to that pleasant country's earth,
And his pure soul unto his captain Christ,
Under whose colors he had fought so long.

(IV. i. 92-100)

Carlisle describes a solitary warrior whose entire career is played out during a few brief and brutal months of English history. The point, of course, is that, while Hotspur should have lived in a former age, Mowbray does live in a different time, in that zone described by Gaunt which itself has suffered banishment from England. England's time is dictated by a politics no longer marching under “the ensign of the Christian cross.”

Bolingbroke might wish to revert to the world his father, Gaunt, described, and go

As far as to the sepulcher of Christ—
Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross
We are impressed and engag'd to fight.

(I HIV, I. i. 19-21)

Even as he speaks, however, he knows that “Therefore we meet not now” (I. i. 30) and that he “must neglect / Our holy purpose to Jerusalem” (I. i. 100-101). Richard lies “breathless” (V. vi. 31), and while Henry does not repeat his need for personal expiation, “frighted peace” in England has found no “time … to pant” in the year since Richard's death. Bolingbroke's speech is merely political, a pious facade thrown up in front of the pressure he is beginning to feel from Mortimer and the rival faction. Bolingbroke's former rival, Mowbray, has already achieved—within another concept of time and of history—the goal that, for Bolingbroke, becomes increasingly unattainable. Even when all the logistics and deputations necessary to his project are ready, Bolingbroke has fallen into his final illness, the want of more than “a little personal strength” (2 HIV, IV. iv. 7). His strength has drained out into “this debate that bleedeth at our door” (IV. iv. 2). The purpose of Bolingbroke's regime has been to subdue the civil strife that his accession engendered and to keep the kingship within the Lancastrian grip. Bolingbroke comes to recognize as much. Whatever may be said of him, he does the job.

Carlisle is a prophet “Stirr'd up by God” (IV. i. 134) who shares the vision of that “prophet new inspir'd,” Gaunt (II. i. 31). But Carlisle does not look back to “This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings” (II. i. 51). Carlisle looks ahead:

The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels. …

(IV. i. 138-140)

The magnificent career of Mowbray, which Carlisle has just described, plays ironically against the crucifixion of a nation he now predicts:

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 cursed earth.

(IV. i. 141-148)

This prophecy reaches deeper than do Richard's self-serving comparisons of himself with Christ. Carlisle incorporates both the Wars of the Roses which Shakespeare has already depicted and the warnings of the New Testament: “For if a kingdome be devided against it self, that kingdome can not stand. / Or if a house be devided against it self, that house can not continue” (Mark: III. 24-25. Geneva Version). If Gaunt's vision of history is sacramental and relatively static, Carlisle's is biblical and negatively dynamic. Unlike the fall of Adam and Eve, which opens into the bloodbath of human history but ultimately to “New Heav'ns, new Earth, Ages of endless date / Founded in righteousness and peace and love, / To bring forth fruits Joy and eternal Bliss” (Paradise Lost: XII. 548-550), the fall Carlisle predicts is not fortunate. That is, of course, unless we accept Cranmer's blessing of Elizabeth as the positive culmination of the ways of history as the Archangel's promises to Adam are the ultimate justification of “the ways of God.”

In the BBC-TV production, as Clifford Rose's Carlisle was led off under arrest, the camera dollied back to include Charles Gray's York, looking at Carlisle in dumbfounded admiration. It was a moment that linked two characters who have no direct contact in the play, but who have objected to crucial actions and have predicted their results.

Although he can hardly be called a prophet, Richard himself demonstrates an accurate grasp of coming events in his admonishment of Northumberland:

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;
He shalt think that thou, which knowest the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urg'd, 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 deserved death.

(V. i. 57-68)

Having fomented a social jungle as vicious in its way as that explored in King Lear, Richard provides a precis of that later play and, more immediately, an account of what is about to happen in England. Perhaps one of the corollaries of Shakespeare's sense of history—as it works out in Richard II—is that only the powerless, like the workers in the Queen's garden, can define clearly the results of any action that power dictates. The powerful are blind to consequences. The powerless must become Cassandras.

For a time it seems that Bolingbroke can conduct kingship as farce, as in the frantic gage-gathering scene (IV. i.) which he closes with stern control, and in the “Beggar and the King” (V. iii. 80) sequence in which he pardons Aumerle. But the problem of his “living fear” (V. iv. 2) remains. His wordless suggestion that Exton kill Richard is an acquiescence to his inability to control the forces that are pressing him into a position more vulnerable than was Richard's at the outset.

Bolingbroke's calculated magnanimity in pardoning Carlisle is dashed by Exton's entrance with Richard's corpse. Bolingbroke can make a “Cain” (V. vi. 43) of Exton, as he would have done to the murderers of Abel (I. i. 105), but the new King knows that the blood is on his hands and that it is the blood of a king. The matter of Gloucester's death, now irrelevant, drifts away into its mystery. Bolingbroke will project a crusade that picks up increasingly political colorations as it is reiterated. He will not lead his crusade, of course, but does accept his destiny with final piety. Warwick informs Henry that the room in which he fainted is “call'd Jerusalem” (2 HIV, IV. v. 233). “Laud be to God!” Henry responds,

                    Even there my life must end.
It hath been prophesied to me many years
I should not die but in Jerusalem,
Which vainly I suppos'd the Holy Land.
But bear me to that chamber; there I'll lie.
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.

(2 HIV, IV. v. 235-240)

However destructive the history that Henry has unleashed by stepping into the vacuum that Richard created, Henry himself seems to surrender willingly at the last to the diminished rhythms of the world he has shaped.

Finally, we notice how history changes as it emerges from the profound matrix of Richard II and reflects the ad hoc quality of “this new world.” Young Mowbray and Westmoreland debate at Gaultree Forest, each crafting a different ending to the untold story of the combat between Bolingbroke and the elder Mowbray (2 HIV, IV. i. 117-139). The debate predicts that Gaultree Forest will also end short of combat, as Mowbray and his compatriots find themselves short of heads. While Gaunt's grandson, Prince John, can claim of his Realpolitik that “God, and not we, hath safely fought today” (2 HIV, IV. ii. 121) his manipulation has been transparent. When his brother, Henry V, unmasks the Cambridge conspiracy and elicits from Scroop an admission that “Our purposes God justly hath discover'd” (II. ii. 151), Henry can make a far more credible treason “lurking in our way / To hinder our beginnings” (II. ii. 184-186). That claim is undermined, however, by the rationale for what Henry is beginning. Bolingbroke's apparent piety in announcing a crusade “To wash this blood from off my guilty hand” (V. vi. 49) at the end of Richard II becomes the purely political “purpose now / To lead out many to the Holy Land, / Lest rest and lying still might make them look / Too near unto my state” (2 HIV, IV. v. 209-212) which his son has translated into an invasion of France. Henry V is shrewd enough to make the events he has generated seem like the will of God, once they have gone his way. But he is a poor prognosticator. He believes that he and Katherine will “compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard” (HV, V. ii. 208-210). But if, as he says, his father “was thinking of civil wars when he got me” (V. ii. 226-227), we must wonder what Henry V was thinking of when he got Henry VI.

In “this new world,” words and even events themselves change in the face of “necessity.” Bolingbroke's slight revision of Richard II's indictment of Northumberland erases ambition and emphasizes kinship. What Richard said was, “Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal / The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne …” (V. i. 55-56). What Bolingbroke, later, has Richard say is “‘Northumberland, thou ladder by the which / My cousin Bolingbroke ascends my throne …’” (2 HIV, III. i. 70-71). And Pistol, pondering his cudgelling by Fluellen, says, “patches will I get unto these cudgel'd scars, / And swear I got them in the Gallia wars” (HV, V. i. 86-87). In a world which can rewrite history, Pistol writes his own. He will quote Henry V and say, “‘These wounds I had on Crispin's day!’” (HV, IV. iii. 48).


  1. Quotations accord with The Complete Works of Shakespeare, eds. Hardin Craig and David Bevington, Third Edition (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, 1980).

  2. For an extension of this argument, see my The Leasing Out of England: Shakespeare's Second Henriad (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982), particularly Chapter 1.

  3. Cf. Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 151-152.

  4. Newsweek (15 April, 1985), 68.

Further Reading

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Berg, James E. “‘This Dear, Dear Land’: ‘Dearth’ and the Fantasy of the Land-Grab in Richard II and Henry IV.English Literary Renaissance 29, no. 2 (spring 1999): 225-45.

Emphasizes the historical threat of scarcity and currency devaluation to monarchical power in Richard II and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Richard II 3.2: An Exercise in Imaginary Audition.” ELH 55, no. 4 (winter 1988): 755-96.

Views Richard as a complex cipher of despair who effectively victimizes himself.

Cohen, Derek. “History and Nation in Richard II and Henry IV.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (2002): 293-315.

Evaluates Richard II in conjunction with the Henry IV plays as works concerned with the remaking of the English national consciousness through the creation of narrative history.

Cox, Nick. “‘Subjected Thus’: Plague and Panopticism in Richard II.Early Modern Literary Studies 6, no. 2 (September 2000): 5.1-44.

Foucaultian analysis of the emerging forms of authoritarian surveillance and discipline dramatized in Richard II.

Coyle, Martin, ed. Columbia Critical Guides: William Shakespeare, Richard II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, 192 p.

Collection of critical responses to Richard II from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries organized by historical period.

Dutton, Richard. “Shakespeare and Lancaster.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 1 (spring 1998): 1-21.

Biographically focused study that traces resonances from the Duchy of Lancaster in Shakespeare's historical dramas, including Richard II and the Henry IV plays.

Forker, Charles R., ed. Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition, Richard II. London: Athlone Press, 1998, 593 p.

Reprints reviews and commentary on Richard II originally published between 1780 and 1918.

Grady, Hugh. “The Discourse of Princes in Richard II: From Machiavelli to Montaigne.” In Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet, pp. 58-108. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Historicist assessment of Richard II that identifies Machiavellian and modern, “subjective” power and character dynamics at work in the drama.

Healy, Margaret. William Shakespeare: Richard II, Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House Publishers, 1998, 88 p.

Concentrates on Richard II as Shakespeare's “most politically controversial” play.

Heninger, S. K., Jr. “The Sun-King Analogy in Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 11, no. 3 (summer 1960): 319-37.

Comments on the tension between worldly actuality and the Elizabethan ideal of absolute order in Richard II.

Hill, R. F. “Shakespeare's Early Tragic Mode.” Shakespeare Quarterly 9, no. 4 (autumn 1958): 455-69.

Comparative evaluation of Shakespeare's early tragic dramas that finds Richard II to be the dramatist's most finely crafted and successful rhetorical tragedy.

Levin, Harry. “Sitting upon the Ground (Richard II, IV, i).” In Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, Essays in Honour of W. R. Elton, edited by John M. Mucciolo, pp. 3-20. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996.

Studies Richard II as an archetypal tragic figure who contrasts sharply with Shakespeare's other historical English kings.

Raine, Nina. “Battle with Truth.” New Statesman 129, no. 4489 (5 June 2000): 43-5.

Combined review of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2000 that comments on the mercurial nature of historical truth.

Scott, William O. “Landholding, Leasing, and Inheritance in Richard II.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (2002): 275-92.

Discusses the central subject of kingly succession in Richard II with reference to English property law.

Siemon, James R. “The Lamentable Tale of Me: Intonation, Politics, and Religion in Richard II.” In Word against Word: Shakespearean Utterance, pp. 172-209. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Probes the ideological significance of the ambiguous and ironic poetic imagery found in the so-called garden scene (Act III, scene iv) of Richard II.

Wolf, Matt. Review of Richard II and Coriolanus. Variety 379, no. 6 (26 June 2000): 29.

Admires film star Ralph Fiennes's commanding stage presence and well-interpreted performances as both Richard II and Coriolanus with the Almeida Theater Company in 2000.

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Richard II (Vol. 70)


Richard II (Vol. 91)