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Richard II

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Literary scholars generally agree that Shakespeare wrote Richard II sometime during the mid-1590s. Although the 1597 quarto classifies the drama as a tragedy, it is in fact the first in a sequence of history plays commonly known as the second tetralogy. These four plays—comprising Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V—trace the advent of the Lancastrian dynasty in English royal politics, beginning with Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation of Richard II's crown. Unhappy with Richard's incompetence as a ruler, a number of nobles rally around Bolingbroke. They force the anointed king to abdicate, and Bolingbroke is crowned as Henry IV. Imprisoned at Pomfret Castle, Richard progresses from an offensive villain to a sympathetic victim as he poetically contemplates the meaning of his fall from grandeur. Recent critics have probed such topics as how Shakespeare's poetic language shapes the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke; the playwright's ambivalent attitude toward deposing a divinely appointed hereditary king by a Machiavellian manipulator; and how elements of the carnivalesque highlight the key political themes in the play. A number of critics have also analyzed Shakespeare's dramatic treatment of women in Richard II, demonstrating how feminine voices defy proscribed roles at key junctures in the play to challenge the policies of the patriarchal system.

Many critical studies have probed the political dynamics of Richard II, analyzing how the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke reflect their competing ideological concerns. According to Tim Spiekerman (2001), poetry, ultimately, is Richard's weapon. Deposed, Richard tries to fathom meaning from his suffering and through poetry as he attempts to write his own tragedy. Allan Bloom (1981) contends that Shakespeare presents Richard in the worst possible light, to the point that his tyrannical actions make him an implicit accomplice in Bolingbroke's rise to power. Paradoxically, says Bloom, Shakespeare presented the “divine right of kings” concept as the underpinning of Richard's rule and the cause of his tyranny. Richard behaves in a corrupt and tyrannical fashion because he can; since God's ways are inscrutable, he is above earthly reproach. William O. Scott (2002) argues that Shakespeare situated Richard's divine right position within a complicated economic system of landholding, leasing, and tenancy. For Scott, Richard's misuse of the realm—he sells portions off to the highest bidder—compromises his hereditary divine right claim to the monarchy. Contrarily, Louise Cowan (see Further Reading) does not believe that Shakespeare advanced the divine right theory; rather, she speaks of a hereditary king who, even though he is deposed, is still covered by God's anointment. Bolingbroke may depose Richard and rule in his stead and even have him murdered, but he will never achieve Richard's divinely appointed status. Ralph Berry (1999) maintains that Richard is a tragic character, and tragedy needs accomplices. Berry therefore views the protagonist of the drama as Richard-with-Bolingbroke, insisting that the two rulers are forever bound together and share a psychic connection. Hugh Grady (see Further Reading) argues that such a connection can be found in the fact that both men are Machiavels. However, Richard proves to be no match for the political stratagems of Bolingbroke. According to Grady, Richard becomes a political manqué who has forgotten Machiavelli's requirement that a real prince's power-grabbing behavior must be hidden behind a veneer of pretended virtue and rectitude.

Modern critical analyses of Richard II have centered on the play's language and cultural setting to elucidate its central themes. Nicholas Potter (1994) contends that the play's language is full of the sense of elegant ceremony and characterizes it as having “a static, poised quality of equilibrium, symmetry.” By contrast, Spiekerman categorizes Richard's language as grandiose and insists that Richard is a better poet than a politician as his language is replete with dazzling images and metaphors. Cowan considers Richard the last of the medieval kings whose language fits his world: ceremonial, chivalric, poetic. Bolingbroke, Cowan insists, is pragmatic, modern and competitive, qualities that are reflected in his language. For these critics, it is the contrary personalities of these two main characters that best exemplify the play's dramatic themes. Potter likens England under Richard to a present-day emerging nation with the choice of two extreme ideologies: the “golden crown” of Richard or the “shrewd steel” of Bolingbroke. Neither metaphor, argues Potter, touches the plight of the common man. Another prominent aspect of recent critical inquiry has featured the examination of Richard II within the context of festivity and the carnivalesque. David Ruiter (2003) maintains that Richard's aloof governance does not take into account the community's need for festivity, whereas Bolingbroke cleverly associates his ascension to the throne with holiday and community in order to garner support from the masses. The critic notes that Richard becomes, in his own words, a “mockery king,” vilified by the common folk who were deprived of holiday release during his reign. Further, Ruiter contends, Richard's monarchy becomes synonymous with that of the King of Misrule, a temporarily appointed carnival ruler whose deeds and actions contradict the status quo. With the ascent of Bolingbroke to the English throne, Ruiter concludes, the community is reunited and order is restored. Like Ruiter, Martha Kurtz (1996) discusses Richard II in relation to the carnivalesque, positing that laughter corresponds to the personalities of Richard and Bolingbroke. According to the critic, Richard's laughter, laced with arrogant elitism and mockery, signifies an aristocratic insecurity which culminates in his deposition; by contrast, Bolingbroke embraces the carnivalesque, popular laughter of the common man to establish political order after usurping the crown.

Richard II has always been popular in theatrical production. Both the complex character of the protagonist and the universality of theme have given directors great latitude in interpreting the play. In 1995 director Deborah Warner sparked a critical controversy when she cast Fiona Shaw in the lead role of Richard II at London's National Theatre. While they acknowledge that the king possessed many effeminate characteristics, reviewers nevertheless assert that Warner's gender-altering conception was textually untenable and nothing more than a theatrical stunt. Despite offending the aesthetic sensibilities of Shakespeare purists, Shaw's performance was the highlight of the production. In the estimation of John Mullan (1995), Shaw's Richard was “always interesting” and “sometimes brilliant.” Tim Carroll's all-male Elizabethan production of Richard II at London's Globe Theatre in 2003 stood in stark contrast to Warner's feminized staging. Richard Wilson (2003) reminds readers in his review that the original Globe was the setting of a performance of Richard II put on by the rebels the night before the Essex Rebellion, underscoring the political danger implicit in the play. Wilson singles out Mark Rylance's absorbing portrayal of Richard, describing it as the essence of “messianic self-belief.” Charles Isherwood (2003) praises Carroll's “assured and affecting” direction, particularly admiring the poignant intimacy of Rylance's direct addresses to the audience. To inaugurate the Royal Shakespeare Company's celebration of the millennium through the production of Shakespeare's eight English history plays in chronological order from Richard II to Richard III, Steven Pimlott staged Richard II at Stratford-upon-Avon's The Other Place in 2000. Discerning contemporary parallels between Shakespeare's examination of kingship in his play and the toppling of numerous modern totalitarian regimes, Pimlott presented Richard II in modern dress on a stark white stage. Indeed, Michael Billington (2000) likens the set design to “a space resembling a white-walled squash-court or science lab: a perfect setting for this masterly dissection of kingship.” Sam West received accolades for his portrayal of Richard. Alastair Macaulay deems it “marvellous in its blend of intelligence and modesty.” That same year, Jonathan Kent revived Richard II at the Gainsborough Studios in London, before taking the production on tour to New York's Harvey Theater. Vastly different from Pimlott's contemporary reading, Kent's staging instead opted to emphasize the historical context, presenting Shakespeare's play in its traditional medieval milieu. Further, with Ralph Fiennes performing the lead role, the production became essentially a star vehicle for the celebrated film actor. Despite Fiennes's overwhelming appeal with theatergoers, reviewers were divided on the merits of his performance. On the one hand, Susannah Clapp (see Further Reading) praises Fiennes's portrayal as “always intelligent and always interesting”; on the other, Nigel Saul (2000) argues that “[this] is a one-level performance. Fiennes's Richard does not grow or develop. No sense is conveyed of him becoming more self-aware.”

Nicholas Potter (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Potter, Nicholas. “‘Like to a tenement or pelting farm’—Richard II and the Idea of the Nation.” In Shakespeare in the New Europe, edited by Michael Hattaway, Boika Sokolova, and Derek Roper, pp. 130-47. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Potter likens England under Richard II to a present-day emerging nation with the choice of two competing ideologies: the masculine “shrewd steel” of Bolingbroke or the feminine “golden crown” of Richard. Neither metaphor, Potter argues, speaks to the middle ground and the plight of the common man.]

Perhaps the most pressing question facing not only the countries struggling to emerge from the ruins of what once was the Eastern Bloc but also the countries of the old Europe, is the question of nationhood. The most frightening and disgusting elements of nationalistic feeling were not slow to take advantage of the uncertainty that characterized the first moments of new countries after the success of the various popular fronts in first challenging and then overthrowing the old regimes. However, as Ralf Dahrendorf remarks in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,1 ‘“we the people” can rise against an abhorrent regime of exploitation and suppression, but “we the people” cannot govern’. The problem facing the new countries of Europe is precisely the problem of the basis of government; the legitimacy of authority and the procedures by means of which it is exercised.

This is a problem which is absorbing the old countries of Europe as well, as they seek to discover the basis of legitimate authority in a collective arrangement, one which will eventually include at least some of the new countries. Beneath the deceitful bluster of many politicians real difficulties have to be overcome. The delusive rhetoric of freedom conceals actual liberties to be protected or to be won.

Liberty is never an easy matter to discuss, as the liberty of some sometimes restricts the liberty of others. I follow Ralf Dahrendorf in a suspicion of various ideal solutions, but I think that even his guarded acknowledgement that for many minds private property has been a necessary basis for freedom in a society may go too far for me. The restoration of private property has been widely regarded as a panacea in East and West, and it is a question of ‘by their fruits shall ye know them’. John Stuart Mill pointed out that private property was almost certainly established as an effect of the work of

tribunals (which always precede laws) … to repress violence and terminate quarrels. With this object chiefly in view, they naturally enough gave legal effect to first occupancy, treating as the aggressor the person who first commenced violence, by turning, or attempting to turn, another out of possession.2

He goes on to say that ‘the preservation of peace’ had the effect of ‘confirming, to those who already possessed it, even what was not the fruit of their personal exertion’. Here we have the mechanism of original expropriation in the origins of a society which we have inherited.

My point is not pamphleteering: it is that Richard II takes us into a moment in past history in which the legitimacy of authority is in crisis. John Danby once said that the task of criticism was ‘to keep the past alive, in the present, for the future’. Perhaps in the light of the increasingly pressing debate within English as to the nature and proper use of the past we will need to add the gloss (which I am sure John Danby would not have needed) that the transmission of the past is never a straightforward affair. I also want to draw on his description elsewhere of Shakespearean tragedy as ‘literally a new organ of thought’ and begin by insisting that the subject of Richard II lies in the poetry; in a tension and in an absence, which I hope to explore. I will argue that John of Gaunt's contemptuous account of England's current state as ‘like to a tenement or pelting farm’ exposes an absent middle-ground between his and Richard's poetry of England which it is the business of the play to evoke, as it were, in its absence. This absence is in its nature; perhaps the poetry to express it has not yet evolved.

The play is a drama of character revealed by circumstances.3 We meet Richard appearing kingly enough as Bolingbroke and Mowbray accuse one another with stiff ceremony. We realize the reasons for this ceremony in the next scene;—Richard is the villain, and John of Gaunt states the paradox clearly:4

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


The next lines reinforce the sense of impasse:

Where, then, alas, may I complain myself?
JOHN of Gaunt:
To God, the widow's champion and defence.

There is a quality in these lines which we find throughout the play, which I can only call reserve. Stanley Wells speaks of the ‘beauty’ of the poetry of the play,5 and he is quite right, but it is important to spell out what that beauty consists in. In fact, it is that quality we often find associated with the word ‘beauty’, a static, poised quality of equilibrium, symmetry; the elegance of a situation or an emotion that seems complete in itself. Here it is the quality of impasse.

It is not that these speeches are emotionlessly regular; it is that emotion is not sharp and immediate but long endured. Stanley Wells comments that the play is remarkably ‘passive’: I would like to add that it is patient. Richard demonstrates this quality in the opening scene. His command to Mowbray is authoritative:

                              Rage must be withstood:
Give me his gage; lions make leopards tame.


Yet it is equally clearly restrained, as is his setting the date for their trial by combat. It is, in a sense, undramatic. It has something in common with what Wilson Knight called ‘the Othello music’; a sustained note or tone, which is remarkable for being sustained. These brief utterances are not curt, or clipped; they are clear, uncluttered.

Such language emphasizes the state of impasse. Mowbray and Bolingbroke are locked into animosity; Richard cannot get them to compose their quarrel; these two tensions hold each other deadlocked until Richard gives way, or seems to, in the rather odd conclusion that he can command them to do what they were refusing to refrain from doing. The word ‘chivalry’ is important in this conclusion:

Since we cannot atone you, we shall see
Justice design the victor's chivalry,


and of course the sustained rhyme completes the sense of ceremony invoked here. Richard embraces the chivalric concept of trial by combat and seeks to make it a matter of his own will. ‘Chivalry’, the culture of nobility, is being reclaimed by Richard, and appropriated to the king.

Nobility is the quality shown by the Duchess of Gloucester:

Yet one word more—grief boundeth where it falls,
Not with the empty hollowness, but weight.
I take my leave before I have begun,
For sorrow ends not when it seemeth done.
Commend me to thy brother Edmund York.
Lo, this is all—nay, yet depart not so,
Though this be all, do not so quickly go;
I shall remember more. Bid him—ah, what?—
With all good speed at Plashy visit me.
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.


Especially effective is the use of occasional unrhymed lines, interrupting lines that strain towards the condition of rhymed couplets, heroic couplets in fact. The duchess's distracted grief is evident:

Lo, this is all—nay, yet depart not so,
Though this be all, do not so quickly go;
I shall remember more. Bid him—ah, what?—


This is the verse for which Browning strove, and in achieving which he occasionally succeeded, as in, for example, ‘Two in the Campagna’:

Just when I seemed about to learn!
                    Where is the thread now? Off again!
The old trick! Only I discern—
                    Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.

or ‘Andrea del Sarto’:

                                                            And you smile indeed!
This hour has been an hour! Another smile?
If you would sit thus by me every night
I should work better, do you comprehend?
I mean that I should earn more, give you more.
See, it is settled dusk now; there's a star;
Morello's gone, the watch-lights show the wall,
The cue-owls speak the name we call them by.
Come from the window, love,—come in, at last,
Inside the melancholy little house
We built to be so gay with.

It has a delicate, poignant quality enhanced by the smoothly melodious measure which is its strongest pulse, and its effects are most strongly and vividly achieved when it realizes (as I believe Browning does here, and elsewhere, often) the rhythms and movement of speech, conversational speech under the pressures of the emotions it dramatizes, that it reveals, as it were, in tension with the verse which encloses it and soothes it. It is, that is, elegiac.

Stanley Wells in particular has commented upon this feature of the play: ‘The mode we feel to be most characteristic of Richard II is the elegiac’. He speaks also of the ‘elegiac lyricism’ of Richard and Queen Isabel, which leads almost into a view such as Mark van Doren's that Richard is a poet who loses his kingdom because he loves poetry ‘more than he loves power’.6 This goes, I think, too far in the direction of Bradleian surmise, yet it is only an extreme statement of a view held, in one or more degrees, by many critics of the play.7 I do not think that we are meant to see Richard as a poet, but to see him as Peter Ure sees him after the first two and a half acts:

the play's design has now developed to the point where it is laid down for him that he must give voice to what is in him; more narrowly, that he must say what he feels all the time about his situation … to survive at all as the protagonist of a poetic drama designed, as this one is, with a helpless king at its centre, Richard has to use words, or, more accurately, poetry.8

Of course, in a poetic drama, especially one in which Shakespeare restricted himself to verse entirely, everybody does. There is, however, a special sense in which Richard does, at which I want to look more closely later on, but which may be stated now to have an affinity with the Duchess of Gloucester's poetry at this moment. The duchess expresses the emotions of a noble spirit restraining its sense of hopeless loss with great dignity that gives just enough for her intensity of feeling to show through, especially perhaps in those economical and remarkable images of the empty house Plashy has become:

          empty lodgings and unfurnish'd walls,
Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones.

One thinks of ‘Mariana’, or of Chesney Wold. There is nothing the duchess can do but speak. For those who are able to speak, such moments are privileged, however dearly bought. Richard looks cold beside her.

The pageantry of the trial by combat that succeeds this scene assists in framing the duchess's last words. Far from seeming pompous, the scene presents with considerable economy a rather ominous solemnity.9 John of Gaunt's terrible words hang over this scene:

God's is the quarrel—for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death.

This trial by combat cannot in any case issue in justice, for ‘God's is the quarrel’. It is a terrible and sinister waste of time, as all parties to it are clearly aware.

Mowbray comes off rather better in the speech-making as a consequence of his being a hapless figure. Bolingbroke's farewell to Richard is elaborate where Mowbray's is not:

As gentle and as jocund as to jest
Go I to fight: truth hath a quiet breast.


Bolingbroke leaves the ground on St Lambert's Day with a moving farewell:

Then England's ground, farewell; sweet soil, adieu,
My mother and my nurse that bears me yet!
Where'er I wander boast of this I can;
Though banish'd, yet a true-born Englishman!


Forthright though this sounds, there is a greater urgency about Mowbray's verse:

And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up—
Or being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.


The plainness of this, the unemphatic yet quite apt imagery; the equal distribution of stresses; all are persuasive of ‘a quiet breast’, but one moved deeply:

What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

‘Speechless death’ is doubly forceful: not only death after enforced speechlessness, but death itself as the end of speech. For Mowbray, being a ‘true-born Englishman’ resides in the common speech, the ‘native breath’ his tongue breathes in speaking. Bolingbroke has given no similar testimony of his sense of Englishness, though it is his assertion of being a ‘true-born Englishman’ with which this scene ends. I do not want to say that he is not—only that we have seen that Mowbray is. Of the three who have made use of the idea of the ‘nation’ in one way or another, it is really only Mowbray who has evoked it: the other two have claimed to love it or to be acting in its interests, but only Mowbray speaks, and so well, of what it is to be exiled from a life lived in common; a common speech.

The end of Act I finds Richard coldly calculating how he is to finance the Irish wars; looking on John of Gaunt's illness as a stroke of luck; and reviewing suspiciously Bolingbroke's habit of wooing the common people, whom Richard himself seems to hold in contempt:

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.


The peace which Richard has figured as that which ‘in our country's cradle / Draws the sweet infant breath of gentle sleep’ seems to be very much an ideal. The ‘grating shock of wrathful iron arms’ which threatens civil war is set against the image of the infant; not against the oyster-wench and the draymen. We might ask, what is this peace? It doesn't seem to be whatever allows the oyster-wench or the drayman to go about their business undisturbed.

This becomes increasingly important as the next act opens. John of Gaunt's famous speech, for which the opening sets the scene, introduces an idea of England which has no more to do with the oyster-wench and the draymen than Richard's or (in reality) Bolingbroke's. So far Mowbray's ‘native English’ is the only intrusion into this idealist world of a common life, a life, that is, both lived in common and unremarkable.

In his closing exchanges with Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt reveals himself an optimist, determinedly adjusting the appearance of things;

Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honour,
And not the King exil'd thee; or suppose
Devouring pestilence hangs in our air,
And thou art flying to a fresher clime.


But Bolingbroke repudiates this solipsistic view that things are as one sees them:

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?


Mowbray has shown us in I.i why this is:

The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation—that away,
Men are but gilded loam, or painted clay.


We exist, that is, in the good opinion of our fellows. We are otherwise only hollow men, in T. S. Eliot's phrase.

The authorization we seek cannot be supplied from within. Gaunt's advice to Bolingbroke at I.iii.279-80,

Think not the king did banish thee,
But thou the king,

is taken by Coriolanus in a later play. But Bolingbroke cannot think that ‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’ (Hamlet II.ii.259); or, rather, not as one's own thinking makes it so. Neither Bolingbroke nor Mowbray could agree with such theorists as Friedrich von Hayek, who would argue that there is, in Margaret Thatcher's phrase, ‘no such thing as society’. Were there really ‘no such thing as society’, no authorization to supply ‘spotless reputation’, we were but ‘gilded loam, or painted clay’.

We may go further, and remind ourselves of F. R. Leavis's important view of language as a ‘human achievement of collaborative creation … the creation of the human world, including language’ (the phrases are taken from ‘Two Cultures?—the Significance of Lord Snow’). He goes on to say, ‘it is one we cannot rest on as something done in the past. It lives in the living creative response to change in the present’. Mowbray's insistent linking of language and repute argues a collaborative-creative view of the human world, a view of ‘society’. The difference between him and Bolingbroke is that we have no grounds for believing that Bolingbroke really believes what he says—except about the shame of exile, which he feels keenly—whereas we do have grounds for believing that Mowbray does.

For John of Gaunt, however, at the end of a long life, reputation means less than the world of his experience, of which he is preparing to take leave:

Though Richard my life's counsel would not hear,
My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.


Not the tale of his death, but the sad tale he has to tell, dying. For the same reason that a dying confession is taken so seriously, John of Gaunt believes that his ‘sad tale’ will be listened to. York supplies the necessary corrective:

No, it is stopp'd with other, flattering sounds,
As praises, of whose taste the wise are fond,
Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound
The open ear of youth doth always listen.


York's verse is, we might say, more obviously Shakespearean. It has, as Donne has, or Johnson, the sound of the language, of speech, of common intercourse.

Where doth the world thrust forth a vanity—
So it be new, there's no respect how vile—
That is not quickly buzz'd into his ears?
Then all too late comes counsel to be heard,
Where will doth mutiny with wit's regard.


That last couplet belongs in a world with Jonson's epigrams and Donne's satires. Worldly, knowing, disgusted, it shares nothing formally with the stilted eloquence and ceremonious courteousness of much of the verse of the play so far, except in its sense that that quality is absent in the world which the more elaborated verse seems to imply its speakers believe is present. York picks up Aumerle's note of the last scene of Act I:

I brought high Herford, if you call him so,
But to the next highway; and there I left him.


This sceptical note informs York's complaints of:

Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manner still our tardy-apish nation
Limps after in base imitation.


which suggests that Richard is not only the slave of flattery, but of fashion, and of foreign fashion, which is worse. We are very much in the realm of ‘my native English’.

This is the significance of John of Gaunt's speech at II.i.40-66, his prophecy as he calls it.10 The speech itself is not so very remarkable, except for the preponderance of martial imagery, ‘sceptred isle’, ‘seat of Mars’, ‘fortress’, ‘teeming womb of royal kings’, ‘true chivalry’; all these point to John of Gaunt's central preoccupation, as does

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,

which refers us to the culture and the ideology of the Crusades.

The burden of the speech, though, is to build through accumulating images in consecutive phrases to the climax:

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.(11)

He shares, clearly, Mowbray's concern for reputation, for England is ‘dear’ on that account, but he shows no more concern for the practical business of being English than does his son. Mowbray has shown us the way—‘my native English’ is the common tongue; the tongue of oyster-wenches and draymen as well as the tongue of John of Gaunt's idealistic poetry and the supple, sceptical verse of York and Aumerle. John of Gaunt is dreaming. What he can't stand is that

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat'ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;
That England that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

The supporters of Essex doubtless saw a jibe at the hated Cecils in this reference to lawyers, but John of Gaunt's contempt for leasehold is based in his martial imagery and its implications in ‘that England that was wont to conquer others’. He knows only free right of ownership established by force of arms, the irony being that he himself comes from a conqueror's line, and was born at Ghent. England is his England; a possession, a conquest. ‘This happy breed of men’ has no more room for oyster-wenches and draymen than Richard's ‘peace’ sleeping like a baby. The relationships conjured up by ‘tenement’, ‘pelting farm’, ‘oyster-wenches’, and ‘draymen’ are the ordinary, compromised, complicated relationships of men and women in what we might call ‘civil society’ to distinguish it from the state and from matters constitutional. Though Antonio Gramsci pointed out that ‘civil society’ was far from immune to the influence of the ruling class, this play suggests that only Bolingbroke is interested in it and its members. Richard and John of Gaunt seem locked in a poet's war about what ‘England’ really is. When Richard enters John of Gaunt accuses him:

Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick,


Landlord of England art thou now, not king.
Thy state of law is bondslave to the law,

(II.i.95-6, 113-14)

by which he means that Richard's only claim to be king is formal, legal: he has forfeited his authority because he has relied so much on flattering courtiers.12

Those lords left to discuss him after Gaunt's death have their views expressed by Northumberland on Richard's taxation and expenditure:

Wars hath not wasted it for warred he hath not,
But basely yielded upon compromise
That which his ancestors achiev'd with blows;
More hath he spent in peace than they in wars.


In the kinds of society to which we have become used (though from which we are being weaned), such words are not an accusation, but an acclamation. Richard's concern for peace, which draws its ‘infant breath’ in a cradle on which his hand rests, is an attractive image. Certainly it contrasts with Northumberland's idea of ‘nobility’ which is equated here with ‘blows’:

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


Northumberland recalls Mowbray on reputation. The condition of England, ‘farmed’, ‘leased out’, he feels as demeaning and undignified. The ‘slavery’ he complains about is this sense of being ‘leased out’. What he and John of Gaunt object to is that possession is no longer absolute possession resulting from conquest, but a negotiated process of contracts and compromise, ‘basely yielded’, in Northumberland's view. The lawyers lie behind ‘inky blots and rotten parchment bonds’, just as they lie behind any concept of justice which is tried in courts of law and not in combat. The lawyers represent a ‘civil society’, a society made up of the complex interactions and squabbles of people with rights and responsibilities established and protected by law.13 The ‘sceptre’ of a Northumberland or a John of Gaunt is much less free to strike down its enemies in such a society, and would-be conquerors are faced with demands for redress and reparation; civil suits and criminal prosecution, which they would obviously feel as ‘ignoble’. The last straw for the conspirators is Richard's confiscating Bolingbroke's inheritance—the very basis of his feudal rights. Ross does not exaggerate when he describes him as

Bereft, and gelded of his patrimony.


He is deprived not only of what is due from his father, but ‘gelded’ of what he might pass on. The male element in the imagery of ‘sceptre’ becomes explicit here.

The conversation between Bushy and Queen Isabel is a reflection on the poetry of the play itself. Bushy urges the Queen not to multiply grief:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so.
For sorrow's eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which, rightly gaz'd upon,
Show nothing but confusion; ey'd awry,
Distinguish form.


The ‘perspectives’ of the poetry of Richard or of John of Gaunt or, for that matter, of the Duchess of Gloucester (or of York, whose fine speech later in this scene is surely not comic, but is rather the distracted effort of a man of action to organize an action he knows to be purposeless) are ways and means of putting off, away or to one side, whatever is pressing. The impasses of the play promote a frustration in some which gives rise to their plangent poetry of loss and futility, and a tendency to procrastinate in others, in Richard that is, which gives rise to a poetry of doing nothing. Beautiful though it is, it is sterile. That it is sterile is brought to mind by contrast with the occasional and startling images of fecundity; the negative image of Bolingbroke's being ‘gelded’; John of Gaunt's image of England's ‘teeming womb’; Isabel's ‘gasping new-delivered mother’. What is missing, however, in these images is the issue—Richard's ‘infant’ is a fantasy, and these images are anyway fenced around by the martial imagery. Nothing is happening; the present is being stifled by a failure to resolve the past and release the creative energies of the ruling class, and that threatens war, which is their business and the basis of their claim to authority. But the poetry of neither can imagine the complex, fertile life over which they have placed themselves, except in contempt for it.

The first element of the play's turn at this point, as Bolingbroke steps forward to centre stage and meets and displaces Richard, is the emergence of a new poetry, a fuller poetry, out of Richard's gathering sense of hopelessness. The repeated references to ‘peace’, as in Berkeley's address to Bolingbroke, ‘and fright our native peace’; or York's rebuke to Bolingbroke:

                                                            why have they dar'd to march
So many miles upon her peaceful bosom,
Frighting her pale-fac'd villages with war


gathers into Richard's ‘senseless conjuration’ of III.ii. Having lost the nobles and the commons, he turns to the land itself, to ‘nature’. Graham Holderness says of this that ‘the king seeks to appropriate the realm by means of a pastoral fantasy’.14 This is true, but it must be added that John of Gaunt seeks to appropriate the realm by means of a martial fantasy; the question is, which of these two rival poetries will win?

In fact, neither does. From this point on the play is dominated by two modes, the ceremonial and the plangent lyric. The confrontation at Barkloughly Castle has all the high ceremony of the trial by combat. These are big figures, striding on a big stage, and the contrast with the intensely introverted poetry of the preceding scene is dramatically a triumph. From

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings


                    He is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war.
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mother's sons
Shall ill become the flower of England's face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation and bedew
Her pastor's grass with faithful English blood.

is a movement that makes us feel with York that Richard can play king indeed.

But ‘For God's sake let us sit upon the ground’ is not Prospero's ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on’; it is not Antony's magnificent dissection of ambition in his defeat; it is nervous, neurotic even; maudlin and melancholic. Richard is not tragic because he is so miserable. Then he steps out with all the pomp and pageantry the chivalric conception of the king as ‘God's deputy’ can lend him, and he rises to it.15 But it is a show, and he knows it.

We do debase ourselves, cousin, do we not,
To look so poorly, and to speak so fair?

His speech then is another piece of equivocally ironic maudlin self-dramatization, sentimentally self-martyring and yet ironically aware; unstable and worrying. Northumberland is surely right

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

but not like Lear.

The gardeners' scene has been so widely discussed it needs little comment. I agree essentially with Graham Holderness's view that the scene establishes the fact that Richard is not a good gardener.16 His mystical-poetical invocation of the earth has little place in it for the cultivated area of ‘civil society’. If there is to be a life for oyster-wenches and draymen that goes on, as it were, underneath the poetical idealizations of John of Gaunt and Northumberland, there must be some constitutional framework, a protected framework, to encourage good growth. There must be a gardener. We may draw in another major metaphor and say that there is more to motherhood than having one's hand on the cradle.

The gardeners are at last the appearance on stage of the ordinary lives that have shadowed the ponderous ceremony of feudal nobility throughout the play. It is they who stand between ‘shrewd steel’ and ‘the golden crown’ in the opposition Richard raises. It is they whom Scroope describes arming themselves:

White-beards have arm'd their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty; boys, with women's voices,
Strive to speak big, and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown;
Thy very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
Of double-fatal yew against thy state;
Yea, distaff-women manage rusty bills
Against thy seat.


Bolingbroke's ‘shrewd steel’ has masculinized the realm against Richard's ‘golden crown’, his feminized vision of peace.17

The point is not programmatic; it is a matter of seeing how little liked Richard is—it underlies and underlines the gardeners' scene. Richard's appeal to ideas of ‘majesty’ is inappropriate:

Down, down I come, like glist'ring Phaeton,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
In the base-court? Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitors' calls, and do them grace!
In the base court? Come down? Down, court! down, King!
For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing.


This is a superbly effective piece of dramatic verse, enacting in its own disintegration that of the poetry which is the essence of kingship, but which cannot survive without a real basis in the lives of the men and women who live and work in the kingdom.

Neither ‘shrewd steel’ (which catches ‘blows’ from Northumberland, and John of Gaunt's ‘conquest’), nor Richard's mystical-poetical ‘golden crown’ speaks for this middle ground. Bolingbroke's careful cultivation of the Commons and the common people of the kingdom has paved the way for his triumph over Richard, but he has not really raised ‘steel’ as an ideal in the way that ‘crown’ has been raised, both by Richard (from whose phrase this opposition comes) and by John of Gaunt. Bolingbroke is not an idealist at all, though his supporters amongst the nobles may be.18 Bolingbroke has drawn behind him all the resentment that Richard has built up against him by impoverishing the people to support what comes to seem in the play no more than poetry. That is, he has nothing to hold up but a series of ideals and senseless conjurations which become increasingly ‘frantic’ (to use Northumberland's word).

The death of the King is poignant but not tragic. Some of Joseph Conrad's sense of the instability of personal being; of Martin Decoud's death in Nostromo; of Jim's obsessional fantasies and their consequences (not least for Stein) in Lord Jim; this is in place here in the mirror scene, and in the last great speech in which again he does not recall Lear's ‘Come let's away to prison’. It is worth asking why he does not.

Simply, it is because Lear has seen more than Richard has. When Lear suggests that their cell will be no prison for himself and Cordelia it is not because they are broken, but nor is it because they can ‘make one little room an everywhere’. It is because Lear has within him all human experience—because he really is the mystical-poetical king Richard fancies himself to be. Richard's prison is not really populated with the fantastic hordes of his imagination, because at the last moment he is alone with himself and, like Martin Decoud, that is company he cannot stand:

But the truth was that he died from solitude, the enemy known but to few on this earth, and whom only the simplest of us are fit to withstand. The brilliant Costaguanero of the boulevards had died from solitude and want of faith in himself and others … After three days of waiting for the sight of some human face, Decoud caught himself entertaining a doubt of his own individuality. It had merged into the world of cloud and water, of natural forces and forms of nature. In our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part.

(Nostromo, ch. 10)

Significantly, the music irritates Richard. It reminds him of time, and of his struggle to maintain a sense of his own existence:

My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sounds that tell what hour it is
Are clamorous groans which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell.(19)


This irritable punning is surely meant to strike us as improvized; as the increasingly unwilling activity of a mind overwhelmed by images of itself, ‘a generation of still-breeding thoughts’ which, however, is not the population of his ‘little world’ but the disintegration of himself (we are reminded of Bushy's ‘perspectives’):

This music mads me. Let it sound no more;
For though it have holp mad men to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.

What cures Lear is only part of Richard's downfall. His image in the mirror is perhaps the last time he sees himself whole. When he is deposed he has all the ambiguous pathos of a defeated dictator, for they are all men and women and not demons after all.

It is this quality he speaks for, and which the poetry of the play presents for us. He was not a good gardener, but the gardener will plant a bank of ‘rue, sour herb of grace’ for the queen. She is a sad figure too. Both ‘sour’ and ‘grace’ are right for her. We may not like tyrants and their consorts for what they have done, but they are very ordinary figures when they are deposed. The Marcoses, or the Ceaucescus, without their apparatuses of power, cut sorry figures. Ralf Dahrendorf quotes Sergio Segre, upbraiding the people of the former East Germany for arresting Erich Honecker:

Will you never learn from History? Is the era of the trials of the 1930s and 1950s going to start all over again? These are politically beaten people; leave them in peace in their defeat; do not begin the old stories again. Otherwise one will never start anything new.

The struggle is to find the shoots of new growth in the garden we have taken over from the defeated tyrant. Richard II presents its audience with a picture of how this was once tried, in the past.

The last acts present a curious contrast between Richard's introversion and disintegration, and Bolingbroke's immediate difficulties as the new king. The extraordinarily fast pace of the political action (involving as it does some of the actors—especially York, and Aumerle—of the previous regime) and the dreamy dissolution of a lonely individual frame the gardeners' scene. We watch fascinated the doings of kings and nobles, but we belong to the world that goes on meanwhile. We reflect on the ironies and the occasional beauties of these pictures of the past; we set in our own way a bank of rue for the queen, but that acknowledgement is also a recognition that the rest of the garden demands our attention. We do not dedicate the whole garden to these extraordinary men and women.

Bolingbroke's problems are only just beginning. As the play ends we are reminded of its beginnings—a murder hangs over both. The ‘slavish yoke’ of political in-fighting has not been thrown off. Neither the ‘golden crown’ nor ‘shrewd steel’ seems to have been able to solve the problems inherent, it appears, in the governance of ‘this sceptred isle’. John of Gaunt's England is a warrior's fantasy, just as Richard's is a doomed attempt to procrastinate his way out of trouble. It is Mowbray's ‘native English’, the ‘tenement or pelting farm’, the lives of ‘oyster-wenches’ and ‘draymen’, the whole complex life which actually makes up nations which is the true central character of the play. The politics of nationhood must always take account of the actual life they have taken over from their predecessors. Even if we are determined to make the garden of our dreams, we have to start where we are, and that is always leased from the past and owed to the future.


  1. London, 1990. I have drawn on Professor Dahrendorf's discussion throughout. Though I think we probably take different views of the role of private property, I am indebted to his account of the importance of ‘civil society’ for political reconstruction in the post-communist countries.

  2. ‘Remarks on Socialism, Communism and Private Property’, added to the second edition of Political Economy, 1849. Mill goes on to say that ‘the restraints of Communism would be freedom in comparison with the present condition of the majority of the human race’. Liberty was no less dear to Mill than to any other. Of course it depends what you mean by ‘communism’. It depends also on what view one takes of the importance to political liberty of the existence of private property.

  3. It is an interesting fact of critical history that Dr Johnson found the play unimpressive, holding that it did not ‘much affect the passions or enlarge the understanding’, while Hazlitt preferred the ‘nature and feeling’ of Richard II to the ‘noise and bluster of Richard III [of which Johnson's opinion was even lower], at least, as we are so often forced to see it acted’. Hazlitt took to the character of Richard: ‘the sufferings of the man make us forget that he ever was a King’. Though Johnson is not forthcoming on the point, his note on III.iii.156 suggests his feelings: ‘Shakespeare is very apt to deviate from the pathetic to the ridiculous’. Just such a deviation moved Hazlitt.

  4. All quotations are from the Arden edition of Richard II (ed. P. Ure; London, 1956).

  5. Preface to the Penguin Richard II (1969).

  6. Shakespeare (New York, 1939), p. 39.

  7. An interesting treatment of this view is Richard D. Altick's ‘Symphonic Imagery in Richard II’, PMLA 62 (1947), p. 351. Altick argues of Richard that ‘the universe is only present to him in packages of fine words’. Terence Hawkes takes Altick to task in Shakespeare's Talking Animals (London, 1973) for suggesting that language is insubstantial.

  8. The Arden Shakespeare Richard II, p. lxix.

  9. Hazlitt speaks of the ‘state of accomplished barbarism’ which characterizes this period ‘in which “is hung armour of the invincible knights of old”’.

  10. Coleridge's remarks on this speech are of interest: ‘When I feel that upon the morality of Britain depends the safety of Britain, and that her morality is supported and illustrated by our national feeling, I cannot read these grand lines without joy and triumph’.

  11. Coleridge says, ‘what could be a greater rebuke to a king than to be told that

                                                      This realm, this England …
    Is now leased out …
    Like to a tenement or pelting farm?’

    Catherine Belsey puts it this way: ‘Richard makes a gap between names and things, between kingship and its referent, majesty, and Gaunt cannot live in the world he makes’; Graham Holderness (ed.), Shakespeare's History Plays: ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’ (London, 1992), p. 110.

  12. Leonard Tennenhouse views the play as the dramatization of rifts in the ruling class, the ‘blood’, in his terms, and sees ‘Bullingbroke’ as ‘the figure who rescues the principle of genealogy and links it to the law’. I think this a little diagrammatic: Bolingbroke is not merely a saviour (Holderness (ed.), Shakespeare's History Plays, pp. 53-8).

  13. We have moved on from Mill's period before the establishment from the custom and practice of tribunals of law and private property into the period of ‘civil society’ and the emergence of the outlines of a state.

  14. G. Holderness, N. Potter and J. Turner, Shakespeare: the Play of History (London, 1988), p. 37.

  15. I do not intend to recapitulate the by now standard view of Lily B. Campbell and E. M. W. Tillyard, for which Shakespeare's History Plays (ed. Holderness), may be consulted passim; they are no more than in the line of the view which Coleridge picks up, and inflames, from Johnson, and which appears later still in our century in G. Wilson Knight's The Sovereign Flower (1958): ‘in no play is Shakespeare's royalism so poetically explicit’ (p. 31). In principle, nothing divides this view from that of its critics (for which see Holderness [ed.], Shakespeare's History Plays) but their differing opinions of royalty. Johnson and Stephen Greenblatt share the view that the play represents ‘a self-undermining authority’, and Hazlitt pities the man (unlike Johnson) and takes satisfaction from the misfortune of kingship (as Stephen Greenblatt does—though in a very detached manner—and as Tillyard, Lily B. Campbell and G. Wilson Knight do not). I do not believe the play is in fact about royalism in any direct way.

  16. Holderness, Potter and Turner, The Play of History, pp. 38-40.

  17. Linda Bamber comments, à propos of Queen Isabel:

    The feminine offers too powerful a challenge to the idea of history itself for Shakespeare to deal with it in the history plays. The Otherness of the feminine challenges the ethos of power and conquest through aggression; history as a genre must ultimately base itself on that ethos no matter how it also criticizes it. If we lose interest in the military-political adventure we have lost interest in history itself as a genre.

    (Holderness [ed], Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 67)

    In a sense, this is exactly what happens to Richard, and, through him, for us.

  18. Robert S. Knapp argues that neither Richard nor Bolingbroke is able to ‘bring the words and deeds of monarchy together. Neither can successfully personate an undivided, fully legitimate crown, or make power conform to its ideal image’ (Holderness [ed.], Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 89). Thus Catherine Belsey's concern with a gap between signifier and signified, and Leonard Tennehouse's concern with power and its images, are brought together in a single view.

  19. James L. Calderwood makes some interesting points about this speech (Holderness [ed.], Shakespeare's History Plays, pp. 121-35), commenting that it introduces a reflexivity on the processes of theatre unusual in a ‘history’ play.

Tim Spiekerman (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12726

SOURCE: Spiekerman, Tim. “King Richard II.” In Shakespeare's Political Realism: The English History Plays, pp. 59-90. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Spiekerman maintains that Shakespeare questioned the institution of hereditary monarchy in Richard II, positing that Bolingbroke represents a rational and politically superior—if not entirely legitimate—alternative to a tyrannical hereditary ruler.]

In King John, Shakespeare dramatized a political crisis brought on by a legitimacy dispute, which pitted the sitting king against the legitimate pretender and his French allies. The crisis was exacerbated by the worldly ambitions of the pope, who had his own designs on England. One hundred sixty-one years later, the man who possesses the English throne, King Richard II, is undeniably legitimate.1 And like the pope who plagued King John, Richard derives his authority directly from God. But Richard's double right to rule—both hereditary and divine—does not eliminate competition for the throne: he is challenged at the beginning of the play and murdered by the end.

Calling himself “an anointed king,” “the deputy elected by the Lord” (III.ii.55, 57), King Richard is Shakespeare's only portrait of a divine right king. John Figgis, author of the definitive study of divine right, traces the genesis of this political doctrine to the ambitious Roman popes:

It is in the gradual rise of Papal claims to universal supremacy, that are first put forth those notions which form the basis of all theories of Divine Right; the conception of sovereignty, of the absolute freedom from positive laws of some power in an organized human society; the claim that this sovereignty is vested in a single person by God, and that resistance to the sovereign is the worst of sins.2

King John's early stand against the pope is a step along the way in the development of the divine right of kings, which arises “as a contradiction and a counter-theory to that of Papal supremacy.”3 In Shakespeare's King Richard, we meet the embodiment of that “counter-theory,” a king who claims to have been anointed by God to rule and who is responsible to no one else.

But Richard, unlike those cynical and unbelieving Roman Catholic officials in King John who use religion as a political weapon, truly believes he is divinely authorized to rule. He inherits the pope's divine authority without any of his political savvy. Richard is a genuinely naive ruler: believing that God protects him, he fails to protect himself, and so becomes the tragic victim of a doctrine designed to fortify his rule. Richard II is a tragedy.4 The question is whether this beautifully sad play dramatizes a merely personal tragedy—“the lamentable tale of me,” as Richard puts it (V.i.44)—or a political tragedy as well.


Richard II opens with an accusation of treason, which may or may not be directed at the king. Henry Bolingbroke charges Thomas Mowbray with plotting against King Richard as well as with murdering Gloucester, a popular and once powerful nobleman who died under mysterious circumstances while awaiting trial for treason. Bolingbroke's motive in accusing Mowbray is as mysterious as Gloucester's death. He may be trying simply to secure Richard's kingship by exposing a traitor and to secure justice for Gloucester by exposing his killer. On the other hand, this may be a thinly veiled attempt to embarrass and undermine King Richard, the opening salvo in Bolingbroke's ultimately successful campaign for the crown.

Richard suspects the latter. Linked by rumor to Gloucester's death, Richard believes that he is Bolingbroke's real target, his kingship Bolingbroke's real aim: “how high a pitch his resolution soars!” (I.i.109). The historical King Richard was presumed to have been responsible for Gloucester's death and Shakespeare's audience would have taken this for granted.5 While the identity of Gloucester's killer is never definitively settled in the play, no one doubts that Richard ordered his death. In the quarrel between Gloucester's brother and his widow, for example, the question is not whether Richard is responsible for the murder, but what should be done about it. Arguing that one's primary allegiance ought to be to one's blood relations, Gloucester's wife pleads with Gaunt to avenge his brother's death:

Finds brotherhood in thee no sharper spur?
Hath love in thy old blood no living fire?
.....Ah, Gaunt, his blood was thine!

(I.ii.9-10, 22)

Of course, Richard too is a blood relation; he is also a divine right king. Failing to move Gaunt, the duchess changes tactics and appeals to the less noble, though perhaps more pressing, desire for self-preservation:

In suff'ring thus thy brother to be slaught'red,
Thou showest the naked pathway to thy life,
Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee.
.....… to safeguard thine own life,
The best way is to venge my Gloucester's death.

(I.ii.30-32, 35-36)

But Gaunt will not act. While he claims to feel outrage, he cannot bring himself to challenge Richard, God's representative, for God must have his reasons:

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.


The duchess thus gives up, pinning her hopes for justice on Bolingbroke.

Whatever his exact intentions, Bolingbroke's accusation unsettles Richard's awkward but sustainable position of being presumed both guilty and untouchable. Because the last thing the king needs is a rigorous public inquiry into Gloucester's death, he attempts to quash the whole matter at the outset: “wrath-kindled gentlemen, by rul'd by me, / Let's purge this choler without letting blood—… Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed” (I.i.152-53, 156). But Bolingbroke resists Richard's attempt to impose a peaceful settlement and Richard, still trying to avoid a public hearing, orders a trial by combat, a legal duel that was supposed to result in divine justice—the man who dies is guilty. But this solution is problematic: if Richard's ally Mowbray should prevail, the king might be blamed for two murders rather than one; if Bolingbroke should prevail, Mowbray and, by implication, Richard himself might be deemed guilty in the eyes of God. Calling off the trial by combat, Richard decides finally to make his problems literally go away, banishing Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for six years. Mowbray's harsher sentence implies guilt, but the king offers no verdict, and Mowbray quietly accepts his fate. The relatively light sentence Bolingbroke receives seems designed to appease his powerful father while suggesting, at the same time, that Bolingbroke's concern for England is dangerous and probably self-interested. In fact, Richard implies when spelling out the terms of their banishment that both men may have been conspiring against him:

You shall never, so help you truth and God,
Embrace each other's love in banishment,
.....Nor never by advised purpose meet
To plot, contrive, or complot any ill
'Gainst us, our state, our subjects, or our land.

(I.iii.183-84, 188-90)

Delicately turning attention from a past murder toward the future stability of England, Richard succeeds (for now) in burying the Gloucester affair by banishing an awkward friend and a potentially dangerous enemy.

Immediately after securing his kingship in England, Richard is faced with a rebellion in Ireland. In order to finance his Irish expedition, Richard seizes the assets of Gaunt, who has just died. Gaunt's title and estate should rightly devolve to his son and it is to claim what has been taken from him that Bolingbroke purportedly returns early from his banishment.6 But as with the Gloucester affair, Bolingbroke's motives are not clear. Is he really only interested in claiming his stolen inheritance, or is this the second and decisive stage in a long planned strategy to unseat King Richard? Earlier in the play, Gaunt tried to comfort his banished son with Stoic platitudes, telling him to imagine his exile as “a travel that thou tak'st for pleasure,” or, better yet, “think not the king did banish thee, / But thou the king” (I.iii.262, 279-80). While Gaunt's words were perfectly innocent, Bolingbroke may have been thinking as much all along.7

Still, in their dealings with one another, Bolingbroke comes off looking much better than Richard does. Whether Bolingbroke is innocently pursuing justice or deviously pursuing the throne, Richard is still a murderer and a thief. And if Shakespeare allows and perhaps even encourages us to think well of Bolingbroke, he makes no attempt to justify Richard's behavior. This is not to say that it cannot be justified.

In Richard's defense, Gloucester had to be killed. While Gaunt refers to his brother as a “plain, well-meaning soul” (II.i.128), the historical Gloucester was nothing of the kind.8 Holinshed describes him as “fierce of nature, hasty, wilful … and in this greatly to be discomended, that he was ever repining against the king in all things.”9 Gloucester more or less ran the country during Richard's minority. He was extremely popular and Hume describes him as “a prince of ambition and genius.”10 But when Richard was grown, Gloucester didn't want to relinquish his power, and during a period when his faction gained the upper hand against Richard's, he killed most of the king's partisans. For this, Hume labels him “the inexorable tyrant.”11 According to Froissart, Gloucester tried to get Richard's heir, Roger Mortimer, to declare Gloucester king, and when Mortimer refused, he planned to depose Richard and partition the kingdom between himself, his two brothers, and the Earl of Arundel. It was in response to news of this plot that Richard had him arrested and imprisoned, with the full concurrence of Gloucester's brothers, Gaunt and York. Richard had little choice in the matter. As Hume notes, he “saw that either his own ruin or that of Gloucester was inevitable.”12

Richard's treatment of Bolingbroke, first in banishing him and next in destroying his power base in England,13 is motivated by the same fear. Richard suspects that Bolingbroke is after his job from the moment he accuses Mowbray. His suspicions are confirmed when he observes Bolingbroke's behavior as he departs for exile in France:

Ourself and Bushy
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 with 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.


On Richard's view, Bolingbroke is brazenly campaigning for his job. And while he is clearly disgusted by Bolingbroke's behavior here, I think he is also impressed by, and perhaps envious of, his talents as a campaigner.

A number of respectable critics, however, dismiss Richard's fears as paranoid and insist that Bolingbroke has no intention of dethroning the king either when he brings up Gloucester's death or when he decides to return early from banishment. According to this view, Bolingbroke is

… borne upward by a power beyond his volition. He is made the first mover of trouble in the matter of the tournament and he wants to do something about Woodstock's [i.e., Gloucester's] murder. But he has no steady policy and having once set events in motion is the servant of fortune.14

Palmer adds a twist to this line of argument by suggesting that Bolingbroke is consciously unconscious (or some such thing) of his aims:

Bolingbroke … is the most dangerous of all climbing politicians, the man who will go further than his rivals because he never allows himself to know where he is going. Every step in his progress towards the throne is dictated by circumstances and he never permits himself to have a purpose till it is more than half fulfilled. From first to last his friends and enemies alike are always more clearly aware of his intentions than the man himself.15

Palmer seems to equate not revealing one's purpose with lacking a purpose altogether. The poet Daniel, one of Shakespeare's possible sources for this play, gives Bolingbroke more credit: “he seems not t'affect that which he did affect.”16

While Bolingbroke's accusation of Mowbray is presented as an attempt to avenge the murder of his uncle, “there is no particular [historical] evidence of close affection between Bolingbroke and Gloucester.”17 Of course, one doesn't need a special motive to desire to punish the murderer of one's kin, but it turns out that Bolingbroke isn't even certain that Mowbray killed his uncle. Much later in the play, when he is about to ascend the throne, Bolingbroke reopens the Gloucester case before Parliament, asking Richard's aide Bagot “what thou dost know of noble Gloucester's death, / Who wrought it with the king, and who perform'd / The bloody office of his timeless end” (IV.i.3-5). Presumably, Bolingbroke already knows the answer: he accused Mowbray and was willing to kill him in a trial by combat. But Bagot and most of those present accuse Aumerle (even Mowbray is said to have fingered Aumerle), and Bolingbroke, who may well know he's dead, repeals Mowbray's banishment so that he and Aumerle can settle the matter in a trial by combat. Bolingbroke never does make any attempt to identify and punish the real killer.18 Once he is crowned king, the whole affair is forgotten. When Bolingbroke first accused Mowbray, he had to know that everyone would take it as a covert indictment of Richard. When he brings up Gloucester's murder a second time, he explicitly implicates Richard—“who wrought it with the king [?]” The simplest explanation is that on both occasions, Bolingbroke is seeking to undermine Richard and advance himself.

As I noted above, Richard suspects that Bolingbroke's behavior as he departs to serve his sentence of banishment is a self-serving attempt to bolster his own popularity. In a private conversation with his son in 1 Henry IV, Bolingbroke admits as much. Recalling his departure for exile, Bolingbroke confesses that he was shamelessly campaigning for Richard's position:

And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress'd myself up in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned King.

(1HIV III.ii.50-54)

The departure scene appears to have been but one element in a larger effort by Bolingbroke to enhance his popular standing. Earlier in his lecture, while comparing his degenerate son Hal to Richard, King Henry shares another of his strategies for cultivating public opinion:

Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession [i.e., to Richard],
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.

(1HIV III.ii.39-45)

In his attempt to carve out an appealing public image, Bolingbroke played the regal part that Richard so neglected: “[t]hus did I keep my person fresh and new, / My presence, like a robe pontifical, / Ne'er seen but wonder'd at …” (III.ii.55-57). But as Richard observed and Henry confirms, this actor-king is not above seducing the commonest of the people. While Richard is both common and contemptuous of the commons, a playboy as well as a snob, Bolingbroke will be both remote and solicitous of the commons. Were one casting the role of divine right king, Bolingbroke would win the part easily.

Those critics who argue that Bolingbroke had no preconcerted designs on the crown when he accused Mowbray also take him at his word when he announces, upon returning to England, that “I come but for mine own” (III.iii.196). Much of the evidence for Bolingbroke's innocence centers on his supposed swearing of an oath that he does not seek Richard's position. As Northumberland tells Richard,

Harry Bolingbroke, doth humbly kiss thy hand;
And by the honorable tomb he swears,
.....His coming hither hath no further scope
Than for his lineal royalties, and to beg
Infranchisement immediate on his knees,
.....This, swears he as he is a prince and just.

(III.iii.104-105, 112-14, 119)

But as Herford correctly points out, “Bolingbroke has in fact given no pledge and taken no oath. Northumberland seeks merely to get possession of Richard, without committing his chief.”19 But Northumberland's claim takes on a life of its own and is repeated by his son, Hotspur, and his brother, the Earl of Worcester, in 1 Henry IV.20 Because Bolingbroke never swears an oath on stage in Richard II, we have only the word of Northumberland, and in Henry IV, of Worcester and Hotspur, none of whom ought to be trusted. In Richard II, Northumberland wants to replace Richard, and in 1 Henry IV, Worcester and Hotspur want to replace Henry—they all have good reasons to lie. So, for that matter, does Bolingbroke. If he did swear an oath, why should one believe him? His actions seem to be a reasonably sure indication of his intentions, and soon after he returns from exile, he, not Richard, is king.

The evidence that Bolingbroke seeks only his patrimony does not, however, rely exclusively on the hearsay of untrustworthy witnesses. In 2 Henry IV, the king himself explicitly denies ever having had designs on the crown:

When Richard, with his eye brimful of tears,
Then check'd and rated by Northumberland,
Did speak these words, now prov'd a prophecy?
“Northumberland, thou ladder by the which
My cousin Bolingbroke ascends my throne”
(Though then, God knows, I had no such intent
But that necessity so bowed the state
That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss)

(2HIV III.i.67-74)

This is the most compelling evidence in favor of Bolingbroke's innocence. But his memory here is both self-serving and faulty, for when Richard spoke these words to Northumberland (RII V.i.55-56), Henry was already king and had just ordered Richard imprisoned. And Henry's explicit denial must be balanced against equally explicit admissions. In the private conversation with his son referred to above, Henry says that “[w]hen I from France set foot at Ravenspurgh, / … even as I was then is Percy now” (1HIV III.ii.95-96). In other words, like Hotspur in 1 Henry IV, Bolingbroke in Richard II was engaged in a military effort to remove the sitting king. On his deathbed, Henry IV offers a general confession about his rise to power, making it clear that where Richard was concerned, he was up to no good: “God knows, my son / By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways / I met this crown … It seem'd in me / But as an honour snatch'd with boist'rous hand …” (2HIV IV.v.183-85, 190-91).

But one needn't even take Henry's (unstable) word. A close reading of act 2, scene 1 shows that Bolingbroke begins to sail back to England from France before his father dies and thus before his estate has been seized, putting him in the odd position of returning to claim what hasn't yet been taken. Even if Shakespeare mistakenly botched the timing, it is difficult to reconcile Bolingbroke's innocence with the fact that Northumberland, who will serve as Bolingbroke's primary ally in unseating Richard, has “intelligence” of his imminent arrival—“[w]ith eight tall ships” and “three thousand men of war” (II.i.278, 286)—that he shares with his newly recruited fellow conspirators. Northumberland tells them that Bolingbroke may well be anchored off the coast right now, awaiting “the first departing of the king for Ireland” (II.i.290).21 It sounds as though arrangements have been made. When Bolingbroke does arrive, the Northumberland faction treats him with a deference befitting a king22 and he twice promises them financial reward for their loyalty.

Harold Goddard thinks that

[t]he naive reader, encountering this play for the first time, is inclined to give Henry the benefit of the doubt and think that he came back to England from his banishment merely to recover his inheritance, not with an eye on the crown. But no one can believe that for a second when he reads the rest of the story.23

But a number of critics, who could hardly be called naive readers, do give Bolingbroke the benefit of the doubt, and they are provided with some textual justification in doing so. It almost seems as though Shakespeare has written two scripts about Bolingbroke's rise to power, one in which he is a well-meaning patriot who reluctantly becomes king on the encouragement of others, and only after Richard has consistently abused his power, and another in which he is an ambitious rival of the king who will seize any opportunity to advance his long-standing quest for the kingship. I hope to have made it clear that the latter script describes the real Bolingbroke; but the former script is more obviously available to the reader of the play, and provides a kind of cover for the subterranean ambition that ultimately drives Bolingbroke. But why would Shakespeare want to provide Bolingbroke with cover?

Of course, Bolingbroke provides his own cover, making sure that all of his power-plays can be plausibly interpreted as something else. But Shakespeare is an accomplice of sorts in Bolingbroke's project, for he does not give us any information that might help justify Richard's behavior or cause us to sympathize with his plight.24 He allows us to see Bolingbroke in the best light while encouraging us to see Richard in the worst. He tells us nothing about the quarrelsome history of Richard's reign, which is the story of a legitimate boy-king constantly under assault by powerful and ambitious adults.25 Richard comes to sight in this play not as a young king who has finally achieved some independence only to be challenged again by a man with no claim to the throne, but rather as a murderer and a thief. Shakespeare manipulates things in such a way that we are led to ask about the relative fitness of Richard and Bolingbroke to rule, and to forget about the fact that Richard is legitimate and Bolingbroke is not. The simplest explanation for Shakespeare's favoritism is that he thinks Bolingbroke deserves to be king.

If this is indeed the case, then Shakespeare must approve of the ambition, however well concealed, that carries Bolingbroke to power. But perhaps I have made Bolingbroke out to be more cynical and single-minded than he really is. His motives for seeking the crown may be more complicated than a singular desire for power for its own sake. Bolingbroke's stated aims in challenging Richard—avenging Gloucester's murder and recovering his patrimony—are, after all, unobjectionable, even praiseworthy. And they needn't be seen merely as cover for his grander ambition. Bolingbroke may, in other words, desire to be king because he thinks he would be a better, more just king than Richard is. His ambition could be seen to complement and carry into effect a concern for England's welfare that is shared by many others too timid to do anything about it. Commenting on Gaunt's passive reaction to his brother's murder, Allan Bloom notes that “if Gaunts are the subjects, the rulers will be Richards.”26


Bolingbroke will depose and murder King Richard, and Shakespeare seems to want us to believe that Richard's fate is both necessary and deserved—necessary because he is unable to prevent it, deserved because he is a terrible king. Richard's fate, simply put, is a direct consequence of his belief in his divine right to rule, which causes him to abuse his power and renders him unable to maintain it.

According to Bloom, “there can be little doubt that Shakespeare teaches us that Richard is a sort of legitimate tyrant who deserves to be deposed.”27 Not everyone agrees. E. M. W. Tillyard, one of the most influential critics of the Histories in the last fifty years, argues that “in doctrine the play is entirely orthodox. Shakespeare knows that Richard's crimes never amounted to tyranny and hence that outright rebellion against him was a crime.”28 Hume says that the historical Bolingbroke concocted charges against Richard so parliament could depose him for his “pretended tyranny.”29 But if no tyrant, Hume's Richard, who bears a striking resemblance to Shakespeare's Richard, is certainly characterized as an irresponsible, frivolous, and corrupt king:

Indolent, profuse, addicted to low pleasures, he spent his whole time in feasting and jollity, and dissipated, in idle show or in bounties to favourites of no reputation, that revenue which the people expected to see him employ in enterprises directed to public honor and advantage.30

Perhaps the term “tyrant” is technically inappropriate for a legitimate king. But if one means by the term the absolute rule of one man in the interests of himself alone, then Richard certainly fits the bill.

Richard, as noted above, refers to his subjects as “slaves” (I.iv.27). By this he means not merely that they lack political rights, an unexceptional view at the time, but that, in a loose sense, he owns them: what they produce is more or less his for the taking. Besides a high tax burden (II.i.246-48), Richard devised a number of creative ways to fill the royal coffers, most of which involved extortion and some simple theft.31 In one of his more outrageous fund-raising schemes, Richard issued “blank charters” (I.iv.49), blank checks extorted from wealthy subjects to be filled in and cashed at the king's convenience. We first hear about all this when Richard, trying to finance a military campaign against the Irish rebels, appropriates the estate of the recently deceased Gaunt. But as Northumberland points out, Richard's behavior cannot be excused on the grounds of military necessity: “more hath he spent in peace than they [his predecessors] in war” (II.i.255). The king himself admits as much: “our coffers, with too great a court / And liberal largess, are grown somewhat light” (I.iv.44-45). Court life under Richard is opulent and corrupt. He maintains three thousand personal servants and according to York, listens only to flattery and “lascivious meters,” to reports of the latest Italian fashions and any sort of “vanity”—“so it be new, there's no respect how vile” (II.i.19, 24-25). Bolingbroke hints that the sexual escapades at court are less than respectable—Richard apparently entertains his “advisors,” Bushy and Greene, who in their “… sinful hours, / Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him, / Broke the possession of a royal bed” (III.i.11-13). On Bolingbroke's view, at least, Richard resembles a Roman despot, ruling England for the benefit of a fashionable, party-going homosexual clique. Northumberland calls Richard a “most degenerate king!,” Gaunt tags him an “unstaid youth,” York a “young hot colt” (II.i.262, 2, 70). Characterizing the general tenor of Richard's reign, Gaunt says “his rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last. / For violent fires soon burn out themselves” (II.i.33-34). The most persistent charge against Richard (made by Gaunt, York, Bolingbroke, and Northumberland) is that he allows himself to be misled by self-interested court flatterers and listens to no one else. He is never characterized as anything other than frivolous, vain, depraved, and corrupt. He doesn't even pretend to be concerned with the public good.

Bolingbroke wants to replace Richard not so much because he murdered Gloucester, but because he murdered Gloucester in order to remain the kind of king he is. Bolingbroke's tireless campaign against Richard as the murderer-king is something of a pretext, for Bolingbroke surely knows that Richard had to deal decisively with Gloucester in order to save himself. But the charge of murder is sensational and generally believed to be true, which provides Bolingbroke with a perfect opening against this spoiled and despoiling king.

Strangely enough, Richard would admit to both charges while calling them different names—he is not spoiled but divinely elected, not despoiling but exercising his royal prerogative. Richard has no idea that he is doing anything wrong. He is an unselfconscious despot, utterly lacking the notion that he is getting away with something. He is simultaneously cavalier and naive, corrupt and innocent. As Jensen points out, Richard's curious political style is a direct consequence of his belief in his divine right to rule, which sometimes veers towards a belief in his divinity simply:

Believing that he is spared the exertions of ordinary mortals, he shirks his duty to cultivate order in his own life and in his realm. His affectation of divinity essentially amounts to a wanton dereliction or neglect, an infamous evasion of responsibility toward himself and what is rightfully his own. Indolent beyond measure, as if every day were a holiday, Richard immerses himself completely in an edenic freedom from every toil and care.32

Like the extravagant Roman emperors or the Renaissance popes, Richard is somehow divine while remaining fanatically devoted to earthly pleasures. But unlike his dictatorial counterparts, Richard lacks political savvy. He hasn't a clue how to stay in power. As we shall see, this too is directly related to his belief in his divine right to rule.

There is a large body of critical opinion about Shakespeare's treatment of divine right in Richard II,33 most of it concerned either with Shakespeare's own belief in the doctrine or with the historical justification for portraying Richard as a divine right king. While a surprising number of critics—Tillyard, for example—see Shakespeare as a believer in divine right, the logic of the play demonstrates rather clearly that he was not: Richard's faults, his very character, spring from his belief in his divine right to rule, and Shakespeare teaches in this play that Richard is unworthy of the throne. On the question of whether it is historically accurate to associate Richard with divine right, commentators and historians disagree. Hart argues that treating Richard as a divine right king is anachronistic;34 Figgis speculates that Richard may in fact have claimed divine sanction to rule even though a full-blown doctrine had not yet been enunciated and systematically disseminated.35 Black argues that the historical evidence supporting Shakespeare's portrait of Richard was not available to Shakespeare.36 The most interesting and conspiratorial speculations have Shakespeare projecting Tudor ideas of kingship into the past (where they can be safely criticized), characterizing Queen Elizabeth in the guise of King Richard. There are many similarities between the reigns of the two monarchs, and Queen Elizabeth is reported to have said in a conversation about Shakespeare's play, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”37 The deposition scene in Richard II was censored during Elizabeth's lifetime and the Earl of Essex, who fancied himself a Bolingbroke to Elizabeth's Richard, had Richard II staged for his supporters on the eve of his (unsuccessful) rebellion against the queen. But one can find many parallels between Shakespeare's history plays and contemporary political events—e.g., Elizabeth, like Shakespeare's King John, was excommunicated by the pope—and positing a one-to-one correspondence between Shakespeare's Richard and Queen Elizabeth does not do justice to the scope of his dramas. As Palmer points out, “Shakespeare was no more responsible for the scandal caused in London by his Richard II in 1601 than for the scandal caused in Paris by his Coriolanus in 1935. He had written in each case a political play recognizably true of any period for the kind of situation and the type of public persons presented.”38 We can probably never know Shakespeare's exact intentions in treating divine right somewhat before its time in this play. But he does treat it here, and his criticisms are no less valid because they are historically precocious.

Divine right presents the curious combination of the highest political principles with the lowest practical result. A politics founded on the goodness and wisdom of God becomes the basis for the most arbitrary and pernicious tyranny, arbitrary because the ruler is accountable only to a being whose will cannot be known,39 and pernicious because the gulf between the lofty promise of divinity and the actual king can be, and is in the case of Richard, so enormous. The divine right king is not responsible to the people or to some principle that can be clearly discerned. He is a tyrant in the precise sense, responsible to no one but himself. He is supposedly responsible to God, but it is always unclear just what God wants and, as a practical matter, what the king wants, for whatever reason or fancy, can be explained away as God's will. When the interpretation of God's will is left to one man and cannot be verified by any other man, the king is free to play God himself. And when one is allowed to play God, the results are not hard to predict: enemies are punished and passions are indulged. Nothing prevents a divine right king from using his extraordinary powers to do good, but nothing constrains him either. The Bishop of Carlisle gives the briefest statement of the perfect insularity divine right affords the king: “what subject can give sentence on his king? / And who sits here that is not Richard's subject?” (IV.i.121-22).

Well, Bolingbroke, apparently, for one. And Northumberland for another. Carlisle's defense of Richard here is academic, coming when the end is clearly in view. But the necessity of Richard's demise has been apparent for some time, and can be traced to his wide-eyed belief in his divine right to rule. The king's confidence that he is divinely ordained, perhaps even somehow divine himself, is deep-rooted and literal, blinding him to the need for the most elementary political precautions. Richard's politics is indistinguishable from his faith in the God who supports his rule, a faith that sometimes seems comically childish. In one instance, Richard addresses the earth itself, calling on God's unarmed and non-human creations to assist him in thwarting Bolingbroke's rebellion:

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


To counter Bolingbroke's armed revolt, Richard relies on angels (“if angels fight, / Weak men must fall”), his name (“is not the king's name worth twenty thousand names? / Arm, arm, my name!”), and finally, on York's nonexistent army (III.ii.61-62, 85-86).

While the Bishop of Carlisle is a staunch proponent of divine right, he does not believe that anointment obviates the need for political action: “The means that heaven yields,” he counsels Richard, “must be imbrac'd / And not neglected” (III.ii.29-30). Aumerle is more direct:

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


In an extraordinary rebuttal, which is meant to assure Carlisle and Aumerle rather than himself, Richard again reveals his supreme confidence that his divine authority alone will save him:

… know'st thou not
That when the searching eye of heaven is hid
Behind the globe and lights the lower world,
Then thieves and robbers range abroad unseen
In murthers and outrage boldly here;
But when from under this terrestrial ball
He fires the proud tops of the Eastern pines,
And darts his light through every guilty hole,
Then murthers, treasons, and detested sins,
The cloak of night being pluck'd from off their backs,
Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves?
So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,
Who all this while hath revell'd in the night
Whilst we were wand'ring with the Antipodes,
Shall see us rising in our throne the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.


Richard believes that the mere sight of himself will shame any traitor into submission. Walter Pater comments that “the sense of ‘divine right’ in kings is found to act not so much as a secret power over others, as of infatuation to themselves.”40 Pater is surely right about Richard's self-infatuation, but he underestimates Richard's hold over others. Earlier in the play, as we will recall, Gaunt was convinced both that Richard murdered his brother and that nothing could possibly be done about it because Richard acted for God. Even while he is witnessing Richard's political destruction, York is mesmerized by the king's authoritative presence:

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!


And Carlisle, who objects to Bolingbroke's crowning in Richard's absence—

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


—thinks the very sight of Richard might still be enough to dissuade the usurper and his supporters. Richard's power over his subjects is considerable. But that power does not extend to Bolingbroke, who is armed and ambitious, and, perhaps more importantly, seems to dismiss the views of his father and Carlisle and York as “nothing more than pious myths.”41

Arms, Machiavelli teaches, have a way of making “believers” of those inclined to disbelieve.42 Had Richard been as concerned with English arms as he was with Italian fashions, Bolingbroke probably wouldn't have stood a chance against him. He may not even have challenged him in the first place. Richard wastes the enormous prestige conferred upon him by political tradition, instead assisting in his own deposition by relying almost exclusively on a God that seems to have no influence over Bolingbroke. Richard's passivity may seem odd considering the political skills he demonstrated earlier in the play. He was quick to discern Bolingbroke's intentions toward him and handled the Gloucester affair reasonably well. He did not rely on nettles and toads to put down the Irish rebels. But in both instances, Richard was reacting. He does not anticipate challenges and order his affairs to prevent them. He does not cultivate the people's affection or fear or reverence, content to let his title do all of the work. He makes no attempt to curb his lavish lifestyle or in any way to justify his rule. But this, I think, is Shakespeare's point: he doesn't know that he has to. His instinct for political survival is softened by his belief in the very doctrine that was designed to assure his survival. When he meets a true challenge, he is so surprised and unequipped to defend himself that he seeks refuge in a fantasy world where angels come to his rescue. In short, Richard falls to Bolingbroke because he has fallen for himself.


At least half of Richard II concerns itself with Richard's attempts to understand the meaning of his deposition and his suffering. Uninspired as a ruler, Richard comes alive once his kingship is lost. In the chronicling of his suffering, Shakespeare provides Richard with some of the most arresting lines in English literature. As numerous critics have pointed out, Richard is a better poet than a politician.

When it is clear that his fall is only a matter of time, Richard professes contentment with his fate:

Say, is my kingdom lost? why, 'twas my care,
And what loss is it to be rid of care?


What must the king do now? Must he submit?
The king shall do it. Must he be depos'd?
The king shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of king? a God's name, let it go.
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads;
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown;
My figur'd 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 …


Richard's grandiose language betrays something more than simple contentment or even resignation. If he must fall, Richard will not go quietly. Lacking an army, he defends himself with poetry, singing songs about himself that he hopes others will sing long after he is dead. Richard becomes the composer of his own tragedy:

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings


In winter's tedious nights sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid good night, to quite their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal-black,
For the deposing of a rightful king.

(V.i.40-45, 49-50)

Because he has wandered through life pursuing frivolous diversions and because he believes he will not be allowed to live much longer, Richard spends little time reflecting on how he could have avoided deposition and on assigning blame. Consequently, his political ruminations are not particularly coherent or revealing. He blames the people for his fall only once, when his queen, frustrated by his docility, challenges him to act like a man:

… and wilt thou, pupil-like,
Take thy correction mildly, kiss the rod,
And fawn on rage with base humility,
Which art a lion and the king of beasts?
A king of beasts indeed—if aught but beasts,
I had still been a happy king of men.


Richard probably means here that if men were not beasts, if they were at all reverent, they would never have challenged his authority. Beasts do not recognize God; they have no feeling for the sacred. In the realm that beasts inhabit, brute force alone rules, and Richard is a casualty of such force.

For the most part, Richard blames himself for his fall. He says at one point that “we must [do] what force will have us do” (III.iii.207), but he usually insists that his resignation is somehow voluntary and thus never really learns the lesson of the army:

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths …


Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself,
I find myself a traitor with the rest.
For I have given here my soul's consent
T'undeck the pompous body of a king;
Made glory base, and sovereignty a slave;
Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant.


Richard does admit that he was a bad manager who was badly managed. He finds himself “wanting” when it comes to the “manage of unruly jades” (i.e., his nobles) and he sees, too late, what others continually warned him about, that he allowed himself to be misled by flatterers:

O villains, vipers, damn'd without redemption!
Dogs, easily won to fawn on any man!


O flatt'ring glass,
Like my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me.


Richard also gives credit, with a hint of admiration, to Bolingbroke:

Well you deserve. They well deserve to have
That know the strong'st and surest way to get.


Is this the face which fac'd so many follies,
That was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?


Significantly, Richard never blames God, but only himself for failing God: “our holy lives must win a new world's crown, / Which our profane hours here have thrown down” (V.i.24-5). But his self-blame is not evidence of a new-found self-reliance. The fact that he never questions God's role in his defeat shows that Richard is truly and tragically devoted to a God who will not spare him.

Richard is more interested in who he is if he is not king than in the reasons for his fall. When he is stripped of his title, Richard feels stripped of his very being and wonders, for the first time in his life, just who he is:

I have no name, no title;
No, not that name was given me at the font
But 'tis usurp'd. Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself!


At one point, Richard seems to have discovered that he is just a man, like any other man—that he is not sacred after all:

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; 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?


But he apparently is not convinced of his ordinariness and compares himself on three separate occasions to the most famous martyr, Jesus Christ. Richard's mistaken belief that his “unkinging” was voluntary fits well with the extraordinary role he understands himself to be playing. He even engages in a little one-upmanship:

Yet I well remember
The favours of these men. Were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry “All hail!” to me?
So Judas did to Christ. But he, in twelve,
Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none.


Richard's answers to the question, “who am I if I am not king?” are multiple: nothing, just a man, a martyr comparable to Christ. He never settles on a single answer, but I suspect the following lines best capture his self-understanding:

God save the king! although I be not he;
And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me.


Richard cannot really think of himself as anything other than king and while he has some doubts about his special relationship to heaven, he is usually willing to give himself the benefit of those doubts.

Richard's identity crisis is interesting in itself and, as demonstrated above, the occasion for stunning poetry. It is also politically instructive, another way of showing Richard's disastrous reliance on God, which springs from an inability to distinguish the man from the title, and results in a failure to manipulate the machinery designed to enhance his rule. In one way, Richard surely does act like a man, indulging himself in worldly pleasures. Or, if he acts like a god, he acts like a pagan god—but he neglects to employ the thunderbolts that sustain their sensual lifestyles. Richard is a political failure, finally, because he does not use the tremendous power available to him.

In his final “prison soliloquy,” Richard tries once again to make some sense of what has happened to him. He seems finally willing to let go of his illusions about himself, but fails to gain any political insights. Imagining the various kinds of life available to men, Richard finds them all problematic. The Christian life, guided by hope for the afterlife, the political life of earthly ambition, and the Stoic life, which strives for contentment with one's lot, each somehow touch Richard's situation. He was a Christian king deposed by an ambitious man and he has professed, at times, to be content with his misfortune.

Consistent with the aspirations of the age in which he lives, Richard takes the Christian alternative to be the highest, “the better sort” (V.v.11). But a life lived in hopes of the afterlife is subject to doubts and uncertainties—“… thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd / With scruples …” (V.v.12-13). Our doubts are encouraged by the Bible itself, which asks us to follow Christ but then tells us that our efforts may not be rewarded:

“Come, little ones”; and then again,
“It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle's eye.”


The uncertainty of heavenly reward is neither sufficient nor particularly comforting for a man nearing death, especially one who may well have some doubts about his deservingness.

The uncertain rewards of a pious life make Richard wonder whether leading the Christian life is worth the effort. Piety and morality are apparently not their own rewards. The natural alternative to otherworldly hopes are thisworldly hopes or the life of earthly ambition. But our ambitions, Richard concludes, are resisted by a world which rarely conforms to our desires. Our hopes are greater than our chances of success:

Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders: how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage thorough the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls;
And for they cannot, die in their own pride.


While Richard refers here to his own impossible situation, he may derive some consolation in the thought that Bolingbroke, since “pride must have a fall,” will also meet resistance in “this hard world” (V.v.88).

The first two hope-confounding alternatives lead Richard to the third and last alternative, a life lived without hope and thus without disappointment:

Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune's slaves,
Nor shall not be the last—like silly beggars
Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have indur'd the like.


This is the Stoic alternative, and it points, more generally, to the life devoted to philosophy, to sober observation and the detached acceptance of what is. Shakespeare takes this alternative at least as seriously as the others. Three of his plays feature a philosopher-hero (Prospero in The Tempest, the Duke in Measure for Measure, and Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida), and in the history plays, the invented character of Falstaff has something of the philosopher about him, although Falstaff is hardly stoic and rarely sober. The philosophic alternative is fundamentally different than the others. The religious and political alternatives are both governed by faith or hopefulness, and are dependent on chance or fortune or the will of God. The philosophic life, however, is self-sufficient: detached observation is its own reward and is independent of the vagaries of fortune. Richard denies neither of these statements, but he implies that the philosophic life does not provide much of a reward and that it is a last resort, turned to only in misfortune.43 It would not be chosen, or even contemplated, in the first place because human beings are above all hopeful creatures, ever confident that God will recognize and smile upon their efforts. Contentment with misfortune is nearly impossible to achieve because our thoughts tend to turn, as Richard's do now, to the time before disaster struck, which in turn reminds us of how we were robbed of our happiness. Misfortune calls forth not contentment, but a cruel cycle of nostalgia and despair:

Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again, and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing.


Richard ends, appropriately enough considering his situation, utterly hopeless and desirous of death: “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” (V.v.38-41). Richard concludes that there is no satisfaction except in annihilation, that only nothingness is without contradiction.

Thus Richard rejects the lives of piety and ambition because they are illusory or as likely as not to end in failure, and the philosophic life because it is “beggarly” and ignoble—merely making the best of a bad situation. But this is precisely what Richard is doing here: he is preparing himself for death, which is arguably the worst situation of all. Unawares, Richard opts in the end for the beggarly or philosophic alternative. He moves from false hope to no hope, a movement prompted by his earlier failure to entertain the reasonable hope—grasped by popes and cleverer politicians and taught by Machiavelli—that religion could be employed self-consciously for political ends. Richard never understands divine right. Or, he understands it as a subject might and not as a ruler should.

Moments before he is murdered, in what has been called “one of the saddest lines in Shakespeare,”44 Richard finally takes a kind of responsibility for his demise: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me …” (V.v.49). Richard may be referring here not only to the loss of his kingship but, more generally, to the frivolous way he conducted his life. It is for this, and not the fact of his deposition, that we ought to feel sorry for Richard. By the end of the play, one tends to forget that there was nothing about Richard the king that engaged our sympathies. Shakespeare may even have intended to provoke our forgetfulness. As the history plays continue, the English people themselves will forget Richard's crimes and resurrect him, as he would have hoped, as a kind of martyr, a model of simpler times when legitimacy and succession were matters only of the proper heredity and when a king spoke for God.


With no claim whatsoever to the throne, Bolingbroke deposed, replaced, and murdered God's chosen ruler. Remarkably, his audacious feat comes off like a non-event.45 This is due in part to the fact that while Richard was tolerated and his title respected, he was an unpopular king who inspired little loyalty or love—and a good deal of loathing—outside of his small circle of dependents. Furthermore, Bolingbroke makes every effort to lend his power-play a legal veneer, characterizing Richard's fall as a voluntary abdication, and concocting a (fanciful) hereditary claim to the throne. And because he spent years coaxing the English public to view him as king-like, Bolingbroke slides comfortably into his new role. His rise to power was gradual and engineered so deftly that his crowning seems both unanticipated and inevitable. Commenting on Bolingbroke's lack of a conventional claim to the throne, Hume says that Bolingbroke was crowned king, “nobody could tell how or wherefore.”46 It is a testimony to his political skills that few appear to care.

The divine right claim that Richard leaned on so heavily to sustain himself presents the new king with less of a problem than might have been expected. Both the language of divine right and the sentiment behind it are transferred, at least initially, to Bolingbroke. Success apparently has a religious quality. Bolingbroke himself sets the tone upon being “offered” the kingship: “[i]n God's name I'll ascend the regal throne” (IV.i.113). Later, the Duchess of York refers to King Henry as “a God on earth” (V.iii.134).47 The Duke of York, who supported Richard until the end, sees a divine hand in the popular response to the king's defeat, and seems willing to accept Bolingbroke as God's new representative on earth:

… men's eyes
Did scowl on Richard. No man cried “God save him!”
No joyful tongue gave him welcome home,
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head;
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combatting tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience,
That had not God for some strong purpose steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted,
And barbarism itself have pitied him.
But heaven hath a hand in these events,
To whose high will we bound our calm contents.
To Bolingbroke are we sworn subjects now,
Whose state and honour I for aye allow.


These last lines are a paraphrase of Holinshed, who says in regard to the fall of Richard and the rise of Bolingbroke that “in the dejecting of the one and the advancing of the other, the prudence of God is to be respected, and his secret will to be wondered at.”48 It is perhaps unsurprising that a populace accustomed to interpreting political events as reflecting God's will should interpret this event in the same way. The people's belief in a politically active God serves Bolingbroke well. He was wise never to have attacked divine right directly, for it appears to sanctify the usurper as well as the heir.

But if Bolingbroke tries—and in the beginning succeeds—to portray himself as a continuing part of England's political tradition, Shakespeare makes it quite clear that Bolingbroke's break with the past is fundamental and, in the long run, impossible to obscure. In an elaborate conceit which compares the state of England to the Garden of Eden, and likens Richard's fall to the Fall of man from innocence, Shakespeare suggests that Bolingbroke has undermined the foundation of political legitimacy in England.

Strolling in York's garden, Richard's queen overhears a political conversation between two gardeners, who attribute Richard's fall to a simple and correctable ignorance of political science:

… our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok'd up,
Her fruit-trees all unpruned, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars …(49)
Hath seiz'd the wasteful king. O, what a pity it is
That he had not so trimm'd and dress'd his land
As we this garden!
.....Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

(III.iv.43-47, 54-57, 65-66)

Good government, the gardeners argue, is a ruler's best security; well-tended subjects do not revolt. But good government alone is not sufficient. One must also be quick to recognize and deal decisively with ambitious rivals:

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.


The gardeners diagnose Richard as suffering from a severe case of imprudence, “ascrib[ing] to an absence of art,” Bloom says, “what others understand to be a result of God's will and men's sins.” In what seems to be an outright admission that politics doesn't concern him, Richard confirms their diagnosis:

Revolt our subjects? that we cannot mend;
They break their faith to God as well as us.


“One cannot help,” Bloom continues, “being reminded of Prince XXV, where Machiavelli interprets what men call fortune or God's action in politics as a lack of prudence or foresight. Floods, he says, injure men not because they are sinners but because they did not build dams.”50

If the gardeners' analysis seems commonsensical, even pedestrian, one must remember that in medieval England, laborers are not in the habit of subjecting legitimate kings to rational scrutiny. King's are born, not elected; they are chosen by God, not men. Richard's authority is conferred by tradition, and in order to endure, tradition must be accepted on its face. Once reverence for tradition is replaced by rational scrutiny—why this incompetent king?—the whole edifice upon which Richard's authority is based falls apart. In the guise of offering Richard advice, the gardeners have deprived him of his reason for political existence. Representing the traditional view, Richard's queen acuses the gardeners of political heresy, which, given the source of Richard's authority, is identical to religious heresy. Criticizing Richard is a sin:

Thou, old Adam's likeness set to dress this garden,
How dares thy rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?
What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested [tempted] thee
To make a second fall of cursed man?


The queen's comparison might seem like hysterical exaggeration until one considers that Bolingbroke really has tempted a nation to defy God.

But Shakespeare does not, I think, share the queen's apocalyptic interpretation of her husband's fate. Richard's “garden” was no paradise. And Bolingbroke is a better man who is almost sure to be a better king. Perhaps the fall from political innocence should be seen not as a cause for regret, but as a liberation from a harmful myth that sustained a tyrant. But as Shakespeare will show us, this is not the end of the story. The rupture in political consensus caused by Bolingbroke's victory will have long-term effects, setting in motion violent struggles for political power that will last for generations. After the Fall comes Cain.

While Shakespeare presents Bolingbroke as a radical political innovator, it's not at all clear just how innovative Bolingbroke understands himself to be. I have argued that Bolingbroke is a self-conscious usurper, but whether he sees himself as something much more than that is difficult to say. Because we are not privy in this play to Bolingbroke's most private thoughts, gauging his intentions is a tricky business. He does not present himself as a radical innovator (he doesn't, for that matter, present himself as a usurper), but rather positions himself as a continuing part of England's political tradition. He never criticizes the principle of hereditary succession, and spends a good deal of his reign grooming his troublesome eldest son to succeed him. Neither does he criticize divine right. But the fact that Bolingbroke does not present himself as a radical innovator does not mean that he isn't one and that he doesn't understand himself to be one. I think, however, that Henry's actions at the end of this play and throughout the two history plays that bear his name suggest that he is confused about what he has done and at times still under the sway of the political tradition he violated. Bolingbroke may be an unwitting revolutionary.

After murdering Richard, Bolingbroke's quiet self-assurance gives way to the question that will haunt him for the remainder of his life: what have I done? By the end of the play, the man who became king by defying God appears to have become religious:

Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.
.....I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.

(, 49-50)

As Bloom points out, Henry is “split”:

He cannot bear to face the possibility that the sin of Cain, as Machiavelli teaches, may play a role in the establishment of earthly justice. In deposing Richard he was halfway to the realization that he was committing a crime but that such crimes are sometimes necessary for the common good. However, so strong is his faith or his fear of hell-fire, he prefers to brand himself a guilty man and cripple his political sense and dedication rather than admit what his deed has shown.51

In his Henry IV plays, to which I will shortly turn, Shakespeare will devote as much attention to the division in Henry's soul as he does to the division in Henry's kingdom.


All of Shakespeare's history plays concern themselves with the same question: who should be king? All of them provide a provisional answer: the legitimate king. Richard II is the most important history play because it is here that the traditional principle of legitimate rule in England receives its purest expression and its most radical criticism. King Richard is undeniably legitimate; but he does not, according to Shakespeare, deserve to be king. When political tradition decrees that a murdering, thieving, self-absorbed playboy merits the kingship, something is seriously wrong with that tradition. One might argue that even though the principle of hereditary rule occasionally produces unfit rulers, they ought to be tolerated for the sake of political stability. But Richard is not tolerated precisely because he is an unfit ruler, and the result is political instability. If hereditary monarchy cannot produce either good government or stable government, then, Shakespeare seems to ask in this play, why hereditary monarchy?

While Bolingbroke never makes the case for himself in this play—the gardener does—it is clear that he represents a rational alternative to the traditions of hereditary and divine right. Reasonable men, especially those who have endured Richard, must agree that chance of birth and the mere assertion of God's favor are insufficient titles to rule; one must also consider political talent, and here Bolingbroke shows himself superior to the inept and tyrannical Richard. Bolingbroke's victory thus proves that tradition is vulnerable to reason. One might object that it proves more about the power of arms than about the power of reason. Bolingbroke, after all, forces Richard from the throne with an army, not with arguments. But that he could raise an army, that he meets so little resistance, and that he is welcomed and saluted by the same crowds in London that throw dirt upon Richard's head suggest that the English people have not been coerced. They are clearly receptive to Bolingbroke, and like Shakespeare's gardeners, they are perfectly capable of providing the arguments for his rule on their own.

I do not mean to suggest that Bolingbroke's victory over Richard is a clear-cut victory for rationalism over tradition. Obviously, it has far more to do with the character and abilities of the two individuals contending for the throne. And the people's approval of Bolingbroke is registered in the traditional way: “‘God save thee, Bolingbroke!’ … ‘Jesu preserve thee!’” (V.ii.11, 17). But Bolingbroke's victory shifts the grounds of the debate about legitimacy: straightforward appeals to heredity and simple reverence for tradition will in the future be intertwined with more rational claims. The Duke of York, for example, will challenge a sitting king (Henry VI, Bolingbroke's grandson) on the basis of his superior political talent as well as on the traditional hereditary grounds:

[I am more] like a king, more kingly in my thoughts
.....No, thou art not king;
Not fit to govern and rule multitudes
.....That head of thine doth not become a crown;
Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer's staff,
And not to grace an awful princely sceptre.

(2HVI V.i.29, 93-94, 97-98)

Bolingbroke's victory makes speeches like this one possible.

But if superior political ability is sufficient to carry Bolingbroke to power, it may not be enough to legitimize his rule. Henry IV will always lack that intangible quality conferred by tradition that Richard possessed and wasted. Perhaps I can best illustrate this quality by a comparison with the authority of a father over his children. It is not just that a father is bigger and stronger than his children, or that he provides for and protects them, or even that they respect his character and deeds. There is something more in his authority which is captured in the phrase, “he is my father,” something often said after all reasons for obedience or reverence have been exhausted. It is somehow unreasonable or beyond reason and is difficult to put into words. Perhaps it means something like, “I am of him.” In any event, it is not something a child feels for a stepfather, no matter how good a parent he may be. Fathers are legitimate in ways that stepfathers cannot be. Bolingbroke is a usurper and, as such, a kind of stepfather to England.

As Bloom notes, “Shakespeare's view of kingship and legitimacy is subtle and cannot be reduced either to reverence for tradition or bald rationalism.”52 Both Henry IV and Henry V, who are extraordinarily talented politicians and able rulers, lack the sanction conferred by tradition. And both, precisely because they are talented politicians as well as able rulers, will spend their reigns trying to devise an equally irrational substitute for the tradition-based authority that Richard enjoyed.


  1. In his study of the historical King Richard, A. B. Steel notes that Richard was “the last king ruling by hereditary right, direct and undisputed, from the Conqueror. The kings of the next hundred and ten years … were essentially kings de facto not de jure, successful usurpers recognized after the event, upon conditions, by their fellow magnates or parliament” (Steel, Richard II [Cambridge, 1941], quoted by Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, 253).

  2. Figgis, 45.

  3. Figgis, 51.

  4. “Of the historic dramas, King John is perhaps the worst constructed, and King Richard II, which wants little to be a tragedy, is certainly the best” (H. Coleridge, Essays and Marginalia [London, 1941], ii, 152 [New Variorum edition of King John, 606]). In the earliest texts of the play—the first five Quartos, published between 1597 and 1615—the title appeared as The Tragedie of King Richard the Second. In the First Folio (1623), the title appeared as The life and death of King Richard the Second.

  5. As Matthew Black points out, “that Mowbray murdered [Gloucester] by Richard's order is regarded by historians as not proved, though extremely likely. It seems to have been generally believed at the time.” There is “little doubt,” he continues, “that Shakespeare's audience believed that Gloucester was murdered at Richard's instigation” (Matthew Black, ed., the New Variorum edition of The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1955], 4). Future references to scholarship cited in the New Variorum edition will give the author, title, and whatever other information is available, as well as the page number in the New Variorum edition.

  6. Bolingbroke's inheritance was substantial: “Gaunt was the greatest magnate in England, the possessor of castles, forests, manors, and other estates scattered throughout the realm. As Lancaster was a county palatine, a semiautonomous political entity, Gaunt had nearly regal powers within it …” (Saccio, 20).

  7. Jensen thinks Bolingbroke's decision to return is itself a regal act: “[l]ike a godlike king, he repeals his own sentence …” (Pamela K. Jensen, “Beggars and Kings: Cowardice and Courage in Shakespeare's Richard II,Interpretation 18, no. 1 [Fall 1990]: 123).

  8. The only testimony about Gloucester's character in the play is favorable—and misleading. As Dover Wilson notes, “Holinshed, Froissart and Daniel unite in depicting [Gloucester] most unfavorably” (from his 1939 Cambridge edition of Richard II, xlviii).

  9. Quoted by Saccio, 24. See also New Variorum edition, 409.

  10. Hume, The History of England, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, n.d.), 156.

  11. Hume, vol. 2, 163.

  12. Hume, vol. 2, 168.

  13. Perhaps I am giving Richard more credit than he deserves here. He may have simply needed money and found Gaunt's property conveniently available. If, on the other hand, he was more thoughtful, he would have been waiting for Gaunt to die, for Richard can only move decisively against Bolingbroke after Bolingbroke's father Gaunt, a powerful nobleman and a fairly reliable supporter, is dead.

  14. E. M. W. Tillyard, seconding John Dover Wilson, Shakespeare's History Plays, 260.

  15. J. L. Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare (1945), 134 (New Variorum edition, 228).

  16. Quoted by Jensen, 125.

  17. Saccio, 25.

  18. The purpose of the trial is to deflect attention from his criminal usurpation toward Richard's past crimes.

  19. Charles Harold Herford, from his 1893 (Warwick) edition of King Richard II (New Variorum edition, 219).

  20. Hotspur's information is secondhand: “My father … heard him swear and vow to God / He came but to be Duke of Lancaster” (IV.iii.59-61). Northumberland's brother Worcester claims to have heard Bolingbroke swear an oath upon arriving in England, but he is not a character in Richard II, and the scene is not dramatized in that play: “You swore to us, / And you did swear that oath at Doncaster, / That you did nothing purpose 'gainst the state, / Nor claim no further than … The seat of Gaunt” (V.i.41-45). Holinshed reports that (the historical) Bolingbroke did in fact swear an oath at Doncaster. See the Arden edition of King Richard II, IV.iii. note 54.

  21. Perhaps Bolingbroke was told of the troubles in Ireland and assumed Richard would leave the country to attend to them.

  22. Herford (New Variorum edition, 160).

  23. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 148.

  24. Once he has fallen, Shakespeare will give us plenty of reasons to sympathize with Richard—but not before.

  25. Some in Shakespeare's audience would have been aware of the details of Richard's turbulent reign, but one has to remember that the events took place two hundred years prior to Shakespeare's play.

  26. Allan Bloom, “Richard II,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. Alvis and West (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), 54.

  27. Bloom, “Richard II,” 51.

  28. Tillyard, 261.

  29. Hume, vol. 2, 177, emphasis supplied.

  30. Hume, vol. 2, 166. See also 156-57.

  31. “Farming the realm” involved the payment of a sum of money to the king in exchange for a portion of future tax profits; forced loans were euphemistically called “benevolences” (I.iv.46 and II.i.250).

  32. Jensen, 112, 113.

  33. For a good summary of various views, see the appendix of the New Variorum edition of Richard II, 529-33.

  34. See New Variorum edition, 530.

  35. Figgis, 66-67.

  36. New Variorum edition, 186-87.

  37. See Peter Ure's introduction to the Arden edition of King Richard II, lix.

  38. Palmer, 119-20 (New Variorum edition, 585).

  39. Even if his will could be known, no other human being is authorized to do anything about it.

  40. Walter H. Pater, Appreciations: With an Essay on Style, 1889 (New Variorum edition, 528).

  41. Dain Trafton, “Shakespeare's Henry IV: A New Prince in a New Principality,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, 86. According to Trafton, Bolingbroke is “more thoroughly a rebel in thought than in action. He does not blink at his own impiety; on the contrary, he guides his career consistently by a view of the world that is totally opposed to the one on which the traditional politics of the realm are grounded” (85). I think this is an accurate description of Henry's consciousness prior to murdering Richard. Afterwards, his Machiavellianism is often interrupted by periods of religious dread. I will treat this subject at length in the following chapter.

  42. See The Prince, chapter 6, 24.

  43. According to Bloom, “Richard II,” (59), “[t]his is the popular view of philosophy, as expressed when one says, ‘he's taking it philosophically,’ a phrase never used when good things happen.”

  44. T. M. Parrott, Shakespearean Comedy (NY, 1949), 229 (New Variorum edition, 332).

  45. “Later generations looking back upon Richard's deposition saw the event as more catastrophic than did most of those who actually lived through it” (Saccio, 33). In his Henry IV plays, Shakespeare dramatizes the reappraisal of Bolingbroke's usurpation.

  46. Hume, vol. 2, 182.

  47. The duchess is probably only thanking Henry for answering her prayers by sparing her loyalist son. But I think the language she employs is significant, if only to show that addressing the new king in the old way is acceptable.

  48. Holinshed, quoted by Palmer (New Variorum edition, 557).

  49. A reference to Richard's “advisors.”

  50. Bloom, “Richard II,” 57.

  51. Bloom, “Richard II,” 60.

  52. Bloom, “Richard II,” 52, note 1.


All references to Shakespeare's plays in this book follow the Arden edition. The following abbreviations are used throughout: King John (John), King Richard II (RII), King Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1HIV, 2HIV), King Henry V (HV), King Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 (1HVI, 2HVI, 3HVI), King Richard III (RIII), Troilus and Cressida (T&C).

Primary Sources

Shakespeare, William. King John, Arden 4th edition, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

———. King Richard II. Arden edition, ed. Peter Ure. London: Routledge, 1989.

———. The Life and Death of King John. New Variorum edition, ed. Horace Howard Furness. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1919.

———. The Life and Death of King Richard the Second. New Variorum edition, ed. Matthew W. Black. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1955.

Secondary Sources

Bloom, Allan. “Richard II.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. Alvis and West. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

Figgis, John Neville. The Divine Right of Kings. Cambridge: University Press, 1922.

Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Hume, David. The History of England. Volumes 1 and 2. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, n.d.

Jensen, Pamela K. “Beggars and Kings: Cowardice and Courage in Shakespeare's Richard II.Interpretation 18, no. 1 (Fall 1990).

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle and Drama. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.

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

Trafton, Dain. “Shakespeare's Henry IV: A New Prince in a New Principality.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. Alvis and West. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

Wilson, John Dover. Introduction to the Cambridge edition of Richard II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939.

Allan Bloom (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5072

SOURCE: Bloom, Allan. “Richard II.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 51-61. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Bloom traces Richard's downfall from divine-right king and discusses its political consequence for him and his successor, Bolingbroke.]

Shakespeare not only presents us with the spectacle of a man becoming a god (Julius Caesar) but in Richard II also permits us to witness a god becoming a man. As a consequence of what one might call political logic, Richard was thought to be, and thought himself to be, somehow divine: to have the right and the capacity to rule men a king ought to have a superior nature, must be a god or the representative of a god; because he must be, he is. The play tells the tale of Richard's unkinging and his agony as he faces the human condition for the first time.

Richard II is also the tale of Henry Bolingbroke's grasping of the crown and thereby his loss of innocence. He thought he would purge the throne of a stain left on it by Richard's having committed the sin of Cain, but he is constrained to commit the same sin in order to found his rule. Instead of becoming a god, he becomes a murderer. The king he became could never be the king Richard was.

Thus these two tales join to tell a third tale, that of kingship in its divine claims and criminal foundations.


In spite of what some critics say, there can be little doubt that Shakespeare teaches us that Richard is a sort of legitimate tyrant who deserves to be deposed. Moreover, he chooses to present the divine right of kings as the underpinning of Richard's rule and thereby teaches that the principle is responsible for his tyrannical deeds. Richard never understands the real conditions of rule and believes that he is unaccountable. This does not mean that Shakespeare holds there to be nothing divine in kingship; nor does it mean that Shakespeare believed that once Richard's undisputed title to rule vanishes, there could ever be an unproblematic legitimacy in this world. But that is precisely the burden of the play: legitimacy is a problem, and Richard, God's vicar, is an artificial contrivance which disguises rather than resolves the problem.1

Similarly, the fact that Bolingbroke's accusations are true does not mean that his motives are good or that he understands what he is about. He entertains the baseless certainty of a tribunal beyond the king's to which he can appeal, which will vindicate him and give him ground on which to stand. And he wants rule; his accusations are pretexts for supplanting the king. He does not wish to reform Richard but to replace him. Strangely, though, Shakespeare seems to have more sympathy with Henry's ambition than his indignation, for the perfect justice demanded by the latter passion has no foundation in politics and the quest for it is even pernicious, while the former passion is an expression of the manliness so lacking in this regime and so necessary to political virtue. Such manliness—to be found in the Roman heroes and in Henry's son Henry—rebels against rule by others and, properly educated and channeled, is the surest foundation of freedom. Richard becomes manly only for a moment at the very end when it is too late. And Henry, who began by being manly, loses his nerve when he realizes the consequences of what he has done. He cannot bear to accept the responsibility, tries to return to the old pieties and becomes humble. But his pride has set in motion tendencies which are to culminate in a wholly new world, one in which the pride of noble men will have its place and rule will require prudence and courage as well as birth.

In keeping with the purely conventional character of a regime where the ruler is absolute and his title is only birth supported by a fiction of divine right, the atmosphere of Richard II is suffused with artificiality of speech and deed. This artificiality is particularly to be remarked in the relationships among human beings. At the outset it is taken for granted that the just man is to be proved in trial by combat and that God, just as He is immediately present in the king, will directly indicate where the truth lies by the victory in arms. Divine action and brute force preempt entirely the field properly governed by prudence. God is just and provides a law behind which He stands, but human reason cannot penetrate to His reasons and plays no role in the system of justice. Richard, despite his fears that the result of the combat will inculpate him, is constrained by the rules of honor to permit it. But this aborted combat on St. Lambert's day in the lists at Coventry is the last trial by combat England will ever see. When Richard II recognizes that the risks are too great for him and halts it, he unwittingly brings the era of chivalry, the era of Christian knights inaugurated by the first Richard, the Lion-Hearted, to its end. By Act IV the challenges of the lords have become empty bluster and a parody of what they had been. They will never be committed to a test. New ways of settling disputes and determining the right will have to be found.

Thus at the outset we see “medieval” England, but we also see that it is moribund. A criminal king against whom there is no recourse is opposed to an ambitious potential successor who comes ever closer to challenging the sacred person of the king himself. And the supports of the old order—represented by the Dukes of Lancaster and York—are themselves old and have lost conviction. Lancaster passively leaves the issue to heaven and dies, while York, who is really a comic figure, provides the transition to the new order. The principle of the old order is enunciated by Gaunt in his discussion with the Duchess of Gloucester (I.ii), and he embodies its dignity. One must bear with insults and apparent injustices in this world in the conviction that they are expressions of God's infinite goodness. Unswerving loyalty and faith against all the evidence of the senses and merely human reason is the subject's proper posture.

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.


But the Duchess represents the problem in Gaunt's principle and the countervailing principle. Her husband has been murdered, and he was Gaunt's brother. Outraged family feeling ought to seek vengeance. The ordinary sentiments, directly experienced by all normal human beings, are suppressed in favor of a purely arbitrary duty to obey the king. Whereas all the principal men in Richard II are artificial, and none particularly admirable, the three women in the play (Richard's queen and the Duchess of York in addition to the Duchess of Gloucester) are all both natural and admirable. They love their husbands and their children. Humanity, banished by the men, seems to have taken refuge in the women. For varying but related reasons these women cannot depend on the men in their families; and in their sufferings they do not appear to hope in God. They endure, and in their fortitude they provide a measure for the failings of the men to whom they are most nearly related—the Duchess of Gloucester to Gaunt, the queen to the king, the Duchess of York to the Duke of York. In the scene under discussion the audience cannot but side with the Duchess of Gloucester against Gaunt, nor can one help but feel that if Gaunts are the subjects, the rulers will be Richards. Disarming good men is equivalent to arming evil men.

Moreover, there is no doubt that the first two acts are intended to establish Richard as an evil king who deserves to lose his throne. He is shown to be a murderer, a thief, a wastrel surrounded by flatterers, lacking in all the familial pieties—a monarch without care or conscience. He is convicted before our eyes of all the accusations made against him, and this portrait is relieved by no charming features. Bolingbroke's schemes are thereby given the color of justice. By the end of Act II power and loyalty have slipped away from Richard as a rightful consequence of his crimes. But even if Bolingbroke is right in deposing Richard, that fact alone does not suffice to make him king. He has justice on his side, as well as the talent to govern in these troubled times, a secondary title of inheritance,2 the consent of the nobles, and the adherence of the people. But all of this does not quite add up to Richard's indisputable family title and the sense of divine right apparently attached to it.

Henry's problem is posed and solved in comic fashion by York, the last remaining son of Edward III and the last remaining fragment of the old regime. Although he has reproved his nephew Richard for depriving Henry of his inheritance, as Lord Governor in Richard's absence he loyally forbids Henry entry into England and treats him as a rebel. But he possesses no power and certainly lacks the energy or the conviction to be a martyr to Richard's cause. So he declares himself neuter and invites the rebels to spend the night at his place. York's neutrality symbolizes the exhaustion of the old order. He solves his own problem by ending up a fanatic adherent of the new king, acting as though Henry were the old king. The example of Henry's change from subject to ruler teaches a lesson which York desperately tries to suppress, one from which other subjects will nonetheless profit.


Suddenly, at the beginning of Act III, Richard, who is no longer really king and is beginning to realize it, becomes interesting. As he descends to the estate of mere man, his soul is inspired by the poetic muse. It is as though Shakespeare wished to tell us that the most divine in man is man. He provides Richard with the play's most beautiful lines to allow him to voice questions about what he might really be when he discovers he is not what convention told him he is. He never succeeds in finding himself, but we see the articulation of his soul as he gropes toward his goal. We do not find that Richard is ever good, but we do find him touching.

Richard returns to England from the Irish wars to find his neglected country torn by rebellion. He speaks confidently to the earth of England which he takes to be animate and loyal, reminding it of his expectation that its flora and fauna will take up the cause of its rightful king. When chided by his episcopal advisor Carlisle, who tells him that God helps those who help themselves, he responds by comparing himself to the sun and announces that for every rebel soldier God provides Richard with a fighting angel. But when he hears that his Welsh troops have departed, he becomes disconsolate, only to regain confidence when he thinks of his uncle York's troops. Again his mood wavers when he expects to hear bad news from Scroop. Now he takes the tack of resignation. Of what value are human things? They are nothing when seen in the perspective of God's power or in that of the bleakness of death. All men are equal in both perspectives. Richard is ready piously to accept the vicissitudes of life. Being a king was nothing but a care to him. As he was confident in being everything, he professes himself resigned to being nothing. But, suddenly, he suspects that he has been betrayed by his friends, and now he is the man-God, Jesus, abandoned by all, surrounded only by Judases. And finally, when he learns that the man about to become king has executed his close associates, Richard collapses in despair:

                                                                      let us sit on the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.


Then once more he responds to the chidings of Carlisle and remembers York's troops. But, when he learns that York is with Henry, he knows he is no longer king and abandons all hope. He had hoped in God's arms, the Welsh arms, and York's arms. He has no arms of his own, nor does he imagine trying to get them. Richard is night, Henry day. A new sun has risen.3

As is evident, Richard's moods are mercurial. But what is most striking about them is that they move between two poles and never point to another alternative. He is either hopeful or despairing, arrogant or humble, the glorious king or the poor man menaced by death. There is no middle ground.

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 figur'd 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.


The little piece of time between the two eternities—God and death—that comprises human life has no status for Richard. Yet it is only in this interval that political life is to be found, somewhat independent, and perhaps a bit forgetful, of God and death. The statesman must not be overwhelmed by the power and glory (not to mention the high moral demands) of God nor disheartened by the shadow cast over his concerns by death. He must trust in his own efforts and take seriously the goals of life, liberty, and glory. He must respect this world. But just as Richard's reign is founded on the God of the Christians, he has a Christian view of the world. He is either like God, or like Jesus, or like a monk or a hermit. He is never a political man. He is imprisoned in Julius Caesar's tower4 but has no other connection with such men.

Richard has frequently been compared to Hamlet, for both possess histrionic natures. They are also alike in that Hamlet too views things in extremes, extremes which derive from a Christian's perspective. The Hamlet who is unwilling to kill the usurper while at prayer for fear that his soul will be saved and who thus loses his chance to right things in the realm is akin to Richard. They are both actors of their parts rather than being what they are, and they see this world through the optic of another world and thus transform it. And these two characteristics are probably effects of a single cause.5

Richard, like Gaunt, is able to see only divine justice or brute force, God's pastorate or a tyrant's arbitrariness. A world in which men are responsible for the defense of justice and provide for its rewards and punishments is unknown to him. This is underlined in III.iv, which immediately follows the two scenes on which the foregoing reflections are based. Richard's sweet queen wanders in the Duke of York's gardens and overhears the conversation of the gardener and his assistant. They are humble men; but for that very reason, in a world where everything high is conventional and artificial, Shakespeare makes them speak the language of nature and reason. They, like the women in this play, help to supply what cannot be gotten from the high-born, convention-ridden men. These two artisans compare their garden to the state and explain what should have been done by Richard and why his failing to do it has caused his downfall. They ascribe to an absence of art what others understand to be a result of God's will and men's sins. One cannot help being reminded of Prince XXV, where Machiavelli interprets what men call fortune or God's action in politics as a lack of prudence or foresight. Floods, he says, injure men not because they are sinners but because they did not build dams. These two workers suggest that art, in cooperation with nature, can make states as well as gardens grow. The founding of political science requires only a clear vision of things. But it is precisely that natural vision which is hard to achieve, for the prospect is clouded over by myths which must first be dispelled. The queen angrily reproaches the gardeners for committing the sin of Adam, for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and thus bringing about a second fall. The only defense she can contrive for her husband is to view this not as nature's garden, given over to the control of rational men who can make it produce fruit for their sustenance, but as God's garden, the Garden of Eden, ruled directly by God, producing what God wills without the cooperation of man, whose inquiries into the mysterious ways of the ruler would be a sin. As gardeners should not put their hands to God's garden, rational subjects should not question Richard's state. This vision makes political science impossible and renders the attempt to establish it a sin, the sin of disobeying the ruler and of attempting to replace him. Piety, not art, is the foundation of Richard's state, and the emancipation of art requires the overturning of that state.

The case for Richard's rule is made by the finest or at least the most disinterested man among the principals, the Bishop of Carlisle. (It goes without saying that Richard's touching eloquence does not make a case for his remaining as king. It only gives witness to the noble aspect of what makes him unfit to be a king.) Carlisle stands up before Henry and warns him not to depose the king. With his “… if you rear this house against this house,”6 he accurately prophesies the horrors of the Wars of the Roses. The overturning of one monarch provides argument for the overturning of another. There must be established authority and agreed-upon legitimacy. He believes that only divine right can establish such legitimacy, and an attack on the king is an attack on God. The dire consequences of such an attack Carlisle evidently attributes to God's wrath, although civil war would appear to follow naturally from the absence of a recognized sovereign. We would conclude that if Richard's rule is a failure, then some other source of legitimacy must be sought for. The king in his nation, according to Carlisle, is the image of God in the world. And everything that Richard is or is not derives from that vision of the whole. God's rule of the whole is the source of Richard's rule in England, and the latter seems to be the necessary consequence of the former. If there is something wrong with the order in England, it is probably related to something wrong with the cosmic order on which it is modeled.

This order is one in which prophecy takes the place of foresight, and Carlisle's prophecy is the supplement to Gaunt's earlier prophecy.7 Gaunt treats England as a living being, its constitution, like that of a body, inseparable from it and unchangeable. Richard will be purged like a disease. Gaunt's indignation does not lead to rebellion, and none seems possible. Country and constitution are identical; rulers are produced out of its womb; one is oneself a part of one's country and one must love it. Carlisle, on the other hand, sees England's Christianity as something separable from it and knows the possibility of rebellion and change. Christianity is universal, and a nation can either participate in it or not. His loyalty is to Christianity. For him Christianity is represented by Richard. If England is to be purged of Richard, an element of that purgation must be a change in the nation's relation to Christianity, most specifically to God's representatives, the king and the priests. Carlisle forces us to correct Gaunt's vision. If England is to be free from the danger of Richards, there must be a change in the constitution and the spirit informing it. To render England unto itself the elements of the nation must be separated out and certain alien matter be removed. Only at the end of the history plays is there a king, Henry VIII, who is himself really the high priest and interprets the divine in such a way as to serve England. The eighth Henry is truly at home; Richard was only a stranger; and this he learns when he looks at himself in the mirror. A long and bloody path leads from Richard to Henry VIII, a path on which Englishmen learn that kingship is founded on nobles and commoners as well as on God. This mixture is perilous but through it wisdom can at least occasionally peep without being sinful or causing civil war. Carlisle shows us both the greatest dignity and the greatest weakness of the old order. God is supposed to rule; Richard actually rules. Without his faith that God protected him, he would have taken more care.


In the final act, York completes his comedy, Richard completes his tragedy, and Henry begins his career as a guilt-ridden, world-weary man, insecure and plotted against, distrusting even his own son.

Old York, the crumbling pillar of both the old and new order, tries madly to persuade himself that they are identical by accusing his son of treason and demanding his death. His son was loyal to Richard and thus is disloyal to the usurper. York abandons Richard and, aping a Roman citizen, demands his own son's death as a punishment for disloyalty. The Roman's deed inspires awe because it proves firmness of soul and is done for the unquestioned common good and in the name of the most ancient and unquestioned authority. But after what has already transpired, nothing York could do would prove his firmness of soul. And Aumerle's adherence to Henry would imply the abandonment not only of his sovereign but his friend. It is ridiculous to suppose that Henry can command instinctive loyalty. That is exactly his problem. Attachment to him must be born of his wisdom, beneficence, and strength, for he is beginning afresh without the sanctions which were available to Richard. York's conduct merely puts that problem in relief and strikes us as horrible or absurd. The Duchess of York wins the sympathy of everyone, including the new king, with her defense of her son, springing as it does from a mother's natural affection. Such sentiments are taken more seriously now that the old structure of obligations has collapsed, and they must become part of the new structure if it is to hold. Henry's clemency is a start in that direction.8

Richard, despised and abandoned, having suffered the insults of the crowd, no longer looks to his divine Father for special protection. He surveys his situation and finds only his loneliness and vulnerability. He compares his prison to the world and populates it with his thoughts representing the different alternative lives, none of which can satisfy him. The life lived in the hope of the afterlife is contradicted by the demands of greatness on this earth. The king's glory and wealth are opposed by the commandments of humility and poverty. The Christian king imitates God while God calls the “little men.” Being a king seems to preclude hopes for eternal bliss. The life of ambition cannot succeed, for it demands powers beyond those available to man. And the life of Stoic contentment does not work. Richard does not quite say why, but he indicates that such a posture only makes the best of a bad business and would be abandoned once out of misfortune: there is no true self-sufficiency. This is the popular view of philosophy, as expressed when one says, “he's taking it philosophically,” a phrase never used when good things happen. Of the three alternatives it is fair to say that Richard has only thought through and experienced the first. Here at least he breaks out of its constraints but gives only a hasty glance at the other two. It is too late to consider them seriously. Richard's life and fall are marvelously illustrative of the first, which is the Christian alternative and is the one which dominated his world. Others would have to investigate the other ways of life, for Richard himself immediately slips back into his old choice between being a king or a beggar, or the synthesis of the two—nothing. At the last moment, tired of acceptance and drawing on an instinct of which he has hitherto been unaware, he rises to his own defense and fights his attackers. He dies like a man and as a man.9

When Henry learns that his wishes are fulfilled, that his rival, the question-mark after his legitimacy, has been slain for him, just as Gloucester was slain for Richard, he is stricken with remorse. He accuses himself of the sin of Cain, as he had accused Richard, and vows to go on a crusade. He salves his conscience by trying to return to the chivalric tradition which he has just uprooted. This crusade will never take place because business at home is too pressing. His conscience takes his heart away from home, but home preempts his action. He is split. He cannot bear to face the possibility that the sin of Cain, as Machiavelli teaches, may play a role in the establishment of earthly justice. In deposing Richard he was halfway to the realization that he was committing a crime but that such crimes are sometimes necessary for the common good. However, so strong is his faith or his fear of hell-fire, he prefers to brand himself a guilty man and cripple his political sense and dedication rather than admit what his deed has shown.10 His son returns to his father's original impulse and with healthy self-assurance abandons crusades in favour of unjust wars with France which serve the evident interests of England instead of serving his conscience, using the priests as his political ministers rather than as the masters of his beliefs. He thus unifies England and himself. The Henriad as a whole shows the limits of conscience. Henry V provides a contrast to his predecessors not unlike the contrast between Hamlet and Fortinbras in a play that seems to bear a similar message. The exquisitely refined souls do not belong to the best political men.

There are two sins mentioned in Richard II: the sin of Adam and the sin of Cain. They seem to be identical, or at least one leads to the other. Knowledge of political things brings with it the awareness that in order for the sacred to become sacred terrible deeds must be done. Because God does not evidently rule, the founder of justice cannot himself be just. He cannot be distinguished from the criminal by his justice or anything else accessible to vulgar eyes. This capital problem was addressed long ago by Sophocles who showed that the hero who solved the riddle of the Sphinx and thereby discerned man, killed his father and slept with his mother. Machiavelli later repeated the teaching, perhaps in perverting it. I do not suggest that here Shakespeare stopped, but here he surely began. The universal problem of kingship is played out in the particular events of England by Shakespeare, who in his histories could be more philosophic than the historian because he was a poet. He gave England a mirror in which it could recognize itself as it ought to be, one which England would not have to smash as Richard smashed the mirror which reflected his image.


  1. Henry IV does not affect us as a usurper whose crime is the cause of his misery. The presentation of Richard and Henry is too carefully banked with extenuating considerations to allow for simple blame of the latter or respect for the former. The play's impact is not such as to induce reverence for the king (either the old one or the new); rather, there is a subversive element in the detachment it induces. We pity the toothless descendent of Richard the Lion-Hearted; he is shown to possess neither divine nor human strength, and he no longer inspires awe. We experience no horror at what Henry does, but on the other hand, he does not inherit Richard's former sacredness. Moreover, the reader of the Histories as a whole can hardly believe that Shakespeare thought John or Richard to be rulers superior to Henry V or Henry VIII. Shakespeare's view of kingship and legitimacy is subtle and cannot be reduced either to reverence for tradition or bald rationalism. But one thing is certain: Henry V and Henry VIII face up to their priests as neither John nor Richard II does; and this seems to be at the core of the teaching of these plays.

  2. Bolingbroke is next in line to the succession after the infant Earl of March, grandson of the Duke of Clarence, Edward III's second son. Cf. Richard II I.i.120-121; iv.36-37, New Variorum edition, ed. Black (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1955).

  3. Act III, scene ii.

  4. V.i.4.

  5. Mowbray is an interesting example of the political man living in this kind of world. He is a scoundrel, capable of all kinds of crimes. But he is also a believing Christian, praised as a defender of the faith against the infidels. He is a Christian knight from the times of the Crusades. He is a great sinner and a great repenter. He has a conscience and confesses. Although he takes political things seriously, they are for him apparently low. His Christianity affects him primarily, if not solely, insofar as it debases his view of human life and politics. All the great things are somewhere else, beyond this sphere, but he is still involved in politics. He is treacherous without any of the great justifications one finds in great political men. And his treachery is compromised by his conscience. (I.i.83-150; IV.i.91-100.)

  6. IV.i.115-150.

  7. II.i.33-70.

  8. Act V, scenes ii-iii.

  9. Act V, scene v.

  10. Act V, scene vi.

Ralph Berry (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2562

SOURCE: Berry, Ralph. “The Tragedy of Richard II.” In Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies, pp. 73-9. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Berry comments on role-playing in Richard II, noting that Richard embraces the role of martyr-king while Bolingbroke accepts the complementary role of guilty usurper.]

Tragedy seeks explanations. Always they are withheld. The dark collusion between protagonist and fate has a core which the dramatist may gesture toward, but not reveal. Some kind of account is given, often a mere recoil into banality. “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” doesn't tell us much we didn't know. The protagonist needs intelligence and self-awareness even to go near an explanation. Possessing both, like Hamlet, he may prefer to keep quiet. Coriolanus, who has neither, can find nothing better than

O world, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosoms seem to wear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin, as 'twere, in love
Unseparable, shall within this hour,
On a dissension of a doit, break out
To bitterest enmity; so fellest foes,
Whose passions and whose plots have broke their sleep
To take the one the other, by some chance,
Some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends
And interjoin their issues. So with me.


Just luck, then; it's a world of ups and downs.

Richard II seems to fit into this mode of banal nonexplanation with designer comfort. Richard's account of the matter, to Bolingbroke, is

Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

“In a sense,” says Anne Barton, “this is the central image of the play.”1 The reservation is well advised. This is a purely mechanical image, which backs off rom enquiry into the inwardness of the matter. I agree that it is the “central image” in the sense that it is a glittering and memorable evasion. The event is reduced to its externals. The situations of Richard and Bolingbroke are plotted vertically in mechanical counterpoise. They pass each other like men sealed in glass elevators in a public atrium, noting each other's rise and fall but unable to communicate.

The only question worth asking about Richard II is, Why does he give up his throne? There is little in him of the animal vitality of the other Shakespearean aristocrats, and nothing of their Marlovian drive toward power and position. Richard is clearly folding in 3.2: he is talking “of graves, of worms, of epitaphs” (145) when any other Plantagenet would be raising another army to put down the rebellion. In the pivotal act 3, Richard has already decided to embrace his fate rather than contest it.

The key word in the usual explanation is “actor.” I think the term indispensable, but it calls for some discriminations. This is a play that needs to be illustrated from stage practice. The text itself is too blank, too withholding, for adequate commentary. Richard II is a giant stage-direction, and one needs to know something of what the stage has made of it.

For the broad-brush interpretation of Richard as actor, we can glance at Beerbohm Tree. This was the finest Richard of his day, save perhaps Benson's, who worked out an “aesthete” concept derived from Walter Pater. Richard II as actor-aesthete is first described in Pater's Appreciations (1889): “And Richard more than concurs: he throws himself into the part, falls gracefully as on the world's stage.”2 Benson's Richard might have been too much fin de siècle to convince us; but Tree's Richard broadened the mode. Here is A. B. Walkley's penetrating appraisal:

For Richard was above all things an actor. Give him a part to play—a part of kingly majesty, of grief, of humiliation, of resignation and pardon—and he fills it at once to the very best of his variable personality. Richard does not so much feel, as know that he ought to feel, and proceed to behave as if he did feel it. He is told that his followers have deserted him; instantly he becomes the stricken, hopeless, abandoned wretch, and likes it immensely. Aumerle suggests that it is too early for that part just yet, and straightway he changes into the man of courage and resolution. … He enjoys not only the various states of mind he passes through, but the consciousness of how well he is giving them expression.

(The Times, 24 April 1905.)

This is fine dramatic criticism, and surely traces exactly the psychological contours of Tree's interpretation. Tree's Richard is certainly compatible with the text. Still, the interpretation leaves the main question unanswered. Why does Richard, for all his actorish ways, embrace defeat so willingly?

A partial answer might be a known trait of some actors, their tendency to play a part in the manner of the next part they plan or hope for. The nervy, introspective Henry V is proposing himself as the next Hamlet. On this view, Richard is at some deep level a career actor. Not satisfied with playing the King Regnant, he seeks to play the role of Fallen King. Consciously or consciously, he sets up a situation in which he will fail, thus giving himself superb opportunities for playing failure.

But failure is too broad and evasive a term. The essential plot is that Richard changes places with Bolingbroke. The relationship makes physical a psychic division. In this play it is juvenile to speak of Bolingbroke “contrasting” with Richard, and little better to speak of their “complementing” each other. What we have is a psychic alliance between Richard and Bolingbroke, just as exists later between Hamlet and Fortinbras. The concept is best caught, I think, in J. I. M. Stewart's account of Othello:

I conjecture, then, that at certain cardinal moments in the play when poetically received Othello and Iago are felt less as individuals each with his own psychological integrity than as abstractions from a single and, as it were, invisible protagonist.3

The true protagonist of Richard II is not, from this perspective, Richard. It is Richard-with-Bolingbroke.

That reading gives us a through-line from the first scene. As early as line 3, Richard has a wary eye on “Henry Herford, thy bold son,” the threat which in the end destroys him. This threat might actually be neutralized in scene 3: there must be an even chance that Mowbray will kill or maim his adversary, if the contest goes forward. The calculation that Richard does not want a clear winner to emerge is second-rate politics. If Mowbray dispatches Bolingbroke, so much the better; if not, Richard can hardly be worse off than in the play. Richard knows his enemy as early as 1.4, with his accurate observation of Bolingbroke's tactics (“courtship of the common people,” 24), evidently a policy that Richard does not accept. Richard's failure to deal with the Bolingbroke threat in 1.3 is more than weakness or miscalculation. He is courting his fate. “Exile” is a gesture, a hope that the problem will go away. Bolingbroke cannot be liquidated or put into real hazard, because he represents something primary in Richard's psyche.

This primary element has to be incorporated into the role Richard is playing. King Regnant becomes increasingly irksome; the role of Fallen King beckons, much earlier than is objectively necessary. By 3.2 Richard is dissolving. “I had forgot myself. Am I not King?” (83). When Scroop enters, Richard's

Mine ear is open and my heart prepared.
The worst is worldly loss thou canst unfold.
Say, is my kingdom lost?


precedes the news of Bolingbroke's rebellion. In its entirety, Richard's speech (93-103) wills Bolingbroke to be king. Soon comes “Let's talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs” (145). Set in train is a process that appears irresistible, one that leads to the base-court transference of power. The bucket image offers a mechanical account of the process. It does nothing to explain Richard's choice of role.

That role, martyr-king, is the given. “Richard presents himself above all as the king of grief,” says Bernard J. Paris.4 A certain evasion is psychologically necessary for him. Richard talks of “a sort of traitors,” going on to the part-admission of “I find myself a traitor with the rest” (4.1.247-49). This falls well short of a reply to the charges against him. Paris: “He keeps reminding others of their heinous offenses, while evading their efforts to get him to acknowledge his own.”5 Still, the role requires an accomplice. This takes us back to the stage, and the most successful attack upon the play's inner meaning.

One does not speak of “definitive performances,” an extravagant acclaim for a successful actor or production. But the production concept of John Barton's RSC Richard II (1973-74) was something else. Barton cast two actors of equal distinction, Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco, as Richard and Bolingbroke. They played each part in strict alternation. It was a serial doubling in which the exchanged identities of Richard/Bolingbroke acted as metaphor for the play's true protagonist.

Nothing illustrates this better than the story Pasco told. The production opened with the entire company coming on, dressed identically in rehearsal costume:

One line of characters enters stage left and walks straight down the stage. Another line enters from stage right, walks down stage, and then the two lines face another. If we are playing the king, we enter stage right; if Bolingbroke, we enter stage left. Before the curtain goes up, while the stage managers are preparing to let things happen, we congregate in the wings. One night, Ian and I found ourselves both stage right. I said, “It's me.” He said, “It's not you; it's me.” He had to send the stage manager to the front of the house to see who was doing it.6

This is more than a stage confusion, it points toward fusion.

Stanley Wells sounds a legitimate note of skepticism here. He does not accept Bolingbroke as “a fully realized tragic figure.” “The suggestion of equivalence between Richard and Bolingbroke which Mr Barton's production undoubtedly gave required the importation of lines from 2 Henry IV and the transference of an important passage in Richard II to Bolingbroke from another character.”7 The suggestion of equivalence is, of course, a human perspective, one that was immensely fruitful to the actors involved, not an overt fact of the text. Nothing will shake an actor's conviction that Richard is the best part and Bolingbroke the second-best part in Richard II. The psychic alliance between Richard and Bolingbroke was rendered into a professional pact, in which the two actors exchanged roles with entire satisfaction at their lot, coupled with appreciation of each other's playing. This extended what Anne Barton referred to in her program note as Shakespeare's exploration of

the latent parallel between the King and that other twin-natured human being, the Actor. Like kings, actors are accustomed to perform before an audience. Like kings, they are required to submerge their own individuality within a role and, for both, the incarnation is temporary and perilous. Like the two kings in Richard II, their feelings towards their roles are often ambiguous, a mixture of exhilaration and disgust. And … Richard is intensely conscious, in the early scenes, of kingship as a role to be acted.8

It comes down, then, as Anne Barton saw it, to the proposition that Richard and Bolingbroke “are united by the fact of kingship. The burden they bear is the same—there is an affinity between them. They share something with each other that they share with no one else in the play.”9 If that is true insight into the text, then the production illustrated it. I find nothing more fruitful in the accounts of John Barton's Richard II than Andrew Gurr's: “Curiously, as the production went on, its two Richards changed and began to resemble each other more closely.”10

The last scenes of Richard II show the two men in their reactions to the joint burden. Richard, after all his weakness, dies game. He goes down fighting, taking two of Exton's bravos with him. He earns Exton's epitaph: “As full of valor as of royal blood” (5.5.113). That is the defiant life-force that one could more easily have attributed to Bolingbroke. The new king (5.6) finds himself handing out executions to rebels and house imprisonment to the Bishop of Carlisle. The news of Richard's death brings out the final ironies of mutuality and role-exchange:

I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land
To wash the blood off from my guilty hand.


The usual commentaries here miss some of its meaning. The “voyage to the Holy Land,” which hardens into the crusade project that haunts the king in Henry IV, has its political usefulness. Its message of guilt and atonement is a public rendering of private feelings. But “crusade” is also a version of “exile.” The sentence meted out to Bolingbroke in act 1 is what he prescribes for himself in act 5. There might not even be that much difference in duration of sentence. Richard had handed down a sentence of six years' exile; Richard Coeur-de-Lion was away on the Third Crusade for five years. Exile for exile is Bolingbroke's sense of what's fitting. Like the good politician he is, he talks about it, up to his dying breath.

There is no need to doubt the play's status as “tragedy.” Richard II is a tragedy because the quarto title page says it is. I see no virtue in measuring up Richard for the honorific “tragic hero,” as though this were a registered standard of which Richard falls short. That line of thought leads to Kenneth Tynan's blunt dismissal of Alec Guinness's Richard:

Richard is a character part; he is not one of Corneille's waxwork grandees. The key to him is the line: ‘O that I were as great as is my grief!’ If he were, he might be a tragic figure. But the circumstances are wrong, and he remains merely a misfit.11

I think it the cardinal error in genre-criticism to theorize about definitions, which the facts unaccountably fail to illustrate. Richard II is the story of a man who chooses to self-destruct. His fascination with the martyr role becomes a pretext for his own failure, a pretext which finds a willing respondent. Tragedy needs accomplices. It is then the lot of the accomplice to behave decorously. Bolingbroke becomes the State, and the State has to do something about Richard. The aftermath of tragedy is the alleviation of guilt. Guilt is society, not just the surviving protagonist.


  1. Anne Barton, in Staging Shakespeare: Seminars on Production Problems, ed. Glenn Loney (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1990), 24.

  2. Walter Pater, Appreciations (London, 1889), 198.

  3. J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1949), 108.

  4. Bernard J. Paris, Character as a Subversive Force in Shakespeare: The History and Roman Plays (Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991), 62.

  5. Ibid., 67.

  6. Barton, Staging Shakespeare, 40.

  7. Stanley Wells, Royal Shakespeare: Four Major Productions at Stratford-upon-Avon (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), 75.

  8. Program note to the RSC Richard II, quoted in Wells, Royal Shakespeare, 75.

  9. Staging Shakespeare, 25.

  10. King Richard II, New Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. Andrew Gurr (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 50.

  11. Kenneth Tynan, He That Plays The King (London: Longmans, Green, 1950), 89.

John Mullan (review date 16 June 1995)

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SOURCE: Mullan, John. “Privilege of Gender.” Times Literary Supplement (16 June 1995): 22.

[In the following review, Mullen commends Deborah Warner's 1995 Cottesloe Theatre production of Richard II, which, the critic contends, emphasized the ritualistic ceremony of Shakespeare's drama. In addition, Mullan praises Fiona Shaw's Richard as “always interesting” and “sometimes brilliant.”]

Most of the publicity for this production has been stirred by the casting of Fiona Shaw in the title role. Getting its retaliation in first against those who might object, the programme brandishes some “quotes” chosen to alert us to the appropriateness of a woman acting as king. Yet despite its assurances that nineteenth-century theatre-goers thought nothing of a woman playing Hamlet or Iago, and its sternness about “the modern sense of this cross-dressed portrayal as a stunt or trick”, Deborah Warner's production relies on our sense of oddness of the choice. The director has called Richard “feminine”, and there is a good deal in this: his distance from and distaste for other characters' displays of manliness; his fanciful way with words, often puzzling to the men of action and politics who listen. Her identification of his unmanliness as that which disturbs those around him, and thus the realm itself, is entirely reasonable. Translating this into the casting of a woman in his part, and trading on our awareness of the incongruity, is certainly a kind of “stunt”.

Yet the first thing to say is that the headline casting is the only stunt, and that this production succeeds because it entirely trusts in the power of the play's conflicts. Exceptionally, it is performed uncut, managing to bring to life aspects of its drama that are frequently neglected. Usually excised is the sub-plot in which Richard's former supporter, Aumerle, schemes against the successful usurper, Bolingbroke. Disowned by his own father, Aumerle is finally saved by the pleas of his mother as she kneels to the new ruler. Here it is anything but unnecessary; a partly comic, partly chilling parody of all the other supplications and kneeling declarations that we have witnessed. The scene in parliament in which nobles from different factions in turn challenge each other's honour, hurling down gauntlet after gauntlet in angry self-righteousness, is electric as well as faintly ridiculous. Warner has managed to show these strutting competitors not only as political realists, but also as men who truly need to believe in the language of honour that they exploit.

The staging concentrates the mind and the eye on the play's ceremonious, deadly competitions. The space is arranged as for a joust; we sit in the lists or watch from overhead as the duellists manoeuvre. The actual duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray proclaimed in the first scene is, of course, interrupted by the King before weapons can “arbitrate” their “settled hate”. Yet the sense that violence and formality might belong together is perfectly preserved throughout the rest of the play. The animosities of its rivals, who are also mostly relatives, makes them all the more attentive to the proprieties of speech and gesture. The truthfulness of Warner and her cast to the sheer ceremony of the drama (often the most unconvincing aspect of modern productions of history plays) rarely wavers. Above all it is brought to life in the clarity of the strained, decorous verse. Richard II is full of rhymes, and here is a production careful enough to let one hear those ceremonious oppositions within speech itself.

Those oppositions engage us because our sympathies are variously, but not predictably, engaged. David Threlfall's Bolingbroke is certainly ambitious, but his respect for the monarchy that he undermines is treated as genuine, even pained. He and Richard are doomed to each other. Threlfall manages the difficult task of suggesting that even this political winner has had his losses. Also outstanding are Michael Bryant's York, both a true patriot and a man who, for that very reason, will pledge allegiance to whomever he believes the likeliest winner, and Struan Rodger's Northumberland, a frightening political operator who has a clear-eyed intelligence that is almost engaging. Most of Warner's cast have found the oppositions within their characters: the malevolence that goes with the sadness of Paola Dionisotti's Duchess of Gloucester; the fatalism that sounds in all the better hopes of Graham Crowden's Gaunt.

And at the heart of it all, cause of conflicts, is Fiona Shaw's Richard. Her performance is always interesting, and in the second half of the play it is sometimes brilliant. Everything she says has an idea behind it. In the first two acts, however, the idea is sometimes pretty odd. While he still rules unchallenged, her Richard is facetious and flippant. The text distinguishes between the King's self-important formality in the presence of the court, and his casual cynicism when alone with his favourites. Shaw gives us no such distinction, and acts a king who rather obviously mocks the very forms that give him his status. Some of his regal rhymes are designed to be unconvincing, but not to be turned into waggishness. Full of invention though it is, this seems a self-indulgent version of Richard's self-indulgence. It is difficult not to think that a woman in the part has been all too completely freed from the masculine ceremonies that shape confrontations as well as allegiances.

Then Richard is beaten and abandoned, and Shaw's performance starts making sense. Once she is desperate, her flippancy becomes necessary; once she is a loser, a talent for mockery becomes an important resource. What Shaw really gets is all Richard's insight his belated acuteness about others' motives. She is at her best in the famous, much censored, “deposition scene” where she makes Richard sardonic rather than pathetic, a provoking analyst to whom his enemies must listen. They squirm, and Bolingbroke flinches, as he satirizes their attempts to seem respectable to themselves. By the time of Richard's prison soliloquy, just before his murder, Shaw's performance has combined the King's self-pity and his perceptiveness. “Unkinged”, her difference from the men who have betrayed her is her source of bitterness and her privilege. Finally, the stunt is justified.

Michael Billington (review date 1 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Billington, Michael. “From Tyrant to Martyr.” Guardian (1 April 2000): 4.

[In the following review, Billington appraises Steven Pimlott's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard II, focusing on how its stark setting created a contemporary mood that underscored the universal relevance of the play.]

A great adventure has begun. Over the next year the Royal Shakespeare Company is to stage all eight of Shakespeare's Histories in chronological sequence. It kicks off with Steven Pimlott's fiercely intelligent, modern-dress Richard II in the Other Place, converted by David Fielding into a space resembling a white-walled squash-court or science lab: a perfect setting for this masterly dissection of kingship.

Modern dress, even when stylised with lots of maroon and grey maxi-coats, creates problems for this most ceremonial of plays, one that is steeped in medieval myth and that shows the notion of the king as God-sanctioned monarch giving way to personal ambition and legalistic statecraft. But Pimlott and his designer, Sue Willmington, pull it off in various ways. They suggest Richard presides over an already divided kingdom: one in which rancorous bullies confront each other in the lists at Coventry, with lethal axes. They make good use of symbolic props, including a long wooden casket which variously becomes throne, vertical mirror and coffin. Above all, with the aid of Simon Kemp's bright, overhead strip-lighting, they give the work a strong European dimension: it becomes a Brechtian analysis of the nature of power. One could pick holes in the execution: I distrust the modern habit, already seen in Macbeth this week at London's BAC, of plucking lines from the fifth act to use as a choric refrain. But the abiding impression is of dazzling clarity. Samuel West's Richard moves from heedless tyrant to Christian martyr with absolute, and absolutist, conviction. Donning crown and ermine when it suits him, West shows the raging wreck that lurks beneath: he lunges at the prophetic John of Gaunt like a berserk thug and, having been likewise ticked off by the Duke of York, promptly makes him Lord Governor.

West also captures Richard's accelerating self-consciousness, he wraps himself in the national flag for the Westminster deposition scene, and mordant irony: his cry to Bolingbroke of ‘Here, cousin, seize the crown’ ripples with taunting ambiguity. I have known more lyrical Richards: what West conveys is the character's progress from Ceaucescu to Christ.

David Troughton's Bolingbroke is also brilliantly effective: an overweening politician who cloaks driving ambition under a sense of wrong, ‘I am a subject and I challenge law’, and who swiftly dispatches Richard's followers with a bullet through the brain. But, having staged his takeover, Troughton also captures the hermetic isolation of power, making redundant the decision to end the play with the opening lines of Henry IV, Part One. David Killick's dithering York, Christopher Saul's Machiavellian Northumberland and Adam Levy's armed-to-the-teeth, SAS-style Harry Percy lend unflinching support.

The production, since the Histories will have a variety of directors, may not provide a pattern for the future. It does, however, rescue Richard II from medieval pageantry and reveal its modern relevance as a study of the way revolution often begets tyranny.

Nigel Saul (review date 12 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Saul, Nigel. “With an Eye to the Present.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5067 (12 May 2000): 3-4.

[In the following review, Saul compares Steven Pimlott's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard II with Jonathan Kent's 2000 staging at the Almeida Theatre. The critic views both productions as problematic in that Pimlott's modern-dress interpretation obscured Shakespeare's view of monarchy and Kent's staging was marred by Ralph Fiennes's one-dimensional portrayal of Richard.]

Can Richard II be turned into a parable of modern tyranny?

Of all Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II is the grandest. Not only does it address the loftiest of themes—tyranny and its punishment, kingship and its responsibilities; it does so with exceptional passion and force. The political voltage runs high. There is no relief in a comic sub-plot. The rivalry of the king and his challenger holds us in thrall.

Richard II has always been a very popular play. It was a hit when first produced in the 1590s, and it saw many performances down to the Civil War. In the Restoration period, it ran into difficulties; the theme of a bad king being deposed was an embarrassment to the Crown. In the nineteenth century, when it was revived, it was interpreted as the tragedy of a poet-king. This reading long remained popular. In our own century, however, there has been willingness to experiment. Particularly innovative was John Barton's 1973 production at Stratford with Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson alternating as Bolingbroke and the King. More recently, the casting of Fiona Shaw as Richard at the National attracted wide interest. This spring, two new productions are on offer—one at Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Steven Pimlott, the other the Almeida Company's, directed by Jonathan Kent. The two productions are very different and offer contrasting views of the play's meaning.

The Stratford production inaugurates a complete history cycle. The cycle is called This England: The Histories. Over the summer the first tetralogy is being performed, and in the winter the second. As the title suggests, the project has a highly contemporary agenda. The accompanying note tells us that the history plays were chosen because they address our present concerns—the shape of our nation, the character of our identity and the role of our monarchy. Not surprisingly, this production of Richard II resonates with contemporary reference. Strains of Churchill and “Jerusalem” figure on the pre-curtain soundtrack, while in the trial scene Richard comes on stage draped in a St George flag. This is a performance with an eye to the present, and the audience is never allowed to forget it.

Predictably, the set is starkly modernistic. The Other Place is stripped bare. Richard's court is set in a chic Docklands warehouse. The walls are brilliant white, the decoration minimal. The only fittings are a few wine-bar chairs and some alcoves. Everyone is kitted in modern attire. Bushy, Bagot and Green are dressed as trendy twenty-somethings, and the herald as a butcher in an apron. Harry Percy is an SAS man, and the Bishop of Carlisle a modern Church of England cleric. In this company, the hapless Lord Marshal in his Gilbert and Sullivan outfit is simply out of place.

The strongly contemporary theme is kept up in the performance. Richard's story is presented as the overthrow of a modern dictator. The sorts of questions explored are: what does the upheaval mean? And how do people come to terms with it? The terror and the anguish of events are well conveyed. Richard is convincingly shown as a tin-pot dictator, with the courtiers his apparatchiks. At the height of his power at the beginning of the play, these people fawn over him; they eat out of his hand. Bushy, Bagot and Green might be the courtiers of the late Shah. They laugh when he laughs, they mock when he mocks. But when their royal master falls, they run for their lives. The less fortunate are rounded up, while the more quick-witted change sides. Loyalty is forgotten. We feel the embarrassment of these time-servers when Richard addresses them at his trial:

Yet I well remember the favours of these men. Were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry “All hail” to me?
So Judas did to Christ.

In few productions have these words been spoken with more feeling than Samuel West speaks them here. One liberty which the director takes with Shakespeare's stage directions reinforces his message. Shakespeare has the appalling Bushy and Green dragged off stage for execution. Pimlott, rather, has them executed on stage—by pistol-shots in the back of the head. Pimlott's revolution is a very twentieth-century job. This is the way that totalitarian regimes are dispatched in our own time. We could be seeing Iran in 1979 or Romania in 1990. For Richard II, read the Shah or Nicolae Ceausescu.

Pimlott's point is well taken. His reading of the play emphasizes its universality. What we are seeing is a phenomenon recognizable in every age: the abuse and the distortion of power, the overthrow of a corrupt elite, and the anguished compromises made by those caught in the middle. Yet, at the same time, something is lost. The Richard of Shakespeare's creation is wrenched from his historical context. Shakespeare was not only writing about tyranny, oppression and intrigue, nor even about hubris reaping its inevitable nemesis. He was writing about the special character of monarchy, about the relation between a quasi-sacral office and the man who fills it. And that aspect of the play is completely overlooked here.

The tension between the man and his office is central to the play's pathos. Richard is a two-natured being, king and man. At the beginning of the play he is very much the king. He is the demigod, the sacramental ruler, sitting in judgment and passing “doom”. His personal style is grand and ceremonious; he insists on deference. There are times, admittedly, when we see the mask slip. In Act One, Scene Four, his cynicism is revealed, allowing us to see why his fortunes will later change. But at this stage the man is still submerged in the office. Later, however, the two are pulled brutally apart. The King is gradually divested of his high office; one by one, the attributes of his kingly dignity are stripped from him. He is made man. And yet, paradoxically, his stature increases. Philosophic and reflective, he discovers the true essence of kingship. Richard's tragedy becomes a Christ-like passion. Though unking'd and exposed to mockery, he is kingly still. Degenerate and deprived of power, he yet bears the indelible marks of majesty.

The neglect—indeed, the elimination—of this side of the play at Stratford obscures an important aspect of its meaning. Shakespeare's play is, above all, about that most extraordinary institution, monarchy. Monarchy in Shakespeare's day was still the most vital institution in society. The monarch was the symbol of national identity and the focus of national loyalty. Monarchy was splendid, mystical and spectacular. Despite many changes, it was still largely medieval in form—part theatre, part liturgy. In his own queen, Elizabeth, Shakespeare could see a ruler who knew how to play the monarchical game to perfection. Elizabeth was in many ways a second Richard. She was grand, ceremonious and image-conscious. After seeing the play, she is supposed to have said, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” She was referring, it seems, to the possible likeness to a ruler surrounded by flatterers. But what is striking is the similarity in the two rulers' styles. Elizabeth, like Shakespeare's Richard, was adept at the theatre of monarchy. Richard II is often—and rightly—said to be a very theatrical play. Richard himself can be seen as a play-actor; in Peter Ure's epithet, he prefers blank verse to battles. His reaction to his worsening plight in a sense constitutes a play within a play. This theatrical bearing on his part is central to his conception of monarchy; it articulates the showiness of it all. And the problem with Pimlott's production is that, with monarchy sidelined, that aspect is lost. The lyrical, elegiac side is missing. The speeches lose much of their meaning and the poetry much of its power; Richard appears simply verbose. Samuel West does his best to rescue the lyricism; he more than understands the complexity of Richard's responses. But sadly he is the victim of a scheme concerned chiefly with the present. Implicit in Pimlott's scheme is the assumption that monarchy is a thing of the past, with no place in a modern reading. Yet that cannot be so; monarchy lies at the heart of the play's message.

In the Almeida Company's production at Gainsborough Studios, the director's hand happily rests more lightly. No strait-jacketed scheme is imposed on the play, and no brash modern agenda is pursued. The play is allowed to speak for itself.

The Almeida's is a very different production from the RSC's. To some extent, the differences arise from the contrasting settings. It is hard to think of two theatres more dissimilar than The Other Place and the Gainsborough. The Other Place is small and intimate, the Gainsborough vast and cavernous; the Other Place embraces the visitor, the Gainsborough overawes him. The Gainsborough is the converted shell of a former film studio; Hitchcock made some of his films here. The job of conversion is eye-catching and spectacular. Galleries and scaffolding rise high on both sides and at the back. In the front is a huge wall cracked as if struck by lightning. The roof overhead disappears into the darkness. Enveloping vapour adds to the mystery. It is like being in a great Romanesque cathedral at Mass. At least one can feel the liturgy of monarchy here. Chants are even provided on the soundtrack.

The early parts of the production live up to our expectations. The opening moment is stunning. A spotlight illuminates the enthroned king at the back of the stage. His figure is a mere pinprick in the dark—minute, but dazzling. A team of courtiers carry him forward. We are blinded by the Persil whiteness of his costume and throne. As the courtiers fan out, he addresses them commandingly. This is pure spectacle. The historical Richard would have loved it. The ceremoniousness of the play is much better captured here than at Stratford. Richard, besides being richly attired, is given a crown and sceptre. His courtiers are attired in passable medieval costume; a number of them carry swords. At Coventry, Mowbray and Bolingbroke don armour while waiting in the lists. In this production, one does not have to keep reminding oneself that this is a play about monarchy.

In the second half, however, the production loses direction. The fault for this lies mainly with the lead actor, Ralph Fiennes. In the opening scenes Fiennes is excellent. He delivers the set-piece speeches with assurance. We are given a sense of the ceremoniousness of the King, while at the same time being shown the cynicism of his actions. But when the King's fortunes wane and power slips from his grasp, Fiennes's tone barely changes. This is a one-level performance. Fiennes's Richard does not grow or develop. No sense is conveyed of him becoming more self-aware. In the scene on the Welsh coast, he shows more anger than reflection. And when he is not angry, he is laughing. In the trial scene, the lines about the buckets filling one another are treated as comedy. The intensity of Richard's response to his plight is ignored. Towards the end, there is one riveting performance. Fiennes delivers the poignant prison soliloquy with real feeling. But by then it is too late. The chance to bring dignity to the performance is lost. We are left wondering what Richard's tragedy is really about.

Fiennes's misreading weakens but does not entirely diminish the production. There are good performances by other actors. David Burke offers us a superb John of Gaunt. It is difficult for anyone to bring freshness to the famous death-bed speech, but Burke manages it. His pacing is excellent, and his variations in tone well judged. But best of all is Oliver Ford Davies as Edmund, Duke of York. York, in the 1399 revolution, is the man caught in the middle, the King's lieutenant; a decent enough fellow, but simply not up to the job. It is usual to portray York comically, and the scenes with his wife and son invite this approach. David Killick plays the part comically at Stratford. He is bumbling and panicky; all told, a bit of a chump. But Ford Davies brings new meaning to his character. He plays York straight. Ford Davies's York is loyal to his sovereign, yet also conscious of his failings. As Bolingbroke's fortunes advance, he finds himself torn. At Berkeley he insists on standing by the King, yet faced with force majeure he has to back down. His marvellous exchange with Bolingbroke at Berkeley is made a resume of the rights and wrongs of the dispute. Ford Davies's York is principled, mellow and judicious. He becomes the conscience of the realm on Gaunt's death. Ford Davies's penetration brings new depth to the part. His performance is the best in the production.

The sheer dominance of Richard himself in any production makes it difficult for other characters to emerge from his shadow. Ford Davies manages it. But do many of the others? The task is particularly difficult for a Bolingbroke. By rights, Bolingbroke should be the hero of the play. Early on, the victim of royal injustice, he comes out top at the end: he should be the symbol of the victory of right over wrong, of good over evil. But that is not how Shakespeare presents it. The capricious Richard is given all the best lines. And though toppled from his pedestal halfway through, he remains the central figure. Bolingbroke is somehow overshadowed. How is the actor taking his part to cope with this?

At Stratford, David Troughton's answer is to play the thug. Troughton's Bolingbroke is a tough, forceful character—not the sort you want to meet in a dark alley at night. Though a mere baron, he commands obedience better than his king; at one point, he successfully raises the audience to their feet in mock mourning for the dead Mowbray. At Shoreditch, Linus Roache does it very differently. Roache's Bolingbroke is cynical and calculating. At times he is a shade priggish. In the key exchange at Berkeley he speaks to York in self-righteous tones. This is a man utterly convinced of his rectitude. There is no shadow of doubt in his mind. In the trial scene he has the temerity to sit on Richard's throne. It is easy to see how this fellow managed to take the King's crown. But does he possess the steel to keep it? Will his calculation grow into natural authority? Roache's Bolingbroke can only be tested if we are given a performance of Henry IV, Part I.

These two approaches to Bolingbroke highlight the range of interpretative possibility in Shakespeare's play. A major attraction of having two productions in parallel is to be able to judge one in the light of the other. But how do the productions compare? Each has its strengths. At Stratford, Samuel West offers us the better Richard; his reading of the King's plight invests his performance with real pathos. At Shoreditch, Ford Davies, however, gives us the better York. As Bolingbrokes, Killick and Roache may be judged equal successes. A major weakness at Shoreditch is undoubtedly failure to develop Richard. Yet it is the Stratford production which is the more problematic of the two. It comes across as a very bleak production. The question it raises is whether it is permissible to turn Richard into a parable on modern tyranny. Opinions will differ on this. But, whatever answers are given, one thing is certain. Richard II can still speak to us. Written under the first Elizabeth, it is a play no less eloquent in the age of the second.

Alastair Macaulay (review date 5 January 2001)

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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “An Eloquent Examination of Kingship.” Financial Times (5 January 2001): 16.

[In the following review of Steven Pimlott's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Richard II, Macaulay applauds the stark production for its arresting investigation of existential themes.]

Who is worthy to rule? Shakespeare's plays ask the question again and again, and it is a central irony of Richard II that the title character only starts to seem fit for the throne as he abandons it. Shakespeare is often at his most powerful when he shows the gap between the crown and its former wearer: as when the deposed Henry VI is arrested, as when the Duke in Measure for Measure wanders his own state in disguise, and—supreme—as when King Lear rages on the heath. The key point is one we all know in life: that it is only when you have stopped doing something that you fully understand what it was you were doing. Raised, however, to the level of hereditary governance, the issue becomes tragic. Shakespeare examines it from every angle: what is royal heredity? Does it bring divine right with it? And who is worthier to rule than the ruler? Just as Richard II only seems kingly as he ceases to be king, so Bolingbroke only starts to seem unfit for the throne at the moment that he becomes Henry IV.

Richard II is a wonderful play to return to, and it seems always to add up differently in the mind. It begins very much in medias res, and yet it launches issues that Shakespeare will go on developing through both parts of Henry IV and will not resolve until Henry V.

Finally all the issues of the play seem to ricochet off each other in Richard's mind in the extraordinary speech—“I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world”—with which he starts his final scene. Richard is a witty character, and in him Shakespeare develops another of his favourite themes—the misuse of wit, its difference from wisdom, and the punishment meted out on those who wielded wit wrongly. “I wasted time,” Richard utters with dry ruefulness in this prison speech, “and now doth time waste me.” Seldom in world drama has a sophisticated mind been given greater pathos.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has not yet completed its cycle of the Shakespeare's eight central history plays in Stratford-upon-Avon—Richard III will materialise there in February—but it is good already that the earlier productions of the cycle are queueing up to transfer to various stages in London, and that Steven Pimlott's staging of Richard II has now arrived in the Pit. This is in several ways the most audacious production of all the cycle; whereas Michael Boyd's recent Henry VI productions show the plays' roots in the medieval mystery plays, this one shows how Shakespeare looks forward to both Brecht and Beckett. It is also by far the best Shakespearian work I have seen from Pimlott. Although I still do not admire the clever monkeying around with the text he sanctions here, this remains much the best Richard II of my experience precisely because, everywhere else, he makes the play's text so keenly eloquent.

And simple. There are a few of the production devices that, usually, I resent—notably the fresh soil of a newly dug grave on one side of the stage (with which Richard smears himself at one point), and the big box looking-glass that turns later into Richard's prison and finally his coffin—but which actually here are so lightly used that all they do is to underline, simply, just what the characters are saying and to trace connections that are already there in the play. Meanings and messages are not being forced upon you. Nothing gets in the way of Shakespeare's dramaturgy.

The production could not be so lucid were it not for its cast. Sam West's performance as Richard is marvellous in its blend of intelligence and modesty. He seems almost to make himself transparent in his effort to reveal the play, the character, the lines—and yet he has natural authority. In the simplest, surest brushstrokes, he shows us the essence of each speech, each scene. David Troughton as Bolingbroke, Alfred Burke as John of Gaunt, Catherine Walker as the Queen, Janet Whiteside as the Duchesses both of Gloucester and York are no less fine; only the slightly vain performance of Alexis Daniel as Aumerle seems self-regarding and actorly; several small roles are played with striking force by Tim Treloar. Long after the performance, the play carries on in your head.

Richard Wilson (review date 13 June 2003)

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SOURCE: Wilson, Richard. “Power to the Scapegoat.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5228 (13 June 2003): 20.

[In the following review, Wilson evaluates Tim Carroll's 2003 all-male, Elizabethan staging of Richard II at London's Globe Theatre, focusing on Mark Rylance's illuminating performance of Richard as a “pouting toy-king.”]

“Know ye not that I am Richard?” Elizabeth I's complaint to her spin-doctor William Lambarde has had more impact on current Shakespearean thinking than any other historical remark, unless it is her comment that “We princes are set on stages in sight of all the world”. The Globe has made the Queen's identification with the tragedy-king its starting-point for a season of plays entitled “Regime Change”, in a clear nod to critics such as Stephen Greenblatt, who have taught a generation that “theatre is not set against power, but is power's essential mode”. So, whether or not the play Elizabeth resented was Shakespeare's—put on at the original Globe by the rebels the night before Essex's Revolt—Mark Rylance's Richard II, alive to the politics of power on display, shows why his own upstart regime has now become, in academic eyes at least, Britain's leading Shakespeare company, just when its Royal rival has thrown away the crown.

Academic critics love the Globe for the intellectual tease of moments such as the entry of Rylance's Richard en chasse, ruffed up if not quite as Elizabeth, then perhaps as her successor, the gender-bending James I. In Tim Carroll's all-male “Jacobethan” production, the play is a dress rehearsal for the Civil War, set to Purcellian funeral music with Richard a Divine Right Stuart petulantly stamping that “We were not born to sue”.

Only accident of birth could explain this pouting toy-king, when the future is with a dour Roundhead like Liam Brennan's black-clad Bolingbroke, who grips “the wavering commons” as “A true born Englishman”, but pushes Richard off like a leper when he falls. In this Richard II, the winners accept what they cannot change, like Chu Omanbala's quick-thinking Aumerle, who is next to one king at the start and the other at the end. In an article in the Guardian, Rylance argued that “Regime Change” referred as much to Iraq as to events 400 years ago. But the result of this fatalism is that his King is a Chaplinesque clown, one of those men to whom history may say “Alas, but cannot help or pardon”.

Hazlitt thought Kean's Richard put up too much fight, “instead of being thoughtful, sad and melancholy”, and wrote that if he studied the character's self-pity as “a mockery king of snow, to melt before the sun”, the actor would see how “feeling connects with weakness, imbecility, and passiveness”. Someone (perhaps the inspirational Globe dramaturge, Patrick Spottiswoode) has read this essay, and made Hazlitt's plea for the King to let his mirror “fall from his hands, as from an infant's” rather than “dashing it down with all his might” the key to the plot. In fact, Rylance's skipping King is so weak, passive and imbecile that he flicks the glass with his glove, smacks the sick Gaunt with his handkerchief, and wipes the throne with a napkin before sitting down. What Rylance does best, as he showed in Twelfth Night, is to stand still.

Hazlitt would have approved the pathos with which he simply dissolves to the ground, to “tell sad stories of the death of kings”, as his snowman melts away.

Between Richard's white hart, skewered at the start, and his black bier, this staging is rich in scapegoat symbols. When it was performed at Middle Temple, it trumpeted the theme that (as Marvell said of Cromwell and Charles) nature likes two forces no more than a vacuum by swinging the action between opposing ends, as if one had to be the way out. It was risky, then, for Tony Blair and his Education Secretary to agree to a photo-shoot at the Globe preview, considering the wicked timing Rylance brings to Shakespeare's observation that power has “two buckets filling one another, / The emptier ever dancing in the air”. The Prime Minister was hailing the Globe's success in a week when Charles Clarke dismissed medievalists, rather as “caterpillars” swarming over “our sea-walled garden”. The irony of this political visit, of course, was that in this history lesson the Middle Ages had never seemed more to the point.

But Blair's trip to Richard II also afforded a chance to audit what the Globe is doing so right that it is now a flagship for the arts. Journalists are uneasy with a theatre that sacrifices psychological depth to the antiqued ceremonialism of the “Wooden O”. They prefer tanks in the National's new Henry V to the carnival floats they say cross-dressing makes of Shakespeare's women, such as Michael Brown's Queen Isabel, who does seem more a galleon than a girl. And those who remember Ian McKellen's Richard and Edward II now fret over Rylance's comic milking of the groundlings, which turns the deposition into a Hancock routine as the King ventriloquizes his dead self. They miss emotion. But this is a King who abandons centre-stage to politicians, winking like the boy who gave Clarke rabbit ears for the photographers, because what counts are his laughs. So, when Bill Stewart's York huffs that “After a well-grac'd actor leaves the stage”, eyes ignore “him that enters next”, there is a ripple of delight, and we see that the reason why a Globe performance has no depth is that it is about nothing but itself. This may be postmodern. But it is also truly Shakespearean in its sense of event.

When the Globe opened, sceptics predicted that it would never stage scenes more eye-catching than the building itself. They did not reckon on the fanatic crafted costumes of Jenny Tiramani. Nor allow for the fascination of traditional effects, like the doubling that sees the Old Vic veteran John McEnery playing Gaunt, the Gardener and the Guard. They could not foresee the thrill of Tudor rituals like the company jig, which here rounds off the evening to enthusiastic applause. But above all, they never anticipated the messianic self-belief of Rylance, who has Czech students and Japanese tourists eating out of his hand—as he throws them his bread. Up in the gallery, he exaggerates Richard's amazement at being called down with so many pauses that the play comes near to farce; but, in the end, he fights for life. This is an actor so quirky he insists both that the Globe is built on ley-lines, and that Shakespeare did not write the plays acted there. Such weirdness should surely be at odds with the “original instruments” with which he performs. In fact, his madcap King suggests that Mark Rylance's Shakespeare is much like Glenn Gould's Bach: as original for his perversity as for any supposed return to the origins of the work.

Charles Isherwood (review date 4 August 2003)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Richard II. Variety 391, no. 11 (4 August 2003): 30.

[In the following review, Isherwood presents a favorable review of Tim Carroll's 2003 Globe Theatre staging of Richard II, particularly admiring the intimate rapport that Mark Rylance's Richard established with the audience.]

The gentleness that is a particularly appealing element of Mark Rylance's stage persona is put to fine use in his performance as Shakespeare's diffident Richard II at Shakespeare's Globe. Rylance's Richard is the affecting center of this all-male staging by Tim Carroll that clearly presents the king's failings as a ruler and diplomat—and human being—but also clarifies the ennobling effects of his downfall.

Rylance's Richard has the manner of a bored child in the play's early scenes, when he presides somewhat peevishly over the dispute between Bolingbroke (Liam Brennan) and Mowbray (Terry McGinity). He's a monarch who has never learned the proper manners of a ruler. While his subjects present their grievances, a distracted Richard bends to tenderly stroke the hide of a freshly killed deer. He gingerly holds a handkerchief in front of his nose in disgust when calling on the dying Gaunt (played with intelligent gravity by John McEnery), and later flies into a petulant rage when stung by his criticism.

Rylance's Richard is charming and sincere when he is appealing to the audience directly, giving public speeches, but this Richard foolishly thinks it is enough to play the decorous ruler in public while indulging his personal whims and playing favorites in private. He fails to see that the courtiers he abuses are the real conduit between a ruler and his people; it is only they who are in contact with the people and can steer their loyalties. The king, far above, can but look on helplessly as his subjects revolt.

When the tide turns against him, Richard is puzzled and chastened into gentleness. Appealingly, Rylance's Richard crucially retains his humor in his humiliation; he practically plays the court jester at times, making his points about the divine right of kings with a wit that commands attention now that he can no longer command respect. By the time the king's fate is sealed, his grace and sensitivity have moved us to aching sympathy.

Since Richard II is notable for the relative brevity—and paucity—of its female roles, the casting of men in them here brings neither embarrassments nor revelations. In any event the supporting cast, playing either gender, is strong. Carroll's acclaimed all-male Twelfth Night, starring Rylance as Olivia, tours the U.S. this fall, but has not skedded a New York berth. On the evidence of this assured and affecting production, that's a real pity.

Martha A. Kurtz (essay date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Kurtz, Martha A. “‘Mock Not’: The Problem of Laughter in Richard II.University of Toronto Quarterly 65, no. 4 (fall 1996): 584-99.

[In the following essay, Kurtz discusses how the element of laughter corresponds to the personalities of Richard and Bolingbroke. According to the critic, Richard's laughter, laced with arrogant elitism and mockery, signifies an aristocratic insecurity which culminates in his deposition; by contrast, Bolingbroke embraces the carnivalesque, popular laughter of the common man to establish political order after usurping the crown.]

Richard II's fall from power in Shakespeare's play has been attributed to many causes: the weakness of the king's ‘poetic’ temperament; the strength of his un-poetic determination to ‘affirm a policy of royal absolutism’; his un-Christian willingness to allow a trial by combat; his failure to allow the trial by combat to proceed; his excessive leniency to both friends and enemies; his complicity in his uncle's murder.1 Most recently, his fate has been ascribed to the effect of a pervasive ‘carnival spirit’ that shapes the world of this play and the plays that follow it. Richard, according to David Bergeron's ‘Richard II and Carnival Politics,’ is a ‘mock king’ who, governed by the rules of carnival games, must inevitably be thrust down, belittled, and cast out to make place for another: ‘history and the play's carnival spirit … displace him, subvert and substitute him.’2 There is, of course, no actual carnival in the play, but Bergeron argues that Shakespeare ‘uses language and ideas associated with carnival as a means of exploring the topsy-turvy world of this play,’ with the result that ‘carnival is not marginal but preeminent in the play as metaphor and reality.’3 In the spirit of popular festivity Bolingbroke too will ‘have his day to “monarchize,”’ but will eventually be subsumed in the carnival process that dethrones every king, every power. ‘[C]arnival pulls down, if only for a moment, established order, whether government or church.’4

Bergeron makes the indisputable point that Richard II is concerned with the transitory nature of power and prestige. His focus on ‘carnival’ as a metaphor for this deeply popular theme allows him to draw attention to a number of interesting details of the characters' language, such as Mowbray's description of his forthcoming battle with Bolingbroke as a ‘feast’ which ‘my dancing soul doth celebrate’ (I.iii.91-92),5 or Richard's attempt to make light of Bolingbroke's successes by claiming that his rival ‘all this while hath revell'd in the night / Whilst we were wand'ring with the Antipodes’ (III.ii.48-49)—details which suggest an energy, even wildness, in these characters that is all too often forgotten by critics and producers who complain that the play is static and dull.6 Perhaps most important, he adds one more voice to the list of critics who have begun to see evidence of what Bergeron calls a ‘playful, sometimes farcical mood’ in what was once considered Shakespeare's most consistently serious play.7

Yet Bergeron's use of ‘carnival’ to describe the political processes of this play ultimately distorts more than it reveals. Carnivals were, if nothing else, celebratory occasions, yet in Richard II there is little of the festive tone, the delight in material abundance and sexuality, the sense of exuberance and possibility, that characterize carnival.8 Although, as Peter Burke has pointed out, aristocrats certainly participated in carnivals, they were predominantly plebeian festivals; Bakhtin's work has made the term inseparable from ideas of popular culture and ‘popular’ laughter.9 Laughter is a critical element in Richard's fall from power, as I will be arguing, but it is something quite different from Bakhtin's ‘laughter of the marketplace’ or ‘carnivalesque.’ Finally, to speak of a disembodied ‘carnival spirit’ as the cause of Richard's fall and Bolingbroke's rise obscures the extent to which the two men are responsible for their own fates. This play does not show Richard and Bolingbroke as interchangeable mock kings who are thrown down from power by an absurdist carnivalesque universe, but as two quite different personalities who are distinguished from each other in many ways, one of the most important of which is the way each uses laughter.

Richard is unlikely to strike anyone as a ‘mock king’ in the play's opening scene; he sounds confident and authoritative as he leads Gaunt, Bolingbroke, and Mowbray through the steps of a formal inquisition into accusations of high treason.10 Yet it may occur to us that he is, at times, a mocking king. Early in I.i he receives Bolingbroke's and Mowbray's declarations of allegiance with surprising irony:

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


His response to Bolingbroke's impassioned accusation of Mowbray is unmistakably sardonic: ‘How high a pitch his resolution soars!’ (I.i.109). And when he tells the ‘wrath-kindled gentlemen’ to ‘forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed: / Our doctors say this is no month to bleed,’ the words sound positively flippant (I.i.156-57).

Richard's tone does not suggest a mock king's ineptitude or an effete prince's lack of interest, as the part is sometimes played, so much as an almost too keen understanding of the political process over which he is presiding. He seems to recognize the realities that underlie the rhetoric in which all three men in the opening scenes are participating: he knows that either Bolingbroke or Mowbray must be lying when both swear allegiance to the king, and he is prepared to bring their hypocrisy to everyone's attention. His ability to step away from his formal role and view the ceremony and its participants with detachment is intriguing and, at first, rather appealing; he seems to act as a kind of moral standard—the truth-teller in a world of hypocrites—and his comments encourage us to identify with his point of view. Yet there is something unsettling, too, in his flippancy: the king is the man whom, more than anyone, we expect to take the ceremonies on which his society is built seriously. Court fools and jesters make mocking asides, not kings.11

What begins as odd moments of wit penetrating the otherwise formal and ceremonious opening scenes soon develops into outright laughter. In I.iv Richard enters with a group of intimate friends. We catch them in mid-speech:

We did observe. Cousin Aumerle,
How far brought you high Herford on his way?
I brought high Herford, if you call him so,
But to the next highway, and there I left him.
And say, what store of parting tears were shed?
Faith, none for me, except the north-east wind,
Which then blew bitterly against our faces,
Awak'd the sleeping rheum, and so by chance
Did grace our hollow parting with a tear.


The alliterative title Richard gives his cousin—‘high Herford’—is obviously sardonic; Aumerle underscores the sarcasm by repeating it and adding the pun on ‘highway.’ The same mocking tone accompanies Richard's question about the parting tears and Aumerle's response. When Richard then asks what Bolingbroke's parting words were, Aumerle's reply—‘Farewell’—is an obvious cue for laughter (I.iv.10-11). Richard keeps up the ridicule in his description of Bolingbroke:

He is our cousin, cousin, but 'tis doubt
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy
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 with 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.’


The first lines are an ironic assessment of Richard's feelings for Bolingbroke and Bolingbroke's for him; the rest of the speech begs the actor playing Richard to whip off his hat and bend his knee in exaggerated caricature of the cousin he both fears and despises. Mockery is equally evident in Richard's callous response to the news of his uncle's illness:

Now put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
.....Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him,
Pray God we may make haste and come too late!


To which the others—with surely another burst of derisive laughter—respond ‘Amen’ as they leave the stage (I.iv.65).

Carnival laughter is popular laughter; this is its opposite—aristocratic, arrogant, elitist. Bolingbroke is mocked for his populism, his politeness to draymen and oyster wenches; Richard and his friends sneer at their cousin's ‘high’ness—his pride—because they feel higher. In Henry IV, Part I, Bolingbroke will describe Richard as having befriended ‘shallow jesters’ and ‘cap'ring fools,’ whom he allowed to mock even ‘[h]is great name,’ but what we see here is quite different.12 This Richard is no passive victim of other men's jokes but a joker himself, whose mockery serves, as mockery so often does, as a means of demonstrating his power over the men around him. He can laugh whenever and at whomever he likes and get away with it, because he is the king; it is not even important that his jokes in the first scene be understood by anyone but himself. His laughter here asserts his superiority over Bolingbroke, his butt, and allows Richard to control his listeners' responses both to Bolingbroke and to himself, assuring that they will be unsympathetic to the man he seems already to suspect is his rival. The comic scene Richard stages here and his earlier flashes of wit are not just incidental touches of comedy; mockery is a form of power that he clearly enjoys exercising.

It is a dangerous power, however. Mockery empowers by making the laughter seem superior to his victim and by drawing others at least momentarily into sharing his point of view. But the distinction between one who laughs and one who is laughed at is not easily maintained; every comedian knows how fine the line is between making people laugh and being laughed at himself. For the professional comic, the distinction is usually irrelevant; for a king, however, it is crucial. To be laughed at is to lose, not only the momentary superiority of laughing at others, but the dignity and awe which should accompany the crown. Richard fails to maintain that distinction here: bending his knee and sweeping off his hat in exaggerated illustration of his words, he becomes for a moment the figure he satirizes, and his audience's laughter will be as much at him as at Bolingbroke. Though laughing at his rival, Richard becomes unexpectedly laughable himself; he plays the jester, but looks like a fool.

This is not the last time that Richard will look foolish. Act I ends with his facetious prayer that Gaunt should die before the king reaches his sickbed; death does not oblige, and Gaunt is still living when the king arrives. Richard may well be sorry that his wish was not heard, since he is forced to listen to the dying man's stern lecture on his sins. At the beginning of the scene the king takes delight in flaunting the proprieties, mocking the attitudes towards age and death that society holds sacred (‘What comfort, man? How is't with aged Gaunt?’ he greets his dying uncle jauntily) (II.i.72). Yet he is not able to retain this jesting detachment for long. Describing his uncle as ‘[a] lunatic lean-witted fool / Presuming on an ague's privilege,’ he shows how much the old man he has been making fun of is capable of angering him: ‘Wert thou not brother to great Edward's son, / This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head / Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders’ (II.i.115-16, 121-23). Richard's anger, however, is ineffectual; his threats make no difference to the dying man. When he responds to Gaunt's rebukes by saying, ‘[L]et them die that age and sullens have, / For both hast thou, and both become the grave’ (II.i.139-40), he sounds like a sulky schoolboy, cornered and resentful, helpless and—being a king—not a little absurd for being helpless.

This helplessness, with its accompanying absurdity, is strikingly in evidence after Richard's return from Ireland in act III; many readers have noticed how it undercuts what would otherwise be the most powerful speeches in the play. Bending down to greet the English earth, he appeals to all the legendary powers of nature supposed to attend the realm's anointed king:

Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense,
But let thy spiders that suck up thy venom
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
.....Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies;
And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder,
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign's enemies.


Out of context his words sound powerful, but it is clear that Richard's followers are not impressed; his request, ‘Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords,’ suggests that they have been exchanging puzzled or impatient glances (III.ii.23).13 His ecstatic assertion that ‘[t]his earth shall have a feeling, and these stones / Prove armed soldiers ere her native king / Shall falter under foul rebellion's arms' meets with the reminder that ‘[t]he means that heaven yields must be imbrac'd / And not neglected,’ a reproof Aumerle expands on: ‘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.24-26, 29-30, 33-35). Pretty words, in short, need to be backed up by actions—actions which Richard seems foolishly unwilling or unable to take.

Aumerle and Carlisle's pragmatism undercuts Richard's rhetoric, which is brought still lower when we realize that the king himself has no real faith in his own words:

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,


he asserts grandly. But when in the next instant Salisbury brings news that all Richard's troops have dispersed, the king turns pale, and confesses, ‘But now the blood of twenty thousand men / Did triumph in my face, and they are fled’ (III.ii.76-77). Men, not angels, are what he has depended on. Richard's helplessness is not simply the result of adverse circumstances; his failure to take advantage of the powers he has, while he has them, is matched by his easy surrender when his human supports have failed. There is no more talk of relying on God's angels, and no attempt to look further for practical human assistance:

Where is the Duke my father with his power?
No matter where—of comfort no man speak.
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors and talk of wills.


For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.


As Richard plops onto the ground in despair, he is as absurd as he is pathetic. Despite the magnificent reflections on mortality and the nature of kingship which accompany this speech, his self-pity is unnecessary and grotesque. It comes too soon. His men—do they remain standing, or do they awkwardly join him as he commands?—are forced to rebuke him again: ‘My lord, wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes, / But presently prevent the way to wail’ (III.ii.178-79). Henry V will recognize the hollowness of kingship in his agonized soliloquy before Agincourt, but he voices his fears in private, while in public he strikes the heroic note that we expect from our leaders and creates the confidence in his troops which helps them to win the battle despite their numbers. The fact that Henry's confidence is unreasonable and Richard's fear perfectly logical is irrelevant; the deflation of Richard's confident claims and his sudden helplessness make him seem unkingly. Even Edward II, who—defeated and in disguise—sits on the ground not to speak of self-pity but to praise the uses of philosophy, has greater dignity.

At Flint Castle, Richard is similarly paralysed by self-pity:

What must the king do now? Must he submit?
The king shall do it. Must he be depos'd?
The king shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of king? a God's name, let it go.
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads;
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;
.....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.


This is embarrassingly maudlin, and while the ‘tender-hearted’ Aumerle weeps, other members of Richard's audience appear to be less touched: ‘Well, well, I see / I talk but idly, and you laugh at me’ (III.iii.170-71). The effect is repeated when Richard descends from the walls of the castle:

Down, down I come, like glist'ring Phaeton,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitors' calls, and do them grace!
In the base court? Come down? Down, court! down, king!
For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing.


The emotional appeal of this famous speech is somewhat lessened by its context: Bolingbroke, seeing Richard talking to himself, asks ‘What says his Majesty?’; Northumberland's answer is sympathetic but deflating: ‘Sorrow and grief of heart / Makes him speak fondly like a frantic man’ (III.iii.184-85). Ernst Kantorowicz recognized the absurdity of Richard's position in this scene and suggested that ‘only in that new rôle of Fool—a fool playing king, and a king playing fool—is Richard capable of greeting his victorious cousin and of playing to the end … the comedy of his brittle and dubious kingship.’14 The role of fool is, however, at this point by no means a new one for Richard.

A ‘fool’ can suggest the helplessness of the natural fool, who is simply a comic butt, or the self-conscious wit of the artificial fool, the jester who laughs at others and at himself even while others are laughing at him. Richard plays both roles. Even in his most helpless and self-pitying moments he is aware of his own absurdity: ‘Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords’; ‘I had forgot myself, am I not king?’; ‘Thou chid'st me well’; ‘Well, well, I see / I talk but idly, and you laugh at me’ (III.ii.23, 83, 188; III.iii.170-71). This awareness does not so much suggest the mock king or the actor acting out unreal emotions as the intelligent ironist who mocks his own emotions even while he indulges them.15 The intelligence and perceptiveness his wit suggests are as attractive as his self-indulgence is not; they anticipate and to a certain extent prevent the audience's rejection of the king's excessive grief.

Richard's mockery is not only self-directed, however. Throughout the crucial scenes in the middle of the play, he displays the impatience with hypocrisy and, frequently, the scoffing tone that we have seen in him earlier. When he dismisses his troops and prepares to retreat to Flint Castle, Aumerle begs that he listen to ‘one word’; Richard brushes him aside:

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


There is no mockery here, but the king's disdain of flattery recalls his ironic dismissal of Bolingbroke's and Mowbray's greetings in the first scene. The irony reappears when he confronts Bolingbroke himself:

Fair cousin, you debase your princely knee
To make the base earth proud with kissing it.
Me rather had my heart might feel your love,
Than my unpleased eye see your courtesy.
Up, cousin, up; your heart is up, I know,
Thus high at least, although your knee be low.


At ‘[t]hus high’ the actor presumably touches his crown. When Bolingbroke protests, ‘My gracious lord, I come but for mine own,’ Richard continues in the same ironic vein: ‘Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all,’ ‘Well you deserve. They well deserve to have / That know the strong'st and surest way to get’; and finally,

Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?
Yea, my good lord.
                                                                      Then I must not say no.


His response to Northumberland's message is heavy with sarcasm: ‘What says King Bolingbroke? Will his Majesty / Give Richard leave to live till Richard die? / You make a leg, and Bolingbroke says “ay”’ (III.iii.173-75). Even while he concedes political defeat, Richard mocks and exposes Bolingbroke's hypocrisy. His bitter laughter makes us see things, for the moment, in his way, strengthening his power with the play's audience, even while he loses the power of the crown.

Our response to Richard is necessarily coloured by what we know of history and the rest of the play. Bolingbroke does become king; all Richard's ironic comments and a good many of his sentimental ones are ultimately justified. It is easy to see him as a kind of prophet, at least a teller of hard truths; his insight aligns his vision with ours and gives him an undeniable appeal. Yet we may wonder if the play is simply a recounting of historic facts, and if Richard's ironies really give us a complete picture of what is happening at Flint Castle. Bolingbroke never says in this scene that he intends to take the crown. In fact, he repeatedly claims that he only comes to regain his own inheritance. Northumberland tells Richard:

Comprising all that may be sworn or said,
His coming hither hath no further scope
Than for his lineal royalties, and to beg
Infranchisement 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 and just;
And, as I am a gentleman, I credit him.


When Bolingbroke speaks privately to Northumberland, he compares his meeting with Richard to a thunderstorm in which he expects to play the ‘yielding’ part:

Be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water;
The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain
My waters—on the earth, and not on him.


On meeting Richard in the ‘base court,’ he kneels dutifully, and commands his men also to ‘show fair duty to his Majesty’ (III.iii.188). Yet Richard, typically, will not accept this ceremony at face value. His ‘What must the king do now?’ speech is given after he has agreed to Bolingbroke's demand for his lands and before the messenger returns with Bolingbroke's reply; he dramatizes his fall eloquently, but before it has actually taken place. He does not take the opportunity Bolingbroke gives him to play the raging ‘fire’ to his subject's ‘yielding water.’ Bolingbroke has the tangible, material power in this scene, but his words suggest that Richard has access to an intangible authority which is just as much a part of political power as troops and horses—if he will use it. While there is no question that Bolingbroke has the ability to make himself king, one wonders if he would have done so had Richard not been quite so eager to anticipate him.16

Alexander Leggatt has described Richard as ‘the little boy who points out that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes’—and adds ‘[t]his is complicated by the fact that he is also the emperor.’17 The complication is significant. To be successful a king must act as if he believes in the forms and ceremonies of his society which support his authority. Bolingbroke will later maintain that Richard's great mistake was allowing himself to become so familiar with his subjects that they make him the butt of their jokes, so that he lost the power of ‘extraordinary gaze, / Such as is bent on sun-like majesty.’18 What actually happens in Richard II is something quite different from this. While he is king, he is taken seriously by his subjects; even Bolingbroke remains formal and respectful until the actual deposition scene. Richard, on the other hand, constantly mocks the formalities and ceremonies on which his world is built—commenting ironically on Bolingbroke's and Mowbray's hypocritical greetings to him, abandoning all pretensions of family loyalty and affection to make fun of the banished Bolingbroke and the dying Gaunt, and finally scoffing at the convention that his birth, not his strength of arms, is what entitles him to Bolingbroke's deference. We may admire his distaste for temporizing and his insistence on facing hard truths, if that is what they are, head on, but we should not lose sight of the fact that what Richard sees as necessities may not, in the shifting world of politics and power which the play presents, be necessary at all. The ceremonies of compliment and deference which Richard brushes aside may be as hollow as the crown, but Bolingbroke's respect for them suggests that they could nevertheless be more powerful than Richard realizes. It is difficult to know who is forcing whom in an exchange like this:

My gracious lord, I come but for mine own.
Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all.
So far be mine, my most redoubted lord,
As my true service shall deserve your love.
Well you deserve. They well deserve to have
That know the strong'st and surest way to get.


What you will have, I'll give, and willing too,
For do we must what force will have us do.
Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?
Yea, my good lord.
                                                                      Then I must not say no.


Richard's later image of himself and Bolingbroke as two buckets rising and falling in a well is an apt one: it is hard to say whether the rising bucket forces the falling one down, or vice versa.

Whatever Bolingbroke's motives might have been earlier, by act IV he has decided to ‘ascend the regal throne’ (IV.i.113). With typical respect for the formalities Richard despises, he is anxious to clothe his actions in an appearance of order and legality by arranging that Richard hand over the crown in a formal ceremony; since no proper ceremony for either abdication or deposition exists, the aspiring king devises one. He gets more than he bargained for, however: Richard continues to play the jester throughout the scene, now mocking the formalities on which Bolingbroke is building his reign, as he has mocked the ones which supported his own. Asked ‘[t]o do that office of thine own good will / Which tired majesty did make thee offer: / The resignation of thy state and crown,’ he tells Bolingbroke, ‘Here, cousin, seize the crown. / … / On this side my hand, and on that side thine’ (IV.i.177-79, 181-83), reducing the monarchy to an object in his hand and Bolingbroke's ceremony to the undignified struggle it really is.19 If he and Henry are like ‘two buckets,’ Richard tells us sarcastically that his rival is ‘[t]he emptier,’ ‘ever dancing in the air’ (IV.i.185-86). Every question of Bolingbroke's, Richard twists and turns into a series of elaborate conceits, refusing to play the straightforward part Henry has assigned to him and leaving everyone unsure of what his intentions really are:

I thought you had been willing to resign.
My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine.
You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.
Part of your cares you give me with your crown.
Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down.
My care is loss of care, by old care done;
Your care is gain of care, by new care won.


Are you contented to resign the crown?
Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.
Therefore no ‘no’, for I resign to thee.


In earlier and later scenes, Bolingbroke's terse speech can convey strength; here, however, he is clearly at a loss. His sudden helplessness is as unkingly as Richard's was earlier, while Richard seems more confident and more impressive than he has at any time since act I. To mock power when one holds power is to weaken oneself; to mock it when one has lost it is to regain some element of authority and control.

Richard's theatrical success in the deposition scene is of course only a temporary gain; we will soon hear of him being paraded through London's streets, cruelly mocked by the citizens who were once his subjects and by the contrast with Bolingbroke's newly acquired glory (V.ii.4-7, 22-30), then forced from his wife, imprisoned, and murdered. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, will retain his grip on the throne—however shaken by dissent and rebellion—for another play and a half, and pass it on without question to his son. Even in this play, his is a very different reign from Richard's. His rise to power is backed, as we have seen, by a popularity with ordinary people which Richard scorns, and when Aumerle's conspiracy breaks down into slapstick and farce, Henry steps comfortably into the role of the benign father-king so familiar from popular ballads and plays like The Shoemakers Holiday or George-a-Greene, and so unlike any part that Richard plays.20 Unperturbed by the chaos around him, Henry pardons Aumerle without asking his crime, and maintains his word even in the face of York's plea that his son lose his life. Merciful and good-humoured (‘My dangerous cousin, let your mother in,’ he tells Aumerle with obvious amusement, ‘I know she's come to pray for your foul sin’) (V.iii.80-81), he retains his dignity while acting the part of the people's king to perfection. He even pictures himself as a figure in a popular song: ‘Our scene is alt'red from a serious thing,’ he jokes when the Duchess begins to hammer at the door, ‘And now chang'd to “The Beggar and the King”’ (V.iii.77-78).

Critics often describe the farce of the Aumerle scenes as a sign of the degradation of Henry's kingship—a position with which Richard would probably agree.21 In a comparison of the Aumerle scenes to accounts of actual royal pardons, Janet Spencer concludes that Shakespeare's scenes ‘reveal … Henry's inability to legitimate his power with the metaphysics of blood.’22 The metaphysics of blood might, however, have been less important to the majority of Shakespeare's audience than the authorizing power of popular laughter and popular myth; the scenes anchor the new king firmly in such popular culture, giving his reign a broad appeal that Richard's sorely lacked. He will not keep this appeal for long, of course; just as Henry will recast Richard as a populist king who frittered away his authority by exposing himself to the laughter of his subjects, the next play recasts Henry as a stern and unsmiling figure, ‘weary’ with responsibility and ‘wan with care,’ and replaces him in the audience's affections with that king of popular culture, Falstaff (1 Henry IV, I.i.1). In this play, however, we are shown a man who supports himself in power by consciously playing the part of the common man's king.

It is hard to see Richard and Bolingbroke as interchangeable ‘mock kings’ who are deposed in turn by an impersonal ‘carnival spirit’ that governs the world they live in. Bolingbroke is shown at the end of the play as a strong ruler who, whatever crimes he may have committed, is capable of drawing on some of the enduring myths of popular culture as he builds his kingship. Richard could not be more different. He does not hand out pardons freely or quote popular ballads. He may act, at different times, as both a fool and a jester, but he never takes on the popular elements of these roles; his laughter is ironic and self-conscious, the voice of the sophisticated satirist, not the earthy and material voice of the popular clown. His laughter is exclusive rather than inclusive: his unexplained, secretive joking in act I suggests his isolation from all but a handful of the nobles, while his mockery of Bolingbroke's populism implies his disdain for the ordinary people themselves. Even his discovery that a king is mortal flesh and blood, like any man, does not make him a populist: when he asks his friends how they can call him a king, his tone is one of bitterness and regret at being ‘subjected’—made a subject—to a higher power and mocked by it (III.ii.176-77). Henry's later recollections notwithstanding, Richard never ‘[e]nfeoff[s] himself to popularity’ or—until his last scene with the groom—jests with ordinary people; if he had, his troops might not have abandoned him so quickly.23 His mocking stance cuts him off from other sources of strength as well. Long before he seizes Bolingbroke's inheritance, Richard shows his contempt for the formalities by which society is ordered and his own power upheld, mocking them even while he plays his public part in them, and scoffing at them with his friends afterwards in private. His attitude is at times appealing but it is also self-destructive; Bolingbroke's own acknowledgment of formality at Flint Castle and later suggests that the ceremonies of men are not, as has been argued, ‘disconnected from the realities of power’ which Bolingbroke's strong will in the first act and his army in the third represent, and that they retain more authority than Richard is willing to allow.24 It is hardly surprising that Richard loses the power of these formalities in the end, or that he seems at times absurd when he weeps over the loss. By taking on the role of jester Richard has gained the power of satire, but, like Death's little pin, it is a destructive power, whose chief victim is not ‘King Bolingbroke’ but King Richard himself. Bolingbroke's less sophisticated joke about ‘The Beggar and the King’ is, for a king, a safer choice. Popular laughter in this play is a source of political stability, not of carnivalesque deplacement and substitution, while the king whose laughter smacks of elitism is the king who is deposed.


  1. The charge of poetic temperament has been made many times, most extensively by M. M. Mahood in Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen 1957), 73-88. For the other accounts of Richard's fall, see Graham Holderness, Shakespeare's History (Dublin: Gill; New York: St Martin's Press 1985), 46ff; Diane Bornstein, ‘Trial by Combat and Official Irresponsibility in Richard II,Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975), 131-41; Phyllis Rackin, ‘The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare's Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985), 263-64; H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York: Random House 1967), 131. Among the many readers who point to Gloucester's murder as Richard's greatest mistake is Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’ (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1957), 2.

  2. David M. Bergeron, ‘Richard II and Carnival Politics,’ Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), 37.

  3. Bergeron, 33.

  4. Bergeron, 38.

  5. William Shakespeare, Richard II, ed Peter Ure (London: Methuen 1961). All quotations from the play are from this edition.

  6. Sir John Gielgud described the play as tending to ‘become somewhat indigestible on the stage’ (‘King Richard the Second,’ Stage Directions [London: Heinemann 1963], 32); and Robert Ornstein contrasts its ‘ceremonious formality’ unfavourably with the ‘racy idiom’ and ‘Elizabethan “contemporaneousness”’ of King John (A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays [Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 1972], 102).

  7. Walter Pater and John Dover Wilson were once impressed by the ‘unity of tone’—tragic tone—they saw in the play. An early voice of dissent was Ernst Kantorowicz, who described Richard as playing the ‘Fool’ in several scenes. The tide of opinion did not really begin to change, however, until the early 1970s, when a number of writers pointed out the comic aspects of different scenes in the play. See Walter Pater, ‘Shakespeare's English Kings,’ Appreciations, With an Essay on Style (London: Macmillan 1910), 202-3; John Dover Wilson, ed, King Richard II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1939), xiv-xv; Ernest H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1957), 29-40; Waldo F. McNeir, ‘The Comic Scenes in Richard II,Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 73 (1972), 815-22; Lois Potter, ‘The Antic Disposition of Richard II,’ Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974), 33-41; Sheldon P. Zitner, ‘Aumerle's Conspiracy,’ SEL [Studies in English Literature 1500-1900] 14 (1974), 244; W. Gordon Zeeveld, The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press 1974), 43, 41; Leonard Barkan, ‘The Theatrical Consistency of Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978), 11-19; Louise Cowan, ‘God Will Save the King: Shakespeare's Richard II,Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press 1981), 72; Rackin, ‘The Role of the Audience,’ 273-81; James Black, ‘The Interlude of the Beggar and the King in Richard II,Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, ed David M. Bergeron (Athens: University of Georgia Press 1985), 104-11.

  8. The most extensive and influential discussion of carnival is, of course, Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, trans Helene Iswolsky (1968; repr Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1984). See also Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Routledge 1985).

  9. Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Temple Smith 1978), 24-25.

  10. The question of Richard's complicity in Woodstock's murder has not yet been raised, and I think it is only in retrospect that any audience—even an Elizabethan one—would realize how deeply the king himself is implicated in the proceedings.

  11. Richard's flippant tone and his ironic awareness of the hollowness of Bolingbroke's and Mowbray's praise make it clear that he has not ‘always been deceived by the seeming power of words,’ as M. M. Mahood once argued—a view of the play still often heard in descriptions of Richard as a pathetic ‘poet king’ (Mahood, 78). Yet Mahood's central premise, that ‘[t]o doubt the real relationship between name and nominee, between a word and the thing it signified, was to shake the whole structure of Elizabethan thought and society’ (73), remains strikingly apt: as I will argue below, it is Richard's scepticism, as much as Bolingbroke's, that will undo him.

  12. Shakespeare, The First Part of King Henry IV, ed A. R. Humphreys (London: Methuen 1960), III.ii.61-64.

  13. It seems unlikely that they actually laugh out loud, either here or in III.iii (discussed below).

  14. Kantorowicz, 33.

  15. Bergeron suggests that Richard in these scenes sounds like ‘a parody of a king, a mock king’ (‘Carnival Politics,’ 37).

  16. Robert B. Bennett comments that ‘[t]he unhallowing of England seems to be Richard's doing even in the Flint Castle and deposition confrontations where Henry, the “silent king,” is ready to force matters but finds no need because Richard, the incessant talker, orchestrates his submission in both instances’ (‘Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy,’ Shakespeare Studies 19 [1987], 69). Cf James A. S. McPeek, ‘Richard and His Shadow World,’ American Imago 15 (1958), 204; and A. L. French, ‘Who Deposed Richard the Second?’ Essays in Criticism 17 (1967), 425. Lois Potter, on the other hand, disagrees sharply: ‘Richard does not, like a predestinating God, make things happen because he foresees them. He foresees them because they are going to happen, and because his awareness of the situation is … a convenient dramatic shorthand’ (37).

  17. Alexander M. Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (London: Routledge 1988), 64.

  18. Henry IV, Part I, III.ii.78-79.

  19. Cf Barkan, 15-16, and Zeeveld, 43.

  20. Anne Barton, quoting Maurice Keen's The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, describes plays like George-a-Green and The Shoemakers Holiday as developments of a naïve popular fantasy in which the king was seen as the embodiment of mercy and true justice. ‘The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History,’ in The Triple Bond, ed Joseph G. Price (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 1975), 92-117.

  21. See, for instance, Zitner, 239-56; Barkan, 11-15; and Rackin, 273-80.

  22. Janet M. Spencer, ‘Staging Pardon Scenes: Variations on Tragicomedy,’ Renaissance Drama ns 21 (1990), 74.

  23. I Henry IV, III.ii.69. Richard's change of tone in his last scene, when he responds to his groom's loyal greeting—‘Hail, royal prince!’—with a self-deprecating pun—‘Thanks, noble peer; / The cheapest of us is ten groats too dear’ (V.v.67-68)—suggests that we are meant to see him as having learned something about the value of ordinary humanity at last.

  24. Leonard F. Dean, ‘From Richard II to Henry V: A Closer View,’ Studies in Honor of DeWitt T. Starnes, ed Thomas P. Harrison, et al (Austin: University of Texas 1967), 39.

William O. Scott (essay date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7554

SOURCE: Scott, William O. “Landholding, Leasing, and Inheritance in Richard II.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (spring 2002): 275-92.

[In the following essay, Scott contends that Shakespeare situated Richard II's divine right position within a complicated economic system of landholding and leasing, concluding that Richard's misuse of the realm compromises his hereditary claim to the monarchy.]

A recent description of the rules of succession to the throne in modern Britain states that “under the common law, the Crown descends on the same basis as the inheritance of land.”1 It is evident that Richard II takes for granted an analogy between succession to the kingship and succession to at least the lands and titles of nobility. As Shakespeare presents the situation, the duke of York warns Richard that if he seizes John of Gaunt's lands and title, he will “take from Time / His charters and his customary rights”2 and will “Be not thyself; for how art thou a king / But by fair sequence and succession?” (II.i.198-9); and likewise Bolingbroke argues, returning to claim that inheritance, “If that my cousin king be King in England, / It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster” (II.iii.123-4). The point now is to strengthen the material content of the play's discourse about property and kingship by paying attention to the practices of humbler land transactions as well. The noblemen's critique of Richard's conduct is expressed not only through this argument about succession or inheritance but also through an analogy with forms of property ownership and use that applied among commoners. Some of these had great urgency, for landowners and tenants both, in the economy of Shakespeare's own time.

Principles of landholding shape the language of the arguments over the fiscal prerogatives of kingship, and therefore over the king's power and status; and in turn Richard's behavior is measured against these. Gaunt complains that England “Is now leased out … Like to a tenement or pelting farm” (II.i.59-60) and admonishes Richard:

                                                  wert thou regent of the world,
It were a shame to let this land by lease;
But, for thy world enjoying but this land,
Is it not more than shame to shame it so?
Landlord of England art thou now, not king.
Thy state of law is bondslave to the law.


One question here is just what Gaunt is comparing to the leasing of land. Though Shakespeare does not specify the object of comparison, for Gaunt the leasing of property seems to resemble Richard's means of raising cash by farming out the privilege of tax collection to his supporters. Details of such a transaction are given in the anonymous play Woodstock, in which Richard signs a document of tax farming that provides that “These gentlemen here … all jointly here stand bound to pay your majesty, or your deputy, wherever you remain, seven thousand pounds a month for this your kingdom; for which your grace, by these writings, surrenders to their hands: all your crown lands, lordships: manors, rents: taxes, subsidies … and all other duties that do, shall, or may appertain to the king or crown's revenues.”3 Although Richard is still nominal owner of the realm, he has leased out the use of it to the tax farmers, who function as tenants (perhaps with the people as subtenants). Commenting similarly on Shakespeare's lines, Andrew Gurr says, “A ‘tenement’ was a tenancy, a property used but not owned … Gaunt is fusing the concept of tax farming with debasement of landownership.”4 Yes, and just what sort of debasement this would be is a matter for further question.

In any case, for Gaunt this misuse of the national property compromises Richard's tenure as hereditary monarch; just before this, he declares:

O, had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye
Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possessed,
Which art possessed now to depose thyself.


Abuses of what the king possesses—both property and kingship—threaten the status of kingship itself. The latter is true in two senses: although the second quoted line could apply to Richard's murder of Woodstock (in which case both uses of “his” would refer to the grandsire Edward III), another accepted meaning (taking the second “his” to refer to Richard) is that Richard is depriving his posterity of their patrimony by abusing the realm. Either way, the practices of leasing and other land transactions, then, bear on the power and status of the king, whose actions against either the life or livelihood of his kinsmen may unsettle his own possessions and position.

The serious charge that Richard is leasing out the nation like a tenement should be understood within landholding practices of the time. The varieties of ownership or possession of land in medieval and early modern England fall in a range within which different sorts of leasehold are among the weaker ones.5 High on the social scale, feudal principles are evident in the theory that lords hold their lands from the king or overlord in return for knight service or cash fees (some of the latter surviving into the sixteenth century), along with homage, and that others in turn would hold from the lords in return for homage and rent. Though these lands could be seized by the crown in case of treason, they would be vested, largely outright, as freeholds or frank tenancies, with the right (sometimes restricted) to designate an heir.

But most property was held only in customary tenancy, usually on the basis of a copy of a statement of customary ownership made from the manor records, i.e., by copyhold (which was claimed to be ancient but was formalized only in the fifteenth century); and such ownership was enforceable, at first, only in the manor court rather than directly in royal courts under common law. Though the lord still had the freehold, the tenant had a kind of contractual possession that was confirmed by the custom of the manor, and he paid a fixed customary rent. This customary right was not as strong as a freehold, and it could sometimes be disputed whether a particular individual's tenancy was actually ratified by custom. The terms of this tenancy and the degree of control over inheritance could vary, and in some situations the land could revert to the lord, who could collect a fee on a tenant's entry into possession and at other times. (Such fines were an important leverage, and source of income, for lords.)6 The strongest forms of copyhold carried the right of inheritance without limit, and to that extent were almost as good as freeholds; others allowed inheritance for specified persons and a limited number of lives (usually up to three); and still others gave possession for a term of years (from 1540 onward, usually no more than seven, fourteen, or twenty-one). Still weaker copyholds lasted only a year, or at the will of the lord. Although there were actually more legal protections than this brief summary suggests, the forms of landholding shaded into copyhold arrangements that seem by modern standards more like mere rental.

On the other side, there were leases whose length matched some of the copyholds: up to three lives, or twenty-one years. Others, though, were shorter. Clearly the terms were all-important: besides its length, a lease for more than one life would also, advantageously, allow the tenant some control over inheritance. A tenant might further find it appealing that, once having paid an entry fine, he had a low rent for the term of the lease. From the landlord's viewpoint, the lump-sum payment of the entry fine was desirable, and eventually there was value in calling in the lease after its term ended and negotiating a new, more favorable, arrangement with either the same or another tenant. Thus there may have seemed to be an immediate benefit for both sides in a lease, though eventually it proved illusory for tenants. In a leasehold, overall, there was not necessarily the same expectation of an ongoing relationship between lord and tenant as in customary tenure.7 The lessee might have a right to name an heir, and at some points could be protected from high rents and high entry fines (insofar as custom could influence the outcome of negotiations); but there would not be the same security of tenure that even copyhold would afford.

These technicalities of land possession—especially the differences in security between copyholds and leases—figured in large social and economic changes. One of the major transformations in English agriculture from the later Middle Ages through the sixteenth century, a change which could give an ironic (if seemingly almost incidental) bite for Shakespeare's audience to the words of even the aristocratic Gaunt, was the conversion of copyholds into such less secure leases. Although this development must have seemed of little importance as long as there was a shortage of tenants (a consequence, at least partly, of the Black Death), a growing market for land and growing profitability of farming in the last half of the sixteenth century made the terms of tenancy suddenly critical for the tenant's security and made obvious the reasons for keeping a copyhold, if possible, and rejecting a lease.8 (Copyholds granted to one's heirs without limit would be especially valuable to tenants.) From the point of view of a landlord who sought more profit, it may well have been true already that “The breaking of a line of inheritance [i.e., the failure of a tenant to produce an heir] was seen as releasing the grip of custom, and enabling payments more in line with the true market value to be exacted.”9 Though this quotation describes a time before conversion to leaseholds became prevalent as they did in the sixteenth century, it expresses well how a traditionalist viewpoint could be supplanted by a capitalist one, and how the replacement of copyholds by leases could facilitate the development of agrarian market capitalism and the breaking of inheritance among small copyhold farmers. Landlords became increasingly bolder in taking advantage of opportunities to convert to leases. By the later sixteenth century, then, bargaining over leaseholds gave landowners considerable power.10 And this power in turn enabled one of the even better known changes in the agrarian economy, enclosure of both common and demesne land, with displacement of families who might once have possessed copyholds.11 For these reasons, the very idea of leasing might well have aroused controversial associations, quite apart from what Gaunt makes of it.12

Both the sale and the leasing of lands in the royal demesne (a closer analogue to Gaunt's complaint) were sensitive matters as well in Shakespeare's time. Queen Elizabeth made extensive sales of crown lands (often through agents who soaked up much of the profit), especially to finance military activity in the 1590s.13 Yet she herself became so concerned about uncontrolled and unrecorded leases and other transactions, under her signature or affixed with the Great Seal, that she commanded the lord keeper “to charge the Chancery clerks and others,” among other things, “not to presume to write or refer to the Great Seal any bill under her hand, brought from the Commissioners for leases [of crown lands] … nor suffer [the clerks] to pass the Great Seal, except by warrant under the Privy Seal.”14 As in Richard's case, royal power is at issue; but Elizabeth used it here to tighten administrative operations, such as grants of leases, through greater control over the Great Seal. Here too is a contemporary sting in Gaunt's remonstrances against leases.

Of course Gaunt's actual complaint against Richard's tax farming is not that he is exercising too much power but the contrary, that such a transaction gives undue influence to the lessees. And Gaunt, the wealthiest man in England after the king, is hardly an advocate for tenant farmers. Rather, he and especially his brother York speak for the legitimating value of custom (which figures in York's language as a right of time and thereby of the nobility);15 and custom can cut many ways.16 Customary rents and fines limited the profits of landlords and gave an economic windfall to tenants with rising crop prices, until the very restraints of custom moved landlords to press for conversion to leases; but insofar as custom still remained effective, it helped tenants in their resistance to such conversion. On the level at which Gaunt and York argue, custom could have varied results too. It would assert the right of inheritance for the nobility against royal interference, but on the basis of equal protection for royal legitimacy. The separation, through tax farming, of ownership of the realm from its use, connected in this reasoning with the breach of custom in leasing, would also be an abuse of royal power that ultimately weakens and discredits the customary basis of kingship. Custom is supposed to moderate the contests of power, whether of king against nobles or arguably of tax farmers (who should not have power at all, or even exist) against king. In the view that the noblemen try to present, then, self-discipline by respect for custom would preserve power by inhibiting transactions that would be ultimately ruinous to that power.

Gaunt nostalgically views England's past as devoid of struggles. In his idealized version, the description of England as an “other Eden” and “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm,” and as “This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings” (II.i.42, 51) suggests a fecundity, both agrarian and human, that seems to have no need for tillage, calculation, or struggles for ownership (a situation quite unlike the historical one described above). As James E. Berg says, the speech expresses “the values of an agrarian economy,” portraying the land as “real” in a vividly particular (as well as legalistic) sense.17

For all his idealization of the status of kingship, even Richard sometimes thinks in property terms, to Bolingbroke's disparagement. In recounting Bolingbroke's “courtship to the common people” (I.iv.24), his kneeling and doffing his bonnet to draymen and oyster wenches, Richard thinks of him as conducting himself “As were our England in reversion his” (line 36). The OED defines “in reversion” as “conditional upon the expiray of a grant or the death of a person” and the single word as “The return of an estate to the donor or grantor, or his heirs, after the expiry of the grant”;18 and B. J. Sokol and Mary Sokol, citing this passage, mention metaphorical usages “concerned with anticipated or conditional possession.”19 Richard thinks of his kingship as a firm possession rather than such a conditional grant, even if for life—despite the irony, at the end of the play, that first his estate expires and then his life.

Richard's suspicion that Bolingbroke anticipates taking possession figures implicitly in an earlier scene too. Not long after Bolingbroke has accused Mowbray of plotting the duke of Gloucester's death, with an obvious but covert implication that Richard is involved, the king finds an extravagant way of professing to Mowbray that he is impartial despite his blood tie to Bolingbroke:

Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom's heir,
As he is but my father's brother's son,
Now, by my scepter's awe I make a vow,
Such neighbor nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul.


In incidentally broaching the topic of the heir to the kingdom, Richard may be noting obliquely that he perceives Bolingbroke's dangerous accusation as a sign of royal aspirations, which he of course tries to diminish by firmly describing the collateral status of a cousin.

James R. Siemon has pointed out the continuing emphasis on property in the middle and later parts of the play: the “insistent economic inflections” of the rebels' complaints;20 the assurance that Bolingbroke is coming “But for his own” (II.iii.149)—where “own” means “property assumed as absolute, self-evident possession, not the reciprocal issue of kinship alliance or the dependent creature of ‘royalties,’ ‘tenure,’ or any such feudal or monarchical grant and qualification”;21 and Bolingbroke's offers of patronage rewards to his followers and even some opponents.22 In contrast, Richard himself mainly dwells rather on figurative and symbolic aspects of possession, as when he salutes the earth and expends pathos on the wounds it sustains from the rebels' war horses; and he makes much of kingship as his God-given due.23 But at two points in the deposition scene his words allow of a property-law reading, as well as the other meanings they bear. Of these, the latter is the simpler. When Bolingbroke commands: “Go some of you, convey him to the Tower,” Richard answers, “O, good! ‘Convey’? Conveyers are you all, / That rise thus nimbly by a true king's fall” (IV.i.317-9). Gurr says of this that “Richard develops the principal sense of ‘convey’ as ‘to escort’ with its two other meanings, ‘to transfer the title to property’, and ‘to steal.’”24 Richard juxtaposes these meanings in an effective comment on the emptiness of the formal abdication in which he has just been forced to participate.

His other equivocal legalism is at once more elusive and more sweeping in its implications. When told that he must resign, he asks for the crown and first enacts a ritual of his own:

                                                            Here, cousin, seize the crown.
Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.


He has two token victories in this playlet, when he characterizes Bolingbroke as an empty bucket, and before that when he says three words: “seize the crown,” that are among the ones that Bolingbroke would least want to hear made explicit. (Of course, Richard immediately endows them with an “innocent” meaning.) In a technical reading of his language, the word “seize” had legal associations through its cognate term “seisin.” Two of the senses of the latter word are marked by the OED as primarily fifteenth century and as having shaded into meanings of “seize”: “To invest with the seisin of property; to put in possession,” and “To confiscate (property).”25 A. W. B. Simpson's explanation of “seisin” gets at the ironies of Richard's usage: “Titles are better or worse according to the age of the seisin upon which they are based, and even a very recent (and perhaps transparently wrongful) seisin is to some extent protected. Thus any person who is seised of land has a protected interest in that land, good against all but those who have a title based on an older seisin.”26 With no other choice, Richard invites a transparently wrongful seisin, against which he tacitly can place his older claim.

But the connections alike with possession and confiscation make a harder notion for modern interpreters of earlier legal thinking. Describing the conditions under early feudalism, J. H. Baker says that “seisin,” or “possession as a feudal tenant,” “originally was associated with the act of homage which clinched the lord's acceptance of his man”; further, if the lord somehow received two men's homage for the same land, one of them had a right to some other land of like value, but “the claim was essentially contractual: there was no question of upsetting seisin by reference to some more abstract notion of title”; and finally, “The tenant was seised of the land, and the lord was seised of the tenant's services, but neither of them ‘owned’ the land in any absolute sense.”27

These severe qualifications of ownership certainly do not answer to Richard's strong view of the rightness of his title. But in the question of “seising” or “seizing” the crown, they may correspond to a strangely almost schizophrenic attitude that Richard seems to have toward de facto possession. He expresses this attitude in his self-pitying before the abdication:

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.

(IV.i. 173-6)

Yet he is more critical of himself afterward:

                    if I turn mine eyes upon myself,
I find myself a traitor with the rest;
For I have given here my soul's consent
T' undeck the pompous body of a king,
Made glory base and sovereignty a slave,
Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant.

(IV.i. 248-53)

He has colluded in an abdication that is dead contrary to his absolutist beliefs about kingship, indeed has obliged Bolingbroke by making the offer unasked. In part his absolutism actually promotes his renunciation, inasmuch as, when forced to confront the realities of power, he yields to their stark divergence from his idealization. Likewise the practice of seisin, while bracketing the question of absolute right, grants an advantage to the power realities of possession. And by this point in the play, Richard's double vision of the politico-juridical situation pertains greatly to an audience's divided vision of the Realpolitik of unrightful possession of the throne, and therefore to self-divisions within the subjects. Throughout, absolutist doctrine thus comes up against the obstacle of the de facto, the opposing or limiting force. In abdicating, Richard washes away with his own tears the anointing balm that he had said not all the water in the rough rude sea could remove.

On his deathbed, Gaunt complains in the language of property of the damage to England in Richard's rule:

A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger than thy head,
And yet, encagèd in so small a verge,
The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.


Gurr describes “waste” as, among other things, “a legal term for prejudicial damage to property by a tenant,”28 and Jack Benoit Gohn says that “Waste is used here in its legal sense, meaning destruction of the value of real property by those whose use of the land adversely affects the rights of others with presently vested interests in the land … In this elaborate metaphor, King Richard's flatterers, and by implication Richard himself, are liable for waste because their rule has destroyed the ‘land.’”29 This legalism is even more challenging to absolutism, for Gaunt uses a concept that applies only to tenants, not freeholders, and he seems to require their accountability to the whole nation as if to their lords. Moreover, as Dennis R. Klinck points out, “the penalty for waste is the loss of the thing wasted,” a sanction that is hinted in Gaunt's following admonition (quoted earlier) that Richard is possessed to depose himself.30 The criticism is softened a bit, though, in that it is unclear (as reflected in Gohn's wording) whether Gaunt is still blaming the flatterers, or whether he has turned more directly on Richard. But he certainly qualifies rights with responsibilities, a message that is not at all welcome to the possessive Richard.

The gardener and his men, lamenting the state of the land that they tend without the interest of ownership, grieve, in language reminiscent of Gaunt's, for the errors of “the wasteful King,” whose crown “waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down” (III.iv.55, 66). The property-law sense of “waste” might have some oblique application to “hours” besides the more usual meaning of wasting time: as one maintains land by cutting or rooting out some of what grows on it, one would maintain or make best use of time by suitable, sometimes indeed destructive, activity.31

Richard himself acknowledges his waste of hours as king when he reflects in prison on his past. Now a critic of out-of-time music, he admits that “for the concord of [his] state and time” he had not had the same ear: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (by forcing him to expend tears, V.v.47, 49). The property-law sense of “waste” would be questionable here, but perhaps still the active quality of its meaning is pertinent: one could read something like “to destroy; to ruin; to desolate; to wear away” for both uses of the word in the line, giving a symmetry of meaning (with also the usual meaning of “squander” for the waste of time).32 Richard achieves a truer perception, then, if he recognizes outright that he was destructive enough, as York warned, to “take from Time / His charters and his customary rights” (II.i.195-6).

Such attention as this play gives to the legal status of property is rare; probably Shakespeare owes it to the details of tax farming in Woodstock. But the secure landholding of Alexander Iden, “an esquire of Kent” (2 Henry VI, IV.x.42), who likely owns his land in fee simple, as it seems to the fugitive rebel Jack Cade, embodies a tradition of stable social relations until challenged by insurrection:

This small inheritance my father left me
Contenteth me, and worth a monarchy.
I seek not to wax great by others' waning,
Or gather wealth, I care not with what envy.
Sufficeth that I have maintains my state
And sends the poor well pleasèd from my gate.(33)

The charity that Iden professes makes a careful justification of his position through its obligations, and it is repeated in his initial reluctance to fight Cade (who assumes that he can only gain sustenance by taking for himself).34 A peaceful complaint against less well-intentioned use of property, the duke of Suffolk's act of enclosure comes to naught, though, when Suffolk intercepts the petition.35

Otherwise, the dramatic treatments in Shakespeare's time of popular uprisings, where they go into realistic detail at all, gloss over serious issues of property and customary rights. According to Raphael Holinshed, the rebellion of 1381 included complaints by the commons “that they were sore oppressed (as they tooke the matter) by their land-lords, that demanded of them their ancient customes and seruices”;36 and “they purposed to burne and destroie all records, euidences, court-rolles, and other minuments, that the remembrance of ancient matters being remooued out of mind, their landlords might not haue whereby to chalenge anie right at their hands.”37 In The Life and Death of Jack Straw, however, this explanation is left out; Parson Ball merely complains in passing against landlords' rent and lawyers' fees in his egalitarian urgings, and without further explanation Tom Miller burns “Bonds and Indentures and Obligations.”38 In Cade's rebellion, the 1450 Bills of Complaint (printed in John Stow's Chronicles of England, 1580) objected to “untrew clayms enfeffements.”39 Shakespeare omits this cause of unrest; and the famous resolution “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers”40 actually contradicts one assertion in the Bills of Complaint that the rebels “blame not … alle men of lawe … but such as maye be ffounde gilty.”41 The causes of rebellions may be too sensitive to stage; and without those causes, the portrayal of the rebels leaves them all the more open to censure.42

Abdications, or divisions of the kingdom because of impending death, could also have called for special provisions about property; but typically there are no details, as in Gorbuduc, King Leir, and Locrine, or in Edward II's forced abdication. Shakespeare's Lear does, however, mention the ownership and revenues that he is giving up, and the fool pointedly reminds him.43 Henry VI, trying to justify his title to the duke of York, treats the kingship the same as ordinary property in asking, “may not a king adopt an heir?”44 and asserting that Richard did so in favor of Bolingbroke; York disallows this gift as having been made under duress, but ironically he accepts just such an offer for himself and his heirs made after Henry had been briefly surrounded by armed men.

Though this reading of Richard II has taken as its model the arguably materialistic operations of land law, such restrictiveness alone could be too limiting: there may be analogies between attitudes toward real property and toward other possessions or less tangible advantages in which people have valid and vested interests. Citing cases in which monopolies given by Queen Elizabeth deprived other persons of the use of their property or the practice of their trade or craft, and the injured sued and won, J. H. Hexter concludes that “a man's occupation is his property by inheritance or lawful acquisition” and that, in the belief of many, “the law favored property against mere power, that it supported men's right to hold what custom and their labor made their own”; and in this context he mentions copyhold tenure of land, which was eventually given common-law protection.45 Thus perhaps the controversial notion of selfhood can be carefully defined for the sixteenth century through one's inherited or lawfully acquired status, possessions, and skills; at least, inversely, Richard feels that the loss of his title and possessions amounts to a loss of selfhood, indeed of a face in the mirror.

Even within the received doctrine that legitimate kingly rule is God-given, the terms and practice of property law and ownership or possession help to define contesting views in Richard II of the fertile ground of England and of its kingly nurturing. Though Richard pushes to the utmost the notion of absolute right as sanctioned by God, the peculiarities of law that allow for severance of judgments about possession and right correspond to the remarkable passiveness with which he confronts that severance in his own loss of rule. Gaunt, for all his deference to God's position as sole judge of kings and his insistence that the king should be above the law, treats royal possession as distinctly conditional: it confers obligations on the king (like the ones laid on a tenant not to commit waste on the land). Gaunt even imagines a kingly forebear judging the present one. Yet he indulges too in an obviously idealized vision of a past without power struggles. York speaks for the moderating force of customary possession and obligation but cannot invoke it successfully now to mediate contests. Even the statements of the ideal in the play smack of contention. For the audience, then, who knew of other contests of ownership and power in their own time, the play renews questions of struggle and its customary modulation.


  1. Vernon Bogdanor, The Monarchy and the Constitution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 42. This means that male heirs have priority over females, and that primogeniture rules among males; Bogdanor contrasts the Salic law, which barred succession by females in France, and the modern Swedish situation, which treats females and males equally.

  2. William Shakespeare, Richard II, in The Complete Works, ed. David Bevington, updated 4th edn. (New York: Longman, 1997), pp. 721-62, 737, II.i.195-6. All subsequent citations from the play will appear parenthetically within the text according to act, scene, and line number.

  3. Woodstock: A Moral History, ed. A. P. Rossiter (London: Chatto and Windus, 1946), IV.i.180-90; see also Rossiter's comment (p. 227) identifying this type of agreement with both Gaunt's words about Richard's “state of law” (Richard II, II.i.114) and his allusion to “rotten parchment bonds” (II.i.64). The use of blank charters to create forced loans, which is sometimes read into Gaunt's various complaints, is properly separate: thus Richard first announces that he is farming the realm, but then that “If that come short” for his revenue needs he will resort to the blank charters (I.iv.46).

  4. Andrew Gurr, ed., Richard II (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 87. This meaning of “tenement” accords with the legal terminology of Richard's time, according to W. F. Bolton (“Ricardian Law Reports and Richard II,ShakS [Shakespeare Studies] 20 [1988]: 53-66, 62). See also Dennis R. Klinck, “Shakespeare's Richard II as Landlord and Wasting Tenant,” CollL [College Literature] 25, 1 (Winter 1998): 21-34, 27. H. R. Coursen's The Leasing Out of England: Shakespeare's Second Henriad (Washington DC: Univ. Press of America, 1982) is thematically relevant to the topic of this essay; however, it does not go into the technical detail that seems needed.

  5. Most of what follows—a highly condensed version of a complex subject—comes from Eric Kerridge, Agrarian Problems in the Sixteenth Century and After (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969), pp. 32-64. See also R. W. Hoyle, “Tenure and the Land Market in Early Modern England: or a Late Contribution to the Brenner Debate,” Economic History Review, 2d s., 43, 1 (February 1990): 1-20; E. B. Fryde, Peasants and Landlords in Later Medieval England, c.1380-c.1525 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996); and B. J. Sokol and Mary Sokol, Shakespeare's Legal Language: A Dictionary (London: Athlone Press, 2000), esp. s.v. “Lease” and “Copy.” (I would not contest the Sokols' statement that Shakespeare does not refer directly to copyhold.)

  6. One of the nastier deeds of which landlords were suspected in the 1590s was to send tenants off to war in hopes that, if they were killed, the lords could collect entry fines upon replacing them. See I. A. A. Thompson, “The Impact of War,” in The European Crisis of the 1590s: Essays in Comparative History, ed. Peter Clark (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985), pp. 261-84, 276.

  7. Of the lease for term of years, as contrasted with life tenancy, A. W. B. Simpson says, “a lease for years was not conceived of as creating a tenurial relationship between lessor and lessee at all” (A History of the Land Law, 2d edn. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986], p. 73). Likewise J. H. Baker states: “Whereas the unit of feudal ownership was the holding for life, and the hereditary fee was of perpetual or indeterminate duration, the letting for years began not as a family interest but as a temporary financial interest. Its principal use was to secure a loan of money” (An Introduction to English Legal History, 3d edn. [London: Butterworths, 1990], p. 338). See also Sokol and Sokol, p. 202.

  8. Hoyle, “Tenure and the Land Market,” pp. 8-10; he also provides the suggestions about perceived advantages of such conversions for both parties, under earlier economic conditions (see previous paragraph, above). The “Brenner debate,” named for its originator Robert Brenner, concerned whether these conversions and other developments, viewed as preparing the development of capitalism in agriculture, were brought about by application of the superior power of landlords as a social class (Brenner, with Marxist assumptions), by demographic forces (various neo-Malthusian historians), or by economic forces (John E. Martin, with a Marxist economic model; Hoyle, “Tenure and the Land Market,” and Fryde, empirically). See The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe, ed. T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985); John E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism: Peasant and Landlord in English Agrarian Development (Basingstoke UK: Macmillan, 1983; corr. rprt. 1986); and Fryde, pp. 227-41, 272-3.

  9. John Hatcher, “English Serfdom and Villeinage: Towards a Reassessment,” Past and Present 90 (February 1981): 3-39, 18. Hatcher is describing a rationale, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for conversion of customary tenancy into leaseholds on failure of inheritance.

  10. See Fryde, pp. 272-3. Annabel Patterson cites William Harrison's Description of England on “the dailie oppression of copiholders,” pretexts for forfeiting their tenures, pressure to shorten terms, and increases in rents and fines to use up all their income (Reading Holinshed's Chronicles [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994], pp. 82-4, 82).

  11. On these changes as facilitating evictions and enclosures, see Fryde, pp. 197, 272-3. Enclosure is discussed in relation to Richard II by James R. Siemon, “Landlord Not King: Agrarian Change and Interarticulation,” in Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 17-33. The contribution of sixteenth-century inflation to enclosure is related to the play by James E. Berg in “‘This Dear, Dear Land’: ‘Dearth’ and the Fantasy of the Land-Grab in Richard II and Henry IV,ELR [English Literary Renaissance] 29, 2 (Spring 1999): 225-45. Berg says that land is increasingly “a tool of narrowly economic production” (p. 232).

  12. Shakespeare himself, and his relatives, had experience at various times with both copyholds and freeholds. On ancestral property dealings, see Mark Eccles, Shakespeare in Warwickshire (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1961), pp. 7-9, 16-7; and B. Roland Lewis, The Shakespeare Documents: Facsimiles, Transliterations, Translations, and Commentary, 2 vols. (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1940), 1:20-1, 85-6, 89 (copyhold bequeathed). On the legal title to the “Birthplace,” see variously Lewis, 1:111 (document on p. 112); J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, 8th edn., 2 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889), 1:378; E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930, rprt. 1966), 2:32; and Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press and Scolar Press, 1975), pp. 14-5. Shakespeare's own property dealings included both freeholds and copyholds, and in 1605 he even became a local tax farmer, buying a share of the collection of tithes in Stratford for the school and the poor (see Lewis, 1:237-8, 2:330-3 [freehold], 2:348 [copyhold], and 2:374-81 [tithes]). In turn these tithes, though not any of his land, could have been affected by a proposal for enclosure in 1614 that the Corporation of Stratford opposed; Shakespeare, who had ties of past business and family friendship with one of the enclosers, made an agreement with another of them to protect himself from financial harm, but otherwise his involvement (though not altogether clear) seems not to have been great, see Eccles, pp. 119, 136-7; Schoenbaum, pp. 230-4; and Lewis, 2:451-66.

  13. The Estates of the English Crown, 1558-1640, ed. Hoyle (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992). On extent of sales and on military uses, see pp. 15-6, 77-8, 116; on concerns raised in 1576 that such sales eroded the revenue base, see p. 21.

  14. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic (1591-94), 1592, no. 73 (dated February).

  15. Ironically, the historical John of Gaunt owed much of his wealth and aspiration not to ancient custom but to his first two marriages (great wealth from Blanche of Lancaster, and a claim to the Castilian throne from Constance of Castile). See Michael Prestwich, The Three Edwards: War and State in England, 1272-1377 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980; rprt. Routledge, 1993), p. 281. Historical irony is tempting, but Shakespeare did alter Gaunt's character greatly from history in other ways.

  16. E. P. Thompson makes a general argument for the economic and social force of custom in protecting the position of smallholders and other persons of modest status (Customs in Common [London: Merlin Press, 1991], pp. 97-184). But one can also turn the argument another way, specifically in relation to customs such as inheritance of copyhold land as presided over by the manorial courts: “Manorial customs tied the lord's hands very considerably, and most lords probably submitted to the restraint, just as kings submitted to their own law; their power was more secure for being regularised” (Baker, p. 263). At the same time, though, in using the word “charters” (II.i.196), York invokes a more securely entrenched power: the word is associated with freeholds, in contrast to copyholds (Berg, p. 236).

  17. Berg, p. 239.

  18. OED, s.v. “in reversion,” I, 1c; “reversion,” I, 1a.

  19. Sokol and Sokol, s.v. “reversion.”

  20. Siemon, “‘Subjected Thus’: Utterance, Character, and Richard II,ShJb [Shakespeare Jahrbuch] 126 (1990): 65-80, 75.

  21. Siemon, “‘Subjected Thus,’” p. 76.

  22. Siemon, “‘Subjected Thus,’” pp. 77-8.

  23. For Divine Designation as one of the historical bases for claiming the throne, see Jack Benoit Gohn, “Richard II: Shakespeare's Legal Brief on the Royal Prerogative and the Succession to the Throne,” Georgetown Law Journal 70, 3 (February 1982): 943-73, 949, and his references.

  24. Gurr, p. 149.

  25. OED, s.v. “seisin,” 2, 3.

  26. Simpson, p. 88.

  27. Baker, pp. 262-3.

  28. Gurr, p. 89.

  29. Gohn, p. 957.

  30. Klinck, p. 27.

  31. Klinck gives the instance of the felling of trees on leasehold property as a form of waste (p. 30). One ought to contrast the beneficial trimming advocated by the gardeners.

  32. These meanings are taken from Alexander Schmidt's Shakespeare-Lexikon, 3d edn. rev. by Gregor Sarrazin (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1902; rprt. New York: Dover Publications, 1971), s.v. “waste,” vb. 1a and b, p. 1336. He cites the line for both meanings without giving details; presumably he means “squander” for the first and “destroy,” etc., for the second. For this passage as continuing the charges by York, Gaunt, and the gardener, see Robert L. Montgomery Jr., “The Dimensions of Time in Richard II,ShakS 4 (1968): 73-85, 78-9.

  33. Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI, in Complete Works, pp. 540-83, 577, IV.x.18-23.

  34. William C. Carroll describes this portrayal of Iden as “the virtuous contrast to the usual rural oppressors, the greedy cormorants who rapaciously enclose or raise rents” and “a Horatian figure, an ideal of the landowner protecting his property” (“‘The Nursery of Beggary’: Enclosure, Vagrancy, and Sedition in the Tudor-Stuart Period,” in Enclosure Acts, pp. 34-47, 43). He notes that the Folio adds several lines (including the last four quoted here) to the version in The First Part of the Contention so as to strengthen this idealization. In contrast, Thomas Cartelli argues that Jack Cade knows nothing of any such hospitable landowners, that Iden's response to Cade's hostility soon nullifies his charitable claims, and that their conflict actually results in Iden's gain at Cade's expense (“Jack Cade in the Garden: Class Consciousness and Class Conflict in 2 Henry VI,” in Enclosure Acts, pp. 48-67, 49-52).

  35. Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI, I.iii.23-39.

  36. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (London: J. Johnson et al., 1807), 2:735.

  37. Holinshed, 2:737. Thomas Walsingham gives a similar report, as translated by R. B. Dobson in The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, 2d edn. (London: Macmillan, 1983), pp. 133-4. See also Christopher Dyer, “The Social and Economic Background to the Rural Revolt of 1381,” in The English Rising of 1381, ed. R. H. Hilton and T. H. Aston (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 9-42, 27 (landlords wanted records of changes), 41; Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (London: Temple Smith, 1973), p. 169 (short leases supplanted customary tenure); Nigel Saul, Richard II (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), p. 60 (landlords increasingly exacted duties from tenants); and Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 35-6 (villeins became increasingly exposed to “documentary culture”).

  38. The Life and Death of Jack Straw, ed. Kenneth Muir and F. P. Wilson (Oxford: Malone Society, 1957), lines 87, 781. Walter Cohen notes a tendency of plays that deal with “interclass relations” either to overlook class struggles or to look down on rebellion (Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985], p. 223). Interestingly, the rebel Falconbridge in Thomas Heywood's 1 Edward IV denies such economic causes of rebellion (instanced in the uprisings by “Tyler, Cade, and Straw”) as “mending measures or the price of corne” or “some common in the wield of Kent / Thats by some greedy cormorant enclos'd,” asserting rather the claim of the House of Lancaster but really dreaming of power over the mint and other sources of wealth (Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood, 6 vols. [New York: Russell and Russell, 1964], 1:3-90, 9). Another rebellion, the one put down by Sir Thomas More, being urban in nature and causes, did not involve tenant complaints. However, the instructions of Edmund Tilney, censoring the manuscript of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore as Master of the Revels, that the cause of the insurrection must be omitted, are revealing of official anxieties. See Simon Hunt, “‘Leaving Out the Insurrection’: Carnival Rebellion, English History Plays, and a Hermeneutics of Advocacy,” in Renaissance Culture and the Everyday, ed. Patricia Fumerton and Hunt (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 299-314. Hunt observes, in support of his thesis that carnivalization displaces a serious treatment of the causes of rebellion, that in Jack Straw Miller is identified as a clown (p. 302). For comparison with actual rebellions in Tudor times (always a dangerous analogy for playwrights and audiences, as the history of Richard II attests), there were economic stresses such as inflation that caused landlords “to increase dues traditionally regarded as fixed (whether by changing copyholds to leases, or by increasing the amount or frequency of entry fines)” (C. S. L. Davies, “The Pilgrimage of Grace Reconsidered,” in Rebellion, Popular Protest, and the Social Order in Early Modern England, ed. Paul Slack [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984], pp. 16-38, 19). As Slack points out in his introduction, however, economic grievances were mingled with other causes of revolt (pp. 1-15, 6-7).

  39. I. M. W. Harvey, Jack Cade's Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 187. The complaint against enfeoffment may refer to the practice of “enfeoffment to use,” the delegation of estate management to feoffees or trustees, who might not be well supervised. See W. M. Ormrod, The Reign of Edward III: Crown and Political Society in England, 1327-1377 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), p. 113.

  40. Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI, IV.ii.74.

  41. Harvey, p. 190. But, as reported by Walsingham, in the 1381 revolt Wat Tyler did want the heads of all lawyers (Alan Harding, “The Revolt against the Justices,” in The English Rising of 1381, pp. 165-93, 165); Dobson, p. 133.

  42. Patterson insists that the obvious faults in Cade's behavior must be read against the legitimate popular protests conveyed by Salisbury (2 Henry VI, III.ii.243-69) and by the petitioners against Suffolk's action of enclosure (see Shakespeare and the Popular Voice [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989], pp. 47-8.)

  43. Shakespeare, King Lear, in Complete Works, pp. 1167-1218, 1180, I.iv.132-3, I.i.50 [Folio only].

  44. Shakespeare, 3 Henry VI, in Complete Works, pp. 584-627, 588, I.i.135.

  45. J. H. Hexter, “Property, Monopoly, and Shakespeare's Richard II,” in Culture and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment, ed. Perez Zagorin (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), pp. 1-24, 15-6. Examples of such monopolies are sale of playing cards, registration of insurance policies, and manufacture of salt (in which case real property, land with salt pits, is made useless).

Jean-Christophe Mayer (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6503

SOURCE: Mayer, Jean-Christophe. “Shakespeare's Religious Background Revisited: Richard II in a New Context.” In Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England, edited by Dennis Taylor and David Beauregard, pp. 103-20. New York: Fordham University Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Mayer demonstrates how Shakespeare's Richard II exacerbated the volatile and ideologically unstable climate of the late Elizabethan period. The critic details how different political and religious factions manipulated the play's themes of loyalty and betrayal to serve as propaganda for their own causes, culminating in an alleged staging of the play the night before the ill-fated Essex Rebellion.]

When Shakespeare completed Richard II in 1595, he was writing in a period that historians have ceased to regard as congenial.1 Those “nasty nineties,” as Patrick Collinson observed, were certainly not a period of stabilization, routinization, or secularization: this was not “a decade of sweetness and light, of incipient puritan piety and mellowing Anglicanism, but a rather ugly decade, when the going got tough and unpleasant for all parties” (Collinson 1995, 153). It was in this context that Shakespeare launched a sequence of four plays on the Lancastrian period of English history with the story of the deposition of the Plantagenet King Richard II.2

By the mid-1590s, the story and the allusions to the reign of Richard II had already been used by historians and law specialists to discuss the terms by which a king might be deposed. The theme was appropriated also by malcontents to point to the moral of the story, in ways that repeatedly challenged what some critics would still like to call “the Elizabethan status quo.”3 In other words, allusions to Richard II had become commonplace when commenting on the realm of politics.

The aim of this essay is not, therefore, to affirm that Shakespeare was the first to seize upon the theme (even if the dramatist's contribution to it is of course unique), but it does make a claim to put Shakespeare's play in a context that has so far been overlooked—a context showing that theater, politics, and polemic sometimes wrestled with the same specific issues. To throw a detailed light on this context, it is useful to focus on events surrounding two major dates: 1595 and 1601. Both dates, as we shall see, involve the same play—Shakespeare's Richard II—and the same protagonists: the players of Shakespeare's acting company, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and the English Jesuit and political activist Robert Parsons.

Much attention has been given to the links between the publication of John Hayward's The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie the IIII (1599) and Shakespeare's play.4 Despite its title, Hayward's book was mostly concerned with the last years of Richard II's reign. The unsettling elements in Hayward's work were its many invented speeches. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, was made to address a totally fabricated speech of encouragement to Henry Bolingbroke as he was contemplating the deposition of Richard II.5 The dramatization of history was something the authorities regarded with suspicion, especially in the work of an historian. It must be noted, however, that Hayward's politically controversial historical account was written in 1599. Shakespeare could not have consulted Hayward's manuscript to write Richard II, as the dates of Shakespeare's play cannot be made to match the historian's.6 We will thus turn to another work, which—as we shall try to argue—has greater topical relevance.

This work, published the same year as Shakespeare's Richard II, has attracted considerably less attention, even though Robert Parsons's Conference About the Next Succession to the Crown of England (1594) was dedicated to someone who, in many ways (and especially because of his popularity) resembled Henry Bolingbroke—Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. As its title indicates, the treatise was concerned with the very pressing and very dangerous issue of Elizabeth's succession, and it also contained several passages on what the Jesuit father clearly regarded as the lawful deposition of Richard II.

The context in which this work appeared and the considerable interest it stirred is the story this essay aims to recount with a view that Shakespeare's Richard II may appear in a different light—one that reveals the very complexity of the relationship between religion and politics in Elizabethan England. But prior to these considerations, it is necessary to picture a world in which the ideological polarization of discourse produced an outwardly oppositional view of society—one that probably still misleads us today into thinking that these oppositions actually existed. “In early modern England the relation between Englishness and Christianness was important, contested, and uncertain” (Taylor 1994, 288). Because so much was at stake politically in these ideological and religious debates, those who entered the polemic often created an imaginary opposition so as to give more weight to their arguments. Catholics, Protestants, Puritans had thus very little in common according to their most radical defenders. For the sake of argumentation, polemicists tended to ignore the very different and multiple shades of belief. Those who sought to cross boundaries, or simply chose to disregard the artificial polarities generated by Elizabethan society, risked their career and sometimes their life, as they could easily be called “traitors” to several causes.

What the ideological circumstances surrounding and following the writing of Richard II may reveal is precisely the imaginary constructions of opposition and the interchangeability of some of the poles of opposition. In this way, I would like to suggest that Patrick Collinson's analysis of the historical validity of the term “Puritan” could be extended to other polarized terms of opposition in Elizabethan society, such as “Catholic,” “recusant,” or “heretic.” Collinson writes indeed that:

… the term “puritan” is indicative not so much of an entity and a state, puritanism, as of a situation with at least two sides to it, and of a dynamic, unstable and stressful process: a particular example of the cultural phenomenon of definition and reification through stigmatization, indicative of polarity and contributory to polarity.

(Collinson 195, 155)

There are many concrete proofs of the instability of such terms. Among these, I have recently come upon a somewhat calculated use of the term “Puritan papist” by Henry Earl of Northumberland in a letter to Elizabeth's future successor, James VI of Scotland. Regarding the possible support that might be given to a Catholic opponent of James, Henry of Northumberland writes: “… this man is committed to prison, and I assure your Maiesty condemned by all of them, ore the most pairt, that are Catholiklye affected, vnles it be by some of them that are puritane papistes that thirst after a spanish tytle” (Bruce 1861, 74). Clearly, the purpose in creating the term “Puritan papist” was to make a practical distinction—a distinction that blurred the all-too-frequently polarized picture of English Catholicism and created another pole of opposition within the opposition itself. Northumberland sought simply to distinguish between the “hardliners,” as he saw them, those who looked toward Spain, and those whose loyalty deserved respect and perhaps toleration from the future sovereign. There is reason to believe, as I shall now try to show, that Shakespeare, in his handling of the themes of loyalty and betrayal in Richard II, was also aware of the many shades that these highly charged terms could comprise.


                    But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens.
The Mayor and all his brethren, in best sort,
Like to the senators of th'antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conqu'ring Caesar in—
As, by a lower but high-loving likehood,
Were now the General of our gracious Empress
—As in good time he may—from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him!

(Henry V, 5.2.22-34)7

Shakespeare knew of Robert Devereux and was no doubt aware of the political importance of the Earl of Essex, as this prologue from Henry V amply testifies. The martial hero, seemingly so close in the eyes of Shakespeare to a king (Henry V) or to an emperor (Caesar), is through the paradox of “lower but high-loving” put back into a place that was more hierarchical and thus a trifle less threatening for Elizabeth—that of “General of our gracious Empress.” Shakespeare's Henry V, which dates back to 1599, has apparently captured the topical mood of a moment in history and frozen a picture of the earl that was to be quickly challenged in the ensuing two years leading to his demise, trial, and execution for treason.8

But it may well be that Shakespeare had captured an earlier topical mood in his Richard II—one that also contained elements that could be deemed dangerous for the Elizabethan régime. Richard II begins, strangely enough, with accusations of treachery and a trial. In the subtle world of the play's high politics, it is not quite clear who the traitor is. There is, however, much talk of “high blood” on the part of Bolingbroke in an atmosphere that is very ritualized and outwardly imbued with chivalric ideals: “By that and all the rites of knighthood else / Will I make good against thee, arm to arm,” says Bolingbroke to his rival Thomas Mowbray (1.1.75-76).9

In his dedication to the Earl of Essex in the Conference About the Next Succession, the Jesuit Robert Parsons is keen to insist upon the earl's lineage, “your noble ancestors,” as he calls them, pointing out that all this is “recorded by our Inglish histories” (Parsons 1594, 2-3). By insisting on the earl's lineage, Parsons thus manages through his argumentation to place Robert Devereux at the heart of the succession struggle, creating (artificially) a nearness to the queen that reminds us of Bolingbroke's dangerous closeness to power in Shakespeare's play:

… no man is in more high & eminent place or dignitie at this day in our realme, then your selfe, whether we respect your nobilitie, or calling, or fauour with your prince, or high liking of the people, & consequently no man like to haue a greater part or sway in deciding of this great affaire … then your honour, and those that will assist you & are likest to follow your fame and fortune.

(Parsons 1594, 2)

The “high liking of the people” associated to Essex's person is redolent in some ways of Bolingbroke's own popularity that comes back to haunt Richard time and time again: “As were our England in reversion his, / And he our subjects' next degree in hope” (1.4.36)—in other words, as if Bolingbroke was the next person in line for the throne. It is a strange coincidence also that Hereford was a name borne by Bolingbroke and by the Essex family, as Walter Devereux—Robert's father—was elevated by Elizabeth from Viscount Hereford to Earl of Essex in 1572.10 But it is the antiquary and historian William Camden who unwittingly reveals the associations between Bolingbroke—the defender of his murdered uncle, Woodstock—and Robert Earl of Essex. In the eyes of some of the Catholics, recalls Camden in his history of the reign of Elizabeth I, Essex had antecedents for the crown and these Catholics “cast their eyes upon the Earle of Essex, … feigning a Title from Thomas of Woodstock, King Edward the third's sonne, from whom hee derived his Pedigree” (Camden 1630, 4:57).11

It is clear that Shakespeare's Richard II weaves a web of associations that may not be entirely fortuitous for a playwright caught up in a system of patronage that implied a measure of dialogue with the ruling classes, and sometimes necessitated some fine tuning and subtle positioning. To take the measure of this positioning, one must turn to the fast-moving environment in which the dramatist had to operate.


But why did Robert Parsons, under the name of Doleman, dedicate his Conference to Robert Earl of Essex? The meaning of this dedication is perhaps found in the events surrounding the writing of Shakespeare's Richard II and Parsons's treatise.

On Sunday, February 25, 1593, Robert Earl of Essex took the Oath of Supremacy and the oath of a privy councillor. In the early 1590s, the queen's Privy Council had become an aging body and was in great need of new blood. At twenty-seven, Essex was then seen as definitely on the rise; he was recognized as one of the queen's chief advisers in matters of state and particularly in the domain of foreign affairs. Essex's martial prowess turned him into an ideal courtier in the slightly surreal and artificial atmosphere of chivalry that the queen sought to create around her. But he was someone also who had an impressive intelligence network in England and abroad—which was a great asset for the queen and her other councillors. In the ensuing years he was to develop this network even further.

This policy opened diplomatic doors for Essex in Europe and set him off at home against other men of state such as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who had become synonymous with bloody repression in the eyes of the Catholic community. In many ways, Essex was also anticipating without realizing it the policy of Robert Cecil, who would later have the same underhand involvement with Catholic circles. For the more militant Catholics, however, Essex's policy of toleration could be seen as a threat and as something that could stall plans for the restoration of the old Catholic order in England by the force of arms. There was indeed an element of political calculation in Essex that helped him to enter many circles of power, including oppositional circles. Publicly he displayed the reassuring image of a staunch Protestant, but behind the scenes he engineered quite a different policy (Hammer 1999, 174). In the early 1590s, he had already started to send positive signs to those members of the English Catholic community who were loyal to the government and who considered themselves anti-Spanish. In 1593, he was instrumental in securing the brief release from prison of the well-known recusant Sir Thomas Tresham; and during the Cadiz expedition of 1596, he also sought to appear more like an anti-Spanish agent than an anti-Catholic one (Hammer, 175).

This was certainly what worried the author of the Conference About the Next Succession. Whereas Essex saw his dealings as subtle and discreet, the Dedication sought to expose him in order to destabilize him. First, by openly associating him with the Catholic community, Parsons turned him into a potential collaborator and double agent: “First then I saye,” writes Parsons, “that my particular obligation towards your honours person, riseth partly of good turnes and benefites receaued by some frendes of myne at your Lordships handes …” (Parsons 1594, 2). Then, by linking him to the burning issue of the succession, the Jesuit father was probably trying to alienate him from the queen—Essex was suddenly exposed as a conniving agent provocateur—a Bolingbroke whose dealings were dubious and who was invited through the repeated allusions to Richard II in the treatise to take appropriate action. Parsons's book thus complicated matters in a political climate that was already extremely tense.

Some of the correspondence exchanged by the courtiers at the time shows how serious a threat Parsons's treatise represented, and also how many people had heard of it, had read it, or were wanting to read it. On September 25, 1595, Robert Beale writes the following to Sir Robert Sidney:

Our irresoluteness at home, and the little estimation of us abroad make me fear we shall receive some blow. …

I hear of late a vile book has been printed in English in Antwerp touching the succession of the Crown, and deriving a strange pretence from John of Gaunt upon the King of Spain. If you could procure me one of the books, I should be beholden. I hear it is dedicated to the Earl of Essex, of intent surely to bring him in jealousy and disgrace.

(Kingsford 1934, 2:165)

On November 3, 1595, Parsons's Conference comes into the hands of the queen, who then shows it to Essex (Spedding 1861-74, 1.374). Two days later, on November 5, Rowland Whyte, this time, shares the latest gossip from the court with Sire Robert Sidney in a letter:

Vpon Monday last, 1500 [Queen Eliz.] shewed 1000 [Earl of Essex] a printed Book of t—t, Title to a—a: In yt their is, as I here, daungerous Praises of 1000 of his Valour and Worthines, which doth hym harme here. At his comming from Court he was obserued to looke wan and pale, being exceedinglie troubled at his great Piece of Villanie donne vnto hym; he is Sick, and continewes very ill. 1500 visited hym Yesterday in Thafternoone. He is mightelie crossed in all Things. …

Whyte's postscript to the same letter shows the true impact of Parsons's controversial book: “The Book I spake of is dedicated to my Lord Essex, and printed beyond Sea [sic], and tis thought to be Treason to haue it. To wryte of these Things are dangerous in so perillous a Tyme …” (Collins 1746, 1:357-58).

On November 12, 1595, another letter by Rowland Whyte addressed to Sir Robert Sidney announces that Essex is back in favor and that the storm is momentarily over. Essex is again at the helm of the queen's foreign affairs: “My Lord of Essex hath put off the Melancholy he fell vnto, by a printed Booke deliuered to the Queen; wherein the Harme was meant hym, by her Majesties gracious Fauor and Wisdom, is turned to his good, and strengthens her Loue vnto hym; for I heare, that within these 4 Days, many Letters sent to her self, from forren Countries, were deliuered only to my Lord of Essex, and he answered them …” (Collins 1746, 1:360).

Later that same month, Essex's adviser Francis Bacon was to try and heal the wounds between the earl and the queen during the Accession Day tilt—an occasion for a celebration of the Elizabethan régime through the somewhat allegorical rites of a neomedieval chivalric ethos. Bacon thus composed for his patron a masque of “Love and Self-love” that was to accompany the highly ritualized Accession Day tournaments. The occasion was supposed to reinforce the bond between Essex and the queen through a form of neomedieval pageantry that could serve as a powerful means of mediation in times of doubt or crisis. But in this case, what the spectators of the masque witnessed was a breakdown of “the rites of knighthood,” to quote Shakespeare's Bolingbroke (1.1.75). In the same way that Shakespeare's Richard II puts a premature end to a form of ritual that could serve traditionally to resolve conflicts (1.3.124 onward), the queen, who could see (like Richard) only too clearly through the so-called ritual and allegory of Bacon's Masque, simply stormed off, thus ending abruptly the allegorical dialogue of reconciliation initiated by Bacon. Rowland Whyte reports again in his correspondence that the queen got up all of a sudden and said, “that if she had thought their had bene so much said of her, she wold not haue been their that Night, and soe went to Bed” (qtd. in McCoy 1989, 86).

Shakespeare's Richard II depicts a world in which it is clear from the start that the rites of chivalry are no longer capable of reconciling opposites. It becomes gradually obvious that other means of mediation have to be used, rediscovered, or reinvented. Despite the failure of Bacon's masque, 1595 was the year when Essex's influence over the queen had reached its height. In July 1596, however, the newly appointed Secretary of State Robert Cecil—Lord Burghley's son—was to become suddenly a fierce competitor. Opposition within the queen's Privy Council was even more deeply entrenched. Mediation had to be sought, and it was to be sought in already existing bodies or offices that suddenly acquired a new value. One of these bodies was Parliament, while the office that was to turn Essex into an overambitious courtier in the eyes of some of his contemporaries was the ancient office of Earl Marshal and Constable, to which he was appointed in 1597.

With his insistence on the powers of Parliament, Robert Parsons had turned an existing political body into something more dangerous—an institution that had the power to step in if and when the monarchy was in crisis. As Cyndia Susan Clegg points out, “Not until Parsons argued that the Spanish Infanta's succession to the crown of England was legitimate because Parliament deposed Richard II did Parliament's powers become incorporated into oppositional discourse. Parsons's book thus created in the mid-1590s an issue where one had not existed before” (Clegg 1997, 445). It therefore becomes more understandable that the Parliament or deposition scene in Richard II (4.1.154-317) did not appear in print until 1608 (when the succession issue was over), as (from the point of view of the censors dealing with printed books) its implications were unacceptable as long as the issue was not settled. For the censors of play texts, however, this was a less burning issue, and it is likely that the play continued to be performed with the deposition scene as it most certainly was in 1601 when the supporters of the Essex rising paid the Chamberlain's Men (the Bard's own acting company) to perform a play that in all likelihood was Shakespeare's Richard II.12

In Shakespeare's play, the role of Parliament became immediately visible to the audience, and it is the very staging of the deposition that, in the eyes of Bolingbroke, guarantees the legitimacy of the whole process:

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


Parsons himself had presented both the Privy Council and Parliament as safeguards against tyranny. In his Conference, Parliament is seen as the almost ultimate guarantee that succession crises are resolved in a satisfactory manner (God's will in these matters is consciously played down by Parsons). For the Jesuit activist, the deposition of Richard II:

… could not be executed in better nor more conuenient order. First for that it vvas done by the choice and inuitation of al the realme or greater and better parte thereof as hath bin said. Secondly for that the king vvas deposed by act of parlament, and himself conuinced of his vnworthy gouerment, and brought to confesse that he vvas vvorthely depriued. …

(Parsons 1594, 67)

That the Conference was dedicated to the Earl of Essex may not be fortuitous either, because Parsons may have been aware that the earl had a will to find constitutional solutions that would help curtail the whims of royal authority. When Essex was appointed Earl Marshal in 1597, he became immediately interested in reviving the ancient powers of this highest surviving feudal office and commissioned researchers to look into the status and privileges of the office. The findings themselves were potentially seditious in that they reinstated an authority that partly endangered the concept of royal sovereignty. In this sense, as Richard C. McCoy points out in a seminal study, “The research initiated by Essex is … another ‘missing link’ between earlier medieval and Tudor theories of mixed government and the parliamentary opposition of the seventeenth century” (McCoy 1989, 94).


Essex's ambitions were to be thwarted, nonetheless, both by the man who had become his rival and by his military ventures, which caused his estrangement from the circles of power, and, as a consequence, encouraged him to take desperate measures to regain his lost influence.

The end of the 1590s saw many of the familiar hauntings of the decade reemerge. Parsons's defense of the rights of the Infanta of Spain to the throne of England had not been forgotten, and the topic itself kept rearing its head in the correspondence addressed to the Secretary of State, Robert Cecil. In a letter dated June 27, 1599, Sir Henry Neville even proposed to use the Infanta as a means of testing the loyalty of potential suspects:

… whether yt be not convenient, that suche Preists or notorious Recusants as shall be hereafter apprehended, be severely examined, whether they have not sollicited others, or bin sollicited themselves, to subscribe to that Title of the Infanta. And lastly, whether yt will not be fit, when you shall come to treat with the Archduke, to insist upon an Article, of the Infanta's Resignation of any pretended Title.

(Sawyer 1725, 1:52)

The whole issue of the succession as well as its religious and political implications had become a means of tracking down opponents, of creating an opposition. Be that as it may, the secretary himself played a game very similar to that of Essex, who sometimes got dangerously involved with some of the members of the Catholic community in England or abroad. It even appears that Cecil could have been secretly interested in potential negotiations with the Infanta. A series of letters addressed to him by one Filippo Corsini seems to point in that direction. Starting, as far as the evidence shows, at the beginning of August 1599, these letters give news of the whereabouts of the Infanta and of the Archduke her husband, and they also reveal that Cecil requested that a portrait of the couple be sent to him in all secrecy. Corsini writes to him on September 3, 1599: “I have received your letter and seen your wish to have the picture, and on Saturday when the courier starts I will write as from myself and to a friend of mine, who will see that you have it as soon as possible, in the manner you ordered, and with all secrecy and speed” (Calendar of the Manuscripts 1883-1976, 9:345). On November 14, the paintings arrived, and Corsini promised to continue to treat the whole matter with the uttermost secrecy: “I have received from Antwerp the portraits of the Infanta and the Archduke Albert her husband. I send them to you by my friend the bearer. They are present to me and I humbly beg you to accept of them from me. You may be assured that this affair has been carried out in all secrecy” (9:391).

On Sunday, February 8, 1601, the supporters of the Earl of Essex staged their ill-fated coup. The day before, a play that probably was Shakespeare's Richard II had been performed by the playwright's own company. Sir Gilly Meyrick—Essex's faithful attendant—had even given the players an extra forty shillings: “So earnest hee was to satisfie his eyes with the sight of that Tragedie, which hee thought soone after his Lord should bring from the Stage to the State. …” (Bacon 1601, sig. K3). The earl's supporters were soon arrested and the trial began. On February 18, some of the evidence was brought before the Privy Council:

Your letters of the 17th of this present touching the seditious and provoking speeches uttered by the Earl [of Essex] to stir the people to adhere unto him in his rebellious actions, we receive in the evening about eight o'clock; and according to the straitness of the time, we have examined divers that did hear the Earl publish and intimate to the people those seditious and provoking speeches that the crown of England was sold or betrayed to the Infanta of Spain, and to that effect: whose examinations we have taken in writing, upon their oaths, and do send them to you inclosed herein.13

Essex's indignant outcry in the streets of London foreshadows the accusations directed against him during his trial and points to the same process of outward and artificial polarization that we outlined at the beginning of this essay. Essex is executed on February 25, 1601. A few days later (on March 4), Monsieur de Boisisse, the French ambassador in England, recalls the accusations against Essex:

qu'il estoit papiste; qu'il retinoit les Jesuits en sa Maison; qu'il vouloit usurper la Couronne; qu'il avoit de grandes Intelligences en Escosse, & en Irelande avec le Conte de Tyrone. Bref, qu'il avoit vendu la Ville de Londres al Infante, & qu'il en avoit reçeu quelque Argent. Voila ce que generallement ilz luy objecterent.

(Sawyer 1725, 1.298)14

The ambassador then tells of Essex's desperate ploy. Indeed, during the trial the earl had also attempted to incriminate Robert Cecil, accusing him of conniving with the opposition:

ilz font venir le Secretaire, comme personne interposeé [sic] en leur tragedie. Lequel ayant plus de deux ans passé, bien songé à ce qu'il avoit à dire, tonnà une quantité de paroles contre le Conte d'Essex. Lequel n'eut faute de responce de moyens pour maintenir au Secretaire, qu'il avoit eu Intelligence avec le feu Roy d'espagne l'année de la Grande Flotte. Ce que picqua si fort le Secretaire, (pour en estre paraventure quelque chose) qu'il se prit à crier tout/hault, qu'il ne feroit jamais service à sa Majesté, si on ne luy ostoit la teste comme à un Traistre.

(Sawyer 1725, 1:298)15

All through the trial other commonplace accusations resurfaced, among them, allusions to Richard II—the play that Essex's supporters had actually used on the day of the rebellion to further their cause. Extracts of the hearing show how much the whole issue of the deposition of Richard II was present in the minds of the accused, but also in those of the accusers, especially in this dialogue between Southampton and the Attorney-General:

Good Mr Attorney, let me ask you what, in your conscience, you think we would have done to her Majesty if we gained the Court?
I protest upon my soul, and in my conscience, I do believe she should not have lived long after she had been in your power. Note but the precedent of former ages: how long lived King Richard the Second after he was surprised in the same manner. The pretence there was also to remove certain councillors; but it shortly after cost the King his life. Such is the unquenchable thirst of ambition, never satisfied so long as any greatness is unachieved. But I know this for certain, that to surprise the Court or take the Tower by way of defence from private enemies, is plain treason.

(Jardine 1832, 1:337)

Another accusation dealt with what had disappeared in the published quartos of Shakespeare's play (until 1608), that is to say, the whole issue of the powers of Parliament. On February 26, 1601, the day that followed Essex's execution, Robert Cecil, writing to Lord Deputy Mountjoy, painted a picture of what—according to him—Essex had envisaged politically: “… and then, having her [the queen] in their possessions, to have used the shadow of her authority for removing of all they misliked, and for change of the Government; and so to have called a Parliament, and have condemned all those that should have been scandalized to have misgoverned the State” (Calendar of State Papers 1860-1912, 1:199).

Beyond the artificial polarization of discourse, all the accusations of betrayal, of supporting the cause of Spain, of conniving with Catholics, this was probably the crucial issue that cost the earl his head—the parliamentary issue, one that had also forced the publishers of Shakespeare's early quartos to cut the so-called “woeful pageant” (4.1.320) of Richard II's parliamentary demise. The reappearance in 1601 of Richard II—Shakespeare's “old play,” as the actors themselves referred to it—is a proof of the play's enduring topical nature. It may also suggest that its strong contextual associations both at the time of its writing and after open a new field of interpretation—one that points to the very incompleteness of thematic readings and that also “challenge[s] the assumption that a progression narrative is a suitable model for the construction of Shakespeare's career” (Hamilton 1992, xii).

In the extremely tense political context of February 1601 (the Earl of Essex felt much maligned), the agreement to stage a play on the deposition of Richard II could surely not be motivated by commercial reasons alone—such a decision was no doubt a statement of support to the disgraced earl.16 Shakespeare had toyed with ideas of rebellion in Richard II—ideas that Robert Parsons had also used to destabilize the Elizabethan state—but whereas Parsons prayed that his arguments would one day force change to happen, it is unlikely that Shakespeare and his fellow actors were aware that their play was just a rehearsal of an open rebellion taking place the next day. Nevertheless, they had, without realizing it, agreed to cross the line that separated political support from potential treason.


  1. I follow Gurr's conclusions regarding the date of the play (Shakespeare 1990, 1).

  2. See Shakespeare, King Richard II (1990, 1).

  3. For non-Shakespearean uses of the theme, see Campbell (1964, 191).

  4. This question is well documented, thanks to a string of articles by Albright (1927) and Heffner (1930, 1932) in PMLA. A recent article by Dutton (1993) is also extremely useful.

  5. “… our auncestors liued in the highest pitch and perfection of libertie, but we of servilitie, being in the nature, not of subiectes, but of abiectes, and flat slaues; not to one intractable Prince onely, but to many proude & disdainefull fauorites; … And therefore we are now compelled to shake off our shoulders this importable yoke, and submit our selues to the soueraigntie of some more moderate and worthy person.” (Hayward 1599, sig. 14). The work also bore a lavish dedication in Latin to the Earl of Essex.

  6. See Heffner (1930, 767).

  7. See Shakespeare, Henry V (1986, 592-93).

  8. On the evidence that the prologue (or chorus) scenes are absent from the 1600 quarto edition of Henry V (Q1), it has been argued that these scenes are a later addition, and that the allusion to “the General of our gracious Empress” actually refers to Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who was Queen Elizabeth's (more successful) general and lord deputy in Ireland from 1600 to 1603 (see Smith 1954). Taylor, in his edition of the play, demonstrates convincingly that this is unlikely (Shakespeare 1994, 4-7). Taylor also emphasizes the topicality of the play: “The date of Henry V can thus not only be established with—for Shakespeare—extraordinary precision; it is also of extraordinary importance. Reflections of contemporary history have been suspected in many of Shakespeare's plays, but the allusion to the Irish expedition in 5.0.29-34 is the only explicit, extra-dramatic, incontestable reference to a contemporary event anywhere in the canon” (7).

  9. All references to the play are taken from Shakespeare, King Richard II, ed. Gurr (1990).

  10. See Hammer (1999, 18-19).

  11. Also quoted in Campbell 180. More accurately, according to Shakespeare, Thomas was Edward's sixth son, and the third son was Lionel, Duke of Clarence (see 2 Henry VI 2.2.10 ff.).

  12. For this distinction between the two types of censorship, see Shakespeare, King Richard II (1990, 9). That it was Shakespeare's play is a logical supposition. As Schoenbaum pointed out, no real contradictory elements have been discovered to demonstrate that the play was not Shakespeare's (1975, 7).

  13. February 18, 1601, Sir Edward Wotton, Sir Henry Brouncker, and Mr Recorder Croke to the Council (Calendar of the Manuscripts 1883-1976, 11:66-67.)

  14. “… that he was a papist, that he had Jesuits to stay at his house, that he wanted to usurp the Crown; that he had secret intelligence with men in Scotland and with the Earl of Tyrone in Ireland. In short, that he had sold the city of London to the Infanta and that he had received money in exchange. These were the main accusations.”

  15. March 4, 1601, London, “Copy of a Letter from Monsieur de Boisisse (the French Ambassador then residing in England) to Monsieur de Rohan”: “… they bring in the Secretary [of State] to play the middle man in their tragedy. He had had time during the last two years to think about what he wanted to say and he thus vented all his anger against the Earl of Essex. The Earl was quick to retort that the Secretary had had secret intelligence with the late King of Spain in the year of the Armada. The Secretary was so stung by this (which suggests that this may have been truthful), that he cried out that he would leave the service of her Majesty if the traitor was not beheaded.”

  16. As Thomson writes, “The agreement to stage the play on Saturday 7 February was an open statement by a company of players that they supported the maligned Earl of Essex. When, on Sunday 8 February, Essex's discontent broke out into rebellion, such support was no longer easily distinguishable from treason” (1992, 139).

Works Cited

Albright, Evelyn May. “Shakespeare's Richard II and the Essex Conspiracy.” PMLA 42 (1927): 686-720.

Bacon, Francis, Viscount St. Albans. “A declaration of the practices & treasons committed by Robert late Earle of Essex.” 1601. STC 1133.

Bruce, John, ed. Correspondence of James VI of Scotland with Sir Robert Cecil and Others in England, During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. London: Camden Society, 1861.

Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth. Ed. H. C. Hamilton, E. G. Atkinson et al. 11 vols. London: 1860-1912.

A Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Hon. the marquis of Salisbury, KG, &c, preserved at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. 24 vols. London: 1883-1976.

Camden, William. “The historie of the most renowned and victorious princesse Elizabeth” 1630. STC 4500.5.

Campbell, L. B. Shakespeare's “Histories,” Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. London: Methuen, 1964.

Clegg, Cyndia Susan. “‘By the choise and inuitation of al the realme’: Richard II and Elizabethan Press Censorship.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 432-48.

Collins, Arthur, ed. Letters and Memorials of State … from the originals at Penthurst Place in Kent. 2 vols. London: 1746.

Collinson, Patrick. “Religious Satire and the Invention of Puritanism.” In The Reign of Elizabeth I, Court and Culture in the Last Decade, ed. John Guy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Dutton, Richard. “Buggeswords: Samuel Harsnett and the Licensing, Suppression and Afterlife of Dr. John Hayward's The first part of the life and reign of King Henry IV.Criticism 35 (1993): 307-20.

Hamilton, Donna B. Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.

Hammer, Paul E. J. The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics, The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Hayward, John. The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie the III. London, 1599.

Heffner, Ray. “Shakespeare, Hayward, and Essex.” PMLA 45 (1930): 754-80.

———. “Shakespeare, Hayward, and Essex Again.” PMLA 47 (1932): 898.

Jardine, David. Criminal Trials. London: Lily, Wait, Lolman, Holden, 1832.

Kingsford, C. L., ed. Report on the Manuscripts of Lord De L'Isle & Dudley Preserved at Penshurst Place. 6 vols. Historical Manuscripts Commission. London: HM's Stationery Office, 1934.

McCoy, Richard C. The Rites of Knighthood, The Literature and Politics of Elizabethan Chivalry. Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif., and London: University of California Press, 1989.

Parsons (Persons), Robert. “A Conference about the next Succession to the Crowne of Ingland.” Antwerp, 1594. STC 193-98.

Sawyer, Edmund, ed. Memorials of Affairs of State in the Reigns of Q. Elizabeth and K. James I Collected (chiefly) from the Original Papers of the Right Honourable Sir Ralph Winwood, Kt. Sometime One of the Principal Secretaries of State. 3 vols. London: T. Ward, 1725.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. “‘Richard II’ and the Realities of Power.” Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 1-13.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V. The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986.

———. Henry V. Ed. Gary Taylor. World's Classics. Oxford, England, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

———. King Richard II. Ed. Andrew Gurr. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Smith, W. D. “The Henry V Choruses in the First Folio.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 53 (1954): 38-57.

Spedding, James, ed. The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon. 7 vols. London: Longman, 1861-74.

Taylor, Gary. “Forms of Opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton.” English Literary Renaissance 24 (1994): 283-314.

Thomson, Peter. Shakespeare's Professional Career. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

David Ruiter (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10553

SOURCE: Ruiter, David. “‘Awhile To Work, And After Holiday’: Richard II and the Roots of a Festive History.” In Shakespeare's Festive History: Feasting, Festivity, Fasting, and Lent in the Second Henriad, pp. 41-68. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003.

[In the following essay, Ruiter maintains that festivity is a central theme in Richard II that becomes more fully developed in the succeeding plays of the second tetralogy. According to the critic, the common masses support Richard's deposal and Bolingbroke's subsequent ascension to the throne because the king dismisses community festivity whereas his challenger recognizes its importance to social stability.]

At least since 1959, when C. L. Barber included the two parts of Henry IV in his famous book, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom, there has been little doubt that Shakespeare's history plays not only contain festive elements, but that understanding the function of festivity within those plays is crucial to understanding the plays in essence.1 By comparing Falstaff to the popular Shrovetide character, the Lord of Misrule, and demonstrating how the action and outcome of the plays mirror that of the Misrule festival, Barber showed how the thematic structure of the two Henry IV plays could be traced to Elizabethan social ritual (192-221). At the same time, he connected the two plays, making them seem less like individual plays than two long acts of one central drama, through the festive elements he described. Basically, then, Barber attached the plays through their use and portrayal of festivity.

The Henry IV plays, however, are really only slightly more of a self-contained unit together than they are apart because, of course, they still represent only half of the historical tetralogy often referred to as the Second Henriad, beginning with Richard II and ending with Henry V. In addition, as Charles Forker makes clear, the plays within Shakespeare's tetralogies are both distinct from each other and vitally connected (20-34).2 Forker states:

Of course, each of the four plays in the two tetralogies has its own organic structure and may be performed as a self-contained unit. But all these plays contain prominent references to what went before as well as predictions or foreshadowings of what is to come, so that an important part of our experience of a history play consists of being caught up dramatically in the stream of events as they impinge upon us immediately, while being constantly made aware that there are longer vistas of cause and effect that cannot be ignored.


Forker here makes explicit what Barber had already, though only partially, implied—the plays of the Second Henriad are yoked in some fashion that not only keeps the four dramas ‘together’ in some sense, but that actually adds to the dramatic experience, the dramatic effect, of the plays both individually and as a set.3 While Barber only put the two central plays together with his explication of the elements of social ritual, he nonetheless provided a possible route by which to explore the entire tetralogy; he suggested that the key to the structural unity of the plays might lie in their festive elements. From the perspective presented in this study, that suggestion is correct.

At the least, it is clear that the plays are linked, and each subsequent sequel advertised, through the use of festive elements. Near the end of Richard II, having made no previous reference even to having a son, Henry IV suddenly asks,

Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since we did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found.
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there they say he daily doth frequent
With unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch, and rob our passengers—
While he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honor to support
So dissolute a crew.


In answer to the king's question, Hotspur (referred to as ‘Percy’ at this point in the tetralogy) reports that Prince Hal will not be joining his father at the ‘triumphs held at Oxford’ (14), but, instead, will occupy himself in ‘the stews’ of London (16). In all, only twenty-two lines of the play concern Hal, and they are devoted entirely to his festive and unruly, even unprincely, behavior. Therefore, when the audience finally meets the prince in the following play, he certainly lives up to his billing—cursing with Falstaff, talking of women, and planning a robbery (1 Henry IV, 1.2). A short preview to the festive prince at the end of Richard II has now led to a play dominated by Hal, and especially, as Harold Bloom points out, by his festive relationship with Sir John Falstaff (271-314).5

Likewise, both parts of Henry IV use elements of festivity to set up their respective sequels. At the end of 1 Henry IV, just when Hal and the audience believe that the wildly festive Falstaff has died, he miraculously resurrects himself and, thus, makes himself available for action in Part Two (5.4). At the conclusion of 2 Henry IV, the fat knight is harshly rejected, as Henry V looks to reform himself and redeem the time; however, once again, Falstaff is ‘resurrected’ as the audience is promised that the story will continue ‘with Sir John in it’ (Epilogue.26). In addition, the Epilogue states that the ‘author […] will make you merry with Katharine of France’ (25-27). Clearly then, festivity is being used, over and over, to entice the audience to attend yet another sequel.

Still, the fact that Shakespeare uses festivity as advertisement in the tetralogy does not necessarily make festivity central to the plays, any more than a World Series advertisement showing a Bernie Williams home run makes the home run a central element of the game of baseball. As often as not, it seems, advertising has little to do with the actual product. On the other hand, a close observer of professional baseball, especially over the last decade, could justifiably conclude that home runs are indeed central to the games individually and as a whole. And such is my task here—to show, through close observation, that our understanding of Shakespeare's use of festive elements will add to our ability to appreciate the plays of the Second Henriad, both individually and as a whole.

To begin to discuss the centrality of festivity to the Second Henriad, we must first look to The Tragedy of Richard II, because it is the first play of the tetralogy. Of course, this play contains no festive character similar to Falstaff, no entertaining tavern scenes like those of the Henry IV plays, and no festive wedding plans such as those of Henry V and Katharine of France. In addition, one might find having elements of festivity intermixed with the serious aspects of dramatic tragedy a bit jarring to the literary senses. Still, Naomi C. Liebler, in her book Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Tragedy, has already argued persuasively that ‘tragedy’ and ‘festivity’ are not mutually exclusive terms (1-35).6 On the other hand, they are certainly not mutually inclusive—even mutually comfortable—terms either. That is, while Liebler is right in noting that the idea of tragedy does not exclude elements of festivity, neither does it necessarily include them. Therefore, while I will argue that festivity is indeed a politically useful attribute, as well as a central issue in Richard II, I will do so by arguing that the tragic King Richard essentially lacks festivity while his political challenger, Bolingbroke, does not. As a result, Richard falls out of the community he once ruled, while Bolingbroke climbs to the throne and does so by using a ‘politics of festivity’ that will become crucial not only to his reign, but also to his son's.

Considering Richard's fall and Bolingbroke's concomitant rise in terms of festivity highlights its socio-political value. Over the course of the play, Richard tends to disallow community festivity, to deny participation in such activities, and to maintain a strict social hierarchy. The king leaves his community feeling separated, their need for camaraderie unsatisfied. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, emphasizes festive participation, social leveling, and a sense of holiday community. With his festive rhetoric and actions, he is able to garner enough public support to undermine Richard's non-festive authority and turn him from the rightful English king into, in his own words, a ‘mockery king of snow’ (4.1.261). Therefore, as Bolingbroke usurps the throne, festive community replaces strict hierarchy.

In fact, near the conclusion of the play, as Richard sits in the dungeon of Pomfret Castle and attempts to puzzle out the causes for his present condition, he ultimately expresses this very realization: that while he neglected festivity, and therefore lost its benefits of renewal, community, and solidarity, Bolingbroke focused his rhetoric and campaign on those very aspects and thereby gained the crown. In his maddening discontent, Richard sums up his life with the famous line, ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’ (5.5.49). The line, like so much of Richard's speech, is eloquent in its exaggeration, for Richard has not so much generally wasted his time as he has, through his own actions and attitudes, separated himself from the community he was supposed to rule.7 As Irving Ribner explains, ‘That Richard's downfall was the inevitable result of his own conduct is one of the surest political lessons of the play’ (164). King Richard, having chosen to stand alone and aloof from the community and to deny it opportunities for festivity and social-leveling, now finds himself alone again, pondering his relationship to that same community of humankind. As a result, Richard now realizes that his ‘time / Runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy, / While I stand fooling here, his jack of the clock’ (58-60); that is, Richard's time is out, while Bolingbroke's festive time is in. As if to emphasize this point, moments later, angered by his lack of proper food, Richard strikes out against the prison keeper and shortly meets his death (5.1.98-112). Of course, his former foe, the usurping Bolingbroke, was also once angered by his lack of proper food and sustenance, when Richard banished him and later seized his inheritance (3.1.16-29). Bolingbroke also struck back against his oppressors, even executing Bushy and Green (3.1.1-7, 30). However, as opposed to Richard, Bolingbroke campaigned with the promise of festivity and renewed community, and with these themes, he gained widespread support and, ultimately, the kingship. In these events, the time of strict hierarchy, represented by Richard, gives way to the renewal of community and festivity, represented by Bolingbroke.

Already in the play's first scene, the audience witnesses the initial evidence of the two kings' opposing views of festivity, when, against Richard's desire, Bolingbroke and Mowbray force the issue of a festive, albeit violent, resolution to their claims of treason. In the opening lines of Richard II, King Richard states,

Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster,
Hast thou according to thy oath and bond
Brought hither Henry Hereford, thy bold son,
Here to make good the boisterous late appeal,
Which then our leisure would not let us hear,
Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?


These lines allude to the initial conflict of the play: Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason against England, while Mowbray denies such action (1.1.30-68). Richard, having taken his ‘leisure’ to hear Bolingbroke's accusations, finds both men to be ‘high-stomached’ and ‘hasty’ in their conflict (18-19). And while both ‘accuser and accused’ exchange barbs and threats (17), Richard sees no reason for the conflict to continue and commands both Mowbray and Bolingbroke to ‘forget’ their feud and ‘forgive’ each other (156). However, Bolingbroke and Mowbray oppose the king's non-bloody will, insisting that they be allowed to decide the matter with arms (165-95). Finally, in the face of their continued ire, Richard, against his will, sets the date for the duel on Saint Lambert's Day, a holy feast day (196-205).8 Therefore, the outcome of the clash between Bolingbroke and Mowbray will provide a resolution to their conflict, but the duel will also provide public entertainment for the crowd attending the annual feast of St. Lambert. In a sense, then, if all goes as planned, the martial feats will add spice to this holiday feast, provide a festive spectacle for the common people, and take care of the troubling political issue of treason.

Therefore, when the audience next encounters Mowbray and Bolingbroke as they prepare for the battle, the food and festive imagery, appropriate for the holiday feast, reappears. For instance, as the combatants stand armed and ready for the duel, each uses festive terms to discuss the coming event. Bolingbroke, saying his farewells just in case he does not gain the victory, states,

My loving lord, I take my leave of you;
Of you, my noble cousin, Lord Aumerle;
Not sick, although I have to do with death,
But lusty, young, and cheerly drawing breath.
Lo, as at English feasts, so I regreet
The daintiest last, to make the end most sweet.


Here, Bolingbroke makes an overt comparison between the current events and the celebration of ‘English feasts.’ He feels ‘lusty,’ he breathes ‘cheerly,’ and he hopes to make a ‘sweet’ end. Again, these comments occur within the larger context of the Feast of St. Lambert, which serves as the background to the duel. In addition, Mowbray emphasizes the idea that the current time is indeed festive, saying:

Never did captive with a freer heart
Cast off his chains of bondage and embrace
His golden uncontrolled enfranchisement
More than my dancing soul doth celebrate
This feast of battle with mine adversary.
Most mighty liege, and my companion peers,
Take from my mouth the wish of happy years.
As gentle and as jocund as a jest
Go I to fight. Truth hath a quiet breast.


Mowbray, in hoping for ‘uncontrolled enfranchisement,’ desires clear membership in the community gathered to witness the holiday festivities. Further, the Duke of Norfolk intensifies Bolingbroke's description of duel-as-feast by saying that not only is the event ‘as’ a feast, the clash is a ‘feast of battle.’ In other words, Mowbray, in reiterating Bolingbroke's view of battle and changing his simile to a metaphor, further stresses the festive nature of the coming events. Mowbray emphasizes festive freedom and community, festive rites such as dancing, and the festive mood of happiness. Together, then, the combatants establish and emphasize the nature of the duel. The ‘high-stomached’ rivals speak in terms of feasting and festivity, in terms of community, as they prepare to joust. At stake for both are truth, honor, enfranchisement, and life, but the combatants are not only willing, they are ‘jocund.’ Both believe that the issue will be settled, and order, harmony, and community will be restored.

However, shortly after their speeches, Richard throws down his baton and stops their violent festivity (1.3.118-122). Doing so creates a break in the festive progression, a break in the holiday ritual, as Mowbray and Bolingbroke must wait while Richard confers with his counselors. The audience within and outside the play feels uneasy, even impatient, at the delay. Auditors have endured all the pompous rhetoric and circumstantial evidence leading up to the big event, but now must wait for the council to break. At this moment, through the imagery of the combatants' rhetoric, the audience is essentially sitting at the holiday table, hungrily awaiting the promised English ‘feast’ (1.3.92). Therefore, when Richard returns to say that their appetites will go unsatisfied (123-143), he operates as a dramatic kill-joy because he kills the promised spectacle; Phyllis Rackin explains that when ‘Richard refuses […] to allow the contest to proceed, the anticlimactic effect is nicely calculated to make the audience resent Richard, since it is he who deprives them of the spectacle […]’ (263).9 While the king's reasoning, avoidance of civil war, may sound logical momentarily, it surely is not so; when the tickets are sold, the audience expects a performance, or, in this case, when the metaphorical table is prepared, the audience metaphorically desires to eat. When they do not see the performance or dine on the meal, they have a disaffection for the powers that kept them waiting with the promise of festive events.

Richard states that instead of making England ‘wade in our kindred's blood,’ he will simply banish both combatants (1.3.138-43). In doing so, he again attempts to create a bloodless peace.10 The king banishes Mowbray for all time and Bolingbroke for first ten, then six years (1.3.140-143, 148-153, 208-212).11 For added security, the king also disallows the two from reaching a communion or peace between themselves (183-190). In other words, Richard seems to want national peace, but neither true justice nor reconciliation. In addition, as Liebler explains,

The joust is (or would have been) one of several ritual events depicted in the play whose close observation mark the normative relationship of king and state but here, in Richard's crisis of kingship, are aborted or evacuated of meaning.


Richard wants to maintain community without maintaining community rites, such as the promised duel to decide the guilt and innocence of the two parties.

As a result, the audience feels much like Bolingbroke and Mowbray do—frustrated by the lack of the imagined feast. For instance, when Gaunt attempts to cheer his son by telling him to imagine that he has not been banished, but merely sent away to learn ‘honor’ or to escape disease (1.3.275-293), Bolingbroke, impassioned, replies,

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 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.


Here, Bolingbroke returns to food and feast imagery in discussing the unsatisfying banishment. He cannot be happy or feel satiated by merely imagining the feast; he desired to participate in the ‘English feast’ with Mowbray, to settle their warm dispute decisively. Cold banishment does nothing for this hunger for justice. In fact, he suggests that the mouth of Sorrow is left infected, unable to heal with such a passive solution. There is no peace, none of Mowbray's hoped-for return to community, without the feast. Ultimately, Richard's solution creates just the opposite for the two; instead of restored community through festive ritual, they receive isolation through banishment and broken ritual.

Interestingly, in making sure that Bolingbroke and Mowbray never have their hoped-for feast of blood and so resolve the issue with arms, nor allowing them to make peace and sit at table again as English brothers, Richard actually shows himself as a king who is trying to find and hold onto the tenuous edge between peace and justice, but not actively pursuing either. In this way, as Liebler explains, the cancelled event and subsequent banishment begin to reveal ‘a complex portrait of the king as one who attempts to hold on to certain aspects of a traditional order while violating others’ (60). The people of his kingdom, at least the audience at the duel, go away unsatisfied, feeling no resolution and having been offered very little of the dramatic action they were hoping for. The reader feels the same tension, and it is this strain of no resolution that will eventually drive Richard from the throne. This uneasy tension will become a central pattern to Richard's rule, a pattern of governance which leaves the community dangling and unsatisfied, never taking hold of society's need for the camaraderie found through feasting, festivity, and community ritual. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, through his rhetoric and action, will create the sense of both holiday and community over and over again.

In disallowing the feast of battle, Richard not only creates isolation for the combatants, but also brings on a period of fasting for both Bolingbroke and Gaunt.12 Bolingbroke, as shown above, feels that while he may imagine a feast, he cannot participate in one, and, therefore, cannot feel satisfied or well-nourished. Likewise, at the beginning of Act Two, his dying father, Gaunt, responds to Richard's greeting with the following speech:

O, how that name [Gaunt] befits my composition!
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old.
Within me grief hath kept a tedious fast,
And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?
For sleeping England long time have I watched;
Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt.
The pleasures that some fathers feed upon
Is my strict fast—I mean my children's looks—
And therein fasting, thou hast made me gaunt.


Gaunt suggests here that he has been fasting on two accounts. First, he has kept a vigilant watch over England and has maintained the state with such great care and energy that the work has left him thin. Second, Richard has rewarded him for this vigilance by taking away his one source of sustenance, his son Bolingbroke. Gaunt points out that for his work, he might expect food, a feast even, but instead he has received the opposite, a fast. In this way, his situation mirrors his son's: Bolingbroke expected participation in ‘English feasts,’ but he is forced out of the community before he is allowed to participate; Gaunt feels that he, too, is leaving the community without proper participation, for he will soon die without the nourishing presence and affection of his banished son.

In addition, Gaunt suggests that while he fasts, Richard continues to feed off the flattery of his favorites and the revenues gained from ‘leasing’ out the nation (2.1.31-64). Richard, growing irritated, calls Gaunt a ‘lunatic lean-witted fool’ and threatens his life (2.1.115-123),13 to which Gaunt replies that the king has ‘tapped out and drunkenly caroused’ with the English resources, including the blood and body of Gloucester, another of the king's uncles (2.1.127). Gaunt's message here is that Richard carelessly feasts at the expense of his community, rather than as part of community ritual or to promote the community welfare; or, as Thomas Berninghausen demonstrates, ‘rather than feeding the realm, Richard feeds upon it’ (7).14 In other words, the king's feasting promotes the fasting of his subjects, takes the food off their tables and leaves them further separated within the political and economic hierarchy. Certainly, such has been and will be the case for both Bolingbroke and his father. In addition, while the words of Gaunt aggravate Richard, they are clearly accurate, for upon hearing the news of Gaunt's death only moments later, Richard excitedly exclaims, ‘The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he’ (2.1.153). The king immediately tells his retinue to ‘seize to us / The plate, coin, revenues, and movables / Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possessed’ (160-162). Richard is feeding again, sucking the life-blood out of his national and even familial community.

This blood-sucking economic policy also shows the king capriciously violating community ritual once again: first, Richard denied the promised, public duel between Norfolk and Hereford; now, the king disregards the law of inheritance.15 The result of violations against the community is, not surprisingly, diminishing popular support.16 For example, Ross points out that Richard's behavior, his drunken ‘carousing,’ has alienated him from his subjects. Ross states, ‘The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes, / And quite lost their hearts; the nobles hath he fined / For ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts’ (2.1.246-248).17 Northumberland, fearing that Richard will soon begin feeding off of his blood or property (238-245), states that he will look to gain some ‘comfort’ in the unlawful return of Hereford (272, 278-298). In other words, desiring to avoid the pangs of fasting which Gaunt described, Northumberland turns to Bolingbroke for a better chance at sustenance. Given this line of thinking, it is little wonder that Northumberland describes Bolingbroke's return and presence in terms of food imagery: ‘And yet your fair discourse hath been as sugar, / Making the hard way sweet and delectable’ (2.3.7-8). For Northumberland, and soon for the majority of the nation, Bolingbroke represents the ‘hope to joy,’ the hope for food and festivity (15). In fact, as Edgar Schell compellingly argues, Ross and Northumberland, along with Willoughby, because of their relative anonymity at this point in the play, represent through their words ‘an impersonal community responding to Richard's seizure of Bolingbroke's property’ (264-265). Richard has left the English people malnourished, and they want something to eat; the king has disallowed festivity, banished would-be participants, and fed off the taxes of the people and the blood of his own kin.18 Meanwhile, Bolingbroke has fasted like the people, suffered like the people, and now, like the people, desires to return to clear participation in the English community, even if that means settling the score with King Richard himself.

When York, therefore, calls Bolingbroke his ‘own carver’ for his bold attempt, the uncle's judgmental remark highlights the exact reason behind Hereford's growing public support (2.3.144). That is, Bolingbroke does indeed hope to be his own carver—literally, his own butcher cutting off a slab for his own nourishment—in returning from banishment to claim his inheritance.19 In fact, Bolingbroke's attempt to get his fair share in the community is just the sort of action that many of the English people wish they could do for themselves. The populace feels overtaxed and undernourished by the king. Bolingbroke's civil disobedience makes him appear heroic; he will fight to get what is his own, what he believes is his by right.20

Notably, Hereford's first stated intent in his attempt to regain his inheritance is ‘to weed and pluck away’ the ‘caterpillars’ who feed on Richard's garden (2.3.166-167), which he quickly accomplishes in sending Bushy and Green to their executions (3.1.1-30).21 Further, in accusing them, Bolingbroke specifically mentions that they deprived him of proper food, saying that while the king's sidekicks ‘fed upon my seigniories,’ the exiled Hereford was left ‘eating the bitter bread of banishment’ (3.1.21-22). Again, the emphasis is on the idea that, under Richard's rule, some eat well, but others do not. The community is not unified but divided, with the favored feeding well, and the others eating only ‘bitter bread.’ Once Bushy and Green are removed, Bolingbroke immediately pronounces a new way of doing business, saying, ‘Come, lords, away / To fight with Glendower and his complices. / Awhile to work, and after holiday’ (42-44). In these words, Bolingbroke again touches on the language and lives of the common people. His words here ring out in their simplicity of theme and language. In essence, Bolingbroke asserts, ‘I eat bread as you do; I work as you do; and later, if all goes well, I will participate in the holiday feast and community with you.’ Again, Bolingbroke emphasizes community participation and festivity.

When Richard next appears, it is with just the opposite sentiment. In fact, he returns to England wishing for Hereford's continued lack of English sustenance, saying, ‘Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth, / Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense’ (3.2.12-13). Bolingbroke is hungry and looking for food, planning to share the wealth when he gets it (2.3.59-62), while Richard is hoping to deny the bounty of his garden.22 Richard sees Bolingbroke as a ‘puny subject’ standing far below Richard's ‘great glory’ and as a ‘thief’ who ‘hath reveled in the night’ and now attempts to steal the king's property (3.2.36-53, 83-90).23 Though Richard appears somewhat hypocritical in calling Bolingbroke a thief, the king is correct in pointing out that Hereford remains beneath him as a subject of the English crown. Still, while the king's overall gist may be correct, his tone is dangerously haughty and condescending. Richard scorns the idea of having a hungry reveler take any of his garden's bounty. He sees Bolingbroke as unruly and out of order in his attempts to reclaim his lost inheritance, in his attempt to partake of Richard's exclusive feast. In this, Bolingbroke tends toward festive and socially-leveled community, while Richard clings to the idea of strict hierarchical order—the feast by invitation only—and, according to Leonard Tennenhouse, ‘exercises his authority for penurious and exclusionary ends’ (76).

When Richard does, finally and in the face of mounting adversity, attempt to create solidarity, his effort comes off as more pitiful than believable. Realizing his cause is lost for want of soldiers, Richard says, ‘strives Bolingbroke to be as great as we? / Greater he shall not be; if he serve God, / We'll serve Him too, and be his fellow so’ (97-99). Certainly the idea ends with Bolingbroke and Richard now living as ‘fellows,’ but the overall impression is that Richard is still trying to create a means by which Bolingbroke cannot get above him. Richard may, of necessity, be willing to condescend to the same level as Bolingbroke, but he cannot imagine being beneath him in any way. In fact, the king continues to talk of his ‘subjects’ (100), going so far as to call them ‘dogs,’ ‘snakes,’ and ‘Judases’ with ‘spotted souls’ (130-132). Again, his words and judgment create separation: he is a man, while his subjects are animals, or he is Christ-like, while they are damned and despicable men.

Eventually, the thought of his own mortality does make Richard understand that he at least shares that much with the common person, and the insight could make him gain pity for humanity and could make the audience gain pity for the king. He says,

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 that I am king?


However, the speech is pitiable mostly because it demonstrates Richard's central lack of understanding; as John W. Blanpied notes, even in Richard's discussion of mortality, the king ‘continually maintains his insularity’ (129).24 The fact that he must ‘eat,’ ‘feel,’ ‘taste,’ and ‘need’ does not indicate his inability to be king. While the idea may be unclear for him, the audience knows that Richard, while certainly a king, is also most certainly a man like Bolingbroke or any person of the kingdom. Still, the common touch, the sense of pathos for others, eludes Richard, even eludes his basic thought process. He finds degradation in the idea of needing even to eat like other men, let alone with them—claiming that such activities make him more ‘subjected’ than regal.25 Therefore, he does not adapt to the view of the festive, socially-leveled community.

Richard does, however, cleverly use language to acknowledge the events he now knows will soon transpire, saying, ‘Discharge my followers. Let them hence away, / From Richard's night to Bolingbroke's fair day’ (3.2.217-218). He makes this final regal pronouncement to disband his forces, before giving up his throne. In addition, he may create a subtle pun here in describing the coming time under the potential rule of Bolingbroke. ‘Fair day,’ of course, means a day of pleasant weather, and, in this instance, suggests the brightest and most successful period of Bolingbroke's life; however, Richard may also be suggesting that Bolingbroke's rule will be like a day at the fair, festive and unruly. Such a concept will make sense, in light of the play's conclusion and the overall scheme of the tetralogy, as Henry IV's rule will indeed be marked by both the festive and unruly behavior of his subjects.

In the ensuing scene, the difference between Bolingbroke and Richard is witnessed in their relative separation from common humanity. Bolingbroke appears on the ‘plain’ (3.3.50), while Richard looks down from the castle walls (61-62). Richard haughtily pronounces that God's forces will secure his kingship (72-100), while Bolingbroke, through his spokesman Northumberland, begs for his inheritance and for ‘[e]nfranchisement immediate’ (111-114), the same request for community, incidentally, that he and Mowbray made at the beginning of the play (1.3.90). Richard is concerned that he not ‘debase’ himself in talking with Bolingbroke (3.3.127-128), and bridles at the idea of coming down to speak with him in the ‘base court’ (176). In fact, in eventually honoring Bolingbroke's request, Richard exclaims,

Down, down I come, like glistering Phaethon,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitors' calls and do them grace.
In the base court? Come down? Down, court! Down, king!


Here, Richard's poetic imagery, delivered as he stands high above his rival, emphasizes, once again, his sense of superiority over his community in general and Bolingbroke in particular. The king compares himself to a god, but refers to his subjects as ‘jades’—that is, nag horses, non-humans. He does not want to come down to Bolingbroke's or the people's ‘base’ level, fearing that in doing so some of their baseness may rub off on him. In truly Lear-like fashion, Richard goes ‘frantic’ when he cannot retain his superior position (185); rather than accepting Bolingbroke's terms—the return of his inherited property and the repeal of his banishment—the king, dissatisfied by having to do something so unkingly and base as to communicate with a relative at his level, paradoxically gives him everything, including the English throne (190-210).26 Without the ‘mounting’ height and superiority of an unchallenged kingship, Richard can barely stomach living at all.

The famous garden scene, which immediately follows, is also highly indicative of Richard's rule. The queen begins the scene suggesting some festive events be brought into the garden, saying, ‘What sport shall we devise here in this garden, / To drive away the heavy thought of care?’ (3.4.1-2). However, she then turns down all suggestions, deciding against playing at bowls, dancing, telling tales, or singing (3.4.3-23). In doing so, she parallels Richard, who set up the ‘English feast’ of the duel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke and then arbitrarily disallowed participation in that feast. When Richard felt the pressure of Bolingbroke's presence, he spoke in terms of himself as owner of the garden of England (3.2.4-26). Here, the queen is in an actual garden, trying to ward off the sorrows brought on by Bolingbroke's advance. But just as Richard is forced to acknowledge the approach of Bolingbroke's ‘fair day,’ so is the queen when she overhears the conversation of the gardener and his man (3.4.25-70). When the queen confronts the gardener, he explains the situation in compelling terms.27 The gardener suggests that both Richard and Bolingbroke have been ‘weighed’ as in a scale (84). The king, with his haughty separation from the English community and his disregard for community ritual and festivity, has lost his place in that same community and is left with ‘nothing but himself’ (85).28 Bolingbroke, on the other hand, having desired participation in the community feast, and having suffered as they have under the hand of the condescending Richard, now has the support of ‘all the English peers’ (88). Bolingbroke's community support, then, has outweighed Richard's inherited right in the battle for the kingship.

Still, even in his loss of authority, Richard cannot let go of his hierarchical separation from the masses, while Bolingbroke continues to fulfill their wishes as best he can. For example, in the deposition scene, Richard only confirms his disaffection with community ritual and all things ‘common.’ Northumberland asks the nobility to grant the ‘common's suit’ to have Richard publicly tried (4.1.154-155), and Bolingbroke requests that, in order to satisfy the community, Richard be brought to surrender ‘in common view’ (156-158). Once again, Bolingbroke acts to satisfy the community's desire for ritual, and once again Richard will first delay and then deny them (223-274). To Richard's refusal, Northumberland states that ‘The commons will not then be satisfied’ (274), but, indeed, satisfying the commons has never been high on Richard's political agenda. Instead, sounding strangely like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Richard grandly mourns his own losses, saying,

[…] Was this face the face
That everyday under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Is this the face which faced so many follies,
That was at last outfaced by Bolingbroke?


In this speech, however, Richard does not look to the beauty found in the face of another, as Faustus does with the image of Helen, but instead focuses almost vainly on his own visage, as well as on the destiny he now faces.29 In fact, as M. M. Reese explains, Richard's ‘imagination was incapable of directing itself outwards’ and tended ‘to people the world just as he wished to find it’ (246).30 Reese's assertion is further justified by Richard's continued attempt to parallel his life to Christ's, calling his opponents ‘Pilates’ (4.1.240-243) and comparing his former friends to ‘Judas’ (171-172). In addition, when Bolingbroke refers to the deposed Richard as ‘fair cousin’ (306), Richard boldly argues that he is, in fact, now ‘greater than a king’ because he now has a ‘king,’ Bolingbroke, serving him as a ‘flatterer’ (307-310).

Though commenting specifically on Richard's imprisonment in the Tower, the Abbot of Westminster also reflects on Richard's desperate shenanigans, saying, ‘A woeful pageant have we here beheld’ (4.1.322). Certainly, Richard's sorrow and the act of deposition add to the ‘woeful’ tone of the event. Additionally, Richard's refusal to provide the public statements desired by the commons has made the official transfer of power a rather sorry spectacle. Nonetheless, this ‘pageant,’ which at least partially fulfills the people's hunger for community ritual, has taken place, which is more than can be said of Richard's previous attempt to provide a sort of pageant to decide the guilt/innocence of Norfolk and Bolingbroke. In that situation, the still-empowered Richard dismantled the event with his words and banished the participants. In the current situation, with the kingship now clearly swaying in the direction of Bolingbroke, but still not fully in his control (after all, that is what this particular event is attempting to accomplish), Richard would again decline the fulfillment of the pageant, but he no longer has the power to do so. The pageant is woeful because of Richard's refusal to participate with the ‘rules’ of the event, but it is, still, a pageant. In other words, when Richard was fully in power, he denied the community ritual; now that he is losing his power, he can still deny his participation, but he cannot deny the event. And with Bolingbroke's understanding of the public's desire for community ritual, the event ultimately does take place.31

Once Richard is politically defeated, though not yet dead, Bolingbroke's scheme of community ritual takes over completely, as witnessed in the ‘misrule festival’ of Act Five, scene two. In light of all of Richard's refusals to provide community ritual in general, and community festivity in particular, his statement during the deposition that he wishes that he were a ‘mockery king of snow’ is interesting (4.1.261). Here, Richard desires to leave the scene, to ‘melt’ from the presence of ‘the sun of Bolingbroke’ (262-263). Certainly, Richard's sentiment is understandable; he feels embarrassed, ashamed, and wishes to leave the kingship quietly, rather than publicly. However, if the idea of a ‘mockery king’ is taken to mean ‘a king to be mocked,’ then not only does Richard become such a king, but he also simultaneously, and ironically, fulfills the festive role of a ‘king of misrule.’

As C. L. Barber points out, the Lord of Misrule, a popular figure during Renaissance Shrovetide festivals, was essentially a silly (mis)representation of the actual king (24-30, 194-197). The Lord of Misrule would preside over the holiday festivities for a time, but would ultimately be de-throned, mocked, and symbolically banished or killed, while the rule of the actual king would be reestablished (213-221).32 In the deposition scene, the audience sees Richard dethroned. Soon after, York will describe the scene in which Richard and Bolingbroke parade through the streets of London (5.2.1-40). Therefore, the audience sees that if Richard wanted earlier to be a ‘mockery king,’ he certainly finds an ironic and humiliating wish-fulfillment now.33 Richard is paraded through the streets as a king to be mocked. The commoners throw dust and rubbish on him, and they pile abuse on him with the vigor of those who have had little holiday release or festive fulfillment under their former king. They cheer the ‘real king,’ the hero of the common man, Bolingbroke, now made Henry IV. They banish the ‘mockery king,’ society is rejuvenated, and order is, at least temporarily, restored.

In welcoming the new king, the community is also reunited, for ‘all tongues cried, “God save thee, Bolingbroke!”’ (5.2.11), and the new king, ‘bareheaded’ and bowing low, endears himself to this newly united community saying, ‘I thank you countrymen’ (19-21); in this way, Tennenhouse points out, we see that Bolingbroke's ‘England incorporates the robust features of festival’ (80). His son later will use this same endearing phrase when he most needs the support of the community before the battle at Agincourt. Here in Richard II, the community is leveled and united both in their festive abuse of Richard and in their holiday welcome for Bolingbroke. And, to make the ritual complete, Richard is banished to Pomfret and separated from the community entirely, even from the community of his own wife (5.1.51-54).34 In other words, in ‘this new world’ which Bolingbroke is creating (4.1.79), even Richard must participate in community festivity; he may have never done well as a kingly participant, but he does serve to re-unite the community in his new role as a ‘mockery king.’

The queen also discusses the idea of the new, festive rule of Henry IV, calling the usurping Bolingbroke ‘an alehouse guest’ in his ‘triumph’ (5.1.15). Certainly, her term is derogatory, but it is also accurate. Henry, the new ‘bareheaded’ king of his ‘countrymen,’ now eats, drinks, and lives as the head of the community, while Richard is banished from the common view, sent poisoned food (5.4.98-103), and ultimately murdered (5.4.108-113). Therefore, the former kill-joy is killed. The mockery king of the old hierarchy is dead; long live the new king of the festive community.35

Of course, Henry IV will soon learn that his political concept has its own implicit difficulties and tensions, which will be seen more clearly in the following chapters, but already at this point in Richard II the dangers are evident. Holiday festivity, in its leveling effects, can create a chaotic state. If the king is truly on the level with his countrymen, then why should one of them not be on his level, that is, the throne? Richard aptly presents this question to Northumberland, who will retain his rebellious posture throughout the coming plays. Richard states,

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 urged another way,
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.


Here, Richard clearly articulates what will come to pass—the political instability of Henry's rule; as Clayton G. MacKenzie states, ‘Bolingbroke is the archetype of an altogether new order, an order that threatens a “crimson tempest” (3.3.46) if it does not have its way, and yet, by having its way, ensures the same’ (325).36 And it does not take long for Richard's forecast to find its proof; in fact, the potential rebellion of Aumerle and the Abbot, to be carried out during the ‘jousts and triumphs’ at Oxford (5.2.51-52), demonstrates that the new, more festive time of Henry IV may actually increase, rather than abolish, the political disorder that Richard's rather capricious reign began.

Moreover, the difficulties of disorderly festivity and right rule even infect Henry's own family, as we see when the new king calls for his son Hal:

Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found.
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent
With unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch, and rob our passengers—
While he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honor to support
So dissolute a crew.


Clearly, this scene sets up the ensuing action of 1 Henry IV, with the Boar's Head crew and the Gads Hill robbery, but it also points out a clear parallel between Hal and Richard. Richard also supported a dissolute crew, a group that stained his royal reputation.37 Additionally, while Richard and his friends never thieved in narrow lanes, they did effectively steal in their taxation, fines, blank charters, and seizure of property. This is not to say, however, that Hal is a parallel character to Richard, but only that they have some similarities.38 After all, the company Richard kept cost him his kingdom. Both presently and in the following plays, Henry will worry greatly that the same will happen to Hal. However, there is a distinct difference, as Richard's crew is noblemen, and, as shown, the former king views commoners consistently as sub-humans. On the other hand, Hal here demonstrates that he, like his father, has a common touch, even if that touch is far more vulgar than Henry can tolerate.

When told of the triumph celebrations for his father, Hal responds that he will, ‘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’ (16-19). Ironically, Hotspur reports Hal's response, which will soon turn out to be prophecy, with Hotspur playing the role of the unhorsed, lusty challenger. Still, Hal's answer is tawdry, as Henry points out, exclaiming that his son is ‘As dissolute as desperate!’ (20). However, Henry goes on to say that through these vices he sees possibility: ‘Yet through both / I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years / May happily bring forth’ (20-22). Henry sees a base would-be king in his son, just as Richard saw a base would-be king in Bolingbroke.39 Certainly, Hal is more base in his appetites than his father ever appears to be, but Henry is shrewd enough to see the parallel to his own ‘politics of festivity’ which center on finding a kinship with common people.

On a final note, the play concludes with the idea of the untimely. Richard's death is untimely, but Richard also has found that his life is untimely. His time—the time which Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin refer to as that of the ‘hierarchically ordered medieval kingdom’ (30)40—is out, and Henry's time is in. Still, as good a politician as Henry is, he will not be able to control time either. In fact, it is arguable that festive time, that is the riotous time of the festival, which takes center stage as soon as Henry gains the crown, is even more difficult to control than the time of Richard's strict hierarchy; out of Richard's time grew the usurping Bolingbroke, but out of Henry's time will grow both further rebellion and the riotous Falstaff. Therefore, the question becomes how an English monarch can manage the time of festivity, how festive disorder and leveling, with their values and vices both, can be wed to a well-ordered social and political state.41

Throughout the remaining three plays of the tetralogy, Hal/Henry V will have to solve this problem. The following chapters will show Hal working to create his own politically productive scheme of community festivity. In 1 Henry IV, using his actions and rhetoric, the prince will create a metaphorical ‘feast’ centered on the ever-festive Falstaff; Hal will use this event to gain public support in his attempt to catapult himself from roguish prince to glorious king. In 2 Henry IV, public appreciation of this festivity will grow even as it loses much of its political value for the prince. As a result, Hal will feel the tension between the festive disorder he has helped to create and the hoped-for order of his eventual kingship. When he finally does step into his father's throne and away from Falstaff, the festivity, like the fat knight himself, will eventually disintegrate and appear to die. Therefore, much of Henry V will be occupied not by the spirit of the feast, but by the spirit of Lent, as the king and his countrymen suffer and pray on the fields of France. However, with the English victory at Agincourt and the ensuing marriage of Henry V and Katharine, festivity will regain a prominent role, and the community will be nourished and restored. In this way, the politics of community festivity, established by Bolingbroke in his usurpation of Richard's throne, remain central in the development of both Prince Hal and the entire tetralogy. In addition, the characters and the plays show the complexity of these politics and demonstrate a festive cycle. In the few lines concerning Hal at the conclusion of Richard II, the audience gets a sample, a taste, of what is to come. As they turn their attention now to 1 Henry IV, however, they will be offered much more, a full feast even, as they bear witness to the mad-cap prince and his fat-witted friend at the height of their festive glory.


  1. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (New York: Meridian, 1963). The book was originally published in 1959.

  2. Charles Forker, ‘The Idea of Time in Shakespeare's Second Historical Tetralogy,’ The Upstart Crow 5 (1984): 20-34.

  3. For another extended argument on this point, see Robert B. Bennett, ‘Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy,’ Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 61-85. Bennett, like Forker, sees a ‘grand unity’ in the tetralogy (61), but he also emphasizes that all of the plays deserve attention, claiming that ‘Shakespeare has written four plays because he is describing a four-stage, not a two-stage, process’ (63).

  4. This and all subsequent references to Shakespeare's works are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, updated 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 1997). Act, scene, and line numbers will be noted parenthetically throughout.

  5. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 271-314. Bloom ultimately goes so far as to say that the ‘two parts of Henry IV do not belong to Hal, but to Falstaff’ (272). Still, it is the relationship between the two that dominates his analysis of the two plays, which Bloom, like Barber, essentially sees as a unit.

  6. Naomi C. Liebler, Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Tragedy (New York: Routledge, 1995).

  7. Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

  8. See Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, vol. 2 (London: J. Johnson, 1808) 846. Holinshed lists three possible dates for the duel, but Shakespeare chose the one associated most closely with a holy feast day. The typical date for the Feast of St. Lambert, as Holinshed states, is September 17.

  9. Phyllis Rackin, ‘The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare's Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 262-281.

  10. See R. J. Dorius, ‘A Little More than a Little,’ Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 13-26. Of Richard's desire for a bloodless peace, Dorius writes, ‘Like a physician maintaining a balance among the body's humors, however, Richard should promptly have made a “deep incision” to “purge” blood overproud and too rich […]’ (19).

  11. For an extensive explication on the ‘degradation’ Mowbray and Bolingbroke experience through their banishments, see Margaret Loftus Ranald, ‘The Degradation of Richard II: An Inquiry into Ritual Backgrounds,’ English Literary Renaissance 7 (1977): 170-196. Ranald explains how the punishment suggests that both of the would-be combatants are guilty and strips them of social position and honor (177-183).

  12. See David M. Bergeron, ‘Richard II and Carnival Politics,’ Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 33-43. Bergeron states that Bolingbroke's banishment makes him a sort of ‘Lenten representative’ (37). I avoid using such terms here largely because Bolingbroke demonstrates relatively few of the characteristics of Lent as I will discuss them in this study.

  13. The serious and political Gaunt is indeed ‘lean-witted’ when compared to the ‘fat-witted’ Falstaff (1 Henry IV, 1.2.2).

  14. Thomas F. Berninghausen, ‘Banishing Cain: The Gardening Metaphor in Richard II and the Genesis Myth of the Origin of History,’ Essays in Literature 14 (1987): 3-14. In making this statement about the king's governance, Berninghausen stresses the idea of Richard as the negligent gardener of England.

  15. For more on Richard's capricious behavior, see Bergeron 36-37.

  16. See Michael Grivelet, ‘Shakespeare's “War with Time”: the Sonnets and Richard II,Shakespeare Survey 23 (1970): 69-78. In discussing Richard's improper seizure of the Lancaster estate, Grivelet states, ‘Devotion to the individual when it obscures the claims of society is ultimately an aggression upon time, an act of violence which causes further violence and disorder’ (76).

  17. Edgar Schell, ‘Richard II and Some Forms of Theatrical Time,’ Comparative Drama 24 (1990): 255-269.

  18. Rackin, taking note of Richard's multiple errors up to this point, states that the ‘opening scene of Act II puts the finishing touches on the case against Richard and completes the process of the audience's alienation from him’ (265).

  19. This and all subsequent word definitions are from The Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed., unless otherwise noted.

  20. For a discussion of the linguistic shift from ‘Bolingbroke-as-rebel’ to ‘Bolingbroke-as-hero,’ see Geraldo U. de Sousa, ‘The Semiotics of Kingship,’ Shakespeare and Deconstruction, ed. G. Douglas Atkins and David Bergeron (New York: Peter Lang, 1988) 173-191.

  21. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed., a person who is a ‘caterpillar’ is ‘one who preys on society.’ During the Gad's Hill robbery, Falstaff calls the travelers ‘whoreson caterpillars, bacon-fed knaves,’ and ‘gorbellied knaves,’ suggesting that they, like Bushy and Green, are feeding fat off the state while others are not (1 Henry IV, 2.2.84-88). Therefore, the theft provides more equal distribution of the community ‘store’ (89).

  22. For a thorough explication of the garden metaphor in Richard II, see Berninghausen.

  23. See Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986). Tennenhouse points out in these lines that ‘it is significant to find Richard describing Bullingbroke in language more appropriate to Falstaff than an English king’ (80). This point becomes especially intriguing later in the tetralogy, as it is Bolingbroke/Henry himself who in 1 Henry IV parallels his own son to Richard (3.2.60-91).

  24. John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983) 120-141.

  25. Bloom states that in understanding common mortality, Lear opens ‘to all others, to poor naked wretches, wheresoever they are, who suffer the merciless storm,’ while ‘Richard opens only to Richard’ (258).

  26. It is important to remember that it is Shakespeare's Richard, not the historical king, who so willfully hands over the crown. For more on this issue, see Hyosik Hwang, ‘Does Shakespeare “Remain as Neuter”?: The Deposition of Richard II and the Dramatist's Use of History,’ West Virginia University Philological Papers 44 (1998-1999): 42-49.

  27. See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951) 234-263. Tillyard goes so far as to say that, in this scene, ‘the gardener gives both the pattern and the moral of the play’ (250).

  28. See Graham Holderness, ‘Theatres of History: Chronicle Plays,’ Shakespeare: The Play of History, ed. Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987) 13-82. Holderness argues that the gardener's metaphor of weighing Richard and Bolingbroke shows that a ‘king rules not by divine right but by hard work and a respect for the mutuality and reciprocal obligations of the “commonwealth”’ (40).

  29. For much more on Shakespeare's indebtedness to Marlowe, and especially to Edward II, see Meredith Skura, ‘Marlowe's Edward II: Penetrating Language in Shakespeare's Richard II,Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): 41-55.

  30. See M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Edward Arnold, 1961). Reese's argument would explain, to some extent, Richard's odd ability to discuss past parties in the midst of his own deposition.

  31. For more on Bolingbroke's public awareness, see Robert Hapgood, ‘Three Eras in Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963): 281-283. Hapgood concisely explains that ‘Henry IV brings in a new era, in which the status and function of the king depend ultimately on the manipulation of public opinion’ (282).

  32. In these pages, Barber explains the rejection of Falstaff in terms of the necessary rejection of a Lord of Misrule.

  33. Liebler notes that although ‘Elizabeth promoted and supported various seasonal festivities in and out of court, Misrule was not one of them. Even a temporary release of control is fatal to the monarch in unstable times’ (84). Of course, in playing the role of Lord of Misrule, Richard finds that doing so is ultimately fatal, but long before his murder he realizes that his release of the kingship is not temporary.

  34. For more on this separation from both the throne and his wife, see Kim Axline, ‘“Sad Stories of the Death of Kings”: The Revelation of Humanity in Richard II,On-Stage Studies 22 (1999-2000): 108-121. Axline makes the following insight:

    The world of Shakespeare's play is poised on the cusp between the forces and ideals of the fading medieval world and the revolutionary energies of the emerging Renaissance. The stronghold and mysticism of the Church, the Divine Right of Kings, and codes of chivalry must make way for a new humanism and pragmatism, just as the stable succession of kingship is about to give way to decades of turmoil. The argument between Richard and Bolingbroke embodies this splitting of worldviews, while the process of division is further underscored by Richard's lamentation that he is ‘doubly-divorced’ from both crown and spouse.


    While I am not sure that there is such a clear division of views, so much as a problematizing of them, at this particular moment in the play it certainly appears to be such a division both to Richard and the audience.

  35. Tennenhouse makes the following claim regarding these events:

    In actuality, it is Henry IV rather than Richard in whom Shakespeare invests the power of the artist, not a power detached from matters political, that is, but the power to incorporate disruptive cultural elements within the official rituals of state. Henry successfully stages Richard's resignation of the crown and the procession and coronation that legitimate his own claim to the throne.


    In discussing Richard II singly, one might be encouraged to appreciate this claim. However, the success of Henry's staging in terms of legitimating his claim to the throne is partial, at best, if we consider the events of the Henry IV plays; in addition, Hal's reported behavior and Henry's concern about it at the end of Richard II make it hard to believe that the new king has completely mastered the ability to ‘incorporate disruptive cultural elements.’

  36. Clayton G. MacKenzie, ‘Paradise and Paradise Lost in Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 318-339.

  37. Recall Bolingbroke's sentencing of Richard's followers:

    You have misled a prince, a royal king,
    A happy gentleman in blood and lineaments,
    By you unhappied and disfigured clean.
    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.


  38. See G. K. Hunter, ‘Notes on the Genre of the History Play,’ Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, ed. John W. Velz (Binghamton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996) 229-240. While I would not ultimately see Hal as a double for Richard, or vice versa, Hunter's idea about diversification through partial doubling is relevant, especially in his claim that the ‘point about diversification is to avoid […] categorizing’ (238). For a rhetorical connection between Richard and Hal, see Walter W. Cannon, ‘The King's Three Bodies: The Textual King and The Logic of Obedience in Henry V,The Upstart Crow 18 (1998): 84-94.

  39. For more on how the prince's response is entirely appropriate to the new social and political atmosphere created by Henry's seizure of the kingship, see Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957) 44-48.

  40. Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories (New York: Routledge, 1997).

  41. See Graham Holderness, Shakespeare's History (New York: St. Martin's, 1985). Holderness sees the tetralogy as ‘a contradictory fusion of chronicle and carnival’ (37). My argument supports the idea that there is such a ‘fusion,’ though it is only sometimes ‘contradictory.’


Axline, Kim. ‘“Sad Stories of the Death of Kings”: The Revelation of Humanity in Richard II.On-Stage Studies 22 (1999-2000): 108-121.

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom. New York: Meridian, 1963.

Bennett, Robert B. ‘Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy.’ Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 61-85.

Bergeron, David M. ‘Richard II and Carnival Politics.’ Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 33-43.

Berninghausen, Thomas F. ‘Banishing Cain: The Gardening Metaphor in Richard II and the Genesis Myth of the Origin of History.’ Essays in Literature 14 (1987): 3-14.

Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare. Updated 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1997.

Blanpied, John W. Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Cannon, Walter W. ‘The King's Three Bodies: The Textual King and the Logic of Obedience in Henry V.The Upstart Crow 18 (1998): 84-94.

Dorius, R. J. ‘A Little More than a Little.’ Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 13-26.

Forker, Charles. ‘The Idea of Time in Shakespeare's Second Historical Tetralogy.’ The Upstart Crow 5 (1984): 20-34.

Grivelet, Michael. ‘Shakespeare's “War with Time”: the Sonnets and Richard II.Shakespeare Survey 23 (1970): 69-78.

Holderness, Graham. Shakespeare's History. New York: St. Martins, 1985.

———. ‘Theatres of History: Chronicle Plays.’ Shakespeare: The Play of History. Ed. Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987.

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. London: J. Johnson, 1808.

Howard, Jean E., and Phyllis Rackin. Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Hunter, G. K. ‘Notes on the Genre of the History Play.’ Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre. Ed. John W. Velz. Binghamton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996. 229-240.

Hwang, Hyosik. ‘Does “Shakespeare Remain as Neuter”?: The Deposition of Richard II and the Dramatist's Use of History.’ West Virginia University Philological Papers 44 (1998-1999): 42-49.

Liebler, Naomi C. Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Tragedy. New York: Routledge, 1995.

MacKenzie, Clayton G. ‘Paradise and Paradise Lost in Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 318-339.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Rackin, Phyllis. ‘The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare's Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 262-281.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. ‘The Degradation of Richard II: An Inquiry into Ritual Backgrounds.’ English Literary Renaissance 7 (1977): 170-196.

Reese, M. M. The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays. London: Edward Arnold, 1961.

Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957.

Schell, Edgar. ‘Richard II and Some Forms of Theatrical Time.’ Comparative Drama 24 (1990): 255-269.

Skura, Meredith. ‘Marlowe's Edward II: Penetrating Language in Shakespeare's Richard II.Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): 41-55.

Sousa, Geraldo U. ‘The Semiotics of Kingship.’ Shakespeare and Deconstruction. Ed. G. Douglas Atkins and David Bergeron. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. 173-191.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres. New York: Methuen, 1986.

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

Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Further Reading

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Clapp, Susannah. “Agincourt, Near Basra.” Observer (18 May 2003): 11.

Positively reviews Jonathan Kent's 2003 Almeida Theatre staging of Richard II, emphasizing Ralph Fiennes's “always intelligent and always interesting” performance of the title role.

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.

Posits that Richard's transgressions as a divine-right king bring to an end the idyllic, prelapsarian medieval age and usher in a modern era of pragmatic politics in England.

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.

Maintains that while both Richard and Bolingbroke embrace Machiavellian principles early on in Richard II, it is the deposed king who ultimately disregards Machiavelli and pursues a Montaignean retreat from the world to contemplate his own subjectivity.

Healy, Margaret. William Shakespeare: Richard II. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House, in association with the British Council, 1998, 88 p.

Seeks to underscore the modernity of Richard II through an analysis of its principal political, moral, and ideological themes.

Heller, Agnes. “Richard II.” In The Time Is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History, pp. 162-89. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002.

Discusses Shakespeare's treatment of politics and history in Richard II, observing that while Bolingbroke's usurpation and subsequent regicide of Richard is politically expedient, the Lancastrian dynasty pays a price historically in the form of divine retribution.

Holderness, Graham. “‘A Woman's War’: A Feminist Reading of Richard II.” In Shakespeare Left and Right, edited by Ivo Kamps, pp. 167-83. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Examines how the feminine interrogation of masculine identity underscores Shakespeare's dramatization of the marginalization of women in Richard II.

Liebler, Naomi Conn. “The Mockery King of Snow: Richard II and the Sacrifice of Ritual.” In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 220-39. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Maintains that Richard II dramatizes a historical turning point in which ritualistic medieval policies organized around religion are replaced by secular early modern political values.

Menon, Madhavi. “Richard II and the Taint of Metonymy.” ELH 70, no. 3 (fall 2003): 653-75.

Contends that Shakespeare's use of metonymy—a figure of speech which substitutes the name of one thing for that which it is commonly associated—in Richard II reveals an underlying rhetoric of sexual desire, particularly in the circumstances surrounding Richard's murder.

Norbrook, David. “‘A Liberal Tongue’: Language and Rebellion in Richard II.” In Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions: Essays in Honour of W. R. Elton, edited by John M. Mucciolo, pp. 37-51. Aldershot, U.K.: Scolar Press, 1996.

Argues that Shakespearean scholars may have “selectively misinterpreted” the historical and political contexts tied to the major themes in Richard II in order to accentuate the drama's prominent role in the Essex Rebellion.

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.

Analyzes the lyrical quality of Richard's verse dialogue in terms of M. M. Bakhtin's linguistic theories of tonality and utterance, observing how the drama's poetic form transforms Richard's personal lamentation into a broader ideological discourse of state politics.

Smith, Molly. “Mutant Scenes and ‘Minor’ Conflicts in Richard II.” In A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Dympna Callaghan, pp. 263-75. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Argues that the female characters in Richard II represent “oppositional modes of discourse” that are ignored by Richard but authenticated to a certain degree by Bolingbroke.

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Richard II (Vol. 81)


Speaking Freely about Richard II