(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard II

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)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Tim Spiekerman (essay date 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Allan Bloom (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Ralph Berry (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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John Mullan (review date 16 June 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Michael Billington (review date 1 April 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Nigel Saul (review date 12 May 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Alastair Macaulay (review date 5 January 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Richard Wilson (review date 13 June 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Charles Isherwood (review date 4 August 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Martha A. Kurtz (essay date fall 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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:...

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William O. Scott (essay date spring 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Jean-Christophe Mayer (essay date 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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David Ruiter (essay date 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.]


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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 610 words.)