|Richard II - study guide|
This study guide is intended for students taking exams at GCE Advanced (A2) and Advanced Supplementary (AS) level in the UK, but is suitable for university students and the general reader who is interested in Shakespeare's plays. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this page, please contact me by clicking on this link.
Preparing to study
This guide is written to support your study of Richard II. The guide indicates the terms in which examiners will expect you to understand the play. It should be used in conjunction with study of Richard II in performance, as far as possible, and of the text in one or more editions designed for study at your level.
What other resources should you use? This depends on your own aptitude and readiness for study. But any serious Advanced level student should expect to use at least some of the following:
Editions of the play: The most authoritative version is the Arden edition. Most students will find this challenging, although the introduction is well worth reading. The New Cambridge edition is good (but uses archaic spelling of names) while sound editions are published by Penguin and Macmillan. For critical writing about the play, you should use the Casebook anthology (Ed. Nicholas Brooke, Macmillan, 1973): read the introduction, and study essays selectively, but those by E. H. Kantorowicz and A. P. Rossiter are strongly recommended. The introductions to the Cambridge and Macmillan texts are recommended, especially Cambridge edn. pp. 16-43 (Structure, Imagery, Language and Staging) and Macmillan pp. 4-14 ("When degree is shak'd" - the political background) and pp. 23-37 (People and pattern in Richard II). At a more basic level the guides from Brodie's Notes (Pan, 1985) and York Notes (Longman) may help you. For general background information about Shakespeare, Ms. Marchette Chute's Shakespeare and his Stage (University of London, 1953) is hard to beat.
Literature reference:Useful handbooks for the general study of English literature include The Cambridge Guide to English Literature and The Oxford Guide to English Literature, J. A. Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms (Penguin, 1982) and Richard Gill's Mastering English Literature (Macmillan, 1985).
Use these books effectively: do not try to read them for extended periods like a story (unless you have unusual intellectual powers!) Study for short periods, then write down simple statements of what you want to remember, or questions to raise in class discussion.
Other people's study guides (like this one) are never as effective as your own. You may wish to use any or all of the following ways of "owning" your study of this play:
Introducing the play
Richard II is the first play in a series of four (the others are Henry IV, Parts i and ii and Henry V), the second such series which Shakespeare wrote (the first - perhaps his very first work - was the three parts of Henry VI, followed by Richard III). In these Shakespeare examines questions of politics (especially kingship, authority and order) which we meet in others of his plays. Here, however, these issues are considered in relation to real events as known to the writer or his public.
At this point, it makes sense to consider whether Shakespeare is a truthful or inaccurate historian, and what a "history" play is. If you don't know, find out!
Tragedy, comedy and history
As a term to describe a category (kind) of play, tragedy (which means "goat song" in classical Greek!) originates in Athens in ancient times. Aristotle (a philosopher and scientist, but no playwright) describes rules or principles for the drama which tragedians should follow. These rules have proved helpful as a working description, but should not be seen as absolute: Shakespeare, in practice, ignores them more or less. Comedy is a term applied to the humorous plays of Greek (e.g. Aristophanes) and later Roman (e.g. Terence) dramatists. For Shakespeare, a comedy is a play with a happy ending - it may or may not be comical in the modern sense of being humorous.
In trying to arrange Shakespeare's work into categories (as for publication in book form) editors have produced a third category, of histories. More recently critics have noted that Shakespeare's latest plays do not fit any of these categories easily. Thus we have problem plays (or tragi-comedies) in Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well and pastoral plays or romances in Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.
You should know that these labels were not consistently or even commonly applied in Shakespeare's time. Plays classed as tragedies (such as Macbeth) may have a clearly historical subject. Many of our histories were advertised as tragedies at the time of their performance. This has led to pointless arguments, as to whether Shakespeare wrote Richard II or Richard III as history or tragedy: the dispute implies a distinction which may not have existed for the writer. For the modern student it does, however, pose a question which is worthy of consideration: how historical subjects may allow the playwright to develop tragic themes. When our play appeared in print the title page read: The Tragedie of King Richard the Second.
Shakespeare as historian
The modern student has better access to detailed and accurate accounts of the events depicted in the history plays than Shakespeare did. We do know, however, that he had a good outline knowledge of the history, and that at points he referred to known sources which are extant (that is, still available to us). Most school editions of the plays will list these. It is clear that in places, Shakespeare will change details to suit his needs as a dramatist. There is a good example of this in Richard II and the Henry IV plays: as he wishes to present Prince Hal (later Henry V) and Henry "Hotspur" Percy as rivals for power in the realm, Shakespeare depicts them as of the same age; in fact, Percy was a contemporary of Henry IV, old enough to be Hal's father. In these same plays, we meet a character called Mortimer (after Richard's death, Henry IV's rival claimant to the throne): two (related) "historical" Mortimers have been conflated (made into one) to suit the purposes of the drama. There is a genuine question for scholars in how far the change was knowingly made, but it seems Shakespeare will not let the facts get in the way of a good story!
Shakespeare's view of history
The dramatic form enables Shakespeare to present characters who voice all kinds of opinions, from which we may, if we wish, attempt to infer the playwright's own view. Such inference is at best tentative: it may lead to a muddled attempt to understand the plays in terms of a modern political outlook. Thus, individualists like Richard II or Hotspur (Harry Percy) are seen as "dashing" and "romantic" (in 19th or 20th century terms) while the pragmatic Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) is seen as devious and dishonest: almost certainly these are judgements which would not have occurred to Shakespeare or his audience.
Shakespeare writes at a time when a period of peace at home has created the very conditions in England which have allowed the professional theatre to emerge and flourish, but where this peace is threatened by the ageing queen Elizabeth's lack of an heir. There is no doubt that his plays (history, comedy and tragedy) all reflect a horror of anarchy and a preoccupation with finding a balance between toleration of harmless pleasure and restraint of harmful lawlessness. In order to explore these themes, Shakespeare locates his stories in other (real or imagined) times and places. In referring to his own times (as at the end of Richard III and the very late history Henry VIII) he is careful to praise the Tudors generally and Elizabeth particularly, as he also does by implication in A Midsummer Night's Dream in the figure of the childless Titania.
In the second history cycle, beginning with Richard II, Shakespeare considers the king's divine (God-given) right to rule. Though given by God, this right may be forfeited by the king's failure to exercise it (this is Richard's fault). Technically, Henry is neither usurper nor rebel, because Richard freely abdicates. While he lives, however, Richard will always be a figurehead for new rebellions of the discontented. Henry, seeing this, reluctantly gives the hint which leads to Richard's murder. This is the murder of a man only (he is no longer king) yet the murderer receives not thanks but banishment from the kingdom, on pain of death: Henry's genuine grief at Richard's killing is something most modern audiences find difficult.
In the two parts of Henry IV, we see how Henry, though his claim to the throne is weaker (on paper) than that of his rival, Mortimer, proves his right to rule by uniting the country, resisting many attempted revolts and providing a model heir, in his son, Hal. Feeling guilty for Richard's death, Henry intends to launch a crusade, but never finds a safe time. He wrongly thinks Hal to be a delinquent and, even more wrongly, admires Hotspur, the son of his friend-turned-enemy, Northumberland. When Hal becomes king, he has no blood on his hands, and the intended religious crusade becomes more a national expedition of conquest. Henry V is a celebration of Hal's almost legendary exploits in France, culminating in the great reversal of the odds at Agincourt.
What happens in Richard II?
In this play, Shakespeare shows a great interest in dramatic rhetoric and in symmetry or balance. For the audience (then as much as now) it has two potential weaknesses: these are the lack of comic interludes, and the lack of action. Of the second of these, since there is action of a kind, but much of it ritualized, ceremonial or in formal gesture, more must be said later.
The plot of the play in outline is that of the contrasting fortunes of the principals: King Richard, at the height of his powers, banishes Henry Bolingbroke (Bullingbrook, in early editions) Earl of Derby and Duke of Hereford, and heir to the estate of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Henry is banished as a result of Richard's treachery: his (and Richard's) uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, has been killed by Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, almost certainly on Richard's orders.
Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason, a charge he denies, but which is to be proved or refuted in a tournament. Richard sets the time (St. Lambert's Day) and place (Coventry) for the tournament. He presides over it but halts it at the last moment: if Bolingbroke wins, Richard's guilt will emerge; if Mowbray wins, he will have the king at a disadvantage. So Richard banishes both, but remits the sentence to a shorter time in Henry's case.
On the death of Gaunt, Richard seizes his estates to fund a military expedition to Ireland. Powerful lords, notably the Northumberland Percy family and other northern lords, observing Richard's mismanagement of the country and his unjust dealing, encourage Henry to return in Richard's absence (in Ireland). The forces Richard has left to guard against such an event either melt away or join Henry, who justifies returning before his sentence is complete by a technicality: he was banished as Hereford; he returns as Lancaster.
Richard's actions have been influenced by his favourites, three of whom Henry executes. On his return, Richard virtually surrenders to Henry. While Henry is reluctant to assume the office of king, Northumberland pushes him to exploit his power and popularity, and Richard is all too ready to abdicate. Once he has given up his throne, Richard, imprisoned in Pomfret (Pontefract) castle becomes a problem which Henry can only solve by murder, though he wishes to have no part in it. The play ends with an anticipation of Henry's worries about his son, Hal, who has acquired a reputation for foolish and degenerate behaviour.
Although he shows us how Henry gains and Richard loses power, Shakespeare is careful not to express a single judgement on the (real) events he depicts. Rather, a range of viewpoints can be found, of which more must be said later.
Studying the play
Shakespeare wrote plays to be seen in a complete performance which would (for Richard II) last about two hours. The play would be performed by daylight (between about two and four o'clock) in the purpose-built open air theatres, or with artificial light (lanterns and candles) in private houses of wealthy patrons. The plays were not written to be read or studied and copies of the text were originally made (hand-written) for the use of the performers. It is important to bear this in mind when you are required to study the play as a text (with extensive editorial comment) on which you will be examined.
Shakespeare's company was the most successful of its day, and his plays filled the theatres. Many (most?) of the audience in a public performance would lack education and be technically illiterate, but these were people for whom the spoken word was of greater value than is the case today: they would be more attentive, more sensitive to patterns of verse and rhyme, and to imagery (word pictures). Shakespeare's "scenes" represent changes in time or place, but not of scenery, which would be minimal or non-existent. Basic stage furniture would serve a variety of purposes, but stage properties and costume would be more elaborate and suggestive. A range of gestures and movements with conventional connotations of meaning was used, but we are not sure today how these were performed.
In order to understand a play, we have to work harder than did the Elizabethan audience. To see a play entire (in the theatre or on film), without interruption save for the interval, may be needed for us to appreciate Shakespeare's strong sense of narrative drive, and to see how the text is not the work but a (loose) blueprint for performance.
On the other hand, study of text and editors' notes may be necessary for us to appreciate some of the attitudes the contemporary audience brought into the theatre. Such notes may explain images and highlight patterns or structures which otherwise we might not "hear", or explain semantic change (changes of meaning) in words or phrases used by the playwright to convey important ideas to his audience.
The instant pleasure of experiencing a work of art (say a feature film or soap-opera or first-person novel) which uses conventions and a range of cultural references which we at once understand is unlikely ever to be found by us in watching Shakespeare in performance. What is amazing is that so much is still accessible, and that by adapting the delivery of lines, and giving some visual clues, performers can make the plays work today.
The division of plays into five acts is more apparent to the dramatist (to whom it gives an idea of how the play's narrative structure will appear in performance) than to the audience (though modern audiences often know act and scene numbers). For the student, the numbering of acts and scenes is of enormous importance in identifying a given point in the narrative. When quoting a passage, always give act and scene number, while line numbers are helpful, too.
A Map of the Play
When you begin revision, make a mental "map" of the play, so you know what occurs in each scene. List the scenes down the page. After the scene number write no more than ten words about what happens. Follow this with a phrase from a notable speech. e.g.
These are only suggestions. Choose a speech which is a clue to you. For an outline which you can adapt or customize, click here.
The structure of the play in acts
This is not rigid or mechanical, but there is a fairly simple scheme one can see, whereby Richard's fortunes decline as Bolingbroke's go up (he gains ascendancy). But the play ends with hints of trouble to come for the new ruler.
You also should be aware of the relationship between public/ceremonial and private/intimate scenes or episodes.
Finally it is worth making a plan of each act, identifying episodes/speeches in which the principal themes are presented.
None of this is a guarantee of success in an exam. It is essential preparation, to give you the material you need to succeed.
General comment on each act of the play
This act establishes a pattern which Shakespeare more or less sustains for the whole play, of alternating scenes of a public or formal character with private, informal or intimate scenes. This is important in establishing a sense of the characters we meet as occupying a public rôle or office and of the private person behind the public face. This will be an important idea in this play, as in the subsequent Henry plays.
The ceremonial of the opening at Richard's court and the third scene (the aborted tournament at Coventry) alternates with two intimate scenes: in the second scene we see Gloucester's widow unable to move the patient Gaunt to vengeance, while the last scene of the act shows the cynicism of Richard in private with his flatterers. This marks another contrast: in private, Gaunt speaks with exemplary honour and complete integrity, but Richard's private conversation reveals his public ostentation to be showy and insincere - he emerges as a cynical opportunist, ready to disregard the law to offset his financial imprudence and wishing the valiant Gaunt into an early grave. For the contemporary audience this last would be the most offensive of his errors: to the Elizabethans, Gaunt, like his grandson, Henry V, is a national hero, of legendary stature - it is almost as if we have seen Richard planning to deface a public monument.
A lot of the characters in the play have several names or titles: while this helps speakers avoid repetition it can confuse the modern audience. Make sure you know who's who. If not, ask a teacher!
Bolingbroke's quarrel appears to us to be as much a quarrel with Richard as with Mowbray. Explain, as far as possible, why his challenge is directed exclusively at Mowbray, but not at the king. Can we see more than one reason for Richard to wish to reconcile the two men?
Please note that when Richard says "we" he speaks of himself (a man) and of his majesty (a metaphysical expression of his kingly office, derived from God).
Can you explain the nature of Gaunt's refusal of the Duchess's plea? Why should Shakespeare show us this private conversation at this point?
This is the key scene in the act. Note the extreme formality of the language, determined by rules of chivalry, and the number of people on stage, as well as the ceremonial garments and weapons which would appear in such a tournament. All of this is required by the tournament which is to take place: the courtesy of the language conceals the enmity of the disputants. What is the effect on all this display (of rhetoric, clothing, weapons and action ) of the king's halting of the tournament? Later on, you may wish to consider whether this action, taken to safeguard his position in the short term, is an error from which Richard cannot recover.
Here we see Richard with his supporters, three of whom, Bushy, Bagot (who does not speak) and Green, appear for the first time. Can you think why they do not appear in Act I, scene iii? What do Richard's various remarks about Bolingbroke tell us?
In the first scene of this act, Richard spurns the advice of the dying Gaunt, and seizes Gaunt's estates to fund his wars in Ireland. Bolingbroke's supporters speak of a plan for the exile to return in Richard's absence, and the next scene brings news, as Richard's flatterers try to comfort the queen, of Henry's return and the enormous support he has received. In the third scene we see this support as Bolingbroke and his allies come to Berkeley in Gloucestershire, where they are confronted by the Duke of York, who has been appointed lord governor in Richard's absence: he rebukes Bolingbroke but is placated by his statement of his limited ambition. In contrast, the final (brief) scene shows how the forces left by Richard to defend the country have dispersed and gone home.
This scene makes clear the power politics of the time. In a country with no standing or professional army, real power lies in the feudal system whereby great lords can rely on lesser local magnates (lords of the manor, sheriffs and so on) to raise armies from their estates, and possess the means to pay them for their service. Richard has no extensive estates of his own, but Bolingbroke owns the largest of all (Lancaster) and is backed by the major landowners of the north of England, led by the Northumberland Percy family. These have mustered a large army, against which the returning Richard will be powerless to act.
This scene is notable for Gaunt's great patriotic speech (which is often quoted out of its context in the play, and without the last two lines of the long sentence which are required for it to make grammatical sense, as they contain the main verb, and which give the point of the preceding images). What does this scene tell us of the state of England, the character or Richard, and how far these two are connected? This scene starts with the private conversation of York and Gaunt, moves to the public formal interview with Richard, and ends in the intimacy of the plotting by Richard's enemies.
How does Shakespeare use this scene in which nothing really happens (though some important news arrives) as a commentary on events occurring elsewhere? Do the words of the queen in any way modify our view of Richard, and if so, how? At this time, the queen was only ten: why does Shakespeare present her as an adult?
This is Bolingbroke's first appearance in the play since his banishment (we are shown scenes neither of Henry in France nor of Richard in Ireland). Is there any difference in the way he appears to the audience now? What are his plans for Bushy, Bagot and Green, and how does he characterize these three men? Is his quarrel merely personal or more honourable and disinterested?
How does this scene serve as an appropriate sequel to scene iii?
The action here moves from Bristol, where Bolingbroke executes Bushy and Greene (not Bagot, who has fled) to Harlech, in Wales. Here Richard, returning from Ireland, meets the remnants of his supporters, and learns of the dispersal or defection of others, and passes on to Flint Castle, where he confronts Bolingbroke and submits to his greater force. Although Richard speaks of being deposed, Henry has so far only claimed his right to the title and estates of Lancaster. In an interlude in York's garden (near St. Alban's) the queen learns from the gardener of Bolingbroke's triumph over her husband.
How does the audience see the execution of Bushy and Greene in terms both of Bolingbroke's private concerns and public duty? Compare Bolingbroke's long speech here with that in I, i, 87-108: how does the charge against the two "caterpillars" differ from that against Mowbray?
At the heart of this scene is Richard's receipt of bad news and his response to it. The bad news comes in stages (what are the important details?) from Aumerle, Salisbury and Scroope. Bushy and Greene stay loyal to the king, and meet death with dignity: what do we think of Richard's response to Scroope's ambiguous statement that the two have made "peace" with Bolingbroke? Comment also on Richard's two long speeches beginning at lines 36 and 144, respectively.
Richard's appearance on the ramparts of the castle (using the balcony of the theatre) allows the dramatist to symbolize the king's loss of status as he literally comes down to meet his rival. How does Richard make this explicit in his speech throughout the scene? Comment on the attitudes shown to Richard by Bolingbroke (e.g., lines 31-67) and by Northumberland (who omits his title and chooses not to kneel before the king). Comment on Richard's tendency to reflect (in melodramatic or exaggerated fashion) on his loss of power.
There is no reason to suppose that the gardener, as a master of his craft, would be unlikely to compare the government of the country to the tending of a garden. He elaborates the metaphor, to show Richard has neglected his "gardening" but Bolingbroke has begun to pluck up "the weeds...root and all". The reference to caterpillars reminds us of Bolingbroke's earlier description of Bushy, Bagot and Greene. Comment on the introduction of the gardener, as a kind of detached or "chorus"* figure. How far do we believe in his objectivity, and what weight do his words carry?
*In the classical drama of ancient Athens, the chorus is a group (of people, animals or spirits) which observes the action on stage, and comments about it to the audience. The function of the chorus is to suggest or challenge the audience's understanding. Shakespeare rarely uses a chorus as such (he does, for instance, in Romeo and Juliet), but often transfers its functions to a character in the play (Iago, Puck, Lennox).
Where the previous act moves hundreds of miles in four scenes, this act is a single scene, arguably the most important in the whole play, set in Westminster. It divides into three clear episodes:
Scene i (lines 1-106)
In what way is Bagot's appearance here surprising? How does the scene compare with I, i in terms of the way in which the challenges are issued and taken up? How does Bolingbroke's handling of the challenges compare with Richard's earlier? What is the effect on the audience of Henry's words about Norfolk here?
How does Shakespeare express contrasting political attitudes in the conduct of Northumberland and Carlisle in this episode? Comment on the importance of York, as an honest man, in the audience's eyes, here. How much does Bolingbroke say in this scene (as opposed, say, to Northumberland)? What is the reason for this, and what is its effect? At line 222, Richard asks: "What more remains?" What is our view of Northumberland's insistence on Richard's answering accusations of crime, and Bolingbroke's decision (line 271) to save Richard from this humiliation? Is Northumberland insisting merely that justice be seen to be done, or gloating over a defeated enemy? What is the effect of Richard's use of the mirror in this episode? What do you find interesting in Richard's rhetoric here?
In what ways does this episode remind us of the end of II, i? In what ways is it significantly different from the earlier scene? Do we see this plot as more or less justified than the earlier one? Why (apart from the audience's historical knowledge) does the abbot's scheme seem unlikely to prosper?
It is appropriate that the final act of the play should both conclude the depiction of Richard's struggles, and tell of the beginning of Henry's difficulties. Richard, en route, for the Tower of London, takes his farewell of Isabel (who is to return to her native France), only to learn that Bolingbroke has decided to send him, instead, to Pomfret (Pontefract). York discovers his son, Aumerle, to be privy to a plot to kill Henry, and rushes to inform the king, who is also troubled by stories of the riotous behaviour of his son, Hal (who does not appear, but is the chief character of the three plays which follow in this cycle). The plot is frustrated, Aumerle pardoned and Carlisle banished. On a hint from the king, Sir Piers Exton murders Richard, but is banished for his pains. Troubled by feelings of guilt, but, for the moment, safe from his enemies, Henry declares his wish to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, though later (in the next play) he speaks more of a crusade.
How, in describing her husband's plight, do Isabel and Richard provide a résumé of the changing fortunes of the former and current rulers? Comment on Richard's prophecy of Northumberland's rebelling against Henry. Both Shakespeare and the audience know that the earl did rebel, but, within the world of the play, as in historical fact, Henry did not have prior knowledge of this (though eventually he is able to see it coming).
Scenes ii and iii
The two parts of this scene express in quite different ways York's belief that it is the will of God that the failed king, Richard, give way to the new ruler, Henry. Noting that York has paused, in his distress for Richard, the duchess summarizes the gist of his speech so far, allowing him to describe the popular acclaim of Henry, and the contemptuous rejection of Richard. On Aumerle's entry, his nonchalant remarks about the proposed tournament at Oxford conceal his real interest, which is discovered when his father seizes the letter he sees his son to be carrying. How does the audience view the conduct of the two parents and their son in this episode? What is the effect of the king's conversation with Percy about his son? What is the audience's view of Henry's situation on the arrival of his cousin, uncle and aunt, and of how he deals with this? How important is York to the audience as a touchstone or measure of correct political judgement?
Scenes iv and v
The short scene iv is by way of an explanation of what is to follow. Why does Henry wish Richard dead? Why should Shakespeare take the trouble, in so few lines, to state twice (what Henry supposedly said twice) the king's exact words, and then to give Exton's gloss as to what the words mean? Of what incident in Richard's reign are we reminded at this point? Richard's long soliloquy at the start of scene v is arguably more moving than his earlier comments on his situation, both because it is made in private, and because it is more measured and less excessively self-pitying. How far do you support this view, and why? What is the point of the groom's words to Richard, and the latter's response to these?
Henry's fears about the rebels, which he explains to York, are at once resolved by news brought by Northumberland and Fitzwater, who have executed the ringleaders, save for Westminster (who appears to have died naturally, possibly in prison) and Carlisle, who is banished. This is the cue for Exton's arrival with Richard's body. What is the audience's view of Henry's treatment of Exton? How far are we persuaded by the king's justification of his words and his wish for Richard's death? His desire to earn forgiveness by means of a pilgrimage seems genuine. What obstacle lies in the way of the fulfilment of this desire? How effective, and in what ways, do you find the play's ending?
Key scenes explored
General comment on all acts and scenes of the play appears above. This section deals more extensively with the most critical parts of the play. The importance of each scene (and, thus, its likely appeal to examiners) is indicated by the star (*) rating: the more stars, the more important!
Act I, Scenes i and ii **
Relationship with the play and its general themes
At the start of the play, these two scenes are dramatically effective in introducing the historical situation and characters, and indicating the relationship between the public duty and the private concerns of the king and others. The play's first scene outlines the nature of the quarrel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, which is really a quarrel between the king and the house of Lancaster. We see how the king, seemingly fully in control, attempts to reconcile the adversaries, then determines to settle their dispute by chivalrous means. This very public scene is followed by an intimate exchange between Gaunt and Gloucester's widow, in which Gaunt refuses to act against Mowbray, but indicates Richard's responsibility for Gloucester's death: since the king is God's deputy, "God's is the quarrel" and it is honourable, in spite of the duchess's pleas, to show patience. We see at once a discrepancy between Richard's public persona (the just and powerful monarch) and his dubious actions; this contrasts with Gaunt's dignity and loyalty in public and private. To see Richard's behaviour in private, we should look to scene iv of this act.
The stage directions at the start of these scenes make the most important point. Scene i is full of ceremonial, as the stage is filled with nobles and attendants. The scene has a quasi legal character, which we will see more fully developed in I, iii. The scene is full of opportunities for display of duty and chivalry - thus both Mowbray and Bolingbroke state their allegiance to Richard, at which point they may be expected to kneel. It is not clear whether Mowbray's "I spit at him" (l. 60) should be a literal insult. Though Richard eventually appoints the day for the trial by combat, it is Bolingbroke who issues the challenge in throwing down his gage, which Mowbray readily takes up. Having heard the charge and Mowbray's answer, Richard twice orders Mowbray to give up the gage, but is unable to compel him to do so. By contrast, scene ii is very intimate and private, with only two characters on stage; Gaunt says little but listens patiently, while conveying the impression that this private interview takes place in the sight of God.
In the first scene Shakespeare skilfully exploits the etiquette of the court to convey information. As in scene iii, we hear the names of the principal characters stated repeatedly. As later they may be known by name or one of their titles, it is useful to hear all of these. Although Richard's words are at this point sustained by the authority of his office, even here we see very real limits: ultimately his "we were not born to sue, but to command" is hollow, since his suit has failed (Mowbray has not resigned the gage) and what he commands is simply the time and place of the show-down which Bolingbroke has prompted and Mowbray accepted. Given that three of these characters (Richard, Gaunt, Bolingbroke) are closely related, it is also worth noting at every point what form of address is used (intimate: "my son", "Harry"; personal: "Thomas Mowbray"; familiar: "Thomas", "Edward" or formal: "the Duke of Norfolk"). Perhaps most interesting is the title "John of Gaunt": this name, associated with his personal history and the subject of a series of puns through this act, apparently has a special honorific status, and he is happy to be known by it, rather than the formal "Duke of Lancaster".
Act I, Scene iii **
Relationship with the play and its general themes
This is the key scene in the first act. Richard's decision in I, i, to resolve the dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray by means of a tournament, seems, when he makes it, to be a grand gesture, demonstrating his power and prestige. However, it appears only now that Richard realizes the practical implications of his decision: if Mowbray wins, he knows too much for the king's peace of mind; if Bolingbroke wins, Richard will be threatened by his increased status. Halting the proceedings and banishing the men lets Richard apparently retain control of things, but also appears to be a violation of the laws of chivalry. As king, Richard is at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of laws and privileges; if he disregards these, as he repeatedly does, for reasons of expediency, he undermines his own position.
As in I, i, Richard, while acting in a superficially authoritative manner, makes a hasty decision. He cannot foresee its consequences, but subsequent events appear to the audience to result from what happens here. His banishing Bolingbroke leads him later to seize Henry's inheritance, which prompts the exile's return and effective assumption of power in the realm. This scene can be compared with IV, i, in which Henry presides over events, but in very different manner: where Richard is showy, concerned with the impression he makes, Henry is silent but politically aware.
The public, ceremonial character of the tournament is shown in the theatre by use of costume and properties, and by the arrangement of the actors on stage. The particular garments worn by the king, by his officers, Aumerle and the Marshal, by the heralds, and by the two disputants, indicate at least the importance of the occasion, though the costume may show more exactly the status of the wearer. Actions are formal and ritualized: the marshal approaches the defendant (Mowbray) and the appellant (Bolingbroke) to address them. Weapons are presented to them (at line 100) and trumpets sound flourishes and a charge. The enemies occupy opposite sides of the stage (front) with Richard raised up on a daïs behind them.
All is prepared for the action of the tournament, which never comes: Richard's intervention (which the audience may expect) alters the character of the proceedings, puts himself literally and metaphorically at the centre of the action, but is somewhat of an anti-climax. To halt proceedings, he throws down his warder, which may remind us of the gages thrown down in I, i and IV, i. Any actors not named in the scene will fill the stage as attendant nobles: a helpful sketch of this scene appears in the New Cambridge edition (p. 38). The structure of the scene is, loosely: ceremonial of the tournament, Richard's intervention and sentence, the reaction of the banished men, reduction of Bolingbroke's banishment, his farewell to Gaunt.
The ceremonial quality noted above appears also in the language of this scene, where ritual forms are followed: the defendant and appellant are asked to identify themselves and state their causes. Although ready to express bitter enmity, they are required to speak with dignity, and both show the utmost courtesy to their sovereign, though both know him to be implicated in Gloucester's death. Bolingbroke's request, that he kiss the king's hand, is relayed by the Marshal, though Richard has doubtless heard it directly, and, to indicate their lofty status there is constant repetition of the full names and titles of both disputants. (Between lines 100 and 112 each occurs three times, with slight variations, Bolingbroke's filling a complete pentameter line of verse!) Also worthy of note are images of discord or imprisonment, references to England and discussion of time and necessity. Finally, here, as elsewhere, it is always profitable to note the forms of address used, whether name, ("Bolingbroke") relationship, rank or title ("cousin Hereford", "Norfolk") or honorific form ("my most sovereign liege") - the Elizabethan audience will be alert to the nuances of these, as when Gaunt bluntly addresses Richard as "king", at line 225.
Act II, scene i ***
Relationship with the play and its general themes
In the previous scene we observe Richard with his sycophantic favourites: we are troubled by his contempt for Bolingbroke, and his readiness to pay for his Irish expedition through dubious taxation and seizure of Gaunt's estates: that he is concerned for Gaunt's wealth rather than his health is shocking. In this scene we see the contrast between the noble Gaunt who laments the results of Richard's poor administration, and the king's dismissing this honest man as a "lunatic lean-witted fool". Gaunt is motivated essentially by a love for his country and dismay at what it has become under Richard's rule; from his conduct in I, ii and I, iii we know that he subordinates his own concerns (as his brother York does later) to those of the kingdom. Yet Richard accuses him of insolence.
Once Gaunt is dead, York counsels Richard against the seizure of the Lancaster estates, but his remarks, too, fall on deaf ears: both in his rebuke of Gaunt (lines 115 - 19) and his rejection of York's request (lines 209 - 10) Richard gives no reason for his words. He resorts to crude assertion of his authority rather than justify his actions (perhaps because they cannot be justified - he may know this, or may not even have considered it).
The brief sequel to this, where Northumberland draws Ross and Willoughby into his plotting follows naturally: the men discuss what they have witnessed, articulate other grievances and look for comfort, of which Northumberland duly speaks. Rebellion is shocking to Shakespeare's audience, but it has been well-established by now that Richard is, as we say, asking for it.
The structure of the scene is clear: first, Gaunt, hoping to correct his nephew's faults, foresees the ruin which will come on England if Richard cannot be dissuaded from his folly; this is followed by Richard's angry and contemptuous reaction to Gaunt, and his more polite, but effectively equally dismissive response to the kindly old duke of York. Then comes the conspiracy. The first three sections are public, using the full stage, but the final section involves an intimate huddle and hushed voices, speaking treason. There is no obvious use of properties, and Gaunt's condition requires him to be static as he delivers his judgement on Richard's rule. It should be noted that the king does not hear the famous long speech. His actual rebuke to Richard is interrupted before he can complete it: perhaps we are to understand that Richard, had he been present would not have allowed the "royal throne of kings" speech to be uttered in full.
The interest of this scene lies largely in its language. Even so small a thing as the respective greetings of the queen and of Richard are significant: where the queen shows respect ("noble uncle Lancaster"), the king is disrespectful ("What comfort, man?") and uses his uncle's nickname ("How is't with aged Gaunt"?). The final part of the scene is notable for the business-like giving of information, and the sense of haste and bustle with which Northumberland speaks, but also for an interesting series of images, whereby we move from a "tempest" (Northumberland) to (ship)"wreck" (Ross) to the ships which bring intelligence and will later bring soldiers, and the port in Brittany from which these come.
Gaunt's long speech is formal and rhetorical: it begins as a series of epithets, most introduced by "this" (the pronoun occurs seventeen times), to indicate some excellence of England. Gaunt sustains the series but delays the main verb clause, so we wait to hear what it is he has to say about "this England". When it comes, the effect is of incongruity: Gaunt asserts that "this seat of Mars" or "other Eden" now suffers the shame of being bound in rotten bonds of ink-blotted parchment. The implied contrast is between the military achievements of heroic rulers of the past (Edward III, and his sons, the Black Prince, and Gaunt himself, perhaps) and the ignoble tax-farming and blank charters with which Richard has sustained his spendthrift court. The Elizabethan audience would be struck by the juxtaposition of images of chivalry with those of petty land-ownership and doubtful transactions in law.
Act III, scene ii ***
Relationship with the play and its general themes
When Richard leaves the stage in II, i, he informs us that he will leave for Ireland the next day. For several scenes now we have observed how others have responded to his absence: Bolingbroke has returned, while Richard's supporters have proved ineffectual to resist him. While Bagot has saved his skin by flight, Bushy, Greene and Wiltshire have paid with their lives for misleading the king. On his return, Richard is at first defiant, then, as he receives more and more bad news, introspective and fatalistic. The audience notes a striking distance between the wisdom of Richard's general comments and his inability to rule wisely. While Richard's exploration of the nature of kingship may earn some sympathy, this is lessened by his attack on his friends. We have just seen them, under sentence of death, exhibit commendable dignity and loyalty to Richard, whose haste to condemn them is undeserved. Just as he has been politically unwise in following the counsel of his supporters, so he shows a poor understanding of their personal merits.
This play is notable for its changing locations, as Shakespeare tries to depict events happening throughout the realm. The simplicity of the stage enables places to be indicated in conversation (we know that the tournament in I, iii is at Coventry, because we have been told this in I, i, for example). Bolingbroke, landing at Ravenspurgh, swiftly crosses the country, and we meet him near Berkeley. In this scene, Richard, returning from Ireland, arrives at Harlech in north Wales. The structure of the scene derives from Richard's initial expressions of confidence (before and after Carlisle's comment and Aumerle's elaboration of it) and his responses to the news brought by Salisbury and Scroope. Apart from the entrances of Salisbury and Scroope, there are interesting actions at the start of the scene and near its end. First, Richard appears to embrace the ground ("salute...with my hand...greet...do...favours with my royal hands"). Later, as if symbolizing his resignation, he invites his followers to "sit" with him upon the ground, a course of (in)action from which Carlisle duly dissuades him ("wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes...".
This is one of the most interesting scenes in the play in terms of language, and perhaps the first of those in which Richard, deprived of political power, discovers a new rhetorical power, to dramatize his own loss. It contains many of the play's best-known and often-quoted speeches. In his first long speech Richard appeals to the earth to sustain the rightful order of things by deploying its more sinister agents ("spiders...toads...nettles...adder") against Bolingbroke. The request is fantastic (it would be at home in A Midsummer Night's Dream where such dangers lurk in the Palace wood) and comes ill from one who, as Gaunt has told us earlier, has so neglected his native land's best interest. That the earth is injured by the rebels' horses' hooves is a poetic conceit: it is Richard in fact who is harmed.
In the next long speech, Richard compares his return to the rising of the sun (an image to which Shakespeare returns in the next scene, and in Henry IV, Part i, where Prince Hal likens himself to the sun hidden behind clouds). This leads to a definitive statement of the inalienable right of the king to rule: "Not all the water in the rough rude sea/ Can wash the balm off from an anointed king". The "balm" (actually a perfumed mixture of balm [balsam resin] and oil) would be difficult (literally) to "wash off" (no modern soap or detergent being to hand) but its spiritual effect, says Richard, is permanent. Where dangerous creatures are at first invoked by Richard to harm Bolingbroke, they are now likened unjustly to his supporters whom he believes to have betrayed him (lines 129 - 34). He further offends by comparing them to Judas Iscariot, clearly implying that he is like Christ (he is God's "deputy" but not His son). There is no apology when he learns of his error, but Richard reflects on the brevity of life and the certainty of death in a notable speech which also acknowledges the common humanity he shares with his subjects: "I live with bread...feel want/ Taste grief, need friends".
Act III, scene iii ****
Relationship with the play and its general themes
Shakespeare has kept Richard and Henry apart since II, i, but we have a sense in the preceding scenes of their imminent meeting, which occurs here. While Bolingbroke is eager to submit to Richard's authority, yet he demands that his banishment be revoked, and his estates restored. Richard is advised by Aumerle to be diplomatic in the hope that he may enlist allies against Henry in the future. Although Bolingbroke makes a gesture of submission to him, Richard seems to accept as certain the loss of his throne to his rival.
This is one of the most interesting scenes in the play in terms of its staging (see the sketch in the New Cambridge edition, p. 39). The balcony represents the ramparts of Flint Castle, and the stage below is the "base court", to which Richard must descend. Richard's appearance is likened by Bolingbroke to the rising of the sun: he appears most majestic here, yet there is pathos in the audience's awareness that his power is now to be eclipsed. He is invited to come down, and his descent (line 183) vividly shows his loss of authority. Gestures of submission are important here, too: Bolingbroke says (line 36) that he will kneel, and at line 188 he does so - Richard's response suggests either that he believes Bolingbroke is insincere (he isn't, clearly) or that he (Richard) recognizes the inevitability of Henry's seizing the throne.
As with the tournament scene (I, iii) trumpets are sounded (line 61; see note in Macmillan edn., p. 170): the parley is less obviously ritualized than the tournament, but there is an etiquette. Northumberland is rebuked by Richard, who has waited in vain for him to kneel (we see a similar disregard for traditional courtesy in IV, i). Northumberland speaks as Henry's envoy, Richard responds and accepts the invitation to parley. Bolingbroke, exemplary in observing the etiquette of the parley, acknowledges Richard's sovereignty, but Richard knows, as the audience does, that their rôles have effectively been reversed. Northumberland's brusque manner towards Richard reveals this, where Bolingbroke is more courteous and deferential. Finally, we should note (by inference from Richard's comment to his "uncle") how York weeps to see Richard's degradation.
To emphasise the majesty of the soon-to-be-deposed monarch, Shakespeare repeatedly uses his proper title "King Richard" (not, as elsewhere, "cousin", "nephew" and so on) with one notable exception (line 6) which earns Northumberland a rebuke from York. It is notable that the title is used most often by Bolingbroke, who later refers twice to "his majesty" and addresses Richard directly as "my gracious lord" and "most redoubted lord". Richard inverts the usual forms of respect, showing mock deference ("Most mighty prince, my Lord Northumberland"; line 172) and calling his rival "King Bolingbroke" and "his majesty" in the next line, and speaking of himself in the third person as merely "the king".
Richard's fantasy of exchanging his royal privileges for the simple life of a poor pilgrim is pathetic: he is sorry for himself and articulates his sorrow eloquently enough to stir our sympathy, but this speech is self-indulgent and inappropriate: he could take Aumerle's advice (lines 131 - 2), grant Henry's requests and save face. The symbolism of Richard's coming down, in case the audience has missed it, is spelled out by the king in his exploration of the meanings of the words he repeats ("down", "base court" and "up"). In his ironic rebuke of Bolingbroke for debasing himself by kneeling (lines 190 - 1) Richard reminds us of his own similar action (with a different symbolic meaning) in the previous scene. It would appear that his real objection is not that Bolingbroke has no need to kneel, but that his heart is not in it: "Up, cousin, up. Your heart is up, I know/Thus high at least, although your knee be low." As in the last scene the king is likened to the sun, but here it is his generous rival Bolingbroke who states the likeness.
Act III, scene iv **
Relationship with the play and its general themes
In one sense nothing really happens in this scene, which is valuable chiefly as comment and explanation on events, at the mid-point in the drama. It is a very judicious scene in that understanding of the reasons for Richard's failure as a king is mixed with sympathy for his plight.
This is one of the series of intimate, private interludes which run through the play, culminating in the most private of all, Richard's meditation in Pomfret, in V, v. The scene is set in a garden: one the one hand this contrasts with the public settings of the play's most important scenes; on the other, the real garden here, reminds us of Gaunt's repeated metaphor (II, iii: "This earth of majesty... this other Eden, demi-paradise...this blessèd plot, this earth") in which the whole country is likened to a garden, an idea developed in the dialogue in this scene. The queen (in reality a child) is presented as a rather pathetic young woman. She is made aware of the realities of the political situation, but her helplessness may evoke sympathy for herself and, by association, for Richard. Shakespeare varies a stock device (narrative information being reported by a messenger or well-informed noble to others on stage) as the Gardener is able to divulge information which "came last night/To a dear friend of the good Duke of York's" yet which is already "no more than everyone doth know": the queen has not been informed of what we would now call the word on the street.
Shakespeare takes some pains over the dialogue here. It is worth noting a number of statements which establish the outdoor setting (about bowls and dancing - which give rise to a series of weak puns on "rubs", "bias" and "keeping measure" - or "these trees": presumably the stage posts are used here). But mostly, Shakespeare gives the Gardener an opportunity to expand the idea of England as a "blessed plot" or garden. A close study of all the imagery in the scene should be made, but some ideas can be noted here. When the Gardener instructs the Servant in his task, we may already note the ambiguity of his orders: he likens the ripe fruit to "unruly children", while the servant is to be the "executioner" (we know that Bushy, Green and Wiltshire have just been executed by Bolingbroke's servants). The garden is a "commonwealth" in the Gardener's "government" and the weeds are "without profit" in sucking fertility from the flowers. In case we miss the point, the Servant now spells out the analogy: Richard has neglected his "sea-wallèd garden".
This gives the Gardener, continuing the Servant's metaphor, the chance to explain that the garden is now being tended by Bolingbroke: Richard is likened to a tree sheltering parasitic weeds which "seemed in eating him to hold him up"; the image is developed as the Gardener likens Richard's nobles to the boughs of a fruit tree: these need regular pruning (cutting back) while in extreme cases, "superfluous branches" (useless or disloyal nobles) are lopped away. Hearing this provokes the queen to join the conversation rebuking the Gardener who in "Adam's likeness" describes the expulsion from Eden of "cursèd man" in the person of Richard. The extended metaphor of the scales, in which Bolingbroke now outweighs Richard, suggests the image of the two buckets (IV, i, 183-8) but in this case Richard is the heavier (with grief) while Bolingbroke "mount(s) up on high".
Act IV, scene i *****
Relationship with the play and its general themes
In this scene what has been implied by Richard in III, iii and discussed by the Gardener in III, iv, is enacted, that is Richard's deposition. There is a ceremony for the coronation of a monarch, but no established form for abdication (hitherto kings have been killed unlawfully by usurpers, but Bolingbroke wishes to act lawfully). Thus, the principals have to make up the ritual as they go along. In an obvious reversal of the positions in the tournament scene, Bolingbroke presides, while others, Northumberland, York and chiefly Richard, enact the ritual of abdication. Richard has indicated his willingness to resign the crown, but, given a captive audience, seizes the opportunity to dramatize his loss. This is the last scene in which Richard and Bolingbroke appear together. Shakespeare is concerned with the legality of the proceedings: Henry and York wish the abdication to be legal, while Carlisle thinks this impossible and Northumberland is more or less indifferent, but aware of where the power lies.
The scene divides into three unequal parts (the series of accusations and counter-accusations relating to Gloucester's death; the abdication, and the plotting of Aumerle, Carlisle and Westminster). Of these, the central section can be divided further into Carlisle's objection to the proceedings (107 - 161); Richard's relinquishing the crown (162 - 222); his refusal to read the charges against him (222 - 272); the breaking of the mirror (273 - 304) and Richard's departure (305 - 318).
"The fourth act of Richard II is an ambitious example of another variety of big scene, the ensemble-scene, in which a massive effect is obtained by the presence on stage of a large number of actors, several of whom have prominent speaking parts. Richard is given a carefully delayed entry. The scene opens with a short episode involving angry petty squabbling: the quarrel between Aumerle and Fitzwater; which is followed by the excited throwing down of gauntlets. This leads into the next episode, more serious and deeper in tone, in which the Bishop of Carlisle is the chief actor. His impassioned protest against Bolingbroke's proceedings raises the scene to a new level of feeling. Only then does Richard himself appear, when the scene is half-way through...The effect in the scene is that Richard II appears just before the crest of the wave: he inherits the excitement worked up in the preceding episodes, and he dominates his scene by riding the climax."
Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare (p. 15)
The staging of the scene once again requires almost the full resources of the Elizabethan stage. Rival factions can be massed on either side of the stage, while the central area will in turn be taken by the various accusers, starting with Bagot, by Carlisle and by Richard. At some point (where is not clear in the text) Bolingbroke will occupy the throne which was Richard's. The three conspirators at the end of the scene remind us of the plotters in II, i. This is a scene in which objects are important: as well as the throne, we must note the use of the gages at the start of the scene, the crown which Richard gives to Bolingbroke, the paper (line 269) on which Richard's alleged offences are listed, and the mirror. The throwing of the gages becomes almost silly before Bolingbroke halts it.
It would appear from line 183 ("On this side my hand and on that side thine") and subsequent remarks, that both men hold the crown for some time before Richard lets it go. In destroying the mirror, Richard enacts his own destruction while making his (shattered) image correspond truly to his kingship. When Bolingbroke (line 113) states his intention of ascending the throne, he is defied by Carlisle: whether Henry takes the throne at once or is delayed by Carlisle is not given in the stage directions, any more than is the manner of his ascent.
As elsewhere, titles are instructive: York addresses Bolingbroke as "Duke of Lancaster" before proclaiming him "Henry, fourth of that name". Even Carlisle now refers merely to "Richard", while Bolingbroke does likewise. Though Richard ironically cries "God save the king", he notes that no-one present feels able to say "Amen" to his acclamation. Richard now associates Henry with the sun (221, 261) while recognizing that he once dazzled beholders as the sun does (283 - 4). As he looks into the mirror, Richard examines the symbolism of the king's "face" (the word is re-iterated and placed in a series of rhetorical questions: "Was/is this the face...?"). The term indicates his sense of the difference between the literal face of the ordinary man (he still has this) and the kingly authority others see in the face of the ruler (this has passed to Henry). This is Shakespeare's comment on the doctrine of "the King's Two Bodies".
For another reading of this scene click here.
Act V, scene i **
Relationship with the play and its general themes
This scene is a bridge between IV, i, where Richard's self-dramatization reaches a climax, and the philosophical acceptance of his situation which redeems and dignifies Richard in V, v. It is a sequel to III, iv, as the appearance of the queen evokes sympathy for Richard, though he seems now not to need this, and tells her so. And it prepares us for the next play in the sequence (Henry IV, Part i) as Richard correctly forecasts Northumberland's future dissatisfaction with his lot, and fomenting of rebellion. Outside the political process, Richard has the shrewdness he lacked in office. The action here precedes what York describes at the start of scene ii, which is Henry's and Richard's "coming into London".
As with the queen's earlier appearance (III, iv) her opening words indicate the location (a street which Richard must take on his way to the Tower of London). Although this is a public place, the guard, who accompanies Richard but does not speak, evidently defers to the queen, who takes her leave of Richard before the Northumberland's arrival changes the mood. The queen's attendants are also silent. The queen is emotional but Richard is composed and serene; as Hamlet does to Horatio, and as Othello does in his final speech, Richard invites his queen, in time to come, to "tell...the lamentable tale" of him, which will "send the hearers weeping to their beds".
The decorum and pathos here contrast with the brusqueness of what follows: throughout the drama, Northumberland acts for Bolingbroke against Richard (rather as Norfolk did for Richard against Gloucester). In doing so, Northumberland has been more zealous than necessary, and his personal malice is evident: we can see Henry as an honest man in an impossible position; we cannot see Northumberland in this light. The force of Richard's stinging rebuke here is felt by the audience, most of whom will know its historical accuracy. Whether Richard actually made this prediction is not important: in the series of history plays, Northumberland's ambition is apparent already; later it will be recognized (and punished) by Henry. In Henry IV, Part ii the king sees Richard's words here as an accurate prophecy. Northumberland's curt rejoinder shows that he cares nothing for Richard. "My guilt be on my head" tells the audience that this is a bad man.
Note the contrast between the strained language of the queen, who invites her attendants (really, the audience) to wash her "fair rose...with true love tears", and the stoicism of Richard, who is preparing for his death (does he guess how imminent this is?) and bids her take up the religious life. At the end of this scene (81-86) we find the sequence, common in Shakespeare generally, but not in this play, of short alternating lines (known as stichomythia) which also introduce use of rhyme, to mark with pathos Richard's taking leave of the queen. Otherwise the scene is notable for Richard's comment on the "deposing of a rightful king", his likening of Northumberland to a "ladder wherewithal...Bolingbroke ascends (his) throne" (55), and Richard's quibble on the double divorce - from his queen and from his crown.
Act V, scene v ***
Relationship with the play and its general themes
Since Richard is alone in his cell in Pomfret (Pontefract), his meditation on his misfortune has more pathos than his self-pity in IV, i. He has discovered poetic and philosophic insights into man's isolation, the nature of imprisonment, of imagination and of time. Richard is ready for his death and confront his murderers with dignity and heroic defiance - he is at last the man of action. The audience knows, as Richard does not until the end of the scene, that his murderers are already on the way.
Although Richard has many long speeches, and from Act III onwards these are increasingly perceptive and eloquent, this scene contains his only soliloquy in the whole play. In acquiring wisdom and stripped of privilege, Richard has acquired the full humanity hitherto denied him by his kingly office and his melodramatic and self-pitying response to its loss. The long speech is painful to us because we know what is to be its sequel. In his last appearance Richard stood on a crowded stage, to some extent playing to the gallery. Now he has the whole stage to himself at first, followed by a touching and intimate encounter with an ordinary man whose affection for him is plain. Though the audience may accept that Richard is now only an ordinary man, yet his murder is an ugly act of violence which is hard to justify, though politically expedient.
Richard's long speech is almost like a poem and important detail cannot readily be indicated here: it is advisable to study the whole soliloquy, looking out for the sequence of ideas and the principal images and conceits. Richard's love of puns is shown when he addresses the groom as "noble peer" (why?). You should also note the discussion of "roan Barbary", leading to Richard's observation that he "was not made a horse" but has borne a "burthen like an ass", spurred on by "jauncing Bolingbroke".
Richard and Bolingbroke: the nature of kingship
In an exam you may encounter a question about one or both of the principal characters, a question about the nature of kingship, or a statement (such as Richard's "Not all the water in the rough rude sea...") with which you are invited to agree. Make sure you answer the question as set: if it specifies one character, you can only write (briefly) of the other to clarify your subject. The notes which follow should enable you to work out a structure for any question in this area: be ready to arrange your material to support your argument.
Richard and Bolingbroke
Structurally, the play charts Richard's loss of power and Henry's ascent: this is made explicit in metaphor (up/down, buckets, base court etc.). In the case of Richard the loss of kingly authority leads to personal growth: Richard acquires humanity and humility, and the play is a "tragedie" as he acknowledges the universal nature of suffering.
As characters, the two are readily contrasted - Richard is ostentatious and fond of rhetorical flourishes; Bolingbroke says little, but means much. Richard is politically inept; Henry is a shrewd political operator. Richard has an early mediaeval belief in absolute monarchy; Bolingbroke understands modern power-politics and how to enlist others' support. Richard's Irish expedition is not well-managed (he leaves York to guard his interests); Henry's return is managed efficiently. Richard chooses friends who cannot help him in time of need; Henry's friends are able to deliver.
Their attitudes to kingship differ radically. Richard sees the crown as his by right; because he is king, his decisions are almost by definition correct, approved by God and not to be resisted. Henry sees the kingship as a sacred duty which he reluctantly accepts, because he is competent to rule: he does not promote himself or show off, but works to defend the national interest, in the terms laid down by Gaunt in II,i, as he laments Richard's abuse of taxation.
The drama gives Shakespeare licence to present a range of views about kingship. Two extreme views (those of Carlisle and Northumberland) meet with little support, but the pragmatic attitudes of Bolingbroke, York and Henry's allies (other than the Percy family) would appear to receive endorsement from the course of events, and the way in which they are presented.
Richard expresses the view (in III, ii) that the crown is inalienable: "Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king". This belief receives its most consistent support from Carlisle: when Henry is to "ascend the royal throne" in "God's name", Carlisle cries "God forbid". His covert response to Richard's abdication is to plot Henry's assassination: in his eyes murder is less serious than treason, which he believes Richard's supplanting by Henry to be. Since the church is the guarantor of the king's divine right to rule, the church's authority is weakened by what has happened, so we may see self-interest at work.
Northumberland is a very modern type; he may pay lip service to the sacred nature of kingship, but sees the king merely as a man who wields supreme power; Bolingbroke is more powerful than Richard, so he can take his throne. Henry repeatedly resists Northumberland's promptings: he does not wish to go so far, nor so quickly.
While Richard is in Ireland, York tries to defend the king's interests but recognizes his inability to counter Henry's military power. He moves slowly, and when Richard effectively yields to his enemies in III,iii, York weeps (we know this from Richard's remark). But in IV,i, York is central to the deposition ceremony and in V,ii pledges his loyalty to the new monarch "whose state and honour" he "for aye" allows. He shows his loyalty in reporting his son's treachery to Henry; where the duchess is moved by her feelings as a mother, York subordinates his paternal feelings to his high sense of duty.
What York and Henry show the audience is a moderate view: the king is divinely appointed to rule, but his kingship is an obligation to the country, not an opportunity for self aggrandisement. The crown can be forfeited if the king fails to rule well. Since Henry's triumph is in a chain of historical events which leads to Elizabeth's accession Shakespeare is safe to depict Richard's overthrow, so long as it is clear that this is justified by the peculiar circumstances of the time, and by the fact that Richard freely abdicates. Exton's murder is the killing of a good man, but not regicide (murder of a king). Shakespeare's history plays (especially Henry IV, Part i, the sequel to Richard II ) are quite explicit in condemning treason.
Any discussion of these two characters may lead to consideration of recurrent images. The sun and day represent kingly rule; in the first half of the play the sun image is claimed by Richard (III,ii and III,iii) but at Harlech Castle (III,ii), Richard speaks of "Bolingbroke's fair day", as the crown is to pass to his rival. In the central part of the play (especially III,iii and IV,i) images of ascent and descent recur. We use these metaphorically in a loose everyday sense to express ideas of status (high and low; going up, coming down) but they are dramatized in III,iii by Richard's action in coming down from the battlements of Flint Castle, to which his words draw our attention (references to the base-court, kneeling and so on). Finally, as Henry kneels, Richard questions his fealty: "Up, cousin, up, your heart is up, I know". Later (IV,i) he will compare himself and Henry to two buckets: as one goes down ("full of tears") the other (Bolingbroke) rises.
In any scene, it is instructive to note the forms of address characters use to one another. Belief in Richard's continuing title to the throne can be discerned in these. Northumberland is the first to refer to Richard merely by his Christian name; York rebukes him, but Bolingbroke suggests that it is a slip of the tongue: this may be charitable to Northumberland. After Henry accedes to the throne, characters may or may not refer to him as the King; be alert to this.
Richard as a tragic figure
This play is principally about Richard and in the middle and latter parts of the play, he becomes more prominent in the drama. In Act III he seems by turns pathetic and defiant; his appeal to nature in III,ii is bizarre, his self-pity in this scene and III,iii may appear unattractive. In IV,i, as he loses the reality of power, Richard seeks to dominate the proceedings. Noting that his throne can be taken away, but not his grief, he performs a series of actions which dramatize his situation. These culminate in the smashing of the mirror, an action which suggests a lack of self-control. But in Act V, having taken leave of his wife, Richard gains in dignity. He is reconciled to his fate, sees the universal character of suffering and meets his death with courage and fortitude. Richard is never a good king, but he becomes a very good man.
"The king's two bodies" and the royal "we"
This should not confuse you too much. The king is believed to be two people in one: the ordinary man, and the king's majesty (God's deputy on earth). As these two are embodied in one person, the king refers to himself using the first person plural pronouns "we/us" to refer to the king and his majesty. When he is addressed (as king) it is the majesty to whom people speak.
The Language of the Play
This is one of Shakespeare's plays in which theatrical language is not merely the narrative medium, but is also a subject of the drama: the play is about language. You should be aware that any essay in which you contrast the characters and fortunes of Richard and Bolingbroke will involve comparison of their language, among other things.
Briefly, Henry is capable of eloquence, as in his accusation of Mowbray in I, i, in his speeches before the tournament in I, iii, and especially in his praise of Richard's sun-like majesty in III, iii. But he can be silent, as in his response to Northumberland's flattery in II, iii. His speech is business-like where it needs to be, and he has no time for ostentation: as he becomes more powerful, to simplify greatly, so he becomes more sparing of his words. Richard, by contrast, loves the sound of his own voice. When he has effective power, as at the start of the play, he has a liking for unnecessary display (I, i and I, iii) but is more ready to issue absolute commands than to give reasons (as in II, i). Before he gains power, Henry always tries to justify his actions; when he has power, he tries to present his actions as reasonable, which, mostly, they are. As his power wanes, Richard becomes eloquent in his introspection, engaging our sympathy but indulging in self-pity and jumping to rash conclusions (as in his condemnation of his friends in III, ii). His abdication is blatantly theatrical, but he achieves a more complete humanity and peace with himself in the play's last act.
Richard, as ruler, fails to grasp that the display of authority needs to be backed up with the reality of power. This may mean cultivating his own popularity, as Bolingbroke is said to do (V, i, 7 - 21) but more importantly establishing a broad power base among the nobility and commons, rather than indulging a clique of sycophants while excluding many of the most powerful in the land. From the start of the play, Shakespeare establishes a sense of utterances forceful in manner, but not backed up by real power. Richard believes in his majesty, a sacred, quasi-magical quality which comes from God and is inalienable ("Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king"; III, ii, 54 - 55) and so do others, Carlisle wholly and Henry to a point. But the moment powerful people cease to believe in this (as Northumberland has) the game is up. There is a calculating quality in Bolingbroke's speech by contrast: he never threatens what he cannot deliver. In II, i, Richard rants at the dying Gaunt, speaking of punishment only forestalled by his uncle's age and sickness, then sets in train the seizure of his estates, wrongly supposing that he can do this without risk. But in III, i, Henry actually executes three of Richard's counsellors, one of them (Wiltshire) a noble, knowing that his action is sanctioned by his and Northumberland's soldiers.
Discussion of the play's language can also be thought of in terms of the variety of poetic forms and of imagery, especially related groups of images (images of nature, the four elements, the sun) recurring throughout the drama. Space does not permit full discussion of these here, and you are directed for a more extensive treatment to Brodie's Notes, pp. 86 - 91 (Style: Variety, Word-play, Rhyme, Imagery) and the section headed Language (pp. 31 - 34) in the introduction to the New Cambridge edition of the play. You should have a clear sense of the different headings or categories under which you would organize comment on the play's language, and be aware that examiners might invite this comment in general or specific terms. It is quite likely, for example, that you might be asked about the theatrical effectiveness of the play's language - that is, how it works in conveying narrative, giving insight into character or attitudes, and engaging the sympathy or revulsion of the audience. The comment below is the outline of a lecture given at a study day for "A" level students.
Language and Power in Richard II;