King Richard the Second

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 457-527).

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Notes on King Richard II

Act 1, Scenes 1-2 (467-73, Richard judges quarrel between Mowbray, Bolingbroke; Duchess of Gloucester urges Gaunt to intervene for Bolingbroke, but he stays neutral)

The play begins with King Richard acting as arbiter of a feudal quarrel between Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, both of whom bandy words of high honor and charges of treason.  Richard himself was treated rather badly as a young man by the kingdom’s great lords, and we can see from the outset that there is no love lost between him and them.  In the second scene, the Duchess of Gloucester urges John of Gaunt to intervene on the side of Bolingbroke against Mowbray, but his own deep sense of complicity in the Duke of Gloucester’s death forces him to stay on the sidelines, to the great disgust of the Duchess.

Act 1, Scenes 3-4 (473-81, Richard banishes Bolingbroke for six years; Bolingbroke’s popularity; Richard’s concern over Ireland and callousness about Gaunt’s final illness)

Richard decides to banish Bolingbroke first for ten years and then, supposedly out of pity for John of Gaunt, for six years, while Mowbray is banished perpetually.  Right away, Richard is given cause for anxiety about Bolingbroke, who obviously knows how to ingratiate himself with the common people as he makes his exit from the country.  But Richard has little time to worry about that because he must turn his attention to the troubles in Ireland.  At the end of the fourth scene, we see our first evidence of Richard’s greediness and trenchant wit—when he hears that John of Gaunt is about to die, he jokes, “Pray God we may make haste and come too late!”  (481, 1.4.63).

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (481-91, Gaunt scolds Richard’s management of the kingdom; York and Northumberland are disgusted with Richard; Bolingbroke is thought to be on the way back to England)

John of Gaunt scolds King Richard for the disordered state of his kingdom; he laments the great falling off of English prowess against the French since the time of Edward III: “That England that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (483, 2.1.65-66).  Richard becomes increasingly impatient and sardonic, and cannot hide his disrespect for this dying pillar of the kingdom.  The old man calls him easy prey to flatterers and no more than a landlord rather than a king.  Fundamentally, Richard does not respect the feudal net of loyalties and obligations or the sacred quality of the crown—he is a feckless opportunist.  The Duke of York is also appalled at Richard’s rapacious behavior right after John of Gaunt passes away, and he tries to explain to him that when Richard abrogates the time-honored law of primogeniture, he undercuts the legitimacy of his own rule: “Is not his heir a well-deserving son? (485, 2.1.195; see 195-200).  But Richard’s glib rhymes overrule such mature advice.  The king even leaves York, whom he seems to consider docile enough to trust, in charge of managing the kingdom while he himself goes off to fight the rebellion in Ireland.  But York is clearly not to be dismissed like that, as we can see from his assessment of the situation in the second scene: “Both are my kinsmen. /  … / Well, somewhat we must do” (490, 2.2.111-16).  In the first scene, Northumberland offers us a litany of Richard’s offenses against the Commons and nobility, saying that he is “basely led / By flatterers …” (486, 2.1.242-43).  The upshot is that the  king has lost everyone’s loyalty and respect.  Rumor already has it that Henry Bolingbroke is on his way back to England in defiance of his banishment.

Act 2, Scenes 3-4 (491-95, York is confused, and Harry Percy joins Bolingbroke; York denounces Bolingbroke as a traitor, but his “neuter” position effectively favors him)

The Duke of York is now thoroughly confused; everything is in disarray, and he does not know what to do.  There is no money thanks to Richard’s spendthrift ways, and York is too far past his prime to marshal sufficient energy to deal with this disaster.  Meanwhile, Harry Percy is joining up with Bolingbroke’s party—a dangerous development for the  king.  Bolingbroke answers Richard’s envoy Berkeley that he has come to claim his proper title as Lancaster.  The Duke of York upbraids his nephew Bolingbroke as a rebel and traitor.  These are harsh words, and Bolingbroke’s fair reply does not seem to convince York, but the latter declares himself “neuter” regarding the whole affair.  In essence, he has thrown in his lot with the man he just called a traitor.  Although Thomas Hobbes and his theory of royal absolutism in Leviathan don’t come along until the English Civil War era, the Duke of York’s reaction to Bolingbroke’s attempt against King Richard illustrates Hobbes’s paradox: rebellion is utterly inadmissible, but if it succeeds, the rebel becomes the new absolute power.  York understands that things have gone beyond the point of no return and that King Richard has lost the loyalty of his subjects from low to high; Bolingbroke is already the de facto ruler.

Act 3, Scene 1 (495-96, Bolingbroke blames Bushy and Green of corrupting Richard; Richard agrees that others are to blame for his predicament)

In this scene, Bolingbroke accuses Bushy and Green of corrupting the king, and we will see in the next scene that Richard himself feels he has been led astray.

Act 3, Scene 2 (496-501, as Bolingbroke’s forces close in, Richard’s moods swing wildly back and forth, from exuberance to despair and self-pity: it’s time to “tell sad stories of the death of kings”)

Richard opens this scene by weeping for joy and touching the earth.  Those who surround him, however, appear to function somewhat like King Lear’s Fool in that they make it difficult for us to take his passionate words seriously.  He must tell them, “Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords” (497, 3.2.23) either because they already are mocking him or because he anticipates that they will.  But there is still something genuinely moving in the claim, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm from an anointed king” (497, 3.2.50-51).

From lines 174-77, King Richard says something similar to what King Lear will say—his ministers have told him he was something more than human, and now he finds out to his grief that he is not.  This is a traditional theme—fear or self-interest will lead counselors to delude the powerful about their true circumstances and nature.  In this sense, power is an obstacle, not an advantage.  Richard’s mood shifts are nothing short of astonishing throughout this scene—I suppose this is partly because Shakespeare must telescope historical events to suit the rhythm of the play, but it also gives a sense of Richard as almost manic-depressive: in a few heartbeats, he goes from high spirits to abject despair, from majestic to pathetic. His instinct when the despair strikes him is to wax poetical: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, / And tell sad stories of the death of kings …” (499, 3.2.151-52).  His theatrical nature makes him rehearse again and again both the heights of power and the inevitability of a great fall, as if he always has seen himself as an actor in a tragedy.  Like any educated medieval man, Richard seeks the consolation of philosophy by patterning his own life after moral exempla.  But it seems that his temperament is too mercurial to permit him to draw the necessary sustenance for long.

I don’t know if it would be fair to say that King Richard is incapable of seeing things directly, incapable of raw perception in so far as anyone is capable of such a thing.  Perhaps we are to understand that he sees things too clearly sometimes, so much so that he is driven immediately to begin telling some fine story that distances him from the painfulness of his perceptions.  That is, after all, one of the uses of art.  Even a sad story can serve the same purpose as a triumphant one in this regard, justifying life aesthetically when it cannot be justified otherwise.

Act 3, Scene 3 (501-05, Bolingbroke puts his cards on the table: he wants the crown and Richard must surrender it; Richard’s claims are ineffectual now and he appears a diminished, defeated man)

King Richard’s poetic self-pity forces Henry Bolingbroke to show his hand: it would be obvious even to a child that Henry cannot do what he claims he would be willing to do; namely, simply claim his title among the nobility and not lay hands on the crown.  He has insulted the king by annulling his own banishment, and he has an overwhelming military advantage.  There really is no other course but to take the crown for himself.  This is not to say that sometimes Shakespeare’s kings cannot forgive an insult or an offense, but I think the situation is too brutal and explicit here to allow of moderation. 

However, it is also obvious that Richard has brought this disaster upon himself.  He claims to rule with the approval of “God omnipotent” (503, 3.3.84), but he has cut the ground from under the legitimacy of his rule by failing to respect the feudal rights of his subjects.  He has not respected the principle of hereditary rank and succession, so his continued arrogation of power provokes not awe but mirth in Henry and his followers. 

Richard sees everything in all or nothing terms—he is either  king or less than the meanest of his subjects.  The end of this scene makes everything brutally clear: Richard understands that he must go to London, and finally Bolingbroke comes right out and says so.  With Bolingbroke, action is the priority.

Act 3, Scene 4 (505-07, a gardener explains Richard’s failures in horticultural terms, and maintains his view even when confronted with opposition by the queen)

The gardener helps us compare the workings of the aristocracy with the processes of nature.  The growth of plants is compared to the pride of men, and the accusation is that Richard has failed to keep his garden, England, in good order by pruning those branches of the nobility that grow beyond what is healthful.  This is an ancient metaphor that I recall encountering in the pages of Herodotus—the Persian king Cyrus, if I recall correctly, explains his theory of governance by pointing to a waving field of grain or flowers and gesturing with his arm to show that the ruler must lop off the heads of those who grow too high.  But there is another side to this gardening metaphor of organic process—when the queen curses the gardener for giving her bad news about Richard, he says that his skill is not “subject to thy curse” (507, 3.4.104).  Natural process is regular and predictable, but human affairs are far more difficult to predict.

Act 4, Scene 1 (508-15, Bolingbroke accepts the crown, striving to appear legitimate, goes to Parliament and with poetical flourishes, Richard there resigns his crown, asking leave to go: to the Tower of London)

Bolingbroke declares that he will recall Norfolk from banishment and restore to him his lands, even though he was an enemy.  The new king will respect feudal rights in hopes of keeping order in his realm.  It turns out that the man died at Venice, but the point has been made.  Then Bolingbroke declares that he will ascend the throne with God’s permission, and the Bishop of Carlisle is arrested for treason when he protests.  This scene takes place in parliament, and Bolingbroke is determined that his taking of the throne will be perceived as legitimate.  That is a difficult thing to accomplish when Richard, ever the actor, is called in to play his part and abdicate.  Richard proceeds both to insist upon his grief as a private man and to underscore the heavy and solemn nature of the act that is now taking place, even though Bolingbroke seems to treat the matter as a show trial.  The scope of Richard’s performance is limited in that he is hardly playing to a sympathetic audience, but when he calls for a looking-glass so that he may contemplate himself and his “brittle glory” (514, 4.1.277), the attention effectively shifts to him, if only for a few moments.  How can a king un-king himself?  And what is the man who remains when this act has been performed?  Bolingbroke has little time for such high drama and philosophical / political speculation combined into one; he promises to grant Richard one wish, and when that which is “give me leave to go” (514, 4.1.303), the sharp returning question is “Whither?”  The only place Richard can go, of course, is to the Tower of London where he will remain as prisoner.

Act 5, Scene 1 (515-17, the queen is dismayed at Richard’s passivity; Richard warns Northumberland about the fickleness of destiny and friends)

The queen makes known her dismay at how abject Richard has become, asking “Hath Bolingbroke / Deposed thine intellect?”  (515, 5.1.27-28)  But by this time, Richard is most concerned that his sad story become a royal winter’s tale.  He also offers a parting shot to Northumberland, telling him that the new king’s associates will become greedy and destroy him.  They will follow the example set by their new leader: “The time shall not be many hours of age / More than it is to foul sin, gathering head, / Shall break into corruption” (516, 5.1.57-59).

Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (517-23, Bolingbroke rides to his coronation, with Richard in tow; York pledges faith to Bolingbroke, now Henry IV; the new king forgives Aumerle’s conspiracy, hearing York’s severe rebukes and the Duchess’ pleas to spare the young man; Henry IV is worried about his son Prince Hal’s antics)

As Bolingbroke rides in procession to be crowned, Richard’s sad role is to serve as the cleanup act.  He shows almost Christlike patience in this new role.  The Duke of York has decided that it is time to show loyalty to Bolingbroke because he is the new king—this sudden shift in attitude illustrates the paradox of absolutism that Thomas Hobbes will later explore.  In Leviathan, Hobbes insists that rebellion is always illegitimate since monarchy is absolute, but he also says that once a rebellion has succeeded, the new ruler’s power is just as absolute as that of the deposed ruler.

The Duke of York’s son Aumerle has engaged in a conspiracy against Henry Bolingbroke.  To simplify his plot, Shakespeare makes Aumerle happen to be wearing a seal that contains details about the conspiracy.  This is almost as silly as the “letter plot” of King Lear, but it works well enough.  The scene that ensues  (Scene 3 ) is semi-comic, with the old Duke showing an attitude similar to that of the severe ancient Roman nobleman who executed his own son rather than mitigate a just punishment for crimes against the state, and his wife standing up for the principle of a mother’s tender feelings towards her child.  Bolingbroke sides with the mother, although he declares for the execution of “the rest of that consorted crew” (523, 5.3.136).  Apparently, now that the feckless Richard has been deposed, we will have a kinder, gentler Windsor Castle. 

At the very beginning of Scene 3, even before the Duke of York and Aumerle enter the picture, Bolingbroke is also quite anxious about his own son, Prince Hal—wherever can the young rascal be?  I believe we are to understand that Bolingbroke’s anxiety stems from the genuine possibility that Prince Hal will turn out to be as reckless and irresponsible as Richard II.

Act 5, Scenes 4-6 (523-27,  Henry IV is overheard wishing to be rid of Richard; Richard meditates on ambition, misfortune and death; he is murdered but dies courageously; Henry IV makes plans to overcome rebellion, distributes honors, and wants to undergo a pilgrimage to assuage his guilt over Richard’s death)

Bolingbroke, like Henry II against Thomas à Beckett a few centuries back in 1170, gives voice to his desire to be rid of the royal person (Richard Plantagenet, the deposed king) who is troubling him, and is overheard by Sir Piers Exton and another wicked knight willing to do the deed.  The similarity of the two men’s conduct indicates rough sailing ahead for the conscience of Bolingbroke.  Henry II, we may recall, felt so guilty about what he had wished on Beckett that he ended up donning sackcloth and having himself scourged through the streets of London.

Richard, meanwhile, sits in his cell in the Tower philosophizing about death, misfortune, and ambition.  As always, Richard regards himself as an actor: “Nor I, nor any man that but man is,  / With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased / With being nothing” (524, 5.5.39-41).  He has been above all a waster of time, and recognizes too late that time is bound to waste its waster in return.  He failed to shepherd his power wisely, so it has dwindled to nothing.  It is clear that he is unable to arrive at the patience he seeks.  At the end, he becomes frustrated with the Keeper who refuses to sample his food and begins beating him.  Moments later, his murderers make their entrance, and Richard dies courageously, even killing one of his assassins.  One of the remaining killers, Exton, reminds us of the theological dimensions of what has just happened when he realizes he has purchased nothing but damnation by doing the new king’s bidding.

Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, still has much work to do in putting down a rebellion against him, and he distributes honors and compassion to establish a precedent of generosity and gratitude over against Richard’s venal administration.  The Bishop of Carlisle is pardoned, and Exton is awarded only guilt.  Henry IV himself is stricken with blood-guilt.  He wants to make a voyage to Jerusalem to expiate this feeling, but as it turns out, he has far too much on his plate to indulge himself in the luxury of self-reproach.  If there is to be renewal, it will come only with the maturing of his son Prince Hal, who, as we know, is still a tavern- goer and an actor trying on many parts.  As we shall see in I Henry IV, the Prince’s acting is redeemed because it differs profoundly in its purpose from the dramatic inclinations that consumed Richard II and made him unfit to govern.

A few final thoughts: Richard is at times a villain, especially in his reckless early reign.  But he is also a reflective and poetical villain, so we should consider the extent to which the moral sententiae (pronouncements) he repeats with gathering pathos redeem him as a man with tragic insight into the nature of kingship, or whether they simply amount to self-pity.  The question of tragedy in relation to Christianity is a vexed one since, of course, there’s no question of positing a universe that doesn’t play fair or make sense.  Richard’s fate was avoidable in that it wasn’t due to some indomitable but dangerous quality (like Oedipus’ intrepidity and strong intellect) but rather to his rapacious disregard for feudal loyalties and common decency.  Well, I don’t believe Shakespeare follows any unitary model of tragedy—it seems to me that he constitutes his tragic intensities and ideals circumstantially, from one given set of materials to the next.  In this way, he is able to bring out whatever makes for excellent drama in his material; a notion of tragedy as broad as “a fall from good fortune to bad” probably serves him as a point of departure.

One possibility to consider: aside from political philosophy, perhaps the play could be read as an argument between a vision centered on ceremony and the aesthetic dimension of experience (a Catholic vision, if you don’t mind the anachronism) and a mindset that tends strongly towards clarity and the practical consideration of how to get and hold power.  That would be Bolingbroke’s approach, and we might call it the result of a proto-Protestant sensibility.  Tragedy of any sort must usually work out an uneasy truce with some competing set of rights, as when Antigone, in the Sophocles play by that name, battles Creon over the granting of proper burial rites for her slain brother: both have a kind of right on their side.  In the current play, it may be that we are to dismiss neither Richard’s aesthetic and ceremonial sensibilities nor, more obviously, Henry Bolingbroke’s businesslike understanding of power’s imperatives.  Bolingbroke is hardly liberated by his assumption of power from the sort of questions that nag the deposed Richard; indeed, he will return to just such questions from the moment he learns that his death-wish towards Richard has been overheard and carried out.  The blood on Bolingbroke’s hands turns out to be as durable as the “anointed balm” that Richard had claimed could never be washed from a king’s sacred body, not even by all the water in “the rough rude sea.”  Richard is deeply flawed and his end isn’t exactly heroic (it’s more private than heroic, really), but all the same we may find that we can’t dismiss him altogether.  The Richard who suffers and dies at the play’s end isn’t easily reduced to the sum of the acts that brought him to his sorrow.  The play is partly about a gruff transfer of power, but I think we are also asked to reflect upon the value of Richard’s poetical way of seeing and being.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake