Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard II. (Norton Histories , 2nd ed. 457-527).
1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is the substance of the quarrel between Thomas Mowbray (Duke of Norfolk) and Harry Bolingbroke (Duke of Hereford and later King Henry IV)? In what role does this quarrel cast King Richard II in the play’s first few scenes? What seems to be Richard’s attitude towards this affair?
2. In Act 1, Scene 2, why is it difficult for John of Gaunt to take sides unambiguously in the quarrel that Richard is adjudicating between Mowbray and Bolingbroke? With what failings does the widowed Duchess of Gloucester reproach him, and what effect does Gaunt’s reply have upon her?
3. In Act 1, Scene 3, how does Richard decide the quarrel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke? What rationale seems to underlie his decision? How does he treat John of Gaunt in this scene, and how, in Act 1, Scene 4, does he react to Gaunt’s terminal sickness?
4. In Act 1, Scene 3, what advice does John of Gaunt offer Harry Bolingbroke as the latter enters several years of exile from England? How does Harry see the matter?
5. In Act 2, Scene 1, what accusations does the dying John of Gaunt level against Richard — what failings as a feudal ruler does Gaunt find in Richard? How does Richard respond to these charges, and what becomes manifest about the King’s character during and immediately after this conversation?
6. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does the Duke of York reinforce the charges Gaunt has already made against Richard? How successful is the Duke in explaining Richard’s faults to him? What does Northumberland afterwards add to this litany of flaws and mistakes on Richard’s part?
7. In, Act 2, Scenes 2-3, what is the Duke of York’s quandary now that Richard has left him in charge of the kingdom for a time? How does he respond to the entreaties of Harry Bolingbroke, who has returned from exile without Richard’s permission? What is Harry claiming he has returned to do?
8. In Act 3, Scene 1, what accusation does Bolingbroke level against Bushy and Green? How does this accusation also function as self-justification for his current course of action?
9. In Act 3, Scene 2, how does Richard respond to and characterize his circumstances as a king facing a serious (and, as becomes increasingly evident, successful) rebellion? What seems to be his state of mind? How do those around him (Carlisle, Aumerle, and Scrope, mainly) receive his gestures and speeches?
10. In Act 3, Scene 3, Bolingbroke and King Richard meet first through intermediaries and then face to face — as the scene progresses, how is Bolingbroke forced to “show his hand,” so to speak, and lay bare his real intentions with respect to Richard and the Crown? What role does Richard play in this revelation?
11. In Act 3, Scene 4, what lesson does the Gardener impart to us about human nature and governance by means of his understanding of natural process and horticulture? The play has been filled with human failings and misfortunes — is this rather philosophical scene reassuring or disturbing, in your view? What is the rationale for your response?
12. In Act 4, Scene 1, Bolingbroke has already begun to take on the duties of kingship, though as yet he is not king. How does he handle the quarrel between Fitzwalter and Aumerle? What is his reaction to the news that his old enemy Norfolk (Thomas Mowbray) has died in Venice? How is he trying to distinguish himself from Richard by such conduct?
13. In Act 4, Scene 1, Bolingbroke requires that Richard abdicate the throne. What are his apparent expectations regarding Richard’s performance in such a spectacle, and how does Richard at least partly frustrate those expectations? Consider especially Richard’s meditation on kingship and on his identity as a mortal human being. (See 4.1.263-99; “They shall be satisfied….”)
14. In Act 5, Scene 1, how does Richard’s Queen interpret what he has just done? How does Richard respond to her anguished reproach — what narrative does he urge her to tell about him when he is gone? What warning does Richard offer Northumberland about the soon-to-be King Henry IV?
15. In Act 5, Scenes 2-3, the Duke of York’s son Aumerle has pledged himself to a conspiracy against Harry Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV. How does this scene play out? How does it amount to a reflection on the relationship between the personal or familial sphere and the realm of politics?
16. In Act 5, Scene 3, what are King Henry IV’s scene-opening concerns about his son Harry, the Crown Prince? What has the Prince been doing while his father was hard at work winning a kingdom? How (according to Percy’s report) did the Prince react to news of his father’s coronation?
17. In Act 5, Scene 5, what is the substance of the deposed Richard’s reflections on his reign and fall? What, if anything, has he learned from the disaster he has suffered — do his reflections constitute something like “tragic insight”? Why or why not? (See 5.5.1-65.) Also, in what manner does Richard meet his death — do his actions restore some dignity to him? Explain with reference to 5.5.99-118.
18. By the end of Act 5, Scene 6, King Henry IV is filled with remorse for the way he has come by the throne. How, specifically (see Scene 4), did the new King’s wishes lead to Richard’s death? How does the news of the murder frustrate Henry’s attempt to inaugurate a juster and more stable period of English governance? What pattern does Henry’s reaction to Richard’s death suggest for the rest of his reign?
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