Richard II analysis

Richard II Analysis #

The play begins in a field of chivalry, with King Richard judging a dispute between two warring cousins.


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

Their enmity is well expressed by the sharpness of their language and tone:


Now, Thomas Mowbray, do I turn to thee,
And mark my greeting well; for what I speak
My body shall make good upon this earth,
Or my divine soul answer it in heaven.
Thou art a traitor and a miscreant,
Too good to be so and too bad to live,
Since the more fair and crystal is the sky,
The uglier seem the clouds that in it fly.
Once more, the more to aggravate the note,
With a foul traitor’s name stuff I thy throat,
And wish, so please my sovereign, ere I move,
What my tongue speaks, my right-drawn sword may prove.


Let not my cold words here accuse my zeal.
’Tis not the trial of a woman’s war,
The bitter clamour of two eager tongues,
Can arbitrate this cause betwixt us twain;
The blood is hot that must be cooled for this.
Yet can I not of such tame patience boast
As to be hushed and naught at all to say.
First, the fair reverence of your highness curbs me
From giving reins and spurs to my free speech,
Which else would post until it had returned
These terms of treason doubled down his throat.
Setting aside his high blood’s royalty,
And let him be no kinsman to my liege,
I do defy him, and I spit at him,
Call him a slanderous coward and a villain;
Which to maintain, I would allow him odds
And meet him, were I tied to run afoot
Even to the frozen ridges of the Alps,
Or any other ground inhabitable
Wherever Englishman durst set his foot.
Meantime let this defend my loyalty:
By all my hopes, most falsely doth he lie.

The two men declare their intention to fight a duel - trial by combat - God will choose the righteous one. But Richard intervenes and has both banished, Bolingbroke for six years and Mowbray for life.

From 1215, disputes were settled under the yoke of an adversarial system that relies on combat – originally physical (duels were legal until the 19^(th) century), and now psychological and linguistic gladiatorial contests. “Might triumphs over right”. Trial by Ordeal was fashionable as late as the 16^(th) Century.

Wars were determined by the gods, or in the Judaic cultures by God. When Constantine was facing a revolt he was urged to put Christian symbols on his banners and when he was successful, attributed the victory to Christ, converted to Christianity and then imposed it on all the Roman Empire. Charlemagne, attempting to expel the Moors from Spain saw a splendid vision of the apostle James who helped him win the battle. The Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage leading to the shrine of the apostle James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. James is venerated as “The Moor Slayer”.

The background to these accusations regard the many intra family disputes between the regents active during Richard II’s coming of age. The Regency went to his uncles, Woodstock The Duke of Gloucester, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edmund Duke of York.

Despite his legitimate blood line for the Monarchy, Richard suffers many challenges to his rule and is eventually out-generaled by an able usurper - who because he has just grievances, gains wide support from the people and other powerful nobles.

For the prolonged war with France, Richard sought increased taxation from Parliament. The massive scale of his demand provoked resistance, and the House of Commons clamoured for his resignation. Richard, resisted but eventually gave way. and a commission of government was appointed to hold office for a year.

By 1489, Richard regained control of the Parliament and on May 3, 1389, (at 22) Richard formally resumed responsibility for government. He dismissed the Appellants’ ministers and appointed new officers of his own. At the same time, he published a manifesto promising better governance and an easing of the burden of taxation.

To consolidate his power, Richard issed orders for the execution of some of his adversaries. While Woodstock, The Duke of Gloucester, was in Calais, he was murdered, highly likely on the orders of Richard. It may have been justified - and it was the undisputed prerogative of an absolute monarch to maintain order among powerful barons.

The fact Richard refuses to accept responsibility for the death of The Duke of Gloucester, means Mowbray has to wear the blame for it, indicates another weakness in Richard.


…………………Take but my shame,
And I resign my gage.

Act I. Scene 2.

John of Gaunt attempts to give solace to the grieving widow, the Duchess of Glouceste.

He assures her that justice is in the hands of the perpetrators, but heaven will rain vengeance.

But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven,
Who, when they see the hours ripe on earth,
Will rain hot vengeance on offenders’ heads.

The Duchess appeals to his felial duty to revenge the death of a brother who shares his blood, his gestating womb, his father’s legacy.

Ah, Gaunt! his blood was thine! That bed, that womb,
That metal, that self mould, that fashioned thee
Made him a man;

Some named Richard II as the most incompetent of all monarchs. A narcissistic King, more interested in the trappings of power. To assert his power he wore the crown continually and insisted on abject deference in address from his subjects both in Ireland and at home, perhaps a sign of his insecurity. This was freqeuntly tested.

Wasteful and extravagant, Richard continued to raise taxes, especially the dreaded unpopulsar poll tax, to fund his lavish life style and fight wars in Ireland, thus losing popularity:


The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes,
And quite lost their hearts.
The nobles hath he fined
For ancient quarrels and quite lost their hearts.

He realises the precarious nature of a King’s rule: 2.1,246 - 48


“Lions make leopards tame”.


“Yea but not to change his spots”. I.1.

Enemies can pretend to be friends when it suits them, but then duplicitously turn back to their true selves. Don’t be too trusting.

Richard II banished Bolingbroke to France, and when John of Gaunt dies seizes all his estates to fund his wars. (Historians claim Bolingbroke went on his own volition.)

Seizing wealthy estates was considered a legitimate prerogative of a ruler. Proscriptions were frequent from Roman times. Here, however, Bolingbroke is incensed regarding the loss of patrimony so on his return from France he uses it a valid pretext to stage a coup.

Bolingbroke has charisma and treats ordinary people with respect:

KING RICHARD. has suspicions that Bolingbroke could come back from banishment to the welcoming arms of the peole.

…Observed his courtship to the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well,
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With “Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends”,
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects’ next degree in hope.

Richard ventures off to quell an uprising in Ireland but when he returns he discovers that Bolingbroke has returned, raised a large army of discontents and will usurp the throne as Henry IV.

Richard immediately realises his time has come:

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings—
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Richard warns Northumberland, one of the nobles who helped Bolingbroke (Henry IV) to the throne –

“though ladder where withal the mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne”.

Thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half
It is too little, helping him to all.
And he shall think that thou, which knowst the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne’er so little urged, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
The love of wicked men converts to fear,
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.

His unheeded warning proves right, as once he gains the throne, Henry IV, fears Northumberland resulting in several uprisings.

When Richard realises the game is up he compares himself to the sun god coming down to earth, scorching it.

Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaëthon,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades. (horses)
In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitors’ calls, and do them grace.
In the base court?
3.3 178 - 83

Images, symbols, metaphors #

This is one of the more poetic of Shakespeare’s histories. Richards thinks in images; his preference for words over deeds, poetry over power.

Sun/sky over clouds #

Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of:

Since the more fair and crystal is the sky,
The uglier seem the clouds that in it fly.

After his banishment he is consoled by:

That sun that warms you here shall shine on me,
And those his golden beams to you here lent
Shall point on me and gild my banishment

Bolingbroke describes the defeated King Richard:

See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the east,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident.
III. 3.

Richard sarcastically wishes Bolingbroke well:

God save King Henry, unkinged Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!

Richard losing his identity:

And know not now what name to call myself.
O, that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water-drops!

Richard muses about his lost glory:

Was this the face
That like the sun did make beholders wink? IV. 1

Earth #

Bolingbrok’s challenge to Mowbray:

My body shall make good upon this earth,
Or my divine soul answer it in heaven.

Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s, cries
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth

Richard capriciously calls off the duel - his excuse is:

For that our kingdom’s earth should not be soiled
With that dear blood which it hath fostered;

MOWBRAY appeals to preserve his honour:

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

John of Gaunt (Lancaster) patriotically laments the decline of England under Richard:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,..

YORK advising the Queen that all are forsaking the court to Bolingbroke.

Comfort’s in heaven, and we are on the earth,
Where nothing lives but crosses, cares, and grief.

CAPTAIN fearing all is lost

And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth,
IV. 4

KING RICHARD. returning to England from Ireland:

Needs must I like it well. I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses’ hoofs.
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So weeping-smiling greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favours with my royal hands.
Feed not thy sovereign’s foe, my gentle earth,

KING RICHARD realising his defeat:

No matter where. Of comfort no man speak!
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills.
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings—

KING RICHARD questions the sincerity of Bolingroke’s show of subservience:

Fair cousin, you debase your princely knee
To make the base earth proud with kissing it.

Mirror scene #

(From the Introduction of the Penguin Classics by Paul Edmundson)

Just after Richard II has been deposed he looks into a looking glass, an episode not in any of Shakespeare’s sources. Richard attempts to find out whether losing the Kingship has any noticeable effect on his physical body.

Give me that glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine
And made no deeper wounds? O flatt’ring glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me. Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That like the sun did make beholders wink?
Is this the face which faced so many follies,
That was at last outfaced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face!

[Dashes the glass against the ground.]

For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,
How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face.

It is a supreme episode of gradual self-realiszation and utter self-indulgence. He remains King of his indulgence.

He becomes aware of how brittle were his trappings of majesty. His now absent royal identity is united with the insubstantial illusion he is holding in his hand. He is now able to destroy his portrait by shattering the glass. When the glass shatters, so too do the final vestiges of Richard’s royal persona.

Whether he throws it down in rage or does he or let it fall down indifferently is the directors choice.

The scene is repeated with some variation in Hamlet when he sets up for his mother “a glass where she can see the inmost part of herself” and then proceeds to show her the contrasting images of two kings, Old Hamlet and Claudius. III.4. 20 - 21.

Garden Scene: #

While Richard has been away in Ireland, his wife became concerned about the social unrest and the overthrow of her husband’s throne.

[This is Isabel, Richard’s second wife, the nine year old daughter of the French King.]

Here she and her maids listen into the the Gardeners to hear the latest gossip. It is usually the lower orders who have the most reliable news of the affairs of state.

But stay, here come the gardeners.
Let’s step into the shadow of these trees.
My wretchedness unto a row of pins,
They will talk of state, for everyone doth so
Against a change;

This scene illustrates the view of the common man to matters of high state. We need to cast our own judgement on them.

Shakespeare frequently compares the affairs of state to that of husbandry. Order is very important and good governance depends on controlling weeds and plants that grow wild and out of control. Even good plants need pruning and shearing to demonstrate good maintenance:


Go, bind thou up young dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner
Cut off the heads of too fast-growing sprays
That look too lofty in our commonwealth.
All must be even in our government.
You thus employed, I will go root away
The noisome weeds which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.


Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?


Hold thy peace.
He that hath suffered this disordered spring
Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf.
The weeds which his broad-spreading leaves did shelter,
That seemed in eating him to hold him up,
Are plucked up, root and all, by Bolingbroke—
I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.


What, are they dead?


They are. And Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful King. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself.
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty. Superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live.
Had he done so, himself had home the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

Is this an accurate assessment or does Richard bear the responsibility for his own downfall?

Bolingbroke has Richard II locked up in the Tower of London where he dies of starvation. The brevity of power.