Richard II

Richard II #

From the 19th century and up to World War II, Shakespeare’s histories were seen as a patriotic panorama underscoring the glories of empire and the superiority of England. But subsequent horrors such as Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the misery of the Cold War soured perceptions of the romance of military conquest. Polish critic Jan Kott, with his seminal 1974 book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, ripped away the veil of romantic nostalgia that tradition had draped over the history plays. Rather, he saw them as a demonstration of realpolitik, the grinding and heartless machinations of political systems throughout the ages. Kott’s scepticism appealed to the intellectual theatre directors of the 1960s and 70s such as Peter Brook, Peter Hall and Michael Bogdanov, the latter seeing in Shakespeare’s Prince Hal the archetype of the Machiavellian political animal.

The History plays are much more about Shakespeare’s own times than about medieval England. To call any of his plays “histories” is somewhat misleading because historical events and personages are so heavily fictionalised. To the Elizabethans, history was a mix of myth, legend, folklore, moralising and propaganda. Historical figures and events were drawn on to illustrate moral treatises, patterns of behaviour, warnings of consequences and character archetypes.

Richard, the son of Edward, the Prince of Wales, (The Black Prince who died fighting in France) was ten when his grandfather Edward III died. A regency of uncles ruled until he came of age. It wasn’t Edward’s five sons who squabbled over the hollow crown; it was his grandsons, spurned on by their mothers.

The period of time was one of tumult. Recovering from The Black Death was slow and resolving the resulting Peasant’s Revolt, plus the continued hundred years war with France taxed the budget. Then there were the various factions fighting for influence and power. Irritating issues with John of Gaunt, briefly in charge of his regency surfaced and eventually became rancorous.

The play begins 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.

Some named Richard II as the most incompetent of all monarchs. A narcissistic King, more interested in the trappings of power. He believed in abject deference from his subjects both in Ireland and at home. This was freqeuntly tested.

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

Wasteful and extravagant, Richard raises taxes, 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

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.


“Lions make leopards tame”.


“Yea but not to change his spots”.

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 on his return from France and uses it a valid pretext to stage a coup.

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,

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

Garden Scene: #

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

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;

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.

John Bell #

Shakespeare came under the shadow of the scaffold with his play Richard II, which depicted Richard being deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke and handing over his crown.

This much displeased Queen Elizabeth who was in danger of being deposed by her own cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

The play was at first banned and then allowed to be performed only if the deposition scene was cut, thereby gutting the play.

Elizabeth herself fumed: ‘I am Richard the Second; know ye not that?’