Richard II

Richard II #

b: 1357 - 1400

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.

The four Chronicle plays - Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III not only gave illiterate English audiences a grasp of their own history, but tend to illustrate the banality of succession of monarchs. Edward, the first born son of Edward III, a brilliant leader of armies won many battles against the French but died of dysentery in France, requiring the passing of the Hollow Crown to his 10 year old son, Richard in 1398. The Regency went to his uncles, The Duke of Gloucester, (Woodstock), John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edmund Duke of York.

In 1386 Duke of Gloucester had a number of the king’s friends executed. In 1389 Richard gained the upper hand and 1397 Richard arrested him and two other leading appellants. Committed to the charge of Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham (later Duke of Norfolk), at the English port of Calais, France, Gloucester was murdered, possibly on orders from Richard.


b: 1312, reigned 1327 – 1377 Richard’s Grandfather.

Son of Edward II, he learned from his father, what not to do – be overbearing and authoritarian. Though he was well educated, he preferred the outdoors and felt the ability to lead his people in battle was paramount.

Succeeded to the throne at 15, the power was held by his mother Isabella and Mortimer for almost 3 years until Edward had Mortimer executed and his mother retired to a castle. Considered to be one of the best kings, he reigned for 50 years. His ambition to conquer Scotland and France plunged England into the Hundred Years War, beginning in 1338. The two great victories at Crecy and Poitiers made Edward and his son, the Black Prince, the most renowned warriors in Europe, however the war was very expensive. Calais was taken in 1347 and held until 1558.

It was the introduction of the long bow, replacing the more clumsy cross bow that gave the English an advantage over larger armies of the French. His claims to territories in France led to the most significant battles of the 100 years war. He also was the first to introduce the canon in western Europe.

Edward III introduced the Order of the Garter as part of Royal honours.

The outbreak of bubonic plague, the ‘Black Death’ in 1348-1351 killed half the population of England. The Bourbonic Plague was spread by fleas from rats originating from the Genoese merchants. England fared better because of quick mass graves, quantines, and emphasis on sanitation.

To combat the labor shortages he introduced the Statutes of Labourers in 1351 to regulate the wages to pre-pandemic levels. When social unrest developed he gave more power to the Justices of the Peace in each county avoiding the Peasant’s Revolt until 1381.

In 1351 he also introduced gold and silver coins as legal tender.

Under his rule, the English language, a hybrid of Norman and Saxon emerged. Through the Statute of Pleading, English became the official language of the law courts and of Parliament in 1363. Chaucer began as a page boy in the court of the third son of Edward III, John of Gaunt. Later he became a personal attendant of the King as his “beloved valet”, before being promoted to the position of esquire where his duties included entertaining the court. Chaucer became a diplomat and made several trips to the continent, especially Italy.

Edward III had seven sons ( 5 legit) which meant his heirs would fight the War of the Roses to claim the right to rule. It wasn’t his seven sons who would fight over the heavy crown, it was his grandsons.

This is his family tree:

Any assessment of these King’s reigns must avoid imposing our values. All were born and lived in times of warfare. The moral concerns of later generations make little sense.

RICHARD II - reigned 1377 – deposed 1399 (32 years old)

The son of the Black Prince, Richard was extravagant, unjust and faithless. In 1381 came the Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler. The rebellion was put down with great severity. The sudden death of his first wife Anne of Bohemia completely unbalanced Richard and his extravagance, acts of revenge and tyranny turned his subjects against him.

Richard II is the only play written entirely in verse. Richard formed the belief that he was divinely ordained, unimpeachable and personably God’s reflection on earth. He was the first to demand to be always addressed as his Majesty. He loves giving eloquent speechs as a sole actor with himself as the audience.

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.

When John of Gaunt died, Richard, needing money, seized all his lands and wealth together with Bolingbroke’s inheritance.

In 1399, Bolingbroke, Henry of Lancaster returned from exile to find his patrimony gone and with other aggrieved nobles, deposed Richard, becoming annointed King Henry IV. Richard was murdered, probably by starvation, in Pontefract Castle in 1400.

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.

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 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.

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.

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


“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 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.

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.

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.

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

Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex #

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex bcame a member of Queen Elizabeth’s Court. His charm helped play the courtier’s role of currying favour with the Queen through flattery and flirtation, despite being 34 years her junior. Elizabeth indulged him and put him in charge of a number of important military operations. Essex was tall, handsome and hungry for martial success. He was also arrogant, ambitious and temperamental.

In April 1599 Essex was sent to Ireland as Lieutenant and Governor General, with an army of 17,000 men and explicit instructions to crush the Earl of Tyrone’s rebellion and bring Ireland under control. Instead of following orders, Essex had a secret meeting with Tyrone, made a truce in Elizabeth’s name and abandoned his post to return to London and explain his decision to the Queen. Elizabeth was furious and had him put under house arrest while an inquiry into his behaviour was held. He was found guilty of disobedience and dereliction of duty, stripped of most of his positions, and banished from court as punishment. In August 1600 Essex was released and determined to regain his position as favourite and councillor. He wrote Elizabeth many pleading and outraged letters.

A bid for power: the Earl of Essex’s rebellion

In September 1600, the Queen refused to renew the lease and patent on Essex’s farm (provitable control) of wines. Essex was livid and decided to make a bid for power. He and his supporters, mostly disaffected nobles and soldiers, planned to capture the Queen, rid the Council of the ‘caterpillars of the Commonwealth’ and proclaim James VI her successor.

In 8 February 1601 they marched into the City where they thought they would be joined by legions of delighted Londoners. The anticipated support did not materialise and the rebellion collapsed within the day. Essex and some of his co-conspirators were executed for treason on 25 February 1601. Elizabeth was shocked and devastated by his betrayal.

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.

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

At the turn of the 17th century, the play could certainly be seen as provocative, if not politically subversive and even treasonous.

It is certainly true that one of his plays, ‘Richard II’, played a part in the Essex rebellion of 1601.

On Saturday 7th February 1601, Shakespeare’s company was paid ten pounds to perform the play ‘Richard II’ at the Globe Theatre.

The play tells the story of the last two years of Richard II’s reign and how he was deposed by Henry IV, imprisoned and murdered. Shakespeare wrote (co-wrote?) and performed ‘Richard II’ around 1595 but the first editions of the play were printed without an important scene: the Parliament scene or ‘abdication episode’ which shows Richard II resigning his throne. Historically correct, at the time it was considered politically unwise to include the scene because of parallels between the ageing queen and the former king. King Richard had relied heavily on politically powerful favourites, as did Elizabeth; her advisors included Lord Burleigh and his son, Robert Cecil. Also, neither monarch had produced an heir to ensure the succession.

It is very likely that Elizabeth was aware of the political parallels between herself and Richard II, and of the potential ramifications.

Indeed, the request to perform the play on that date was made by supporters of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who planned to mount a rebellion the very next day and seize the throne. His supporters paid Shakespeare’s company forty shillings above the normal rate to perform the play, hoping it would convince the public of the righteousness of their cause and bring events ‘from the stage to the state’.

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

Source: Ellen Castelow, Historic UK