Commentary

Shakespeare wrote Richard II entirely in verse.  The measured cadences of iambi c pentameter lend a musical grandeur to the plays most didactic and explanatory passages, and the medium of verse is natural to its highly charged language.  In this play emotions are expressed by means of heightened rhetoric.  For instance, the parting of Richard and the Queen in 5.1 sparks an exchange of mechanical couplets that may seem emotionally sterile.  But taken over the entire work, such language impels respect, for it is boldly apparent that the characters are in the grip of something higher and more important than their own personalities. The total dominance of poetry lends the play a pointedly aesthetic tone, in striking contrast to its ostensible subject matter, a military coup. The play depicts no battles; in fact, there is little action of any kind. A trial by combat is scheduled but does not take place; an army is assembled but does not fight. York vows to resist Bolingbroke but lacks the strength to do so, and Richard crumbles immediately. Action is systematically thwarted until Richard's murder in Act 5. Language, in the form of poetry, is paramount. The disparity between political history and poetic tone points to the existence of a second level of meaning: this play is about more than the deeds of historical figures. Richard II basically deals with the disturbing nature of historical change rather than the events themselves. 

In addition, Richard II is a moving human document. Richard's personality is the most prominent feature of the play, and, in one of his most brilliant portraits, Shakespeare shows us a gallant but failing human effort to come to terms with change. Richard marks a significant stage in the development of the playwright's art, for he is the first of Shakespeare's tragic heroes whose personal flaws help to bring about his own downfall. His own inadequacies as king lead inexorably to his deposition. However, Richard's greater significance lies in his response to his fate. He does not resist his destiny but accepts it. In 5.5, stirred by the beauty of music and by the love of the Groom who visits him, the imprisoned Richard comes to terms with his humanity and the suffering that goes with it. With this acceptance, Richard—and we who respond to him—transcend the universal fate and thus triumph over death. 

Furthermore, Richard is persistently contrasted with the world around him. At the most superficial level, the play depicts the fall of one king and the rise of another, and this automatically invites comparison between the two rulers. Richard's poetic diction and his assertion of transcendent values stand in marked contrast with the prosaic speech and practical concerns of Bolingbroke and York, and even of the Queen, who exhorts him to fight. The play presents a bold juxtaposition of utilitarian and artistic temperaments. 

Yet the play also involves a comparison of worlds. Richard's sensibility, his poetic utterances, and his self-conscious awareness of his royal status are grounded in a world of ceremonious spectacle. The gorgeous tournament of 1.1 and Richard's brilliant rhetoric on the divine right of kings, as in 3.2.36-62, have a heavy grandeur that is reinforced by such formal speeches as the conventionally high-flown grief of the Queen in 3.4 and the elaborate metaphor constructed by the Gardener in the same scene. Richard is a medieval king, fully conscious of his divine appointment to rule; his personal weaknesses emphasize the pathos of being the last such ruler in history. Bolingbroke represents a new world, that of the Renaissance. He is a Machiavellian, ready to assume any posture required by the needs of the moment. This brings him political success, but it also makes him an unknowable personality, a symbol of faceless ambition. By contrast, Richard's emotional self-exposure is much more humanly sympathetic. The rising and falling monarchs are most strikingly opposed in 4.1, in which the mere presence of the nearly silent Bolingbroke has as powerful an effect as Richard's polemics. Each regal figure attempts to impose his own reality on the scene: Richard plays the tragically overthrown representative of God, while Bolingbroke maintains the importance of legal rights and social order. 

It is profoundly ironic that the anointed ruler has subverted public order, while the blasphemous rebel upholds legality. Richard, though legitimate, has failed to lead his nation and moreover has exploited the kingdom shamelessly, while the usurper Bolingbroke acts in the name of legal redress and proves to be a strong leader who brings England into a new era. Underlying this paradox is a question that was posed by Shakespeare's portrayal of King Henry VI and that was to be answered by that of Henry V: can the spiritual qualities that seem to offer the greatest human rewards coexist with the practical, manipulative skills needed to govern a society? In Richard II a potentially successful government has been created, but only at the cost of eroding the spiritual underpinnings of society. The civil disorders to come are the direct result, as Carlisle's predictions in 4.1.136-147 and'322-323 remind us. 

Both principal figures of Richard II achieve their potential yet remain ungratified: Richard's spiritual depths open upon an abyss, while Bolingbroke's political success is dampened by the need for suppression, beginning with Richard's murder This situation reflects a contradiction at the heart of the Elizabethan conception of power: a monarch was still considered to be ordained by God, as had been true in medieval times, but a newer notion dictated that he or she was expressly sent to serve the people. This concept, which was part of early modern Europe's emergence from feudalism, was related to political developments—in England, it was part of the Tudor dynasty's justification of Henry VII's conquest (enacted in Richard III): the deposed king had failed to serve the people, and the new king had been sent by God to do so. Thus a ruler should not be deposed, but, if he were, the usurper should not be replaced either. In this conundrum rested the legitimacy of the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the established politics of Shakespeare's own day. In Richard II it is demonstrated in the ultimate inadequacy of both the usurped king and the successful rebel. 

Possible solutions to this puzzling irony are offered by Shakespeare, but only as hints concerning the play's sequels. Richard II was consciously written as the first in a series of plays, and it is not intended to come to a conclusion. Bolingbroke, soon to be King Henry IV, becomes more magnanimous as the play closes, pardoning Carlisle and Aumerle and spurning Exton. He turns to religion as well. Thus an improvement in the character of the usurper is at least tentatively proposed. However, Bolingbroke's essential cynicism in this play makes such a solution difficult to believe. More promising is the introduction of a character who does not actually appear, Bolingbroke's son, Prince Hal. His bold ridicule of his father's success, as reported by Percy in 5.3.16-19, may seem immature and unproductive, but it is undeniably fresh and youthful; Hal, at least, is entirely outside the coils of politics. His time will come (as the audience knows)—as Henry V, he will be a successful king. Thus history generates its own solution to history's dilemma: whatever may befall a king or a world, youth is always preparing new history. 

Finally, too, the invocation of the future suggests the larger framework of Richard H and of all the History Plays. Richard II introduces the grand theme of the entire cycle: the passage of England from prosperity lost through lack of respect for a divinely ordained order, to civil disruption and war, to a resumption of prosperity under the Tudors. 

As was his custom, Shakespeare took some liberties with the history his play chronicles, tightening the pace where it is dramatically desirable—particularly in 2.1 and 4.1, where in each case the happenings of months are compressed into a single day—but the treatment of historical events is much more straightforward than is the case in the earlier histories. Bolingbroke is probably a more deliberate rebel than the playwright's sources demand, and Richard is certainly a more ineffective king, but these distortions serve an aesthetic purpose, illuminating greater issues. Shakespeare always subordinates historical details to a playwright's values, and Richard II is, above all, a dramatic presentation of human responses to inexorable change.

 

To view other Richard II sections:

Main Play Page      Play Text     Scene by Scene Synopsis     Character Directory     Commentary  

 

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All's Well the Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It Cardenio Comedy of Errors Coriolanus
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The Merry Wives of Windsor A Mid Summer Night's Dream  Much Ado About Nothing Othello Pericles Richard II
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