What are the qualities that make someone a good leader? Is it sensitivity to issues, the times, or is it someone who has the ear of the people? Do revolutionaries make good leaders or are they better at dreaming up the insurrection? Is the insurrection worth the damage it will cause as society heals itself? In Richard II, Shakespeare's first dive back into the history genre since completing his first history cycle or minor tetralogy and perhaps since contributing Edward III. The marks the start of a new history cycle that would explore the path of one man Henry Bolingbroke, eventually Henry IV, as he explored what it takes to rule and are the prices to achieve power worth the effort. Ultimately, what makes a good ruler. Can one just be a candidate of the people or do the people know what's good for them. Richard Plantagenet (Richard II) was the rightful heir of the throne at the end of the medieval age that relished the principle of the Divine Right of Kings. No one could challenge him because he was God's appointed messenger in England. However, Richard proved to be disconnected from his nobles, and excessive with the royal treasury and power. Henry Bolingbroke, like other revolutionaries starts out in the system and tries to nudge change from within, however, when that fails, he is driven to desperate measures. Bolingbroke represents as well a new type of king, pragmatic, secular, not driven by the Divine Right, but by necessity and he sees a need to remove an ineffectual king and cure England of a supposed blight.
The play as it appeared in the 1623 First Folio
Bolingbroke appears before the king and accuses Mowbray of stealing funds and killing the Duke of Glouchester. Mowbray defends himself and demands a trial by combat, the king designates a time and place for this duel. John of Gaunt, Henry's father tries to act as a buffer between his son and the king. They feel that he is the driving force behind Mowbray. The two combatants meet to battle but Richard banishes both of them to get rid of two irritants to the throne. Mowbray declares that Henry will be the undoing of Richard. The sick Gaunt pleads for son, but only succeeds in having his banishment reduced. Trouble brews with rebels in Ireland and Richard looks finance an armed response by stealing all of Bolingbroke's lands. Though Gaunt protests, he goes unheeded and dies soon after.
Not the waiting type and while the cat's away, Bolingbroke mounts an invasion force and takes several key castles and allies as several see the turn of the tide and flock to Bolingbroke. Upon his return from Ireland, Richard is dismayed at what has happened in his absence. Twisting between confidence in his divine right and fear of Bolingbroke, Richard is swimming in a sea of indecision. Henry sends him word that he will submit to Richard if his banishment is overturned and ancestral lands restored. Unwillingly, Richard concedes to Bolingbroke's demands but knows that he is a marked man. Richard's queen even sees that their time has ended and soon enough during what is known as the deposition scene, Richard's crown is violently seized and he is imprisoned. The queen intercepts her husband on the way to his cell and they share a final farewell as both seemed to be resigned to their fate. Richard knowingly and willingly awaits his death. Sir Peter Exton a follower of the new king interprets one of Henry's comments that he wants to see Richard dead and carries out the ex-king's violent execution.
Upon hearing of the impromptu execution, the new Henry IV laments at this unwanted act and sets about atoning for Richard's death. A practice that will follow him for the rest of his life. He remains uncomforted at the news that the last pockets of resistance have been put down. He plans a trip to the holy land as a part of his atonement but its a trip that he will never make.
A copy of the 1597 quarto title page. This was the play's first appearance in print and did not include the infamous deposition scene.
Richard II is based on Raphael Holinshed's volume Chronicles of England, Ireland and Scotland and fellow playwright Samuel Daniel's The Civil Wars between the two Houses of York and Lancaster and shares structural similarities with Romeo and Juliet and A Mid Summer Night's Dream setting the writing sometime in 1595. Its unclear what made Shakespeare decide to delve back into history plays or if he intended this to be the first of new tetralogy, but the tones in the play seem more tragic than the depiction of historical events. In fact the first quarto of the show listed the story as "The Tragedie of King Richard the Second". Perhaps the availability of Daniel's newly published source material provided a good tragic framework. Among all of the other history plays, it is written entirely in verse and no apparent action aside from Richard deposition and death occur in the play.
Whatever the case for its composition, the play proved to be extremely popular in his day but seemed to spark more drama off stage than on. Since it was first written, several comparisons made by those less than happy with the crown had been drawn between Richard II and Queen Elizabeth. Throughout Elizabeth's reign, many Catholics and others less than happy with her highness, wanted to see the art imitate life. The deposition scene was so politically sensitive as it was omitted from any quarto appearing during her reign. In 1601, the Earl of Essex along with his right hand man and Shakespeare's friend, the Earl of Southhampton unsatisfied with the way the Queen and her spy cronies were running the country decided that it was a time for a change. Essex, though once one of Elizabeth's favorite courtiers had fallen from her grace after he was unsuccessful in putting down an Irish rebellion. The expedition being given prominence in Henry V, the descendant play of Richard II. Given her connection the ineffectual Richard, they conspirators hired Shakespeare's group to play Richard II in order to gain public support when they would take over the parliament and imprison the queen. Their attempts failed, Essex was executed, Southhampton jailed and members of Shakespeare's company were brought in for questioning. Augustine Phillips, one of the heads of the company was tortured and questioned by government officials but the company was cleared of any wrong doing. Later that year the queen would remark to the record keeper of the tower on the whole incident that she was Richard II and the play was played some 40 times in the streets of London.
Despite it's rather explosive political beginnings, the play has waned in popularity and is often revived by larger companies or part of a history cycle where related plays are shown over a consecutive days and is most often left out of any collaborations of its more popular later plays, Henry IV, Part 1 & 2 and Henry V.
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Main Play Page Play Text Scene by Scene Synopsis Character Directory Commentary
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