“The subject of Richard II is the reign and deposition of an English king. It is also the beauty of the English language considered as an instrument upon which music can be made.”

An Introduction to Richard II

By Dennis Abrams


We’ve read his lyrical tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.  We’ve read his lyrical comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Now, it’s time to read Shakespeare’s lyrical history (is such a thing possible?  With Shakespeare, all things are possible!), Richard II.

For this, his fifth foray into English history, Shakespeare turned to the origins of the feud whose consequences played out in the three parts of the early Henry Vis (remember those!):  the deposition of Richard II by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke in 1399.  It was that event that ignited that slow-burning conflict, the Wars of the Roses, that destabilized British politics for the next ninety or so years and fragmented England’s ruling class.  In Richard II, these fissures lie mostly beneath the surface, although the play’s central quandary – how can a nation be ruled by a rightful but weak monarch – must have thoroughly engaged and intrigued Elizabethan audience, well aware that their own Queen (sometimes compared to Richard) faced both criticism and rebellion in her last years of power.

The play is, uniquely experimental among Shakespeare’s histories:  it contains not a single of word of prose, and in its rich verbal texture it very closely resembles the glories of baroque comedies such as Love’s Labour’s Lost.  At the center of this close to operatic drama stands King Richard himself – whose uncanny skill with words is matched by his limitations as a ruler (I will make no comparisons between Richard and any contemporary rulers that might come to mind), a polar opposite to his efficient but chilly (one could say business-like:  again, no comparisons please) replacement.  Obsessed with the performance of his own life, Richard – and his downfall, make for completely compelling theater.

In “real life,” the reign of Richard II was marred by popular revolt and bitter aristocratic feuding, and he was ejected from the throne not just once but twice.  To subsequent generations, his flaws as a leader attracted widespread condemnation, and by the nineteenth century his rule had become a byword for incompetence.  The Elizabethans appear to have felt the same way:  no fewer than three plays concerning the king (not including Shakespeare’s) appeared on the London stage during the dramatist’s career, and all were harsh and unforgiving – dwelling on Richard’s culpability for the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and satirizing his well-known weakness for flatterers.

But behind this continued fascination with a long-dead monarch was the example of his very much alive (though somewhat elderly) successor, Elizabeth I, who was herself accused of being misled by her court favourites, and about the matter of whose succession – given her childlessness – there was continued anxiety throughout the 1590s.  Elizabeth herself recognized the resemblance all too well, remarking acidly to the antiquarian William Lambarde a few years before her death in 1603, “I am Richard, know ye not that,” and observing that a “tragedy” of the king had been “played forty times in open streets and houses.”

Whether or not Shakespeare’s play was the ‘tragedy’ to which Elizabeth alluded we will never know.  But elsewhere the part it took in her life seems more definite.  On the eve of his rebellion against the Queen in 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex paid the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to revive a play about “the deposing and killing of Richard II,” possibly if not probably Shakespeare’s.  Though the performance at the Globe went ahead as arranged on February 7, Essex’s attempted coup fell apart the following day and he was captured, then beheaded, before the end of the month.


From Harold Goddard:

“The character of Richard II is the most minute and extended, and in many ways the most subtle piece of psychological analysis that Shakespeare had made up to this time.  It is a study in fantasy.  Over and over, critics have spoken of Richard’s imagination.  But is not imagination that he posses; it is only the raw material of imagination.  All young men with a poetical gift pass into a stage when they are hypnotized by words.  They have not yet grasped the relation between verbal symbols and life.  Many never pass out of that stage.  Shakespeare’s two long poems, and passages in his other early works, show the affluence of his fancy.  He was threatened by its very abundance.  In a sense Shakespeare may be said to have faced this danger in Richard II and subdued it.  His portrayal may well have meant a kind of catharsis for the poet.  Many readers detect a kinship between Richard and his creator, as they do between Richard and Hamlet.  His love of words and his gift of figurative expression are undoubtedly a main source of this impression.  Before Richard II, Shakespeare himself occasionally confused imagination with ‘imagination.’  After Richard II, he seldom or ever did.”


From Mark Van Doren:

“The Histories of Shakespeare that deal with later reigns than Richard II’s will be eloquent with sympathy for the king whom Bolingbroke deposed.  Hotspur will rage whenever he remembers ‘that sweet lovely rose,’ in whom the canker of another man’s ambition grew.  When Bolinbroke is dying as Henry IV he will confess to his son

By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways

I met this crown.

And the son as Henry V will do all he can, through prayers, tears, charity, and the building of chantries, to atone for his father’s fault.  The Bishop of Carlisle, rising in Richard II itself to prophesy what things should follow the triumph of Bolingbroke, speaks with the accent usually reserved by Shakespeare for righteous men:

Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny

Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d

The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.

There can be no question as to Shakespeare’s affection for the hero of his new historical play.

But he has not made a great man out of him.  He has made a poet, a great minor poet.  The author of Richard II is perhaps more interested in poetry than he will ever be again.  He is still learning to write at a fabulous rate, he is still making the most remarkable discoveries of powers within his pen which he could not have guessed were there before, let alone measured.  And the particular power he is now discovering is one that makes him conscious of himself as a poet.  It is the power to writ the English language musically – with a continuous melody and with unfailing reserves of harmony.  His king will be similarly self-conscious; that will explain the sympathy between the author and his creation, as well as provide the author an opportunity to criticize his own excesses in an extension of himself.  For Richard will not become a great poet.  Merely ‘musical’ poets seldom do.  And Shakespeare will understand the limitations of the poetry with which he endows his hero.  At the same time he will be as much in love with it as he dares.  Nor does any reader of Shakespeare, coming upon this play in the order of its composition, fail to fall in love with the music of its poetry.  It is the work of an awakening genius who has fallen in love with the language he writes; who realizes the full possibilities of its idiom and scale; and who lets himself go.  The subject of Richard II is the reign and deposition of an English king.  It is also the beauty of the English language considered as an instrument upon which music can be made.”


From Harold Bloom:

“This lyrical history makes a triad with Romeo and Juliet, a lyrical tragedy, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the most lyrical of all comedies.  Though the least popular of the three, Richard II is uneven but superb, and it is the best of all Shakespeare’s histories, except for the Falstaffiad, the two parts of Henry IV.  Scholars call the tetraology of Richard II, the Henry IV plays, and Henry V the Henriad, but at the end of Richard II, Prince Hal is merely lamented as a wastrel by his father, the usurper Bolinbroke, and in the two parts of Henry IV is secondary to the titanic Falstaff.  Only Henry V is the Henriad, because there the living Falstaff is kept off stage, though the play’s most poignant speech is Mistress Quickly’s account of the great wit’s death.  Richard II also lacks Falstaff, robbing the drama of Shakespeare’s greatest strength, comic invention of the human.  Always experimenting, Shakespeare composed Richard II as an extended metaphysical lyric, which out to be impossible for a history play, but for Shakespeare everything is possible.

Richard II is a bad king an interesting metaphysical poet; his two roles are antithetical, so that his kingship diminishes even as his poetry improves.  At the close, he is a dead king, first forced to abdicate and then murdered, but what stays in our ears is his metaphysical mock lyricism.  A foolish and unfit king, victimized as much by his own psyche and its extraordinary language as he is by Bolingbroke, Richard wins not so much our sympathy as our reluctant aesthetic admiration for the dying fall of his cognitive music.  He is totally incompetent as a politician, and totally a master of metaphor.  If Richard II is inadequate as tragedy (Dr. Johnson’s judgment), that is because it studies the decline and fall of a remarkable poet, who happens also to be an inadequate human being, and a hopeless king.  It is better to think of Richard II as a chronicle rather than tragedy, and of Richard himself neither as hero or villain but as victim, primarily of his own self-indulgence, yet also of the power of his imagination.

There is no prose whatsoever in Richard II, partly because there is no Falstaff to speak it.  Though there are remarkable orations assigned to Gaunt and several others, Shakespeare centers almost entirely upon Richard.  Bolingbroke, his usurper, is granted scarcely any inwardness, and marches inexorably through politics to power, without ever greatly arousing our interest. I return here to my very qualified endorsement of Graham Bradshaw’s insistence that Shakespearean character depends upon internal connections and contrasts within particular plays, the qualification being that Shakespearean representation, at its strongest, is able to break these connections and dim all contrasts.  Richard is not that strong a representation, and therefore comes within what we might call Bradshaw’s Law:  Bolingbroke is the necessary contrast without whom Richard would not be Richard, lyrical self-destroyer.

Richard himself will make that point several times, by way of powerful metaphors:  the transcendental horizon beyond which Bradshaw’s Law sill not altogether work does not even exist in Richard II, which unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet contains no transcendent element akin to Bottom’s dream or Juliet’s bounty.  Richard’s imagination is trapped solipistically in the prison of his petulant self, even when as anointed king he invokes the sacredness of the anointing.  Shakespeare, despite the argument of much scholarship, does not commit his art to any profound acknowledgment of kingship as a transcendence.  The notion of the King’s Two Bodies, one natural, the other virtually sacramental, is taken up by Richard more than once in the play, but Richard’s testimony is at the least equivocal.  Even the celebrations of kingship in Henry V and Henry VIII have their subtle ironies.  One can never establish Shakespeare in a particular stance, whether political, religious, or philosophical.  Something in the plays always prophesies Nietzsche’s motive for metaphor:  the desire to be different, the desire to be elsewhere.

An oddity of Richard II, for readers and playgoers now, is the extraordinary formalism of much of the play.  Perhaps because its one action is deferred abdication, with the aftermath of the king’s murder, Richard II is the most ceremonial of Shakespeare’s plays before his coda in Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.  Sometimes the formalism works wonderfully, as in the actual abdication scene, but in other instances we are likely to be baffled.  Here are Richard and his queen bidding a final farewell to each other:


And must we be divided?  must we part?


Ay, hand from hand, my love, and heart from heart.


Banish us  both, and send the king with me.


There were some love, but little policy.


Then wither he goes, thither let me go.


So two, together weeping, make one woe.

Weep thou for me in France, I for thee here;

Better far off than, near, be ne’er the near.

Go count thy way with signs; I mine with groans.


So longest way shall have the longest moans.


Twice for one step I’ll groan, the way being short,

And piece the way out with a heavy heart.

Come, come, in wooing sorrow let’s be brief,

Since, wedding it, there is such length in grief:

One kiss shall stop our mouths, and dumbly part;

Thus give I mine, and thus take I thy heart.


Give me mine own again; ‘twere no good part

To take on me to keep and kill they heart.

So, now I have mine own again, be gone,

That I may strive to kill it with a groan.


We make woe wanton with this fond delay.

Once more, adieu; the rest let sorrow say.


That has a formal grace, and these ceremonial phrases can be read as a language of reserve and high dignity that the royal couple share.  There is also a consistency of decorum that Shakespeare maintains throughout, and exploits by significant breakthroughs of tone whenever necessary, at times with ironical effect.  In contrast to Romeo and Juliet, where the effect can be overwhelming, Richard II seeks to distance us from pathos as far as possible.  We wonder at Richard, we admire his language, but we never suffer with him, even when he is deposed and subsequently murdered.  Of all the histories, this is the most controlled and stylized.  It is a radically experimental play, questing for the limits of a metaphysical lyricism, and brilliantly successful if we accept its rather stringent terms.”

And finally, from Marjorie Garber:

“When Shakespeare’s fellow players John Heminge and Henry Condell collected his plays for the first printed collection of his work after his death, they divided the plays in what is known as the First Folio into three genres:  The proper title of the First Folio of 1623 is Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, and under the category of ‘histories’ there appeared, in the order of the kings’ reigns (not the order of Shakespearean composition), all the plays directly concerned with English history, from The Life and Death of King John to The Life of King Henry the Eight.  Published in quarto form during Shakespeare’s lifetime as The Tragdie of Richard II, the play we simply call Richard II became in the First Folio The Life & Death of Richard the Second.

Before Shakespeare’s time there were few history plays as such written in England – English history was told in verse and prose chronicles, and the ‘history’ with which early English drama was principally concerned was the Bible.  But an explosion of history plays appeared on the scene in Elizabethan England, some two hundred of them written between the date of the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and the beginning of the new century.  These dates may well be significant, because they coincide with a time when England was highly self-conscious and aware of itself as a political power, proud of its absolute monarch, Queen Elizabeth – and worried about the problem of succession – since the Queen had no children – and that of the ever-present possibility of civil war and usurpation.  The Wars of the Roses, from which the Tudor dynasty had emerged, were not so far in the past, and those wars themselves, written about and staged by Shakespeare in his first tetraology (Henry VI, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and Richard III, had all looked back to Richard II’s reign as the beginning of the end of a certain idea of English unity.

A central fact about history plays is that they can be seen to take place in several time periods at once:  the time of the events depicted on the stage, the time of the play’s writing and first performance, and, especially for long-lived plays like those of Shakespeare, the time in which a modern company performs the play for a modern audience.  In this sense a history play is perpetually ‘timely’; — or, as we like to say, rather misleadingly, it is ‘timeless.’  It can readily be juxtaposed to the current events of any time and will find new and startling relevance.  Shakespeare’s tragedies – Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello – are often staged today to coincide with contemporary political figures and debates.  For the early modern period, the history plays carried, if possible, even more menacing resonance and power.  Thus, to cite a famous example, when in 1601 Queen Elizabeth’s former favorite, Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, decided to foment a rebellion against her and to claim the crown for himself, he paid Shakespeare’s company to revive Richard II, a play popular several years earlier, in order to put the populace in the mood for a ‘legitimate’ usurpation.  Some reports say that Queen Elizabeth, learning of this, observed, ‘I am Richard the Second, know y e not?’  the Essex rebellion failed, and Essex was beheaded for treason.  Elizabeth herself was particularly attuned to this propensity for history to repeat itself, on and off the stage.  Her own complicity in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587 was masked by a show of political indifference, like that of Bolingbroke toward Richard in this play.  Elizabeth, like Bolingbroke, could tell herself she was ‘not responsible’ for the death of her rival, however convenient that death – accomplished by others – might be for the surviving and reigning monarch.

Throughout the history plays, and pointedly in Richard II, there appear figures whose dramatic business it is to predict, to see into the future.  If we consider more recent maxims about history, like philosopher George Santayana’s ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ or the Holocaust survivor’s mindful vow ‘Never again,’ we can have some idea of the impact of these English history plays on the Elizabethan audience.  History was often written and taught comparatively.  Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, new translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579, juxtaposed a Greek hero to a Roman (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero; Alexander and Caesar) so as to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of each.  The use of the history play to evaluate and critique the current day followed naturally upon this, and often the images of ‘then’ were (and are) uncannily and instructively similar to ‘now.’  For early modern England there was also, as we have noted with respect to medieval and Tudor drama, yet another level of time, for these plays engaged not only ethical and political but also moral and religious themes.  There is often, as palpably in Richard II, a backdrop of sacred time, biblical time, the Edenic pattern of disobedience and fall, and the promise and expectation of redemption.  When in Henry IV Part 1 Bolingbroke’s famously ‘wild’ son, Prince Hall, speaks in soliloquy of ‘[r]redeeming time when men least think I will,’ he is, and Shakespeare is, invoking a tacit pattern of Christian salvation, together with the popular story of the prodigal son.  In Richard II the Edenic note – already describing England as a paradise lost – is struck, as we will see, by the elderly and dying John of Gaunt.”


Our next reading:  Richard II, Act One

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to “The subject of Richard II is the reign and deposition of an English king. It is also the beauty of the English language considered as an instrument upon which music can be made.”

  1. Mahood says:

    Sorry if I’m missing an obvious point but what exactly does Harold Goddard mean when he says “Before Richard II, Shakespeare himself occasionally confused imagination with ‘imagination’. After Richard II, he seldom or ever did” ?

    Does he mean that imagination, for imagination’s sake, is not enough: i.e. that there has to be a better balance between the imagination and the real?

    • Mahood: I think he’s referring back to his previous lines, “Over and over, critics have spoken of Richard’s imagination. But it is not imagination that he possesses, it is only the raw material of imagination.” Hence, I think, imagination vs. “imagination,” the raw material OF imagination.” Does that make sense?


      • Mahood says:

        Yes it does make sense: in fact, that’s what I’d originally thought, but then tried to persuade myself otherwise!

  2. demonstrate how poetic language is used to deal with the problematic of power in Richard II.

  3. Pingback: An Interesting Comparisson… | Alley and Shakespeare

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s