stage?OnLiterature in History 2: Richard II
Richard II is a play of sensibility, which is unique in Elizabethan
literature for two reasons; firstly it looked to the 14th century for
inspiration and secondly it emphasised the importance of emotions.This
switch in narrative focus makes Richard II a play, which is concerned with
the exploration of personality and intrigue, as opposedtomerely
dramatically relating historical action. Shakespeare was writing in the
Elizabethan age; which preceded the demotion of the monarchy to status of
figureheads1. For this reason then England’s entire political system was
autocratic and revolved around the present King or Queen, they had absolute
power2. For this reason an evaluation of monarchy, was an evaluation of
politics. Hereditary and divine rights endorsed their power. Shakespeare
employs the tragedy of King Richard II to offer us a political critique of
his contemporary sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I. He raises the question of
whether hereditary title and supposed divinity of office are legitimate
foundations for a just political system. In this way Richard II not only
puts politics on stage, but on trial.
The importance of lineage is prevalent throughout the text; in the
character index each individual is defined in relation to their ancestral
extraction 3. This can be seen clearly as the characters interact
Mowbray:”Setting aside his high blood’s royalty
/I do defy him, and spit at him.” (I.I.58-60).
As I have said above Richard II is being employed in this play to offer us
a critique of the legitimacy of hereditaryrule,thecontroversy
surrounding his own coronation makes him the perfect candidatefor
dramatisation. He became King of England at the age of eleven, in
accordance with the legal doctrine of primogeniture.4This meant that
his older and wiser uncles had to step aside to let a young boy rule. The
tension created by this genealogical chance happening can be seen, along
with many other instances, in the conversation between John of Gaunt, one
of Richard’s discontented uncles, and the Duke of York.Despite Richard’s
lineage and ‘divinity’ he is criticised for his youthful impatience and
economic exploitation of the lords, both are factors that suggest bad
Gaunt:”(Kings are) Feared by their breed, and famous by their
“(To Richard) Landlord of England are you now, not King”.
York: “The king is come, deal mildly with his youth.
Young hot colts being raged do rage the more”. (II.I.69-70).
The importance of Gaunt’s words are heightened by the fact that they are
his last; it was a commonly held view amongst the Elizabethan’s that a
dying mans words were prognostic6.By having a dying man criticise
Richard’s inherited reign, Shakespeare is reinforcing the attack.It is
clear that hereditary rule has led to jealousy and inappropriate government
from the outset. This jealousy has a violent reciprocal effect and it
establishes the stimulus for the first action of the play; when Henry
Bolingbroke accuses Thomas Mowbray of murdering Richard’s uncle, The Duke
Bolingbroke:”Further I say, and further will maintain,
That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death”. (I.I.98-100)
The genealogical significance of this murder is rooted in the fact that
Gloucester was a potential threat to Richard’s power, because he too was
undone by Richard’s coronation. York alludes to the fact that Richard
himself had ordered the execution.The truth of this is still under
York:”The king (would) cut off my head with my brother’s”
Despite, or maybe because of, his familiar relation to Mowbray and
Bolingbroke Richard asks them to swear on the King’s sword not to rebel
against him and his decision to banish them both.
Richard:”Return again and take an oath with thee/
(Never) To plot, contrive, or complot any ill” (I.III.178&189).
For our purposes this act signifies two important things; firstly that
Richard’s political power is in doubt, otherwise his decree would have been
enough, and secondly that Richard is aware of it. Not only are Richard’s
ability as a ruler and authenticity being questioned in the play, so is the
second constituent of his kingship, his Divinity.
The second part of my essay is concerned with tracing the progression
of Richard’s divinity from Act 1 to 5. In Act I we can explore aspects of
Richard’s divinity through an examination of action and language.Richard
acts as god’s representative on earth, or in John of Gaunts words “God’s
Substitute”.In the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray it is clear from
the outset that individual talents would have little or no part to play in
the outcome, the battle had transcended mortal restrictions and taken on a
more metaphysical importance. It became a chivalric fight in which truth
and justice will decide the winner.The interaction of Richard in the
fight is similar to that of God in the biblical tale Bolingbroke makes an
allusion to in his attack on Mowbray.
Bolingbroke:”(Gloucesters) blood, like sacrificing Abel’s cries”.
Only Richard can stop or decide this battle on earth, in the same way only
God can decide good or evil in heaven. In Cain and Abel’s instance the
punishment was banishment from his land, in Mowbray and Bolingbrokes case,
God: “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth”(Genesis
Richard:”We banish you from our territories (to) tread the stranger
Bolingbroke’s response is a very relevant line from the lord’s prayer:
Bolingbroke “Your will be done (On Earth as it is in Heaven)” (I.III.144).
The language employed by Richard and those who address him also reinforces
his divinity. Bolingbroke sums up the power of Richard’s language perfectly
in the phrase “Such is the breath of kings”.
Richard, as do all monarchs, refers to himself in the plural8.The
reason for this is that the King was said to be composed of two halves, the
body natural and the body politic; coronation being the act of unification.
The body natural is human and fallible, the body politic divine and
infallible. It would appear then at this stage Richard’s body natural is
being seriously criticised by most parties, but as yet his body politic is
In-keeping with the Romantic tradition, Act III scene two, explores
Richard’s inner emotions. Having been overthrown by Bolingbroke and his
supporters, Richard must now concede his un-kingly fallibility.
Richard:”I live with bread, like you feel want
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king.” (III.II.167).
As was the case between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, Richard’s fate lays in the
hands of god.Having lost, Richard beginstoquestionhisown
spirituality, and in doing so question his own political legitimacy.
Despite this self doubt; in the following scene Richard relies on the
divinity of his political office to substantiate his worth.Having been
proven to be administratively incompetent, he attempts to prove himself
worthy by virtue of the fact that his position is divinely ordained.
Richard:”(If I am not your king) show us the hand of god/
For well we know no hand of blood and bone
Can grip the handle of our sceptre”. (III.III.78-80)
Act Five scenes five and six, provide us with a huge insight into the state
of politics once Richard has been forced to abdicate.As I have said
before the king, whoever it may be at the time, should refer to himself in
the plural. It is important, then, to note that Richard ceases to do so.
This can be interpreted as an acknowledgement by Richard that his political
kingship is not sacredly ordained and for this reason that he should have
been more prudent and less extravagant. However, in the following scene we
see that neither does King Henry Bolingbroke also refrains form using the
Bolingbroke:”High sparks of honour in thee have I seen/
Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer.” (V.VI.29&39-40).
No form of political consensus is reached; Richard forsakes the divinity of
kingship whilst Bolingbroke maintains his respect for it by not employing
the royal ‘we’.
The political complexity of Richard II leads to no consensus; and in
this way it offers us more of a critique than a criticism of monarchical
politics9. I have suggested that Richard II is being subtly employed to
comment on Elizabeth I.The choice of Richard II is based on the
similarities between the two monarchs. Due to the Queen’s celibacy, around
which a cult was formed, there was a debate raging in Shakespeare’s time
about who was to succeed her; as was the case with Richard.The
detrimental effect of placing importance in sycophantic, and duplicitous
courtiers was also an issue that Elizabeth was, or rather should have been,
concerned about. Elizabeth was aware of the potential of the play to
incite rebellion, and so the deposition scene was removed from the
production, whether or not she was conscious of Shakespeare’s intent is
another matter.Richard II seeks to dramatise political history by
enlightening the audience, and potentially the Queen herself, as to the
flaws of an autocratic monarchy. This notion is encapsulated by Richard’s
ominously moralistic realisation: “I wasted time, now time doth waste me”.
Word Count: 1,650.
Figgis, John Neville. The Divine Right of Kings, Harper and Row, Ed. John
Neville, 3rd Edition, 1965, New York.
Keeble, N.H.Shakespeare’s Richard II, York Press, Ed. Jeffares, A.,
13th Edition, 1997, Singapore.
Shakespeare, William. Richard II, Penguin Press, Ed. Stanley Wells, 2nd
Edition, 1997, London.
Walters, Scott. Richard II, The Underlying Issues, Ed. Scott Walters, 1st
Edition, 1998, San Francisco.
1 The establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s parliament in 1648 led to the
execution of King Charles; and from then on monarchical political power
2 An example of this power would be when Queen Elizabeth had Mary ‘Queen
of Scots’ executed for insinuating that Elizabeth was a bastard daughter.
3 For example “Harry Percy: The earl of Northumberland’s son.
4 Essentially this means that the oldest living son or the immediate male
heir of the King at time of death is the rightful heir. Because Edward the
Black prince, who was Richard’s father, died before he could become King
the duty fell to Richard as his immediate male heir/son.
5 There is an irony here, in that John of Gaunt, as did each of his
brothers, gained power and wealth through inheritance.
6 Gaunt himself begins the speech with the lines “I am a prophet new-
7 Cain kills his brother Abel; God banishes him for it.
8 For example : “Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood” (I.1.119)
9 Adding to the complexity of characterisation; Richard is not portrayed
as outright evil, nor Bolingbroke pure. Empathy is felt for Richard in the
deposition scene, as is contempt for Bolingbroke’s betrayal of his oath of
obedience discussed earlier in the essay.