King Richard II

Role Call: I’m adding this feature for the duration of the history plays, in the hopes that it will help you keep track of all the characters that crop up.

  • King Richard II
  • Edmund of Langley, Duke of York – uncle to King Richard (referred to as York)
  • John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster – uncle to King Richard (referred to as Gaunt)
  • Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford – son of John of Gaunt and SPOILER ALERT later King Henry IV (referred to as Henry)
  • Duke of Aumerle – son of Duke of York
  • Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk
  • Duke of Surrey
  • Earl of Salisbury
  • Earl of Berkley
  • Bushy, Bagot, and Green (my edition calls them “Creatures to King Richard” – a job title I never want)
  • Earl of Northumberland
  • Henry Percy – son of Northumberland
  • Lord Ross, Lord Willoughby, and Lord Fitzwater
  • Bishop of Carlisle and Abbot of Westminster
  • Lord Marshal
  • Sir Pierce of Exton
  • Sir Stephen Scroop
  • Captain of a band of Welshmen
  • Queen to King Richard (poor woman doesn’t get a name)
  • Duchess of Gloster
  • Duchess of York
  • Miscellaneous little people that don’t matter much

The Play’s the Thing: King Richard is waiting for Henry and Mowbray to be brought before him, as each man is accusing the other of high treason. The two men have a verbal showdown, each accusing the other of treasonous activities (Henry says Mowbray has assembled a personal army and conspired in the death of the Duke of Gloster (another uncle of Richard’s) and Mowbray is never really specific about Henry did), although neither of them have any substantive evidence, and challenge each other to a duel essentially. Richard decides to let the two men duke it out (ha, punny) and tells them there will be an official face off in Coventry on Saint Lambert’s day (which according to the interwebs is September 17). Later, Gaunt is chatting with his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Gloster, who basically urges Gaunt to avenge the death of her husband. She then expresses her wish that Henry will kill Mowbray, who she believes did kill Gloster. Gaunt then heads off to Coventry to see the fight. In Coventry, there’s this whole bit with Richard having heralds announce Henry and Mowbray (who are apparently going to engage each other with lances, so now I’m picturing jousting scenes from A Knight’s Tale, which of course leads me to hoping that one of the heralds is Paul Bettany). There’s all this talking, Henry and Mowbray are about to get around to actually fighting when Richard decides to intervene. Instead of having them fight, he banishes Henry for ten years initially but then cuts it down to six years and he banishes Mowbray for life. Gaunt is not happy that Richard has banished Henry for so long and fears he will die before he’ll see his son again. In the next scene, Richard discusses his suspicions of Henry (egged on by Bushy, Green, and Bagot) as Henry is so beloved of the people. Richard is planning to head off to go to war in Ireland but receives news that Gaunt is dying. He expresses the wish that Gaunt will die soon so that Richard can use his money to fund the war.

Gaunt is on his deathbed is discussing with York how they have attempted to advise Richard and Gaunt hopes that because he’s dying, Richard will pay more attention. Gaunt then has a bit of a prophetic moment (there are a few in this play, the upside of Shakespeare’s hindsight being 20/20) where he says all will not go well for Richard and England. Richard then shows up and Gaunt attempts to warn him that some of his cronies will not do good things for Richard’s reign. Richard ignores him, Gaunt is carried off stage and then dies. Richard confiscates all of Gaunt’s wealth, refusing to pass it on to Henry, and instead planning to use it to fund his current war effort, as he’s a bit on the broke side. York attempts to get him to reconsider, but Richard has none of it, and York leaves telling him that bad things will happen. Then Ross, Willoughby, and Northumberland chat about how much they disdain what Richard has just done, share the rumour that Henry is about to land in England with several powerful English allies and an army, and the three men decide to join Henry. Meanwhile, the Queen is all bummed out that Richard is Ireland and she’s alone. Then she receives word that Henry has arrived in England and that many of the lords have gone to join him. York then shows up saying he’ll do his best to defend Richard’s rights while Richard is in Ireland. Bushy, Green, and Bagot split up, two to rally support in England and the third to deliver the news to Richard. Bagot fears that they’ll never see each other again (spoiler alert: he’s right). In the “wilds of Glostershire”, Henry is chatting with Northumberland and Henry Percy about the size of the army he’s managed to put together when a messenger from the Duke of York shows up, shortly followed by York himself. York scolds Henry for attempting to take over England while Richard is away and Henry protests that he’s only come back to claim his title as the Duke of Lancaster of which Richard has unfairly deprived him. York declares himself neutral but says he’ll travel with Henry whose headed off to Bristol Castle where Bushy and Bagot are apparently hiding out. Meanwhile, Salisbury discusses with a Captain how the entire Welsh army believes Richard is dead and that they want to disband and join Henry. Salisbury foretells that things will not go well for Richard (for those keeping score, this is prophetic moment #2).

Henry has set up camp near Bristol and orders Bushy and Green executed for misleading the king. He then orders his kind regards sent to the Queen by York. Richard is hanging out in Wales and is not happy that there’s a rebellion brewing but vows that as long as he’s king, he’s not about to bow to Henry. Then Salisbury shows up with the news that the Welsh army, believing Richard dead, have broken up, with many of them joining Henry. Richard takes this as a blow. Scroop then shows up to tell Richard that basically every human being in England has joined Henry’s cause. Richard gets depressed for a bit, then his group of men rally him a little bit, as Aumerle says that his dad, York, is bound to support Richard. Scroop then says, “Oh by the way, York joined Henry too.” Richard gets even more depressed and heads off to meet Henry. Henry receives word that Richard is at Flint Castle, which is quite near Henry’s camp. Henry sends Northumberland as an emissary to Richard and then decides to lead his army on a bit of a march to show his power to Richard. Richard tells Northumberland how appalled he is that Henry is attempting to take the crown while Richard is still alive and foretells that if Henry is successful, lots of people in England will die (prophetic moment #3). Northumberland says that Henry is simply asking for his title as Duke of Lancaster. Richard gives the message that he’ll do whatever Henry wants. He and Henry then meet up where Henry still treats him as King but Richard defers to him and says he’ll do whatever Henry wants. Meanwhile, the Queen is depressed and missing her husband and then hears some gardeners talking about how her husband is about to be deposed and bewails the fact that the wife and Queen is always the last to know.

Henry is attempting to investigate the Duke of Gloster’s death but all the lords are accusing each other and declaring duels with each other all over the place and a few of them saying that Mowbray is the one who will be able to tell who actually killed Gloster. Henry says he won’t make a decision until Mowbray is brought back from exile but is then told that after participating in the Crusades, Mowbray died. York then shows up saying that Richard has said that he’ll make Henry his heir and yield his crown if Henry wants it. Henry decides to ascend the throne and become Henry IV. The Bishop of Carlisle is appalled that a subject should judge the King and foretells that if Henry takes the throne, it will lead to a lot of death in England (prophetic moment #4). Henry has the bishop put under arrest and sends for Richard. Richard arrives and hands over the crown to Henry. Then Richard talks a lot about his existential crisis of being a king and yet not being King. Henry then orders Richard be taken to the Tower.

In the street, the Queen is waiting to catch sight of Richard on his way to the Tower. Richard arrives and tells the Queen to go to France for her own safety. She protests for a bit and they have a discussion about what power Henry can possibly have. Northumberland then arrives and tells Richard that instead of going to the Tower, Henry has changed his mind and wants Richard sent to Pomfret. Henry has also decreed that the Queen be sent to France. The King tells Northumberland that his role in helping Henry ascend the throne will eventually lead to Northumberland deciding to try and get the throne himself and Henry being suspicious of Northumberland (prophetic moment #5). Then he and the Queen have a very sad parting. Meanwhile, the Duke of York is telling his wife about the crowd’s treatment of Richard (throwing dust and garbage at him) and their treatment of Henry (lots of “God save Bolinbroke), when Aumerle comes home. His father sees something around Aumerle’s neck and Aumerle is dodgy about it, causing York to snatch it from him and discover that his son has joined a conspiracy to assassinate Henry. The Duke, Aumerle, and the Duchess all race off to Henry’s court, York to tell on Aumerle, Aumerle to ask for mercy, and the Duchess to ask for mercy. At Henry’s court, he’s asking after his son and hears from Henry Percy that’s up to his typically drunk ways (foreshadowing of things to come in Henry IV Part 1). Then Aumerle shows up, asks Henry to have everyone else leave, gets Henry to grant him unconditional pardon, and then locks the door of the throne room. York, just outside the door says there’s a traitor within which causes Henry to draw his sword. Henry lets York in, there’s a lot of discussion of Aumerle’s almost traitorous act, during which the Duchess shows up and pleads on behalf of her son. Ultimately, Henry pardons Aumerle and orders the other conspirators hunted down and killed. Meanwhile, Sir Pierce of Exton is convinced a sentence that Henry said means he wants Exton to kill Richard. In Pomfret, Richard has gone a bit dotty. He’s visited by one of his old grooms who tells him how Richard’s horse behaves just as well for Henry as it did for Richard (it’s a symbolic thing, but it’s not a big detail). Richard’s Keeper then shows up with dinner and tells the groom to get lost. Richard asks the Keeper to test Richard’s food like he always does but the Keeper refuses, indicating the food is poisoned and Richard beats the Keeper, causing him to cry out. Exton and some servants show up, Richard steals a sword from one of them, kills two men, is wounded by Exton, gives a death speech, dies, and his body is carted off by Exton to show to Henry. Back at Henry’s castle in Windsor, he’s receiving news about the deaths of most of the conspirators. Exton then shows up with the coffin containing Richard. Henry is appalled, condemns Exton to a fate like Cain (for those not up on their biblical allusions, it means he’s doomed to wander everywhere and never be welcome), and Henry leaves to have Richard buried and mourn him.

Heroes and Villains: I don’t particularly like or dislike any of the characters in this play, but Richard definitely has the most interesting arc, so he wins the favourite character prize this week.

Speech to Know: Richard has several long speeches on what it means to be king and the following, which comes during the onslaught of bad news in Act III, is my favourite:

“No matter where; – of comfort, no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let’s choose executors, and talk of wills:
And yet not so, – for what can we bequeath,
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death,
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings: –
How some have been depos’d; some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d;
Some poison’d by their wives; some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d:- for within the hollow corwn
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;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,-
As if this flesh, which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable; and humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle-wall, and – farewell, king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while:
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)

View from the PitRichard II has a lot going for it. There’s plenty of fascinating political maneuvering, lots of action taking place amongst duels and wars, and Shakespeare is setting the stage for his exploration of the Wars of the Roses that will carry over in a larger arc through both parts of Henry IV and Henry V. However, the play is most interesting for its character study of Richard II himself. While in many ways the play seems to be more about Henry IV, Richard goes through a fascinating character arc of being a respected, albeit hubristic and flawed, leader to a deposed leader. In the course of this arc, Richard has several speeches in which he pontificates on what it means for a king, selected by God, to be removed from leadership. While as a reader, I felt Henry was vindicated in many ways to claim his birth right and then having come so far, to claim the throne as well, Richard is still a sympathetic character who must attempt to continue to exist in a world whose values have changed in ways he doesn’t comprehend.

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