“Richard II” is a History with a history. Written in the last decade of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when anxieties were being aired about where the next monarch was coming from (the Queen being unmarried and childless), the play tells the story of a weak monarch being forcibly dethroned and assassinated.
When the play was written, speculating about the Succession was an activity full of risk. A pamphlet published in 1579 by John Stubbs objecting to a marriage between the Queen and the brother of the King of France had brought serious repercussions: Stubbs and his publisher were sent to the Tower of London, and had their right hands cut off.
“Richard II” was written a decade and a half later. By now, the Queen was in her sixties and the question of the Succession was becoming urgent. Among the candidates was the Queen’s former favourite, the Earl of Essex – though his stock had fallen lately. In February 1601 he launched a rebellion in London which, in the event, ended in anti-climax and failure.
But investigations into the background of the rebellion unearthed an uncomfortable fact – that Shakespeare’s theatre troupe The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had performed privately for the conspirators on the day before the rebellion a play in which a weak monarch is forcibly overthrown. The play was “Richard II”, the performance was investigated, Shakespeare was cleared and Essex was beheaded. Later, the Queen joined the dots: “I am Richard II”, she said. “Know ye not that?”
Many of Shakespeare’s plays are about a transfer of power – perhaps as many as half of them. But to have related this theme specifically to the Queen would have been beyond reckless. In general, Shakespeare has no choice but to exercise discretion: the murder of Duncan in “Macbeth”, for example, takes place off-stage, between 2.1 and 2.2.
A different level of discretion underwrites “Richard II”. The King’s assassination is shown, red in tooth and claw, in the final scene of the play, but by then he has already been unseated from his throne, and is wasting away in a north of England prison. The key scene is the “deposition scene”, 4.1, in which Richard is brought face to face with his usurper and the fate that awaits him. This highly sensitive scene was cut out of the play until it appeared in the First Folio, in 1623 – long after John Stubbs, the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I (and Shakespeare) had all died.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
The King is ready to hear the dispute between Henry Duke of Hereford and Thomas Duke of Norfolk.
Henry accuses Norfolk of treachery, an allegation he believes his “drawn sword may prove”.
Norfolk in turn defames Henry as a “coward and a villain” and believes “most falsely doth he lie”.
Henry makes three accusations: first, Norfolk has embezzled money intended for the king’s troops.
He has also connived in treasons during Richard’s reign, and contributed to Gloucester’s death.
Norfolk replies that the disputed money was owed him, and he played no part in Gloucester’s death.
He admits he once ambushed Henry’s father John of Gaunt, and he regrets that episode.
The King enjoins John of Gaunt to join him in reconciling the dispute, but the two enemies refuse.
The King announces that “swords and lances [shall] arbitrate” between the two warring Dukes.
Act One Scene Two
John of Gaunt tells his sister-in-law that her husband’s murder will be avenged in heaven.
She reminds him that her husband was his brother – “branches springing from one root”.
She rebukes him for his “patience”, arguing instead that it is nothing but “cold cowardice”.
But John of Gaunt says that the King – “God’s substitute” – was to blame, and cannot be punished.
Then let Henry prove victorious when he fights his duel with Norfolk at Coventry, she asserts.
As she leaves she tells John of Gaunt to invite her brother-in-law Edmund to visit her at Plashy.
There she says he will find the house deserted and a “desolate” occupant waiting for death.
Act One Scene Three
The duel begins in formal style with statements by Norfolk and Henry summarising their stance.
Both combatants deliver lengthy formal speeches emphasising their loyalty to the King.
Just as the duel is about to begin, the King throws down his warder and suspends the conflict.
Reluctant to see blood shed between “neighbours”, King Richard outlines punishments instead.
Henry will be banished from England for “twice five summers”, while Norfolk is “never to return”.
Norfolk reflects that, being banished abroad, he will no longer be able to speak his native tongue.
The King forces the two disputants to agree never to meet one another nor plot against himself.
Norfolk leaves, predicting that the time will come when the King will regret his leniency to Henry.
The King, acting in deference to his uncle John of Gaunt, shortens Henry’s exile from ten years to six.
John of Gaunt has no optimism that he will ever see his son again but the King is inflexible.
Left alone with his son, John of Gaunt counsels him to regard his exile as “travel … for pleasure”.
He instructs his son to think “not the king did banish thee”, but that this exile is voluntary.
Act One Scene Four
The Duke of Aumerle, the King’s cousin, reports that he has happily escorted Henry into exile.
The King notes Henry’s “humble and familiar courtesy” in interacting with “the common people”.
Meanwhile there is war in Ireland to be prosecuted and paid for: Henry will “farm our royal realm”.
When news arrives that John of Gaunt is dying, Henry sees a way to pay for his Irish adventure.
Act Two Scene One
John of Gaunt hopes that as he is on his death bed, Richard will listen more carefully to his advice.
But Edmund believes the King is distracted, like others of his age, by flattery, novelty and fashion.
Gaunt gives a patriotic and romantic vision of “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.
But referencing the King, he believes this England has “made a shameful conquest of itself”.
The King arrives, to be told by Gaunt that his kingdom is sick and his reputation lies in ruins.
You are not so much King of England as Landlord, Gaunt tells him, taking from the realm, not giving.
Gaunt accuses him over the death of Gloucester – whose death Henry blamed on Norfolk in 1.1.
Gaunt leaves, and soon his death is announced, to be belittled by the King: “His time is spent”.
Richard then announces that he is confiscating all Gaunt’s properties to fight his war in Ireland.
The King’s uncle Edmund criticises this, and rebukes Richard for attacking not enemies but allies.
If Henry cannot inherit from his father, says Edmund, then you are exposed to “a thousand dangers”.
When the King ignores him (“Think what you will”), Edmund leaves, issuing a warning as he departs.
The King announces that he is departing for Ireland tomorrow, with Edmund in command at home.
When the King goes, various lords discuss his mismanagement of the country and his own finances.
They call him “degenerate” and forecast the country caught in a “fearful tempest” with “no shelter”.
Northumberland announces that Henry is leading an invasion force, and the lords agree to join it.
Act Two Scene Two
The queen senses some “unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb” about to confront her in future.
A servant announces that Henry has landed in England, and is being joined by “powerful friends”.
Edmund, governing in Henry’s absence, describes himself as “weak with age” and the hour as “sick”.
A servant announces that Edmund’s son the Duke of Aumerle has defected to the rebels.
Meanwhile he hears that his sister-in-law, wife of the late Duke of Gloucester, has died.
Left alone to discuss the state of the kingdom, the servants make plans to flee to save their skins.
Act Two Scene Three
Percy accompanied by Henry is approaching Berkeley Castle when he meets his son Henry Hotspur.
He reports that the Earl of Worcester has defected from the King after Percy was “declared traitor”.
Reaching the castle, Henry welcomes various lords to his cause, including Edmund, Richard’s regent.
But Edmund gently rebukes him for breaking his banishment and “braving arms” against the King.
Henry replies that following the death of his father John of Gaunt, he is fighting for his inheritance.
But Edmund insists that though he recognises Richard’s faults, these men are nonetheless rebels.
Percy argues that Henry is focused purely on his own inheritance – and Edmund will stay “neuter”.
Act Two Scene Four
A Welsh army, gathered to welcome the King back from Ireland, has decided to “disperse ourselves”.
They believe the King is dead, and their understanding of the omens suggests “fearful change”.
Lord Salisbury, a remaining ally of the King, reflects ruefully upon “storms to come, woe and unrest”.
Act Three Scene One
Henry has captured Bushy and Green, counsellors to Richard, and now condemns them to execution.
He accuses them of misleading the King to the point where he has been banished and impoverished.
The two nobles defiantly welcome their execution, anticipating that “heaven will take our souls”.
Act Three Scene Two
Richard celebrates his return to his own territory by calling on the earth to resist “mine enemies”.
Comparing himself to the sun, he condemns Henry Bolingbroke as one who “revell’d in the night”.
But now he has returned, he has God on his side and He will ensure that “the right” triumphs.
Salisbury reluctantly informs him that an army of twelve thousand Welshmen has defected to Henry.
News arrives that Henry is attracting all kinds of supporters, young and old, male and female.
Conversely having defamed Bushy and Green as traitors, he learns Henry has had them beheaded.
In an impassioned speech he accepts defeat, recognises his vulnerability and anticipates death.
Encouraged to be positive he hears his regent Edmund has defected and England turned against him.
Resolved to head for Flint Castle where he can embrace his fate, he discharges his remaining forces.
Act Three Scene Three
Accompanied by Edmund, Richard’s regent, Henry approaches Flint Castle where Richard is hiding.
Edmund warns Henry that the heavens are observing events and he must not go too far.
Henry sends word to Richard that he asks only for his exile to be repealed and his property returned.
The alternative, he proposes, is war, but he suggests that he should meet the King face to face
Richard appears on the battlements, resembling (says Henry) the sun about to be obscured by cloud.
Defiantly he calls upon his enemies to kneel, and issues a curse of pestilence from “my master, God”.
He rebukes Henry for “treason” and predicts civil war will account for “Ten thousand mothers’ sons”.
Percy repeats that Henry wants only to regain his rights – then he will allow his weapons “to rust”.
Richard foresees the loss of his prestige and privilege, and imagines himself buried in “a little grave”.
Percy calls upon the King (whom he regards as “frantic”, or mad) to come down to meet with Henry.
Henry kneels but Richard knows that it is time to return to London – and “I must not say no”.
Act Three Scene Four
In Edmund’s garden at Langley west of London, the Queen seeks distraction from events elsewhere.
The gardener tells his servant to work “like an executioner”, cutting off heads and removing weeds.
The servant asks the point of maintaining a disciplined garden when the whole country is in ruins.
The gardener replies that Henry Bolingbroke has dealt “root and all” with Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.
When he reports the King has been “seized” and deposed the Queen emerges from her hiding place.
She rebukes the gardener but he repeats his news and says this is information known to “everyone”.
The Queen curses the garden (“pray God the plants … may never grow”) and returns to London.
Act Four Scene One
Meeting in Westminster Hall, the English nobles divide acrimoniously over the death of Gloucester.
Norfolk cannot be brought back for cross-examination since he has died on a foreign battlefield.
Edmund Duke of York announces that Richard invites Henry to “Ascend the throne” as his heir.
The Bishop of Carlisle denounces Henry as a traitor, and predicts civil war will “manure the ground”.
Henry Percy responds by arresting him, while the new King orders Richard be brought before him.
Richard compares himself and Henry to two water-filled buckets, one sinking while the other rises.
Uncertain and self-pitying, Richard surrenders his position, comparing himself to Jesus Christ.
Describing himself as a “king of snow” he sees himself melting before “the sun of Bolingbroke”.
He calls for a mirror and reflecting on the powers and authority he has lost, smashes the mirror.
Richard asks permission to leave, and Henry instructs for him to be taken to the Tower of London.
When the new King departs, a small group of conspirators meet to plot further conflict in future.
Act Five Scene One
The Queen waits on a London street to greet her husband as he is led to imprisonment in the Tower.
Richard tells her to think of the past as of a dream, and to seek out a convent in her native France.
She is shocked at his weakened state but he tells her to think of him as dead and to take her leave.
Percy appears with new instructions: the Queen is to return to France, Richard to Pomfret castle.
Richard predicts that Percy will soon fall out with Henry, bringing “danger and deserved death”.
Act Five Scene Two
Edmund tells his wife that Londoners pelted Richard with rubbish as he was led through the streets.
By contrast Henry’s popularity was unmistakeable and Edmund now pledges loyalty to the new king.
His son appears, demoted from Aumerle to Rutland, evidently concealing a document in his shirt.
Edmund reads the letter and denounces his son as a traitor, intending to “appeach the villain”.
It emerges the letter outlines a plot to “kill the king at Oxford”, as Edmund races to unmask his son.
The Duchess of York tells her son to get to the king first and beg for pardon before he’s accused.
Act Five Scene Three
The King is anxious about the behaviour of his son, but sees “some sparks of better hope” in future.
Aumerle / Rutland appears, requesting a private audience with Henry, to be disrupted by his father.
Edmund shows the King the treacherous letter – before the sudden appearance of the Duchess.
She begs for mercy for her son, but her husband warns the King he should not “grant any grace”.
Henry agrees to pardon Aumerle / Rutland, but his co-conspirators “shall not live within this world”.
Act Five Scene Four
A knight loyal to the new King believes he will serve him best by ridding him of his predecessor.
Act Five Scene Five
Alone in his cell the former King reflects on his present isolation, comparing it with former times.
However it has been his fate to play “in one person many people” – once King, now captive.
The sound of music distracts but also maddens him – it is “a sign of love” in an “all-hating world”.
A groom appears to tell Richard that his former horse has been acquired by his successor as King.
After a dispute with his food-taster, Richard reveals he has exhausted his patience and is “weary”.
Sir Pierce arrives and after furiously defending himself Richard is struck down, welcoming death.
Act Five Scene Six
Richard at Windsor hears that towns in the west of the country have been attacked by rebel forces.
But he’s also told of executions of various rebel leaders, their heads to be displayed as warnings.
The Bishop of Carlisle, hitherto loyal to Richard, is told to keep a low profile and he will be pardoned.
Finally Sir Pierce arrives with Richard’s body in a coffin, claiming that he killed him on Henry’s say-so.
But Henry banishes him as punishment and tells him “never show thy head by day nor light”.
With one eye on the future, he claims he has no desire to spill blood to advance his own fortunes.
The opening scenes of the play illustrate a central theme of Shakespeare’s History plays in general: when the ruling class is divided, the kingdom is weak. First Henry Bolingbroke Duke of Hereford accuses Thomas Mowbray Duke of Norfolk of being a thief, a traitor and an accomplice to murder. In response Thomas admits he once tried to ambush Henry’s father, John of Gaunt. The King instructs the disputants to bury the hatchet, and they refuse. Next we learn that John of Gaunt’s brother Gloucester has been murdered, and finally it appears that one of those responsible was the King. It’s fairly common for literary texts to open on a note of equilibrium. Not this one.
The tone of the dialogue changes as 1.3 progresses. Initially the language – like the ritual – is formal and forced, as the two combatants declare why they have come “thus knightly clad in arms”. But the formality disperses when the King abandons the duel, and gives them the chance to reflect on his sanctions. Norfolk is clear what he thinks – “A heavy sentence”, he tells the King – while Henry and his father negotiate their sanction, with John of Gaunt delivering homely aphorisms (“Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour” and so forth). It is striking that Shakespeare leaves the last words to Henry: it is his fortunes, not Richard’s, that are now in the ascendant.
Richard’s projected adventures in late-fourteenth century Ireland may well have struck an echo in the minds of Shakespeare’s audiences some two centuries later. Alongside England’s conflict with Spain in the final years of Elizabethan England, there was also the bleak reality of the Nine Years’ War in Ireland (confusingly, 1593 – 1603). Contemporary audiences of “Richard II” may have concluded that a war of invasion unsuccessful after two centuries was not, perhaps, a war worth fighting.
The thinking behind the first act of the play is to underline Richard’s shortcomings both as King and as a man. As monarch he is vacillating and capricious, as illustrated in 1.3 when he abandons the duel at the last moment. Moreover his contempt for ordinary citizens (whom he describes as “slaves”) is in deliberate contrast to Henry’s humility and respect. As a man, Richard is heartless and opportunistic, eager to hurry his uncle into the grave in order to release the funds for his adventure in Ireland. One might justly suggest that the main casualty of Act One is Richard’s reputation.
This play is famous for its idealised and romantic vision of England, which it describes in 2.1 as an “Eden” and a “demi-paradise”, a “precious stone set in the silver sea” and so forth. Richard’s failure to measure up to his elevated position is an increasingly explicit theme of the first two acts, and it contrasts with John of Gaunt’s vision. So where Gaunt perceives a “happy breed of men”, Richard sees “slaves”, and where Gaunt discerns a “scepter’d isle”, Richard sees loot. In Renaissance England, the King belonged to his kingdom in a mutually-supportive embrace: Richard, by contrast, looks on England as a resource that needs sweating. As Edmund says, this is unlikely to “fall out good”.
Reflecting on the King’s relationships with his subjects is a reminder that when civil war begins to break out with Henry Bolingbroke’s return, Richard retains the loyalty of men whose worth he is slow to recognise. “Where is the Earl of Wiltshire?” he asks in 3.2, “where is Bagot? / What is become of Bushy? Where is Green?” He assumes they have gone over to Henry, but is then informed that they have been executed for their loyalty to himself. The speech he delivers in response to this sobering information concludes with a characteristically self-pitying cri de coeur.
Numerous prophecies of doom are expressed in various ways in the course of the play. The queen perceives an “unborn sorrow” looming in 2.2, and has no sooner expressed her misgivings than news arrives that Henry Bolingbroke has landed in England; in 2.4, the Welsh captain takes a different approach, discerning “meteors” and a “pale-faced moon” to foresee the “fall of kings”; Salisbury agrees, sensing in the sunset (“weeping in the lowly west”) an image of the King’s impending defeat. In Act 3, both Henry and Richard foresee English blood being spilled if peaceful solutions aren’t found, and in Act 4 the Bishop of Carlisle predicts English soil being “manured” with blood. On to Act 5, and Richard’s prediction that King Henry will fall out with Percy. The shadow of the war-torn fifteenth century hangs over the play – in these doom-laden predictions, Shakespeare has the ruinous Wars of the Roses in mind.
Richard’s return from Ireland described in 3.2 is notable for the quickly deteriorating fortunes of the King, and this decline is reflected in his tone and rhetoric. Initially he is confident that his own territories (“my gentle earth”) will ambush his enemies, and optimistic that, as a King of England “elected by the Lord”, he cannot be defeated. At this point his speech is powerful and rich. But he is gradually worn down by the avalanche of bad news that overwhelms him in the course of the scene, and here his speech becomes much plainer (if a touch self-pitying). It is time, he says, to “tell sad stories of the death of kings”, and to recognise that even a king will eat “bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends”. As his status declines, his tone follows suit and embraces simplicity.
In 3.2 Richard describes himself as the sun – the “searching eye of heaven” – emerging to put to flight the darkness that provided cover for the treason he sees in Henry’s assault on his kingdom. In 3.3 the same metaphor is used in turn by Henry to describe Richard’s appearance as he appears on Flint Castle battlements: the King is a “blushing discontented sun”, says Henry, conscious that “envious clouds are bent / To dim his glory”.
The Queen listens in to the discussion the gardener conducts with his servant, eavesdropping on their conversation in a way familiar to students of Shakespeare. Overhearing others’ conversations plays a central role in texts as different as “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet”. In this case it gives the Queen a sense of what ordinary people are thinking – the people who will be most affected by the politics higher up the food chain.
The climax of the play comes in 4.1 when Richard surrenders his power and authority to Henry IV. Here Shakespeare presents Richard in an unappealing light, as self-regarding and ineffectual. He compares himself to Christ in a parallel that is tenuous if not blasphemous, and his theatrical performance with the mirror is unlikely to arouse much sympathy. In “King Lear”, another reflection on kingship written some ten years later, Shakespeare presents a character who, after he has lost his crown, regrets he didn’t use his power to support those most in need of help. A very different reaction to the loss of power from that explored here.
In general, Shakespeare delights in investing ordinary citizens with personality and a role in the drama. In “Richard II” the action is almost entirely focused on the ruling elite, and other than a sophisticated gardener, the central characters are aristocrats or leading prelates (like the Bishop of Carlisle). At the same time, the “human factor” emerges through the way these ruling elites are presented – Richard above all. His self-pity might be a poor characteristic in a monarch but it is a virtue in a literary text, and it helps to invest a History with some elements of Tragedy. It’s a striking fact that as the play progresses and his position deteriorates, Richard embraces his human element (“I live with bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends” etc) as his political function declines.
Much is made throughout the play of Richard’s mandate from God (the “divine right of kings”), and this reflects the contemporary view of monarchy, that the King is God’s representative, appointed by him to govern, and free to interpret that role as he chooses. To usurp the monarch is therefore to challenge God’s order, and this is beyond human powers. The Bishop of Carlisle questions whether “the figure of God’s majesty, / His captain, steward, deputy-elect, / Anointed, crowned. Planted many years, / [can] Be judged by subject and inferior breath …?” The answer to this rhetorical question is self-evident, and the Bishop’s consolation for being on the wrong side is to be forgiven (in 5.6) so long as he keeps a low profile. But by then, Bolingbroke may feel more sympathetic to the idea that the King is God’s “deputy-elect”.
Difficult relationships between fathers and daughters are a familiar ingredient in Shakespeare’s plays. Examples are numerous: Brabantio with Desdemona in “Othello”, Shylock with Jessica in “The Merchant of Venice”, Capulet with Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” – and so forth: there are many other examples. Difficult relationships between fathers and sons are more unusual, but 5.3 of “Richard II” furnishes two examples: first Henry worries about his “wanton and effeminate boy” who has been associating with low life in taverns. But he reassures himself that all will be well – and he is right, since the effeminate boy turns out to be Henry V, the hero of Agincourt. Meanwhile, by contrast, Edmund Duke of York exposes his own son to the wrath of the new King for alleged treachery – the boy will be spared, but his associates executed. Henry had himself proved a worthy son of his own father, of course, after John of Gaunt was stripped of his wealth on his death-bed by Richard.
Characters / Who’s Who
At first he is presented as capricious and wilful, too weak to govern well. He sets up a duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and then abandons it at the last minute. He sentences Bolingbroke to ten years exile, then abruptly cuts the sentence to six. His personal relations are also fragile: he has little respect for his uncle John of Gaunt, whose death he welcomes to fill his coffers for military adventures in Ireland. He regards his people as “slaves” and when various allies fail to turn up, he assumes they are guilty of treachery. In fact, they have been executed for their loyalty to him. In his closing scenes his poetry and rhetoric soar with his self-pity, and his demise (assassinated, it seems, somewhat by mistake) is hardly to be regretted.
A reluctant rebel against his cousin’s crown, he is presented as the victim of events inspired by Richard: he is exiled from England (partly it seems to neutralise his suspicions that the crown has been involved in the murder of Gloucester), and then deprived of his inheritance when Richard confiscates John of Gaunt’s properties on his death. Henry emerges from this as practical, somewhat reserved, thoughtful and measured, the opposite of Richard; and his decency is expressed in his concern for his son (“yet … / I see some sparks of better hope”) and his ambivalence about Richard’s murder.
- In which English town is the duel arranged to decide between Bolingbroke and Mowbray?
- How long is Mowbray’s sentence of exile from England in 1.3?
- To what does Gaunt compare the “silver sea” in his speech in 2.1?
- For how long has the Welsh captain been waiting for Richard when he decides to leave?
- Where is the location of the castle in which Richard and Henry meet in 3.3?
- Name the Biblical figure with whom the Queen compares the gardener in 3.4.
- Where does the “deposition scene” take place?
- Where in Richard’s view should the Queen hide when she returns to France?
- What specifically does the Duke of York spot concealed in his son’s shirt?
- Where is Richard imprisoned?
- For life
- A moat / a wall
- Ten days
- Westminster Hall
- A convent or religious house
- “What seal is that?”
When “Richard II” was first published, it was described on the title page as a Tragedy. This categorisation is reinforced by the first critical notice Shakespeare receives. This comes from an author called Francis Meres, who, in 1598, publishes a book called “Wits Treasury”, in which he praises Shakespeare’s Comedies (including “Loue labours wonne”, a play we no longer have) as well as his Tragedies. First of these to be mentioned is “Richard the 2”.
In The First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, “Richard II” is listed under Histories. This categorisation makes good sense once we realise that this play is the first of a tetralogy of history plays, leading into “Henry IV Part One”, “Henry IV Part Two” and “Henry V”. In the process, these four plays take us through the somewhat unhappy reign of Richard’s usurper Henry Bolingbroke and on to the triumph at Agincourt under the young Henry V.