King Richard II can be briefly summed up as a study in contrasts, of two kings and their governing spirits. Richard is vain, dramatic, prone to moody swings of poetry; his usurper Henry is proud, rational, politically deft. Moreover, their clash represents a change in political ideologies, from the divine right of succession to a more pragmatic approach resembling modern democracy. (Indeed, Henry’s ascent to the throne is based on his winning the favor of powerful earls and lords, then manipulating public opinion to his side. Familiar, this.) But that summation is too brief, too simple for this most unusual play. We must allay our expectations in King Richard II, and allow the inevitable fall of the king to unfold so that the poet may emerge.    

King Richard is the picture of the divine monarch, taken at its political nadir. Though born and groomed for the throne, surrounded by advisors and supplicants, he is ill-equipped for the workings of actual political world. He has reigned over relative prosperity but has managed to lose the faith of the people and his own court. “More hath he spent in peace, than they in wars,” complains Earl of Northumberland as he compares this vain king to his predecessors. The more implicit comparison for the audience is with Henry Bollingbroke, who will serve as his usurper after being banished in the first act. Henry has petitioned the king with a fair grievance against Thomas Mowbray over the death of the Duke of Gloster. In the shadows – a key symbol throughout the play – of this accusation lies the unspoken fact that Richard himself was complicit in the murder of the duke. Richard therefore wants no part in the fray nor an open investigation but nonetheless he calls off a duel at the last moment to banish both men, Henry for six years and Mowbray for life. This unwise judgment creates more drama and indeed will serve as the first thread of Richard’s undoing.

Though we may – like those in the royal court – see some weakness in Richard’s indecisiveness, the play will add some layers of moral complexity to this question. After all, he does save the lives of both men in this most unprecedented decision to call off their lethal duel (“For that our kingdom’s earth should not be soil’d/With that dear blood which it hath fostered”). Recall as well that he’d already appealed to the fairest sense of all at the initial argument: “Let’s purge this choler without letting blood…Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed.” Compare this to Henry’s decapitation of two of Richard’s advisors upon his return to England, an act that establishes his coldly effective authoritative ambitions. This is not a matter of an outdated old king succumbing to the modern world; in fact, Richard is the more intellectual of the two and by far the most self-reflective character in the play. But he is plainly not an effective king. We get the sense that he would be most eloquent while musing to a psychiatrist, such is his penchant for poetic self-pity. He is, in Harold Bloom’s fair estimation, “more fit to join Shakespeare’s company of players than he is to be martyred on behalf of an anointing as king that he never could sustain by royal behavior.”

If the role of king were simply to hold court, receive attendants, to speak at ceremonies, then Richard would be a fine one. But we live in a political world. When Richard is forced is debase himself – another key theme – to the act of real political machination (murder, war, property theft – politics as usual), his attempts are ham-fisted and quickly spoiled. After casting off Henry Bollingbroke, he deigns to pillage the family property to fund an ill-considered war. But are we to blame him, to cast him as a villain or a relic of a distant age? The play’s answer is most resolutely: no. In fact, he personifies a human condition in which anyone might identify – he is not perfectly suited nor fully prepared for his place in the world, and yet he cannot bring himself to imagine the alternatives. “Thus play I, in one person, many people, and none contented,” he muses bitterly in his final soliloquy in prison. No other character dares this sort of reflection: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

Henry Bollingbroke on the other hand is presented as a truly remarkable politician. (Is this a good thing? Again, the play poses this question most subtly.) He has dared to return to England in spite of his banishment to claim his property after the death of John of Gaunt, his father and venerable advisor to the king. Though Gaunt is generally considered a paragon, I found him to be a bit of a blowhard. Just before his dramatic expiration, he airs out King Richard, fiercely attacking him while delivering a speech of national pride for his beloved England (“This other Eden, demi-Paradise/ This fortress built by Nature for herself”…yadda, yadda). It’s a famous speech, surely prime material for ambitious actors, but I was not impressed. I actually preferred the idea that these first few lines might be a metaphor for the body and life itself before it devolved into patriotic prattle (“For Christian service and true chivalry”…ugh). Richard is not impressed either, and he welcomes Gaunt’s death as an opportunity to ransack his estate to finance his upcoming war. This is a fatal mistake: he not only allows these insubordinate words to echo unanswered, but he cowardly (and illegally) disrupts the rules of property and succession in the process.

Richard’s decision affords Henry not only an excuse to return but an opportunity to win the favor of the court in the king’s absence at war. II.3 is the key scene in this shifting of power, a masterful study in rational political maneuvering. Henry arrives with Earl of Northumberland, whom he has already won over through their travels (“And yet our fair discourse hath been as sugar,/Making the hard way sweet and delectable”…fawn much, Northumberland?) He meets a young and eager Henry Percy, who will of course play a major role as antagonist in the next play, along with a few more lords who have sided with Henry in this brimming confrontation. They are accosted by the Duke of York, who is all the more defensive for the fact that he has been left in charge in Richard’s absence (“Comest thou because th’ anointed king is hence?/Why, foolish boy, the king is left behind,/And in my loyal bosom lies his power”…in other words ‘I’m not the one to score points off.’) But Henry, bolstered by his growing troop of lords, appeals to York by invoking the memory of his father Gaunt, as well as his own fair grievances: “What would you have me do? I am a subject,/And I challenge law: attorneys are denied me;/And therefore personally I lay my claim/To my inheritance of free descent.” It’s an ingenious strategy that wins York’s grudging support, but more than that these lines speak to the crux of the play’s debate. Henry is defying the king’s rule by invoking the rule of succession, thereby blending issues of monarchy, law, and a sentimental personal story. It’s a fine example of the way a single issue can either crystallize or completely upend traditional law. If only the Supreme Court or MSNBC existed…

Richard, meanwhile, returns to his home soil after an unsuccessful war effort to find his kingdom in shambles. Henry has won support and is in ostensible control save for the crown itself. This Richard – this poet of the defeated, the disconsolate – becomes the star of the play, so much so that it is as if the other characters recognize this and allow him his turn. The quieter machinations around him become the brief whispers of necessity – how to properly transfer power – while Richard flails about centerstage. But it is a fascinating fall to watch: on the coast upon hearing the news of Henry’s assent to power, he tries to work himself up to rage (“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs”) before settling into a darker realization of his own destiny:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:-
How some have been deposed; some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poisoned by their wives; some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d…

We can sense at times when Shakespeare discovers a certain rhythm, a plot point or character who will spark to life the real heart of the play. His creative disposition was such that he freely allowed his characters to feel and breathe as they liked, even if that might upset the ostensible narrative. Jack Falstaff is the most obvious example of a character who leaps from the pages, the stages, essentially hijacking the play with his wit and charm; Shakespeare not only allows this, but follows it freely, even as Falstaff scoffs at the ‘honour’ of the war going on around him. III.2 of King Richard II seems to be another moment in which such a character appears – Richard may be deposed, but he will not go quietly, not without having his say, on the world, on life. “[T]hrow away respect,/Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;/For you have mistook me all this while” – is this a king speaking to his dwindling supporters or a character to his author?

The public deposition becomes another scene of high drama, as Richard plays his fall for all its worth. Henry and his advisors have realized that for their insurrection to appear truly legitimate, then Richard must hand over the crown and read his crimes aloud. Poor Richard is a fractured soul at this point, crushed by this unprecedented political embarrassment and yet finding there a certain therapeutic sort of self-reflection. He even requests a mirror to take this metaphor to its dramatic conclusion, smashing it on the floor before the court: “Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,-/How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.” And yet he is surrounded by political enemies, lords who have grown weary of his petulance. They had hoped for a brief public display to lend some measure of dignity to the deposition; what they got was nothing of the sort. “A woeful pageant have we here beheld,” says the Abbot of Westminster, surely lending voice to the audience. To add insult, Richard is separated from his queen, eventually ending up in a cell where he’s murdered. For all the rationality and legal maneuvering of Henry and his new regime, they cannot forget the oldest law: the king must die.

For all of this, the play ends with yet another thread of political intrigue, as King Henry thwarts a rebellion enacted by Richard’s remaining supporters spurned by the always meddling church. I like how the bishops and priests are always put in their place in these plays, and here the Bishop of Carlisle’s appeal gets brushed off by Earl of Northumberland: “Well have you argued, sir; and, for your pains,/Of capital treason we arrest you here”…burn. There is also the matter of Gloster’s murder that set all of this in motion, for which Duke of Aumerle is blamed and then forgiven. This last sequence feels almost rushed, particularly in the wake of Richard’s grand expiration. But King Richard II is of course the first in a series, and in many ways a prelude to coming saga of the Henrys. We can be grateful then that Shakespeare followed not the mere plot but rather the real heart of what might otherwise have been a forgotten king.

Richard the character feels like a true breakthrough for Shakespeare at this point, so much so that his presence practically overwhelms the rest of the play. Isn’t this always the way? Many critics have detected the seeds of Hamlet in Richard’s dissidence, in his refusal to follow the plot, as it were. We certainly see in King Richard II  an author unafraid to follow the wilder predilections of his characters, no matter where they might lead him. Most likely the audience has at first sided with Gaunt’s criticisms that Richard was merely “Landlord of England…not king,”  but what emerges in III.2 is a rebellion of character more significant than any political development. Richard becomes aware of his predicament, of his own psychological despair, and rails against the world with all his poetic might. He’s still not terribly insightful, at least not beyond the griefs of his own crown, nor do his efforts carry much weight in the face of his political opposition. But he leaves his mark in his own unique way, as the best of Shakespeare’s characters always do.

One final note: we must not allow this reference of newly crowned King Henry’s to pass unnoticed: “Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?…If any plague hang over us, ’tis he.” And what of those “restrained loose companions” of the prince? King Henry IV’s turn on the throne will be seized not by his conspirators nor by war or any such malevolence but by the greatest of Shakespeare’s characters, the high point of his wit. Next…King Henry IV Part I.