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Theatre / Richard II

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As the play is Older Than Steam and based on historical events, and as most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.

"You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those."
King Richard II, IV.i

An English history play by William Shakespeare. It's the first play in Shakespeare's second tetralogy, which includes Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V. It is believed to have been composed in 1595, and is sometimes referred to as a tragedy. It chronicles the later years of King Richard II of England, who reigned from 1377 to 1399, as he is overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV.

The play opens with Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray accusing one another of treason and murder, with the issue to be settled in single combat before Richard II and his court. Just as the two noblemen are about to fight, Richard abruptly calls a stop to their duel and instead banishes them both from England. John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father and the Duke of Lancaster, dies, and Richard decides to seize Bolingbroke's lands to fuel his war effort in Ireland. Bolingbroke returns—his excuse being that he was banished as Duke of Hereford but is now Duke of Lancaster—and is incensed that his lands and wealth have been taken by Richard. He organizes a campaign against Richard. At first, the campaign's goal is merely to get Bolingbroke's land back, but it quickly becomes an opportunity to seize the throne of England. In a scene that was originally censored out, Richard is forced to abdicate. He is put in prison, where he angsts about the loss of his throne, before being murdered by an ambitious nobleman. Henry IV regrets Richard's death, and vows to redeem himself by leading a crusade against Jerusalem.

One of the main characteristics of the play is its ornate, beautiful language, especially the flowery speeches of Richard II. He is contrasted with Bolingbroke, who is very plainspoken. The play is also one of just two by Shakespeare (King John being the other) to be written entirely in iambic pentameter, with no prose passages. Another notable feature is the Deposition Scene, which was cut from the original editions of the play because of its political touchiness — the resemblances between Richard and Elizabeth are great. Indeed, the Earl of Essex requested the play be performed the evening before his failed uprising against the queen.

In 2012, the BBC produced Richard II as part of The Hollow Crown series with Ben Whishaw as Richard, Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke and Patrick Stewart as Gaunt, and in 2013, a Royal Shakespeare Company production with David Tennant in the title role was broadcast to cinemas internationally (and is available to stream for free internationally for much of 2016, part of the BBC's Shakespeare400 celebrations).

Richard II provides examples of:

  • Abdicate the Throne: Richard abdicates under duress from Bolingbroke, yet he still struggles to do it on his own terms rather than those dictated to him.
  • The Ace: Bolingbroke. He's basically everything Richard is not: a cunning strategist, a capable decision maker, and popular with the English people. He ends up as a Broken Ace by the play's end, and begins Henry IV angsting about what he did.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Richard. This is possibly due to the fact that the play was heavily inspired by Marlowe's Edward II, wherein Edward is very gay and has a canonical male lover. The historical Richard II may have been bisexual, and certainly his attachment to his male favorites generated rumors in his own day, which is hinted at in some of Shakespeare's sources.
  • Anticlimax: The play leads up to Bolingbroke and Mowbray's duel like it's actually going to happen. It doesn't.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Richard and his favorites.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: They're Plantagenets: what did you expect? Although Gaunt and Bolingbroke are an exception. They only have two scenes together, but the mutual love and respect between father and son is apparent.
  • Bowdlerise: A case where it wasn't censored for lewdness or violence, but for political reasons: the first three editions of the play all appear without the deposition scene (i.e. most of Act IV, Scene 1). It first appeared in print in 1608, after Queen Elizabeth's death.
  • Break the Haughty: Richard's fate, as witness the contrast between Act III, Scene 2, in which he says, "Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king," and Act IV, Scene 1, when his tune has changed to "With mine own tears I wash away my balm."
  • Breather Episode: Bolingbroke's pardoning of Aumerle is very easy to play this way, with the comedic bickering and groveling breaking up the heavy scenes before and after.
  • Cain and Abel: Bolingbroke references this in his first scene, referring to the slain Gloucester as Abel, and implicitly casting Richard as Cain. This is given an Ironic Echo in the very last scene where Bolingbroke, now king, refers to Exton, Richard's murderer as Cain, though it's uncertain how sincere he's being since he's said to have wanted Richard to die.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Richard muses a lot on the subject, speaking to Bolingbroke of the heavy cares that come with the crown.
  • Cope by Pretending: John of Gaunt suggests that Bolingbroke forget about being exiled and pretend that he is voluntarily traveling abroad. Bolingbroke dismisses the idea:
    Henry Bolingbroke: O, who can hold a fire in his hand
    By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
    Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
    By bare imagination of a feast?
    Or wallow naked in December snow
    By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?
  • Death Equals Redemption: In a variation of the trope, Richard finally lives up to the honor of his ancestors by putting up a courageous fight against his murderers.
  • Despair Speech: "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / and tell sad stories of the death of kings..."
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Downplayed, since Richard was an arrogant king and greatly aggrieved his subjects, but even so the degradation inflicted on him by Bolingbroke and his violent death at the hands of an ambitious noble are so harsh as to inspire pity. His stabbing death in the play is still better than he got in real life - starving to death in an Oubliette.
  • Due to the Dead: Bolingbroke determines not only to give Richard a properly royal funeral, but to make a crusade of expiation (he never did fulfill the second part, either in Shakespeare or Real Life).
  • Duel to the Death: Mowbray and Bolingbroke agree to determine who the real traitor is through a judicial duel before the authorities, but Richard stops them at the very moment they're about to lay into each other.
  • Easily Forgiven: Bolingbroke is quick to pardon Aumerle, considering he was conspiring to overthrow him.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Richard interrupting the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray to banish them for ten (changed to six) years and life, respectively. He is shown to change his mind easily (first he lets the duel go ahead, then he doesn't; first he exiles Bolingbroke for ten years, then six) and make snap decisions for arbitrary reasons (he waits until Bolingbroke and Mowbray are about to strike the first blows to stop the duel, and gives no real reason for why Mowbray is exiled for life and Bolingbroke is not). These traits lead him to make further bad decisions that turn the English nobility and common people alike against him, resulting in Bolingbroke having little trouble getting widespread support for his attempt to depose Richard.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Bolingbroke, though he winds up being the one who gets backstabbed later in history. However, he's much more sympathetic than Richard, who capriciously seizes the lands of his vassals to pay for his wars, and Bolingbroke's rebellion to reclaim Lancaster is more or less justified by both the narrative and the characters.
  • Fall Guy: Mowbray, seeing as Richard was involved in having Gloucester killed. Since he, nor anyone, can actually just say it, the implication is left hidden within his rebuke to Bolingbroke, and lets Richard know, coded in metaphor, that his secret is safe.
    Mowbray: A jewel in a ten-times-barr'd-up chest
    Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.
  • Fisher King: Deconstructed; garden imagery dominates the play, but it's more complicated than "the king is sad, so the land weeps."
  • Full-Circle Revolution: By the end of the play, Henry IV is doing some of the same things that Richard II was doing at the start of the play. Appropriately, most of the same rebels are ready to rebel again by the start of the next play.
  • Gold and White Are Divine: Richard, in the Hollow Crown production.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: It is possible, as in the 2018 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production, to depict neither Richard nor Bolingbroke as the good guy. In that case it becomes a morally ambiguous conflict between two rivals with constrasting personalities and ideas about how to rule.
  • Hero Antagonist: Bolingbroke can be presented this way. He spends the second half of the play actively moving against Richard, initially to re-claim his father Gaunt's lands which Richard seized upon Gaunt's death to fund his wars in Ireland, but later to take the throne for himself, believing that ability is a more important quality in a ruler than the divine right in which Richard believes.
  • Heroic BSoD: Both Richard and Henry IV, at the end of the play.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: If one regards Richard as the hero (if one regards him as the villain, this becomes a Historical Villain Downgrade), the play — in setting itself near the end of his reign — does not address the catalogue of crimes Richard was either accused or guilty of. You know you are bad when a chronicler of the time claims "This is the year (1397) when Richard's tyranny began":
    • What takes place in the play is actually the third rebellion against him; although the first - the Peasants' Revolt - was more against his corrupt regents than Richard himself, the then-teenage king still ended it by promising the rebels that he would accede to their demands and then shortly afterwards killed all of its leaders and then vowed to make life even MORE harsh for peasants than before so that they'd never dare rebel again.
    • The second rebellion was by his lords and barons who objected to him handing out land and titles (including ones that belonged to others) to his personal friends and ignoring his kingly duties, particularly regarding the pressing issue that France was thinking of attacking England, and Richard's infantile response of declaring the lords traitors for disagreeing with him, nearly STABBING an archbishop for it, and even threatening to INVITE the French to invade and rid him of his treasonous nobles; what really set things off was Richard forcing the judges to change the law to make him Judge, Jury, and Executioner and for it to be treasonous to oppose the king in any way. Richard was defeated but allowed to remain King, purely because civil war might have broken out if he didn't. Both Mowbray and Bolingbroke took part in this rebellion and both opposed Richard.
    • Richard followed this by raising a private army of mercenaries on British soil loyal to him and him alone just because his Feudal lords didn't agree that their armies belonged to him and kept objecting to his desire to do whatever the hell he wanted. He used this to reinstate the treason law that set off the second rebellion.
    • He assaulted one of his lords for being late to the funeral of his (first) wife, Anne of Bohemia.
    • At one point, he made it court custom that if the king ever cast his gaze upon someone they must immediately prostrate themselves or face his wrath.
    • Richard had his own uncle, Gloucester, imprisoned and tortured for rebelling against him; the torturer was another rebel (Mowbray in fact) who "atoned" for his sins by doing so, and ended up torturing Gloucester to death before he could be hauled before a Kangaroo Court that two of the other rebel nobles were doomed to face, although not before he "confessed" under torture to the crimes Richard charged him with.
    • The real reason Mowbray and Bolingbroke were exiled was because Mowbray approached Bolingbroke warning him that Richard was plotting against them both; Bolingbroke reported him to Richard largely out of fear that Mowbray might have been sent by Richard himself as a trap, and Richard decided to use the alleged incident as an excuse to exile them both since, as he couldn't prove which one was telling the truth, he decided he might as well treat both of them as guilty.
    • Once Mowbray and Bolingbroke were gone, Richard forced the other nobles of the land to sign their seal on blank pieces of paper which he could fill out later to make them "agree" to whatever he wanted.
  • Holding the Floor: Richard's ability to do this at his "formal" abdication is the only thing that lets him keep some amount of personal power and dignity.
  • It's All About Me: Your nobles are declaring each other traitor and lots of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and murder threatens the stability of your crown. Clearly the thing to do is invade Ireland. (This is largely a result of the play, like all of Shakespeare's histories, being a Compressed Adaptation; in real life Richard's invasion of Ireland took place eight months after Bolingbroke's banishment and three months after Gaunt's death.)
  • I Have No Son!: The Duke of York reacting to Aumerle's treason against Bolingbroke.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • It depends on productions but many of the nobles have a long list of legitimate grievances against Richard II. His ransacking of Gaunt's lands is the In-Universe Moral Event Horizon for the nobles.
    • Carlisle's speech is Foreshadowing the Wars of the Roses shall come from the deposition of Richard and urges them not to go through with it for this reason.
  • Kangaroo Court: Richard's trial by Bolingbroke immediately after his deposition, which is merely a show to legitimize Bolingbroke's usurpation of power.
  • The Lady's Favour: Prince Hal shows contempt for the celebration of his father's accession to the throne by jousting with a token from a common prostitute.
  • Lawful Stupid: York is determined to obey the law of the land above all else, no matter his own feelings or convictions. He refuses to support his nephew Bolingbroke's bid for the throne (since that would be supporting an act of treason), but once Bolingbroke is crowned he will do anything to support him—to the point of reporting his own son to the king for planning a conspiracy. He even goes so far as to beg Bolingbroke to put the boy to death, and is revolted when the king considers mercy! York's whole arc serves as a pretty damning indictment of anyone who that thinks they can be a good or noble person simply by following the rules, without giving any thought to the (im)morality behind them.
  • Like a Son to Me: Inverted. Bolingbroke says that, in York, he sees his father Gaunt, and uses it to say that if Gaunt were alive and Aumerle were disinherited unjustly, he would help his nephew reclaim his just rights, as Henry was now asking of his uncle.
  • Loophole Abuse: Bolingbroke returns to England because it was the Duke of Hereford who was exiled, and following his father's death he's the Duke of Lancaster.
  • Moral Event Horizon: Two in-universe examples, one for Richard and one for Bolingbroke.
    • Richard's is the taking of Gaunt's land and money away from Bolingbroke, the rightful heir to them, and Richard is explicitly warned that once he does it there's no going back. He doesn't care.
    • Bolingbroke's is his deposition and humiliation of Richard, because it will trigger a struggle for the crown we now know as The Wars Of The Roses.
  • The Paragon Always Rebels: Henry of Bolingbroke. The best jouster in England, the son and heir of the powerful John of Gaunt, and a much more capable and honest ruler than Richard. Naturally, he rebels and brings a sizable portion of the country over to his side. Except, in an inversion of the trope, Bolingbroke is not the villain. Ironically, Sir Henry Percy, who appears in this play as one of his closest allies, would later be this to him.
  • Pet the Dog
    • Richard, after issuing Bolingbroke's sentence of exile, immediately shortens its duration. John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke's father), however, is not too pleased, since six years is still too long for him (and as we see him dying later in the play, this is seen as justified).
    • Bolingbroke pardoning Aumerle, if only because the Duchess of York begs him to.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!:
    • Averted with John of Gaunt and Richard. At Gaunt's entreaties, Richard commutes Bolingbroke's sentence from ten years to six, but refuses to go further.
      Gaunt: A partial slander sought I to avoid,
      And in the sentence my own life destroy'd.
      Alas, I look'd when some of you should say,
      I was too strict to make mine own away...
    • Later, played straight with the Duchess of York and Bolingbroke over Aumerle; her pleas persuade Bolingbroke to give Aumerle a full pardon.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The Duke of Gloucester's murder, which was very probably done on his nephew Richard's orders, causes Bolingbroke and Mowbray to accuse each other of treason, setting the rest of the events of the play in motion.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Played with.
    • One way to present the play is that Richard and Bolingbroke are actually very plain about their thoughts and intentions when speaking to each other. Henry never actually demands the crown from Richard; at all times, he merely demands his inheritance back and insists Richard made a mistake by taking it from him. Richard, believing in his own infallibility as king, immediately thinks Bolingbroke is launching a coup and rants about it, because if a king is capable of fallibility, he is no longer king. Henry and Richard's vastly different mindsets turn what seems to be an honest conversation into an argument about what makes a king: Divine right or their own actions.
    • Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival 2018 has a very different interpretation of the same lines, presenting scenes where everyone is engaging in Blatant Lies and acting in ways that contradict their stated intentions. For example, Bolingbroke claims that he only wants his lands back and doesn't intend to sieze the crown, but the sheer scale of the rebellion he's stirred up and the size of the force he has parked outside Richard's gates makes that hard to believe. At the same time, Richard asides to Aumerle how galling it is having to flatter Bolingbroke when he'd rather tell him to bugger off, damn the consequences; Aumerle replies that they're in no position to defy Bolingbroke and must play along until help arrives.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Richard is sometimes played this way; spoiled, self-centered, hotheaded, and utterly immature. He only really grows up when he's been totally broken, and is about to die.
  • The Quiet One: Henry Bolingbroke. If he strings more than two lines of verse together, it's an occasion. At one point Richard calls him a "silent king".
  • Rage Against the Reflection: IV.i.
    Richard: O flattering glass,
    Like to my followers in prosperity,
    Thou dost beguile me!
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni:
    • Mowbray and Bolingbroke in their appeal to the King, and before their aborted duel.
    • Richard and Bolingbroke, too; Richard's emotion-driven and impulsive, while Bolingbroke is more intellectual and cautious.
  • Regent for Life: A more sympathetic example than most.
  • Reluctant Gift: In the climactic deposition scene, Richard II, having been backed into a corner largely through his own incompetence and pretty much forced to abdicate, dithers for pages and pages on handing over the actual physical crown to his deposer (the soon-to-be Henry IV). Richard really has no choice anymore — he's squandered all his chances to assert his authority — but when it comes to handing over the crown, he first forces Henry to come take it from him rather than handing it over, then tugs it back out of Henry's hands momentarily before yielding to the inevitable. And then keeps speechifying about it. (It is a matter of interpretation just how much of Richard's melodramatics in this scene is a genuine childish tantrum and how much is a performance calculated to make Henry look pathetic and power-grabbing. Both elements are certainly present.)
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: When Bolingbroke says, "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?", Exton interprets this as an order to kill the already defeated King Richard. When presented with the head of his foe, Henry expresses horror and tries to atone for his part in Richard's death by launching a crusade.
  • Royal "We": Richard's default way of referring to his royal self. "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings."
  • Russian Reversal:
    Richard: I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Though not a traditional example of the trope, Richard never uses one word when ten will do.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Richard's exalted position and sheltered life mean that he lacks the kind of military charisma and sensitivity to the mood of his subjects which the more rough and ready Bolingbroke possesses.
  • Sissy Villain: Richard, insofar as he is a villain, is portrayed this way in many modern productions (notably by Ben Whishaw and David Tennant), being effeminate, vain, melodramatic, Ambiguously Gay, and embarrassing to many of his subjects, particularly the ones whose land he claims.
  • Talking the Monster to Death: Richard allows his dethroning without much fuss (besides the war, that is), but when asked to confess to his crimes, it is only his incessant speechifying that saves him from complete humiliation.
  • Throwing Down the Gauntlet:
    • Bolingbroke and Mowbray challenge each other to duel by literally throwing down their gauntlets in front of one another.
    • Then again later in Act IV: Fitzwater and Aumerle have it out over Aumerle's supposed conspiring and challenge each other, then Hotspur, who just likes to fight, throws his gage down, and suddenly everyone's gloves are on the floor. Aumerle even has to ask someone to lend him a third!
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The Duke of Gloucester, to hear some characters speak of it. Many 19th century productions played Richard this way, too.
  • Translation Convention: Averted—Mowbray has a moving speech about how his banishment from England means he will never be able to talk to anyone anywhere. Possibly artistic license, since the English court often spoke French during that period, but Richard's grandfather Edward III had made English the official language of the court in 1362, and Parliament had been opened in French for the last time in 1377. In Real Life Bolingbroke became the first English monarch since the Conquest who actually spoke English as his native tongue. Any high noble would have been able to speak enough French to get along in France.
  • Trial by Combat: Bolingbroke and Mowbray are planning to fight a Duel to the Death officiated by the king after each accuses the other of treason. Just when the combat is about to start, Richard stops the fight and exiles them both instead.
  • Villainous Valor: Richard, at least in the Hollow Crown production. Despite being almost naked, completely unarmed and trapped in his prison, he manages to kill one of his assassins before the crossbows do the rest. Some versions of his death scene emphasize this more than others; at least one version of the text has him wresting a weapon from his assassins' hands (sometimes an axe) and killing two of them, practically bleeding Facing The Bullets rebukes. At any rate, the death scene is Richard at his most heroic. note 
  • Villain Protagonist: Richard is the main character of the play, but he is a capricious, ineffective, unpopular ruler who seizes his uncle's lands to fund an ill-considered war in Ireland, even though said uncle's son is still alive.
  • Weeding Out Imperfections: In Act 3 Scene 4, the Queen and her ladies in waiting overhear Richard's deposition being discussed by a head gardener, who uses gardening similes and metaphors to talk about Richard's fall and the mistakes he made in dealing with the nobility.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Played straight with Mowbray, who is banished and dies offstage. Bolingbroke is also exiled, but he comes back.