Thursday, 18 February 2016

The Life and Death of King Richard II by William Shakespeare.

Richard II is one of William Shakespeare's earlier plays, written around 1595 - 1596, and it actually was written after Henry VI (Parts I, II, and III, 1590 - 1592) and Richard III (1592 - 1593). But, in terms of the chronology of the action, Richard II follows King John (1596 - 1597) and Edward III (perhaps written with Thomas Kyd, 1592 - 1593), and it precedes Henry IV Part I (1598) and Henry IV Part II (1600).

Portrait of Richard II,
dated 1390s.
Richard II, the final king of the House of Plantagenet, reigned from 21st June 1377 (following Edward III) to 30th September 1399 when he was deposed (removed) and Henry IV came to the throne. Because he was only ten years old when he was crowned he was aided by a series of continual councils. There was a fear that his uncle John of Gaunt (the first Duke of Lancaster, to whom Geoffrey Chaucer dedicated The Book of the Duchess on the death of Gaunt's wife Blanche) would attempt to seize the throne, so John of Gaunt was exiled from the councils however was still very influential despite this. During Richard II's reign there was the Peasants' Revolt (1381) which, it is thought, was handled well by Richard: he, at the young age of thirteen, met with one of the leaders of the Revolt, Wat Tyler and spoke to him. Richard II's men then murdered Tyler after a skirmish (his head was displayed on London Bridge), and Richard then went to speak with Tyler's army, making promises (which he ultimately broke), thus placating them. What is remarkable about this is that Richard II addressed Tyler and his men in English: previously kings following the Conquest (1066) spoke French (it's thought Richard's first language would have been French). Despite this initial success however there was concern of his dependence on the continual councils. In 1387 a group of nobles took control of the government - the Lords Appellant: they originally consisted of Thomas of Woodstock (the Duke of Gloucester, Richard's uncle),  Richard FitzAlan (the Earl of Arundel and of Surrey); and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. They were later joined by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (John of Gaunt's son, who would become Henry IV) and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham. In 1389, when Richard was twenty-two, he took control, and ten years later he began to take revenge on the Lords Appellant by executing or exiling the nobles. It is this period, Richard II's final two years as king, that Shakespeare writers about in Richard II

John of Gaunt
Portrait commissioned by Sir Edward Hoby (1593).
The play begins with a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray: Bolingbroke accuses de Mowbray of stealing money from the crown and plotting the death of his father the Duke of Gloucester. Attempts at reconciliation fails, so Richard orders a duel between the two however at the last moment changes his mind: he exiles Mowbray from England forever, and Bolingbroke for ten years, but again he changes his mind and imposes six years (this is apparently all very arbitrary). John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father who believes as others did that Richard II was responsible for the death of the Duke of Gloucester, dies shortly after warning Richard, "A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown".  When he dies Richard seizes his land and assets and leaves to deal with Ireland. On his return he finds many in support of the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, concerned with Richard II's incompetence and inconsistency. Bolingbroke and his army return from France and challenge Richard. He is forced to abdicate, Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, Richard is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle before he is executed by Sir Piers of Exton (it is thought that Richard II actually starved to death). 

Though Richard II essentially became a tyrant there was something very sad and poignant about his imprisonment in Pomfret Castle. Here he soliloquises about his fall from grace:
Richard II in prison at Pomfret Castle by J. Coghlan.
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, 'Come, little ones,' and then again,
'It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle's eye.'
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders; how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune's slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To cheque time broke in a disorder'd string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours: but my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack o' the clock.
This music mads me; let it sound no more;
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.
Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me!
For 'tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.
It is in his downfall that we truly see the two Richards: the King of England, by the grace of God (Dei Gratia), and a mortal man beset with sins and flaws. No longer surrounded by "a thousand flatterers" Richard attains self-knowledge. For this it is a very moving play.

Illustration from the 1901 edition of King Richard II.
Further Reading


  1. From Greek drama to Shakespearian history (or tragedy), huh? ;-) I really loved this play and the picture of Richard in prison is very poignant. I'd like to read more about him. By both watching The Hollow Crown and by listening to Rupert Graves rendition of Richard on the Arkangel CD, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for him. Whether that's deserved, or whether it's simply because of good acting, I'm not sure yet, but I'd like to find out.

    You really put down some wonderful background that will help readers get their bearings and appreciate the play much more. I always get nervous when I put English background into my reviews ...... it comes much better from a Brit, whom I know I can trust and who has had the background already because of your nationality! Phew! ;-)

    Great review! :-)

    1. I'm reading too many tragedies! I actually had a nightmare about Prometheus a few nights ago (horrible it was!).

      I'll have to watch Richard II so I'll look out for The Hollow Crown.

      I don't have that much background knowledge on English history I'm afraid. I've read a few things here and there so I do have some confidence, but at school I seem to think we did more world history than English history :)

  2. every time(not a reference) i read shakspeare i'm just astounded by his extended metaphors. i think it's one trait of his writing that makes it so effective. and he has seemed to have an unlimited store of them! and the timing with which he introduces them is so measured and accurate; it's like he very rarely misjudges in trying for the impression he wants... wish i could do that...haha

    1. Yes, he is a very good writer. I'm appreciating him more as I get older :)


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