Ismail Serageldin


Shakespeare’s Richard II: Reflections on the Undoing of a King


Shakespeare’s Richard II:

Reflections on the Undoing of a King


Ismail Serageldin



Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is 400 years since Shakespeare passed away, and he still amazes us by his prolific genius and his unique protean imagination.  We stand in awe of the craftsmanship and mastery of language that this great poet and dramatist possessed.  But we are also overwhelmed by how he uses this language in the service of his plays to give superb multi-layered complex creations and well-rounded personalities, be they heroes or villains.


Indeed, if Shakespeare could see the feet of clay in his mighty heroes, and never lost sight of the human dimension of historical dramas, he also recognized the humanity imbedded in the frailty of his weaker heroes.  He gives them some of the most important and beautiful lines of the English language, and invites the audience to recognize these multiple facets of their very human personalities.


But Shakespeare was skillful in leaving enough ambiguity in his constructions so that his audiences would be able to participate in filling out his creations.  That is why he speaks to people from different cultures who, as they do not speak English, are not as sensitive to the power of his language, and across time despite the enormous changes that have occurred in our societies.  So we can find an Egyptian Lear, a Russian Hamlet, a Japanese Macbeth… his creations continue to intrigue and beguile us by not being completely determined, by having that element of contradiction that not only surprises but also opens up the possibilities for further and novel interpretations.


So, let us discuss one of these frail and weaker heroes, and go to Shakespeare’s history plays, to see how he chose to present Richard II, a weak and capricious king who gets deposed by his cousin. It is one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s history plays, although it repays a careful reading.




First: Allow me to introduce the bare facts of the historical person of Richard II.

Second: I would like to discuss the main levers of the play as I see them;

Third: We can proceed with a brief analysis of the play’s highlights;

Fourth: Let us discuss how the complex character of Richard is developed with the participation of the audience;

Finally: I will end with some general observations on what makes this play so interesting to me.


I.  Richard II: The Historical Figure


Richard II (1367 –1400) ascended the throne as a child of ten in 1377, and was deposed at the age of 32 in 1399.  


Richard initially handled himself well, but a growing dependence on a small number of courtiers alienated noblemen who had political power, and who took effective control of the government for a few years. In 1397, he took his revenge on these nobles, and the next two years have been described by historians as Richard's "tyranny".   In 1399, after John of Gaunt died, the king disinherited Gaunt's son, Henry of Bolingbroke, who had previously been exiled, and who then invaded England in June 1399 with a small force that quickly grew in numbers. Meeting little resistance, Bolingbroke deposed Richard and had himself crowned as King Henry IV.  Richard died in captivity early the next year.


Richard's posthumous reputation has to a large extent been shaped by Shakespeare, whose play Richard II, focused on the last two years of Richard’s reign and portrayed Richard's misrule and Bolingbroke's taking over of the throne as responsible for the 15th century “Wars of the Roses”.   These were a series of intrigues, plots and battles that pitted two branches of the Plantagenet lineage: the House of Lancaster (starting with Henry IV) under the heraldic banner of the Red Rose against the House of York under the heraldic banner of the White Rose.  All that was to end with another Richard (the infamous Richard III) who would be deposed by another Henry, this time Henry the VII who would establish the House of Tudor on the throne of England, and whose son, Henry VIII would be one of the most famous monarchs in history.



II.  Richard II: The Shakespearean Creation


Written in 1595, Richard II, was politically sensitive.  It treated of a king deposed by another and sitting monarchs did not like discussion of the possibilities of usurping the throne.  But the play was allowed, it was popular and it was published as a Quarto in 1597. By 1601 it was out of theatrical performance.  But Shakespeare was not writing history for scholars, he was writing a play for the theater, and that required plot, characterization and dramatic levers to maintain the momentum of the play and keep the audience engaged.  Here I would like to discuss the main levers of the play as I see them. 


First is the story.  The play focuses only on the last two years of King Richard's life, when the early successes are forgotten, and we see the capricious monarch making many unjust and unpopular decisions in a very arbitrary manner.  We also see the emergence of Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, who will depose Richard and become the future Henry IV.  This part of the structure is beautifully captured by the image of the buckets in Act IV.


Second is the evolution of the character of Richard, which is constructed by the interaction of the audience with the successive appearances and speeches of the King.  The playwright’s words are very skillfully deployed to allow Richard to evolve as a person, so that he becomes a well-rounded character, but at the same time – and that is the difficult tour de force – the audience feels for him as a human being, but considers him unworthy of keeping the throne.


Third: the passages that reflect on what it means to be a king.  Here some of the most beautiful poetic statements in the English language are deployed to question the divine right of kings, are they not mere mortals like the rest of us, after all? And it opens the door a crack to the idea that the throne should go to the person who has the most merit (in this case, Henry Bolingbroke).


Fourth: is the emergence of the Soliloquy as an important part of Shakespeare’s toolkit.  It will be further developed, reaching its ultimate expression in the great Soliloquy of Hamlet, but it is here a powerful tool that Shakespeare deploys to establish a new kind of direct link between the character of Richard and the audience.


So how are all these levers deployed in the play?  Let us proceed with a brief analysis of the play’s highlights.



III.  How the Play Evolves:


The play is composed of five acts covering only the last two years of Richard’s life, which were called “Richard’s tyranny”.


The first Act sets the stage by starting with King Richard sitting on his throne in full regalia, exuding pomp and majesty.  The King is to judge a dispute between his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and a certain Thomas Mowbray whom Bolingbroke accuses of murder of the Duke of Gloucester, although Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, believes that the king himself is involved in the murder.  Richard fails to make a firm decision or to quiet the antagonists and they decide to fight a duel. But King Richard interrupts the duel at the very beginning and sentences both men to banishment from England. The king's decision can be seen as the first mistake in a series that will lead eventually to his overthrow and death.


In the second Act, John of Gaunt, uncle of the King, dies and Richard II seizes all of his land and money (which rightfully belongs to his son, Henry Bolingbroke, the king’s cousin), and we learn from an angered nobility that Richard is mismanaging the country: he is wasting England's money, fining the nobles for crimes their ancestors committed, confiscating properties, as he did with Gaunt’s legacy, and he is taxing the commoners, and all of that to fund his lifestyle and his desired war with Ireland.


The enraged nobles help the banished Bolingbroke return to England and plan to overthrow Richard II. King Richard leaves England to administer the war in Ireland, and Bolingbroke takes the opportunity to assemble an army and invade the north coast of England and wins over the Duke of York, whom Richard has left in charge of his government during his absence.


Act III is the turning point of the play:  Bolingbroke grows in strength as Richard’s support melts away.  Richard asserts his belief that Kings rule by divine right and cannot be deposed, for they are anointed by an irremovable balm, as he tells those around him:  


"Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm from an anointed king"


-- III.ii.50-51


Yet it is also in Act III that Richard begins to see the end coming and recognizes the unstoppable rise of Bolingbroke, and that he muses about the real meaning of being a king….  It has some of the finest poetry in the play or any other play… Listen to this great speech by King Richard II, reflecting on the frailty of worldly power and the mortality of kings:


For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground                              155

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 poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;     

All murder'd - for within the hollow crown                             160

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his court and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,                165

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!                    170


-- Richard II – Act 3, Scene 2, lines 155-170


Farewell … king !


The pause and emphasis on the word “king” changes the sense of “farewell” and turn what could have been a pathos verging on bathos into a hard edged sarcasm that underlines the thrust of mockery that runs through the whole passage…


Now hear him in this eloquent conclusion to this remarkable passage:


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,                              175

Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a king?


 -- Richard II – Act 3, Scene 2, lines 171-177


By the end of the act, Bolingbroke has moved from his first claims which were limited to getting his land back and now additionally claims the throne.  Richard gives in and we are now – for the rest of the play – to witness the continued rise of Henry Bolingbroke and the continued decline of Richard II. 


In Act IV, the actual transfer of power occurs, and Shakespeare gives Richard some very beautiful lines, including the abdication speech where Richard is foregoing the trappings and symbols of power that he hands over to the new king Henry, and he says:


Mark me how I will undo myself,

I give this heavy weight from off my head

And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,

The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;                  [205]

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,

With mine own hands I give away my crown,

With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,

With mine own breath release all duty's rites:

All pomp and majesty I do forswear;                               [210]

My manors, rents, revenues I forego;

My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:

God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!

God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!

Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,         [215]

And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!

Long mayst thou live in Richard's seat to sit,

And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!

God save King Harry, unking'd Richard says,

And send him many years of sunshine days!                   [220]

What more remains?


-- Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 202-221


The transfer of power has been chronicled throughout the play, with the rise of Bolingbroke and the decline of Richard, and is beautifully captured in another great poetic image, where Richard in a speech in Act IV sees the process as two buckets one rising and one falling…


Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;

Here cousin:

On this side my hand, and on that side yours.

Now is this golden crown like a deep well

That owes two buckets, filling one another,

The emptier ever dancing in the air,

The other down, unseen and full of water:

That bucket down and full of tears am I,

Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.


-- Richard II; IV.i.184ff.


In Act V, the final act, we see King Henry IV putting down latent rebellions and punishing the rebels.  Richard is in prison in the castle of Pomfret.  Exton, an ambitious nobleman, goes to the prison and murders the former king.  King Henry repudiates the murderer.  


And in a skillful construct, Shakespeare underlies the transfer of power.  Like bookends, the play that opened with Richard sitting on the throne in pomp and majesty, now ends with Henry IV sitting on the throne in pomp and majesty. 



IV.  Building the Character of Richard II


The play is really a lot more about the character of Richard II than it is about the events and plot.  The play not only dissects the enigmatic personality of the king, it does so with the full participation of the audience as the playwright skillfully brings forth the inner thoughts of his protagonist.    Indeed, as Greenblatt observed: “Richard II marked a major advance in the play-wright’s ability to represent inwardness”.


So the play invites the audience to focus on the complex character of the king.   The skills of an actor like Burbage enabled Shakespeare to create complex characters.  Indeed, acting, called “personation” was being recognized as such at that time.     But good actors too, needed to be liberated from the sing-song delivery of totally metered and rhymed verse, they needed a new dramatic language to explore the minds of the characters they represented.  Shakespeare was able to throw convention to the winds, to use meter and rhyme when he wanted, as well as blank verse where it served his purpose.   And thus, out of this collaboration between great actors and great writing  the possibility of great acting had been created, and it would keep “acting Shakespeare” at the top of the ambitions of aspiring actors to this day.


But Shakespeare gives us much more than beautiful words.  He builds the character of Richard II in collaboration with the audience, through the talents of the actor.  He shows us complexity and evolution of the character throughout the play.


Richard II is complete in itself, and the king is virtually the first of the tragic heroes who is shown to have an inner soul as well as a public persona. This is underlined by Richard’s habit of studying himself from the outside, as it were, always calling for a mirror, finding in his reflection a king stripped of all his belongings (III.iii.142ff.), seeing himself as an analogue of Christ, betrayed by Judases and condemned by Pilates.


The king is a bad ruler and a weak person.  Yet Richard seduces the audience with the tune of his voice and the beauty of his language.  Sometimes affected and self-pitying, it nevertheless imposes itself on the audience’s mind:


What must the King do now? Must he submit?

The King shall do it. Must he be depos’d?

The King shall be contented. Must he lose

The name of king? A’ God’s name let it go.

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,

My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,

My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,

My figur’d goblets for a dish of wood,

My sceptre for a palmer’s walking-staff,

My subjects for a pair of carved saints;

And my large kingdom for a little grave,

A little little grave, an obscure grave––

Or I’ll be buried in the king’s high way,

Some way of common trade, where subjects’ feet

May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head;

For on my heart they tread now whilst I live,

And buried once, why not upon my head?


--- (III.iii.143–59)


Now here we have a turning point in the play, a point that requires incredible skill in writing and acting, as it fulfills a double purpose: it allows us to feel for Richard and sympathize with him as a human being, someone who has suffered a savage loss, who falls from the uppermost reaches of power and majesty and is cast down into the abyss; but – and therein lies the skill – to make us feel that he was unworthy of keeping this high office.  For Shakespeare gives the king elegant lines to speak, but they show us a weak, peevish self-pity, rather than the dignified posture of one who deserves to bear a crown, one who would by his demeanor in this difficult moment show how to confront the disastrous turn of events with stately nobility.   Why does the passage work?  Because it underlines that Richard considers that he is “owed” all that a king has, but does not show the slightest sense of obligation or responsibility that we all expect a Monarch to have towards his duties.   Self-pity is not a quality to be admired in a monarch. 


Now that we talk of a collaboration between author and audience, we must underline an additional complexity.  That is the duality of the audience that Shakespeare was writing for.  On one level, he had the educated and sophisticated aristocrats and gentry, whose taste and even language was special to them, and then there were the masses, largely uneducated and illiterate, that filled the ground of the theater.  They spoke a different language.  And if Shakespeare relied on the aristocrats for sponsorship and political support, he relied for his financial survival on the “groundlings,” many of whom could neither read nor write.  


How Shakespeare’s language and dramatic formulations solved that problem has been splendidly elaborated by Ted Hughes in his Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, and he even talks of a formula that Shakespeare used in his writing to be able to reach both parts of his audience and unite them in their desired interaction with the play.


But wait! For there is another aspect to this complex rhetorical maneuver by Shakespeare.  Yes, this kind of language is admirably suited to show the weak and vain side of Richard, one that would alienate the audience from him, but at the same time, it also lays the foundation for the audience to relate to him more later in the play, as we are invited to share in the evolution of his thinking as he overcomes his peevish self-pity and develops a more reflective and philosophical posture…  It does so by establishing the technique of the soliloquy as a verbal link between the character’s inner thoughts and the audience, and by exposing his weakness it also exposes that he has indeed been wronged, and thereby creates the necessary mental posture to appreciate him when the wrong remains and the weakness is transformed into reflection and thoughtful interaction, if not acceptance, of his unfortunate condition.


And indeed, when we see him at the end of the play, the effect is changed.  Here the King speaks thoughtfully. Although Shakespeare had made use of soliloquies before Richard II, this would be the first to produce this effect of serious meditation.   It is a long meditation, where in a stolen, frozen moment of time, the character is allowed to share with the audience his torment, his inner thoughts and the struggle of his conscience and intellect.   Here are a few lines from that meditation:



As thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd

With scruples and do set the word itself

Against the word:


Whate’er I be,

Nor I nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d

With being nothing.                                          (V.v.1–41)



Note the complexity, with its suggestion of self-regard, in the rhymes and antitheses of the last few lines. It may be that the need to represent––to provide for the personation of––a king full of tender self-regard made the inwardness of those later Shakespearean soliloquies possible. It opened up a new rhetorical range, a range that Shakespeare was to explore almost alone. The grammatical concision of the lines prefigures greater things in the future. The art of the great soliloquies was born.


Indeed, in this meditation we see some interesting dualities: beyond the obvious one of the inner and public self, there is the dialogue between the mind and the soul, there is the ability of Richard to look at himself as if from the outside and discuss his own condition, and finally there is also the duality in the play, between Bolingbroke and Richard, a duality well-captured in the image of the two buckets.





V.  Conclusions:


Ladies and gentlemen,


At the outset, I did say that Shakespeare was the universal genius that creative minds keep turning to time and again.  An Egyptian Lear, a Russian Hamlet, a Japanese Macbeth… all possible, for great works of art allow others to take from them and build the new artist’s own creations.   They have that studied ambiguity and that peculiar imagery and powerful mystery that invite such interaction.   In conclusion, we have to note several important aspects to this play:


  • It sets the stage for Shakespeare’s subsequent History Plays, and certainly can be considered the first in a tetralogy of the Henry plays;
  • It raises questions about the right of kings to rule by simple hereditary right, and introduces the Machiavellian concept of government by an able prince;
  • It invites the audience to interact with the writer in defining the character of Richard, and establishes a remarkable evolution in the personality of the King;
  • It deals with dualities in interesting and intriguing ways;
  • It introduces the art of the soliloquy to enable the audience to share in the character’s inner thoughts; and
  • It has some very fine thoughts and excellent poetry to boot.


Above all, I think, the skill deployed in showing the evolution of Richard’s character, and the ability to get the audience to feel for him as a human being as he becomes more reflective and thoughtful, while still recognizing that he was a bad ruler is an achievement, a tour de force, that makes this play deserving of more recognition than it has received.


Through the work of the pioneers of semiotics, we have learned that text is a construct of both author and reader.  We bring to it our aspirations and our fears, our hopes and our dreams, our concerns and our memories.  The skillful writer is one who opens up possibilities.   Shakespeare is more than skillful.  To use words Seamus Heaney used in another context, Shakespeare’s language is seductive by the run of his verse; it is distinctive by its posture in the mouth and in the ear, remarkable in its constant drama of tone and tune.   But more importantly, the temporal and the didactic passes away with time, the work that engages us intellectually and emotionally is the one that remains.  And Shakespeare’s work certainly remains, and so does the inwardness of his characters.


“Strategic opaqueness” is the key to successfully promoting this “inwardness”.  .  If it starts with Richard II, and evolves in Julius Caesar it finds its true strength in Hamlet.  As Greenblatt observes, Shakespeare had reinvented the tragedy by “radical excision”…   Shakespeare limited the amount of causal explanation to the minimum that a tragic plot needed to function, and the amount of explicit psychological rationale to what a character needed to be compelling.  The opacity that results gives greater room for empathy and interaction.


Shakespeare, with his poetic talent, his mastery of technique, his unerring sense of drama and his insightful understanding of human nature creates clever multi-layered plays and prismatic characters, Shakespeare opens up unending vistas, multiple mirrors and windows, images that engage our imagination and our intellect, as we find and loose ourselves in his creations, as each successive generation interacts and reinvents his text…


Ben Jonson was right.  Shakespeare is indeed not of an age, but for all time.


Thank you. 




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