JULY / AUG 2016: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO
For heaven’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 killed,
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits […]
- III, ii, 150-157
Richard II is a historical play written by William Shakespeare, the first of the Henriad preceding the War of the Roses cycle. Readers may be familiar with the play from the first series of the BBC production The Hollow Crown in which Ben Whishaw played the titular character, or from the recent RSC stage production starring David Tennant. The play holds a curious place among canon in that it’s not staged as frequently due to its introspective nature. Its structural nature is also different from many of his other plays, being one of the few completely written in verse. Nonetheless Richard II is an intriguing play worth checking out for all of its rich themes and characterizations.
Structurally, the play is flawless. The symmetry of events, the dual-and-opposite natures of Richard II and his cousin Bolingbroke, and the way that events are inverted and their fortunes effectively reversed over the course of the story is absolutely fascinating. At the start of the play, Richard is in power and Bolingbroke is exiled after his challenge against the Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, but by the end of the play it is Bolingbroke in power and Richard is, at first, banished from the public eye before his subsequent murder. The opening scene of gages thrown down before Richard was later repeated under Bolingbroke’s recent installation as ruler. Overall, it’s interesting how Richard broke the ancient law of inheritance by forfeiting Bolingbroke’s lands after his father’s death, whereas later Bolingbroke would “inherit” the Crown from Richard after deposing him.
What is also interesting about the play is the nuances of the characters: in one sense, yes, Richard II is the titular character and protagonist of the play, and Bolingbroke is the antagonist in how he gradually challenges Richard II for the Crown. But both characters have their strengths and flaws: the audience can feel sympathetic towards Richard and his situation but at the same time the play shows that he is not the greatest of managers, his decision-making is poor, and he doesn’t inspire confidence amongst his supporters. Bolingbroke’s motivations on the other hand can either be interpreted that he machinated events from the beginning or that he only set out to reclaim the title and lands that Richard had taken from him and events escalated along the way. All of the characters in this play have their interests and motivations for acting the way they do, most in the name of politics and power, but unlike other plays the characters occupy a gray area of morality and motivation.
A key theme is identity. This is the most introspective part of this play, that struggle within Richard II as he’s forced to give up the Crown when all he’s ever known is being king. Without his kingship, who is he? Much as it was amusing to see him take advantage of his deposition scene with flourished words before the court, the questions he raises within himself shows how he associates himself with the Crown and what he’s losing. Is it possible to separate himself from the Crown? Politics aside, Richard appears unable to, which contributes to his personal tragedy.
Aside from personal identity, national identity is also another theme that runs throughout the play. When Bolingbroke is banished from England, he laments the notion of leaving the home. Later on his father, John of Gaunt, also speaks of their country, the imagery reminiscent of ideas later associated with England:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptre isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
- II, i, 40-50
The play also touches on the changing attitudes in society, the gradual turnover from divine right as espoused by Richard II and towards the notion of a good king is a good leader supported by the people, as represented by Bolingbroke. Aside from its structural symmetry, it’s interesting to examine these themes of changing values and understanding of leadership and how it lends into the richness and tragedy of its characters. It certainly touches on almost every aspect of the play, from the thematic overtures to the characters’ motivations to the course of the plot.
Of course, Richard II is not the end of the story as Bolingbroke’s—later Henry IV—troubles continue into the rest of the Henriad. But Richard II’s story tragically ends in a reversal of fortunes, of a king dethroned and denied the opportunity to explore life without kingship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lianne M. Bernardo is a 20-something Canadian who loves history, coffee, period dramas, photography, and (European) football. She is an avid reader, from fantasy to classic literature to historical fiction, and extensively blogs about them on her website, eclectictales.com. When she isn’t reading, she’s working on her writing projects. Her Twitter: @eclectictales.