Why This Play?:
I’m all backwards and upside-down when it comes to my reading of the history plays. I’ve been saving the first tetralogy for closer to time when the second round of The Hollow Crown comes out later this year…except I kicked off the entire canon-reading project with Richard III. I dove into the second tetralogy instead…except I skipped Richard II in favor of the Henry plays. Admittedly, I studied Richard II in college and found it boring and confusing (not so this time around). I hoped by starting with the funnier, more action-filled Henry IV Part 1, that I would somehow care for some of the characters (i.e. Bolingbroke/Henry IV) and consequences of Richard II before I dove back into the play. Or something. I don’t know, it all made sense in my head last fall when I started reading them all out of order.
Upon reading Richard II, I had the weirdest sense of déjà vu. A single person’s face kept emerging in my mind’s eye whenever I read Richard’s lines. I’m a stay-at-home mama now, but I have an eleven-year career behind me. I was very lucky in that time to have several amazing, supportive mentors and managers. Except one. And I’ll be damned if Richard II doesn’t spot-on remind me of the worst boss I ever had. Is it wrong that I find myself siding with Bolingbroke in this play?
So What Happens?:
The play begins circa 1398, kicking off an entire series of Shakespearean history plays (8 total, both tetralogies, see link above if you don’t know what that means) and a crazy, century-long, back-and-forth power struggle within England. Richard II is the king, but his kingdom is currently unsettled. There’s a whole backstory before the play even begins that’s helpful to know – the King has several uncles and cousins, all descended from the previous king, Edward III (Richard is Edward’s dead eldest son’s son). His youngest uncle, the Duke of Gloucester was messing around with a faction to overthrow the king, and he was thus imprisoned. Once in prison, he was murdered (unclear by whom). With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
So the action of the play begins with Richard calling forth two up-in-arms nobles to hear their grievances. His cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, accuses Thomas Mowbray of murdering the Duke of Gloucester (the uncle of both Richard and Henry) and stealing some of the king’s money. Mowbray denies everything…but admits that he did once plot to murder John of Gaunt (Richard’s uncle, Henry’s father), although he’s totally sorry about that now. [It’s an odd moment – does he mention that because he feels guilty, because he’s plain stupid, or because everyone knows about the plot and he’s merely addressing the elephant in the room? Hmmm.] Richard is uncomfortable with the whole topic of uncle-murder (Gloucester did go to jail for trying to overthrow him after all!), so he tries to convinces the two men to simply forget their quarrel and move on. But that ain’t happening; both of their honor has been assaulted and gages have been thrown. The king rules to let them duel at a later date to determine the whole mess.
Elsewhere, the Duchess of Gloucester (widow of the murdered duke) goes to see her brother-in-law, the elderly John of Gaunt. She wants him to somehow avenge Gloucester’s death. Gaunt declines – he can’t exactly do that, as the death was most likely ordered by the king. There’s a lot of language here that reminds the audience that the king is seen as an extension of God, his “deputy”. Then, it’s finally the day of the big duel. It’s very official. Richard presides with other nobles, an the Lord Marshall has both Bolingbroke and Mowbray formally announce their concerns and then face one another to begin the fight. But wait! Just as the trumpets sound to start, Richard stops the whole ordeal and confers with some other big-wigs (including John of Gaunt). Very suddenly, Richard then opts to banish Bolingbroke from the realm for 10 years, and Mowbray for life. Aw, never mind, since he’s family and all, Richard will reduce Bolingbroke’s banishment to six years. Gaunt is distraught that he may never see his son again, and Richard is hoping that will keep Bolingbroke away long enough so that he can’t win over the English public out from under the king. Then, news arrives that the Irish are rebelling from the kingdom, and Richard has to figure out a way to pay for an army to suppress them. After all that, Gaunt is starting to get extra sickly.
Dying Gaunt hangs out with his brother, the Duke of York. They talk about how Richard is surrounded by flatterers, and it’s wreaking havoc on his leadership skills. Gaunt gives a beautifully haunting speech about the greatness of England (which little British school kids used to have to memorize!)…and how now the kingdom has gone to pot, thanks to the king (this part of the speech was usually omitted from patriotic memorization). Richard arrives to check in on his uncle, and Gaunt and he trade barbs. Gaunt maintains that Richard is a bad king, and Richard declares that Gaunt is an old fool. Gaunt exits, dies offstage, and Northumberland (a noble who greatly supports Gaunt’s side of the family) confirms his death to the king. At that, Richard says that he’ll be seizing all of Gaunt’s money and property – the stuff that is the rightful inheritance of the banished Bolingbroke. The Duke of York has observed this entire exchange, and he calls Richard out for this wrong and advises that the seizure could turn a lot of his subjects against him. Richard ignores him and leaves. Northumberland confers with other nobles, Ross and Willoughby, that this whole business stinks. He then confesses that he has plans to meet up with Bolingbroke to set the king’s injustices right.
Later on, Richard is gone to Ireland to put down the rebellion there, leaving Duke of York has his proxy in England. Queen Isabel remains in England, where she is full of a nameless worry. Turns out her instincts are right – she receives news from Richard’s followers that Bolingbroke is coming back to England to claim his birthright, and that he has the support of several nobles in this action. Not great news while the king is away. The Duke of York arrives and convinces the Queen to hide away with Duchess of Gloucester…but they then receive news that she’s died. York does not agree with Richard’s actions, but he steadfastly remains loyal to the king and will do what he can to prevent an overthrow. Fearful of the power shift, Richard’s favorites, Bushy, Green, and Bagot all disperse (Bagot to Ireland to fetch the king, the others to hiding).
Up on the coast, Bolingbroke has landed! Northumberland has taken a hard journey to meet him but is ecstatic to be by his side. A bunch of the nobles swear loyalty to him – even though Bolingbroke claims he only returned to claim his property and new title, Duke of Lancaster. The Duke of York comes to meet him. Bolingbroke happily hails him, until York chastises that Bolingbroke should not be here against the dictates of the king. York strongly maintains that the king is anointed by God and that he cannot support a rebellion. But since he’s an old, weak man he also can’t exactly stop it. Elsewhere, the Earl of Salisbury tries to convince the Welsh army to hang around to stop any possible uprising while the king is en route back from Ireland. The Welsh captain declines; he thinks Richard’s probably dead. And Richard’s support systematically crumbles.
Bolingbroke is holding court (so to speak) over his supporters, and they have captured Richard’s old favorites, Bushy and Green. Bolingbroke accuses them of having led the king astray and orders their executions. In the same breath, he asks Northumberland to send his kind greetings to the Queen, sort of a gesture to show her that she has nothing to fear. Seems legit.
Richard finally returns from Ireland. He’s happy to be in his beloved home, and ready to fight to defend his crown. His other cousin, Duke of Aumerle (York’s son), cautions him about Bolingbroke’s growing popular support. Richard brushes it off, saying God’s on the king’s side. Then the Earl of Salisbury pipes in that the Welsh army peaced out since they thought Richard was dead. Richard is completely rattled to hear that an army 20,000 strong is no longer on call. More news arrives to confirm that Bushy and Green are dead. Richard really loses it here, vacillating wildly from proud and pugnacious to defeated and death-obsessed. Word that the Duke of York has joined up with Bolingbroke is the nail in the coffin. Richard is devastated and resigns himself to see what fate brings.
Bolingbroke has heard all the same news and makes his way to Flint Castle, where Richard is holed up. Using Northumberland as messenger to the king, he claims that he’ll disperse any rebellion if he receives the lands/titles owed to him from Gaunt’s death and if his banishment is lifted (but if Richard doesn’t agree, then he threatens all-out war). Richard starts out with fighting words, condemning rebellion and claiming God curses usurpers. But when Northumberland presents Bolingbroke’s demands, Richard agrees that they seem fair. When Northumberland leaves, Richard nearly breaks down with worry and fear. The cousins then meet, and make a tentative peace. Meanwhile, the Queen is getting an airing with her ladies when she overhears some gardeners critiquing Richard’s reign. The Queen is understandably upset, and more so when the gardener affirms that Richard is now Bolingbroke’s prisoner.
Bolingbroke holds court, attempting to root out Gloucester’s murderer. Bagot lays the blame on the Duke of Aumerle, claiming he overheard the duke talking about murder. A few other guys pipe in to support this. Aumerle denies the whole business, and there’s a great throwing of gages as everyone is called a liar and all honor is apparently challenged (it’s actually a sort-of funny scene, particularly when Aumerle has to borrow someone else’s gage to challenge another accuser, since his has already been thrown).
Bolingbroke wants to postpone Aumerle’s trial so he can call Mowbray back from exile for testimony…but turns out that Mowbray’s dead. Duke of York arrives with news that Richard is willing to give up the throne to Bolingbroke as heir. [Side note – I meant to point out earlier that Richard doesn’t have kids, therefore no clear heir. As the next-in-line grandson of former King Edward III, Bolingbroke is actually the next logical choice in terms of lineage, never mind due to political overthrow. Adds to the fun contention of legitimacy in the resulting War of the Roses.]
The Bishop of Carlisle boldly speaks out, denouncing Bolingbroke as a traitor to the throne and family, even weirdly prophesying that generations of Englishmen will regret and pay for this usurping. Northumberland arrests Carlisle for treason…even though Bolingbroke isn’t actually the king just yet. Richard enters with his crown and scepter. York asks him to abdicate to Bolingbroke. Richard holds the crown out, in a small defiant moment, and tells Bolingbroke to “seize” it. Bolingbroke is annoyed; he thought Richard was going to go willingly. He has to ask Richard repeatedly if he will step down. Richard does hand over the crown and scepter, but while making sure everyone sees his bitterness over the ordeal. Northumberland tries to make him read out a paper of the charges held against him, but Richard claims he can’t see it through his tears. He requests the use of a mirror to gaze at his changed, brokenhearted self. He smashes the mirror; he is destroyed. He asks Bolingbroke the favor of being removed from the new king’s sight. Bolingbroke has Richard sent to the tower. Left alone, Richard’s supporters (Carlisle, Aumerle, and the Abbot of Westminster) decide to plot against the new king.
Richard is officially a prisoner at the Tower. Wife Isabel visits, finding a distraught Richard who has given up on his life now that his power is gone. Mournful at this drastic change in her husband, she urges him to not give in so easily. Northumberland butts in to transfer Richard to Pomfret Castle and to send Isabel back to France (her homeland). She protests, but Richard convinces her to go after a long, tearful goodbye. Elsewhere, the Duke of York tells his wife all about Bolingbroke’s coronation – apparently, he was cheered and beloved by all while the people dumped trash and dust out of their windows onto Richard as he rode by in procession. The outgoing king handled it gracefully, if sorrowfully. Their son Aumerle arrives, and York is super suspicious about a written “seal” that he’s wearing. Upon reading it, York discovers that Aumerle is part of the gang that is planning to murder the new King Henry. York is steadfastly loyal to the throne, no matter who is on it – he’s furious at his son's betrayal. The Duchess chastises him for placing loyalty to a new (dubious) king rather than to his own offspring. York storms off to deliver the seal (and to give up his treasonous son) to the king. Duchess instructs Aumerle to head straight to Henry to ‘fess up and apologize; she’s hot on his heels.
King Henry complains to Harry Percy about his unruly son (nice foreshadowing to Prince Hal!). Aumerle bursts in, begging for forgiveness over an unnamed sin. York follows in right after and reveals the murder plot to King Henry. Henry praises him heartily for his loyalty, saying it outweighs his son’s transgressions. The Duchess interrupts the whole scene, heading straight to her knees to plead for her son’s life. Everyone’s begging – Duchess and her son that Aumerle may live, and York (his own father!) that Aumerle may be properly punished for his vile treason. Henry is swayed and allows that Aumerle may live, but that the other plotters will pay. In a separate little scene, a nobleman named Exton says that he’s pretty sure the king gave him wink-wink-nod-nod indication to kill Richard.
Richard moons about his prison cell, comparing it to the world and his thoughts to its inhabitants. He hears music, which only makes him think of how his time is running out. A horse groom comes to visit to share a little kindness, reflecting on Richard’s reign. The jailer brings his supper, but refuses when Richard requests that he taste it first. Richard gets fully fired up for the first time in the whole play! He beats the jailer, Exton and other guards rush in, and Richard fights them as well, killing two! Exton stabs him, and Richard dies, proclaiming himself as king to the very end. Back at the king’s castle, Northumberland gives the rundown on which disloyal nobles have been executed and put on display. Henry doles out thanks to those who helped him rise to power, and in a strange bit of magnanimity, lets the Bishop of Carlisle off without punishment (since he shows “sparks of honour”). Exton enters, revealing Richard’s body. Henry is not pleased (he wanted him dead, but he never actually instructed it, jeez!). Exton is banished and a guilt-ridden king announces his intention to travel to the Holy Land to repent.
Check This Out:
There is a solid motif of the earth going on, pervading the entire play. The word itself is mentioned 32 times in the full text. The earth is addressed as a beloved person by both Gaunt and Richard. It’s the ultimate mother, and certainly always female, referred to by its “bosom” or as “barren”. It is blessed, invoked, caressed. It literally envelopes us all when we die and are buried. Yet as Richard falls, the motif changes, and the earth is then called “cursed” and “base”, particularly by the Queen. There’s definitely a thesis here somewhere that parallels the literal earth as country/nation -- the country that turns on its own king. How did I not write a paper on this while I was at UCLA?
NERD ALERT on semantics of pronouns! In a small but vital moment in IV.i.95-97 (right before York enters), Bolingbroke is already using the royal first person plural, and he’s not even king yet. The cheeky minx. “Lords appellants, your differences shall all rest under gage till we assign you to your days of trial.” This line should never, ever, ever be cut from productions. It’s a great contrast to the beginning of Act V – there, the newly crowned King Henry does not use the royal we when he inquires about the intimate matter which bothers him most: his raucous son, Prince Hal. He resumes it when he’s in a more official mindset later in the scene (when approached by Aumerle).
This finally spurred me on to watch the first episode of The Hollow Crown series! And it was just as glorious and entertaining as all the reviews/ratings claim. An excellent cast, and I was so impressed with Ben Whishaw – Richard is a largely unlikable character, and he managed all his wild swings in temperament beautifully, even garnering all proper audience sympathy by the story’s tragic ending. The only thing I didn’t care for? A couple of hit-you-over-the-head-with-symbolism shots: Richard II written in sand, being washed away by waves, and the final pan from Richard’s corpse up to the statue of Christ on the cross. Both a little condescending to the audience, who already understands the ephemeral nature of power and the comparison of Richard to Christ (which he says earlier in a speech!!). Sheesh.
There are lots of interviews with varying actors about the role of Richard. I like this short one with David Tennant, who has played him for awhile now.
Thoughts & Themes:
You could look at this play as the rise of a man, perhaps he’s a straight-forward and honest dude who simply wants what’s just, or maybe he’s a covertly opportunist usurper. You could look at it as an examination of the nature of rule, if it is deemed by God’s will or meant to be seized by righteous man. I choose to view it as a character study of a leader: a wholly unprepared, weak, petty man who little understood the ways of his people, a leader who was almost entirely responsible for his own demise. Sympathetic to him or no, Richard is a tragic figure because of his own ineptitude and vainglory. You wonder how these kinds of people ever end up in leadership, but it happens all the time (just look at the 2016 presidential election!).
I once had a boss just like Richard II – this is NOT an exaggeration. I won’t go into full details on this person out of professional courtesy; you’ll just have to take my word on the comparison. Reading this play and seeing the film brought back all sorts of memories, and I’m feeling the need to exorcise some demons (for my own sanity!) without actually naming names. Shall we just say, if you find yourself in any of the following situations with a colleague, a friend, or a roommate, you need to save yourself and set forth steps for either their immediate overthrow (Bolingbroke style, naturally) or to neatly and quickly remove yourself from their poisonous presence.
Signs you may have a Richard II in your life:
1) “…yet one but flatters us” (a.k.a The Bushy/Bagot/Green Problem) – If your buddy just wants to surround himself with a bunch of yes men, then you have a problem. True adults are capable of listening to occasional, reasonable feedback. You should not be expected to jump every single time you are asked. A good leader and/or friend does not constantly expect you to drop everything whenever they have a minor request.
2) “How long shall I be patient? Ah, how long shall tender duty make me suffer wrong?” (On Giving Advice to a Meglomaniac) – Do you feel the need to make subtle suggestions to your co-worker/friend/family member, to try to help him see the bigger picture beyond his own interests? Or maybe you attempt to point out danger ahead because you care about this person? Does he utterly ignore your advice whenever it is offered? Some call it headstrong, but you should examine the situation to make sure it’s not out and out foolishness.
3) “Stay, the king hath thrown his warder down” (i.e. Whateva, I Do What I Want!) – You never know when your personal Richard will change his mind. It will be at the drop of a hat, and you will seldom receive any reason whatsoever for the change. You’re just expected to roll with it, no matter what. Be warned: he also likes to do this at the very last minute, when other plans have already been carried out.
4) “I had forgot myself; am I not king? Awake, thou coward majesty! thou sleepest.” (The Issue that Is Act III, Scene ii) – In this single scene, Richard has a wild vacillation in moods and faith in own abilities. He goes from triumph over his return to his kingdom, to an angry surety over his absolute power, to fear over the loss of an army, to despair over deaths of his friends, to despondent surrender. Let me guess – the person in your life probably also has crazy mood swings depending on the type of news he hears too, eh?
5) “A lunatic lean-witted fool, presuming on an ague's privilege” (Sticks and Stones) – You better believe this person will resort to name calling if he thinks that you’re making any attempt to seize his (supposed) power. Gossip about you may also occur.
6) “What must the king do now? must he submit?” (Time to Play Ostrich) – For all his bluster, this dude really doesn’t like confrontation. He’ll hide his head in the sand until he absolutely has to deal with a situation.
7) “O flattering glass, like to my followers in prosperity, thou dost beguile me!” (**DRAMA**) – Alright, Mr. De Mille; I’m ready for my close up! Richard certainly knows how to put on a show. He uses props and high emotion to get his point across and does it devastatingly. Anything to garner sympathy, but mostly this person just really loves an audience.
8) “The lining of his coffers shall make coats to deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.” (Opportunism + Retaliation = Winning!) – Watch out, because the second that you are out of the picture, this snake find some ingenious way to throw you under the bus. He’ll either take credit for all the hard work you’ve done or will blame any/every issue and problem on you (never mind that you had nothing to do with it!) – you know, now that you’re not around to defend yourself. Who’s fact-checking anyway?
So, dear reader, beware. If you find yourself nodding as you read the points above, if you can attribute four or more of them to a person in your life…it may be time to extract yourself from the situation. Sadly, there isn’t really any way to course correct. You can certainly have sympathy for this person (we all did for Richard eventually), but he/she is beyond help and he/she wouldn’t accept any if you tried. Take it from me. Been there, done that, considered buying this decal for my personal Richard:
I'm enjoying all the drama lately, and I just saw a great free Shakespeare production of a particular show -- Hamlet! So we'll be tackling that one next while it's fresh in my mind. I'll ready my skull...