A Study Guide
.........When staging Richard II, William Shakespeare assumed that his Elizabethan audience was familiar with historical events that led up to the events depicted in the play. Here is a summary of the historical events with which modern readers need to familiarize themselves to fully understand the play:
.........The historical Richard II was born in 1367, reigned as king from 1377 to 1399, and died in 1400. When he was only ten, he acceded to the throne as the grandson of King Edward III and ruled under the protection and guidance of John of Gaunt (1340-1399), Duke of Lancaster. In the first two decades of Richard’s reign, Gaunt spent much of his time fending off or pacifying other nobles seeking to control the young monarch–and England.
.........In 1386, these nobles persuaded Parliament to establish a commission to supervise and manipulate the teenage king. One of the ringleaders of these nobles was Gaunt’s brother, Thomas Woodstock, the Earl of Gloucester. Another was Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford (later to become King Henry IV). A third was Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk. Two years later, the parliamentary faction ousted and even executed some of Richard’s advisers and friends. However, in 1389, Richard, when he was twenty-two and fully of age to rule England, asserted his royal authority, regained control of the government, and forged a settlement with the rebellious nobles. One of its provisions was to grant Woodstock a measure of control in Ireland. The king also turned Mowbray into an ally by using him to execute military and diplomatic missions. He also made peace with Bolinbroke–or so it seemed.
.........But the king never really forgave any of the nobles who earlier opposed him. In 1397, he had Woodstock (referred to in the play as Gloucester) arrested and imprisoned at Calais, France, under the watchful eye of Mowbray. Woodstock was later murdered in mysterious circumstances, probably at the behest of the vengeful king. Another noble–the Duke of Surrey–was beheaded. A third was exiled for life.
.........Bolingbroke and Mowbray now seemed ripe subjects for the king’s crackdown. Worried, Mowbray foolishly disclosed his fears to Bolingbroke, an ambitious man who took advantage of the situation by accusing Mowbray of killing Woodstock. Mowbray in turn accused Bolingbroke of slander. Shakespeare’s play begins with a hearing on these accusations before King Richard.
At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert’s day:.......On the appointed day at Coventry, a crowd surrounds the fenced-in field to observe the joust. However, just before the combat is to begin, Richard realizes that the victor will receive popular acclaim that could rival his own standing with the people. So, before the two men can raise shields and strike metal, he cancels the contest. Then he banishes both men, Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for “twice five summers" (1. 3. 145), or ten years. Richard makes both swear they will never plot against the Crown.
.......Moments later, when Richard sees how the sentence aggrieves John of Gaunt, he shortens Henry’s banishment to six years. However, Richard’s show of mercy masks inner rancor toward his cousin. Henry, it seems, has grown so popular with the people that he poses a threat to the Crown. Thus, the king is only too glad to have Henry out of the way. Good riddance!
.......Richard then turns his attention to organizing and leading a military campaign to quell a rebellion in Ireland. But because he spends lavishly and has run low on money, he plans to bleed the already overtaxed people to pay for the campaign. His spending has already aroused the common people against him. So has his policy of forcing former enemies among the nobility to buy pardons at a high price. In addition, the enmity building against him has been exacerbated by his manner–egotistical and autocratic. The innocent boy king who first sat on the throne has become a tyrant. Even old John of Gaunt, the king’s longtime protector, is displeased.
.......Gaunt, broken down by advancing age and the banishment of his son (Bolingbroke), is now dying. Richard, displaying the cruelest of his sides, cheers for Gaunt’s death, for Gaunt has money and property–enough to finance Richard’s incursion into Ireland. Bolingbroke, of course, is in line to inherit Gaunt’s property. But Richard, regarding Bolingbroke as his enemy, believes Gaunt’s wealth should go to the Crown. He says:
Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind.......When King Richard visits the dying man, Gaunt–realizing that Richard has become a less-than-honorable monarch–tells him that he too is sick, in a manner of speaking: “Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land / Wherein thou liest in reputation sick" (2. 1. 98-99). Richard, infuriated, calls Gaunt “a lunatic lean-witted fool / Presuming on an ague’s privilege" (2. 1. 119). After Gaunt dies, the king confiscates his property. Another uncle of Richard, the elderly Duke of York, protests the king’s action on behalf of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, saying the law dictates that all of Gaunt’s money and lands should go to Henry. Many other nobles, too, oppose the king’s action. Richard, however, refuses to back down and, with Gaunt’s wealth now in his keep, marches off to Ireland to wage war. After Henry Bolingbroke learns of his father’s death and the king’s appropriation of the inheritance, he raises an army of his own and returns to England to claim his property. Nobles join his cause, and Henry orders the execution of two of Richard’s favorites, Bushy and Green. The king then returns from Ireland, landing in Wales, to deal with Henry. He believes God is on his side:
The breath of worldly men cannot deposeBut woe unto Richard, for twenty thousand Welsh soldiers have deserted him and gone over to Henry. Sir Stephen Scroop tells Richard that all of England seems to oppose him:
White-beards have arm’d their thin and hairless scalpsAfter Richard takes refuge in Flint Castle, Henry arrives to claim his rightful inheritance. Richard yields and Henry escorts him to London.
.......Meanwhile, the queen, who loves Richard dearly, is visiting two ladies in the garden of the Duke of York when she overhears a gardener criticize Richard for not tending his kingdom in the same way that one tends a garden. Plants and trees must be trimmed and dressed, the gardener says, and superfluous branches must be cut away. When the queen reproaches him for his criticism, the gardener informs her that King Richard no longer holds sway in the realm; it is uncrowned Henry who rules. The queen says, “What, was I born to this, that my sad look / Should grace the triumph of great Bolingbroke?" (3. 4. 105-106). Deeply grieved, she leaves immediately for London. The gardener plants a bank of rue in the spot where one of her tears has fallen “in the remembrance of a weeping queen" (3. 4. 114).
.......Before Parliament in Westminster Hall, the Bishop of Carlisle, one of Richard’s few remaining defenders, speaks out against Henry and his claims to the crown, but to no avail. After Richard’s adversaries accuse him of high crimes, he signs a confession and yields the throne. Henry orders him confined to the Tower of London, then announces his own coronation as Henry IV. The Duke of Aumerle, the Bishop of Carlisle and the Abbot of Westminster organize a last-minute plot against Henry, but it fails. Henry has Richard transferred to Pomfret Castle.
.......Sir Pierce Exton overhears Henry ask a deadly question: “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?" (5. 4. 4). The “living fear" is, of course, Richard. Without direct orders from Henry, Exton decides to fulfill Henry’s wish. With two henchmen armed with axes, he goes to Pomfret Castle to murder Richard. To his credit, Richard goes down swinging. After snatching away an axe, he kills one henchmen, then the other. But a blow from Exton brings him down. Before dying, he warns Exton that the hand that struck him “shall burn in never-quenching fire" (5. 5. 113). Exton bears the body to Henry and proclaims, “Great king, within this coffin I present / Thy buried fear" (5, 6, 36-37). Henry is horrified and tells Exton that he
hast wroughtWhen Exton reminds Henry that he wished Richard dead, Henry, full of guilt, banishes Exton, then announces:
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
Protagonist: King Richard II
Antagonist: Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford
King Richard II: Intelligent but weak and duplicitous monarch who musters enough courage and dignity to die bravely when set upon by adversaries.
John of Gaunt: Duke of Lancaster. He is the king's uncle and father of the king's rival, Henry Bolingbroke. His name, Gaunt, is a corruption of Ghent, the name of the Belgian city where he was born.
Henry Bolingbroke: Duke of Hereford, son of John of Gaunt, and the king's rival. He seizes power and becomes King Henry IV.
Thomas Mowbray: Duke of Norfolk and opponent of Bolingbroke.
Lord Ross, Lord Willoughby: Supporters of Bolingbroke.
Edmund of Langley: Duke of York and king's uncle.
Duke of Aumerle: Son of the Duke of York. He plots against Bolingbroke when the latter ascends the throne.
Bishop of Carlisle, Abbot of Westminster: Co-conspirators in Aumerle's plot.
Duke of Surrey: Supporter of Aumerle.
Lord Fitzwater: Opponent of Aumerle.
Duchess of York: Mother of Aumerle.
Earl of Salisbury, Sir Stephen Scroop: Members of the king's party.
Lord Berkeley: Messenger for the Duke of York.
Bushy, Bagot, Green: Servants of King Richard.
Earl of Northumberland: Proud and arrogant follower of Bolingbroke.
Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur: Promising son of Northumberland who aids Bolingbroke.
Sir Pierce of Exton: Bolingbroke's hatchet man. When Bolingbroke, as the new king, asks whether anyone will rid him of Richard, Exton assumes Bolingbroke wants Richard dead. With two assistants, he kills the king, who goes down swinging.
Queen: Loyal wife of King Richard.
Duchess of Gloucester: Aunt of Richard and Bolingbroke.
Captain of a Band of Welshmen
Lady attending on the Queen
Minor Characters: Lords, heralds, officers, soldiers, two gardeners, keeper, messenger, groom, attendants.
The action in the play takes place in England and Wales, beginning in 1398. (Richard II reigned between 1377 and 1399.) Locales include London, Coventry, the wilds of Gloucestershire, and Bristol.
Dates and Sources
Date Written: Probably 1595.
Probable Main Sources: Shakespeare based Richard II on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare may also have based part of his plot on The Civil Wars (1595), by Samuel Daniel; on an anonymous play called Woodstock (early 1590s); and on an anonymous play called The Life and Death of Jack Straw (early 1590s).
II is classified as a history play. However, it can certainly qualify
as a tragedy inasmuch as it depicts the downfall of the main character,
or protagonist, partly because of a flaw in his character.
Is kingly authority inviolable? The central theme of the play is whether the subjects of a king have a right to overthrow and replace him if he is weak, unwise, or unduly harsh. Richard himself enunciates the view that his authority comes from God himself; thus, he has a “divine right" to rule. John of Gaunt and the Duke of York support this view even though Richard exhibits qualities unbecoming a king. Henry Bolingbroke, on the other hand, believes the people have the right to depose the king if he does not act in the best interests of the realm. Many nobles support this view and help Bolinbroke unseat Richard. However, after Sir Pierce Exton and his henchmen kill Richard, Bolingbroke feels deep remorse. Which view Shakespeare supported is unknown; in the play, he does not openly take sides.
Prodigality arouses the wrath of the people. Richard II spends lavishly and bleeds his subjects to fill his coffers. Richard fails to realize an old political truth: When pockets lack jingle, the people retaliate.
True patriots remain steadfast and loyal. Old John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) remains steadfastly loyal to his country through the turmoil unfolding around him. For years, he protected young King Richard against the machinations of nobles who attempted to manipulate the callow monarch. But after Richard comes of age, Richard himself resorts to petty politics to get his way. Gaunt, deeply disappointed in the king, bemoans the fact that his beloved country has been brought so low. In one of the most patriotic passages in all of Shakespeare, Gaunt refers to England as “this scepter’d isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise" (2. 1. 42-44). Then, with his dying breath, he rebukes Richard and pronounces a curse: “Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee! These words hereafter thy tormentors be!" (2. 1. 139-140). Gaunt dies with dignity. Today, the words Shakespeare gave him continue to live in England on the tongues of every schoolchild who values his heritage.
Blood is thinner than water, or familiarity breeds contempt. The main enemies in Richard II are relatives. John of Gaunt is Richard II’s uncle. When Gaunt dies, Richard seizes his property. Henry Bolingbroke is the son of Gaunt and Richard’s cousin. He deposes Richard and seizes his throne.
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,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! (Lines 40-68)
In the dialogue of Richard II and other Shakespeare plays, characters sometimes speak wise or witty sayings, or epigrams, couched in memorable language. Among the more memorable sayings in Richard II are the following:
Mine honour is my life; both grow in one:Use of Puns
Shakespeare relied heavily on the pun (use of words of similar sound or spelling for humorous or unusual effect) to engage the audience. For example, in Act II, Scene I, John of Gaunt makes puns even as he is dying. When King Richard asks Gaunt how he fares as he nears death, Gaunt uses his name (the same as the adjective gaunt, meaning thin, bony and haggard) in the following "punny" reply:
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old,
With me grief hath kept a tedious fast,
And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt? (2. 1. 76-79)
The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Richard II occurs, according to the first definition, in Act IV, Scene I, in Westminster Hall when Richard surrenders the crown to Bolinbroke, reciting these lines: “I give this heavy weight from off my head / And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand" (211-212). According to the second definition, the climax seems to occur in the final act, when Richard bravely confronts his enemies and dies honorably.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. What psychological affliction does Henry Bolinbroke at the end of the play have in common with Lady Macbeth after the murder of King ....Duncan in Macbeth?
2. Bolinbroke banishes Exton at the end of the play. What was banishment? Where did a banished person go?
3. Write an essay focusing on this question: Does Richard II become a better or worse man at the end of the play, when he is about to ....die?
4. What is the meaning of gage in this line spoken by Henry Bolingbroke in Act I, Scene I: “Pale trembling coward, there I throw my ....gage"? (1. 1. 72). What role did gages play in the feudal age?
5. In Richard II, Shakespeare frequently uses the word “up"–and many words with an opposite meaning–in figures of speech focusing on ....the rising or falling fortunes of the characters, notably Richard and Bolingbroke. Write a research paper cataloging and explaining ....Shakespeare’s use of “up" and “down" imagery in the play. To ease your task, download a public-domain copy of the play, then use ....your search command to find occurrences of “up," “down," and related words.
6. Write an essay explaining the concept of “the divine right of kings," stating that a monarch’s authority was God given and, therefore, not ....to be tampered with by the subjects of the monarch.
Henry Bolingbroke's ascendancy to the English throne as Henry IV was the germinal event that triggered the War of the Roses (1455-1485) between the House of Lancaster–founded by Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt–and the House of York. For additional information on the War of the Roses, click here.