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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Michael J. Cummings...©
vicious quarrel erupts in 1398 in the realm of England’s King Richard II
between two nobles. One is the king’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of
Hereford; the other is Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. They had been allies
as part of a powerful faction of five nobles that gained control of Parliament
in 1386 and attempted to manipulate the young king, then twenty-one. Richard,
now thirty-one, orders John of Gaunt–the Duke of Lancaster and father of
Bolingbroke–to summon Mowbray and Bolingbroke to court for a hearing.
they appear, Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of being a “traitor and a miscreant"
(1. 1. 42) for supposedly misusing government money and for plotting the
death of the Duke of Gloucester, Thomas Woodstock. Mowbray, in turn, calls
Bolingbroke a “slanderous coward and a villain" (1. 1. 64) and declares
that Bolingbroke “most falsely doth he lie" (1. 1. 71). Bolingbroke wants
to demonstrate that he is a loyal subject of the king even though he formally
participated in schemes to limit the king’s power. Mowbray, too, is eager
to impress the king; hence, he vigorously denies charges that he betrayed
the king. Bolingbroke throws down his gauntlet, challenging Mowbray to
a jousting duel, and Mowbray quickly takes it up. Unable to persuade the
adversaries to put aside their differences, Richard sanctions the duel:
Coventry, upon Saint Lambert’s day:
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.
shall your swords and lances arbitrate
swelling difference of your settled hate. (1. 1. 204-206)
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!
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.
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:
put it, God, in the physician’s mind
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
help him [Gaunt] to his grave immediately!
lining of his coffers shall make coats
deck our soldiers for these Irish wars. (1. 4. 62)
breath of worldly men cannot depose
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:
deputy elected by the Lord:
every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
men must fall, for heaven still guards the right. (3. 2. 58-64)
have arm’d their thin and hairless scalps
Richard takes refuge in Flint Castle, Henry arrives to claim his rightful
inheritance. Richard yields and Henry escorts him to London.
thy majesty; and boys, with women’s voices,
to speak big and clap their female joints. (3. 2. 116-118)
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).
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.
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
reminds Henry that he wished Richard dead, Henry, full of guilt, banishes
Exton, then announces:
deed of slander with thy fatal hand
my head and all this famous land." (5. 6. 40-42)
make a voyage to the Holy Land,
wash this blood off from my guilty hand:
sadly after; grace my mournings here;
weeping after this untimely bier. (5. 6. 55-58)....
Study Guide in Book Form
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play, describes the setting and characters, discusses imagery, identifies
themes, points out the climax, and provides historical background wherever
necessary. In addition, it discusses and analyzes the sonnets, as well
as other poems written by Shakespeare.
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of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
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King Richard II
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.
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
Bishop of Carlisle, Abbot
of Westminster: Co-conspirators in Aumerle's plot.
Duke of Surrey: Supporter
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
Lady attending on the
Lords, heralds, officers, soldiers, two gardeners, keeper, messenger, groom,
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.
Written: Probably 1595.
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
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..
of Words in Complete Public-Domain Text: 24,032.
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.
II contains exquisitely beautiful imagery that helped establish Shakespeare
as one of the finest poets and playwrights of the late Elizabethan Age.
Perhaps the most memorable passage in the play–in terms of its imagery
and rousing patriotic sentiment–is the following one in Act II, Scene I,
in which John of Gaunt glorifies England while lamenting the shameful behavior
of Richard. The success of the imagery depends in large part on a figure
of speech called anaphora, the repetition of a word, phrase, or
clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other. Notice
the repetition of this and later that:
royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
other Eden, demi-paradise,
fortress built by Nature for herself
infection and the hand of war,
happy breed of men, this little world,
precious stone set in the silver sea,
serves it in the office of a wall,
as a moat defensive to a house,
the envy of less happier lands,
blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
by their breed and famous by their birth,
for their deeds as far from home,
Christian service and true chivalry,
is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
for her reputation through the world,
now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
to a tenement or pelting farm:
bound in with the triumphant sea
rocky shore beats back the envious siege
watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
England, that was wont to conquer others,
made a shameful conquest of itself.
would the scandal vanish with my life,
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:
Take honour from me, and
my life is done. (1. 1. 186)
In this couplet, Thomas Mowbray
uses a metaphor comparing honor to life.
For gnarling sorrow hath
less power to bite
The man that mocks at it
and sets it light. (1. 3. 296-297)
In this couplet, John of Gaunt uses
a metaphor to compare sorrow to a biting creature.
You may my glories and my
But not my griefs; still
am I king of those. (4. 1. 199-200)
In this couplet, Richard uses a
metaphor comparing griefs to king’s subjects.
Mount, mount, my soul! thy
seat is up on high,
Whilst my gross flesh sinks
downward, here to die. (5. 5. 116-117)
In this couplet, Richard uses a
metaphor-personification with apostrophe. The metaphor-personification
compares the soul to a person. In the apostrophe, soul is treated as a
person being addressed.
The purest treasure mortal
Is spotless reputation.
(1. 1. 182-183)
In a metaphor, Thomas Mowbray compares
reputation to treasure.
Not all the water in the
rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an
anointed king. (3. 2. 56-57)
Richard expresses his view with
a hyperbole and alliteration (rough, rude).
The ripest fruit first falls.
(2. 1. 159)
Richard uses an implied metaphor
to compare old John of Gaunt, dying, to a ripe fruit. Alliteration occurs
in fruit, first, and falls.
I see thy glory like a shooting
Fall to the base earth from
the firmament. (2. 4. 21-22)
The Earl of Salisbury uses a simile
to compare glory to a shooting star.
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:
how that name befits my composition!
Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old,
me grief hath kept a tedious fast,
who abstains from meat that is not gaunt? (2. 1. 76-79)
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
What psychological affliction does Henry Bolinbroke at the end of the play
have in common with Lady Macbeth after the murder of King ....Duncan
Bolinbroke banishes Exton at the end of the play. What was banishment?
Where did a banished person go?
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?
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?
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.
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.
of the Roses
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
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