Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard II by William Shakespeare 

The Life and Death of King Richard II commonly referred to as Richard II is a historical play written by Shakespeare, late 16thCentury and concerns King Richard II who ruled England from 1377 to 1399.

Richard was the son of Edward the Black Prince, who in turn was the son of King Edward III. The Black Prince was in line to be King Edward IV, but he died before his father, therefore Richard became King Richard II* age of 10, at the death of his grandfather the King.

I mentioned in my review of Edward III that I liked the Black Prince more than King Edward III, and thought it a pity he did not succeed to the throne. Unfortunately, his son, King Richard II does not earn the same respect as I held for his father.

However, these opinions are based on only a very short segment of their lives, and that based only on Shakespeare’s plays, which although historical are not truly history and not completely reliable. Still, there is a general opinion among historians: King Edward III – not so great, King Richard II – ditto, Edward the Black Prince – a model of chivalry and knighthood.

So, what were Richard’s shortcomings? He was indecisive, impetuous, arbitrary, and aloof – not qualities for the making of a great king. They all led to his being deposed and eventually murdered. 

At the outset of the play, the King is called upon to settle a bitter dispute between Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, and Henry Bolingbroke, son of the Duke of Lancaster, cousin to the King, and grandson of King Edward III.

In short, the King makes a very bad show of it all. First, he cannot decide (indecisive) and defers to have the dispute settled in battle. At the day of the battle, he stops the proceedings at the last moment (impetuous), and banishes both from England – Mowbray for life, Bolingbroke for 10 years later reduced to 6 (arbitrary).

I especially liked this dialogue between Richard and John Gaunt Duke of Lancaster, who is understandably distraught by his son’s banishment. This takes place some time later. The Duke is on his deathbed when Richard visits. The Duke foresees that the King does not have much longer himself to live.
     Gaunt: Since thou dost seek to kill my name in me,
     I mock my name, great king, to flatter thee.
     King: Should dying men flatter with those that live?
     Gaunt: No, no; men living flatter those that die.
     King: Thou, now a-dying, say’st thou flatter’st me.
     Gaunt: O, no! thou diest, though I the sicker be
     King: I am in health, I breathe, and see thee ill
     Gaunt: Now, He that made me knows I see thee ill

When the Duke of Lancaster dies, Richard seizes the Duke’s land and fortune (aloof) – which of course was rightfully to fall to Bollingbroke. Word of this outrage reaches Bollingbroke who returns to England, in spite of his banishment, to reclaim his own.

The King is not exactly conciliatory, and Bolingbroke easily wins more noblemen to his cause. Richard is deposed and Bollingbroke becomes King Henry IV.

I enjoyed this play. It is the third of Shakespeare’s historical plays that I’ve read. I’ve noticed two things: 1. Shakespeare gets easier to read the more I do it, and 2. In spite of the limitations I mentioned earlier, I am still learning a bit of English history. Richard II is the first in a tetralogy of Shakespeare’s plays, sometimes called the Henriad, because all include either Henry IV or Henry V (Richard II, Henry IV part one, Henry IV part two, and Henry V).

Modern day colloquialisms from Richard II:

A leopard cannot change its spots – from Act 1, Scene 1
     Richard: …lions make leopards tame
     Duke of Norfolk: Yea, but not change his spots: take but my shame

To seek shelter from the storm – from Act 2, Scene 1
     Earl of North Umberland: But, lords, we hear this fearful tempest sing,
     Yet seek no shelter to avoid the storm

* Regarding numerical designations of the Kings. You probably know this, but I feel compelled to explain. The numbers following the King’s name, (Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV), are not the same as for us commoners. If I had a son named Joseph – he would be Joseph Jr. If he had a son Joseph – he would be Joseph III, etc. However, for the Kings it means something different. King Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt, was simply the fourth king of England named Henry.



  1. Shakespeare DOES get easier the more you read it, doesn't it? :) I used to be very practiced at it when I was in high school - I read them all. And now I find the plays more difficult than I expected.

    Nice review, Joseph! And thanks for keeping up with the project despite my disappearing from the blog!

    1. Thank you and you're welcome, and nice to hear from you again.


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