Richard II is called such because the character of Richard II dominates the play, being the best-developed character (and the most interesting) and having the most spoken lines. He can baffle audiences, and depending upon an actor’s choices, can seem villainous, cowardly, and theatrical, or regal, reflective, and tragic. This play can be “read” in several ways. In one BBC production, the scales of audience sympathy were subtly tilted in favor of King Richard versus his nemesis, Bolingbroke: the actor playing Richard was considerably better looking, and Bolingbroke’s allies were played by large, aggressive “heavies.” However, the character of Bolingbroke serves as a compelling bookend for Richard, providing both rich contrast and comparison, and showing another example of what a king may be. There does not seem to be as much flexibility for the actor portraying Bolingbroke; he is a man of resolute purpose, and there is nothing vague or contradictory about his actions. These two figures illustrate perfectly the wheel of fortune; Bolingbroke appears foolish in the first scene of the play, when his accusations lead him to banishment. But in Richard II, fools become kings and kings become fools. Richard himself plays the role of a wise, Shakespearean fool by play’s end, when his earthly status is as nothing, yet he movingly speaks wisdom. Bolingbroke gains England and power, yet finds that power does indeed corrupt.
Richard does not seem haughty in the first scene of the play; in fact, if one were ignorant of the circumstances of Gloucester’s death, one might believe the king’s desire to keep the peace between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. We begin to sense an agenda when Richard interrupts the ceremonial combat. Robert Ornstein views this interruption as cowardice: “The Richard whom Shakespeare conceives is incapable of meeting Bolingbroke’s challenge in this direct fashion” (Ornstein 53). However, it may be argued that Richard’s arrogance led to his disastrous decision to banish Bolingbroke and Mowbray. He does not realize whom he is up against in the person of Bolingbroke; he is dismissive and does not seem sufficiently fearful of the repercussions at all. A king may exhibit a greater amount of pride than mere mortals, but Richard’s pride is foolish. Later in the play, as Richard abandons his throne in the face of overwhelming odds, cowardice could rightly be cited, but, even then, it fails to fully explain this complex character.
Later, Richard’s worst qualities surface as his corrupt use of taxation and planned confiscation of Bolingbroke’s lands and property become known. He spends much time in frivolous entertainment, angering many. If not a tyrant, Richard does not merit the title of a good king. The audience gains sympathy with Bolingbroke’s plight during his banishment as they glimpse what Richard is capable of doing to England. Bolingbroke might have accepted his banishment, but Richard’s confiscation of his lands is too much for him to bear. With righteous indignation, Bolingbroke steps onto England’s shores once more, ostensibly only to reclaim what is his, yet the audience perhaps senses that Richard’s doom is in the making. Bolingbroke pleads with his uncle: “…Wherefore was I born? / If that my cousin king be King of England, / It must be granted I am Duke O Lancster: /…What would you have me do? I am a subject, /And I challenge law. Attorney’s are denied me, / And therefore…I lay my claim/ To my inheritance…” (Act 2, Scene 3, lines 133- 136). Bolingbroke’s reasoning here is solid, and his anger is entirely understandable. Yet he defies Richard’s decree of banishment blatantly by stating “I am a subject.” He utters this without prelude; perhaps being a citizen of England is so ingrained in his very being that he cannot fathom otherwise. How can he imagine that he may reclaim what is his without a great disturbance? However, his honest, direct language indicates that Bolingbroke speaks from his heart. A confrontation with Richard is fast approaching.
Richard exhibits few kingly qualities until the deposition scenes cause him to reflect on past actions. While some may fault him on giving up the throne quickly rather than fighting on, Richard gracefully exits, saving England from immediate civil war. He shows courage in his unwillingness to prolong the inevitable tide of events when his intelligence warns him of the high magnitude of the situation. He speaks of his new lowliness in the moving scene wherein he must relinquish his crown to Bolingbroke: “I hardly yet have learned/ To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my knee/ Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me/ In this submission” (Act 4, Scene 1, lines 165-167). Who is not moved at such honest, emotion from a fallen king? His charm is evident throughout Act 4, displaying hidden, attractive qualities to the audience for the first time. In a reversal from the previous scenes of the play, Richard now speaks with honest emotion, while Bolingbroke and his supporters become stiffly ceremonial. He has lost his place in the social order, yet wisdom flows from his tongue. He has become a wise fool, learning wisdom too late. His development for the better continues through Act 5: “But for the concord of my state and time/ Had not an ear to hear my true time broke/ I wasted time, and now time doth waste me” (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 47-49). He speaks to impress no one here; his admittance of guilt (and beginning repentance) is genuine. Richard has lost the world and gained his soul.
The final twist at play’s end lies in the smudging of Bolingbroke’s honest, yet impetuous nature. Once in power, Bolingbroke’s very speech becomes masked in the veils of power. He speaks in euphemisms of Richard’s deposition as he explains to what purpose Richard is sent for: “To do that office of thine own good will/ Which tired majesty did make thee offer: / The resignation of thy state and crown/ To Henry Bolingbroke” (Act 4, Scen 1, lines 178-181). Also, it is euphemistic when he addresses Richard as “fair cousin” in the same scene (line 305) when Richard is, in fact, a prisoner. Perhaps kings must speak this way, yet it is a verbal about-face from the Bolingbroke of previous scenes. Bolingbroke is undergoing a marked change, and that change ultimately leads him to complicity in Richard’s death, and England to eventual civil war.
Though many may sympathize with Bolingbroke in our age of democracy for his stand against a “bad” monarch, he shares many of Richard’s lesser qualities. He is arrogant and impetuous. (Even he did not realize the full import of challenging the king in his return from banishment.) King Richard would never be accused of hypocrisy (he seems to openly revel in evil before his deposition) yet Bolingbroke strives to be a “true Englishman.” Good intentions are a good start, but reluctant rebels cause civil unrest along with zealots. In his large role in the death of Richard, Bolingbroke displays a marked change for the worse, losing his soul (as perhaps all those in politics must) but gaining the world. King Henry will doubtless be a better king than Richard would have been had he continued on his course from the play’s beginning. But, had the deposed, lowly Richard somehow made his way back to the throne, perhaps he may have been the greatest king of all, one who has gained a heart in the process of being demeaned.
Ornstein, Robert. “A Kingdom for a Stage.” Richard II: Critical Essays. Ed. Jeanne T. Newlin. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1984.
Shakespeare, William. Richard II. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.