Richard II marks the beginning of my beloved Henriad, and it is a wonderful, mesmerizing play. It isn’t the titular character that makes this play so irresistible, though – it’s everything else.
In the Henry VI plays, it becomes obvious quite quickly that Henry VI isn’t a very good king. He’s weak, he’s passive, and the other aristocrats knock him down with very little effort. But you pity him – while completely useless, Henry VI also comes across as very gentle and kind. Richard II is another useless king – he is easily won over by flattery, is implied to have been involved in the murder of his uncle Gloucester, and is as weak as they come. But there is something in him that is lacking, because I found it very difficult to pity him at all. And this is coming from somebody who doesn’t care for Henry IV’s character either.
I was absolutely baffled by Richard’s decision to suddenly call off the fight between Bolingbroke and Mowbray in 1.3. He decides quite suddenly to exile them both – Mowbray for life, and Bolingbroke for a good six years. I was saddened by John of Gaunt’s reaction to the sentence:
Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.
You urged me as a judge, but I had rather
You would have bid me argue like a father.
O, had it been a stranger, not my child,
To smooth his fault I should have been more mild.
A partial slander sought I to avoid,
And in the sentence my own life destroyed.
Alas, I looked when some of you should say
I was too strict, to make mine own away.
But you gave leave to my unwilling tongue
Against my will to do myself this wrong.
John of Gaunt, of course, was involved in this decision. But nobody stopped him! And he knew he couldn’t show bias toward his own son. I wonder if he thought that his pleading and regretful words would sway Richard. It doesn’t matter, though, because Richard appears to be unaffected by Gaunt. He immediately turns to Bolingbroke and bids him farewell.
If I had been brave enough to pursue degrees in English, I probably would have spent a lot of time writing and thinking about the father/son relationships in Shakespeare’s histories. Gaunt, despite not fighting for his son outright, very obviously loves him. This contrasts sharply with York and Aumerle later in the play. And although Hal isn’t in this play, the way Henry IV speaks about him implies a tumultuous relationship (that is luckily explored in the Henry IV plays). We also have Northumberland and Hotspur (Hotspur! I was thrilled to see him in this play), a relationship that I would also argue is quite stable and based on mutual respect.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t love Henry IV (or Bolingbroke, or whatever you’d like to call him), but it appears that the people do:
He is our cousin, cousin, but ’tis doubt,
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green,
Observed his courtship to the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oysterwench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With “Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends,”
As were our England in reversion his
As he our subjects’ next degree in hope.
Look, if I were a commoner living under Richard II, I would probably secretly prefer Bolingbroke as well. There is something to be said about Bolingbroke’s ability to charm the commoners. Richard is incredibly prideful, and believes himself to be an almost divine being, anointed by God himself – it’s no wonder that the commoners prefer his cousin to him.
On his deathbed, John of Gaunt very bravely tells Richard exactly what he thinks of him. When Gaunt eventually dies, York is distraught. Richard, meanwhile, is completely heartless in his reaction:
The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that. Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant those rough rugheaded kern,
Which live like venom where no venom else
But only they have the privilege to live.
And, for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, coin, revenues, and moveables
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possessed.
Oh, right, I forgot that Richard has also dragged England into debt with his frivolous spending. See, although Richard is weak and passive, he also has moments of very clear hardheartedness. It would be unfair to group him with the weak Henry VI, who would never have said such awful things. York, much like myself, cannot believe what he’s hearing. He argues that Gaunt’s rights should be given to Bolingbroke.
[…] If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
Call in the letters patents that he hath
By his attorneys general to sue
His livery, and deny his offered homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposèd hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honor and allegiance cannot think.
Richard is a fool who only listens to people who flatter him and stroke his ego. A bit like our current president, no? In any case, he ignores York’s wise warning. Don’t say you weren’t warned, Richard.
York is understandably fed-up with Richard, but he’s a man who plays by the books. He tells Bolingbroke off for coming back to England as soon as they meet. He acknowledges that he is powerless to stop Bolingbroke on his crusade:
Well, well. I see the issue of these arms.
I cannot mend it, I must needs confess,
Because my power is weak and all ill-left.
But if I could, by Him that gave me life,
I would attach you all and make you stoop
Unto the sovereign mercy of the King.
But since I cannot, be it known unto you
I do remain as neuter. So fare you well –
Unless you please to enter in the castle
And there repose you for this night.
I suppose I can respect York’s refusal to bend the rules, but there is such a thing as being too by the book. Richard may have royal blood, but England is crumbling underneath him.
Before York’s decision to remain neutral in this struggle, we meet Hotspur. As always, he is wonderfully flippant.
Have you forgot the Duke of Hereford, boy?
No, my good lord, for that is not forgot
Which ne’er I did remember. To my knowledge
I never in my life did look on him.
He is eventually introduced, and Bolingbroke gives Hotspur his hand. Unfortunately, such actions aren’t indicative of anything, as we all come to see in Henry IV, Part One.
Richard returns to England, only to discover that his supporters have been executed, and that everybody else has joined Bolingbroke. Richard’s reaction is incredibly dramatic. I performed his reaction to this discovery in 2012 as part of my immersive Shakespeare class. It is fantastically written, and is some of Shakespeare’s best writing. I particularly like the end, even though it didn’t change my mind about Richard in the slightest:
[…] Throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all the while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?
No pity from me, of course. Richard all but did this to himself, didn’t he? He is now beginning the long, rocky descent from anointed royalty to hated prisoner.
Annoyingly, Richard very easily bends to Bolingbroke’s demands. He resigns the crown, and Bolingbroke ascends the throne, now the newly crowned Henry IV of England. But things are not as simple as they seem, as there is a plot to get rid of Henry IV already.
Richard, meanwhile, is being separated from his Queen. While I dislike Richard immensely, I feel incredibly sorry for his poor Queen. For some reason or another, she seems to love him, and I thought their farewell scene was very sad. Richard is sent to Pomfret, and his Queen is whisked off to France.
York is now incredibly loyal to Henry IV, but his son Aumerle isn’t so sure. A very dramatic scene erupts when York finds out that his son is involved in a plot against the newly crowned king. He makes the decision to go tell the king immediately. The Duchess is rightfully horrified:
Why, York, what wilt thou do?
Wilt thou not hide the trespass of thine own?
Have we more sons? Or are we like to have?
Is not my teeming date drunk up with time?
And wilt thou pluck my fair son from mine age
And rob me of a happy mother’s name?
Is he not like thee? Is he not thine own?
Poor Duchess! As I said, there is such a thing as playing by the book too much. I very much respected York before this, but I immediately changed my mind after his decision to go tell Henry IV. And he asks for his son to be executed! Remember what I said about father/son relationships earlier? We might have easily painted Aumerle and York’s relationship as a normal one at the beginning of this play, but we now see that York puts his loyalty to the king above everything else. His son, apparently, comes second. Knowing this, both Aumerle and the Duchess rush to reach Henry IV first.
While they ride off in desperation, Henry IV is doing what he does best: trash talking his son.
Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
‘Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, ’tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found.
Inquire at London, ‘mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent
With unrestrainèd loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch and rob our passengers,
While he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honor to support
So dissolute a crew.
Ah, my favorite of all the father/son relationships: the rocky one between Henry IV and Hal. I am a bit baffled at how Henry hasn’t seen Hal in three months. Did he not think to look for him before this? In any case, we see why all the nobles think very poorly of Hal, don’t we? His own father highlights his every fault to everybody in the room.
Hilariously, it’s Hotspur who saw Hal last:
My lord, some two days since I saw the Prince,
And told him of those triumphs held at Oxford.
And what said the gallant?
His answer was, he would unto the stews,
And from the common’st creature pluck a glove
And wear it as a favor; and with that
He would unhorse the lustiest challenger.
As dissolute as desperate. Yet through both
I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years
May happily bring forth. But who comes here?
Not to turn this into an entry about Hal, but…well, who am I kidding? Let’s talk about this. Hal is the very picture of a reluctant prince/king. His absence during this play is very telling of both his relationship with his father, and possibly about how he feels about this entire endeavor. When the crown was lowered onto Henry IV’s head, a whole new set of responsibilities was dumped onto Hal. He gives Hotspur an incredibly disrespectful reply, and doesn’t show his face for the entirety of the play. And although Henry IV quickly backtracks and says he feels a glimmer of hope about his son, it isn’t nearly enough. Hal is going to have to deal with the fact that everybody expects him to fail for a long, long time, and it is largely due to how vocal Henry IV is about his feelings. And despite being hopeful, Henry IV later scathingly tells Hal that he would rather have Hotspur as a son. What I’m saying is, these two sentences make no difference. The damage has already been done.
Aumerle enters, and begs Henry IV for his forgiveness. Henry IV grants it without knowing what is going on. The scene that follows is absolutely wild: York insists his son be executed (?!), the Duchess begs for Aumerle’s life, and Aumerle himself expresses his regret. Henry IV ignores York and spares Aumerle, much to the Duchess’ delight.
It seems we’ve forgotten about Richard all together. He’s been wasting away at Pomfret. A former groom of his enters to tell him that Richard’s old horse very proudly paraded Henry IV through the streets. Ouch! And worse yet, Exton and his men enter with the intention of murdering Richard. Shockingly, wimpy Richard manages to fight a few of them off before being killed. Exton, who is very obviously insane, happily runs off to tell Henry IV about what he’s done.
In a hilarious twist, Henry IV immediately banishes him. I don’t blame him – you really don’t want somebody who takes everything literally anywhere near your court. And suddenly, Henry finds himself full of regret. He decides to go to the Holy Land to was his hands of all this blood.
The play ends very abruptly with that. The story continues in Henry IV, Part One, which I spent all of the twelfth grade obsessing over. Peace doesn’t seem to last in England, does it? The story continues with more rebellion (hello again, Hotspur!), even more father/son dramatics, and a ton of bloodshed. But, hey, it’s all worth it in the end, isn’t it? In the end, England gets Henry V, and we get the best depiction of a stressed out king there ever was.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is next! Time to shift gears and move from the throne room of England to the fairy-ridden woods of Athens. See you next month!