Welcome back to another Shakespeare Saturday! This week, I’m looking at Richard II which is a play that I find simultaneously boring and fascinating. Well done to Shakespeare for inspiring that combination of reactions from me with a single play. Is this the first Shakespearean History I’ve ever tackled on the blog? I think it is.
Caution: I’m going to use as many David Tennant GIFs as I can find in this post. He looks like a LotR elf in Richard II. The GIFs used in this post do not belong to me.
Richard II or, to give the play its full title, The Life and Death of King Richard the Second is one of Shakespeare’s history plays and, you guessed it, it looks at the life of King Richard II. It only focuses on the last two years of Richard II’s life and reign, from 1398 to 1400, and one of the major events in the play is his deposition.
The play begins with Bolingbroke, who (spoiler alert) later becomes Henry IV, being banished from England for six years. While he’s banished, Bolingbroke’s father dies and Richard seizes his land and money because he can. This leads to the nobility turning against Richard and they help Bolingbroke overthrow him. Richard is put in prison, then he’s murdered by some rogue noble, and the play ends.
The ending is really weird as the newly crowned Henry IV goes to Jerusalem to cleanse himself of his part in Richard’s death. He just leaves his country, a country which has already lost one King to a usurper, to go on a pilgrimage to make himself feel better. Also, the assassination plot against Richard was foiled and he probably starved to death in prison so this is inaccurate. It shouldn’t come as a surprise because he did is all the time but Shakespeare changed history to make it more dramatic.
Shakespeare probably used several different historical and non-historical sources when writing the play which he just threw out of the window whenever he wanted a bit of drama to spice the play up. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Ireland was his primary source, which is the case for most of Shakespeare’s history plays, but there was also Edward Hall‘s The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York. Shakespeare actually created a new version of history as Richard’s posthumous reputation has been shaped largely by this play. He portrays Richard’s misrule and his deposition by Bolingbroke as the catalyst for the 15th-century Wars of the Roses.
Shakespeare explores a few different themes, at least according to the academic work I’ve on the play, one of which is the King’s Two Bodies.
The King’s Two Bodies is a fascinating idea. Ernst Kantorowicz described medieval kings as containing two bodies: a body natural, and a body politic. The body natural is a mortal body but the body politic is a spiritual body which cannot be affected by things like disease and old age. Due to this dual nature of Richard’s body, he acts the part of a royal martyr and his death results in England frequently experiencing civil wars for the next two generations.1
I love the concept of the King’s Two Bodies because it feeds into the medieval idea of the Divine Right of Kings which is a theme that permeates this play.
Richard II includes one of my favourite speeches from Shakespeare’s entire body of work. In act iv, scene i, Carlisle objects to the usurpation of Richard II in a dramatic speech about how England will fall if Henry IV is crowned. It begins Marry. God forbid! / Worst in this royal presence may I speak, / Yet best beseeming me to speak the truth but it is the middle of the speech that I’ve always found really interesting:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act.
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound.
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.2
It’s a prophecy about the war between Lancaster and York, later known as the War of the Roses, and it’s a really evocative speech. It’s playing on notions of the Divine Right of Kings because if the rightful King, Richard, is usurped by a traitor, Bolingbroke/Henry IV, it will upset the balance of power and lead to more wars and further instances of usurpation. Of course, Shakespeare knows about the wars that led to the Tudor reign, a region which is credited with ending the years of war after Richard’s reign, so this is all added in to flatter the Tudor Queen.
I just really like the whole of the deposition scene because, although it is rather sad, it’s incredibly melodramatic and wonderful to watch. Check out this performance of Act VI, scene i from the RSC’s 2013 production:
I love David Tennant’s characterisation of Richard II in this scene. He manages to bring out the humour in this tragic scene by emphasising Richard’s petty and dramatic nature but he maintains the melancholy tone of the scene throughout.
- The play is entirely written in verse which is unusual for Shakespeare.
- The play may have played a role in the downfall of Essex, who was leading an uprising against Queen Elizabeth I, and the Chamberlain’s Men were commanded to perform it for the Queen the day before Essex’s execution.
1 – Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957)
2 – William Shakespeare, Richard II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
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