We’ll first look at Richard II first since it falls at the beginning of the Henry tetralogy (a term denoting a series of four plays), which also includes Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V. Although this play may have been written after Henry IV Part I (according to the Internet Shakespeare Editions), it’s a good place to dive into the history plays, which I think are grossly unappreciated.
The play opens with Richard II, King of England, hearing a dispute between his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and Thomas Mowbray. Henry (often referred to as Bolingbroke) accuses Mowbray of extorting money given to him by the crown for the King’s soldiers and also of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, who happens to be both Henry’s and Richard’s uncle. Also in attendance is Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, who believes it was Richard, not Mowbray, who had a hand in the Duke of Gloucester’s death. Henry and Mowbray challenge each other to a duel and neither Richard nor John of Gaunt can calm them.
So Henry and Mowbray prepare for public combat. The tournament is ceremonious but Richard halts it at the last possible moment. He proceeds to banish Mowbray for life and Henry for ten years (amended by Richard to six years soon after). Before he departs, Mowbray predicts that Henry will overthrow Richard.
Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, is so distressed by his son’s banishment that he becomes sick and dies, but not before he berates Richard for his lack of integrity; he’s a profligate spender, overtaxing his people, fining the nobility for deeds committed generations ago, and surrounding himself with bad council. After John of Gaunt’s death Richard seizes all of his land and money, essentially disinheriting the banished Henry. This move isn’t about punishing Henry or John of Gaunt but rather about funding Richard’s war in Ireland. This move, on top of everything else, adds to the nobility’s anger and frustration toward Richard.
While Richard is away fighting his war in Ireland, Henry returns to England and gathers the support of much of the nobility, including the Earl of Northumberland, but some remain loyal to Richard: namely Bushy, Green, Bagot, and the Duke of Aumerle, cousin to both Henry and Richard. The Duke of York, Aumerle’s father, was left in charge of England by Richard and remains loyal to Richard but sympathetic to Henry’s cause (though not his actions).
When Richard finally returns to England he finds that most of his former supporters have joined Henry or deserted him because they believed the king dead due to his long absence. When Henry calls to reclaim the property Richard had seized, Richard can see that he has no choice but to abdicate the throne. Many people are accused of various parts in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, Richard is taken to the castle of Pomfret to live as a prisoner, and Henry becomes King Henry IV.
Some of Richard’s supporters hatch a plan to rebel against the new king, among them Aumerle. York, Aumerle’s father, discovers the plot and races to tell the king, which would essentially condemn his son to death. Both Aumerle and Aumerle’s mother race to the castle as well. Aumerle arrives first and tries to tell Henry of the plot before his father can arrive, but York arrives before Aumerle can confess. York tells Henry of the plot and Henry pardons Aumerle at the ardent request of Aumerle’s mother.
Henry takes action to quash the rebellion and in doing so laments that with Richard still living there’s a great possibility of future problems. Exton, a noble, gets a bit ambitious and rushes over to Pomfret to murder Richard. When Exton returns to the castle and proudly confesses his deed Henry renounces the act.
And there the play ends, with everything set up for the next play: Henry IV Part 1.
There’s a lot going on in this play, regardless of my abbreviated summary above.
First, Henry and Richard are foils. The story is about the rise of Henry and the fall or Richard. Where Richard talks, Henry acts. Richard’s position as king is divinely sanctioned, but Henry is the better king. We can see this in two contrasting moments: when Henry and Mowbray quarrel in the very beginning of the play Richard has a hard time keeping control of the situation, eventually allowing them to duel. When the same happens to Henry in Act IV, when at least six nobles are accusing each other of having a hand in the Duke of Gloucester’s death, Henry is pragmatic and immediately takes control of the situation.
Likewise, in Act III when Henry catches up with Richard, Richard laments this rebellion but surrenders his crown without a fight. When Henry faces a rebellion in Act V he immediately takes action, fighting for his crown.
These scenes highlight one of Richard’s flaws: his lack of action. He talks a good talk (and has some of the most eloquent lines ever written), but he just can’t walk the walk. In fact, the only time Richard really takes any decisive action is at the very end when he fights for his life. There’s a tragedy for you: the moment Richard finally starts to live is the moment he dies. Richard II is really a play about a tragic man who happens to be king. He’s unfit for the role while he holds it and has to deal with not only the loss of his station but the loss of his identity.
There’s also the question of whether Henry has any right to overthrow his king. Few would argue that Richard was a better monarch than Henry proves himself to be, but there was still this idea of divine right of office. This was true in the Middle Ages, and it was even more true during Shakespeare’s time. The king (or queen) held their authority by divine will and to go against this authority was to go against God. This didn’t mean that the king or queen was infallible, of course, and there was the idea that if a monarch was bad then perhaps the kingdom deserved them (not the king they want, but the king they need).
Still, at what point is it okay for a king to be deposed? This is the question many characters grapple with. John of Gaunt agreed to his own son’s banishment because his king had decreed it, and one doesn’t go against the king. Poor York tried to be loyal to Richard, even though he was fed up with his actions, and later went against his own son due to his rebellion against his current king. Yet Henry still takes the crown from Richard (though when, or if, he decided to usurp the throne is uncertain). As we’ll see in Henry IV Part 1, this act continues to weigh heavily upon Henry’s head.
A word on the actual transfer of kingship from Richard to Henry: no one in the play knew what to call the act. York calls for Richard to abdicate, Northumberland for Richard’s impeachment, and Richard himself wants a de-coronation. One is a voluntary stepping down, one is a forceful removal, and one is a ceremonious removal of station. This says quite a bit about each character. York is loyal to the crown to his core and wants the transition to be basically decreed by the king; after all, it’s a sin against God to remove the rightful king. Northumberland, by contrast, wants to take out his anger on Richard by aggressively removing him from office. For Richard, he’s all about the pomp and show.
A word on Shakespeare’s language, because you can see a lot of how this works in Richard II. For the most part, Shakespeare writes in blank verse. Blank verse is unrhymed but has a specified rhythm and meter. (Blank verse is usually iambic pentameter but not always.) By contrast, this post is written in prose; there’s no attention to syllables or how the words flow. (Some might even say there’s no attention to taste.)
The one thing most people know about Shakespeare’s style is that he wrote in iambic pentameter. That means each line is made up of five feet with two sets of syllables, one unstressed and one stressed, for a total of ten syllables. So:
I wast/ed time,/ and now/ doth time/ waste me.
So all we need to know is iambic pentameter, right? Not so much. Shakespeare also wrote parts of his plays in prose. Most people assume that upper-class people speak in blank verse and lower-class in prose; that’s not the case. It’s less about who’s talking than the ct 3subject of the dialogue. In Richard II we see this in Act 3 Scene 4, where the gardeners are speaking in blank verse. They’re lower-class but they’re discussing good governance through the metaphor of the garden. Important subject = blank verse. We’ll see ample evidence of the converse in Henry IV Part 1, with Prince Hal speaking in prose whenever he’s with Falstaff.
Ok, so iambic pentameter and prose. That’s it, right? Eh… kind of. It gets a bit more complicated, but this is where things get really fun. First off, Shakespeare doesn’t always stick to iambic pentameter. Sometimes there’s more or less than ten syllables in a line of blank verse. Sometimes this doesn’t mean anything, but sometimes it does. We’ll see evidence of this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In addition, even though blank verse is unrhymed we sometimes see rhyming couplets. Usually they’re at the end of a longer area of dialogue or monologue, or near the end of a scene. But sometimes it means more. Take for instance the moment where the Duchess of York is begging King Henry to have mercy on her son Aumerle (Act 5 Scene 3). There are a number of rhyming couplets, one right after the other. Here, this denotes strong emotion. Keep your eye out for it and you’ll see that at moments when a character is feeling scared, angry, or despondent they’ll fall into rhyming couplets.
That’s all for now. Next week we’ll continue with the histories and cover Henry IV Part 1!