King Richard II: Understanding Shakespeare’s History Plays

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HOW TO READ AND UNDERSTAND SHAKESPEARE

By Marc Connor, Ph.D., University of Washington and Lee

What was a king and what did it mean to be one? Could a king be un-kinged, and if so, what happened to the subjects who dared to attempt such a thing? Those were not idle questions for William Shakespeare, so he tried to answer them by employing different tools such as kingship and history.

A painting of various plays by Shakespeare.
A painting by John Gilbert depicting scenes from different plays by Shakespeare. (Image: John Gilbert/Public domain)

Understanding History to Understand Shakespeare’s Plays

The important question regarding Shakespeare’s great history plays that treated the stories of the kings and queens and rebels, who led right up to Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth, was that how necessary it was to know those basic historical facts about English history to understand Shakespeare’s history plays. The fact is, not having an acquaintance with those facts would act as a block in understanding these history plays. A good production could overcome the lack of awareness about the historical facts, and Shakespeare himself played fast and loose with historical accuracy.

To understand these plays a tool called ‘understanding history’ was needed, with some resources located outside of the plays themselves. Introduction to most good editions of the plays, such as the Signet, the Norton, the Riverside, and the Arden, give excellent accounts of the relevant history for each play.

Learn more about how to approach a play by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s History Plays

What exactly was a ‘history play’? How was it different from Shakespeare’s tragedy and comedy plays? What was special about them? With the first tool, started a dramatic and illustrative scene of an old Flint Castle on the border marches between Wales and England, an army gathered before it, waiting for the keeper of the castle to surrender. Atop the battlements, the keeper addressed the Army who was King Richard II of England, and the Army, an English Army, opposed to their own King. It was an emblem of civil war on the stage. The King looked down on the Army, and exclaimed:

We are amazed; and thus long have we stood To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king: And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
If we be not, show us the hand of God That hath dismissed us from our stewardship.

Kingship-A Handy Tool to Understand Shakespeare

The crucial tool for understanding what was happening in the history plays was the kingship tool. The great question during Shakespeare’s day was what his own sovereign, King James I, called “the divine right of kings”. The theory was that the King derived his office and power from God himself, who only could take that office and power away from him. To rebel against that power was to rebel against God himself. Certainly, the argument that Richard was making, “show us the hand of God / That hath dismissed us from our stewardship.” Since without that there could be no deposing of a King, and the person daring to challenge God’s own King risked God’s own punishment:

Yet know, my master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike Your children yet unborn and unbegot, That lift your vassal hands against my head And threat the glory of my precious crown.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Kings’ Illusion to Be Gods

The argument was appropriate for the person in power. James I put it this way: “Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king.”

Shakespeare echoed that philosophy in a play written just a few years before James’s treatise. It seemed that Shakespeare was supporting the major conservative political philosophy of his time.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

King Richard

A portrait of Richard II sitting on his throne.
King Richard II considered himself to be the Divine King. (Image: Westminster Abbey/Public domain)

The rebellious army at the King’s doorstep, despite Richard’s eloquent proclamation of his own divine status, refused to depart. The scene concluded by imprisoning King Richard. It turned out that the army was led by Richard’s cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, whom Richard had banished for his conflicts with other nobles. Henry had come back to reclaim his family lands that Richard seized for profit. Richard, the divinely anointed King, was actually a bad king according to the play.

Richard could not settle conflicts among his own knights. He taxed his people unfairly and seized land belonging to other nobles, such as Henry. He blundered militarily, missed crucial rendezvous, dismissed his troops before battle, and was surrounded by bad advisers who cared more about helping him enjoy his kingly privileges than about the effective running of a kingdom.

Learn more about how to Read and Understand Shakespeare.

John of Gaunt

An image of John of Gaunt, who was an uncle to Richard II.
John of Gaunt, King Richard’s uncle, delivered one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare’s plays-the great ‘England’ speech. (Image: Lucas Cornelisz de Kock/Public domain)

Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, on his deathbed in the play, delivered one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare, the great ‘England’ speech, playing a crucial role at the early part of the play:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

John of Gaunt made this litany of praise for one purpose: to have it all come crashing down when he said “this dear dear land … is now leased out,” this “England that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
Shakespeare took the old medieval notion seriously that ‘the land and the king are one’ that the failure of the land meant a failure of the monarchy. So one of the tests of the monarch was: if the land flourished or perished under a ruler’s rule? And Richard’s rule was ruinous.

Common Questions About King Richard II Play

Q: What type of play is Richard II?

The play, Richard II is one of the history plays by Shakespeare.

Q: Was Richard II a good King?

According to the play, Richard II a divinely anointed King was not a good king who could not settle conflicts among his own knights, taxed his people unfairly and seized land belonging to other nobles.

Q: What is the theme of Richard II?

The theme of Richard II is based on the perception that a king was divinely anointed, loyalty to the king, king’s conflict with his nobles, attitude towards personal relations.

Q: Is Richard II a tragedy?

Richard II is a history play which has elements of tragedy where King Richard is arrested by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke who was banished by Richard II before.

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