Richard II: Secrets to a Great History Play

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HOW TO READ AND UNDERSTAND SHAKESPEARE

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

Shakespeare’s history plays were far less focused on the glorification of his monarch than questioning monarchy itself. His view of history was filled with irony, distrust, suspicion of power, and a keen insight into the complexities of what it means to rule other human beings. Let’s look inside Shakespeare’s History Plays and their secrets to success.

A painting depicting a scene from King Lear, another play by Shakespeare.
Shakespeare used various sources to find the larger meanings behind the historical events. (Image: William Dyce/Public domain)

Shakespeare’s View of History

Shakespeare’s attitude was hard to pin down because in effect he was writing not just about a historical moment or figure, but about history itself and its meanings. That is why there was an obvious departure from strict historical facts in those plays. For example, in the first part of Henry IV, Shakespeare presented young Prince Harry and the rebel Hotspur as the same age to create tension and rivalry between the two young men. It made for marvelous literature and storytelling but the truth was that the historical Hotspur was 23 years older than the real Prince Hal. No doubt, Shakespeare knew that a more fundamental truth could be expressed by equating the two and emphasizing the rivalry.

Learn more about Appearance versus Reality in Twelfth Night.

The Secret to a Great Play

What makes Richard II such a brilliant play was Shakespeare’s effort to find the larger meanings behind the historical events. The most important moment in the play was the deposing of the king where Richard actually resigned the crown and gave it to his cousin Henry.

When the Earl of Essex plotted an attempt in 1601 to overthrow Queen Elizabeth, his followers paid Shakespeare’s company to stage Richard II the day before the rising, as if to put the ideas and images of deposing before Elizabeth’s subjects. Clearly the larger meanings of history were not lost on the contemporaries of Shakespeare.

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

Richard II’s Deposition Scene Might Be the Key to Understanding Shakespeare’s History Plays

During the actual deposing scene what Shakespeare did with the central historical crisis could help unlock all of the history plays. The tool of the play-within-the-play attended to moments of staged performance within a Shakespeare play. That is how Henry, the usurper, set up Richard’s resignation. Henry said, “Fetch hither Richard, that in common view / He may surrender; so we shall proceed / Without suspicion.”

An painting of Richard II imprisoned by Henry at Pomfret Castle.
Henry reclaimed his land and the throne from Richard II. (J. Coghlan/CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0))

Henry understood the relation between politics and theater. The deposition scene needed to go public, be staged, to have an audience and a director and a leading man. But the problem was, Richard was a scene-stealer. He was more compelling and charismatic, and far more poetic, than Henry at this moment, whose instructions were turned into occasions for his poetic meditations. Meditations that did not paint Henry in a positive light as Richard responded:


Give me the crown.
Here, cousin, seize the crown. Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another.
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high
.

Learn more about the real Great Britain.

How Richard II Depicted Henry?

Richard depicted Henry as the prideful usurper, and himself as the tragic victim. Henry responded with characteristic restraint, “I thought you had been willing to resign.” But Richard continued to offer poetic evocations of his own suffering and of Henry’s ambition until finally, he demanded someone brought him a mirror. Gazing into the mirror and reflecting upon what it contained, in a passage that resembled the philosophical musings of Hamlet:

Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
That was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face:
As brittle as the glory is the face;
[and here he shattered the mirror, and by extension his own reflection therein]
For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers. Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport, How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.

Learn more about Richard II-History and Kingship.

The Cain and Abel Dynamic in Richard II

A depiction of the fight between the Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve.
The conflict between Richard and Henry in the play was reminiscent of Cain and Abel dynamic as they were cousins. (Image: Titian/Public domain)

The drama increased by the fact that Henry and Richard were cousins, making them in a sense brothers. This pointed towards a final but crucial tool for seeing what was happening beneath the surface in the history plays, which was called the Cain and Abel dynamic, the conflict between brothers. Shakespeare realized that history plays were also meditations on brotherhood, on the bonds that brought men together and also made them the murderous enemies of one another.

Henry suggested that one of the guiding themes of that play was the Biblical story of Cain murdering his brother Abel. It was hinted when Henry compared the assassination of his uncle, Gloucester, by one of Richard’s supporters: “That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death . . . / Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s, cries / Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth.”

That was the major moral and religious theme sounding throughout the history plays. Connecting Richard III from the first tetralogy, in which Richard killed cousin, uncle, and nephew to Henry V. Finally concluding the play of two clusters when Henry willingly put his figurative brothers and father to death, in order to become an effective king.

Common Questions About Shakespeare’s Richard II

Q: How historically accurate are Shakespeare’s plays?

Shakespeare’s plays based on historical facts were not truly accurate because he was writing not about a historical moment or figure, but about history itself and its meanings. That is why in Henry IV, Shakespeare presented young Prince Harry and the rebel Hotspur as the same age, to create tension, but the truth was that the historical Hotspur was 23 years older than the real Prince Hal.

Q: What are some of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays?

Some of Shakespeare’s famous history plays are Macbeth, King Lear, and Cymbeline.

Q: What are the characteristics of a Shakespearean history?

The characteristics of Shakespearean history or history plays is that those include the elements of love, deceit, relations, revenge, and some high drama.

Q: Why is Shakespeare so important in English theater?

Shakespeare is important because of his contribution to the English literature through his plays-be it comedy, tragedy or history plays, he was the master director of all these genres.

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