The Tragedy of King Richard II
The Tragedy of King Richard II is a play by William Shakespeare written about the real Richard II. In the play King Richard abuses his power and money and is eventually deposed by his cousin, Henry, Duke of Hereford, surnamed Bolingbroke. The play is generally about how he loses his kingdom and even his life. It also begins Shakespeare's second tetrologies of English history.
The play begins with King Richard's cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, challenging Thomas Mobray, Duke of Norfolk, to a fight. He accuses him of maliciousness and of murdering his uncle, Gloucester. Mowbray gladly accepts the fight. Richard tries to dissuade them from the fight, but since he fails, he arranges one at Coventry. In the next scene, John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father, and brother of the dead Gloucester, comforts Gloucester's widow. He then arrives at Coventry to witness the fight between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. Just before the fight begins, Richard throws his septer down and uses the opportunity to banish the would-be fighters. Mowbray is banished for life, Bolingbroke for six years. Bolingbroke takes a tearful leave of his father and leaves for France. Richard then privately shows himself to be a selfish character. He mocks his cousin's leaving, along with another of his cousins, the Duke of Aumerle. He then plans to set off for Ireland to fight against the Celts there. He then hears word that his uncle, John of Gaunt, is ill and near to death. He plans to take all of his uncle's wealth after he dies.
John of Gaunt ends his life warning Richard that his wasteful spending will lead him astray. However, immediately on Gaunt's death, Richard takes all of his money and lands to fund wars. His last uncle, Edmund of Langeley, tries to dissuade him from taking them (for they are Bolingbroke's through descent now). His pleas fall on deaf ears. Richard does as he pleases. However, after the King leaves, several Lords under the Earl of Northumberland plan to greet Bolingbroke back in England in claim of his lands. The Lord Regent is torn and confused over what to do. In Richard's absence all of his people revolt and join with Bolingbroke. Even Richard's uncle does not make a strong resistance against his nephew. Richard returns to England to find all his country revolting; what few forces there are think he is dead and those loyal to him are dead. He surrenders himself to Bolingbroke willingly. He is quick to despair and resigns his crown to Bolingbroke in a dramatic moment. Bolingbroke is then crowned as Henry IV and Richard is sent to the Tower.
Richard's sorrow continues with his parting from his wife. The action then leaves Richard to go to a conspiracy to overthrow the new King. One of the conspirators accidentally is discovered and is made known to the King. Then Richard is killed by Sir Pierce of Exton, a loyalist to Henry IV who thought Henry wanted Richard's death. Henry IV however does not feel pleased with Richard's death and goes into mourning.
King Richard II: The unscrupulous and weak-minded King of England. The play is mainly about his loss of power, kingship and even, at the end of the play, his life.
John of Gaunt: The Duke of Lancaster, uncle to the King and father to Bolingbroke. He dies early on in the play. He is an old man, who tries to warn Richard of several mistakes he is making.
Edmund of Langely: The Duke of York, another uncle of the King, and father to Aumerle. He appears in his brother John of Gaunt's death scene. He continues where his brother leaves off. He tells Richard his error. Richard still trusts him, when he appoints him Regent. He is unable to do much to stop Bolingbroke's return to England.
Henry Bolingbroke: The Duke of Hereford and cousin to the King. He is banished at the beginning of the play for six years. He returns to claim his confiscated lands and is crowned King Henry IV. He is nevertheless unhappy at Richard's murder.
Duke of Aumerle: Cousin to the King, and a loyalist to him. He tries to overthrow Bolingbroke through rebellion, but is given away. Nevertheless, he is pardoned.
Thomas Mowbray: The Duke of Norfolk. He is a deep enemy to Bolingbroke, and tries to go to single combat with him. He is only banished and later reported dead in Italy.
Bushy, Bagot and Green: The servants of the King and corruptors of him as well. They cause him to go astray and make many foolish choices. Bushy and Green firmly go against Bolingbroke, but are executed for their pains. Bagot survives but is kept prisoner.
Earl of Northumberland: A noble in the court. He is the leading figure helping Bolingbroke back to England. He is cursed by Richard vehemently.
Henry Percy, Hostpur: The son to Northumberland. In this play he appears as a noble, vigorous youth. He also aids the King in his rebellion against Richard.
Bishop of Carlisle: A churchman very loyal to Richard. He tries, ineffectively, to dissuade the nobles from crowning Bolingbroke. He then tries to mount a rebellion with Aumerle. He is spared from death.
Sir Pierce of Exton: A loyalist to Henry IV, after he is crowned. He mistakes a comment by Henry IV to mean Richard's death. He is the one who kills Richard.
Queen: The Queen to Richard, who mostly is full of sorrow due to Richard's degradement.
Famous Lines and Quotes
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 (Act 2, Scene 1)
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings. -King Richard (Act 3, Scene 2)
References and Notes
- Aumerle, demoted to the title of Rutland, is the conspirator and it takes his mother's pleading to pardon him.
- Great Books: Shakespeare, Vol. 1, edited by William George Clarke and William Aldis Wright, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1952, pp. 320-351.