By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
Shakespeare’s Richard II represents a momentous struggle in English history, the struggle between King Richard II and his cousin Henry Bolingbroke. Richard is apparently secure on his throne at the beginning of the play. He is, beyond any question, the legitimate heir to the crown of England, which is normally passed from the father to the eldest son. Richard’s father was Edward, the Black Prince, the eldest son of the reigning monarch and a great military hero, who predeceased his own father, King Edward III. Thus Richard, as the Black Prince’s only son, properly inherited the crown directly from Edward III, his grandfather. As rightful monarch, Richard authorizes his rule by invoking in a particularly strong way a tradition of belief that the king is God’s deputy and is accountable to God alone. Challenges to the king’s rule are thus made to appear not only high treason but also blasphemy. Bolingbroke, who is openly mistreated by Richard, seems powerless to oppose Richard’s will.
When the play opens, Richard is seen by many as a tyrant, the opposite of a true monarch. He is believed to have arranged the assassination of his own uncle. He seems to toy with his subjects, exiling one, Thomas Mowbray, for life, and another, Henry Bolingbroke himself, for ten years—reduced, minutes after the banishment is announced, to six years. Richard is blamed for placing his subjects at the mercy of his friends, who grow wealthy at the cost of the people of England. Finally, when he seizes the title and property that Henry Bolingbroke should have inherited, Richard is perceived as a threat to the very structure of the kingdom.
Despite Richard’s tyrannical behavior, he is eloquently defended, by himself and others, as God’s chosen ruler, immune from punishment by any subject. If the crown were to be taken from him by force, then the kingdom, it is said, would be threatened by endless civil war as others entered the bloody competition for the kingship. In the face of this belief in the king’s sanctity, Bolingbroke seizes the occasion of Richard’s invasion of Ireland to return from exile with an army. Bolingbroke’s announced cause is the restoration of his title and property, though he is suspected, with good reason, of aiming at the crown itself. Nobles and commons, thinking themselves oppressed by Richard, rally to Bolingbroke’s cause. Richard’s supporters disperse; his deputy reaches an accommodation with Bolingbroke. The stage is set for a final confrontation between the powerful army commanded by an increasingly unsympathetic Bolingbroke, who summarily executes friends of Richard, and the tradition of sacred kingship that supports the now isolated but more sympathetic Richard in his rule.
After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to “Richard II: A Modern Perspective,” by Professor Harry Berger, Jr. of the University of California, Santa Cruz.