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Richard II /

Further Reading: Richard II

Abbreviations: ESC = English Shakespeare Company, 1 and 2H4 = Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, H5 = Henry V, R2= Richard II, R3 = Richard III, RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company


Barroll, Leeds. “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 441–64.

As a way of focusing his concerns with “some of the confusions plaguing” the critical movements known as new historicism and cultural materialism, Barroll discusses the performance of R2 at the Globe on the eve of the Essex rebellion in 1601. He specifically faults political readings that, by failing to take into account all the available evidence, mistakenly posit the play’s essential subversiveness. An investigation of primary documents reveals that the commissioning of R2 by Essex’s supporters “was not a severely punishable offense in itself,” and thus suggests that Elizabethan authorities did not consider the play a dangerous piece of subversive propaganda. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s famous retort that “I am Richard II” may have been precipitated not by the drama but by John Hayward’s prose Life of Henry IV (printed in 1599), which emphasized Richard’s deposition and killing. For the Privy Council and Elizabeth, the story of Richard as told in the print medium seems to have presented more of a political threat than did the dramatic version. Barroll also discusses “the myth” of a suppressed or censored deposition scene from the pre-1608 quartos, expanding on the theory of David Bergeron (“The Deposition Scene in Richard II,” Renaissance Papers 1974 [1975]: 31–37) that the formal abdication may have been written for a revision of the play—“and not necessarily for purposes of subversion.” [Barroll’s essay is reprinted in Farrell, below.]

Berger, Harry, Jr. Harrying: Skills of Offense in Shakespeare’s Henriad. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.

As part of his continuing efforts to practice a “reconstructed old New Criticism,” Berger reads R3, R2, 1 and 2H4, and H5 in terms of a verbal feature he calls “harrying.” By this he means that “[t]he language Shakespeare’s characters speak always says more than they mean to say. They try to say one thing. Their language says other things that often question the speakers’ motives or intentions.” Included among the book’s thirteen chapters are two dealing with R2: “ ‘Here, Cousin, Seize the Crown’: The Triumphant Fall of Richard, the Self-Harrier” (pp. 20–47) and “Richard’s Soliloquy: Richard II, Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 1–66” (pp. 48–54). In the first, Berger explores the effects of harrying’s “linguistic mischief” on the “self-­representation” that Richard “performs for the benefit of his auditors ​. . . ​[a]nd ​. . . ​for his own benefit as well.” Berger rejects the common reading of Richard as a staunch believer in and defender of “divine right” theory (the doctrine positing the monarch as God’s anointed minister on Earth, rebellion against whom would be tantamount to rebellion against God), proposing instead that the play represents him “as a critic, . . . ​as one who mocks and undermines [this theory].” Richard thus emerges as both the object and the source of the play’s mockery, playing from beginning to end “the Bad Richard with wry ‘in your face’ gusto as if he is asking for trouble.” As evidence, Berger discusses Richard’s “ceremonial trash-talking” to “old ​. . . ​and time-honored” Gaunt (1.1.1–6), his “push[ing] Bolingbroke ​. . . ​to take all” (3.3.199–205), and the “duplicitous speech act” whereby Richard “reenacts the self-deposition he has helped bring about” and simultaneously “forces Bolingbroke to reenact his usurpation” (4.1.190). [The chapter is a slight revision of Berger’s 1996 “Modern Perspective,” which is reprinted in this updated New Folger Richard II (see pp. 236–71).]

The chapter “Richard’s Soliloquy,” a close reading of Richard’s only soliloquy, focuses on the performative implications of the stage direction “Enter Richard alone,” which “teasingly runs up the question of the [speech’s addressee] like a flag in his statement that ‘here is not a creature but myself’ ” (line 4). Answering those who claim that Richard is now replacing a missing audience of flatterers or adversaries with ­himself—“postur[ing] for his own approval or disapproval as if checking his performance in a mirror”—Berger contends that that is precisely what Richard has been doing all along. In fact, everything that he has said up to this point is “a variation or illustration of what he says in this soliloquy.” The major discovery now, however, is that he “cannot escape himself even when alone.” [This chapter first appeared in Russ McDonald, Nicholas D. Nace, and Travis D. Williams, eds., Shakespeare Up Close: Reading Early Modern Texts (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2012), pp. 225–33.]

Farrell, Kirby, ed. Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Richard II. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.

The anthology consists of an introduction by the editor (“Play, Death, and History in Richard II) and thirteen essays: R. Morgan Griffin, “The Critical History of Richard II”; Samuel Schoenbaum, “Richard II and the Realities of Power”; F. W. Brownlow, “Richard II and the Testing of Legitimacy”; David M. Bergeron, “Richard II and Carnival Politics”; Leeds Barroll, “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time”; David Norbrook, “ ‘A Liberal Tongue’: Language and Rebellion in Richard II”; Cyndia Susan Clegg, “ ‘By the choise and inuitation of al the realme’: Richard II and Elizabethan Press Censorship”; Sharon Cadman Seelig, “Loyal Fathers and Treacherous Sons: Familial Politics in Richard II”; Sheldon P. Zitner, “Aumerle’s Conspiracy”; James Calderwood, “Richard II: The Fall of Speech”; John W. Blanpied, “Sacrificial Energy in Richard II”; Harry Berger, Jr., “Ars Moriendi in Progress, or John of Gaunt and the Practice of Strategic Dying”; and John Halverson, “The Lamentable Comedy of Richard II.” In his introductory essay, Farrell argues that R2 “dramatizes some of the processes by which imaginations [both the playwright’s and the audience’s] adapted to the psychic stress” of the early modern period’s traumatic sociopolitical and cultural changes: “The [play’s] mood of civic crisis ​. . . ​is structured like the psychic crisis associated with the collapse of belief in traditional, ritualistic monarchy. ​. . . ​An older mentality structured around polarized opposites—king, beggar; heaven, hell; life, death—is developing toward a structure emphasizing multiplicity, strategy, and dynamic equilibrium.” The critical afterlife of R2 is a “story of increasing freedom to recognize the disturbing openness in its conception of history,” as the criticism of recent decades manifests a greater tolerance “of the play’s peculiar fractures and ambiguities.”

Fletcher, Christopher. Richard II: Manhood, Youth, and Politics 1377–99. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Observing that Richard’s “unmanly reputation”—as willful, inconstant, extravagant, susceptible to poor counsel, obsessed with courtly culture, and averse to warfare—is rooted in contemporary accounts that even revisionist studies over the last forty years have been unable to shake, Fletcher sets Richard’s life and the politics of his court in the cultural and sociolinguistic context of late medieval assumptions about the nature of manhood and youth. He finds that while Richard’s traditional reputation does not accurately represent his character, “it is not unrelated to the events of his reign. It is a political phenomenon in itself, created by the interaction between late medieval cultural commonplace and the politics of 1377–99.” Fletcher devotes three chapters to exploring how the words “manhood” and “manly” and the expression “as a man” were used and understood at the time: “The Language of Manhood I: Strength, Violence, and Honour” addresses martial and chivalric virtues; “The Language of Manhood II: ‘Humanitas,’ Decorum, and Largesse” considers qualities associated with the splendor and “magnificent action” deemed appropriate to maintaining one’s rank; and “Medico-Moral Theories of Manhood, Strength, Constancy, and Reason” examines the moral standpoints used to define “correct masculinity” as found in late medieval medical and didactic texts. The remaining eight chapters, arranged chronologically, deal specifically with Richard and the Ricardian court: “The Royal Authority and the King’s Childhood, 1376–82,” “The Emergence of the King’s Firm Purpose, 1382–84,” “The Pursuit of Manhood, 1384–86,” “The Return of the King’s Youth, 1386–88,” “The Establishment of a Conciliar Regime, 1388–90,” “Majesty and Restriction, 1390–97,” “The Drift to Power, c. 1390–97,” and “A Boy Not a Man? 1397–99.” Fletcher concludes that “far from being the effeminate tyrant of historical imagination, Richard was a typical young nobleman trying to establish his manhood—and hence his authority to rule—by thoroughly conventional means: first through a military campaign, and then, fatally, through violent revenge against those who attempted to restrain him.”

Grady, Hugh. “The Discourse of Princes in Richard 2: From Machiavelli to Montaigne.” In Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet, pp. 58–108. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Taken together, Machiavelli and Montaigne “form [in R2] an intertextuality which opens up in turn into central issues of power, identity, and subjectivity.” Grady divides his examination of this dialectic into two parts: (1) “The Machiavellian World of R2” (pp. 58–82) and (2) “Modern Subjectivity in R2” (pp. 82–108). Despite Act 1’s “ceremonious” feudalism with all of its chivalric rites, the world of R2 is ruled by “Machiavellian reduction” and Machiavellian tenets as articulated in The Prince (1513), chief among them the pragmatics of “instrumental reason” and the assumption that “in a world of bad men, it is folly to be good.” In Grady’s reading, there are two Machiavels but only Henry is a true Machiavellian: Richard’s downfall “unfolds ​. . . ​in large measure by his own political incompetence, and the dramatic dynamic around which the play is built—the confrontation between skilled and unskilled Machiavellians.” This political strand dominates the dramatic action until the mirror sequence in the deposition scene, when a new strand, reflective of Montaigne’s Essays, introduces the issue of selfhood and “the flux of subjectivity,” a shift in emphasis nowhere more pronounced than in the interiority of Richard’s prison soliloquy (5.5.1–67). Within the confines of a prison cell and of his own mind, the conception of “unfixed, modern subjectivity” achieves a “new level of conceptualization,” as Richard, stripped of the social life and self-identity he has known, “find[s] a kind of ease” (line 28) in the “flux of his own emotional experience” and in the “remarkable and (Montaignean) view of the possibilities of multiple identities within subjectivity” (lines 31–41). By way of its “Montaignean turn in [the] second half,” R2 becomes one of the first of Shakespeare’s plays to explore “modern subjectivity as at once the outcome and the antithesis of Machiavellian dynamics.” [For a different approach to Richard’s failure as a monarch, see Phillips, below.] [The chapter incorporates Grady’s article “Shakespeare’s Links to Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing Intellectual Modernity in Early Modern Europe,” Comparative Literature 52 (2000): 119–42.]

Hammer, Paul E. J. “Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Play of 7 February 1601, and the Essex Rising.” Shakespeare Quarterly 59 (2008): 1–35.

Hammer’s discussion of the context and nature of the Essex Rising and of the identity of the play chosen for performance at the Globe on February 7, 1601, leads him to offer both a “new interpretation” of the events of February 8 and “new insights into how [R2] might have functioned politically in the last years of Elizabeth’s rule,” thereby confirming the special place it holds in Shakespeare scholarship as “the most conspicuous and famous example of a Shakespearean play transcending the confines of theatrical production to enter into real-life political drama during the playwright’s own lifetime.” The author argues that the royal authorities, led by the earl of Essex’s enemies, misrepresented the events of February 8 as a “bungled coup d’état” aimed at seizing the queen and at destroying Essex’s “personal enemies and reward[ing] his friends, and, one way or another, mak[ing] himself King ‘Robert the First.’ ” While most scholars accept this “official” version of Essex’s actions, Hammer contends that the earl was actually planning “to stage an aristocratic intervention at court,” where he and fellow lords would “humbly petition ​. . . ​[the Queen] for the arrest of the earl’s enemies on charges of treason and corruption”; “any risk of violence in the vicinity of the queen” was to be reduced and proper reverence for the sovereign maintained. As to the play performed on February 7, Hammer states that it had “no direct connection with what happened the following day because those events were unforeseen on Saturday afternoon, let alone a day or so earlier when the performance was commissioned.” The aristocrats who arranged for and attended the performance of R2 found in it the “perfect fit” for their “personal and political needs”: they would “watch a play that featured their own ancestors and that seemed [in its first three acts, with the royal banishment of Bolingbroke and the denial of his titular claim to the duchy of Lancaster] to offer striking parallels with the fortunes of their leader, the earl of Essex.” Moreover, in the play’s final two acts, they would find “a salutary reminder of the need for special care” in the intervention being planned for the following week. “By seeing and knowing the outcome of 1399, they could avoid a fresh tragedy in 1601”; unlike Bolingbroke, Essex would “properly” remove the “caterpillars of the commonwealth” (2.3.170), ensuring that “Elizabeth [would] not become another Richard II.” Ironically, because of the unexpected events of the next day, “Essex never got to become a more virtuous version of Bolingbroke but found himself consigned to the tragic role of a figure, like Richard II, whose enemies got to write the script.”

Hibbard, G. R. “Making a Virtue of Virtuosity: Love’s Labour’s Lost and Richard II.” In The Making of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Poetry, pp. 104–19 (esp. pp. 113–19). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Calling R2 a transitional/experimental play, Hibbard focuses on Richard’s self-conscious language from 3.2 through 5.5, praising it as a brilliant advance in Shakespeare’s search for a style that harmonizes poetic conceits and lyricism with theatrical demands for action and character. By allowing Richard the liberty to indulge in fanciful verbal extravagance, Shakespeare writes beautiful poetry that simultaneously reveals and criticizes his protagonist as a man who, instead of attempting to understand his experience, is all too ready to “descant” on it as a spectator seeking “a refuge in words.” Lyrical expression that describes both the situation and the speaker’s own consciousness of that situation is thereby rendered dramatic. The prison soliloquy at the beginning of 5.5 represents the culmination of Richard’s self-conscious, self-critical discourse. In R2, Shakespeare writes “the poetry he wants to write ​. . . ​[while making] his own critical attitude to that poetry serve also as a criticism of his hero.”

Holderness, Graham. “ ‘A Woman’s War’: A Feminist Reading of Richard II.” In Shakespeare Left and Right, edited by Ivo Kamps, pp. 167–83. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Noting Mowbray’s distinction between masculine and feminine identity at 1.1.49–53 (hot blood versus cold words, heated battles versus scolding matches), Holderness examines R2 through “a strategic conjuncture of feminism, historicism and the politics of gender.” He focuses on the play’s three female characters—the Duchess of Gloucester, the Queen, and the Duchess of York—all of whom are defined by their relationships with men as exclusively wives and mothers. Holderness identifies “sadness and melancholy” as the “natural fate” of females in this play, Richard’s Queen being essentially a figure of pathos as she passively watches her husband’s downfall. Unlike the other women, the Duchess of York “affects a success-story, precisely because she accepts and embraces the subjected and marginal role of women.” The marginalization of women in R2, Holderness concludes, functions most importantly as a historical reality of the past, foregrounding the fundamental injustice at the core of patriarchy, a system the play “interrogates ​. . . ​and criticizes. Women may not be much in [R2], but femininity is.” [For readings that challenge Holderness’s view of the play’s women, particularly that of the Queen as weak and powerless, see Laroche and Munroe, and Vaught, below.]

Hopkins, Lisa. “The King’s Melting Body: Richard II.” In A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean Howard, 2:395–411. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.

“Despite its various chivalric trappings and its occasionally archaic feel,” R2 is “not medieval”; on the contrary, Hopkins contends, its roots lie in “its own, distinctively Elizabethan, historical moment,” making R2 “the most closely connected to [an Elizabethan audience] of all Shakespeare’s history plays.” Surprisingly, however, iconic medieval depictions of Richard (e.g., the Wilton diptych, the coronation portrait in Westminster Abbey, and the portrait effigy on his tomb) hold the key to R2’s “vitally contemporary concerns” (such as deposition, divine right, the king’s two bodies, the “spectral presence” of the earl of Essex, colonialism, and national identity). Hopkins’s examination of the tensions between the “visual protocols” of medieval portraiture and early modern practices of surveying and mapping leads her to conclude that “identity in the play is habitually fluid” and that boundaries—whether geographical (see 1.1.95–96 and 1.3.161–69) or sexual (see Richard’s feminine self-imaging as a mother [3.2.8–10] and as Helen of Troy [4.1.292–94])—are “pointedly not inviolable.” Awareness of the differences between “the shifting perspective of the itinerant surveyor and the single, fixed centrality of Richard II’s coronation portrait” helps us see “how this play both evokes the world of the past and forces us, by adopting a modern perspective, to perceive it as such.”

Laroche, Rebecca, and Jennifer Munroe. “On a Bank of Rue; Or Material Ecofeminist Inquiry and the Garden of Richard II.” Shakespeare Studies 42 (2014): 42–50.

Countering the traditional view of the garden scene (3.4) as solely metaphorical, i.e., as a trope for the body politic, Laroche and Munroe draw on the work of ecofeminists and food studies scholars to reveal the gender implications of the scene and, consequently, to argue for a reading that underscores the role of women in the play. When examined in terms of the materiality of plants and gardening practices, the Gardener’s lines at 3.4.61–63 (“O, what pity is it / That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land / As we this garden!”) highlight not the king’s failure to imagine England in metaphoric terms but his failure to take “a cue from those who work outside with the land.” Central to the authors’ thesis are the gendered binaries of early modern gardening practices and garden spaces: orchards, typically associated with profit and pleasure, were considered to be a male domain; kitchen and herb gardens, essential for the nutritional and medical needs of the household, were regarded as a female province. The language of the scene—with references, on one hand, to arboreal practices (see lines 32, 37, 48, 62, and 64) and, on the other, to “noisome weeds,” “wholesome” flowers, herbs, and plants such as rue (see lines 41, 42, 49, 112–13)—renders the garden “a composite of an orchard and a kitchen garden.” For Shakespeare’s audience, rue would have connoted not only an affective expression of grief but also (because of its rank aroma) the healing virtues of a bitter medicinal cure made by women: exactly what Richard’s kingdom requires. Laroche and Munroe’s emphasis both on the Queen’s gendered association with female garden space and on the bank of rue that the Gardener will plant in soil fertilized by her tears causes them to assign the Queen a more influential presence than most critics concede (see, e.g., Holderness, above). In R2, “the dual nature of the material work of the garden”—the large-scale pruning of excess and the “more intimate” work of weeding—“points simultaneously to political righting of the realm and to the integral roles of men and women in material mending and healing, work that is not metaphoric and is essential to the larger healing that must take place.”

Lopez, Jeremy, ed. Richard II: New Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2012.

In addition to a lengthy introduction (pp. 1–51), which includes an extensive bibliography, the volume contains eleven new essays: James Siemon, “Dead Men Talking: Elegiac Utterance, Monarchial Republicanism, and Richard II”; Roslyn L. Knutson, “The History Play, Richard II, and Repertorial Commerce”; Melissa E. Sanchez, “Bodies That Matter in Richard II”; Paul Menzer, “c.f. Marlowe”; Margaret Shewring, “Staging Richard II for a New Millennium”; Bridget Escolme, “Gendered Neurosis on Stage and Screen: Fiona Shaw’s Richard II”; Brian Walsh, “The Dramaturgy of Discomfort in Richard II”; Mark ­Metzloff, “Insurgent Time: Richard II and the Periodization of Sovereignty”; Holger Schott Syme, “ ‘But, what euer you do, buy’: Richard II as Popular Commodity”; Rebecca Lemon, “Shakespeare’s Richard II and Elizabethan Politics”; and Genevieve Love, “Going Back to That Well: Richard II’s ‘deposition scene.’ ” Lopez’s introduction consists of four sections: (1) a survey of the play’s critical afterlife in the last one hundred years and an “oblique perspective” on lesser-known, mostly regional North American productions after World War II; (2) a discussion of various kinds of historicist engagements with the play under the headings of source study, the bibliographical history of R2’s variant early texts, and historiographical criticism of the dramatic action “as ​. . . ​an interpretation of early modern or medieval history”; (3) an analysis of how thematic, generic, and character criticism of R2 is “fundamentally informed by critical attitudes toward and questions about the efficacy of [poetic form]”; and (4) an overview of the volume’s new critical essays. For the most part, the R2 criticism of the past century has been historicist in character, focusing more on “what kind of king Richard is” rather than on “the kind of man the king is” (the focus of nineteenth-century scholarship, which examined the king as “independent ​. . . ​of history”).

Phillips, James. “The Practicalities of the Absolute: Justice and Kingship in Shakespeare’s Richard II.” ELH 79 (2012): 161–77.

Phillips examines R2 in terms of the “ethico-political history of the absolute,” citing in particular the writings of such apologists for monarchical absolutism as the medieval Giles of Rome and the early modern Jean Bodin, both of whom viewed justice as the fundamental duty of a monarch, a claim reiterated in coronation oaths. “[S]ubject not to the law but to justice,” the monarch is above the law only when the law itself is unjust or when “the mechanical application of even a good law would be unjust.” The criterion, therefore, by which kingship—the “constitutionalization of an extra-constitutional power”—can itself be judged “is as the conduit of the justice that the laws in their formalism, archaicism, or conflict with one another fail to deliver.” Since the king is the “terrestrial conduit” of justice, justice in turn must rule over him in his role as “the deus ex machina of the legal system.” Phillips argues that Shakespeare’s Richard fails as a monarch not because he is a “deficient Machiavellian” (Hugh Grady’s claim; see above) but because (1) he does not understand the centrality of justice to his rule as a divine right king and (2) he fails to appreciate that the body politic accepts absolutist rule with “dissembling conditionality” as long as the commonwealth perceives the monarch to be just. “Richard’s tragic fate is to expose the hypocrisy of a body politic that makes room for the absolute and yet expects the absolute to conduct itself in a moderate manner.” The king’s “pivotal infraction” in the play is his denial of Bolingbroke’s rightful claim to the Duchy of Lancaster (2.1.168–70, 218–19), an act that causes the commonwealth to “muster ​. . . ​around [Bolingbroke] as the victim of expropriation” and to “call into question the justice of Richard’s claim to kingship”: “An unjust king invites deposition as the semblance of a king.” As Phillips reads the play, the problem that Richard and his subjects face “is how to recognize justice, how to give its absoluteness room for operation in the body politic even as it defies institutionalization.”

Potter, Lois. “The Antic Disposition of Richard II.” Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974): 33–41.

Contrary to the traditional interpretation of Richard’s highly rhetorical language as a sign of weakness, Potter reads it as a conscious attempt to assume a Hamlet-like antic disposition. In opting for verbal extravagance from the transitional 3.2 onward, Richard abandons the terse language that he had used to deflate the elaborate figuration of Bolingbroke, Mowbray, Gaunt, and York in Acts 1 and 2; irony and the suggestion of duplicity, however, are present in Richard’s language from beginning to end. In fact, irony serves as his major means of defense once he is deprived of political power. In the deposition scene, for example, where “a well-timed burst of hysterics” enables Richard to avoid reading aloud the list of charges brought against him, his verbal ambiguity forces Bolingbroke to declare his intentions publicly. By exploiting poetic conceits and using words to transform weakness into strength in 3.3 and 4.1, Richard shows his awareness of the evocative power of verbal theatrics and patriotic and religious sentiments to sway an audience. Throughout the latter half of the play the “ritualistic King of Sorrows” exists alongside a Richard who is “sharp-tongued, self-mocking and quite unresigned.” Even from the coffin (5.6.29SD–52), Richard dominates the stage “in his silence as he had dominated it before with words.”

Rackin, Phyllis. “The Role of the Audience in Richard II.” Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 262–81.

By presenting history in R2 not only as a quaint period piece (the perspective that emerges from the play’s formal, ritualistic scenes) but also as current action, Shakespeare depicts “a living process that directly involves and implicates the audience in the theater.” Rackin examines the trajectory of the audience’s shifting responses in moving from the dilemma of conflicting loyalties—first to Bolingbroke’s camp and then to Richard’s; the deposition scene, she argues, marks “the crucial transfer” of audience sympathy. Richard’s eloquence as the anointed king in 4.1, coupled with his several prophecies of divine retribution, intensifies the audience’s feelings of guilt for having supported the rebels’ cause. But Shakespeare goes on to present yet a third, explicitly theatrical, perspective on history in the Aumerle conspiracy scenes of Act 5, where the comedy distances or “alienates” audience members from the dramatic action, reminding them that they are simply attending a theatrical performance. The final transformation of York from sympathetic elder statesman to comic scapegoat releases the audience from complicity in the act of rebellion. [See also Rackin’s full-length study of the history plays, Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990); the chapter on anachronism and nostalgia (especially pp. 117–37) incorporates much of the argument in this Shakespeare Quarterly essay.]

Saccio, Peter. “Richard II: The Fall of the King.” In Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama, pp. 17–35. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Saccio discusses the historical record and Shakespeare’s creative use of it under four headings: the king’s reign to 1397, the background of the Bolingbroke–Mowbray quarrel in 1398, the usurpation itself in 1399, and the earls’ rebellion in 1400. Shakespeare’s departures from his primary source, Holinshed’s Chronicles, include the transformation of Richard’s fractious uncles into well-intentioned senior statesmen, the depiction of Richard’s Queen as a mature woman when in fact she was a child, the dramatic fabrication of the public deposition scene (a show that Bolingbroke would never have allowed), and the radical compression of the earls’ rebellion in Act 5. The recurring question throughout Richard’s reign was who would rule during his minority and who would advise and influence him when he came into his own. Although Richard reigned for twenty-two years, his accomplishments were dwarfed in the almost two hundred years following his death by one event: namely, his loss of the crown.

Scott, William O. “ ‘Like to a tenement’: Landholding, Leasing, and Inheritance in Richard II.” In Law in Shakespeare, edited by Constance Jordan, pp. 58–72. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Central to Scott’s analysis of R2 in light of medieval and early modern property law is Gaunt’s charge that Richard leases out the nation “[l]ike to a tenement or pelting farm” (2.1.65–66). This passage—along with Gaunt’s subsequent lines (115–20), York’s warning to Richard (2.1.204–17), and Bolingbroke’s argument for inheritance of the Duchy of Lancaster (2.3.117–40)—should be understood in the context of contemporary landholding practices, which involved “varieties of ownership”: namely, freehold, copyhold, and leasehold (all of which Scott discusses at length, especially the differences in security between copyholds and leases). The nobles’ criticism of Richard’s “absolutist” conduct is voiced “not only through [the] argument about succession or inheritance but through an analogy with forms of property ownership and use that applied among commoners as well as among the nobility.” Knowledge of the socioeconomic implications of early modern property law and of the secondary legal meanings of words such as “seize” (4.1.190), “convey” (4.1.330), and “waste” (5.5.50) enables us to tap into “other contests of ownership and power” with which an Elizabethan audience in the economy of the 1590s would have been familiar; for that audience, the play would have “renew[ed] questions of struggle and its customary modulation.” In short, R2 illustrates the threats to ownership and inheritance that a subject may suffer when the king misuses the “national property” and compromises his tenure as “hereditary monarch”: by delegating the duties of royal stewardship of the kingdom and its material property “to favorites and tenants turned fee and rent collectors, Richard created a ‘waste’ of resources that the crown should have used to govern and sustain the people.” As the essay concludes, Scott turns briefly to the “controversial notion of selfhood.” Observing how Richard feels a loss of identity in the loss of his title and possessions, the author wonders whether selfhood “can be carefully defined for the sixteenth century through one’s inherited or lawfully acquired status, possessions, and skills.” [The essay is a condensed, updated version of “Landholding, Leasing, and Inheritance in Richard II,” Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 42 (2002): 275–92.]

Sherman, Donovan. “ ‘What more remains?’: Messianic Performance in Richard II.” Shakespeare Quarterly 65 (2014): 22–48.

Sherman reads R2 as a play “littered with discarded objects” that, once having theatrically fulfilled a “prescribed ceremony,” are cast aside as useless: a mirror, a scepter, gages, and, most prominent of all, the king himself. Rather than viewing the abundant theatricality in R2 as “empty artifice,” however, Sherman contends that the play’s many episodes of “apparently failed enactments”—e.g., gages that fall “without fully initiating a duel” (1.1 and 4.1), a “seemingly seditious document [that] comically slips away into inconsequence” (5.3), and a deposition scene (4.1) in which Richard ends where he began, “in a public display of monarchical power transferring hands”—are in fact “successful instances” of what he calls “ ‘messianic performance’: a choreographed effacement and rendering irrelevant of action that must be executed through action.” The first section of the essay (“Explicit Remnants”) develops this concept by attending to two “resonant but seldom conversant” discourses: performance theory and the spirituality of St. Paul. In rethinking Richard’s relationship to theater, Sherman focuses on the Richard of 4.1 who “vibrates somewhere between ‘ay’ and ‘no,’ which is to say ‘nothing,’ or more precisely ‘no-no-thing,’ performing himself into nearly quasi-substantial status” (see lines 210–11). By viewing Richard’s “body natural” as a “performing” rather than “decaying body,” Sherman counters the traditional critique of Richard’s “unkinged body” as an “excessive, inefficacious use of theatricality”—i.e., as “a source of impotence.” Noting how both Paul and performance studies evoke and are sensitive to “the insistent present,” Sherman links Richard’s “remains” to Paul’s “remnant” (Rom. 11.5): neither is “just a physical leftover ​. . . ​but [rather] the wedge driven between self and self, between ‘ay’ and ‘no,’ the ‘nothing’ that must somehow ‘be.’ ” The essay’s second section (“Unpromising Gains”) “maps the progression of messianic performances” in the play as a whole in order to “recover from its displays of seemingly hollow ritual a mode of performance that must, by its nature, appear to fail.” Such mimetic “failure,” Sherman argues, “does not indicate weakness or inefficacy but gestures powerfully at a form of logic beyond both the representational mechanics of the pageantry within the narrative and the play’s own status as a work of staged action.” Reading R2 alongside St. Paul and in light of the tension in early modern theater between insubstantiality and materiality, Sherman concludes that the play’s overall mode of “self-defeat” and the deposition scene, in particular, are “a theatrical detheatricalizing.”

Shewring, Margaret. King Richard II. Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

The first part of this performance history devotes three chapters to the following topics: (1) the problematic structure of R2, (2) the concept of “state” as related to the issues of deposition and regicide, and (3) the “politics and aesthetics” of R2’s performance afterlife from the mid-seventeenth- to mid-nineteenth-century stage (with special attention paid to Nahum Tate’s The Sicilian Usurper [1680], John Rich’s Covent Garden production [1738], and the adaptations of Lewis Theobald [1719] and Richard Wroughton [1814/15]). The second part of the volume consists of five chapters that examine specific stage and television productions spanning the years 1857 to 1987: “The Spectacle of History: Charles Kean [1857] and Jeremy Irons / Barry Kyle [1986],” “A Play of Personality: Frank Benson [1896], John Gielgud [1929 and 1937], and Ian McKellen [1968],” “In the Context of English History: Anthony Quayle (1951); the RSC’s Wars of the Roses (1964) and the ESC’s Wars of the Roses (1986/89),” “Adjusting the Balance: John Barton (1973/74),” and “Richard II on Television: Maurice Evans (NBC [1951, 1954]) and Derek Jacobi (BBC [1978]).” Turning to productions in cultural contexts outside of England and the United States, Shewring focuses the final chapter on the stagings of Jean Vilar (1947), Giorgio Strehler (1947), and Ariane Mnouchkine (1982). In an afterword titled “A Richard II for the 1990s,” the author discusses Deborah Warner’s 1995 revival for London’s Royal National Theatre, with Fiona Shaw in the title role: “Warner’s and Shaw’s [R2] is a production devised for the 1990s, sensitive alike to the detachment of post-modernism and to a contradictory urge towards compassionate understanding. Whatever the ultimate judgment of scholars and critics, this compelling, essentially apolitical interpretation will earn its place in the collective memory of performance history.” The volume concludes with a bibliography and three appendices relating, respectively, to the 1601 Lambarde Document, Charles Kean’s 1857 elaborate staging of Bolingbroke’s triumphant entry into London, and the names of major actors and staff for the productions discussed in the book. [See also Shewring’s essay in Lopez, above.]

Siemon, James R. Word Against Word: Shakespearean Utterance. Massachusetts Studies in Early Modern Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Working from the Bakhtinian circle’s concept of art as a form of social utterance—and its “associated notions of social accent, dialogism, carnival, and ­heteroglossia”—Siemon uses R2 to focus his examination of the “centripetal (homogenizing, hierarchizing) and centrifugal (dispersing, denormatizing) aspects” of Shakespeare’s sociolinguistic environment: “despite its apparent thematic and formal unities,” the play is “an arena marked by struggles among competing groups and orientations, with their socially defined languages and assumptions.” While the book does not provide a complete reading of the play, Siemon attends throughout to the social implications of such formal features as tonality, diction, timing, gesture, and metaphor. Among the topics receiving chapter-length study are R2’s place in contemporary debates on agrarian change, most notably, the enclosure movement (Chapter 3, “Landlord, Not King: Agrarian Change and Interarticulation”); the play’s construction of character and subject in the “highly-charged social space among utterances and languages” (Chapter 4, “ ‘Subjected Thus’: Utterance, Individuation, and Interlocution”); and R2’s connection to the “tonality of lamentation and elegy” that was dominant in the literature of the 1590s (Chapter 5, “The Lamentable Tale of Me: Intonation, Politics, and Religion in Richard II”). In Siemon’s reading, the character of Richard “emerges as a revealing example of a form of subjectivity constructed amid the demands of conflicting voices.” To illustrate the “gains” to be had when one looks for “voices in everything and dialogic relationships among them,” Siemon reconsiders Richard’s soliloquy in 5.5; he concludes that it is “neither a simple revelation of a fatuous individual character nor the straightforward reiteration of a self-blinded ideology that ignores social differentiation. ​. . . ​[Richard’s] subjective musings upon ‘man’ ​. . . ​turn out to have real political topicality for the realm of ‘men’ now constituting ​. . . ​his former kingdom.” [See also Siemon’s essay in Lopez, above.]

Syme, Holger Schott. Theatre and Testimony in Shakespeare’s England: A Culture of Mediation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Contrary to “the influential view that the [early modern] period underwent a crisis of representation,” Syme (drawing on archival research in the fields of law, demonology, historiography, and science) traces “a pervasive conviction that testimony and report,” when delivered by proper figures of authority, “provided access to truth.” Viewing early modern English culture as one of “mediation dominated by transactions in which one person stood for another, giving voice to absent speakers or bringing past events to life,” Syme constructs “a revisionist account of the nature of representation on the early modern stage”; the result is “a radically new explanation for the theatre’s importance in Shakespeare’s time.” The chapter on R2 explores the play under six headings: “Paper Witnesses: Historiography and the Rhetoric of Testimony,” “Holinshed’s Richard: Authority by Deferral,” “Bearing Witness: Richard II and the Repetition of the Past,” “Depositions, Deferral, and the Fantasy of Presence,” “Immanence vs. Reference: The Impossibility of Self-Deposition,” and “Scripted Confession and Reading the Self: Acts of Representation.” R2, Syme writes, “is not just a history play; it is a play about the making and telling of histories. Its main character is not merely a king, but also, in his own words, a historian” who “tell[s] sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.161): Richard “inserts himself into an account, yet to be written, of personal suffering,” and at the same time “conceives of himself as both allegorically linked to and the end product of a teleological trajectory of ‘murdered’ monarchs.” As a whole, the play “can be said to shift back and forth from postures and claims of immanence [‘the immediacy of the embodied’] to a system grounded in gestures of mediation and deferral.” This movement between the two poles of presence and representation becomes particularly feverish and revealing in the deposition scene as the sequence moves first from Bolingbroke’s faith in the testimonial force of Bagot’s freely spoken word to York’s report of Richard’s resignation, and then from Carlisle’s insistence on the king’s presence to Richard’s “proposed and realized performances of reading” (whether of the list of crimes he is to “ventriloquize” or of “his own reflected face” in the mirror passage). Syme’s close reading of 4.1—along with the analogous description in Holinshed’s Chronicles—reveals that both depict the deposition as “a scene of scripting, reading and reporting; an event made up of performative vocal acts, their written sources, and their ultimate reconstitution in and as writing,” thereby making it history. In both the Chronicles and R2, the deposition “triggers an extended, if oblique, reflection on how strategies of deferral and substitution construct legal, historiographical and representational authority.”

Vaught, Jennifer C. “ ‘Wise men ne’er sit and wail their woes’: Woeful Rhetoric and Crocodile Tears in Shakespeare’s Richard II.” In Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern English Literature, pp. 88–113. Aldershot, Eng.: Ashgate, 2008.

In the chapter on R2, Vaught argues that “emotions in general and tears in particular” serve as manipulative “avenues of agency,” serving to empower rather than weaken Richard and the play’s three female characters (the Duchess of Gloucester, the Queen, and the Duchess of York). The more that Richard allies himself with women and the emotional registers conventionally labeled “feminine,” the stronger he becomes, his “grief and patience” (5.2.36) suggesting a heroism “bas[ed] ​. . . ​on emotionally persuasive, rather than militaristic factors.” To buttress her argument, Vaught focuses on Richard’s emotionally charged utterances in selected scenes: his return from Ireland (3.2), his histrionic “performance” at Flint Castle (3.3), his “theatrical” deposition (4.1), his poignant farewell to the Queen (5.1), and his solitary confinement at Pomfret Castle (5.5). The cumulative effect of these affective moments enables Richard in the second half of the play to “regain ​. . . ​a vital, if imaginary, sense of authority and agency”: in control of a narrative that evokes sympathy for himself (as the legendary “ ‘lamentable’ King” of chronicle and oral accounts) and disdain for Bolingbroke/Henry IV (as the “cold-hearted” usurper), Richard wields rhetorical power over his onstage and offstage audiences. In contrast, Bolingbroke’s “sparse emotional displays make less of an impression” on those same audiences. A “compelling figure prone to affect,” whose story escapes the coffin to be “continually retold and never finished,” Shakespeare’s Richard is a forerunner of the “man of feeling” who would dominate the eighteenth-century stage.