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Richard II /

A Modern Perspective: Richard II

By Harry Berger, Jr.

Can a king possess the divine charisma of his office as his own personal quality, or power, or protection? Can the personal wickedness of a bad ruler contaminate the office?1 These are the questions taken up by modern interpreters of Richard II, who focus—not surprisingly—on the relation between Richard’s view of the king’s divine right and his problematic behavior. Proponents of the view that the play treats skeptically the Tudor doctrine of the divinely appointed king often identify the force of the critique with the unflattering characterization of Richard. For example, John Halverson claims that Richard “is never aware” of his contribution to the play’s mockery of divine right; “he does sincerely believe in the divinity of his kingship, sincerely believes his downfall to be solely the work of traitors, and is sincerely sorry for himself”; his unintended exposure of “royal pretensions and royal ambitions” is thus, ironically, “a self-exposure,” and this is what makes the play a “lamentable comedy” rather than tragedy.2 Richard is not only a mean-spirited knave but also a fool “who has cast himself in the role of tragic hero, a role that no one else in the play takes seriously,” and whose “fall is directly due to his own folly” (352, 362).

It is easy to concur with the claim that if Richard is an advocate of divine right he is unconvincing. But is he an advocate? What if it can be shown that the play represents him not as an advocate but as a critic, not as one who means simply to assert the ideology but as one who mocks and undermines it? To go back a step, what would it take to show this? What shift of interpretive perspective is required to refocus Richard as not only the object but also the chief source of the play’s mockery? We might begin by thinking about the play and its primary source, Holinshed’s Chronicles,3 and by considering the most obvious distinction between narrative and theater, Holinshed’s medium and Shakespeare’s: the dramatist represents characters only through the words they speak to and about each other. That would seem to be a severe restraint, a challenge for the playwright to overcome. Unlike the chronicler, the playwright can’t represent himself describing actions, commenting on character, and sympathizing or criticizing in his own voice. Characters can only be represented in and performed by their speech. But by the same token the playwright can represent characters representing themselves in a much more sustained and consistent manner than in poetry or prose mediated by a narrator. If the functions or powers of description, representation, and interpretation are to survive the passage from narrative to theater, they must be transferred to and wholly vested in dramatic speakers.

One of the ways Shakespeare met this challenge was to develop the art of representing self-representation, that is, the art of representing speakers who seem aware that in their words and actions they represent themselves to others, speakers who try to control the effects of their self-representation and who thus use their language the way actors do in an effort to impose on their auditors a particular interpretation of the persons they pretend to be. How, then, would a reading of Richard II that takes into account the emphasis on self-representation be affected by it? What would happen, in other words, if we tried to keep our attention consistently focused on the interpretation of himself that Richard performs for the benefit of his auditors—and, I add, for his own benefit, since I assume that a performer can’t represent himself to others without at the same time representing himself to himself. My answer is that it would make it much more difficult to accept the prevailing view illustrated by Halverson’s reading of Richard as a politically incompetent knave who is undone by his own folly and who is the butt of the play’s irony. On the contrary, such a shift of perspective would show that, from the beginning of the play, Richard performs the role of the Bad Richard, bad both as a person and as a king, and that he does it with wry “in your face” gusto that shows him—again, from the beginning of the play—asking for trouble.

Before trying to support this reading I would like to suggest what I think is at stake in rejecting the view of Richard as a king committed to the doctrine of the divine right of kings. In spite of all the Shakespearean innovations and departures by which Halverson distinguishes Shakespeare’s Richard from Holinshed’s—the rhetorical extravagance, the irritating tendency to strike poses and hog the stage, the shift of emphasis from politically justified to gratuitously aggressive behavior—this insistence that the play’s Richard is the unwitting victim of his own folly reinscribes him in the traditional chronicle portrait but without the occasional sympathy that made Holinshed’s view of Richard interestingly ambivalent. Holinshed also represents Richard as the victim of his own folly but shuttles back and forth between sympathizing with or apologizing for him and lambasting his “insolent misgovernance” and loose living. The chronicle keeps its reader in touch with a prelapsarian Richard, the anointed king who “knew his title just, true, and infallible; and his conscience cleane, pure, and without spot of envie or malice,” and who was “a right noble and woorthie prince” before succumbing to “the frailtie of wanton youth” and the influence of evil counselors. Compared with this, Halverson’s essay illustrates a tendency to be—and to find Shakespeare—more judgmental and to expose beneath Richard’s showy exterior the stereotypical core of a morality figure, the example of a bad king. This is what may be called a voyeuristic reduction. It implies that critic, playwright, and audience see and know the character better than he sees and knows himself; it elevates their moral power at his expense.

I propose to begin instead with the hypothesis that Shakespeare took up Holinshed’s unthematized and unfocused ambivalence, sharpened its focus, and transferred it to Richard as the attitude—or set of attitudes—his language shows him to perform not only before others but also before himself. This hypothesis allows us to treat all assessments of reactions to Richard by his auditors (onstage or off) as mirrors or echoes of his reaction to himself. So, for example, Phyllis Rackin’s account of the way the play’s opening scenes work “to make Richard contemptible in the eyes of the audience” becomes a clue to the way Richard works to make himself appear contemptible to his onstage audience by treating them with a degree of contempt guaranteed to alienate them and weaken his position.4 In fact, by the time Gaunt warns him that he is “possessed now to depose [himself](2.1.114), we have begun to wonder whether he is not daring—or perhaps begging—his interlocutors to check him, soliciting punishment even as he tries to see how much he can get away with. However flippant his utterances are in these scenes, they are edged with anger that seems directed as much toward himself as toward his interlocutors.

This verbal aggressiveness may be illustrated by Richard’s very first words:

Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster,

Hast thou, according to thy oath and band,

Brought hither Henry Hereford, thy bold son,

Here to make good the boist’rous late appeal,

Which then our leisure would not let us hear,

Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?


Richard begins with a string of blunt monosyllables that identify the addressee by place of birth (“Old John of Gaunt,” that is, John from Gaunt, or Ghent). These are rhythmically organized to accentuate “Old . . . Gaunt,” so that they lean on the association of age with weakness or impotence. They are followed by the resonant polysyllables of the first qualifier, the ducal title, “time-honored Lancaster.” The shift upward from “Old” to “time-honored” gives the expression of respect for seniority a wicked bite—makes it puffier, more suspect as a mystifying euphemism, because it appears to countervail the snide allusion to senility. Richard’s second qualifier, “according to thy oath and band,” quietly turns a purely rhetorical and ceremonial question into an admonitory nudge: “have you lived up to your promise?” Young Bolingbroke has been troubling the king’s peace, and old Gaunt will be held responsible for his boisterous boy’s good behavior. Finally, Richard’s explanation for ignoring Hereford’s “boist’rous late appeal” is so bizarre that editors have in effect rewritten it: they have insisted that “our leisure” in line 5 must mean want or lack of leisure. But given his obvious pleasure in what may be characterized as a kind of ceremonial trash-talking, Richard may well mean what he says—that is, “I chose not to let official business or unruly youngsters interrupt my leisure, my playtime.” I find this both plausible and hilarious as a sequel to his insistence on the promptness, the obedience, he expects from Gaunt: “We expect you to hop to it when we give an order. We, on the other hand, will attend to these matters when we aren’t busy doing something less important.” In short, “Look how Bad we are. And what are you going to do about it?”

These lines foreshadow what will soon become evident: Richard is a tart and witty practitioner of the politics of oratory whose occasional mimicry of the way his interlocutors deploy the resources of the genre suggests more than a touch of cynicism. He goes out of his way to offend those by whom he has cause to suspect he is threatened, and indeed his obvious contempt for Gaunt seems linked to the latter’s refusal to stand up to Richard’s bullying. Richard goes on pushing and bullying until he finally succeeds in arousing organized resistance to his conspicuously arbitrary displays of power and violations of his subjects’ rights. In current parlance, he “has an attitude”: whatever trouble he gets is trouble he asks for. To recognize this is to view his apparently radical change of behavior in 3.2 with suspicion. If after returning from Ireland the “new Richard” is “hysterically indecisive” and “more embarrassing than sympathetic” (Halverson 355), if he refuses to take action and instead flaunts his helplessness and luxuriates in self-pity, the thought that he is a knowing accomplice in his undoing (even as he loudly proclaims himself an innocent victim) makes it difficult to take his self-representation as a betrayed Christ-figure at face value.

The consequence of assuming he “sincerely believes his downfall to be solely the work of traitors, and is sincerely sorry for himself” (Halverson 360) is the conviction that he must be remarkably stupid. We can save him from this by imagining that the speaker of Richard’s words in 3.2 remembers no less than we remember about the same speaker’s performances in 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, and 2.1. Then it will be easier to read or hear the royal victim’s protestations of outrage as acts of parody, easier to imagine that he glories not only in expressing self-pity but also in displaying it, and by “it” I mean not the self-pity per se but its expression.

Once we grant Richard the minimal self-awareness of his seemingly calculated campaign to get himself victimized, it becomes obvious that his hyperarticulate flights of menace and lament in 3.2 and after are self-discrediting provocations, that is, rhetorical outbursts intended to embarrass those who are foolish enough to continue encouraging him to stay the course when he and they know it is a course he has thoroughly discredited. At least from the moment in which he directs them to “Mock not my senseless conjuration” (3.2.23), he seems obsessed, exhilarated, by a histrionic project guaranteed to try their dignity as well as their patience: he throws himself into a high-decibel mimicry and mockery of a bad-faith role we are all familiar with because it is a cultural readymade, a well-formed strategy of self-representation anyone can perform, the victim’s discourse pithily expressed in Lear’s self-pitying rationalization, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning.”5 This rationalization obviously defends against the speaker’s apprehension that he may be more sinning than sinned against. Various versions of the victim’s discourse are utilized by Gaunt and York, and Richard’s parody may be directed against all those who have countenanced his crimes and disclaimed responsibility for their passivity or nonresistance. On another level, the parody may be directed against the hapless, helpless figure of Poor Richard one finds in the chronicles, as if Shakespeare’s Richard is making fun of Holinshed’s Richard. For anyone who finds allusions to—and not merely echoes of—the chronicle account in the play, this could contribute to a critique of the simplistic morality, the absence of any narrative penetration into (or interpretation of) the motivational infrastructure of events, that characterizes Richard’s story in the chronicles.

This critical relation to the chronicle is evident in the most important of Shakespeare’s departures. Richard doesn’t have much to say for himself in Holinshed.6 Richard II corrects this in a way that suggests a correlation between haplessness and inadequate opportunities for self-representation. Shakespeare’s Richard “does nothing but talk and talk and talk,” Halverson complains (352), but he goes on to make a striking suggestion: the “astonishing eloquence [that] seems to have been Shakespeare’s invention” is “the verbal equivalent of Richard’s beautiful physical appearance”; “none of his sources credits the king with a reputation for fine speech, although they do regularly mention his handsome features and dress” (360). More forcefully, there is not only equivalence but also displacement, as if Shakespeare saw in the narcissism of fine appearance a less sensitive and nuanced medium of self-expression than the narcissism of fine speech—as if the performer’s dressing himself up in speech can do more justice to the complex erotic charge of his investment in the visual and verbal media that represent him to himself and others. Critics have always observed that Richard is in love with the sound of his own speech—is a Poet King as well as a Player King—and I have been trying to bring out the elements of self-parody, self-critique, and self-loathing that constitute the richness of such love. In this connection I find it significant that the play virtually ignores a side of Richard that Holinshed associates with his fine appearance—that is, his participation in “the filthie sinne of leacherie and fornication” that “reigned abundantlie” in his court.7 It redirects attention from Richard’s pleasures in sex to his pleasures in speech and from sexual aggression to verbal aggression. Where the chronicle associates Richard’s misgovernance and fall with luxurious self-indulgence, the play associates it with luxurious self-representation.

Shakespeare thus replaces Holinshed’s royal victim with a more complicated figure who seems to go out of his way to get himself victimized and then blames his victimization on others. It is as if the author of Richard II, trying to give an old story a new twist, decided to do this by having the character himself give the story of his decline and fall a new twist; as if Richard enters the play already knowing he had been—would be—deposed and decides to rewrite his story by preemptively taking his deposition into his own hands.8 This is not to deny that Bolingbroke is a usurper and regicide. But if Richard is actively complicit in his own undoing, if he is the usurper’s silent partner or—to put it more forcefully—his seducer, if he contributes more aggressively to his deposition than Bolingbroke knows, then the portrayal of Bolingbroke is also radically altered. Bolingbroke remains a usurper and regicide, but he also, in a strange way, becomes Richard’s victim.

In the discussion that follows I shall try to show that Richard entertains the idea of getting deposed well before deposition becomes a clear and definite option for Bolingbroke, who is neither consistently nor decisively committed to usurpation until Richard forces him in 3.3 to commit himself (see 206–7 and 214–18). Though Richard doesn’t move to abdicate until 4.1, when he adopts Bolingbroke as his heir (112–18), he drops hints from the very beginning that suggest he finds his cousin impressively qualified to serve as his usurper, and he proceeds to goad and in effect seduce him into performing that service.

Richard’s contrariness is evident in the episode that opens the play. His cousin Henry Bolingbroke has accused Thomas Mowbray, the duke of Norfolk, of treason and requested that the king let him justify the charge in trial by combat, a judicial ritual in which God supposedly is the umpire who picks the winner and thus reveals the truth. Richard at first tries to persuade the participants to back off, and when they refuse, he schedules it for a later date. On the second occasion he again intervenes and prevents the duel, but only after acting as if he will let it happen. Then he chastises the would-be combatants as prideful and envious disturbers of the peace, and banishes them, Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for ten years, subsequently reduced to six. What does he stand to gain by stopping the duel and banishing the combatants?

According to the specific conventions of trial by combat, if Bolingbroke were to win it would be God’s way of declaring Mowbray guilty. As we learn later, Richard’s guilt and Mowbray’s complicity in the murder of Gloucester are already assumed (see 1.2); they don’t have to be made evident to Gaunt, the duchess of Gloucester, the duke of York, or, presumably, Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke’s accusation sends a message to Richard and others, but were Mowbray to be defeated he would, dead or alive, officially carry the blame he unofficially shared with Richard. On the other hand, were Mowbray to win, he would redeem his honor by “proving” Bolingbroke a liar, and he would thus protect Richard.9 Richard, then, stops a fight by which he would be protected, officially “cleared,” no matter who won. That he stops it in a manner calculated to anger and dishonor the two combatants hardly seems motivated by political self-interest. Furthermore, Bolingbroke, the appellant, is on the face of it the more dangerous of the two. Why, then, does Richard banish Mowbray for good but give Bolingbroke some encouragement to return from exile? These moves reveal Richard’s interest in not being protected either by Mowbray’s victory or by Mowbray’s judicial assumption of guilt if Bolingbroke won. In short, Richard seems to want to keep open the possibility—and maintain control—of his self-destruction. But why? Richard’s actions in 1.1 and 1.3 are as Holinshed reports them, but Shakespeare makes it clear through Richard’s language, especially in 1.4 and 2.1, that Richard’s abuse of his royal office, while unconscionable, is not unconscious. He knows very well what he is doing when he milks the “royal domain” to support not only his Irish war but also his extravagance (1.4.44–53), and when he expropriates Bolingbroke’s inheritance (2.1.167–219). He knows, in short, that he has abused and slandered the office as well as the idea of kingship; if he accepts the dogma that the king is God’s deputy, he knows very well that God did not choose—or lacked the power—to prevent him from using his divine office to commit “murders, treasons, and detested sins” (3.2.44). Indeed, even as he uses these words to characterize those who, like “this thief, this traitor Bolingbroke,” will be exposed and guiltily “self-affrighted” by the light of the returning sun-king (3.2.36–54), his terms of accusation apply to himself. This diatribe against Bolingbroke is rhetorically excessive and self-delighting, savage and bitter in tone, as it wickedly flashes a lining of mockery mixed with self-mockery. For Richard has already shown himself to be—and heard himself called—a thief of his subjects’ property (and his uncle’s life). It is as if he enjoys hinting to his supporters and sycophants that he is speaking of his depravity and theirs, and that the God who lets his deputy do what Richard does and speak as he now speaks must be willing to let him get away with murder. Thus if he ever was wedded to the idea that the occupant of the throne was morally constrained or uplifted by the sanctity of divine kingship, he has already divorced himself from it. The energy with which he mocks the rhetoric of sanctification testifies less to cynicism than to the bitterness of an apostate, an ex-believer.

When, for example, he invokes the assistance of stones and angels, Richard’s utterance vibrates with a range of parodic and sarcastic tones, as in the statements following the diatribe against Bolingbroke:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord.

For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,

God for His Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel. Then, if angels fight,

Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.


Broadly parodied in lines 57–58 is a well-known principle of nonresistance to the ruler—even a bad ruler—promulgated by the Elizabethan government: the idea that the ruler’s subjects should not resist is here replaced by the idea that they couldn’t possibly do so. The lines leave open the possibility that although only the Lord has the authority to depose an anointed king, He may delegate that to his deputy—who may bring it about by his own nonresistance, as Richard suggests when, in lines 59–63, he reduces the bishop of Carlisle’s plea for action (27–32) to an argument for remaining inactive and leaving the good fight to heaven.10

By such mordant utterances Richard conveys the sense that if he was once convinced of the dogma that the monarch is the Lord’s deputy and therefore secure from “worldly men,” he no longer believes it and now condemns himself for having believed it. The more pressing question for Richard is whether it is by divine will that he has been able to get away with all he has been accused of, and, if so, what this says about the power of that divine will or about his relation to it. Since at several points in the first two acts he cheerfully demonstrates his lawlessness (1.4.44–53 and 60–65; 2.1.161–70 and 218–19), his subsequent appeals to the rhetoric of divinely ordained kingship in Acts 3 and 4 can hardly be accepted at face value. There are not enough clues in his language to enable us to determine whether he is defying or slandering God, trying to prove that God is helpless to stop him or that God legitimizes knavery. But there are many clues that, although he may deem himself beyond forgiveness, he is interested in punishment, and that he is prepared to subject any conviction of invulnerability to earthly powers to a serious test. In Ernst Kantorowicz’s political reading of the play, Richard becomes “a traitor to his own immortal body politic and to kingship such as it had been to his day”; therefore he is complicit in the destruction not only of his “body natural” but also of “the indelible character of the king’s body politic, god-like or angel-like.”11 My point is that awareness of the betrayal is inscribed in Richard’s language, that it is the source of his self-contempt and of his often sarcastic use of Christian rhetoric.

I want to emphasize that it is not merely poetic effusion we hear in such utterances as the diatribe against Bolingbroke discussed above, and it is not merely arrogance; rather it is a diffuse contempt aimed both at the ideology of kingship and at his performance as king. It is a contempt inscribed in the mocking irony of his setting himself up as Christ (4.1.177–80, 248–53), coming down as Phaëton the usurper of the sun-god’s chariot (3.3.183–84), and playing the role of a Faustus forced to stage-manage his own secular damnation. He shows contempt for an ideology of sacralized kingship powerless to restrain his abuses; contempt for those around him who, if they don’t actually believe in the ideology, continue to invoke it, especially when they want to excuse or justify the inaction that lets him go on abusing and slandering it. His conspicuous disregard and rejection of defensive measures, indeed, his going out of his way to antagonize powerful enemies and give them the advantage, is the familiar symptom or index of a desire to seek the punishment one feels one deserves. The advantage of inducing others to cut him down to size is that he can blame them while enjoying the savor of his victimage. The disadvantage is that such a strategy can only increase his self-contempt.

This spiraling oscillation—between contempt for self and contempt for others, between the impulse to aggression against oneself and the impulse to aggression against others—is inscribed in Richard’s rhetoric and politics. It patterns the course of his behavior and the trajectory of his career. It motivates his perverse, skillfully managed project: to begin the process of getting himself deposed, choose a likely candidate for the job, give him the motive and the cue to action, reward him with the title of usurper, and leave him with a discredited crown. The first item in this schedule is announced early in the play by Gaunt: “[thou] art possessed now to depose thyself” (2.1.114). But Richard’s appreciation of Bolingbroke’s qualifications has already found its way into his language in the play’s opening scene:

How high a pitch his resolution soars!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom’s heir,

As he is but my father’s brother’s son,

Now by my scepter’s awe I make a vow:

Such neighbor nearness to our sacred blood

Should nothing privilege him. . . .

(113, 120–24)

This display of evenhandedness has another side to it, a side that appears when Richard first calls Mowbray and Bolingbroke “to our presence” in words that momentarily suggest the opposing knights will confront him rather than each other:

                                                            Face to face

And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear

The accuser and the accusèd freely speak.


Like the nefarious dangling participle that manuals of style always warn about, the parallel adverbial phrases unsettle the meaning because they are attracted as modifiers to “ourselves will hear” before they reach their rightful destination as descriptions of the way the opponents will speak. The oddly pluralized royal plural (“ourselves” rather than “ourself”) encourages this diversion: if only for a second, it depicts Richard self-divided into two opponents before the image is twice recomposed, successively modulating into phantasms of Richard vs. the others and of Bolingbroke vs. Mowbray. The central scenario of the play is epitomized in the oscillation between Richard against himself and against the others, and the wonderfully apt syntactical confusion in the utterance registers the scenario as—at this point—no more than a pressure on language, a sequence of accidental flickers, nothing so clear as an intention of the speaker.

The scenario moves a little closer toward the intentional status of a possible (and nasty) pun in 1.3 during the preliminaries to the duel. Richard concludes his response to Bolingbroke’s ceremonial leave-taking with a smartly turned couplet, “Farewell, my blood—which, if today thou shed, / Lament we may but not revenge thee dead” (57–58). The obvious message is that if Bolingbroke loses he will have unjustly—by the logic of judicial combat—shed the lineal blood his kinsman shares, so that there can be no royal redress. But the statement also lets “my blood—which, if today thou shed” be heard as “if you kill me,” and this subversive hint is generated by the lines preceding the couplet:

We will descend and fold him in our arms.

Cousin of Hereford, as thy cause is right,

So be thy fortune in this royal fight. (54–56)

The speech rhythm accentuates the will to descend; the image of embrace, reinforced by the odd reference to “royal fight,” darkly figures the desire coupling Richard and Bolingbroke in their dance toward deposition and regicide—and toward the subsequent regime of Henry IV, during which the usurper gradually comes to feel the embrace as a moral stranglehold. Of course the compelling power of these insinuations can be felt only by readers and auditors who know the whole story of Henry IV’s reign. But since this story was enshrined in Tudor historiography, it is plausible to assume some familiarity with it on the part of at least some of the audiences for whom the plays were written. Or, to put it a little more rigorously, the plays presuppose and therefore construct—and will most richly reward—such an audience.

This effect of retrospective foreboding is again produced by Richard’s language after he stops the fight and pronounces the sentences of banishment. In a puzzlingly gratuitous gesture, he commands both nobles to perform the following ritual:

Lay on our royal sword your banished hands.

Swear by the duty that you owe to God—

Our part therein we banish with yourselves—

To keep the oath that we administer:

You never shall, so help you truth and God,

Embrace each other’s love in banishment,

Nor never look upon each other’s face,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Nor never by advisèd purpose meet

To plot, contrive, or complot any ill

’Gainst us, our state, our subjects, or our land.


At this point nobody expects Bolingbroke and Mowbray, sworn enemies, to form an alliance. Why, then, does Richard so carefully give specific instructions about the sorts of things the exiles are not to do? More than a display of apprehensiveness, the speech carries the weight of an insult; it seems intended to rankle, as does the order that joins the two together in a symbolic tableau of cooperation. But it also actualizes and stabilizes the flickering image, evoked at 1.1.16–18, of Richard and the two nobles “frowning brow to brow” as if the latter were in league against him.

Richard’s parade of prohibitions winds eerily, riskily, toward the status of an invitation: as he lists the sorts of things they might well do were they willing to overcome their scruples and homebred hate when abroad, the prohibitions begin to sound like suggestions, proposals, or dares. “Our part therein we banish with yourselves”—that is, “you are now free to dissociate us from God; if you are dishonorable enough to join forces, no obligation to our part in the divine kingship need stand in the way of your returning to lay banished hands on our royal sword, crown, and body.” My paraphrase is intended to accentuate what I detect as a wry acridity of tone in Richard’s utterance, a histrionic pleasure in flaunting his control of ritual speech and action to the point of frustrating and antagonizing the participants, and ultimately—one already begins to suspect—of arousing resistance to his high-handed exploitation of sovereign privilege. Richard brings this self-subverting strategy to a first climax in 2.1 when he noisily seizes Bolingbroke’s inheritance, dismisses in one airy couplet the duke of York’s long, impassioned protest against this move, then blithely announces that he is placing the country in the shaky hands of that very protester while he himself dashes off to Ireland (161–232). All this is staged for the benefit of Northumberland and the other peers who are standing by, as if to invite and incite the uprising that is already in motion and that only (as he seems to expect) awaits “[t]he first departing of the King for Ireland” (301). When he returns from Ireland in 3.2 his success in mobilizing aggression against himself enables him to step comfortably into the victim’s role he has solicited.

Someone else is also standing by in 2.1 and quietly watching Richard behave as if possessed to depose himself—so quietly, indeed, that critics often ignore her presence. The queen speaks one line at her entrance and is addressed once just before leaving when Richard briskly bids her be merry as he marches her offstage (2.1.231–32). Critics who puzzle over her strange and haunting rhetoric in 2.2 often write as if this is where she makes her first appearance, even though Bushy begins the scene by reminding her—and therefore the audience—of Richard’s parting injunction in 2.1 that she should “Be merry,” saying that she promised the king she would “lay aside life-harming heaviness” (2.2.2–3). We should take this as a cue to try to imagine what she may have observed or felt or thought in 2.1. Her foreboding in 2.2, her presentiment of giving birth to the monster, the “nothing” with which her “inward soul . . . trembles,” is expressed in language so dense and tortured as to be conspicuously evasive.

What is it that she simultaneously hints at and resists? What does she flinch from as if trying not to acknowledge the (no)thing she knows, not to utter the name of the woe she bears? It must be more than the bad news Green brings (47–64), even though she calls Green “the midwife” who helps her soul bring “forth her prodigy” (65, 67). Following the uncanny force of the words that express her anxiety, the news of political danger seems anticlimactic. For if Bolingbroke is her “sorrow’s dismal heir,” the sorrow she gives birth to must be Richard. But what could that mean? In what sense is Richard the “woe” that she so tortuously insists is “nameless,” the “grief” that haunts and impregnates her speech, the “unborn sorrow” she would like, perhaps, to abort? Lines 6–9 suggest an answer:

. . .  I know no cause

Why I should welcome such a guest as grief,

Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest

As my sweet Richard.

That wistful and wishful—and perhaps already nostalgic—“sweet” may register her continuing loyalty and love in the face and against the grain of what she has just observed in 2.1. Richard’s departure for Ireland troubles her less than the exchange of guests in which the sweet Richard has been displaced in her “inward soul” by the bitter Richard whom she now knows has willed to get rid of himself because he is possessed by and reduced to the self-loathing of despair. The queen balks at calling her “prodigy” Richard’s child, for the nothing she grieves over is the void produced by his refusal to confront or let her share his “life-harming heaviness.” Instead she speaks of an “unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb” (10) and thence transferred to hers. The name of the “nothing [that] hath begot my something grief” and of the “something [that] hath the nothing that I grieve” (37–38) is the bitter Richard, and she can receive it as his child only “in reversion”—that is, she cannot inherit as her own the despair Richard withholds until his intercourse with Fortune produces the dismal heir” (2.2.66) who will finally help him fulfill his deepest wish: to “be eased / With being nothing” (5.5.40–41).

What, is my Richard both in shape and mind

Transformed and weakened? Hath Bolingbroke

Deposed thine intellect? Hath he been in thy heart?

The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw

And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage

To be o’er-powered; and wilt thou, pupil-like,

Take the correction, mildly kiss the rod,

And fawn on rage with base humility,

Which art a lion and the king of beasts?


With these words of spirited chastisement the queen finally has her say. But her words say more than she perhaps intends. She intends to rebuke Richard for being a cowardly lion who doesn’t even put up a show of angry resistance to being overpowered. But since “rage / To be o’er-powered” can mean “desire to be overpowered,” the rebuke also describes the self-flagellation of the lion who flatters his rage by treating his downfall as his “correction.” And whatever she intends by her questions about Bolingbroke, “Hath he been in thy heart?” suggests between Richard and his adopted son the kind of intimate attachment she has been denied. Bolingbroke has replaced her as his partner. And when she, in her final words, refuses to take responsibility for killing Richard’s heart or letting him kill hers (5.1.99–102), she signals her reluctance to let him do to her what he is doing to Bolingbroke and himself.

Richard’s passive-aggressive scenario of self-deposition is more consistent and decisive than his partner’s answering scenario of usurpation. Of the two protagonists, Bolingbroke initially shows more respect for the ideology of kingship than does Richard. Whatever happens later, he enters the judicial process in 1.1 as a reformer intent on making those who wield or influence authority clean up their act. Though his three accusations clearly have Richard for their target, he has enough respect for the protocols of deference and piety to redirect them toward Mowbray. There is no reason to doubt that when, in 2.3 and 3.1, he claims to be weeding out the sycophantic “caterpillars of the commonwealth” (2.3.170), he is at least in part genuinely concerned to preserve the kingship from corrupt practices that jeopardize respect for the system of lineal inheritance on which all the major players—kings of England and dukes of Lancaster alike—depend. The guilt and remorse that haunt him from the end of this play until his death in Henry IV, Part 2 are hardly those of the hard-edged Machiavel that Bolingbroke has sometimes been taken to be; they are the signs of a tender conscience. He is aware that the trials he undergoes as king and as father may be God’s punishment for his “mistreadings.”12 In this he understands his predicament in traditional terms. That is, he is an orthodox reader of his story; he speaks and behaves as if he were in Holinshed’s chronicle. The irony is that unbeknownst to himself he is in a very different kind of story in which the royal victim has in effect selected his victimizer, appointed his usurper, and coopted him into seizing a discredited crown. In this story, Bolingbroke plays the part of a character who at first isn’t sure—or doesn’t want to know—where he is going. Until Richard actively maneuvers him—and all but locks him—into the project of usurpation, he vacillates between gestures that threaten rebellion and gestures of restraint, loyalty, and obeisance. From the end of 1.3 through 3.3 he seems diffusely aggressive, ready for anything, but inconsistent as to the precise course he will choose. He jumps abruptly forward with imperious gestures, then nervously backtracks into deferential postures.

Some critics sensitive to the complexity of Shakespeare’s portrayal have described Bolingbroke as the prototypical political climber: “the man who will go further than his rivals because he never allows himself to know where he is going”; the exemplar of the “tacit vice” of opportunism, the duplicitous ability to induce others to clarify and fulfill the purposes of which one keeps oneself only “vaguely aware.”13 Bolingbroke’s language represents a speaker who sometimes betrays anxiety about where he is going—where he finds himself desiring or tempted to go. To Gaunt’s advice that he dull the pain of exile with idyllic rationalizations and fantasies, he protests, “O no, the apprehension of the good / Gives but the greater feeling to the worse” (1.3.307–8). The words gesture toward meanings beyond the rejection of Gaunt’s half-baked recipes for grief-management. To imagine the good one desires but can’t have, Bolingbroke remonstrates, only makes one feel worse. What if the good is kingship? Or what if it is virtue—loyalty, piety, respect for legitimate authority? What if “apprehension” means not only the imagination of the good but also the act of reaching for it, apprehending it, taking it (“here, cousin, seize the crown” [4.1.190])? And, since “to apprehend” means not only “to imagine” and “to take” but also “to fear,” what if one fears the desire to reach for the good, and fears the consequences of taking it? On the other hand, if one is fearful of the desire to take the good, will one feel worse for having suppressed the desire? I am far from claiming that Bolingbroke audits the full range of meanings that resonate discordantly in the suspension of his utterance.

Rather, my claim is that all these meanings are relevant to and revealing of desires and anxieties that obtrude themselves again and again in his language. They betray a moral irritability, a desire for justification, a fear of his own susceptibility to the very opportunism critics accuse him of. In this respect, the resonance of “the apprehension of the good / Gives but the greater feeling to the worse” echoes through the long corridor of the plays about Henry’s reign as a prophetic motto of Bolingbroke’s ever more precarious journey through the declivities of his own conscience.

The first unguarded manifestation of apprehensive desire occurs in one of the play’s cloudier moments. In 2.1, after Richard has laid claim to Bolingbroke’s patrimony and departed, Northumberland confides to Willoughby and Ross that Bolingbroke is on his way home from Brittany with several peers and a small army in “eight tall ships” (289–99). In 2.3, shortly after he lands, Bolingbroke insists to Berkeley and York that the reason for his illegal reentry is “personally” to “lay my claim / To my inheritance” (139–40), since he has been denied the normal channels of legal representation by which an heir reclaims property that reverts to the crown. At 2.1.210–17 York warned Richard not to violate this procedure, but Bolingbroke’s complaint at 2.3.117–40 shows that Richard ignored the warning. The problem is that according to Northumberland’s announcement, Bolingbroke set sail from Brittany before the events in 2.1 transpired. Perhaps, as Peter Ure suggests, Shakespeare may have “telescoped the various events” in this episode “in the interests of dramatic timing”;14 perhaps readers and auditors are not expected to grasp legal complexities that are only hinted at in passing;15 perhaps they aren’t being asked to worry about the inconsistency between Bolingbroke’s asserted motive for returning and the fact that he couldn’t have had that motive when he mustered his forces and left Brittany (since Gaunt had not yet died); perhaps, if they do notice the inconsistency, they will chalk it up to Bolingbroke’s hypocrisy and opportunism.

My own view is that in 2.3 Bolingbroke behaves as if he worries about the inconsistency and about a moment in which “the apprehension of the good” led to a brief and diffuse act of opportunism.16 For in spite of the aggressive embarkation Northumberland reports, Bolingbroke seems careful, even diffident, in his dealings with those who greet him on his return. His response to Northumberland’s windy sweet talk (2.3.2–18) is curt. He shows himself to be concerned with the way he is perceived, addressed, and flattered or criticized. In thanking the nobles for their support, he is careful to keep his promises vague. He seems to resist—without entirely discouraging—the push of an incipient rebellion of nobles who would obviously like to see him go all the way and who thus, ironically, have the same designs on Bolingbroke that Richard has—an unwitting complicity that will, with Bolingbroke’s help, turn against him in Henry IV, Part 1, after he has become king. Above all, he takes the opportunity offered by Berkeley’s cool and York’s censorious remarks to back away from any appearance of ambition greater than the desire to recover his rightful inheritance. However wild or undefined his intention may have been on setting sail before Richard seized his patrimony, the seizure gives him a defined ground of defiance and grievance.17 Against York’s double charge that Bolingbroke is “a banished man” who has returned “Before the expiration of [his] time, / In braving arms against [his] sovereign” (2.3.114–16), Bolingbroke’s demand for legal justice actually reproduces the logic of York’s earlier protest against the seizure. York warned that Richard jeopardizes his own position as well as his cousin Bolingbroke’s in violating the principle of lineal succession; Bolingbroke agrees: “If that my cousin king be king in England, / It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster” (127–28). Within these limits, Bolingbroke’s sense of grievance is morally justified, and he can represent himself to himself as a man more sinned against than sinning. Richard’s problem, then, given what I take to be his agenda, will be to make Bolingbroke transgress those limits and reach for more than his own.

My response to Bolingbroke’s language coincides with the opinion of one critic that throughout the play Bolingbroke “is genuinely trying to say what he means.”18 But what he means, what he intends to do, is often far from obvious—is marked by moments of confusion and indecisiveness that suggest it is not always obvious to him. When he sentences Richard’s friends to death in 3.1, he goes back, in effect, to square one and blames them for all royal misdeeds, just as he had blamed Mowbray in 1.1. This time, however, he is more careful to dissociate the misdeeds from Richard and represent the king himself as the victim of the flatterers’ corrupt practices. He is equally careful to control public reaction to the death sentences by a painstaking explanation, most of which is devoted to Bushy’s and Green’s victimization of him. Thus, according to this argument, he and Richard are in the same position, so that whatever he does on his own behalf he also does on Richard’s, preserving both the king and the crown from the sources of corruption. However, the pressure behind this strenuous exercise in self-exculpation betrays itself in the introductory comment with which he justifies the death penalty: “to wash your blood / From off my hands, here in the view of men / I will unfold some causes of your deaths” (3.1.5–7). As Rackin points out, “Richard’s association [in 4.1] of his betrayers with Pilate, the biblical archetype for a futile attempt to deny guilt . . . is prefigured here” (Stages 129). But in Bolingbroke’s case (as opposed to Richard’s flamboyant assumption of the divine victim’s role), the allusion slips out against the grain of the speaker’s stated intention and hints at the futility of his attempt to persuade himself he is not guilty of an action aimed at weakening rather than—as he claims—safeguarding Richard’s position. The solicitude he shows for the queen (38–42) immediately after his indictment of Bushy and Green is part of the same pattern. It may be dismissed as another politic gesture intended to impress or placate his audience, but that does not prevent it from being at the same time a gesture of good faith he performs for his own benefit—or, more darkly, a preemptive washing of the hands by one who, like Macbeth, may be shaken by his apprehension of the good.

It is an apprehension he struggles to control in 3.3 against the mounting pressure of Richard’s disturbing acquiescence. Even the impatient Northumberland tries to slow down the process and lower the stakes when Richard accuses him of backing an effort to seize the crown (3.3.74–122), but Richard sardonically and melodramatically persists in offering the lure of deposition (148–80). Bolingbroke’s one long speech early in the scene (32–63) registers his uncertainty. It begins with a calculated alternation between reassurance and threat expressly confined to the demand that his banishment be repealed and his lands restored. But as he continues he momentarily loses control of his imagery and has to rein it back in:

Be he the fire, I’ll be the yielding water;

The rage be his, whilst on the Earth I rain

My waters—on the Earth, and not on him. (60–62)

The runover line pausing on, then passing through, its ear-pun (rain/reign) enacts a loss of balance, but stumbles awkwardly back on its feet. Two lines later, after Richard shows himself on the battlements, Bolingbroke is still stumbling: Richard appears, says Bolingbroke,

As doth the blushing discontented sun

From out the fiery portal of the east

When he perceives the envious clouds are bent

To dim his glory and to stain the track

Of his bright passage to the occident. (65–69)

As Bolingbroke continues to develop the figure of elemental warfare, his words attribute questionable motives to the envious clouds that represent him, but it is unclear from his phrasing whether the dimming and the staining are Richard’s (mis)perceptions or are motives the speaker acknowledges.

The parley between Richard and Northumberland that follows goes on for more than a hundred lines before Bolingbroke speaks again, and during the remainder of the scene, which Richard monopolizes, Bolingbroke is allowed only five brief utterances. In the second of these he commands obeisance to the king, and in the third he protests once more that “I come but for mine own” (206). But Richard immediately denies him this fallback position: “Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all” (207). Bolingbroke still resists: “So far be mine, my most redoubted lord, / As my true service shall deserve your love” (208–9). Richard will brook no further resistance. He pushes Bolingbroke into a corner and forces him to take all:

Cousin, I am too young to be your father,

Though you are old enough to be my heir.

What you will have I’ll give, and willing, too,

For do we must what force will have us do.

Set on towards London, cousin, is it so? (214–18)

That is, “what I will give you’ll have, for do you must what force will have you do: convey me to London to prepare for the next phase of deposition.” Bolingbroke surrenders: “Yea, my good lord” (219). This is the turning point of the play. The die has been cast—by Richard—and Bolingbroke has lost the moral struggle, and now commence the “inward wars” of the future King Henry IV.

“Here, cousin, seize the crown” (4.1.190): like this duplicitous speech act, the inverted rite of discoronation shows Richard having it both ways. He formally reenacts the self-deposition he has helped bring about, thereby publicly demonstrating his active relinquishment of the crown. At the same time he forces Bolingbroke to reenact the usurpation, thereby publicly dramatizing the act of illegal seizure while Richard presents himself to his audience as the usurper’s Christ-like victim (4.1.190–253). But shortly after this, he begins to shift from the victim’s pose to the sinner’s and to perform an act of degradation aimed as much at the crown as at himself. Thus what he proposes to remove from his person and offer Bolingbroke is a debased crown, a gift that has poison in it. Perversely staging and savoring both the pathos of victimization and the power of the self-deposing sinner, he stigmatizes Bolingbroke as a usurper even as he denies him the manly pleasure of being able to claim that he won the throne without Richard’s help.

Bolingbroke’s disadvantage in his competition with Richard had been established at the beginning of 4.1, before Richard’s entry, with the play’s return to the question of Gloucester’s murder. The scene invites a contrast with Richard’s brash management of the trial by combat in the opening scenes, producing the battle of the gages as a comic and soured replay. The contrast reflects poorly on Bolingbroke, who sits quietly through most of the scene and—unlike Richard—doesn’t intervene in the volatile factionalism that bodes ill for future stability. The epidemic of gage-throwing reaches a thudding climax when, first, Aumerle runs out of gages and, second, Bolingbroke is once again—as in 1.1 and 1.3—frustrated, this time by the shadow of Mowbray, the news of whose holy death abroad prevents another attempt to resolve the Gloucester question.

At the end of 5.3, after having pardoned Aumerle for his part in the conspiracy planned by Richard’s supporters (see 4.1.334–47), Bolingbroke threatens “the rest of that consorted crew” with death, but, as he twice suggests (5.3.148,150), carrying out the threat is contingent on finding the conspirators. The next scene begins with Sir Pierce Exton quoting words uttered in his direction by Bolingbroke—“Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” (5.4.2)—and deciding that he has just been invited to kill Richard. The quarto (though not the Folio) suggests that Exton may have been onstage when, at the end of 5.3, Bolingbroke issues his threats against the traitors; such a suggestion has a substantial impact on our response to Exton’s decision, which is expressly voiced as his interpretation of Bolingbroke’s words:

 . . . he wishtly looked on me,

As who should say “I would thou wert the man

That would divorce this terror from my heart”—

Meaning the king at Pomfret.                  (5.4.8–11)

Other accounts of this episode—those of Hall, Holinshed, and Samuel Daniel—clearly signal Bolingbroke’s intention to have Richard secretly put to death so that, in Daniel’s words, he would not “seeme to wil the act.”19 But Shakespeare muddies things by placing Exton’s remarks in the immediate vicinity of Bolingbroke’s worry about the conspirators, and then appointing Exton the sole interpreter of Bolingbroke’s “ambiguous instigation.”20 This juxtaposition makes it more plausible that Exton may have misconstrued a request to get rid of the conspirators (who are at liberty while Richard is safely in prison).21

Nevertheless, the instigation remains ambiguous, and the question is how to interpret the ambiguity. Some see the episode as consistent with the representation of the character’s “deviousness”: “without explicitly avowing his intention,” Bolingbroke gets someone else not only to do his dirty work for him but also to articulate the purpose he leaves unexpressed, another example of his refusal to allow himself “to know where he is going.”22

Making a slight but significant change in this strong reading, I add that for Bolingbroke such a refusal is no longer possible. After Richard has denied him the fallback position in 3.3 and teased him in 4.1 with “Here, cousin, seize the crown,” he knows where he is going and where he has gone. The words with which he pardons Aumerle in 5.3 poignantly betray his own sense of moral precariousness (“I pardon him, as God shall pardon me,” 137). Thus the motivational haziness or terseness characteristic of his language after 3.3 is indicative less of political deviousness or even of moral self-protection than of his fear of where he finds himself going.

“Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?”: whatever Bolingbroke intends to say, the living fear of danger from others has come by this time to mirror the living fear of danger from himself. Were Bolingbroke to utter the wish Exton extrapolates from his glance—“I would thou wert the man / That would divorce this terror from my heart”—the mood would be counter-factual (that is, “if only you could; but you can’t”), for nobody else, least of all a political supernumerary like Exton, could alleviate the terror or assure him that “God shall pardon me.” And whatever he may have intended Exton to hear or do, the upshot in 5.6 is that he seems once again to lose control of the situation. The effort to wrap things up and assume high moral ground signified by the parade of rhymed couplets with which he pardons Carlisle in the final scene (5.6.24–29) is rudely interrupted by Exton’s melodramatic entry and announcement: “Great king, within this coffin I present / Thy buried fear. Herein,” he adds, angling for his gratuity, “all breathless lies / The mightiest of thy greatest enemies, / Richard of Bourdeaux, by me hither brought” (30–33). He gets no thanks from the great king, who oddly identifies Richard’s plight with his own when he blames Exton for having “wrought / A deed of slander with thy fatal hand / Upon my head” (34–36). This is uncanny: it is as if Richard has penetrated Bolingbroke’s conscience, possesses it, and now speaks through him. To hear this ghostly intrusion is to hear something startling in Exton’s simple and direct reply, for it voices precisely the protest Bolingbroke would be justified in making to Richard: “From your own mouth, my lord, did I this deed” (37).

Perhaps, surrounded as he is by supporters, Bolingbroke is not politically embarrassed by Exton’s entrance. Yet perhaps even the supporters who brought in a harvest of rebel heads would shy away from the ultimate crime of regicide. The evidence on this score is not decisive because the play’s emphasis is elsewhere. In Bolingbroke’s rejoinder to Exton it remains fixed on the continuing intrusion of the uncanny Ricardian overtones:

They love not poison that do poison need,

Nor do I thee. Though I did wish him dead,

I hate the murderer, love him murderèd.

The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor,

But neither my good word nor princely favor.

With Cain go wander through shades of night,

And never show thy head by day nor light. (38–44)

As we listen to this bitter reproach we may hear Bolingbroke’s malediction on himself as well as on Exton. Sending Exton off with Cain recalls Bolingbroke’s comparison of Gloucester’s murder to that of sacrificing Abel in 1.1; Bolingbroke’s words suggest that he now finds himself involved in the same kind of kin-murder as he had accused Richard of. But it is Richard whose voice usurps the grammatical first person and it is his despair that speaks through Bolingbroke’s words, condemning both himself and Bolingbroke. “Here, cousin, seize the crown”: and so Bolingbroke did, and now he resurrects his buried fear and receives his reward, or sentence. “Hath Richard / Deposed thine intellect? Hath he been in thy heart?”

  1. These questions were raised in the early Middle Ages in terms of the effect of a priest’s personal wickedness on his ritual efficacy. For the classic discussion of the doctrine of the two “bodies” of the king, see Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). Kantorowicz quotes Elizabethan lawyers who state, “What the King does in his Body politic cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any disability in his natural Body” (Kantorowicz 7). For an important revisionary account of the use of the doctrine during and after Elizabeth’s regime, see Marie Axton, The Queen’s Two Bodies: Drama and the English Succession (London: The Royal Historical Society, 1977). It is interesting to note that one Elizabethan law case for which the two-bodies doctrine was elaborated concerned the very duchy of Lancaster of which John of Gaunt was the first owner and which the three kings descended from him owned as private property—held “in their Body natural.” See Kantorowicz 7–10 and Axton 16–17 and 29. For an attempt to explore “the clash of person and office” in the play, see Wolfgang Iser, Staging Politics: The Lasting Impact of Shakespeare’s Histories, trans. David Henry Wilson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 71–84.
  2. John Halverson, “The Lamentable Comedy of Richard II,” English Literary Renaissance 24 (1994): 366, 360, 368–69.
  3. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587; rpt. London: J. Johnson et al., 1808). See also Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 2 (1960; rpt. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 9–15, and Peter Saccio, Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 17–35.
  4. See Phyllis Rackin, “The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare’s Richard II,” Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 262–81, esp. 264–65. See also Rackin’s Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 117–30.
  5. King Lear 3.2.62–63 (New Folger Edition). For a more detailed account of Richard’s language in 3.2, see my Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 79–83, 88–93, and 104–33.
  6. Richard reads aloud the articles of resignation and is directly quoted in a few occasions restricted to brief public utterances, but is otherwise represented through and controlled by the narrator’s voicing in indirect discourse.
  7. Holinshed 2:868. This omission is noted by Halverson (362), who also reminds us that Holinshed partly dissociates himself from this opinion, ascribing it to the hostility and ungratefulness of Richard’s subjects (2:869). In the play there is one vague reference to the “sinful hours” Richard spent with his evil counselors (3.1.11–15), but this doesn’t come across as information about Richard because it is part of Bolingbroke’s grievance against the counselors and it contributes to his public justification for putting them to death.
  8. In making this suggestion I am applying to Richard II an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III first advanced by Nicholas Brooke in 1968 and later taken up in some brilliant general comments by Patricia Parker and an impressively detailed analysis by Linda Charnes: Brooke, Shakespeare’s Early Tragedies (1968; rpt. London: Methuen, 1973), 48–79, especially 55–58 and 77–79; Parker, “Preposterous Events,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 201–4; Charnes, Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 20–69. The idea that Richard collaborates in his own downfall is obvious and has often been noted. For a compact statement of the thesis, see Richard Wheeler, Shakespeare’s Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 158–59. My variation on the thesis is to treat it as a project consistently sustained by the language assigned to the name, or speech prefix, “Richard.” I put it this way to emphasize that I am not concerned with what an imaginary person named Richard might actually have been aware of or intended at any moment. Rather my concern is with a pattern of motivation that can be traced in his language throughout the play. It is entirely conceivable that two actors preparing to perform the role of Richard could agree that this project, this pattern, is discernible in the language and yet disagree as to whether at any particular moment Richard should be played as a speaker clearly aware, vaguely aware, or unaware that he is engaged in a scenario and discourse of self-deposition.
  9. Andrew Gurr, in his edition of the play, has included the suggestion that, if he won, Mowbray could blackmail Richard (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 22, but I do not find this suggestion persuasive.
  10. For the more detailed account of these lines from which the present comments are drawn, see Imaginary Audition, 88–93.
  11. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, 38, 27.
  12. Henry IV, Part 1, 3.2.12 (New Folger Edition).
  13. John Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1945), 130; Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Theme and Character (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956), 32.
  14. Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II, 5th ed. (1961; rpt. London: Methuen, 1966), 68.
  15. We read or hear just enough about the complex legal conventions to suspect that Richard’s seizure involved more than brute force; it required manipulations of property law that set up obstructions to Bolingbroke’s ability to claim his inheritance. For details, see Jack Hexter, “Property, Monopoly, and Shakespeare’s Richard II,” in Culture and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment, ed. Perez Zagorin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 1–24.
  16. “Diffuse” in the sense that there are several possible answers to why Bolingbroke would return before he knew his property was jeopardized: to mobilize noble and popular hostility to Richard, to continue his effort to purge the court and crown of corrupt influences, to pursue the project of avenging Gloucester’s death, and to do the work his father should have been doing. These aims have been established in the previous scenes. Another concern an exile might be expected to entertain before the situation arose is indicated by the references to the legal procedures necessary to claim an inheritance.
  17. Hexter, “Property,” 9–10, 11.
  18. Lois Potter, “The Antic Disposition of Richard II.” Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974): 33–41, esp. 35.
  19. Samuel Daniel, The First Fowre Bookes of the civile wars between the two houses of lancaster and York, 3:58, in The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Samuel Daniel, ed. A. B. Grosart, vol. 2 (1885; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), 121.
  20. The phrase is John Palmer’s: Political Characters, 173.
  21. The quarto stage direction—Manet sir Pierce Exton, &c.—makes it impossible to determine whether Bolingbroke’s words to Exton were uttered specifically and secretly to him (and on an occasion different from the one in 5.3) or were part of a more general request to the nobles who—according to both Q and F stage directions—were present at the beginning of 5.3 (though dismissed by the king partway through the scene).
  22. Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy, 38; Palmer, Political Characters, 173, 134.