What’s Up With the Ending?
If we were going to rank the ending of this play on a Bummer Scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the biggest downer ever, we'd give Richard II a 9. It's not as dark as, say, King Lear, but it's right up there with the ending of Hamlet.
Why? For one thing, the play closes with Richard's coffin onstage. Hello! This is not a good sign because it 1) reminds the audience of the poor guy's suffering and 2) suggests that there's even more death and suffering to come throughout England.
Road Trip to the Holy Land
It's no wonder that the newly crowned king (that would be King Henry IV) is feeling all guilty at the end of the play. After all, Henry's the one who stole Richard's crown and locked him up in prison. He also hinted to one of his henchmen that Richard should be murdered. So what does Henry do when he sees Richard's coffin? He decides to go on a pilgrimage to try to make up for his sins.
At first Henry's road trip to the Holy Land (a.k.a. Jerusalem) sounds like a nice idea... until we figure out what he actually means, when he says, "I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand" (5.6.6). Translation: Henry is going to start a holy war to try to make up for his actions against the former king. More bloodshed to make up for previous bloodshed? This doesn't sound good at all.
The Next King of England
Oh, did we mention that King Henry IV is also worried about his rotten, good-for-nothing son, Prince Hal, who is set to inherit the throne when Henry dies? Well, he is. Check out what Henry says in one of the last scenes of the play:
Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since I did see him last;
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found:
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent,
With unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes,
And beat our watch, and rob our passengers; (5.3.1)
Wow – no sooner has Henry IV come into power than Shakespeare is bringing up the question of who will take his place when he dies. The fact that the heir to the throne is nowhere to be found because he spends all his time in bars and brothels with his thieving friends sets off some warning bells, wouldn't you say? (By the way, if you want to know what happens with Prince Hal, you'll have to read Henry IV Part 1.)
Why does Shakespeare Make the Ending Such a Bummer?
We know what you're probably thinking, Shmoopsters. Richard was a pretty lousy king. He almost bankrupted England, had his own uncle murdered, and thought nothing of stealing from the members of the nobility. So why doesn't Shakespeare throw the newly crowned King Henry IV a big parade or something for taking Richard down? There are a few reasons. Historically speaking, after Richard's death, Henry IV's reign was plagued by all sorts of problems – namely, civil warfare.
The other issue is that Henry IV didn't exactly take the traditional route to kingship. Like we've said elsewhere, kings were supposed to inherit the crown (ideally from their fathers), not just snatch it away from an existing ruler because they felt like it. Plus, Henry IV has just eliminated a king who many believed was hand-picked by God to rule England. Even though it seems like Henry IV will probably be a more capable monarch than Richard ever was, he's also considered a rebel and a sinner. More important, he has just opened the floodgates for even more rebellion, which Shakespeare covers in the next two plays of the series.