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Richard II Theme of Passivity

If Richard has a "fatal flaw," this might be it. The play is all about Richard's reluctance to actually do anything when he's directly challenged:

  • Instead of going out and fighting France and earning money, he stays home and spends it and leases out royal lands.
  • Instead of reacting when Henry Bolingbroke comes back, he takes his own sweet time returning from Ireland.
  • When he finds out just how bad the news really is, he moves from overconfidence straight into despair.
  • Instead of fighting or coming up with a plan, he tells Aumerle and his other allies to sit down and tell sad stories.

Richard is not what you would call a man of action. Henry Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is all about aggressive action. When he sees a chance to get the upper hand or gain power, he takes it. Shakespeare is asking us to think about whether a willingness to take action is what makes for a good king.

Questions About Passivity

  1. Richard was a bad king for buying into his own hype as a "sacred" ruler and passively letting the kingdom go broke. By the end of the play, King Henry pardons Aumerle for treason. Is this passive in the same way? What kind of a king is Henry shaping up to be?
  2. According to this play, what qualities make a good king?
  3. Given that Richard has spent lots of time resigning himself to death, why does he finally decide to fight the men who come to kill him?
  4. This play is to some extent about the process of turning a real history into a fictional story. Richard might be the most eager storyteller in the play. In Act 3, Scene 2, Richard says he and his allies should "make dust our paper and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth." In this conception, what kind of an activity is storytelling? Active or passive? Can the "act" of writing be said to be an act at all? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Although the play starts off dealing with the aftermath of an active crime – Gloucester's murder – Richard's real failure is his inability to act.

Richard's passivity might have been bad when he was king, but his ability to talk about what he's lost makes his situation pretty moving once he's lost his power.

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