The most important thing to know about King Richard II is this: the guy literally thinks he's God's gift to the world. We're not kidding. Richard (along with a lot of other people) believes God has specifically chosen him to be the king of England. (This political theory is sometimes referred to as the "divine right of kings.") What? You don't believe us? Fine. Check out what Richard has to say about it:
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: (3.2.3)
Here Richard has just found out that Bolingbroke has invaded England. Since Richard thinks he's God's "deputy" or representative on earth, he assumes that no man can bump him off the throne, and therefore he doesn't have to lift a finger to defend himself. Big mistake.
When you think you're God's gift to the world, it's pretty easy to act like a total diva, which is exactly what Richard does in this play. Of course, it doesn't help that Richard has surrounded himself with a bunch of brown-nosing advisors (like Bushy, Bagot, and Green) who only tell him what he wants to hear. As a result, Richard completely loses touch with his critics and loses the confidence of his people. Then, when someone (like John of Gaunt) does step up and try to give Richard some solid advice, Richard refuses to listen as he continues to make one bad decision after another.
Let's recap some of these bad decisions, because they're pretty important if you want to trace Richard's downfall. At the beginning of the play he 1) banishes Bolingbroke and Mowbray to 2) cover up the murder of his own uncle, Thomas of Woodstock. He also 3) mismanages the kingdom's money and leases out royal lands before he 4) takes another uncle's (John of Gaunt's) property, depriving Henry Bolingbroke of his legal birthright. On top of everything else, Richard thinks that 5) he doesn't have to answer to anybody (except maybe God) for his behavior and 6) that he doesn't have to do anything to defend himself when Bolingbroke invades England. By now, it should be pretty clear that Richard is a terrible king, so we're not really sorry to see him get stripped of his crown.
But here's the thing, Shmoopsters. When Richard loses his crown and gets locked up in the slammer, we actually do start to feel sorry for him. Richard has a major identity crisis when he's asked to hand over the crown, and it's one of the most moving parts of play: if the king of England isn't king anymore, what is he? Richard says, "I must nothing be [...] I have no name, no title [...] And know not now what name to call myself" (4.1.5). The fact that Richard has lost his title, or his "name," triggers an emotional meltdown. This is the problem he struggles with through the latter half of the play.
Richard's not exactly the type of character who suffers silently. He's really chatty about his identity crisis (kind of like Hamlet), and he delivers a lot of very poetic and theatrical speeches throughout the play. In fact, when Richard finds himself in a jam, his first instinct is to talk about it. Remember what Richard does when he learns that Bolingbroke is coming after him with an army? He sits down in the dirt and says, "For God's sake let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings" (3.2.9).
Richard is all about soliloquies (big speeches where characters reveal their innermost thoughts to the audience). That's why it doesn't surprise us to learn, courtesy of literary scholar Jonathan Bate, that anywhere from a quarter to a third of the play consists of Richard speaking. It's no wonder Richard is so often called a precursor to Shakespeare's famously moody, soliloquy-spouting teenager Hamlet.
When some literary critics talk about Richard II, they bring up a fancy political theory called the "king's two bodies." This basically says that, well, a king has two "bodies." The first one is the "body natural," or the biological body, which is just like everybody else's. It can get sick and die because it's mortal. The king's other "body" is the "body politic," which is a kind of supernatural body that represents the entire nation of England. Because the body politic is supposed to come from God, it can never die, even if the king kicks the bucket. That's why when an English king passes away, people often say, "the king is dead, long live the king." Even though the king's natural body has died, the body politic lives on and can be transferred to a new king or queen.
Okay, so now we have a nifty definition of the "body politic," but what the heck does it have to do with Richard II? Well, according to a famous historian named Ernst Kantorowicz, who wrote a book called The King's Two Bodies (1957), this political theory started taking shape in the late middle ages and was really popular in Elizabethan England by the time Shakespeare was writing Richard II. Kantorowicz says it's the reason Richard has an identity crisis after he's no longer king. Kantorowicz says that at the beginning of the play, Richard is a perfect example of the theory that a king has two bodies. But when he loses his title and is forced to give up his crown, he's left with only his body natural, which causes him to flip out. The idea is that Richard doesn't understand the difference between his body natural and the body politic. Because he's always confusing the two, he cracks when he loses the title of king.
What do you think? Is Kantorowicz onto something, or is there a better (or simpler) explanation for why Richard falls apart at the end? Psst. If you want to think about this some more, go to "Symbolism" and read what we have to say about the big mirror-breaking scene...Timeline