Study Guide

Richard II Analysis

  • Tone

    Varies Wildly

    Strap on your emotional seatbelts, Shmoopsters, because the tone is all over the place in this play. (Think about your favorite roller coaster ride at Six Flags and then multiply by three.)

    The play starts off incredibly formal in the opening scene, with Mowbray and Bolingbroke trying to outdo each other in pompous declarations of loyalty and honor. It's melodramatic in Act 5, Scene 1, as Richard and the queen say their farewells and repeat the word "groan" over and over. It's just plain sad when Richard is imprisoned and thinking about his life. It even gets funny: Act 5, Scene 3 is weirdly comic in tone, especially when the Duchess of York and her husband show up at Windsor Castle to tell King Henry about Aumerle. Take the lines where the Duchess bangs on Henry's doors and yells out with a "shrill voice": "Speak with me, pity me! Open the door!
    A beggar begs that never begged before" (5.3.1). Even King Henry notices the strangeness of the scene he's in. He says, "our scene is altered from a serious thing" (5.3.12).

    But by the time we get to the end of the play (when Richard is dead and Henry feels guilty), the tone is incredibly dark and leaves us with a sick feeling in our stomachs. Read more about this under "What's Up With the Ending?"

  • Genre

    Tragedy; History Play

    Richard II straddles two different literary genres: the Shakespearean tragedy (think Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet) and the history play (think Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V).

    How is it, exactly, that Richard II fits into these two categories? Check out these two checklists and decide for yourself:

    What makes Richard II a Shakespearean Tragedy

    Dramatic work: Check. There's no doubt about it: Richard II is most definitely a play.

    Serious or somber theme: Check. This play is all about a king who has a major identity crisis after being stripped of his crown. That sounds pretty "serious" and "somber" to us.

    Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. Richard's our "hero" (a.k.a. our protagonist), and he has a major character flaw all right. Psst. It involves being a lousy king who thinks he can do whatever he wants, like have his own uncle murdered, steal from the members of the nobility, and blow through all of England's money.

    Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check. Have you noticed all those scary omens and prophesies in the play (like the time John of Gaunt is on his deathbed and tells Richard he hopes the king will die soon and that his "shame" will outlive him [2.1.9]). We don't mean to sound superstitious or anything, but this prophesy/curse comes true, which sort of suggests that Richard is destined for destruction and downfall.

    Not all tragedies end in death, but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do: Check. A lot of people lose their heads at the end of this play. In Act 5, Scene 6, we find out that some rebel forces have burned down the town of Cirencester in Gloucestershire. Then Northumberland shows up and announces that he's just sent the heads of "Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent" to London. Fitzwater is not about to be outdone, so he chimes in that he's just sent to London the heads of some other traitors who were plotting to overthrow Henry. But Shakespeare's not finished, kiddies, because Exton shows up with a giant coffin in tow. What's in this coffin, you ask? Richard's body, that's what. (Exton killed him back in Act 5, Scene 5, and now he's decided to drag in the body and show it off to the king. Kind of like a cat with a dead mouse, right?)

    Despite the death of individuals at the end, the play's conclusions also seem to promise the restoration of political order: Well... not so much here. King Richard is dead by the end of the play and we can tell that everybody (especially King Henry IV) really wants political order to be restored, but that's not going to happen any time soon. Henry's actions spark a series of civil wars (Act 5, Scene 5), and we also find out that the guy plans to start a Holy War (Act 5, Scene 6). So there's no way political order is getting restored any time soon. This makes us wonder – is this play the tragedy of Richard II or the tragedy of England?

    What makes Richard II a History Play

    Portrayal of English historical events: Check. Like we've said before, the play is all about how the historical King Richard II was bumped off the English throne by Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. King Henry IV).

    Historical events resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion: Check. When we say "current" political issues, we mean around 1595, when the play was written. At the time, Queen Elizabeth I was England's monarch and she didn't have any kids, which meant she didn't have an heir to the throne. This made her subjects very nervous – they wondered what would happen when their monarch died and who would be crowned king. As Shakespeare's original audience watched a play about a guy who just takes the crown instead of inheriting it, they would have been thinking about their own political situation and wondering how the heck the crown would be transferred to a new ruler when Elizabeth I died. Go read "In a Nutshell" for more on this.

    Shakespeare spices up "History" with a little fiction: Check. When we say that Shakespeare portrays historical events, we mean historical events according to Shakespeare, whose plays aren't always complete or even accurate accounts of history. In fact, sometimes Shakespeare just makes up stuff, like the scene where the Duke and Duchess of York bicker about whether or not to tattle on their son (Aumerle) for plotting against King Henry. Historically Aumerle (a.k.a. Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York) did plot against Henry, but there's no record of his parents racing each other to Windsor Castle to see who can talk to King Henry first (Act 5, Scene 3). Even if they did, the Duchess probably wouldn't have told her son to hide his dad's boots so he couldn't leave the house. Shakespeare seems to have written this weird little scene for laughs and also to ask the question of whether people should put family loyalty before their loyalty to the monarch. FYI – in the next play in this series, Shakespeare gets even more creative and invents one of the greatest fictional characters of all time, Sir John Falstaff.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    What's up with the title? You know the answer to this. There's a king named Richard II... but he won't be a king for long. That's why the publishers of the first quarto edition of the play (printed in 1597) called it The Tragedy of Richard II. The tragedy being that Richard gets knocked off the English throne and tossed in the slammer where he has an emotional meltdown right before he's murdered. (Psst. You can check out the original title page here.)

    What's interesting is that, later, when the first folio edition of the play (printed in 1623) came out, it was called The Life and Death of King Richard the Second. (Check out the title page here.)

    What does this title change tell us? Well, the folio publishers probably thought of the work as more of a history play than a tragedy. We talk about all this tragedy vs. history stuff in "Genre," so go there if you want to know more.

  • 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;

    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.

  • Setting

    14th century Britain (around 1398)

    The history plays (especially Richard II and Henry IV Part 1) read like an armchair traveler's guide and a mini-geography lesson all rolled into one. You know what that means, right? It's time to pack your suitcases and grab your cameras, Shmoopsters, because we're going on an all-expenses paid trip through medieval Britain, with Shakespeare as our very own personal tour guide. Seriously. Have you read John of Gaunt's big "I <3 England" speech? "This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise" (Richard II, 2.1.3). If we didn't know better, we'd think the guy was the official spokesperson of

    What? You're not sure what to pack? No sweat. Here's the official itinerary for our trip. (As you read this, feel free to check out this map, which locates all the important places in Shakespeare's history plays.)

    Windsor Castle: The first stop on our tour is Windsor Castle, near London, where Richard II chills in Act 1, Scene 1, and where Henry Bolingbroke will later make himself at home in Act 5, Scene 3 (after snagging the English crown, of course).

    The Lists (a.k.a. big tournament arena) at Coventry: Coventry is a city 95 miles northwest of London. The tournament arena is where the big showdown between Bolingbroke and Mowbray is supposed to go down in Act 1, Scene 3, until it gets cancelled when Richard decides he'd rather banish the two noblemen than watch them duke it out.

    Ely House: Richard visits a dying John of Gaunt at Ely House in London, where Gaunt delivers his famous speech about how amazing England is in Act 2, Scene 1.

    Ireland: In Act 2, Scene 1, we find out that Richard is headed to Ireland to take care of a war that has broken out there.

    Brittany: Henry Bolingbroke winds up in Brittany (northeastern France, south of England and across the English Channel) after Richard II boots him out of the country. In Act 2, Scene 1, we learn that Henry has raised a huge army there and is getting ready to sail back to Britain.

    Windsor Castle (again): In Act 2, Scene 2, Bushy and Bagot visit Richard's queen (Isabella), where they learn from Green that Henry Bolingbroke sailed from Brittany and has just landed at Ravenspurgh (a.k.a. Ravenspur) , on the northeast coast of England.

    Pleshey (a.k.a. Plashy): Pleshey is the Duchess of Gloucester's house near London. We find out in Act 2, Scene 2 that the Duchess has died there (probably by suicide, since she hinted at it in Act 1, Scene 2).

    Bristol Castle: Bushy and Green hightail it to Bristol Castle (about 118 miles west of London) in Act 2, Scene 2 in order to avoid a confrontation with Henry Bolingbroke.

    Berkeley Castle: After landing at Ravenspurgh, Henry marches southwest through England in Act 2, Scene 3 and winds up at Berkeley Castle, near the southwest corner of Wales.

    Back to Bristol Castle: Since Berkeley Castle is just to the northwest of Bristol Castle, where Bushy and Green are hiding out, Henry pops over there in Act 2, Scene 3 and takes the men prisoner. While he's at it, he sentences them to death.

    Harlech Castle: This is on the coast of Wales. After Richard returns from Ireland to defend himself against Henry Bolingbroke, he lands near Harlech Castle, where he's supposed to meet up with a bunch of Welsh troops who will help him fight. The troops are a no-show (oops!), which bums Richard out so much that he sits down on the ground and feels sorry for himself. This goes down in Act 3, Scene 2.

    Flint Castle: Knowing that he'll soon be defeated, Richard travels northeast from Harlech Castle to Flint Castle (also in Wales) and holes up there until Henry Bolingbroke shows up with an army and tells him to hand over the crown ASAP (Act 3, Scene 3). (FYI, if we were your English teacher and we wanted to test your knowledge of the important locations in the play, Flint castle would definitely be on our pop quiz.)

    Westminster Hall (London): This is where Richard is taken and "deposed" (stripped of his crown) in Act 4, Scene 1, which is often called the "deposition scene."

    Tower of London: Richard is originally supposed to be imprisoned in the Tower of London, which is why we see him in the equivalent of handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit on the streets just outside the Tower, where he's saying goodbye to his wife (Act 5, Scene 1). This is when we find out that Henry has changed his mind and wants Richard locked up at Pomfret Castle, which is in the middle of nowhere. (More on this in a second.)

    Langley: The Duke of York's house, Langley, is near London. We drop in on the York household in Act 5, Scene 2, but we don't stay there long, because the Yorks are in the middle of a nasty little family feud. (This is where the Duke of York and his wife find out that their son, Aumerle, is plotting against the new king, Henry.) The Duchess doesn't want her husband to tattle on their son, so they race over to Windsor Castle to talk to Henry about it. By the way, Langley is also where Richard's queen (Isabella) shacks up (Act 3, Scene 4) after her husband loses the throne.

    Windsor Castle: Now that Henry is king, he's moved all his clothes and his big flat-screen TV into Windsor Castle (Act 5, Scene 3). It's there that he chills (or tries to chill) for the rest of the play.

    Pomfret Castle: In Act 5, Scene 5, we visit Richard in prison, where we listen to him whine about getting booted off the throne and then witness his murder. Pomfret Castle is way, way, way up north in Yorkshire (the medieval version of being banished to Siberia), which is pretty convenient, because Richard's cries can't be heard back in London.

    Windsor Castle: Our little trip ends back at Windsor Castle. Henry is trying to relax here in Act 5, Scene 6, but his quiet time is interrupted when a guy named Exton shows up with Richard's corpse. This puts a major damper on Henry's mood and ends our little British vacation.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    You may have heard that reading Richard II can be a little tough. But don't panic, because you don't need a Ph.D. in medieval history or be fluent in Elizabethan English to get this play. You'll get the hang of Shakespeare's writing style soon enough, and you can always check out our summaries if you need some extra help with comprehension.

    As for the big geography lesson Shakespeare gives us in this play, we've got you covered. Check out what we say about the "Setting" if you need an extra hand. Or you can check out this nifty map, which shows all the important locations in the history plays. While you're at it, you might want to take a peek at this family tree. It lists all of King Edward III's descendants, which makes it easier to keep track of who's related to whom and why they're mad at their nephew or why they had their uncle murdered.

  • Writing Style

    Poetry (Blank Verse, Rhymed Couplets)

    We've said it before and we'll say it again: Willy Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (the way we talk every day). In general, the upper class characters tend to speak verse, which is a fancy-shmancy, formal way to talk. (The idea is that speaking verse fits their noble status.) On the other hand, commoners, or everyday Joes, tend to speak regular old prose (like us).

    But... Richard II is the one exception to this rule. Almost the entire play is written in verse, which means that EVERYBODY speaks poetry, even the "lowly" gardeners.

    Why? There are boatloads of possible explanations, but here's how we see things. The world of Richard II is full of corruption, conspiracy, and hypocrisy. It seems artificial when everyone in the play runs around speaking in carefully constructed verse, which reminds us that hardly anyone can be trusted.

    Of course, you've probably got more questions, like what kind of poetry does everybody speak? Wait, you weren't wondering that? Well, we'll tell you anyway: usually blank verse a.k.a. unrhymed iambic pentameter. But there are also a lot of rhymed couplets in this play, too. What the heck are blank verse and rhymed couplets? you ask. Let's break it down:

    Blank Verse (Unrhymed Iambic Pentameter)

    Don't let the fancy names intimidate you – it's simple once you get the hang of it. Let's start with a definition of "iambic pentameter":

    An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:

    da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.

    Let's try it out on this line, where Richard fells sorry for himself:

    I WASTEd TIME, and NOW doth TIME waste ME;

    For NOW hath TIME made ME his NUMBering CLOCK:

    Every second syllable is accented (stressed), so this is classic iambic pentameter. (Note: the word "numbering" is pronounced with only two syllables and sounds like "numb'ring.") Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme, we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.

    Rhymed Couplets in Iambic Pentameter

    A "rhymed couplet" is just two lines of verse that rhyme at the end. Take these two lines from Act 1, Scene 1, where Mowbray defends himself against Bolingbroke's accusation of treason and the murder of Woodstock:

    I am disgraced, impeached, and baffled here,
    Pierced to the soul with slander's venomed spear,

    Why so many rhymed couplets in this play? Some scholars think it had to do with Shakespeare's recent experiments in sonnet-writing. (Shakespeare's sonnets always end with a rhymed couplet. Check out our guide to Sonnet 18 if you want to know more about this.) Was Shakespeare just on a big rhyming kick? Or was he trying to show us how good some characters are at controlling their language? For instance, Mowbray, Richard II, and Henry are really good at composing tight couplets when they're talking about Henry Bolingbroke's challenge to Mowbray in Act 1, Scene 1.

    Let's think about this for a minute. Everyone (including Richard) knows that when Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason and the murder of Woodstock, he is really accusing King Richard of killing Woodstock. Bolingbroke can't say anything bad against the king, though, and the king can't acknowledge what's happening without fessing up to murdering his uncle. When these guys (who are all being pretty dishonest here) start talking in rhymed couplets all of sudden, we wonder if they're just hiding behind fancy speech.

  • Divine Right of Kings

    You probably noticed that Richard II is always running around saying stuff like, "Hey, God picked me to be king, so I can do whatever I want and don't have to answer to anybody." Richard's got a big head all right, but his philosophy is actually grounded in a famous political theory that's often called the "divine right of kings." The theory just says that kings have a divine (god-given) right to rule because God has hand-picked them to be monarchs. We talk about this more in "Characters: Richard II."

  • Gardens

    Okay, Shmoopsters, we're just going to come right out and say this. Any time you see a reference to gardens (especially gardens that have been trashed) in Western literature, the author probably wants you to think about the biblical Garden of Eden, which, according to the Book of Genesis, was paradise on earth until it was ruined by Adam and Eve's fall from grace.

    If you've read this play, then you know that gardens (literal and metaphorical) are all over the place in Richard II. The most obvious example is when the queen is strolling through her garden and finds out (from her gossipy gardener, of course) that her husband has lost the crown. Her response? She compares Richard's downfall to the Biblical fall of man:

    Thou, old Adam's likeness, set to dress this garden,
    How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?
    What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee
    To make a second fall of cursed man?
    Why dost thou say King Richard is deposed?
    Darest thou, thou little better thing than earth,
    Divine his downfall? Say, where, when, and how,
    Camest thou by this ill tidings? speak, thou wretch
    . (3.4.8)

    The queen is pretty irrational here. She's acting like the Gardener has caused the "second fall" of man just by gossiping about King Richard being deposed (bumped off the throne). Even though the queen's logic is a little wacky, we can tell that Shakespeare is making a bigger point: the idea is that deposing a king is a sin (especially for those who think kings are appointed by God). That means there are going to be some serious consequences that will change the world (read: England) forever – just like Adam and Eve's world was changed forever when they blew it by giving in to temptation. We find out what these consequences are in the sequels to this play: Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V.

    But whose fault is it that England is (or will be soon) like a ruined garden of Eden? Most characters in this play blame Richard. Don't just take our word for it – let's think about what the Gardener has to say. Earlier, in Act 3, Scene 4, the Gardener explicitly compares the kingdom with a garden and suggests that Richard hasn't been a very good gardener. He hasn't pruned it, he hasn't weeded it, he hasn't bothered to take care of it. He's assumed, instead, that it would take care of itself, or that God would take care of it. The problem with this logic is that it doesn't take into account the fact that gardening (like kingship) is not a passive activity: you have to till; you have to earn your crop.

    Not only that, but Richard has surrounded himself with lousy advisors, like Bushy, Bagot, and Green, who would rather flatter him than give him honest feedback about how to run the country. This is why Henry Bolingbroke refers to Bushy, Bagot, and Green as "caterpillars of the commonwealth" (2.3.11). The metaphor implies that Richard's advisors are a bunch of parasites devouring or destroying England, just like pests might destroy a garden.

    Add to this the fact that Richard has "farmed out" or "leased" the land in order to raise money. Gaunt tells him that his decision made him a "landowner" instead of a king. Future events seem to bear this out: by basically mortgaging the land, Richard mortgages his kingdom. John of Gaunt reminds us of this when he cries that Richard mismanaged "this other Eden, demi-paradise," this "blessed plot, this earth" (2.1.3).

    Of course, after Richard's death, some characters see things differently. In Henry IV Part 1, a guy named Hotspur refers to Richard II as a "sweet lovely rose" who was uprooted and replaced by "this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke" (Henry IV Part 1, 1.3.7). In other words, Hotspur also thinks of England as a garden, but he believes it has been ruined by Bolingbroke (a.k.a. Henry IV), not Richard.

    Brain Snack: Can't get enough of Shakespeare's obsession with gardens? Go talk to Hamlet, who sees the whole world as a smelly, "unweeded garden that grows to seed" (Hamlet, 1.2.6).

  • Seven Vials of Sacred Blood and Seven Fair Branches

    In Act 1, Scene 2, the Duchess of Gloucester makes a big speech to John of Gaunt about how King Edward III's seven sons are like "seven fair branches" on a family tree or seven vials of Edward's "sacred blood." Check it out:

    Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one,
    Were as seven vials of his sacred blood,
    Or seven fair branches springing from one root:
    Some of those seven are dried by nature's course,
    Some of those branches by the Destinies cut;
    But Thomas, my dear lord, my life, my Gloucester,
    One vial full of Edward's sacred blood,
    One flourishing branch of his most royal root,
    Is crack'd, and all the precious liquor spilt,
    Is hack'd down, and his summer leaves all faded,
    By envy's hand and murder's bloody axe
    . (1.2.1)

    Hmm, looks like someone has been spending a lot of time on But seriously, the idea is that if you're descended from King Edward III, your blood carries some of his sacred awesomeness with it. After all, it's the sacred blood of a king! That, says the Duchess of Gloucester, is why it's not cool that Richard II has had his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, murdered. Gloucester was one of Edward II's seven sons, so when Richard had Gloucester killed, it was like he hacked down one of the "sacred branches" of Edward's family tree. (Psst. Check out this awesome genealogy map if you need to brush up on the royal family tree.)

    By the way, we should point out that Shakespeare riffs off this family tree idea throughout the play. There are tons of references to plants, trees, and gardens, and people are always running around saying things like Henry has supplanted or uprooted Richard II as the king of England. By the way, Shakespeare is also having fun with the fact that Edward and his sons are part of the Royal House of Plantagenet. Get it?

    Shakespeare is making a bigger point with all this sacred blood and seven branches talk, though. When too many people have royal blood, things get complicated. In a nutshell, Edward III had too many sons. Even though the rule is that the oldest son of the oldest son inherits the throne, it turns out that lots of Richard's cousins (like Bolingbroke) might actually take after granddad more than Richard himself.

    In the play, Henry Bolingbroke justifies his return from banishment by arguing that if Richard is king by virtue of his blood, then he, Henry, deserves his inheritance too, for exactly the same reason. He's the son of a son of Edward III, just like Richard. However powerful Richard might think he is, and however many laws he might break, the one rule he can't break is the one that makes him king. If he goes against someone else who carries his blood, he risks giving his enemies a foundation to disinherit him too.

  • Biblical Betrayals

    Shakespeare refers to the Bible in his plays more than any other Elizabethan playwright, so we're not really surprised when we find a bunch of biblical shout-outs in this play. Let's discuss.

    Christ, Judas, and Pontius Pilate

    Richard is always comparing himself to Christ, who's betrayed and ultimately crucified in the New Testament. At one point Richard compares the men who have joined forces with Bolingbroke to Judas, the disciple who betrays Jesus: "Three Judases," he says. "Each one thrice worse than Judas! / Would they make peace? terrible hell make war / Upon their spotted souls for this offence!" (3.2.8). After he's forced to give up his crown, Richard even compares the rebels to Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge who sentences Jesus to be crucified: "Some of you with Pilate wash your hands / Showing an outward pity; yet you Pilates / Have here deliver'd me to my sour cross, / And water cannot wash away your sin" (4.1.6).

    Okay, it doesn't take a Bible scholar to figure out that Richard sees himself as a Christ-like martyr who thinks he's going to be revenged by God. Here's the catch: Richard is so NOT a Christ figure. Shakespeare suggests that the problem with such a comparison is that Christ's story is the opposite of Richard's.

    Think about it: Christ received a crown (instead of having it taken from him). It was a crown of thorns, but it was a crown nonetheless. (According to the New Testament, Roman soldiers place a crown of thorns on Christ's head before he is crucified.) And Richard, far from suffering silently like Christ did, talks nonstop about his suffering. Plus, Christ never had his own uncle murdered, and he certainly didn't go around running entire kingdoms into the ground. Basically, Richard's insistence on the comparison is just another example of how utterly clueless he is.

    Cain and Abel

    Shakespeare also makes reference to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. (In Genesis 4, Cain commits humanity's first act of murder when he kills his brother.) The story shows up at least twice in Richard II. When Henry accuses Mowbray of plotting Gloucester's death, he says that Mowbray "like a traitor-coward / Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood; / Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries" (1.1.4). Okay, we get it. Henry compares Gloucester to Abel in order to remind us that Gloucester's murder was ordered by his own family member (Richard).

    At the end of the play, when Henry finds out that Extor has killed Richard (on Henry's behalf), he banishes him and says, "With Cain go wander through shades of night, / And never show thy head by day nor light" (5.6.6). Hmm, this analogy is pretty ironic, don't you think? It's Henry's fault that his cousin Richard is dead, so really Henry is more like Cain than anyone else.

    Brain Snack: By now it should be pretty clear that Shakespeare knew the Bible like the back of his hand. That's probably because 1) Big Willy Shakes was an avid reader, and 2) the Bible was the most printed book in Elizabethan England, thanks to the printing press and the English Reformation. In case you're wondering which version Shakespeare had access to (and we know you were), most literary critics and historians think our playwright read the "Geneva" Bible, which gets its name from the fact that it was printed in Geneva by a group of Protestants who were living in exile while Queen Mary I ruled. The first edition was printed in 1560 and the second in 1570.

  • Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

    Immediately after he's forced to give up his crown, Richard asks for a mirror. Huh? What's that all about? We know the guy's arrogant, but geez, this isn't exactly the best time for Richard to be checking to see if his hair got messed up when he took off his crown. What's going on here?

    Well, as it turns out, Richard's not being a diva. In fact, it's just the opposite. Check out what he says when he sees his reflection:

    No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath Sorrow struck
    So many blows upon this face of mine
    And made no deeper wounds?

    Okay, now we get it. After losing his title and all his power, Richard looks in the mirror and expects to see that his face has aged as a reflection of his sorrow and grief. Ever see the before and after pictures of US presidents? Powerful political leaders often age dramatically as a result of their stressful jobs (Barack Obama's hair seemed to turn gray almost overnight), so Richard seems to be onto something here. But as he continues to look into a mirror, Richard is surprised to find his face basically unchanged.

    O, flatt'ring glass,
    Like to my followers in prosperity,
    Thou dost beguile me
    . (4.1.10)

    Since he feels like he's been transformed by losing the crown, Richard thinks it's strange that his face hasn't aged a gagillion years to reflect his suffering and stress. Here he accuses the glass of "flattering" him, or making him look better and healthier than he actually is – kind of like his brown-nosing advisers did when he was still in power.

    Then things get really weird. Richard grabs the mirror, smashes it, and tells King Henry to look at how sorrow has "ruined" his face. (Uh oh – broken mirrors are never a good symbol.) Actually Richard's face isn't ruined – it's the mirror that's broken into a bunch of little pieces, so now Richard's reflection looks as awful and distorted as Richard feels on the inside. In other words, this is Richard's way of showing us that his loss of the crown has shattered him emotionally.

    What, you don't buy that theory? Okay, here are some other options. This moment could signal that Richard is symbolically breaking with his former identity as the king of England. Or this mirror-breaking scene could be Shakespeare's dramatic way of telling us that life is one big illusion that can be broken in an instant.

    What, you've got a better idea? That's fine with us, as long as you can back it up.

  • The Crown

    Everyone knows that a monarch's crown is never just a fancy, bedazzled hat that looks good with a matching golden wand and throne. It's more than that: it's a visual symbol of power. In this play, the crown comes to mean even more, especially to Richard II, who is eventually forced to give his up.

    Are you contented to resign the crown?
    Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
    Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.
    Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
    I give this heavy weight from off my head
    And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
    The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
    With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
    With mine own hands I give away my crown,
    With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
    With mine own breath release all duty's rites:

    In spite of his many faults, the spectacle of watching Richard give up his crown is really moving. Coronations were extremely important public events; the crowning of a king was a ritual that many considered to be holy. And it was a production – kind of like a play… It was important that the public see the new monarch crowned. There is no equivalent ceremony for taking a crown away (any more than there's a ceremony for, say, divorce). A coronation is not supposed to be undone. Bolingbroke's insistence that Richard voluntarily give up his crown in front of witnesses shows his understanding that the putting on and taking off of crowns needs to be public in order to be meaningful. It also does the job of turning his rebellion into a civilized ceremony.

    Brain Snack: The crown was a seriously important symbol in Elizabethan England. To show a king giving up his crown onstage was pretty dangerous, since monarchs did not like plays that depicted this kind of thing. The thinking went like this: if the audience sees a king give up his crown onstage, they'll start to imagine how the real-life queen might give up hers. That's why this deposition scene was censored in Shakespeare's day, when Queen Elizabeth was alive.

  • Rising "Up" and Falling "Down"

    There's a whole lot of talk about rising and falling in this play – so much so that it makes us feel a little seasick. When Henry forces Richard II to give up the crown, Shakespeare beats us over the head with the idea that the dramatic downfall of one king gives rise to another. Richard says as much as he literally hands over his crown:

    Here, cousin, seize the crown;
    Here cousin:
    On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
    Now is this golden crown like a deep well
    That owes two buckets, filling one another,
    The emptier ever dancing in the air,
    The other down, unseen and full of water:
    That bucket down and full of tears am I,
    Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high
    . (4.1.2)

    Here, Richard compares the crown to a well and says that he and Henry are like two water buckets on a pulley system (when one bucket goes down into the well, the other bucket rises up). Richard, of course, is like the bucket being lowered "down" into the well, filling with water (or tears). Henry, on the other hand, is like the emptier bucket that rises up, "dancing in the air," as the other is lowered down "unseen." Most of us don't get our drinking water from wells anymore, but we can still appreciate the astonishing image Richard creates with this metaphor. The point is also pretty clear: Bolingbroke's good luck is tied to Richard's misfortune. As Bolingbroke rises in power, Richard experiences a major downfall.

    We also see this relationship between rising and falling in an earlier scene, when Bolingbroke shows up at Flint Castle and forces Richard to give up peacefully (3.3). When Bolingbroke arrives, Richard is standing up high on top of the castle walls. When Northumberland asks the king, "May it please you to come down?" (3.3.5), Richard makes a big deal out of the word "down" as he descends the steps to surrender:

    Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon,
    Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
    In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,
    To come at traitors' calls and do them grace.
    In the base court? Come down? Down, court!
    down, king!

    FYI, in Greek mythology, Phaethon was the guy who tried to drive his dad the sun god's chariot. When he couldn't control his horses, Zeus shot him out of the sky with a giant thunderbolt. By comparing his downfall to Phaethon's, Richard lets us know just how dramatic it is for him to lose the crown to Henry, even though this whole scene lacks the kind of violence we might expect when a king loses his power.

    After Richard walks down the steps of Flint Castle, Bolingbroke greets him by kneeling down, presumably as a fake show of respect. Richard's not having any of this phony stuff. He says, "Up, cousin, up. Your heart is up, I know / Thus high at least, although your knee be low" (3.4.6). Translation: "Why are you down on your knee pretending that you're not taking my crown from me? You should be standing up to reflect your power and your elevated mood."

  • The Sun

    Shakespeare uses the sun as a metaphor for kingly power and strength throughout this entire cycle of history plays. (What? You don't believe us? Fine. When you're done here, go read about "Symbolism" in Henry IV Part 1 and Henry V.) For now, let's think about the sun's function in Richard II.

    When King Richard rules England, he's associated with the sun's majesty and glory. Check out what Richard says when he finds out that Henry Bolingbroke has raised an army and is coming after him:

    So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,
    Who all this while hath revell'd in the night
    Whilst we were wandering with the antipodes,
    Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
    His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
    Not able to endure the sight of day,
    But self-affrighted tremble at his sin
    . (3.2.3)

    Richard obviously thinks he's pretty awesome, because he directly compares himself to a "rising" sun. He also thinks that when Bolingbroke sees him in all his sun-like majesty, he'll be shaking in his boots. But that's not quite what happens when Bolingbroke confronts the king at Flint Castle. When Bolingbroke corners the king with his army, he looks up and sees Richard on the castle walls. He compares Richard to the sun all right, but it's a sun that's about to be overshadowed by a bunch of ominous clouds (a.k.a. the rebel army):

    See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
    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
    . (3.3.5)

    We've heard this before when Salisbury predicted Richard's downfall and compared him to a setting sun: "Ah, Richard! [... ] I see thy glory, like a shooting star, / Fall to the base earth [... ] Thy sun sets weeping in the lowly west" (2.4.2). Translation: Richard is totally going down, and his power will be short lived.

    As we know, though, even after a setting sun goes down, it always rises again. In this case, Richard goes down, but the newly crowned king Henry IV rises in power. Richard says as much after being stripped of his crown:

    O that I were a mockery king of snow,
    Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
    To melt myself away in water-drops!

    Translation: King Henry IV is as powerful as the blazing sun, and poor Richard is now just some poor chump who feels like he's going to "melt away" (cry and/or disappear and be forgotten) under the new "sun's" rays.

  • Henry's Name(s)

    Names are a very, very, very big deal in Richard II. Remember when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, returns to England to claim the land he was supposed to inherit when his dad (Gaunt/Lancaster) died? Henry makes a huge deal out of the fact that he wants to be called "Lancaster" now, not "Hereford," because the Dukedom of Lancaster is his rightful inheritance and King Richard has taken it from him illegally. (Remember, members of the nobility are named after the land they control.) Check it out:

    My Lord of Hereford, my message is to you.
    My lord, my answer is – to Lancaster;
    And I am come to seek that name in England;
    And I must find that title in your tongue,
    Before I make reply to aught you say
    . (2.3.1)

    In other words, Henry wants to be called Lancaster because he wants Richard to acknowledge that he has a right to inherit his father's land. Remember, if you haven't inherited property from your ancestors, then you're not a nobleman – you're a "man of no name" (a.k.a. a commoner and a nobody). More than in any other history play, characters in Richard II tend to derive their identities from their names.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Note: Like a lot of scholars, Christopher Booker identifies Richard II as a tragedy, but the play also falls into the genre of history play, so be sure to go read "Genre" when you're done here.

      Anticipation Stage

      Richard has emptied out his royal checking account and needs money to fund the wars in Ireland. He's pretty pleased with life, though: as a monarch chosen by God, he thinks he's pretty awesome, and so does everyone around him, since he only surrounds himself with flatterers. Life is good for Richard.

      Richard might be said to suffer from an excess of self-esteem. He thinks he's just as great as all his yes-men say, and as a result he feels like he can do whatever he wants.

      Dream Stage

      When Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of killing Gloucester (a murder Richard seems to have ordered), Richard tries to get them to be friends. When that doesn't work, he banishes them both. When Gaunt dies, Richard is totally psyched, since Gaunt had a lot of property. He seizes it to help fund the wars.

      Everything seems to be going very well for Richard! The annoying uncle who insulted him has died, leaving all his riches behind. Since Richard banished his heir, Bolingbroke isn't around to try to interfere with Richard's plan to steal Gaunt's property.

      Frustration Stage

      Unfortunately, at this point another uncle decides to pipe up and criticize Richard. York, who's always done what Richard told him to, tells Richard he can't take it anymore and that it's wrong to take Bolingbroke's property. Richard ignores him and goes off to Ireland to fight.

      This is the point when things start to go badly for Richard. If even yes-man York is freaked out by what he's doing to Bolingbroke, then the rest of the nobles must be pretty convinced that Richard is treating Bolingbroke not just badly but illegally. Public opinion is turning against Richard, and everyone thinks Bolingbroke has a pretty good case for coming back to claim what's his.

      Nightmare Stage

      Sure enough, Bolingbroke comes back. Richard is so far away that communication isn't really happening between him and York. The tide is turning against him. People think Bolingbroke deserves his inheritance, and a rumor starts to spread that Richard is dead. Shortly after Richard comes back, Bolingbroke captures him and Richard hands him the crown.

      Richard's overconfidence in his subjects' loyalty and in his own godlike status leads him to neglect his kingdom. By the time he decides to do something about it, it's too late: Bolingbroke has total control.

      Destruction or death wish Stage

      King Henry gets down to the business of ruling England. Richard mopes for a while until he's finally killed by Sir Piers Exton and his henchmen.

      There's some poetic justice in the way Richard dies: he's murdered in the same way Gloucester seems to have been when he was Richard's captive: as a prisoner of the king, who might or might not have directly ordered his death. The play ends with Richard's coffin onstage.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Medieval smackdown!

      Gloucester has been murdered and there's unrest and bitterness in the court. Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of being responsible. Richard tries to mediate between them, but it doesn't work, so he arranges a trial by combat. The initial situation shows that some cracks are already showing up in Richard's government and also how lame he is at resolving problems. He can't even handle two squabbling nobles.


      Richard 86's Mowbray and Bolingbroke from the kingdom and steals Gaunt's land.

      Instead of letting them fight, Richard banishes Mowbray and Bolingbroke and illegally confiscates Bolingbroke's inheritance when Gaunt dies. Richard was already on shaky ground when he banished Bolingbroke for accusing Mowbray of being a traitor. (On the surface, this is no reason to punish him!) So the nobles already think Bolingbroke has been treated pretty badly. When Richard goes on to disinherit Bolingbroke, things get really ugly.


      Bolingbroke invades England

      While Richard is off fighting a war in Ireland, Bolingbroke slaps together an army and comes back to England for a showdown with the king. By the time Richard actually comes back to face the music, most of his subjects have either turned against him or think he's dead.


      Bolingbroke corners Richard and helps himself to the Crown

      Bolingbroke kept saying throughout his campaign that he only wanted what was legally his – that is, his inheritance. That's how he won people over to his side. But by the time he catches Richard, it's clear that he can take whatever he wants, and he does. He makes Richard hand over the crown.


      Richard's midlife crisis (actually, it's more like an end-of-life crisis).

      After losing the crown to Bolingbroke, Richard is thrown in the slammer, where he reflects on how far he's fallen and tries to figure out who he is. The real question, of course, is what is going to happen to him. Richard is trying to figure out what attitude to take toward his fall from grace. He tends to think of himself as a kind of Christ figure, surrounded by traitors and thieves. In the meantime, King Henry gets down to the business of governing and tries to get everybody to get along.


      Richard is murdered.

      Richard is killed by Sir Piers Exton and his servants while he's locked up at Pomfret Castle. Apparently King Henry suggested that he'd like it if Exton got rid of the former king.


      Henry feels bad about having Richard killed off.

      Henry is presented with Richard's coffin. He's not entirely happy about it, even though he feels it needed to be done. He decides to go on a pilgrimage to deal with his guilt. The fact that Henry feels guilty about Richard's death might be a good sign. Remember, Richard never actually seemed to care much about murdering Gloucester. Still, the play ends on an undeniably sad note. Whereas Gloucester's murder happened offstage, and we never even met him, the play ends with the character we've gotten to know best lying in a coffin onstage.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Gloucester has been murdered. Richard banishes both Mowbray and Bolingbroke and refuses to listen to any good advice. He's run through all the money his ancestors collected, so when John of Gaunt dies, he decides to seize his property to help pay for the war in Ireland.

      Act II

      While Richard goes to Ireland to fight the war, Bolingbroke comes back from his banishment to demand his inheritance. Pretty much everybody thinks he's been treated badly and that Richard is doing a bad job as king. By the time Richard returns to England, he's more or less lost control of the kingdom.

      Act III

      Henry makes Richard publicly give up the crown so that it looks like Richard voluntarily stepped down. (No one really buys this, but it's good for appearances.) Richard is separated from the queen, imprisoned, and eventually killed. Henry executes some enemies, pardons others (like Aumerle), and feels bad about Richard's death. He decides to deal with his guilt by going on a pilgrimage.

    • Allusions

      Biblical Shout-Outs

      • "Would he not stumble? would he not fall down, / Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck / Of that proud man that did usurp his back?" (5.5.4): This is a big shout-out to Proverbs 16.18: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."
      • "Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's cries" (1.1.4): Abel was the son of Adam and Eve, and brother of Cain. Cain murdered him out of jealousy because God preferred Abel's sacrifice. According to the Bible, this is humankind's first murder.
      • "Some of you with Pilate wash your hands / Showing an outward pity; yet you Pilates / Have here deliver'd me to my sour cross, / And water cannot wash away your sin" (4.1.6): After he's forced to give up his crown, Richard compares the rebels to Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge who sentences Jesus to be crucified in the New Testament. Pilate turns Jesus over to the Jews for them to do with him as they please. He famously "washes his hands" of their actions, which he knows are wrong.
      • "Three Judases. Each one thrice worse than Judas! / Would they make peace? terrible hell make war / Upon their spotted souls for this offence!" (3.2.8): Richard hastily describes Bushy, Bagot, and Green as three Judases, assuming they've betrayed him. He's obviously thinking of himself as the betrayed Christ. In the New Testament, Judas betrays Christ for thirty pieces of silver.

      Mythological Shout-Outs

      • "Were I but now the lord of such hot youth / As when brave Gaunt, thy father, and myself / Rescued the Black Prince, that young Mars of men..." (2.3.2): In this passage, York compares Edward, the "Black Prince," to Mars, the Roman god of war.
      • "Down, down I come, like glist'ring Phaeton," (3.3.5): Richard compares his downfall to that of Phaeton, who appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses. He's the God Apollo's son, an ambitious young overreacher who asks to drive his dad's chariot (with its fiery steeds) across the sky, and loses control of it. Zeus has to kill him with a thunderbolt to stop him from burning the earth.