Study Guide

Richard II Themes

  • Power

    Shakespeare is interested in royal power throughout his history plays. In <em>Richard II</em>, he dramatizes two very different attitudes about kingship. According to Richard II and his followers, kings should inherit the crown from their fathers, and they have a right to rule because they are God's chosen representatives on earth. According to Henry Bolingbroke and his followers, a king's right to rule is a privilege granted to him by his subjects, which means the right to rule depends on whether or not a guy is actually a good leader. Literary critics and historians point out that when Shakespeare was writing <em>Richard II</em>, European ideas about power and monarchy were beginning shift from a religious attitude, like Richard's, to a more secular (non-religious) point of view, like Henry's. The play is a reflection of this change.

    Questions About Power

    1. Think about the play's various attitudes toward kingship and what it means to be a legitimate ruler. Does the play ever take sides and/or settle on one attitude or another?
    2. What do we know about Henry's motives for taking the crown? <em>When</em> did he decide to do it? Did he plan to take the crown all along, or did he just see a good opportunity and make a grab for it?
    3. Who is a better king – Richard or Henry? What makes one better or worse than the other?
    4. Shakespeare wrote <em>Richard II</em> in 1595, when Queen Elizabeth I was England's monarch. What do you think ran through her mind as she watched a play about a ruler who gets booted off the throne?

    Chew on This

    Although the play portrays Richard II's loss of the crown to Henry, it never actually chooses sides – instead, Richard II shows us various attitudes toward royal power.

    Richard II loses the crown because he thinks God will protect him, even though he's a lousy ruler.

  • Family

    Families are complicated, even when the people involved aren't kings and dukes. Mix in a monarchy and you have a perfect recipe for some good old-fashioned family drama. In this play, several characters are trying to figure out how to act when cousins, sons, and fathers end up politically opposed. It doesn't help that the two guys fighting over the crown, Henry Bolingbroke and Richard, are cousins, both descended from Edward III, who everyone seems to think was a great king. Even though Richard is <em>politically </em>the legal heir to the throne (mostly because he inherited the crown from his father), Henry Bolingbroke seems to have more in common with his grandfather – and more of the qualities that make for a good ruler.

    The play also asks us to think about whether family ties should be stronger or more important than political alliances. The women in the play choose family loyalty every time, while most of the men don't. Family is obviously a powerful category with major political consequences.

    Questions About Family

    1. How important does Richard think family is?
    2. Why does York turn so violently on his own son? What does this say about his character?
    3. Do the women characters see family differently than the men in this play?    (Give some specific examples to support your claim.)
    4. Why is it illegal for Richard to take Henry Bolingbroke's inheritance? Why do you think this prompts a lot of members of the nobility to join forces with Henry?
    5. Take a look at the Duchess of Gloucester's big speech about family in Act 1, Scene 2. Explain how and why she uses a tree as a metaphor for the royal family line. What is she hoping to accomplish with this speech?

    Chew on This

    Since the crown could only be passed down from father to son, the fact that Richard doesn't have a son makes his hold on the throne that much weaker.

    In Richard II, family cannot be separated from politics.

  • Language and Communication

    How much power do words really have? In this play, Shakespeare pits the power of language against the power of action. On the one hand, Richard more or less believes that his speech <em>is </em>power. In one sense, he's right: Richard can end a man's life just by banishing him or ordering a murder. So language <em>is </em>powerful, in the political sense. Later, once Richard is no longer king and his words don't have any political power, he manages to make his language forceful in a different sense: his words are often quite moving and poetic.

    Henry Bolingbroke, on the other hand, makes it clear that he doesn't think much of language. Unlike Richard (who describes his fall from grace so poetically that we almost forget he was a bad king), Henry isn't a good storyteller. He thinks action is far more important than language, which is why he's so great at seizing opportunities and creating situations that will give him power.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Compare and contrast Richard's attitude toward language to that of Henry Bolingbroke.
    2. In <em>Romeo and Juliet</em>, Juliet says that "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Would Richard agree?
    3. The terms "words" and "sword" often show up close together in the play. How are language and physical power related?
    4. Many characters talk about which side God is on. How important is prayer in the play? Is prayer an effective form of language?

    Chew on This

    Whereas Henry Bolingbroke is bad with words and seems to think language is less important than action, Richard is a gifted speaker who doesn't understand that speech isn't enough.

    One of the conflicts in the play is who gets to tell the story of England: Richard or Henry.

  • Identity

    Many of the characters in this play get their identities from their titles, which is why they obsess so much about their names. (This makes some sense given that members of the nobility are named after the land they inherit – like John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.) The same is true of Richard II, who has inherited the title of King of England from his father. When Richard loses his title, he experiences a major identity crisis. Much like Shakespeare's character King Lear, Richard puts so much of his selfhood into his title that when he loses the crown, he finds it hard to define who he is. This is when Richard becomes the most interesting (and maybe even most sympathetic) figure in the play.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Richard struggles to define himself after he's no longer king. It's a hard role to shake. Does he succeed?
    2. Is it possible in this play to have an identity apart from your social role, or your name?
    3. Look at Gaunt's wordplay on his name in Act 2, Scene 1. How is he juggling different definitions of identity?
    4. When Henry Bolingbroke returns to England in Act 2, Scene 3 after being banished, why does he make such a big deal about being called "Lancaster" and not "Hereford"?

    Chew on This

    Bolingbroke's insistence that he be called "Lancaster" when he returns to England shows how powerful he thinks names are.

    The fact that Richard experiences an identity crisis after being stripped of his title as king shows that he locates his power and his identity in his name and social role.

  • Loyalty

    One of the basic issues the play investigates is how you go about determining who or what deserves your loyalty. Are you loyal to a king? To a country? To your relatives? To the law? To justice? To God? When different systems (like government, religion, and family) compete with each other for your allegiance, how do you choose sides? When Richard starts thinking of himself as above the law, he puts these systems in conflict with each other.

    Different characters offer different answers to this question. Aumerle is loyal to Richard. York is loyal to the office of the king, no matter who occupies it. Gaunt is loyal to the kingdom. The Duchess of York is loyal to her son. And the queen is loyal to her husband. So who's right? Shakespeare leaves this for us to decide.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. If York ends up deciding he's loyal to the office of the king, no matter who actually holds the title, and Aumerle decides he's loyal to Richard specifically, who (or what) is Henry Bolingbroke loyal to?
    2. How does Henry Bolingbroke go about ensuring that his subjects will be loyal to him?
    3. Who is the most loyal character in the play? Why?   
    4. Do the women in the play define loyalty differently from the men? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    One of Richard's biggest problems is that he thinks he deserves loyalty without having to give it back to his subjects.

    Even though Aumerle plots against King Henry IV, he's ultimately more loyal than York, who keeps switching sides.

  • Gender

    If you're reading Richard II and you're hoping to bump into a powerful, dominating female figure like Lady Macbeth, you've chosen the wrong play. Talk to any of the three leading women in Richard II and they'll tell you the same thing: regardless of social status or age, female characters have very little power, especially when it comes to politics. (This is a little odd given that Shakespeare wrote the play with Queen Elizabeth I on the throne, don't you think?)

    In Richard II, the women tend to be associated with family, and they always, always put kinship bonds first. Yet even though the play's women are left out of politics, they serve an important function, because they allow Shakespeare to raise a big question: Is political loyalty more important than family loyalty?

    Questions About Gender

    1. The Duchess of Gloucester (Thomas of Woodstock's widow) shows up in one scene (1.2) before she dies offstage (2.2). What purpose does her brief appearance in the play serve?
    2. Discuss how the Duchess of York's attitude toward her son, Aumerle, is different than that of her husband.
    3. There are lots of fathers in this play, but only one mother. Why is that?
    4. What relationship, if any, do women have to politics in this play?

    Chew on This

    In the play, Shakespeare uses the female characters to point out that family serves an important function in the world of politics.

    The Duchess of Gloucester's death (which occurs offstage after a very brief appearance in the play) reminds us that women have very little power in <em>Richard II</em>.

  • Appearances

    Many of Richard's failures can be chalked up to the fact that he's pretty easily fooled by appearances. If someone flatters him and tells him he's awesome, he believes them; he never stops to think about whether they might have an ulterior motive. It takes a lot of suffering for him to learn how to look through the surface and see the truth that lies underneath.

    Several other characters in the play are also interested in figuring out how to interpret what they see. For instance, nature shows up again and again as something to be interpreted. Do the withered trees mean that the king is dead? Or that a new king is coming? Or that God is angry? Or nothing at all? Without a strong king, the kingdom is on shaky ground, so everyone is trying really hard to find meaning, a way to square the way things <em>look </em>with the way they <em>are</em>.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Compare Richard's self-image on his return to England in Act 3, Scene 2 to his self-image during his conversation with the Groom (toward the end of the play at Act 5, Scene 5). How are they different?
    2. How does the Groom's description of Henry Bolingbroke riding Richard's horse enrich your emotional understanding of Richard's decision to fight his attackers?   
    3. What point is Richard trying to make when he smashes the mirror?
    4. Discuss how Henry Bolingbroke's public image differs from that of Richard.

    Chew on This

    Even though Richard is unconscious of his image throughout the early part of the play, by the time he gives up his crown, he's become a master showman. He knows how to star in a big political drama.

    He might not be great with language, but Henry Bolingbroke is excellent at public relations. He manages to get the people on his side even before leaving England, and he maximizes the damage of Richard's political mistakes.

  • Suffering

    Once Richard loses the crown, he becomes really good at playing the role of a suffering martyr. He may have murdered his uncle, almost bankrupted the kingdom, and suffer from way too much self-esteem, but it doesn't matter – he's so good at self-pity that it's almost impossible not to feel sorry for him.

    Unlike many sufferers, Richard's development as a result of his suffering is actually pretty interesting to watch. The journey from all-powerful king who nobody ever criticizes to penniless prisoner is a long one. Challenged for the first time in his life, Richard has to think long and hard about what it all means. His suffering ends up allowing him to see things clearly – even more clearly, in some instances, than Henry Bolingbroke himself. His suffering also gives him an opportunity to do what he does best: make himself into a legend and turn his life into a story. (Translation: Richard's suffering allows him to go into full-on "drama queen" mode.)

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Suffering is sometimes thought to be a way of atoning for one's sins or mistakes. Does Richard's suffering redeem him?
    2. Why does Richard try to portray himself as a Christ figure?
    3. How does suffering change Richard's understanding of the world?
    4. After you read the play, check out Shakespeare's <em>King Lear. </em>Who's better at suffering (or talking about their suffering), Lear or Richard?

    Chew on This

    Richard learns to see more clearly through his suffering. Once he's removed from the court he tries, for the first time, to honestly understand his place in the world.

    Even after his fall from power, Richard remains self-centered and more or less immoral. Even as he's receiving exactly the treatment he gave Gloucester, he doesn't seem to regret killing him or see the parallels between their situations.

  • 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

    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.

  • Pride

    Richard uses the word "proud" more than any other character in the play. He uses it to describe Henry Bolingbroke, England's soil, and his own majesty. It could be argued that Richard's obsession with pride is what ultimately costs him his kingdom. Even though he ends up humiliated, he never really escapes the sense that he deserves more – that as God's chosen ruler on earth, he doesn't really need to do anything to feel proud. In other words, Richard thinks he's God's gift to the world. Unfortunately, this keeps him from listening to advice that might contradict or criticize him, and leads him to mismanage the kingdom so badly that he eventually loses it.

    Questions About Pride

    1. Who is prouder, Henry Bolingbroke or Richard?
    2. Does Richard ever stop being proud? Why or why not?
    3. How important is fatherly pride in the play? Think specifically about York and Gaunt.
    4. How does Richard's pride impact what happens to him in this play?

    Chew on This

    When it comes down to it, Richard's pride causes him to lose his crown.

    In Act 1, Scene 1, Richard says he "was not born to sue but to command," suggesting that his diplomatic effort to reconcile Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke is an insult to his pride. This shows how weak he is (since he's already spent some time "suing," or begging, and it didn't work) and shows that he has a pretty fragile definition of a good ruler. If Richard had been more comfortable "suing," he might not have lost the kingdom.

  • Exile

    It seems like every time we turn around, someone is getting booted out of England in this play. What's interesting is how the theme of exile is closely linked with patriotism. For Mowbray – and even more so for Henry Bolingbroke – being expelled from England makes them appreciate it more. Even Richard begins to appreciate England more when he's locked up in the slammer.

    The thing is, this kind of patriotism wasn't a fully formed political concept in 1400s England, when the play is set. If you lived in England around that time, you probably thought of yourself as loyal either to a king or – perhaps later – to a religion. But Shakespeare wrote the play around 1595, when people were starting to think of themselves as loyal to their country. The play seems to anticipate the patriotism of Elizabethan England.

    Questions About Exile

    1. What reasons might Richard have for exiling Henry Bolingbroke and Mowbray instead of letting them fight?
    2. What's the importance of England's soil in the play? How is it related to the theme of exile?
    3. Why do Henry Bolingbroke and Mowbray have such different reactions to their exiles?
    4. Why does Henry exile Exton at the end of the play?

    Chew on This

    There are parallel versions of exile in the play: while Richard starts out by physically banishing Henry Bolingbroke and Mowbray, he ends up metaphorically exiled when he experiences an identity crisis.

    The focus on England's soil, along with the emphasis on exile in the play, highlights the damage Richard did to the kingdom by leasing the land.