“The Tragedy of King Richard the Second,” From The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by W. Shakespeare

So, now we’ve drifted back to the events that helped lead up to the contention between the houses of York and Lancaster, with the rise of the Lancasters in this one (and for a few more). For fans of The Hollow Crown–King Richard uses this particular phrase to good effect, actually, in this play.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second (Richard II) is a play I’m having a hard time figuring out if I liked it or not. Richard himself seems to be a good person for the most part, but damned careless with the finances and who it may hurt if he extracts them from elsewhere.

We first meet him when he’s trying to settle a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, both accusing each other of political murder or embezzlement of crown funds. They’re unable to listen to reason and are about to duel to the death over it when the king banishes them both instead, Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for 6 years. However, when Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), dies soon after, Richard seizes the land that was to be Bolingbroke’s inheritance, and this makes Henry return from exile to rise against him.

Richard is seemingly likeable one-on-one, educated and well-spokent, but that’s perhaps because he’s surrounded by flatterers more than advisers. He ascended the throne young and hasn’t quite grown up enough to appreciate his job as leader of the people, or the nobles he’s pinching for money. The people don’t hold him in high regard while they loved Bolingbroke, and so when Richard decides to go conquer Ireland, it’s the perfect time to return to England and snatch the people’s support and arms out from under the king’s nose.

The nobles flock to Bolingbroke and the few who surround Richard find themselves in a bad place. Richard returns from Ireland to discover all that’s happened in his absence and is essentially a broken man. The breakdown takes its time, and there are many great monologue moments by this man who is so despised.

There are also plenty of ill omens and vague semi-prophetic moments that create a sense of unease in the play, with Richard and then with Henry Bolingbroke (who will become Henry IV).

I think there’s a lot to this play, and perhaps when I read the rest of the Lancaster plays, I’ll be able to appreciate it better for the setup it is. I also need to read a little more of my history and see how fast and loose Shakespeare was with the history, but other than more poetic language, I figure he was pretty well on with this one…at least, I’m getting that impression.

Makes me want to read the rest of the Lancaster history plays for sure, though…and maybe that’s enough of a reason, if only to understand what the unease and curses of John of Gaunt would unleash!

And now, some Notable Quotes:

KING RICHARD: Rage must be withstood.

Give me his gage. Lions make leopards tame.

MOWBRAY (standing): Yes, but not change his spots. Take but my shame,

And I resign my gage. My dear dear lord,

The purest treasure mortal times afford

Is spotless reputation; that away,

Men are but gilded loam, or painted clay.

A jewel in a ten-times barred-up chest

Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.

Mine honour is my life. Both grow in one.

Take honour from me, and my life is done.

Then, dear my liege, mine honour let me try.

In that I life, and for that will I die.

–Act 1, Scene 1

NORTHUMBERLAND: Now afore God, ’tis shame such wrongs are borne

In him, a royal prince, and many more

Of noble blood in this declining land.

The King is not himself, but basely led

By flatterers; and what they will inform

Merely in hate ‘gainst any of us all,

That will the King severely prosecute

‘Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.

ROSS: The commons hath he piled with grievous taxes,

And quite lost their hearts. The nobles hath he fined

For ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts.

–Act 2, Scene 1

KING RICHARD: For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,

And tell sad stories of the death of kings–

How some have been deposed, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,

All murdered. For within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable; and humoured thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall; and farewell, king….

–Act 3, Scene 2

Happy reading!

3 thoughts on ““The Tragedy of King Richard the Second,” From The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by W. Shakespeare

  1. bobcabkings says:

    That last speech on the death of kings immediately brought to mind a poem of similar import, Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. Both should be read frequently to any who fancy themselves great in power.


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