Richard II – A Cautionary Tale of Improper Forms of Kingship

A number of commentaries on Shakespeare’s Richard II are devoted to the dialectical nature of the play, stressing the opposition of many of the elements in the drama. Studies have been written which demonstrate that the play is concerned with the opposition of the medieval order, represented by Richard, and the emerging modern order, represented by Bolingbroke. Similarly, other critics see the play as a conflict between a man of action and a man of words. Others see the play as a statement on the power of the king versus the powers of the aristocracy. Some see the play as the opposition between a king verging on madness, and a cold, calculating member of the peerage represented by Bolingbroke. More recent criticism has focused on the play as an allegory for the tyrannical rule of Elizabeth, or as a suppression of the freedoms of speech and press during Elizabeth’s reign.

The diverse theories which delineate the dialectical nature of the work are both informative and well-reasoned. Rather than viewing the play as a series of dichotomies, I will argue that the play views both Richard and Bolingbroke as essentially failed rulers for having limited the liberty of their subjects and exposed the state to unnecessary questions relating to the legitimate uses of power and of monarchical succession. Finally, I will argue that the play, presented in this light, would serve as a warning to Elizabeth regarding the use of her power and her inability to provide a successor to the throne. Richard Reinsdorf

The notion that the play represents a conflict between the medieval values of Richard and the more modern views of Bolingbroke is summed up by Henry Jacobs in his paper “Prophecy and Ideology in Shakespeare’s Richard II” as follows:


It is a commonplace to observe that Shakespeare’s Richard II traces out a fundamental shift in the nature of kingship and the justification of rule. This movement, which reflects both Tudor perspectives on history and Elizabethan political theory, signifies the transition from a medieval to a Renaissance concept of kingship and power. In this theoretical matrix, Richard II plays the role of the unsuccessful medieval monarch while Bolingbroke acts the part of a successful Renaissance prince. (Jacobs) (3)


In a similar vein, R. Morgan Griffin in his paper “The Critical History of Richard II,” writes that traditional readings of Richard as a proponent of medieval values, and Bolingbroke as a proponent of Renaissance values, persisted through the mid twentieth-century to the exclusion of the exploration of other themes in the work, and notes that:


Tillyard in particular loads the dichotomy of Richard and Bolingbroke with contrasts and goes so far as to suggest that each king represents a distinct historical era, Richard the end of the Middle Ages and Bolingbroke the arrival of the Renaissance. (24)


Critics have viewed Bolingbroke as a man of action, while Richard is seen as an ineffective man of words, or a poet. William Stubbs, bishop of Oxford in the nineteenth century, wrote what was considered to be a definitive biography of Richard II. Stubbs is responsible for the characterization of Richard as a man of contemplation and ineffective leadership, as George Osborne Sayles notes in his paper “King Richard of England: A Fresh Look.” Sayles notes that: “To Stubbs, Richard was ‘habitually idle’ and ‘loved pleasure and ease,’ and this is now the conventional story in all our history books” (29). Discussing Richard’s attributes as a leader, Sayles remarks that “The same contention that the King was incompetent in the governance of his realm is attached to him throughout the years” (29-30). Sayles later goes on to develop a thesis that Richard was, in fact, a much more effective leader than is generally acknowledged. Noting that conventional readings of the play emphasize the differences in the personalities of Richard and Bolingbroke, R. Morgan Griffin notes that: “According to the conventional scheme, Richard is the weak, effeminate poet-king, a medieval relic who relies on language and ceremony to rule; Bolingbroke is the taciturn, violent, and politic representative of a new Machiavellian style of leadership” (25).

The antipathy between the king and the aristocracy is frequently cited in criticism of the play. Historical fact lends additional credence to this line of criticism, since Richard and the “Appellants” as well as other members of Parliament, were frequently at odds during the king’s reign. George B. Stow, in his paper “Stubbs, Steel, and Richard II as Insane: The Origin and Evolution of an English Historiographical Myth,” once again citing Bishop Stubbs, makes the following point concerning Richard’s relation with the aristocracy:


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