Richard II: My Essay

Efraín Suárez Arce

Professor James Conlan

English 4001 (OU1)

1 October 2008

RICHARD 2ND by Shakespeare, , writer – William Shakespeare, Director – Simon Goodwin, Designer – Paul Willis, The Globe Theatre, London. Credit: Johan Persson/

Richard II: My Essay

Here we have two very different types of men pitted against each other in what at seems like a struggle for power. Richard II seems to have all the advantages over Bolingbroke. He is the rightful king during a time when kings were believed to rule by divine right. So what caused Richard II’s downfall? two fatal mistakes: the first being the seizing of the Lancastrian estates after John of Gaunt’s death (a violation of the strongly guarded laws of inheritance in place at the time) which made an enemy of Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son and the Lancastrian heir, as well as encouraging the nobility to sympathize with him. And second, a badly timed expedition to secure control in Ireland, which enabled Bolingbroke to return from exile and find enough support to fight the king when he rushed back from Ireland.

There’s also his detachment from the common people, his out of control spending habits, his questionable funding sources, his dependence on inept counselors and penchant for war, his lack of a concept of general welfare, making policy to suit him. All these factors in the end lead to his forced abdication and the founding of the Lancastrian dynasty. When a character such as York or Gaunt gives him sound advice, he ignores it.

Richard has no sense of justice; He is flippant when he remarks that he has “plucked four away” from Bolingbroke’s sentence, and then he tells Gaunt that he still has many years to live.

Perhaps he’s not totally evil, but he’s so full of himself that he doesn’t notice the impact of his actions upon those around him. This same attitude will, of course, later lead to his downfall. We see that as soon as Bolingbroke is gone, Richard starts. in an effort to get money to prepare for a war with Ireland, which is in revolt he chooses to sell the king’s right to tax as well as write blank charters, or forced loans. After making these decisions, Richard is informed that John of Gaunt, broken down by advancing age and the banishment of his son (Bolingbroke), has fallen ill and will likely die soon. Richard immediately expresses his intention to confiscate Gaunt’s estate, which would technically become Bolingbroke’s land and money.

Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind  To help him [Gaunt] to his grave immediately!  The lining of his coffers shall make coats  To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars. (1. 4. 62)[1]

The social order of the time rested in part on the correct, legal transmission of titles and property. When Richard violates this, he disrupts the social order. Richard is mainly concerned with raising money for a war in Ireland. But when he is faced with a crisis, Richard becomes weak and passive. Faced with the threat from Bolingbroke, he goes to pieces, as far as taking effective action is concerned. His only weapons are poetic words, which he uses first to call up his belief in the divine right of kings and later, when he is overthrown, to dramatize his grief and sorrow.

One of the ironies of Richard II is that Richard is in a way lost from the get go, unable to fix the opening dispute since he is himself guilty of the crime. Mowbray cannot accuse the true culprit, and his understandably outraged at being called a traitor. This conflict, which opens the play, serves as a direct challenge to Richard’s power, a challenge which will build throughout the play. Mowbray and Bolingbroke become so impassioned at one point that Richard orders them,

Wrath kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me


He then commands the two men to forget the entire affair and to go home. They, however, refuse to obey Richard. The result is that the King accepts a trial by combat,

At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert’s day:

There shall your swords and lances arbitrate

The swelling difference of your settled hate.

(1. 1. 204-206)

A “swelling difference” that in spite of being lord and sovereign to both parties in the dispute, he seems powerless to resolve. Here we see Richard as an impotent king. Richard sees this quite clearly himself, saying


We were not born to sue, but to command;

Which since we cannot do…


This is a mark of resignation, of defeat for Richard, who cannot control his own subjects. Bolingbroke is Richard’s opposite. He seems to be a practical politician of few words, who knows to seize power when the opportunity presents itself. Bolingbroke does not reveal his thoughts or his motives. He never states overtly that he seeks the crown, but it is he who ends up as king.

Is a king’s authority inviolable? The play also shows the conflict between the legal and divine right to rule, weighted against the competency and/or effectiveness of the ruler. We see the disparity between the king’s unprincipled actions and what he and many other characters in the play see as his divine to govern. The big question here is whether the subjects of a king have a right to overthrow and replace him if he is weak, unwise, or unfair. Richard is believed to be the legal, rightful ruler of England, ordained by God. Richard himself states that his authority comes from God himself;

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord:

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,

God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,

Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right. (3. 2. 58-64)

Ergo, he has a “divine right” to rule. John of Gaunt and the Duke of York support this view even though Richard had shown himself to be a weak and ineffective king who focuses more upon the appearances, rather than the responsibilities, of kingship. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, believes the people have the right to depose the king if he does not act in the best interests of the realm. Many nobles support this view and help Bolingbroke unseat Richard. Bolingbroke acts decisively and, arguably, with moral justification. He also is backed by the support of the people. This also brings us to the conflict between personal loyalty and loyalty to the crown, as shown by John of Gaunt, the Duke of York and the Duke of Amerle.

Harold Bloom, in his 1998 book “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” writes,[2]

Since we are not meant to like Richard, and no one could like the usurper Bolingbroke, Shakespeare has little trouble distancing us from the only actions of the play, abdication and murder.

In his article for The New Yorker, Hilton Als[3] states that by the time Bolingbroke gathers his forces, ousts the King, and claims the throne, it hardly matters to the viewer. He alleges that Richard II is not part of the drama; he is just the intermittent cause of it, peripheral to our experience of the play—until, that is, he loses everything, and begins his transformation from spoiled monarch to sensitive, imaginative poet/philosopher. Well, in the soliloquies of Acts III and V, Richard does seem to become more human, or, at least, more of someone with whom we can identify. I think that he has simply acquired a painful awareness of his misdeeds and their consequences.








Als, Hilton – Kingdom Come: Michael Cumpsty reinterprets the downfall of Richard I, The New Yorker, 2006, <;

Gibaldi, Joseph, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers,

Sixth Edition the Modern Language Association of America 2003

The Norton Shakespeare”, Second Edition – Stephen Greenblatt (General Editor), Harvard University Press, 2008


[1] All quotes from the play are taken from The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition,

Harvard University Press, 2008


[2] As cited by Hilton Als in his 2006 New Yorker  article, “Kingdom Come: Michael Cumpsty reinterprets the downfall of Richard I”

[3] “Kingdom Come: Michael Cumpsty reinterprets the downfall of Richard I” <;


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