I really think Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most brilliantly written plays. One of only a handful of his plays written entirely in verse, he manages to write both lyrically and with real purpose. The characters are also incredibly nuanced and complex. It is a play that raises many questions, with lots of room for audience and artistic interpretation.
My first thought is that this play is often over simplified. Richard is frequently presented as a vain and feckless king, who is rightfully deposed by the level-headed, man-of-the-people Henry Bolingbroke. I’m not sure it is this simple.
Although Richard is most certainly vain and flowery at the beginning, I do think he is genuinely trying to be a good king and do the right thing. He may be very misguided and have surrounded himself with flatterers but there’s no real suggestion that he is knowingly neglecting his duties as king. Equally, for a man who seems so absolute in his belief that he is divinely appointed to rule as king, he is incredibly quick to resign his crown. Furthermore, does a man who really has power, feel the need to demonstrate his power so much? I would argue that Richard, for all his appearance of regal grandeur, is well aware of the fragility of his position – even if he has convinced himself otherwise.
Meanwhile, Bolingbroke could well be the one who is seen to be ambitious and opportunistic. The big question is: at what point does Henry decide to depose Richard and become king himself? When he comes back from exile with an army, he claims that he has only come for his inheritance (the Duchy of Lancaster), yet he is very quick to ascend the throne and command his followers. He repeatedly talks about his humbleness and love for his cousin Richard, yet his actions are suggestive of a man who hates Richard and is ambitious for his throne. Furthermore, he is very quick to remove all those who oppose his new reign – he is responsible for a huge number of executions (not to mention the murder of Richard).
This is all to point out that Shakespeare (and indeed any dramatist) is at his best when he presents contradictory characters – characters who say one thing and do another. It creates a huge amount for directors and actors to play with. People often shout loudest when they have the least to say – in fact, they are shouting loudly because they’re terrified of having nothing to say! Similarly, Richard talks of his divine right to rule because he is terrified of being deposed, whilst Bolingbroke talks of his humility for the very reason that he is ambitious.
My only two criticisms of this play are the weak characterisation of the Queen and the ending. The Queen is just a very feebly drawn character that lacks any real purpose. It is a shame because there is potential for an interesting role here, yet she is so passive and her relationship with Richard doesn’t really ring true. Similarly, the ending is a bit lacklustre. Shakespeare famously wasn’t great at endings but this one feels especially hurried and abrupt. Richard’s coffin is brought in and Henry tells everyone he’s going to head off the to the holy lands to do penance and then the play ends! It lacks a real moment of resolution.
Despite these issues, I really think this is a fantastic play and one that I would love to direct one day.