Friday, 19 February 2021

Richard II

1/ In my previous blog post about Shakespeare and the empty words of consolation, I put up a very moving speech by Henry Bolingbroke after he’s banished by king Richard II. 

There are lots of great passages in Richard II, and a lot of them in the first two Acts are said by Henry’s father, John of Gaunt. 

See the scene of the banishment—Gaunt isn’t consoled even though Richard reduces 10 years to 6 years.


I thank my liege that in regard of me

He shortens four years of my son’s exile.

But little vantage shall I reap thereby,

For ere the six years that he hath to spend

Can change their moons and bring their times about, 

My oil-dried lamp and time-bewasted light

Shall be extinct with age and endless night.

My inch of taper will be burnt and done

And blindfold death not let me see my son.


Why, uncle, thou hast many years to live.


But not a minute, King, that thou canst give.

Shorten my days thou canst with sullen sorrow

And pluck nights from me, but not lend a morrow.

Thou canst help time to furrow me with age

But stop no wrinkle in his pilgrimage. 

Thy word is current with him for my death,

But dead, thy kingdom cannot buy my breath.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Is that not so good? 

Later on, Gaunt has some great speeches on his sickbed. This is when he wants to give Richard some hard advice and his brother, the Duke of York and another uncle of Richard, tells him not to bother, but Gaunt thinks that “the tongues of dying men/ Enforce attention”: 

“… The setting sun and music at the close,

As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,

Writ in remembrance more than things long past.

Though Richard my life’s counsel would not hear,

My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

Richard is a vain king and a bad king—he only listens to flatterers. York thinks he wouldn’t listen. 


[…] His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last

For violent fires soon burn out themselves.

Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short; 

He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;

With eager feeding, food doth choke the feeder;

Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,

Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.” 


I know I’m gushing but this is so good. This begins a long speech about England, “this dear dear land”, and about Gaunt’s pain at seeing what the king’s been doing to it. The entire speech is great, but I love the lines above, especially the images of “rash fierce blaze of riot”, “violent fires”, and “sudden storms”. 

Now I feel bad for not putting up on my blog some great passages from Macbeth and Othello. Those magnificent plays. 

2/ Tony Tanner notes an important detail: 

“The Holinshed Chronicles make it absolutely clear that Bolingbroke (Hereford, and now, after the death of Gaunt, Lancaster) was invited back to England by the discontented nobles […]. Whatever else, this at least exonerates Bolingbroke from having initiated the idea of usurpation. Not a word of this in Shakespeare. Instead, when the nobles collude in exasperation after Richard has left for Ireland, Bolingbroke is already, mysteriously, back in England, and had been waiting in Brittany, with allies and troops, simply for Richard’s departure for Ireland.” (Introduction) 

This puts a very different colour on Bolingbroke’s motives. He says, over and over again, that he comes back not to usurp the throne but to claim his rightful inheritance (taken away by the king), but is it true? In the time scheme of the play, Tony Tanner notes that Bolingbroke is already in England some 60 lines after Richard announces going to Ireland, which in turn occurs only some 75 lines after Gaunt’s death (all in the same scene). 

“This means that, dramatically, Bolingbroke could hardly have known of his father’s death and of Richard’s infamous expropriation of the whole Lancaster estate.” (ibid.) 

It could just be the nature of a play—we don’t know how much time has passed. However, one thing is certain: there is no invitation, he comes of his own will. 

“… Bolingbroke never soliloquizes. He remains shut up, shut off, and we can never know what truly moves him.” (ibid.) 

This is not criticism, and it’s possible that his impulses are mysterious even to himself. Tony Tanner continues: 

“All this makes him at once mysterious and human, and I think this root uncertainty and ambiguity is a masterstroke on Shakespeare’s part. Such are the figures who, at once, make and are made by history.” (ibid.) 

3/ Many characters curse each other in Richard II, much more than in other plays. There are curses and curses throughout the entire play. 

I notice that Shakespeare’s comedies tend to have some tragic moments and his tragedies tend to have some comic moments. Richard II doesn’t really have much comic relief. This is an observation, not a complaint, and I suspect that it’s just this play, not all of Shakespeare’s histories. 

It’s interesting to note, though, that Richard II is a contemporary of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

4/ Richard is a bad king, self-regarding and callous, but Shakespeare gives him some moving lines: 


[…] Throw away respect,

Tradition, form and ceremonious duty.

For you have but mistook me all this while,

I live with bread like you, feel want, 

Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,

How can you say to me I am a king?” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

The scene where Richard abdicates the throne and smashes the mirror (Act 4 scene 1) is, I think, one of the greatest scenes I’ve read from Shakespeare. Richard appears utterly human—Shakespeare brilliantly depicts him as both a vain king and a betrayed martyr, a tragic figure, and you can feel Richard’s pain, even if it’s only pain for the loss of the title of king. 

Part of his tragedy, I think, is that he believes he as a king is chosen by God and can do anything whereas Bolingbroke and other nobles think a bad king can and must be replaced by someone more capable.    

Here is Tony Tanner on the abdication speech: 

“Where lies the substance? Richard makes this the question. Was it in the court that has vanished, the favourites that have gone, the armies that have dispersed, the kingly glory that has melted away? Was that ever-deliquescent world truly ‘substantial’—did it have real ‘weight’? Or was the ‘emptiness’, the ‘hollowness’ exactly there?

[…] The material world of externalities, seemingly so solid and physical, is not, truly, the ‘substance’, but, paradoxically, ‘hollow’, a realm of shadows. […] The real ‘lies all within’, with ‘unseen grief’ and the silence of the ‘tortured soul’.” (Introduction) 

That’s good. 

5/ Richard has another interesting soliloquy, when he’s in the castle. I especially like this part:

“… But whate’er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is, 

With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased 

With being nothing.” 

(Act 5 scene 5)


  1. Have you seen The Hollow Crown's production of Richard II? It is astounding

    1. No, I've not seen it performed. Is it available anywhere online?

    2. Ah okay. I'll see if I can find it anywhere. Trying not to buy books or dvds for a while.

  2. Thanks for these posts! I've been intimidated to take on these historical dramas -- so much English history! and you make them sound approachable and engaging.

    1. Haha I'm glad to hear that. I'm going to read more history plays after this one. The key to read Richard II, I think, is to read it as a tragedy.
      It is fantastic.


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