Richard II was the grandson of King Edward III of England and came to the throne in 1377 because Edward's son had died before Edward had. A council served as regent for Richard while he was still a minor. At the age of 14 in 1381, Richard showed great courage by going out in person to speak to a large group of rebelling peasants led by Wat Tyler, and he was actually able to calm the rebels down.

Richard was married at 15 to Anne of Bohemia, but she died of bubonic plague in 1394, without having given birth to an heir. Richard's official heir was one of his cousins, Roger Mortimer, but all three of Richard's uncles, including John of Gaunt, felt they had a better claim and worked to consolidate their own power. Richard married again, but to Princess Isabelle of France who was only seven, so there could be no heir for a while even though peace with France was made secure by the marriage.

Around 1396, Richard tried to get rid of Parliament and start an autocracy, according to some sources. Others (such as the historians contributing to Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer?) describe it more as some powerful members of the aristocracy feeling that Richard was not the kind of king they wanted. In September 1399, Richard was deposed in favor of his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV), John of Gaunt's son and Edward III's grandson. Henry had been exiled from England after a dispute with another noble, and was supposedly returning to England just to claim his inheritance now that his father had died (despite the fact that to return without Richard's summons was considered treason).

Richard was imprisoned and depending on who you believe, lost the will to live and starved himself to death, or was starved by his captors; he died about 14 February 1400. (His child bride was also imprisoned at first, but allowed to go back to France two years later after Henry had taken her jewels.)

       In Richard II, Shakespeare constructs a carefully shaped symmetrical structure that supports the play and radiates out from its center. There is a microcosm of rising and falling throughout Richard II, and this shape allows ideas to be mirrored and thus communicated more effectively. The center of the play rests on Act III, Scene iii, with Acts I and II leading up to it, rising, and Acts IV and V falling away from it.

       One of the more notable examples of the rising and falling structure can be found in imagery that exists in Act IV, Scene i (note that Act IV is actually only one scene). Just as Acts I and V mirror each other, Acts II and IV also correlate to each other. Before delving into Act IV, one should first examine the structure of the second act. Act II begins to set up the play’s thematic stance, and offers a hint of Bullingbrook’s rebellion. Conversely, in Act IV, the hint of a plot against Bullingbrook is revealed. Later in Act II, a more significant event occurs when Bullingbrook arrives, and kneels to York, who functions as a pivot point between Bullingbrook and Richard. In Scene iv of the second act, the desertion of the Welsh troops functions symbolically. In Act IV, Bullingbrook holds a trial. There is a parallel accusation and exchange to Act II. Also, Bagot is brought before Bullingbrook and challenged, much as Bullingbrook himself was brought before Richard in Act I.

       It is interesting to examine Carlisle’s speech in Act IV, before the entrance of Richard. Line 121: “What subject can give sentence on his king?/ And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject?” Carlisle’s cry against forcing Richard to abdicate in favor of Henry’s ascending the throne gets him charged with treason – another parallel is seen here in Henry’s having assumed Richard’s place from Act I, Scene i.

       The most significant image of rising and falling in Act IV occurs when Richard is forced to formally abdicate, and employs the metaphor of a well with two buckets. This speech, at line 181, where Richard takes hold of one side of his crown, and tells Henry to hold the other side, is an image of rising and falling that is consistent throughout the play.

Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.
This theme is continued as Richard prattles on about his griefs and woes. At line 260:
O that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bullingbrook,
To melt myself away in water-drops!
This image of melting conveys more of the symbolic, continuous falling of Richard. It also portrays Bullingbrook as the sun, contributing to the image of Henry rising while Richard is descending. Further reinforcement of this image occurred in a previous speech of York’s, which foreshadowed the imagery to come. At line 111, York says to Bullingbrook, “Ascend his throne, descending now from him,/ And long live Henry, fourth of that name!

       As Richard continues with his own speech, he commands a mirror to be brought, so that he might look at himself in it. Richard examines his face in the mirror, speaks to himself (line 276), and then dashes the mirror on the ground. This action highlights Richard’s fall from grace, as his life shatters into pieces before his eyes. With his final lines of the scene, as he is being led away by a guard, Richard says, “O, good! convey! Conveyors are you all,/ That rise thus nimbly by a true king’s fall” (line 317).

       As the play continues into Act V, the parallelism from earlier scenes is carried through. Richard goes to prison, there is lots of kneeling as before, only this time, it’s to Henry, the new king, and the hinted-at rebellion is squelched. The differences between Henry and Richard are shown further here. Whereas Richard, in Act I, put himself above the law by intervening in the duel, Henry handles events within the law properly (for the most part).

       The symmetry is carried out, and the mirroring images reflect the thematic content of the play, that is, the rising and falling symbolism. Through the three main images of the buckets in a well, melting snow, and broken glass, Act IV continues to uphold the structure with which Shakespeare imbued the entire play. The images of rising and falling, of Henry’s ascension versus Richard’s descension, are at some times subtle, at others blatant; but they nevertheless exist as a strong, deliberate undercurrent throughout the entire work, reinforcing what was surely a purposeful attempt on Shakespeare’s part to structure his play thusly.

Node Your Homework!

"King Richard II"
A Tragedy By William Shakespeare

Dramatis Personae

Act 1

  • Scene 1 - London. A Room in the palace.
  • Scene 2 - The same. A room in the DUKE OF LANCASTER'S palace.
  • Scene 3 - Open Space, near Coventry. Lists set out, and a Throne. Heralds, &c., attending.
  • Scene 4 - London. A Room in the King's Castle
Act 2
  • Scene 1 - London. An Apartment in Ely House.
  • Scene 2 - The Same. A Room in the Castle.
  • Scene 3 - The Wolds in Gloucestershire.
  • Scene 4 - A camp in Wales.
Act 3
  • Scene 1 - Bristol. BOLINGBROKE'S camp.
  • Scene 2 - The coast of Wales. A castle in view.
  • Scene 3 - Wales. Before Flint Castle.
  • Scene 4 - Langley. The DUKE OF YORK's garden.
Act 4 Act 5
  • Scene 1 - London. A street leading to the Tower.
  • Scene 2 - The same. A roomin the DUKE OF YORK's palace.
  • Scene 3 - Windsor. A room in the Castle.
  • Scene 4 - Another room in the Castle.
  • Scene 5 - Pomfret. The dungeon of the Castle.
  • Scene 6 - Windsor. An Apartment in the Castle.

Here's a review of a fairly recent production at the National Theatre. Sam West has gone on to still bigger things, and recently played Hamlet, also for the RSC.

The RSC’s ‘This England’ cycle – which aimed to show the whole series of history plays, from Richard II to his namesake the third – is an undeniably ambitious project. Fitting, then, that the curtain raiser has been directed by Steven Pimlott, a man with something of a reputation for experimental schemes. On entering the theatre – the Lyttleton, at the National - there was little doubt that this was such a production: rather than the lavish medieval set one might have expected, the room was entirely white, with no furniture to speak of beyond a mound of earth and a rectangular box. These recurring motifs set the tone for the production: an abundance of enthusiastically conceived ideas, some successful, some not, all provoking debate and discussion in the bar afterwards, and all making one think about the play in new and interesting ways.

The bursting into life of harsh neon lights, rather than a bugle call, heralds the opening of the play: likewise, Bolingbroke and Mowbray prepare to duel not with lances but with axes. Pimlott even (horror of horrors) plays around with the text to an extent, giving, for example, Richard’s prison soliloquy to both Bolingbroke and the Queen at other points in the play. Whilst this device may jar slightly, and unsuspend one’s disbelief, it really does drive home the way Shakespeare hints that, even though the King is a different man, nothing has really changed. We are given the impression that “the prison wherein he lives” is not in fact the prison at all, but the burden that has been placed upon him by his position.

Sam West (the actor seen talking to Julia Roberts on set in about her lovelife in Notting Hill, if you're trying to place him) is remarkable. His Richard begins as a capricious, petulant, childish lightweight, utterly unaware of his responsibilities and utterly incapable of coping with them if he were. The challenge when interpreting the character thus is to manage the bitterly ironic arrival of maturity just as it becomes useless, and West pulls it off with flying colours, delivering the aforementioned prison soliloquy with astonishing sensitivity. His Richard is an extremely complex individual, capable of great tenderness (with his queen, the excellent Catherine Walker) and great cruelty (to the aged Gaunt, of whom more later). If he is inclined to ride roughshod over the verse at times, it’s a price worth paying: I’m inclined to think that the poetry is strong enough to survive on its own, and it makes for a much more believable King than an Olivier-esque recital. This is a virtuoso performance, an achievement which confirms his place amongst the best actors of his generation, and it deserves to be feted.

Richard, though, isn’t the only star in the play – Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, has an excellent case for billing above the title too. David Troughton is the perfect foil for West: the contrast between Richard’s silliness and his gravitas is effective, and Troughton introduces a vital element of calm to proceedings, tempering his jumpy ally Northumberland (played perhaps a little too jumpily by Christopher Saul) and his frenetic usurpee. Interestingly, he’s a good deal older (-looking, anyway) than Sam West, which adds another layer of irony to the production: it’s almost as if he’s always been the senior figure, Daddy letting his son play at being in charge for a while before asserting himself.

These two are ably backed up by the supporting cast, with David Killick, as York, and the aged Alfred Burke, as Gaunt, standing out as worthy of individual mentions: Burke, in particular, delivers the famous ‘This England’ soliloquy with tremendous pathos. One or two of the junior members of the cast aren’t as capable, like Paul McEwan, who as Bushy and Exton, seems to concentrate his efforts on hysterically upstaging his peers, but the vast majority are excellent, and should be congratulated.

What else? In a production so teeming with ideas, it’s difficult to know what to mention and what to leave out. Perhaps the most effective device is the grave shaped pile of earth. The play’s elemental imagery is emphasized and articulated without losing it’s subtlety, and, it serves as a constant symbolic reminder of Gaunt’s description of ‘This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England’. Inevitably, some don’t work quite as well: the insistence that the reluctant audience stand and form parliament in the deposition scene is ill-advised and takes one out of the reality of the drama and back into a London theatre.

So many things I haven’t room to mention – Bolngbroke’s eerie repetition of Exton’s lines, the haunting music, the insane recasting of Harry Percy as an SAS officer, the wonderful Alexis Daniel as Aumerle… It all adds up to one of the most interesting and well-acted Shakespeare plays on the London stage for years. And yet - the over-riding impression is that if Pimlott had trusted the text a little more, and his own ideas a little less, this could have been not just good, but truly astonishing.

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