The Shakespeare Series: Richard II Review

Richard II is perhaps one of England’s most tragic monarchs. King at just ten years old, throughout his reign I feel he was rarely his own man, and much historical speculation surrounds his personality and how mentally sound he was at different points in his life. It’s fair to say that Shakespeare’s play has by and large helped to influence the image of the King as no doubt Ben Whishaw’s brilliant and beautiful performance of Richard in 2012 is probably influencing a whole new generation now.

The play itself is often the first point of the great historical saga which culminates with Henry V. The plot itself revolves around the various factors that come into play before Richard’s death, as well as introducing the formidable character of Henry Bolingbroke, one day to be Henry IV.

We begin the play two years before the end of his reign, and the King is acting as judge over a dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk. Several accusations are levelled, and they ask the king to reach and outcome. What Richard decides in the first act shapes the course of the rest of the play and his life: indeed, Mowbray portends as such.

I find portrayals of the title character vary upon interpretation, but it’s no lie that in the play he generally comes across as a vain and cruel, utterly careless character. Some actors might lean into that entirely, attributing the King’s personality and failures to a decade’s old mollycoddling, others might take from it more deeper effects of a King trying to live up to an image and going awry. Either way, his fall and final end run alongside Bolingbroke’s rise to power. As Henry’s family lose everything and he’s far away, Richard might not think he’s ever had more power or soared higher. But as the say, the higher you rise, the farther you have to fall, and with the way Richard exercises his prerogative throughout the play, he’s been flying too close to the sun.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits

The parallels continue throughout the play and for those who have not read the play, the imagery of the two kings before the curtain goes down is of particular note. Henry’s demeanour begins in the play, and it’s a thread which I’ve long thought of as one of Shakespeare’s most consistent characters, especially considering that he appears in three plays.

When I was younger, and knew less about the historical king himself, I had very little time to sit and understand Richard. Of course his predicament can be drawn alongside the historical happenings of Shakespeare’s period – Queen Elizabeth’s childlessness, the nature of a woman on the throne, or the dispensation of power and justice. Nowadays I see it as not just a history play, but the long and sad journey through power and privilege, what position can do to us and how we can all too easily blur the worlds of the sacred and profane when we forget our humanity by running away with ourselves.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s more contemplative histories and one which has grown with me over time. Here, the action does not take centre stage but instead the decisions or consequences surrounding them. This is a play for all the silent moments in great courts, and for every power mover that does not simply rush headfirst into the fray.

(photo credit:

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