Shakespeare's finest verse play is also his first portrait of the psychology of power. The sensitive and poetic Richard II is undoubtedly the rightful king of England but he is unscrupulous and weak. When his cousin Henry Bolingbroke returns from banishment and mounts a challenge to his authority, Richard's right to the throne proves of little help to him. Richard is forced to abdicate, but as his power is stripped away, he gains dignity and self-awareness, and he meets his death heroically. Meanwhile Bolingbroke's seizure of the crown has caused resentment among the nobles of England. Rupert Graves is Richard II, and Julian Glover is Bolingbroke. John Wood plays John of Gaunt.
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"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” -- William Shakespeare, Richard II
'Richard II' is a gem. It will never be my favorite, but it is fascinating and finely finished. In many ways it is William Shakespeare meets Machiavelli. Shakespeare wrote eight historical "War of the Roses" plays. They weren't written in order. It is pretty easy, if you are a Star Wars fan, to think of the plays like this. Richard II is = the Phantom Menace. Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; and Richard III (together known as the Minor Tetralogy) were all written and performed first (Like A New Hope, Empires Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi). Then Shakespeare jumps back and gives us the Henriad, aka the Major Tetralogy (Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry V).
It is also a fascinating look at the body of the king. The king having both a physical body and the kingdom. Shakespeare does a brilliant job in some later speeches made by Richard II of illuminating the King's two bodies (Natural Body and Body Politic). This isn't new. This isn't me. I ran across this theme in several places (Wikipedia, "The King's Two Buckets") after I read the play, and now I want to go check out Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. This plays a large part in this play. The king is LITERALLY the embodiment of England (its people and the land).
This dualism can be taken even further as a metaphor for Christ and His double nature/role as divine mediator. I'm not saying Shakespeare means for us to interpret Richard II as a type of Christ. But, I think we could look at England's King as existing in a similar (man/divine) space. Anyway, there were several direct references to Judas', betrayal, etc.. Enough to warrant me spending a couple sentences on that topic.
There are also several minor themes that bob around in this play as well: honor, rituals of state, loyalty (to family, King, country). There were also several nice lines, specifically:
- “You may my glories and my state depose, But not my griefs; still am I king of those.” - “Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day.” - “Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth, Let's choose executors and talk of wills” - “Each substance of a grief has twenty shadows." - “My brain I'll prove the female to my soul; my soul the father: and these two beget a generation of still-breeding thoughts, and these same thoughts people this little world.”