This is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays, loaded with complex and ambiguous characters. Don’t despair if it doesn’t immediately seem obvious to you: it probably will never be completely clear. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other histories (Richard III, for example), it’s not a melodrama with a clearly defined Good Guy and an obvious mustache-twirling Bad Guy. It’s rather a study of a complex moral and political situation. In the year 1400, a number of powerful men, bound by their oath of fealty to an arbitrary and apparently incompetent king, took matters into their own hands, broke their oath, and deposed the king. The consequences of that action, however, were predictably deeper than the immediate transfer of political power. It cast England into one of its bloodiest civil wars — the so-called War (sometimes Wars) of the Roses. England was kept off balance for nearly another century — until the defeat of Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. As a play, Richard II explores — without giving any easy answers — what it means for the king to have a right to rule, and what relationship his subjects have with respect to the king and to God. Let yourself step outside the modern democratic mindset for a while as you consider this question. The issues are not quite the same as those that trouble the modern state, but they are real, and they will find at least partial reflection in any situation where a group of people has to address personal leadership.
Richard II and the previous plays we’ve read
Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and many more, are built upon historical models. These are, however, not considered histories as such. By the term we normally mean a central group of eight plays, with a few others around the edges. Shakespeare’s main cluster of histories, ignoring a few outlying pieces of dubious authorship and/or questionable value (e.g., King John, Henry VIII) are concerned with a fairly narrow stretch of the history of the English monarchy, running from approximately 1400 to 1485. They are all named after the kings who dominate the plays, but several of those kings get multiple parts — which are in reality separate plays. They break down principally into two distinct groups of four (or tetrads), of which the latter four (chronologically) appear to have been written earlier:
One easy way to remember all that is that the package begins and ends with Richards, while the middle is filled up with Henries. If you can remember that the first of these is Richard II, you also will know that the next Richard is (logically) Richard III. The Henries are all numbered in order (also logically) but starting (coincidentally) with the next number after III — IV, V, and VI. All that leaves for you to remember is how many parts each Henry gets: and those correspond to the number of the Richard each one stands next to. Henry IV, who follows Richard II, has two parts, Henry VI, who precedes Richard III, has three. Henry V, the man in the middle, has only one. If this all seems too fussy, of course, you can just remember them in order. It’s not that hard.
The Henry plays are particularly complex, and they contain some of the finest characterization, poetry, and political philosophy in all of Shakespeare.
Let’s consider our expectations of these history plays as a class:
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
Symmetries in the play
Inconsistencies or problems in the play
I think that there are actually remarkably few blunders in this play — probably nothing that could vitiate the drama as a whole. The real issue seems to remain just the one:
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