Richard II as Failed King
Richard II pits two very different types of men against each other in what at first
seems like a struggle for power. But Richard is so easily defeated that the
emphasis of the play is more on the exploration of his character than on political
intrigue. When push comes to shove, Richard does not put up a fight. His only
weapons are poetic words, which he uses first to call up his belief in the divine
right of kings, and later, when he is overthrown, to dramatize his grief and
Richard II would appear to have all the advantages over Bolingbroke. He is the
rightful king during a time when kings were thought to rule by divine right.
However, Richard is ill-suited to the throne. He has no sense of justice, as can be
seen when he seizes Gaunt's lands and disinherits Gaunt's son Bolingbroke. The
medieval social order rested in part on the correct, legal transmission of titles
and property. When Richard violates this, he disrupts the social order. He
appears to have no concept of the general welfare. He makes policy to suit
himself, and he does not have the gift of surrounding himself with wise advisors.
When a character such as York or Gaunt gives him sound advice, he ignores it.
As shown in the first Act, Richard is mainly concerned with raising money for a
war in Ireland. But when he is faced with a crisis, Richard becomes weak and
passive. He can only act decisively when everything is going in his favor. Faced
with the threat from Bolingbroke, he goes to pieces, as far as taking effective
action is concerned. All he can do to impose his will on events is to summon up
in words the full majesty of his status as king. He assumes that everyone will
submit to him simply because of his royal status. When this does not happen, he
Bolingbroke is Richard's opposite. He is a practical man of few words, an
opportunist politician who knows how to seize power when the opportunity
presents itself. Unlike Richard, Bolingbroke does not reveal his thoughts or his
motives. He never states overtly that he seeks the crown, but nonetheless, it is
he who ends up as king. This ambiguity of intention may a deliberate part of his
policy. He shows himself to be a shrewd man who does not take any missteps in
his march to power.
The contrast between the two central characters might be summed up as the
passive Richard versus the active Bolingbroke. When the pressure is on, Richard
shows himself to be a poet and a dreamer rather than an effective leader, and he
is set against a man who gets things done efficiently. In a crisis, Richard flops,
but Bolingbroke handles crises effectively. This is seen in his putting down of the
revolt that follows his seizure of the crown, and his showing of mercy to
conspirators and opponents when appropriate.
Richard's Growth in Understanding
The play is entitled "The Tragedy of Richard II." In Shakespearean tragedy, the
protagonist, before he dies, usually comes to some greater understanding about
himself and about life. Does Richard grow as a character after his overthrow?
Does he acquire any wisdom?
The answer is a cautious yes. After his overthrow he asks himself deeper
questions about life than one can ever imagine him asking when he was king. He
reflects on mortality. He examines his own identity: who is he now he is no longer
a king? He seems much more self-aware than he was formerly. In his speech at
Pomfret Castle, he even seems for a moment to be aware that he is to blame for
his own misfortunes ("I wasted time, and now time wastes me"). However, in that
speech and others, Richard also spends much of his mental energy dramatizing
and bemoaning his fate. He has indeed learned something from his tragic
experience, but perhaps not all that he might have done.