William Shakespeare's Richard II

William Shakespeare's Richard II

William Shakespeare's Richard II

William Shakespeare's Richard II


In Richard II, the first play in the Henriad, Shakespeare introduces a question that will dominate the tetralogy: What is the nature of kingship? In the confrontation between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke the playwright explores whether kingship can be simply a matter of divine birthright or if it requires the efficient use of power or some moral imperative. Richard, convinced of his absolute sovereignty, is more interested in private obligations than in his duties to the country, and so loses his throne to the politically pragmatic Bolingbroke. Ironically, however, the deposed Richard foresees the course the Henriad will chart - rebellion and insurrection, forced tyranny, and public and private betrayal - to culminate as much in Hal's rejection of Falstaff as in Henry V's marriage to Katherine of France.

Among the distinguished critics in this volume Ruth Nevo studies Richard's tragic qualities, Harry Berger Jr., "psychoanalyzes" Shakespeare's text, and Northrop Frye contributes an exegesis on the qualities that comprise Shakespeare's genius.

William Shakespeare's Richard II is one of over 100 volumes in the "Modern Critical Interpretations" series, edited and introduced by Harold Bloom and published by Chelsea House. Taken together, these volumes represent a comprehensive collection of the best current criticism of the most widely read poems, novels, stories, and dramas of the Western World.


There is a general agreement that Shakespeare represents Richard II as a kind of spoiled adolescent (in our terms, not Shakespeare’s, since adolescence is a later invention sometimes ascribed to Rousseau). I suspect it might be better to term Shakespeare’s Richard II an almost perfect solipsist. He is certainly, as everyone sees, an astonishing poet and a very bad king. The puzzle of the play, to me, is why Richard II is so sympathetic. I do not mean dramatic sympathy, such as we extend to Macbeth, overwhelmed as we are by his intense inwardness. Macbeth is anything but humanly sympathetic. Richard II is, despite his self-pity, his petulance, and a veritable hoard of other bad qualities.

Northrop Frye eloquently calls Richard’s “overreacting imagination that sketches the whole course of a future development before anyone else has had time to figure out the present one” a weakness. Pragmatically this is a weakness because it makes Richard doomeager, but it also renders him curiously attractive, particularly in contrast to the usurper, Bolingbroke. Harold Goddard, whose readings of Shakespeare never leave me, termed Richard “a man of unusual, though perverted, gifts,” the principal perversions being sentimentalism and narcissism. Since Shakespeare’s most original quality, in my judgment, was the representation of change through a character’s self-overhearing, I would call Richard II the first major manifestation of that originality, and I suspect that is why he moves us to a very troubled sympathy. He is indeed a mimesis that compels more of reality to divulge itself than we could have seen without him.

A. D. Nuttall, in his remarkable A New Mimesis, the best study of Shakespeare’s representation of reality, also emphasizes Richard II’s proleptic stance towards his own catastrophe:

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