Richard II is the third one of Shakespeare’s history plays that I’ve read, and it’s nothing like either of the others. I’m not entirely sure if I like it or not – but then, that’s how I felt when I first read Henry V, and now it’s one of my very favorites. While Henry V is a patriotic, celebratory play and Richard III a gruesome horror story, Richard II is far less straightforward.
On the one hand, King Richard II is a terrible king. Worse than that, he doesn’t seem to have any idea he’s a bad king, or any understanding of a king’s responsibilities – which makes a certain amount of sense, since the real Richard II took the throne at ten years old. He’s indecisive and prone to favoritism, as the opening scenes show: when two noblemen each accuse each other of treason, he first agrees to let them fight to the death, before changing his mind and banishing them both – one for ten years (later reduced to six because he wants to make the man’s father happy) and the other for life. Not that I think fights to the death are the best way to settle a dispute, but frequently and easily changing one’s mind is not a great leadership quality, either. And yet, the play spends a great deal of time talking about the divine right of kings, and many characters assume that Richard is God’s choice to rule and therefore any attempt to remove him from power is wrong.
On the other hand, Henry of Bolingbroke is Queen Elizabeth’s ancestor, and all of the history plays are at least partially Elizabethan propaganda, so we’re probably meant to be rooting for him. He certainly seems to be a more capable ruler than Richard, and he has no problem winning the nobles’ support, although not the support of the play’s religious figures. That’s where the whole divine right thing comes into play most.
Neither Henry nor Richard seems like a particularly bad person – as in, neither of them is a cartoonish villain in the vein of Richard III – but neither of them seems particularly good, either. They both make questionable decisions, and they both have faults. Richard’s main ones are immaturity and an utter lack of leadership skills. But he has a strange sort of dignity even in defeat, and he becomes increasingly thoughtful and introspective. It’s hard not to pity him, especially near the end. Like Hamlet, he might have led a happier life if he weren’t royalty. Henry, on the other hand, is incredibly arrogant in believing he can just march right back into a country he was exiled from to demand his inheritance and, by the way, the throne as well. But on the other hand, he’s also smart, capable, and probably right in thinking he’d be a better king than Richard – except, this is a history play, and the real Henry IV’s reign was short and turbulent.
All-in-all, they both come across as remarkably human for two monarchs in a historical drama. Unlike with Henry V and Richard III, who are clearly defined as hero and villain, in Richard II Shakespeare seems to present two fully human, deeply flawed contenders for the throne and lets the audience – or the actors and director – draw their own conclusion. That’s not what I was expecting, but then again, character development is one of Shakespeare’s strengths. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised it would be apparent here as well.