It might seem a bit incongruous to write a history play in a lyrical style, but Shakespeare was always up for a challenge. After all, he had just written a tragedy and a comedy in lyrical mode – so why not a history?
Almost at the very start of his writing career, Shakespeare had embarked upon a tetralogy of history plays – the three Henry VI plays, and Richard III. The series is uneven, but at its best – e.g. in the magnificent Henry VI Part 2 – it achieved a tremendous theatrical vigour. By the time he came to writing Richard III, Shakespeare had decided to focus on the central character, and to do this, he had to narrow the scope: no longer is he depicting an entire nation undergoing political upheaval – we are now in a world purely of court intrigue and of baronial politics. There were losses as well as gains: certainly, there is no character in the Henry VI plays who possess the demonic intensity of Richard III (not even Queen Margaret of Anjou, who is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable creations), but we no longer have that huge, invigorating large canvas, so crammed full with figures, overflowing with movement and dynamism.
In Richard II, Shakespeare takes it another step further: although we get the famous scene of the gardeners comparing the state of the nation with the state of the garden (as Hamlet will do later: “’Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed – things rank and gross in nature possess it merely”), the focus is now almost entirely on its central character, Richard, and, in the latter part of the play, on his adversary, Bolingbroke. And, since Richard II is more introspective and far less dynamic than Richard III, the mode of presentation is lyrical rather than rhetorical.
For all its undeniable merits, I find something curiously unsatisfactory about this play. The focus is far narrower than in any of the Henry VI plays, and it lacks the vitality and energy of Richard III. The problem, I think, is with the central character of this play – King Richard II: of course, it is a fine piece of characterisation, but he does not have the stature required to be at the centre of this drama. In the first half of this play, he appears in every way reprehensible: that is not in itself a problem – after all, Richard III was hardly an exemplar of moral probity. But the misdemeanours of this Richard do not carry with them the fascination of a great evil: rather, they are small and mean and petty. True, Richard appears to have been implicated in the murder of his uncle, the Earl of Gloucester, but that had happened before the start of the play: the Richard we see here is merely self-centred, venal, unfeeling, uncaring, small-minded.
The theme naturally arises of how allegiance to God’s appointed king can be reconciled with allegiance to one’s country, for it is clear that Richard’s rule is disastrous for the country. Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, rules out rebellion against God’s appointed: if Richard is to be punished, that is God’s job, not man’s. But that doctrine brings no comfort: before his death, John of Gaunt delivers a quite magnificent speech, in which, after singing the praises of his native land, he laments the state to which it has been reduced. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the deeply sad final lines are not as well-known as the rest of this speech!)
The magnificence and the depth of feeling of John of Gaunt’s final utterance contrasts all the more sharply with Richard’s reaction to his uncle’s death: there is not the slightest hint of sorrow or grieving; instead, there appears to be a sense of delight that, at last, he can lay his hands on his dead uncle’s property. This is mere pettiness and small-mindedness: there is none of the self-conscious delight in evil that had made Richard III’s villainy so fascinating.
About half-way through the play, Richard’s political fortunes start to turn. Shakespeare does not waste much time on depicting the politics of the rebellion, as he no doubt would have done had he still been writing in the mode of the Henry VI plays: rather, he is interested in the psychology of rebellion. The Duke of York, for instance, the brother of John of Gaunt and King Richard’s uncle, knows that rebelling against the king is to break an oath made to God: but it is a choice between that and seeing his country continue to suffer under misrule; and the dilemma is, certainly for him, tragic.
But centre-stage is Richard’s own reaction to his downfall, and here, we see once again Shakespeare’s fascination with human identity. His previous historical protagonist, Richard III, is not particularly introspective, and yet, before Bosworth, he has a remarkable monologue in which he had to ask himself who he really is. If he was a thing to be feared, then should he fear himself? What is it to be “I”? Richard II, in contrast, is completely self-absorbed. But his view of himself has always been that of a king – God’s anointed: it is on this basis that he had acted, safe in the knowledge that whatever he did must by definition be right, as God himself had made him king. But when his kingship is taken away, he must now face up to who he really is – who is this mysterious “I”? And intellectually, Richard is not up to it: he is no Hamlet – a question such as this is far too great for his self-absorbed mind to address.
In contrast, there’s his adversary – he pragmatic Bolingbroke, who gets what he wants even though he claims not to want it. It’s not that he’s a hypocrite: but he both wants, and doesn’t want. He both wants and doesn’t want to be king: he ends up being king. He both wants and doesn’t want Richard dead: Richard ends up dead. Shakespeare was to treat this split psychology in greater detail in Macbeth, that great tragic protagonist who recoils at the idea of wrong, but who, all the same, cannot help desiring it. Of course, in purely dramatic terms, Bolingbroke is hardly of Macbeth’s stature, but it is no surprise to see Bolingbroke at the end of this play, having achieved what he has wanted, wrestling with guilt – guilt for the very fact that he has attained the object of his desire.
It all adds up to a fascinating play, but nonetheless one I find difficult to warm to. For all its considerable merits, it seems to me – like Richard himself – to lack dramatic vitality.