As the perfecter of the English history play, William Shakespeare has shaped the version of history that many English speakers today believe. In historian J. L. Kirby’s words, “From Shakespeare, of course, we can never escape whether we wish to or not” (Henry IV of England, London: Constable, 1970, 2). There is, then, a distinct irony when critics misinterpret Shakespeare’s essentially accurate Richard II because they don’t know enough history to understand it, because, in fact, they do not have the background which Shakespeare’s original audience possessed and which he could safely take for granted. The irony deepens when these same critics, having distorted history through ignorance, accuse Shakespeare of distorting it by design.
The worst offender here is E. M. W. Tillyard, who has unfortunately been influential as well as wrongheaded. Tillyard says, “Shakespeare knows that Richard’s crimes never amounted to tyranny and hence that outright rebellion against him was a crime” (Shakespeare’s History Plays, London: Chatto & Windus, 1951, 261). By this interpretation, Henry Bolingbroke becomes a usurper and the Wars of the Roses a divine punishment for Henry’s flouting of God’s will. However, Shakespeare knew perfectly well (and showed for those who pay attention) that Richard was a tyrant who deserved to be deposed for his own evil and needed to be deposed for England’s good.
The clashes between Richard and his nobles steadily escalated throughout his reign. The first—in 1386—involved Arundel and Thomas, duke of Gloucester, and left Richard fuming under the rule of an executive commission for one year. Compelled to accept by the threat of deposition, Richard thought of asking the opposing lords to dinner and murdering them, but gave up the idea as unworkable.
The second clash came in November of 1387, when Richard challenged the commission with a royal army in Cheshire. Gloucester and Arundel joined with Warwick, swiftly bringing their own troops to London and “appealing” five of Richard’s closest advisors of treason. Caught without an army of his own, Richard agreed to put the matter to Parliament.
However, when the three “appellant” lords withdrew their army, Richard let his favorites escape and summoned his Cheshire archers. Then, in December 1387, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray joined the appellants. The king’s men were defeated at Radcot Bridge, and again Richard found himself pressured to agree to demands by the threat of deposition.
It took Richard ten years to prepare his revenge, building up his power to the point of tyranny. He now had a formidable force of Cheshire archers, and Parliament had, at his request, redefined interference in the royal household as treason. In July of 1397, the three original appellants were themselves appealed of treason. Warwick confessed and was banished, Arundel was executed, and Gloucester, imprisoned in Calais, died mysteriously, almost certainly on Richard’s orders.
Parliament was forced to agree to what Richard wanted by the presence of 4,000 archers with bent bows and drawn arrows. The repeal of the general pardons put most of the people of southeast England into a position where Richard could exploit them. He sold pardons, neglected to record the sales, and sold pardons to the same men (and whole counties) again; and, finally, he had blank charters (which gave complete power over the lives and fortunes of the men forced to sign them) drawn, signed, and stored for later use.
With Richard censoring all foreign mail and ordering his sheriffs to jail anyone who criticized him, Mowbray told Bolingbroke of Richard’s intention to punish them for their part in Radcot Bridge. Remembering Mowbray’s hand in the destruction of the three elder appellants, Bolingbroke reported his words to John of Gaunt, who, in turn, reported to the king. Then, it was simple for Richard to force a quarrel and banish both men.
This is the Richard and the situation with which Shakespeare begins, and when John of Gaunt condemns his nephew while praising his country, he is separating Richard from that sacred Englishness which, alone, made the king an object of veneration. He is also following history more closely than many of Shakespeare’s critics have done.
For more about Shakespeare’s historical accuracy, see Pilkington’s Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V and Marie Louise Bruce’s The Usurper King: Henry of Bolingbroke, 1366-99.)