Sentimental, inept, vacillating, insecure, and incompetent, Shakespeare’s Richard II is easily one of the playwright’s most problematic tragic heroes. And yet, historically, this man who reigned over England for more than twenty-two years seems to have exhibited his weaknesses only in the last year or two of his reign. But it is Richard, the fallen king, whom Shakespeare focuses on in Richard II, and it is his fundamental character weakness which most fascinates both the author and the audience.
Richard II is neither the “elvish’-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog” that Richard III is nor the “false face” which must hide what “false heart doth know” that Macbeth is. Likewise, he is not simply a misguided, childish man who “should not have been old ‘til [he] had been wise,” like King Lear. Indeed, Richard is a special case.
He is a man who intends, for the most part, to do well, but whose actions are at best foolish and at worst malicious, making him in many ways, as Harold Goddard puts it, “the most subtle piece of psychological analysis” in all the history plays (The Meaning of Shakespeare, vol. 1 [University of Chicago Press, 1965], 148). A man whose imagination controls him, he is enchanted with words. Yet, at the same time, he seems to be a man who has failed to make the connection between symbol and reality.
On the one hand, at a absolutely critical time of action, Richard philosophizes about the job of a king: “Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs, / Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. / Let’s choose executors and talk of wills; / And yet not so, for what can we bequeath / Save our deposed bodies to the ground? . . . / For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings: / How some have been depos’d, some slain in war, / Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed, / Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d, / All murdered” (3.2.145-50, 155-60). Fond words, indeed, but not very useful when one is in the midst of battle. And it is not that Richard is cowardly, but rather that he is incapable of decisive action when it is most required.
On the other hand, Richard is capable of decisive action at the least appropriate times. When his uncle, John of Gaunt, is dying, Richard’s response is to heap insult upon insult on the old man, finally calling him “a lunatic lean-witted fool” (2.1.115). And upon the death of Gaunt, Richard seizes all the man’s property and wealth to enrich the coffers of the king. It is precisely this action that forces Gaunt’s banished son, Bolingbroke, to return to England. And it is the return of Bolingbroke that precipitates the usurpation of Richard.
So we have in this play, a tragic hero who, while capable of action, is incapable of good judgment. At the very least, a king under attack cannot afford to “sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.155-56). The circumstances require action, not poetic reflection. and likewise a nephew, no matter what his position is in the kingdom nor his feelings about his uncle, ought not to attach a dying man. Human compassion for any individual tells us that.
As Herschel Baker so succinctly puts it, Richard II “records the deposition of a king who shows himself unfit to rule. To regard Richard as sentimentally as he regards himself is to ignore what Shakespeare is at pains to underscore: that whereas rebellion is a crime, kingship is a sacred burden” (The Riverside Shakespeare [Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974], 801). And no kingdom can afford a man who merely plays at the job of king.
But to excuse Bolingbroke completely for usurping the crown from Richard is to miss one of the most complex issues in this play. For here we have in Richard a king who is so clearly incompetent as to be dangerous. But Bolingbroke's usurpation will inevitably lead to equally dangerous consequences for the kingdom. As Henry IV, Bolingbroke is confronted with rebellion after rebellion within the kingdom. What we have here is, quite simply, the problem of doing the wrong thing--usurping the crown--for the wrong reason. And the result is political chaos for the English people from l399 to l485. Even the apparently peaceful reign of Henry V, according to Shakespeare, seems to be the result of distracting those responsible for internal unrest in the kingdom by making war on France.
So we return to our original statement: Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most problematic tragic heros. If, as Aristotle has suggested, a tragic hero is a highly renowned man or woman whom we admire and who falls from a position of esteem to a position of disgrace as a result of a flaw in his or her own character, can we call Richard II a tragic figure? Certainly, he is famous; he is the king of England at the outset of the play.
Certainly, he falls from grace, surrendering the crown to Bolingbroke and ultimately being murdered in the Tower of London. Certainly, he is an enormously flawed human being, incapable of distinguishing between symbols and the things for which symbols stand, between word and deed. But the real question is whether or not he is the kind of figure whom we can admire. For over three hundred and fifty years, critics have struggled with that very question. Is Richard II tragic or pathetic? And it is to Shakespeare’s credit that no definitive answer has ever been given. It is precisely because Shakespeare’s Richard II, like most of his plays, raises more questions than it answers that we will find the play intriguing centuries after it was composed. But then, as Chekhov has pointed out, the obligation of the writer is not to propose answers but to pose questions. If, indeed, Chekhov is correct, it is easy to see why this play, like nearly all the Shakespeare’s plays, is popular today and will be in the future as well.