Introduction: Richard II
Richard II opens with a dispute between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, which, badly managed by the king, results in banishment for them both. Mowbray’s is the harsher sentence, since his exile will be permanent, and his parting words on how his banishment will mean his “tongue’s is to me no more / Than an unstringed viol or harp” begin an exploration of the power of language that runs the entire length of what one critic has called the ‘Henriad’.
Henry Bolingbroke, although banished, soon returns, ostensibly to reclaim his family lands, seized by Richard from an ailing Gaunt, who, in criticising the state of Ricardian England, delivers the famous definition of his country as “A precious jewel set in a silver sea” from his deathbed. Throughout the play, Bolingbroke and Richard II are opposed, and the former shown to be a consummate Machiavellian who remains to a large extent opaque to the audience.
Richard, by contrast, is perfectly and poetically open about his feelings: an openness that makes for wonderful poetry, but also for a poor Machiavellian. His character was much beloved by romantic critics, who saw him first and foremost as a poet, and it is a rare audience indeed that feels no sympathy for the weakening king. His final long speech seeks to populate his prison with “A generation of still-breeding thoughts”, but his invention slowly turns to the realisation that although he has “the daintiness of ear / To check time broke in a disordered string”, he “for the concord of my state and time / Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.” That image of broken time, like other moments of fracture and rupture in the play, establish a legacy that haunts all the following plays, as first Henry IV and then Henry V attempt the task of, in Hal’s words, “redeeming time”.
Written entirely in verse, and occasionally in couplets, the play has its own distinctive music. It also has a distinctive history: Elizabeth I famously compared herself to Richard II, and a performance of the play was requested by the Earl of Essex in the run up to his ill-fated and abortive attempt at a rebellion in 1601.
Contributed by James Harriman-Smith