King Richard the Second

Shakespeare wrote King Richard the Second in ~1595, the first of four plays comprising his second historical tetralogy, the Henriad:

Richard II, tragic history
Henry IV-1, comedy (introduces Falstaff)
Henry IV-2, comedy
Henry V, epic

Originally considered a Tragedie, by the time of the first folio in 1623, Richard II had become known simply as one of the histories, documenting Richard’s reign in the last quarter of the 14th Century.

Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (second edition 1587) likely served as a source for Shakespeare’s histories, and also for the plot of Macbeth and for portions of King Lear. Another source for the Henriad was likely Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke, commonly called Hall’s Chronicle. It commences at the end of the historical period of the play, with the death of Richard II and the rise of Henry IV to the throne in 1399.

Shakespeare’s dramatic language was likely influenced by John Lily’s Uephues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578). Shakespeare further borrowed inspiration for some of his comedies from Lyly’s plays. Lyly’s Elizabethan literary devices, alliteration, antitheses, rhetorical questions and other ornate, deliberate excesses, are raised to their highest form in Shakespeare’s use. Shakespeare also reached back to the ancient classics for devices such as antilabe and stichomythia, to vary the pace and structure of his language. All these devices seem continuously recycled through the plays, but one never senses a repetition.

Richard II is a rarity, a Shakespeare history written entirely in verse. It becomes unique as a history for its large sections of rhyming heroic couplets. The play has a mirror structure, a double complementary plot following simultaneously the fall of Richard and rise of Bolingbroke (Henry !V). The two have different concepts of what it means to be King, one based in antiquity, the other more modern. This conflict of past and future generates some of the tension of the present.

Other Shakespeare devices encountered in Richard II include frauenlieder, Biblical allusion, metaphor, image clusters, and alternating public/private scenes. Frauenlieder is a medieval literary device, likely of Anglo-Saxon origin, in which a woman poetically mourns her loss, as sub-text to the main action that creates the loss. When the loss is understood as the work of God, the arc of grief is brief, the soul bared and prostrate on the ground where it falls. But when the loss is due to the treachery of man, the arc of grief more resembles a bouncing ball, each bounce reaching a higher pitch of anguished fury.

Those familiar with Biblical passages will find many allusions in Shakespeare. The concept of Eden, sibling rivalry and fratricide, proverbs, and countless other elements will strike a familiar chord at first hearing. The Book of Homilies just preceded Shakespeare’s time (1571). Along with the Book of Common Prayer (1549) and the English language Bible (1535), these volumes had enabled the common people to become familiar with liturgy. In using Biblical allusions to augment discourse on political theater and life’s comic absurdities, Shakespeare found a ready connection to his audiences.

Metaphor is a persistent Shakespeare device, a candle as measure of a life, England as Eden, the King as physician to the body politic.

Richard understands his rule as by Divine RIght. He is England, the annointed one, as one with the land, as disconnected from the commoners as is God. Henry is the more pragmatic, understanding that he is a part of the body politic and derives some of his powers from approval of the common people.

The royalty and its aristocracy commanded very different public and private voices, symbolic of the body politic and of the natural body. Shakespeare exploits this contrast by staging a public scene of theatric spectacle and ritualized posturing, then following with a private scene in which we see the characters deal with each other in the context of the natural body and learn their true motivations. This alternation continues throughout Richard II.

When a king assumes the crown, he subordinates the natural body to the body politic. This is a painful conversion for a moral man, for the cost is some of one’s humanity. Each alternating public/private scene captures one side of a king’s dual identity. In the wider view, there is an identity transition from body politic to natural body and vice versa spanning the arc of each king’s trajectory through the play, culminating in the exchange of the crown.


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