As you may expect the play centers around the character of Richard II. He is the emotional and psychological heart
of the piece. His centrality is achieved in part by the large allocation of textual space; Richard says a great deal throughout.
However what Richard says is just as important as how much he says.
Although he is the King, what he talks about is much more his own private feelings and emotions. Richard is
reflective, introspective, meditative and passive. He ponders his predicament in long speeches which are personal reveries
rather than conversations with the other actors upon the stage.
Richard provokes a sympathetic response from the audience to his fate; but the order in which Shakespeare reveals
the various facets of Richard's character is vital in winning this sympathy.
The audience's view of Richard goes through three stages as follows:
But Duplicitous King:
As monarch Richard is the
source of law and order, and it is fulfilling this role that Richard is introduced in Act I Scene 1. We meet him whilst he
is dealing with the quarrel between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. He speaks royally and powerfully. He is impartial
and authoritative and when he orders the appellants to appear at Coventry his orders are followed.
However before the scene at Coventry, Act 1 Scene 2 draws in to question the impression that Richard has made upon
the audience when we learn from Gaunt that Richard himself was involved in Gloucester's murder, the subject of the quarrel
in the first scene, so far from being an impartial judge as we first believed, Richard himself is implicated in the murder.
Richard's involvement may be why in Act I Scene 3 Richard abruptly stops the contest and banishes both Henry and
Mowbray. Each poses a threat to him. Mowbray knows the truth about Richard's involvement and is therefore dangerous and Richard
is suspicious of Henry's ambition. By banishing both he hopes to prevent Mowbray from revealing what he knows and to preserve
himself from Henry's aspirations for the throne.
The misgivings that the audience start to feel about Richard continue when he is presented in a private conversation
with his close friends in Act I Scene 4. There is not now the pressure of scenes 1 and 3 of Act I to put on a public performance,
to act the role of King to his public, and the result is a dismaying comedown.
Richard appears petulant, resentful, callous, even prepared to act illegally to finance his Irish campaign. This
revelation of Richard's private character prepare the audience to believe the criticisms thrown at him by Gaunt in the next
scene (Act II Scene 1); and when on Gaunt's death, Richard seizes all of his money and land, all of the suspicions that have
been building up are confirmed. Richard is indeed a King without any of Gaunt's or York's sense of duty. He acknowledges no
bond between King and subject; he thinks he can banish Henry without consequence; supposes he may farm his realm without any
comeback and robs Gaunt with impunity. Gaunt had tried to warn him that such actions were storing up trouble for the future,
but it was in vain. When York's outburst actually shows Richard the effects his illegal actions have on his loyal subjects,
Richard is simply unable to understand what he has done is wrong. "Why, uncle, what's the matter?" he asks.
It is this inability to see what is the matter that gives Henry his easy road to the throne, for Richard has alienated
all those upon whom he depends to oppose any threat to his crown. He fails to realise that however absolute and immutable
a King's title to the throne, his hold over his people is not unconditional. Effective rule requires their loyalty and support
and that has to be earned.
The Wronged King:
By the time that Richard sets off for Ireland, the play has shown us ample evidence that he is a corrupt and tyrannical
ruler. The consequences of his earlier actions are evident as Henry easily gains the allegiance of people who feel no affection
or loyalty towards their King.
This point is made repeatedly
(I.4.20 -36; II.1.246-8; III.2.112-20) During most of this process, Richard is absent from the stage. This contributes to
our sense of ease of Henry's progress, there is no monarch to oppose him, but it also ensures that when Richard returns in
Act III Scene 2 it has been some time since the audience directly witnessed his malevolence and abuse of power. Equally, the
audience very well knows what Richard is about to discover, that his position is hopeless. The effect of this arrangement
is to seperate the guilty King of the early scenes from the suffering King of the later part of the play.
Drama works through time: the evidence of Richard's failings, which explains his loss of power, now fades as, powerless,
Richard is presented as the victim of circumstances. Deprived of the scope to rule, Richard is deprived also of the scope
to misrule. He can now thus appear in a more sympathetic light.
A number of features of the later scenes contribute to this construction of a figure who can engage the audience
sympathetically and ensure that, in the last scenes of the play, Richard has no rival for the audience's attention or compassion:
With Richard's culpability confined to the beginning of the play, his maladministration is now rarely mentioned (he
does not confess publicly in Act IV as Northumberland demands.).Recollections of his guilt therefore do not complicate responses
to his suffering.
That suffering is constantly before us as Richard
repeatedly explores the agony of his mind and spirit. His severe mental turmoil is the subject of his speeches in III.2, III.3,
IV.1, V.1 and V.5, and so it his state of mind, and no longer his failing as King that demand our attention.
Because Richard's guilt is now in the background, he appears as the victim of a rebellion and a betrayal. This is
certainly his own view, which he presents by likening Henry and his followers to Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate.
Shakespeare gives Richard exceptionally evocative and haunting poetry in which to express himself, so that his thoughts
and feelings are conveyed to us far more movingly than those of any of the other characters in the play.
The role of
Richard II has thus been contrived both to allow that he was a culpable and negligent ruler and to generate a sympathetic
response to him. It would not be accurate to say either that Richard is a tyrant who deserves his loss of the throne or that
he is a victim, who is cruelly and unjustly treated. He is both - or to put it another way he is a tragic hero.