Structure and language
The play is divided into five acts and its structure is as formal as its language. It has a double complementary plot describing the fall of Richard II and the rise of Bolingbroke, later known as Henry IV. Critic John R. Elliott Jr. notes that this particular history play can be distinguished from the other history plays because it contains an ulterior political purpose. The normal structure of Shakespearean tragedy is modified to portray a central political theme: the rise of Bolingbroke to the throne and the conflict between Richard and Bolingbroke over the kingship. In acts IV and V, Shakespeare includes incidents irrelevant to the fate of Richard, which are later resolved in the future plays of the Richard II-Henry V tetralogy.
Literary critic Hugh M. Richmond notes that Richard's beliefs about the Divine Right of Kings tend to fall more in line with the medieval view of the throne. Bolingbroke on the other hand represents a more modern view of the throne, arguing that not only bloodline but also intellect and political savvy contribute to the makings of a good king. Richard believes that as king he is chosen and guided by God, that he is not subject to human frailty, and that the English people are his to do with as he pleases. Elliott argues that this mistaken notion of his role as king ultimately leads to Richard's failure. Elliot goes on further to point out that it is Bolingbroke's ability to relate and speak with those of the middle and lower classes that allows him to take the throne.
Unusually for Shakespeare, Richard II is written entirely in verse, and this is one of only four plays of his which are, the other being King John and the first and third parts of Henry VI. It thus contains no prose. There are also great differences in the use of language amongst the characters. Traditionally, Shakespeare uses prose to distinguish social classes- the upper class generally speaks in poetry while the lower classes speak in prose. In Richard II, where there is no prose, Richard uses flowery, metaphorical language in his speeches whereas Bolingbroke, who is also of the noble class, uses a more plain and direct language. In Richard II besides the usual blank verse (unrhymed pentameters) there are long stretches of heroic couplets (pairs of rhymed pentameters). The play contains a number of memorable metaphors, including the extended comparison of England with a garden in Act III, Scene iv and of its reigning king to a lion or to the sun in Act IV.
The language of Richard II is more eloquent than that of the earlier history plays, and serves to set the tone and themes of the play. Shakespeare uses lengthy verses, metaphors, similes, and soliloquies to reflect Richard's character as a man who likes to analyse situations rather than act upon them. He always speaks in tropes using analogies such as the sun as a symbol of his kingly status. Richard places great emphasis on symbols which govern his behaviour. His crown serves as a symbol of his royal power and is of more concern to him than his actual kingly duties.
The play was performed and published late in the reign of the childless Elizabeth I of England, at a time when the queen's advanced age made the succession an important political concern. The historical parallels in the succession of Richard II may not have been intended as political comment on the contemporary situation, with the weak Richard II analogous to Queen Elizabeth and an implicit argument in favour of her replacement by a monarch capable of creating a stable dynasty, but lawyers investigating John Hayward's historical work, The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie IV, a book previously believed to have taken from Shakespeare's Richard II, chose to make this connection. Samuel Schoenbaum contests that Hayward had written his work prior to Richard II, joking that "there is nothing like a hypothetical manuscript to resolve an awkwardness of chronology", as Hayward noted he had written the work several years before its publication. Hayward had dedicated his version to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and when Essex was arrested for rebellion in February 1601 Hayward had already been imprisoned, to strengthen the case against the earl for "incitement to the deposing of the Queen". That Hayward had made his dedication was fortunate for Shakespeare, otherwise he too might have lost his liberty over the affair.
Shakespeare's play appears to have played a minor role in the events surrounding the final downfall of Essex. On 7 February 1601, just before the uprising, supporters of the Earl of Essex, among them Charles and Joscelyn Percy (younger brothers of the Earl of Northumberland), paid for a performance at the Globe Theatre on the eve of their armed rebellion. By this agreement, reported at the trial of Essex by the Chamberlain's Men actor Augustine Phillips, the conspirators paid the company forty shillings "above the ordinary" (i.e., above their usual rate) to stage this play, which the players felt was too old and "out of use" to attract a large audience. Eleven of Essex's supporters attended the Saturday performance.
Elizabeth was aware of the political ramifications of the story of Richard II: according to a well-known but dubious anecdote, in August 1601 she was reviewing historical documents relating to the reign of Richard II when she supposedly remarked to her archivist William Lambarde, "I am Richard II, know ye not that?" In the same historical report the Queen is said to have complained that the play was performed forty times in "open streets and houses" but there is no extant evidence to corroborate this tale. At any rate, the Chamberlain's Men do not appear to have suffered for their association with the Essex group; but they were commanded to perform it for the Queen on Shrove Tuesday in 1601, the day before Essex's execution. She knew they had favoured Essex, but, then, so had she - once.
Themes and motifs
The King's Two Bodies
In his analysis of medieval political theology, The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz describes medieval Kings as containing two bodies: a body natural, and a body politic. The theme of the King's two bodies is pertinent throughout Richard II, from the exile of Bolingbroke to the deposition of King Richard II. The body natural is a mortal body, subject to all the weaknesses of mortal human beings. On the other hand, the body politic is a spiritual body which cannot be affected by mortal infirmities such as disease and old age. These two bodies form one indivisible unit, with the body politic superior to the body natural.
Many critics agree that in Richard II, this central theme of the king's two bodies unfolds in three main scenes: the scenes at the Coast of Wales, at Flint Castle, and at Westminster. At the coast of Wales, Richard has just returned from a trip to Ireland and kisses the soil of England, demonstrating his kingly attachment to his Kingdom. This image of kingship gradually fades as Bolingbroke's rebellion continues. Richard starts to forget his kingly nature as his mind becomes occupied by the rebellion. This change is portrayed in the scene at Flint Castle during which the unity of the two bodies disintegrates and the king starts to use more poetic and symbolic language. Richard's body politic has been shaken as his followers have joined Bolingbroke's army, diminishing Richard's military capacity. He has been forced to give up his jewels, losing his kingly appearance. He loses his temper at Bolingbroke, but then regains his composure as he starts to remember his divine side. At Flint castle, Richard is determined to hang onto his kingship even though the title no longer fits his appearance. However at Westminster the image of the divine kingship is supported by the Bishop of Carlisle rather than Richard, who at this point is becoming mentally unstable as his authority slips away. Biblical references are used to liken the humbled king to the humbled Christ. The names of Judas and Pilate are used to further extend this comparison. Before Richard is sent to his death, he "un-kings" himself by giving away his crown, sceptre, and the balm that is used to anoint a king to the throne. The mirror scene is the final end to the dual personality. After examining his plain physical appearance, Richard shatters the mirror on the ground and thus relinquishes his past and present as king. Stripped of his former glory, Richard finally releases his body politic and retires to his body natural and his own inner thoughts and griefs. Critic J. Dover Wilson notes that Richard's double nature as man and martyr is the dilemma that runs through the play eventually leading to Richard's death. Richard acts the part of a royal martyr, and due to the spilling of his blood, England continually undergoes civil war for the next two generations.
The rise of a Machiavellian king
The play ends with the rise of Bolingbroke to the throne, marking the start of a new era in England. According to historical research, an English translation of Machiavelli's The Prince might have existed as early as 1585, influencing the reign of the kings of England. Critic Irving Ribner notes that a manifestation of Machiavellian philosophy may be seen in Bolingbroke. Machiavelli wrote The Prince during a time of political chaos in Italy, and writes down a formula by which a leader can lead the country out of turmoil and return it to prosperity. Bolingbroke seems to be a leader coming into power at a time England is in turmoil, and follows closely the formula stated by Machiavelli. At the start of Richard II Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray and ulteriorly attacks the government of King Richard. He keeps Northumberland by his side as a tool to control certain constituents. From the minute Bolingbroke comes into power, he destroys the faithful supporters of Richard such as Bushy, Green and the Earl of Wiltshire. Also, Bolingbroke is highly concerned with the maintenance of legality to the kingdom, an important principle of Machiavellian philosophy, and therefore makes Richard surrender his crown and physical accessories to erase any doubt as to the real heir to the throne. Machiavelli also states that the deposed king must be killed, and Bolingbroke therefore kills Richard, showing his extreme cruelty to secure his kingly title. Since Bolingbroke is a disciple of the Machiavellian philosophy he cannot do the killing himself and employs Pierce of Exton for the killing of the deposed king and his ex-friend whose use is no longer needed. Yet, Irving Ribner still notes a few incidents where Bolingbroke does not follow true Machiavellian philosophy, such as his failure to destroy Aumerle, but such incidents are minuscule compared to the bigger events of the play. Even Bolingbroke's last statement follows Machiavellian philosophy as he alludes to making a voyage to the Holy Land, since Machiavellian philosophy states rulers must appear pious. Therefore, this particular play can be viewed as a turning point in the history of England as the throne is taken over by a more commanding king in comparison to King Richard II.