England's "landlord king"
Something is rotten in denmark, oops, i mean london. the duke of gloucester is dead, and two leaders in king richard's court--henry bolingbroke and thomas mowbray--are accusing each other of the crime. richard orders bolingbroke and mowbray to a trial by combat. as the fight is about to begin, richard changes his mind. instead of trial by combat, he banishes both nobles from his kingdom, mowbray for life, and bolingbroke for a period of six years. thus begins "richard ii." unlike shakespeare's flamboyant and charismatic richard iii, richard ii is a subtle introverted character, but equally as compelling. richard iii is outrageous, an explosion of character. richard ii is mysterious and inscrutable, a smoldering fire. what follows is a plot summary. after their banishment, the truth emerges: it was richard who ordered gloucester's death, in order to seize his wealthy estate. in fact, richard has been bleeding the kingdom dry through heavy taxation of the commoners and enforced loans of the nobility. having banished bolingbroke, richard is now free to seize the estate of bolingbroke's father, john of gaunt, who is near death. from his deathbed, john of gaunt accuses richard of being "landlord . . . and not king." in one of shakespeare's most famous speeches, john of gaunt says of england's plight under richard ii: "this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, / this earth of majesty, this seat of mars . . . this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this england . . . is now leased out . . . that england, that was wont to conquer others, / hath made a shameful conquest of itself." against the advice of his senior staff, including the powerful lord northumberland, richard seizes john of gaunt's estate in order to finance for his military campaign against ireland. while he is off fighting the irish, bolingbroke returns to england, joins forces with northumberland, and marches to berkeley castle. sick of heavy taxation, the country rises in his favor. bolingbroke's avowed purpose of merely reclaiming his father's estate is soon replaced with talk of being king. when richard returns, he learns his country has turned against him, and laments: "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 us sit upon the ground / and tell sad stories of the death of kings." richard is soon arrested by bolingbroke's men. back in london, he yields the crown without a fight. imprisoned, richard's introverted nature comes to the fore. he counters his loneliness by creating thoughts with which to "people the world." he sees his body as the "prison" for his soul and acknowledges the fragmented nature of his identity, commenting that "thus play i in one prison many people, / and none contented. sometimes am i king; / then treason makes me wish myself a beggar, / and so i am. then crushing penury / persuades me i was better when a king. / then am i kinged again, and by and by / think am i unkinged by bolingbroke . . . ." richard is murdered by sir pierce of exon, a crime mourned by king henrey iv who may or may not have ordered it. henry iv's troubles are just beginning, however, and taken up in shakespeare's next play, "1 henry iv." "richard ii" is a very rare example of shakespeare writing a play entirely in verse. it's a play that's "more admired on page than on stage" (as one critic has it). according to director claus peymann, richard ii is a hamlet come to power. according to actress fiona shaw, the play is about richard's journey to wisdom, who too late realizes the error of his ways and becomes more human and thus wins our sympathy. according to another critic, richard's biggest mistake was his failure to recognize that the first duty of a king is to make sure he stays in power. final word: the rsc shakespeare edition of richard ii is chuck full of information about the staging of the play. chapters include: "richard ii in performance: the rsc and beyond," plus a scene-by-scene analysis. the introduction by jonathan bate is highly recommended. five stars