Summer/Fall 2008

Discover More

Stuff that Happen
Stuff that Happens BEFORE the play
  • Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester and uncle of King Richard II, is imprisoned and murdered.
Stuff that Happens IN the Play
  • Richard’s cousin Henry Bullingbrook, the Duke of Hereford, accuses Thomas Mowbray of plotting Gloucester’s death.
  • Mowbray denies the accusation and in turn charges Bullingbrook with treason. Richard decrees that Bullingbrook and Mowbray must settle their bitter dispute by mortal combat.
  • Before the combat begins, Richard changes his mind and banishes the feuding Dukes instead: Bullingbrook for ten years (later reduced to six), Mowbray for life. Both swear they will never plot against the king.
  • While discussing the need to raise money for wars in Ireland, Richard learns that Bullingbrook’s father, John of Gaunt, is “grievous sick.”
  • Before he dies, Gaunt speaks of his love of England and accuses Richard of gross misrule.
  • Richard seizes Gaunt’s wealth and lands, thus robbing Bullingbrook of his inheritance.
  • Richard departs for Ireland, leaving the Duke of York (Richard and Bullingbrook’s uncle) in charge of England.
  • Rejecting his sentence of banishment, Bullingbrook returns from exile to reclaim his rightful inheritance. The Earl of Northumberland and other lords rush to his side.
  • York confronts Bullingbrook, but claims to “remain neuter” in the conflict between his nephews Richard and Bullingbrook.
  • Accusing them of misleading the King, Bullingbrook executes two of Richard’s favorites: Bushy and Green, “the caterpillars of the commonwealth.”
  • Richard returns from Ireland, hears his troops have deserted him, and takes refuge at Flint Castle to “pine away.”
  • Bullingbrook and his supporters stumble upon Richard at Flint Castle, where Bullingbrook insists that he is not trying to dispose Richard; “I come,” he claims, “but for mine own.” Richard replies, “Your own is yours and I am yours and all.”
  • Bullingbrook and Richard return to London.
  • Abdication, imprisonment, and assassination ensue.
Notes from the Director
The king of language

The glory and the great failing of King Richard II in Shakespeare’s play is that he lives entirely in his language. Richard uses language to make a world, to create and recreate his own story; until his death, he translates everything that happens – even his deposition – into the “Poem of Richard.” The result is a play at odds with competing realities. The play opens with the promise of an exciting physical contest – a jousting match to the death between Mowbray and Bullingbrook. That is the story that wants to be told, and the story than an audience expects to see, but it is not Richard’s story, so – though the death of either of the contestants would be to his benefit – Richard co-opts the moment and banishes the two men, stealing the big scene from them and from the audience. Shakespeare’s genius makes us glad Richard steals the scene.

This penchant for stealing the scene may explain one of the oddest things about this play and the central event, the usurpation of the English throne by Henry Bullingbrook. In Shakespeare’s play Bullingbrook never actually takes the crown; Richard’s poetry gives it to him. Richard is the one who makes the usurpation inevitable by assuming the worst – “Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all” – and stage-manages his own deposition (the event that prompted Queen Elizabeth I to say “I am Richard II”). Historically, the political reality of Bullingbrook’s victory certainly meant that Richard would lose the crown, but Shakespeare’s play mutes thatreality and shows us Richard giving the crown rather than Henry’s taking it. The scene, the act, the language, and the play are Richard’s. Even when he is a self-pitying drama queen, his language is rich and clear.

Let’s talk of graves of works, and epitaphs
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

The image is surprising and brilliant and over the top – too clever, too artificial, too surreal for us to trust the speaker. And when, later in the speech, he invites his lords to “sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings,” he confirms our sense of his having a “poor pitiful me” party.

But then he looks around him at his followers and, almost as if his own language forces him to find a more truthful place, he concludes:

I live with bread like you,
Feel want, taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus
How can you say to me I am a king?

here is a man coming to plainest terms with the limits of kingship; here is a man well on the way to his final wisdom: that “I…with nothing will be pleased till [I] be eased / with being nothing.

Here, too, is a playwright who has begun the philosophical journey that will lead him to King Lear. 

ralph alan cohen

Director of Mission