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Richard II

William Shakespeare


Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Some readers and critics feel that Henry Bolingbroke and Richard are presented as opposites. How are the parallels between Richard and Bolingbroke presented?

Most of the characters in the play agree that Richard is a bad leader, and we can see why: he mismanages his country's budget, is out of touch with the common people, creates friction among his relatives, and leaves the country at exactly the wrong moment. On the other hand, Bolingbroke succeeds in returning from exile, building good foreign relations, obtaining the loyalty of Richard's noblemen, and winning the love of the common folk. He is also a plain-spoken man of action, in comparison to Richard's poetic virtuosity and ineffectiveness in practical matters. We see them explicitly contrasted in several scenes: for example, when York recounts the ride into the city of London, during which the people cheered Bolingbroke but dumped dust and rubbish on Richard's head (V.ii.4-40). It is, of course, ironic that the two are first cousins.

The critic Harold Bloom says that Richard is a bad king, but "an interesting metaphysical poet." What do you think he means?

Richard's power with words is unmatched by any other character in the play. He uses the kinds of highly complicated metaphors and analogies that critics sometimes call "metaphysical conceits." These conceits involve, first, drawing a comparison between an object or person at hand and an apparently unrelated object, and, second, working out the details of the correspondence and adding extra twists. Bloom compares Richard's speeches in this play to the later work of the great seventeenth-century metaphysical poet John Donne.

The play contains many examples of Richard's "metaphysical poetry." Some of the more famous ones include: his frequent comparisons of his kingship to the rising sun, as in the speech he gives when he lands in Wales (III.ii.36-53); his comparison of the human body to a walled castle, which Death may nonetheless conquer with the mere prick of a pin (III.ii.160-170); his comparison of himself and Bolingbroke to two buckets full of water, which rise and fall in opposition, balanced on the fulcrum of the crown (IV.i.182-189); and his comparison of his own body to a clock, which now ticks away the minutes of his sadness (V.v.49-60).

Bloom also suggests that Richard's two roles, as poet and king, "are antithetical, so that his kingship diminishes even as his poetry increases" (249). As Richard loses control over his country and his own destiny, his speeches do become much longer and his ideas and wordplay more complex.

What is the role of women in the play?

Women seem to have very little importance in the play--the world of Richard II is a world of men. The few female characters (Queen Isabel, the Duchess of York, the Duchess of Gloucester) appear mainly to plead on behalf of their male relatives or loved ones (like the Duchess of York, who begs Bolingbroke for Aumerle's life), or are simply buffeted by fate (like Isabel).

Discuss the importance of the curses and prophecies that appear throughout Richard II.

Beginning with John of Gaunt's thunderous curse upon Richard in Act II, scene i, and reaching its peak with the Bishop of Carlisle's prophecy of civil war if Bolingbroke seizes the crown (IV.i), foretellings of evil are a running theme in the play. Since kingship was associated with divine power in medieval and Renaissance Europe, its abuse or theft, it was thought, could bring dire retribution from the heavens. Richard is followed by threats of cosmic vengeance during the play's first half both because he has mismanaged his country by renting out land and because of the guilty skeleton in his closet: his involvement in the murder of his uncle Gloucester. In the second half of the play, Bolingbroke becomes the target of these prophecies because he is now guilty (in some characters' eyes) of stealing the crown from the rightful king--an act tantamount to blasphemy.

Richard II is almost completely written in verse. What effect do you think this has?

The formal, stylized language is characteristic of much of Shakespeare's earlier work. When the characters speak in this rigidly formal way--often speaking entire passages in rhyming couplets--we are often impressed but also distanced from the play and its characters: it feels somehow unreal. Partly as a result of the play's highly formal style, most people find that they cannot identify closely with any of its characters.

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