Vying for someone else’s throne seems a popular pastime for the daunting, dysfunctional family of Edward III. His progeny embroiled the family tree for eighty-six years, from Richard II’s usurpation in 1399 to the death of Richard III in 1385, the Richards forming brackets around the entire turmoil, the Henries in between. Another Henry, a Tudor, saves the day, vanquishing Richard III and becoming Henry VII, grandfather of Elizabeth Regina, Shakespeare’s queen.
Thus, it is no surprise that in Richard II Shakespeare portrays Henry Bolingbroke as single-minded, ambitious, methodical, just, justified in reclaiming his inheritance through military means, and loved by the commoners. In contrast, Richard appears poetic, philosophical, and melodramatic, but sneaky, weak, imperious, and despised. What Shakespeare neglects, however, is the prior history of these cousins, whose births to royal brothers four months apart set the stage for family drama as well as national. The incident at Coventry was not the first time the sons and grandsons of Edward III grappled for power.
Edward III’s successor should have been Edward, the Black Prince, England’s most beloved military hero, with victories throughout France during the early years of the Hundred Years’ War. Alas, he developed an unknown chronic illness, so he returned to England in 1371 with his wife and sons, six-year-old Edward and four-year-old Richard. The boy Edward died the following year. Over the next five years, the Black Prince’s illness worsened, King Edward III fell to waste after the death of his wife, and John of Gaunt assumed administration of the government.
Fearing for the vulnerability of his son, the Black Prince called the Good Parliament of 1376, where he insisted that both his father and his brother Gaunt recognize Richard as legitimate heir and present the now nine-year-old to Parliament to be ratified as heir presumptive. The Black Prince shortly died, and within a year King Edward also perished.
Ten-year-old Richard assumed the throne, but under a protectorate headed by Uncle Gaunt. Cousin Henry, Richard’s playmate and rival from childhood, was the eldest son of this ambitious father who would never be king, but whose lineage occupied the throne of England—later Scotland, too—for 307 years, until the death of Queen Anne. Henry undoubtedly learned from his father the importance of and ambition for being a king rather than just serving a king.
Richard eventually wriggled out of his uncles’ control by transposing his dependency to sycophants of his own choosing, who by indulging his whims shared in the power and plenitude of the king’s inner circle. He supported a court more interested in art, culture, and fine living than in warfare, conquest, and claims on distant courts, except to feed the exchequer. He led an extravagant life, along with his band of retainers; his challengers he treated brutally; and the counsel of his uncles, he ignored. The populace suffered with his inordinate taxation for his own comfort and amusement.
In response, another uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, gathered a group of nobles, the Lords Appellant, who sought to limit Richard’s profligate and tyrannical reign by condemning and executing his associates. They perpetrated an armed rebellion in 1387, captured and executed Richard’s cronies, and left Richard as titular king only. When Gaunt returned after two years in Spain, he supported Richard’s birthright as king and helped him regain some power.
Ten years later—1397—we are now ready to enter Shakespeare’s play and watch Richard’s botched revenge against the Lords Appellant. The chief Appellant is the same Gloucester whose murder constitutes the argument of Richard II, act 1, scenes 1 and 2. Richard’s modus operandus as double-dealing stage manager appears in act 1, scene 1 when Bolingbroke and Mowbray trade accusations and gauges. Unable to calm their fury, even with Gaunt’s support, he chooses a date and place for their contest, a theatrical production. At Convetry, after long, rhymed, ritualistic formalities to begin the duel, Richard dramatically “throw[s] his warder down” (1.3.117; all line references are to G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), then proclaims that “with our Council” (124)—i.e., Gaunt, Henry’s father—we have decided to banish Henry for ten years (141) and Mowbray forever (151).
The greatest of Henry’s complaints against Mowbray is “that he did plot the duke of Gloucester’s death” and incite its commission (1.1.100–105). Mowbray denies the charge, adding, “but to my own disgrace / Neglected my sworn duty in that case” (1.1.134). “Sworn duty” to whom? To Richard, perhaps?
Both Bolingbroke and Mowbray had joined the Lords Appellant and participated in the rebellion. Now, during the intervening ten years, Richard has purchased Mowbray’s loyalty to Gloucester and Henry with the dukedom of Norfolk and perhaps also the money Henry accuses Mowbray of purloining. Mowbray explains, “Three parts of that receipt I had . . . / Disburs’d I duly to his Highness’ soldiers; / The other part reserv’d I by consent, / For that my sovereign liege was in my debt” (1.1.126–29). “In my debt” for what? Changing sides?
As Mowbray turns to go, understandably shocked at the severity of his punishment, Richard calls him back to swear an oath with Henry never to meet in exile and never to collaborate in any action against either England or its king—as they had done ten years before as Lords Appellant. Mowbray takes the oath, then leaves. Richard reduces Henry’s exile to six years, ostensibly to comfort Uncle Gaunt—which compassion is belied in the next scene when, on news of Gaunt’s illness, Richard wishes him to his grave to bequeath his coffers to fund the Irish wars.
In act 2, scene 1, the ailing Gaunt and his brother, Edmund, Duke of York, commiserate over the sad state England has come to and Richard’s immunity to counsel. “England,” utters Gaunt, after his stirring paean to his island home, “is now bound in with shame, / . . . / That England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (2.1.61–66). In the ensuing lines, despite Richard’s flippancy and disrespect, Gaunt chastises the avarice of the king and his “flatterers” and rebukes Richard for his part in Gloucester’s death. Then his attendants carry him out of the room, where he immediately dies. Richard responds, “So much for that” (2.1.155), then confiscates Gaunt’s entire estate to fund his wars and follies.
Shakespeare sends Richard to Ireland to allow Henry to return to England with the help of the French, wildly supported by the populace, for with Richard’s confiscation of his property (i.e., “overtaxation”), he is now one of them. In this second half of the play, Richard is pure drama-king—kissing the ground on his return to England, philosophizing on the heavenly protection of kings, poetically bemoaning the demise of his cronies (“Let us talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” [3.2.145]), declaiming from the walls of Flint Castle. He capitulates; he changes his mind. His tropes become more flowery and allusive. He utters long, gorgeous passages of self-indulgent woe; he smashes the mirror; he plays with the crown.
Richard’s complete collapse is bothersome, yet in the context of the Lords Appellant, it is déjà vu: He has been stripped of power before and knows the futility of struggling against his cousin and the Appellants. This time Uncle Gaunt, Henry’s father, cannot subdue his son and rescue Richard. Through Henry, the Appellants rise again, to avenge the death of their leader, Gloucester, and to end forever Richard’s extravagant rule. Henry’s descendants on England’s throne will last only three generations; but through his Beaufort half-brother, John of Gaunt’s progeny will reign for centuries. Henry’s usurping Richard’s throne made possible the Tudor dynasty. Tudors, huzzah! Richard, R.I.P.