While the court is waiting for Bolingbroke and Mowbray to settle their mutual accusations of treason in the lists (that is, the place in which knights duel on horseback), John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father, has a visit from his sister-in-law, the old Duchess of Gloucester. The Duchess is the widow of Gaunt's murdered brother Thomas of Gloucester, and she has an ax to grind about Gloucester's death. She urges Gaunt to take revenge for his brother's death, out of family loyalty and a sense of justice. He also ought to act, she says, because if Gaunt lets the murder go unavenged, he will be indicating that he himself is an easy target for political assassination--showing murderers "the naked pathway to thy life" (31).
Gaunt, however, refuses to take action, saying that the two of them must leave the punishment of the murderers up to God: "Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven" (6). We also learn an important secret that Shakespeare's audiences already knew, and which looms large behind the action of Act I, scene i--and, in fact, behind the entire play: the reason Gaunt cannot take action against Gloucester's murderers is that King Richard himself is widely known to have been involved in the conspiracy to kill his uncle. Gaunt refuses to rise against Richard, not out of fear of the king's power (which, as we are beginning to see, is actually weaker than it seems), but because Gaunt believes that the King of England has been appointed by God. Treason against the king would therefore be blasphemy against God, and those wronged by the king must leave it up to God to wreak vengeance.
The Duchess, disappointed, bids Gaunt farewell as he departs to watch Bolingbroke and Mowbray fight it out in the lists. She curses both the younger noblemen--who, she believes, both had a part in the death of her husband Gloucester--and prays that both parties will die in their fight. Finally, as Gaunt leaves, she asks him to send her greetings to his brother, Edmund Duke of York (another of Richard's uncles), and to ask York to visit her at Plashy, her home near London.
This scene--a surprisingly small and intimate one after the scene of pomp and royal arbitration that has just ended--gives readers a window onto two major issues that lie behind both the action and the rhetoric of Richard II.
First is the murder of Thomas of Gloucester ("Woodstock"), the king's dead uncle, which hangs heavy over the early scenes of this play. Thomas of Gloucester--the uncle in whose murder Richard is implicated--was not a king, but he was descended from royal blood. His death casts a long shadow over the play. When the Duchess of Gloucester tries to spur Gaunt to vengeance, she reminds him, "Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one, / Were as seven vials of his sacred blood, / Or seven fair branches springing from one root" (11-13). But now Gloucester's vial has been "crack'd, and the precious liquor spilt... by envy's hand, and murder's bloody axe" (19-21). These are important and recurring metaphors for the seven sons of King Edward III. The king's "sacred blood" is an important idea in medieval and Renaissance thought, and when the Duchess urges Gaunt to take revenge, she bases her demands on the idea that his murder was both a crime against the family honor and a sin against nature and God.
John of Gaunt, however, refuses to take action against Richard. His reasoning introduces another very important theme in the play: the idea that the King is divinely appointed by God. He refuses to attack the murderers of his brother, although he, too, would like to be able to have revenge, because the person who is most to blame for Gloucester's murder is Gaunt's nephew, King Richard. Gaunt refuses to raises arms against the King, not out of loyalty to him as a relative, nor out of fear for the power of the king, but rather because he believes, as do many of the play's other characters, that the King of a nation was appointed by God, and that an act of rebellion against the king would therefore be blasphemous. If Richard has caused Gloucester's death, then Heaven must revenge it; for Richard is the Lord's "substitute," and, Gaunt says, "I may never lift / An angry arm against His minister" (40-41). Thus, the Duchess's complaint about the earlier spilling of royal blood is trumped, in Gaunt's eyes, by the fact that the murderer is himself the ultimate royal figure--the King. The question of whether it is blasphemy to mount in arms against the king will continue to be a key issue throughout the play.
The following paper topics are based on the entire play. Following each topic is a thesis and sample outline. Use these as a starting point for your paper.
In the first five scenes of Richard II, Shakespeare depicts his protagonist as a weak, capricious king with a number of less than admirable qualities. However, in later scenes Richard becomes a more sympathetic character. Write an essay that examines what we learn about King Richard’s personal qualities in each of the play’s five acts, focusing on the ways in which he changes and grows during the course of the play.
I. Thesis Statement: Although Shakespeare depicts King Richard as weak and capricious in the first five scenes of Richard II, the King becomes a more sympathetic character during the course of the play.
II. Act I
A. King Richard is revealed as ineffectual when he is unable to arbitrate a quarrel between two of his noblemen
B. In Scene 2, we learn that King Richard was responsible for the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester
C. In Scene 3, King Richard capriciously halts the trial by combat of Bolingbroke and Mowbray before it can begin and imposes unequal sentences of banishment on the adversaries; he banishes Bolingbroke for ten years and Mowbray for life
D. The King is flippant when he remarks that he has “plucked four away” from Bolingbroke’s sentence, and when he tells Gaunt, “Why! uncle, thou has many years to live”
E. In Scene 4, we see King Richard mocking the banished Bolingbroke; the King also reveals that he has little concern for the common citizens of his realm
F. King Richard reveals his lack of scruples when he decides to mortgage royal lands and authorizes blank checks to be written in the names of his subjects; he is shockingly callous when he expresses the hope that his uncle, John of Gaunt, will die so he can seize his estate for the crown
III. Act II
A. In Scene 1, we learn through the conversation of Gaunt and the Duke of York that King Richard is extravagant, listens only to his flattering courtiers, and cares little for wise advice; Gaunt laments that his beloved England under Richard’s reign has fallen into a perilous state of decline
B. When Gaunt, on his deathbed, scolds King Richard for ordering the Duke of Gloucester’s murder and bringing England to the brink of financial ruin, the King, unable to accept criticism, becomes furious and calls his uncle a “lunatic, lean-witted fool”
C. After the news is brought of Gaunt’s death, Richard, without considering the potential consequences, seizes Gaunt’s estate to finance his Irish campaign, disinheriting Henry Bolingbroke
D. Richard callously ignores the Duke of York’s warning that in seizing Gaunt’s estate he is challenging the entire system of inheritance that made him King
E. We learn in the conversation between Northumberland, Willoughby, and Ross that Richard has been “basely led by flatterers”; we also learn that he has imposed unpopular fines and taxes on the nobles and commoners and has lost the respect and allegience of many of his countrymen
F. In Act II, Scene 2, the Queen reveals that Richard, despite his many faults, is a man who is loved and missed; her concern for her “sweet Richard” represents a turning point in the way the King is depicted and casts him in a more sympathetic light
IV. Act III
A. Richard returns to England after his Irish campaign a changed man; in Scene 2, he expresses a love of his native land
B. Confronted by a series of disasters—the loss of his Welsh army, Bolingbroke’s growing strength, and the capture and execution of his favorites—Richard reveals a new dimension to his nature: he emerges as a sensitive, imaginative poet-philosopher who muses eloquently about the “death of kings” and the “hollow crown”
C. In this same speech, Richard reveals that he is an ordinary man who suffers as well as a king when he comments poignantly to his remaining supporters: “I live with bread like you, feel want,/ Taste grief, need friends” (175-176)
D. Realizing his cause is lost, Richard generously releases his remaining soldiers “To ear the land that hath some hope to grow” (212)
E. In Scene 3, King Richard, eloquent in defeat, contemplates exchanging the trappings of his kingship for an austere religious life; he anticipates martyrdom and an “obscure grave”
V. Act IV
A. Richard, called before Parliament to formally abdicate, emphasizes his personal sorrow at being forced to renounce his throne
B. Richard reveals defiant courage when he stresses that Bolingbroke is a traitorous usurper
C. Although Richard carefully stage manages his abdication and reveals a keen sense of the theatrical when he passes the crown to Bolingbroke and smashes a mirror, his grief and sense of loss are genuine; he emerges as a sympathetic figure
VI. Act V
A. In Scene 1, Richard’s parting with his Queen reveals his newfound sense of humility and his genuine affection for his wife
B. The Duke of York’s tale of Richard’s entry into London in Scene 2 shows that Richard had dealt courageously with his adversity
C. Richard’s soliloquy in Scene 5 reveals the former king as a poetic dreamer who has been changed for the better by his misfortunes; his experiences have brought him self-knowledge
D. Richard attacks the men who have come to murder him, winning the admiration of Sir Pierce of Exton, who praises his valor
VII. Conclusion: Although Shakespeare, in Richard II, depicts King Richard as weak and unscrupulous early in the play, the King’s poetic eloquence and courage in dealing with adversity establish him as a more attractive figure as the play progresses; ultimately he engages our sympathy and assumes the dimensions of a tragic hero.
In Act III, Scene 4 of Richard II, the Master Gardener comments to one of his men: “Go, bind thou up young dangling apricocks,/ Which like unruly children make their sire/ Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.” (29-31) He thus underscores one of the thematic motifs of the play: the disparity between the values and virtues of fathers and sons. Write an essay in which you examine the differences between Edward the Black Prince and King Richard, John of Gaunt and Henry Bolingbroke, Bolingbroke and Prince Hal, and the Duke of York and the Duke of Aumerle.
I. Thesis Statement: Although the blood of inheritance is mentioned frequently in Richard II, sons are often unlike their fathers as Shakespeare reveals in his descriptions or depictions of Edward the Black Prince and King Richard, John of Gaunt and Henry Bolingbroke, Bolingbroke and Prince Hal, and the Duke of York and the Duke of Aumerle.
II. King Richard and his father
A. In Act II, Scene 1, John of Gaunt refers to King Richard’s illustrious ancestry several times; he comments on England’s “royal kings/ Feared by their breed, and famous by their birth,/ Renownèd for their deeds” (51-53) and remarks that King Richard has disgraced his grandfather and father by his irresponsible financial policies, and by ordering the Duke of Gloucester’s murder
B. In this same scene, the Duke of York compares King Richard to his father and tells the King he has inherited few of his father’s noble qualities: “His face thou hast …/ But when he frowned it was against the French,/ And not against his friends; his noble hand/ Did win what he did spend, and spend not that/ Which his triumphant father’s hand had won;/ His hands were guilty of no kindred blood,/ But bloody with the enemies of his kin” (176; 178-183)
III. John of Gaunt and Bolingbroke
A. In Act I, Scene 1, Bolingbroke reveals his rebellious nature when he defies his father by refusing to throw down the Duke of Norfolk’s gage; although the father-son relationship is loving and respectful, we learn that there are significant differences between the two men
B. In Act I, Scene 2, we learn that Gaunt respects Richard’s divine right to the throne; he argues that the King’s actions can be reckoned with only by God, yet Bolingbroke, in the previous scene, had challenged the King by accusing him indirectly of Gloucester’s murder
C. Gaunt, although saddened by his son’s impending exile, respects Richard’s sentence of banishment and has counseled the King as an impartial judge rather than a father; Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is bitter at his sentence and refuses to accept it philosophically as his father urges him to do
D. When he returns to England with an army, Bolingbroke...
(The entire section is 3586 words.)