Richard II (~1595) by William Shakespeare

I’m not sure why this play is such a lesser-known and less popular work of Shakespeare’s, when it’s coherent in its own regard (like Richard III) without needing the other history plays as context, is full of powerful and meaningful writing, and has compelling characters and a strong focused story.

Richard II’s voice, his manner of speaking, is so poetic, lyrical, elegant, that every scene without him in it feels cruder in comparison. He perfectly embodies the glory and majesty of house Plantagenet. Yet that glory and majesty has made him opulent and weak. He is indecisive and too caught up in the illusory safety and divinity of royalty, too distant from the realities of how his power is constructed. The power of his house is more in the image, in its supposed divinity, than in any strength of character or military. He’s intelligent, but the way an artist is intelligent, not the way an all-seeing politician might best be.

Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, is. He seems the signifier of all the wars to come in how he shatters the illusion of divinity and inherent power behind the “hollow crown”. It’s debatable whether his behaviour was merely fortuitous and born of somewhat reasonable intentions, or Machiavellian and manipulative. Either way, why obey a king at all when they’ve showed such disrespect to the monarchy itself? Whether from good fortune or a sharper, politically keener mind than Richard’s, Bolingbroke sets the stage for a very different type of king to rule.

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Unlike the (chronologically) earlier Shakespeare histories I’ve read, “King John” and the apocryphal “Edward III”, “Richard II” has clarity in its thematics. The division between the spiritual and physical self plays on a micro level, with Richard contemplating his mortal body as plain in comparison to his kingly self, and a macro level, with Bolingbroke shattering the inherent divinity of the monarchy by pursuing the throne through illegal, crude, and physical means.

I give it four conspirators’ heads, and a hollow crown.

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