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.)
Ace G. Pilkington
Richard II: Shakespeare's "Perfect" History
(originally published in the Utah Shakespearean Festival Souvenir Program, 1993)
As the perfecter of the English history play, Shakespeare has shaped the version of history that many English speakers believe. In J. L. Kirby's words, "From Shakespeare, of course, we can never escape whether we wish to or not" (Henry IV of England, London: Constable, 1970, 2).
There is then a distinct irony when critics misinterpret Shakespeare's essentially accurate Richard II because they don't know enough history to understand it, because, in fact, they do not have the background which Shakespeare's original audience possessed and which he could safely take for granted. The irony deepens when these same critics, having distorted history through ignorance, accuse Shakespeare of distorting it by design. The worst offender here is E. M. W. Tillyard, who has unfortunately been influential as well as wrongheaded. Tillyard says, "Shakespeare knows that Richard's crimes never amounted to tyranny and hence that outright rebellion against him was a crime" (Shakespeare's History Plays, London: Chatto & Windus, 1951, 261).
By this interpretation, Henry Bolingbroke becomes a usurper and the Wars of the Roses a divine punishment for Henry's flouting of God's will. However, Shakespeare knew perfectly well (and showed for those who pay attention) that Richard was a tyrant who deserved to be deposed for his own evil and needed to be deposed for England's good.
The clashes between Richard and his nobles steadily escalated. The first--in 1386--involved Arundel and Thomas Duke of Gloucester and left Richard fuming under the rule of an executive commission for one year. Compelled to accept by the threat of deposition, Richard thought of asking the opposing lords to dinner and murdering them, but gave up the idea as unworkable.
The second clash came in November of 1387, when Richard challenged the commission with a royal army in Cheshire. Gloucester and Arundel joined with Warwick, swiftly bringing their own troops to London and "appealing" five of Richard's closest advisors of treason. Caught without an army of his own, Richard agreed to put the matter to Parliament.
However, when the three "appellant" lords withdrew their army, Richard let his favorites escape and summoned his Cheshire archers. Then, in December 1387, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray joined the appellants. The King's men were defeated at Radcot Bridge, and again Richard found himself pressured to agree to demands by the threat of deposition.
It took Richard ten years to prepare his revenge, building up his power to the point of tyranny. He now had a formidable force of Cheshire archers, and Parliament had, at his request, redefined interference in the royal household as treason. In July of 1397, the three original appellants were themselves appealed of treason. Warwick confessed and was banished, Arundel was executed, and Gloucester, imprisoned in Calais, died mysteriously, almost certainly on Richard's orders.
Parliament was forced to agree to what Richard wanted by the presence of 4,000 archers with bent bows and drawn arrows. The repeal of the general pardons put most of the people of southeast England into a position where Richard could exploit them. He sold pardons, neglected to record the sales, and sold pardons to the same men (and whole counties) again; and, finally, he had blank charters (which gave complete power over the lives and fortunes of the men forced to sign them) drawn, signed, and stored for later use.
With Richard censoring all foreign mail and ordering his sheriffs to jail anyone who criticized him, Mowbray told Bolingbroke of Richard's intention to punish them for their part in Radcot Bridge. Remembering Mowbray's hand in the destruction of the three elder appellants, Bolingbroke reported his words to John of Gaunt, who, in turn, reported to the King. Then, it was simple for Richard to force a quarrel and banish both men.
This is the Richard and the situation with which Shakespeare begins, and when John of Gaunt condemns his nephew while praising his country, he is separating Richard from that sacred Englishness which, alone, made the King an object of veneration. He is also following history more closely than many of Shakespeare's critics have done. (For more about Shakespeare's historical accuracy, see my Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V and Marie Louise Bruce's The Usurper King: Henry of Bolingbroke, 1366-99.)