October Books 14) Richard II

14) Richard II, by William Shakespeare

After a run of comedies and tragedies, we’re back with the history plays (though this one was in fact explicitly billed on first publication as The tragedie of King Richard the second). The plot is pretty simple: King Richard II starts the play by exiling his cousin Henry, who then returns and overthrows him, with Richard killed by one of Henry’s overzealous supporters at the end.

It’s a bit different from the three Henry VI plays. Apart from the last act (which has the rather odd York/Aumerle murder conspiracy subplot), I felt that there was almost too little attention to historical detail; it’s not at all clear why Richard is so very bad, let alone why the nobles and commons desert him for Henry as rapidly as they do. Richard, indeed, is a rather sympathetic character, getting several of the better speeches in the play – while he is being overthrown, and just before he is murdered. The other famous speech, of course, is John of Gaunt’s oration about England (“this blessed spot, this earth, this realm, this England”), declaimed while waiting for Richard to turn up to Gaunt’s deathbed.

Besides the set-piece speeches, the most interesting scene is at the end of Act 3, when Richard’s Queen learns of his overthrow by listening to the gardener gossiping. (This is the third Shakespeare play in a row with people hiding in foliage – Romeo does it in Romeo and Juliet, and three of the four male leads do so in Love’s Labour’s Lost.) There are lots of good bits here but they don’t quite knit together.

The Arkangel production is decent enough – lots of big names (Rupert Graves as Richard, Julian Glover as Henry) but I actually found it rather hard to get through.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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1 Response to October Books 14) Richard II

  1. nwhyte says:


    With respect I completely disagree. Your distinction between “English majors” (which as a matter of fact I am not and have never been) and “normal folk” is misleading. If a writer chooses to add a bit of flavour by using Jupiter as a setting, or archaic English as a means of expression, they should know what they are doing to the point that readers who know about Jupiter or archaic English are not put off. Otherwise it is simply sloppy work.

    Truly great literature can get away with bending these rules sometimes, but I haven’t seen even Sullivan’s defenders arguing that Theft of Swords is truly great literature (indeed one or two of them openly admit that it is not).

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