Richard II


Shakespeare Richard II play. The Royal Shakespeare Company is directed 2013 by Gregory Doran before a live audience at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Stars actors David Tennant (King Richard II), Emma Hamilton (The Queen), Michael Pennington (John of Gaunt), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke), Oliver Ford Davies (Duke of York), Marty Cruickshank (Duchess of York), Oliver Rix (Duke of Aumerle), Jane Lapotaire (Duchess of Gloucester), Antony Byrne (Thomas Mowbray), Sam Marks (Bushy), Jake Mann (Bagot), Marcus Griffiths (Greene), Simon Thorp (Earl of Salisbury), Jim Hooper (Bishop of Carlisle), Keith Osborn (Sir Stephen Scroop), Sean Chapman (Earl of Northumberland), Edmund Wiseman (Harry Percy), Joshua Richards (Lord Ross/Gardener), Youssef Kerkour (Lord Willoughby), Gracy Goldman (Lady-in-Waiting), Miranda Nolan (Lady-in-Waiting),  and Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Groom). Musicians are Charlotte Ashley, Anna Bolton, and Helena Raeburn (sopranos); Chris Seddon, Chris Storr, and James Stretton (trumpets); and Kevin Waterman (percussion); and Bruce O'Neil (keyboard). Designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting design by Tim Mitchell; music by Paul Englishby; sound design by Martin Slavin; movement by Michael Ashcroft; fights by Terry King; company text and voice work by Lyn Darnley; assistant direction by Owen Horsley; music direction by Bruce O'Neil; casting by Helena Palmer, CDG; production management by Simon Ash; costume supervision by Stephanie Arditti; company management by Ben Tyreman; stage management by Suzi Blakey; deputy stage management by Klare Roger; assistant stage management by Charley Sargant; directed for screen by Robin Lough; screen production by John Wyver; associate production by David Gopsill. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

When a monarch has no child, there likely will be great distress following his or her death as would-be-successors fight it out for the throne. But it's even worse when a monarch has many children---then the fighting seems to never stop. King Edward III (1312 to 1377) had 5 sons (and daughters also) who survived to maturity. The story of their infighting peaked with the War of the Roses (in about 1450) and lasted until 1603, when Shakespeare was heading into retirement (The Tempest of 1610 was his last play). Shakespeare died in 1616, and the English Revolution led by Cromwell came on just 34 years later.

Richard II is the first of 4 plays Shakespeare wrote (called the Henriad) about the early struggles among the descendants of Edward III (Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V). The Henriad covers 3 kings and 45 years leading up to Henry VI and the beginning of the War of the Roses. At other times in his career, Shakespeare wrote other plays about English kings, but they are considered separately from the closely-related 4 Henriad plays.)

Shakespeare stayed out of direct involvement with the dangerous field of English politics. But his innumerable observations in the history plays about the duties and dangers of being king had to be made carefully with an eye to staying out of trouble. The history plays were of keen interest to educated persons in England. Thus Shakespeare made a contribution to the development of the British constitutional monarchy. He also became a kind of accidental historian since, it's often hard to separate fact from fiction in the plays.

Now for a brief introduction to Richard II and some screenshots.  On the death of Edward III, a grandson (through his deceased 1st-born son) became King Richard II at age 10. Richard II is now age 33. Although he is married, he has no child. He is a aesthete. He has developed a entourage of "flatterers" who are rumored to be homosexuals. With no heir apparent, the buzzards are already circling.  Three strong forces are in contention to provide a successor to Richard: the houses of Gloucester, Lancaster, and York. As the play opens, the Duke of Gloucester has just been murdered by unknown assassins. In the screenshot below, his body lies in state. His widow is weeping on the coffin. Richard's Queen has just arrived to pay respects:

Now arrives John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, below seen on the left. On the right is the Duke of York. Both believe (probably correctly) that Richard II himself was behind the death of their brother Gloucester. Both wonder who might be next:

Fighting breaks out even in the cathedral at a funeral. On the left is Henry Hereford, called hereafter "Bolingbroke," the eldest son of John of Gaunt of the house of Lancaster. Bolingbroke is an important person because, were Richard II to die without an heir, Bolingbroke would be the next in line to be King (assuming his old father, John of Gaunt, would step aside). Bolingbroke has a quarrel with Thomas Mowbray. They both seek permission to prove they are in the right by fighting a duel to the death before the King. Richard II is written in often-rhyming poetry, and Mowbray's comment to the King shown below is a good example of this:

Lady Gloucester asks John of Gaunt to get revenge for Gloucester's death and thereby protect himself. But Gaunt says he can't because Richard II is implicated. Thus the only solace for Lady Gloucester is in heaven:

The King allows Bolingbroke and Mowbray to start their duel.  But the King immediately stops it to pronounce a harsh sentence on them both. Mowbray is banished from England for life. Bolingbroke is banished for 6 years. In this manner Richard gets rid of Mowbray (who knows too much about the death of Gloucester) and Bolingbroke (who is a constant threat as the next-in-line to the throne):

John of Gaunt tries to console his son about the banishment and comes up with two famous lines:

King Richard feels he needs to make war with the Irish. He levies oppressive taxes, and this leads to Gaunt's famous patriotic speech:

And as Gaunt arises from his death bed, he curses the visiting King Richard. Immediately after Gaunt's death, Richard seizes all Gaunt's property to help pay for the Irish war. By the time Bolingbroke will get back to England from his banishment, his wealth will be gone. Richard believes he has suppressed his opposition at home and financed the Irish war. He then departs with his army to Ireland, which is, of course, relatively out-of-touch on another island:

Richard's seizure of the property of the House of Lancaster is the tipping point. Now most of the English royalists have concluded that they must, for their own safety, remove Richard as king. The royalists encourage Bolingbroke to return to England while Richard is far away in Ireland. Bolingbroke returns claiming he is only interested in the return of his inheritance. But everyone knows the real objective is to force Richard to abdicate, which will make Bolingbroke the new king. While Richard is in Ireland, the Duke of York is in charge as Richard's deputy at home. But he is all but powerless to stop Bolingbroke. York explains his frustration to the Queen:


Bollingbroke  arrests the King's friends Bushy and Green. He will execute them mostly for their role in banishing him.  But he also condemns them for "sinful hours" that have come between the King and Queen, i.e., their homosexuality:

On arriving back in England from Ireland, the King soon learns that most of the royalists have gone over to Bolingbroke. His main defence now is poetry, at which he proves himself to be grandly capable:


The King bestows a kiss on Aumerle, a Duke of the House of York, for his loyalty:

The King tries to resign the throne quietly by sending the Duke of York with word that Bolingbroke may now . . . :


But the Bishop of Carlisle, Richard's chief supporter, puts up a brave show of resistance:

The Bishop makes a prophecy destined to come true, especially in the War of the Roses:

The Bishop complains that Richard legally cannot be deposed in absentia. So Richard is brought to the court in person:

Bolingbroke hypocritically asks Richard if he wishes to renounce the crown. This produces a torrent of poetry from Richard designed to exasperate Bolingbroke and leave him dumbfounded:

Richard is taken to a remote castle prison where he can't cause trouble. Richard's horse groom finds a way to visit for a few moments. Richard is distressed that King Henry is now riding Richard's favorite steed. Richard, daydreaming about his horse, comes up with perhaps the most famous saying from Richard II:

Soon thereafter another visitor comes in with a knife:

The Shakespeare history plays move fast. But they are surprisingly easier to understand than the comedies or tragedies, because the histories have few jokes or complicated word plays. These few screenshots miss, of course, many characters and scenes. In this drama, the women have little to do but grieve. But Shakespeare knows like no one else how to write lamentations.

If you watch this cold, you will probably get confused by all the members of the various factions of Edward III descendants. But if you then study up a bit on the history and read, say, the Clliff's Notes on Richard II, everything should snap into focus. 

Don't be confused by the odd artwork on the keepcase cover showing David Tennant in casual clothes and modern running shoes. There's noting of this ilk in the show. Our screenshots show the attention given to beautiful costumes and props (oh, how much I wanted to see Bolingbroke and Mowbray fight it out it their incredibly beautiful armour.) The RSC built a special stage for this production which has 3 levels, a huge trapdoor, and state-of-the-art lighting and video projection gear. All this stagecraft, together with the contributions of  three soprano singers, three trumpet players, and two percussionists contribute to the creation of an ancient and spooky atmosphere throughout.

The RSC spared no effort or expense to put a splendid cast on the stage that was ably directed by Gregory Doran and Robin Lough for TV. David Tennant probably shows us as well as possible what Richard II was like. Everyone else in the show brings tremendous verve and dedication to the boards.  SQ, PQ, and video content is superb. I'm confident this is the best rendition of Richard II ever filmed for viewing in the modern HT.  Let's hope the RSC will follow up with all the history plays and more.

The subtitles to the play in English are easy to read and so helpful for those of us who have trouble understanding the "true" accent of our mother tongue. Alas, the many interesting bonus extras on the disc are all in quickly-spoken British English with no subtitles. I'll give this the grade of "A" for general viewers. For viewers interested in history or Shakespeare, this is an "A+" title.  

One good YouTube clip: