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MonkeyNotes-Richard II by William Shakespeare
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OVERALL ANALYSES

CHARACTERS

Richard II

Richard's character dominates the play. The transfer of power serves only as a kind of background to the figure of Richard himself. Shakespeare's chief interest lies in Richard's personality and his reaction to events. The play is in fact a personal tragedy, which focuses on the decline of the fortunes of its protagonist, rather than on the course of events or the development of any abstract philosophy or idea. At the beginning of the play, Richard is shown to be outwardly self-confident but inwardly corrupt, as he is implicated in the murder of his own uncle, Gloucester. He thus has the legal but not the moral right to govern because his hands are stained with royal blood. Richard is a poetic and intensely charming man but a fatally weak monarch. He is ill equipped to carry out the responsibilities of the office of kingship to which his birth has entitled him. He fails in the observance of his royal duties because he is unable to follow any decisive course of action and changes his mind arbitrarily. His character is essentially fixed from the start and is gradually revealed as the play progresses from scene to scene. There is not much significant development, as in the case of Bolingbroke.


Richard's character is closely modeled on the conventional features of a tragic protagonist as outlined by Aristotle. Richard's tragic flaw is his unshakable belief in his own quasi-divinity. He also suffers from self-destructive arrogance, which the Greeks called hubris (excessive pride). At the beginning of the play, Richard's glamour is physical: he is like the king in a tapestry, dazzling and bewitching to everybody he looks upon. The opening scene of the play shows him in his dual roles as king and man trying to settle a quarrel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray over the question of Gloucester's death. This scene is very sketchy as far as Richard's character is concerned. He does not say much and what he does say is in his role as a king arbitrating between the warring lords. He conducts himself excellently at first, when he promises impartiality to both the men. Richard tries his utmost to seek a peaceful solution to the dispute and dissuades both Bolingbroke and Mowbray from accepting the challenge of a duel. But he suddenly changes his mind, showing his impulsive nature, and orders a trial by combat, thereby contradicting his earlier aim of avoiding bloodshed. When the day of the duel arrives, Richard observes all the formalities associated with the tournament until the very last moment, when he dramatically throws down his warder as an indication to stop the proceedings. He has again abruptly changed his mind. The manner in which he stops the duel testifies to his love of drama. In a Machiavellian move Richard gets rid of both Bolingbroke and Mowbray by banishing them: Bolingbroke for ten years and Mowbray for life. Richard is both a bully and a coward. He cowers when faced with difficulties and banishes the two men for no concrete reason. From this point onwards, Richard's character undergoes a decline. He is shown to be morally depraved and high-handed. He farms his realm for taxes and issues blank charters to the wealthy nobles. Richard behaves arrogantly to his dying uncle, Gaunt, and dismisses him as a "lunatic lean-witted fool." He unscrupulously confiscates the property that belongs by the laws of succession to Bolingbroke. As York points out, Richard is himself engineering his own downfall by violating the laws of primogeniture upon which his own claim to kingship depends. His seizure of Gaunt's property to finance the Irish wars seals his fate and marks the beginning of a decline from which there is no turning back.

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