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MonkeyNotes-Richard II by William Shakespeare
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Themes

The play is a moving portrayal of a king's downfall. Its main theme is the deposition of an anointed but unworthy king. The play is also an analysis of why this downfall occurred. In it Shakespeare poses some of the greatest questions troubling the Renaissance age. Shakespeare considers the issue of kingship and all the problems posed by it. He examines the notion of a perfect king, the limits to the powers of an absolute monarch, the legal and moral legitimacy of deposing a bad and inefficient king, and the consequences of deposition. Richard's downfall is cast in political terms. He has been unable to perform the duties of kingship for which his birth has made him responsible. Although he is charming as a man, he fails miserably in his public role as a king. His birth has placed him in a position that requires him to wield a political power of which he is not capable. He is unable to follow any decisive course of action and thus fails in his kingly duties.

His adversary, Bolingbroke, is equipped with exactly those qualities that Richard lacks. Shakespeare highlights Richard's incompetence and unpopularity among the commoners, as well as among the nobility. By contrast, Bolingbroke is steadfast and has a talent for winning support. Shakespeare makes Richard responsible for his own deposition and thus declares independence from the medieval conception of tragedy, which depicted man's downfall as the result of the force of circumstance and destiny. Richard has perhaps deposed himself. This view is brought out by York's denunciation of Richard's actions after Richard seizes the property that belongs to Bolingbroke. York makes it clear that Richard himself is violating the laws of primogeniture, upon which his own right to kingship depends. Thus Richard, and not Bolingbroke, first disrupts the order of the state.


The play is also concerned with the fall of England. The fates of the characters are intertwined with the fate of England. The fall of Richard, brought about by the willful rebellion of Bolingbroke, and the curse that it brings on the Lancaster line and on England, is the uniting theme of Shakespeare's tetralogy, which includes Henry IV (Parts I & II) and Henry V. Richard's fall leads directly to other disasters and represents the end of the Middle Ages. The theme of the play may thus be said to be the fall of England and its triumphant regeneration. Gaunt's famous dying speech, in which he describes the lost England as a demi-paradise, makes England the play's subject.

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