For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court…
How great is that quote? It pretty much sums up most of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. Looking back, Richard II was full of great moments like this one. There are some excellent passages in this play, and a lot of great themes/motifs to look out for.
The historical Richard was only ten years old when he became king. For the next twelve years his various uncles ruled for him, which never works out nicely. When he was 22, he decided to rule for himself. From then on Richard was absolutely in charge. He viewed himself as God’s appointed ruler, and he firmly believed in his divine right to rule. That’s one of the most interesting themes of the play: what is a king, and who decides who will rule? Spoiler alert: The next play is called Henry IV, so Richard won’t be on the throne for long.
One way Shakespeare emphasizes this change of leadership is through figurative language. Richard is always comparing himself or his rival Henry Bolingbroke to the sun, a symbol of the king. There is also a recurring motif of people ascending and descending–Richard descends from the throne, and Henry ascends.
From the beginning of the play, Richard isn’t all he appears. There’s a suggestion that he either ordered or took part in the murder of one of his uncles, so we know he has blood on his hands. His overthrow is almost a given from the beginning of the story, and you feel that you can’t really pull for Richard–that would be going against the flow of history. In some of his early speeches it seems like even he knows what his inevitable end will be. He’s also just enough of a jerk that you can’t sympathize with him!
The Hollow Crown mini-series (the title of which comes from Richard II) did a pretty good job of showing all of this. Ben Whishaw is a sort of creepy Richard. He’s very calm and collected, but he also seems somewhat foolish, arrogant, and “above” all of his supporters turned traitors.
If I had to pick a theme song for the first two history plays I’ve read so far, it would be “Another One Bites the Dust.” The play begins with a king who has blood on his hands. Once Henry deposes Richard, we see a new king with the same old problem. He’s guilty as well, and his hands are not clean.