Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Richard II

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



The Queen awaits Richard on his way “To Julius Caesar’s ill-erected tower” (V.i.1-2) — though this is another anachronism since “It was only a century after the time of this play that kings and queens began to die in the Tower” (Asimov 306). The guard brings Richard forth, and he advises Isabella “To think our former state a happy dream” (V.i.18).He recommends that she enter a convent in France. The Queen bemoans Richard’s defeatism:

The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw,
And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage
To be o’erpow’r’d, and wilt thou, pupil-like,
Take the correction, mildly kiss the rod,
And fawn on rage with base humility,
Which art a lion and the king of beasts?

But Richard dismisses her to France and preaches a nostalgic perspective, as if the 1390s had been a kind of Camelot.

Northumberland says that Henry has changed his mind and wants to send Richard to Pomfret instead of the Tower; Isabella is indeed to be sent to France. Richard tells Northumberland that Henry used him in his pursuit of the throne and that there will come a falling out:

Thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all.
. . .
The love of wicked men converts to fear,
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.

Regarding his parting with his queen:

Doubly divorc’d! Bad men, you violate
A twofold marriage — ‘twixt my crown and me,
And then betwixt me and my married wife.

The Queen begs to be allowed to go with Richard, but that’s considered “little policy” (V.i.84). Richard and Isabella kiss and part.


A few months later York relates the earlier events to his wife the Duchess, including the arrivals of Richard and Henry in London when the crowds cheered Henry and humiliated Richard: “rude misgoverned hands from windows’ tops / Threw dust and rubbish on King Richard’s head” (V.ii.5-6). York uses a theatrical analogy:

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious,
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard. No man cried “God save him!”

He claims that despite the pitiful scene, heaven has influenced all these political events. “To Bullingbrook are we sworn subjects now, / Whose state and honor I for aye allow” (V.ii.39-40).

The couple’s son, Aumerle, arrives sulky and disinterested in York’s curiosity about the intended jousts at Oxford. York notices his son is hiding something and grabs a sealed document from Aumerle. He reads it and declares his son a traitor in an assassination conspiracy. York prepares to alert the new king despite mom’s defense of Aumerle. She even plays the “bastard” card, illogically, accusing York of thinking she was “disloyal to thy bed” (V.ii.105). She commands Aumerle to race to the King “And beg thy pardon ere he do accuse thee” (V.ii.113).


King Henry IV complains to Harry Percy that his own “unthrifty” son (the future Henry V) is an irresponsible lout (V.iii.1), wasting his time with lowlife companions “‘mongst the taverns” (V.iii.5). “As dissolute as desperate, yet through both / I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years / May happily bring forth” (V.iii.20-22). This is partly preparation for the Henry IV plays ahead.

Aumerle rushes in and begs for blind forgiveness. York arrives, bangs on the door, and accuses Aumerle of treason. Mom York arrives shrieking and appeals to the King on behalf of her son. The scene approaches comedy in its family goofiness, the quibbling between York and his wife about French vs. English (V.iii.119f), and the Duchess’ kneel-down strike. Henry pardons Aumerle but will have the other conspirators put to death.

Why does he pardon the man who has conspired against his life? It is not mercy. It is an attempted purchase of indulgence in advance for the murder of Richard, against whose life he is conspiring, precisely as his sparing of Carlisle’s life is a begging of indulgence after that deed. (Goddard, I 158)


Some months later still, Sir Pierce Exton speaks with his servant about something Henry said: “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” (V.iv.2). Since “he wishtly look’d on me / As who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man / That would divorce this terror from my heart'” (V.iv.7-9), Exton interprets this as meaning that he should kill Richard at Pomfret: “I am the King’s friend, and will rid his foe” (V.iv.11).

“There may well be a resonance, too, with Henry II’s famous query about Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170: ‘Will no man rid me of this meddlesome priest?'” (Garber 268).


Richard in isolation soliloquizes elaborately about prison, his brain and soul, his thoughts themselves.

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king….

He occasionally hears music, which now annoys him:

How sour sweet music is
When time is broke, and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men’s lives.
. . .
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me….

He compares himself with a clock and rails dejectedly about Henry. “The elaborate conceit of the deposed king turned into a timepiece is Richard’s last and finest metaphysical image for himself, perhaps because it is much the most destructive, provoking him to the series of trapped rages that conclude his life” (Bloom 270). “But none of the roles in which he casts himself satisfies him, because each recalls its opposite” (Wells 139). “There is a new toughness about his language in his last scene; he speaks like a man who has come through suffering rather than being vanquished by it. He has developed, we might say, from a lyrical to a metaphysical poet” (Wells 139).

A kind and loyal former servant, a groom of the stable, comes to the cell and tells Richard of Henry riding on Richard’s former horse. Richard begins to rail at the horse but catches himself. The knowledge of horses is another of Shakespeare’s countless specialities (Ogburn and Ogburn 473).

Richard is brought a meal and refuses to eat it until it is tasted, as usual. But the keeper says Exton “commands the contrary” (V.v.101). Richard attacks the keeper, who calls for help. Exton enters with his cronies and Richard is able to kill a couple of them.

The plain implication of the play up to this point has been that a sentimental pacifism is nothing but violence in disguise and is likely to be converted into it at a moment’s notice. The death scene is a stunning translation of that truth into act…. Strangely, Richard’s ultimate act has often been admired as bravery, a final burst of courage from a coward. It is nothing of the sort. We die as we have lived. It is just the reflex action of a man without self-control in the presence of death…. It is a fury of desperation pure and simple, a particularly ignominious and ironic end for a king who pretended to believe that everything from stones to angels would come to his rescue in the hour of need. (Goddard, I 159)

But Exton strikes Richard down. Richard curses Exton:

Exton, thy fierce hand
Hath with the King’s blood stain’d the King’s own land.
Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high,
Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.

Richard dies, and Exton frets afterwards about killing an anointed king: “As full of valure as of royal blood!” (V.v.113).

The real cause of Richard’s death remains a mystery. He may have been killed, of course, at Bolingbroke’s orders, but one good possibility is that he died of starvation. He may have been deliberately starved (that leaves no marks for suspicious eyes searching for evidence of murder and can be represented as a wasting illness) or perhaps he starved himself, either out of a desire to avoid lingering out a life of imprisonment or out of a morbid fear of poison. (Asimov 312)


A few days later, Henry tells York about rebels in a town of Gloucester. Northumberland reports the elimination of enemies to the new (usurped) crown: “Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, Kent” (V.vi.8). Their heads have been sent to London. “We thank thee, gentle Percy,” responds Henry (V.vi.11). The five quarto editions list Oxford, who is eliminated in the Folio.

Lord Fitzwater has a couple more severed heads from so-called traitors due in. The Abbot of Westminster is dead but Harry Percy escorts in the Bishop of Carlisle who is to be imprisoned for life since Henry perceives some “High sparks of honor” in him (V.vi.29).

Exton interrupts, presenting Henry with “Thy buried fear … / The mightiest of thy greatest enemies, / Richard of Burdeaux” (V.vi.31-33) in his coffin. “The ‘living fear’ of Henry IV’s rhetorical exclamation is now safely ‘buried,’ Exton suggests. But Henry’s ‘buried fear’ is in fact something else entirely, a secret, unrevealed fear of guilt and blood upon his hands, so that the death of Richard creates, rather than lays to rest, a ‘living fear’ that cannot be alleviated” (Garber 269).

Henry is peeved: “I thank thee not, for thou hast wrought / A deed of slander with thy fatal hand / Upon my head and all this famous land” (V.vi.34-36). Exton tries to explain that Henry’s own words…. Nope. “Though I did wish him dead, / I hate the murtherer, love him murthered” (V.vi.39-40). Exton is exiled to wander with Cain. Henry puts on a show of sorrow, an “absurd hypocrisy that closes the play” (Bloom 270): “Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe / That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow” (V.vi.45-46). He vows to “make a voyage to the Holy Land” (V.vi.49), which he never will do. And by the way, the word is “pilgrimage,” but he doesn’t use it; the Chaucerian era is over.


“The play seems to invite speculation about its underlying genre. Is it first and foremost a tragedy or a history play, the tragedy of Richard or the first episode in the chronicle of Henry IV?” (Garber 266). “Always experimenting, Shakespeare composed Richard II as an extended metaphysical lyric…. Richard is a bad king and an interesting metaphysical poet; his two roles are antithetical” (Bloom 249). “Richard’s imagination is trapped solipsistically in the prison of his petulant self” (Bloom 250). The Euphuistic traces in the play further confirm an early 1580s origin (Ogburn and Ogburn 397).

The elder Ogburns think Richard is part Elizabeth, part Oxford: “his tendency toward thought rather than action,” the poetic gift, and “something of the morbid bitterness of Timon” (Ogburn and Ogburn 436). Richard is a better actor or philosopher-poet than king: he is “a philosophical poet-king and proto-Hamlet” (Anderson 331). But Henry has almost no detectable inwardness — he just marches through the play concerned with politics and power. The real Henry IV gets no sympathy from me. The bastard was a slimy administrator and pre-dated the documents suggesting that Chaucer’s financial relationship with the court was sound — he actually kept Chaucer waiting for half a year, and Chaucer didn’t have that kind of luxury in money nor time by that point. And Terry Jones, the medievalist of Monty Python fame, thinks Chaucer was executed by the new regime (Who Murdered Chaucer?).

“Bolingbroke places faith in persona, or role, in malleability and self-creation; Richard in essence or identity” (Garber 251).

Henry’s hypocrisy in the end leaves a bad taste which needs sweetening (which will come with Falstaff). “Consider the many names by which Bolingbroke is known in the course of the play — Bolingbroke who is this play’s shape-shifter, a man of many roles, who seems to progress not only from name to name but also from identity to identity” (Garber 248) — another effect Shakespeare learned from Chaucer, appropriately enough [see my article, “‘Heryng th’effect’ of the Names in Troilus and Criseyde,” Chaucer Review 34.4 (2000): 351-371]: Hereford, Bolingbroke, Derby, Lancaster, Henry IV.

The elder Ogburns think the play was revised late in Oxford’s life at which time Richard II came to depict Southampton (Ogburn and Ogburn 867).