Funny how different Shakespeare’s two King Richards are. The more famous Richard III is a somewhat crude but wonderfully bombastic and bloody crowd-pleaser. Richard II is an exquisitely constructed, lyrical tragedy containing some of Shakespeare’s profoundest meditations on power and the people who hold it.
From what I’ve read, for many years Richard II was treated primarily as a personal tragedy. The emphasis was on Richard and the, sadly too late, growth of his soul. Commentators are correct to criticize this view for ignoring the political dimensions of the play. Richard II is full of complex political machinations. It’s fascinating to watch Shakespeare depicting a system slowly but surely putting aside its own core belief, the idea of the king’s divine status. No one ever quite says this but that is what’s going on.
However, we should not neglect the personal side of this play. We DO watch Richard grow. He begins as a pseudo-poetic brat you want to smack in the face. By the end, he is a great poet who asserts his right as eloquently as he can and dies with real dignity. The great thing about Richard II is that it is almost two plays. The political twists and Richard’s development operate ALMOST independent of each other. However, the places where they come together are what really make the play a masterpiece.
I said earlier that Richard becomes a great poet. He never becomes even a good king. Much as I weep for him, I would not give him his crown back, not even after his transformation. He is simply not meant to govern. Part of the tragedy is that Richard can’t really do anything about this. He was born to his role and, according to the system of the time, the only thing a deposed king could do was go down proclaiming his royalty. Richard, who is really a poet, can only come up with verse appropriate for the occasion. He does so but we are left wondering what he could have been had he been permitted to be himself. Was Shakespeare perhaps dimly glimpsing the truth about personal rule, that it simply could not work?