Richard II

"Richard II," Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, Carolina Academic Press, 1981, pp. 51-61.


Shakespeare not only presents us with the spectacle of a man becoming a god (Julius Caesar) but in Richard II also permits us to witness a god becoming a man. As a consequence of what one might call political logic, Richard was thought to be, and thought himself to be, somehow divine: to have the right and the capacity to rule men a king ought to have a superior nature, must be a god or the representative of a god; because he must be, he is. The play tells the tale of Richard’s unkinging and his agony as he faces the human condition for the first time.

Richard II is also the tale of Henry Bolingbroke’s grasping of the crown and thereby his loss of innocence. He thought he would purge the throne of a stain left on it by Richard’s having committed the sin of Cain, but he is constrained to commit the same sin in order to found his rule. Instead of becoming a god, he becomes a murderer. The king he became could never be the king Richard was.

Thus these two tales join to tell a third tale, that of kingship in its divine claims and criminal foundations.