Richard II, Act 2


2.1 gives prominence to Gaunt, who now meets with his brother York (is this the last time a York and a Lancaster will be allied?). Gaunt wants to advise young Richard but York assures him that Richard won’t listen. They complain first about Richard’s taste for “lascivious metres” and Italian “fashions” and only later about fiscal mismanagement (taxing, spending, and leasing.)  I suspect that many who remember Gaunt’s famous speech about “this England” forget the larger context, and the direction in which the speech goes: “this England” is celebrated, but at the height of the speech it is called “that England,” which is no more. Richard is no longer a true king, but only the “Landlord of England.” (Antony later dismissively calls Augustus the “universal landlord’). He has, so Gaunt says, been “leasing” England out, which seems to mean both tax-farming and making land grants to favorites. But Gaunt, who was “sick” at the beginning of the scene, is carried off at l. 138, and less than ten lines later word is brought in that he is dead. With him, perhaps, dies “this England.”

Richard  doesn’t grieve long: “The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he.” And he doesn’t miss a beat:” So much for that. Now for our Irish wars . . .” For him, Gaunt is ripe for picking, and he says he will seize Gaunt’s goods to pay for the war. York advises Richard against seizing Gaunt’s wealth, so why should Richard then make him governor of England in his absence?

In 2.2 the Queen, saddened at Richard’s absence in Ireland, fears for the future. (We have already heard Gaunt’s prophecy of a dark future, and we will hear it again in 2.4 from the Welsh captain.)

In 2.3 Bolingbroke, having already landed at Ravenspurgh, has now marched into Gloucestershire. He has technically violated the terms of his banishment, but he finesses that by saying he was banished as Hereford and has returned as Lancaster, in order to claim his dukedom. We meet Northumberland and young Harry Percy, whom we will see more of in 1 Henry IV. York plays a curious role. Like Richard, he finds that he cannot impose his will — in this case on the rebels. He would arrest them if he could, but since he cannot, he will remain “neuter” and might even join Bolingbroke, to oppose the “caterpillars of the commonwealth.”

2.4 is set in Wales. Richard is rumored dead and the Welsh forces have deserted him. The Welsh captain (like Glendower after him) believes in portents and in “signs” foretelling “the death or fall of kings.” If this is a tragedy, we are about to witness Richard’s fall from “glory.” If this is a history play, we have seen Richard’s  “life” and now expect to see his “death.”


I doubt there’s much to distinguish the two titles. Richard does seem a tragic figure, one who seems to bring his tragedy on himself. So the play seems both history and tragedy.

The Duchess does see Mowbray as the formal murderer of Gloucester, but Gaunt’s insistence on the impossibility of true vengeance suggests the involvement of Richard. And Richard’s otherwise inexplicable lifelong banishment of Mowbray suggests the same; Mowbray in permanent exile cannot return and implicate Richard.

The scene of Bolingbroke’s return seems to give us some sympathy with him: Richard — illegally? — has seized Gaunt’s possessions and land, and if Bolingbroke does not return and intervene, he stands to lose everything that should come to him as Lancaster. Richard as “landlord of England” lowers his royal dignity and convicts him as the despoiler of Gaunt’s possessions and aristocratic dignity. But of course he’s king and therefore seemingly protected. York’s speech in 2.1 puts the dilemma to Richard rather precisely: how are you king but by the same process of time and succession that you violate in sequestering Gaunt/Duke of Lancaster’s possession. Ross puts it in terms of realpolitik, Richard has lost the support of the commons by his taxation and of the aristocracy by his “fining” for ancient quarrels. York too expresses the dilemma in his duty (2.2).

Can we suspect flattery in Northumberland’s praise of Bolingbroke’s “fair discourse” that will bring irony in the future plays? Similar irony of course in the mutual vows of loyalty and friendship between Percy and Bolingbroke. And in spite of himself and his loyalty to Richard and kingship, York is stymied by events and he can do nothing but throw up his hands.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell