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Richard II | Themes

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Rightful King

The divine right of kings is a central concern in Richard II. Questions about who can be king pervade the text. Richard II fervently believes he is God's appointed representative and ordained to lead England. He refers frequently to this divine connection. After John of Gaunt's brother is killed, John of Gaunt initially refuses to confront Richard about it; he believes only God has the authority to judge a king and opposing a king is not only treasonous but also equates to opposing God. He calls Richard "God's substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight" (Act 1, Scene 2). The Bishop of Carlisle speaks strongly against Bolingbroke becoming king, coming squarely down on the side of Richard's divine right. He says, "And shall the figure of God's majesty, / His captain, steward, deputy elect, / Anointed, crowned, planted many years, / Be judged by subject and inferior breath" (Act 4, Scene 1).

Henry Bolingbroke has a more flexible view of the divine right of kings. In this play he seems confident God will support him. When he has forced Richard's surrender and the path to the throne is clear, he declares, "In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne" (Act 4, Scene 1). But in later plays in the Henriad the issue comes back to haunt him as he grapples with doubts about the legitimacy of his kingship and eventually passes this burden on to his son, Hal/Henry V.

Family Ties

Although the play largely concerns powerful men vying for ultimate power, it is also about family. Many of the characters are related. Several are descended from Edward III, by all accounts a great English king. The blood of Edward III runs in the veins of Richard, Gaunt, York, and Bolingbroke; Richard may be king, but plenty of people are almost as closely related to the previous king as he is. This is the only reason Bolingbroke can make a case for his own ascension to the kingship. The word cousin is repeated over and over throughout the play. That those who choose opposite sides of the Bolingbroke–Richard conflict are closely related sets up internal conflicts within characters. They must grapple with their divided loyalty to God, England, king, and family.

The close family ties don't only add drama to the plot. They also remind the audience the events in this play are a precursor to the Wars of the Roses. These wars were not originally called the Wars of the Roses—that label appeared in the 1800s. They were referred to as the "Cousins' Wars."

Performance

All the plays in the Henriad develop ideas about the difference between appearance and reality, the inner person versus the outer image, the deception and the revelation. In this play the theme manifests in Richard II's tendency to act the king as if he is performing a role in a theatrical production. He enjoys the ceremonial functions of a king and loves to speak in kingly phrases. Historically Richard was known for his attention to clothing and personal hygiene; some accounts name him as the popularizer of the pocket handkerchief.

Though he cultivated a regal image, he had few traditionally "kingly" personal qualities. Specifically, he did not have an aggressive, action-oriented personality like his father or grandfather. His attention to performance and presentation proves to be his undoing. The people of England seem to prefer the traditionally manly Bolingbroke. In addition, the energy expended in maintaining the performance leaves little time for Richard to develop many other qualities. When his performed role is stripped from him, he must confront his identify as a human being for the first time.

Questions for Themes

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