Many of Shakey's plays are about the nature of kingship, and what it means to be a king. 'Lear' deals with a king who wants to keep the privileges of power but avoid the responsibility. In different ways, 'Macbeth' and 'Richard III' are about men whose ambition to be king drives them to commit atrocities. 'Henry IV' (both bits) is about a man who plays the part of lager lout so that when he finally pulls his socks up and becomes king, everyone admires him for not being a thug any more.
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In 'Richard II', the question posed is about the RIGHT to be king. The play follows the story of two men. Richard is the rightful king who, unfortunately, isn't very good at it. He's selfish, capricious, and rather irritating, but he is still the rightful king. By comparison, the other man whose name is Bolingbroke, would make a much better king than Richard, but has no real claim on the throne. Like all Richard's subjects, he has also sworn an oath of fealty to the king.
~~THE PLOT (in 30 words)~~
In brief, Richard unfairly banishes Bolingbroke who goes abroad, raises an army, returns to England, deposes Richard (who is ultimately killed), and becomes Henry the Fourth Parts One and Two.
~~THE QUESTIONS RAISED~~
Willy weaves a gripping tale that explores the question of who is right from various angles and does not provide an easy solution. In the end, the audience are left to make up their own minds. Was Bolingbroke right to break his promises and commit treason in order to rid the country of an unworthy king? Or was he just peeved at being banished?
For those who wonder if Shakespeare is still relevant today, I offer this example. Recently, in Pakistan, a military coupe occured. The politicians who were deposed were, by all accounts, hopelessly corrupt and only concerned with lining their own pockets - but they were nevertheless democratically elected. For all their faults, the military types who took over apparently did a much better job - but they had nevertheless seized power illegally. So which option is best? Legal but corrupt, or illegal but efficient. This is precisely the question that is at the core of Dick 2.
~~IRONY AND STUFF~~
One of the ironies of the play is that once he has been deposed, Richard demonstrates the nobility and perceptiveness that he should have shown as king. Other notable characters in the play include John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke’s father), who personifies nostalgia and patriotism; and the Archbishop of York, who is perhaps the ultimate pragmatist.
Of course, as in most of Shakespeare’s dramas, the plot & issues are only half the story. 'Richard II' contains some of Bill's most evocative (though not very cheerful) language:
'Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.'
For those unfamiliar with iambic pentameter, it might take a bit of work, but in most cases the meaning is clear - and the use of language is a joy throughout. This is an under-rated play - not as gruesome as 'Macbeth' or 'Hamlet', but just as good in terms of quality.
If you enjoy Shakespeare, then don't neglect this one. Avoid 'Timon of Athens' instead.