Richard II as Failed King
Richard II pits two very different types of men against each other in what at first seems like a struggle for power. But Richard is so easily defeated that the emphasis of the play is more on the exploration of his character than on political intrigue. When push comes to shove, Richard does not put up a fight. His only weapons are poetic words, which he uses first to call up his belief in the divine right of kings, and later, when he is overthrown, to dramatize his grief and sorrow.
Richard II would appear to have all the advantages over Bolingbroke. He is the rightful king during a time when kings were thought to rule by divine right. However, Richard is ill-suited to the throne. He has no sense of justice, as can be seen when he seizes Gaunt's lands and disinherits Gaunt's son Bolingbroke. The medieval social order rested in part on the correct, legal transmission of titles and property. When Richard violates this, he disrupts the social order. He appears to have no concept of the general welfare. He makes policy to suit himself, and he does not have the gift of surrounding himself with wise advisors. When a character such as York or Gaunt gives him sound advice, he ignores it. As shown in the first Act, Richard is mainly concerned with raising money for a war in Ireland. But when he is faced with a crisis, Richard becomes weak and passive. He can only act decisively when everything is going in his favor. Faced with the threat from Bolingbroke, he goes to pieces, as far as taking effective action is concerned. All he can do to impose his will on events is to summon up in words the full majesty of his status as king. He assumes that everyone will submit to him simply because of his royal status. When this does not happen, he is powerless.
Bolingbroke is Richard's opposite. He is a practical man of few words, an opportunist politician who knows how to seize power when the opportunity presents itself. Unlike Richard, Bolingbroke does not reveal his thoughts or his motives. He never states overtly that he seeks the crown, but nonetheless, it is he who ends up as king. This ambiguity of intention may a deliberate part of his policy. He shows himself to be a shrewd man who does not take any missteps in his march to power.
The contrast between the two central characters might be summed up as the passive Richard versus the active Bolingbroke. When the pressure is on, Richard shows himself to be a poet and a dreamer rather than an effective leader, and he is set against a man who gets things done efficiently. In a crisis, Richard flops, but Bolingbroke handles crises effectively. This is seen in his putting down of the revolt that follows his seizure of the crown, and his showing of mercy to conspirators and opponents when appropriate.
Richard's Growth in Understanding
The play is entitled "The Tragedy of Richard II." In Shakespearean tragedy, the protagonist, before he dies, usually comes to some greater understanding about himself and about life. Does Richard grow as a character after his overthrow? Does he acquire any wisdom?
The answer is a cautious yes. After his overthrow he asks himself deeper questions about life than one can ever imagine him asking when he was king. He reflects on mortality. He examines his own identity: who is he now he is no longer a king? He seems much more self-aware than he was formerly. In his speech at Pomfret Castle, he even seems for a moment to be aware that he is to blame for his own misfortunes ("I wasted time, and now time wastes me"). However, in that speech and others, Richard also spends much of his mental energy dramatizing and bemoaning his fate. He has indeed learned something from his tragic experience, but perhaps not all that he might have done.