OK, so we know Richard the Second is a history, part of the first chronological tetralogy, the second compositional tetralogy. The 1623 First Folio lists the title as The Life and Death of King Richard the Second. However, while the First Folio’s version has the same title, the Fifth Folio in 1615 listed the title as The Tragedy of Richard the Second.
Well, Richard does fall from the power over the course of the play.
The play begins with one of the quiet openings quiet openings, no alarums but the entrance the King and John of Gaunt, with assorted other nobles. Now, we’ll get to the relationships and history of this history (or tragedy, or historical tragedy, or tragic history) later in the month, but suffice to say John is the uncle of the King.
The king immediately asks if John has brought his “bold son” (I.i.3), who has a suit “against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray” (I.i.6). John’s son, the Duke of Hereford, Henry Bolingbroke, has accused Mowbray of “plot(ting) the Duke of Gloucester’s death” (I.i.100). Mowbray admits to having been Gloucester’s jailer but denies having killed him; though the implication is that since the King had ordered the imprisonment of Gloucester, the King may also be ultimately responsible for the murder.
sound at all like our weak King John from a couple of months back?
Bolingbroke and Mowbray challenge each other to trial by combat, and Richard attempts to talk them out of it. Unsuccessfully, of course.
And in a bold and confident statement, made in a style reminiscent of King John’s the Bastard, Bolingbroke tells the king,
Ere my tongue
Shall wound my honor with such feeble wrong,
Or sound so base a parle, my teeth shall tear
The slavish motive of recanting fear,
And spit it bleeding in his high disgrace,
Where shame doth harbor, even in Mowbray's face.
And the trial is given a date: Saint Lambert’s Day (September 17).
In the second scene, John of Gaunt meets with the Duchess of Gloucester, the widow of the murdered prisoner. She attempts to convince John to join Bolingbroke in revenging her husband’s death, which she considers murder. While the emotion may be the same as Constance’s in King John, her approach is less annoying and better constructed:
It is despair.
In suffering thus thy brother to be slaughtered,
Thou showest the naked pathway to thy life,
Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee.
That which in mean men we intitle patience
Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts.
What shall I say? to safeguard thine own life,
The best way is to venge my Gloucester's death.
It’s well-reasoned and calm, and one would think it would be convincing. Well, maybe if one was in the 20th (or 21st) century. In the late 14th century, however, not so much:
God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death: the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.
Here, John states that the king is “God’s substitute” and thus immune from human punishment or revenge; only “heaven” can punish a king.
We, who know history, know where this story goes… is Bolingbroke the arm of such heavenly “revenge”?