Open main menu


I. i. For an understanding of the action of this play, it is necessary to go back to the events of the years 1387 and 1388. Richard, then aged twenty, had surrounded himself with favorites, mostly newly created peers. Five members of the older nobility: Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, the king's uncle; Richard, Earl of Arundel; Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick; Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham; Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, son of John of Gaunt, who was another uncle of the king's;—these five so-called 'lords appellant' in full Parliament accused of treason five of Richard's favorites. The Parliament, known as the 'Merciless,' found the latter guilty, and three were put to death, the other two saving their lives by flight. The king himself was forced to permit a council composed of Gloucester and his adherents to govern in his stead. By 1389, however, Richard was strong enough to dismiss the council and rule in his own name with the approval of Parliament. Biding his time and never forgiving the affront he had received from the 'lords appellant,' in 1397 Richard, hearing that the three older of them were plotting against him, suddenly arrested Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick, on charges based on their acts in 1388. Warwick begged off and was banished; Arundel was beheaded, and his brother Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, was banished (see II. i. 282); Gloucester was sent a prisoner to Calais in charge of Thomas Mowbray, and there died, secretly murdered (as all believed) by order of the king. Mowbray and Bolingbroke, on the other hand, were apparently in high favor, being made dukes of Norfolk and Hereford respectively, but the former seems, reasoning from past events, to have remarked to Bolingbroke that neither of them was quite safe from the king's memory. Bolingbroke thereupon violated this confidence and in full Parliament assembled at Shrewsbury (January 30, 1398) accused Norfolk of treason and offered to sustain his charges in single combat. Both were put under arrest, and the matter was reopened in Parliament meeting at Windsor (April 28–29, 1398), as related in this scene. Thus, by beginning here and assuming knowledge of preceding events, Shakespeare was able to concentrate attention upon the last two years of Richard's life, namely, from April 29, 1398, to March 12, 1400, the date on which a body officially declared to be his was exhibited in St. Paul's.

I. i. 3. Hereford. Probably pronounced Harford, in two syllables. It is spelled Herford in the Quartos and First Folio. In England, to this day, er, especially in proper names, is frequently pronounced like ar.

I. i. 4. boisterous late appeal. That is, at the Parliament at Shrewsbury (see preceding note).

I. i. 34. appellant. A knight formally accusing another and ready to prove his charge in a trial by combat.

I. i. 59. This line may be paraphrased, 'Supposing for the occasion that he is not cousin to the king.' One had to apologize before making accusations against a member of the royal family.

I. i. 131. to fetch his queen. Two years before, in 1396.

I. i. 153. choler. A play on the two meanings of the word, 'bilious disorder' and 'anger.'

I. i. 170. baffled. Literally, hung up by the heels, a punishment for recreant knights; here used in exaggeration for 'treated with contumely.'

I. i. 174. lions make leopards tame. Lions are the emblem of royalty and moreover were quartered on the king's coat of arms; the Mowbray arms bear a leopard as crest. Mowbray's reply alludes to the verse, 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?' Jeremiah 13. 23.

I. i. 192. sound . . . parle. To sound a particular call on drum or trumpet to signify to one's adversary the desire for conference under a truce. Here figurative, but frequently literal in this play.

I. i. 204. officers-at-arms. Heralds or pursuivants, officers of ambassadorial privileges charged with the ceremonial and diplomatic functions connected with chivalric combat, tournaments, and public ceremonies.

I. ii. 11. seven sons. See Genealogical Table, Appendix F. Besides the five there shown, Edward III had two sons named William, both of whom died in infancy.

I. ii. 14, 15. dried by nature's course . . . by the Destinies cut. Two were living, two died in infancy, Edward the Black Prince and Lionel died natural deaths in maturity, and only Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, died by violence. A baseless rumor of poisoning was attached to Lionel's sudden death in Italy.

I. ii. 53. recreant. A knight overthrown or disabled in a combat could be killed by his conqueror, or spared if he begged for mercy. In the latter case he would be called 'recreant.'

cousin. Used by Shakespeare indiscriminately for all the less immediate relationships such as cousin, nephew, and aunt. The Duchess was Bolingbroke's aunt and sister-in-law.

I. iii. 121. Withdraw. 'Come aside for private conference.' At this the king and his councillors would go up stage or entirely off, while the trumpets play 'a long flourish' to indicate a lapse of time before their return.

I. iii. 134. Which. The antecedent is difficult to discover; it may be 'aspect' (l. 127) or 'pride' (l. 129). The Folio text of this passage, which omits ll. 129–133, is still more incoherent.

I. iii. 174. compassionate. The meaning of 'compassionate' is disputed. It may mean (1) 'self-pitying'; (2) 'sorrowfully lamenting'; (3) 'piteous.' In any case the drift of the whole passage is that an appeal to sentiment is in vain.

I. iii. 239–242; 268–293. These lines, present in all the Quartos and omitted in the Folio, seem, like 129–133, to have been cut from the acting version for the sake of shortening the scene. See App. C.

I. iii. 274. journeyman. A workman who has finished his apprenticeship and now hires out by the day, in many cases traveling about from place to place for the sake of experience.

I. iv. 12–14. 'For' = 'because.' 'That' (l. 13) refers to his reluctance to profane the word 'farewell.' Aumerle says that he could not wish Bolingbroke to fare well, and therefore pretended to be so overcome with emotion as to be unable to speak at all.

I. iv. 43. too great a court. 'He kept the greatest port [state], and mainteined the most plentifull house that ever any king in England did either before this time or since. For there resorted dailie to his court above ten thousand persons that had meat and drinke there allowed them. . . . And in gorgeous and costlie apparrell they exceeded all measure, not one of them that kept within the bounds of his degree. Yeomen and groomes were clothed in silkes, with cloth of graine and skarlet, over sumptuous you may be sure for their estates.' (Holinshed's Chronicles Richard II 1398–1400 and Henry V, edited by R. S. Wallace and Alma Hansen. Oxford. 1917. p. 48.)

I. iv. 45. farm our royal realm. 'The common brute [rumor] ran, that the king had set to farme the realme of England, unto sir William Scroop . . . to sir John Bushie, sir John Bagot, and sir Henrie Greene knights.' (Ibid., p. 13.) This means letting out the privilege of collecting the taxes for a fixed sum paid in advance.

I. iv. 48. blank charters. Blank acknowledgments of indebtedness, which wealthy citizens were compelled to sign, the sum being filled out at the pleasure of the king or his treasurer.

II. i. 2. unstaid. There are three possible meanings: (1) the opposite of 'staid,' i.e., 'frivolous'; (2) 'unchecked'; (3) 'unsupported.'

II. i. 18–23. In the First Quarto, in general the most authentic text of Richard II, l. 18 reads: 'As praises of whose taste the wise are found [fond];' the First Folio has, 'As praises of his state: then there are sound.' Craig adopts the latter reading, emending 'sound' to 'found.' The present editor sees no good argument for rejecting the authority of the Quarto in this instance, and reads 'praises,' 'Lascivious metres' (l. 19), and 'reports of fashions' (l. 21) as a series of appositives to 'sounds' (l. 17), 'as' being equivalent to 'such as.'

II. i. 94. 'Being sick myself to see it, and seeing disaster in thee.'

II. i. 103. waste. A reference to legal terms,—'destruction of houses, woods, lands, &c., done by the tenant to the prejudice of the heir.' Here the extent of the destruction.

II. i. 107, 108. possess'd. A play on two meanings of the word, namely, 'to be put in possession of' and 'to be controlled by an evil spirit.'

II. i. 114. As king, Richard was above the law; as landlord, he was, like any subject, its servant.

II. i. 126. pelican. According to the medieval natural history, the pelican fed its young by wounding its breast and letting them drink the blood. Here (and in Lear III iv. 74: 'those pelican daughters') used as if the young of their own initiative wounded the old bird.

II. i. 158. no venom else. Alluding to the fact that there are no snakes in Ireland.

II. i. 168, 169. prevention of poor Bolingbroke About his marriage. Holinshed (op. cit., p. 10) states that Richard broke up a match between Bolingbroke and the daughter of the Duc de Berri by sending the Earl of Salisbury expressly to 'surmize by untrue suggestion, heinous offenses against him,' and to forbid the King of France to permit the marriage.

II. i. 203. letters-patents. Documents authorizing him to do homage for his inheritance by proxies in his enforced absence. Under the feudal system of land tenure, the heir of a deceased vassal had to do homage to his lord and take an oath of fealty, in order to secure his right to succeed to the fief, or land and revenues, held by his predecessor.

II. i. 204, 205. sue His livery. To institute a suit as heir to obtain delivery of lands held by the court of wards.

II. i. 248. And quite lost their hearts. Since this phrase is repeated in l. 249, and since l. 248 can be read as verse only with difficulty, it is probable that we have here a typesetter's error. It stands thus, however, in all the Quartos and Folios; hence editors have not attempted emendation.

II. i. 251. benevolences. Compulsory 'free-will' aid demanded by the king from his subjects. The first instance of this practice is recorded of Edward IV in 1473, so that its imputation to Richard II is an anachronism.

II. i. 254. compromise. In 1397 Brest and Cherbourg had been given back to their rightful owners, upon payment of the ransom for which they had been held since 1378.

II. i. 282. His brother, etc. A line has been lost here. 'The archbishop late of Canterbury' was Thomas Arundel, brother of the Richard, Earl of Arundel, who was beheaded as a result of Richard's coup in 1397. The latter's son Thomas was, according to history, a member of Bolingbroke's expedition, and was, moreover, the man who escaped from the Duke of Exeter's house. Ritson suggested inserting between ll. 280 and 281 a line almost word for word from Holinshed, 'The son and heir of the late earl of Arundel.' This certainly makes sense, and no worse meter than the other lines of the passage.

II. i. 292. Imp out our broken wing. A figure from the art of falconry; to engraft feathers in a hawk's wing to restore or improve the powers of flight.

II. ii. Historically, Queen Isabel was at this time but a child of ten, having been married to Richard in 1396 by her father, Charles VI of France.

II. ii. 18. perspectives. Boards cut or channeled into a series of oblique flats or flanges, to which strips of a picture were pasted, so that, looked at from one side ('awry'), the whole picture appeared, but viewed from straight in front ('rightly') only a confusion was to be seen. Somewhat similar devices are used to-day for advertisements.

II. ii. 30–32. A difficult passage. Punctuated as in the text, it may be paraphrased, 'I cannot but be so grievously sad as makes me faint and shrink with heavy (melancholy) nothing, though in thinking I think on no real thought.' The Queen plays on the words 'heavy,' 'nothing,' and 'think' until the meaning is nearly lost. Bushy's subsequent speech is fully justified, ''Tis nothing but conceit.'

II. ii. 37. 'Or else the nothing that I am grieving about has something to it.'

II. ii. 38. in reversion. Referring to the state of affairs in which a payment or benefit is to be received only after a stipulated event.

II. ii. 57. This is the First Quarto reading; the Folio has, 'And the rest of the revolted faction, Traitors?' In the present reading, 'revolted faction' may be taken as appositive to 'rest.'

II. ii. 116, 117. These lines are hopelessly unmetrical, but need not on that account be considered textually corrupt.

II. iii. 21. young Harry Percy. Hotspur was actually thirty-six in 1399, two years older than Bolingbroke, but Shakespeare here and in 1 Henry IV prefers to regard him as a fiery youth, precocious in the art of war.

II. iii. 128. to the bay. A figure from hunting, to pursue the quarry until it will run no longer, but stops and turns on the hunters.

II. iv. Richard, learning of Bolingbroke's landing a few days after it occurred, sent the Earl of Salisbury ahead of him from Ireland to Wales to gather him an army. He collected, Holinshed says, forty thousand men of Cheshire and Wales, but a rumor that the king was dead disheartened them so that they dispersed at the end of a fortnight. The portents mentioned (ll. 8–10) are from Holinshed, but not in this connection.

III. i. 25. impress. In Elizabethan usage, a symbolic figure with an appropriate motto attached, distinguished from an heraldic emblem in that it was not hereditary, but was selected or designed by the individual using it, like a modern book-plate. Also spelled 'impresa' and 'imprese.' An Elizabethan description of one follows: 'An Imprese with a circle, and a hand with a sharpe stile pointing towards the center with this motto: Hic labor, hoc opus.' (Edmonds: Observations on Cæsar's Commentaries. 1604. VII, vii. II. 60.)

III. i. 43. Glendower. A learned and powerful Welsh gentleman, the strongest personality of his time in Wales. He had made no forays upon the English before 1400, and was not in open rebellion until a year later. Some editors suspect l. 43 of being interpolated, because of the anachronism and because l. 42 and l. 44 rime.

III. ii. 1. Barkloughly Castle. Not identified. Holinshed has 'Barclowlie.' The Monk of Evesham has 'Hertlowli,' which may mean Harlech. Historically Richard landed at Milford Haven in the westernmost part of South Wales, between July 22 and 25, before the events of Sc. i.

III. ii. 29–32. These lines, omitted from the Folio, are very obscure as printed in the Quartos, but with 'if,' inserted in l. 30 by Pope, and with modern punctuation, they seem to mean, 'if Heaven is willing and we are unwilling (i.e., hang back), we refuse heaven's offer, the proffered means, etc.' Even within the play, Aumerle feels called upon to explain them to the king.

III. ii. 117. double-fatal yew. Fatal in two ways, the yew having poisonous leaves and being the favorite wood for long-bows.

III. ii. 118. bills. A medieval weapon having a long wooden handle fitted at one end with a broad blade or axe-like head.

III. ii. 166. self and vain conceit. Vain fancies about himself. 'Conceit' never has its modern meaning in Shakespeare.

III. ii. 176. subjected. Used with a play on the relation between 'king' and 'subject,' and the literal Latin sense of 'thrown down.'

III. ii. 209. Flint Castle. In North Wales, across the estuary of the Dee from Chester. Richard actually went to Conway Castle.

III. iii. 15, 17. Mistake. A play on words; besides echoing 'taking' (l. 14) and 'take' (l. 16), Bolingbroke means 'take not amiss,' and York, 'make no error about the heavens' being, etc.'

III. iii. 40. banishment repeal'd. A Latin construction, equivalent to 'repeal of my banishment.'

III. iii. 147–152. Richard offers to exchange the insignia of a king for those of a hermit or pilgrim.

III. iii. 178. Phaethon. In classical myth, a youth who presumed to drive the chariot of the Sun, but was unable to control the horses. The 'unruly jades' ran away with him, scorching the earth and dashing him to his death.

III. iv. 3–5. bowls, rubs, bias. Bowls is an ancient game played on a smooth oblong green about forty yards long, with one small ball called the 'jack' and twelve large heavy ones called 'bowls.' The jack is thrown out as a mark, and the object of the game is for one side to have one of its bowls nearest the jack at the end of the bout. 'Bias' denotes the intentional one-sidedness of the bowl, caused nowadays by shaving off one side, and formerly by inserting a piece of lead in one part of the circumference. 'Rub' is the name given to any natural obstruction or inequality in the green.

III. iv. 7, 8. measure. A play on three meanings of the word: (1) 'time to music'; (2) 'proportion or moderation'; (3) 'a stately dance.'

III. iv. 22. And I could sing, etc. The Queen apparently means, 'Weeping can do me no good; if my troubles were as light as that, I could sing.'

III. iv. 72. press'd to death. A form of medieval punishment in which the victim was slowly killed by having weights piled upon his body.

IV. i. 1–90. This passage follows Holinshed closely. These events, however, took place on November 3, 1399, while the deposition of the king (who never actually appeared in Westminster Hall) occurred on September 30.

IV. i. 4. wrought it with the king. 'Persuaded the king to order it,' or perhaps simply, 'aided the king to accomplish it.'

IV. i. 11. Is not my arm of length? 'Is not my arm long when it can reach Calais,' where Gloucester was in prison?

IV. i. 21. my fair stars. The high station given him by the propitious stars that, according to medieval belief, governed his birth.

IV. i. 57. sets. A figure from dicing. 'Sets' refers to setting up a stake against the one casting the dice. 'I'll throw at all' means, 'I'll cover all your bets.'

IV. i. 115. Worst in this royal presence. This may refer to the bishop's comparatively low rank in that assembly, or to the unwelcome nature of what he is about to say. Carlisle really made this speech October 22, three weeks after the deposition.

IV. i. 117–119. noble. A play on the two meanings, 'high in rank' and 'lofty in character.'

IV. i. 149. child, child's children. The reading of the Quartos and the Folio; the thought seems to be identical with that of 'children's children,' a reading adopted by Pope and many subsequent editors.

IV. i. 154. commons' suit. 'Request was made by the commons, that sith king Richard has resigned, and was lawfully deposed from his roiall dignitie, he might have iudgement decreed against him . . . and that the causes of his deposition might be published through the realme for satisfieng of the people.' (Holinshed, op. cit., p. 62.)

Ll. 154–157 give the cue for the unhistorical scene of Richard's abdication in presence of Parliament. The deposition scene as a whole (ll. 154–318) was not published and perhaps was only surreptitiously performed during Queen Elizabeth's reign, first appearing in the Fourth Quarto, 1608, for she did not relish the portrayal of a monarch's deposition, and is reported to have said, 'Know ye not that we are Richard II?' L. 321 is evidence that the scene formed an integral part of Shakespeare's original version.

IV. i. 201. Ay, no; no, ay. Punning on 'ay' meaning 'yes,' 'I,' the pronoun, and 'nothing,' of which the 'o' was pronounced long. 'Since I (ay) must be no thing, "no ay" is no no (or, not "No").' The wordplay is as abject as the king himself.

IV. i. 239. with Pilate wash your hands. 'When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.' (St. Matthew 27. 24.)

IV. i. 256. not that name was given me at the font. One of Holinshed's sources states that Richard was called John of Bordeaux after his fall, and rumors were common that he was illegitimate. The name John came from the circumstance that as a very young infant, being in danger of death, he was hastily baptized as John, and later, for family reasons, rechristened Richard.

IV. i. 316, 317. convey. A play on the Elizabethan meanings of the word,—'to escort' and 'to steal.' Thieves were called conveyers.

IV. i. 319. On Wednesday next. It is significant for a study of Shakespeare's handling of history that he writes a deposition scene that is not in his sources, and omits a spectacular coronation that is.

V. i. 11. model where old Troy did stand. In this series of metaphors of departed greatness, this phrase seems to mean that Richard is to his former greatness as the now desolate traces of foundations (model = ground-plan) of Ilium are to its pristine state.

V. i. 15. alehouse guest. Another 'proportional' metaphor. Richard, with whom Grief lodges, is as an inn (i.e., hostelry of high class), while Bolingbroke, with whom Triumph is a guest, is intrinsically but an alehouse.

V. i. 20. sworn brother. In medieval chivalry, one knight formally pledged to comradeship in arms with another knight.

V. i. 52. Pomfret. Pontefract Castle, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, south of York and east of Leeds. Queen Isabel never actually had this meeting with her husband, and did not go to France until June 28, 1401. Richard was imprisoned in the Tower continuously from his arrival in London, August 31 or September 1, until he was sent out towards Pomfret, October 29, 1399.

V. i. 88. than near, be ne'er the near. The three near's sounded alike in Elizabethan pronunciation. The last is an old form of 'nearer.' The sense of the passage, as here punctuated, is, 'Better be far off than, being close at hand, be never the nearer.'

V. ii. 16. With painted imagery. Apparently merely attributive to 'walls,' with no reference to 'had said.' It was the custom to hang out tapestry and the cheaper painted imitations of it to decorate the fronts of houses on the day of a procession, as we use flags.

V. ii. 41. my son. Actually Aumerle's own mother, Isabel of Spain, died in 1394. This Duchess of York was the Duke's second wife. See App. F.

V. ii. 43. You must call him Rutland now. As a sequel to the disclosures of Bagot indicated in IV. i. 1–90, Aumerle had been deprived of the title of Duke of Albemarle, reverting to that of Earl of Rutland.

V. ii. 46, 47. Figurative language for 'Who are now the favorites at the court of the new (and upstart) king?'

V. ii. 74. Ho, who is within there? The regular formula for calling a servant in Elizabethan times. 'Within' refers to the space behind the wainscot partition across one end of the room.

V. iii. 1. unthrifty son. Henry, Prince of Wales, the Prince Hal of 1 and 2 Henry IV, was at this time twelve years old, but Shakespeare presents him as older than this, anticipating the treatment of him in the later plays.

V. iii. 18. favour. It was customary at tournaments for a knight to wear on his helmet a glove or similar token bestowed by his lady-love.

V. iii. 80. 'The Beggar and the King.' Alluding to the title of the old ballad, King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid. (Riverside British Poets, Ballads, iv. 195.)

V. iii. 137. brother-in-law. John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, who had married Elizabeth, Bolingbroke's sister.

V. iv. Shakespeare chose the last of three accounts given by Holinshed of Richard's death: namely, that he was starved to death by being served rich food and not permitted to eat of it; that he starved himself, being 'so beaten out of heart'; and that Exton was set on to murder him. The Folio, which supplies the act and scene division throughout the play, has no indication of a new scene here. The Quartos, which do not indicate scene divisions, simply have the stage direction, 'Manet Sir Pierce Exton &c.'

V. v. The date of this scene is traditionally St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1400, historically some time between the middle of January and of February.

V. v. 9. little world. A literal translation of 'microcosm.' It was a favorite theory of Renaissance moralists that man epitomized within himself the organization of the universe or cosmos.

V. v. 50. clock. Richard carries the figure out into the elements of the clock: 'jar' (l. 51) perhaps refers to the pendulum; 'watches' (l. 52) may mean the markings on the dial; the 'dial's point' (l. 53), or hand, the 'outward watch' (l. 52), or dial, and the bell are more obvious. The royal prisoner's figure is not perfectly proportional, for he makes his groans strike his heart as the sound strikes the bell, an absurdity. But we must not expect too much from a melancholy man in solitary confinement, probably on the brink of insanity.

V. v. 66. brooch. Love for Richard is a strange ornament to be worn in this world where everybody hates him.

V. v. 68. cheapest of us is ten groats too dear. A 'groat' was fourpence, one-third of a shilling, a 'royal' was a coin of ten shillings or thirty groats, a 'noble' was a coin of six shillings eightpence or twenty groats; hence there is ten groats' difference between a 'royal prince' and a 'noble peer,' and the king holds that the latter is worth only half his nominal value.

V. vi. 3. Cicester. The burning of Cirencester and the suppression of the Abbot of Westminster's rebellion actually took place before the death of Richard.

V. vi. 20. clog of conscience. Holinshed (op. cit., p. 76) gave the cue for this line in saying that the abbot 'for thought fell into a sudden palsie, and shortly after, without speech, ended his life.'

V. vi. 33. Richard of Bordeaux. So called because he was born there.