Previous page | Next page

Act 5: Character and Role Revisited

Once he has resigned the crown to Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, dramatic interest in Richard is no longer connected to his role as king. Nonetheless Shakespeare gives him two scenes of high drama. In the first he bids farewell to his Queen (5. 1) and prophesies Northumberland's later discontent with Henry (looking forward to 1 Henry IV). The second is his death scene (5. 5).

Look again at Richard's final aria, his long soliloquy. First he tries to create a microcosm in his prison, peopling it with his thoughts, and once again playing many roles: "Thus play I in one person many people" (5. 5. 31).

Could this be said of Richard throughout the play: that he "plays" many people, many roles?

Richard creates an imaginary world of conflicting thoughts; even in the "better sort" of thoughts, bent on matters of God, there are conflicts in interpreting the Bible (11-17). Shakespeare provides him with a different set of images as music plays offstage. Music--well played--is symbolic of divine order, that "deep harmony" that Gaunt hoped would "enforce" Richard to listen to him earlier (see 2. 1. 6). But Richard finds fault with the performance, and takes it instead as symbolic of disorder and discord. In order to be harmonious, music must keep time, and Richard sees in the distempered sound an emblem of his own failure: "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me" (49). He goes on to create another ingeniously extended metaphor on the subject of time and the mechanism of the still new technology of the clock.

Some critics of the play describe Richard as a poet rather than a king. Does this speech support their view?

In many tragedies the protagonist has a moment before death when he or she understands the what it is in the self that has set the tragedy in motion and made it inevitable (the Aristotelian term is anagnorisis).

How much does Richard finally understand of the part he has played in his own downfall?

After the quiet contemplation of the soliloquy, Richard's death is violent and sudden. Historically Richard did die in Pontefract Castle, but it was probably by slow starvation rather than the dramatic way Shakespeare has him kill two murderers before being himself killed by Exton. [Note 1]

Does the manner of his death modify the opinion you have formed of Richard to this point?

Think especially of the arrival of the Groom, a new character at this late stage of the play, and his sympathetic, supportive words to Richard.

[Return to top]


The play ends with Henry IV firmly in power with a long list of rebels' heads to be displayed on the battlement of London Bridge. When he hears of Richard's death, Henry likens Exton to the Biblical fratricide Cain--

But is Henry himself any less a murderer of his royal brother/cousin?

He plans to set off on a Crusade in order to "wash [Richard's] blood off [his] guilty hand" (5. 6. 50). As you will see if you read 1 Henry IV, he never gets time to do so. One of Henry's characteristics is that after his initial challenge of Mowbray he remains silent at many points in the play where there are multiple possible reactions to the situation before him. In Richard's abdication scene he says little despite the way he is baited, and in the sequence where many of the nobles challenge each other he is silent (passive? impassive? calculatingly observant?), simply allowing the passions to work themselves out.

How much does the text tell us about Bolingbroke/Henry IV?

This is another occasion when it is appropriate to consider the relationship between his roles as challenger to the throne (and therefore sinful usurper), victim of Richard's intemperance and greed in seizing his lands, and a potentially competent governor of England. As Richard falls, Henry rises. If our attitude to Richard has changed during the course of the play from condemnation of an irresponsible and self-centred ruler to at least partial sympathy with a victim of a political world he was ill-suited to, how do we respond to Henry?

Has our attitude to Henry changed in the opposite direction, from sympathy to condemnation?

The play is ended, but Henry's trials are just begun.

How complete is the sense of closure in this play?

The first edition of Richard II described it as a tragedy, not a history. And Richard dies, perhaps tragically, in part as a result of his own fallibility, in part as a result of an inevitable fall in fortune. But the prophecies in the play point towards events not covered in the time span of the play itself, and there are clear signs that further rebellion is ahead.

You will return to the concept of closure several times in this course, comparing different genres, and exploring the way that Shakespeare tends to leave threads dangling, issues unresolved, and questions unanswered. In this way he is a very (post) modern writer.

[Return to top]


  1. The early historian, Adam of Usk, wrote:
    And now those in whom Richard, late king, did put his trust for help were fallen. And when he heard thereof, he grieved more sorely and mourned even to death, which came to him most miserably on the last day of February [1400], as he lay in chains in the castle of Pontefract, tortured by Sir N. Swinford with scant fare. . . . [Back]

Previous page | Next page

Table of Contents | Study Plan | Self-Test | Background Reading | Commentary Table of Contents | Study Questions
[Return to the overview of Shakespeare: Early Plays]
This page last updated July 7, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
© Michael Best and The University of Victoria.