What I love about this play: It opens so many conversations and sets so many threads in motion: what is kingship? Who gets to decide who will be king? What drives history – Providence, human agency, happenstance? What is history good for, anyway? Is there any room for women and commoners in all of this?
The play starts with an abortive trial by combat – which only makes sense, as a means of determining justice, if you believe that Providence takes a direct hand in human affairs. (It’s not clear that either of the combatants actually believes this, although I think King Richard does. I also don’t think the play leaves the slightest ambiguity about whether Richard bears any guilt in Woodstock’s murder. Of course he’s guilty. He wouldn’t be so dead set on stopping the combat if he weren’t.) The king’s word is, for the moment, absolute, save for the one crucial limitation that John of Gaunt voices: “Shorten my days thou canst ... but not lend a morrow.”
So by the end of the play, Richard, a lawful and anointed king, has been deposed and murdered; Henry Bolingbroke is king; and nothing is absolute. The world seems to be completely changed – thrown into chaos, if you read it one way; opened up to new and exciting possibilities, if you’re inclined to believe that kingship should be determined by ability rather than birthright. Except, not. In a lot of bitterly ironic ways, we’re back where we started – a king suffering from blood-guilt, a banishment, a lot of tense alliances that we know are about to fall apart. And Henry’s desire to “make a voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand” suggests that he is, after all, afraid that Providence will have retribution. (It also suggests a bunch of other stuff as well, of course, if you know everything about Henry’s motives, but he won’t be revealing them for another two plays.)
Favorite moment(s): Richard’s description of Bolingbroke’s “courtship to the common people ... What reverence he did throw away on slaves, / Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles ... Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench.” Even while Richard affects to find this absurd, he’s also implicitly acknowledging that political power is a craft like any other skilled trade and not merely a birthright; I think this is the moment when he realizes, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he’s screwed.
I also really like the bit with Aumerle and the Duchess of York in Act 5. It’s a nice little comedic subplot in a play that is otherwise relentlessly tragic, and it offers an alternative set of values to the power politics that shape most of the action: “I pardon him as God shall pardon me.” (This is perhaps the last time mercy and forgiveness will carry the day in the histories, except in isolated corners of the kingdom like Justice Shallow’s Gloucestershire. It’s nice that it works out.)