LIke many authors, Shakespeare seems much more fascinated with fallen characters and villains than with heroes. Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Prospero, Prince Hal before he becomes Henry V, etc. Just as his comedy centers around common people, his tragedy and drama center around those who have fallen from grace in some way, whether it is Hal’s antics or Iago’s treachery or Prospero’s vengeance.
Richard II, as a character, is one of the better examples of this. When the play starts out, he is king and not terribly interesting. But as he loses power (and possibly his mind) his character becomes stronger and stronger, getting some of the bet speeches in the play. His melancholy dialogues in Act III are a highlight and he dominates Act IV, talking rings around everyone else.
The thing I liked most about Richard II was that so much was sub rosa. The past conspiracy to kill Duke of Gloucester, Henry’s gradual rebellion even as he proclaims his loyalty, his evident relief at Richard’s death — these all are belied by the words that come out of the character’s mouths. Very rarely in Richard II does anyone say what they really mean; they always dance around it. And it is a demonstration of Shakespeare’s skill that I, five centuries later and having to read about the War of the Roses on Wikipedia, can grasp this, even incompletely.
Next Up: Henry IV, Part I