Biblical Figures and Ideals in William Shakespeare's Richard II
William Shakespeare's Richard II tells the story of one monarch's fall from the throne and the ascension of another, Henry Bullingbrook, later to become Henry IV. There is no battle fought between the factions, nor does the process take long. The play is not action-packed, nor does it keep readers in any form of suspense, but rather is comprised of a series of quietly dignified ruminations on the nature of majesty. Thus, the drama lies not in the historical facts, but in the effects of the situation on the major characters and the parallels drawn by Shakespeare to other tales. The outrage felt by Richard and his fellow royalists is not due from a modern sense of personal loss, but from the much more important sense of loss of order, which came most predominately from the strictly Catholic sensibilities of the time. In Richard's time kings were believed to be divinely appointed and "not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king" (III.iii, 54-5). This disparity between the perceived will of God and the way in which the events unfold creates trouble in the minds of the characters and the audience. Shakespeare makes it clear that this is not just a simple switch of power, rather a series of events whose meanings and effects penetrate far deeper than the mere surface of the story.
Although not as advanced in its stagecraft as many of Shakespeare's other plays, the intricate web of metaphor and poetry in Richard II makes it perhaps the most meaningful and intense of the historical plays. Richard is not the sniveling villain a lesser playwright might have made him, but a philosopher and a poet whose ideas of majesty have been corrupted by power and influence; Bullingbrook is not the perfect manly super-hero many desire their redeemer to be, but rather a simple man with laudable goals and nothing of the intelligence, soul, or emotional appeal of Richard. These characterizations fit perfectly into both the story and the underlying metaphor Shakespeare creates.
Shakespeare utilizes both the actual language in the play and the events that take place on stage to create a vast and moving religious parallel. The poetry of Richard II and the relationships explored within it serve to bolster this parallel to unignorable heights. The characters in the play thus are not only their historical counterparts, but also representations of biblical figures, predominately Cain and Christ, making Richard II not only a retelling of facts, but also a morality play.
Of the many image strains in the drama, perhaps the one that asserts itself first in the reader's mind is that of the blood-stained ground. From act one to act five, this vision of blood spilling onto the soil of England appears again and again until it culminates in the death of Richard, the king, in his own country.
The horror of blood on the soil is not simply a dislike of violence or...