History and Tragedy in Richard II
An attempt to sort Shakespeare's plays into neat categories may appear to have its benefits when striving to understand his work, but even a superficial reading of Richard II indicates that this approach is largely futile and sometimes misleading. While it cannot be doubted that the play is of a historical nature, based on events recorded in Holinshed's Chronicles of 1577 and named after an actual king, a sense of true Shakespearean tragedy is also present throughout. Instead of trying to analyse or appreciate the differences between these two forms, it is more interesting to understand how they complement each other. Shakespeare vividly brings the past to life in Richard II, and it is surely the careful mingling of historical fact and tragic elements that is responsible for the great dramatic value of the play.
Knowledge of the period of history from which the play is drawn means that the audience is prepared for Richard's fate, for example, and this only serves to illuminate the tragic inevitability of his downfall. The audience is aware that Richard II is only the first in a series of history plays, and will be followed by Henry IV (parts one and two) and Henry V. In this sense Richard could be viewed in a potentially unemotional light, as a component of English history whose reign simply linked the reigns of two others. The fact that he was usurped from the throne and murdered is not overwhelmingly tragic when seen in the context of world history, especially if his reign is being viewed with cold hindsight. However, Shakespeare's colourful portrayal of Richard and his fate means that the audience can in many ways appreciate the king in terms of a tragic hero; Coleridge asserting that 'the play throughout is an history of the human mind' (p.128).
The fact that the majority of the play's characters can predict Richard's downfall almost as accurately as the omniscient audience creates a sense of inevitability, which is central to the notion of tragedy. His friends and enemies are united in their experiences of negative presentiment, from which only Richard seems to be immune. The Queen relates that,
Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune's womb,
Is coming towards me; and my inward soul
At nothing trembles. (II.ii.10-13)
Despite the ambiguity of these lines regarding the nature of the 'unborn sorrow', there is an overwhelming sense of unavoidability. The passiveness of the Queen is notable (the sorrow is 'coming towards' her), and the emphatic positioning of 'Is' at the beginning of the second line suggests that there is no escape from this looming disaster. The dramatic irony of the audience knowing that her intuition is correct can only lead to increased pity for her situation. Meanwhile the tragic inevitability of Richard's plight is touched on with the image of 'fortune' giving birth from her 'womb': the King and...