By William Shakespeare
Written about 1595

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2009

General Note: In January 2009 I decided that I’d like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadn’t read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play I’ve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeare’s play’s I’ve read and commented on


Richard II lived from 1367-1400, was a Plantagent, son of Edward, The Black Prince. He was only 9 when his father died and he became the heir to the throne which his grandfather, Edward III held. King Edward died in 1377 and Richard became king at age 11. Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford, son of John the Gaunt, thought he should be king, and that action is the story of this play. As the play opens an argument between Bolingbroke and the Duke of Norfolk comes before the king. Each man accuses the other of being involved in the murder of John the Gaunt. King Richard bans Norfolk from England for life, and Bolingbroke for 6 years and this sets off a chain of events which leads to Bolingbroke returning to England to unseat the king.

Bolingbroke’s father, the Duke of Gaunt, appeals to his nephew, the king, to forgive Bolingbroke, allow him to return to England and reclaim his land. Richard says, wait a bit, you yourself were part of the team who helped me judge this case, now you have changed your mind? What’s this. Gaunt replies:

Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.
You urg’d me as judge; but I had rather
You would have bid me argue like a father.
O, had it been a stranger, not my child,
To smooth his fault I should have been more mild:
A partial slander sought I to avoid
And in the sentence my own life destroyed
Alas, I look’d when some you should say,
I was too strict to make mine own away;
But you gave leave to mine unwilling tongue
Against my will to do myself the wrong.

Richard replies to him, but what are a mere six winters? And Gaunt replies:

To men in joy; but grief make one hour ten.

Bolingbroke returns without permission and begins an uprising against Richard, eventually bringing him down, and seemingly, having Richard killed in captivity. Bolingbroke ascends to the throne as King Henry IV. Shakespeare is quite interesting in his treatment of the whole claim of who was the rightful king and how to stand on Bolingbroke’s coup d’etat. He seems to me to take a stand that suggests he doesn’t like the one in power. When Richard is king, Shakespeare is quite hard on him and makes him out to be mean and unfair.

When Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt lays dying, and Richard gets word he says: Come, gentlemen, let’s all go visit him Pray God we make haste, and come too late!”

There is a great scene in the king’s garden. The royal gardener is telling his workers how to treat the plants in ways for them to grow and remain healthy. He does this will constant allusions to Richard’s misrule and how were Richard to have minded his garden of state it would be healthy.

All of that reminded me of Jerzy Kozinski’s BEING THERE in which the simplistic gardener of an old rich guy is taken to be speaking great economic policy when he is simply making allusions to gardening. Ok course Kozinski’s gardener’s wisdom is ironic, but Shakespeare’s gardener is quite wise, but very critical of the king. After getting Richard into the Tower of London and is in a hopeless situation, Shakespeare finally relents and gives Richard a humane speech. When his wife comes to visit in the town he tells her, in effect, he’s going to die in the tower. She should clear out to France and seek shelter in a convent and from there at least defend his name sometime.

Good queen, prepare thee hence for France
Think I am dead; and that even here thou tak’st
As from my ‘death-bed, my last living leave.
In winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell the tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bids good-night to quit their grief
Tell thou the lamentable tale of me
And send hearers weeping to their beds;
For why, the senseless bards will sympathize
The heavy accent of thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out;
And some will mourn in ashes, some wal-black
For the deposing of a rightful king…

There is another very touching scene in which York’s wife, acting with deep emotion, acts against her husband’s advice and asks King Henry IV (Bolingbroke) to spare her husband his treason. Bolingbroke does it.

However, toward the end of the play Shakespeare seems to have almost completely shifted his favor from Bolingbroke to Richard II. Very curious shift.

One of the most notable things of this play is how they deal with contrary testimony in which there isn’t clear evidence. Almost no one ever cites FACTS. They will tell deeds they allege happened, or what some deeds can be seen to mean, but they just don’t give evidence. Then the other person says: “Ah he’s a liar.” And this back and forth, no he’s lying, but no, it’s the other who lies and so on. Then they will say that they will decide this with the sword. What a curious assumption. Might not only makes right, it makes truth! Very strange world view.

A quite interesting and worthwhile play to read.

Bob Corbett



Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett