Because King Richard is the eponymous character of this play, it is his emotional journey which readers follow in details. Through the play, numerous traits of his personality are clearly exposed, giving readers plenty of evidence on which to form opinions. In the opening scene of the play, Richard at first comes across as an authoritative ruler, with full control over the situation and an evident sense of fairness and justice. This gives readers scope to feel admiration for him, because he is apparently displaying vital qualities in a good monarch.
However, it is not long before Richard slips up and allows his weakness to be exposed. After regally announcing, “We were not born to serve, but to command”, he immediately falters and adds “Which since we cannot do… ” This shows from the beginning that Richard is not a king capable of impressing us with authority and strength of mind, which I found to weaken the chance of me admiring him. “Richard II”, as well as being a play about history, can also be seen as an exploration of psychological depth.
Richard is a character who always makes his emotions known, through introspective, lyrical and highly metaphorical poetry. This allows us to trace his journey to awareness far more empathetically. Personally, I agree at times that Richard’s journey moves me to sympathy. I is clear that Richard’s character is one whom audiences are forced to feel strong ambivalence about, which also reflects Richard’s ever-changing moods. It seems to me that Richard is at his most vulnerable when he is alone or in domestic circumstances, rather than when he is showing off as king.
I feel a great deal of sympathy for him when he is saying a mournful farewell to his queen, because his gentler, loving side is revealed. It is a stark contrast to, for example, when he is sarcastically patronising John of Gaunt for questioning his royal capability, and seemingly “playing up” to his followers for attention. I cannot, however, feel admiration for Richard. The way in which he hands over his reign, with no logical reasoning, is enough to make me see him as clueless, overreacting, and not in control of his own mind, let alone a country.
The quick changes of emotional outlook, for example when he moves from hopelessly speaking of “the deaths of kings” to announcing his divine rights and believing himself to be capable of anything, make him appear over-the-top, false, and insincere in his apparent strong emotions. In the director Mark Rylance’s interpretation of the play, he played Richard as a dithering idiot, encouraging the audience to laugh at him like an indecisive child.
While many viewers and critics of this performance disapprove of this characterisation, I thought it was effective in making us realise how hopeless, lacking in authority, and frankly idiotic Richard acts in various scenes of the play. In Act V, Richard’s soliloquy while locked up alone, stripped of all power, should have the potential to make readers feel sympathy for him. Many readers do, however I personally find his conceits, or over-exaggerated metaphors, intensely irritating, and his self-pity only makes him seem weaker than ever.
The critic Norman Carrington keenly observed that excepting the line “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”, Richard makes no reference to the fact it is his own fault that he ended up in his current situation. His awareness of what he must face reaches its pinnacle during this monologue, but it still seems to me that he has a blinkered vision of everything else which has happened, still lacking in a solid grasp of reality, responsibility and control. Instead, he ponders in depth about his own misery, a man full of words but with no actions to undo his mistakes.
The lack of accepting responsibility for the loss of his throne is further evident in his dying words, believing himself to be ascending to a throne in heaven, “up on high”, and still hopelessly clinging to his divine rights as king, cursing Northumberland. Shakespeare would have written this play to be performed before Queen Elizabeth I, not only as an educational history lesson but most likely also as a lesson in successful monarchy. His portrayal of a king would have shown her how not to act as a reigning monarch. Richard is easily defeated, confused by reality, and all too often wallowing in self-pity.
Ultimately, Richard is only human, and his vulnerability makes it impossible for me not to feel a certain amount of pity for him, at times. Therefore I agree that his journey moves readers to sympathy. However, as well as being a human, he is also a ruler of a country, which should make him authoritative, confident and in control. In my opinion he is none of these. A fool with no grasp of reality is dangerous when given power. Richard has too many weaknesses and flaws which are revealed in this play, traits which do not provoke respect. Therefore I cannot agree that I am moved as far as admiration for Richard.