Despite sharing a titular nomenclature, Shakespeare’s plays about kings named Richard bear very little similarity otherwise. One of the most striking things about the two plays is the manner in which the literary structure of each seems to resemble the characterization of the monarch whose life they attempt to dramatize. Shakespeare cleverly manipulates the audience reaction in these two plays by presenting one king as a mystery to be understood and one king as a figure that may be all too easily and uncomfortably understood.
Today’s readers and audiences even more so than their long ago counterparts find it difficult to relate to a monarch and Richard II uses that disconnect to its greatest advantage. Richard II is neither a king nor a human being easily embraced. In fact, as a ruler he seems to share quite a bit in common with the modern day monarch of England; despite having less actual power than Richard, the second Queen Elizabeth hardly seems any more a ceremonial head of state.
It is ceremony, in fact, that Shakespeare utilizes to manipulate the audience this play. It would be very difficult to imagine an opponent of Richard III spouting lines like “Methinks King Richard and myself should meet/With no less terror than the elements/Of fire and water, when their thundering shock/At meeting tears the cloudy cheeks of heaven” (III. iii). only wind up with anticlimactic meeting that takes the form of rigid ceremony and ends with what amounts to a bloodless coup. From the opening lines that Richard III speaks, the audience receive more than a just a glimpse into the soul of this man who would hardly sit by and give up without a fight the way Richard II does. Consider the humpback’s quick reply when Buckingham inquires what should be done if Lord Hastings won’t yield: “Chop off his head, man!” (III. i.) By that point in the play, we would expect nothing else, certainly nothing less, from that Richard, in part because deep down inside we all know that is the only answer that we would give.
Richard II presents an image of ourselves that at times we might aspire to; Richard is a king who fully understands the gravity of his power. He is, perhaps, a man who understands it a little too well. If it is true that Richard II is presented to the audience as a mystery then the following lines do nothing to unravel what lies at his core: “To monarchise, be fear’d, and kill with looks/Infusing him with self and vain conceit/As if this flesh which walls about our life/Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus” (III. ii). Richard II intuits at some level that a king is a man first; Richard III appears not to have grasped this. From his opening monologue on, Richard III sets himself apart from other men. He is steadfast not only in his loneliness, but his aloneness. And in that aloneness he finds his path to greatness lies in wielding power. By contrast, Richard II can never quite get to that nugget of self-centeredness that would have allowed him to fend off the rebellious Bolingbroke. Richard III might well have gone down in a blaze of defeat before Bolingbroke as well, but one can be certain it would not have come as easily as Richard II handed over his crown.
That singular difference between the men is the primary contrast in the way that Shakespeare chooses to manipulate his audience. All the while Richard II clings to his kingly ways, insisting upon order and ceremony befitting the King of England. By way of contrast, Bolingbroke is presented much less kingly, but more effective. Bolingbroke is the usurper of power in this play, of course, and in that respect compares more with Richard III than perhaps Richard II does. But Bolingbroke is not Richard III, he is not a demon. That is because Shakespeare’s motive is to present a story of England’s move from the last stages of the ineffectual Middle Ages and toward the imperialist glory of his own time. It is simply not in Shakespeare’s best interest to present Richard II as a completely failure, but rather as a link in a chain that leads ultimately and inexorably to the monarch ruling over the England in which he wrote. Richard II may be a mystery because Shakespeare simply did not possess the political ability to present him any other way.
That is most certainly not the case with Richard III. While Richard II and Bolingbroke both stand as monarchs who, regardless of their relative merits as rulers, set England’s majesty first in their hearts and minds. Richard III, on the other hand, regardless of whether he was effective or not, sought the kingship of England only for himself and for selfish reasons. From that iconic opening monologue onward, Shakespeare paints a portrait of a villain coming to power and abusing that power; a corruption of the very same urge to power that both Richard II and Bolingbroke sought. Shakespeare’s use of manipulation in this play is to reduce all mystery surrounding his title character, presenting his grasp for power as utterly obvious not only for dramatic purposes but also to reveal how such a shameless human being is, indeed, so utterly and totally invisible. Watching Richard III is equivalent to watching a psychic X-ray of all humanity, seeing through to rotten core that lies within us all.
Though both kings in Shakespeare’s play may be named Richard, they are worlds apart both dramatically and thematically. Richard II is representative of giving oneself over to the ceremony of life, minus the passion that allows for survival. By contrast, Shakespeare uses Richard III to reveal the dark side of our souls, content to pursue our own selfish goals regardless of the cost to those around us.