In Act I of Richard II, Richard is portrayed as powerful, pompous and arrogant, all somewhat contrastingly to his portrayal towards the end of the play. We see even as early as Act I glimpses of Richard’s fatal flaws and the crucial mistakes he makes which determine his dramatic fall. The genre of the play is historic tragedy, so the audience know the main protagonist; in this case Richard; is doomed from the start. So, in Act 1 Shakespeare’s portrayal of him is not only purposeful for his fall, but also hugely ironic, making his descent to …… even more dramatic.
Immediately in Act I, Richard’s power and authoritative presence is apparent.
The setting in Windsor Castle is a very formal occasion, as Richard gives Bullingbrook and Mowbray a formal hearing. It is really overblown and grandeur setting for the opening scene and so even before any speech, Richard is perceived as being powerful and omnipotent. On stage Richard, is central and stationed upstage to observe the proceedings.
When he descends from his raised platform (which was traditional) and walks downstage to stop the proceedings later in the scene, he travels quite a distance on stage, reinforcing his pivotal place on the stage and in the political picture.
These proxemics physically symbolise how Richard was the most powerful, which is extremely ironic as at the end of the play the roles are reversed as Bullingbrook defeats Richard. Richard is then the first character to speak, and refers to Bullingbrook and Mowbray by ‘Henry Hereford’ (I/I/3) and ‘Duke of Norfolk’ (I/I/6), making it seem very occasional and formal, so he appears as the voice of authority and as he is the first character to speak, it again re-emphasizes his ascendency.
Alongside the first scene being a hugely occasional event, whereby Richards importance and authority is greatly established, is it written in rhyming couplets; likewise the rest of the play. Richard II is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays not written in prose, which gives it a sense of importance and authority. As the title of the play is Richard II, this then dramatizes how much power Richard initially had and so how much was at stake. As king of England in the 14th Century, Richard along with the majority of his people believed in the Divine Right.
As we can see by his use of the royal ‘We’(I/I/24) ‘us’(I/I/24) and ‘our’(I/I/84), by this he is referring to himself and God, which shows Richard’s arrogance and audacity, as he refers to himself with a heightened sense of authority. However, as the Act continues we realise that although Richard is King of England so along with the title comes extraordinary wealth and power, Richard is not all that powerful and authoritative. When he uses the metaphor ‘Rage must be withstood/ Give me this gage.
Lions make leopards time’ (I/II/173-4) here he is trying to assert his dominance and gain back control over the hearing as Bullingbrook and Mowbray demand a fight. He is reminding them of his pre-eminence, which makes him seem not only egotistical but shows his lack of control especially following Mowbray’s reply; ‘Yea, but not change his spots’ (I/II/175). His undaunted and scintillating response show is lack of true and honest respect for Richard, aside from formalities.
It shows Richard’s lack of intrinsic power if a noble can under-mine him, and feels the need to knowing what the consequences may be. Not only is the whole play written in poetic rhyming couplets, but much of Richard’s speech is written very poetically and Shakespeare uses a lot of colourful and figurative language in his speech. By ‘face to face’ ‘brow to brow’ ‘the accuser and the accused’ Richard is repeatedly using mirroring imagery to re-enforce the idea of the ‘standoff’ coming between Bullingbrook and Mowbray, but also signifies the ultimate standoff between himself and Bullingbrook.
However, this repetition creates a racy rhythm making him sound arrogant and pompous. From Richards continuous use of dramatic and poetic language, we can see he is not a man of action; a conclusion which is supported as in Act I Scene I he stands away and watches Bullingbrook and Mowbray fight, he is higher than them, symbolically and physically. Also, by him stopping Bullingbrook and Mowbray’s joule ‘Let them lay by their helmets and their spears/ And both return back to their chairs again’ (I/III/119-20) he looks effeminate and weak.
Although he has an extraordinary flair for poetry but this appears to be his fatal flaw, he relies on language and words rather than traditional war and action. This is totally contrasting to Bullingbrook’s characterisation in Act I, he is willing to fight Mowbray till death ‘And as I truly fight, defend me heaven’ (I/III/41), he is a man of action and it is this which ultimately leads to Richard’s fall and defeat.
However, this is somewhat ironic as his failing is words, but Shakespeare himself is a man of words and beautifully poetic language, which makes his failing and collapse even more dramatic as it is totally un-expected for his audience. As well as seeing Richard’s dependence on words and poetry we also are also introduced to another of Richards fatal mistakes. In Act 1 Scene 4 we see Richard in a completely new light, when Bushy informs him of Gaunt’s deteriorating health and the fact he is close to death, instead of feeling grief or any malice or despondency his first thought is of his inheritance.
His response is cruel and heartless, only focusing on his financial gains from Gaunt’s death, ‘The lining of his coffers shall make coats/ To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars. ’ Gaunt’s inheritance is right-fully his son’s, Bullingbrook, so by taking it Richard is giving Bullingbrook a reason to avenge and try to destroy him. Not only does this make Richard seem brutal and callous, but also narcissistic and gallant as he does not even consider Bullingbrook’s reaction.
As Richard believes he is God’s representative on earth, he sees himself as ‘untouchable’ impenetrable, so Bullingbrook’s anger does not matter as he cannot defeat him as he is protected by God- an idea certain to make Richard fall, and clearly apparent to the audience. Overall, Richard’s portrayal changes throughout Act I as his flaws and cracks begin to show. He is shown to be authoritative and powerful initially but we then see him to not be as powerful as he believes himself to be. However, there is no doubt that he is egocentric and contemptuous, apparent through his exaggerated self-opinion.