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The play "Richard II"

Categories: Play

In both plays then, we begin with our monarch and are fairly rapidly made aware of their awaiting fate, their downfall is a process of plots and campaigns against them which lead onto the third stages of the plays: the transference of power, the moment at which the two kings admit their downfall and hand over the monarchy to their successor. In Richard II it comes very soon after his fall began, he returns from Ireland (III. ii), is informed of the situation he faces and immediately admits his defeat effectively handing his crown over to Henry at that moment.

What follows is not a fight for the throne between the two men, but Henry’s journey through England that only emphasises Richard’s loss and the ease of Henry’s win. Shakespeare has handed the power over to the new king in one scene and spends the next two scenes confirming what has already occurred. In Edward II the structure is again the same, although the events that lead to it may be different, Edward, after already having had one battle, is defeated by Mortimer and Kent after their invasion from France and once captured is persuaded by Leicester and the Bishop of Winchester to abdicate in favour of his son.

The final stage of both plays is the exact opposite to the first, the new king in power, for Shakespeare it is Henry IV and for Marlowe it is Edward III, we see their accession to the throne and the murder’s of the two previous kings.

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With these structures the second two stages are mirrored by the first, we start off with one king on the throne and see his downfall, and move on to the rise of a new king and end with him on the throne. It is very possible then that Shakespeare did borrow this concept off Marlowe, and is in debt to him in this way; but to what other limits does this debt extend?

The plays are in fact very different when looking at the events and action that lead to this similarity in structure. Richard II is a very uneventful play when looking for action, there is a battle but only the one, and we never see any of the action involved, in fact we are never even told the result of Richard’s journey to Ireland. The play has all the makings for a vicious and bloody story but Shakespeare choose to ignore the historical facts and replaced them with scenes of discussion.

Where, according to sources like Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland which Shakespeare is said to have used (“Edward II… is heavily indebted, as are Shakespeare’s history plays, to the magisterial Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland compiled by Raphael Holinshed… ” Smith, viii), Richard II was captured and taken to Flint Castle, Shakespeare has instead a surrender of power and an admittance of defeat without as much as a sword being drawn.

As soon as Henry entered England again he was welcomed, and seemed to be on a tour of the country while Richard was away in Ireland, rather than being a threat to the throne. Shakespeare avoided any sign of battle, and there were plenty of chances, the army of Welshman simply disbanded, York admitted defeat without a fight and Richard, despite his high mood when he first arrived home, soon despairs of his situation and tells his men to leave.

Even the murder of the Richard, at the end of the play, is immediately regretted by Exton himself, and Henry, to whom the murder is beneficial, is deeply saddened by the news: Though I did wish him dead, I hate the murderer, love him murdered. The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour, But neither my good word nor princely favour. (V. vi. 39-42) This is all in sharp contrast to Marlowe’s play, in which we see two battles for power and many executions. “Edward II offers a profoundly nihilistic view of history, steeped in blood and treachery and without the transcendental assurance of human love.” (Smith, ix).

If this quotation is accurate then we can already see a huge difference starting to emerge in, not only plot, but also theme and imagery. Unlike Shakespeare, in Richard II, Marlowe does not shy away from violence and battles, he does not use speeches and conversations to settle the arguments, instead he uses such scenes as act three scene two. After Edward II has heard news of Gaveston’s death he promises to “pour vengeance with my sword / On those proud rebels that are up in arms” (III. ii.2-3) and when he and Mortimer’s men meet, both sides swear to “fight it to the last” (III. ii. 27). Edward is victorious and slaughters all the rebels except for Mortimer, he shows no signs of mercy and Marlowe only chooses to save Mortimer so that more fighting can ensue in the later scenes. If Shakespeare is so indebted to Marlowe where are his moments of vengeance and hate that we see here? Why do Exton and Henry show such regret at Richard’s death if it was beneficial to the new king, while in Marlowe’s play Edward II was murdered in a brutal and cruel manner?

Not only this but Lightborn, the murderer, was also killed so that he would not be able to tell of who ordered the death. There seems to be a vast amount of unnecessary killing in Marlowe’s play and only the very necessary amount in Shakespeare’s. It may even be fair to say there is less than the necessary amount of violence and death in Richard II; it is very strange to read of an invasion of England that is met with no resistance, it is unrealistic to see Henry, an exiled man, journey through the country and comes across no hindrances.

The reader expects to see a battle at any moment, especially when it comes to Richard giving up his throne, even Henry expects a violent encounter when he faces Richard: 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. 54-7) There is, however, no such meeting; when the two do come face to face in act four scene one there is just discussion between the two men and their nobles.

Although Richard does show enormous regret and sadness at having to give up the crown (“Drinking my griefs whilst you mount up on high” IV. i. 188) he does it voluntarily and without a fight: I give this heavy weight from off my head, And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand, The pride of kingly sway from out my heart. (IV. i. 203-5) When we compare this scene to that of the fighting in Edward II, and consider the two plays from this point of view, there are no grounds on which to say that Shakespeare is indebted to Marlowe.

The question of whether Shakespeare is indebted to Marlowe for the development of his central character is a slightly more delicate one. It is obvious how they compare and differ in character neither are particularly good rulers, Richard for the fact that he seems to ignore his people and rules only for his private life never acting for the good of his people, this being one of the reasons Henry is so popular when he returns to England because in this way he is the exact opposite to Richard.

Richard does have all the power and control of a true king however, as we see in the first scene when he controls the argument between Henry and Mowbray and again we can see the opposite in Henry when he tries to control a similar situation in act four scene one. He shows signs of favouritism and seems to show very little strength when he gives up the throne so easily. It is perhaps an understatement to say that Edward too shows signs of favouritism as it is this that gets him in trouble in the first place, and when Gaveston is dead he readily replaces him with Spencer Junior.

Again similar to Richard, Edward does not show any particular interest in his realm, he hands out titles as gifts with which to flatter Gaveston and sees no wrong in doing so. Unlike Richard however, Edward never seems all that suited to the throne, we never see the same signs of control and majestic power that Richard has. Their characters are perhaps less important to the question of debt to how their role develops, it is less of a feat to create a character in a play than it is to develop that character and interact the character with the other roles around it.

It is far harder to have every character interacting with each other than it is to create the characters and when we look at the trends between the characters within the two separate plays we see how different the characters are. To compare each corresponding character would be a slightly pointless exercise within this context because every character has their stereotypical trend. What is needed is to ignore what their characteristics are, and take a step back in order to consider what the characters do for the play and for the audience.

For example, if we look at Isabel, in Richard II, then we can see that Shakespeare uses her character in order to create a feeling of sympathy for her husband and king. With her the audience can see that Richard is a good man and through her we, do not forgive, but accept him for his mistakes. Shakespeare creates an enormous amount of mixed feelings with his main characters, we are not allowed to admire the man who wins the throne and condemn the man who looses it, or visa versa, we feel sympathy for Richard yet at the same time know of his shortcomings and crimes.

While at the same time we feel that Henry has a right to fight for what is his, not the throne but his inheritance and freedom, and although we realise he always had his sights on the throne we do not actually blame him for taking vengeance for his uncle. To look at Edward II in the same way exposes nothing of Shakespeare’s debt to Marlowe, it is obvious that the queen loves and supports her husband but he pushes her away and so she is left with no choice but to act against him, there is a feeling of pity for Edward but that pity does not extend to sympathy like it does for Richard, it is more of a dislike and sorrow.

Marlowe is clever in not allowing Mortimer the throne, and setting him up as the winner by giving him the protectorship (“the queen and Mortimer / Shall rule the realm, the king, and none rule us. ” V. iv. 65-6) only to have him killed by the end. In the audiences eyes Marlowe’s is a very just play: Edward II who was never a true king is dead, his enemy and murderer executed by his son and successor and his wife who betrayed him imprisoned.

Everybody who turned against the king in the first battle was executed and by the end the only characters left are those that did no real harm. There are clear differences then between the two playwrights use of their characters, on the one hand we have a duo who are liked and disliked for various reasons and the stronger and more popular man won, and on the other hand we have a duo who are largely disliked and are both killed for it, while the correct heir to the throne gets what is his.

While there are similarities between the characters themselves there are none between the roles that the play, both playwrights create a very different feeling towards their characters and with that create different messages that their plays give across. Edward II is definitely a just play with Edward, although dead, winning the fight as his son gains vengeance for him by executing Mortimer, the instigator of the plot against him and his treacherous wife being imprisoned.

There is of course the argument that Edward III was always by his mothers side during his father’s downfall, but that is really all he was and as we hear from his own lips he was “too young” to make decisions as large as the people around him were. Shakespeare’s play however, is not so just, we see a good king fall and his enemy take the throne when it was not his to take, we are shown of the unjustness of all this through the Bishop of Carlisle who knows that as soon as the throne is taken from its legitimate holder civil disorder will follow.

One of the main ways in which Shakespeare is possibly indebted to Marlowe is through his use of imagery. The constant repetition of the sun in Edward II is echoed in Richard II, used by both playwrights to symbolise the monarchy and the splendour of the royal family. We see Marlowe’s use of it often: “But what are kings when regiment is gone, / But perfect shadows in a sunshine day? ” (V. i. 26-7) and Shakespeare plays on this and uses it as one of his most obvious images throughout the play. Richard sees the sun as “the searching eye of heaven” (III. ii.

37) and so with his divine appointment sees himself as on the same level as the sun, sees himself as heaven’s eye watching over and ruling his people. He says that Henry and his accomplices work at night because they are “Not able to endure the sight of day,” (III. ii. 52). Another image that is used a lot in both plays is that of blood, and this image in fact links the two plays in an unusual way because with it Shakespeare actually refers to Edward III, Richard’s grandfather, when the Duchess of Gloucester refers to the seven brothers as “seven vials of his sacred blood” (I.ii. 12).

So with this image Shakespeare knowingly links his play with an image he saw used in Marlowe’s play, he has a plot that is already linked through the royal family of the time and he strengthens this link by not only repeating the themes used but using one of these themes to refer directly to one of the characters in Marlowe’s Edward II.

It is clear that Shakespeare owes something to Marlowe in his play, and how much he owes is of course unknown but as we have seen there are instances where Shakespeare makes it very clear to the reader that, as well as the characters he has based his play on having close links with the characters in Edward II, the play itself has close links with Marlowe’s. It would be wrong to say that Shakespeare is so indebted to Marlowe that the play is not entirely his own because they are written with so many variables within them but it is certain that there are parts of the plays that are beyond any coincidental link.


  1. Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1970.
  2. Marlowe, Christopher. Edward II. London: Nick Hern Books Ltd. 2001.
  3. Shakespeare, William. Richard II. 3rd ed. London: Penguin Group. 1997.
  4. Smith, Peter. ‘Introduction. ‘ Edward II. Marlowe, Christopher. London: Nick Hern Books Ltd. 2001. v-xx.
  5. Wells, Stanley. ‘Introduction. ‘ Richard II. Shakespeare, William. 3rd ed.London: Penguin Group. 1997. 7-46.
  6. Baker, John. ‘A New Essay on Marlowe as Shakespeare. ‘ Improved Marlowe/Shakespeare School of Thought Emporium. March 24, 2003. <http://www2. localaccess. com/marlowe/short. htm>

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The play "Richard II". (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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