Setting the word against the word: The search for self-understanding in "Richard II"

Richard Jean Erable, Marquette University


The greatest challenge when writing about, or when teaching, William Shakespeare's Richard II is arriving at a lucid understanding of the tortuous path to self-understanding that marks its enigmatic main character's time on stage. It is not surprising, therefore, that critics often express frustration at uncovering the significance of Richard's frequently schizophrenic and rhetorically exorbitant acts of self-definition. These outbursts occur so frequently that they lead many critics to think of Richard as a character of little substance. Lois Potter, for example, believes there to be "no doubt that [Richard's] elaborate language is used as a substitute for action and, to that extent, is a symbol of weakness" (33). D. J. Palmer, who, in "The Self-Awareness of the Tragic Hero" deals with that group of Shakespearean "heroes whose sense of identity is subverted by a crisis that precipitates unbidden reflection, an involuntary confrontation with the inner self" (131), does not help Richard's case either. One would expect Richard to play a significant role in an essay so titled, but Palmer devotes only a single line to him. Even Michael Quinn, who finds much that is worthy in Richard's character, still finds him guilty of a most "pitiful abdication of self-hood" (182). These critics and others are not entirely wrong, however; Richard is at times weak. A crisis does force him to reflect upon his inner self, and as a consequence of his reflection he does, at times, completely lose sight of his self-hood. But Richard's temporary loss of self-hood is not surprising, given the daunting project he faces: he is engaged in no less than a radical re-interpretation of self. The interpretative self-understanding that he struggles to achieve is, I would argue, the most intriguing, yet the most under-explored, element of the play. It is not that critics have failed to notice Richard's many struggles with self-hood; it is that none has yet focused on the nature of those struggles. This work will try to shed light upon the difficult re-interpretative process that Richard undergoes. Richard's struggles with self-hood, I will argue, have to do with the way he thinks about himself. During the play's first two acts, he thinks of himself as beyond interpretation. He is who he is --simply the King. Not only does this narrow self-definition cripple Richard's ability to react with dispatch to Bullingbrook's insurrection, it constitutes the source of his tragedy, because he understands himself and the world around him as confined to strict hierarchical stations, he believes that no opponent could ever successfully rise up to challenge his authority. But when such an opponent does rise up, challenging his self-understanding and forcing him to start interpreting himself, Richard crumbles.

Recommended Citation

Erable, Richard Jean, "Setting the word against the word: The search for self-understanding in "Richard II"" (1999). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9929158.