The world of Richard II is a highly ritualized, idealized place from the view of King Richard. The play begins with an example of this: Henry Bolingbroke (the duke of Herford) accuses Thomas Mowbray of killing Thomas Woodstock, the duke of Gloucester, who was King Richard’s uncle. They attempt to settle their differences with a duel, which Richard delays, before cancelling the duel altogether and banishing both men, Mowbray for life, and Bolingbroke for six years, a reduced sentence from ten years as Richard has considered the fact that Bolingbroke’s father is ill. This reduction doesn’t have much compassion, as a man who was ill in Shakespeare’s time wasn’t likely to live six years; so six years versus ten would make very little difference. It is also hinted that Richard wants Bolingbroke out of the way because he plans to use his status as king to justify taking Bolingbroke’s inheritance away from him in order to finance the war he is waging on the Irish. Richard borrows money from nobles and rents out their land in order to gain capital. This is the first example we see of Richard’s misuse of power, and it sets up the driving question for this play: What is the right thing to do when a king is not behaving in a kingly, chivalric way? This indicates not just an ailing, corrupt kingdom in debt, but a disorder affecting the entire universe.
The answer to this question isn’t as simple as disposing the king, as it was believed that the king was the direct representative of God on earth in his country. By accusing the king of wrongdoing, a person was questioning the will of God, which put their own soul in jeopardy. At the start of Richard II, I found it difficult to side with Richard, however. In Shakespeare’s England, to challenge someone above your own rank was discouraged, as people understood their role in society in relation to other people’s statuses. To question Richard is twice as worse, because it means that Bolingbroke is challenging God’s divine plan, implying that God is a crooked character. Throughout his life, Bolingbroke will continue to second guess his actions, despite acting on what he inwardly feels is right and wrong. What is most tragic about his character is that in challenging corruption, he cannot reassure himself that he is not a force of evil.
It is no surprise that this would have troubled Elizabethan audiences, because it means that if Bolingbroke is successful in questioning the king, it would mean that one single person is able to destroy the social structure of both England and the entire universe.