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The Art of Kingship: Richard II

A precocious tyrant? A charismatic Renaissance prince? An out-of-touch autocrat? Or a progressive monarch maligned by usurpers? Caroline M. Barron assesses the reign of Richard II.

Richard II continues to command the sympathy and attention of men and women of later generations through a compelling admixture. of charm, power and enigmatic wilfulness. He owes his continuing attraction, in part, to a great work of literature, Shakespeare's haunting portrait of the King in Richard II. Contemporary controversies and later debates have served to push the King himself further from view as historians and biographers occupy the front of the stage.

In his play Shakespeare focuses on the events of the years 1398-99 and so compresses the development of Richard's character, from selfish fop, through rage and despair, to dignified hero within a short two year span. The evolution may be correct but not the chronology: the development of the King's character, brilliantly portrayed by Shakespeare, occupies the whole of Richard's reign. The portrait of the selfish fop may well apply to the years 1377-86; the period of rage and despair to the watershed years 1386 and the dignified heroism to the final decade, 1388-99, when Richard worked to rebuild the authority of the Crown in the face of the twin challenges posed by the nobility, and by the Commons in Parliament.

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