Richard II - Character Profiles - Duke Of York

As we look forward to David Tennant's performance as Richard II in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the play, we will be taking a look at the play and its characters in a series of articles.
We continue with a look at how some character's loyalties are tested to the extreme...

Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, is Gaunt's brother and the last of Edward III's sons. He is both like and unlike his brother. He is like him in his absolute commitment of duty. Richard recognises this loyalty - just after York has rebuked him passionately and left the stage in disgust,he still makes the Duke Governor of England in his absence. Later in the plot, when York has taken an oath of allegiance to the new King Henry IV, he maintains his loyalty to Henry even to the point of informing on his own son Aumerle. It is no surprise that Henry sees in his uncle York something of his own father Gaunt, for York like Gaunt, lets neither family nor personal considerations come before duty.
Yet York is a much more commanding figure than Gaunt. For York old age mans not the wisdom of experience, it means weakness, indecision and helplessness. It is York himself who tries to dissuade Gaunt from criticising the King lest it do more harm than good and though he does make some efforts to organise resistance to Henry, these efforts are rather half hearted. When York confronts Henry, he simply admits he is powerless and yields. He is a man with neither natural authority nor initiative. Affairs simply leave him confused. So, far from being Richard's governor, he comes to claim to be neutral. He feels sympathy for Richard, but by the the time of the deposition he has moved from his neutrality to Henry's side and is the first to hail the new King. By Act V he has taken an oath of allegiance to Henry IV. It seems that for all his sense of duty , he drifts with - or is pushed by - events. The impression is of a man unable to cope: "Things past redress are now with me past care".
York's indecision and ineffectuality constitute a crucial part of the design of Richard II for in him we see the central dilemma of the play; Gaunt dies before having to face the dilemma. York has outlived his time: his simple but firm sense of duty, ideal when the King is strong and noble like Edward III, does not know which way to turn when the King is weak and negligent like Richard II. It is precisely because York both wants to remain loyal to Richard and recognises that he has not behaved as a King should towards Henry that he is caught between the two sides. We might say that in him we see the confusion that results when the King ceases to be a true ruler and inspiration of his people.