Part of William Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of historical plays (with Henry IV, Part I, pr. c. 1597-1598; Henry IV, Part II, pr. 1598; and Henry V, pr. c. 1598-1599), Richard II is also his second experiment in the de casibus genre of tragedy, dealing with the fall of an incompetent but not unsympathetic king. It is also part of the lyrical group of plays written between 1593 and 1596 in which Shakespeare’s gradual transformation from poet to playwright can be traced. The sources of Richard II include the 1587 second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577); the chronicles of Jean Froissart and Edward Hall; George Ferrers and William Baldwin’s A Mirror for Magistrates (1555); Samuel Daniel’s verse epic on the War of the Roses, The Civil Wars (1595-1609); and a play by an unknown author titled Thomas of Woodstock.
The themes of the play are associated, in one way or another, with the question of sovereignty. Bolingbroke’s challenge to Richard focuses on the divine right of kings and its historical basis and social implications. Connected with this is the matter of a subject’s duty of passive obedience, especially as seen in the characters of Gaunt and York. Richard’s arbitrariness in the opening scenes suggests the dangers of irresponsible despotism; throughout the play, Shakespeare follows Richard’s...
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