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 thoughts and strange behavior and contrasts them with the caginess and certainty of Bolingbroke, whose thoughts are shown only translated into action; Richard thus becomes a study of the complex qualities of the ideal ruler. In this respect, the play reflects the Renaissance fascination with optimal behavior in various social roles, as seen, for example, in Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (1532; The Prince, 1640), Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570), and Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour (1531). Shakespeare’s psychological realism does not reach a falsely definitive conclusion, however; rather, the playwright creates a tragic aura of uncertainty around Richard, which makes him a most attractive character. In many ways, the play depicts not so much a contest for power as a struggle within Richard himself to adjust to his situation.
This is the first of Shakespeare’s plays with a central figure who is an introspective, imaginative, and eloquent man. It is, therefore, not surprising that the work includes some of the author’s finest lyrical passages. Richard II is in fact the only play Shakespeare wrote entirely in verse, a verse supported by a regal formality of design and manner and a profuse and delicate metaphorical base. Intricately interwoven throughout the play are image patterns centered on the eagle, the lion, the rose, the sun (which begins with Richard but moves to Bolingbroke), the state as theater, the earth...
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