In the opening scene, King Richard the Second confronts two feuding noblemen--Mowbray and Bolingbroke, the king’s cousin--who accuse each other of treason and demand a resolution by combat. The king’s irresolute and theatrical handling of this episode indicates his weakness and inability to rule. Instead of permitting combat he vacillates and then banishes both men.
Needing revenues for a military campaign in Ireland, the king initiates schemes of taxation and confiscation of property which alienate both the nobility and the commoners. While Richard is in Ireland, his banished cousin, Bolingbroke, returns to claim titles and property seized by the king. Discounting Richard’s view of divine right, the entire populace flocks to Bolingbroke’s banner, an indication that the real power in England belongs to him. Lacking support against Bolingbroke, Richard agrees to abdicate and Bolingbroke ascends the throne as King Henry the Fourth.
Following his imprisonment, Richard recognizes the extent of his misrule and his flaws. His understanding through suffering and his vain attempt to save his life during an attack by assassins arouse the reader’s sympathy for a hero too weak and self-indulgent to be genuinely tragic.
Essentially a one-man play chronicling the king’s fall, the work incorporates strongly contrasting characters--Richard and Bolingbroke. Richard--emotional, willful, theatrical, poetic--prefers words to actions, whereas Bolingbroke, a taciturn, unimaginative, tough, and astute realist, understands by nature how to acquire and wield power.
From the beginning, Bolingbroke’s triumph seems inevitable, yet the outcome creates uneasiness rather than assurance, for, as prophecies in the play make plain, convulsions and chaos followed in a society that deposed a rightful king. From a Renaissance perspective, these disorders seemed greater evils than any attributable to Richard. A spirit of intense nationalism permeates the play, reflected particularly in some of the most passionately patriotic speeches found anywhere in Shakespeare.
Evans, Gareth Lloyd. The Upstart Crow: An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982. A comprehensive discussion of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare. While the major emphasis is on critical reviews of the plays, there are also discussions of sources and information on the circumstances surrounding the writing of the plays.
Holderness, Graham, ed. Shakespeare’s History Plays: “Richard II” to “Henry V.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An anthology of critical works on Shakespeare’s history plays. James L. Calderwood’s “Richard II: Metadrama and the Fall of Speech” discusses the language used in the play and the power of that language as used by King Richard and his rival, Bolingbroke.
Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare’s Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays. New York: Routledge, 1988. A discussion of the Shakespeare plays dealing with English history from the reign of King Henry II to that of Henry VIII, and with the three plays dealing with Roman history.
Pierce, Robert B. Shakespeare’s History Plays: The Family and the State. Columbus: University of Ohio Press, 1971. A general discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays. Pierce considers Richard II to be a direct forerunner of the plays on Henry IV and V.
Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. 1957. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1965. A discussion of history plays in the Elizabethan era of English drama and Shakespeare’s contributions in the field. Considers the development of the form and the sources.