Richard II (Vol. 58)


Richard II

The events of Richard II form the commencement of a series of eight history plays in which Shakespeare dramatized the political struggles between the houses of York and Lancaster. Composed circa 1595, the play is set during the fourteenth century. A certain amount of knowledge of the history that Richard II portrays is required to properly understand Shakespeare's selective representation of that history. Such knowledge was common to Richard II's Elizabethan audiences. These two related issues—Shakespeare's view of history and the reaction of Elizabethan viewers to his account of it—are of primary interest to Shakespearean scholars. Other critics focus on issues related to the play's characterization and elaborate language. Additionally, some critical attention is devoted to the exploration of the play's genre; while Richard II addresses issues related to English history, the original title refers to the play as a tragedy.

Analyses of genre often begin by pointing out that the Folio and Quarto editions of the play identify it as The Tragedy of Richard II. Ruth Nevo (1972) discusses the distinction between history and tragedy, and compares Richard II to the structure of Shakespeare's tragedies. Nevo contends that although the play fails to demonstrate the same articulation of tragic phases as Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Richard II possesses a movement similar to that of his tragedies. Malcolm Page (1987) focuses on the historical aspects of the play and states that while the drama centers on historical events, it is also about a man's tragic fall.

The historical issues dramatized in Richard II, particularly Richard's deposition and the notion of a monarch's divine right to rule, were of major interest to Elizabethans. Donna B. Hamilton (1983) studies the way the play addresses the relationship between the King and the law, and attempts to demonstrate that Richard II reflects the views of Shakespeare's time. Elizabethans, explains Hamilton, recognized that a monarch who governed by divine right was obligated to obey the law and rule. Accordingly, Shakespeare's Richard was portrayed and perceived as a bad king precisely because he did attend to his obligations and his activities damaged the commonwealth. Ruth Morse (1995) centers her study on Shakespeare's utilization of his sources (primarily Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland [1577] and Edward Halle's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York [1548]). Morse contends that, like the medieval historians he drew from, Shakespeare attempted to write “true” history. Morse adds that “truth” for Shakespeare and his sources included a range of possible depictions. Like Hamilton, David Norbrook (1996) is concerned with the way Elizabethans received the play. In particular, Norbrook studies the way those plotting the Essex Rebellion might have responded to the play in 1601. (In 1601, the Earl of Essex paid for a special performance of Richard II in an effort to use the play as propaganda for his cause.) Norbrook observes that the play reflects the Elizabethan concern that Parliament should be protected as a forum for debate and criticism.

Critics are also interested in Richard II’s language and characterization. James L. Calderwood (1992) examines the parallel between the “debasement” of kingship and the “secularising of language” in the play. The critic maintains that when Richard loses his name as king he must resort to speaking in metaphors, “for metaphor is the language of the unnamed.” Taking a different approach, Dermot Cavanagh (1999) shows that the play substitutes language for action, and the language is particularly focused on treachery. Cavanagh studies the relationship between the language of treason and the dynamics of authority in the play. Lois Potter (1974) asserts that Richard is a much less virtuous character than is often thought. Potter then examines the way Richard's elaborate language, used as a substitute for action, supports this view of him. Dennis R. Klinck (1998) studies Shakespeare's depiction of Richard as both the “landlord” of England and as a tenant who commits “waste.” Klinck undertakes an investigation of these terms in their legal sense and concludes that the characterization of Richard as a “wasting tenant” is, in the end, a figurative notion. Richard's advisors, Bushy, Bagot, and Greene, are the subject of another character study by Paul Gaudet (1982). Gaudet explains that the characters are typically viewed as evil, as the “caterpillars of the commonwealth,” a view reflected in Shakespeare's sources. However, Gaudet maintains, Shakespeare actually presents the three as passive attendants in order to highlight Richard's own culpability.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “The Genre of Richard II,” in William Shakespeare's Richard II, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 7-35.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Nevo assesses Richard II as a tragedy, rather than as a history play, and contends that despite some shortcomings, the play contains a movement approximating that of Shakespeare's great tragedies.]

Beyond the woeful or happy outcome brought about by the catastrophe Elizabethan dramatic theory did not distinguish between the structure of tragedy and comedy; neither were the dramatic practitioners possessed of a theory of genre which would enable them to...

(The entire section is 10676 words.)

Malcolm Page (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Part One: Text,” in Richard II: Text and Performance, Macmillan Education, 1987, pp. 13-47.

[In the following essay, Page reviews the themes, structure, and plot of Richard II and comments on issues related to the staging and performance of the play.]


Richard II begins in the middle: no Chorus, as in Henry V; no explanatory talk among waiting Gentlemen. This could easily be Richard II, Part II, particularly if we know that Richard has already been king for 21 years when the play begins. Instead of any setting of scene and situation, the king is seen presiding while two nobles quarrel...

(The entire section is 12351 words.)