Richard II was probably written and first performed in 1595. Shakespeare’s principal source for the play was the second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1587. Shakespeare may also have drawn from a number of additional sources including an anonymous play entitled Thomas of Woodstock, Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (1525), Edward Halle’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), Samuel Daniel’s The Civil Wars (1595), and three French manuscript accounts of King Richard’s reign. It is possible, as well, that Shakespeare was influenced by Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (c. 1593). This play, like Richard II, also deals with a monarch who is ill-suited to govern and ultimately abdicates the throne.
The story Shakespeare tells in Richard II precedes those told in Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V. The last three plays, which continue the saga of the House of Lancaster, were written and produced between 1597 and 1599. It is likely that Shakespeare had a series of plays in mind when he wrote Richard II, for he had earlier written a four-part cycle of English chronicle plays comprising the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III.
The reign of the historical Richard II took place between 1377 and 1399; the events depicted in Shakespeare’s play cover only the last two years of his kingship and his death in February of 1400. Thus, Shakespeare was looking back on the events of two centuries earlier. Richard II was the grandson of King Edward III and the son of Edward the Black Prince, both noted patriots and warriors. The Black Prince, eldest of Edward II’s seven sons, died at age 46 in 1376, and Richard, upon his grandfather’s death a year later, ascended the throne at the age of ten. The practical details of government were overseen by a series of councils until 1389, when Richard, at 22, declared himself of age to govern.
The age of Richard II was noteworthy for the flourishing of English literature; Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the first great English poets, held royal administrative posts and served in Parliament during Richard’s reign. Richard had little success, however, as a politician. He was unable to reconcile rivalries among his nobles and showed little interest in an ongoing war with France. In addition, he achieved widespread unpopularity among the nobles and commoners for his imperious style of government. Generally considered a weak king, he was deposed in 1399 in a rebellion led by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, who later became King Henry IV.
Critics generally agree that Richard II is a significant milestone in Shakespeare’s artistic development. At the time Shakespeare wrote Richard II he had been a playwright for about six years, yet his great tragedies were still to come. A probing meditation on the nature and responsibilities of kingship, it is the first play he wrote in which the protagonist is an eloquent, introspective man of poetic imagination. The play is noteworthy, as well, for the lyrical beauty of its verse, and for its remarkable portrait of a king whose tragic flaws lead to his own downfall.
The many printed editions which appeared within a few years of its initial production attest to the popularity of this play in Shakespeare’s time. The First Quarto of...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*England. Set during the late fourteenth century reign of the historical English king Richard II, the play does much to offer audiences a variety of English locales, encompassed by a sense of national identity. This emphasis is not merely a mark of Shakespeare’s English patriotism, but a recognition of the crucial link between a king and his land. When John of Gaunt curses his nephew King Richard for exiling his (John’s) son, he calls on the land to reject its sovereign and prophesies that the land will suffer from the blood of the countrymen who will die as a result of Richard’s mismanagement.
Battlefields. After King Richard goes to Ireland to prosecute a war, he returns to find Henry Bolingbroke, whom he had earlier exiled, back in his lands and supported by a considerable army. Although armed conflicts in the play are minimal, they take place on the field of contention, and much of the play’s middle action transpires over clashes of armed men.
Royal palace. The first and last scenes of the play are set at England’s royal court, whose throne and altar of kingship project the cold power inherent in the royal court. Richard’s confrontation with his uncle John of Gaunt and his conversation with his queen are set in secluded private rooms, which project a palpable sense of the division between the king’s public persona and his private person.
In the palace’s garden, an odd and seemingly irrelevant scene occurs involving a discussion between the queen and the palace gardeners. However, their conversation about the garden provides a key to understanding Richard’s problem: Having allowed too many weeds to grow unchecked, he has failed to exert sufficient care for his land.
*Tower of London
*Tower of London. Historic prison to which Richard is sent after Bolingbroke makes himself King Henry IV. Richard’s incarceration and death in the tower represent the reduction of the kingdom’s mightiest personage to its lowliest. The prison is a state of mind as well as a physical restraint, for without his land, the king is no more than a slave to others.
Act I Questions and Answers
1. What accusations does Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, bring against Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk?
2. How does King Richard decide to settle the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray?
3. Who does John of Gaunt blame for the Duke of Gloucester’s murder?
4. Why does the Duchess of Gloucester revoke her invitation for her brother-in-law, the Duke of York, to visit her?
5. What signal does the King give to halt the combat between Bolingbroke and Mowbray before it begins?
6. What penalties does King Richard initially impose on Bolingbroke and Mowbray?
7. What oath does King Richard make Bolingbroke and Mowbray swear upon...
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Act II Questions and Answers
1. Why does John of Gaunt hope that King Richard will visit him on his deathbed?
2. What possessions does King Richard seize after Gaunt dies?
3. Who does King Richard appoint Lord Governor of England in his absence?
4. What news does the Earl of Northumberland share with Lord Willoughby and Lord Ross?
5. Why has Bolingbroke delayed his arrival in England?
6. What reasons does the Queen give to explain her sadness?
7. What information does Sir Henry Green deliver to the Queen?
8. Whose death does the Servingman report to the Duke of York?
9. hat does the Duke of York tell Bolingbroke his official position...
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Act III Questions and Answers
1. Which two characters does Bolingbroke order to be executed?
2. What reasons does Bolingbroke give for these executions?
3. Why does King Richard believe that Bolingbroke’s rebellion will fail?
4. Where does Richard resolve to seek refuge from Boling¬broke’s forces?
5. Who shares Richard’s refuge?
6. What does Bolingbroke claim as his purpose in confronting the King with his army?
7. What does King Richard anticipate if he submits to Boling¬broke?
8. What is Bolingbroke’s first response when the King comes down from the walls of the castle?
9. What diversions does the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting...
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Act IV Questions and Answers
1. What charges does Sir William Bagot bring against the Duke of Aumerle?
2. Which noblemen support Bagot’s charges?
3. Who defends Aumerle against the accusations that are made?
4. What does the Bishop of Carlisle predict if Bolingbroke is crowned as King Henry IV?
5. What is the Earl of Northumberland’s response to the Bishop of Carlisle’s prophecy?
6. What does the Duke of York tell Richard when he asks why Bolingbroke has sent for him?
7. What object does King Richard request after his abdication and what does he do with this object?
8. Where does Bolingbroke order that Richard is to be held as prisoner?...
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Act V Questions and Answers
1. Where does King Richard urge his Queen to make her future home?
2. Where does King Henry IV send Richard to be imprisoned after changing his mind about sending him to the Tower of London?
3. What humiliations does the Duke of York tell his wife that King Richard suffered as he was led into London?
4. What information is contained in the letter the Duke of York seizes from his son?
5. What do the Duke and Duchess of York urge King Henry to do with their son, the Duke of Aumerle?
6. What duties did the Groom perform at one time for King Richard?
7. Why does the Keeper refuse to taste King Richard’s food?
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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”...
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