Chronologically the first play in Shakespeare's series of eight history plays centering on the genesis and history of the conflict between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, Richard II was written circa 1595. Shakespeare had already written Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, and Richard III—the second tetralogy, chronologically speaking. Arguably the primary moral transgression that initiates the bloody events of the eight plays is the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. The murder takes place prior to the opening of Richard II, but in the play, King Richard is implicated in having ordered the murder. Not only is Richard believed to be responsible for Gloucester's death, but he is also shown to be a weak and inefficient ruler who has squandered the royal coffers on the public display of the regality of kingship. For such reasons, some critics, including M. M. Reese (1961), have argued that the kingdom has been tainted by Richard's rule, and that Bolingbroke's rebellion, while wicked itself, is a “diseased product of a diseased condition.” Pamela K. Jensen agrees, maintaining that Richard's abuse of power provokes Bolingbroke's rebellion. Jensen contends that following Richard's political fall, he experiences a personal rise, in which he redeems himself by the end of the play. At the same time, Jensen observes, Bolingbroke's political rise to power is paralleled by an inward, moral decline. “Each man,” Jensen states, “is only ever half a king; neither is kingly when he is king.”
In addition to the moral implications of Richard's and Bolingbroke's actions, modern critics are concerned with the issues in the play related to Elizabethan politics. Of particular interest is the scene in which Richard, in front of Bolingbroke and Parliament, gives up the crown to Bolingbroke. This scene (IV.i), commonly known as the deposition or abdication scene, was not printed in any of the Elizabethan editions or reprints of Richard II. It finally appeared in the fourth quarto of 1608, during the early reign of James I. Many critics, including Janet Clare (1990), maintain that evidence exists to support the contention that the scene was excised from print and performance due to its depiction of the deposition and usurpation of a legitimate monarch. While acknowledging that it is conjecture as to whether or not the scene was censored out of the play, Cyndia Susan Clegg (1997) contends that it is unlikely that the scene was excised for the reasons most often given by critics: due to parallels between the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the misrule of Richard, or due to the dangers of the dramatic portrayal of political rebellion during the 1590s. Rather, Clegg argues, the scene may have been viewed as subversive and was therefore censored because it portrays a Parliament that urges, rather than simply consents to, Richard's abdication. Clegg explains that this implies that Parliament may act without the King, that Parliament, in fact, presides over the King and may dictate terms to him.
Other critics have focused on specific aspects of the play's language and imagery, particularly the rhetoric of Gaunt's deathbed speech and the play's mythological allusions. Donald M. Friedman (1976) analyzes Gaunt's speech and argues that although many have viewed these verses as a “national panegyric,” Gaunt is immersed in the questions he presents regarding the “preservation or destruction of the national character;” he is not a “disinterested commentator on the glories of England.” Friedman maintains that through the use of rhetorical conventions that are purposefully unfulfilled, Gaunt's speech demonstrates his own penetrating frustration at being powerless to insure his conception of “England's essence.” George D. Gopen (1987) also closely examines the rhetoric of Gaunt's dying speech, observing that it marks Gaunt's transformation from Richard's “yes-man” into a man unafraid to challenge the king. Gopen further contends that Gaunt's personal transformation presages another transition in the play, from a kingdom concerned with tradition and duty with Gaunt as its spokesman to a kingdom ruled by “humanistic” rather than “conventional” political judgments, with Gaunt's son Bolingbroke as representative of this position.
A variety of mythological allusions in the play have been the focus of some critical commentary. Georges Lamoine (1986) studies the parallels between elements of the Fisher King myth and certain aspects of the play. Lamoine suggests that the myth supplies a “deeper dimension” to the play's warning concerning the deposition of the king, and that the Fisher King myth, with its focus on the spiritual quest for the Holy Grail, heightens the play's own religious implications. Clayton G. MacKenzie (1986) examines how the language and imagery used in the play refer to the mythology of England as paradise, even as the Biblical paradise. MacKenzie also demonstrates that a second mythology is alluded to in the play as well: that of the “fallen paradise.” This fallen paradise, MacKenzie shows, is referred to in Biblical, iconographical, and classical terms, which together emphasize “a central mythology of an English transgression and of a paradise lost.” Taking another approach to the play's mythological allusions, Robert P. Merrix (1987) reviews Richard's reference to the Phaëton myth, as presented in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Merrix maintains that the myth incorporates themes—including the search for one's identity, pride and its fall, and the chaos resulting from “ambivalent leadership—that make this myth a “nearly perfect vehicle for Shakespeare to use in Richard II.”