(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Malcolm Page (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Lois Potter (essay date 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Antic Disposition of Richard II,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 27, 1974, pp. 33-41.

[In the following essay, Potter contends that Richard is much less virtuous, and thus a more interesting dramatic character, than has been previously thought. Potter further states that Richard’s elaborate language, although powerful, signifies weakness because it replaces action.]

Many critical studies of Richard II, and a surprising number of productions, start from a curious assumption: that Shakespeare wrote, and asked his leading actor to star in, a long play dominated by a character whose main effect on the audience was to be one of boredom, embarrassment,...

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Paul Gaudet (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The ‘Parasitical’ Counselors in Shakespeare's Richard II: A Problem in Dramatic Interpretation,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, 1982, pp. 142-54.

[In the following essay, Gaudet examines the discrepancy between Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard's advisors—Bushy, Bagot, and Greene—and the way the three are typically perceived (as “caterpillars of the commonwealth”). Gaudet demonstrates that Shakespeare presents the advisors as passive attendants in order to highlight Richard's own blameworthiness.]

In act II, scene III of Richard II, Bolingbroke characterizes his return from exile as the advent of justice to a disrupted land....

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Dennis R. Klinck (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Richard II as Landlord and Wasting Tenant,” in College Literature, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 21-34.

[In the following essay, Klinck studies Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard as both the landlord of England and as a tenant who commits “waste” in the Elizabethan legal sense of the term, and maintains that the idea of Richard as a wasting tenant is a figurative notion.]

If waste be made by a tenant for a term of life of houses or of gardens …, although it be of one house or twenty apple-trees in a garden, the tenant will lose the whole messuage; and so he will lose the whole garden.


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Ruth Morse (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Telling the Truth with Authority: From Richard II to Richard II,” in Common Knowledge, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1995, pp. 111-28.

[In the following essay, Morse studies the way Shakespeare presents historical truth in Richard II, maintaining that for Shakespeare, and for the medieval historians from whose work he drew, “truth” encompassed a range of possible representations.]

In the course of Notker the Stammerer's famous Life of Charlemagne, he also wrote about matters associated with his own monastic life in St. Gall as part of the outlying Christian world: in one story, he interprets the spread of Roman-style chant into the Frankish territories....

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David Norbrook (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Liberal Tongue’: Language and Rebellion in Richard II,” in Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, edited by John M. Mucciolo, Scholar Press, 1996, pp. 37-51.

[In the following essay, Norbrook considers the ways in which the original Elizabethan audience (in particular, those individuals involved in the Essex rebellion) might have responded to Richard II. Norbrook surveys the knowledge Elizabethans had of their country's past and asserts that the play reflected contemporary concerns regarding the necessity of a guaranteed forum for national debate and criticism (Parliament) and the danger of the growth of royal absolutism.]


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James L. Calderwood (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Richard II: Metadrama and the Fall of Speech,” in Shakespeare's History Plays: Richard II to Henry V, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 121-35.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Calderwood maintains that Richard II represents not only the fall of a king, but the “fall of kingly speech” as well.]

It is hardly surprising that a playwright like Shakespeare would project his concerns about drama not only into life but even into the fictional life of his plays, where the world may become a stage, history a plot, kings dramatists, courtiers actors, commoners audiences, and speech itself the dialogue or script that gives breath...

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Dermot Cavanagh (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Language of Treason in Richard II,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 27, 1999, pp. 134-60.

[In the following essay, Cavanagh observes that the topic of treachery plays a central role in the political exchanges in Richard II. Cavanagh explores the way the language associated with treachery is related to the dynamics of authority in the play.]


Postwar criticism of Richard II characteristically has addressed its portrayal of “the secularization of politics … paralleled by the commercialization of the word.”1 The play is often perceived as describing the transition from a medieval political ethos...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Bolton, W. F. “Ricardian Law Reports and Richard II.Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 53-65.

Contends that many allusions in Richard II can be best understood through an examination of law books contemporary with the play's production.

Brownlow, F. W. “The Tragedy of Richard II.” In Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard III and Pericles to Timon of Athens, pp. 95-111. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Analyzes the ceremonial style and main themes of the play. Also discusses Shakespeare's representation of history and states that the playwright's distortion of historical fact,...

(The entire section is 325 words.)