Richard II is the first play of Shakespeare's second tetralogy, a series of four plays based on English history. Unlike the other plays in the series, and despite the political and historical nature of the play, Richard II contains no battles; rather, it focuses on the more subtle and psychological aspects of political power. In addition to the scrutiny of the play's historical and political issues, other topics of critical examination include the play's structure, as well as the characters of Richard, his rival Bolingbroke, and the often overlooked York. Additionally, Richard II has a lengthy stage history, and is still a popular choice for modern productions.
Often viewed as an intense and focused study of Richard's political fall and Bolingbroke's rise to power, Richard II is commonly studied in terms of the conflict between these men and the values each represents. Derek Traversi (see Further Reading) sees the play as the downfall of a traditional conception of royalty, represented by Richard, and the uprising of a new political force, represented by Bolingbroke. In Traversi's analysis of the play and its characters, he concludes that Richard betrays his political office, which he has ineffectively filled, and Bolingbroke, not unlike Richard, proves to be divided between political virtue and the quest for power. Like Traversi, C. W. R. D. Moseley (see Further Reading) is interested in Richard's decline. Moseley focuses on Shakespeare's source adaptations as well as his development of the play's characters, demonstrating the ways in which the audience is led toward sympathy for Richard, despite his failures and faults. While critics such as Moseley concentrate on Richard's personal tragedy, John Palmer (1961) complains that too often, the play is seen solely in terms of Richard as a private individual. Palmer maintains that Richard's actions should be viewed within the context of their political and public ramifications as well. Through the course of his examination, Palmer demonstrates how Shakespeare portrayed Richard as an unfit, futile politician who was unable to effectively deal with the group of ambitious politicians surrounding him. Additionally, Palmer assesses the political motivations and performances of Bolingbroke and others, including Gaunt, Mowbray, York, and Aumerle. While York is sometimes dismissed as weak and feeble, some critics have found his role in the play to be significant. Michael F. Kelly (1972) contends that York serves a pivotal role in the thematic and dramatic development of the play. Specifically, Kelly studies York's position as a staunch but intimidated ally of Richard, and York's subsequent transfer of loyalty to Bolingbroke, arguing that York's shift in attitude spurs a similar response within the audience. Like Kelly, James A. Riddell (1979) finds York to be a crucial character in the play in that he serves as a representative of Christian stoicism and magnanimity. In York's dedication to the principles of magnanimity, Riddell asserts, Shakespeare highlights Richard's deficiencies.
For Elizabethan audiences, Richard II was rife with political implications, as it dramatized the conflict between the divinely ordained right of monarchs and the question of the legitimacy of the right to usurp. Robert Ornstein (see Further Reading) explores the appeal of the play's treatment of medieval history to Elizabethan audiences, maintaining that Shakespeare's evocation of this medieval past was not done with political intentions, but simply for artistic pleasure. According to Ornstein, Shakespeare portrayed the complexity of this conflict without offering a solution to the problems associated with political loyalty and disloyalty. Taking another approach to the play's treatment of history and politics, Leeds Barroll (1988) studies the relationship between the play and the Earl of Essex rebellion. Barroll documents the commissioning of a performance of the play just prior to the Essex rebellion (1601), and the subsequent punishments suffered by those involved with the production. In conclusion, Barroll claims that Richard II was not a potentially dangerous piece of political propaganda; rather, the individuals who commissioned the performance and the players performing it were thought to be dangerous and engaged in possibly treasonous actions. Critics have also focused on the ceremonial, formal language of Richard II, and how such language supports the carefully constructed structure of the play. Margaret Shewring (1996) centers her study on the complementary relationship between the play's patterned poetic language and the artfully balanced structure. Shewring explains that in order to achieve this type of focused structure, Shakespeare simplified history as he found it in his sources, omitting much of the factionalism displayed by the nobility.
Like modern critical analyses of Richard II, modern productions also often scrutinize the historical elements of the play, as well as the performances of Richard and Bolingbroke. Ace G. Pilkington (1991) assesses the 1979 BBC production of Richard II, directed by David Giles and staring Derek Jacobi as Richard. Pilkington notes the ways in which the production may have been improved with greater resources, comments on the production's concern with history, and praises the performance of Jacobi. Michael Feingold (1998) reviews the Theatre for a New Audience production directed by Ron Daniels, which was paired with a staging of Richard III. Feingold finds that the production was less than effective due to this pairing. Feingold also reviews a production of the play staged at the Pearl Theatre, directed by Shepard Sobel, noting that it had a better grasp of the play as poetry than did Daniels's production, although Daniels's staging is described as more vivid. Robert L. King (1995) reviews The National Theatre production, directed by Deborah Warner, which cast a woman as Richard. King praises Fiona Shaw's depiction of Richard and also applauds the production's respectful and illuminating take on Shakespeare's text. Charles Isherwood (2000) reviews Ralph Fiennes's performance as Richard in Jonathan Kent's production of Richard II at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Isherwood finds Fiennes's portrayal of Richard to be somewhat silly and pompous.