(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard II

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.

John Palmer (essay date 1961)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Palmer, John. “Richard of Bordeaux.” In Political Characters of Shakespeare, pp. 118-79. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1961.

[In the following essay, Palmer challenges critics who view Richard II as the tragedy of one man, and explores the fall of Richard as a king and political figure.]

Shakespeare's Richard II is too often read as the tragedy of a private individual. Attention is focused upon Richard's personality and upon elements in his character which would have been just as interesting if he had never been called upon to play the part of a king. We are fascinated by the unfolding of his brilliant, wayward and unstable disposition,...

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Michael F. Kelly (essay date 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kelly, Michael F. “The Function of York in Richard II.Southern Humanities Review VI, no. 3 (summer 1972): 257-67.

[In the following essay, Kelly studies the crucial role York plays in the dramatic and thematic developments of Richard II. Kelly contends that York's shift in attitude and loyalty, from Richard to Bolingbroke, encourages a parallel response in the audience.]

The thematic and dramatic development of Richard II depends on the pivotal role played by the Duke of York. While he guides audience response, structurally he is also a pivot upon which the transfer of power turns, and thematically he appears for a time to be a...

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James A. Riddell (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Riddell, James A. “The Admirable Character of York.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 21, no. 4 (winter 1979): 492-502.

[In the following essay, Riddell defends the character of York against negative criticism, and asserts that York exemplifies the Christian ideal of magnanimity.]

Coleridge's high opinion of the character of York in Richard II has been shared by few critics in the past century. Although it is unlikely that anyone today would be as shrill (but at the same time obsequious) in disagreeing with Coleridge as Swinburne finally was, the essense of his view persists today. The figure of York, said Swinburne, “is an incomparable, an...

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Ace G. Pilkington (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Pilkington, Ace G. “The BBC Richard II.” In Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V, pp. 29-63. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Pilkington offers a detailed assessment of the highlights and deficiencies of the 1979 BBC production of Richard II, directed by David Giles and starring Derek Jacobi as Richard.]


John Wilders told me in a June 1987 interview that two of the constraints on the BBC Richard II were (as might be expected from the general background of the series) time and money. He used the Mowbray-Bolingbroke confrontation...

(The entire section is 16582 words.)

Robert L. King (review date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Robert L. Review of Richard II. The North American Review 280 (November-December 1995): 41-2.

[In the following review, King offers a positive assessment of the National Theatre's staging of Richard II, directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw as an impressive Richard.]

The National Theatre presented Richard II in repertory with Skylight in the smallest of its three houses, the Cottesloe. Of all Shakespeare's kings, Richard is the most dependent on speech to assert a self because for much of the play he has no real power. The director, Deborah Warner, who had her King Lear enter in a party hat and wheelchair, cast a woman in...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Michael Feingold (review date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Feingold, Michael. “Here's Richardness.” The Village Voice 43, no. 10 (10 March 1998): 141.

[In the following review, Feingold appraises two productions of Richard II, one by the Theatre for a New Audience at New York City's St. Clement's Theater, directed by Ron Daniels, and the other staged by the Pearl Theatre. Feingold observes that while both plays had their strengths as well as effective scenes, each seemed to lose something as it went on. Reviewing Pearl's production, directed by Shepard Sobel, Feingold states that while it was not as vivid as Daniels's production, it had a stronger grasp of the play as poetry.]

To have one company play...

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Charles Isherwood (review date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “Fiennes Plays Politics at BAM.” Variety 380, no. 5 (18-24 September 2000): 45, 47.

[In the following review, Isherwood comments on the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of Richard II, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Ralph Fiennes as Richard. Isherwood focuses on Fiennes's performance, finding that while it was “compelling,” Fiennes's portrayal of the king was silly and pompous.]

It's probably just a coincidence, but the Almeida Theater Co.'s current engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is wittily timed. As the peculiar form of theater known as election-year politics heads into its third act, the company is...

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Leonard Barkin (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Barkin, Leonard. “The Theatrical Consistency of Richard II.Shakespeare Quarterly 29, no. 1 (winter 1978): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Barkin studies the emotional impact of Richard II, and claims that the play possesses inherent theatrical and logical unity in terms of the emotional responses displayed by the characters on stage and the emotional interaction between the characters and audience members.]

For some years, critics analyzing Shakespeare's plays and teachers teaching them have labored under a self-induced pressure to approach the plays as theatre. Such an injunction is properly justified by appeals both to the historical...

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Leeds Barroll (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Barroll, Leeds. “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 4 (winter 1988): 441-64.

[In the following essay, Barroll investigates the relationship between the Earl of Essex rebellion and Richard II.]

History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long, and through which it found its anthropological justification: that of an age-old collective consciousness that made use of material documents to refresh its memory; history is the work expended on material documentation (books, texts, accounts, registers, acts, buildings, institutions, laws, techniques, objects, customs, etc.) that exists,...

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Christopher Pye (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Pye, Christopher. “The Betrayal of the Gaze: Theatricality and Power in Shakespeare's Richard II.ELH 55, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 575-98.

[In the following essay, Pye analyzes the relationship between political power and theatricality in Richard II.]

I would like to begin this analysis of the relationship between theatricality and power in Shakespeare's Richard II by invoking one of those significant and nameless characters who inhabit the margins of Elizabethan political intrigue. In May 1582, during a renewal of Catholic “enterprises” against the English Queen, the crown uncovered its first threat from abroad in the form of a treasonous...

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Margaret Shewring (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Shewring, Margaret. “A Question of Balance: The Problematic Structure of Richard II.” In King Richard II, pp. 2-20. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Shewring maintains that the language of Richard II, patterned and poetic in its nature, complements the play's purposefully and carefully balanced structure.]

Of all Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II is arguably the most difficult to accommodate on the twentieth-century stage. Once ‘the most dangerous, the most politically vibrant play in the canon’ (Berry, p. 16), this tightly structured, poetic account of monarchy in the late Middle Ages is...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Axline, Kim. “‘Sad Stories of the Death of Kings’: The Revelation of Humanity in Richard II.On-Stage Studies 22 (1999): 108-21.

Examines the way in which Shakespeare, in Richard II, used historical fact and political rhetoric as a means of revealing serious human concerns and issues.

Barbour, David. “The Bard Off Broadway.” TCI 32, no. 5 (May 1998): 26-8.

Assesses some of the technical aspects of the Theatre for a New Audience's performance of Richard II and Richard III, finding that the set design allowed for each play to have its own strong identity, and that both...

(The entire section is 693 words.)