Richard II (ca. 1595) is the first drama of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, a sequence of chronological narratives based on events in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries that chronicle the ascent of the Lancastrian line to the throne of England. In the play, Richard, an ineffectual monarch and the last of the Plantagenet kings, is deposed and imprisoned after his cousin Henry Bolingbroke launches a successful coup to usurp the English crown. Following Richard's assassination, Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, the subject of the following two plays in the sequence. Written entirely in verse, Richard II features what numerous critics perceive as Shakespeare's most brilliantly realized rhetorical tragedy, a work centered on the poetic, introspective persona of King Richard II. Devoid of the spectacular battles, much of the violence, and the epic sweep of Shakespeare's subsequent historical works, the play has sometimes been faulted for dramatic unevenness, but is nevertheless highly regarded for its moments of superbly crafted and penetrating poetic dialogue. Dorothy C. Hockey (1964) compares the dramatic language of Richard II to Shakespeare's later dramas, noting that while his later dramas use a masterful plain style that seamlessly incorporates prose and verse, the ornate and elevated rhetorical manner of Richard II elegantly matches the play's high style and regal subject.
Character-based study of Richard II has overwhelmingly focused on its title figure, and on the relationship between Richard and his usurping rival, Henry Bolingbroke. In general, Richard has been viewed in sharp contrast with Shakespeare's other English kings. Louise Cowan (1981) characterizes Richard II as a dignified but brooding monarch whose irresponsibility as a ruler is an affront to his hereditary authority. His political mistakes and personal disloyalty lead to his downfall, according to this reading, making Richard's abdication the only means of restoring both personal dignity and historical balance. Raphael Falco (1999) focuses on the concept of charisma in his comparative analysis of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. For Falco, both men possess this unmistakable mark of leadership, but in very different forms. Bolingbroke challenges and subverts existing authority; he is a revolutionary and defiant hero who, Falco acknowledges, is paradoxically drawn to seek the royal power he will destroy with Richard. Falco notes that Richard's authority derives from heredity; as the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty he links himself with permanence, tradition, and the corporate power of many individuals as one. In two complementary discussions of character in Richard II, Charles R. Forker (2001, 2002) examines the sources and tragic consequences of Richard's destabilized, mutable personal identity and the results of Shakespeare's deeply ambivalent rendering of both Richard and Bolingbroke in the drama. Forker first illuminates a central dichotomy between Richard's self-indulgent, despotic rule and Bolingbroke's courageous and expeditious capacities as a natural leader who positions himself as England's savior. The critic continues by probing the ways in which Shakespeare subverted this simplified opposition in order to expand his play into not merely the representation of two sorts of individuals, but of two complex approaches to power. The story of Richard II, therefore, relates the clash of competing ideological doctrines as personified by their respective standard bearers.
Although there are many challenges to a successful staging of this play—such as the elaborate verse, complex political themes, and interpretation of Richard's character—Richard II has proved to be popular in recent years and has been revived frequently on the stage. Carol Chillington Rutter (1997) reviews a 1995 production of Richard II directed by Deborah Warner that featured a female lead in the title role. Rutter contends that Warner's Richard II—a significant one in Rutter's estimation despite much critical denunciation—played effectively with the feminization of Richard and highlighted the emotional undercurrents of the work, including the grief-laden relationship between this declining monarch and his usurping cousin. Reviewing Director Jonathan Kent's 2000 staging of the drama with the Almeida Theatre, featuring film star Ralph Fiennes, Ben Brantley (2000) maintains that Fiennes's scowling interpretation of Richard, while probing and powerful, was perhaps a bit overdone. Although intellectually stimulating, it lacked emotion and pathos in Brantley's appraisal. Offering a different view of the production, Richard Hornby (2000) admires Fiennes's skill with Shakespearean verse, as well as his flippant and petulant characterization of the deposed monarch. However, Hornby contends that the supporting cast's inability to reach the level of Fiennes severely weakened the project. Sheridan Morley reviews Tim Carroll's 2003 all-male production of Richard II at the Globe in London. Morley praises the casting, especially Mark Rylance's exceptional interpretation of Shakespeare's “weak, callow, and ultimately defeated king,” but faults the production for failing to marshal a strong Bolingbroke or other cast members to support Rylance's subtle and majestic Richard. Elvis Mitchell (2001) reviews director John Farrell's modern-dress, ninety-minute film adaptation of Richard II. Mitchell finds little merit in this adaptation, citing weak individual performances and a lack of directorial vision, and claims that it “stands meekly in the shadow of film versions that have come before.”
The subject of kingship has attracted a large share of scholarly comment on Richard II. Maynard Mack, Jr. (1973) outlines the antiquated notions of sovereignty professed by the major figures in Richard II, from the ordered, traditionalist views of York and Gaunt to Richard's divinely authorized and idealized, but irrevocably weakened, ruling ideal. In Mack's appraisal, Shakespeare opened such archaic perspectives to scathing criticism by consistently foreshadowing Richard's abdication and the ascent of Bolingbroke. Henry E. Jacobs (1986) also examines the role of kingship in the play. For Jacobs, Richard II dramatizes a theoretical shift from medieval and feudalistic ideals of primogeniture, succession, and divine authority in favor of Renaissance realpolitik—power politics in the terms of Machiavelli. In his analysis, Jacobs summarizes the ways in which Shakespeare depicted the transition from an old ethos to a new one using prophecy as his principle dramatic device. Thomas F. Berninghausen (1987) views the metaphorical relationship between gardening and kingship dramatized in Act III, scene iv of Richard II as the thematic touchstone of the drama. Berninghausen contends that Richard II “derives its frame, rhetoric, and vocabulary from the myth of the origin of history described in Genesis,” including the stories of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel. Thus, according to Berninghausen, the drama reenacts the Christian theme of the Fall by introducing the sins that Henry IV and his son, Henry V, must expiate through their future stewardship of the English people. Kenneth C. Bennett (1988) evaluates the dramatic structure of Richard II and contends that it depicts the two parallel tragedies of Richard and Bolingbroke, who are “tied ultimately by their underlying prideful errors, their failures to set limitations on their powers.”