Literary scholars generally agree that Shakespeare wrote Richard II sometime during the mid-1590s. Although the 1597 quarto classifies the drama as a tragedy, it is in fact the first in a sequence of history plays commonly known as the second tetralogy. These four plays—comprising Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V—trace the advent of the Lancastrian dynasty in English royal politics, beginning with Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation of Richard II's crown. Unhappy with Richard's incompetence as a ruler, a number of nobles rally around Bolingbroke. They force the anointed king to abdicate, and Bolingbroke is crowned as Henry IV. Imprisoned at Pomfret Castle, Richard progresses from an offensive villain to a sympathetic victim as he poetically contemplates the meaning of his fall from grandeur. Recent critics have probed such topics as how Shakespeare's poetic language shapes the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke; the playwright's ambivalent attitude toward deposing a divinely appointed hereditary king by a Machiavellian manipulator; and how elements of the carnivalesque highlight the key political themes in the play. A number of critics have also analyzed Shakespeare's dramatic treatment of women in Richard II, demonstrating how feminine voices defy proscribed roles at key junctures in the play to challenge the policies of the patriarchal system.
Many critical studies have probed the political dynamics of Richard II, analyzing how the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke reflect their competing ideological concerns. According to Tim Spiekerman (2001), poetry, ultimately, is Richard's weapon. Deposed, Richard tries to fathom meaning from his suffering and through poetry as he attempts to write his own tragedy. Allan Bloom (1981) contends that Shakespeare presents Richard in the worst possible light, to the point that his tyrannical actions make him an implicit accomplice in Bolingbroke's rise to power. Paradoxically, says Bloom, Shakespeare presented the “divine right of kings” concept as the underpinning of Richard's rule and the cause of his tyranny. Richard behaves in a corrupt and tyrannical fashion because he can; since God's ways are inscrutable, he is above earthly reproach. William O. Scott (2002) argues that Shakespeare situated Richard's divine right position within a complicated economic system of landholding, leasing, and tenancy. For Scott, Richard's misuse of the realm—he sells portions off to the highest bidder—compromises his hereditary divine right claim to the monarchy. Contrarily, Louise Cowan (see Further Reading) does not believe that Shakespeare advanced the divine right theory; rather, she speaks of a hereditary king who, even though he is deposed, is still covered by God's anointment. Bolingbroke may depose Richard and rule in his stead and even have him murdered, but he will never achieve Richard's divinely appointed status. Ralph Berry (1999) maintains that Richard is a tragic character, and tragedy needs accomplices. Berry therefore views the protagonist of the drama as Richard-with-Bolingbroke, insisting that the two rulers are forever bound together and share a psychic connection. Hugh Grady (see Further Reading) argues that such a connection can be found in the fact that both men are Machiavels. However, Richard proves to be no match for the political stratagems of Bolingbroke. According to Grady, Richard becomes a political manqué who has forgotten Machiavelli's requirement that a real prince's power-grabbing behavior must be hidden behind a veneer of pretended virtue and rectitude.
Modern critical analyses of Richard II have centered on the play's language and cultural setting to elucidate its central themes. Nicholas Potter (1994) contends that the play's language is full of the sense of elegant ceremony and characterizes it as having “a static, poised quality of equilibrium, symmetry.” By contrast, Spiekerman categorizes Richard's language as grandiose and insists that Richard is a better poet than a politician as his language is replete with dazzling images and metaphors. Cowan considers Richard the last of the medieval kings whose language fits his world: ceremonial, chivalric, poetic. Bolingbroke, Cowan insists, is pragmatic, modern and competitive, qualities that are reflected in his language. For these critics, it is the contrary personalities of these two main characters that best exemplify the play's dramatic themes. Potter likens England under Richard to a present-day emerging nation with the choice of two extreme ideologies: the “golden crown” of Richard or the “shrewd steel” of Bolingbroke. Neither metaphor, argues Potter, touches the plight of the common man. Another prominent aspect of recent critical inquiry has featured the examination of Richard II within the context of festivity and the carnivalesque. David Ruiter (2003) maintains that Richard's aloof governance does not take into account the community's need for festivity, whereas Bolingbroke cleverly associates his ascension to the throne with holiday and community in order to garner support from the masses. The critic notes that Richard becomes, in his own words, a “mockery king,” vilified by the common folk who were deprived of holiday release during his reign. Further, Ruiter contends, Richard's monarchy becomes synonymous with that of the King of Misrule, a temporarily appointed carnival ruler whose deeds and actions contradict the status quo. With the ascent of Bolingbroke to the English throne, Ruiter concludes, the community is reunited and order is restored. Like Ruiter, Martha Kurtz (1996) discusses Richard II in relation to the carnivalesque, positing that laughter corresponds to the personalities of Richard and Bolingbroke. According to the critic, Richard's laughter, laced with arrogant elitism and mockery, signifies an aristocratic insecurity which culminates in his deposition; by contrast, Bolingbroke embraces the carnivalesque, popular laughter of the common man to establish political order after usurping the crown.
Richard II has always been popular in theatrical production. Both the complex character of the protagonist and the universality of theme have given directors great latitude in interpreting the play. In 1995 director Deborah Warner sparked a critical controversy when she cast Fiona Shaw in the lead role of Richard II at London's National Theatre. While they acknowledge that the king possessed many effeminate characteristics, reviewers nevertheless assert that Warner's gender-altering conception was textually untenable and nothing more than a theatrical stunt. Despite offending the aesthetic sensibilities of Shakespeare purists, Shaw's performance was the highlight of the production. In the estimation of John Mullan (1995), Shaw's Richard was “always interesting” and “sometimes brilliant.” Tim Carroll's all-male Elizabethan production of Richard II at London's Globe Theatre in 2003 stood in stark contrast to Warner's feminized staging. Richard Wilson (2003) reminds readers in his review that the original Globe was the setting of a performance of Richard II put on by the rebels the night before the Essex Rebellion, underscoring the political danger implicit in the play. Wilson singles out Mark Rylance's absorbing portrayal of Richard, describing it as the essence of “messianic self-belief.” Charles Isherwood (2003) praises Carroll's “assured and affecting” direction, particularly admiring the poignant intimacy of Rylance's direct addresses to the audience. To inaugurate the Royal Shakespeare Company's celebration of the millennium through the production of Shakespeare's eight English history plays in chronological order from Richard II to Richard III, Steven Pimlott staged Richard II at Stratford-upon-Avon's The Other Place in 2000. Discerning contemporary parallels between Shakespeare's examination of kingship in his play and the toppling of numerous modern totalitarian regimes, Pimlott presented Richard II in modern dress on a stark white stage. Indeed, Michael Billington (2000) likens the set design to “a space resembling a white-walled squash-court or science lab: a perfect setting for this masterly dissection of kingship.” Sam West received accolades for his portrayal of Richard. Alastair Macaulay deems it “marvellous in its blend of intelligence and modesty.” That same year, Jonathan Kent revived Richard II at the Gainsborough Studios in London, before taking the production on tour to New York's Harvey Theater. Vastly different from Pimlott's contemporary reading, Kent's staging instead opted to emphasize the historical context, presenting Shakespeare's play in its traditional medieval milieu. Further, with Ralph Fiennes performing the lead role, the production became essentially a star vehicle for the celebrated film actor. Despite Fiennes's overwhelming appeal with theatergoers, reviewers were divided on the merits of his performance. On the one hand, Susannah Clapp (see Further Reading) praises Fiennes's portrayal as “always intelligent and always interesting”; on the other, Nigel Saul (2000) argues that “[this] is a one-level performance. Fiennes's Richard does not grow or develop. No sense is conveyed of him becoming more self-aware.”