Historical Background

Richard II was probably written and first performed in 1595. Shakespeare’s principal source for the play was the second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1587. Shakespeare may also have drawn from a number of additional sources including an anonymous play entitled Thomas of Woodstock, Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (1525), Edward Halle’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), Samuel Daniel’s The Civil Wars (1595), and three French manuscript accounts of King Richard’s reign. It is possible, as well, that Shakespeare was influenced by Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (c. 1593). This play, like Richard II, also deals with a monarch who is ill-suited to govern and ultimately abdicates the throne.

The story Shakespeare tells in Richard II precedes those told in Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V. The last three plays, which continue the saga of the House of Lancaster, were written and produced between 1597 and 1599. It is likely that Shakespeare had a series of plays in mind when he wrote Richard II, for he had earlier written a four-part cycle of English chronicle plays comprising the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III.

The reign of the historical Richard II took place between 1377 and 1399; the events depicted in Shakespeare’s play cover only the last two years of his kingship and his death in February of 1400. Thus, Shakespeare was looking back on the events of two centuries earlier. Richard II was the grandson of King Edward III and the son of Edward the Black Prince, both noted patriots and warriors. The Black Prince, eldest of Edward II’s seven sons, died at age 46 in 1376, and Richard, upon his grandfather’s death a year later, ascended the throne at the age of ten. The practical details of government were overseen by a series of councils until 1389, when Richard, at 22, declared himself of age to govern.

The age of Richard II was noteworthy for the flourishing of English literature; Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the first great English poets, held royal administrative posts and served in Parliament during Richard’s reign. Richard had little success, however, as a politician. He was unable to reconcile rivalries among his nobles and showed little interest in an ongoing war with France. In addition, he achieved widespread unpopularity among the nobles and commoners for his imperious style of government. Generally considered a weak king, he was deposed in 1399 in a rebellion led by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, who later became King Henry IV.

Critics generally agree that Richard II is a significant milestone in Shakespeare’s artistic development. At the time Shakespeare wrote Richard II he had been a playwright for about six years, yet his great tragedies were still to come. A probing meditation on the nature and responsibilities of kingship, it is the first play he wrote in which the protagonist is an eloquent, introspective man of poetic imagination. The play is noteworthy, as well, for the lyrical beauty of its verse, and for its remarkable portrait of a king whose tragic flaws lead to his own downfall.

The many printed editions which appeared within a few years of its initial production attest to the popularity of this play in Shakespeare’s time. The First Quarto of...

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