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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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*England. Set during the late fourteenth century reign of the historical English king Richard II, the play does much to offer audiences a variety of English locales, encompassed by a sense of national identity. This emphasis is not merely a mark of Shakespeare’s English patriotism, but a recognition of the crucial link between a king and his land. When John of Gaunt curses his nephew King Richard for exiling his (John’s) son, he calls on the land to reject its sovereign and prophesies that the land will suffer from the blood of the countrymen who will die as a result of Richard’s mismanagement.


Battlefields. After King Richard goes to Ireland to prosecute a war, he returns to find Henry Bolingbroke, whom he had earlier exiled, back in his lands and supported by a considerable army. Although armed conflicts in the play are minimal, they take place on the field of contention, and much of the play’s middle action transpires over clashes of armed men.

Royal palace

Royal palace. The first and last scenes of the play are set at England’s royal court, whose throne and altar of kingship project the cold power inherent in the royal court. Richard’s confrontation with his uncle John of Gaunt and his conversation with his queen are set in secluded private rooms, which project a palpable sense of the division between the king’s public persona and his private person.

In the palace’s garden, an odd and seemingly irrelevant scene occurs involving a discussion between the queen and the palace gardeners. However, their conversation about the garden provides a key to understanding Richard’s problem: Having allowed too many weeds to grow unchecked, he has failed to exert sufficient care for his land.

*Tower of London

*Tower of London. Historic prison to which Richard is sent after Bolingbroke makes himself King Henry IV. Richard’s incarceration and death in the tower represent the reduction of the kingdom’s mightiest personage to its lowliest. The prison is a state of mind as well as a physical restraint, for without his land, the king is no more than a slave to others.

Modern Connections

(Shakespeare for Students)

At first glance, the world of Richard II appears to have little in common with ours. The play itself is written entirely in formal,...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Evans, Gareth Lloyd. The Upstart Crow: An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982. A comprehensive discussion of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare. While the major emphasis is on critical reviews of the plays, there are also discussions of sources and information on the circumstances surrounding the writing of the plays.

Holderness, Graham, ed. Shakespeare’s History Plays: “Richard II” to “Henry V.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An anthology of critical works on Shakespeare’s history plays. James L. Calderwood’s “Richard II: Metadrama and the Fall of Speech” discusses the language used in the play and the power of that language as used by King Richard and his rival, Bolingbroke.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare’s Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays. New York: Routledge, 1988. A discussion of the Shakespeare plays dealing with English history from the reign of King Henry II to that of Henry VIII, and with the three plays dealing with Roman history.

Pierce, Robert B. Shakespeare’s History Plays: The Family and the State. Columbus: University of Ohio Press, 1971. A general discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays. Pierce considers Richard II to be a direct forerunner of the plays on Henry IV and V.

Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. 1957. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1965. A discussion of history plays in the Elizabethan era of English drama and Shakespeare’s contributions in the field. Considers the development of the form and the sources.