Historical Background

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1440

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.

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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 Richard II appeared in 1597. This edition proved popular enough to warrant two additional printings the following year and another two before Shakespeare’s death.

In early editions, however, it was necessary to omit the deposition scene. At the time Richard II was first published, Elizabeth I was in her mid-sixties and without an heir. The line of succession was very much in question. Not until 1608, when James I was securely on the throne, was this scene allowed to be printed by government censors, although it is likely that the deposition was performed regularly in the stage version.

This scene, in fact, aroused considerable controversy when it was staged on the eve of an abortive uprising against the English monarchy. In early February of 1601, a delegation of noblemen approached Shakespeare’s company and offered to pay a substantial fee for a special performance of Richard II at the Globe Theatre. The play was performed without incident on February 7, but the next day the Earl of Essex, formerly a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, mounted a rebellion against the crown. As a subsequent inquest revealed, Essex’s followers had specifically requested a performance of Richard II because it featured a scene of a monarch’s deposition. The rebellion was quickly suppressed. Essex was captured. He was beheaded three weeks later.

At the inquest, Shakespeare’s company was found to be innocent of any wrongdoing. In fact, the company performed for the Queen at Whitehall Palace on the eve of Essex’s execution. In August of that year, William Lambarde, an archivist at the Tower of London, recorded Queen Elizabeth’s only known comments on one of Shakespeare’s plays: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?… This tragedy was played forty times in open streets
and houses.”

In the four centuries since it was first produced, Richard II has enjoyed a rich and colorful stage history. We have records of a performance on September 30, 1607 acted by crew members of the H. M. S. Dragon off the coast of Sierra Leone. We also have records of a production at the Globe in 1631, fifteen years after Shakespeare’s death. In 1681, Richard II was adapted for production by Nahum Tate. The play was retitled The Sicilian Usurper and the names of the characters were changed. However the theme of regicide still aroused controversy and the play was suppressed after a few performances. In 1719, another adaptation was produced in London, and in 1738 Shakespeare’s original was restored to the stage at Covent Garden.

A notable early nineteenth-century performance of Richard II was that given by the brilliant and mercurial English actor Edmund Kean. Kean’s portrayal, first seen in London in 1815, was successful with critics and the public and the play remained in his repertory for the next thirteen years. In 1857, Charles Kean, Edmund’s son, offered London playgoers a spectacular revival featuring hundreds of extras, real horses on stage, historically accurate costumes, and lavish interpolated pageantry. His revival played for 85 performances, a record at the time.

One of the most interesting events in the play’s performance history came on April 23, 1879, Shakespeare’s birthday. That evening, Edwin Booth, the great American tragedian and brother of John Wilkes Booth, who fourteen years earlier had assassinated Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, was playing Richard II at McVicker’s Theatre in Chicago. As Booth was giving Richard’s soliloquy in the fifth act, a madman stood up in the balcony, raised a gun, and fired one shot, then another, as Booth sat alone on stage. The bullets narrowly missed Booth, who pointed to the gunman and cried, “Arrest that man.” The potential assassin was subdued and was later confined to an asylum. Booth, after calming the audience and comforting his wife backstage, returned to finish the performance. Afterwards, he had one of the bullets pried out of the scenery where it had lodged, mounted it in a gold cartridge, and wore it on his watch chain for the rest of his life.

In the twentieth century, the role of Richard II has attracted a number of leading actors. The English actor-managers Frank Benson and Herbert Beerbohm Tree mounted productions in London just after the turn of the century. Tree’s production was given several subsequent West End stagings, and Benson revived the play regularly for the next decade at the Shakespeare festival he directed at Stratford-upon-Avon. John Gielgud played an acclaimed Richard II at the Old Vic in London in 1929, and he reprised the role at the Queen’s Theatre in 1937. The English actor Maurice Evans performed Richard II on Broadway that same year in a well-received production directed by Margaret Webster.

During the 1950s and 60s, the role of Shakespeare’s introspective poet-king found notable interpreters in Paul Scofield, David Warner, and Ian McKellen. In 1973, John Barton staged a critically praised production for England’s Royal Shakespeare Company with Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson alternating as Richard and Bolingbroke. Noteworthy revivals in recent years include Ariane Mnouchkine’s stylized production in France in 1981, which subsequently played in Los Angeles, and the 1994 New York Shakespeare Festival production directed by Steven Berkoff. In 1995, the Irish actress Fiona Shaw attempted the role of Richard at the National Theatre of Great Britain in London and was received enthusiastically by audiences and critics.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364


*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

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At first glance, the world of Richard II appears to have little in common with ours. The play itself is written entirely in formal, often rhyming, lines of poetic verse rather than in the prose which today's audiences are used to hearing. Also unfamiliar to modern audiences is Richard's preoccupation with divine right, a doctrine which holds that a king's fitness to rule is determined by God only and not by the people. As Richard puts it when he feels his authority as ruler is being questioned:

show us the hand of God That hath dismiss'd us from our stewardship, For well we know no hand of blood and bone Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre, Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp. (III.iii.77-81)

(As king—whether divinely appointed or not— Richard speaks for the nation as a whole, and that is why he refers to himself in the first-person plural: "show us the hand of God," "for well we know," etc.)

There are, however, other issues in Richard II which remain relevant today. One example is the conflict that occurs between family members and between generations. Most of the principal characters in the play are related to one another. Richard's grandfather was King Edward III. Richard's father (who died before he could become king) was Edward, prince of Wales (also known as the "Black Prince"). The prince of Wales was the oldest brother of John of Gaunt (also known as the duke of Lancaster), Edmund of Langley (also known as the duke of York), and Thomas of Woodstock (the murdered duke of Gloucester). Thus Gaunt, York, and Gloucester are King Richard's uncles, and Gaunt's son Henry Bullingbrook, as well as York's son Aumerle, are the king's cousins.

In the play, Richard's grandfather, Edward III; and his father, the Black Prince, are fondly remembered and deeply admired by Richard's uncles, Gaunt and York. In their opinion, Richard never measures up to his grandfather's and father's formidable reputations and is too preoccupied with luxurious living and with the latest fashions to listen to sound advice (II.i.19-26). Further, they are shocked that Richard was capable of having his uncle Gloucester— his own flesh and blood and the son of his royal grandfather—assassinated.

Richard, on the other hand, is tired of listening to the advice and complaints of "sullen" old men like his uncles (II.i. 139), and wishes that they would respect his own ''royal blood'' and treat him as they should treat a king (II.i. 118).

Another timely issue in the play is taxation. Richard admits that he spends lavishly just to maintain his own extravagances and a large court of followers (I.iv.43-44); nevertheless, when his treasury is empty and he wants to finance a war in Ireland, rather than economize he leases portions of his kingdom for ready cash, and imposes openended taxes or "charters" on the wealthy people of the nation (I.iv.43-52). Neither of these actions makes Richard II a popular king.

Good government is a significant issue in Richard II, as it is today. Richard ignores his subjects' discontentment. By contrast, Bullingbrook is well loved by the people of England and—according to Richard—actively seeks out their affection by "div[ing] into their hearts / With humble and familiar courtesy" (I.iv.25-26). Thus when Bullingbrook defies his sentence of exile and returns to England to reclaim his inheritance, he is supported by the populace, and after Richard is deposed, the people rejoice when Bullingbrook becomes King Henry IV.

Today, taxation and the size and quality of government are the source of much debate and can win or lose an election for politicians. In Shakespeare's time, these topics could be dangerous. On February 7, 1601, supporters of the ambitious earl of Essex commissioned the theatrical company to which Shakespeare belonged to give a special performance of Richard II, thereby hoping to incite the populace against Queen Elizabeth, who, like Richard, was resented for levying heavy taxes and for indulging favorites at court. The following day, Essex led an unsuccessful rebellion against the queen, and he was later executed for treason. Shakespeare's acting troupe was questioned regarding their part in the rebellion, but was absolved of any wrongdoing.


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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250

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.

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