Richard II (play)

From Academic Kids

Richard II is a play by William Shakespeare, based on the life of King Richard II of England, written in 1595.

Richard II is not a stand-alone work, but the first part of a tetralogy; the other plays which belong to this series are Henry IV, part 1, Henry IV, part 2, and Henry V. Although the First Folio (1623) version of Richard II lists it as a history play, the earlier first Quarto edition of 1597 calls itself "The tragedie of King Richard the second." It should be noted that while the First Folio is generally regarded as the most authoritave version of Shakespeares texts, there is no systematic way to give precedence to one edition of the play over another. Thus, the differences between the Quarto and Folio title pages are an unresolved--and perhaps unresolvable--problem of interpretation.


Historical context

At the time of publication, the succession of the then monarch of England, Elizabeth I was an important political concern as she was childless. The play was seen to be making political comment on the current situation, paralleling the weak Richard with Queen Elizabeth and implicitly arguing in favour of her replacement by a monarch capable of creating a stable dynasty.

Although it cannot be certain that Shakespeare intended the play's revolutionary implications, it was certainly viewed as subversive at the time. In 1601, supporters of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex paid for a performance of the play at the Globe Theatre on the eve of their armed rebellion. Elizabeth was outraged when she learned of this, allegedly saying "I am Richard II, know you not?" Less than a month later, Essex was tried and executed. The Globe players were also interrogated but do not seem to have been severely punished. However, the scene of Richard's forced abdication was censored from the first three editions of the play, and was not printed until 1623, long after Elizabeth's death.


As the title suggests, Richard II is the main character of the play. The first Act begins with King Richard sitting majestically on his throne in full state. We learn that Henry Bolingbroke, Richard's cousin, is having a dispute with Thomas Mowbray, and that both want the king to act as judge. The subject of the quarrel is Bolingbroke's accusation that Mowbray killed Richard's brother the Duke of Gloucester. What is more, Mowbray is also accused of having stolen money which would have been used for military purposes. Although Richard is powerful and acts as a king he cannot calm the quarrel down. Instead, he decides to have the dispute solved by tournament.

The tournament scene is very formal with a long, ceremonial introduction. But Richard interrupts the duel at the very beginning and sentences both men to banishment from England. Bolingbroke has to leave for six years, whereas Mowbray is banished forever. The king's decision can be seen as the first mistake in a series that will lead eventually to his usurpation and death. Indeed, Mowbray predicts that the king will fall sooner or later.

After that, Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, dies and Richard II seizes all of his land and money. This angers the nobility, who accuse Richard of wasting England's money, of taking Gaunt's money to fund a war with Ireland, of taxing the commoners, and of fining the nobles for crimes their ancestors committed. Next, they help Bolingbroke secretly to return to England and plan to usurp Richard II. However, there remain some subjects faithful to Richard, among them Bushy, Bagot, Green and the Duke of Aumerle. King Richard leaves England to administer the war in Ireland, and Bolingbroke takes the opportunity to assemble an army and invade the north coast of England. When Richard returns, Bolingbroke first claims his land back but then additionally claims the throne. He crowns himself King Henry IV and Richard is taken into prison to the castle of Pomfret. There, an assassin, who actually intended to kill someone else, murders Richard. King Henry hypocritically repudiates the murderer and vows to journey to Jerusalem to cleanse himself of his part in Richard's death.

Structure and language

Shakespeare used a fall and rise structure in the plot. At the beginning, Richard is in power and therefore can banish Bolingbroke from England. As Richard II falls and dies, Bolingbroke rises to become king of England.

Unusually for Shakespeare, Richard II is written entirely in verse. The play contains a number of memorable metaphors, including the extended comparison of England with a garden in Act IV, and of its reigning king to a lion or to the sun.


  • attendants, lords, soldiers, messengers, etc.

Famous Lines

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their earth

John of Gaunt, II,i,42-54

No matter where. Of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth;
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so — for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our live, and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death,
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd,
Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd."

—King Richard, III,ii, 148-164

Further reading

  • Bullough, Geoffrey. "Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare". Early English History Plays: Henry VI Richard III Richard II, volume III, Routledge: London, New York, 1960.
  • Rose, Alexander. Kings in the North - The House of Percy in British History. Phoenix/Orion Books Ltd, 2002, ISBN 1842124854
  • Shakespeare, William. Richard II, ed. by Andrew Gurr, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1990.
  • Smitd, Kristian. Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays, St. Martin's Press: New York, 1993.
  • Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays, Chatto&Windus: London,1944.of Virginia

See also

External links




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