King Richard the Second is a history play by William Shakespeare believed to be written in approximately 1595. It is based on the life of King Richard II of England (ruled 1377-1399) and is the first part of a tetralogy, referred to by some scholars as the Henriad, followed by three plays concerning Richard's successors: Henry IV, part 1, Henry IV, part 2, and Henry V. It may not have been written as a stand-alone work.
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 they both want the king to act as judge. The subject of the quarrel is Bolingbroke's accusation that Mowbray had squandered monies given to him by Richard for the King's soldiers. Bolingbroke also accuses Mowbray of the recent murder of Duke of Gloucester, although John of Gaunt—Gloucester's brother and Bolingbroke's father—believes that Richard himself was responsible for the murder. After several attempts to calm both men, Richard acquiesces and Bolingbroke and Mowbray challenge each other to a duel, over the objections of both Richard and Gaunt.
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 overthrow and death. Indeed, Mowbray predicts that the king will fall sooner or later.
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 overthrow Richard II. However, there remain some subjects faithful to Richard, among them Bushy, Bagot, Green and the Duke of Aumerle, cousin to both Richard and Bolingbroke. 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. After interpreting King Henry's "living fear" as a reference to the still-living Richard, an ambitious nobleman (Exton) goes to the prison and murders the former king. King Henry repudiates the murderer and vows to journey to Jerusalem to cleanse himself of his part in Richard's death.
Shakespeare's primary source for Richard II, as for most of his chronicle histories, was Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles; the publication of the second edition in 1589 provides a terminus post quem for the play. Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York appears also to have been consulted, and scholars have also supposed Shakespeare familiar with Samuel Daniel's poem on the civil wars.
A somewhat more complicated case is presented by the anonymous play sometimes known as The First Part of Richard II. This play, which exists in one incomplete manuscript copy (at the British Museum) is subtitled Thomas of Woodstock, and it is by this name that scholars since F. S. Boas have usually called it. This play treats the events leading up to the start of Shakespeare's play (though the two texts do not have identical characters). This closeness, along with the anonymity of the manuscript, has led certain scholars to attribute all or part of the play to Shakespeare, though, many critics view this play as a secondary influence on Shakespeare, and not as his work.
The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on August 29, 1597 by the bookseller Andrew Wise; the first quarto was published by him later that year, printed by Valentine Simmes. The second and third quartos followed in 1598 — the only time a Shakespearean play was printed in three editions in two years. Q4 followed in 1608, and Q5 in 1615. The play was next published in the First Folio in 1623.
Richard II exists in a number of variations. The quartos vary to some degree from one another, and the folio presents further differences. The first three quartos (printed in 1597 and 1598, commonly assumed to have been prepared from Shakespeare's holograph) lack the deposition scene. The fourth quarto, published in 1608, includes a version of the deposition scene shorter than the one later printed, presumably from a prompt-book, in the 1623 First Folio. The scanty evidence makes explaining these differences largely conjectural. Traditionally, it has been supposed that the quartos lack the deposition scene because of censorship, either from the playhouse or by the Master of the Revels Edmund Tylney and that the Folio version may better reflect Shakespeare's original intentions. There is no external evidence for this hypothesis, however, and the title page of the 1608 quarto refers to a "lately acted" deposition scene (although again, this could be due to earlier censorship).
The play is divided into five acts and its structure is as formal as its language. It has a double complementary plot describing the fall of Richard II and the rise of Bolingbroke, later known as Henry IV. Critic John R. Elliott Jr. notes that this particular history play can be distinguished from the other history plays because it contains an ulterior political purpose. The normal structure of Shakespearean tragedy is modified to portray a central political theme: the rise of Bolingbroke to the throne and the conflict between Richard and Bolingbroke over the kingship. In acts IV and V, Shakespeare includes incidents irrelevant to the fate of Richard, which are later resolved in the future plays of the Richard II-Henry V tetralogy.
Literary critic Hugh M. Richmond notes that Richard's beliefs about the Divine Right of Kings tend to fall more in line with the medieval view of the throne. Bolingbroke on the other hand represents a more modern view of the throne, arguing that not only bloodline but also intellect and political savvy contribute to the makings of a good king. Richard believes that as king he is chosen and guided by God, that he is not subject to human frailty, and that the English people are his to do with as he pleases. Elliott argues that this mistaken notion of his role as king ultimately leads to Richard's failure. Elliot goes on further to point out that it is Bolingbroke's ability to relate and speak with those of the middle and lower classes that allows him to take the throne.
Unusual for Shakespeare, Richard II is written almost entirely in verse. The play contains a number of memorable metaphors, including the extended comparison of England with a garden in Act III, Scene iv and of its reigning king to a lion or to the sun in Act IV.
The language of Richard II is more eloquent than the earlier history plays, and serves to set the tone and themes of the play. Shakespeare uses lengthy verses, metaphors, similes, and soliloquies to reflect Richard's character as a man who likes to analyze situations rather than act upon them. He always speaks in tropes using analogies such as the sun as a symbol of his kingly status. Richard places great emphasis on symbols which govern his behavior. His crown serves as a symbol of his royal power and is of more concern to him than his actual kingly duties.
Unlike Shakespeare's other history plays, Richard II contains very little prose. There are also great differences in the use of language amongst the characters. Traditionally, Shakespeare uses prose to distinguish social classes- the upper class generally speaks in poetry while the lower classes speak in prose. However, in Richard II, Richard uses flowery, metaphorical language in his speeches whereas Bolingbroke, who is also of the noble class, uses a more plain and direct language.
The play was performed and published late in the reign of the childless Elizabeth I of England, at a time when the queen's age made the succession an important political concern. The historical parallels in the succession of Richard II were not intended as political comment on the contemporary situation, with the weak Richard II analogous to Queen Elizabeth and an implicit argument in favour of her replacement by a monarch capable of creating a stable dynasty, but lawyers investigating John Hayward's history of Henry IV, a book partly based on Richard II, chose to make this connection. It was fortunate for Shakespeare that Hayward had dedicated his version to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex: when Essex was arrested for rebellion in February 1601 Hayward had already been imprisoned, solely to strengthen the case being assembled against the earl, for "incitement to the deposing of the Queen", otherwise Shakespeare too may have lost his liberty over the affair.
Shakespeare's play appears to have played a minor role in the events surrounding the final downfall of Essex. On 7 February 1601, just before the uprising, supporters of the Earl of Essex, among them Charles and Joscelyn Percy (younger brothers of the Earl of Northumberland), paid for a performance at the Globe Theatre on the eve of their armed rebellion. By this agreement, reported at the trial of Essex by the Chamberlain's Men actor Augustine Phillips, the conspirators paid the company forty shillings "above the ordinary" (i. e., above their usual rate) to stage this play, which the players felt was too old and "out of use" to attract a large audience. Eleven of Essex's supporters attended the Saturday performance.
Elizabeth was aware of the political ramifications of the story of Richard II: according to a well-known but dubious anecdote, in August 1601 she was reviewing historical documents relating to the reign of Richard II when she supposedly remarked to her archivist William Lambarde, "I am Richard II, know ye not that?" In the same historical report the Queen is said to have complained that the play was performed forty times in "open streets and houses" but there is no extant evidence to corroborate this tale. At any rate, the Chamberlain's Men do not appear to have suffered at all for their association with the Essex group; they performed for the Queen on Shrove Tuesday in 1601, the day before Essex's execution.
In his analysis of medieval political theology, The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst H. Kantorowicz describes medieval Kings as containing two bodies: a body natural, and a body politic. The theme of the King's two bodies is pertinent throughout Richard II, from the exile of Bolingbroke to the deposition of King Richard II. The body natural is a mortal body, subject to all the weaknesses of mortal human beings. On the other hand, the body politic is a spiritual body which cannot be affected by mortal infirmities such as disease and old age. These two bodies form one indivisible unit, with the body politic superior to the body natural.
Many critics agree that in Richard II, this central theme of the king's two bodies unfolds in three main scenes: the scenes at the Coast of Wales, at Flint Castle, and at Westminster. At the coast of Wales, Richard has just returned from a trip to Ireland and kisses the soil of England, demonstrating his kingly attachment to his Kingdom. This image of kingship gradually fades as Bolingbroke's rebellion continues. Richard starts to forget his kingly nature as his mind becomes occupied by the rebellion. This change is portrayed in the scene at Flint Castle during which the unity of the two bodies disintegrates and the king starts to use more poetic and symbolic language. Richard's body politic has been shaken as his followers have joined Bolingbroke's army, diminishing Richard's military capacity. He has been forced to give up his jewels, losing his kingly appearance. He loses his temper at Bolingbroke, but then regains his composure as he starts to remember his divine side. At Flint castle, Richard is determined to hang onto his kingship even though the title no longer fits his appearance. However at Westminster the image of the divine kingship is supported by the Bishop of Carlisle rather than Richard, who at this point is becoming mentally unstable as his authority slips away. Biblical references are used to liken the humbled king to the humbled Christ. The names of Judas and Pilate are used to further extend this comparison. Before Richard is sent to his death, he "un-kings" himself by giving away his crown, sceptre, and the balm that is used to anoint a king to the throne. The mirror scene is the final end to the dual personality. After examining his plain physical appearance, Richard shatters the mirror on the ground and thus relinquishes of his past and present as king. Stripped of his former glory, Richard finally releases his body politic and retires to his body natural and his own inner thoughts and griefs. Even Critic J.D. Wilson notes that Richard's double nature as man and martyr is the dilemma that runs the play eventually leading to Richard's death. Richard acts the part of a royal martyr, and due to the spilling of his blood, England continually undergoes civil war for the next two generations.
The play ends with the rise of Bolingbroke to the throne, marking the start of a new era in England. According to historical research, an English translation of Machiavelli's The Prince might have existed as early as 1585, influencing the reign of the kings of England. Critic Irving Ribner notes that a manifestation of Machiavellian philosophy may be seen in Bolingbroke. Machiavelli wrote The Prince during a time of political chaos in Italy, and writes down a formula by which a leader can lead the country out of turmoil and return it to prosperity. Bolingbroke seems to be a leader coming into power at a time England is in turmoil, and follows closely the formula stated by Machiavelli. At the start of Richard II Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray and ulteriorly attacks the government of King Richard. He keeps Northumberland by his side as a tool to control certain constituents. From the minute Bolingbroke comes into power, he destroys the faithful supporters of Richard such as Bushy, Green and the Earl of Wiltshire. Also, Bolingbroke is highly concerned with the maintenance of legality to the kingdom, an important principle of Machiavellian philosophy, and therefore makes Richard surrender his crown and physical accessories to erase any doubt as to the real heir to the throne. Machiavelli also states that the deposed king must be killed, and Bolingbroke therefore kills Richard, showing his extreme cruelty to secure his kingly title. Since Bolingbroke is a disciple of the Machiavellian philosophy he cannot do the killing himself and employs Pierce of Exton for the killing of the deposed king and his ex-friend whose use is no longer needed. Yet, Irving Ribner still notes a few incidents where Bolingbroke does not follow true Machiavellian philosophy, such as his failure to destroy Aumerle, but such incidents are minuscule compared to the bigger events of the play. Even Bolingbroke's last statement follows Machiavellian philosophy as he alludes to making a voyage to the Holy Land, since Machiavellian philosophy states rulers must appear pious. Therefore, this particular play can be viewed as a turning point in the history of England as the throne is taken over by a more commanding king in comparison to King Richard II.
Richard II has one of the most detailed and unusual performance histories of all the plays of the Shakespearean canon.
The play retained its political charge in the Restoration: a 1680 adaptation at Drury Lane by Nahum Tate was suppressed for its perceived political implications. Tate attempted to mask his version, called The Sicilian Usurper, with a foreign setting; he attempted to blunt his criticism of the Stuart court by highlighting Richard's noble qualities and downplaying his weaknesses. Neither expedient prevented the play from being "silenc'd on the third day," as Tate wrote in his preface. Lewis Theobald staged a successful and less troubled adaptation in 1719 at Lincoln's Inn Fields; Shakespeare's original version was revived at Covent Garden in 1738.
The play had limited popularity in the twentieth century, but John Gielgud exploded onto the world theatrical consciousness through his performance as Richard at the Old Vic Theatre in 1929, returning to the character in 1937 and 1953 in what ultimately was considered as the definitive performance of the rôle. Another legendary Richard was Maurice Evans, who first played the rôle at the Old Vic in 1934 and then created a sensation in his 1937 Broadway performance, revived it in New York in 1940 and then immortalized it on television for the Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1954. In 1974 Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternated the rôles of Richard and Bolingbroke in a production from John Barton at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: thirty years later this was still a standard by which performances were being judged. One of the most accessible versions was the 1978 production by the BBC of "the Shakespeare Plays" (a several years-long production to put all of Shakespeare's plays on tape). This version, still available on DVD, starred Derek Jacobi as Richard, with John Gielgud making an appearance as John of Gaunt.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second is a play written by William Shakespeare around 1595 and based on the life of King Richard II of England. It is the first part of a tetralogy referred to by scholars as the Henriad, followed by three plays concerning Richard's successors: Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at Wikisource