Richard II

History and Tragedy in Richard II

How valid is the distinction between history and tragedy in Richard II?

An attempt to sort Shakespeare's plays into neat categories may appear to have its benefits when striving to understand his work, but even a superficial reading of Richard II indicates that this approach is largely futile and sometimes misleading. While it cannot be doubted that the play is of a historical nature, based on events recorded in Holinshed's Chronicles of 1577 and named after an actual king, a sense of true Shakespearean tragedy is also present throughout. Instead of trying to analyse or appreciate the differences between these two forms, it is more interesting to understand how they complement each other. Shakespeare vividly brings the past to life in Richard II, and it is surely the careful mingling of historical fact and tragic elements that is responsible for the great dramatic value of the play.

Knowledge of the period of history from which the play is drawn means that the audience is prepared for Richard's fate, for example, and this only serves to illuminate the tragic inevitability of his downfall. The audience is aware that Richard II is only the first in a series of history plays, and will be followed by Henry IV (parts one...

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