Richard II

Richard II Study Guide

Richard II was first printed in 1597 in a good quality text most likely taken from Shakespeare's manuscript. Two reprints in 1598 mention Shakespeare as the author. Later prints in 1608 and 1615 appear to be taken from the earlier versions, but with the addition of the deposition scene in which Richard yields the throne. The First Folio of 1623 is the most comprehensive, and probably used the promptbook as an additional source.

Richard II opens with two noblemen zealously defending their honor before Richard. He is called upon to settle a dispute in which Bolingbroke calls Mowbray a traitor. However, hidden behind the accusations is the fact that Richard himself is probably the man who ordered Mowbray to commit the crime of which he stands accused. Thus, Richard II calls the very impartiality of the king into question, by challenging him to arbitrate a crime which he himself committed.

The struggle between obedience to the king and the fact that no person in England can legally challenge the king is central to this play. It is also a crucial problem even in Shakespeare's time. Only a few decades after Shakespeare's death the English Civil War broke out, primarily as a dispute over monarchical authority. Thus, Richard II must be viewed as a history written through the lens of the sixteenth century. The play was so contemporary in scope that the lines in which Richard cedes his crown were omitted in many early texts and perhaps even in the performance. In fact, in 1601, the rebels supporting the Earl of Essex in his revolt against Queen Elizabeth I cited Richard's reign as a precedent for the deposition of a monarch.

Shakespeare derived much of his historical basis for the play from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland written in 1587. The reign of Richard II, and his subsequent deposition, marks the beginnings of what will eventually lead to the War of the Roses. Richard II is the grandson of Edward III, and he assumed the throne when only ten years old. Due to his age, his uncles managed the kingdom on his behalf for several years, but were forced to cede power to him once he reached adulthood. Richard was rash and poorly suited to rule. Unlike Richard's uncles who nonetheless gave him their allegiance, his cousins Bolingbroke and Northumberland were more willing to act on his weaknesses.

Richard II is deliberately an anachronistic play. By Shakespeare's time the trial by combat was no longer in use, nor was the vision of the world held by Richard a common one. The idea that kings derive their power solely from above, held by Richard, had become an idea that power instead comes from below, as evidenced by Bolingbroke. Machiavelli helped this trend by forcing monarchs to exercise power in any way deemed necessary, rather than in the way that God might dictate. Thus Bolingbroke's revolt against Richard is often considered one of replacing an antiquated worldview with a newer one.