Richard II was probably written in 1595 and was possibly performed for the first time that same year.
The style of the play is similar to that of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a lot of rhymed and very regular verse. There is very little prose.
It is the first play of the Henriad, : Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry Vth, all of which have a major theme of authority. In Richard II, Richard tries to impose his regal authority without considering the practical realities of power, and is overthrown by Henry Bolingbrook (later Henry IV) with the help of Northumberland and other nobles, because Richard’s actions threaten the existence and power base (and hence authority) of the nobles.
“I am Richard II, know ye not that” said Elizabeth I in 1601. There were two main reasons for this identification: First Elizabeth was seen to be unusually susceptible to flattery, particularly from her well-established favourites, Leicester and Burghley, just as Richard II was influenced by Bagot, Bushy and Green; second Elizabeth had no direct heir, and so the succession was uncertain, just as it was in Richard’s time, encouraging perhaps, Bolingbroke’s attempt to win the throne. The uncertainty was thought to destabilise both reigns.
It is not likely that Shakespeare wrote the play wanting to highlight these controversies, but the Earl of Essex managed to muddy the waters. On 7th Feb., 1601, the day before Essex’s abortive rebellion against the queen, a performance of King Richard II was played at the Globe, paid for by the Earl’s supporters. One of the shareholders of the Chamberlain’s Men, was summoned to court to answer for the players, and was able to convincingly show that they were innocent of any seditious design, and so they escaped punishment.
But if Shakespeare didn’t write the play for seditious reasons, why did he write it?
The two men represent two very different views of kingship and where authority finally lies in the state.
Richard embodies the mediaeval view of the king as consecrated monarch, his power ultimately coming from God, giving him an almost unchallengeable authority. Unfortunately, Richard does not have the characteristics of a good king, suffering from weakness and political inadequacy, highlit in his decision to confiscate the property of Henry Bolingbroke, the new Duke of Lancaster. His authority may come from God, but his supporters’ (the nobles’) is based on property and wealth. In confiscating Bolingbroke’s property, he threatens Bolingbroke but also every other nobleman, and so himself, when they turn against him.
Bolingbroke returns from exile, ostensibly to recover his property, but also to explore the possibility of replacing Richard as king. Where Richard relies on his authority from God, Henry relies on his popularity with the people and the nobles, reflecting the growing importance of Parliament as the source of authority. He also adopts the new Machiavellian philosophy as a way of achieving his aims: as soon as he comes to power, he gets rid of Richard’s supporters; concerned with ensuring his legal right to the throne, he persuades Richard to resign the throne to him; he then has Richard murdered by a friend, but denies his specific involvement and his friend is banished; and finally he admits to some general guilt and proposes repentance through a trip to Jerusalem. These are all tactics recommended by Machiavelli in ‘The Prince’.
So the play explores the opposing cultures of the Elizabethan age, much as we have seen in Troilus and Cressida: the medieval, aristocratic, religious world of Richard, opposed to the capitalist, Machiavellian, and emerging scientific world of Henry.
But the play goes much further than this contest between opposed world views. The balance between the two antagonists is held. ‘Richard is either a tyrant or a martyr, Bolingbroke either a patriot or a ruthless opportunist.’
Richard is dignified by defeat. His sufferings open him to a deeper awareness of his failings, in a way which moves the audience, and is to be explored more deeply in the tragedy of King Lear.
Power corrupts, and absolute power is even nicer, so in Henry IV Part II, we will see the Machiavellian Henry, by then King Henry IV, upset by his son, destroyed by guilt, dying in the Jerusalem room.
C21 Performance considerations:
This is a play that should work well now. I’ve seen two or three productions, and put on a play-reading myself, though not a production.
There’s a strong storyline in the plot between the two antagonists, and it’s written even-handedly enough that your sympathies sway to and from the martyr and the patriot. As the play progresses, and Richard is overthrown, his suffering, his near-madness, and then his death engage the audience. Above all, the poetry of many of his speeches is exceptional.
The victorious Bolingbrook shows magnaminity to Aulmerle, and generalised guilt at the death of Richard so he does not entirely lose our sympathy.
The Modern First Folio Edition is around 22,000 words so shouldn’t need too much cutting to reach a 2-hour run time if needed.
As usual with Shakespeare, there’s a shortage of big female roles, with only three roles of significance (Queen Isabel, Duchess of York, Duchess of Gloucester) and a couple of female attendants to the queen.
See a great clip of David Tennant playing Richard II (AIV S1) at the RSC – Click Here
Free Downloads of Richard II MFFE available:
Richard II MFFE Version 1.00 as an epub for Apple iPads, iPhones, Android Tablets and Smartphones, etc
Richard II MFFE Version 1.00 as an .azw3 file for Kindles
Richard II MFFE Version 1.00 as a PDF for printing on US letter and European A4 papers, and e-reading