Shakespeare's King Richard II:
Drama Versus History
by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor
Shakespeare Fun Fact
Richard II is the only play Shakespeare wrote that is entirely in verse.
Scholars place Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Richard the Second in approximately the middle of the 1590s, around the same period that he was writing The Rape of Lucrece, the sonnets, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Love's Labours Lost. This proximity may explain why Richard II has been considered the most poetically lyrical of Shakespeare's history plays. The storyline is also arguably the most politically controversial work of Shakespeare's career in its treatment of Richard's abdication and Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne to become King Henry IV. In fact, the play quartos published prior to Queen Elizabeth's death don't actually include Richard's abdication.
Even so, Richard II was viewed as a dangerous play to produce in Elizabethan England; supporters of the Earl of Essex paid to have Shakespeare's company perform the play the day before Essex marched on London to force an audience with the queen. This act, known as the Essex Rebellion, ended the same day it began with a brief skirmish. Essex was captured, tried for treason, and executed. As a result, English royalty seemed to view the play with suspicion for decades afterward.
Shakespeare primarily drew from Holinshed's Chronicles for his characterization of Richard, with some lesser influence likely from Halle's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York and Daniel's The First Fowre Books of the Civile Wars. There does not appear to be a direct dramatic source for the play, although there is some debate among scholars about an anonymous, incomplete manuscript titled Thomas of Woodstock—sometimes called The First Part of Richard II. Some propose that the play, which deals with events preceding Shakespeare's Richard II, may be an earlier work by Shakespeare himself. The majority view, however, is that the play is a secondary source at best (if it was any influence at all).
Shakespeare's representation of Richard is hardly a flattering portrait. Throughout the course of the play, Richard sows the seeds for his own downfall. His indecisiveness—ultimately, his weakness as a king—is at the heart of the plot, and Bolingbroke represents the foil that drives the action. The tragedy, of course, is that Richard only comes to realize his failings and the "true" responsibility of a monarch after he has lost the throne, and he will pay for that failure with his life.
But how does Shakespeare's Richard II compare with the historical record? Although basing his work in history, Shakespeare never frets over rearranging events, characters, or facts in service of drama and theme.
Shakespeare's story begins with a conflict; Henry Bolingbroke has accused Thomas Mowbray of treason. Richard allows the two men to settle their feud in a trial by combat, but before the battle can ensue, the king stops the fight and banishes them both from the realm. When Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, dies, Richard seizes his estates to pay for a military campaign in Ireland. While Richard is away, Henry returns to claim the inheritance he feels he is rightfully due. Many nobles side with Henry against the king.
Richard, who is forced to retreat to Flint Castle, agrees to meet with Henry. He submits to returning to London as a prisoner to stand trial in Parliament. Richard eventually confesses to crimes against the state and cedes the crown to Henry. Following a thwarted plot against Henry, the new king imprisons Richard in Pontefract Castle. There, Sir Pierce of Exton murders Richard, believing he is acting in accordance with Henry's wishes. Henry, however, mourns Richard's death and exiles Exton for his deed, vowing to make a Crusade in the Holy Land to "wash this blood off from my guilty hand."
Shakespeare starts with Holinshed's account of the last two years of Richard's reign, so the overall story is narrowly focused from the onset. The feud between Bolingbroke and Mowbray closely follows Holinshed's account. The compression of time and events is especially notable in the second act, when John of Gaunt dies, Richard leaves for Ireland, and Henry Bolingbroke returns from exile in rapid succession. What Shakespeare presents as occurring over the course of one scene actually took months to unfold. Likewise, the play shortens the time between Richard's surrender, subsequent trial in London, and the abdication—and Richard may not have been as easily persuaded to relinquish the crown as Shakespeare would have us believe.
Shakespeare changes a few ages here and there. Northumberland's son, Henry Percy, is presented as much younger in Shakespeare's play, and Henry Bolingbroke's son, Hal—the future Henry V—is presented as much older. Also, Richard's queen, Isabel, is an adult in Shakespeare's story, whereas in reality, Isabella of Valois was a child bride who was married to Richard in 1396 at the age of six, largely to broker some peace between England and France during the Hundred Years' War.
Lastly, Richard II was not murdered at Pontefract Castle. Richard allegedly starved to death in captivity in February of 1400; although there are certain lingering questions about his death, subsequent examinations of Richard's remains have never pointed to a violent demise.
Ironically, Shakespeare's dramatically themed portrait of Richard II has largely overshadowed the historic persona. By focusing on the very end of Richard's reign and the thematic undertones of the play, Shakespeare manipulated the story to create a poetically tragic character. That character, however rooted in history it may be, is ultimately a construct in which history is subservient to Shakespeare's dramatic purpose. Richard II is a grand, lyrical allegory and a poignant exploration of character. But it remains a historical play rather than history.
Complete Works of Shakespeare 5th ed. (Bevington, 2009), Essential Shakespeare Handbook (Dunton-Downer and Riding, 2004), Kings and Queens of England (Williams, 2008), NTC's Dictionary of Shakespeare (Clark, 1996)