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Richard II | Context


Richard II's Place in the Henriad

Richard II is the first of four William Shakespeare history plays, known as the Henriad, about the establishment of the royal family of Lancaster, which produced three kings of England—Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI. The other plays are Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V.

The events detailed in Richard II constituted a turning point for England's monarchy. By the end of the play, the ruling king, Richard II, has been deposed and his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke—a member of the House of Lancaster—has ascended the English throne, becoming Henry IV. This caused a crisis not simply because of the way one man took power from the king, but also because of a pervading belief in the divine right of kings: the idea that God gave certain men—including Richard—the right to be kings of England. Someone who is not divinely chosen—namely Bolingbroke—should not be able to take the kingship away. When Henry deposes Richard, he causes a crisis of faith in England.

The questionable way in which Henry IV comes into power overshadows the remaining plays in the Henriad; concerns over the legitimacy of his reign persist in the minds of nobles and the populace, giving rise to political factions. They persist in Henry IV's own mind as well, and his internal tension and doubt cause the crown to sit uncomfortably on his head. When he dies at the end of Henry IV, Part 2, his son, Henry V, must legitimize his own reign to retroactively prove his father was meant to be king. To this end, he deploys brilliant language, ruthlessness, and warfare with France—events that form the plot of Henry V, the final chapter in the Henriad.

The Wars of the Roses

Several of Shakespeare's history plays involve people and events connected to the Wars of the Roses, an ongoing conflict between two royal houses, the House of Lancaster (symbolized by the red rose) and the House of York (symbolized by the white rose), which lasted from 1455 to 1485. The two houses descended from Edward III, of the Plantagenet royal house. A bitter feud developed between the two, both of which made a claim to the throne based on family heritage.

Although the Wars of the Roses didn't officially begin until years after Richard II is set, Henry IV is the first Lancaster to take the throne, and thus the founder of the House of Lancaster, which was preceded by the duchy of Lancaster. The two houses were united when Henry Tudor, a Lancaster, married Elizabeth, of the House of York, and became Henry VII. This new Tudor house was in power during part of Shakespeare's life. These plays were particularly well received by the reigning monarchs of the time, since they concerned their own family history.

Events Leading Up to Richard II

As the first play in the Henriad, Richard II is not only tied to the events recounted in the following plays, but also to the events preceding the play. Most of Shakespeare's audience would have been quite familiar with the play's historical setting, since the events of that time are central to English history.

Edward III (grandfather of Richard II) famously won several important victories against the French. Edward III had seven sons and five daughters. The eldest son was Prince Edward, also called the Black Prince, who made a name for himself as a military leader in his father's wars. The Black Prince died before becoming king, and the throne eventually passed to his son, Richard II, when he was just 10 years old.

John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and brother to the Black Prince, was one those nobles who assisted Richard II in the early years of the boy's reign. As Richard II grew into his teens, he began giving titles and power to his personal friends. The nobility objected to this practice, as they considered Richard's friends wasteful and destructive. Parliament eventually ordered the king to get rid of them; in 1388 they were ousted, and some were executed.

A group of five Lords Appellant, including Henry Bolingbroke, Thomas Mowbray, and the Duke of Gloucester, were given authority over the king's activities. After this Richard seemed to settle down, making peace with those who had opposed his appointments. Yet at the same time he was forming another, larger group of favorites. He also made several unpopular decisions, including levying additional taxes. His opponents, meanwhile, grew bolder in their opposition to him. In 1397 Richard ordered three of the Lords Appellant arrested, including the Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester was given to the charge of Thomas Mowbray, and he died while in Mowbray's care. Many people believed Richard ordered Gloucester's murder and that Mowbray was complicit.

As Richard II begins, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray are feuding. Bolingbroke has accused Mowbray of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, a charge Mowbray denies. The two come to Richard to demand a trial by combat.

The Divine Right of Kings

The events of Richard II take place at the end of the 1300s, a time when the divine right of kings was a growing political and religious idea. This theory views kings as appointed directly by God. Therefore, kings are not subject to any authority other than God's, and they act as representatives of God on Earth. The duty of the king's subjects, then, is unfailing loyalty to the king and faithful service of the king's wishes. This would be equated to serving God himself.

The concept arose from the religious idea that God has a hand in establishing nations, governments, and rulers—an idea popular in medieval Christianity and encouraged by monarchs anxious to legitimize and consolidate their power and royal family lines. The divine right of kings is a powerful source of tension in the Henriad, and Richard II refers to this divine connection often, clearly believing it means God is on his side and Bolingbroke cannot succeed. Because they believe in this divine right, several characters in the play have trouble wholeheartedly opposing Richard and supporting Bolingbroke. And in the Henriad's later installments both Henry IV and his son, Henry V, work to prove themselves—something Richard never felt obligated to do—since they did not ascend to the throne by divine right.

Sources and Early Performances

As he did for many of his history plays, Shakespeare relied heavily on Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1577) as his main information source for Richard II, supplementing it with Samuel Daniel's The First Fowre Bookes of the Ciuile Warres between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke (1595); Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548); and Christopher Marlowe's Edward the Second (1594). Shakespeare may also have referred to an anonymous play titled Woodstock (early 1590s) to help him create the character of Richard II.

The first performance of Richard II was most likely at the James Burbage Theater in 1595, performed by Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The play was well received for the most part and remained popular throughout the early 17th century. However, since it showed a king being deposed, it was risky subject matter, especially as the reigning queen at the time, Elizabeth I, had no children—like Richard II—so it was uncertain who would succeed her on the throne. The part of the play showing Richard II's deposition (much of Act 4) was not published in print at the time, though it was performed. It was reinserted into the printed version in 1608, in the fourth quarto.

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