edited by Charles R. Forker
King Richard II is the first play in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, the set of four plays whose events are often regarded as the root of the Wars of the Roses. The play teleologically points to the domestic conflict that haunted the country for generations after Richard’s deposition: ‘The blood of English shall manure the ground … this land be called / The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls’.
The play relates the events surrounding the dethronement of the inept (but divinely appointed) Richard II by his more able (but illegitimate) cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. Following the death of his father, John of Gaunt, during his six-year exile abroad, Bolingbroke returns to England to demand the reinstatement of his estates from Richard. Richard, unpopular due to his court favourites, his arrogant belief in his own pre-ordained right to kingship, and his ever-increasing taxes, is losing supporters. Under duress, he eventually hands over his crown to Bolingbroke. Misinterpreting the words of the new king, one of Bolingbroke’s followers kills Richard in his prison cell. With the murder on his conscience, Henry IV vows to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to clear his troubled soul. Critical discussions of the play often focus on the play’s protagonists and the ambivalence of their characters. Is Richard a tyrant or a martyr? Is Bolingbroke a pious social hero or a self-serving Machiavel?
First performed c. 1595 at the Theatre, the Lord Chamberlain Men’s Shoreditch venue, the play was first titled a ‘tragedie’ in the first quarto of 1597 (Q1), and later a ‘historie’ in the First Folio of 1623 (F). The deposition scene (in this edition, Act 4 Scene 1) was omitted in Q1, not appearing in print until 1608. The final years of the ageing, heirless Elizabeth’s reign were marred by rebellion and uprising. Deposition was a real and present threat: in 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex, a one-time favourite of Elizabeth’s, paid for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put on the play (by this point, a relatively agèd production) less than a week before their doomed rebellion. Post-Restoration, the political clout of the play was still being acknowledged, with Nahum Tate attempting to suppress performances at Drury Lane in 1680. In the twentieth century, the role became a favourite of John Gielgud, who performed it three times over four decades. The effeminacy that has come to be associated with the role came to a peak with Deborah Warner’s 1997 production, which saw Fiona Shaw play an androgynous Richard.