When the 31-year-old Shakespeare wrote Richard II in 1595, he was on a roll. Since his first efforts in 1590-91, he had seen 10 of his plays produced, including the four plays which make up what we now call his first tetralogy of English history plays: Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III.
No doubt Shakespeare was encouraged by the success of these plays, and the result was another tetralogy that constituted what we would now call a prequel — four plays focused on the three monarchs who preceded Henry VI: Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. Beginning with this season’s Richard II, CSF hopes to stage the four plays of the second tetralogy with Henry IV, 1 and 2 scheduled for 2014 and Henry V for 2015.
It is a dubious enterprise to make claims of fact about nearly anything dealing with Shakespeare and his plays, including whether he actually wrote them (I believe he did). Nevertheless here are some “facts” about Richard II:
- Richard II is based on events that took place 200 years prior to the play and during the last two years of Richard’s reign.
- Richard II was the first of Shakespeare’s published plays to acknowledge his authorship, with his name printed for the first time on the title page of the second edition when it was published in 1598.
- Richard II is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays written entirely in verse.
- At a time when the publishing of plays was not common (half of Shakespeare’s 37 plays were not published during his lifetime), Richard II was published soon after its premiere, followed by three further editions during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
- The play’s climactic “deposition scene,” which we now have as Act 4, was not in the original published version and was not included until the fourth edition, after Elizabeth’s death. However, performances and publications were under different censorial authorities, and it is likely that this scene was always part of the performed text.
- In 1601, two years before Elizabeth’s death, William Lombarde, Keeper of Records, reported that while looking through historical records, “her Majesty fell upon the reign of Richard Second saying, ‘I am Richard Second, know ye not that?’” She went on to say, “this tragedy was 40 times played in open streets and houses.” Lombarde did not elaborate on the statement or speculate on what the queen meant. But many scholars have in the 400 years since.
— James Symons, director
The Duke of Gloucester’s recent death has brought Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray in front of King Richard II with accusations of treason. Before their quarrel can proceed to combat, however, King Richard intervenes and exiles them both, Mowbray forever and Bolingbroke for six years.
Bolingbroke’s farewell proves hard on his father and uncle to the king, John of Gaunt. Gaunt dies soon after, and Richard confiscates Gaunt’s land, properties and wealth in the name of the crown in order to furnish his wars in Ireland, even though all should have been inherited by Bolingbroke.
When he hears of this, Bolingbroke immediately returns to England at the head of an army to reclaim his birthright. With Richard in Ireland and rumors abounding that he has been killed in battle, Richard’s Welsh supporters side with Bolingbroke, and the king returns to England to find he has little hope of prevailing in a confrontation with Bolingbroke.
Richard takes refuge in Flint Castle to await the now all-powerful Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke reiterates his desire for the return of his titles and the overturning of his banishment. The two sides agree to travel together to London. There, conspiracies abound and tempers run high until the Duke of York arrives with news that Richard has designated Bolingbroke his heir and has yielded the throne.
When the bishop protests, Richard is fetched to resign his crown in person. Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, sends Richard to the Tower of London and prepares for his coronation. On the way to the tower, Richard is sent to Pomfret instead, where Exton arrives to kill him, thinking this is King Henry’s wish. When King Henry discovers Richard’s death, he condemns Exton, fearing what this may portend for his reign, and vows a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as penance.
— Hadley Kamminga-Peck, dramaturg
It’s a family affair: Inheritance in Richard II
At its heart, Richard II is a family story. A grandfather passes his inheritance to his grandson but the uncles and cousins don’t fade away. They play their parts in the years to come, each fighting to do what he thinks is best for his inheritance. This is the beginning of Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy.
Richard II inherited his throne from his grandfather Edward III, a king who brought England to glory, and whose reign was marked by chivalry and knighthood. But to achieve knighthood and renown, there must be wars, which are expensive. Edward III’s wars in Scotland and France, along with the onset of the Black Death in 1348, meant that Edward left the country destitute upon his death.
This is what Richard II inherited. Richard’s father was Edward the Black Prince, a great warrior. Edward III had four sons still living, whose descendants would ultimately form the York and Lancastrian families.
Richard ascended to the throne at the age of 10. Without having been able to observe the workings of the country for long, he often was told how to run the country by advisors, uncles and parliamentary bodies.
In 1386, when Richard was 19, a group called the Lords Appellant used private armies to gain control of the country and remove, in some cases by execution, several of Richard’s courtiers and appointees. Richard continued to rule, but once again was told how to do so. Once Richard declared himself of age at 22 and had achieved peace on his borders, he took revenge. Three of the Lords Appellant, including Richard’s uncle the Duke of Gloucester, were arrested. Gloucester was sent to Calais and executed there under suspicious circumstances.
Shakespeare’s Richard II opens in 1397, in the 20th year of Richard’s reign, with an argument between his supposed operative in Calais, Thomas Mowbray, and Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, as each attempts to prove his loyalty to Richard and accuse the other of treason.
Inheritance is the key to Richard’s power, and also his downfall. Placed on the throne at a young age, his seizure of Bolingbroke’s inheritance from John of Gaunt reveals that inheritance was no longer a given. This betrayal of family and crown is the instigation that sets the king up to fall. Richard’s abandonment of the rules of family for the absolute power of his crown allows Bolingbroke to bend those same rules and remove the crown from Richard.
— Hadley Kamminga-Peck, dramaturg
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