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Richard II

Creation of the play

Shakespeare probably composed Richard II in about 1595. The play must have been written between the publication of the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles in 1587 (an important source for Shakespeare) and its first appearance in a quarto edition in 1597. An important source for the play is Samuel Daniel’s The First Fowre Bookes of the Ciuile Warres betweene the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke, published in 1595. Richard II has much in common with Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all of which can be dated to 1594-5.

King Richard II. John Stow, The Chronicles of England
King Richard II. John Stow, The Chronicles of England, [1580]. British Library, 807.c.30, p. 470. Larger image

Early performances

The first performance of Richard II was probably during the autumn of 1595 by Shakespeare’s company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, most likely at James Burbage’s Theatre. The play was popular during the 1590s and early 1600s, and may have also been performed at the Curtain and the Swan. It was almost certainly revived at the Globe on 7 February 1601, when a performance was commanded by one of the Earl of Essex’s supporters shortly before his rebellion.

Richard II was seen as a politically suspect theme. Queen Elizabeth I was often identified with him since she, too, had politically powerful favourites, and an uncertain successor. Shakespeare’s play included a scene showing the king’s deposition, which although given in the theatre was omitted from early editions of the play for reasons of censorship.

After the accession of James I, Richard II remained in the repertoire of the King’s Men and was apparently performed at the second Globe as late as 12 June 1631. The title-role was probably first played by Richard Burbage. Bolingbroke was perhaps played by Augustine Phillips, and Shakespeare himself could have taken the role of John of Gaunt.

Publication in quarto and folio

Richard II appeared in nine editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1597. The text closest to Shakespeare’s holograph. His name does not appear on the title-page. It omits most of act 4, the deposition of the king.
  • Second quarto, 1598. Printed from the first quarto. Shakespeare’s name is added to the title-page.
  • Third quarto, 1598. Printed from the second quarto. (Copy from the Folger Shakespeare Library.)
  • Fourth quarto, 1608. Printed from the third quarto. There are two states of the title-page, one with the ‘Lord Chamberlaine his seruantes’, the other with the up-to-date ‘Kings Maiesties seruantes’.This edition restores the missing deposition scene, but in an inferior version from a manuscript of uncertain origin. (Copy with title-page in the first state from the British Library. Copy with title-page in the second state from the Bodleian Library.)
  • Fifth quarto, 1615. Printed from the fourth quarto.
  • First folio, 1623. Printed mainly from the third quarto (some scholars maintain that the fifth quarto was used). This text restores the deposition scene in a good version. It may also have been based on a manuscript connected with the theatre (perhaps a promptbook).
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.
  • Sixth quarto, 1634. Printed from the second folio.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men sold a manuscript of Richard II to the bookseller Andrew Wise, who paid the Stationers’ Company for a licence to print the play on 29 August 1597. The first quarto was printed for Wise shortly afterwards by the printer Valentine Simmes. The playbook must have sold well, because Wise brought out two further editions (both printed by Simmes) in 1598. On 25 June 1603, Wise transferred his copyright in Richard II to the bookseller Mathew Law. The fourth quarto was printed for Law by William White in 1608. In 1615, Law brought out another new edition, the fifth quarto, printed by Thomas Purfoot. The sixth quarto was not published until 1634, by which time the copyright in Richard II had passed to the printer John Norton.

British Library copies of Richard II contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Several sources were particularly important for the creation of Richard II.

  • Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles (1587). Holinshed was Shakespeare’s chief source, providing him with names and events. The dramatist made many changes as he created his text for the theatre.
  • Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548). Shakespeare made general use of Hall’s chronicle.
  • Samuel Daniel, The First Fowre Bookes of the Ciuile Warres betweene the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke (1595). Shakespeare drew on Daniel for ideas and language.

    King Richard parts from Queen Isabella. Samuel Daniel, The First Fowre Bookes of the Ciuile Warres
    King Richard parts from Queen Isabella. Samuel Daniel, The First Fowre Bookes of the Ciuile Warres, 1595. British Library, C.34.h.4, f. 38r. Larger image

  • Woodstock, an anonymous play from the early 1590s surviving only in a single manuscript (British Library, Egerton MS 1994, folios 161-185). Shakespeare apparently had access to this play, which influenced his characterisation in Richard II.
  • Christopher Marlowe, Edward the Second (1594), the play dates from 1591-1592. Shakespeare evidently knew Marlowe’s play and made use of it.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Shakespeare’s history play Richard II is set at the end of the 14th century and tells the story of the last years of the king’s reign.

(Act 1) The play opens as Henry Bolingbroke, son of the king’s uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, challenges Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, accusing him of involvement in the death of the king’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Richard halts the contest and banishes both men.

(Act 2) Richard visits his uncle John of Gaunt, who is dying. Gaunt tries in vain to advise the king to reform his government. Richard seizes the dead Gaunt’s estates, and embarks on an expedition against the Irish. He leaves his uncle, the Duke of York, as regent in England. During his absence, Henry Bolingbroke returns to England to demand his inheritance. He arrives at the head of an army and joins with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.

John Gielgud as John of Gaunt, 'Methinks I am a prophet'
Listen  Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1. British Library Sound Archive, 1931

(Act 3) Richard returns to England to find that the Duke of York has also joined with Bolingbroke. He takes refuge at Flint Castle, but finally agrees to return to London with his cousin Bolingbroke.

Richard II Despairs. Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles
Richard II Despairs. Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles, [1587]. British Library, L.R.400.b.23, p. 499. Larger image

Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Richard II, 'Of comfort no man speak'
Listen  Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, ca. 1907

(Act 4) In London, before parliament, Richard abdicates in favour of Bolingbroke, who ascends the throne as Henry IV.

(Act 5) Richard is imprisoned in Pontefract Castle, where he is murdered by Pierce of Exton. His body is brought to London, where King Henry swears to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to atone for his cousin’s death.


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