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
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
- 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.
Library copies of Richard II contains detailed bibliographic
descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.
Several sources were particularly important for the creation of
- 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, 1595. British Library, C.34.h.4, f. 38r. Larger
- 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.
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.
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'
II, Act 2, Scene 1. British Library Sound Archive, 1931
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, . British
Library, L.R.400.b.23, p. 499. Larger
Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Richard II, 'Of comfort no man speak'
II, Act 3, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, ca.
4) In London, before parliament, Richard abdicates in favour
of Bolingbroke, who ascends the throne as Henry IV.
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