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Richard II (play)

Richard II is a play by William Shakespeare, based on the life of King Richard II of England, written in 1595.

Many scholars argue that it is difficult to call it either a tragedy or simply a history. For some it will even be a tragic history. Nevertheless, the first edition of Richard II described it as a tragedy, not a history. Richard II is not only a work of its own but it is also written as the first part of a tetralogy[?]. The other plays which belong to this series are Henry IV, parts one and two, and Henry V.

Table of contents


  • attendants, lords, soldiers, messengers, etc.

A short outline of the plot

As the title suggests, Richard II is the main character of the play. The first Act begins immediately with King Richard, sitting majestically on his throne and in full state of power. We get to know that Henry Bolingbroke, Richard's cousin, is having a dispute with Thomas Mowbray[?], and that both want the king to act as judge. The subject of the quarrel is Bolingbroke's accusation that Mowbray killed Richard's brother the Duke of Gloucester. What is more, Mowbray is also accused of having stolen money which would have been used for army purposes. Interesting is the description of King Richard. Although he is powerful and acts as a king he cannot calm the quarrel down. Therefore it happens that the king decides on having the dispute solved by tournament.

The tournament scene is very formal and stylishly written. A long introduction and ceremony ends in the banishment immediately after the joust began. Richard interrupts the duel at the very beginning and sentences the two to banishment of England. Bolingbroke has to leave for six years, whereas Mowbray is abandoned forever. The king's reaction can be seen as the first mistake of a series which will lead finally to his death. Mowbray is upset and predicts that the king will fall sooner or later.

After that, Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, dies and Richard II seizes all of his land and money. As a consequence, the nobility accuses Richard II of wasting England's money, for taking Gaunt's money to fund a war with Ireland, of taxing the commoners, and of fining the nobles for crimes their ancestors committed. Next, they help Bolingbroke secretly to return to England and want to usurp Richard II. However, there still remain some faithful subjects to Richard, among them Bushy, Bagot, Green and the Duke of Aumerle. Meanwhile, King Richard leaves England because of the war in Ireland. This benefits Bolingbroke who assembles an army and invades the north coast of England. When Richard returns, Bolingbroke first claims his land back but then additionally assembles the throne. Moreover, he crowns himself King Henry IV and Richard is taken into prison to the castle of Pomfret[?]. There, an assassin, who actually wanted to kill someone different, murders the former king. King Henry hypocritically repudiates the murderer and vows to journey to Jerusalem to cleanse himself of his part in Richard's death.


Shakespeare used a fall and rise structure in the plot. At the beginning, Richard is in power and therefore can banish Bolingbroke from England. As Richard II falls and dies, Bolingbroke rises to become king of England. Compared to many other works of Shakespeare, Richard II contains virtually no prose. Shakespeare makes good use of metaphors. Famous is the comparisons of England to a garden in Act IV, and of its reigning king to a lion or to the sun.

Famous Lines

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their earth
--John of Gaunt, II,i,42-54

No matter where. Of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth;
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so -- for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our live, and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death,
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd,
Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd."
--King Richard, III,ii, 148-164


  • Bullough, Geoffrey. "Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare". Early English History Plays: Henry VI Richard III Richard II, volume III, Routledge: London, New York, 1960.
  • Shakespeare, William. Richard II, ed. by Andrew Gurr, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1990.
  • Smitd, Kristian. Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays, St. Martin's Press: New York, 1993.
  • Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays, Chatto&Windus: London,1944.of Virginia]

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