Richard II

Content Group

Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987

This play is accepted as the first in a planned series of four, including the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V, though it never had the visibility that these successors won as a result of their exploitation of the comic effect of Falstaff and his associates. It is also considered to reflect Shakespeare's decision to examine the political antecedents to his first tetralogy, Henry VI-Richard III, which begins with Henry V's funeral. Though his emotional role is often seen as anticipating Hamlet, Richard's fluency is usually shown to be overshadowed by the political dexterity of the usurper Henry Bolingbroke: the play's impact depends primarily on their interaction as representatives of traditional medieval attitudes to kingship and more "modern" ones respectively. Current interpretations usually favor the cynical mastery of Henry at the expense of the more sentimental Richard, but Richard's historical sophistication is often reflected in highly ornamental staging of the ambience of his court which is reinforced by the predominant versification of the script, compared to the increasing prose of the play's successors. Whatever modern literary critics may assert, historically Henry IV's reign was pretty much of a disaster, and read carefully it is clear that it appears so in the two parts of Henry IV, with their endless tumults, which may encourage directors not to slant the earlier script too much in Bolingbroke's favor.


"The Spectator and Richard II"

From Hugh Macrae Richmond, Shakespeare's Tragedies Trviewed, Peter Lang , 2015, p. 37

In the more consistently serious poetic vein of Richard II Shakespeare did not sustain the expectations of audiences aroused by the black humor of Richard III, and exploited to the full later by the extraordinary variability of tone of Henry IV. Richard II has always had a more modest status with audiences, as was recognized even in Shakespeare’s time, when on 7 February 1601 supporters of the Earl of Essex paid for a performance of Richard II at the Globe THearethe  before their armed rebellion, aimed at dethroning Queen Elizabeth. They paid the company forty shillings "above the ordinary" rate to stage this play, which the players considered too "out of use" to attract an adequate audience. (Shakespeare Allusion-Book, I. 82) Nevertheless, the sponsors clearly felt that there might be a significant audience interaction with the monarch’s deposition in the play, leading to increased support for their own rebellion. In practice they got the anticipated effect exactly wrong, judging from the lack of support for their rebellion in succeeding hours.  Yet while the humor in the play is at best local and limited, Phyllis Rackin has argued that spectators’ attitudes are still likely to oscillate powerfully during performances. They may be initially alienated by the acts of Richard earlier in the play, but they reverse their sympathies after the deposition scene, as Richard gains self-awareness, and Bolingbroke misuses his authority. At the end of her essay, “The Role of the Audience In Shakespeare's Richard II,” Rackin strongly asserts that this dynamic participation should be characteristic of modern audiences as well:

                     "Shakespeare’s strategy, in play after play, works to implicate the audience in the action and to transgress the comfortable demarcation between the stage and the audience that criticism seeks to preserve. The rebels in Richard’s England enlist something of our own soul’s consent to their crimes and errors, and the traps their playwright prepares for them are traps for us too. Criticism that fails to take account of these traps preserves its own integrity, but only at the cost of reducing Shakespearean theatre to a spectator sport in which only the actors move and only the characters suffer and change."

Richard II, 1981
Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987
Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1981
Richard II, His Majesty's Theatre, 1903
Richard II, BBC, 1978
Richard II: His Majesty's Theatre, 1910
King Richard II: Played by John Gielgud
Richard II: Derek Jacobi as Richard II, John Gielgud as John of Gaunt
Richard II Staged by Beerbohm Tree, 1910

Berger, Harry, Jr. "Richard II 3.2: An Exercise in Imaginary Audition." ELH 55 (1988): 755-96.

Berger, Harry, Jr. "Textual Dramaturgy: Representing the Limits of Theatre in Richard II." Theatre Journal 39 (1987): 135-55.

Bordinat, Philip. "The Death of Tragedy in Richard II:  John Barton's Epic Theatre Production at Stratford-upon-Avon." In Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare & Renaissance Association,edited by Sophia Blaydes and Philip Bordinat, 26-36. Morgantown: West Virginia University Foundation, 1976.

Brantley, Ben."This Star of England, in Person." [London productions of R2,H5, Cor.] Arts & Leisure, 1,5. New York Times, 2/2/14.

Collins, David G. "The Three Faces of Richard II: New Light from Stratford, Ontario (1979)." Publications of the Missouri Philological Association 5 (1980): 31-38.

Gilbert, Miriam. "Richard II at Stratford: Role-Playing as Metaphor." In Shakespeare: The Theatrical Dimension, edited by Philip McGuire and David A. Samuelson, 84-101. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Hakola, Lisa. In One Person Many People: The Image of the King in Three RSC Productions of William Shakespeare's King Richard II. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1988.

Johnson, Odai. "Empty Houses: The Suppression of Tate's Richard II." Theatre Journal 47, no. 4 (December 1995): 503-16.

Jones, Maria. "'Bifold authority' in Deborah Warner's Richard II." Shakespeare Bulletin 15, no. 1 (1997): 28-30.

Loney, Glenn. "The Royal Shakespeare Richard II." In Staging Shakespeare: Seminars on Production Problems, edited by Glenn Loney, 19-54. New York; London: Garland, 1990.

Mnouchkine, Ariane, trans. Richard II. Paris: Solin, 1983.

Mullin, Michael. "An Invitation to Richard II." In The Shakespeare Plays: A Study Guide, 74-100. San Diego: University of California, San Diego, 1978.

Newlin, Jeanne T., ed. Richard II: Critical Essays. New York; London: Garland, 1984.

O'Brien, Timothy. "Designing a Shakespeare Play: Richard II." Shakespeare-Jahrbuch (Bochum) 110 (1974): 111-20.

Page, Malcolm. Richard II: Text and Performance. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1987.

Potter, Lois. "The Second Tetralogy: Performance as Interpretation." In A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, Volume II: The Histories, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Richmond, H. M. Shakespeare's Political Plays. New York: Random House, 1967.

Royce, Jacalyn. "Richard II." Review of Richard II, Oregon Shakespeare. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 94-6.

Shewring, Margaret. Richard II. Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Sporre, Dennis J. "Charles Kean's Antiquarianism: The Designs for Richard II, 1857." In Historical Drama, edited by James Redmond, 93-111. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Stredder, James. "John Barton's Production of Richard II at Stratford-on-Avon, 1973." Shakespeare-Jahrbuch (Bochum) 112 (1976): 23-42.

Richard II at Talkin' Broadway.

Viator, Timothy J. "Nahum Tate's Richard II." Theatre Notebook 42 (1988): 109-117.

Wilson, M. Glen. "Charles Kean's Production of Richard II." Theatre Journal 19 (1967): 41-51.

Please offer comments and suggestions on any aspects the site to: Director Hugh Richmond at See samples at the site Blog.

Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond.