Richard II dramatizes the downfall of, you guessed it, King Richard II (1367-1400), a lousy English king who gets bumped off the throne by Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. King Henry IV) and then tossed in the slammer, where he experiences an identity crisis bigger than King Lear's (and maybe even Hamlet's) before he's finally put out of his misery (read: murdered).
Basically, it's the story of a major power shift in 14th century England, which means the play is one giant political soap opera. There's even a weird sex scandal (Act 3, Scene 1) that might give ex-US Congressman Anthony Weiner, former US Prez Bill Clinton, or the ex-"Governator" of California Arnold Schwarzenegger a run for their money.
Written around 1595, Richard II is the first play in Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare's "second tetralogy," a group of four history plays that also include Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. These plays, often called "the Henriad," are sometimes performed together as part of a "cycle" because they portray historical events in chronological order and contain a lot of the same characters.
Richard II was crazy popular in its day. We know this because it was published five times during Shakespeare's own lifetime. That's right – five times. Not too shabby considering how the printing press was basically the only means of publication that didn't involve a bunch of scribes – guys who sat hunched over a text for hours and hours on end, copying it out by hand.
Why was the play so popular? Clearly the Elizabethans liked looking back on their own history, especially when it involved a really juicy political story that was near and dear to their hearts. In a day and age when rulers weren't elected by popular vote, the play raises some big questions: What gives a king (or queen) the right to rule? If subjects are supposed to be obedient to the monarch, what the heck are they supposed to do when the king's a rotten leader or a tyrant? Is it ever okay for subjects to rebel against their ruler?
For Shakespeare's original audience, questions about how power should be transferred from one monarch to another were especially meaningful. When Richard II was first written and performed, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) ruled England and was pretty good at her job (even though some people thought she wasn't). But because the queen was getting up there in age (she was in her 60s) and didn't have any kids (she never married), her subjects worried about what would happen when she died. Who would inherit (or seize) the crown if the queen never produced an heir? What would happen to England?
In Richard II, Shakespeare is asking some pretty dangerous questions about when and why it might be okay to get rid of a monarch. This, by the way, is why the play was censored the first three times it was printed (once in 1597 and twice in 1598). Each time it was published during Queen Elizabeth's lifetime, the deposition scene (where Richard is "deposed," or stripped of his crown) was deleted. What's up with that? Apparently the censors thought it was too risky: what if audiences went and got some crazy ideas about booting Queen Elizabeth off the throne?
Even without the deposition scene, audiences got some dangerous ideas from the play. In 1601, just a few years after Richard II was written, Queen Elizabeth I's favorite military leader, the Earl of Essex, revolted against her. In fact, the day before the famous Essex Rebellion, some of his pals hired Shakespeare's theater company to perform Richard II at the Globe Theater. Obviously they hoped that a play about a monarch getting stripped of his power would get the audience all fired up, like a 16th century pep rally. The rebellion didn't work (Essex was put on trial and executed for treason), but this shows the extent to which the play could be political dynamite, even though it was portraying events that were about 200 years old.
Brain Snack: In case you're wondering, Queen Elizabeth I knew exactly what the rebels were thinking when they hired Shakespeare's company to stage Richard II. She's famous for saying "I am Richard II! Know you not that?" (source: Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare).
Why Should I Care?
Most of us will never know what it feels like to be crowned king (or queen) at the ripe old age of 10, and most of us will never be told that God himself has picked us to rule over a country. Hopefully most of us will never order the execution of our uncle and then try to cover it up by banishing our friends and relatives. And most of us will never spend a kingdom's entire treasury (although we will probably blow our entire paychecks from time to time). Most of us will never be publicly stripped of our crown and thrown into a medieval prison, where we'll be left to feel sorry for ourselves and wonder who the heck we are now that we're no longer king. That's what happens to Richard II. Not us.
But wait a minute. Let's think about think about what happens to Richard when he's locked away in prison. He puts so much of his selfhood into his title of "king" that when he loses the crown, he finds it really hard to define who he is. In fact, he experiences a major identity crisis that, well, makes us feel pretty sorry for him, despite the fact that we know he's done a lot of terrible things. How is it possible that Shakespeare has us feeling sympathy for Richard, and maybe even identifying with him?
At one point or another, we all struggle with our identities. When it comes down to it, Richard II is a story about how easy it is to locate your sense of self in the role you've been given. Think about all the titles you've had: daughter, son, student, teammate, classmate, friend. All of those roles carry certain expectations and responsibilities, right? And those roles also shape who you are and how you see yourself. But what happens when you're no longer, say, a classmate or a teammate? If you left your school or quit the basketball team or the chess club, would you still be you? From time to time, we all ask the same question in life: Who am I?