Tragedy; History Play
How is it, exactly, that Richard II fits into these two categories? Check out these two checklists and decide for yourself:
What makes Richard II a Shakespearean Tragedy
Dramatic work: Check. There's no doubt about it: Richard II is most definitely a play.
Serious or somber theme: Check. This play is all about a king who has a major identity crisis after being stripped of his crown. That sounds pretty "serious" and "somber" to us.
Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. Richard's our "hero" (a.k.a. our protagonist), and he has a major character flaw all right. Psst. It involves being a lousy king who thinks he can do whatever he wants, like have his own uncle murdered, steal from the members of the nobility, and blow through all of England's money.
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check. Have you noticed all those scary omens and prophesies in the play (like the time John of Gaunt is on his deathbed and tells Richard he hopes the king will die soon and that his "shame" will outlive him [2.1.9]). We don't mean to sound superstitious or anything, but this prophesy/curse comes true, which sort of suggests that Richard is destined for destruction and downfall.
Not all tragedies end in death, but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do: Check. A lot of people lose their heads at the end of this play. In Act 5, Scene 6, we find out that some rebel forces have burned down the town of Cirencester in Gloucestershire. Then Northumberland shows up and announces that he's just sent the heads of "Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent" to London. Fitzwater is not about to be outdone, so he chimes in that he's just sent to London the heads of some other traitors who were plotting to overthrow Henry. But Shakespeare's not finished, kiddies, because Exton shows up with a giant coffin in tow. What's in this coffin, you ask? Richard's body, that's what. (Exton killed him back in Act 5, Scene 5, and now he's decided to drag in the body and show it off to the king. Kind of like a cat with a dead mouse, right?)
Despite the death of individuals at the end, the play's conclusions also seem to promise the restoration of political order: Well... not so much here. King Richard is dead by the end of the play and we can tell that everybody (especially King Henry IV) really wants political order to be restored, but that's not going to happen any time soon. Henry's actions spark a series of civil wars (Act 5, Scene 5), and we also find out that the guy plans to start a Holy War (Act 5, Scene 6). So there's no way political order is getting restored any time soon. This makes us wonder – is this play the tragedy of Richard II or the tragedy of England?
What makes Richard II a History Play
Portrayal of English historical events: Check. Like we've said before, the play is all about how the historical King Richard II was bumped off the English throne by Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. King Henry IV).
Historical events resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion: Check. When we say "current" political issues, we mean around 1595, when the play was written. At the time, Queen Elizabeth I was England's monarch and she didn't have any kids, which meant she didn't have an heir to the throne. This made her subjects very nervous – they wondered what would happen when their monarch died and who would be crowned king. As Shakespeare's original audience watched a play about a guy who just takes the crown instead of inheriting it, they would have been thinking about their own political situation and wondering how the heck the crown would be transferred to a new ruler when Elizabeth I died. Go read "In a Nutshell" for more on this.
Shakespeare spices up "History" with a little fiction: Check. When we say that Shakespeare portrays historical events, we mean historical events according to Shakespeare, whose plays aren't always complete or even accurate accounts of history. In fact, sometimes Shakespeare just makes up stuff, like the scene where the Duke and Duchess of York bicker about whether or not to tattle on their son (Aumerle) for plotting against King Henry. Historically Aumerle (a.k.a. Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York) did plot against Henry, but there's no record of his parents racing each other to Windsor Castle to see who can talk to King Henry first (Act 5, Scene 3). Even if they did, the Duchess probably wouldn't have told her son to hide his dad's boots so he couldn't leave the house. Shakespeare seems to have written this weird little scene for laughs and also to ask the question of whether people should put family loyalty before their loyalty to the monarch. FYI – in the next play in this series, Shakespeare gets even more creative and invents one of the greatest fictional characters of all time, Sir John Falstaff.