Richard II: Before the play begins

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The term "history" used as a genre for a certain kind of play was coined by the editors of the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays (the First Folio, 1623). When Richard II was first published it was called The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, not a history; but in the First Folio it is included as one of the ten plays that Shakespeare wrote about England's recent history, starting with King John and ending with Henry VIII.

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Before the Plot Begins . . .

What the Audience Might Have Known

One of the first concerns of a playwright in constructing the opening scenes of a play is to make clear to the audience what has happened before the action begins, and who the various characters are--the technical term is the "exposition." But with Richard II Shakespeare was in an unusual position: many of those in his audience would have already seen a play that dramatized the events leading up to the opening scenes. Thomas of Woodstock was an anonymous play written in the early 1590s just before Shakespeare wrote Richard II. It presents a graphic view of the period immediately before the beginning of Shakespeare's play; thus in a sense Richard II can be considered a sequel.

Historically, Richard came to the throne at age ten after the deaths of his father the Black Prince (famed for his prowess in wars in France) and his grandfather Edward III. Because of his youth, the kingdom was run by a council; in Woodstock his uncle the Duke of Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock is the chief counsellor and Lord Protector. The author of Woodstock portrayed Richard as a headstrong child-man surrounded by flatterers and determined to exploit his kingdom for personal pleasure. In the play, Richard agrees to the murder of Woodstock, and actually takes part in kidnapping him.

Not everyone would have seen Woodstock, so Shakespeare had to make the opening scenes of the play self-explanatory; on the other hand, he would have been aware that some knew the background well, and he would not have wanted to bore them with repetitive exposition. The result is that the play would probably have been understood on two levels: one level learning of the issues as they arise, finding the quarrel at the beginning rather ambiguous and not knowing who (if anyone) was in the right; the other enjoying a rich subtext of ironies as the characters strut and posture. Your first reading of the play would have probably been at the first level--and you may have been somewhat puzzled by it all. But your second reading as you work through this commentary will be fully informed, and you will be able to watch Shakespeare's ironies as they develop.

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Who's Who?

Names and titles in the history plays can be confusing. In the Signet edition, the Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the play simply identifies one of the major characters as "Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt's son." An earlier text from the nineteenth century is more informative: "HENRY, surnamed BOLINGBROKE, Duke of Hereford, son to John of Gaunt; afterwards King Henry IV." Characters are often referred to by different names, depending on the circumstances. Consider this interchange between Berkeley, a messenger from the Duke of York, and Bolingbroke, just after his arrival back in England:

Berkeley: My Lord of Hereford, my message is to you.
Bolingbroke: My lord, my answer is--to Lancaster;
And I am come to seek that name in England;
And I must find that title in your tongue
Before I make reply to aught you say.
                      (2. 3. 69-73)
Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, has returned to claim the title of his father, Duke of Lancaster; he therefore expects to be called "My Lord of Lancaster" rather than to be addressed by his earlier, inferior title.

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A Family Tree of the Houses of York and Lancaster

This much simplified version shows only the main lines of inheritance. There was a great deal of intermarriage between the various families, and the branches of the tree are often complicated by multiple marriages.

Family tree

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This page last updated July 7, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
© Michael Best and The University of Victoria.