What Are the Origins of Shakespeare's "Richard II"?

K. Kinsella

The English playwright William Shakespeare is believed to have written the play "Richard II" in the year 1592. Shakespeare's play is based upon the life of the English Monarch who ruled his nation from 1377 until 1399. "Richard II" is the first part tetralogy of plays that also includes "Henry IV" parts one and two, and "Henry V". Like the other plays in the tetralogy, "Richard II" is classified as a history play although when it was first performed it was referred to as a tragedy.

Shakespeare's "Richard II" deals with an English monarch from two hundred years earlier.
Shakespeare's "Richard II" deals with an English monarch from two hundred years earlier.

Richard ascended to the English throne upon the death of Edward III in 1377. At the time, Richard was only 10 years old, so a committee was created to effectively govern the nation until the monarch was deemed to be old enough to handle the country's affairs. The introduction of an unpopular tax in 1381 led to the so-called peasants revolt during which large numbers of peasants descended on the capital and stormed the royal fortress at the Tower of London. Rather than fleeing, the fourteen-year-old monarch confronted the mob and his intervention ultimately brought an end to the popular uprising. Thereafter, the young Richard II took a more active role in managing the nation.

Shakespeare frequently turned well-known historical accounts into scripts to be used on stage.
Shakespeare frequently turned well-known historical accounts into scripts to be used on stage.

After successfully quelling the peasants revolt, many historians argue that Richard II was quite popular with his subjects for a number of years, but William Shakespeare's play starts later in his reign after Richard had become a more divisive figure. Early in the play, Richard intervenes in a dispute between his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke and a man named Thomas Mowbray during which Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of killing the Duke of Gloucester. Richard II eventually banishes both men before claiming Bolingbroke's family estate for himself. In the play, Richard's reign comes to an end when Bolingbroke overthrows him and claims the English crown.

The key details in Shakespeare's play are based on real events as the real life Bolingbroke was exiled and did eventually become King Henry IV. At surface level, the play is viewed as a historical drama but some viewers at the time perceived it to be an allegorical tale with the Richard character based upon the aging monarch Elizabeth I. Additionally, much of play is concerned with explaining Richard's role as a divinely appointed monarch. This exploration of monarchial power was also significant during Shakespeare’s time because Queen Elizabeth's father King Henry VIII had pointed to his role as divinely anointed ruler when he chose to break away from the Catholic Church. Aside from the historical references and topical subtext, many academics argue that "Richard II" was also a play through which Shakespeare honed his skills as a writer; some of the elements that are seen in later works such as Hamlet are first touched on this play.

Richard II quelled a peasant revolt in the 1300s.
Richard II quelled a peasant revolt in the 1300s.

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Discussion Comments


Regardless of what the origins of Richard II are or which works Shakespeare was inspired by, I don't believe that Richard II can be compared to anything else. Shakespeare was a very unique writer when it came to the use of language. None of his contemporaries could write like him. For example, he uses a lot of metaphors and similies in his works. And Richard II is completely written in verse, meaning that most of the couplets rhyme. And the language varies a little bit among the different characters expressing the differences in their personalities.

There might have been many literary works done on Richard II before Shakespeare's play, but none of them can compare to it in terms of eloquence.


dicographer-- That's right Raphael Holonshed's "The Third Volume of Chronicles" was an important source for Richard II. But there were also other authors who inspired Shakespeare for this play, like Samuel Daniel and Edward Hall.

Shakespeare might have also used other historical plays while writing Richard II. For example, there was a play called "Edward the Second" that had been written around the same time. Many claim that Shakespeare knew of this play and was inspired from it as well.

Considering that this is a historical play, I think that this is normal. After all, everyone who writes a historical play needs to find out about historical events from other sources. Shakespeare added his own touch and artistic style to these historical events when he wrote Richard II.


I read that Shakespeare wrote this play after reading Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles and that it is greatly inspired by it. Is this true?

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