the illustrated shakespeare
A chronicle play in five acts, first performed in 1595-96 and published in a quarto edition in 1597 and in the First Folio edition of 1623. It is the first in a sequence of four history plays (the other three being Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V), known collectively as the "second tetralogy," treating the early phases of the power struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. The story of Richard II is taken mainly from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. While much of the play is true to the facts of Richard's life, Shakespeare's account of his murder rests on no reliable authority.

Richard II, set around the year 1398, traces the fall from power of the last king of the house of Plantagenet, Richard II, and his replacement by the first Lancaster king, Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke). Richard II, who ascended to the throne as a young man, is a regal and stately figure, but he is wasteful in his spending habits, unwise in his choice of counsellors, and detached from his country and its common people. He spends too much of his time pursuing the latest Italian fashions, spending money on his close friends, and raising taxes to fund his pet wars in Ireland and elsewhere. When he begins to "rent out" parcels of English land to certain wealthy noblemen in order to raise funds for one of his wars, and seizes the lands and money of a recently deceased and much respected uncle to help fill his coffers, both the commoners and the king's noblemen decide that Richard has gone too far.

The play opens with the accusation of Richards's cousin Henry Bolingbroke (who is a great favourite among the English commoners) that Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, is responsible for the murder of Richard's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Richard decrees that the two shall settle the matter in trial by combat, but revokes this option as the Norfolk and Bolingbroke are readying to attack each other. His new decision is to banish both men, from England for six years. The dead uncle whose lands Richard seizes was the father of Bolingbroke; when Bolingbroke learns that Richard has stolen, what should have been, his inheritance, Bolingbroke decides he has had enough. Therefore, when Richard unwisely departs to pursue a war in Ireland, Bolingbroke assembles an army and invades the north coast of England in his absence. The commoners, fond of Bolingbroke and angry at Richard's mismanagement of the country, (most notably the Earl of Northumberland,) welcome his invasion and join his forces. One by one, Richard's allies in the nobility desert him and defect to Bolingbroke's side as Bolingbroke marches through England nobles against the Duke of York, Richard's regent. York, however, recognizes that change is in the air and swears allegiance to Bolingbroke on behalf of himself and his son, the duke of Aumerle, who proves loyal to Richard. By the time, Richard returns from Ireland, he learns that Bolingbroke has not only returned to reclaim the lands he should have inherited upon his father's death, but that he has dispersed Richard's army and executed a pair of Richard's favourites. Richard flees to Flint Castle for his own protection.

There is never an actual battle; instead, Bolingbroke peacefully takes Richard prisoner in Wales and brings him back to London. There, is a session of Parliament, making Richard confess crimes against the state. The result of which he must forfeit his crown to Bolingbroke, who becomes King Henry IV, Intrigue develops as the Duke of York's son, Aumerle, conspires against the new King Henry in response to Richard's loss of the throne, but once discovered and quelled, is granted clemency.

Imprisoned in the remote castle of Pomfret in the north of England, Richard ruminates upon his downfall, and hammer out the meaning of his life in sustained soliloquy. From this moment of truth, he rediscovers pride, trust, and courage. There, an assassin, Sir Pierce of Exton, who both is and is not acting upon King Henry's ambivalent wishes for Richard's expedient death, murders the former king.

Bolingbroke (now King Henry IV) performs his first royal act (and displays his pragmatic approach to governing) by acquiescing to the duchess of York's pleas for Aumerle's life while the zealous York demands his "disloyal" son's execution. The play ends with Henry searching for his own wastrel son, Prince Hal, and swearing to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for his part in Richard's murder. (See Henry IV, Part 1.)

In comparison to the plays of Shakespeare's "first tetralogy" (Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, and Richard III), which deal with the latter phases of the dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses, Richard II is notable for its more deeply realized characters and more distinctive dramatic contrasts.