Richard II: Shakespeare Questions Divine Right of Kings


By Marc Connor, Ph.D., University of Washington and Lee

Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin, was immensely capable, unlike Richard. His return from banishment posed several questions regarding what it meant to be God’s anointed King. In Richard II, using his improved literary skills, Shakespeare provoked the great questions about the relations of God to politics, and to History.

An image of Shakespeare's history plays at work.
Different characters from Shakespeare’s plays. (Image: Yale Center for British Art/Public domain)

Richard’s Cousin Henry Bolingbroke Returns

A portrait of Henry Bolingbroke, King Richard's cousin.
Henry was banished by Richard II. He sought a claim on the throne upon his return. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

When Henry returned to England from his banishment, to reclaim his own lands, he was seeking the crown and the entire kingdom. As Richard saw Henry kneeling before him, he exclaimed, “Up, cousin, up, your heart is up, I know,/ Thus high at least [that is, as high as Richard’s crown], although your knee be low.”

Henry responded, “My gracious lord, I come but for mine own.” To which Richard responded, “Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all.”

Henry protested he did not seek the crown, but Richard understood what was happening: “Well you deserve:” he said, “they well deserve to have/ That know the strong’st and surest way to get.” Soon, Henry publicly declared his determination to become king.

Shakespeare Asks What It Means to Be God’s Anointed

Henry was about to usurp the throne from God’s own anointed king; he said he would do it “in God’s name”. Before he was deposed, Richard confidently, even pridefully, stated, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/ Can wash the balm off God’s anointed king.” So Shakespeare had set up a dramatic conflict that summed up the entire political question: did the ruler derive his power from God’s grace or from his own innate worthiness?

As Europe progressed into the 17th century and beyond, that question was answered in the human direction since monarchy itself faded, and it was no longer believed that God divinely chose the leaders.

Learn more about the tools for a lifetime of Shakespeare.

The Drama of Ideas in Shakespeare’s Plays

A new tool was needed to comprehend what was happening in the play, called the drama of ideas, meaning William Shakespeare’s plays were filled with serious contemplation about the great questions of religion, philosophy, history, and politics. Shakespeare dramatized those ideas in the characters, giving them life in the scenes to show how he worked through complex intellectual arguments in his dramas.

In Richard II, Shakespeare provoked the great questions about the relation of God to politics, and to history. Holding those questions somewhere in the forefront of history plays was an essential tool to understand those plays.

What Are History Plays?

Shakespeare probably began his career with a history play. He wrote eight major history plays in the 1590s. They were all concerned with English history, the kings, queens, and historical events ranging from about 1377—when Richard II assumed the throne—to about 1485 when Richard III was deposed and the rule of Henry VII began.

Learn more about the religious drama of Hamlet.

 A portrait of Robert Devereux.
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, staged the earliest production of Richard II in 1601. (Image: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger/Public domain)

The First and Second Henriad

Those history plays were divided into two groups, ‘The First Henriad’ or ‘The First Tetralogy’, meaning the first four plays written; and ‘The Second Henriad’ or ‘Second Tetralogy’ was the second cluster of four plays written about 7–10 years after the first group.

The First Henriad included the plays Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III; and the Second Henriad included Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.

The Second Henriad was by far the greater literary achievement, with Richard II showing a significant step forward in Shakespeare’s art. The two Henry IV plays stood as major accomplishments while Henry V enjoyed an iconic status as a play about Shakespeare’s ideal Christian king.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Evolution of Shakespeare’s History Plays

In Shakespeare’s entire body of work, the eight main history plays made a real study of that genre of the history play. Over the period, he refined and evolved them from a rather loose to a very accomplished form of the Second Henriad.

One of the key ways to distinguish the earlier from the later plays was to see the focus of the play on a single character. Did the play treat a wide variety of historical characters? If so, it may be from the First Henriad. Or, did it focus on a single figure, what might be called the hero of the play? If so, it was certainly from the Second Henriad.

This distinction was very helpful in understanding the differences between the two groups of plays, also giving an idea as to what really worked for Shakespeare around the time of 1595. Since at that very period, he created Juliet, Richard II, Shylock, and soon all the great characters flowed: Henry V, Rosalind, Julius Caesar, and of course Hamlet.

Learn more about how to read and understand Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Historical Sources

Writing plays based on a country’s own history needed an ability to create compelling and dramatic characters to play around with strict historical fact. Shakespeare did have reliable historical sources to draw upon. His favorite for this material was Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland first published in 1577 and then expanded in a second edition in 1587.

Shakespeare also drew upon Edward Hall’s 1548 edition of The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, as well as the 1559 Miscellany, A Mirror for Magistrates, along with the other historical materials.

A Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.
Queen Elizabeth I was from the Tudor line of English rulers. (Image: National Portrait Gallery/Public domain)

The Influence of Tudors on Shakespeare’s History Plays

All of the historical sources, having emerged during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, were from the Tudor line of English rulers. Rulers who sought to justify the Tudor House that rose to power at the end of the Wars of the Roses, during which the Houses of Lancaster and York fought a civil war to determine which was the rightful monarchy for England.

The war only resolved when Elizabeth of York married Henry of Lancaster (Henry VII) to unite the two lines and give birth to Henry VIII, father of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s queen.

Questions About Shakespeare’s Richard II

Q: What is Shakespeare’s history play?

Shakespeare began his career with a history play, and he wrote eight major history plays in the 1590s; all concerned with English history, the kings, queens and historical events ranging from about 1377, when Richard II assumed the throne, to about 1485, when Richard III was deposed and the rule of Henry VII began.

Q: What are some of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays?

Some of Shakespeare’s famous history plays are Macbeth, King Lear, and Cymbeline.

Q: When did Shakespeare write Richard II?

Shakespeare wrote Richard II in 1595.

Q: What was the main source of Shakespeare’s plays?

The main source of Shakespeare’s plays was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

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