Richard II in a New Context
by Jean-Christophe Mayer
University of Montpellier, France
WHEN SHAKESPEARE completed Richard II in 1595, he was writing in a period that historians have ceased to regard as congenial.1 Those "nasty nineties," as Patrick Collinson observed, were certainly not a period of stabilization, routinization, or secularization: this was not "a decade of sweetness and light, of incipient puritan piety and mellowing Anglicanism, but a rather ugly decade, when the going got tough and unpleasant for all parties" (Collinson 1995, 153). It was in this context that Shakespeare launched a sequence of four plays on the Lancastrian period of English history with the story of the deposition of the Plantagenet King Richard II.2
By the mid-1590s, the story and the allusions to the reign of Richard II had already been used by historians and law specialists to discuss the terms by which a king might be deposed. The theme was appropriated also by malcontents to point to the moral of the story, in ways that repeatedly challenged what some critics would still like to call "the Elizabethan status quo."3 In other words, allusions to Richard II had become commonplace when commenting on the realm of politics.
The aim of this essay is not, therefore, to affirm that Shakespeare was the first to seize upon the theme (even if the dramatist's contribution to it is of course unique), but it does make a claim to put Shakespeare's play in a context that has so far been overlooked—a context showing that theater, politics, and polemic sometimes wrestled with the same specific issues. To throw a detailed light on this context,