Richard II: New Critical Essays

Richard II: New Critical Essays

Richard II: New Critical Essays

Richard II: New Critical Essays


Arguably the first play in a Shakespearean tetralogy, Richard IIis a unique and compelling political drama whose themes still resonate today. It is one of the few Shakespeare plays written entirely in verse and its format presents unique theatrical challenges. Politically engaged and controversial, it raises crucial debates about the relationship between early modern art, audience response and state power.

This collection provides a comprehensive and up-to-date survey of the critical and theatrical history of the play. The substantial introduction surveys the history of critical interpretations of Richard IIsince the eighteenth century. The eleven newly written critical essays by leading and emerging scholars in the field then adopt an eclectic range of critical approaches that encourage scholars and students to pursue new and imaginative directions with the text.


Jeremy Lopez

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the histories present the most difficulties to modern interpreters, teachers, and theater practitioners. By definition, they are the hardest to universalize. It is possible to talk about Macbeth’s “ambition” (to use a crude but familiar example) without worrying about the real political character of medieval Scotland. To talk about Henry Bolingbroke’s ambition, however, one feels obligated to worry about the real political character not only of medieval England, but of Shakespeare’s England as well. Like the ghost of Woodstock, which can be neither laid to rest nor confronted head-on by the actors at Richard’s court, the historical nightmare of civil butchery haunts and vexes contemporary critical engagements with Richard II—not least because we are uncertain whether we have awakened from it, or simply fallen into a new phase of troubled sleep.

Introductions (such as this one) to collections of critical essays on Shakespeare’s plays tend to describe and to some extent revel in the diversity of interpretations that any given play can be seen to have inspired. Richard II requires a somewhat different approach of the editor who would survey critical and theatrical history. While the amount of material available to such an editor is hardly less voluminous than it is for most other plays, one is quickly struck by how persistent and recurrent are its themes and preoccupations. This homogeneity (if that is the right word) is partly a result of the play’s form—in particular the way it constructs Bolingbroke and Richard as opposites—and partly a result of its historical content. Richard II criticism of the last century has been, for the most part, historicist in character, though the history with which it has primarily been concerned is not the history of the reign of King Richard II, but of Queen Elizabeth I. This is to a large extent the case with all of Shakespeare’s history plays, which were themselves highly contemporary meditations on political struggle rather than documentary representations of medieval history. But, as I shall argue in more detail below, historicist criticism of Richard II is uniquely inward-turning, or self-referential, because of the way its project of finding a reflection of Elizabeth in Richard resonates with or displaces the play’s structural opposition of Richard and Bolingbroke.

While the structural opposition between Richard and Bolingbroke might be said to be sublimated—with productive results—by historicist criticism, that . . .

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