Shakespeare’s Richard II is a little-known play in our generation.  It is rarely performed, even though it packs a solid punch of powerful language, spoken entirely in verse not prose.  Also, it imparts a great deal of history that is not so familiar to most American audiences.
Here at CSC, we relish that challenge.  What makes Shakespeare so great?  He’s always giving us something new to learn.
Shakespeare  took artistic liberties with the history to craft his play. His play wonderfully presents the history as a family drama. So here we go: Let’s compare Shakespeare’s version of history and the  real Richard II.
King Richard II departs England for war in Ireland. Courtesy of the British Library
King Richard II departs England for war in Ireland. Courtesy of the British Library
Born: January 6, 1367, in Bordeaux
Reign:  June 22, 1377 – September 29, 1399.  He was 10 years old when he became king. His uncles were among the nobles who ran the government until he reached 22 years old and took the throne. Some are not pleased when he assumes power. Shakespeare: The play opens with a coronation scene and King Richard II as a young man.
Family tree:  Richard is the grandson of King Edward III of the Plantagenet dynasty  - a family whose branches held England’s throne from the 1100s  through the 1400s.  Richard’s father was Edward ‘s first son,  Edward “The Black Prince.”  Richard had six uncles. Much of the play involves  the intrigue surrounding the murder of one of Richard’s uncles, Thomas, the Duke of Gloucester (and scholars believe that Richard himself may have conspired with a cousin in that slaying). Why? During Richard’s early years on the throne, the Duke of Gloucester and other nobles believed their young king was impetuous, weak and vain, and they humiliated him by taking over the government and banishing or killing his close supporters. Eventually, Richard regains control. Shakespeare:  Richard’s payback to his uncles and cousins is equally harsh.  Working the emotions of a family torn by its own ambitions, Shakespeare first portrays the living uncles as grieving their brother’s death. The widowed Duchess of Gloucester begs one uncle to appeal to Richard to investigate; the other uncle, Edmund, Duke of York, struggles to decide which side he’s on as Richard continues unchecked.  In the play, the Duke of Gloucester is never seen, but his murder casts a shadow over the action to the play’s end.
Married:   Richard’s first wife,  in 1383, was  Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor. It was reportedly a loving union, but she became ill and died in 1394. Second marriage: Princess Isabella of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France, in 1396.  She was 6 years old and was sent by her father to be married to Richard II as part of a treaty.   Shakespeare:  In the play, the character is a young woman called “Queen” and scholars believe she is a composite or creation provided to show the emotional context of Richard’s life. Isabella would have been only about 10 years old at the time of most action chronicled in the plot, roughly 1398 – 1399.
Death:  February 1400     Richard dies in captivity, but there is  much speculation about how it actually happened. Shakespeare:  Come see Richard II at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, now through November 9, to find out how the playwright ends the tale.
Now through November 9:  Richard II at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.  Buy tickets here.