Richard II is the first in a tetralogy of histories Shakespeare wrote around 1595 which depict the rise of the house of Lancaster to the British throne. While the events of the play took place around 200 years before the production’s debut, Richard II’s story particularly resonated with English audiences (and infuriated Elizabeth I—more on that later) of the time because of the British custom of primogeniture. Primogeniture is the practice of handing down inheritances to the firstborn son with a depth-first priority, meaning that in the case of a king’s son’s death, a grandson of the king would inherit before a younger son of the king without consideration for age or suitability.
This is what happened to Richard II. Predeceased by his father, Richard inherited the crown from his grandfather Edward III and ascended the British throne at the age of 10, despite having several older and more capable uncles still living. Shakespeare’s Richard II spans only the last two years of Richard’s life, when the king is in his twenties. Despite no longer needing a regency, Richard is a not a particularly strong or well-respected king, spending his nobles’ taxes on frivolity and pet wars in Ireland. His uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, wants to make particularly sure that Richard understands the extent of his disapproval and, on his deathbed, reams Richard out for the reckless way the king has been unlawfully seizing pieces of nobles’ land (“Landlord of England thou art now, not king!”). Richard expresses his feelings about this lecture by seizing all of Gaunt’s lands immediately after the older man’s death, leaving nothing for the duke’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, to inherit. Henry comes raging back from the exile Richard had imposed on him with the intent to reclaim his patrimony, only to find the king has left England to do some more fighting in Ireland. Henry, a smart man, is embraced by the disgruntled nobility, and encouraged to seize more than his father’s lands. Richard returns to find the English nobility united against him, and a conflicted but willing Henry Bolingbroke demanding the crown.
Richard is also conflicted but willing, and hands over the crown with high melodrama:
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites
These lines from Act IV Scene i depict Richard undoing the British coronation rites in the reverse order of which they are performed. He is unambiguously and completely leaving the kingship that is rightfully his despite his personal inadequacies. Richard’s poetry contrasts the stoic plain-spokenness of King Henry IV; the old king is one of ineffectual words, and the new is one of action.
Richard is killed in his imprisonment by a loyal courtier of the new king, without Henry’s order or even knowledge. When presented with Richard’s body, Henry is glad that he will no longer have to fend off rebels attempting to restore the rightful king, but is simultaneously plagued by guilt. The throne is not rightfully his under British law. To cleanse himself of Richard’s murder, Henry vows to launch a crusade for the Holy Land, setting the stage for the rest of Shakespeare’s tetralogy.
When a company of players performed Richard II for Queen Elizabeth I, she is said to have shouted, “Fools! I am Richard, know thee not that?” Indeed, Elizabeth came by her throne four heirs after the death of her father; the second daughter of Henry VIII, she was surrounded by figures who mirrored the greater experience of Richard II’s uncles. She, at least, understood Richard II to be criticizing the practice of primogeniture, as Henry IV alone escapes the play with both the crown and his life.
Completion of the tetralogy, however, suggests that Shakespeare was conflicted about primogeniture. Richard meets a tragic end despite his right to rule. Henry IV does attain the throne but begins his rule with the same ineffectual foreign wars that made Richard’s nobles hate him so. The House of Lancaster, which began with Henry IV’s rule, was infamous for its bloody War of the Roses by the time Richard II reached Elizabethan audiences. Shakespeare is, as always, open to interpretation while simultaneously making it clear that there is no happy ending for either king.