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Historical Events in Shakespeare's King Richard II

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1253 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The writings of Shakespeare are not just stories alone but rather historical accounts. Throughout his work, he touches on three different histories over a span of time. These histories can be grouped into the categories of English and Roman history. Writings that are considered under English history include the titles of Richard II, Henry VI Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. Plays listed under Roman history include Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Many of Shakespeare’s plays written about English history are focused on the history and life of English kings. His work mentions some of the less popular kings of Edward III and Henry VII.

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 Shakespeare’s tragedies not only include important historical figures but rather are a source of crucial historical events which he is able to incorporate into his works. Richard II is seen as one of Shakespeare’s most politically controversial plays because of Richard II’s defeat and Henry Bolingbroke’s seizing of the thrown to become King Henry VI. This play mainly drew from sources of Holinshed’s Chronicles for the character development of Richard. Shakespeare also drew from Halles The Union and Two Noble but had a lesser influence on the characters and development of the play than Holinshed’s Chronicles. Throughout the play, Richard II slowly creates his own downfall which inevitably leads to him losing the throne. The play begins with the conflict of Henry Bolingbroke accusing Thomas Mawbery of treason. This feud is settled by Richard II allowing the two in battle by combat. The feud between Bolingbroke and Mowbray closely follows accounts of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Events in Holinshed’s Chronicles are altered by Shakespeare when mentioned in Richard II through the changes of character traits in Gaunt and York which are used to emphasize the divine appointment of King Richard. 

Many of Shakespeare’s ties to the Chronicles are solely focused on the pronouncing of Richard II’s status as a divinely appointed king. The most prominent example is seen through the character changes of Gaunt. Through his character, Shakespeare alters the material within Holinshed the most. Within Holinshed’s Chronicles, the character Gaunt has a greedy attitude and a disorderly person. In Richard II, Gaunt’s character changes by being one which embodies a voice of reason, knowledge, and a strong sense of loyalty to his country. This loyalty to his country is shown through Gaunt’s emphasis on Richard’s divine right to rule. Within the play, Gaunt is seen making speeches which are focused on this divine right to rule. His first speech that is focused on this is seen in the beginning of Act II when Gaunt is addressing the Duchess of Gloucester.  Despite knowing the truth about the murder of Gloucester, Gaunt decides to not support any actions that could potentially put Richard’s crown at risk. These actions of Gaunt to remain silent about the truth of who murdered Gloucester is an example of how strongly he agrees with the idea of the divine right to rule. Also these speeches that Gaunt makes in act II scene 2 are able to foreshadow the actions of bolingbroke and the suffering that comes with it.

This transformation of Gaunt from Holinshed’s Chronicles to being a selfish, greedy, aristocrat to being written into Shakespeare’s works as a character who shows a strong level of loyalty to their country and defends the ideology of divine right to rule shows the changes that Shakespeare is able to implement on certain figures. By switching up Gaunt’s character from Holinshed’s Chronicles brings forth the importance of divine right to rule to Richard II.

This is not the only account that Shakespeare changes within Richard II. Within Holinshed’s Chronicles, York is left in charge while Richard is away in Ireland. While in charge, York works to get together a small army which is planned to be used to confront Bolingbroke and his men. This army deems to be useless because the men refuse to fight against Bolingbroke. York then “came foorth into the church that stood without the castell, and there communed with the duke of Lancaster”(Holinshed, Chronicles). These actions of York are strange because he clearly is obeying orders to fight Bolingbroke but then changes up and decides to join Bolingbroke without complications. In Richard II, York’s feelings and actions towards Bolingbroke are clear to show that he is not a friend. During the play, York is appalled by the thought that Bolingbroke would consider rebelling against Richard. He then gives a speech which is focused on the divine appointment of Richard. York has no other choices than to go along with Bolingbroke which he is not pleased about. “It may be I go with you./But yet I’ll pause/For I am loath to break our country’s laws.”(II.iii.166-168).

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Within the writing of Shakespeare’s Richard II, many historical events were included in the text. Holinshed’s Chronicles are seen throughout the book but rather seen to be changed and glorified than they were in their original source. Shakespeare doesn’t make noticeable changes to the character Richard himself but rather makes subtle changes to other characters which works to reshape the play from being a recount of certain historical events. These changes that Shakespeare makes are regarding the ideas of Richard’s divine appointment. Gaunts character changes from being a greedy, selfish character in Holinshed’s Chronicles to becoming a character who has a sense of knowledge and power in Richard II. Gaunt not only has been changed into this intelligent character but he also seen to have respect for his country and embodies a strong sense of patriotism. Shakespeare also reworks York’s character from the chronicles. Within Holinshed’s Chronicles, York works to assemble this army while Richard is away to go up against Bolingbroke. After gathering this army, York decides that he would just join Bolingbroke and not go up against him. This is not the case in Richard II which has York and Bolingbroke not on the same page. In the play, when York hears about the idea of going up against Bolingbroke he is shocked. He then works to give a speech about Richard’s divine appointment which shows his support of the king. These changes that are made by Shakespeare work to dramatize the events that happened within Holinshed’s Chronicles but not completely alter the historical information. Specifically, these two changes of Gaunt and York and used to emphasize the divine appointment of King Richard. By reshaping these characters, Shakespeare has worked to pull away from writing a direct historical account which follows Holinshed’s Chronicles to writing a play in which the focus is shifted off of the responsibilities of the monarchs.

Works Cited:

  • Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Peter Ure, Ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1946.
  • “Holinshed’s Chronicles.” The Holinshed Texts – Reign-Based Table of Contents for the 1587 Edition, english.nsms.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/reign.php?edition=1587.


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