Written around 1595, Richard II is the first play in William Shakespeare’s second history tetralogy, which is sometimes referred to as “Henriad.” Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V are the four plays that make up said tetralogy. Largely based on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Richard II depicts the story of that monarch and his deposition. Such event, split the Plantagenet line for the throne between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, thus starting the War of Roses. Besides the historical importance of the events portrayed in the play, Shakespeare presents his audience with issues far more relevant such as transmission of power, questioning the legitimacy of a monarch and the importance of identity and having a name. The play’s universality and timelessness as well as its artistic value, which has been re-studied and reinterpreted through time, are some of the reasons why it remains relevant almost five centuries after it was first originally written.
Transmission and display of power, alluded to through means of the sun, is a theme often present throughout the play. In act three, Richard compares himself to the sun by saying that Bolingbroke “shall see us rising in our throne, the east,” (Shakespeare 208) showing his confidence in the irrevocability of his title, even though his position is already compromised. Not long after this, upon disbanding his army, Richard refers to Bolingbroke’s rise to power by saying they will move “from Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day.” (Shakespeare 216) Yet, another instance in which the reader or spectator may detect a direct allusion between king Richard and the sun is when the former compares himself to Phaeton. In Greek mythology, Phaeton was the son of Apollo, the sun god, and he fell down to the Earth after losing control of his father’s chariot, thus implying that, unable to hold the reins of his kingdom, King Richard, like Phaeton, fell. In the essay “The Sun Imagery in Richard II,” Samuel Kliger writes: “Prosaically, the king is deposed, killed, or banished; poetically however, his effulgence is dimmed by nightfall, he is banished to northern sunless exile, a rival body (Bolingbroke) eclipses his brightness…” (197) The imagery changes as the characters in the play develop and change their positions. Shakespeare’s use of the sun throughout the play is a metaphor for strength and power. In the beginning, the sun represents the height of Richard’s power and yet, as the play unfolds the imagery changes: the sun sets for Richard and rises again on Bolingbroke. This calls into question the irrevocability, as well as the grounds on divine right, of a monarch’s power and how subjects may take action, as Bolingbroke did, when a monarchs are unfit for their post.

Another important theme Shakespeare develops throughout the play and that stands out in the character of king Richard II is identity and the importance of a name or title. Most of the characters in this play gain their identity from the title they uphold, which is especially true for Richard. In act four, upon being brought before Bolingbroke after his deposition he declares that he “hardly yet had learned to insinuate, atter, bow and bend my knee,” (Shakespeare 243) thus implying that now that he has been stripped from the title of King, he does not know how to act and what to make of himself. The height of this occurs just a few lines later when he asks for a mirror and, after observing himself, smashes it and accuses Bolingbroke of breaking his face. The former king’s face is unbroken, but the text implies that, by taking away his crown, Bolingbroke and his followers shattered Richard’s image and identity. Another example of identity based on a name and title occurs when Bolingbroke returns from his exile and demands to be addressed by the the title he inherited through the death of his father:
BOLINGBROKE. My lord, my answer is to `Lancaster´,
And I am come to seek that name in England,
And I must find that title in your tongue
Before I make reply to aught you say. (2.3.70-73)
Bolingbroke relies heavily on the title he gained through his father’s passing not only because of the land he inherited, but because by becoming a duke, his claim to the throne grew significantly stronger.
Besides the themes previously developed, Richard II, has many other themes and ideas that are worth developing. Some of these are the constant garden imagery as an allusion to England, the characters’ awareness of optics, and the importance of language, not only as Shakespeare uses it in every character, but the importance certain characters give to it. Never hesitating to thrust forward the conflict, Shakespeare begins the play turbulently, showing the rapid decline of a monarch’s power. Such turmoil is constant throughout the play and ends bitterly with Richard’s murder, which even the new king, Henry IV laments. Moreover, considering the play’s source and its historical accuracy, it is possible to assert that, provided that the reader approaches an actual historic source at some point, Shakespeare’s Richard II is yet another way of approaching this specific period of English history. Finally, beyond the play’s artistic value, it poses great entertainment for its audience. Whatever the purpose with which the audience and readers approach this play, if not a source of reflection upon past and possibly current political issues and ideas, they are bound to find it entertaining.