Richard II (1921) Yale/Appendix B

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The History of the Play

Date. The question of the date of Richard II is involved with that of its relation to Daniel's Ciuile Wars (see App. A). If we admit that Shakespeare was influenced by Daniel, then our play was written between 1595 and August, 1597, when it was entered in the Stationers' Register. If we suppose Shakespeare to have been independent of Daniel, there is no external evidence to fix the earlier limit of the date-bracket. The words in IV. i. 321 show that the deposition scene was part of the original play, and its omission from the First Quarto may point to the effect of Queen Elizabeth's alarm at the bull of Pope Clement VIII (1596) exhorting her subjects to depose her. This circumstance, the results of metrical tests, and the general character of the style, all go to confirm an assignment of the date of composition to a period from the middle of 1595 to the middle of 1596.

Stage History. In the course of the centuries, Richard II has proved more successful in the closet than on the stage. Critics discover in it high poetry and masterly delineation of national problems and human character; actors and producers find in it disappointment and financial loss. Since Shakespeare's time, accordingly, the separate productions are to be numbered on the fingers of two hands.

Of the performances of our play before the closing of the theaters in 1642, nevertheless, we have an unusual record. First, there is its probable representation before the conspirators in the Essex rebellion, February 8, 1601. (See App. A.)

Queen Elizabeth had a different opinion from the players in regard to its popularity. In a conversation reported by William Lambard, her Keeper of the Rolls, she said:

'I am Richard II, know ye not that?'

W.L. 'Such a wicked imagination was determined and attempted by a most unkind Gent. the most adorned creature that ever your Majestie made.'

Her Majestie. 'He that will forget God, will also forget his benefactors; this tragedy was played 40tie times in open streets and houses.'

(The Shakespeare Allusion Book, ed. J. Munro.
1909. Vol. I, pp. 100–101.)

If, again, Shakespeare's play be referred to, few others have the distinction of having been played so far from England at that early date. In the journal of Captain Keeling of the East Indiaman Dragon, off Sierra Leone (in Narratives of Voyages towards the North West, ed. Thomas Rundall. 1849) in 1607, appears the following passage:

September 5.—I sent the interpreter according to his desier abord the 'Hector,' whear he brooke fast, and after came abord mee, wher we gaue the tragedie of Hamlet. . . .

September 30.—Captain Hawkins dined with me, when my companions acted Kinge Richard the Second.

The authenticity of these entries has been questioned, but so sane a scholar as F. S. Boas has no doubt that they are genuine and that the plays were Shakespeare's. (Shakespeare at Sea: Contemporary Review, July, 1918.)

Still another pre-Restoration performance is recorded by Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels to James I, Charles I, and Charles II, June 12, 1631, when he received £5 6s. 6d. as his benefit from the second performance of a revived play, from the King's company, at the Globe. (The Dramatic Records of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels 1623–-1673. Ed. J. Q. Adams. New Haven, London, and Oxford. 1917. P. 44.)

On account of its subject, the play was freighted with extrinsic political significance as long as the doctrine of kingship by divine right was mooted in England. In 1681, the year of Absalom and Achitophel, Nahum Tate's adaptation, though under the new title of The Sicilian Usurper, with changed names for the dramatis personæ, was 'silenced the third day.' In the preface to the published version (1681), the author complains that his production was suppressed without examination and that he wrote 'with as little design of Satyr on present Transactions as Shakespear himself that wrote this Story before this Age began.' He alleges, moreover, that (if there was any such effect) he showed Richard in a better light than Shakespeare had done; 'I have everywhere given him the Language of an Active, Prudent Prince. Preferring the Good of his Subjects to his own private Pleasure.' Besides altering the King's character, Tate made York a broadly comic figure speaking prose, and gave Queen Isabella a much larger rôle. He not only omitted several scenes and altered the order of others, but inserted totally new scenes, such as one of low comedy between Bolingbroke and a Rabble in Act II., and a rather purposeless scene between the King and the Queen before the abdication. His excision of the impeachment of Aumerle and everything connected with the Abbot of Westminster's plot set a precedent followed by practically everyone who has since prepared an acting version of this play. What deprives his adaptation of any right to be considered Shakespearean is the numerous irritating and senseless verbal changes throughout, such as vessels for buckets (IV. i. 185) and the following rendering of a famous passage:


Down, down, I come like Blazing Phaeton,
Wanting the Menage of unruly steeds.


After Tate's fiasco, apparently Richard II was not produced again until December 10, 1719, after the establishment of the Hanoverian dynasty, when Theobald's adaptation was given at Lincoln's Inn Fields. He endeavored to bring Shakespeare into more conformity with classical rules, by laying all scenes at or near the Tower and omitting all of the first and second acts. He worked up a sub-plot concerned with Aumerle's love for Lady Percy, Northumberland's daughter, and with his conspiracy to restore Richard. The elder Percy discovers the plot and, in spite of the pleading of his daughter and York, informs Bolingbroke. The final scene must have been very thrilling. First Aumerle is led across stage to execution. Richard has a tender passage of farewell with his queen, and then is set upon by the guards and killed. His dying words are, 'O Isabella!' Soon thereafter Lady Percy kills herself in grief for Aumerle, and York kills himself for Richard. Theobald borrowed nothing from Tate, and more than half the text is Shakespeare's. This version was acted seven times its first season and remained on the acting-list for two years more.

Nearly twenty years later, February 6, 1738, the play was given at Covent Garden, in Shakespeare's text, practically unaltered, revived at the request of some literary ladies. It ran ten times the first season and four the next. The audience is said to have read allusion to current politics into the lines of I. ii. For the rest of the eighteenth century there were no more notable productions, though it seems likely that the play was in the repertory of provincial theaters. David Garrick contemplated producing Richard II, but never did so. An adaptation by Goodhall, published in 1772, was never acted.

Early in the nineteenth century we find Macready playing it in the provinces, at Newcastle in 1812, at Glasgow in 1813, and finally, a little before he went up to London, at Bath, January 26, 1815. His play was Shakespeare, unaltered save by omissions. He played it once again, in his prime, at the Haymarket, December 2, 1850.

Shortly after Macready 's production in Bath, his great contemporary, Edmund Kean, played Richard II in Wroughton's adaptation (Drury Lane, March 9, 1815). Up to the fifth act the alterations consist chiefly of omissions, notably in dovetailing the first and third scenes of the first act, and cutting practically everything out of the Parliament scene except the abdication itself. The Duchesses of Gloucester and York are left out entirely, but a gentlewoman named Blanche is attached to the Queen. In the garden scene, Isabel sits in a garden chair while Blanche sings a song, 'What fragrance scents the vernal air!' In the fifth act, the Queen takes on much more importance than Shakespeare gave her. In a new scene, she comes to Bolingbroke to tell him of a premonition of Richard's death and to demand another interview with him. Undergoing a complete change of heart, probably on account of her great affection, Bolingbroke not only grants the interview but follows her to the Tower to restore Richard and atone for his wrongs. The murder scene follows as in Shakespeare, up to the point where Richard is struck down; here the Queen rushes in, he dies in her arms, and she faints. Bolingbroke now enters, and the Queen revives, to speak the lines of Lear over Cordelia, and die. King Henry is so struck with remorse that he wishes he were dead in Richard's place. Lines from Henry VI, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra also are worked in at various places. This was Edmund Kean's standard version, in which he acted three times that season and thirteen times in all. He seems not to have included it in his American repertory.

All these adaptations point the moral of what the play lacks as a theater-piece; they all aim to reduce the amount of talk, expand the Queen's part, and give more complication to the plot.

The next important production (leaving at one side that at Drury Lane, 1834, in which Vandenhoff, Cooper, and Mrs. Sloman played the leading parts) was the spectacular revival by Charles Kean at the Princess Theatre, March 12, 1857. The text was Shakespeare, unaltered except for the usual cuts. The distinguishing characteristic of the performance was the emphasis laid on historical accuracy in costumes and manners, especially in the grand procession introduced between the third and fourth acts, representing Bolingbroke's triumphal entry into London with Richard a prisoner in his train. The crowd were most carefully rehearsed in the sports and pastimes of the fourteenth century, after Strutt, and some of the populace even had lines to deliver. Though impressive, this production did not have any tremendous popularity, and resulted in financial loss to Kean.

After 1857 until towards the close of the century, Richard II was practically absent from the English stage, though Edwin Booth played it in the provinces during his tour in 1882. It was one of the four plays of Shakespeare that Samuel Phelps did not produce at Sadler's Wells. In 1897 Sir Henry Irving formed the project of putting it on, even going so far as to have scenery painted by E. A. Abbey, but, illness interfering, he definitely abandoned the idea in 1898. The play was, however, given at his theater, the Lyceum, by Benson, March 15, 1900, winning praise for the actors but running only two nights. Since 1896 it has been in the repertory of Sir F. R. Benson's company, being played occasionally in London but chiefly in the provinces. An interesting performance of theirs was that at Flint Castle, August 21, 1899, just five hundred years after the historical events depicted.

In 1903 Sir Herbert Tree revived Richard II at His Majesty's Theatre, where it ran 107 nights, perhaps the only unquestionable success in its history. He also revived it for the Shakespearean festivals of 1905, 1906, and 1910, and played it in Berlin on his German tour in 1907. Less elaborate productions were those of William Poel for the Elizabethan Stage Society (November 11, 1899), Granville Barker playing the King, those of the Ben Greet Players, and of Miss Lillian Bayliss at the Royal Victoria Hall.

In America almost the only notable performances were those of Edwin Booth, who first brought it out at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, November 8, 1875. It was Richard II in which he was playing in Chicago, April 23, 1879, when a lunatic fired a revolver at him, barely missing his head. For the rest, Seilhamer records no production in colonial times; later American actors seem to have slighted the play; and visiting British actors preferred to include more certain favorites in their American repertories.

In Germany, it was first played by F. L. Schroeder at Hamburg, in 1778. While not a leading favorite among Shakespeare's plays, at the present time Richard II seems assured of an average of a half-dozen performances a year in various parts of the country. It appears never to have been played in France or Italy.

The failure of Richard II as a stage play is well explained by one who had had practical experience with it, as follows:


'Richard II., Bolingbroke, York, and the rest, though they talk so well, do little else than talk, nor can all the charm of composition redeem in a dramatic point of view the weakness resulting from this accident in the play's construction.'

(Macready: Reminiscences. N. Y. 1875. P. 50.)