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Shakespeare and Richard II

How accurate are Shakespeare’s historical plays? Harold F. Hutchison compares the dramatist’s account of Richard’s downfall with the actual course of events.

The story of Richard II is usually quoted as a classic example of a Prince who, as a young King, displayed the fairest promise, but who deservedly lost his throne because of his own folly and an insane lust for tyranny. Shakespeare’s play is widely accepted as the authentic history of a despot who deserved his fate, and who is only rescued from our contempt by the pathos of his abdication and the bravery of his end.1

Most of us have two other memories of Richard II. We remember a handsome fourteen-year-old boy who faced Tyler’s mob at Smithfield, alone and unafraid. We have a more confused recollection of a group of Richard’s barons known for obscure reasons as the Lords Appellant whom we are for ever mixing up with another group of barons in an earlier reign known as the Lords Ordainers.

Neither Shakespeare nor our text-books have done much to clarify our confusions or to reconcile that brave fourteen-year-old with the pathetic neurotic he is usually supposed to have become, and, lacking evidence to the contrary, most of us have continued to assume that the Shakespearean version is reasonably reliable history.

Where is Shakespeare inadequate and wrong? His play deals with the last two years of a reign of twenty years—it therefore tells us nothing of Wat Tyler or the Lords Appellant—and it was planned as the first of a tetralogy that had for its consistent theme the Nemesis that overtakes usurpation. In introducing his chosen theme—and no one can object to it—Shakespeare took liberties with history As a dramatist he may have been fully justified, that is not for me to argue. He could not be expected to be more accurate than his sources, and he is not to be blamed for the fact that they were tainted and Lancastrian. But where in fact was he totally in error?

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