Sources for Richard II

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In constructing Richard II, Shakespeare most likely relied upon the Chronicles of Froissart, and, primarily, Holinshed’s Chronicles, but he altered and embellished the material found in these sources. Overall, the Richard II found in Shakespeare’s play differs little from the Richard in the histories of Holinshed and Froissart. The historical events of Richard’s reign are kept in sequence and no significant changes are made to his character. However, it is the small and subtle changes to the chronicles that so effectively reshape the focus of the play from a simple report on history, to a dramatic lesson on the responsibilities of monarchs.

Many of the embellishments Shakespeare makes to the information he found in Holinshed’s Chronicles are directed towards stressing and reaffirming Richard’s status as a divinely-sanctioned king. The first and most striking example is the way the character of Gaunt changes. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Gaunt is one of the few instances where he dramatically alters the source material of Holinshed. [It should be mentioned that, in addition to needing a character who would speak out against rebellion and usurpation, Shakespeare probably altered the character of Gaunt found in Holinshed to embody true patriotism and Tudor doctrine because Queen Elizabeth traced her lineage directly back to Gaunt]. In the Chronicles, Gaunt is a disorderly and rapacious magnate. However, in Richard II, Gaunt is the voice of reason, wisdom, and, above all, patriotism. It is likely that Shakespeare relied on the Chronicle of Froissart for his characterization of Gaunt. The following passage from Froissart’s Chronicle shows the similarities:

The duke of Lancastre was sore dyspleased in his mind to se the kynge his nephewe mysse use himselfe in dyvers thynges as he dyd. He consydred the tyme to come lyke a sage prince, and somtyme sayd to suche as he trusted best: Our nephue the kynge of Englande wyll shame all or he cease: he beleveth to lyghtly yvell counsayle who shall distroy hym; and symply, if he lyve longe, he wyll lese his realme, and that hath been goten with moche coste and travayle by our predecessours and by us; he suffreth to engendre in the realme bytwene the noble men hate and dyscorde, by whom he shulde be served and honoured, and this lande kept and douted . . . The Frenchman are right subtyle; for one myschiefe that falleth amonge us, they wolde it were ten, for otherwise they canne nat recover their dommages, nor come to their ententes, but by our owne means and dyscorde betwene ourselfe. And we se dayly that all realmes devyded are destroyed; . . . in lykewise amonge ourselfe, without God provyde for us, we shall destroy ourselfe; the apparaunce therof sheweth greatly. (John Froissart, Chronicles, vi, 335-6)

“So also we are told by Froissart that Gaunt did not attempt to avenge the murder of his brother the Duke of Gloucester, but ‘wisely and amiably he appeased all these matters’. . .” (Peter Ure, Ed. Richard II, xxxiv). In these passages from Froissart is a Gaunt who greatly resembles Shakespeare’s character, but Shakespeare further enhances Gaunt’s patriotism and loyalty to the king in order to place the emphasis on Richard’s divine right to rule. In many of his speeches in the play, Gaunt emphatically expounds the importance of the Divine Right of Kings. The first of these speeches comes at the beginning of Act II, as Gaunt speaks with the Duchess of Gloucester. Gaunt knows Richard was an accomplice in the murder of Gloucester, but still he refuses to support any action that would put Richard’s crown at risk:

Gaunt. . . . To stir against the butchers of his life!
But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven . . .( I, ii, 3-6)
God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death; the which is wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister. (I, ii, 37-41)

Protecting Richard’s position as God’s vicegerent is extremely important to Gaunt. For whatever crimes Richard has committed, it is the responsibility of God alone, not Richard’s subjects, to judge and punish him for his offenses. Gaunt’s condemnation of disobedience to Richard because of Richard’s divine right to the crown exemplifies the Tudor political thought of the sixteenth century. The Tudors adopted the theory of the Divine Right of Kings in the attempt to maintain a strong government, and to counter the Papal authority as the state attempted to break away from the church. The theory became the foremost doctrine of the time regarding the nature of kingship, and rests on four main statements: (1) Monarchy is a divinely ordained institution. (2) Heredity right is indefeasible . The right acquired by birth to rule must not be forfeited through any acts of usurpation. (3) Kings are accountable to God alone. (4) Non-resistance and passive obedience are enjoined by God. Under any circumstances resistance to a king is a sin, and ensures damnation. (John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, [London: 1923], 8). The vehicles for the expression of Tudor propaganda were usually homilies and sermons. For example, in 1547, under Edward VI, a collection of homilies was produced that included An Exhortation concerning Good Order and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates. It declares the following:

It is intolerable ignorance, madness, and wickedness for subjects to make any murmuring, rebellion or insurrection against their most dear and most dread sovereign Lord and King, ordained and appointed by God’s goodness for their commodity, peace, and quietness.(As quoted in B.L. Joseph, Shakespeare’s Eden [London: 1971], 176)

Turning our attention once again to Richard II, we see that Gaunt’s words to the Duchess of Gloucester match the sentiment found in the following excerpt from a sermon by Hugh Latimer, the famed Bishop of Worcester, written in 1551:

God hath sent us a noble king in this his visitation; let us not provoke against him. Let us beware; let us not displease him; let us receive with all obedience and prayer the word of God. . . .I hear say ye walk inordinately, ye talk unseemly, otherwise it becometh Christian subjects: yea take upon you to judge the judgments of judges. I will not make the king a pope; for the pope will have all things that he doth taken for an article of our faith. I will not say but the king and his council may err; I pray daily that they may not err. It becometh us, whatsoever they decree, to stand unto it, and receive it obediently. . . . (Hugh Latimer, Sermons [Cambridge: 1950], 148)

Gaunt’s speeches in Act II, scene i, are (as any theater-patron at the time would recognize) foreshadowing the actions of Bolingbroke and the suffering that will occur as a result. Bolingbroke will make countless other English men and women feel the repercussions of his act of deposing the rightful King Richard.

Gaunt’s transformation from Holinshed’s greedy aristocrat who cares little for the commonwealth into Shakespeare’s patriotic voice of Tudor England is the most significant example of Shakespeare’s additions and alterations implemented to stress the importance of Richard’s ordained right to rule. However, there are other additions in the drama that also work to this end. In Holinshed’s Chronicle, it is reported that York is left in charge while Richard is in Ireland, and that he raises a small army to confront Bolingbroke and his men. But it is in vain because York’s army refuses to fight against the beloved Bolingbroke. York then “came foorth into the church that stood without the castell, and there communed with the duke of Lancaster”(Holinshed, Chronicles [New York: AMS Press,1965], 102), and he listed as one among the many who came “flocking unto him eueire part.”(Chronicles, 102). York’s feelings are ambiguous in this passage. He clearly obeys his orders and tries to fight Bolingbroke, but he seems to change sides and join Bolingbroke without compunction or hostility. In Richard II, however, York’s dislike of Bolingbroke’s actions is clear:

York. Tut, tut! Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle!
I am no traitor’s uncle, and that word ‘grace’
In an ungracious mouth is but profane. . . .
Coms’t thou because the anointed king is hence.. .

York, in the play, is outraged that Bolingbroke would consider rebelling against Richard. His speech draws attention to Richard’s anointed status. Having no choice, York goes along with Bolingbroke, but he is bitter: “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).

;Another addition Shakespeare’s makes to the drama not found in the sources is a speech given by Richard. Richard’s brief initial confidence before Salisbury brings the news that his men have joined Bolingbroke is mention briefly in Holinshed. However, the speech Richard gives is created by Shakespeare, and further illustrates Richard’s divine right:

[Bolingbroke’s] treasons will sit blushing on his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.(III. ii. 51-55)

It is obvious that all of the additions Shakespeare makes to his play, discussed so far, are primarily intended to show how terrible the crime of rebellion is against a legitimate ruler. But the additions also illustrate the importance of legitimacy itself. Richard has gained the throne by the law of primogeniture, and has license to control England because he is a divinely-ordained king. Although Richard, as we will see, is grossly incompetent at managing the affairs of the realm, he is legitimate; he has right on his side, and, therefore, he has one of the qualifications that make a successful ruler.

What Richard is lacking is the ability to make shrewd political decisions. He is ordained and has the rightful authority and obligation to lead his subjects, but, being weak and self-absorbed, he cannot fulfill his duty. His ineffectiveness is shown in the Chronicles, of Holinshed, but to a far lesser extent than in the play. Many additions Shakespeare makes to Richard II are designed to emphasize Richard’s divine right, but so too are many passages added that bring to light Richard’s flaws in the area of governance. Subsequently, the additions illustrate that Richard is not the best possible ruler because he does not have the combination of legitimacy and political savvy.

In the Chronicles, Holinshed reports that Richard II banishes Bolingbroke because Bolingbroke cannot solve his quarrel with Mowbray peacefully. It seems a necessary decision in the Chronicles – Richard desires to end the argument, and no other motive of Richard is implied. But in the play, Richard makes the following speech after Bolingbroke is banished that impugns his motives behind the removal of Bolingbroke:

He is our cousin, cousin; but ‘tis
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy here, Bagot and Green,
Observ’d his courtship to the common people-
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy; . . .
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects’ next degree in hope. (I.iv.19-36)

It is apparent that Richard’s motivation in the play for banishing Bolingbroke is jealousy. Although severely punishing a man so beloved by the people for a minor offense is political folly, Richard does not seem to take this into consideration. He shows his weakness as a ruler by allowing his emotions to shape his decisions. This passage also illustrates that Richard has not been able to interact effectively with the English people; he has done nothing to gain their support. This estrangement from the common people is politically disastrous. The necessity of having the support of the common people is the basis of several chapters in Machiavelli’s The Prince (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince [New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988], Ch. VIII-XV). In both the play and the Prince we see that the ability to influence public opinion is the key to political success, a concept that Richard cannot grasp.

Holinshed’s Chronicles recount how Richard had to ‘farme the realm’ and impose blank charters on the people as a source of revenue: “And the charters were sent abroad into all shires of the realme, whereby great grudge and murmuring arose among the people . . .”(Holinshed, 90). Holinshed does not say for what purpose Richard used the money. Shakespeare, however, adds the following passage:

Richard. We will ourself in person to this war;
And, for our coffers, with too great a court,
. . .We are enforc’d to farme our royal realme,
The revenue whereof shall furnish us
Our affairs in hand. If that come short,
Our substitutes at home shall have blank charters . . .(I, iv, 41-48)

To take the money of his already poverty-stricken subjects and use it to finance the war in Ireland is a politically-disastrous decision. Machiavelli writes that confiscating the property of his subjects frivolously is the worst mistake a ruler can make(Machiavelli, p. 64). It is likely no coincidence that Shakespeare chooses to emphasize Richard’s use of the money for a cause so unacceptable to the people.


Richard’s lack of political ability is also the basis for the inclusion of a speech by York in the play. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, it is reported that York was displeased with Richard, but the reason why he was displeased are not given. In Richard II however, Shakespeare provides us with this information, giving a detailed account of Richard’s faults:

York. [Richard’s ear] is stopp’d with other flattering sounds,
As praises, of whose taste the wise are fond,
Lascivious meters, to whose venom sound
The open ear of youth doth always listen-
Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy apish nation
Limps after in base imitation. . . .
. . . there’s no respect how vile-
That is not quickly buzz’d into his ears.(II.i.17-30)

A few lines later, Gaunt reaffirms this description of the effeminate king:

… Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;
… A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger then thy head . . .
O, had thy grandsire with a prophet’s eye
Seen how his son’s son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possess’d. . . .(II.i.93-107)

It is possible that these speeches were added by Shakespeare for purely dramatic purposes, but, more plausibly, the lines spoken by York and Gaunt were inserted to illuminate the political foibles of Richard, a ruler led by self-serving flatterers, and more concerned with fashion than public opinion or the good of the realm. These passages echo the words of Machiavelli:

What will make [the ruler] despised is being considered inconstant, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous, and irresolute: a ruler must avoid contempt as if it were a reef. He should contrive that his actions should display grandeur, courage, seriousness and strength . . . A ruler who succeeds in creating such an image of himself will enjoy a fine reputation; and it will be difficult to plot against him or to attack him. . . A ruler will effectively protect himself from this danger if he avoids incurring hatred and contempt, and keeps the people satisfied with him. It is essential to do this . ..(Machiavelli, 64).

Richard believes that his status as anointed king is the only attribute he needs to govern successfully, and so he makes no effort to display those traits that both the Prince and the play deem vital. Through greed, complacency, and naivete, Richard loses the support of the populous and incurs their contempt, and subsequently, leaves himself vulnerable to plots and attacks.

In Holinshed’s Chronicles, Richard steals Bolingbroke’s property, and Holinshed mentions that “this hard dealing was much disliked by all the nobilitie, and cried out against of the meaner sort; but namelie the duke of York was therewith sore mooued . . .” (Holinshed, 102). Shakespeare, however, embellishes what is found in the Chronicles and creates a speech by York designed to forewarn Richard that his decision to confiscate Bolingbroke’s land will have dire consequences:

York: . . .If you do wrongfully seize Herford’s rights,
Call in the letter-patents that he hath
By his attorneys general to sue
His livery, and deny his off’red homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts. . .(II.i.200-206)

Richard rejects York’s warning and superciliously replies: “Think what you will, we seize into our hands/His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands” (II,i, 208-210).

Once again, Shakespeare adds passages not found in any of his sources; passages befitting the didactic purpose of the play, intended to illustrate Richard’s political mistakes and his lack of concern for governing properly. York’s warning is a reiteration of Machiavellian doctrine: “What will make [the ruler] hated, above all else, is being rapacious and seizing the property. . .of his subjects” (Machiavelli, 64). According to Machiavelli, above all else, the confiscation of property is the worst action a ruler can take. Richard, playing perfectly the role of an incompetent ruler, does not even give it a second thought.

By Richard’s insistence that he need do nothing for the good of the nation except sit on his divinely-appointed throne, he has committed the crime of gross negligence against his subjects. The effect Richard’s behavior has on the country is evident in the garden scene, unique to Shakespeare’s play:

Servant: Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok’d up,
Her fruit trees all unprun’d, and her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars. (40-46)

In this extended metaphor for England, we see that just as a garden must be tended continually with loving care by the gardener if it is to grow and bear fruit, so must the country be tended by its ruler to ensure it functions properly. Thus, this passage captures both the central moral message of the play, and the deep sadness that Richard’s subjects feel as he allows his England to deteriorate. The servants, in keeping with the play’s message that the deposition of a king is always wrong, do not condone the usurpation by any means – they simply wish things had been different:

Gardner: … Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,
Lest, being overproud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself.
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have liv’d to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty.(III.iv.53-63)

The only recourse for the Gardner and Servant is to ponder how life would be different if Richard had put the needs of the people before his own. Richard’s selfishness and lack of Machiavellian political sophistication have thrown the country into crisis, and will cost him his own life. Thus, we see that Shakespeare’s changes serve to illustrate both the importance of Richard’s status as an anointed king, and the disastrous consequences that result from his inability to make shrewd political decisions. Richard has only one of the facets that makes a successful ruler.


Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Roundtable Books, 1990.
Bullough, Geoffery. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.
Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare’s Histories. London: Methuen, 1980.
Figgis, John Neville. The Divine Right of Kings. Cambridge: University Press, 1914.
Froissart, John. Chronicles. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1899.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: University Press, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Peter Ure, Ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1946.