Richard II, written around 1595, is the first play in Shakespeare’s second “history tetralogy,” a series of four plays that chronicles the rise of the house of Lancaster to the British throne. Its sequel plays are Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. Richard II, set around the year 1398, traces the fall from power of the last king of the house of Plantagenet, Richard II, and his replacement by the first Lancaster king, Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke). Richard II, who ascended to the throne as a young man, is a regal and stately figure, but he is wasteful in his spending habits, unwise in his choice of counselors, and detached from his country and its common people. He spends too much of his time pursuing the latest Italian fashions, spending money on his close friends, and raising taxes to fund his pet wars in Ireland and elsewhere. Commoners and the nobles alike feel perturbed when he begins to “rent out” parcels of English land to certain wealthy noblemen to fund one of his wars, and then seizes the lands and money of a recently deceased and much respected uncle to help fill his personal coffers. As a result, the subjects turn against their king.

Richard has a cousin, named Henry Bolingbroke, who is a great favorite among the English commoners. Early in the play, Richard exiles him from England for six years due to an unresolved dispute over an earlier political murder. The dead uncle whose lands Richard seizes belonged to Bolingbroke’s father. When Bolingbroke learns that Richard has stolen what should have been his inheritance, it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. When Richard unwisely departs to pursue a war in Ireland, Bolingbroke assembles an army and invades the north coast of England in his absence. The commoners, fond of Bolingbroke and angry with Richard, welcome his invasion and join his forces. One by one, Richard’s allies in the nobility desert him and defect to Bolingbroke’s side as he marches through England. By the time Richard returns from Ireland, he has already lost his grasp on his country.

There is never an actual battle; instead, Bolingbroke peacefully takes Richard prisoner in Wales and brings him back to London. There, Bolingbroke is crowned King Henry IV. Richard is imprisoned in the remote castle of Pomfret in the north of England, where he is left to ruminate upon his downfall. There, an assassin, who both is and is not acting upon King Henry’s ambivalent wishes for Richard’s expedient death, murders the former king. King Henry hypocritically repudiates the murderer and vows to journey to Jerusalem to cleanse himself of his part in Richard’s death. As the play concludes, we see that the reign of the new King Henry IV has started off inauspiciously.