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Of the precise date of the composition of this play we have no satisfactory external evidence. But Malone's conjecture of 1593 corresponds well enough with the internal evidence which proves the play to have been a much earlier offspring of the poet's genius than the first part of King Henry IV. Of the purely historical plays, Richard II. should perhaps be accounted the best; but it has several blemishes not belonging to the productions of Shakspeare's matured powers. He here indulges too copiously in rhymes and in word-play, overstretches too often the significance of things, and lingers too long in fanciful comparisons.
It is tolerably certain that Richard II. was the subject of an older play than Shakspeare's. We are informed that Sir Gillie Merrick, who took part in the insurrection of the Earl of Essex in 1601, caused to be acted, on the day preceding the rebellion, an obsolete tragedy called the Play of Deposing King Richard the Second ;' and we are further informed that when Merrick was told by one of the players, that the play was old, and they should have loss in playing it, because few would come to it, there were forty shillings extraordinary given for it; and so it was played. We cannot reasonably suppose that this was Shakspeare's tragedy; for, besides its being described as an old, neglected play, his manner of treating the subject of Richard's deposition was not at all adapted to promote the aim of the conspirators.
Dr. Forman, in his MS. diary, records his having seen Richard II. played at the Globe theatre in 1611; but his details of the representation belong to quite another play than Shakspeare's; and from his making no mention of the deposing of the king, it seems to have been a different play from the obsolete tragedy above referred to.
The facts in Shakspeare's play belong to the last two years of Richard's reign, and were derived from Holinshed's
istory. In the extracts which we have given from that History, it will be seen how closely the poet followed his favourite chronicler,
SHAKSPEARE'S KING RICHARD II.
(i.) TEB seven sons of E ARD III. were (1) EDWARD, the Black Prince; born 1330; died about a year before his father, 1376. (2) WILLIAM of Hatfield, who died young. (3) LIONEL of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence; born 1338; died 1368. (4) JOHN of Ghent or Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; born 1340; died 1399. (5) EDMUND of Langley, Earl of Cambridge and Duke of York; born 1341 ; died 1402. (6) WILLIAM of Windsor, who died young. (7) THOMAS of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham and Duke of Gloster ; born 1355; murdered at Calais, 1397.
(ii.) EDWARD, the Black Prince, married his cousin Joan, the 'Fair Maid of Kent,' daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent, and widow of Sir Thomas Holland. By her he had two sons, Edward, who died before his father, and Richard, who succeeded King Edward III. as King Richard II.
(ii.) KING RICHARD II., son of the Black Prince, survived his father, and succeeded his grandfather in 1377. He was born at Bordeaux, 1366, and was therefore only eleven years old at his accession. During his minority, the administration of the kingdom was in the hands of John of Gaunt, Edmund, Earl of Cambridge, and other peers.
Richard was deposed in 1999, and died in 1400. The play opens in 1898, and is occupied with only the last two years of Richard's reign.
HISTORICAL NOTES ILLUSTRATIVE OF
His first queen was Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV., Emperor of Germany; she died in 1994. His second queen, Isabel, daughter of Charles VI. of France, appears to have been under twelve years of age at the time of this play, though Shakspeare represents her as an adult. After Richard's death she was sent back to France, according to a covenant for her restitution in the event of her being widow before the age of twelve.
(iv.) JOHN of Gaunt was so named from Ghent, where he was born in 1340. He married Blanche, daughter of Henry, the first duke of Lancaster, and acquired, in right of his wife, the immense estates of the duchy. By this marriage he had, with other children, Henry Bolingbroke and Elizabeth. The latter was married to John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon and Duke of Exeter.
John of Gaunt was thrice married. His second wife was Constance, daughter of Peter the Cruel, King of Castile and Leon; and his third was Catherine Swinford. He died in 1399 at Ely Place, the London residence of the Bishop of Ely, in Holborn.
As Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt's London residence was the noble palace of the Savoy, the ancient seat of Peter, Earl of Savoy, uncle to Eleanor, Henry III.'s queen, by whom it was inherited ; and she gave it to her second son Edmund, afterwards Earl of Lancaster. It was sacked and burnt by the rebels under Wat Tyler in 1381; and was rebuilt and endowed as • The Hospital of the Savoy,' by Henry VII.
(v.) EDMUND of Langley, Duke of York, was born at Langley, near St. Alban’s, in 1441. He was a man of an easy, indolent temper, loyal, but weak-minded, more given to pastime than to business. The king, however, on his going into Ireland, made the Duke of York viceroy; and the latter had to lead an army against Bolingbroke, who returned from exile during the king's absence. He died at his palace at King's Langley, in 1402. Edmund's first wife, Isabel, daughter of Peter the
ruel, was the mother of the Aumerle of this play; and Shakspeare assumes her to have been still living ; but she died in 1394. The existing Duchess of York was a second wife, Joan Holland, daughter of Thomas, Earl of Kent.