William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.

Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is highly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Background on Richard II

Richard II is one of Shakespeare's so-called “history” plays. It is the first part of a tetralogy, or four-part series, which deals with the historical rise of the English royal House of Lancaster. (The plays that round out the series are Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V.) The play was probably composed around 1595, and certainly no later than 1597. It was used by the Earl of Essex to try make a point shortly before his unsuccessful rebellion in 1601. In response, Queen Elizabeth commented, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” In this case, however, the historical precedent did not hold: Elizabeth, unlike Richard, retained her crown. For details on the life of Queen Elizabeth, see the SparkNote Biography.

The play has fascinated many critics and scholars through the centuries, even though it has long been considered inferior to Shakespeare's other history plays. King Richard’s deeply poetic and “metaphysical” musings on the nature of kingship and identity mark a new direction for Shakespeare; indeed, much of Richard II reads like a run-up to the more fully developed intellectualizing of Hamlet. The play's formal qualities are also interesting. The language is often highly stylized and, in sharp contrast to the two Henry IV plays that follow, contains no prose. Shakespeare makes good use of grand metaphors, such as the famous comparisons of England to a garden, and of its reigning king to a lion or to the sun. He also introduces rich, complex themes such as the nature of kingship and of identity.