The First part of


n.b.: The following notes rely upon the edition by Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge (Manchester University Press, 2002), and draw freely on its excellent historical notes.

General historical note: the playwright has reorganized the history of the 1380s and 90s to suit himself. The battle between Richard and his uncles took place in 1388, long before the rise of Greene and his fellow-favorites, and the death of Woodstock took place in 1397, shortly before it; Greene and his band were routed in a second round of conflict–not with Richard's uncles but with his cousin Henry Bolingbroke: the future Henry IV. The playwright has contracted the period for a different story of confrontation; how he would have ended his imaginary, conflated conflict is not certain, as the end of the play is lost.


Otherwise known as Anne of Bohemia, Queen of England, first wife of Richard II. From her first appearance, at the coronation, Anne tries to calm the anger and suspicion between Richard and his uncles, in particular Woodstock, and her own charity and high reputation does Richard some good among his subjects. But her husband's reckless behaviour makes her first sad, then ill. The Duchess of Gloucester, Woodstock's wife, is her friend, and, on her husband's insistence, leaves their home at Plashy to go to the Queen on her deathbed; in the Duchess's absence, Richard carries out his plot against Woodstock. Anne's death plunges Richard into deep grief. [The historical Anne of Bohemia died before the plotting of Woodstock's murder.]


Lord Admiral of England, whose hard-won "prizes" at sea are now being squandered on the flatterers of King Richard II. He is a supporter of the King's uncles, Woodstock, Lancaster, and York, and fights with them against Richard and his followers in the final battle; he kills the King's chief favorite, Greene.


Favorite of King Richard II, along with Bushy, Scroop, and Greene. Bagot and his friends, assisted by the crooked lawyer Tresilian, hate Woodstock and stir up the King's resentment of his government; their intention is to run the country for themselves. At the coronation, Richard, stung by Woodstock's forthright criticism, gives Bagot the important post of Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. Soon the favorites persuade the King to "farm out" the realm to them, one piece each: Bagot gets the long south-western stretch between the Thames and the tip of Cornwall. He fights and is defeated in the last battle, but escapes; according to the rumour, he has fled to Bristol, and the King's opponents resolve to guard the ports to prevent him from fleeing abroad.


Favorite of King Richard II, along with Bagot, Scroop, and Greene (qq.v.; for a general account of them, see under Bagot). Bushy makes the crucial discovery of the King's birth date, thus revealing to him that he is of age and may legally cast off the Protectorship of his uncle Woodstock. In the division of the kingdom, Bushy receives Wales and the midlands. He is taken prisoner in the final battle, but is still alive when the play breaks off.


Along with the Farmer and Cowtail, the Butcher mutters against the new "blank charters" of taxation in the hearing of Nimble and Ignorance, who manoeuvre them into signing the charters despite their misgivings, and then arrest them as "privy whisperers".


A "ghost character." The play begins with announcement by York and Lancaster that a Carmelite friar has just confessed a plot to poison them on behalf of Richard II.


A supporter of Woodstock and his brothers. Cheney brings news and messages on several occasions from King Richard to Woodstock in his house at Plashy and to Anne o'Beame: he reports to Anne how extravagantly Richard is living, and brings the "blank charters", instruments of Richard's new, unprecedented tax policy, to Woodstock to sign. (On this occasion, he also disabuses the Courtier of an embarrassing mistake.) Cheney brings Woodstock the double news that Anne is sick -news which prompts him to send away his wife to Anne's bedside - and that some "country gentlemen" are planning to bring a masque in his honour to Plashy; at the last minute, Cheney realizes that mischief is planned, and tries to warn Woodstock, but he is too late. In the final battle, Cheney fights on the side of York and Lancaster against the King and his followers.


The Courtier is sent from Richard II to Woodstock, summoning him to Court. Confused by Woodstock's famous plainness, the Courtier offers him money to walk his horse; when he learns his mistake from Sir Thomas Cheney, he is highly embarrassed–especially when Woodstock refuses to return the horse before he is paid the promised fee.


A grazier; along with the Farmer and the Butcher, a victim of the predatory practices of Nimble and his stooge Ignorance.


A law-officer employed, along with Fleming, by Tresilian. Crosby and Fleming are sent out with "blank charters" for the unwilling populace to sign, thus contracting themselves for unlimited "repayments" to the king. Most of the work, however, seems to be done by Tresilian's irrepressible servant Nimble, who easily fools and bullies his victims into signing.


A role played in the deadly masque performed at Plashy, home of Woodstock, by Richard II and his followers. Cynthia's speech ambiguously declares that the masquers have come to hunt a "cruel tusked boar".


Lord Mayor of London. After the attempt by the Carmelite at poisoning the uncles of the King, Richard II, Exton assures Woodstock that he will be safe in London.


A victim, along with the Butcher and Cowtail, of the extortions of Nimble and Ignorance.


A law-officer employed, with Crosby, by Tresilian. (For details, see under Crosby.)


The Ghost of the Black Prince, father of Richard II and brother to Thomas of Woodstock and the Dukes of York and Lancaster, appears to Thomas in his captivity at Calais, warning him of his approaching death and the curse it will bring on King Richard.


The Ghost of Edward III, grandfather of Richard II and brother to Thomas of Woodstock and the Dukes of York and Lancaster, appears to Thomas immediately after the first Ghost. for the same purpose–to warn him of his imminent murder.


Devoted wife to Thomas of Woodstock. When Woodstock sends her away from their home at Plashy to wait on the sick Queen, Anne o' Beame, the Duchess is reluctant to go: she has had a warning dream in which Woodstock was murdered. While she is away, Richard II and his friends capture Woodstock by trickery and convey him secretly to Calais. The Duchess's presence at Court, however–caring for the Queen, comforting the King, innocently unaware of her husband's danger–inspires agonizing guilt in Richard, who almost calls off the assassination. She is last seen weeping for Woodstock's death.


Thomas of Woodstock.


Leading "minion", or favorite, of Richard II. With the others favorites, Bagot, Bushy, and Scroop, and the lawyer Tresilian, Greene encourages the King to resist his uncles, especially Woodstock, and to hand over power to the favorites instead. At the coronation, Richard, stung by Woodstock's reproaches, makes Greene his Lord Chancellor. When Richard divides up the country for his favorites to run, he gives Greene the best bit: the south-eastern area including London, Oxford, and Cambridge. With Scroop, Greene prevents the King from reprieving Woodstock at the last minute. In the final battle, he is killed by Arundel and bitterly mourned by the King.


Master Ignorance is the Baily (= bailiff, law-officer under the authority of a sheriff) of Dunstable; a willing stooge, in his officiousness and stupidity, for Nimble.


Widow of Robert de Vere, former favorite of Richard II. She blames Richard for alienating her husband's affections from her.


Robert de Vere.


Lancaster (John of Gaunt) is brother to Thomas of Woodstock and the Duke of York and disapproving uncle to the young King Richard II. After the attempt by the Carmelite to murder them, he and York urge Woodstock to banish the King's corrupting favorites and to change his own style of dress to something less "plain" and more conventional for one of his rank; Woodstock persuades him that they must be less direct with the favorites, but promises to dress up for the coronation. Soon after it, the King seizes power into his own hands, and Woodstock retires to his house at Plashy. His brothers visit him there with gloomy tidings of the Court; when Cheney arrives with the "blank charters" of the new taxation, they leave Plashy for their own estates, in the hopes of calming the likely rebellion. On receiving news of Woodstock's death, Lancaster and York decide to raise an army against Richard and his followers. The King accuses Lancaster of having a Carmelite murdered in prison; Lancaster does not bother to deny this, but instead reminds Richard of the Carmelite who recently tried to murder the King's uncles. Lancaster and York win the battle, and are imposing punishment on the favorites when the play breaks off.


Governor of Calais; he takes responsibility for the murder of Woodstock, entrusted to him by Richard II. Lapoole directs the Murderers, even though his conscience is queasy: he comforts himself with the thought that "'twixt two evils 'tis good to choose the least". After the murder, he has the Murderers summarily killed, and reaffirms his own self-interested loyalty to the King.


The Maid serves the Queen, Anne o' Beame. She tells Cheney about the Queen's charity towards the poor.


The two Murderers kill Thomas of Woodstock at Calais, under the direction of the governor, Lapoole. They boast of their competent ruthlessness to Lapoole, but faced with Woodstock himself they seem less sure of themselves: they creep up on him from the back, on the grounds that they will not be able to kill him if he speaks. Having started, they perform the killing with great savagery, cursing their victim, but are careful to tidy him up at the end: "Who can say that this man was murdered now?" Their expectations of reward are vain, however, for Lapoole immediately has them killed by the castle's garrison.


Servant to Tresilian, for whom he acts as comic retainer and agent; he is the focus of the play's comic interest. Nimble is not impressed by his master's promotion to Lord Chief Justice of England, but he welcomes the improvement in his own prospects, and is very happy to act as agent with the "blank charters" - blank cheques which King Richard is imposing on his people as an extraordinary form of taxation. Nimble easily outmanoeuvres the Butcher, the Farmer, Cowtail the Grazier, the Schoolmaster, the Serving-man, the Whistler, and Ignorance the Bailiff into signing the charters, and many cases also suffering arrest. In the final battle between the King's uncles and his favorites, Nimble and Tresilian both decide to take off their armour in order to run away more easily; Nimble capitalizes on his situation by seizing his master and handing him over to the other side. It seems from the last surviving scene that he succeeds in thereby exculpating himself.


King of England; young, headstrong, easily misled by his favorites Greene, Bagot, Bushy, and Scroop, and the corrupt lawyer Tresilian. Richard chafes under the disapproving control of his uncles, above all Thomas of Woodstock, the Protector, and the play begins with his failed attempt to poison them through the Carmelite friar. At the coronation, Richard and Woodstock quarrel, despite the placatory efforts of Richard's new queen, Anne o'Beame; after Richard's coronation, Bushy discovers in a book of English chronicles that the King is actually of age to govern by himself. Armed with this information, Richard stages a little scene in which he makes Woodstock give judgement against anyone who wrongfully withholds another's patrimony; he then announces that he himself is the wronged party, and demands Woodstock's staff of office. Woodstock retires to Plashy, and the King, undeterred by the reproachful Anne, embarks on an extravagant and irresponsible life with his favorites. To support this, Tresilian comes up with the idea of "blank charters", a kind of uncontrolled taxation whereby subjects are forced to sign blank cheques in payment for supposed "debts" to the King. This makes Richard highly unpopular, as does his treatment of Woodstock, who is admired by the people. Richard resolves to rid himself of Woodstock, and once again Tresilian has a solution: to seize him during a pretended masque at his house, and then send him to Calais to be privately murdered. After dividing up the country among his four favorites (who are supposed to pay him rent), Richard leaves for Plashy, where he takes part in the masque that culminates in Woodstock's arrest: he does not identify himself, but Woodstock recognizes his voice, and makes a powerful, though useless, appeal to him. Richard starts to express feelings of guilt soon after, when Woodstock's wife, the Duchess of Gloucester, unaware of her husband's danger, takes care of the sick Anne and is kind to Richard himself; he comes near to calling off the murder, but is prevented by Scroop and Greene. When news comes that Anne is dead, he is overwhelmed with grief, and tries too late to save Woodstock. The news of Woodstock's death decides his uncles finally to take arms against Richard and his favorites. In the final battle, the King bitterly reproaches his uncles for their rebellion against his "sacred person"; unmoved by this, they refuse to back down, and they win the battle. In our last sight of Richard, he is weeping over the body of his fallen favorite, Greene.


Along with the Serving-Man, the Schoolmaster is a victim of the spying and legalized robbery organized by Tresilian and carried out by Nimble and Ignorance. The Schoolmaster, too clever for his own good, is heard performing a little satirical song, in which he complains about the extortions of the times but keeps on the safe side, as he thinks, by the refrain: "God bless my Lord Tresilian"; this does not stop Nimble from arresting him and planning a public humiliation by way of punishment.


A favorite of Richard II, along with Bagot, Bushy, and Greene Scroop, like the others, fosters the King's hatred of his uncle, Woodstock, and encourages him to hand over power to the favorites instead; when Richard divides up the country between them, Scroop receives the northern area, between the rivers Trent and Tweed. With Greene, he prevents the King from saving Woodstock's life at the last minute. He fights in the final battle and is last seen as a prisoner of the King's opponents.


Tresilian's servant locks up the share of the taxation booty that Tresilian has reserved for himself from King Richard II.


The servant to Thomas of Woodstock (at Plashy) announces the arrival of the foolish Courtier to Woodstock, and is (presumably) one of the servants whom he orders to prepare a banquet for the sinister masquers.


The serving-man listens admiringly to the satirical songs of the schoolmaster, until both are seized for treason by Nimble and Ignorance. Since the corrupt Lord Chief Justice Tresilian, the corrupt Lord Chief Justice, is prepared to negotiate only for cash, and wants any convicts without it whipped and hanged, the serving-man's prospects look grim.


The Shrieve, of Sheriff, of Kent, along with the Shrieve of Northumberland, stoutly resists the new, wild form of taxation represented by the "blank charters", and is imprisoned by order of Tresilian, the corrupt Lord Chief Justice.


The Shrieve of Northumberland is ally and fellow-sufferer of the Shrieve of Kent. The two are not distinguished.


The Soldiers of the Calais garrison, on the orders of Lapoole, shoot the two Murderers who have just killed Woodstock.


A supporter of Woodstock and his brothers. He fights on their side in the final battle. [Historically, the Earl of Surrey was the alternative title of the Earl of Arundel. The playwright seems to have divided him in half to create an extra character.]


A lawyer, subsequently Lord Chief Justice of England; corrupt and unscrupulous, Tresilian is the brain behind all the bad decisions of King Richard II. He devises "blank charters", or blank cheques, as a way for the King to exact money from his subjects; Tresilian is careful to subtract more than half of it for his own use ("Our pains in this must needs be satisfied"). He aids Richard's favorites, Bagot, Bushy, Greene, and Scroop in their plan to "rent" the kingdom from their master. When Richard wants to be rid of Woodstock, his virtuous uncle, Tresilian comes up with the plot: following his suggestion, Richard first takes Woodstock captive under pretence of giving a masque at his house, and then sends him abroad to be murdered. Tresilian is finally betrayed by his clever servant, Nimble, who hands him over to the King's uncles, Lancaster and York, in the final battle. [The historical Tresilian was executed in 1388, before the rise to power of the King's favorites; the playwright has contracted the period (see general historical note) and invented their alliance.]


A "ghost character." The Duke of Ireland. Late favorite of Richard II. His wife, the Duchess of Ireland, is a friend of the Queen, Anne o'Beame. De Vere does not appear in the play. [Historically, de Vere was the favorite defeated by the King's uncles; see general historical note for the playwright's contraction of historical sequence.]


This hapless man proves the extraordinary ingenuity of Nimble, who arrests him for "whistling treason".


Duke of Gloucester. Hero of the play. "Plain Thomas", as he is proud to be known, is uncle to the young King Richard II and begins the play as Protector of the realm. Woodstock seems originally more sanguine than his brothers, Lancaster and York, about the King: he is confident, unlike them, that Richard was not behind the plan of the Carmelite friar to poison them, and is hopeful that the imminent marriage between Richard and Anne o'Beame will have a calming effect. He makes the gesture, costly for him, of dressing "bravely" - in expensive clothes, not his usual frieze - for the coronation; but his good humour is fragile, and when Richard teases him about his "golden metamorphosis", he soon starts on an angry, public speech about the King's extravagance. This backfires: Richard at once loads his favorites Greene and Bagot, and the lawyer Tresilian, with further honours, and soon afterwards his favorite Bushy makes the discovery that Richard is of age to rule alone. He demands Woodstock's "council staff", and Woodstock relinquishes it, announcing that he will now withdraw from Court to his country house at Plashy. There he receives news from his friend Cheney of the King's disastrous policies, including the "blank charters" of unlimited taxation; he declines Richard's "entreaty" that he should return to Court. Angered by this, and afraid of "Plain Thomas"'s popularity in the country, Richard resolves to get rid of him. Tresilian has the idea of arresting him secretly, under cover of a masque at Plashy, and conveying him to Calais, English territory abroad, where he can be privately murdered. They carry out this plan: Woodstock recognizes the King among the disguised masquers, and appeals vainly to his better nature–thus starting off, perhaps, the prolonged but useless guilt that Richard will shortly manifest. Under house arrest in Calas, Woodstock is visited by the two Ghosts, one of his brother, the Black Prince, the other of his father, Edward III: both warn him of his coming danger, but in vain. Engaged by the corrupt governor Lapoole, the two Murderers attack him from the back, and kill him by strangling and suffocation. To the last, Woodstock is confident of his integrity, and wishes to write to Richard "Not to entreat, but to admonish him". His death leaves his wife, the Duchess of Gloucester, distraught, and inspires his brothers Lancaster and York to take up arms against the King and his favorites. The play ends with their victory.


Brother to the Duke of Lancaster and Thomas of Woodstock, who acts together with Lancaster throughout the play.

Go Back to Top