The manuscript of this anonymous play, dated to the early 1590s (but primarily through connections to other spuriously dated Shakespeare plays), lacks the first and last pages, so the question of title results in this work sometimes being called Richard II, Part 1. Indeed, it concerns Richard's reign right up to the time when the canonical Richard II begins. It's probably wrong to consider this a "genuine prequel" (Farina 112) except insofar as the ordering in which the plays came to light.
The 'Shakespearian' characteristics of the play may be summarized as follows: a sophisticated handling of chronicle material; a careful and fruitful juxtaposition of low-life scenes over and against court life; the sense of England as a significant 'character' throughout the play; a sure handling of dramatic technique as in the economical and engaging exposition; the careful drawing of effective female characters (specifically Anne o'Beame); Nimble's malapropisms, anticipating Costard, Dogberry and Mrs Quickly; the dramatist's ability to manipulate audience sympathy in a complex fashion towards Richard and to present Woodstock as a figure of conscience in a manner which anticipates Gaunt. (Corbin & Sedge 4)For further discussion, see the Introduction and notes in the recent edition:
But it seems early and more recent editors of the play have exercised slimy practices and committed some degree of fraud in their efforts to prevent this play from being recognized as having direct impact on the canonical Richard II much less actually being a Shakespeare play. See Michael Egan, "Richard II, Part 1 and the Crisis of Shakespeare Scholarship" [Shakespeare Matters 7.3 (Spring 2007): 1, 13-25] and the editor's comment, "Why Richard II, Part 1 is Even More Important Than You Think" [Shakespeare Matters 7.3 (Spring 2007): 3, 26-29, 31].
The Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt) and the Duke of York (Edmund), both uncles of Richard II, panic that they have been poisoned along with the earls of Arundel and Surrey. "Has no man here some helping antidote...?" asks Lancaster (I.i.10), echoing Leonato in the Shaming Scene of Much Ado. Sir Thomas Cheney reports that the poisoning has not happened:
That mischievous potion was as yet unserved:A friar revealed the plot and alerted the Lord Protector, Thomas of Woodstock (the Duke of Gloucester). Lancaster compares their nephew Richard and their late elder brother, the Black Prince, Richard's father who performed so well in the French wars. York warns that Richard's "flattering minions" (I.i.48) may be responsible for the poisoning plot instead of Richard. Cheney confirms that Sir Henry Greene, Sir Edward Bagot, and "that sly machiavel" Tresilian (I.i.63) were the conspirators. Lancaster rages and York tries to calm him. York characterizes Thomas of Woodstock as admirably "plain dealing" (I.i.100) and solid English with "unsophisticated plainness" in fashion (I.i.103), before he himself enters with Lord Mayor Exton, telling the latter to beware further plots. Woodstock acknowledges the others' vexations but assures them that Richard is innocent. Lancaster says,
It was a liquid bane dissolved in wine,
Which after supper should have been caroused
To young King Richard's health.
We are all weary,Woodstock thinks the "disease" is not too far along:
And fain we would lie down to rest ourselves,
But that so many serpents lurk i' th' grass
We dare not sleep. (I.i.138-141)
King Richard's wounded with a wanton humour,Lancaster protests: "The commons murmur 'gainst the dissolute king" (I.i.157), but Woodstock hopes the marriage tomorrow between Richard and Anne o'Beame (Anne of Bohemia, whom Richard married in 1382) will right things. The others agree to put on happy faces if Woodstock will wear a sumptuous outfit for the occasion.
Lulled and secured by flattering sycophants;
But 'tis not deadly yet, it may be cured:
Some vein let blood where the corruption lies
And all shall heal again. (I.i.144-148)
An enraged Greene tells Bagot and Tresilian that their plot has been discovered and foiled. They curse the friar who ratted them out and gloat at their power over Richard. In particular, expectation is that Tresilian will be appointed Lord Chief Justice of England. "It shall be law what I shall say is law, / And what's most suitable to all your pleasures" (I.ii.47-48). "Wit makes us great, greatness keeps fools in awe" (I.ii.68). Tresilian instructs his manservant Nimble to use a higher form of address now than "sir." He briefly reminisces about his rise in status: "Canst thou remember, Nimble, how by degrees I rose, since first thou knewst me. I was first a schoolboy-- (I.ii.104-105). He seems to be giving the Shakspere myth; interesting how this life-pattern is given by the playwright to a scumball character. Nimble interrupts,
Ay, saving your honour's speech, your worshipful tail was whipped for stealing my dinner out of my satchel. You were ever so crafty in your childhood, that I knew your worship would prove a good lawyer. (I.ii.106-109)Nimble is ordered to announce to Tresilian's wife that they're moving their household to London. Nimble's malapropism (I.ii.122) is responsible for some hilarious linguistic bungles (if you are steeped in Latin legalese!). Tresilian gloats further in anticipation of the day when "I rule the law" (I.ii.131) and he makes Nimble an executioner.
King Richard allows the flatterers to take their places by his, and now also Queen Anne's, side. The uncles are to pay respect to the new queen. Lancaster says they already have welcomed her, but he does again. Woodstock exuberantly welcomes her and good-naturedly calls Richard a "hare-brain" (I.iii.29) who will mature into a noble English king. Anne says she has been charmed by England and all the court,
And having left the earth where I was bred,Woodstock credits her with introducing the practice of women riding side-saddle to England. Richard goads Woodstock about his uncharacteristically elaborate garb: a "golden metamorphosis" (I.iii.75). The name of Alexander the Great's warhorse gets a mention: Bucephalus (I.iii.90). Eventually Woodstock grows angry, first on economic grounds and then regarding the flatterers. York points out the irony that Woodstock had warned the other uncles against raging. Woodstock objects to the commons being taxed to the point of rebellion while riches such as Arundel's seafaring conquests are bestowed on the flattering "cankers" (I.iii.155). Greene and Bagot act incensed. York and Arundel confirm, "cankers! caterpillars!" (I.iii.157). Woodstock expresses the Earl of Oxford's poetic perspective regarding rewards that should go to Arundel as he says to Richard:
And English made, let me be Englishèd. (I.iii.47-48)
For thee he won them, and do thou enjoy them.Richard is affronted and adds appointments: Henry Greene as Lord Chancellor, Bagot as Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, Tresilian as Chief Justice, as expected. These advancements are not historical but reflect ones Richard gave earlier to his friends Burley, de la Pole, and Robert de Vere (who was exiled and died during a boar hunt in 1392). Anne tries to make peace, but Richard swears vengeance.
He'll fetch more honours home -- but had he known
That kites should have enjoyed the eagle's prize
The fraught had swum unto thine enemies. (I.iii.177-180)
The uncles stew, until Cheney brings word of rebellion in Kent and Essex. Woodstock was afraid of this and momentarily is uncertain what to do. Lancaster advises that they join the rebels, but Woodstock says no, they'll try to pacify the commons and call a parliament. This could all turn out well with the country safe, Richard's honor preserved, and some sent "headless from the court ere long" (I.iii.267).