Richard II : Dramatis Personae
The first major obstacle to understanding a Shakespearean history play is the cast of characters. The characters are difficult because they all have multiple names. For example, Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, Duke of Hereford, later Duke of Lancaster and King Henry IV is referred to, variously, by his name (Henry), his place of birth (Bolingbroke) and his titles (Hereford, Lancaster and King). It's a bit hard to keep track of them all and their complicated relationships to each other.
Hopefully this handy chart will help you keep track of who is who, from the King himself all the way down to spear carriers who only have one or two lines.
The second major obstacle to understanding a Shakespearean history play is the plot, mostly because Shakespeare's history plays assume that you are already familiar with late Plantagenet family dynamics and political developments. Now, I am a very strange individual and have spent the last 10 years of my life memorizing Plantagenet family trees. However, for those of you with richer personal lives than me, here is everything you need to know to be able to understand what happens before Richard II begins.
The points you need to take away from this are (a) Richard II has a history of being a controversial, if not outright lousy king, and (b) Richard may or may not have ordered the death of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. The death of Gloucester is the catalyst for everything that happens in the next seven history plays.
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