Murder, Death and Sacrilege in Shakespeare’s Richard II

Project: National Science and Technology CouncilNational Science and Technology Council Academic Grants

Project Details


Famously, in the quarto versions of Shakespeare’s Richard II published during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the scene on the deposition of King Richard by Bolingbroke does not exist. Critics have long noted the nonexistence of the scene and many have interpreted it as censorship due to the authority’s sensitivity to its dangerous nature. It is known that the staging of Shakespeare’s Richard II a day before the Earl of Essex’s rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601 had caused the playing company trouble, as it was suspected that the play had helped to incense its viewers to rebel. Hence, some of the players involved were interrogated. Notably, Queen Elizabeth was said to have made the remark that she is Richard II. Richard II can indeed be considered a play on a politically sensitive subject, as deposition of an anointed king is a sacrilege, a violation of the concept of the divine right of kings with which Renaissance monarchs legitimize their ruling power. Nevertheless, the murder of an anointed king in the play is not deleted. It appears in the quarto versions through the folio versions. This research focuses on Richard Il’s murder by examining Henry IV’s evasive wording in his wish to terminate Richard II, the representation of the violence Exton and his men inflicted, the fear related with the murder, the ensuing death, guilt and punishment. There is no doubt that murder has always been an appalling yet appealing dramatic element for playgoers, and Shakespeare certainly knew how to manipulate it. Yet the murder scene says something much more than the mere violence, gore and death. My analysis attempts to argue it is ironic for the murder scene to remain while the deposition scene is censored. The thrilling murder scene can create as sacrilegious an effect as the deposition scene and it could be equally incensing for potential dissidents. That is an effect that can stay within the play despite the exclusion of the deposition scene. I shall also analyze the murder scene in the quarto variants and compare the texts to that in the folio versions, from which most of our modern conflated versions are based on. I shall reread alternative meanings into the different wordings and punctuations in the lines by linking them with the play’s immediate Elizabethan political-historical contexts.

Project IDs

Project ID:PE10406-0766
External Project ID:MOST104-2410-H182-010
Effective start/end date01/08/1531/07/16


  • Shakespeare
  • Richard II
  • murder
  • violence
  • sacrilege
  • quarto
  • folio


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