In eukaryotes, RNA polymerase II transcribes messenger RNAs and several small nuclear RNAs. Like RNA polymerases I and III, polymerase II cannot act alone. Instead, general initiation factors [transcription factor (TF) IIB, TFIID, TFIIE, TFIIF, and TFIIH] assemble on promoter DNA with polymerase II, creating a large multiprotein-DNA complex that supports accurate initiation. Another group of accessory factors, transcriptional activators and coactivators, regulate the rate of RNA synthesis from each gene in response to various developmental and environmental signals. Our current knowledge of this complex macromolecular machinery is reviewed in detail, with particular emphasis on insights gained from structural studies of transcription factors.