Friday, July 7, 2017

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Well, I'm back. Tasmania was, as always, wonderful, and at the Pilgrim Artists' Festival I was privileged to meet (or spend more time with) some amazing local artists: indie author WR Gingell, whose books you should definitely check out if you love fairytales, Georgette Heyer, or mysteries; acoustic guitarist Alan Gogoll; Steve and Marion Isham, who between them write poetry, produce children's books, and make amazing drawings and paintings.

During our stay, our lovely hostess Margaret (herself an award-winning oils painter, while we're on the topic) introduced us to The Hollow Crown, which somehow I'd missed seeing, or getting excited about. Splendidly-acted new Shakespeare films? True, I've never been all that interested in the history plays, but still: Shakespeare.

We only got the chance to see Richard II during our visit, but it was terrific, and having seen it, I knew I had to read the play in full.

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court...

At first glance, you might not think Richard II a bad king. When two noblemen come before him with competing accusations of treason, Richard tries to make up the quarrel before allowing the trial by combat to go ahead. The Duke of Lancaster's son Henry Bolingbroke is convinced that the Duke of Norfolk is guilty of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, and is willing to fight him to prove it. But just as the combat starts, King Richard cancels the match and banishes both combatants to an arbitrary period of exile.

When the Duke of Lancaster, the wise and experienced John of Gaunt, dies, Richard shows his true colours, seizing the Lancaster property to finance a war in Ireland. Enraged that his rightful inheritance should be seized by the crown during his absence, Henry Bolingbroke returns to England determined to reclaim it, by force if necessary. Meanwhile, rumours about the Duke of Gloucester's death thicken: was the murder plotted by Norfolk, or did Norfolk only cover up for someone who must not be suspected?

I'm not sure I even realised that Shakespeare had written a history play about Richard II (my tastes have always run to his comedies), let alone whether it was considered one of his best or not, but Richard II was magnificent, and as usual with a well-regarded Shakespeare play, it surprised me with a few very famous speeches. For example, this is where the This sceptr'd isle, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise... this England speech comes from, as the dying John of Gaunt complains about Richard's rule.

This play, like much of Shakespeare, is full of spine-tinglingly magnificent lines. In addition, I was fascinated to note that the "sceptr'd isle" speech begins a motif repeated through the play, of England as a badly-tended garden, an Eden beset by curses. Another motif, drawn out and beaten to death in the Hollow Crown version, is Richard II's view of himself as a quasi-divine figure, a type of Christ, having a divine right to rule however he wants. Against this, Shakespeare pits the insistence of Richard's barons that right to rule depends not on birth or office, but on justice. Richard fails multiple times at the beginning of the play to do justice, and it's this that naturally deprives him of his crown.

But one of the things that struck me most deeply about this play was its ambiguity. The two dominating figures are the plain-spoken Henry Bolingbroke, and Richard himself. And what a character Richard is, by the way: wilful, emotional, and weak; always performing to an audience, saving himself from the worst of his humiliations simply by bravura monologuing; and yet weirdly charming, sympathetic, and even noble in the midst of his richly-deserved trials. Richard is no clear-cut villain (indeed, Victorian productions of the play apparently used to make a saint of him), but neither is Henry a clear-cut hero. He accuses Norfolk, rather broadly, of "all the treasons for these eighteen years", and legitimises his own claim to the throne in speeches that seem increasingly threadbare and desperate; by the end, he consolidates his grip on the crown with a series of executions, but puts on a show of remorse over Richard's coffin.

Which makes this play a fascinating character study. Overall, I believe it's a veiled critique of the idea of the divine right of kings (an evaluation shared by Elizabeth I, who was so offended by the play that it had to be heavily censored). There are two theories of kingship here: Richard's theory that kingship is substantiated by its existence, and Henry's (at first), that it is substantiated by justice. As the Duke of York warns Richard early on, a king who refuses to respect his subjects' rights is laying a dangerous precedent:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?

If Richard takes away Henry's patrimony, he ought not to be terribly surprised when Henry takes away Richard's patrimony. And yet that first act of injustice does not absolve Henry. By not being content to regain what he has lost, by taking more than he promised, Henry founds his own kingship on the same brand of injustice that Richard committed early in the play. Although Henry begins his rebellion on a platform of limited monarchy, he ends it with something very like absolutism because at this stage he can no longer rely on justice. By the end of the play, Richard dies; but by the end of the play, it seems, he has converted Henry to his way of thinking.


Richard II is an extraordinarily rich and subtle play which I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of. And now I'm excited to dive in and work my way through all of Shakespeare's historical plays, especially now that I know where to find some excellent filmed editions to form my introduction.

The Hollow Crown production of Richard II features Ben Whishaw in a truly excellent performance and some memorable supporting work from Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt and Rory Kinnear as Henry Bolingbroke. For some reason, it chooses to cut the Gloucester subplot entirely, an odd decision since that makes so much sense of many of the characters' actions, as well as the fun scene in Act IV where everyone is throwing down gauntlets and Aumerle has to ask someone to loan him a third. Oh well--this was otherwise very good, and you really must see Shakespeare performed to experience him properly.

Find Richard II on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

7 comments:

Melanie said...

And here I just found it drippingly melodramatic...
I've always preferred the histories - have fun :)

Suzannah said...

Melanie, LOL - "drippingly melodramatic" sounds like my style exactly ;)

Hayden said...

I remember how absolutely boring I found Henry V in my high school Shakespeare class-enough to swear off the history plays forever- but even then I suspected seeing them performed would be a different experience entirely. I was definitely right, and The Hollow Crown is some of the best Shakespeare I've ever seen performed. I was especially surprised at how much I loved Richard II, since I thought I'd have little interest in it. I definitely want to watch it again, and I totally recommend the rest of The Hollow Crown. I still haven't seen Season 2 yet, though, which apparently includes Henry VI and Richard III.

Joseph J said...

Our gr. 7 teacher had us memorize Gaunt's England monologue for which I am eternally grateful. I've gone back and refreshed it over the years because it's so good. I still have my study copy of Richard II, missing its cover and filled with sarcastic marginalia and loving doodles of people dying grotesquely. All part of the rich experience of boyhood Shakespearean appreciation. I remember we used rolling desk chairs as horses when we acted out the jousting scene. As a class of boys we were allowed to have one pass at each other even though it was contrary to the script. A wise concession to male bloodlust. Good times.

Suzannah said...

Hayden, yes! I was surprised how much I liked this play too (though there were definitely parts where I wished Richard would just shut up :P). I'm hoping to tuck into HENRY IV PART 1 tonight *rubs hands*.

Joseph, haha, that sounds like lots of fun. Sarcastic marginalia - sounds like an heirloom!

M Tess said...

I also loved The Hollow Crown - definitely see Henry IV Part I if you can get it! You probably already know this, but the conspirators of Essex's rebellion paid the Lord Chamberlain's Men to play Richard II just before their attempted uprising - so censorship on Elizabeth's part may have been a smart move.

Suzannah said...

Yes, I had heard of that!

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