By William Shakespeare
Pardon me for getting gonzo academic on you here. My blog occasionally likes to fly off in odd directions. But one of my great loves in life is William Shakespeare, and I don’t tend to talk about his work that much on my blog . . . or in real life, now that I come to think of it. I fell madly in love with his plays when I was in junior high school, which probably set back my social development by marking me as some freakish bookworm, but whatever. What’s done is done, and cannot be undone.
However, I don’t actually think of Shakespeare as “academic.” I think of him as populist. He did not craft his plays only for the mighty of the realm, the learned scholars. He wrote plays to appeal to people who wanted entertainment. Shakespeare is one of us, the genre lovers, the movie fans, the thrill-seekers, people who just like great stories and cool dialogue. His language seems removed from our own only because of the span of time, but once you get used to the vocabulary and the rhythms, it’s astonishing how directly his work speaks to us today.
I haven’t sat down and re-read one of the plays in a while (I got through the whole corpus for the first time back in high school—yeah, I earned the “nerd” title). I also rarely watch the plays staged, but considering all the post-modern tweaking and toying done with Shakespeare in production today, I would much rather just read him. Just he and I, no intermediary. I don’t think he needs one.
So why pick up Richard II? The main reason is that I’m currently reading a book on the history of the Hundred Years’ War (you can expect a review of that soon), a time period that Shakespeare covered in a number of his history plays. After finishing the section in the book on Richard II, who actively tried to remove the English from involvement in war on the continent, I had an overwhelming desire to rush back to Shakespeare’s dramatic version and relive the king’s tragic downfall.
Richard II doesn’t have the fame or constant production schedule of Richard III or Henry V, nor does it have the sort of “kitchen sink” variety of entertainment that the two Henry IV plays have. (Staged correctly, I think that Henry IV, Part I is the most universally enjoyable time you can have watching live theater.) But Richard II remains my favorite of all the history plays: poetic and profoundly tragic. Shakespeare wrote it about the same time as Romeo and Juliet, and although the two plays don’t have similar plots, they share in common a vivid and florid verse style and a concern with the consequences of the breakdown of civil order.
Richard II plays out entirely in verse, unusual for a Shakespeare play. It has almost no humor to it either, another unusual trait. It’s somber, sober, and bleak as it faces a question with modern applications: Who has the right to overthrow a ruler? In this case, a ruler given his power through supposed divine right? (“Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king. . . .”)
And what if the ruler is a self-inflated, pompous tyrant more interested in aggrandizing himself in verse and stealing property than actually governing effectively? Does that give someone else the right to overthrow him?
To us, the answer seems like “Yes!” But it wasn’t so easy an answer in 1399, and not in 1595 either—especially with the potential for dreaded civil war. More than one character (ahem, Bishop of Carlisle, ahem) stamps and champs about all the doom that will befall merry ole England if Henry Bullingbroke seizes the crown from Richard II.
I was a History major in college, and continue to have a deep fascination with this period in English history. This does aid my appreciation for a play like Richard II, where a little context goes a long way toward understanding the underlying passions. Nonetheless, the play has a simple trajectory that people who have no familiarity with the history can grasp.
In the last years of the fourteenth century, King Richard II banishes his cousin Henry Bullingbroke, Duke of Hereford (pronounded “HAR-ford”) after Henry quarrels with another nobleman over whether the two of them had something to do with the death of Richard’s uncle, the Duke of Glouhcester. (Most likely, Richard himself killed his uncle.) When Henry’s father, the powerful and wealthy John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, dies, Richard jumps at the opportunity to seize all of Gaunt’s possessions. An unhappy Henry comes back to England ostensibly to demand the return of his father’s lands and title, but finds himself the center of attention from other disaffected nobles tired of Richard’s caprice and favoritism toward a small group (the “caterpillars of the realm”). Enough nobles flock to Henry’s side that he ends up deposing Richard and taking the crown as Henry IV. A knight looking for favor murders Richard in prison, and King Henry ends the play wracked with guilt over the chain of events that handed him the crown.
Shakespeare takes many liberties with history (he only hints that Richard might have had the Duke of Gloucester killed), but most of the errors come from his sources, and other errors he made out of dramatic necessity. Richard falls fast in the play, with events seeming to take place over only a few days, and events of weeks compressed into single scenes. Even though the play lacks any physical action like battles, it still moves at a rapid pace.
The entirety of Act IV consists of a single scene of the deposing of Richard II. Henry has essentially stumbled his way into taking the crown, has a pack of powerful nobles behind him (all of whom will expect rewards for their support), and hasn’t much choice but to usurp. After some squabbling and glove-throwing between noblemen still nattering over the Duke of Glouchester’s death, the Big Moment arrives. The confrontation between King Richard and about-to-be King Henry is amazing, mostly because Henry says almost nothing. Richard rants and raves, flies into self-righteous fits, and spouts some stunning poetry, while Henry gets reduced to block-headed one-liners. Like this:
Henry: I thought you had been willing to resign.Great zinger there, Henry. Just admit it: you have no idea what Richard is saying, do you?
Richard: My crown I am, but my griefs are still mine.
You may glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.
Henry: Part of your cares you give me with your crown.
Richard: Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down:
My care is loss of care, by old care done,
Your care is gain of care, by new care won;
The cares I give I have, though given away,
They tend the crown, yet still with me they stay.
Henry: Are you contented to resign the crown?
Some historians have suggested that the real Richard suffered from a personality disorder. Shakespeare’s character certainly seems like he’s suffering from one. He acts like a manic-depressive with a dose of bipolar disorder and persecution complex. Sometimes he’s throwing himself onto English soil, claiming he can never be deposed because he is England itself; the next moment he’s ready to toss his crown away without a fight so he can feel bad about himself—and spout more poetry. It’s this astonishingly modern and complex personality that so draws me to the play today. Yes, Richard was a rotten king at the end of his reign (history tends to be gentler with him in the earlier parts), but his fall into nothingness, finally babbling to himself in exile while a knight waits off-stage to murder him, is potent tragedy:
I have been studying how I may compareThere’s a sad, lonely, mentally ill man right there. A modern psychiatrist might even suggest schizophrenia. Okay, overthrowing this guy was a good idea. I still feel sorry for him.
This prison where I live unto the world;
And for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul.
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humors like the people of this world:
For no thought is contented.
Richard gets another great self-pitying speech that has turned into a morose classic, the “Sad stories of the deaths of kings” monologue. It does eventually show the most human side of the king, when he admits that he really is no different than any other man—he needs food and friends, etc.
However, the Killer Super-Duper Speech of the play doesn’t belong to Richard, but to the dying John of Gaunt. It’s the greatest patriotic speech in British history, even outdoing “St. Crispin’s Day” from Henry V and Churchill’s “Never surrender speech”—which feels as if it is channeling Gaunt’s speech. There’s no point in quoting the whole speech here; you can find it in a second anywhere on the ‘net. I’ve included a recording of one performance of it at the end of this post. Still, it’s too amazing a piece of verse for me not to excerpt one of its best parts:
This happy breed of men, this little world,Makes me feel proud. And I’m not even a British subject.
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. . . .
Shakespeare, as usual, finds a way to sneak in bits of passion into small parts. Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, only appears in Act I, where Richard banishes him for life. Mowbray makes a sorrowful speech about how he will never have use again for his native tongue. There’s a scene amongst gardeners—the only place aside from a visit from a groom at the conclusion where commoners appear—who relate their work pruning hedges as a metaphor for the kingdom; powerful material. The farewell between Richard and his queen, Isabel, as he is led off to prison on the streets of London is also touching. Shakespeare consciously invented the relationship between Richard and Isabel; the real Isabella of Valois was ten years old when Richard was deposed. King Henry delayed sending the poor girl back home to her father, the King of France; Henry was so strapped for cash that he stripped her of her dowry before he finally sent her home. That can’t have gone well with the French court. (“Hi, Dad? That guy you sent me off to marry? He got deposed and killed, and these new guys took the money you gave me. Can I have my old room back?”)
No theatrical feature film of Richard II has ever appeared. The BBC taped a version for their complete series of Shakespeare plays in 1978 starring Derek Jacobi as Richard and John Gielgud as John of Gaunt (Gielgud was a famous King Richard II in his youth), and a more recent staging was also filmed and is available on DVD. I doubt the play will ever make it to the big screen: too historical, too internal, no action. I hear these complaints from people just reading the play. No matter to me, I still love it.
“Tell thou the lamentable tale of me.”
Here’s a clip from the 1978 TV production, with Gielgud giving the Killer App speech. He does hit the “this England!” rather forcefully.