Written three to four years after Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, Richard II marks the earliest chronological point in the history plays of Shakespeare. Covering the weakening and demise of Richard of Bordeaux, the Plantagenet king of England who died in 1399 after a court coup by Henry Bolingbroke (crowned Henry IV, father of Henry V [aka Prince Hal, erstwhile friend of Falstaff], whose name was made at the Battle of Agincourt). Richard II is one of a small handful of his plays written entirely in verse – a particular delight for this poet, who revels in a well-turned phrase, a surprising image, a carefully wrought psychology.
Triumph is become an alehouse guest.
I re-watched the 2012 BBC Henriad production of Richard II, starring the magnificent Ben Whishaw as King Richard (hitting perfect notes of creepy, conflicted, immature, and narcissistic). Ben’s been a favorite of mine for over a decade, from Perfume to Bright Star to The Hours and Cloud Atlas. He brings so much intellect, angst, and creative depth to his characters.
Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaeton. – King Richard
I’d first watched this production back in spring 2020, at the start of the pandemic when we were in our two-month lock-down here in Italy. Perhaps, I reasoned, watching drama set in times centuries ago when plagues and other calamities were regular occurrences would help calibrate my response to our rapidly changing and difficult situation. I was partially right. It alleviated my anxiety somewhat. I appreciated the scenes where Bolingbroke looks like he is bounding through a Jo Malone commercial. I was, however, very much taken by the production, and the pleasant memories of this cinematic escape in part informed my motivations to take on the 2022 All Shakespeare Project.
Thus rise nimbly by a true king’s fall.
(Progress note: I am now on play 15 in a list of 43, but I created my spreadsheet without a full awareness of the Shakespearean apocrypha. The original list included such titles as Love’s Labours Won and Edward III, whose authorship have no doubt spurred a hundred PhDs. This puts me at almost the halfway mark of verified works!)
Poor boy, thou art amazed.
This play is downright morbid, depicting the power transfer between kings that the present king does not wish to happen, but the writing, so to speak, is on the wall, like the Old Testament feast of Balshazzar, when the words of Yahweh appeared in flames to the alarmed guests. (If you don’t know this tale, I urge you to investigate it and commit it to memory for handy reference, as it is very useful and applicable to a variety of life situations that involve illiteracy, rash judgment, and overweening pride.) Victor and Eleanor have now become interested in my Shakespeare project and watch with interest when I watch the films and read along using the Folger text. You see, Victor, the problem with being King is that everyone else wants to be King too, and so usually a lot of people want to murder you.
Within the hollow crown / that rounds the mortal temples of a King / Keeps Death his court.
Shakespeare, as is his custom, hangs his story on a few confirmed facts, and fictionalizes the rest. The story begins in Richard’s last year or so of his life. The dispute between Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Mowbray is historic, as is their joust for honor, called off at the last moment by King Richard. Bolinbroke, Richard’s cousin, did challenge Richard and successfully take the crown. (Richard’s agony in forfeiting the crown and eventually relinquishing it furnish the meat of this drama.) Richard was locked up in the Tower of London (nothing ever ends well if they turn the key on you when you’re in the Tower). In actuality, however, Richard’s cause of death remains, strictly speaking, unknown, although it is supposed to have been starvation. Henry IV starved Richard to death so as to avoid any inconvenient marks of murder on the former king’s mortal body. There was a public outrage about the mysterious death (it just really seemed to threaten the whole Order of Things) and so his body was trotted out and displayed in 1400 for close inspection.
My sour cross
Shakespeare changes the narrative and styles this to an errand of honor in which the son of the Duke of York, one young and handsome Aumerle, is revealed to have gotten his hands dirty in a plot to murder Henry IV. All the co-conspirator heads roll save his. His life’s price? Head over to the Tower with some helpers and murder the the erstwhile king. He thinks! But as a twenty-one-year old is predictably wont to do, he acts too quickly and without consultation. When he trots back to Bolinbroke Castle with the coffin, Henry IV is outraged! Maybe hits a little close to home to see a former king in a bloody box.
Watching brings leanness!
Shakespeare also combines Richard’s two historic queens into one beautiful and powerless queen. In real life, his first queen, Anne of Bohemia, died three years before his own death in 1399. (Fun facts: Anne’s royal progress to England gives our language the word “coach” – from the Hungarian town Kocs (pronounced coach in Hungarian) where her carriage was built. Apparently this was an innovation in a world devoted to horseback riding. She also popularized the “horned” Bohemian headdress we now associate with medieval ladies, later simplified as a wimple.)
After Anne died, Richard married Isabelle of France, who was 7 years old. The child received got her own castle and staff. But then her much-older husband died. Sucks to be a ten-year-old widow in the 14th century. The play offers one sole queen with a few ladies in waiting, mostly wringing their hands and getting news secondhand about Richard’s forcible abdication. The historic Richard became king when his grandfather and father died a year apart. He was thrust onto the throne as a boy of ten. Never a warrior, and much given to luxury and prayer (the contemplative monkey is a nice touch in the film), he reigned until his death at thirty-three.
Things past redress are now past care.
The pro-England toe of the play means its lines get repeated often in the service of national pride, in particular the speech of John of Gaunt, whose phrases you may know from earnest Brexit reporting:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
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 blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renownèd for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulcher in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessèd Mary’s son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
The language really shines in Shakespeare’s stylish verse.
Let’s talk of graves, worms, and epitaphs. – King Richard
Hast thou sounded him? / As near as I could sift him on that argument… – King Richard / John of Gaunt
Too good to be so bad and too bad to live! – Bolingbroke
Deep malice makes too deep incision. – King Richard
Lions make leopards tame. / Yea, but not change his spots. – Richard and Mowbray
It boots thee not to be compassionate. / After our sentence plaining comes too late. – Richard
The clogging burden of a guilty soul … – Bolinbroke
Off go his bonnet to an oysterwench! – King Richard on Bolinbroke
Enforce attention like deep harmony. – John of Gaunt
My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear. – John of Gaunt
His tongue is now a stringless instrument. – Duke of Northumberland on John of Gaunt
By bad events may be understood / That their events can never fall out good. – Duke of York
We see the wind sit sore upon our sails. – Northumberland
Lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change. – Welsh captain
Eating the bitter bread of banishment. – Hereford
A king, woe’s slave, shall kingly woe obey. – Richard
Crimson tempest should bedrench – Hereford
Barren and bereft of friends. – Richard
My fortune runs against the bias. – The Queen
My heart was not confederate with my hand! – Aumerle
The minor character Bushy delivers a truly magnificent dissertation on grief:
Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows
Which shows like grief itself but is not so;
For sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
King Richard offers feelings to most sentient beings (sorry king, thou art become baser yet in my estimation!):
O, that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been,
Or not remember what I must be now.
Act III Sc. 3
Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself.
Act IV Sc. 1
Thanks to everyone who read to the end of this. I have to say, I love Richard II. It is on par with Macbeth and Hamlet for psychological dissection and analysis of human motives. Whishaw in this role is in his element.
Next week brings me to The Merchant of Venice, another work I have never seen, nor read, nor heard, but know well enough from abounding cultural allusions. I can’t wait to see Al Pacino extract a pound of flesh from Jeremy Irons while Joseph Fiennes looks on. I am increasingly grateful for excellent and faithful film adaptations!
William Walton composed a marvelous musical work on the topic of Belshazzar’s Feast. Well worth a listen some day.