Monday, September 7, 2015

Looking for Richard in Richard II

Looking for Richard


Richard II

     Sorry to plagiarise this title of Al Pacino’s excellent film about the other Richard but it’s so appropriate here. In the exciting conflict between Richard II and Henry Bullingbrook Shakespeare gives us a complex picture of Richard. But what kind of person is Shakespeare creating? In this brief essay I will take a look.
     Richard starts out kingly enough by hearing the case between Bullingbrook and Mowbray and banishing them both. But then we start to hear what other people think of him. From Richard’s own words he thinks he is less loved by the people than the upstart Bullingbrook, of whom Richard says:

…our kinsmen…
Observed his courtship of the common people.
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy. (Act 1.4)

     That Henry is polite to slaves, poor craftsmen, oyster wenches and drayman, and probably loved by them, does this make Richard envious, humble, angry, contemptuous of both Henry and the people? All of the above? He finds it noteworthy in any case and it very likely makes him feel inferior. Poor Richard is very sensitive to threats to his royal dignity. He is, though he often claims otherwise, not sure of his divine right to be king, which is why he gives it so easily to Henry’s bid for the crown. Richard does not truly believe in his own ability to fulfil the divine role.
     Some of his loyal followers, and some who are less loyal, are quite sure of that divine right but others definitely are not. Richard is, they say, young, rash, ruled by flatterers, a mere landlord, a drunken carouser, a murderer, a bankrupt degenerate and a thief. We are likely to agree that he is a thief as he confiscates Bullingbrook’s legacy to spend on the Irish wars.
     But, ah, then something happens.
     Shakespeare give Richard all these wonderful lines. As he wavers between giving up in the face of Bullingbrook’s military and moral superiority and his fight for his royal crown, Richard utters one gem after another:

…A puny subject strikes
At thy great glory. Look not to the ground,
Ye favourites of a king. Are we not high?
Say, is my kingdom lost? Why, ‘twas my care.
And what loss is it to be rid of care?
The worst is death, and death will have his day.
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
…nothing can we call our own but death…
For heaven’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings…
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp… (Act 3.2)

     I could go on. Richard does. But let us move on to Act 4.1 in which Richard relinquishes the crown to Henry. Again he wavers between hanging on to the crown and willingly handing it over.

Alack, why am I sent for to a king,
Before I have shook off the regal thoughts
Wherewith I reigned? I hardly yet have learned
To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my knee.
Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me
To this submission… (Act 4.1)

     When Henry says, ‘I thought you had been willing to resign,’ Richard replies:

My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine.
You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

     Bullingbrook says: ‘Part of your cares you give me with your crown,’ but Richard counters, ‘Your set up do not pluck my cares down.’ When Henry once again demands to know, ‘Are you contented to resign the crown?’ Richard wavers and hands it over:

Ay, no; no, ay, for I must nothing be:
Therefore no ‘no’, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me how I will undo myself:
I give this heavy weight from off my head,
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown.
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths.
Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthy pit!
‘God save King Henry,’ unkinged Richard says.
‘And send him many years of sunshine days!’ –
What more remains?

     What more indeed?
     I find I’ve analysed almost nothing. I’ve done little but quote Richard, and again I could go on to show the tearful parting from his beloved wife and his dramatic death, but with the drama in Act 4.1 Richard has effectively ceased to be king, and Henry has taken on the cares of the throne.
     Poor Richard. Shakespeare has raised him from a mediocre young king, who has hidden his unsure cowering self behind rashness and drunkenness, to a victim of history, a valiant victim of great dignity and depth, by giving him such wonderful eloquence. In Richard Shakespeare has created a character whose ‘self-destructive behaviour might be seen as an unconscious quest for the expressive opportunities provided only by miseries’ (Eisaman Maus, p. 1980).
     No, I haven’t analysed this play. I’m simply too filled with admiration for the language. Yes, Richard is a loser. But what a magnificent loser!

Works cited:
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
  • Eisman Maus, Katharine. Introduction in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.

Films seen:
  • BBC, 1978. Director: David Giles. Cast: Richard – Derek Jacobi; Bolingbroke – Jon Finch; John of Gaunt – John Gielgud; York – Charles Gray; Duchess of York – Wendy Hiller; Duchess of Gloucester – Mary Morris; Queen Isabella – Janet Maw. 
    • One of the earliest BBC productions and one of the best.  Derek Jacobi is always superb and plays the flawed king perfectly. A better portrayal of Bolingbroke than this one by Jon Finch is hard to imagine (though see below). A thoroughly convincing production of this play which should be much more appreciated, and performed, than it is.
  • The Hollow Crown. Richard II. Director: Rupert Goold. Cast: Richard – Ben Whishaw; Bolingbroke – Rory Kinnear; John of Gaunt – Patrick Stewart; York – David Suchet; Duchess of York – Lindsay Duncan; Queen Isabella – Clémence Poèsy. 

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