Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Shakespeare Review: Richard II

No one tell the Tea Party, but Shakespeare may well have been on their side. In Richard II the king is opposed and deposed because he's been a profligate spender and tax happy. A tax and spend liberal, as it were. The political and dynastic machinations of England's peers provide the backbone of this play, but its power lies in the character of Richard, and Shakespeare's meditations on the duality of man and king.

In a way, Richard is a cousin to Hamlet, the man whose tragedy. according to Laurence Olivier, was that he could not make up his mind. Richard can't decide whether to act like a king or a man, and his vacillations make him a pitiable and tragic figure. In the early stages of the play Richard is all kingly pride and condescension as he banishes Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) for having taken part in a treasonous plot. When Bolingbroke's father, the Duke of Lancaster, dies Bolingbroke returns to England to claim his dukedom and lead a rebellion against Richard. When Richard returns from Ireland and hears of the rebellion he says, with regal disdain:

For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift the shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel, then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for Heaven still guards the

Richard's showing a lot of confidence before the big match. But mere moments later Richard gets the bad news that most of the peerage has turned against him and he now faces very long odds. It's at this point that Richard's character splits in two. Half of him becomes a frightened, friendless man who suddenly sees his own mortality as something inevitable and separate from his role as a king. With shocking clarity Richard realizes that kings are very much flesh and blood creatures, and he reveals this to his few followers in a witty and heartbreaking speech shown in the clip below. The performance is a bit too jocular, but it captures the spirit of the thing.

For the rest of play Richards swings between the role of king and common man. In times of stress he cracks and bemoans his fate, welcoming the idea of simply abdicating. At other times his pride takes hold and he sees himself as a king, having a divinely-ordained obligation to fight against whatever odds to oppose those who would overthrow a man chosen by God to rule on Earth. He dies as a king, sword in hand, cut down by assassins.

Although Shakespeare always paid lip service to the concept of the divine right of kings, and showed equal support for an ordered, hierarchical society, in Richard II we see that there was more than a little ambivalence in his mind on the subject of kings. I think Shakespeare felt this way due to a profound feeling of existential dread, probably rooted in atheism. In Shakespeare's time atheism was, according to historian Keith Thomas, a not uncommon belief, and where atheism goes, agnosticism follows in even greater numbers. In showing Richard losing faith in his kingship, Shakespeare was possibly showing his own loss of faith. It's notable that in this play and others, characters who speak of death in the abstract speak of God and Heaven; characters who are facing their own imminent demise, as Richard is in the clip above, speak of death as the bleak, meaningless end of existence.

As though to replace the idea of kings with something that transcends flesh and blood, Shakespeare invents the concept of nationalism in Richard II. Well, invent may be going a bit far, but prior to Shakespeare if nationalism existed it was bound up with the role of a monarch as a divine representative. Shakespeare has Bolingbroke's father delivers a rousing speech that pretty clearly states that it is England's greatness that produces great kings, not great kings that make England great. The speech is in the clip below from 1:30 to 4:08

Shakespeare adds to his nationalist theme with a short speech by the soon-to-be exiled Mowbray, who feels the bitterest part of leaving England's shores is that he will no longer be able to speak English. Mowbray doesn't mention the loss of family and friends, it's the loss of his language, which he almost seems to regard as part of his soul, that causes him the most grief. A lesser writer would have Mowbray bemoaning leaving behind family, wealth and England's worldly charms. Shakespeare shows England having a spiritual hold on Mowbray.

I give Richard II a solid 8 out of 10 on the Bard-o-Meter.

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