Laura Ashe, Richard II: A Brittle Glory (Penguin: London, 2016)
Emboldened by the excellent ‘Penguin Monarchs‘ volume on Edward II, I looked out which other volumes were available: the first that arrived in the post was this one.
Ashe‘s approach seems different to Given-Wilson‘s on Edward. Where he was reassuringly chronological, she deals with Richard’s reign (and I’ve seen this as a criticism of the volume online) thematically. It has, nonetheless, given me some useful insight into a king who I’ve always vaguely felt I owed a debt: I fell asleep watching Jeremy Irons in the title role – in Stratford, of all places – back in 1986/7. To this day, I blame the large lunch I had before the matinee performance …
Richard II‘s an important play for me nowadays. Comparisons to this monarch were invidious and odius to Eizabeth I, who looms over most of the Shakespeare plays I have taught like a spectre at the dinner table. Apocryphally, she somewhat acidly remarked: ‘What? Know ye not I am Richard?’ when he was, yet again, mentioned in her presence. It’s relatively common knowledge that the Earl of Essex‘s supporters commissioned a staging of Shakespeare’s play on the eve of his almost embarrassing ‘rebellion’ against her, to say nothing of poor old John Hardcastle, imprisoned for failing to steer on the right side of the line in his book on Richard and Henry IV‘s accession. If Elizabeth is one of my ghosts, then Richard was surely one of hers …
There are several links to Marlowe‘s Edward II, and not just in the way Shakespeare’s monarch mirrors many of the attitudes, actions, and even speech patterns of his un-illustrious predecessor. Material for another time, I suspect.
But, to our quote, quoteS, actually of the week. In the first, Ashe reminds us that no-one rules for long without the consent of various interested parties. In class we discuss the nature of ultimate power – whether it actually IS ultimate – and I’ve often thought that one thing literature, even beyond Shakespeare, teaches us is that when you aspire too much for something and then achieve it, it always seems a hollow victory (look at Macbeth and Richard III for further examples):
First, his greatest magnates: they expected to exercise their customary role of advising and helping to direct international and domestic policy. For Richard this amounted to their coming to him with tiresome and unwelcome instruction and admonishment – his uncles demanding war with France, bishops protesting the rights of the Church to lands held by the Crown. Second, his councillors, the chief officers of the realm […] Richard experienced the execution of their duties [they were appointed by Parliament] as a series of attempts to block his desires, to which he responded with rage’
My second choice links to the contextual, metaphorical nature of the theatre: the way it could use allegory, metaphor, and all kinds of nuanced language to discuss subjects which were specifically forbidden by 1570’s Treasons Act.
‘How to be a king who has deposed a King.’
It was all very well considering taking matters into your own hands when it came to the increasingly precarious and worrying situation regarding the succession, but what came next? And what after that, once a precedent was set?
The example of Henry Bolinbroke was more of a warning how not to do it. And various Shakespeare commentators have pitched the entire cycle of Shakespeare’s History plays as an example to the country of what would happen if you got rid of your divinely-appointed ruler.
Could a better precedent have been found, could a way have been found, I wonder if Elizabeth would have lasted as long as she did …