PTS read-through: Richard II, Act I
The lengthy gap since I finished posting about A Midsummer Night’s Dream has everything to do with volume of work, and absolutely nothing to do with what I’m about to confess you now. But we ought to get it out of the way, or it will cloud all my posts about Richard II …
On today’s journey to the late 1590s, let’s take a detour via 1987 …
This was the summer of Madonna‘s ‘True Blue’ album, U2 was flooding the UK charts with songs from ‘The Joshua Tree’. I was probably only a few weeks away from hearing Rick Astley‘s Never Gonna Give You Up for the first time … imagine that! I was – just about – at sixth form, ‘studying’ (very loosely) English, Economics and Physics. Our Shakespeare text was Richard II, and we had a school trip to an RSC performance starring Jeremy Irons. He was, probably, wonderful in the role. It’s made for his eloquence, refinement, and that sensitive, melancholic air he carries.
But I’ll never know whether he was any good. I could blame the sunny, warm day, or the bag of liquorice I decided to eat on top of a large pack-up lunch. It might simply have been as a result of a late night, or my general teenage disaffection and refusal to engage (which led to my student career being abruptly cut short by my teachers, when they ran out of patience with me a few months later). Or a combination of all these things.
I slept through pretty much the whole performance.
All that’s left is a flash of memory of Jeremy Irons, Christ-like in his suffering alone on stage in, perhaps, Act V sc v. It’s impossible to be sure, but I like to think it was the ‘I have been studying how I may compare’ soliloquy. That snapshot of the performance remains, plus varying degrees of shame, embarrassment and guilt.
So, I feel I owe Richard. As I get older and I begin to properly understand what Shakespeare meant when he wrote ‘I wasted time and now doth Time waste me’ (V.v.49), my relationship with the play is increasingly coloured by this sense of debt.
Let’s get on with Act I.
A newer association with the play is the relationship I see between Richard II and Edward II. The first direct speech by the latter is the tellingly ineffectual ‘Will you not grant me this?’ My reading of Richard is heavily influenced by a similar line (my emphasis):
‘We were not born to sue but to command;
Which SINCE WE CANNOT DO to make you friends (I.i.196-197) (1)
Setting aside the historical tramlines upon the play has to run along, Richard (as Edward) kicks off with an early and blatant demonstration of his lack of authority, and so he is doomed. I appreciate that this is a little simplistic; that we could say that all rulers rely on the permission of their subjects. We are all, to an extent, participants in our own subjugation, as Louis Althusser might say. But the line is there, and I can’t ignore it. Richard has inherited a role which he is patently unfit for – and to an extent I immediately begin to feel for him. The pressures and expectations heaped on him are unasked for, and as the play will show, at that time you could be a live king, or an ex king, but not a live, ex-king. Failure meant death.
Warring nobles is hardly an unusual problem for a king, but this issue seems trickier than most factional antipathies. Firstly, there is the need to arbitrate between a blood relative on the one hand, and a loyal henchman in Mowbray on the other. Next, there is the implied involvement in the misdemeanours that Mowbray is accused of.
Why are the best-regulated families so often the worst? The most serious of the charges against Mowbray is that he killed Gloucester. Richard and Bolingbroke are both nephews of the unlucky Duke: one comes to avenge his death, which the other, we suspect, might have commissioned. John of Gaunt certainly believes this, as he remonstrates with the revenge-thirsty widow:
God’s is the quarrel, for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death, the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister. (I.ii.38-42)
Peter Saccio lays the blame for this familial murder not on Richard, but on his illustrious and fertile father:
[Edward III’s] extraordinary capacity for begetting offspring lies at the root of subsequent internecine strife. Of his twelve legitimate children, five sons grew up, were endowed with extensive powers and possessions within the kingdom, and passed these on to their issue. As long as the royal family itself remained united, Edward’s generosity to his sons constituted an effective policy for governing England. In the absence of family harmony, the kingdom was almost sure to follow the Plantagenets into disorder. (2)
So, an ‘heir and a spare’ is fine, but history suggests – in both Richards – that larger families mean larger problems further down the line.
If it’s generally known (within the play) that Richard had Mowbray killed, who did it? Mowbray denies any involvement:
‘I slew him not, but to my own disgrace
Neglected my sworn duty in that case.’ (I.i.133-134)
How opaque is this? It’s not taken from Holinshed, who (according to Charles R Forker’s editing) ‘pleaded the fifth’ on this charge. Did he subcontract the actual killing? Or did he neglect his duty to Richard by not killing Gloucester? Or to Gloucester in not protecting him?
And what is Bolingbroke up to? Is his target really Mowbray, or is he actually aiming indirectly at Richard’s job even as the play starts? He’s hard to judge in the opening sequences, especially if you are judging based on knowledge of his later actions. Perhaps what does shine through (and in the play in general) is the love of country his branch of the family has. We’ll deal with Gaunt’s epic swan-song in another post, but Bolingbroke channels his patriotism in dealing with his banishment:
‘Then England’s ground, farewell! Sweet soil, adieu –
My mother and my nurse that bears me yet!
Where’er I wonder, boast of this I can,
Though banished, yet a true-born Englishman.’ (I.iii.306-309)
Richard is quick to note Bolinbroke’s professed patriotism, remarking acidly of the latter’s ‘farewell tour’ that he had acted:
‘As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects’ next degree in hope.’(I.35-36)
But it’s practically a job requirement for any aspiring ruler – to be ‘horribly in love’ with his country.
Finally, let’s look at Richard in Act I. Earlier declarations of sympathy aside, he’s not a particularly nice guy, is he? I can’t help feeling that he hangs Mowbray out to dry. Mowbray specifically contends that Richard can refute one of the charges laid against him, but Richard is oddly silent. The king’s adjudication is scarcely the wisdom of Solomon, either. He convenes a shadowy, off-stage cabal of advisors including the father of one of the antagonists, and undermines an overt show of refusing to find fault by doling out very unequal punishments. Mowbray’s lifetime banishment smacks of cover-up, even across the centuries. It is, indeed:
‘A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,
And all unlooked for from your highness’ mouth.
A dearer merit, not so deep a maim
As to be cast forth in the common air,
Have I deserved at your highness’ hands.’ (I.iii.154-158)
It’s scant consolation for his king to suggest that he has reluctantly, ‘with some unwillingness’, arrived at this harsh sentence. It’s also a mistake – the first of many – which clearly weakens and isolates Richard. In some ways, Bolinbroke’s expulsion is similarly foolish, given the apparent love the common people have for him. Maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh on people because they’re foolish, though.
Richard’s least agreeable quality is, I think, his capacity for spite. It IS clever, and sort of amusing, when Shakespeare has him finish the Act with:
‘Pray God we may make haste and come too late!’ (I.iv.64)
The line leaves a bitter aftertaste, though, as we head towards Act II.
(1) William Shakespeare, Richard II (Arden Third Edition), ed. Charles R Forker, (Thomson Learning, 2002). All further references quoted in the body of this article.
(2) Peter Saccio, Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle and Drama, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000), p.7