Michael Bogdanov, ‘Richard II: The skipping King’, in Shakespeare : The Director’s Cut (Capercaillie Books: Edinburgh, 2005)
I picked this startling book up from Waterstones in Gower Street, London on Saturday – remaindered at a measly £5-99. Scuffed but basically sound, it seemed destined for the upper slopes of my ever-growing Mount Tsundoku – about which I’m bound to post at some stage, recently becoming familiar with the term.
Either way, as I often do with new Shakespeare-related books, I ambled through the Introduction. Not properly knowing who Bogdanov was in truth, I wanted a sense of who I’d invited to share my bookshelves. I’m at my parents’, and despite the TV blaring at a volume only a practically-deaf father can justify, I became completely immersed.
Bogdanov died almost a year ago, at 78 (a little older than my father is). If we’d been contemporaries, and moved in similar circles, I reckon we would have been drinking buddies …
Firstly, there’s his unashamedly left-of-center politics. There are millions of people who lived through the Thatcher era who had/still have every cause for rage. But how many could channel that rage with intelligence and occasional mischief, letting the human brain triumph over the chimp brain’s desire for blood? Few – and off the top of my head, I’m thinking only of Elvis Costello‘s poignant Shipbuilding, and then the furious but restrained and intelligent Tramp The Dirt Down [Parental Advisory for language :)]. The little I’ve read of the book so far (about 20%) has constant references to the realpolitik Bogdanov operated in and around.
The second reason I can see us sharing a few drinks is simply his take on the plays. ‘Startling‘ is the word I used at the beginning of the post, and that’s what it is: insightful, imaginative, and in places, irreverant. It’s the tone and style of an intelligent enthusiast, paradoxically pragmatic and prone to dizzying cognitive leaps and flights of fancy, written at a breathless pace. He writes with the kind of perspective on the plays that I never feel I fully have the time to explore. He articulates ideas which only hover at the edges of my thoughts before evaporating in the heat and noise of the daily grind. Conversations with him over a couple of beers are the kind I live for, and tend to get only in flashes from the brightest and most engaged of my students – in the classroom, not the pub, of course.
So, after all this lionising of the man, we need a quotation for the week, and whilst his essay on Hamlet – first in the book, and so first read – is marvellous (especially the parts about Hamlet’s weight and his relationship with Ophelia), I turned to Richard II, as it is my current Pony Tail Shakespeare text.
‘By the conclusion, Shakespeare has achieved something of a miracle in completely turning the tables on our feelings for Richard. He transforms him from a distasteful, selfish waster into someone for whom we have heartfelt sympathy. Or do we? Once a pig, always a pig. The trouble is, by the side of machiavellian Bolingbroke, Richard now looks positively angelic: the paradox of many of Shakespeare’s falling tyrants is that they have a great deal more poetry in their souls than their conquerors: compare Macbeth and Malcolm. This aching gap between the pragmatism need to rule and the power of the imagination to transcend earthly concerns is one which preoccupied Shakespeare, constantly baffling him. Man’s inability to combine passion, poetry and humanity with the daily grind of taxation, unemployment, homelessness.’ (pp.235-236)
Buy the book …