PTS 11/065: Stop being such a Dick, Richard!

‘On Brexit, and Ignoring the Advice of Uncles’, as Montaigne might have written …


King Richard II

PTS read-through:  Richard II, act II

Richard II plays against the backdrop of an enormous cosmic clockface.  Our poetic but ineffective, spiteful monarch ends act I cynically hoping to arrive too late; he begins act II suffering the consequences of being early, getting an earful from his uncle.

What Richard does miss, though, is Uncle Gaunt’s remarkable crie de couer on the state of the nation.  It’s an interesting, beautiful swansong, the breathless anaphora creating a crescendo of patriotic fervour – but I have three issues with it.

Firstly, as I have said, Richard isn’t there to hear it.  His response, given his imminent conversation with Gaunt, might have been interesting.

Next, and I appreciate this isn’t your fault, Will, but it has to be the second most misquoted speech in the canon (after treating the opening line to Richard III as an independent clause, grrrr).

BH proms last night
Lamenting England’s fall from grace at ‘Last Night of the Proms’

The point of the speech is utterly missed by those who selectively edit for the purposes of some Brexiteer Little Englander jingoisitic overture, accompanied by Sir Hubert Parry‘s elegaic treatment of William Blake‘s lyrics:  Jerusalem.  Which, by the way, would have Blake turning in his grave. [A] Wake up, people:  like that ‘Last Night of the Proms’ staple, Gaunt is actually mourning what has become of England.  This is as devastating in 2018 as it was when Gaunt died in 1399:

That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself. (II.i.65-66) [1]

Is this important?  I think so.  Delusions about the UK’s current (and projected) grandeur permeate almost every aspect of the Brexit debate.  I’m reminded of Michael Bogdanov, in his overview of the History plays – I make no apology for the length of the quotation:

In Part I the decline of Britain in the 15th century mirrors that of the 20th – the loss of influence as an international power, and the deterioration of the domestic situation at home; and in both instances, wars are to blame. Division and internal weakness erodes and corrupts government. The last fifty years or so have seen the collapse of Britain as a real international power as internecine squabbles have riven our two main political parties; the thrust has ceased to be the national interest and become instead the cult of the individual.

If there is a common theme that links the Henry VIs with today, it is the fractious rivalry and petty squabbling that has characterised the Conservative and Labour parties as it did the Houses of York and Lancaster. The lack of belief in collective achievement paved the way for both Richard III and Margaret Thatcher. John of Gaunt’s other Eden of long ago was indeed leased out ‘as to a tenement farm’, in hock to ruthless ambition that served individual interests and favoured the strong. [2]

Finally, and this is more of an observation than an issue, it inextricably conflates the fortunes of the king and the kingdom – ‘this throne of kings […] this teeming womb of royal kings’, etc, etc.  That’s as should be, I guess – not least if you’re writing for Elizabeth I, who was heavily invested in this relationship being reasserted and strengthened at every opportunity.  But it still rankles a little, in the same way that the English national anthem did recently.  I simply prefer country over king (or indeed modern equivalent thereof).  If there’s a secondary image conjured by the play alongside that cosmic clockface, it’s probably the personification of the kingdom.  Here’s Bogdanov again:

throughout, a giant unseen presence looms over the place. An inanimate character who nonetheless lives, breathes, expands, contracts, laughs, cries, and generally hovers over the action as an anxious guardian angel.

It is England. This England. [Bogdanov, p.222]

… and as I’m jumping about in all kinds of intertextual ways today, it gives me an opportunity to quote from my favourite Shakespeare burlesque:

“That’s just about land,” said Granny. “It’s not the same as a kingdom. A kingdom is made up of all sorts of things. Ideas. Loyalties. Memories. It all sort of exists together. And then these things create some kind of life. Not a body kind of life, more like a living idea. Made up of everything that’s alive and what they’re thinking. And what the people before them thought. […]

‘it doesn’t care if people are good or bad. I don’t think it could even tell, any more than you could tell if an ant was a good ant. But it expects the king to care for it.” […] “Very much like … a dog doesn’t care if it’s master’s good or bad, just so long as it likes the dog.” [3]

– – –

When he finally arrives, Richard’s spat with his dying Uncle does him little credit.  His ‘clever’ interruption of Gaunt’s rant might recall Richard III cutting in on Margaret in Richard III, but this time there are no laughs.  Sir John Gielgud describes the actor’s task in these early parts of the play:

[the actor playing Richard] must use the early scenes to create an impression of slyness, petty vanity, and callous indifference. [4]

Job done.  I talked a while back about the bad death of Edward IV, and here Shakespeare creates further audience antipathy towards Richard by denouncing Gaunt as a:

‘lunatic lean-witted fool’ (II.i.115)

and leaving the patriotic old man to die off-stage, foaming at the mouth with impotent rage.  But not before planting a significant word in the audience’s ear, twice in the same sentence:

O, had thy grandsire with a prophet’s eye
Seen how his son’s son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame
Deposing thee before thou wert possess’d,
Which art possess’d now to depose thyself.  (II.i.104-108)

My emphasis.  Is this the point at which, to quote Charles R Forker, the audience is asked to contemplate:

the dethronement of an unsuitable monarch by an illegitimate but more able one. [5]

Richard’s name-calling is nothing to the breathtakingly myopic decision to confiscate Bolingbroke’s inheritance.  It prompts a significant, empassioned outburst from Richard’s last surviving uncle:

how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?
Now, afore God—God forbid I say true!—
If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights, […]
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts
And prick my tender patience, to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think. (II.i.198-201, 205-208)

York doesn’t go far enough.  Richard’s father wasn’t even king himself!  He’s on the throne solely through the carefully constructed rules of succession and primogeniture that he’s about to rip up.  What an insanely dangerous precedent to set.  And then to compound it by promptly leaving the country …

This Act sets up such an interesting moral dilemma – the kind that still faces us in daily life.  With relatively little thought you should be able to identify people in powerful positions, either in your personal life or at one remove, in society, who are simply unfit for the role they’re in, regardless of what that might be.  Some are foolish, others malicious.  ‘The rules’ keep them in that position, but don’t provide for them being utterly useless, to the detriment of all.  You could break the rules, but once broken, they stay broken – forever.

The remaining nobles naturally fear that they could be next, verbalising that fear by adding meat to the bones of Gaunt’s speech, and adding to the list of apparent wrongs Richard has committed as King.  But fear not – help, in fact Bolingbroke, who Ross describes as ‘gelded‘, is – suspiciously – close at hand, and seemingly far from having been emasculated:

they stay
The first departing of the king for Ireland.
If then we shall shake off our slavish yoke,
Imp out our drooping country’s broken wing,
Redeem from broking pawn the blemish’d crown,
Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre’s gilt
And make high majesty look like itself, (II.i.289-295)

At some stage we will have to analyse Bolingbroke’s motives.  If we haven’t already, in terms of his feud with Mowbray in Act I.  Now’s as good a time as ever to begin, even if all our sympathy might be with him, exiled, absent at his father’s death, and then disinherited.  Maybe I just dislike him, and his conduct in this and the next two plays.

Or maybe I’ve been reading too much Bogdanov, with his flurries of questions about the texts?  Bolinbroke’s going to profess that all he wants is his title back, but why is he already practically landed in England when his father dies?  Why has he brought so many armed men (three thousand)? What else can Northumberland be talking about above, at the end of scene i, except regime change?

Here’s an example of the kind of sophistry that Machiavelli might applaud, but which makes me heartily dislike Bolingbroke,

As I was banish’d, I was banish’d Hereford; 

But as I come, I come for Lancaster. (II.iii.113-114)

Regime change is inevitable from the moment Richard leaves for Ireland.  His hapless wife (historically just seven years old when she married the twenty-two-year-old king) and his allies, those ‘caterpillars of the commonwealth‘ hear no news of him, thanks to adverse winds (and let’s not forget that these might be classed, in the day, as the same kinds of winds that scattered the Armada).  His Welsh troops wait as long as they can, but disperse in the face of a range of (self-fufilling) omens and portents.

Ironically, act II ends with Richard – who hoped to be late –  actually late, with devastating consequences …


[A] Kate Maltby, ‘There’s Nothing Patriotic About William Blake’s Jerusalem’, The Spectator, 14 January 2016

[1] William Shakespeare, Richard II (Arden Third Edition), ed. Charles R Forker, (Thomson Learning, 2002).  Further references quoted in the body of this article.

[2] Michael Bogdanov, ‘Richard II: the skipping King’, in Shakespeare:  The Director’s Cut (Capapercaillie Books:  Edinburgh, 2005) (p.293). Further references quoted in the body of this article. 222

[3] Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters (Victor Gollancz: London, 1988), np

[4]  Sir John Gielgud, ‘Richard II’, in Introductions to Shakespeare (ed. Charles Ede), (Folio Society:  London, 1977), p.59

[5] Charles R Forker, ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare, Richard II (Arden Third Edition), ed. Charles R Forker, (Thomson Learning, 2002), p.1


Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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