PTS read-through: Richard II, act III (part ONE)
Witnessing the utter disintegration of a human being – even a fictional one – is, I’d suggest, an uneasy, distressing experience. And yet …
Voyeuristic shame accompanies the compulsion to keep spectating what is usually such a private affair. My first experience of this type of slow-mo car-crash literature was Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, when I was about 12. It scarred me – I’ve never quite been able to revisit Michael Henchard’s self-induced immolation; it also, I think, gave me my first seductive bittersweet taste of tragedy. Like that initial stolen underage drink, whilst I wasn’t quite sure I liked it, I wanted another – just to be certain.
Richard’s collapse is the most devastatingly beautiful in Shakespeare, perhaps in the wider canon: it begins here, spanning three poignant acts.
First, however, we return to Bolingbroke. If we had our doubts about him before, they’re surely confirmed by the extra-judicial executions of the ‘caterpillars of the commonwealth’. Where is the due process afforded him by Richard as the play opens? Where is the evidence? From where does he derive his authority to act as judge and jury? Machiavelli would approve of this pragmatic proactivity, and of the way in which the usurper attempts to veneer his actions with quasi-legality:
To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and a religious man.[a]
My emphasis. Both Richard and Bolingbroke are aware of the importance of appearances in the play. But Bolingbroke is – again – setting dangerous precedents for his own future.
If one allegation especially sticks in my craw, it’s this one:
Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him,
Broke the possession of a royal bed
And stained the beauty of a fair queen’s cheeks
With tears drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs. (III.i.12-15) [b]
Whilst of course I welcome correction, there’s nothing I can find in the play, nor in any historical research I’ve done so far, to support this insinuation that Richard took them as lovers. Nor does the play suggest any schism between Richard and his young wife – pretty much the opposite, in fact. The historical record is one of a close relationship, despite the age difference between them.
Painting Bolingbroke in such a black light as this scene does, my next question was why insert it at all? With my stagecraft goggles on, it gives the actor playing Richard a short preparatory break before things get ‘intense’. Otherwise, what I think it does – for the audience – is add an element of poignant dramatic irony to Richard’s denunciation of his favourites when he mistakenly believes they have betrayed him. More on that later.
Richard lands in Wales (not far from my second home[c]), and Shakespeare channels again that personification of the kingdom.
I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses’ hoofs.
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So, weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favours with my royal hands. (III.ii.4-11)
It’s a tender reunion, but short-lived, because Richard is patently aware of Bolingbroke’s progress (despite the fact that weirdly, no-one knew where he was, or if he was even alive). Remarkably to the onlookers, he calls upon the kingdom to rid itself of the parasite:
Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords.
This earth shall have a feeling and these stones
Prove armed soldiers, ere her native king
Shall falter under foul rebellion’s arms. (III.ii.23-26)
The inference is that an injury to the king is an injury to the country. If we go back a bit, we’ll see that the nobles believe otherwise. This summons might work in Terry Pratchett‘s kingdom of Lancre [d], as I considered in Act II but this is England.
In short order Richard is pummelled by a concatenation of bad news, starting with the realisation that he was just a day late for his superstitious Welsh allies. How does the king react? John Gielgud suggests:
It is not until after his return from Ireland, almost half way through the play, that his inner character begins to be developed by the dramatist in a series of exquisite cadenzas and variations. In these later speeches the subtleties of his speeches are capable of endless shades and nuances [e]
This is the point at which Richard begins to emerge as the most complex, developed, three-dimensional individual I’ve come across so far in the Pony Tail Shakespeare read-through. Others follow, of course, but at this stage in Shakespeare’s career, no other character is as human. Uncontrollably, Richard oscillates between histrionics, pathos, pride, despair, anger and fatalism. It’s a real feat of writing, and indeed of acting. At this point I want/need to give a shout-out to Rupert Graves (yes, of Sherlock fame), who doesn’t miss a note of this symphony of emotions in the superb Arkangel audio version that’s my go-to production.
Speaking of arkangels, Richard believes they will fight for him. There’s a growing chasm between Richard’s theoretically-based notions about how heaven will support its representative, and the reality that (Agincourt aside), the age of ‘miracles are ceased’ [f]. He feels secure, but with a borrowed puissance:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king (III.ii.54-55)
… and begins a series of self-identifications with the sun. George Wilson Knight comments that:
Richard II, careless of responsibility, trusts in his idealized kingship without recognizing that he himself is no king: hence his fall. [g]
The news sinks in slowly but surely, as he is systematically bereft of every earthly ally he might have depended on when he left for Ireland. As I suggested above, scene i sets up the most poignant loss of all:
King Richard: I warrant they have made peace with Bolingbroke.
Scroop: Peace they have made with him indeed, my lord.
King Richard: O villains, vipers, damned without redemption!
Dogs easily won to fawn on any man!
Snakes, in my heart-blood warm’d, that sting my heart!
Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas! (III.ii.127-132)
Check out those furious, raving exclamation marks! Erm, just a minute, your majesty …
Richard’s fatalism won’t be to everyone’s taste. Some might call it wallowing. They should be more patient, like the girlfriend who once told me that depressives ought to ‘get a grip’: if you’re going to verbalise your despair, you ought to do it ‘rhetorically’, in an aesthetically-attractive way. Far better that than those attention-seeking social media posts which consist of a sad-faced emoji, surely?
Richard’s rightly famous and highly quotable ‘hollow crown’ speech on hearing on the death of his favourites is wonderfully luxurious in its sorrow. I use:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings (III.ii.155-156)
quite a bit when I’m indulging a low mood, aware of the way in which Shakespeare uses physical height, the proximity or otherwise to heaven. But the key quotation arrives at the end of the speech:
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king? (III.ii.174-177)
The pun on the verb ‘subjected’ is inescapable, and gloriously sad. Here, I see the depths of Lear’s anagnorisis; the awful, undeniable argument that Shylock makes; Bolingbroke’s insomniac ponderings; and his son’s eve-of-battle arguments. They all identify with the ‘ordinary mortal’. The play (like Marlowe’s Edward II) interrogates the conflict between body politic and body natural; between duty and desire; between medieval morality and Machiavellian expediency. How this might have touched Elizabeth I, we can only conjecture. But the play did, obviously, poke at a blind spot.
Bolingbroke’s irresistible force and the immovable object of Richard’s divine right meet in the next scene …
[a] Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince, (transl. George Bull, ed. Anthony Grafton), (Penguin Classics: London, 2003). e-book ISBN: 9780141912004
[b] William Shakespeare, King Richard II (Arden Third Edition), ed. Charles R Forker, (Thomson Learning: London, 2002). Further references quoted in the body of this article.
[c] History Points, ‘Penmaen Head‘, accessed 15 April 2018
[d] Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters (Victor Gollancz: London, 1988)
[e] Sir John Gielgud, ‘Richard II’, in Introductions to Shakespeare (ed. Charles Ede), (Folio Society: London, 1977), p.59
[f] William Shakespeare, King Henry V (Arden Third Edition), ed. TW Craik, (Methuen Drama: London, 1995), I.i.67
[g] G Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme, (Methuen: London, 1985), p.7