PTS 11/066: Alas, poor Richard …

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings …

bh-hollow-crown-rii-beach.jpg

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.

BH colwyn_bay_postcard_king_richard
Richard’s return to England is commemorated at ‘Colwyn Bay Prom’

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]

BH rupert gravesThis 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? 

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 …


REFERENCES

[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

 

 

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Regular at Shakespeare's notorious tavern; hyperactive English Teacher; Reader; Scrabble Warrior; friend of the Orangutan

2 thoughts on “PTS 11/066: Alas, poor Richard …”

  1. Hello! Richard II is one of my favourite plays; I could go on about it for ages so please forgive this comment.

    “Voyeuristic shame accompanies the compulsion to keep spectating what is usually such a private affair.”

    Hardy is the master of “slow-mo car-crash literature” hahahahahaha. I’m a classicist by nature so watching literary individuals majestically self-destruct is my bread and butter!

    “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’. ”

    Are you enjoying the continuing “unweeded garden” imagery that continues on until Henry V?

    “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?”

    That was just a ruse by Richard though, wasn’t it, since he knew Mowbray would lose? It ties into the general idea of him having kingly authority and an appearance which is (pardon me) hollow…

    One of the things I like about this play is that it’s so ambiguous, so you can play Bolingbroke as a man who is just taking things step by step, with a certain amount of reluctance, and just getting in over his head as the public increasingly supports him…or he can be a stone cold schemer from the beginning. I like how he has so few lines compared to Richard; they are such perfect foils.

    “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.”

    Well, the Queen in this play is a mashup because Richard’s original Queen wasn’t alive then and his current wife was 10 or so. I can’t remember my historical readings right now but I think it was pretty standard ploy to claim that the monarch was good but “flatterers” were corrupting him…wasn’t that something with Elizabeth I as well?

    “Painting Bolingbroke in such a black light as this scene does, my next question was why insert it at all?”

    I think it was to contrast him as a man of action with Richard who in the next scene says A LOT OF WORDS but is more or less ineffectual…I feel like he’s an updated version of Henry VI except that Henry was ineffectual because he was just too nice, while Richard is much more complicated.

    “(despite the fact that weirdly, no-one knew where he was, or if he was even alive).”

    The thing that confuses me that most about this scene is that he went to Ireland with an army, but where is that army?The historical record didn’t help me either…in one source I read, he was with the army and then just RAN AWAY by himself for NO REASON.

    “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”

    Nice description from Gielgud!

    “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. ”

    Yes this scene is great. The repeated attempts of the other characters to get him to “man up” seem to suggest that we are supposed to see him as weak and yet he is so pathetic (in the true sense) and has such charismatic speeches that he ends up being the most convincing in his ranting somehow while the other characters are like cardboard cutouts.

    “Not all the water in the rough rude sea
    Can wash the balm off from an anointed king (III.ii.54-55)”

    I greatly enjoy how this links to the “with mine own hands” part in IV….

    “Far better that than those attention-seeking social media posts which consist of a sad-faced emoji, surely?

    Surely? ”

    HAHAH YOU MADE ME IMAGINE RICHARD II POSTING one of those “had a bad day don’t ask me about it” things

    “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’. ”

    But thanks to Richard’s wild mood swings, he’s soon up in his imaginary kingship bubble again…I like how he retains that quality, even in the last speech with the “king to beggar” bit…

    “How this might have touched Elizabeth I, we can only conjecture. But the play did, obviously, poke at a blind spot.”

    I’m sure she was thrilled

    “Bolingbroke’s irresistible force and the immovable object of Richard’s divine right meet in the next scene …”

    I ALWAYS THINK THIS TOO HAHAHA
    “Be he the fire, I’ll be the yielding water:
    The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain.
    My waters; on the earth, and not on him”

    YES!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thanks for such a great comment: it’s wonderful to find a kindred spirit who likes Richard II as much as me. I try to limit myself to 1,000-ish words per post, but for this Act, there was no way that was going to happen. There’s simply too much going on!

      Now that you mention it, I’m not sure, either, how he ends up returning from Ireland without troops. I’m going to conjecture that he went more to bolster the existing effort with Gaunt’s money and his divine presence than men, and that he had to leave his army there to continue to deal with those rough-headed kerns? I’m going to try and find out a bit more. I’ve got a copy of Holinshed at home, so when I get a sec, I’ll see what I can find, and if there’s anything, I’ll let you know.

      I spent a bit of time on the last two scenes of the act today. I think I want to ask questions about whose fault it is that Richard loses his kinship, based on scene 3. One of the quotations I definitely had in mind was the one you used, think about the pun on ‘rain’, of course … 🙂 tonight I’m marking schoolwork as quickly as I can so that I can free up some time to get back to blogging.

      Thanks again – I enjoyed hearing from you!

      Like

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