An emerging theme in my reading – and teaching – is the notion of being careful what you wish for. For too many, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ is ephemeral, evaporating once a goal is achieved. To others, it is an insatiable addiction. What links both is the outcome: unhappiness and deep satisfaction – the former cannot easily retain their newly won goal; the latter need another, greater fix of achievement.
After Richard’s ‘unnecessary’ capitulation in Act III, we get an almost farcical comic interlude, which neatly summarises that Bolingbroke is far from England’s panacea. If a revolution has taken place, we do, indeed (like Orwell’s animals of Manor Farm) find ourselves back where we started.
Gloves. Like more errant versions of socks, really – once you really need them, you almost always find you’ve lost one, right?
On the page, Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s quarrel is recreated as, indeed, farce. I had to sketch it out …
Aumerle reminds me of D’Artagnan here: engaged in a series of duels that he is highly unlikely to survive. The chaos, accusation and counter-accusation result in Aumerle’s grimly funny request to borrow a gage: if only he’d had three hands. I can imagine gage and glove-makers (ahem) rubbing their hands at the storm of hand-apparel that is ‘gagefest’. Of course, the message is also more serious. Now, the moment of regime change, is the perfect opportunity to settle scores and jockey for position under the new fellow.
Norfolk gets the glorious end which, to an extent, makes up for his harsh treatment by Richard at the play’s opening. Being highly suspicious of Bolingbroke, as you might have gleaned by now, I wonder whether he has already received intelligence of his erstwhile opponent’s demise by the time he speaks so fairly of him. Even Charles R Forker asks whether Bolingbroke’s surprise is ‘feigned or genuine.’ Nothing would surprise me.
This is, though, just an aperitif, an amuse-bouche preceding the main courses of action.
We get our starter proper in the Bishop of Carlisle’s outburst. In EMP drama it’s almost a staple in the scoundrel’s toolkit to appropriate God’s authority, as Henry (I suppose we better start calling him that now) attempts to do:
‘In God’s name I’ll ascend the regal throne.’ (IV.i.114)
However I am firmly with Carlisle, echoing Gaunt’s earlier understanding that for good or ill the country is built on the divine right of kings at this stage:
‘What subject can give sentence on his king?
And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject?’ (IV.i.122-123)
This, of course, is the point at which we understand that this usurpation isn’t just an offence against Richard, but against God Almighty – one which the country is going to have to pay for (in the Old Testament way) with generations of civil unrest. It is also handy propoganda if you are a Tudor, to believe that it was Good Queen Bess’s family who put an end to all this misery. Either way, the prophetic Carlisle (and who in Shakespeare EVER makes a prophecy that doesn’t come true?) is ruthlessly squashed like a bug by Northumberland. It’s something I would have liked to remind him of, in about two to three Acts’ time in the History cycle.
At what stage does our sympathy for Richard begin to outweigh our distaste at his petulance? Really put yourself in the assembly of good and great, as he arrives here, and I dare you to meet Richard’s eyes as he asks:
Yet I well remember
The favours of these men. Were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry ‘All hail’ to me? (IV.i.168-170)
His next salvo is devastating to those on stage, I think:
‘So Judas did to Christ, but He in twelve
Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none’. (IV.i.171-172)
You ought to be busy looking at the ground and shuffling your feet, not scorning Richard for his self-identification with Jesus – he was, once, universally accepted as God’s deputy on earth. Further, I’d suggest, you ought to reflect on the transience of loyalty, if you are ‘Henry, of that name the fourth’. (IV.i.113)
No, really, who can deny Richard his performance? Not me – the cynical, socialist, republican-minded, catholic-turned-agnostic that I am. As a man, he was ‘unfit for state and majesty’, but nevertheless forced into a role who’s job description was imposed by everyone else. Richard is a prisoner from the moment he is crowned. The only precedent for abandoning his duty, Edward II, can never have been an appealing prospect.
So Richard, in many ways the master of spectacle, gives us something we will never otherwise see – the most vivid demonstration of the transfer of power, with two hands simultaneously gripping the crown that only one head can wear. Here we have the power of beauty versus the beauty of power (as soon as I coined that phrase I realised I’d been reading too many old critical textbooks, but I’ll leave it there). Richard is lyrically majestic; Henry is majestically blunt:
‘Are you contented to resign the crown?’ (IV.i.200)
Despite identifying with the ultimate martyr earlier on, I’m not sure that Richard has an appetite for the role. Relinquishing the crown is like giving up the simple fight to stay alive every day (eros vs thanatos?), or letting go of someone you love, be that a failed relationship or the ‘significant goodbye’, Toy Story 3-style, of a child leaving the nest:
‘Ay, no. No, ay’ (IV.i.201)
Richard needs momentum to carry it through: my Arden has an eight-line sentence for him to deal with the enormity of letting go.
Back to Northumberland: he appears to take a special pleasure in the Richard’s pain: here I agree with Forker’s glossing of his demands that Richard verbalise his supposed crimes with the words ‘ugly’ and ‘humiliation’. Were it not for my admiration for Harry Percy, I’d cheer the pain Henry’s usurpation eventually causes Northumberland. Richard tries to deliver a telling blow in reminding the Earl of his own scorecard:
‘There shouldst thou find one heinous article
Containing the deposing of a king
And cracking the strong warrant of an oath,
Marked with a blot, damned in the book of heaven. (IV.i.233-236)
It’s no use: Northumberland is utterly implacable in the face of Richard’s torment. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about him when I reach 1 Henry IV having read the plays with some semblance of order. Be careful what you wish for, Northumberland, as I mentioned earlier!
Our deposed king finally asks for the famous mirror and looks at himself instead of everyone else. Yes, of course Richard is histrionic, and theatrical, and cloying, and narcissistic. He’s also poignant and beautifully lyric. Who can deny a man this, in this situation? Even Henry mostly hears him out. This section reminds me most of Lear’s journey, of that turning away from the institution to the human; we began to see this when he returned from Ireland to be subjected to the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’ And many of the differences are, I believe, differences in age between these two characters.
Do you have your Team Richard T-shirts on yet, kids?
William Shakespeare, Richard II (Arden Third Edition, ed. Charles R Forker), (Thomson Learning: London, 2005)