Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Source of book: I own the complete Shakespeare

What does it mean to be a true leader? How does one survive as a politician in turbulent times? Can’t we just hate the French and the Italians? Richard the Second manages to discover all of the wrong answers to these questions. Even the one about the French.

Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s histories, and part of a set of four which tell the tale of the English nation before the War of the Roses. Oddly, Richard II seems to be the forgotten member of the series, despite its many memorable lines and thoughtful political commentary. Richard’s throne is, of course, usurped by Henry of Bolingbroke, later known as Henry IV. Although the next play in the series is Henry IV, Part 1, it is really more the story of Prince Harry and Falstaff, that unforgettable duo. In fact, those two were so popular that Shakespeare wrote Part 2 as a thinly veiled ruse to milk some more box office out of his stars. Perhaps one of the very first sequels. The final installment was Henry V, which is rightfully popular. The dissolute Harry has grown up, and becomes the ideal warrior-king of mythology, dealing the hated Frenchmen a decisive defeat.

But what of the time before? Richard II was the grandson of Edward III, and the son of Edward the Black Prince. He came to the throne as a child, and had barely thrown off the domination of his uncles when the play opens. As usual for this period, there is political foment, and nobody’s head is truly safe. 

Richard II. Portrait c. 1390, in Westminster Abbey


Henry Bolingbroke (who is also Richard’s cousin) has picked a fight with Mobray over responsibility for the death of another of Richard’s uncles. Richard fails to take decisive action, allowing the two to set a date for a duel. Then, at the last minute, he calls it off in dramatic fashion, and exiles both of the contestants. Soon afterward, he decides to go to Ireland to try to subdue the rebels there. (I could spend days discussing the politics of all this. It really is fascinating.) He needs money - a problem that has plagued kings since the dawn of time. He sees an opportunity in the fact that his uncle John of Gaunt, also Bolingbroke’s father, has recently died. Gaunt is the wealthiest man in England, and Bolingbroke is exiled. Those estates are tempting to Richard, and he seizes them, despite a lack of a legal right to do so. This understandably irritates the other barons, as they can see targets on their own possessions now.

Bolingbroke returns to England while Richard is off in Ireland, and wins the loyalty of many of the aristocracy. Richard timidly delays his return to England, which leads to the disbursement of his army. He is forced to surrender to Bolingbroke, eventually abdicates the throne, and is whacked. So much for the plot. (Since the actual history occurred, it hardly seems like a spoiler to reveal the ending.)

As in the other histories, Shakespeare does alter the historical facts. In general, he compresses time, so that the events of a year or two occur in a short space, in order to make the events more dramatic. To this end, he also alters the relative ages of characters to suit the needs of the play. (For example, the queen in Richard II is understandably portrayed as a grown woman. In reality, she was a mere ten years old: she was married to Richard at the ripe age of seven.) These all make dramatic sense. His other alterations reflected political concerns. In general, he made the ancestors of the present rulers look better and their enemies look worse. Thus, Henry IV, the direct ancestor of Elizabeth I, must be made to look noble, while Richard must incite boos from the gallery.

Richard II contains some marvelously memorable lines. I think it is a shame that it seems to be infrequently performed.

The dispute which starts the whole thing off is, of course, political at its root. However, a strong factor is the concept of honor. A man in those days could not simply let an accusation roll off his back. He must defend that honor by bloodshed.

King Richard II. Rage must be withstood:
Give me his gage: lions make leopards tame.

Thomas Mowbray. Yea, but not change his spots: take but my shame.
And I resign my gage. My dear dear lord,
The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation: that away,
Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.
A jewel in a ten-times-barr'd-up chest
Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.
Mine honour is my life; both grow in one:
Take honour from me, and my life is done:
Then, dear my liege, mine honour let me try;
In that I live and for that will I die.

But, one must never forget the political considerations. This was not yet the days of Charles I and the “Divine Right of Kings.” A king must maintain a certain popularity with the nobility, lest they use their superior power to oppose him. He must not alienate the Church. And, since the nobles were largely on the other side, a king must maintain a combination of awe and love from the common people, who, after all, would be the actual foot soldiers in a war. Thus, as Bolingbroke plots his takeover, he must make enough friends in all of these classes to support his rule, or he will be likely to topple himself in turn.

King Richard II. He is our cousin, cousin; but 'tis doubt,
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green
Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As 'twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With 'Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends;'
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope.

Shakespeare is playing to his audience, of course. A combination of the aristocracy and the commons attended his plays, and he, like a king, needed to satisfy everyone if he wanted to make a profit.

Another great speech is that of the dying John of Gaunt, as he hopes to persuade Richard to take a less imperious course.

John of Gaunt. Will the king come, that I may breathe my last
In wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth?

Edmund of Langley. Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath;
For all in vain comes counsel to his ear.

John of Gaunt. O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listen'd more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;
More are men's ends mark'd than their lives before:
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:
Though Richard my life's counsel would not hear,
My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.

Gaunt goes on to wax eloquent about England. This is probably the best known quote from the play, and it is a good one.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

[Ignore for the moment the bit of anti-Semitism and the usual belief of the old and dying that the young folks have destroyed the country. It’s still beautiful.]

Gaunt is not the only one to appeal to the idea of England. Richard too invokes the land itself as his ally in his fight for his throne.

King Richard II. Needs must I like it well: 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.
Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense;
But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom,
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet
Which with usurping steps do trample thee:
Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies;
And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign's enemies.
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.

Ultimately, Richard is a tragic hero. His fatal flaw is his lack of true ability to lead. At first, he throws his authority around, heedless of the consequences, believing himself to be untouchable. Later, when he might still preserve his crown by decisive action, he delays, and feels sorry for himself. His moanings are delightfully poetic, but they are more suited to a powerless poet or prisoner, not the rightful king of England. The times call for him to rise above petty selfishness and become something greater than a mere self, and he is unable to do so. Thus, he fails, and England embarks on a journey that will ultimately lead to the assent of Parliament to the leadership of the nation. But not until centuries of bloodshed, infighting, and the religious and social upheaval of the Renaissance and the Reformation have changed the land forever.

One final note: There are many great resources that can aid in a deeper understanding of Shakespeare, and I have mentioned them before. Once again, I want to specifically mention Isaac Asimov’s brilliant Guide to Shakespeare. He clearly and wittily explains all of the historical and literary references, and ties things together wonderfully. I started with some traditional historical information sources, but ended up learning and understanding more from Asimov in the end. I highly recommend this book as a companion to the works of Shakespeare.

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