I agree with Gil that the pageantry in Richard II goes a long way toward making up for what could otherwise seem talky inaction (but it ain’t; the poetry is so wonderful). I do find myself wondering, in I.iii, how Richard moves from what must surely be the upper stage (where he is set to watch and, possibly, judge the duel) to the lower stage, where he (one would assume) holds out his sword for the two contestants to swear upon (I.iii.179)—but that is a small thing.
Actually, I think this play has a terrific beginning. There is none of the lengthy exposition that opens A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. (Midsummer Night's Dream also starts with people with complaints coming before a ruler to get things straightened out.) In Richard II, wham! and you are in the middle of a fight.
Shakespeare did an impressive job in developing Shylock, but the care he spends on thinking through Richard’s character (and, to some extent, Northumberland’s and Bolingbroke’s) is impressive. They are much more richly developed than any earlier characters I can think of.
The other thing Richard II does brilliantly is to lay open the disconnect between politicians’ words and their actions. Anyone in the contemporary audience would know that Mowbray worked for Richard and helped further the latter’s desires to free himself of his uncles’ control—especially the control of “Woodstock,” the nickname given the Duke of Gloucester (not the well-known little town northwest of Kingston).
Bolingbroke seems calculating from the start. He has pointed out the elephant in the room (or should I use the emperor-has-no clothes metaphor?). The big question is: does Bolingbroke place his challenge because he wants something (Richard’s embarrassment? The Crown?), or is it simply his nature to be prickly-“honest”? (Sometimes it’s good to be a “plain, blunt” fellow (like Kent’s “Gaius” in King Lear.) But more often it’s not—as in some malcontent characters I’ve studied. Betty has a sister who prides herself in her own frankness, worshipping the impractical god of ”practicality,” and hurting/judging people left and right.
I will also note here the uneven nature of parts of the play—most especially the old-style rhymed couplets that appear from time to time,and the miserably corny scene (V.iii) regarding Aumerle’s possible punishment. Some suggest that these show an earlier version of the play,one which Shakespeare wrote or from which he borrowed.
Finally, a brief note on diction: (A) The stately, dark-vowel-rich language that opens the play (Midsummer Night's Dream uses the same device); (B) the magnificent way Gaunt’s “This royal throne of Kings” (II.i.40-67) speech builds to “IS ALL LEASED OUT.” George Bush should have read this long ago.
Some central, if unanswerable questions:
1. With whom are we meant to sympathize—Richard or Bolingbroke.
2. Does Bolingbroke have long-range plans?
3. Is George Bush more the usurper or more the self-dramatist? In short, is this play a reflection of our own political times? Who is today’s Duke of York?
4. Does Richard have any choice but to banish Mowbray (a duke, after all) for life? Is Bolingbroke really (and perhaps ignorantly) in control from the get-go?
5. To what extent can this play be seen as a commentary on the Renaissance’s freeing of humans from the constraints of medieval codes?
Who’s to blame, or are such ripping-aparts of older structures inevitable (or built into 2000-year cycles, as with Yeats)? [Or, in the last century (1937) as von Rauffenstein muses in The Grand Illusion, “UnMaréchal? Un Rosenthal?”]
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