For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.
The last, of two, production of Richard II I saw was at Ashland, Oregon, on the Elizabethan Stage which is outdoors, on the site of a quondam Chatauqua Circle. It was a quality production, no gimmicks, an eloquent and poetic Richard, but the most memorable aspects were two. First, the Ashland director was committed to color-blind casting, but the acting was good enough that it only took me five minutes to forget that first cousins Richard and Bolingbroke were played by actors of different races. (The next season Ashland cast a couple of their gifted leading actresses in minor male parts, Peter Quince in Midsummer Night's Dream and Crabtree in School for Scandal and they were awful, so bad they warped the texture of both plays).
Second, it rained throughout the evening so it was played in rehearsal clothes so as not to spoil the costumes, and they cut out some planned acrobatics or dancing, something to do with the luxury of Richard’s court. But most memorable, despite the rain, they still laid Richard’s corpse out on a bier (there’s a word I’ve never had to spell before) in Act 5.vi, and the actor lay stone still while his eye sockets filled with rainwater. There must be some sort of award for that.
Though Randall has noted how little action we find in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, only the trial by combat in Act 1 and the fight then murder of Richard in prison in Act 5, he misses one significant action. In Act 3.iii,. “s.d. The trumpets sound. Richard appeareth on the walls” of Flint Castle in Wales, and Bolingbroke exclaims:
"See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the east,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident"(3.iii.62-67),
a passage so richly imaged that his uncle York has to translate, “Yet looks he like a king!” Northumberland ascends to the balcony (“on the walls”) as representative of Bolingbroke, returns to the courtyard with the king’s offer to rescind banishment and restore the Lancastrian lands, then again meets Richard on the walls: “My lord, in the base court he [Bolingbroke] doth attend/ To speak with you, may it please you to come down” (3.iii.276-77), which sets off Richard, who has zig-zagged wildly between exultation and despair throughout the scene:
Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaeton,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitor’s calls and do them grace.
In the base court, come down? Down court! Down king!
For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing. [s.d. exeunt above] (3.iii.78-83)
Followed by [s.d. Enter King Richard and his Attendants below].
I realize that, when I promised action, you hoped I’d point out some version of Hamlet in Ophelia’s grave, or maybe the Queen and the Gardener demonstrating a bed of roses could be more than a metaphor, but I offer instead King Richard coming down from the battlements to the base court below as the crucial action in English history. God’s anointed, the highest earthly link in the Great Chain of Being, submits himself to the current of history, submits to power --“Well you deserve; they well deserve to have/ That know the strong’st and surest way to get…/ What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too,/ For do we must what force will have us do.”
There is nonetheless a huge movement. Here we are again astride my hobbyhorse (that’s from cheval to hors, Randall), opening in a culture which seems to adhere to the code of chivalry (medieval, feudal) and which exits with raw power (real politique we called it in Richard III) or what might be called bourgeois capitalism (how often does Bolingbroke refer or defer to “the commons”?). When I saw that wet production at Ashland, I didn’t know the play well (I only taught it once, and that was in my very last semester), and I was impatient to establish contexts, so we could cut to the deposition and get inside for a very dry martini. Instead there is matched accusation of treason between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, all quite formal, then rescheduled for trial by combat in the lists at Coventry. Extremely formal code for introductions and accusations, then “co-fightus interruptus” indeed, the joust stopped, really curious, with the two combatants both sent into exile. I wondered what this was about, and indeed Mowbray never appears again, but dies somewhere in France.
But reading the play now, what strikes me most forcibly is that very formality of the code. Act 1 illustrates perfectly the chivalric code of medieval England, and Richard, as whimsical as he appears on the surface, is the code keeper. So when he “comes down” at Flint Castle this symbolic sun is darkened forever. We will only see it again, and then in romantic self-delusion, when Harry Percy, called Hotspur, will burn, and burn out, across the battlefields at Shrewsbury.
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