Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Richard II - Opening Remarks

Most noble lieges,

I'm not sure really where to start with this one. When I was 15, I saw BBC's production on TV, part of its "Complete Works of William Shakespeare" series. It starred Derek Jacobi as Richard, Jon Finch as Bolingbroke, and John Gielgud as John of Gaunt. I remember it being very, very talky.

Reading it, I am impressed with the language, so much of it beautifully crafted, elevated, and carefully distinguishable between characters. Richard's flowery language is not like Bolingbroke's proud metaphor is not like Gaunt's aphoristic wisdom. But it is still talky. Gaunt, for example, seems to repeat everything three times. Hamlet is a long play, full of speeches ("words, words, words"), but you've got sword fights, a guy leaping into a grave to make out with a dead girl, creepy ghosts, manslaughter (oops), a morbid play within a morbid play, insanity, faux insanity, pirates (sort of), and unrequited love. Richard II has two moments of action – the first, a joust-to-the-death between Mowbray and Bolingbroke which Richard halts before it begins (co-fightus interruptus!) and the second, when Richard takes out a couple of assassins before Exton delivers the death blow. Other than that the whole thing is like a rather long cocktail party which, as the participants' tongues become loosened with alcohol, devolves to petty jealousies, malevolent posturing, and increasing flights of verbal fancy. So I wonder what Shakespeare thought would be the attraction of nobles standing around for two and a half hours, talking?

To step back a minute from narrative expectation, I could say that maybe this is a play about language. But I don't think it is. It is a play, mostly, about the deposition of a king, something that is not really achieved through mere talk. Perhaps this is the attraction – in a world where people believe in rule by divine right, deposition is a frightening thing. In this light, we might see Richard II as a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the horror is all in the threat and implication and very little in actual violence. Graham Holderness points out that Act 4, the deposition scene, was "apparently censored in its Elizabethan performances and in the earliest printed texts. Evidently the spectacle of a monarch voluntarily resigning the crown was thought to be matter too dangerous to be represented on the Elizabethan stage" (Penguin Critical Studies: Richard II, 11). So Richard's and Gaunt's and Bolingbroke's and York's and the Queen's speeches are all a product of people grappling with what deposition means, its horror.

The Elizabethan audience would have been intimately familiar with its implications: one hundred plus years of political unrest (neatly chronicled by Shakespeare in the two tetralogies). Even in this, the first play of the second group, Shakespeare includes plenty of foreshadowing of the result of Richard's deposition, from the specific (setting the scene for 1 Henry IV):

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is, ere foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption. (5.1.55-59)

to the general (setting the scene for everything through Richard III):

Ah, Richard! With the eyes of heavy mind
I see thy glory like a shooting star
Fall to the base earth from the firmament;
Thy sun sets weeping in the lowly west,
Witnessing storms to come, woe and unrest. (2.4.18-22)

So what do we make of this brilliant language, not yet in the service of strong narrative? (I want to head off the 'well, it's a history play' rejoinder by pointing out that the play is entitled The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, and so I think we are within our rights to expect an engaging structure.) And if you want to dig deeper in the language, there are a lot of couplets here, but they come with the suggestion that such versification is a bit, well, effeminate. I love Mowbray's shot at Bolingbroke: "'Tis not the trial of a woman's war, / The bitter clamor of two eager tongues, / Can arbitrate this cause betwixt us twain" (1.1.48-50). What is Shakespeare's take on language in this play, which seems at once elevated and criticized?

I've also mentioned "tongues" now twice. They seem a persistent image throughout the play. What's with that?

Finally, in teaching a history play (1 Henry IV) this year, I felt myself drawn to the consideration of the play as a metaphor for modern times. Does Richard II offer us any solace, warning, expiation, insight for our own political theater? Does the disturbing deposition of Richard remind us of the sturm und drang of Clinton's impeachment? Does Ross's comment about Richard, "The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes / And quite lost their hearts. The nobles hath he fined / For ancient quarrels and quite lost their hearts" (2.1.246-248) have any echo in Bush's abysmal approval ratings?

I suppose, it's time to end our repose, and expose our thoughts on what it means to depose. Who knows?


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