Monday, July 23, 2007

RE: Rhetorical Richard II and History Plays

I am humbled and inspired by Gil's eloquence. I am indebted to him for his vision of this as a play containing a romantic element. I had not seen it before his post.

I have to now confess to an odd response I am having to these plays. Romeo and Juliet set me reflecting on the Old Norse story of the wooing of Gerd. The gods are in mortal battle with the giants, yet Njorthr, the sea god,falls in love with and woos Gerd, a mountain giant. (One happy outcome of their marriage is the invention of the sport of skiing, as a means of rapid transit between their two abodes.)

This story, according to many scholars (including that Anglo-Saxonist famous for his popular story telling, Tolkien), is reflected in the story of Ingeld and Freawaru, referred to in the Beowulf. Desires across irreconcilable boundaries are a deep part of the spirit and lore of the North (and of my life). I know there are many sources identified for this tale, most of them from the Romance languages, but I think an old Northern theme reverberates here as well.

As I am preparing now to teach something of the Arthurian tradition this fall, I am keenly aware of the tradition of the threat to kingship when the king is away fighting foreign wars. (What an advantage to our current "king"George that the tradition no longer holds that the king must accompany his soldiers in foreign wars.)

In the two versions I am working with (the metrical and alliterative Middle English "Morte D'Arthur"s), the king is away on foreign expeditions (to fight Lancelot or the Roman Emperor Lucius, respectively) when the regent at home (Mordred) decides to usurp the queen's bed and the throne (equivalent?).This story seems to supply the essential plot line of our play. Are there other overt or covert references to that most English (yet most un-Anglo-Saxon) of stories – Arthur and his knights – in Shakespeare? If not,why not?

Forgive me for again seeing a striking connection between ancient story and early modern dramatic representation. I think Will is drawing on some pretty deep wells in both cases. The yet deeper issue of the legitimacy of kings (or of any authority) is, of course, implied in both stories. What makes rule legitimate? What makes it illegitimate? These are deep and lasting questions for any society…why do we docilely accept the legitimacy of a 'ruler' who did not win the majority, nor even the peculiar electoral college in his first "election" while he drags us into a futile and fruitless, illegal war?

Enough mythopeia and realpolitik for one e-mail.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rhetorical Richard II and History Plays

Shakespeare as a master organizer of materials—in speeches, in scenes, in arrangement of scenes. Then he makes it harder and harder to hold it all together inside a structure of which he is the master ironist (e.g., making such things as Richard II’s deposition evanescent; giving Falstaff a role that potentially unbalances the politics of Hal and his father; making the villain Shylock “sympathetic”). Eventually, it all blows up, starting in Hamlet, where the master ironist leaves and the hero is set loose to decide his and his play’s motions and outcomes.

Ernst has said Shakespeare is writing a [second] series of history plays, and I agree, though I don’t think he sat down in some ur-Starbucks in Scotland and outlined the plots of the four Lancastrian plays on a napkin, as the myth of JK Rowling and Harry Potter asserts. Certainly there is “intertextuality” and projection; for instance, an almost gratuitous appearance of someone named Henry Percy in Richard II, and the insistence on the stain against order that must be punished even generations afterward, which is created by the usurpation of Richard II’s throne. This latter is even a motif in the earlier tetralogy, as we follow the anti-Henry V, his son Henry VI, to decadence and doom, then the apocalyptic scourge, Richard III, followed ironically with Justice for England’s wound with the rise of Tudor Henry VII (ironically, in that Richmond as Henry VII has less legitimate claim to succession than did Henry Herford called Bolingbroke to become Henry IV).

When I prepared for my swan song Shakespeare course, I spent a summer in the Northwest trying to think anew the plays before 1603, Hamlet. I read and read around and talked at length with my friend Roger Sale, and so I started my thirty-third University course with Richard III, Richard II, Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, Henry V, and Julius Caesar. This summer, as I sit here back in Washington, I cannot seem to remember whatever wonderful bridge I had in mind, other than a memory that the students did not carry me triumphantly through the halls of academe. I do remember intending to follow the Lancastrian histories with Julius Caesar, lined up “as if” history was of the linear Lancastrian sort, then rattling the cage by suggesting Shakespeare could write Hamlet-like tragedies with Brutus and Cassius as central figures. Richard III would be the last of the “circular” histories, rise and inevitable fall.

My memory of discussions with Sale recalls the pattern of the Henry VI plays as simple inexorableness. Remember the rise and fall of powerful figures: Lord Talbot (part 1); Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and the commoner Jack Cade (part 2); Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (part 3); and finally, gloriously, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, crook-backed Dick himself. They rise, they flourish, they are killed, and the pattern of history does not stop. Sale says that what is important here is not so much that one enjoy the pattern, or that Shakespeare has developed an interesting idea of history, but that we feel the pattern and so feel that the characters are placed and caught in it, controlled by history.

A real chronological confusion that I mentioned in my last posting is that the historical reigns in these earlier plays follow the age of Richard II, but the composition of the Lancastrian plays and my reading of them comes after. And the new point is that Richard himself is an enigma, God’s anointed King, but vacillating (zig-zag), petulant, petty, vindictive. Think only for a moment to Richard III’s calculations, his master manipulation, his control of all in his path, his joy in the game. And I remember Sale saying that after Richard II returns from Ireland, Shakespeare turns away from the drama of factions of the Yorkist plays and for the first time he allows a character to shape his destiny and the play’s action. And to commit to this character as improviser rather than committing to an inexorable pageant is to leave that character exposed, vulnerable. Can you see Hamlet leaving the green room, getting ready to make an entrance?

Shakespeare seeks order and finds disorder and violence tragic. True in the histories, but we have seen it true in the comedies too. And Derek Traversi classes histories (and tragedies) as exploring the implications, personal and public alike, of political behavior, whereas comedies focus on the validity and the limitations of love in brittle and scintillating society, yet disorder must be addressed in both.

Richard II’s role is more central to his play than the protagonists of the Henry IVs or the Henry VIs. So the comparison is Richard III. But Richard III’s development is historically/ politically driven. He reaches for the throne, then he, alas, achieves it, while Richard II’s is improvisation of his self-images, of his roles. Richard II is a self-centered man and an inept ruler, so his fall seems both deserved and inevitable. For whom did you have the most sympathy, Shylock or Richard II? I have referred to Richard as zig-zag (both the “down-down”scene, III.ii, in which I count 7 diametrical shifts from arrogance to abject resignation and back, and the deposition scene, IV.i), and Charles Brice calls him “narcissistic and arrogant,; he does not rule; he enjoys himself in the role of ruler.”

The play’s most renowned passage is Gaunt’s famous peon to:

“This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings…. (II.i.40-68),

a passage which I have known since I was an English schoolboy. I had it, on my bedroom wall, superimposed on an outline of England on a tea towel (which was, ironically, made in Ireland). This passage, however, does not quite belong in this play, as Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech does not bear careful analysis for honesty in Merchant of Venice. Gaunt’s speech is elegiac, expressing the traditional spirit of a feudal England associated with Edward III, a nostalgic image which Richard II betrays and Henry IV sweeps away. It is more than symbolic that on the instant of Gaunt’s death, when Richard seizes Gaunt’s estate, he “usurps” the ancient law of succession, the “customary rights” of England’s landed gentry.

Richard, rather than declamatory, is eloquent and expansive, even verbose, and for me this texture, this poetic heightened rhetoric is striking contrast to the play’s content, a military coup. I choose three indelible passages, two of which I previously cited. Aumerle addresses Richard’s pessimism with “Comfort, my liege, remember who you are,” and Richard begins to seize the play from the pattern of history:

“I had forgot myself; am I not King?
Awake, thou coward majesty! Thou sleepest.
Is not the King’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm my name! (III.ii.82-86)

But Scroop reports Bolingbroke’s rising power and many defections from Richard’s followers. Down goes Richard’s self-assertion, and he humbly makes his ‘I’m but a man’ appeal:

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings….
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?” (III.ii.155…177)

Soon, Bolingbroke arrives at Flint Castle, and Richard asks:

“What must the King do now? Must he submit?…
nd my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little, little grave, an obscure grave…
Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaethon.” (III.iii.142-174, 177-182)

Notice how often Richard improvises, with rhetorical flourishes on the question of who he is, fascinated with the expression itself: “and my large kingdom for a little grave [melancholy contrast], a little, little grave [pathos], an obscure grave [bathos].”

Thirdly, Richard’s soliloquy in Pomfret Castle:

“I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world….
But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing” (V.I.1-41),

in which Richard’s energy is mostly devoted to finding the right metaphor.

All these illustrate Richard’s unique self-shaping with language, not so much “character” as rhetorical constructs. The laconic Bolingbroke is only about opportunity and power. After the formal, chivalric exchanges with Mowbray, does Bolingroke have any extended utterance apart from the irrelevant—to this play—foreshadow, “Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?” (V.iii.1)? But Richard seems to be fascinated with what he hears from himself about himself. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I’m reminded of the hyperromantic Cyrano, improvising a ballade during a duel or exploring all the variations of an insult to his nose: “when it bleeds, the Red Sea.” Cyrano, as Richard II, is a personage from history. Both, I think, rise by the power of rhetoric up into the clouds.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Richard II - Toothy Rick

Patient Will Readers,

When John asked about the specific political situation when Richard II was composed, I shied away in that I have little New Historicist impulse, yet I have been thinking a little about complex chronologies. Indeed, Richard II was written in 1595 late in Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603), for an audience that had some awareness of history (which always arrives at the present subject to editing and cultural interpretation) including the reign of Richard II (1377-1399).

But we also have the chronological anomaly that Shakespeare composed, and we read, the Henry VI plays, covering 1461-1483, before the historically preceding Ricardian History Plays or the Henriad we are just starting to address. So I’m reading Richard II in 2007, and I’m seeing a play called The Tragedy of…, with a beginning and middle and end (Aristotle would be pleased), often lyrical in poetry and introducing a complex character whose vacillations lead me to think of two or three major ideas (God’s anointed king and the fragile man; order and the precedent of rebellion; elegiac chivalry and practical politics) yet I know Richard, in history, is the first step toward that hollow figure, Henry, Earl of Richmond, afterwards King Henry VII, who triumphantly usurps Richard III’s throne on Bosworth Field and commissions “The Tudor Myth” of history that justifies the line that begets Shakespeare’s boss, Elizabeth I. Long live [some] king!

As Ernst said, it is Shakespeare “once more setting out on a group of history plays,” but he cites the well-known story of the Earl of Essex’s followers staging Richard II on the eve of their rebellion in 1601 (as a result of which rebellion Essex, Elizabeth’s former favorite, was beheaded). Randall earlier noted that none of the five Quarto editions, and it is presumed performances contemporary with Elizabeth’s reign, contain IV.i.154-318 (the actual deposition, from about “Alack, why am I sent for to a king/ Before I have shook off the regal thoughts/ Wherewith I reign’d?” to “O, good! Convey! Conveyers are you all,/ That rise thus nimbly by a true king’s fall”—no matter the politics, the play itself is diminished by this loss, for me especially the thematic crux in those last lines that those who rise by rebellion set the precedent for their own fall). These lines do not appear in print until the First Folio,1623. This censorship is attributed to concern for the perceived vulnerability of the aging Queen.

Lastly, I have several times seen the anecdote that, when in 1601 the historian William Lambarde was showing Elizabeth the fruits of his researches in the royal archives and arrived at the time of Richard II, she broke in: “I am Richard II. Know ye not that?” (e.g., cited in C.W.R.D. Moseley – and cwerd is the word – Shakespeare’s History Plays, 77).

So, I’ll tiptoe onto New Historicist ground for just a moment. Moseley says that Elizabeth acceded to the most insecure throne in Europe in 1558. The throne was claimed by Philip of Spain; the Catholic Northern Earls revolted in 1569; in 1570 Pope Pius V formally issued a papal bull deposing Elizabeth and advocating her assassination; Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, with strong connections to France, had a good claim to the throne and was imprisoned in 1568, beheaded in 1587; Philip attempted to take England by force in 1588, hoping that when the Armada landed, he would be supported by a revolt of the Catholic gentry (hummm—sounds like Bolingbroke or even Henry of Richmond). In 1594, Jesuit Robert Parsons published A Conference about the Next Succession in which he adduced historical and legal arguments to prove the right of the people to alter the line of succession for just causes. I don’t accept for a moment that Shakespeare is writing a political tract, a piece a clef so to speak, in which Bolingbroke is Essex, etc. But it seems reasonable to consider the difference between the Henry VI trilogy and this play, apart from a deft advance is skill as a dramatist and poet, is found in the questions the play permits about succession, governance, loyalty, and followers.

Another question John posed, discussing Richard’s psychology in reference to Act II, scene 2 when, after York’s brother, John of Gaunt, has died and Richard has immediately seized his estates to pay for his foreign wars (ignoring those great spondees: “Watch my lips; no new taxes”), York is appalled and really argues against the precedent Richard thus sets:

“Seek you to seize and grip into your hands
The royalties and rights of banish’d Herford [Bollingbroke]?…
Take Herford’s rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?…
If you do wrongfully seize Herford’s rights…
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honor and allegiance cannot think.” (II.i.189…208)

John says York is thinking of rebellion, and York asserts a finer argument that Richard, in seizing Bolingbroke’s inheritance, violates the ancient law of succession which is the identical law that justifies Richard’s succession from his father Edward the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III. York is right. It is as fundamental as tomorrow follows today, and to break this law justifies breaking any parallel law of succession. Executive privilege is no excuse. Bolingbroke’s subsequent claim (‘I just returned to claim what is rightfully and legally mine’) is just. Richard breaks the chain of order and succession. But Richard brushes off York’s argument with “think what you will, we seize into our hands/ His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.” I am the Decider. Exit York, and Richard says “We will for Ireland” yet he tells Bushy, Bagot, and Green that he appoints York governor of England while he is absent.

I looked at David Gilles BBC production (1979), and there is no significant directorial touch here. The camera swings briefly to the lavishly clad courtiers, who do look at one another, but nothing, to me, that suggests they have suddenly fallen from Richard’s protection, though this moment will lead much later to their executions.

Richard seizes Gaunt’s huge estates because he is profligate and deep into deficit spending (York has noted that Richard’s noble father “did win what he did spend, and spent not that which his triumphant father’s hand had won”). His court is lavish. Do I remember a reference to 10,000 knights? Anyway, Richard is a character whom it is particularly easy to identify with homosexuality, says Stanley Wells, influenced as he is by “the caterpillars of the commonwealth" (II.iii.166).

Michael Redgrave is described as playing him in 1951 as “an out-and-out pussy queer, with mincing gestures to match” (Malcolm Page, Richard II: Text and Performance, 49). I’m indifferent to this, more so than the Antonio-Bassiano relationship we discussed in Merchant of Venice, but to return to the subject of the political situation of 1595, Richard’s followers do draw attention to the nature of political power and the influence of counselors, Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber, and the political world thus divided into factions. Power grew out of personal access to the monarch, says Moseley. And though not really a New Historicist, I have done some research into arcane documents and come up with historical first names: they are Dick Bagot, Karl Green, and Scooter Bushy.

Enough for now.

Best, Gilbert

Monday, July 9, 2007

Richard II - Elizabethan Propaganda?

The only thing I know about Elizabethan politics is the well-known story of the Earl of Essex's followers staging Richard II around 1601 as a propoganda piece suggesting that, like Richard, Elizabeth was a weak ruler.

Weak? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I doubt it had much political significance when it was written, although I may be wrong. Mostly, I think it was Shakespeare once more setting out on a group of history plays.