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.


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