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.
Book Note: Year of the King
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