Monday, March 28, 2016

Richard II - Shakespeare

'Richard II' opens with a feud between Henry Bullingbrook and Thomas Mowbray.  They each accuse the other of treason (i.e. talking out against the king) and cowardice.  Richard II, the king, tries to get them to settle their differences amicably but they won't do so.  Instead, they will fight in single combat.  They ready themselves, but before the fight begins, the king stops it.  Both of them will be exiled.  Bullingbrook for ten years (later reduced to seven), Mowbray for life. 
Bullingbrook's father, also Richard II's uncle, is a man known as John of Gaunt.  Some years later the king is summoned to Gaunt's deathbed.  Gaunt insults the king before dying and when he dies, the king takes all of his land and inheritance, in part to fund a military expedition to Ireland.  His advisors caution him against this, but he is king and will do as he will.
In response, Bullingbrook breaks his exile and returns to England.  There he finds support among some of the other nobles.  King Richard II is in Ireland and unable to oppose him and the king has little support among those still in country.  When Richard II arrives home, his cause is lost. 
Instead of giving in to Bullingbrook's demands of inheritance and safe return to England, Richard II abdicates the thrown.  He will be deposed, and names Bullingbrook, now known as Henry IV, his successor.  He does this freely, but with great regret. 
After this, he is taken off to be held in the Tower and then another castle.  There are plots to put Richard back on the throne and the new king wishes that he was out of the way.  Supporters of Henry IV kill Richard and bring him to the king.  Henry IV is heartbroken.

This play was entirely unknown to me.  I read a bit of English history before starting in and the basic plot lines seem accurate.  Richard II comes off as weak, or at least not strong enough.  He is surrounded by toadies and yes-men, and they have weakened him. 
The scene where he is deposed (Act IV, scene 1) is simply astonishing.  Richard II is being ripped from his expected place in the universe and he has enormous trouble coming to grips with this.  He must give up this power, and he will, but how can he not BE the king? 
K. Rich. Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;
Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whist you mount up on high.
The entire scene must be a difficult one to play.  Richard has an internal weakness, in that he can't see the universe through anyone else's eyes.  As he speaks, we come to pity him.  In many ways, it would have been easier for him if the crown were torn away in battle.  The act of giving it away, undoes him.

The speech that is probably the headliner in this play comes from John of Gaunt.  As he lays dying and regrets what has become of the king and kingdom, he speaks of the wonder that is England:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...
Simply gorgeous.

No comments:

Post a Comment