Saturday, 7 June 2014

Richard II: "Two buckets filling one another"

At last I tackled some of Shakespeare's histories. Huft. This genre has long been my "untouchable" list. I was so scared to read history plays because I know next to nothing about the real history of England and because I assumed they would be tedious. Well, Richard III, one of my first attempts, was so full of murder that it's a bit of discouragement to take up another. But thankfully, I did! Yay!

So first, the plot. The play opens with a trial. Bolingbroke and Mowbray both accuse the other of treason, and are presenting their case in front of the king. The trial scene ends with both of them agreeing to decide the matter with a 'trial by combat'. The ever-changing Richard, however, stops them during the battle, and arbitrarily banishes both of them - Mowbray for his entire life, and Bolingbroke for 10 years (reduced to 6 the next few seconds).

After Bolingbroke's banishment, Richard's 'flatterers' persuade him to wage war with the Irish. Around the same time, Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and Bolingbroke's father, is dying. Richard consents to visit him, praying that he dies quickly so that could take his riches and use it for his war.
Now put it, God, in his physician’s mind
To help him to his grave immediately.
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let’s all go visit him.
Pray God we may make haste and come too late
Gaunt is still alive when Richard gets there. With his dying breath he condemns Richard's abuse of power and shows Richard his faults. The young king is too proud to receive any correction. Instead of mending his life and rulership he seizes all Gaunt's riches immediately after his death. Now, again, his other uncle, Duke of York, warns him that by taking from Bolingbroke his hereditary right, he just puts his kingship in peril. However, doesn't the king himself know that Bolingbroke is more popular than himself in England?
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposèd hearts
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.
As always in Shakespeare, the play stays true to the prophecy. Bolingbroke returns to England, aided by his followers Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby. Whilst the king is away in Ireland dealing with rebels, Bolingbroke musters power and men, with the purpose of claiming his right. Only that. But when he says this to the king, face to face, Richard sees his act as a request for his abdication, and agrees to give his kingdom to Henry.
My gracious lord, I come but for mine own.
Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all.
So far be mine, my most redoubted lord,
As my true service shall deserve your love.
Well you deserve: they well deserve to have,
That know the strong'st and surest way to get.
Cousin, I am too young to be your father,
Though you are old enough to be my heir.
What you will have, I'll give, and willing too;
For do we must what force will have us do.
Even though Richard voluntarily (although unwillingly) renounces his throne and gives it to Henry, the supporters of both parties are still unsatisfied. Henry's supporters, such as Northumberland, desire that the king gives away his crown in public, witnessed by all. The scene, however, becomes the most uneasy scene in this play, where Richard stabs Henry's heart with every word he can think of. (Here's Jamie Parker as Richard. Amazing interpretation of the lines.)

For Richard, his status as king - as Richard, King of England - is all his being. Without his crown, he is nobody. Although Richard is a whiny, spoiled king, his deposition scene no doubt pricks Henry's conscience to the core. He then asks Henry to send him away, and Henry sends him to the Tower. (The Tower at that time was also a royal residence, so Shakespeare's Henry possibly didn't mean to cruelly imprison Richard there. He only wanted to make sure that Richard wouldn't do anything dangerous.)

A thwarted plan to kill Henry and re-enthrone Richard establishes Henry's rule as England's king, while Carlisle's prophecy of civil war establishes Shakespeare's future and past history plays. You know, these tricks have been in use since Homer and Hesiod walked the earth.

The play ends with Richard's death by Henry's supporters and Henry's mourning over it.


I won't add much to this already lengthy post. I just want to say that Shakespeare was a cruel, unfeeling playwright in the way that he plays with people's feeling.

For the first part of the play, I side with Henry Bolingbroke. Actually I kind of side with Mowbray in the first Act. But as for Richard, for the first three acts of the play, I feel like I just want to punch his face. Annoying, whiny king is not really mu taste. But oh, dear, the fourth act! I can feel Henry's awkwardness, being for the first time addressed as king, and confronting Richard, the ex-king, who throws thorn after thorn to him. I mean, I feel almost guilty for supporting Henry. And Henry must feel the same, because he tries to be nice to him.

A minor but important (I think) thing in this play is the dialogue about Harry the Prince of Wales. He is the real main character of this tetralogy. Richard II is the prologue to all the fun of Henry V. But we will come to that later, when I am calmer, and less hyped up by all the qualities in Henry's character.

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