“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Act III, Scene 2
As with my post regarding Shakespeare’s King John, and thus will it be with all of the Bard’s work, I cannot in good conscience offer a review or criticism and post it as such. Instead, I simply offer my own thoughts in my attempt to understand the material in regards to the story it tells, the historical basis of that story, and anything else I can wrap my head around in regards to this play. Criticism, if any, would have to be leveled at a particular interpretation of it.
In terms of chronology of historical events, Shakespeare’s history plays are bookended by King John and Henry VIII. Between those lie the eight plays that consist of the story arc known today as The Hollow Crown. The events here begin during the Hundred Years War, sowing the seeds that will ultimately become the civil wars commonly referred to now (thanks to Shakespeare himself) as the Wars of the Roses. With this play, Richard II, we not only engage a masterpiece, we also begin a journey with far reaching consequences, both on stage and in real life. As with any of the history plays, we cannot understand it without the greater understanding of the whole, for the whole shaped the entire context of what Shakespeare is offering to us.
Richard II was written in 1595-1596, performed and published late in the reign of Elizabeth I. As near as I can tell, Shakespeare was a closet Catholic, which I discussed at length before. I’ve seen very little in the way that makes me think otherwise, which I discussed in the previous blog. If you read his plays as such, he appears to be recusant to Elizabeth’s Protestantism and policies. This play makes one of the biggest statements towards that belief, and I’ll discuss it more within the confines of this blog at a later point. The Bard was smart enough not to be caught in most cases, though bold enough to make his position known in the subtexts of his plays. However, it is often believed that Elizabeth, being an incredibly smart cookie herself, understood well the political ramifications of this particular play. Shakespeare’s plays were often censored in their performances so as to appease the crown and nobility, but in 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex paid to stage an uncensored performance at the Globe Theatre on the eve of their rebellion. The players complied, having been remarkably overpaid and feeling that the play was by that point too old to stir up any controversy. Of the play, Elizabeth is said to have remarked, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” It goes without saying that it’s a small wonder the Bard was allowed to keep his head, but for her part, Elizabeth did not take out her fury on any of the acting company. In fact, they were commanded to perform it again for the Queen on the eve of Essex’s execution. Apparently, in her wisdom, she understood on some level that the mastery of the art was of higher value than the political immediacy. Maybe she looked at them as merely the messengers. Or maybe she was playing the chess master’s game of seeing what else she could learn from such plays. Who can figure the mind of Elizabeth? She was always squirrelly and paranoid, and justifiably so given her personal history. Consistency for her was being inconsistent. *shrug*
Understanding the sequence of events within this play begins with Sir John of Gaunt, who is introduced in the play’s beginning, at the very end of his life in 1399. For those new to the play or to English history, the logical first questions upon beginning this play become, “Who is this guy, and why does he matter?” Historically, Sir John is a member of the House Plantagenet, third surviving son (of four) of King Edward III, and younger brother of Edward, Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince. Sir John is the 1st Duke of Lancaster, founder of the Lancaster line. As such, his legitimate heirs include Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI. His descendants include Edward IV and Richard III of the House of York, and John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset. Beaufort is the grandfather of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, and of Joan Beaufort, Queen of Scots, from whom the royalty of Scotland is descended as of 1437, and from 1603 the sovereigns of England, Ireland, and Great Britain as a whole. The houses of Lancaster, York, and Tudor are descended from Sir John through his son Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), Joan Beaufort, and John Beaufort respectively. In short, Sir John of Gaunt is the unwitting beginning of the Wars of the Roses. He’s kind of a big deal. This is only the end of his story, for Sir John was a respected and feared nobleman, his record of service through the Hundred Years War unimpeachable in the eyes of his peers, his accolades and titles manifold in accordance with his accomplishments. Some historians have romantically referred to him as “the last knight,” marking with his passing the end to the age of English chivalry and all that would be associated with it. Shakespeare himself not only seems to agree with that assessment, he actively promotes it. Sir John was also a friend and patron of Geoffrey Chaucer, and it is likely that Shakespeare, in treating Sir John as a figure worthy of his nobility, also extends a writer’s salute through Sir John to a giant within the Bard’s own profession.
With the passing of Sir John of Gaunt, so too passes the age of Chivalry in England, marking the rise of the Machiavellian kings and the transition from the Medieval era to the Renaissance that would finally come to the country under Henry VIII. I don’t know that I would have made that connection before, but having recently revisited Machiavelli’s The Prince, as I am prone to do sometimes, I can see the influence his writings would have had. It’s believed that English translations of Machiavelli’s work would have been available by 1585, about ten years before Richard II was written. While there is pragmatism in those writings in relation to the unstable Italian city-states of which they were written, there is a complete separation of moral authority between the likes of Cesare Borgia (who inspired Machiavelli) and the monarchs of England who presumably ruled through Divine right in an age of earlier glory. In other words, Machiavelli and everything he represents is now painted as evil, whereas England was built upon the chivalric virtues symbolized by – and ultimately buried with – Sir John of Gaunt.
But not all respect Sir John, least of all Richard II. Having unfairly banished Bolingbroke, Richard waits for Sir John to die so he can seize the knight’s possessions and fortune to help finance his war in Ireland to quell a rebellion. The idea is plain enough in the subtext: any resource in England is the rightful king’s to utilize and redistribute where needed to keep God’s peace, regardless of how unfair it seems from the perspective of human subjects. Upon his dying words in true knightly fashion, Sir John speaks the truth (from a human perspective) and calls Richard out for being irresponsible and unjust. He accuses Richard for being no longer the King of England, but rather merely it’s landlord. Noblemen and commoners alike, sharing this viewpoint, flock to Henry Bolingbroke’s cause to reclaim his inheritance. When Richard returns from his war, his opponent’s army has already taken ground in England, lying in wait. In one of Shakespeare’s most eloquent speeches, we see Richard openly despair for the future he knows is coming.
The encounter between Richard and Henry vexes me. Richard is already illustrated as weak following his speech, his position of strength being merely a ruse. Whether this is for his own benefit or for that of his men, it’s hard to say for certain, but I’m inclined to believe it’s to help him save face in what lies ahead even though that’s not truly an option for him. After all, no Shakespearean fall is complete without an emotional unhinging and prostration. So Richard shouts down from the wall of the castle at Henry, telling him that should he try to usurp the throne, he will rain his vengeance down upon Henry and his men. He says Henry will only take the crown once the battlefields are covered in blood. Bolingbroke, however, denies this is his intent, claiming that he only seeks the inheritance that is rightfully his. He asks Richard to come down and parley with him, and there isn’t one single drop of blood shed when Richard asks if he must accompany Henry to London, to which Henry affirms.
At Westminster, York reveals that Richard has agreed to “adopt” Henry as his heir and yield the throne to him immediately. And this is why this vexes me. Richard basically admits to being weak and unjust without saying so, trying to make a show of something more in the sequence where Henry is to claim the crown from him. After all of that bluster about the Divine right of kings and how his position was bestowed and confirmed by God, he just gives it up in what’s essentially a bloodless coup. This is important to Shakespeare’s message, however. He’s saying that, regardless of the legality of Henry’s heirship on paper, he was installed upon the throne by his own human will, not by Divine right. Again, this is a direct slap in the face at Elizabeth I, whose mother took the Queenship in similar manner, beginning the ecclesiastic upheaval that would persist through her father’s reign and ultimately through her own. And we can magnify that with the whole of the Tudor dynasty being descended from the usurper Henry VII, Elizabeth’s grandfather, with the drama of all of it cast down in direct line from Bolingbroke’s action in usurping the throne. It’s as though Shakespeare sees the threads of fate and points us down the line from A to B to C, all the way to Z. Few in his age might have made that connection, but many would understand the implications.
In the wake of Richard’s abdication, heads are severed to secure Henry’s crown from rebellion, much as Elizabeth’s father and grandfather did when the Tudor dynasty began. That it happened to Elizabeth’s mother as well would have been something of a bonus sting on the Bard’s part. Of these conspirators, one of them is revealed to be the son of York, who is pardoned and thus attempts to prove his loyalty by leading Richard’s assassination within the Tower. This is where the play ends, with Henry satisfied at the deaths of those who conspired to take his throne, but upset at the body of Richard being brought before him. Henry declares that he will go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to absolve himself from this sin, which would presumably help to ease his conscience for sitting upon a bloodstained throne. Perhaps it might even be that he could earn the Divine right of kingship. Ah, the folly of mortal presumption.
The themes, motifs, and symbols of Richard II are, in my mind, nothing less than astounding. The Divine right of kings is a strong theme here, with Richard essentially sitting the throne in God’s stead, keeping the country protected from both external threat and inner strife, both of which would plague England under Elizabeth’s reign. Richard’s body is a symbol for the whole of England, with his separation from the throne ending God’s watchful eye in over the country, and his death casting the country into darkness. Bolingbroke is portrayed as far more popular and even more effective, with a claim of inheritance of his own, but the die has been cast. In usurping the throne, Henry casts England under a long shadow. The events of The Hollow Crown cycle of plays are painted as Divine punishment against those who wrongly sit in stead as God on Earth, and of course, the reign of Elizabeth is simply a logical extension of all of this. It’s not so much that Shakespeare has a direct problem with her as a person (maybe he does?), but everything she represents is anathema to his sense of right and wrong. And that’s a large part of why I think Shakespeare is a closet Catholic. I believe he sees the Reformation as a symptom of everything that’s gone wrong with the world since Richard II got deposed. The Tudor dynasty and its policies are but manifestations of this larger betrayal of God’s trust. Keep in mind that at the time of this play, the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada had already happened. Elizabeth has, in her role as continuation of the usurping line, has protected England as she’s expected to do, but she’s taken Catholic lives to do it, including that of her own family who was a legitimate queen in her own right. Her once diplomatic and non-committal peace between the factions are behind her. For the Bard, this is a classic case of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. She’s taking England along for the ride as far as he’s concerned.
Richard and Henry are set against each other in stark contrast. Richard is a man of artistic introspection, physically weak and unassuming, but possessing a mind that can seemingly see into the future as clearly as a monarch appointed by God should be able to do. For all of his creative temperament, he’s ultimately powerless against Henry’s strength and decisive manner. Henry is a practical man who, in his mind, is right to reclaim what is his, and for whom words alone have little meaning. His bloodless coup shows him to be a better king by measure of practicality, but the dichotomy of what is perceived to be better by human standards and what is appointed by God’s hand is a large part of the complexity Shakespeare offers. It’s the tension between thought and deed, a theme which would be explored to even greater effect in Hamlet. It sounds to me as though Shakespeare believes thought to be greater, being inspired by God’s imagination, whereas deed leads to that proverbial road to Hell, regardless of intention. I suppose that would be appropriate for a playwright to think that way, given that “the pen is truly mightier than the sword.” He makes for us at several points the connection that the head is the instrument of peace, and the way of war is in the hands. Thus in Richard’s quiet demeanor, the peace of God remains for England until control is wrested by Henry’s hands of war. It should also be noted that Richard was in part known for his overtures of peace to France, which would have rendered the ongoing battles of the Hundred Years War quite moot in the eyes of many, up to and especially Sir John of Gaunt. Know what happened after this point? Henry V stomps on Agincourt, which is a great moment for England that the Bard capitalizes upon, popularly demonstrating the end of chivalry. Is it really a high point for England as many have come to believe? I’m looking forward to chewing on that play when the time comes. But then Joan of Arc enters the field and kicks England’s butt up one side and down the other, proverbially speaking, and England succumbs to civil war in its weakened and humiliated state. We’ll see later how much Shakespeare loathed the Maid of Orleans. Suffice it to say, none of this would have happened if not for Bolingbroke taking the crown, or so the Bard would have us believe.
The transition from the Medieval to the Renaissance is illustrated here in terms of ritual and ceremony. Where Sir John piously believes that all wrongs and injustices will be righted by God, he stands for the Medieval world and all that implies. Again, it’s all about honor and chivalry and an age gone by from Shakespeare’s perspective, all the things that once made England great. Matters of justice are settled by the joust or other such contests, the hand of God extending through to the righteous to strike down the party in the wrong. Trial by combat was considered an outdated concept by Shakespeare’s time, and so Richard prevents the duel from taking place at the play’s beginning. Bolingbroke’s reign ushers in the new Humanist era of personal responsibility, prone to folly and misinterpretation. Likewise, Shakespeare gives us a transition in terms of honor, drawing the distinction between an idealistic belief in personal honor (the age of Chivalry) and the more complex issue of real world reputation.
York’s Garden of Langley is a symbol of some importance. It is here that Queen Isabella overhears a conversation between the gardener and his assistant. In that conversation, there is an allegory made between the well-weeded and orderly garden and a healthy, prosperous country. The garden of England has been let go, thus sending the country into turmoil. The gardener’s vocabulary is specific and very telling. He tells his assistant to cut off the “heads” of twigs on trees “like an executioner” and to work hard because “all must be even in our government.” The land “Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up, / Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined.” In his eyes, Henry is a better manager than Richard and his weed-like supporters.
And yet, it bears repeating once more that Henry’s usurping the throne is, to Shakespeare’s eyes, the cause of everything that’s wrong with England, the hand of man having betrayed the mind of God. I can’t imagine the sleepless nights the Bard must have spent trying to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with the political state around him. Actually, no… I really can. Being an insomniac, I have firsthand experience in such things. Regardless, the cycle of conspiracy and insurrection is the punishment of God, and it’s a cycle that will continue to be a theme in these plays through to Richard III.
I went through this play a number of times, first in print and in full cast audio from Arkangel Productions, then on film as part of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown series starring Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, and Patrick Stewart, revisiting the printed work as needed throughout this process. Using Shakespeare’s own vernacular, I am struck dumb at the beauty of the poetry here, and I found myself spending many quiet evenings re-reading passages at leisure, trying to wrap my head around the genius to be found here in abundance. This isn’t something I would have appreciated in my younger years. A play like this marks for me an understanding in how much I’ve grown as a student of history and of the written word. Related, I spend a great deal of time lamenting how many versions of Shakespeare’s plays try to modernize the visuals, eliminating the historical context so as to better spoon-feed modern audiences. I’ve seen such versions in the past, which is part of why I had trouble engaging in Shakespeare before. It’s not that these modern versions lack any of the dimension. Certainly there have been some truly great performances offered in these modern renditions. But updating something like this just doesn’t impress me. I spend too much time being taken out of the production by its very nature, thus rendering my full enjoyment and understanding into a colossal waste of time. Keeping in mind that these plays are supposed to be performed for an audience, the visuals of a play provide context that you simply can’t get just from audio or print. I can’t recommend The Hollow Crown series enough in this regard because the historical context is in place and adds richly to the text and subtext of the manuscript. It’s a truly rich experience in and of itself. I wish there were more like this. I will likely track down a couple of other renditions of Richard II before moving on to Henry IV, Part I. How the text and subtext is performed sometimes changes the perception of it. Certain themes and motifs can be raised up or pushed back based on the interpretation of the players. That never ceases to amaze me.
The spiritual subtexts are of greater value to me as well. As a student of all things Medieval and Renaissance, and as a student of comparative religion, I get a double dose of appreciation from the themes of Divine right and religious upheaval presented here. Again, this isn’t something I would have cared about at all in my youth. But since those days, I have since learned to appreciate both the literary beauty and allegory of The Bible as well as its historical significance and the political justifications made due to its influence. A person can be spiritual without being dogmatic or religious in our modern world; the same cannot be said of those living in Shakespeare’s world. The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation were at the very center of Renaissance England, and the very idea of The Bible being translated to English is a subject of controversy in and of itself at this time. The Geneva Bible is only about 35 years old at this point after nearly 1200 years of doing everything in Latin. The effect of it can’t possibly be overstated, which includes notes in the margin with humans telling anointed rulers how to rule in God’s name as though they have any insight into God’s mindset. It’s the sort of thing that sounds great in later centuries by a God-fearing people, but at the time… revolutionary in ways that’s difficult to imagine. Again, it comes down to the idea of those appointed by God being trusted to do His work versus the average person taking personal responsibility for their souls, in this case by being able to read the scriptures on their own, in their own language… or by usurping a throne because God’s anointed was perceived to be insufficient somehow. To understand Christianity and how/why it developed the way it did is to better understand this play and Shakespeare as a greater whole. It’s a topic of endless fascination for me, both historically and philosophically, and it most definitely enriches my Shakespearean experience.