Sunday, July 25, 2010

Discussion: Richard II

The play: Richard II

The plot tweet: Terrible king pisses off the wrong guy; Bolingbroke rebels to claim inheritance and then claims whole kingdom. Richard makes poetry, dies.

My favorite line:
More are men's ends marked than their lives before.
The setting sun and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past. (John of Gaunt)


This is the first time I've read Richard II, and my marginal notes look something like this: "Wait, is Richard crazy?" "Why did he just do that?" "WTF?" "Okay, he's definitely crazy." Actually, he's not crazy, but he is a disastrous politician. In the hands of someone else, the situation with Bolingbroke could have been easily remedied (or may never have occurred in the first place). But Richard handles the situation so badly, he practically deposes himself.

Richard is a guy who truly believes in the divine right of kings ("Not all the water in the rough rude sea / can wash the balm off from an anointed king"), and that gives him free reign to think and behave as he pleases, even to his country's detriment. This introduces the central question of the play: What value does this doctrine have, when the "anointed" king is so clearly worthless and the usurper so much more qualified to lead his country?

Shakespeare doesn't seem to answer the question, perhaps because none of the characters is particularly sympathetic. Even Richard, who begins spouting beautiful poetry after being deposed, doesn't connect with the audience the same way a very similar bad politician, King Lear, does. I'm cheating a bit here, because we haven't read King Lear, but the similarities are striking: a bad politician who essentially deposes himself and then struggles with his own identity, with liberal usage of words like "shadow" and "nothing." Compare Richard's "Alack the heavy day, that I have worn so many winters out, and know not what to call myself" with Lear's "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" Yet, in Lear, we are all on Lear's side, and we mourn his death intensely. Meanwhile, Richard gets murdered by a couple of thugs, and I think, "Well, too bad. That might cause some problems."

The reality is this: England is in better hands with Bolingbroke, and if the "divine right of kings" doctrine hadn't put his authority in question throughout his reign, he might actually have done his country some good. (Perhaps Shakespeare posits an opinion about the divine right of kings after all.)

But here's one thing I can't decide: What is Bolingbroke's original intention when he foments this rebellion? Is he really just trying to claim his inheritance, or does he always secretly hope to claim the crown? If usurpation isn't his original intention, when does he realize that's where he is headed, and how does he feel about it? He does claim authority before he is actually king, ordering executions and the like, but he still makes a show of deference to Richard. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure what Shakespeare wanted us to get out of the play, but if I'm remembering my Lancaster and York history right, Henry was always after the crown. He was much admired when he was younger, and I believe he craved adulation as a king -- something he never got as a king. He was jealous of and proud of his son's popularity with the common folk. He could never quite get that kind of love as king. I agree that he would have ruled much better than Richard, if things had been a little easier for him.