The precious jewel of thy home

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What with the Guardian talking about DruidShakespeare and Twitter’s #ShakespeareSunday focussing on the Plantagenet plays, I have been revisiting Richard II. I haven’t seen it yet in my ten-year tenure, but I saw a powerful version with Ralph Fiennes as Richard many moons ago, and of course I have watched the spectacular (literally) Hollow Crown version with Ben Wishaw in the lead. There has been a recent run of famous faces taking on the role – I hope it continues.

I really think it is one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful and lyrical plays. It is one of only four written entirely in verse* and has some of the most complex metaphor Shakespeare wrote – and even rhyme! It is argued that it is one of Shakespeare’s most straightforwardly political plays – there is really only one message, that Richard II was too weak, too mystic to rule England as it needed, and perhaps that Bolingbroke is too forceful to rule well either (after all, the events set up for Henry IV are not exactly those of a successful reign). It can easily be viewed as a statement against the divine right of kings, and for monarchs to be fit and able rulers, not just anointed sovereigns.

 

It may be that this simplicity of plot allowed Shakespeare more freedom to write as he wished, as well as providing a linguistic counterpart to the message he was trying to make. King Richard is all flowery phrases – in Act 1 Scene 1 he practically opens the play with this speech:

face to face

And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear

The accuser and the accused freely speak.

High-stomach’d are they both and full of ire,

In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.

Bolingbroke, by contrast, is all business, if no less well-written:

Look what I speak, my life shall prove it true-

That Mowbray hath receiv’d eight thousand nobles

In name of lendings for your Highness’ soldiers,

The which he hath detain’d for lewd employments

Like a false traitor and injurious villain.

There is scarcely a scene which doesn’t contain a memorable metaphor or quotable line – even the gardeners talk about apricots which “like unruly children, make their sire Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight”. No rude mechanicals obtrude in this realm.

So here is Shakespeare stretching all his powers of poesy, and he puts in the mouth of John of Gaunt one of the most patriotic speeches ever written. In the nature of the English, though, he gives it not to the King or the usurper, to rally their troops or win their cause. This is no St Crispin’s Day. Instead it is the death speech of a mournful old man, aching with nostalgia for a glory he fears is lost. To me it conjures images of home, in the widest sense – those sun-tinted memories of holidays by the sea or in the country, castles, palaces and pageantry, which are part of the archetype of England. I am by no means a blind patriot but I cannot help but be stirred by it.

I wonder what it meant to the first Elizabethans who heard it. They were faced with the end of a long reign, and an uncertain succession. Rebellious Earls and historians certainly made direct parallels between Richard’s and Elizabeth’s position – with fatal consequences. But I suspect for many ordinary folk the political wranglings and philosophy on the nature of kingship would not have reached them in quite the same way as these lines.

This royal throne of kings, this scept’red 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

 


* The others being King John and Henry VI 1 and 3.

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6 thoughts on “The precious jewel of thy home

  1. Oh, it’s majestic, that speech, isn’t it? Who can fail to be stirred by that?
    I saw the Hollow Crown too – the first time I saw Richard II and it was a spectacle. A real comment on what it took to keep the crown in those days. Ben Wishaw was very good – if a bit fey 🙂

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    • I think the role is fey – which Ben Wishaw did fabulously, both the old-fashioned meaning and the more modern one…
      It is a wonderful speech, undercut entirely by where it comes in the play and how it ends. It proves that (possibly misguided) belief in Britain’s glorious past is nothing new too…

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      • Ah, I see. Not knowing the play other than with Ben Whishaw, I assumed it might be his interpretation. Interesting. A criticism on the folly of weak kingship, then?
        Yes, you’re right about the idea of the realm’s glorious past. It’s one of those cliches that resurfaces with each new generation, along with ‘everything was so much better when I was a child’ which is also usually rose-tinted nonsense.

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  2. Such a poetic as well as a powerful play, though I’ve often felt the poetry got in the way of the drama.

    I liked the suggestion that the Wilton Diptych, painted and made for Richard himself, actually shows (when viewed close up) an image of a green island set in a silver-leaf sea on the orb on top of the banner. A neat coincidence, if coincidence it is, illustrating the medieval Catholic belief in Britain as the Virgin Mary’s ‘dowry’ — extraordinary if this notion was reflected in Will’s late 16C play, and doubly dangerous if the play was seen to suggest that monarchs should abdicate their thrones.
    (Dillian Gordon ‘Making & Meaning: The Wilton Diptych’ National Gallery 1993)

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    • The Wilton Diptych is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It was in the Royal Collection in Shakespeare’s time, and we know Shakespeare performed at court, so I’m totally happy to take it as canon that he saw it and got his inspiration there…
      The play was absolutely seen to suggest the superiority of a stable rule over an uncertain one – a performance was used to kick off the the Essex rebellion – but apparently there was sufficient doubt over Shakespeare’s aims for him to escape punishment, and even continue performing at court. Lucky, or canny – you decide!

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  3. The diptych is indeed marvellous, I always try to view it whenever we happen to visit the NG. It would be nice to think WS saw it in person, certainly, though the 1993 study suggests that us moderns were unaware of the detail of the painted orb until the late 20C investigations. Fascinating to speculate, even if I have only a cursory knowledge of the period!

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