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.