Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings : William Shakespeare – “Richard II”

Second in the monarchic Histories, (after “King John” ), William Shakespeare’s “Richard II” chronicles the forced 1399 abdication of that mediocre-yet-poetic titular king before Henry Bolingbroke, (soon to be Henry IV.)

ABOVE: “I can’t remember… did I turn the oven off before I left the palace??”

“Richard II” aims at pure poetry: about a third of it relies in couplets. The rest slides into blank verse, not always in a smooth or logical transition. Bardolaters might believe Shakespeare’s inspiration inexhaustible, but you can certainly spot the moments where Will throws up the quill: “Can’t think of a rhyme/So it’s blank verse time!” It’s not the only schism in evidence: the play is also half dutiful textbook account, half lyrical attempt at metaphysical poetry.

A third schism runs through the play: We’re supposed to accept that Richard, (whom the plot requires to be a rash, unthinking fool) is also somehow one of the greatest philosophers to ever wear a crown. Shakespeare never manages to reconcile the external, historical, blundering Richard with the internal, invented, meditative poet who could give John Donne a metaphorical fit of envy.

Richard is not very heroic: his plight (losing the throne after he’s created enemies left and right, and then developing a fallen-Messiah complex) hardly gets our sympathy; and yet he  is the only character whose emotional life we can access here. “Richard II” has no Faulconbridges to amuse us, no worthwhile female roles to break through the martial ranks. The closest thing to a secondary character of worth is Old John Gaunt, who at least has enough personality to pun on his own name.  I find this dearth of character atypical for Shakespeare, who can usually conjure unforgettable people out of two-line cameos.

For me, there are three truly memorable moments in “Richard II”:

-the highly dramatic bit in which the deposed Richard II asks (Lear-like) for a mirror that will show him what his own face looks like, once drained of its Kingliness

ABOVE : “Mirror, mirror in my hand/ who’s the worst king in the land?”

– the “sceptred isle” speech, a jingoistic anthem of England uber alles that would make any slightly susceptible audience break into salvoes of “God Save the Queen”

– and the stand-out speech, a high epic poem that doubles as a manifesto for the Shakespearean Histories, since it purposes to

“…tell sad stories of the death of Kings:

How some haue been depos’d, some slaine in warre,

Some haunted by the Ghosts they haue depos’d,

Some poyson’d by their Wiues, some sleeping kill’d,

All murther’d. For within the hollow Crowne

That rounds the mortall Temples of a King,

Keepes Death his Court, and there the Antique sits

Scoffing his State, and grinning at his Pompe,

Allowing him a breath, a little Scene,

To Monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with lookes,

Infusing him with selfe and vaine conceit,

As if this Flesh, which walls about our Life,

Were Brasse impregnable: and humor’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little Pinne

Bores through his Castle Walls, and farwell King.

Couer your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemne Reuerence: throw away Respect,

Tradition, Forme, and Ceremonious dutie,

For you haue but mistooke me all this while:

I liue with Bread like you, feele Want,

Taste Griefe, need Friends: subiected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a King?”

That’s absolutely beautiful stuff!!! ( Being Shakespeare, there’s a couple of other great turns of phrase here, my favorite being “the purple testament of bleeding war.”) Still, “Richard II” is more prologue than it is play. Many things are set-up here for the future: the rest of the “Henriad,” the War of the Roses, the Lancastrian segment of the Hundred Year’s War. But few things actually HAPPEN, and when they do, it’s off-stage.

ABOVE: It is good to be king.

The conclusion to Act V is particularly frustrating, with Henry IV passively listening to the rapid report of all sorts of decisive off-stage events. Towns consumed in fire! Dozens of important parsonages are mutilated and be-headed! Except  we were barely introduced to any of them and so do we do not care about them. They’ve taken the heads of

Oxford, Salisbury, Blunt and Kent/

The manner of their taking may appear/

At large discussed in this paper here.”

That’s four guys whose deaths were apparently very dramatic- but Shakespeare withholds the drama with that line. The Bard might as well have walked in from the wings: “Folks, you missed out on a lot of super-cool action scenes I couldn’t really work into the plot. Real HEART-POUNDING, EDGE-OF-YOUR-GLOBE-SEAT stuff! Trust me, you wish you had been watching THAT play instead!”

To add some sort of visual interest to this scene, a coffin gets dragged on stage. WHO’S IN IT, you wonder in suspense?

“Great King, herein all breathless lies

The mightiest of thy greatest enemies:

Richard Bordeaux.”

(WHO? We have no clue, because this great nemesis WAS NEVER ONCE MENTIONED BEFORE.)

“Richard II” can accurately be described as: “King realizes he’s just a human being; gets bummed about it.” I do not, if you noticed, rate “Richard II” high on the Shakespearian scale.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH (on the Shakespearian scale)

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