I’ve finished Richard II, the first step in my Shakespeare Project, in which I aim to read all of the Bard of Avon’s plays, sonnets, and poems. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second was the fifth of Shakespeare’s history plays and was written in or before 1597, as he was rising to prominence in the London theater scene. The play also is the first of a series of historical plays, written by Shakespeare at different times, that tell the turbulent story of British kings and can be read in historical chronological order from Richard II, through Henry IV, V, and VI, to Richard III. That’s why I’ve chosen Richard II as my starting point.
I had not read Richard II or seen it performed before. It’s an interesting and emotionally compelling play that shows why Shakespeare was becoming the master of the British stage, both in terms of its dramatic structure and its otherworldly writing. The play begins with scenes showing a haughty and greedy King Richard acting with absolute authority as he banishes Henry Bullingbroke in the wake of his dispute with another British nobleman. But Richard was feared to be running England into bankruptcy and ruin, and when the king rashly decides to go to Ireland at a time when Bullingbroke’s father dies and Bullingbroke returns to England to claim his inheritance, the British gentry rally to Bullingbroke’s cause. When Richard returns from his Irish adventure–one which left him seasick as well as devoid of significant support back in England–he learns that he has effectively lost the monarchy and is forced to abdicate, imprisoned, and eventually murdered.
During the course of these events, Richard starts as a money-grubbing and ungrateful tyrant, but ends as a sympathetic (and indeed, pathetic) character. As Richard laments his unhappy fate, we learn that there is more to his character–including the fact that he loves his queen, and she loves him–than we initially understood. Eventually Richard seems to discover the graciousness of spirit and understanding that would have helped him to be a better king when he wielded absolute power . . . but of course it is too late.
And Richard is not the only character of interest in the play. Henry Bullingbroke, who eventually is crowned Henry IV, is presented ambiguously, leaving the actor playing the great latitude to interpret the character. Bullingbroke could be presented as a schemer with designs on the crown from the outset, as a loyal subject who is wronged by the banishment and returns upon his father’s death to be buffeted by events beyond his control to the throne, or as something in between. While Richard’s character stands center state and is sketched in great detail, Bullingbroke is kept in the shadows, and shaded. One of Bullingbroke’s few human moments comes when he seeks to advise his son of events and instructs his aides to look in London taverns for the young man–presaging the plot of Henry IV, Part I, the next play in the chronology that is dominated by the antics of Prince Hal and his foil, Falstaff.
There are lots of passages in the play that attest to Shakespeare’s genius. One favorite for me is this familiar passage about England:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred 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.
What’s interesting is that this beautiful, ringing language is not spoken by a proud and boastful man, but instead by the sad, dying John of Gaunt (Bullingbroke’s father) who laments that, thanks to Richard’s unwise and profligate spending, Gaunt’s “dear, dear land” is “now leas’d out–I die pronouncing it–like to a tenement or a pelting farm.” The plot could have been served by a much simpler statement by Gaunt, but part of Shakespeare’s unique brilliance is his ability to convert a passage conveying a basic plot development and turn it into the stuff of art and legend, forever to be known as some of the greatest words ever written about England. How long, I wonder, did it take Shakespeare to write that passage, and did he labor to construct it, or did the words simply flow from his pen?
The same effort to reach for poetic heights rather than settling for easier wording is shown throughout the play, and even in the more explanatory, context-setting, and transitional scenes. A good example comes at the end of a scene where two of the King’s few remaining supporters are discussing the Duke of York, who is charging with maintaining the order in the face of popular unrest while the king is in Ireland. One of the characters says: “Alas, poor duke! The task as he undertakes is numb’ring sands and drinking oceans dry. Where one on his side fights, thousands will fly.”
Another favorite scene occurs when the despondent Queen learns that Richard has been deposed by overhearing a gardener talk to a servant. In Shakespeare’s hands, the garden becomes a metaphor for England itself, and the gardener ruefully recognizes that Richard has missed his chance:
Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ’d, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.
The servant responds:
Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?
The wise gardener responds:
Hold thy peace:
He that hath suffer’d this disorder’d spring
Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf:
The weeds which his broad-spreading leaves did shelter,
That seem’d in eating him to hold him up,
Are pluck’d up root and all by Bolingbroke,
I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.
When the servant asks if those supporters of the king are dead, the gardener responds:
They are; and Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live:
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.
Richard II is full of great stuff like this, and well worth a read–especially for the gardeners among us. Now, it’s time to return to more familiar territory: Henry IV, Part I.