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richard ii

7 november 2015

Richard II is a beautiful, plot-driven, intellectual play, nowhere near as popular as Richard III on stage, but preferred by academics "in the study," and indeed it makes great reading. But it was one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime, and speaks to the power of his English history plays to captivate his audience and get them thinking about contemporary situations. It's about a monarch who outlives his usefulness as a century is closing and a new era in English history beginning. "Know ye not that I am Richard the Second," Elizabeth the First is supposed to have said, and though her censors suppressed the scene where Richard hands over his crown, they did not quash the play itself, which probably allowed Elizabethan audiences to fantasize about rebellion while going home at night thanking their stars they lived in Shakespeare's England and not Chaucer's.

Richard II is part Hamlet and part Claudius, a little bit Mark Antony, a dash of Macbeth. Only a dash, because Richard isn't a murderer exactly, or at least not within the confines of his own play. His most egregious onstage crimes amount to grand larceny and poor fiscal management. But he robs the wrong people and overspends at the worst political juncture. He's deposed by a king not much better than himself, a king with a son much worse: but that son turns out to be Shakespeare's greatest political hero, Henry V. Go figure.

Richard II is, to say the least, a pessimist. He makes Eeyore look like Pollyanna. Every time he loses a vote in Parliament or something, he starts wailing "For God's sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings." He's an impossible mixture of sensitivity and callousness. Quite taken with his own majesty, he's ready to cast it off in a fit of passive-aggressive self-pity at the least setback. He's greedy and cowardly and vain and he's fascinating.

Meanwhile, nearly every scene in the play is packed with conflict. Somebody's accusing someone else of treason and having the lie stuffed back down his throat. Somebody's plotting rebellion or private revenge, somebody's embarking on exile or coming back with an army behind him. Characters switch sides in wars, are condemned or pardoned; poetic justice is rarely served, but historical contingency becomes all the bloodier and more formidable for that.

Yet as I noted, Richard II has never dominated the stage. The chief role is perhaps a little too passive for a great star, and the supporting roles too interchangeable. I've never seen the play (that's becoming a theme of my notes on Shakespeare, and more and more grim as I push sixty: there are lots of Shakespeare plays I will never see). The most notable Richard IIs of the twentieth century seem to have been Michael Redgrave and David Warner; still images of them show Redgrave as more ethereal, Warner more sinister. Andrew Gurr's 2003 Cambridge edition prints a photo of Fiona Shaw from a mid-1990s production in full orb-and-sceptre, smirking and unsteady, that seems to strike the right note. With all the all-male Shakespeare productions of recent years, it's nice to see an actress get a shot at one of the better male leads.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. 1597. Edited by Andrew Gurr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.