For those who are interested in actually getting their hands on the DVD, here is a bit of a taste of what to expect:
Who Was Richard II?
Like most things, if you really want to know anything about Richard II your best bet is to jump onto Wikipedia (though I wouldn’t reference it if writing an essay on the guy). Anyway, simply saying that Richard II was a king of England and that his last name was Plantagenet (which is one really cool last name), and pointing to the Wikipedia article, the question has probably already been answered. However, I don’t want to say much about his personality yet because that is one of the things that Shakespeare explores (if, as has been the case with other plays, he has made some alterations to suit his own purposes). However, it might be an idea to actually look at when he lived to get a better understanding of who he was, and also to put the play into context.
Richard lived at a time when the world was transitioning from the Medieval Ages into the modern age. This transition was already in full swing in Italy, however, it hadn’t quite arrived in England yet. Sure, the Magna Carta had been signed, but the monarchs had been doing everything that they could to wiggle out of it (despite the fact that parliament had begun to restrain the monarch’s powers). This is important, as we shall see because one of Richard’s biggest mistakes was that he got onto the wrong side of one of the noble factions. The era of the absolute monarch had gone, yet the kings were still trying to fight against progress.
Richard’s father was Edward III (another king that most people probably had never heard of), and in many ways lived in his shadow. Edward almost didn’t become king because his father had been murdered and he had been sidelined by his mother’s lover Roger Mortimer (who was also responsible for deposing Edward II). However, as history had it, while Mortimer and Isabella were having fun in Isabella’s room, Edward III basically kicked in the door and killed both of them. The problem was that Isabella happened to be the sister of King Charles of France (and Charles had been toying with England anyway), so hostilities soon reared their ugly head. However, Edward (and his son the Black Prince) were very capable warriors and it wasn’t long before they had brought France to its knees, and had effectively occupied half the country.
Things then simmered down a bit (though for a more detailed account of his reign there is, you guessed it, the Wikipedia article), however, it was around this time that the Black Plague began to devastate Europe. The Black Prince (cool name) had actually died of the plague but had managed to have a son – Richard, who, at the age of 10, became king. This, no doubt, is going to start raising some alarm bells because it is never a good thing when a boy ascends the throne.
So, there we have it, the Black Plague is ravaging Europe, England and France are in the midst of a cold war, as well as having hostilities with Scotland and Ireland, and a boy is sitting on the throne of England. Mind you, the play doesn’t begin until the last two years of Richard’s reign (when he is in his early thirties), but as we will discover, Richard never really grew up.
So the play begins with Richard sitting on his throne and asked to settle a dispute between his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbry, who has been accused of squandering money and murdering the Duke of Gloucester (though it is actually believed that Richard was the one who murdered Gloucester, but then again Richard is the king, meaning that he is the law, so in all logic, Richard can’t actually be guilty of murder). Anyway, the two squabble and Richard finally gives them permission to duke it out, however just as they are about to cross swords Richard calls a halt to the entire spectacle and instead banishes the two lords from England (though he banished Bollingbrooke for only eight years, while Mowbry is basically told to get lost and not return).
This has the effect of really upsetting the lords (particularly Mowbry, who suspects that Richard actually murdered Gloucester), however, they slink off and plot their revenge. Now that this is sorted Richard decides to go on his own grand adventure – Ireland – however, as is the case with most wars, Richard needs money. So he does what any self-respecting tyrant does – he takes it from his lords (in fact he confiscates all the wealth of the recently deceased John of Gaunt). This is his first (and probably biggest) mistake – don’t take people’s money and then leave the country while the lords are really annoyed with you.
Anyway, Richard goes off to Ireland with his army, wins a glorious victory, and then returns home to discover that Bollingbroke hasn’t actually left the country. In fact he not only is in England but he is in England with an army (of Englishmen of course). So, Richard doesn’t have all that much time to bask in the glory of his victory when he finds himself in another war, this one a civil war, and one that he pretty quickly loses. So, realising that the odds are stacked against him, he surrenders and is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle.
Not everybody is happy that Bollingbrook, now Henry IV, has decided that he will be a better monarch than Richard, so they stage a rebellion, which is pretty quickly nipped in the bud. Anyway, despite the fact that Henry is now secure on his throne he does ask ‘have I no friend who will remove me of this living fear?’ and this is quickly interpreted that he basically wants somebody to kill the former king, which happens. However Henry is horrified when he discovered that Lord Exton took this statement literally, and the play ends with him saying that he must then travel to the promised land to be cleansed of his sin (which he never manages to do).
A Childlike Temperament
I was going to suggest that while the prince is still a prince he would have his father, and his father’s advisers, over him, but a young king wouldn’t necessarily inherit the kingdom at a young age – a regent would govern in the king’s stead until the king would come of age. However, the problem is that regents had a nasty habit (as was the case with Edward III) of not relinquishing power when the king came of age. As such it was decided that in Richard’s case they would dispense with the regency and have him guided by a group of councils.Well, Richard did eventually reach the stage where he would govern in his own right, however, he was still quite immature. Okay, he was suddenly thrust into the realms of adulthood at the age of 14 when the peasants suddenly revolted (the peasants are revolting; yes I know, I can smell them from here). The reason behind this revolt was due to the fact that the black death had pretty much decimated the population of Europe and all of a sudden they discovered that there was a shortage of workers. As such, they rose up demanding better pay and conditions (namely an abolition of serfdom). In fact, they were actually quite an effective force, killing a number of high nobles, and forcing the king to the negotiating table. Realising that the peasants had the upper hand Richard agreed to their demands and effectively abolished serfdom. This, in many ways, was the beginning of the end of Medieval England.
This was Richard in history so let us look at him in the play, or at least in this version of the play. The impression that I got from this production is that Richard never really grew up. Okay, having the entire country revolt does have the effect of forcing somebody to grow up, however, they weren’t revolting against the king per se they were revolting against the system. In any event the peasants never really played any role within the play itself – the action is between the members of the aristocracy.
You see, Richard still very much lived in the past, treating England as his own personal playground. He wasn’t ruling with the support of the nobles, but rather as the monarch – the opinions of the nobles are inconsequential. This is why he overrode the laws of inheritance and took the wealth of the late John of Gaunt, the father of Henry Bolingbroke, for himself. In the historical context, Richard did this because Gaunt, and in turn Bolingbroke, were the wealthiest, and most powerful, family in England, and there was a concern that Bolingbroke would use his wealth and influence to secure the throne in the event of Richard’s death (who was childless).
Sure, this may have been brought out in the play, but what we see is an indecisive king who seems to treat his position as some sort of game, and his throne unassailable. However, if he was a true, and decisive, king he would have been firm with Bolingbroke, and certainly wouldn’t have given him an opening to allow him to return to England and claim the throne. Let us also consider this – while there are factions waiting to deal with him Richard does something that could be considered incredibly foolish – he takes his army and he goes to Ireland to fight a war. Not only were they at war with France (though the French king at the time was basically mad), but his position wasn’t all that secure. This, no doubt, was the major cause of his downfall as when he returned he suddenly discovered that somebody had come along and taken all of his toys.
The Hollow Crown
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
There are two ideas that come from this passage, the first being that a crown is more like a circlet that sits upon one’s head (or is even little more than a fancy hat) meaning that by its nature it is hollow. However, the other idea is that while the crown is a symbol, it is, in fact, a symbol with no meaning, particularly when the king that is wearing the crown has no power.
For those of us that live in Commonwealth countries, we still refer to the state as being ‘The Crown’. In fact, criminal cases are referred to in writing as ‘R v That Guy’, and in court, they are announced as ‘The Crown vs That Guy’. In a sense, the government is still referred to as the ‘The Crown’, though that is a little archaic in everyday life. However what this means is that the crown represents the government, and as such, the person who wears the crown is the head of the government.
The Reign of the Usurper
The thing with usurpers is that Shakespeare doesn’t seem to particularly like them, especially since in many of his other plays they tend to meet a rather sticky end, and in some cases bring the entire nation down with them (see, for instance, Hamlet and the Scottish play). However, this doesn’t happen with Henry. Rather it is Richard that is the problem, despite the fact that he isn’t a really good king (in that he dithers somewhat, and will also use his royal prerogative to take things for himself). Unlike the other usurpers, who saw an opportunity and seized it, Henry comes across as a rather reluctant usurper, taking the throne simply because it needed to be done. It was clear that Richard wasn’t a good king, and he had begun to step over the limits of his power that had been put in place by the Magna Carta, so somebody needed to step up and put a stop to it. That person was none other than Bolingbroke.
The final thing that I wish to touch upon is how Bolingbroke and Richard were dressed (and appeared). Richard was dressed in robes and had quite long hair, while Bolingbroke had a crew cut and for most of the play was dressed in armour. This paints an interesting contrast between the two: Richard is basically a dandy, a boy that has grown up with everything, and wants for nothing, while Bolingbroke has had to fight for everything he has (which is not actually true – his family was one of the richest in England at the time). What we have are two men, one spoilt and soft, the other hard and a warrior. Yet once Richard is deposed, and Henry is on the throne, we see him discard his armour for the robes. I guess the reason is that while as Henry Bolingbroke he was a warrior, as Henry IV he is now a king, and wishes to play the part.