Monday, 13 July 2015

Richard II

I'm going through something of a Shakespeare phase. It all started about three weeks ago, when I finally got round to reading Henry V. Although I'm not much of a nationalist, I loved it. From there I downloaded the 2012 BBC miniseries The Hollow Crown and began making my slow way through the Henriad. Over Friday and Saturday I reacquainted myself with Hamlet. And, finally, over the last couple of days I read Richard II. 

Richard II covers the last couple of years from the real-life Richard's reign, from his exiling of Henry Bolingbroke to his eventual murder at Pontefract Castle. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, there is a certain amount of artistic license on display with liberal application of fiction to the historical fact. For one thing, Richard may not have been bloodily murdered a la Thomas a Becket, with it being far more likely that he was simply neglected and starved to death in early 1400. But the banishment and return of Bolingbroke - better known to the casual historian as Henry IV - and the circumstances surrounding the deposition are accurate enough to satisfy the more pernickety reader of the play.

I had the benefit of having seen the TV adaptation starring Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart and various others prior to reading the original source material, and I'm coming round to the fact that this is how Shakespeare should be read. Sometimes it can be difficult to see the passion and the fire in a play without performance. Words, words, words, as a certain Danish prince would put it, are just those. Once performances are fixed in the mind of the reader, the depth of the text can be seen more easily.

That isn't to say it isn't possible to appreciate the beauty of a play without having seen it performed, however. I've never seen Henry V in a performance theatrical or otherwise, but the strength and power of Shakespeare's poetry in the words of Harry's St Crispin's Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt shine through. It's impossible for me to not read Shakespeare aloud, and even though I have seen Richard II I still read memorable passages aloud, putting my own slant on them. Through action comes interpretation, and without action meaning can be lost to the casual modern reader.

I found Richard himself to be a fascinating character. Ben Whishaw's performance disagreed with my own interpretation; I found him to very much be a narcissist, while Whishaw gave him a more sympathetic edge, even while he seemed at times to be tinged with madness. He's ruthless and badly advised. He's given to despair even whilst defiant. He's also prone to the most flowery speeches of the play, which includes the best speech in the entire play:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
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 monarchise, 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!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Is he miserable or angry? Or both? His despair is palpable, but he sees the bitter irony in his situation. The beauty of the passage is undeniable. Better scholars than I will, no doubt, still be dissecting it more than 400 years after it was written to work out all the imagery and see where double meanings change interpretations.

I thoroughly enjoyed Richard II, and I'll be continuing to read Shakespeare's histories over the course of the summer. The subtlety and power of even Shakespeare's lesser works always makes them worth the time to digest. It's been a treat to spend so much time with him recently.

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