By: William Shakespeare
Format/Source: Paperback; my copy
My first review of the play
Banishing his cousin, Bolingbroke, King Richard II prevents a dispute from turning bloody. But Richard is an arrogant and despotic ruler, who listens only to his flatterers. As favour turns against him and Bolingbroke returns to reclaim his land, Richard is grieved to see that the throne given to him by God might be taken from him by men.
You’re reading this right, this is another post about Richard II and yes, you saw a review go up for this play last year (review) as well as my thoughts on The Hollow Crown production (review). I had been thinking a lot about the play since January, namely Bolingbroke’s (or Bullingbrook in the Modern Library edition I have) role in matters that led him to becoming Henry IV. So I decided to revisit the play again (using my shiny Modern Library edition. Sorry, I keep mentioning it…but isn’t the cover pretty? *points* And the extra content so informative 🙂 ).
Re-reading the play this time around, I really came to appreciate pretty much everything about it: the structure of the play, many of the thematic elements I missed the first time (namely Richard and his relationship/identity with his title), the complex relationship between Richard and Bolingbroke and the contrasts/differences between the men, the complicated nature of the Crown itself, etc. The verse nature of the play is absolutely stunning the second time around, it’s quite a feat (and no wonder Shakespeare doesn’t employ it again–must’ve been a lot of work to write this play in this manner!).
What I really enjoyed thinking about as I was re-reading this play was the complicated nature of the Crown and how it affects everyone’s relationships both to the Crown, with each other, and with their families. I couldn’t quite grasp how John of Gaunt was so loyal to the Crown even as his son (according to historical accounts happening before events of the play) had informed him that Richard was planning on dealing with his enemies, including Henry. I suppose it seems like a foreign concept nowadays, to be so devoted to your king even before your own family. But like you see with Richard and Bolingbroke’s characterisations, you also see a mirror image/cyclical repeat with York later on as he goes to Bolingbroke before Aumerle could explain or do anything. Even Bolingbroke himself, however you approach his character (I’m on the argument that Bolingbroke initially started out wanting to only take back his lands and his title and wasn’t machinating for the Crown at all), still appeases to the argument of the Crown passed on by inheritance and holds it to a degree of respect, however the differences are between him and Richard. And then you have Act IV, Scene 1 with that complicated little exchange of court lords throwing their gages down, siding with this person and that and making their accusations known. The Crown, the Crown, the Crown, it always goes back to it…
Richard and Bolingbroke’s relationship is very interesting, despite the two men only having about three-four scenes together tops. I love how nuanced the play is that, while you can easily say Richard is the protagonist and Bolingbroke the antagonist, their actions and their motives are not as clear cut, good or bad. Or maybe I’m just biased as I sympathise with Bolingbroke’s initial plight to reclaim his lands and his title after Richard took it from them 😛 (again, interesting symmetry: Richard breaks the ancient law of inheritance by forfeiting Bolingbroke’s lands after his father’s death, and then in turn Bolingbroke “inherits” the Crown from Richard after deposing him). Either way, there’s a lot of symmetry and inversion going on between both men, right down to their speech and their view on everything. It’s fascinating and it makes that tension ever more richer (and hence the way their relationship is often portrayed in productions).
Also, it still cracks me up/frustrates me how Richard absolutely milks his deposition scene. And then I remember how Northumberland and Bolingbroke looked as Richard went on and on in The Hollow Crown production and I’m all xD
But Shakespeare does such an amazing job in eliciting our sympathy for Richard. He’s not the greatest manager (just look at the coffers), his decision-making can be pretty poor, and he doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but I really felt for him as he found himself in a situation where he is not king, when all he’s ever known is being king. It’s interesting to pay attention to his speech before and after his deposition, the way he associates himself with the Crown, and then having to reach inwardly and figure out who he is without it.
So overall, I really developed a fascination, appreciation, and love for this play since the first time I read and encountered it. There’s just so much going on, the characters are layered and their motivations not always as clear as they seem. So yup, Richard II is officially one of my favourite Shakespeare plays now 🙂