Too Much of a Good Thing for King Richard II to Keep
Shakespeare wrote two series of historical plays. The first written was the end of the story (think Star Wars). He wrote the prequels later. Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King Richard II is the first play in the prequels–so the first of the entire series. The plays focus on the War of Roses–the conflict of power between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family.
King Richard II specifically focuses on Richard losing the first battle of the war and thus his crown and life. Richard is a young and foolish sovereign, spending his time and money in self-gratification.
To stop a battle of honor between his Lancaster cousin Bolingbroke and another peer, Richard II banishes them both from England. But Bolingbroke, at the death of his father, has inherited the title of the Duke of Lancaster and the property attached to it. Richard wants to battle Irish rebels, but his royal coffers are empty. He sees banished Bolingbroke’s property and titles as his funding solution. The new Duke thinks otherwise and returns to England to reclaim lands and property.
Shakespeare is subtle in portrayal of Bolingbroke’s motives: Is he come only as he and his followers (which includes just about everyone in England) claim: to gain his rightful properties wrongfully denied him? Or has he set his eyes on the crown? The Bard never reveals the answer, but raises the issue of right of kings and heredity. Bolingbroke proclaims his right to his lost property and Dukedom are inherited, just as Richard has inherited the throne. If Richard is due the Kingdom because of birth; Bolingbroke is Duke by that same principle. But it sounds like an argument of convenience, because in the end, Bolingbroke, Second Duke of Lancaster, demands the crown of Richard II, and becomes Henry IV. The Lancaster’s have taken the first round.
In Richard’s final days and hours, he is left to ponder kings and common men, and it seems almost that he has caught the wisdom so long alluding him. But it’s too late. He’s no longer king. He’s a prisoner, and he dies (in history, by starvation or murder; in the play, by murder most foul) in prison, but the consequences of “usurping” the power of a king lives on in violence and conspiracy through the rest of these history plays.
The war lasted some 30 years with ripples continuing for another decade, but for Shakespeare it lasted eight plays. Richard II is my second historical play in the march to read all of Shakespeare. I much prefer it to King John. Words that capture the message of the play for me are mistreating people is dangerous; power corrupts; even well meaning people are corrupted by power; power makes us selfish and wasteful; allegiance shifts easily from waning power to power waxing.
There’s an enjoyable 30-year-old production available for streaming through Amazon, and two lectures on it from Peter Saccio available as part of the Great Courses series Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. (I suspect the Great Courses lectures are available at most local libraries.)
(Later note: A grand and fascinating film adaptation recently aired on PBS Great Performances as part of “The Hollow Crown,” comprising productions of Richard II; King Henry IV, Parts One and Two; and Henry V. Accompanying the program, PBS put together a study guide for teachers and students.)
Quotes that appealed to me for various reasons (some of the best ones are too long to list here):
Norfolk: Until the heavens, envying earth’s good hap, add an immortal title to your crown! (Translation: “Until you die.” But Shakespeare says it so well.)
King Richard: Let’s purge this choler without letting blood; this we prescribe, though no physician; deep malice makes too deep incision: forget, forgive; conclude, and be agreed; our doctors say this is no time to bleed….
Norfolk: The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation.
Norfolk: Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; take honour from me, and my life is done….
Norfolk: …Truth hath a quiet breast.
Bolingbroke: …Grief makes one hour ten.
Gaunt: There is no virtue like necessity.
Northumberland: …Hope to joy is little less in joy than hope enjoy’d.
King Richard: 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?
Bishop of Carlisle: To fear the foe, since fear oppresseth strength, gives, in your weakness, strength unto your foe, and so your follies fight against yourself.
King Richard: He does me double wrong that wounds me with the flatteries of his tongue.
Gardener: They are; and Bolingbroke hath seiz’d the wasteful king.—Oh! What a 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 richness it confound itself: Had he done so to great and growing men, they might have liv’d 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 bourne the crown, which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.
King Richard: I’ll read enough, when I do see the very book indeed where all my sins are writ, and that’s myself.
King Richard: ‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within; and these external manners of laments are merely shadows to the unseen grief that swells with silence in the tortur’d soul; there lies the substance….
King Richard: The love of wicked friends converts to fear; that fear to hate; and hate turns one or both to worthy danger and deserved death.
York: But heaven hath a hand in these events, to whose high will we bound our calm contents.
Aumerle: My heart is not confederate with my hand. (Really? Is that possible?)
King Richard: Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke, and straight am nothing:—but whate’er I am, nor I, nor any man that but man is, with nothing shall be please’d till he be eas’d with being nothing.
King Richard: …How sour sweet music is when time is broke and no proportion kept! So is it in the music of men’s lives.
King Richard: This music mads me; let it sound no more; for though it have holp madmen to their wits, in me it seems it will make wise men mad. Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me! For ’tis a sign of love; and love to Richard is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.
King Richard: Mount, mount, my soul! They seat is up on high; whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die. Exton: As full of valor as of royal blood: Both have I spilt;—O, would the deed were good! For now the devil that told me I did well, says that this deed is chronicled in hell.
Bolingbroke: They love not poison that do poison need, nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead, I hate the murderer, love him murdered…I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land, to wash this blood off from my guilty hand….
Next Up (if you’re reading along): King Henry IV, First Part