There Is No Virtue Like Necessity

Richard II, Act I

Sir Isaac Asimov points out in his introduction that nearly two centuries pass between the end of King John and the start of Richard II. That makes for a lot of English history.

For standalone plays like King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth, the context seems to almost disappear.  It hardly matters that Lear is quasi-mythical, Hamlet is Danish and Macbeth is…I don’t even know what.  Which is not to say that deep background does not enhance the theater-going or armchair-critical experience.  It’s just that the stories are so broadly human and universal that they read like adult fairy tales.

Not so with the history plays.  Which is probably why they are known as the “history plays” and more middle and high schools don’t put them on.  Here the setting and background are crucial to understanding.  The nearest equivalent I can think of is a Catholic mass for the uninitiated (stand, kneel, pray, sit, repeat) or cricket (how many runs did you say?).  Each embodies a language and symbolism unique to it; to wander in without preparation is to risk confusion, boredom, misunderstanding – and worse.

Act I of Richard II offers a classic example.  The setup is steeped in codes of chivalry unique to the period.  Without a fundamental grounding in the knightly ethos, we can’t possibly comprehend where any of the key figures are coming from.

Take this speech from Mowbray, who has been accused of treason by Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV:

MOWBRAY: Take but my shame,

And I resign my gage.  My dear dear lord,

The purest treason mortal times afford

Is spotless reputation.  That away,

Men are but gilded loam or painted  clay.

A jewel in a ten-times-barred-up chest

Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.

Mine honor is my life, both grow in one;

Take honor from me, and my life is done.

Then, dear my liege, mine honor let me try;

In that I live, and for that will I die.

Mowbray is not just some narcissist overly concerned with how he’s viewed by others in the world.  He’s espousing a knightly code of behavior that has become more important to him than life itself.

It can be argued, perhaps, that such elitist  display was more about high-level social conformity within an exclusive club than about refined individual consciousness and spiritual refinement.  But that is to miss the broader point that without knowledge of the basis for chivalry in the Middle Ages, all of this would be lost upon the reader/theatergoer.

Bolimbroke’s responses are equally classic for that era.  He has accused Mowbray of high treason before the king and must now live up to his words.  Rather than back down and restore peace, he’s willing to stand up and joust to establish once and for all the moral highground – even at the expense of his own life.

This is high-stakes poker here and the king calls them both out on the bluff. Or is it a bluff?  Shakespeare does not tip his hand this early.  We have no way of knowing whether Bolimbroke has sussed out a royal threat, or whether Mowbray has been falsely accused for reasons that lie utterly beyond our reach.

All we can know we discover near the end of the act, when the king halts the manly display of valor (or stupidity, depending on your point of view) and banishes both men for extended periods of time (Bolimbroke for ten years, amended to six; Mowbray for the rest of his life).

Entering Act II, the play can go either direction.  Even if we know in advance that Bolimbroke is destined to become yet another in a growing line of Henrys, we cannot fathom from his actions whether this is due to extreme justice or malice .  Are we witnessing the unfolding of a devious scheme to unseat the king – or the preventing of his overthrow?

The one firm fact we can assert so far is that the crown now sits precariously upon King Richard II’s head.  How long it will stay there, we can only discover by turning the page and beginning Act II.

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