Archive for the Richard II Category

I Wasted Time, and Now Doth Time Waste Me

Posted in Richard II with tags , , on 2014/03/30 by mattermind

Richard II, Act V


Modern audiences have become so accustomed to sequels that many of us now wait until the end of the closing credits just for a tacked-on bonus scene to tease us for the next installment. While this may seem a decadent byproduct of a Hollywood movie industry in steep decline, it will probably surprise you to encounter the same sort of shenanigans at the end of a Shakespeare history, laying pipe (as screenwriter’s call it) for the sequel by foreshadowing hard times in Henry IV’s near future.

I still find Richard II baffling at the end of the play – both the story and the character. it feels like the middle volume in a trilogy, the tweener neither introducing nor wrapping up the plot’s central conflict. Succession sagas by now have jumped the shark. Richard II is neither heroic nor despicable and definitely not leading-man material. The actions and their consequences are hardly edge-of-the-seat exciting. Even NBC might have to pull the plug. This is not your Blockbuster Event Thrill-Ride of the Summer.

I believe the fault (if indeed it’s a fault) lies with character and not the action. Richard for my money is too wishy-washy for audiences either to fear or sympathize with. His greed and ego prove his undoing, failing to endear him with his subjects…or us. In Act V he gets murdered by a couple of Henry’s lackeys and I confess to not getting worked up about it. Even the play’s central tragic plotpoint turns on an accidental misunderstanding. Yawn.

Must not have been sweeps week at the Globe.

Not knowing the history behind Henry IV’s reign, I can only guess that things will not go so well moving forward. When the inevitable happens, I’ll surely experience an epiphany tracing back to Richard II when I shout out – hopefully not in a crowded theater – how now I understand why, alas, poor Henry was fated to the horrors that befall him.

For now, I’m left with few fond memories of Richard, but certainly with a great deal of exciting dread for the new guy on the throne, Henry. Richard II may ultimately have been a bit of a letdown, but I have high hopes for Richard II: II.

Coming this April to a blog near you. Rated PG13. Viewer discretion advised.


What Subject Can Give Sentence On His King?

Posted in Richard II with tags , , , on 2014/03/28 by mattermind

Richard II, Act IV

Act IV is remarkably short, but adds in oddity what it lacks with brevity.

Backed into a corner, Richard chooses to flee rather than fight a battle he will clearly lose.  Although he is advised that there is more honor in noble defeat than cowardly retreat, he proves a non-starter in the knightly credo.

It’s fitting, after all, for he has engendered the anger of his subjects by being both haughty and self-serving. So it’s doubtful that he will fulfill any commitment to spiritual seeking in his self-imposed isolation.  And, indeed, he sends word to Bolingbroke that will surrender the crown of his own accord and allow the newly-minted Henry IV to send him off whither he will (only to have that turn out to be a short trip to the Tower – yikes.)

Yet Bolingbroke/Henry proves unlike many we have seen in his place.  Not only does he wish no harm unto the deposed king, but he even offers to surrender his claims should Richard merely restore the lands and property that had been rashly seized.  Coming from such a position of strength, it naturally causes quite the stir among Bolingbroke loyalists.  Why bend to his knee now when he has all the momentum to become the new king?

Henry, it seems, knows very well that his actions reinforce a dubious slippery slope that could very well come back to bite him later on.  For what’s to stop the next ambitious type from rising up, gathering followers, and taking rule away from him in turn?

This is where Richard’s sudden and complete abdication in favor of Henry becomes weird.  Because he doesn’t just hand over the crown as he proclaims, but rather he curses Henry and the legacy to follow in a way that can only leave the reader thinking, “Sore loser.”  And yet…the reader also gets the feeling that Shakespeare is setting something up.  And of course, he already knows the history. 

Stay through the credits because there’s a bonus scene (or two) to come.  Shakespeare is already laying the groundwork for the sequel.

Bid Time Return

Posted in Richard II with tags , , , , on 2014/03/27 by mattermind

Richard II, Act III

Many noteworthy novels, plays and movies have taken their titles from lines of Shakespeare – too many to list here (for a complete rundown, see WIKI.) When I stumbled upon the following quote from Richard II, “O call back yesterday, bid time return,” I knew at last where Richard Matheson drew his own title for what became the memorable film, Somewhere In Time.

The original novel, if you can find it, is called, of course, “Bid Time Return.” I tracked it down a long time ago and devoured it, in part because of its fantastic premise, but also because Matheson was one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century (if you doubt me, ask Stephen King).

For those of you unfamiliar with the novel or the movie, this might be a good place to start:

I most remember the novel for a detail that doesn’t end up in the movie. When Richard retreats to an historic hotel to contemplate man’s mortality and the meaning of life, he takes with him the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler. I had only vaguely known about Mahler before then, but afterwards he became my favorite composer. More than that, one of the most important artistic figures in my life.

I owe that connection to Mr. Matheson, but really so much more. I got to meet him and thank him personally at a screenwriting conference in which he confessed that the inspiration for the story was his beloved wife. Known mostly for his writing on The Twilight Zone and groundbreaking novels of suspense and psychological horror (again, see: King, Stephen) – he winked at the audience and said that every so many years he wrote a love story just for her.

You might know one of these stories since it too is based on a line of Shakespeare: What Dreams May Come.

This is perhaps an overly long introduction to Act III of Richard II. But it’s far too short a reminder of how remarkable a man and writer Richard Matheson was.  He is and will be deeply missed.

As for Richard II, he is neither highly regarded nor much sought after in his absence, save for a small band of loyal followers who are either abdicating to Bolingbroke or losing their heads. The question lingers whether Bolingbroke has a right to do what he’s doing – at least from a legal standpoint. Richard is still hung up about his moral authority as God’s chosen vassal.  He has uttered a few odd curses upon Bolingbroke that to my ears harken back to similar foreboding in Richard III (a play that was written prior to Richard II, though the latter chronologically precedes it).

Richard, however, has an interesting reaction as he slowly wraps his mind around the concept that he is being stripped of his authority. It comes as a bracing shock to him that he might, in fact, be a mere mortal after all, just like everyone else.  He seems to savor the bittersweet schadenfreude of his pending demotion, saying with self-deprecating sarcasm:

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?

The revelation in humility would be refreshing if genuine.  But it sounds more like pouting as Richard bemoans his misfortune at the hands of Bolingbroke – neglecting, mind, all he personally did to rile his subjects to turn against him.

Like it or not, however, the question remains, whether what Bolingbroke is just.  Will his actions right the foundering ship of England – or invite ruin upon the land by his quest to unseat a standing king?

We are still a ways from the end…and a definitive resolution.

Most Degenerate King!

Posted in Richard II on 2014/03/26 by mattermind

Richard II, Act II

The most notable aspect of the play so far is how un-absolute the English king’s rule has become.  Richard – or any other royal for that matter – no longer wields power by fiat alone.  If he abuses the people through excess taxation, or the barons through favoritism or botched military strategy, he runs the risk of alienating his dominion and having to scramble for cover.

We learn pretty quickly that Richard II is such a king.  He has the idea in his head that his title has been ordained by God – but it doesn’t take long for him to be disabused of this notion.  As the play unfolds, it’s interesting to track the subtextual arguments underpinning a monarch’s right to rule…and whether his subjects have justice on their side by overthrowing him should they feel betrayed.

The word TREASON gets tossed around a lot.  Do something the king doesn’t like and you might lose your head.  On the other hand, if you rally enough support to your cause, you just might run the king out on the rails (An anachronism?).  Note the constant push and pull here.  But the bottom line remains: to be top-dog is to have a tenuous hold (at best) on the levers of power.

The Magna Carta, of course, forever altered expectations between the governed and the governor.  The rise of parliament, too, created a new class of legally-empowered gentry who at least now make passing reference to justice.  An established tradition – historical precedent – stretches back to William the Conqueror, encompassing such great individuals as Alfred the Great and Richard Lionheart, setting a standard about how a great leader ought to behave.

A perpetual power struggle also exists among monarchs on the international stage.  For England, this means not only corralling its own acquired territories but also to fend off such pesky rivals as France. 

The Scots, Welsh and Irish too are constantly causing headaches, perpetually in rebellion against English overreach of authority.

Added to these woes, the king must deal with rising expectations among the people, what With the slow, steady emergence of an eventually post-feudalism economy. Willy-nilly taxation is no longer tolerated, especially when the money is squandered on nepotism and bad foreign policy.

Richard, remarkably, managed to combine most of the above.  He now decides to break the camel’s back by seizing banished Bolingbroke’s assets in order to finance an ill-advised campaign in Ireland.  He is warned that this might be a step too far – but goes straight ahead and does it anyway; for him that’s one of the many advantage to being king.  But it boomerangs when Bolingbroke violates his banishment to launch a coups whilst the king is away.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on.  But for me, it all boils down to the reality that the sovereign can’t rest on his laurels. Dynastic legacy is not enough.

Richard has taken executive privilege too far.

There Is No Virtue Like Necessity

Posted in Richard II on 2014/03/23 by mattermind

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.

Don’t Know Much About History…

Posted in Context, Richard II with tags on 2014/03/18 by mattermind

I thought it would be a simple matter to make the jump from King John to Richard II. And then I ran into the 100 Years War, the Black Plague, the rise of chivalry, the Peasant’s Revolt, the growing power of parliament…eh, boy.

The decision to use Shakespeare’s historical plays as a springboard into English history has turned out to be a monumental decision with life-changing ramifications. My entire sense of the period between the fall of Rome and the flourishing of the Italian Renaissance has now been irrevocably changed.

I have no idea how a reasonably educated person with a Bachelor’s degree in German and a Master’s in the Great Books could have escaped these crucial concepts. I mean, I studied Western Civ as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon and UCLA. But somehow the meaning of it all, how it tied together escaped me.

To repeat: yes, I knew about the majority of these ideas individually. I recall cramming for tests on Medieval history that included the 100 Years War and Peasant’s Revolt. But I couldn’t tell you then and surely didn’t remember now what started them, what they were about, or why they remain important to this day. Or how the Magna Carta led indirectly to the rise of parliament and that the Church had been fractured long before the Protestant Reformation. Maybe I just needed distance. And maturity. And not to be forcing it down my own throat for an exam.

I used to think the Dark Ages were pretty much “dark” until the rediscoveries of the Renaissance and scientific revolution. Now I know that the process was much different, that changes were occurring all along, and that the thread did not run exclusively through continental Europe.

I have a lot of work to do! I’ll pick up with my reading of Richard II just as soon as I have a grasp on the context of what’s going on during that period.

This is the reason we must revolutionize education and make it more integrated, synergistic, chronological and contextual. Whoever came up with the notion of isolating subjects and teaching them as individual units must have pioneered the assembly line. There’s just no way you can really understand — truly comprehend — the sweep, scope and overall meaning of art, science, philosophy, poetry, music, you-name-it without invoking the gestalt, the zeitgeist, the (why isn’t there a proper English word for this?) Great Conversation of history.

Okay, enough of my spiel. At least you got the great Sam Cooke out of it. 🙂