Shakespeare’s Richard II is not often produced, so I was intrigued to find it included in the BBC series The Hollow Crown, which includes all the plays pertaining to Henry IV and V. I’m coming late to the party, since Richard II was first televised in 2012.
“The hollow crown” is drawn from one of Richard’s speeches on kingship:
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…
This sumptuous production is stunning. It keeps to the auspicious middle ground between filmed stage performance and hyperrealistic over-adaptation. The costumes and sets feel convincing and give a sense of stark grandeur, but they never detract from the performances. Visually, the production is lovely, with many scenes filmed outdoors. Director Rupert Goold occasionally brings the camera in too close, but for the most part the direction is superb.
I first read Richard II as a girl, and even then, before I understood much about the history, I was struck by the beauty of its language. It is one of only two Shakespeare plays written entirely in verse, and includes many more rhyming couplets than the other all-verse play, King John.
Richard is a difficult character to bring to life. In the play, he is a strange hybrid of king and poet, dreamily soliloquizing on his own predicament in one lyrical speech after another. At first he seems indolent and helpless, even frivolous. Not good qualities for a king, and yet one feels sympathy for him. He is a creature of a past age, outmoded, yet with a mythic power that grows as the play glides toward its inevitable conclusion.
In accord with Tudor ideology, Shakespeare shows Richard to be an unjust and unfit king. Richard based his authority entirely on his status as God’s anointed representative on earth, surely not a workable model of kingship, even if the medieval idea of the “divine right of kings” was to be briefly embraced centuries later, by James I in England and Louis XIV in France. And yet, the genius of Shakespeare is such that he endows Richard with a convincingly otherworldly mystique, so that the men who depose him seem, at certain moments, impious and brutish.
[Note: what follows includes a plot summary.]
The play begins in Richard’s court, where he sits rigidly in solemn majesty as two dukes, Hereford and Mowbray, come before him to accuse each other of treason.
Purefoy is amazing in the small role of Mowbray–passionate, gruff and deliciously manly. I found myself wishing he would show up again later on, despite the text of the play! It’s difficult to tell which of the two men is in the right. Each seems utterly sincere in his protestations of loyalty and love for his Majesty, yet neither is willing to back down. They draw Richard’s ire by refusing to give up their quarrel, so he finally decrees a trial by combat.
The planned joust comes to nothing when Richard suddenly decides to banish both men, his cousin Hereford for ten years, but Mowbray for life. Before embarking on his permanent exile, Mowbray prophetically tells Hereford:
But what thou art, God, thou, and I do know;
And all too soon, I fear, the king shall rue.
Hereford’s father is John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and uncle to the King. He bitterly protests that he will be dead before his son is able to return, but while the King is willing to reduce the sentence by four years, he will not relent in the matter of exile.
Hereford, also known as Henry Bolingbroke, duly leaves for France. The young Aumerle, son of the Duke of York, gladly sees him off. Aumerle is played by Tom Hughes, who sulks and pouts his way through the play. I used one of the few screen caps where he looks like a young, comely and confused lad rather than a vacuous, smirking fashion model just begging to be slapped.
Meanwhile John of Gaunt falls ill, as expected. Richard callously welcomes the news:
Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Patrick Stewart gets to deliver one of the best speeches, an impassioned praise of his native land:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
[He still hasn’t even finished the subject of the sentence, but the gist is that Richard has “leased out” dear old England to pay for his extravagances.]
Poor Gaunt perishes, and Richard proceeds to confiscate his lands, outraging the other nobles who feel that the banished Bolingbroke has been cheated of his inheritance. Even the loyal York protests, but the King will not listen. He leaves York in charge and departs for Ireland. Meanwhile the nobles, led by Northumberland, begin to plot.
Richard’s Queen soon has a premonition of disaster. Director Goold portrays Richard’s favorite, Bushy, as a painter who is creating her portrait. This matches the historical Richard’s known interest in the arts and culture.
Sure enough, Bolingbroke has decided to return to England in arms in order to demand his inheritance. He chooses an opportune moment, while Richard is absent. York confronts his nephew with his clearly treasonous behavior, but has no choice but to yield.
Loyal to Richard, the Earl of Salisbury attempts to muster an army of Welshmen, but they tire of waiting for Richard’s return, and believe rumors that he is dead. The Welshmen (ca. 1390) are portrayed as woad-smeared, primitive Celts who wear small furry animals on their heads as ornaments. But for all that, they have the good sense not to back Richard.
Richard arrives at last, only to be met by one discouraging piece of news after another. A few men are still loyal, but his favorites Bushy and Green have been captured and executed by Bolingbroke (the actual executions are rather gruesomely shown in the film), and his troops have abandoned him.
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…
Richard retreats to Flint Castle, where he is besieged with overwhelming force by Henry, who still protests, though not convincingly, that he only wants his inheritance back. Richard makes a remarkable appearance in golden armor, and bravely demands the fealty and submission of his subjects, including the disrespectful Northumberland:
We are amazed; and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
Unimpressed, Northumberland announces Henry’s return, and Richard, inwardly writhing with indignation, fear, and humiliation, promises to grant Henry’s demands.
This scene got a little weird and claustrophobic for me. Due to Richard’s conical helmet, his position on the castle wall, and the extreme closeups on Richard’s face from various angles, it felt a bit like watching Monty Python’s Holy Grail while on a bad drug trip.
Meanwhile the worried Queen hears from a humble gardener that her husband has been deposed.
Richard is escorted back to London under the watchful eye of his enemies, where he agrees to abdicate in favor of Henry. The long scene where Richard hands over his crown is one of the most powerful in both film and text. The references to Richard as a Christlike martyr now begin to multiply; this seems justified by the text, since Richard speaks of his enemies as Judases and Pilates. Keeping to a strategy that would have been recognized by Shakespeare’s audience as Machiavellian, Henry begins the farce by stipulating that Richard’s capitulation must be public and “lawful”:
Fetch hither Richard, that in common view
He may surrender; so we shall proceed
Veering between pathos and sharp irony, Richard describes his confusion at finding himself dethroned. In real life, he had been king since the age of ten, so his sudden transformation into a non-king, something he had not thought possible, must have been a profound shock.
Alack, why am I sent for to a king,
Before I have shook off the regal thoughts
Wherewith I reign’d? I hardly yet have learn’d
To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my limbs:
Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me
To this submission. Yet I well remember
The favours of these men: were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry, ‘all hail!’ to me?
So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve,
Found truth in all but one: I, in twelve thousand, none.
Richard mockingly yet tearfully invites Henry to “seize the crown,” adding:
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
When Northumberland demands that Richard read a “confession” of all his crimes, Richard asks how he would feel about doing the same:
If thou wouldst,
There shouldst thou find one heinous article,
Containing the deposing of a king…
The scene ends with Richard’s request to look into a mirror, which he dashes to the ground in signal of his own ruin. Then he asks one boon of the new King:
Richard: Then give me leave to go.
Richard: Whither you will, so I were from your sights.
Henry: Go, some of you convey him to the Tower.
Henry takes this timely opportunity to announce his own coronation the following Wednesday. Rory Kinnear, who plays Henry, is a classically-trained actor best known for his movie performances in the James Bond films Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. He won an Olivier award for his Iago this year in the National’s celebrated production of Othello. I find his performance as Henry slightly too restrained and stolid. We are never quite sure what Henry is thinking. Sometimes he seems to be hiding his uncertainty beneath a mask of manly impassivity. But it’s a difficult role: Shakespeare does not allow Henry to speak his real thoughts, which must be considerably more complicated than the facile declarations of loyalty he makes, even as he is committing high treason. And this is very much Richard’s play.
In the end, Kinnear’s glowering restraint works as a counterpoint to Richard’s manic effusiveness. Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 will not do much more to enlighten us as to Henry’s character, since they are mostly devoted to Henry’s son, Prince Hal.
At first it seems that with Richard’s abdication, the climax of the play has passed, but there are further twists to the story. Henry is not satisfied with his triumph, even though the populace joyously welcomes him while throwing dirt and rubbish on the hated Richard. Henry longs for the security that Richard’s death would bring. Meanwhile, plots are afoot.
In the Tower, Richard has a moving farewell scene with Isabella before she is sent to France and he to imprisonment in Pomfret castle. The kisses and dialogue between Richard and Isabella speak of a loving, even amorous relationship. This is interesting because Henry’s list of charges against loyalists Bushy and Green had suggested that the childless Richard was a homosexual:
You have in manner with your sinful hours
Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him,
Broke the possession of a royal bed
And stain’d the beauty of a fair queen’s cheeks
With tears drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs.
The Duke of York discovers that his son Aumerle has been involved in a plot to restore Richard to the throne. His wife the Duchess begs him not to reveal Aumerle’s treason to the new King, but York indignantly refuses. Lindsay Duncan plays the Duchess with great passion, in a cameo performance to rival that of James Purefoy in the beginning of the play.
Why, York, what wilt thou do?
Wilt thou not hide the trespass of thine own?
Have we more sons? Or are we like to have?
Is not my teeming date drunk up with time?
And wilt thou pluck my fair son from mine age,
And rob me of a happy mother’s name?
Is he not like thee? Is he not thine own?
Mother, father and son end up in Henry’s hall, with the two spouses arguing vociferously over Aumerle’s fate. Henry cannot withstand the Duchess’ zeal to save her only son, and perhaps all too aware of his own shortcomings, finally replies, “I pardon him, as God shall pardon me.” David Suchet turned in a fine performance as York, but I could not help wishing that Ciarán Hinds had been cast instead. He would have made a more physically imposing York, and he has great chemistry with Lindsay Duncan, who played Servilia to his Caesar in HBO’s Rome.
Here Goold makes a significant change in the received text. Shakespeare has a minor character, Exton, and a servant undertake to kill Richard, after they hear Henry say, “Will no one rid me of this living fear?” (Shades of Henry II, who is supposed to have said of Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”) In this production, it is Aumerle who agrees to kill Richard in order to redeem himself in Henry’s eyes. I found this inconsistent with Aumerle’s character, since throughout the play he is loyal to Richard. And yet, he is young and afraid for his life, so the change is not far-fetched. It also wraps up the plot more neatly than the original.
We find Richard imprisoned and naked in Pomfret Castle, still musing on his circumstances. This is the scene I remember best from my early readings of the play. Richard crafts an extended metaphor comparing his thoughts to little people he has created:
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented.
In the original, Richard is quite physically robust, and well able to defend himself against assault. When Exton comes with two minions to murder him, Richard snatches away an axe and kills two of them before Exton dispatches him. His final words are these:
Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high;
Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.
Goold’s vision is a very different one. He gives Richard’s martyrdom visual force by having the three attackers shoot him with crossbows. Richard’s emaciated body is pierced with arrows like that of Saint Stephen, whose portrait appeared early in the production as one of Bushy’s paintings in progress. That Sebastian is a gay icon suggests that Director Goold upholds the interpretation of Richard as a homosexual.
Back at the court, Henry’s throne room is strewn with the heads of his enemies by Northumberland and Fitzwater. The conspirators loyal to Richard have been rooted out and killed, though Carlisle is pardoned by Henry because “high sparks of honour in thee I have seen.” Aumerle then drags in the coffin containing Richard, and proclaims, with a sickeningly uncertain smile, that he has rid the King of his “living fear.” But instead of reacting with pleasure, Henry is stunned, and leans down to caress the bloodied brow of his predecessor. Perhaps now that he too is an anointed king, it seems quite a different matter to murder one. Stricken with remorse, he vows a pilgrimage:
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow:
Come, mourn with me for that I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent:
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand:
March sadly after; grace my mournings here;
In weeping after this untimely bier.
So ends the tragedy of Richard II. Just in case we didn’t get the point, Goold ends with a shot from above of Richard’s Christlike, emaciated body in its coffin. It looks like poor Ben Whishaw had to go on a liquid diet for a few months before filming this…