Richard the Second

Here’s the thing: You can cut the first two scenes out of this play entirely.  It should just start with the duel between the Duke of Norfolk and Henry Bolingbroke.  Really, the play needs as much action as it can get, and the major flaw in it is the amount of talking that people do for the first half instead of actually doing things.  King Richard II’s strategy, as a rebellious army marches toward his refuge in Wales, is to “fight with gentle words Till time lends us friends, and friends their helpful swords.”  That is the problem with the play as a whole, really.  Building up constantly to action that never happens.

Like one of those pretentious yet hollow art house films. Yes, I went there.

But I find that Richard II has a surprising amount of saving graces.  The first is simply the  awesomeness of the lines.  There is, admittedly, too much talking.  But the talking in that first half includes some epic lyricism, including the threat of war as a “crimson tempest,” and life  as “this frail sepulcher of our flesh.”  But after so many scenes that fail to deliver on a promise of action – a duel that is resolved peacefully, a siege that is averted – the action bursts forth in the final act.  And though the first half of this play does drag through muddy politics and interchangeable names, that final act reaches beautifully into personal relationships and bursts forth with spectacular urgency.  The plot is, simply, Henry Bolingbroke returns from exile to usurp the throne of England from a young and unscrupulous Richard II.  It’s a strange conflict, since this Richard is nowhere near evil as we see in other kings.

The same way that Communists are just lame villains after a lifetime of fighting Nazis

And the play ends with a number of explosive scenes, including an ominous account of Henry IV’s violent purges – the heads of Oxford, Salisbury, Blunt and Kent, among others, are put up on spikes.  Only the Bishop of Carlisle is spared, although he prophesies the violent events of the War of the Roses: “The blood of English shall manure the ground, And future ages groan for this foul act.”  Richard is imprisoned at Pomfret Castle, where he is driven nearly insane by solitary confinement.  His soliloquy is a fascinating study of a suicidal mind: “My brain I’ll prove a female to my soul, My soul the father: and these two beget A generation of still-breeding thoughts.”  He dies trying to escape, in a sudden burst of violence that highlights how fantastic the final act is.

Much like a Darren Aronofsky film.

But my favortite scenes happen between the Duke of York, the Duchess of York, and the Duke of Aumerle.  It is a brilliant scene between father, mother, and son, respectively.  Aumerle is a friend of the former King Richard, and suddenly the Duke of York discovers a letter implicating his son in a conspiracy against the new king.  The Duchess pleads for her son’s life, but the Duke is willing to condemn his son to death rather than betray the new king.  The energy of the Duke preparing to ride off and warn Henry, while his wife pleads and his son stands awkwardly by, is astounding.  I found it especially interesting to compare the way York insults his wife in this argument, compared to the loving way that Richard and his Queen fight in an earlier scene.  But even more amazing is the following scene where the three family members come to the king and plead for a favorable resolution.

It has the tenseness of a Spaghetti Western duel.

Overall, it is a dark and brooding play.  But it is an interesting play, and not entirely worthless as I expected it to be from it’s reputation.  I suppose it would be tempting to put it into an abstract world, supplementing the wordiness with Brechtian terror and spectacle, matching the mental anguish of its titular protagonist.  And to be honest I would probably do it like that.  But I think that you could easily place it in a far more realistic world as well, as long as you have a compelling actor in the lead either way.

Still, a nondescript, minimalist wasteland could be fun.

It also highlights the character of Henry V, who does not appear onstage but is mentioned briefly in that final act.  The wonton youth of that prince finally makes sense from this one moment, because you realize that Henry is just a spoiled brat, not expecting to ever truly be in line to rule a country.  But Bolingbroke usurps the throne in the middle of Henry’s rebellious youth, and suddenly the teen is expected to actually be something.  So I think that quote will be my final quote for the evening: “Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?  ‘Tis full three months since I did see him last: – If any plague hang over us, tis he.  I would to God, my lords he might be found: Inquire at London, ‘mongst the taverns there, For there, they say, he daily doth frequent With unrestrained loose companions.”  Three months have gone by!  The kid probably is too stoned to realize that his scheming father stole the throne.  In the context of the following hstory plays, it really does enlighten the character.

It's like if Sid Vicious suddenly found out he was next in line to be king.

Fair warning: I’m probably going to do a long string of comedies in the coming weeks.

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