16 September 2014

Richard II

 So, I know I said that first stop in the histories would be King John, but then I found about The Hollow Crown and got it at the library. Because of that, I'll be writing up Richard II and the Henrys IV and V. Admittedly, I checked it out partly because Tom Hiddleston plays Prince Hal/Henry V, but I started with the first one in the batch, Richard II, and it blew me away. Incredible play, incredible production. As plays are always easier to watch than read, it helped to watch the film, then read the play, as I could then hold the structure in my mind better. The Hollow Crown's production cuts a minor scene in the first act, and switches the character who assassinates Richard (which has great dramatic affect, admittedly--I can understand why they made that particular choice). There are a few added scenes with no lines to fill in the gaps between scenes, sketching out the action that's only told of.

Richard II is Shakespeare's account of the end of Richard II's reign, when he was deposed by the man who became King Henry IV. Richard's story is that of a king who devoutly believes in the doctrine of rule by divine right. Unfortunately for Richard, he listens to flatterers who are not as wise as his older advisors, raises taxes too high, and heads off to fight in a war in Ireland, leaving his country under the protection of his uncle, who remains rather unfortunately neutral when Richard's banished cousin Henry Bolingbroke turns up to reclaim his dukedom (but really, to seize the throne). When he returns from Ireland to find that most of his people are vocally (and militarily) supportive of Henry, he reluctantly relinquishes his crown. For his pains, he is thrown in prison and later assassinated.

Of course, the true situation was a little more complex and took a bit longer than than Shakespeare's two-three hour depiction. Apparently the ruinous tax situation was longer-lived than the few months or so in the play--Richard had not been very popular for a while. It's a lesson in caution to those monarchs who ruled by divine will--they also ruled at the will of the people, and the people should have been considered more than they were.

This is my first real foray into Shakespeare's histories. I've read Macbeth (excellent play), but other than watching bits of Henry V, I hadn't really considered the histories. And they are well worth consideration. The language is incredible. I almost feel like saying, "Screw the comedies, the histories are much better!" (True, I haven't read all of them yet, so we shall see. If this is a fair sample, then yes, the histories are much better written). There are lines in Richard II which I recognize but had never known came from this play. There is an ode to England so beautiful that it nearly makes one weep; the scene when Richard abdicates is wrenching; the moment when he realizes he will lose his crown is exquisitely painful.

Our next stop in the histories will be Henry IV, Part I, followed by Part II. Henry IV is also a great play and I look forward to discussing it.

Quote (I liked a lot in this play, so we'll just do one quote this time, to save space)

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred 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.
                       John of Gaunt, Richard II Act II, Scene 1,40-50

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