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October Books 14) Richard II

14) Richard II, by William Shakespeare

After a run of comedies and tragedies, we're back with the history plays (though this one was in fact explicitly billed on first publication as The tragedie of King Richard the second). The plot is pretty simple: King Richard II starts the play by exiling his cousin Henry, who then returns and overthrows him, with Richard killed by one of Henry's overzealous supporters at the end.

It's a bit different from the three Henry VI plays. Apart from the last act (which has the rather odd York/Aumerle murder conspiracy subplot), I felt that there was almost too little attention to historical detail; it's not at all clear why Richard is so very bad, let alone why the nobles and commons desert him for Henry as rapidly as they do. Richard, indeed, is a rather sympathetic character, getting several of the better speeches in the play - while he is being overthrown, and just before he is murdered. The other famous speech, of course, is John of Gaunt's oration about England ("this blessed spot, this earth, this realm, this England"), declaimed while waiting for Richard to turn up to Gaunt's deathbed.

Besides the set-piece speeches, the most interesting scene is at the end of Act 3, when Richard's Queen learns of his overthrow by listening to the gardener gossiping. (This is the third Shakespeare play in a row with people hiding in foliage - Romeo does it in Romeo and Juliet, and three of the four male leads do so in Love's Labour's Lost.) There are lots of good bits here but they don't quite knit together.

The Arkangel production is decent enough - lots of big names (Rupert Graves as Richard, Julian Glover as Henry) but I actually found it rather hard to get through.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love's Labour's Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night's Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All's Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter's Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 19th, 2008 08:36 pm (UTC)
Here through friendsfriends and will not introduce myself by giving you My Thoughts on Richard II because that will take a very long time and be frightening. (My PhD thesis is about 16th-c depictions of Richard II.)

But I do want to point out that the Arkangel Richard II isn't great. Much, much better is the version done for BBC 3 seven or eight years ago; it stars Sam West as Richard and Damian Lewis as Henry, and Joss Ackland shows up as Gaunt. Unlike the Arkangels, the BBC Radio Shakespeares generally sound like an actual play rather than a bunch of people reading scripts, even when they are rather famous people reading scripts.
Oct. 19th, 2008 08:43 pm (UTC)
The Globe production that was shown on BBC 3 a few years ago was well done. I think it was Mark Rylance as Richard and John McEnery as John of Gaunt. It had a few quirks (all male production for a start) but my favourite scene is when McEnery comes back as one of the gardeners and a jet flies over head and he manages to make himself heard over it without raising his voice. I have an urge to wave that performance at various TV actors.
Oct. 19th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
There are some scenes here. :)
Oct. 20th, 2008 01:04 am (UTC)
Yes, it was Mark Rylance as Richard -- I saw it in the Globe. I have to say I found it completely compelling, except for the men-playing-women who spoke way too fast.

The play reminds me a lot of Macbeth or Lear. There's a single poor decision, made early on, that reflects a deep failing in the protagonist's character, and the rest is a remorseless working out of the consequences of the decision.

John Julius Norwich's Shakespeare's Kings is pretty interesting on Richard II. (It might be worth your while getting in general, since you're doing this project). It identifies his big mistake as being not banishing Henry but disinheriting him -- the claim that a king could disinherit anyone was a direct challenge to the aristocracy, and one that Richard didn't seem to realise he was making in his petulance. If you understand that the nobles thought he was claiming powers that could destroy them, the fact that they flocked to Henry's side so quickly makes a lot of sense.
Oct. 19th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC)
Long after studying this in school I read Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror", and learned that John of Gaunt was widely loathed in England, and nothing like the venerable figure of the play. I found this amusing.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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