Richard II, by William Shakespeare
One of the more intriguing aspects of the relationship between drama and politics in Elizabethan England is the way that a performance of this play wound up endangering the lives and well-being of Shakespeare and other members of his acting troop when they were paid by some conspirators to host the play as a way of justifying a coup attempt against Elizabeth I and her advisers. Writers often exist in a dangerous position, especially when, as is the case here, the author’s writing has some kind of political topicality. I know I have faced the same sort of difficulties myself without being nearly as good a writer as Shakespeare nor as prominent within my own place and time. Still, this particular story, an early example of poetic drama that was an elevated discussion of the beginning of the troubled period that finished off the Plantagenet house and led to generations of civil discord punctuated by brief attempts to get the English to bury the hatchet by engaging in foreign warfare (against France). This play is not the first one written in the double set of four plays about the wars of the Roses, but it is certainly the first one in chronological order and deserves to be remembered.
This particular volume is very similar to the rest of the volumes of this particular series (the Royal Shakespeare Company) that I have been reading in this particular go-round of reading Shakespeare’s plays, something I do from time to time. The introduction contains some notes on Richard II as a lyric tragedy, the connection between the play and Essex, and the importance of the king’s two bodies. After this there are some notes about the text, some key facts, a copy of a folio-based text for the play that takes up 100 pages, as well as some textual notes and quarto passages that do not appear in the folio as well as some oaths from the quarto that were removed as well. After this comes a scene-by-scene analysis followed by the usual discussion of Richard II in performance at the RSC and beyond, which looks at an overview of how the play was staged, along with some interviews with directors and one of the performers (in this case Fiona Shaw) who played the somewhat feminine Richard II. After that comes a look at Shakespeare’s career in the theater, a chronology of Shakespeare’s works, and various other supplementary material like the kings and queens of England, a chronology of history during the period the plays are set in, further reading and viewing, references, and acknowledgments and picture credits.
In looking at Richard II as a play, I am struck personally by the way that it reveals some of the most unpleasant truths of power and authority in ways that have massive repercussions. For one, Richard II’s attacks against the security of property held by his high nobles, many of whom (like his eventual successor) were relatives, ultimately made his own position more insecure as it denied him the support of powerful high nobles who could be relied upon to support his royal prerogative. This is a similar problem that King John had, and is one of the things that made the Plantagenet house as well as later successors rather less sure on the throne than that of other rival monarchs who did not need to gain the support of such powerful subjects to the extent that England’s royals have. I am also struck by the way in which respect for the office and respect for the officeholder are such problematic matters for the cautious Shakespeare, who shows plenty of fragility and weakness among his royal figures (see, for example, Henry VI) but also points out that the alternative of instability in coups and attempts to overthrow rulers only lead to a lack of legitimacy because positions of power become the spoils of conflict between rival elites or groups of elites, to the suffering of everyone else. There is much that this play has to tell us if we will only listen to its poetic and tragic message.