- Possibly written: 1595. Chambers has it as his 11th play.
- What’s it about? King Richard II keeps pissing off Lancasters John of Gaunt and his son Henry Bolingbroke. John dies and Harry gets banished, but comes back and overthrows and imprisons the king, making himself Henry IV. Richard is killed in prison in sketchy circumstances and Henry seemingly feels bad.
- Most famous dialogue: The “this sceptre’d isle” speech.
- Sources: Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York. Samuel Daniel's poem on the civil wars.
- Interesting fact about the play: Richard actually just starved to death in prison, but that’s not very dramatic, so Shakespeare contrives a big fight and a stab in the back. Basically Shakespeare is stealing the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket from 200 years earlier, having Henry muse aloud that it would be great if Richard were dead, and then feigning horror when one of his supporters decides to make that wish come true.
- Best insult: Of the Irish: We must supplant those rough rug-headed kerns which live like venom where no venom else
- Best word: No unfamiliar words in this one.
- Best production of this play I’ve seen: I’ve never seen it on stage, but the TV version with Ben Whishaw from 2012 that aired as part of “The Hollow Crown” is excellent. I’ll see it on stage in Stratford, Ontario later this year.
- Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Unlike most of the BBC adaptations, this one has a big name cast: Derek Jacobi as King Richard, John Gielgud as John of Gaunt, Jon Finch (Macbeth, Frenzy) as Henry Bolingbroke, Charles Gray (Blowfeld in Diamonds are Forever, the Narrator in Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Duke of York
- Jacobi and Grey are broad, but still excellent. Their performances would be fine onstage, but are a little much for television. Finch and Gielgud, both of whom had worked more onscreen, are more restrained, and come off the better for it. The question with this play is whether or not Richard should be indicated to be gay, and Jacobi has decided to definitely indicate it, but subtly, similar to what Wishaw did many years later.
- One should always blame the director when the performances are pitched at different levels. Neither the cast nor the camera move very much, making for a fairly leaden show. The sets and costumes are great. It would have been great to see armies ranged on the field, instead of shooting the war party scenes on sets, but, given the restraints of the BBC’s all-stage ethos, Giles does what he can and creates some sense of scope.
This is a play with no one to root for. Richard is feckless, avaricious and arbitrary, and we understand why he would inspire a revolt, but Henry quickly proves himself to be just as much a villain. In the scene where Richard very reluctantly hands over the crown, we feel Henry’s frustration at having to deal with this agonizingly overwrought king, but when Henry then immediately abuses his power against the newly abdicated king we seethe with hatred for him and feel intensely for Richard, who then keeps us reluctantly on his side until the end.
Both men simply pursue their self interest. They are both entirely believable and thus compelling. We tend to empathize (but not entirely sympathize) with each one when he’s on stage, and feel torn in the few scenes they have together. It helps that both are surrounded, when the other is not around, by men who lack their strength of will, so they are able to dominate those scenes, creating anticipation for the scenes in which they will collide.
It’s a great play because it understands the demands of power, and how power can turn you more vicious than you set out to be. It’s a remarkable play for someone to stage who was at the mercy of a fickle queen. The play concludes that monarchs can be replaced when they no longer have the consent of the governed, and they’re fools if they think divine right will protect them. Richard, like Elizabeth, refers to himself in the plural, and we know he’s given up when he finally refers to himself in the singular. Elizabeth never had to do that, but this play indicates that she had a sword of Damocles above her head.
The Tudors did not consider themselves to be Tudors, they considered themselves to be Lancasters. It’s only historians who concluded that they were a different family altogether. These plays support the legitimacy of the Lancasters but not their nobility. Shakespeare called it as he saw it, and let the chips fall where they may.
I talked yesterday about my decision to do the plays in the BBC’s order, but watching this, I found myself wishing I had gone in the order they were possibly written, not caring so much as to whether the histories were in historical order and more caring about the progression of Shakespeare’s views on kingship throughout this career. I’ve never read nor seen the Henry VI plays (possibly the first three plays Shakespeare wrote) and I found myself wishing I had, so that I could see how that first stab at history-writing contrasted with this follow-up, though this was the prequel.