I am incredibly lucky to have been able to attend tonight’s production of Richard II at the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in San Diego’s Balboa Park. This was my first visit to the Old Globe, and although the actual Globe in London will always have my heart, I can see myself becoming a regular patron of the Old Globe – especially once I move to San Diego come August.
A few years ago, I would have bought the cheapest seats in the house. But I’ve come to learn that theatre is worth splurging on. That is how I found myself sitting in the second row, right in the middle of the open air Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. A perfect seat for an almost perfect production.
You’ll recall that I don’t like Richard II – the character, not the play. But Robert Sean Leonard’s portrayal even managed to pull at my heartstrings. Goodness knows how everybody else in the theatre felt. I can only compare Robert Sean Leonard to Ben Whishaw, because I’ve only ever seen the BBC’s adaptation of Richard II. To be clear, both portrayals impressed me beyond belief. Ben Whishaw’s Richard was all trembling hands, shaky voice – that Richard was weak, and we could see that. Robert Sean Leonard’s Richard was wry, prone to dramatics, but also had the ability to be self-aware every now and again. He played him as almost indifferent to the things going on around him, but cracks began to form in the facade soon enough and Richard began to crumble. When I read Richard II in April, I was more or less untouched by pity. But I felt pity, even sadness when Richard’s demanding tone dissolved as the line, “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” was breathed out into the chilly San Diego night. Was I cold, or was I finally beginning to feel for Richard? Guess we’ll never know!
The Duke of York, played by Patrick Kerr, was a surprising favorite of mine in this production. The role was played with the perfect amount of exasperation and helplessness. York was still too by-the-book, as he should be. His interactions with the Duchess of York (Lizbeth Mackay) made the crowd laugh, but I couldn’t help but think how disappointed the Duchess must have been in York for wanting to turn Aumerle in to Henry IV. Lizbeth Mackay floored me with her raw display of a mother’s grief, of her desperation to save her only son. She played a minor role, but it was a stand out one nonetheless.
Henry IV, played by Tory Kittles, was incredibly regal and well put together. Richard slaps him across the face during the deposition scene, and Henry IV raises his shaking hands as if to choke his cousin…but instead pulls him into a hug. Richard is unresponsive to this gesture, as he keeps his hands by his side. The hug is drawn out, and when they part, Richard’s face is streaked with tears. I loved this so, so much. This was the Henry IV they were trying to sell, and I was buying it without shame.
Hotspur doesn’t play a huge role in this play (his time to shine comes in Henry IV, Part One), but I must comment on his costume. His doublet was constantly unbuttoned, and he had a disheveled look about him that was so uniquely Hotspur. What a lovely touch, something for those of us that know what Hotspur is about.
I suppose I can’t mention Hotspur without talking about Hal. I know, I know, Hal isn’t in this play. But Henry IV mentions him in passing, asking where his son has been. Lines were cut from this, much to my disappointment. I suppose it doesn’t matter because they aren’t putting on the entirety of the Henriad, but I view Henry IV mostly through the lens of his turbulent relationship with his son. His moment of clarity about his son’s potential really touched me when I read Richard II, but it apparently did not have a place in this production. But, hey, if you were wondering, Hal was messing around in a tavern the entire time. Shocker!
Nora Carroll played Queen Isabel, and she breathed so much life into this small role. She was absolutely gorgeous, almost angelic in her white gown. I stayed after the play for the post-show forum, and Ms Carroll mentioned that although Isabel is regal, she is also human. Through her, we are given scraps of another side of Richard – a side we never see. I love this interpretation so much. Who hasn’t been mystified by Isabel’s unwavering love and dedication to her sub-par husband? But he must have been treating her well, must have shown her love. We don’t know that Richard, but he must exist.
I have a very minor criticism that I want to throw in here. When Richard and Isabel were being separated, trash was thrown on them from up above. I knew that, but I’m not sure if it was well communicated, because it just seemed like leaves were being tossed out of buckets and onto their heads. The Duke and Duchess of York discuss it later, but still.
I was also incredibly shocked at who killed Richard. Brace yourselves, because it wasn’t Exton. It was Aumerle. It was a very “Et tu, Brute?” moment, because the production made a big show of the love between Richard and Aumerle. I suppose it was to increase the impact of Richard’s death. Also, it might have been because this play has more than enough characters.
During the post-show forum, someone wondered if Henry IV’s grief over Richard was genuine, because they didn’t think so. Luckily, Charles Janasz, who played a magnificent John of Gaunt, answered by saying he did believe that Henry IV’s grief was genuine because it is something that eats away at him during the rest of the Henriad. I loved that the actors knew so much about the Henriad – I mean, why wouldn’t they? – but it just spoke to me because I love the Henriad so much.
Overall, the Old Globe’s production of Richard II was incredibly enjoyable. I gasped, I laughed, and I even felt a twinge of pity for poor old Richard. I am so glad I was able to attend. There is nothing like seeing Shakespeare live.
I’m making slow progress with Much Ado About Nothing – not because I’m not enjoying it, but because I’m on a two week break. Here’s hoping that I’ll be able to finish it before the month is over. Until then, you can probably catch me at your local Shakespeare festival, because there’s no other place for me to be.
Richard II marks the beginning of my beloved Henriad, and it is a wonderful, mesmerizing play. It isn’t the titular character that makes this play so irresistible, though – it’s everything else.
In the Henry VI plays, it becomes obvious quite quickly that Henry VI isn’t a very good king. He’s weak, he’s passive, and the other aristocrats knock him down with very little effort. But you pity him – while completely useless, Henry VI also comes across as very gentle and kind. Richard II is another useless king – he is easily won over by flattery, is implied to have been involved in the murder of his uncle Gloucester, and is as weak as they come. But there is something in him that is lacking, because I found it very difficult to pity him at all. And this is coming from somebody who doesn’t care for Henry IV’s character either.
I was absolutely baffled by Richard’s decision to suddenly call off the fight between Bolingbroke and Mowbray in 1.3. He decides quite suddenly to exile them both – Mowbray for life, and Bolingbroke for a good six years. I was saddened by John of Gaunt’s reaction to the sentence:
GAUNT Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.
You urged me as a judge, but I had rather
You would have bid me argue like a father.
O, had it been a stranger, not my child,
To smooth his fault I should have been more mild.
A partial slander sought I to avoid,
And in the sentence my own life destroyed.
Alas, I looked when some of you should say
I was too strict, to make mine own away.
But you gave leave to my unwilling tongue
Against my will to do myself this wrong.
John of Gaunt, of course, was involved in this decision. But nobody stopped him! And he knew he couldn’t show bias toward his own son. I wonder if he thought that his pleading and regretful words would sway Richard. It doesn’t matter, though, because Richard appears to be unaffected by Gaunt. He immediately turns to Bolingbroke and bids him farewell.
If I had been brave enough to pursue degrees in English, I probably would have spent a lot of time writing and thinking about the father/son relationships in Shakespeare’s histories. Gaunt, despite not fighting for his son outright, very obviously loves him. This contrasts sharply with York and Aumerle later in the play. And although Hal isn’t in this play, the way Henry IV speaks about him implies a tumultuous relationship (that is luckily explored in the Henry IV plays). We also have Northumberland and Hotspur (Hotspur! I was thrilled to see him in this play), a relationship that I would also argue is quite stable and based on mutual respect.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t love Henry IV (or Bolingbroke, or whatever you’d like to call him), but it appears that the people do:
KING RICHARD He is our cousin, cousin, but ’tis doubt,
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green,
Observed his courtship to the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oysterwench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With “Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends,”
As were our England in reversion his
As he our subjects’ next degree in hope.
Look, if I were a commoner living under Richard II, I would probably secretly prefer Bolingbroke as well. There is something to be said about Bolingbroke’s ability to charm the commoners. Richard is incredibly prideful, and believes himself to be an almost divine being, anointed by God himself – it’s no wonder that the commoners prefer his cousin to him.
On his deathbed, John of Gaunt very bravely tells Richard exactly what he thinks of him. When Gaunt eventually dies, York is distraught. Richard, meanwhile, is completely heartless in his reaction:
KING RICHARD The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that. Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant those rough rugheaded kern,
Which live like venom where no venom else
But only they have the privilege to live.
And, for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, coin, revenues, and moveables
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possessed.
Oh, right, I forgot that Richard has also dragged England into debt with his frivolous spending. See, although Richard is weak and passive, he also has moments of very clear hardheartedness. It would be unfair to group him with the weak Henry VI, who would never have said such awful things. York, much like myself, cannot believe what he’s hearing. He argues that Gaunt’s rights should be given to Bolingbroke.
YORK […] If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
Call in the letters patents that he hath
By his attorneys general to sue
His livery, and deny his offered homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposèd hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honor and allegiance cannot think.
Richard is a fool who only listens to people who flatter him and stroke his ego. A bit like our current president, no? In any case, he ignores York’s wise warning. Don’t say you weren’t warned, Richard.
York is understandably fed-up with Richard, but he’s a man who plays by the books. He tells Bolingbroke off for coming back to England as soon as they meet. He acknowledges that he is powerless to stop Bolingbroke on his crusade:
YORK Well, well. I see the issue of these arms.
I cannot mend it, I must needs confess,
Because my power is weak and all ill-left.
But if I could, by Him that gave me life,
I would attach you all and make you stoop
Unto the sovereign mercy of the King.
But since I cannot, be it known unto you
I do remain as neuter. So fare you well –
Unless you please to enter in the castle
And there repose you for this night.
I suppose I can respect York’s refusal to bend the rules, but there is such a thing as being too by the book. Richard may have royal blood, but England is crumbling underneath him.
Before York’s decision to remain neutral in this struggle, we meet Hotspur. As always, he is wonderfully flippant.
NORTHUMBERLAND Have you forgot the Duke of Hereford, boy?
PERCY No, my good lord, for that is not forgot
Which ne’er I did remember. To my knowledge
I never in my life did look on him.
He is eventually introduced, and Bolingbroke gives Hotspur his hand. Unfortunately, such actions aren’t indicative of anything, as we all come to see in Henry IV, Part One.
Richard returns to England, only to discover that his supporters have been executed, and that everybody else has joined Bolingbroke. Richard’s reaction is incredibly dramatic. I performed his reaction to this discovery in 2012 as part of my immersive Shakespeare class. It is fantastically written, and is some of Shakespeare’s best writing. I particularly like the end, even though it didn’t change my mind about Richard in the slightest:
KING RICHARD […] Throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all the while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?
No pity from me, of course. Richard all but did this to himself, didn’t he? He is now beginning the long, rocky descent from anointed royalty to hated prisoner.
Annoyingly, Richard very easily bends to Bolingbroke’s demands. He resigns the crown, and Bolingbroke ascends the throne, now the newly crowned Henry IV of England. But things are not as simple as they seem, as there is a plot to get rid of Henry IV already.
Richard, meanwhile, is being separated from his Queen. While I dislike Richard immensely, I feel incredibly sorry for his poor Queen. For some reason or another, she seems to love him, and I thought their farewell scene was very sad. Richard is sent to Pomfret, and his Queen is whisked off to France.
York is now incredibly loyal to Henry IV, but his son Aumerle isn’t so sure. A very dramatic scene erupts when York finds out that his son is involved in a plot against the newly crowned king. He makes the decision to go tell the king immediately. The Duchess is rightfully horrified:
DUCHESS Why, York, what wilt thou do?
Wilt thou not hide the trespass of thine own?
Have we more sons? Or are we like to have?
Is not my teeming date drunk up with time?
And wilt thou pluck my fair son from mine age
And rob me of a happy mother’s name?
Is he not like thee? Is he not thine own?
Poor Duchess! As I said, there is such a thing as playing by the book too much. I very much respected York before this, but I immediately changed my mind after his decision to go tell Henry IV. And he asks for his son to be executed! Remember what I said about father/son relationships earlier? We might have easily painted Aumerle and York’s relationship as a normal one at the beginning of this play, but we now see that York puts his loyalty to the king above everything else. His son, apparently, comes second. Knowing this, both Aumerle and the Duchess rush to reach Henry IV first.
While they ride off in desperation, Henry IV is doing what he does best: trash talking his son.
KING HENRY 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 unrestrainèd loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch and rob our passengers,
While he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honor to support
So dissolute a crew.
Ah, my favorite of all the father/son relationships: the rocky one between Henry IV and Hal. I am a bit baffled at how Henry hasn’t seen Hal in three months. Did he not think to look for him before this? In any case, we see why all the nobles think very poorly of Hal, don’t we? His own father highlights his every fault to everybody in the room.
Hilariously, it’s Hotspur who saw Hal last:
PERCY My lord, some two days since I saw the Prince,
And told him of those triumphs held at Oxford.
KING HENRY And what said the gallant?
PERCY His answer was, he would unto the stews,
And from the common’st creature pluck a glove
And wear it as a favor; and with that
He would unhorse the lustiest challenger.
KING HENRY As dissolute as desperate. Yet through both
I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years
May happily bring forth. But who comes here?
Not to turn this into an entry about Hal, but…well, who am I kidding? Let’s talk about this. Hal is the very picture of a reluctant prince/king. His absence during this play is very telling of both his relationship with his father, and possibly about how he feels about this entire endeavor. When the crown was lowered onto Henry IV’s head, a whole new set of responsibilities was dumped onto Hal. He gives Hotspur an incredibly disrespectful reply, and doesn’t show his face for the entirety of the play. And although Henry IV quickly backtracks and says he feels a glimmer of hope about his son, it isn’t nearly enough. Hal is going to have to deal with the fact that everybody expects him to fail for a long, long time, and it is largely due to how vocal Henry IV is about his feelings. And despite being hopeful, Henry IV later scathingly tells Hal that he would rather have Hotspur as a son. What I’m saying is, these two sentences make no difference. The damage has already been done.
Aumerle enters, and begs Henry IV for his forgiveness. Henry IV grants it without knowing what is going on. The scene that follows is absolutely wild: York insists his son be executed (?!), the Duchess begs for Aumerle’s life, and Aumerle himself expresses his regret. Henry IV ignores York and spares Aumerle, much to the Duchess’ delight.
It seems we’ve forgotten about Richard all together. He’s been wasting away at Pomfret. A former groom of his enters to tell him that Richard’s old horse very proudly paraded Henry IV through the streets. Ouch! And worse yet, Exton and his men enter with the intention of murdering Richard. Shockingly, wimpy Richard manages to fight a few of them off before being killed. Exton, who is very obviously insane, happily runs off to tell Henry IV about what he’s done.
In a hilarious twist, Henry IV immediately banishes him. I don’t blame him – you really don’t want somebody who takes everything literally anywhere near your court. And suddenly, Henry finds himself full of regret. He decides to go to the Holy Land to was his hands of all this blood.
The play ends very abruptly with that. The story continues in Henry IV, Part One, which I spent all of the twelfth grade obsessing over. Peace doesn’t seem to last in England, does it? The story continues with more rebellion (hello again, Hotspur!), even more father/son dramatics, and a ton of bloodshed. But, hey, it’s all worth it in the end, isn’t it? In the end, England gets Henry V, and we get the best depiction of a stressed out king there ever was.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is next! Time to shift gears and move from the throne room of England to the fairy-ridden woods of Athens. See you next month!
As promised, I forced myself to put Henry V back on the shelf. I’ve already started Macbeth – I’m only two acts away from its gruesome close.
But, as expected, I cannot move on from Henry V. This is no surprise, as I’ve always clung to Shakespeare’s histories…like a new-married wife about her husband’s neck. See? I’m even quoting, for heaven’s sake.
I spent most of last night looking for a very specific book that I’m afraid does not exist. I wish I were in a position to spearhead the publication of such a book! Since I am not, and likely never will be, I thought I’d just write the idea out so that it can stop plaguing me.
What I was looking for, specifically, was a nice, large volume containing the entirety of the Henriad. For you Shakespeare hatchlings, the Henriad is the name given to the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, and Henry V. Those four plays in particular, I think, are a real experience if read one after the other. I do not feel this way about the other histories – in fact, I see no reason to have to plod through all the parts of Henry VI just to get to Richard III. But to read Henry V without touching upon the rest of the Henriad is just criminal and can really ruin a reader’s enjoyment of the play.
I was so sure that a collected volume would exist, but it doesn’t. For shame! Of course, in the midst of my disappointment, my imagination began to get carried away with itself. Not only am I dreaming of a volume collecting all four plays, I’m dreaming of a leather-bound volume. The thought of illustrations crossed my mind…before it was swiftly replaced with fantasies of the entire thing being fashioned as an illuminated manuscript. Can you imagine? And, oh, think of all the thoughtful and inspiring essays that could be sprinkled in between the plays. Think of all the history that can be contained in such a publication of the Henriad – does such an amazing tetralogy deserve any less?
The leather of the cover would be embossed with intricate patterns influenced by the art of the time period in question, of course. And the style of the illustrations that accompany the plays do not have to be accurate – who’s to say that there isn’t an artist out there capable of capturing the magical, golden haze of an illuminated manuscript and the beauty of anatomically correct, aesthetically pleasing art?
Any large illustrations would be followed by that lovely, translucent, almost wax-like paper that you sometimes discovered while flipping through especially precious books as a child. Do you know the type? Even if the illustrations didn’t need it, I’d want them in this collection anyway because they always give the distinct feeling that you’re handling something special and fragile.
I guess it’s worth wondering who would be interested in such a volume of the Henriad. Obviously, any Shakespeare lovers or historians out there would fall in love with the idea immediately. But I also think there would be something attractive about it for new readers – I mean, owning a beautiful book won’t make you love Shakespeare any faster, but it does help, doesn’t it?