Shakespeare for the masses does not get any better than Derek Jacobi and his interpretation of Richard II. Jacobi must have felt a bit of pressure as in the cast was John Gielgud playing John Of Gaunt who was acclaimed back in his salad days for playing Richard II at the Old Vic.
Richard II got to be king at the age of 8 after the deaths of his father Edward the Black Prince of Wales in 1376 and his grandfather Edward III in 1377. When he was 12 the child king was trotted out by his governors to face down the peasant revolt. If being king didn't convince him he was something special than the reverence shown the royal child king by his subjects on that occasion must have.
During his childhood like the later Edward VI it was a continual struggle for power by his uncles and as Edward III had several sons you can only imagine what it was like. In 1389 Richard came into his own and ruled more than most by royal whim. Very few ever told this kid no.
By the time of 1398 when the action of this play unfolds there are two surviving uncles John Of Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster and Edmund of York played here by Charles Gray. There is also a surviving Duchess of Gloucester in one scene and played with great intensity by Mary Morris whose husband died under unexplained circumstances and she wants answers. She suspects her nephew the king had a hand in it and she wants Gielgud to do something about it. Note the names of Lancaster and York, in Gray and Gielgud you see the founders of the warring houses in the Wars Of The Roses in the 15th century.
John of Gaunt had a great respect and reverence for the royal person and institution. If he had not, he would have usurped the throne of his most trying nephew. However he had a son who had less scruples Henry Of Bolingbroke played by Jon Finch. Bolingbroke after a quarrel with the Duke Of Norfolk where they agree to a combat of arms has Richard II break it up and exile both of them. Bolingbroke agrees to go.
But he's back with a vengeance when his father dies and Richard II decides to usurp the Lancastrian fortune which is considerable to pay for an Irish expedition. That gets a lot of nobility's attention with them figuring that if he can do it to his Lancaster cousin he could do it to any one of them.
And they decide that they've had enough of a spoiled narcissistic brat on the throne. This is where Jacobi is at his best. He saunters through the play with an air of supreme indifference and up to the end cannot believe his loyal nobles are siding against him.
Way back in high school I remember English class where in discussing Hamlet the mercurial Hamlet is compared to the little seen Fortinbras who has strength and purpose in his makeup. Hamlet was a guy who did things on a whim like Richard II. The character of Jacobi is in counterpoint with that of Finch as Bolingbroke who the nobles see as a guy they can rely on not to go off half-cocked in his governance. And Jacobi also did an acclaimed Hamlet which I would dearly love to see.
The BBC did a tremendous service with their Shakespeare plays. All of them are so well staged and acted and I hope they all become available on DVD. This was one of the best of them with Derek Jacobi's Richard II as a career role for him right along side I Claudius.
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