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For those who love Shakespeare's haunting poetry and the great acting of Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud, the BBC performance of 1978 of Richard II is highly recommended. The production, now available on DVD with optional subtitles, features Jacobi as King Richard and Gielgud as John of Gaunt. Like King John and Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard II is written in verse and is perhaps best known for the patriotic speech magnificently delivered by John of Gaunt (Gielgud) prior to his death, a speech that repeats the word "this" 17 times, "This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden", and so forth. Although Jacobi was about ten years older than the 31-year old monarch, he breathes life into the character of Richard, both as a proud and often despotic king and later as a contrite poet-philosopher and royal martyr. Appearing aloof with his high collar, he nonetheless never relinquishes his dignity, though, in this production, his light apparel makes him look weak compared to the darkly clad Bolingbroke (Jon Finch).
The play is the first of four histories involving the rise of Harry Bolingbroke into King Henry IV (parts I & II) and then his son, Prince Hal, into Henry V. Unfortunately it is noted more for its role in the Essex Rebellion than for its dramatic merits, which are considerable. For those unfamiliar with the Essex affair, In 1601, the Earl of Essex, on the eve of an attempted coup against Queen Elizabeth and/or Robert Cecil, is alleged to have sponsored a performance of Richard II by the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Globe Theater, a play whose theme is the usurpation of legitimate royal power. The next day he led a band of 300 followers into London shouting "Murder, murder, God Save the Queen". The populace failed to rally behind him and he was tried and executed for treason. While it remains uncertain as to whether or not the evidence against Essex relating to the play was manufactured, it was used against him successfully by the prosecution during the trial.
On first glance, it is hard to see why the performance of the play should have carried so much weight. Though Richard II dramatizes the deposition of a sitting monarch, (Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke a.k.a. Henry IV), it does not take a stand on the merits of the issue of divine right versus deposition and, arguably, presents Richard as a more sympathetic, even heroic figure than the calculating Bolingbroke. On the other hand, in a conversation with the keeper of the Tower records, Elizabeth is known to have said, "I am Richard II, know ye not that?" The uncertainty about succession and the existence of factions supporting alternative candidates made her uneasy about its subject matter and the abdication scene was absent in all editions published during her lifetime To fully understand the play requires some knowledge of the historical events leading up to the start of the work. Richard II of the York line of kings acceded to the throne when he was only ten years old and reigned from 1377 to 1399. Though he was under the protection of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, a power struggle ensued to control the young monarch that left a lifelong impression on the young king. Included in the group of nobles that became known as the Lords Apellant, were Gaunt's brother Thomas Woodstock, the Earl of Gloucester, Lancaster's son, Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford, and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk.
As Richard reached adulthood he turned to his inner circle for support, including his favorite, the disreputable Robert De Vere, the 9th Earl of Oxford (curiously not mentioned in either Woodstock or Richard II) and isolated the established nobles even though he had just concluded a settlement with them. Woodstock was imprisoned and mysteriously murdered, the first Lancastrian casualty in the Wars of the Roses. Both Bolingbroke and Mowbray, concerned that they were next in line for the gallows, turned against each other, Bolingbroke accusing Mowbray of the murder of Woodstock and Mowbray accusing Bolingroke of slander.
Shakespeare's play begins with both men stating their case in the presence of King Richard. After both sides have their say, Richard calls for Bolingbroke and Mowbray (Richard Owens) to resolve their differences in a duel. After the ceremony commences, however, Richard suddenly cancels the event and banishes Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for ten years, a sentence that was reduced to six years. Meanwhile Richard wages war in Ireland to counter the threat of Owen Glendower. To support his Irish campaign, after the death of John of Gaunt, he appropriates all of his rightful land and property.
Supported by Northumberland (Charles Gray), Bolingbroke, in exile, gathers an army to reclaim his inheritance and Richard goes to meet him. He believes God is on his side, yet, lacking popular support because of his heavy taxation, he acquiesces meekly after contemplating the consequences of prolonged bloodshed, and escorts Bolingbroke to London. After Richard's adversaries accuse him of high crimes, he signs a confession and yields the throne. Henry orders him confined to the Tower of London, then announces his own coronation as Henry IV. Though King Richard's abdication actually took place before only a handful of Lords in the Tower, Shakespeare embellishes it by adding imaginary soliloquies full of lyrical Hamlet-like reflection.
Though nominally a history play, Richard II is more about character than history and could easily be considered a tragedy. Richard is no doubt a flawed, even perhaps psychologically disturbed character, yet his final speeches reveal his growing self-awareness and leave the audience wondering if the War of the Roses could have been prevented if he had remained in power.
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