Richard II

How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of Kings.
– Bolingbroke, Richard II (I, ii, 413-415)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching a cinema screening of the RSC’s Richard II. The stage production, filmed for a one-off broadcast to a selection of cinemas, was unfortunately not shown live in Australia. Instead we were treated to an encore screening which I saw with some friends at the Nova in Carlton. I had no idea of what to expect, having only read Richard II once before – and some time ago at that.

The above quote had a powerful effect on me. Spoken by Bolingbroke in the first Act, the lines draw our attention to the whimsical nature by which someone in a position of ultimate authority can determine the fate of another. It also foreshadows the consequences that such a misuse of power can bring.

Richard II is the story of one man’s fall from grace. Believing that his divine right to rule is irrefutable, it is not until he is arrested that Richard gains a little insight into where his power lies – with those who accept his legitimacy.

So Judas did to Christ; be he, in twelve,
Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none.

Richard II (IV, i, 170-171)

However, Richard never really comes to fully appreciate this. He does not question the structure that supports his authority and believes himself to be a victim. Richard came to be King at ten years of age after a succession of deaths placed him in line for the throne. Instead of musing about the true legitimacy of Kings, Richard instead laments the fate that awaits those who wear the crown. Richard swings between self-pity and righteous anger, never quite grasping the revelation that despite his so-called divine right, it is his subjects who support his station. His assertions that “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm from an anointed king” reveals his steadfast belief that it is God’s will that he wear the crown.

Furthermore, upon finally accepting that he has no choice but to rescind the throne, Richard makes a mockery of the whole process. Richard invokes his coronation and turns it on its head,

Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,
And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!
Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!
God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!
What more remains?
– Richard II (IV, i, 203-222)

I need to watch it again. I’m not entirely sure whether this means Richard is simply being sarcastic, whether he believes that only he can wash away the balm of his anointment, or most likely, whether he believes that no action of any earthly means can remove his Kingship.

Aside from the themes of authority and legitimacy, I really enjoyed the creative decisions made by both Gregory Doran and David Tennant. I can see why some of these choices might be deemed controversial. This is a rather dark and tragic play, however the Director has, on occasion, chosen to twist the text to derive comedic meaning. Some have argued that this makes light of the themes however I tend to feel that the small number of humourous moments give the audience a little room to breathe.

I’ve got so much more to say but I’ll never get this post up! I’m going to see it again on the weekend so might check back in again afterward!