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TOPIC: Richard II, first notes

Richard II, first notes 4 months 3 days ago #7540

  • Steve Minkin
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Let me throw out a couple of dates for Richard II – June 20 and July 18.
June 20 would be PRECISELY 5 years to the day that we last did this play! Avila and Jess were aboard for that one. I'm booked on June 27, and the Wednesday after that is July 4. I'm booked again on July 11. So the next available Wednesday would be July 18. Please let me know if either 6/20 or 7/18 present a problem for you. I'm leaning to the earlier date if that works for all.

This is one of the three great plays from 1595 – along with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream -- that mark Shakespeare's great leap forward following the reopening of the theaters after their closure because of the plague. He returns to writing for the stage with a new confidence, buoyed by the success of his poetry -- the privately circulated sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece (1593-4). The three plays of 1595 form a lyrical triad -- RII is the most lyrical of the histories, R&J is the most lyrical of the tragedies, and The Dream is the most lyrical of the comedies.

Auden notes that RII lacks both subplots and suspense. The subplots – like Cade's Rebellion in the earlier HVI plays and Falfstaff in the later HIV plays – give an historical breadth to the plays that is missing here, with its tight focus on the principals. And "there is no suspense, Richard goes downhill. Bolingbroke uphill. . . Bolingbroke is passive . . . has kingdom thrust upon him."

To Bloom, Richard is "a bad king and an interesting metaphysical poet, his two roles are antithetical, so that his kingship diminishes even as his poetry improves."
"interesting metaphysical poet" -- John Donne was the great metaphysical poet of the age, surfacing a few years later. Donne's poetry was universal (" . . . any man's death diminishes me,/ Because I am involved in mankind,/ And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."), while Richard's poetry is myopically limited by always being about himself. And yet, in Richard's self-absorbed rhapsodies, we can also see the foreshadowing of Shakespeare's later tragic heroes and their poetic self-reflections. Auden writes, "Richard has only literary gifts, and he is stupid. Hamlet has intellectual ones, and can see that what happens to him is universal. Richard sees only himself."

“his kingship diminishes even as his poetry improves." His power as a poet deepens as his fortunes decline ("I wasted time, and now time doth waste me."), so even though the obvious vector for Richard is downward, there is a sense – aesthetically – in which he rises. He is a dreadful king, but he speaks so much more eloquently than anybody else on stage that one can't help but focus on him. (An intriguing but odd suggestion is offered in the Folger edition essay that Richard's beautiful language is a dramatic representation of a physically very handsome man, biasing us to view his unbridled sense of entitlement in a more favorable light.)

And even though Bolingbroke rises during the play, he is given "no inwardness" (Bloom), so we never identify with him.

Both historically and dramatically, the transition from Richard to Bolingbroke embodies the transition from the medieval notion of the absolute divine right of kings to the Renaissance view that kings are given their position by God for the purpose of working on behalf of the interests of their subjects. “ . . . an indubitably legitimate but incompetent and unpopular king is deposed by an able and admired rival who does not have a manifestly legitimate claim to the throne.” (Oxford edition) These are issues England was wrestling with for centuries, and in Will's time, too.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world . . .

is now leas’d out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm . . .
England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.


"Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth . . .
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.


I thought you had been willing to resign.
My crown I am; but still my griefs are mine:
You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

Please let me know if either of the proposed date – June 20 or July 18 – present problems for you.


PS: Recently finished a most extraordinary new novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, winner of last year's Booker Prize, both cutting edge and moving. Here's a brief review I wrote about it for my music board:
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Richard II, first notes 3 months 2 weeks ago #7550

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Let's go with the earlier date, June 20, for our reading of RII. Each of our two proposed dates had one regular reader who couldn't make it; but a number of us had a preference for the earlier date, so we'll go with that. (Unfortunately we will again miss Deana for the reading – fortunately she'll be at Ashland, enjoying some of the other plays!)

I was quite impressed this time with Henry Bolingbroke's adversary in Act I, Thomas Mowbray, whom Henry accuses of murdering Gloucester. (In I, ii we learn that Mowbray DID kill Gloucester, but on orders from King Richard!) Mowbray appears only in Act I, but he is arguably the most eloquent player on stage while he's there. Here he is on his eagerness to take on Henry just before their (aborted) trial by combat:

Never did captive with a freer heart
Cast off his chains of bondage and embrace
His golden uncontroll'd enfranchisement,
More than my dancing soul doth celebrate
This feast of battle with mine adversary.

And here is Mowbray talking of his banishment both from England and from English!

The language I have learn'd these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony:
Within my mouth you have engaol'd my tongue,
Doubly portcullis'd with my teeth and lips;
And dull unfeeling barren ignorance
Is made my gaoler to attend on me.
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now:
What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

In Garber's lengthy essay on the play she illuminates a wonderful word from the world of art -- ANAMORPHOSIS – which is something that you CAN'T see when you're seeing everything else in the painting, but something you CAN see when you can't see anything else in the painting.

Here's the most famous example of the technique, Holbein the Younger's painting "The Ambassadors," painted 62 years before Richard II was first staged:

The bizarre shape in the middle is a skull (memento mori), which can only be seen from the extreme right edge of the painting, a few feet from the bottom.

Here are two very brief videos from the National Gallery on Holbein's skull:

Garber's reference is to Bushy's lines, trying to cheer the loyalists by telling them to view their seemingly dire situation in a different light with this elegantly compressed description of anamorphosis:

Like perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon
Show nothing but confusion; ey’d awry
Distinguish form

Garber also notes the textual variations in a key exchange during arrangements for abdication. Keep in mind that the texts were often created from the memories of the actors reading their lines, so homophones could easily be confused.

Are you contented to resign the crown?
Ay, no, no ay; for I must nothing be
IV, i

This is the accepted reading today. But Garber notes that the First Folio (and 4th Quarto) render Richard's line "I, no; no, I; for I must nothing be." She also notes that "I know no I; for I must nothing be" is also a cogent reading.

Those of us familiar with the play will remember the absurdities of IV, i. A bunch of angry nobles get into it and challenge each other by the throwing down of gloves. The audience tends to start laughing around the third glove. First Aumerle throws down, then Fitzwater, Henry Percy, an unnamed Lord, Aumerle again, and Surrey. Aumerle wants to throw down yet again, but he's out of gloves and asks for somebody to lend him a glove to throw! It's not Macbeth's drunken porter, but it is an early instance of that kind of comic relief in a tragedy. (RII was grouped with the tragedies in the First Folio, although we now put it with the history plays.)

I'm familiar with two films of the play, David Tennant at RSC, free on YouTube or a $5 rental on iTunes

I really enjoyed The Hollow Crown production with Ben Whishaw, but I'm not seeing easy availability for that version now. I must have seen it on cable.

Save the date, Wednesday, June 20, 7 pm. Call for readers in four weeks.


Cecil Taylor, R.I.P. 
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Richard II, first notes 3 months 2 weeks ago #7551

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The most famous performance of RII was intended to set the stage for the ascension of the Earl of Essex to the throne, succeeding Queen Elizabeth.

In the current New Yorker, Stephen Greenblatt provides the historical contexts of the performance, and its unforeseen aftermaths.

A tip of the hat to Jean Hegland for forwarding this on to our reading group. We have a half-dozen published writers in the group, but Jean is our bestseller. Her latest book, just out in paperback, is about a Shakespearean professor with Alzheimer's
And her bestselling novel, Into The Forest,, was recently made into a feature film.
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Richard II, first notes 3 months 1 week ago #7556

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Greetings, Gentle Bardophiles!

The David Tennant version of RII is breathtakingly good! It's a film of the 2014 RSC production at Stratford. I bought it on i-Tunes and look forward to repeat watchings. Tennant is magnificent. I've always considered RII to be a relatively weak introduction to the next three plays, the heart of the Henriad; this production made me reevaluate the play, and judge it to be a worthy prologue to the rest of the tetralogy.

As a side note: this version deals with 'anamorphosis' (see the last e-mail) in an extended little scene. Besides seeing the picture from an indirect angle, another method of anamorphosis involves reflecting the image off a reflectlive solid, often a cylinder or prism. In Tennant's RSC production, following Bushy's line, the queen is shown two sheets of presumably anamorphic pictures, first as is and then them reflected in a glass cylinder. From her reactions, we can assume the first one was startling, the second pornographic.

I'd like to quote extensively from a couple of excellent posts on the discussion forum of by the actor Julian Lopez-Morillas, who played Richard in Ashland. The first deals with Northumberland, the elder Percy, father of Hotspur:

"It's Northumberland who's the real Machiavel, who pushes Henry to dare more and more, personally involves himself in Richard's humiliation, and stage-manages Bolingbroke's ascent to the throne. (Hotspur suggests as much in 1 Henry IV, I, iii, when he's recapping the history, in which he seems to regard Henry as basically an onlooker while the Percies do all the heavy lifting; and there's that image, voiced by Richard in V, i and then recalled by Henry himself to Warwick in III, i of Part Two, of Northumberland as the "ladder" that Henry uses to climb to power (see also Worcester's recap in Part One, V, i, 32-71, where he reminds Henry that he had to be 'wooed/ To grip the general sway into your hand.'"

The single scene of Act IV becomes the electrifying deposition scene following the hyper-competetive and comic throwing down of the gloves and the discovery that Mowbry has died in Venice following his service in the crusades. The deposition is extraordinary because although Richard is losing his power and Henry is ascending the throne, the scene is all Richard's; his poetical gifts turn his downfall into a 'weird star turn.' It's all completely egocentric, but it is brilliant, and he dominates the scene. Here's Lopez-Morilas' take on the paradox of the scene:

" . . . to all appearances, Henry (thanks to Northumberland's manipulations) is the man on top, the person in power and in control of the situation; but it's Richard, now stripped of power and influence, who completely runs the scene. And it's possible that Henry, though he's relegated nearly to the role of bystander to Richard's bravura performance, learns something essential about rule as he watches it unfold. Because he-- efficient, straightforward, maybe a little dull-- has the potential to be a far more effective chief executive than his predecessor... if that's all the job was about. But Richard has grasped, in his 15-odd years of rule, that kingship is THEATRE, and seizes the opportunity to turn his defeat into a kind of victory by theatricalizing what should be a moment of shame for him, and making it into a weird star turn for himself. Now clearly, this is all strained through the the sensibility of Will S., to whom, we can suppose, theatricality is of the highest value. But I find it remarkable how, through the lens of Sh's tragic view, Richard gains amazingly in stature the worse his position gets in the real world. Perhaps it's that spectacle, of a king becoming admirable and compelling only in the moment of his defeat, that haunts Henry to the point where he's still obsessing about it to his son a decade later.

"One other corollary thought: my reading of history indicates that it was in fact Richard who was principally responsible for the cult (if that's the word) of Divine Right in England. It's clear that he himself has thoroughly bought into the propaganda ("Not all the water in the rough rude sea..."), and that his belief in his own anointed destiny gives him the strength to defy the powers ranged against him (at least in the scene we're talking about). But one suspects that Henry, whom we wouldn't take to be the kind of man to be impressed by that I'm-King-because-God-wants-me-to-be claptrap, somehow still believes it on a deeper, almost superstitious level--and that would account for the guilt that seems to haunt his later life." JL-M

Act V Scene 3 provides the first mention of Prince Hal, the central figure of the next three history plays. The newly crowned Henry opens the scene by complaining that he hasn't seen his son in three months:

Henry IV: 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 unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes,
And beat our watch, and rob our passengers;
Which he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honour to support
So dissolute a crew.

Hotspur: My lord, some two days since I saw the prince,
And told him of those triumphs held at Oxford.

Henry IV: And what said the gallant?

Hotspur: His answer was, he would unto the stews [brothels].

RII is written entirely in verse -- the only other plays entirely in verse are HVI 1&3 and King John.

Random tangent -- Ben Whishaw, whose RII I enjoyed in the BBC production, is the current Q in James Bond movies.

One of my non-Shakespearean dancers forwards on to us the news that a local filmmaker has been nominated for an Emmy for a film of The Bard's soliloquys in Bay Area settings. "Sonoma County filmmaker Joshua Dylan Mellars’s “Shakespeare in the Shadows” film has been nominated for an Emmy. The Abuela Luna Pictures film sets Shakespeare soliloquies against breathtaking North Bay backdrops of swirling winds, wave-pounded rocks, coastal promontories and foreboding film noir cityscapes to capture the depth and emotional force of the Bard’s famed work.
The film features performances from some of Shakespeare's best known plays, from the supernatural world of “The Tempest” to the dank, dark corridors of Macbeth’s Dunsinane."
Here's a brief YouTube teaser:

Happy trails,

Lionel Hampton on two-finger piano, Albert Ammons boogie woogie piano background, and Wes Montgomery on guitar:

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Richard II, first notes 2 months 3 weeks ago #7581

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Our reading of Richard II is in a mere two weeks, Wednesday, June 20, 7 pm.

Do you plan to attend? Please let me know if you plan to join us! I will cast the play the no later than the weekend before the reading.

Richard II was not only a political hot potato in Shakespeare's time. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, any talk of deposing a king or of regicide was banned. In 1680 Nahum Tate wrote a version of RII which never got passed the censors, then rewrote it again as 'The Sicilian Usurper,' which also never got by the censors. Tate gave up the idea, and had a big hit the following year by rewriting King Lear with a happy ending!?!

The Oxford edition quotes critic CE Montague praising the late 19th century performances of Frank Benson as Richard, noting that he was able to "fill the man with the attributes of a feckless waistrel . . . and with the quite distinct but not incompatible attributes of . . . a consummate artist." Of the deposition scene, Montague writes that even in Richard's moment of greatest loss and defeat "he runs out to meet the thought of a lower fall or a new shame as a man might go to his door to see a sunset or a storm," and describes the mirror soliloquy as "a man going about his mind's engrossing business in a solitude of his own making."

Aumerle is portrayed as a loyal and loving follower of Richard. In the last act, his mother pleads for his life before Henry while his father asks the new king to condemn Aumerle to death for conspiring against him. Fast forward three plays to the end of the tetralogy, Henry V, and we find that Aumerle has been loyal to Henry over the decades and dies heroically at the Battle of Agincourt.

"There is a difference between happiness and wisdom: he that thinks himself the happiest man is really so, but he that thinks himself the wisest is generally the greatest fool." ~ Francis Bacon

Please let me know if you plan to attend and are not yet on the list!


This may be the most iconic of all pop records, featuring the founding fathers of two uniquely American musical genres, country and jazz, Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was in Los Angeles, fleeing his marriage to his second wife, the piano player Lil Hardin. She caught up with him in time to be included in the recording with Rodgers, but they never reconciled.
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Richard II, first notes 2 months 1 week ago #7588

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Another highly enjoyable reading, this time featuring a group record fifteen readers! We welcomed three first-timers, all of whom read wonderfully.

We were all struck by the beauty of the language of Richard II. As I've mentioned before, 1595 was an extraordinary year even for Shakespeare – his reputation had grown while the theaters were shuttered (plague), buoyed by the popularity and critical praise of his poetry, so he returns to writing for the theater with a new confidence and produces A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and this lyrical history.

Next up is Henry IV, part 1, as we move into the heart of histories and the introduction of their two most memorable characters – Falstaff and Prince Hal (later Henry V).

I can't recommend Orson Welles' "Chimes At Midnight" highly enough. It has lines from all four plays of the second tetralogy, and is centered on Falstaff. So it can't replace a film or performance of HIV parts 1 or 2, or HV. But it's a better film than any of the Henrys out there. It's available on YouTube in sections , or you can buy a disc as I have for $5 on Amazon:

At least four of our regulars are taking off in September. Can we squeeze in our reading of HIV, part 1 on Wednesday, September 5? Please let me know if that date will work for you.



Here's a beautiful classical waltz, from Shostakovich's Second Jazz Suite:

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