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    • Playgoers may be wondering why, out of all of Shakespeare’s works, Richard II has captured the imaginations of two theatre companies on both sides of the Atlantic (at the same time). 

    • In New York, it’s difficult to watch the play without thinking of contemporary American politics.

    • The Pearl Theatre Company, which is producing Richard II at New York City Center Stage II, presents work with political reverberations, as need be (if you aren’t already convinced that putting on a play isn’t a political act in itself). A case in point would be Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, whose director Elinor Renfield saw a parallel between partisan sniping in Norway in the 1880s and our own ideological wars in the U.S. in 2010. In Richard II, director J. R. Sullivan works more stealthily: you’ll either see the play as a cautionary tale for the 2012 election or you won’t.  You’ll either see Richard as a stand-in for the 1% or you won’t.  You won’t think that it’s reflecting nothing back. 

    • Richard II ends, of course, the way it begins with a king pretending that he doesn’t have any blood on his hands

    • May Shakespeare be wrong in only predicting more politics as usual.

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Richard II – A Cautionary Tale of Improper Forms of Kingship

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    • The diverse theories which delineate the dialectical nature of the work are both informative and well-reasoned. Rather than viewing the play as a series of dichotomies, I will argue that the play views both Richard and Bolingbroke as essentially failed rulers for having limited the liberty of their subjects and exposed the state to unnecessary questions relating to the legitimate uses of power and of monarchical succession. Finally, I will argue that the play, presented in this light, would serve as a warning to Elizabeth regarding the use of her power and her inability to provide a successor to the throne.
    • According to Stubbs) ‘There can be little doubt that the proceedings of 1397 and 1398 were the real causes of Richard’s ruin.he had resolutely and without subterfuge or palliation, challenged the constitution.’ this ‘grand stroke of policy,’ continues Stubbs, ‘has remarkable significance. It was a resolute attempt not to evade but destroy the limitations which for nearly two centuries the nation, first through the baronage alone and latterly through the united parliament, had been laboring to impose upon the king.’ (608-9) (1)
    • Considerations that the play may, in fact, be a commentary on the reign of Elizabeth I are supported by the acknowledgement, made by the queen herself, that aspects of her reign were similar to those of Richard. Samuel Schoenbaum, in his paper Richard II and the Realities of Power, notes that the queen remarked to one of her courtiers, Thomas Lamberde:
    • Such considerations (that they play may have served as a commentary on Elizabeth’s reign) serve only to whet pursuit and the trail, in truth, is not an utter blank. ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’ the Queen declared in Lamberde’s presence, and she was not the first to make the comparison. (49)(Schoenbaum)
    • But history is also presented in Richard II as a current action, a living process that directly involves and implicates the audience in the theatre. Queen Elizabeth’s often-quoted comment, ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’; the suppression of the deposition scene during her lifetime; the fact that Essex’s followers saw fit to sponsor a performance of Richard II on the afternoon before their rebellion – all these things indicate that for Shakespeare’s contemporaries this play was not simply an exercise in historical recreation or nostalgia. (262)(Rackin)
    • The concept of rights or privileges is central to the main theme of the play. It is after all, Richard’s seizure of Bolingbroke’s lands after the death of John of Gaunt, which precipitates Bolingbroke’s return to England and ultimately forces Richard’s deposition. The granting and inheritance of property rights was one of the cornerstones of the Magna Carta, and had been honored by all monarchs for several hundred years until the time of Richard. As York admonishes Richard:

      Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from time

      His charters and customary rights;

      Let not tomorrow then ensue today;

      Be not thyself; for how art thou a king

      But by fair sequence and succession? (II.i.195-99) (Shakespeare)

    • A gloss of these lines reveals the magnitude of Richard’s unlawful act. If Bolingbroke is not entitled to his lawful possession of land through the inheritance of his father, then how is Richard entitled to the possession of the throne through inheritance from his father? Indeed, the act is so unnatural that tomorrow will not ensue today, i.e., the natural order of events will be violated.
    • Richard then, violated the rights of his subjects in seizing Bolingbroke’s property. But his failings were greater than this: he was also complicit in the murder of Gloucester, a point which is emphasized in the opening of the play, and is the motive behind the banishment of Mowbray and Hereford. Finally, Richard left no legitimate heir in the form of a son or daughter, which allowed Bolingbroke to sweep aside the weak claim of the Earl of March as Richard’s successor.
    • The central issue for Bolingbroke’s rule, and one to which every play in the rest of the second tetralogy will return, is the threat to the realm when the king is not legally titled. .nevertheless, because the deposition is an interruption of the tradition of legal succession, Bolingbroke’s power exists without the clear sanction of either the law or God
    • In this speech, the usurpation of the throne by Bolingbroke is seen as the proximate cause of the War; but more than that, it is seen as a violation of the natural order of things. The king, as the chosen representative of God on earth, held his office through succession and by upholding God’s laws. Bolingbroke was neither the rightful successor of Richard, nor did he uphold the laws: in point of fact, he broke with law in seizing the throne.
    • That the play dealt with the loss of liberty and freedom has hopefully been demonstrated. The applicability to Elizabeth’s reign can be seen in the following ways: at the time of the writing of the plays, Elizabeth had not produced a lawful heir (nor would she at the time of her death). Elizabeth’s right to rule through lawful succession was affected by her illegitimate birth; a fact which obtruded itself in her consciousness in the person of her half sister, Mary Queen of Scots. The suppression of Catholicism during Elizabeth’s reign was another manifestation of the challenge of certain freedoms in the Tudor era. Finally, Elizabeth’s censure of publication of any writing concerning her succession (not to mention possible censorship of other writings which, as has been previously noted, cannot be conclusively proven) points to a curtailment of freedom which was acknowledged by Elizabeth’s subjects. Elizabeth’s comment I am Richard II, know ye not that? is more than mere rhetoric. For a monarch who walked a tightrope between the granting and taking of liberties to her nobles, and the suppression of freedom to the commons, the lessons of Richard and Bolingbroke would seem ominous, indeed.

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Shakespeare’s sources – Richard II | Blogging Shakespeare

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COMMENT: A few thoughtful words at Blogging Shakespeare on Richard II, the play that was used in the Essex Rebellion, and that Roland Emmerich probably should have used in his film. 

  • Shakespeare’s sources – Richard II | Blogging Shakespeare

    “It seems that from the historical accounts Shakespeare shaped his play to do two major things. Firstly to highlight the idea of the Kings divine right to rule, an ideology which suggested that no matter how poor a monarch he or she should not be deposed/usurped by a mortal hand. They were put there by God and only God had the right to challenge that rule. However at the same time Shakespeare also highlights and embellishes some of the mistakes that Richard II makes. In Shakespeare’s play he becomes more oblivious to his faults and voices more clearly unpopular, personal, and selfish desires. It is as if whilst Shakespeare dramatizes the divine right of Kings he also shows how flawed those kings may be. Whether this amounts to a critique of the doctrine which allowed kings to rule by right of God, or not is hard to ascertain – but Shakespeare certainly invites us to ask some difficult questions.”

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