William Shakespeare: Richard II & Twelfth Night

I could of course not let April go by without paying my respects to the Sweet Swan of Avon: 2021 isn’t one of the “really big” Shakespeare years (those tend to end in -4 and -6, for the anniversaries of the Bard’s birth and death years); although I have no doubt that if it weren’t for our virus-induced throwback to the Elizabethan Age’s plague years, closure of theatres and all, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the RSC, the London Globe, and every other Shakespeare-related place and organization the world over would also be milking the 405th anniversary of his death for all it’s worth and then some (and conceivably also the (probable) 420th anniversary of the premiere of his arguably greatest play and my personal favorite, Hamlet).  Either way, I decided for once not to do the obvious Prince of Denmark thing but, rather, a bit along the lines of “something old, something new” (though neither also borrowed nor blue): one historic production that I’d long been wanting to take a look at, combined with a comparatively recent one.


Richard II

Well, OK, arguably Richard II does have a 420th anniversary connotation of sorts after all, as it was this play of all things that some of the instigators of the 1601 Essex Rebellion asked to have performed by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (as they were still called at the time), literally on the eve of the rebellion.  One may suppose that those who asked for the play to be performed on that day and none other were looking for a bit of dramatic inspiration in choosing a play concerned with the deposition of a king, but what (if anything) went through the actors’ heads in agreeing to their request is a bit of a baffler; even more so given the fact that Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3d Earl of Southhampton, was one the rebels, which obviously placed the Bard’s company in dangerously suspicious proximity of the insurgency in turn.  Could they really not have known what was afoot?  Umm, no, they didn’t, some of them later testified at trial, but the unusually big pile of money they’d been promised by way of remuneration sure had come in handy … well, I guess admitting to greed was the decidedly smaller evil when compared to having to admit being complicit with treason. 

And incredibly, it even worked; they were let off — though personally I can’t help but suspect that this fairly extraordinary exhibition of leniency was at least partly prompted by the fact that Shakespeare (and his company) at this point had a certain track record of plays showing that neither a rebellion nor any other form of deposing a king is a particularly promising idea: Jack Cade’s inglorious and unsuccessful rebellion had already featured in one of his earliest plays, Henry VI Part 2; Richard III (entered into the Register of the Stationers’ Company in 1597 but probably several years older; a blatant piece of [pro-Tudor] propaganda writing if ever there was such a thing) dies on the battlefield, which may or may not be the only historical detail that Shakespeare didn’t feel he needed to fudge, and which in the Elizabethan Age still carried connotations of divine judgment; the second Henriad (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, particularly the latter) shows that Bolingbroke never really had any joy after he’d put that “hollow crown”* on his head (note: although the first definitely recorded performances of Henry IV, Part 2 fall in the years between the end of his creative period and his death, the title page of its 1600 quarto edition asserts that the play had frequently been performed by the time of that publication); and Julius Caesar — a play reliably known to have been performed in 1599 –, despite its title, isn’t concerned with Caesar himself so much as with the personal and political downfall of his murderers.

Moreover, in the play Richard II itself, Shakespeare expressly confirms the era’s belief in the God-given nature of the political order of the day, when he has the king address one of the insurgents (the Duke of Northumberland) with these words:

“We are amazed; and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
If we be not, show us the hand of God
That hath dismissed us from our stewardship;
For well we know, no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre,
Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.”
Richard II, Act III, Scene 3.

And not only does the newly-crowned Henry IV face his first rebellion virtually from day 1 of his reign, well before the end of this particular play (i.e., before we even get to the later events recounted in the two plays of the second Henriad); it is again Richard II, the now-deposed king, to whom Shakespeare gives the lines foreshadowing the “fitful fever”** and uneasy rest*** of his successor’s reign; once more in addressing Northumberland:

“The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is ere foul sin gathering head
Shalt break into corruption: thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
And he shall think that thou, which know’st the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne’er so little urged, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.”
Richard II, Act V, Scene 1.

So, even though this play does chronicle Bolingbroke’s rebellion and the deposition of the last unquestionably legitimate Plantagenet king, Richard II, I am not at all sure that Shakespeare’s intent really was support for the idea that rebellion is a praiseworthy enterprise (as is sometimes asserted with regard to this play; not least because it was selected as a piece of dramatic prop by the Essex rebels — never mind that in the fast-moving environment of Elizabethan theatre, this play, demonstrably first performed six years earlier (i.e., in 1595), had long been out of date by 1601).  Of course to openly voice such an opinion would have been outright treason, and in a society that didn’t know any such thing as freedom of speech to begin with (what got published and performed on stage was what got past the censorship of the Master of Revels, simple as that), sometimes merely to mention something was (or could be seen as) equivalent to supporting that very thing.  But circumstances still need to be taken into account, as does a play’s content and the author’s entire body of work, and based on that, I just don’t see it — nor, for that matter, in the context of the politics of the time: Elizabeth I was, after all, a descendant of both the York and the Lancaster (= Henry IV’s) branches of the Plantagenets; and surely any interpretation of the play outright condemning Henry IV’s rebellion and, thus, renewing the doubts about the legitimacy of his reign (and ultimately, the Tudor [= Lancaster cadet line] part of the reigning monarch’s own heritage would have been playing with as much fire as seeing the play as an invitation to join a rebellion and depose a monarch.  Shakespeare knew that he was walking a finely balanced line, and he did it well.

Looking at the three passages in the footnotes already referenced above — which are echoed in other passages of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably perhaps the “ceremony” speech in Henry V**** — and the way in which Shakespeare has Bolingbroke claim that he wants to relieve Richard II of his “cares”, along with his crown, I do think, however, that the Bard may have been asking his contemporaries why anybody would want to be king in the first place.  Obviously there is quite an amount of irony in the resignation / deposition / handing-over-the-crown scene; in Richard II’s words in particular, and the moment is highly ambiguous, as Shakespeare throws doubt on the extent to which Richard II is really “resigned” to hand over his crown at all (not only in his words but also his actions) — it’s an odd mix, vaguely reminiscent of the “half pulled, half sinking” image from Goethe’s Angler — and he cleverly also lets Richard get out of acknowledging the prepared roster of his alleged crimes, which would have formally sanctioned his deposition:

Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;
Here cousin:
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

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.

Part of your cares you give me with your crown.

Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down.
My care is loss of care, by old care done;
Your care is gain of care, by new care won:
The cares I give I have, though given away;
They tend the crown, yet still with me they stay.

Are you contented to resign the crown?

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.
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?

No more, but that you read
These accusations and these grievous crimes
Committed by your person and your followers
Against the state and profit of this land;
That, by confessing them, the souls of men
May deem that you are worthily deposed.

Must I do so? and must I ravel out
My weaved-up folly? Gentle Northumberland,
If thy offences were upon record,
Would it not shame thee in so fair a troop
To read a lecture of them? If thou wouldst,
There shouldst thou find one heinous article,
Containing the deposing of a king
And cracking the strong warrant of an oath,
Mark’d with a blot, damn’d in the book of heaven:
Nay, all of you that stand and look upon,
Whilst that my wretchedness doth bait myself,
Though some of you with Pilate wash your hands
Showing an outward pity; yet you Pilates
Have here deliver’d me to my sour cross,
And water cannot wash away your sin.

My lord, dispatch; read o’er these articles.

Mine eyes are full of tears, I cannot see:
And yet salt water blinds them not so much
But they can see a sort of traitors here.
Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself,
I find myself a traitor with the rest;
For I have given here my soul’s consent
To undeck the pompous body of a king;
Made glory base and sovereignty a slave,
Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant.

My lord,–

No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man,
Nor no man’s lord; I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But ’tis usurp’d: alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself!
O that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water-drops!
Good king, great king, and yet not greatly good,
An if my word be sterling yet in England,
Let it command a mirror hither straight,
That it may show me what a face I have,
Since it is bankrupt of his majesty.

Go some of you and fetch a looking-glass.

[Exit an attendant]

Read o’er this paper while the glass doth come.

Fiend, thou torment’st me ere I come to hell!

Urge it no more, my Lord Northumberland.

The commons will not then be satisfied.

They shall be satisfied: I’ll read enough,
When I do see the very book indeed
Where all my sins are writ, and that’s myself.

[Re-enter Attendant, with a glass]

Give me the glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine,
And made no deeper wounds? O flattering glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face:
As brittle as the glory is the face;
Dashes the glass against the ground

For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,
How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.

The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d
The shadow or your face.

Say that again.
The shadow of my sorrow! ha! let’s see:
‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul;
There lies the substance: and I thank thee, king,
For thy great bounty, that not only givest
Me cause to wail but teachest me the way
How to lament the cause.

Richard II, Act IV, Scene 1.

And then, of course, the question “why would anybody want to be king?” is in itself highly ambiguous: It can be interpreted either as supporting and praising the monarch (“hail, King, and Your Majesty’s subjects’ most humble thanks for burdening your gracious person with cares and griefs on behalf of your people that nobody would easily want to assume out of their own free will”); or it can be read as a much more flippant, derogative, and in a monarchistic society decidedly more problematic, “Are you nuts?  Whoever would want to burden themselves with that sort of nonsense to begin with, just to have their 15 minutes of fame and empty pomp and circumstance?”  (Knowing my Bard, there’s probably a good deal of both of that in there, too … and then some: Shakespeare was a bit of a rebel, but he was also a good enough businessman to know where his bread was buttered, and he wouldn’t seriously have wanted to risk his company’s royal patronage, which is precisely what makes the March 1601 performance so inexplicable.)  And, also of course, just to be on the safe side given Elizabeth I’s lineage, Shakespeare is careful to present us with some reasons for Bolingbroke’s rebellion; though here he stays away from the constitutional issues that would have gone straight over most of his audience’s heads and instead focuses on what everyone would have understood: Bolingbroke’s (conceivably) unjust banishment from England at the beginning of the play, and Richard II’s luxurious court life, beset by spittle-licking flatterers and draining away the country’s resources. 

Obviously, in a society where the extravagances of court life couldn’t have been further removed from the misery and abject poverty of many a commoner’s life — and which, in the space of little more than a century, had first been wrecked by the Wars of the Roses, then by Morton’s Fork, then by Henry VIII’s decision to send the Pope packing as head of the church (along with Catholicism, Katherine of Aragon, and the better part of the established Church and its property), then by Mary I’s attempts to reverse religious course by 180 degrees (pyres and all) — any interpretation or search for the play’s intent beyond that of its audience’s entertainment might have rung hollow anyway, which in turn opens up the wider question for whom Shakespeare was writing to begin with.  But at least today, I think it’s fair to say that this is a question which 400+ years of near-unceasing appeal have long answered: He was writing for all of us; and I, for one, long ago decided to take up the invitation made to postery by Shakespeare’s fellow players, and the editors of the 1623 First Folio, John Hemmings and Henry Condell, who concluded their introduction to that first (and still largely authoritative) compilation of 36 of the Bard’s plays with the emphasis that readers should not only enjoy Shakespeare’s works but should also feel entitled to reach an understanding of their own:

“[I]t is not our province, who only gather his works and give them you, to praise him; it is yours, that read him.  And there we hope, to your diverse capacities, you will find enough both to draw and hold you; for his wit can no more lie hid than it could be lost. […] And so we leave you to other of his friends whom if you need can be your guides; if you need them not, you can lead yourselves and others.  And such readers we wish him.”
(John Hemmings and Henry Condell, To the Great Variety of Readers, in: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, 1623; modernised text quoted from The Oxford Shakespeare – The Complete Works, gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1986/2005.)

I’ve seen Richard II performed on stage several times; for this audio revisit I chose a 1960 Shakespeare Recording Society recording featuring John Gielgud in the title role, Keith Michell as Bolingbroke and Rachel Gurney as Queen Isabel, with appearances by a number of other actors who either were already established stars or well on their way at the time (e.g., Michael Hordern as Langley and Leo McKern as the Duke of York), as well as a pair of budding Shakespeareans who would later come to embody — for me, to the exclusion of everybody else — quite another iconic literary pair: Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, who here appear as Thomas Mowbray (Brett) and by way of double casting as the Duke of Surrey and Green (Hardwicke), but who are now, of course, much better remembered as the Granada / ITV series’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. — This 1960 recording is a fine one for Gielgud’s mellifluous voice alone (if there’s one thing for which I genuinely wish I could time-travel, it would be being in a 1930s audience to see Gielgud’s Hamlet live on stage); and the resignation / handover of the crown (or is it?) scene in particular bristles with all the drama and emotion that you could wish for.


* Richard II, Act III, Scene 2
(Richard II speaking):

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

** Macbeth, Act III, Scene 2
(Macbeth speaking):

“Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly: better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.”

*** Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, Scene 1
(Henry IV speaking): 

“How many thousands of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

**** Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1
(Henry V speaking):

“What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear’d
Than they in fearing.
What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison’d flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think’st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command’st the beggar’s knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play’st so subtly with a king’s repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running ‘fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill’d and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm’d with distressful bread;
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.”

The poem records the meeting of an angler and a mermaid and ends with the lines:

“Sie sprach zu ihm, sie sang zu ihm;
Da war’s um ihn geschehn;
Halb zog sie ihn, halb sank er hin
Und ward nicht mehr gesehn.”

“She spoke to him, and sang to him;
And from that moment he was lost:
Half pulled, half sinking, he slipped from view
And was never seen again.”
Translations by Richard Stokes

“Halb zog sie ihn, halb sank er hin” — “half pulled, half sinking” in the above translation — has long since become idiomatic German for this sort of ambiguous situation.


Twelfth Night

As Shakespeare’s comedies go, I prefer Much Ado About Nothing to Twelfth Night, for Beatrice’s and Benedick’s repartee alone: Forget about Hero and Claudio; I know the Bard intended them to be the play’s actual protagonists and B&B only as the comic relief, but that idea has long been turned on its head.  Then again, as the Bard’s cross-dressing heroines go, give me Twelfth Night‘s Viola over Rosalind from As You Like It any day of the week (the only scenes that make As You Like It worthwhile are Jaques’s Seven Ages of Man speech and Rosalind’s epilogue — well, and Rosalind’s cross-dressing stunt as such, of course). 

In fact, possibly the thing that is most interesting about Twelfth Night is that it features several characters that are of more or less equal importance, to the point that those producing the play can’t seem to agree who are the protagonists to begin with.  A traditional reading would seem to give that part to Viola and Orsino (and that is the interpretation which, by and large, you still see in most stage versions, with the 1966 RSC production with Diana Rigg as Viola perhaps the most noteworthy one) — Ngaio Marsh, judging by her 1955 Note on a Production of Twelfth Night (Shakespeare Survey No. 8: The Comedies), incidentally, by and large seems to have agreed with that view, although the character ultimately holding the play together for her is Feste; and that, too, is an interpretation I’ve seen elsewhere as well.  In recent years, however, Olivia (cf. Globe Theatre 2012; director: Dominic Dromgoole, with Mark Rylance as Olivia) and, especially, Malvolio have collected the star kudos — the yellow crossed garters in particular have appeared on the legs of everybody from Ian Holm (repeatedly) and Simon Russell Beale (Donmar Warehouse, 2002) to Patrick Stewart (Chichester, 2007), Derek Jacobi (Donmar Warehouse, 2009) and Stephen Fry (again Globe Theatre, 2012). 

Similarly, in the 2012 BBC 3 audio recording that I picked as my joint palate cleanser for Shakespeare’s Richard II and last month’s earlier Ngaio Marsh binge, the obvious star turn is that of David Tennant as Malvolio, with perhaps the most noticeable feature being that he gives Olivia’s steward a Scottish accent.  Other significant appearances are Naomi Frederick as Viola, Paul Ready as Orsino, and Ron Cook as Sir Toby Belch — and the latter, in fact, pretty much steals the show, which decidedly is not something I thought I’d ever say … about the character, that is; not of course about Ron Cook, who has immense presence even in an audio recording, and who perhaps is the one actor not to be afraid to give the notorious drunkard all the grossness which the role invites, while also managing to hit exactly the right balance that keeps the listener perpetually suspended between disgust and attention.  Overall — and notwithstanding the fact that it’s of course somewhat unfair to compare an audio and a stage production — this is not anywhere near the side-splittingly funny 2012 all-male Globe Theatre production, nor the National Theatre’s more recent, brilliant gender-bending incarnation starring Tamsin Greig as Malvolia (by way of a creative blend of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 135 and Broadway revue theatre), but to while away a few hours it’s still great fun, and Tennant does shine in the letter scene.



Globe Theatre, October 2012: Director Dominic Dromgoole (right) and the cast of that year’s production of Twelfth Night – including Mark Rylance as Olivia (at the right end of the cast lineup) and Stephen Fry as Malvolio (yellow garters! centre / left, below the balcony) – take standing ovations at the end of the season’s very last performance.  (Photo mine.)


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