Daily Archives: January 6, 2011

Richard II

Mark Rylance performs Richard’s prison soliloquy in a 2003 BBC broadcast from the Globe Theatre

Today is Richard II‘s birthday (1367-1400).

Frye in On Shakespeare:

A lawful king, as Shakespeare presents the situation, can be ruthless and unscrupulous and still remain a king, but if he’s weak or incompetent he creates a power vacuum in society, because the order of nature and the will of God both demand a strong central ruler.  So a terrible dilemma arises between a weak king de jure and a de facto power that’s certain to grow up somewhere else.  This is the central theme of Richard II.  Richard was known to his contemporaries as “Richard the Redeless,” i.e., a king who wouldn’t take good advice, and Shakespeare shows him ignoring the advice of John of Gaunt and York.  His twenty-year reign had a large backlog of mistakes and oppressions that Shakespeare doesn’t need to exhibit in detail.  In the scene where his uncle John of Gaunt is dying, John concentrates mainly on the worst  of Richard’s administrative sins: he has sold, for ready cash, the right of collecting taxes to individuals who are not restrained in their rapacity by the central authority.  This forms part of what begins as a superbly patriotic speech: Shakespeare’s reason for making the old ruffian John of Gaunt a wise and saintly prophet was doubtless that he was the ancestor of the House of Tudor.  We also learn that Richard had a very understandable lot of court favorites, spent far too much money on his own pleasures, and at the time of the play was involved in a war in Ireland that had brought his finances into a crisis.  (57)