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Richard II

On Sunday, June 26, 1586, Queen Elizabeth affixed the seal of the Privy Council to a royal warrant for a £1000 annuity for Edward de Vere. This was a princely sum, second only on the list to the salary of James VI of Scotland, who succeeded Elizabeth on the throne.1 So, what was Elizabeth getting for this?

Chip Persons as Richard II
Chip Persons as Richard II
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
As Antipholus of Ephesus notes in The Comedy of Errors, "I buy a thousand pounds a year! I buy a rope!" This non sequitor that Stratfordian scholars have puzzled over for centuries would be obvious to those at court, who first saw the plays performed (often under titles that were changed later): the heavy strings attached are a commission to write a series of histories that confirm Tudor power and build English national pride (and, as a by-product, allow de Vere to get in some digs at his enemies and to reinvent some of his own family's history).

Following the Queen's approval of this commission, the theatre became the second-most powerful means of Elizabethan state propaganda, after the pulpit, as the Queen's Men quickly expanded their repertoire with early drafts of what were to become King John, Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), Henry V, Henry VI (Parts 1, 2, and 3), Richard III, and Henry VIII.

In this context, the story of Richard II, as reinterpreted by the Queen's designated playwright, plays a key role in disparaging Elizabeth's detractors, who would have her abdicate. One day after the play was performed on February 6, 1601 by the Lord Chamberlains's Men at the Globe, the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereaux, led a brief rebellion in London that resulted in his conviction for treason and subsequent execution.

The Queen later remarked to the historian William Lambarde, "I am Richard (II). Know ye not that?"2 Of course, the Queen's chief executive, William Cecil (Lord Burghley), was a spymaster and strategist extraordinaire, who proactively rid the realm of all threats to status quo, so unlike Richard II, Elizabeth reigned until her death.

(Left to right) Steven Cole Hughes as Henry Bolingbroke and Sean Scrutchins as Henry Percy
(L to R) Steven Cole Hughes as Henry Bolingbroke
and Sean Scrutchins as Henry Percy
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
But this is what makes Richard a tragic figure and makes this play both a history and a tragedy, not to mention the only play in the canon written entirely in verse. The eloquence which de Vere invested in this play is above all, a tribute to Elizabeth, which culminates in the speeches of Richard in defense of his divine right and personal nobility. Surely, no monarch speaks with a greater gift.

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!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
--Act III, Scene 2

Richard's tragedy is multifaceted, but chief among these is the deposing of a sitting monarch—a tragedy not only for Richard and his immediate family, friends, and supporters, but for the nobility itself, whose standing and worldview rest equally upon these standards. As noted elsewhere on this site, in reviews and essays, de Vere was a rigorous supporter of this order, particularly as it is described by one of his literary mentors, Baldassare Castiglione in "The Courtier" (1528).3

De Vere also borrowed from the Old Testament (the Torah) to underscore the Divine Right of Kings. In the late 1980's, "Shakespeare's bible" was discovered in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, by Roger Stritmatter. The sheer number of passages underlined and annotated in de Vere's hand that are also found in the text (of the plays, sonnets, and epic poems) have been statistically analyzed in comparison with phrasing from other authorial candidates to conclusively show that the owner of this Geneva bible (the cover is adorned with de Vere's crest), is the author of the canon. In this case, it is passages underlined from Samuel (I and II) and Kings (I and II) that build the case for Divine Right in the text of a number of plays, including Richard II, who says:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.
--Act III, Scene 2

But how, 400 plus years down the road, are we to grasp the influence of this article of faith on Elizabethan consciousness? The answer is in the performance, which, in this case, Chip Persons delivers with such passion and conviction that we are forced to reconsider the importance of this play not only among the histories, but the tragedies as well. Persons' command of the text, as the sitting and deposed king, is regal, yet visceral—his scansion so completely natural that we forget it is written in blank verse. One cannot imagine the case for Elizabeth's right to rule being put any better, not only by Richard's (and Persons') eloquence, but by the chaos that follows the overthrow of this thoughtful rule, with Henry Bolingbroke (Steven Cole Hughes) treasonously forcing Richard's deposition (albeit, after Richard has seized Bolingbroke's inherited lands), precipitating the War of the Roses, which followed.

What kind of a man deposes a sitting king? As we see in Hughes performance, Bollingbroke is unwavering in his intent and, in this vein, as is the playwright's intent, an unsympathic character, even if he does promise repentance (as the new king) for his transgressions and for those in his charge.

Geoffrey Kent is dashing as Thomas Mowbray—who trades accusations with Bollingbroke for perceived treasons, and is exiled along with him—getting the proceeding off to a rousing start, with a robust argument and threatening swords (which Kent choreographed).

Bollingbroke's inheritance was to be the lands of his father, John of Gaunt (Lawrence Hecht), who becomes increasing critical of Richard's decision to banish his son. Hecht leverages his considerable gravitas in Gaunt's behalf, bringing Richard to draw his sword in anger.

Jamie Ann romero as Queen Isabel and Bob Buckley as the Duke of York
Jamie Ann romero as Queen Isabel
and Bob Buckley as the Duke of York
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
University of Colorado
As Richard's star fades, his tragedy is underscored by the pains suffered by his Queen, Isabel (Jamie Ann Romero). In a few quick scenes, Romero deftly crafts sympathy for Isabel, which culminates in poignant scene where Isabel and Richard are forcefully separated.

Director James Symons keeps the focus on the arguments and emotional conflicts with an elegant and economical staging, highlighted by Lisa Orzolek's majestic set.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Richard II runs in repertory with A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Macbeth, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), and Women of Will through August 11th. 303-492-0554 or www.coloradoshakes.org.

Bob Bows

Footnotes:

1A mid-seventeenth century vicar from Stratford-on-Avon recorded some of the legends of "Shakespeare," including that he received £1000 a year for writing the histories. Given that the Stratford man's estate never exceeded £350, the "Shakespeare" to which the story refers is necessarily someone else (and we know who that is). Mark Anderson, Shakespeare by Another Name, Gotham Press, New York, 2005, p. 211.

2Ibid., p. 331.

3When on his tour of the continent, de Vere visited Castiglione's grave, whereupon he saw Julio Romano's statue of the risen Christ, which is referenced near the conclusion of The Winter's Tale, when a gentleman remarks at the likeness that Hermione's statue bears to real thing:

... the princess hearing of her mother's statue, which is in the keeping of Paulina,--a piece many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of answer: thither with all greediness of affection are they gone, and there they intend to sup.
--Act 5, Scene 2

Orthodox scholars have pointed to this passage, among others, as evidence that "Shakespeare" was not familiar with Romano, who was known principally for his painting (at least in Britain); but as the reference shows, the pseudonymous playwright saw the statue in person (when de Vere paid homage at the gravesite).

 

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