“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle”
You don’t need to look too far beyond John of Gaunt’s famous “this scepter’d isle” speech for an eloquent and poetic summary of what Richard II is all about. It’s Shakespeare’s quintessential English play, more so than Henry IV Parts I and II and perhaps even more so than Henry V, or perhaps not depending on what romantic view you want to hold of England. Or perhaps, since they are all clearly interlinked, the King and Country/Hollow Crown plays present contrasting views to better explore which is more applicable. In Shakespeare’s time, with the end of the reign of Elizabeth I in sight and the monarch again waging an expensive war in Ireland, the question would have been more than an academic one.
Its qualities as a historical drama and as a great human drama are what make Richard II still a great play today, but in many ways the questions it raises about the nature of England and Englishness are still relevant today as the UK grapples with the idea of national identity, sovereignty and establishing its place in the world. John of Gaunt’s famous speech sums up an image of the island as “a precious stone set in the silver sea“, “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England“, as well as what it means to be part of “this happy breed of man“, “the envy of less happier lands“.
The hold of the land itself is shown as important to the two rival lords who are rashly and petulantly banished at the start of the play by Richard. Henry Bolingbroke, even though condemned to be a “wandering vagabond”, holds firm to his pride in being “a true born Englishman”, which is something that cannot be taken away from him. Thomas Mowbray is no less devastated, bemoaning his fate to never again speak the English tongue again with his fellow countrymen. The loss of this essential English identity is a severe blow to both men, and it’s one that John of Gaunt also recognises in his oft-truncated when quoted speech when having vaunted its beauty he decries the shame that has befallen the nation under Richard’s law.
If Richard II was just a wallow in patriotic sentiments it wouldn’t be the great play it is. And the same goes for Henry V. And the same goes for the kings whose names adorn these two plays. The contrasting views of each king – with Henry IV conflicted in-between – is pitted against one another for different aspects of Englishness, but the plays also establish an essential conflict within the idea of being English too. You can even take a far more humanistic response to both plays beyond the difficulties of wearing a crown, of being a leader of men, of trying to live up to an ideal of an Englishman and recognise a more personal struggle in both kings. Shakespeare presents the struggle of being human, to want to be fair but to misread situations, and what it means to bear the weight of our flaws and mistakes in the past.
Richard is one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. He is everything you expect of a king, imperious of manner in what he is led to believe is a god-given position by his flattering courtiers, but his human side is revealed in some beautiful speeches that belatedly recognise his flaws and his mortality. “For within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king keeps Death his court“. There is no question that Richard II is in the wrong when he compounds the error of banishing Bolingbroke by confiscating the lands of his uncle John of Gaunt to finance an ill-conceived war in Ireland, but the manner of Bolingbroke’s usurping of the throne is also wrong. Eventually he too will come to belatedly recognise in Henry IV Part II that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown“.
The question posed of course is what is a true patriot? Can it be patriotic to stand up against an unjust ruler? The question or how it is phrased might seem academic, but the answer is not clear-cut in this play. The practicalities of the right choice might be have had to be necessarily left for others to resolve in the late Elizabethan era but Shakespeare is not in any way ambivalent. He recognises the contradiction is an inherent part of man’s nature – it’s called being human – and in his plays Shakespeare makes his rulers fully human. Whatever the intention, the playwright remains uncommitted here to the Englishness of either Richard II or the future Henry IV, Bolingbroke. It’s later when we get to Henry V that Shakespeare perhaps sees a new way forward for Englishness, one that embraces the qualities of both, but one who is also mindful of all his people too.
That’s a lot to get out of Richard II alone however, but the production at the Globe does establish the precise tone of this play’s place within the English History plays. Simon Godwin’s largely traditional production and straightforward direction doesn’t give the play any particular emphasis in interpretation or even have much that is distinctive about it other than one important factor; it’s performed at the Globe theatre. That is significant and its importance is made apparent by the exceptionally good film recording of the production which takes in quite a bit of the “wooden O”. If the prologue of Henry V ponders “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” then Richard II uses the Globe to make us think beyond the stage to the people of the England and the land where it takes place.
Within the context of the Globe then, Godwin’s production allows the play speak for itself, which Richard II is indeed quite capable of doing when you have a Richard II capable of doing it. The honours for that go to Charles Edwards here. He expresses and covers the whole range of mixed impressions you have of Richard; his daintiness, vanity and indiscretion on the one hand that seems only natural for a king, and Edwards makes that self-absorption seem understandable. There is a journey to discovery of his true self however that must also be navigated carefully. Edwards’ performance seems to indicate that the key to making it work is to make Richard appear weak when he thinks he is being strong, and strong when he is at his weakest, shorn of the crown and the role that it imposes upon him. If you get that, you’ve got Richard II, and we get that here.
Globe on Screen’s Richard II is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.
As with most recent years, all the 2015 Globe on Screen productions – Richard II, The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure are released on DVD only. In the case of Richard II the video quality is reasonably good within the limits of the NTSC Standard Definition encoding of a live theatre performance. The image is fairly clear and certainly good enough for standard sized screens. It is in fact better than most of the other releases, partly due to the brightness of the lighting for this production which is illuminated further by the gold-painted sets. There are fewer wide shots of the stage also, which would show up lack of detail, the more open shots used more for capturing the setting of the Globe theatre.
The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The recording of the live performance is good, the central channel dialogue certainly much clearer and louder than the mixing of Measure for Measure. There are some musical accompaniments to speeches, not just between scenes, but the music is also well balanced here. There is never any problem with hearing the spoken texts.
Optional white subtitles are available for hard of hearing or should you just enjoy reading Shakespeare’s text, which is always worth exploring. Subtitles are white and in English only. On the disc itself, the only extra feature is a Cast Gallery. The enclosed booklet has good essay ‘Oblique Connections’ the parallel between what is depicted in Richard II and events in Shakespeare’s time. This is not just idle speculation of course, since some rebels commissioned a performance of the play with the intention of stirring up revolution against the crown. There is also a synopsis of the plot in the booklet.
Simon Godwin’s production of Richard II might not be the most inventive or creative, but it does at least make full use of the best tools at its disposal; Shakespeare’s text, the setting and structure of the Globe theatre itself and an excellent performance from Charles Edwards that ensures that the human element is there as well. Whether it’s “the vasty fields of France or “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England“, these plays come fully to life and to their meaning in the Globe theatre in a way that they cannot do anywhere else.
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