John Pistelli


William Shakespeare, Richard II

Richard IIRichard II by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems that most Shakespeare plays trail famous commentary from luminaries of British letters, usually Johnson or Hazlitt or Coleridge. But this Signet Classics edition puts at the head of its criticism section what appears to be the most famous commentary on this play by a great British writer: Walter Pater’s essay, “Shakespeare’s English Kings,” from Appreciations. It is at first glance an odd topic for Pater, whom you might expect to take less of an interest in the history plays than in, say, the romances. In an interview circulating among the denizens of the literary Internet, David Winters cites one of my favorite passages from Pater’s Renaissance:

So just what Dante scorns as unworthy alike of heaven and hell, Botticelli accepts, that middle world in which men take no side in great conflicts, and decide no great causes, and make great refusals. He thus sets for himself the limits within which art, undisturbed by any moral ambition, does its most sincere and surest work. His interest is neither in the untempered goodness of Angelico’s saints, nor the untempered evil of Orcagna’s Inferno; but with men and women, in their mixed and uncertain condition, always attractive, clothed sometimes by passion with a character of loveliness and energy, but saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink. His morality is all sympathy; and it is this sympathy, conveying into his work somewhat more than is usual of the true complexion of humanity, which makes him, visionary as he is, so forcible a realist.

“Realism” here is not the commitment to social portrayal as we find it from Richardson to Franzen, nor is “sympathy” the sentimental cant that goes demagoging about today, but rather a total absorption of the writer in the subject matter such that the matter saturates and is thus inseparable from the style, a process only possible if the abstraction involved in moral and political position-taking is held at bay. This is something one finds not only in the aestheticist and decadent authors with whom Pater is usually associated—and in fact they are often too willfully amoral or immoral (ever the didactic vice of the avant-garde) to attain this higher realism and higher sympathy—but in writers as disparate as James and Dostoevsky. Rather than a program, Pater’s is probably just the best description of how to make great art, and even Dante at his best, as Erich Auerbach long ago taught us, also follows this rule of realism and sympathy, making us forget for a time damnation and salvation in the vivid images and language before us.

I mention all this—I know it’s a long way to go to get to Richard II!—because I think it bears on the play and on Pater’s response thereto. Critics point out that Richard II was likely written around 1595, contemporary with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an early period of Shakespeare’s career that finds him seemingly more enchanted with the poetic possibilities of language than with character or plot. The greatest comedies and tragedies are about five years away: in them, form and content will be as recto and verso, Hamlet inseparable from the language in which he is sculpted. In Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, the title characters have little life except to utter freestanding love lyrics, while the play’s glories are the Nurse and Mercutio, sheer surfaces of extraordinary poetry, the one comic and the other lyric-fantastic. Richard II, one of Shakespeare’s few plays written entirely in verse, is in the same vein. The poetry grows gigantic as King Richard suffers a kind of passion-play: he is betrayed, deposed, and killed by a conspiracy of noblemen and their associates displeased with his handling of his office.

A glance at the critical literature on the play’s politics suggests a debate between two schools of thought: in the first, Richard represents the medieval ideal of kingship undone by modern machiavels who augur the coming age; in the second, it is Richard who is more modern, standing for the absolutist kingships of the early modern period, while his enemies fight for an older model of power-sharing feudal relations. The second school of thought seems more plausible to me, but the question is beyond my expertise. While I understand from historicists that Shakespeare’s plays are supposed to be Tudor propaganda, I find them all so pitilessly clear about the amoral contest for power involved in politics that I fail to see how anyone could come away from Shakespeare feeling anything but disgust for public life itself. This play, with its conclusion in which the usurping Bolingbroke disingenuously banishes Richard’s assassin and promises to seek absolution in the Holy Land, is no exception.

The important facts are these: Shakespeare straightforwardly portrays Richard as a bad king—profligate, callous, shortsighted, selfish, moody, extravagant, rash, indecisive. The play’s first two acts concern the possibilities of his subjects speaking back to him to let him know that he has set a disastrous course in mistreating allies, renting public lands, starting wars the country cannot afford, etc. Thomas Mowbray, whom Richard sends into exile, is given a remarkable speech on the importance of language to social life, down to the need of the very body for expression:

The language I have learned these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony:
Within my mouth you have engaoled my tongue,
Doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips;
And dull unfeeling barren ignorance
Is made my gaoler to attend on me.
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now:
What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

Likewise, the dying John of Gaunt is given a speech about the capacity of a man near death to persuade, a capacity he intends to use on Richard:

O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listen’d more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;
More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before:
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:
Though Richard my life’s counsel would not hear,
My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.

But to no avail. Richard is unfeeling with the man on his deathbed, and after Gaunt’s death (“His tongue is now a stringless instrument,” goes the report of his death, continuing the tongue motif), the King is, as my mother likes to say, just tacky:

The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that. Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant those rough rug-headed kernes,
Which live like venom where no venom else
But only they have privilege to live.
And for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, corn, revenues and moveables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possessed.

But in act three, Richard becomes aware of the plot to depose him and begins a series of lamentations whose theme—echoed in Hamlet and especially King Lear—is what kings share in common with all mortals: death.

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
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 killed;
All murdered—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 feared and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humored thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

I love the metaphor in which the interior of the crown becomes the court of death, so that death sits and rules from the very center of authority. And it is all the more remarkable that Shakespeare gives this relatively bad and superficial king such insights, as if to suggest that wisdom comes with suffering—and not only that, but with loss of power and power’s ability to sustain illusion. As Hamlet will later say, in lines prepared by this play, “The king is a thing…of nothing.” A friend once told me to read Richard II because, she said, “it’s like Beckett.” These gallows-humor reflections on the common lot from a character not necessarily sympathetic are what she must have had in mind. In act five, facing his inevitable end, Richard urges stoicism:

Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.

We must learn to be eased with being nothing. Like Hamlet, once Richard makes his peace with this, he becomes that much more effective, dispatching two of his murderers before he is himself done in, with action movie lines into the bargain:

How now! what means death in this rude assault?
Villain, thy own hand yields thy death’s instrument.
Go thou, and fill another room in hell.

In this, as I noted, Richard seems to be a preparatory sketch for Hamlet; both of them, like the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor, would have been good people had there been somebody there to kill them all their lives.

Now back to Pater. In his comments on Richard II, he acclaims the play for its melodious unity of emotional effect, a drama passing through ritual to become a lyric:

In the Roman Pontifical, of which the order of Coronation is really a part, there is no form for the inverse process, no rite of “degradation,” such as that by which an offending priest or bishop may be deprived, if not of the essential quality of “orders,” yet, one by one, of its outward dignities. It is as if Shakespeare had had in mind some such inverted rite, like those old ecclesiastical or military ones, by which human hardness, or human justice, adds the last touch of unkindness to the execution of its sentences, in the scene where Richard “deposes” himself, as in some long, agonising ceremony, reflectively drawn out, with an extraordinary refinement of intelligence and variety of piteous appeal, but also with a felicity of poetic invention, which puts these pages into a very select class, with the finest “vermeil and ivory” work of Chatterton or Keats. […] Which sort of poetry we are to account the highest, is perhaps a barren question. Yet if, in art generally, unity of impression is a note of what is perfect, then lyric poetry, which in spite of complex structure often preserves the unity of a single passionate ejaculation, would rank higher than dramatic poetry, where, especially to the reader, as distinguished from the spectator assisting at a theatrical performance, there must always be a sense of the effort necessary to keep the various parts from flying asunder, a sense of imperfect continuity, such as the older criticism vainly sought to obviate by the rule of the dramatic “unities.” It follows that a play attains artistic perfection just in proportion as it approaches that unity of lyrical effect, as if a song or ballad were still lying at the root of it, all the various expression of the conflict of character and circumstance falling at last into the compass of a single melody, or musical theme.

In his concern for a single effect, Pater echoes Poe; he will be echoed in turn by Wilde, who boasts of his Symbolist tragedy Salome that he has turned the objective art of the drama into the personal mode of the lyric. I tend to be more skeptical than were Poe, Pater, and Wilde about the natural artistic predominance of the lyric, which in its subjectivism can lead to modes of literature that are wholly private to the author. I prefer Pater’s comment about Botticelli, quoted earlier, in which the proper task for artists is to sympathetically sink their subjectivity into the other or others, not just the self. And without the dramatic contrast between Richard’s objectively bad kingship and his sympathetic throes of decline and death, both of them also contrasted with the politicking honor of the scheming nobles, the play’s strain of elegy would not emerge with such force. Richard II begins an approach to authority and death that will be handled—with greater complexity and less decadent-friendly lyricism—in the high tragedies. In fact, rather than lyric sensibility, what one tends to remember when the play is through is all those tongues, mute and useless, dead in the mouth: the language of the body, spoken alike by king and usurper, noble and commoner.

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One comment on “William Shakespeare, Richard II

  1. Pingback: William Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV | John Pistelli

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