Richard IIThis is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays, loaded with complex and ambiguous characters. Don’t despair if it doesn’t immediately seem obvious to you: it probably will never be completely clear, but that’s part of the richness of the experience. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other histories (Richard III, for example), it’s not a melodrama with a clearly defined Good Guy and an obvious mustache-twirling Bad Guy. It’s rather a study of a complex moral and political situation, and the relationship of one’s public persona and one’s private identity. At the end, the story hints at the narrative of David, who despite being in rebellion could not tolerate the killing of Saul, the Lord’s Anointed, and who (when the shoe was on the other foot) could only mourn the death of his son Absalom, who had rebelled against him himself. At the heart of the story is a narrative of the disorderly and ill-considered transfer of power, and the shock waves that can send throughout the whole system of government, and through the people who find themselves obligated to it.
In the year 1400, a number of powerful men, bound by their oath of fealty to a capricious and incompetent king, took matters into their own hands, broke their oath, and deposed the king. The consequences of that action, however, were predictably deeper than the merely political. It cast England into one of its bloodiest civil wars — the so-called War (sometimes Wars) of the Roses. England was kept off balance for nearly another century — until the defeat of Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. As a play, Richard II explores — without giving any easy answers — what it means for the king to have a right to rule, and what relationship his subjects have with respect to the king and to God. Let yourself step outside the modern democratic mindset for a while as you consider this question. The issues are not quite the same as those that trouble the modern state, but they are real, and they will find at least partial reflection in any situation where a group of people has to address personal leadership.
The play was also a political hot potato in its day. The childless Richard, the plaything of malicious advisors, was seen in some contexts to figure the childless (and aging) Elizabeth, who was also surrounded by sometimes-unpopular counselors as well. The Duke of Essex indeed supplemented the fees for a performance of the play in order, it is surmised, to help foment rebellion. Elizabeth was too cagy for him: she’s said to have commented on a previous occasion, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” A little more than a fortnight later, she had Essex’s head removed for his troubles.
Even sundered from these exciting but transient considerations, the play remains a colossal achievement in theater. Richard himself is one of the most subtly-realized characters in the whole Shakespeare corpus. He is infinitely mercurial — arguably prefiguring what we might today consider a bipolar character. He’s up one moment and down the next. For an actor, the role is almost a bottomless pit, and I imagines it must be hard to play for an extended run without losing track of who you are.
It is also a repository of some of the most lyrical poetry in all of Shakespeare. There is of course John of Gaunt’s famous speech about England (so often taken out of context, by those who don’t realize that he’s building up the whole while, to a condemnation of what England has become), but there are other equally brilliant speeches, short and long, that plumb the depths of personal identity and the nature of honor with extraordinary acumen. The range of performances available for it is fairly small, but it includes some remarkably good pieces of work.