Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Boy King - Richard II

One day I was perusing the internet to see what Shakespeare plays were available on DVD. It probably had something to do with having seen a particularly good version of a play at the cinema as a part of the National Theatre Live productions, and I wanted to see if some of them were available for purchase (unfortunately, at this stage, this doesn't seem to be the case). However my eyes fell upon a production of Richard II by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it starred David Tennant. Most of us are probably familiar with him as Doctor Who, however I had recently discovered that he had starred alongside Patrick Stewart (of the Star Trek and X-Men fame) in a version of Hamlet. As such I made it a priority to get my hands on a copy of this DVD.

There was a time that I was particularly interested in some of the lesser known Shakespearian tragedies, in particular the histories. Also, ever since I watched Ian McKellan's contemporary version of Richard III, I had also been quite interested in seeing the tragedies (and the comedies) in a more contemporary setting. Seeing that the cover of this DVD had David Tennant sitting on a throne dressed in modern casual attire (and also having seen a version of Macbeth and Hamlet on DVD, also released by the Royal Shakespeare Company), my interest in this particular DVD increased. However, in wasn't until quite recently that I finally got my hands on a copy, and also managed to set aside the two and a half hours to watch it.

I guess I had a bit too many expectations when it came to this film because I have to admit it seemed to drag on a bit too much and I had a lot of trouble getting into it. It's not as if Tennant is a bad actor, nor do I feel that he had been tainted by his role in Doctor Who (though I have to admit that when I watched his version of Hamlet I did feel that a bit too much of his Doctor Who persona was seeping through), it was that this play didn't seem to come out all that well.

What it turned out to be was a recording of a live production of the play. Also, it was performed in traditional costume as opposed to being performed in modern costume. I guess I have grown a little too accustomed to Shakespeare being modified to appear more relevant to us modern audiences that when the producers decide to give it a more historical flavour then I feel somewhat more disconnected to the play than I would otherwise (despite the fact that I am an amateur historian). Still, the play did hold itself out in the poster as being performed in modern dress, so I guess I did feel a little cheated.

For those who are interested in actually getting their hands on the DVD, here is a bit of a taste of what to expect:

Who Was Richard II?

Richard II isn't a king that would immediately come to mind when somebody asks one to name one of England's monarchs, and even if you figure that since there is a Richard III, then their must be a Richard the second, if one were to ask to tell them what makes this particular Richard notable then I suspect most people would come up with a blank. He's hardly an Elizabeth, or a Henry Tudor, or even a Richard the Lion Heart. Okay, we do know about Richard III, but that has more to do with him being a really nasty piece of work who cried out 'a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse' (despite the fact that our entire picture of Richard III, hunch back and all, comes from Shakespeare, who was a master of rewriting history, and historical characters).

Like most things, if you really want to know anything about Richard II your best bet is to jump onto Wikipedia (though I wouldn't reference it if writing an essay on the guy). Anyway, simply saying that Richard II was a king of England, and that his last name was Plantagenet (which is one really cool last name), and pointing to the Wikipedia article, the question has probably already been answered. However, I don't want to say much about his personality yet because that is one of the things that Shakespeare explores (if, as has been the case with other plays, he has made some alterations to suit his own purposes). However, it might be an idea to actually look at when he lived to get a better understanding of who he was, and also to put the play into context.

Richard lived at a time when the world was transitioning from the Medieval Ages into the modern age. This transition was already in full swing in Italy, however it hadn't quite arrived in England yet. Sure, the Magna Carta had been signed, but the monarchs had been doing everything that they could to wiggle out of it (despite the fact that parliament had begun to restrain the monarch's powers). This is important, as we shall see, because one of Richard's biggest mistakes was that he got onto the wrong side of one of the noble factions. The era of the absolute monarch had gone, yet the kings were still trying to fight against progress.

Richard's father was Edward III (another king that most people probably had never heard of), and in many ways lived in his shadow. Edward almost didn't become king because his father had been murdered and he had been sidelined by his mother's lover Roger Mortimer (who was also responsible for deposing Edward II). However, as history had it, while Mortimer and Isabella were having fun in Isabella's room, Edward III basically kicked in the door and killed both of them. The problem was that Isabella happened to be the sister of King Charles of France (and Charles had been toying with England anyway), so hostilities soon reared their ugly head. However, Edward (and his son the Black Prince) were very capable warriors and it wasn't long before they had brought France to it's knees, and had effectively occupied half the country.

Things then simmered down a bit (though for a more detailed account of his reign there is, you guess it, the Wikipedia article), however it was around this time that the Black Plague began to devastate Europe. The Black Prince (cool name) had actually died of the plague, but had managed to have a son - Richard, who, at the age of 10, became king. This, no doubt, is going to start raising some alarm bells because it is never a good thing when a boy ascends the throne.

So, there we have it, the Black Plague is ravaging Europe, England and France are in the midst of a cold war, as well as having hostilities with Scotland and Ireland, and a boy is sitting on the throne of England. Mind you, the play doesn't begin until the last two years of Richard's reign (when he is in his early thirties), but as we will discover, Richard never really grew up.

Shakespeare's Play

As for the play, you can always read a synopsis (and a very academic, encyclopeadic one at that) on Wikipedia, and there are also numerous copies of it posted all over the internet (though I am linking to the one on the MIT website, namely because that is the first one that pops up on Google). However, so you aren't jumping all over the internet, or interrupting my post to read the play, I'll give a brief run down here (and anyway I like writing the odd synopsis in my posts).

So the play begins with Richard sitting on his throne and asked to settle a dispute between his cousin Henry Bollingbrooke and Thomas Mowbry, who has been accused of squandering money and murdering the Duke of Gloucester (though it is actually believed that Richard was the one who murdered Gloucester, but then again Richard is the king, meaning that he is the law, so in all logic Richard can't actually be guilty of murder). Anyway, the two squabble and Richard finally gives them permission to duke it out, however just as they are about to cross swords Richard calls a halt to the entire spectacle and instead banishes the two lords from England (though he banished Bollingbrooke for only eight years, while Mowbry is basically told to get lost and not return).

This has the effect of really upsetting the lords (particularly Mowbry, who suspects that Richard actually murdered Gloucester), however they slink off and plot their revenge. Now that this is sorted Richard decides to go on his own grand adventure - Ireland - however, as is the case with most wars, Richard needs money. So he does what any self respecting tyrant does - he takes it from his lords (in fact he confiscates all the wealth of the recently deceased John of Gaunt). This is his first (and probably biggest) mistake - don't take people's money and then leave the country while the lords are really annoyed with you.

Anyway, Richard goes off to Ireland with his army, wins a glorious victory, and then returns home to discover that Bollingbroke hasn't actually left the country. In fact he not only is in England but he is in England with an army (of Englishmen of course). So, Richard doesn't have all that much time to bask in the glory of his victory when he finds himself in another war, this one a civil war, and one that he pretty quickly loses. So, realising that the odds are stacked against him, he surrenders and is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle.

Not everybody is happy that Bollingbrook, now Henry IV, has decided that he will be a better monarch than Richard, so they stage a rebellion, which is pretty quickly nipped in the bud. Anyway, despite the fact that Henry is now secure on his throne he does ask 'have I no friend who will remove me of this living fear?' and this is quickly interpreted that he basically wants somebody to kill the former king, which happens. However Henry is horrified when he discovered that Lord Exton took this statement literally, and the play ends with him saying that he must then travel to the promised land to be cleansed of his sin (which he never manages to do).

A Childlike Temperament

There are a number of things that Game of Thrones gets right, and one of them is how a boy king generally does not handle power all that well. One of the reasons is that when they grow up having everybody bend to their will, and having everything done for them, they get used to it. In effect they become what we know of as 'spoilt brats'. Actually, the crown prince generally had a lot of privileges that pretty much everybody else didn't, including a whipping boy - a boy that would take the punishment that was supposed to be dished out to the prince. This sort of undermines the whole point behind punishment - we are hit so that we learn that if we do something wrong then bad things will happen. Well, the prince grows up learning that if he does something wrong then bad things will happen to other people.

I was going to suggest that while the prince is still a prince he would have his father, and his father's advisers, over him, but a young king wouldn't necessarily inherit the kingdom at a young age - a regent would govern in the king's stead until the king would come of age. However the problem is that regents had a nasty habit (as was the case with Edward III) of not relinquishing power when the king came of age. As such it was decided that in Richard's case they would dispense with the regency and have him guided by a group of councils.

Well, Richard did eventually reach the stage where he would govern in his own right, however he was still quite immature. Okay, he was suddenly thrust into the realms of adulthood at the age of 14 when the peasants suddenly revolted (the peasant's are revolting; yes I know, I can smell them from here). The reason behind this revolt was due to the fact that the black death had pretty much decimated the population of Europe and all of a sudden they discovered that there was a shortage of workers. As such they rose up demanding better pay and conditions (namely an abolition of serfdom). In fact they were actually quite an effective force, killing a number of high nobles, and forcing the king to the negotiating table. Realising that the peasants had the upper hand Richard agreed to their demands and effectively abolished serfdom. This, in many ways, was the beginning of the end of Medieval England.

This was Richard in history so let us look at him in the play, or at least in this version of the play. The impression that I got from this production is that Richard never really grew up. Okay, having the entire country revolt does have the effect of forcing somebody to grow up, however they weren't revolting against the king per se they were revolting against the system. In any event the peasants never really played any role within the play itself - the action is between the members of the aristocracy.

You see, Richard still very much lived in the past, treating England as his own personal playground. He wasn't ruling with the support of the nobles, but rather as the monarch - the opinions of the nobles are inconsequential. This is why he over rode the laws of inheritance and took the wealth of the late John of Gaunt, the father of Henry Bolingbroke, for himself. In the historical context Richard did this because Gaunt, and in turn Bolingbroke, were the wealthiest, and most powerful, family in England, and there was a concern that Bolingbroke would use his wealth and influence to secure the throne in the event of Richard's death (who was childless).

Sure, this may have been brought out in the play, but what we see is an indecisive king who seems to treat his position as some sort of game, and his throne unassailable. However, if he was a true, and decisive, king he would have been firm with Bolingbroke, and certainly wouldn't have given him an opening to allow him to return to England and claim the throne. Let us also consider this - while there are factions waiting to deal with him Richard does something that could be considered incredibly foolish - he takes his army and he goes to Ireland to fight a war. Not only were they at war with France (though the French king at the time was basically mad), but his position wasn't all that secure. This, no doubt, was the major cause of his downfall as when he returned he suddenly discovered that somebody had come along and taken all of his toys.

The Hollow Crown

The idea of the hollow crown seems to have a significant meaning in this play. In fact there is a series, based on the first four plays of the history Cycle called 'The Hollow Crown' (and the first episode in the series The Age of Kings is also called 'The Hollow Crown'). The phrase appears in Act 3, Scene 2, where Richard soliloquises after discovering that Henry Bollingbroke had taken the throne while he was away in Ireland. The context the the phrase is as follows:

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!
There are two ideas that come from this passage, the first being that a crown is more like a circlet that sits upon one's head (or is even little more than a fancy hat) meaning that by it's nature it is hollow. However the other idea is that while the crown is a symbol, it is in fact a symbol with no meaning, particularly when the king that is wearing the crown has no power.

For those of us that live in Commonwealth countries, we still refer to the state as being 'The Crown'. In fact criminal cases are referred to in writing as 'R v That Guy', and in court they are announced as 'The Crown vs That Guy'. In a sense the government is still referred to as the 'The Crown', though that is a little archaic in everyday life. However what this means is that the crown represents the government, and as such the person who wears the crown is the head of the government.

Yet this is meaningless in Richard's mind because even though he wears the crown, he has no power - he has been usurped - and while he might still have allies floating about the place Bolingbroke is in the stronger position. Yet he also looks back at the monarchs that came before him. Sure, he inherited the throne through his grandfather, but his grandfather, Edward III, had to wrestle the crown out of the hands of Mortimer, who had stolen it by usurping Edward II. In many ways the idea of the crown, and one's hold on power, is quite similar to the wars and struggles that are unfolding on A Game of Thrones.

What is interesting is that Richard fell foul of Bollingbroke not so much because he was a weak king (which is what he was) but rather that he pushed Bolingbroke to the point that he felt he had no choice but to remove him. This is something we see in politics (at least in the Commonwealth countries, or rather should I say Australia - something like four different prime ministers in as many years) - when a leader loses control of their party, and their allies begin to desert them, then sooner or later they are going to find themselves sitting on the back bench.

The Reign of the Usurper

Well, here is something that is somewhat unusual in your typical Shakespearian play - an usurper not only gains the throne, but he manages to cement his hold on power and gain the respect of the people around him. Okay, that probably has a lot to do with this play being based upon historical occurrences - Bolingbroke certainly successfully took the throne from Richard, and then managed to hold onto power without being removed himself, or the entire country going to hell.

The thing with usurpers is that Shekespeare doesn't seem to particularly like them, especially since in many of his other plays they tend to meet a rather sticky end, and in some cases bring the entire nation down with them (see, for instance, Hamlet and the Scottish play). However this doesn't happen with Henry. Rather it is Richard that is the problem, despite the fact that he isn't a really good king (in that he dithers somewhat, and will also use his royal prerogative to take things for himself). Unlike the other usurpers, who saw an opportunity and seized it, Henry comes across as a rather reluctant usurper, taking the throne simply because it needed to be done. It was clear that Richard wasn't a good king, and he had begun to step over the limits of his power that had been put in place by the Magna Carta, so somebody needed to step up and put a stop to it. That person was none other than Bolingbroke.

The final thing that I wish to touch upon is how Bolingbroke and Richard were dressed (and appeared). Richard was dressed in robes and had quite long hair, while Bolingbroke had a crew cut and for most of the play was dressed in armour. This paints an interesting contrast between the two: Richard is basically a dandy, a boy that has grown up with everything, and wants for nothing, while Bolingbroke has had to fight for everything he has (which is not actually true - his family was one of the richest in England at the time). What we have are two men, one spoilt and soft, the other hard and a warrior. Yet once Richard is deposed, and Henry is on the throne, we see him discard his armour for the robes. I guess the reason is that while as Henry Bolingbroke he was a warrior, as Henry IV he is now a king, and wishes to play the part.

Creative Commons License

The Boy King - Richard II by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.


  1. I haven't seen Richard II live, but I read it a couple of years ago. It's kind of a shame that it seems to be a largely forgotten Shakespeare history, because I found a lot of its political commentary to stand up well in our modern times.

    A couple of other things come to mind. First is that "The Crown v. ____" is an interesting contrast to here in the US, where it is "The People v. ______." Not much difference in practice, but the theory is interesting and reflects that historical divide created by the American Revolution.

    The other one is the fact that Shakespeare generally disdains usurpers. I suppose this would be only natural, as sympathy with regicides might have resulted in his head being neatly separated from his neck. In the cases where the usurper *is* promoted, there is a political explanation. Since Henry IV (Bolingbroke) would have been an ancestor of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, he would have to be praised, naturally, regardless of the perfidy of his actions. (The same concern appears in the Scottish Play, where Macbeth gets painted as a villain - despite the fact that the history was quite different - while Banquo's own role in the coup is whitewashed. Because, naturally, he was an ancestor of James I. Ah the fun of the good old days before freedom of speech...

    Great article, with a bunch of fun history. It's always nice to find someone else who actually has read Richard II.

  2. I wrote a post on Richard II, if you want to read my thoughts. :)

  3. Thanks for your post. I'd be quite interested in reading your thoughts on the play. I should be able to find it on your blog.

  4. Sorry, I was going to link it and completely forgot.