Intro to Richard the Second

With the current political climate with leaders voluntarily giving up power and factions rising up within factions, I thought I might give you some historical perspective with Shakespeare’s play about a monarch who stole from his people, caused an insurrection, and whose supporters gave up their own power- Richard II.

Background presentation

Background info packet I created back in 2009.

Richard is a classic story of hubris. Richard literally believed he was appointed by god, and thus he could act with impunity. He, therefore, stole lands, taxed his people, and even gave land away to pay for his wars in Ireland. His actions offended his nobles, especially the house of Lancaster, who rose up and eventually deposed him. This play, therefore, has many lessons on how leaders cannot survive without their supporters, and nobles need to put the good of the people first.

Shakespeare’s version is not a dry chronicle with painstaking historical accuracy. For starters, every single line is in verse, and I don’t think even the real Richard spoke in iambic pentameter all the time. For a history play, this Richard has Shakespeare’s most poetic language:

Shakespeare’s Richard is full of self-pity, bewilderment, and a narcissistic desire for attention with a borderline God-complex. He even art-directs his own deposition with all the tragic solemnity of a passion play, casting himself as Christ, and everyone else as Pontius Pilate:

Shakespeare is very cogent about whether or not it was a good idea to depose Richard, especially since Queen Elizabeth was also an aging monarch who failed to produce an heir or quell a rebellion in Ireland (Shapiro: 1599). Nonetheless, the Queen was aware of the connection and famously declared: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” Some productions have blatantly connected the two monarchs, and even dressed Richard as the Queen.

This play’s strength depends on the casting. Not much happens onstage except for lots of talking, planning, speechifying, and cursing. It depends on actors who can deliver these great lines with beauty but also sincerity:

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