Richard the Second: “Non Sans Droit?”

Richard the Second: “Non sans Droit?” by Paul Rycik
The motto which I titled this post means “Not Without Right.” I chose it because it’s Shakespeare’s family motto, but also because in my view, Richard the Second is a play about the Divine right of kings; it asks whether kings are appointed by God, and if so, does that mean that they are free to do what they want, and whether or not they can be deposed. Today I want to examine how these questions are addressed in the play. I’ll do this by showing you passages from the text on video with a few notes by me. These recordings are by the Royal Shakespeare Company, England’s premiere acting troupe.

Picture #1- The Wilton Diptych
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/work?workNumber=NG4451
 
This picture from the National Gallery in London illustrates admirably how Richard, who was the son of the Black Prince, the greatest warrior in English history, truly believed he was appointed by God. It depicts the 10 year-old king in full golden robes, being blessed by the Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Edward the Confessor, and St. Edmund. As I said before, Richard was only 10 when he was crowned; he believed he was God’s representative his whole life.



Video #1– Act IV, Scene I Richard Pasco playing Richard the Second

This is a recording of the famous Deposition Scene in which Richard must give his crown up to Henry Bolingbroke. It is clear from the text that Richard considers this not only treason but a form of blasphemy. This is evidenced in such passages where Richard compares himself to Jesus, another king betrayed by his followers.

 “So Judas did to Christ, but he in 12 found truth in all but one, I in 12,00 none,” 

Richard is in no doubt that he is appointed by God, and anyone who tries to question or depose him is damned. 

Other characters take differing views on the divine right- the gardeners don’t believe in divine right- to them, a kingdom is ruled by men, not divine incarnations. They are pragmatic and think Richard’s claims foolish

Video #2 Act II, scene I- Patrick Stewart speaking as John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt believed in divine right, that’s why he killed Woodstock. In this famous speech, Gaunt reveals his passion for England, how he believes it has a special place among nations, and that a king’s duty is to protect it. But, when Richard sells land, Gaunt is forced to question how can a king be divine if his actions are wrong. He even suggests that Richard is no longer worthy of his royal blood: “O, spare me not, my brother Edward’s son; that blood already, like the pelican, hast thou tapped out and drunkenly caroused.”
 
Picture #2 Henry Bolingbroke from the 1975 production of Richard II

Bolingbroke’s motives are secret throughout the play. We don’t know if he always intended to seize the crown, whether he was forced to by his followers, or if he was forced to because Richard put him in an impossible position- his father’s lands seized by the crown and himself an exile. Equally enigmatic is if Bolingbroke believes in divine right. If he does, Bolingbroke must feel unimaginable guilt, especially in the scene when Richard is deposed. (Act IV, i) In the scene, Richard warns Bolingbroke that God will damn him for betraying his king, “The deposing of a king and cracking the strong warrant of an oath, marked with a blot, damned in the book of heaven.”

 
 Once Richard is dead, Bolingbroke is forever shaken, paranoid, and fearful of assassination. My thinking is that Bolingbroke did believe that what he did was truly terrible and he spends the rest of his life mourning over it. This is why in the next play, Henry IV, Bolingbroke, now the king, says one of the most famous lines Shakespeare ever wrote: “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.”
 
As you can see- there are several differing viewpoints on the issue of divine right- some people believe in it, some don’t. Thus the issue is never resolved because no one is proven right. I’ve written before that on controversial issues, Shakespeare never presents one view stronger than the other; he gives voice to every side of an issue and merely shows the conflict that happens when these characters fight with each other. It is up to the audience to choose sides.

Interesting Side note: The Deposition Scene I referred to earlier has a very disreputable history- it was considered anti-government because the censors claimed it favored the deposing of kings. One of the Queen’s favorite lords, the Earl of Essex ordered the scene played on February 7th, 1601 for that purpose. He planned to use it to rally the people and start an armed rebellion against the queen. Shakespeare’s entire company was arrested and interrogated as co-conspirators. Fortunately, they got away with it, as this document shows:

Document: Examination of Augustine Phillips, February 17, 1601

Shakespeare’s company claimed that the only reason they put on the play was that the lords offered more cash than the usual fee for performing at court. They got the government to buy their story, but, (as scholar Michael Wood claims), maybe the Queen wasn’t fooled- she asked them to perform the same play, right before Essex’s execution. When he died, she was reported as saying: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that.” 

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:

My Visit to a Twelfth Night Party!

I can think of no better wrapup to my play of the month “Twelfth Night,” than by reporting on my visit to an actual Twelfth night Party, presented by the Society For Creative Anachronism.

What’s a Twelfth Night Party?

If you took my class on Shakespearean Christmas traditions or read my blog posts, you know that, back in Shakespeare’s day, Twelfth Night was a party to end the Christmas season. It was presided over by a Lord of Misrule, who would lead people in games and songs. The party would also have a Twelfth Night Cake with a bean in the center. If you found the bean, you’d have good luck for the year! So I was pleased to come to a real-life Twelfth Night party and see these traditions come to life!

What is the society for Creative anachronism?

The short answer is- it’s LARPING for history nerds. Rather than creating a D&D persona and then getting arms and armor to play-fight in the backyard, SCA members create personas based on real medieval history, make or buy real historical arms and armor, (or arts and crafts as the case may be) and spend years of their lives studying and perfecting their immersion in that character’s life. SCA-ers learn how to fight with swords, daggers, spears, etc, how to sing medieval songs, medieval dances, and many other medieval ‘mysteries,’ which in this case means arts, crafts, and professions.

The Shire of Owlsherst

Owlsherst is the SCA’s local chapter in York PA. They have a number of dedicated members who specialize in textiles to rapier-dagger fighting. I’ve posted some videos of their fighting demonstrations on Youtube and Tiktok and their archery master has his own Tiktok channel. They hosted this year’s Twelfth Nigh party and have many other events throughout the year. For more information on this chapter, go to https://owlsherst.eastkingdom.org/

My reaction

Every SCA event is a great way to celebrate people who are passionate about history and have talents for arts and crafts. Everything from the tapestries to the to the food, to the adorable owl toys, was made by hand by these dedicated people (most of whom brought their own medieval costumes). More members were doing live demonstrations of rapier/ dagger fights, binding books in cow leather, and singing medieval Christmas songs. I was inspired by everyone’s dedication and hard work to put this together. I also wonder if this is how Shakespeare himself felt when, as a child, he went to sheep shearing fairs and saw his friends and fellow artisans put on amateur bible plays on medieval pageant wagons.

That said…

I should warn you that, like a lot of historical reenacting societies like Civil War reenactors, etc, this society is more aimed at hardcore history nerds, than anyone else. This isn’t Medieval Times or a big-budget renaissance fair which is aimed at children and casual fun seekers. As such, it wasn’t really family-friendly. There aren’t many activities for kids and many of the arts and crafts are too delicate for toddlers and young kids. Also, this event isn’t particularly immersive or organized. People mostly just mingled, ate, and watched the various demonstrations. Keep in mind, this is just one chapter and just one event, which means your experience may vary. Nevertheless, because of the organization’s amateur historical nature, I would caution you to manage your expectations. Like I said before, this isn’t some big-budget Disney theme-park ride, but it is a chance for hardcore history nerds to get together, share their knowledge, and celebrate the traditions of a bygone era. If that’s your thing, I highly recommend it!

Happy Twelfth Day of Christmas Everyone!

Hello everyone! I’m back from break and happy to celebrate one of my favorite holidays with you- the one that gave its name to one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies- Twelfth Night

How to throw a Twelfth Night Party

How To Throw A Twelfth Night Party

How to Make a Twelfth Night Cake

Intro to Twelfth Night (THe play)

I’ve been in this play three times and I’m continually struck by how fun, romantic, and progressive it is. It raises questions about gender roles, social norms, bullying, and even catfishing and heteronormativity! It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking play and it’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies!

Shakespeare’s early comedies are about young love, infatuation, and being ‘madly in love’ (sometimes literally). His middle plays are about mature relationships between men and women and the need for commitment. I would argue that Twelfth Night, (and possibly Much Ado About Nothing), are the best examples of Shakespeare telling meaningful stories about romantic relationships.

Past Posts on “Twelfth Night”

  1. Play of the Month: Twelfth Night
  2. The Fashion Is the Fashion: Twelfth Night
  3. Crafting a Character: Malvolio
  4. Exquisite Artwork from Twelfth Night

Would you like to know more? Take a class!

In honor of “Twelfth Night,” I’ve created a coupon for my course on Shakespeare’s comedies from now till January 31st: Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Comic Plays” with coupon code HTHESYTIT110 until Jan 31, 2023. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-comic-plays-868BR5hg and enter the coupon code at checkout.

To finish I wanted to give you a complete production of Twelfth Night for your viewing pleasure, but I can’t decide which one, so I will post a bunch today! 

1. 1996 TV movie starring Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean)

2.1996 Thames TV directed by Kenneth Branaugh 

The Weirdest History Show on YouTube

No, you aren’t hallucinating. This is a clip from the short-lived Warner Brothers kids cartoon show “Histeria,” an educational variety show, sort of like Horrible Histories or “Who Was.” This clip is a song about the life of Henry VIII.

The show was produced by Worner Brothers for the WB back in 1996. It starred many successful voice actors from other WB projects like Billy West (Renn and Stimpy), Tess McNeill (Tiny Toon Adventures), and Frank Welker (The current voice of Curious George). In addition, the show was created by Tom Ruegger, Executive Producer of Warner Animation, who also created Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain. Those of you who grew up in the 90s know that the WB occasionally sprinkled their shows with educational sketches especially with Animaniacs:

So the idea of using these creative people to create a show about history was not a bad one in and of itself. It could have been a modern-day Schoolhouse Rock. The problem is that the characters are TERRIBLE.While Tiny Toons had likeable characters who were the modern-day successors to classic Warner characters like Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Hampton pig, Histeria has lame characters nobody knows or has any interest in like Froggo, World’s Oldest Woman, and Big Fat Baby. In addition, there is no through line to any of these sketches so it seems like a bunch of random skits. While the Animaniacs was about crazy weird characters trying to escape from the Warner Bros. lot, it seems unclear as to why these characters are talking to me about history.

In short, Histeria feels like a bunch of talented people were forced to make it, and they gave little thought to how to make it a popular series. Still, the animation is good, the voice acting is top-notch, and occasionally, the jokes land very well, and the songs are very catchy. Not surprisingly, my favorite song is this one, where the cast summarizes in song, all 37 plays of William Shakespeare:

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/WesternAnimation/Histeria

This video, of course, is about the life of Henry VIII.

funny Henry the eighth sketches from “Horrible Histories.”

I love the BBC Kids show “Horrible Histories,” based on the books by Terry Deary (who also appears in the show). The show is a Monty-Python like variety show that jumps from various periods in English history, (primarily), while highlighting the “gory, ghastly, mean and cruel,” elements of history that our teachers tend to gloss over.

One period of history in which the show excels at satirizing is the Tudor period; devoting several songs, sketches, and animations to the reigns of Mary I, Good Queen Bess, and of course, Henry VIII. Here are some of my favorite clips from the series, with Ben Willbond as Henry VIII: