“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground /And tell sad stories about the death of kings.”

Richard II

Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams

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Act Three:  Returning to face the emergency from Ireland, Richard faces an impossible situation:  his army has been dispersed, three of his closest friends have been executed by Bolingbroke, and York has defected.  In despair he travels to meet his enemies at Flint Castle.  Despite Bolingbroke’s not quite believable protests that he has no wish to seize the throne, Richard admits he is powerless.  A coup seems inevitable when the Queen overheard her gardeners (again the gardeners!) discussing Bolingbroke’s intentions towards the throne.

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One of the things I really like about this play is that it hit upon a subject that has always intrigued me – how “power” moves from one person to another, and how it is known that the power has shifted.

Another really intriguing aspect of the play for me is how Bolingbroke’s own words on his intentions sound more opaque the closer he actually gets to power.  When he’s warned by York to “Take not…further than you should,/Lest you mistake the heavens are over our heads,” Bolingbroke’s reply is a masterpiece of doublespeak

I know it, uncle, and oppose not myself

Against their will.

It seems to me that if the “will” of the heavens can be read two ways, then so can Bolingbroke’s intentions towards the King in the first climax of the play, when they finally meet at Flint Castle after Richard’s hurried (and disastrous) return from Ireland.  Urging his cousin not to kneel in front of him, Richard cries, “Up, cousin, up,”

Your heart is up, I know,

Thus high at least, although your knee be low.

Bolingbroke

My gracious lord, I come but for my own.

King Richard

Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all.

It seems astonishing to me that an entire kingdom can, in effect, be resigned in words of such carefully worded ambiguity.  Was Shakespeare just being cautious and avoiding anything more politically overt or is something else going on?

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From Harold Bloom:

“The self-destruction of Richard II, well advanced before his return, receives its seal in the speeches and gestures of his homecoming.  His salute to the Welsh earth adjures it to rise against Bolingbroke, and his defense of his hyperbole is pathetic:

Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords:

This earth shall have a feeling, and these stones

Prove armed soldiers ere her native king

Shall falter under foul rebellion’s arms.

The pathos increases when Richard compares himself to the rising sun, the most inappropriate image possible for a man upon whom the sun has gone down:

So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,

Who all this while hath revell’d in the night,

Whilst we were wand’ring with the Antipodes,

Shall see us rising in our throne in the east,

His treasons will sit blushing in his face,

Not able to endure the sight of day,

But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord;

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,

God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel:  then, if angels fight,

Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

This vision of hosts of armed angels yields to Richard’s anxious inquiry as to the whereabouts of his Welsh army, which has melted away the day before, on rumors that he was dead. When he realizes that all have abandoned him, he yields to a luxuriant despair so powerfully expressed as to transcend any previous eloquence in Shakespeare:

No matter where – of comfort no man speak.

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 up on the ground

And tell sad stories about the death of kings:

How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,

All murthered – 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

Bored through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence, throw away respect,

Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;

For you have but mistook me all this while.

I live with bread like you, feel want,

Taste grief, need friends – subjected thus,

How can you see now to me, I am a king?

To see what is not, think of Lear’s ‘Take physic, pomp.’  In the great king’s recognition of common mortality, there is an opening to all others, to poor naked wretches, wheresoever they are, who suffer the merciless storm with Lear.  Richard opens only to Richard, and to other murdered kings before him.  And yet he opens also to a greater poetry, with a vernacular intensity that astonishes:

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories about the death of kings.

Even better is that ‘and with a little pin,’ a touch of a new poetic greatness.  The masochistic mode of this luxuriance is illuminated when Richard is told that the Duke of York, regent in the king’s absence, also has gone over to Bolingbroke, so that Richard’s party is reduced to a literal handful:

Beshrew thee, cousin, which didst lead me forth

Of that sweet way I was in to despair!  [To Aumerle.]

After this, Richard’s despair leaps ahead of itself, perhaps inventing what has become another characteristic of the human, our tendency to speak as though matters could not be worse, and by overhearing such utterance, proceeding to make them worse.  Richard becomes the antithesis of Edgar, the anti-Richard of King Lear, who moves us with his great speech that begins Act IV.

Yet better thus, and known to be contemn’d,

Than still contemn’d and flatter’d, to be worst.

The lowest and most dejected thing of Fortune,

Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear:

The lamentable change is from the best,

The worst returns to laughter.  Welcome, then,

Thou unsubstantial air that I embrace:

The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst

Owes nothing to thy blasts.

[King Lear, IV, I, 1-0]

One wonders, here and in other places, if the contrasts between Richard II and King Lear are not deliberate.  Richard is no more capable of ‘The worst returns to laughter’ than he is of Lear’s startled apprehensions of human otherness.  Edgar transcends Richard even more sublimely when he beholds his blinded father:  ‘The worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’’  But Richard never stops doing Bolingbroke’s work for him, yielding up a kingdom while constructing metaphysical litanies.

What must the king do now?  Must he submit?

The king shall do it.  Must he be depos’d?

The king shall be contented.  Must he lose

The name of a king?  a God’s name, let it go.

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads;

My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;

My gay apparel for an almsman’s town;

My figur’d goblets for a dish of wood;

My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff;

My subjects for a pair of carved saints,

And my large kingdom for a little grave,

A little little grave, an obscure grave,

Or I’ll be buried in the king’s highway,

Some way of common trade, where subject’s feet

May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head;

For on my heart they tread now whilst I live:

And buried once, why not upon my head?

Aumerle, thou weep’st (my tender-hearted cousin!),

We’ll make foul weather with despised tears;

Our sighs and they shall lodge the summer corn,

And make a dearth in this revolting land.

Or shall we play the wantons with our woes,

And make some pretty match with shedding tears?

And thus to drop them still upon one place,

Till they have fretted us a pair of graves

Within the earth, and therein laid – there lies

Two kinsmen digg’d their graves with weeping eyes!

Wouldst not this ill do well?  Well, well, I see

I talk but idly, and you laugh at me.

Most mighty prince, my Lord Northumberland,

What says King Bolingsbroke?  Will his Majesty

Give Richard leave to live till Richard dies?

You make a leg, and Bolingbroke says ‘ay.’

Once he starts, Richard cannot stop, as in ‘a little grave,/A little grave, an obscure grave.’  This obsessive self-pity offends moralizing critics, but it thrilled the great Irish poet Yeats, who found in Richard an apocalyptic imagination.  The brilliant fantasia that develops Richard’s tears has it in a quality of visionary irony new in Shakespeare and anticipatory of Donne.  The initial dialogue between the self-defeated King Richard and the victorious Bolingbroke carries this power of irony into a theatrical complexity again new to Shakespeare:

Bolingbroke:

Stand all apart,

And show fair duty to his Majesty.  [He kneels down.]

My gracious lord.

Richard:

Fair cousin, you debase your princely knee

To make the base earth proud with kissing it.

Me rather had my heart might feel your love,

Than my unpleased eye see your courtesy.

Up, cousin, up; your heart is up, I know,

Thus high at least, although your knee be low.

Bolingbroke:

My gracious lord, I come but for mine own.

Richard:

Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all.

Bolingbroke:

So far be mine, my most redoubted lord,

As my true service shall deserve your love.

Richard:

Well you deserve.  They well deserve to have

That know the strong’st and surest way to get.

Uncle, give me your hands, nay, dry your eyes –

Tears show their love, but want their remedies.

Cousin, I am too young to be your father,

Though you are old enough to be my heir;

What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too,

For do we must what force will have us do.

Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?

Bolingbroke:

Yea, my good lord.

Richard:

Then I must not say no.

[Flourish.  Exeunt.]

One might argue, ‘Well, but what else can Richard do?’  To which the answer is ‘Anything at all, except to make Bolingbroke’s job so much easier for him.’  Richard enjoys his ironies here, but they will be fatal for him, though aesthetically very satisfactory for Shakespeare and for us.

The exquisite garden interlude that follows (Act III, Scene iv) allows Richard’s queen to speak of her husband’s catastrophe as ‘A second fall of cursed man,’ but that is no more persuasive than Richard’s attempts to align his ordeal with Christ’s.  What is troubling comes in the Bishop of Carlisle’s courageous prophecy concerning Bolingbroke…(to come when we get to Act IV)”

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And this excerpt from Adrian Poole’s essay, “The Crown, The Mirror, and the Clock:  Shakespeare’s Richard II, regarding the choices an actor has to make while playing Richard:

“William Hazlitt once remarked that actors were the best commentators on the poets. This is a fine half-truth. In fact Hazlitt more usually took the view that we are better off reading the plays than seeing them performed. Most performances interfere with our conception of the plays and it takes an exceptional actor, such as Edmund Kean, to raise our imagination of a character. Hazlitt was a great admirer of Kean’s but he was also exact and exacting. He did not share the general admiration for Kean’s Richard II. He said that Kean made it ‘a character of passion, that is, of feeling combined with energy’. His own idea of the character was that it was one of ‘pathos, that is to say, of feeling combined with weakness’. Kean’s acting, according to Hazlitt, was always vigorous, extrovert, at full stretch; he was less good at portraying misgiving, vacillation, weakness. Hazlitt particularly disagreed with the way Kean played the great scene with the mirror. Kean dashed the glass down with all his might; Hazlitt would have preferred to see him ‘letting it fall out of his hands, as from an infant’s’.

Hazlitt may well have been right about Kean’s playing of the part as a whole, that it was too rambunctious. But in itself Hazlitt’s idea of the way to play this scene is not self-evidently superior to Kean’s. One can see an attraction in both ways of doing it. Both answer to something an actor ought to find in the course of his performance as a whole, Richard’s capacity both for abrupt self-assertion and for equally abrupt self-surrender. Richard withers as easily as he explodes and from one minute to the next we never quite know which we are going to see. It is like Richard both to dash the glass violently to the ground and to let it slip dreamily out of his fingers.

There is certainly a critical choice here for the actor, but it is less a question of the force with which he breaks the glass than of the degree of conscious theatricality in the action. You do not become an actor unless you enjoy people looking at you. To play Richard II is to play a man who has taken it for granted that he is the centre of everyone’s attention. That is the definition of a king, a man with a captive audience. What makes the part attractive and challenging is the doubt about how far and how long Richard manages to take it for granted. You can play him as a man who wakes up sharply to the fact that his audience is much less easily impressed than he had imagined, and who then takes increasingly ingenious steps to hold an attention that he cannot live without. So you smash the mirror to the ground: look at me! Or you can play him as a man who has so successfully internalized the admiration that comes with being a king that he remains triumphantly impervious to the actual responses of the world around him. To play him like this is to turn him into a kind of artist or madman, inhabiting a world of his own. This is how the late nineteenth-century actor Frank Benson played him. One critic commented in particular on his playing of the deposition scene: ‘ … nothing in Mr Benson’s performance was finer than the King’s air, during the mirror soliloquy, as of a man going about his mind’s engrossing business in a solitude of its own making’.

Actors may not always be the best commentators, but intelligent actors are always worth listening to. Here is John Gielgud on Richard II.

‘Richard is one of the rare parts in which the actor may indulge himself, luxuriating in the language he has to speak, and attitudinizing in consciously graceful poses. Yet the man must seem, too, to be ever physically on his guard, shielding himself, both in words and movement, from the dreaded impact of the unknown circumstances which, he feels, are always lying in wait to strike him down.’

Self-indulgence, luxuriating, attitudinizing: many people have rightly seen this in Richard II, as indeed in Richard III. For different but complementary motives the two Richards bask in the mesmerized attention they can command from others. All actors need an audience, but the audience the Richards seek is a particularly abject one. They think of the other characters in the play less as members of a supporting cast than as members of an audience to be unceremoniously dragged on stage to act as stooges and fall-guys. Hogging the limelight is the only way the Richards know how to act. But in fact—and this is where Gielgud’s comment about Richard II is so shrewd—this idyllic self-absorption can only be a half-truth, a more or less fragile fiction. Richard must also be on his guard, watching out for the forces that will invade his little world of words.”

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And finally, from Mark Van Doren:

“…the great poet of the play, of course, is Richard. And if he has to content himself with being a minor poet, that circumstance is consistent with the character of the man and of the action built around him.  The play is organized about a hero who, more indeed than contenting himself with the role of minor poet, luxuriates in it.  His theme is himself.  He dramatizes his grief.  He spends himself in poetry – which is something he loves more than power and more than any other person.  His self-love is grounded upon an infatuation with the art he so proudly and self-consciously practices.  That is what Richard II is about, and what even its plot expresses.  Its unity therefore is distinct and impressive.

Its first half shows us a king accomplished in the rhetoric of his office…his talk is big, his rhythms are tremendous.  So we might expect him to put traitors quickly down; or, if a rival appeared from his throne, we might be certain that mighty measures, along with mighty phrases, would leave him soon again solitary in unassailable grandeur.  What explains his failure to opposed Bolingbroke at all, his sudden collapse, as soon as the threat of deposition becomes real, into a state of sheer elegy, of pure poetry?  The answer is simple.  Richard is a poet, not a king.  Surrounded by favorites and deceived by dreams of his utter safety he can strut in the high style awhile.  But an acute ear detects the strut even at the brave beginning; and soon enough there are signs of the precious, conceited musician who hides a little too well the words he has chosen for announcing to Mowbray that exile in his case is to be for life.  ‘The sly, slow hours shall not determinate/The dateless limit of thy dear exile.’

The duke of York warns Gaunt that the young king will not listen to the wisdom of any old man because his ears are too much in love with the ‘venom sound’ of ‘lascivious metres.’  He is too much, York means, the mere poet.  Yet there is a suspicious excess in the kiss of words bestowed by Richard upon the soil of Wales when he lands from Ireland:

As a long-parted mother with her child

Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,

So, weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,

And do thee favors with my royal hands.

And within a few minutes the secret is entirely out; Richard drops his pretense of being a major poet simultaneously with the surrender of his power, with the crumpling of his front.  The break is sudden, and poetically, not to say dramatically, it is brilliant.  Richard’s last speech in the old style is the best he has made in that style; he never spoke with more appearance of strength than he does now when he heard Scroop say that Wiltshire, Bagot, Busy, and Green have made peace with Bolingbroke:

O villains, vipers, damn’d without redemption!

Dogs, easily won to fawn on any man!

Snakes, in my heaert-blood warm’d, that sting my heart!

Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas!

Would they make peace?  Terrible hell make war

Upon their spotted souls for this offense!

But these words are the last hard and heavy ones he uses.  For Scroop explains that Richard’s friends have made peace with heads, not hands:  and to Aumerele’s question concerning the whereabouts of York a new kind of answer comes, in a new style which gives us all at once the man we have been waiting for.  The new style is exquisite, high-pitched, limpid, lyrical, and boneless; its phrases run sweetly, easily, without the effort of argument or disguise; its music listens to itself, pleased with the high-born whine of a matchless, inimitable melody; and the diction is literary, the imagery is of books, of writing, of story-telling…[MY NOTE:  See speech “No matter where; of comfort no man speak/Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs…” above]

All this while, Richard had been a poet, not a king; a minor poet, waiting for the cues of sorrow and disaster.  Now that he has them he will honor nothing else; he will do nothing but compose fine, tender,  heart-breaking lines, nothing but improvise endless variations on the rich, resonant theme of his personal woe.”

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My next post, more on Act Three:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy your weekend.

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3 Responses to “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground /And tell sad stories about the death of kings.”

  1. GGG says:

    In Act Three, when I read Richard, I feel like I am hearing someone speaking quickly, almost panicking. Northumberland (I think it was) refers to Richard as frantic, and that seemed to fit the tidal wave of words that pour out from him. This is the first time for me (except maybe Mercutio) where the pace/speed/rapid fire of the language really reflected this kind of crazed/crazy character–on the edge of destruction. Not sure if it’s because of the stricter “poetry” of the play or because I’m getting more into the rhythm of Shakespeare.

    • I’d suggest a combination of the two, plus the rapidly increasing control and depth and brilliance of Shakespeare’s own artistry. He’s just a better writer now than we started.

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