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Richard II - Act 1 
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Post Richard II - Act 1
jetsam wrote:
It's interesting to compare the openings of Richard II and Henry IV Pt I. In both scenes we're looking at kings who are about to face deadly challenges, but who for the moment are unaware of what lies ahead.

Thanks, Jetsam. I hope you don't mind that I moved this conversation to this newly created thread.

I read the first scene this morning and was endlessly confused. It took me awhile to figure out that Thomas Mowbray is also the Duke of Norfolk. One of the challenges of reading a play versus watching it.

But anyway, yes, 1 Henry IV starts with the King using the royal "we" to describe England in a state of turmoil. "So shaken we are, so wan with care . . . " The King takes a broad view of things (a quality that probably helps his effectiveness as a politician). Whereas King Richard II begins the play arbitrating what seems a petty dispute between two nobles. Richard II is taking a microview of affairs, compared with Henry's macroview, an interesting contrast between two opening scenes as you point out.

The two nobles are: Henry Bolingbroke (who will eventually usurp Richard's reign), and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk. It's a bit difficult for me to figure out the exact nature of their dispute, but basically Bolingbroke is accusing Mowbray of misusing the King's funds and also of the recent murder of the Duke of Gloucester. I guess we will find out more about Gloucester's murder later in the play. For now it might help to know that the murdered Gloucester is John of Gaunt's brother. Gaunt is King Richard II's uncle and an adviser, and is also present in this first scene.

So King Henry IV in that opening scene is contemplating a crusade to help unite the people in his kingdom, a plan that will be sabotaged by an uprising within his kingdom. And Richard II in his opening scene is engaged in elaborate ritualization (the throwing down of the gage) as he tries to settle differences between two nobles that will soon have far-reaching consequences.

We will learn that Mowbray was probably acting on Richard II's orders when Gloucester was murdered. So both plays open with kings who are connected to a recent murder. Both reigns are tainted to some extent.

The game is afoot, ladies and gentlemen!


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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
Bevington's intro to the play that you posted was a great help to me. When I first read the play, it seemed to me that Richard was being a wise monarch at the start by stopping what seemed a senseless duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. Then when I later saw the play, the director seemed to imply that Richard was actually being capricious and impulsive when he unexpectedly stopped the bout.

In both cases I wondered why Shakespeare had spent so much time on this incident. It didn't seem terribly significant, and I wondered why he hadn't given us instead some examples of Richard being a bad king or over-indulging his favourites, especially as this was what the play was supposed to be about. It seemed to me that we were 'told' about these faults rather than 'shown' them and maybe the time at the beginning could have been used for a bit of showing.

However, reading Bevington's analysis made me look at this incident in an entirely different light. The only thing that still puzzled me was, how were audiences from the 16th century on supposed to work all this out without his help.



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
Hi Geo ,Jetsam and all interested in this play, and a happy new year to all.
I've only just read Act one, and read Bevington's appraisal which I must say is excellent and illuminating.It's hard to know what can be added to it.
I think that being a history based play, Shakespeare knows and expects the audience to be well versed in that history and so can get straight in to the drama without providing all that background.
The opening scene then is inevitably focused on Richard and his fated crown taker and indirect murderer, Henry Bolingbroke. The audience already know the final outcome which looms behind the verbal exchanges, which contain the seeds of revolution and civil war about to spring forth.
Neither Richard or Bolingbroke know this final outcome, but there is an air of distrust and unease.
Both Bolingbroke and Mowbray counter accuse each other of high treason against Richard no less,and he is called upon to adjudicate on this!
What I like about this play, in contrast with Henry iv part one,is that it is clear in being largely a tragedy and a political and psychological drama.
Henry iv was more comedy and a bit blurred as a result, I thought. Not that I object to comedy, but Richard is clearer and better defined.
Bolingbroke's first words of undying loyalty to Richard are heavily ironic for the audience, whatever his real thoughts and feelings may be.
Richard is a hopeless king, devoid of understanding and casually and repeatedly overtaxing his subjects for his wars and self aggrandising projects.
On the history itself; Richard was just ten when crowned king and largely managed and badly advised by a committee on the make, who stirred up trouble with their heavy taxation.
Subsequently many of these crony advisers and friends of Richard,were accused and charged by parliament of unscrupulously exploiting his youth and inexperience for personal gain.
Several were condemned and executed by these parliamentary peers which included Bolinbroke.This was dubbed; "The merciless parliament."
Richard never learns it seems, and takes refuge in the divine right of kings notion as a kind of psychological protective armour.
So when Bolingbroke and Mowbray appear before him all this is already history.Mowbray is accused of purloining the kings money and counter accuses Bolinbroke of treason.
Certainly,already familiar themes to the king in his young life. Out of this spills personal tragedy and civil war.
As always the use of language is terrific, despite the old English.
The game is indeed afoot.



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
Thanks for putting the play in historical context, Flann, it makes the beginning easier to understand. It spurred me to do a bit of research too, and I discovered that Thomas Mowbray had been one of the Lords Appellant who set themselves up to challenge the power of Richard's favourites when he was younger. They launched a successful rebellion and then ruled through Richard as a figurehead.
When Richard grew up and took his power back he took his revenge on the Lords Appellant, killing or exiling most of them. One of them was the Duke of Gloucester, so that explains his murder. The exiling for life of Thomas Mowbray makes more sense in this light, as does Bolingbroke's exile too, for he was a later member of the Lords Appellant. Mowbray died a year or two later in Venice.

In Scenes 3 and 4 there are a couple of subtle intimations of what is to come.

Mowbray says to Bolingbroke:
"But what thou art, God, thou, and I do know;
And all too soon, I fear, the king shall rue."

And later the King himself says of Bolingbroke:
"Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green
Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts ....
... As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope."



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
Setting history aside for just a moment; What jumps from the page at the start is WS's larger use of rhyming lyric's compared to the other parts of this end of the tetralogy.

I culled this from Harold Bloom; "Richard 2 is a bad king and an interesting metaphysical poet, his two roles are antithetical, so that his kingship diminishes even as his poetry improves. At the close, he is a dead king, first forced to abdicate and then murdered, but what stays in our ears is his metaphysical mock lyricism. A foolish and unfit king, victimized as much by his own psyche and its extraordinary language as he is by Bolingbroke, Richard wins not so much our sympathy as our reluctant aesthetic admiration for the dying fall of his cognitive music".

The story of Richard even lacking the great Falstaff, has tremendous oratory confrontational wit that stands rightly on its own.



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
jetsam wrote:
Thanks for putting the play in historical context, Flann, it makes the beginning easier to understand. It spurred me to do a bit of research too, and I discovered that Thomas Mowbray had been one of the Lords Appellant who set themselves up to challenge the power of Richard's favourites when he was younger. They launched a successful rebellion and then ruled through Richard as a figurehead.
When Richard grew up and took his power back he took his revenge on the Lords Appellant, killing or exiling most of them. One of them was the Duke of Gloucester, so that explains his murder. The exiling for life of Thomas Mowbray makes more sense in this light, as does Bolingbroke's exile too, for he was a later member of the Lords Appellant. Mowbray died a year or two later in Venice.

Thanks Jetsam. So Mowbray was also one of the Lords appellant.The background history though convoluted and complicated is important I think.
Richard could hardly have been more unsuited to reign at the age of ten, and effectively there is a power vacuum and maneuvering to fill it. The fill in committee, proceed with heavy taxation provoking the "Peasant's revolt," which threatens the hierarchical power structures and indirectly the monarchy itself.
Richard aged fourteen, pretends to acquiesce to their demands but ultimately puts it down ruthlessly. The later taxation of the nobility by Richard's crony advisers provokes them to deal with them radically through parliament,executing some of these friends and advisers of the king.
Richard bites his tongue for a while, but at issue is the question of who actually rules,the aristocracy through parliament or the king absolutely.
Some ten years later, Richard takes power for real and invents an alleged conspiracy against himself as a pretext for executing some and banishing others of these Lords appellant,in an act of revenge.
Richard is unsurprisingly unpopular with his subjects,creates his own private protective army and retreats into a fantasy world of divine prerogative with fantastic buildings erected to his own imagined cult of semi-divinity.
So I suppose there is no real grounds for banishing Bolinbroke other than revenge and asserting his authority.The real issues are largely personal. Mowbray is believed to have murdered banished Lord appellant Gloucester,the brother of Gaunt and uncle of Bolingbroke.
There's a strong suggestion in the play that Richard instigated this murder.Whatever the truth Richard decides to be rid of both through banishment,suggesting he trusts neither.
Shakespeare contrasts both the power and impotence of Richard, which seems to reflect the paradox of his life as thrust to rule as a boy,(but not really) and powerless against the Lords appellant originally. Here he demonstrates his power in banishing these nobles but it is going to prove his own undoing.
On having his banishment reduced by Richard on an emotional whim from ten to six years, Bolingbroke remarks;"How long a time lies in one little word! Four lagging winters and four wanton springs end in a word,such is the breath of kings."

The kings breath has real power actually and psychologically. Gaunt protests that this means the end of him emotionally and physically,and it does.
But what can the king do about this? Nothing it seems. As Gaunt puts it; "Thy word is current with him for my death,But dead thy kingdom cannot buy my breath."
So I think there's an interesting mix of power and fragility in Richard which is reflected in his character.



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
Flann 5 wrote:
Hi Geo ,Jetsam and all interested in this play, and a happy new year to all.
I've only just read Act one, and read Bevington's appraisal which I must say is excellent and illuminating.It's hard to know what can be added to it.
I think that being a history based play, Shakespeare knows and expects the audience to be well versed in that history and so can get straight in to the drama without providing all that background.

Thanks, Flann. I do think that the Elizabethan audience had more than a passing familiarity with the basic history behind the Wars of the Roses. They probably knew, for example, that Richard II banished Henry Bolingbroke from England and later confiscated the lands of John Gaunt—rightfully belonging to Henry—and this set in motion a crisis that could still be felt in Shakespeare's own time two hundred years later. The Elizabethans would "remember" these milestone events the same way that modern Americans "remember" events that led to the American Revolutionary War.

Perhaps the Elizabethans were especially intrigued with the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, which clearly is a subtext of this play. I don't think there's any doubt that Richard II is the rightful king. But, as Bevington points out, some of Richard's decisions led to his own downfall. And we are shown that Henry had captured the heart of the people (in a Machiavellian sort of way). In some ways Henry proves to be a better king. So what does this say about the Divine Rights of Kings? Bevington discusses the idea of passive obedience wherein we must obey the King no matter what. It must have been a difficult concept. In the play, John of Gaunt seems to accept that If Richard had something to do with the Duke of Gloucester's death, it would be something that only God himself can address.

John of Gaunt: God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death: the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.
(Act I, scene 2)

Here in Act I, the banishment of Henry and Mowbray surprised me, it came so abruptly. I can only imagine the shock to Henry and Mowbray to have their duel ended so abruptly. Shakespeare presumably leaves their reactions for the actors who will play their parts. I look forward to seeing this play to see how this scene plays out. Clearly Richard had planned this in advance with his advisers. Maybe the Elizabethans knew the motive behind the banishment. But for me you only get an inkling why in the scene immediately after when Richard is asking the Duke of Aumerle how Henry reacted when the two parted. Aumerle says he had to pretend to be moved by Henry's final words. It was a "hollow parting" and the tears that came were only from the bitter north-east wind.

Aumerle: Faith, none for me; except the north-east wind,
Which then blew bitterly against our faces,
Awaked the sleeping rheum, and so by chance
Did grace our hollow parting with a tear.,
(Act I, scene 4)

There's a sense that Richard is glad to get Henry out of the way, so he probably felt threatened by him all along. We can only surmise what the Elizabethan audience probably already knew.

And we get another hint of Richard II's insincerity when he reacts to news that John of Gaunt is dying. Richard hopes that Gaunt will die quickly and observes, rather coldly, that Gaunt's wealth will be used to fiund the war effort in Ireland. Maybe confiscation of Gaunt's wealth was planned all along?

"The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars."


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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
Flann 5 wrote:
The background history though convoluted and complicated is important I think.
Richard could hardly have been more unsuited to reign at the age of ten, and effectively there is a power vacuum and maneuvering to fill it.

I didn't know that Richard II ascended the throne at ten years old. This seems to be one of the tragic flaws with hereditary kings. It's interesting that when Henry V (Prince Hal) died, it launched yet another crisis because his heir was the infant Henry VI.

This from Wikipedia: "Henry VI's right to the crown was challenged by Richard, Duke of York, who could claim descent from Edward's second and fourth surviving sons, Lionel of Antwerp and Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wars_of_the_Roses


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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
geo wrote:
I didn't know that Richard II ascended the throne at ten years old. This seems to be one of the tragic flaws with hereditary kings. It's interesting that when Henry V (Prince Hal) died, it launched yet another crisis because his heir was the infant Henry VI.

Hi Geo,
I sometimes wonder if the collective wisdom of the majority in elections is much better judging from history, but at least it can't last a lifetime.
The monarchical system was quirky with it's obsessive focus on producing male heirs as epitomised by Henry the eight and the child brides of cross pollinated kingdoms.
Richard the second, apparently fell asleep during his lengthy ceremonial inauguration as king.What on earth could he possibly have made of it all at ten years old?
The challenges to his authority of the peasant's revolt and the Lords appellant seemed to drive him more and more towards extreme autocracy.The fragile child develops into dangerous despot.
He was it seems, made acutely aware of his vulnerability and the divine right of kings became an important bulwark psychologically and actually as John O'Gaunt shows in the play,which you pointed out.
In the end, few if any kings can survive once they alienate the aristocracy and common people by oppressive rule. Some last for a while.
I was shocked to hear that some 760 thousand Syrians have already died in the current conflict there. The very bad rulers exact a heavy toll of their people.



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
I agree with you Geo, that those lines gives us a hint of Richard's insincerity. In fact I'd go further - if we look at the whole of that speech it's quite chilling. He's just heard that his uncle Gaunt is ill:

"Now put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!"

I think this gives us an insight into Richard's personality. John of Gaunt was the man who returned from overseas when Richard was 22 and helped him over the next 8 years assert his authority in the kingdom. For Richard to joke about his death in this cynical way is a terrible betrayal, and reveals a personality that seems entirely self-serving.



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
Flann 5 wrote:
The challenges to his authority of the peasant's revolt and the Lords appellant seemed to drive him more and more towards extreme autocracy.The fragile child develops into dangerous despot.
He was it seems, made acutely aware of his vulnerability and the divine right of kings became an important bulwark psychologically and actually as John O'Gaunt shows in the play,which you pointed out.

I think another reason why Richard was such a stickler for the divine right of kings, was that he grew up with no role model of how a good king should behave. His grandfather Edward III would have made a good model, as probably would his father the Black Prince if he'd ever become king, but both died when Richard was young. Instead he grew up without a father in a sycophantic court where he would have been flattered and spoiled from an early age, and no doubt soon came to believe that all the fantasies spun there about his own importance were true. I'm sure this also partly explains how he could be so callous about John of Gaunt.



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
jetsam wrote:
I agree with you Geo, that those lines gives us a hint of Richard's insincerity. In fact I'd go further - if we look at the whole of that speech it's quite chilling. He's just heard that his uncle Gaunt is ill:

"Now put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!"

I think this gives us an insight into Richard's personality. John of Gaunt was the man who returned from overseas when Richard was 22 and helped him over the next 8 years assert his authority in the kingdom. For Richard to joke about his death in this cynical way is a terrible betrayal, and reveals a personality that seems entirely self-serving.

I agree with you here jetsam that this is a pretty low blow by Richard. He's a perplexing character and not entirely predictable. He actually advanced Henry Bolingbroke from earl to duke even after Henry' part in the Lords appellant rebellion. He's not an impulsive character,taking ten years before his revenge on the rebels.
And in the peasant's revolt he initially agrees to all their demands before later, when circumstances were in his favour,cracking down violently on them.
Not someone you could trust or believe it seems.
It's very doubtful that Bolingbroke had real designs on the crown at the time of his banishment.Richard has a long memory though and doesn't just forgive and forget as he suggests Bolingbroke and Mowbray should do.
As Shakespeare shows Richard himself alienated everyone and Bolinbroke's popularity also aroused these suspicions of him of a potential usurper.
It's impossible to overemphasise the effect on Richard's psyche of the appellants rebellion and the killing of Richard's friends and cronies.
Richard is a walking disaster as a king, and his seizing of Bolingbroke's inheritance of lands and wealth is characteristic of his inflaming his detractor's anger and multiplying enemies.It also sent out exactly the wrong message to all the other aristocratic landowners.
Can he get away with this? He seems to think so.
And as Shakespeare recounts out of his own mouth,his lavish court and largesse to his cronies is why he needs more money and the kingdom and it's people are just there to be "farmed." Richard wasn't joking when he talked of seizing Gaunt's wealth once he was dead.
I would suggest though, that the seizure is more aimed at Bolingbroke than Gaunt, which doesn't justify it, of course.
On to Act two now I guess.



Last edited by Flann 5 on Mon Jan 05, 2015 7:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Richard II - Act 1
It occurs to me what a harsh sentence it is to banish someone during this time (when English is spoken only in England). Poor Mowbray laments the loss of his native tongue because no matter where he goes, they won't speak English. Thus the metaphors about an unstringed viol or a harp or the even more elaborate metaphor of a gaol being made of his mouth.

Where he talks of "speechless death" is a bit of foreshadowing as we will find out later.

I'd have to do more research, but if Mowbray did have something to do with the Duke of Gloucester's death, and if he was only following the King's bidding, this banishment is even harsher that we imagined. If this is the case, Mowbray does not challenge the King's orders because he understands that what the King says goes. You don't challenge an order from an annointed King.

poor Thomas Mowbray . . .

THOMAS MOWBRAY
A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,
And all unlook'd for from your highness' mouth:
A dearer merit, not so deep a maim
As to be cast forth in the common air,
Have I deserved at your highness' hands.
The language I have learn'd these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony:
Within my mouth you have engaol'd my tongue,
Doubly portcullis'd with my teeth and lips;
And dull unfeeling barren ignorance
Is made my gaoler to attend on me.
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now:
What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?
Act 1.3


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