Kings in check
Richard II was a dangerously political play when it was first staged. Elizabeth I, fearing a rebellion led by the Earl of Essex, is said to have identified herself with Richard, a monarch under threat from a favourite, coping with troubles in Ireland and elsewhere.
Tim Carroll, master of play (director) of this production, says: "Essex paid for a special performance of the play at the Globe on the assumption that it would rouse people to rebellion, but it was not an unambiguous call to arms. The scene in which Richard gives up the crown was not printed in early editions from 1597, however, until after Elizabeth's death."
The Globe production will explore "original practices" and so be played by an all-male cast in Tudor costume. The main problem for a director of Richard II, says Carroll, is that "there is a tendency to pageant and rhetoric. We don't want it to feel like a poem. There is a danger that you can feel you are watching the action from outside. There is a deliberate formality which may have been Shakespeare's attempt to create an ancient feeling, but it's our job to ignore that and to speak the lines as if that is the way we talk."
The many references to the country as a garden "raise the stakes", says Carroll. "It is a very beautiful island, with natural resources and there is a heightened sense that for it to be torn up by war would be a terrible tragedy."
The dying John of Gaunt's much-anthologised speech (Act II, scene 1) about the nation is remembered as simple praise, "but it is a speech of protest.
It is a grave misrepresentation to quote it without finishing it. This wonderful land is 'now leased out' under Richard."
Richard and Bolingbroke, his rival, who becomes Henry IV during the play, "are the same age, mirror images of each other. For the most exciting part of the play it is clear that there are two kings or rather two competing versions of a king. Some may have assumed that it was better to follow Bolingbroke but he didn't find ruling any easier than Richard had.
Shakespeare provides moral and political ambiguity: even when Aumerle is proved a traitor, in a more schematic account you might expect Henry to be ruthless, but he isn't."
Carroll sees Richard as having ambitions to introduce a peaceful golden age to England, "but he fears he is not cut out for it". He behaves heroically at his death "and that is historically accurate. It is a reminder that one shouldn't buy into the image of him as fey and effeminate."
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