King Richard II by William Shakespeare
Ben Whishaw as Richard II
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
The Tragedy of King Richard II is one of the few plays that Shakespeare wrote entirely in lyric verse. It is the prologue to the tetralogy consisting of Richard II, Henry IV (parts 1 & 2), and Henry V.
In the play, Richard sees his rule as divinely gifted from providence:
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…
Richard had seized John of Gaunt’s (Henry’s father) properties and wealth (it takes a lot of money to fund majesty), which then provoked Henry to usurp the throne from him.
Holinshed’s Chronicles of England (Shakespeare’s source material) lists the articles that the English Parliament drew up for Richard’s removal from the throne, two of the most prominent being Richard’s order for the Duke of Gloucester’s murder, and that he ‘wastefully spent the treasure of the realm.’ Shakespeare uses these reasons to justify Henry’s ascent to the throne.
It is a strange transfer of power, from a king who relents his crown without a fight. And there is a transfer of sorts within Richard; his character at the beginning of the play is royally conceited but after his removal from power, he is self-reflective and thoughtful. Here is Richard preparing to surrender, speaking of himself:
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o’ 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 gown,
My figured 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 subjects’ 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?
Because of Henry’s usurpation, the Bishop of Carlisle prophesies the coming calamities, England’s Wars of the Roses, a conflict that lasted more than 30 years and which was brought about by the ineffectual rule of Henry VI, Henry’s grandson.
My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act…
The Hollow Crown is the BBC television program based on Shakespeare’s plays that lead up to the Wars of the Roses. The program’s title comes from lines spoken by Richard:
…Let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits….
The first in the series is Richard II, starring Ben Whishaw, convincing as a pensive king. The Henry plays follow to round out the tetralogy.
Place a hold on The Hollow Crown here.