Richard II by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A slightly odd play - I can see why it's not usually named among Shakespeare's greatest, but it's well worth reading/hearing.
The most interesting thing about the play is how my perception of Richard II kept changing. In the first act, we see Richard try to settle a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas of Mowbray by exiling both of them. While we know in retrospect that this is a bad move, because Bolingbroke comes back and deposes Richard, it doesn't read to me as obviously stupid or unkingly. But then in Act II, Richard is champing at the bit for John of Gaunt to die so that Richard can confiscate John's property to fund his Irish wars. And at that point, I figured that we were looking at a standard case of Bad King Led Astray by Bad Advisers, and we were supposed to enjoy seeing Richard get his comeuppance.
Except that that's not really how it plays out. Henry comes back with an army, executes the bad advisers, and tells Richard that he'll happily be a loyal subject again if Richard gives him back his confiscated property and titles. And Richard is sort of like, "Nah, I can't deal with the humiliation of being king and having a subject dictate terms to me, so have my crown instead." At which point, I'm not so much enjoying seeing Richard get his comeuppance as wondering why he is so dumb.
And then once Richard has submitted, things shift again. Richard starts getting all the best speeches, and Shakespeare lays on some fairly thick Christ imagery around him. Bolingbroke, who up until that point has come across as basically honorable if self-regarding, starts to look a bit power-hungry and paranoid. For some reason I had expected the play to fairly straightforwardly hold up either Richard or Henry as the good guy, but the end result is much more ambiguous.
I did find that Richard's repeated insistence on his being king by divine right reminded me of Charles I, whom, of course, Shakespeare cannot have had in mind while writing. It does make me wonder if Richard II was performed during Charles I's reign or shortly after, and if audiences perceived any relevance to contemporary events.
The Arkangel production is good, although keeping track of the relatively large number of minor noblemen who may be addressed variously by name or title can be confusing at points.
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