Thursday, April 14, 2011

Richard II - Mirrored Men

High-stomached are they both and full of ire;
In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.
(Richard II, 1.1.18-19)

Richard II

Though Richard II is certainly noteworthy for the lyrical beauty of its language, I also really like...
 ...the tight, tight focus of its story - the confrontation between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, **SPOILER ALERT** the man who will take his crown away. Going by historical chronology, Richard II shows the ascension of Bolingbroke - Henry IV - as the first of the Lancastrian kings of England. Shakespeare, over the years, tells us the stories of every one of the kings of this line. We've already read the end of the saga with the Henry VIs and Richard III, plays that deal largely with a question that Richard II tackles - how can revolt against or replacement of a king be justified? 

Henry Bolingbroke

Though the opening quotation is spoken by Richard about Bolingbroke and one of Richard's partisans, I felt that it was also appropriate to represent the relationship between Henry and Richard, as in many ways the two men - very similar, relatives to begin with - find themselves becoming more and more like the other throughout the play by taking on the other's role. Because Henry Bolingbroke, aggrieved because Richard stole all his money and his land, has to knock out the rightful king in order to take the throne himself and regain his dignity, there is a lot of ambiguity in the play - Richard is a grasping and unjust ruler in many ways, but once Bolingbroke takes the crown, the tables suddenly turn. Where before Richard had unfairly seized Bolingbroke's inheritance, now Henry takes Richard's. Where Richard had winked at the murder of political enemies, Bolingbroke finds himself doing the same. I find Shakespeare's histories in general to be really compelling, because the stakes are high - what will be the immediate destiny of an entire nation? In this play, with the mirroring between the characters of Richard and Henry, the question becomes not just of national importance, but intensely small and personal - man against man. Does committing a wrong to correct a wrong make a right?

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