Thus play I, in one person, many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treason makes me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: – but whate’er I am,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas’d till he be eas’d
With being nothing.
I read an act, then watched the act performed by the company supporting Derek Jacobi as King Richard II. I saw the words. Then I heard them. I imagined the words. Then I lived them. Shakespeare wrote The Life and Death of King Richard II completely in verse. He only gifted one other play with such diligent artistry. Because of this rare decision, I must imagine that Shakespeare saw something in Richard’s story which wanted poetry’s aesthetic purity, its demand for perfect word choices and allowance for multidimensional meaning. Using this form, Shakespeare both plays with language and gracefully crafts it into the clearest and most prodigious form of expression. He masters every angle of a word, frolicking with puns and ruthlessly wringing the word wet towel for every meaning and application to an idea, a feeling. He displays a simple duality, stripped naked and vulnerable, of compared and contrasted characters and situations, opposing viewpoints flipped at the turn of circumstance, which construct the very personage of this English king!
The play seems to divide itself in two. Before he embarks for Ireland, King Richard II plays the dunce with the carefree zest of an adolescent child unchecked by the guidance of responsibility or ethics’ urgency. His counselors offer their opinions freely in his presence and those on trial rebuke his entreaties to abandon their griefs at their honor’s cost or soul’s compromise. Yet he does not rage, or flash his merciless power. He listens but to no consequence. Not because he fears them, but because, like an ornery child facing the chastisement of his elders, he does not care. He cares about his will, the coffers, and the luxuries of power. John of Gaunt eloquently argues against Richard’s lease on England and York bitterly pleads against his seizure of Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Yet when he returns from Ireland, he endures a harsh reckoning with the world and the pain of invincibility vanished. He must now pay for these stolen eyes with his own.
I wholly embraced this new Richard, this deposed and woeful Richard, who finds himself within the belly of nothingness after the long fall of the blessed. He contemplates his own dual nature as man and rightful king. When facing the insecurity of his position, Richard’s convictions swing like a manic pendulum. He wrestles internally with a king’s mortally uncomfortable burden and the high spiritual calling and civil duty of his office, owned by him as anointed to the task. Suddenly, Richard, once an immature cliche of a carefree, flattered and corrupt king, transforms into a person contemplating his newly divided nature, a nameless identity. And while Richard splits, so does the world. Men must now speed familiarity with a world newly starred with common royalty, “base glory”, enslaved sovereignty, and kingly vulnerability – a world in which fathers prosecute sons and ill-succeeded kings open gates to civil strife as the delicate vale between subject and king weakens and faith in the king’s incontestable grace shatters. As Richard must understand his new identity, so must humanity, like newborn babes, understand a world reshaped.
Richard, who embodies this split, this duality of humanity’s longing and the dogmatic infliction of position – while we contemplate new worlds pioneered as if into uncharted wildernesses never before seen – reaches out to the patron and begs them to project their own struggle onto the himself. Let him wail for you! Let him contemplate himself for you! Let him grow into a sympathetically tragic martyr on your behalf as he calls his counselors Judas’, washing their hands with Pilate, and himself Christ led to his crucifixion. Let him ascend the steps of consciousness and unity between self and identity, leading into the depths of death and social deposition. And listen to the master playwright’s language represent the beautiful complexity of our birthright, our guaranteed struggle, our condition.