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The Heart of the King Written by Natalia Fomintseva


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Richard II was a double-hearted cowardly tyrant. From the foreword of modern Russian edition of the play

*** We should consider Richard II as a person who despite all his flaws was a cut above of all his predecessors. From the complete edition of Shakespeare’s works translated by Russian writers (end of XVIII century)

*** Swell’st thou, proud heart? I’ll give thee scope to beat, Since foes have scope to beat both thee and me. William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act III, Scene 3


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Approximately in 1595 William Shakespeare wrote a play that belongs to the group of so-called English history plays. It was dedicated to Richard II, one of the most controversial characters of British history, an egocentric person of keen intellect, convinced of the immutability of king’s power – and dethroned at the height of his reign by his own cousin. Lots of politics, only one female character and an ambiguous main character, hard to sympathise with, were the reason why the play wasn’t very successful up untilрон XIX. Also, the Queens and Kings - Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s contemporary, and Charles II, almost a century later - took close to heart the story of what can happen if the monarch gets used talking to hear one’s own voice. Richard is presented in most of on-screen and theatrical incarnations as the self-obsessed capricious hedonist with the black hole instead empathy, without any will to resist the challenges of his time. He is depicted as a talented poet, imaginative and sensitive (especially when it concerns his own suffering), but an absolutely worthless king. His story is usually the story of feudal lords being forced to encrown their protégé, future Henry IV, in order to save the country. Henry is portrayed tragically: he dethrones the lawful but worthless king almost against his will. In October 2013 Gregory Doran, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (according to The Sunday Times, ‘one of the great Shakespeareans of his generation’), presented his version of the life and death of Richard II. The version that literally turned the traditional reading of this chronicle upside down, and proved to be surprisingly consonant to the dubious and tragical history of real Richard. *** Richard II, the last from the House of Plantagenets was crowned when he was ten. He is the son of the national hero, the Black Prince, and the country, weakened by the Hundred Years’ War, plague, and economic crisis, puts great hopes in him. He will fail short of their expectations. His subjects took as an offence the 28 years long peace with France and relative peace with Ireland established through sole diplomacy.


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He grows up under the strict control from his elder relatives, numerous uncles from British aristocracy – being the main force of the British Parliament, it is them who make decisions in the name of the king, often against his will. He, on his part, spends nights and days hammering at history books (the first British king who could read and write), studying monarchy theory and taking in ideas of absolutism. He is 14 when a big peasant rebellion breaks out, and the king stops it by facing the rebels being almost the only one from his surroundings who shows absolute and reckless courage. He grows up to be a smart, derisive, emotional person. He buys up books and collects a good library. He marries Anne of Bohemia and modifies the court with her help, replacing the military asceticism with elegancy and exquisiteness. He cultivates art, cookery and fashion. He gets to be called inexcusably sissy for introducing a handkerchief. His tender love to his wife is infertile and his affection to one of his minions causes gossip. Nearly all the time of his reign he spends to oppose “the old guard” – the Parliament, which, in its turn, controls all his deeds and decisions. By 19 he manages to gather a party of his supporters, but almost all of them are exiled or executed by the session of “The Merciless Parliament”. At the same time the prosecutors, the so called Lords Appellants, seriously consider the overthrow and future liquidation of Richard himself. He stays alive and on the throne just because the prosecutors can’t agree on who should take his place. In three years he tells them that he came of age and has no need in their patronage and advice. Five years later he accuses them of mutiny and sentences to death. He reminds to his most hateful enemy, the duke of Gloucester, who asked for amnesty, how queen Anne had begged him for mercy for one of her friends nine years before. Anne is long gone by that time, she died of plague, and, according to chroniclers the king was “wild with grief” at that time. He is almost thirty and he’s still handsome. It’s not a masculine beauty, but more androgynous one. He still sets tongues wagging not having any fancy ladies and being too generous to minions. He marries a 10 year old French princess who becomes a widow before becoming a real wife. He’s a talented manipulator, narcissus, erudite, dandy, cold-blooded schemer, chess-player, and a neurastheniac suffering from mood swings and obsessions - with people, books, ideas.


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One of them – the key one – is the understanding of a king’s mission – not military one, but religious. John Champlin Gardner, the writer who called Richard “an idealist at the age of wolves”, says that making a god of himself wasn’t just megalomania for Richard, it had political reasons: keeping the power was the only way to stay alive for him. Absolutist theory demanded the king’s deification achieved through visual means: luxurious performances and ceremonies which Richard organized with taste and talent. At thirty two he is at the peak of his power. This is the time when the king’s modesty and wisdom are suddenly replaced by extravagance, inconsistency, and restlessness. This year embraces most of his escapades: tumultuous feasts, devastative tours around the country, trust in fortunetellers, demand for everyone who sees him to bite the dust. Later under the order of Henry IV historians will use it as a proof of Richard’s insanity. The shattering triumph of the absolute power scared everyone from barons to villains. It was a year when England began to hate and fear one’s king. He is thirty two and all of his dreams came true: Lords Appellants are defeated, the Parliament feeds out of his hand, and the king’s power is absolute. But there is no queen Anne. Robert de Vere, his ex-minion who had escaped The Merciless Parliament, died in France as well as John of Gaunt, his guardian and uncle, the first in line to the throne, who nonetheless supported the reigning nephew and the monarch’s reputation (Shakespeare depicts him as Richard’s antagonist, Doran presents him as epitome of hatred, the main conspirer). He won. But he doesn’t seem to understand what to do with this victory and with himself. It’s a year before the deposition. *** At the opening moment of Shakespeare’s play and Doran’s piece Richard is at the peak of his power. He is in fine feather, truly “the handsomest of all the kings”. Flowing clothes, cascade of


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golden hair, refined dancer’s grace, perfect graceful elegance of every pose and gesture – he is an exotic bird among the brutal adherents of the opposite party. But notwithstanding the clearly artificial form, King Richard portrayed by the absolutely incredible David Tennant is not a fragile china statue. He is too obviously dangerous. He is overactive, he can’t stay put for a moment. His energy is overwhelming. He is focused and tucked even in his chambers, feeding candies to his minions from his hands. It’s difficult to dislike him even at the beginning when he demonstrates what David Tennant in his interview aptly called an ‘absolute sense of entitlement’. He’s a despot, but a keen, exquisite, smart one. It’s beyond the shadow of a doubt that he has a right for it: the aesthetic rapture comes before the understanding of aesthetic iniquity of his deeds. David Tennant not only made the play ‘shiver into life’ (according to Gregory Doran), he practically filled the space with himself: his presence makes one feel electricity in the air (and it’s not so much the character, as the “strand” of the actor). Even standing on an empty darkened stage he as well as his character is always in focus, in the middle of attention, under the limelight. Events swirl like a whirlpool around him, dragging in all the characters and in the end ruining the main one. *** With ardour pushed to suicidal lengths, it suspended almost every constitutional right and privilege gained in the preceding century. It raised the monarchy upon a foundation more absolute than even William the Conqueror, war-leader of his freebooting lieutenants, had claimed. Winston Churchill, The Birth Of Britain

*** Falling down precipitously from the peak of his power (betrayal, capitulation, resignation, prison) he like Icarus loses all of his golden plumage. In the scene when he returns from Ireland, having found out about the death of all his minions, he falls down on all fours for the first time – clumsy, like as if he was pushed on the back. “I am just like you” he says to the few who stayed


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with him, acknowledging that his self-deification was always just a play. Trying to tower above everyone all his life, he truly becomes higher at the moment when he dismisses the remains of his army, unwilling to risk anybody’s life. At the tower of the Flint Castle he clutches his heart for the first time wondering if it’s still beating or if it’s broken (later at his own deposition he feels sharp pain several more times, but never breaks the character). There, at the tower, he has a rough time when it’s still possible to change everything, to enter the battle, but to the right from him, appear figures of the very last who stayed with him, and on his left, young cousin Aumerle weeps with fear, so this is the end of it. This gift – their lives – are still valuable for him even later, in prison, when he tears the hood off his murderer head and sees Aumerle. At that moment the curse from the minute ago is just depreciates. It is replaced by sorrow and tenderness – heartbreaking and inappropriate here and now – to the one who doesn’t know what he’s doing. To the one who with the king’s kiss gets a blessing to live. More than he deserves. But it will happen later. And now at the tower of the Flint castle, making his last decision, he caresses Aumerle’s cheek as if with a faint promise: “Don’t be afraid, I’ll settle this”, and walks down to the back yard to meet Henry of Bolingbroke and his people like when he was a young boy who came to meet the rebellious crowd. *** On Monday 29th of September in the Tower, Richard signed an instrument of abdication before a group of commissioners representing the lords spiritual and temporal, the landed gentry and the law; then, laying his crown on the ground before him, he resigned it, not to the Duke of Lancaster but to God. John Norwich, Shakespeare’s Kings

*** For his own abdication he appears not in illustrious apparel, but in a white shirt and barefoot – if he can’t play the “Majesty” card, he’ll play the “Abjection” card in such a way that no one will find it funny. It is panache on the edge of mummery, and all in attendance will reflect in his


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abjection like in the optic toy they were amusing the queen with. As to the “Majesty” card it will be played by itself, being no longer an artificial effect, but the feature of the character to the extent that Henry of Bolingbroke swallows his tongue and will in a presence of the now former king, and Richard has to direct his own abdication and imprisonment into Tower. Later on London street he is tender and careful with the queen, a girl who shouts of a need to fight, unwilling to see him handcuffed and stoned by the crowd. He finds the right words for her, but avoids her embraces: her love was always unanswered and it would be cruel to give her something she was always deprived of several minutes before separation. Then he predicts the destiny of all the hatchers, tells them as that is something self-evident, without jesting and harlequinade. And the white shirt suddenly ceases to be an element of performance, and for a moment seems that the fallen king is now much closer to the holiness, than he thought himself, praying to his own image on Wilton diptych. *** Exactly how he died, and when, will always remain a mystery. Shakespeare, following Holinshed, represents him as being struck down by a certain Sir Pierce Exton, who had heard an exasperating King Henry ask if there was no friend who would rid him of ‘this living fear’… Though in view of the traditional reluctance to shed the blood of an anointed King, it is being suggested that - if there was any violence at all - smothering was more likely. Another story relates that, on hearing that the attempt to reinstate him had failed, Richard had simply turned his face to the wall, refusing all food, and died of starvation. In a face of continuous rumours that he was alive, [monarch’s] body was brought to London, and displayed at various stopping-places along the way. John Norwich, Shakespeare’s Kings

*** Shakespeare doubted the inviolability of the king’s rights. Gregory Doran showed the other side of these rights when the loss of the crown is equal to the loss of life. The reasons are purely historical: dethroned kings get murdered. Richard knows about it from Eduard II’s biography


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and his own dethronement experience from ten years ago. He knows what it’s like to be in the limelight, to be deprived of the right to make a mistake, to understand that friends can turn out to be enemies at any time. Giving his crown to Bolingbroke, or more likely, hooking him on it like on a bite, he looks into his successor’s eyes with a question “Do you understand what you get?” Henry of Bolingbroke does not. He sees the power as a triumph and possibility to punish and pardon. The understanding comes later when Aumerle, willing to find favour in the eyes of the new king delivers a coffin with Richard’s body to the palace. At that moment king Henry IV sits enthroned on the dais above the stage and his fellows in plot are below, clearly unhappy with the alignment of forces – the first acts of the tragedy foreseen by Richard. When Henry runs down from his dais to the coffin and mumbles confusedly: “It wasn’t me… I didn’t mean to…” – his former friends slowly step back from the stage into the darkness, leaving the new king face to face with himself. And a ghost of Richard appears by the throne – as usual, higher than anyone. *** Henry IV of Lancaster mounted the throne, which became the prelude to shocks which would shake England during the next 85 years. Collier’s Encyclopedia

*** Gregory Doran’s new production is a continuation of the same story with only one deflection: the time has changed. The epoch of the Bolingbroke who won is crowded, fussy, cramped, textured and pointedly physical is a contrast to Richard’s story, ethereal, exquisite, full of air and space, performed on the mostly empty stage. Vivid, definite, masculine life replaced art, concept, ideas. Richard’s name is always heard among those who plotted against him: time passed and for them he is once again a symbol of king’s power as a mission. A mission they failed to understand. ***


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Trying to justify Richard’s dethronement they accused him of lots of crimes. But in general he did nothing what other kings before or after him did not do. Leased the country out, wasted money on minions and feasts – all of that was common in British history. But no king was ever so dreadfully powerful before. Had Richard shown a bit more prudence, English history could be different. It could become a Renaissance country before Italy or turn to absolute monarchy. But Richard seems to had a heart to vivacious for that. *** We have no right in this modern age to rob him of this shaft of sunlight which rests upon his harassed, hunted life. There is however no dispute that in his nature fantastic error and true instinct succeeded each other with baffling rapidity. He was capable of more than human cunning and patience, and also of foolishness which a simpleton would have shunned. He fought four deadly duels with feudal aristocratic society. In 1386 he was overcome; in 1389 he was victorious; in 1397-98 he was supreme; in 1399 he was destroyed. Winston Churchill, The Birth Of Britain

Richard II. Foreword