If you’re going to watch the outstanding BBC series The Hollow Crown, and if you like Shakespeare, you should, you will be starting with Richard II.
When you see this production, you can’t but wish that Shakespeare could somehow be transported to the present-day and have seen this production and shots like Ben Whishaw, as the effeminate Richard, framed by the powerful figures of Bolingbroke and Mowbray.
It’s not Shakespeare’s greatest play for a number of reasons which I’ll spell out later.
But it’s an important one because it lays the groundwork for Henry IV Parts I & II, Henry V, Henry VI, Parts I, II & III, which contain the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. These plays make up the BBC production of The Hollow Crown.
I have written about the nature of kingship in an earlier blog Richard II and the nature of kingship (i). Essentially, this play is an exploration of two ideas about kingship.
The first idea is that the King is appointed by God and cannot be deposed or his actions challenged. Ultimately, he is answerable only to God. This was known as the Divine Right of Kings.
According to this doctrine, when Bolingbroke returns early from banishment, he is committing high treason.
There are some real problems with this doctrine in the harsh world of politics, as the play will show.
The other idea is that the King’s authority rests on primogeniture. The eldest son inherits the titles, rights and properties of the father. This applies to all levels and layers of society from the King down. It is a process of succession upon which stability in society depends.
According to this doctrine, when Richard seizes the Duke of Lancaster’s property, which should rightfully pass to his son, Bolingbroke, not only does he commit high treason, he threatens the inheritance and succession of every noble house in England.
No sooner has he done this than the plotting to remove him begins.
Bolingbroke returns to England and is confronted by the Duke of York, who is Regent in Richard’s absence.
York Why have those banish’d and forbidden legs
Dared once to touch a dust of England’s ground?
Bolingbroke: As I was banish’d, I was banish’d Hereford;
But as I come, I come for Lancaster.
At first, Bolingbroke simply wishes to reclaim his dukedom. But Richard has lost the support of the nobles who have flocked Bolingbroke. With the departure of Walsh forces, he now has no effective military support. The final blow comes when the once-loyal Duke of York joins Bolingbroke.
Richard and Bolingbroke meet at Flint castle, where Bolingbroke tries to be the true and loyal subject.
Bolingbroke sends a message to Richard, allowing him to retain his throne. The interesting psychological paradox, and ultimately the tragedy, at the centre of this play, is that Bolingbroke is unwilling to take the crown and Richard is, ultimately, prepared to give it up.
Bolingbroke Noble lords,
Go to the rude ribs of that ancient castle;
thus deliver: Henry Bolingbroke
On both his knees doth kiss King Richard’s hand
And sends allegiance and true faith of heart
Even at his feet to lay my arms and power,
Provided that my banishment repeal’d
And lands restored again be freely granted:
If not, I’ll use the advantage of my power
Richard’s response is initially defiant.
Richard Yet know, my master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,
Everybody then moves to London for the final public transfer of power to take place.
But before that we get the distraction of the scene was the Queen in the garden, which has almost no dramatic worth whatsoever. It’s allegorical, it’s about the kingdom as a garden,
There is then the scene in Westminster Hall where Bolingbroke tries to uncover the cause of Gloucester’s death. Bolingbroke examines Bagot, who has been linked in the play to the recently-executed Bushy and Greene, about Gloucester’s death. Bagot points the finger at Aumerle, who is Duke of York’s son.
What follows is a whole lot of argy-bargy of “you said, he said,” including the fact that Thomas Mowbray (remember him?) is dead.
It is all is pretty hard to follow, but we are left with the impression that Aumerle is probably up to his neck in it. What we don’t know is why it is important.
This is why this play is not as satisfying as many of Shakespeare’s other plays. It’s hard to follow.
None of this is resolved and is cut short by the entrance of Richard.
Richard Yet I well remember
The favours of these men: were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry, ‘all hail!’ to me?
So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve,
Found truth in all but one: I, in twelve thousand, none.
God save the king! Will no man say amen?
To do what service am I sent for hither?
York: To do that office of thine own good will
Which tired majesty did make thee offer,
The resignation of thy state and crown
To Henry Bolingbroke.
Richard Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
There is a wonderful scene where Richard, ever the self-centred, narcissistic, drama queen, falls on the floor and throws crown Bolingbroke’s feet.
Bolingbroke picks it up. Richard is consigned to the Tower and later to Pomfret Castle, where he will languish in a loincloth until he is murdered.
Then the play starts examining, albeit briefly, what it means for Henry IV to be king.
After Bolingbroke leaves Westminster, Aumerle confides to the Abbot.
You holy clergymen, is there no plot
To rid the realm of this pernicious blot
Later, York finds his son, Aumerle, carrying a treasonous letter. We are meant to know that it has implicated the Abbott and Aumerle.
Enraged, York rushes off to the King, Aumerle gets there first, begs the King’s forgiveness in advance, which Henry gives without knowing why. York arrives with the letter, Henry is outraged, but he has given his word. The Duchess arrives, throws herself on her knees. The whole scene degenerates into farce. Henry condemns everybody involved, except Aumerle, to death. It’s all very confusing.
And then in the original text, a minor noble called Exton says
And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man’
That would divorce this terror from my heart;’
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
But in the BBC production this speech is delivered by Exton to Aumerle, who then murders Richard. It’s a far more satisfactory reading of the play because it’s the price that Henry extracts from Aumerle for his forgiveness of his treachery