Monday, February 22, 2021

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” - some jolly bits of Richard II

I fear I need a system, a structure, to get writing again.  What if I work backwards?  Let’s see, what is the last book I finished.  Oh no, it’s Richard II (1595, let’s say).  Oh no, or good, I don’t know. 

Richard II is the first Shakespeare play I took seriously, and really worked through, as a college student. The professor insisted, again and again, that our papers had to have lots of evidence form the text, so I “wrote” a paper that was half quotations.  I must have included most of every monologue of the title character.  “Too much,” she said, correctly, usefully.  But those passages are so rich, so good.

It is a strange play, in that King Richard begins as some kind of villain, a hypocritical schemer, a “Machiavelli,” to use the term the Elizabethan playwrights loved, under the influence of a pack of parasites.  In short, one of the crowd of Shakespeare’s bad, weak kings, capricious, corrupt, and incompetent.  Threatened, then overthrown, he becomes sentimental and self-pitying.  He becomes a lot like Hamlet, or one side of Hamlet, obsessed with death and puns, for example “ay / I” in the abdication scene:


Are you contented to resign the crown?


Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.

Therefore no “no,” for I resign to thee.  (Act IV, Scene 1)

“Ay, no; no, ay” is one of those poetic lines of Shakespeare's that verges on abstraction or anti-poetry, like King Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never!”

Somehow Richard becomes a sympathetic and tragic figure, a great Weak Male Character.  And it is all done through language.  His self-serving, self-pitying, ironic monologues are magnificent.  “King” is a role he played all his life, but he should have been a poet.  Richard, for example, imagines Death as the court fool, accompanying the him “within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king, “scoffing” and “grinning,”


Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, king!  (Act III, Scene 2)

Richard has a Gothic imagination.  “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” he says a bit earlier in the scene.  Or look at the beginning of his final speech, just before his murder:


I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it.  (Act V, Scene 5)

And then he does it anyways, because he loves to spin out conceits.

Di, at The little white attic, has been reading a lot of Shakespeare, most recently Richard II.  The excerpts she picks have all sorts of correspondences with the ones I used.  She also acknowledges that the play has other characters and context and ideas and so forth.  Those are interesting, too.

The idea of Richard not being king but playing the role of king I got from Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1 (1951).  On the surface, the motivating idea of Richard II is a critique of the divine right of kings, and, honestly, who cares about that anymore; Goddard effectively modernizes the play.

All quotations are from the Folger Shakespeare Library text.

What’s next, looking back?  A collection of Steven Millhauser stories.




  1. Glad to see your post, interesting.

  2. I have not been in a writin' kind of mood for a while.

  3. Glad you are in a writing mood again. I have been finding it similarly hard, despite having nothing to do except sit at the computer and write various things. Perhaps that is actually why blogging feels elusive? It isn't "extra" any more?

    Richard II is one (of many) I've never read or seen. I really like your final quotation here.

  4. I have always been impressed by the people who write for a living and then write more, about their passion, on the internet.

    As a Thirdian, you would likely enjoy Richard II. He is a great contrast to the next Richard, weak and passive, as in that last passage, alone not just in his cell but in his head.

  5. Richard II is such a great play. I don't understand why it's not generally included with the highest level of Shakespeares.

    Nothing profound to day. Just to record I'm glad you're back.

  6. One of my favorites. Shakespeare clearly shows his debt to Ovid, not just in the references to Phaëton and Icarus, but in Richard's transformation generally. Though Shakespeare goes further than Ovid and changes not just Richard's physical/social self, but also his interior self, which I am going to claim is something new that Shakespeare brought to fiction. The Greek tragic characters remain the same people after tragedy strikes, but Shakespeare's best characters always seem to be remade by the tragedy, and the audience's view of them is also transformed. Maybe that's too broad a claim. I can cheat and limit "best characters" to those who meet this design, I guess.

    Anyway, good to see you back. We saw an excellent Richard II a few years ago. Richard in the dungeon is a brilliant invention.

  7. Chronologically, if I understand the chronology, Richard II is a real leap in characterization. And Falstaff is coming right up! It seems like something new to me, too.

    Richard II is an early example of a character who seems to change in part because he overhears his own monologues.

    High level Shakespeare, yes.

  8. I’m pleased to see you on the screen again ... the silence has concerned me ... best plan for Shakespeare: chronological in order of composition (to the extent that can be determined) ... some lumps of coal in the plays but enough diamonds to make the mining worthwhile.... enjoy your journey...

  9. Thanks!

    "Chronological in order of composition" is more or less my recommendation for all of literature, if the reader can stand to do it. I have sure learned a lot that way.

  10. Your chronological move through Russian literature has been of great interest.

  11. Good to see you back, as well. Trying hard to do the same.

    The divine right of kings seem to have morphed into other sorts of outlooks right now, but I'll end it at that.

    Love Scott's mention of Ovid. Seems to be a major influence that I love to look for in S's plays.

    Professor's comments? You remember those days? You're a better man than me. Although I have signed up for local college classes. Anyone reading kind to the old guy in the back of the classroom.

  12. Good to see you back blogging. Looking Forward to your thoughts upon Call it Sleep.

  13. Oh yeah, Shakespeare looted Ovid. Golding's, I guess.

    I remember quite a lot from college, or at least feel that I do.

    Call It Sleep, what a book, what a book!