Shakespearing #11 by David Foley
I tried, as I re-read Richard II, to uncover why the play so fascinated me as a teenager. Some of the first Shakespearean speeches I memorized were from Richard II. With a couple of drinks in me, I can still give a quite moving rendition of the “sad stories of the deaths of kings” speech, a speech that might hint at why a certain kind of moony adolescent would find Richard compelling: it shows Richard’s gift for reframing his sorrows as image, and in the process reimagining himself. Don’t we spend our teenage years trying to do that? The fact that the overriding tone in which Richard does so is self-pity makes him only the more appealing to the adolescent mind.
It’s not his only tone, of course, or the only image. More than any other Shakespearean king, Richard insists on the image of kingship. His body is invested with royalty. He upbraids John of Gaunt for “[making] pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood / With fury from his native residence,” and later, on returning to England, he says, “[G]reet I thee, my earth, / And do thee favors with my royal hands.”
He’s not alone in finding kingship in his physique. “Yet looks he like a king!” cries York. “Behold his eye,/As bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth / Controlling majesty.” (The historical Richard was supposed to be quite beautiful and six feet tall.) The fact that this image is just that, an image, is Richard’s tragedy and Shakespeare’s subversive twist. The play feels proto-democratic, the ideal of divinely invested kingship challenged by Bullingbrook’s “fair discourse” with the people.
Perhaps the other reason Richard affected me so much when I was young was that he’s, well, kinda gay. It’s not that he’s a gay character, although Bullingbrook makes an ambiguous accusation against Richard’s favorites: “You have … [m]ade a divorce betwixt your queen and him, / Broke the possession of a royal bed.” It’s that the high polish of his self-presentation calls to mind Susan Sontag’s definition of camp. “All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice,” says Sontag, and perhaps more to the point, “Camp…is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.” Watch Richard transform himself into an aesthetic phenomenon in his “almsman’s” speech:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figur’d goblets for a dish of wood,
My scepter for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave—
His parting from his Queen (who’s never given a name) in Act V, Scene i, is less heart-rending than performative, as if he were Wilde on his way to Reading Gaol. It’s no accident that one of his most famous speeches is to a mirror, a reading of himself as image.
We might grow tired of his artifice if it weren’t so deeply inlaid in earth and time, the two recurring images of the play. Richard’s haunting line before his death, “I wasted time and now doth time waste me,” is bookended in Act I by these words of John of Gaunt: “Thou canst help time to furrow me with age/But stop no wrinkle in his pilgrimage.” Soon Gaunt, of course, will be in his “little little grave,” “that small model of the barren earth/Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.”
And isn’t that one of the great fears of adolescence: that time will be done with us before we’re done with time?
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.