Leesfragment: Richard II

27 november 2015 , door Anthony Dawson & Paul Yachnin
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Get Into Shakespeare: eenvoudiger kunnen we het niet zeggen, en makkelijker dan vanaf 3 oktober wordt het nooit. Met de verschijning van Richard II is de Oxford Shakespeare compleet, en bieden we alle delen van € 11,50 voor € 8,50 aan, dus meer dan 25% korting. Daarvoor krijg je degelijke, up-to-date inleidingen en nieuw geëditeerde teksten, van Hamlet tot Twelfth Night, van Much Ado About Nothing tot The Tempest.

Hieronder vindt u een fragment uit de inleiding op Richard II en elders de favoriete citaten van lezers die al into Shakespeare zijn, zoals Tomas Lieske, Christiaan Weijts en Bert Natter.

Written in 1595, Richard II occupies a significant place in the Shakespeare canon, marking the transition from the earlier history plays dominated by civil war and stark power to a more nuanced representation of the political conflicts of England's past where character and politics are inextricably intertwined. It is the first of four connected plays—including 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V—generally considered Shakespeare's finest history plays.

The drama of centers on the power struggle between the grandiloquent King Richard and the plain-spoken, blunt Henry Bolingbroke, who is banished from Britain at the beginning of the play. But when Henry's father John of Gaunt dies, Richard confiscates his property with no regard to his son's rights, and Bolingbroke returns to confront the king, who surrenders his crown and is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle, where he is soon murdered. This new edition in the acclaimed Oxford Shakespeare series features a freshly edited version of the text. The wide-ranging introduction describes the play's historical circumstances, both the period that it dramatizes (the start of the 'wars of the roses') and the period in which it was written (late Elizabethan England), and the play's political significance in its own time and our own. It also focuses on the play's richly poetic language and its success over the centuries as a play for the stage. Extensive explanatory notes help readers at all levels understand and appreciate the language, characters, and dramatic action and the book's lively illustrations provide a sense of the historical background and performance of the play.

Richard II occupies an important place in the Shakespeare canon. Written in 1595, at a point when Shakespeare was finding his full stride as a poet and dramatist, the play marks a transition from the earlier history plays (the ‘first tetralogy’ comprising the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III) in which the terrible mechanisms of civil war and naked power dominate the scene. Here a new note is audible, a more nuanced representation of the political conflicts of the English past in which character and politics are so deeply intertwined as to be inextricable. The language too is suppler and more richly elaborated. Overall, there is a sense of emerging mastery, as there is too in the other plays he completed in that very productive year, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. In Dream he takes the comic genre in which he had worked in several earlier plays to new heights of complexity while Romeo, with its subtle blend of chance and inevitability, does something similar for tragedy (his only previous tragedy had been the bloody and savage revenge play, Titus Andronicus). Richard II dextrously combines history play and tragedy, giving to its narrative of bad government and usurpation a tragic shape that Shakespeare would, in a richer vein, take up again a decade later in King Lear. Indeed, the title-page of the earliest edition, in 1597, calls it ‘The Tragedie of King Richard the second’, though in the Folio of 1623 it appears with the other history plays and is entitled ‘The life and death of King Richard the Second’. However it is designated, it clearly traces a kind of tragic fall from kingly authority and pomp to lonely, painful imprisonment and violent death.
Within that frame, Shakespeare develops an historical theme that had great political immediacy for its first audiences, due largely to its concern with royal succession at a time when the question of who would inherit the throne occupied by the ageing and childless Queen Elizabeth was on everyone’s mind. The play confronts head-on an important contemporary debate about political, indeed monarchical, legitimacy. But it is also a drama, so that the ideological issues are fleshed out in terms of the conflict between two main characters whose struggle defines the action.

Who, the play asks, is right—the anointed king who insists on his divinely sanctioned claim to the throne but who at the same time abuses his power and flouts the traditional legal principles that underlie his legitimacy, or the victim of the king’s abuse who promises to be a more effective monarch but is, nevertheless, a usurper? This question is central to the play and hovers in the background of the three that follow it, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V, which together form the ‘second’ tetralogy (though the historical events they dramatize come before those depicted in the ‘first’ tetralogy—and are indeed at the root of the civil bloodshed so prevalent in those earlier plays). Whether Shakespeare, when he sat down to write Richard II, planned to compose a series of plays is not known, but it seems likely that he entertained the idea of putting together a sequence that would in some ways parallel that earlier one. At the least, he was acutely aware of the political resonances of the historical events he extracted from the chronicles he raided as sources and alert to the kinds of debate current in his immediate context. In what follows we take up these questions of topicality and political meaning, and examine how Shakespeare embeds them in character and language; and we trace as well how they have been embodied in performance both in Shakespeare’s own time and over the centuries since.

[in de tientallen pagina's tussen dit eerste en het tweede fragment uit de Introduction gaan Dawson en Yachnin onder andere in op de relevantie voor de toenmalige politieke discussie, censuur, de historische bronnen en het historische karakter van het stuk. Hierna zullen ook de personages, karaktertekening en de handschriften aan bod komen. De totale inleiding beslaat zo'n honderd pagina's.]


Although Richard II is one of only a handful of Shakespeare plays to be written entirely in verse, its style is far from uniform. Highly formal and ritualistic language is matched by intimate exchange, elaborate and self-conscious rhetoric by plain speech, metaphorical density by befuddled distraction or conspiratorial indirection. Differences of style emanate from character, but are also contingent upon public life. Speech in that sense is political as well as personal, all the more so in this profoundly political play.
Northumberland’s plain style, when he arrests the protesting Bishop of Carlisle, may serve as a preliminary example. It bespeaks not just his individual abruptness, his enjoyment of a certain harshness that makes him a willing ‘enforcer’, though it does indeed register that aspect of his personality. But it also emerges from the public space he occupies, his desire at that moment to silence Henry’s opponents and to pave the way for Richard’s declaration of guilt, which he pursues with equal relentlessness a few minutes later. It has, that is, a punitive public dimension. Carlisle, in one of the great prophecies of lament that dot the play, has predicted that ‘The blood of English shall manure the ground... And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars | Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound’ (4.1.138–42). He ends, Cassandra-like, by calling for resistance and crying ‘woe’. Northumberland responds sardonically:

Well have you argued, sir, and for your pains
Of capital treason we arrest you here.
My lord of Westminster, be it your charge
To keep him safely till his day of trial.

His retort serves not only to deflate the Bishop’s rhetoric, but to indicate that the new regime means business; his style, that is, derives from a particular social context. The same tone, driven by the same political requirements, surfaces later in the scene, when he insists that Richard read aloud the accusations against him.

Richard, who has just finished a long speech dense with rhetorical flourishes (201–22), turns at the end to his tormentors and, on a suddenly unadorned note, asks, ‘What more remains?’ This shift to plain, direct speech tells us of Richard’s awareness of the very real and inescapable political situation he finds himself in; he knows that rhetoric won’t get him out of it. The style of Northumberland’s reply carries the same recognition:

No more, but that you read
These accusations and these grievous crimes
Committed by your person and your followers
Against the state and profit of this land...

While Northumberland’s typically no-nonsense air comes from within, political exigency helps determine the nature of his language.


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