On December 2nd, the Folger hosted the first U.S. screening of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II starring David Tennant. Most fans in America know David Tennant from the BBC television series Dr. Who, but he has been a classical actor for much of his life. He joined the RSC at 25, playing Touchstone in As You Like It, and went on to play Romeo, one of the Antipholi in The Comedy of Errors, Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the title role in Hamlet in a production that was later filmed by the BBC and broadcast on PBS in the U.S. He also makes an exceptionally creepy Angelo, doesn’t mind poking a bit of fun at Bardolotry, and cites Derek Jacobi’s Richard II as an inspiration.
There have been quite a number of filmed productions of Richard II in recent years. Deborah Warner directed an actress, Fiona Shaw, in the part in 1997, Mark Rylance – currently starring on Broadway in Twelfth Night and Richard III – played the part at the Globe in 2003, and Ben Whishaw played the part for the BBC Hollow Crown series just last year.
Richard II isn’t one of Shakespeare’s better known works, but the poetry is exceptional. I watched the production from the back of the house, and then from the booth. One of the advantages of being in the booth was that every time the scenery did something awesome – for example, the entire floor lifting up to reveal Richard in prison – I could lock eyes with one of our technical directors and grin with envy.
The production was amazing and as I was thinking about it on my way home, I couldn’t get the Bonnie Raitt song I Can’t Make You Love Me out of my head. It is one of my favorite songs so this isn’t an unusual occurrence, but it seemed to be particularly resonant after this production.
One of the most incredible scenes in Richard II is the deposition scene where Richard gives away his crown and kingdom to Bolingbrook. The scene is missing from the first three quartos and some scholars have theorized that it was censored because of the danger of showing an anointed monarch being deposed. Such concerns may not have been misplaced – supporters of the Earl of Essex paid for a special performance of the play just before their uprising against Elizabeth I in February of 1601.
In Act Four, Scene One, after all the battles have been fought and won, Richard’s army scattered and his kingdom lost, the broken king is called before Bolingbrook to publicly resign the crown. He has nothing left. There is no question about who is the victor, but Bolingbrook doesn’t want to leave any rubs or botches in the work. He wants a room full of witnesses who will swear that Richard willingly removed himself from succession and lawfully handed the crown over.
Sidebar: despite Bolingbrook’s efforts to legitimize his usurpation, Richard’s deposition and death will haunt both him and his son, the future Henry V. Prince Hal does not appear onstage in Richard II and is only briefly mentioned by his father as a “young wanton and effeminate boy”, a far cry from the mirror of all Christian kings he will become. However, when Henry is grown and king and facing the French at Agincourt, he remembers this day and prays,
Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
The fault is past; then he’ll look up. But back to Richard.
The king is called. He enters sad, confused, in shock and pain, holding on to the last shreds of dignity he has left. He knows that he has lost but finds it almost impossible to let go.
Alack, why am I sent for to a king,
Before I have shook off the regal thoughts
Wherewith I reign’d? I hardly yet have learn’d
To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my limbs:
Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me
To this submission.
In Bonnie Raitt’s song, a relationship is ending and one of the lovers begs the other for one more moment before giving in to the pain of loss.
Turn down the lights, turn down the bed
Turn down these voices inside my head
Lay down with me, tell me no lies
Just hold me close, don’t patronize – don’t patronize me
Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t
Morning will come and I’ll do what’s right
Just give me till then to give up this fight
Knowing that something is over but pretending that it isn’t because that hurts less. Neither character can make their hearts obey their heads. They know that their relationships to their land and their lover are over but there is a kind of fighting in their souls that will not let them yield. They need time, beg indulgence, receive pity, and must crave all three from the very person who is responsible for their pain.
We never learn the name of any characters in the song and Richard claims that without his crown, he longer has a name -
I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But ’tis usurp’d: alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself!
Richard begs for a mirror in which to see himself while the narrator in the song refuses to look at their partner
I’ll close my eyes, then I won’t see
The love you don’t feel when you’re holding me
Bonnie Raitt and Richard II are almost as different as it is possible for two people to be. It is a testament to the genius of Shakespeare that the emotions of a 14th century king, a 16th century writer, and a 20th century woman can be of imagination all compact. Richard’s tidal courage (“Ay, no; no, ay”) and the loss of his name bring to mind another play about a historical character struggling to force his soul to his own consent -
Proctor: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name! - “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, 1953
Richard tells us earlier in the play that bears his name that we are wrong to think of him as a king rather than a man as other men are.
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends
The connections between a king and a country singer are not then as far off as we may imagine, nor between them and us. We are told many times in other plays that, “This wide and universal theatre presents more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play in” and that “when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
Perhaps the enduring power of all these works of art is that by showing us another’s pain, we may come to understand our own. By the image of their cause we see the portraiture of ours and that, as Richard says in his final speech before he dies, we are like his contented thoughts who flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune’s slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease.
Richard II Deposition Scene with David Tennant
“I Can’t Make You Love” Me by Bonnie Raitt
Watch Act IV of the Crucible here on YouTube.