IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)
This was going to be a nice easy one.
Read Richard II; watch the BBC’s sumptuous Hollow Crown version of the play; make a bunch of snotty Justin Bieber references; sign off.
Bim. Bam. Boom. No fuss, no muss.
Because if you’re bothering to keep track (although, why would you?), my ‘Year of ‘Speare’ has been a little slow going. To say the least. After twelve months, I’ve discussed, what? Three? Four plays? I mean, at this point it’s not even 2016 anymore! It’s the year after ‘Speare. Ah, whatever.
So Richard II was meant to be a way to turn that around. To put out something quick.
It’s a play that I love – one inexplicably undervalued in the Shakespeare canon; one that has some striking things to say about human nature – so I figured I could belt out a quick diatribe about what a hidden gem the play is, how it explores universal existential fears, and how it speaks directly to our modern preoccupations with fame.
Indeed, that’s where the Bieber stuff would have come in…
The point I was going to make was that from one perspective, at its core, Richard II is all about the perils of celebrity at a young age. The titular character, Richard, is a young, calamitously un-liked king – one eventually so hated that effectively his entire country conspires to dethrone him. But from a more sympathetic perspective, he is a victim of his rise to stardom. Preceding the action of the play, he was appointed monarch at the age of ten after his grandfather, father, and brother all died, thinning what was otherwise a healthy line of succession. Richard went from an indulged ten year old boy to God’s appointed ruler on Earth – literally told that he was anointed from on high by the sacred blood of monarchy. And so, although originally appointed advisors to assist him, the young king grew up in privilege, pampered, praised, his every desire met, his word literally law. He could do no wrong, because he was King – and kings, as his own experience repeatedly proved, are above and beyond the rules of the commoners they deign to rule.
And as Shakespeare’s play reveals, that has got to screw a person up.
IMAGE: Justin Bieber
Like Bieber at the height of his arrogant self-entitlement (abandoning his pet monkey; musing that Anne Frank would have been a fan; peeing in a mop bucket; drunken drag-racing) or present day Shia LaBeouf (trying to explain away his plagiarisms and general dickishness by turning himself into a walking performance art parody), Richard goes on to enact the downward spiral of every child celebrity who flipped out in adolescence and burned away all the good will their fame once cultivated. He doesn’t hold up a liquor store or go on a drug-fuelled bender down a freeway, but he does start unfairly taxing his dukes and stealing their property to fund his unpopular wars. He has his political rivals secretly killed and presides over sham court proceedings. He alienates himself from the people of his kingdom by spending all day snarking with his mean-girl entourage.*
Eventually his people, who have resoundingly had enough, rise up in protest, revolt, and eject him from his rule. They install Bollingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, in his place, and the second half of the play becomes an introspective psychological exploration of a Richard who, now stripped of his fame, tries to grapple with the question of his own identity. If he is no longer a king – the sole thing that has defined him his entire life – then what, or even even who, is he?
To me, this play’s examination of the descent from celebrity to pariah seems a more prescient examination of contemporary culture than it must have been in the entire history of its performance. From the vantage point of the 21st century, when every actor, musician, politician, YouTube star, Chewbacca Mom, and vacuous-yet-inexplicably-omnipresent-nobodies (I’m looking at you Kardassian brood), are all forced, inevitably, to grapple with the impact their public persona has had upon their lives, when the adoration of the crowd abates, and the wan ineffability of fame threatens to expose the figure behind the facade, this play’s central themes seem ever more urgent.
And what Richard II says about this struggle is profoundly moving.
At first, for the majority of the narrative, Richard balks at his forced abdication, grappling with the loss of his old, exalted identity by desperately struggling to substitute a new, false one in its place. For a time he tries, unsuccessfully, to bluff his challengers, attempting to still throw his now-undermined royal authority around. When that doesn’t work he waxes lyrical about being a monk, living in seclusion, giving himself up to the quiet adoration of God. Later he goes into long, pitiful laments about how forgotten and forlorn he has become, romanticising his dissolution into nothingness with a messianically sacrificial tone. But all of these attempts at self-description are just feints, lies striving to reconstitute a new meaning for himself, a way to avoid dealing with the vacuous hollow beneath his empty facade.
Despite this, in the final moments before his untimely death, Richard does finally reach an epiphany. Wrestling with his wayward sense of self, he finally comes to accept ownership of his actions and identity, reaching an almost Zen state of being:
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king.
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar;
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again; and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. (5.5.31-41)
Having been imprisoned, and left both figuratively and physically alone in his thoughts, Richard sees, finally, his own role in the shaping of his sense of self. In the past he has been charmed by the delusions of his infallibility – of his people’s love, of his noblemen’s devotion, of God’s blessing – but once all that has been stripped from him, once he confronts the nothingness within himself, he sees it all an illusion permitted by his own ego. Bolingbroke may have taken his crown, but whatever remains of Richard is his alone, prey only to his self-delusion.
Once he arrives at this revelation, Richard is free (albeit tragically briefly) to become his best self. When assassins arrive to kill him, Richard implores the stableboy who has come to visit to flee and save himself, and he fights back valiantly, even killing one of his assailants, showing a valour at the moment of death that was obscured by his untested fame.
All this I would have said, and more besides (the Duke of York, the most interesting character in the play, the one whose shift of allegiance from Richard to Bolingbroke embodies the dramatic political upheaval unfolding, gives a phenomenal speech about the vacuousness of celebrity), but then the election happened, and Richard II, like seemingly everything else good this year, got ruined by a sentient sack of half-chewed Cheetos, Donald Trump.
IMAGE: Donald Trump
Suddenly a story about the dangers of an indulged, thin-skinned, egomaniacal, vainglorious leader with no impulse control and a staggering deficit of real-world knowledge seemed a little less abstract. Suddenly Richard II was no longer just about the tragedy of a man disentangling himself from his own celebrity, it was about the dangerous destabilisation that one man’s catastrophic rule could have upon a country’s entire political order.
(Of course, it should be clarified that Trump is nothing if not a celebrity. In many ways, it’s all he is. It’s certainly the principle way in which he has improbably peddled the fiction of his ‘business savvy’. After ricocheting from one farcically failed business enterprise to the next for several decades, becoming a joke in his home state of New York for his many calamitous blunders, Trump eventually landed the role of ‘cartoon billionaire’ on The Apprentice, a vanity project designed to mythologise him as the ultimate dealmaker, no matter how repeatedly reality revealed it a fraud.** And from that Trump was soon FOX News’ favourite conspiratorial Magic 8 Ball, where, once shaken up with a phone call he would spew whatever nonsense Birther/the-Chinese-invented-global-warming drivel he could into the airwaves, Howard Stern’s desperate little friend, and a torrent of narcissistic complexes and unchecked id on Twitter. Inexplicably, for his many supporters, this celebrity image was never fully punctured by the slew of revelations about Trump’s many obfuscations, frauds, and corruptions – even those, like his taped admission of sexually assaulting women, that spoke directly to his status as a pseudo-celebrity.)
Dishearteningly, there are numerous superficial analogies to draw between the two men, the Richard and the Donald. Richard shares something of Trump’s petty greed and vindictiveness. He gleefully wishes his uncle Gaunt dead so he can immediately start pilfering his wealth, just as Trump applauds himself for stiffing contractors and burying them under litigation for seeking what is legally owed, or in the exploitative vulgarity he showed by using his ‘charity’ as a slush fund to buy himself gifts or to pay his legal debts with other people’s donations.
There is the ugly entitlement that both men exhibit. Richard, thinking himself appointed by God to rule, cannot fathom that he might need to treat others with respect. He’s so convinced of his righteousness that he literally believes that he can bless his country by touching it with his hand. Trump’s similar feeling of privilege is emblazoned on every phallic building, scam ‘university’, and shiny bauble to which he has affixed his name. And to be crass, he has made it evident in video footage that he believes he’s entitled to stick his hand wherever he wants.
Both men are similarly infantilised, throwing tantrums when they do not get their way – Richard whimpering off to Flint Castle, Trump walling himself away from reality by constructing comforting fictions on Twitter. Richard doesn’t think he needs to answer for unjustly having his uncle murdered because he thinks himself above the law; Trump is outraged that he should be accountable for his own words and actions, claiming the media is ‘mean’ to him when they report on the things that he himself does, that the people who protest him are ‘unfair’, and that Meryl Streep and the cast of Hamilton are big meanies.
Thankfully there are some differences that differentiate the two men. As I have noted, Richard is at times capable of producing stirring lyricism, far from the ‘pussy-grabbing’, pugnacious, playground incoherency of Trump. And again, by the end of his narrative journey, having felt defeat most acutely, Richard exhibits a level of self-assessment and introspection that Trump has repeatedly proved himself is psychologically incapable of achieving.
But more than their evident character flaws, parallels can also be drawn between the state of the two lands these men seek to govern. Richard II is, after all, not only a personal tragedy (indeed, some readers may well argue whether or not it is even that), it is moreover the tragedy of a nation. It catalogues the shift from England’s history of Kings appointed by holy decree, to a rule dictated by political concord. England shifts from a land unified around a singular, unquestioned monarch, to a family feud that would play out over several generations and erupt, frequently, into full blown civil war.
Trump’s election worryingly signals an analogous shift in the identity of America and its traditional ideals. A fundamental part of Trump’s appeal in the 2016 election was his defiance of – in many cases his complete contempt for – established democratic norms. Trump, for better or worse (or catastrophically, nightmarishly, apocalyptically worse), represented the rejection of the established political order of the United States. He was a protest vote, a way to shake up a system that was seen to be stagnating. It’s why his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ rang so loudly (and why his cabinet picks post-election, effectively relocating the swamp into his White House, are so farcical). It’s why, to many of his supporters, Trump’s reprehensible behaviour throughout the election was not seen as a detriment, but a curious boon.
On the campaign trail he repeatedly made wildly inflammatory, unsubstantiated (often proved abjectly false) statements about other races, religions, and groups, in defiance of established political decorum. He called Mexicans rapists and murderers, circulated bogus statistics about ‘Black on White’ crime, and implicated all Muslims in the actions of terrorists by suggesting that ‘they’ weren’t doing enough to help stop terrorist acts. His supporters, however, saw all of these insults – and many more besides – as a refreshing willingness to ‘speak his mind’ (even when his mind was wilfully inaccurate) and proof that he wasn’t ‘following a script’ (even when he read his remarks directly from teleprompters).
He threatened – on multiple occasions, from most every conceivable angle – the right of free speech; the first amendment of the constitution. From vowing to look into ‘changing the libel laws’ (despite these laws not actually existing), to threatening to sue journalists for printing anything he doesn’t like, to openly harassing members of the press, he created a uniquely hostile relationship with the news media. His supporters likewise clearly enjoyed this game of Trump biting the hand that fed him, as they raucously booed and hissed the media at his rallies like pantomime evil-doers, and joyfully resurrected the derogatory term Lügenpresse, a Nazi German word for ‘lying press’.
He refused to accept the peaceful transition of power when it looked like he was not going to win, following up on the tantrums he threw during the primaries whenever he lost by threatening one of the country’s most sacred democratic traditions, the peaceful transition of power, even claiming that voter fraud and mass conspiracies were rampant. (Predictably, the second he won any question of a rigged election was swiftly abandoned – while still claiming on Twitter that millions of people had voted illegally.) And again his supporters appeared to adore this too, as both they and the president elect got to work hypocritically admonishing anyone who wanted to examine the clear influence of Russian interference in the election.
He refused to release his taxes – cowardly and entirely erroneously claiming that the IRS wouldn’t allow him to release them – breaking with several decades of practice, and exhibiting what would become a pattern of refusing to be transparent with his voters, from his business dealings to the ‘blind trust’ of his children running his company, all while hypocritically attacking his opponent for that very thing. (…In this instance his supporters apparently enjoyed being told to screw off, because I can see no other reason for them to celebrate this continuing pattern of being contemptibly patronised to.)
He vowed to lock up his political opponent, the signature threat of a petty dictator; he suggested that ‘second amendment people’ should assassinate his rival should she win; he insulted and attacked a Gold Star family; argued that a ‘Mexican’ judge was not able to properly adjudicate the fraud trial against Trump University; talked with relish about unleashing America’s nuclear arsenal; mocked a disabled reporter; refused to hold a press conference in almost a year while literally fleeing from the White House press gallery; spent his time, both at his rallies and through the cowardice of social media, offending, belittling, and attacking those less powerful than he, all while quoting war criminals he admired and rehashing sad old grudges to make himself feel big. Despite their craven, cynical cozying up to him after his victory, for much of his campaign he was reviled by much of his own party, and his only endorsements of any status was from the goddamn KKK. To his voters, Trump presents the end of the system they know, but for all of Trump’s rhetoric about making America ‘great’ again, what he actually presents is not a return to some mythologised past, but the fundamental remaking of all of America’s founding principles.
Just like in Richard II, in which the elevation of a young, unprepared boy to the station of King eventually leads to the undermining of the hereditary tradition that had defined the English monarchy right back to William the Conqueror, Trump’s ascendency to President of the United States can be seen as the dramatic end of an era. Just as Richard’s reign saw England’s (relatively) peaceful transfer of power through birthright and familial lineage fall into question, Trump’s impending rule, more in the styling of a petty dictatorship or the ramblings of a Twitter troll, represents the end of the ideals of the American Republic as it has traditionally been understood.
A nation built on immigration, religious freedom, and unfettered speech, is now to be governed by a man who campaigned, aggressively, against all of those things. The notion of American exceptionalism that led the United States to becoming a beacon of moral authority in global politics has been abandoned for an inward-looking, paranoid, ‘America first’ nationalism.
IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)
Richard II is about the moment of awakening from a beautiful dream. The glorified England of the past is already just a remembrance, but the fantasy clings, even as it is dissolved from within. The BBC’s Hollow Crown production, in all its lavish spectacle, captures this beautiful decay elegantly. Part Byzantine painting, part Game of Thrones, it rockets along with all the prerequisite scheming and beheadings necessary to satiate those looking for action, while allowing breathing room for the psychological renegotiations and losses playing out on the character level. It even manages to make the somewhat ridiculous scene in the final act of York and his wife each pleading their respective cases for their conspirator son to Henry IV (an interaction traditionally played for a kind of ghoulish laugh, and a counterpoint to Richard’s earlier phony courtroom scene) operate as a loaded enactment of York’s loyalty to a sworn promise, even in the face of personal sacrifice.
Likewise, it handily juggles the artifice in Shakespeare’s text. Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays – one of the few written entirely in verse – and it consequentially has some splendid, but highly rigid, rhyming beats elevating its most pointed moments. In the hands of lesser actors, these shifts into poesy could have sounded stilted, even ridiculous, but the entire ensemble shines. Some, like the mercurial Ben Whishaw, as a Richard seeking desperately to still array himself in the plumage of a kingship he has already lost, and David Suchet as the pragmatic, but mournful York, and the ever-reliable Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, give captivating performances that stun the viewer to silence. I defy anyone to watch Stewart’s rendition of the ‘This sceptred isle’ monologue and not be moved – his brazen challenge, foretelling the ruin of his nation, peering through the camera lens, beyond time, to the audience of the future who can confirm his prophesy. It is a speech that echoes through the following several plays Shakespeare wrote recounting the War of the Roses, and Stewart, with his signature gravitas, gives it the enormity it warrants:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden – demi-paradise –
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! (2.1.31-68)
In the face of Richard’s misrule, Gaunt foresees an age of greed and ruin. Over the course of one rollicking, thunderous, building sentence, all prologue to its final declamatory insult, Gaunt paints the image of a proud land already lost in a fantasy of itself. For the moment England still believes itself blessed by God’s grace, but Gaunt can see through the facade into the ghastly, self-defeating hypocrisy already eating away at its heart. Shakespeare didn’t write those lines with Donald Trump in mind; neither did Stewart speak them so; but it now remains impossible to hear them without thinking of his ‘yuuuuuuge’ victory.
If I have one complaint about The Hollow Crown’s production (and I really don’t), it is that it sets the bar so high that the following six films in the series (Henry VI parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1 and 2, and Richard III) never quite measure up to it, as truly exceptional as each of them are. But this too is only fitting for a play that is fundamentally concerned with the passing of an ideal age that proves ultimately impossible to reclaim.
It is such a powerful moment that now, as the free world looks to the future with a leader who is an apologist for (and likely beholden to) Russian Oligarchs, who is a vociferous advocate for torture and human rights violations, who holds paying taxes and avoiding conflicts of interest with open contempt, who skips intelligence briefings and subscribes to insane conspiracy theories, and who lies openly and brazenly on a daily basis, one wonders if the United States needs its own Sceptred Isle speech.
But perhaps it already has one…
In Back to the Future 2 Marty McFly glimpsed a world run by a deranged, narcissistic, sexually abusive gangster-wannabe with a tower fetish and comically fake hair. Bob Gale, writer of the film, intentionally fashioned Biff Tannen as an analogy for Trump (the one major difference appears to be that Biff was actually successful at running casinos), and his nightmare scenario for the dark timeline Biff creates with his sports almanac is a world of gilded trash in which the greed, corruption and pettiness Trump embodies are given license.
IMAGE: Back to the Future 2 (Universal Pictures)
Of course, much as I love it, Back to the Future lacks much of the sombre, tremulous beauty of Shakespeare’s original text – no ‘That America hath made a shameful conquest of itself’ here. But for a year like 2016, telling democracy that it should ‘Make like a tree and get out of here’ seems sadly appropriate.
Thankfully, the words of the Duke of York, tragic in the context of Richard II, offer some hope in the wake of Trump’s degradation of the American electoral process. As I alluded to earlier, when York laments the passing of Richard’s rule, he likens him to a celebrity who has passed out of favour with his audience:
As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious:
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard. No man cried ‘God save him!’
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home (5.2.23-29)
Even for all of Richard’s failings, the image is sombre and heartbreaking. That which was once so highly regarded is treated with disdain; not merely forgotten, but immediately condemned.
However, when Trump inevitably implodes these words will seem like a blessed relief. Because when Trump – a figure more celebrity than man, more bluster than substance – can no longer hide from his supporters that he has walked back every one of his campaign promises, that he has no answers for the fears he exploited, and that his vision extends nowhere beyond himself, the fickle nature of even his most loyal audience will similarly turn against him. And even though Trump, as the soon-to-be oldest man to be sworn in as President, is no child celebrity, he will get to feel the same sting that has marked Justin Bieber and Shia LaBeouf.
It’s not much.
It’s barely anything.
But as Richard himself says, sometimes we must all be content with nothingness.
IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)
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* It should be acknowledged that, like all of his history plays, Shakespeare takes innumerable liberties with his characterisation of the titular historical figure, so when I speak of Richard II, I am solely referencing Shakespeare’s representation of him.
** Building off the legend of his ghost-written autobiography The Art of the Deal – a book that the writer himself now loudly admonishes as a pernicious work of fraud. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all)
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Book: Richard II by William Shakespeare (ed. by Stanley Wells, Penguin, 1997)
Production: The Hollow Crown: Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold, screenplay by Rupert Goold, Ben Power, and William Shakespeare (Neal Street Productions, 2012)
Back to the Future 2, directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (Universal Pictures, 1989)