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Richard II By Shakespeare

How didst thou sway the theatre! Make us feel The players’ wounds were true,
and their swords, steel! Nay, stranger yet, how often did I know When the
spectators ran to save the blow? Frozen with grief we could not stir away Until
the epilogue told us ?twas a play. From the point of view of an actor, playing
the part of Bolingbroke or Richard is a daunting task. There are a number of
ways in which an actor prepares to assume a character’s role, but many of
these methods are wanting in certain areas. Despite the fact that both
characters are rich in the literary sense, for the purposes of this essay the
difficulties facing an actor preparing to play a part can be best served by
addressing the needs specific to the role of Richard. The major issue, which is
more pronounced in Richard is the necessity of trying to portray certain things
directly to the audience while allowing other factors to filter through subtly
as the performance continues. This factor is one that should be applauded, when
one takes into account the manner in which audiences are treated in the modern
theatre. Thankfully Richard II assumes there is an intelligent audience almost
participating in the play, but this can lead to even more problems for the
actor. Because of it’s intellectually stimulating content, the actor must be
aware of the fact that the character is being observed even more closely. A
believable character must be portrayed or the dramatic impact of the play as a
whole will be lost. The technical aspects of a part in a play are normally
common throughout every performance. The learning of lines may be easily
attained but the style in which they are delivered depends on a number of
factors. Firstly, and foremost, the character will have the main influence on
the manner in which the lines are spoken. However, this can vary greatly when
one considers the huge variations that can result in any play at the behest of
the director. Without delving into a debate on whether or not a play should be
performed in the style of the time in which it was written, one must acknowledge
that a director can very noticeably, or subtly make adjustments to characters
and plots which an actor must reflect in their performance. Furthermore, the
audience to which the actor is performing must be taken into consideration.

Despite the fact that we are not the classless society that we wish to be in the
21st century, there are less class barriers in place than those of 1597. The
aristocratic, highly – Christian society of Shakespeare’s day differs hugely
from our own, and this must be taken into account along with the fact that the
modern audience is presumably better educated than their late 16th century
counterparts. Finally, the type of stage being used may or may not be an issue
for an actor in preparing to portray a character. The Elizabethan stage, such as
The Globe would have been in Shakespeare’s mind as he wrote, but the huge
variety if performance stages today often means certain aspects of a performance
must curtailed or expunged upon. Indeed the versatility of many pre – cinema
scripts has been demonstrated on the silver screen, none more successfully than
the Stratford Bard in recent years. Shakespeare’s plays are also recognised
for the number of plot undertones that can be discerned upon closer examination.

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Although not a 1990’s phenomena, there has been in the recent past an upsurge
in the debate over homosexual devices in Shakespearean plays. While some of
these claims do have substance to them, with literature as intense and intricate
as Shakespeare’s, one can read anything that one desires into it to attain
one’s goal. Sometimes it is necessary simply to take a play as it stands,
rather than questioning every element and deconstructing it into such a level of
obscurity as to lose the intentions of the author in the first place. Analysis
of a text is a necessary part of an actor’s preparation assuming a role, but
over-analysis may result in dubious conclusions, which may not work well on the
stage, regardless of the manner in which they were met. In Shakespeare’s Play
in Performance, John Russell Brown contends that the formalist style of acting
in the Elizabethan stage “was dying out in Shakespeare’s age, and that a new
naturalism was the kindling spirit in his theatre”. While this does seem like
a somewhat sweeping statement, Brown does qualify it by saying that it would not
be true naturalism by today’s standards, but that it did allude more to real
life and real situations than previous authors had. Whether or not realism, in
any sense of the word is employed, the task of portraying Richard is no less
daunting. Richard’s role is clearly defined as the centre of attention for the
audience to focus upon, but is this because he is the king, or because of his
character? Perhaps it is a combination of both, but it would appear that
Richards’s character is more interesting than the crown he wears. In the first
scene, Richard is enthroned and surrounded by his court. Even in his discourses
with John of Gaunt, one is made aware of the fact that he demands precise and
set answering. Despite the fact that Richard fails to reconcile Bolingbroke and
Mowbray, his presence and power are undiminished. One may or may not be aware of
the fact that Richard is responsible for the crime for which Mowbray is accused,
that is the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, uncle to both Richard and
Bolingbroke. Brown suggests that “the audience must question the earlier
picture in retrospect (i.e. the calm, confident king) or find their unease
strengthened.” This brings up a huge problem to the actor: should he behave as
if he has done nothing wrong, or assist the audience in seeing his darker side
by allowing non-textual allusions to be made about his true character? It would
be more dramatically effective to play the part of the king in the role of
trying to disguise his true guilt, and allowing the audience themselves to
realise what a scrupulous man he can be. Before the audience is given a chance
to gauge it’s reaction to the opening scene, Act I scene I allows John of
Gaunt, the most patriarchal figure on the stage to cast his own aspersions on
Richard’s reign. This second scene allows the actor playing Richard to have a
greater sense of discretion, and though it is not as blatant as having a
narrator on stage, this scene does seem to back up Brown’s theory of
Shakespearean realism, allowing an audience to remain informed of off-stage
occurrences without resorting to making unnecessary on-stage announcements. The
character of Richard itself must be a paradoxical one for an actor to play, as
Richard is himself a powerful performer who plays up to his own audience i.e.

his flatterers. In no scene, even after he is forced to abdicate is he any less
charismatic, and many would agree quite validly, that he becomes even more
charismatic after he loses the throne as he begins to build up his sympathy with
his deposed state. Whether in the role of king of the people, as in Act I scenes
I and III, or as a callous, self-centred egotist as seen in scene IV, one can be
left in absolutely no doubt that this man knows what he wants, will do near
anything to get it, and knows how to behave in each situation to ensure he
always comes out on top. This is aided by the stage direction, particularly when
one considers his elevated conversation shortly before he abdicates, when he is
clearly on a higher level than Bolingbroke. Granted, in the end he is dethroned
and murdered, but despite this, the actor must ooze confidence and
self-motivation to show the king in a true light. The true character of Richard
is shown when he says “Pray God we make haste, and come too late,” but
despite this attitude which is so different to the pious and responsible
solemnities of the first regal scenes, he maintains an air of confidence. Even
though they are giving their support to someone who is more interested in lining
his coffers than the health of his own uncle, the ?flatterers’ can be
forgiven for going along with such a personality, so far in any case. Despite
the fact that Richard’s ruling over the feud between Bolingbroke and Mowbray
is a complete cop out to save himself, during the scenes with the two nobles, he
succeeds in having them lavish praise upon him, despite the fact that the
argument is that one of them wishes to depose him. A modern audience cannot help
but succumb to Richard’s charm when he says “Free speech and fearless I to
thee allow” and “Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood Should nothing
privilege him, nor partialise The unstooping firmness of my upright soul.” In
saying this, he endears himself to us as a champion of free speech, and it is
here that an audience has the seeds of sympathy planted. Failing this, the
audience is also aware of the fact that the main patriarchal figure is critical
of Richard, and despite the fact that his objections are well founded, one
cannot help but feel that Richard is somewhat neglected when it comes to the
area of family support, regardless of the actions he has committed to solicit
such a response. Towards the end of the play, this sympathy is central to the
sense of senselessness engulfing England, and this results in a greater impact
being felt because of the murder. Bolingbroke’s rejection of Exton for
carrying out the murder echoes the point that the action was pointless, but it
serves to redemonstrate that Bolingbroke is not intent on stamping his authority
on those around him in the same style as Richard did. Richard’s role as king
of the people and man behind the crown must be examined before he can be
understood. Clearly he feels at ease in front of his assembled court, but is
this the same case behind closed doors? The answer is a resounding yes, which
may come as a surprise to the audience who assume his bravado give way to a more
frail and fickle person when in his day to day environment. As a result, Richard
reaffirms his strength, and at this point one should question whether or not his
power and majesty are really an act, or is he genuinely a larger than life man,
with questionable aspirations and methods? With Richard’s absence from the
stage, the focus of the audience is somewhat blurred for a short period of time.

Assuming the actor has reinforced his hold on the attention of those observing,
the plot not only centres around him in the scenes where he is present, but also
in the scenes where he is spoken about. At this point, an actor must have
introduced a zealous, fearless element into the part. Despite the fact that York
blatantly accuses Richard of Gloucester’s murder, he still leaves him as
Governor of England while he attends to the matters at hand in Ireland. Because
of York’s criticism of Richard, and Richard apparently ignoring it or at least
taking it in his stride, one expects that Richard has a plan to exact some sort
of revenge in York for his outburst, and this keeps Richard’s influence alive
throughout the four hundred and sixty odd lines for which he is absent. Upon his
return, Richard does not exact any sort of revenge upon York, and this suggests
that he is not quite the tyrant that he is made out to be. It could be said,
quite fairly that at this stage Richard is aware of his predicament and has
decided to try to placate those around him by accepting criticism and not
necessarily persecuting those who voice objections to his actions. Derek
Traversi comments on how easy it is to underestimate Richard II in saying that
“The style in which it was written is highly formal and elaborate: so much so
that it may seem at first to be lacking in the vigour of real life.” He also
highlights Richard’s ability to blur the lines of fact and fiction in Act I
scene I. “Let’s purge this choler without letting blood… Forget, forgive:
conclude and be agreed; Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.” Although
many of Richard’s speeches in this scene are in a similar vein, this one
highlights his ability to mask his true involvement. Traversi asks “Is this to
be ascribed to intelligence or to indifference, to superior understanding or to
a tendency in the speaker to evade the decisions and responsibilities to which
his office calls him?” To address this issue from the point of view of a
character analysis is one thing, but to try to determine how an actor should
propose this attitude of indifference versus understanding is somewhat
different. It is very easy for those of us who are performing a textual analysis
to come to certain conclusions, but during a live performance some of these
conclusions are not quite so forthcoming. During a textual analysis, one
normally has the luxury of a greater amount of time. On top of this, one also
imposes certain restrictions on the reading, as one may be concentrating on
certain aspects of the plot while putting others onto the sidelines. When
observing Richard II from an audience perspective, or indeed any play live on
stage, one loses this luxury and must often forfeit one’s own views of what
plot elements should be explored, and simply accept the direction the particular
production has chosen to follow. The actor playing Richard may seem to be in a
difficult position, but I would propose that the merging of the two variations
of absorbing the play is easily reconciled. The actor has the advantage of
having textually studied the play, aswell as knowing what artistic direction it
is going and in what manner it will unfold. We are so far aware if the problems
the actor faces in playing the part of Richard, but it is fair to say that this
is probably his main advantage – his own personal interpretation. It may be at
odds with that of the director or may not tie in with the interpretations by the
other actors of their characters, but it allows him to get a feel for the part
that is to be played. This brings up the question of what makes a good actor,
particularly when a role like Richard is to be played. Such a debate can go on
forever, but can be summarised quite easily. One must first of all separate
being a good actor with playing a good character. A good actor ideally, is like
a piece of putty which can assume any role presented to him, and morph in the
necessary way to portray the character as believable. A good character portrayal
is not necessarily the result of good acting. In an age where type casting is
rife, there is a growing tendency in recognising those who play strong,
interesting characters, even if it means that these characters are not
necessarily as difficult to play as those which are not so strong. In short, an
actor should be judged on what he brings to a role rather than simply being
honoured for playing a character which is simply laid out, and can be played
with ease even if it results in a powerful performance. This issue also brings
up a debate which has been ongoing for some time, but has resurfaced quite
strongly recently. That is the issue of whether or not actors are simply
puppets, who with enough preparation and repetition can play any part. Granted,
rehearsals are of paramount importance, but I do not subscribe to the theory
that anyone can play any given part if they have enough time to prepare. The
character of Richard is perfect for demonstrating this in that an actor playing
the part must have the inexplicable gift of presence. This role demands that
even when silent and subservient he remains the audiences focus of attention,
and that it is not believable that this ability can be attributed to anyone who
assumes the role. The role of Richard can be seen as quite a pioneering one in
that it borders on realism, and brings the subtleties of true-life character
defects onto the stage in a way that was not done previously. Edward Dowdes sums
up these issues when commenting on Richard III being outshone by the “less
famous” Richard II in saying that Bolingbroke and Richard “do not, like the
figures in Richard III forcibly posses themselves of our imagination, but engage
it before it is aware, and by degrees advance stronger claims upon us and make
good these claims.” This description is apt, in showing how the discreet and
silent approach of the play on an audiences psyche is infinitely more effective
in having the audience absorbed into the plot than a simple assault upon the
senses. The manner in which the intricacies of the plot of Richard II sneak up
and arrest an audience are testament to it’s elusiveness in seizing one’s
understanding and it cleverly arranges itself such that one is not consciously
aware of it’s existence until a certain point in the play when it merges with
a variety of factors and the true underlying essence of the play is revealed. In
closing, it must be pointed out that there is no one way for an actor to prepare
to play this role, however there will be certain consistencies, regardless of
the production due to the nature of the character presented. Even if one chooses
not to portray Richard as the tragic character he truly is and chooses to
portray him as a vicious tyrant who got his comeuppance, one must acknowledge
that the overwhelming number of variations on the many themes of this part are
such that any one performance cannot be held as paramount. To do this would
defeat the nature of such a character and force it to become enshrined in stone,
when the true beauty of this character is that the man on the stage who espouses
such good reasons to hate him, actually engages us as an audience to sympathise
with him and almost admire him. Any actor assuming the role of Richard must
first of all acknowledge all the possible ways he can be portrayed before
actually settling on one particular way of performing it.

Wells, Stanley & Taylor, Gary The Oxford Shakespeare, The Complete Works
Oxford University Press 1998 Brown, John Russell Shakespeare’s Plays in
Performance Applause Books, 1993 Ed. Cubeta, Paul M. Twentieth Century
Interpretations of Richard II Prentice Hall 1971 Ed. Brooke, Nicholas
Shakespeare. Richard II, A Casebook Macmillan Press 1973


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