Characters in contention for leading role in theatre Shakespeare tribute:
Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
(Richard II/Henry VI, Part III)
‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle/ This earth of majesty’. The words of John of Gaunt in Richard II evoke romantic visions of a lost England: a demi-paradise surrounded by silver sea, ruled by mighty monarchs. A king enthroned like the sun in splendour is a majestic sight, but talk of setting suns suggests a less glorious reality. Images of crowns and thrones abound in Richard II and Henry VI, Part III but by the end of Shakespeare’s great history cycle, dynastic struggle will reduce the former to paper and the latter to a molehill, a tiny elevated mound of earth.
Shakespeare understood well the powerful impact of colour and symbol, skillfully using metaphor and emblematic devices to convey meaning in his plays. England’s coat of arms depicts three golden lions: kings are ‘not born to sue, but to command’. Monarchs also adopt personal emblems, a fact used by Shakespeare to dramatic effect. In Temple Garden, Henry’s choice of a blood-red rose symbolically seals his fate. Richard invites our pity, likewise; his royal emblem is a pure-white hunted hart. As Shakespeare focuses on royal status in these plays, we see kings – like men – feel want, taste grief and need friends too.
‘Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings’: Richard II and Henry VI, Part III dramatise moments in history when a weak monarch’s rule leads to the ‘planting’ of an unrightful king. Richard and Henry’s thrones mask golden sorrow: ‘for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Death keeps his court’. Shakespeare’s word-play shows how easily a ‘king’ can be ‘kinged’ only to be ‘unkinged’ again. Also how a lion can tame a leopard ‘but not change his spots’.
‘If angels fight/ weak men must fall’, says Richard. Historically, Richard II was deposed by a cousin, Henry Bolingbroke: John of Gaunt’s son, later King Henry IV. Richard had previously banished this ambitious, dissenting lord: ‘such is the breath of kings’. Claiming only his own lands at first, Bolingbroke returned to challenge Richard’s crown. On deposition, Richard is imprisoned – then murdered – at Pomfret Castle.
Under Richard, Shakespeare imagines England an unweeded garden over-run by royal favourites, ‘caterpillars of the Commonwealth’. Bolingbroke seeks to pluck these weeds away. Reduced to a ‘mockery king of snow’, Richard symbolically undoes himself at Westminster, handing the usurper his heavy crown. Calling for a mirror to see what he has become, the silent king dashes it to the ground. It cracks into a ‘hundred shivers’: ‘farewell king’! At Pomfret, king of his own griefs still, Richard finally exchanges his ‘large kingdom for a little grave’.
Richard’s last words invoke what will befall when the king’s blood stains the king’s own land. Bishops predict England will become a place of ‘dead men’s skulls’, fittingly describing the killing-fields of The Wars of the Roses. Henry VI’s right to reign was based on Bolingbroke’s claims and thus another king, tongue-tied by sorrows, is forced to give-up a crown and die.
Images of rising and falling link these plays. Richard compares the crown to a well with two buckets, one empty in the air, the other down and full of tears. Abandoned by war-like Margaret at Towton, saintly Henry sits on a battle-field mole-hill analysing life: ‘what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?’ Like Richard before him, this weakly king is also imprisoned and killed, merely reduced at death to a man’s body length. Shakespeare’s Henry is murdered by machiavellian Richard of Gloucester, en route to becoming King Richard III.
Thus, as the House of Lancaster falls, the white rose of York rises. Thanks to the Earl of Warwick, ‘proud setter up and puller down of kings’, the golden crown belongs next to lusty Edward IV and his shallow queen, Lady Elizabeth Grey.
These plays resound with the music of men’s lives. Since men out-number women in Shakespeare by 8:1, is it inevitable an alpha-male will win the North-East vote?
This post forms part of a series of short articles exploring Shakespeare’s characters all written to support the ‘Vote for Shakespeare’ campaign to find the North East of England’s favourite Shakespeare character.
Posted by Christine Chapman, Advisor to Newcastle Theatre Royal’s ‘Vote for Shakespeare’ Campaign