Richard II

I am joining the chorus of praise for the BBC staging of Richard II last weekend. The high point is certainly Patrick Stewart’s fantastic rendition of the “This Sceptred Isle” speech, as John of Gaunt, in the second act, but it’s all rather fantastic – especially Ben Whishaw in the title role and Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke. It also rather obviously points up Shakespeare’s debt to Marlowe; Richard II is closer to Marlowe’s Edward II than it is to Richard’s actual life.

When I listened to an audio version as part of my run through Shakespeare a few years ago, I felt that there were two fairly big problems with the plot of Richard II. But the BBC production by Sam Mendes has dealt with both. First off, Whishaw gives a thoroughly convincing performance of a very bad king who is not such a very bad man, in a way that Rupert Graves didn’t quite manage in the version I had previously listened to. And second, Mendes’ decision to merge the two assassination subplots of Act 5 actually makes a lot more sense than Shakespeare’s original text, where the Aumerle plot really comes from nowhere and goes nowhere.

I was also moved to find out what happened to Mowbray, who just vanishes after having played such an important role in the first act. In real life, he died of plague in Venice a few months after his exile; it’s a bit of a shame that we don’t hear about that. Also in real life the Duchess of York died in 1392, several years before the 1399 revolution; but one doesn’t read Shakespeare for historical accuracy.

Anyway, well worth watching this. (See also , here.)

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