Monday, February 28, 2022

Richard II

Today our play-reading group moved on from Shakespeare's King John and Goldman's The Lion in Winter to Shakespeare's next English history play, Richard II. And here's the historic background notes I wrote for my fellow participants:

It's 1398, six generations and almost 200 years after King John. This is the first of a sequence of eight plays that will take us through the next 85 years of English royal history.

The backstory comes from Edward III, who (like Henry II) was a masterful king who had too many sons. The struggles for power among his five adult sons, and their sons, are the root of all the royal troubles of the 15th century, and the fat hits the fire right here.

By this time, primogeniture had been firmly established. Edward's eldest son, a mighty warrior later known (from the supposed color of his armor) as the Black Prince, died before his father. So Edward was succeeded, not by one of his other adult sons, but by his grandson: the Black Prince's ten-year-old son, Richard. He became Richard II (Richard I had been Henry's son from The Lion in Winter).

There was no formal regency, but Richard's uncles were powers in the realm, and the struggle to establish himself was not good for Richard's personality. Now he is 31 years old, firmly in command, artistic and courtly rather than military, but indecisive, willful, and arrogant.

Up until recently, Richard had three remaining uncles:
1. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, an uncle whom Shakespeare treats kindly. He has a son of Richard's age, Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, usually in this play called just Bolingbroke.
2. Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, a conciliatory but weak uncle. His son is the Duke of Aumerle.
3. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, a hostile and overbearing uncle.

Thomas Duke of Gloucester had recently died under mysterious circumstances. As this play begins, Bolingbroke accuses another nobleman, Thomas Mowbray, of murdering him, which he probably did, but Bolingbroke and the king may also be complicit, so Richard has a motive for hushing this up. At the last moment he arbitrarily cancels a duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray and sends them both into exile. This pisses off Bolingbroke in particular, and the play's main conflict is underway.

Note 1: What's with all this "of", and why "Gaunt"? It was customary at the time for princes to be known as "of (their place of birth)." These princes' mother was from Flanders, and John was born there, in Ghent, which the English called Gaunt. Richard was Richard of Bordeaux because his father the Black Prince was ruling Aquitaine at the time.
Note 2: You may remember that the Wars of the Roses, a couple generations later on, were between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The titles here are where that comes from.

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