Aesthetic Realism Lecture
“Richard II and Anger” by Eli Siegel, 1st Lecture
The Nevertheless Poetry
Club, February 10, 1971
Report by Anne
Aesthetic Realism explains there are two kinds of anger—anger in behalf
of justice, and anger which is inaccurate and harmful—and teaches
people how to distinguish. In another lecture Eli Siegel gave titled Poetry
and Anger, he explained: "The worst thing about
anger is that because we are angry with a door we want to burn down a
whole house. People don’t want to think that their anger can be
precise....Ugliness should anger us. We destroy with good anger in
behalf of the world; we destroy in bad anger as against the world. And
in the destruction that is good, there is a desire for beauty and a
desire that is not destructive. Art itself is a desire to be less angry
with the world."
A major and surprising addition to Shakespearean
criticism is Eli Siegel’s discussion of Richard II, which
began on February 10, 1971. The theme: Anger as a subject of poetry.
“Beginning with Shakespeare’s Richard II,” said Mr. Siegel,
“I intend, perhaps for the first time in the history of culture, to
show what anger has to do with poetry. One of the causes of poetry is
anger and discontent with the world, which given form to can result in
Richard II, in its style, commented Mr. Siegel,
is more poetic than the other history plays of Shakespeare. It is also
tight and well-knit, and doesn’t have the sprawlingness of some of the
other plays. He called it: The Shakespearean sinuous, delicate miracle.
There is a use of syllables in the poetry that is sweet and
surprisingly changing. And, he said, anger is right where the poetry
The play begins angrily. Young King Richard II (age 33)
has come to hear the accusations against each other of Henry Hereford,
also known as Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. (If the
names are confusing, said Mr. Siegel, blame the 14th century). Each
calls the other traitor. This is one of the many
confrontations of the play. We have here the full face against the full
face; the glare of circles and squares. Richard begins the play,
addressing John of Gaunt, the father of Bolingbroke:
Richard: Old John of
Gaunt, time-honour'd Lancaster,
Hast thou, according to thy oath and band,
Brought hither Henry Hereford thy bold son. . .
Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?
The blank verse here is somewhat delightful.
Conversational, not grand, but you hear a definite melody. If you can’t
hear it, Mr. Siegel said, I advise prayer and the study of metrics.
Bolingbroke and Mowbray are angry with each other, but
both say nice things to King Richard, and Richard says:
We thank you both, yet
one but flatter us.
Which means, “One of you must be wrong because you both
call each other traitor.”
Anger is shown in different ways as the speeches go on.
Bolingbroke: Thou art a
traitor and a miscreant.
That is anger as a straight line.
Once more the more to
aggravate the note,
With a foul traitor's name stuff I thy throat.
That is anger becoming physical,
as is the following:
Mowbray: I do defy him
and I spit at him,
Call him a slanderous coward, and a villain.
And then we have a way of showing
anger that is not done these days. Bolingbroke throws down his glove as
a challenge to Mowbray:
Pale, trembling coward,
there I throw my gage.
These days, what you do, said
Siegel, is throw down a book you’ve been reading with great disgust.
Mowbray accepts Bolingbroke’s challenge in what was said to be the most
poetic passage in the play thus far:
I take it up; and by that
sword I swear
Which gently laid
my knighthood on my shoulder,
I'll answer thee in any fair degree
Said Mr. Siegel: “The syllables
dancingly go about. There is something exceedingly light, but with
The Tragedy of Excess
As Bolingbroke and Mowbray are
against each other, King Richard is really against them both. Richard
II is clever and insincere and, said Mr.
Siegel, Shakespeare shows that is the cause of the later tragedy. A
subtitle to this play he suggested is: “The Tragedy of Excess
Richard arranges to have
Bolingbroke and Mowbray meet in combat at Coventry to decide which is
the traitor. He tells them:
There shall your swords
and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate
“The swelling difference of your
settled hate” is one of the most important lines about anger. This is
anger sculpted well.
Scene 3. Mowbray and Bolingbroke are preparing to
fight. But just as the combat is about to begin, after much ceremony
and fanfare, Richard suddenly calls the whole thing off, in what Mr.
Siegel described as one of the famous anti-climaxes in drama:
Richard: Let them lay by
their helmets and their spears,
And both return back to their chairs again
Then he banishes both of them;
Bolingbroke for ten years and Mowbray forever. Said Mr. Siegel: Richard
wanted persons who could be rivals to be away. He is like a youthful
Polonious, too fond of that thing called policy. And that’s
why things go ill for him later.
Bolingbroke goes to France, but as
soon as Richard does the stupid thing of confiscating Brolingbroke’s
father’s land and property—that of John of Gaunt—Bolingbroke comes back
to claim his rights. Said Mr. Siegel: Who wouldn’t?
Scene 4. Richard has decided to go
to war against Ireland. And for that he needs money; with him are his
courtiers Bushy, Bagot, and Green. These three, said Mr. Siegel, have
taken their place as a sinister trio in drama. Says Richard:
We will ourself in person
to this war.
As Mr. Siegel pointed out, all
through English history taming Ireland has been a recurrent theme. It
is now, and has taken a new form with Ulster: “Untamed Ireland.”
News comes that John of Gaunt,
Richard’s uncle and most powerful man in England, is ill.
put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!
Gaunt's Famous Speech about England
The scene changes. We are in
London, at Ely House. And we come to what Mr. Siegel called “the
gorgeous place in the play—the center of gorgeousness.” It is John of
Gaunt’s famous speech about England. To hear it in context, as Mr.
Siegel pointed out, is something. Gaunt talks about what has
happened under the reign of Richard, and though dying, he is angry. And
then, said Mr. Siegel, since Gaunt cannot care for any person now, he
falls in love with England, as in these lines:
This royal throne of
kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise….,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea….
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Mr. Siegel pointed to the
opposites in these lines. We have delicacy and majesty. Even Mars is
given daintiness. And there is such a magnificent oneness of small and
This precious stone set
in the silver sea
Enter Richard, accompanied by his
Queen, Bushy, Bagot, and Green. “While Gaunt is dying,” said Siegel,
“we should see the mingling of anger, illness, and satire in him and in
the interchange between Gaunt and Richard”:
comfort, man? How is't with aged Gaunt?
John of Gaunt: . . . . Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old .
. . Richard: Can
sick men play so nicely with their names?
John of Gaunt: . . . . Since thou
dost seek to kill my name in me,
I mock my name, great king, to flatter thee.
Gaunt is so disgusted with
Richard, that he asked to be carried out of the room. Moments later the
Duke of Northumberland enters and announces that John of Gaunt has
died. Now Richard works fast:
Think what you will, we
seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.
Anger and Stratagem
“The tragedy of Richard II is
different from other tragedies,” continued Mr. Siegel. “The people of
England are disgusted with his rapacious ways. He defies the law and
thinks he can get away with it—as in Greek tragedy where a person
defies the state. He succumbs to some of the oldest lures in
history—the lure of flattery and the wanting to have one’s own way.”
Said Mr. Siegel, “Be commercially just or tragedy will hover over you.”
There is momentum in
this play, and it is all going for something. Two scenes later,
Bolingbroke lands in England to reclaim his rights. Before the play is
over, however, he has done more than that—he has claimed and taken England
suggested Mr. Siegel, is a mingling of the acuteness of a 19th or 20th
century play, and tragedy as Elizabethans knew it. The uncertainties of
the people in Richard II make them a little like the
uncertainties of people in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.
Concluding this first
lecture on Richard II, Mr. Siegel said: “Anger is usually
followed by stratagem, and both can be within a person at 5:30 on any
blessed Monday. Man is given the chance to be discontented with the
world, and poetry gives him a chance to see that there is something
Continue to 2nd Lecture