Aesthetic Realism Lecture

Richard II and Anger” by Eli Siegel, 2nd Lecture
The Nevertheless Poetry Club, February 17, 1971
Report by Anne Fielding

Richard II portrait reads "Richardus II - Angliae et Franciae Rex"

“For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” —Richard II

Did you ever think that a l4th century king could be disgusted with himself and have grief in a way not so different from you and me? Aesthetic Realism can really make us see that our grief and anger belong richly and permanently to the world of drama and poetry. It is so with Richard II, as Eli Siegel has been showing in an important discussion of the play. “Grief,” said Mr. Siegel, “is mysterious, and comes through all sorts of unseen windows. It is the greatest porch climber in history.”

We have reached Act 2. King Richard II, vain and ambitious, has banished Henry Bolingbroke from England. Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, has died. Richard seizes their land and wealth to furnish money for his wars against Ireland, and has gone away to fight, leaving England in the hands of friends and courtiers.

"You're Too Sad"

Act II, Scene 2. Windsor Castle. Richard’s young Queen (in reality she was eight years old, but Shakespeare makes her a bit more mature) is sad. With her are Bushy and Bagot, two of Richard's courtiers:

Bushy: Madam, your Majesty is too much sad.

This, said Mr. Siegel, is a line the likes of which has been said often, and not only to majesty. Without the idea of "You shouldn't feel that way,” the drama would be less than it is.

Bushy: You promised when you parted with the king
To lay aside life-harming heaviness,
And entertain a cheerful disposition.

In the music of this, commented Siegel, a sigh becomes an assertion:

To lay aside life-harming heaviness.

But the Queen feels despair only is for her:

. . . . . . . . . my inward soul
With nothing trembles . . . . . .
I cannot but be sad . . . . . . .

There is a feeling of a violin here, suggested Mr. Siegel—"the ever-so-transitional Heifitz. The drama and history," he continued, "are witness to this one great sadness in the life of man—that he cannot change his feeling at will. Anybody who promises to have a feeling is defying the gods. You might as well go after the crown jewels."

News arrives that the banished Bolingbroke has returned to England with many powerful lords, and Richard’s friends are beginning to desert him in his absence. Enter the Duke of York in confusion. He is uncle to Richard, and though critical of his rapacious ways, has been on his side.

Queen: Uncle, for God's sake speak comfortable words.
York: Should I do so I should belie my thoughts.
Comfort's in heaven and we are on the earth,
Where nothing lives but crosses, cares and grief.

York is one of the few people in the play who says very clearly: "I don't know what to do."

All is uneven. . . . . .
And every thing is left at six and seven.

He leaves, taking the Queen to a place of safety. Bushy, Bagot, and Green now feel that their closeness to Richard has made them unpopular with the people. We have here what Mr. Siegel called momentum poetry:

Green: Well I will for refuge straight to Bristol Castle.
The Earl of Wiltshire is already there.

And the three part company:

Bagot: Farewell; if heart's presages be not vain
We three here part that ne'er shall meet again.

Boldness and Uncertainty

And we come to Richard's return from Ireland; Act three, scene 2. The coast of Wales. Richard says:

Dear earth I do salute thee with my hand.

As he is for the earth of England, he is against Bolingbroke:

Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense,
But let thy spiders that suck up thy venom
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet,
Which with usurping steps do trample thee.

This whole speech, suggested Mr. Siegel, can be entitled "Earth, Punish Bolingbroke!” The simile is bold and poetic, but Richard’s inefficiency is shown by his saying: "I’m going to sic the insects on you.” There is boldness and also lack of belief in himself.

For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed,
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel; then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall for heaven still guards the right.

This shows, it was pointed out, Richard's piety and untrue seeing of himself. Enter the Earl of Salisbury with bad news--Richard’s army has deserted.
Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV.

For all the Welshmen, hearing thou wert dead,
Are gone to Bolingbroke, dispersed and fled.

There’s multitudinous cleanness in that couplet, commented Siegel. More bad news arrives in the person of Sir Stephen Scroop, who tells Richard 1) that all the people of England are going over to Bolingbroke, and 2) Richard’s courtiers have been put to death by Bolingbroke. One of the morals of this play, suggested Mr.Siegel, If there's any bad news Scroop will know it.

Richard's Despair and a High Point in Poetry

But now we come to what Siegel described as the second high point in the poetry of the play—also a high point in the poetry of England and the world. Richard, hearing the news, says:

. . . . . . Of comfort no man speak
Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth . .
. . . . . . .
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

It was during this, the hollow crown speech, that Siegel astonished everyone with an entirely new interpretation. Always, Richard is presented here with one mood—despair, mingled with self-pity. That is the way it was done in our production at the American Shakespeare Festival. But, as Mr. Siegel read, his voice began to rise and take on a falsetto quality. It had the quality of one almost mad, There is, he said, the cackle of complete despair. And, amazingly, Richard was compared to the strange character of Smerdyakov in Dostoeyvski's The Brothers Karamazov. At the same time Shakespeare in this speech gets to that sinuous majesty of words. This is great poetry and great drama.

. . . . . . . For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temple of a king,
Keeps death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
. . . . . . And humored thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Said Siegel, It's like a person saying to himself: "So you thought you knew how to take care of yourself. Ha! Ha!" As this scene was read there was terror and pity, the opposites that Aristotle says have to be in tragedy.

Richard goes to Flint Castle, and now there is the confrontation of Richard and Bolingbroke. There are the opposites of high and low, for Richard, though defeated, is high on the castle battlements, and Bolingbroke waits for him below with his army. There are irony and satire here, said Mr. Siegel, and they are mingled with unbearable grief:

Richard: What shall the king do now? Must he submit?
The King shall do it: must he be deposed?
The King shall be contented: must he lose
The name of King? A God's name, let it go.

And then:

I'll give my jewels for a set of beads;
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;
. . .
And my large kingdom for a little grave,

At Bolingbroke's request, Richard descends, and Bolingbroke kneels, saying:

Bolingbroke: My gracious lord—

 Richard: Fair cousin, you do debase your princely knee
To make the base earth proud with kissing it. . . . . . .
Up cousin, up, your heart is up I know,
 Thus high at least although your knee be low.

Statue of William Shakespeare in New York's Central Park by John Quincy Adams Ward, 1872 He gives himself up to Bolingbroke, and they are on their way to London as we leave them now.

In his third and final lecture in this series, Mr. Siegel speaks about the conclusion of Richard II; anger, nobility, despair and how drama and poetry, as Aesthetic Realism shows, can make sense of the things we feel this very moment.

Continue to 3rd Lecture

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