I am currently in rehearsals for a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II here in DC, opening in a few short days. This production of this particular play exists at the crossroads of the Lenten season, a world at war, and a personal life change, and the intersection seems too important to pass by. It is my hope that this reflection, gathered from inside the mask of King Richard, serves to both illuminate the play and create space to meditate on death and suffering in a way that gives life rather than adding to its burdens.
As I write this, we are a world at war. “Special military operations” are taking place in Europe and the world is mobilizing in response. Across the globe, the afterlife of COVID-19 plays on, exposing societal fault lines. Here in America, we continue to reel from social traumas of racism, sexual abuse, opiod overdoses, and the like. Really, it’s a perfect time to talk about death.
Which brings us to Lent. In the Christian calendar, Lent is the 40 day season before Easter when Christians fast, pray, and consider that they are dust in preparation for the triumph of Christ’s resurrection. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, really *kicks up the dust* by marking worshippers on the forehead with an ashen cross and the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We anticipate the death of Christ as atonement for our sins–how He made it possible for us to be at-one with God and other people. While in the season of Lent, the number 40 is a literal number of days, in the Bible it denotes a period of trial, a period of testing, whether literally 40 units of time or not: Jesus in the wilderness, the Flood, the Israelites in the desert. As human beings, we are in a season of collective trial and testing, and rather than getting lost in fear and chaos, I want to use this specific moment and this specific play to take a step back and look at the larger cosmic drama unfolding here.
This show opens during the first week of Lent, and it is a play about trials, about suffering, about death, about atonement. I perform Shakespeare because I love myth, and Shakespeare has entered into the mythical part of our literary canon and social consciousness. Not only because he himself drew on and constructed myths—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the mythos of historical kingship and leadership in the history plays and tragedies, and many more—but because his characters in their minute humanity and in their immense psycho-spiritual scope offer to us types that can cross time and be interpreted anew in every age. A play for all seasons. Richard II is an apt play for this global season, in part because the tragedy of King Richard asks us several unanswerable questions:
1.) Which is more important? Due process or just leadership? (And are we even able to choose?)
As the scholar Emma Smith proposes, Richard is not a play about who is the rightful king. The rightful king (in terms of kingly qualities, not line of succession) is obviously Henry. He’s the chivalric dream. He’s fought wars, gone toe to toe with the best knights in Europe, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, is rich but modest, has a fleet of legitimate male heirs, is generous, has a strong faith life, and plays music with his fabulous wife. What’s not to love? Richard, on the other hand, is petty, feeds off the lies of his thousands of flatterers, spends exorbitantly (to the chagrin and detriment of his own people), pisses off the nobles, and goes off on completely unnecessary wars. Oh, and he has no kids. But the play isn’t about all of those things. It’s about the way we go about putting people in power. In 1399, the Divine Right of Kings was a strongly and widely held belief across Europe. The king was God’s anointed, His chosen deputy, and was, in a sense, sacrosanct. And while Henry didn’t step up and yank the crown off Richard’s head, he did show up (breaking exile) in England with his own forces, draw the whole country into his retinue (fun fact: he actually had *too many* people flocking to him and had to send some of them home), arrest the king, and put the king on trial. Historical precedent was broken and remade that day in England. As my friend and scholar Sarah Coogan put it, “There’s something to be said here for the violation of political norms and the consequences of that act. How are we to know when the result will be liberation and when it will be disaster?”
What do we do with unjust leaders? Human authority is ordained by God and those who follow Christ are commanded to respect it (e.g. Romans 13:1-7). And there is certainly historical and spiritual precedent for working against unjust reigns (but that is another discussion for another article…). Richard was certainly not England’s historical darling, and it is from Henry’s, not Richard’s line that we get Henry V, the golden boy of the English monarchy (at least imho). And yet, it is into Richard that Shakespeare pours all of his poetical, metrical, transcendent, metaphysical, rhetorical magic. He talks his way into our hearts, even as we hate him and just want him to shut up and stop feeling sorry for himself already! And that brings us to…
2.) Who are we really? Henry or Richard?
Let’s be honest, while Richard has the better lines in the play, we’d rather be Henry in real life. He’s got some legitimate grievances: historically speaking, he’s clearly the better royal cousin (and is second in line to the throne already), he gets banished on a whim, he doesn’t get to say goodbye to his dad before Gaunt dies, and his arrogant royal cousin steals all his stuff for a fake war while he’s gone. It’s really too much! It makes perfect sense that he comes back to claim his own. It’s very Aragorn with the dead army wiping out the orcs before the gates of Gondor. [No, I’ve never read or seen The Lord of the Rings and this is certainly not an über-covert tactic to get cast on the new Prime show. Hi, Jeff. My headshot and resume are attached.] It’s clear: Henry deserves the restitution he receives. And we want that. We want to be the good guy who is woefully wronged, laces up his boots, and gets the crown of victory in the end.
But we’re actually Richard. We’re blind to our own pride, drunk on the praises of the carefully curated friends and companions we’ve acquired, and when Humility comes breaking down the door to our echo chamber we are utterly shattered. Humility lands four TKO punches on Richard in Act III scene 2: the loss of his Welsh army, the revolt of his entire kingdom led by his rebellious cousin, the death of his closest friends, and the betrayal of his favorite uncle and best ally, the Duke of York. And even after that Richard kicks and screams and wails into total abnegation—of his crown and of himself. Sitting in that prison cell—in squalor and solitary confinement, the polar opposite of his “populous”, sumptuous court life—he finally sees himself for who he really is: nothing. With “no name, no title”, no pomp and majesty, no friends, he is merely “that but man is”: a man. And then he’s murdered. The tragedy of Richard II is not that he was a bad king. That’s another story. No, Richard’s tragedy is that it takes him an entire play, an entire lifetime to have that “aha!” moment, and then in five minutes he’s killed. His transformation has only just begun. We are witness to an intense pulverizing of the ego over the course of the play’s five acts, and I invite you not to find schadenfreude in the watching, but to soften your own hearts and examine what hardness you might be harboring. Richard is unwillingly humiliated and only finds peace the moment before death. What years of peace might we be missing by resisting sitting on the earth and examining our own mortality? Not in self-indulgence, but with an intentional will to rid ourselves of that “self and vain conceit” that makes us feel invincible. How soon our sorrow can destroy our face. Remember that you are dust.
[Sidebar: There is also something of the Prodigal Son/Elder Brother story (Luke 15:11-32) rattling around in the story of Richard and Henry. While Richard is far and away the prodigal king who comes to ruin, Henry is the elder brother who has done all the right things and is vexed when his profligate cousin talks circles around him and gains the sympathy of the audience. A broken and a contrite heart are hard to resist. The parallel is meager, but still present.]
3.) How do we choose to suffer?
There is no doubt that every human must and will suffer at some point in life. That is out of our control entirely. But what is within our grasp is how we choose to undergo the experience. Writing about life in a Nazi concentration camp in Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl says, “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his suffering or not.” I’ll let the audience decide whether they deem Richard “worthy of his suffering or not,” but I will offer this: Richard fights for his human dignity and value as a person in society to the very end. Once he finds contentment in being nothing “but that man is”, he refuses to be anything less. He knows what is owed him as a man and as an anointed king and he literally goes down fighting for that dignity. Frankl writes further: “The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life.” Certainly, Richard’s sufferings are worlds away from those who, past or present, languish in concentration camps. And yet, his deep spiritual sense gives him a firm anchor into the worth of his own human life. COVID has revealed many things about our hearts, not the least of which is how we choose to suffer amidst our current circumstances. Are we committed to seeing purpose, meaning, and beauty in the ashes? (Remember that you are dust.) Have we taken the temptation offered to (and refused by) Job to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9)? Shakespeare’s ending for Richard again excludes us from making a legal judgment on his worthiness as a king and rather asks us to make a judgment on how he lived through an enormous encounter with his own mortality. Richard, like all of us, lives in the absurdity of the tension between the eternal and the existential, of personal integrity and social identity.
His relationship with the crown is the agent for this revelation. At first, the “golden crown” is his right, his identity, his due from God. And then, in a flash, it is a “hollow crown”, Death’s tragic court where from “the antic” mocks earthly kings with seeming omnipotence before extinguishing their mortality. Finally, in Act IV, scene 1, when Richard and Henry both have their hands on the crown, he gets it: “I must nothing be”. He and Henry have been bickering so hard over whether Richard will resign the crown (an object) that he almost misses that he has to resign himself: “therefore, no ‘no’, for I resign to thee.” In the un-coronation speech that follows (“Now mark me how I will undo myself…”), he reverses the kingly acts and endowments of his past self and empties himself utterly of kingship. He stands, metaphorically naked, at the beginning of his new life. He literally reflects on his past self (cf. the mirror speech) and wonders who he is now. Sometimes, reconstruction can begin only after total demolition.
4.) How do we make space for mourning in a world that just wants to move on and deal with the day’s business?
Act III, scene 2—when the royal party returns from Ireland and learns that all Richard’s allies have either fled, died, or rebelled—is a doozy of a scene to navigate. There are all these sharp turns in mood, action, and worldview. Early on in my personal text work I was anxious about how to play it. And then, the more I simply moved through the scene, receiving each piece of information as it came, the more it became apparent that fear and grief were these monumental elements threatening to overwhelm Richard and he either resists them, gives into them, or dances with them throughout the scene. The famous “hollow crown” speech is Richard’s way of holding space for the death of his dear friends. His entourage wants him to cheer up, to move on, to fight back, and he says “No. We’re going to stop and sit down and talk about death. Because death is the truest thing about us all right now.” I think that’s important. Death has been all around us in a way we in the Western world haven’t experienced for a very long time. And we need a moment to sit down and weep before we can get up and figure out what’s next. We live with bread. We taste grief. We feel want. We need friends.
But Richard doesn’t learn the true cost of death, the true weight of grief until the end of the play when he’s near his own death. How hollow his words in II.1 to York upon the death of Gaunt must sound to him now: “The ripest fruit falls first, and so doth he. / His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be. / So much for that. Now for our Irish wars…” Yikes. J. Todd Billings in his book The End of the Christian Life writes, “When we block out the groans of others, we find ourselves unprepared when the time comes for our own groaning. We lack language for grief as we stand near the graves of our loved ones. We wonder why we didn’t live differently, why we didn’t understand that life is short” (12). “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” Richard keeps veering away from looking death in the face until he’s forced to. In prison. By himself for the very first time in his life.
Act V, Scene 5. The prison scene. I am struck by the parallels with Richard’s experience of solitary confinement in prison and the ancient Hebrew concept of Sheol, or the pit. A place of darkness and suffering and the absence of God. A place the living and the dead can both inhabit. Where the soul is silenced and cut off, crying out for deliverance. We resist death with all our might. But the world in this age has collectively come closer to death than ever before. And something curious happens in death, whether it’s human, animal, or botanical: new life can emerge from the decay. As Richard experiences a slow death of the self–his chronic illness of “self and vain conceit” gradually taking his life–a new life, a new Richard starts to emerge. One that is more self-aware, more grounded, more courageous, more “at ease with being nothing.” Billings again writes, “The hard fact of dying, or of living in a disease-afflicted body, punctures and deflates our hopes for the life we thought we had–perhaps the life we thought we deserved. It breaks us open… […] As strange as it seems, coming to terms with our limits as dying creatures is a life-giving path…each of us needs a daily recovery of what it means to exist in a world as transient creatures who live and die before an eternal horizon” (10-11).
5.) What do we do with the Time that is given us?
We’ve become keenly aware of time in this pandemic. Time has been our friend and our foe—getting us closer to solutions and healing and simultaneously plunging us back into old habits and strategies. Our sense of time has also been distorted: we can no longer mark time in clean intervals but must continually grasp at its fluidity which blurs many moments together and isolates others. How then should we live? What must we do with the time that is given us? How must we account for the time we have spent? What will we do with the time that remains? Richard moves from a very personal sense of outrage and loss and grief into a wider view of himself as complicit (and even the agent of) his current condition: “I wasted Time, and now doth Time waste me.” For Richard, this comes at the end of his life, and so we cannot know what he might have done next. But his transformation can be a gift to us who might (or might not) have more Time to redeem than he did. Returning to Lent, remembering that we are dust, we see that death is both instant and ongoing. Like Richard, we must die many little deaths to our old selves in order to make room for and take hold of the greater life that Christ offers. Like Old Gaunt, our Lenten fasting can open our eyes to the deeper realities of the world, make us hungry for a better one, and eliminate the fear of our earthly death. It is a time of watching, waiting, and choosing. We do not know when death will come for us, when our Time will come. The readiness is all.
Postscript: Why is a woman playing Richard?
Yes, historically, King Richard II was a man and we’re not trying to rewrite history. We’ve kept the male pronouns, and I think something about seeing a female body in a male role gives Richard a sense of otherness. He is certainly a wholly different creature to the other people in the play. The language reveals a person who, while completely self-absorbed, is also highly self aware and has startling moments of metaphysical insight and clarity, even as his world is crumbling around him (Gaunt is not the only death-bed “prophet new-inspired”!). Even though Richard dies at the very end of the play, the successive scenes grow in these end-of-life revelations and truths that he speaks. Especially bringing to mind the medieval concept of “the king’s two bodies”—the body politic and the body physical—Richard really does live in between worlds: man/king, human/spirit, fool/sage, masculine/feminine, etc. My hope is that the visual dissonance allows us to better see some of the psycho-social dissonance as well. As my friend and actor-scholar Rachel Herren describes it, “The lyricism of the language lends itself to a lyricism of bodies and gender.”
Taking that otherness a step further, if we look at Shakespeare’s great women, especially in the histories, they are fantastic mourners. (Turning to the other Richard, Richard III, for a prime example, we find Margaret, Elizabeth, and Anne all fuming with rage and grief.) The women in this mythic world are experts at active lament. They grieve to seek justice, gain support, right wrongs, understand who they are after their immense loss. Richard II is probably the only man in the canon* who laments and wrestles with the full force of grief as Shakespeare’s women do. That female energy can be underscored with an actual female in the role. To grieve is to process identity change, to decry injustice, to honor and remember the lost, and to seek vengeance or restitution. It’s easy to read Richard’s laments as dripping with only self pity. But a new world opens up when we see his grief as a proper response to “woe, destruction, ruin, and decay.”
And of course, this play is personal to me. I love Richard as much as I hate him. He’s a soul I’ve long wanted to get inside of and figure out. We actors love to crawl inside a psyche and see how it ticks. I recognize a lot of myself in Richard—vain, a lover of glory and power, incredibly fearful and suspicious of other people’s motives, *entitled*, loves deeply, wants to live up to his title, ruled by constant fear. Richard reminds me of the character Kichijiro in Shūsaku Endō’s incredible book Silence: Kichijiro is a drunk, a coward, and a repeat apostate. But he keeps coming back to the God he’s betrayed and deeply needs. He’s a hot mess. And a paradox. And he’s us. People like Richard and Kichijiro are caught between their desire to be good and righteous and their overwhelming fear. The only way to ultimate peace is through ultimate indignity. Richard is almost a villain but isn’t. And I think he’s more interesting that way.
*For those who say “What about Lear?” I’d argue that Lear’s grief is more masculine, raging against the elements and divine powers vs. targeting earthly authors of injustice and pressing for a reckoning like Shakespeare’s women do.
- Billings, J. Todd. The End of the Christian Life. Michigan: Brazos Press. 2020. Print.
- Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. [Forgive me, I gave the book to a friend and can’t recall which edition these excerpts are from!]
- Smith, Emma. “Approaching Shakespeare”; University of Oxford, 2011. Web.
- The inimitable minds of Rachel Herren and Sarah Coogan
- Photo credit: Kathleen Akerley