Richard II By Shakespeare How didst thou sway the theatre! Make us feel The players wounds were true, and their swords, steel! Nay, stranger yet, how often did I know When the spectators ran to save the blow? Frozen with grief we could not stir away Until the epilogue told us twas a play. From the point of view of an actor, playing the part of Bolingbroke or Richard is a daunting task. There are a number of ways in which an actor prepares to assume a characters role, but many of these methods are wanting in certain areas. Despite the fact that both characters are rich in the literary sense, for the purposes of this essay the difficulties facing an actor preparing to play a part can be best served by addressing the needs specific to the role of Richard. The major issue, which is more pronounced in Richard is the necessity of trying to portray certain things directly to the audience while allowing other factors to filter through subtly as the performance continues.
This factor is one that should be applauded, when one takes into account the manner in which audiences are treated in the modern theatre. Thankfully Richard II assumes there is an intelligent audience almost participating in the play, but this can lead to even more problems for the actor. Because of its intellectually stimulating content, the actor must be aware of the fact that the character is being observed even more closely. A believable character must be portrayed or the dramatic impact of the play as a whole will be lost. The technical aspects of a part in a play are normally common throughout every performance.
The learning of lines may be easily attained but the style in which they are delivered depends on a number of factors. Firstly, and foremost, the character will have the main influence on the manner in which the lines are spoken. However, this can vary greatly when one considers the huge variations that can result in any play at the behest of the director. Without delving into a debate on whether or not a play should be performed in the style of the time in which it was written, one must acknowledge that a director can very noticeably, or subtly make adjustments to characters and plots which an actor must reflect in their performance. Furthermore, the audience to which the actor is performing must be taken into consideration. Despite the fact that we are not the classless society that we wish to be in the 21st century, there are less class barriers in place than those of 1597.
The aristocratic, highly – Christian society of Shakespeares day differs hugely from our own, and this must be taken into account along with the fact that the modern audience is presumably better educated than their late 16th century counterparts. Finally, the type of stage being used may or may not be an issue for an actor in preparing to portray a character. The Elizabethan stage, such as The Globe would have been in Shakespeares mind as he wrote, but the huge variety if performance stages today often means certain aspects of a performance must curtailed or expunged upon. Indeed the versatility of many pre – cinema scripts has been demonstrated on the silver screen, none more successfully than the Stratford Bard in recent years. Shakespeares plays are also recognised for the number of plot undertones that can be discerned upon closer examination.
Although not a 1990s phenomena, there has been in the recent past an upsurge in the debate over homosexual devices in Shakespearean plays. While some of these claims do have substance to them, with literature as intense and intricate as Shakespeares, one can read anything that one desires into it to attain ones goal. Sometimes it is necessary simply to take a play as it stands, rather than questioning every element and deconstructing it into such a level of obscurity as to lose the intentions of the author in the first place. Analysis of a text is a necessary part of an actors preparation assuming a role, but over-analysis may result in dubious conclusions, which may not work well on the stage, regardless of the manner in which they were met. In Shakespeares Play in Performance, John Russell Brown contends that the formalist style of acting in the Elizabethan stage “was dying out in Shakespeares age, and that a new naturalism was the kindling spirit in his theatre”. While this does seem like a somewhat sweeping statement, Brown does qualify it by saying that it would not be true naturalism by todays standards, but that it did allude more to real life and real situations than previous authors had. Whether or not realism, in any sense of the word is employed, the task of portraying Richard is no less daunting.
Richards role is clearly defined as the centre of attention for the audience to focus upon, but is this because he is the king, or because of his character? Perhaps it is a combination of both, but it would appear that Richardss character is more interesting than the crown he wears. In the first scene, Richard is enthroned and surrounded by his court. Even in his discourses with John of Gaunt, one is made aware of the fact that he demands precise and set answering. Despite the fact that Richard fails to reconcile Bolingbroke and Mowbray, his presence and power are undiminished. One may or may not be aware of the fact that Richard is responsible for the crime for which Mowbray is accused, that is the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, uncle to both Richard and Bolingbroke.
Brown suggests that “the audience must question the earlier picture in retrospect (i.e. the calm, confident king) or find their unease strengthened.” This brings up a huge problem to the actor: should he behave as if he has done nothing wrong, or assist the audience in seeing his darker side by allowing non-textual allusions to be made about his true character? It would be more dramatically effective to play the part of the king in the role of trying to disguise his true guilt, and allowing the audience themselves to realise what a scrupulous man he can be. Before the audience is given a chance to gauge its reaction to the opening scene, Act I scene I allows John of Gaunt, the most patriarchal figure on the stage to cast his own aspersions on Richards reign. This second scene allows the actor playing Richard to have a greater sense of discretion, and though it is not as blatant as having a narrator on stage, this scene does seem to back up Browns theory of Shakespearean realism, allowing an audience to remain informed of off-stage occurrences without resorting to making unnecessary on-stage announcements. The character of Richard itself must be a paradoxical one for an actor to play, as Richard is himself a powerful performer who plays up to his own audience i.e. his flatterers.
In no scene, even after he is forced to abdicate is he any less charismatic, and many would agree quite validly, that he becomes even more charismatic after he loses the throne as he begins to build up his sympathy with his deposed state. Whether in the role of king of the people, as in Act I scenes I and III, or as a callous, self-centred egotist as seen in scene IV, one can be left in absolutely no doubt that this man knows what he wants, will do near anything to get it, and knows how to behave in each situation to ensure he always comes out on top. This is aided by the stage direction, particularly when one considers his elevated conversation shortly before he abdicates, when he is clearly on a higher level than Bolingbroke. Granted, in the end he is dethroned and murdered, but despite this, the actor must ooze confidence and self-motivation to show the king in a true light. The true character of Richard is shown when he says “Pray God we make haste, and come too late,” but despite this attitude which is so different to the pious and responsible solemnities of the first regal scenes, he maintains an air of confidence.
Even though they are giving their support to someone who is more interested in lining his coffers than the health of his own uncle, the flatterers can be forgiven for going along with such a personality, so far in any case. Despite the fact that Richards ruling over the feud between Bolingbroke and Mowbray is a complete cop out to save himself, during the scenes with the two nobles, he succeeds in having them lavish praise upon him, despite the fact that the argument is that one of them wishes to depose him. A modern audience cannot help but succumb to Richards charm when he says “Free speech and fearless I to thee allow” and “Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood Should nothing privilege him, nor partialise The unstooping firmness of my upright soul.” In saying this, he endears himself to us as a champion of free speech, and it is here that an audience has the seeds of sympathy planted. Failing this, the audience is also aware of the fact that the main patriarchal figure is critical of Richard, and despite the fact that his objections are well founded, one cannot help but feel that Richard is somewhat neglected …