From Ceremony to Theater

From Ceremony to Theater April 21, 2016

Richard II is often cited as Shakespeare’s prime example of a divine-right king, a king by ceremony, the paragon of sacramental kingship. His play depicts the unraveling of medieval kingship and the formation of a new basis for politics. As Alexander Leggatt (Shakespeare’s Political Drama) argues, however, the unraveling starts with Richard himself, who undoes ceremony for the sake of theatrical effect.

Citing Allan Bloom, Leggatt notes that “when Richard stops the trial by combat [between Bolingbroke and Mowbray] he unwittingly brings the age of chivalry to an end. . . . he is replacing ceremony with theatre. A ceremony, properly conducted, enacts and affirms the shared values of a community. It is therefore predictable, and meant to be predictable. . . . Richard’s intervention is a surprise, and it directs attention from the occasion to Richard himself and his own will.” Richard could have intervened anytime, but he waits until the last minute: “Even the timing is stagy. . . . he intervenes when he does for maximum theatrical effect.”

Instead of keeping the ceremony, he gives “a performance.” And he does the same when he returns from Ireland to find that Bolingbroke has won over the nobles: “Richard is left with his actor’s ability to call attention to himself, even if it means calling attention only to his own disaster. As at Coventry when he threw down his warder, he knows how to fix all eyes on himself. ‘For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings’ (III. ii. 155–6) suggests that Richard himself sits at this point, but no one else does. The only seated figure, and that figure a king—it is a striking effect.”

His theatrical sense is effective. He keeps Bolingbroke off guard during the transfer of power. Thinking that a public transfer will enable them to “proceed without suspicion,” Richard keeps everyone guessing about what he will do next. He improvizes a de-coronation ceremony, one that eliminates all the usual trappings – there’s no endorsement by the church, as Richard removes his own crown and hands it (or, in Ben Whishaw’s remarkable Hollow Crown performance, rolls it) over to Henry. An improvized ceremony is no ceremony, and Richard knows it: Before Henry usurped his throne, he had already wiped the balm of his anointing from his head.

Only near the end does Richard show any inkling of what his crown actually involved: “Richard shows a full if belated sense of what the office means, of what the symbols stand for. The ceremonies that create a king make him the centre of a whole structure of oath and obligation, property and law, radiating outwards from the crown and informing all society.” But he recognizes it at the very moment it is being unmade: “we see that structure being undone, step by step and deliberately, from the centre.”


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