How Shakespeare Became a King

Anon., Portrait of Richard II (c.1390's)

I demonstrated several years ago that many of the most iconic portraits of Europe's rulers, including those of many British kings and at least four of her queens, so closely resemble the artist's self-portrait that they are not portraits as we think of them at all; they are fiction, poetry, art. Then yesterday I opened a copy of Shakespeare's Richard II, a relatively early play and the only one of his better ones to be written entirely in verse. The Introduction by Matthew Black notes that "the king's poetic nature is all-important in the total effect [of the play.]" The story is that of a young, thoughtless king transformed through his dethronement into a sympathetic figure, a martyr. "And the essence of that charm", Black continues, " is that he [Richard II] is a poet, a minor poet, to be sure, a self-conscious artificial poet, overfond of words and of rhetorical devices, but enough of a poet to win our hearts and make us forget how richly he deserves to be deposed." This is not history, we must remember, but poetry and drama.

Like Shakespeare Richard is not only a poet but "a lover of music, of pageantry…he is highly self-conscious; he has the feeling for situations, the instinct for self-dramatization, of a born actor. It has indeed been supposed that Shakespeare the actor wrote the part for himself. We can at least agree that Richard is a person with whom Shakespeare as fact and tradition reveal him could eagerly have identified…"

Black adds: "it is worth remembering that when some five years later Shakespeare next turned to a story in which the central figure was a self-conscious, sensitive, imaginative, and eloquent young prince, the result was the longest of all Shakespearean roles and the most popular, Hamlet."1

1. "Introduction" in Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, ed. Matthew Black (London: Penguin) 1970, pp. 14-15

Reader Comments

Glad you liked it. Thanks for letting me know.

Simon
07 Oct 2012

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