Year of Shakespeare: Richard II on the BBC

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Richard II, dir. Rupert Goold, 30 June 2012 on BBC 2

By Pete Orford

It comes as quite a shock, after the bounty of international Shakespeares this year, to come across a production that’s a) in English, and b) relatively straight-forward in its approach. No reimagining or recontextualising here – quite the opposite. The histories are often entrenched in the time in which they are set, and the temptation when producing them for TV is to follow the footstep of Charles Kean and the pictorialists, interjecting scenes of historical pomp and grandeur to plump up and pad out the story. Thus, in this Richard II, there were numerous invented scenes without dialogue – Bolingbroke and Mowbray training for battle, the Queen sailing away – while key textual points, most noticably Richard’s involvement in his uncle Thomas of Woodstock’s death, were cut.

But while Kean was pursuing historical accuracy, I suspect the aim here was clarity: get rid of the historical baggage, the long-wrangled political ties and genealogy that can overwhelm the plays, and focus on the here and now (or rather, the here and then). Past and future were dismissed with, hence the lack of Woodstock and, surprisingly, young Hotspur. By cutting these moments it allowed more time for Richard’s pet monkey (no, I don’t understand, either), but also an increased presence of the Queen (Clémence Poésy), looking mutely on both in the first scene and at the joust, establishing her relationship with the King in preparation for their dramatic farewell; not to mention Exton (Finbar Lynch), who usually pops up just in the last act, but here was seen first as Lord Marshall and then lingering throughout and giving many a significant glance as though to say “I will be significant later on” (Ironically, in the end, he wasn’t – in this production it was Aumerle who killed Richard, with Exton merely being the one who egged him on).

This focus on immediate events, though welcome, is nonetheless rather ironic for what is, ultimately, episode one of The Hollow Crown; I would have expected more looks ahead to subsequent parts. The crown itself, fabulously bejewelled, featured prominently throughout, with lingering shots upon it as though it were the one ring to rule us all. And there were certainly many jewels in the crown of this production: Ben Whishaw managed to convey the power, hypocrisy and frailty of the king, Rory Kinnear’s Bolingbroke was suitably solemn and noble, David Morrissey’s Northumberland gruff and angry and the uncles York and Gaunt (David Suchet and Patrick Stewart) generally peeved with the many failings of the next generation.

This being the twenty-first century, where HD and widescreen are the norm, the look of the production was rich in visuals and panoramas. But the gloss of this production was also its downfall, because as fabulous as everything looked, and as great as the acting was, the production felt a little, ahem, hollow. When we see a crowd of eight people on the stage we willingly accept it to be representative of a multitude, but on television, especially when it is shot as this was on real location with high quality film, then it looks like, well, a crowd of eight people. By trying to be epic in looks and style, the lack of extras and props at various moments only became the more conspicuous: Bolingbroke and Richard returned to England on a row boat; Bolingbroke was met by three noble lords who approached without a train, and Bolingbroke’s army was barely enough men for a game of five-a-side.

So it was at its best when it stopped focusing on panoramic shots and non-existent crowds, and instead focused on the immediate interaction between one or two characters – Whishaw, for my money, was at his best when giving up the crown, stripped of his title yet endowed with a newfound depth of character. In contrast, the attempts to liken the deposed king to Christ felt rather laboured. Richard starts as king and becomes a man; his tragedy is also his triumph. To invert that fall from grace by promoting him to the son of god at the play’s close felt like a misjudgment. It could also be argued that the epic approach was doomed anyway as, to be honest, it just jarred with the text: Richard II is not epic, it is confined, claustrophobic and anti-climactic, with battles or physical conflict always averted, in stark contrast to Henry IV Part One or Henry V, both of which, I’m sure, will fare better from this production’s approach.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Author:Pete Orford

Pete's doctoral thesis followed and challenged the development of the history cycle on the English stage. Most recently he has published several books and articles on Charles Dickens and the lesser-known author Fitz-James O'Brien; a full profile of his research and publications can be found at
  • Verse

    Contrary to this article, the film never tried to liken Richard II to Jesus. At the beginning of the film a model posed for a painting of St. Sebastian, a saint famous for being martyred twice. The first death was by numerous arrows impaling him to a tree, the second (after his resurrection) was by stoning. Near the end of the film Richard II is shot with three arrows, and (as time slows down) manifests the same pose and expression as the martyred saint. So they were not likening Richard II to Jesus. I don’t even think they were suggesting he was a saint, but they were likening him to a martyr.

  • E.a. Solinas

    Well, to be fair, the Christ comparisons are in the actual text — not by Shakespeare, but by Richard himself. So I suppose we can see these poses as being how he sees himself.

  • John

    Really excellent commentary/review by you, Pete, with which I wholeheartedly agree. We have indeed had a year of Shakespeare’s Richard II’s in the US, what with the PBS TV broadcast of the “Hollow Crown”, plus, just this last weekend, the new Richard II from RSC with David Tennant in cinemas. (Congrats to the RSC for starting their “live” transmissions.) Fascinating to compare the two.
    What bothered me most about the BBC production was the merciless cuts. The cinematic visuals were wonderful (I especially loved the scene of Richard’s return and speech on the shore); the acting was generally exciting (Rory Kinnear’s farewell scene with his father Lancaster was memorable, and Ben Whishaw’s portrayal was quite magical,). But, as more than one commentator here has noted, too much great stuff was lost, and it ultimately rendered this a pale version of Shakespeare’s play.
    Overall, I thought David Tennant’s Richard was grander and more varied. I wasn’t that much a fan of his Hamlet, but this Richard was quite a tour de force. The RSC production was pretty peerless overall (what a joy to see Jane Lapotaire and Oliver Ford-Davies; only a weak Bolingbroke from Nigel Lindsay might be faulted), brilliantly set up for video from the live performance (I understand from my theatre-maven pal that the Barbican live production didn’t work quite so completely, but that’s probably a given) My only other quibble was the music, which was over the top, cheapish sounding, 1980’s BBC stuff.. But I thought Greg Doran did a really commendable job bringing the urgency and poetry of this great play to life. It’s his and David Tennant’s Richard II that deserves the future performance history kudos.

  • bydbach

    considering goold’s take on richard’s ambiguous sexuality — especially in his (revised) relation to aumerle — i found the st sebastian imagery rather ingenious.

  • Pete_Orford

    Fair point. The arrows should have been a clue. The main point still stands – Richard is shown/compared as saintly, even Christlike, and the repetition of the painting is rather forced. Nonetheless, apologies for the Sebastian/Jesus mix-up.

  • bydbach

     ‘But I still feel this could have been put forward more subtly and not
    quite so contrived a way as to have Richard in a loincloth with, by
    remarkable coincidence, wounds in the same places as the earlier picture
    of Jesus.’ — that wasn’t jesus in the painting, but st sebastian. just saying.

  • Erin Sullivan

    Interesting to read what others made of the film. I saw in Rupert Goold’s Twitter feed that he saw parts of it as an homage to Terrence Malik, which goes some way to explaining all the long, panoramic shots. I was disappointed too in the way that the female parts were cut – I haven’t seen the end yet, so can’t comment on that, but like Denstella says the Duchess gets cut, as does the vast majority of the Queen’s dialogue with Bushy in act 2. I know that Bushy’s speech here (‘Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows’) is rather complicated, but I also think it’s very interesting and would have fit well with the film’s emphasis on visuals/visual art, since it specifically brings up perspective paintings. 

  • Wweepingwillow

    The point is that our man was a government man.
    Shakespeare was never called or questioned or mentioned at the Essex trial which is extraordinary. What the acting company did was punishable and yet they all escaped scot free.
    However we slice it, Shakespeare was an apologist for power and realpolitik and was given considerable latitude by the government in that role.Milton and Marvell had similar profiles with Cromwell and the republicans. It didn’t stop the three of course from creating great art as well. 

  • Denstella

    I thought it was a shame they cut the duchess of Gloucester’s scene with John of Gaunt. I was looking forward to that bit particularly, having learnt a whole passage of her speech for my A level English lit exam.

  • EnglishBriarRose

    Really not sure what point – if any – you’re trying to make.  You say:-

    You refer to expiation of sins. But this was a catholic society  – difficult I know for us to accept the whole notion of sin  – but it was an ingrained feature of even Shakespeare’s time, and even after the Reformation. The phrase ” next year in Jerusalem” was a well known phrase in medieval England and there were of course the usual methods of confession of sins available within a numerous priesthood. A trip to the Holy Land would be aimed at shortening Bolingbroke’s temporal punishment for sin, nothing more.”
    Might be difficult for you to accept, but horribly easy for one brought up a Roman Catholic – and if you are going to discuss history and literature up to, possibly, the mid-20th century, one you have to get your head round. Henry II did penance for Becket’s murder – although he probably was not responsible for it; people founded chantry chapels where masses would be sung to shorten their time in Purgatory. And – bringing it up to date – would Edward VIII have had to abdicate if the C of E had not believed that marriage to a divorcee whose husband was still alive was invalid in the eyes of God – and ergo sinful? 

    To quote again from the Introduction to RII in the  RSC “Complete Works” “Though Shakespeare’s sometime patron the Earl of Southampton marched with Essex, it would be foolhardy to infer the dramatist’s own loyalties from this incident. To judge from the choices he made in dramatising his historical source materials, he seems to have been more interested in the human story of Richard’s fall than the politics of rebellion.” (p 828)

  • Wweepingwillow

    And yet Sir John Hayward was imprisoned in the Tower for years awaiting execution for the far less offence of simply writing a biography of Henry IV and referring to the facts of his reign. Yet here we have the whole of London ablaze with news of the putsch and the company being specifically instructed by the conspirators to put on this play for the purposes of the revolt itself and escaping with – well  – nothing. One of the actors  – Augustine Philips  – testified at Essex’s trial that the conspirators did request the play ” of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second to be played the Saturday next.” Again, no repercussions, no fine, nothing.
     Certainly odd.
    You refer to expiation of sins. But this was a catholic society  – difficult I know for us to accept the whole notion of sin  – but it was an ingrained feature of even Shakespeare’s time, and even after the Reformation. The phrase ” next year in Jerusalem” was a well known phrase in medieval England and there were of course the usual methods of confession of sins available within a numerous priesthood. A trip to the Holy Land would be aimed at shortening Bolingbroke’s temporal punishment for sin, nothing more.
    Indeed Shakespeare is thinking more in terms of the personal not the public aspect of Bolingbroke’s rebellion here and the spiritual state of his soul.
    The unkinging of Richard is powerful but not unusual.Kings could transfer or be made to transfer their perceived divine powers. The founder of Christianity according to St. Paul had stripped Himself of His divinity and become a mere man. 
    The lesson perhaps rather sadly of these great plays is realpolitik  – fashionable in theory as well in Shakespeare time after the publication of Machiavelli’s The Prince which Marlowe and the Bard certainly seem to have known.
    Bolingbroke is forceful, successful. pragmatic, strong, decisive, everything that Ricahrd isn’t.He lacks a vocabulary to describe exactly what he is, or what he is doing for the very reason he is one of the new men of the age and he is in a sense almost creating himself.
    Shakespeare did produce very artful propaganda in this area and it simply doesn’t fit the facts to suggest he was not working to underpin the somewhat shaky foundations of the English monarchy.


  • EnglishBriarRose

    Thanks for the history lesson! Of course I would have lost my head referring to Tudor usurpation at the time, but I’m writing in 2012 so am not expecting MI5 to batter down my door. 

    As far as the Essex performance of RII is concerned, according to the RSC “Complete Works” edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, “Shakespeare’s company managed to persuade the Star Chamber that they had only undertaken the performance for the sake of an extra fee and that they had no involvement in the real-life plot. They escaped with a reprimand.” (p 829)And – Shakespeare was trying to portray “as far as possible an unpolluted stream of succession to the Tudors, …” – hardly! Even Bullingbrook, after Richard’s murder, declares “I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,/To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.” (RII V 6 ll 49-50)  And in HIV 2 Henry himself admits “God knows, my son, / By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways 
    I met this crown; ” and, later in the same scene “How I came by the crown,/ O God, forgive;” (HIV 2, IV, 5)
    Shakespeare was not merely – or even primarily – an apologist for the Tudor regime, and to try to make him one ignores half the text of the history plays.

  • Wweepingwillow

    partly agree yes, but you are into dangerous waters when you refer to ” Tudor usurpation/dynasty” –  a man would have lost his head for saying this in Shakespeare’s time.And of course we aren’t aware Shakespeare ever wrote a Henry VII  – that surely would have been a bridge too far even for the Bard.
    At the trial of Essex’s supporters after the failed coup its very interesting that the Crown alleged that the play in question was NOT Richard II but in fact Henry IV  – i.e deliberately giving the false impression that it was Henry IV that was the play that ” set forth the killing of the king upon a stage.” So the intention was the establish Henry IV as the royal victim, a man whom the government unquestionably regarded as the lawful king, with the inconvenient Richard being airbrushed out of the picture.Meyrick, one of Essex supporters, testified that the play the actors were asked to perform was ” Kyng Harry the iiiith” ( Henry IV ).
    Also, the charges drawn up against Essex never once mention Shakespeare as the author of the play or called him as a witness or even referred to him in the proceeding.
    Generally,the essential point for Shakespeare was to portray as far as possible an unpolluted stream of succession to the Tudors, no mean feat.Remember the grandson and great grandson of Henry IV  were both killed or murdered by Yorkists  i.e Henry Vi and the Prince of Wales rather like Richard and Henry VII had a rather poor claim to the throne based really only on conquest.
    Interesting how this is dealt with in the three parts of Henry VI as against Richard II.


  • EnglishBriarRose

    Was Shakespeare trying to “make us feel entirely comfortable about the power switch” – I don’t think so! The whole deposition scene is an exploration of the question – can you unking a king? – and Bullingbrook’s later fury at Richard’s assassination would appear to suggest a tentative “No!”. Deposed and imprisoned, Richard was still a “king” and killing him was qualitatively different to killing an “ordinary” man. Plus, the whole trilogy – RII and the two HIV’s prefigure the more (for Shakespeare) contemporaneous Tudor usurpation/dynasty; in both cases –  either historically or dramatically – it is the usurpers’ sons – Henry V and Henry VIII –  who, innocent of the crimes of treason or regicide, are able to embody the “ideal” king. Read Thomas Penn’s brilliant Winter King on Henry VII.

  • EnglishBriarRose

    Interesting reading! Not sure that for a medievalmonarch to think he’s a demi-God would be that “weird” at the time – the king was seen as God’s annointed – as Richard himself says ”
    Not all the water in the rough rude sea 

    Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; 

  • Humphrey

    I thought the balance between visuals/perfromance was sublime and gave the words the space they needed without tiring the eye. This is the great conflict when putting Shakespeare on the screen: how do you keep the audience interested without retracting focus from the words?? Hollow Crown: Richard II achieved this balance, comparable in it’s cool excellence and subtle grandeur to Goold’s televised Macbeth.

    A quiet, unassuming masterpiece. Brilliant! Looking forward to the next episode tonight…

    *And by the way, what’s wrong with the monkey? Obviously it was to do with Richard’s fanciful indulgunces and in that regard it was the perfect choice of pet.

  • Humphrey

    Fair point about Kinnear but here’s a thought: perhaps the religious ‘Christ-like’ imagery associated with Richard was for the manner in which he is portrayed by Shakespeare as something of a pious/unstable, devout/hypocritical, certainly conflicted believer; could it be your objections to the staging of the monarch are exactly the same kind of objections the King’s attendants would feel in the play? i.e. “Who is this strange, indecisive wierdo who thinks he is a demi-God??”

  • Wweepingwillow

    The link commentators are missing is with the Wilton Diptych.
    This is a precious piece of late medieval iconography at the National Gallery made in Richard’s reign where he is shown kneeling to the Blessed Virgin and assembled angels.
    Three figures stand over Richard.
    One is Edmund the Martyr killed by an arrow in 869, another is Edward the Confessor and the other St. John the Baptist wearing his traditional loin cloth, and Richard’s patron saint.
    So the identification is, or should be, with St. John the Baptist.
    St. John, like Richard, spoke truth to power, after both had lost their own power base, and both lost their lives for it.
    Both had their followers who were scattered or assimilated when a greater figure arrives, they decrease as another increases, to paraphrase Scripture.
    Of course, Bolingbroke’s claim was weaker, and this was a very difficult area for Shakespeare and I’m not sure even the Bard makes us feel entirely comfortable about the power switch  – Bolingbroke just always seems to come across as a thug or a mobster with zero clinging to him in the way of the mystique of kingship that Richard clearly has in bucketfuls.
    Don’t forget the deposition scene was the favourite of Essex and his merry men.
    Not a bad production at all.

  • Pete_Orford

    Thanks for the positive responses. There was a lot that I liked about the production – as I say, I thought the acting was excellent. I rather liked Bolingbroke. The shift from claiming Lancaster to claiming the crown is not obvious in the text, so actors and directors can either a) ignore this and hope the audience doesn’t notice, b) put in a very obvious mime show or c) as this production did, show subtle reactions from Bolingbroke. His stunned face at Flint castle showed a man who was suddenly getting in deeper than he’d first anticipated, and this was nicely mirrored by the final scene when his thanks and gratitude to those bringing him the heads of his enemies were delivered to show his barely restrained horror at the bloodshed the country was now thrown into.

    But I am disappointed, given the way this production has been marketed, and the big names signed up for the cast of all four plays, to see budget constraints having their impact. It raises a question of whether we should, or should not, treat Shakespeare differently to any other writer when adapting for TV. Consider the recent miniseries The Tudors: had that production at any point presented a crowd scene with an obvious shortage of extras, there would have been a backlash without question. But because it’s Shakespeare, it’s considered okay to have scenes that are representative rather than literal. Why? Mind, representative scenes could have worked, but consistency is called for. The Derek Jacobi production of the early 80s worked well because it recognised its limitations; but you cannot attempt to produce the show as grand, epic and visual and then beg the audience’s indulgence to people the stage with their thoughts.

    On the Birthplace trust’s facebook page, there have been additional comments, including those in praise of the production and questioning my review. One suggests that the Richard as Christ imagery is ilustrative of Richard’s self-perception; but I would argue that this is counter-intuitive as he becomes more humble, and self-questioning, as the play wears on. The visual  representation of him as Christ suggests instead that this is how he is being viewed externally, not internally; now this in itself is informative as it sets the stage for the next three plays where Richard becomes a martyr, and the crime of deposing God’s representative on earth haunts Bolingbroke and the stability of his reign. But I still feel this could have been put forward more subtly and not quite so contrived a way as to have Richard in a loincloth with, by remarkable coincidence, wounds in the same places as the earlier picture of Jesus.

    I do however agree with the facebook commenters that the increased presence of the Queen was a good thing. She’s rather an awakward textual issue – the historical Queen was six when she married Richard, and eleven when he died, so the Queen in the play is Shakespeare’s creation (but then, aren’t they all?). Again, there is a contradiction here – Shakespeare introduces the character of the Queen, but limits her to only a few scenes, as though he wants to make her more important than she was historically, but then doesn’t achieve this in the stage time he allows her. The other awkward issue is the perception of Richard as gay, and this has more to do with the continued (and to some extent justified) comparisons of this play with Marlowe’s Edward II. It also taps into archaic views of what it is to be a man – thus in this production the rebels were gruff and scruffy, while Richard and his followers were preened and poised (what is it they said of the civil war in “1066 and all that” – “the roundheads were right but repulsive and the cavaliers were wrong but wromantic”). Against all this therefore, the presence of the Queen, speaking or mute, can be seen as both a continuation of Shakespeare’s manipulation of history, as well as an opportunity to contrast this king with Marlowe’s. 

  • Duncan

    Richard sat with his companions and discussed Bolingbroke by a babbling brook!

  • EnglishBriarRose

    Excellent review – glad someone else agreed with me regarding the entirely inappropriate identification of Richard with Christ – and I am making no religious point here. I just do not see how/where this is justified in or by the text. Nor is Richard’s death scene – redolent of the martyrdom of St Sebastian, shot through with arrows, whereas Shakespeare has him die defending himself, and killing some of his assassins – hardly Christ-like!  And no, I don’t understand the substitution of Aumerle as the prime assassin – what was the point? I’m afraid I can’t agree with the praise of Rory Kinnear as Bullingbrook – not entirely his fault, he just has one of those faces which doesn’t register subtle emotion well. At what point – it was not obvious to me – does he move from “I come but for my own.” to wanting the crown for himself? Not obvious in this production, whether you read his original justification as a political fiction or genuine. However, full marks for at least trying to set this RII in its original historical setting – 9/10 for not actually getting it right!

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