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King of Tears: Mortality in Richard II Dorothea Kehler San Diego State University Love's Labor's Lost, which initiallydepicts an attempttodefeatdeath through fame, comes to a remarkable comedie close as Marcade enters to announce the French king's death, displacing courtship with mourning. Death also stalks Richard II, contemporaneous with Love's Labor's Lost, transforming it from a parvum opus, a lesser history play important chiefly as prologue to the masterly Henriad, to the selfcontained story of a pitiful and terrifying confrontation with mortality . However much England's fate is bound up with its king's, however much dramatic importance accrues to Bolingbroke, our interest is focused above all on the eloquent, tormented individual who dominates the play. As Larry S. Champion observes, "conceptually Richard II is more nearly tragedy than history" (70). Expanding the boundaries ofearlier Shakespearean history plays, Richard //diffuses into what Polonius calls "tragical-historical," presenting a de casibus protagonist whose plight is Everyman's. By mid-play Richard knows that he is going to die, and soon: a deposed monarch is unlikely to live long. The distance between a heretofore unengaging protagonist and his audience is lessened by the intensity of Richard's anguish. Thus, to observe the anguish of the king at bay is to risk an unwelcome confrontation with our own feelings towards death. Examining the psychology of death, Robert Kastenbaum and Ruth Aisenberg write, "Admission or exposure of our thanatophobia marks us as immature, weak, or morbid. It is childish. It is unmanly." They conclude, "We seem to fear the fear of death" (43). Perhaps because critics are no less immune than anyone else to fearing the fear of death, discussions of Richard //by and large sacrifice the tragical to the historical, the psychological to the ceremonial and linguistic. Yet only by entering Richard's deathcentered world can we fully understand our peculiar sympathy for so callously self-absorbed, unfit a king, whose crimes against his kin, indifference to the commonweal, and reluctance to admit guilt should bar that sympathy. Richard does not move us as a ruler (albeit a gifted actor-poet) deservedly facing loss of power, but rather as our congener , publicly enacting his thanatophobia and despair. Death is an opponent Richard had not anticipated. Kingship, prolonging solipsistic childhood, has shielded him from recognition of 8 Rocky Mountain Review his own mortality. Is he not semi-divine, God's substitute on earth? Then, shattering his complacency, comes the realization that the king is not Death's substitute, that Divine Right is not synonymous with divine immortality. No less than those he has victimized, Richard is a victim of the hypostatization of a political theory; his wholehearted belief in the Divine Right rationale for absolutism1 allows his part in the human condition to take him by surprise. Even in his blind security, however, the king is Everyman writ large. With less excuse, all men see what they wish to see. Few still young and in health look on their deaths as other than a remote, insubstantial eventuality. Under Bolingbroke's compulsion, Richard makes a psychic pilgrimage delineated by the association of death and tears in the play's iterative verbal and stage imagery.2 References to death, preparing for the powerful fifth-act stage images of the assassination and the coffin, are earlier made concrete by the sight of the weeping king whose tears express a gamut of emotions: grief, loss, betrayal, anger, humiliation, fear, and defeat. Unmanned by the prospect of death, Richard cries like a child, not only tearful in himself but the cause of tears in Isabel, York, Aumerle, Carlisle, and finally even Bolingbroke. Tears, falling as the king falls, evoke our continual awareness of death and, far more than the allied vertical imagery first noted by Jorgensen, grip us emotionally. A major directorial cue, the textual indications of weeping control the actors, eliciting in performance, if not always actual tears, at least the cracking voice, the contorted face. As time runs out for the unready king, such insistent stage imagery, reinforced by verbal references to weeping and death, creates the sense oftragic inevitability. These tears are discomforting, especially Richard's out-of-control, lachrymose writhings, ineffectual...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-2833
Print ISSN
1948-2825
Pages
pp. 7-18
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-06
Open Access
No
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