The crisis for Richard II, and the crisis of Richard II, comes in Act 3, Scene 2: landing from Ireland, he assumes a conqueror’s pose on the shores of his own kingdom upon learning of Bolingbroke’s return from exile; hearing of further turns of fortune, each a turn of the screw in his fate, his responses veer wildly from defiant to triumphant to despairing to stoical, from affirmations of the symbolic power of the king to admissions of the brute force of men needed to uphold the symbol. Though deriving events and even language from Holinshed’s chronicle, Richard’s swerves between extremes are bizarre and difficult to explain: what sort of king is this who would behave so naively, wildly, desperately, and stupidly all at once? How can Richard be so bad at power?
Readers of the play might be too swept up in the local glories of rhetoric to feel much, but an audience will likely see the entire thing as farce. the challenge facing an actor is obvious: not to extinguish the farcical glow, but to imagine what sort of king Richard is, and what sort of man Richard is, to explain how whiff of farce is admitted; and to do so without letting the scene turn to farce. An actor needs to keep in mind that it is the tragedy of Richard II and that this scene contains all of the tragic action, all of Richard’s undoing—what comes after being a prolonged registering of the effects.
The trouble with the play is that Shakespeare does not provide the facts to make sense of Richard’s erratic behavior in III.2; he does not provide an obvious clue or key for reconciling the pyrotechnic miscarriage of rhetoric and expression upon Richard’s coming ashore.
He does, however, provide for an actor playing Richard a calm in the storm, an occasion for letting the audience see Richard as he reflects on his own incapacities at playing the part of king: the “hollow crown” speech, beginning “Of comfort no man speak.”
Of the versions I have seen, two modern actors seem to have seized full advantage of the opportunity: Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance. Each actor finds a delivery, and through it communicates a sense of the character of Richard, that provides the audience with a needed clue or character.
The performance by Derek Jacobi can be seen here: here, starting at the 1:52 mark.
From this speech, we are given insight into what an actor adds or brings to the role, what sense they make of the character: Jacobi is mannered, coy, a touch camp, pathetic because of his mannerism, not despite it; he is a king who knows how to pose as a sovereign, but does not have much sense, perhaps, of how the poses must fit together to make a continual narrative; who does not understand sovereignty except as a series of poses, and who is not bothered by coherence beyond the moment. On this view, Richard is inept, and even treats this speech as one more pose: falling swan. The play is excruciating to watch because Richard never, even when in prison, stops posing; he doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Jacobi succeeds by maintaining a perfect balance between two elements of Richard’s character: on the one hand, a recognition that, being a king in a tragedy, he is possessed of an ineluctable nobility–it pervades his character do what he may; and on the other hand, a subtle display of Richard’s over-compensating mannerism, his need to pose in the role, rather than to move in it, on account of his own unease. If an actor errs too far to the former extreme (see the performances buttressing Jacobi’s in the above clip), showing only the nobility of the role, then it is difficult to understand why Richard has acted so oddly at the start of the scene; if an actor errs too far in the other direction, the direction of mannerism (see Ben Whishaw’s recent turn, in the PBS Hollow Crown series), then it becomes inconceivable that any would follow this King at all, and, what is more, threatens to make the actor, rather than the character, seem ill at ease.
Mark Rylance comes up with a novel solution, not entirely freeing himself from the dichotomy in Jacobi’s performance, but seeing the dichotomy in different terms. Rylance, whose Shakespearean characters are always possessed with a childish air (Shakespeare becomes, in his performances, the playwright who shows us all as children at play), remembers that Richard II assumed power at a young age (10), and he plays him accordingly: as the king who, raised by a body of advisors, counseled into adulthood, never properly understood power or sovereignty, and who helplessly did his best to hit the cues set by others, unable to improvise or apply old lessons to new circumstances. Rylance’s Richard does not fail because he rules like a boy—but instead because he rules like a boy always attempting to be something beyond his understanding: that adult king that he was made to seem, without comprehension or preparation, at a young age. The mannerism in Rylance’s version is not only of a man who does not know how to do more than pose (a somewhat unappealing prospect for an audience); it is of a man who is always at the mercy of the fears and insecurities of the child he was, who feels himself still to be that child, inadequate to the duties and pageantry of sovereignty, and who, as a consequence, can only offer mannered imitations (similar to pastiches) of the duties and pageants.
The mannerism in Jacobi is successful affectation, made inadequate because disjointed, free from strategy or consistency; it is poignant because in itself it gives a glimpse of the nobility inherent in Richard’s kingship—a nobility that he fails to capitalize on, or realize, in a coherent course of action.
The mannerism in Rylance is a failure of affectation, made poignant because it is so misshapen and pathetic a solution to the requirements of the role, which he nonetheless realizes. He is not, as is Whishaw’s Richard, drunk on narcissism and camp frolics; he gains support and respect because he believes in the role that he cannot play. When Rylance delivers his version of the Hollow Crown speech, he is in effect pleading with his followers that he be allowed for a moment, to stop trying. He surrenders and, like a child, wants only to sit on the ground drawing figures—one of that antic, motley figure of death, for which he is ready, having had enough of the grown-up life that was never properly his.
He wants—as Rylance’s characters so often seem to, beneath whatever rhetorical ruses—to speak, not as a man to men (that implies age, gender), but as a person to other people, as ridiculous as it might sound. That urge to speak, to be understood, braced against the awareness of all of the forces and reasons that people cannot simply speak, can never be simply understood, is everywhere in Rylance; he always urges us to see how exhausting and isolating, even if necessary and occasionally liberating, the roles and rules of self-fashioning.
I would not take only Rylance’s interpretations of Shakespeare; they are too defiantly idiosyncratic to stand in the light alone. They benefit from the shadow cast by the iconic interpretations masterfully performed. But the performances that I’ve seen are, in that shadow, the ones that seem most alive.