Joseph Roach and Richard II (?)

I want to use this post more as a brainstorming session to work out an idea that’s been circling in my brain (spinning, if you will) since I read the introduction to Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead this past weekend.

In my Shakespeare and Political Philosophy course this semester, we’ve been reading Richard II. In the course we’re connecting all kinds of interesting and seemingly very relevant political philosophy to it (Zizek and Elster to start with). But in reading Roach’s introduction for my performance studies class, I’m intrigued by the interesting light this alternative perspective shines on the play.

Through the lens of Roach’s arguments, this play can be read as a play about substitution (or substitution as usurpation) – substituting one monarch for another, how that process can happen, and what the consequences of that process are for a political and social system. Roach’s arguments about performance as surrogation seem to provide a way into the cultural and social fabric of this play. What allows for the substitution of one monarch for another? How does society need to be performed to, or what sort of realigning of the social fabric needs to take place, in order to allow this to happen? Especially when the traditional system, the circumstance of the original monarch’s death, is bypassed?

Roach argues that a culture cannot perform itself without also performing who and what it is not. This sort of oppositional performance allows the performing culture to more clearly define itself. Transferring this paradigm from dealing with an entire culture to dealing with just one man, I wonder if this is what Bolingbroke seeks to do during Richard II. It seems that he is constantly (at least in the first several acts of the play) attempting to define himself be negating Richard. In 3.3, when Richard comes down from the castle at Bolingbroke’s request, Bolingbroke announces him with: “Stand all apart,/ and show fair duty to his majesty./ My gracious lord” (3.3.187). Presumably he kneels as he says these lines or makes some exaggerated gesture as he encourages his entourage to ‘perform’ the rituals of state. Perhaps, here, Bolingbroke is mocking the rituals associated with traditional monarchy and Richard’s reign in order to demonstrate that he, Bolingbroke, is not these rituals. His reign will somehow be different because it will not include such exaggerated requirements for pomp and circumstance. The problem at the end of the play and into Henry IV, of course, is that his reign is actually not that different and, therefore, he has stolen and stepped into the shoes of a legitimate monarch, rather than redefining the shoes and allowing himself to become legitimate through that redefinition.

Going off of this, I’m intrigued by the idea that Henry IV (both parts) then becomes a play about the English society “auditioning” different replacements for Richard. Henry is labeled as king in these plays, but all of the civil skirmishes between the nobles could be seen as their resistance of this substitute and their auditioning for the part. As Roach argues, the meaning of performance is most importantly the “process of trying out various candidates in different situations – the doomed search for originals by continuously auditioning stand-ins” (Roach 3).

I’m not sure how to close in a way that gathers the scattered threads of all these thoughts. But I do think that Roach lends an interesting perspective when applied to this play and one that could maybe even reconcile itself with the political theorists that I originally read in conjunction with it. I’ll be thinking more about this. Oh, and I have a thing for Eddie Redmayne so if anyone knows of a video version of him playing Richard in the Donmar Warehouse production, please be kind and let me know.

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