Richard: Here, cousin, seize the crown. Bolingbroke: I thought you had been willing to resign.
  • John Ulman
  • Richard: "Here, cousin, seize the crown." Bolingbroke: "I thought you had been willing to resign."

In the spring of 2012, a Palestinian theater company from Ramallah staged Richard II in the ruins of an 8th-century palace in Jericho. It’s difficult to imagine a better setting for Shakespeare’s play about broken power than among the broken teeth of a ruin stuck in the West Bank.

The play tracks the final days of a young and feckless king, Richard II, as he’s deposed by a proud and rough Henry Bolingbroke—soon to be Henry IV—who returns from exile and gathers a bunch of noblemen to roar up from below and seize power. (Towards the end of Richard II, Henry IV foreshadows his own plays by asking where his “unthrifty son” Prince Hal has been all this time. He is, of course, busy getting wasted with Falstaff in London. Henry's headaches over feckless young royals are really just beginning.)

Seattle Shakespeare Company artistic director George Mount plays Richard as lyrical, arrogant, and aloof, almost revealing a glimmer of camp as he wafts around the stage. Richard has the soul of a moody, self-involved poet and becomes even more lyrical—more himself—as Bolingbroke's power grabs give him more fodder for self-pity.

"I wasted time," Richard sighs to himself in a prison cell, "and now time doth waste me."

One of Richard's few acts of intelligent statesmanship—also fueled by self-pity—comes when the game is already lost and he arranges to "resign" to Henry in front of everyone, turning the transfer of power into a bit of political theater that will stain and undermine Henry's reign.

"Here, cousin, seize the crown," Richard says. But when Henry (played ably and simply by David Foubert) grabs one end, Richard won't let go and says:

On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
the emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

"I thought you had been willing to resign," the embarrassed Henry says through gritted teeth. Richard continues:

My crown I am, but my griefs are still mine.
You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

Henry tries to change course and acts as if he's doing Richard a favor: "Part of your cares you give me with your crown." The reply:

Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down...
Long may'st thou live in Richard's seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthy pit.
God save King Henry, unking'd Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!
What more remains?

Now that's a resignation letter.

Richard II is not often performed (its most recent local productions were by Greenstage in 1998, Seattle Shakes in 2002, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2003), maybe because it's so gloomy. The biggest laugh in this version comes when a bunch of infighting noblemen rush to throw their gloves on the ground and declare duels with each other. (One guy runs out of gloves to throw and grabs one from the belt of the guy next to him.) All of Richard II's laughter comes from confusion and grim misunderstandings, not wit.

Thematically, it's a kind of proto-Hamlet—which would come five years later—in its chronicle of a royal power struggle between a man of words and a man of action, though its characters are not nearly as multifaceted and sympathetic. In the year after Richard II, Shakespeare would take his sighing poetry out of the mouths of kings and stuff it into the mouths of lovers in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream where it sounds a little more sympathetic.

This production, directed by Rosa Joshi, is a mildly ambitious staging of a mildly ambitious play. There are no pyrotechnics, but it is clear and straightforward, and there is pleasure in discovery.

Think of Joshi and her actors as tour guides, showing you around an unfamiliar building by an architect you already know and love.