I watched the second installment of BBC’s Hollow Crown yesterday – Henry IV, Part 1 – which made me think back to Richard II. Henry IV.1 is much less into the sorts of issues than Richard II although it deals with rebellion and deposition as well (even if it is one mocking deposition and one threatening deposition). It appears that these tragedies were written in a sequence (1595 and 1597) so there should be continuity (historical and dramatic) but there isn’t much in the way BBC versions portrait it. More on Henry IV.1 later.
Richard II’s deposition section (IV.1, 154-318) is rather well-made in the BBC version – with two prospective kings holding on to the same crown and so on:
It is understandable why this scene would be censored or at least kept out of some publications – there is a clear implication that the “divine right of kings” is a cover up for the gullible masses (whose perspective we get as the camera looks up through the crown to the faces of contenders). However, it seems that the most interesting aspect (or one of the most interesting aspects) of the play – Richard’s continuous reference to this “story” – is only given a few moments in this interpretation. It does appear throughout but it is deemphasized due to the religious imagery and so on.
Richard’s most immediate concern in the tragedy is not so much to preserve his power as a king – he does little to do so – as to preserve his “story” and his interpretation of events. His divine right is confirmed in this interpretation, because his deposition is perceived (or is to be perceived) as illegitimate. In the opening scene’s exchange in Act V he tells the Queen (V.1, 37ff):
Think I am dead, and that even here thou takest,
As from my deathbed, thy last living leave.
In winter’s tedious nights sits by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid good night, to quite their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds.
For why, the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent of thy moving tongue
And in compassion weep the fire out;
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal-black,
For the deposing of a rightful kind.
Henry IV will have some challenge his “rightful” status in the next play, both in word and in action. Rebellion and the ultimate battle that ends the play are clearly seen there as challenges to his legitimacy. But in Henry IV.1 there is a theme of “might makes right” coming out fairly obviously (or rather continues to come out), especially in the central scene (in the BBC version) of the mock court and mock deposition.
Or something like that…