Richard: The Scared King

*An essay written for my Shakespeare and His World class while studying abroad.*

Richard: The Scared King

Shakespeare’s plays have been performed and transformed on the stage for centuries, even coming to the bigger screen, where many film adaptations have been created. These different performances range from sticking strictly to the original text, to farther on where the story is simply the foundation, but the diction and settings have changed. Both of these ways of recreating Shakespeare’s stories can either fail or succeed; there have been success stories from each. It does take, however, a creative director who makes certain decisions that still stick with the main meaning of the work at hand, and if the director fails at this, then Shakespeare’s magic is lost. Richard II was adapted into a film production in 2012 including Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V, titled “The Hollow Crown” series. Focusing on the first episode of this series, this essay aims to interpret how a particular scene in the episode of Richard II compares to the original text by Shakespeare and if the director was successful in producing the same meaning.

Highlighting Act 3 Scene 2 where King Richard has just landed on the coast of Wales, he is reminded that his enemy, Bolingbroke is gaining more power, but Richard fully believes in the Divine Right of Kings, that he has convinced himself that he has all of the power. However, he is soon told of terrible tidings: his friends have been murdered and his army that was originally waiting for him has all fled to join Bolingbroke. He most certainly does not have all of the power like he originally thought, and then he delivers a self-reflective speech:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,

And tell sad stories of the death of kings–

How some have been deposed, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,

All murdered. For within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable; and humored this.

Comes at the last, and with a little pon

Bores through his castle wall; and farewell, kin.

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence. Throw away respect,

Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,

For you have but mistook me all this while.

I live with bread, like you; feel want,

Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,

How can you say to me I am a king? (3.2.151-73)


In “The Hollow Crown” episode, Richard is depicted as small and especially feminine, wearing gold and other light colors that he seems to be constantly wrapped tightly in–as if he is protecting himself in his royalty because he knows it is crumbling apart. In this scene, Richard’s emotions are all over the place, and ironically enough once he starts his speech, he seems the most calm and most self-reflective of himself, which is something that he has not shown before. When he says: “For within the hollow crown / that rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court;” (3.2.156-58), the director, Rupert Goold, has the actor that plays King Richard, Ben Whishaw, take of his crown and hold it in his hands before him. Since Richard believes wholeheartedly in the Divine Right of Kings, his crown is his ultimate symbol of power and the power that he has been given. By having Whishaw remove the crown and hold it in his lap completely signifies his fear that he really does not hold this divine power the way he used to believe. By being able to remove such a symbolic piece of royalty so easily shows that it does not really hold as much significance as it should anymore, which is exactly what Richard is beginning to understand. It is simply fancy metal with pretty gemstones and it can very easily be removed or taken from his even prettier head.

Further on, Richard remarks at how easy it is to break into his kingdom, which he is now realizing: “and with a little pin / Bores through his castle wall; and farewell, king” (3.2.165-67). Whishaw takes these lines to be a little childish. When he says “farewell,’ he waves at no one in particular, or perhaps at his old self fleeting away. And after ending that line with “king,” he pauses for a short moment. By having the slightly ironic and comedica waving at nothing, I believe that Goold is pulling on the fact that Richard was once an Infant King and he learned how to be royalty as a child, meaning it is very possible that he was never allowed to be a child at all. His pause after ending that sentence, however, challenges this idea and shows that Richard knows that he cannot afford to be childish and he needs to take care at being a king, while he still can that is.

Richard’s speech ends with “Subjected thus, / How can you say to me I am king?” (3.2.172-73) and this is the turning point for the king. He has finally acknowledged the fact that he is not different from anyone else. The only thing that separates him from the rest of his people is a crown, and even that is easily taken away from him. Whishaw is crying while delivering these lines, which perfectly accentuates the words. This speech is where the audience begins to feel bad for the somewhat innocent and naive king. Everything he has known, since early childhood, has been ripped from him completely and he realizes that he was a fool for ever thinking it in the first place. Having Whishaw cry at this part in his speech shows the characters vulnerability even more so, fully selling the lines and bringing the audience to pity Richard.

Overall, the entire film adaptation works extremely well with the original text by sticking very close to the wording, but also having fun with the presentation. This scene especially portrays the expertise of Goold and his knowing of how King Richard is supposed to look in the audience’s eyes. The idea with taking the crown off of his head was remarkable and worked well with the lines, and ending with crying is exactly what the audience would expect of Richard to do. This scene epitomizes and foreshadows the upcoming downfall of the terrified king; he has finally come to the realization that he is not really divine like he always thought, therefore instead of being treated as royalty, he is simply human.


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