Aesthetic Realism Lecture

Richard II and Anger” by Eli Siegel, 1st Lecture
The Nevertheless Poetry Club, February 10, 1971
Report by Anne Fielding

Richard II, Portrait circa 1367 at Westminster AbbeyNote: Aesthetic Realism explains there are two kinds of anger—anger in behalf of justice, and anger which is inaccurate and harmful—and teaches people how to distinguish. In another lecture Eli Siegel gave titled Poetry and Anger, he explained: "The worst thing about anger is that because we are angry with a door we want to burn down a whole house. People don’t want to think that their anger can be precise....Ugliness should anger us. We destroy with good anger in behalf of the world; we destroy in bad anger as against the world. And in the destruction that is good, there is a desire for beauty and a desire that is not destructive. Art itself is a desire to be less angry with the world."

A major and surprising addition to Shakespearean criticism is Eli Siegel’s discussion of Richard II, which began on February 10, 1971. The theme: Anger as a subject of poetry. “Beginning with Shakespeare’s Richard II,” said Mr. Siegel, “I intend, perhaps for the first time in the history of culture, to show what anger has to do with poetry. One of the causes of poetry is anger and discontent with the world, which given form to can result in poetry.”

Richard II, in its style, commented Mr. Siegel, is more poetic than the other history plays of Shakespeare. It is also tight and well-knit, and doesn’t have the sprawlingness of some of the other plays. He called it: The Shakespearean sinuous, delicate miracle. There is a use of syllables in the poetry that is sweet and surprisingly changing. And, he said, anger is right where the poetry takes place.


The play begins angrily. Young King Richard II (age 33) has come to hear the accusations against each other of Henry Hereford, also known as Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. (If the names are confusing, said Mr. Siegel, blame the 14th century). Each calls the other traitor. This is one of the many confrontations of the play. We have here the full face against the full face; the glare of circles and squares. Richard begins the play, addressing John of Gaunt, the father of Bolingbroke:

Richard: Old John of Gaunt, time-honour'd Lancaster,
Hast thou, according to thy oath and band,
Brought hither Henry Hereford thy bold son. . .   
Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?

The blank verse here is somewhat delightful. Conversational, not grand, but you hear a definite melody. If you can’t hear it, Mr. Siegel said, I advise prayer and the study of metrics.

Bolingbroke and Mowbray are angry with each other, but both say nice things to King Richard, and Richard says:

We thank you both, yet one but flatter us.

Which means, “One of you must be wrong because you both call each other traitor.”

Anger is shown in different ways as the speeches go on.
Richard Basehart as Richard II, Anne Fielding, the Queen, Philip Bosco as Bolingbroke, American Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, CT

Bolingbroke: Thou art a traitor and a miscreant.

That is anger as a straight line.

Once more the more to aggravate the note,
With a foul traitor's name stuff I thy throat.

That is anger becoming physical, as is the following:

Mowbray: I do defy him and I spit at him,
Call him a slanderous coward, and a villain.

And then we have a way of showing anger that is not done these days. Bolingbroke throws down his glove as a challenge to Mowbray:

Pale, trembling coward, there I throw my gage.

These days, what you do, said Siegel, is throw down a book you’ve been reading with great disgust. Mowbray accepts Bolingbroke’s challenge in what was said to be the most poetic passage in the play thus far:

 I take it up; and by that sword I swear
 Which gently laid my knighthood on my shoulder,
 I'll answer thee in any fair degree

Said Mr. Siegel: “The syllables dancingly go about. There is something exceedingly light, but with meaning.”

The Tragedy of Excess Cleverness

As Bolingbroke and Mowbray are against each other, King Richard is really against them both. Richard II is clever and insincere and, said Mr. Siegel, Shakespeare shows that is the cause of the later tragedy. A subtitle to this play he suggested is: “The Tragedy of Excess Cleverness.”

Richard arranges to have Bolingbroke and Mowbray meet in combat at Coventry to decide which is the traitor. He tells them:

There shall your swords and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate

“The swelling difference of your settled hate” is one of the most important lines about anger. This is anger sculpted well.

Scene 3. Mowbray and Bolingbroke are preparing to fight. But just as the combat is about to begin, after much ceremony and fanfare, Richard suddenly calls the whole thing off, in what Mr. Siegel described as one of the famous anti-climaxes in drama:

Richard: Let them lay by their helmets and their spears,
And both return back to their chairs again

Then he banishes both of them; Bolingbroke for ten years and Mowbray forever. Said Mr. Siegel: Richard wanted persons who could be rivals to be away. He is like a youthful Polonious, too fond of that thing called policy. And that’s why things go ill for him later.

Bolingbroke goes to France, but as soon as Richard does the stupid thing of confiscating Brolingbroke’s father’s land and property—that of John of Gaunt—Bolingbroke comes back to claim his rights. Said Mr. Siegel: Who wouldn’t?

Scene 4. Richard has decided to go to war against Ireland. And for that he needs money; with him are his courtiers Bushy, Bagot, and Green. These three, said Mr. Siegel, have taken their place as a sinister trio in drama. Says Richard:

We will ourself in person to this war.

As Mr. Siegel pointed out, all through English history taming Ireland has been a recurrent theme. It is now, and has taken a new form with Ulster: “Untamed Ireland.”

News comes that John of Gaunt, Richard’s uncle and most powerful man in England, is ill.

Richard:  Now put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!

Gaunt's Famous Speech about England

The scene changes. We are in London, at Ely House. And we come to what Mr. Siegel called “the gorgeous place in the play—the center of gorgeousness.” It is John of Gaunt’s famous speech about England. To hear it in context, as Mr. Siegel pointed out, is something. Gaunt talks about what has happened under the reign of Richard, and though dying, he is angry. And then, said Mr. Siegel, since Gaunt cannot care for any person now, he falls in love with England, as in these lines:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise….,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea….
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Mr. Siegel pointed to the opposites in these lines. We have delicacy and majesty. Even Mars is given daintiness. And there is such a magnificent oneness of small and large in:

This precious stone set in the silver sea

Enter Richard, accompanied by his Queen, Bushy, Bagot, and Green. “While Gaunt is dying,” said Siegel, “we should see the mingling of anger, illness, and satire in him and in the interchange between Gaunt and Richard”:

Richard:    What comfort, man? How is't with aged Gaunt?
John of Gaunt: . . . . Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old . . .
Richard:    Can sick men play so nicely with their names?
John of Gaunt: . . . . Since thou dost seek to kill my name in me,
    I mock my name, great king, to flatter thee.

Gaunt is so disgusted with Richard, that he asked to be carried out of the room. Moments later the Duke of Northumberland enters and announces that John of Gaunt has died. Now Richard works fast:

Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.

Anger and Stratagem

“The tragedy of Richard II is different from other tragedies,” continued Mr. Siegel. “The people of England are disgusted with his rapacious ways. He defies the law and thinks he can get away with it—as in Greek tragedy where a person defies the state. He succumbs to some of the oldest lures in history—the lure of flattery and the wanting to have one’s own way.” Said Mr. Siegel, “Be commercially just or tragedy will hover over you.”

There is momentum in this play, and it is all going for something. Two scenes later, Bolingbroke lands in England to reclaim his rights. Before the play is over, however, he has done more than that—he has claimed William Shakespeareand taken England itself.

Richard II, suggested Mr. Siegel, is a mingling of the acuteness of a 19th or 20th century play, and tragedy as Elizabethans knew it. The uncertainties of the people in Richard II make them a little like the uncertainties of people in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

Concluding this first lecture on Richard II, Mr. Siegel said: “Anger is usually followed by stratagem, and both can be within a person at 5:30 on any blessed Monday. Man is given the chance to be discontented with the world, and poetry gives him a chance to see that there is something else.”

Continue to 2nd Lecture

[Anne Fielding Homepage]   [Richard II and Anger, 2nd Lecture ]   [Richard II and Anger, 3rd Lecture ] 

[Hamlet Once More, Different ]
  [Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company ]    [ Site Map ]