"Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
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 poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
Rupert Goold’s adaptation of Richard II opens with these lines, paraphrased from the King’s depressed musings of Act III, Scene II. This both ominously foreshadows the inevitable end of the titular monarch while at the same time introduces his character (played by Ben Whishaw) as a strangely introspective one, so given to flowery existential thoughts that he is completely out of touch with reality. Indeed, Whishaw’s portrayal of the King is a masterful one. Soft-spoken and emasculated, he glides around in a sort of daze, playing with his words rather than leading his own country. “We were not born to sue,” he exclaims angrily when his subjects refuse to be ruled by him, “but to command.” This is spoken as a petulant child and establishes him as a character uncomfortably aware of his own impotence but unable to fully come to terms with it.
Patrick Stewart also gives a strong performance as old John of Gaunt, whose famous speech about his love of England is delivered with conviction through a dramatic close-up of his dying face. Pale and sweat-covered, he spits his curses to Richard and declares his patriotism with a vitality the King was never able to possess. This is pointed out to the audience, not only through Shakespeare’s words, “O, no! thou diest, though I the sicker be,” but also through a reflection of this scene towards the end of the film, where an iron-clad Richard attempts to give an equally rousing speech. The close-up on his face, also covered in a sheen of cold sweat, reveals a man more listless, more unsure, who can do nothing as his world collapses around him.
Performances aside, this is a richly beautiful adaptation. Goold seizes the references to the traitors as “three Judases” and the rebels to Pontius Pilate to create allusions to Richard as Jesus. He is clothed in white and set on a donkey, and stands meekly before a crowd of his former friends and subjects as he is dethroned. In the scene on the castle balcony, there is, inexplicably, an angel figure on either side of him and a halo behind his head, all made out of card. We see, then, that this is nothing more than a King with a severe Christ-complex; he believes himself to be a blameless, persecuted sovereign and sees himself as divinely appointed by God, yet he is the opposite. Vain, affected and inadequate, he is blinded by his own sense of worth and too moved by his own suffering to care about anyone but himself.
The film is not without sympathy for Richard, however. In his final scene, he sits barely-clothed in a prison that is more like a dark cave, his complicated metaphysical conceits spilling out almost compulsively. Goold makes a significant change to the original text by having him suddenly and brutally murdered not by Exton but by Aumerle, his last remaining friend. His bloodied body is the final addition to the literal and macabre collection of the dead brought before the new King’s throne, and the fearful guilt of Bolingbroke brings to mind the memory of the Bishop of Carlisle’s damning prophesy. The image of Richard as martyr is once again invoked, and the stage is set for the promised “disorder, horror, fear and mutiny” to come.