Shakespeare Uncovered Teacher Viewing Guide

Richard II with Derek Jacobi

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RICHARD II with Derek Jacobi

The Gist: Shakespeare’s play its full name is The Life and Death of Richard II has seemingly endless appeal to Sir Derek Jacobi, hard-working and celebrated actor of stage, film and television. He played Richard in the 1978 television film and again on stage in London in 1988-9, but is far from finished digging into the play and the king himself. The only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse was scandalous in its day, telling the story of an anointed but weak king who gives up his crown to Henry Bolingbroke, a man who is a good politician and becomes an effective King Henry IV. So much for the divine right of kings. Jacobi is our guide as we uncover more about the play and the issues it presents. He is looking to answer these questions:

  • Who was the real Richard II?
  • How was Shakespeare able to piece together his story?

We learn from historians, Shakespeare scholars, actors and directors. We study film clips and Holinshed’s Chronicles, prowl relevant castles, and watch Jacobi seeing his own Richard (BBC 1978) for the first time as we piece together Richard’s story for ourselves.

Special Note On This Play: If you teach middle or high school, you probably don’t teach this play. No matter. Wandering through Richard II with Derek Jacobi and others is the most pleasurable kind of learninglearning for your own sake.

Not To Miss:

  • A handful of rehearsals and discussions with actors and director Simon Usher at The Globe, talking through and trying out several key scenes. As they talk, take a peek over his shoulder at Usher’s director’s text.
  • Royal Holloway College historian Justin Champion’s clear explanation of the divine right of kings as it would have been believed and felt by Shakespeare’s audience
  • Jacobi’s brief visit to London’s National Gallery of Art where we have a look at the Wilton Diptych, Richard’s traveling altarpiece. The painting includes Jesus, Mary, 3 saints, 11 angels, and the 10-year-old Richard.
  • Lots of clips from Jacobi’s own Richard (1978 film, with John Gielgud as John of Gaunt) and the new film from The Hollow Crown series (2012, directed by Rupert Goold with Ben Whishaw as Richard). And a video lightning round of past Richard IIs: a young Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Irons, Ralph Feinnes, and Kevin Spacey
  • The modern relevance of the play: Director Rupert Goold on the parallels between King Richard II and Michael Jackson, and Jacobi and Champion’s parallels between Richard’s fall and those of Saddam Hussein and Margaret Thatcher
  • Justin Champion on the Earl of Essex, his rebellion, and the danger that Shakespeare put himself and his company in by writing and performing this “treasonous play”
  • Derek Jacobi’s own side trip on the question of who really wrote these plays anyway
  • Actor Jamie Parker as Richard, in street clothes and all alone on stage at the Globe, with some of the king’s own thoughts about giving up his crown. “What must the king do now?” he asks himself. “Must he submit?” (Act 3, scene 3)
  • Marjorie Garber (Harvard) and Champion on the powerful deposition scene in which Richard gives up his crown to Bolingbroke (Act 4, scene 1)
  • Jacobi on Richard’s last speech and chilling murder (Act 5, scene 5)

After Watching, Keep On Talking (with colleagues and students)

  • For centuries, folks have been talking about who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. (DeVere is only the latest idea. Francis Bacon and Queen Elizabeth I are a couple of others.) In order to believe someone else wrote the plays, you first have to be convinced that Shakespeare himself was not the writer. What say you? Did the guy from Stratford write the plays? Why? Why not? Does it matter that we know who really wrote them? Why? Why not?
  • If you had time to teach a little portion of this play, either by itself or in tandem with another play or piece of literature, what might that look like? A couple of speeches? Which ones? Something about the plot and the English history? Relevance to modern leaders?