Revisiting Richard II

I was nineteen years old, an English major, an eager front-row student, quick to answer questions and share my opinions. I loved Shakespeare as a matter of course and was ready to be pleased when Dr. Platt, my Honors Humanities professor at UNT, started in on The Tragedy of King Richard the Second.

I ended up being more pleased than I’d expected. “Blown away” is more accurate. I listened with edge-of-my-seat excitement to Dr. Platt’s reading and explication of Act I, Scene i. What appeared to be a simple conversation between Richard, Mowbray, and Bolingbroke is actually backed by a rich subtext. The king is hiding something, something which will set in motion the bloody events of the rest of the play. If you miss that subtext, you miss a lot. This was my introduction to a concept that has proved crucial to my own fiction writing: that what characters don’t say is often at least as important as what they do say.

The excitement did not let down. It carried over into King Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. Happily for me, UNT put on a production of 1 King Henry IV that year. Seeing it performed was a pinnacle of pleasure—the calculus to the algebra of studying the play in the text. Reading Shakespeare is all well and good, but plays are meant to be performed. It’s one thing to read the words and quite another to hear them spoken and inflected by all the separate voices of enthusiastic, well-trained actors. And written stage direction such as They fight and The Prince killeth Percy can scarcely be compared to an intelligently choreographed, flesh-and-blood fight scene. I don’t remember the names of the drama students who played Hotspur and Prince Hal, but their faces are imprinted in my memory as the definitive faces of those characters.

A genealogical chart of the descendants of Edward III—Appendix A, p. 546 of my Pelican Shakespeare. I’ve consulted it so often that the book seems comfortable when opened to that page.

Years later, I decided to read again the Shakespeare histories I’d studied under Dr. Platt. I had a newborn, my third, and if I was going to lose sleep for middle-of-the-night feedings, I was going to fill my mind with something of substance.

I started as Dr. Platt had, with King Richard II. I approached the scene with Richard, Mowbray, and Bolingbroke with great anticipation, remembering Dr. Platt’s marvelous, near-superhuman explication. Imagine my surprise when I found the gist of the subtext summed up neatly in a casual little footnote in my Pelican Shakespeare—the very volume I’d used in Dr. Platt’s class! It had been right there before my eyes the whole time! Indeed, a shrewd reading of the actual text would have revealed what was going on beneath the surface in the scene.

But I was not at nineteen the same reader I was at twenty-seven, and I owe much of the difference to Dr. Platt. He taught me to dig out subtext for myself; he taught me to think. I have tried to pass the lessons on.

What a powerful thing it is, to teach! A teacher weaves himself into your consciousness and colors your perceptions and recollections with his own personality, for better or worse. A sermon by my friend Wayne Stiles changed how I think about friendship–not all at once, but slowly and surely as the words sank in and the truth blossomed. I’ve been blessed with many excellent teachers over the years; I’m grateful to have fallen into such capable hands.

One comment on “Revisiting Richard II

  1. Jaye Denman says:

    I think I noted in your profile that your children are homeschooled. If so, they have a remarkable teacher in you. As a perceptive reader and writer, you must likewise be a perceptive teacher. Your children are fortunate.

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