Monday, January 23, 2012

Succession-Anxiety: From Richard III to Philaster

Richard is dead!

Now what?

Questions of succession are swirling around the ASC, first with Richard III – the bloody culmination of the War of the Roses – and next with Philaster, Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding. This multifaceted play, written in 1609 or 1610 as a collaboration between Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, begins with some royal problems. The nameless King, who rules the fictionalized twin kingdoms of Sicily and Calabria, is the son of a usurper – his father stole the throne. And our hero Philaster, the son of the deposed king, lives still. This is Hamlet a generation later, if Claudius had lived to have a son and Hamlet had delayed his revenge until that son was crowned.

One of the most influential conceptions of the English monarchical political structure was the divine right of kings. The monarchy was not simply a legislative office but also a religious covenant; the throne was the earthly seat of God and the rightful King his corporeal embodiment. The vehement pearl-clutching that resulted from the ascendancy of a usurping king was so all-encompassing that we now have (in addition to the insanity that was the English line of succession in general, but particularly between 1337 and 1558) a whole catalogue of wonderful plays and books dealing with the topic. Now, we’re moving from a semi-historical depiction of succession-anxiety (however fanaticized or misleading it may be) in Shakespeare’s Richard III to a fictional, metaphorical account in Philaster.

These types of plays were exceedingly popular, likely because they were resonantly topical. Philip Henslowe’s diary indicates that Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy was among his biggest financial successes, though today those plays rarely see performance. (The ASC has produced all three during Actors' Renaissance Seasons since 2009). Just as we flock to the movies to see films about our own history, particularly the histories of our wars (Saving Private Ryan and The Great Escape come immediately to mind) so did the people of London flock to the theaters to see their past acted out for them. It was exciting and cathartic to watch the death of kings and usurpation of thrones safely depicted in a fictional setting; when it really happened, heads rolled. And the question was never far from anybody’s mind: in 1610, James I sat on the throne, and though his reign was not nearly as complicated as a Lancaster’s or a York’s, it was fraught with enough problems that Philaster, in coming too near some of them, found itself heavily censored in its first Quarto printing in 1620. (More on this to come!)

Though the deposition happens before the start of Philaster, and though the play turns from political to romantic to tragic to comic, the thread of political intrigue runs throughout, permeating the action. Nobody ever really forgets that the King is the issue of a usurper, and that until Philaster regains his kingdom, divine powers will keep the world out of joint. The King laments this in a Claudius-like fashion during an aside, begging the gods to:

forgive the sin

I have committed: let it not fall

upon this undeserving child of mine;

She has not broke your laws. But how can I

Look to be heard of gods that must be just

Praying upon the ground I hold by wrong? (2.4.57-62)

and eventually admits his guilt and steps aside, saying to Philaster, “I have wronged you, / And though I find it last and beaten to it / Let first your goodness know it … Be what you are born to” (5.3.176-9).

This is how these plays must end: with the restoration of the “right heir.” Until whoever is born rightfully to the throne (according to the complicated and convoluted laws of the time) is sitting unchallenged upon it, the world of the play (and the response of the audience) is jangled and out of tune. If the wrong guy is sitting up there at the end, well… it’s not the end. It took Shakespeare 10 history plays, from King John to Henry VIII, to get the ending “right,” because historically it took hundreds of years for the English to resolve the incidents leading up to and occurring during the War of the Roses. The succession-anxiety imbued in these plays would have infused the time as well, creating a constant state of uneasiness and panic. Not until the tyrant falls in Richard III can the audience breathe easy, and Philaster must end not only with the hero getting the princess and with the girl dressed as a boy identifying herself (It is a woman!), but with the previous usurpation reversed and with Philaster regaining his birthright. It’s not just for the sake of the plot, but for divine law, which, when bent or broken, gives rise to a Richard instead of a Henry.

-Lia Razak

1 comment: