I was eager to see the shadows lengthen during the performance of Richard II. It was a hot afternoon in mid-July. We were seated outside on a bath towel at Volunteer Park in Seattle. It had been slightly overcast when we arrived, and there was still an intermittent chill in the air. But shortly after having spread the towel on the grass and sitting down and removing our shoes and stretching our legs out the clouds had mostly disappeared and the sun shone in full glory.
The only shade available was to the far left of the amphitheater and was already fully occupied by a group of people. I’m guessing these people were familiar with the grounds and knew that this would be the only shade within shouting distance of the action about to unfold. But then, when we first arrived, shade had not been on my mind. I wondered, in fact, if I might need to wear my jacket during the performance. I was quickly disabused of that notion. I felt the full temper of the sun on my face and hands. I was wearing jeans. My legs broiled like chickens in a rotisserie.
Here’s the thing: I crave heat all year long. So when it gets here, when I’m feeling it, I immerse myself in it even to the point of total, excruciating discomfort. That’s so when fall arrives and Seattle recedes once again into the gloom of cold wet days inevitably adrift into the sodden vulva of winter I will retain some memory of the sun’s luscious heat in my bones.
I made a mental note to bring a large umbrella next time we attend a free Shakespeare in the park performance and then surrendered myself to the nuclear fusion furnace that is the sun. How is it possible, I wondered, for that big gold thing to go on exploding and exploding without, you know, exploding? Exploding like other things explode on earth, volcanos and bridges and bank vaults, in a hail of rocks and smoke and debris and total destruction. Like the twin towers on 9/11 when they went pop! pop! pop! pop! and collapsed in a fine powder of exquisitely organized controlled demolition.
But not the sun. It explodes a billion trillion times in a gazillion different places and remains, a great sphere of steady never-failing light spewing flame and solar wind into the cold deep hollows of space. How does that happen? I know, turbulent whorls of atomic nuclei exchanging properties and the consequent differences in mass produce energy.
Or something to that effect.
And it goes on and on and on. For at least another five billion years. But I still look up, squint, take a quick look, and worry about what would happen if it just blinked and went out. You know? Just hung there, a giant lump of coal. Which we probably wouldn’t be able to see, the darkness would be so impenetrable. How long would it take before we all froze? Fun things to think about before a play about the fall of a king begins.
The Society of American Fight Directors put on a show of sword fights. A large man and an attractive woman in striped pants fought one another with swords, jabbing, twirling, clanking. It was graceful and fluid. One of the parties played dead and the crowd applauded. The sword people bowed and left the grounds. A woman with flaming red hair began pounding a drum. Richard II and his retinue appeared and the play began.
Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster,
Hast thou according to thy oath and band
Brought hither Henry Hereford, they bold son,
Here to make good the boist’rous late appeal,
Which then our leisure would not let us hear,
Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?
The actors were all dressed in heavy Elizabethan costumes, which I pitied. The heat in all that fabric must’ve been considerable.
Richard II bore a remarkable resemblance to the young Mel Gibson of The Road Warrior. The actor’s name was Gavin Douglas and he had recently moved to Seattle from southern Oregon.
The word ‘sun’ appears eight times in Richard II. I find its first mention deeply moving. It comes after Richard has banished Henry Bolingbroke from England. “Your will be done: this must my comfort be, / That sun that warms you here shall shine on me, / And those his golden beams to you here lent / Shall point on me, and gild my banishment.”
The scope of this statement is stunning. The idea that wherever in the world he goes the same sun shining on England will be shining on him is nothing less than cosmic. The word ‘cosmic’ does not appear anywhere in Shakespeare’s works, but that’s the word for it.
‘Cosmic’ comes from Greek ‘kosmikos,’ meaning “of the universe.” The statement reveals a great deal about Henry Bolingbroke’s character. It foreshadows his way to the throne in the regal breadth of its fullness and latitude, and implies (perhaps unknowingly) the relativity of wealth and power. England isn’t the only game in town.
As the play proceeded, I grew hotter, and began looking longingly at the wall of the amphitheater: a small thin strand of shadow appeared at its base. I looked at the sun. It was still high in the sky. It was doubtful that it would lower enough in the next half hour to lengthen that small thin band into a broad swath of cooling air.
In Act III, scene iii, Richard languishes in Flint Castle, in Wales, powerless, without an army. Bolingbroke still respects the guy: “See, see” he says, genuinely excited, “King Richard himself doth appear, / As doth the blushing discontented sun / From out the fiery portal of the east, / When he perceives the envious clouds are bent / To dim his glory and to stain the track / Of his bright passage to the occident.”
‘Occident’ comes in a bit awkwardly at the end, a rather clunky word, clunkier than ‘west,’ but ‘occident’ rhymes with ‘bent’ and ‘west’ does not.
It’s now late in the play I’m getting dizzy and a little nauseous from the direct sunlight pounding its way into my head. I hope I don’t get sunburned on the top of my head. I check periodically to reassure myself that I have enough hair to prevent sunburn. I don’t feel reassured. It feels pretty thin up there.
The play ends and we get up from our bath towel. It feels good to get some movement into my body. I hand Henry Bolingbroke a ten-dollar bill. He thanks me, smiles, and leaves to accept donations from others getting their things together.
The performance in the park, staged by Green Stage, was streamlined to fit within a two-hour timeframe. Yet strangely, one of the speeches included in their production was excluded from the 2012 British television film version of Richard II, with Ben Whishaw playing Richard II and Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke. This is Scene ii from Act II and depicts the Queen interacting with Richard’s friends Bushy and Bagot. The scene is expendable in terms of the plot; Richard and his queen don’t interact until deep into the play. There is nothing to suggest what their relationship is like. Most recent productions suggest Richard is gay. He appears to be hanging out with his male friends most of the time. The Queen is an afterthought. But this is unintentional. She really does love Richard, and her anxiety about his future is very movingly displayed. Bushy’s attempt at making her feel less apprehensive is an astonishingly insightful speech. “Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,” he tells her, “Which shows like grief itself, but is not so; For Sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears, / Divides one thing entire to many objects, / Like perspectives which, rightly gazed upon, / Show nothing but confusion.”
“It may be so,” the Queen answers, “but yet my inward soul / Persuades me it is otherwise… As, though on thinking on no thought I think, / Makes me with heavy nothing faint and shrink.”
“Heavy nothing.” That’s brilliant. She knows her anxiety is illusory, a product of the mind run amok, perspectives awry, everything distorted, exaggerated, blown out of proportion. It’s strange to find this in a text 422 years old. But why should that be? Why shouldn’t an educated person living in Elizabethan England wonder about the nature of anxiety? And come to a conclusion as brilliant as Richard’s distraught Queen: “For nothing hath begot my something grief, / Or something hath the nothing that I grieve: / Tis in reversion that I do possess, / But what it is that is not yet known what, / I cannot name; ‘tis nameless woe I wot.”
We have a term for it in the 21st century: GAD. Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Which sounds clinical and smacks of health policy issues. I prefer “heavy nothing.” But try to get a prescription for that.