I didn’t sit down to write this because of International Women’s Day or the attached Day Without a Woman, but it’s at the very least standing in the corner of this post, arms crossed, tapping its toe.
I’ve finally hit roughly the midpoint of annotating Richard II for this summer’s Kentucky Shakespeare production. This one is a little denser than some, probably because of it’s being 100% verse and all. We’re up to the Gardener Scene.
But it’s not really his scene – it’s also the closest thing to a tiny almost-Bechdel moment we have, and even it’s a definite almost-. It opens with two Ladies and the Queen.
Now, there are those who call her Isabel because that’s who Richard was married to in 1399, but the stage directions only ever call her “Queene”.
You see, Isabel was his second wife, about ten years old at the time. (Before you get creeped out, I should note that Richard, in his early thirties, married her to secure a peace with France. Still sketchy to us, but in the 1390s, not particularly shocking.) His relationship with his late first wife, Anne of Bohemia, was famously (in Holinshed, at least, as well as Woodstock, the anonymous play to which this one is a sort-of sequel) happy and romantic and devoted and such. At least so it is said.
This is why I’m resistant calling her Isabel. A lot of characters and places and time-spans are conflated in the Shakespeare’s histories. What’s one more?
Anyway, the Queen is a lovely role, but is unsurprisingly tiny – her husband has 758 lines, she has about 115. But pound for pound, she holds her own.
I should admit to a professional sexism here: it’s my job to trim these plays judiciously for our summer seasons, but in the interests of parity when paring, the men often get sliced without mercy and if possible I don’t touch the women’s lines at all. I don’t know that that’s a uniformly good thing (I’m still worried that leaving Hermione almost entirely intact last year despite everyone else’s trims gave her more social power than she evidently had and skewed a play that already literally idolized her, but I’m going to screw this up one way or another so it might as well be that way). But there it is.
So this summer we’ll be hearing from the Queen(e) and attendant Ladies about bowling and whatnot because dammit they barely have a scene, let’s let them have their whole scene. III iv is already so concise that to cut the distractions her waiting-gentlewomen attempt before she gives in (well, again, almost-) to grief would be lumpy anyway.
So, bowling, dancing, singing, grief:
Lady: Madame, I’ll sing.
Queene: ‘Tis well that thou hast cause:
But thou should’st please me better, would’st thou weepe.
Lady: I could weepe, Madame, would it doe you good.
Queene: And I could sing, would weeping doe me good,
And never borrow any Teare of thee.
(See? Lovely.) And then Men approach. A Gardener and his two assistants. And out rang the lines that like so much of this play resonated as if sung by the Heavenly Choir of Weighty Current Events. For our Queen sayeth:
But stay, here comes the Gardiners,
(alright not that line so much; wait for it)
Let’s step into the shadow of these Trees.
My wretchednesse, unto a Rowe of Pins,
(a little obscure, but I love this: roughly translates as “I’ll bet my sorry state against a row of (proverbially worthless) sewing pins”)
They’le talke of State:
(of COURSE she wants to hide in the trees – no sane person really looks forward to talking politics with strangers, internet be damned.)
for every one doth so,
Against a Change;
(again, she hits it on the head: the day’s big story is the day’s big story and it takes some skill to distract people from it coughcough. Then comes the kicker.)
Woe is fore-runne with Woe.
Now, I was peeking through the Arden edition’s notes, usually reliable and always plentiful, and it suggests this could be restated “Gloomy happenings (in politics) are heralded by gloomy predictions.” Which works in a way, I suppose, but seems so specific, especially when coming from a person who has been discussing her reasons for woefulness just before. And, yes, she’s queen, so her woes will always have politics attached to them, but they’ll always be personal, too.
It’s that “fore-runne” that does it for me. “When it rains, it pours” is all very well, but the image of one Woe running in front of another, either as herald to something worse or just because these Woes of hers are racing and one is a bit faster than the other (the OED backs up both of these options) is a far piece stronger than any handy clichés. The Queen can talk, is what I’m saying, and talk well.
So while absolutely nothing happens in this scene that is essential to the plot, you’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.*
Enough ravings. On to Act Four.
*no one has for a moment suggested I should cut any of the scene; whether this is because all right-thinking people agree or they fear the twitchy eye I might get from it is anybody’s guess.