As it’s old Will Shakespeare’s 400th deathday this year I have been enjoying more of the Bard than usual on radio, TV etc. but I have yet to see or hear my favourite Shakespearean speech — Richard II sitting on the ground and musing about the transience of power.
So I had to look it up. I’ll give it to you in full in a moment, but firstly let’s look at the stage directions for Act 3 Scene II.
SCENE II. The coast of Wales. A castle in view.
Drums; flourish and colours. Enter KING RICHARD II, the BISHOP OF CARLISLE, DUKE OF AUMERLE, and Soldiers
KING RICHARD II
Barkloughly castle call they this at hand?
Richard has just sailed over from Ireland. Shakespeare’s geography could be a little hazy at times — he gave Bohemia a coast and he notoriously took a boat from Verona to Milan — but Barkloughly simply doesn’t exist. Richard names it directly, so Shakespeare wants to place the scene, but he gets it wrong. It’s clearly not Berkeley Castle, because that’s not in Wales, let alone on the coast, so let’s look for candidates — OK, let’s just investigate one candidate, because there’s no need to look for more.
The Welsh terminus of the royal route from Ireland to Wales, as related in the Mabinogion, was Harlech. There was a Welsh castle here of which no trace now remains. The English fortification must have been built on top of it.
Shakespeare could have heard the name Harlech spoken and transliterated it as Barkloughly. Apart from the -ly at the end, the assonance is the same: Harlech — Barklough.
Just south of the castle was a promontory with the best view on the coast of Wales, a rocky outcrop with a castle in view where courting couples used to come in the nineteenth century to watch the sunset.
Much to the annoyance of those courting couples an Englishman came along in 1907 and built a house on the outcrop. That house — you’re way ahead of me — was Murmur-y-Don.
So my contention, my firm belief, is that WS sat Richard II down on the spot where I’m sitting right now, typing this, and gave him one of the finest speeches of all time. It goes like this:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and — farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
I’m sitting on History!