Of all the Bard’s protagonists, perhaps Richard II most embodies the multitude-containing, embarrassment-embracing soul of leadership. Yeats declared, for example, that Richard II was his favorite Shakespearean character: A terrible leader at the start, petulant and self-absorbed, who ultimately relinquishes his crown. Says Michael Boyd: “The key is to become a Richard II, but not to play him weak. Play him strong.”
The play begins with Richard II’s unspeakable acts — banishing his political enemies and confiscating their family wealth — and continues until the end of his reign, when his rival Henry Bolingbroke stands up to him and confiscates the throne. By that point, Richard has given up fighting; he recognizes that ending his reign is the right thing to do for the kingdom. He is utterly and wisely human. By contrast, the usurper Bolingbroke (now Henry IV) mounts the stairs to the throne with the weight of cares and guilt, and a question of why he ever wanted to be king.
Richard II is not without his flaws, but arrives in the end at a kind of peace. Perhaps that’s why Queen Elizabeth I is said to have commented, toward the end of her reign, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” Was she simply talking about her fears of being murdered (as many historians think), or did she have something else in mind? She was famous for her quiet, firm temperament as queen, amid almost 45 years of rebellions, plots, and wars. Did she find in Richard’s example some self-possession that allowed her to play that role?
William Shakespeare stopped writing about kings as he entered the last third of his life. His protagonists in his final plays, starting with Cordelia in King Lear, are often young women who achieve a startling maturity and teach the men they admire and love how to be both more human and greater leaders. Perhaps this reflects Shakespeare’s own life trials; after his son, Hamnet, died at age 11, the playwright, who apparently divided his time between Stratford and London, spent more time in Stratford to be close to his wife and two daughters.
How do you play the character of a great leader who is both deeply human and strong enough to rise above day-to-day politics? You look to Cleopatra, the heroine-regent of the play that T.S. Eliot considered Shakespeare’s finest work, Antony and Cleopatra. I was thus grateful to see Tina Packer twice in a rare performance of this play — first in rehearsal and then onstage — in the role of the charismatic queen.
Packer, who is the founder and artistic director of the Berkshire Mountains theater group Shakespeare & Company, is in her late 60s, which makes her about 15 years older than the previous oldest Cleo on record, Dame Judi Dench, who played the role at the age of 53 in 1987. Dench had at first demurred, saying she would seem like “a menopausal dwarf” in the role of the Egyptian queen who brought the beloved Roman general Mark Antony to his knees and shook the absolute ruler Julius Caesar in his boots. But she, and now Packer, have proved that age is no barrier, and is possibly even a boost, to portraying a female ruler famous for wisdom, maturity, and seductiveness.
As I watched the rehearsal, I thought of Hillary Clinton, another female politician trying to build her public presence with an extremely visible longtime consort nearby. At first, whenever the hunky 40-ish actor playing Antony took the stage, Packer seemed to recede and even disappear. But gradually, during the rehearsal, Packer’s presence improved, and by showtime, she was the center of attention: the queen of the performance.