I have been studying how to compare
This prison where I live unto the world.
With that simple verse—change unto to to and it’s modern English — Shakespeare invites us into the mind of the incompetent monarch Richard II. It’s a big contrast to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” In that soliloquy, the opening is so concise it’s shocking, and Shakespeare needs the next 35 lines to explain the thinking behind it. King Richard starts with the explanation, then gets to the grand statement.
Richard II is self-absorbed, dissolute, and (the fateful transgression) contemptuous of his nobles. When he returns from war in Ireland, an army led by wronged aristocrats meets him. Richard’s own army and public support melt away. Stripped of his crown and thrown in jail, he finally uses his poetically charged intellect to his (and our) advantage.
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders: how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
What an amazing way of saying “wish I could dig my way out of here, and how lame of me to think I can.” In the parallel section below, read content as contentment and refuge their shame as take comfort:
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune’s slaves,
Nor shall not be the last, like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortune on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
We don’t put people in stocks anymore, but the parade of public humiliation marches unceasingly forward. Every day there’s a story reveling in someone’s embarrassing behavior, like this one that made news in the Bay Area last week.
But enough of self-pity. Thirty lines in, Richard moves toward the pay-off:
Thus play I in one prison many people
And none contented.
The key word is prison, which we now understand has a double meaning for Richard: not just the dungeon he’s in, but the body he’s in, for the body imprisons the soul. He’s been at both the pinnacle and the nadir of the social order. His thoughts have ranged from escape to acceptance. Who is he, really? He knows he’s unhappy no matter what role he plays or what thoughts he has. Beyond that, though, he never really figures it out. Yet he manages to see past himself to universalize his condition:
But whate’er I am
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.
Those lines blew me away when I first read them as a college sophomore searching for wisdom. And they’re the reason I made The Life and Death of King Richard the Second the first Shakespeare play I re-read after retiring.
Why read Shakespeare? Mostly to avoid Richard’s fate, which he acknowledges toward the end of the soliloquy: I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. For me, reading the greatest English-language poet ever is one of the best uses of time imaginable.
But I confess: I also do it in reaction to a culture that chose an artistic, imaginative, and introspective bankrupt as its leader, and in reaction to the element of the culture that mistakes “angsty teen Tumblr posts” for poetry.