I think the above statement is true.
I think it’s doublely true for political history. There are just so many details that are unfeasibly funny.
I went to see Richard II at The Globe this week, and aside from unconfusing me about the differences between the fates of Edward II and Richard II, which I had mixed up earlier in the day, it reminded me that something about the world ensures that politicians inherently turn towards the ridiculous. I’ve seen Richard II once before (the RSC/Tennant production), but while I remember that I thought it was good and interesting, I mostly remember David Tennant’s wig. I don’t remember laughing.
But in this production, the more seriously everyone takes themselves and the things they’re arguing about, be it honour, shame, or treason, the more unexpectedly hilarious the things becomes, with gloves being flung down on the boards at speed reminiscent of the moment the game of hand stacking (you know, the one where you pull the bottom hand out and put it on the top of the stack?) completely disintegrates. I completely shouldn’t be surprised that Shakespeare finds the funny in history. He skewers human frailty better than pretty much anyone ever,
The very fact that Richard doesn’t take this stuff seriously early on actually emphasises the fact that he doesn’t really have a clue about the forces swirling around him – and that’s not funny at all. In contrast, Bolingbroke completely gets it, and spends a large proportion of his time on stage rolling his eyes at the nonsense. Where it suddenly gets tense is the moment when Richard finally has to face the reality of handing over his crown, the ultimate symbol of his political status, to Bolingbroke and reflects very seriously on what he’s about to do. Bolingbroke meanwhile, who (aside from being exiled) has politicked his way through the play with aplomb, is aware exactly how wrong the whole situation could go for him, in terms of his monarchic legitimacy, stops rolling his eyes and focuses all his energy on not just ripping the crown from Richard’s hands yelling ‘I WON, YOU EEJIT.’
Of course, the medieval concern of the courtiers of Richard and Henry with their own dignity has hardly gone away, They just perform it on Newsnight rather than in the lists of a tournament. It’s kind of depressing that in over 500 years no one and nothing has managed to work out how to stop people being more concerned with their own dignity than the substance of the stuff going on, especially when everyone is looking at them,.