The Importance of Being Exton

I’ve seen a half-dozen productions of Richard II both live and (mostly) on DVD, and in most the knight Piers Exton, Richard’s killer, is swapped out for or combined with another character, most often Aumerle. I suspect two directorial motivations. First, to trim the cast. Second, to avoid having the play’s climactic Big Event occur at the hands of a character who is, at most, a silent background extra until more than half-way though Act V.

While the Exton/Aumerle swap adds a frisson of betrayal at the end, it’s a betrayal that to me usually rings hollow. Moreover, it misses two key points that I think are central to the play.

First, that threats to political stability don’t always come from major political players. While Henry Bolingbroke occupies most of the play’s – and Richard’s – attention, Bolingbroke doesn’t so much threaten the existing political order as represent its continuation. Even the dynastic line remains unbroken. Bolingbroke, arguably already heir to the throne, deposes. But Exton, a nobody out of nowhere, disposes.

Historically, a young Richard II faced down the Peasant’s Revolt, an uprising of relative sociopolitical nonentities who were treated as such – and worse – as soon as they were deceived and crushed. Having a minor character kill Richard both echoes and closes that earlier revolt.

Second – and, as a writer today I think this is the more-important point – Richard’s death at Exton’s hands shines a spotlight on the underbelly of political dialogue. It demonstrates how idle comments that may have been made by influencers (the audience has only Exton’s recollection, after all), including leaders but also including, oh, playwrights, can provoke unwanted violence from unexpected quarters. Exton’s importance lies in his unimportance.

Bolingbroke himself identifies this tremendous power very early in the play: “Four lagging winters and four wanton springs/End in a word; such is the breath of kings.” (1.3.214-215)

I don’t think these are especially prescient points for Shakespeare to have made. After all, politics has been going on for a long, long time, and the fundamental issues are simply evergreen. But each generation discovers the truths anew for itself.