Richard II Essay - The Crown, the Mirror and the Clock: Shakespeare's Richard II

The Crown, the Mirror and the Clock: Shakespeare's Richard II

Adrian Poole, Trinity College, Cambridge

Imagine a promising actor given carte blanche to make his name with the role of a Shakespearean king. If he wanted to sport a recherché taste he might opt for Ferdinand, King of Navarre, in Love's Labour's Lost; if he were a dare-devil he might go for broke with Macbeth; perversity might point him towards Henry VI and cunning towards King John. But most young pretenders would find themselves hesitating between Richard III, Richard II and Henry V. Of these, the most difficult and perhaps the most tempting is Richard II.1

It is certainly easier to make a big hit with the other Richard. Richard HI grows out of the Richard of Gloucester we meet in the Henry VI plays, and there is an important moment half-way through Part III when he begins to seize the initiative. Up until now the world of these plays has been largely peopled by men and women whose range of vision would shame the animals to which they spend so much time comparing each other. When Richard steps forward to centre-stage, we realize with relief that he has a vastly richer sense of the world as theatre. The games that everyone else has played have been grotesquely simple ones, the recreation of hoodlums. Richard suddenly seems like a new evolutionary type. The crown he wants is not one to be picked up by stepping over a few corpses. It is a distant, an impossible dream.

Why then I do but dream on sovereignty,
Like one that stands upon a promontory
And spies a far-off shore where he would tread,
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye,
And chides the sea that sunders him from
Saying he'll lade it dry to have his way:
So do I wish the crown, being so far off, …
                    (3 Henry VI, III. ii. 134-40)

The imagination of this distance is welcome to the audience because the prospect of a desire deferred and thwarted promises the rousing of more ingenious faculties than any other characters have yet displayed. Richard will choose and make his own being—to borrow the words to which Coriolanus defiantly, hopelessly appeals at the climax of his play—'As if a man were author of himself,/ And knew no other kin' (V. iii. 36-37). Richard reviews his resources.

Why, I can smile, and murther whiles I smile,
And cry "Content" to that which grieves my
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.…
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.
                       (3 Henry VI, III. ii. 182-95)

In other words: 'I am the perfect actor; I can exercise complete control over my appearance; my selfhood will never be revealed because it will always be performing'. This is the nightmare of traditional moralists, and it justifies the suspicion that clings to the theatre and the profession of acting. But it is also a dream of total self-determination to which everyone is more or less resistibly attracted. For Shakespeare's age such a dream inevitably consummated itself in the idea of kingship and the image of a crown. The excitement and the danger in Shakespeare's histories and tragedies derive from the sense that a crown is there for the taking, by any man (and even some women).

One can see why any actor should want to play this Richard. It means playing the part of a man for whom playing a part is the breath of life. The crown is almost an excuse; if it were not the crown, he would find something else to justify the need for his bravura turns. In this respect Richard II is almost exactly his antithesis, or complement. For Richard II the crown is not something remote, impossible, an obscure object of desire. On the contrary, he takes it for granted, and the kind of pleasure he takes in his own performance is correspondingly different from that of his namesake.

William Hazlitt once remarked that actors were the best commentators on the poets. This is a fine half-truth. In fact Hazlitt more usually took the view that we are better off reading the plays than seeing them performed. Most performances interfere with our conception of the plays and it takes an exceptional actor, such as Edmund Kean, to raise our imagination of a character. Hazlitt was a great admirer of Kean's but he was also exact and exacting. He did not share the general admiration for Kean's Richard II. He said that Kean made it 'a character of passion, that is, of feeling combined with energy'. His own idea of the character was that it was one of 'pathos, that is to say, of feeling combined with weakness'. Kean's acting, according to Hazlitt, was always vigorous, extrovert, at full stretch; he was less good at portraying misgiving, vacillation, weakness. Hazlitt particularly disagreed with the way Kean played the great scene with the mirror. Kean dashed the glass down with all his might; Hazlitt would have preferred to see him 'letting it fall out of his hands, as from an infant's'.2

Hazlitt may well have been right about Kean's playing of the part as a whole, that it was too rambunctious. But in itself Hazlitt's idea of the way to play this scene is not self-evidently superior to Kean's. One can see an attraction in both ways of doing it. Both answer to something an actor ought to find in the course of his performance as a whole, Richard's capacity both for abrupt self-assertion and for equally abrupt self-surrender. Richard withers as easily as he explodes and from one minute to the next we never quite know which we are going to see. It is like Richard both to dash the glass violently to the ground and to let it slip dreamily out of his fingers.

There is certainly a critical choice here for the actor, but it is less a question of the force with which he breaks the glass than of the degree of conscious theatricality in the action. You do not become an actor unless you enjoy people looking at you. To play Richard II is to play a man who has taken it for granted that he is the centre of everyone's attention. That is the definition of a king, a man with a captive audience. What makes the part attractive and challenging is the doubt about how far and how long Richard manages to take it for granted. You can play him as a man who wakes up sharply to the fact that his audience is much less easily impressed than he had imagined, and who then takes increasingly ingenious steps to hold an attention that he cannot live without. So you smash the mirror to the ground: look at me! Or you can play him as a man who has so successfully internalized the admiration that comes with being a king that he remains triumphantly impervious to the actual responses of the world around him. To play him like this is to turn him into a kind of artist or madman, inhabiting a world of his own. This is how the late nineteenth-century actor Frank Benson played him. One critic commented in particular on his playing of the deposition scene: ' … nothing in Mr Benson's performance was finer than the King's air, during the mirror soliloquy, as of a man going about his mind's engrossing business in a solitude of its own making'.3

Actors may not always be the best commentators, but intelligent actors are always worth listening to. Here is John Gielgud on Richard II.

Richard is one of the rare parts in which the actor may indulge himself, luxuriating in the language he has to speak, and attitudinizing in consciously graceful poses. Yet the man must seem, too, to be ever physically on his guard, shielding himself, both in words and movement, from the dreaded impact of the unknown circumstances which, he feels, are always lying in wait to strike him down.4

Self-indulgence, luxuriating, attitudinizing: many people have rightly seen this in Richard II, as indeed in Richard III. For different but complementary motives the two Richards bask in the mesmerized attention they can command from others. All actors need an audience, but the audience the Richards seek is a particularly abject one. They think of the other characters in the play less as members of a supporting cast than as members of an audience to be unceremoniously dragged on stage to act as stooges and fall-guys. Hogging the limelight is the only way the Richards know how to act. But in fact—and this is where Gielgud's comment about Richard II is so shrewd—this idyllic self-absorption can only be a half-truth, a more or less fragile fiction. Richard must also be on his guard, watching out for the forces that will invade his little world of words.

The other figures in the play are far more and other than a captive audience for Richard's self-delighting, self-abusing monodrama. Richard's assumption that he holds the central role, both political and theatrical, does not go unchallenged. Gradually Bolingbroke finds himself occupying that central spot, the hot seat. And it is a major source of interest for the actor playing Bolingbroke, and also for the audience, to puzzle over how far this is deliberate or involuntary. We are given two complementary accounts by hostile witnesses of the way Bolingbroke woos the common people, first by Richard himself on Bolingbroke's banishment (I. iv. 23-36), and then by York on Bolingbroke's triumphant entry to London with Richard in tow:

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well-grac'd actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious;
Even so, or with much more contempt, men's
Did scowl on Richard.
                                (V. ii. 23-28)

It is natural to impute to Bolingbroke himself a conscious understanding of the basis of political power in the management of public appearances and the gaze of a wider audience than Richard's cosy little feudal court afforded. But there is no knowing that this is the case. It is as much a question of other people—such as York—recognizing that politics is inevitably a matter of theatre. It is a typical masterstroke of Shakespeare's that we are never allowed to see Bolingbroke consciously choosing the role he wants to play (as we saw Richard III, for example). This lends force to the sense we get that Bolingbroke is cast in the role of usurper before he has ever decided to take it on—and that he gets cast in this role by the man he usurps. Gielgud puts his finger on the thing that creates the play's central enigma and hence its dramatic energy, when he suggests that at some level Richard knows that his luxurious immunity is merely a fiction. So too with Boling-broke and the knowledge that he is doomed to change places with Richard. How, when, and where such semi-consciousness manifests itself in the two men—these are the unresolvable questions for readers and critics, and the chances and challenges for the actors concerned.

Bolingbroke is in his way no less a victim than Richard, a victim of forces that press him into acting a part that he does not entirely choose for himself. But of course he is not simply a victim. He is what he becomes by virtue of a complex interaction between his own choices and other people's. The greatness of Shakespeare's history plays is in their understanding that history is something that people make together, not as pure agents or pure victims, but through dramatic interaction. They show history in the making, and they do so by exposing the theatrical basis of public life. The crown means being at the centre of everyone's attention, the observed of all observers, an audience hanging on your every word and glance. This is at once a dream of bliss and a nightmare. If one wants to live through this dream, whether good or bad, one had better work out how the theatre of politics works.

In an essay on 'The English Kings' Walter Pater meditates on the importance of 'luxury' to Richard's career. This luxury is not so much a personal indulgence as a form of political rhetoric. Pater stresses the ornateness of the ceremonies surrounding the institution of kingship, their significance in creating and sustaining the myth of divine right. He recalls a story that after his coronation the historical Richard discovered that through some over-sight the holy oil with which he had been consecrated at Westminster had not been the genuine article, the 'balm' which according to legend had been given by the Blessed Virgin to St Thomas of Canterbury. At the crisis of his fortunes, Richard tried to get himself reconsecrated, but in vain. Pater notes that the myth of divine right was something of immediate urgency to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and that Shakespeare was projecting it back on to his historical material. But Pater imagines the historical Richard as an accomplice in this effort to affirm the reality of this myth through the power of ceremony. It was a pity about the balm, that the ceremony was in a sense a sham.

And yet his coronation, by the pageantry, the amplitude, the learned care, of its order, so lengthy that the king, then only eleven years of age, and fasting, as a communicant at the ceremony, was carried away in a faint, fixed the type under which it has ever since continued.5

Pater stresses 'the sentiment which those singular rites were calculated to produce'. He understands the role of these ceremonies, the panoply of power, in the creation and maintenance of an idea of kingship. His own sentence wonderfully re-enacts these tensions through its mimicry of the pageantry, the amplitude, the learned care and order that it is describing. At the centre of the sentence is the pathetically frail human figure who collapses under the strain, carried away in a faint. Pater finely manipulates the syntax to bring together the 'fainting' and the 'fixing', as if to press home the cost of such productions which every time require a human sacrifice. For the human figure dwarfed and suffocated by the robings of power, we may think ahead to Lear and Macbeth.

Shakespeare's own characters are radically uncertain whether kings are god-given or man-made, and this doubt affects the language with which they are crowned and enthroned. In Richard II people try hard to avoid making a choice. This is why they keep appealing to formulae that preserve the possibility that something could be god-given and man-made. Thus the oaths by which Mowbray and Bolingbroke swear before their duel: 'by the grace of God, and this mine arm' (I. iii. 22), 'by God's grace, and my body's valour' (I. iii. 37). The conjunction needs constant re-assertion. This is what the Bishop of Carlisle desperately insists to Richard on the return from Ireland: 'The means that heaven yields must be imbrac'd/And not neglected' (III. ii. 29-30). But Richard is incorrigible. He soars off into the superb, aerial hymn to a crown unsustained by brute material force.

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; …
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press'd
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: …
                                  (III. ii. 54-61)

One of the distinctive features of this play is the shameful abruptness with which such brave rhetoric gets punctured. A few lines later Richard discovers that a host of heavenly angels is all he has to fight with. He is one day too late, and the Welshmen have got tired of waiting and shogged off. At the start of the play, Bolingbroke and his father, John of Gaunt, make some rueful reflections on the power of kings over time. On a sudden whim Richard knocks off four years from Bolingbroke's exile and prompts the latter, not entirely graciously, to exclaim: 'How long a time lies in one little word!' (I. iii. 213) Now Richard begins to discover his impotence over time.

Richard accepts this impotence with astonishing speed, so quickly as to make one doubt how much of a real grip he could ever have had on the preceding language of power. There is something comical about the dexterity with which he can change his mind. That interruption of the tournament between Mowbray and Bolingbroke gave an important early warning about his whimsicality. He can wilt with staggering agility. Both in this scene and in the next, Flint Castle scene—the centre of the play—he can topple with acrobatic ease from the loftiest rhetoric about kingship to be found anywhere in Shakespeare. Again one can think of him as the corollary to Richard III, who can speak any language he wants to. But with Richard III we know where we are; we know that he knows he is putting it on. With Richard II we can never be quite sure, because he seems unsure how deep is his belief in the language he uses. Richard III never deceives himself: Richard II never seems to know whether he is deceiving himself or not. We certainly do not. In this respect Richard II is a pivotal character in Shakespeare's development, prophetic of so many central characters yet to be created.

The doubt about the grip that Richard has over the language he wields infects other characters in the play. There is the older generation of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester who seem to invest a radint, innocent belief in the magical metaphors they invoke. But theirs are the voices of the dying. There is Carlisle's courageous voice to uphold this vision in the teeth of Bolingbroke's new regime. Where Gaunt hailed the image of England as a demi-Eden, Carlisle foresees the black corollary of England as 'the field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls' (IV. i. 144). At the other extreme there is the baleful figure of Northumberland, who has no delusions or compunctions about the powers of language. But the voice that emerges as central to the play as a whole is that of York, the only survivor of the older generation, the quasi-paternal figure charged with upholding the patriarchal principle that Richard at once incarnates and flouts. Though his divided allegiance makes him a potentially tragic figure, York remains curiously comical. He gives a clue to the irresolute nature of this play, an indeterminacy that is perhaps too easy to dismiss as artistic weakness or miscalculation on Shakespeare's part. For the indecision we find in so many characters and parts of the play stems from a collective indecision about the power of language and its relationship to authority. These people do not know how impressed they ought to be by the traditional rhetoric that hedges round a king. They do not know how seriously to take it.

The most beautifully indecisive moment in the play comes at what is virtually its exact centre. King Richard displays himself on the walls of Flint Castle, and Bolingbroke hails his appearance thus.

See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing, discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the East,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident.
                                   (III. iii. 62-67)

An actor can play this as simply ironic. Bolingbroke is consciously mimicking a style we associate with Richard himself. This would be an obvious option. But the actor could get a more complex effect by leaving the audience uncertain, by playing himself as uncertain, how much belief he is investing in these words. In Othello there is an analogous irony at work at the midpoint of the play when Iago is momentarily made to speak in Othello's idiom:

Look where he comes! Not poppy, nor
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou ow'dst yesterday.
                              (Othello, III. iii. 330-32)

Such moments are all the more effective for no-one's knowing quite where such language comes from, neither audience nor speaker.

Richard II is out of joint with his world, but his world is out of joint with itself, and it is the world of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Two of the things that helped to jar it out of joint were the mirror and the clock. These two great inventions assumed vitally symbolic roles in the collective imagination, and they co-operated in a dramatic shift in people's sense of their relations to themselves, to each other, and to the world around them. In this play they are given an explicit significance: the mirror in the deposition scene, and the clock in Richard's prison soliloquy.

The reflective surfaces provided by nature have some obvious disadvantages, as Narcissus would testify. The art of making glass mirrors was known to the ancient world and then lost, but its rediscovery in twelfth-century Europe saw the gradual supplanting of metal mirrors by their glassy rivals. By the early 1500s the great Venetian factories had become capable of producing fairly inexpensive, mass-produced looking-glasses for a general public. The glass mirror became one of the technological marvels of the age, acquiring a status similar to that of the photograph in the nineteenth century. English poetry from the 1590s onwards saw a particular blossoming of 'mirror' imagery, which coincided with the greatly increased distribution of glass mirrors.6

The mirror has always been fraught with a double potential for good magic and bad. A mirror can tell you the truth, or it can tell you what you want to see. It can present an image of the exemplary on which you should model yourself, and it frequently occurs in this sense in Shakespeare. Hotspur's widow calls him 'the glass/Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves' (2 Henry IV, II. iii. 21-22), and the Chorus hails Henry V as 'the mirror of all Christian kings' (Henry V, II. O. 6). But the mirror can also serve a directly contrary motive as the emblem of flattering deception, of corrupting self-absorption. From Ovid onwards it is frequently associated with the Narcissus myth.7

Something of this doubleness can be gauged from this passage by the Puritan Thomas Salter at the start of his Mirror of Modestie (1579):

In my judgment there is nothing more meet, especially for young maidens than a mirror, therein to see and behold how to order their doing, I mean not a crystal mirror, made by handy arts, by which maidens nowadays do only take delight daily to trick and trim their tresses, standing tooting two hours by the clock, looking now on this side, now on that, lest any thing should be lacking needful to further pride, not suffering so much as a hair to hang out of order, no I mean no such mirror, but the mirror I mean is made of another manner of matter, and is of much more worth than any crystal mirror; for as the one teacheth how to attire the outward body, so the other guideth to garnish the inward mind, and maketh it meet for virtue.8

It is notable that the mirror and the clock should come together in Salter's censorious image of maidenly vanity, 'standing tooting two hours by the clock'. The clock was one of the other technological triumphs of the age. Modern horology effectively dates from the second half of the thirteenth century when the discovery of the verge escapement with foliot made possible the first mechanical clock. Until the later sixteenth century England was relatively backwards in developing the new-fangled methods of time-keeping. Henry VIII had to import French clockmakers to work on the clock at Nonsuch Palace, and there is no record of an English watch before 1580. But the last decades of the century saw a huge increase in the demand for timepieces and a corresponding influx of foreign craftsmen. In the decades after 1580 England got heavily involved in the business of horology, and by 1680 it led the world. Much of the credit must go to people like Salter and the ethos he represents.9

For Salter the clock stands in direct contrast to the crystal mirror. It is a reproof to self-absorption, a spur to Puritan industry. Looking in the mirror is a waste of time. Richard III would have agreed. He begins his play by telling us that he is 'not shap'd for sportive tricks,/Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;' and that he has 'no delight to pass away the time' (Richard III, I. i. 14-15, 25). But then Richard III is a good busy Puritan fellow, who would despise his namesake for looking too long in the mirror. When Richard II shatters the mirror in the deposition scene, he seems to be saying goodbye to the state of narcissism in which he has been enclosed. Yet there is always something ominous in the shattering of a mirror. One may think of 'the mirror cracked from side to side' in Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott'. There is no certainty that Richard has smashed the right mirror, the one that could tell him the truth or the one that has fed him with falsehood. There is no doubt that it makes a good scene.

Richard has certainly wasted his time, as he memorably observes in the prison-scene soliloquy: 'I wasted time, and now doth time waste me' (V. v. 49). The music to which he has been listening represents an idea of perfect concord. Music orders time and suspends it, raising us to a state of sublime harmony. That at least is the idea. But the music that Richard hears fails to keep the time, and this sends his thought to the contrary image for keeping the time, the modern invention of the clock.

For now hath time made me his numb'ring
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, …
                                    (V. v. 50-52)

There is a certain formality to the way the mirror and the clock are featured in this play, as in certain Sonnets with the language of which it has so much in common. Richard ponders their meanings with an exaggerated explicitness. He is not the man he thought he was, the author of his own being, free to be whoever he wants. The mirror and the clock help him to focus the recognition, that his self is not his own but at least partly determined by others. He dwells with a curious fascination on this discovery.

We may compare him with a couple of other self-absorbed characters who will shortly succeed him at the centre of their respective plays: Prince Hal and Hamlet. It has been well said of Richard II that he is theatrical but not dramatic. His idea of theatre is at heart autistic, a oneman show. He never really interacts with others; indeed, he is rather ingenious at avoiding it. When his theatre falls apart, he displays an astonishing capacity to recompose it with the very figures of its collapse: hollow crowns, shattered mirrors, broken music. The prison in which we find him at last alone is the logical issue of his dream of himself. The clock he imagines as an elaborate machine for measuring his suffering turns the prison into a masochist's paradise of pleasurable pain. Richard's discovery of the mirror and the clock remains abstract, theoretical. By contrast Hal and Hamlet live the truth of these discoveries out. The important mirrors and clocks by which they live are embodied in other people. Hal watches himself in the mirrors provided by Falstaff and his father and Hotspur; Hamlet watches himself in virtually everyone around him. And in these plays time is neither measured nor transcended by clocks or through music. It is made and kept and lost through the human exchanges that give it meaning and value. The character in the world of the Henry IV plays whom Richard II turns out most to resemble is, surprisingly, Falstaff. They share a deep reluctance to relinquish their childlike assumption that the world is a theatre that revolves around the self, more or less obedient to its elastic fantasies. The world is a theatre, but the theatre is a more democratic institution than they realize and sooner or later the dream of autocracy is shattered.

Yet rather than end on such a moralistic note, it would be more generous to close with some lines of Richard's that show him at his best, as it were. They come in the prison soliloquy.

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king,
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again, and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas'd, till he be eas'd
With being nothing.
                                             (V. v. 31-41)

These lines look forward to Hamlet, the Hamlet who perceives at once how various and how fragile are the potential selves we can imagine, and who can give such eloquent expression to the paradox through which we have to live, of the 'nothingness' on which our being is grounded. Richard II is a good part, and if you made a success of it, you might be allowed to graduate to the Prince of Denmark.


1 References to King Richard II are to the Arden text, ed. Peter Ure (London, 1956). All other references to Shakespeare are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

2 William Hazlitt, The Examiner, March 19, 1815, reprinted in the Macmillan Casebook on Shakespeare: Richard II ed. Nicholas Brooke (Basingstoke and London, 1973), pp. 33-36.

3 C. E. Montague, The Manchester Guardian, 4 December 1899, reprinted in the Macmillan Casebook, p. 67.

4 John Gielgud, Stage Directions (1963), reprinted in the Macmillan Casebook, p. 77.

5 Walter Pater, Appreciations (1889), reprinted in the Macmillan Casebook, p. 57.

6 See Herbert Grabes, The Mutable Glass: Mirror-Imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and English Renaissance, tr. Gordon Collier (Cambridge, 1982).

7 A. D. Nuttall has an excellent essay, 'Ovid's Narcissus and Shakespeare's Richard II: The Reflected Self, in Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, ed. Charles Martindale (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 137-50.

8 Quoted in Grabes, p. 51 : here with modernised spelling.

9 See Carlo Cipolla, Clocks and Culture, 1300-1700 (London, 1967).

Source: "The Crown, the Mirror and the Clock: Shakespeare's Richard II," in Surprised by Scenes: Essays in honour of Professor Yasunari Takahashi, edited by Yasunari Takada, Kenkyusha, 1994, pp. 54-68.