Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

Richard II

Illustration of PDF document

Download Richard II Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The first play of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, Richard II, chronicles the conflict which started the century-long War of the Roses. Richard II, however, is much more than a chronicle of events. The play debates the nature of legitimate kingship, explores the swirling eddies of political power, and demonstrates the power of language to create and depose a king.

Twentieth-century critics have often focused on the nature of kingship in Richard II, particularly the ways in which Shakespeare juxtaposed Richard's understanding of himself as divinely appointed with his failures as a human being. According to John R. Elliot (1968), Richard believes that as king he is directly aided by God, that he is not subject to human frailty, and that England is his to with as he pleases. Elliot argues that this mistaken notion of his role as king ultimately leads to Richard's failure. John Halverson (1994) also connects the source of Richard's failure with his own misunderstanding of kingship, maintaining that while the play presents Richard as a bad king, it is less certain about the notion of divine rights of kings. He asserts that Richard II neither "condemns" Richard nor "extols" Henry, but rather demonstrates the inherent problems in the nature of kingship itself.

Other scholars have attempted to distinguish between the divinity of the Crown and the person wearing the crown. H. M. Richmond (1967) has carefully examined the character of Richard and that of Bolingbroke, demonstrating how Richard's understanding of kingship represents the medieval view, while Bolingbroke is representative of the early modern, pragmatic sense of politics. Allan Bloom (1981) has similarly noted that Richard II brings to light the end of the old order of medieval chivalry and points toward the new order of politics and pragmatism. Robert Jones (1991), conversely, has asserted that Richard's failure is not that he represents an old order, but rather that he fails to pay heed to the lessons of the past.

The subversive nature of Richard II has continued to attract critical attention. Several commentators, including David M. Bergeron (1991), have discussed the way medieval Christian cultures embraced the topsy-turvy world of carnival in order to contain and control subversion. Bergeron maintains that it is the carnivalesque—embodied in the language, the structure, and the politics of the play—which makes Richard II an exploration of stability and subversion. Other scholars have contended that politics in Richard II reside in the family and in the patriarchal structures that maintain and reproduce the culture. Sharon Cadman Seelig (1995), for example, has demonstrated that family politics underscore national politics. She asserts that although Richard II is often read as a power struggle between the king and a usurper, it is also a play about the power struggle between fathers and sons.

Language also plays a role in the construction and the deposition of a king. Critics have compared Richard's poetic, hyperbolic, lovely language with the plain style of Bolingbroke, contending that the differences in their language styles reflect their characters and their conceptions of kingship. Further, scholars often associate Richard's language with that of medieval chivalry and Bolingbroke's with that of modern dynamism and competition. For instance, R. P. Draper (1989) has demonstrated that the rhetorical construction of Richard's last speech reveals the overturn of a particular type of world view, one in which duty to one's superiors is paramount. He argues that Richard's play with language leads him ever closer to self-knowledge; however, self-knowledge does not provide salvation for Richard. Rather, Draper asserts, the closer Richard comes to understanding that kingship is a role he has been playing, the closer he comes to understanding his own culpability for his actions.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13765

H. M. Richmond (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Richard II," in Shakespeare 's Political Plays, Random House, 1967, pp. 123-40.

[In the following excerpt, Richmond demonstrates a shift from the medieval notion of kingship represented by Richard to the early modern idea of kingship represented by Bolingbroke.]

Richard II may be related to King John by its deliberate choice of yet another reign whose erratic character invited an ambiguous response in Elizabethan Englishmen, like the "saintly" incompetence of Henry VI's administration, or the feebly crafty yet anti-papal orientation of John's. The play also achieves a more exciting recombination of the political resources previously shared between John and the Bastard, which are now shown to be not in alliance but in opposition. John's cunning and the Bastard's pragmatic political sense fall to the lot of Bolingbroke, while the verve and rhetorical color of the Bastard combine, in Richard, with a certain rashness and moral casualness that had been shared by both John and his supporter. The result is a striking increase in dramatic tension; whatever the dates of composition of the two plays, Richard II is superior both in its language and in its political sophistication, not to mention its subtlety of characterization. Indeed, the hypnotic rhetoric of Richard and the progression of his personality and his career have encouraged critics to think of the play as essentially the individual tragedy of his fall from eminence. This is a distortion, for from the first scene to the last the real issues are never based on Richard's exclusive concerns, but bear directly on his role in the body politic. In fact, the commentators' over-concern with the idea that tragedy is based on the convention of a flawed hero, coupled with their rather casual attitude to the complex political tensions throughout the play, have often resulted in their misreading not only the action of the play, but equally the character of Richard himself.

The opening scene, for example, establishes a masterly counterpoint between the bravura of formal political debate in the medieval style and the treacherous, indeed murderous events and instincts that really govern these highly rhetorical performances. In line with that preservation of the distinction between the absolute integrity of the Crown and the personal fallibility of its human component that we first noted in King John, Bolingbroke's challenging of Mowbray appears to be merely an example of one local lapse in the administration of government resources, thereby entirely avoiding the formal involvement of the king's reputation in such matters. Yet at the heart of Bolingbroke's challenge of Mowbray lies a veiled threat to Richard himself, as the implied initiator of Mowbray's actions, and particularly of the assassination in Calais of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who was the uncle of both Richard and Bolingbroke. Richard is thus in certain senses both judge and defendant in Bolingbroke's somewhat specious case against Mowbray, as Gaunt unhappily admits to Gloucester's widow at the start of the next scene:

Alas, the part I had in Woodstock's blood
Doth more solicit me than your exclaims,
To stir against the butchers of his life!
But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven.


The implicit ambiguity of Richard's position in the opening scene may thus seem to invite an unsympathetic response toward him on our part, and indeed, at one level of interpretation, Bolingbroke plausibly appears to be the champion of family honor and loyalty.

Unfortunately, at another level he is chiefly concerned with undermining Richard's authority and even the very basis of his survival. In this, Bolingbroke's course proves analogous to (but more discreet than) that goal of deposing and even assassinating Richard, which had historically forced the king to arrange in self-defense for his uncle's assassination. As a further complication it turns out, later in the play (IV.i.80-2), that Mowbray is in fact to be held as innocent of the murder of Gloucester as he earlier protested, even while recognizing that there were indeed valid grounds for such an act:

For Gloucester's death,
I slew him not; but to my own disgrace
Neglected my sworn duty in that case.


This statement may be readily understood to mean that loyalty to Richard as King of England requires all his subjects to protect him from the mischievous plots of such envious relatives as Gloucester. In one way, therefore, we may with justice begin to wonder whether Richard's situation is not closer to that of the doomed young Edward V in Richard III than to that of the would-be assassin who wears the crown in King John. Richard's father was a hero—the Black Prince, heir to Edward III; but since he had died before Edward, Richard had succeeded his grandfather on the throne at the tender age of ten, with consequent strain on his relationship with his gifted and experienced uncles. Their resentment, both veiled and open, surrounds Richard like a sinister miasma from the very opening of the play, often breaking out into savage vituperation, as in Gaunt's dying speeches:

O, had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye
Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possess'd,
Which art possess'd now to depose thyself.


There needs only a little extension of this sentiment to justify such acts as those meditated by Gloucester; it is hard not to see in Bolingbroke's challenge to Mowbray the calculated jostling of the throne by a rival cousin who hoped to shake down the fortunate heir to the crown.

In fact, in the context of these intense family pressures, it is surprising that Richard manages to maintain his poise as well as he does in the opening scenes. If anything, Richard's self-possession reflects the dangerous assumption that he enjoys unlimited freedom of action. Despite an unmistakable intellectual superiority to those around him, Richard fails to concern himself sufficiently with the political currents that are swirling just beneath the surface. He stops to reason and argue instead of taking a decisive role, as Bolingbroke so arrogantly does in the analogous situation that arises, when he begins to assume command of England (IV.i.86ff.). Richard continually reflects that almost casual freedom of expression and action of the Bastard Faulconbridge that had remained incidental to the central pattern of most of King John, but which in Richard II becomes a fatal complication in the needful impersonality of Richard's administration.

Richard's fault thus does not lie in any simple defect of private personality. He is certainly not as deeply vicious as Gaunt would have us believe in his famous deathbed denunciation (II.i.93ff), for Richard's return from Ireland to his kingdom is marked by almost as intense a statement of devotion to his native land (III.ii.4ff.) as that of Gaunt in his famous celebration of "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" in Act II, Scene i. Nor is Richard incapable of the most graceful gestures of kingly mercy, as when he spares Bolingbroke the full term of his exile, remitting four of his ten years of exile in consideration of the grief of Bolingbroke's father, Gaunt. Nor will it do to censure the judgment passed by Richard on the intended combatants at the tournament, since it is clearly established that this is in no sense the result of a spontaneous gesture on the part of the king. Richard orders them to hear, not his personal verdict, but "what with our council we have done" (I.iii.124); and, in the case of Mowbray at least, the council's decision is one "Which I with some unwillingness pronounce" (I.iii.149), so that there seem some justification for Richard's resentment at Gaunt's response to his son's reduced sentence:

Thy son is banished upon good advice,
Whereto thy tongue a party-verdict gave:
Why at our justice seem'st thou then to lour?


Altogether there seems, if anything, too great a spirit of conciliation and spontaneous good nature in Richard's actions during these early scenes, rather than any moral weakness or viciousness.

The one point on which he has been censured on plausible grounds is the manner of his conduct, which inflates the actual status of an issue to the disadvantage of a swift and decisive settlement. Richard mistakes the visibility of an action for the effective accomplishment of its aim. In King John we have already seen how effective government offsets the apparently fatal consequences of a poor public showing. In Richard II, on the other hand, we see that neither legitimate authority nor a dashing public figure is enough to sustain an effective administration. Bolingbroke lacks Richard's intellectual verve and imaginative potential, as we can see in his dreary response to the consolations offered for his exile:

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?


On the other hand, Bolingbroke has the tightest grasp on political realities and can therefore turn every occasion to personal advantage, as Richard quickwittedly, but altogether too contemptuously recognizes. At Bolingbroke's departure, Richard tells how he has

Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune.


The fact is that Richard would have been well-advised from the start to redirect his own freeswinging personality toward a similar exploitation of his political advantages. While Richard despises such narrow considerations, his casualness results in hasty administrative judgments, as when he sells off his resources of taxation for ready cash (I.iv.42ff.). In such matters, he is often guilty of flippancy and even of bad taste, as in his jibe at the news of Gaunt's decline:

Now put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish Wars.


Richard's primary tactical mistake in the play is to translate this unfortunate inspiration into action, under the spur of the dying Gaunt's own vehement wish to dispossess Richard himself of his birthright. York's feeble attempt to soften the king's resentment by arguing that Gaunt loves him as dearly as does Bolingbroke sets off in the king's alert mind an exactly antithetical reaction to the one that was intended:

Right, you say true: as Hereford's love, so his;
As theirs, so mine; and all be as it is.


Under the emotional tension of the recurring threats of deposition arising out of the hatred of his relatives, the king as usual acts spontaneously and without weighing the political consequences. He too readily shrugs off York's laborious exposition of them:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not tomorrow then ensue to-day;

Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?


Richard is continually being betrayed by the family rivalries into courses of conduct such as this one which invites further calculated challenges to his authority. The murder of Gloucester, plausibly ascribed to Richard (though this is never proved in the play), would thus be no random act of viciousness, but a desperate gesture of self-defense on Richard's part. In its turn, the murder lent color to the diffusion of Gloucester's rebellious mood throughout the entire family.

While it must be acknowledged that Richard's seizure of the dead Gaunt's lands constitutes a dangerous precedent and reflects Richard's poor political tact, we must also recognize that it cannot be the original pretext for Bolingbroke's return in the play, even though he is shown characteristically to twist it to this advantage, upon landing. For the very scene in which Richard announces his seizure of his uncle's estate, and is thereupon admonished by York, concludes with Northumberland's revelation that Bolingbroke has already left the Continent, to which he had been exiled, and is thus launched on his armed return to England well before Richard's politically unfortunate act. Bolingbroke has a group of distinguished followers, listed by Northumberland, and:

All these well furnish'd by the Duke of Bretagne
With eight tall ships, three thousand men of war,
Are making hither with all due expedience
And shortly mean to touch our northern shore:
Perhaps they had ere this but that they stay
The first departing of the king for Ireland.


Thus, if Richard is fighting—often brutally but with some traces of dignity and much immediate justification—to preserve his legitimate authority, Bolingbroke from the start sustains Gloucester's anarchistic initiative, and ultimately becomes a traitor, greedy for power, even though he is masterful in finding plausible color for all his actions. He unquestionably incarnates all that coarse but efficient opportunism that Richard's finer character instinctively fails to cultivate, and into which he lapses awkwardly, and only when under acute pressure. The tragedy of Richard is not what nineteenth-century critical fashion would have him share with Hamlet—the failure of the merely "poetic" temperament to cope with realities. It is much rather the disaster that results when opportunism is not curbed by superior cunning, achieved at perhaps an even higher cost to private moral worth than Richard resentfully pays.

The famous garden scene establishes the universal necessity for the sort of brutal rigor that the high-minded ruler must cultivate in order to sustain his other, more civilized resources. The Gardener symbolically maintains a ruthless order in his little Commonwealth, telling his fellow servants:

Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ'd, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers.


The discussion then progresses naturally to the king's failure to maintain a similarly firm discipline in his larger territory:

O, what a pity is it
That he had not so trimm'd and dress'd his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruittrees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty.


The reproach is thus that Richard is too lenient and generous. The Gardener is clearly concerned primarily with expressing approval of Bolingbroke's execution of Bushy and Green; but the generalizations might apply equally to anyone (including Bolingbroke himself) who had raised his head too high for the king's (and the kingdom's) peace.

In fact, Bolingbroke's severity against Richard's supporters is shown to be little more than a caricature of justice: his accusations are vague, for the most part: "You have misled a prince" (III.i.8), or fatuous, as when he accuses them of having "Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him" (III.i.12)—a fault, incidentally, of which he may be later accused far more legitimately himself (V.i.51-102). Bolingbroke's most precisely urged charges against Richard's men are also the most private and local:

. . . you have fed upon my signories,
Dispark'd my parks and fell'd my forest woods,
From my own windows torn my household coat,
Razed out my imprese, leaving me no sign,
Save men's opinions and my living blood
To show the world I am a gentleman.


The charges are plausible enough, but if Richard is initially tainted in Act I for judging a case (and comparatively how mildly!) to which he was himself a party, then Bolingbroke is here far more culpable for usurping a judicial role to which he has no title whatsoever, as well as being overtly compromised in the case, in which he appears as plaintiff, prosecutor, and judge.

Bolingbroke is basically a ruthless manipulator of political forces, indifferent to any larger issues than those dictated by expediency, as he is later made to confess on his deathbed to his son:

God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect and crook'd ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.

(2HIV, IV.v. 184-7)

In many ways Richard is the exact opposite of this antagonist: fluent and generous, where Bolingbroke is constrained and surly; ideologically sophisticated, rather than grimly pragmatic; loving free debate and discussion, whereas Bolingbroke is either unctuous or blunt and ruthless. Above all, Richard is a man who is more deeply aware of the possibilities of human volition: he perpetually gives the impression of a man who chooses his course of conduct consciously, however metaphysically or abruptly he may seem to do so. By contrast, Bolingbroke moves almost without volition through the currents of political life, deciding his conduct instead by instinctive reflexes, as in his clever tactics during the deposition scene.

The limitations of Richard's temperament are best illustrated by his earlier behavior, on his return to his kingdom from Ireland, when his sense of his own nominal authority is sharply juxtaposed with the consequences of overmuch dependence on the consistency of attitude of those to whom he has too confidently trusted the kingdom during his absence abroad (perhaps his worst strategic error). Richard's notorious overconfidence at the start of this scene is not quite as grotesquely unrealistic as it might appear. It is true that he has an almost ecstatic conviction of his own power:

This earth shall have a feeling and these stones
Prove armed soldiers, ere her native king
Shall falter under foul rebellion's arms.


and it is also true that Aumerle reinforces the bishop's admonition to Richard not to depend only on God's will, but also to use "the means that heaven yields." It has been a theme of reproach to Richard that he replies to his "discomfortable cousin" by reiterating his faith in the principle that "heaven still guards the right." In the context of this argument, it now appears somewhat ironic that, in the proposal for a tournament with which the play begins, Richard was not content to leave the matter to such arbitration. However, it remains doubtful whether Richard's confidence on his return to England is even then considered fairly to be based on trust in providence alone. At this point he still quite reasonably expects more than adequate military resources to be supplied by Salisbury and York, whose vacillations and incompetence defy any anticipation. One would be almost as unfair to blame Richard for his early optimism while awaiting the arrival of these armies, as for being cast down and pale thereafter, when he learns that they do not exist:

But now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;
And, till to so much blood thither come again,
Have I not reason to look pale and dead?


It is scarcely surprising that his thoughts now turn to "sad stories of the death of kings"; he knows his enemy too well to hope for such mercy as he himself had accorded Bolingbroke in reducing his exile. Bolingbroke's reflexes will be, as always, toward ruthlessness; his mercies are merely calculated.

Richard's sole remaining weapon lies in his maturing psychological subtlety, as we can see this reflected in his formal intellectual and rhetorical power. Wherever possible, he uses such resources boldly and with increasing political impact as he accumulates bitter firsthand experience. His public posture after his capture at Flint is only momentarily imposing, but by the time of the famous deposition scene his impact, both political and emotional, on the court and on the play's audience matches Bolingbroke's more evenly than ever before. This is prefigured in the Bishop of Carlisle's powerful attack on Bolingbroke's brusque announcement, "In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne" (IV.i.113).

The naked power that alone vindicates Bolingbroke's proceedings continually conflicts with the human intensity and increasingly bitter self-awareness of Richard. He even manages to resist the relentless pressure of Northumberland to recite his "grievous crimes." Boling-broke backs down when he begins to realize the potency of Richard's rhetoric in his resistance to humiliation:

Must I do so? and must I ravel out
My weaved-up folly? Gentle Northumberland,
If thy offences were upon record,
Would it not shame thee in so fair a troop
To read a lecture of them? If thou wouldst,
There shouldst thou find a heinous article,
Containing the deposing of a king
And cracking the strong warrant of an oath

Mark'd with a blot, damn'd in the book of heaven: . . .
Mine eyes are full of tears, I cannot see:
And yet salt water blinds them not so much
But they can see a sort of traitors here.
Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself,
I find myself a traitor with the rest;
For I have given here my soul's consent
To undeck the pompous body of a king;
Made glory base and sovereignty a slave,
Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant.


The stature of Richard here begins to approach the heroic, as his self-realization and indignation fuse his personality into a coherent whole, in which mind and action become one. Shakespeare is too wise, of course, to present us with the spectacle of an alert young man matured instantly and irrevocably into a powerful and commanding personality. Not only has Richard by now completely lost the physical initiative to Bolingbroke, just at the moment when he attains the moral authority to which he aspired in the opening scenes, but Richard still favors discursive debate at the expense of the immediate issue. He has attained to a clear sense of the conceptual order of which the English crown has traditionally been the keystone, only to digress speculatively on more subjective meditations along tangents in which Bolingbroke is only too happy to encourage him:

Bolingbroke: The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd
The shadow of your face.
King Richard: Say that again.
The shadow of my sorrows! ha! let's see:
'Tis very true, . . .


Thus it is Richard's intellectual vivacity that deflects him from his last opportunity to translate his now highly tuned awareness of the philosophy of politics into direct action. Only in his last moments will Richard finally achieve a tigerish physical potency of the kind that earlier would have been able to render ineffectual all of Bolingbroke's tough, insinuating strokes.

Nevertheless, Richard unmistakably commands the last scenes, just as Gaunt seems to dominate the opening ones. When the grimly phlegmatic Northumberland separates Richard abruptly from his queen, the deposed king launches into a precise political forecast of his enemy's fate, fully vindicated by the action of the first part of Henry IV:

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is ere foul sin gathering head
Shall break into corruption: thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
And he shall think that thou, which know'st the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urged, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death,


One has only to compare the authoritative tones of this analysis with Richard's superficial plausibility in the opening scenes, to recognize how much he has matured. He no longer commands respect by his status, which is now negligible, but by his innate resources of personality. While he continues to be publicly humiliated, he carries this off with a dignity superior to the best he can muster at his deposition, as even the turncoat York ruefully admits. After sketching Bolingbroke's triumph, he describes Richard memorably:

But dust was thrown upon his sacred head;
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combating with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience,
That had not God, for some strong purpose, steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted
And barbarism itself have pitied him.


The new order of Bolingbroke is rightly characterized in York's account as one that is enforced by hard hearts and barbarism. York himself does not see the irony of his making new oaths of eternal loyalty to a new king so soon after betraying the old one, nor does he fully recognize the new emotional climate that civil strife has induced. In this new order there will be less inclination for fathers to seek, as did Gaunt, their sons' well-being. Not only does York himself hound his son mercilessly for political reasons, but Bolingbroke's own son apparently revolts against loyalty to so disloyal a man as his father:

Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since I did see him last:
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found:
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent,
With unrestrained loose companions, . . .


The slack structure of this degenerate new society can never hope to recover the finer temper that had characterized Richard's court, for all its strains and tensions. Richard aspired to reason and to gallant generosity, even if he did stoop to forced taxation and to revenge for injuries offered or sustained. And while in all other ways Henry's kingdom is to be worse than Richard's, Henry himself is no more innocent of the instincts of the assassin than was Richard, and far more culpable in practice, since he invites Richard's murder, not so much in response to sustained threats of his own assassination, such as had motivated Richard against Gloucester, as to protect his stolen kingdom against even the possibility of its restoration to the rightful ruler by such figures as York's son Aumerle.

It is ironic that under the new king the bravest acts are those that are associated with the deposed king. Richard's last scene is the best evidence of that evolution of his personality from a facile mustering of kingly dignity, perpetually at odds with youthful optimism and spontaneity, to a new, bitterly wise, and ruthless maturity. This last scene is marked by an extraordinary fusion of resigned self-knowledge with physical resolution, a fusion that is completely incompatible with the view of Richard as an oversensitive poet, incapable of action. Richard's long soliloquy is a more complete recognition of himself than Shakespeare allows many of his political heroes:

Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disorder'd string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;...


There is no longer any discrepancy between Richard's refined awareness and a firm grasp of effective reality. Not only does he instantly perceive the plot to poison him, but he reacts with extraordinary physical promptness to the assault by Exton and his servants. In Holinshed, Richard kills four of his nine assailants; in Shakespeare, only two, out of a presumably smaller number required for satisfactory staging. Either way we are presented with a figure who is no longer tragic but epic. Whatever the character of the historical Richard (and he was apparently at least as complex and impressive as Shakespeare makes him), there is no doubt that the dramatist follows Holinshed in wishing Richard's last moments to be an heroic apotheosis, a vindication of that archetypal authority that he had far too casually lost to Henry.

This is a tragedy for all concerned—for Richard, for England, and for Henry. Exton has barely epitomized Richard's final state of mind: "As full of valour as of royal blood" (V.v.114), before we are confronted with Henry's uneasy announcement of the difficulties his own example has invited:

Kind uncle York, the latest news we hear
Is that the rebels have consumed with fire
Our town of Cicester in Gloucestershire;
But whether they be ta'en or slain we hear not.


These, the first of a long series of rebels, prove to have been defeated. Yet the play ends on Henry's attempt to shrug off any responsibility for Exton's murder of Richard, in a speech that closely echoes that of King John to Hubert, the supposed murderer of Prince Arthur:

They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour.


Yet not so long before, according to Exton, Henry had said: "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?" (V.iv.2). Nor do we have Exton's word alone: Shakespeare is careful to corroborate the fact that Henry spoke the words twice, by providing the testimony of the servant to whom Exton is speaking. Henry's guilt is thus explicit in a way that Shakespeare has previously taken pains to ensure was not the case with Richard's involvement in the death of Gloucester.

One can only take consolation from the repercussions of Henry's dawning sense of his own guilt, which encourages a new element of mercifulness toward those who are more loyal than he was: Aumerle and Carlisle, Richard's best allies. Since they are "traitors" to the new king, policy might well argue for their deaths; but with the attainment of his ends there appear hints of new potentialities in Henry—the office begins to impose its own higher discipline on the man. However, the dignified rhetoric of the High Middle Ages, which made the first scenes of the play so stately, has been permanently invalidated by the disintegration of the medieval sense of hierarchy on which it depended—a sense of cosmic order that the Elizabethans recalled, with understandable nostalgia. For that metaphysical sanction of authority on which Richard II confidently depended, and which Henry VI somewhat skeptically solicited, Shakespeare's presentation of the reign of the first Lancastrian king substitutes the success of unequivocal power politics of the modern, pragmatic kind. Unfortunately, these politics justify not only the subversion of Richard II's immature and archaic rule, but also the subsequent destruction of the last Lancastrian, Henry VI, by a revitalized Yorkist party—and the ultimate extinction of these Yorkists in turn, by the Tudors. Richard II is thus intended to present a largely historical account of the political decline from the primal innocence of the ideal medieval society to a Machiavellian pragmatism in the modern vein. Shakespeare systematically identifies in Bolingbroke that new type of amoral personality to whom success and title will necessarily go in the modern political life that has been cut off from medieval cosmic values. He devotes the rest of his political plays to the investigation of whether such a personality, and the environment it creates, are in any way compatible with the practice of the archaic virtues and the Christian ideal.

Robert C. Jones (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Richard II: 'Let Not Tomorrow Then Ensue Today'," in These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 69-94.

[In the essay below, Jones discusses how Richard's neglect of the heroic past of his father contributes to his failure as king.]

Like the three parts of Henry VI, Richard II dramatizes the forcible replacement of an ineffectual king, son to a heroic father, by an apparently more able leader and ends by emphasizing the unstable condition of the new ruler's regime. In both cases, for those who do remember, the son's shortcomings are all the more sharply outlined by the recollected light of the father's virtues. But, as we have seen, the progressively deteriorating situation through the earlier trilogy is marked by growing "neglection" of the heroic past. And in Richard II, as the "skipping king" gives way to "grim necessity" in the person of Bolingbroke, their heroic predecessors and the past in which they flourished seem even more radically lost. It is not just that things are getting worse as sons fail to emulate exemplary fathers or harden their fathers' dangerous willfulness into willed villainy, which was the sorry case in the second and third parts of Henry VI. It is as though the succession that linked son to father is broken altogether; as though the glorious past not only fades and is forgotten but has no functional relationship with "this new world" in which former heroic models would seem alien and out of place. At the end the new king, already "full of woe," looks far away to the Holy Land in what we know to be a futile hope for a redemptive crusade. Neither he nor anyone else, however, any longer looks back to the valiant dead who preceded him or attempts to redeem the present time by awakening the spirit of the past.

Those valiant dead, "the Black Prince, that young Mars of men" (II, iii, 101) and his father, Edward III, are prominently recalled through the first half of the play. But it is significant that they are remembered almost exclusively by the aged survivors of the Black Prince's own generation—by his brothers, "old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster" (I, i, 1) and the duke of York, "now prisoner to the palsy" (II, iii, 104), and by the widowed duchess of Gloucester. Insofar as the departed heroes "live" at all, they live in memories that are now expiring, not as models who are revived by a new generation. And the roles these few survivors play, as well as the nature of their recollections, enforce the sense that the past they remember (and still in some measure attempt to represent) is being lost, that it serves no vital function for a present in which they themselves feel lost at best.

Again, comparison with 1 Henry VI, in which the situation is in many ways so similar, suggests the different sense we get of the change taking place in Richard II. In the earlier play the duke of Bedford, surviving brother to the dead hero, despite his funeral-procession lament that "arms avail not, now that Henry's dead," still carries his brother's heroic spirit into the bereaved and worsening present. When he dies, he does so, despite age and illness, in a way that consciously lives up to his heroic heritage as he understands it from history. Brought before the walls of Rouen "sick in a chair," he refuses to be carried from the scene of battle to "some better place":

For once I read
That stout Pendragon in his litter sick
Came to the field and vanquishèd his foes.
Methinks I should revive the soldiers' hearts,
Because I ever found them as myself.

(III, ii, 94-98)

And his onstage auditors accord him the tribute such a valiant final gesture deserves:

Undaunted spirit in a dying breast!
. . . . .
Let's not forget
The noble Duke of Bedford, late deceased,
But see his exequies fulfilled in Roan.
A braver soldier never couchèd lance,
A gentler heart did never sway in court.


"Let's not forget"! As we noted earlier, it is, appropriately, Talbot who speaks here, and his words insist on the continuity that should keep the "undaunted spirit" embodied by Bedford alive from age to age.

By contrast, the dying Gaunt's final scene features his famous set piece in which the model portrait of England is held up only to be shattered by the "shameful conquest" the debased England of the present has made of its true self. Like the queen who later terms Richard's undoing "a second fall of cursèd man" (III, iv, 76), Gaunt's description of the England-that-was as "this other Eden, demi-paradise," suggests a fundamental loss, a basic change in the condition of things, not just a worsening situation.1 It is true that Gaunt, buoying himself for the purpose with a host of formulaic old saws, intends (despite York's discouragement) to breathe his last "in wholesome counsel to . . . [Richard's] unstaid youth" and therefore at least persuades himself to hope that reform—the restoration of things as they were and should be—is still possible. And it is true that his inspired expiring vision of "this scept'red isle" in its "proper" image seems cast, as he develops it for eighteen lines, in a virtually eternal present rather than being thrust retrospectively into the past. Could such a "fortress built by Nature," such a "happy breed of men," ever fall or falter? The verbs and participles all suggest a continuous present, and therefore even those "royal kings" whose "renownèd .. . deeds" and chivalric crusades must necessarily belong to English history if Gaunt were to give them names (Edward III? Richard I?) are invoked not as past heroes but as timeless beings created out of England's continuously "teeming womb" (II, i, 40-56). But when the anguished turn finally comes, when "this dear dear land/ . . . Is now leased out .. . / Like to a tenement or pelting farm" (57-60; emphasis added), the transformation from the posited model to the present cruel reality seems so extreme as to be an irreversible change in kind, not a temporary decline. The felt difference between king and landlord, between sceptered isle and tenement is not merely one of degree, as Gaunt expresses it. And he finally does relegate to the past the England that had seemed so permanently ordained by Nature: "That England that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself ' (65-66; emphasis added).

We need not suppose that Gaunt, for all his deathbed sense of himself as a "prophet new-inspired," clearly foresees an ever-fallen future or fully gives up to an irretrievable past his idea of England as "this earth of majesty." The latter vision is too compelling for him, and though he knows that the current scandal will not vanish with his expiring life (67), it would be overstating the point here to suggest that he consciously dooms his "blessed plot" to perpetual bondage as a pelting farm. But our perspective on Gaunt's image of England as it "was wont" to be includes the fact that he, the guardian of that vision, is dying and that there is no young successor to renew or sustain it in "this new world." Richard, for whose ears Gaunt is presumably saving his remaining breath, does not even hear this grand epitaph to the sceptered isle he is now leasing out so shamefully. The prophet spends himself on this vision before the careless king and his entourage arrive. We will return to the significance of the actual final exchange between the dying uncle and his royal nephew in a moment.2

Those other voices of memory, the duchess of Gloucester and the duke of York, give us the same sense that the heroic past is lost—indeed, that it is being violently rooted out—in the present. The duchess's plea that Gaunt should avenge his brother, her murdered husband, begins with this elegy for the faded sons of noble Edward:

Hath love in thy old blood no living fire?
Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one,
Were as seven vials of his sacred blood,
Or seven fair branches springing from one root.
Some of those seven are dried by nature's course,
Some of those branches by the Destinies cut;
But Thomas, my dear lord, my life, my Gloucester,
One vial full of Edward's sacred blood,
One flourishing branch of his most royal root,
Is cracked, and all the precious liquor spilt,

Is hacked down, and his summer leaves all faded,
By envy's hand and murder's bloody axe.

(I, ii, 10-21)

Whatever "living fire" survives in her "old blood" expires, like Gaunt's, early in the play. The report of her death in II, ii merely gives official confirmation to her own clear assertion that her leavetaking in this second scene, as she returns to the "empty lodgings and unfurnished walls, / Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones" of her widowed Plashy, is a final one, both to Gaunt and to the world that has destroyed and forsaken her:

Farewell, old Gaunt. Thy sometimes brother's wife
With her companion, Grief, must end her life.
. . . . .
Desolate, desolate will I hence and die!
The last leave of thee takes my weeping eye.


Even her memory of noble Edward and his seven sons focuses on the dried branches and faded leaves of those she recalls. And with her early passing, as with Gaunt's, we see such memories themselves fading away.

Unlike his brother and his sister-in-law, York survives his nephew Richard and accommodates himself to the "new world" of his other nephew, Bolingbroke. York recalls the lost heritage of his generation more fully than do these other two, and the nature of his survival and accommodation tells us even more about the rupture with the past than do their deaths. As with Gaunt, comparison with York's counterpart in the Henry VI plays helps to clarify the sense of just what has been lost here. Like York, who lives on as "the last of noble Edward's sons" after Gaunt's death, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester survives his brother Bedford and, again like York, both recalls the past and attempts to maintain its virtues in a present that dismays him. Indeed, Gloucester's dismay at the foreseen effect of Henry's foolish marriage to the dowerless Margaret is expressed in terms that might largely apply to the loss of the past in the present that York deplores in Richard II:

O peers of England, shameful is this league.
Fatal this marriage, cancelling your fame,
Blotting your names from books of memory.
Rasing the characters of your renown,
Defacing monuments of conquered France,
Undoing all as all had never been!

(2HVI I, i, 96-101)

Blotting memory, erasing renown, defacing monuments—these are, as we have seen, the awful opposites of the proper emulation that awakens remembrance of the valiant dead and renews their deeds. And when Gloucester sums up this negation as "undoing all as all had never been," he might well speak for York as that harried elder likewise recalls his heroic brother's deeds and laments their undoing by his nephew's inglorious hand:

I am the last of noble Edward's sons,
Of whom thy father, Prince of Wales, was first.
In war was never lion raged more fierce,
In peace was never gentle lamb more mild,
Than was that young and princely gentleman.
His face thou hast, for even so looked he,
Accomplished with the number of thy hours;
But when he frowned, it was against the French
And not against his friends. His noble hand
Did win what he did spend, and spent not that
Which his triumphant father's hand had won.
His hands were guilty of no kinred blood,
But bloody with the enemies of his kin.

(II, i, 171-183)

But if York's grievance includes Gloucester's dismay that the son spends what the father gained, he sees another dimension in the "undoing" that confronts him. For Gloucester, "undoing" was precisely the loss of lands won, the negation of accomplishment which amounts (rather more figuratively than literally) to erasure of the accomplisher's renown. And despite Warwick's responsive tears because the extent and strategic location of the lost territories put them practically "past recovery" for his sword, nothing has so altered his and Gloucester's world that what has been carelessly thrown away could never conceivably be recovered. But as York points out with such anguish, Richard's obliteration of Hereford's right to inherit the Lancastrian property (not just his seizure of the property itself) sunders the very process of succession that gives the present (including Richard himself) its identity, its being, in terms of the past:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself—for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?


The order that the horrified York sees being broken here is not just a static Chain of Being or Degree but the temporal continuity that defines the present structure by inheritance from the past. And with "sequence and succession" thus shattered, the present he sees suffers more than a loss of memory or of lands. It loses "itself," its means of determining who is king or subject, what is right or wrong (or the only means of doing so that York knows and credits), and he therefore feels helplessly lost in it:

God for his mercy! What a tide of woes
Comes rushing on this woeful land at once!
I know not what to do.

(II, ii, 98-100)

Confronting in the person of his other nephew the rising tide of power politics that Richard's heedless action has unloosed, York can only yearn wistfully for the time when his might could enforce what he saw to be right:

Were I but now lord of such hot youth
As when brave Gaunt thy father and myself
Rescued the Black Prince, that young Mars of men,
From forth the ranks of many thousand French,
O, then how quickly should this arm of mine,
Now prisoner to the palsy, chastise thee
And minister correction to thy fault!

(II, iii, 99-105)

"O, then . . . !" But the vigorous action of that lost time and its lost leader, the Black Prince, are as alien to the present time as the palsied arm of York is incapable of setting it right. By the fading light of his past, York still believes that might does not make right ("to find out right with wrong—it may not be" [145]). But seeing only wrongs and no right around him and confessing that his "power is weak and all ill left," this last relic of a vanished era first pronounces himself a "neuter" and then only pauses on the brink of breaking his "country's laws" as he has always known them before falling in with his inexorably advancing nephew: "Things past redress are now with me past care" (152-171). Again, the contrast with Gloucester, though it obviously reflects character as well as situation, is instructive. When he eschews his fallen wife's warning against the snares of his enemies, Gloucester may be naively overconfident that others will act, as he does, in accordance with the law:

I must offend before I be attainted;
And had I twenty times so many foes,
And each of them had twenty times their power,
All these could not procure me any scathe
So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless.

(2HVI, II, iv, 59-63)

But if others break the laws to bring him down, the steady firmness with which he adheres to justice and with which he meets his undoing when it comes is threatened by no realization that the foundation of law itself is lost. The latter is York's case, and in a world bereft of Time's charters themselves (and thus "past redress") he drifts despite his reluctance into Bolingbroke's rapidly expanding camp. Once there, he attempts, as we shall see, to construct a new basis for succession and hence for right action. But this "last of noble Edward's sons" never again looks back to take his bearings by noble Edward's time or recalls "the Black Prince, that young Mars of men." For him, as for everyone else, that heroic past is now lost indeed.

That these elders are the primary spokesmen in the play for history so recent that it highlights their own youth, and that they dwell on invidious comparisons between their heyday and what they perceive to be a scandalous present, is scarcely surprising, however significant it may be for our view of the change under way.3 What is more surprising and certainly more instrumental in that change is the nature of Richard's responses to their recollections and his very different attitude toward the past. To a certain extent, this difference fits stereotypical expectations about generational conflicts over old ways and new on his side as well as theirs. Before he is shocked into articulating the profound implications of Richard's appropriation of his cousin's inheritance, York, as prone to conventional phrasing as his brother, expresses his skepticism about the effect of "wholesome counsel" on Richard's "ear of youth" in just such stereotypical terms:

No; it is stopped with other, flattering sounds,
As praises, of whose taste the wise are fond,
Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound
The open ear of youth doth always listen;
Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy apish nation
Limps after in base imitation.
Where doth the world thrust forth a vanity
(So be it new, there's no respect how vile)
That is not quickly buzzed into his ears?
Then all too late comes counsel to be heard
Where will doth mutiny with wit's regard.4

(II, i, 17-28)

Any individualizing traits disappear in the formulaic youth who "doth always listen" to the enticing call of newfangledness (with the customary taint of "proud Italy" on it) and to the flatterers who sweeten their "venom" with praise. But nothing in the dialogue actually given to Richard or to that hapless trio dubbed "caterpillars" by his enemies fills out (or even necessarily fits) this stencilled portrait (though producers may choose to follow its pattern for costuming and staging). And in fact, Richard's most significant features extend beyond the stereotype.

Carelessness, of course, is a common feature of wayward youth, and the young king's flagrant carelessness certainly impresses his observers onstage and off—nowhere more so than in the sequence immediately following Gaunt's death. The flippancy of his momentary adaptation of Gaunt's own hackneyed proverbial mode as a response to the solemn occasion ("The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he; / His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be") is underscored by his abrupt dismissal of the subject altogether: "So much for that!" (II, i, 153-155). And his obliviousness to the gist of York's outbursts when he promptly confiscates Gaunt's (now Hereford's) property ("Why, uncle, what's the matter?") is underscored even more pointedly when Richard names the disaffected old man (whose "tender patience" he has just pricked "to those thoughts / Which honor and allegiance cannot think") lord governor of England during his pending absence in Ireland because York "is just and always loved us well" (186-221). Of special significance, however, is one dimension of Richard's carelessness, prominent in this sequence and consistent throughout—and that is his utter disregard for the past in general and his own heritage in particular.

Here we find a facet of the young king that seems surprising enough to border on paradox. One delusive prop of his carelessness, of course, is his faulty (and by mid-play faltering) assumption that his royal blood is somehow inviolable and invulnerable:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.

(III, ii, 54-57)

But though he makes so much of his "sacred blood," it is as though, for him, it has no source, as though it were simply a given of his condition, a unique endowment of the "anointed king . . . elected by the Lord." When the duchess of Gloucester twice echoes the term that Richard first uses in the opening scene (119), it is with quite natural reference to the line (the root and its branches) through which such royal blood flows, so that the seven sons are as "vials" preserving their father Edward's "sacred blood" (I, ii, 12, 17). It is never so for Richard, whose royalty acknowledges no root.

This "neglection" is all the more remarkable in Richard as the son and grandson of those far-famed heroes who are otherwise so often remembered through the first part of the play—that is, through his own tenure as king in the play. His total unresponsiveness to (and evident incomprehension of) York's anguished evocation of the Black Prince's noble image is perfectly characteristic in this respect. In similar circumstances, we heard Henry VI express his full (and understandable) consciousness both of his heroic father and of his own deviation from his heritage, defending the latter with an apparent mixture of saintliness and petulance:

I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind,
And would my father had left me no more.
For all the rest is held at such a rate
As brings a thousandfold more care to keep
Than in possession any jot of pleasure.

(3HVI, II, ii, 49-53)

But unlike Gaunt's charge that Richard should have been deposed before he was ever crowned and that he is now effectually deposing himself, York's account of the radical difference between father and son (so barbed, with its explicit reference to the murder of Gloucester, that York virtually apologizes for his lèse majesté) stirs, as we have seen, nothing more than unconcern and evident puzzlement in the young king (II, i, 184-188). Rather than touching a nerve, York is addressing a blank spot in Richard's makeup. In a play that is filled (up to the deposition) with reminiscences, Richard never looks back to the past and only once alludes even obliquely to his unique heroic heritage (who else among Shakespeare's kings could boast of both a father and a grandfather of such mythic stature?).5

This is the passive side of Richard's curiously "unhistorical" stance—his total neglect of those valiant dead who should lend such luster to his precious royal blood. The active side, manifest both in attitude and action, amounts to the virtual opposite (not just negligence) of heroic renewal that restores life to (and gains vitality from) remembered precursors. Instead of awakening remembrance by emulating their deeds, Richard, like death itself, destroys and buries his "fathers" and forefathers, "undoing all as all had never been." The fullest display of this inversion comes in Gaunt's final scene. Both coolly (before he arrives [I, iv, 59-64]) and heatedly (after Gaunt delivers his "wholesome counsel" more in anger than in sorrow), the young king wishes his old uncle dead. And their exchange illustrates Richard's odd conception of his "royal blood," which detaches him (and it) from any familial or historical connection, as well as his willingness to shed the blood that would be "his" if he acknowledged such connections. In this respect he is, if less self-consciously and therefore less villainously, "himself alone," like that other Richard.

Gaunt alters their scene from banter ("Can sick men play so nicely with their names?") to a serious thing by reversing their roles and naming Richard the deathly ill patient, careless of his condition. Then, characteristically looking back more than ahead, the dying "prophet" wishfully reconstructs a history that might have been if "noble Edward" had been a prophet indeed:

O, had thy grandsire, with a prophet's eye,
Seen how his son's son, should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possessed,
Which art possessed now to depose thyself.

(II, i, 104-108)

This heated (surely not "frozen," as Richard terms it) admonition, by contrast with York's, which follows hard upon, stings Richard's "royal blood" to "fury"—not, evidently, because it sets him against his father's heritage (York's will do that just as emphatically) but because it dwells on deposition and verbally strips Richard of his "right royal majesty": "Landlord of England art thou now, not king" (113). Richard's fiery and insistently "regal" response includes the single reference he makes to his father in the entire play:

Darest [thou] with thy frozen admonition
Make pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood
With fury from his native residence.
Now, by my seat's right royal majesty,
Wert thou not brother to great Edward's son,
This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head
Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.


But note that even here Richard mutes the implicit connection between the royal blood that has its "native residence" in his countenance and his descent from "great Edward's son." It is primarily as Gaunt's brother rather than his own father that the Black Prince gains whatever sway he has in Richard's conscience here.

Gaunt's reply, rather than simply remarking on the impotent absurdity of threatening a dying man with execution, spells out the full implications of Richard's stance toward his heritage:

O, spare me not, my brother Edward's son,
For that I was his father Edward's son!
That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapped out and drunkenly caroused.
My brother Gloucester, plain well-meaning soul—
Whom fair befall in heaven 'mongst happy
souls!—May be a precedent and witness good
That thou respect'st not spilling Edward's blood.
Join with the present sickness that I have,
And thy unkindness be like crooked age,
To crop at once a too-long-withered flower.


Gaunt insists on the connection that Richard had grudgingly acknowledged here and elsewhere ignores altogether—on the confluence of the blood that runs from father to son and brother to brother. And by identifying Richard as the young pelican who drinks his parent's blood, Gaunt reinforces the duchess of Gloucester's argument that spilling a "vial" of Edward's blood (or accepting a brother's death without retaliation) is equivalent to both patricide and suicide:

Ah, Gaunt, his blood was thine! That bed, that womb,
That metal, that self mould that fashioned thee,
Made him a man; and though thou livest and breathest,
Yet art thou slain in him. Thou dost consent
In some large measure to thy father's death
In that thou seest thy wretched brother die,
Who was the model of thy father's life.

(I, ii, 22-28)

Just so, in Gaunt's figurative terms, by killing one uncle and willing another's death, Richard has "tapped out" his own father's blood. Rather than renewing the Black Prince through youthful emulation as a proper "model of . . . [his] father's life," Richard, as Gaunt makes clear, unnaturally behaves "like crooked age" and joins with sickness to crop the "too-long withered flower" that carries the same blood and is of the "self mould" as his father.6

If Richard thus inverts the ideal of renewing his heroic father (or "fathers") through active remembrance in the present, that ideal finds its spokesman early in the play in the person of Bolingbroke, Richard's opposite in so many ways. "Lusty, young, and cheerly drawing breath" as he enters the lists against Mowbray, Boling-broke addresses his father in terms that insist both on the paternal source of his blood and on his commitment to revive old Gaunt in his own "lusty havior":

O thou, the earthly author of my blood,
Whose youthful spirit, in me regenerate,
Doth with a twofold vigor lift me up
To reach at victory above my head,
Add proof unto mine armor with thy prayers,
And with thy blessings steel my lance's point,
That it may enter Mowbray's waxen coat
And furbish new the name of John a Gaunt
Even in the lusty havior of his son.

(I, iii, 69-77)

The father inspires the son and the son revives the father. In keeping with the "twofold vigor" of this spirit, which serves as an evidently positive counterpart to Richard's negligence of his heritage, all early references Bolingbroke makes to his "high blood's royalty" are placed in the proper context of "the glorious worth of. . . [his] descent" (I, i, 71, 107). But all such reference (and deference) to his lineage ceases when he assumes royal power in what can only be his "own" right. When it serves his purpose as he moves toward the throne, he uses the language of Gaunt and the duchess of Gloucester that identifies son with father and brother with brother. He speaks thus as he "becomes" Lancaster and confronts the still resistant York:

As I was banished, I was banished Hereford;
But as I come, I come for Lancaster.
And, noble uncle, I beseech your grace
Look on my wrongs with an indifferent eye.
You are my father, for methinks in you

I see old Gaunt alive. O, then, my father,
Will you permit that I shall stand condemned... ?
. . . . .
I lay my claim
To my inheritance of free descent.

(II, iii, 113-136)

The terms may be "right" so far as they go, but they are also self-serving enough to seem sophistical, glossing over as they do the hard fact that Bolingbroke does not so much "lay his claim" as force it "in braving arms" (143). York, before he capitulates to "things past redress," cuts through his nephew's case clearly enough with his simple, single-edged maxim: "To find out right with wrong—it may not be" (171, 145). Shortly thereafter, on the very brink of usurpation, Bolingbroke salutes Richard (through Northumberland's embassy) with the sort of reference to their heritage that Richard himself never makes, though here, despite his posited humble posture, the virtual equivalence suggested in their "royalties" stemming from the same "royal grandsire" may tell us more about the opaque usurper's designs than he himself ever does:

Thy thrice-noble cousin
Harry Bolingbroke doth humbly kiss thy hand;
And by the honorable tomb he swears
That stands upon your royal grandsire's bones,
And by the royalties of both your bloods
(Currents that spring from one most gracious head),
And by the buried hand of warlike Gaunt,
And by the worth and honor of himself,
Comprising all that may be sworn or said,
His coming hither hath no further scope
Than for his lineal royalties, and to beg
Enfranchisement immediate on his knees.

(III, iii, 103-114)

But once Richard's "linear royalty" has actually been violated (along with this profuse oath disclaiming that purpose), all such terms disappear from the lines of the new king and his party—and indeed from the play itself.

It would not suit the promoters of Bolingbroke's "new world," of course, to awake remembrance of a heritage that could only highlight their unwarranted seizure of the crown. Northumberland and his eager recruits had first faulted the "most degenerate" King Richard in terms used by Henry VI's partisan Lancastrian critics (Gloucester, Clifford) as well as by his Yorkist foes:

For warred he hath not,
But basely yielded upon compromise
That which his noble ancestors achieved with blows.

And they then spoke (in no very specific way, to be sure) of renewal and restoration rather than rebellion:

We shall shake off our slavish yoke,
Imp out our drooping country's broken wing,
Redeem from broking pawn the blemished crown,
Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre's gilt,
And make high majesty look like itself.

(II, i, 252-295)

How much Northumberland actually foresees at this point of the new world he is helping to usher in is as much a matter of speculation as the "silent king's" original aims. But in any case, once he is installed, neither Bolingbroke nor his foremost henchman shows any more recollection of high majesty's "noble ancestors" than Richard ever had.

The only attempt made to legitimize the new regime comes in a form that virtually parodies the equivalence of uncle with father and brother with brother by confluence of "blood" that had been an article of faith for the older generation and at least a matter of lip service for the younger Bolingbroke. Richard had relinquished himself to Bolingbroke's compelling force with a characteristically sardonic observation on their relationship: "Cousin, I am too young to be your father, / Though you are old enough to be my heir" (III, iii, 204-205). When the transfer of the crown is publicly staged, official credence is given to the absurdity that Richard's bitter quip had mocked. Perhaps York, the last vestige of noble ancestry, persuades himself that Time's charters can be restored by construing Richard as his cousin's father. In any case, it is York who offers the formal pronouncement to that effect, thereby converting the duke of Lancaster into Henry IV:

Great Duke of Lancaster, I come to thee
From plume-plucked Richard, who with willing soul
Adopts thee heir and his high sceptre yields
To the possession of thy royal hand.
Ascend his throne, descending now from him,
And long live Henry, fourth of that name!

(IV, i, 107-112)

The "glorious worth" of Bolingbroke's once muchtouted descent (I, i, 107) is thus transmuted, so that in ascending the throne he now descends from Richard alone, and their true fathers and majestic grandfather are never mentioned again.

The strain of stifling the past he remembered so nostalgically and thus redefining Time's "charters and his customary rights" surely shows in York's desperate fealty to "the new-made king" he has finally helped to "ascend" (V, ii, 45-47). Again, comparison with York's prototype in the Henry VI series may suggest the more radically unsettling nature of the "fearful change" under way in Richard II. Like York, Gloucester had placed loyalty to the state above family ties when he acquiesced in his wife's arrest and conviction for the treasonous dealings to which her "aspiring humor" had prompted her. But, for all his grief, the quiet firmness with which Gloucester meets this ordeal bespeaks the simple clarity of the case as he sees it in terms of the established laws he honors and upholds: "Eleanor, the law, thou seest, hath judgèd thee. / I cannot justify whom the law condemns" (2HVI, II, iii, 15-16). By contrast, the frenzy with which York turns on his son Aumerle for supporting the former king against his "heir" suggests the tension underlying the old man's adaptation to "the green lap of this new-come spring." He has just schooled his duchess in the redefining and renaming that "this new spring of time" requires:

Duchess: Here comes my son Aumerle.
York: Aumerle that was;
But that is lost for being Richard's friend,
And, madam, you must call him Rutland now.

(V, ii, 41-43)

Essential mother that she is, the duchess simply ignores such official transformations and addresses the young man by the only title that really matters to her: "Welcome, my son" (46). But when York shows Henry the document that proves his renamed son's "treason," Rutland demonstrates his capacity to "bear himself well" in a world that thus reconstitutes itself by unwriting (or effectively erasing and ignoring) its past:

Remember, as thou read'st, thy promise passed.
I do repent me. Read not my name there.
My heart is not confederate with my hand.

(V, iii, 51-53; emphasis added)

And York shows the fury of his own conversion by arguing for Rutland's execution in terms that reverse the "old" (and now evidently forgotten) idea, once espoused so vibrantly by Bolingbroke, that the father is regenerated "even in the lusty havior of his son":

Mine honor lives when his dishonor dies,
Or my shamed life in his dishonor lies.
Thou kill'st me in his life; giving him breath,
The traitor lives, the true man's put to death.


"Thou kill'st me in .. . [thy] life." York's eldest brother might bring that same charge against his son Richard, who by sheer neglect fails to renew his father's glory in his own life and fails (as York had lamented) even to retain what the Black Prince had won. And Richard's "fathers" by extension, Gaunt and Gloucester, could make the charge more directly—even literally, in the latter's case. As we have seen, both the active and passive aspects of Richard's patricidal attitude toward his heritage are emphasized in his earlier, careless phase when, as king, he more than anyone else should have sustained the vitality of England's "royal blood." With the loss of his all-too-hollow crown comes the growth in awareness of his own mortality and humanity that makes this play as much The Tragedy of Richard the Second as it is the "history" of one reign's sorry end and another's troubled beginning. For all his growth in self-awareness, however, Richard gains through his suffering absolutely nothing in the way of historical consciousness or interest in the past. He may be able to predict accurately enough, on the basis of his own experience with them, the future strife between Northumberland and Henry (V, i, 55-68), but he never looks back beyond (or behind) his own experience. Where memory is concerned, even as a source of the suffering that brings what wisdom he attains, his focus remains limited entirely to himself:

Or that I could forget what I have been!
Or not remember what I must be now!

(III, iii, 138-139)

Yet I well remember
The favors of these men. Were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry "All hail!" to me?
So Judas did to Christ; but he, in twelve,
Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand none.

(IV, i, 167-171)

Learn, good soul,
To think our former state a happy dream;
From which awaked, the truth of what we are
Shows us but this. I am sworn brother, sweet,
To grim Necessity, and he and I
Will keep a league till death.

(V, i, 17-22)

In this limited retrospect, which ignores the longer and broader historical past entirely, Richard remains at one both with his earlier self and (in this regard alone) with the new regime, which has no stake in remembering anything that preceded Richard, the "father" from whom it claims "descent." The deposed king's consuming interest is in the "book" that is himself, though his aversion to what is "upon record" extends, not unnaturally, to the written account of his own folly which, for all his reluctant willingness to "undo" himself publicly, Richard refuses "to read a public lecture of (IV, i, 203-232, 273-275). Even when his final reflection focuses specifically on the subject of time, the brief and generalized summation of his past and present ("I wasted time, and now doth time waste me") turns quickly into a philosophical conceit likening Richard to a clock and away from any examination of the backward abysm which remains for him more blank than dark (V, v, 41-66).

It is appropriate, therefore, not only to his "tragic" conception of his experience but to his unhistorical sense of himself that Richard so readily chooses the de casibus mode for his "story," both at the first wave of adversity, when he would "sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings" (III, ii, 155 ff.), and at the last parting from his tristful queen, whom he bids eke out her exile by telling "the lamentable tale of me" (V, i, 40-50). De casibus tragedy, with its "tales / Of woeful ages long ago betid," is Richard's closest approximation to looking back in time. But with its perfectly repetitive pattern, it is perfectly unhistorical in essence, since time brings no meaningful succession of persons or events, acting only as the constant agent of dusty death and destroying every king alike regardless of his accomplishments. De casibus tragedy shares only its emphasis on recurrence with heroical history. Otherwise, the two modes are antithetical, with one featuring the single and inexorable force of Death, who scoffs at state and grins at pomp, while the other celebrates the immortal fame that lives "despite of death" (I, i, 168) and is renewed (repetition's positive aspect) through emulation that "awake[s] remembrance of these valiant dead." It is fitting that Richard, who ignores and thwarts remembrance of his heroic heritage and has to be chidingly reminded by the bishop of Carlisle that to "fight and die is death destroying death" (III, ii, 184), should give his story over thus to Death's own monotonous genre.

If both winners and losers, for differing reasons, let sleeping neglection blot out England's proud history, none can escape the actual consequences of the past or silence all retrospect. With its inspirational and vitalizing potential stifled, recollection of recent history asserts itself in the destructive form that sows discord through this play and its two sequels bearing Henry's title. The very scene in which Henry publicly "accepts" the crown begins with a nasty reprise of the opening quarrel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, based as it was on contradictory versions of past deeds and centering on the death of Gloucester. But whereas the mutual and comprehensive accusations of the earlier dispute ("all the treasons for these eighteen years / Complotted and contrivèd in this land / Fetch from false Mowbray their first head and spring" [I, i, 95-97; emphasis added]) were shrouded in vague allusions (probably because of Richard's presence), the crescendo of charges and countercharges that mars King Henry's debut is laden with the sort of reportorial detail by ear- and eyewitnesses that should compel ready belief:

I heard you say, "Is not my arm of length,
That reacheth from the restful English court
As far as Calais to mine uncle's head?"
Amongst much other talk that very time
I heard you say that you had rather refuse
The offer of an hundred thousand crowns
Than Bolingbroke's return to England;
Adding withal, how blest this land would be
In this your cousin's death.

(IV, i, 11-19)

Such a vivid account seems to open a window onto "that very time," so that we gain direct access to the otherwise darkened past. But Bagot's glib memory virtually refutes itself, stumbling over the specific details with which it should be piling up credit. The "time when Gloucester's death was plotted" simply cannot be "that very time" when Aumerle allegedly opposed Bolingbroke's return from banishment since, as even an otherwise uninformed audience knows from the play itself, the former "time" preceded the latter by a quite considerable gap. And, as the gauges begin to fly, those precise reporters who do not contradict themselves flatly contradict one another:

Surrey: My Lord Fitzwater, I do remember well
The very time Aumerle and you did talk.
Fitzwater: Tis very true. You were in presence then,
And you can witness with me this is true.
Surrey: As false, by heaven, as heaven itself is true!


Whatever was history's truth is hopelessly mangled in competing recollections of it. If the object of heroical history is to invigorate the present by awakening remembrance of the past and thus to make the best of the past live anew in the present, here we see a use of the past that has precisely the opposite effect. Whatever his own meager imagination intends when he coins the phrase, Bagot appropriately introduces this whole series of reconstructions by referring his auditors back to "that dead time"—dead insofar as its true life can never be revived through such a maze of self-serving revisions, and dead insofar as it haunts the present like a destructive ghost in the varying shapes these wranglers give it, rather than inspiring the present to emulate its vital image. Nor are such mundane ghosts in the service of a sure and "true" providential justice, as were those who announced the high All-seer's impending doom in Richard III just before all wrongs were Anally righted. Rather, these visions and revisions continue to confound the factions of "this new world" throughout Henry's troublesome reign as Shakespeare will dramatize it. Put to uncreative purposes by uncreative minds, such faulty (and in every sense partial) recollections scarcely deserve to be called "fictions of history." Only Henry's "unthrifty son" and his less thrifty foil will use memory imaginatively enough to transform it into the "true" realm of fiction.

The strong positives and negatives emphasized in this account of Richard II may seem to suggest a simple moral reading of the loss that it dramatizes ("Don't forget your father or the Bolingbroke will get you!"). Surely Richard's "waste" of past time and the consequent eclipse of the noble heritage that might inspire the present is seen negatively, but scarcely in such complacently didactic terms. One complicating factor is the actual (or "historical") status of that noble heritage itself as the play presents it to us. We are given no reason to doubt the well-chronicled heroics of the Black Prince or to question the magnificence of his "mountain sire." But we are given every reason to suppose that the image of their era has been improved in the aged memories that invoke it here. Both Gaunt and York, as we have seen, are fond of easily phrased proverbs and clichés.7 York's description of the Black Prince thus falls into prefabricated patterns that can scarcely accommodate the whole truth ("In war was never lion raged more fierce, / In peace was never gentle lamb more mild" [II, i, 173-174]).8 Any view of a better past that is converted through Richard's negligence and Bolingbroke's opportunism into a worse present ought to take into account the possible degree to which the play shows us a happily idealized past that is increasingly ignored by an unpleasantly "real" present.

But this question of a fictive ideal juxtaposed with problematic realities is, as we have seen, more central to the companion play, King John, than it is to Richard II, where, if it is opened, it is not really developed. Here the more essential concern is the loss of meaningful contact with the positive force that the past should have in the present and the fundamental problem this loss presents for the "new world" that tries to establish itself (as yet not very creatively) without the support of time's charters and customary rights. Fittingly, the character who both christens Henry's reign as "this new world" and swears by his intention to thrive in it is one of those petty wranglers whose partial versions of past events foster discord in it (IV, i, 78). If the play watches the whole process with an auspicious and a dropping eye, it is because it feels the potent appeal of the heroic heritage that is remembered sentimentally before fading out of view here and at the same time shares the realism of the new regime, even to the point of exposing the fissures that will shake that regime itself.9 Those fissures are partly visible through the self-serving reconstructions of the past that destabilize the present and future. Only in the last play of the series that Richard II begins will Shakespeare offer a viable realization of the past's inspirational force that also fully acknowledges the fictive element in its history.


1 Studies that emphasize the idea of the Fall in this play include those of Stanley R. Maveety, "A Second Fall of Cursed Man: The Bold Metaphor in Richard II" JEGP 72 (1973): 175-193, and Clayton G. MacKenzie, "Paradise and Paradise Lost in Richard II," SQ 37 (1986): 318-339. John Wilders, The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare 's English and Roman History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1978), does not give Richard II special attention for using the Fall as a model for an ideal past—a model he presents as common to the histories, which he tends to treat as of a kind with the tragedies in this regard.

2 For a stringent antidote to my essentially benign (if not altogether credulous) reading of Gaunt's remembrance of a better England, see Donald M. Friedman, who sees the self-interested war lord showing through the guardian of values: "John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration," ELH 43 (1976): 279-299.

3 One might recall (and Shakespeare may have recalled) in this regard Castiglione on old men's characteristic praise of their past and blame of the present at the beginning of Book Two of The Book of the Courtier.

4 York's formulaic phrasing may be placed in the context of studies that focus on outmoded language and its failures in this play and in the entire second tetralogy. See Joan Webber, "The Renewal of the King's Symbolic Role: From Richard II to Henry V" TSLL 4 (1963): 530-538; Anne Barton, "Shakespeare and the Limitations of Language," ShS 24 (1971): 19-30; James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: "Richard II" to "Henry V" (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979); Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979); and Ronald R. MacDonald, "Uneasy Lies: Language and History in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy," SQ 35 (1984): 22-39.

5 John Blanpied maintains that Richard's deviation from "the ideal model (his grandfather, Edward III)" is part of his self-conscious performance of the role of king: Time and the Artist, 122. Richard often does "perform," of course, but I see nothing studied in his negligence of the past or in his evident incomprehension of York's concern in this regard.

6 For a general account of father-son relationships and their significance in this play and the other histories, see Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971).

7 See note 4 above on the elders' outmoded language. The question of the past's fictive status would also complicate the views of historical eras in the play posited by Tillyard, Shakespeare 's History Plays; Peter G. Philias, "The Medieval in Richard II," SQ 12 (1961): 305-310; and Robert Hapgood, "Three Eras in Richard II," SQ 14 (1963): 281-283. One could cite Peter Ure's note in his New Arden edition of the play (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956) on York's questionable recollection of saving the Black Prince (II, iii, 98-104) as evidence that the old duke fabricates his memories; but, as with some other recollections that clash with Shakespeare's available sources, there is no tip-off in the play that this one is faulty.

8 York's formula nicely "revives" the double thrust of the Black Prince's own order for the effigy on his tomb, which was to show him "fully armed in the pride of battle . . . our face meek and our leopard helm placed beneath our head": cited from a variety of sources by Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 294. Compare Henry V's prescription in Henry V, III, i, 3-6:

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger.

9 Of the many accounts of the play's ambivalence about the experience it dramatizes, I would refer a reader first of all to Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press; London: Collier-Macmillan, 1967), 81-95.

Politics And Power

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13771

David M. Bergeron (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Richard II and Carnival Politics," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 33-43.

[In the following essay, Bergeron argues that the carnivalesque language and rituals in Richard II account for the Elizabethan perception of the play as a politically subversive drama.]

Why did Charles II think it necessary or desirable to suppress Richard II in the 1680s?1 Had Queen Elizabeth's government similarly suppressed a portion of the text nearly a hundred years earlier? What is there about this play that may seem threatening to governments? Why did the Essex rebels in 1601 choose to have this play performed on the eve of what turned out to be their abortive rebellion against the queen? Does such an event illustrate the power of drama and the place of the theater in Elizabethan culture? Are the new historicists correct when they agree with Stephen Greenblatt that "Shakespeare's plays are centrally, repeatedly concerned with the production and containment of subversion and disorder"?2 Was the central part of the deposition scene in Richard II omitted or censored; and if so, by whom?

As one way of understanding the presumably threatening, subversive quality of Richard II, I will focus on the carnival nature of this play, especially the deposition scene. I do not suggest that Shakespeare necessarily created a carnival in the play; instead, I argue that he uses language and ideas associated with carnival as a means of exploring the topsy-turvy world of this play. Rituals of parody, deposition, and desecration that Peter Burke has found in carnival appear in this play, reaching their culmination in the deposition scene.3 Therefore, I will argue that carnival is not marginal but preeminent in the play as metaphor and reality. Carnivalesque substitution and transitoriness—not order and hierarchy—become the norm.4

Assessing the social and political place of the theater, its displays of power, its possible threat to civic order, and its role in the production of culture, a number of new historicist critics have emphasized the issue of subversion in drama.5 Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier observe that "some students of the field see all rebellions as contained, even authorized, by those in power, while others emphasize instead the power and the achievements of the subversive."6 Recently, Leeds Barroll has explored the new historicists' fascination with Richard II, focusing precisely on the issue of subversion. Barroll finds that some of these critics fail to consider all the evidence about the performance of Richard II before the Essex revolt; and he offers an appropriate cautionary note in assessing the power of drama in state politics, concluding that "in Shakespeare's case, not the play but the persons involved in the production—both players and those who commissioned the performance—were deemed dangerous because they were doing something they thought to be seditious."7 In Barroll's view nothing inheres in Richard II that should be construed as dangerous to the state. After all, performances of the play were not suppressed under Elizabeth or James.

Other critics, analyzing the place of drama in Elizabethan culture, have examined popular cultural traditions, including carnival. Robert Weimann, looking at "Topsyturvydom in Ceremony and Performance," examines folk rituals from the medieval period to the sixteenth century. He sees little evidence of subversion: "At best only a playful kind of resistance to the division of social classes can be found in the variously disguised inversions of rank and authority." Thus the "subversive dimension of the Lord of Misrule should not be exaggerated or its importance overrated."8 But Michael Bristol finds that popular culture does contain potentially threatening qualities. He writes: "The critical recognition of misrule and Carnival provides an alternative to a political theodicy of the nation-state."9 Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, in an analysis that moves beyond a simple concern with drama, view carnival as "one instance of a generalized economy of transgression and of the recoding of high/low relations across the whole social structure."10 And Peter Burke, surveying carnival festivals in Europe between 1500 and 1800, concludes that "rituals of revolt did coexist with serious questioning of the social, political and religious order"; such protest "was expressed in ritualised forms, but the ritual was not always sufficient to contain the protest."11

At least one monarch saw no particular danger in such festivals. King James, writing in his book of advice to his son Prince Henry, advocates a certain indulgence in carnival expression. James writes: " . . . certaine dayes in the yeare would be appointed, for delighting the people with publicke spectacles of all honest games, & exercise of armes: as also for conveening of neighbours, for entertaining friendship and hartlinesse, by honest feasting and merrinesse." James sees no harm "in making plaies and lawfull games in Maie, and good cheere at Christmasse." Such practices, he says, "hath beene vsed in all well gouerned Republicks."12

Moving to theater itself, Graham Holderness has argued that the metaphor of drama, realized in the plays, "is the most natural symbol—both signifier and embodiment—of the festive, carnival principle."13 The theater, a special place of liberty and license, seemed a holiday experience for many. Theatergoers could find both release from the dimness and dreariness of their lives and indulgence in a special world (a special Globe). Holderness adds, "The stubborn realities of existence become malleable in the solvent of theatrical fantasy: rigid hierarchical relations can be inverted, kings can become clowns and vice versa "14 We can now turn to Richard II in order to assess its carnival nature.

Using Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World as a starting point,15 I want to examine a basic tension in carnival, that between political stability and subversion. Any society that indulges carnival takes some risk; that is, it lays itself open to a kind of mockery that if carried to extremes would be subversive: the clown would indeed become the king. Richard II's deposition, I argue, subverts political order as Bolingbroke takes his place without the dramatist so much as batting an eyelash in judgment. In what may seem a contradiction, we often refer to Richard II as a "serious play"; I suggest that it is indeed serious play, culminating in the deposition scene, where the problem of misrule becomes explicit, prominent, theatrical, and carnivalesque.

Critics have sensed a playful, sometimes farcical mood in the play without necessarily linking this atmosphere to carnival. Kantorowicz notes the tension between fool and king in the play: " . . . only in that new rôle of Fool—a fool playing king, and a king playing fool—is Richard capable of greeting his victorious cousin and of playing to the end [of 3.3] .. . the comedy of his brittle and dubious kingship." Eileen Jorge Allman observes that both Richard and Bolingbroke will recollect the story of King Cophetua "because it contains an irony that resonates in their own history. The beggar has become king and the king a beggar. Who is the king? Who is the beggar?"16 And James Black has discussed this same theme of beggar and king, focusing on the farcical nature of the last act, particularly the York-Aumerle conflict.17

I want to consolidate these views and examine the deposition scene in light of its carnival expression as the play moves from misrule of the king to the King of Misrule. Two questions will focus our attention: why does Shakespeare abandon his historical source and make Richard's deposition such an important theatrical scene; and why is this deposition (that is, the crucial lines—4.1.155-318—of Richard's formal abdication) missing from the early Quarto texts?18 The very text of the play mocks our expectations, playfully upsetting notions of a stable text. Further, the play does not possess the typical carnival conflict of underclass versus ruling class, plebeian versus aristocrat. Rather, the struggle occurs within the same ruling, aristocratic class.19 In Richard II Shakespeare focuses on a conflict within the same class and endows this conflict with carnivalesque features. In that carnival world of the theater, the dramatist offers a king unusually perceptive about the carnival nature of kingship itself.

Doubts about the political stability of the play world occur in the opening scene where Bolingbroke and Mowbray raise the unpleasant issue of Gloucester's death. Richard clearly sees this matter as a threat to himself. He skillfully channels this tension and momentarily contains it by establishing the tournament of 1.3. The Gloucester problem will not go away, however, as Bolingbroke discovers at the beginning of the deposition scene. In many ways this later scene recapitulates issues and activities of Act 1—only some of the actors have changed. As a bridge into a consideration of the deposition, I will examine these earlier scenes for their farcical, sometimes threatening, carnival experience: we will see, for example, that the tournament is serious play. Richard's task throughout is to restrain the disorderly world of rebellion that bristles with frightening energy and eventually turns the world upside down. One wonders who is the king and who the usurper. Substitution and subversion define the carnival politics of play within the ruling class.

Looking at the tournament scene, critics point out its ceremonial and formal structure, a point indisputably true. But beneath that orderly surface lies the genuine threat to Richard. If carnival exhibits ritualized violence, as Burke notes,20 then this tournament shares that quality. The tournament also becomes playful, at moments maybe farcical, because Richard does not allow the battle to proceed to its presumed and intended end. He cuts off the struggle by dropping his warder, an action and gesture that appear whimsical, as Shakespeare replicates the historical text in his fictional world. Richard's gesture seems to say: "I'm not really serious; this is but play." When the Marshal orders Bolingbroke to "Speak like a true knight" (1.3.34), one may hear a note of pretending: speak like a true knight, whatever you may be. Excited by the event, Mowbray characterizes his situation thus: " . . . my dancing soul doth celebrate / This feast of battle with mine adversary" (11. 91-92). This carnival language belies the imminence of death; the tournament seems festive, indulgent, and, for Richard, self-indulgent.

Richard's punishment of the two knights by banishment confers on them a kind of anonymity, a characteristic of carnival as sketched by Bakhtin. Because carnival involves substitution and sometimes provides masks, actual identity is unimportant. The beggar could be king. Richard sends Bolingbroke to "tread the stranger paths of banishment" (1. 143)—unknown, anonymous. Mowbray becomes the scapegoat, the forever banished outcast, and he rightly complains of "A heavy sentence" (1. 154). Richard forces them to swear obedience by placing their "banish'd hands" on his royal sword (1. 179), a theatrical prop to be recalled by substitution in the deposition scene. But within a few lines Richard has reduced Bolingbroke's sentence. Again, Richard sends out conflicting signs of whimsy: seriousness and caprice alternate in this scene in ways that suggest misrule, even make-believe.

If Richard may be seen as the carnival king here, then Bolingbroke becomes the Lenten representative, sent away so that the festivity of rule may continue; but Lent will return at the appropriate moment.21 Bolingbroke's spare language, in contrast to prodigal indulgence, hints of his austere position. John of Gaunt tries to interpret his son's predicament: "Thy grief is but thy absence for a time" (1. 258). But Bolingbroke responds: "Joy absent, grief is present for that time" (1. 259). This curious exchange will be echoed by Richard and Bolingbroke in the deposition scene. If joy (carnival) is absent, then grief (Lent) is present. For the moment, but only for the moment, Richard has succeeded in thwarting the political threat to him. But history and the play's carnival spirit will eventually displace him, subvert and substitute him. The tension in carnival between stability and challenge can readily be felt in the tournament scene.

With Mowbray put aside, the play concentrates on the conflict between the two aristocrats, Richard and Bolingbroke, building to that moment when they will exchange places, as is possible in carnival, that often salutary overthrowing of established order. Act 3 brings the antagonists together and effectively solves the problem of who will rule; the deposition scene only ratifies what has happened. Having himself had a kind of Lenten, chastening experience in Ireland, Richard returns to England ready for prodigal indulgence, as is manifested clearly in his language: he seems to have found a new voice, one that creates poetic fantasies as substitutes for reality. Regularly invoking a supernatural world of God and angels readying themselves to rescue him, Richard risks becoming a parody of a king, a mock king.

Nothing signals the impending change better than the contrast that Richard makes between himself and Bolingbroke, "Who all this while hath revell'd in the night / Whilst we were wand'ring with the Antipodes . . ." (3.2.48-49). A Bolingbroke revelling in the night evokes images of carnival indulgence. Richard restates the contrast in the final line of this scene: "From Richard's night, to Bolingbroke's fair day" (1. 218). Bolingbroke will now have his day in the sun, and Richard will become "a mockery king of snow" (4.1.260). Richard's assessment underscores the transitory nature of this carnival life where one enjoys a little scene to "monarchize" and then no more.

At Flint Castle, York reinforces the discrepancy between the image of a king and the King of Misrule. Spying Richard on the walls of the castle, York says: "Yet looks he like a king" (3.368)—again the word like. The sympathetic York says more than he intends, just as when he later refers to "so fair a show" (1. 71). Giving in to Bolingbroke's demands, Richard nevertheless cries out: "O that I were as great / As is my grief, or lesser than my name!" (11. 136-37). Underscoring his lesser position, Richard proposes to exchange all his kingly vestments and emblems for those of a beggar hermit (11. 147-54). Putting off kingly robes and taking on the garb of another implies the carnival king who now takes on a smaller part. Accurately, Richard records the response to him: "Well, well, I see / I talk but idly, and you laugh at me" (11. 170-71). Down he comes "like glist'ring Phaeton" (1. 178): idle talk—mocking laughter—replacement.

The deposition scene becomes, to use Bristol's term, the "festive agon" of the play; it brings together elements of carnival already perceived and allows Richard his greatest histrionic moment. Of course, the scene simultaneously undercuts politics as a new king replaces the old king even as that new king will himself become subject to carnival ephemerality: briefly enjoying the position and status of king, knowing that he, too, will be removed. What carnival raises up, it puts down: order and stability remain momentary. As I have suggested, this scene in many ways recapitulates and completes the tournament of Act 1 : the Gloucester problem opens the scene as it did the play's first scene, and we have the somewhat ludicrous piling up of gages on the floor of the stage—only now it is Bolingbroke who must confront this threat to order. In the deposition scene Bolingbroke and Richard enter the lists with an uneasy tension about who actually controls the scene. Richard's whimsy, evident before, appears again. As in the tournament, here the essential issue is power, symbolized now by the crown rather than the royal sword of 1.3. By the end Richard departs into a kind of banishment so that the festivity of the new court may proceed. The wholesale mockery of monarchy threatens always to overtake the deposition.

I begin examining the deposition scene with York's greeting to Bolingbroke. York reports:

I come to thee
From plume-pluck'd Richard, who with willing soul
Adopts thee heir, and his high sceptre yields
To the possession of thy royal hand.


The king, who has been "plume-pluck'd" and who now yields the scepter, resembles a mock king of carnival. Bolingbroke's response in this context has a note of whimsy: "In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne" (1. 113). Of course, all of this is a deadly serious matter; but I am suggesting that the tone, a point of reference, invites us as readers/spectators to see the ephemeral and possibly subversive nature of the dramatization. Bolingbroke's response, formulaic and certainly expected, carries a note of playfulness as well, as he will now have his day to "monarchize."

The Bishop of Carlisle objects to what is happening, giving a rousing if sometimes embarrassing defense of Richard. In and out of context, this is an important speech; certainly Carlisle's prophecy about the blood of English "manuring" the ground comes true as rebellion will follow rebellion. But Northumberland's dismissal of the speech comes swiftly and forcefully: "Well have you argued, sir, and, for your pains, / Of capital treason we arrest you here" (11. 150-51). The voice of moral and legal conscience that Carlisle embodies—a voice that is also the voice of the old stable order being forcibly replaced by a new political order—dims when in the presence of an ironic carnival spirit that dismisses, discards, and abuses such seriousness. Shakespeare shows in the subsequent plays of this tetralogy that such stability comes under regular attack: carnival pulls down, if only for a moment, established order, whether government or church.

Richard constitutes the fascinating center of this scene: at moments petulant, then ironic, then maudlin, then deluded, then perceptive, then playful and witty. What are we to make of him, this man who becomes a "mockery king of snow"? The many changes in Richard's mood cause problems even in understanding his character. An unexpected playfulness runs through his personality, both the sense in which he is acting (playing) and in which he is whimsical. At moments this mock king mocks the king in a theatrically self-conscious manner, his irony taunting others as it also serves to justify himself. When he first appears, Richard observes: "I hardly yet have learn'd / To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my knee" (11. 164-65)—he is not ready to surrender his role as king, having not yet learned to be a subject.

Richard plays with the crown, the great symbol of rule: to do this evokes a carnival spirit that treats lightly religious vestments and other signs of rule. We begin to wonder what these signs signify. Richard says: "Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown. /. . . On this side my hand, and on that side thine" (11. 181-83). The crown becomes a kind of toy, used to prompt Richard into his self-indulgent image of the two buckets, he being the bucket down and full of tears. The exaggerated image sounds ludicrous and undercuts the presumed seriousness of the moment. Richard is a mock king not only because he has been deposed but also because he himself mocks monarchy by his language and action in this scene.

Richard here becomes anonymous, gives away his name, clear evidence that he is but a carnivalesque king. When Bolingbroke asks, "Are you contented to resign the crown," Richard responds: "Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be" (11. 200-201). Richard complains some lines later: "I have no name, no title" (1. 255). We recall that in Act 3 he had ascribed extraordinary power to the name of king, at one point crying out in the face of the teeming army of Bolingbroke: "Is not the king's name twenty thousand names? / Arm, arm, my name!" (3.2.85-86). Dispossessed, deposed, set aside, Richard now wishes: "O that I were a mockery king of snow, / Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke . .." (4.1.260-61)—precisely the situation. Kings of snow melt; the carnival ends.

But not before one last gesture from Richard: he calls for a mirror that he may see "what a face I have / Since it is bankrupt of his majesty" (11. 266-67). Richard's puzzling string of rhetorical questions (11. 281-86) leaves us uncertain about how much and how well he understands himself. When he dashes the mirror, another ex-ample of ritualized violence, he cries out to Bolingbroke: "Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport—/ How soon my sorrow hath destroy'd my face" (11. 290-91). Several things catch our attention. Bolingbroke as "silent king" counters the carnivalesque, busy, talkative Richard, who is playing out his last public scene. Richard refers to the mirror episode as "sport"—clear evidence that Shakespeare wants us to see the sport, the carnival, in this scene. Carnival exists, after all, as an alternative to presumably serious and stable institutions. When Bolingbroke breaks his silence and reinterprets the mirror's meaning, Richard is delighted:

Say that again.
. . . And I thank thee, king,
For thy great bounty, that not only giv'st
Me cause to wail, but teachest me the way
How to lament the cause.

(11. 293, 299-302)

The mock king mocks the king—again.

Though Richard is clearly the Lord of Misrule now being set aside, one also hears uneasy, implied questions about Bolingbroke. The nature of carnival explores precisely that tension between stability and subversion. An especially narrow, humorless, non-festive spirit can say in reaction to the deposition what the Abbot of Westminster says: "A woeful pageant have we here beheld" (1. 321). In a sense, of course, the Abbot is right; but he has also missed the spirit of the experience. Interestingly, Carlisle and the Abbot frame the deposition; inside that histrionic frame resides a swirling process of carnival mockery.

Bakhtin notes the element of abuse that characterizes carnival. Nowhere is this more evident than in the report of York in 5.2, with its comparison of the crowd's response to Bolingbroke and then to Richard. Bolingbroke is the new king of carnival, and the crowds cheer him. Richard, in contrast, receives abuse. York re-ports: ". . . No man cried 'God save him!' / No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home, / But dust was thrown upon his sacred head . . ." (11. 28-30): Richard—scapegoat—mock king—pariah. As York observes: "To Boling-broke are we sworn subjects now . . ." (1. 39, my emphasis). "Now" sounds slightly ominous. As it leads into the whole Aumerle problem of rebellion against Bolingbroke, we see again the transitory nature of carnival: that which it establishes, it overthrows.

Earlier Richard himself hints at a possible carnival interpretation in 3.2, where he reminds his listeners, as he first urges them "to sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings" (11. 155-56), that Death allows each king "a breath, a little scene, / To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks . . ." (11. 164-65). But Death breaks through with a little pin and then "farewell king!" (1. 170). Thus the monarch, no matter how seemingly powerful and stable, resembles in fact the carnival king who enjoys his position fleetingly. Changing the mood, Richard urges his audience: ". . . throw away respect, / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty . . ." (11. 172-73). If his listeners actually did so, they would give way to carnival indulgence, turning the world upside down. Small wonder that Richard becomes such a remarkable carnival king in the deposition scene: he apparently, at least at moments, understands better than anyone the transitory and subversive nature of kingship, the hollow nature of the crown.

Bolingbroke, having emerged from his Lenten banishment to enjoy the removal of the King of Misrule, nevertheless has trouble himself fully appreciating the inherently carnival perspective on monarchy. We hear him cry out in the beginning of 5.3: "Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?" (1. 1). This young, "wanton, and effeminate boy" (1. 10) mocks his father through unruly, carnival-like indulgence. When told of the triumphs to be held at Oxford, Prince Hal, so Percy reports, said that "he would unto the stews . . ." (1. 16). Twice Bolingbroke uses the adjective "dissolute" (11. 12, 20) to refer to his son and to the prince's companions. Shakespeare plants this new seed of carnival and lets it ripen in 1 Henry IV, especially in 2.4 of that play, when Hal and Falstaff play the role of king only to be set aside: exactly the carnival process.

The last word on carnival in Richard II comes from Richard, imprisoned in 5.5. In his strange, tortuous soliloquy he reveals: "Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented . . ." (11. 31-32). This suggests an understanding of his carnival predicament. He adds: "Sometimes am I king, / Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar, / And so I am . .." (11. 32-34). Further thought makes him wish to be king again, and so he is until he is "unking'd" by Bolingbroke and becomes "nothing" again (11. 34-38). No one in the play better summarizes the carnival plight of change and lack of stability. Whenever we think that we grasp the current order, we remember to ask: who is the beggar; who is the king? As the speaker of the Epilogue to All's Well says: "The king's a beggar, now the play is done" (5.3.331). Or as Hamlet sardonically phrases it: ". . . a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar" (4.3.30-31).

My final argument about carnival in Richard II centers on the text of the play, a text that challenges assumptions of hierarchy and order, a text that politicizes textual commentary on it as its own "carnivalesque" nature subverts our attempt to distinguish the real from the mocking text. Having looked at Richard's performance in the deposition, we must nevertheless remind ourselves that Richard does not appear in this scene in the early Quarto texts of the play, not in fact until Q4 in 1608. One state of the 1608 title page calls attention to new material in the play: "The / Tragedie of King / Richard the Second: / With new additions of the Parlia- / ment Sceane, and the deposing / of King Richard. .. ." Certainly one interpretation of this title page suggests that the deposition scene material, namely Richard's appearance, might indeed be new. At the least, the 1608 Quarto teases us with that possibility.

The usual explanation for this vexing textual problem of Richard's absence has been political censorship; but I noted several years ago that the censorship explanation is at best an ex post facto hypothesis.22 Leeds Barroll cogently observes: "The generalization that would follow from such a premise is that all new material in revised editions of Shakespeare's plays would represent the surfacing of previously censored sequences—a proposition that can be neither supported nor refuted."23 Simply put, no evidence exists for government suppression of the text. Curiously, those who make the argument insist that the play was nevertheless performed with the whole deposition scene intact. Without rehearsing all the arguments, including my own, suffice it to say that something unusual occurred in the early texts of Richard II.

That there may have been alterations or revisions in the text of Richard II should not surprise us. Much recent textual criticism has urged precisely such activities by Shakespeare, and we now more readily accept the idea that Shakespeare's texts may represent some interim or changed version, that they may have undergone significant revision by Shakespeare. About King Lear, the play most widely discussed in recent textual scholarship, Stanley Wells writes: "the proper, conservative scholarly procedure is to suppose that the Quarto gives us Shakespeare's first thoughts and the Folio the text in its revised state."24 More than two decades ago E. A. J. Honigmann raised serious questions about the understanding of Shakespeare's texts; his radical book underscored their unstable, changing nature.25 Stephen Orgel, examining Jonson's function as a writer and preparer of texts, reminds us that Jonson suppressed the theatrical production of Sejanus in favor of a revised, printed text.26 Orgel emphasizes the collaborative nature of Renaissance art, leading to, among other things, changes in texts.

Kristian Smidt has specifically studied issues of revision in the history plays; and he offers an analysis of Richard II, though he pays no attention to the textual problems in the deposition scene.27 He thinks that Shakespeare may have originally intended to write a revenge tragedy centered on the Gloucester problem. Smidt comments: "There is evidence of different phases of composition in signs of disturbance which can hardly be accounted for otherwise." The Bolingbroke who accepts his banishment and is friendly with Aumerle provides, Smidt argues, details that "are at variance with what we are told elsewhere and look like remnants of an original beginning or an early version or perhaps even an earlier play." Therefore, Smidt believes that "Richard II underwent some major changes of design in the course of its shaping."28 Smidt's persuasive argument adds further to the possibility that Richard's appearance in the deposition may indeed have been added later rather than suppressed earlier. What seems at first glance a stable text may upon investigation appear as a shifting text, more opaque than clear.

"Politics" would be a comfortable way to explain the alleged "removal" of Richard from the text of the deposition scene; we can understand how a wary government at times suppressed carnival. Did not Queen Elizabeth see a connection between Richard and herself? Did she not complain that the play had been performed "forty times" in the streets? Given the often uneasy relationship between government and theater—Elizabeth officially suppressed the Corpus Christi religious drama—we would not be surprised to find this another example of censorship. Furthermore, in all likelihood it was Shakespeare's Richard II that was performed on the eve of the Essex Rebellion in 1601 as a means of stirring up the troops. Here a dramatic text apparently encouraged rebellion. But the explanation of political censorship for the deposition scene is too easy, quite apart from the lack of evidence. Such tex-tual scholarship makes a political choice, suppres-sing the challenge of a volatile "carnival" text and attempting to stabilize a subversive text that mocks tidy assumptions.

Whatever explanation we posit—my own is that Shakespeare added Richard's appearance sometime after 1603—we can at least make another link to the matter of carnival: namely, we have an unstable text, whether the government thwarted it or Shakespeare himself did. At moments, the early text of Richard II seems to mock itself with its incompleteness or uncertainty. Just as carnival helps us perceive the tension between stability and subversion in the character Richard and in the play itself, so carnival cautions us about assumptions of a stable text. The authority of the text of Richard II, or at least a part of it, remains in question, raising doubts about the hierarchical expectation that we may bring to the Shakespeare canon.

Carnival mocks the smugness of a Richard, or a Bolingbroke, or a reader unable or unwilling to welcome the challenge of a problematic text. As Bakhtin writes: "All the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities"29—an apt if unintended description of Richard II, the man and the text.


1 See Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 41.

2 "Invisible Bullets" in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 21-65, esp. p. 40.

3Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Temple Smith, 1978), pp. 184-89.

4 See the illuminating discussion by Geraldo U. de Sousa, "Semiotics of Kingship in Richard II" in Shakespeare and Deconstruction, G. Douglas Atkins and David M. Bergeron, eds. (New York: Peter Lang, 1988), pp. 173-91.

5 See Jean E. Howard's important essay, "The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies," English Literary Renaissance, 16 (1986), 13-43.

6 "Introduction," The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture, Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier, eds. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 1-14, esp. p. 5.

7 "A New History for Shakespeare and His Time," Shakespeare Quarterly, 39 (1988), 441-64, esp. p. 454.

8Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 26, 24.

9Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (London: Methuen, 1985), r 200.

10The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986), p. 19.

11 p. 203.

12The Basilicon Doron of King James VI, ed. James Craigie, 2 vols. (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1944), Vol. 1, 93-95.

13Shakespeare 's History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), esp. p. 112 and pp. 192 ff.

14 p. 112.

15 Trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1968).

16 Kantorowicz (cited in n. 1, above), p. 33; Eileen Jorge Allman, Player-King and Adversary: Two Faces of Play in Shakespeare (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), p. 42.

17 "The Interlude of the Beggar and the King in Richard II" in Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, David M. Bergeron, ed. (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), pp. 104-13.

18 All citations of RII will refer to the Arden edition of King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure (London: Methuen, 1961). Citations of all other Shakespeare plays will refer to The Complete Works, Alfred Harbage, gen. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

19 Burke has taken note of aristocratic participation in carnival ([cited in n. 3, above] pp. 24-25); others, such as Bristol and Stallybrass, have emphasized lower classes.

20 p. 187.

21 On the connection of carnival and Lent and the power of Lent to drive away carnival, see the example cited in C. L. Barber's Shakespeare 's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Cleveland and New York: World, 1963), pp. 45-46.

22 "The Deposition Scene in Richard II" Renaissance Papers 1974, (1975), pp. 31-37.

23 p. 449 (cited in n. 7, above).

24 "Introduction: The Once and Future King Lear" in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 1-23, esp. p. 20. Wells's statement is the guiding assumption for all the essays in this collection, as it had been for Steven Urkowitz in his Shakespeare's Revision of King Lear (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980).

25The Stability of Shakespeare's Text (London: Edward Arnold, 1965).

26 "What is a Text?" in Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, 24 (1981), 3-6, esp. p. 4.

27Unconformities in Shakespeare 's History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1982).

28 pp. 87-89.

29 p. 11 (cited in n. 15, above).

Sharon Cadman Seelig (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Loyal Fathers and Treacherous Sons: Familial Politics in Richard II" in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 94, No. 3, July, 1995, pp. 347-64.

[In this essay, Seelig examines two scenes from Act V of Richard II, which illustrate that the play's familial conflicts serve to underscore political and moral conflicts.]

The last act of Shakespeare's Richard II contains a pair of scenes that constitute a problem for the director and a puzzle for the critic, material so out of keeping with the rest of the play that even one of the dramatis personae is made to remark that difference. In the earlier scene (V.ii) the Duke of York first lamentingly retells Richard's passage through the streets of London and then discovers his son Aumerle's involvement in a plot to assassinate Richard's successor King Henry. In the next scene, which begins with Henry's inquiry after his "unthrifty son," Aumerle, York, and the Duchess of York all plead with the King, with York begging for rigorous and prompt justice, the Duchess and Aumerle, for mercy. These paired scenes, the only funny (if not the only embarrassing) things in this perhaps excessively serious play, contain numerous elements of the absurd: an old man trying to get his boots on while suffering the verbal assaults of his wife, a three-way race to the King, an entire family hobbling about on its knees, refusing to rise until its contradictory petitions are granted.1 The scenes are so odd that even Henry Bullingbrook, not usually noted for his sense of humor, is moved to comment:

Our scene is alt'red from a serious thing,
And now chang'd to "The Beggar and the King."
My dangerous cousin, let your mother in,
I know she is come to pray for your foul sin.2

In its labeling of this material as a scene, an artificial construction, Bullingbrook's distancing remark provides the kind of explicit reference to the fictional quality of the dramatic illusion that we are accustomed to find in Shakespeare's comedies;3 in pointing to the comedie nature of the scene the remark answers our immediate question as to whether Shakespeare could have intended anything so silly but leaves us wondering just what his reasons were. V.ii and iii have been variously described as savage farce, as deliberate parody, even as evidence of boredom and fatigue.4 But these scenes, which indeed differ strikingly from the rest of the play in language and tone, nevertheless form an integral part of it: they underscore an often neglected aspect of the play and demonstrate in parodie fashion the moral and personal consequences of the larger dramatic action.5

Richard II, usually seen as a play about the balance of power between king and usurper, about the right and the power to rule, is in a significant sense also a representation of the struggle for power between fathers and sons, an issue that has long been seen in the Henry IV plays but that is equally important, though differently presented, here. Most explicitly in the Aumerle scenes but also throughout the play, characters struggle for dominance over others whose differences of attitude or loyalty are sharpened and defined by intimate familial bonds.6 This emphasis on familial rivalry is linked to another basic fact of human nature—the irreducible human frailty that is stressed from the beginning to the end of the play and that forms a matrix for our judgment of characters and action. Richard II frames its discourse in terms of sin, so that both the actors and the commentators are seen to be, as the Queen says of the Gardener, "Old Adam's likeness" (III.iv.73), part of an ongoing cycle of betrayal and death.


Shakespeare takes care throughout Richard II to stress familial relationships, not only, as one would expect, to establish who the characters are, but more pointedly to emphasize the bonds and the power struggles of their interaction. This is so from the very beginning of the play, when Richard refers to Henry as Gaunt's son, and a few lines later, when Richard establishes his own relationship with Henry in emphatic and convoluted terms, the effect of which is to make the relationship seem even closer than it is, to make Bullingbrook and Richard more like brothers than cousins:

Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom's heir,
As he is but my father's brother's son, . . .


The Duchess of Gloucester similarly exaggerates the closeness of relationship when she in effect equates the crimes of patricide and fratricide, asserting to Gaunt, "Thou dost consent / In some large measure to thy father's death, / In that thou seest thy wretched brother die" (I.ii.25-27). And of course, given the cast of characters, there are frequent references to cousins and uncles throughout Richard II. But nowhere is this familial emphasis more marked than in V.ii and iii.

The repeated references to familial bonds in the Aumerle scenes may recall the opening of King Lear, which likewise sacrifices psychological realism in order to represent an almost mythic or paradigmatic familial encounter. In Lear we hear of father, daughter, husband, sister, love, and bond; in Richard II, of father, mother, son, uncle, aunt, king, forgiveness, and trespass: both scenes reiterate the designations of relationship in such stark and simple terms that we cannot miss them. But in Richard II, as in Lear, once Shakespeare has called our attention to family matters, he deviates from the expected pattern in order to represent disorder within the family and the state.

Although V.ii centers on familial relationships, as prologue to a father's denunciation of his son as a traitor before the King, the father and son never address one another in terms of their kinship roles. This treatment contrasts with that of Holinshed, Shakespeare's main source throughout, who refers to York and Aumerle as father and son, as well as with Shakespeare's representation of the Duchess of York, who although historically only Aumerle's stepmother,7 explicitly and repeatedly designates Aumerle as "my son." By contrast, York calls his son "boy" or simply addresses him without name or title, and he uses a good many terms of opprobrium and explicit rejection—"Villain, traitor, slave" (V.ii.72).8 Even before he learns of Aumerle's plot to kill King Henry, York emphasizes Aumerle's name rather than his own paternal relationship to him, stressing Aumerle's trespass against the King and York's obligation to that King. When the Duchess says, "here comes my son Aumerle" (V.ii.41), York replies:

Aumerle that was,
But that is lost for being Richard's friend;
And, madam, you must call him Rutland now.
I am in parliament pledge for his truth
And lasting fealty to the new-made king.


York's only expression of his paternity is a subjunctive rejection of that relationship: "Away, fond woman, were he twenty times my son, /I would appeach him" (V.ii. 101-2). To a degree that approaches caricature, then, York stresses his fealty to the King over his duty as a father, as he refuses to acknowledge his disobedient son. Whereas the Duchess responds as a mother, York responds as a subject, one whose loyalty to the monarch overwhelms every other consideration.

But York is also a father, and therein lies the conflict dramatized both savagely and parodistically in Act V. In the schematic divergence between mother/son and father/son relationships, Shakespeare gives us a family drama, an archetypal representation of the forgiving, indulgent mother and the rigorously judgmental father. The Duchess is almost willfully naive, suggesting of the hidden document York plucks from Aumerle—"'Tis nothing but some band that he is ent'red into / For gay apparel 'gainst the triumph day" (V.ii.65-66)—while the Duke is rigidly, almost perversely, insistent on his obligation to the King and to the state over his obligation to his son and wife.

In plotting treason, Aumerle threatens not only the King but, as York's reaction implies, also the authority of his father. But rather than emphasizing the son's challenge to that patriarchal authority, as is the case with Bullingbrook and John of Gaunt earlier in the play, Shakespeare stresses here the father's harsh reaction: in the face of the son's still potential disobedience against father and king, it is the father, not the son, who is active and hostile, and his anger and shame at his offspring's transgression threaten, Kronos-like, that heir with extinction.

Duck. Why, York, what wilt thou do?
Wilt thou not hide the trespass of thine own?
Have we more sons? or are we like to have?
Is not my teeming date drunk up with time?
And wilt thou pluck my fair son from mine age,
And rob me of a happy mother's name?
Is he not like thee? Is he not thine own?
York. Thou fond mad woman,
Wilt thou conceal this dark conspiracy?
A dozen of them here have ta'en the sacrament,
And interchangeably set down their hands,
To kill the King at Oxford.


York's extreme reaction goes beyond simple loyalty to the King to a desire to annihilate the son whose trespass threatens not merely to dishonor but to destroy the father.

Mine honor lives when his dishonor dies,
Or my sham'd life in his dishonor lies:
Thou kill'st me in his life; . . .


The father's horror and revulsion, expressed in a desire to purge his family of guilt and shame, are clearly also related to his concern for the realm: his reference to honor and his plea for his son's death may recall the famous example of Lucius Junius Brutus, a paradigm of loyalty and integrity who killed his own sons in order to preserve the Roman republic (an incident that Shakespeare refers to in Julius Caesar I.ii.15-19). But the contrast between the Roman republic which Junius Brutus tried to save and Bullingbrook's own usurped realm may cast York's actions in an ironic light. V.ii and iii clearly manifest the sort of chaos that, Tudor homilists argued, would be created throughout the kingdom by chaos at the top,9 and the representation of civil war in terms of the family—as in the scenes of 3 Henry VI in which a son has killed his father and a father his son—here reaches a new kind of specificity and insistence, as the strong and binding duties of parent and subject become mutually inconsistent.

York, not highly developed as a character, functions schematically in the play, revealing in his extreme and divergent reactions the dilemma of the loyal subject. The family farce of V.ii and V.iii, it is important to note, immediately follows York's initial description of the progress into London of Bullingbrook and Richard, a rather schizoid account that arouses pity for Richard upon whose "sacred head" "dust was thrown," but that also expresses admiration for "great Bullingbrook," an "aspiring rider," "mounted upon a hot and fiery steed" (V.ii.30,7,9,8). Although York describes Richard in pitiful terms, he gives little sign of personal anguish, attributing his own calm resignation to the will of God (V.ii.34-36); for the aged Duke, the choice is already made, fixed, and easily stated in a rhyming couplet:

To Bullingbrook are we sworn subjects now,
Whose state and honor I for aye allow.


York appears here as a literalist and something of an amnesiac, one who believes in loyalty to the king, whoever that king may be: the King is deposed; long live the King. His position manifests the absurd consequences of a notion of absolute loyalty divorced from the complexity of human reality and history. The scenes in which York and Aumerle oppose one another are comic, but their dilemma is tragic: the psychic conflict that cannot be expressed in the limited figure of York himself emerges in painful and bizarre dramatic action. York, who has sympathized with Richard, now perversely exercises ruthless authority over his own son even as that son enacts those sympathies.10 One might argue that York's betrayal of his King leads to the betrayal of his son, that in disavowing his father's brother's son, he also inevitably disavows his own offspring and nearly destroys himself.

Clearly in V.ii and V.iii Shakespeare is at pains to depict a familial structure gone wrong, a hostile and repressive father, but he shows these as deriving from a realm in which questionable authority—in the dual forms of usurpation and treachery—leads to domestic and national chaos. Although York here is savagely authoritarian, exerting a futile, even filicidal, attempt to suppress disorder, his role earlier in the play is that of a more neutral11 articulator of the principle of primogeniture and of the sanctity of the laws of inheritance—hence his sense that Bullingbrook must not be denied his inheritance and that Richard's sovereignty is to be respected. Initially a guardian of order, a wouldbe champion of justice, York, like that other articulator of divine order John of Gaunt, is impotent to restrain Gaunt's own son. After some wholly ineffectual blustering, York acquiesces easily to the new order, one in which Bullingbrook maintains a fluid and highly politic relation to principle. It is York who announces to Bullingbrook that Richard "with willing soul / Adopts thee heir" (IV.i. 108-9) and he who believes, or at least allows himself to say to Richard, that "tired majesty did make thee offer: / The resignation of thy state and crown" (IV.i. 177-78). In Acts IV and V York may be seen as wholly insensitive, a fool and a time-server, or as a more genuinely troubled but impotent father and subject; but however we see him, York's conflicting reactions suggest not simply or even primarily his own folly and weakness but the breakdown of the structure of obligations that appears seriously in Act IV as Bullingbrook becomes king and farcically in Act V as he sits in judgment on the family of York. Richard II represents the moral chaos engendered by Bullingbrook's usurpation and the impotence of Richard's articulation of principle without effective action. Henry rules a kingdom in which father must turn against son and son against father; Richard, failing to rule, creates an impossible dilemma for his most loyal subject.

The most striking aspect of V.ii and V.iii, the absurdity of the action, is reinforced by an extreme simplicity of language, which stands in sharp contrast to the ceremonial rhetoric, the "poetry" for which the play is so famous. While Shakespeare uses a narrow range of diction to emphasize the familial tensions at issue, he also uses the few deviations from such simplicity to point up the discrepancy between facade and reality. In a scene in which characters address one another in the simplest of familial and human terms—uncle, aunt, cousin, woman, boy—and in the most basic terms of the realm—King, liege, traitor, villain, true man, we im-mediately notice Henry's address to York, which builds from these terms of kinship to a more ornate style:

O loyal father of a treacherous son!
Thou sheer, immaculate, and silver fountain,
From whence this stream through muddy passages
Hath held his current and defil'd himself!
Thy overflow of good converts to bad,
And thy abundant goodness shall excuse
This deadly blot in thy digressing son.


Such hyperbolic praise applied to York clearly overshoots the mark and thus points up the irony of Henry's words, for if Aumerle is a traitor, so is Henry; so is York. Such a statement might equally well have been addressed to John of Gaunt, the loyal father of a treacherous son, for as the Bishop of Carlisle puts it: "My Lord of Herford here, whom you call king, / Is a foul traitor to proud Herford's king" (IV.i. 134-35).

The second noticeable deviation from the stylistic norm occurs when the Duchess of York argues that, although she and York both kneel before the King, her posture is true, whereas York's is hypocritical, a mere gesture not supported by his heart. The speech issues in a quibble on the word "pardon":

Duch. No word like "pardon" for kings' mouths so meet.
York, Speak it in French, King, say "pardonne moy."
Duch. Dost thou teach pardon pardon to destroy?
Ah, my sour husband, my hard-hearted lord,
That sets the word itself against the word!

(V.iii. 118-22)

The Duchess's words of course anticipate those of Richard, as he speaks of the "thoughts of things divine [which]. .. intermix'd / With scruples . . . set the word itself / Against the word" (V.v.12-14).12 But whereas Richard's soliloquy represents the conflict as internal ("scruples and thoughts of things divine . . . set the word against the word"), the Duchess's speech suggests a much broader framework in which letter and spirit, loyalty and obligation diverge. The Duchess's assertion that her husband's kneeling before the King is merely an empty gesture, emblem of a petition he would not actually wish to have granted, has its antecedent in the scene in which Bullingbrook kneels before Richard, and Richard comments: "Up, cousin, up, your heart is up, I know, / Thus high at least, although your knee be low" (III.Hi. 194-95). Henry's empty but politically astute gesture in III.iii not only anticipates but casts an ironic light on the kneeling of his loyal subjects in V.iii, for whereas Henry's kneeling is in show, theirs is in frantic earnest. Whereas Richard judges Henry's kneeling inappropriate because it contradicts the latter's wishes and the actual power relationship (though not the reverence due a king), Bullingbrook is embarrassed by the unseemliness of two figures of age and reverence, aunt and uncle, kneeling before him, acting out the inevitable impiety flowing from his usurpation.

As Henry sits in judgment on Aumerle, with Aumerle's father seeking punishment and his mother seeking mercy, the Duchess invokes a larger realm of judgment with her effusive statement, "A god on earth thou art" (V.iii. 136). Gratitude is involved, surely, perhaps flattery; but if the Duchess means to say that the King is God's deputy, her statement is also charged with irony, for this god on earth has usurped that other whose balm could not be washed off; and this god, like his predecessor, will shortly be the instigator of murder. The reference to divine judgment, intended by the speaker to magnify its object, can only point up its frailty and weakness, can only suggest that Henry, though more effective than his kingly cousin, manifests the same human fallibility.

The Aumerle scenes are significant for the rest of Richard II in their representation of the structure of political power and in the representation of familial roles, not as separate issues but as inescapably intertwined, and painfully cyclical: to put it unkindly, before Aumerle could be a traitor to York's king, Henry, York must have denied York's and Aumerle's king, Richard. It is also worth noting that the dramatic emphasis in V.ii and V.iii is rather more on the parents, on their reaction to their son's trespass, than on the fault of the son. And it is the parents in this scene, supposed images of justice and mercy, rather than the son, the supposed traitor, who are in danger of appearing absurd; it is the parents who suggest also the link to the past, and hence the long sequence of guilt.

Both in parodic language—either too ornate or excessively simple—and in gestures such as kneeling, imploring pardon, knocking and entering, repeated to the point of farce, V.ii and V.iii transform Henry's new order, his well-managed kingdom, into a comic interlude. Although its language and action seem at first awkwardly out of place in the ceremoniousness of Richard II, both gestures and language in fact resonate with the rest of the play, acting in counterpoint to the more obviously serious treatment elsewhere of the central issues of these scenes—the emphasis on guilt and innocence, the relations between fathers and sons, the inseparability of familial and political issues.


Although in thinking of Richard II we may think first of the central dramatic contest between Bullingbrook and Richard, that central action is in fact framed by conflicts between fathers and sons, between Gaunt and Bullingbrook at the opening of the play and between York and Aumerle at the end, and that action, as we shall see, is articulated by Richard himself as a contest between father and son.

The emphasis on conflicts and contests between male parents and their offspring may be detected from the opening lines of the play, lines in which Shakespeare characteristically anticipates the matter of the whole.13

Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster,
Hast thou, according to thy oath and band,
Brought hither Henry Herford thy bold son,
Here to make good the boist'rous late appeal,
Which then our leisure would not let us hear,
Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?


With swift economy, these lines represent the qualities of both Gaunt and Bullingbrook—the father aged, "time-honored," revered; the son, "bold," "boist'rous," more obviously potent; the father presumed to be in charge even though the action of the son has precipitated the scene; the son the only remaining Lord Appellant against Richard, the father supposed to exert authority in loco regis. This opening invokes the line of authority in this patriarchal and monarchical society, in which son is subject to father, and even kings, however they may act at other times, at least pretend to speak respectfully to their fathers' brothers.14 But these lines also testify to strain within, for Richard appears to assume that the son is subject to the father and that youth reveres age, even though what follows bears out how difficult these principles are to maintain against the rising strength of the son, and even though—or especially since—Richard himself has not honored such principles.

Already in this first scene, we see that precisely the sort of apparently well-ordered relationship here sketched engenders emulation and rivalry. Gaunt clearly asserts the principle of filial obedience as he addresses his son: "When, Harry? when? / Obedience bids I should not bid again" (I.i. 162-63). And Bullingbrook, in firmly refusing to withdraw his challenge, gives as one of his reasons his position vis-a-vis his father: "Shall I seem crestfallen in my father's sight?" (I.i. 188). The language implies an obligation to maintain the family honor in the sight of the one from whom such obligations are derived, but also a sense of pride verging on rivalry, for it is precisely in his father's sight—or in comparison with his father—that the son must assert his potency.

The quality of the opposition between Gaunt and Bullingbrook is figured in their dialogue in I.iii; as Bullingbrook prepares for exile, father and son take characteristically opposed viewpoints. Gaunt urges mind over matter, the control of one's circumstances by one's attitude to them, asserting in effect the power of the imagination over events, and taking a position on the power of language and naming remarkably like that of Richard, a king who exerts control not by action but by verbal representation:

Think not the King did banish thee,
But thou the King. . . .
Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honor,
And not the King exil'd thee; . . .

(I.iii.279-80, 282-83)

Bullingbrook energetically and impatiently rejects such counsel, asserting a characteristically pragmatic approach: the power lies not in the mind, not in the name, but in the reality of the event:

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?


Given the similarity between Gaunt's and Richard's positions, Henry's preference for action over words is ultimately a matter of opposition to both father and king. Gaunt's final words in this scene—"Come, come, my son, I'll bring thee on thy way" (Liii.304)—are an affirmation of relationship and support which again reasserts the pattern of authority and dependency, and so underscores both the close kinship and the opposing stances of father and son.

Bullingbrook's farewell to his father before the abortive contest with Mowbray appears more orthodox, as Bullingbrook describes his father as an inspiring force to his labors, but this affirmative language is also tinged with the phallic overtones of war, as the father is made new in the son, as his name and spirit, by implication in decline, are regenerated and refurbished by a son whose accomplishments may well exceed those of his father:

O thou, the earthly author of my blood,
Whose youthful spirit, in me regenerate,
Doth with a twofold vigor lift me up
To reach at victory above my head,
Add proof unto mine armor with thy prayers,
And with thy blessings steel my lance's point,
That it may enter Mowbray's waxen coat,
And furbish new the name of John a' Gaunt,
Even in the lusty havior of his son


Gaunt's "When, Harry? when? / Obedience bids I should not bid again" (I.i. 162-63) meets with failure not only because even in Renaissance England grown men did not obey their fathers' commands like model children,15 but because Bullingbrook, although in one sense the embodiment of his father's spirit, also occupies an antithetical position in the play. Gaunt is the articulator of a harmonious and providential order, most obviously in his evocation of "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" (II.i.50), but also in his stern stand against the Duchess of Gloucester's pleas for vengeance for her husband's murder, in his assertion that "God's is the quarrel," and his refusal to "lift / An angry arm against His minister" (I.ii.37,41). And it is Gaunt's son who clearly stands as the force that challenges that order, as the breaker of divinely sanctioned descent, the usurper of the crown from the anointed king. In rising against Richard, Bullingbrook also rises against his own father, for Gaunt supports Richard's kingship, if not his management, and seeks to stand a surrogate father to him, hoping on his death bed to "breathe my last / In wholesome counsel to his unstayed youth" (II.i.1-2), and, loving him, as Richard's other uncle York says, as much as his own son.16

Fathers and sons, chiefly represented in this play by York and Aumerle, Gaunt and Bullingbrook, are also joined by others. Gaunt and Bullingbrook have scarcely left the stage when the Earl of Northumberland introduces "my son, young Harry Percy" (II.iii.21); and Bullingbrook himself later inquires, "Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son? / 'Tis full three months since I did see him last" (V.iii.1-2). Hal's prodigality, more fully developed in Henry IV, figures here as part of the complex of paternal-filial relationships, for like Bullingbrook before him, Prince Hal has his own notions of honor, an honor that must be maintained vis-a-vis his father, though clearly against his counsel. By placing this scene in the midst of the interaction between York and Aumerle, Shakespeare points up that Henry too has a rebellious son, one who deliberately flouts his father's conception of honor by taking as his lady "the common'st creature" from "the stews" (V.iii. 16-17) and so enacts a kind of parodic counterpoint to Aumerle's more serious challenge to paternal and kingly authority.

In the early encounters between Gaunt and Bullingbrook, as in the later encounter between York and Aumerle, and even in Bullingbrook's allusion to his own son, we see a father clearly articulating a principle of order—obedience to himself, fealty to the King, submission to God—which he is impotent to enforce, and which also is plainly flawed, in practice if not in theory. The tension between the verbal articulation of these principles on the one hand and the action and characters on the other further weakens any sense that Shakespeare's play might exist simply as an expression of the kind of Tudor doctrines of order described by Tillyard; rather it depicts the flawed quality of human action throughout the generational and social order.

Richard II is filled with rebellious acts, not only of subjects against the King, but of sons against fathers. We may see in such proliferation not simply a spreading of images of disorder but also a prompting to question the basis of order. The rebellion or impudence that so perturbs fathers in this play may be seen as a mimetic exaggeration that points up the falsity of honor as it is defined first by Richard and then by Henry. Even the nature of sonship is somewhat unstable: for all that I have spoken of fathers and sons, it is worth noting that Aumerle appears in the first half of the play as a character in his own right, as an independent supporter and adviser of Richard, and only in Act V emphatically and paradigmatically as a rebellious son, as one whom his father sees as in need of chastisement. Such a transformation makes one question whether the moral chaos of England can convert a grown man into a boy, as his father calls him, whether misrule disorders human development, or whether fathers characteristically view rebellion as regression, a notion supported by Henry's reference to his son as "young wanton and effeminate boy" (V.iii. 10).


Amid this plethora of fathers and sons, one character stands notably sonless. But it is he who most clearly expresses the connection between such relationships and the heart of the play:

Cousin, I am too young to be your father,
Though you are old enough to be my heir.


As his own formulation suggests, Richard is neither wise enough nor potent enough to retain his crown. He has fathered no children, a point underscored by Northumberland's response to the Queen's plea that she and Richard be banished together: "That were some love, but little policy" (V.i.84). Richard's chief reproductive act is to people the little world of his mind with a generation of still-breeding thoughts in the soliloquy of Act V. That his native kingdom is the realm of fantasy is implied by his using the image of physical reproduction to represent what is after all a form of cognitive generation:

My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
And these same thoughts people this little world.


Moreover, the unusual character of Richard's world is shown by his making the brain, the rational cognitive force usually associated with the male, subordinate to the feminine soul (anima). Richard appears then not so much as father, as controlling force, but as female, as the maternal figure, who on his return from Ireland kisses the earth: "As a long-parted mother with her child / Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting" (III.ii.8-9).

If Richard, who should be king and father, represents himself as mother to his realm, we might expect Bullingbrook to emerge as father. But characteristic of the schematic parallels and contrasts so common in Richard II, it is Bullingbrook who first speaks intimately and lovingly of the earth: "Then England's ground, farewell, sweet soil, adieu; / My mother, and my nurse, that bears me yet!" (I.iii.306-7). Of course Bullingbrook's approach to the ground of England is in general much more vigorous: though he leaves as a son, he returns as a gardener, one whose first action is to deal ruthlessly with "Bushy, Bagot, and their complices, / The caterpillars of the commonwealth, / Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away" (II.iii. 165-67). As we see in the Gardener's speech it is precisely Richard's inability to engage in the husbandman's characteristically controlled violence, to "cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays, / That look too lofty in our commonwealth" (III.iv.34-35) that has led to his "fall of leaf (III.iv.49):

[We] at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself;
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have liv'd to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty.


Wishing that he could "purge this choler without letting blood" (I.i. 153), Richard fails to demonstrate the pruning and severing skills necessary to physician, gardener, and king. Having no natural son to challenge him, Richard also lacks the power to dominate his rival; whereas Bullingbrook, Richard's contemporary, is old enough to "know the strong'st and surest way to get" (III.iii.201). Richard has neither the years nor the wisdom to be Bullingbrook's father. Thus Bullingbrook, though not Richard's son, becomes his heir, rising up against him more powerfully and unambiguously than against his own father, with consequences for the whole structure of familial and civil relationships.

For all that Richard II raises questions about the right and the power to rule, it does so, as I've been arguing, through relationships between fathers and sons, relationships that are on the one hand starkly schematic and on the other morally and psychologically ambiguous. Shakespeare's play shows us two prodigal sons, King Richard and Prince Hal, prodigal in their wasting of time and resources and in their failure to follow the advice of their elders, and it shows us two rebellious sons, Aumerle and Bullingbrook. It gives us loyal and ineffectual fathers—Gaunt, York, and even in a sense, Richard. Both Aumerle and Bullingbrook are disobedient sons who act out the desires or visions of their fathers: Aumerle, though he is denounced by his father for treason, in fact enacts the kind of loyalty to Richard suggested by York's earlier speech to Bullingbrook ("I am no traitor's uncle" [II.iii.88]) and by his poignant description of the desecration of Richard in V.ii. And Bullingbrook embodies all too clearly Gaunt's fears of the consequences if Richard ignores Gaunt's fatherly advice. This is a play then in which sons are 'disloyal' in a way that their fathers either do or would explicitly disapprove, but in which sons, rising against their aged fathers, nevertheless prove true to their fathers' earlier desires, allegiances, or predictions.

Of the unthrifty prodigals, Hal and Richard, one returns to the fold and ultimately becomes king; the other, following evil counselors, is deposed. Of the rebellious sons who rise against the King, the one, Aumerle, is rejected and chastised by his father; the other, Bullingbrook, is chastised and crowned. Such messages as there are here are surely ironic ones, for the consequences of rebellious acts are sharply divergent.

The very schematic quality of Richard II emphasizes its paradigmatic and potentially moralistic aspects; yet despite the clarity of its oppositions—Bullingbrook against Gaunt, Bullingbrook against Richard, York against Aumerle—the play also complicates these oppositions in its intricacies of language and character. Bullingbrook, who in his own person challenges the received order, rising up against the values represented or affirmed by his father, also affirms the principle of orderly descent: "If that my cousin king be King in England, / It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster" (II.iii. 123-24). And Gaunt, the most eloquent spokesman for harmonious order, is also the depicter of disorder and the father of the usurper, a usurper whose first act in returning to England is to claim his father's title. Gaunt's superficially clever manipulation of events through language, more probably a device to comfort his son than the result of conviction, in fact becomes truth:

Think not the King did banish thee,
But thou the King.


Bullingbrook, a son who in becoming king achieves the language of paternal authority, points to ways in which the laws of inheritance, of orderly succession, favor him; his father's words show how disorder and incipient rebellion are always with us, in fact or in potentiality. In a complicated passage that suggests an uncanny resemblance between generations, between past and future, Gaunt unwittingly prophesies "how his son's son should destroy his sons" (II.i.105), but not foreseeing by what means, not seeing that the accusation he makes against Richard will serve against his own son as well.17

In Richard II the issues of filial and paternal conflict are intertwined with questions of political order and power. Shakespeare sets before us in both tragic and comic fashion the effects of rebellion and murder—in the disarray caused by Bullingbrook's rebellion and in the absurd farce of the Langleys' disordered familial structure. Neither 'comic relief nor comical ineptitude, V.ii and V.iii portray in effect the moral chaos of treachery and rebellion, the results of the getting as distinguished from the begetting of power. Yet while setting such painful consequences before us, Shakespeare does not suggest that it should simply be otherwise or that it could easily have been so. For in representing in parodic form the disorder of the realm, V.ii and V.iii also point to the inevitable quality of human fallibility. King Henry, who seizes effective control of the realm in that great scene in which Richard maintains control of images (IV.i), is, like his predecessor, king over disorder and human conflict.

This truth is borne out not only in the familial scenes of V.ii and V.iii, the absurdity of which Henry alerts us to but cannot transform,18 but also in IV.i, in which the throwing down of gages likewise threatens to become farce. The accusations against Aumerle by Bagot, Fitzwater, Percy, and yet "Another Lord" recall the mutual accusations of Mowbray and Bullingbrook in Act I, an encounter in which the King has the power to stifle conflict but not to resolve it. The scene suggests not so much a new era as a repetition of the past: Richard attempts to bury the crime of Gloucester's murder, allowing the accusations to be brought to knightly combat and then averting a verdict all too likely to implicate him; Bullingbrook is more eager to reach the truth, but he too finds that the quest ends in a cul de sac, for Norfolk, who might resolve the challenge by speech or action, is dead. In both cases the truth remains hidden, while the act itself, though buried in obscurity (Bagot refers to "that dead time when Gloucester's death was plotted" [IV.i. 10]), casts a long shadow.

Our questions, then, about right and wrong in Richard II are forced aside by images not of guilt and innocence but of guilt and guilt, images that echo throughout the play. The murder of Richard at Bullingbrook's behest and of Gloucester at Richard's are associated with the primal crimes of fratricide and patricide, by language that recalls the death of Abel at the opening of the play (Ii. 104) and the sin of Cain ( at the end,19 in Mowbray's reference to Henry as of Richard's blood (I.i.58-59) and Henry's attempted disclaimer (I.i.70-71). The ambivalent words with which Henry greets the news of Richard's death are appropriate to such an intimate crime:

Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murtherer, love him murthered.


Although Henry's speech may be read as simple hypocrisy, it also underscores the blood relationship between the two kings and reminds us of the rivalry that forces one to challenge and overcome the origins to which one is inescapably bound:

Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.


In seizing Richard's crown, Henry has overcome both father and brother, the father whose kingdom he inherits, the brother who is his father's brother's son. He commits an act of obvious impiety, yet also of ritual strengthening, for the blood he sheds makes him grow. In the murder of Richard has he "furbish [ed] new the name of John a' Gaunt . . . in the lusty havior of his son" (I.iii.76-77)?

In using the paradigms of father and son, of brother and brother to represent rebellion in the family and in the state, Richard II suggests that the political patterns we see are part of essential, fallen human nature. In language that points to repeating cycles of murder, Bullingbrook begins by accusing Richard indirectly of the murder of a brother and ends, in effect, by committing that act himself. To the perpetrator Exton Henry assigns not only the guilt of murder but also Henry's own guilt of fratricide as he bids him "With Cain go wander thorough shades of night" ( When the Duchess of York ends V.iii by saying, "Come, my old son, I pray God make thee new" (V.iii. 146), she not only raises the issues of guilt and expiation, sin and regeneration, which have been present from the first scene of the play; her words also suggest the old Adam, in whose likeness the gardener and we all are made, the "old man" in us that, in the formulation of St. Paul, must be made new by the sacrifice of Christ.20 In using such theologically weighted language in his concluding scenes, Shakespeare returns this play, with its many configurations of fathers and sons, to the archetypal rivalry between brothers and to the original father and his sons. In so doing he gives us a picture of unchanging, cyclical guilt, of unavoidable human frailty, of the effects of sin, perpetuated through generations. This framework suggests that the king who depicts himself in IV.i as martyr and Christ figure is not sinless but rather involved in an infinitely regressing cycle of blame. And it reminds us that our judgments of the two rulers of the play, balancing authority and acumen, right and obligations, cannot be expected to yield a victim and a perpetrator, but a dynamic relation of guilt and guilt.

The near-tragic farce of V.ii and V.iii, which outlines in parodic form the familial and theological aspects of the conflict, playing them in another key, underscores the centrality of these issues in the play as a whole. The taking of the kingdom and the murder of the king are not just political and moral actions but also familial; they take place not only on the large scale of political power but on the intimate scale of domestic conflict, as figured in the violence York would do to his own son, in the violence he fears his son's actions will do to the kingdom. In this complex of relationships there are no easy answers. Just as it is not clear that the King is right and the usurper wrong, so it is not clear that father or son or brother deserves to dominate, but Shakespeare uses these familial conflicts to enrich and intensify our response to a drama which is political and moral but also deeply psychological, reciprocal, and eternal.21


1 acknowledge with pleasure Sheldon P. Zitner's witty and astute account of these scenes in "Aumerle's Conspiracy," Studies in English Literature, 14 (1974), 239-57.

2Richard II, V.iii.79-82. The text quoted throughout is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

3 See the discussion of this point by Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare 's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), esp. Chap. 1.

4 Cf. Zitner, 243-44, 253-54; M. W. Black, "The Sources of Shakespeare's Richard II" John Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. J. G. McManaway et al. (Washington, 1948), p. 208; Variorum edition of Richard II, ed. Matthew W. Black (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1955), p. 216n; and Joan Hartwig, "Parody in Richard II" Shakespeare 's Analogical Scene: Parody as Structural Syntax (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983). Waldo McNeir, "The Comic Scenes in Richard II," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 73 (1972), 815-22, suggests that these scenes of Richard II mark a new level of maturity on Shakespeare's part, an ability to mingle comedy and serious purpose to create meaning. While concurring with McNeir's sense of the importance of V.ii and V.iii to the play, I would disagree with his view of the Duchess as chiefly a figure of fun.

5 I use the term parody in the sense outlined by Joan Hartwig, who describes scenes that are bound to the rest of the action less by narrative action than by analogy (p.3). She points out that parody, "derived from the Greek word 'paroidia,' . . . originally meant a song placed beside or against" (p.5), and that, like emblem, parody "simplif[ies] in order to expose complexities" (p. 10).

6 Some attention has been paid to the emphasis on familial relationships by David Sundelson, Shakespeare's Restoration of the Father (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1983); Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: The Ohio State Univ. Press, 1971); James Winny, The Player King (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), pp. 74-82; and Harry Berger, Jr. "Psychoanalyzing the Shakespeare Text: The First Three Scenes of the Henriad," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 210-29. Sundelson, whose chapter is entitled "Fathers, Sons, and Brothers in the Henriad," emphasizes not father-son relationships but rather the quasi-fraternal rivalry of Richard and Bullingbrook; Pierce affirms the importance of familial issues but finds the Aumerle scenes "rather frivolous self-parody" (pp. 157-58); Berger's very helpful essay does not treat the Aumerle scenes but deals with the opening of the play in ways that have contributed significantly to my thinking about it.

7The Riverside Shakespeare, note to Richard II V.ii.90-93.

8 York places special emphasis on titles and designations of kinship: he calls not only Aumerle but also Bullingbrook "foolish boy" (II.iii.97) and denies kinship with him (II.iii.87-88) for presuming to disobey Richard and return to England in the King's absence; Bullingbrook, by contrast, insists on the title and the relationship it implies, repeating "My gracious uncle" (II.iii.85 and 106). York also rebukes Northumberland for omitting Richard's title:

The time hath been,
Would you have been so brief with him, he would
Have been so brief [with you] to shorten you,
For taking so the head, your whole head's length.


9 See Graham Holderness's discussion in Shakespeare 's History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), Chap. I.

10 Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), pp. 87-88, makes the point that Aumerle acts out his father's sympathies.

11 York's word, happily for my argument, is "neuter" (II.iii.159); earlier in this scene he verbally asserts the power of the King, but soon admits that he lacks the physical force to do so: "this arm of mine / Now prisoner to the palsy" (II.iii.103-4).

12 The Duchess's accusation of her husband also points to another central issue of the play—the efficacy of words and of gestures, the question whether, as in Richard's notions of kingship, words are potent, meaningful, and magical, or whether they are merely words, whether such gestures as York engages in are merely superficial verbal formulae, or whether they are the outward signs of an inner reality.

13 See Berger's discussion of the implications of this opening scene, pp. 214-18.

14 Berger, p. 215, notes the ironic edge to Richard's language in I.i.1-7, in a speech that balances obvious bluntness against ostensible reverence.

15 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), pp. 122-34, cites the extraordinary standards of obedience exacted by parents in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; more recently, Bruce Young, "Parental Blessings in Shakespeare's Plays," Studies in Philology, 89 (1992), 179-210, deals with the more positive aspects of the hierarchical relationship between parent and child. The situation which Young describes, in which the parental power to impart blessing "did not necessarily imply unconditional submission to a parent's wishes . . . [nor] that the child's agency and identity were entirely subsumed within those of the parent" (p. 192), closely corresponds to the relationship between Bullingbrook and Gaunt in I.i.


He loves you, on my life, and holds you dear
As Harry Duke of Herford, were he here.


17 Gaunt says to Richard:

O had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye
Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possess'd,
Which art possess'd now to depose thyself.


18 Hartwig argues, p. 119, that Henry, in contrast to Richard, is in control of the scene, but Henry is in fact at the mercy of the insistently kneeling Duchess, whom he repeatedly urges, "Good aunt, stand up." As Hartwig subsequently acknowledges, the only way to get the Duchess to rise is to accede to her request, so that Henry is represented "as a ruler whose powers are temporarily contained by comic routine" (p. 121).

19 Bullingbrook's association of Gloucester's blood with Abel's (I.i.104), like his association of Exton's crime with Cain's, implies that the crime was committed by a brother; the first statement indicts Richard, the second, Henry himself. In each case the crime was authorized by a father's brother's son.

20 See Romans 5:12-21.

21 My thanks to William Oram and Gillian Kendall for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

Language And Imagery

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11770

R. P. Draper (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Wasted Time in Richard II," in Critical Survey, Vol. I, No. 1, 1989, pp. 33-42.

[In the essay below, Draper demonstrates the ways in which Richard's use of language reflects the downward spiral of his career as king.]

In his last great soliloquy before his murder in the castle of Pomfret Richard II debates with himself the tragic irony and pathos of his situation as a king and no king, one who has enjoyed the greatest power accorded to man on earth and yet now sees himself reduced to nothingness. 'I wasted time,' he reflects, 'and now doth time waste me' (V.5.49). The figure of speech is typically rhetorical. Its technical name is anti-metabole, a 'cross' figure in which words are repeated in inverse order: abba—in this instance 'waste' and 'time', followed by 'time' and 'waste'. There is also a third element of repetition in the form of the first-person singular which is a little less obvious because of the change from T (subject) to 'me' (object); but this is, if anything, even more important since it highlights Richard's change of role from active agent, T, to passive sufferer of action, 'me'. The placing of T at the beginning of the line and 'me' at the end further emphasises this change of role: the man who starts by being in command, ends by being commanded.

This line and its rhetorical patterning sum up the career of Richard as Shakespeare presents it in his play. In the first half he is a hereditary monarch who can trace his lineage through uninterrupted succession back to William the Conqueror, but who throws away the power and prestige which this confers upon him; in the second half he is stripped of his titles and becomes belatedly aware of the extent to which his own mismanagement has contributed to his downfall. He 'wastes time' in that he both fails to take advantage of his great opportunities and imports disorder into a situation which calls for orderly conduct and the rule of law; and 'time wastes him' by both punishing him for his offence against order in not conducting himself as a rightful monarch should, and exposing him to the opportunism of Bolingbroke who takes the chance, when it is offered him, to seize power and establish himself as king, if not by right, then at least by might. His very failure to act positively boomerangs on Richard and causes him to become the victim of his own inactive fecklessness; wasting leads to being wasted, and the King who should be the dominant T becomes the subjugated 'me'.

Behind all this lies a complex sense of what kingship is and what possession of the royal office entails. The traditional view, embodied—to use E. M. W. Tillyard's convenient phrase—in 'the Elizabethan world picture', places the King at the head of an elaborate social hierarchy which reaches down through the aristocracy, the clergy, and the commercial classes to the ordinary, unlettered peasant. This view emphasises the overriding duty of obedience to one's superiors. Each rank must obey the one above it; disturbance of the carefully interlocking structure of society is a most heinous offence, since the pattern is not merely man-made, but ordained by God. It corresponds to the divine plan for a perfectly ordered universe (though this has been disrupted by the fall of Adam and Eve from paradise, which brought sin and corruption into the creation), and is reflected, and reinforced, by the corresponding hierarchies which exist in the physical world and the parallel structures of the animal kingdom. Thus the sun is the 'king' of the universe and the planets are hierarchically subordinate to it, and the lion is the 'king' of beasts, with gradations of animal beings beneath him which correspond to those beneath the human monarch. The classic exposition of this view is to be found in Ulysses' speech to the Greek warriors in Troilus and Cressida, where he attributes their failure in the siege of Troy to the dissension within their own army. When rank and authority are not respected, he argues, crippling disorder follows, spreading until it involves the entire universe in catastrophic chaos:

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows? Each thing melts
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong—
Between whose endless jar justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

(Troilus and Cressida, I.3.109-18)

In Richard II the chief exponent of this traditional view is the Bishop of Carlisle, and, appropriately, his most powerful expression of it comes at the point in Act IV when Bolingbroke, the usurper, declares that 'in God's name' he will 'ascend the regal throne' (line 113). The Bishop's deepest principles are outraged by Bolingbroke's use of the divine formula; his shocked reaction is, 'Marry, God forbid!', and he goes on to outline the terrible consequences which will result if Richard's deposition takes place:

The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act.
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin, and kind with kind, confound.
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called
The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.


The civil war implied in line 141 does, in fact, break out subsequently. Bolingbroke has scarcely become Henvy IV before he finds himself faced with the conspiracy of Aumerle, the Abbot of Westminster, the Bishop of Carlisle, Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, Kent, Brocas and Seely, and some of his chief supporters, including Northumberland, Worcester and Percy, are in rebellion against him soon after the opening of the next play, Henry IV, Part 1. In Henry VI, Part 3 (which had already been written and produced prior to Richard II, though it deals with the reign of a king who comes at a later historical period than Richard) the words 'kin with kin, and kind with kind, confound' are given dramatic embodiment in a scene which contains the graphic stage direction: 'Enter a Son that hath killed his Father, at one door; and a Father that hath killed his Son, at another door' (II.5.54). Thus Carlisle's prophecies not only have the support of orthodox Elizabethan doctrine, but are shown as coming true both within the bounds of this play and in Shakespeare's other history plays as well.

Such reinforcement, it might be argued—and has, indeed, been argued by commentators who emphasise Shakespeare's adherence to the 'degree' system—shows quite clearly where the sympathies of the dramatist lie. The King stands for legitimacy, and his deposition is an overthrow of divinely sanctioned order which has the direst consequences imaginable. Richard himself elaborates in the grandest manner on his kingly status, comparing himself, in the language of the order pattern, to the sun, and proclaiming his sacred imprint indelible:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.


And in the following scene he insists on the appalling nature of the divine retribution which will be visited on his rebellious subjects:

God omnipotent
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot
That lift your vassal hands against my head
And threat the glory of my precious crown.


However, like the Player-Queen in Hamlet, it seems Richard doth protest too much. Already in III.2 he has shown a capacity for exaggeration which makes his position suspect. His faith in God's backing becomes overweening confidence when he declares egregiously that for every man conscripted by Bolingbroke, 'God for his Richard hath in heavenly nay / A glorious angel' (III.2.60-1); and he reaches the point of absurdity when he asks the rhetorical question, 'Is not the King's name twenty thousand names?', capping it with the fatuous battle cry: 'Arm, arm, my name! A puny subject strikes / At thy great glory' (85-7).

Such extravagance betrays the extent to which doctrine has become an unrealistic obsession with Richard. Whatever truth there might be, to Elizabethan ears at any rate, in the claim that 'divinity doth hedge a king' (to use another famous phrase from Hamlet), Richard's apparent willingness to ignore the crucial distinction between the symbolic significance of a 'name' and the facts of military strength reveals the inherent brittleness of his purely theoretical position. In this same scene the Bishop of Carlisle—eloquent spokesman for kingship though he is—presents a more sensible view which recognises the realities of 'power' as well as the prestige of kingly title, arguing, in effect, that God helps those who help themselves—or, at least, those who do not refuse 'The proffered means of succour and redress' (27-32); and Aumerle rubs in the lesson more bluntly when he interprets the Bishop as meaning 'that we are too remiss, / Whilst Bolingbroke through our security [=over-confidence] / Grows strong and great in substance and in power' (33-5).

But Richard is incapable of achieving a balanced view; he swings from one extreme to the other. His instantaneous resort to doctrinal fantasy masks a self-doubt which just as quickly, and immoderately, reveals itself in a disturbing switchback of alternating attitudes, from excessive assurance to premature despair. One piece of bad news from Salisbury and he is ready to capitulate:

All souls that will be safe fly from my side,
For time hath set a blot upon my pride.


Aumerle's attempt to correct this, 'Remember who you are', causes him to veer the other way, but then Scroop's account of the deaths of Bushy, Green and Wiltshire plunges him back again into self-indulgent brooding on the mortuary themes 'of graves, of worms, and epitaphs' (145ff). His friends remind him of the need for action, and his 'ague-fit' is 'overblown'; difficulties are minimised: 'An easy task it is to win our own' (190-1). But news of York's desertion punctures him yet again, and he then resentfully rejects comfort of any kind whatever:

By heaven, I'll hate him everlastingly
That bids me be of comfort any more.


The whole scene is thus one of vacillation revealing Richard's temperamental volatility and his total inability to make an effective connection between the symbolic world of kingship doctrine and the political realities of the world in which he must exercise kingly power.

Nevertheless, this scene is marked by a developing seriousness and gravity of tone which contrasts with the different kind of irresponsibility, and even frivolity, of the scenes prior to Bolingbroke's return from banishment. At the beginning of the play Richard is faced with the confrontation between Mowbray and Bolingbroke. Because of its sinister political overtones this is a problem which needs to be handled both firmly and circumspectly, especially in view of his own obscure involvement in the subject of the quarrel—the death of his uncle, Gloucester. Richard, however, treats the occasion as one for theatrical display. When he calls the two men into his presence it is with evident relish for the histrionic opposition to be expected:

Face to face,
And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear
The accuser and the accused freely speak.
High-stomached are they both, and full of
ire; In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.


Conscious as he is that one of the contestants, Bolingbroke, is his own cousin, son of his principal counsellor, his uncle, John of Gaunt, he nonetheless makes a deliberate parade of impartiality; and though giving each man full scope to work himself up to a pitch of angry defiance, culminating in the challenge to trial by combat, he poses as a peace-maker, urging them to 'Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed'—only to undercut the solemnity of his chosen role with an illjudged witticism: Our doctors say this is no month to bleed' (156-7). Then, persuasion having failed, he resorts to command, telling Gaunt to order Bolingbroke to throw down Mowbray's gage, and himself ordering Mowbray to throw down Bolingbroke's. 'Lions make leopards tame' (174), asserts Richard; but neither obeys, whereupon he makes a show of turning the conflict into a characteristically medieval contest of 'chivalry' (203). In 1.3 this is staged magnificently, with much sounding of trumpets, elaborate costumes (each man enters 'knightly-clad in arms'—11) and a profusion of rhetorical devices as formal announcement is made of the contestants' titles. Their grounds of complaint are then rehearsed, and with much ceremony each makes a highly sentimental farewell. On the very brink of actual combat, however, Richard suspends the lists by melodramatically throwing down his warder. He consults with his advisers, and decides that, after all, peacemaking must be his role—which represents true kingly motivation, expressed in terms that show proper consideration for his realm ('for our eyes do hate the dire aspect / Of civil wounds ploughed up with neighbours' sword'—127-8), but devalued here by Richard's vacillation. Bloodshed is therefore replaced by sentences of banishment; but, finally, despite his earlier boast of impartiality, he banishes Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for ten years, and compounds this impression of arbitrariness still further by reducing his cousin's exile to six.

In I.4 the King's frivolity is made still more apparent as he allows himself, and his circle of favourites, to scoff at Bolingbroke's banishment (as well as revealing his jealousy of Bolingbroke's popularity) and makes light of the exploitation of his kingdom in order to pay for a punitive expedition to Ireland. News that John of Gaunt is sick merely prompts him to flippancy:

Now put it God in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!


and this is carried over into II.1, where he visits his uncle and treats the latter's rebuke for his mismanagement of England as the ravings of 'a lunatic lean-witted fool, / Presuming on an ague's privilege' (116). Still worse, the death of Gaunt elicits no more than two lines of peremptory platitude, followed by the dismissive, 'So much for that', and the seizure of his property as a further source of revenue for Richard's Irish wars. He is thus exposed as shallow in feeling, indifferent to the legality of his actions, and concerned only with himself and his immediate group of friends rather than his responsibilities as King of England.

This impression is increased by the slightly mechanical curtness of Richard's language in I.4 and II.1. Later he is to be distinguished by a flood of eloquence, but in the first two Acts of the play the most vigorous and evocative language comes from his critics, and especially from John of Gaunt in his celebrated death-bed speech. The patriotic sentiments of II. 1.40-58 are too often quoted out of context; the purpose of this idealised eulogy is to throw into relief the condition of England under Richard's misrule, and the sequence of apostrophes ('This royal throne . . . this sceptred isle, / This earth . . . this seat. ..', etc.) forms an extended subject building up to the verb in line 59, 'Is now leased out', which turns splendour into corruption. Richard's own casual reference to 'farming' (i.e. leasing out) his 'royal realm', at 1.4.45, is echoed and intensified in the simile, 'Like to a tenement or pelting farm' (II. 1.60), and, together with the scathing imagery of legal chicanery in 'inky blots and rotten parchment bonds' (64), powerfully conveys Gaunt's despairing contempt for the degradation brought about by Richard. The dying man's subsequent speech at lines 94-113 is, if anything, still more blazingly eloquent in its criticism. Richard callously asserts, 'I am in health. I breathe, and see thee ill' (92), but Gaunt turns the tables on him by presenting Richard as the spiritually sick man, whose 'deathbed' is the country he so misgoverns that 'The waste is no whit lesser than thy land'.

Structurally, Gaunt's speech anticipates that of the Bishop of Carlisle in IV.1. Both are focused on disorder; but where Carlisle foretells chaos as the consequence of Richard's deposition by Bolingbroke, Gaunt, referring to the deterioration from the reign of Richard's grandfather, Edward III, to that of Richard himself, sees a chaotic process which is tantamount to self-deposition:

O, had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye
Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possessed,
Which art possessed now to depose thyself.


Richard is like a tragic protagonist whose conduct contributes to his own downfall, though at this point he is unaware of his culpability, and the function of Gaunt (endowed with the inspiration traditionally attributed to a dying man, II. 1.31) is to let him, and the audience, know his true condition. That his words do not immediately take effect is in no way a belittlement of their status. Their very eloquence powerfully foregrounds them and makes them a major influence on the perspective in which the audience views Richard. It is often said that Richard attracts hostility before his deposition, but sympathy after. The structural comparison already noted between John of Gaunt's and the Bishop of Carlisle's speeches lends ready support to this suggestion. However, the change can be seen in process of development even prior to IV. 1. The elements of foolish overconfidence and instability in Richard's behaviour in III.2 have already been analysed, and since this is a scene prior to the act of deposition it may simply be counted as further evidence of the unfitness which brings that deposition about. But what that analysis ignored was the deeper dimension which the scene also adds to Richard's character—something which, significantly, it is impossible to ignore in performance in the theatre. Paradoxically, Richard in adversity becomes a far more dominant figure, in dramatic terms, than ever before. He holds the stage as the unquestioned centre of attention, and he does so by means of speeches which reveal a fascinating imagination at work.

His typical linguistic device is the 'conceit'—a simile or metaphor so extended and elaborated that it seems at times almost to smother itself with its own ingenuity. For example, when Richard hears of the execution of Bushy, Bagot and Green he falls into a reverie on human mortality which leads him to the curious idea of the crown as a place where Death keeps its court, and having once seized on this theme he teases out its possibilities in a series of fantastic images:

within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and humoured thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and—farewell king!


Richard creates a little verbal play-within-the-play, based on the medieval danse macabre in which personified death leads men and women a dance around, and finally into, their own graves. Death has already been shown at work in this play with the death of John of Gaunt, but Richard then seemed insensitive to its reality. Now he is keenly conscious of its power to undermine human vanity and with a puny 'pin' reduce a monarch's self-esteem to nothingness. The splendour of his 'name', on which elsewhere he expends so much verbal energy, is thus provided with a very different context, and he, at least momentarily, pierces through the façade of kingship to the common condition of mortality which lies beneath it. Indeed, Richard invites his hearers to 'throw away respect, / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty', and speaks of himself as a commoner sharing the same vulnerable humanity as themselves:

I live with bread, like you; feel want,
Taste grief, need friends.


It is as if in the process of exploring his imaginative idea he anticipates the tragic lessons learnt by Lear and Gloucester in King Lear. It is obvious, of course, that he doesn't actually do so. For Richard this is merely word-spinning; he has not yet learnt what it really is to be reduced by bitter experience to the knowledge of his own participation in the universal human condition. But his words nonetheless open up vistas of tragic possibility and their effect, though ambiguous, is to make Richard seem a more complex and compelling figure.

The conflicting comments made by other characters in the play likewise add to this more complicated view of Richard. For example, the Duke of York, whose divided loyalties (Bolingbroke's demand to have his father's inheritance restored seems a reasonable one to him) and realistic appreciation of the political situation lead him to change sides, can still insist, in III.3, that Richard looks 'like a king' (68). Likewise, in the somewhat allegorical scene which follows, the gardener's description of Richard as 'the wasteful king' who has brought disaster on his realm and himself by failing to cultivate and prune the garden of England harks back to earlier adverse comments; but the compassion and indignation aroused in Queen Isabel has the effect of enlisting sympathy for Richard, while her religious language ('What Eve, what serpent hath suggested thee / To make a second Fall of cursed man?'—III.4.75-6) paves the way for Richard's self-imaging as a Christ figure whose deposition is an act of the gravest sacrilege.

The combined effect of these various views of Richard is to make the audience increasingly aware of a situation which cannot be interpreted on one level only. The ground is prepared for his deposition so that when it does happen it is recognised as to a large extent inevitable; and Bolingbroke's opportunistic seizure of power is seen to represent precisely that capacity for shrewd appraisal of actual circumstance which Richard signally lacks. On the other hand, Richard's preoccupation with the theme of kingship makes it impossible to ignore the illicit nature of his usurpation, and tacitly reminds us that Bolingbroke is, after all, merely a clever manipulator of men and public opinion. Like-wise, if Bolingbroke's laconic use of words combined with forcefulness in action contrasts favourably with Richard's verbosity, such prosaic virtues also suggest lack of imagination; and if the corollary for Richard is overabundance of imagination, running to verbal ingenuity and histrionic self-indulgence, these are qualities which also seem inseparable from the exploratory, and at least potentially tragic, power of his language. Richard in adversity thus becomes a tantalising figure. He seems to be at once deepening his awareness of his essential humanity and at the same time continuing his old frivolity of mind (though, as already indicated, with far greater linguistic inventiveness). This is never more apparent than in the climactic scene of the deposition itself (IV.1). There he makes a highly theatrical game of his own uncrowning, bringing together both verbal conceit and stage performance as he invites Bolingbroke to hold one side of the crown, while he himself holds the other, and proceeds to elaborate his image of the two buckets Tilling one another' (180ff). The ritualistic language of parallelism and repetition in which he formally 'undoes himself (200-20) is a superb example of rhetorical exhibitionism, and his image of himself as 'a mockery king of snow' melting 'before the sun of Bolingbroke' (259-61) is a consummately executed figure of pathos. But more serious depths are touched as well. The intricate punning of his reply to Bolingbroke's question whether he is willing to abdicate: 'Ay, no. No, ay; for I must nothing be' (200), is a mixture of paradoxical play and shrewd insight. At one level it expresses that antimetabole of vacillation—conceding, denying; denying, conceding again—which has been such a striking feature of his previous conduct, while at another it suggests his dawning awareness of the essentially contradictory nature of his situation. To answer 'yes' would be to negate that T which has hitherto been inextricably involved with its own royal status—that is, to dissolve his being into nothingness. A single word would bring about its own opposite. And yet Richard is simultaneously aware that it is not within his power to withhold the word of assent. 'Therefore', he continues, his reply must be 'no no, for I resign to thee'—a double negative which conveys both horrified rejection (No! No!) and recognition that Boling-broke will not take 'no' for an answer. Later he offers a further variation on such self-contradiction in his reluctance to read the articles listing the misdemeanors which have brought this disgrace upon him; his eyes are 'full of tears', he says, so that he cannot see, and yet he is not so blind but that he 'can see a sort of traitors here' (243-5). His accusation is directed outward against his foes, but he also perceives his own treachery against himself in that he has paradoxically consented to 'undeck the pompous body of a king' and has 'Made glory base, and sovereignty a slave; / Proud majesty, a subject; state, a peasant' (246-51). The element of verbal play still obscures the extent to which this is true tragic recognition; but with the further histrionic business of the smashing of the looking-glass (275ff) Richard makes a deliberate analysis of his own image, or 'face', as it is presented to the outside world, which culminates in his enunciation of the more significant truth that all these examples of play-acting and verbal elaboration are 'merely shadows to the unseen grief / That swells with silence in the tortured soul' (296-7).

In these words the king who has hitherto seemed to be primarily a king of verbal gestures points to a language of silence which is beyond words. He does not, it is true, thereupon cease to be a player with words, but he does seem to touch the verge of a recognition that kingship, even in its most refined sense, is a matter of highly sophisticated posturing. By the very process of playing his regal role up to the hilt he comes to realise that it is indeed nothing but a role—a brittle human device, bolstered by doctrinal authority, but not substantial in itself. While the paraphernalia of 'degree' can be maintained its psychological effect may be relatively potent, but once that mystique is penetrated it is seen to have no absolute reality. The only true absolute is the 'nothing' which is revealed when the king is stripped of his titles and finds himself reduced to his inherent weakness as a fallible, mortal human being.

This is perhaps what Richard finally grasps in the soliloquy which precedes his death in V.5. And with this realisation comes the guilty acceptance that as a kingly play-actor and verbal embellisher he has been culpably negligent in allowing himself to be deluded by the trappings of his office into behaving as if the office, irrespective of the behaviour of the office-bearer, were enough to secure his power. It is significant in this connection that his final gesture in killing two of his murderers before being struck down by Exton is his first real action, and that for the first time action now becomes associated with language which is plain and curt, without the cynical flippancy of his earlier days. For once Richard responds to a situation with complete commitment. He is here neither the exploiter of his 'name', nor the passive witness to his own regal dismemberment. His resistance is, of course, futile in that it cannot prevent his murder, but the fact that he neither resigns himself to his end fatalistically, nor allows his death to become a scene of introspectively adorned pathos, does hint at some closing of the gap in his previously divided personality.

As we have seen, it is also just prior to this moment that Richard pronounces the self-criticism quoted at the beginning of this essay: 'I wasted time, and now doth time waste me', and in so doing he succeeds at last in seeing his career for what it has truly been. The killing of his attackers may not represent the achievement of a real ability to combine action and words in effectively kingly fashion (and if it did, his achievement would still have to be reckoned as too late to alter his fortunes), but it suggests that he has perhaps learnt something of the lesson of experience. Although his fate remains on balance pathetic rather than tragic, it is this deepening of introspection to the point where it emerges in a new and firmer quality of action that entitles him to be regarded as at least a potentially tragic figure. His final dying words pronounce a curse on Exton for staining the king's land with the king's blood and express a somewhat conventional idea of death as the separation of 'soul' and 'flesh' (109-12), but his moment of greatest insight is contained in his recognition of the way he has made a 'waste' of his temporal status and opportunities—followed by that tantalising glimpse of how things might have become different.

Jeanie Grant Moore (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Queen of Sorrow, King of Grief: Reflections and Perspectives in Richard II" in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991, pp. 19-35.

[Here, Moore highlights the metaphoric role of Queen Isabel, arguing that shelike the central image of the mirror—provides a perspective on the character of Richard.]

Tell thou the lamentable tale of me.

Richard to Isabel (V.i.44)1

Young, childless, and powerless, Queen Isabel in Richard II seems sadly insignificant. Her appearances number only four; in her first scene, she speaks one mannerly, unrevealing line: "How fares our noble uncle, Lancaster?" (II.i.71). Then, after mutely observing the angry encounter between her husband and the dying John of Gaunt, she is whisked away by Richard with the rest of his walk-on entourage. In her three remaining scenes, she is less laconic, but the spareness of her role has led many critics and producers to overlook her. David Giles's 1978 BBC production of Richard II, for example, entirely eliminated one of her major dialogues—the important perspective scene. Although her presence may at first seem superfluous, the queen directs our attention to issues of consequence in the drama. The very fact that Shakespeare includes her attaches significance to her characterization; he could easily have chosen not to, since historically Isabel was only eleven years old at the time of Richard's deposition. Instead, fictionalizing her age, Shakespeare presents her as a full-grown woman.

As an adult Isabel is able to fulfill a function expected of all medieval and Renaissance women: bearing children. For even though Isabel has no offspring, she metaphorically gives birth, and this metaphorical birth creates a parallel between the queen and Richard, who also figuratively brings forth a "child" of his own creation. The childbirth metaphor establishes the queen as a mirror of Richard, and her reflections of him culminate in the deposition scene in which a mirror figures as a central image. Connected to the visual symbol of the looking glass itself through her function as a reflector, Isabel becomes a visual medium through which we gain a new view of Richard's experience.

From the same childbirth analogy, another metaphor emerges; based on a Renaissance novelty called the "perspective," the second metaphor contains additional images of reflection and shadows as well as an important concept—nothingness—which recurs throughout the play. Like the mirror as metaphor, the perspective image extends beyond its immediate scene: through the queen it may be considered as an invitation to the audience to seek a different perspective on the drama.2

Adding to the layers of metaphoric meaning in Richard II are the intricate intertwinings of the mirror, the perspective images, and their reflections of each other. Because Isabel links both metaphors, she can lead us through the play from the shadows of the perspective to the shadows of the mirror and beyond: the queen can serve as a mirror and as a perspective glass through which we may view the drama. As she metaphorically infuses Richard's actions with underlying meaning, it becomes apparent that the perspective metaphor is connected to a feminist view disclosing a subtext of political ambiguity beneath the formal pageantry of the play, and that Isabel, although limited as a character by her minor role, and constrained as a person by her society, is nonetheless worthy of attention in her own right.


As images attached to the queen and as metaphors serving significant purposes in Richard II, the mirror and the perspective can best be appreciated in the context of their historical moment. Walter Ong describes the Renaissance as an age when the acquisition of knowledge became dependent on visual rather than auditory apprehension;3 both the mirror and the perspective became popular metaphors in their time, partly because their inherent visual qualities promoted knowledge through seeing. With its capacity to reflect reality, the mirror as symbol perfectly suited the Renaissance concept of world structure based on analogy and resemblances.4 Because its image was at once accurate and illusory, the mirror became both a truth teller and a deceiver; these ethical qualities made the mirror useful as a didactic device in literature, the purpose of which was thought to be moral improvement.5 In addition to its metaphoric potential, the mirror held a peculiarly prestigious position in Elizabethan England as a physical object, since mirrors made of glass were still imported at the time of the first performance of Richard II in 1595;6 hand-held looking glasses were valued possessions, and small mirrors were even worn as novel fashion items.7 The shattering on stage of a glass mirror must have startled an Elizabethan audience, thereby heightening the impact of that theatrical moment in Richard II when the deposed king acquires self-knowledge through the looking glass.

The "perspective"—or "perspective device"—also offered insight through visual means. Linear perspective, a technique practiced by the ancient Greeks and rediscovered by Renaissance artists, was used to achieve an illusion of reality in art.8 To achieve that illusion, linear perspective demanded observation from a single, centric viewpoint—a position which became analogous to a limited, conservative view.9 The perspective device, developed through a distortion of linear perspective, referred to any number of visual tricks or puzzles that required a side view—or what Shakespeare calls an "awry" view—to see a previously hidden picture. One of these perspectives, the anamorphic painting, required an oblique viewing angle to be discernable; Hans Holbein, in The Ambassadors (1533), had incorporated a death's head painted in such a manner.10 Another type of perspective utilized a faceted glass lens as part of an eyepiece through which one might view a specially painted panel; on the surface, one picture was visible, but when viewed through the lens, a second picture appeared." A number of scholars propose that the perspective in Act II, scene ii, of Richard II, which clearly suggests the anamorphic painting, at the same time refers to the perspective glass, a connection which joins the perspective to the later mirror image.12 Highly admired as examples of visual wit in the Renaissance, these perspectives subverted the single, authoritative view of linear perspective and became synonymous with an unconventional viewpoint which revealed hidden insights.

In addition to their relationship to the visual acquisition of knowledge, both the mirror and the perspective possess qualities which make them ideal metaphors. In the act of reflecting, the mirror becomes analogous with metaphor itself, since a metaphor always contains differences as well as similarities: "For metaphor works simultaneously by difference and identity, claiming that passion is fire, while undermining that claim in the same breath—for how can one thing be some other thing? Nothing is but what it is not, metaphor proposes."13 Just as a metaphor says "it is and it isn't," so a mirror relates to reality, for mirrored reality may be a duplication, but it is also a reversal and an illusion. The mutual reflections between Isabel and Richard, like actual mirror reflections, both replicate and reverse; their metaphoric relationship contains common areas that underscore Richard's own tragic experience as well as differences that yield a new picture of a deposed king. Like the mirror, the perspective effects understanding metaphorically: "By combining and contrasting multiple images, compressing them in space as verbal wit compresses ideas in time, these perspective devices perform the same feats visually as witty metaphor performs in language."14 In the case of Richard II, the oblique view acts as a metaphor to bring forth a new understanding of the political structure of the play.

Queen Isabel's involvement with metaphors of reflections, shadows, and perspectives befits her social status as a female; women have traditionally stood in the background, in the shadows of their men, and, whether their roles have been as wives, mothers, or daughters, they have long been considered reflections of the male's position, wealth, and ideas. Woman's position in the Renaissance cannot be seen as a centric one: society forbade her direct participation in the affairs of men and demanded that she live life from the sidelines; the female view was as oblique as that of the perspective. As an alternate viewpoint in Richard II, the queen offers an opportunity to see from her oblique position an unconventional subversive view, one that the centric view of the surface text would not reveal.15 Both mirror and perspective metaphors work through the queen to open the play to ambiguity: what seems certain in the surface text may be contradicted when reflected in the mirror or when undermined by an underlying picture exposed by an unconventional perspective.


After the king has left for Ireland, Isabel first articulates the metaphor which will establish her as an important reflection of Richard; she tries to describe to Bushy a "nothingness" she feels that causes her to tremble:

Yet again methinks
Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune's womb
Is coming towards me, and my inward soul
With nothing trembles; at some thing it grieves,
More than with parting from my lord the king.


"Nothingness" attains palpability here; it is a cause, a source; it has become "something."16 After the complex perspective analogy, discussed later, Bushy tries to comfort her by insisting she is the prey of her imagination: "'Tis nothing but conceit, my gracious lady" (II.ii.33). She responds that it is "nothing less" than that. It is something as powerful as imagination, and, she says, at least imagination comes from some substance, but for her, "nothing hath begot my something grief (II.ii.36). That is, she has been impregnated by nothing. Perhaps her words obliquely comment on the strength of Richard's heterosexual desires; more importantly, they build "nothingness" into the metaphor as a significant cause.

Isabel refuses to deny the presence of what she feels within her, even though she cannot find an adequate signifier for it: "But what it is that is not yet known what /I cannot name: 'tis nameless woe, I wot" (II.ii.39-40).17 But her nameless woe does not remain long in its state of intangibility; it becomes something material when Greene enters to announce that Bolingbroke, newly landed in England, poses a real threat to Richard. Since Greene has "delivered" the news, she speaks of him as "midwife"; her nothingness has come full term and is manifest in Bolingbroke:

So, Greene, thou art the midwife to my woe,
And Bolingbroke my sorrow's dismal heir;
Now hath my soul brought forth her prodigy,
And I, a gasping new-deliver'd mother,
Have woe to woe, sorrow to sorrow join'd.


Scott McMillin suggests that if this scene is meaningful, the rest of the play should somehow "concern 'nothing,' childbirth, and perception through tears."18 I attach the same importance to the scene, though where McMillin ultimately sees Bolingbroke as Richard's own inward perception of himself, I suggest a more visible correlation: if Isabel's child of sorrow is Bolingbroke, it follows that Richard must be his father—a fitting image since Bolingbroke will become Richard's "heir" when he replaces Richard as king. Richard as the progenitor of Bolingbroke also suggests that from the nothingness of his imagined fears, Richard has created his own destruction in the form of Bolingbroke. The queen's childbirth metaphor, from nothingness to the sorrow of Bolingbroke, replicates the concept of Richard as the author of his own fall from power. In addition to seeing Richard as a father in this way, the audience is encouraged to view him as a mother; further reinforcing the parallel to the queen, he twice speaks of himself in maternal terms. As he banishes Mowbray and Bolingbroke, he implies such a relationship to England, whose "peace, which in our country's cradle / Draws the sweet breath of infant sleep" (I.iii. 132-33). Later, upon his return from Ireland, he touches the earth, "As a long-parted mother with her child / Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting" (III.ii.8-9).

Richard's creation of a "child of sorrow" mirroring the queen's metaphoric "birth" of Bolingbroke results partly from his misgovernment, which establishes a situation ripe for usurpation. If Bolingbroke does indeed harbor aggressive intentions, they remain significantly un-dramatized; more visible is Richard's creation of his own downfall.19 By the time Richard strips himself one by one of the vestments of his office in the deposition scene, the unkinging comes to symbolize all that has passed, since he has, in truth, deposed himself. Before the play begins, Richard has murdered his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, who is Bolingbroke's uncle also; he has farmed the realm for money and alienated his subjects. After banishing Bolingbroke, Richard foolishly abandons the country for wars he cannot afford and leaves the affairs of state in the hands of his inept uncle, the Duke of York. Before his departure, he seizes Gaunt's lands, thus providing Bolingbroke with a motive and a public rationale for reentering England. In opposition to the trouble he has stacked against himself, he garners no defense other than affirming the doctrine of the divine right of kings.20 Richard has be-lieved that "Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king" (III.ii.54-55). But as he unkings himself he says, "With mine own tears I wash away my balm" (IV.i.207). The weeping queen has foreshadowed a weeping king; from "nothingness" each has brought forth "something": the child of sorrow, the unwanted heir, Bolingbroke.

Even though Isabel is not on stage in this deposition scene, which contains the mirror, her presence is felt through Richard—his words, his nothingness, his tears, his shadows are reflections of her. These likenesses, the mirror scene itself, and an additional connection between the mirror and the perspective can best be understood if we return for a moment to Windsor Castle where a second metaphor, involving the perspective, develops as Bushy comforts Isabel in her loneliness.

After the queen describes her inward unborn sorrow, Bushy tells her that grief has shadows which may resemble grief but are not really so. The tears in sorrow's eye divide a thing in many parts:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so.
For sorrow's eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which, rightly gaz'd upon,
Show nothing but confusion; ey'd awry,
Distinguish form.


Looking at something through tears is like looking at something through the curious perspective. If the queen sees it "straight on," the perspective will show confusion; if she "looks awry," it will show a form or forms. As in the case of the anamorphic painting, a centric view renders no understanding; like the facets of the perspective glass, Isabel's tears divide the image into parts which do not take shape until viewed from an oblique angle. Her problem, Bushy maintains, lies in the incorrect way she perceives Richard's absence:

So your sweet Majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord's departure,
Find shapes of grief more than himself to wail,
Which, look'd on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not.


Bushy counsels her not to "look awry" at the king's leaving. Like Richard who prefers to banish his problems and deny them, Bushy would have the queen look only from the single, conventional view to see formless shadows rather than from the "awry" view which would give shape to her grief. But through her tears the queen perceives the substance of what she feels; for her, "looking awry" is the correct or "right" way to look, and the centric view or traditionally "right" way is wrong. Although his desire to reassure her seems sincere, his admonition, the equivalent of "don't worry your pretty little head," would prevent her from understanding the validity of her own intuition. Through her tears, as through the facets of the perspective glass, she has looked obliquely to see the truth. Oilman points out that the duplicity in this scene, formed by the paradoxical notion that the "right" way is wrong and the "wrong" way is right, makes the scene itself like a perspective; the "crisscrossing double meanings of 'rightly' and 'awry'" are like the two images of the anamorphic painting, and enjoin the audience to view the play in two ways.21 The two possibilities are indeed evident, but perhaps an even stronger message is voiced. Circumstances will later negate the validity of Bushy's stance—the centric view; instead, the queen's view through tears, the "awry" view that gives shape to her shadowy intuition, is sustained, since the shadows do become substance in the form of a very real Bolingbroke. Associating the centric view with Bushy is appropriate since he supports the conservative establishment connected with such a position; linking the queen to the unconventional vantage point is also fitting since, as a woman, her peripheral role places her in a position from which she must view life obliquely. Recognition of the queen's awry view as a perspective from which we can look at the play promises access to a subtext denied to the centric position.

Seen as a reflection of Richard and as the unconventional viewpoint for a different understanding, the queen serves as a point of convergence for the mirror and the perspective images; as a carrier for both, Isabel herself becomes the "unseen" in the deposition scene.22 Although she does not appear, her earlier words are spoken by Richard. The unborn sorrow of the queen now reappears in an altered form: the inner grief of the king. The contrast between Isabel's shadows of grief and the substance that they become is also echoed by Richard, who sees the shadow of the mirror as illusory beside the unseen substance of his grief within:

'Tis very true, my grief lies all within,
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur'd soul.


"Nothingness" occurs again; it has earlier been an expression of the queen's anxiety, and it now preoccupies Richard as he is deposed: when asked if he will willingly relinquish his crown, he responds, "Ay, no; no ay; for I must nothing be" (IV.i.201). As if he had given birth to it, the inner nothingness of Isabel's womb has been transformed into outer nothingness for Richard, now deprived of his role.

A more visible reminder of the queen is present in the form of Richard's tears. In the earlier scene, the queen's tears have been like the facets of the perspective glass through which she has seen the truth; now, in the deposition scene, Richard weeps and begins to perceive through his tears that he has been the cause of his own downfall:

Mine eyes are full of tears, I cannot see.
And yet salt water blinds them not so much
But they can see a sort of traitors here.
Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself,
I find myself a traitor with the rest.


In a reflection of Isabel, Richard sees through the perspective of tears the truth about himself, becoming, as he does so, like the queen—a reflector of both the mirror and the perspective images.

Further, Isabel's perspective glass is itself reflected here. We have already seen that the shadows of sorrow, which Isabel sees in the perspective and which she intuitively suspects to be "something," adumbrate the usurping Bolingbroke—a giant shadow which eclipses Richard. The queen's shadows reappear in the deposition scene in its central image, Richard's looking glass, the basis for all of the reflections in the play. After he has unkinged himself, Richard asks for a mirror to look at his face "Since it is bankrupt of his majesty" (IV.i.267), and when he sees that his image remains unaltered in the glass, he expresses amazement that his inner grief is not evident externally. Then, in one of his most theatrical moments, Richard hurls the looking glass to the floor, shattering it "in an hundred shivers" (IV.i.289). Like his obsequious subordinates who have led him astray, like the divine right of kings which elevated him falsely beyond human status, the glass has flattered him; nonetheless, this visual symbol affords Richard the painful realization that his kingship is not—and has never been—divine. After he has dashed the mirror to the floor, Richard says to Bolingbroke, "Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport—/ How soon my sorrow hath destroy'd my face" (IV.i.290-91). Correcting him, Bolingbroke replies, "The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd / The shadow of your face" (IV.i.292-93). The sorrow itself has not undone him, but like the shadows of the queen's perspective, Richard's shadows have taken form and defeated him. Not his face but the shadow of his face has been destroyed; the reflection he has sought in the mirror was that of a king, and that role he himself has destroyed.23

That his kingship might be a detachable role has not previously occurred to Richard; before his deposition, he believed that he had been divinely chosen as king and was therefore inseparable from his sovereignty. In The King's Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz discusses the Tudor premise that the sovereign king had both a divine "Body politick" and a human "Body natural." The two could be separated only by death when the "Body politick" mystically transferred itself to the new king.24 Richard has seen himself inextricably bound to his divine kingship in just this way, but now, as he is deposed, he must painfully realize the inaccuracy of this perception.25 He must redefine his kingship as simply a role he played, one which was attached to him not by divine choosing but by a social construct. Great tragedy and great insight are compressed in the instant of the breaking of the looking glass: when he smashes the mirror, Richard smashes his reflection—or his role; the indissoluble link between Richard and his kingship is broken, the beliefs by which he has lived are shattered, and a theatrical gesture is made toward demystify-ing the Tudor theory of the divine right of kings.

The slivers of the fragmented mirror reflect the multiplicity of shadows and reflections in the perspectiveglass image of the queen's earlier scene, and both images combine to comment on the political structure. From what Richard does not see—he does not see his exterior changed by the loss of his role—he gains insight; he has learned the truth from the flattering glass. The glass fragments of the mirror, seen as the facets of the perspective glass, reveal nothing from the centric position. Viewed straight on, the political construct of divine right no longer makes sense; it has been undermined and subverted by the "awry" stance through which Richard has seen the divinity of his kingship for what it truly is: a fabrication. The unseen Isabel, present through reflections of the deposed king, reminds us to look "awry" with Richard to see the validity of the unconventional view.26 In a time of heavy censorship and monarchical touchiness about deposition as a subject for theater, the opaque surface text of the play, like the surface of the anamorphic painting, could hide a subversive subtext visible to those willing to adopt the queen's unconventional, oblique stance.

The significance of the queen as perspective cannot be overemphasized. Our current usage of "perspective" to indicate one possible point of view among many or a particular way of looking at something is so common that it has lost its metaphorical impact. As both Gilman and Guillén point out, however, Shakespeare's use of the term in Richard II is one of the very first in English as a "metaphor for the understanding."27 Gilman rightly discerns an implied instruction to the audience to participate actively in seeing Richard, the play, and history in more than one way.28 When connected to the queen, the perspective additionally offers the particular point of view of a woman; Shakespeare treats the marginality of the queen in such a way that, without actually demarginalizing her, he manages to valorize her point of view. As a result, centricity is no longer privileged, but subversively usurped by the marginal. Understood in this way, the perspective metaphor lends particular importance to viewing the play from a feminist perspective.

Just as the audience must move in response to the play from a static view to accommodate new perspectives for understanding, so is Richard forced to change his point of view when he moves from his central position as king to an "awry" perspective imprisoned in Pomfret Castle. Still wrestling with "nothingness" in his final soliloquy, Richard again reflects Isabel as he reworks the childbirth metaphor: since he has no one in his little world, he decides to "people" it with thoughts. With his brain as the female, his soul as the male, he will populate his mind. Once more, we see Richard creating something out of nothing, as he alternately fashions the roles of "king" and "beggar" for himself, but this time the end result is nothing:

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.


Richard must face the "nothingness" which has come through losing his role as king; no longer inflated by a personally and socially constructed status, he little understands himself so transformed. The "nothing" which began as unborn sorrow in the queen and the "nothing" with which Richard created his downfall have come full circle to end in nothing, after all.

Richard's nothingness both reflects that of Isabel and places him in an "awry" position similar to her own. Juliet Dusinberre identifies Richard as "one of the few [Shakespearean] men to enter the experience of women, and discover his own nullity in the eyes of the world once he is separated from his possessions."29 Richard actually becomes the "other" once his social status has been wrested from him; facing life from an oblique position rather than from the central viewpoint of king, he comes to see too late that underneath the opaque surface of the pageantry of his office, he has been not a divinity, but only a fallible human being. The price he pays for his insight is the nothingness of an existence much like that of Isabel.

It is not surprising, then, that Shakespeare has used a woman to mirror Richard and to introduce the concept of nothingness into the play. The bawdy Elizabethan double entendre which attached a sexual connotation to "nothing," equating it with female genitalia as opposed to the "something" of the male, underscores the larger question of Isabel's status in a male world. Richard faces nothingness because he has no role to play; Isabel exemplifies nothingness because her role is nothing. As a Renaissance representation of a medieval woman, even as a queen, she exists only to fill a nominal, auxiliary position.

Recall that Isabel first appears in Richard II in a one-line walk-on at Richard's side. This brief introduction, which enables the audience to recognize her later, visually underlines her status: her identity is defined by her husband. The king has made her queen, queen of Richard's nothingness in their marriage. Despite the childbirth metaphor, Isabel's womb is empty, and the "nothing" that she feels within suggests a lack of fulfillment even in the traditional sense; she has no children, and from Bolingbroke's accusation of Bushy and Greene, it appears she has no sexual relationship with Richard:

You have in manner, with your sinful hours,
Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him,
Broke the possession of a royal bed,
And stain'd the beauty of a fair queen's cheeks
With tears, drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs.


Isabel has reason for tears; she is a woman as ill-fitted for her role as Richard is for his. When his role demands action, he remains passive, stymied by fear; in a reverse mirror image she, by nature active, is forced by her role to remain passive. In the garden scene, still troubled by her fears for Richard, she seeks a diversion which will "drive away the heavy thought of care" (III.iv.2). Trivial pursuits—bowls, dancing, telling tales, and singing—are offered her by her ladies-in-waiting, but she refuses each of them. If dancing could drive away her grief, she would dance, but, in contrast to Richard, she is a pragmatist. Dancing is futile; she knows that there is no real escape from her grief. Isabel's refusal to play contains an image reminding us that her life of enforced passivity is not experienced from a centric position. To her lady's suggestion of bowls, she answers that "my fortune runs against the bias" (III.iv.5). Paraphrased by Ure, her words read, "My fortune runs with unnatural crookedness" (p. 117, n. 5). Through the allusion to the bias, a weight in the wooden bowl that unbalanced it and prevented it from running straight, Isabel connects herself once again to "obliqueness" rather than to the conventional straight path.

Isabel, by no means demure in her inactivity, shows strength of mind and sureness. Acting on her own initiative, she meets Richard on his way to prison, tries to incite him to action, and despairs at his passive acceptance of his degradation:

The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw
And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage
To be o'erpow'r'd, and wilt thou, pupil-like,
Take the correction mildly, kiss the rod,
And fawn on rage with base humility,
Which art a lion and the king of beasts?


She cannot make him act, and she cannot act herself. Again asserting herself, she fearlessly challenges Northumberland as he conveys her husband to prison; she defers only to Richard.

Potentially suited for action she may be, and intuitive she may have been in predicting Richard's sorrow, but these qualities remain untapped and find her no significant place or voice in the political world. Not important enough to be informed of current affairs, she is forced to eavesdrop in the garden to learn from her servants of her own husband's impending deposition; she hides in the shadows to listen—a place reminiscent of all the shadows in this play and of the peripheral role she plays in life. When the gardener reveals that Richard has been seized by Bolingbroke, Isabel, able to control herself no longer, emerges from behind the trees and angrily lashes out at him: "O, I am press'd to death through want of speaking!" (III.iv.72). We can imagine that she has been so all her life. At the news of Richard's fall her anger erupts, not only because of her fear for him, but also because she has had to gain knowledge obliquely, learning the truth from her own servant. She, like the wife who is "always the last to know," is humiliated by her ignorance.

Isabel's lack of importance may diminish her life but it also saves it: a political nothing as queen, she does not qualify for execution; she will simply be deported to France. As she takes leave of Richard, we see both king and queen as near-tragic, if not heroic, figures. Shakespeare has shown us a man tragically incompetent in his role in contrast to an apparently competent woman whose tragedy is that she has no fulfilling role to play. Both have our sympathy.

In their parting scene Richard and Isabel display genuine affection for each other; their marriage, whatever it may have been, is all she has had, and she feels the loss deeply. Divided by the child of their nothingness, they leave each other tenderly—he to face the nothingness of death, she to face the nothingness of her life. Despite their contrasts they have come to replicate each other once again. All of the reflections—reversals as well as duplications—have brought Richard and Isabel to the same oblique perspective on life.

As a parallel to Richard, as a foreshadower of his words and actions, or as a young woman trapped in a nonproductive position, Isabel has exerted an influence in the play disproportionate to her minor role. Like the paradox of her metaphor, she has at first appeared to be nothing but has proved to be "something" of importance; the queen herself has become a metaphor for both the mirror and the perspective and for Richard. Through reflections and through the oblique subversive view, she has offered new awareness to Richard and the audience; although she has moved in the shadows, she has provided an enlightening new perspective for viewing Richard's tragedy and the tragedy of a Renaissance woman.


1 William Shakespeare, King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, 5th ed. (London: Methuen, 1961). All citations have been taken from this edition.

2 At the outset, I should like to acknowledge my debts for the understanding of perspective in Richard II, most especially to Ernest B. Gilman for his comprehensive work, The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978). Gilman provides historical background for the perspective device and an explication of Richard II which have greatly influenced this study, and, although he does not explore the feminist perspective which is my own point of view, he has laid essential groundwork for which I am grateful.

I am also indebted to Claudio Guillén, "On the Concept and Metaphor of Perspective," in Comparatists at Work: Studies in Comparative Literature, ed. Stephen G. Nichols, Jr., and Richard B. Vowles (Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1968), pp. 28-90.

3 Ong, "System, Space, and Intellect in Renaissance Symbolism," in The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (1954; rpt. New York: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 69-70. Michel Foucault discusses similar concepts, notably the thought processes and distinctive linguistic constructions of the Renaissance—an "age of resemblances"—in contrast to a different basis for thought which developed in the classical age of the later seventeenth century. See The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1973), pp. 17-76.

4 Herbert Grabes, The Mutable Glass: Mirror-Imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and English Renaissance, trans. Gordon Collier (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), p. 228.

5 Grabes, pp. 92-103.

6 In the introduction to his Arden edition, Peter Ure notes that although Richard II was entered in the Stationers' Register on August 29, 1597, it is thought to have been written in 1595 (p. xxix).

7 Grabes, pp. 4-5.

8 In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti, using the earlier discoveries of his contemporary Brunelleschi, formulated in Della pittura a written system of linear perspective for painters, the first artistic theory of its kind (Gilman, pp. 16-17 and 241, n. 4).

9 See John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972; rpt. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, and Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1986).

10 See Gilman's discussion of this painting, especially in relation to Richard II (pp. 98-104), as well as his documentation for a possible connection between the painting and the play (p. 254, n. 13).

11 Gilman, pp. 47-48.

12 J. Dover Wilson, ed., King Richard II (1939; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1961), believes that Shakespeare alludes to the perspective glass as well as the anamorphic painting (p. 171, n. 18). Peter Ure agrees, noting the connection between "the tear-filled eye of Isabel, whose facets multiply grief," and the facets of this perspective glass (p. 70, n. 18). Folger Library editors Louis B. Wright and Virginia LaMar (The Tragedy of Richard II, General Reader's [New York: Washington Square, 1962]), suggest that "perspective" refers to any of the variety of Renaissance perspective "toys" (p. 38, n. 19). Guillén's observations that, in usage, perspective references often had the earlier medieval optic glass associations "grafted on" to the newer meanings and that perspective metaphors usually carried a variety of connotations (p. 42) support Ure's contention that Shakespeare may have had more than one perspective in mind.

13 Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 14.

14 Gilman, p. 84.

15 Phyllis Rackin sees women in the history play fulfilling the function of "anti-historians": "In Shakespeare's later history plays those feminine voices become more insistent. They both threaten to invalidate the great, inherited historical myths that Shakespeare found in his historiographic sources and imply that before the masculine voice of history can be accepted as valid, it must come to terms with women and the subversive forces they represent" ("Anti-Historians: Women's Roles in Shakespeare's Histories," Theatre Journal, 37 [1985], 330; reprinted in this volume, pp. 137-38).

16 For a discussion of "nothingness" used as a palpable "something" in other Shakespeare plays, see David Willbern, "Shakespeare's Nothing," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 244-63.

17 Later, Bolingbroke himself will reinforce the "nameless" image by describing himself in search of a name: "As I was banish'd, I was banish'd Hereford;/ But as I come, I come for Lancaster" (II.iii.112-13). And, as Marjorie Garber remarks in Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 62, Bolingbroke "chooses as his chief public complaint the fact that Richard has removed his engraved name from the buildings of the Lancaster estate: 'From my own windows torn my household coat, / Raced out my impresse, leaving me no sign . . . To show the world I am a gentleman'" (III.i.24-27).

18 McMillin, "Shakespeare's Richard II: Eyes of Sorrow, Eyes of Desire," Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 42.

19 See Michael Manheim, The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 67-75, for a comprehensive treatment of Bolingbroke's ambiguous character.

20 See Ronald R. Macdonald's "Uneasy Lies: Language and History in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy," Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 22-39, in which he examines language as a tool for undergirding the system of divine right and covering its fallacies. "Richard," Macdonald proposes, "does not use the language of sacred kingship: he allows it to use him" (p. 26).

21 Gilman, p. 95.

22 Scott McMillin notes the unseen presence of Isabel in the deposition scene (p. 44); he sees Shakespeare working with the difficult problem of making nothingness and unseen grief visible to a theater audience. Isabel, the mirror, Bolingbroke, and the leave-taking scene between Isabel and Richard are all considered by McMillin to be outward manifestations of Richard's unseen grief. He also implies a connection between the perspective and the mirror in relation to grief, but for McMillin the connection of the two images does not provide this particular kind of insight: "Could those hundred shivers be eyed awry, they might reflect the substance of grief, but the theatre does not afford such seeing; this is merely broken glass on the stage floor now" (p. 46).

23 The multiple insinuations of shadow images in this scene are intensified by the concept of the "shadow king," as discussed by Edward Peters, The Shadow King: "Rex Inutilis " in Medieval Law and Literature, 751-1327 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1970). Peters quotes from Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man (ca. 1530) in which a distinction is made between a tyrant and a weak, or shadow, king: "Yea, and it is better to have a tyrant unto thy king: than a shadow; a passive king who does nought himself, but suffereth others to do with him what they will" (p. 4).

24 Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 13).

25 John Neville Figgis's Divine Right of Kings, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1922), remains a valuable source for tracing the development of the theory of divine right from medieval times to the Tudor and Stuart eras and provides a context for understanding the effect on Elizabethan audiences of the deposition scene.

The political content of Richard II has long been considered a threat to the monarchy. In addition to the well-known assertions that Elizabeth prohibited the printing of the deposition scene in her lifetime and that the Earl of Essex used the play as an inflammatory tool preceding the rebellion of 1601, Kantorowicz notes that the play continued to be regarded as subversive and dangerous: as late as the 1680s it was suppressed by Charles II (p. 41). For an opposed view of the political impact of Richard II, see Leeds Barroll, "A New History for Shakespeare and His Time," Shakespeare Quarterly, 39 (1988), especially 441-54.

26 Shakespeare seems to have anticipated the Left's attack on the traditional assumption of "reflectionist theory"—that literary works do "indeed (or at least ought to) 'reflect' or 'reproduce' social reality in a fairly direct way." If literature operates as a mirror, Terry Eagleton maintains it is one "placed at an angle to reality, a broken mirror which presents its images in fragmented form, and is as expressive in what it does not reflect as in what it does" (Marxism and Literary Criticism [London: Methuen, 1976], p. 49). Eagleton's broken mirror placed at an angle to society sounds remarkably akin to the combined metaphors of the mirror and perspective in Richard II: when the images are seen together, the perspective becomes a "mirror" of a subversive layer of knowledge.

27 Gilman, p. 95. Guillén includes Ben Jonson, William Drummond, Cervantes, and Francis Bacon among those who use the perspective device as metaphor (pp. 42-43).

28 Gilman, pp. 97-98.

29 Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975), p. 125.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653

Bennett, Kenneth C. "Climax and Anti-Climax in Richard II." Essays in Theatre 6, No. 2 (May 1988): 123-35.

Illustrates how Shakespeare structures Richard II to accommodate the anti-climax brought about by Richard's deposition.

Bloom, Allan. "Richard II" In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 51-61. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

Explores the problems of kingship in Richard II, arguing that kingship has at its core both the divine and the criminal.

Bolton, W. F. "Ricardian Law Reports and Richard II" Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 53-65.

Discussion of legal terms and laws used by Shakespeare in Richard II.

Brooke, Nicholas. "Richard II" In Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, pp. 107-37. London: Methuen and Company, 1968.

Maintains that the play is structured rhetorically, which supports the notion of divine order, and suggests that readers should resist focusing on Richard's character at the expense of rhetorical analysis.

Cowan, Louise. "God Will Save the King: Shakespeare's Richard II" In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 63-81. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

Asserts that while politics and power are important elements in Richard II, the focus of the play is on the cycles of human history and the way in which humans and divine Providence interact.

Hill, R. F. "Dramatic Techniques and Interpretation in Richard II" In Early Shakespeare, edited by J. R. Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 101-22. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3. London: Edward Arnold Publishers, Limited, 1961.

Examines the rhetorical devices that structure the play, maintaining that they do not exist merely to call attention to themselves but to serve as the medium through which human experience can be explored.

Holderaess, Graham. Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992, 259 p.

Contains two chapters on Richard II; one explores the connections between chivalry and kingship while the other examines issues of gender and patriarchy.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. "Shakespeare: King Richard II." In The King's Two Bodies: A Study of Mediaeval Political Theology, pp. 24-41. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Important, highly influential study of the theory of kingship and the ways Shakespeare explores the theory in Richard II.

Lamoine, Georges. "Richard II and the Myth of the Fisher King." Cahiers Elisabethains 30 (October 1986): 75-8.

Draws parallels between Richard II and the Arthurian mythological Fisher King, making possible a more intensely religious reading of Richard II.

Mack, Maynard. "This Royal Throne Unkinged." In Killing the King: Three Studies in Shakespeare's Tragic Structure, pp. 15-74. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973.

Exhaustively examines the imaginative contexts of regicide in Shakespeare's plays.

Martin, R. A. "Metatheater, Gender, and Subjectivity in Richard II and Henry IV, Part I." Comparative Drama 23, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 255-64.

Compares and contrasts the characterization and roles of female characters in Richard II and Henry IV, Part I.

Nevo, Ruth. "Richard II." In Tragic Form in Shakespeare, pp. 59-95. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

A classic, highly-influential study which argues that Richard is a tragic hero and that it is his characterization which shifts the genre of the history play toward tragic structure.

Reiman, Donald H. "Appearance, Reality, and Moral Order in Richard II." Modern Language Quarterly XXV, No. 1 (March 1964): 34-45.

Demonstrates how Richard's movement from empty, formal language to honest, self-aware discourse renders Richard II as a fully developed tragedy.

Schoenbaum, S. "Richard II and the Realities of Power." Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 1-13.

Explores Shakespeare's sources and his interest in Elizabethan politics in order to illuminate the complicated political maneuvering by the characters in the play.

Walker, Julia M. "Eclipsing Shakespeare's Eikon: Milton's Subversion of Richard II." JEGP 90, No. 1 (January 1991): 51-60.

Argues that Milton uses and subverts familiar images from Richard II in his response to Charles I.

Weiss, Theodore. "The Breath of Kings: Richard II." In The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare 's Early Comedies and Histories, pp. 201-59. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Demonstrates that Shakespeare's concern with the possibilities and limits of language reaches a peak in Richard II.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Marlowe's Edward II: Penetrating Language in Shakespeare's Richard II


Richard II (Vol. 52)