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Richard II

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Chronologically the first play in Shakespeare's series of eight history plays centering on the genesis and history of the conflict between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, Richard II was written circa 1595. Shakespeare had already written Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, and Richard III—the second tetralogy, chronologically speaking. Arguably the primary moral transgression that initiates the bloody events of the eight plays is the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. The murder takes place prior to the opening of Richard II, but in the play, King Richard is implicated in having ordered the murder. Not only is Richard believed to be responsible for Gloucester's death, but he is also shown to be a weak and inefficient ruler who has squandered the royal coffers on the public display of the regality of kingship. For such reasons, some critics, including M. M. Reese (1961), have argued that the kingdom has been tainted by Richard's rule, and that Bolingbroke's rebellion, while wicked itself, is a “diseased product of a diseased condition.” Pamela K. Jensen agrees, maintaining that Richard's abuse of power provokes Bolingbroke's rebellion. Jensen contends that following Richard's political fall, he experiences a personal rise, in which he redeems himself by the end of the play. At the same time, Jensen observes, Bolingbroke's political rise to power is paralleled by an inward, moral decline. “Each man,” Jensen states, “is only ever half a king; neither is kingly when he is king.”

In addition to the moral implications of Richard's and Bolingbroke's actions, modern critics are concerned with the issues in the play related to Elizabethan politics. Of particular interest is the scene in which Richard, in front of Bolingbroke and Parliament, gives up the crown to Bolingbroke. This scene (IV.i), commonly known as the deposition or abdication scene, was not printed in any of the Elizabethan editions or reprints of Richard II. It finally appeared in the fourth quarto of 1608, during the early reign of James I. Many critics, including Janet Clare (1990), maintain that evidence exists to support the contention that the scene was excised from print and performance due to its depiction of the deposition and usurpation of a legitimate monarch. While acknowledging that it is conjecture as to whether or not the scene was censored out of the play, Cyndia Susan Clegg (1997) contends that it is unlikely that the scene was excised for the reasons most often given by critics: due to parallels between the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the misrule of Richard, or due to the dangers of the dramatic portrayal of political rebellion during the 1590s. Rather, Clegg argues, the scene may have been viewed as subversive and was therefore censored because it portrays a Parliament that urges, rather than simply consents to, Richard's abdication. Clegg explains that this implies that Parliament may act without the King, that Parliament, in fact, presides over the King and may dictate terms to him.

Other critics have focused on specific aspects of the play's language and imagery, particularly the rhetoric of Gaunt's deathbed speech and the play's mythological allusions. Donald M. Friedman (1976) analyzes Gaunt's speech and argues that although many have viewed these verses as a “national panegyric,” Gaunt is immersed in the questions he presents regarding the “preservation or destruction of the national character;” he is not a “disinterested commentator on the glories of England.” Friedman maintains that through the use of rhetorical conventions that are purposefully unfulfilled, Gaunt's speech demonstrates his own penetrating frustration at being powerless to insure his conception of “England's essence.” George D. Gopen (1987) also closely examines the rhetoric of Gaunt's dying speech, observing that it marks Gaunt's transformation from Richard's “yes-man” into a man unafraid to challenge the king. Gopen further contends that Gaunt's personal transformation presages another transition in the play, from a kingdom concerned with tradition and duty with Gaunt as its spokesman to a kingdom ruled by “humanistic” rather than “conventional” political judgments, with Gaunt's son Bolingbroke as representative of this position.

A variety of mythological allusions in the play have been the focus of some critical commentary. Georges Lamoine (1986) studies the parallels between elements of the Fisher King myth and certain aspects of the play. Lamoine suggests that the myth supplies a “deeper dimension” to the play's warning concerning the deposition of the king, and that the Fisher King myth, with its focus on the spiritual quest for the Holy Grail, heightens the play's own religious implications. Clayton G. MacKenzie (1986) examines how the language and imagery used in the play refer to the mythology of England as paradise, even as the Biblical paradise. MacKenzie also demonstrates that a second mythology is alluded to in the play as well: that of the “fallen paradise.” This fallen paradise, MacKenzie shows, is referred to in Biblical, iconographical, and classical terms, which together emphasize “a central mythology of an English transgression and of a paradise lost.” Taking another approach to the play's mythological allusions, Robert P. Merrix (1987) reviews Richard's reference to the Phaëton myth, as presented in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Merrix maintains that the myth incorporates themes—including the search for one's identity, pride and its fall, and the chaos resulting from “ambivalent leadership—that make this myth a “nearly perfect vehicle for Shakespeare to use in Richard II.

M. M. Reese (essay date 1961)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15123

SOURCE: “Richard II,” in The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays, London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd, 1961, pp. 225-60.

[In the following essay, Reese examines the plot and characterization in Richard II to support the contention that although Bolingbroke's rebellion is wicked, the rebellion itself is a symptom of the kingdom's disease, a sickness that has generated from Richard's complicity in the death of Gloucester and his general inability to effectively rule his kingdom.]

Richard II always occupied a special place in the Elizabethan mind. Until he relinquished his crown of thorns to Charles I, he was the archetypal English martyr; no other mediaeval king aroused such compassion for his fate, not even Edward II, who like himself was deposed and cruelly murdered. That he was the last of the Plantagenets, the last direct descendant from the Conqueror, gave him a particular sanctity. The unbroken line that was severed in his fall has never been restored.

Nor did it seem that the harshness of his fate was merited by the sum of his misdeeds. Like Henry VI, he was the peace-loving son of a father whose glory had been to scourge the French, and the Black Prince's memory was a heavy burden to him. His enemies saw him in an image that was not his own. After the fair beginnings when he rode out to face Wat Tyler, his councillors expected of him things that he was unfitted to perform, so that there was always a conflict between his own inclinations and other men's notions of his royal duty. He was neither a bad man nor an outstandingly bad king. The most frequent charge against him is that he was content to be flattered and misled by light-minded favourites. The chroniclers are almost unanimous about this. Hall says that in himself he was ‘not of the most evil disposition, was not of so simple a mind, nor of such debility of wit, nor yet of so little heart and courage, but he might have demanded and learned good and profitable counsel, and after advice taken, kept, retained, and followed the same: But howsoever it was, unprofitable counsellors were his confusion and final perdition’. Holinshed thought that he was ‘of nature good enough, if the wickedness and naughty demeanour of such as were about him had not altered it’. He was vain, ‘being desirous enough of all honour, and more ambitious than was requisite’, and so he listened too easily to flattery. This was the view of Richard generally accepted in the sixteenth century. His story in A Mirror for Magistrates is introduced with the suggestion that he was ‘a King that ruled all by lust’ and

alway put false flatterers most in trust,
Ensuing such as could my vices claw:
By faithful counsel passing not a straw.

In Woodstock we meet the same complaint:

Shall England, that so long was governed
By grave experience of white-headed age,
Be subject now to rash unskilful boys?

II ii 169.

Shakespeare's Bolingbroke says to Bushy and Green,

You have misled a prince, a royal king,
A happy gentleman in blood and lineaments,
By you unhappied and disfigur’d clean:

Rich. II III i 8.

and later, in a long analysis of Richard's public failings, Bolingbroke remembers how

The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns,
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative. …
So, when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded.

I Hen. IV III ii 60.

This attitude has to be regarded with caution, since it was the practice of rebels to clear themselves of treason by professing that they were only trying to rescue the king from counsellors who had led him into evil ways, but in Richard's case it seems to have been something near the truth. Holinshed, not a friendly reporter, says that ‘if there were any offence, it ought rather to be imputed to the frailty of wanton youth, than to the malice of his heart’. His faults came from a fundamental instability of character. He had exalted notions of his prerogative, and his vanity was further nourished by the personal beauty to which all pay tribute.1 So long as things were going his way, he would be self-satisfied and self-indulgent; but when he was crossed, darker qualities revealed themselves and he was liable to the frightening explosions of passion that were a legacy of Plantagenet medical history.2 However, his worst crimes were not disastrous politically, for the elimination of enemies like Arundel and Gloucester was a necessary concession to the iron laws of survival. If he had always been able to bring himself to that pitch of resolution and cunning, he might not have lost his throne. The fatal blunders were things petty, needless and exasperating, the actions of one who was not so much a tyrant as a political child. Viewed from a distance, they do not seem to have added up to very much, and Richard, who was only occasionally vicious, was deposed because his incalculable vacillations and moodiness were, in a king, more serious faults than a bloody mind.

But time and martyrdom washed away the traces, and only the charm and the pathos stood in people's memory. In two generations of misrule the whole nation had atoned for the wrong done to the Lord's anointed, and in the Tudor mind Richard was a sacrificial victim. The fault seemed so trivial, the penalty so unaccountably large, that these events were explicable only through the action of Fortune's sightless wheel, in whose motion consisted the mediaeval idea of tragedy. Much of Richard's fascination for succeeding generations lay in the rapidity, suddenness and magnitude of his fall. So much more painfully than he deserved—for his were not the abominations of Edward II—he plunged from greatness, while his rival just as swiftly climbed on high.

Thus it was not altogether an accident that the reign had acquired a particular significance in English history. In some respects the Middle Ages may be said to have ended with Richard, and although they would not have used those terms about it, the men of the sixteenth century were able to perceive that something had passed which they would never know again. A new order came in with the Lancastrians, a dynasty launched in blood. For some historians, as Hall, Daniel and Shakespeare himself, Richard was the natural starting-point of their exposition.

In this man's reign began this fatal strife
(The bloody argument whereof we treat)
That dearly cost so many a prince his life,
And spoil’d the weak, and ev’n consumed the great.

Daniel, Civil Wars, i 23.

Even in the chroniclers who covered a much longer stretch of history—Holinshed, for instance, and Polydore Vergil and Warner—the usurpation and its consequences were treated with a new intensity and a marked insistence on pointing the moral. Richard was the prescriptive sovereign driven from his inheritance; the proud man suddenly ‘dejected’ by Fortune's arbitrary motions; and the king whose reign initiated a sequence of events, initially tragic, which turned eventually to joy. To quote Daniel again:

Yet now what reason have we to complain,
Since hereby came the quiet calm and joy,
The bliss of thee, Eliza? Happy gain
For all our losses, when no other way
The heav’ns could find, but to unite again
The fatal sever’d families: that they
Might bring forth thee; that in thy peace might grow
That glory which few times could ever show.

i 3.

All these attitudes are implicit in Shakespeare's play; and no writer who chose to handle this reign can have been unaware of the contemporary immediacy of his theme. ‘I am Richard II. Know ye not that?’3 In 1595, when the play was written, deposition was practical politics. Richard was a king who had been turned off his throne. That was an unassailable fact, and no one could write about it without giving some indication whether in his opinion it had been rightly done. No subject that Shakespeare ever touched was on a workaday level more urgent: the use to which his play was later put is proof of that. The judgment that he passed on Richard and his supplanters must in some sort be a judgment on the Queen and her office, and also on all those men who for a variety of reasons would have been willing to see her removed. He was giving a verdict on a contemporary situation upon which, for all that anyone knew in 1595, the future peace of the country might depend.

Shakespeare's answer (if we may use so crude a word about an argument conducted in strictly dramatic terms and with matchless artistry) is that Richard's fate was settled before the play began. The crucial question forced upon the audience in the opening scene is this: who was responsible for Gloucester's death? Various hints and indications, here and in later scenes, put Richard's complicity beyond all doubt. He has been guilty of an unroyal crime and his just punishment is assured.4 If that punishment should be deposition and death, it will not be too severe; but, since majesty dies not alone, his guilt is a stain on all his people. Thus the question about the rights and wrongs of rebellion is already answered. Bolingbroke may be a better man than Richard—in some respects he obviously is—but his cause is tainted from the start. He is touched by the general sickness, of which his rebellion is just a sympton. He cannot escape being corrupted by the low and selfish motives of men like Northumberland, and the immediate judgment upon his actions is that they have not prospered: by the end of the play his reign is set towards disaster.

This reading of the play is supported by Shakespeare's repeated suggestion that Bolingbroke was not the author of his actions.5 It has often been noted that the play lacks a central climax, that the actual transference of power from Richard to his enemy is bloodless and perfunctory. In effect Richard is defeated while he is absent from the stage; and on his return he accepts his fate with the petulant resignation of a child of Fortune whose guardian angels have mysteriously deserted him. His guilt has robbed him of the power of action. Bolingbroke, meanwhile, seems to be the passive instrument of fate. When at a critical moment in the play York reminds him that ‘the heavens are o’er our heads’, he meekly answers,

I know it, uncle; and oppose not myself
Against their will.

III iii 18.

There is irony in this, for neither of them yet knows that the will of heaven will turn out to be the opposite of what at that moment they have in mind. York's later comment on the whole affair is that ‘heaven hath had a hand in these events’, and Bolingbroke himself would always protest that he did not deliberately seek the throne.

Though then, God knows, I had no such intent,
But that necessity so bowed the state
That I and greatness were compelled to kiss.

2 Hen. IV. III i 72.

To a large extent this is also admitted by the hostile Percies, who at the time were his accomplices. Northumberland

heard him swear and vow to God
He came but to be Duke of Lancaster;

I Hen. IV. IV iii 60.

and Worcester says that, after Henry had sworn at Doncaster ‘that you did nothing purpose ’gainst the state’,

in short space
It rain’d down-fortune showering on your head,
And such a flood of greatness fell on you.(6)

I Hen. IV. V i 46.

Shakespeare is implying that the rebellion succeeded because Bolingbroke was the chosen instrument of Richard's predestined fall. But he does not mean that the rebellion was therefore justified. It was the diseased product of a diseased condition. Personal ambition was a prominent part of it, and it contained its own nemesis in the subsequent rivalry of the accomplices. The argument of the play is that rebellion is always wicked; and when the ruler is a guilty man, rebellion is one of the consequent manifestations of his guilt.

Fortunately that is not all that the play is about. Determinist patterns of this kind do not make good drama unless the characters are men of feeling and seem to possess some freedom of choice and action. Character and destiny co-operate in Bolingbroke's ruthless drive towards the crown: Shakespeare does not deny either the self-interest or the superior capacity which hastened its accomplishment. York is human enough to display all the hesitations of a commonplace but conscientious man on the edge of intolerable uncertainty. His dilemma is real and is one of the cruxes of the play; its significance is not diminished because we know what the result is going to be. So too with Richard. The end may be known and inescapable, but his every action shows that he is a man unfit for power. Once this is established, the play's mood insensibly changes. We must not say that it ceases to be political, as Richard's adherence to his inalienable royalty is a political fact of the highest importance. But there is a shift of emphasis from an England made sick by disloyalty and misrule to the personal predicament of the King. The play is also a drama of character.

In the opening scene Richard establishes his exalted conception of the crown he wears. He receives the two disputants with remote detachment and remains strangely cool and silent throughout their angry exchanges. His display of disinterested royalty is all very proper and correct. Bolingbroke's blood relationship with the King will not earn him any favours, for ‘impartial are our eyes and ears’ and nothing shall ‘partialize the unstooping firmness of my upright soul’. But dissembling is over when Bolingbroke raises the question of Gloucester's death and the soul which ‘from the tongueless caverns of the earth’ cries out for justice. This so nearly touches Richard that he can no longer impose a dispassionate solution of the quarrel. He pleads for a bloodless settlement but weakens the effect by a half-hearted, self-conscious little joke, ‘Our doctors say this is no time to bleed.’ Although he reminds them that he is a lion to tame leopards, and that kings are not born to sue but to command, ultimately he has to allow the two enemies to fight it out. Already the high conception of the royal prerogative is at odds with the event.

We know the worst about Richard by the time that Gaunt is dead. The brief I ii tells the audience beyond doubt that he was the cause of Gloucester's murder—‘correction lieth in those hands which made the fault’. Gaunt's orthodoxy during this episode is significant. He offers the importunate Duchess no hope of instant vengeance, bidding her place her trust in God, ever the widow's champion and defence. ‘God's is the quarrel.’ If wrong has been done (and even this qualification is important: Gaunt knew things about Gloucester that the widow did not), God will avenge it in His due season. Gaunt is the spokesman of the traditional order, and his assumptions are the same as Richard’s. Kings may sometimes err, and it is the duty of their counsellors to give rebuke: a duty which he will shortly exercise with no small eloquence. But rebuke will always stop short of sedition. Gaunt will never ‘lift an angry arm against [God’s] minister’.

In the lists at Coventry the hollow deference of the combatants builds up Richard's image of himself, but their presence there in arms says something different. Once he had failed to impose a peaceful settlement of their quarrel, there was no easy solution to be had. In a later play Mowbray's son was to declare that

When the king did throw his warder down,
His own life hung upon the staff he threw.

2 Hen. IV IV i 125.

Perhaps this was being wise after the event. The decision that Richard made, after a show of consultation with his council, at least had the merit of getting both men out of the country. But the manner and the method were at fault. Richard's vanity and love of drama needed the colour and bustle of the lists, the pomp of the heralds, the valedictions and mounting tension, broken at the climax by the theatrical gesture of intervention. Thus does the sun shrivel lesser luminaries. There is malice in the lifelong banishment of Mowbray and a typical offhand insensitivity in the King's remark to the stricken Gaunt, ‘Why, uncle, thou hast many years to live.’ He is credulous to suppose that a promise exacted in his presence will necessarily prevent the two men from meeting and conspiring in the years to come. It is ingratitude and folly to inflict the heavier sentence on Mowbray, who has been waging Richard's quarrel as well as his own. Finally, it is fatal weakness, a mere sentimental gesture, to reduce the sentence on the dangerous and popular Bolingbroke, who at once judges the concession at its true worth:

Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of kings.(7)

I iii 214.

In the next scene two veteran statesmen, York and the dying Gaunt, ruminate sadly upon the disgrace of the kingdom under Richard's feckless rule. York says that the King will hear no good advice, only flattery and the venom sound of lascivious metres, and his time and treasure are wasted in empty imitation of foreign fashions. Perhaps there is little more in these strictures than old age's dislike of pleasures it is no longer able to enjoy, but Gaunt's indictment is conceived on a larger scale. His matchless invocation of ‘this other Eden’ creates an idealised picture which he sets in contrast with the actuality of an England dying from misrule.8 It is a plea for the vanished majesty which even now, if it is not too late, may cure the country's fatal ills. But when Richard enters, his obdurate callousness provokes Gaunt to words that ‘hereafter thy tormentors be’. Twice (II i 105, 127) he directly accuses Richard of contriving Gloucester's death, and in their wry jesting about health and sickness warns him that he is no less sick than himself.

Now, he that made me knows I see thee ill;
Ill in myself to see, and in thee seeing ill.
Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick:
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Committ’st thy anointed body to the cure
Of those physicians that first wounded thee.

II i 93.

Richard may know that what he says is true, but his illness is indeed past cure. He receives the news of Gaunt's death with a perfunctory couplet and a curt ‘So much for that’. Then he announces the decision that must have been already in his mind, to seize the dead man's property to finance his Irish wars. This is too much even for York's deep-rooted loyalty, and he reminds Richard that to deprive Bolingbroke of his rightful inheritance is to bring into question the principle of ‘fair sequence and succession’ to which his own crown is due:

You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.

II i 206.

But Richard has scarcely been listening.

Then all too late comes counsel to be heard,
Where will doth mutiny with wit's regard.

II i 27.

In this scene Richard is given one last chance. If he had risen to the idea of duty that Gaunt, and even York in his fumbling way, had indicated to him, at least it could not have been said of him that his fall was the just desert of an incurably frivolous mind. But in fact he has paid so little attention to York's warnings that he casually leaves him as regent during the campaign in Ireland: ‘for he is just, and lov’d us well’.

It is apt that at the close of the scene the mutinous nobles catalogue his misdeeds, and Northumberland sees life peeping ‘even through the hollow eyes of death’: meaning that Bolingbroke is already on his way. Shakespeare does not mitigate the case against Richard's ‘insolent misgovernment and youthful outrage’, as Holinshed called it. To prefer flattery to sage advice, to be enthusiastic for sensuous verse and all the novelties of fashion, may simply be the natural weaknesses of youth. But Richard will never become any wiser. He will not outgrow the political obtuseness that commands a duel and then theatrically forbids it; makes an enemy of Bolingbroke but leaves him alive to nurse his resentment; goes off to Ireland9 when by his own folly he has just provoked a crisis at home; and commandeers the Lancastrian estates so that every landowner in England is made apprehensive about his property. Next time we see him, he has come to meet ‘the sick hour that his surfeit made’.

Shakespeare will presently use the little emblematic scene in the garden at Langley to remind us that Richard's duty was to govern and he had failed in it. The well-cared garden is a vision complementary to Gaunt’s. But politics gradually become less important, giving way to the personal tragedy of Richard. Although his tragedy would be less dreadful if he were not a king, it is no longer all-important that he is a king. The issue is always greater than himself, for his fate is England's as well as his, but we forget this in the contemplation of an individual solitarily facing his destiny. From the moment of his appearance at Berkeley the end is clear.

That Richard should seem to be an accomplice in his own fall was congruous with the accepted tragic pattern, which required that sort of inevitability. Like James II, the historical Richard lost his throne because in the crisis he gave no lead to those who would have fought for him. Potentially he had a strong body of supporters, and with the least show of determination he could have confined Bolingbroke's ambitions to the recovery of his confiscated lands. His fleet was at Waterford, and Aumerle tried to persuade him to return to Ireland and gather an army. But he appeared to be incapable of action. He deserted his forces in Pembrokeshire and listlessly submitted to deposition and death. In the last months of his reign he was just a mumbling neurotic.

For a playwright these events were not in themselves dramatic, and Shakespeare has made his own reading of them. Richard's will is numbed, and he can only put his faith in his divine right and talk emptily about betrayal. He is indomitable when he thinks of what he ought to be, helpless when he realises what he has become. His strength is exhausted in recrimination and idle menace, and the very facility of his emotion robs him of the power of action. This, near enough, is the Richard of the sources, the man who destroyed himself by extremes of apathy and passion. But ‘sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things’. In the play he rises almost to tragic stature in the possession of his kingly memories. Although he is always self-regarding in his griefs, he has sufficient insight to realise what he has lost, and his suffering is transmuted into an outraged patriotism and an affront to the idea of royalty. Anointed and consecrate, he feels as no one else can the dreadfulness of what is being done to him, of what, in the final moment of his renunciation, he is doing to himself. His poetic imagination transforms his fall into a sacrificial rite.

In this way the idea of royalty is exalted to a peak where the unworthiness of a particular king cannot damage it.10 The unkingliness revealed in the second half of the play is much more serious and fundamental than the frivolities and recklessness of Richard's prime. At the first touch of failure he capitulates utterly. As soon as misfortune releases his capacity for self-display, he is happy to wanton with his grief before his cause is really lost. ‘O that I were as great as is my grief.’ It is the image of sorrow rather than sorrow itself that takes hold of him, and he tortures his imagination to throw up language that shall be worthy of his sufferings. He rebukes Aumerle for turning him even for a moment from ‘that sweet way I was in to despair’. He is the unloved stranger ‘in this all-hating world’, and defeat so sharpens his artistic susceptibilities that he loses himself in wondering contemplation of his ever-worsening predicament. Each new situation stimulates him to a richer poetic elaboration as his fertile fancy seizes on the possibilities inherent in the jostling conceptions of kingship and its ruin, trust and its betrayal, parting and the impregnable solitude of the man whose mind is its own kingdom. He has no thought for Green and Bushy in their ignominious death. Their fate, earned in his love and service, simply moves him to a marvellous descant upon the wretchedness of kings. The Queen's sorrow at their parting stirs him to compassion—for himself. When she tearfully reproaches his broken manhood, he can only bid her, ‘tell thou the lamentable tale of me’.

Endlessly setting ‘the word itself against the word’, Richard sits like a gilded spider, spinning his variations on the theme of sorrow. He has Prince Arthur's trick of attributing feeling to inanimate objects, as though to ask all creation to shed tears for him. He would rather talk to things than to men. Men have been stonily unresponsive, but his fancy tells him that the earth has hearkened to his ‘senseless conjuration’. Tongue, as has often been noted, is one of the key words of the play.11 In crisis the Lancastrians are strangely silent. ‘When words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain’, Gaunt gnomically declares, and at Coventry he asks his son, ‘To what purpose dost thou hoard thy words?’ Henry replies:

I have too few to take my leave of you,
When the tongue's office should be prodigal
To breathe the abundant dolour of the heart.

I iii 255.

Richard's ‘Mark, silent king’, addressed to Bolingbroke in Westminster Hall, acknowledges this difference between them. For it is in words that Richard tries to immure himself against reality. His transforming imagination cannot make any difference to his real predicament but he does receive from it some personal consolation. In fact it gives him the only sort of strength of which he is capable, since it is in defeat that he at last becomes a king. His fancy has created for himself a picture of a man who has once been royal. The face of the real man, the sentimental weakling who fooled away a throne, is seen for the last time in the mirror that shivers to pieces in Westminster Hall. In its place stands the self-created portrait of one who can find even in his own ruin a special significance that sets him apart from other men. The artist has discovered how to heal his wounds.

It is in its way a beautiful performance, and we have to admire the limpid, spineless verse that can turn any idea to melody; the grave, reflective imagery, drawn not from any understanding of the human heart but from folk-lore and fable, an idealised love of an England that never was, and a mystical cult of kings. We must acknowledge, too, the artistic tact which prevents this endless celebration of grief from becoming too harrowing to our sensibilities.12

Let him not come there,
To seek out sorrow that dwells everywhere.

I ii 72.

But this is no way to keep a throne. The king who left for Ireland was at least erect and scornful in his follies, and he is barely recognisable, when next we see him, as the man who fondles the earth ‘as a long-parted mother with her child’. It is in vain that Carlisle tells him that even God's deputies are beyond aid if they will not help themselves.13 In his abasement, just as earlier in his pride, he is still impervious to counsel.

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

III ii 54.

The words are splendid but they bring short comfort to the speaker. As bad news comes fast, his irresolution, feeding gratefully on the luxuries of despair, prepares us for the capitulation in the following scene.

When this scene opens, the crown is still not irrevocably lost. Bolingbroke is still cautious. He will accept the arbitrament of heaven, and he tempers his bluster with references to his ‘stooping duty’ and his ‘allegiance and true faith of heart’. If the event should run that way, he would still be the yielding water to Richard's fire. Fittingly, York is dazzled by Richard's show of majesty.

Yet looks he like a king: behold, his eye,
As bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth
Controlling majesty.

III iii 68.

For a moment it seems as though Richard has seized his cue, for his long address to Northumberland (72-100) is the most controlled and effective of his utterances to his enemies. He rebukes Northumberland for failing in the duty of his knees; reminds him of the divine protection which guards anointed kings; and lays on the rebels responsibility for all the blood that will be shed if they persist in their treason. It is an argument to give pause to all waverers, and even Northumberland is sufficiently impressed by it to protest that, once granted his ‘lineal royalties’, Bolingbroke will ask nothing further than ‘enfranchisement immediate on his knees’. These fair demands allowed, Bolingbroke would have had no moral right to continue his defiance; York would have seen the path of duty clear before him, which was all he ever wished to see; and the more prudent and honest of Bolingbroke's followers would have melted from his side.

Fatally, Richard chooses this moment to fall again to dramatising his position. Is it not humiliating, he asks, that a king should have to speak fairly to a rebel in arms? Aumerle tries to steady him:

Let's fight with gentle words,
Till time lend friends, and friends their helpful swords.

III iii 131.

He is advising a show of compliance until an appeal to royalist sentiment shall enable Richard to restore his position. But he is too late. The doomed King has already yielded, captivated by the fancy of contrasting his present helplessness with the majesty that once sentenced Bolingbroke to banishment.

O! that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name,
Or that I could forget what I have been,
Or not remember what I must be now.

III iii 136.

When Northumberland returns with a message from Bolingbroke, we are at one of the crises of the play. His estates restored, the message may promise submission and good behaviour. The odd thing is that we never know. Without ever stopping to enquire, Richard decides that it is a demand for his surrender, and he is heard resigning himself to the exchange of his crown for all manner of obscure destinies, vowing to flatten the corn and fret a grave in the dust with his wanton tears.

Gradually Richard sees his sacred authority broken by the pressure of events. In brave words he calls upon ‘my master, God omnipotent’14 to gather armies of pestilence against his enemies, but the bitter lesson he has to learn is that his assumption of irresistible power no longer squares with the facts. There are earthly forces which he ‘must’ obey. In these moments of insight he turns in self-disgust from the wordy conceits that would make ‘this ill do well’, sees himself as a mockery king of snow, acknowledges his need of bread and all material sustenance. Then the agony of his present suffering is so intense that he cries out to be released from the prison of his memories and truly ‘forget what I have been’. He begs his followers to throw away the ‘respect, tradition, form, and ceremonious duty’ that now mock him with their insincerity. But these moods do not last for long. It is not in his nature that they should. His faith in the divine sanctions of his office is strong enough to brace and exhilarate him even when he knows beyond doubt that God and the angels will not come to save him.15

But the nature of this faith undergoes a change which is the key to Richard's behaviour in the last two Acts of the play. When it was still possible to put up some resistance to Bolingbroke, his attitude merely revealed the futility of an exaggerated conception of Divine Right. Shakespeare is merciless to this conception. No good will come of empty invocations, for in a crisis men respect facts and only facts. The question then arises, has Divine Right any further validity when its fondest assumptions have plainly collapsed in the test of action? Bolingbroke answers that it has none. In the deposition scene he merely considers himself to be treating with a defeated enemy, and he stands by in silent contempt while Richard enacts his martyrdom. His own kingship will be founded on other sanctions. But Richard gives a different answer. With the insight granted to him as a man and as the anointed holder of a sacred office, he knows that his defeat has not altered anything. God still holds kingship in His special care and will demand atonement for the wrong done to His deputy elect. Richard is enabled to understand that his personal tragedy is simply his personal tragedy. The principle of royalty lives on.

His new faith, then, is no longer a sentimental hope of being somehow rescued from disaster. It is all the stronger because those facile expectations have been defeated and his own immediate and personal fate has almost become irrelevant. Deposition will be followed by death, and to all that he is now reconciled. But he is still assured of his inalienable kingliness and of the vengeance it will one day exact.

This assurance enables him to steal the scene in which he is brought before Bolingbroke to be formally deposed. Bolingbroke had planned this scene as a solemn ritual of confession and abdication, and in Northumberland he had a collaborator happy to execute the details with his own special brand of malice and efficiency. Even York had been persuaded that the act was necessary, and the intention was that Richard should make a public surrender, ‘so we shall proceed without suspicion’. It was no part of the plan that he should succeed in making all the spectators accomplices in a crime.

Carlisle is the first to spoil the effect with his passionate protest against the condemnation of the figure of God's majesty by subject and inferior breath. When Richard is brought in

To do that office of thine own good will
Which tired majesty did make thee offer,

IV i 177.

he is by turns theatrical and pathetic. It is characteristic of his broken mind that he should not be absolutely certain of his touch, and the conceited expression of his grief is an indulgence that he cannot easily outgrow.16 But it is no longer the mere image of sorrow that feeds his glowing fancy. Convinced now that no miraculous intervention will save him, he can stand and face his destiny. It is not true self-knowledge that he has attained, for that will always be beyond him, but it is some sort of reconciliation. He has accepted his fate. His concern now—the by-play with the mirror is a typically histrionic expression of it17—is to learn what sort of man he is who is both a king and not a king. It is a personal indulgence in a theme which he will find leisure to develop in the loneliness of prison. To his enemies he insists unwaveringly on his royalty. The volatile temperament that ought, once defeat was certain, to have collapsed into futile impotence has somehow achieved a mysterious virtue in the discovery that, in all the things that matter, he is still a king. Throughout the scene he clings passionately to that essence of his being. Northumberland tries in vain to make an end of these unrehearsed effects and confine Richard to the part allotted to him. Richard has no difficulty with Northumberland.18 The ‘haught insulting man’, mere ladder for Bolingbroke's ascent, is disposed of in language of new-found directness. Hesitation has vanished with the hope that God would send a thunderbolt from the skies. Richard is now so certain of his true nature that he can condemn his own participation in the crime that is being committed:

For I have given here my soul's consent
To undeck the pompous body of a king.

IV i 249.

The ‘sort of traitors’ includes himself.

The irony that follows the breaking of the mirror is a new element in his character. He can even turn the incident against himself, so much superior to Bolingbroke has he now become. ‘This sport’ he teasingly calls his examination of the ‘flattering glass’. He is not just playing with words when he cries that his real grief ‘lies all within’, for it is of a kind that his silent enemies cannot comprehend. The ‘external manners of laments’ is all that they can be expected to understand. Blandly—as though he were in need of instruction!—he thanks Bolingbroke

For thy great bounty, that not only giv’st
Me cause to wail, but teachest me the way
How to lament the cause.

IV i 300.

He penetrates the insincerity of Bolingbroke's ‘fair cousin’ with the wry conceit that, since a king now stoops to flatter him, he need not beg a request. The request, when it comes, is merely for ‘leave to go’: no matter where, so long as it is from their sights. With a final savage pun on convey he departs—to death—absolute master of the situation. Fifteen lines later the scene is over, but not before the audience have been admitted to an ecclesiastical conspiracy which shows that the true king's cause does not sleep.19

In the little episode with the Queen, Richard is still eloquent with self-pity, and the idea of parting furnishes new embroidery for his grief. But he still understands his real predicament.

I am sworn brother, sweet,
To grim Necessity, and he and I
Will keep a league till death.

V i 20.

He is no longer beating his beautiful, helpless wings in a cage. He knows what his fate is to be and has decided how he will meet it. But the Queen cannot realise what has happened to him. When he bids her regard his former state as ‘a happy dream’, she cries in amazement that Bolingbroke has deposed his heart and intellect. She reverts instinctively to Nature's primacies and reminds him that he is a lion, the king of beasts, and how

The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw
And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage
To be o’erpower’d.

V i 29.

He answers her reproaches in a single phrase, neatly turned:

A king of beasts indeed; if aught but beasts,
I had been still a happy king of men.

V i 35.

‘I had been still’: he no longer has any illusions about the present and he is not now to be seduced by idle hopes. But—and it is one of the reasons why he does fall—he cannot avert his mind from the presence in his fate of an element of the casual and undeserved. It leads him to savour his fall as an epitome of human tragedy. Therein he is true to his conception of himself. If to ordinary people he seems to overstate the case, that is just the difference between himself and them. They are ordinary people, he is not.

From York's account, he behaves with the same detached submissiveness when he rides into the City at the tail of the triumphant Henry.

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.…

V ii 30.

‘The setting sun, and music at the close.’ When we meet him for the last time, in the prison at Pontefract, Richard is reflecting on Edward's thought,

But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

Marlowe, Edward II V i 26.

Know that I am a king: O, at that name
I feel a hell of grief! where is my crown?
Gone, gone! and do I still remain alive?

ibid. V v 91.

Richard's fancy is as fertile as ever, but the rhythms of his speech are more direct and colloquial, and—at least until he detects a resemblance between his tear-stained face and a clock—less burdened with lyrical conceits. Christian paradoxes are too subtle to give him comfort. ‘Thoughts tending to ambition’, which delude him with such ‘unlikely wonders’ as forcing his way out of prison, die in their own pride as they remind him of his impotence. He grasps finally at the consolation afforded to beggars in the stocks, that they are not the first of Fortune's slaves, others having endured the like. It is poor consolation for anyone with Richard's sense of dedicated separateness. Even without an audience his imagination has been creating roles for himself to play, and these succeeding fancies (the doubting Christian, the prison-breaker, the philosophic beggar) have been the thoughts with which he has idly peopled the world. With such brave fancies the human mind often seeks to relieve the instant pressure of pain and sorrow. But inevitably the hurt forces itself back into the consciousness, and in the end Richard sees himself playing the king again,

and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d
With being nothing.

V v 36.

‘Nothing’ to Richard is not being king, but it is also death. Only that ‘nothing’ can ease the nothingness that his life has become.20 Impregnable now in his self-possession, he can face the truth about himself when the world breaks in upon his musings.

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.

V v 42.

Richard sees himself as the artist whose intuitions, rare and precious as they are, have not fitted him for the business of his life. ‘I have wasted time, and now doth time waste me.’ The harmony that is in himself has failed to achieve harmony in the state,21 and so long as he is a creature of Time, his mind will know no peace. He welcomes death because it will release him from the time which he has broken.

But this perception has brought him only to the threshold of true self-knowledge. If we think of the insight granted to Lear and Timon, we shall realise how little Richard has really achieved. He has learned that the individual has somehow to accommodate himself with his own particular world, just as Lear and Timon learned that responsibility was not to be exchanged for sentimental indulgences. But with this partial knowledge he is satisfied to die. It has not given him the strength to rebuild his life. He could not, as Lear might have done, go back into the world and conquer it. Can we doubt that, given another chance, he would have failed again?

Henry VI, who also was a king, offers a fairer comparison than the heroes of tragedy. Hazlitt rightly says that the characters and situations of Richard and Henry were ‘so nearly alike, that they would have been completely confounded by a commonplace poet’. Although Henry was too passive and acquiescent to be really tragic, his quiet courage moves a deeper pathos than Richard's more spectacular renunciations. Richard views his royal office primarily as the source of privilege and personal gratification, and he becomes peevish when the higher powers fail to protect his enjoyment of it. He never for a moment recognises that Divine Right imposes duties. But to Henry the office meant, first of all, responsibility. If he was called to any privilege, it was to the privilege of ruling with strength and justice. When men failed in their allegiance, their impiety saddened him but he did not regard it as a personal betrayal, for no man had so little vanity or so few illusions.22 Knowing well the sort of man he was, he was ready to give up the crown whose rights and responsibilities he was incapable of exercising. We may feel that it was a spiritless performance, and Shakespeare does not hide the element of selfishness in Henry's readiness to abandon the duties of office in order that he may pass the time in what Hazlitt severely describes as ‘monkish indolence and contemplation’. He was indifferent to its external pomps,

a prince's delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,

3 Hen. VI II v 51.

and his cry to be relieved from his anxieties comes from the heart. It is not so with Richard's extravagant resignation of

my jewels for a set of beads;
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;
My gay apparel for an alms-man's gown;
My figur’d goblets for a dish of wood;
My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff;
My subjects for a pair of carved saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave.

III iii 147.

This is perilously near fustian, and we must not be blind to the absurdity of the picture that Richard proposes: no man would have had less relish for the cloistered life. The distinction that Shakespeare makes between Richard and Henry is integral to his idea of kingship, and he lets us know that Richard was a man who never achieved complete self-understanding. Character and upbringing only fitted him to think of himself as a king. It was his great strength, and ultimately his means to some kind of victory over his enemies. Looking back at the past, he created an image of himself as more royal than he had ever been; exaggerating his gifts as an artist in the hope of gilding his failure as a king. He knew that he had failed, without ever understanding why. He never discovered that his office implied a duty.

And so the final Richard is not a fully regenerated figure. Some find consolation in his fighting end, but the last minutes of his life show some deterioration from his best manner. The recollection of his political failure drives him back to vain regrets. ‘While I stand fooling here’, he says at the end of an elaborate conceit, but this is not a new-won gift for self-criticism. He has made this sort of remark before, and it has always seemed a mock-humble invitation to applaud the lyric flight still hovering on his lips. He does not really think that this kind of thing is ‘fooling’. It has been the breath of life to him, and it has done more than anything else to cushion his fall. In renewed self-pity he calls the love that inspired the prison music ‘a strange brooch in this all-hating world’, and the entry of the Groom starts him again on the worst sort of railing, its conclusion being that the horse Barbary should be added to the growing list of Judases. He dies in violence, promising ‘never-quenching fire’ to his assassins. In the end he has been false to his vision of ‘nothing’, and his death is proud and ignorant and hopeless. On a like occasion Henry VI sought forgiveness for his sins and a pardon for his murderer.

In Richard II Shakespeare is not making a general condemnation of the artist as king. Given other qualities, the man of sensibility and imagination is likely

had he been put on,
To have prov’d most royally.

Ham. V ii 411.

But Richard lacked stamina and a certain kind of discipline and dedication, and his imagination was incapable of directing itself outwards. The sophisticated aesthete may make a good enough king provided only that he does not try to substitute sensibility for action. Richard's fault was a self-engrossing imagination that peopled the world just as he wished to find it.23 It did not direct itself upon things as they really are, and the creations of his fancy were always more real and vivid than the craggy truths of experience. It was the nature of his particular Calvary to have to learn, so far as he ever could, that the world had not conformed to his imaginings. But Shakespeare's way of telling the story leaves him with some sort of victory over his enemies, and he wins it through a final triumphant feat of the imagination that transforms experience into the betrayal of a Christ. It may be, too, that we are meant to understand that even an adolescent, egocentric imagination may sometimes be justified in its intuitions. Richard's facile conception of Divine Right is irritating and ineffective when he appeals to it to sanctify his whims and excuse himself from taking action. But disillusionment does not destroy his faith in his peculiar and ultimately invincible sacredness as the figure of God's majesty. To Bolingbroke's pragmatism he opposes this mysterious sense of his own anointed separateness. The image that he creates of himself as a man essentially royal is fatuous if tested simply by his performance when the crown was his; but it proves itself to be finally valid both in the comfort it brings to Richard himself in his humiliation and in the strange uneasiness it causes to his enemies. Richard's political epitaph is the edged ambiguity contained in Exton's ‘thy buried fear’.

Through the other main characters in the play Shakespeare revealed the intolerable dilemmas in which men may be put by the existence of a man like Richard. First there is York, a statesman of the old school, an essentially honest and middle-of-the-road sort of man whose defection to Bolingbroke may seem to approve the Lancastrian succession and so explain the play's contemporary reputation as a handbook for usurpers. Shakespeare certainly cast York for a special role of his own contriving, for he took liberties with the historical character.24 Of all the seven sons of Edward III, Edmund of Langley was by nature and inclination the least fitted to bear responsibility at a critical time. ‘A soft prince’ is how Stow describes him. A Castilian bride was witness to some rather confused ambitions in Portugal in his younger days, but, as was only sensible in a prince with four elder brothers, he did not aspire to any great importance at home. As an enthusiastic huntsman he preferred sport to politics, and it was largely the accident of survival that led to his being appointed keeper of the kingdom when Richard left for Ireland. At the crisis he surrendered to the superior power of Bolingbroke as the quickest way of putting an end to an unhappy situation. So, up to a point, Shakespeare suggests, but for his own purposes he imagines York's extreme conscientiousness and the agony of his moral and political indecision.

York in the play shares Gaunt's uneasiness about Richard's dangerous irresponsibility, and the confiscation of the Lancastrian estates moves him to thoughts that he dare not entertain. But his criticism of Richard does not impugn his personal loyalty. It was his duty to give frank counsel, and Richard counted none the less on his love and allegiance in leaving him in charge of the kingdom. It was impossible, however, to rely on his capacity. He meets trouble with the fussy impotence of a Capulet trying to organise the household for a feast—in fact we can almost detect the worried accents of a Quince. His futility and indecision have made Bolingbroke's task half-accomplished even before Richard returns from Ireland. Disasters overwhelm him until he wishes he were dead, and his ‘Go, fellow, get thee home; provide some carts’ is a classic in the annals of military helplessness. Undoubtedly his conscience troubles him.

If I know
How or which way to order these affairs
Thus thrust disorderly into my hands,
Never believe me. Both are my kinsmen:
The one is my sovereign, whom both my oath
And duty bids defend; the other again
Is my kinsman, whom the king hath wrong’d,
Whom my conscience and my kindred bids to right.

II ii 108.

He speaks in disjointed mutterings that are Shakespeare's clue to his predicament, and it is plain that his scruples have so far undermined a nature congenitally irresolute that he will be incapable of action.

Well, somewhat we must do. Come, cousin,
I’ll dispose of you. Gentlemen, go muster up your men,
And meet me presently at Berkeley Castle.
I should to Plashy too:
But time will not permit. All is uneven,
And every thing is left at six and seven.

II ii 116.

His encounter with Bolingbroke in arms momentarily revives his sense of outrage, and his language significantly gains in strength as he speaks of the deep sinfulness of rebellion. But the brave mood does not last. His resistance is already weakened by his feeling that Bolingbroke has a case, and he surrenders to something he now can do nothing about, the rebels’ superior strength.

Well, well, I see the issue of these arms:
I cannot mend it, I must needs confess,
Because my power is weak and all ill-left;
But if I could, by him that gave me life,
I would attack you all and make you stoop
Unto the sovereign mercy of the king;
But since I cannot, be it known to you
I do remain as neuter.

II iii 152.

Since he has been left to protect the country from the King's enemies, this is really no neutrality at all, and he then proceeds to involve himself further by offering a night's hospitality at his castle. When Bolingbroke announces that he intends next day to move against Bushy and Bagot at Bristol, York first says that he will go with him; but the next minute, because ‘I am loath to break our country's laws’, decides that he will not. He closes the scene with characteristic disingenuousness and resignation:

Nor friends nor foes, to me welcome you are:
Things past redress are now with me past care.

II iii 170.

Before Flint Castle his spirits again revive and he seems to be hopeful that after all the true pieties will prevail. The very appearance of the King gives another fillip to his muddled optimism, and he persuades himself that the sight will dazzle men whose loyalties are less deeply rooted than his own.

Yet looks he like a king: behold his eye
As bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth
Controlling majesty: alack, alack, for woe,
That any harm should stain so fair a show!

III iii 68.

But if in the past he has failed the King, now the King fails him. He can only stand in silence while Richard makes his wordy surrender, and thereafter his course is plain. He is no longer tortured by a divided allegiance. The habit of obedience is so strongly bred in him that his peace of mind is at once restored when there is only one man to claim it. A king there must be, and since it is not Richard it is Bolingbroke. Once this is settled by Richard's capitulation, York is as anxious as Bolingbroke himself to dispose of the necessary formalities. It is he who first proclaims the new king as ‘Henry, of that name the fourth’, and he who leads in Richard to seal the deed of abdication. He may not altogether like what has happened, but he belongs to that very large class of Englishmen whose perfectly sincere regard for principle will always at a crisis accommodate itself to facts.25 If he has been weak, it is because the whole nation is already sick and because Shakespeare believes that even an honest man's will is paralysed by the least contact with rebellion.

There are, too, certain excuses for his behaviour. Ties of kindred and an inborn respect for legitimacy bound him in loyalty to Richard, so long as Richard had the strength and virtue to command it. He would never have initiated rebellion on his own account. But as soon as Richard's misrule and disregard of counsel provoked a rebellion he could not suppress, York transferred his obedience to the man who was strong enough to take the crown without provoking a civil war. Not being a philosopher, York did not enquire into the causes of these events. He felt the pity of Richard's fall, but at the same time he thanked providence that a strong man was at hand to spare the country the miseries that must otherwise have followed. In this attitude was born the idea, naturally encouraged by Lancastrian apologists, that Henry was an instrument of providence; and York's moving account of Richard riding into London at the heels of his conqueror ends with the reflection that

Heaven hath a hand in these events,
To whose high will we bound our calm contents.
To Bolingbroke are we sworn subjects now,
Whose state and honour I for aye allow.

V ii 37.

His de facto loyalty is at once put to a grievous test, and like his brother Gaunt, who had seen his son go into banishment in the name of peace, he too would sacrifice a son. Despite its comic bathos, the episode of Aumerle's conspiracy is a frightening revelation of the new order at work. With the scuttling of ancient loyalties, new and sinister motives are in control and there is a large element of panic in York's vehement insistence that Aumerle has earned a traitor's death. Throughout the play York is an important symbolic figure. He acts without courage or nobility, but his unhappy situation discloses the pitiless demands which the dogmas of the Tudor state could make upon personal honour and the claims of kindred.

Shakespeare's treatment of Bolingbroke is more equivocal. Standing always outside the bright light that falls on Richard, this man keeps his character and motives in shadow. That his usurpation was a crime Shakespeare never doubts, and Henry V, the mirror of England's greatness, would so regard it on the eve of Agincourt. But the play lends some substance to the traditional view that he did not seize the throne by deliberate calculation. This tradition was accepted by Daniel, who published the first four books of his Civil Wars early in 1595. They were registered during the previous autumn, and there can be little doubt that Shakespeare had read them. Daniel holds that, although the usurpation was wicked, providence was acting through Bolingbroke:

Then, fortune, thou art guilty of his deed
That didst set his state above his hopes erect,
And thou must bear some blame for his great sin. …
That he who had no thought so high to climb,
(With favouring comfort so allur’d along)
Was with occasion thrust into the crime,
Seeing others’ weakness and his part so strong.

Civil Wars i 94-5.

This was Bolingbroke's own version of events, and Shakespeare at least allows it to be a possible interpretation.26 We may, if we wish, think him innocent of far-reaching design. To some extent it was probably Shakespeare's intention that we should.

But that is not all. While he realised their immediate effectiveness in the theatre, the casual operations of Fortune never completely satisfied Shakespeare as a motive force of drama. Plot and character are indivisible. He searched the mind and heart of Richard to discover reasons for his fall, and in the same way, without drawing a fully-rounded character, he could not help sketching the outlines of the man whom Destiny summoned to be a king.

The picture already has the Machiavellian touches which Bolingbroke was to develop on the throne. Like Cromwell, he realised that he rises highest who knows not whither he is going. His actions have the flexibility permitted to men who do not have to declare their ultimate direction. It makes him dangerous from the first. Coleridge's keen ear detected the metrical deficiency in his opening line, and found it sinister:

Many years of happy days befall
My gracious sovereign.

I i 20.

He remarked, too, the ironic courtesies that fall from Bolingbroke throughout this scene, and wondered by what right he should claim that Gloucester's blood cries ‘to me for justice and rough chastisement’. The chosen of providence he may be, but he knows better than to leave everything to chance. Hazlitt found him a subtle opportunist, ‘patient for occasion, and then steadily availing himself of it’; seeing advantage from far off but reaching for it only when he is sure that it has come within his grasp. We can see how tightly he reins his passions, how shrewdly his words and actions are subdued to the needs of the moment. If he is angry at his banishment, he does not publicly show it. He will not give his enemies that much satisfaction, and compared with Mowbray's unrestrained cry of grief, his response is controlled and deliberate. His two couplets,

Your will be done: this must my comfort be,
The sun that warms you here shall shine on me:
And those his golden beams to you here lent
Shall point on me and gild my banishment,

I iii 144.

make an impersonal comment on the poetic falsity of the lines in which Richard has pronounced his sentence (‘Till twice five summers have enrich’d our fields. …’). When at length he does give way to grief, there is only his father to witness it. On the other hand crocodile tears were readily available on demand. From Richard's wry description (I iv 24-36) we learn how skilfully, on his way to exile, he cultivated the arts of popularity, doffing his bonnet to every oysterwench and ‘wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles’.

His promise that he returns as Lancaster, with no other object than to recover his lost estates, does not square with his high-handed treatment of Richard's creatures, ‘the caterpillars of the commonwealth’ whom he swears to ‘weed and pluck away’. If Green and Bushy have indeed

fed upon my signories,
Dispark’d my parks, and felled my forest woods,
From mine own windows torn my household coat,

III i 22.

Bolingbroke, as party to the issue, should not be their judge. His sentence of death is, so far, an act of personal vengeance. But the rest of the speech, professedly delivered ‘to wash your blood from off my hands’,27 goes farther than that. It is an assumption of sovereign power. His charges against his prisoners may be warranted, but it is not his place to sentence them; nor is their execution necessary to the recovery of his confiscated lands. This act of power, so personal and so deliberate, shows the true worth of the ‘stooping duty’ which, soon afterwards, he humbly lays at Richard's feet. In fact his usurpation has already begun.

By all practical tests he justified himself, moving into unfamiliar positions with instinctive aptitude. Natural authority is evident in his handling of the quarrel in Westminster Hall,28 astuteness in his attempt to stage-manage Richard's removal as a voluntary abdication. He is clever enough, too, to realise that, if the beneficiaries are shrewdly chosen, a reputation for mercy can be bought quite cheaply. He can afford to be lenient to Carlisle, who is honourable and essentially a man of peace; or to Aumerle, who is too unstable to be really dangerous and anyway has a zealous father to act as watchdog. On the other hand, he is ruthless to men he has cause to fear, and unlike Richard he does not threaten idly. ‘Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels’: and in the last scene his lieutenants report a succession of unmistakable victories. His evasiveness with Exton is a recognisable act of ‘policy’ in which everyone could see the resemblance to the story of the Queen and Secretary Davison. To lodge ‘the guilt of conscience’ in the bosom of a subordinate was to show a ready mastery of the arts of contemporary kingship.

Is then the deposition of Richard to be excused by the superior efficiency of the usurper? On the surface it seems that it may be, for evil counsellors have been removed, a capricious king has been succeeded by a man who has shown himself firm and temperate, and the change of government is acceptable to York, the honoured survivor of an older order, whom Bolingbroke himself greets, with uncharacteristic effusiveness, as ‘thou sheer, immaculate, and silver fountain’. It would seem that England may expect fairer days. But Shakespeare forces us to enquire further into the true nature of Bolingbroke's success and Richard's failure. If Richard's futility in the everyday business of kingship could not in the end deprive him of his essential royalty, it may be that Bolingbroke's competence in these matters cannot suffice to make him truly a king. There is always something lacking in his address. Possibly it is because Richard's surrender brings him so easily to the throne, but he never meets the moral challenge to his position. He does not directly answer York on the issue of treason. Asked why he comes ‘in gross rebellion … braving arms against thy sovereign’, he offers the routine reply that he only wants his dukedom. York admits the justice of the cause but flatly tells him that this is not the honest way to win it:

I have had feeling of my cousin's wrongs,
And labour’d all I could to do him right;
But in this kind to come, in braving arms,
To be his own carver and cut out his way,
To find out right with wrong, it may not be;
And you that do abet him in this kind
Cherish rebellion and are rebels all.

II iii 141.

It is, of course, the crux, and Bolingbroke's actions stand irretrievably condemned. But he is saved the necessity of reply by York's sudden submission to the parade of arms he has just rebuked. ‘I cannot mend it.’ For the moment the point goes by default, and in the practical sense the issue is already over. But the moral question remains unanswered, and we soon realise that Bolingbroke has no intention of ever answering it. The only excuse he finds it necessary to offer for his appearance in arms is, over and over again, that he wants his hereditary rights. He still utters no further explanation when, with these rights obtained, he is moving calmly towards a richer prize. It can be interpreted as a conquest achieved by naked power and cunningly masked ambition, or as the march of necessity towards the throne that Richard has abandoned. Whichever way it be, no usurpation has ever been so matter-of-fact, so little attended by the justifications that such occasions in decency demand. It is not only that Bolingbroke lacks his father's traditional sense that it must be left to God to punish a ruler's crimes. Except where it concerns his own deprivations (or his affected interest in the fate of his uncle Gloucester), he is largely indifferent to Richard's misrule. There is no scene in which he rallies his followers by appealing to their sense of a common wrong; even his patriotism, suitably uttered upon occasion, is conventional and detached; and his denunciation of Green and Bushy is, on his own admission, a bid to give a semblance of justice to an act of power. We discover in the end that he has taken Richard's throne without ever directly accusing him of anything.

Thus he is morally unequipped to meet Richard's final challenge in Westminster Hall. His contribution to this scene is epitomised in the brief observations which punctuate his silence. ‘Are you contented to resign the crown?’; or, ‘Go, some of you convey him to the Tower.’ That is the extent of his interest in what he had designed to be a purely formal ceremony. All the rest—Richard's reluctance at the last to surrender his care-burdened crown, the agony of his self-betrayal, the clinging to the potent shadow of his royalty—has apparently no meaning for him. Gaunt would have understood; but the son, unconscious representative of a new order of things, does not. His silence condemns him. If he does not understand what Richard is laying down, he cannot know what he himself is taking up.

By the end of the play Shakespeare has shown how insecure Henry's position really is, in spite of his practical efficiency. His ‘unthrifty son’ causes him anxiety by absenting himself from a victory celebration because ‘he would unto the stews’. This may be only a private grief, but in his official self he cannot feel safe so long as Richard is alive. ‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’ Faithfully Exton executes his oblique commission and comes back with the body:

Great king, within this coffin I present
Thy buried fear.

V vi 30.

He means to assure Henry that the man he feared is now safely dead. To his limited perceptions that is the end of the matter. But the words contain another meaning, and for the first time in the play Henry's intuitions reach beyond the immediate event. It is borne upon him that there is more to kingship than simply stepping on to a convenient throne. He will never, so long as he lives, exorcise the secret fear of the man he has deposed and killed. Stone dead always has a fellow.

‘To find out right with wrong, it may not be’. Here lies the rather pessimistic conclusion of the whole matter. The failure of the King implicates his people in a general suffering from which no act of state can rescue them. Even on the most favourable reading of Bolingbroke's motives or York's surrender to necessity, it is evident that none of the arguments available to them—pragmatism, expediency, innocent intentions, the misdeeds of Richard—is good enough. In their consequences their actions are indistinguishable from the open selfishness of Northumberland and his kind. Thus the symbolic little scene in the Duke of York's garden (III iv) is more than an indictment of improvident kingship. It specifically condemns all the participants in the drama: the King perhaps foremost, but the favourites too, who have devoured while seeming to support him, and ‘the great and growing men’ who might have lived to bear the fruits of duty. The theme of the tangled garden is here brought to a passionate climax as the two Gardeners discuss affairs of state. They have no reality as people, and nowhere else in his drama did Shakespeare pretend that countrymen speak as these two do. They are emblematic figures, spokesmen for the moment of their disordered and suffering country, like the son-slaying father and the parricide son who break into Henry's reveries at Towton. All that England has lately endured, by usurpation and misrule, treachery, irresponsibility and civil war, here fuses in Shakespeare's imagination into the image of the sea-walled garden where neglect has choked the flowers and herbs with noisome weeds. The Gardeners’ talk holds no comfort for the future. Rue, sour herb of grace, is the only plant that will grow in the disordered garden.

In Richard II there are deeper implications than the simple issue between a good king and a bad king. In this unhappy conflict neither side is perfect, for both act selfishly and passionately; and government is clearly shown to be an act of participation in which ruler and ruled bear a proportionate responsibility. The tragedy of misgovernment is that it draws the whole people into the widening circle of its consequences; just as healthy plants are choked by weeds and ultimately share their corruption. Richard's guilt spreads like a blight through the fair garden, poisoning what had once been wholesome, until in the end all his subjects are touched by it. It contaminates the malcontents who raise their arms against him, and the flattering playboys who encouraged the follies it was their duty to correct. But better men are caught up in it too, like the warm-hearted impulsive Aumerle, reduced by these events to a typical ‘mixed-up kid’,29 or the well-meaning York, who speaks the language of a traditional wisdom but fails wretchedly in the crisis. When death has removed Gaunt, the ideal of the good counsellor, his choric role passes to the Gardeners, whose dispassionate analysis spares neither the King's neglect nor the ‘too fast growing sprays’ and ‘superfluous branches’ which together have made the green garden an unprofitable wilderness.

Through the mirror of the ruined garden Shakespeare shows that the real victim of Richard's tragedy is England. When a king misgoverns, or is deposed, the country suffers. This conclusion is evident in the images of inheritance and generation that run through the play,30 in Carlisle's dreadful prophecy, in Henry's apprehension of his ‘buried fear’; and it would have been the stronger for the knowledge of every man in an Elizabethan audience that the predicted sorrows did in fact occur.

I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses’ hoofs.

III ii 4.

Throughout the play a wide range of speeches, imagery and associations is focused on this single passionate idea of England and the suffering she brings to herself through dissension and civil war. ‘This earth shall have a feeling,’ Richard says, and as the beautiful English landscape lies before us—its ‘high wild hills and rough uneven ways’, the castle fringed by ‘yon tuft of trees’, the pale-faced villages, the parks and forest woods, the proud-topped eastern pines, the unseasonable stormy day ‘which makes the silver rivers drown their shores’, old folks by the fireside in tedious winter nights, the summer's dust, and bay trees withered in the heat—‘the fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land’ becomes a sentient being, to bleed at the touch of marching feet and recoil from the ‘boist’rous untun’d drums … and grating shock of wrathful iron arms’. These pictures of the fair countryside, threatened with a tempest of blood, give the play, despite the gravity of the political argument, its essentially lyrical atmosphere. If Richard is the most poetic of Shakespeare's kings, it is because his theme is England.31 The Sonnet mood permeates the play, with its dedication to the idea of Beauty, its intense love of the world, and its sorrow that all things lovely must sometime die.

The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past.

II i 12.

But in the play the enemy is not Time, it is man himself.


The changing fashions in the interpretation and popularity of Richard II make an interesting footnote to the play. In Shakespeare's own time, as we know, it was thought to offer dangerous inducements to sedition: an impression that may rather have been due to the nature of the historical facts than to Shakespeare's personal handling of them. Anyhow it was a subject more wisely avoided, and it was still powerfully mistrusted when Tate made his unfortunate venture at the time of Oates and ‘exclusion’. Once it had outgrown this unwelcome topicality, the play had to endure a long period of contempt and disinterest. The eighteenth century was bored by it. Johnson's well-known comment, that Richard II cannot be said ‘much to affect the passions, or enlarge the understanding’, was echoed in the same generation by George Steevens, who observed that, although critics might admire it, ‘the successive audiences of more than a century have respectively slumbered over it, as often as it has appeared on the stage’.

Even more singular, by contrast with the play's reputation today, is the opinion of a critic writing early in the present century: ‘As a stage drama it has never appealed to the ordinary theatre-goer owing to the nature of its interest being too subjective, too much concerned with subtle passions and affections, and too little with those grand elemental emotions which constitute the milieu in which nine-tenths of humanity live, move, and have their being.’32 This remark at any rate explains why Richard II did not particularly appeal to the more heroic days in which the writer lived, and it shows by implication why it has become popular in our own. The eighteenth century's neglect of the play persisted into the Victorian age. The great actor-managers either ignored it or misunderstood it. At Sadler's Wells in the middle of the century Samuel Phelps went through most of the canon (incidentally keeping close to Shakespeare's text and making this unusual experiment pay), and this was one of the six plays he did not attempt. The other five were the three parts of Henry VI, Troilus and Cressida33 and Titus Andronicus: astonishing company in which to find Richard. Irving, who made a problem play of The Merchant of Venice and usually was very sensitive to complexities of character, apparently failed to realise the opportunity that Richard would have given him. Charles Kean and Beerbohm Tree both mangled the text to make room for needless pageantry, and earlier Hazlitt had objected to Edmund Kean's interpretation, presented in a corrupted version in the year of Waterloo, because the actor made Richard ‘a character of passion, that is, of feeling combined with energy; whereas it is a character of pathos, that is to say, of feeling combined with weakness’. Kean was wrong to make his gestures ‘fierce and heroic, instead of being sad, thoughtful, and melancholy’. Hazlitt knew how Richard should be played if he was to be played at all. For some two hundred years, it seems, Shakespeare's dramatic interpreters failed to realise the poet in Richard, the bright but inward-looking imagination, the streak of perverseness and femininity. They thought of him as a choleric tyrant who could not make good his lofty pretensions, and being out of patience with that sort of thing, they made nothing of the character.

It was left to the athletic Benson to discover Richard's rare and subtle sensibility, his infatuation with each succeeding idea of kingship, ruin, sorrow and betrayal. Our own age, mentally less robust than many that have preceded it, knows more about its Richards and is better able to sympathise with them. Psychological drama has made us familiar with those ‘subtle passions and affections’ which a more confident generation rejected as unworthy of its attention. After two world wars, and the collapse of numerous assumptions which for our grandparents bore the reassuring stamp of eternity, we are possibly more interested in failures than successes. In this climate a man like Richard can flourish. We are likelier to appreciate the engrossed subjectivity of his vision, and there is no fear now that he will appear before us as something too heroic. The danger is rather that the moody but gifted dreamer, absorbed in his thick-coming fancies, may lean too heavily on our sympathy and upset the balance of the play.

We must not allow Richard to bewitch us. The play is roughly contemporary with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Shakespeare was in a mood to mistrust excess. He was unsure of the realms to which even his own imagination might beckon him, and in his drama at this time he shows us men betrayed by strained emotion and excess of fancy. Quick bright things find their way to destruction. The likeness between Richard and Romeo is much more than verbal, for there is some defect in each which prevents his story from being genuinely tragic. Romeo and Juliet is in the main a comedy of bungled social relationships, of a needless family quarrel, and a boy and a girl who demand more of the world than their particular world can at the moment give them. At the climax Romeo's arraignment of the everlasting stars is as brash and inappropriate as Richard's assumption of a personal Calvary. Richard II is more complex and much harder to assess, chiefly because it is impossible for us to feel about him as the Elizabethans did. His failure affected them as it can never affect us, and the true nature of his fault, as of the pathos he inspired, is not easily grasped by generations for whom government has lost its mystery and resistance may sometimes be a solemn duty. Intolerable as a king, Richard can yet charm us as a person, for we are better able than the Elizabethans to separate the man from the office. When political failures can be removed from power without injury to the structure of government, it is possible to retain some sympathy for them personally and look forward with considerable interest to reading their biographies.

So we shall never quite be able to see Richard through his creator's eyes. In our time men of his sort are very common indeed, and perhaps they get a more respectful hearing than they deserve. Shakespeare would warn us that this is dangerous. While the play draw its strength from the pathos of Richard's fall and the lovely, lingering echoes of his plaintive verse, it fails to reach the heights because the heights were always out of Richard's reach. Great art, it was said long ago, needs a great soul to nourish it. Men like Richard win the tribute of an idle tear, may rise, at their finest, to a certain pallid splendour, but they do not breed great tragedy, nor even stirring history. Richard was not merely an amateur of politics, he was also—as Shakespeare revealed him—an amateur of life.


  1. His mother was the admired ‘Fair Maid of Kent’, Joan, daughter of Edmund of Woodstock, youngest son of Edward I.

  2. His father sacked Limoges in an epileptic fury. Richard himself ordered the complete destruction of the palace of Sheen because his first wife died there; and at her funeral he assaulted the Earl of Arundel.

  3. See above, pp. 159-60.

  4. In adopting this reading, Shakespeare carries straight on from Woodstock, which ends with Gloucester's murder at Richard's command. In their search for moral causation, other writers, including Hall and the Mirror for Magistrates, attributed Richard's fall to this act, but historically it was not a very plausible interpretation. Gloucester was a violent, disloyal and unpopular man (Holinshed calls him ‘the chief instrument of mischief’), and his death was not unjustified by the morality of the age. There were many other reasons for Richard's fall.

  5. Cf. 2 Hen. IV IV i 54-8: the whole country was in a fever of which Richard, ‘being infected, died’.

  6. Lines 41-56 give a complete retrospective summary of what happened in 1399. It does not, of course, matter that the Percies are now saying that his usurpation was deliberately planned: they are no longer on his side. What is significant is their repeated witness that he said at the time that he was only coming to recover his family estates. On the other hand, Henry made a different admission when speaking frankly to his son. See 2 Hen. IV IV v 182-4.

  7. In view of what is to come, it is ironical that Richard's declared reason for stopping the duel is that the country's soil shall not be stained ‘with that dear blood which it hath fostered’.

  8. See D. A. Traversi, Shakespeare from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’, 20-2.

  9. In historical fact his expedition to Ireland was made necessary by a dangerous revolutionary situation which he met with a policy of intelligent reconciliation. The seizure of Lancaster's estates may have been decided upon as a desperate means of paying for the expedition. Incidentally, Richard was shrewd enough to take with him as hostages the future Prince Hal, as well as the sons of other English noblemen.

  10. Traversi suggests (Shakespeare from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’, 20) that Shakespeare seeks to reconcile the apparently contradictory material of the play by exalting the royal office in such a way that the fall of a king revealed to be morally and politically worthless ‘may leave the monarchic principle itself substantially untouched’.

  11. Usually it speaks of sorrow and is burdened with a heavy tale. Banished Mowbray's is engaoled in his silent mouth, Gaunt's is a stringless instrument, Scroop's is care-tuned, the Gardener's harsh and rude. Only the loyal Groom hints that actions speak louder than words: ‘What my tongue dares not, that my heart shall say.’ Much of the imagery of the play acts as an undertone to the King's sorrow, echoing the stricken outburst of Marlowe's Edward II:

    Whilst I am lodg’d within this cave of care,
    Where sorrow at my elbow still attends,
    To company my heart with sad laments,
    That bleeds within me for this strange exchange.

    V i 32.

  12. It is a gift that Constance lacked. But King Philip's chiding ‘You are as fond of grief as of your child’ might, with crown substituted for child, be appropriate to Richard's behaviour in the middle scenes of the play.

  13. III ii 27-32, 178-85.

  14. Again he recalls Edward II:

    Full often am I soaring up to Heaven,
    To plain me to the gods.

    V i 21.

  15. In his introduction to the Arden edition Peter Ure holds (lxii sq.) that Richard's tragedy is his failure to free himself from the burden of kingship even when its powers and responsibilities are lost. But surely it is this which saves Richard's sanity. The agony of his material loss becomes bearable when he discovers in his imagination, which is inviolable, that he is still royal, although fated to be deposed and die.

  16. A purely technical consideration is important here. The lament was the characteristic mediaeval form of tragic statement, and to the Shakespeare of 1595 it was not yet conceivable that Richard might be deposed without an appropriate demonstration of grief. In the corresponding scene in Edward II (V i) the King indulges in similar fancies, taking off the crown and putting it on again, alternately grieving at his harsh fate and calling on God to make him ‘despise this transitory pomp’. Thus Richard's exaggerated language does not mean that his inner resignation has already deserted him. He does not expect to be saved; and he is reconciled.

  17. Ure points out that the long soliloquy in V v really begins at this point.

  18. Nor, of course, has Shakespeare. We shall meet again this unattractive symbol of the new political order, and for the moment Shakespeare is content to indicate his sullen ruthlessness in a few unmistakable touches. As in Edward II, a distinction is made between the court, with its civilised standards and Italianate influences, and the world of ‘accomplished barbarism’ represented by Northumberland. It would not have impressed Northumberland that Richard was the man who introduced the handkerchief into England. Similarly, his dainty clothing was one of Mortimer's principal grievances against Gaveston.

    In one respect, however, Northumberland comes off better than he might, for Shakespeare makes no use of the incident, fully described in Holinshed, of Northumberland's promise to Richard, then at Conway, of a safe-conduct to Bolingbroke for the purpose of negotiation. When Richard set out, Northumberland ambushed him and took him to Flint as a prisoner.

  19. In one of those telling anti-climaxes which Shakespeare manages so well but which scare producers into making ill-considered cuts. This tiny pendant is essential to the scene, to show that Richard's apprehension of his kingship is not mere vanity.

  20. Cf. Timon:

    My long sickness
    Of health and living now begins to mend,
    And nothing brings me all things.

    Tim. V i 191.

  21. The story of Henry V, the political success, complements that of Richard II, the political failure. Henry's personal harmony lay in a conception of honour which he was able to realise politically in a life of action.

  22. See 3 Hen. VI III i 76-101.

  23. And even in prison he was still doing it.

  24. As he also did with Gaunt. The real Gaunt was not the time-honoured counsellor who in the play irks Richard with his ‘intolerable consanguinity’. Holinshed writes of him as a ‘turbulent and self-seeking baron’, and he was almost as much a nuisance as his brother Gloucester. But Shakespeare needed a character who should be the traditional honest adviser, and he invested Gaunt with the homespun loyalty and candour which the author of Woodstock attributed, just as unhistorically, to Gloucester.

  25. Can we doubt that Shakespeare himself belonged to it?

  26. See above, pp. 229-30.

  27. So that, he means, he cannot be accused of responsibility for their death. Cf. his insistence that Richarad shall make a public abdication, ‘so we shall proceed without suspicion’. He is clearly anxious to create the impression of a man who has always acted correctly. But for Hotspur's version of his behaviour at this time, see 1 Hen. IV IV iii 54-105.

  28. In contrast to Richard's ineffectiveness in I i.

  29. The historical Aumerle was much less simple, and his treacheries were legion—he even betrayed Richard in 1399. The brave soldier at Agincourt hardly seems to be the same person.

  30. See C. F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery, 238-41.

  31. Although his grief is self-centred, he consistently identifies his own suffering with England’s, and he more than once points out that, when his own personal tragedy is over, the country's suffering must continue.

  32. Oliphant Smeaton, Shakespeare: his Life and Work (Everyman), 137.

  33. Troilus and Cressida, which was even more neglected than Richard II, has also found an audience in recent times.

Pamela K. Jensen (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16857

SOURCE: “Beggars and Kings: Cowardice and Courage in Shakespeare's Richard II,” in Interpretation 18, No. 1, Fall, 1990, pp. 111-43.

[In the following essay, Jensen studies the development of Richard and Bolingbroke throughout Richard II,arguing that Richard's political fall is paralleled by a personal rise marked by his self-redemption. At the same time, Jensen argues, Bolingbroke's political rise to the kingship is followed by an inward, moral decline.]

Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Richard II depicts the simultaneous decline and fall of one king and the meteoric rise of another.1 The exalted King Richard becomes a beggar, and Henry Bolingbroke, who is introduced in the play on his knees, a petitioner to Richard, becomes king in Richard's place. By his flagrant abuses Richard himself provokes Bolingbroke's challenge to his rule and then capitulates to Bolingbroke without lifting a hand to defend himself. The play is thus a comprehensive portrait of King Richard's self-defeat and, with it, the irreversible dissolution of the political order over which he presided.

Shakespeare likens Richard's England to the garden of Eden at the time of the fall. The “sea-walled garden” of England is a fortress “built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war” (II.i.42-44; III.iv.43). Against destruction at its own hand, however, the manmade disorder that undermines from within, nature can erect no barrier. Like a new Adam in “this other Eden, demi-paradise,” Richard reenacts the fall of man (cf. III.iv.73-76).

Richard's shattered career culminates, albeit unexpectedly, in a kind of triumph and self-redemption. His political fall proves in fact to be the antecedent to his natural rise. An inward regality takes the place of the outward one that he loses with the name of king. For reasons that become clear as the story unfolds, Bolingbroke's meteoric political ascent merely marks the beginning of his inward decline and long infirmity. Richard II portrays a double reverse of fortunes, each with a double meaning. One man acquires his royal spirit only at the cost of his crown, and the other acquires the crown only at the cost of his royal spirit. Each man is only ever half a king; neither is kingly when he is king.

Like Adam, Richard sins in ignorance about himself. To become a true king, Richard must first be taught to know himself as man. In particular, he must discover the arms with which man is endowed by nature and their place on earth. He will come to recognize first his weaknesses and then his strengths.

The quest to join a commanding and free nature to a sovereign place is Shakespeare's underlying theme in the play, the natural pattern for which is the sun—the godlike, majestic, and imperturbable natural sovereign. Shakespeare uses this royal image to betoken both the lifegiving power of royal riches and the manly robustness of royal spirit, by contrast to all that is beggarly and slavish, specifically denoted in the play by the inverse images—everything pale and cold, e.g., cowardice, corpses, peace, and the lifeless moon. (see I.i.69, 189; I.ii.34; II.iii.94; II.iv.10; III.ii.75; III.iii.98). The resplendent “living fire” that characterizes royal autonomy also leads Shakespeare to use images evocative of the sun and of hotblooded, high-spirited horses interchangeably throughout the play. In both the plot and the imagery he affirms spiritedness (in Greek, thymos) as an essential ingredient of genuine regality and highlights its presence in the actions pertaining to sovereign men—standing up for oneself against detractors, defending just causes, and accepting rather than abnegating responsibility for the care and defense of what is rightfully one's own.

With a face “like the sun” (IV.i.284), Richard occupies a place in the political firmament parallel to that of the sun in the actual firmament. By the divine favor that is manifest in his birth and in accord with ancient custom, Richard is said to bear the Divine Person on earth. Richard compares himself both to Phaëthon, son of Apollo (III.iii.178) and to Christ, son of God (iv.i. 170-71, 239-42. See Figgis, pp. 5-7, 79-80). He is God's vicar and stands in His place: “God's substitute / His deputy anointed in His sight” (I.ii.37-38; IV.i.126-27). The political authority of the rightful king who rules under divine aegis is presumed to be undergirded by a power which in its very nature is infinitely greater than that of any man or group of men, however large or highly born. The link between the king and the invisible armies of “God omnipotent” is marked by visible signs or symbols—titles, the crown, the sceptre, anointing oil, etc.—which are, as tokens of divine grace, endowed in their turn with sacred significance.

To indicate Richard's sacred character he is also given a godlike exterior. The gorgeous opulence and glittering splendor of the court and the majestic appearance of the king are meant to represent to the dull, earthly understanding the heavenly order of things and the surpassing beauty of divine governance. The king is not God but is in every way a facsimile of God: the type or “figure” of divine majesty (IV.i.125).

Without ever reflecting much about it, Richard comes to believe that the emblems of divine election, which radically alter his appearance from that of other men, actually transfigure him into something more than man, making him not only inviolate but also invulnerable. Beguiled by the outward beauty of his office and flattered by the semblance or shadow of divinity he bears, Richard allows himself to be deceived by surface appearances. His outward likeness to a god causes him to forget his humanity, both his weaknesses and his strengths. He overlooks both his mortal flesh and blood and his genuinely godlike and majestic soul. Locating his majesty in what is visible to the eye, the nature Richard imputes to himself is an inversion of the one he actually has. He endows himself with a self-sufficiency that approaches a faith in an immortal body rather than an immortal soul, as if the king's body rather than his soul were made in the image of God.

Esteeming himself to be virtually the equal of a god, Richard expects his own will to be effortlessly executed by his mere command or fiat and his heart's desire purchased for the price of breath (III.ii.164-65). Believing that he is spared the exertions of ordinary mortals, he shirks his duty to cultivate order in his own life and in his realm. His affectation of divinity essentially amounts to a wanton dereliction or neglect, an infamous evasion of responsibility toward himself and what is rightfully his own (cf. Prospero, The Tempest, I.ii, 75, 89ff.). Indolent beyond measure, as if every day were a holiday, Richard immerses himself completely in an edenic freedom from every toil and care. Disdaining to “trim and dress” the royal political garden, as even Adam was charged to do in Eden, he turns instead to dallying sport and wastes his “idle hours” on trifles and “light vanities” (II.i.38; III.iv.86). The frequent claims of commentators that Richard is unpolitical, a better poet than a king, while not persuasive to me, are based on the kind of king Richard thinks he is (cf. Sen Gupta, pp. 118-20 and Ornstein. pp. 108, 118-20).

Mimicking a divine insouciance, Richard is equally careless of friend and enemy. He does not think he needs to cultivate well-armed friends on whose hearts and hands he can rely, nor to check the spirited self-assertions of well-armed enemies. In place of real friends, he collects mere “followers in prosperity” and parasites, who consume his substance all the while appearing to hold him up (II.ii.84-85; III.iv.50-51).

The first act of the play depicts the doubly self-destructive negligence regarding friends and enemies that is the most dire consequence of Richard's lack of self-knowledge. Shakespeare's presentation of Richard's dismal failure as the arbiter of the quarrel between Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, and Henry Bolingbroke, soon to be Duke of Lancaster, confirms the truth of the royal gardeners’ famous assessment of the king's errors (III.iv). Although Richard clearly favors the loyal Mowbray over the insolent Bolingbroke and discerns the difference between them (I.i.85-86; 11-17), he neither helps the one nor hurts the other. By the end of Act I, Richard has, on the contrary, strengthened his real enemy and cavalierly cast aside his most steadfast friend. The events of the first act mark the beginning of Richard's gradual isolation and divorce from every friend and supporter, an irreversible process continuing until his death.

As the play opens, “Old” John of Gaunt brings his “bold” son Henry Bolingbroke into court at Richard's command, in order to “make good” his accusation of high treason against Mowbray, whose spokesman and surrogate father is no less than the king himself. Owing to Richard's own dilatoriness (1.5), Bolingbroke's damaging allegations have been bruited about publicly for some time, thereby creating an incendiary and highly-charged atmosphere for the interview. Richard recognizes that the nobles’ proud and bold natures make them headstrong and hard to manage. “High-stomach’d are they both and full of ire. / In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire” (ll.18-19). To curb their hot spirits the cool and composed king thinks he need only make them feel his immeasurably greater power, which they cannot fail to do in his so conspicuously regal presence. Let them hurl their insults at one another as freely as they may, in the end they must submit. As Richard will tell Mowbray, “Lions make leopards tame” (l.174).

Striking a post of godlike remoteness from this petty wrangling of his “puny” subjects, Richard disdains to take the dispute seriously. Nor does he attend to its real, by contrast to its apparent, cause. Proclaiming himself to be an upright and impartial judge, Richard nevertheless makes his preferences known. To expose the true and the false or counterfeit subject, which he already knows, Richard invites the nobles to vent their grievances in a war of words, casually delegating responsibility in this affair to his favorite Mowbray, as Gaunt delegates his to Bolingbroke. Since men do not necessarily say what they feel or feel what they say, the verbal contest is bound to be inconclusive. Indeed, with the exception of the guileless Mowbray, who is incapable of dissembling (ll. 132-34; cf. ll. 41-42), the purposes of all the other characters are concealed.

Striking the pose of Richard's loyal servant that is the perfect counterpart to Richard's pose, Bolingbroke feigns a desire to protect the king (ll.31-34). He accuses Mowbray of instigating every treason in the realm in general for the previous eighteen years and, in particular, of killing his and Richard's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Swearing by “the glorious worth of my descent,” Bolingbroke vows passionately to avenge his uncle, whose blood “like sacrificing Abel's cries … / To me for justice and rough chastisement” (ll.103-6). The rumors alleging that Mowbray killed the duke at Richard's behest, although Shakespeare leads us to conclude they are false (IV.i.86), satisfy the impetuous Bolingbroke as to Mowbray's absolute guilt (cf. Bullough, p. 391). By accusing Gloucester's murderer of committing Cain's crime, however, Bolingbroke confirms that he is really seeking the author rather than the agent of the crime. Contrary to appearances, then, Bolingbroke has come to court not as Richard's friend, but as his enemy, not to submit to Richard's justice, but to expose his injustice.

Richard's authorization of Gloucester's murder is the original sin, the immediate consequences of which supply the material from which Shakespeare's play is wrought. In keeping with his dramatic theme and the imagery, Shakespeare refashions the historical material he read in the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed (See Bullough, pp. 358-60, 390 and Oman, pp. 97 ff.). While not literally a fratricide, this act does manifest a wanton and unnatural indifference to the close ties of kinship born of wilful, imperious pride. Inverting the natural order, Richard is brutally hardhearted where he should be clement and metes out retribution where he should foster reconciliation (I.ii.3-41; II.i.128-31). As the first Plantaganet “to raise this house against this house” in violence (IV.i.145), Richard relaxes the restraints upon illicit ambition in his subjects supplied by filial piety and the sanctity of ancient traditions. He evinces in doing this wrong, then, the same reckless self-neglect that Gaunt is said to show in complaisantly suffering it to be done, teaching “stern murder how to butcher” himself (I.ii.32).

Contrary to appearances, Richard is not a godlike judge, but an all-too-human sinner. Shakespeare designs the first scene specifically to point up the ironic disparity between the semblance or facade of perfect justice Richard presents and the actual injustice that lies behind it. Punctiliously adhering to its outward forms, the semblance or shadow of justice Richard gives his subjects—the name and not the thing—is in truth all that he can offer.

Bolingbroke is introduced into the play as Richard's opposite—the dauntless defender of inherited rights and of the familial integrity on which they depend. His father's apparent willingness to submit to injustice out of loyalty to Richard's sacred name and godlike appearance, so obviously contradicted by Richard's unkingly behavior, is to betray what is godlike and regal in himself. Taking on himself the royal responsibility for promoting right order that Richard contemns, Bolingbroke gives men what they deserve: he chastises the arrogant and succors the weak and abused. His real justice sets off Richard's mock justice more clearly by contrast. By boldly passing judgment on the king, however, Bolingbroke unequivocally serves notice on the world that he is not the king's subject.

Richard's design to use Mowbray to ensnare Bolingbroke only incriminates himself. Under Richard's injunction that he “speak freely,” Mowbray comes perilously close to confirming the open secret of the realm that Richard himself ordered the duke's death. “For Gloucester's death / I slew him not, but to my own disgrace / Neglected my sworn duty in that case” (ll.132-34). To shield Richard as far as he can, the reverent Mowbray exposes himself, trying to make up for an injustice against the Lancasters he refused to commit by attempting to pay twice for one he did (ll.135-42). Mowbray's reaction to Richard's unjust request indicates the plight of those honorable and just men who wish nothing more than to serve their liege. Richard's injustice sets them at war with themselves. They are torn between serving Richard at all costs and upholding righteous causes and hence are pulled in two directions at once. They must either stay their hands or suppress their hearts, but their hearts can no longer be synchronized or “confederate with” (V.iii.53) their hands, shattering forever the harmony between the inner and the outer man. Mowbray can no longer serve Richard with his whole heart but neither can he leave him (I.iii.170-171). Deeming himself to belong to Richard, Mowbray speaks or is silent, is set in motion or “cased up,” entirely at Richard's command (I.i.123-24; iii.87-92, 161-72). He takes one path and Bolingbroke takes the other, emancipating himself from Richard's service in fact long before Richard releases him from it in form (I.i.181). For one reason or another, Richard has no whole men left to serve him. Affecting to hold Mowbray responsible for Richard's wrong is a subterfuge that enables Bolingbroke to evade responsibility for his. Throughout the play, he and his supporters intentionally employ the fiction of independent agents to obscure the wrong lurking behind the right (see II.i.241-45; III.i.1-28; 38-41). By contrast to Gaunt, who has fixed his gaze on Mowbray (I.ii), Bolingbroke refrains in name only from attacking the man he deems to be king in name only. He sets out to undo his father's work while appearing to uphold it. All the sons in the play follow a similar pattern with respect to their fathers (see Richard at II.i.176-83; Aumerle at V.iii.60-69; Prince Hal at V.iii.1-3, 21-22; and Harry Percy at II.iii.41-43).

Having deigned to vouchsafe the nobles a chance to make good their claims in bloody speeches, Richard is satisfied that he has done all that a judge should do. What wounded honor must take to be a mere formality and but the prelude to manly combat, Richard deems to be a perfectly adequate substitute for it, as if the dispute itself were a mere formality and the nobles’ anger only breath, utterly spent with speaking it (see Menenius’ speech in Coriolanus, II.i.53-54). If their word means nothing, however, his means everything. As if, like a god, he could calm the raging sea by bidding it be still, Richard bids the fiery and “wrath-kindled gentlemen” to calm themselves and embrace one another as friends; to convert themselves into their own opposites. Just when he should be stern, he is suddenly gentle; where he should mete out retribution, he seeks a reconciliation instead (cf. I.iii. 186-87).

This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision.
Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed,
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed


Richard's disclaimer that he is no “physician” is more pertinent than he realizes. Rather than mollifying the nobles, he has only aggravated their enmity, guaranteeing the very result he seeks to avoid. In his quest for an easygoing, lamblike peace, the mock “lion” Richard, armed with nothing stronger than strong language, assimilates himself to his uncle Gaunt, for whom being a “makepeace” even in the face of injustice is a sign of feeble age and the ebbing of his manly spirits. Neither father can control his son (ll.159-86). As Richard fails to recognize his own weaknesses, so does he fail to see his subjects’ strengths. He judges their natures as his own, by appearances. Effeminate Richard may be content with “the trial of a woman's war,” a shouting match between “two eager tongues” (ll.48-49), but they insist on showing that they are men in some “chivalrous design of knightly trial” (ll.75-76, 81).

Mowbray and Bolingbroke are as profoundly sensitive of their names as Richard is, but are determined, as he is not, to live up to them. Although they are equally obdurate, they are motivated by inverse conceptions of honor. The dispute has called into question Mowbray's fealty and Bolingbroke's sovereignty. One would show that he is faithful and a true subject, the other that he is fearless and a true king. Mowbray wants to prove to Richard that he is, in his heart, Richard's man, and Bolingbroke that he is, in his heart, his own man. Esteeming himself to be the equal of the king, the audacious Bolingbroke will not take the chance that, by his obedience, he might look like the king's opposite. To go back on his word now might make it seem that he submits not to King Richard, but succumbs rather to his own “pale beggar-fear,” or acts from “the slavish motive of recanting fear” (ll.189-193).

The knights’ virile, stiffnecked resistance could only have been countered by the king's own intransigence. As it is, the mere appearance of a contest is enough completely to dislodge Richard's resolve, instantly showing up his “unstooping firmness” of soul to be an empty boast and exposing the beggarly heart beneath the royal robes. It is Richard rather than the nobles who is converted into his own opposite in this scene. His beggarly behavior inverts his regal condition. If Bolingbroke will show no cowardice, Richard will show no courage, causing the two men to trade places: the subject rules and the king obeys. Suddenly reversing himself, Richard gives in to the nobles’ demand for battle. When his outward majesty proves to be impotent to guarantee that his will be done, Richard admits his impotence in order to preserve at least the outward semblance of his majesty.

We were not born to sue, but to command,
Which since we cannot do to make you friends,
Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert's day


Neither righteous nor valiant, Richard inverts the chivalric code. He is a kind of anti-knight.

Richard's godlike appearance unmans him. He cannot exhibit the strengths of man because he refuses to admit he shares in man's weaknesses. In contrast to Bolingbroke, whose vigorous assertions show he is fit to be king, similar assertions on Richard's part would show him to be only man, demeaning himself in his own eyes. To maintain the artificially enhanced status to which he (though not the regime) has elevated himself, he must abjure the actions of a free man. In the first scene, Richard prefers his godlike appearance to what is godlike and royal in himself. His last speech makes clear that this choice is self-defeating. He marries the look of a god, who is more than man, to the actual behavior of a slave or beggar, who is less.

In apparent conformity with Richard's inclinations, the trial by combat does indeed shift responsibility for right entirely from his own shoulders to Mowbray's on the one hand, and to God’s, on the other. “Justice [will] design the victor's chivalry” (l.203). The troublesome choice between subjects that Richard sought in the first scene to avoid is now seized from him and the exercise of his will proscribed. Although the circumstances are inverted, Richard faces the same choice in the third scene, set at Coventry, as he does in the first. He can either look like a godlike king or act like one, but he is precluded from doing both at once.

In this scene, both Gaunt and Richard feign a godlike detachment or indifference, which they do not actually feel, out of loyalty to the king's appearance. Since they are by no means free of human attachments or the needs of ordinary men, they are pulled in two directions at once. Gaunt can no more turn his back on Richard's insolence than Richard can on Bolingbroke’s. While they cannot maintain their unnatural poses, and serve them only with breath and empty gesture, neither do they stand up for themselves and their “own” as free men.2 Delegating their rightful responsibilities to others, they both allow themselves to be swayed against their best feelings, only to regret their actions almost immediately and seek to undo them (compare I.iii.149 and ll.241-46).

Godlike kings do not fear the outcome of judicial battles. At Coventry, as in the first scene, Richard pointedly inclines toward his favorite in the dispute. Flaunting his insouciant discernment of friend and enemy, he virtually predicts Mowbray's victory and Bolingbroke's death (ll.57-58; 97-98). Just when Richard would seem to be at his most godlike, however, the frail man in him momentarily rebels. Like Gaunt, Richard is compelled to admit that “things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour” (l.236). Regretting his decision to let the trial take place, as fearing its wider consequences, reversing himself once more, he seeks to undo the effects of his own handiwork.

Richard assumed earlier that Mowbray could not lose the verbal battle, but now seems to fear that Mowbray may not win the brachial one. With Gaunt's help he banishes Bolingbroke for ten years, only to reduce the term of exile, out of momentary tenderness to Gaunt, to six years, and he imposes “the heavier doom” of lifetime exile on the benighted Mowbray. In so doing, he wrests from the “sky-aspiring” Bolingbroke the victory over Mowbray he feared Bolingbroke might win, only to hand it to Bolingbroke himself. By sacrificing Mowbray, Richard means to appease the Lancasters without hurting himself, as if Mowbray really were, as it only seems, Bolingbroke's true object (cf. Samuel Daniel, The First Foure Books of the Civile Warres, Stanzas 64-65, and Holinshed, both cited in Bullough, pp. 438 and 393, respectively; see also Shoenbaum, pp. 11-13). Influenced, no doubt, by his false friends, who would see no need for Mowbray, and by his own blind vanity, which can admit no rival, Richard willingly abandons the “bold spirit in a loyal breast” (I.i.181) who was his most stalwart defender. Simultaneously, in place of a real defeat, Richard inflicts on Bolingbroke only an imaginary injury—one that he will not endure. By doing Bolingbroke's unjust work for him, Richard makes himself Bolingbroke's loyal servant or agent and his own worst enemy.

Richard speaks once again as the devotee of everything that has a sweet and pleasing appearance or face. His eyes would hate to see “the dire aspect of civil wounds” (ll.127-28), and are touched by seeing Gaunt's “sad aspect” (1.209). To keep the look of peace in view at home, Richard sends the belligerent Bolingbroke away, assuming that once he is out of sight, he is also safely out of mind (I.iv.37). Richard has in fact upheld the semblance of genteel concord in England while actually doing everything in his power to foment civil war. By his own hand the innocent baby peace, whom he envisions to be asleep in the country's cradle, is rendered all the more vulnerable to brazen war's rude intrusions. The apparent resolution he brings to the apparent contest between Mowbray and Bolingbroke insures that the real trial between himself and Bolingbroke will take place.

Richard does exactly the opposite of what his security demands and gives his subjects the opposite of what they deserve. Still unaware of his frailty and of Bolingbroke's vigor, he inverts the order that would obtain “if justice had her right” (II.i.227). He gives quarter to the arrogant and inflicts mortal wounds on the weak (I.iii.172-7;222-24). He is suddenly tenderhearted where he should be stern and stern where he should be tenderhearted. He metes out “rough chastisement” where there should be reconciliation and dreams of reconciliation where there can only be inveterate enmity. Refusing to let Justice speak through him in the first scene, shirking his responsibility to promote right, Richard willingly takes responsibility here for wrong. There is an unmistakable irony in the fact that unjust Richard's “justice” (l.235) rather than Justice designates the victor in the scene. At the end of the first act, Mowbray's true loyalty and Bolingbroke's treachery remain in the dark, an ambiguity that will kill Mowbray and immeasurably help Bolingbroke. In their disparate reactions to Richard's sentence. Shakespeare indicates the full extent of Richard's error (See Mowbray at I.iii.157, 176-77 and Bolingbroke at ll. 144-46).

The characters of Mowbray and Bolingbroke make clear that the nobles in the king's employ possess prodigious natural gifts which, if properly directed, redound to the glory of the realm. As in the training of horses, they must be carefully monitored and disciplined to prevent their high spirits from becoming mere stubborn intractability and lawlessness. To avoid the danger to be apprehended from “great and growing men,” Richard's gardeners recommend sternness. The king must “wound the bark” of the nation's fruit trees, “[l]est being overproud in sap and blood, / With too much riches it confound itself” (III.iv.57-60). Although Richard by no means refrains from brutal and hard-hearted severity when it suits him, especially toward the fathers of the realm, he permits their obstreperous sons to range freely without bridle or curb until, like Phaeton's “unruly jades,” they careen out of control (III.iii.179; iv.30-31). It is not lack of spirit as such, then, but lack of discipline and discretion that defeats Richard. His will “doth mutiny with” his wit (II.i.27-29). Rather than uniting in himself the manly resolution and energy of youth and the prudence of mature age, Richard possesses the untempered defects of both youth and age: in his soul wilful folly and cold effeteness both run rampant (cf. II; 91-110 and II.i.19-25). Richard's own behavior is like that of a refractory horse; a “young hot colt,” who, having never been disciplined himself, is now incorrigible (II.i.15-16, 28-29, 70). With his untamed and lawless disposition, Richard poses the identical problem for his elders that their sons pose for him. Until it is too late, he rules neither them nor himself.3

At the end of the third scene, Richard does assert his sovereign will over the recalcitrant knights and force them to submit, but only when it is too late to reap the benefits of their duty. He becomes most fully their king in the act of releasing them as subjects. By his own admission, the departing oaths they make, to him, though not to God, dissolve as they make them (I.iii.181). In the first of several such divorce rituals in the play,4 king and subjects are united only at the moment of their final sundering; their harmony reigns for a fleeting moment and then melts into thin air.

Shakespeare affords a first glimpse of the real Richard, ensconced among his intimates, just at the moment of his dizzying pyrrhic victory over Bolingbroke. He heaps scorn on his cousin Bolingbroke, exhibits a shocking contempt for his dying uncle Gaunt, and above all, displays a callous indifference to his subjects, whose lives and livelihoods he is prepared to plunder to pay for his own extravagant pleasure or that of his special friends. Richard derides Bolingbroke for his “courtship of the common people”—he bestows reverence on “slaves,” kneels to “poor craftsmen,” and, in general, makes beggars feel like kings (I.iv.24ff). For his own part, however, Richard thinks he may treat even the wealthiest and most warlike gentlemen in the realm as slaves and beggars. With the burdensome taxes he imposes on the commons and the contempt and arbitrariness he evinces toward the nobles, Richard alienates the affections of both classes of his subjects more certainly and at a rate almost faster than Bolingbroke can “dive into” them.

The commons hath he pill’d with grievous taxes,
And quite lost their hearts; the nobles hath he fin’d
For ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts


With the wholly unflattering portrait of Richard that finally emerges in the first act, Shakespeare highlights the discord between the inner and the outer man. Richard's godlike regality looks to be only skin-deep; a gorgeous but flimsy veneer, glossing over a myriad of all-too-human vices. The real order inverts the apparent order. Rather than exposing the true and the false subject, the first act raises an altogether new question: Who is the true and who is the false or counterfeit king? If Bolingbroke is only the apparent subject, by contrast to Mowbray, Richard is only the apparent king, by contrast to Bolingbroke. Lacking every regal quality, Richard is the semblance or shadow of a king, the name and not the thing (All's Well That Ends Well, V.iii.307-8). Conversely, as even his enemies are forced to admit, Bolingbroke has everything rightly pertaining to a king (including, in some respects, the kingdom) but the name. The look is on one side but the regal virtues are on the other.

Instead of showing Richard to be a demigod, as implied by his appearance, his vain response to his exalted status shows more clearly than anything else could do that he is only man. The artificial attributes with which Richard believes he is endowed as king actually prohibit the development of the natural strengths he has as man, creating an antithesis between his real and his apparent selves. At the same time, not being forced to restrain themselves in recognition of his frailty, his baser passions can enjoy free reign. Inverting the natural order of ruling and ruled in his soul, Richard's innocence promotes the exercise of his vices and hampers the exercise of his virtues. The focus on Richard's lack of self-knowledge as the cause of his problems argues against the view that Richard II is a Shakespearean indictment of Christian principles for dividing the king from himself by dividing his loyalties between heaven and earth (cf. Bloom, pp. 56, 59-60).

Blind to the value of the soul's goods, Richard is preoccupied with the cultivation of his godlike exterior. To make his own court splendid, he copies the unmanly novelties of more sophisticated and imperial ones, doting, for instance, on the reports of “fashions in proud Italy” (II.i.21-23), and surrounds himself with other forms of external beauty in sumptuous and unstinting proportions (see Holinshed in Bullough, pp. 408-9, 395). He pursues magnificence as if the look of regality were the only royal virtue and frugality the only vice, the latter implying a beggarly resourcelessness and hence servility. Vastly overestimating the worth of glittering trifles, he wastes or squanders everything that is genuinely precious—the “jewel” Mowbray, the “precious stone” England, and reputation, “the purest treasure mortal times afford” (I.i.177; II.i.96-103).

Whatever damage he is capable of inflicting, however, Richard's despotic career is bound to be very short-lived. (See Oman, p. 139, Figgis, p. 77). Like a prodigal son on a whirlwind spending spree with his inheritance, thriftless Richard will soon draw down his father's capital and find himself in embarrassed circumstances, “bankrout, like a broken man” (1.257). Nearly prostrate under the burden of his wanton expenditures, the “declining” and “drooping” land faces ruin with him.

Representing the nation, the dying Gaunt has nothing left to spend but a little breath (1.150), which he improvidently squanders on Richard in one last effort to warn the king of the peril of his own improvidence. Gaunt accuses Richard of effectually deposing himself by his reprehensible behavior and finally withholds from him the name of king (II.i.113). Pointing to the inversion of the natural order created by Richard's abuses, Gaunt, who is “gaunt as the grave,” comes to life on his deathbed, while boundlessly extravagant Richard, apparently in the full bloom of youth and health, hastens toward a premature death (II.i.95-96; III.iv.48-49; The apparently rich Richard misses his real similarity to the gaunt Gaunt, whose opposite he seems to be, but it will not be long before Richard stands literally in his uncle's place.

As soon as Gaunt dies, without a single misgiving or second thought, Richard confiscates Gaunt's estate to fund his war in Ireland, which is to say, he usurps Bolingbroke's rightful inheritance. This action is so unjust and so palpably self-destructive that even York's long-suffering patience finally gives way. In the spirit of a true friend, York importunes Richard to think of himself. His ostentatious disdain for Bolingbroke's hereditary rights undermines the sanctity of such rights in general and mocks the ancient traditions on which his own security absolutely depends: “for how art thou a king. / But by fair sequence and succession?” (II.i.198-199). Only a king can so effectively dislodge the pattern of habits and convictions that Time's “charters and … customary rights” have made to seem immutable.

In all innocence, Richard escapes the obtrusive reach of his uncle's sober counsel by rushing off to Ireland, while resting secure in the belief that York's obviously just intentions will serve him well at home (II.i.221; III.ii.89-90). With “signs of war” unnaturally hung about his “aged neck” the infirm and feeble York is an apt stand-in for the king (II.ii.74-5; 82-83). Inheriting a disorderly and destitute nation, York must contemplate a resort to Richard's own tactics to make even a show of resistance against Bolingbroke (ll.90-91). Bolingbroke returns to England as Richard leaves, taking advantage of the opportunity created by Richard's “absent time” as Richard took advantage of his. Acknowledging the irony of this fact, the discerning but helpless York notes that while Richard is gone “to save far off,” Bolingbroke and his friends have come “to make him lose at home” (ll.80-83).

As York predicted, Richard's dispossession of the banished Bolingbroke prompts the wholesale defection of the nobles. While Bolingbroke's own plans are at most only accelerated by it, Richard's action turns those nobles who might yet have remained a check on Bolingbroke and his rivals into his staunch supporters. In the common cause of complaint he gives them, Richard also achieves an alliance between nobles and commoners that would otherwise be difficult to sustain.

The nobles readily surmise that Bolingbroke's plight, “bereft and gelded of his patrimony,” can be theirs at any time (II.i.240-45). As a consequence of Richard's abuses, moreover, England herself languishes in captivity. In their impatience to shake off their “slavish yoke,” adroitly managed by Northumberland, they lightly relegate all scruples and circumspection to the fearful and fainthearted (ll.297-299. See Bolingbroke at I.i.69-72). Like their horses, they rush to Bolingbroke's side, “[b]loody with spurring, fiery-red with haste” (II.iii.58). Northumberland knowingly takes advantage of the nobles’ liability, as a consequence of their high spirits and resolve never to look like cowards, to sophistic self-deception about the nature of their action. Imperceptibly, he plants on Bolingbroke's behalf the seeds of a second wrong to supersede the first committed by Richard. Relentlessly cataloging Richard's crimes, while affecting to hold Richard's flatterers responsible for them (II.i.241, 245. See Bolingbroke at III.i.8-27), Northumberland takes pains to shroud the real goal in darkness. When it is too late to turn back, the nobles will discover they have embroiled themselves in a tangled web of self-contradiction from which they will never be able to extricate themselves. Their second wrong will not make a right. Nor can they mimic Richard's crimes without further jeopardizing the rights they meant to secure.

Richard's abuses clearly plunge his subjects into a quandary from which there is no escape. They must choose between two equally disadvantageous alternatives, which pull them in two directions at once. They must “find out right with wrong” (II.iii.145; II.ii.111-116), whether by suffering it to be done or by doing it themselves.5 To be true to what is best in Richard, his godlike name and appearance, they must be false to what is best in themselves; to be true to themselves, they must be false to Richard. Assisted by the natural propensities of their ages, the fathers take one path and the sons take the other. Each side is guilty, however, of an equal and opposite excess. If Richard and his supporters procrastinate and shrink back from real and mock old age, Bolingbroke and his supporters are too rash and eager from real and mock youth. If there is too much of the feminine in one camp, there is too much undisciplined masculinity in the other. With natural cooperation of young and old, male and female ruled out by Richard's disorderly rending of the familial and social fabric, neither side is able to check the excesses of the other, permitting the defects of both youth and age, in the realm as in Richard, to express themselves without reserve. The persistent disjunction between action and vision guarantees a tragic outcome. That the sons are, no matter what they do, perilously embroiled in the fathers’ quarrels establishes the context for the truancy of Bolingbroke's “unthrifty” son, Prince Hal (V.iii.1-5).

Shakespeare fully appreciates the untenability of the nobles’ situation. No more than he glosses over Richard's sins, however, does he endorse the insurgents’ excesses or fall prey to their self-delusions. He apportions moral responsibility with care and precision. Richard's unjust actions have given way to an equally unjust reaction. If moderation and justice are not to be expected in these circumstances, they are to be desired, and without them there can be no restoration of stability.

Bolingbroke is already on his way home bearing “the tidings of … comfort” well before Richard's latest injustice offers him so convenient an excuse to strike (II.i.199-200). Like a godlike king, he repeals his own sentence, becomes “his own carver,” and cuts out his own way (II.iii.144;II.ii.49-50).

If Richard has made manifest the limits of man and virtually symbolizes human frailty, Shakespeare's Bolingbroke typifies all that is majestic and commanding by nature in man. He is especially associated, therefore, with the royal autonomy conferred by “self-borne,” “braving,” “uplifted,” and glittering” arms and the “body's valor” (see I.i.37, 46, 76, 92, 108; II.ii.50; II.iii.80, 95, 112; III.iii.116).

Bereft of his name and high position, banished Bolingbroke experiences the same disorientation that Richard himself is destined to undergo. Although he is “a prince by fortune of [his] birth” (III.i.16), Richard's decree has made him seem to be a nobody, a contemptible pauper or vagrant, an almsman on “enforced pilgrimage,” a “wandering vagabond” (I.iii.264; II.iii.120). Bolingbroke's heart disdains to stoop to his beggarly station. He bluntly repudiates the imaginary reverse of fortunes his father offers to console him during his exile (I.iii.279-80, 288-94), in favor of a real one. “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?” (ll.294-97). Let dallying kings try to fool their hearts with hollow words, the plight of the daring Bolingbroke is remediable by force of will. Perfectly armed in body and soul, Bolingbroke sets out to recover the seemly exterior complement to his inware spirit, the “name” or “sign” that is his true inheritance (II.iii.71; III.i.25). His kingly behavior will invert his beggarly condition.

Bolingbroke is as immoderately a lover of war as Richard is of the genteel arts of peace. Nearly every speech he utters in the first act is a battle cry or call to arms. His sublime self-assurance exceeds the proper bounds of manly courage and reflects instead a vain and distorted view of his own powers. He harbors an illusion about himself that is merely the inverse of Richard’s. For opposite reasons, neither Richard nor Bolingbroke believes he can be defeated. If Richard believes he is invincible because he is king and so more than man, Bolingbroke thinks he is invincible because he is man. Both affect a godlike self-sufficiency. Bolingbroke is thus Richard's antithesis in everything but blinding pride. So long as he lives under the delusion that his powers are unlimited, and is, in this respect, innocent of his true nature, genuine contentment will elude him.

Bolingbroke's immunity to the charms of the goods of the imagination and hence of the soul indicates that, like Richard, he has never confronted the possibility of frustrated desire. In place of such counterfeit goods, Bolingbroke seeks the, as he thinks, solid and durable prizes, weighty to appearance, that cannot evanesce or melt, like shadows, into thin air. This is really to say, then, that Bolingbroke is at least as concerned for his escutcheon or ornamental shield and coat of arms as for his real shield and iron arms (III.i.24-27; II.iii.120-23). In his quest to surround himself with the goods that look most costly and substantial, he succumbs to the allure of Richard's golden crown and squanders away what is genuinely precious. Lacking the natural check on the sensing eye that can only be supplied by the eye of the mind, he becomes the dupe of appearances (cf. Traversi, pp. 28ff.). Deceived both about his own powers, which are so immense in “ostentation,” and about his object, he trades in the substance of a rightful power for what will prove to be, because he achieves it unjustly, its mere semblance or shadow (see Antonio, The Tempest, I.ii.112-16). As in Eden, a mock sweetness, lovely to the eye, is his undoing.

When Bolingbroke encounters his uncle York on his return, he gives out that Richard's usurpation of his ducal estate rather than his own self-propelled haste compelled him, entirely against his will, as it were, to return (II.iii.133-36). Easily penetrating his disguise, York complains in the strong language that is his only resource that his nephew's graceful gestures of obedience and “stooping duty” are all “deceivable and false” (ll. 83-84; II.ii.49). He only stoops to conquer. Bolingbroke's “ostentation of despised arms” and the bloody war he threatens to visit on the “pale-fac’d villages” (II.iii.94), make his true intentions clear enough. Like the “shrewd steel” he carries, his heart is, in truth, steely, cold, and implacable. Exactly mimicking the king he challenges, the rights and fair sequence and succession Bolingbroke insists on for himself, refusing to concede one “title,” he intends to deny to his rival. He has in fact come back to force Richard to surrender not his “own,” as he insists, but Richard's own (II.iii.148-49; III.iii.196).

As Richard's evident opposite, Bolingbroke is at the very peak of his power to attract friends, among the closest of whom he wears the name of “banished traitor” proudly, like a badge to herald the contrast. It is up to them to guarantee that he is not impecunious and a beggar forever, forced to dispense his thanks in words, “the exchequer of the poor” (II.iii.65-68). In return for his verbal assurances to his friends, Bolingbroke receives a real service from them. Northumberland's stance of peremptory defiance toward Richard, in particular, enables Bolingbroke to do everything to seek the crown, while appearing to do the opposite.

Bolingbroke settles easily in Richard's absence into Richard's role, zealously taking on himself the work that Richard shunned. Since the just cause and the unjust cause are assisted at the same time and by the same actions, the line of demarcation between them is invisible (II.iii.165-67; cf. III.i.33-34). Without ever having to show his hand and by doing good, then, Bolingbroke presently gathers strength and momentum for his eventual treason.

Bolingbroke's security depends entirely on his ability to evade responsibility for the wrong he does. As if inferring divine approbation of his designs from his easy success, Bolingbroke insists to York that he does not oppose divine will (III.iii.15-19). For a time every circumstance contrives to keep him in the dark. He does not so much seem to climb on his “ladder” Northumberland as he seems, as if by some deft sleight of fortune's hand, to levitate to the throne. In the poet Daniel's words: “he seems not t’affect / that which he did effect” (see Bullough, p. 440; cf. Wilson, pp. xx-xxii; Tillyard, p. 460).

By the time Richard finally realizes his danger, the political inversion has already begun to take place. He awakens to his true interests only after he has acted irrevocably against them (Holinshed in Bullough, p. 401).

Immediately upon his return to England, Richard discovers the stealthy and swift efficiency with which Bolingbroke has established his position in England, blanketing the countryside with “hard bright steel, and hearts harder than steel” (III.ii.111). The political tempest Richard's dissoluteness threatened to bring on the nobles (II.i.263-69) is, “in reversion” his, the legacy of his own sins. In wave after wave, the tidings of calamity crash in on him (for the tempest imagery see II.ii.99; iv. 22; III.ii.3, 105-9). Upon hearing the devastating news, however, the king remains at first nonchalant and serenely unconcerned for his security, no more worried about repelling his challenger, now he is come, than he was about provoking him.

For every man that Bullingbrook hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel; then if angels fight
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right

(III.ii. 58-62).

The Bishop of Carlisle vigorously expostulates with Richard to remember that God's grace supports but does not replace the king's arms. It is true that rightful kings are not left defenseless, but they must cooperate with divine intention by using the mortal weapons they have at hand “… else heaven would, / And we will not. Heaven's offer we refuse / The proffered means of succors and redress” (ll. 30-32). Try as they may, however, Richard's friends cannot call forth his manly strengths, since he refuses to admit he shares in man's weaknesses. When they urge him to be a man instead of a coward, he insists he is a king instead of a man (ll. 82-85); 188-91). Any exertion whatever to keep his position beyond the expenditure of “breath,” the bare enunciation of his will, would imply equality with his adversary, dragging him down to his adversary's level. Richard finds himself, therefore, once again forced to choose between his real and his apparent strengths, with deference to his god-like appearance absolutely debarring him from the action appropriate to free men. Godlike kings need not defend themselves against “weak men.” The one has no other arms but breath, the other must refuse all arms but breath. The “breath of worldly men” is nothing; “the breath of kings” is all (1.56;I.iii.215). To join the combat between heavenly angels and weak men, Richard need only invoke his name, holding it before him like a lodestone. “Is not the king's name twenty thousand names? / Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes / At thy great glory” (III.ii.85- 87).

Richard is compelled by his predicament inadvertently to acknowledge that the king's strength is no more or less than the strength of his subjects; his life-blood is theirs (ll. 76-77). The effortless execution of the king's will comes to sight as a mere stage effect or optical illusion achieved by the hands and hearts the king commands. Richard's speech serves, then, to accuse himself for evading the responsibility for his own defense. Heaven cannot, however, be expected to pay the defenders whom Richard has simultaneously preyed upon.

Richard soon learns that his false friends are already dead (ll. 138-40), and that his true friends, languishing too long in his disfavor or indifference—all his “northern castles” and all his “southern gentlemen,” peers and commoners, young and old alike—have fled with their arms to “wait upon” his foe (ll.201-3). Like the dispersing Welsh forces, Richard's entire military strength steadily ebbs away before a single arrow is unloosed or a single sword unsheathed (II.iv.7; ii.73-74). He is completely unmanned: he has the names of twenty thousand men, but not the men themselves. (2 Henry IV, I.ii.56-57; III.ii.124-35). Soon all Richard's remaining power can be measured by the “weak arm” of Salisbury (1.65), the palsied arm of York (II.iii.104), and a few “private friends,” the forlorn and ragtag remnants of his once resplendent court. When he learns that even York has “join’d with” Bolingbroke, Richard must give himself up for lost.

Those whom Richard repels are irresistibly attracted into the sphere of Bolingbroke, whose name exerts the very magnetic power Richard ascribed to his own. While Richard has only mock men, Bolingbroke, in a nationwide renaissance of manly spirit, is able to convert even mock men into men: “[w]hite-beards,” boys with “women's voices” and “female joints,” and “distaff-women” themselves impulsively rise up, like men, against the king (III.ii.112-20).

Finally forced to abandon his wild and vain hopes of rescue, Richard's spirit plummets to the opposite extreme. In the psychic as well as the physical sense, he is completely unmanned. He goes in an instant from arrogance to abjectness, from fearless nonchalance to “an ague fit of fear.” The proud, unflappable king becomes “woe's slave” (ll.190,210,215-18). Stunned by the sudden revelation of his own vulnerability, Richard gives himself over to an extended meditation on death, in which he converts, to good effect, the symbol of his apparent invincibility into a memento mori (see Henry V, IV.i.230-84; 1 Henry IV, III.iii.30-31).

Decked out in royal splendor and speaking in the formidable accents of royal ceremony, “the antic” Death sets up his court inside the crown “that rounds the mortal temples of a king.” With a sinister delight he infuses the king with “self and vain conceit,” seducing him to believe he is invulnerable and the fleshy walls of his life like “brass impregnable.” Once the unsuspecting and foolish king, bewitched by his godlike looks, has given the fullest possible scope to his arrogance, death comes in his true guise, ends the ghoulish charade, and “with a little pin / Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!” (III.ii.169-70). Bitterly chiding his own erstwhile simplicity and guilelessness, Richard seems to see himself at last through his uncle Gaunt's eyes. He has harbored no flatterer greater than the “thousand flatterers” who have attended him in the form of regal vanity (II.i.100). Succumbing to the allure of the crown has not prolonged Richard's life, but hastened his death. Its real meaning is the inverse of its apparent meaning. The “hollow crown” adumbrates “the hollow ground” (III.ii.160, 140).

At last disenchanted and wide awake, Richard strains to disinter his real self. He is determined not to make the same mistake twice and vows never to be deceived by appearances again. In his efforts to overcome one powerful illusion, however, Richard merely falls prey to the inverse one. Having previously been blind to the man in the majesty, he now insists there can be no majesty in the man. Richard has been attuned only to the frailties of men, from which, as king, he believed himself to be blessedly immune. The truth that he, too, is only “weak man” leads him to assume that he is all weakness.

I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?


As blind to his strengths as he was formerly to his weaknesses, Richard's false sense of security was bound to give way in his very first challenge to the most abject fear. Imagining himself to be resourceless and without any arms of his own, however, Richard disparages man and demotes him from his rank by nature. The king who saw himself to be more than man now esteems himself to be a natural slave or beggar, who is less. Still confusing his self and his station, he is still deceived by appearances.

Being forced to forfeit his false likeness to the divine, which lay in an imperishable body, Richard comes very close to denying the true likeness—the priceless spark of golden divinity he carries within himself and man's true “own.” Richard represents man as soulless matter or dust—“gilded loam or painted clay” (I.i.179). Without the crown, he claims to have nothing left to call his own but death, which is nothing, and that “small model of the barren earth” draping his bones, which is also nothing (II.ii.150-52).

Although Richard professed to be inwardly “arm’d” against his calamity (ll.93, 104), his soul's armor suffers, in fact, from the same neglect and underdevelopment as does his army. Man's awareness of his limits is the indispensable precondition to the development of his strengths. Never knowing fear, Richard has also been prevented from acquiring courage. He surrenders less to Bolingbroke than to his own slavish passions.

The Bishop of Carlisle and later the queen both exhort Richard to remember who he is. His regality is, like the lion’s, by nature; it resides in his “heart,” his “intellect,” his “shape and mind” (V.i.26-33). Not being subject to political defeat, man's true regality can only be deposed by vile self-conquest; the subjugation of his naturally ruling to his naturally slavish elements. For Richard to be overcome by superior force is deplorable, but to conquer himself by surrendering to fear is to become his own worst enemy and “a traitor with the rest.” Contemning his own natural powers, Richard only augments Bolingbroke's strength and bolsters death's ascendency over him (III.ii.180-82; V.i.24-25, 38-39). Only slaves let themselves be conquered by fortune. From this non-Machiavellian perspective, it is not the recognition of limits that prevents one from being free, however: fortune derives all its power from submission to the slavish passions. Fear of death and not death itself makes Richard “servile” (184-85). If there is, in fact, no way for Richard to overcome the advantages Bolingbroke has won by his own remissness, Richard need not surrender his regal soul along with the crown. In these dire circumstances the whole difference between a beggar and a king shows itself in the ultimate decision to “fear and be slain” or to fight and be slain. Since this choice depends only on self-mastery, it is never too late for the soul to arm itself. Strength of soul amplifies the body's armor, but the armed soul need not fail when the armed body does. Properly fortified, man's soul is, in fact, indomitable (Machiavelli, Ch. 25, pp. 98-101; Montaigne, pp. 150-59).

Unable to forget either his old greatness or his new smallness, his formerly great name or his newly great grief (III.iii.136-39), Richard's soul is torn in two. In his confusion about what he is, he sometimes says things he does not feel, but which seem appropriate to his new condition, only to call them back almost immediately as being inappropriate to his old one (ll.127-36). Throughout, he tries to gain access to his true self by adopting the posture befitting his station. Striking one inauthentic pose after another, casting about for the one that fits, Richard finds no satisfaction (cf. Ornstein, pp. 109-10).

While Bolingbroke seeks the station that answers his kingly pride of heart, Richard strives to humble his heart in accord with the decline in his political status, as if his reduced and narrow straits supplied the full measure of his spirit. As earlier he mimicked the posture of proud sovereignty suited only to gods, so now does he try assiduously to frame his spirit to a docile and groveling servility, adopting a posture of “base humility” suited only to beggars and slaves. If he is no longer a sacred king, perhaps he is a mendicant pilgrim or holy beggar, an outcast forced to wander aimlessly, defenseless against the abuses of men, but still beloved by God (ll.147-59; see also V.ii.1-6, 29-36).

Richard's intense desire somehow or other to restore the harmony between the two halves of his being that would yield a state of rest, expresses his longing for self-knowledge. Not yet knowing himself as man, who is touched by both the beggar and the king, Richard assumes he must be all one or all the other. His spirit thus swings freely between the two outermost boundaries or poles of existence, from god to natural slave and back again, altogether bypassing man.

By contrast to the first act, however, the discord between his inner and outer selves that Richard experiences no longer signifies a heart too beggarly to rule as king, but indicates, on the contrary, that something in him is too royal to suit his beggarly condition and stubbornly refuses to succumb. His royal spirit disdains to stoop to his lowly station and sets itself against his own baser inclinations, preparing him to master them. Almost despite himself, the king within rebels against the beggar without. As his apparent strength was married to real weakness, so now must his obvious weakness contest with a newfound strength, gradually turning him into his own opposite. Without denying the tragedy of Richard's fall, Richard is destined to discover the strengths of man, not by winning, but by having to bear the utmost adversity and defeat. Precisely because his situation is irreparable, he will be forced back on his own hitherto untested resources. An inner victory is thus being prepared for him in tandem with his outward defeat. From now on, Richard will ever more clearly combine the look of a beggar and the heart and deeds of a godlike king. (see V.ii.23-33). Because of the war he successfully wages with himself against the total collapse of his spirits, Richard shows himself to be an increasingly formidable rival to Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke is surprised to discover that Richard has installed himself at Flint Castle, for instance (III.iii.20-24; c.f. Holinshed, in Bullough, pp. 402-3).

The closer Bolingbroke approaches the crown, the more he tries to obscure behind Northumberland all the regal boldness he was so anxious to display in the first scenes. Although Northumberland doesn’t refer to Richard as king, Bolingbroke, for his, part, is scrupulously deferential, reiterating “King Richard” five times in a single speech (III.iii.31-66). As the time for an accounting of responsibility draws near, he wants to avoid looking like Richard's opposite. He proceeds toward Richard in the guise of utmost humility, like a vassal come “to beg enfranchisement … on his knees” (III.iii.114). While Bolingbroke conspicuously preens himself outside the king's castle so that Richard may see his “fair appointments,” he sends Northumberland to make manifest to Richard his foul intentions. As Bolingbroke intends Northumberland to deliver his assertions of “allegiance and true faith of heart” to Richard, they barely conceal his defiance (ll.36 ff). Speaking with the duplicitous double tongue of “lurking adder,” he threatens as he soothes. An imperial Richard gives back to Bolingbroke, through the same Northumberland, at least as good as he gets. The hideous scourge of civil war that threatens to descend on England will not be visited by Bolingbroke's supporters on Richard, but by Richard's supporters on Bolingbroke; it will not be fought to gain the crown but to keep it. Richard promises Bolingbroke, as his own rather than Richard's own, a legacy of “crowns” as the wages for his sins, which he will inherit long after Richard has paid the bitter price of his. “But ere the crown he looks for live in peace, / Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons [shall] … bedew / Her pasters’ grass with faithful English blood” (ll.75-100).

From misplaced gentleness, Richard would not fight Bolingbroke when he had the strength; now that he is willing to do so, he cannot. Having no external resource left but breath, Richard has no choice but to surrender his crown to Bolingbroke's show of force. Descending finally like a falling star to meet Bolingbroke in the “base” court, “where kings grow base,” Richard yields to Bolingbroke all that his rival craves but dares not ask for.

Bol: My gracious lord, I come but for mine own.
Rich: Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all


Richard does not, however, give everything of his own away. Behind their ostensibly beggarly postures stand two kings. Not only is Richard's body as low as the kneeling Bolingbroke’s, his heart is equally as high (ll.190-95). If Bolingbroke conquers in mock humility, like a beggar, Richard surrenders here with a spark of real defiance, like a king (cf. V.ii.9-10, 18-20, and 31-33) In speeches that combine humility and imperial grandeur, Richard also speaks with two voices. Accordingly, when Bolingbroke asks only to serve the king, the king makes clear that he is being forced to serve the servant (ll.199-201). While agreeing to give the crown to Bolingbroke, he exposes the breach in the natural course of succession that his agreement occasions (ll.204-5). Finally, by anticipating where Bolingbroke means to take him, Richard exposes Bolingbroke's ultimate goal (ll.208-10).

The single long scene depicting Richard's deposition opens with Bolingbroke's final inquiry into Gloucester's murder, specifically to discover “who wrought it with the king” (IV.i.4). On this pretext, Bolingbroke intends to intimidate Richard's “private friends,” and, in particular, to bring down his cousin Aumerle (V.ii.41-42). To insure his victory, Bolingbroke must render Richard's isolation complete. He employs the semblance of justice solely to promote injustice, cancelling out thereby Richard's injustice that came to sight with Gloucester's death. Moreover, Bolingbroke's arraignment of Aumerle for Gloucester's death at this juncture automatically dispels the illusion of perfect righteousness which his accusation of Mowbray originally created, a tacit admission that he was deceived by appearances. The true and the false man remain in the dark. There will be no reconciliation with the dead Mowbray (IV.i.86-91) and no proper retribution of Aumerle (V.iii.35, 131).

Betrayal of their former friends is the only offering that those nobles who intend “to thrive in this new world” can make to the stern new king to conciliate him (IV.i.78). Their efforts to escape the consequences of one unjust partnership by forming another, in imitation of Bagot's double treachery in the scene (ll.6ff.), are, however, self-defeating. The slippery oath of an oath-breaker can never be trusted. In the united front Bolingbroke and his supporters present to Richard, they have given one another incontestable proof that they hold nothing sacred. They will soon find themselves sorely pressed to find the honor that is reputed to reign among thieves (see IV.i.124-25; 1 Henry IV, I.i; ii; V.ii). As a portent of the future, the bellicose nobles litter the floor with their gloves or “gages,” the merely outward pledges of fidelity and thus a show of hands not hearts (cf. Bolingbroke at II.iii.46-50 and v.ii.11-17). In a parody of this sort of parody of chivalry now prevalent in the realm, the true Prince Hal dissociates himself from the “manual seal of death” by wearing a prostitute's glove as a favor (V.iii.17).

York interrupts Bolingbroke's show of justice with the announcement that “plume-pluck’d Richard” has agreed in private to abdicate, whereupon Bolingbroke consents to ascend the throne “in God's name.” The Bishop of Carlisle's vehement objections to these clandestine and summary proceedings, which only point up the usurpers’ injustice, compel Bolingbroke to bring Richard into court in person, whether or not he planned to do so before. When Northumberland presses Bolingbroke, therefore, to grant “the commons’ suit,” that Richard sign a formal confession of abuses (ll.224-27, 272-75. Cf. Holinshed, in Bullough, pp. 410-11), Bolingbroke calls Richard forward that “in common view [h]e may surrender” (1.48). Bearing in mind the double meaning of the word (I.iii.30), in a telling usurpation of his own, the scene becomes Richard's deposition instead of Bolingbroke’s.

To exculpate himself from blame, Bolingbroke clearly intends to foist on Richard the full responsibility for the usurpation; to make Richard his agent of injustice. Contrary to his stance of sublime self-assurance, his action reveals an urgent need to soothe the unsteady allies he seems to threaten. The supreme importance of Richard's witting complicity in the deposition also confirms more clearly than anything else could do the truth and practical import of Richard's insistence that “no hand of blood and bone” can make or unmake rightful kings (III.iii.78-81). In order to be formally adopted as Richard's rightful heir, Bolingbroke himself must acknowledge that Richard is the sole fount of legitimate political authority and, therefore, the true king. Accordingly, Bolingbroke has also come to urge the near identity of his and Richard's genealogies (III.i.16-17; iii.105-8; cf. I.i.70-71).

On the surface, Richard seems to comply fully with Bolingbroke's demand. The derelict and negligent king who deposed himself in fact now deposes himself in form. Freely renouncing every one of the royal names and titles, with his “soul's consent,” Richard makes “glory base, [and] sovereignty a slave; / Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant” (IV.i.249-52, 203-22).

Bol.: Are you contented to resign the crown?
Rich.: Ay, no, no ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no no, for I resign to thee


In one sense, giving his soul's consent to the deposition does indeed make Richard, as he says, “a traitor with the rest.” By so doing, however, he also retains the royal autonomy that is the hallmark of kings. As in the prayer in his opening speech, wherein he takes the parts of “both priest and clerk,” Richard performs Bolingbroke's part in the deposition as well as his own. He surrenders only to himself. Although he continues to oscillate in this scene between his high thoughts and his low station, the contrast between his sovereignty and Bolingbroke's utter dependence on others has never been more pronounced. Aloof and self-sufficient, like a god, Richard stands just beyond his enemy's grasp. Once he is in court, moreover, Richard actually does everything but that which he was called there to do. When he is finally asked outright to catalogue his crimes in public, he reminds his opponents’ of theirs instead (ll.228-36). Refusing to be judged by “subject and inferior breath,” Richard confesses his sins to no one but himself (V.v).

Richard does not however, spare himself. Others may have delivered him to his “sour cross” (ll.170-71, 239-42), but his renunciation of the name of king is a kind of self-crucifixion, an act of self-mortification, accompanied by agonizing torment and grief of heart. Serving as his own judge and jury he passes judgement on himself and on Bolingbroke as a just king should do, evenhandedly giving each exactly what is owing. Voluntarily inflicting on himself the punishment he deserves. Richard brings himself down for his own sins. Inverting the first scene of the play, however, Richard shows himself here to be godlike as a judge rather than all too human as a sinner. As Bolingbroke learned how to be an unjust king from Richard, so he has learned from Bolingbroke how to be a just one. His real justice is the foil setting off more clearly by contrast the mock justice with which Bolingbroke opens the scene. Like a true king Richard takes the responsibility for right in this scene and leaves to Bolingbroke, contrary to Bolingbroke's design, the responsibility for wrong. Richard is no longer Bolingbroke's agent of injustice. While profoundly sensitive of his own egregious folly, Richard does not take on himself the sins of others. The usurpers are guilty of breaking faith with God as well as him, a sin for which they must answer to God, if not to him (1.243). Further, while Richard sees the coming retribution for the “foul sin” to be directed by divine providence, the conversion of feelings animating it occurs according to the ordinary mechanisms of the passions involved (V.i.66-68). As he leaves the court for the last time, Richard shows neither a tenderhearted sorrow nor the patient submissiveness of a national martyr or scapegoat. Drawn up to his full height, indignant and imperial, he calls Bolingbroke and the others thieves or “conveyers” all, “[t]hat rise thus nimbly by a true king's fall” (ll.317-18. Cf. Ornstein, p. 119).

Paradoxically, then, the effect of Richard's surrender is precisely the opposite of that Bolingbroke intended it to have. Rather than exposing Richard's injustice, it shows up Richard's justice. Rather than emphasizing Richard's weaknesses, it reveals Richard's strengths. Above all, and although Bolingbroke wants nothing more than to look like Richard now, Richard's legitimacy and his justice combine to expose him—the apparent king—as Richard's opposite.

Richard shows himself to be most fully a king in the act of divorcing himself from the crown. The harmony between his soul and his station obtains only for a fleeting moment. Sadly, in this “woeful pageant” or anti-coronation, the authority he wields so well dissolves as he wields it.

Behind Richard's ostensible self-defeat there is real self-mastery. In stark contrast, Shakespeare's source Holinshed reports Richard's compliance throughout the deposition, including the formal signing of a confession, in an effort to propitiate Bolingbroke in order to save his life (see Bullough, p. 408). Until now Richard has been his own worst enemy because he betrayed what is best in himself, evincing the array of human failings from injustice to cowardice that precipitated the fatal crisis. Acting in accord with what is best in himself, Richard is now a “traitor” only to what is worst in himself. For kingly Richard to unking unkingly Richard, negating his negation of royalty, is to achieve an affirmative result: like every double negative (“no no”) it produces its own opposite. By deposing his former self, Richard cancels out his truant past and purges his soul once and for all of the vanity and folly that had taken root there, choking every wholesome growth (III.iv.41-46). Whipping “th’ offending Adam out of him,” Richard endows himself with a new innocence.6 His royal courage will follow in the train of his royal justice.

For every gain that Bolingbroke has made, he must endure a loss of equal extent. Every loss that Richard must endure will be compensated for by an equal gain. The deposition proves to have a double meaning in fact as well as in name. For both Richard and Bolingbroke, every victory is wed to a defeat and every defeat to a victory.

Bolingbroke's eager receipt of the crown and cares that Richard lays down proves that he is dazzled by the glitter of the “heavy weight” (1.204) he has won. In truth, he inherits nothing but Richard's cares. Bolingbroke will never possess the opulent royal goods that Richard squandered. Once he is actually king Bolingbroke and his supporters will find themselves beggars again, forced to content themselves with the “bare imagination of a feast” (Oman, p. 154; 1 Henry IV, III.ii.56-59, IV.iii.74-76; 2 Henry IV, I.ii.236-37). Bolingbroke already knows all he will ever know of “the breath of kings,” the effortless execution of his will, which he once noted, in a voice as wistful as sarcastic, that King Richard enjoyed, and largely as an effect achieved by Richard himself.

Since he has been spared every exertion beyond breath and killing looks (III.ii.165), Bolingbroke has so far undergone nothing but “the trial of a woman's war.” Precisely because Richard's self-conquest has rendered Bolingbroke's “shrewd steel” unnecessary, he becomes king without ever having tried the much vaunted strength of his “glittering” arms. Only after he already has the crown—when he imagines he really can commend his arms to rust (III.iii.116) and concentrate on reconciliation—does it prove necessary for him to try to win it by his own arms. The one thing he cannot conquer, the indefeasible title to the crown, is the one thing he needs. He finds himself hamstrung by his own injustice. As Richard's crimes strengthened Bolingbroke, so do Bolingbroke's crimes once more restore vitality to Richard's cause (IV.i.324-34). Bolingbroke's new weakness, like his old strength, arises because he looks like Richard's opposite. Bolingbroke is destined to learn the limits of his own arms and thus of the power of man, not by losing, but by gaining the crown. An inner defeat is therefore being prepared for him in tandem with his outward victory. His cowardice will follow in the train of his injustice, making his situation exactly the inverse of Richard’s. As in Richard's case, the harmony between his soul and his station reigns only for a fleeting moment. When Bolingbroke finally becomes king in name, he is king in name only.

Only when he is king himself does Bolingbroke come to feel the awesome power of Richard's legitimate authority and, for the first time, to fear him (V.iv). Abandoning his original intention to win friends by mildness, he decides to kill Richard (see IV.i.271, 304, 310, V.i. 51-54, 84). Amidst the numerous happy reports of other fallen rebels at the end of the play, Exton congratulates Bolingbroke heartily for attaining the death of Richard, “the mightiest of thy greatest enemies,” inadvertently exposing the depths of Bolingbroke's previously “buried fear” (

If Richard's life shows edenic idleness, surfeit, and monstrous waste, Bolingbroke’s, in keeping with the post-edenic imagery Shakespeare employs, consists in unremitting, frenzied, and heartrending toil. In all his reign, the “holiday” he dreams of as respite from the works of war, and which seems tantalizingly near at hand (III.i.44;, recedes farther and farther from his grasp and forever eludes him (2 Henry IV, IV.v.197-98).

The arms of the unruly nobles are rendered by Bolingbroke's violation of hereditary principles infinitely more dangerous in the realm than they ever were before. Bolingbroke has simply removed what was the single most important restraint upon their political ambitions, calling down on his own head, therefore, the “thousand dangers” with which York threatened Richard. His incessant wars also doom Bolingbroke to repeat Richard's alienation of the commons, whose pursestrings are the keys to their heartstrings (II.ii.129-31) and with whose assistance he might have checked the nobility. Finally, Bolingbroke aggravates a baneful ecclesiastical ambition, from which, in Shakespeare's account at least, Richard was spared. Once their fate is divorced from that of the sitting king, the clergy strive all the more to become an independent fount of power, making full use of the distinctive weapons at their disposal—religious zeal and “the sacrament”—to vex and harass Bolingbroke and his heirs (IV.i.133, 326-29; V.ii.97-99).7 The inescapable conclusion to be drawn is that in the achievement of the crown, Bolingbroke has only won a pyrrhic victory, one the costs of which—to self, to dynasty, and to country—far outweigh any possible benefits, and hence one more apparent than real (cf. Ribner, pp. 160-62, 164-68; Campbell, pp. 168, 212).

Richard's “little world,” the populous English commonwealth, finally contracts itself to the “little world” he inhabits in his prison cell, where there “is not a creature but myself” (V.v.4,9; II.i.45, 105). Only now that he is nothing can Richard try, really for the first time, his own inner resources. Although his body is enslaved, Richard's “brain” and “soul” unite to display a godlike self-sufficiency. Lacking every material to form or animate, from nothing. Richard brings to life all manner of imaginary men and conditions. His political kingdom may have shrunk to the impecunious and gaunt contours of a prison cell, but his inner kingdom expands to encompass the whole world.

In one sense, Richard's mock men confirm man's smallness. From nothing man can in fact make nothing. Richard's imaginary progeny, moreover, presage death rather than life; like the queen's own “life-harming heaviness,” this pregnancy is the antithesis of the natural operation it mimics (II.ii). By intimating the durability of his ineffable soul, however, Richard's ephemeral creations show the way to his true self and “own.” Nature herself deceives by appearances. The real order inverts the apparent order: the insubstantial shadow is the substance and the palpable substance the shadow. The dazzling material goods, heavy in appearance, of which Richard is deprived, are actually “heavy nothings” that are worth less than they seem. The shadowlike goods of the soul, which seem to be light and airy nothings, mere breath or the stuff of dreams, prove to be incorruptible and of priceless worth. Richard's invisible soul is a profusion of riches and source of life, a garden or womb, and his durable-seeming body is a tomb, the “frail sepulchre of flesh” over which, to live fully, the soul must declare its sovereignty and from which, to live forever, the soul must be “banished” (I.iii.196). As an amalgam of body and soul, man is a compound of substance and shadow, something and nothing, and, as Richard himself will discover, never “nothing” in every sense. Thus, however much it might seem, Richard still keeps something of his own. He has undergone the dissolution of everything but himself (IV.i.261-62).

Richard enters vicariously into the lives of all the inhabitants of his imaginary kingdom without availing himself of any comfort. He plays “in one person many people, and none contented” (V.v.37-38). Assembling themselves into a three-tiered social order, Richard's thoughts represent the varying sorts of “vain conceit” or hubris underlying the restless discontentment characterizing most men's lives. At the apex of the soul's regime the sophisticate reason proudly asserts its sovereignty over humble faith, only to founder on the shoals of the “scruples” it throws up for itself, and “set[s] the word against the word” (ll.11-14); see also V.iii.119-222). In the next class, ambitious and lionlike thoughts “plot unlikely wonders,” viz, a stunning escape from prison, inevitably failing which they “die in their own pride” (ll.18-22). Even Richard's ostensibly modest and lowly thoughts, like “seely beggars” in the stocks, console themselves with the flattering reflection that others have been where they are and “fortune's slaves.” Insofar as they fail to reckon with their own faults, however, and bear their misfortunes on others’ backs (ll.29-30), they can only win, as Richard himself once did, a counterfeit equanimity that cannot be sustained. In each of these instances, the vanity impeding the soul's composure arises because of man's failure to acknowledge his own limits: the weakness of his vision, the vulnerability of his arms and the mortality of his body, the downward pull of the appetites. Richard's case shows, however, that whether through their own blind sinning or that of others, even sacred kings can find themselves beggars. In Richard's case, then, all men must learn to recognize themselves (cf. Tillyard, pp. 246, 251-52). Out of the deposed King Richard Shakespeare fashions the perfect type or figure of man, the vicar of man, who stands in his place. “Nor I, nor any man that but man is, / With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d / With being nothing” (ll.39-41).

By repeatedly recrowning and redeposing him, Richard's imagination apparently consigns him to ceaseless desultory motion.

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 Bullingbrook,
And straight am nothing


With characteristic self-sufficiency, in the wild fluctuations of his spirit Richard acts out in a tragic mode the burlesque rendering of the main plot in the immediately preceding scene: the comic risings and fallings of the three Yorks in the matter of Aumerle and Bolingbroke's own oscillations in response to them, which remind him, he says, of the comedy “The Beggar and the King” (V.iii.76-80).

Finally bearing his misfortunes on his own back, a wise man now (1.63), Richard accepts the full responsibility for irrevocably destroying the “concord of my state and time.” Inverting the perspective of the royal gardeners, who discern the political disorder on the basis of the “law and form and due proportion” they cultivate in their little world, Richard infers the need for moderation and regularity from the disorder he has wrought in his—coming by the opposite route to the same conclusion. When he hears time kept poorly and the lack of “proportion” in the music that filters into his cell, Richard recalls the “disordered string” of hours and days that comprise his own life. He bitterly chides himself for possessing sensibilities so acute he can detect minute mistakes in music, while he was for so long utterly heedless of the gross discord and lawlessness engulfing him (ll.44-49). “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” In this rueful backward glance and reflection on what might have been, the possibility of his own composure is born. Like Adam, Richard sees himself clearly only in retrospect. His self-knowledge is presented by Shakespeare as the equally tragic and comic residue of sin.

Richard's fretful meditations culminate in a final burst of high spirits that enables him to impose order on chaos. His last deed is a courageous and daring act of self-defense that has no hope whatever of succeeding. To arouse the anger that can help to conquer fear and to give vent to her own, the queen once held up for Richard's imitation the defeated king of beasts (V.i.29-34). Like “the lion dying [who] thrusteth forth his paw … with rage / To be o’erpow’r’d,” Richard hurls defiance at those who have come to overpower him, brutally killing two of his wouldbe assassins before he is himself brought down by the doomed Exton (V.v.107-8, 115-16;, 42-44). In his barren and tomblike cell, stripped of the royal insignia, wielding a profane and expropriated axe instead of his own sacred sceptre, Richard experiences his most fully majestic moment. Despite appearances to the contrary, one cannot fail to recognize the royal heart beneath the beggar's rags. At the last, Richard withholds from “Henry of Lancaster” the name of king he had seemed earlier to bequeath to him. He finally accepts the royal responsibility to defend to the death himself and what is rightfully his own. His regal behavior inverts his beggarly condition.

By making himself the implacable arm of avenging justice, Richard assimilates himself in an instant to the best qualities in his adversary. While Bolingbroke has come unwittingly to represent man's limits, Richard now embodies man's strengths. His stunning exhibition is indeed the only feat of arms and manly trial in the play. In death, if not in life, he is the foremost exemplar of the code of chivalry: as warlike as righteous and “[a]s full of valure as of royal blood” (V.v.113).

Richard finally achieves self-rule, overcoming the oppressive fear of pain and death which threatened to unman him and bound him like an abject slave to his enemy. Richard cannot turn back the clock or work the miracles that would heal the rupture in the social order or in his life that he himself created. If he cannot literally break free of his enemy's grasp and tear down the prison walls, he does break out of the inward prison within which his regal spirit has been “cased up.” Because of his human frailties, Richard has always been his own greatest enemy. Now, however, the conquerer of himself becomes the master of himself and restores the natural order of ruling and ruled in his soul. Although forced to submit to his body's enemy, he lays his soul's enemy to rest. Resolving for a noble over a base death, Richard converts death and defeat into their opposites and liberates himself, as Carlisle instructed, from fortune's thrall. “Fear, and be slain—no worse can come to fight, and fight and die is death destroying death / Where fearing dying pays death servile breath” (III.ii.183-85).

If Richard's response to his exalted station shows him to be only man, not god, his response to his enslavement proves that he is at least man, not beast. His armed resistance to Bolingbroke's agents preserves the distinction between might and right that would be blurred by passive acquiescence and overcomes the indifference to justice caused by the overwhelming power of the appetities or animal passions.

Richard dashes his killers’ hopes that he would conveniently kill himself by eating poisoned food (V.v.97-101). Shakespeare's depiction thus shows to be impossible the “report of common fame” that Holinshed holds to be improbable, namely that Richard was defeated, as he allowed himself to be deposed, by an appeal to the frailties of his flesh. He was, it was said, “tantalised with food and starved to death” (see Bullough, p. 413).

Richard's inspiration is his former groom's report of Bolingbroke's usurpation of the royal horse Barbary and Barbary's blithe assent to it. Richard withdraws the accusation of treason he initially levels at his horse, only to depict him, for his indifference to justice, and contrary to customary usage, as an unusually cowardly and docile animal. The name invokes both barbary slave and the blackhearted barbarism of Bolingbroke that turns the refined and “Christian climate” into its opposite (IV.i.130-31, 138-44; V.ii.36). Even the most characteristically high-spirited animal is only an animal, a natural slave or beast of burden, “created to be aw’d by man (V.iv.84-91). By analogy, for Richard patiently to abide Bolingbroke's treachery is to transform himself from a man into a vile slave or barbarian and a beast of burden.

I was not made a horse.
And yet I bear a burthen like an ass,
Spurr’d, gall’d, and tir’d by jauncing Bullingbrook


Richard makes a spirited response to his spirited animal. By helping to contravene the power of mere appetite, the spirited claim to something more for oneself than is available to all, man and animal alike, can be enlisted in the service of the development of the qualities that make man's distinctiveness most pronounced, bolstering, in this case, Richard's refusal to act beneath himself, even in the face of death. To understand the nature of Richard's courage properly, it is necessary, therefore, to transcend the merely metaphorical equation of free men and their horses prominent in the play. The intransigent refusal to succumb to injustice is a peculiarly human response. Without man's recognition of himself as a free being rather than a slave, possessed of a godlike soul, there can be no deliberate resistance to injustice, as distinct from mere rashness. Nor is Richard's uplifted arm a reflex against pain, like a shooting out of the lion's “paw” (see Melville, p. 99). The true courage such as Richard exhibits in this scene requires the cooperation of reason and spirit, wit and will. In his depiction of Richard's final action, Shakespeare indicates his view that nature ordains the marriage of man's spirit and his spirituality, manliness and godliness, and, thus, that genuine regality is the province of man as such.

As Richard showed himself in the deposition scene to be most kingly in the act of uncrowning himself, so does he now come most fully to life in the act of ending his life and, hence, in both cases, with tragic tardiness. Richard displays the full plenitude of human powers—the perfectly concerted actions of the armed body and the armed soul—only at the moment of their violent rupture and permanent divorce, as the bands attaching him to life dissolve. For one fleeting moment, he is both a rising and a falling king. In both a sacred and a secular sense, Richard's spirit rises as his body falls. “Mount, mount my soul! thy seat is up on high, / Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die” (ll.111-12).

The mystery or paradox of the resurrection of the spirit to which Richard alludes in his final speech represents the ultimate transmutation or conversion of one thing into its opposite. In life there is death, but in death there is eternal life. The double inversions of Richard II, which show everything turning into its own opposite, adumbrate this fundamental doctrine. Rather than discord between heaven and earth, Shakespeare's play implies a harmony between the secular and the sacred resurrection.8 With the grace of God, Richard ransoms himself from the sins that produced his fall (II.i.31-39).

In the parallel lives of Richard and Bolingbroke Shakespeare crafts a natural pair, composed of elements that are indispensable to one another and therefore meant by nature to reside together for their mutual benefit. Although set at odds by their respective acts of injustice, Richard and Bolingbroke represent two halves of the same whole, each the inverse or mirror image of the other. Rather than cousins, they appear in the play as brothers, each one Cain and each one Abel, “[c]urrents that spring from one most gracious head” (III.iii. 108. See I.i. 104; V. vi.43). The indissoluble union their relationship is meant to describe corresponds to man's own dual nature, in which body and soul, weaknesses and strengths, are welded together. Neither Richard nor Bolingbroke attains the harmony between his soul and his station that he desires because neither man finds his necessary complement in the other. Each possesses only half the truth about man. Until it is too late, Richard sees only man's weaknesses and Bolingbroke only man's strengths; Richard sees every sort of being but man, and Bolingbroke sees only man. The lives of Richard and Bolingbroke bring Shakespeare's audience by opposite routes to the same conclusion. It must be said, however, that Bolingbroke remains throughout essentially the foil to set off the greater Richard by contrast, as indicated by the shift from the plane of tragedy to comedy for Shakespeare's history of Henry IV. Richard's range of experience, like Prospero’s, alone permits the incorporation of sub- and trans-political perspectives into one's view of human life.

Richard II depicts the negation by the rough, uncouth hand of man of that which was established by custom, nature, and nature's God. The restoration of concord to England is not a task that can be accomplished by the hand of man, however, and proves rather to depend on a certain, perhaps providential, cooperation of man, nature and time. By his own admission, Bolingbroke's death achieves what all the incessant labors of his life could not (2 Henry IV, IV. in 198-200). Although man cannot supplant nature's creativity, however, the arms he has by nature give him a distinctive work.9 Man must husband nature's rich profusion in order to bring forth its best fruits and to check the otherwise overwhelming presence of deformity, wildness, and waste. Since man's powers are neither superfluous nor unlimited, political wisdom requires that clear-sighted appreciation of man's strengths be wedded to clearsighted cognizance of the insurmountable limits to his powers. Eschewing both the blind king's “vain conceit” and the beggar's “base humility,” genuine pride and genuine humility must be conjoined. The truth at the core of political wisdom is, then, like the antagonists in the royal family, and like man himself, a whole or unity composed of opposites.

Shakespeare, like Machiavelli (ch. 18, pp. 68-71), recommends a double nature to remedy the fundamental political problem. He associates himself here not with the lion and the fox, but with the lion and the lamb (II.i.73-74. See Henry V, III.i. 1-16), reflecting his greater preoccupation throughout with the prince's justice than with his grandeur, or, rather, making his justice the keystone of his grandeur. Richard and Bolingbroke ultimately represent two types of souls or distinct aspects of the soul that must be amalgamated in a single man, achieving the soul's harmony by counterpoint. Like the other natural pairs of opposites in the play whose salutary rivalry has been disrupted by injustice—male-female, youth-age, the works of war and the recreations of peace—their natural dialectic insures that each may check the excesses of the other for the benefit of both. The foundation for political wisdom to which the play points is a lesson in moderation.

Shakespeare does agree with Machiavelli on the importance of the prince's knowing how to avoid being deceived by appearances,10 making clear that, by nature's own design, a certain degree of cunning is necessary to know nature: one must not fail to recognize either the flesh-and-blood man beneath the golden crown or the godlike royal spirit encased in the flesh-and-blood man. The goods of the soul supply the indispensable check on the tendency, which is so prominent in exalted men as to be their peculiar liability to be deceived by appearances (Measure for Measure, II.ii.110-23). Shakespeare himself deals entirely in these goods. His airy nothings, so much like dreams, point to a realm of surpassing beauty that need not be unlocked, as it is in Richard's case, by sorrow, a realm which, once glimpsed, arouses longings to transcend the plane of justice altogether, wherein human limits must invariably manifest themselves, and to seek satisfaction instead in a godlike contemplation of the human soul: the name Man is contained within the wondrous name Miranda.


  1. All citations are from The Riverside Shakespeare. The original version of this essay was delivered at an NEH-sponsored conference, “On the Role of Spiritedness in Politics,” hosted by the Olin Center of the University of Chicago in May 1986, honoring the work of Joseph Cropsey. I am indebted to Fred Baumann, Kenneth Jensen, and Catherine Zuckert for their editorial and substantive suggestions.

  2. Compare Gaunt and York at I.iii.241-46 and V.ii.89, 94. Throughout the play both Gaunt and York experience a wrenching conflict of loyalties, pulling their hearts one way and their hands and tongues another. Loyalty to the apparent king or king in name makes Gaunt, mimicking Richard's tendencies, an excessively hardhearted defender of Bolingbroke, once he has the name of king. Since their hearts cannot be in their assertions, however, their loyalties are worth less than it seems. Both men must use sophistry and “false hypocrisy” even to espouse in speech the positions they take in defense of the two kings (I.ii.36-40; V.iii.100-110). Cf. Kantorowicz, pp. 19, 39-40, and Campbell, p. 197.

  3. It is important to note, however, that Shakespeare actually ameliorates the accounts of Richard's crimes found in his major source, Holinshed's Chronicles. The play does bear out Holinshed's ascription of Richard's excesses rather to “the frailtie of wanton youth than the malice of his hart.” See Bullough, pp. 402, 395, 409. Indicating that the attempt to reach Richard is fraught with peril for the counselor, Shakespeare plants hints that Gloucester, “plain, well-meaning soul” is killed for his pains (II.i.115-31). Richard is orphaned as a young boy because of England's war with France, raising an interesting speculation about Shakespeare's wider judgment on English affairs. See York (II.i.179-82) and Northumberland (II.252- 55); cf. Churchill, pp. 383-84.

  4. See, e.g., I.ii. 54-55, 73-74; II.ii.141-49; V.i.71-73; cf. II.iii.49-50.

  5. See II.ii.111-16. By contrast to their male counterparts, the Duchesses of Gloucester and York are prepared in the name of their “own” to let kings suffer wrong (I.ii.36; V.ii.98-100).

  6. Richard's ritual of purification as he descends the throne is knowingly imitated in every essential point by the new Henry V, whose conversion into his opposite as he ascends the throne is well known (Henry V, I.i.25-37; 1 Henry IV, I.ii.213-17).

  7. For a negative view of the importance of the commons’ judgement in the change of kings and the clergy's feelings toward them, see 2 Henry IV, I.iii.86-100. Holinshed reports both that Richard plundered the church and that the Archbishop of Canterbury sided with Bolingbroke in the usurpation (see Bullough, p. 403). In Shakespeare's portrait, the role of religion in politics in the new court remains as pronounced, but is no longer conservative, posing for Bolingbroke the inverse of the problem presented to his pious father. Instead of being adduced, if weakly, to justify suffering wrong, religion now lends its name to treason, helping to change its color. Religion becomes, then, the useful instrument of sincere and insincere adherents alike.

  8. Gaunt compares England's fame as the source of royal life, “this teeming womb of royal kings,” to that of the empty tomb or “sepulchre” of the king of kings and the source of life everlasting—“the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son” (II.i.51-56).

  9. There is an intentional connection in the play between the preponderance of negative words and the prominence of “hands” and “arms.” Even the gardener's proper work is essentially negative: hacking down, pruning, defoliating, being “like an executioner.” See A Winter's Tale, IV.iv.95-97; Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark.”

  10. Machiavelli, The Prince, chs. 6, 8, pp. 21-25, 34-38; Montaigne, “Of cannibals,” “Of the inequality Among us,” in Essays, pp. 150-59, 189-96. As both Oliverotto of Fermo and Alexander VI illustrate in Machiavelli, the protean arts of deceiving by appearance, which might also be necessary to the prince, and the art of avoiding deception are two distinct arts, not necessarily found in the same men. See Machiavelli, ch. 18, fourth paragraph, p. 70; Guicciardini, bk. 6, pp. 171-74; Henry V, II.iv.36-40; IV.vii.


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

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare's Plays. Vol. 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespear's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1947.

Churchill, Winston. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1956.

Figgis, John N. The Divine Right of Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Translated and edited by Sidney Alexander. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King's Two Bodies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Translated by Harvey Mansfield, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of Cannibals,” “Of the Inequality Among Us.” In The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.

Oman, Charles. The Political History of England. Vol 4. London: Longmans Green & Co., 1906.

Ornstein, Robert. A Kingdom for a Stage. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Ribner, Irving. The English History Plays in the Age of Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Schoenbaum, S. “‘Richard II’ and the Realities of Power.” Shakespeare Survey 28(1975):12-13.

Sen Gupta, S.C. Shakespeare's Historical Plays. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Tillyard, E.M.W. Shakespeare's History Plays. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1946.

Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Wilson, John Dover, editor. King Richard II. London: Cambridge University Press, 1939.

Janet Clare (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2332

SOURCE: “The Censorship of the Deposition Scene in Richard II,” in The Review of English Studies XLI, No. 161, February, 1990, pp. 89-94.

[In the following essay, Clare reviews the debate regarding the issue of the possible censorship of the deposition scene in Richard II, and maintains that strong and persuasive evidence exists to support the view that the scene was suppressed by the Master of the Revels due ot its “explicit portrayal of deposition and usurpation.”]

The question of Elizabethan censorship and its impact upon Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists is one which has evoked cautious responses of ‘not proven’. Apart from the clear evidence of Tilney's censorship on the manuscript of The Book of Sir Thomas More, proof of early theatrical censorship is scant. There are, however, strong grounds for claiming that Richard II also suffered from theatrical censorship in the 1590s. To date editors have tended to overlook the cumulative evidence of Tilney's interference with the scene of Richard's deposition and thence the conclusions to be drawn about the state's fear of the theatre as an arena for provocative spectacle.

In Richard II Shakespeare goes further than the anonymous author of Woodstock, who was also concerned with the revolt by the nobles and commons as a reaction against the moral deficiencies and political ineptitude of the King. Shakespeare not only dramatizes the grievances of the rebel Bolingbroke and the populace who endorse his violation of royal sacrosanctity, but lingers over the King's forced abdication. Such a scene, with its subordination of traditional ideology and its inversion of monarchical ritual, invited a strong reaction from the Master of the Revels when the play came before him in 1595.

It is well known that the deposition scene failed to appear in print in the Elizabethan editions of the play or in subsequent reprints and that it was not published until well into the reign of James I, in the fourth quarto of 1608. The inserted piece is different in kind from the remainder of Act IV which surrounds it. The fourth quarto, like its predecessors, seems to derive from a non-theatrical source, probably an authorial manuscript. The text of the deposition, on the other hand, seems to have been set from an imperfect transcript of the scene. Its corruption, manifested in mislineation, the omission of stage directions, and the omission of half-lines which upsets the metre and disturbs alignment, suggests that it was hastily recorded from dictation or from memory. Had the scene been performed on the stage at intervals since the play's composition as editors imply, it would surely have been possible for the publisher, Matthew Lawe, to have obtained a fair copy prepared for stage use.1 The condition of the text of the deposition scene is, then, an indication that the printers did not have recourse to a playhouse text long in the possession of the King's Men and suggests that their copy must have been taken from an unauthorized source when the episode was recovered for performance. From the advertisement on the title-page of the 1608 quarto—the first Jacobean edition of the play—the reinstatement of the scene on the stage would seem to have taken place immediately prior to its publication. Whereas the scene would have been judged dangerous in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign, when the question of the succession loomed large but became a prohibited area of discussion, such fears would have been less predominant years after the uncontested succession of James I.

The title-page of certain copies of the fourth quarto advertises the additional material and draws attention to its recent staging: ‘With new additions of the Parliament Sceane, and the deposing of King Richard. As it hath been lately acted by the Kinges Majesties Servantes, at the Globe.’ If audiences had been familiar with the spectacle of the deposition on stage during the previous decade it seems unlikely that Lawe would have coupled fresh publication with its being ‘lately acted’. Lawe appears to have capitalized on a relaxation in theatrical censorship to promote sales of an old play by giving prominence to the restoration of controversial material.

What other factors might account for the scene's omission in the early quartos? A. W. Pollard's early view that the Lord Chamberlain's Men cut it for dramatic reasons because audiences might suffer from ‘too much Richard’ is not now convincing and has had few adherents.2 Rather, its literary and dramatic qualities have been invoked to support the case for its inclusion throughout the play's early stage history. Ernest Talbert, notably, discusses the artistry and compelling lyricism of the scene and comments that this ‘may well have restricted any tendency toward delation on the part of those who watched its performance even in a year of official scrutiny and theatrical turmoil’ and that ‘Shakespeare could have expected his artistry to be supported by that of the Lord Chamberlain's actors’.3 But it is doubtful whether the actors’ recognition of the scene's lyrical qualities would in itself have persuaded them to take such risks. One may also assume that the Master of the Revels would hear from his sources if the players were to disregard his strictures so flagrantly as to perform the momentous episode.

In an article devoted to the deposition scene, David Bergeron states what modern editors have ignored, that if the ritualistic deposing of Richard was too scandalous for the printed page, it is unlikely to have been permitted on the stage.4 However, Bergeron goes on to reject the relevance of Elizabethan censorship, theatrical or literary, asking what there is about the missing part of the deposition scene that is dangerous. Yet this view ignores the subversive language and iconography of the scene. Bergeron's argument that lines 154-317 of Act IV are a later addition ultimately comes to rest on the conviction, similar to Talbert’s, that ‘no actor, director, spectator, or reader would truly want to be deprived of this new appearance of Richard at his formal abdication’.5 But, we must ask, when have a censor's sensibilities been so attuned?

Editors have generally favoured a plausible alternative to theatrical censorship, namely, that the scene was cut by ecclesiastical censors who, under the Star Chamber decree of 1586, were responsible for press censorship.6 The Arden editor, Peter Ure, commented that the scene was likely to have been performed on the stage but was cut from the printer's manuscript ‘probably because political conditions towards the end of the century made dethronement of an English monarch a dangerous subject for public discussion’.7 It is difficult to see why what was ‘a dangerous subject for public discussion’ was not equally hazardous when represented in the theatre, where its impact would have been felt across a wider range of public opinion. Andrew Gurr in his edition tends towards Ure's view: ‘Perhaps the stage version of the play never lost the deposition scene, so that the playhouse always had a full version of the text’; and remarks that Tilney's record as a censor is undistinguished in comparison with press licensers.8 But details pieced together from the Sir Thomas More manuscript and anomalies in other texts suggest that Tilney was anxious to have potentially seditious events abridged, or reported rather than enacted.9 Nor is there evidence to indicate that ecclesiastical censorship was more stringent than censorship of dramatic performance by the Master of the Revels. John Hayward's The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry the Fourth, which was as much concerned with the deposition of Richard II as Shakespeare's play, was licensed initially without any objection by the Bishop of London's chaplain in 1598. Most significant, however, is that the 1597 quarto of Richard II was amongst a small number of plays printed on the strength of the sole authorization of one of the wardens of the Stationers’ Company without specific ecclesiastical sanction.10 It is extremely improbable that a warden, concerned with copyright not censorship, would have taken it upon himself to censor heavily a scene which the Master of the Revels had earlier judged innocuous. What would seem to have been the case is that the play was taken to the Stationers’ Hall with Tilney's markings and his licence for performance and this enabled the officiating warden to satisfy himself that the book had already been officially perused and reformed. It is significant that a decade later, Tilney's deputy, Sir George Buc, was licensing plays for print as a regular part of his duties. In actuality, the procedure had probably commenced earlier when the wardens would occasionally grant copyright to publishers for plays authorized not by ecclesiastical censors but for performance by Tilney.

One further possibility remains as an alternative to theatrical censorship, that is, self-censorship by Shakespeare, realizing that in his dramatization of Richard's deposition he had trespassed beyond the bounds of the permissible. The scene is cut from the moment when the Earl of Northumberland accuses the Bishop of Carlisle of treason for his support of Richard (IV. i. 150-3) and resumes with Bolingbroke's announcement of his intended coronation (IV. i. 319-20). Richard's abdication becomes a fait accompli; his entry and his attempt to upstage Bolingbroke before his histrionic surrender of power are lost. There is nothing incongruous about the early, compressed version of the scene; even the Abbot's words, ‘A woeful pageant have we here beheld’, which in the full textual version refer to Richard's abdication, arrest, and conveyance to the Tower, can now be taken to refer to the arrest of Carlisle on Northumberland's trumped-up charge of treason. Nevertheless, ‘pageant’ most obviously refers to Richard's abdication, and the fact that the line was left to stand does suggest that responsibility for the excisions lay with the censor, who would not have concerned himself with the dramatic consistency of whatever survived his attentions.

From his treatment of the events leading to the deposition it seems that Shakespeare was indeed conscious that he was dealing with intractable political issues which demanded cautious representation. There is much that is said elsewhere in Richard II to counter the subversive ideology of royal deposition. Thus, in the first act there is a scene, not in any of Shakespeare's sources, in which Gaunt refuses to respond to the pleas of the Duchess of Gloucester to revenge her husband's murder, stating the familiar belief in the King's sacrosanctity. Reminiscent of More's quasi-homily in the section of Sir Thomas More attributed to Shakespeare is Carlisle's outburst of orthodox sentiment immediately before Bolingbroke assumes power, in which he argues the heinousness of Bolingbroke's crime and predicts a pattern of nemesis:

And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judg’d by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not present? O forfend it, God,
That in a Christian climate souls refined
Should show so heinous, black, obscene a deed!

(IV. i. 125-31)

The lines reflect the Yorkist sympathies and interpretations of history expressed in some of Shakespeare's chronicle sources; but more pertinent is their articulation of the Tudor doctrine of non-resistance embodied in the Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion. Shakespeare could have found part of the content of the speech, without the augury, in Samuel Daniel's epic poem The First Foure Bookes of the Civile Warres; but by deviating from the source and placing the speech just before the actual deposition he appears to anticipate any counter-charge that the play upholds Bolingbroke's irregular seizure of power.

In the deposition scene itself there are signs of circumspection both in the representation of the event and in the selection of source material. Since Henry VII's claim to the crown was based on his descent from John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke was a direct ancestor of Elizabeth. Shakespeare's treatment of Bolingbroke combines a sure sense of theatre and political circumspection. Juxtaposed to and in contrast with Richard's loquacity is Bolingbroke's silence, and by allowing Richard to control the scene Shakespeare contrives to reduce Bolingbroke's apparent involvement in the conspiracy and to leave his motives and character oblique and obscure. There seems to be a deliberate policy by Shakespeare to keep much of Bolingbroke's direct participation in the background. Both the chroniclers Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed record thirty-three articles presented by Parliament which propound Richard's misgovernment. Holinshed attributes the King's fate to the grievances advanced in this form: ‘The articles objected to King Richard, wherby he was counted worthie, to be deposed from his principalitie.’11 In the play Northumberland alone makes an oblique reference to the articles which goes unheeded. The corollary of justification in Richard's deposition is thus avoided by both Richard and Bolingbroke. Only in the staging of the actual dethronement, an elaboration from the bare mention in Holinshed, does Shakespeare abandon his cautious handling of material. As we have seen, the evidence that the scene was excised from performance until the early years of James I's reign is persuasive; the explicit portrayal of deposition and usurpation was a risk which elicited the interference of the Master of the Revels and the suppression of the most theatrical moment in the play.


  1. Lawe obtained the copyright of Richard II from Andrew Wise in 1603. It is interesting that he chose not to print the play until 1608 although both Richard III and I Henry IV (which had also been named in the transfer) had been printed in 1604.

  2. The Tragedy of King Richard II: A New Shakespeare Quarto, with an introduction by A. W. Pollard (London, 1916), 63.

  3. Ernest William Talbert, The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare's Art (Chapel Hill, 1962), 194-5.

  4. David Bergeron, ‘The Deposition Scene in Richard II’, Renaissance Papers (1974), 31-7.

  5. Ibid. 37.

  6. See Edward Arber (ed.), A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 5 vols. (London, 1875-94), ii. 807-12, iii. 609.

  7. Richard II, ed. Peter Ure (London, 1956), p. xiv.

  8. Richard II, ed. Andrew Gurr (Cambridge, 1984), 9-10.

  9. See Clare, “Greater Themes for Insurrection's Arguing”: Political Censorship of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Stage’, RES NS 38 (1987), 169-83.

  10. Transcript of the Registers, iii. 89.

  11. Holinshed, Chronicles, iii (London, 1807), 859-61.

Cyndia Susan Clegg (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9576

SOURCE: “‘By the Choice and Inuitation of Al the Realm’: Richard II and Elizabethan Press Censorship,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 48, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 432-48.

[In the following essay, Clegg maintains that it is unlikely Richard II’s deposition scene was censored because of any parallels with Queen Elizabeth's reign, or because of a danger of dramatizing a rebellion during the 1590s. Rather, Clegg suggests the possibility that the scene was censored because of its implication that Parliament may act without the ruling monarch and can in fact dictate terms to the monarch.]

Shakespeare's Richard II has come to serve as a touchstone for discussions of state authority in early modern England, either, as Annabel Patterson has suggested, as “one of those puzzling incidents of noncensorship1 or, as literary histories (old and new) have maintained, as a representative event in a narration of control and subversion. The play's representation of either Bolingbroke's usurpation or Richard's deposition (depending on the critical interest) has been seen to threaten authority as, on the one hand, the specific model for Essex's 1601 rebellion or, on the other, a general assault on the ideology of political order. While no convincing evidence has been set forth to suggest that the authorities employed censorship to prevent any improper use of Shakespeare's play subsequent to 1601, the “new additions of the Parliament Sceane and the deposing of King Richard” in the 1608 printed play (after their absence from the play's three Elizabethan quartos) has long engendered debate on whether or not Richard II was censored during the reign of Elizabeth I.2 The most recent voices in this conversation—David Bergeron’s, Janet Clare’s, and Leeds Barroll’s—while they fail to resolve the debate, serve to delineate its terms.3 Bergeron rejects political censorship principally on the grounds that, unstable and carnivalesque, the entire text of Richard II and not simply the deposition scene “mocks tidy assumptions”; for modern editors to account for the 1608 addition of the deposition scene as a restoration of censored text is to attempt to order carnival.4 Barroll rejects political censorship of Richard II because historical evidence does not support “a narrative in which the monarch-as-authority-figure views drama as a special and vital medium with potentialities for subversion, or for the enhancement of the royal image, or for intellectual entertainment.”5 Janet Clare argues the case for censorship, accepting a government interest in drama rejected by both Barroll and Bergeron. According to Clare, Shakespeare understood that the “intractable political issues” he was dealing with “demanded cautious representation,” but he left off in the deposition scene the caution he exercised elsewhere. Clare concludes that “the explicit portrayal of deposition and usurpation was a risk which elicited the interference of the Master of the Revels and the suppression of the most theatrical moment in the play.”6 The recent contributions of Bergeron and Clare do little to change the terms of the traditional debate. Bergeron's recognition of the play's carnivalesque quality may invert Ernest Talbert's conclusion that “Shakespeare's artistry was purposefully equivocal,”7 but for both Bergeron and Talbert, the deposition scene's aesthetic consonance with the rest of the play argues against political censorship. Nor does Clare add much to conventional views on the dangers of representing usurpation. Barroll alone, in his exposure of the ahistoricity of new-historicist assumptions and methods and his call for a genuine “new history” free of preconceived ideology, shepherds the conversation to a different plain. I would like to suggest that the paradigm for investigating Richard II's potential censorship during the reign of Elizabeth I be relocated in the local history of texts certainly censored and the practices that suppressed them rather than in the prevailing narratives of political hegemony—of authority and subversion. From this perspective one can argue that the so-called “deposition scene” was perceived as dangerous and was thus absent from the Elizabethan quartos not because it represented usurpation or deposition but because, as the “Parliament Sceane,” it corroborated late-sixteenth-century resistance theory.

Despite persuasive arguments that “no trouble with the authorities was connected with its publication,”8Richard II's editors have long had to contend with the fact that in Act 4, scene 1, of the Q4, Q5, and F texts are 164 lines not found in the first three quartos. In textual matters modern editors accept Q1 as the authoritative text for the play except for 4.1.154-318, for which they rely on F, which, since the work of Charlton Hinman, is generally regarded as having possibly been checked against an independent manuscript.9 A like consensus accounting for the deposition scene's absence from sixteenth-century quartos, however, has not been reached. David Bevington advances the deposition scene as illustrative of government censorship: “The scene of Richard II's deposition (4.1) was considered so provocative by Elizabeth's government that it was censored in the printed quartos of Shakespeare's play during the Queen's lifetime.”10 Following Peter Ure, Andrew Gurr attributes the scene's absence to censorship invoked by the play's “politically sensitive” subject, but he attributes the suppression to the press censors since the “pattern of censorship in playtexts” was quite different from that of other printed books.

The bishops who descended on the verse satirists in 1599, the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular, had a sharp and sophisticated eye for anything dangerous in theology or politics. Their record in the last years of Elizabeth is a tribute to their sensitivity. Not so the censor of stage-plays.… The different records of the two kinds of censor make it entirely possible that a scene not acceptable to the bishops might be allowed by the Master of the Revels.11

He further concludes that dramatic censorship was unlikely, since “the restoration of a cut made through censorship in a performed text would have been unique, so far as we know, in the history of the drama at this time.”12 Wells and Taylor are far more cautious. Although they admit the possibility of a “controversial original version,” they assign neither a motive for censorship, nor a certain agent: “… the actors themselves, the Bishop of London as licenser, or the printers or publishers may have cut the original version of the abdication scene from the papers which served as copy for Q1.”13 Although lacking a unanimous voice on either the motive or mechanism for control, Richard II's editors are remarkably consistent in holding censorship responsible for the deposition/abdication scene's sixteenth-century absence. Most, apparently, subscribe to the view so succinctly articulated by Annabel Patterson, that Elizabeth and her ministers engaged in a general “public surveillance” to assure “that the cultural forms of late Elizabethanism took the form they did because the queen and her ministers were watching.”14

Ongoing assumptions about the repressive control of theater and print in early modern England have derived largely from the work of Glynne Wickham and Fredrick Siebert. Wickham envisioned in the Tudor state a “whole machinery of censorship and control” whose evolution Siebert traces in Freedom of the Press in England, 1476—1776.15 Although Richard Dutton has recently forced a reconsideration of the repressiveness of mechanisms for controlling the drama, Siebert's understanding of press censorship remains influential. According to Siebert, “The rapid rise of the government control of printing took place during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth,” with Elizabeth I's reign serving as “the high point of the entire three hundred-year period in the average pattern of the three factors, number and variety of controls, stringency of enforcement, and general compliance with regulations.”16 The impact of this assessment has largely been felt through the tremendous influence of Annabel Patterson's Censorship and Interpretation.17 While “those famous puzzling incidents of noncensorship” (such as what Patterson sees as Elizabeth I's recognition of topicality in Richard II)18) may suggest a chink in the monolithic structures described by Wickham and Siebert, Patterson's notion of functional ambiguity depends not only on the machinery being intact but on its operation in the shaping of discourses whose intentions were understood equally well by authors and authorities. Though he offers some corrective to Patterson in his The Later Tudors: England, 1547—1603, Penry Williams likewise subscribes to Siebert's views of institutional censorship.19 This reliance on Siebert poses a problem, since his work accounts for the documents of control but fails to locate adequately their inception in the specific economic, religious, and political events that provoked them. Consequently, he assumes that the whole cloth of censorship was woven entirely from the mechanisms of control. Furthermore, he glances only superficially at censored texts and the strategies they employed that prompted their censorship.

My recent work on press censorship during the reign of Elizabeth finds not only a government far less effective in maintaining controls and surveillance of the press but also one far less interested in these matters than many critics have assumed. In Press Censorship in Elizabethan England, I reconsider the practice of press censorship by recontextualizing the documents of control and the actual instances of government suppression and by examining the rhetorical strategies of texts actually censored.20 The following conclusions from my work bear particularly on Richard II. Between 1558 and 1603, statutory prohibitions articulated the government's principal areas of concern—treasonous writing, writing on the succession, and libel.21 When texts violated statutory prohibitions, legal action was taken against their authors and printers (if their authors and printers were English). The Elizabethan religious settlement instituted preprint official authorization that was certainly ecclesiastical in its administration and largely ecclesiastical in its intent.22 Despite this, never more than half the books printed in England during Elizabeth's reign received official scrutiny, nor were unauthorized texts treated as transgressive per se by the government. Even many Continental books were neither confiscated nor suppressed. Eleven royal proclamations were the means by which the majority of texts censored between 1559 and 1603 were controlled. Six of these proclamations addressed Catholic texts issued by Continental presses, one an English political work, and four related to texts associated with radical Protestantism. Furthermore, on a few exceptional occasions agents of Elizabeth's government took extraordinary actions to censor printed texts.23 These instances and the censorship proclamations argue that press censorship between 1558 and 1603 principally responded ad hoc to religious and political discourses that proved offensive in their reception far more often than in preconceived standards of acceptable discourse. (Indeed, it should be remembered, particularly in theological matters, that the chief means used to control opposition was to answer it in print in texts that often restated the oppositional discourse.) There exists, then, a surprisingly small number of texts written and printed in England that the government deemed transgressive, and these locate Elizabethan press censorship quite precisely in the politics of personality, patronage, and national interest.

This reassessment of censorship practices bears on Richard II in two ways. It argues the unlikelihood of Richard II's deposition scene being censored for the press for any of the reasons that studies of the play have to this point argued: namely, implicitly libelous parallels between Elizabeth's reign and Richard's misgovernment of England or the danger inherent in representing rebellion during the unsettled 1590s. With regard to the latter, no record exists of a printed text having been censored during the reign of Elizabeth for its mention or representation of deposition or rebellion generally,24 even though statutes clearly deemed as treasonous anything advocating rebellion against Elizabeth's government or “compass[ing] imagyn[ing] invent[ing]” “bodely harme” against the queen.25 Although libels that identified Elizabeth with Richard did circulate, Richard II neither libeled the queen nor treasonously represented rebellion and deposition. Neither did the play violate the statutory mandate against writing about who should succeed Elizabeth.26 While it might be objected that censorship of the deposition scene was a cautionary measure, the fact that its absence does not remove from the play all representation of bad government, rebellion, deposition, or, indeed, “bodely harme” to the king argues against the motives conventionally attributed to the censor. Indeed, if the censor were truly interested in the play's representation of royal weakness and deposition, would it not have been enough to suit his cause, as Bergeron so aptly puts it, “to glimpse the weak Richard coming down like glistering Phaeton and then next see him ignominiously on his way to prison and certain death?”27

While this understanding of the practice of press censorship during the reign of Elizabeth reinforces Bergeron's and Barroll's view that the sixteenth-century quartos of Richard II were not cut by the censors, a qualification is important: although the scene was not censored because of its representation of misguided kingship, rebellion, or deposition, it may have provoked suppression through its representation of Parliament, a representation paralleled in A conference about the next succession (1595) by Robert Parsons, a work that Elizabeth's government regarded as highly seditious and that was the object of an active censorship campaign. Having said this, I must concede, as have generations of Shakespeare scholars, that no positive evidence exists that 4.1.154-318 was actually suppressed.28 Lacking that evidence, my arguments, like those of my predecessors, are circumstantial. But before I hazard a rationale for the mechanism of the “Parliament Sceane’s” suppression—or a circumstantial argument for suppression itself—the circumstances, that is, the local events of 1597-98 that may be seen as relevant to Shakespeare's play, require revisiting.

In 1595 William Cecil, Lord Burghley, received intelligence about the printing of a book on the Spanish claim to the English throne; the report included a letter written by Catholic William Gifford referring to Robert Parsons as the book's author and objecting to the book as “the most pestilent ever made.”29 In the same year Burghley wrote out his own notes on this dangerous book about the rights of the infanta, clearly A conference about the next succession written by Robert Parsons under the pseudonym “R. Doleman.”30 Reports of books seized at ports of entry during these years reveal that books about the infanta's claim, including Parsons’s, were the object of rigorous searches.31 Parson's A conference was objectionable on many grounds—and to many parties—and continued to be so until the end of the decade. Certainly, as J.H.M. Salmon recognizes, Parsons's work subscribed to the central tenets of Continental Catholic resistance theory, particularly the secular nature of political society and the monarch's subjugation under law.32 Its offense in the 1590s, however, rested more on its particular arguments about the English succession than on its general subscription to resistance theory, as Salmon's consideration implies. This was not a book on why English Catholics might resist Elizabeth's authority; it was a book legitimating a Spanish claim to the English throne. It not only flouted English statutory prohibitions against writing on the succession; it violated every statutory definition of treasonous and seditious writing. We can best appreciate government reaction to Parsons's book by considering it against the background of succession and resistance writing.

Writing about the succession to Elizabeth was not always illegal. The earliest text on the succession to provoke government concern was John Leslie's 1569 A defence of the honour of the right highe, mightye and noble Princesse Marie, which defended Mary, Queen of Scots, against accusations of immoral conduct in matters related to the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley; defended female rule generally; and specifically justified Mary's claims to the English crown following Elizabeth.33 Leslie advocated deciding the succession in favor of Mary during Elizabeth's lifetime in order to prevent the civil unrest that would inevitably occur at the English queen's death.34 While the text itself may not have been seditious, Lord Burghley (then Cecil) associated it with the seditious activities of the duke of Norfolk and stayed the London printing. The only part of Leslie's Defence of the honour that could have been seen by Burghley as prejudicial to Elizabeth's right was a passage related to Henry VIII's third act of succession, a passage that denied the validity of Henry's will. Because the statute of 35 Henry VIII established the succession, Leslie argued, the will was moot, useful only to those who wished to deny Mary Stuart her right to the succession. Leslie's contention that there were problems with Henry's will was correct. Two versions existed; neither was signed. While Elizabeth's own succession was secure by statute, the messy issue of Henry's wills, departing as they did from common law—as Leslie points out all too clearly—placed royal succession in Chancery's hands rather than God’s. On the other hand, to concede Leslie's point that the will was invalid in the case of Mary Stuart's succession was to invite challenges to Elizabeth's right to rule from parties who would happily argue that she was illegitimate and therefore excluded from the succession. Further, even if Leslie accepted that Elizabeth held statutory right to the succession, by rehearsing the proliferation of statutes that repeatedly altered the succession during Henry's reign, he assigned to Parliament an authority over the Crown that Elizabeth was unwilling to recognize.35

Leslie's Defence of the honour points to the complex issues that could be, and were, raised in any discussion of the succession. Burghley and Elizabeth may well have agreed with Leslie that Mary Stuart and her heirs were entitled to the English throne when Elizabeth died. To discuss the succession, however, as Leslie demonstrated, inevitably led to privileging one line of inheritance over another, one legal principle over another, or one court—royal, Chancery, or parliamentary—over another. The Tudor succession was never so unsullied—despite its propaganda to the contrary—that it could rest easily under this scrutiny. In 1569/70 Leslie's book surely led both Elizabeth and Cecil to realize the implications of arguments about the succession—a realization that could have contributed to the 1571 statutory prohibition of written works on this topic.36

After Mary's death in 1587, the Catholic cause looked elsewhere for a successor. The Elizabethan State Papers are filled with intelligence about manuscripts and books, largely Continental, advancing various Catholic lines against the claim of the Protestant James VI. A letter dated 31 March 1593 reported to Lord Burghley that Verstegan was printing a book entitled “News from Spain and Holland” which argued for the Spanish right to the English throne.37 Two years later Parsons's A conference about the next succession appeared. Not only did A conference arouse the concerns of Burghley and other English statesmen, it offended many English Catholics, both at home and abroad, who hoped to secure toleration in exchange for their support of James VI. English Catholics openly denounced the Jesuit party, and their objections to A conference became central to their overall objections to the Jesuits. This book became for them a litmus test of Jesuit support for Spanish interests in England. Henry Neville brought this situation to Robert Cecil's attention in a letter of 27 June 1599, in which he claimed that the Jesuit party was violently taking the side of the infanta, especially since the publication of Parsons's book. Neville proposed that the infanta's claim advanced in A conference should, in turn, be used as a test for the national loyalty of English Catholics. He recommended that “Priests and recusants, when apprehended, should be examined whether they have not been solicited or solicited others to subscribe to the infanta's title.”38 Though Cecil appears not to have followed Neville's advice (at least officially), Neville's letter suggests one of the reasons Parsons's book was perceived as particularly dangerous: it provided in its claims for the infanta a new figure in whom English Catholics, prompted by the Jesuits, could place their hopes for a Catholic monarch in England. According to a letter written by Parsons, William Cardinal Allen had supported A conference because “he hoped that on sight of the book, the wise and Catholic part of our nation would join with him, and his friends, in some good means for saving themselves and their country.”39

While Leslie's books had been perceived to support Mary Stuart's claim by prejudicing, though not denying, Elizabeth's rights, Parsons's book effectively denied the validity of the entire Tudor line by asserting the primacy of the Spanish claim by way of John of Gaunt. Privileging this old, direct Lancastrian line against the York claim definitely compromised Elizabeth's right by maintaining that the York claim was subordinate to the Lancastrian and Elizabeth's indirect Lancastrian claim far weaker still. Parsons argued for the strength of the Lancastrian line by demonstrating that Richard II was legally deposed:

… for that al kingly authority is giuen them only by the common wealth, & that with this expresse condition, that they shal gouerne according to law and equity, that this is the cause of their exaltation aboue other men, that this is the end of their gouer[n]ment, the butt of their authority, the starr and pole by which they ought to direct their sterne, to witt, the good of the people, by the weale of their subiects, by the benefite of the realme, which end being taken away or peruerted, the king becommeth a tyrant, a Tigar, a fearse Lion, a rauening wolfe, a publique enimy, and a bloody murtherer, which were against al reason both natural and moral, that a common wealth could not deliuer it selfe from so eminent a distruction.40

The deposition itself was justified:

First for that it was done by the choise and inuitation of al the realme or greater and better parte therof as hath bin said. Secondly for that it was done without slaughter, and thirdly for that the king was deposed by act of parlament, and himselfe conuinced of his vnworthy gouer[n]ment, and brought to confesse that he was worthely depriued, and that he willingly and freely resigned the same.…41

With regard to the legitimacy of the Lancastrian succession over that of the York, Parsons says,

And first of al it is to be vnderstood, that at that very tyme when king Richard was deposed, the house of Yorke had no pretence or little at al to the crowne, for that Edmond Mortimer earle of march, nephew to the lady Phillip, was then aliue, with his sister Anne Mortymer marryed to Richard earle of Cambri[d]ge, by which Anne the howse of Yorke did after make their clayme, but could not do so yet, for that the said Edmond her brother was liuing.42

Parsons here privileges the elder brother's claim over the younger's and male inheritance over female. Henry IV claimed his right to the crown through his father, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. Any York claim was subordinate to this, first, because the duke of York was younger than the duke of Lancaster and, second, because his actual heirs made the York claim through the female.43 Whatever his objectivity in discussing the York claim, Parsons finally concludes that York kings proceeded to the throne by bloodshed and enjoyed violent reigns while Lancastrians were good kings. Since he identifies Henry VIII as a York king who “passed al the rest in crueltie, toward his owne kynred,”44 he doubled his offense to Elizabeth.

The nature of A conference's offense is complex. Parsons refrains from directly attacking Elizabeth's personal right to rule at the same time that he discredits the entire Tudor succession. Furthermore, the book's rhetorical restraint, particularly its disinterested and objective tone, lends credibility to arguments entirely untenable to the queen. Not only would any Tudor monarch reject Parsons's succession argument, but Elizabeth surely would have objected to his characterization of her Tudor predecessors. And even more important to Elizabeth was the issue of Parliament. When, in 1563 and again in 1566, Parliament had pressed the queen to decide the succession, she had made it clear that Parliament was not to address the matter. She alone would determine the succession at a time she deemed convenient. It was, she said, “monstrous that the feet should direct the head.”45 In 1593—when, according to J. E. Neale, the succession was “so notoriously taboo that it had passed out of parliamentary politics”—Peter Wentworth was treated severely by the queen for his efforts to renew parliamentary pressure on her to settle the succession. (Wentworth was sent to the Tower for circulating his manuscript “A Pithie Exhortation to her Majestie for establishing the successor to the crowne” and urging Parliament to address the succession.)46 The queen was not merely being arbitrary since, as Joel Hurstfield points out, settling the succession would have deprived her of considerable political leverage.47 To have Parliament decide or even discuss the succession was out of the question. It is against this backdrop that Parsons's A conference and Shakespeare's Richard II were written.

The associations between Richard II and Parsons's tract are striking, but I do not intend to suggest that Shakespeare's play—with or without the Parliament scene—should be read as a roman à clef to Elizabethan arguments on the succession. Indeed, each time I read and teach the play, I am struck by the degree to which Shakespeare's Richard II creates an uneasy dialectic between alternative views of succession, alternative views of kingship, and alternative views of the actions of both Richard II and Bolingbroke. Any resolutions the play makes of this dialectic are tentative and tenuous, ultimately leaving judgment to the audience. The play's one element that does not participate in this dialectic is Parliament.

The version of the “Parliament Sceane” that appears in Q4 (1608) differs in many details from that printed in the Folio and is worth our attention. The Q4 stage direction that opens the scene containing the deposition is “Enter Bulingbrooke, Aumerle, and others” (G3v)—no mention is made of Parliament, despite the fact that several lines later the summoning of Richard makes it clear that the deposition is taking place in Parliament.48 After Northumberland arrests Carlisle for his condemnation of Bolingbroke, Northumberland turns to the lords with the request that they take action on an appeal from the commons.

May it please you Lords, to graunt the common suite,
Fetch hither Richard, that in common
He may surrender, so we shall proceed without suspition.


Most of the critical attention that has been given to the “deposition scene” has focused either on the extraordinary ritual of the transfer of power or on Richard's demeanor. Behind all this, however, is not Bolingbroke's voice but, especially in Q4, the voice of Northumberland, who is apparently presenting a petition from the commons to the assembled lords.49 The “common suite” (“that in common view / He may surrender”), a vestige of Shakespeare's source, is explained later by Northumberland when he calls on Richard to read

These accusations, and these greeuous crimes,
Committed by your person, and your followers,
Against the State and profit of this Land;
That by confessing them, the soules of men
May deeme that you are worthily deposde.


According to Holinshed's Chronicles, after Henry IV ascended the throne, a request came to the lords from the commons “that sith king Richard had resigned, and was lawfullie deposed from his roiall dignitie, he might have judgment decreed against him, so as the realme were not troubled by him, and that the causes of his deposing might be published through the realme for satisfieng of the people.”50 In Holinshed these causes (which are themselves published in the Chronicles) were first drawn up in a parliament Bolingbroke summoned in Richard's name and in which deposition was urged.51 “[N]otwithstanding,” Richard “was easilie persuaded to renounce his crowne and princelie preheminence.”52 The commons and the lords assembled at Westminster “admitted and confirmed” the resignation. Even so, it was determined “in auoiding of all suspicions and surmises of evil disposed persons,” the causes against Richard should be read, but “other causes more needfull as then to be preferred, the reading of those articles at that season was deferred.”53 Not until after Henry IV's accession did the commons sue for the publication of the causes. Throughout his account Holinshed emphasizes the efforts of Bolingbroke and his followers to justify the deposition by emphasizing both Richard's culpability and his willing renunciation of the crown.54 The sequence of events in Holinshed makes clear three things about the role of Parliament. First, though it met to draw up articles accusing Richard of wrongdoing and to urge his deposition, Richard, “notwithstanding” Parliament's action, renounced his crown. Second, Parliament's role was not in urging deposition but in consenting to abdication. Third, the commons did not initiate any action that directly or indirectly promoted Richard's abdication, though it did call for the publication of causes against Richard ex post facto to discourage potential opposition.

Shakespeare's 1608 compression, elision, and inversion of these events serve compelling dramatic ends, and in most respects the scene follows Holinshed's account. The ritual of Richard's abdication enacts what Holinshed had simply reported: that Richard, “now in the hands of his enimies, and utterlie despairing of all comfort,” was “easilie persuaded” to abdicate.55 Likewise, the end of the commons’ suit was that Bolingbroke and his allies might “proceed without suspition” (“auoiding of all suspicions and surmises of evil disposed persons” in Holinshed). In Shakespeare, however, the events of at least three distinct parliamentary actions that in Holinshed represent Parliament's voice (both lords and commons) as consenting to Richard's abdication and Henry's accession are compressed into one scene whose inverted sequence could be read as implying that commons urged Richard's deposition. While the Folio version separates Northumberland's “May it please you, Lords, to grant the Commons Suit” from Bolingbroke's “Fetch hither Richard, that in common view / He may surrender: so we shall proceede / Without suspition,” Q4 makes this one continuous speech by Northumberland, suggesting that the common suit is to summon the king and call for his deposition.56

While the Folio text seems to diminish the commons’ role in Richard's abdication/deposition, the Folio, Q4, and Q5 texts all contain Northumberland's repeated demand to Richard that he should answer the articles put forth by the commons (a notable departure from Holinshed). Indeed, Northumberland presses his suit until Bolingbroke tells him to desist. To which Northumberland replies, “The Commons will not then be satisfy’d” (H3r).57 Northumberland's repeated appeal to Richard achieves dramatically the emphasis found in Holinshed—namely, that the articles were intended to answer Bolingbroke's critics by affirming Richard's culpability; but his return to the commons’ suit before Richard has completed his abdication confers on Parliament, particularly on the commons, an authority over the monarch far more consonant with resistance theory than with the government's understanding of parliamentary authority.58 Northumberland's persistent call for the common suit, particularly when conjoined with Q4's suggestion that it is the common suit not only that Richard affirm the articles condemning him but also that he be “fetched” to abdicate in common view, seems to corroborate Parsons's statement that “the king was deposed by act of parlament, and himselfe conuinced of his vnworthy gouernment.” Parsons's view of Parliament's role in legitimizing sovereignty differs significantly from widely held Elizabethan commonplaces on these matters. As Ernest Talbert has pointed out, Elizabethan political thought may well have accepted that Parliament “gave the forme of succession to the crowne,” but Thomas Smith also makes it clear in The Commonwealth of England that Parliament constituted “either in person, or by procuration and atturney” the entire realm of England, including the prince “(be he king or Queene).”59 From Smith's perspective, it was inconceivable that Parliament could act independently of the ruler, even though this was the position of Parsons and other authors of sixteenth-century resistance theory. Efforts in the mid-1560s and early 1590s to raise the issue in Parliament presumed that Elizabeth would settle the succession and Parliament would consent, not that the succession would be determined “by the choise and inuitation of al the realme,” embodied in Parliament. The distinction here between what was and was not acceptable is subtle. Smith may deem Parliament “the most high and absolute powere of the realme of England,” but what is done by Parliament “is the Princes and the whole realmes deede.”60 In Q4 Richard II, however, Northumberland's demand that Richard respond to the commons’ suit implies that Parliament can and does act without the king, and, indeed, that Parliament takes precedence over the king and can dictate terms to him. Such apparent corroboration of views expressed in another text that genuinely offended the state suggests why Richard II's Parliament/deposition scene may have been censored.

Representing Parliament as an agency of deposition might not in itself provoke censorship. Another Elizabethan account of Parliament's authority, that of William Harrison in Holinshed's Chronicles, was not censored even though Harrison wrote in “An Historicall description of the Iland of Britain” that Parliament “hath the most high and absolute power of the realme, for thereby kings and mightie princes haue from time to time beene deposed from their thrones.”61 The government's failure to suppress Harrison's view of Parliament in 1857, however, actually argues for the Parliament/deposition scene's suppression in 1597. Ten years earlier the question of parliamentary deposition was not foremost in the arguments of oppositional literature. Indeed, in February 1587, when Holinshed's Chronicles received official scrutiny and parts were suppressed or revised, the government's principal concern was the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been tried and condemned for treason. Prior to that point Catholic opposition literature had attacked Elizabeth's counselors, justified Catholic opposition on religious grounds, or argued for Mary's succession.62 Not until Parsons argued that the Spanish infanta's succession to the crown of England was legitimate because Parliament deposed Richard II did Parliament's powers become incorporated into oppositional discourse. Parsons's book thus created in the mid-1590s an issue where one had not existed before. Richard II’s composition is usually assigned to mid-1595, probably before A conference actually appeared in England and before the representation of parliamentary deposition would have been viewed as provocative.63 It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that Shakespeare could have penned his play, in the same way that Harrison had written on Parliament's authority, without any sense that it participated in any way in a discourse of resistance. Likewise, performing the play with the Parliament/deposition scene present may not have been a problem.

If the Parliament/deposition scene was indeed censored, as it seems reasonable to believe, the question remains, by whom? The alternatives are the author himself, the Master of the Revels, or a member of the panel of ecclesiastical reviewers appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.64 That the censorship was done with the broadest stroke of the censor's pen, I believe, argues against authorial or Revels Office censorship. An entire sequence of action, not all of which is offensive, was cut. When read carefully, the Parliament/deposition scene actually argues that Richard's abdication did not clear suspicion and therefore legitimize Bolingbroke's actions. Despite Northumberland's repeated appeal to Richard to read the articles, he never does. Janet Clare's examination of Revels Office censorship of the manuscript of Sir Thomas More indicates that the Revels censor read fairly carefully, marking particular passages and thereby allowing for revision.65Richard II's loss of 164 lines does not reflect this kind of consideration. Andrew Gurr's observation that the deposition scene was never cut from the stage version on the grounds of known playing practices may hold for Revels censorship practices as well.

The censor's broad penstrokes, however, do resemble the little we know about press censorship practices. According to ecclesiastical authorizer Samuel Harsnett, the “custome and vse” was “for eny man that entended in good meaning to put a booke in print, the Author him selfe to present the booke vnto the Examiner and to acquaynt him with his scope and purpose in the same.” Even so, Harsnett admitted that when appealed to by a member of the Bishop of London's household on an author's behalf, he “sett to his hand sodeinlie as mooued by his friend neuer reading (vppon his saluation) more then one page of the hedlesse pamphlett.”66 Harsnett's remarks are revealing. Apparently, rather than scrutinizing a text in the quiet of a library, the authorizer discussed the text with the author.67 According to Greg, “such converse between author and examiner, if it was really customary, carries with it a suggestion that a book might be allowed without further scrutiny upon the author's assurance regarding his motive in writing it.”68

Even when the ecclesiastical authorizers read texts, what precisely they were looking for is not altogether clear. Many of the satires banned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1599 had received ecclesiastical approval. Some of what the authorizers sought is suggested by the kinds of texts that did and did not receive ecclesiastical authorization. As we have seen, the kinds of works that were most likely to receive ecclesiastical scrutiny were religious and political texts, and either foreign-language texts or their translations.69 Indeed, in 1597 nearly three quarters of the authorized texts fell into these categories. Statistics conceal an important consideration: political and religious texts in the 1590s were often one and the same. While Samuel Harsnett may have protested himself “a poore divine unacquainted with bookes and arguments of state, and with consequences of that nature,” colleagues in the ecclesiastical establishment, such as John Aylmer, Thomas Bilson, and John Bridges, were actively engaged in rejecting claims of papal authority over secular rulers and rejecting Catholic views of resistance.70 These certainly would have been matters with which ecclesiastical preprint review would have been concerned, particularly since the kind of Catholic works these clerics were responding to were the books that were being censored by the state, particularly Parsons's A conference. It is, then, not difficult to imagine that an ecclesiastical authorizer, reading quickly through Shakespeare's text while someone from the Lord Chamberlain's Men or the printing house stood by, would require summarily that the play be printed without the Parliament scene.

In Richard II’s Parliament/deposition scene's gross corroboration of Parsons, we have a motive for censorship; in the persons and concerns of the ecclesiastical authorizers, we have a means. The historical record, however, offers no clear evidence of a link between the two. The Stationers’ Registers records Andrew Wise's company license for Shakespeare's Richard II “by appoyntment from master Warden man.”71 Shakespeare's play may have been one of those anomalies found by W. W. Greg in Richard Robinson's “Eupolemia”: that is, it may be one of those works for which “failure on the part of the Clerk to mention by whom the license [i.e., authority] was granted did not imply an absence of license.”72 The ecclesiastical authorizers did not often concern themselves with literary texts, but in this instance, even without notice of their authority in the Registers, circumstances argue that they did.

In “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time,” Leeds Barroll issues a cautionary warning about overreading government anxieties about politics and playing in early modern England. As Barroll notes, there is considerable evidence that the emerging print culture presented the state with both challenges and opportunities of a different kind.73 The state responded to the challenges by suppressing printed discourse that threatened its authority; at the same time, it engaged the opportunities by answering in print the very texts that offended. In identifying censorship with suppression rather than censure or self-censorship, and in finding the locus of suppression in politics, I am effectively denying a condition of writing in early modern England that has long been assumed and that is usually described as “repressive.” From this perspective, the imaginative writer worked under precisely the same constraints as the Catholic apologist or the religious reformer. Since the treason statutes, the religious settlement, and libel laws were the principal dictates of those constraints, the imaginative writer probably enjoyed considerably more freedom than scholars have heretofore allowed. Reports of literary censorship exist, but in nearly every instance the condition of repressive writing has been vastly overstated by later analysts. The censorship of the Richard II Parliament/deposition scene must not be seen as representative of the conditions under which Shakespeare or any other imaginative writer worked. The scene participated, probably unwittingly, in a representation of parliamentary authority that became objectionable after Parsons's politically offensive text appeared. Richard II’s Parliament/deposition scene is one of a relatively small number of figures on an expansive (and expanding) landscape of print culture, figures that cast long shadows because they appear in relation to a moment of political crisis attendant on a rising or setting political sun.


  1. Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison and London: U of Wisconsin P. 1984), 17.

  2. Both Q4 (1608) and Q5 (1615) carry the title-page advertisement for the additions, though a variant title page exists for Q4 which lacks the advertisement. For this study, unless otherwise stated, I quote from the Q4 text. On the lack of evidence for censorship of RII, see, among others, Richard Dutton, Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1991), 126-27.

  3. See David M. Bergeron, “Richard II and Carnival Politics.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 33-43; Janet Clare, “The Censorship of the Deposition Scene in Richard II,Review of English Studies 41 (1990): 89-94; and Leeds Barroll, “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time,” SQ 39 (1988): 441-64, esp. 444-49.

  4. Bergeron, 42-43. Bergeron's essay offers a nuanced expansion of his earlier conclusions in “The Deposition Scene in Richard II” (Renaissance Papers [1974]: 31-37) that censorship lacked “concrete basis in fact,” since the Elizabethan quartos were published “without … violence to the text,” and the Q1 text “makes dramatic sense without lines 154-318” (37).

  5. Barroll, 463.

  6. Clare, 93 and 94. See also Janet Clare, ‘Art made tongue-tied by authority’: Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatic Censorship (Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1990).

  7. Ernest William Talbert, The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare's Art (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1962), 146-200, esp. 196.

  8. Talbert, 194.

  9. See Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare, A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 307.

  10. David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 721

  11. Andrew Gurr, ed., King Richard II (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), 9-10. See also Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II (London: Methuen, 1956), 9.

  12. Gurr, ed., 10.

  13. Wells and Taylor, 307.

  14. Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 81. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, editors of the New Folger Library Shakespeare Richard II (New York: Washington Square Press, 1996), depart from editorial tradition by stating only that “These lines may have been cut from the text for early performances and printings, or they may have been written later and added to the text” (160).

  15. Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages, 1300—1660, 3 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966-91), 2:94; Fredrick Seaton Siebert, Freedom of the Press in England, 1476—1776: the rise and decline of government controls (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1952).

  16. Siebert, 2.

  17. Patterson defers to Siebert in matters relating to the mechanisms of control. My own approach to censorship focuses only occasionally on law and the formal institutions and mechanisms whereby the press or the pulpit or the theatrical companies were theoretically made subject to state control. The legal history of censorship in relationship to all aspects of the printing trade has been well presented by Siebert, among others.

  18. “Elizabeth I recognized the topical meaning of a production of Richard II in 1601, the year of Essex's rebellion and two years after she had imprisoned Sir John Hayward for presuming to publish a prose history of Richard that appeared to encourage Essex; yet the players, after questioning, went free” (Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation, 17).

  19. See Penry Williams, The Later Tudors: England, 1547—1603 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 411-14.

  20. See Cyndia Susan Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997).

  21. By the late sixteenth century, parliamentary statute was regarded as the highest law of the land binding on every subject, though, in its interpretation within the law courts, it was subject to the equity, that is, the divine law and the law of reason. See Samuel E. Thorne's introduction to A Discourse upon the Exposicion & Understandinge of Statutes (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1942); and Glenn Burgess, Absolute Monarchy and the Stuart Constitution (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1996), 174-90.

  22. The company licenses issued by the London Stationers have been misinterpreted as mechanisms of preprint censorship. Such misinterpretations assume that the Stationers were government “henchmen.” While Queen Mary may have granted a royal charter to the London Company of Stationers in 1557 as a “suitable remedy” to seditious and heretical printing against the Catholic Church, the charter, in practice, created in the Stationers’ Company an entity that functioned with considerable independence from the Crown and whose principal interest was in securing exclusively for its members the benefits of a growing economic market. It was to secure such member benefits that the Company issued licenses giving exclusive manufacturing rights to printers and publishers for the titles they registered with the Company. Licenses were often issued for texts not officially authorized, though the Company masters and wardens were conscientious in requiring authorization for certain classes of texts—books in foreign languages, translations, and books with religious or political contents. The kind of “illegal printing” that most concerned Stationers’ Company officials was printing either by nonmembers or printing by a Company member against the license of another member.

  23. The Privy Council twice ordered to be recalled and “reformed” editions of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, the 1587 edition of which had been printed under royal privilege. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London—who had burned books outlawed by royal proclamation—in 1599 issued an order banning satires and epigrams, an action Richard Dutton has appropriately described as quite outside ordinary legal procedure; see “Buggeswords: Samuel Harsnett and the Licensing, Suppression and Afterlife of Dr. John Hayward's The first part of the life and reign of King Henry IV,Criticism 35 (1993): 305-39, esp. 309.

  24. Holinshed's Chronicles was censored but certainly not for its representation of rebellion and usurpation. Edmund Tilney's demand to “Leave out the insurrection wholy & the Cause ther off” from the play Sir Thomas More has been too often applied generally to the literature of the period as an epitome of official censorship. Richard Dutton more appropriately associates Tilney's anxiety about the representation of riot with anxieties about theater and disorder. Even so, Dutton suggests that the sticking point may have been More's role in quelling the riot rather than the riot itself. Dutton credits the censorship to Tilney's “determination not to have a man shown as popular, even heroic, who by the end of the play was to be executed on the orders of the Queen's own father” (Mastering the Revels, 84-86, esp. 85).

  25. The statutes of the realm [1225-1713]… 13 Eliz. (1571), c. 1 (London: G. Eyre and A. Strahan, 1810-22), 526-28.

  26. The parliamentary statute 13 Eliz., c. 1, made it treason to print, bind, sell, or otherwise publish books or scrolls declaring that Elizabeth “is not or ought not to be Queene of this Realme … or that any other person or persons ought of Ryght to be King or Queene of the sayd Realmes” (526).

  27. Bergeron, “The Deposition Scene in Richard II,” 35.

  28. The question of censorship, however, looks very different if approached from the perspective of the 1608 title page's “With new additions of the Parliament Sceane, and the deposing of King Richard.” The words “Parliament Sceane” rather than deposition hold pride of place in the title-page advertisement.

  29. Addressed to Thomas Throgmorton and dated June 1595, this letter (PRO, SP 12/252.66) offers a description of the book's contents that identifies it with Parsons's A conference about the next succession to the Crowne of Ingland, divided into two partes.… Where unto is added a genealogie. Published by R. Doleman [R. Parsons, R. Rowlands, and others] ([Antwerp,] 1594 [1595]). Citations will follow this edition.

  30. “Notes by Lord Burghley out of a seditious book,” undated, calendared 1595? (PRO, SP 12/255.76).

  31. See a letter from Edward Holmsden, et al., to Sir Robert Cecil, dated 22 July 1595 (PRO, SP 12/253.28). Also, for means of excluding objectionable printed books, see an anonymous query (PRO, SP 12/261/94). I can find no corroboration in Statutes of the Realm or parliamentary journals, however, for the Dictionary of National Biography’s claim that “Parliament made it high treason for any one to have a copy [of Parsons's book] in his house” (53:415). No treason statutes were passed after 1581, and Parliament did not meet between 1593 and 1597. It appears that the DNB misread Tierney's notes to Dodd's Church History of England (3:xcv), which mention high treason in relation to A conference. Actually, A conference was at the center of the fierce division of English Catholics during the Appellant (or Archpriest) Controversy; one faction supported the Jesuits and their interest in securing a Catholic England under a Spanish monarchy, and the second supported James VI's claim in exchange for religious toleration. Tierney's note makes it clear that the pro-James faction accused the pro-Spanish faction of high treason in writing A conference. See also T. G. Law, A Historical Sketch of the Conflicts Between Jesuits and Seculars in the Reign of Elizabeth (London: David Nutt, 1889).

  32. See J.H.M. Salmon, “Catholic resistance theory, ultramontanism, and the royalist responses, 1580-1620” in J. H. Burns, with assistance from Mark Goldie, The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), 219-53, esp. 243.

  33. For a complete discussion of John Leslie's Defence of the honour of Mary Quene of Scotlande (London, 1569), see James Phillips, Images of a Queen: Mary Stuart in Sixteenth-Century Literature (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1964), 87-88.

  34. Phillips suggests that the later versions increasingly oppose Elizabeth because they appeal to the Catholic princes of Europe: “in the hope that, moved by pity for the plight of a suffering coreligionist, they will come to her aid with either political or military pressures, or preferably both” (104). Phillips here misreads Leslie's appeal to the Catholic princes, which actually asks that they come to Mary's aid “that shee be not defeated of her right”; he publishes his treatise that they might know the “full discourse of the whole cause” (A treatise towching the right, title, and interest of the most excellent Princesse, Marie, Queene of Scotland [London, 1584], A4).

  35. As G. R. Elton has pointed out, the role of Parliament in underwriting royal authority offers an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, Tudor monarchs claimed supremacy over the Church and authority to rule by divine right; on the other, they employed Parliament to issue acts of supremacy to legitimate their authority (“Lex Terrae Victrix: The Triumph of Parliamentary Law in the Sixteenth Century” in D. M. Dean and N. L. Jones, The Parliaments of Elizabethan England [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990], 15-36). For a discussion of the use of divine-right theory to counter Catholic resistance theory, see Burgess, 91-123.

  36. See Calendar of State Papers, Scotland 1547-1603, 13 vols. (Edinburgh: Longmans, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1858), 4:34-35. In a letter to Cecil, John Leslie (Bishop of Ross) tells of sending “the principal copy” of his Defence, “in which I am assured there is nothing to offend her majesty,” to “the Queen's majesty to be ‘considerit.’”

  37. See Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquis of Salisbury, 24 vols. (London, 1883-1976), 4:498.

  38. Letter from Sir Henry Neville to Robert Cecil with enclosed letters by W. Tresham and Charles Paget, 27 June 1599 (PRO, SP 12/271.29).

  39. Letter from Robert Parsons, 1599 (PRO, SP 12/271.29).

  40. Parsons, A conference, Pt. 2, 61-62.

  41. Parsons, A conference, Pt. 2, 67.

  42. Parsons, A conference, Pt. 2, 72.

  43. While Parsons pretends to objectivity by tracing the York claim that Richard had an Act of Succession passed in Parliament in favor of Edmund Mortimer, heir to the duke of Clarence, through his daughter, Parsons dismisses the legitimacy of this claim of the nephew over the uncle by rehearsing instances favoring the uncle.

  44. Parsons, A conference, Pt. 2, 101.

  45. Quoted here from J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1559-1581 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1953), 150.

  46. Neale, 251. Wentworth's “Pithie Exhortation,” together with his response to A conference, was printed in Scotland by Robert Waldegrave, the king's printer, after Wentworth's death.

  47. See Joel Hurstfield, “The Succession Struggle in Late Elizabethan England” in Elizabethan Government and Societ: Essays presented to Sir John Neale, S. T. Bindoff, J. Hurstfield, C. H. Williams, eds. (London: The Athlone Press, 1961), 369-96.

  48. The 1608 and 1615 texts both lack stage directions mentioning Parliament. The Folio, however, reintroduces the stage direction “enter as to the Parliament” present in the sixteenth-century quartos, even though it contains the Parliament/deposition scene. It is notable, however, that F lacks the link made by Northumberland between the commons’ suit and the summoning of Richard (see below, n. 56).

  49. At the time of Richard II, the principal business of the commons was to petition the lords and the king. Petitions were written down and sent to the lords, where they were read by a member of that body. Communication between the two bodies, which later became institutionalized in the clerk of the Parliament and other offices, would have been less formal in 1399. The procedure whereby the commons’ suit is sent to the lords in Holinshed's Chronicles is similarly ill defined. It was not unreasonable, then, for Shakespeare to have Northumberland present the commons’ suit. For a discussion of the evolution of parliamentary procedure, see A. R. Myers's Crown, Household and Parliament in Fifteenth Century England (London: Hambledon Press, 1985), 37-40.

  50. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, 3 vols. (London, 1587), 3:512.

  51. Holinshed, 3:502.

  52. Holinshed, 3:503.

  53. Holinshed, 3:505.

  54. Despite the Chronicles’ documentary evidence legitimizing the deposition, the chronicler's editorial comments in the 1587 edition commend Richard's rule and accuse Bolingbroke of political opportunism. Thus the whole Chronicle account (3:500-508) participates in the kind of double vision that pervades Shakespeare's play.

  55. Holinshed, 3:503.

  56. Most modern editors accept the Folio text, which reads:

    May it please you, Lords, to grant the Commons Suit?
    Fetch hither
    Richard, that in common view
    He may surrender: so we shall proceede
    Without suspition.
  57. “Commons” is capitalized in Q4 and F, and Q4 and Q5 give “satisfied.”

  58. It is important to note that throughout the Parliament/deposition scene, Richard refers to himself as king, even though he says “God saue the King, although I be not hee, / And yet Amen, if heauen do thinke him mee” (H1v). The scene ends with Bolingbroke's announcement that his coronation will be on “Wednesday next” (H3v).

  59. Thomas Smith, The Common-welth of England, and Maner of Government Therof (London, 1589), 46. Thomas Smith, the eminent Elizabethan statesman, died in 1577. His De Republica Anglorum had probably been widely circulated in manuscript for some time before its first printing in 1583. In her recent edition of Smith's book, Mary Dewar places its composition in the 1560s; see De Republica Anglorum, ed. Mary Dewar (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982), 1. For a discussion of Smith's view of Parliament as commonplace, see Talbert, 21-64.

  60. Smith, 45 and 46.

  61. Holinshed, 1:173.

  62. See, for example, A Treatise of Treasons Against Q. Elizabeth, and the Croune of England (London, 1572); and Leicester's Commonwealth, The copie of a leter wryten by a master of arte of Cambrige (1584). Gregory Martin's A Treatise of Schism (1578) supported the secret practice of Catholic devotionals, and William Allen's Trve Sincere and Modest Defence of English Catholiqves… (1584) argued “That the Pope hath power to excommunicate or depriue a Prince in case of Heresie or Apostacie; and consequentlie, to absolve his subjects from their othe and obedience to him; or to stand in defence of them selves and the Catholique faith against him” (72).

  63. It is clear from a 12 June 1595 letter that A conference had not yet made its way to England (PRO, SP 12/253). Based on Shakespeare's reliance on Samuel Daniel's The Civil Wars, Gurr maintains that Richard II could not have been completed before the appearance of Daniel's poem, which Gurr places in mid-1595, even though the work was entered in the Stationers’ Registers on 11 October 1594 (1).

  64. Wells and Taylor suggest that the Bishop of London may have been the censor. As heads of the High Commission, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London served as ecclesiastical authorizers. In 1588 Archbishop Whitgift had appointed a panel of junior and senior authorizers to whom texts were taken for review prior to printing. In 1597, of the forty-seven books entered in the Stationers’ Registers with notice of ecclesiastical authorization, the Bishop of London authorized only two.

  65. See Clare, ‘Art made tongue-tied by authority’, 30-37.

  66. This record (PRO, SP 12/275.31) is reprinted in full in W. W. Greg, “Samuel Harsnett and Hayward's ‘Henry IV,’” The Library, 5th ser., 11 (1956): 1-10, esp. 4-5. Given the circumstances of this interrogatory, Harsnett may be overstating the uniqueness of the situation. Harsnett's testimony sought to justify himself against Hayward's attempt “to excuse his publishing the sayd pamphlett, as being allowed and approued” by Harsnett (4). I concur with Greg's conclusion that “it is nevertheless impossible to avoid the impression that at the end of Elizabeth's reign ecclesiastical licensing for the press was more casual and less effective than the authorities can have intended or perhaps realized” (8).

  67. Greg rightly observes that members of the Stationers Company frequently sought authorizations as well (6).

  68. Greg, 7.

  69. According to the Registers, never more than fifty percent of books printed in a given year received ecclesiastical scrutiny. In 1597 only fifty-one percent of the books entered in the Registers were entered with notice of ecclesiastical authorization. With regard to the reliability of the Registers, see W. W. Greg, “Richard Robinson and the Stationers’ Register” in W. W. Greg, Collected Papers, ed. J. C. Maxwell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966), 413-23, esp. 421.

  70. See Burgess, 99-100.

  71. A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, ed. Edward Arber, 5 vols. (London and Birmingham, 1875-94), 3:89.

  72. Greg, “Richard Robinson and the Stationers’ Register,” 421. Actually, for the seven titles Robinson mentions that were entered in the Stationers’ Registers, only one received an ecclesiastical authorization that went unrecorded. (Another entered without notice of ecclesiastical authorization was anomalous in that Henry Denham printed Robinson's translation of Melancthon's prayers “cum privilegio” under William Seres's patent, so entry was not required.)

  73. That government patronized printers and authors through royal monopolies and that it employed the printed word to counter challenges to its authority reflect its understanding of the promise of the printed word.

Georges Lamoine (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2172

SOURCE: “Richard II and the Myth of the Fisher King,” in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 30, October, 1986, pp. 75-8.

[In the following essay, Lamoine reviews the parallels between elements of the myth of the Fisher Kingand Richard II. Lamoine suggests that an understanding of such parallels can inform one's reading of the play by emphasizing the play's religious issues as well as the seriousness of the crime of deposing a king.]

In his introduction to the Arden Shakespeare, Peter Ure analyses the “question of political allegory” of the play, in terms of its relevance to contemporary situations and problems at the end of Elizabeth's reign.1 This note suggests a possibility of analysing the play in the light of the well-known myth of the Fisher King. The question is not here one of checking Shakespeare's sources and reading: it is generally accepted that he could be at least familiar with the corpus of legends gathered in Malory's Le Morte d’Arthur, and others, whether in French or in English.2 Therefore we shall assume that Shakespeare could have heard of the mythical quest of the Grail as of common knowledge and folk-lore.

Whatever the original text, the basic elements of the myth are these: Perceval, a knight pure in heart and unblemished by any sin, is erring in quest of the precious Vessel. In the course of his travels he comes to a castle, the road to which he enquires from a king angling from a boat on the river. He is made welcome in the castle, which proves to be full of mysteries: an old man maimed in the thigh (that is, rendered impotent?) by a thrust of a lance; a curse on the kingdom, such that the seasonal cycle of nature can no longer take place; at night, the old man is fed on the contents of the Vessel; the knight can see the strange procession accompanying the Bleeding Spear. Because the knight was trained to refrain his curiosity he would ask no question, and he did not ask the one question that would have saved the kingdom, its sovereign, and lifted the curse on the land. So the king remains impotent, the Vessel has disappeared, and a damsel soon curses the knight for his lack of curiosity. He sets out again, until the moment when he can see the Grail, and have his prayer heard: he is called to the House of Life. After him no mortal eye will ever see the Grail again on earth.

How far is this connected with The Tragedy of Richard II? A number of interesting parallel situations can be found, between the stock data of the myth and the elements of the tragedy. Richard is evidently the sick king, in more than just one way. The basic sin is contriving the murder of Woodstock, which Gaunt makes plain in I. 2. 4-5:

But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,

But more is coming:We are inforc’d to farm our royal realm (I.4.45) is the first serious mistake of the king, a gross mistake, in dying Gaunt's eyes (II.1.59-60). The same scene describes Richard as ill … in reputation sick, (II.1.92-94 and 96). The king's weaknesses were made conspicuous in the trial scenes, together with the reputed fairness in judgment, belied in I.1.15: Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears, since one is banished for life, the other for six years only. Richard's cupidity is made evident on the announcement of Gaunt's demise (II.1.160-62). There is need for little else to create the conditions for a curse to spread on the land: The king is not himself, but basely led by flatterers (II.1.241-42). The rest of the scene is an accumulation of Richard's further errors: taxes, vexations, base compromises, etc. One element remains to be quoted, and is told by Bolingbroke (III.1.8-15): You have misled a prince, a royal king … Although the accusation may not be supported by history, the argument is that the king, one way or other, has seen his power as a monarch and as a man weakened. Hence, there is a possible comparison between the Fisher King and Richard, leaving aside all questions of historic truth. The garden scene in III.4 makes Richard's kingdom a new version of La Terre Gaste: indeed, the images quoted by the Gardener and his servant lead to the conclusion that the kingdom is no longer fruitful:

The noisome weeds which without profit
The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers


and caterpillars, already mentioned in II.3.165 suggest that something is going wrong. Garden imagery leads to political allegory, but the idea must be linked together with the prophecy made by Gaunt of the War of the Two Roses, and the rebellion of the nobles who joined Northumberland in II.3: the natural order of the kingdom is totally upset, as is the state of the garden, through an unnatural excess of weeds and insects. This striking description of England as an unkempt garden is announced by Bolingbroke's threats (III.2.42-48), by Richard's own imprecations in the same scene (85-90) and his dialogue with Aumerle from lines 133 to 165. All this clearly establishes the organic link between the king and his kingdom, his own flaw and the land's sickness. Then the question is, when King Richard dies, does the land become fruitful again, or does it continue under the same curse? Part of the answer can be found in the theory of the king's ‘two bodies’, which particularly applies to Richard II: 3 Henry IV's accession to the throne temporarily brings peace, but the rest of the answer is read in the Histories down to the battle of Bosworth Field.

From the point of view of the myth, the starting point then is to be found with Richard/the Fisher King, and England being momentarily the Terre somewhat Gaste. What of the other symbols, and chiefly the Holy Grail? Of course, Richard II cannot be compared with all the texts on the legend of the Grail, for the former is part of English history, whereas the latter is a powerful myth pervading the whole of the Christian Western world. Richard II contains a good deal of the firm belief in the divine mission of kings, as it is expressed by Richard first and foremost, and York and Carlisle after him: III.1; IV.1, etc. Richard has an elevated conception of kingship, although he cannot manage to elevate himself up to it, and above all to maintain himself there. It seems that the symbol of the divine nature of kingship is best visible in the Crown, which is what Richard loses and gives up, and what Bolingbroke covets most. It might be assimilated to the vision of the Grail, which Perceval will see on his last day; but the above-mentioned difference of level between myth and history explains that the Crown can really be grasped.4 As to the bleeding lance, it is metaphorically that of Bolingbroke who comes with war / And ostentation of despised arms? (III.3.93-94), and who himself threatens Richard with showers of blood (III.3.43). It may be that the lance be the sword thrust into Richard's back by Exton. But ‘the King is dead, long live the King’, and in the same way as the Grail maintains the old king alive, the crown maintains kingship and king on the throne, whoever he may be. Again, Shakespeare insists on Richard's inability to be surrounded by good counsellors; this may be parallel to Perceval's not daring to ask the right question. Indeed, had Richard asked the right questions he would have been wisely advised by his uncles, and would have got the land rid of its bane.

Now, if one is ready to grant the similarity of situations stated, one must ask further whether there is a mythical hero: is Bolingbroke the equivalent of the knight on his quest for the Grail? Does he aspire to the Crown? At the opening of the play, Bolingbroke is free from any stain. His banishment for six years puts him in a position similar to that of Perceval, who lived away from all human company, and untainted, until he met the knights and wished to go to Arthur's court. When Bolingbroke comes back, landing at Ravenspurgh (II.1.296; II.2.50), we have to take his word for it: he has no ambition so far expressed, that is, if we except Richard's invidious remarks to Aumerle in the short scene 4 of Act IV. If we trust him, the answer is, No, in 2 Henry IV. After Bolingbroke seized the crown, and Richard's weaved-up follies were told, the kingdom is saved for a time at least. But the cure cannot be perfect, for there remains over the land the sin of the deposition of the Lord's anointed.

What use could such a myth be for a reading of Richard II? For Elizabethan audiences, the deposition of Richard was an abominable crime. Beyond the political lesson, identical to those repeated in The Mirror for Magistrates, we may imagine that the spiritual and material salvation of the kingdom was the summum bonum for the body politic, in the same way as the Grail was the summum bonum that man could be in search of, in a myth. Reading the myth of a quest would add a deeper dimension to the evident warning against the crime of deposing a king, and strengthen the religious background, thus heightening the transgressional side. It would continue the commandments delivered in the Homilies quoted at large by the editor of the Arden edition, and other critics and historians.5 The abundant references to the sacred character of kingship, to the intervention of God in favour of his anointed as imminent, the defence speech by Carlisle, give the play an intense religious note.

All this is not enough to prove that we can read the play as an illustration of the myth of the Fisher King and the myth of the quest of the Holy Grail. There are a number of parallel situations, comparisons, which may suggest a mythical reading of the play, in the same sense as that made clear by Shakespeare. Such a view furthers the religious intent of the context, and perhaps draws on a more general background, that is by no means incompatible with the late sixteenth century's taste for images, allegories and symbols. It is not possible to credit the playwright with this positive intention; it is only hoped that the comparison of elements in the play, and in the myth, may make this suggestion a tentative new reading of the last of the history plays.


  1. All references to the Arden Shakespeare, ed. P. Ure, 4th ed. rev. (Harvard U.P.: Cambridge, Mass., 1956).- See pp. lvi-lxii.

  2. Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, ed. Sir John Rhys, 2 vols. Everyman's Library, repr. 1961. See vol. II, book xvi, ch. 20-2, pp. 264 ff.

  3. See H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, (Princeton, 1957), particularly ch. 2.

  4. That the crown is the visible symbol of kingship is evident. But, apart from the famous Iron Crown, crowns were made of gold. Thus the crown is the supreme power, at the top of the social hierarchy, and is also the sign of the supreme riches, according to the feudal system. It is interesting to note the similarity between the golden circle of the crown, and the golden halo of the blessed ones (the king being the Lord's anointed). Another point worth noticing is, the number of times George Wither uses a crown in his Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635) (ed. J. Horden; Minston: The Scolar Press, 1973). The interest comes from the graphic representation of the crown, always set in the very centre of the emblem. In Book I, emblem 31 has a crowned man standing on the orbis terrarum and the final piece of advice is:

    Be wise in him [God]; and if just cause there be,
    The Sunne and Moone shall stand and wayt on

    N° 32 praises the Wise King who can

    be an Ornament to his Throne
    And as a Lustre to his Diadem.

    A crowned monarch sits at the helm of a boat (his realm) in n° 37. Book II, n° 78, enlarges on the meaning of regalia, amongst which,

    The Crowne-Imperiall, GLORIE, signifies …

    The crown can still be found in the engravings corresponding to emblems n° 78, 98, 111; Book III, 155, 163, 180. Now G. Wither, although Shakespeare's junior by 24 years, was most probably brought in the same reverence for the person and the function of the sovereign. Even if his emblems belong to the reign of Charles I, there seems to be a continuity in the VISION of the symbol of the crown. F. Quarles does not seem to have used the crown in his Hieroglyphickes (1638). See also Sir Th. Browne, Cyrus-Garden, in The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, 3 vols. ed. Charles Sayle (Edinburgh: J. Grant & G. Richards, 1904-07). III, ch. 2, pp. 157-58.

  5. See the 1574 Homily Book; M.M. Rease, The Cease of Majesty (London: Edw. Arnold, 1970). See Richard II: IV. 1. 137-149.

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Paradise and Paradise Lost in Richard II,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1986, pp. 318-39.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie explores the manner in which the language and figures of English mythology and “anti-mythology” are developed into the visions of England as paradise and as an “English paradise lost” in Richard II. MacKenzie observes that while Gaunt refers to England as a mythological and Biblical paradise, the play also refers to England as a “fallen paradise” in Biblical, iconographical, and classical terms.]

With his country in the grasp of a king whose manoeuverings have verged on misrule, his son banished and his own life nearing its end, John of Gaunt pays homage to the English realm, describing it as

This other Eden, demi-paradise.


Shakespeare's generation appears to have found the word “paradise” particularly evocative. One Elizabethan translator (1583) refers to the Low Countries as “the Paragone, or rather, yearthly Paradise, of all the Countries in Europe.”1 To Captain Bingham (1583), Newfoundland is “The paradise, of all the world.”2 It is the opinion of Erasmus3 that Sir Thomas More's Utopia was intended to represent England and, as if in evidence. W. Lightfoot, in The Complaint of England (1587), describes his country as one “much resembling the happinesse of Paradise.”4 And S. Jourdan calls Bermuda “one of the sweetest Paradises that be vpon the earth.”5

In each of these cases, “paradise” is a rather vague component in the rhetoric of superlatives. Gaunt's allusion is much more precise, far more aware of its Biblical derivation. As with Cleopatra's “demi-Atlas of this earth” (Antony and Cleopatra, I.v.23), Gaunt uses “demi-” in the sense of “second” rather than “half.” The idea of England as a second, Biblical, paradise was not unfamiliar to the Elizabethans. Thomas Stocker frames his praise of England in Biblical terms when he writes in the “Dedicatorie” to his 1583 translation of A Tragicall Historie of the troubles and Civile warres of the Lowe Countries: “For, where can wee read either in the olde Testament, or yet in any other prophane Historie, that euer GOD, dealte more bountifully, with any Nation then with us [i.e., the English], either for thynges needefull and necessarie, or delightfull and pleasaunt for this life. So that it maie verie well be saied of us, that we enioye a lande, flowyng with Milke and Honie.”6 Robert Greene anticipates Gaunt's second-Eden strain in his propagandist work The Spanish Masquerado (1589): “Seeing then we are euery way blest and fauoured from aboue: that the Lord our mercifull God maketh England like Eden, a second paradice: let us fear to offend him.”7 Greene may perhaps have had in mind the popular post-Reformation scheme of the Papistry as the Beast of the Apocalypse, the Church of England as the True Church, and England itself as the New Jerusalem.8 In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement (28 November 1952), A.S.T. Fisher offers Joshua Sylvester's English panegyric as a possible source of Shakespeare's Eden/paradise line:

All haile (deere Albion) Europes
Pearle of price,
The Worlds rich Garden, Earths rare Paradice.(9)

Peter Ure10 has established a persuasive connection between the two authors, but there are problems of chronology that neither he nor Fisher can resolve.

While Gaunt's reference to a second Eden is pointedly Biblical, specific traditions of England as a paradise may be found in non-Biblical quarters. Josephine Waters Bennett, approaching the question of “paradise” from a predominantly Classical perspective, has traced the origins of the legend of Britain as an isolated island divided from the rest of the world, and has provided evidence for, as she puts it, “a more nebulous and vague association of Britain with the mythical islands of the Western Ocean, such as Thule, the Fortunate Isles, or Hesperides, the Islands of the Blest, and Homer's Ogygia.”11 Bennett notices, in passing, Shakespeare's reference to the “other Eden, demi-paradise” in Richard II (p. 125).

Gaunt's expression of the mythology of English paradise has invited both literary comparison and critical comment. A second mythology in Richard II—the mythology of the “fallen paradise”—has remained rather more obscure, but maintains a compelling presence in the play. The dramatist approaches the idea of a “fall” and a postlapsarian world through vistas that are both varied and complementary:

Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s, cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth. …


Cry woe, destruction, ruin, and decay—
The worst is death, and death will have his day.


Ah, thou, the model where old Troy did stand. …


Each of these examples, in its way, conveys to us the sense of a “fall.” Yet the first is Biblical, the second covertly iconographical, and the third Classical. Together they express a central mythology of an English transgression and of a paradise lost—a mythology that may derive many of its ideas and some of its terminology from other sources but that, in Shakespeare's vision, asserts an essentially English identity. It will be the task of this essay to explore the ways in which Richard II develops and expands the figures of the English mythology and of its opposite, the English “anti-mythology,” into visions of, respectively, an English paradise and an English paradise lost.


Caroline F. E. Spurgeon has noticed that “the ideas of birth and generation, also of inheritance from father to son, are a good deal in Shakespeare's mind in this play.”12 Such ideas are amenable to much closer scrutiny than the vast scope of Spurgeon's book permits. As in any play, certain lines and passages remain pivotal to the action and crucial to our understanding of the work. One such passage occurs in the second act, where, drawn together by circumstance and a common political disposition, three noblemen discuss the state of the kingdom. The times are dangerous and men must be careful, but one nobleman at last abandons caution and hints at the return of Harry Hereford:

even through the hollow eyes of death
I spy life peering.


It is, of necessity, a cryptic clue but still identifiable as lying within a popular iconographic tradition. To understand that tradition and to explain the significance of Northumberland's image, it will be necessary to digress for a moment.

There is a print in Hans Holbein's Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti (1547) that portrays Adam and Eve after their expulsion from Eden.13 Adam is clearing a root from a bare stretch of earth and he is assisted, almost shadowed, by a skeletal Death figure. In the background, Eve nurses her first-born son. This is the plate's verse accompaniment from the Lyons edition:

Mauldicte en ton labeur la terre.
En labeur ta uie useras,
Iusques que la Morte te soubterre.
Toy pouldre en pouldre tourneras.

The allusion is to Genesis 3.17 and 19.14 The gift of Eden was happiness and immortality; the punishment of transgression, sorrow and death. Giovanni Lambi neatly summarizes the tragedy when he says that “vnto the first Parents Adam and Eve, for penance of sinne death was giuen, which will neuer be separated from the whole posterity.”15 But the world of fallen Adam is not entirely without consolation. Even as he works, shadowed by Death, his child lies in the arms of mother Eve. There is the actuality of physical generation, of new hope, of a life not without purpose, symbolically portrayed by Holbein through the suggestion of tillage and the promise of sown seed. It is likely, even probable, that Shakespeare was familiar with this print. Holbein, as we know, had strong connections with England. He spent much of his life in the court of Henry VIII and is believed to have executed a Dance of Death mural in Whitehall Palace, though the destruction by fire of a great deal of the building in 1698 leaves the matter in some doubt.16 The publication of an English version of Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti as early as 1549 attests to the likelihood of the work's popularity in England.17

Shakespeare could have had access as well to any number of emblem engravings that might have suggested to him the notion of “life in death.” Emblematists like Richard Lubbaeus (1579),18 Nicolas Reusner (1581),19 and Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1585),20 create, as their vehicles of expression, images of children holding or resting upon skulls. Others turn, as Holbein almost does, to a mixture of human and vegetal symbols. Claude Paradin, in Les Devises Heroiques (1561), depicts sprigs of wheat growing from bones and adds the motto “Spes altera vitae,”21 which may be translated as either “Another hope of life” or “The hope of another life.” Joachim Camerarius,22 in 1595, repeats Paradin's emblem and uses the same ambiguous Latin adage. In the Antwerp issue of Emblemata (1564), Joannes Sambucus23 uses, as his final device, a plant flourishing out of the top of a skull. The Spaniard Juan de Horozco y Covarrubias (1591)24 executes two emblems worthy of closer observation. In the first, a newborn plant rises out of a pile of skulls and is entitled “Enla Mverte esta la Vida” (p. 194r). The second reveals a skull balanced on top of a shrub and bears the inscription “Enla Vida esta la Mverte” (p. 252r). Some forty years later, George Wither published A Collection of Emblemes (largely an assemblage of prints from earlier periods) and chose as his twenty-first emblem a skull with sprigs of wheat growing out of the eyes and mouth: “When we are Borne, to Death-ward straight we runne; / And by our Death, our Life is new-begunne.”25 This couplet provides a fitting conclusion to Wither's commentary on what is, in essence, an image of life peering through the hollow eyes of death.

The idea of life “new-begunne” can be interpreted in two ways. Both are important. Firstly, in the notion of rebirth, be it visually represented as plant growth or as childhood, there is the implicit suggestion of the physical regenerative capability of the human race. Secondly, by confirming the paradox of spiritual life in physical death, the emblematists make a clear theological distinction between the earthly humanity of this world and the religious spirituality of the next. Life on earth becomes a spiritual abysm from which only physical death may grant relief. These two concepts are neither new nor surprising, and they would perhaps rank as insignificant to the myth-structure of Richard II, and the English mythology in particular, if Shakespeare had not taken their elements and composed, in conspiracy with England's legendary past, a new and thrilling harmony:

even through the hollow eyes of death
I spy life peering.

The sense is both physical and spiritual. Harry Hereford is the flesh and blood son of his father. But more than that, Northumberland understands him to be, as well, the spiritual progeny of his father. The iconographical incompatibility of physical life and spiritual life is here abandoned. In the dramatist's view of the English paradise on earth, the two become mutually dependent.

Here is how Hereford addresses his father as he prepares for that most chivalric of medieval rituals, the challenge tournament:

O thou, the earthly author
of my blood,
Whose youthful spirit, in me regenerate,
Doth with a twofold vigour lift me up
To reach at victory above my head,
Add proof unto mine armour 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
o’ Gaunt,
Even in the lusty haviour of his son.

(I.iii.69-77, emphasis added)

The resurrection motif is dominant. Young Hereford explicitly links the process of spiritual regeneration with physical regeneration in a conception of splendid mortality resurrecting itself from generation to generation. It is the very essence of the English mythology. Witness, also, the way Gaunt talks of England as “This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land / Dear for her reputation through the world” (II.i.57-58, emphasis added). Spiritual purity and earthly achievement mingle in a curious unity. Images of worth and “preciousness” are connected with the English earth in the play's early stages and, in this case, the word “dear” as a value arbiter is associated with both the souls and the land of England. Josephine Waters Bennett has explored the notion of England as “Elizium” citing, as one of her examples, Procopius of Caesarea who recounts a third-century legend that the souls of the dead were ferried across the Channel to Britain.26 Shakespeare's sense of “souls” in Gaunt's usage is somewhat different. His souls are earthly souls and the word, as a synonym for the living individual, is repeated again and again in the play—though this is not to deny the presence of more conventional theological usage. It is the traditional quality and character of English life on earth that gives Lancaster's myth-paradise a sense of spiritual continuity.


Although the need for individual replenishment is one dictated by the Biblical curse of mortality in a postlapsarian world (a reality not even the English myth-paradise can avoid), many of the play's “old world” characters conceive of such replenishment as celebrative in so far as it sustains England's heroic military spirit. The most powerful metaphoric expression of that regenerative splendor is to be found in the imagery of earth-fertility. Here is Gaunt:

This blessed plot, this earth,
this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of
royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son.…

(II.i.50-56, emphasis added)

The fecundity of the English realm is a notion evoked again by Hotspur's allusion to the “teeming earth” (1 Henry IV, III.i.28) and traceable at least as far back as Geoffrey of Monmouth's line: “quicquid mortalium usui congruit, indeficienti fertilitate ministrat.”27 More relevant, perhaps, is Raphael Holinshed's 1587 edition of the Chronicles, in the first volume of which the writer describes how Albion, son of Neptune, “hearing of the commodities of the countrie, and plentifulnesse of soile here, made a voiage ouer, and finding the thing not onelie correspondent unto, but also farre surmounting the report that went of this Island, it was not long after he inuaded the same by force of armes.”28

Lucretius images the earth as a “mother” in De Rerum Natura.29 But what prompted Shakespeare's link between earth's fertility and crops of chivalric heroes is not clear. It may have been a common equation in Elizabethan times. Sylvester echoes, if not anticipates, such an idea in his own English encomium:

Thrice-happy Mother, which aye bringest-forth
Such Chivalry as daunteth all the Earth,
(Planting the Trophies of thy glorious Armes
By Sea and Land, where ever Titan warmes).(30)

The Duchess of Gloucester, in an emblematical touch, adapts the earth-fertility image used later by Gaunt when she describes Edward's seven sons as “seven fair branches springing from one root” (I.ii.13) and her husband, in particular, as a “flourishing branch of his [Edward III’s] most royal root” (I.ii.18). Richard Altick31 considers this a reference to the familiar medieval genealogical symbol of the Tree of Jesse, but it seems more useful to look back to the rather undisciplined profusion of agronomical imagery in the Henry VI trilogy. There, kings and would-be kings are “planted,” “reaped,” and “rooted up.”32 The germ nurtured in those plays flourishes, at last, in Richard II's English Garden of Eden, a paradise that exists within a fallen world, turning its own physical mortality to spiritual advantage. When George Chapman writes of England, “though the whole world besides moves, yet this isle stands fixed on her own feet and defies the world's mutability,”33 he might almost have been inspired by the same vision of a regenerating and therefore perpetual distinction that informs the whole mythology of English paradise in Richard II.

If, then, we understand the English spirit as one purchased and upheld by mortal reputation, Richard's failure to preserve such a spirit could be construed as a spiritual death. In a powerful figurative inversion, the physically dying Gaunt makes just such an assumption and turns the image of death on Richard himself:

O, no! thou diest, though I the sicker be.


And a few lines later:

Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land
Wherein thou liest in reputation

(II.i.95-96, emphasis added)

Since, according to Gaunt and others, Richard has abdicated his position as the spiritual inheritor and progenitor of the English chivalric tradition, old Lancaster himself becomes one of the final defenders of that order. In his chorus-like reference to the fallen paradise, the theme of the earth as a womb assumes a new and chilling dimension. No longer a place of birth, it becomes a place of death, a grave—and because the possibility of spiritual regeneration seems lost, the dying Gaunt endows the image with a sense of macabre futility: “Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave, / Whose hollow womb inherits nought but bones” (II.i.82-83). If the teeming womb of the English paradise denoted both physical and spiritual renewal of the English mythology, then the hollow womb of the fallen paradise comprehends the awful finality of its antithesis.

Even on the edge of death, it appears that Gaunt does not entertain the possibility of his son's early return, or of the revival, as Northumberland's image of “life peering” might promise, of the old heroic spirit. No doubt he, like York, would have disapproved of Hereford's rebellion but, in the event, the prophecy of spiritual nadir holds as good for Bolingbroke and his regime as Gaunt thought it did for Richard. True, the youthful usurper is remarkably adept at deploying the terms and precepts of the English mythology of earthly paradise to his own advantage, as when he woos York with the lines: “You are my father, for methinks in you / I see old Gaunt alive” (II.iii.117-18), but this is no more than the calculated rhetoric of politics. Bolingbroke is the archetype of an altogether new order, an order that threatens a “crimson tempest” (III.iii.46) if it does not have its way, and yet, by having its way, ensures the same. The king well appreciates the irony:

But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons
Shall ill become the flower of England's face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation, and bedew
Her pastures’ grass with faithful English blood.


In the spiritual desolation of the fallen paradise, images of physical regeneration assume grotesque dimensions. Richard's equation of blood and dew perverts the earth-fertility terminology of the English myth-paradise, and is tied to his later warning about those who “plant unrightful kings” (V.i.63, emphasis added). The figurative corruption suggested here is indicative of the imagistic evolution that compasses the transition from Gaunt's glorious, regenerative womb in the mythology of English paradise, to the bloody regeneration of civil war's horrors, predicted with appropriate reproductive force in 3 Henry VI: “What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly, / Erroneous, mutinous, and unnatural, / This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!” (II.v.89-91, emphasis added). The earth-fertility images of Gaunt's second Garden of Eden succumb to the images of the barren womb, to Carlisle's foreboding prophecy that “The blood of English shall manure the ground” (IV.i.137), and, ultimately, to Bolingbroke's regret that “blood should sprinkle me to make me grow” (

While many characters show an awareness of paradise lost, the blame for the fall is variously placed. The Lancastrian camp quite naturally see Richard as the culpable party, the man whose misdemeanors in the English garden have led to the decline of that garden and to the execution of a crime (the Duke of Gloucester's murder) whose consequences are so vast and tragic that the outraged Bolingbroke speaks of it in terms of the primordial homicide: “Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s, cries, / Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth, / To me for justice and rough chastisement” (I.i.104-6). The style of the first scene is frequently one of hyperbole, and the sentiments often hollow and ceremonious, but we would be wrong to neglect the import of such lines. The murder has brought death into Richard's court, and he strives in vain to nullify its consequences, first by advising against a bloody contest, and then by banishing the antagonists. But Gloucester's blood (the “sacred blood” at I.ii.17; the “precious liquor” two lines later) comes to embody all that is worthy and sacrosanct in the paradisiacal mythology, and its spillage confirms the fall of the English paradise as the murder of Abel confirmed the fall of man. The Gardener's scene (III.iv) is of significance here. It is not new to remark upon the paradisiacal connotations of the episode. S. K. Heninger observes that “underlying the entire scene is the standard of order which prevailed in the Garden of Eden, God's prototype of natural harmony. The Gardener is ‘old Adam's likeness’ (III.iv.73). The meaning of the scene depends upon the cosmological imagery which compares the ideal conditions in Eden to the actual conditions promoted by Richard.”35 Heninger seems justified in interpreting the scene as fixing the blame on Richard. In berating Richard's monarchy (11. 54-66), the Gardener not only favors the conquering Bolingbroke but actually sounds a little like him.36 And it is revealing that, while the garden itself represents to the Gardener a place of toil and close attention, it is, to the Queen's Lady (and, by association, to the Queen herself), a place of games (III.iv.3), of dancing (1. 6), of story-telling (1. 10), and of singing (1. 19). The Queen may repudiate these frivolous pastimes now, but, measured against the Gardener's sobriety, their suggestive eminence in former times attests to a certain royal delinquency.

The opposite view, proposed by Richard's followers, conceives of Bolingbroke as the decimator of paradise and of Richard as an innocent victim.37 The usurper himself contributes to this thesis by framing Richard's murder in terms of the Biblical precedent. At the end of the play, he tells Exton:

With Cain go wander thorough shades of night,
And never show thy head by day nor light.


The assassin has acted on Bolingbroke's own words in committing an act of darkness that blemishes Henry's newly acquired sun-king identification.38 The indelible balm of the anointed king in the mythology of paradise becomes the indelible blood on the hands of the guilty usurper in the mythology of fallen paradise. Let us not think, though, that the murder of the king is the cursed transgression that surrenders paradise. It is no more than a symptom, as Cain's transgression was, of an already fallen world. From the Royalist standpoint, paradise was lost the moment Bolingbroke set foot on forbidden English soil, bringing with him the infection of civil war. Thomas Combe might almost be speaking of Bolingbroke's England when he writes, in The Theater of fine devices, “Then ciuill discord set their hearts at warre, / And caused each man his owne good to marre.”39 So, overhearing the Gardener in III.iv, the Queen lends to his suggestion of Richard's deposition the force of the Hebraic Fall of Adam:

Thou, old Adam's likeness, set to dress this garden,
How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?
What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee
To make a second fall of cursed man?
Why dost thou say King Richard is depos’d?
Dar’st thou, thou little better thing than earth,
Divine his downfall?


Thomas Cooper tells us that, amongst other things, the name Adam “doth signifie man, or redde earth,”40 and when Queen Isabel calls the “old Adam” Gardener a “little better thing than earth,” she doubly echoes the Biblical fall of man from a prelapsarian state of immortality to a transient and earth-bound mortality. We here experience, once again, the devaluation of Gaunt's glorious English earth, a devaluation now connected not with Richard but with Lancaster's own son. In the fallen world of both the Scriptures and England, the human body is valued at no more than the dust from whence it came (Genesis 3.19), destined, at last, for the “earthy pit” (IV.i.219) of the grave.


For different reasons, King John has been twinned with Richard II by at least two twentieth-century critics.41 In the development of English myth and antimyth images in Richard II, the link is important. King John does not allude to Eden or to paradise lost, and the play lacks the sense of a “fall” initiated by a single transgression; but the Bastard's scheme of an English soul in an Anglicized heaven (King John, V.vii.70-73) and the equation of England's goodness with Arthur's fleeing spirit (King John, IV.iii.142-50) perhaps prepare us for the more complex and coherent schematization in Richard II. Another important link, in this respect, is King John’s consistent use of the theme of encirclement (King John, II.i.216-21; II.i.381-84; IV.ii.208-10; IV.iii.135-38; V.i.39-41; V.vii.15-17). The theme is of importance in Richard II as well.

John of Gaunt, for example, in the course of his English panegyric, speaks of England as

This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands.


The sea as a protective “wall” is a useful complement to the mythology of England as an isolated Eden, and is repeated by the First Servant at III.iv.43 (“our sea-walled garden”). In his book The Lost Garden, John Wilders recognizes that the “sense of a lost paradise and of a country falling into ruin after an ideal past is conveyed most powerfully in Richard II.42 In his seventh chapter, Wilders relates the “gardens” in Shakespeare's history plays to Eden, and suggests that the “old Persian word pairidaeza, from which the English word ‘paradise’ is derived, signified a walled garden, park, or orchard and there is evidence that Shakespeare thought of such places when he created the temporary retreats from the world into which some of his characters take refuge” (pp. 133-34). The obvious significance Wilders attaches to the idea of paradise as a “walled” garden, park, or orchard will be helpful, as well, to our examination of Neptune's role in relation to the English second Eden. We should, though, be cautioned by Octavio Alvarez who, in his book The Celestial Brides: A Study in Mythology and Archaeology, derives the word paradise from the Avestan Pairidaeza, which he translates as “Enclosure of Women.”43 Despite these clear semantic contrarieties, both Wilders and Alvarez understand “paradise” as an enclosure of some sort. Shakespeare's “sea-walled” England harbors that same fundamental connotation. Yet we would be wrong to consider Neptune's sea-wall a wholly beneficent property of the ideal English myth-paradise. Within a few lines, the old Lancaster appears to contradict his earlier statement (II.i.46-49) by talking of an

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat’ry Neptune.


In Gaunt's imagined paradise, the sea is presented in the paradoxical guise of both threatener and protector of the English realm.

Shakespeare's approach to the ambivalence of Neptune differs significantly from two of his possible sources. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Sonnet XLIV in Samuel Daniel's Delia:

Flourish faire Albion, glory of the North,
Neptunes darling helde betweene his armes:
Deuided from the world as better worth,
Kept for himselfe, defended from all harmes.(44)

But, when writing about England in a context of civil war, Daniel reads a passive hostility into the sea god's English office:

“Why Neptune; Hast thou made vs stand alone
“Diuided from the world, for this, say they?
“Hemd-in, to be a spoyle to tyrannie,
“Leauing affliction hence no way to flie?(45)

Daniel associates a benevolent Neptune with English well-being, and a malevolent Neptune with civil war. Raphael Holinshed's usage is similar. Early in the first volume of his Chronicles, the writer extolls the greatness of Neptune in his capacity as protector of all who travel by sea—possibly preparing the way for the sea odyssey of the Trojan Brutus which immediately follows.46 Yet, in the same chapter, when the unpleasant Lestrigo aims at the deposition of good King Lucas by stirring up civil rebellion, Neptune is seen to assist him in his wicked intent.47

If Shakespeare's use of Neptune was suggested by either or both of these historians, then it appears he went to some lengths to adjust the sea god's duality to his own needs in II.i. Unlike Daniel and Holinshed, he does not consider the deity's English function as one corresponding to the internal felicity or otherwise of the realm. Neptune, as the surrounding sea, is a constant and potential source, simultaneously, of both good and evil. This is in keeping with the god's Classical image. Neptune, it will be recalled, was dissatisfied with his share of Saturn's empire and attempted, with others, to annex a portion of the earth and heavens.48 Foiled in this strategy, he was forced by Jupiter to build, or repair, the walls of Troy as punishment—a task for which Laomedon refused to pay him. His grudge against Troy for this slight is recalled in The Iliad: “My task was to build a wall for the Trojans round their town, a strong and splendid one to make the place impregnable … but when the happy hour for payment came, the unconscionable Laomedon refused outright to give us any wages. … That is the man whose people you [Apollo] are now so anxious to oblige, instead of joining us and seeing to it that these insolent Trojans shall be utterly wiped out, together with their children and their loving wives.”49 Yet, even as he talks, his own wall defends the race he would destroy.

This dual sense of the protective Neptune (his Trojan wall) and the threatening Neptune (his hope of Troy's destruction) is manifest in John of Gaunt's interpretation of the god's English role. On the one hand, the sea is the encircling defender—in Gaunt's words, the “wall” (II.i.47)—against foreign invasion; on the other, he is the would-be appropriator, the envious siegeman, with designs on the earthly heaven of England. A number of factors might suggest (wrongly, as it turns out) an equation of Bolingbroke and Neptune. Bolingbroke returns from his banishment with a sea-borne army to invade a land he was pledged to defend and to depose a king who, by definition of his divine sanction, was “iust, trewe, and unfallible.”50 And he brings with him, to use York's phrase, “a tide of woes” (II.ii.98). Bolingbroke's return is consistently framed in terms of sea imagery, and the words “beat back” are used to describe, firstly, how England's shore “beats back the envious siege / Of wa’ry Neptune” and, secondly, how York will try to “beat back Bolingbroke” (II.ii.144).

Kathyrn Montgomery Harris has noted Gaunt's ambiguous approach to the sea and has proposed that “This ambivalence is functional. When England is ‘this other Eden’ the sea protects; when leased out by Richard ‘like to a tenement or pelting farm’ (II.i.60), the sea is a threatening, envious bond.”51 This is surely not the sense of the passage in question. Old Lancaster clearly conceives of the Neptunian ambivalence as being a wholly integral element of the mythology of the English paradise, and he makes a sharp distinction between the glorious England bound in by envious Neptune (II.i.61-63) and Richard's wretched England “bound in with shame” (II.i.63). John of Gaunt's treatment of Neptune represents the principles of security and threat within the English paradise, and it is a paradise made all the more valuable by the possibility of its loss. This seems a variation on a familiar emblem book theme, instanced aptly by Thomas Combe:

Iupiter, as the learned Homer writes,
Mingleth the good and bad in such a sort,
That men obtaine not pleasures and delights,
Without some paine to waite vpon the sport.(52)

The Biblical Eden possessed, in the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the latent means of its own destruction. To equate Bolingbroke and Neptune would be to equate the serpent and the fruit, the agent of doom and the principle of threat.

The encirclement motif finds variation later in the play, where the image is again Classical. In the fifth act, Queen Isabel offers this emotional statement of her grief:

Ah, thou, the model where old Troy did stand;
Thou map of honour, thou King Richard's tomb,
And not King Richard; thou most beauteous inn,
Why should hard-favour’d grief be lodg’d in thee,
When triumph is become an alehouse guest?


The critic John Erskine Hankins cites, as the source of the phrase “the model where old Troy did stand,” Proverbs 25.28: “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls.”53 This does not appear to be an accurate interpretation of Shakespeare's line, if one bears in mind the two encirclement metaphors that immediately follow. Sir Henry Newbolt is much closer to the truth when he argues that “Troy symbolized ruined greatness which only the outline of its walls is left to tell of.”54 Through its association with the grave and the “barren earth” at III.ii.153, “model” acquires the additional connotation of a “mould” which remains extant after the processes of decay have returned to dust man's mortal body. As such, it is indicative of Troy's walls rather than of “a city that is broken down, and without walls.”

Since a number of European nations derived their origins from ancient Troy (the British from Brutus; the Italians from Aeneas; the Danes and Normans from Antenor), we might reasonably expect that the story of Troy would be of particular interest to them. The most famous of the secular English emblem books published in the sixteenth century, Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes (1586), has at least four wood cuts that relate in some way to Troy.55 The destruction of that celebrated city could well be construed as a crime against legendary excellence, for not only did the English commonly see in the saga of Troy the origins and greatness of their own race, but Trojan civilization was considered a cultural, moral, and military perfection.56 With this in mind, let us return to the Queen's line, “Ah, thou the model where old Troy did stand.” Assuming, for reasons already offered, that the line identifies Richard with the Trojan wall and that his tragedy is figured in terms of old Troy's inner destruction at the hands of the Greeks, we may observe that the significance of the Queen's image is both national and individual.

Our understanding of the “national” connotation of the old Troy image must be informed by an appreciation of the Tudors’ very high estimation of Trojan worth. We must accept, as well, the commonly understood equation of king and kingdom which is given notable expression in this play (at II.i.95, for example). As Troy's walls embraced the jewel of Trojan civilization, so Richard's regal body may be seen as embracing the jewel of England's heroic spirit. By its association with the loss of a great and ancient society, the mythology of the English fallen paradise aspires to a tragic dimension that might not otherwise have been within its reach. The reverberations are felt in the two metaphors that follow—Richard as a tomb and Richard as a beauteous inn occupied by grief. The theme of the king as an encircling receptacle is here re-emphasized with accumulating force. Far from embodying the glorious spirit of the English mythology, Richard's national body now harbors the decimation, spiritual nadir, and grief of a lost English Eden.

On an individual plane, while Richard does, to some degree, revel in the “luxury of religious inwardness and resignation,”57 it is hard to believe that the experience of deposition left him spiritually and mentally unscathed. That sense of inner destruction we feel in the mirror scene:

’Tis very true: my grief lies all within;
And these external manner of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur’d soul.


The individual's soul in the fallen world of England becomes as the soul in the fallen world of the Bible. A tortured and silent prisoner trapped within a body whose fleshy walls are not able to reflect the inner decimation, the soul can only find its freedom in physical death. An emblem of Francis Quarles, published far too late to have influenced Shakespeare's usage, reveals a melancholy, human-formed soul trapped within the rib cage of a smiling skeleton.58 In a bizarre inversion of iconographic symbol, Quarles presents physical life as a skeleton and spiritual life as a human figure engaoled within the bony bars of mortality. Queen Isabel's words search for a similar, if less dramatic, effect. Coming, as it does, only nine lines after an allusion to Richard's journey to “Julius Caesar's ill-erected tower” (V.i.2), her Trojan reference evokes the picture of a physical wall encircling the desolation within.

Richard himself is not oblivious to the prospect and consequences of a fallen paradise. Robbed of his kingship and the subject of increasing physical confinement, Richard begins to acknowledge the certainty of the lost second Eden by redefining his own approach to the soul and spirituality. His praise of the English earth on his return from Ireland will be well remembered:

I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses’ hoofs.
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So weeping-smiling greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favours with my royal hands.


And a few lines later:

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


The earth as a mother, fruitful and friendly, is one of Gaunt's idioms for England as a second paradise. Richard appeals to the same, identifying himself (albeit a little ambiguously) as the son of the earth and its indigenous king. But more than this, he credits the “ubiquitous symbol of earth,59 as Richard Altick has called it, with a certain moral quality, a “soul” perhaps, that enables it not only to distinguish but also to defend the righteous. The waves of soldiers Richard imagines the earth will spawn to protect his monarchy are a fanciful variation on the theme of a regenerating heroic spirit. Physical life and spiritual well-being are not contradictory in this native mythology. But in the darkness that tends to envelop Richard's spontaneous flights of optimism, his understanding of “life” and “death” in spiritual and physical terms moves closer to that of the sixteenth-century emblematists and, in fact, closer to what we might consider a Biblical conception of the world after the Fall. In such a world, notions of physical life and spiritual life, as we have seen, are no longer complementary. King Richard expresses the disjunction of the two ideas in a number of ways. Worthy of note are his desire for a “new world's crown” at V.i.24 (in 3 Henry VI, at I.ii.29-30, Richard, afterwards Duke of Gloucester, observes of the earthly version: “How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown, / Within whose circuit is Elysium”); his “Christianization” of some elements of Gaunt's encomium at III.iii.145-53, culminating in a mocking surrender of “my large kingdom for a little grave, / A little little grave, an obscure grave” (ll. 153-54); and, finally, his anticipation of spiritual freedom at the moment of death: “Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high; / Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die” (V.v.111-12). The earthly crown is rejected, the earth symbolizes no longer a reproductive mother but a grave, and the soul becomes the mournful prisoner of life itself. Shakespeare's technique of adjusting figures of the English mythology to serve the anti-mythology is once again evidenced in Richard's tragic expression of the English paradise lost.


The most arresting figure of the English mythology and the anti-mythology schemata that Richard elects to utilize is that of Death. We are not able to talk of an explicit equation of Death and the English soldier, as we are in King John. The overriding air of pessimism and doom in Richard II apparently negates the search for a myth-hero or any of the imagistic accoutrements that might go with such a person. Death seems to have been all but monopolized by the anti-mythology, but this is not to suggest that its advent is always distasteful. Hearing of the return of Bolingbroke, the Queen actually recommends Death because he “gently would dissolve the bands of life” (II.ii.71). Isabel's ideal Death, like Constance's “amiable lovely death” (King John, III.iv.25), is certainly not the prancing ruffian of a typical danse macabre series or the fiend that Sir Walter Raleigh says “hateth and destroyeth man.”60 But he does have something in common with a rarer and gentler conception of Death as illustrated in, say, Holbein's print of “The Old Man”61 or in Georgette de Montenay's cut of an old man stepping out of a symbolically hollow world, assisted by a sympathetic-looking skeleton.62 In both these instances, it is old age and a willingness to die that makes Death less frightening. (A similar notion may be deciphered in King Lear where, on occasions, it seems that death is a privilege rather than a right, a reward that must be earned by Lear and Gloucester through suffering.) Such death, though, must always fall within the domain of the anti-mythology since the desire for life and the celebration of the same are crucial to the processes of the English mythology. Nonetheless, the more dramatic references to Death in the lost paradise aspire towards some degree of fear and threat. Here is King Richard:

for 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 fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!


According to Matthew W. Black, editor of the New Variorum edition of the play, Douce (1807) was the first to suggest that the seventh print in Holbein's Imagines Mortis may have inspired these lines.63 Douce's observation is an intriguing one. The cut in question reveals a personified Death preparing to lift the crown off the head of an unsuspecting emperor. Helen Morris, who seems unaware of Douce's observation, writes in her paper “Shakespeare and Dürer's Apocalypse” that in the Holbein cut, Death as a skeleton “is clearly seen perching ‘within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples’ of the Emperor.”64 It is unlikely, though, that Shakespeare's image is any more than suggestive of the print. Matthew Black, again in the New Variorum edition, cites Collier as making the point that “death is represented as taking off an emperor's crown; and not sitting and keeping his court in it” (p. 198), and Margaret Beck (p. 198) has similar reservations. Be this as it may, Dance of Death images do figure powerfully in the play:

My inch of taper will be burnt and done,
And blindfold death not let me see my son.


I will despair, and be at enmity
With cozening hope—he is a flatterer,
A parasite, a keeper-back of death,
Who gently would dissolve the bands of life,
Which false hope lingers in extremity.


Cry woe, destruction, ruin, and decay—
The worst is death, and death will have his day.


How now! what means death in this rude assault?


The first edition of Imagines Mortis was published by Johin Frellon at Lyons in 1538, and, by 1542, a third edition (Latin) had appeared.65 The danse macabre was not the creation of Hans Holbein—its origins extend back to antiquity.66 As an art form, it was popular in the Middle Ages, but its history need not be elucidated here: Emile Mâle67 has made a detailed study of the danse macabre in his work L’Art Religieux de la fin du Moyen Âge en France, and H. Noel Humphreys68 has traced the probable medieval influences of the art form on Holbein's work in Hans Holbein's Dance of Death—though few would deny that the German artist raised the genre to a level of artistic excellence that is generally considered unsurpassed. As noted earlier with respect to his Icones Historiarvm, given Holbein's artistic prominence in the English court of Henry VIII, and the amazing popularity of Imagines Mortis in the sixteenth century, it seems quite probable that Shakespeare was acquainted with the work.

Pertinent to Shakespeare's usage is Holbein's unnerving sense of skeletal Death as an accepted figure within living society. In the first print of Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti, Death strums his lute on the edge of Eden, waiting in hope for the transgression that will bring about his awful dominance of a fallen world.69 Thereafter, he mingles with the living, apparently unnoticed—a fearful and threatening reminder of Eden lost. He spends much of his time shadowing potential victims and, at the moment of death, he assails his subject in a spirit of grim humor and cruel determination. In Shakespeare's words, he allows a king “a breath, a little scene, / To monarchize, be fear’d” and then “Comes at the last, and with a little pin / Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!” Thomas Combe writes in 1593 that “The Prince, the poore, are laid in graues alike,”70 and Andrew Willet, in Sacrorum Emblematum Centuria Una (1592?), echoes these Biblical sentiments when he affirms “we are all of earthly traine, and must away.”71 Richard's contempt for things earthly is reflected in his reference to the “hollow crown” in which the antic Death keeps his court. The word “hollow” is connected with falsehood as early as I.iv.9 when Aumerle describes to the king his “hollow parting” with Hereford. It gathers a dark momentum through its association with the “hollow eyes of death” at II.i.270, and with the grave at III.ii.140, and may be related to the notion of the hollow womb in the fallen English paradise. By the time it serves Richard's antic Death allusion, it has been well established as a key term in the nomenclature of a fallen English Eden.

It has become customary to remark upon Richard's strange “victory” in the closing scenes of the play. Harold F. Folland believes that “Richard, behind and through his apparently helpless self-dramatization, continues to fight his case against Bolingbroke so as to achieve a moral victory which has enduring political consequences. And in passing the royal power on to Henry, Richard subtly alters its character by dimming its numinous light.”72 Lois Potter is of the view that, even in death, “Richard dominates the scene in his silence as he had dominated it before with words.”73 The case for Richard's triumph is particularly persuasive in the deposition scene, where Richard consistently trumps awkward attempts to discredit him, responding to his captivity with a blend of defiance and wit:

God save the King!
Will no man say amen?
Am I both priest and clerk? Well then, amen.


Name it, fair cousin.
Fair cousin! I am greater than a king;
For when I was a king, my flatterers
Were then but subjects; being now a subject,
I have a king here to my flatterer.
Being so great, I have no need to beg.


Go, some of you convey him to the Tower.
O, good! Convey! Conveyers are you all,
That rise thus nimbly by a true king's fall.


Lurking on the periphery of Bolingbroke's new court, Richard scoffs at its pomp, ridicules its usurped authority, deflects its censure. In a scene that witnesses the “official” transference of power or, in loyalist terms, the ceremonial fall of paradise, the significance of Richard's presence to the rebel assemblage perhaps has something in common with Hans Holbein's smiling, skeletal Death shadowing Adam in the world after the Fall. Within two scenes, Bolingbroke must endure the indignity of an abortive attempt on his life and, a scene after that, the irony of the Duchess of York's grateful praise: “A god on earth thou art” (V.iii.136). If murderous conspiracy aimed at his life proves nothing else, it demonstrates that Bolingbroke is in no way immune to the machinations of the world, lacking both the omnipotent power and the immortality of the Duchess's “god on earth.” Standing in his court, mocking his majesty with world-weary humor, Richard, like a skeleton of former glory, both reminds us of what Bolingbroke is yet to become and figuratively, as Death the antic jester, confirms an Hebraic scheme of the fallen world—a scheme once muted by the repetitive, and therefore death-defying, greatness of the English mythology. Bolingbroke may applaud his new order, but it is an order irresistibly claimed by the anti-mythology whose grim inversions will reduce great aspirations to futile regrets.

Holinshed provides a number of different accounts of King Richard's death, including the rumor that he “was tantalised with food and starved to death.”74 It is revealing that the dramatist should select the story that he was murdered by Sir Pierce of Exton. Though Richard may achieve a revelatory understanding of his own mortality, such knowledge can do little to mitigate the surprise and horror of his own death. His final moments are a frenetic far cry from the gentle expiry of old Lear. The dramatic scenario Richard had constructed for himself at III.ii.160-70 finds a grim fulfillment in a murder that, for its violent movement, has much in common with the grotesque animation of the Dance of Death itself. As Exton enters, Richard's cry of “How now! what means death in this rude assault?” (V.v.105) would grace the lips of many a danse macabre victim striving vainly to elude the skeletal grasp in Holbein's series. In the undignified battle for life in the Pomfret cell, and in the stark symbol of the coffin in the last scene of the play, Shakespeare's visual designs become theatrical emblems in a vast and tragic mythology of English paradise lost.


  1. Thomas Stocker in the “Epistle Dedicatorie” to his own translation of A Tragicall Historie of the troubles and Ciuile Warres of the lowe Countries, otherwise called Flanders (1583), sig. A2r. The work has been attributed to Marnix van Sant Aldegonde, but more recently is thought to be the work of A. Henricpetri.

  2. The line is to be found in Bingham's prefatory poem to G. Peckham's A Trve Report, Of the late discoueries, and possession, taken in the right of the Crowne of Englande, of the New-found Landes (1583), p. 10.

  3. Pointed out by Edward Surtz, ed., Utopia (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1964), p. 59n, who quotes Erasmus as saying that More's Utopia “represented chiefly Britain” (Ep. 4.21).

  4. Cited by Peter Ure in his Arden edition of King Richard II, 4th ed. (London: Methuen, 1956), note to II.i.42.

  5. The quotation is from “The Epistle Dedicatorie” to Silvester Jourdan's A Plaine Description of the Barmvdas, now called Sommer Ilands (1613), sig. A3r.

  6. Stocker, sig. A2v.

  7. Quoted by Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II, in his note to II.i.42.

  8. The scheme is discussed by John E. Hankins in his paper “Spenser and the Revelation of St. John,” PMLA, 60 (1945), 364-81.

  9. Du Bartas. His Diuine Weekes And Workes with A Compleate Collectiõ of all the other most delight-full Workes, trans. Joshua Sylvester (1605), p. 462.

  10. “Two Passages in Sylvester's Du Bartas and their Bearing on Shakespeare's Richard II,” Notes and Queries, 198 (1953), 374-77.

  11. “Britain Among The Fortunate Isles,” Studies in Philology, 53 (1956), 117.

  12. Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1935), p. 238.

  13. Ed. Henry Green (facsimile rpt. Manchester: A. Brothers, for the Holbein Society, 1869), sig. B1v. This book portraying Old Testament figures was first published at Lyons in 1538. See illustration on page 335 of this article.

  14. The Bible: That Is, The Holy Scriptures conteined in the Old and New Testament (1603). This is the Genevan version. Genesis 3.17: “Also to Adam he said, Because thou hast obeyed the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree (whereof I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eate of it) cursed is the earth for thy sake: in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the dayes of thy life.” And Genesis 3.19: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou returne to the earth: for out of it wast thou taken, because thou art dust, and to dust shal thou returne.”

  15. Giovanni Battista Lambi, A Revelation of the Secret Spirit, trans. R.N.E. (1623), p. 2.

  16. See Arthur B. Chamberlain, Hans Holbein The Younger (London: George Allen, 1913), II, 186.

  17. Chamberlain, Hans Holbein The Younger, I, 228.

  18. Emblemata Moralia et Oeconomica, De Rervm Vsv et Abvsv (1579, first publ.; Arnhemi: Apud Ioannem Iansonium Bibliopolam ibidem, sumptibus Theodori Petri Bibliopolae Amstelrodamiensis, 1609), sig. E1v.

  19. Emblemata (1581), p. 50.

  20. De Rervm Vsv et Abvsv (Antwerpiae, 1585), p. 19. This is a translation of Bernard Gerbrand Furmer's work of the same name which first appeared in 1575.

  21. Les Devises Heroiques, De M. Claude Paradin, Chanoine de Beaujeu, Du Signeur Gabriel Symeon, & autres Aucteurs (1551, first publ.; Anvers: De l’Imprimerie de Christophle Plantin, 1561), p. 151r. See illustration on page 336 of this article.

  22. The emblem is reproduced by Henry Green in Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London: Trübner, 1870), p. 530.

  23. Emblemata, cum aliquot nummis antiqui operis, Ioannis Sambuci Tirnaviensis Pannonii (Antwerpiae, 1564), p. 240.

  24. Emblemas Morales (Segouia, 1591), p. 194 and p. 252. The work was first printed in 1589.

  25. A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635), ed. Rosemary Freeman (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1975), p. 21. See illustration on page 336 of this article.

  26. “Britain Among The Fortunate Isles,” p. 123.

  27. Historia Britonum, ed. J. A. Giles (London: D. Nutt, 1844), p. 2. G. H. Gerould, in his article “King Arthur and Politics,” Speculum, 2 (1927), 34, believes that Geoffrey issued his history between 1136 and 1138.

  28. Raphael Holinshed, The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles (1587), p. 3.

  29. See W.H.D. Rouse's translation of De Rerum Natura, 3rd ed. revised by Martin Ferguson Smith (1937; rpt. London: William Heinemann, 1975), V. 258-60 and 783-820.

  30. Sylvester, trans., Du Bartas. His Diuine Weekes And Workes, p. 462 (“The Colonies”).

  31. “Symphonic Imagery in Richard II,PMLA, 62 (1947), 346.

  32. A few examples will perhaps serve to demonstrate the dramatist's interest in this imagistic direction. In 1 Henry VI, Mortimer talks of those who “laboured to plant the rightful heir” (II.v.80). York, in 2 Henry VI, vows to “reap the harvest” (III.i.381) sown by the ambitious Jack Cade. In 3 Henry VI, Warwick insists “I’ll plant Plantagenet, root him up who dares” (I.i.48), Richard describes how Clifford “set his murd’ring knife unto the root” ( of Rutland, and King Edward tells his son that “of our labours thou shalt reap the gain” (V.vii.20). These themes extend into Richard III where, for instance, Richard is described as a “rooting hog” (I.iii.228), and the Duke of Buckingham predicts that “Though we have spent our harvest of this king, / We are to reap the harvest of his son” (II.ii.115-16).

  33. The Plays and Poems of George Chapman, ed. Thomas Mare Parrott (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1914), p. 447.

  34. John Erskine Hankins, Shakespeare's Derived Imagery (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1953), p. 157, cites an interesting parallel in La Primaudaye's The French Academie: “If we consider how our common mother the earth, being prodigal in giuing vnto vs all things necessary for the life of man, hath notwithstanding cast all of vs naked out of her bowels, and must receiue vs so againe into her wombe, I see no great reason wee haue to call some rich, and others poore; seeing the beginning, being, and ende of the temporall life of all men are vnlike in nothing, but that some during this little moment of life haue that in abundance and superfluitie, which others haue onely according to their necessitie.” Though, as Hankins suggests, this may be the immediate source of the Earth as Mother theme, La Primaudaye's emphasis on material wealth, or the lack of it, does not reflect the context of Shakespeare's Mother-Earth usage.

  35. “The Sun-King Analogy in Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly, 11 (1960), 321.

  36. The Gardener talks of the “wasteful king” (III.iv.55) and compares Richard to an incompetent husbandman who ought to have taken more care of his garden. Bolingbroke, an act earlier, is openly bitter that his rights and royalties have been snatched from him and given to “upstart unthrifts” (II.iii.122), and describes Bushy, Bagot, and their accomplies as “The caterpillars of the commonwealth, / Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away” (II.iii.166-67).

  37. For the idea of Richard as a martyr, see John Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare London: Macmillan, 1945), p. 118; Karl F. Thompson, “Richard II, Martyr,” SQ, 8 (1957), 159-66; Donald M. Friedman, “John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration,” ELH, 43 (1976), 279-99.

  38. The idea of the sun-king identity has been explored by many critics: Paul Reyher, “Le Symbole du Soleil dans la tragédie de Richard II,Revue de l’Enseignement des Langues Vivantes, 40 (1923), 254-60; Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery, pp. 233-38; Samuel Kliger, “The Sun Imagery in Richard II,Studies in Philology, 45 (1948), 196-202; Wolfgang Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (London: Methuen, 1951), p. 59.

  39. Guillaume de La Perrière, The Theater of fine devices, containing an hundred morall emblemes, trans. Thomas Combe (1593, first publ.; R. Field, 1614), Emblem X. La Perrière's original French edition first appeared on the continent in 1539.

  40. Thesavrvs Lingvae Romanae & Britannicae, tam accurate congestus, vt nihil penè in eo desyderari possit, quod vel Latinè complectatur amplissimus Stephani Thesaurus, vel Anglicè, toties aucta Eliotae Bibliotheca (1565, first publ.; John Torkington, 1584), sig. 7A2r.

  41. M. M. Reese writes in The Cease of Majesty (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), p. 262: “Stylistically Richard II and King John are linked in several ways, notably in the marked absence of prose, but also there are striking differences.” And E.A.J. Honigmann, ed., King John, 4th ed. (London: Methuen, 1954), p. lxviii.

  42. The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays (London: The Macmillan Press, 1978), p. 135.

  43. (Stockbridge, Mass.: Herbert Reichner, 1978), p. 2.

  44. (1592), sig. G2v.

  45. The Civile Wares betweene the Howses of Lancaster and Yorke (1595, first publ.; Simon Waterson, 1609), Bk. I, st. 67.

  46. Holinshed, The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles, 1587, p. 3: “Now to speake somewhat also of Neptune as by the waie (sith I haue made mention of him in this place) it shall not be altogither impertinent. Wherefore you shall understand, that for his excellent knowledge in the art of nauigation (as nauigation then went) he was reputed the most skilfull prince that liued in his time. And therefore, and likewise for his courage & boldnesse in aduenturing to and fro, he was after his decease honoured as a god, and the protection of such as trauelled by sea committed to his charge.”

  47. Holinshed, p. 4. Neptune apparently wished to see his thirty-three sons (of whom Lestrigo was one) occupy the great kingdoms of the world.

  48. For a full account of the mythology associated with Neptune, see J. Lemprière, Lemprière's Classical Dictionary of Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors, rev. ed., F. A. Wright (1949; rpt. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), “Neptunus.” Lemprière first published his dictionary in 1788.

  49. Homer, The Iliad, trans. E. V. Rieu (1950; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 392.

  50. The words are attributed to Richard by Edward Hall in The Vnion of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548), fol. 6r.

  51. “Sun and Water Imagery in Richard II: Its Dramatic Function,” SQ, 21 (1970), 158.

  52. The Theater of fine devices, Emblem LVII.

  53. Shakespeare's Derived Imagery, p. 217. In The Bible: That Is, The Holy Scriptures (Geneva version), the same verse reads as follows: “A man that refraineth not his appetite is like a city which is broken downe & without wals” (Proverbs 25.28).

  54. Quoted by Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II, note to V.i.11.

  55. A Choice of Emblemes (Leyden, 1586), pp. 30, 37, 45, and 163.

  56. In recognition of Old Troy's excellence, Henry Peacham, in Minerva Britanna: Or A Garden of Heroycal Devices (Wa. Dight, 1612), p. 34, expounds the valor of Trojan youth in battle and proposes, as well, the greatness of Trojan culture and art. In the same work, William Leigh writes of a vision in which he saw a Nymph dressed in white and mourning on the ruins of Troy, “So grieu’d to see that Britaine should enjoy / Her Pallas, whom she held and honour’d so” (sig. B4r). The British acquisition of Troy's Pallas is a coup indeed!

  57. G. Wilson Knight, Shakespeare's Dramatic Challenge (London: Croom Helm, 1977), p. 32.

  58. Emblemes (1634), p. 272.

  59. “Symphonic Imagery in Richard II,” p. 343.

  60. Sir Walter Raleigh: Selections from his Writings, edited with an introduction and notes, by G. E. Hadow (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917), p. 116. The extract is from The Historie of the World (1614).

  61. See Hans Holbein, The Dance of Death, introduction and notes by James M. Clark (London: Phaidon Press, 1947), in which “The Old Man” print from the 1538 Lyons edition is reproduced on p. 71.

  62. Georgette de Montenay, Emblematvm Christianorvm Centvria (1571, first publ.; Tigvri, 1584), p. 89r. See illustration on page 335 of this article.

  63. Matthew W. Black, ed., A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Life and Death of King Richard the Second (Philadelphia and London: Lippincott, 1955), p. 198.

  64. Shakespeare Studies, 4 (1968), 252.

  65. Arthur B. Chamberlain, in Hans Holbein The Younger, I, 212-14, lists some of the many editions of the Imagines Mortis that appeared in various parts of Europe in the sixteenth century. It is worth noting that the work was originally (1538) called Les Simulachres & Historiees Faces de la Mort, avtant elegammet pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées, but by the end of the sixteenth century it was already popularly known by the Dance of Death title.

  66. Pierre Quoniam, Le Louvre (Paris: Editions des Musées Nationaux, 1977), p. 30, describes a first century A.D. goblet, in the Musée du Louvre, which has a Dance of Death motif on its outer surface.

  67. L’Art Religieux de la fin du Moyen Âge en France (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1908), pp. 375-422.

  68. Hans Holbein's Dance of Death (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1868), p. 5.

  69. See Henry Green, ed., Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti, sig. B1r.

  70. The Theater of fine devices, Emblem XXVII.

  71. Sacrorum Emblematum Centuria Una, quae tam ad exemplum apte expressa sunt, & ad aspectum pulchre depingi possunt, quam quae aut a veteribus accepta, aut inventa ab aliis hac extant (1592?), sig. F2r.

  72. “King Richard's Pallid Victory,” SQ, 24 (1973), 390.

  73. “The Antic Disposition of Richard II,” Shakespeare Survey, 27 (1974), 41.

  74. Quoted by Geoffrey Bullough in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, III (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), 413.

In the documentation of pre-1800 references, London is assumed as the place of publication unless otherwise indicated. All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from Peter Alexander's edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1978). I am very grateful to Professor T. F. Wharton, formerly of the University of Glasgow and now of Augusta College, Georgia, who read through early drafts of this essay and offered much encouragement and a great deal of expert advice.

Robert P. Merrix (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4508

SOURCE: “The Phaëton Allusion in Richard II: The Search for Identity,” in English Literary Renaissance 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 277-87.

[In the following essay, Merrix investigates the implications of Richard's reference to the Phaëton myth, arguing that this allusion incorporates various themes appropriate to the characterization of Richard, including the search for self, pride and its fall, and the chaotic results of “ambivalent leadership.”]

When confronted by Bullingbrook at Flint Castle, Richard II cries: “Down, down I come, Like glist’ring Phaëton, / Wanting the manage of unruly jades” (3.3.178-79).1 Discussion of the allusion to Phaëton in relation to Richard runs from a mere reference by Maurice Evans2 to an elaborate analysis of its relation to art and poetics in English poetry by Parker Tyler.3 The allusion is used by Shakespeare in three other plays: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (3.1.153-58) where Silvia's father, the Duke of Milan, terms Valentine a Phaëton who “aspires to guide the heavenly car / And with thy daring folly burn the world”; Romeo and Juliet (3.2.3) where Juliet in her famous apostrophe to night notes that if “a waggoner as Phaëton” were whipping the “fiery-footed steeds, / Towards Phoebus’ lodging,” he would “bring in night immediately”; and 3 Henry VI, where the allusion appears twice (1.4.33); (2.6.12). In the first reference Lord Clifford compares the capture and proposed execution of the Duke of York with “Phaëton tumbling from his car and making an evening at the noontide prick.” The second reference is also used by Clifford, this time in relation to Henry VI's political impotence: “Henry had thou sway’d as kings should do, / Or as thy father and his father did … / [Then] thou this day hadst kept thy chair in peace.”

In their Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries, Starnes and Talbert assert that in “three, probably four, of these quotations [they ignore Romeo and Juliet] the story of Phaëton is used to symbolize ambition for power to rule, or given the power, inability to handle the ‘unruly jades.’”4 They agree with Robert K. Root5 that while “Shakespeare could have drawn his knowledge of the myth from Ovid … there are no striking verbal similarities.”6 They go on to suggest that another possible source for Shakespeare is the Dictionarium of Charles Stephanus, which originally derives from Comés’ Mythologiae. After summarizing the story of Phaëton, referring to Ovid, Lucian, and Comés, Stephanus concludes with this moral interpretation of the “fabula”: “Howsoever it be, the fable doth present unto us a picture of an inconsiderate and ambitious Prince, who being touched with an eager desire of Majesty, before his times ascends the Throne, but shortly after, letting loose the reins by his undiscreet Government, he sets his subjects all in a combustion, and endangers his own downfall.”7

T. W. Baldwin suggests that Shakespeare may have used Erasmus’ De Copia for the allusion, although Baldwin ignores Richard II and discusses the allusion in relation to The Two Gentlemen of Verona: the Phaëton reference explains Valentine's attempts to overreach himself.8 Erasmus’ reference is quite brief, although he does combine Icarus and Phaëton as allegorically representing pride, thus confirming the traditional yoking of the two figures: “it is quite obvious … that the tale of Icarus falling into the sea warns that no one should rise higher than his lot in life allows, and the story of Phaëton that no one should undertake to perform a task that is beyond his powers.”9

That Phaëton/Icarus became symbolic for pride was a commonplace; as such, Phaëton was an apt example for immature royalty whose pride preceded their fall. The figure was especially popular in the emblem books. In Andreas Alciati's Emblemata, for example, the pictura in the Phaëton emblem (Emblem LVI) shows Phaëton falling headfirst from his father's chariot as the horses buck and rear wildly. The inscriptio reads “In temerarios,” and the subscriptio compares Phaëton's fate to that of ambitious princes, although the medieval wheel of Fortune is mingled with princely ambition:

Sic plerique rotis fortuna ad Sidera Reges
Evecti, ambitio quos evuenilis agit.
Post magnam humani generis clademque suamque
Conctorum paenas denique dant Scelerum.(10)

Although the Phaëton allusion appears in three other Shakespearean plays, its use in Richard II is unique in the canon. Of all the characters associated with the allusion, only Richard identifies himself with Phaëton. Moreover the Phaëton story as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses and in Golding's translation suggests a far more complex meaning than ambition or inability to govern. Indeed, it plays a vital role in characterizing Richard II. It is the longest episode in Ovid and, while it involves pride and its fall, its major meaning is Phaëton's search for identity. As G. Karl Galinsky notes in his analysis of the Metamorphoses, Phaëton's quest is not only “an external search for his parentage, but … a psychological quest for his [own] identity.”11 Thus Ovid carefully excludes elements usually related to the myth, especially Phaëton's traditional metamorphosis into the constellation Auriga. In Ovid, Phaëton's metamorphosis is really an anagnorisis, his recognition of his limitations and his failure to rule his charges. Although his body is burned, it is not tranformed and is buried in a grave. The typical grotesque metamorphoses are transferred to his sisters, who become trees, and to his best friend, Cygnus, who becomes a swan. Because it incorporated such themes as the search for identity, pride and its fall, and the physical and social chaos that results from ambivalent leadership, Ovid's myth was a nearly perfect vehicle for Shakespeare to use in Richard II.

In Ovid's version of the myth Phaëton has grown up assuming he is the son of Sol. When doubts are expressed about that by Epaphus he becomes insecure. Since he has not really known his father he creates fantasies about his father's superhuman nature and, by extension, about himself. When his father tries to dispel that image (he tells Phaëton that he himself is frightened when he drives his chariot through the sky) Phaëton refuses to listen to such warnings. To accept a lesser father would be to become a lesser son. Since he is unable to give up what Galinsky calls the “ego-ideal of being like what he thought his father to be,” he insists on driving the chariot, “a tangible symbol of the power and greatness which he associated with his father” (p. 51), and which he wishes for himself.

Inherent in Richard II are the major traits exemplified by Phaëton. His pride and stubborn refusal to heed advice about his limitations are clearly evident throughout the play prior to his fall. Especially significant is his reaction to the warnings of Gaunt and York, both of whom like Epaphus in Ovid raise doubts about his identity. Gaunt first accuses Richard of “seeing ill” or failing to recognize himself or his enemies and of being “Landlord of England … not king.” Gaunt reminds Richard that his “state of law is bond slave to the law” (2.1.93-114).12 The second doubt about Richard's identity, following Richard's seizure of Gaunt's lands, comes from York who suggests, rhetorically of course, that Richard may not be the son of the Black Prince:

His face thou hast, for even so look’d he,
Accomplish’d 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 kindred blood,
But bloody with the enemies of his kin.
O Richard! York is too far gone with grief,
Or else he never would compare between.


The contrasts exemplified by York are heightened by the descriptions of Richard's father in Froissard and Holinshed where the Black Prince is indeed given godlike attributes. First of all, unlike his son, Edward battled bravely against the French King John at the battle of Poitiers (September 1356). Froissard asserts that he “had the courage of a lion” and “took great delight that day in the fight” (DNB, VI, 513) and Holinshed enthusiastically describes Edward's actions: “And the prince himselfe did not onelie fulfill the office of a noble cheefteine, but also of a right valiant and expert souldiour, attempting what soever any other hardie warriour would in such cases have done.”13

Edward's actions following the battle reflect his magnanimity. In his “meeke and comfortable oration” to the captured King John, he praises the French King for his valor and honor; and he attributes his own victory to the will of God. Most significant, however, and serving to highlight the differences between father and son, is the episode involving Edward's attempt to reestablish King Peter of Castile to the throne usurped by Peter's bastard brother, Henry of Trastamare. When Peter reneged on a promise to pay half the soldiers’ wages, the prince broke up his own plate so that the soldiers might be paid: how unlike Richard who seized others’ goods and farmed out the lands to raise money for his ventures! Holinshed's commemoration must have driven home to Shakespeare the gulf between the Black Prince and his son:

On the eight of Iune being Trinitie sundaie (the parlement yet continuing) that noble and famous prince Edward the kings sonne departed this life within the kings palace at Westminster. His bodie was conueied to Canturburie with great solemnitie, and there honorablie buried. He died in the 46 yeare of his age: a prince of such excellent demeanour, so valiant, wise and politike in his dooings, that the verie and perfect representation of knighthood appeared most liuelie in his person, whilest he liued, so that the losse of him stroke a generall sorrow into the harts of all the English nation. For such was his towardnesse, or rather perfection in princelie gouernement, that if he had liued and attained to the crowne, euerie man iudged that he would suerlie haue exceeded the glorious renowne of all his ancestors. (II, 703)

It is important that we recognize another relationship common to Phaëton and Richard. Since neither young man has really known his father, neither has had a real role model to follow. Phaëton has never seen Phoebus and Richard was only nine when the Black Prince died. Thus both knew of the fathers only through what was said about them or what was conjured up in their imaginations. Yet both were forced to assume the reins of power before being prepared to rule. Fearing the growing influence of John of Gaunt, Parliament quickly named Richard heir apparent upon the death of the Black Prince and prevented any of Richard's uncles from being appointed to the council which ruled for him following the death of Edward III. Richard thus had only stories of past glory, similar to those recounted by York, to relate to.

Phaëton had even less knowledge of his father, so that he is forced to fabricate exploits for his companion, Epaphus. During one of these episodes when Phaëton fulsomely glorifies his father (magna loquentem), Epaphas spreads the seeds of doubt and creates the circumstance leading to Phaëton's destruction. Phaëton's demand to drive the horses upon meeting his father, an irrational and arrogant act, is roughly analogous to Richard's seizure of Gaunt's lands: both acts reflect the immaturity and petulence associated with childhood. Both acts upset the natural order of things, one physical, the other political.

In seizing Gaunt's lands, of course, Richard breaks the law of primogeniture and separates himself from the law of the realm, a law that he himself is bound by, as York later reminds him: “for how art thou a king / But by fair sequence and succession” (2.1.198-99). In breaking this law, Hooker's Jus gentium and Sir John Fortescue's Jus polliticum, Richard also assumes a new identity operating under a new law, that which Fortescue termed Jus regale—a tyrant who would not have the realm “governyd bi any Ooer rule or lawe, but bi his owne wille.”14

Like Phaëton, Richard ignores the warnings from his counselors, primarily because he has identified himself with divine rather than earthly power, a divine power symbolized by the sun, the Plantagenet badge. The relationship is established by the bravado analogy he uses in replying to Aumerle's warning of Bullingbrook's increasing power. He starts by noting that when “the searching eye of heaven is hid … thieves and robbers range abroad unseen.” But when the sun “fires the proud tops of the eastern pines / And darts his light through every guilty hole, / murthers, treasons, and detested sins … Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves.” Richard completes the analogy of Bullingbrook as thief and himself as the sun:

So when this thief, this traitor Bullingbrook,
Who all this while hath revell’d in the night
Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.


This analogy continues until his fall. He insists that God will send “glorious” angels to fight for him and muster “Armies of pestilence.” These and other assertions of divinity are frenzied attempts at self-euhemerism—quite similar to those of Phaëton’s—which become even more frequent after his fall, when he employs the Christ analogy. His identification with divinity blocks out all warnings by his counselors (both Carlisle and Aumerle urge him to confront Henry). Like Phaëton, he cannot bear to be merely mortal. Power resides not in military strategy—in earthly action—but in sovereignty, in Divine Being. Obviously, then, when that power he has identified with fails him, as it does when Salisbury informs him of losing the Welsh soldiers, he begins to doubt his new identity, his Jus regale, and ultimately attempts to establish still another one. The ambivalence occurs immediately. He notes that the loss of twenty thousand men is “reason to look pale and dead,” but when Aumerle urges him to “remember who you are,” he quickly reasserts himself: “I had forgot myself, am I not king? / Awake thou coward majesty! Thou sleepest. / Is not the king's name twenty thousand names?” Yet his call to arms is to his “name,” his “great glory,” and he bids his favorites not to look “to the ground” but on high: “are we not high? / High be our thoughts.” The crisis of identity intensifies following his descent from Flint Castle and the subsequent deposition scene. When Northumberland attempts to address him, Richard responds: “I have no name, no title … And know not now what name to call myself.” From this moment on (4.1) Richard no longer uses the royal “we.” His loss of identity and attempts to recreate himself explain the references to Christ; the hermit allusion (3.3.144-57); the mirror episode in which he questions the old analogy: “Was this the face / That like the sun, did make beholders wink?” (4.1.283-84); and, at last, the nihilistic final surrender prior to his murder:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes I am a 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 Bullingbrook,
And straight am nothing. But what e’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eas’d
With being nothing.


Several references specifically linking Richard to Phaëton occur prior to Richard's final fall at Flint Castle. In Golding, Phaëton is both “yong in yeares and wit.”15 Richard's youth and impatience are stressed by York when Richard visits the dying Gaunt: “Deal mildly with his youth, / For young hot colts being rag’d do rage the more” (2.1.69-70). More significant is the short episode between the Welsh captain and Salisbury (2.4) a parallel to an episode in Ovid. In Ovid, Phaëton's runaway chariot wreaks havoc on the earth:

“the Moone was in a maze to see his brothers Waine
Run under hirs: the singéd clouds began to smoke amaine.
Each ground the higher that it was and nearer to the Skie,
The sooner was it set on fire, and made therewith so drie.
That every where it gan to chinke. The Medes and Pastures greene
Did seare away: and with the leaves, the trees were burnéd cleene.
The parchéd corne did yeelde wherewith to worke his owne decaie.

(p. 46)

The Welsh captain gives a similar description of his country, noting that such “signs forerun the death or fall of kings”: “The bay trees in our country are all wither’d, / And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven, / The pale faced moon looks bloody on the earth” (2.4.8-10). Another parallel occurs in the “shooting star” image: in Ovid, Phaëton “Shot headlong downe, and glid along the Region of the Ayre / Like to [a] Starre in Winter nightes.” And his father, Sol, “With ruthful cheere and heavie heart … made great mone. / And would not shew himself abrode, but mournd at home alone” (p. 49). Salisbury foreshadows Richard's similar fate:

Ah, Richard! with the eyes of heavy, mind
I see thy glory like a shooting star
Fall to the base earth from the firmament.
Thy sun sets weeping in the lowly west,
Witnessing storms to come, woe and unrest.


The efficient cause of Richard's fall, like Phaëton’s, is his failure to control his unruly jades. But these same jades were made “unruly” by giving them too much rein. Just as Phaëton “let the bridels slacke,” permitting the horses to run wild, so Richard permitted his subjects to rule him. As the Gardener notes following Richard's fall:

[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. Superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live;
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown.


In Ovid, Phaëton is urged by his father to drive his chariot in the proper course: “For be thou sure, / And if thou mount above thy bounds, the starres thou burnest clean. / Againe beneath though burnst the Earth: most safetie is the meane” (p. 44). In Richard II a similar mean is suggested, again by the Gardener in the order to his servant:

Go thou, and like an executioner
Cut off the head of [too] fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.


The physical fall of Richard at Flint Castle best exemplifies Richard's problem with his identity. When Bullingbrook asserts that the castle holds no royalty, he is assured by Percy that “it doth contain a king.16 King Richard lies / within the limits of yon lime and stone” (3.3.23-25). The question now is whether Richard is really a king—a leader capable of managing his “unruly jades.” At Flint Castle Bullingbrook urges all to “mark King Richard how he looks” and returns to the celestial analogy when Richard appears on the walls:

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


York responds immediately: “Yet looks he like a king!”

But appearances are deceiving. In Golding, Phaëton's head is “annointed” with “heavenly salve”: “which done, upon his haire / He [Phoebus] put the fresh and golden rayes himselfe was wont to weare” (p. 44). Thus Phaëton “appears” to be a driver of the sun although he is not. For Phaëton and for Richard appearance is not identity because identity involves function. It is not enough to look like a king or the driver of the sun. One must be the king or the driver. Phaëton has assumed a false identity and fails when he attempts to drive his horses by appearance only. Richard, too, has assumed a false identity—the God-protected and thus omnipotent king—and fails when he attempts to rule his subjects by appearance rather than by law. Neither Phaëton's “heavenly salve” nor Richard's “annointed balm” can substitute for true identity which emerges through performance. When this realization dawns, Phaëton and Richard are both confused and helpless. Phaëton “wisht he that he never had his fathers horses see, / it yrkt him that he thus had sought to learn his piedegre. / It grievde him that he had prevailde in gaining his request.” He also “wisht not what was best to doe, his wittes were ravisht so. / For neither could he hold the Reynes, nor yet durst let them go” (p. 45). Richard voices similar uncertainty after failing to confront Bullingbrook:

Or that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been!
Or not remember what I must be now!


Richard loses the power of metaphysical authority to elicit respect and fear for his earthly rule. Thereafter he has only purely political alternatives: to rule wisely according to the law of the realm or foolishly under his private tyranny. In the end he either does not act at all or acts as one totally unfamiliar with rule. As Eileen Allman notes, Richard's separation of name from act “immobilizes the land and speaks for rebellion as health.”17 Thus when Richard attempts to act on the basis of his lost name—the ruler properly appointed by God—he fails because he is not prepared for the one-dimensional world he has created.

With the realization that he is not truly king, Richard like Phaëton falls. The fall from false sovereignty is accompanied by the literal descent from the castle walls to the “base court” below. His identification of himself with Phaëton is thus complete: each has assumed an identity based on the belief that appearance alone would guarantee success. But “jades,” whether equine or human, must be managed. Richard's pun (manage = manège, the art of horsemanship) grimly signals his anagnorisis. From this point on he attempts to find other identities: hermit, Christ, beggar, and finally nothing. “King Bullingbrook,” whose identity emerges from his ability alone will now manage England's jades, including even Richard's roan Barbary, a fact that astonishes the deposed king: “Would he not stumble? Would he not fall down, / Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck / Of that proud man that did usurp his back?” (5.5.87-89) But Bullingbrook rides true because he has no doubts about his identity, as he informs York who confronts him upon Bullingbrook's arrival back in England: “As I was banished, I was banished Herford / But as I come I come for Lancaster” (2.3.113-14). Moreover, for now, he rides the “meane” and will keep tight rein on all his subjects in the Commonwealth, and maintain “all even” in his English Garden. Just as the Gardener “lops off” superfluous branches, Henry IV lops off the heads of Salisbury, Spenser, Blunt and Kent at the end of the play.

The Phaëton myth as told by Ovid in Golding's version contains the major thematic, structural and imagistic elements associated with Shakespeare's Richard II. The parallels in Golding's translation are more clearly related to Shakespeare's play than those from any other source. Such evidence convinces me that Shakespeare had Golding's version in mind when he used the Phaëton allusion.

But the major contribution of Ovid's Phaëton story is the question of identity which, I believe, Shakespeare used in his characterization of Richard. As we can see in Shakespeare's choice of stories from the Metamorphoses, specific classical figures are employed because they exemplify the type of characterization he seeks. An obvious example is Shakespeare's reworking of the Venus and Adonis myth. Since the original Adonis in Ovid's story was much too eager for love, the regular Ovidian story is heavily supplemented by the Salmacis and Hermaphroditus story (Book 4) which dramatizes the more appropriate reluctant male (Hermaphroditus). Ovid's Phaëton myth, with its thematic search for identity by an immature youth, was ideal for Shakepeare's treatment of Richard II.


  1. All quotations from the plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

  2. “Metaphor and Symbol in the Sixteenth Century,” Essays in Criticism, 3 (1953), 267-84.

  3. “Phaëton: The Metaphysical Tension Between the Ego and the Universe in English Poetry,” Accent, 16 (1956), 29-44.

  4. De Witt T. Starnes and Ernest William Talbert, Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1955), p. 119.

  5. Robert K. Root, Classical Mythology in Shakespeare (New York, 1965), p. 97.

  6. Starnes and Talbert, p. 119.

  7. Quoted from Starnes and Talbert, p. 120. The translation is by Holyoke and Littleton.

  8. William Shakespeare's Small Lataine and Lesse Greeke (Urbana, Ill., 1944), II, 195.

  9. Quoted from the Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 24, ed. Craig R. Thompson, p. 611. De Copia is translated and annotated by Betty I. Knott.

  10. Quoted from Starnes's and Talbert's reproduction, p. 118.

  11. Ovid's Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects (Berkeley, Cal., 1975), p. 49.

  12. Gaunt's lines are glossed by the Riverside edition to mean “your legal status is no longer that of a ruler by divine right but that of a subject under law.” But the line (set off by a stop in the Folio) surely is a reminder that Richard's law should be Jus polliticum (Fortescue) like any other king’s, rather than a comment about Richard's changed legal status. In either event Gaunt asserts that Richard has taken on a new role. After this it is Richard who asserts the prerogative of “divine right.”

  13. Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1808), II, 666.

  14. The Governance of England, ed. Charles Plummer (Oxford, 1885), p. 111. Hooker asserts that the power of the king over all is limited and that “unto all his proceedings the law itself is a rule.” See also Burleigh's comment on Elizabeth: “I would be loath to live to see a woman of such wisdom as she is, to be wrongly advised … that her prerogative is above the law.” Quoted from Edna Z. Boris, “The Tudor Constitution and Shakespeare's Two Tetralogies,” College Literature, IV (1977), 197-209. The Burleigh quotation is from Elizabeth Jenkens, Elizabeth the Great (New York, 1959), p. 280.

  15. Shakespeare's Ovid: Arthur Golding's Translation of the “Metamorphoses,” ed. W. H. D. Rouse (New York, 1966), p. 44. Subsequent quotations are from this edition.

  16. Henry's surprise about Richard's presence in the castle is unhistorical since Richard had been ambushed by Northumberland and forced to go to Flint. Shakespeare thus further manipulates history to create doubts about Richard's identity.

  17. Player-King and Adversary: Two Faces of Play in Shakespeare (Baton Rouge, La., 1980), p. 22.

Donald M. Friedman (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9123

SOURCE: “John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration,” in ELH 43, No. 3, Fall, 1976, pp. 279-99.

[In the following essay, Friedman studies the form and content of Gaunt's dying speech and argues that the speech reveals Gaunt to be deeply frustrated with his inability to insure the existence and stability of his particular view of “England's essence.” Friedman emphasizes that Gaunt's speech is more than the national panegyric it is often taken to be and that Gaunt does not simply serve as an objective commentator on England's glories.]

This teeming womb of privilege, this feudal state,
Whose shores beat back the turbulent sea of foreign anarchy.
This ancient fortress, still commanded by the noblest
Of our royal blood; this ancient land of ritual.
This precious stone set in a silver sea.(1)

John of Gaunt's deathbed speech on the glories of England, in the first scene of Act Two of Richard II, has long appealed to anthologists; indeed, the establishment of its status as a set-piece of patriotic fervor began as early as 1600, when it appeared, in a truncated form,2 as one of the two excerpts included under the rubric, “Albion,” in England's Parnassus. Since then it has served on any number of ceremonial occasions, in pageants, orations, and even films,3 as the very type of the national panegyric. Understandably, those who have put it to such uses have not inquired very closely into its dramatic context, nor even into the context of the entire speech, from which the most often-quoted lines are usually excerpted.

It is less understandable that recent criticism of Richard II has maintained, with very little variation, the traditional estimate of the meaning and effect of Gaunt's speech. That interpretation of Richard II, and of the second tetralogy as a whole, which stresses the importance of Tudor political orthodoxy and the providential course of history in Shakespeare's design has been challenged by critics like E. W. Talbert, Wilbur Sanders, and Norman Rabkin,4 who find that Shakespeare's treatment of the problems of the nature of kingship, the ideal of the commonwealth, and the rights of oppressed subjects, is more consistent with a complex sense of the moral relationship between public and private selves than previous critical views have allowed. They have been moved to offer their challenge by the realization that within the traditional interpretations of the political orthodoxies supposed to have been shared by Shakespeare there lie areas of anomaly, if not conflict. The doctrine announced in “An Homily against Disobedience and wilful rebelion,” one of the “Certain Sermons” “appointed to be read in churches” under Elizabeth I, holds that resistance to a monarch can be justified by no circumstances whatever; in this view. Bolingbroke's usurpation stands utterly condemned, despite Richard's manifest unfitness for rule, his flagrant abuses of royal privilege, and even his complicity in the murder of his uncle. Thomas, Duke of Gloucester. Yet, according to the notion Shakespeare is commonly held to have derived from Hall's chronicles and through his reading of Holinshed,5 the history of England from the deposition of Richard II to the advent of the Tudors provides a demonstration of God's punishment of the nation for its sins, and of the restoration of His grace in the establishment of national unity by the reconciliation of York and Lancaster under Henry VII. Within this interpretive framework, Bolingbroke is the scourge and minister of divine providence, and his acts of usurpation and murder are to be seen as the foundation of the triumphant achievements of Tudor rule.

The issues are further complicated by the superimposition of these sixteenth-century political ideas upon the events, the institutions, and the theories of medieval history. We do not know, for example, to what extent Shakespeare was aware of the fact that his contemporaries understood the doctrine of “the divine right of kings” a good deal more categorically than did fourteenth-century Englishmen, for whom the boundaries of that right were hedged round very firmly by venerable principles of contractual obligation and by the distinctions implicit in the theory of the king's “two bodies.”6 In any case, our judgment of Shakespeare's viewpoint in the play is affected by such an awareness, as it is by recent discussions of the continuing vigor of contractual political theories in Shakespeare's time.7

All of this makes it difficult to sustain the argument that the second tetralogy, and Richard II in particular, were intended as dramatic illustrations of orthodox Tudor political doctrine. Even without entering debates over matters which belong essentially to constitutional history and the history of ideas, our confidence in Shakespeare's orthodoxy would be shaken, if only by his problematic presentation of Richard himself. Opinion has long been divided over the question of whether the king is to be seen as a frivolous tyrant or a sainted martyr, a trial sent by God upon the English to purge their sins, or a victim of a treacherous rebellion for which the nation must undergo a lengthy and bloody penance. The problem of interpretation extends to the structure itself of the play; it is, again, a commonplace of criticism that the King Richard of the first two acts, Henry IV's “skipping king,” revealed in all his empty and ineffectual ceremoniousness and in the cold venality of his callous greed, is a very different figure from the Richard of the last three acts, who emerges from his isolated and deprived state a figure much advanced in dignity and self-knowledge. Or, at least, critics have agreed that Richard ends by winning from the audience a sympathy and even admiration that his behavior in the first half of the play rendered impossible. Whereas these puzzling aspects of the play at one time excited speculation about its genre or the tragic stature of its protagonist, as well as about the precise stance of its political philosophy, they now seem to be in themselves signs of Shakespeare's interest in politics conceived much more broadly, and evidence of his characteristic mode of examining concepts and institutions as they are embodied in individuals who serve them. In Sanders’ phrase, “the focus is on political man, not political theory.”8

If we subscribe to the idea that Shakespeare does not usually present us with a spokesman for a political or moral viewpoint without asking us to evaluate the spokesman as well as the viewpoint—to consider, in other words, the effect an idea has on the person who holds and supports it, and to judge the idea partially on the basis of that effect—then we should be constantly alert to the interplay between personality or character and the values it espouses. That is, of course, the normal condition of a critical response to any form of drama; but in the case of Shakespeare's history plays that necessary alertness has been somewhat blunted. The plays’ connections with the actual events of recorded history give them a spurious air of reality; in a different way, our knowledge of Elizabethan political theory and propaganda has made it more, rather than less, difficult to preserve our critical scepticism about the sources of political ideas as they appear in the histories. Richard II, for all the reasons that have made it a cause of debate and indecision, seems to me an obvious reminder of the need for scepticism in its interpretation.9 Indeed, just as Richard the king has been the focus of much probing inquiry, so have Bolingbroke, Northumberland, and even the loyal but helpless Duke of York.10 Only John of Gaunt, so far as I have been able to discover, has remained immune from the dialectic investigation of motive and principle; this essay proposes to test the strength of that immunity by examining his famous dying speech a little more closely than has been the custom.

The first anthologist to recognize the power of Gaunt's vision of England's glory, the editor of England's Parnassus, was also the first to detach the lines beginning, “this royal throne of kings …” from their context, not only by omitting the preceding lines in which Gaunt predicts the disastrous outcome of Richard's follies in a series of proverbial apothegms, but also by neglecting to print the concluding line of the speech, which contain the climax and point of the duke's ecstatic reverie, his condemnation of Richard's financial policies and their destructive effect on the idealized England to which Gaunt owes allegiance. In Gaunt's speech Shakespeare is drawing upon several rhetorical and dramatic traditions; two of the most prominent are the deathbed prophecy and the national panegyric, and these at least are fairly represented by the lines usually excerpted (40-55). In commenting on the tradition of patriotic encomium, the Arden editor of Richard II, Peter Ure, points out that Gaunt's speech evokes comparison with a number of literary parallels, including passages from Virgil and Plutarch and a variety of Elizabethan patriotic writings.11 His citations fall roughly into three groups, each of which illuminates a recurrent theme. England's watery isolation, for example, is mentioned not only in other plays by Shakespeare (3 Henry VI, King John), but also in Daniel's Delia (Sonnet XLIV), in Hakluyt, and in Greene's Spanish Masquerado. This providential arrangement, whereby England is preserved from foreign invasion, is connected logically to Gaunt's conclusion that the nation can be conquered only by its own sins, an argument found in The Troublesome Raigne of King John, in works by Churchyard and Borde, in the propagandistic Briefe Discoverie by G. D., and in Daniel's Civile Warres. From Peele's Edward I and in A. Marten's Exhortation (in the Harleian Miscellany), Ure cites remarks on the “reputation of English chivalry,” particularly in reference to national participation in crusading adventures. As models for the panegyric speech as a whole, Ure turns to two translations from, or versions of, a passage in Du Bartas’ Creation du Monde: excerpts from John Eliot's Ortho-epia Gallica or Eliot's Fruits from the French and Joshua Sylvester's Devine Weekes and Workes are printed as appendices in the Arden edition.12 When we turn to these passages, however, it appears that the differences between Gaunt's speech and these English versions of Du Bartas are such that while they do not bring into question the proposition that Shakespeare was writing within an established rhetorical tradition, they do nevertheless illustrate the ways in which he adapted that tradition to a specific dramatic purpose.

The distinction may be drawn consistently between these versions of Du Bartas and the passage in Richard II as that between direct, unmediated praise of a subject whose claims to value are enumerated clearly, and a laudatio whose qualifications and modes of defining the object of praise have the effect of characterizing the orator as revealingly as his subject. Thus, when Eliot (speaking of France) and Sylvester (converting Du Bartas’ lines to England) begin to list the causes of national glory, they mention not only the far-ranging warriors, but “artizans” and “learned wits,” the standard adornments of aspiring civilizations. Similarly, the land itself is distinguished by its actual, material characteristics: great rivers, cities which “Shires doo seem,” and soil that is “fertill-temperate-sweete”; even the civility of government is accorded mention, a quality which is praised for having raised the walls of cities “to loftie skies,” cities that Sylvester describes as “Civil in manners, as in Buildings trim.” Both versions conclude by reminding the reader that this treasure has been preserved by the defences of nature, and Sylvester adds the cautionary remark that traitors alone can breach England's triple wall of “Water, Wood, and Brasse.”

It is obvious that if Shakespeare began with these lines, or others like them, in mind, he very quickly adjusted the tone and structure of the panegyric to the exigencies of character and situation that govern Gaunt's deathbed scene. The old man is no disinterested commentator on the glories of England; he is deeply implicated in the question he poses about the preservation or destruction of the national character. Furthermore, the qualities which for him form the essence of value in the imagined realm he surveys are those which he feels are the special province of his own bloodline. Richard's fiscal machinations threaten not simply the wealth and stability of the kingdom, but the very process of creation whereby noble and powerful men generate the substance of the realm. That substance, for Gaunt, consists in reputation, the regard in which England is held by other, lesser, nations, and in maintaining the hereditary continuity between England's chivalry and its integrity in a civil order. In such a conception there is no room for artists or sholars. Neither clear rivers nor fertile fields play a part in Gaunt's vision, because he is not concerned with the economic sources of England's wealth and prosperity, but only with the obligations they impose on their guardians. For the same reason he offers no praise of great cities, institutions, works of architecture or the other arts—any of the commonly recognized signs of excellence in a civilization. What Gaunt sees is truly a disembodied vision of national greatness, more neoplatonic in its separation of essence and being than Richard's equally radical conception of the kingdom as the physical extension of his royal self.

So much can be surmised by comparing the central lines of Gaunt's speech to models, of similar rhetorical mode, to which Ure and other editors have allied it. Let us return to the context of those lines, in an attempt to understand the reasons for the anthologists’ pruning. If, for the moment, we take the lines 40-55 to stand, in a sort of equation, for the political orthodoxy the play as a whole has been thought to support, then the omitted lines should be examined for evidence of the subtle analysis of personal motive which Sanders and others have called attention to. And when we compare the two groups of lines we notice that they have been clearly differentiated by Shakespeare, not only by the subjects they treat, but also by their characteristics of rhythm, diction, and rhetorical organization. Furthermore, the several parts of the speech mark a development in Gaunt of a sense of his position vis-à-vis the king. Whereas in his interview with the Duchess of Gloucester in I.ii, Gaunt had felt himself able only to deplore Richard's part in the murder of her husband, and his speeches in I.iv express in the main a saddened acquiescence in the banishment, on very obscure grounds, of his own son, the opening of II.i suggests an access of energy in the dying old man, as if in answer to his determination to arrest that course of action in the king which Gaunt has previously declined to oppose. What Richard later mocks as Gaunt's “nice” playing on his name begins in fact with Gaunt's serious “playing” with the notion that his dying breath may have the power of counsel that the king has refused to hear in the normal course of political affairs. To York's wearied practically—“Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath; / For all in vain comes counsel to his ear”—Gaunt replies that “the tongues of dying men / Inforce attention like deep harmony,” because “Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain.” Gaunt is invoking not only the respect and sentiment that surround the deathbed utterance, nor only the mysterious prophetic powers that are supposed to descend upon the dying, but also what he takes to be the irresistible worth, the persuasive force, of words spoken in pain and at great cost; they must be listened to because they are the ultimate expression of disinterested counsel, the unquestionable altruism of the good adviser who knows he cannot benefit from his own advice. Thus he is sure that “though Richard my life's counsel would not hear, / My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear”; the privative verb13 is a measure of Gaunt's confidence in his ability to change the king, to restore a natural faculty which Richard has corrupted in himself. York, ever hewing close to the testimony of actual experience, reminds him that the king's ear has been “stopp’d with other flattering sounds,” particularly by “lascivious metres” and new, Italianate vanities “buzz’d into his ears”; the king cannot possibly hear good counsel because the faculty that should take in and appreciate the sounds of wisdom has become the place “where will doth mutiny with wit's regard.”14 Despairingly, York advises Gaunt to spare his breath, the breath so precious to a dying man.

But his remark has the unexpected effect of arousing Gaunt to the delighted contemplation of the possible play on the word “breath”:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspir’d,
And thus expiring do foretell of him.


He will immediately breathe out in prophecy the vision with which he has been inspirited. We are led to expect the language of an exalted seer at this point; but what we hear is a series of short, packed maxims:

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last.
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder;
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.


Peter Ure notes that the lines rely on the “rhetorical device of auxesis,” known also to contemporary rhetoricians as incrementum or progressio.15 But whether we consult Hoskyns or Puttenham, or even Quintilian,16 we find that this figure is understood to describe a succession of increasingly powerful examples, leading to a climactic point or condition. These lines do not seem to exemplify the characteristic qualities of auxesis, because although they illustrate in a number of ways the propensity of passion and appetite to destroy themselves, there is no progress toward that lesson in the encapsulated, end-stopped movement of the passage. This would hardly be worth remarking were it not for the fact that the lines that follow, the famous ones on “this England,” do proceed according to the principle of auxesis; and I take it that the difference between Gaunt's stern comments on Richard's self-consuming folly and his visionary praise of the ideal commonwealth of the English past is meant to be marked for the reader, the audience and the actor, by the different rhythms to be heard in that passage, and in this, which may be called an example of false auxesis.17

I take it, also, that we are being called upon to observe the kinds of rhetorical energy that are summoned up in Gaunt by the differing subjects of his discourse. As he contemplates Richard's actual behavior as king, his regard is that of the detached moralist, funded richly with the wisdom of experience and with the moral laws which received tradition has provided to characterize and judge the experience. The king's actions are seen as abstractable, infinitely repeatable examples of moral behavior; even though the images themselves, particularly those having to do with appetite and eating, are immediate and concrete, Gaunt's involvement with them is that of the orator coloring his discourse with the vividness appropriate to the act of condemnation. Ironically enough, his prophetic inspiration in these lines is markedly short-breathed; the lines do not move smoothly and incrementally to a climactic point; they reach their concluding indictment, rather, by way of a succession of apothegms, almost entirely self-enclosed, and in their proverbial diction contributing to our sense of impersonal, generalized evaluation.

If the point seems labored, it is because the contrast with the succeeding lines, while so sharp, has gone so often unnoticed. This is all the more difficult to account for when one notices that Gaunt begins to speak of England in absolute disjunction from his initial subject; or at least so it appears, for we do not learn until line 66 that England is being adduced as the most important instance of self-conquest. But before we reach that apprehension our attention is concentrated on the rhapsodic phrases in which Gaunt shapes the portrait of a civilization which is passing, even as he dies. And that attention is held, in large part, by the rhetorical and rhythmic structure of this panegyric; “held” is probably the best word because its structure is based on suspense, on a deliberate auxesis of non-completion, reflected most clearly in the syntax of the passage. The laudatio that begins, “This royal throne of kings,” does not attain its grammatical predicate for nearly twenty lines; and the shock with which we discover that the summary point of the wavelike succession of idealizing clauses is the assertion that England “is now leas’d out … like to a tenement or pelting farm” is not the kind of climax toward which progressio normally moves.

Our attention is held, too, by the impact of successive and accumulating adjectives, which serve as nuclei for those clauses, many of which take up no more than half a line, as Gaunt struggles to express the feelings of awe, fealty, and yearning which, again, make so telling a contrast with the language of execration in which he has just indulged. Here, it seems, the paradoxical nature of his prophetic “breath” reveals itself in rhythmic phrases that are even shorter-lived than his previous maxims, but which he cannot bring to rhetorical fulfillment. It is as if the heroic suspension of grammar is meant to figure the sheer effort of will Gaunt is expending in this speech; and, as a consequence, the versification and syntax of the passage on England are intended as signs of the profoundly personal fervor of the speech, that intimacy of evaluative purpose that was lacking in the judgmental lines on Richard's fatal instability. For what is hymned in lines 40-59 is the nation of permanent and impregnable worth that Gaunt sees as the dedicatee of his life's devotion.

What first seizes his imagination, and ours, is the intrinsic connection between England and monarchic power: the “Royal throne of kings,” an isle that is “scept’red,” an earth “of majesty.” The land itself18 and the dominion over it become metaphorically interchangeable, as the nouns and adjectives shift positions, defying normal rules of subordination. The only transition that Gaunt provides from his condemnatory remarks on Richard to this rapt enumeration of England's virtues is unspoken, the tacit comparison between the king that Richard has shown himself to be and the ideal of kingship represented in the lengthy, multiplex characterization of the realm.19 Thus, while the surface of the speech reflects at first the image of the fusion of realm and regal power, the phrase that follows, “this seat of Mars,” tells us that that fusion, in Gaunt's mind, is not God-given, not divinely instituted, not a political institution founded in earth as a microcosmic imitation of universal governance. Rather, its source and stay is in armed might, the martial prowess which later in the speech will be associated with England's crusading past. But here, as there, Gaunt's mind blurs the perception of harsh political reality by shifting from “this seat of Mars” to “This other Eden,” making a transition without a link, a sequence of epithets that would seem to be contradictory rather than complementary. For Richard, his kingdom is indeed another Eden, “demi-paradise,” and he its vice-regental ruler, by divine fiat; it is a matter of principle, of inviolable law, not subject to the truths of history or the exigencies of government. Gaunt's thought moves more deviously, trying to validate its vision of value by placing the god of war and the name of paradise side by side, as if the mere naming will wipe out the distance between their irreconcilable meanings.

Nevertheless, for Gaunt, the experienced warrior and statesman, Eden does not represent the ease and benevolence of man's unfallen state, the otiose paradise that lies barely beneath the many comparisons of England to a garden.20 It is, rather, a “fortress” built “by Nature” to preserve the race of Englishmen, “this happy breed,” against both foreign invasions (“the hand of war”) and the equally pernicious incursions of alien manners. It is hard to tell whether “this little world” is made valuable by being a world complete to itself, or by its being little, special, reserved for the few choice spirits fortunate enough to be born English. By a similar token, the “precious stone set in the silver sea” derives its value from the valuer and from what surrounds it; although it is “precious,” the island is still a “stone,” and it is the sea which is silver.21 In short, what defines England's value as Eden for Gaunt is its exclusiveness, as signalled by nature's choosing to defend it by a “wall” of water, a “moat defensive to house”; there is nothing here of paradise as the sign of God's bounty to man, the emblem of man's benevolent dominion over nature, the symbol of natural subordination and the fruitful pursuits of obedience and sanctified labor. In a way, Shakespeare's Gaunt anticipates Milton's characterization of Eden as a precarious repository of great treasure, besieged and threatened by a greedy and revengeful adversary; but here Satan appears in the guise of the “envy of less happier lands.” The difference, of course, is that Gaunt knows his enemy very well, and the accents of his speech record not only his passionate appreciation of his fortress island but also his fierce determination to keep it inviolate. This love is commingled with a kind of inflamed miserliness the will to hoard what is good, to keep it from being shared by greedy foreigners, or even tainted by their influence. The very mention of those “less happier lands” moves Gaunt once again to the pulsing, chanting rhythms of the earlier lines:

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England …


Here again, paraphrasis (or interpretatio) gives the effect of trying to define an essence by enumerating all its names, an attempt that fails because his understanding of the national essence goes no further than attaching the name to the earth itself. But just as the mention of paradise had led Gaunt to the thought of England's protective isolation, so the naming of the land itself leads him to another of its qualities, one vitally important to his concept of monarchic power—its dynastic fertility: “This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings.”22 England's earth brings forth kings, is their creator, mother, and nurse; thus Richard's view of the kingdom as his absolute possession, given by God's hand, is contraverted by Gaunt's image of a womb spawning those who will protect it, a “happy breed of men,” whose individual identity is submerged in a collective purpose, a kind of perpetual knightly order sworn to the defense of its fortress island and of its own privilege. Furthermore, he thinks of their quality not only in the light of their isolated brotherhood, but also because they have been

Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry.


Reputation is the key to Gaunt's intensity here, and it is as hard to tell whether it is more important to him that they are “fear’d” or “famous” as it is to say which he values more, the deeds they have done or the renown they have earned. At least it is clear that “Christian service and true chivalry” are evocative terms to describe the martial activities of Gaunt's ancestors. It is important to note here, I think, that Gaunt's memory is going back to the time of Edward I, but conflating it simultaneously with the history of the reign of Edward III, his father. The first Edward's reputation for saintliness and Christian devotion is called upon to color the lingering pride and excitement of the exploits of Edward III and the Black Prince in their careers as adventurers in the wars against France. It might be said cynically that Gaunt's father had managed brilliantly to divert public discontent by his incessant, and sporadically successful, foreign campaigns; but it is also true that Edward's warlike brood did constitute a magnificently appealing image of dynastic potency, and that the king was forgiven much because of his ability to stir the patriotic feelings of his subjects. In this respect, Gaunt has superimposed on the memory of a time when England was, briefly, feared as a military power, a highly-colored portrait of a crusading band doing Christ's work at the furthest reaches of the medieval world. The pattern of thought cannot be called disingenuous, but it does show how the creation of an “idealised picture”23 should be understood as a discovery of the speaker's own desires and motives. These are not the words of a Christian knight,24 but those of a feudal nobleman to whom the reputation of Christian chivalry is central to his conception of himself.25

It is difficult to distinguish the value Gaunt places on the renown of English arms (a renown brought to its apogee by his father and the brothers whom the Duchess of Gloucester calls the “seven vials of his sacred blood”), from the value he attaches to the deeds that have earned that renown. The shadowiness of his principles of evaluation is epitomized in the curiously opaque, repeated, ambiguous epithets of the lines that follow:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world.


As the lines proceed the meaning of “dear” becomes increasingly problematic: are the souls “dear” to Gaunt because of their personal associations with the heroic past he is lamenting, or because of their self-sacrificing service to the cause of Christ? Is the land dear in itself because of its meaning for him, or is he characterizing its worth as a possession? Or is it finally dear, as he says, because of its “reputation through the world”? Is this, in short, an instance of Shakespeare's questioning, as he does so clearly in Troilus and Cressida, the foundations of all systems of valuation in specific personal motivations? We cannot ignore the obvious play on monetary and intrinsic worth,26 and our understanding of the point of Gaunt's furious indignation depends very heavily on which meaning emerges more strongly. His ambiguous use of “dear” is emphasized by its crammed repetitions, and the lines in which they occur move rapidly to the rhythmic climax of the whole speech, as Gaunt's frenetic, expiring energy discharges itself into the agonized words, “is now leas’d out.” The interplay between the puzzle of Gaunt's attribution of value and his outrage at the demeaning of that value recapitulates the questions about motivation that underly the entire panegyric, and raise them once again in a more accessible form: is Gaunt crying out against the desecration Richard has wrought upon England, or is he protesting that the king has disposed ignobly of the worth of the realm the old man has regarded as his own? Commentary on the speech has assumed almost universally that Gaunt is making a “plea for … vanished majesty,”27 that his “great speech of lament … is a compelling vision of the past and a passionate denunciation of the present,”28 and that the famous lines are intended as the last, exemplary utterance of a noble way of life that is passing. Clearly this estimate cannot be gainsaid. Gaunt does speak for a conception of national honor and potency which Richard has eroded by his prodigal wasting of the substance of his realm, and the reaction of generations of the play's audience is not the least of the testimonies to the power of the speech to arouse feelings of patriotic pride. But we must also remember that the values of feudal, chivalric civilization do not act in the play only as abstractions. They are tied quite firmly to the characters and voices of specific people; and our responses to those values must take into account our evaluation of their spokesmen. Commenting on the place in Richard II of the doctrine of divine right, Sanders says, “When Shakespeare puts the advocacy of this doctrine in the mouth of the kind of king we have seen Richard to be, he is subjecting it to a severe, if implicit, critique.”29 The point of my analysis of Gaunt's speech on England is that it is not immune to the same kind of scrutiny Sanders demands for Richard's defense of his position.

The need for such scrutiny, it seems to me, becomes clear when the climax of Gaunt's praise of his native land turns out to be, not the expected summary statement of England's glory, but the outburst of contempt and frustrated indignation we hear in:

Is now leas’d out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.


What offends Gaunt to his soul is not simply that England's reputation for deeds of arms and for crusading valor has been diminished, it is impossible to tell to what degree Shakespeare assumes knowledge in the audience of the historical Richard's unpopular policy (of accommodation with France), but that the kingdom—“this earth, this realm”—has been sold, leased, given to those who, presumably, have no title to it. The inmost core of Gaunt's outrage appears to be not the dulling of national fame, but the fact that possession of the land has passed from the hands of its traditional owners. I would suggest, further, that Gaunt conceives those owners properly to be the feudal nobility of the time of his father and great-grandfather, and more particularly, the sons of Edward III who continue in his mind to represent the palmy days of England's ascendancy.

The abstract dignity of Gaunt's vision of the English nation is fleshed out by his sense of family solidarity, a consideration which underlies many of the prominent debates about principle in the play. The Duchess of Gloucester's appeal to Gaunt for vengeance is based on his sharing of “Edward's sacred blood”; Gaunt himself later in his deathbed scene, upbraids Richard thus:

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;


and York, later still in the same scene, reminds Richard that he is king only “by fair sequence and succession.” Indeed, if the play at large treats the problems that arise from a divinely-sanctioned authority being vested in an inadequate human vessel, those problems are also reflected in the analogous problems of the continuities of blood and familial traits being interrupted and diverted by the acts of a family member who believes himself to be greater than, or apart from, the flesh that has created, and serves, him. The mystery that broods over much of Richard II is the insoluble paradox of incarnation; and the sparse, but tellingly placed, allusions to Christ's passion are only the most obvious and resonant instances of Shakespeare's thinking about essentially metaphysical questions: how and where does value reside in human beings and their institutions?

But if the play provides a number of centripetal views on the force of family feeling, some of them are qualified by yet another concern: the intimate bonds among names, or titles, reputation, and possessions, particularly of hereditary lands. Again, these may be considered as minor reflections or resonances of the central examination of the relationship between the king's identity and his “name,”30 but they have a cumulative force of their own. For example, in York's expostulation to Richard, just mentioned, he associates the seizure of Hereford's “charters, and his customary rights” with making a breach between Richard and the king's self, before he mentions the act's potential for alienating “a thousand well-disposed hearts.”

Similarly, the drumfire of place-names and titles that rolls through the play, from the martial ceremonies of the first Act through Bolingbroke's declaration, “But as I come, I come for Lancaster” (II.iii.113), is supplied with dramatic point in the opening scene of Act III, in which Bolingbroke disposes of the “favorites,” Bushy and Greene. His self-justifying speech, intended to wash the blood of his victims off his hands “here in the view of men,” is curiously like his father's dying speech in its structure and procedures. Bolingbroke begins by giving reasons for not making the speech he then proceeds to make:

I will not vex your souls,
Since presently your souls must part your bodies,
With too much urging your pernicious lives,
For ’twere no charity.


What follows, of course, is a catalogue of the sins of the King's entourage, a catalogue which, again, seems to follow the figure of auxesis as it moves through increasingly grave accusations toward the most serious of all. Bolingbroke begins by reproaching them for offering the king bad counsel, thus focusing in a judicial setting the discontent and disapproval that hovered ubiquitously throughout the first acts of the play; he goes on to imply, in language both suggestive and inexact, their responsibility for sexual improprieties that have come between Richard and his queen. But as the speech rises toward its climax, Bolingbroke turns from their crimes against the monarch and the realm to the gravamen of his indictment. Bushy and Greene, he claims, have corrupted Bolingbroke's relationship with Richard, and have in some way been instrumental in his banishment. Worst of all, they have:

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


Bolingbroke's position as he perceives it, or as he wishes it to be perceived, is analogous to Richard's when he discovers and probes the gap between the name and the identity of the king. But for the usurper, whom we see here for the first time unmistakably assuming the powers of the monarch, the distinction to be made between his title and the thing it signifies is a familiar and accepted one. He realizes the necessity of preserving the substance that justifies and supports his “name”; and his every effort in the play is aimed at preserving the link between them. “Men's opinions” and his “living blood”—in other words, the hereditary continuities of family and society's acknowledgment of their reality—are for Bolingbroke only the weak and barely satisfactory remaining guarantees of his right to “Lancaster.” Bushy and Greene are sent to their deaths because they have taken from him what more is needed to establish his claim in the world, the “imprese,” the outward signs of his inherited right. To put it too simply, whereas Richard assumes that his “name” entitles him to the possession of the realm because king and kingdom are inseparable concepts, Bolingbroke regards the possession of his father's lands as the necessary validation of his title and identity. Whatever may be said about John of Gaunt as a symbol of the passing feudal order and his son as the representative of the modern, instrumental political state, father and son share a sense of the kingdom as a property that must be defended, the material essence of their titles and rights. Just as their armies are real armies, compared to the angelic legions Richard summons in his helplessness, so the realm, the earth, the England to which they pay homage are primarily the actual estates of the Duchy of Lancaster, from which they derive their economic and social sustenance.31

Both speeches move toward the revelation of a political reality that underlies an act of state—Gaunt's attempt to define the ideal of English nationality, and Bolingbroke's public demonstration of the proper administration of justice, in conformity with the model suggested by the well-spoken gardener of III.iv. But Bolingbroke's willingness to “cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays” does not answer his father's vision of “This other Eden, demi-paradise,” because the necessary act of control runs counter to Gaunt's sense of the burgeoning, Nile-like fertility of “This royal throne of kings.” The old man's dream of king and kingdom living symbiotically, supporting and nurturing each other, holds within it the seed of disintegration—the concept of the realm as hereditary property. That seed is brought to fruition by Bolingbroke's care for his estates, which is so easily transferred to the mismanaged commonwealth itself. In an obvious sense, the fact that the land can be seized means that the royal investiture is not inviolable. Indeed, Richard makes it more difficult for Bolingbroke to grasp the crown, symbol of rule, than it is for him to take hold of the kingdom itself.

It is typical of the play to remind us of the distance between sign and the thing signified. For Richard, as for Troilus, the widening gap between name and thing reveals a metaphysical abyss into which “the unity and married calm of states” disappears, leaving only formless chaos that resists understanding. For the Lancastrians the matter is relatively simpler, because they accept the necessity of grappling title to substance as the law of their political being. Richard, like Lear, must assume that his title is indistinguishable from his identity, just as his will is indistinguishable from the act that it wills. Effect must follow cause simply because the king's word creates the condition that it names. When the causal chain is broken, in Richard II or in King Lear, by the refusal of other wills to be defined by the monarch, or by the monarch's surrender of the power to enforce his will, the king is left with the impossible condition of a title without authority, a language that cannot be understood. In contrast, Bolingbroke, and the other political realists, take it as given that effects must be made to follow causes, that they are subject to the will that can manipulate the realities of power, that political action demands constant expenditures of energy to preserve one's realm and to expand it. What seems in Bolingbroke to be practical, realistic, hard-headed political behavior may be seen more profitably as the inevitable consequence of his way of conceiving how things happen, how they get done, how appetite is linked to its satisfaction.

That “way of conceiving” is linear, apparently logical, unproblematic and external. It connects actions and their consequences without speculating about motives or their sources. It also operates in Richard II in clear contrast with the king's introspection, his uncertainty about identities, his inability to understand power in any but a unitary sense, as authority coterminous with its title. But the way of the political realist, it seems to me, is commented upon by a characteristic of the play which is seen best in the interinvolvement of ritual behavior and rhetorical patterns. It is a commonplace to observe that in the opening scenes of Richard II the ceremonial acts of regal power are interrupted, stopped short of fulfillment, by what appears to be Richard's capriciousness, which is then taken to be the outward sign of his incapacities as king. But the form of interrupted ritual appears at many points in the play, and it involves more characters than Richard alone. Bolingbroke's setting of the abdication scene in IV.i is diverted from its course by Richard's determination to play out a scenario of his own choosing. Similarly, the first part of that scene contains the charges and counter-charges of treason against Aumerle, and it is clearly intended to mirror the earlier challenges between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. But the outcome of the later scene does not, as we might expect, display Bolingbroke as the efficient and effective arbitrator of complex political situations; rather, he can do no more than Richard did in the earlier instance. Mowbray, who alone can discover the truth of guilt, is dead, and Bolingbroke must send the appellants off “under gage” until the cause shall be tried, a trial we never witness.32 Before he has entered fully into his power, the new king must deal with the treachery of his kinsman, Aumerle, finds cause to lament the unfilial behavior of the Prince of Wales, and ends the play by vowing a penitential journey to Jerusalem to atone for the royal blood that has been shed to make him “grow.” In short, the linear and practical logic of Bolingbroke's political astuteness has not freed him from the trammels in which Richard foundered. The divorce between name and essence into which Richard inquired so curiously is seen to be symptomatic. The recurrent theme of ritual gone awry is sounded again in the repeated pattern of intentions that do not achieve their desired ends. It is repeated, too, in the rhetorical structure of the two speeches which we have examined, in the figure of auxesis which does not arrive at the climax toward which it seemed to be moving. The play is filled with examples, on different levels and in different modes, of frustrated motives, aborted ceremonies, pulses that lose their initial rhythms.

It is almost as if the various languages spoken in the play have been conceived as tongues speaking of the kingdom's malady, a malady which is focused in the characterization of Richard, but which resides at large in the process of dissolution of the bonds between value and that which is valued. The nature of those bonds poses a question that Shakespeare addresses again and again, at every stage of his career—in both historical tetralogies, in King Lear, in Troilus, in Much Ado, in the pastoral comedies, in the romances, in the sonnets. In Richard II the notion of intrinsic value appears in the guise of the doctrine of divine right; the sceptical, psychological notion of the preeminence of the valuer and his motives over the thing valued is embodied in the forces of practical political wisdom. The uneasy relation of the two concepts is reflected multiply in the various forms of frustration which the play exhibits; and in John of Gaunt's speech we may see a complex enactment of frustration—the calculated unfulfillment of its rhetorical conventions, Gaunt's own frustration at being unable to realize and preserve his idea of England's essence, and the frustration of the audience's will to link an ideal value with its most eloquent exponent. It is this last experience that approaches most closely our sense of the way Richard II works generally in its examination of the dissolving connections between name and meaning, word and thing signified, incarnation and spirit.


  1. The Ruling Class, by Peter Barnes (London, 1969), p. 3. In the Prologue to his play, Mr. Barnes appears to have anticipated the argument of this essay by having the 13th Earl of Gurney revise Shakespeare's lines in this fashion.

  2. Only lines 40-55 are quoted; these are the lines usually excerpted.

  3. See, if for no other reason, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (Universal, 1942); note the date of the release.

  4. The traditionalists may be fairly represented by E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944); Lily Bess Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, 1947); and Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, 1957). For what I have called the challenges to their point of view, see E. W. Talbert, The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare's Art (University of North Carolina Press, 1962), pp. 146-200; Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 1968); and Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York, 1967). I did not have the opportunity to read Robert Ornstein's A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1972) until this essay had been completed, and I am gratified to note that his approach to the histories supports generally, although not in every particular, the position argued here. See especially his introductory chapter. “The Artist as Historian,” and pp. 103-04.

  5. Although the 1586-87 edition of Holinshed was the major source for Richard II, Shakespeare's reading of Hall's Chronicles influenced the structure of the history cycles generally.

  6. The definitive work is Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, 1957).

  7. Sanders, for example, surveys contemporary opposition to the doctrine of absolute obedience, pp. 143-57.

  8. Sanders, p. 152.

  9. See Sanders, p. 157.

  10. On York, see Rabkin, pp. 87-89; on Bolingbroke, see Rabkin, pp. 89-90 and Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1956), pp. 37-39; and on all three see Talbert, pp. 158-93, and Sanders, pp. 158-93.

  11. King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), pp. 50-53. All citations to the play are taken from this edition.

  12. Ure, pp. 206-07.

  13. See Ure, p. 48, n.

  14. This line is glossed most often with a reference to the doctrines of traditional faculty psychology in which the struggle between will and the rational understanding is the basis of moral choice. But it should also be noted that this use of “mutiny with” in the sense of “mutiny against” is unique in Shakespeare's work. The modern sense of “with” suggests a more sinister and perverted interpretation of Richard's behavior; his “wit” (understanding, intelligence) approves and cooperates with the mutiny of his will against what he knows is good advice. By a similar token, most editors gloss Richard's remark (I.i.5) that his “leisure” has kept him from hearing Bolingbroke's charge against Mowbray by explaining that the king means to say his “lack of leisure”; doesn’t it seem more in keeping with Richard's character in the early part of the play that he should mean exactly what he says?

  15. Ure, p. 49, n.

  16. For references and quotations, see Lee A. Sonnino, A Handbook to Sixteenth-Century Rhetoric (London, 1968), pp. 111-12; and Sister Miriam Joseph, C. S. C., Shakespeare's Use of the Art of Language (New York, 1947), pp. 330-31. Thomas Wilson, in The Arte of Rhetorique, defines the figure differently from the majority of contemporary rhetoricians, describing it as built upon contradictory sentences.

  17. G. Wilson Knight, in The Sovereign Flower (London, 1958), accounts for the structural characteristics of the speech from the actor's viewpoint: “John of Gaunt's speech on England must start with the voice of an old, sick man; the repetitions accumulate; power breaks through, he rises from his chair or couch; the impact of the later thundering lines depends on the contrast with the opening; the end, though bitter, is quiet, as he sinks back” (p. 247).

  18. See Richard D. Altick, “Symphonic Imagery in Richard II,” PMLA, 62 (1947), pp. 341-44.

  19. It is typical of the speech as a whole thus to allude to a traditional rhetorical figure while refusing to reproduce it in obvious form, so that we are made to feel the effect of the figure without being able to relax into the recognition of a familiar verbal formula. In this instance, one might discern comparatio in either of its senses, or prae-expositio; both are figures of comparison, but the latter, as Quintilian explains, compares what ought to have been done with what actually was done. Similarly, while the central passage of the speech proceeds according to the general rules for amplificatio, it does not conform to any one of the many particular figures usually grouped under that head. We have already seen how Shakespeare exploits the normal expectations of auxesis; a contemporary rhetorician might also have cited the passage as an example of paraphrasis or expolitio, for its accumulation of varying epithets and descriptive clauses, or of exuscitatio, for its transformation of Gaunt's own feelings into an indirect exhortation of its audience.

  20. Altick, p. 344.

  21. See M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1957), p. 80. Shakespeare may be inverting the familiar technique by which an inferior stone is set off and made to seem more valuable by being placed on a glittering “foil.”

  22. It may be of interest to note that the many critical comments on Richard's effeminacy receive some support from his address to his native soil in III.ii; there he speaks of the earth as a child, and of himself as its mother. The contrast with Gaunt's vision of England as a “teeming womb” is clear, and bears also on the difference between Richard's sense of being his realm's sole author and Gaunt's tacit view that the land is both the active and final cause of the hereditary line of royal blood.

  23. The phrase is M. M. Reese’s, in The Cease of Majesty (London, 1961), p. 232.

  24. It is commonly agreed that Shakespeare's Gaunt is a markedly different character from the “turbulent and self-seeking magnate” described in Holinshed. Ure (xxxiv-xi) summarizes J. Dover Wilson's argument that Shakespeare's Gaunt is based on Froissart, and A. P. Rossiter's theory that Gaunt is modeled on Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, in the anonymous play Woodstock. The argument of the present essay would suggest that a good part of Holinshed's figure remains in Shakespeare's character.

  25. Notice, for example, that in lines 53-56, “Renowned for their deeds as far from home, / For Christian service and true chivalry, / As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry / Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son,” the phrase “as far” compares the fame of English chivalry to the fame of Christ's sepulchre, as well as specifying the geographical range of its exploits. The point is made by Mahood, p. 81.

  26. See Mahood, p. 80.

  27. Reese, p. 232.

  28. Sanders, p. 191.

  29. Ibid., p. 187.

  30. Comments on this problem in the play are legion; among the most recent, and the most suggestive, is Herbert B. Rothschild, Jr., “Language and Social Reality in Richard II,” in Essays in Honor of Esmond Linworth Marilla (Louisiana State University Press, 1970), pp. 56-58.

  31. There is a minor irony implicit in the play's multiple references to the Lancastrian hereditary succession, references which begin with the very first line of the text, “Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster.” The title had been in existence for a little more than a century; Edmund Crouchback, brother of Edward I, was created the first Earl of Lancaster in 1267, and his son Thomas was executed as a traitor in 1322. Thomas's younger brother, Henry, succeeded in 1324, and was in turn succeeded by his son, Henry, Earl of Derby (1337), Earl of Lancaster (1347), and close friend of Edward III, who created him Duke of Lancaster in 1351. When Duke Henry died in 1361 he left two daughters as co-heiresses of his estate. Edward III, seizing the opportunity to provide handsomely for one of his seven sons, had married John of Gaunt to Lancaster's daughter Blanche. Gaunt became Earl of Lancaster and was advanced to the Dukedom in the following year, after the death of Maud, his wife's sister. Thus the royal stock was grafted to the Lancastrian inheritance, and the speeches of Gaunt, York, and Bolingbroke about “fair sequence and succession” may receive some color from the fact that their association with the title had extended for a single generation only.

  32. See Ruth Nevo, Tragic Form in Shakespeare (Princeton, 1972), p. 63.

George D. Gopen (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8769

SOURCE: “Private Grief into Public Action: The Rhetoric of John of Gaunt in Richard II,” in Studies in Philology LXXXIV, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 338-67.

[In the following essay, Gopen analyzes the rhetorical structure of Gaunt's deathbed speech and discusses how this speech informs other issues in the play.]

John of Gaunt's Deathbed Speech

31 Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus, expiring, do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
35 Small show’rs last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder;
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
40 This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
45 This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
50 This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
55 As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out (I die pronouncing it)
60 Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
65 That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

(Richard II, II.i)1


It is surprising to discover just how little has been written about this famous speech. Most of the references to it are brief and seem to assume that familiarity has bred understanding, and there is only one critical essay devoted entirely to the important matters of structure and progression.2 The speech's popularity must have been instantaneous as well as lasting, its central portion (40-56) having been anthologized as early as 1600 in England's Parnassus and having served as national panegyric so often that it may be considered the prototype. That central seventeen-line portion, however, constitutes only the multi-appositived subject of a twenty-one line sentence, whose predicate, by powerful anti-climax, dwells on the corruption that has destroyed the glory described at such length, leaving the speaker, at the end, in seeming despair. That sentence is preceded by a nine-line introduction, a repetitive passage more concerned with form than substance, and is followed by an eight-line coda that unravels in variations on the substance of the anti-climax. Ironically, therefore, the great panegyric, memorized by so many generations of English schoolchildren under the guidance of their patriotic instructors, appears but a glance at glory in a speech of despair.

Just as the context provided by the speech as a whole alters the effect of its famous segment, so does the context of the Gaunt's other appearances affect an understanding of the deathbed speech. This article will study the rhetorical structure of the deathbed speech in some depth and then place that speech in the context of Gaunt's rhetoric in the rest of the play.

Deathbed utterances, under English law, are accorded special significance, the concept being that one who has no more to gain personally and who will soon be called to a final accounting will speak only the truth. Gaunt is shown to be aware of this concept and therefore aware of the potential import of any statement he might make at this moment:

O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony.
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listened more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose.
More are men's ends marked than their lives before.
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past.
Though Richard my life's counsel would not hear,
My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.


To this point in the play we have not seen Gaunt acting in the role of royal counselor; in fact, Gaunt's role in the play is so relatively small that we are not much tempted to consider his deathbed speech primarily as a key to his character. Rather he appears to be a convenient symbol for the old, established, traditionalist, and thoroughly medieval order, which, because of Richard's mismanagement of government, will fall into chaos and give way to the beginnings of the Renaissance, represented at first by Gaunt's son, Henry Bolingbroke. The play begins with this symbol of the old order:

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

Gaunt's name here is linked to age, to tradition, and to sense of duty by the highly formalistic rhetoric, the convoluted syntax, and the slow pace. The play will end with Gaunt's son speaking in relatively straightforward syntax, making judgments that are more “humanistic” than conventional (pardoning and praising Carlisle, banishing and cursing Exton). The change is prefigured by the development (however slightly it might weigh in the plot) of the time-honored, time-honoring Gaunt who plays yes-man to Richard (I.i and I.iii) into a Gaunt whose judgment has become liberated enough to challenge his king (II.i.73ff.). That development is managed almost entirely through rhetoric, Gaunt's rhetoric, and the most significant moment of change is the famous deathbed speech.

Shakespeare also used that speech to introduce some of the major complaints that will later legitimize Bolingbroke's seizure of the crown, a dangerous undertaking for an author writing in politically volatile times (as his later arrest for having revived the play documents). The speech, therefore, had to be not only dramatically effective but also rhetorically persuasive, recognizing simultaneously the greatness of England, the sanctity of royal government, and the legitimate need for the deposition of Richard. Shakespeare's success in encompassing these tasks is attested to by the popularity of the speech, and the secret of that success lies in the compelling rhetorical structure he created.


This dramatic speech has a slow start. The first nine lines (31-39) form a self-contained unit both substantively and stylistically. Substantively they concern the future of Richard, whereas the rest of the speech concerns the present and future of England. Stylistically they are static, cerebral, repetitive, and consciously rhetorical, as the message is subordinated to the techniques of producing it; the rest of the speech is dynamic, emotional, and forward-moving, with its complex rhetoric increasingly in the service of the message being produced. The proverb-like phrases of lines 31-39 give way to the metaphoric analysis of the lines that follow. Such a formalistic introductory passage, blockish and unmoving, is commonplace both in oratory and music. This is the formal, non-melodic fanfare that gets the attention of the audience, announces the momentous quality of the occasion, and establishes a tone, without developing the complex theme of the music to follow.3

The rhetorical key to the entire speech is line balance, but whereas in the well-known section (from 1.40 onwards) the balances tend to lead us further on into the speech, the balances of the introductory passage (31-39) constantly lead to closure, to self-containment. This constant closure, coupled with the redundancy of the substance, creates the static quality that characterizes a speaker all too conscious of making a speech. This is John of Gaunt acting out the role of newly appointed prophet, marking the solemnity of the moment with a condescending formality.

In this opening eight-line passage everything balances—lines, half-lines, words, sounds—raising rhythmic expectations that are never disappointed. The first two lines act as preamble, the announcement of the role of prophet. The other seven lines, prophetic in sound and sense, are formed from a rigid symmetry of balances. Gaunt makes the same point five times—things that rage exhaust themselves quickly—each in the form of a neatly and noticeably balanced proverb-like phrase. The first and the last of these require two lines each (lines 33-34 and 38-39); the other three require one line apiece. Each of the five in turn contains an interior balance, thus establishing a larger symmetry made up of smaller symmetries, all based on syntax, meaning, and sound.

Proverb-like restatements of the same
line #s lines balances
33-34 2 1 + 1
35 1 [frac12] + [frac12]
36 1 [frac12] + [frac12]
37 1 [frac12] + [frac12]
38-39 2 1 + 1

Beyond these symmetries, there is a profusion of syntactic, semantic, and auditory balances and correspondences, peppered with a variety of classical rhetorical devices. It is a virtuoso performance in a baroque style.

The heavy-handed pun of the first two lines sets the tone and establishes the sense of symmetry for the whole eight-line introduction,

[Lines 31–32:]

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus, expiring, do foretell of him:

especially as the pun constitutes the inner pair of a chiasmus (prophet/inspired // expiring/foretell). Each of the proverb-like units that follow (see Figure 1) are so teeming with multiple balances and cross-correspondences that it is impossible to be aware of them all simultaneously; together they produce that sense of baroque virtuosity.

Lines 33-34:

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;

Each of the lines forms a complete clause balancing the other in length and weight and reflecting the other in meaning; this establishes two horizontal progressions with a dominant-tonic relationship, thus producing the proverb-like effect. But the rather simple horizontal organization is complicated by a set of vertical syntactic correspondences … which is further complicated by a different set of semantic correspondences … and which is yet further complicated by a set of auditory correspondences.…

All these function simultaneously to create a rhetorical density that seems to exist more for its own virtuosity than for the sake of persuasion. Similar correspondences can be found for each of the proverb-like units through line 39, together with a heavy dose of the rhetorical devices of polyptoton, parison, epistrophe, anadiplosis, and others. It is the rhetoric of a passive man, pleased to be allied to tradition, privileged to luxuriate in decorative repetition, trained to be content with self-containment, with the status quo.

All this has gotten John of Gaunt (and us) not very far at all. He is still clearing his throat, as it were, gearing up for the main assault. Peter Ure, in his edition of the play, suggests that lines 31-39 are an example of the rhetorical device of auxesis (amplification, emphasis built through extension).4 I hear these lines, to the contrary, as entirely self-contained, without direction or a sense of progression, and I would rather subscribe to Donald Friedman's coinage, “false auxesis”:

Ironically enough, his prophetic inspiration in these lines is markedly short-breathed; the lines do not move smoothly and incrementally to a climactic point; they reach their concluding indictment, rather, by a way of succession of apothegems, almost entirely self enclosed, and in their proverbial diction contributing to our sense of impersonal, generalized evaluation.5


The true auxesis begins at 1.40. Of the many, very many, rhetorical figures that appear in this speech, one particularly demands our attention—anaphora (the repetition of a word at the beginning of consecutive phrases or clauses). The repeated word “this” outlines for us the structure of lines 40-56, for each time it appears it indicates the beginning of a new appositive metaphor, all of which taken together form the subject of the sentence that lasts from 1.40 through 1.60. The anaphora here has two major effects. First, it helps build the tension of the speech, ever increasing the expectation that something significant is going to be produced by the long-awaited arrival of the sentence's predicate. Second, it demarcates units of balance, through which the tension of the auxesis is further increased.

The first effect is quite stentorian, hardly subtle, a common rhetorical ploy still in use by thousands who have never heard the Greek term that describes it: It raises an expectation of an important arrival, something towards which all the anaphoric repetitions are pointing. The longer the wait, the more dramatic the arrival. It is a particular favorite of nominators at political conventions: “I give you a man who … a man who … a man who …” building inexorably to the climax of the utterance of the candidate's name, at which the cheers rise and the balloons fall. It brings into existence the fact of candidacy just as God's uttering the name of light brings light into existence in the book of Genesis.

The second effect of this anaphora works in a far more subtle way, with a more complex significance, and it is almost solely responsible for the structure of the auxesis. Putting aside all the other techniques of balancing that the speech contains, consider only the line quantities that make up the separate metaphors, each of which begins with the anaphoric “this.”

Lines 40-41:

This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

Line 40 gives us two “this” phrases, separated by a caesura; line 41 again two more, again with the intervening caesura. By the end of line 41, then, we have it clearly in our ear that one half-line = one metaphor = one appositive phrase beginning with “this.” The half-line unit is firmly established, and the caesura is expected.

Line 42:

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This line fulfills our expectations at first, for it again begins with “this,” again adds a new metaphor in apposition to the previous ones, and again leads to mid-line pause; but we find no “this” following the pause. “Demi-paradise,” we perceive, is not an entirely separate metaphor, but rather part of a longer one-line metaphor, “This other Eden, demi-paradise.” The unit length has increased from a half line to a whole line.

This expansion in length brings with it an increase in rhetorical anxiety. We have already learned to take a “mental breath” when we see the word “this,” and our foiled expectation of being able to breathe in the middle of line 42 has made us extend our mental tension one half-line longer than we were prepared to do.6

We might also start to wonder at this point when the verb will arrive. Two half-line metaphors are easy to hold in mind; another two, so neatly balanced against the first two, pose no great retention problem either; but to be handed another metaphor, twice as long as the others, begins to put some strain on our powers of retention, especially since we must now be wary, having once been surprised, of the expectations we develop concerning what will follow immediately.7

And what does follow?—another doubling of unit length, a two-line metaphor, the two lines breathlessly united by enjambement and by the lack of caesuras, extending our mental breathing powers perhaps to the limit. (Even the average physical breath tends not to last much beyond the reading of two lines of iambic pentameter.)

[Lines 43–44:]

This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war

We learn quickly to form a new expectation, for we can now perceive a pattern forming: half-line, one-line, two-line metaphors. Should we not expect a four-line metaphor begun by “this”? Is increase of metaphor length not the rhetorical key to the structure of this speech?

We may take a bigger mental breath at the beginning of 1.45, preparing for a four-line metaphor, but we find ourselves returned to the original organization, back to two half-line “this”-begun metaphors, separated by a caesura:

[Line 45:]

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This return to half-line units acts either as a shock, further increasing the building tension, or as a momentary breather, a necessary stop for refueling; the next “this” (line 46) ushers in the four-line metaphor we had had good cause to expect. Since it is difficult to maintain momentum through four lines when that has not been the standard unit of the poetry, we therefore are in need of some rhetorical conveyance to help us along. Because three enjambements would tax even the hardiest of breathers, the technique used to unite lines 43-44 will not work here. Instead we are given a convenient alliteration of “s” sounds throughout:

[Lines 46–49:]

This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;

We can now better value the various possible effects of line 45 (the return to the half-lines that preceded the four-line unit). Dramatic tension can be increased by leading an audience to expect that a certain thing will arrive at a certain time. Prompt delivery will create a feeling of fulfillment, of closure, creating an impact similar to the arrival of the tonic at the end of a musical cadence; but a yet more striking effect can be produced by delivering something else at the critical moment, waiting a short while, and then delivering the previously expected fulfillment at a time when it is unexpected. We were prepared for a four-line unit at line 45; we were given instead two half-line units. Before we could recover from the effect of our expectation having been frustrated, we found ourselves burdened with the four-line unit for which we were no longer prepared. Shakespeare seems to have delighted in this delayed-delivery shock tactic, having used it as often as he did in the plays.8

On the other hand, line 45 can be perceived not as a shock but rather as a breathing point, a refueling point, similar to the effect of the musical technique used by so many Romantic composers of interrupting a long crescendo with a subito piano, cutting back the volume abruptly only to crescendo to an even higher level immediately thereafter. (See the “Liebestod” from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for a striking example.) The build-up in Gaunt's speech, however, reaches not towards ecstasy but towards despair.

We have to hold fast to our sense of the anaphoric “this” because of the nature of appositives and because we have yet to reach the verb of the sentence. Four lines without a “this” has put a strain on our mental energy, and it would be almost beyond our syntactic capabilities as readers to withstand a further elongation of the next metaphor from, say, four lines to six lines; we are holding on to a great deal already. Line 50 comes, then, as quite a shock, especially in that it produces the high point of the speech without producing a climax.

[Line 50:]

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

The unit of metaphor in line 50 is the quarter-line, and the anaphoric pounding of “this” builds to the moment of revelation, the uncovering of the identity of all these appositives, the naming of the thing itself, England. Consider again God's articulation of “Let there be light” and the immediate existence of light upon its being named. Consider again the effectiveness of delaying the naming of the political candidate until the last moment of the speech, even though everyone across the country knows his identity beforehand—“I give you a man who … a man who … a man who … ladies and gentlemen—I give you—the next president of the United States of America—Alexander—P.—BAX-TER.” Naming transforms the potential into the actual. It creates. Through anaphora and auxesis, Gaunt has brought England into existence momentarily as a character in the play (the heroine of this play, many have argued), not heavy-handedly personified as a participant, but rather as the more subtle referent of metaphor.

We are given twelve metaphors for England before England is named, as if no matter how long the speaker might try, no matter how complex nor how lengthy nor how compelling his metaphors might become, nothing could explain the concept of this greatness, this majesty, better than the simple invoking of the name England.9

The high point, but not a climax: the naming of the country proves here not to be the worked-for end but functions instead, curiously, almost as another in the series of metaphors, for it is immediately followed by yet another “this” introducing yet another quarter-line metaphor, followed in turn by the feared and burdensome six-line metaphor.10

[Lines 51–56:]

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son;

This length gives us too much to bear in mind, it requires too much of one mental breath, and it forces us to do something destructive to the anaphoric auxesis so carefully constructed—it forces us to take a mental breath in the middle of a metaphor. This breakdown in rhetorical structure conveys a certain struggling grief on the part of the speaker, who by lengthening appositives has over and over again put off getting to the predicate, put off getting to the actual point of the sentence. The quarter-line metaphors appear his attempt to urge himself on to syntactic closure, just as a jockey whips his horse as the end of the race draws near, but the non-arrival at the obvious possibility for arrival (“this England”) indicates that the energetic attempt at closure has failed. “England” cannot be climactic because at this point it represents glory, whereas the point of the speech will concern despair.

Failure at closure is further manifested by the excessive length of the six-line metaphor that follows. Six lines might have been possible to handle mentally had their progression been linear, but we find ourselves burdened with several levels of modification that destroy linearity. Had lines 52-56 all modified “This teeming womb,” we might have been able to keep the “this” phrase in our ear as we waited for the next “this” (or for the verb) to appear; but lines 55-56 qualify “as far from home” and are even separated from it by the intrusive line 54. It is difficult enough a task to follow the interrelationships of lines 53-56 without having to subordinate all that effort to the attempt to keep “this teeming womb” in mind as the primary focus of the six lines. The ear, the mind, has too much to keep in order, and the whole structure begins to collapse.11

The peculiar construction of this now-failing auxesis reflects what I have called the “struggling grief” of the speaker. He struggles against his helplessness to right the wrongs of King Richard and against his own approaching death, and both of these are manifested by his struggling syntactically against arriving at the predicate, against articulating the point he has in mind. Just as naming “England” brings it into existence in this speech in a way no metaphor can do, so naming the shame of the country will bring it into consciousness, with all the concomitant pain and with little hope for catharsis. The lengthening of the introductory panegyric, then, is, among other things, a stalling tactic.

At the beginning of line 57 we find another “this” introducing another metaphor, but this “this” sounds different from all the previous ones, for it is too far removed from the last “this” for an echo to have any anaphoric effect. Moreover, the length and peregrinations of the last six lines (51-56) have destroyed the sense that a single metaphoric thought accompanies each “this.” The structure has collapsed, and the anaphora that created it must collapse with it. With this protective device gone, Gaunt is forced to get to the point unless he can come up with yet other delaying tactics. He tries two of them, both of which quickly fail.

Gaunt exchanges anaphora for a combination of ploce (the speedy repetition of a word with few other words intervening) and epizeuxis (the repetition of a word with no other words intervening). In the process he modulates from using “this” as the repeated word to “dear”—a new word for a new rhetorical figure.

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out (I die pronouncing it)
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

Both ploce and epizeuxis, however, are more frantic techniques of repetition than anaphora and cannot be used for any length of time without exhaustion (which recalls Gaunt's own proverb, “Violent fires soon burn out themselves”); in two lines Gaunt again finds himself on the brink of getting to the point.

His final effort at delay is the feeblest of all—the insertion of a parenthetical phrase—mere interruptio. The main interruptive element is the use of the first person, the only such reference between the opening two lines and the closing two lines of the entire speech. Gaunt has so developed the sense of “other” (of England, of country) that this resurrection of the sense of “self” comes as a bit of a shock, reminding us that Gaunt is, after all, on his deathbed. In this interruptio he articulates his consciousness of the effect that naming England's shame will have upon him: “I die pronouncing it” indicates that finishing his long sentence will in part cause, not merely accompany, his own demise.12

With line 59 we finally arrive at the verb, for which we have waited twenty lines, but the arrival disappoints us. We look for such expectation to be rewarded with a verb of cohesion, of action, one that results in climax and leads to closure; we find instead a passive structure, “is leased out,” which results only in anti-climax and settles nothing. Passivity, not activity, dominates. The England that used to do things to others is now done to by others, in a fashion unbefitting her. All the glory of the “royal throne,” “demi-paradise,” “fortress,” and “blessed plot” is now reduced to “tenement” and “pelting farm.” “This England” has become indeed a metaphor for “England”; for the country is no longer to Gaunt what it once was. Through his delaying tactics he has been able to separate by ten lines the pitiful words “tenement” and “pelting farm” from “this England,” but now that he has uttered them, granting them existence in the conscious mind, he no longer needs to repress their connection to the name of his country. To underscore their degrading force, then, he juxtaposes them to the very word he had taken so much care to separate them from before:

[Lines 58–61:]

This land of such dear souls …
Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in …

The “England” of line 60 is not the same entity as “this England” of line 50; the degradation is complete. By the time it next is mentioned (65), it will have become “that England.”

The tortured quality and the anti-climactic effect of the syntax in Gaunt's long sentence (40-60) rhetorically mirror the lack of harmony and proportion he perceives in Richard's government of England. Richard's own rhetoric is almost always painstakingly balanced, but the effect in his case is ironical: he is shown to care more about how his words appear than how his government runs. His functional imbalance, his creation of discord, are transferred to the rhetoric of Gaunt, his critic.13 The disappointment in the cadential resolution of lines 58-60 (the arrival of the verb phrase) is all the more poignant when we consider Gaunt's recent acknowledgement of the delights of cadential fulfillment: “The setting sun, and music at the close, / As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,” (12-13).

If we seem to have lost sight of the balancing of line lengths, it is because Gaunt seems to have done so as well. Their existence as units depended on the anaphoric boundaries of metaphors; the units that follow line 56 are syntactic ones, sentences. The balances from line 40 through the end of the speech are represented here:

line #’s balance lengths
40 [frac12], [frac12]
41 [frac12], [frac12]
42 1
43-44 2
45 [frac12], [frac12]
46-49 4
50 [frac14], [frac14], [frac14], [frac14]
51-56 ([frac14]) - 6
57-60 4
61-64 4
65-66 2
67-68 2 (1 + 1)

As the anaphora, the auxesis, the syntax, Gaunt's spirit, and everything else broke down in lines 57-60, so did the sense of “unit” of line lengths; those lines do not sound like a four-line unit. Yet if we continue to calculate those units to the end of the speech, they still seem to have a function, albeit rather reduced in force. From the extreme of the six-line unit (51-56) we descended to the four-line anti-climax of syntactical closure. Gaunt then repeats the message of those four lines in another four-line unit (61-64) and then yet again in a two-line unit (65-66).

[Lines 61–66:]

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

It seems that once he has brought himself to articulate the horror, he cannot stop articulating it, a phenomenon observable in many an intense verbal encounter that begins with denial and erupts into affirmation. Or perhaps his energy was running out, returning him to the man he was before inspiration grabbed hold of him; he slowly falls back to repeating his material in two-line segments, just as he had done in the introductory lines at the beginning of the speech.

We had to wait twenty lines for the verb structure of line 59. From line 61 to the end, every line but one has a verb structure; those verbs continue the effects initiated by the passivity of the anti-climax “is leased out.” In lines 61-64 we find two identical passive constructions (“bound in,” referring to England both times) and one active construction (“beats back,” referring to the “rocky shore”), which together comment on the widespread sentiment that England's geographical isolation makes her impervious to defeat except from within; England cannot be conquered unless she conquers herself first.14 The passivity of England's “binding” here suggests exactly such a self-conquest, even while the island's geographical situation continues its active role, beating back attacks from without. The two passivities are formed of the same words, “bound in,” but differ distinctly in meaning (the rhetorical device antanaclasis). The positive qualities of “bound in” (cf. England's strong navy and the Channel) have deteriorated to a negative, non-physical kind of binding, with shame, rotting laws, and insufficient protection of private property.15

We see the same kind of transition in the two-line unit of lines 65-66 (again depending primarily on antanaclasis):

That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

The transitive verb structure of the first line becomes a reflexive structure in the second line, again emphasizing that England is in danger of doing to itself what no one else could do to her.

In the final two-line unit, Gaunt at last gives up the struggle.

[Lines 67–68:]

Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

He had delayed naming the horror for as long as he could, had tried to exhaust or exorcise it by repeating it several times, and at the last is reduced to hoping it will disappear almost magically. He strikes a dominant chord with “life” in the penultimate line and resolves it with a final tonic on “death.”

Gaunt's deathbed speech seems to precipitate his death, as if the energy required for the great outpouring of rhetoric was the last he had left to him, the momentary blaze of fire before extinguishment. In articulating so eloquently the demise of the England that he had known, he takes part in his own death. It is a kind of rhetorical suicide attempt, but the attempt turns out to be premature. He has work yet to do.


It remains, then, to set this speech in the larger context of Gaunt's rhetoric throughout the play. We first see Gaunt in I.i, a scene of many long speeches in which he is given only three brief opportunities to speak, totalling less than five lines. It is a scene dominated by heightened rhetoric, in which not only does he speak unobtrusively and subserviently, in straightforward syntax, but he is the only one to do so.16 He agrees to do whatever Richard asks, and he proves ineffectual when he tries to control his son, Bolingbroke. Here we see no orator and no man of action, but rather a man who knows his place and is committed to the avoidance of conflict: “To be a make-peace shall become my age.”

In I.ii, his scene with the Duchess of Gloucester, he proves quite talkative, but only for the purpose of explaining why he is unwilling to act:

But since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven,
Who, when they see the hours ripe on earth,
Will rain hot vengeance on offenders’ heads.


God will take care of it all. The Duchess not only criticizes him but analyzes him—“Call it not patience, Gaunt, it is despair”—a line that points out the striking similarity between the states of mind that throughout Shakespeare's plays are portrayed as the highest and the lowest. They resemble each other because in neither case does the person affected actually do anything. But the two types of non-action differ significantly: Absolute psychological stability allows one the patience not to trouble about things that are beyond one's control (see Hamlet's praise of the stoical Horatio, III.ii.54ff.); total disintegration of that stability brings one to despair, a state of hopelessness in which one imagines that everything is beyond one's control. The Duchess calls Gaunt a coward for not speaking out about the murder of her husband, Gloucester; Gaunt replies that the divine nature of kingship makes impossible any action on his part against the king. He states his position quite explicitly, and we cannot tell whether it is based on dogma or on cowardice.

God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy annointed in his sight,
Hath caused his death; the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against his minister.


I.ii seems to exist primarily to set this conflict in motion. We care little about Gaunt in this play and far less about the Duchess of Gloucester; but it is in response to her charging Gaunt with cowardice and despair that Gaunt has the opportunity to articulate a conservative view of kingship which he will later bring himself to repudiate. His crossing of that line, from silent supporter to outspoken critic, prefigures the transition that his son will undergo, a transition that Shakespeare must have his audience accept as legitimate, without adopting anything like a radical stance that might threaten the system of monarchy itself.

In I.iii Gaunt continues his policy of not criticizing Richard's actions, even when those actions directly affect him. Richard shortens Henry's banishment not because of any articulated complaint from Gaunt but because he notices how badly Gaunt is looking. When Gaunt does speak up, his speech is filled with the studied kinds of repetition that later mark the introduction to his deathbed speech. In lines 218-22 he claims he will die before Henry returns; in 223-24 he repeats the idea. In supplying the second line of a rhymed couplet begun by Richard (226), Gaunt argues that kings have the power to curtail life but not to extend it; he repeats that thought three times over, each in a neatly balanced rhymed couplet (227-32).

Why, uncle, thou hast many years to live.
But not a minute, king, that thou canst give.
Shorten my days thou canst with sullen sorrow
And pluck nights from me, but not lend a morrow.
Thou canst help time to furrow me with age,
But stop no wrinkle in his pilgrimage.
Thy word is current with him for my death,
But dead, thy kingdom cannot buy my breath.

He repeats the pattern a few lines later, responding to Richard by finishing a rhymed couplet and then varying the same theme three times; this time, however, he needs four lines to make his point the second and third time (see 235-46).

For Gaunt this kind of overstructured rhetoric that goes nowhere, that grinds away at different settings of the same thought, that relies on the impressive conclusiveness of aphorism, characterizes his avoidance of confrontation, his unwillingness to come forward as anything other than a “make-peace.” His advice to his son on how to bear up under exile (275-93) differs from the interchange with Richard only in its lack of rhyme, which seems to be reserved for his royal conversations. The aphoristic repetition still dominates.

In the deathbed speech of the following scene, Gaunt and his rhetoric undergo a transformation. After the introductory nine lines that sound so much like his previous style, he breaks away from repetitive couplets and forges ahead into the lengthy blank verse auxesis, turning from some of his earlier rhetorical nature and finding a voice of his own, not borrowed from collections of proverbs. As described above, the struggle to postpone syntactic closure (40-60) produces a painful anti-climax followed by a disintegration of sorts (61-68). At the end of that speech Richard enters and is surprised to find a confrontive Gaunt who shows no signs either of patience or of cowardice.

The first indication of change appears immediately (ll.73-83). “Aged Gaunt,” as Richard addresses him, usurps the kingly rhetorical prerogative, not only by holding forth for a relatively lengthy 11 lines, but by flailing away with puns. (Richard showed his delight in word-play as early as I.i.152ff. with the medical conceit that begins “Let's purge this choler without letting blood.”) Of course Gaunt has had little practice in this and turns out not to be very good at it (punning painfully on “gaunt”), eliciting a surprised and disapproving response from Richard, “Can sick men play so nicely with their names?”

Gaunt is bold enough now to spar with his king using the rhetorical weapon of chiasmus (the repetition of two or more elements of speech in reversed order—in this case xyzzyx):

Should dying men flatter with those that live?
No, no! men living flatter those
that die.

and then following immediately with spirited antanaclasis:

Thou, now a-dying, sayest thou flatterest
O, no! thou diest, though I the sicker
I am in health, I breathe, and see thee ill.
Now, he that made me knows I see thee ill.


Having gathered this full head of steam, Gaunt now dares to appropriate Richard's own medical conceit from I.i and use it against its maker:

Now, he that made me knows I see thee ill;
Ill in myself to see, and in thee seeing ill.
Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Committ’st thy annointed body to the cure
Of those physicians that first wounded thee.


He then strikes out into metaphoric language of his own making, using a far more subtle and more striking form of chiasmus:

A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger than thy head;
And yet, incaged in so small a verge,
The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.

(II.i. 100-03)

(The first and fourth lines deal with largeness; the second and third lines deal with smallness.) Richard, never one to admit defeat in a bout of rhetoric, files these lines away for later embellishment. He manages to put the image to even better use, it is true (III.ii. 160-70);17 but the point here is not how well Gaunt is speaking, but rather that he is making the attempt to speak at all.

A few lines later there is no longer a question as to whether Gaunt is making an impression. He lets loose with direct accusation and treasonable prophecy, eventually calling Richard “Landlord of England … not king” (recalling for us the “tenements and pelting farms” of the deathbed speech), and even daring to use the word “depose.” A dozen lines of this are more than Richard can stand, and he interrupts in great anger (115-23) with threats, ending with

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.

Gaunt's reply is his finest moment:

O, spare me not, my brother Edward's son,
For that I was his father Edward's son!
That blood already, like a 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.
Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee!
These words hereafter thy tormenters be!
Convey me to my bed, then to my grave.
Love they to live that love and honor have.

(II.i. 124-38)

This is no aged make-peace speaking. His retort is direct and to the point, and he has found the courage the Duchess accused him of lacking to attack the king for the very crime of which she complained, the murder of her husband. Gone are the overly balanced rhymed couplets, the aphoristic atmosphere, and the tiresome repetition of material. Gaunt may not have lifted his arm against God's minister, but he has lifted his voice.

Richard tries to brush away Gaunt's tirade by chiastically reversing its final two lines:

Convey me to my bed, then to my grave.
Love they to live that love and honor have.
And let them die that age and sullens have;
For both hast thou, and both become the grave.

But Gaunt remains the true prophet here in suggesting these words would hereafter be Richard's tormenters, for the verb of Gaunt's final order, “convey,” returns to torment Richard at the end of the deposition scene:

Then give me leave to go.
Whither you will, so I were from your sights.
Go some of you, convey him to the Tower.
O, good! Convey? Conveyers are you all,
That rise thus nimbly by a true king's fall.


Gaunt's deathbed speech, then, seems to have freed him from inaction, from a mistaken sense of duty, and allowed him to articulate that which it was his duty as royal counselor to articulate: “Thy state of law is bondslave to the law” (II.i. 114), thus raising the fundamental question of the king's legal status, essential to any legitimate deposition of a person occupying the throne. To effect that kind of a change persuasively, Gaunt had to be put through the strain of the monumental auxesis that ended in anti-climax, through the painful process of pronouncing that which he had argued was unholy to pronounce. He was brought to the point of despair at the end of his great speech, but saved from it by the opportunity to put his new understanding to work. Had Gaunt been allowed to expire at the end of the deathbed speech, the speech would remain a splendid purple passage but function only as a minor character's self-serving and essentially pitiful attempt at expiation, the last words of a man who has realized the depth of his own inaction too late to do anything about it. But the continuation of the scene with the confrontation between Gaunt and Richard transforms the deathbed speech into the heroically patriotic speech it has always been taken for (although for the wrong reasons). Gaunt manages to take his private grief and transform it, through the power of rhetoric, into public action.


  1. This text throughout is taken from the Pelican edition, ed. Matthew W. Black (Baltimore, 1957).

  2. Donald M. Friedman's “John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration,” ELH, 43 (1976): 279-99, is, to my knowledge, the only article devoted entirely to this speech.

  3. It also resembles the slow introductory section of a French Overture, played again and again while the royal party was entering and being seated. When all were settled and attention was turned to the performance, the orchestra would move on to the allegro section, returning at the end to the slow introduction. Gaunt returns to his adagio at the end of his speech as well.

  4. Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II (London: Methuen and Co., 1961), 49n.

  5. Friedman, 286.

  6. Please note that by “mental breath” I refer to a time unit in reading bound by a sense of inception at its beginning and a sense of closure at its end. The moment of closure may or may not be marked by punctuation; it depends instead on expectations raised in the reader's mind by a number of different clues in the text. “Mental breath,” as I use it here, should by no means be confused with the physical breath it might take to utter a given unit of discourse.

  7. This essay treats the speech as something to be read. An actor's interpretation can either emphasize or diminish the effects through timing and intonation. I would argue, of course, that an actor would do well to recognize the rhetorical structure and make it apparent to the audience through performance.

  8. Cf. Hamlet, I.ii, where Hamlet and his companions await the appearance of the Ghost with great tension. It is only when they have lowered their guard by falling into an irrelevant conversation that the Ghost is allowed to appear. Cf. also The Tempest, I.ii, where the audience's expectation to see Caliban for the first time is momentarily disappointed by the entrance of Ariel disguised as a water nymph. Ariel's quick exist leaves the audience confused and unprepared for the previously long-expected entrance of Caliban.

    What ho! slave! Caliban!
    Thou earth, thou! Speak!
    Caliban [within]
    There's wood enough within.
    Come forth I say! There's other business for thee.
    Come, thou tortoise! When?
    [Enter Ariel like a water nymph]
    Fine apparition! My quaint Ariel,
    Hark in thine ear.
    My lord, it shall be done. [Exit]
    Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself
    Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!
    [Enter Caliban]
  9. Professor Friedman interprets this moment differently: “Here again paraphrasis (or interpretatio) gives the effect of trying to define an essence by enumerating all its names, an attempt that fails because his understanding of the national essence goes no further than attaching the name to the earth itself” (p. 289).

  10. Although this metaphor is technically only five and three quarters lines long, it functions like a six-line unit because there is no indication that we should take an unusually large mental breath after the first quarter-line unit of line 51.

  11. The great syntactical complexity here results from the difficulty of keeping in order many appositives which contain no express lexical subordinates.… By the time we have arrived at “blessed Mary's son,” we have wandered as far from the initial “this” as the Holy Land is from England.

  12. Alexander Pope used the same techniques, with curious echoes of Gaunt's speech, in the penultimate paragraph of his “Moral Epistle 1: To Cobham”: repetition to gain time, parenthetical interruptions, and a reluctance to pronounce names that will create a conscious change of state or status.

    “I give and I devise,” (Old Euclio said,
    And sigh’d) “My lands and tenements to Ned.”
    Your money, Sir? “My money, Sir, what all?
    “Why, —if I must—(then wept) I give it Paul.”
    The Manor, Sir?—“The Manor! hold,” he cry’d,
    “Not that,—I cannot part with that!”—and dy’d.

    The fact that this too describes a deathbed scene, that “tenements” are mentioned, and that the interruptions completely obscure the poetic form (for who could tell at once that these lines are in heroic couplets?) all make one wonder whether Pope might not have had John of Gaunt's speech in mind.

  13. Some interesting work has been done on the concepts of harmony, proportion, time, and music in Richard II. Richard D. Altick attributes “the peculiar unity” of the play to the repetition and interweaving of particular words, images, and symbols; Karl Felsen extends that concept to the mirroring of interrelating scenes and events; and Leighton R. Scott finds Pythagorean proportions, even the “golden mean” of the Fibonacci series, both in Richard's Act V soliloquy and in the play as a whole. Felsen suggests (107) that the interweaving of scenes and events provides “an aesthetic balance and harmony in the play that brings out very forcefully the pathetic moral and political imbalance and discord of the characters and events within the play. An ugly picture is made more ugly by a beautiful frame.” Scott demonstrates that using the mathematics of the “golden mean” proportion divides Richard's soliloquy precisely at its point of dramatic interruption and change of focus (“Music do I hear? / Ha - ha - keep time!”), and that the same calculations used on the play as a whole lead us to III.iii.133-34, the very moment of Richard's collapse (“What must the king do now? Must he submit? / The king shall do it. Must he be deposed?”). I would add to this that the same calculations used on Gaunt's famous lines, beginning with “This royal throne of kings” (40) and ending with “How happy then were my ensuing death” (68), lead us to the anti-climax of the long awaited verb phrase, “Dear for her reputation throughout the world / Is now leased out …” (58-9). The entire play depends upon a complex combination of balances and imbalances, the greatest number of which are rhetorical. See Richard D. Altick, “Symphonic Imagery in Richard II,” PMLA 42 (1947): 339-65; Karl Felsen, “Richard II: Three-Part Harmony,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 23 (1972): 107-11; and Leighton R. Scott, “Pythagorean Proportion and Music of the Spheres in Richard II,” Albion, 10 (1978): 104-18.

  14. The concept that England will be protected from foreign invasion unless it conquers itself first by its own misdeeds can be found in The Troublesome Raigne of King John, in works by Churchyard and Borde, in the Briefe Discourse by G. D., and in Daniel's Civile Warres. See Friedman, 282.

  15. Friedman, 292: “The inmost core of Gaunt's outrage appears to be not the dulling of national fame, but the fact that possession of the land has passed from the hands of its traditional owners.” I agree. The short predicate (“is now leased out … pelting farm”) must be invested with a great deal of animus to balance the length and weight of the preceeding encomia. See also Richard D. Altick, “Symphonic Imagery in Richard II,” PMLA, 42 (1947): 341-44. The slow and painful development of the concept of private property under English law is a surprising discovery to the uninitiated and explains the depth of concern indicated in Gaunt's speech. For an excellent and readable explanation of the origins of English property law, see Cornelius J. Moynihan, Introduction to the Law of Real Property, (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1962).

  16. See Stephen Booth, “Syntax as Rhetoric in Richard II,” Mosaic, 10 (1977): 89.

  17. for 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 little 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 humored thus,
    Comes at the last, and with a little pin
    Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!


Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

Barroll, Leeds. “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, No. 4 (Winter 1988): 441-64.

Suggests that some “confusions” exist within the field of “new historicism” and that these affect the endeavors to understand Shakespeare and his work within the context of the period in which he lived. Barroll examines Richard II within this framework, focusing specifically on the presentation of the play the night before the Earl of Essex's attempted rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, and on the attitude toward the theater under King James I.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Ars Moriendi in Progress, or John of Gaunt and the Practice of Strategic Dying.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 1, No. 1 (Fall 1987): 39-65.

Examines Gaunt and his dying speech within the context of Gaunt's relationship to his son Bolingbroke, arguing that Gaunt's deathbed speech demonstrates his “shame and self-protectiveness” and reflects his desire to justify his own actions as well as to show up his son with his own patriotism.

Beringhausen, Thomas F. “Banishing Cain: The Garden Metaphor in Richard II and the Genesis Myth of the Origin of History.” Essays in Literature XIV, No. 1 (Spring 1987): 3-14.

Analyzes the rhetoric of the garden scene as well as the larger rhetorical issues related to the image of the “gardener-king.” Beringhausen demonstrates the ways in which the garden scene in the play is informed by the Biblical parallels to the Garden of Eden, as well as the origin myth found in Genesis; Adam, Beringhausen argues, represents ideal kingship, as the “gardener in the fallen world, while Cain “represents a kingship gone hopelessly awry.”

Jacobs, Henry E. “Prophecy and Ideology in Shakespeare's Richard II.” South Atlantic Review 51, No. 1 (January 1986): 3-17.

Maintains that the transition in Richard II, from Richard and an ordered, medieval worldview based in the rule of law to Bolingbroke and a view of power which is not based in the law, is paralleled throughout the play in smaller, more subtle developments in “language, action, and attitude.”

Kehler, Dorothea. “King of Tears: Mortality in Richard II.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 39, No. 1 (1985): 7-18.

Studies the “death-centered world” of Richard, arguing that our own fears of death often prevent us from thoroughly examining the sympathy Richard draws.

Luckacher, Ned. “Anamorphic Stuff: Shakespeare, Catharsis, Lacan.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 863-98.

Argues that the play is organized around the issue of “cathartic purgation and clarification” and that Shakespeare employs a variety of tropes and figures, including those of the physician and patient, and king and country, in the development of the theme of catharsis.

Pye, Christopher. “The Betrayal of the Gaze: Theatricality and Power in Shakespeare's Richard II.” ELH 55, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 575-98.

Investigates the relationship between the power of kingship and theatricality in Richard II, focusing on the self-subversiveness of Richard's kingship.

Rackin, Phyllis. “The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare's Richard II.” Shakespeare Quarterly 36, No. 3 (Autumn 1985): 262-81.

Contends that the audience perceives the action of the play in two different ways. They are sometimes required to take a “long, historical view of the action” and are sometimes encouraged to see the action as “insistent, present reality.”

Schell, Edgar. “Richard II and Some Forms of Theatrical Time.” Comparative Drama 24, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 255-69.

Asserts that if the treatment of time in medieval and early Renaissance drama is properly understood, the contention that Bolingbroke mounts his armed return to England before he knows his father's lands have been seized by Richard must be reexamined. Schell explains that while later dramatic convention treated dramatic time as chronological, during the period in which Richard II was written, time schemes were “multiple and shifting.”

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Richard II (Vol. 39)


Richard II (Vol. 58)