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Richard II

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The events of Richard II form the commencement of a series of eight history plays in which Shakespeare dramatized the political struggles between the houses of York and Lancaster. Composed circa 1595, the play is set during the fourteenth century. A certain amount of knowledge of the history that Richard II portrays is required to properly understand Shakespeare's selective representation of that history. Such knowledge was common to Richard II's Elizabethan audiences. These two related issues—Shakespeare's view of history and the reaction of Elizabethan viewers to his account of it—are of primary interest to Shakespearean scholars. Other critics focus on issues related to the play's characterization and elaborate language. Additionally, some critical attention is devoted to the exploration of the play's genre; while Richard II addresses issues related to English history, the original title refers to the play as a tragedy.

Analyses of genre often begin by pointing out that the Folio and Quarto editions of the play identify it as The Tragedy of Richard II. Ruth Nevo (1972) discusses the distinction between history and tragedy, and compares Richard II to the structure of Shakespeare's tragedies. Nevo contends that although the play fails to demonstrate the same articulation of tragic phases as Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Richard II possesses a movement similar to that of his tragedies. Malcolm Page (1987) focuses on the historical aspects of the play and states that while the drama centers on historical events, it is also about a man's tragic fall.

The historical issues dramatized in Richard II, particularly Richard's deposition and the notion of a monarch's divine right to rule, were of major interest to Elizabethans. Donna B. Hamilton (1983) studies the way the play addresses the relationship between the King and the law, and attempts to demonstrate that Richard II reflects the views of Shakespeare's time. Elizabethans, explains Hamilton, recognized that a monarch who governed by divine right was obligated to obey the law and rule. Accordingly, Shakespeare's Richard was portrayed and perceived as a bad king precisely because he did attend to his obligations and his activities damaged the commonwealth. Ruth Morse (1995) centers her study on Shakespeare's utilization of his sources (primarily Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland [1577] and Edward Halle's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York [1548]). Morse contends that, like the medieval historians he drew from, Shakespeare attempted to write “true” history. Morse adds that “truth” for Shakespeare and his sources included a range of possible depictions. Like Hamilton, David Norbrook (1996) is concerned with the way Elizabethans received the play. In particular, Norbrook studies the way those plotting the Essex Rebellion might have responded to the play in 1601. (In 1601, the Earl of Essex paid for a special performance of Richard II in an effort to use the play as propaganda for his cause.) Norbrook observes that the play reflects the Elizabethan concern that Parliament should be protected as a forum for debate and criticism.

Critics are also interested in Richard II’s language and characterization. James L. Calderwood (1992) examines the parallel between the “debasement” of kingship and the “secularising of language” in the play. The critic maintains that when Richard loses his name as king he must resort to speaking in metaphors, “for metaphor is the language of the unnamed.” Taking a different approach, Dermot Cavanagh (1999) shows that the play substitutes language for action, and the language is particularly focused on treachery. Cavanagh studies the relationship between the language of treason and the dynamics of authority in the play. Lois Potter (1974) asserts that Richard is a much less virtuous character than is often thought. Potter then examines the way Richard's elaborate language, used as a substitute for action, supports this view of him. Dennis R. Klinck (1998) studies Shakespeare's depiction of Richard as both the “landlord” of England and as a tenant who commits “waste.” Klinck undertakes an investigation of these terms in their legal sense and concludes that the characterization of Richard as a “wasting tenant” is, in the end, a figurative notion. Richard's advisors, Bushy, Bagot, and Greene, are the subject of another character study by Paul Gaudet (1982). Gaudet explains that the characters are typically viewed as evil, as the “caterpillars of the commonwealth,” a view reflected in Shakespeare's sources. However, Gaudet maintains, Shakespeare actually presents the three as passive attendants in order to highlight Richard's own culpability.

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: “The Genre of Richard II,” in William Shakespeare's Richard II, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 7-35.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Nevo assesses Richard II as a tragedy, rather than as a history play, and contends that despite some shortcomings, the play contains a movement approximating that of Shakespeare's great tragedies.]

Beyond the woeful or happy outcome brought about by the catastrophe Elizabethan dramatic theory did not distinguish between the structure of tragedy and comedy; neither were the dramatic practitioners possessed of a theory of genre which would enable them to distinguish with any rigor between tragedy and history. Polonius's familiar puzzlement is not only his own but the age's failure to achieve radical definitions. Thus the “chronicle” plays of the period, which deal with the fall of princes, great changes of fortune, tyrannical intrigues, and Machiavellian betrayals, based upon no clear generic principle of either tragedy or history, based, indeed, at best upon a de casibus interpretation of events indifferent to the distinction, present a bewildering medley of hybrids, a spectrum of mixed or intermediate tints. And whether any given instance is an example of “tragicall historie” or historical tragedy or of English Seneca requires a more systematic philosopher than Polonius to determine. Both Richard III and Richard II, though integral parts of their respective historical tetralogies, are called “tragedies” in the Folio and in the Quartos upon which it was based.

Shakespeare, therefore, found few clear conceptions of genre ready to hand. Nor did he possess a theory of tragic character. He invented as he went along; and as he proceeds from the histories to the tragedies, his exploratory, creative deployment of his art discovers and establishes the distinctions that he needs. The chief distinction between history and tragedy rests in the restructuring the narrative undergoes in order to bring out the protagonist's personal responsibility for events and his personal response to them. It is his distinctive aspiration, will, or purpose that becomes salient. In the history plays the protagonists are exhibited as struggling for freedom to initiate events. Even that artist in villainy, Richard III, has not fully escaped from the destined role of a scourge of God. If they are made vivid, it is by a degree of idiosyncrasy in their response to their destined roles, but they are nevertheless governed by an overall ironic process of history. If we may imagine them as figures in bas-relief compared to the sculptures in the round of the tragedies, they may also thus be compared with the tapestry figures of pure chronicle. But in Richard II the providentialist view of events which dominated Shakespeare's historical sources gives way to a rival concern. In Richard II Shakespeare's tragic idea takes the form of a development in the dimension of character that is decisive for future directions.

The play's overt conflict is between the strong and successful Bolingbroke and the vain and vacillating Richard; and looked at from the point of view of the management of events, the play is well made, Richard's decline and Bolingbroke's rise crisscrossing effectively in the center. But the simple fall-rise pattern does not exhaust the potentialities of the dramatic material as Shakespeare presents it. The play is not contained without remainder, so to speak, within the historical pattern. The remainder inheres in the characterization of Richard, in which the play's distinction lies. It is this study of the complex figure of the tragic hero that exerts pressure upon the shape of the play, so that from within the episodic chronicle form we perceive the emergence of what we can recognize, in the light of our knowledge of the later tragedies proper, as the distinctively tragic structure. The play does not exhibit the consummate articulation of phases of the great tragedies. The first two acts are episodic and the study of tragic character does not really get under way until the peripeteia of act 3. And when it does it is almost, though not quite, independent of the content of acts 1 and 2. But the play does possess a movement which approximates to that of the great tragedies. Coleridge's remark concerning Richard's “continually increasing energy of thought, and as constantly diminishing power of action” takes on an added significance when to Coleridge's psychological interest in character portrayal is added an interest in the structure of tragedy that directs us to search for the principle informing this movement.

As act 1 proceeds we perceive, through the considered juxtaposition of scenes, the predicament in which Richard is placed. The act is composed primarily of two scenes of elaborate formal challenge between rival claimants for justice. At three points, however, the façade of highly ceremonial assertion and counterassertion between Bolingbroke and Mowbray is rent to provide a glimpse of the historical actualities that lie behind these rituals. The inserted dialogue (1.2) between Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester points to the hidden and ambiguous source of all the trouble: the murder of Woodstock; the final scene of the act indicates, possibly, the real import both of Richard's fear of Bolingbroke (his courtship of the common people) and of Bolingbroke's challenge of Richard. (Though Holinshed, and Bolingbroke himself, in 2 Henry IV [3.1.72-74] deny the imputation of forethought: “Though then, Heaven knows, I had no such intent, / But that necessity so bow'd the state, / That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss.”) And the dialogue between Richard and Gaunt after the sentence of banishment makes clear the nature of the political arrangement that has taken place behind the scenes to make the present solution feasible. To Gaunt's lament for his son's exile Richard replies:

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


And Gaunt's reply admits his complicity:

Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.
You urg'd me as a judge, but I had rather
You would have bid me argue like a father.
O, had it been a stranger, not my child,
To smooth his fault I should have been more mild.
A partial slander sought I to avoid,
And in the sentence my own life destroy'd.
Alas, I look'd when some of you should say
I was too strict to make mine own away;
But you gave leave to my unwilling tongue
Against my will to do myself this wrong.


What is presented then is the tangential relationship between the dramatized conflict of wills and the complex reality of history, where political morality or amorality is still further complicated by the blood relationship between the various contenders for power. Feudal rituals mask the ulterior political realities of collusion and guilt. In the predicament thus presented, power and justice are divided and disjoined. And it is in these circumstances that the King must play his allotted role. Richard must rule, in his circumstances, either by what the Elizabethans, following Machiavelli, called virtù, or by that older dial of princes called virtue. He must govern by either power or justice, since the breach between them already exists.

When we ask what is wrong with Richard's interruption of the lists, an act for which he has been richly and variously scolded by his severer critics, we are forced to the conclusion that it represents no more, but also no less, than simple political expediency, in circumstances which leave little other alternative. Later in the play we are given a parallel scene in which we watch Bolingbroke, at the height of his power and success, encountering a similar situation. And the comparison is instructive.

Once again the question at issue is Gloucester's death. Bagot is now the chief witness and Aumerle the accused, as Mowbray was accused by Bolingbroke in act 1. Once again the situation shapes itself in terms of the challenges and counterchallenges of honor, with the civil dissension inherent in the situation made manifest by the successive involvement on one side or the other of Fitzwater, Surrey, and Percy. The question, by an evident irony, circles back to the original contender, Mowbray, and we are only prevented from finding ourselves, so to speak, back at base, by Mowbray's death meanwhile in exile. But what is significant is that Bolingbroke, too, can do no more than shelve the whole matter, leaving the contenders under gage, “Till we assign you to your days of trial.” The intransigeance of the original ugly fact is a perpetual stumbling block to the house of Edward's sons, those “seven vials of his sacred blood” which has been shed. Thus the ultimate source of evil in this play and those which follow it (in the chronology of history, not by date of composition) is clearly identifiable. It is Woodstock's murder—a crime which sets up the chain reaction of violence and counterviolence, of guilt and the incurring of guilt, that scourges England through half-a-dozen reigns. But if Woodstock's death is the ultimate cause of these events, it is nevertheless not what is dramatized in Richard II. The play leaves this original act of Cain in impenetrable obscurity; but it presents Richard, at the outset, in precarious command of a dangerous and complex situation. He cannot place his dubious position at hazard upon the outcome of the duel, and he certainly cannot circumvent the challengers without the behind-the-scenes political arrangements we observe. This is Richard's predicament; and what the first two acts are engaged to exhibit is his disastrous incapacity to establish his ascendancy.

Richard's handling of the difficult situation presented in act 1 is, I have suggested, not unmarked by a shrewd political acumen. But it is marred by levity. His speech to the combatants, in the high vein of prophetic patriotism which is struck again and again, and with the utmost seriousness, throughout the play, has impressive dignity:

For that our kingdom's earth should not be soil'd
With that dear blood which it hath fostered;
And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect
Of civil wounds plough'd up with neighbours' sword,
And for we think the eagle-winged pride
Of sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts,
With rival-hating envy, set on you
To wake our peace, which in our country's cradle
Draws the sweet infant breath of gentle sleep.


But behind the regal bearing and the regal gesture is revealed Richard's dismal lack of that inalienable personal power which a later age would come to call charisma, and which alone could carry him through. He has not that in his face which either Mowbray or Bolingbroke would feign call master. And this is made manifest by their refusal, insolent in Bolingbroke's case, conciliatory in Mowbray's, to obey him, notwithstanding the brave show of “lions make leopards tame” or “we were not born to sue, but to command.” The dramatic conduct of the first scenes throws into relief the “high pitch of the contender's resolution,” rather than any high pitch of the King's. And though divinity hedges him (Gaunt will raise no hand against the Lord's anointed despite the appeal of his widowed sister-in-law) we are left with the overriding impression of a precariousness in his exercise of authority. The main source of this impression lies in the frivolity of Richard's attitude to Gaunt. The first note of this frivolity is heard in the flippant “pluck'd four away” with which Richard announces his commutation of Bolingbroke's sentence, and the scarcely veiled effrontery of “Why, uncle, thou hast many years to live.” It is the note, or the major chord, upon which act 1 closes:

Now put it, God, in the physician's mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him,
Pray God we may make haste and come too late!


This is the mainspring of the development in act 2. For if in act 1 was revealed Richard's lack of virtù—he plays neither lion nor fox with sufficient conviction—in act 2, against the powerful remonstrance of the dying Gaunt, is revealed his lack of virtue. And much is to be learned from the way in which this lack of virtue is in fact revealed. As we have seen, act 2 is the phase of tragedy which presents the tempting or testing of the protagonist in terms of personal decisions which have to be made. Richard's “Can sick men play so nicely with their names?” and “A lunatic lean-witted fool, presuming on an ague's privilege,” contrasting with the passion of Gaunt's “Landlord of England art thou now, not king,” represent not merely a callous indifference to mortal illness, but a deliberate refusal to entertain the seriousness of the issues. Thus it is Richard's flippancy, exhibited in the deathbed confrontation with Gaunt, that indicates the nature of his “temptation.” The difficulty is that the king's frivolity is exhibited only in the passage with Gaunt and made only by implication to bear the whole brunt of the indictment against him. It is by narrative hearsay that we are informed of Richard's unstaid youth, light vanity, the thousand flatterers which sit within his crown, the throne's bankruptcy, the shame of the leasing out of English land, and the burdensome exactions and taxes under which groan commons and nobles alike—charges which are made to account for the defection of Willoughby, Ross, and Worcester. But these defects and abuses are given no self-reflection or reverberation or internalization in Richard's mind, nor are they mediated by some powerful private motivation with which he must engage. Marlowe did better with his Edward in this respect.

Whether this summary fashion is due, as Rossiter thought, to Shakespeare's leaning too heavily (by allusion) upon Woodstock is less to the purpose than the perception that in the encounter between uncle and nephew is encapsulated the morality content of the older play. There Richard's three uncles exhort him to virtue, and Tresilian, Bushy, and Green to vice; the familiar form of the medieval debate constitutes the whole structural frame of Woodstock. It is noteworthy that in Richard II this psychomachia is reduced to one stage of a process, in keeping with the new kind of structure and the new kind of tragic issue toward which Shakespeare is evidently feeling his way. But the treatment suffers from too radical an abridgement. The effect is of a dramatic thinness, or flatness, or absence of relatedness. The discontinuity, the gaps, so to speak, between given, fixed aspects or attributes of character (regality, levity) are not only too great but also too empty of reflection to allow that play of inference which alone constitutes psychological density and creates our sense of character. Shakespeare overcomes this dramatic thinness in an impressively skillful manner through his presentation of the role of York. But this is still in the earlier episodic mode, not capable of the effects of integration later achieved.

York, upon Bolingbroke's return, becomes a vessel of ambivalence, swaying between fealty and justice, dynastic legitimacy and virtue. This is the conflict which Richard's frivolity imposes upon his subjects; it is also a continuation of the conflict implicit in the play's predicament. For as Bolingbroke presents his case to York it becomes abundantly clear that whichever principle York chooses he must do violence to another no less imperative.

Will you permit that I shall stand condemn'd
A wandering vagabond, my rights and royalties
Pluck'd from my arms perforce, and given away
To upstart unthrifts? Wherefore was I born?
If that my cousin king be King in England,
It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster.
You have a son, Aumerle, my noble cousin;
Had you first died, and he been thus trod down,
He should have found his uncle Gaunt a father,
To rouse his wrongs and chase them to the bay.


The dichotomization of values is complete, and York mirrors the conflict which is externalized, in the plot, in the struggle between the two contenders for the crown. But he does not mirror a dilemma within the soul of the protagonist, as, for instance, does Enobarbus; he merely substitutes for it. Maynard Mack has spoken of “umbrella” speeches or episodes, those mirrors of analogy in the mature Shakespearean drama “under which more than one consciousness shelters.” These are screens, he says, citing Lear's Fool, Poor Tom, Enobarbus, and the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, on which “Shakespeare flashes, as it were, readings from the psychic life of the protagonist.” York is incipiently such a figure, but it is not until the end of the play, as I shall presently show, that the readings flashed onto the screen he provides are from the psychic life of Richard himself.

In act 2 we watch the actualization of Gaunt's prophecy: the callous indifference of Richard to his death, the seizing of Bolingbroke's inheritance, the defection of Willoughby, Ross, and Worcester, and the mournful forebodings of the Queen. It is the expropriation of Bolingbroke, of course, that makes possible his return as claimant for simple justice. But the fatality of this act, which in fact precipitates Richard's downfall, is obscured by the secondary issues, so that its effect is dissipated in a catalogue of political abuses of which the expropriation of Bolingbroke appears to be only one. We are thus catapulted straight into the peripeteia of act 3—the unkinging of the King—with no transition other than the episodic reference to the Irish expedition by Bushy, Green, and Bagot. These scapegoat figures, caterpillars of the commonwealth, serve the ends of historical apologetic for the sweet English rose, but they usurp attention that should be concentrated upon the figure of the tragic hero. What Shakespeare, it seems, has not mastered in this play is the foregrounding of the fatal choice—the act, portentous in the inescapability of its consequences, fully expressive of the protagonist's nature (though it may be unpremeditated) which precipitates both disaster and the recognitions that constitute the emergence of tragic consciousness in one who is, paradoxically, both agent and victim of his fate.

Because Shakespeare has thus failed to bring out and make salient the tragic error, act 3 appears to set off, so far as the character of Richard is concerned, in a completely new direction. The effect of discontinuity, of too sudden a shift of focus, is the result of an insufficient anchoring of present responses in purposes, feelings, desires, intentions previously entertained. By the time Shakespeare comes to write Lear, in which so much that is implicit in Richard II is developed, and Macbeth, in which so much that is implicit in Richard III is developed, he will know how to exploit a tragic error committed at the outset of the events. Richard's tragic life begins, in effect, only in act 3 itself; unlike Lear and Macbeth, he is not yet possessed of that great tragic asset, a past—is not yet haunted and hounded by the memory of that which is done. It is precisely, indeed, toward a realization of the nature of his temporal existence that he is made to struggle in act 3. And it is this which gives one the sense of being in the very forge and workshop of Shakespeare's art. For it is the “inside of the event” that we are given throughout these central perturbations in act 3, the very process of Richard's discovery of self. Those critics who complain of “self-dramatization” overlook the fact that for a character to have a self to dramatize is one of the more remarkable achievements of European literature. The question is important enough to warrant a moment's digression.

In Richard III Shakespeare had achieved a density of characterization by the essentially simple device of impersonation, which was his inheritance from the Devil-vice figure of the moralities. Richard not only acts the villain; he delights in the exercise of his skill as an enactor of villainy. He is both actor and régisseur of his own part, and the fascination of the performance hinges upon the very ambiguity of the notion of playacting, interchangeably illusion and reality. All reference in Shakespeare to playacting, direct or implicit, has this effect, creating a metatheatre in which levels of representation interact. The same principle accounts for the density of Falstaff. And in the multiplication of possibilities of interplay between the projection, the performance, the assessment, and the awareness of a role lies the inimitable impression of exuberance and zest which mark both characters, each in his own mode. The moment, however, we are tempted or invited to probe behind a public role to a private reality, to press beyond the imitation of a histrionic toward the imitation of an historic mode of existence, we find that such characters become dynamic in a totally new way. A principle of growth, of modification, of real human development is introduced into figures which, whatever their versatility, are tied to the irreducible fixity of Crookback or Fatbelly. Falstaff as comic character cannot truly survive the sense of self which is beyond the sense of role. Hence the notorious fracture, so to speak, of the whole conception, in 2 Henry IV. In Richard, on the other hand (since by a paradox of terminology, it is the tragedies which explore the “historic,” or inward, as opposed to the “histrionic,” or outward, mode of existence), we perceive, in his soliloquy after the dream, the very point of emergence of a new possibility: a dialogue of self and soul.

Give me another horse, bind up my wounds:
Have mercy Jesu! Soft, I did but dream.
O coward conscience! how dost thou afflict me?
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? There's none else by,
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No; yes, I am:
Then fly. What from myself? Great reason why?
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain: yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain;
Perjury, in the high'st degree,
Murder, stern murder, in the dir'st degree;
All several sins, all us'd in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! Guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they? Since that I myself,
Find in myself no pity to myself?

(Richard III, 5.3.178-204)

It is rudimentary, though powerful; it is the merest sketch—too little and too late. But it is of the highest significance. And it is the germ which will develop through subsequent plays, adding to dramatic character an entire inner dimension of tragic self-discovery.

It is thus not further evidence of Richard's failure as a king that we are invited to perceive throughout act 3. His failure as a king has been sufficiently established, as has Bolingbroke's cool confidence and masterly practicality. We are invited to perceive, stage by stage, through the direct disclosure of monologue and through inferences that the detail of the language enables us to make, a total curve of experience. The emotions that constitute that experience—shattered confidence, the sense of inadequacy, impotence, humiliation, grief—find cumulative expression throughout Richard's speeches in acts 3 and 4 and culminating expression in the speech at Pomfret. And their delineation of emerging self-awareness and the struggle for self-possession is masterly. We have been misdirected to find in these speeches the luxuriatings in misery of a “poet manqué, who loved words more dearly than his Kingdom,” or a dilettante sentimentalist, “morbid, vacillating, impotently reflective and emotional,” “whose tragedy expresses itself in terms that clearly point to the weakness [acute self-consciousness] that has been, in part, its cause.” These speeches are properly to be construed not as educing the cause of his fall before the onslaught of Bolingbroke, but as the consequences of that fall, suffered, known, experienced, and reflected in the mind. Self-dramatization (Eliot's notorious stricture upon Othello) is the very medium of the art of tragedy, the method whereby it articulates its progress. It is as fallacious to regard it as an idiosyncrasy which demands particularistic psychological explanation as to construe the sculptured immobility of the discus-thrower as an indication of his curious inability to throw a discus. How shall we become aware of a character's thoughts save by his utterance of them, of a character's emotions save by his expression of them, of a character's possession of self save by his manifestation of a consciousness of self, or of a character's tragic identity save by his tragic agon, his pressing to the limit the experience of adversity in existence. The tragic hero is locked in struggle with himself, like Jacob with the angel.

As Moulton perceived, this fall of Richard is constructed on Shakespeare's favorite plan: “its force is measured, not by suddenness or violence, but by protraction and the perception of distinct stages” (Shakespeare as Dramatic Artist). Aristotle's anagnorisis—the transformation of ignorance into knowledge through recognition of identity—provides the paradigm for all such transmutations in tragedy. What distinguishes the Shakespearean kind is the richness, depth, inwardness, and range of awareness which the expressive, self-revelatory, self-exploratory speech of the hero enables him to articulate. In Greek drama what is recognized is identity. In Shakespearean drama what is recognized is self. Characteristically the self-exploration is given substance and definition by the terms of the psychomachia set forth in act 2. And though this, as we have seen, is less than sufficiently “done” in this play, nevertheless particular analysis of the self-exploration of Richard shows that the observation holds good here too.

Richard's vacillations are a function basically of that failure to summon up the maximum resources of the will, that lack of self-confidence, which characterizes men who are weaker than the opponents they encounter. But the substance of his vacillations consists of desperate recurrent attempts to achieve or fix an image of himself with which he can live should his native role slip from his grasp.

When we first encounter Richard upon his return from Ireland, weeping for joy to stand upon his kingdom once again, the speech is in direct emotional continuation of his address to the combatants in act 1, in which he adjured them to protect the peace “which in our country's cradle / Draws the sweet infant breath of gentle sleep” (1.3.132).

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;
Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense,
But let thy spiders that suck up thy venom
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet,
Which with usurping steps do trample thee.


These speeches are in marked contrast with the historically oriented nationalism of Gaunt's prophecy:

This royal throne of kings, this scept'red isle … 
This happy breed of men, this little world … 
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 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 land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas'd out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.


Richard, unlike Gaunt, is invoking an ancient, sacramental magic. It is prenational, a-historical; it is the sacred, animistic bond between king and land—the corpus mysticum which includes and transcends both political kingdom and physical earth, as kingship includes and transcends both the king's eternal “body politic” and his personal, natural self. From this he draws the strength of his asserted belief that “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.” He is also invoking a lover's relationship, caressing, tender, maternal, erotic. His personifications persistently link rebellion with suggestions of sexual violation—a rape of the land:

And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder,
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign's enemies.


Gaunt's patriotism, on the other hand, takes the form of a national pride in the virtues and achievements of an historical nation-state, its martial valor, its renown abroad, its strength and independence. It is noteworthy that his rhetoric consistently distinguishes between “land” and “state”—indeed in the famous lines, “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England, / This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings” (2.1.50-51), he makes perceptible transition from the merely native to the consciously national. That Gaunt's patriotism is anachronistic, far more Elizabethan than feudal, is less to the purpose than the perception that Richard, by contrast, is drawing upon constitutional and legal doctrine and quasi-erotic sentiment to supply the strength and confidence which “worldly men” derive from the exercise of political arts. Richard's identification of himself with his kingship and with the land he is part of and possesses constitutes the inherited and as yet untried conception of himself to which he retreats at the first crisis. It is this that circumstances will test, undermine, and finally shatter; and in the ruin of which, in the catastrophe, he will find independent individual dignity.

While Carlisle and Aumerle make their plea for the practical energies of virtù, Fortune and Scroop, playing the torturer by small and small, announce first the defection of the Welshmen, then the general insurrection in favor of Bolingbroke, then the execution of Bushy, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire. Richard's reactions consist of a series of violent fluctuations between dread of worse to come and renewed hope for the power of the king's name, or the power of his uncle York. These fluctuations come to rest in a stoical attempt to withstand the tidings of calamity by reducing its significance to mere worldly loss, which can be endured with a virtuous fortitude:

The worst is worldly loss thou canst unfold.
Say, is my kingdom lost? Why, 'twas my care,
And what loss is it to be rid of care?
Strives Bolingbroke to be as great as we?
Greater he shall not be. If he serve God,
We'll serve Him too, and be his fellow so.
Revolt our subjects? that we cannot mend;
They break their faith to God as well as us.
Cry woe, destruction, ruin, and decay—
The worst is death, and death will have his day.


But the culmination of the whole series of reactions, finely discriminated from this speech of rehearsal, is the great elegy with which Richard greets the blow of the news of his friends' death. Indeed it is this blow and its accompanying emotional perturbation (immediately following his carefully constructed stoicism) that transforms the protective pose of Christian fortitude into a great lament upon the theme of vanity. He believed his friends treacherous, and discovers their loyalty in the same breath as he discovers their death. The irony is pointed up by Scroop's equivocation: “Peace have they made with him indeed, my lord” (3.2.128). From the multiplicity of meaning radiating outward from the small word “peace” Richard's meditation upon death takes its rise. Peace of body, of mind, of conscience, the illusory peace of life—“as if this flesh which walls about our life were brass impregnable”—the peace of the grave in the hollow ground are its grand themes.

Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors and talk of wills.
And yet not so—for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all, are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death;
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some vain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill'd,
All murthered—for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there his 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!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?


His own deprivation, his own mortification, is the prelude to the melancholy procession of monarchs from the Mirror for Magistrates in all the poignant specificity of their individual deaths. But he is one of them, and the idea of the common destiny of all earthly kings is salient. The thought reaches its climax in the figure of King Death keeping his court within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king; the metaphor articulates illusion, juxtaposing king and mock-king, king of flesh and king of shadows, in a flash of meaning Lear will later expand. Richard's self-awareness emerges from this dialectic of king and subject with the double puns upon “Crown” (symbol of sovereignty and mere skull) and “subjected” (made a subject and thrown down) focusing his realization of the relationship between the illusory name of king and the real nature of man, subject to elementary needs and sorrows. The very pronouns articulate the progress of this arduous shift of perspective. The speech begins with the generalizing and representative royal plural: “Let's sit,” “Let's choose,” “What can we bequeath,” proceeds through the immensely distanced “allowing him,” “infusing him,” to the “me” and the “I” and the “you” of a fully exposed personal existence in the final lines.

Richard's lament yields to the scarcely concealed contempt with which the practical Carlisle urges him, “My lord, wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes,” and to Aumerle's encouragement to him to remember York's force. His insight gives way to the older habitual posture. He rejects his recent outburst as an “ague fit of fear” and brashly looks forward to the winning of his own as an easy task. But the final blow is decisive. Richard's “sweet way to despair” is sweet not only because it suggests to him the consolations of an indulgence in the grief which is now all that is his own, but also because it is, in terms of a medieval contemptus mundi, a kind of hope. The “Kingly woe” which he resolves to obey is endued with connotations of a piety—the piety of the kingdom within—which has the power to make folly the wisdom of the world. The perspective is one which makes Bolingbroke's rise to power, crowned by vanity and haunted by guilt, a grimly ironic comment upon Carlisle's “wise men.”

To call Richard's behavior here vacillation is of course to classify it correctly for practical purposes. For dramatic purposes, however, what is important is what we are enabled to infer of the nature of his ordeal and the inner strategies it gives rise to. The peripeteia which reverses his status and his situation, which makes him no king, produces self-awareness of the acutest and most poignant kind. And it would seem to be crass indeed to interpret the highly original if still somewhat stilted rendering of this self-awareness as “Richard's fatal weakness.” It is often done. “He cannot bring himself to live in a world of hard actuality; the universe to him is real only as it is presented in packages of fine words”; “Aumerle tries almost roughly to recall him from his weaving of sweet, melancholy sounds … but he rouses himself only momentarily and then relapses into a complacent enjoyment of the sound of his own tongue.” A juster analysis will surely perceive the subtlety with which the personal struggle is rendered. As he watches his power dwindle and knows himself without the innate capacity to rule, it is precisely “the hard actuality” of his situation that he perceives. And in his probing of this actuality he conceives the possibility of an alternative “address to the world” which represents another kind of sovereignty. Both impose claims upon his imagination, and each frustrates the other. “What shall the King do?” is the question that torments him. And “What shall the King do?” in circumstances in which the King's power to initiate action is lost becomes the far more radical and searching question, “What shall the King be?”

The constitutive principle throughout act 3 is that of rapid alternation, and with each thrust and counterthrust further resources of language are brought into play. Richard's appearance upon the walls of Flint castle has the imposing dignity of royal spectacle. As York points out:

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!


And his address to Northumberland takes the cue with magnificent aplomb:

We are amazed, and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourselves thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?


In his speech the themes of legitimate descent, divine protection, the ravages of war to come are recapitulated and climaxed by one of the most moving of the recurrent image clusters:

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.


The speech is in direct counterpoint to Bolingbroke's preceding threat:

If not, I'll use the advantage of my power
And lay the summer's dust with showers of blood
Rain'd from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen—
The which, how far off from the mind of Bolingbroke
It is such crimson tempest should bedrench
The fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land.


It should not be lost upon the sensitive ear that Richard's version of the rape of the land has the advantage in resonance, seriousness, and poetic power. The metaphor which is slighting in “the fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land” recurs in “the flower of England's face,” but with an excess of personal dignity in the change of bodily reference; and then is almost completely personified in “the complexion of her maid-pale peace,” so that the England which will be drenched by the rain of blood is presented as the object of Richard's personal love and as a lovely object of contemplative pity. The imagery in this play is still more “poetic” than “dramatic,” but an instance of the specifically poetic medium taking on a dramatic dimension is the way in which the imagery of earth, flesh, peace, blood, and growth is also used to discriminate between contrasting martial and tender modes of being. The gamut of expression thus provided constitutes the characterizing, or dramatizing, function of the imagery, and so enters into the dynamic of the play.

Richard's wholeheartedness, his role as his land's lover, gives way to bitterness at the thought of what his situation forces him to do. For this reason he overstates his accession to Bolingbroke's demands:

Northumberland, say thus the King returns:
His noble cousin is right welcome hither,
And all the number of his fair demands
Shall be accomplish'd without contradiction;
With all the gracious utterance that thou hast
Speak to his gentle hearing kind commends


and at once plays with a repudiation of what he feels to be intolerably debasing:

We do debase ourselves, cousin, do we not,
To look so poorly, and to speak so fair?
Shall we call back Northumberland and send
Defiance to the traitor, and so die?


The wild desire for an heroic death (“to send defiance to the traitor, and so die”), checked by Aumerle's prudence, then issues in Richard's passionate insight into the tragic discrepancy between the king's two bodies, between himself and his role, between the man that he is and the king that he ought to be.

                                                            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!
Swell'st thou, proud heart? I'll give thee scope to beat,
Since foes have scope to beat both thee and me.


The previous speech, which ended with the cry, “Subjected thus / How can you say to me, I am a king?” registered his shocked realization of impotence, generated by the perception that such impotence in the face of death is the lot of common humanity. Here Richard exhibits a further stage in his awareness of himself as separate from the role history has cast upon him. The immediate result is the renunciation speech, which is flattened out of all significance if it is seen as merely another ecstasy of self-pity. The speech registers in fact a complex triple movement of feeling:

What must the King do now? Must he submit?
The King shall do it. Must he be depos'd?
The King shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of king? a God's name, let it go.
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads;
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown;
My figur'd goblets for a dish of wood;
My scepter for a palmer's walking staff;
My subjects for a pair of carved saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave;
Or I'll be buried in the King's highway,
Some way of common trade, where subjects' feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign's head;
For on my heart they tread now whilst I live:
And buried once, why not upon my head?
Aumerle, thou weep'st (my tender-hearted cousin!),
We'll make foul weather with despised tears;
Our sighs and they shall lodge the summer corn,
And make some pretty match with shedding tears?
Or shall we play the wantons with our woes,
As thus, to drop them still upon one place,
Till they have fretted us a pair of graves
Within the earth, and, therein laid—there lies
Two kinsmen digg'd their graves with weeping eyes!
Would not this ill do well? Well, well, I see
I talk but idly, and you laugh at me.
Most mighty prince, my Lord Northumberland,
What says King Bolingbroke? Will his Majesty
Give Richard leave to live till Richard die?


The detailed, almost ritualistic specification with which he itemizes the idea of renunciation of the world suggests the intensity with which he is attempting to make a virtue of his necessity. The culminating item, however, “And my large kingdom for a little grave,” initiates a collapse of this high aim. It is marvelously dramatic. The would-be saint at this point collapses into the would-be martyr, and the self-pity which overcomes him is the surest sign of an unchastened self-love, an unreadiness for and even rejection of the idea of renunciation. In the third stage of the speech this excess of self-pity itself gives way to something else as the king becomes aware of Aumerle's evident emotion. His address to Aumerle, faithful king's man to the end, is indeed what it is invariably taken to be—a sentimental excursion. But it should not, I believe, be glossed exclusively to the King's disadvantage. On the contrary, if it is the verbal equivalent of the embrace of a man's arm around a friend's shoulder, it suggests the sustaining power of a gesture of sympathy, and it is in fact bracing in its effect, enabling Richard to return to the cruelty of fact: “What says King Bolingbroke? Will his Majesty / Give Richard leave to live till Richard die?” (3.3.172-73). Once again pronouns chart the spiritual progress. The royal “we” of the opening speech gave place to the titular third person used of himself at the start of the renunciation speech (“What must the king do now?”); this in turn gave way to the first person of the renunciation itself, as king was deposed into person. “Richard,” royal and baptismal name, designates the now ironic identification of person and king, the two aspects of himself seen, so to speak, from without. But the descent to the base court of the deposed sun-king is rendered by the unreserved and unmitigated first person singular.

The descent to the base court marks the completion of the tragic reversal. Power has in fact passed from Richard to Bolingbroke and from now on Richard is no longer controller or initiator of events, but merely the object of Bolingbroke's designs. Though this transfer of power is not formalized until the abdication scene, it has in fact occurred; and Richard's role in act 4 is subtly different from all that has preceded it. In act 4 Richard is the victim of Bolingbroke's inexorable progress, and his protest takes the form of the inverted coronation-rite. His newly sharpened awareness of self now becomes a bitter sense of self-betrayal and consequent self-disgust. We are given our bearings upon this phase of Richard's progress by his increasing recourse to sarcasm, the only weapon of revenge, the only violence, of a weak man:

Alack, why am I sent for to a king
Before I have shook off the regal thoughts
Wherewith I reign'd? I hardly yet have learn'd
To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my knee.


The one power he still has over Bolingbroke is the power to force him to be the witness of his violation of royalty, to force him to take responsibility, full human responsibility, for the lèse majesté which he sees as a replica of the ultimate sacrilege:

Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,
Showing an outward pity—yet you Pilates
Have here deliver'd me to my sour cross,
And water cannot wash away your sin.


Had he retired in dignified silence from the stage of history, as many of his critics apparently would have wished him to do, it would certainly have been more comfortable for the new king than the woeful pageant that we have. But the abdication scene, in which Richard stage-manages the exchange of the crown and the ritual unkinging of himself, provides the context in which the mirror episode acquires its reverberating significance.

In the mirror Richard seeks to solve the mystery of identity, of who and what he is. Truth and vanity, face and mask, self and role, substance and shadow—these dichotomies are all contained in the grand symbol of the mirror. Comparison with Richard III is instructive. For where Richard III watched his crooked shadow in the sun, understanding what he was in that outward figure, Richard II peruses his image in the glass, “That it may show me what a face I have / Since it is bankrupt of his majesty” (4.1.266-67). For his bafflement concerning his name and his nature has just received its most moving, passionate expression:

                                        Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself!
O that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water drops!


The disintegrating experience of a total breach between name and self is matched by the powerful snow-king metaphor of disintegration. The bitterness is wonderfully expressed by the transference of the sun metaphor to Bolingbroke and the transference of Bolingbroke's cold qualities to himself. Throughout the play, indeed, the orchestration of the sensuous contraries expressive of Richard's fluctuating states of mind—hot and cold, sweet and sour, pale and red, high and low, solid and melting (or brittle and liquid), harsh and tuneful—is entirely admirable.

In the shattering of the mirror is the symbol shattered, and Bolingbroke's acid comment, “The shadow of your sorrow has destroy'd the shadow of your face,” extracts a yet further significance from the episode. Richard responds to the truth of Bolingbroke's pragmatism with a countertruth in which resides the grandest irony of all, did Bolingbroke but know it—the irony of the inner reality of anguish and guilt of which the pomp and power of kingship's outer action is but the shadow:

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


The sequence of scenes which runs from 3.4 to 5.1 is of absorbing interest from the point of view taken in these pages, that is to say from the point of view of the discovery of Shakespeare's tragic form. The act division reflects the fall-rise plot construction: the garden scene, coming immediately after the surrender at Flint castle, provides a suitable comment upon Richard's government of his kingdom, and therefore signals the change of regime which is to follow. Act 4 initiates the rise to supreme power of Bolingbroke and begins therefore with his examination of Bagot and the renewed confrontation between the rival barons, echoing act 1. Act 4 ends with Richard's abdication and the plans for Bolingbroke's coronation, leaving for act 5 the final moves in the transfer of power: Richard's incarceration in the Tower, the queen's exile to France, Aumerle's conspiracy, which presents Bolingbroke with his first treason (foreshadowing things to come), and the death of Richard. Act division therefore faithfully reflects the construction of the play in terms of the overthrow of Richard's legitimate monarchy and the usurpation of Bolingbroke. But an eye trained by Shakespeare's later practice perceives at once that both 3.4, the gardener scene, and 5.1, the leave-taking scene between Richard and his weeping queen, in fact contain the sort of material that was to become, in the later tragedies, Shakespeare's characteristic fourth phase. This is the phase in which the tragic experience is rendered by some form of despair or repudiation of his world on the part of the protagonist, and modified by bearings taken from a vantage point outside and beyond the hero. It is the phase in which the great fall is wryly domesticated, and lit, so to speak, by transverse beams of pathos and irony. Both the pathos and the irony are methods for presenting the heroic image refracted in the medium provided by the viewpoint of simple, often anonymous, common folk.

In Richard II these resources are not deployed to the full as they will be later, where they are wonderfully juxtaposed and counterpointed so as to make the richest harmonic effects possible. Here they remain discrete and relatively unimpressive. The Gardener, effectively elegiac, is too explicitly allegorical for his comment upon “what men do, not knowing what they do” to have the maximum impact of dramatic irony. Later Shakespeare will transpose the key of such comment into the inspired fool's wisdom of gnomic gravediggers, or the earthy wisdom of an Emilia, while the contrapuntal darkened vision of Richard, “A king of beasts, indeed—if aught but beasts, / I had been still a happy king of men” (5.1.35-36), becomes “the wren goes to 't” and “a dog's obeyed in office” of Lear. In Richard II the content of the darkened vision has not been so objectively grounded in the very action of the play; nor has it the coordinated, accumulated reverberation of Lear's black apocalypse. In Richard II the ceremony and policy which veil human savagery are not rent entirely asunder as they are in Lear. Evil is fully accounted for in terms of political expediency, political error, political opportunism. Faces and fortunes are shattered, but the protagonists are not cut to the very brains. In Lear evil bursts all bounds and creates a vertiginous abyss. Nevertheless in Richard's somewhat decorative “lamentable tale,” with which even “the senseless brands will sympathize” (5.1.40-50), is the germ of “I should e'en die with pity to see another thus”; and in his “I am sworn brother, sweet, / To grim necessity” is foreshadowed “I am bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead.”

In neither Richard's case nor Lear's is the hero's tragedy complete at this stage. The inexorable process that forces a man to face the worst the fates hold in store for him comes after he has entertained a delusive hope of accommodation with what he takes, in his ignorance, to be the worst. This total knowledge of the worst constitutes the tragic catastrophe. It is, in a sense, Aristotle's anagnorisis taken to its furthest limit and unfolded in its fullest relatedness to what has gone before. In the final turn of the tragedy the Shakespearean tragic hero offers us more than a repentant acknowledgment of his own share of responsibility for the events. He may do this. But he does very much more than this. He bears witness to his own personal self-definition, to some distinctive form of human integrity, some inalienable individual perception of value of which his life is the gauge. The prison scenes at Pomfret perfectly illustrate the process.

The first part of the soliloquy, in which Richard sets his brain and his soul to breed thoughts, provides striking confirmation of what we have already discovered to have been dramatized in the play: Richard's oscillation between “the better sort” of thought and the worse; between the conflicting impulses which have constituted his struggle to achieve and maintain either virtue or virtù, the inner or the outer kingdom:

                                                  The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd
With scruples, and do set the word itself
Against the word,
As thus: “Come, little ones”; And then again,
“It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle's eye.”
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders: how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls;
And for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune's slaves,
Nor shall not be the last—like silly beggars
Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endur'd the like.


Thoughts of things divine are undermined by his doubts of his capacity for them. Thoughts of grand defiance die in their own impotent pride. The elaborate figure in which the brain is female to the soul is Shakespeare's way of rendering what is actually the first passage of formal introspection in the play. The result of Richard's thus turning his eyes inward is the detachment with which he views his own attempts at resignation. These are thoughts which merely “flatter,” which seek “a kind of ease” by the attempt to mitigate pain through dissipation in the thought of others' misfortunes. But in no thought can he find rest. These reflections bring him back to the great theme of role versus self, and to the ultimate nothing that awaits all men:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king,
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again, and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But what e'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.


“What, in ill thoughts again?” an Edgar might well have said; and indeed the transition to the idea of discord in the soul is implicit in the speech even before the music symbolizes it. The music, whose broken time apparently breaks into his train of thought, in reality focuses it. The idea of time broken, musically and metaphorically, in the music of men's lives, has the clearest relevance to his preoccupation with his own mismanagement of opportunities. And with the music, Richard's musing summary of his progress of the soul takes on a new urgency and energy of analysis:

                                        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 disordered string;
But for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke:
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numb'ring clock; … 
But my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack of the clock.


It may not be without relevance to note that Marvell, whose “Horatian Ode” is in many ways a mid-century reincarnation of the drama of Richard II, uses the image of the Jack-of-the-clock in his “The First Anniversary of Cromwell's Return from Ireland” for the merely hereditary kings who are not masters of time and men's minds:

Thus (Image-like) an useless time they tell,
And with vain scepter, strike the hourly Bell;
No more contribute to the state of Things,
Than wooden Heads unto the Viols strings.

(ll. 41-44)

The image has a Machiavellian resonance. In his letter to Soderini, “On Fortune and the Times,” Machiavelli expounds the doctrine that a man may hope to master Fortune—the concatenation of forces which the Prince faces—by virtù properly understood and practiced:

And therefore the cautious man, when it is time to turn adventurous, does not know how to do it, hence he is ruined; … For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than those who go to work more coldly.

The point I wish to emphasize is one that is not usually stressed: the latter half of Richard's monologue is very definitely in the direction of the world. Richard may be a wiser and better man at the end of the play than he was at the beginning, though much of what he learns the great commonplaces of all times teach. But struggle as he may towards resignation or renunciation, the unregenerate bent and drag of his nature is toward his lost royalty, and no divine thoughts have succeeded in sweetening the sour taste of deposition, the bitter realization of what he has lost and of what he has allowed himself to become.

What happens between the entrance of the groom and the end needs for its full understanding the “reflector” scenes between York and Aumerle which immediately precede Pomfret, and to which I have previously referred. York has been throughout the very image of a divided spirit. He remonstrates with Richard in his brother's and his nephew's defense, yet he sharply reproves Northumberland for want of reverence to the King at Flint Castle. He is torn between kinsmen, between loyalty and justice:

Th' one is my sovereign, whom both my oath
And duty bids defend; th' other again
Is my kinsman, whom the King hath wrong'd,
Whom conscience and my kindred bids to right.


He can choose no path which will annul the contrary alternative. While he is the spokesman of compassion for Richard in his description of the well-graced royal actor leaving the stage,

                                                            men's eyes
Did scowl on Richard. No man cried “God save him!”
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head.


the description prefaces his assertion that “To Bolingbroke are we sworn subjects now.” The revelation of Aumerle's conspiracy in favor of the deposed but after all still legitimate king produces an extremity of reaction in York that has puzzled commentators. I believe it fruitful to see the York episode as dramatically functional, as preliminary to Richard's death to which it points by contrast. For what is enacted in the conspiracy scene is the total breakdown of the man, his complete loss of inner coherence, the disintegration of his identity as man and father. He is so eroded by his inner warfare with inescapable treason that he can deliver his own son to the sword. The violence of his outburst in the teeth of the impassioned voice of nature in his wife's pleading is evidence of the breakdown. If the whole episode is a replica in little of the fate of the kingdom delivered over to civil strife, and an anticipation of Henry IV's problem with his wayward son, York's part in it at least is the immediate prelude to the recovery of self-possession by the dispossessed king. For this is the final outcome of the catastrophe.

The encounter with the groom and the story of the horse recall Richard to himself and renew his fighting spirit and his power of self-assertion. The defiant reflex of the will is produced by the combination of the simple affection and loyalty of the groom, which makes a “brooch in this all-hating world,” and the defection of roan Barbary—potent chivalric symbol of martial valour, and, proudly carrying Bolingbroke, exquisitely fitting symbol of the King's eclipse:

So proud that Bolingbroke was on his back!
That jade hath eat bread from my royal hand;
This hand hath made him proud with clapping him.
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?
Forgiveness, horse! Why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be aw'd by man,
Wast born to bear? I was not made a horse,
And yet I bear a burden like an ass,
Spurr'd, gall'd, and tir'd by jauncing Bolingbroke.


“I was not made a horse”—it is an unexpected turn, therefore splendidly expressive: “The devil take Henry of Lancaster, and thee! / Patience is stale, and I am weary of it.” Richard, dispossessed of crown, queen, kingdom, hereditary role, and even the lordly creature that bore him on its back, reduced to something as near as the impure tragedy of the histories will get to unaccommodated man, finds in himself undreamt-of-resources of willed defiance and sells his life dearly, in kingly fashion. It is the simplest kind of catharsis, a restoration of a lost heroic value. But it enables Exton to salute the sovereign that he kills with “As full of valour as of royal blood.” King Richard is eclipsed, but the fact, or the dream, or the image of truly royal prowess, finally redemptive of folly and vanity, survives.

Malcolm Page (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12351

SOURCE: “Part One: Text,” in Richard II: Text and Performance, Macmillan Education, 1987, pp. 13-47.

[In the following essay, Page reviews the themes, structure, and plot of Richard II and comments on issues related to the staging and performance of the play.]


Richard II begins in the middle: no Chorus, as in Henry V; no explanatory talk among waiting Gentlemen. This could easily be Richard II, Part II, particularly if we know that Richard has already been king for 21 years when the play begins. Instead of any setting of scene and situation, the king is seen presiding while two nobles quarrel cryptically. We cannot tell who is right and who is wrong in the argument, who is lying or whether both are. Our inability to grasp the issues forces our attention on the king, on his way of dealing with troublesome subjects.

Does Shakespeare intend to puzzle spectators with this bitter argument about complicity in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, the king's uncle? Or does he assume that the first audiences in 1595 brought knowledge lacking in audiences now? Shakespeare here seems to expect spectators to know that Gloucester was killed, directly or indirectly, on the king's orders and that Mowbray is implicated. Audience members who had seen the anonymous play, Woodstock, probably staged a little earlier, would know all about the murder of Gloucester. When Richard's involvement is finally mentioned by John of Gaunt, ‘Correction lieth in those hands / Which made the fault that we cannot correct’ [I. ii 4-5], the reference is too oblique to be readily grasped.

The problem of adequately informing audiences of the situation at the start was alleviated at the Bristol Old Vic in 1985 by playing the second scene first, spotlighting Mowbray, Bolingbroke and York when they are named.

Another difficulty initially is that Bolingbroke is also referred to as Hereford (sometimes ‘Herford’ in the Quarto and Folio texts, which gives the usual pronunciation as two syllables), Mowbray is also Norfolk, John of Gaunt is also Lancaster and the dead Gloucester is also Woodstock (these can give as much initial difficulty as the multiplicity of names in Chekhov's plays). Shakespeare spelt Bolingbroke ‘Bullingbrooke’ and the recent Riverside and New Cambridge editions have returned to authenticity (but for the final ‘e’) at the risk of creating confusion. Titles are important: for instance, Bolingbroke on his return in II.iii says ‘As I was banished, I was banished Hereford; / But as I come, I come for Lancaster’ [112-13]. A Duke receives a new title: ‘We create … Our uncle York Lord Governor of England’ [II. i 219-20]. Aumerle's title is reduced to a lesser one: ‘Aumerle that was; … And, madam, you must call him Rutland now’ [V. ii 41, 43]. Titles matter because the characters ‘exist by virtue of their names and titles rather than as individual beings; and like [Richard] express themselves in prescribed forms and set rhetorical figures which mask direct personal response. The being of the man resides in his name. … Apart from their formal titles they are nothing’ (James Winny, The Player King, pp. 48-9). Andrew Gurr stresses the implications of the use of different titles: ‘Names work in their context as an index of value and a register of order. … When names lose stability, language is equally unstable’ (New Cambridge edn, 1984, pp. 33, 34). Nevertheless, prompt copies show that recent productions often deal with the audience's difficulty by changing the text and always using the better-known name.

This opening scene shows us the king and the nobility, an all-male world. The young king, with only old John of Gaunt as a counsellor, is faced with disrespectful yet powerful courtiers. Eloquent words half-conceal both the issues and the true nature of the men. Procedures are formal, with kneeling and the throwing down of gages: the play will feature dignified ritual more than action throughout. The quarrel is not resolved: Richard finally orders the duel, which will provide ‘justice’ [203]. We know we are in a medieval world, remote to the first Elizabethan audiences of the play, as well as to us. Formality just conceals the actual passionate hates—the play's underlying themes of power and principles are already emerging.

The first scene is a formal court occasion with the stage filled with ‘other nobles’ and ‘attendants’; the king probably wears his crown. The second scene is domestic, with only two characters. This is the pattern, the alternation of formal and informal scenes, and of long and short ones. Though Dover Wilson writes that it ‘should be played throughout as ritual’ (New Shakespeare, [Cambridge, 1939], p. xiii) some scenes are clearly casual and small scale.

Structurally, the play moves forward in four parts: Richard as king [I. i to III. iii]; the transference of power [III. iii and III. iv]; the deposition [IV. i] and Bolingbroke as king [V]. While the play advances from one king to his successor, events are repeated so the drama can almost be seen as circular. In the first act Richard struggles to deal with his violently-quarrelling nobles and in IV. i Bolingbroke has to cope with exactly the same problem. Richard II begins with a king to some degree responsible for a murder and ends with the new king also partly responsible for the killing of his predecessor. Richard is faced with plots and rebellions; so is Bolingbroke in both V. iii and V. vi.

The verse of the opening scene from time to time switches to rhyme [41-7, 82-3, 122-3, 150-1, 154-95, 200-5]. While some argue that these lines show the characters' prepared speeches, in contrast to spontaneity, the point seems more Shakespeare experimenting, wondering whether the tradition of rhyme is compatible with his kind of tragedy.

This first scene introduces such themes as pride in being English [66, 94]. The four elements are all mentioned in the opening lines: ‘deaf as the sea, hasty as fire’ [19], ‘the heavens, envying earth's good hap’ [23] and ‘sky’ [41]. The continuing pattern is that ‘Richard, the sun-king of fire, contends with Bullingbrook, the flood. Their stormy conflict drowns Richard's fire in the water of tears and changes Bullingbrook into the sun’ (Gurr, New Cambridge edn, p. 23). Richard's end is burial, in earth. Most conspicuous in scene one is blood (nine mentions, and ‘bleed’ and ‘bleeding’) and the humour of blood combines fire and water. Blood connotes the noble birth of Richard and the aristocrats at court and also the blood of murder, conflict and battle, the fear of bloodshed staining the fair earth of England.



The opening exchange of the play between king and subject shows the traditional and appropriate relationship. Richard reminds John of Gaunt of ‘oath and band’ (‘band’ is a form of ‘bond’) in the second line and Gaunt answers ‘my liege’ [7] (Richard is entitled to receive allegiance, even from an elderly member of the royal family). A violent quarrel, stage-managed by the apparently all-powerful monarch, follows.

Richard faces a difficult problem in resolving the quarrel. Bolingbroke is his cousin and a member of the royal family, another descendant of Edward III. Mowbray knows of Richard's involvement in the murder of Gloucester and could incriminate the king. Bolingbroke and Mowbray are both noblemen and invoke a tradition of chivalry which challenges the royal authority Richard wants to exercise. Bolingbroke invokes ‘all the rites of knighthood’ [76] and Mowbray similarly:

                                                                                By that sword I swear
Which gently laid my knighthood on my shoulder,
I'll answer thee in any fair degree
Or chivalrous design of knightly trial


The old chivalric code of the nobility is set against the new style absolutism of the king.

Richard, as king and man, conducts himself well at first, questioning carefully in five of his first six speeches, asserting his impartiality [115], promising freedom of speech [123] and seeking a peaceful solution: ‘Let's purge this choler without shedding blood’ [153]. He spoils his effect by adding a half-hearted, self-conscious joke, ‘Our doctors say this is no month to bleed’ [157].

Derek Jacobi, who played the king for television, explains the actor's difficulty at the beginning of the play: ‘Shakespeare hasn't really given any indication from Richard's point of view that he actually saw that the murder [of Gloucester] was done. If you're playing Richard you have to decide “Did I do it or didn't I?” and inform the lines from there. The first scene is frightfully difficult—it's so sketchy for Richard. He doesn't say very much and what he says is frightfully kingly and public, but the man's got a lot to hide and a lot to lose and a lot to gain from the situation, and it's completely understated by Shakespeare' (BBC TV edn, pp. 22-3).

Richard completely changes his mind and orders trial by combat instead, contradicting his aim of avoiding bloodshed. On the personal level, he shows his impulsive side. On the political level, he has abandoned his authority and permitted the old chivalric practice.

Richard, the king, and a medieval king, ‘is in perfect accord with this pageant-like ritual. He is the spire of court ceremony; he is on display as an incarnation of the anointed king’ (Travis Bogard, ‘Shakespeare's Second Richard’, PMLA, 70, 1955, p. 202). Already we start to doubt whether the man wielding all this authority deserves to, whether he is wielding it intelligently.

Not only is the switch to decision by duel arbitrary, this way of settling disputes may be questioned by Elizabethans as well as by ourselves. Diane Borstein notes the 16th-century argument between anti-duel Christian humanists and pro-duel supporters of a neochivalric cult of honour. She aligns the writer with the former, so that, by the end of I. i, ‘Shakespeare shows the king to have an attitude that is presumptuous, unjust, unpatriotic, and un-English. … Richard expects God to perform a miracle on demand. On the contrary, John of Gaunt states that it is necessary to leave a quarrel “to the will of heaven / Who, when they see the hours ripe on earth, / Will rain hot vengeance on offenders' heads” [I. ii 6-8]’ (‘Trial by Combat and Official Irresponsibility in Richard II,Shakespeare Studies, 8, 1975, pp. 131-41).

When the day of the duel arrives [I. iii], Richard presides with dignity and formality, until, at the last possible moment, he halts the combat. He delays so long, in fact, that perhaps he seeks a dramatic effect. Again he has abruptly changed his mind, or, worse, planned his effect from the start, as John Palmer suspects: ‘For him the whole elaborate to-do, with its heralds and trumpets, solemn appeals to heaven, ceremonious farewells and heroic attitudes, was matter for a May morning. He knows that these doughty champions are inflating themselves to no purpose. The actor playing Richard should watch them with a twinkle, impishly awaiting the moment when he will knock the bottom out of all these political high jinks. … The whole scene is in the nature of a practical joke’ (Political Characters of Shakespeare, [London, 1945], p. 131).

Though the way in which the duel is stopped may be theatrical, the motive appears worthy: ‘That our kingdom's earth should not be soiled / With that dear blood which it hath fostered’ [125-6]. Even here, Richard may be insincere: ‘The tortuously long sentence [123-39], the involved construction, the piled-up relative clauses, the pronouns with ambiguous antecedents, the excess of hyphenated adjectives, all go to show how a poetically gifted but mentally dishonest and frightened man expresses himself when he opens his mouth and lets what will come come. Examine the speech, and it falls to pieces like the pack of—words it is’ (Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, [Chicago, 1951], p. 151).

Richard follows with more questionable decisions, blunders, misjudgements. He exiles Bolingbroke for ten years, Mowbray for life: unequal punishments for no sound reason. Alec Guinness in the role dwelt with ‘conscious pleasure’ on the ‘sly slow hours’ and ‘the dateless limit of thy dear exile’ [150-1]. When Mowbray protests, ‘Richard's tone changes to summary condemnation. Richard is, in fact, making a poem out of the idea of perpetual banishment. Of [Mowbray] as a person he simply does not think at all’ (Harold Hobson, Theatre, 1948, p. 168). As Mowbray starts to go, Richard—impulsive again—demands that both men swear an oath that they never will meet ‘To plot, contrive, or complot any ill / 'Gainst us, our state, our subjects, or our land’ [189-90]—which might just be putting an idea into their minds! A fourth startlingly abrupt decision follows: because John of Gaunt looks so ‘grieved’ and ‘sad’ [209] at the exiling of his son, the sentence is cut to six years.

In the next scene, for the first time Richard is off-duty, with friends. His first question is about Bolingbroke's departure. He shows no interest in Mowbray and we may start to suspect that he was less impartial than he claimed to be. Richard then describes Bolingbroke's ‘courtship to the common people’ [24]. While this may be very calculating on the part of the ambitious Bolingbroke, common people ourselves, we wonder about a king who speaks contemptuously of his subjects as ‘slaves’ [27]. ‘Poor craftsmen,’ ‘oyster-wenches’ and ‘draymen’ [28-32] are Richard's countrymen too, though rarely mentioned in the play. Then Green has to prompt Richard to remember ‘the rebels which stand out in Ireland’ [38] and Richard makes what may well be yet another impulsive decision to lead the army against the rebels himself. By now, late in the first act, we are dubious about Richard's character and the quality of his decision-making. He moves to more overtly immoral acts, tax-farming and ‘blank charters’ for use against the rich. When news comes that John of Gaunt is grievous sick, Richard's response is startlingly callous: may he die quickly so that his wealth can be used to help finance his war. However strong Richard's sense of the grandeur of kingship, he has few abilities in dealing with everyday political and personal realities and his morality is also severely questioned.

Richard visits the dying Gaunt in II. i and, criticised by him, speaks brutally to the old man, ‘a lunatic lean-witted fool’ [115]. As soon as Gaunt's death is reported to him, Richard illegally seizes his lands and goods, acting against the very laws of inheritance which gave him the throne, stating ‘The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he. / His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be’ [II. i 153-4]. This is flippant doggerel. He continues ‘Now for our Irish wars’: his immediate pilgrimage is not a religious one, but in a dubious cause. When York protests at Richard taking Gaunt's inheritance, he is rudely dismissive: ‘Why, uncle, what's the matter?’ [186]. Two minutes later—unpredictable and perverse again—the king appoints York as Lord Governor during his absence in Ireland. At worst, this is indifference to the fate of England; at best, a political gamble, an attempt to ensure York's continued loyalty. Richard sets off for Ireland, a king whose every act has shown him unworthy to be a king.

Richard is away in Ireland for a time. We never learn whether taking command personally is responsible or—given the troubles he leaves behind in England—irresponsible. That his decision to go is a whim casts doubt on the expedition. Neither do we ever hear whether or not he is victorious. He returns to an England occupied by Bolingbroke. He may return a changed man, as John Neville, playing the role at the Old Vic in 1955, found: ‘The difficulty for the actor playing the King is the fact that there are two different characters. As he appears in the first part of the play; then, he goes away to Ireland, there's a pause, and he's not on a great deal. Then he comes back to England and appears to be a very different kind of character. We quite blatantly made no attempt to link the two; he came back from Ireland a different man, that is what he was, and that's the way we played it’ (Acting in the Sixties, ed. Hal Burton, [BBC, 1970], p. 101).


In III. i Bolingbroke acted like a ruler in ordering executions; and at the end of III. ii Richard discharged his followers. The rising Bolingbroke meets the falling Richard at Flint Castle. As audience we wonder how they will behave in a situation new and awkward for both, reversing the power-structure seen in I. iii, when the king banished Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke is supported by the tough Northumberland, York, still uneasy at changing sides, and Percy, a new arrival, showing the rebels' strength growing. King Richard's supporters are Aumerle and three men who do not speak in the scene: the Bishop of Carlisle (the Church supports Richard; his opponents do not include any churchmen), Scroop and Salisbury. Bolingbroke is outside the castle as though laying siege. Richard is within the ‘lime and stone … of that ancient castle’ [26, 31] but the battlements are ‘tattered’ [52] (but the word may mean ‘having pointed projections’). In staging the scene, Bolingbroke and his party are first separate from the castle and his army marches across the stage [51]. Bolingbroke's trumpets outside are answered by Richard's from inside. When Richard appears he is on the balcony of the stage. By line 176 the space is no longer outside the castle, but in its lower courtyard. Richard's ‘Down, down I come’ [178] in an Elizabethan theatre would require him to go out of sight to descend a staircase; in modern theatres more effectively he can stay in view, walking slowly down as he speaks.

Bolingbroke at the start appears totally assured, while not intending unnecessary disrespect to Richard. When he says of the castle, ‘Royally? Why, it contains no king’ [23] he probably does not know Richard is close, though the Marlowe Society Actor's firm intonation1 shows that Bolingbroke no longer recognises Richard as king, any more than Northumberland has done at line 6. Bolingbroke's public message to Richard is of allegiance, on two conditions: ‘My banishment repealed / And lands restored again’ [40-1]. Keith Michell speaks these lines respectfully but the Marlowe Society actor leaves doubt about Bolingbroke's sincerity: maybe he, as well as Richard, is an actor. His threat, ‘I'll use the advantage of my power / And lay the summer's dust with showers of blood’ [42-3] is much fiercer than Michell's; he commands ‘Go signify as much’ [49]; his ‘Let's march without the noise of threatening drum’ [51] is calculating, not an honest sign that he wants peace. Bolingbroke as usual is quite direct, while Richard loves words and images for their own sake.

Richard appears splendidly dressed, wearing his crown and probably a sun emblem above—a scene especially effective in open-air performance at Ludlow Castle. He looks ‘like a king’, as York observes [68], but it is ‘so fair a show’ [71]. Richard as usual is attractive but superficial: while looking like a king he does not behave or govern like one. Yet Richard's first response is formal and convincing; he assumes the sanctity of the monarch as a law of nature. He describes the aid given him by God, then breaks off when he sees Bolingbroke and rushes ahead of the actual situation in assuming battle is intended. Bolingbroke contrasted ‘blood’ and ‘crimson’ with ‘green’, ‘grassy’ England [43-50] and Richard develops this at greater length: ‘purple’, ‘bleeding’, ‘scarlet’ and ‘blood’ versus ‘flower’ and ‘grass’ [94-100].

Northumberland replies formally in his role as envoy. Carefully, he draws on traditional reverences, while urging subject's rights, pointing out that Bolingbroke is also of royal descent (‘by the royalties of both your bloods,’ [97]). As Northumberland has just refused to kneel to Richard, we may be sceptical when he says Bolingbroke begs ‘on his knees’ [114].

King Richard immediately accepts Bolingbroke's demands, surprisingly. His next words are as an intimate friend to Aumerle, who advises playing for time. Richard invokes God, meaningful for him, not a thoughtless oath:

O God, O God, that e'er this tongue of mine,
That laid the sentence of dread banishment
On yon proud man, should take it off again


                                                                                          Must he lose
The name of King? A God's name, let it go.


(Brian Bedford, who played the part at Stratford, Ontario, in 1983, remarks: ‘The relation between Richard II and God is probably the most important in that play. Being stripped of everything, he begins to see who he is, and consequently begins to see what God is’; Keith Garebian, ‘The Dramatic Art of Brian Bedford’, Performing Arts in Canada, Winter 1983, p. 36). Richard sinks into misery, switching to the first person singular, ‘O that I were as great / As is my grief’ [136-37], admittedly speaking only to Aumerle. Richard's moan is interrupted by Aumerle's effort to force him back to the urgency of the situation, ‘Northumberland comes back from Bolingbroke’ [142].

Incredibly, Richard gives up everything. He has not been asked to abdicate but states that he submits to deposition. By assuming this, he causes it: he has lost his grip on reality. Four lines of renouncing the throne lead to thirteen lines of lament, addressed to Northumberland, the least sympathetic person there. Aumerle weeps and Richard develops a conceit about tears for ten more lines, till laughter from someone finally reminds him of the situation. His tone is forceful as he speaks publicly but he has submitted to ‘King Bolingbroke’ [173]. His tone is cold and contemptuous: we may find that he sounds foolish.

Northumberland, now confident in his disrespect, coolly asks the king to come down to meet his visitor. Richard obeys, with a loud, passionate lament, almost the owls' shriek he mentions (by both Gielgud and Redgrave), ‘like a frantic man’, in Northumberland's phrase [185].

Richard comes down literally and symbolically, yet the balance of power is still shaky. Cautiously, Bolingbroke kneels and orders his followers to do so. They may be kneeling to the crown rather than to the wearer, and Nigel Davenport (Bolingbroke to Redgrave's Richard) puts irony into ‘my gracious lord’ [189]. Bolingbroke may indeed be deliberately overdoing a calculated pseudo-respect when he repeats this form of address [196] and just after, uses ‘my most redoubted lord’ [198].

Richard here for once manages to speak briefly and to the point, touching the crown as he tells Bolingbroke ‘Your heart is up, I know, / Thus high at least,’ [194-5]. Bolingbroke is still negotiating with the ambiguous ‘I come but for mine own’ [196]; Richard has given up, ‘I am yours and all’ [197]—self-pitying, self-dramatising and first person singular. At this point—unlike most of the deposition scene—Bolingbroke looks the worthier human being, as well as the more impressive leader. Richard retrieves dignity when he consoles the weeping York (contrasting with his indulging Aumerle's tears a little earlier) and accepts the realities of Bolingbroke's determination (he knows ‘the strongest and the surest way to get,’ [201]) and larger army: ‘do we must what force will have us do’ [207]. Richard, still wearing the crown, leads the way out, but he is escorted, almost a prisoner. He may manage a little last joke, as well as weary acceptance, with ‘Then I must not say no’ [209].

Richard can be seen in this episode as so much a medieval monarch, so dependent on ceremony and tradition, that he turns his submission into a ceremony, appearing in all his glory on high, an English roi soleil, then descending so spectacularly that he distracts us from seeing him as merely obeying the orders of Northumberland. Though Richard may be governed by the nature of kingship, a particularised human being is drawn for us.

If Richard is perceived in this scene more as an individual than as a king, or rather as an individual inadequately coping with the role of king, we will prefer Ernest Dowden's view;

His feelings live in the world of phenomena, and altogether fail to lay hold of things as they are; they have no consistency and no continuity. … He is at the mercy of every chance impulse and transitory mood. He has a kind of artistic relation to life, without being an artist. … Richard, to whom all things are unreal, has a fine feeling for ‘situations.’ Without true kingly strength or dignity, he has a fine feeling for the royal situation. Without any making real to himself what God or what death is, he can put himself, if need be, in the appropriate attitude towards God and towards death. Instead of comprehending things as they are, and achieving heroic deeds, he satiates his heart with the grace, the tenderness, the beauty or the pathos of situations. Life is to Richard a show, a succession of images; and to put himself into accord with the aesthetic requirements of his position is Richard's first necessity. He is equal to playing any part gracefully which he is called upon by circumstances to enact. But when he has exhausted the aesthetic satisfaction to be derived from the situations of his life, he is left with nothing further to do

(Shakspere, A Critical Study of His Mind and Art [London, 1875], pp. 194-5).

This description catches the Richard who sees the loss of his kingdom as the occasion for luxuriating in self-pity.

The key issue in Richard's failure in this scene is that he gives up, not only without a fight, but without taking time to bargain. In part this is the arrogance of a king, even of a king with few followers left, refusing to bargain with a subject. He does not seek time to think or seek advice; he surrenders his kingdom to a man who claims he only wants his inheritance. This is folly and stupidity; Richard is unable to handle a situation he has never faced before.


Act IV contains Bolingbroke's assumption of the throne and Richard's renunciation of kingship. This scene too is a formal ceremony, in parliament. York begins it

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

Bolingbroke goes to sit on the throne, ‘In God's name I'll ascend the regal throne’ [107-13]. The ceremony is at once interrupted, with a protest by the Bishop of Carlisle. He is silenced and Richard brought in. Richard stages a symbolic pantomime, with Bolingbroke's hand and his on the crown. As Alec Guinness played it: ‘Balancing it lightly in his fingers, an inch from the usurper's nose, he says gently and with infinite scorn: “Here, cousin—seize the crown” [181]. The eyes spoke most compellingly as the actor dwelt, with pensive irony, on the long “ee” of “seize”’ (Kenneth Tynan, A View of the English Stage, [London, 1975], p. 62). When Bolingbroke asks ‘Are you contented to resign the crown?’ Richard answers ‘Ay, no. No, ay’ [199-200], the essence of his indecision, his ‘To be or not to be’. As Richard knows the reality of Bolingbroke's power, the wavering is part of his calculated performance. Finally he hands over crown and sceptre:

I give this heavy weight from off my head,
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm
                                                            (balm = consecrated oil)
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths.


Richard turns his deposition into a kind of unholy rite, a reverse coronation; as he leaves, Bolingbroke announces, ‘On Wednesday next we solemnly proclaim / Our coronation’ [318-19].

‘The Form and Order of Her Majesty's Coronation’ in 1953 is remarkably similar to the 14th-century coronation. The ceremony begins with the Recognition, when the Archbishop of Canterbury says: ‘Sirs, I here present unto you Queen Elizabeth, your undoubted Queen: Wherefore all you who are come this day to do your homage and service. Are you willing to do the same?’ ‘The people signify their willingness and joy, by loud and repeated acclamations, all with one voice crying out “God save Queen Elizabeth”.’ Then, the spiritual climax, the Archbishop anoints the Queen with holy oil, in the form of a cross, on the palms, breast and crown of the head: ‘Be thy head anointed with holy Oil: as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed: And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern.’ Next, the Queen is arrayed in the white Colobium Sindonis and the golden Supertunica. The Garter Principal King of Arms explains this part: these ‘vestments so closely resembling those of a bishop that some writers in the Middle Ages have argued that coronation makes the sovereign a “mixed person”, both layman and priest.’ Finally, the Queen receives the orb, the sceptre, ‘the ensign of kingly power and justice’, the rod and lastly the crown.

Returning to Richard's deposition, having surrendered the regalia, Northumberland demands that he read the accusations against him. Again the ceremony does not go as planned: Richard refuses to read. Richard, impulsive earlier, is calculating here. Ian Richardson comments: ‘It is perhaps unkind to imagine Richard preparing for his last great public scene, again as an actor, but it's irresistible. I am sure he dressed with care to present just the right image of humility and distress. He certainly pulls out all the stops when he renounces for ever his sovereignty before his cousin and the assembled lords. This is his swan-song and he is going to make sure that none of his audience forgets it. He is magnificent, and no doubt deeply embarrassing to Henry, who hardly speaks throughout the scene. Richard accuses the assembled company of betraying him, as Christ was betrayed. It becomes plain that this is the seed he wants to sow. However and whenever he dies, after this, it will be as a sacrificial victim, and Henry will be—at best—Pontius Pilate’ [238-41] (Shakespeare in Perspective, I, ed. Roger Sales, p. 44).

Richard comes to control the ceremony when he asks for a mirror and stages a second symbolic pantomime. He claims he wants it as a means to self-knowledge: ‘I'll read enough / When I do see the very book indeed / Where all my sins are writ; and that's myself’ [272-4]. Mirrors are richly ambiguous. They tell the truth, yet Elizabethan crystal glasses are murky enough to be misleading, and the word in the text is ‘glass’, usually transparent. Further, only the vain, seeking flattery, make much use of mirrors. At this moment the image of himself that Richard has had all his life is being questioned and he hopes the glass will reveal the depths of his misery. Instead, it lies to him, showing the outward semblance, not what he believes to be the inner truth.

Redgrave and the Marlowe Society actor begin with a strong, commanding ‘Give me that glass’ [275] and remain in control asking the five rhetorical questions. Gielgud, on the other hand, breaks down in his distress. Northumberland's demands infuriate him and his high-flown line, ‘Fiend, thou tormentst me ere I come to hell’ [269] is sincere. He is genuinely surprised that his change in status is not reflected in a change in his face. The first two questions are to himself, the remaining three directed to his onstage audience, forcing them to realise what they are doing, to an ex-king and to a man. He continues, wonderingly, is this really the same face which employed ten thousand men and ‘like the sun’ made beholders wink. A moment earlier he had recognised that not only was he no longer the sun but that the usurper had become ‘the sun of Bolingbroke’ [260].

The questions lead to the flamboyant gesture of smashing the glass: David Warner, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1964, punched out the glass with his fist, clearly hurting himself. Richard points what is the ‘moral’ [289] for him: ‘How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face’ [290], the most unhappy line in the scene in Gielgud's reading. Sorrow has not destroyed his face: he has a kind of control in being able to break the representation of his face. Being easily broken, it shows the brittleness of his former image. Pretending rejection of his old self in destroying the mirror, he continues his pattern of histrionic gestures. The destruction of the mirror-image of Richard's face anticipates the destruction of the man. (This commentary on the significance of the mirror episode draws on Peter Ure, ‘The Looking-Glass of Richard II,Philological Quarterly, 34, 1955, pp. 219-24, and Janette Dillon, Shakespeare and the Solitary Man, [London, 1981], ch. 5.)

The Marlowe Society Richard speaks fast, quite decisive till the final line of the speech. Redgrave appears to have planned the whole performance, down to relishing his little wordplay of ‘Is this the face which faced so many follies, / That was at last outfaced by Bolingbroke?’ [284-5].

Bolingbroke, weary and impatient in his two preceding speeches, comments quietly, ‘The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed / The shadow of your face’ [291-2]. Nigel Davenport here enjoys both the words which echo Richard's final line and his use of ‘shadow’ in two senses, literal and metaphorical. The other actors make the remark a matter-of-fact one. Bolingbroke is ostensibly sympathising with Richard, commiserating with his grief. ‘To Richard the remark seems to be a sympathetic remark, and so he takes up its surface meaning. But actually Bolingbroke means something else. … He knows the king won't understand it. … When he says “The shadow of your sorrow”, he really means “The unreality of your sorrow”. … Your false sorrow has destroyed your false, playerly face. Bolingbroke is telling Richard that his sorrow is as unreal as the rest of his public persona’ (John Barton, Playing Shakespeare [London, 1984], pp. 122-3). If Bolingbroke speaks with this double meaning, he has some measure of control and is not out-manoeuvred by Richard. Bolingbroke could not point to insincerity when opposed by Gielgud's heartbroken Richard.


Richard's moving, poetic farewell to his Queen follows [v i] and he is next seen imprisoned in Pomfret Castle, with a long and complex soliloquy. For the first time without a stage audience, he has no role to play and thus is forced to a kind of confrontation with himself. This has been highly praised: ‘In [Richard's] final despair and failure, his mind is thrown back on pure contemplation and he sinks on to the restful sweetness of impersonal and wandering thought. In so doing, he finds that he has made a small world of his own: which state is now exactly analogous to the creative consciousness which gives birth to poetry’ (G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme, 3rd edn, [London, 1951], p. 351). Though Richard begins by trying hard to be content with this freedom of the imagination, he cannot be [32]. Even being king of his own mind is difficult. Perhaps, though, this is the human condition, that no man is pleased in life, eased only by death [40-1]—ironically, his own is closer than he knows. He is ‘but man’ [39], no longer a king. Has Richard here been able to free himself from the burden of kingship, since its powers and responsibilities are lost? He continues to wrestle with painful adjusting to being an ex-king. Music brings him to self-knowledge: ‘I wasted time’ [49]; deep meditation on time follows. He ‘dwells on the lack of proportion, of measured rhythm, in his reign as it is set against his “true time”, the time he ought to have kept. … Richard knows he has violated natural and political order. … He reiterates his painful sense of being at the mercy of forces beyond him. But the difference between this and his previous expressions of helplessness is that now he knows it is his own fault’ (Robert L. Montgomery, Jr, ‘The Dimensions of Time in Richard II,’ Shakespeare Studies, 4, 1968, pp. 82-3). The harmony of music is ‘specially perceived in the field of human relations. Time is also the times, that is to say the age with its characteristics of temper and spirit depending upon social life. It is this social sense of the word that Richard has in mind when he speaks of the “concord of (his) state and time” and regrets that he “had not an ear to hear (his) true time broke” [47-8]. The harmony is one not of sounds but of men’ (Michel Grivelet, ‘Shakespeare's “War with Time”: The Sonnets and Richard II,Shakespeare Survey, 23, 1970, p. 75). Richard reverts for a moment to the self-pity of the third and fourth acts with ‘sighs and tears and groans’ [57]. His mind inevitably turns again to Bolingbroke and his futile anger is directed against the music. Abruptly, he blesses the musician because he thinks he is playing for love of Richard.

Richard here tries to adjust to his change in status and to life in jail; he has still not found peace. Harold Toliver finds Richard's creation of a mental kingdom and his view of time as ‘extravagant’ and ‘ineffectual’ (‘Shakespeare and the Abyss of Time’, JEGP, 64, 1965, p. 242. On the soliloquy, see also John Baxter, Shakespeare's Poetic Styles pp. 136-43). When he says ‘I wasted time’ is he repenting idleness and listening to flatterers or is he wishing that he had fought against Bolingbroke? Richard Pasco sees no resolution here: ‘Richard's tragedy was that he never actually discovered himself’ (Barton, Playing Shakespeare, p. 122). On the other hand, Graham Holderness sees Richard as satisfied because now his task is one that he can achieve: ‘The prison is a world without people, a kingdom without subjects, which he can fill with his own personality: he can be both ruler and ruled. At last Richard's imagination and will are supreme—now his kingdom has been reduced to the confines of his own mind’ (‘Shakespeare's History: Richard II,Literature and History, 7, 1981, p. 18). The imprisoned Richard is wiser: the Richard seen earlier in the play was not capable of such speculations. He has become, through misfortunes, a better man, though much too late to change him to a good king. In this soliloquy he more than once attains a subdued, sad acceptance, then breaks off suddenly, rejecting the consolations of such a state of mind.

The Marlowe Society actor offers a wise, balanced philosopher here. ‘Nor I, nor any man that but man is, / With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased / With being nothing’ [39-41] is made to sound profound. He is stirred only on the one line where anger is unmistakable, ‘This music mads me’ [61].

Michael Redgrave's reading is much more varied. He is a trifle amused at the inevitable failure of his first flight of mind, ‘I cannot do it’ [5], then enjoys his achievement of forcing his thoughts to ‘people this little world’ [9]. When his mind turns to his ‘ragged prison walls’ [21], he is irritated, and bitter when he comes to name Bolingbroke [37]. Though the music he hears is cheerful, it drives him to passionate fury, ‘This music mads me’. He recovers to bring out forcefully the contrast between love and the ‘all-hating world’ [66].

Gielgud reveals all the contrasting feelings in the scene, guided by the contradiction of ‘I cannot do it. Yet I'll hammer it out’ [5]. He is slow and thoughtful, close to a laugh at the chance that ‘in this thought they find a kind of ease’ [28]. He changes at line 37, furious when Bolingbroke comes to mind. The sound of music—sweet rather than bright—delights him; that he stands fooling here [60] exasperates him; he screams in self-contempt when ‘this music mads me’. Gielgud's interpretation requires agitated pacing and sudden movement; the Marlowe Society approach calls for a man sitting, quiet and thoughtful.

Richard has shown himself increasingly unworthy and unscrupulous from the beginning of the play to the seizure of Gaunt's wealth in II. i. At some point between his return from Ireland in III. ii and the end of the deposition scene our sympathies swing to him as he is the underdog, though our sympathy is always troubled by the extent of his self-pity. Pitiable in his farewell to the Queen (V. i), he may have acquired wisdom in his prison soliloquy. Whatever his faults, even in their medieval dog-eat-dog world, he does not deserve death (he only banishes his enemies: the killing of Gloucester was offstage and before the play). If the last two scenes are to affect us, Richard the suffering human being matters to us, so his killing of two of his murderers is a belated burst of heroism.

However, one critic, Harold Goddard, despises Richard even in his last moment; ‘It is just the reflex action of a man without self-control in the presence of death, as little willed as the galvanic twitching of a frog's leg. It is a fury of desperation pure and simple, a particularly ignominious and ironic end for a king who pretended to believe that everything from stones to angels would come to his rescue in the hour of need’ (The Meaning of Shakespeare, [Chicago, 1951], p. 159).

During the deposition scene Richard had audaciously compared himself to Christ:

Did they not sometime cry ‘All hail!’ to me?
So Judas did to Christ. But He in twelve
Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none.

[IV. i 169-71]

At Stratford, Connecticut, in 1968 Richard was seen as Christ, or a Christian martyr, at the moment of his death: he was stabbed with his arms outstretched in a crucification attitude, the light of a halo round his head.


Richard II sees himself as a performer, centre stage, when he submits at Flint Castle and when he deflects attention from the new king with his business with the crown and the mirror at his deposition.

Shakespeare at several points reminds us that we are seeing a play performed. ‘I play the torturer’, says Scroop bringing bad news to Richard [III. ii 198]. After the deposition, the Abbot of Westminster observes ‘A woeful pageant have we here beheld’ [IV. i 320]. York describes the way the crowd turned its attention from Richard to the new king:

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious:

[V. ii 23-6]

When the Duchess follows York to plead for the life of her son, King Henry comments lightly:

Our scene is altered from a serious thing,
And now changed to ‘The Beggar and the King’.

[V. iii 78-9]

While Richard in his last soliloquy in prison realises ‘Thus play I in one person many people’ [V. v 31]. Richard is an actor and knows it; we watch a play in a theatre.


Bolingbroke is outwardly straightforward, a bluff and hearty figure. Commentators use such adjectives as matter-of-fact, cool, level-headed, practical, resolute, pragmatic, vigorous, uncomplicated. Compared to Richard, he uses few words. Exiled, Gaunt asks him ‘To what purpose dost thou hoard thy words?’ and he replies ‘I have too few to take my leave of you’ [I. iii 253, 255]. During the deposition Richard addresses him as ‘silent king’ [IV. i 289].

Some hints point to a more calculating, more ambitious man. He invokes ‘the glorious worth of my descent’ [I. i 107], the same ancestry as Richard's, entitling him to impose justice. His father offers ambiguous consolation as he goes into exile: ‘Think not the King did banish thee, / But thou the King’ [I. iii 279-80]: imagine that you were the more powerful, making the decision. Bolingbroke is calculating when he tells his friends

I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends;
And as my fortune ripens with thy love
It shall be still thy true love's recompense

[II. iii 46-9]

Which means ‘I'll reward you when I've won.’ When he justifies executing Bushy and Green [III. i 1-30], ostensibly he argues the cause of Richard and the Queen; equally, he argues his own cause here.

Once Bolingbroke is king, he is competent and capable, choosing carefully who to pardon (Aumerle, the Bishop of Carlisle) and who to execute. Problems flood in on him and we end wondering if he is going to be swamped by the sheer volume of the difficulties put in his path—especially if we suspect that Northumberland is too ambitious to remain a loyal counsellor. Finally, Richard's corpse is brought to him. Timothy West speaks of playing this moment:

The question that you've got to ask yourself is ‘How much of a shock is it when you're confronted by Richard's body?’ I don't think it's a factual shock, but I do think it's a huge emotional shock to him because this is the moment, really the first moment in the play, when he becomes aware of the appalling responsibilities of kingship which stay with him and begin to destroy him as a man all through Henry IV, Part I. It's interesting that the imagery of growth, of harvest, that has been used so much through the play, is used in this last speech when he says: ‘Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe / That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow’ [45-6]. It's a terrible prophecy. It's a reign which is entirely fed by blood.

(Shakespeare Superscribe, ed. Myra Barrs, [Harmondsworth, 1980], p. 172).

Bolingbroke reveals more of himself in Henry IV. He explains how subtly he courted popularity:

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wond'red at … 
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts

[H IV, Pt I, III. ii 46-7, 50-2]

He also denies aiming at the throne:

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

[H IV, Pt II, III. i 68-70]

On his deathbed, talking to his son: ‘How I came by the crown, O God, forgive!’ [H IV, Pt II, IV. v 218].

York is third in importance among the characters, deliberately made by Shakespeare into a more thoughtful and willing political figure than York actually was. He is first seen sensibly telling Gaunt that rebuking Richard is useless: ‘Direct not him whose way himself will choose’ [II. i 29]. The well-meaning York, Lord Governor in Richard's absence, is overwhelmed by the demands of the job and probably too old for these responsibilities. Meeting the returned Bolingbroke, he denounces ‘gross rebellion and detested treason’ [II. iii 108]. He adopts the easier course, submission to Bolingbroke, then, asked to go to Bristol Castle, shows typical indecision: ‘It may be I will go with you, but yet I'll pause; / For I am loath to break our country's laws’ [167-8]. In fact, he is at Bristol, silent. This Grand Old Man of the court, a Marshal Pétain, readily accepts the inevitable and invites Bolingbroke to ascend the throne [VII. iii]. In V. ii he still laments Richard's fall. Finding his son plotting against the new king, he is suddenly at his most active, begging King Henry to punish the treacherous Aumerle, overeager to prove his loyalty. ‘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’ (M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty, [London, 1961], p. 250). In the final scene York is present but does not speak, pushed aside by the rush of events.

York may be viewed in widely differing ways. Swinburne dismissed him as ‘an incomparable, an incredible, an unintelligible and a monstrous nullity’. Often he is played for comedy onstage. Struggling to deal with all the problems, most of all Bolingbroke's invasion, he splutters ‘Go, fellow, get thee home, provide some carts’ [II. ii 106], which, writes Reese, is ‘a classic in the annals of military helplessness’ (Ibid., 248). His ‘Come, cousin, / I'll dispose of you’ [II. ii 116-17] is unintentionally comic: demanding his boots three times in V. ii is also absurd. Comic interpretations of York arise more from the lack of other humour in the play than centrally from the character.

Coleridge praised him: ‘The admirable character of York. Religious loyalty struggling with a deep grief and indignation at the king's vices and follies; and adherence to his word once given in spite of all, even the most natural feelings’. He has been seen as representing England, and as expressing Christian stoicism and magnanimity as the Elizabethans understood these (by James A. Riddell, ‘The Admirable Character of York,’ Texas Studies in Literature & Language, 21, 1979, pp. 492-502). The York of the play is simply vacillating and elderly, unequal to the tasks and challenges—finally, perversely, overenergetic to prove his loyalty even at the expense of his son.


Critics used to worry about defining the history play, for example, whether the form was the same as the chronicle play. Coleridge tried to place the form as between epic and tragedy. Lily Campbell wrote that ‘tragedy deals with an ethical world; history with a political world’ (Shakespeare's Histories, [San Marino, California, 1947], p. 307), that the subject of tragedy was private relationships and that of history public life. This distinction does not fit with the texts; though Richard is accorded little private life, he is clearly viewed as man as well as king. John Wilders makes a rather more accurate distinction: ‘A tragedy is devoted chiefly to the struggles of one character, and his death. … The impression created by a history play is that the life of a nation has neither beginning nor ending’ (The Lost Garden, [1978], pp. 5-6). Northrop Frye expresses succinctly the way Shakespeare's histories have both elements: ‘Richard II and Richard III are tragedies insofar as they resolve on those defeated kings; they are histories insofar as they resolve on Bolingbroke and Richmond, and the most one can say is that they lean toward history’ (Anatomy of Criticism, [Princeton, N. J., 1957], p. 284).

In modern times we have readily accepted the form of the history play. Gordon Daviot's popular 1930s play, Richard of Bordeaux, ends with Richard deposed but still alive (though from Shakespeare or textbooks we know his fate). Famous plays like Bernard Shaw's St. Joan, T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons all end in the execution or killing of a noble main character, though this has not required them to carry the label, ‘historical tragedy’.

That some plays are set in the past and show actual figures from that time can be easily accepted. As audience we hold in mind the particular period (shown at least in costume, if not by dirt, cruelty and disease), the historical figures and the story, shaped by a writer toward a moral, a tragic effect or a theatrical experience. The subject may appeal as an escape to a different world, as a study of a remarkable man or woman, or as a think-piece with a message. (Brecht argued that the less the audience could readily recognise on stage, the more their minds were freed for thinking.)

Richard II shows the fall of a king. Watching this, we certainly wonder how far Richard is to be blamed for his defeat and how far sympathised with. What should Richard have done differently? What might we have done differently in Richard's position? Are Richard's advisers to be blamed? And what will Bolingbroke be like as king? Is the change for better or worse? Such questions readily come to mind. The Elizabethans, however, probably more than ourselves, looked to history for lessons. Shakespeare was pointing to issues of monarchy, government and power relevant to his own times. Two facts indicate just how crucial this was in the 1590s, with Queen Elizabeth I in her sixties and without an heir. The Earl of Essex, on the eve of a desperate, futile attempt to overthrow the Queen in 1601, commanded a performance of this play, presumably to show the possibility and desirability of deposing a monarch—Shakespeare and the actors were probably fortunate to escape punishment. Second, although Richard II was printed in 1597, the deposition scene was omitted: the content was too subversive at that date. It was first printed in 1608, by which time James I was securely enthroned.

Shakespeare may have intended only to start his audiences asking questions. York states the dilemma clearly, the conflict of two rights:

                                                                                Both are my kinsmen.
T'one is my sovereign, whom both my oath
And duty bids defend. T'other again
Is my kinsman, who the King hath wronged,
Whom conscience and my kindred bids to right.

[II. ii 111-15]

If deposition was ever justified, was it justified in the case of Richard?

Scholarly discussion has continued for decades on these problems: the pace of scholars' discussions is usually very slow. E. M. W. Tillyard in Shakespeare's History Plays in 1944 announced clear views which were generally accepted for a long time. Tillyard saw Shakespeare forming his view of the events of the previous 220 years from some of ‘the best educated and most thoughtful writers outside the theatre as well as within’ (p. 70), notably the historical chronicles of Edward Hall (1548) and the multi-author moralistic historical poems, A Mirror for Magistrates (1555, published 1559). These texts expressed ‘the Tudor myth’ of a golden age in the long reign of Edward III (1327-77) followed by the inadequacies of Richard II and then nearly a hundred years of disaster attributed to the deposing of Richard. Though Richard admittedly made mistakes, only tyrants and usurpers could be overthrown and Richard's shortcomings did not justify Bolingbroke's seizure of power. That rebellion was almost always wrong was the chief message of Hall, A Mirror for Magistrates, and—according to Tillyard—of Shakespeare.

Tillyard went on to argue that Shakespeare planned the sequence of four plays, Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V, from the start, though these plays were not in fact written till a few years later. Thus, writes Tillyard, the formal, archaic style of Richard II is a deliberate contrast to that of Henry IV. Bolingbroke's world is kept purposely embryonic and the hints about future discord are carefully placed.

Tillyard based his view of Shakespeare's message not only on Hall and A Mirror for Magistrates but on his understanding of how Elizabethans saw their world: he described this as The Elizabethan World Picture, his even more influential 1943 study. The key was order, as set out in Ulysses' speech in Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree priority and place
Insisture course proportion season form
Office and custom, in all line of order.

[I. iii 85-8]

Political order on earth mirrored cosmic order. And, Tillyard was able to argue, this doctrine was not often clearly set out in the writings of the time precisely because it was universally accepted—always a difficult proposition to counter. Tillyard, in fact, gave readers history plays which expressed Tudor ideology and the commonplaces of their time.

But would Shakespeare, innovative elsewhere, be ‘content to follow the lead of the plodding didacticists who supposedly created the genre of the History Play, and like them dedicate his art to moralistic and propagandistic purposes’ (Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage, p. 2)?

So Ornstein in 1972 returns to the Tudor chroniclers and finds that they all condemn Richard for ‘his personal vices and his political rapacity and disregard of law’ (Ibid., p. 14). If Shakespeare is defending Richard and denouncing Bolingbroke, he appears to be the one out of step with prevailing opinions of the time. Ornstein also demonstrates that, if Shakespeare were expressing the ‘Tudor myth’ in his history plays, he does it very badly: the Epilogue to Henry V does not mention the original sin against Richard II and the three mentions of Richard in Henry VI ‘scarcely convince us that it was the cause of Henry VI's calamities’ (Ibid., p. 16). Primarily this critic argues for the major point of the play to be personal, not historical-political: Shakespeare ‘places as great a value on the sanctity of personal relations in the History Plays as in the tragedies, because he intuits that order depends, not on concepts of hierarchy and degree, but on the fabric of personal and social relationships which is woven by ties of marriage, kinship and friendship, by communal interests, and ideals of loyalty and trust’ (p. 222).

Jan Kott, from Poland, in his influential 1960s book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, sees a harsh, unchanging, relentless world-view: ‘If one wishes to interpret Shakespeare's world as the real world, one should start the reading of the plays with the Histories, and in particular with Richard II and Richard III … Shakespeare exposes in them the mechanism of power directly, without resorting to subterfuge or fiction. He de-thrones regal majesty, strips it of all illusion’. Shakespeare's view of history, he asserts, is ‘that history has no meaning and stands still, or constantly repeats its cruel cycle’ (pp. 3, 49, 37). The only available roles are victor and victim.

Rethinking the attitudes displayed in the history plays starts for John Wilders in his The Lost Garden in the conviction that chiefly they are ‘brilliantly constructed works for the theatre’ (p. 9). Shakespeare has of course a viewpoint on moral and political conduct, that he sees a corrupt—or at least prosaic—world, with a contrasted heroic, inspiring one in the distant past. Mere mortals struggle to make decisions knowing the inevitable imperfection of their judgements; Time and Fortune combine to thwart and limit human achievement. The monarchy may possibly have been glorious before Richard II's reign but this view is bleak and pessimistic about both kings and their subjects, now and in the times depicted in the plays.

That Richard II was seen by Shakespeare from the start as the first of a sequence of four history plays has been widely believed. On the other hand, some years elapse before Shakespeare continued writing the supposed quartet and dramatists cannot expect audiences to see four related plays in the correct order. References back to Richard II in the later plays may be seen either as providing the context in the broader sweep of English history or as Shakespeare's ‘commercials’ for his other works, like the reminder of Julius Caesar given in Hamlet. That Richard II is stylistically different from Henry IV is more easily explained as Shakespeare trying out a different style than by his deliberately planning a contrast with unwritten texts to follow.

Current opinion leans to seeing Shakespeare as thinking critically and independently about the events he depicts, with his own interpretation—which may or may not coincide with a prevailing Tudor myth of history, which itself may or may not have existed. Shakespeare, in fact, was a critic of ideas, not their mouthpiece. Probably too his view was not a rapid response to the facts in Holinshed but based on wide and thorough reading.

We may legitimately argue—endlessly—about what view of history is expressed in Richard II and whether it is distinctively Shakespeare's view, the received opinion of his time or some blend of both. However, there is no need to argue about whether this drama is about historical events or about a man's tragic fall. Clearly, Richard II is both and the Tudor doctrine, a legal fiction, of the two bodies of a king enables us readily to keep both facets of the play simultaneously in mind. Edmund Plowden expressed the crown lawyers' belief of the mid-16th century: ‘For the king has in him two Bodies, viz, a Body natural, and a Body politic’. The former is mortal; the latter abstract, ‘consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal … What the king does in his Body politic cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any disability in his natural Body’. The two natures are fused at the moment of coronation (J. Barton, The King's Two Bodies, [Princeton, N. J., 1957], quoted by Ernest H. Kantorowicz, p. 7). Elizabethans knowing this concept would see the drama's distinction between private life and public face, between good poet and bad king, between the individual and the role he had to play.

If the play is seen as historical fact, or as the Hall/Holinshed/late Elizabethan view of those facts, we may miss the timeless abstract themes. James Winny identifies in Shakespeare's histories man's ‘instinctive desire for society and friendship, and for the deeper satisfactions of true allegiance, faithful service, and ordered prerogative’ (The Player King, p. 29). I would add several other themes: the lust for power, the disenchantment of achievement, the experience of defeat, the conflict between traditional loyalties and realistic adjustment to the winning side, the contrast between high-principled aims and the ruthless realities, the constant choice between punishment and forgiveness, the continued threat from the deposed.

The play is precisely located in different parts of England and Wales. The last scene [I. iii] is at Coventry, in the Midlands. Bolingbroke, though coming from Brittany in France, lands on the north coast and makes the long march south-west through the Cotswolds to Berkeley and to Bristol. Richard's return from Ireland is to Barkloughly and he moves on north-west to Flint, where he is met by Bolingbroke. The deposition takes place in the presence of parliament in London, then Richard is sent to the dungeon of Pomfret (Pontefract) Castle, in Yorkshire. These castles remain, in ruins, scanty at Pontefract though part of the room in which Richard was probably held survives, as do fragmentary battlements at Flint and substantial ruins at Harlech (the Barkloughly of the play).

Gaunt's famous dying speech makes England the play's subject (though we should note the irony that he speaks to York, who does not need this inspirational address, and that Gaunt manages little more than scolding once Richard has arrived). Gaunt pictures the potential of England and its present decline. The Gardeners talk of ‘our sea-walled garden, the whole land’ [III. iv 43] and how it should be governed. In Richard II the destiny of England is determined by conflict among the nobility: six dukes (Gaunt; Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford; Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk; Aumerle; York; Surrey), two earls (Northumberland and Salisbury); four lords (Ross, Willoughby, Berkeley, Fitzwater) and five knights (Bushy, Green, Bagot, Scroop, Exton). The Commons are present at the deposition [IV. i 271]: they are wealthy gentry. The emblematic verse-speaking Gardeners may plausibly be played as monks rather than as eloquent workers.

The unseen ‘common people’ are contemptuously dismissed by Richard as ‘slaves’ [I. iv 24, 27]; York is scornful of them for the way in which they mocked Richard and welcomed Bolingbroke as their new king [V. ii 11-36]. Richard's indifference to his subjects finally alters because of his suffering and in his last moments he responds to the simple humanity of the Groom [V. v 67-97].


Richard II looks as thought it should provide evidence on what Shakespeare himself really believed. The current fashion is to see him as conservative, as Graham Greene places him: ‘If there is one supreme poet of conservatism, of what we now call the Establishment, it is he’ (‘The Virtue of Disloyalty’, The Portable Graham Greene, [Harmondsworth, 1977], p. 606). Colin MacInnes concludes: ‘It is hard … to pinpoint Shakespeare's moral attitudes, unless to say that he respected formal society, disliked cruelty, and seemed to believe evil won its own retribution’ (No Novel Reader, [London, 1975], p. 18). And Martin Fido: ‘When we look at the plays, we find the cautious conservatism of his business dealings and social aspirations confirmed … From start to finish we find an acceptance of the status quo, a respect for the established social order, and a distaste for change … The truest description we can from our knowledge give of Shakespeare the man is, I believe, an unusually cautious conservative’ (Shakespeare, [London, 1975], p. 140). Richard II perhaps presents what might be called a fatalistic view of human affairs: problems continue, whoever is king. Once Bolingbroke is ruler, like his predecessor, he has to deal with quarrelsome gage-throwing nobles, with Aumerle's plot [V. ii, V. iii] and then with more rebellions at the start of the last scene. The sense of events endlessly recurring is in fact such that I half-expect at the end the arrival of messengers with news that York is dying and that the Irish are rebelling again.

On the other hand, Richard II shows that rebellion is possible, and can succeed (though none of the plots of Shakespeare's lifetime against Elizabeth I had succeeded). Richard II might also be said to demystify the remote figure of the monarch, showing not only feet of clay but multiple incompetencies. The play shows us the actuality of a forced handing over of a crown, the legalising of a coup d'état. Further, clearly God and His angels do not rescue the king of England when he is in difficulties. And the true character of many of the Top People is exposed: Bolingbroke comes back to claim what is due to him, not to restore those past glories of England which John of Gaunt hymns.

On the political level, the play asks questions. What is a good monarch like? What may morally and legitimately be done by a nation faced with a bad ruler? Will a change of monarch be an improvement? Whether or not Richard II is seen as a prologue to Henry IV, the change solves few problems. I doubt if we can decide whether or not Shakespeare approved of the deposing of Richard. I find clarity on the level of the individual: Shakespeare can identify readily with the misery of the man deposed.

The specifics of Divine Right are remote to late 20th-century audiences, as is hereditary monarchy to most of the world. It is also difficult to find any equivalent to the position Richard believed himself to have (which was not exactly power, for it crumbled as soon as Bolingbroke dared his challenge). Charles I, Louis XVI, the last Tsar took it for granted that they had absolute authority for life. Drawing this parallel, the 1981 Young Vic production was set in Russia in 1917, with Richard as the Tsar, a complacent monarch who could not see how his world was changing. Nikolas Grace, playing Richard, commented: ‘This is a play about how society can unbalance a seat of power, and it doesn't much matter whether that seat of power is Richard Nixon or the Shah. People are interested now in the chemistry of radical politics’ (The Times, 22 Feb. 1981). Bolingbroke, though, represents himself much more than society or radical politics. As for the emotions of the deposed, the Dalai Lama, god-king of Tibet, deposed, driven into exile by the Chinese invasion in 1959 and still living in India may be the one man today who can understand the astonishment and the misery of the divinely-appointed ruler ruthlessly overthrown.

Ian McKellen tells of the impact of the play in Czechoslovakia:

In 1969 I played Richard II in a production which we took round England and then briefly to Europe and we went to Czechoslovakia … We concentrated on the humanity of the characters rather than their political nature. We thought of the political factions as a family, Richard II as a man with cousins and uncles and other relatives, and I think it was in that sense that we looked at the politics in it. However, we landed in Czechoslovakia only six months after the Prime Minister, Dubcek, had been removed by his neighbouring allies, the Russians. One result of this political change was that they didn't want visiting foreigners with their plays. They tried to stop our visit, but it was too late. … When I came to the speech where Richard II returns from Ireland to discover that his nation has been overrun by his cousin Bolingbroke, and he kneels down on the earth and asks the stones and the nettles and the insects to help him in his helpless state against the armies who had invaded his land, I could hear something I had never heard before, nor since, which was a whole audience apparently weeping. It shakes me now to think about it, because in that instant I realised that the audience were crying for themselves. They recognised in Richard II their own predicament of only six months previously when their neighbours and as it were their cousins had invaded their land, and all they had were sticks and stones to throw at the tanks.

I would never have talked about the play in those terms.

We hadn't seen it as directly relevant to any modern political situation. Shakespeare couldn't have known about communism, about the East or the West. Afterwards I said to one of the new men, the anti-Dubcek faction, to one of their leaders who was in the audience, ‘Who did you side with in the play, Richard II or Bolingbroke? The man on the ground or the invader? And he said, “Both right, both wrong.”’

(Playing Shakespeare, [1984], pp. 191-2, quoted by John Barton.)

Richard II prompted Mark Amory to recall the events in Uganda in 1970: ‘It suggests the deposing of Frederick Mutesa, Kabaka of Buganda, 36th of his line, elegant, sophisticated, but careless of his country and, when faced by squat Milton Obote, fatally lacking in troops. The chaos that followed led to Idi Amin … The Kabaka died in Bermondsey’ (The Spectator, 21 Nov. 1981).

The play reminds Samuel Schoenbaum of the fall of President Richard Nixon, forced to resign in 1974 by the threat of impeachment for his involvement in the Watergate burglary: ‘The parallels are imprecisely general, except for one haunting detail which escaped nobody. When Richard in the deposition scene has divested himself of crown and sceptre, and with his own tears washed away his balm, ‘What more remains?’ he asks his tormentors.

Northumberland, implacable, presses on:

                                                                      No more but that you read
These accusations and these grievous crimes
Committed by your person and your followers
Against the state and profit of this land,
That by confessing them the souls of men
May deem that you are worthily deposed.

[IV. i 222-7]

This was, as you will recall, the burning issue after the other deposition. In neither instance was a confession of wrongdoing insisted upon or obtained, although Nixon had his Northumberlands. Nor need I remind you of the consequences for his successor when pardon followed' (‘Shakespeare's Histories: the Presence of the Past,’ Shakespeare and Others, [1985], pp. 101-2).

Finally, in this quest to find an immediacy in these 600-year-old events, the playwright John Arden quotes Richard's speech on the Irish when he sets out to reconquer the island:

We must supplant those rough rug-headed kerns
Which live like venom where no venom else
But only they have privilege to live

[II. i 156-8]

Arden comments: ‘Not “the Irish are being a nuisance so we have to subdue them”: but “it is our absolute duty to supplant them simply because they exist in their own way in their own country”’. Arden explains: ‘In Richard II almost everything the King says and does is heavily (and in the end successfully) challenged by someone—Bolingbroke, Gaunt, or whoever. His Irish wars alone escape criticism, except in so far as they are criminally funded and ineptly timed. In fact, they are seen to be one of his few attempts to behave like the proper English King so desired by John of Gaunt to redeem the country from degradation: “England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” [II. i 65-6].’ So, Arden argues, Shakespeare has contributed to an attitude of mind which continues to support the English presence in Ireland. Arden even audaciously supplies the lines which Shakespeare should have written to challenge Richard's attitude, giving these to York:

Nay, nay, my lord, rug-headed Irish kerns
Spit no more venom than our English sea-dogs do
Who bravely strive for liberty of this isle
'Gainst Frenchmen or the pirate wolves of Spain.
Therefore disturb them not; they'll prove good friends
Once left in calm enjoyment of their own.

(‘Rug-headed Irish Kerns and British Poets’, New Statesman, 13 July 1979, p. 56, and ‘Shakespeare: Guilty’, New Statesman, 10 Aug. 1979, p. 199).

Approaching from a different tack, we may ask what is the present-day appeal of a piece about a man who wallows in self-pity. Harold Hobson in 1947 accounted thus for the appeal of the play in our time: ‘Self-pity; lamentation; hysteria. We come closer to the secret of Richard II's popularity in such considerations as these. We have lost the robust confidence of the nineteenth century. The world today darts hither and thither directionless. It grieves over the hardness of its fate, just as Richard did. Of all Shakespeare's kings, he is its prime spokesman. And, if not with spirit, if not with courage, he speaks beautifully, with words that twine about the heart. Let us not be too hard upon him, though. But we might well be harder upon ourselves’ (Theatre, 1948, p. 141).

A Canadian critic finds an approach to the drama that avoids issues of power and authority. Gina Mallett writes: ‘The only way to go to most of Shakespeare's history plays is to go with the firm understanding that you're going to see the British Wild West, a great mythic landscape peopled with outsized folk, heroes, rascals, double-dealers, politicians, and not surprisingly, very few women’ (Toronto Star, 7 June 1979, C3). This emphasises the naked struggles, the uncomplicated emotions and the sense of rival groups, rather than individuals.


  1. Here and later I draw on three recordings of the play. Sir John Gielgud's performance is preserved in the Caedmon Shakespeare Recording Society version of 1960. The impressive cast includes Keith Michell as Bolingbroke, Leo McKern as John of Gaunt, Michael Hordern as York, Jeremy Brett as Mowbray and Harold Lang as Northumberland. The other full-length version, recorded by Cambridge students of the Marlowe Society with some professionals in 1958 for London records, is well-spoken, but the Richard is under-characterised. Michael Redgrave plays Richard on the abridged one-record Living Shakespeare version, with Nigel Davenport as Bolingbroke, and Hordern again John of Gaunt. Spoken Arts has an abridged text with Christopher Casson and Fred Johnson and Allegro one with Robert Harris and John Ruddock.

Lois Potter (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5175

SOURCE: “The Antic Disposition of Richard II,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 27, 1974, pp. 33-41.

[In the following essay, Potter contends that Richard is much less virtuous, and thus a more interesting dramatic character, than has been previously thought. Potter further states that Richard’s elaborate language, although powerful, signifies weakness because it replaces action.]

Many critical studies of Richard II, and a surprising number of productions, start from a curious assumption: that Shakespeare wrote, and asked his leading actor to star in, a long play dominated by a character whose main effect on the audience was to be one of boredom, embarrassment, or at best contemptuous pity. If Richard's part is not a good one, the play is simply not worth seeing; and ‘good’, in theatrical terms, means not necessarily virtuous but interesting. I want to argue that Richard is in fact rather less virtuous than has often been thought, and, just for that reason, a ‘better’ dramatic character.

Much of our difficulty with the play is a difficulty of knowing what moral connotations to attach to its highly rhetorical language. It is useful to be reminded by R. F. Hill that ‘apparently self-conscious control of language does not, of itself, indicate dispassion and triviality in character’, especially since he goes on to show that self-conscious language is by no means confined to Richard.1 Yet there is no doubt that elaborate language is used as a substitute for action and, to that extent, is a symbol of weakness. ‘Give losers leave to talk’ is an Elizabethan proverb, and in the first two acts of the play the long speeches do in fact belong to the ‘losers’—Mowbray, Gaunt, York, the Duchess of Gloucester, and Bolingbroke. They all talk too much, seldom content with one simile where three or four will do (even Bolingbroke's rejection of the consolations of language is itself couched in a series of rhetorical repetitions); they all become despondent in adversity, rejecting all attempts to comfort them; and three of them (the Duchess of Gloucester, Mowbray, Gaunt) prophesy, correctly, that they are soon to die. This is the style which, in the second half of the play, is associated with the defeated king and his supporters. It is foreshadowed, even before Richard's return from Ireland, by the fanciful dialogue of the Queen and the favourites as well as by the Welshmen's prophecies of death and disaster.

Yet, though such language may be a sign of weakness in those who speak it, it is itself extremely powerful. This is largely because of its evocation of patriotic and religious sentiments, on which most of the emotional and poetic force of the first two acts depends. It may be disregarded by the other characters but it works on the audience, and the same is true when Richard starts speaking this language halfway through the play.

The other kind of power, later associated with the ‘silent king’ Bolingbroke, is at first displayed only by Richard. He declares in the opening scene that ‘We are not born to sue but to command’ (I, i, 196),2 and his reactions to the eloquence of others are either impatient—‘It boots thee not to be compassionate’ (I, iii, 174); ‘Can sick men play so nicely with their names?’ (II, i, 84)—or deflationary, as when he asks ‘Why, uncle, what's the matter?’ after York has spent twenty-two lines trying to tell him (II, i, 186). His few long speeches, such as the description of Bolingbroke's behaviour to the common people and the formal banishment of the two appellants, are almost the only ones in this part of the play that do not make the director reach for his blue pencil. The banishment speech, indeed, may look at first as if it needs shortening, but in performance its rhetoric has an obvious dramatic effect; Richard keeps the two men in suspense during fifteen lines of sonorous clauses—‘For that’, ‘and for’, ‘and for’—and then drops his bombshell in the simple phrase ‘Therefore we banish you our territories’ (I, iii, 139). His shorter utterances, too, are very like the language which, when it appears in connection with Bolingbroke, we associate with confidence, efficiency and power. His reception of Gaunt's death—

The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be;
So much for that

(II, i, 153-5)

—can be compared with Bolingbroke's reaction to Mowbray's, when, as Kenneth Muir has pointed out, he also ‘changes the subject in the middle of a line’.3 Similarly, Richard's flippant-sounding jingle,

Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money and his lands,

(II, i, 209-10)

falls into the same rhythm as Northumberland's couplet in the final scene:

The next news is, I have to London sent
The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent.(4)

(V, vi, 7-8)

The change which Richard undergoes in the second half of the play may be explained in terms of language and decorum, but this is not much help to the actor who has somehow to reconcile the two halves. The commonest solution is to play the first two acts in the light of the other three. A foppish or wicked Richard may spend the first scene eating sweetmeats, talking with his favourites, or making clear that he is the real murderer of Gloucester,5 while a more pathetically conceived Richard may appear in Christ-like make-up, looking frail and helpless among the brawny peers who will obviously be making mincemeat of him within the hour.6 It has even been argued that such interpretations are necessary: as one reviewer of the 1964 Stratford production put it, in the first part of the play ‘Shakespeare only does half the job, and, unless he is helped, we listen amazed at old Gaunt's dying protest about the king's “rash, fierce blaze of riot”. What riot?’7

Nicholas Brooke has rightly objected to actors trying too hard to establish Richard's personality before Shakespeare lets it emerge in I, iv. His description of this personality—‘a cold politician with atheistic tendencies … cheap however witty’—8 seems to me fair enough, except perhaps that it underrates the effectiveness of cheap wit in a formal setting and audience readiness to sympathise with the character who uses it (compare Shakespeare's other King Richard). Professor Brooke feels that our awareness of the real Richard confuses our response to the cosmic and political themes which he embodies and expresses;9 I should prefer to say that the interest of Richard's character lies in his ability to use, and not simply to embody, the emotional associations of these themes. This use only gradually becomes conscious and, like Hamlet's antic disposition, co-exists with a capacity for emotional involvement. But irony and a suggestion of duplicity are present in Richard throughout the play.

For the point about Richard's terse style in the opening scenes is that it is also enigmatic; his carefully balanced speeches to Mowbray and Bolingbroke do not, unless slanted by the production, help the audience to decide which of the challengers is right (indeed, we never know). Hence, the difference in their punishments seems not retributive but arbitrary, especially when, simply because Gaunt looks unhappy, four years are casually lopped off Bolingbroke's exile. The latter's response,

How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word—such is the breath of kings,

(I, iii, 213-15)

introduces the themes, which Gaunt will take up at more length, of time, breath, and the destructive power of kings. But, taken on its own, it suggests rather oddly that Richard has not restored but killed four years of life. A darker purpose is in fact confirmed by the next scene, where the king's first ‘private’, words express a doubt,

When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsman come to see his friends.

(I, iv, 21-2)

In other words, he may never repeal Bolingbroke after all. Perhaps the ‘hopeless word of “never to return”’, which Richard breathes against Mowbray (I, iii, 152), is likewise only a word, another sign that the breath of kings can blow hot and cold.

Evidence of duplicity in Richard's character could have been provided for Shakespeare by Holinshed, who lists among the thirty-three articles alleged against him the charge that his letters were written in a style ‘so subtill and darke that none other prince once beléeued him, nor yet his owne subiects’.10 Equivocation—setting the word against the word—is a common practice of the Machiavellian ruler in drama (compare Mortimer's use of the ‘unpointed’ message in Edward II), and in the later scenes of the play Bolingbroke himself is not free from a suspicion of it. Hence his almost comic difficulty in finding a form of words which will convince the Duchess of York that he really has pardoned Aumerle. Her nervousness is understandable, since her husband has just made the helpful suggestion, ‘Speak it in French, king, say “pardonne moy”’ (V, iii, 117). But in fact I get the impression throughout the play that Bolingbroke is genuinely trying to say what he means. There is, for instance, a vast difference between his sharp words to his peers,

Little are we beholding to your love,
And little look'd for at your helping hands,

(IV, i, 160-1)

and Richard's way of putting the same thing, when York has insisted that both Gaunt and Herford love him well:

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

(II, i, 145-6)

This kind of irony reveals rather than conceals the speaker's emotions, which is why it is often taken as a sign of weakness. But it also enables him to avoid stating his intentions, and thus, as we shall see, to give a great deal of trouble to Bolingbroke.

The transitional scene at Barkloughly Castle is unusual in its lack of this irony. Richard not only takes over the emotionally charged rhetoric which has hitherto been associated chiefly with his opponents, he also takes on their role as spokesman for England and the Church. From the moment when he greets the English earth, it is he alone who embodies the spirit of Mowbray's lament for his native tongue, Bolingbroke's ‘English ground, farewell’, and Gaunt's famous purple passage. At the same time the presence of Carlisle reminds us that Richard consistently has the support of the Church, something which his successor never gets. This is unhistorical—Holinshed describes the prominent part taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Bolingbroke's behalf—and seems to be deliberate. In the early part of the play the values of Church and State are united in frequent evocations of the figure of the Crusader in the Holy Land and the warrior upholding the truth in single combat. Our last vision of this kind of harmony, now already in the past, comes in Carlisle's account of the death of Mowbray who has fought under the colours of ‘his captain Christ’ (IV, i, 99). Henry IV will never make his intended Crusade, churchmen are frequently involved in rebellions against him, and it is not until the reign of Henry V that Shakespeare again shows Church and State reconciled.

But their values cannot be reconciled in any case. Richard's behaviour at Barkloughly Castle is often taken as an undignified oscillation between two equally reprehensible states of mind, futile rage and morbid despair. It seems to me rather a bringing out into the open of a conflict between the equally valid but contradictory roles of king and Christian. Richard's moods of defeatism, though Carlisle condemns them, can be interpreted as an attempt to achieve that Christian resignation which, in the Mirror for Magistrates view, is the only refuge for the victim of Fortune's wheel. Reviewing the ‘sad stories of the death of kings', he describes them as ‘all murthered’ (III, ii, 155-60), because no death can ever be ‘natural’ for men who have been led to think of themselves as immortal. The failure to bear in mind their own mortality is the chief crime of which the speakers in the Mirror accuse themselves; it is also the only sin which Richard lays to his own charge. Hence the special sense given to ‘flattery’ in the play: Bolingbroke actually receives much grosser adulation than Richard (especially in II, iii), but the latter says that he is being flattered even when the mirror shows him a beauty that is really his, because it fails to show the ultimate truth about the transitoriness of that beauty. Similarly, at the end of the Barkloughly scene, he seems to equate all forms of comfort with flattery. As York said earlier, ‘Comfort's in heaven, and we are on the earth’ (II, ii, 78), and ‘that sweet way I was in to despair’ (III, ii, 205) may be sweet because, in one sense, it is the way to salvation.

On the other hand, as the exchanges of defiances, gages, and insults throughout the play remind us, the concepts of nobility and kingliness are not necessarily Christian. Mowbray and Bolingbroke refuse to accept counsels of patience in I, i, while Gaunt, in the scene that follows, opposes Christian patience to his sister-in-law's exhortations to think of family honour and revenge. Her response—

Call it not patience, Gaunt, it is despair … 
That which in mean men we intitle patience
Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts.

(I, ii, 29-34)

—is similar to what the Queen says to Richard at their parting:

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

(V, i, 29-34)

The Barkloughly castle scene is difficult to play because the Lion King and the Christian are juxtaposed too often and too abruptly. But this is not to say that the roles are not sincerely played. They have to be, if the scene is to work at all. The reason why Richard is un-ironic here is that he believes, although we know otherwise, that effective action is still possible; his responses are real responses. To say that Richard is an actor giving a performance is irrelevant: all good dramatic parts allow actors to behave like actors. But to ask an actor to play the part of an actor giving an unconvincing performance is theatrical suicide. No one can possibly take any interest in the future history of a character shown to be as hollow as his crown. Fops are minor figures in drama, and rightly so.

It is when Richard is completely cut off from the possibility of effective action that he begins to make use of the roles of king and Christian for his own purposes; their contradictions no longer matter, because he is concerned only with their effect. The Lion King makes his last gesture when he asks,

Shall we call back Northumberland and send
Defiance to the traitor, and so die?

(III, iii, 129-30)

But he chooses instead to follow the advice of Aumerle:

No, good my lord, let's fight with gentle words,
Till time lend friends, and friends their helpful

(III, iii, 131-2)

As has been pointed out, this is ‘an intention of plain duplicity’.11 Words are a weapon for Richard, as well as a form of emotional release, and a closer look at his confrontations with Bolingbroke will show that he does in fact fight very skilfully with them.

In the first of these scenes, III, iii, Richard first makes an impressive speech in the kingly style, then sends a ‘fair’ (and, as he at once indicates, a lying) message to Bolingbroke, then (possibly for Northumberland's ears as well as Aumerle's) indulges in a fantasy of despair which plays ‘idly’, as he says, with traditional Christian symbols. To Northumberland, the sarcastic speeches which follow seem the words of ‘a frantic man’. Yet when Richard re-enters the ‘base court’ he does not sound frantic. He picks up his own words, ‘Down, down I come’ and ‘In the base court?’ as he addresses Bolingbroke:

Fair cousin, you debase your
princely knee
To make the base earth proud with
kissing it … 
Up, cousin, up … 

(III, iii, 190-1, 194)

Bolingbroke and the rest treat him gently because he seems so helpless; he is then able to show up their gentleness as hypocrisy by hinting that he knows what they are really after. It is possible to argue that his anticipation of Bolingbroke's intentions makes Richard an accomplice in his own destruction; it is possible similarly, to say that Lear makes his daughters into monsters by treating them as such before they have done anything more unfilial than complaining about his hundred knights. But this seems to me too ‘psychological’ an approach to the plays. Richard does not, like a predestinating God, make things happen because he foresees them. He foresees them because they are going to happen, and because his awareness of the situation is both a convenient dramatic shorthand (if an event is accepted as inevitable, Shakespeare does not have to explain the precise practical means by which it comes about) and a means by which he can dominate the action.

Typical of the way in which he uses words to transform weakness into strength is his exploitation, at Flint Castle and in Westminster Hall, of conceits on tears. We dislike this sort of language nowadays, so it is tempting to describe as mere self-indulgence Richard's images of making ‘foul weather with despised tears’ (III, iii, 161), digging a pair of graves with them (III, iii, 165-9), being weighed down with them like a bucket in a well (IV, i, 184-9), and washing away his royal balm in them (IV, i, 207). What all these fantasies emphasise is the power of something which is normally taken to be a symbol of helplessness. The comparison of himself and Bolingbroke to two buckets in a well derives, in its rising-falling pattern, from the idea of Fortune's wheel and the ‘Down, down I come’ and ‘Up, cousin, up’ of III, iii.12 But in his insistence that he outweighs his cousin, who is able to rise so high only because he is essentially hollow, Richard also echoes and reverses the ‘balance’ image which the Gardener had used to the Queen:

                                                  Their fortunes both are weigh'd;
In your lord's scale is nothing but himself,
And some few vanities that make him light.
But in the balance of great Bolingbroke,
Besides himself, are all the English peers,
And with that odds he weighs King Richard down.

(III, iv, 84-9)

What we see throughout the deposition scene is that Richard alone, in his potently symbolic role as the Man of Sorrows, can in fact out-weigh Bolingbroke and the peers.

The chief irony of this scene is one of which Richard himself is quite well aware: only a king can judge a king, and therefore it is he who must depose himself, yet the very fact that he is in this humiliating position is also a proof of his kingship which nothing can eradicate. He makes as much capital as possible from this two-edged predicament. Bolingbroke, in response apparently to Carlisle's plea, sends for Richard to perform in public what (according to York) he has already agreed to in private. The intention is, first, that the king should be seen to abdicate voluntarily and thus free his successor from the guilt of usurpation, and, second, that he should prove that he is ‘worthily deposed’ by reading out the articles which contain the charges against him. Richard does neither of these things.

Instead, he continues to employ the technique which we first saw at the end of the Flint Castle scene, that of giving with one hand and taking back with the other:

Well you deserve. They well deserve to have
That know the strong'st and surest way to get.

(III, iii, 200-1)

What you will have, I'll give, and willing too,
For do we must what force will have us do.

(III, iii, 206-7)

His first speech in Westminster Hall shows the same teasing ambiguity:

God save the king! although I be not he;
And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me.

(IV, i, 174-5)

Urged to resign the crown, he invites Bolingbroke to ‘seize’ it. The series of quibbles which follows has a serious purpose. By claiming, for instance, that he is willing to resign his crown but not the cares that go with it he is transforming a sacramental object into a piece of metal, a ‘heavy weight from off my head’ (IV, i, 204). He may formally ‘undo’ himself, in language that seems as thorough as Bolingbroke could wish, but his very exaggeration is suspicious. The renunciation culminates in his insistence that by losing the crown he loses his life since the one is so completely identified with the other. Later he virtually takes everything back when he condemns himself and everyone else as traitors for their part in the ritual undoing. The stress throughout has been on the unalterable fact of his kingliness.

He also, by a well-timed burst of hysteria, avoids having to read the articles. He promises to read his sins, not from the paper Northumberland is brandishing, but from the mirror where he can see them written on his face. But the mirror shows him no sins; it reveals the face of a king. He smashes it because it lies about his situation, the true situation of all men, even kings. Thus, in drawing Bolingbroke's attention to ‘the moral of this sport’, he may be offering a warning as well as a further statement of the power of sorrow (IV, i, 290-1).

His last gesture is a trick, and apparently a rather pointless one. He will, he says,

                                                            beg one boon,
And then be gone, and trouble you no more.

(IV, i, 302-3)

But what he begs in fact is permission to be gone. The request is a further move in the power-struggle, both because Richard is able to leave without having read the articles and because he forces Bolingbroke to show his intentions at last by sending him to the Tower.13 In his parting shot—

O, good! Convey! Conveyers are you all,
That rise thus nimbly by a true king's fall.

(IV, i, 317-18)

—he seizes on the unfortunately chosen word ‘convey’ (which was slang for ‘steal’) and adds, I think, a characteristic pun on ‘true king’ (a ‘true man’ was the opposite of a thief). It is a good exit, but what he wins is not simply a moral victory; by making it clear that he is not willing to resign the crown and still considers himself the rightful king, he has opened the way for just such a conspiracy as we see taking shape at the end of the scene.

Stanley Wells has pointed out the parallel between the ending of the deposition scene and that of II, i.14 There, too, mere words—those of the dying Gaunt and York—seem to have no effect, yet the scene ends with three onlookers deciding to take action on behalf of an apparently hopeless cause. Richard's pun on ‘convey’ links the two still further, since it was his own theft of Gaunt's lands which started the rebellion against him. That the rebellion against Bolingbroke is later discovered and crushed does not alter the effect of the rebels' words, coming as they do immediately after the ‘woeful pageant’. It is too simple to treat the deposition scene as a triumph of silent, powerful Bolingbroke over verbose, weak Richard. Language is a source of power in the play, even though there is also an awareness of its inadequacy. Though Richard's rhetoric successfully appeals to the spectators' reverence for the symbol of England and the Church, the nobles and churchmen who rally to his cause are defeated in a way that is clearly providential: Aumerle has no sooner said that he intends to be in Oxford ‘If God prevent it not’ (V, ii, 55) than York notices the seal hanging out of his son's doublet. And the less admirable motives which make the old man gallop away to reveal the plot do not detract from his conviction that Bolingbroke's usurpation, however shocking, must somehow be part of a divine plan.

Shakespeare does not attempt to explain this paradox, but he continues to explore it in the last act of the play, largely through the opposing kinds of language he gives to Richard. On the one hand, the deposed king becomes more formal and rhetorical than ever before. After the ceremonial unkinging, which he later describes as a divorce between him and his crown (V, i, 71-2), comes his equally ritualistic parting with the Queen, when he ‘unkisses’ his contract with her in an exchange of hearts which is also a marriage with sorrow. Even his dying words are formal, a divorce of soul from body:

                                                                      Exton, thy fierce hand
Hath with the king's blood stain'd the king's own land.
Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high,
Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.

(V, v, 109-12)

The speech echoes and unites several dominant images of the play: the rising-falling pattern, the sacrificial blood watering the earth, and the stain which cannot be washed away. Richard shows complete certainty both of his kingly status and of his own salvation; Exton, similarly, accepts the view that he himself is damned forever. We have seen the death of a symbol, not a human being.

But alongside this ritualistic King of Sorrows Shakespeare also gives us intriguing glimpses of the other Richard: sharp-tongued, self-mocking and quite unresigned. The pointed realism of his words to Northumberland in V, i, is fully in keeping with his constant anticipation of Bolingbroke's moves, and I am sure the Quartos are right to give him, and not Northumberland, the cynical reply to the Queen's request that the two of them be banished together: ‘That were some love, but little policy’ (V, i, 84). The symbolic representative of England has little discernible affection for his people (‘A king of beasts indeed’ [V, i, 35]), and, as the prison soliloquy shows us, God's representative on earth is unsure of his own salvation. Unlike the saintly Henry VI with his crown of content, Richard finds that ‘no thought is contented’ (V, v, 11) and he now sees death not as the way to ‘a new world's crown’ (V, i, 24) but as ‘being nothing’ (V, v, 41). The images in which he personifies his own thoughts all tend irresistibly toward the grotesque, whether they are quibbling over scriptural contradictions, plotting an impossible escape, or, like beggars in the stocks (not Stoic philosophers, or even the hermit that he once imagined himself), trying to resign themselves to fate.15 His playing with words, far from providing a consoling substitute for reality, nearly drives him mad. Yet, despite the desire for human love which comes through at the end of the soliloquy, his immediate reaction to the unexpected appearance of the Groom is a stale pun on ‘royal’ and ‘noble’. The familiar tone of this little episode is almost immediately followed by the outbursts against the keeper and the murderers, in which the dominant note seems one of relief that he at last has an object on which to release his pent-up energies. There is relief for the audience as well, not only in the violent action which follows five acts of fighting with words alone, but also in the sheer arrogance of Richard's reaction: ‘How now! what means death in this rude assault?’ (V, v, 105). Nevertheless, one can see why his dying speech had to be modulated into a different tone.

The formality of that speech, and its rhyming couplets, are taken up at once by Exton, establishing the simplified, symbolic view of Richard (‘As full of valour as of royal blood’ [V, v, 113]) which is to prevail in the final scene. However uninspired poetically, the alternation of speeches reporting the downfall of Henry's enemies with bathetic thank-you couplets from Henry is dramatically effective in that it prepares the entry of Exton, whom the king emphatically does not thank. Moreover, Henry's forgiveness of Carlisle, which ought to be the climax of the scene, is immediately and ironically nullified by the appearance of the coffin which, though it contains ‘the mightiest of thy greatest enemies’ (V, vi, 32), is a source not of triumph but of consternation to him. ‘A god on earth thou art’, was the Duchess of York's phrase after he pardoned Aumerle (V, iii, 134), but Exton's act has identified him irrevocably with Pilate, wishing in vain both to pardon his victim and to wash the blood off his hands. As Reese has pointed out, ‘thy buried fear’ (V, vi, 31) has a double meaning, indicating not only an end to fears but a permanent source of them in the coffin of the murdered king.16 The presence of that coffin lends dignity and resonance even to the stiff couplets of Henry and Exton; in particular, the phrase ‘Richard of Burdeaux’ has a shock effect which is curiously moving in the theatre. Henry's last speech calls upon the familiar national and religious symbols and attempts to channel potentially dangerous emotions into the ritual of court mourning and the promise of a Crusade. But it is fitting that irony and ambiguity should hang over this solemn ending and that the ‘silent king’ in the coffin should still present a threat. Richard dominates the scene in his silence as he had dominated it before with words.


  1. ‘Dramatic Techniques and Interpretation in Richard II’, Stratford upon Avon Studies, 3, Early Shakespeare (1961), 103.

  2. References are to the Arden edition of the play, ed. Peter Ure (London, 1956).

  3. Note on II, i, 153-5 in Signet edition (New York, 1963).

  4. The first of these couplets apparently derives, rhythm and all, from The Mirror for Magistrates; see Peter Ure's note in the Arden edition.

  5. See, e.g., Shaw on Beerbohm Tree, The Saturday Review, 11 Feb. 1905, quoted in Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (New York, 1961), p. 148; Audrey Williamson on John Neville, Old Vic Drama, 2 (London, 1957), 174-5; and A. C. Sprague, Shakespeare's Histories, Plays for the Stage (The Society for Theatre Research, London, 1964), pp. 38-9.

  6. E.g., Edwin Booth (Sprague, Shakespeare's Histories, pp. 32) and David Warner (Harold Hobson, Sunday Times, 19 April 1964).

  7. Felix Barker, London Evening News, 16 April 1964.

  8. Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London, 1968), p. 119.

  9. Ibid., p. 128.

  10. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (6 vols., London, 1807), III, 860.

  11. A. R. Humphreys, Richard II (Studies in English Literature, London, 1967), p. 49.

  12. See Peter Ure's note on IV, i, 184-9 in the Arden edition.

  13. See Brents Stirling, ‘Up, Cousin, Up; Your Heart is Up, I Know’, from Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (Columbia, 1956), reprinted in P. M. Cubeta (ed.), Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Richard II (New Jersey, 1971), p. 95.

  14. See the introduction to his edition of the play (Penguin, 1969), pp. 30-1.

  15. See Nicholas Brooke's comments on this soliloquy, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, pp. 134-5.

  16. The Cease of Majesty (London, 1961), p. 255.

Paul Gaudet (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7726

SOURCE: “The ‘Parasitical’ Counselors in Shakespeare's Richard II: A Problem in Dramatic Interpretation,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, 1982, pp. 142-54.

[In the following essay, Gaudet examines the discrepancy between Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard's advisors—Bushy, Bagot, and Greene—and the way the three are typically perceived (as “caterpillars of the commonwealth”). Gaudet demonstrates that Shakespeare presents the advisors as passive attendants in order to highlight Richard's own blameworthiness.]

In act II, scene III of Richard II, Bolingbroke characterizes his return from exile as the advent of justice to a disrupted land. As patriotic subject, he has sworn “to weed and pluck away” the King's favorites, Bushy, Bagot, and Greene, whom he labels “caterpillars of the commonwealth.”1 Almost immediately—Bolingbroke's words are followed by a brief interlude protending disaster—we see Bolingbroke in Act III, scene i expeditiously sentencing to death two of those “caterpillars,” Bushy and Greene. Their guilt is taken as manifest in Bolingbroke's charges, and they are led out “To execution and the hand of death” (III.i.30).


Bolingbroke's harsh and summary justice is certainly vindicated by the historical judgment that Shakespeare inherited. Shakespeare's written sources consistently associate Richard's downfall with the injustices and prodigality urged upon him by his lubricious favorites. Edward Hall in The Union of the Two Noble & Illustre Families of Lancastre & Yorke (1548) records that Richard distributed the confiscated estates of Gaunt to “his paresites and flattering foloers”; Hall has Richard confess in his speech of resignation that he was “partely ruled and misauised by the euell & sinister councell of peruerse & flatteryng persons.”2 The ghost of Richard in The Mirror for Magistrates (1559) similarly acknowledges that he “alway put false Flatterers most in trust.”3 Raphael Holinshed in his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) essentially repeats the version of Hall. He affirms the “great and priuie hatred” of the commons for Richard's favorites and adds an extended description of the sumptuousness of Richard's court, which concludes “Thus was king Richard depriued of all kinglie honour and princilie dignitie, by reason he was so giuen to follow euill counsell.”4 Even Samuel Daniel in The Civil Wars (1595), an account more sympathetic to Richard and ambivalent about Bolingbroke's motives and the justness of his actions, includes Richard's flatterers as a possible cause of his overthrow: “And such, no doubt, about this King arose, / Whose flatterie (the dangerous nurse of vice) / Got hand vpon his youth, to pleasures bent. …”5 This commonly accepted view marked the favorites as insinuating subverters of royal integrity on whom Richard squandered what was not his to give.

What had previously been asserted or chronicled in narrative was given dramatic form in the anonymous play The First Part of the Reign of King Richard the Second or Thomas of Woodstock. Here one finds a direct and unambiguous portrayal of the favorites' villainy. The forces of good center on Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, whose historical character as a severe and grasping politician, fiercely jealous of his prerogatives, has been transformed into a symbol of English plainness, honest values, and hereditary rights. In contrast, the plotting favorites with their Continental foppery represent all that is to be shunned in an English commonwealth. When they appear on stage we see them enacting the very things with which they are charged: screwing the law to their own advantage, devising new instruments of taxation to support their lavish habits, jailing loyal citizens who resist extortion, and contemptuously acknowledging deception and flattery as their means of thriving. The play leaves no doubt that it is these wanton minions who have corrupted English justice and abased the King. As Woodstock sees, they must be purged, if king and country are to be restored to health:

When the head akes, the body is not healthfull.
King Richard's wounded with a wanton humor
Luld & securd by flattering Sicophants
But tis not deadly yett, it may be curd,
Some vayne lett blood, wher the corruptione lyes. …(6)

We accept Woodstock's view that blood-letting is necessary to rid England of its “ranckorous weeds,” not because his perspective is consistent with the Chronicles, but because the reliability of his judgment is demonstrated within the play in the actions and attitudes of the favorites.

The presentation of character in Woodstock is essentially declarative; that is, characters unambiguously announce to the audience through their actions and words what they are and what they intend. This validation of word by action and the reinforcement and generalization of action by word also constitute the dramatic method of Marlowe in Edward II and of Shakespeare in the first tetralogy. In the opening scene of 1 Henry VI, for example, Shakespeare directly portrays the rivalry between Gloucester and Winchester and then introduces a messenger who attributes the heavy military losses in France to the factious wrangling of English nobility at home. The messenger's charge is validated by a preceding action; that action is shown to be recurrent, moreover, and is commonly known. Such a concurrence of staged action and report determines an audience's perception of civil conflict as a fact within the play; at the same time, it deepens and extends our sense of that conflict. Similarly, the covert intentions that Winchester announces at the end of the first scene are further corroborated by the Tower incident (I.iii) and periodically reinforced by asides or direct admission.7


In contrast to the blatant treatment of the favorites in Woodstock and the declarative method of characterization in the first tetralogy, Shakespeare's dramatic technique in Richard II, for major and minor characters alike, is more allusive. It represents a more complex mode of experience for the audience. This is particularly true of Shakespeare's portrayal of Bushy, Bagot, and Greene. There is a conspicuous lack of any action or speech by the favorites that might depict their guilt and substantiate the charges leveled against them; there are no explicit and unqualified indicators that declare their meaning for an audience. Yet it is virtually a critical given that in Richard II Shakespeare presents the favorites just as they appear in the Chronicles and in Woodstock. With few exceptions, commentators have viewed them as defilers of a king and have labeled them as they are judged by Bolingbroke and their other political opponents in Richard II—as evil advisers, personified vices, parasitic growths, and flattering serpents.8

This emphasis on attributed guilt—based on allusions by Gaunt, direct charges by Northumberland and Bolingbroke, and the Gardener's “choric” vindication of the favorites' execution—is usually associated with appeals to the expectations of Shakespeare's audience. Critics assume that an audience already familiar with the guilt of the favorites from preceding accounts would automatically have seen Shakespeare's courtiers as misleading parasites. Since their mere presence on stage would have served as a visual reminder of their subversive influence, it is said, Shakespeare had only to offer a brief summary of their deeds to persuade the audience of their responsibility for Richard's corruption.9

Certainly, an audience brings to a play's subject and situation a core of thoughts and feelings that a dramatist must take into consideration. But just how restrictive are those expectations? To what degree do they limit a dramatist in his shaping of a particular experience? Is he not free to play with his audience's assumptions—to tease, challenge, perhaps modify them? Commentators who seek to explain away Shakespeare's failure to stage the favorites' malevolence seem to imply that Shakespeare's audience held a rigid and uniform view of English history and came to the theatre expecting their preconceptions to be met. And yet, if this were so, how would an audience steeped in its Holinshed have responded to the considerably altered portrait of the Duke of Gloucester in Woodstock? And which image of the Duke would that audience have expected to find confirmed in Richard II? While recognizing that there are contradictions enough in the historical sources and their literary adaptations to preclude narrow audience expectations, and while allowing that Shakespeare could make other significant changes to create and sustain a dramatic impression, we have nevertheless insisted on Shakespeare's tradition-bound handling of Bushy, Bagot, and Greene. Before seeking explanations that are external to the text, we might well question what the absence of staged guilt could signify within the play; and we should begin by observing the specific dramatic stimuli which Shakespeare has provided for our understanding of the favorites and their role in Richard II.


What becomes evident when one starts with the sequence of dramatic moments leading up to the death sentence of Act III, scene i is that the internal dramatic evidence does not support the received critical opinion of Shakespeare's “parasites.” Shakespeare has fashioned a series of shifting impressions in which he acknowledges the traditional image of courtiers whose acquiescence flatters and encourages Richard, but at the same time clearly removes from the favorites the blame for Richard's decadent kingship. The principal case against Bushy, Bagot, and Greene is in the form of assertion and accusation. These are essentially partisan censures that can be taken as true only if we are willing to disregard the political motives in which they originate and only if we accept allegation as proof. Further, in the few scenes in which the favorites actually appear, Shakespeare seems to have cultivated a tension between what they are said to be and how an audience experiences them. Not only does he suppress any direct revelation of their “evil”—this could have been rendered quite economically in a single line or gesture—but he makes specific changes that shift the responsibility for corrupt policy to Richard himself. By dramatizing the favorites as passive attendants to the King, Shakespeare isolates Richard's willfulness: he listens to no counsel, good or bad. And by removing the traditional external cause of Richard's misgovernment, Shakespeare underscores the equivocal nature of Bolingbroke's rise to power and the strategic eliminations that herald his ascendancy.

Our first distinct impression of the favorites comes in Act I, scene iv. A director may choose to introduce Bushy, Bagot, and Greene as members of the court party in scenes i and iii, but their presence is not stipulated by the text, nor is it important. Our attention is directed to more pressing matters in Richard's handling of the Mowbray-Bolingbroke contest. With this preliminary crisis over, Shakespeare begins to define the dimensions of Richard's kingship. It is at this point that the play invites us to notice the favorites. Bagot and Greene are a silent audience while Richard and Aumerle, released from the restraints of official politeness, offer sneering assessments of Bolingbroke's political aspirations. Since Shakespeare has not specifically excluded traditional assumptions, the mere presence of the favorites associates them with the politic duplicity of Richard and Aumerle, just as their silence implies concurrence with Richard's proposals to tax the nation and confiscate Gaunt's estate.10 However, they are not the pernicious schemers of Woodstock: they do not flatter with words, and they do not proffer bad advice. In fact, the one explicit gesture that Shakespeare gives to Greene indicates political common sense. He recalls Richard from his hatred of Bolingbroke to more immediate necessities of state: “Well, he is gone; and with him go these thoughts. / Now for the rebels which stand out in Ireland …” (I.iv.37-38). Greene seems to be reminding Richard, as Carlisle and Aumerle counsel later, that kingship cannot be maintained through the pursuit of personal obsessions.

Shakespeare further differentiates the favorites by emphasizing Richard's initiative and control. Richard's reply to Greene's advice is a direct confirmation of his political shortcomings as described in the Chronicles. He refers to his sumptuous court, his depleted coffers, and his plans to finance the Irish wars by farming the realm and instituting blank charters; but, contrary to the Chronicles and Woodstock, these are presented as Richard's devices, not devices recommended by his favorites. Likewise, it is Richard who meanly prays for Gaunt's death and anticipates the looting of his wealth.11 In his initial dramatization of Richard's abuses, Shakespeare has departed from his sources in a significant way. Instead of showing us a weak king, manipulated into wrong choices by parasitic minions, Shakespeare has focused on errors that the headstrong Richard insists on making for himself.

The following scene begins with echoes of the Chronicle accounts of Richard's excesses. Gaunt proposes to spend his dying breath in “wholesome counsel” to Richard's “unstaid youth” (II.i.2). York replies that “all in vain comes counsel to his ear” because “it is stopp'd with other flattering sounds” (II.i.4 and 17). His accusation accords with what we have just been shown in the previous scene. The image of youthful vanity, indiscriminate in its love of novelty, is both a description of the favorites and an indictment of Richard. If sound counsel is in vain, it is because Richard insists on his own way: “Direct not him whose way himself will choose” (II.i.29). His worst excesses in the play are not the result of anyone's advice; they are shown to be self-conceived. Richard is self-violating. Gaunt echoes this when he speaks of “Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,” which “soon preys upon itself” (II.i.38-39). In depicting the sickness of his king and nation, Gaunt asserts that Richard is a “careless patient” who has committed his cure to “those physicians that first wounded thee”; he warns him against the “thousand flatterers” that “sit within thy crown” (II.i.97-100). In performance, a glance or gesture in the direction of the silent favorites would underline Gaunt's contempt for fawning courtiers whose compliance convinces a king to think of himself as greater than he is. But Gaunt's rebuke applies equally to Richard, who has erred in his choice of companions; and since the “compass” of the crown is “no bigger than thy head,” we are also drawn to think of the self-induced flatteries with which a man deceives himself. Although Gaunt clearly dislikes the favorites, his main concern is not their flattery but Richard's irresponsibility—his destruction of English prosperity, the shame with which he has stained his family name, and his guilt in the shedding of a noble kinsman's blood.

The favorites are important in these early scenes only in so far as they reflect on Richard. They are simply there, silent and passive, a scenic reminder of Richard's misplaced values. Shakespeare has not dramatized their flattery as a calculated attempt to create personal advantage by misleading a king; their behavior is rather a tacit acceptance of Richard's will, a form of passive encouragement. The fact that Richard has surrounded himself with attendants who acquiesce rather than counsel or contradict corroborates the judgments of York and Gaunt and is consistent with Shakespeare's emphasis on Richard's willfulness.

Unfortunately, many directors overdo the staging of the favorites as a means of providing in performance the traditional associations that would have been accessible to many members of Shakespeare's audience. The usual production of the play has them as effete, homosexual peacocks—their speech honeyed with courtesy, their manners shrewdly obsequious—who take sadistic glee in Richard's abuse of power and exchange mocking smirks in the presence of Gaunt and York. This depiction of the favorites distorts Shakespeare's stagecraft. It places the accent where he has not placed it, on the ground rather than the figure, and it overrides the dramatic variations by which Shakespeare seeks to control his audience's assumptions. The focus and energy of these scenes should center on Richard, on a king who seeks flattery to confirm his own image of himself and who reacts with childish ferocity to those voices of external reality that would qualify the fanciful and self-soothing play of his inner world. Theatrically, the favorites are meant to serve only as a tonal background for Shakespeare's definition of Richard.


The closing segment of Act II, scene i is crucial for our understanding of how Bushy, Bagot, and Greene are used by Richard's opposition. With the separation of Ross and Willoughby from Richard's court, Shakespeare introduces a pattern of visual impressions that prepare an audience for the inevitability of the King's fall. In alternating scenes, the forces of Richard are characterized by dispersal (II.ii, II.iv) while groups are forming around the figure of Bolingbroke (II.iii, III.i). At the same time that he dramatizes this rush for political change through visual signs of power lost and power gained, Shakespeare also leads his audience to reflect critically on what the new agents of power represent. His dramatic technique has encouraged us to sympathize with Gaunt and York in their censures of Richard. These characters are not motivated by self-interest. Gaunt speaks for England; York argues for Bolingbroke's rights; and both seek to preserve the dignity and principles of kingship. Their fears of Richard's willful folly are validated by his behavior; and their opposition to the King is expressed as open counsel. By the end of this scene, however, honest and blunt counsel has been replaced by a world of political conspiracy that is covert, self-interested, and hypocritical.

Willoughby and Ross are a vestige of Gaunt's traditionalism, but less firm in their convictions and more susceptible to fear. In an act of political seduction, Northumberland cunningly maneuvers them to circumvent the restraints of duty and conscience and to join him in armed support of Bolingbroke. Northumberland's chief persuasive device is his vilification of the favorites. In contrast to all that we have seen, he casts Bushy, Bagot, and Greene as actively malicious, responsible not only for Richard's past offenses but also for those violations that he feels are sure to come:

The king is not himself, but basely led
By flatterers; and what they will inform,
Merely in hate, 'gainst any of us all,
That will the king severely prosecute
'Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.


As we witness the transformation of the favorites into the major issue for Richard's enemies, our perspective is ironic. Shakespeare presents Northumberland's statement as a verbal inducement, intended to edge Ross and Willoughby toward an action to which he himself is already committed. By identifying Richard's injustices with an external cause and representing his political jealousy as solicitous concern for Richard's proper kingship, Northumberland deludes his peers into moving against the King without seeming to do so.12 Since earlier scenes have shown that the problem rests not with the flatterers but with the King, an alert audience will greet Northumberland's resolve to “Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre's gilt, / And make high majesty look like itself” (II.i.294-95) as an ominous forecast of Richard's undoing. By emphasizing Northumberland's distortion of the favorites' role, moreover, Shakespeare casts a pall over the new political order before it has even begun. Whatever its justification and promise, it will be a setting in which power works through concealed motives and rationalized means.


At this point Shakespeare shifts our attention to the intimate trio of the Queen, Bushy, and Bagot. This has the effect, dramatically, of isolating Northumberland's verbal charges between two scenes of direct portrayal that offer contrary images and assessments of the favorites. This kind of scenic framing offers Shakespeare another means of underlining the partisan nature of Northumberland's claims. Contrary to the views of those who find evidence of artifice and corruption, Act II, scene ii can provide a rather different sense of the favorites—once we leave aside any predisposition to find here the “parasites” of the Chronicles.13 This invented scene begins with a stage image of apparent harmony and coherence within the court. In the absence of Richard, his favorites attend the Queen. The fact that she is confiding to Bushy and Bagot the heavy sadness of her “inward soul” suggests a relationship of trust. Bushy's conventional wisdom and courtly formality may seem pale by comparison with the irrational power of the Queen's intuition, particularly since Shakespeare emphasizes the strength of the Queen's argument. We have foreknowledge that sinister events are in motion even before Greene's entrance proves her correct. Yet this does not mean that we should discount Bushy's advice as facile or untrue. As the play amply reminds us in the person of Richard, sorrow can exaggerate and distort; it can breed spectral fears that are in excess of the facts. Just as Richard later would “hate him everlastingly / That bids me be of comfort any more” (III.ii.207-8), so the Queen now turns on those who would hinder her will to despair by counseling hope, not in rejection of the favorites but in anger at her own pain.

The favorites' desire to seek safety at the end of the scene is presented as a realistic assessment of their situation in the face of a general desertion from Richard. We are told that Greene has defended the King by declaring as traitors Northumberland and the rest of the “revolted faction.” His resistance has been answered by Worcester's angry resignation of his office and by the flight of Richard's household servants. The Queen has accepted death as inevitable; there is fear of a general “revolt on Herford's side” (II.ii.89); and York, flustered and defeatist, is not sure where his allegiance lies. Faced with this confusion, the favorites take stock of their position: there is no news from the King in Ireland; it would be impossible for them to levy an army sufficient to withstand Bolingbroke; their “nearness to the king in love / Is near the hate of those love not the king” (II.ii.126-27); and the deadly hatred of the wavering commons, whose “love / Lies in their purses” (II.ii.128-29), would tear them to pieces. In voicing their awareness of how they are valued, they allude only to guilt by association with the King; in no way does Shakespeare have them exhibit or reflect on any other guilt with which they are charged. As it is presented, their decision to seek refuge—Bushy and Greene at Bristow Castle and Bagot with Richard in Ireland—is not cowardly desertion but a prudent response to impending catastrophe, a response that the dramatic context clearly invites us to accept. We have already seen Northumberland's deliberate misjudgment. York's vacillation and capitulation (II.iii) and the vengeful intent of Bolingbroke, vowed in Act II, scene iii and executed in Act III, scene i, further prove that the favorites' instincts, like the Queen's intuition, are right.

Although it is frequently abbreviated in performance, the scene establishes several significant impressions to prepare an audience for the play's climactic action. While it does not deflect the overt dramatic movement, the eclipse of Richard's kingship by the swelling fortunes of Bolingbroke, it does create an emotional atmosphere of sorrow and loss that is in affective tension with Bolingbroke's ascendancy; and this, in turn, indirectly contributes to our perception of the favorites. Before we see Bolingbroke, confident and efficient in his return, we see the disturbing effects of that return on those closest to Richard. The advent of Bolingbroke is thus dramatized ambivalently. He may provide the occasion of hope for many, whom we do not see, but he is also the bringer of pain to characters whom we experience directly, including York, who sees “a tide of woes … rushing on this woeful land at once” (II.ii.98-99). The differing perspectives of Bushy and the Queen on the nature of sorrow anticipate the paradox of Richard's inner kingdom of sorrow in which he weaves macabre fantasies of abuse, abasement, and death, while penetrating with an unaccommodating bluntness the factitious posturings of “patriotic” rebels. The fact that the Queen's grieving proves to have been in anticipation of something that does occur raises the possibility that Richard's sorrow, self-indulgent as it may be, is also an intuitive perception of the inevitable.14 But just as Richard's affective response is hopelessly inadequate to the irresistible force of Bolingbroke, so in this scene those closely associated with Richard react to the onslaught of Bolingbroke by giving themselves up to despair. It its situation and atmosphere of disintegration and in its tone of sorrow, the scene is a prelude to Richard's capitulation in Act III, scene ii. Finally, in a foreshadowing action, the intimate community of Richard's inner court is shattered as the Queen and courtiers separate, and Bushy, Bagot, and Greene bid what they know to be their last farewell. A representation of dissolution as prologue to the consolidation of Bolingbroke's power is a pattern that is repeated twice in alternating scenes: first, the dispersal of the Welsh troops and the talk of ominous portents (II.iv) precedes Bolingbroke's assumption of the royal function of justice (III.i); and then in Act III, scene ii Richard disbands his own army and resigns his will to despair before his confrontation with Bolingbroke in the next scene. In each of the three instances in which this pattern occurs, the images of disorder are the immediate result not of Richard's misrule but of Bolingbroke's armed and unlawful return from banishment.


In the remaining scenes that concern the favorites, Shakespeare focuses on the equivocal and self-righteous nature of the judgments the Bolingbroke faction pronounce on their opposition. Bolingbroke's fierce vow to purge England of its parasites comes at the end of a scene which hints that Bolingbroke is a man who knows the manipulative and concealing power of language and ceremonial forms.15 York terms his kneeling duty “deceivable and false” (II.iii.84), since he has broken the oath by which he had accepted his banishment and is violating England with “ostentation of despised arms” (II.iii.94). In reply, Bolingbroke plays the guileless innocent: “My gracious uncle, let me know my fault: / On what condition stands it and wherein?” (II.iii.105-6). To the charge that in “braving arms against thy sovereign” he is committing “gross rebellion and detested treason” (II.iii.107-11), Bolingbroke offers semantic evasion: “As I was banish'd, I was banish'd Herford: / But as I come, I come for Lancaster” (II.iii.112-13).

York has warned Bolingbroke that to “Be his own carver, and cut out his way, / To find out right with wrong—it may not be” (II.iii.143-44). Despite York's warning, in Act III, scene i Bolingbroke assumes Richard's function of justice, prefiguring his usurpation of Richard's kingship; and in a crude travesty of the judicial process he carves out his vengeful will against Bushy and Greene. Functioning as both accuser and judge, Bolingbroke enumerates their wrongs, not as charges to be tested and weighed, but as “causes” of their deaths. Like Pilate, he cleanses his hands “in the view of men,” more concerned with his public face than with the conduct of true justice. Bushy and Greene are allowed no defense; their guilt has already been determined in advance of Bolingbroke's public charade. Even if Shakespeare had dramatized their guilt, we might still question Bolingbroke's ruthless efficiency; but his “justice” seems all the more spurious in the absence of dramatic corroboration to persuade the audience of the truth of his charges.16 We have not seen the favorites misleading and disfiguring a king. On the contrary, Shakespeare has gone to great pains to dramatize Richard as willfully insulated against all counsel.

Our experience of the play also contradicts Bolingbroke's charge that Bushy and Greene have

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


The only Queen's tears that we have witnessed have been caused by Bolingbroke (II.ii). And later, in the scene in which Richard and his Queen are separated forever, it is Bolingbroke and Northumberland who impose a double divorce on Richard, “ 'twixt my crown and me, / And then betwixt me and my married wife” (V.i.72-73).17

Bolingbroke's final charge, devised by Shakespeare, reveals what is really at issue here. Its climactic position, its length, and Bolingbroke's vehement sense of personal abuse hint at a more private anger, at the injured pride and jealousy that have been the consequence of his earlier exclusion from the King's favor. Again, because they are dramatically unsubstantiated, Bolingbroke's accusations are made to seem contrived. Shakespeare has not shown the favorites slandering Bolingbroke to Richard, causing his banishment, or consuming his estate. Nor do their final words betray any awareness of guilt. They go to their deaths courageous and unswerving in their commitment to Richard—in contrast to the pliancy of York and the servile flattery of Northumberland. They identify Bolingbroke with “the stroke of death” and assert that “the pains of hell” will “plague injustice” (III.i.31-34), thereby recalling the warning of Mowbray (I.iii.204-5) and anticipating Carlisle's admonitory prophecy that England will become “the field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls” (IV.i.144).18 While the scene affirms Bolingbroke's decisiveness, his “rough chastisement” casts him as a figure of grim Necessity who edges silently toward power, undisturbed by the querying voice of conscience that would hold a less calculating man accountable to himself.19


The political allegory of the Gardener in Act III, scene iv is generally taken to vindicate Bolingbroke's strategic execution of the favorites and to embody in absolute terms the political and moral ideal of the play.20 The Gardener depicts his function and setting as symbolic when he draws an analogy between his well-trimmed garden and the untended garden of the state. Richard has been a negligent gardener in a kingdom that is “full of weeds” and “Swarming with caterpillars” (III.iv.44-47). The parasites “that seem'd in eating him to hold him up, / Are pluck'd up root and all by Bolingbroke” (III.iv.51-52). In recalling for us Bolingbroke's promise “to weed and pluck away” the “caterpillars of the commonwealth” (II.iii.165-66), this scene would seem to confirm the favorites' guilt and to identify Bolingbroke as a model of ideal government.

In its detachment from the continuity of the plot, the scene does in fact invite us to reflect on what is taking place; and the Gardener serves a choric function in so far as he reminds us of Richard's political irresponsibility and establishes a mood of inevitability and regret in preparation for Richard's deposition in the following scene. But to accept the Gardener's notion that what the English polity needs is an efficient gardener and to see this notion as the symbolic or thematic center of the play is to violate the play's complex art by reducing it to a simple and ominously limited analogy that separates firm government from questions of moral and legal right and depicts the ideal politician, not as a solicitous governor, but as an executioner.21 If we were to apply the Gardener's “moral” too bluntly to the events of the play, we might well conclude that Richard, already tainted in some way by the blood of Gloucester, should have “Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays” (III.iv.34), such as the “overproud” Bolingbroke. The Gardener's simplistic formula is at odds with the ambiguous world of concealed motive and undeclared intention that Shakespeare has been cultivating throughout the play.

The Gardener's miniature allegory conflicts with other elements of the play, then. But even within the scene in which it occurs it does not come to us as an unmediated truth; its external assessment of the political situation is placed in tension with the private emotional perspective of the Queen. Her prediction that the Gardener and his men will “talk of state, for everyone doth so / Against a change” (III.iv.27-28) associates the subsequent discussion with popular opinion, which is hostile to Richard and his favorites and enamored of Bolingbroke. The limited applicability of the Gardener's analogy is further indicated by other aspects of the scene. Shakespeare's use of the Queen as an on-stage audience encourages us to view the Gardener's political speculations as they affect her and to sympathize with her anger at the presumption of such a detached judgment on her husband. Her frustration and grieving echo the disturbed probing of Richard's inner world in the preceding scenes, just as her unborn sorrow in Act II, scene i is the play's overture to the expressive inwardness of Richard. By including the Queen as a representative of the affective and intuitive dimensions of experience, Shakespeare seems to imply what is lacking in the Gardener's hearsay judgment. The result is an interplay of perspectives, a dialectical tension that underscores the central contraries of Richard and Bolingbroke.22

The Gardener, in his association with allegory and emblem and in the preceptive form of his judgment, is reminiscent of the modes of rhetoric and characterization to be found in the moralized history of The Mirror for Magistrates and in the relatively uncomplicated, univocal perspective of the Chronicles. But in Richard II Shakespeare does not moralize history in simple ways. His insights into the nature of politics and historical events do not come to us in the form of disembodied political ideas or as the cool censures of moral platitude. They are presented dramatically through the complicated interaction of flawed human beings who are both responsible for and controlled by particular events. Richard II is not solely about the fall of an inept dreamer-king; nor is it solely about the illegal rise to power of an efficient opportunist. It embodies a world in which right and wrong are seldom conveniently distinct, a problematic world in which royal dignity mingles with willful folly, in which patriotism is the guise of ambition, and in which no man is without his dark corners. Richard's rhetoric of sorrow can embarrass us with its silly extravagance, but it can also startle us with its desperate frankness. We can admire Bolingbroke's efficiency and reserve, but be troubled by his secretiveness and his ability to separate action from ethics and feelings.

Shakespeare's artistry is too subtle to be encompassed by the single-minded view of the propagandist. Instead it cultivates ambivalence, enigma, and obscurity of motive, only to leave ironic tensions unresolved. It immerses the audience in the “felt” dilemmas of those caught up in changing times and in the insoluble ironies of historical process, and it reminds us that simple judgments, such as the Gardener's, are rarely adequate.


All this the world well knows: there have been numerous critical studies of the ambiguous, problematic world of Richard II.23 Yet commentators have continued to stress the “parasitic” image of the favorites, imposing a simple judgment on one aspect of the play and, in so doing, siding with Northumberland and Bolingbroke.24 Why has Shakespeare suppressed any clear sign of their guilt that would vindicate Northumberland's fears and Bolingbroke's executions? Why has he tempered the accepted view by making them faithful servants of the King, by avoiding any hint that they are motivated by mean self-interest, and by shifting the initiative for political decision-making to Richard? By “neutralizing” their characters, making them passive attendants to an almost autistic king, and by presenting their “evil” solely through the accusations of their political enemies, Shakespeare has turned Bushy, Bagot, and Greene to his own use as dramatic reflectors. With no real influence on the political world of Richard II, and with little intrinsic interest as dramatic characters, they are nonetheless important as indicators or signifiers, as one of the means by which Shakespeare manipulates his audience's response to the main contending forces of the play.

In the early scenes (I.iv, II.i), the favorites serve as “objective correlatives” for certain aspects of Richard's personality—his vanity, his lavish excesses, his need for a positive reflection in the world's eye. This is how they are portrayed in the speeches of York and Gaunt. With Northumberland's formulation of the favorites' guilt, Shakespeare creates a perceptual tension, underlined by his emphasis on Northumberland's subversive cunning and his dramatization of the favorites as political victims, which should draw an audience's attention to the equivocations and expediency of Northumberland and, by extension, Bolingbroke. Politically, the favorites are ciphers whose principal guilt is simply being there, being “in favor”—although, as the Duchess of York somewhat sardonically points out after Bolingbroke's coronation, royal favorites are nothing new. “Who are the violets now / That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?” (V.ii.46-47). Bushy, Bagot, and Greene are those “lesser things” who take form from their environment and who, as pawns in a dynastic struggle, are eventually caught “Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites.”25 Bushy and Greene die because Bolingbroke needs their deaths to symbolize his new role in the kingdom; and he needs them invested with importance and defamed so that he can justify their deaths. Bagot, on the other hand, is spared their fate because Bolingbroke needs him alive, as an instrument of his policy, to ferret out Richard's sympathizers.

Had Shakespeare chosen to dramatize the traditional image of the favorites in Richard II and to corroborate the hostile judgments of Richard's enemies, our perception of the main characters would be significantly altered. Richard, dominated and misled by his minions, would be less responsible for his misgovernment, and his dethroning would be correspondingly less acceptable to an audience; Bolingbroke, validated in his view of the favorites, would be justified in sentencing them to death, but hardly warranted in proceeding further against the King. This would be a simpler drama, closer to the polarities of Woodstock. In fact, Shakespeare has given us another play, far more complex in its multiple impressions of Richard, and far more equivocal about the forces that overthrow him. Shakespeare has deliberately modified the traditional characterization of the favorites to reinforce the play's ambivalent mode of experience, with its emphasis on the intricacies, deceptions, and follies of human politics. The oblique rendering of Bushy, Bagot, and Green in Richard II should not be dismissed as carelessness, nor as a reliance on audience expectations; it is rather an indication of Shakespeare's evolving artistic control in the adaptation of historical materials for the stage. It shows, in particular, his growth in the handling of character with subtlety and allusiveness and his ability to orchestrate all the elements of a play to sustain a central dramatic impression.


  1. William Shakespeare, King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, New Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1956), II.iii.165. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  2. Hall's Chronicle, ed. H. Ellis (1809; rpt. New York: AMS, 1965), pp. 5 and 12.

  3. William Baldwin et al., The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (1938; rpt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960), pp. 113-14.

  4. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 2nd ed., 1587, ed. H. Ellis (1807; rpt. New York: AMS, 1965), III, 843 and 868.

  5. The Civil Wars, ed. Laurence Michel (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1958), Bk. I, sts. 30-31, p. 79.

  6. Woodstock, I.i.152-57, as quoted in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), III, 463.

  7. See, for example, Winchester's aside in III.i.141 and the revelation that he had purchased his elevation to Cardinal (V.i.51-62), in The First Part of King Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross, New Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1962).

  8. Among others, see E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (1944; rpt. New York: Collier, 1962), pp. 267 and 298; Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (1957; rpt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), p. 153; A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns (London: Longmans, Green, 1961), p. 32; David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: “Henry VI” and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), p. 118; and F. W. Brownlow, Two Shakespearean Sequences (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1977), p. 47.

  9. See, among others, Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (1947; rpt. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1965), p. 169; Tillyard, p. 298; Rossiter, pp. 32-33; and Bullough, p. 361. The absence of direct dramatic evidence for the favorites' guilt is often linked with the tendency to see the opening of Richard II as artistically flawed, due to the obscurity in which the historical circumstances are veiled. Rossiter, p. 29, argues that Shakespeare was depending on his audience's knowledge of Woodstock. His emphasis on the necessity for information external to the play in order to understand what is taking place within the play has been widely repeated: e.g., Ribner, p. 46; Bollough, p. 359; Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London: Methuen, 1968), p. 110; and Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Ohio State Univ. Press, 1971), p. 169, n. 4.

  10. A possible exception to their silence but an acknowledgment of their assent is the favorites' “Amen” which ends Richard's mock prayer. A director could, with justification, either cut the line or create a very different effect by having Richard provide his own cynical closure. The “Amen” does not appear in the Folio text and is unassigned in the quarto editions. It is given to the favorites by Howard Staunton in his edition of 1858. See Matthew W. Black, ed., The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, New Variorum Shakespeare (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1955), p. 95.

  11. Richard's intention to use Gaunt's wealth to finance his Irish war further minimizes the favorites' involvement in Richard's corruption by departing from the account in Hall: “geuyng to other that whiche was not his, distributed the dukes landes to his paresites and flatterering [sic] foloers” (p. 5).

  12. Shakespeare may be hinting at the political jealousy of those who are preferred by those who are not, a theme alluded to in The Mirror for Magistrates and developed in Daniel's Civil Wars. See Campbell, Mirror, p. 94, and Daniel, Bk. I, sts. 32 and 100 (pp. 79 and 96).

  13. Among those who criticize the favorites' coldness and treachery in this scene are Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From “Richard II” to “Henry V” (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), p. 12; E. W. Talbert, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays: An Essay in Historical Criticism (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1963), p. 398, n. 90; and Leonard Barkan, “The Theatrical Consistency of Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (1978), 9.

  14. Francis Fergusson, Shakespeare: The Pattern in His Carpet (New York: Delacorte, 1971), p. 96, comments that in the first two acts Richard takes “his own greedy feelings as right and true,” but changes in Act III to become what he calls an early example of Shakespeare's “suffering-and-seeing characters.” However, it is not clear whether Richard's sorrow creates the very thing it fears or genuinely anticipates what is to come in time.

  15. See Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 116, and Brownlow, p. 103.

  16. There are those, such as Campbell, Histories, p. 203, who do not seem to be bothered by Bolingbroke's rough separation of politics and ethics, but who speak approvingly of his energetic efficiency. Both Tillyard, pp. 294-95, and James Winny, The Player King: A Theme of Shakespeare's Histories (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), p. 51, see in Bolingbroke's impeachment of Bushy and Greene a literal account of actual indignities.

  17. In spite of contrary evidence in the play, Bullough, p. 371, and A. R. Humphreys, Shakespeare: “Richard II,” Studies in English Literature, No. 31 (London: Edward Arnold, 1967), p. 45, insist that Bolingbroke's accusation should be taken as fact.

  18. On more than one occasion, Bolingbroke is associated ironically with death: e.g., II.i.270-71; III.iii.42-44; V.i.66-68. The play's final scenes complete the ironic portrayal of Bolingbroke's justice, which pretends life but wreaks death. The living king will be plagued by the specter of a dead king; and Bolingbroke's soul is “full of woe / That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow” (

  19. Daniel, Bk. I, sts. 87-100, emphasizes Bolingbroke's hidden and ambiguous motives and his lack of self-examination: “and what he had in hand / Left it to his diverted thoughts unskand” (st. 92). Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 92, finds in Bolingbroke a lack of “inwardness, the capacities to suffer and dream,” and argues that, although this lack accounts for Bolingbroke's success, Shakespeare “perenially distrusts success and the men who achieve it.”

  20. The standard view of the Gardener as a detached, objective, and authoritative commentator who gives us the pattern and moral of the play can be found, for example, in Tillyard, pp. 283-91; Ure, pp. li-lvii; and Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1975), p. 106. Although Brownlow, p. 108, concentrates on the savagery of the Gardener's legalistic ideal, he persists in seeing the Gardener as a figure of “removed objectivity.”

  21. The analogy between the care of a garden and the care of the state was clearly established in commonplace literature. See, for example, William Baldwin, A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie (London: Edward Whitchurch, 1548), sig. Q5v: “Euen as a good Gardyner is very diligent about his gardeyn, waterynge the good and profitable herbes, and rootynge out the vnprofytable weedes: so shoulde a kyng attende to his common weale, cheryshyng his good and true subiectes, and punyshyng suche as are false, and vnprofitable.” Baldwin's image is one of solicitude first and trimming second. Shakespeare has shifted to a more severe image of chopping to reflect Bolingbroke's aggressiveness and York's reference to him as “his own carver” (II.iii.143). This seems to be borne out in York's ominous warning to Aumerle: “Well, bear you well in this new spring of time, / Lest you be cropp'd before you come to prime” (V.ii.50-51).

  22. If Shakespeare had intended the Gardener's vision to stand as an uncontested “choric” comment on the play's action, it is more likely that he would have given him a scene to himself. Instead, he chose to juxtapose the Gardener's legalism and the Queen's emotionalism. The pairing of characters with opposed ways of seeing seems to be a recurrent underlining technique for the central contraries of Richard and Bolingbroke—e.g., Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester; the Queen and Bushy; the Queen and the Gardener; York and the Duchess of York.

  23. See, among others, Talbert, pp. 300-321; H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York: Random House, 1967), pp. 123-40; Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe & Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 158-93; and Ornstein, pp. 102-24.

  24. Ornstein, p. 108, and Brownlow, pp. 100-101, are exceptions. They remark in passing that what is said about Richard and the favorites does not correspond with what we are shown. This assertion is repeated by Eric Sahel, “Ambiguïtés politiques de Richard II,Études Anglaises, 33 (1980), 26.

  25. Hamlet, ed. Frank Kermode, The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), V.ii.61-62.

Dennis R. Klinck (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7182

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Richard II as Landlord and Wasting Tenant,” in College Literature, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 21-34.

[In the following essay, Klinck studies Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard as both the landlord of England and as a tenant who commits “waste” in the Elizabethan legal sense of the term, and maintains that the idea of Richard as a wasting tenant is a figurative notion.]

If waste be made by a tenant for a term of life of houses or of gardens …, although it be of one house or twenty apple-trees in a garden, the tenant will lose the whole messuage; and so he will lose the whole garden.

(Bereford 274)

That the law of real property occupies a prominent place in Shakespeare's Richard II has been frequently remarked.1 For example, Bolton argues that the play “makes central use of property law as it stood in the late fourteenth century” (55) and Gohn observes that, among other things, Richard “set[s] aside the law of property, perhaps the most sacred form of law to Medieval and Renaissance Englishmen” (959).2

One aspect of this preoccupation with property law in the play—the one I shall address in this essay—is the paradoxical depiction of Richard as, on the one hand, “landlord,” and, on the other, perpetrator of “waste”—something which, conventionally, only a “tenant” can be. Facets of this paradox have been remarked previously. Donna Hamilton addresses some implications of Gaunt's accusation that Richard is “Landlord of England … not king” (II. i. 113),3 and both Bolton and Gohn take note of the doctrine of “waste,” alluded to at various points in the play. Bolton considers the “connection between the reversion of an estate and a tenant's waste on it” that “surfaces” in the play (61), and Gohn, in a lengthy footnote, discusses “legal real estate imagery” in Gaunt's speeches in II. i, including “The waste is no whit lesser than thy land” (II. i. 103).4

Some of Bolton's insights are particularly germane to my concerns here. He says that “Richard, though he is in reality lord paramount, has abused the country as though it were land ‘holden’ and he were its wasteful tenant” (62): this is, essentially, the thesis that I want to develop. I believe, however, that there is considerably more to be said about it than Bolton says. For one thing, it is not his central thesis: he is concerned to demonstrate how several different legal references in the play might be illuminated by looking at cases reported in the Year Books of the historical Richard's reign. Thus, he does not fully explore the ramifications of his insight. Further, he does not really give a coherent picture of the law regarding waste: the cases he relies on offer a rather fragmentary account of the doctrine. Moreover, some of his comments seem rather strange or imprecise, at least from a legal perspective, for example, “Richard is wasting his tenement, so Bolingbroke seizes him”5 and “… now time is ‘wasting,’ or suing for waste, its injurious tenant [namely, Richard]” (63).6

My project, then, is to consider Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard as, at once, “landlord” of England—in more than one sense, as we shall see—and as a tenant who “wastes” what he holds, both the “land” itself and what can be termed the “Dignity royal.” In other words, I shall attempt to elaborate upon and give greater precision to Bolton's insight. As I have already noted, such a thesis involves a paradox. In Blackstone's words,

[t]he grand and fundamental maxim of all feodal tenure is this; that all lands were originally granted out by the sovereign, and are therefore holden, either mediately or immediately, of the crown … and the grantee, who had the use and possession, according to the terms of the grant, was stiled the feudatory or vasal, which was only another name for the tenant or holder of the lands.”

(Blackstone 2. 53)

Waste—at least actionable waste—can, as we shall see, be committed only by a tenant, and, indeed, only by certain classes of tenant.7 So, Bolton is correct when he observes that “Richard as lord paramount is the one person in the kingdom who cannot be a tenant, so no literal writ of waste can lie against him” (63).

How to resolve the paradox? One way is that advanced by Bolton: eschew “literalness” and see Shakespeare as simply likening Richard's conduct to that of an actual tenant who commits waste. In other words, understand Shakespeare merely to be invoking a suggestive analogy, which cannot be taken very far without collapsing in internal contradiction.

A more searching account of the paradox is possible if one recalls Ernst Kantorowicz's discussion of the doctrine of “the king's two bodies.” In the first chapter of his book, Kantorowicz cites a number of cases from the sixteenth-century law reports of Edmund Plowden as illustrating the understanding of this notion in Shakespeare's time. Thus, in the Case of the Duchy of Lancaster, we learn that “the King has in him two Bodies, viz a Body natural, and a Body politic,” the former mortal, the latter “a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public-weal” (4 Eliz. I 1 Plowden 212 at 213, 75 English Reports 325 at 326).

One implication of this, as we are told in the case of Willion v. Berkley, is that “the King has two Capacities, and he comes to some things meerly as King … and to some other Things he comes not as King, as if Lands descend to him from any of his Ancestors” (4 Eliz. I 1 Plowden 222a at 242, 75 English Reports 339 at 370). Although the case does go on to intimate that land which comes to the king in his body natural is, because of the unity of the two bodies, appropriated to the King in his body politic, the ambiguity of the monarch remains (Sir Thomas Wroth's Case 14 Eliz. I 2 Powden 452 at 456, 75 English Reports 678 at 683-84)—an ambiguity which offers potential for internal disjunction.8

Another implication of the doctrine of the king's two bodies is that, as to the body politic, “the King never dies, and his natural Death is not called in our law … the Death of the King, but the Demise of the King, not signifying by the Word (Demise) that the Body politic of the King is dead, but that there is a separation of the two Bodies, and that the Body politic is transferred and conveyed over from the Body natural now dead, or now removed from the Dignity royal to another Body natural” (Willion 234).9 One thing worth remarking about the language here is that it treats what happens to the “Body politic” in terms of property law: it is “demised,” “transferred,” “conveyed.”10 Indeed, Blackstone tells us that the king's “natural dissolution” is called “his demise; demissio regis, vel coronae: an expression which signifies merely a transfer of property” (1:242). Although the cases do not say this in so many words, the “Body politic” or “Dignity royal” is occupied or held first by one “body natural,” then by another, each being a kind of “tenant” for a time, or for life.

In his second chapter, Kantorowicz goes on to consider Richard II in terms of the doctrine of the king's two bodies; indeed, he argues that the play is “the tragedy of the King's Two Bodies” (26). Essentially, his thesis is that the play depicts the separation of the body natural from the body politic, finally revealing the “feeble human nature of [the] king” (30). He says nothing, however, about the particular point I am addressing here. If Kantorowicz is correct in identifying the doctrine (which he conjectures must have been part of the “ordinary and conventional” discourse of “English jurists of that period” 20) as central to the play, it is not implausible that it should apply to this point as well. In short, the paradox might be explained by saying that Richard, who in his “Body politic” is lord paramount, is in his body natural a tenant who holds or occupies the “Dignity royal” and its appurtenances; as tenant, he commits waste upon that which he holds, the consequence being that he is deprived prematurely of that holding.

Having thus set the stage, so to speak, I want to consider in more detail how Richard, though “landlord,” might nevertheless be as well a wasting tenant. In order to do this, I must first say something more about the doctrine of waste.

Bolton is at pains to distinguish the law as it stood in Richard's time from the law as it stood in Shakespeare's time—hence, his reliance on the Ricardian Year Books. However significant this distinction may be in some areas,11 one might question its importance in relation to waste, the law of which, though it no doubt developed between the two periods, remained in its fundamentals fairly constant. Thus, Sir Edward Coke, in his authoritative discussions of the law of waste—discussions which are “spacious” “for that [this learning of waste] is most necessary to be knowne of all men” (I.54b)—takes as points of reference the Statute of Marlbridge (1267; 52 Hen. III c. 23) and the Statute of Gloucester (1278; 6 Edw. I c. 5), which long pre-date Richard's reign.12 And Blackstone, writing in the late eighteenth century, suggests that, in its basic aspects, the law of waste had remained unchanged “for above five hundred years past” (Blackstone 2:283)—the touchstones being, again, these two statutes.

The crucial effect of the Statute of Marlbridge was to enlarge the categories of persons who were liable for waste. Under the old common law, these categories were limited to tenants by the curtesy, tenants in dower, and guardians in chivalry (Blackstone 282ff).13 The statute provided: “Also fermors, during their terms, shall not make waste, sale, nor exile of house, woods, and men, nor of any thing belonging to the tenements that they have to ferm.”14 Coke explains that the word firmarii (“fermors,” or farmers) comprehends “all such, as hold by lease for life, or lives, or for yeares” (II. 145). He observes that the reason for this extension of the application of the doctrine was that “waste and destruction is hurtfull to the common-wealth” (II. 145)—a point that has some resonance with regard to Richard II.

The effect of the Statute of Gloucester was to create new remedies in cases of waste:

a Man from henceforth shall have a Writ of Waste15 in the Chancery against him that holdeth by Law of England, or otherwise for Term of Life, or for Term of Years, or a Woman in Dower; and he which shall be attained of Waste, shall leese the Thing that he hath wasted, and moreover shall recompense thrice so much as the Waste shall be taxed at.16

What is most noteworthy here for our purposes is that the wasting tenant is liable to lose the thing that he has wasted.17 And, again, in his commentary on this statute, Coke emphasizes that waste is not simply a private wrong, but is “hurtfull to the common-wealth”: “this excellent law” was “enacted pro bono publico, for preservation of buildings for the habitation of mankinde, and of woods and timber, sometime one of the beautifull, and profitable ornaments of England” (II. 306).

Coke tells us as well that neither the Statute of Marlbridge nor the Statute of Gloucester created new kinds of waste; rather they provided “new remedies for old wastes.” To discern what is waste and what is not, one must resort to the common law (II. 300). In the First Part of the Institutes, he gives a number of instances of what constitutes waste, of which Blackstone's definition is a fairly adequate summary:

waste is a spoil and destruction of the estate, either in houses, woods, or lands; by demolishing not the temporary profits only, but the very substance of the thing; thereby rendering it wild and desolate; which the common law expresses very significantly by the word vastum: and that this vastum, or waste, is either voluntary or permissive; the one by actual and designed demolition of the lands, woods, and houses; the other arising from mere negligence, and want of sufficient care in reparations, fences, and the like.


Particularly noteworthy here are the facts that waste affects the integrity of the thing itself, not simply its product, and that waste can occur as a result of either positive acts or neglect.18

Although Blackstone notes that several categories of persons may bring an action for waste, “the most usual and important interest, that is hurt by this commission of waste, is that of him who hath the remainder or reversion of the inheritance, after a particular estate for life or years” (3:224);19 the effect of waste on the inheritance is that “it tends to mangle and dismember it of it's [sic] most desirable incidents and ornaments” (3:225). In Coke's words, the action is available to “him that hath the immediate estate of inheritance, for waste or destruction in houses, gardens, woods, trees, or in lands, meadows, &c. or in exile of men to the disherison of him in the reversion or remainder” (I. 53a).

With this context in mind, we can now look more closely at how “waste” figures in Richard II. Recall that Richard, in his body natural, is a kind of “tenant”; what he holds is the Kingship, which entails being lord of the land, literally, but also occupying the “Dignity royal.” The “waste” he commits can be seen to affect not only the land as a physical inheritance, but also the substance of the Kingship itself.

Bolton suggests that one aspect of the “waste” in the play is Richard's seizure and disposal of Bolingbroke's lands. Indeed, some of the language associated with this process is suggestive of waste; Bolingbroke tells Bushy and Green, “you have fed upon my signories, / Dispark'd my parks and fell'd my forest woods, / From my own windows torn my household coat, / Ras'd out my imprese, leaving me no sign” (III. i. 22-25). As we have seen, waste typically (or, to use Coke's word, “properly”) “is in houses, gardens, … in timber trees” (Coke I. 53a). Certainly, we have the cutting of trees, or destruction of woods, here.20 Further, if the editor of the play in The Riverside Shakespeare is right in saying that “Dispark'd” means “put to uses unrelated to forestry and hunting,” this too could constitute waste—analogous to a change in the course of husbandry (Coke I. 53b). Thus, in the case of Lord Darcy v. Askwith, we are told that “it is generally true, that the lessee hath no power to change the nature of the thing demised; he cannot turn meadow into arable, nor stub a wood to make it pasture … ; nor suffer ground to be surrounded, or decay the pale of a park: for then it ceaseth to be a park” (1618; Hobart 234, 80 English Reports 380).

The “rasing” out of the imprese is more doubtful; the common law, materialistic as it was in at least some of its aspects, did not incorporate within the concept of waste the mere erasure of a sign. However, such an erasure certainly can be taken as a representational dismemberment of Bolingbroke's inheritance.

While this conduct, or some of it, could constitute the substance of waste, satisfying other criteria of the legal doctrine is more problematic. As we have seen, the typical players in an action for waste are a tenant for life (or some other limited period of time) and the person entitled to the reversion or remainder, that is, the residual interest after the “particular” estate comes to an end. Here, Richard is not a tenant for life of Bolingbroke's inheritance; nor is Bolingbroke, strictly speaking, a reversioner or remainderman: he is, more simply, an heir whose inheritance has been “intercepted” by the king.21 Other relationships that could give rise to an action in waste are suggestive of, if not exactly congruent with, the situation in Richard II. By the statutes 28 Edward I ch. 18 (1300) and 14 Edward III ch. 13 (1340), for example, provision is made against waste of wards' lands by those having care of them. The preamble to the latter reads:

whereas in the Great Charter it is contained, that after the Death of the Ancestors, which hold of the King in chief, and whose Heirs be within Age, that the King shall keep the Lands without Waste and Destruction, and restore them wholly to the Heirs when they come to their full Age. And against God and Right, and the said Establishments, [those] to whom the Lands of Such Heirs have been committed, have done Waste and Destruction, to the great Mischief … of the Heirs of Earls, Barons, and other great Men …, and nevertheless [such persons] have had no Conscience to do such Destructions.

This sounds roughly analogous to the situation in Richard II: Bolingbroke's lands have come into the possession of persons who have “done Waste and Destruction,” and who are portrayed as having “no Conscience to do such Destructions.” However, these lands did not come into the hands of the wasters because of Bolingbroke's nonage, but by a rather different process.

Thus, there may be technical obstacles to bringing what happens to Bolingbroke's lands within the strict doctrine of waste. But if we are to believe Coke about the importance of the doctrine and the values that it incorporates, it is likely that the enormity of Richard's seizure of Bolingbroke's inheritance would have been aggravated, in the minds of an Elizabethan audience, by the physical insults committed against it—irrespective of whether that audience thought that Bolingbroke might actually be able to bring an action in waste against anybody. Arguably, waste is waste, regardless of whether it is technically actionable.22

Another way of assimilating what happens to Bolingbroke's inheritance to the waste perpetrated by Richard is to see it as part of Richard's maladministration of the kingdom—his wasteful conduct as tenant or occupant of the “Body politic” of King—to which I now turn.

Unlike Bushy and Green, whose conduct appears, at least in some of its aspects, to amount literally, or physically, to waste, Richard is portrayed as having committed waste essentially in a figurative sense. To be sure, we are constantly reminded of the land of England, in a physical sense, in the play, and, as Gohn points out, we are frequently told that it is Richard's land, specifically. Thus, Richard speaks of “our kingdom's earth” (I. iii. 125), “our territories” (I. iii. 139), “our fields” (I. iii. 141), “Dear earth” (III. ii. 6), “my earth” (III. ii. 10), “my gentle earth” (III. ii. 12); Bolingbroke refers to “England's ground,” “sweet soil” (I. iii. 36), and “fair King Richard's land” (III. iii. 47); Gaunt calls England “this blessed plot, this earth” (II. i. 50). Indeed, Gaunt likens England to a dwelling (“the silver sea, / Which serves it in the office of a wall, / Or as [a] moat defensive to a house”—II. i. 46-48), an image which is picked up later in the garden scene, where England (“the whole land”) is “a sea-walled garden” (III. iv. 43). While we are not allowed to forget this physical aspect of Richard's kingdom and its degradation, the “waste” that he commits is primarily in the form of affronts to the political order.

The word “waste,” with reference to the political order, is explicitly associated with Richard at two points in the play. The first of these I have already quoted: Gaunt, upbraiding Richard, says:

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)

This is an intriguing passage; suffice it to say for our purposes that the effect of Richard's attending to “flatterers” is the wasting of his land—no doubt with a complex of connotations of “waste.” What he is doing is “wasting” his land, in the sense I have been discussing; at the same time, “waste” could suggest “loss”—as, indeed, is indicated shortly after: [You, Richard] “Which art possess'd now to depose thyself” (II. i. 108). As we have already noticed, there is a connection between these two senses: according to the Statute of Gloucester, the penalty for waste is the loss of the thing wasted.

It is in this same speech that Gaunt tells Richard, “Landlord of England art thou now, not king” (II. i. 113)—an accusation to which I have already alluded. I have, as well, signalled the ambiguity inherent in this word. From one perspective, the King is the universal “landlord”—as we have seen, all land is held from him, directly or indirectly. Yet, in this line, “landlord” is a pejorative term, contrasted with “king.”

The pejorative sense of “landlord” is associated with Richard's having “let this land by lease” (II. i. 110), with his having leased it out “Like to a tenement or a pelting farm” (II. i. 60). Again, it is not immediately obvious what is objectionable about “tenements” or “farms.” In a broad sense, a “tenement” is that which is held, and any grant of land (originally from the Crown) creates a tenement; any land which anyone holds is a tenement. Gohn, again relying on the OED, notes that “as early as 1593” the word meant “a rented suite of rooms and apartments” and argues that this must have been the meaning that Shakespeare intended (957n.). Frankly, I do not find this argument entirely satisfying, partly because (whatever the OED says) I doubt that the word tenement would have struck the Elizabethan ear as referring to low-rental urban housing in the way that it tends to strike the contemporary ear. My sense is that Shakespeare's message depends not on his audience's thinking that a tenement was a rented suite of rooms, but on their knowing that what he was referring to was a leasehold tenement in the ordinary broad sense.23

Similarly, the word “farm,” in itself, is not obviously a term of vilification—although Shakespeare clearly intends it to carry a negative connotation, reinforced by the adjective “pelting.” But, as we have already seen, “farm” was a recognized legal term—used, for example, in the Statute of Marlbridge (where, incidentally, what the farmer has to farm is a “tenement”), apparently without any suggestion of opprobrium. Coke tells us that “farmers” simply “doe comprehend all such as hold by lease for life, or lives, or for yeares” (II.145). That a “farm” was something specifically leased is made clear in the Elizabethan case of Wrotesley v. Adams (1 Eliz. I 1 Plowden 187, 75 English Reports 287), in which the question “what is a Farm” is explicitly considered. A farm, we are told, at least in one of its significations “is a collective Word, consisting of divers Things collected together, whereof one is a Messuage, and the others are the Lands, Meadows, Pastures, Woods, Commons, and other Things lying or appertaining thereto.” However, “all this does not make it to be called a Farm, if it has not another Thing also; and that is, that it has been let or demised to another for Life, for Years, or at Will” (Wrotesley 195). That is, it is not so much the physical components that make a farm, but the fact that they are held temporarily, usually by lease. Citing the Statute of Marlbridge, the case continues: “But a Farm is oftentimes used in other Senses, for as to the Lessee only he may be said to be a Farmer of whatever Thing he has in Lease; and that which he holds may, as to him, be called his Farm” (195). Indeed, the case goes on to suggest that, in the statute, “farm” is virtually synonymous with “lease” (195). This sense of “farm” (in the verb form) is fairly evident in Richard's “We are enforc'd to farm our royal realm” (I. iv. 45); an essentially equivalent expression is Gaunt's “let by lease” (II. i. 110).

But what is so bad about Richard's “farming” the land, and how does this relate to the question of waste?

The connection at one level is suggested by Nathaniel Bacon's comment on the historical (as opposed to the dramatic) Richard that “the King … leaves the noble Crown of England in the base condition of a Farme, subject to strip and waste by mean men” (Continuation 12-13). That is, by leasing the kingdom, Richard exposes the realm to the wasting conduct of the lessees, or farmers. But this does not suggest that there is anything inherent in the act of leasing itself that is objectionable: presumably, if the “farmers” were good husbandmen, there would be no waste in this sense.

More radically, however, any change in “the nature of the thing demised” can amount to waste: thus, it would be waste to convert a “royal realm” into a “pelting farm.” But we should recall that Richard is not tenant of the land, so much as he is tenant of the Kingship: thus, for example, in the passage quoted above, Bacon complains not that the land has been made into a farm, but that the Crown has. Two aspects of this process are worth remarking.

The first is that Richard subverts the Kingship by acting as landlord in the sense of “lessor” rather than of “lord paramount.” Simpson tells us that early leases were essentially mechanisms of investment, frequently “designed to evade the ecclesiastical prohibition of usury,” and that in the early literature the “termor” (farmer, or lessee) is “treated as a thoroughly undesirable person” (72).24 Be that as it may, Simpson points out that, in the lease situation, “whereby an individual hired land in order to exploit it economically, no feudal relationship of subservience and protection, sealed by homage, was included: the social significance of the transaction was quite different” (73). For the King, then, to become a landlord in this sense would be ostensibly to compromise his Kingship.

The second point is that in “farming” specifically his Crown, Richard further degrades his Kingship. Some of the implications of this are made crudely explicit in the anonymous Thomas of Woodstock,25 in which, for example, Green tells Richard that when he farms out “the kingdome to us four,” he will not have to “trouble” himself “[w]ith any business”; moreover, “wele governe the land moste rarely” (ll. 1876-78). In other words, Richard is not simply leasing land, or granting tenements, but he is giving over what appertains to him as King, abdicating his stewardship and permitting others effectively to occupy his office. That the word “farm” could be used in the sense of leasing an office is evidenced by a statute of 1402 providing that “the searchers in every port of England shall be charged and sworn, that they shall not let to ferm their offices of searching, nor occupy the same by a deputy” (4 Henry IV, ch. 21)26—on pain of being put out of office forever.

To recur to the framework suggested by Kantorowicz, Richard, who in his body natural is the occupant or tenant of the King's body politic, by farming out his “royalties,” his prerogatives and responsibilities, effectively changes the relationship of King to subject and relinquishes incidents of the “Dignity royal” to base men. By subverting the essential nature of the King's body politic, he debases it or commits waste upon it.

The second point at which the word “waste” occurs in connection with Richard's administration of the realm is in the garden scene, which, as we have already noticed, resonates with some of Gaunt's speeches in II. i. One of the gardener's men has just complained that while they, “in the compass of a pale / Keep law and form and due proportion, / Showing as in a model our firm estate,” the “sea-walled garden, the whole land,”

Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok'd up,
Her fruit-trees all unprun'd, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars

(III. iv. 40-47).

The gardener observes, however, that the expected consequences of this situation have now materialized: Bolingbroke has “seiz'd the wasteful King” (III. iv. 55), “[h]e that hath suffered this disordered spring” (III. iv. 48). At the end of the same speech, the gardener says that if Richard had lopped away some of the “superfluous branches” in the kingdom, “himself had borne the crown, / Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down” (III. iv. 63-66).

To be sure, the words “waste” and “wasteful” here are capable of bearing connotations other than the one I am foregrounding. However, I believe that the salience of this one is unmistakable, given the context of description of a fairly typical example of waste in the legal sense. We will recall from Coke that “[w]ast properly is in houses, gardens, … timber trees” (my emphasis), so that “[i]f the tenant cut downe or destroy any fruit trees growing in the garden or orchard, it is waste” (I. 53a). In this scene, there is no mention of the active cutting down of “fruit trees”—or their human analogues, but, as we will recall as well from Coke, waste may be voluntary or permissive. Coke gives no example of permissive waste specifically in a garden, but he does provide a number of other illustrations: “to suffer the pale to decay, whereby the deere is dispersed, is waste” (I. 53a), “[i]f the tenant suffer the houses to be wasted,” and “[i]t is waste to suffer a wall of the sea to be in decay” or not to repair “the bankes or walls against rivers, or other waters, whereby the meadows or marshes be surrounded, and become rushy and unprofitable” (I. 53b). Certainly, Richard seems to have permitted the realm to become “unprofitable” through his neglect.

Arguably, in terms of this extended garden metaphor, Richard has been guilty of more than just permissive waste. For example, the Duke of Gloucester, “One flourishing branch of [Edward III's] most royal root … Is hack'd down, and his summer leaves all faded” (I. ii. 18-20)—apparently with Richard's connivance; Gaunt accuses Richard (Edward's “son's son”) of “destroying” Edward's sons. It is perhaps worth recalling here Blackstone's images of waste as involving the “mangling” and “dismembering” of the inheritance. Not only has Gloucester been “hack'd down,” but Bolingbroke has been “gelded of his patrimony” (II. i. 237). That which was flourishing has been destroyed, that which was fecund has been rendered unfruitful. We know from the law that “If a man cuts trees, and after suffers the germans to be destroyed this is a double waste” (Viner 444).27 This seems to be what Richard, figuratively, has done. Ironically, of course, he himself is “gelded” of his patrimony: he loses his Crown, and all his Queen is able to give birth to is “woe” (II. ii. 62-66); what she has “in reversion” is only grief or woe (II. ii. 38-40). Indeed, it might be argued that the banishment of Bolingbroke is itself a kind of “voluntary” waste, for, as Coke says, “exile or destruction of villaines, or tenants at will, or making them poore, where they were rich when the tenant came in, whereby they depart from their tenures, is wast. And yet the statute of Gloucester speaketh not of exile, but it is comprehended under the general word of wast” (I. 53b). Bolingbroke is obviously not a “villaine” or a “tenant at will,” but his exile and improverishment by Richard may suggest another dimension of the king's “wastefulness.”

Richard, thus, can be seen as one who commits “waste” in the legal sense. The word is associated with him at several points in the play, and his conduct corresponds, either literally or figuratively, to the kind of conduct the law identified with waste.

I turn now to the consequences of the commission of waste.

As we have seen, recourse against the wasting tenant typically lies in “him who hath the remainder or reversion of the inheritance, after a particular estate for life or years in being,” or, in other words, “him to whom the inheritance appertains in expectancy” (Blackstone 3:224-25).28 We know that Richard himself describes Bolingbroke in these terms, when he complains of the latter's courting of the common people, “As were our England in reversion his / And he our subjects' next degree in hope” (I. iv. 35-36).29 And we know that, as a result of the Statute of Gloucester, one consequence of the commission of waste is the forfeiture of the thing wasted. In general terms, this is the situation that Shakespeare depicts: Richard, the wasting tenant for life, is forced by “him who hath … the reversion” to lose the thing he has wasted.

There are, again, difficulties of congruence with a strict analysis of the legal doctrine of waste—difficulties that can at best be tentatively met. For one thing, although the word “reversion” is suggestively applied to Bolingbroke, it is hardly appropriate to describe the heir to the throne as a “reversioner.” Indeed, it is doubtful that Bolingbroke is Richard's heir in the relevant sense, for “no one is the heir of a living person.”30 Further, if Richard is only a tenant for life of the Crown, Bolingbroke can be no more than this himself, in expectancy. Blackstone tells us that “he, who hath the remainder for life only, is not entitled to sue for waste; since his interest may never perhaps come into possession, and then he hath suffered no injury” (3: 225). A possible response to this objection is suggested by what follows immediately in Blackstone: ecclesiastics “who are seised in right of their churches of any remainder or reversion, may have an action of waste”—in which case the writ reads not ad exhaeredationem ipsius, but ad exhaeredationem ecclesiae” (3: 225). By analogy,31 and recalling Kantorowicz, one might say that the reversion is in the King, that, if Bolingbroke has this reversion, it can only be in right of the King, and if he can act against the king-tenant, it is only in this representative capacity.

Another problem is that the “reversioner” here does not exactly bring a writ of waste against Richard. Coke tells us that “he in the reversion” had authority “either by himself, or by another to enter into the houses or lands so letten for life or years, to see if any waste be done” (II. 306); however, this was only to ascertain whether waste was being committed. Self-help was not permitted: “the place cannot be recovered without a plea” (I. 53b). Again, one might make the (probably tenuous) argument that the circumstances here are unusual: here it is the king himself, in some ways the embodiment of the law, who is the wasting tenant. Moreover, one form of the waste that he has committed is a kind of lawlessness; he has not kept “law and form and due proportion” in the realm. Therefore, the ordinary law is not available to Bolingbroke in this case.

Again, such analyses point to the limits of what might be called “legal literalism.” However we stretch the doctrine of waste, we cannot make the situation in the play strictly congruent with it: the doctrine has never applied, literally, to a monarch's abuse of the “Dignity royal.” The notion of Richard as wasting tenant is ultimately figurative. Nevertheless, the allusions to his “waste” and to Bolingbroke's “reversion” are laden with implication, and in all likelihood would have resonated with Shakespeare's original audience. They point to a dimension of meaning in the play that has not hitherto been as fully foregrounded as I have endeavored to foreground it.


  1. See White 233ff; Clarkson and Warren; Hexter; Bolton; Gohn.

  2. Hexler makes a similar point in explaining why Shakespeare has Bolingbroke “justify all his actions … on the ignoble grounds that he has suffered wrongful loss of property at the king's hands” (11-12).

  3. She does not, however, make the connection with “waste.”

  4. His concern with this point is incidental to his central theme—as his relegation of it to a footnote suggests.

  5. The strangeness here lies in the suggestion that seizing a person might be a remedy for waste.

  6. What is strange here is the suggestion that wasting and suing for waste might be equivalent notions. At the same time, Bolton is, I believe, correct to make the connection between Richard's “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (V. v. 49) and other instances of “waste” in the play. Indeed, aspects of Richard's waste of time are directly implicated in his “waste” of the Kingship. York tells him: “Take Herford's rights away, and take from Time / His charters and his customary rights; / Let not tomorrow then ensue today” (II. i. 195-97). Richard is portrayed as subverting the incidents of time itself. However, the question of Richard's “waste of time” is beyond the scope of the present essay.

  7. Thus, Blackstone tells us that the “absolute tenant in fee simple” “may commit whatever waste his own indiscretion may prompt him to, without being impeachable or accountable for it to any one” (3: 223-24).

  8. Thus this case distinguishes service which touches only the natural body of the king (as, for example, medical attendance or instruction in grammar and music) from that which touches “the Majesty of the body politic.”

  9. Compare Wroth 456, making essentially the same point. Blackstone notes that the death of the king was not the only form that such demises might take—so, when Edward IV was briefly “driven from his throne” by the Lancastrians, “this temporary transfer of his dignity was denominated his demise.” (1: 242).

  10. In Hill v. Grange, 3 & 4 Philip and Mary 1 Plowden 164 at 177, 75 English Reports 253 at 273, we are told that the king who dies “thereby demises the Kingdom to another.”

  11. Bolton refers, for example, to the quite fundamental change in the law wrought by the Statute of Wills (1540).

  12. A number of other medieval statutes dealt with the issue of waste: 9 Henry III ch. 4 (1225) (waste by guardian in ward's lands); 13 Edward I ch. 14 (1285) (procedure in an action of waste); 13 Edward I ch. 22 (1285) (action for waste by tenant in common); 20 Edward I stat. 2 (1292) (heir of reversioner bringing action for waste); 28 Edward I ch. 18 (1300) (escheators committing waste in wards' lands); 14 Edward III (1340) (waste in wards' lands); 11 Henry VI ch. 5 (1433) (tenant granting his estate, taking profits, and committing waste).

  13. See also Coke 2. 299. For an early discussion of the law regarding waste committed by a woman holding land in dower, see Henry of Bracton 4:595ff.

  14. The original read: “Item firmarii tempore firmarum suarum vastum, venditionem, vel exilium non facient de domibus, boscis, vel hominibus, nec de aliquibus ad tenementa quae ad firmam habent spectantibus.”

  15. Gohn, relying on the OED, says that the word “waste” in the legal sense had been current since at least 1414 (957n.). Clearly the word was appearing in primary legal materials (albeit in “law French”) long before that.

  16. The original reads: “len eit desoremes bref de Wast en la Chauncelrie, [fet de ceo sur] home qi tient par la lei de Engleterre, ou en autre manere a terme de vie, ou a term de annz, ou femme en doweire, e celui qi serra ateint de Wast perde la chose [qil ad] wastee e estre ceo face gre del trebble de ceo qe le Wast serra taxe.”

  17. See Coke 2. 303 (“the purview of this act is, that he shall lose the thing that he hath wasted”), and Blackstone 2: 283 (wasting tenants “shall lose and forfeit the place wherein the waste is committed”).

  18. Compare Coke 1. 53a.

  19. The distinction between a reversion and a remainder is that the former reverts or goes back to the original grantor when the “particular” or temporary estate ends, while the latter goes to a third party, specified in the original grant.

  20. See Coke 2.303.

  21. More technically, upon the death of a tenant-in-chief (Gaunt), the King was entitled to primer seisin of the tenant's lands, until the tenant's heir “recovered” them, upon payment of a money amount (“relief”) or the fulfillment of other requirements (“suing for livery”). See Simpson 16-17. Richard will not permit Bolingbroke to “recover” his inheritance.

  22. Recall that Blackstone says that the acts of waste committed by an absolute tenant in fee simple are “undoubtedly damnum, [but] damnum absque injuria” (3: 224).

  23. Bolton argues for this broad meaning as well—on the basis that the only meaning of “tenement” in Richard II's time was “a holding” (62). As I have already intimated, I doubt that such precision is necessary: Did Shakespeare, or his audience, really say: “Now, let's remember that what is at issue here is property law as it stood at the end of the fourteenth century”?

  24. Citing des Longrais.

  25. Reproduced in Bullough.

  26. The original is: “les sercheours en chescun port d'Engleterre soient chargiez & jurrez qils ne lessent a ferme leur office de sercherie ne les occupient par deputee.”

  27. Citing a case from the ninth year of Henry VI's reign.

  28. Coke says that “No person shall have an action of wast, unlesse he hath the immediate state of inheritance.” (1. 53b.)

  29. Earlier, Richard had ironically, in what he regarded as a counterfactual conditional, referred to Bolingbroke as “my kingdom's heir” (I. i. 116).

  30. The maxim is nemo est haeres viventis. See Blackstone 3:225.

  31. The analogy between the King and ecclesiastics is made explicit by finch: “the king hath two capacities, a bodie naturall … and a bodie politique. … So a Parson is a corporation by the Common Law, and hath two capacities” (87-88).

Works Cited

Bacon, Nathaniel. The Continuation of an Historical Discourse of the Government of England. London: n.p., 1651.

Bereford, C. J. “Anonymous case.” The Year Books of Edward II, 10 (5 Edward II 1311). Ed. G. J. Turner. London: Quaritch, 1947.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. 4 vols. 1765-69. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

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

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 3. New York: Columbia UP, 1960.

Clarkson, Paul S. and Clyde T. Warren. The Law of Property in Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Drama. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1942.

Coke, Sir Edward. The First Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England, or, a Commentary upon Littleton, 15th ed. Ed. Francis Hargrave and Charles Butler. London: E. and R. Brooke, 1794.

———. The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England. 15th ed. Ed. Francis Hargrave and Charles Butler. London: E. and R. Brooke., 1797.

des Longrais, J. La Conception Anglaise de la Saisine, du XIIe au XIVe Siècle. Paris: n.p., 1924.

Finch, Henry. Law, or a Discourse Thereof. London: Society of Stationers, 1627.

Gohn, Jack B. “Richard II: Shakespeare's Legal Brief on the Royal Prerogative and the Succession to the Throne.” Georgetown Law Journal 70 (1982): 943-73.

Hamilton, Donna. “The State of Law in Richard II.” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 5-17.

Henry of Bracton. De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae. Ed. Travers Twiss. Vol. 4. London: Longman, 1881.

Hexter, J. H. “Property, Monopoly, and Shakespeare's Richard III.” In Culture and Politics From Puritanism to the Enlightment. Ed. Perez Zagorin. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Simpson, A. W. B. A History of the Land Law. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. B. Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Viner, Charles. A General Abridgement of Law and Equity. 2nd ed., 1794.

White, Edward J. Commentaries on the Law in Shakespeare. 1911. Buffalo: William S. Hein, 1987.

Ruth Morse (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9425

SOURCE: “Telling the Truth with Authority: From Richard II to Richard II,” in Common Knowledge, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1995, pp. 111-28.

[In the following essay, Morse studies the way Shakespeare presents historical truth in Richard II, maintaining that for Shakespeare, and for the medieval historians from whose work he drew, “truth” encompassed a range of possible representations.]

In the course of Notker the Stammerer's famous Life of Charlemagne, he also wrote about matters associated with his own monastic life in St. Gall as part of the outlying Christian world: in one story, he interprets the spread of Roman-style chant into the Frankish territories. An explanation was already available—that two Frankish monks had been sent to Rome to learn how Roman monks sang, and that, upon their return to St. Gall, they oversaw monastic practice while they lived. With their deaths, the traditions were lost. In Notker's hands, the story becomes one of twelve Roman monks sent from the Holy City who spread twelve different practices throughout the Frankish lands. Not only has he changed “history,” his inventions have introduced difficulties into an apparently coherent and consistent narrative1—a clear falsification of the past of the kind that makes modern historians classify their medieval forebears as untrustworthy, if not worse.

In recent years, practitioners of what is called surface archaeology have sent observers from a variety of disciplines to walk over a designated site or area and describe what they see. The assumption is that, trained as they are in different ways, they will observe different things, which can then be correlated to create a description no one of them would have been capable of constructing alone. In what follows I hope that my observations of rhetorical and larger conceptual patterns in medieval historical writing may be of use to scholars who have looked at the ground from another point of view.

That, Dear Reader, was a humility topos, part of what was called, in the Middle Ages and beyond, the captatio benevolentiae. It is a pure rhetorical trope. It is also true and honestly meant, and if, with luck, it has been effective, then you are still reading, perhaps with feelings of skeptical anticipation, wondering why the author of a serious article is employing this unusual (and possibly exasperating) direct address, with its parody of the conventions of nineteenth-century novelists (an inappropriate genre for a scholarly journal). The reason is easy to explain, but not simple. One of the normal beginnings for an essay such as this one is an example, usually an example from the period under discussion, which can be explicated as part of the argument. This one begins with two, of content and expression. “Rhetoric” has had such a bad press, and has come to seem so artificial, that the demonstration of how a modern instance might move, persuade, or at least intrigue, seemed, conventionally enough, a strong way of illustrating how natural the practice of rhetoric can be, how much it is associated with recognitions of many kinds, how tone depends upon the impression of an authoritative voice.

Secondly, by shifting voices from one paragraph to the next, and exploiting what I assume to be a common cultural knowledge of intertextual reference, even parody, I have encompassed at least one other type of writing while, thirdly, introducing the element of commentary. All of this is a risk, because it might alienate some readers altogether, but it is a risk that, if successful, may equally create the sense of cooperation, of shared conventions, that the hostile call collusion. To take another risk, if I now add a reminder that this kind of move used to be done by putting the commenting voice in a note, but that the editors of Common Knowledge wouldn't let me do that, the reflexivity of the text increases.2 What I argue in my personal voice may or may not be plausible; but upon the creation of trustworthiness, what rhetoricians used to call the “ethos” of the speaker, rests a large part of the force—the force of persuasion, not the truth—of the argument.

This subjectivity informs even what appear to be “objective” accounts in medieval historical writing, because the creation of any voice, “neutral” or otherwise, is itself a deliberate achievement. Among medieval writers of any learning at all, a style that appears bare or spare or pared away from the excrescences of rhetoric has chosen its vocabulary and syntax by reference to other styles, and can be interpreted comparatively. By contrast, the most elegant Latin may be the best way its author could find to capture his idea of the past, while placing himself in a long tradition of historical writing and writers. In representing the past, he simultaneously refers to other representations, either as events (which the reader is to imagine) or as other textual retellings of those events (which may also be an appeal to the imagination). Thus there is a constant and multiple appeal to other locations of words and deeds beyond the particular history.

At the very beginning of the fifteenth century, when Jean Creton tells us about his recent unhappy experiences with Richard II in Ireland and then—disastrously—in England, he writes with obvious sincerity of their capture by the forces of Henry of Lancaster:

Henry's soldiers said that as soon as the Duke came everyone who was with Richard would, without exception, be beheaded. They said further that it wasn't clear if the king would escape or not. Everyone applied the news to himself with great fear and terror at heart, for Nature teaches all creatures to fear and dread death more than anything else. As for me, I don't believe that I was ever so frightened as I was of them, considering their contempt and refusal to listen to law, reason, or loyalty.3

Jean's terror for himself appeals to ideas of the (almost) innocent bystander as well as to our trust in the (almost) unbiased eyewitness. Tacitly, he appeals as well to the possibilities of anarchy and the atrocities that follow hard upon the breakdown of loyalty and law. But this could be an entirely crafted effect.

And Notker? That example is true as well, falsification and all. To the literary scholar walking over the ground, Notker's story evokes both the moment in Jerusalem when the Holy Ghost descends upon the Apostles and they find themselves speaking in tongues, and also the disaster that fell upon the world at Babel. In recalling those earlier historical incidents, Notker enriches the secular past by informing it with the sacred and eternal. Nothing could be “truer” than that.


Medieval historians worked under a variety of constraints which they acknowledged both explicitly and tacitly. One of the severest of these was the justification of writing secular history at all. Dozens of prefaces attest (or appear to attest—prefaces, too, had their topoi) that, throughout the medieval cultures, it was difficult to write a text on one's own authority (though obviously less so as precedents multiplied).4 What historian, classical, medieval, or modern, would be likely to discredit his rhetorical ethos, that creation of a trustworthy voice, by opening with a claim to have falsified the past, by departing, even in little, from the strictest canons of true representation? Freestanding secular history depended for its existence on the strictest fidelity to the “true law of history,” as Bede (whose status as authority rivaled his ancient predecessors) defined it; it could be written when authorized by the command of a high-status figure like a prince or pope, magnate or bishop; it was justified by the agreement that history was not only a piety toward one's ancestors' memory but also an example for the future; and it was authorized when the writer could claim either to have been an eyewitness or to have had access to reputable eyewitnesses or to authorized earlier texts.5

This is not the place to explore either the transmission of the historical heritage of antiquity or the range of topoi, but one or two reminders may suffice.6 One facet of the inheritance has been described as part of Roman rhetoric, which did not analyze literature, or stories, for their own sake, but only insofar as they supported the moving and persuading of an audience in order to argue a case. The kinds of narration that orators such as Cicero described were means of expressing deeds done, or deeds that might have been done. Plausibility is forensic, and part of what makes a narration plausible is—once again—the trust the speaker creates for his truthfulness: the model with which I began. In a court of law, or of government, historia is a plausible account of something that actually happened.7 But in court, making something appear to be a plausible account of something that actually happened can be just as important, and Quintilian is only one rhetorician to suggest that imputing opinions to someone absent is a useful technique.8 Another part of the inheritance designates the variety of texts that were categorized as “histories,” from Livy to Statius. The double definition is inscribed early: “history” is a narrative of something that happened, or a story that is told like stories that happened. Confusion over whether something happened or not is a problem, but it does not imply that the problem cannot be solved, cannot be solved in all instances, cannot ever be solved. And even if it turns out to be true that there will always be a spectre of doubt, that does not discredit the attempt to efface doubt, any more than the impossibility of speaking like a native stops one trying to speak another language as well as possible. There is, throughout these texts, a deferral of authority that may be expressed in apparently opposite assertions: some texts imply that although doubt and uncertainty may be the fate of the text currently being read, nevertheless authoritative texts do exist, even if elsewhere. Others claim that they have resolved the uncertainties of still other texts. The deferential voice of the particular historian assumes that somewhere truth exists.

Neither the plain nor the embellished styles, neither one genre nor another, guarantees truth or falsehood, not in their terms, not in our own. Teasing out what constituted those terms is peculiarly difficult, because of the pervasive ironies by which words suggest that they may not mean what they say, and because the terms themselves were manipulated in different circumstances by different kinds of writers in pursuit of arguments or ideas of their own, including the ambiguities that fictions-in-the-guise-of-history allow readers to enjoy. That is, jokes, parodies, pastiches, and fictions all depend upon sliding terms, gaps in delineation, and unclear demarcations between semantic fields and literary genres (insofar as that is a term that can be used in the Middle Ages). The great medieval historians—among them Bede, Notker, Orderic Vitalis, William of Malmesbury, Froissart—were all aware of the author's shaping voice and hand, and crafted their prose accordingly, to create convincing, verisimilar accounts of the past, within conventions that are broadly classed as rhetorical in a style recognizable as historical.9 Whether or not the accounts were also veritable, under whose description, is another question.10 That is why this essay opened not with an analysis of “truth,” but obliquely, with voice and rhetoric, plausibility and example.

As I have argued in Truth and Convention, the preliminary step for modern interpretation is to recover tacit assumptions about the expression of meaning, the conventions of unspecified invention.11 So familiar were many of these topoi that they needed no signal. Invention began with the choice of words to convey an argument, but spread to include much more. These topoi are persuasive because dramatic. Condemnation without explicit blame may take various familiar forms: kings are less wicked than susceptible to the flattery of bad counselors, courts are criticized by accusations that they are luxurious (where men succumb to a taste for fashion, including long hair), cities are sources of corruption. Whether or not there actually were, say, bad counselors wasting the royal substance depends upon interpretation. After all, just to follow this one example, what is extravagance in a king interpreted as weak or bad may, in a great warrior-king, be categorized as appropriate splendour (as in nostalgic late fourteenth-century contrasts between the courts of Edward III and his less fortunate grandson, Richard II).

Like the observer sent to walk the ground by the surface archeologist, the medieval writer would be prone to see what he had been taught to practice, or what he saw repeatedly in his model authors: speeches before battles, characters of great men, descriptions of places, the inevitable structures of rise and fall. Because he knew the history of the world, from creation to doomsday, and because he knew the patterns of human action, his macro- and microcosms reinforced each other. What could not be remembered, or found out about, or read, could be “invented” (which only meant discovered or shaped). As long as shared views of “invention” unified author and reader, “truth” was not the central issue.

We might think that the easiest delineation of an idea like “truth” in medieval historical writing would be to find its opposite, and that ideas of falsehood or forgery would provide us with limiting cases. As ever with binary divisions, the first term immediately constrains our observations, the polarity hardens the opposition and excludes third (or fourth) terms that may bear upon all the available definitions. Modern scholarship has attended to various aspects of the problem of defining “telling the truth/lying,” “genuine/specious.” So, after all, did Augustine, who wrote two essays about mendacity; and Dante famously put the fraudulent in the eighth bolgia of hell, close to the Father of Lies himself.

For morphologies and taxonomies of falsification, we are indebted to recent work by scholars such as Umberto Eco and Giles Constable, who have studied the range and breadth of literary and historical forgery in the Western Middle Ages, and who both have emphasized the subjectivity of the status of truth or falsehood for medieval interpreters.12 Medieval laws and literatures acknowledged the offence of deliberate deceit—creating or substituting fakes or copies in place of genuine or authentic articles for the sake of individual gain. The penalty for counterfeiting money suggests the seriousness of the crime: mutilation as a punishment for coining was not an empty threat. (That mutilation is also a horrible pun by which the emasculated body represents the offence reminds us of the all-pervasive force of analogy in medieval thought. This, too, is a “true representation.”)

But even if we extend “deliberate deceit for personal profit or advantage,” we immediately discover exceptions that arise from context: the Church insisting that, for example, in the case of false relics, the prayers of the genuine believer endow the counterfeit relic with all the dignity of the true one, lest belief in the efficacy of prayer be lost and all gestures of faith be vitiated by doubt. Or we may find writers such as Notker repairing, replacing, or redacting (that is, editing with expansions) texts that make claims about the past, about an abbey's or a family's possessions, perhaps, or about the preservation of the memory of great deeds.13 It is rare to find one medieval author accusing another of deliberate falsehood or intentional dishonesty, and even the outrage caused by Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, a marvel of invention, did not prevent subsequent medieval writers using his accounts. What had acquired authority retained it.14 A narrative embellished in order to promote a good end was not condemned. In two well-known (if extreme) examples, one medieval hagiographer insisted that “even if these things didn't happen, they are true anyway,” while another explained that where there were lacunae in his text, he filled them in from the deeds of other holy men, since all things are common among the saints.15

That there are facts is one of the stories we tell ourselves while we get on with embellishing them out of recognition. As I shall demonstrate below, the selection of ostensible facts for inclusion in a narrative depends upon a prior picture of how things happen in the world: the Fall of Princes is an example of a topos that itself may stem from a prior distinction between ruler and tyrant, or from such apparently inevitable pairings as “crime and punishment,” “offence and revenge,” or “loyalty and betrayal.” For there could not be amoral history, any more than there could be amoral human life: history is always exemplary.16 But these tropes and rhetorical topoi are often treated in isolation, without any global attempt to consider how far one instance of invention might have been taken to be consistent with any other instance of invention in the course of a historical narrative. It is most unusual to ask what Truth might have meant to medieval writers about the past.17 It is not just that “it depends what you mean by Truth,” but that, in asking about Truth, we ask about a great many other words that were used to convey (or to blur) the spectrum of relationships a text might be thought to have borne to the events of human experience, as well as to the example of other texts. We might ask rather, What kinds of stories did medieval writers tell about the past, and what kinds of expectations did medieval readers have about the relationships of those stories to the imagined past? No text claimed to be unauthorized, false, forged, or deliberately deceitful. If the ignorant, the under-read, appear more trustworthy because less liable to ambitious invention or to moulding their material to resemble a genre, we must remember that the naïve style appealed to hagiographers who had made the same observation. Writers weighed and assessed witnessed events or previous authorized accounts; many of them appear to be true. Many kinds of writing were “historical,” and if we select out only those genres that accord with our own categories, we will find neither truth nor history.

“Epic” is a famous case in point, another category that, however vexed, appeared to promise a dependable genre of historical narrative, and that in turn implied “romance” as its binary other. Works that did not fit the definition were recognized as something else, so that Charlemagne-topics had a better chance of inclusion in the category of epic than Arthur-topics, and a variety of poems like the romans antique, the Sieges of Jerusalem, or saints' lives that took adventure-forms had to be assigned to that increasingly baggy category, romance. These generic difficulties are not resolved by remarking that medieval authors did not seem to have the same genre categories their ancestors or descendants did; that even when they appear to use the same terms, they understand them differently; and that they read, repeated, and reinterpreted their ancient writers in other ways than we do ours. (That they were also praised for their masculinity and their significance for certain kinds of romantic nationalism further muddies the waters.) All of this implies that some of the current debate about the status of story within history, of the narrative as self-confirming moral artifact, begins from propositions alien to medieval culture, including a curious recrudescence of New Critical habits of reading the text alone. For example, it is by privileging the architectonic story organization that Hayden White's generalizations proceed, thus neglecting elements that he might otherwise notice. When White “distinguish[es] between a historical discourse that narrates and a discourse that narrativizes, between a discourse that openly adopts a perspective that looks out on the world and reports it and a discourse that feigns to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story,” the presuppositions, as well as the terms undefined, beg the questions. His position that the “very distinction between real and imaginary events … presupposes a notion of reality in which ‘the true’ is identified with ‘the real’ only insofar as it can be shown to possess the character of narrativity” omits the medieval writer's habit of deferral, and forecloses complex issues of how medieval texts represent and refer.18


During the course of the summer of 1399, while Richard II was campaigning in Ireland, his banished cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, landed in England. Richard returned, fell into Henry's hands, and Henry assumed the throne. Richard died soon after. This so-called Lancastrian revolution (itself an anachronistic and hardly value-neutral description) raises many questions, to which contemporary and near-contemporary writers suggested many answers. More than two dozen accounts of these events survive from the early fifteenth century, in English, Latin, and French. The texts are various: many come in the familiar form of the long chronicle entry, organized year by year, often as part of a monastic record (for example, the one kept in Latin by Thomas Walsingham and others at St. Albans), or as additions to a Brut chronicle. With their short, or relatively short, entries, chronicles have always looked more factual than extended narratives do; opinion appears to be discriminable from report, and when “what happened” is surmise, it is usually so marked, following the practice of Bede, who thought that “common report,” what most people believed, ought to be recorded. Closer inspection, of course, reveals that the texts are seldom arbitrary records of fact: opinion (at the very least, the point of view of the abbey, order, or city from which the entries are made) informs selection and expression, and many chronicles contain inset scenes, speeches, or characters that are the chronicler's embellishments. The historians themselves are aware of the variations and discuss them.19

Two freestanding French histories of Richard's fall were written by narrators who claim the status of eyewitness and who cultivate trustworthy voices. Although these works are consulted by modern historians, their standing has always, and rightly, been questioned, because of a desire to rescue parts, but not all, of their accounts for one set of modern criteria of “true.” The eventual rejection of these accounts as history has had many repercussions, among them that there are no published modern editions. Jean Creton's Histoire du roy D'Angleterre Richart, traitant particulièrement la rebellion de ses subiectz is a long, mainly versified, history that opens like a courtly romance with the narrator riding out to accompany a friend to seek adventure. Its apparently “eyewitness” section (from which I quoted at the beginning of this essay) ends with the two companions feeling lucky to have escaped unscathed. It includes a description of Northumberland's perjured oath, by which he tricked the king out of safety and then ambushed him, as well as the interview between Henry and Richard, of which he writes, “Be assured that these are the exact words which they spoke together, with nothing added nor taken away; the Count of Salisbury reported it thus to me in French, and another old knight, who was in Duke Henry's counsel.”20 If one takes the formal presentation of the narrative as a kind of cue, which signals that it will be dramatized history in the style of current verse romance, then the limits (or the latitude) of its claims are easier to recognize.

One of the most striking features of Creton's Histoire is its self-consciousness about its status as a book, an illustrated book whose text refers to its pictorial depictions. “As you can see in the accompanying illustration” claims an imaginative reconstruction that sidesteps issues of how there might be correspondence between word (or picture) and deed, because the stylization is so precisely a reinterpretation in another medium of a moralized sequence. Twice the history illustrates the king's enemies, once when Richard sends an envoy to “Maquemore” for a parley, and the verse says, “His likeness, just as he was, / you see portrayed,” and, the second time (in the prose section), when the text reads, “Afterwards the duke went into the castle armed at all points except for the helmet, as you can see in this history.”21 Creton underwrites the authenticity of the miniatures by his claim to be an eyewitness, describing with the wisdom of hindsight the characters around the king, remembering what was done and said, and what the characters looked like.

The even more popular Chronicque de la Traison et mort de Richart deux, roy Dengleterre (which survives in several revisions in numerous manuscripts) is partly based on Creton, while the author, like Creton, claims to be an eyewitness.22 The anonymous author absorbs sections of Creton without acknowledgement, allowing his own authority to be underwritten by his trust in his source. Also like Creton, he offers us good examples of rhetorical invention. The most famous is the story of Richard's murder by “sire Pierre Dexton,” an immortal character undocumented in other fourteenth- and fifteenth-century texts. Similarly detailed is the botched execution of the Earl of Huntingdon (the amateur headsman's reluctance and incompetence are graphically invented). As exemplary topoi, these stories refer to earlier executions (especially to that of the imprisoned Gloucester), tortures, and martyrdoms. References to Richard's judges as Pilate are neither decorative associations to the idea of treason, nor claims that the king is god. These are dramatized histories that borrow material wherever it appears to be relevant to the moral narrative they construct—and construct according to expectations of elegant composition, which allow for maximum interpretability by alert readers.

If we grant that these texts belong to an earlier historical culture, we have nevertheless to recognize that it is one that has contributed to modern historical culture, since they have been treated as sources—read, repeated, and reinterpreted in the sixteenth century by men like Halle and Holinshed in their search for a unitary narrative. But the extraction of particular representations from one style of composition and their relocation in another brought obvious difficulties. Early modern historians, like later modern ones, in the changing historiographical climate, juxtaposed the narratives and attempted to average them out.23 Plausibility has traditionally been taken as a measure of likelihood, but there was and is no guarantee that the realistic is, in our terms, true.


No one knows the extent of Shakespeare's sources for Richard II, nor what he thought of them. But literary critics, like historians, are either Plantagenets or Lancastrians.24 The midcentury upheavals during which E. M. W. Tillyard and Geoffrey Bullough were analyzing Shakespeare's historical inheritance explain in part their conservative and royalist approach to the Elizabethan (and Shakespearean) world picture.25 Late medieval historians, too, presented their narratives in ways that illustrated their concern for order; that a true narration is a matter of recording facts is an anachronistic idea. But Shakespeare's editors and critics have tended to approach the English history plays as if they were a fictional interpretation of factual narratives. Further, to an extent hard to uncover, the critics' pictures of the Shakespearean “fictional” characters have formed those of modern historians.26

Shakespeare grasped the problems and arguments at issue, and the boldest embellishments of his history plays are crafted carefully within the accepted conventions of historiography: the greatest latitude in historical writing accrued precisely to direct speech. Of course, Shakespeare's plays are more than a series of speeches; they are speeches arranged in patterns referring by repetition of subject and scene to narratives beyond the play. His plays pose the historical “hypothetical” at a logical limit. The unresolved questions regarding Richard II and Richard II are as irresolvable as the historical inheritance invited and as Shakespeare could keep them. Was Richard guilty of tyranny or misjudgement? What were Henry's intentions that summer? Were the cousins ill- or well-served by their followers? Above all, who was responsible for history's necessary murders? For the question about Gloucester's death becomes, by historical structural repetition, the question about Richard's own. Allowing for the compressions necessitated by the change of genre, we can see Shakespeare, like his sources, aspiring to write “true” “history”: the irresolvability of the narrative, in the context of Tudor compromise and restoration of kingly legitimacy, found Shakespeare specific and explicit on the crisis in 1399, but tacit and inferential about responsibility; he managed to keep interpretation open and to avoid fixing blame.

The question of Gloucester as the unseen spring of the tragedy remains carefully unresolved throughout the play. Not that characters do not try to resolve it. In the opening scene, Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of inciting his followers to murder Gloucester, and raises the Cain/Abel association that provides the parallel narrative of fratricidal strife (and with which Henry curses the murderer in the last lines of the play). If Mowbray goes so far as to accuse himself of insufficient care, the play's own parallel structures suggest that we might, later, wonder if Henry should accept a similar accusation.27 Whatever Richard said or ordered finds its response in Piers Exton's interpretation of Bolingbroke's intentions. In Act I, speaking with his sister-in-law, Gloucester's widow, John of Gaunt implies Richard's complicity (thereby again emphasizing the family nature of the tragedy):

… since correction lieth in those
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven. … 
God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caus'd his death.

(1.2.4-6, 37-38)

This is reminiscent of the Traison's opening, but Shakespeare's carefully maintained confusions about the responsibility for Gloucester's death provide one of those structural repetitions that are characteristic of both medieval historiography and Renaissance drama. There is sleight of hand in the great parliament scene in act 4, where the question of Gloucester's death reemerges, and gages are thrown to the ground in a profusion that outdoes the trial of the play's opening scenes. “Eyewitnesses” to conversations remember directly contrary versions of events.

Accusation follows counteraccusation—but who was responsible for Gloucester's murder? The otherwise unimportant Fitzwater attributes crucial testimony to Mowbray, who has not only been banished since the beginning of the play but has conveniently died abroad. (The rhetorically alert, or suspicious, may at this juncture remember Quintilian recommending that if orators had to invent something, it was best to attribute it to someone absent or dead.) The questions about Richard's kingship (was he a tyrant? was he misled by flatterers?) are similarly irresolvable. In the scene (2.1) more famous for Gaunt's deathbed praise of England, where Gaunt's accusations are so explicit as to enrage the king, both John and his brother, the Duke of York, worry about Richard's refusal to hear advice and about his susceptibility to flattery. On his deathbed, Gaunt becomes—following the topos—a liminal prophet. There are also the questions of bad advice and betrayal. Bolingbroke's late accusation that Bushy and Green

… have misled a prince, a royal
A happy gentleman in blood and lineaments
By you unhappied and disfigured clean.
You have in manner with your sinful hours
Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him,
Broke the possession of a royal bed


suggests a parallel narrative that allows Shakespeare to recall the accusations of homosexual behavior that Walsingham slipped into his revisions. This play—or any historical narrative that suggests “voices off”—invokes the authority of other texts that would (if only we had them before us) support its interpretation; that is, there is authoritative support, but not in this text. The deferral of authority also implies (as Auerbach has made us aware) an air of “reality” greater than anything the current text can represent.

The idea of historical parallels so informed contemporary views that not only did Elizabeth I see herself as seen as Richard II, but Richard was aware of an interpretation of himself as Edward II. The extravagant luxury of the court, an accusation made against both Richard and Edward, is used in the play to explain Richard's “farming” the realm, as well as to explain the “blank charter's” offence (1.4), commonly held to have been one of Richard's worst blunders. The historians' view that Richard was given bad advice about sending Salisbury to England while the king remained in Ireland appears in the play as Salisbury's failure to persuade a nameless Welsh captain to wait another day before deserting the king's banner; the Welshman's fear (representing “common report”) that the king is already dead may have been familiar from Creton. The dramatizations seem constantly to refer to events off, events that might be known but are not, motivated by actors who are not known but might be.

This phenomenon can be studied in relation to the cousins, but it is as important in relation to their uncle, the Duke of York.28 Literary critics (and, of course, directors) have tended to see York, the last surviving son of Edward III, as something of an elderly ditherer. This is to concentrate on personality and to assume that “character” (here the inherited “senex,” played as a fool) is prior to role. If we think of York as a historical mouthpiece for historical opinions, which were themselves full of conflicting interpretations, his function as bearer of contradiction becomes clear. He is vocal but powerless—“neuter,” as he calls himself (2.4.158)—and caught in a dilemma, how to maintain the legitimacy of power, that sixteenth-century historians found so perplexing. As usurper, Bolingbroke is a traitor; as king, he is lawful authority. That contradiction is present in any narrative about Bolingbroke, as Shakespeare's portrayal of York illustrates. York, at the beginning of the play, allows Shakespeare to weigh the claims between the Plantagenet cousins, and the Yorks remain crucial until the climactic (and inconsistent) parliament scene in act 4. York the father poses the problem between Richard and Henry:

Both are my kinsmen.
T'one is my sovereign, whom both my oath
And duty bids defend; t'other again
Is my kinsman, whom the King hath wrong'd,
Whom conscience and my kindred bids to right.


The dramatization of what ought to be a vocal and powerful confrontation between regent and rebellious subject avoids analysis. York never explains what makes him turn from being Richard's regent in England to a follower of Bolingbroke. York's equivocal position (loyal to Richard within Bolingbroke's camp) reminds us that it remained possible to believe that Henry had indeed come “but for his own.” There is no explanation; the virtual surrender of England to Bolingbroke in a few short weeks in 1399, puzzling to generations of historians, is embodied in York's behaviour. The inconsistencies are precisely the inconsistencies of the historians' narratives, but, by embodying them in dramatic speeches, Shakespeare finds a new way to present them (but not a “solution” or unitary explanation). Shakespeare puts the accusation with which the Traison began—Gloucester's accusations about Richard's returning French towns—in York's mouth (2.1.179-81), and this is another instance of York as the mouthpiece of irreducibly contradictory opinion.

The deposition of Richard appears to be easy to interpret, but that is not to say that Shakespeare interprets it. We see little, and hear less, of Henry's motives. He tells York, “As I was banished, I was banished Herford; / But as I come, I come for Lancaster” (2.3.112-13): a motive undeniable, and a legal case that seems, also, undeniable, because it was. But, then, Shakespeare's Henry does not have to articulate his motives, because Shakespeare's Richard anticipates him, giving away what Henry need not demand. Moreover, the rebellion appears to be displaced onto the historical actor who had been the Traison's chief traitor, Northumberland.29 It is he who attempts to make Richard read out the confession that Shakespeare might have found in the Parliament Roll, but which Richard certainly never appeared in public to read, thus leaving the legality of abdication or deposition as unclear as it was in the sources. This is precisely the scene that, as far as any of the contemporary reports go, Henry was at such pains to avoid: a confrontation, in public, in parliament, of the two cousins. So far from dramatizing what the Parliament Rolls merely recorded as having been witnessed in private, that Richard abdicated of his own free will, Shakespeare shows Richard doing no such thing. So far from keeping Richard out of London altogether, Shakespeare conveys him publicly through the streets, via a conversation with his (apparently mature) queen, to the Tower, although immediately then to Pomfret (Pontefract) Castle (and the queen is immediately, not twenty months after Richard's death, returned to France). “Drama” alone is never a sufficient answer; the use of indirection—messengers and descriptions—makes for a kind of iconic presentation that historians often used.

Thus, of the play's many famous compressions, many are omissions to avoid spelling out motive. In addition, some of what is said is said not by any of the agents of the events, but by minor and invented characters—for instance, the gardener, in a scene usually praised for its analogy between tending plants and kingdoms. Looked at as historical writing, this is a way of conveying, through the topos “common report” (Bede's “what people believed to be the case”)—that is, neutrally (“I speak no more than every one doth know” [3.3.91]—information that, if dramatized, would appear the responsibility of one of the main characters. Shakespeare is a master at suggesting that things unknowable are almost to be known.

Shakespeare has been called a “good historian,” in the sense of a dramatist doing his best with the Tudor version of history. My argument about genre and style allows us to think of him as even less different in kind or degree from other historians than we have hitherto. We might consider his interpretation as a culmination of a surprising kind: from the inventions of occasional dialogue to a representation that, because it is all dialogue, creates a true picture offering maximum interpretability, given the conventions of invention and embellishment. To put it paradoxically, dialogue is truer than narrative because the former is entirely invention. In Shakespeare's history of Richard's fall, authority is deferred through implied historical structures, intertextual references, and topoi, to which more conventional historical narratives have accustomed us. We find, among other examples: the idea of the necessary fall of the tyrant informs the opening of the play; the action sometimes pauses for a rhetorical demonstration; both biblical and nonbiblical reminiscences abound. If I seem to be inventing a McLuhanesque Shakespeare, whose dramatized medium interprets his historical message, that is a function of my argument throughout this essay—that the medieval message is never to be extracted from its formal casing. Richard II is in some ways Shakespeare's most stylized play: it is entirely in verse, often in rhyming couplets, and constructed in balanced scenes. Shakespeare asks us to interpret simultaneously the iconic, the figural, representation in addition to the narrative, which speeds by. In Richard II, where perhaps Shakespeare might appear to be most a poet, he is most poetically a historian. Structurally, although Shakespeare keeps the important questions before his audience throughout the play, he ensures that the questions remain unanswered and unanswerable. Neither King Richard nor King Henry finally admits responsibility for the murders around which an interpretation of “what happened” must hang.


Where, then, does an analysis of “truth” in different kinds of historical narrative leave us? What conclusions can we draw? We can say that “truth” in Richard II, as in medieval histories, designated a range of possible depictions, that “truth” implied “truth for someone”; that the true depiction, by claiming to indicate a something beyond particular events or persons, implied a parallel narrative or a tacit appeal to known patterns of local or national experience, human history, and behaviour; that representations were habitually (if loosely) tied to “what happened” through different habits or reading and interpretation; that even at their strictest, the conventions of those representations allowed, even encouraged, rhetorical display, intertextual reference, and considerable scope for plausible sequences of action from which educated readers could infer cause and motive. This does not make medieval histories false, or forgeries; it makes them part of a culture we interpret for our own uses according to different standards, and in a culture, ours, that inherits some of their interpretations but few of their interpretative conventions. A true history might well exploit a range of invention, so that the plausibility of any part of a medieval history cannot be taken to underwrite the truth (in the modern historian's sense) of the rest of it. We cannot expect, even equipped with the most sophisticated rhetorical sensitivities, to be able—with those sensivities alone—to peel away excrescences to reveal a substratum of decodable facts. We will always need to consider whether the plausible account is so because it was so, or because it is well written, and we will need to look beyond the texts to do so. We might agree only that, in the end, if Truth is the daughter of time, she is also the mother of invention.


  1. Referendum hoc in loco videtur, quod tamen a nostri temporis hominibus difficile credatur, cum et ego ipse qui scribo propter nimiam dissimilitudinem nostre et Romanorum cantilene non satis adhuc credam, nisi quia patrum veritati plus credendum est quam moderne ignave falsitati. Notkeri Balbuli, Gesta Karoli Magni Imperatoris, ed. H. F. Haefele (Berlin: Monumenta Germaniac Historia, 1962), 12. The Penguin translation, from an earlier edition, modernizes: “At this point I must tell you a story which the people of our own time will find hard to accept. I myself, who am writing it down, would scarcely believe it, were it not that I prefer to rely upon the chance of our ancestors being truthful rather than upon the lazy inaccuracy of men of our own period.” Two Lives of Charlemagne. trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 102-4. Thorpe's “accuracy” shows the importation of modern categories onto the different concepts of a medieval historian. I owe this anecdote to my colleague, Dr. Susan Rankin, whose essay on Notker will appear in From Rome to the Passing of the Gothic: A Conference in Honor of David Hughes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, forthcoming), 169ff.

  2. The last sentence is false.

  3. [Henry's soldiers said that] tantost que le duc seroit venus, tous ceulx que estoient avecques luy (Richard), sans nul excepter, auroient les tetes tranchees: Et encores disoient ilz que on ne savoit mie si le roy eschaperoit ou non. Ces nouvelles oyes un chascun pour soy ot grant paour & grant freeur au cuer; car nature ensengne a toute creature craindre & redoubter la mort plus que nul autre chose. Et, tant quamoy, Ie ne cuide mie que Jamaiz Iaie si grant paour comme Jeuz pour leure, considere la grant derision deulx et le non voloir entendre droit, raison ne loyaulte. Jean Creton, Historie du roy D'Angleterre Richart, traitant particulièrement la rebellion de ses subiectz, ed. Benjamin Webb in Archaeologia 20 (London, 1824), 372. Translations throughout this essay are my own except where otherwise attributed, and I have silently expanded medieval abbreviations. Webb's edition is accompanied by his translation, which is unreliable. There is a recent edition of this poem, by Lorna A. Stewart, The Works of Jean Creton: A Critical Edition (Ph.D. diss., University of Aberdeen, 1979), with slightly different modernizations. This quotation is to be found on 101-2. I am grateful to Professor J. C. Laidlaw for bringing this dissertation to my notice.

  4. “The Middle Ages” is itself a slippery category; my examples will come largely from the High Middle Ages in France and England, but the argument can be applied elsewhere. The crucial difference in Italian life which may stem from the maintenance of notarial records and merchants' memoranda of all kinds could not, in a larger study, be ignored. The importance of historical innovations in Italy from Machiavelli and Guiciardini are discussed in I Raconti de Clio: Tecniche narrative della storiografia, ed. Roberto Bigazzi et al. (Pisa: Nistri-Lischi, 1989). For a detailed study, see also Andrea Matucci, Machiavelli nella storiografia fiorentina: per la storia di un genere letterario (Florence: Olschki, 1991).

  5. See Roger Ray, “Bede's Vera Lex Historiae,Speculum 55 (1980): 1-21, and, on the rhetorical heritage, his “The Triumph of Greco-Roman Rhetorical Assumptions in Pre-Carolingian Historiography,” in The Inheritance of Historiography, ed. Christopher Holdsworth and T. P. Wiseman (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1986), 67-84.

  6. I have analyzed this inheritance and its augmentation in Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation, and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), where a detailed discussion can be found in chap. 2. See also Paul Fouracre, “Merovingian History and Merovingian Hagiography,” Past and Present 127 (1990): 3-38.

  7. This is stressed repeatedly in classical texts, e.g., Cicero, De Inventione, 1.14 (on narratio—but see De Legibus, 1.1-3, for the distinction, in another context, between history and poetry); Ad Herennium, 1.8; Quintilian, Institutio Oratorio, 10.1.31-34, 73-75, 101-12.

  8. This is a subject explored in detail by historians of antiquity, who are agreed that rhetoric triumphed and oratorical display became an end in itself—that is, the sophists were more influential than the philosophers. See, for example, the essays collected in M. I. Finley, The Use and Abuse of History (London: Hogarth Press, 1986); Nancy Streuver, The Language of History in the Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970); and, magisterially, Arnaldo Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). For an argument of another kind, which begins from the idea of a “plasmatic narrative,” a narrative that can be moulded within the assumptions of historical presentation, see Ben Edwin Perry's Sather Classical Lectures, The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of Their Origins (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), e.g., 74-75.

  9. See Nancy Partner, “Making Up Lost Time: Writing on the Writing of History,” Speculum 61 (1986): 90-117. Many of these issues have been explored by Bernard Guenée in a series of essays most easily accessible in his Politique et histoire au moyen age: recueil d'articles sur l'historiographie médiévale (1956-1981) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1981), esp. “Y a-t-il une historiographie médiévale?” (205-20) and “L'Historien par les mots” (221-38).

  10. The phrase is a translation of le vrai et le vraisemblable, which were the terms of a seventeenth-century debate among literati for whom Corneille's Le Cid became the focus of arguments over whether something ostensibly historical could be used if it appeared implausible.

  11. This approach, by asking what controlled or legitimated invention, avoids the “hard” distinctions between history and fiction from which, to take an influential example, Hayden White begins. Among White's hard categories come such genre terms as tragedy and romance, as in his “Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978). Two recent discussions of these problems are particularly useful for modern historians: Richard T. Vann, “Louis Mink's Linguistic Turn,” History and Theory 26 (1987): 1-14, which is devoted to historiographical questions; and Andrew P. Norman, “Telling It Like It Was: Historical Narratives in Their Own Terms,” History and Theory 30 (1991): 119-35.

  12. Non è la falsificazioné singola che maschera, naconde, confonde, è la quantità delle falsificazioni riconoscibili come tali che funziona come maschera, perché tende a rendere inattendibile ogni verità. Non sappiamo come i medievali, con la loro concezione ‘ingenua’ dell' autenticità, avrebbero giudicato questa nostra concezione cinica della falsificazione non ingenua. Umberto Eco, “Tipologia della falsificazione,” Fälschungen im Mittelalter (Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1988-90), 1:69-82. In “Forgery and Plagiarism in the Middle Ages,” Archiv für Diplomatik 29 (1983): 1-41, Giles Constable analyzed the “fact/fiction” divide mainly in twelfth-century history; and his “Forged Letters in the Middle Ages” considers the use of invented letters as sometimes “a legitimate literary device,” Fälschungen, 5:11-37.

  13. See, for example, M. T. Clanchy, “Forging Documents,” in From Memory to Written Record in England, 1066-1307 (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), 248-57. For an exploration of twelfth-century historians in terms of a theory of memory, see Janet Coleman, Ancient and Medieval Memories: Studies in the Reconstruction of the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), chap. 14, and 558-83.

  14. In the early fifteenth-century Dieulacres Chronicle, written by two men, the second opens his section by condemning his predecessor for frequently departing from the truth, “Iste commentator in locis quampluribus vituperat commendanda et commendat vituperanda et hoc est magnum vicium in scripturus … et hoc scio pro certo, quia in multis locis interfui et vidi,” but he leaves the first version in the text and intact. Quoted by M. V. Clarke and V. H. Galbraith, “The Deposition of Richard II,” in Clarke's Fourteenth Century Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), 62.

  15. Discussed in my “‘This Vague Relation’: Historical Fiction and Historical Veracity in the Later Middle Ages,” Leeds Studies in English 13 (1982): 85-108. Eadmer, the embellishing biographer of St. Anselm, was also implicated in the provision of spurious papal bulls to support the prestige of Canterbury against the challenge from York. See R. W. Southern, “The Canterbury Forgeries,” English Historical Review 73 (1958): 217-26; also Southern, The Life of St. Anselm by Eadmer (London: T. Nelson, 1962). For a discussion of the twelfth-century religions' response to the new need for documents, see Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “Falsitas pia sive reprehensibilis: Medieval Forgers and Their Intentions,” Fälschungen, 1:101-19.

  16. For a classic early statement on “the exemplar theory of history,” see G. H. Nadel, “The Philosophy of History Before Historicism,” History and Theory 3 (1964): 291-315. As early as Caxton, whose worries over the historical status of King Arthur coexisted with a publisher's desire to promote his book, the appeal to follow the moral example overrides the precise status of the representation.

  17. But not unheard of: see, for example, La Storiographia altomedievale, 2 vols. (Spoleto: Centro di Studii sull'Altomedioevo, 1970), and Bernard Guenée, Histoire et culture historique dans l'Occident médiévale (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1980).

  18. See his “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” reprinted in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 2, 6. It might make as much sense to claim that it is history that is the “imperial” genre, inviting readers of the many kinds of narrative to assume that they are written to be read as true, in the ways that medieval narratives can interpret what it is to be “true.”

  19. Sed quoniam de depositione regis Ricardi, et sublimatione regis Henrici, diversi deiversa scripserunt,—nec mirum, cum in tanto schismate alius sic, alius autem sic ibat,—ego, qui medius inter utrosque existo, credo me meliorm viam et securiorem tenere, quoniam, utrisque partibus discursis, ad solam veritatem elucidandam sedulus existo, nulli post me scripturo praejudicans, si ipse aut verius aut planius materiam hanc discutiendam susceperit. [“Forasmuch as different writers have given different accounts of the deposition of Richard II and elevation of King Henry,—and no wonder, since, in so great a struggle, one took one side and one took another,—I, who stand in the middle between the two parties, consider that I hold a better and safer path, since, having investigated both sides of the question, I set myself diligently to elucidate the truth alone.”] This apparent commitment to an apparently unbiased presentation comes from John Capgrave, in his book of illustrious Henries, written for Henry VI in the 1440's but, as one might expect from such a book of illustrious Henries, the account is not impartial. Johannis Capgrave Liber de Illustribus Henricis, ed. F. C. Hingeston (London, 1858), 78, and Book of the Illustrious Henries (London, 1858), 218.

  20. Et sachiez de certain que ce sont les propres paroles quilz dirent eulx deux ensemble, sans y riens prendre ne adiouster. Car ie les oy et entendi assez bien; et si le me recorda le conte de salsebery en francoiz, et un autre ancien chevalier, qui estoit des conseilles du duc henry. Webb, 374. Lancaster's trustworthy supporter also told Creton that these events were foretold both by Bede and Merlin (belief in such phantasms and sorceries being one of the nation's weaknesses). It is clear that either Creton knew no English or that he wanted to appear not to know any.

  21. Sa semblante, ainsi comme il estoit, Veez pourtraite (306).

    Apres entra le duc ou chastel arme de toutes pieces, excepte le bacinet, comme vous povez veoir en ceste ystoire” (373). The illustration has frequently been printed, as, for example, in the more expensive editions of J. R. Green, A Short History of the English People.

  22. Chronique de la Traïsson et mort de Richart deux roy dengleterre, ed. Benjamin Williams (London, 1846); his accompanying English translation is inaccurate. The relations between the two texts, as well as the rejection of the Traison for the Oxford medieval histories series are studied by J. J. N. Palmer, “The Authorship, Date and Historical Value of the French Chronicles on the Lancastrian Revolution: I and II,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 61 (1978-79): 145-81, 398-421.

  23. For a fascinating exploration of these problems, with a revealing analysis of their legal and literary presentation, see Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). The illustrations to this edition are especially valuable in showing the creation of a commenting voice that invites reference to other areas of experience. Arthur Danto deals with some of these issues in the second edition of his collected essays, Narration and Knowledge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), chaps. 13-15.

  24. See, for example, the exchanges between Peter Ure and A. L. French in Essays in Criticism 18 (1968): 225-29, where, despite their differences in emphasis, both critics agree that Shakespeare must have recoverable views about the cousins' characters, especially about Bolingbroke's intentions towards the throne and the king. The problem of the play's apparent inconsistencies has led Kristian Smidt to argue that Richard II probably began as a play about revenge, but that Shakespeare changed his mind midway, so that the text as we now have it shows a not entirely successful attempt to amalgamate quite different ideas written in quite different styles. See his Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1982), 86-202. Michael Tomlinson's bold “Shakespeare and the Chronicles Reassessed,” History and Literature 10 (1984): 46-58, demonstrates that the sources “supply little more than a factual framework” and that Halle in particular is inconsistent in his treatment of Henry, first as usurper, then as king. The latest edition of Richard II, by Andrew Gurr (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) also assumes that Holinshed “sought to chronicle facts rather than to shape his material with the openly providential gloss of Halle's account” (184). All references to the play will be to this edition.

  25. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto & Windus, 1943); Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 3 (London: Routledge and Paul, 1963).

  26. See Anthony Tuck, Richard II and the English Nobility (London: Edward Arnold, 1973). For a detailed and subtle analysis of the interpretations of King Richard available in the Tudor period, with a judicious assessment of Shakespeare's place in it, see Margaret Aston, “Richard II and the Wars of the Roses,” in The Reign of Richard II: Essays in Honour of May McKisack, ed. F. R. H. Du Boulay and Caroline M. Barron (London: Athlone, 1971), 280-317. See esp. pp. 301 and 309-11 concerning the emphases throughout the historical narratives on the king's youthful immaturity as the cause of his irresponsibility (although there was probably three months between the cousins).

  27. There is a similar analysis in H. A. Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), which I found only after I had completed this article. As Professor Kelly succinctly puts it, “Shakespeare's greatest contribution was to unsynthesize the synthesis of his contemporaries” (304).

  28. For a complex and nuanced reading of the different languages of history, providential theology, and ideas of treason in Shakespeare (which also analyzes the role of York), see Richard Marienstras, “Tradition et trahison dans Richard II,Le Genre humain 16-17 (1988): 109-31.

  29. Northumberland remains chief mover of defection at home, repeating the accusations just made by York, and it is Northumberland who inspires the other lords to what will become a move toward Henry, out of fear that if Richard can seize the Lancastrian inheritance, none of them is safe. It is Northumberland who reports Henry's oath:

    The noble Duke hath sworn his coming
    But for his own: and for the right of that
    We have all strongly sworn to give him aid.


In response to K. A. Appiah and Charles Taylor's Call for Papers (V) on the distinction between skepticism and antinomianism (1:2), Common Knowledge began (in 2:2) “to refine a skepticism compatible with solidarity.” Ellen Spolsky's article, “Doubting Thomas and the Senses of Knowing” (3:2), applied this new skepticism to art history. “Telling the Truth with Authority” extends the project into literary history. The author wishes to thank the Cambridge Society of Bombay, the S.N.D.T. Women's University, and the University of Poona for their hospitality during 1992 while she drafted this essay. She also wishes to thank Stefan Collini and Helen Cooper for their criticism of this paper and Joseph M. Levine and Richard Marienstras for urging her to write it.

David Norbrook (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “‘A Liberal Tongue’: Language and Rebellion in Richard II,” in Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, edited by John M. Mucciolo, Scholar Press, 1996, pp. 37-51.

[In the following essay, Norbrook considers the ways in which the original Elizabethan audience (in particular, those individuals involved in the Essex rebellion) might have responded to Richard II. Norbrook surveys the knowledge Elizabethans had of their country's past and asserts that the play reflected contemporary concerns regarding the necessity of a guaranteed forum for national debate and criticism (Parliament) and the danger of the growth of royal absolutism.]

A consistent theme of W. R. Elton's teaching, at once daunting and bracing, has been that for all the volume of commentary generated by Shakespeare's plays, there is still a great deal to be done in understanding their initial contexts. Richard II is a case in point. It is generally accepted that it is the play of which the Lord Chamberlain's Men staged a special performance on 7 February 1601; the following day, eleven members of that audience took up arms in Essex's rebellion. The interpretation of that evidence, however, is much more problematic. I believe that the play has been widely misinterpreted—or at least very selectively interpreted—by a misunderstanding of its contexts in political and intellectual history. But it will be a long time before those contexts have been fully recovered; we still lack a full study of the politics of Essex and his circle; and the analysis of political discourse in the 1590s is not nearly as well developed as for the mid seventeenth-century period. In the limited space available, I shall try to question the validity of some long-current contexts and offer some alternatives, on the basis of which I shall attempt, in a necessarily very tentative way, to reconstruct some of the ways in which the audience of 1601 might have responded to the play.1

The play's opening line can put us on the right track. But all too often it has done the reverse. ‘Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster’: the ethos is of age and tradition, looking back to a medieval past. From the nineteenth century onward, the medieval era has conjured up an image of an organic community, of a harmonious hierarchy united by a simple religious faith, with deferential peasants and mystically sanctioned rulers. That image of the middle ages became hardened during the reaction against the French Revolution, and it was in that period that conservative readings of the first tetralogy as expressing nostalgia for a lost social unity became current.2 E. M. W. Tillyard's reading of the histories, while more historically grounded, drew on similar patterns of analysis.

The nostalgic readings gained a new lease of life with the publication in 1957 of Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies. Kantorowicz reads Richard II as dramatizing the theory that the monarch has two bodies, one natural and mortal, the other artificial, mystical and immortal. The tragedy of the play lies in the emerging split between these two bodies. Stage by stage Richard's sacramental unity becomes violently severed until in the deposition scene his body becomes ‘now devoid of any metaphysis whatever’.3 This pattern of explanation throws the emphasis firmly on Richard, and Kantorowicz acknowledges a debt to Walter Pater's analysis of the poet-king. His political sympathies are clearly with Richard. One of ‘Richard's so-called “tyrannies”’, his claim that the laws of the realm were in his head, in fact ‘merely referred to a well known maxim of Roman and Canon Laws’.4 His accusers, then, were merely betraying their provincial ignorance. That emphasis is characteristic of Kantorowicz's strategy in his book, which is to uncover a buried vein of metaphysical mysticism in what had traditionally been seen as the hard-headed empiricism of English common law. His reading of Shakespeare is strongly marked by the conservative German tradition, and The King's Two Bodies retains traces of his early allegiance to the mystical monarchism of the poet Stefan George.5

Kantorowicz's reading has exercised a powerful influence on recent new historicist criticism: it brings together favoured themes of the body, power and display, and comes with a strong recommendation from Michel Foucault.6 Although in the article that named the ‘new historicist’ movement Stephen Greenblatt drew attention to the need to set interpretations of Richard II in their political contexts,7 this principle has not been very consistently followed, and it is possible to detect strong residues of older conservative readings in later new historicist work.8 Greenblatt's own subsequent downplaying of the possible radicalizing effects of Shakespeare's histories on their audiences reflects the growing influence of Foucault's scepticism about agency.9 But he was, I believe, right in his original insistence that the 1601 performance was a significant pointer to elements in the play's political rhetoric; the emphasis on mystical bodies has distracted attention from very different aspects of the play and of Elizabethan political discourse in general.

For if the Elizabethans did feel nostalgic for the medieval past, it was not necessarily for mystical bodies that they yearned. ‘Old’ and ‘time-honoured’ would not have conjured up unequivocally monarchist associations for the rebel party of 1601. And, indeed, for any reader of Holinshed.10 The reign of Richard II as there described is no timeless idyll of metaphysical unity, but a period of sharp contestation: popular rebellion, attempts at religious reformation under Wyclif, and struggles to maintain or increase the status of Parliament. In those struggles, London plays a key role: Richard tries as far as possible to hold Parliaments out of that city for fear that they will be swayed by growing extra-parliamentary pressure on the MPs. The House of Commons begins calling for annual Parliaments, to which Richard retorts that he would rather submit himself to the King of France than to his own subjects. A group of lords try to keep Richard under strict control to the point of threatening to depose him.11

If the late fourteenth century offered an object lesson for readers of the 1590s, it was not because subjects were nostalgic for absolutism but because they feared its recurrence. Those chivalric spectacles that look so quaint and archaic today had a sharp political edge: as Richard McCoy has shown, Essex and his circle vindicated traditional aristocratic ideas of honour against the monarchy's attempt to centralize honour in loyalty to the monarch. Essex tried to revive feudal offices that had served to restrict monarchical power.12 An increasingly important body of antiquarian thought was beginning to formulate the concept of feudalism and to heighten public awareness of longlapsed constitutional precedents for challenges to royal power.13 The remedies of annual Parliaments and aristocratic councils were to be looked to increasingly under the early Stuarts. When the Civil War broke out, Parliamentarian leaders consciously looked back to the Middle Ages; for them, absolutism was an innovative phenomenon to be resisted by an appeal to deep-rooted constitutionalist traditions.14 Sir John Hayward's The Life and Raigne of King Henrie IIII, which opened with Bullingbrook's challenge to Mowbray, was republished in 1641, 1642 and 1643. The Parliamentarian leaders saw themselves as offering a comparable trial by battle, and indeed individuals were still ready to engage in trial by combat.15

This aristocratic constitutionalism could blend with classical republicanism: Roman history too could be read as a struggle between independent aristocrats and tyrannical sovereigns. Republican discourse was circulating in England in the 1590s: Hayward's history, the first major synthesis of classical Tacitean discourse with English history, appeared two years before the Essex rebellion, with a dedication to the Earl.16 The leading republican theorist of the later seventeenth century, Algernon Sidney, was to remember how his ancestors had been betrayed by monarchical deceit:

Henry the Fourth was made king by the earl of Northumberland, and his brave son Hotspur … but [he could not] think himself safe, till his benefactor was dead.17

Sidney was proud of his connections with the earls of Northumberland, a traditionally independent aristocratic dynasty. The seventh earl had been executed in 1572 for his part in the northern rebellion, and the family were forbidden to venture into their traditional territories north of the Trent. (For members of the family, the scene in 1 Henry IV where the Percies are awarded that territory would have been very poignant.) The eighth earl was accused of treason and found dead in suspicious circumstances. The ninth earl, brother of the conspirators and husband of Essex's sister, distanced himself from Essex, but his heterodox views made him suspect, and he was to be imprisoned by James for many years under suspicion of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. Unsurprisingly, the tenth earl, Algernon Sidney's uncle, sided with Parliament in the Civil War. He allegedly opposed the punishment of those responsible for the execution of Charles I in 1649, declaring that ‘the example might be more useful and profitable to kings, by deterring them from such exorbitances’.18

In this context, it is very interesting to note that two of the three commissioners of the 1601 performance were Charles and Jocelyn Percy, brothers of the ninth Earl of Northumberland. Far from being nostalgic for the loss of sacramental absolutist monarchy, they would have feared its recurrence. And we have fascinating evidence of how one member of their circle responded to the next play in the tetralogy. A notebook has recently come to light containing detailed notes apparently taken at a performance of 1 Henry IV; amongst the lines singled out are Worcester's reminding Henry that he owes his own crown to men like himself and Northumberland (I, iii, 10-13), and Henry's account of the stratagems by which he gained popular favour, ‘opinion’, even in the presence of the king—but this commentator has pointedly changed the last word to ‘Queene’. The notebook also contains heterodox religious opinions, questioning God's existence, and the author may have been Thomas Harriot, a close associate of the ninth earl, or else a member of the Essex circle. Greenblatt's brilliantly intuitive link between Harriot's subversiveness and Shakespeare's plays may turn out to have had concrete grounding.19 Though written before Hayward's history, the play does, as Richard Tuck suggests, display something of the critical scepticism found in Tacitist discourse.

The young Percies, then, would have had a particular interest in seeing their house at a period when it was a kingmaker; and Richard II presented their rebellious activities in a somewhat more favourable light than its successors. Shakespeare and his company had close links with Essex's circle in the 1590s, Essex himself being a regular playgoer, and the revival of this by now ‘old’ play would have been a reassuring evocation of a familiar cultural world. We may still wonder why the Essexians did not choose a more directly and overtly rebellious play like Woodstock, which handles resistance to Richard and his favourites in a more starkly critical mode. Richard II is more oblique in its handling of the motives for rebellion. Yet insofar as there is a sense of caution, of evading direct statement on such key issues as Richard's implication in Gloucester's death, that sense of blocked communication could have served to heighten the political tension. The rebels had long been urging Essex to overcome his reservations about rebellion and take a stand to redeem the country's honour; here was a play that demonstrated a slow and painful process of formulating opposition.20 The issue of blocked communication is at once internal and external to the play: the most sensitive moment, Richard's self-deposition, seems to have been omitted for political reasons from the early quartos.21 The chronicles were full of stories of monarchs who tried to consolidate their power by stifling Parliaments and other outlets for public discussion. The preservation of a guaranteed space for debate and criticism was a major concern of those worried about the growth of royal absolutism, whether in the fourteenth century or the sixteenth. Shakespeare's play embodies that concern, both in the story it tells and in its medium, opening up in a public theatre areas of debate that absolutists wanted to keep veiled as mysteries of state.

The opening part of the play involves continual anticlimax, a repression of political and military action which serves only to fuel the underlying conflicts. Bullingbrook's combat with Mowbray, whose political consequences would have been known by an informed audience to be explosive, is deferred in the first scene and again in the third. Actual conflict is sublimated into a war of words: Bullingbrook threatens to bite off his tongue and spit it out at Mowbray (I, i, 190). Despite his attack on mere words as womanish (I, i, 48), however, Mowbray, like all the protagonists, is an able rhetorician, and he will lament that exile makes it no longer possible for him to use his language. Shakespeare has given this feudal society an anachronistic inflection of civic humanism, a concern with the dignity and political importance of full and open speech. (Modern critics' model of language in the plays as a ‘fall’ from plenitude into rhetoric suppresses the centrality of language as a mode of action in pragmatically-oriented humanist rhetoric.)22 Mowbray pleads for ‘free speech’, which Richard allows him (I, i, 55, 123). But we are aware of ironies: Richard and Mowbray cannot afford to speak too freely since they are engaged in a cover-up. And the fact that Richard ‘allows’ free speech is one of the points at issue: how far should such freedom be a grace offered from above, rather than a constitutional right?

For the more Richard tries to stifle dissent, the more he undermines himself. His own position is vulnerable because he increasingly places his own and his favourites' private interests against the common good, his party dwindling to ‘some few private friends’ (III, iii, 4). Only as he is falling from power does he realize that his mystical conception of kingship needs a material foundation, that his role as head of the body politic depends on ‘the blood of twenty thousand men’ (III, ii, 76). By contrast, in the opening scenes his opponents rediscover a threatened sense of corporate identity.23 The first scene had opened with an address to Gaunt, the second opens with his pondering ‘the part I had in Woodstock's blood’, which acts with his widow's reproaches to stir him to resistance; and the Duchess loses no opportunity to reinforce the appeal to blood and to a sense of common identity: ‘Yet art thou slain in him’ (I, ii, 25). Gaunt's language registers a struggle to overlay such sentiments with a discourse of patience and submission; to which the Duchess starkly retorts, ‘Call it not patience, Gaunt, it is despair’ (I, ii, 29); her ‘old Gaunt’ (54) rings reproachfully against the play's opening words. Gaunt's struggle continues in the ensuing scene. Bullingbrook celebrates the energy he gains from ‘the earthly author of my blood’ which gives him ‘a twofold vigour’ (I, iii, 69-71). Gaunt goes along with his banishment, but his language registers the crisis of language and agency into which he has been plunged:

But you gave leave to my unwilling tongue
Against my will to do myself this wrong.

(I, iii, 245-6)

Bullingbrook, however, is by now starting to break loose from such restrictions, and there is exhilaration in his concluding self-description as ‘a true-born Englishman’ (I, iii, 308). His stance is modulating from an exclusively aristocratic to a generally national one; the play's strong sense of nationalism is another anachronism with a strong contemporary resonance. There was a certain appropriateness in eighteenth-century editors' spelling ‘Bullingbrook’ as ‘Bolingbroke’, associating Shakespeare's protagonist with the spokesman for a form of monarchism that was deeply influenced by classical republicanism.24 In the ensuing scene we see the courtiers contemptuously discussing his courting of the people at large. Richard's description of the commoners as ‘slaves’ (I, iv, 27) confirms the opposition's claims that the absolutist faction want to enslave them (II, i, 291); contempt for the commons is a consistent characteristic of the court party (cf. II, ii, 128ff, III, iii, 89, V, i, 35).

It is in this context of escalating opposition that the Essexians would have read a speech that has tended to dwindle to a mass of patriotic clichés: Gaunt's ‘sceptred isle’ speech. The tension between submission and resistance that has so beset him finds a resolution in his determination to make a final appeal to the king through rhetoric rather than arms, and he musters all his rhetorical forces. But York is sceptical: flattery has deafened the king's ear. And though Gaunt feels a prophetic afflatus, there is a certain irony in the fact that it comes before the king has arrived, so that his greatest appeal to a common patriotic spirit serves to vent his own feelings rather than to sway the king. The reference to Eden does conjure up a nostalgic mood, but it should also be noted that greater emphasis is placed on the island's prowess in war, a somewhat un-Edenic activity crucial both to the feudal aristocracy and to the ‘war party’ around Essex. It is because of their skill in war that Gaunt reveres the kings of the past. As the huge sentence with its suspended verb builds up, we feel the strain of Gaunt's dying powers, as if the very intensity of his rhetoric is serving to destroy him: ‘I die pronouncing it’ (II, i, 59).

Shakespeare has boldly placed this set-piece speech, which he must have known would quickly enter anthologies, at a potentially anticlimactic point: how will Gaunt be able to follow it up when Richard does arrive? Richard's first words apply the ‘aged’ label, but with a perfunctory insensitivity that graphically registers how the same words can perform widely different speech-acts: ‘What comfort, man? How is't with aged Gaunt?’ (II, i, 72). After parodying Richard's brittle symmetries in skirmish of bitter punning, Gaunt launches into a speech that pushes at last beyond the threshold of obedience: he imagines Edward II as deposing Richard, and indulges at least in imagination in rebellion. As ‘landlord’, Richard has reduced a political realm, one in which law and public accountability predominate, to a mere household economy where the subjects lack political rights.25 Richard cuts off his speech, overruling the ‘ague's privilege’ that transgresses normal rules of speech, and gives Gaunt's words a vivid, self-destructive materiality:

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.

(II, i, 121-3)

Again discourse is brought to the brink of violence but holds back: Richard pays grudging tribute to feudal bonds. But this provokes Gaunt into his climactic charge: at last he holds back no longer and directly accuses him of complicity in Woodstock's murder. The audience have been waiting for this moment since the opening scene. In civic humanist spirit, Gaunt's finest rhetorical hour is not the lyrical meditation of the ‘sceptred isle’ speech but his last moment of strenuous active engagement.26

And it is at this point that Northumberland enters the play, bearing the news of Gaunt's death with a characteristically acerbic irony:

My liege, old Gaunt commends him to your Majesty.
What says he?
                                                            Nay nothing, all is said;
His tongue is now a stringless instrument[.]

(II, i, 147-8)

This further ‘old Gaunt’ reminds the audience of Richard's recent irreverence, the Duchess's rebukes, and the play's opening words. The Percies in the audience would have had a special interest in Northumberland's role: would the open opposition now begin? But there is yet another moment of anticlimax: York now takes on the role Gaunt had earlier occupied, struggling desperately not to topple over the verge into rebellion. But for him it is even harder: his often-protested patience (II, i, 163, 169, 207) is coming to seem more and more like cowardice. York makes one last appeal to common bonds between Richard and his peers, to the common memory of Edward III: ‘His face thou hast’ (II, i, 176). He engages in a series of sharp antitheses between Edward's patriotism and Richard's absolutism; but the sharpness of those antitheses, undercutting any possible resemblance, itself becomes seditious, and York breaks off:

O Richard! York is too far gone with grief,
Or else he never would compare between—

(II, i, 184-5)

If you continue as you are, he resumes, ‘Be not thyself’: Richard's personal identity must depend on being bound up with a larger community. Such paradoxes are not enough to contain York's sense of facing a discursive crisis that he does not know how to resolve. His final sentence begins ‘Now afore God—God forbid I say true!’ (II, i, 200): to call on God for him not to speak truly is a desperate recourse. If you continue, says York,

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

(II, i, 206-8)

This speech brings out explicitly what the whole opening part of the play has implied: that quite apart from external censorship, absolutism depends for its maintenance on self-censorship, on keeping subversive thoughts away from the threshold of consciousness. In the following scene we have another glimpse of that process, as York momentarily confuses the queen with the Duchess of Gloucester, whose death the servant has forgotten to announce. The audience are reminded that the Duchess had despairingly abandoned an invitation to him as she bowed out of the play (I, ii, 62ff). York is troubled by his inability to formulate a response to her fidelity to Gloucester's memory. The Duchess's abandoning of her request to ‘commend’ her to York has re-echoed in Northumberland's heavily ironic ‘old Gaunt commends him to your majesty’.

But Northumberland is by now emerging as the agent of a different policy, crossing the threshold to active resistance. The aristocrats who linger after the king's departure in Act II scene i emphasize the continuity of agency from one generation to another:

Well, Lords, the Duke of Lancaster is dead.
—And living too, for now his son is duke.

(II, i, 224-5)

Northumberland's role is to translate seditious thoughts into effective action. When Ross laments that

My heart is great, but it must break with silence,
Ere't be disburdened with a liberal tongue

(II, i, 229-30)

it is Northumberland who tells him to ‘speak thy mind’ (II, i, 230). Ross's ‘liberal’ does not of course have its modern sense, and carries with it rather the pejorative charge that would have been the response to Richard's careless speaking of his ‘liberal largess’ (I, iv, 44); but the play does have an emotional and intellectual pressure toward wishing for more open communication. To encourage his friends, Northumberland remains within a very traditional discourse of obedience: like York, he claims that ‘The king is not himself’ (II, i, 241), that he is merely led by flatterers. We may however suspect disingenuousness at least on the part of Northumberland, who reveals himself as a determined political manipulator; certainly the Richard of the play takes the initiative rather than being manipulated by courtiers, who often find it hard to get a word in edgeways (cf. III, ii, 213ff). Northumberland's role is to sharpen the contrast between common feudal bonds and allegiance to the king, and he does so in an economical antithesis: Richard has exiled ‘His noble kinsman—most degenerate king!’ (II, i, 262; cf. York at II, ii, 114). Northumberland titillates his fellows by claiming that ‘I dare not say’ what his hope is; but Ross appeals to the common bonds of aristocratic solidarity:

We three are but thyself, and, speaking so,
Thy words are but as thoughts; therefore be bold.

(II, i, 276-7)

The transition is about to be made from purely verbal to military opposition.

Northumberland's imagery as he urges decisive action is one of opening out, of bringing the private once more into a public realm:

If then we shall shake off our slavish yoke,
Imp out our drooping country's broken wing,
Redeem from broking pawn the blemish'd crown,
Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre's gilt,
And make high majesty look like itself,
Away with me in post to Ravenspurgh;
But if you faint, as fearing to do so,
Stay, and be secret, and myself will go.

(II, i, 291-8)

Northumberland's language negotiates between loyalty to the monarchy and a wider patriotic loyalty, one in which public resistance is preferable to secret compliance. The suppressed pun on ‘guilt’ at line 294 (to be echoed at V, i, 69) associates the king with the dust that hides the monarchical sceptre. But the imagery of shaking off yokes, of opening out wings, points beyond a narrowly monarchical conception of national interest, while leaving the precise constitutional implications tautologically vague (‘make high majesty look like itself’).

What ensues as the play moves to its climax is certainly not a straight-forward celebration of rebellion, and Northumberland does not emerge in a light that would have been unequivocally appealing to his descendants. Though Shakespeare plays down the full extent of his role in the rebellion, he emerges as a cool and ruthless operator, ready to flatter Bullingbrook's nascently regal ‘discourse’ as ‘sugar’ (II, iii, 6-7), outrageously quick to redefine treason for the new political order (IV, i, 150). Nevertheless, it is important that he does offer the audience a perspective on events distinct from any simple dualism between Richard and Bullingbrook. While modern critics tend to concentrate on his personal moral duplicity, an audience of the 1590s would have been equally alert to his role in trying to maintain a discourse of the aristocratic, and occasionally of the common, good, independently of whichever monarch may be in power. When he laments ‘civil and uncivil arms’ (III, iii, 102), the play on words seems to be echoing the opening line of Lucan's Pharsalia (‘Bella … plus quam civilia’), whose republican sympathies were gaining it interested readers in the 1590s; Marlowe's translation of Book I had been printed the year before the Essexians' performance.27 Northumberland's discourse thus has a tinge of civic humanism; and in the deposition scene he is more keen than Bullingbrook to keep attention on constitutional issues as opposed to Richard's personal emotions. It is Northumberland who keeps urging Richard to read out the 33 articles—the evidence of what Kantorowicz termed Richard's ‘so-called tyranny’—so that the commons ‘May deem that you are worthily depos'd’ (IV, i, 227, cf. 272). Northumberland's language here directly echoes that of Holinshed: the articles were read ‘to the end the commons might be persuaded, that he was an vnprofitable prince to the common-wealth, and worthie to be deposed’.28 The ‘and’ in that sentence is pregnant with a whole set of decidedly unmetaphysical political assumptions. The play's closing speech is given to Bullingbrook's desire to wash away his guilt; Northumberland has bowed out of the play on a characteristically less emotive note: ‘My guilt be on my head, and there an end’ (V, i, 69). We are made to condemn the harshness of the separation of king and queen, and Northumberland's justification with the conventionally suspect, Machiavellian term ‘policy’ (V, i, 84). That is, appropriately, his last word in the scene. Feudal rebellion has merged with a more modern form of political agency. Even those of the audience who did not approve of Northumberland would have had to acknowledge the dangers of a lack of ‘policy’.

When Charles and Jocelyn Percy watched Richard II, then, they would have found much to fire them in emulation of a medieval past that was far from cravenly monarchical. And they would not necessarily have been daunted by the pathos of Richard's fall, any more than their nephew the tenth earl was moved by the cult of the royal martyr to unequivocal condemnation of the execution of Charles I. By concentrating on the aristocracy's role in the play, it is possible to see how limited is the perspective that sees it as offering a straightforward choice between Richard and Bullingbrook. That is not to say, however, that the aristocratic viewpoint is finally endorsed. In Richard II, the voices of other social groups are by and large excluded, being reserved for the Henry IV plays. The effect is to heighten the sense of an archaic, hieratic political order that has so swayed some critics. But there are hints of alternative perspectives.

It is in the garden scene that members of the lower orders make their only extended appearance. Critics have emphasized this scene's formal, archaic quality. It is indeed particularly dense with sacramental rhetoric. But it is important to note how that rhetoric is placed. It is here associated with the Queen; it is consistently the favoured discourse of the Yorkists. And in this scene it is placed in direct contrast with different conceptions of political order. Of course we are made to sympathize with the queen's grief and shock; but this should not blind us to structural problems in the scene's discourse. The queen initiates the contrast as soon as she sees the gardener and his servants: she decides to hide and eavesdrop, convinced that

They'll talk of state, for everyone doth so
Against a change; woe is forerun with woe.

(III, iv, 27-8)

For the queen, this talk of ‘state’ by the lower orders is a subversion of order. The gardeners, however, have their own conception of order, which looks back to Gaunt's ‘this England’ speech, though it lacks his feudal militarism. They insist on the predominance of public over private interest, and on the need for active intervention to remedy abuses even at the cost of violence:

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

(III, iv, 32-6)

The word ‘commonwealth’ here, along with the emphasis on evenness, and the reference to decapitation of favourites, carries an oblique tinge of republican discourse. The rhetoric is literally radical: the role of the head gardener is to ‘root away’ the weeds, a role which he himself compares to Bullingbrook's (37, 52). It is one of the under-gardeners who initiates direct political discussion, converting the literal discussion of the garden into a political allegory and asking why they should work while their leaders let the realm go to ruin. The head gardener has enough of a sense of hierarchies of discourse to ask him to ‘Hold thy peace’; but he goes on to develop the allegory, contrasting the gardeners' skill with the courtiers' incompetence, and building up to prophesying that the king will be deposed.

At this point the queen angrily intervenes:

O, I am press'd to death through want of speaking!
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? Say, where, when, and how
Cam'st thou by this ill tidings?


The queen's opening words return the play yet again to the theme of suppressed discourse; though in this case the queen has imposed the limitation on herself. Her grief at the news is displaced by anger at its bearer for breaking her rigidly hierarchical conceptions of language: it is not for such underlings to meddle with mysteries of state. She finds his tongue ‘harsh’ and ‘rude’: understandable though her response is under the circumstances, it does recall Richard's preference for euphemistic harmony over unwelcome truth. The queen lives in a world of absolute oppositions between rulers and people as between good and evil, and she recasts the gardener's horticultural discourse in authoritarian terms. Like all the Yorkists, the Duchess speaks disparagingly of the lower orders; and she appeals to a theological conception of political order, with any intervention by the commons presented as a fall of man. Her interpretation of the garden thus contrasts sharply with the gardener's less mystical, more interventionist garden/state allegory. And the gardener stands his ground. He describes Richard's fall not in a traditional mode of the Fall of man or de casibus tragedy, but in a secular language of balance of power: reinforced by ‘all the peers’, Bullingbrook is bound to triumph in the end. Richard falls not because God has withdrawn his favour but because he has neglected the proper political means. Let her go to London—the centre of England's public sphere—and she will find the truth. The Queen's response is to curse the gardener's plants. The gardener, however, gracefully deflects this destructive speech-act, planting an emblematic bank of rue. If the scene thus ends on a pathetic and organic register, it has arrived there by a far more complex route.

This scene is entirely of Shakespeare's invention, and it bears scrutiny as an allegory not only of political discourse but of the role of Shakespeare's company in politics, of their disposition of their flowers of rhetoric. Several critics have noted that the gardener's reference to cutting off heads may allude to a story in Livy about Tarquin's sending an execution order through an agricultural code so that the messenger would not understand it. In this case, however, it is the messenger who understands more than the queen. The scene opens on a note of courtly recreation: the queen asks her ladies to divert her, and they offer to engage in whatever activity pleases her. In place of aristocratic festivity, the gardener offers a more didactic form of entertainment, one ultimately too didactic for the queen, who considers that it interferes in mysteries of state and halts the narrative. This scene immediately precedes the deposition scene, which was of course not printed in full in the Elizabethan quartos. Richard II contains an oblique prophecy of its own censorship: the play is aware that it is touching on sensitive areas of political discourse, areas that displace a top-down hierarchy. And yet it protests that those above may need that commoners' discourse at least as much as the commoners need them.

In this play, however, the commons remain spectators, not agents. Emphasis is placed on aristocratic agency—the gardener's own analysis of the power structure refers only to the aristocracy, not to the commons. To some degree, that omission reflects changes between Shakespeare's own time and the period he represents, that growth in the public sphere in which the theatre formed a significant part. It might have been better for the aristocratic rebels of 1601 to have taken this point. Though they enjoyed some passive support from the London populace, their coup sought legitimacy from feudal traditions rather than from wider consultation, and was ultimately short on ‘policy’. When, on the morning after the play's performance, Essex rode through the city asking for the Londoners' support, counting on their admiration for his aristocratic dash and charisma, he failed to reckon with the fact that they might find him impulsive and irresponsible. In the play the citizens are presented as fickle and politically immature, turning easily from Richard to acclaim Bullingbrook in his passage through London. When Essex and his followers made their entry to the city, in a display of their aristocratic authority, the citizens of 1601 stayed in their houses, and watched, and waited.29


  1. Most studies of the play's audience have been cast in ahistorical terms or have assumed the play's designs on the audience to be highly orthodox: Phyllis Rackin, ‘The Role of the Audience in Shakespeare's Richard II’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1985), 262-81 (267), assumes that the audience will experience rebellion as a ‘terrible crime’. For more historically specific readings see J. H. Hexter, ‘Property, Monopoly, and Shakespeare's Richard II’, in P. Zagorin (ed.), Culture and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 1-24; Ernest W. Talbert, The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare's Art (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1962) and Graham Holderness, Shakespeare's History (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, New York: St Martin's Press, 1985). Leeds Barroll, ‘A New History for Shakespeare and his Time’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 39 (1988), 441-64, gives a salutary rejoinder to some exaggerated accounts of the play's political subversiveness, but his scepticism on some points seems to me exaggerated. Barroll argues that the rebels ‘misconstrued’ (454, italics his) Shakespeare's play. A misconstruction which came from figures at the centre of a powerful international network of political intelligence and cultural patronage, on the basis of several years of continuing familiarity with the work of Shakespeare's company, might have some claims to being an alternative, rather than an italicized ‘mis’, construction. Quotations from Richard II are from the New Arden edition, ed. Peter Ure (London: Methuen, 1961).

  2. See especially the writings of the strongly legitimist writer Adam Müller, who formulated long before Tillyard a theory of the second tetralogy as registering a historical shift from feudalism to the modern state, with a concomitant division in the monarchy. Richard II, in his view, represented the warning example of a monarch whose excessive rigidity led to revolution (Louis XVI offered the obvious parallel). See Roy Pascal, Shakespeare in Germany 1740-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), pp. 31-3, 153ff; and on comparable developments in English criticism, Jonathan Bate, Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism 1730-1830 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

  3. Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 40.

  4. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, p. 28 n.5

  5. For fuller discussion see David Norbrook, ‘The Emperor's New Body? Ernst H. Kantorowicz, Richard II, and the Politics of Shakespeare Criticism’, forthcoming in Textual Practice.

  6. See Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), pp. 33-4.

  7. Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Introduction’ to The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books, 1982), pp. 3-6.

  8. The first detailed application of Kantorowicz's paradigm, Marie Axton's The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977), clearly demonstrated that there were rivals to the ‘two bodies’ theory, a nuance lost in later accounts such as Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York and London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 77-8, and Christopher Pye, The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 64, 73, 85ff, 101.

  9. For the claim that ‘the audience does not leave the theatre in a rebellious mood’ see Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V’, in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p. 41; and for a subsequent modification, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 55. Greenblatt was perhaps reacting against the overstated terms in which he had at first presented the play's subversiveness, for correctives to which see Barroll, ‘A New History’.

  10. See Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed's Chronicles (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1994).

  11. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, ed. Henry Ellis, 6 vols (London, 1808), II, 735ff, 717, 721, 734, 775, 791ff.

  12. Richard C. McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood: The Literature and Politics of Elizabethan Chivalry (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1989), ch. 4. See also Mervyn James, ‘At a Crossroads of the Political Culture: The Essex Revolt, 1601’, in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 416-65.

  13. J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957; reissue, 1987).

  14. J. S. A. Adamson, ‘The Baronial Context of the English Civil War’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 40 (1990), 93-120 (95 n.13).

  15. George Wither's poetic defence of the regicide, The British Appeals (London, 1651) saw the Parliamentarians' victory as a divinely-approved trial by combat.

  16. Richard Tuck, Philosophy and Government 1572-1651 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 106-7.

  17. Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, in J. Robertson (ed.), Sydney on Government: The Works of Algernon Sydney, pp. 240-1, cited by Jonathan Scott, Algernon Sidney and the English Republic 1623-1677 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 46.

  18. Ibid., pp. 48, 44.

  19. Hilton Kelliher, ‘Contemporary Manuscript Extracts from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1’, English Manuscript Studies 1100-1800, 1 (1989), 144-81. Amongst the passages cited are I, iii, 6-14, II, i, 80-82, III, ii, 40ff.

  20. James, ‘At a Crossroads of the Political Culture’, p. 447.

  21. Janet Clare, ‘Art Made Tongue-Tied by Authority’: Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatic Censorship (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990), pp. 47-51. Barroll, ‘A New History’, pp. 448-9, points out that there is no firm evidence of censorship and argues that the lines missing in the earlier quartos may have been added later by Shakespeare in an expansion of Richard's ‘psychic identity’. But the scene also contains elements which were not purely psychological in interest, such as Northumberland's insistence on satisfying the commons that the king was worthily deposed, an elaboration on Holinshed.

  22. See James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’ (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1979), and Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1979), both of which read the plays in terms of a fall from an older, unified linguistic order, an analysis which leads them to concentrate on Richard at the expense of other figures in the play. Calderwood, Metadrama, p. 191 n.12, argues that the pre-modern linguistic world resembled the ‘primitive’ thought of Tasmanian aborigines. Tuck, Philosophy and Government, exemplifies a much more sophisticated development of speech-act theory in the analysis of discourse.

  23. On the importance of blood and lineage among Essex's followers, see James, ‘At the Crossroads of the Political Culture’, pp. 435ff.

  24. Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (London: Routledge, 1990), p 47 n.14.

  25. On the way this line has often been glossed in a misleadingly absolutist sense see Donna B. Hamilton, ‘The State of Law in Richard II’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983), 5-17.

  26. For an excellent analysis of this scene see George D. Gopen, ‘Private Grief into Public Action: The Rhetoric of John of Gaunt in Richard II’, Studies in Philology, 84 (1987), 338-62.

  27. Shakespeare may also have engaged with Lucan via Daniel's The Civil Wars, whose opening echoes Lucan's: see George M. Logan, ‘Lucan—Daniel—Shakespeare: New Light on the Relation between The Civil Wars and Richard II’, Shakespeare Studies, 9 (1976), 121-40. See also McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood, pp. 116-18.

  28. Holished, op. cit., II, 859. Holinshed goes on to call the articles ‘heinous’, a word echoed by Richard at IV, i, 233. It is characteristic of the Ricardian emphasis of modern editions that Ure, pp. 138, 191, should cite the ‘heinous’ parallel but omit the ‘worthily’.

  29. As Giles Fletcher revealingly put it, the citizens held back from rebellion ‘being faithful subjects, and careful of their estates’ (James, ‘At a Crossroads of the Political Culture’, p. 453); on the later shift toward more Parliamentary forms of opposition, see pp. 462ff.

James L. Calderwood (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5774

SOURCE: “Richard II: Metadrama and the Fall of Speech,” in Shakespeare's History Plays: Richard II to Henry V, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 121-35.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Calderwood maintains that Richard II represents not only the fall of a king, but the “fall of kingly speech” as well.]

It is hardly surprising that a playwright like Shakespeare would project his concerns about drama not only into life but even into the fictional life of his plays, where the world may become a stage, history a plot, kings dramatists, courtiers actors, commoners audiences, and speech itself the dialogue or script that gives breath to all the rest.

In the Henriad the main metadramatic plot centres in the ‘fall of speech’. To the Divine Rightness of Richard's kingship corresponds a kind of language in which words have an inalienable right to their meanings, even a divine right in so far as God is the ultimate guarantor of verbal truth. In this sacramental language of Richard's imagination God is an invisible third partner to every dialogue, the final verbal authority, even as He is the invisible third partner in every trial by combat, the final judgemental authority. Richard's sentimental, magical investment in royal semantics metaphorically reflects Shakespeare's own artistic investment in the poetic mode and in a language of ontological rightness, a language of ‘names’. Not that Richard in any blunt sense ‘is’ Shakespeare—though he is surely his imaginative possession—for it is Shakespeare, after all, who supplies us with a critique of Richard's position. Metaphors are metaphors, in short, not allegorical equations.

For God as the third partner in dialogue Bolingbroke substitutes material force, human need, ‘votes’. The determinant of meaning is now, like the occupant of a throne, whoever gets there first with the most. When Richard and Bolingbroke meet at Flint Castle, the royal name so tenuously held by Richard is without meaning, and the forceful meaning of Bolingbroke is without the royal name. Words and meanings generally are now disjunct. In the ‘base court’ (appropriately) the third partner to Richard's and Bolingbroke's dialogue, the verbal authority, is not God but Bolingbroke's twenty thousand silent soldiers, who help seize the word ‘king’ and give it the new meaning of ‘Henry IV’. This ‘debasement’ of kingship involves the secularising of language as well, the surrender of a sacramental language to a utilitarian one in which the relation between words and things is arbitrary, unsure, and ephemeral.

Bolingbroke's usurpation of the name ‘king’ brings into dramatic being both the lie and metaphor. Falstaff, the corporealised lie, is also a low-life metaphor for kingship, as at a higher level is Hotspur, ‘king of honour’. Prince Hal begins his ascent toward the throne as an apparent lie, the wastrel truant. And in the person of Henry IV the lie is on the throne of England. Even the dramatist Shakespeare must seem a liar, now that truth, meaning, and value are no longer naturally resident in words. Thus he and Hal, the interior dramatist, begin their plays as seeming liars and seek to transcend the fallen, lie-fraught world of Henry IV by restoring value and meaning both to kingship and to the King's English.

In the Henry IV plays the redemption of the word is commercially figured as the paying of verbal debts, by Hal, ‘who never promiseth but he means to pay’ (V.iv.43), and by Shakespeare, whose successful dramatic form depends on his fulfilment of structural promises. A lie is the price of bribing the temporarily rebellious Falstaff to re-enter the illusion of history in I Henry IV: ‘For my part, if a lie may do thee grace, / I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have’ (V.iv.161-2). And a more heinous lie is the price of subduing the rebel forces at the ‘battle’ of Gaultree Forest in II Henry IV. In this break-faith world one word is made good—Hal's promise to redeem time when men think least he will, particularly the implicit promise of his quiet reply to Falstaff's ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’—‘I do, I will’ (II.iv.526-8). A fuller redemption of speech is accomplished in Henry V. There the divinely guaranteed truths of Richard's reign and the ubiquitous lies of Henry's are succeeded by rhetoric, the language of conquest. The rhetorical word is no longer instinct with value, as in Richard's time, nor divorced from it, as in Henry's, but triumphant over it. In rhetoric, words take on an achieved, pragmatic value as instruments of persuasive action, even as English kingship takes on an earned, human value by virtue of Harry's victory at Agincourt. But Shakespeare's verbal achievement is no more enduring than Harry's brief reign; it is a fugitive solution to linguistic and dramatic enigmas that will vex the playwright to the end of his career. …

As the deposed Richard II sits alone at Pomfret Castle musing on his losses, his only apparent consolation is an abundance of metaphors bestowed upon him by a generous playwright. The most extravagant of these is his sustained conceit identifying himself as Time's ‘numbering clock’:

I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me,
For now hath Time made me his numbering clock.
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell. So sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours. But my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy
While I stand fooling here, his Jack o' the clock.


The ironies of the time-waster now wasted by time, though they eloquently express the pathos of Richard's plight, seem a small semantic return on a poetic investment of twelve lines. However, if the plight of the unemployed sovereign in prison figures that of his sovereign, the poet-playwright Shakespeare, then at that level of interpretation this clock may tell us more than timely truths.

In the first place, as ‘teller’ (l. 55), that is, as true reflector or measuring device, the clock as such is notoriously prone to error, especially in an England that had yet to establish Greenwich as a final temporal authority (even though another great temporal authority, Elizabeth, was born there). In the second place, though Shakespeare probably considered time as part of the natural cosmic order, he could hardly help knowing that of all temporal units the ‘minutes, times and hours’ he emphasises here are the most arbitrary—since days, months, seasons and years are at least based on periodicity in nature. This stress upon the arbitrary and distorting features of temporal representation is reinforced by the fact that Richard's bodily clock reflects his internal state, so that the external representation of time (the ‘outward watch’ of eyes, finger, heart) is governed by the subjective experience of time. The overall effect of the conceit is to bring home to us the extent to which time is humanly created rather than mimetically measured, and hence how fundamentally cut off from time man is. The temporal Ding an sich is presumably out there somewhere, but it is available to man only through the deflecting prism of his symbolic representations. The clock thus asserts the disjunction of man and nature (time) at the very moment that it serves imperfectly to unite the two.

The wayward artificiality of the clock as a teller of nature's truths is mirrored verbally by the strained, rhetorical self-consciousness (for example, ‘Now sir’) of Richard's conceit telling of the clock. All of Richard's metaphors during the latter part of the play and especially at Pomfret Castle exhibit this air of uneasy contrivance. As metaphors they appear to assert an equation of tenor and vehicle—usually of Richard and the world outside his prison—much as the clock presents itself as a true teller of time. But they are metaphors in which Richard no longer believes, and which therefore imply a chasm between him and the world in the very attempt to bridge it:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world.
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it. Yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world
In humours like the people of this

(V.v.1-10; my italics)

What Richard hammers out as a labour of will rather than of belief is a series of metaphoric likenesses whose ambiguous success in connecting him to the world outside is indicated by the fact that they will prove ‘still-breeding’—ever-and-never-breeding at once, always-bearing and yet stillborn.1 Ultimately, however, Richard's thoughts can populate only ‘this little world’, the nursery of his own mind, unable to pass beyond likeness and become authentic citizens in the larger world outside. Metaphors, after all, are not the thing itself.

Symbols had not always seemed so isolated from reality. Indeed, on Richard's unexamined assumptions, language had been bonded to nature and the world order by virtue of God's certification of him as a Divine Right king. The original power of the divine Word remained actively at work in the King's English, just as divine authority descending by way of primogeniture was immanent in Richard himself. But it is the purpose of the play to divest Richard of these views—to drive a wedge between words and their meanings, between the world order and the word order, between the king and the man who is king, and between names and metaphors. Thus we find in Richard II not merely the fall of a king but also the fall of kingly speech—of a speech conceived of as sacramental and ontological, in which words are not proxies for things but part of the things themselves. With the fall of this King's English there falls also a view of reality contained within it, a view so similar to the ‘world picture’ attributed to Elizabeth's reign that the parallels might well seem vexing to anyone who worked in words. ‘I am Richard II’, Elizabeth told William Lombarde, ‘Know ye not that?’ In 1595 Elizabeth had not yet played Richard II to Essex's Bolingbroke, but her language—the English on which playwrights like Shakespeare drew—was already beginning to play Richard II to Sir Francis Bacon's Bolingbroke. I have outlined this general shift from verbal fideism to scepticism during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries [elsewhere]. Shakespeare comes at these matters dramatically. Like Richard in Pomfret Castle, he addresses himself not to linguistic theory, but to homelier things like names and metaphors.

Losing his name, Richard loses everything. Cast out of his medieval world of pre-established order and significance, he is isolated in Pomfret Castle where he attempts, with stiff rhetorical flourishes, to hammer out meanings that had once simply been there for his taking. His resort to metaphor is inevitable once the old names are gone, for metaphor is the language of the unnamed. The process is familiar. Lacking a vocabulary for the unnamed, we steal from the already named. Each successful new metaphor is a creative insight and for a time gives off a spark of aesthetic pleasure. So long as tension exists between tenor and vehicle—so long as there is an element of the negative in our awareness that it is not what it literally claims to be—the metaphor remains metaphoric. With wear, however, this tension slackens, and the metaphor collapses into an inert name—or more familiarly ‘dies’. Thus few people today hear the ‘call’ of the word vocation or feel the ‘fusion of self and god’ in enthusiasm. The fact that baron once meant roughly ‘blockhead’ had been forgotten even by Shakespeare's time, when noble reminders still abounded. Language, in short, is a cemetery of dead metaphors, as linguists are fond of saying; or as poets like Emerson prefer, it is fossil poetry.

In a sense metaphor is an improper use of words, a violation of the linguistic system. Its depth structure is that of the proposition ‘A is B’—‘Honey is sweet’—whether the tenor is present or only implied in the surface structure. But whereas none of the properties of sweetness is incompatible with honey, a metaphor cannot be a metaphor unless some, perhaps most, of its properties are incompatible with its subject. ‘For what else is your Metaphor’, Puttenham asks, ‘but an inversion of sense by transport.’2 For this reason a metaphor may initially look like a terminological error, a misnaming. When Mistress Quickly cries out to the street-fighting Falstaff ‘Ah thou honey-suckle villain!’ and again ‘Thou art a honey-seed’, we may spend some long moments puzzling over the honeylike properties of plump Jack before realising that Mistress Quickly is playing hostess not to metaphor but to malapropism. She means, not ‘honey-suckle’ and ‘honey-seed’, but ‘homicidal’ and ‘homicide’ (II Hen. IV, II.i.55, 59).

In Mistress Quickly's usage, error must be distinguished from apparent metaphor. Normally, it is the other way round: metaphor must earn its title to truth in a contest against error. Any new metaphor must be tested, must win its way to acceptance, its truth competing for favour against the odds of its own more obvious falseness. When in I Henry IV Falstaff calls Mistress Quickly an otter, Hal challenges the term—‘An otter, Sir John! Why an otter?’—thus forcing Falstaff to defend the truth of his metaphor: ‘Why, she's neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her’ (III.iii.142-5). Mistress Quickly bustles forth a convincing denial—‘Thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou!’ (III.iii.147)—but the point is that the question of truth has arisen.

The question of truth is precisely what does not arise in the case of dead metaphors. Here, the vehicle is no longer an illuminating similitude but literally the name of the tenor. No one questions whether ‘far-seeing’ is an appropriate term for the broadcasting of images by radiowaves to receivers that project them onto a picture tube. When the semantic batteries in a metaphor have gone entirely dead, as those of ‘television’ have for most people and certainly for those to whom it is merely ‘TV’, the metaphor ceases to be a metaphor and becomes a name. As such, it passes securely beyond challenges as to its truth, rightness and acceptability. Had Falstaff said ‘Francis Bacon is a baron’, Hal would no more have thought to challenge the dead metaphor—‘A baron, Sir John! Why a baron?—than he would to challenge the proper name, ‘Why “Francis Bacon”?’ To either question the only possible answer, even for a master of improvisation like Falstaff, would be a shrugging ‘That's simply the name’. There is no relevance to search out, no insightful comparison or ‘before unapprehended relation of things’. A name is a name is a name.

Now for Richard II kingship, his kingship, is as much beyond question as a proper name. It has the automatic warrant of Divine Right, which means not that Richard conceives of himself as the right king but that he conceives of himself simply as the king. For him ‘King’ and ‘Richard’ are not two words but one indissoluble name. The old metaphors linking kingly office and divine office are not analogical truths in Richard's imagination but anagogic ones, not metaphors but identities. The king is not like, he is the ‘deputy elected by the Lord’, ‘God's substitute’, ‘the Lord's lieutenant’, and so on. And because ‘King’ and ‘Richard’ are one entity, Richard is all of these things—and so he must carry his title with him to the grave, all successors disallowed.

This seems to be why Shakespeare, despite having established (in Act I, scene ii especially) Richard's criminal failures, even his murderousness, as king, then dramatises his deposition not so much as a trial of Richard's conduct as a trial of his concept of the royal office. At issue is whether King and Richard are in fact one word and whether the metaphors so royally taken for granted are literally true. Thus Shakespeare charts Richard's dramatic experience by the coordinates of name and person, thrusting him from a belief in the monistic divinity of name—

Arm, arm, my name! A puny subject strikes
At thy great glory


—to a recognition of dualistic separability—

What must the King do now? Must he submit?
The king shall do it. Must he be deposed?
The King shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of king? O' God's name, let it go!


—to an ultimate loss of name and a consequent dissolution of personal identity and meaning—

                                                            I have no name, no title;
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But 'tis usurped. Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not what name to call myself!


Ernst Cassirer remarks that, among primitives, ‘the being and life of a person are so intimately connected with his name that, as long as the name is preserved and spoken, its bearer is still felt to be present and directly active’.3 In Richard's case the ambiguity of the life-giving powers of the name is given full expression. Richard ‘lives’ only so long as his name is honoured; once that is gone, he becomes in his own word ‘nothing’, even before his death at the hands of Exton. In Pomfret Castle he realises that the name of king is merely arbitrary, that he has an identity apart from the name. Yet this knowledge, instead of sustaining him, instead of making him feel that he has lost ‘merely’ a name and not life itself, destroys him. There are no ‘mere’ words, it seems, only meaningful ones. Exton kills a man who is, in his namelessness, already dead.

Richard's world is dead too. It is a world conceived of in metaphors that had died into names, as Richard discovered too late. The metaphors he has taken literally were also taken literally in the sixteenth century, and implicit in them was a world view. Pattrick Cruttwell remarks:

Shakespeare is not really a philosopher; he had no philosophy of his own. He didn't need to have one; it was given him. He had simply to describe human life as honestly, vividly, and completely as he knew, and then, through the very terms of reference by which alone he could describe it, a philosophy emerges.4

The philosophy that emerges, Cruttwell says, is the ‘integrated medieval view’ that E. M. W. Tillyard has more famously, if somewhat metachronically, called the Elizabethan world picture. This world view, inherited from medieval culture, was intimately bound up with Elizabethan language, also inherited from medieval culture. The conception of a world essentially animistic, full of anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremony, order, harmony—a hierarchical world of Platonic dualities and microspheres fashioned on the principles of analogy and parallelism—this world was not merely a set of theories in which men believed; it was what most of their key words implicitly meant. The world picture was a word picture. It was not for nothing that reality was thought to be composed of ‘elements’ and nature conceived of as a ‘book’.

But in Richard's dramatic experience—as in England's historical experience during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the Book of Nature becomes incomprehensible. Things no longer answer to their assigned names. Once upon a time, in a fairytale world, ‘four lagging winters and four wanton springs [could be made to] end in a word, such [was] the breath of kings’ (I.iii.214-15). Once upon a time the king's name was twenty thousand names, and the king and God were consubstantial. That fairytale time had its historical counterpart in Shakespeare's England, as the fictive Richard had his real-life spokesman in, among others, William Tyndale, who said that

he that judgeth the King judgeth God, and he that layeth hands on the King layeth hands on God, and he that resisteth the King resisteth God. … The King is in this world without law, and he may at his lust do right or wrong and shall give accounts but to God only.5

These claims echo again and again through the Tudor homilies, especially in that ‘Concernyng Good Ordre and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates’ (1547) and that ‘Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion’ (1574).6 That kingship confers quasi-divine status and inviolability upon its holder is owing in part to God's direct appointment of kings, an appointment renewed through primogeniture, and in part to God's establishment of hierarchical order throughout the universe. As the visible symbol of human order, the king mediates between ‘earthly men’ and both God and God's grand design. If he falls, all else falls with him, as Ulysses, the domino theorist of Troilus and Cressida, so eloquently details it.

Bishop Carlisle, the Ulysses of Richard II, sounds a similar theme. Just before the deposition of Richard, when Bolingbroke says ‘In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne’, Carlisle cries ‘Marry, God forbid!’ and in effect reads the Tudor homilies to him:

… shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judged by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not present?


The Earl of Northumberland applauds Carlisle's performance—‘Well have you argued, sir’—but adds, ‘and for your pains / Of capital treason we arrest you here’ (IV.i.150-1). So much, it would seem, for Divine Right!

And so much, also, for a sacramental language in which words have a kind of divine, inalienable right to their referents. Unlike Richard, Bolingbroke has never subscribed to such a language. From the opening scene of the play he has regarded words as mere vocal conveniences whose substance lies not in themselves but in what they designate. Thus he employs words as promissory notes in gathering followers in his venture for kingship, and reinforces what few words he does utter with material force. At Flint Castle, where Richard descends to the base court with many words and few soldiers, Bolingbroke listens politely and says little: his twenty thousand soldiers are all the eloquence he requires. If Richard is a regal name that is gradually divested of its meaning, Bolingbroke is a kind of material force or meaning in search of the name that will give him public expression.

The name Bolingbroke seeks is, of course, ‘king’, and the bond between word and meaning is analogous to that between kingship and the holder of that office. If the king's name or title normally goes unquestioned, it is not, Richard discovers, because it is divinely guaranteed but because it is humanly conferred and assumed. Names fit their referents not because of an underlying correspondence or substantive unity but by virtue of informal convenants among speakers. Kings and meanings rule by custom. It follows, as Bolingbroke well knows, that the name of ‘king’ will as readily answer to the meaning of ‘Henry IV’ as to that of ‘Richard II’. The next step in this reduction of language from the sacrosanct to the purely arbitrary is registered by Falstaff's remark to Prince Hal at the opening of I Henry IV: ‘I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity of good names were to be bought’ (I.ii.92-4). Like money, language is now reckoned a merely useful social instrument. Its meaning and value are no longer intrinsic but manufactured in response to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. In the inflationary times of II Henry IV the value of the word will fall still further. But that is to get ahead of the story.

When words are divorced from things, when names are seen to have neither a magical nor an inherently natural connection to their referents, then meaning comes into question, both in language and in kingship. What, during the reign of Bolingbroke, does the name of ‘king’ mean? Richard II has presented us with the gradual estrangement of the name ‘king’ from the meaning which, in the person of Richard himself, it has expressed, a meaning underwritten by God. If the royal name still presumes to mean ‘the Lord's lieutenant’ or ‘God's substitute’, then the proposition ‘The King is Henry IV’ can only be a lie, as Hotspur and the other conspirators feel. If, on the other hand, the proposition is true, if Bolingbroke is ‘King Henry IV’, then the old meanings are, and must always have been, not literal but only metaphorical. If so, the king is not a participant in divinity but an actor in a secular role, as Richard appears to realise in his tiring-room at Pomfret Castle:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king,
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I kinged again—and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing.


Richard's world of names has cracked apart to reveal the metaphor that was inert but not entirely dead within. Between ‘king’ and such meanings as ‘God's substitute’ stands, not an equals sign, but an ‘as-if’. If what is true of the king's name is also true of the King's English—or, in Shakespeare's time, of the Queen's English—then the implications for the poet-playwright are inauspicious indeed.

Why, we may wonder, should Shakespeare fashion in Richard II not merely the fall of a king but also the fall of kingly speech? Kings have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for words. Henry VI, Richard III and John, all fall without our feeling that a world of words topples with them. Yet there is clearly a sense in which Richard's verbal experience can be seen to reflect issues of paramount interest to the poet-playwright. Indeed, Richard has often been called a poet-king, not because he speaks excellent verse—as the ‘unpoetic’ Bolingbroke does also—but because his attitude toward language is poetic. After his return from Ireland, he ignores his captains' calls to action, preferring instead to ‘sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings’ (III.iii.155-6). That is, rather than enter on actions that would assert his authority in England, Richard lapses into forms of lyric narcissism. These sentimental verbal kingdoms are gratifying to him because within their imagined borders he holds uncontested sway; no Bolingbroke may enter there.

It is not quite accurate, however, to say that the poetic Richard whiles away his time with symbols and ceremonies at the expense of reality and action, which fall under the aegis of Bolingbroke, because in Richard's view language participates in reality, and words constitute actions. Yet Richard's journey through the play from Windsor Castle to Pomfret Castle, from Highness to nothingness, dramatises the breakdown of this conception of symbolism and language. He experiences in miniature the whole cultural metamorphosis of language, the long historical process in which the marriage of word and thing, signifier and signified, was put asunder and man's thought divorced from his world. For Bacon, Hobbes, the Royal Society and modern linguists, this process is a melioristic one—not a breakdown of the union between word and thing but a liberation of the word from the thing.7 For the poet, however, such a process is analogous to the Fall—or, in Richard II, to the deposition of a Divine Right king. For if language even in its post-Edenic, fallen form were sacramental—if its words either contained divinity, as in the figure of Christ the Logos, or even represented divinity, as in the figure of the Divine Right monarch—then the man who held dominion over language—whether king, priest, magician, or poet—would in some degree hold dominion over things and men's minds as well. Merely by practising his craft the poet would participate in the divine order, bringing the Book of Art into direct alignment with the Book of Nature, and acquiring by virtue of his mastery of words something of the creative authority deeply embedded in them from the beginning. He would then rebut the philistine claim that poetry is a pleasant lie, not by saying with Sidney that the poet nothing affirmeth and hence cannot lie, but by saying that his loving attendance upon language affirms a divine order and truth already implicit in words.

But for poet as well as king, it is not so. In Richard II Shakespeare dramatises his awareness that his verbal medium is founded not on names but on metaphor. More precisely, within a language of names, seemingly bonded to Elizabethan reality and warranted by God, lies the altogether human presence of metaphor, its once creative energy long since hardened into conventional definition.8 This descent from names to metaphors implies a fall from truth also. For it is the nature of metaphor to assume the appearance of the lie, since both, as the Houyhnhnms put it, ‘say the thing that is not’.

The linguistic issue is dramatised in terms of the royal ‘name’. In Richard's Divine Right view, ‘king’ is part of his own proper name—inherently legitimate, inviolable, even unquestionable. Usurped by Bolingbroke and applied to himself as ‘Henry IV’, the name of ‘king’ becomes ambiguous—at best, a term abruptly redefined in meaning, at worst, a lie that invades all of the King's English and breaks the bonds of meaning. What, then, of the young Prince Hal, the future king? Applied to the wastrel prince, the title of king must appear a lie too. Or, from the perspective of the tavern world, it must seem a delicious joke whose punch line will burst riotously on England shortly after Hal's coronation.

Hal is himself willing to exploit the appearance of a lie, as his first soliloquy informs us, but in the long run his view of his relation to kingship is metaphoric, and in this regard he distinguishes himself from both Richard and Bolingbroke. For him, the title will no longer possess the Divine Right status of a personal name, as it did for Richard, because he maintains a metaphoric doubleness of focus between vehicle and tenor, name and person, never forgetting that there are ironic distinctions between His Highness Henry the Fifth and the man whom the drawers called ‘a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy (by the Lord, so they call me)’ (I Hen. IV, II.iv.11-13). If the royal title is not part of his personal name, neither is it merely a piece of stolen property, like ‘King Henry the Fourth’. As with all metaphors, Hal must somehow demonstrate the truth of his kingship in the teeth of his apparent—in fact, his heir apparent—falseness. For a Divine Right he must substitute an earned human right to the crown. Only then can kingship be invested with meaning.

And Shakespeare? He, no less than Prince Hal, is called in doubt by Bolingbroke's usurpation and the fall of speech. If the king is a lie in the political realm, the lie is now king in the verbal world—and he who practises in that world must needs seem a liar. So the would-be king Hal and the would-be playwright Shakespeare must acknowledge themselves apparent liars to begin with, and somehow wrest truth from that false appearance. Both must transcend Bolingbroke and achieve authentic sovereignty in their separate realms of politics and art.


  1. Eric La Guardia, ‘Ceremony and History: the Problem of Symbol from Richard II to Henry V’, in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield (Eugene, Oregon, 1966), p. 74.

  2. George Puttenham in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (London, 1904), 2:160. Puttenham's view that figures are trespasses of speech, and my own emphasis in this chapter on metaphor as a violation of the linguistic system, should be qualified to take account of the fact that language so abounds with figurative speech that we can hardly call it a deviation from the norm. Metaphor is a trespass in so far as it is non-logical; it says what literally is not. But a very great deal of language is non-logical in this sense. Moreover, some metaphors, truly creative, name the previously unnamed—get a line on aspects of experience and reality that lie quite outside the received vocabulary of a culture. Others, however, simply rename the already named; they are not exploratory but inventive, products of Coleridge's fancy rather than Imagination.

  3. Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth (New York, 1946), p. 52.

  4. Pattrick Crutwell, ‘Physiology and Psychology in Shakespeare's Age’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 12 (1951), 75-89.

  5. Quoted by Philip Wheelwright in The Burning Fountain (Bloomington, Indiana, 1954), p. 215.

  6. To be sure, the increased stress in the sixteenth century on the divinity of kingship need not entail an increased belief in the concept, much less an exceptionally godlike crop of kings. The homily ‘Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion’ (1574) was issued not as a spontaneous expression of belief in the divinity of Elizabeth but as a propagandistic response to the Northern uprising of 1569. With the horrors of the civil wars still alive in public memory, both commoner and king wanted sacred as well as secular support for the established order. Even so, need is the fuel of belief, none more powerful, and it is quite impossible to dismiss the enormous prestige that monarchy had for men like Ascham, Spenser, Hooker and Bacon, or to ignore the ubiquitous metaphors linking order in the state with divine orderings of the universe and the laws of nature.

  7. Ernst Cassirer regards this linguistic development as a three-phase movement from a ‘mimetic’ through an ‘analogical’ to a ‘symbolic’ relationship between signs and meanings. He sees this process as a teleogical maturing of language, an achievement of ‘inner freedom’. See his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (New Haven, Conn., 1953), vol. 1, Language, pp. 186-98.

  8. In discovering the metaphor within the name, Shakespeare could be said to have recognised something like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which each distinct language encapsulates a world view that is untranslatable. (See Benjamin Whorf, Four Articles on Metalinguistics [Washington, DC, 1949] and also Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. John B. Carroll [Cambridge, Mass., 1956]).

Dermot Cavanagh (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10885

SOURCE: “The Language of Treason in Richard II,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 27, 1999, pp. 134-60.

[In the following essay, Cavanagh observes that the topic of treachery plays a central role in the political exchanges in Richard II. Cavanagh explores the way the language associated with treachery is related to the dynamics of authority in the play.]


Postwar criticism of Richard II characteristically has addressed its portrayal of “the secularization of politics … paralleled by the commercialization of the word.”1 The play is often perceived as describing the transition from a medieval political ethos to early modern conditions. In depicting the violent extinction of Plantagenet monarchy, Richard II also distinguishes the ascendancy of Lancastrian pragmatism, setting a “divinely sanctioned monarch against Machiavellian ‘new man’ whose power resides exclusively in his own will.”2 In particular, the language of Richard II has been identified as expressing this shift from a world which assumes political values are divinely ordained, to one dominated by the functional pursuit and maintenance of power. In James Calderwood's influential account of “the fall of speech,” the play represents “the surrender of a sacramental language to a utilitarian one in which the relation between words and things is arbitrary, unsure and ephemeral.”3

However, increasingly telling questions have been raised concerning the adequacy of this interpretation of the play and the kinds of political recognition it advances. Joseph A. Porter reminds us that there are a variety of idioms in Richard II, which qualify any reception of, and identification with, the monarch's: “What falls after all, is only Richard's speech—his conception of language—not as he [Calderwood] would have it, ‘Speech’ itself.”4 More recent criticism has been similarly attentive to the range and ambivalence of Richard II, as well as its sympathy for the language and values of those who challenge the integrity of Richard's “sacramental” speech and bring about his deposition. The play's notable utility for the Essex rebels has inflected historicist readings of its theatricality as demystifying, subverting dominant conceptions of political obedience.5 From this perspective, Richard II is held to envision the “medieval past not as a lost world of symbolic unity but as the scene of a continual struggle between aristocratic and constitutional liberties and a monarchy that kept trying to appropriate public resources for its private interests.”6 The stress on parliament as the context for the deposition scene, as well as its striking absence from the three Elizabethan quartos of the play, has been interpreted by Cyndia Susan Clegg, as endorsing “an authority over the monarch far more consonant with resistance theory than with the government's understanding of parliamentary authority.”7

Such distinct critical emphases are expressive of the ambivalence created by the play's opposing perspectives, and these can be analyzed in terms of their shared concern with defining treason. Any political reading of Richard II involves an evaluation of treachery, emphasizing either Richard's or Bolingbroke's betrayal of fundamental obligations; the play foregrounds this issue. In Richard II, “treason” and cognate words appear with greater frequency than in any other Shakespeare play, and its principal conflict might well be characterized as a struggle over the authority to define the offense.8 In a play peculiarly devoid of realized action, its language is dominated either by the attribution or the evasion of the stigma of treachery; virtually every significant dramatic episode is constructed around purported breaches of trust, and most characters are depicted as implicated in or, at the very least, reacting to such violations. Specifically, formal accusations of treason provide an induction into the distinct regimes presided over by Richard and Bolingbroke, and the adjudication of these helps decipher their respective strategies of governance, as well as the forms of opposition they arouse. The drama culminates, of course, with the defining actions of high treason: the deposition and assassination of a monarch.

What is distinctive to Richard II is not simply the centrality of treachery to its political exchanges, but the inquisitiveness with which competing formulations of the offense are considered. However vehemently treason is ascribed within the play, evidence is rarely constituted in a definitive way. Thus, Bolingbroke and Mowbray charge each other with treachery without the audience being able to judge who is telling the truth. Later in the play, Richard's adherent, Aumerle, is, in turn, accused of treason against Bolingbroke in a manner that is equally difficult to appraise. Moreover, such ambiguities over identifying the figure of the traitor are accompanied by uncertainties in defining treason. It can thus be depicted as the violation of honor and fealty (as Bolingbroke forcibly asserts in the play's opening) or, primarily, an offense against the king's person and will (as King Richard and, later, the Bishop of Carlisle believe). It can be apprehended as a violent action or as a form of corrupt speech (as Mowbray argues in his defense against Bolingbroke, a view adopted by his opponent as he assumes the crown). The play's structure is reflexive and dynamic, rather than being organized in a sequence or in terms of a definitive historical transition; it is through the shifting configuration of treason thus generated that some of Richard II's most daring political speculations can be discerned.

Rather than expressing either a singular or an antithetical conception of treason, Richard II is characterized by a relational or, more accurately, dialectical approach, in which treason is viewed as dependent on modulations in authority, finding meaning only in relation to the sovereignty it would help establish or undermine. If opposition to King Richard is “gross rebellion and detested treason” (2.3.108)—and Richard, of course, will see himself in his resignation of the crown as “a traitor with the rest” (4.1.248)—once Bolingbroke is crowned, opposition to his rule is, in turn, no less treasonous: Aumerle is, even to his father, guilty of “foul treason” (5.2.72).9 Betrayal appears not as an incontrovertible act which distinguishes the faithful subject from those doomed by their corrupt ambition, but as a far more conditional offense. By locating its attributions of treason within mutating historical circumstances, the play elucidates the political conflicts intrinsic to such allegations. Repeatedly, treachery is defined in the struggle to constitute or diminish authority, and by the language used to substantiate this; as such, it can be modified, contested, and redefined in relation to varying claims of legitimacy. One can conceive of the play's “ambivalence,” then, in the terms suggested by a recent analysis of the dialectical method of Machiavelli's writing: as engaged in an “internal critique of positive claims to authority.”10

One obvious influence on, and context for, these fluctuations in the play's representation of treason lies with its major source, the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles. In reinterpreting the inclusiveness of Holinshed—as well as the work's organizing commitments to constitutional government and an ethic of civic prudence—Annabel Patterson argues that a form of “early modern relativism” emerges in its account of the historical formation of treason, an attitude symptomatic of its “critical perspective on ‘Law’ as a set of socially and politically constructed rules, rules that particularly at this stage in history were subject to sudden and continuous change.”11 This helps in both identifying and interpreting one of the most noticeable features of Holinshed's treatment of the turbulent reign of Richard II: how treason is made to accommodate changes in the disposition of power, rather than embody a consistent concept of justice.

In its detailed narration of the struggle between royal and baronial parties, the attribution of treason and the resistance it provokes help structure Holinshed's account: it is the instrumental means by which factional ascendancy is secured and (temporarily, at least) maintained. The text, however, is notably reluctant to denote any stable conception of treachery; it is, consistently, a matter of perspective. This is expressed in Holinshed's recurrent citation of treason accusations with an accompanying phrasal qualification: “whom they called traitor,” “those whom they reputed to be traitors,” “whom he tooke to be plaine traitors,” “traitors (as they tearmed them).”12 Here, treason is situated rhetorically, located in conflicting and partisan attempts to validate authority.

An economical example of Holinshed's pragmatic view of treachery is demonstrable in the account given of the events that lead to Richard's attack on two pivotal figures in the baronial opposition: the abduction and covert assassination of the Duke of Gloucester, which so substantially informs the action of Shakespeare's play, and, simultaneously, the trial and execution of the Earl of Arundel. In 1388, the king dissolves a statutory council of state, which maintained an “ouersight under the king of the whole gouernment of the realme” (2:776), imposed on him by his magnates. Richard and his advisors exert extraordinary pressure on a council of judges to have those responsible for this body deemed treasonable and to agree on an elaborate defense of the king's prerogative: “it was demanded of them how they ought to be punished that interrupted the king so, that he might not exercise those things that apperteined to his regalitie and prerogatiue. Whereunto answer was made, that they ought to be punished as traitors” (2:782). In response, the baronial party “gathered their power togither, determining to talke with the king with their armour vpon their backes” (2:784). They demand, by issuing a feudal challenge, the expulsion of those advisors who are responsible for such a treacherous abuse of legal process, insisting Richard “take awaie from him such traitors as remained continuallie about him. … And to prooue their accusations true, they threw downe their gloues, protesting by their oths to prosecute it by battell” (2:787). Despite his initial acquiescence, the king continues to conspire against the lords and succeeds in having Gloucester forcibly removed from the realm and assassinated (2:836-37) and secures a trial, in parliament, of the Earl of Arundel for treasonably taking up arms against his authority. When the king's favorite, Bushy, articulates the “demand” of the Commons that Arundel's guilt be punished, his mordant reply provokes the same theatrical display of outraged feudal honor deployed earlier against the king's favorites:

The earle turning his head aside, quietlie said to him; “Not the kings faithfull commons require this, but thou, and what thou art I know.” Then the eight appelants standing on the other side, cast their gloves to him, and in prosecuting their appeale (which alreadie had beene read) offered to fight with him man to man to justifie the same”


What is noticeable in this treatment of treason is its reversibility; the same ritualistic means of proving the offense can be used either for or against royal power. Arundel (as well as Gloucester) can appear as agents in the definition of treason and as traitors. For Holinshed, betrayal can be both a corruption of the law that should protect subjects or an encroachment upon the royal prerogative; any consensus over what is unpardonably illicit is not secured. Treachery is a medium in which antagonistic interests are expressed, and it provides a language in which particular claims of authority are made to appear provisional. As Arundel's case demonstrates, the discursive status of the offense means it can be exposed as partial and contingent. Holinshed's text is alert, even in a sardonic manner, to the interests that inform public speech, political displays, and legal procedure. None of the latter is free of political mediation, a feature which is registered most powerfully, in that both the object and the nature of treason can be redefined in the enforcement or modification of sovereignty. Significantly, this is equally true at all stages of the historical process he represents; there is no palpable sense of a transition between distinct modes of authority. For Holinshed, treason is given static form alone according to the needs of specific circumstances. It is this conception of the offense that has significant consequences for the dialectical construction of Richard II. This relationship between the language of treason and the dynamics of authority is equally integral to Shakespeare's play; its implications merit detailed scrutiny.


At the opening of Richard II, an explicitly feudal discourse is established in the attempted trial by combat between Bolingbroke and Mowbray who perceive treason in terms of the obligations, and rights, of subjects in relation to the code of honor. It is this that Richard abrogates by correlating treachery with his own person and will. This monarchical conception of treason, however, is revised by those opposed to his rule; moreover, an audience learns quickly of the cynical pragmatism with which Richard exploits the judical and other prerogatives of his office (1.4). This modified evaluation of the sovereignty of the king's speech is rendered distinctively through the play's treatment of betrayal, especially in relation to Bolingbroke who, on his illicit return to the realm, deploys a tactical language in which the distinctions between treasonous and loyal sentiments are no longer clear. Bolingbroke's flexibility of speech proves his political versatility, yet the rhetorical maneuvering it demands is also subjected to critical examination and not only as a dilution of his earlier commitment to honor. In its later phase, the play demonstrates that his usurpation fosters the subsequent prosecution of treason committed in words, an offense with which he had earlier been charged, as much as in actions: this definition finds new significance in the light of Bolingbroke's own actions. Rather than arrange its conflicting registers of speech in a hierarchy, Richard II stages these as mutually qualifying. Each figure who claims political credibility and, ultimately, authority, derives this from the ascription of treachery; however, the rhetorical status of such claims are simultaneously perceived in terms of an alternative conception of betrayal.

From the outset, Richard II depicts a struggle concerning the power to define treason, and an argument is rehearsed over the principles it validates.13 Significantly, in the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, any affiliation with a controlling viewpoint, including that of the crown, is obstructed, in that the appellants are opposed on broadly equal terms. Moreover, informing this irresolution in discerning the traitor is a far more profound inability to identify the nature of treachery. The dissension of the appellant knights is based on an expressed commitment to chivalric honor, which the king perceives as superseded by his own person; their competitive behavior embodies the “moral autonomy” of the honor code Mervyn James has made familiar in leaving “little room for the concepts of sovereignty, or of unconditional obedience.”14

We can see this schism in the definition of treason emerging in the king's opening query to Gaunt, regarding Bolingbroke's motivations:

Tell me, moreover, hast thou sounded him,
If he appeal the Duke on ancient malice,
Or worthily as a good subject should
On some known ground of treachery in him?
As near as I could sift him on that argument,
On some apparent danger seen in him,
Aim'd at your Highness, no inveterate malice.


The king is already sensitive to Bolingbroke's sense of principle: the phrase “ancient malice” is dismissive both of an enduring feud with Mowbray and of its archaic expression. For Richard, the worth of “a good subject” is determined by his attitude toward treachery; and Gaunt, intriguingly, is unsure of his son's status. Here, as in the following scene, Gaunt expresses a conception of social relations familiar to Tudor sensibilities, in that betrayal is conceived of primarily as an intended assault on the king. This emphasis on the monarch's person as the supreme object of treason had long been ascendant in legislation; yet, in Richard II, the language of betrayal is not concentrated wholly on the king.15

The chivalric fervor with which Bolingbroke expresses his sense of profaned honor signifies his sense of treachery; any defilement of the privileges intrinsic to nobility is treason; even the mute element of blood speaks, or cries, with the force of scriptural injunction to avenge the injustice and dishonor committed by the murder of Gloucester. Mowbray:

                                                            … like a traitor coward,
Sluic'd out his innocent soul through streams of blood,
Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth
To me for justice and rough chastisement;
And, by the glorious worth of my descent,
This arm shall do it, or this life be spent.


There are unchivalrous connotations, of course, in the offenses attributed to his enemy: Mowbray has misused the public purse, embezzling for “lewd imployments” money intended for military pay and, in a wild accusation, has engineered all the conspiracies “for these eighteen years / Complotted and contrived in this land” (1.1.95-96). However, aside from such self-interest, cowardice and lack of knightly largesse, the core act of treason is Mowbray's desecration of blood for which the right of redress is claimed.

Bolingbroke does present his indictment of Mowbray as “a traitor and a miscreant” as an act of protective loyalty toward his king. The monarch and the realm must be protected from such a dangerous subject; this care issues from “the devotion of a subject's love, / Tend'ring the precious safety of my prince” (1.1.31-32). Yet, the rhetorical opportunity this affords him for a charismatic assertion of his own dynastic authority diminishes this care as a central motive; Bolingbroke acts under the sacred obligations entailed “by the glorious worth of my descent.” His words are spoken under the hearing of God, rather than the king, and their truth will be testified to in a providential verdict elicited by his own will:

                                                            … for what I speak
My body shall make good upon this earth,
Or my divine soul answer it in heaven. … 
With a foul traitor's name stuff I thy throat,
And wish—so please my sovereign—ere I move,
What my tongue speaks my right drawn sword may prove.

(1.1.36-38; 44-46)

The fact that Richard's desires are here reduced to a parenthesis is consistent with Bolingbroke's acting as both the bearer of proof and the instrument of retribution. There is audacity in the correspondence drawn between the words he uses and their validation in the justice his body will enact.

Mowbray also addresses treason as a violation of honor. For him, it is Bolingbroke's speech that enacts this violation. In insisting that the allegations are made by a “slanderous coward,” Mowbray indicts his opponent's words as issuing “from the rancour of a villain, / A recreant and most degenerate traitor” (1.1.143-44). Again, the physicality of the language is striking, as well as the forcible manner in which aristocratic honor is to be vindicated independently through the trial by combat. Mowbray will “prove myself a loyal gentleman / Even in the best blood chamber'd in his bosom” (1.1.148-49), a demand that outweighs the king's command:

Myself I throw, dread sovereign, at thy foot;
My life thou shalt command, but not my shame:
The one my duty owes, but my fair name,
Despite of death, that lives upon my grave,
To dark dishonour's use thou shalt not have.
I am disgrac'd, impeach'd, and baffl'd here,
Pierc'd to the soul with slander's venom'd spear,
The which no balm can cure but his heart-blood
Which breath'd this poison.


Here, Mowbray further intensifies the personal dimension of betrayal in his sense of the spiritual peril consequent upon obliterated knighthood. Similarly, Bolingbroke insists that he cannot obey Richard's command to forego resorting to arms against Mowbray; this would be a “deep sin”, an injustice done to honor which he is obliged to rectify regardless of the king's will (1.1.187-95).16

Clearly, Richard is alert to the political implications of this shared language which transcends his own entitlement to obedience. This is apparent in his implied admonition to Bolingbroke as “our subject” (1.1.115-23) and in his reaffirmation of his “sceptre's awe” by countermanding the trial by combat. The king is determined to subsume the role of providence and resolve the issue of treason within his own judicial prerogative. Moreover, he offers a scathing commentary on chivalric justice and the equivalence it draws between honor and treachery. For the king, the “rites of knighthood” are merely an imposture, animated by a mixture of “eagle-winged pride / Of sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts, / With rival-hating envy” (1.3.129-31). Richard perceives their martial display as a regressive and sectarian indulgence which threatens:

To wake our peace, which in our country's cradle
Draws the sweet infant breath of gentle sleep;
Which so rous'd up with boist'rous untun'd drums,
With harsh-resounding trumpets' dreadful bray,
And grating shock of wrathful iron arms,
Might from our quiet confines fright fair peace,
And make us wade even in our kindred's blood—
Therefore we banish you our territories.


Richard insists on his possession of the kingdom—“our fields”; “our fair dominions”17—construing its welfare as that of an infant threatened by the clangor of feudal violence. The peace of the realm is individuated physically, and it is this which can be made subject to assault and betrayal. Richard's identity is symbiotic with that of his kingdom as the object of treason, and the king rebukes the knights as subjects whose primary duty is to obey his will.18 The obsolescence of their conception of treachery is forcibly demonstrated, both in the peremptory sentences of banishment and in the arbitrary revision of Bolingbroke's exile, eliciting his stunned recognition of the power of words issuing from “the breath of kings” (1.3.213-15). Richard, then, initiates a process of great significance for the play: by displacing the authority that the appellant knights claim through treason, he establishes a critical perspective on the interests with which it is informed.

It is integral to the play's “internal critique” of authority, however, that the legitimacy of Richard's appropriation of treason is, in turn, qualified by those who dissent from it. Opposition to the monarch is not conflated with treachery; indeed, Richard II extends considerable latitude to those who perceive the king's actions as a destructive repeal of custom. The ethos whereby fealty and honor are primary forms of social obligation allows assumptions regarding obedience to be revised when it is the king who is responsible for their violation.19 In the exchange between Gaunt and the bereaved Duchess of Gloucester that precedes the planned trial by combat, Gaunt's insistence on the submissiveness owed “God's substitute” must withstand powerful criticism from an alternative understanding of loyalty. For the Duchess, Gaunt's noble blood should reveal that his “patience” is equivalent to “pale cold cowardice,” excusing Richard's involvement in her husband's assassination and inviting future annihilation (1.2.25-36). In another compelling metaphor of personification, the Duchess envisages Edward III's bloodline as a dynastic tree being “hack'd down,” its destruction that of a living identity: “Yet art thou slain in him” (1.2.25).

Finally, Gaunt himself testifies to this understanding of Richard as betraying the values from which his royal authority is drawn. From Gaunt's historical perspective of an England governed by “true chivalry,” it is the king who appears dishonorable and alien, enslaved to Italianate fashions, the flattery of favorites, and his own corrupt will. In the growing intensity of this condemnation, Richard's “England” is depicted as engaged in the conquest of itself, a paradox whose dreadful implications demands opposition (2.1.57-68). The culminating moment in Gaunt's verbal assault on Richard's status comes in his direct challenge to his continuing legitimacy: the heroic spirit of Edward III is invoked as desiring the king's deposition even before his accession to the throne (2.1.104-8).20 In a crushing formulation, he asserts that Richard has now effectively deposed himself—“Landlord of England art thou now, not king, / Thy state of law is bondslave to the law” (2.1.113-14)—a statement whose treasonous implications the king immediately recognizes (2.1.115-22).21 Gaunt continues to subject the king's actions to corrosive rhetorical scrutiny, climaxing with the monstrous image of his pelican-like consumption of the slaughtered Gloucester's blood, “tapp'd out and drunkenly carous'd.” After Gaunt's death, York continues this critique of Richard's entitlement to the throne, given his betrayal of “customary rights,” embodied in Richard's confiscation of his brother's estate, and the discord this will arouse among “well-disposed hearts”: “And prick my tender patience to those thoughts / Which honour and allegiance cannot think” (2.1.207-8).

York's desperation at reaching the limits of his fealty, at being brought to the brink of treason, brings us to a key episode in the play's developing concern with the effect of political crisis on existing social duties. The insecurity Richard II cultivates over a reliable definition of treachery is augmented when those opposed to the king's will further complicate attitudes to the offense by a subtle process of verbal arbitration: it is this that allows for the dissent repressed by York's sense of “honour” and “allegiance.” In contrast to the often stark and declarative language that accompanies the play's earlier antipathies, Bolingbroke and his allies develop an equivocal mode of speech which can be adjusted tactically. Again, an awareness of the influence exerted by treason on the play's representation of conflict is useful in identifying how much verbal expedience is required to evade its ascription. Rather than establish feudal disenchantment as the principal challenge to Richard's betrayal of his office, the play attends, increasingly, to the strategic composition of language.

In the first stirrings of resistance against Richard, it is significant that—in the hostile reactions of Northumberland, Ross and Willoughby to Bolingbroke being “Bereft and gelded of his patrimony”—there is a growing sensitivity to the political implications of words:

My heart is great, but it must break with silence,
Ere't be disburdened with a liberal tongue.
Nay, speak thy mind, and let him ne'er speak more
That speaks thy words again to do thee harm.
Tends that that thou wouldst speak to the Duke of Herford?
If it be so, out with it boldly man;
Quick is mine ear to hear of good towards him.


Once agreement has been reached to speak securely, their grievances can be rehearsed against the king's arbitrary rule and the consequent vulnerability of “our lives, our children, and our heirs” to factional whim. The dangerous logic of this critique of the “degenerate king” as a thief and a tyrant leads to a number of tactics to sustain both critical reflection and the actions that might accompany it. Thus, Northumberland's news of Bolingbroke's imminent return at the head of an armed party is introduced tactfully:

… even through the hollow eyes of death
I spy life peering; But I dare not say
How near the tidings of our comfort is.

(2.1.270-72; italics added)

If Richard's regime is equated implicitly with death, this demands that the possibility of “life” be embraced; but, again, the consequences of such a choice are presented indirectly. Ross urges Northumberland to disclose his knowledge in terms of their shared desires; hence, it has the quality of thought, something unspoken: “Be confident to speak, Northumberland: / We three are but thyself, and, speaking so, / Thy words are but as thoughts; therefore be bold” (2.1.274-76). Richard's betrayals are used to sanction the development of a flexible idiom in which inhibitions against open criticism of the king are overcome. Richard, however, is not to be resisted explicitly: the effect of Bolingbroke's return is conveyed conditionally through discreet metaphors of freedom restored, guilt exposed, and honor renewed:

If then we shall shake off our slavish yoke,
Imp out our drooping country's broken wing,
Redeem from broking pawn the blemish'd crown,
Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre's gilt,
And make high majesty look like itself … 


This attentiveness to the accommodation of words and loyalties to new circumstances is present in Northumberland's elaborate compliment to the returned Bolingbroke's “fair discourse” (2.3.2-18), a homage that is amply repaid: “Of much less value is my company / Than your good words” (2.3.19-20). It is striking that Bolingbroke's speech is now denuded of chivalric fervor and is characterized by politic insinuation. Those who rally to his cause are greeted warmly with oblique hints of the material advantage that will accrue from their loyalty (2.3.45-67). Of course, the perspective from which Bolingbroke's return to the realm, and his defiance of the king, are perceived as treachery does not disappear from the play. It is reintroduced punctually with York's angry imputation of his “gross rebellion and detested treason” (2.3.108). York's attack on his nephew's resort to arms is met by Bolingbroke's claim of a new status as the wronged “Lancaster” and an appeal to his uncle's sense of the outrageous violation of family honor: “I am a subject, / And I challenge law” (2.3.132-33). Bolingbroke's strategy is typified by this pragmatic arbitration; he does not formulate an alternative conception of treachery so much as amend York's dogmatism by revealing its limitations in the present context—a mitigation adapted, persuasively, to the needs of both his supporters and his opponents.

Bolingbroke proves expert in complicating the judgments made concerning his actions. In the dispatching of Bushy and Greene to execution, he takes pains to “unfold some causes of your death” to legitimize his assertiveness. The transgression against chivalric honor incurred by his dispossession is stressed, as well as his protective care for the monarch. The tacit implication, however, is that they are guilty of treason to Bolingbroke as instruments of Richard's corrupt will. The personal judgment they are subjected to enhances his right and status as “a prince by fortune of my birth, / Near to the king in blood” (3.1.16-17).22 Again, Bolingbroke's speech is equivocal in having an implicit, but not exclusively critical, potential. Northumberland's “uncrowning” of the king in his curt reference to “Richard” (3.3.5-14) may betray many of the attitudes of those loyal to him, but such indiscretion is entirely alien to Bolingbroke's political tact. His public standing is increased by the use of suggestion: just as the king once sabotaged Bolingbroke's authority by superseding his chivalric entitlement to dispense justice, so “Lancaster” rhetorically depletes Richard's authority by tempering the monarchical concept of treason. In a remarkable speech, Bolingbroke delegates to Northumberland an address to Richard in which he uses the formulation “King Richard” on five occasions (3.3.31-67). At the outset, this testifies to the “allegiance and true faith of heart” that governs his loyalty to “his most royal person.” Yet, this seemingly sacrosanct pledge is immediately qualified: it is contingent upon the repeal of his sentence and the restoration of his lands. What accompanies this is a threat of violence, the collocation of force with persuasion in Bolingbroke's political lexicon; his “stooping duty” is delivered alongside the retribution he will visit in a “crimson tempest” on the “fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land.” In an informal coda, Bolingbroke engages in what appears to be an elaborate parody of Richard's imminent metaphorical projection of the “thund'ring shock” that should accompany their encounter:

Be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water;
The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain
My waters—on the earth, and not on him.
March on, and mark King Richard how he looks.


The profane potential of these words is given more implication by the seditious pun on “rain”; notably, Bolingbroke's response to the king's appearance is equally divested of reverence:

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.


This satirical account of Richard's poetic, and political, self-conception dispenses with the king's charisma.23

The ambiguous implications of Bolingbroke's address help establish the grounds for his ascendancy; his strategic refusal to behave as a unified political subject makes manifest that absolute claims of authority can be subject to qualification and change.24 Again in Richard II, the kernel of this strategy is formed by its relationship to treachery. Bolingbroke's linguistic cunning allows him to rebut Richard's charge, “That every stride he makes upon my land / Is dangerous treason” (3.3.92-93). By maintaining, principally through Northumberland, that his wants have a strictly limited scope—his own “infranchisement” and the restoration of his “lineal royalties”—Bolingbroke manages to assert simultaneously his own royal blood and his sense of justice, with what degree of good or bad faith, it is impossible to evaluate. Although Richard longs to “send / Defiance to the traitor, and so die” (3.3.130-31), his bitter resignation to “come at traitor's calls” recognizes the power of “King Bolingbroke.”


As several have established, Shakespeare's interest in treason is intrinsic to his understanding of the distinctive practices of early modern authority. Historical study has demonstrated that treason statutes, and the trials and executions that accompanied them, were carefully regimented by Tudor governments: as many defendants pointed out, their prosecution acted to confirm an already assumed guilt.25 The public exposure of the traitor was expected to reveal an adherence to the heinous beliefs itemized in the treason act of 1571: “that the Queene … is an Heretyke Schesmatyke Tyraunt Infidell or an Usurper of the Crowne” (13 Elizabeth c. 1). In the ritualized judgment and punishment of treason against the monarch, and in the citation of such procedures and their assumptions in other settings such as the theater, the populace were encouraged to absorb antipathies and inhibitions. However, there were significant debates in Tudor culture concerning both the impartiality of treason trials and the adequacy of the law itself, disputes whose implications are absorbed by both Holinshed and Shakespeare's play. In particular, there were marked differences concerning the status of verbal and written expression as proof of a treasonous temperament, the “transgressive imagining” Karen Cunningham has detailed as an innovatory mode of interpreting political betrayal.26 Current critical thinking has interpreted treason not simply as a matter of external juridical control, but as a discourse that sought to influence political consciousness: “a tranquil and orderly society seemed to depend not merely upon the ‘outward observance’ and ‘external conformity’ of its subjects, but upon their ‘heartfelt love’ and ‘sincere conviction’.”27

Certainly the legislative pursuit of the “imagining” of treason had material effect on the conduct of late Elizabethan treason trials, where the majesty of sovereignty was testified to in the prosecution of words that might impede its prerogative. A representative case, proximate to Shakespeare's play, is the arraignment of Sir John Perrot, the Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1592.28 This precisely reproduces the prohibitions against injurious forms of political reflection and expression, the treasonous “Pryntinge Wrytinge Cyphryng Speache Wordes or Sayinges,” prohibited in the 1571 act. Perrot is “not charged with not executing her majesty's commandments, but with contemptuous speeches used against her majesty in the matter” (1319). His offense is proved by hostile interpretation of his irreverent words and the debased imaginings they express: “which imagination itself was in itself High-Treason, albeit the same proceeded not to any overt fact: and the heart being possessed with the abundance of his traitorous imagination, and not being able so to contain itself, burst forth in vile and traitorous Speeches, and from thence to horrible and heinous actions” (1318). As one witness defined it: “he spoke as though the kingdom were his own, and not the queen's” (1319).

Such a politically charged legal process, however, was subject to challenge. Catholic polemicists are an especially rich source of criticism of Elizabethan legal policy toward treason, as Curt Breight has noted.29 An apposite example would be Cardinal Allen's parodic citation of the terms cited by Tudor treason law as, in fact, evidence of the truths the government sought to extirpate from public discourse: “she [Elizabeth] ys so notoriously knowne, termed and taken for an heretike, as well at home as abrode, that she was glad to provide by a special acte of parliament, that none should call her heretike, Schismatike, Tyrante, usurper, or infidell, under pain of highe treason.”30 The capacity to question the interests informing prosecutions for treason was widespread. Camden, for example, provides important evidence of a contemporary capacity to demystify the treason trial; his account of Perrot's indictment emphasizes how partisan motivations could operate under the guise of justice. Sir Christopher Hatton and a circle of Perrot's adversaries at court “laboured tooth and nayle to put him from his place, as a man over-proud. And so farre was the matter brought, that when they found an informer or two in Ireland, though Hatton were now dead, they called him in the moneth of April to his tryall, Burghley Lord Treasurer labouring to the contrary.”31 Even in the most carefully orchestrated arraignments, there could be volatile moments where the crown's evidence could be disputed by a competing account of its distorted and malevolent character. Essex questioned the motivations of those proceeding against him, accusing Cecil of treasonable sympathies for a Spanish succession: “I can prove thus much from sir Robert Cecil's own mouth; that he, speaking to one of his fellow-counsellors, should say, That none in the world but the infanta of Spain had right to the crown of England.” The proof for Cecil's disaffection is based on verbal testimony, but a witness promptly testifies that he “never did hear Mr Secretary use any such words,” and the distinction between treasonous and loyal speech is reaffirmed to Cecil's satisfaction: “The difference between you and me is great; for I speak in the person of an honest man, and you, my lord, in the person of a Traitor.”32

In Richard II, language is consistently adduced as evidence of a character's treasonous disposition, from Richard's opening inquiry to Gaunt concerning his son's motivations; but the play is equally attentive to the historical and political necessities which accompany this. Even in the feudal atmosphere of the play's early scenes, Bolingbroke is accused of treacherous speech by his opponent, although the proof of this is to be decided in combat. However, there is a distinctive emphasis on the apprehension of verbal treachery that arises from the means Bolingbroke uses to assume the throne. Again, treason is identified as the key medium through which sovereignty is expressed (as well as challenged); the accession of the new king is commingled with that of Aumerle for the assassination of the Duke of Gloucester. Unquestionably, there is intention in this: reopening the circumstances surrounding Gloucester's death further besmirches Richard's authority and uncovers the corruption Bolingbroke has been impelled to contain. That the once-reviled Bagot is the chief—and, presumably, suborned—witness is another indication of the purpose of these events.

Bolingbroke initiates the proceedings against Aumerle:

Now, Bagot, freely speak thy mind—
What thou dost know of noble Gloucester's death,
Who wrought it with the king, and who perform'd
The bloody office of his timeless end.


Significantly, the accusations that follow have little of the earlier chivalric insistence on the dishonor intrinsic to specific actions. The testimony is not simply evidence of a treasonable assault on a member of the royal family, but proof of his disloyal temperament. Bagot, and subsequently the appellant knights, recount their recollections of what Aumerle said:

My Lord Aumerle, I know your daring tongue
Scorns to unsay what once it hath delivered.
In that dead time when Gloucester's death was plotted,
I heard you say “Is not my
arm of length,
That reacheth from the restful English court
As far as Callice, to mine uncle's head?”
Amongst much other talk that very time
I heard you say that you had rather
The offer of an hundred thousand crowns
Than Bolingbroke's return to England—
Adding withal, how bless'd this land would be,
In this your cousin's death.

(4.1.8-19; italics added)

Bagot's indictment resembles the protocols of the Elizabethan treason-trial: the reckless words of the accused prove his malicious ambition. Strikingly, given the character of Bolingbroke's earlier political strategy, Aumerle's treachery is proved by his equivocal language, his use of words which are an implicit claim of kingly stature and which culminate in the compassing of Bolingbroke's death.33

Despite Aumerle's attempts to discredit Bagot, he is repeatedly confronted with hostile accounts of his disloyal conversations and those of his confederates:

By that fair sun which shows me where thou stand'st,
I heard thee say, and vauntingly thou spak'st
That thou wert cause of noble Gloucester's death. … 
As I intend to thrive in this new world,
Aumerle is guilty of my true appeal.
Besides, I heard the banished Norfolk say
That thou, Aumerle, dids't send two of thy men
To execute the noble Duke at Callice.

(4.1.35-37; 78-82; italics added)

Again—it is not simply what Aumerle, or Mowbray, is accused of saying—but also the “vaunting” manner in which it was spoken. It is difficult, however, to identify conclusive proof in this; the rhetorical nature of the allegations is palpable. Surrey, an apparently reliable witness, was also “in presence” during the disputed conversations; he testifies for the accused, and we have no evidence to evaluate the rival claims. Instead, the issue of Aumerle's treachery is displaced by the Bishop of Carlisle's shocking intervention to insist that the real enactment of treason has just been witnessed in Bolingbroke's sudden decision to “ascend the regal throne” (4.1.114-49). Carlisle reaffirms the political proprieties of speech—“I speak to subjects, and a subject speaks”—and the ordained hierarchy that has been violated by the deposition of “the figure of God's majesty.” Carlisle's rival testimony continues to envisage what cannot be seen directly in his prophecy of the “tumultuous wars” that subsequently consume the kingdom, a form of seditious speculation which results in his immediate arrest for treason.

To help interpret this melee of accusation and counter-accusation, it is important to register again the investigative nature of Richard II's treatment of authority. The play is alert to the origins of Bolingbroke's action against utterance as those of a protagonist inured to the adaptation of principle to necessity. Such a perspective sheds light on the new king's use of contrivance to consolidate his power, a tendency that is notoriously visible in Richard's subversive self-deposition. This scene is laden with inference concerning the imperative for an orchestrated spectacle compressed in Bolingbroke's terse instructions to: “Fetch hither Richard, that in common view / He may surrender; so we shall proceed / Without suspicion” (4.1.155-57; italics added). Again, there is a significant emphasis on verbal testimony; Richard's public resignation of the crown should naturalize Bolingbroke's authority by infusing it with both inevitability and rectitude. This tactical production of a criminal self is, of course, drastically undermined by Richard's poetic intensification of the deprivation to which he is being subjected and by his competing use of equivocal speech to imply that political interests exist within judicial procedures. Contrary to his penitent demeanor in Holinshed—where he reads out and signs, in public, the statement of his own deposition34—Richard refuses to confirm the legal forms that would guarantee his own subjection by using Bolingbroke's tactics of self-abnegation and indeterminate statement:

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


The groundlessness of Bolingbroke's authority appears in the absurdity with which the deposed king expresses his new loyalty (4.1.218-22). Richard divulges his understanding of the actual treason being committed: the “truth” of the scene is shown to be composed in the interests of new-made sovereignty. Partly, this is established by the historical process the audience has witnessed in the play with its conflicting formulations of treason. Bolingbroke's accession has been predicated on a reappraisal of social obligations that demonstrate his entitlement to act as a self-constituted source of authority. The consequence of this is that “King Bolingbroke” constrains the same kind of politically destabilizing speech which might qualify his own entitlement to power, specifically the use of insinuation to disclose the pragmatic origins of his jurisdiction (and which is deployed with such dialectical force by Richard).

Richard's coded ridicule is reinforced within the play by a new strain of absurdity in its closing phase. As a number of critics have argued, there is a strong taint of the ridiculous over Aumerle's involvement in the conspiracy against Bolingbroke.35 Of course, it is the treason committed by Richard's imprisonment and killing that distances an audience from Bolingbroke's “new world.” The sinister allusion that secures Richard's death embodies the same tactics of intimation that secured his authority. Just as Bolingbroke deployed a versatile political register in achieving power, so the play arouses a similarly fluid range of reactions to that authority. It is precisely this latitude that treason is being mobilized to regiment, but it is vulnerable to the conditional political insight that brought it into being. As the drama proves, such practical deliberation can also decipher the limitations, discontinuity, and defectiveness that validated its own ascendancy.

Still, in important respects, the foiling of Aumerle's plot is a tribute to the success of Bolingbroke's kingship and its impressive combination of toleration with force. Yet, there is a double-edged aspect to this. Partly, the incongruous nature of the conclusion is reinforced by its fugitive resemblance to the play's opening events: the accusations that accompany the preparations for Aumerle's trial by combat are also followed by an act of dispossession that questions the monarch's legitimacy, and this incurs another conspiracy against the king. The play appears to visit Bolingbroke with the return of intractable political problems. In light of the new king's earlier concern with the symptomatic appearance of disloyal expression, it is significant that Aumerle's offense is committed and betrayed by a piece of writing. Similarly, the scale of his treason is diminished by its manifest lack of sophistication, and its crassness is emphasized by its discovery in the York household.

This diminution in the efficacy of treason is connected both to the practice of Bolingbroke's sovereignty and the historical conditions that underpin it. York's impulse to betray his own son is a signal, in however serio-comic a fashion, of a compulsive loyalty derived from highly unstable circumstances. It is this which revokes his earlier allegiances both to Richard and to kinship and honor. Clearly, it is fundamental to Bolingbroke's success that he has transcended existing obligations and impressed on his new subjects the necessity of conformity to his will and maintenance of his favor. In identifying the recapitulation of events and situations in the play, it is significant that York's protective loyalty to the king is now expressed by both informing upon and then demanding the death of his son.36 However, York's eloquent compassion for Richard in his public humiliation is juxtaposed to his abrupt, even insensate, commendation of the necessity that dictates they have become Bolingbroke's “sworn subjects” (5.2.37-40). The apprehension of Aumerle's conspiracy by his father continues to plot a dynamic relationship between treason and sovereignty as political quantities prone to alteration. More pressingly, there is an increasingly debased quality to the formation of loyalties. The obligation demanded by the new regime—embodying the easily recognizable injunction that to fail to report treason is itself treason—is rendered as disturbing and divisive and the reductive conception of honor to which York appeals has a similarly degraded aspect: “Mine honour lives when his dishonour dies, / Or my sham'd life in his dishonour lies; / Thou kill'st me in his life—giving him breath, / The traitor lives, the true man's put to death” (5.3.68-71). Such a tortuous set of paradoxes and inversions in the language of treason register the degree to which loyalty derives from a circumstantial historical process whose fluctuations are embodied in York.

In his final (as well as first) soliloquy, the imprisoned Richard II reflects on the extraordinary displacement that has deprived him of power. He summons up habits of thought that appear convincing, only to expose their partiality and limitation. Given the brute reality with which deposition has contradicted his own self-conception as a monarch, the king explores how any settled physical state can be overturned and how any process of thought is self-deceiving to the extent that it ignores the possibility of negation. Just as his ambitious fantasies of escape are canceled by the prison walls, so even “thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd / With scruples, and do set the word itself / Against the word” (5.5.12-14). Of course, the Duchess of York has just used the same phrase in berating her husband's cynical use of the term pardon to prevent the bestowing of pardon on Aumerle: “That sets the word itself against the word!” (5.3.120). This verbal formulation describes the subtle and pervasive dramatic process by which apparently self-consistent terms and concepts are qualified and divided against themselves in Richard II. As Richard acknowledges in the moments prior to his death, there is a painful correspondence between sovereignty and treason, as if one condition produces the other which haunts and dispossesses it: “Sometimes am I king, / Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar, / And so I am” (5.5.32-34). In a macabre, destructive way, treason and sovereignty depend on and describe each other, and such proximity is most strikingly manifested in rendering the other provisional: if a king can become a beggar, Richard has witnessed how a traitor can become a king. Like its soliloquizing protagonist, Richard II seems drawn to such paradoxical and inquiring modes in its consideration of political values, especially as they are established and contested through language. There is no starker instance of the questions the play has raised concerning the authority treason threatens and locates than in its final paradoxical spectacle of the new and treason-tainted king confronted by the body of the betrayed and the betrayer.

In a recent essay, David Norbrook argues that criticism of Richard II should attend more carefully to the motivations of the Essex conspirators and their revival of the play on the day before their rising: “the 1601 performance was a significant pointer to elements in the play's political rhetoric.”37 In conclusion, it is worth pursuing briefly this suggestion to reflect on the play's concern with treachery in relation to the rebellion with which it has long been associated. To modern sensibilities, the inclusiveness of the text, and the demands it makes for complex modulations in emotional and political response, render it a bizarre choice either for incendiary propaganda or for ideological material likely to strengthen rebellious resolve. If Mervyn James is correct, Richard II could hardly have offered the inspiration provided by John Hayward's The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV (1599), where “history became a field for the play of the heroic energy of the autonomous political will, seeking to dominate events by its command of the politic arts.”38 If the temperament of Essex has been accurately evoked—“a confused jumble of fears, rages, sly plottings and crude irrational outbursts of emotions, culminating in the tragic and dismal fiasco of the 8 February rebellion”39—it may be misguided to impute, either to the Earl or his circle, any subtlety of interest, beyond that of an apparently successful deposition, in the spectacle of Shakespeare's play.

However, if the interest of Essex and his followers in the history of Richard II is undoubted, their attitude toward it is less clear. When the Earl accused Robert Cecil of supporting a Catholic succession, he implied Cecil's sympathy for Robert Parson's notorious tract A conference about the next succession (1595). Parson's key argument for the Spanish claim was based on the legality of Richard II's deposition, and, hence, the primacy of the Lancastrian line, an argument Essex repudiates as treasonous.40 As Paul Hammer points out, an emphasis on the military complexion of the circle has tended to simplify its nature, primarily by obscuring the Earl's erudition. His following was renowned as a center for intense, if hardly disinterested, scholarly inquiry, centered upon an “intellectually high-powered” secretariat, “a remarkable concentration of scholarly talent.”41 In this ethos, a more sophisticated rationale might be admitted for the conspirators' interest in Shakespeare's play, especially its disputative stance toward treason as a category relative to authority. The earl's complaint that his reputation was distorted by “the false glass of others' information”42 certainly resonates with Richard II's concern with the ensnarements of treason for public figures and the politically charged dynamics by which reputations are divested of, as well as invested with, integrity. Moreover, even the play's dialectical openness may have appealed to their demand for the right of unprejudiced judgment, an impartial appraisal of the often complex and misunderstood realities that could be obscured by the rhetorical flare of treason allegations. The fullness and lucidity with which Richard II considers the intensive political mediation intrinsic to the attribution of treason may have been the source of a more complex interest from the Essex circle in the fate of both its protagonists.


  1. James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 32.

  2. Barbara Hodgdon, The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 130.

  3. Calderwood, Metadrama, p. 6.

  4. The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 43. For a similar critique of Richard's language, see Ronald R. MacDonald, “Uneasy Lies: Language and History in Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy,” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 22-39, esp. 22-30.

  5. See, for example, David Scott Kastan's influential “Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 459-75. For a critique of such approaches, see Leeds Barroll, “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 441-64.

  6. David Norbrook, “The Emperor's new body? Richard II, Ernst Kantorowicz, and the politics of Shakespeare criticism,” Textual Practice 10 (1996): 329-57, 348-49.

  7. “‘By the choise and inuitation of al the realme’: Richard II and Elizabethan Press Censorship,” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 432-48, 444.

  8. “Traitor” occurs twenty-eight times in Richard II; there are thirteen uses of “treason.” Henry V also has thirteen instances of the latter, although ten of these are concentrated in the “traitor's scene,” 2.2. A number of recent essays have analyzed Shakespeare's interest in what one critic terms the “vast discourse of treason that became an increasingly central response to difficult social problems in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean London”; Curt Breight, “‘Treason doth never prosper’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Treason,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 1-28, 1. For a range of recent discussions of Shakespeare's treatment of the motif, see Craig A. Bernthal, “Treason in the Family: The Trial of Thumpe v. Horner,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 44-54; Karin S. Coddon, “‘Suche Strange Desygns’: Madness, Subjectivity, and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture” in Hamlet, ed. Suzanne L. Wofford (New York: Bedford, 1994), pp. 380-402; Karen Cunningham, “Female Fidelities on Trial: Proof in the Howard Attainder and Cymbeline,Renaissance Drama NS 25 (1994): 1-31; Nina Levine, “Lawful Symmetry: The Politics of Treason in 2 Henry VI,Renaissance Drama NS 25 (1994): 197-218. The most comprehensive historical account remains John Bellamy's The Tudor Law of Treason (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979); the same author provides further useful context in The Law of Treason in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970). See also, Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986); and G. R. Elton Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 263-326. Mark Nicholls has produced some interesting recent analyses of the political conspiracies and treason-trials that accompanied James's accession to the English throne; see “Two Winchester Trials: the Prosecution of Henry, Lord Cobham, and Thomas, Lord Grey of Wilton, 1603,” Historical Research 68 (1995): 26-48; “Treason's Reward: the punishment of conspirators in the Bye plot of 1603,” Historical Journal 38 (1995): 821-42. His conclusion in the latter, 842, is conceived narrowly: “treason remained a personal crime, committed by individuals with often the pettiest, most idiosyncratic of motives—on occasion, indeed, with no perceptible motive at all.”

  9. All citations of Richard II refer to the Arden edition of King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure (London: Methuen, 1961).

  10. Victoria Kahn, Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 5.

  11. Patterson, Reading Holinshed's Chronicles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 159. This comment is part of a valuable analysis of treason law in relation to the significant, if highly anomalous, trial in 1554, of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 154-83.

  12. These and all subsequent quotations are from Holinshed's Chronicles, ed. Henry Ellis, 6 vols. (London, 1807-8; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1965). These phrases occur on 2:738, 784, 791.

  13. For an analysis of the blend of deference and aggression intrinsic to the judicial combat and its significance for Elizabethan concerns with the native rights of the nobility, see Richard C. McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood: The Literature and Politics of Elizabethan Chivalry (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), esp. 1-27.

  14. Mervyn James, “English politics and the concept of honour, 1485-1642,” in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in early modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 308-415, 327.

  15. Its most influential formulation is located in the famous statute of 1352, the progenitor of all subsequent legislation: “When a Man doth compass or imagine the Death of our Lord the King, or of our Lady his [Queen] or of their eldest Son and Heir” (25 Edward II 5 c. 2). The act was revised, audaciously, under Cromwell's auspices for Henry VIII in 1534, to emphasize the harm to majesty incurred by hostile “imagining”; those who “malicyously wyshe will or desyre by wordes or writinge, or by crafte ymagen invent practyse or attempte, any bodely harme to be donne or commytted to the Kynges moste royall personne” (26 Henry VIII c. 13). It was this thesis of treason that became the period's dominant formulation, and which was absorbed into the major component of Elizabethan legislation in 1571. For a historical analysis, see Bellamy, Tudor Law, esp. 31-34 and Elton, 263-92; for interpretations of its significance for Shakespearean theater, see Cunningham and Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Proof and Consequences: Othello and the Crime of Intention,” in Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 104-27.

  16. Robert Bartlett observes how the medieval trial by combat was a medium in which political differences between the aristocracy and the monarchy were expressed: “There are, then, signs in this period of a clash between rulers seeking to limit the duel and aristocracies jealous of their judicial authority and individual honour,” Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 126. Ute Frevert develops this point in ascertaining the political significance of the duel for the feudal aristocracy in ways pertinent to the play: “Instead of regarding their own honour as a mere derivative of that honour which was personified by the prince as ruler and master, the sense of honour of the aristocracy retained a residue of habitual freedom and self-determination, to which they lent expression by engaging in duelling,” Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel, trans. Anthony Williams (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 15.

  17. Joseph Porter is acute on Richard's tendency to refer to his own public self when apparently speaking of collective issues: “throughout the play Richard generally uses ‘we’ to mean a public identity which exists in the perception, consciousness, and thought of his audience—that-which-is-perceived, as it is perceived by the public”; Drama of Speech Acts, p. 31.

  18. Compare the insistence of the 1352 treason act: “that ought to be judged Treason which extends to our Lord the King, and His Royal Majesty” (25 Edward III 5 c. 2). Claire McEachern's remarks on the utility of personification in Elizabethan political discourse are also useful in interpreting “a vocabulary of the monarch's private identity in the service of corporate identity,” “Henry V and the Paradox of the Body Politic,” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 33-56, 37.

  19. Obviously, the early phase of the play is alert to the importance of political divisions within medieval society. Peter G. Phialas emphasizes the significance of Edward III's kingship as a contrast to Richard's corruption of the office; “The Medieval in Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 12 (1961): 305-10. More recently, Graham Holderness has argued that the play depicts the distinctive political ethos of feudal society, defining the traditional social values violated by Richard as “a feudalism given cohesion and structure by the central authority of a king bound to his subjects by the reciprocal bonds of fealty”; Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 64.

  20. In terms of the 1352 treason act and subsequent Elizabethan legal practice—see below, note 28—such speculation could amount to a traitorous ‘imagining’ of a harmful act against the monarch, a feature that confirms Gaunt's break with orthodox loyalties.

  21. As has been observed, this is a powerful constitutional statement of the necessity for a law-centered monarchy where it is the law from which the king's power derives and he is to rule according to it; see Donna B. Hamilton, “The State of Law in Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 5-17.

  22. In an (unconscious) acknowledgement of the equivocal implications of this scene, Leonard Tennenhouse asserts that Bolingbroke “arrests Bushy and Green on charges of treason for assaulting the king's [that is, Richard's] body”; see his Power on Display: The politics of Shakespeare's genres (London: Methuen, 1986), 80. The rhetorical emphasis, however, is undoubtedly on their offenses against Bolingbroke. Tennenhouse's general observation on the political process represented in Shakespeare's history plays helps illuminate Bolingbroke's attitude toward treason: “Together these chronicle history plays demonstrate, then, that authority goes to the contender who can seize hold of the symbols and signs legitimizing authority and wrest them from his rivals to make them serve his own interests”; Power on Display, p. 83.

  23. The political implications of Bolingbroke's equivocal speech may well have carried more charge to an Elizabethan audience; Steven Mullaney discerns a widespread cultural sensitivity to ambiguous speech—“the figure of treason itself”—as symptomatic of a politically disordered subject; see his “Lying Like Truth: Riddle, Representation and Treason in Renaissance England,” English Literary History 47 (1980): 32-47. Patricia Parker makes a similar argument in interpreting the “motivated rhetoric” of, among other texts, Thomas Wilson's manual of logic, The Rule of Reason (1551): “The ‘doubtfulnesse’ of words—their capability of being ‘twoo waies taken’—not only undermines reason's ‘rule’ but may lead to specious and politically dangerous “consequentes” based on the transport of words outside an acceptable range of regulated meaning” Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London: Methuen, 1987), 100.

  24. The relationship between Bolingbroke's making relative static assumptions and the command this demonstrates can again be illuminated by analogy to the form and content of Machiavelli's writing, interpreted by Victoria Kahn as a “sophisticated rhetorical strategy, the aim of which is to destabilize or dehypostatize our conception of political virtue, for only a destabilized virtù can be effective in the destabilized world of political reality”; Machiavellian Rhetoric, p. 25.

  25. See, for example, Mary, Queen of Scot's shrewd observation on the prejudicial nature of her trial: “being already condemned by forejudgings, to give some shew and colour of a just and legal proceeding,” William Cobbett and Thomas Howell, eds. Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials (London, 1809), 2:1169-70.

  26. Cunningham, “Female Fidelities on Trial,” esp. 2-4.

  27. Maus, “Proof and Consequences,” 24.

  28. Subsequent quotations are from State Trials 2:1315-34. For an insightful account of the legal procedures involved in proving treacherous interiority, see Karen Cunningham, “‘A Spanish heart in an English body’: The Ralegh treason trial and the poetics of proof,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22 (1992): 327-51.

  29. Breight, “Treason doth never prosper,” 3-5.

  30. An admonition to the nobility and people of England and Ireland (1588), sigs. A5v-A6r. For a detailed study of Elizabethan Catholicism, see Peter Holmes, Resistance and Compromise: The Political Thought of the Elizabethan Catholics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), esp. 129-65.

  31. The historie of the princesse Elizabeth (1630), trans. R. Norton, sigs. Eee3r+v.

  32. State Trials 2:1351-52.

  33. W. F. Bolton notes that Aumerle's figurative response to Bagot's accusation—“mine honour soil'd / With the attainder of his slanderous lips” (4.1.23-24; italics added)—refers to the legal consequences of accusation (that is, the extinction of rights and capacities that followed the sentencing of a traitor). see, “Ricardian Law Reports and Richard II,Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 53-66, 59-60.

  34. Holinshed's Chronicles, 2:862-63.

  35. Sheldon P. Zitner, “Aumerle's Conspiracy,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 14 (1974): 236-57. John Halverson argues that the tone of the whole play is more satirical and absurd than has been registered; “The Lamentable Comedy of Richard II,English Literary Renaissance 24 (1994): 343-69.

  36. In relation to the unsettling effect of this, compare Craig Bernthal's perceptive remarks on the conflict over treason between Thumpe and Horner in 2 Henry VI, as embodying “the disquieting reality that people are not safe to speak their minds even in their own homes, that loyalty to the family and loyalty to the state are in fact at odds, and that, while a state cannot exist without stability in the family, the state's very efforts to purge itself of treason could undermine the harmony of family life and, in the long run, the state itself”; “Treason in the Family,” p. 50.

  37. “‘A liberal tongue’: Language and Rebellion in Richard II,” in Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, ed. J. M. Mucciolo (Hants: Scolar Press, 1996), 37-51, 38. Norbrook reexamines the Essex circle's interest in the play's aristocratic constitutionalism and “the slow and painful process of formulating opposition”; “Liberal Tongue,” p. 41.

  38. “At a Crossroads of the Political Culture: The Essex Revolt, 1601,” in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 416-65, 421.

  39. Robert Lacey, Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), 261-62.

  40. In “‘By the choise and inuitation of al the realme’: Richard II and Elizabethan Press Censorship,” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 432-48, Cyndia Susan Clegg discusses the implications of Parson's treatise for the play, esp. 437-42.

  41. Hammer, “The Uses of Scholarship: The Secretariat of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex,” English Historical Review 109 (1994); 26-51, 31.

  42. Cited in Penry Williams, The Later Tudors: England, 1547-1603 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 372.

Further Reading

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

Contends that many allusions in Richard II can be best understood through an examination of law books contemporary with the play's production.

Brownlow, F. W. “The Tragedy of Richard II.” In Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard III and Pericles to Timon of Athens, pp. 95-111. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Analyzes the ceremonial style and main themes of the play. Also discusses Shakespeare's representation of history and states that the playwright's distortion of historical fact, particularly in the portrayal of Woodstock and Gaunt, makes the play unhistorical.

Coyle, Martin, ed. “Recent Criticism.” In William Shakespeare: Richard II, pp. 151-77. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Presents excerpts from four essays which examine history (Graham Holderness); power (Christopher Pye); language and politics (Catherine Belsey); and gender (Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin) in Richard II.

Cubeta, Paul M., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Richard II. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, 121 p.

Collection of critical essays offering various overviews of the play; investigations into the political and historical issues related to the play; and examinations of the play's language, imagery, and characterization.

Healey, Margaret. Richard II. Plymouth, U. K.: Northcote House, 1998.

Book-length study of the play's exploration of the interrelations between politics, history, language, morality, and power.

Moseley, C. W. R. D. “Passing Brave to be a King: Richard II.” In Shakespeare's History Plays: Richard II to Henry V, pp. 112-28. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

Analyzes Richard's character and the tension between the man and his office as king.

Shewring, Margaret. “A Question of Balance: The Problematic Structure of Richard II.” In Shakespeare in Performance: King Richard II, pp. 2-20. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

Reviews the potential subversiveness Richard II held for its Elizabethan audiences. Shewring notes that knowledge regarding the medieval notion of the right to rule—knowledge required to properly understand the play—makes Richard II difficult to stage for modern audiences.

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Richard II (Vol. 52)


Richard II (Vol. 70)