Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
First, Richard II was Chaucer’s king for nearly all of that poet’s career(s), and Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, was Chaucer’s patron, friend, and brother-in-law. Shakespeare loves Chaucer (how can one not?), and this play is filled with the … absence of Chaucer. Although Chaucer is never mentioned even, it seems, obliquely, Shakespeare infuses this play with his spirit (and the word “pilgrimage”). For the real story of Richard II and his deposition by the Henry IV regime, read Terry Jones’ Who Murdered Chaucer?
Richard II is a stylized tragedy of a young eloquent king, perhaps “hopelessly miscast for the role of king” (Goddard, I 149), betrayed by supporters, compelled into resigning the crown, humiliated, imprisoned, and murdered. It would have been awkwardly topical at the time, concerned with issues of what it means to be king and the plight of a country weakly governed. Queen “Elizabeth was sometimes accused of being over-influenced by favourites, and for this reason was compared with Richard II” (Wells 134). Richard’s haughtiness and involvement in the dark dealings may also relate to Elizabeth: “Her own complicity in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587 was masked by a show of political indifference” (Garber 239). When Elizabeth passed the age of breeding, the succession became an even more tense concern. And in any case, Elizabeth was the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt (Asimov 262).
Tellingly, the abdication (or deposition) scene does not appear in the first several quarto editions, so the touchy bit is not in print during Elizabeth’s lifetime. Perhaps this play is most famous for being performed on the eve of the Essex “Rebellion” in February 1601. And it is the one referred to when Elizabeth exasperatedly remarked to William Lambarde, “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” (Ogburn and Ogburn 429; Garber 239; Anderson 331; Farina 111). But if originating much earlier, as is likely, the play may have functioned as a more pointed warning to Elizabeth than the Henry VI plays had been (Ogburn and Ogburn 429).
After an anonymous 1597 quarto edition came a 1598 edition designated as “By William Shake-speare” — with the hyphen (Farina 110). E.T. Clark dates the composition at 1582 (Clark 491), during a period in which Oxford felt compelled to warn Elizabeth of the conspiracy of the Howards (her kinsmen) and that anti-Protestant faction (Clark 493), “lest she, too, might lose her throne and, perhaps, her life” (Clark 501): this despite his own banishment from her court at the time. Shakespeare leaves out any mention of Robert de Vere, the 9th Earl of Oxford, who, banished by Parliament, “was King Richard’s best friend and worst influence” (Farina 112; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 438-439).
“It is a play in which remarkably little happens; there are no battle scenes, no severed heads, only one scene of violence” (Wells 133); a tournament is called off, and it’s said that one cannot even pinpoint the moment of Richard’s yielding the crown to Bolingbroke. So even though action and place are compressed ahistorically, very little happens in terms of drama. Instead the focus is on the poetry. This is the most lyrical of the history plays (like Romeo and Juliet in the tragedies and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the comedies). This play sports the highest average length of speech and is probably the last to be written entirely in verse. Richard is eloquent — but what does that have to do with being king?
Richard is tragically passive. He’s better at being a metaphysical poet, “so that his kingship diminishes even as his poetry improves” (Bloom 249). But even his poetry lacks range, typically addressing only his own miseries. Richard is an inadequate human being who probably never really wins our sympathy entirely. He is unforgivably callous about his uncle’s death, so we have trouble suffering with him later, but he may win our reluctant aesthetic admiration. Late in the play when he can no longer give public speeches, he meditates on his true self and becomes a bit of a tragic hero with a new toughness emerging from his identity having been stripped away.
In 1398 at Windsor Castle on the Thames (Asimov 261), King Richard II asks his uncle John of Gaunt — who historically would have been only 58 years old (Asimov 263) — if he has investigated the matter concerning his son, Henry Herford of Bullingbrook (or sometimes Bolingbroke), who has charged Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, with treason. From the opening lines resonate the themes of timing, “ground,” and especially “highness” — “high treason” (I.i.27), “High-stomach’d” (I.i.18), “high blood” (I.i.58), the royal honorific “Highness” (I.i.54), etc. Bullingbrook and Mowbray are brought in and level accusations at each other: “two supplicants accusing each other before their king, dressed formally, speaking formally, hurling down their gages” (Garber 241). A “gage” is a pledge, but probably represented by a gauntlet here. Richard is not unaware at their obsequious greetings to him: “We thank you both, yet one but flatters us” (I.i.25), since they are accusing each other of high treason, though perhaps he doesn’t realize that they both could be but flattering him. The touchiness here seems to be that Mowbray knows how involved Richard was with the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, so his defensiveness is really a loyalty to the King. When commanded to explain the charge further, Henry implies that Mowbray was responsible for the murder of Gloucester. Mowbray denies this, and diverts matters by admitting he was involved in a plot against Gaunt but has since repented and been forgiven. The argument escalates to the level of a duel challenge, with Henry declaring,
Pale trembling coward, there I throw my gage,
Disclaiming here the kinred of the King,
And lay aside my high blood’s royalty….
Allusion to the “original” contentious male relationship in the Bible, Cain and “Abel” (104), prepares for Richard’s assurance to Mowbray, “Were he my brother, nay my kingdom’s heir” (I.i.116), Richard will remain impartial. The King seems more interested in the style than in the content of the debate: “How high a pitch his resolution soars!” (I.i.109). With what should be a superfluous, “be rul’d by me” (I.i.152), he attempts to end the contention: “Rage must be withstood, / … Lions make leopards tame” (I.i.173-174). He trots out a medical conceit that may be clever but threatens to seem trivializing (I.i.153ff). But Mowbray shares Cassio’s philosophy (in Othello) concerning reputation:
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 dishonor’s use thou shalt not have.
I am disgrac’d, impeach’d, and baffled here,
Pierc’d to the soul with slander’s venom’d spear….
. . .
The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation; that away,
Men are but gilded loam, or painted clay.
. . .
My honor is my life, both grow in one,
Take honor from me, and my life is done.
These declarations would certainly have matched Oxford’s feelings in the early 1580s — particularly regarding the Howard/Arundel accusations (Ogburn and Ogburn 430) — and beyond (Clark 497; Farina 113).
Henry refuses to back down. So Richard authorizes the duel for Saint Lambert’s Day (17 September) at Coventry. Apparently some disputes can end only in violence. St. Lambert was martyred in the 7th century for knowing about a mayor’s infidelity and hypocrisy. Richard announces, “We were not born to sue, but to command, / Which since we cannot do to make you friends / Be ready, as your lives shall answer it” (I.i.196-198). “The royal ‘we’ modulates, trails off into the voice of impotence. The enjambed line tells the story, as the word ‘command’ is abruptly undercut in the phrase that follows” (Garber 241-242).
Gaunt speaks with his sister-in-law, the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, telling her that his “blood” relation with the murdered Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester — notice how often the word “blood” is used in this scene, with various meanings — stirs him to want vengeance more than do her rants (I.ii.1-3). Gaunt hints at Richard’s involvement, and will be more direct later. Since the King is beyond “correction” by we mortals (I.ii.4f), heaven will eventually have to “rain hot vengeance on offenders’ heads” (I.ii.8). The Duchess waxes eloquent about Edward III’s seven sons, some now dead, being “as seven vials of his sacred blood, / Or seven fair branches springing from one root” (I.ii.12-13). Her husband is a branch now “crack’d, and all the precious liquor spilt” (I.ii.19). So begins a pattern of horticultural metaphor recurring throughout the play. The Duchess appeals to Gaunt’s engendering in the same womb as her late husband (I.ii.22f): “and though thou livest and breathest, / Yet art thou slain in him” (I.ii.24-25). In fact, as a son, “Thou dost consent / In some large measure to thy father’s death” (I.ii.25-26) in allowing Gloucester to die unrevenged. She insists he makes himself vulnerable: “Thou showest the naked pathway to thy life, / Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee” (I.ii.31-32).
Gaunt reiterates that it must be left to Heaven since the King is involved: “I may never lift / An angry arm against His [God’s] minister” (I.ii.40-41). He insists that the Duchess must make her complaint to God, “the widow’s champion and defense” (I.ii.43). The Duchess hopes at least that Bolingbroke will prevail over Mowbray, or at least that his sins are so heavy “That they may break his foaming courser’s back, / And throw the rider headlong in the lists” (I.ii.51-52). Gaunt must leave for Coventry, and for some reason, Shakespeare makes this a long goodbye, with the Duchess in the part of Columbo: “Farewell, old Gaunt!” (I.ii.54); “Yet one word more!” (I.ii.58);
Commend me to thy brother, Edmund York.
Lo this is all — nay, yet depart not so;
Though this be all, do not so quickly go;
I shall remember more. Bid him — ah, what? —
With all good speed at Pleshy visit me.
She says she’ll die and won’t be seeing Gaunt again (I.ii.73-74).
All parties go through all the superfluous ritual and formal frou-frou of the duel ceremony — announcements of names and charges, trumpetings, etc. Henry declares Mowbry “a traitor, foul and dangerous, / To God of heaven, King Richard, and to me” (I.iii.40). Since the guy cannot be dangerous to God, the list has to refer to the crime of being a traitor; so “to me” is telling. Henry kneels to Richard, saying oddly that “Mowbry and myself are like two men / That vow a long and weary pilgrimage” (I.iii.48-49).
Richard descends from his seat; Shakespeare makes a point of embedding the stage direction by having him say so (I.iii.54). “This is the first of the play’s many downward movements, which will bring Richard off the throne” (Garber 243). Richard embraces his cousin Henry, but adds,
Farewell, my blood, which if to-day thou shed,
Lament we may, but not revenge thee dead.
What happened to the declared impartiality? Or is he really just sussing up Henry? More build-up involves Gaunt and Mowbray, but just before the battle is to begin, Richard throws down his baton, a signal that all must halt. This delay up to the last possible minute “is pure Elizabeth” (Ogburn and Ogburn 431). Richard says that such bloodspilling would resemble civil war: the “civil wounds plough’d up with neighbors’ swords” (I.iii.128) sound like those of the Knyvet feud (Ogburn and Ogburn 431). Therefore, instead, each is banished from England: Henry for ten years, Mowbray for life.
What a denunciation of war! What an appeal for peace! … And not one word of it sincere! The tortuously long sentence, 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 that it is.
The central figure is that of Peace, an infant, asleep in its cradle, England [I.iii.132]. But why should a professed lover of tranquility like Richard wish to keep peace asleep? Obviously, when peace sleeps, war and domestic turmoil have their chance…. Subject and object the same! [peace. (I.iii.137)]. The verbiage almost conceals that fact…. The King’s predicate, because of the verbal meanderings that lay between, forgot its subject. (Goddard, I 151-152)
Reflecting on the banishments, Mowbray laments the loss of immersion in the beloved English language (I.iii.159ff): “Within my mouth you have enjail’d my tongue” (I.iii.166). And, Richard adds, there’s to be no conspiring! The importance of banishment and recurrence of the word places, for some, the composition of this play in the early 1580s, when Oxford was banished from court (Ogburn and Ogburn 327, 415).
When Mowbray leaves, Richard reduces Henry’s sentence to six years, due ostensibly to Gaunt’s sorrow (I.iii.208-210); but Gaunt still doesn’t expect to live that long. Goddard is probably correct: because of his own complicity in the murder of Gloucester, “fear, not love of peace” motivates Richard to stop the duel, and the reduction of Henry’s sentence comes not from mercy but actually from a “sense of guilt” (Goddard, I 150).
A philosophical and conciliatory Gaunt and an impatient Henry say goodbye to one another, the latter off on “an enforced pilgrimage” (I.iii.264; cf. I.iii.230). Gaunt tries to convince Henry to think of this not as being banished by Richard but as Henry banishing Richard (I.iii.279-280). Or he could tell himself he’s fleeing “pestilence” for a “fresher clime” (I.iii.284-285) where he can “Suppose the singing birds musicians” (I.iii.288). Gaunt “urges the power of the imagination, of poetry and of transforming language, as a way to deal with things as they are” (Garber 244). Henry objects to the notion of adjusting one’s attitude, to which is a form of self-delusion: “O, who can hold a fire in his hand / By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?” (I.iii.294-295). The analogy resembles some of the lyrics of the Weelkes madrigal “Thule, The Period of Cosmography.” Henry bids goodbye to his country:
Then England’s ground, farewell, sweet soil, adieu;
My mother, and my nurse, that bears me yet!
Where e’er I wander, boast of this I can,
Though banish’d, yet a true-born Englishman.
Richard tests the loyalty of Aumerle, son of the Duke of York, to find out anything Henry might have conveyed when Aumerle escorted him into exile. Aumerle obviously doesn’t like Henry. With sneering elitism, Richard mentions that his men Bushy, Bagot, and Green have noted that Henry is popular among the common people. Richard is disgusted: “With ‘Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends,’ / As were our England in reversion his, / And he our subjects’ next degree in hope” (I.iv.34-36). But enough of that; Richard must put down an Irish rebellion and needs money:
And for our coffers, with too great a court
And liberal largess, are grown somewhat light,
We are enforc’d to farm our royal realm….
When Bushy enters with news that Gaunt is on his deathbed, Richard immediately and viciously hopes his uncle a speedy death so that he can get his hands on funds (I.iv.59-64). “There is a strong implication here of homosexuality between the King and the favorites” (Asimov 293).