“We were not born to sue, but to command;”

Richard II

Act One

By Dennis Abrams




Queen Isabel, Richard’s wife

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Richard’s Uncle

Harry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, Gaunt’s son (later King Henry IV)

Duchess of Gloucester, widow of the murdered Duke (Gaunt’s and York’s brother)

Duke of York, Richard’s Uncle, and his wife, the Duchess of York

Duke of Aumerle, the York’s son

Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk

Green, Bushy, and Bagot, intimates of King Richard

Percy, Earl of Northumberland

Harry Percy, Northumberland’s son

Lord Ross

Lord Willoughby

Earl of Salisbury

Bishop of Carlisle

Sir Stephen Scrope

Other and sundry nobles, including Lord Berkeley, Lord Fitzwalter, the Duke of Surrey, the Abbot of Westminster and Sir Piers Exton

A Groom from King Richard’s stable



Probably 1594-95, Richard II has many stylistic similarities to the other so-called “lyrical” plays, including Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.



Shakespeare worked closely with Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), and also used Edward Halle’s Union (1548). Samuel Daniel’s epic Civil Wars (1595) is a key source, as the anonymous play Woodstock (c. 1592).  Marlowe’s Edward II also had an influence.



The quarto (Q1) of 1597 sold well, and was reprinted twice.  A4 (1608) restores severally politically sensitive sections cut from Q1, and was itself reprinted as Q5 in 1615.  The 1623 Folio text is based mainly on Q3, but includes Richard’s abdication scene.


Act One:  The old Duke of Gloucester is dead and the English court is riven by faction (When is it not?)  On one side Harry Bolingbroke (soon to become king Henry IV) accuses his enemy Mowbray of the murder, but Mowbray denies the charge.  They are eager to prove themselves in combat, and King Richard eventually consents.  But when the day of the duel arrives, Richard suddenly changes his mind, deciding to banish the two troublesome lords instead – Bolingbroke for ten years, Mowbray permanently.  Not surprisingly, this does little for Richard’s popularity, nor does it dampen suspicions (held by the widowed Duchess of Gloucester and John of Gaunt) that the King himself is implicated in Gloucester’s death.  Back at court, Richard and his favorites complain about Bolingbroke’s departure from England and his rapidly growing popular support when news arrives of a rebellion in Ireland.


If you’re at all like me, you might have found Act I, Scene I, where Shakespeare plunges us into the argument between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, unsuccessfully umpired by Richard more than slightly confusing – here, hopefully, is some help.


From Garber, picking up from my last post:

“The four plays often called the Henry IV plays or the HenriadRichard II, Henry IV Part I and Part 2, and Henry VI – were not initially designed by the playwright to be considered as a group.  Richard II was written in 1595, considerably earlier than the others (Henry IV in 1596-97, Part Two in 1597-98, and Henry V in 1598-1599).  But the plays do concern themselves with the same cast of characters, and they provide a continuous pattern from one to the next – a pattern of transition, as we will see, from one worldview to another.  From the image of a king secure atop an orderly world, ruled only by God and His angels (akin to what the mid-twentieth century, facing its own end-of-world crisis in World War II, called, with a certain longing, ‘the Tudor myth,’ the ‘great chain of being,’ and the ‘Elizabethan world picture.’), to a recognizably ‘modern’ world of politics, comedy, intrigue, and dynamism.  This is a transition, accomplished by language, stage picture, action, and character, from stasis to action; from the sacred to the secular; and, in terms of art, from ceremony and ritual to history and drama.

It is useful, in this context, to imagine what the stage might look like at the opening of Richard II.  In the center, probably, and on a raised platform, is the throne, also know in the period as the ‘state’ (thus in Henry IV Part I the genial Falstaff, who scorns authority, will joke in the tavern scene that he can play the King:  ‘This chair shall be my state.’  Seated on the state, the throne, is God’s deputy, God’s anointed and chosen one, Richard of Bordeaux, King of England.  He is almost surely wearing a cross.  In any case the stage is probably as Christian as it is English, with John of Gaunt, among other nobles, in attendance.  (We may think of Chaucer’s knights and monks, prioresses and parsons, as well as rising merchants, artisans, and entrepreneurs.)  Richard is the government, he is the state, he is England itself – and he is seated there, in the state chamber of Windsor Castle, to give judgment and to rule, to execute and in fact to personify the great role of medieval kingship; to be a leader and the center of his world.  And this, as we are about to see, is just what he cannot do.

There enter to him two men:  Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, and Harry Bolingbroke, the son of Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt.  The scene is ceremonious in the extreme:  two supplicants accusing each other before their king, dressed formally, speaking formally, hurling down their gages – their gloves – in the ancient feudal gesture of challenge.  These are two challengers prepared to battle to the death. And why?  Because they accuse each other of the worst possible crime against the state and the King, high treason.  Both men greet the King with formal expressions of honor, wishes for his long life and long reign, as vassals should and must, and they make their formal accusations.  And then Richard speaks:

Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me.

Let’s purge this choler without letting blood.


Forget, forgive, conclude, and be agreed;

Our doctors say this is no time to bleed.

In other words, let us heal the sickness in the state by accommodation, by forgiveness, by turning the other cheek, not by single combat and trial of arms – ‘be ruled by me.’  And the challengers refuse.  Richard and John of Gaunt together implore them to throw down the gages they have picked up, to relinquish the challenges they have agreed to, and they refuse.  So now once more Richard speaks – England speaks:

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.


Since we cannot atone you, we shall see

Justice design the victor’s chivalry.

‘We were not born to sue, but to command;/Which since we cannot do…’  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.  ‘Atone’ means to ‘make as one,’ to reconcile.  But, as we will see, the theme of atonement is larger and more pervasive.  Richard’s is a king’s voice without a king’s power, in part because he himself is secretly guilty of the crime of which Mowbray is accused, the murder of Richard’s uncle, the duke of Gloucester, an act of high treason.  As John of Gaunt will later say to him, echoing the imagery of sickness and disease that Richard himself has already introduce (‘Our doctors say this is no time to bleed’).

Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,

Wherein thou liest in reputation sick.


As always in these plays, the King is the country, and the state of the kingdom is that state of the King.  This figure is a medieval inheritance, and it continues to function throughout Shakespeare.  King Richard is not only weak, but sick ‘in reputation,’ sick in name.


From Tanner:

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?  a God’s name, let it go.

(III,iii, 142-5)

On her death-bed, Queen Elizabeth is said to have remarked that ‘must’ was not a word which may be used to princes.  It is a word which comes to be used to Richard II, but only after he has consistently used the word to, and of, himself.  In the scene after the one quoted above, there is the following exchange:


What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too,

For do we must what force will have us do.

Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?


Yea, my good Lord.


Than I must not say no.


Richard seems almost too ready, even eager, to put himself under compulsion – to exchange being absolute ruler for being absolutely ruled.  It is not too much to say that Richard starts to abdicate (‘From Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s day,’) sometime before Bolingbroke announces his intention to usurp (‘In God’s name, I’ll ascend the regal throne,’) – though Bolingbroke’s intentions are something of a mystery, perhaps even to himself.  The definitive concession – self inflicted abnegation, perhaps – occurs one scene later.


Are you contented to resign the crown?


Ay, no; no, ay:  for I must nothing be.

From one point of view, this is simply a somber recognition of the inevitable – all men must die; but, in the circumstances, it has the tremendous pathos of the anointed king, God’s minister on earth, visibly, audibly confronting what has come to seem the unavoidablity of, effectively, self-nihilation.

The pathos and paradox of the king who ‘must’ was also dramatized by Marlowe in his Edward II (1592), in which there is the following exchange:


And, Leicester, say what shall become of us?


Your majesty must go to Killingworth.


Must!  ‘tis somewhat hard, when kings must go.

Marlowe’s play almost certainly influenced Shakespeare’s Richard II.  Both plays depict weak kings, who are irresponsible, arbitrary, and self-indulgent while they are secure on the throne (both, incidentally, from the same dynasty.)  They both ignore and alienate their wise counselors and turn to favourites (perhaps not coincidentally, there are three of these in each play).  I quote Geoffrey Bullough:  ‘In both plays the king is deposed, ill-treated, and then murdered in an interesting manner (MY NOTE:  I’m not sure if I’d call the means of Edward II’s murder ‘interesting.), leaving the kingdom in the hands of a better ruler.  In each the king becomes more likeable in defeat than he was in power, and the play becomes an experiment in counter-pointing the tragedy of a weak and erring central figure against the conflict of opposing groups (‘upstarts’ and true nobility).  The idea was perhaps Shakespeare’s biggest debt to Marlowe in Richard II.’  With this play, Shakespeare goes back to the beginning of the sequence of events which led to the Wars of the Roses, the tyranny of Richard III, and the advent of Henry VII and the Tudors.  But this second tetralogy is to different from the first.  It is more complex and subtle and, arguably, reveals a new attitude to politics.  Bullough gives a conventional description of the difference.  ‘Whereas the first tetraology was mainly concerned with negatives, the evils of dissension, the fratricidal strife of barons, disorder triumphant, the second group is concerned with positive values, the nature of good government, the qualities needed by a strong and wise ruler:  prudence, leadership, consideration for popular feeling, ability to choose rightly between good and bad counsel, to put the public weal before private pleasures.’  This is not wrong, but perhaps it makes the second tetraology sound a shade too bland, tending towards the untested complacencies of the instruction manual.  As we shall see, it is, and does, a great deal more than this.

In his portrayal of Richard, Shakespeare had two traditional versions to draw on, to be found in Tudor chronicles.  One stressed the weak and irresponsible king who deserved to lose his throne; the other saw him as a betrayed martyr.  In this play he is both, as if Shakespeare could see how the latter could be latent and dormant in the former, how a king could be a ‘degenerate’ fool and a Christ-like saint.  And a ‘nothing’ too.  In the first three scenes, Richard, in his handling of the quarrel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, can be seen as behaving like a responsible king.  It is not, as is sometimes suggested, a foolish and capricious act to stop the combat between the two men by throwing down his ‘warder’ or truncheon, and he has good reasons for banishing the dangerous and war-like adversaries, since the

Grating shock of wrathful iron arms,

Might from our quiet confines fright fair Peace,

And make us wade even in our kindred’s blood

We might pause on ‘kindred’s blood.’  The ceremony, pageantry, formality of these opening scenes are often commented on as bespeaking an older medieval world which the more Machiavellian power-politics of Bolingbroke will, in due course, supplant.  But if we listen to the language employed by Marlowe and Bolingbroke – ‘rites of knighthood,’ ‘chivalrous design of knightly trial,’ and talk of kinsmen, honour, blood, vengeance – we soon realize that we are listening to the older voice of feudalism.  When Richard fails to dissuade the combatants from insisting on entering the lists, we are witnessing the failure of monarchy to assert its authority over the power of feudalism.  I take the point from Graham Holderness, and his account of what is going on seems to me right.  ‘The conflict which ultimately leads to the king’s deposition is not a conflict between old and new, between absolute medieval monarchy and new Machiavellian power-politics.  It is a conflict between the king’s sovereignty and the ancient code of chivalry, which is here firmly located in the older and more primitive tribal and family code of blood-vengeance. Richard initially acquiesces in this code…but subsequently attempts to affirm a policy of royal absolutism, which insists on the king’s prerogative overriding the procedures of chivalric law.  Richard’s political response to this constant clamouring for power on the part of the feudal lords, is to impose a policy of absolutism…[Shakespeare] sees the deposition of Richard II, not as the overturning of a traditional order by new, ruthless political forces, but as the consequence of an attempt to impose on feudal power an absolutist solution.  The victorious forces are not new but old:  feudal reaction rather than political revolution.  The society we see dissolving had been an effective unity and balance of royal prerogative and feudal rights – both parties in the conflict have pushed their interests to the point of inevitable rupture.’  ‘We were not born to sue, but to command,’ asserts Richard, perhaps a little desperately, at the end of the first scene.  To the extent that the play is a ‘Tragedy’ as it was entitled when first printed), it is in the painful spectacle of the King Who Would Command transformed into the King Who Must.”


Quick questions:  What do you think so far?   And would it be helpful if I posted a brief re-cap about the Wars of the Roses?


My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning, more on Act I


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2 Responses to “We were not born to sue, but to command;”

  1. PSI says:

    ‘Thou art a traitor and a miscreant, Too good to be so and too bad to live…’ Geat line!

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