“We will descend and fold him in our arms.”

Richard II

Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


For a play that I thought would be as relatively straightforward as the Henry VI plays were (unhappy king, etc.)  even Act One is turning out to be more complex, more layered than I’d anticipated (when am I going to learn?).  Here are a few other perspectives:


From Harold Goddard (whose The Meaning of Shakespeare I think is one of the most straight-forward and reliable and sensible guides to the plays out there):

“All through the play it is implied that Richard’s personal appearance is attractive but a bit effeminate.  His wife speaks of him as her ‘fair rose.’  He was a rose potentially.  But he was blasted in the bud – blasted by royalty, we might say, for he was as hopelessly miscast for the role of king as a maiden of fifteen would be for the part of Lady Macbeth or a lame man of eighty for that of Ariel.  Richard II did his best.  But as Samuel Butler once remarked:  “What does a fish’s best amount to out of water?’

‘Woe to the land when the king is a child,’ cried Richard’s contemporary Langland, quoting Ecclesiastes, in Piers the Plowman.  Richard came to the throne at the age of ten.  What more natural for a child who knows he is to inherit a throne than to play at being king, or for a sensitive and poetic youth who wears a crown – while others govern in his name – to go on conceiving life as a brilliant spectacle of which he is the center?  And, once it is ingrained, how easy to maintain this attitude beyond the time when most men shed their illusions.  There is nothing in the text of Shakespeare’s play to prove that this was the basis for Richard’s weakness, and it is not permissible to go beyond the text in the elucidation of a character.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that Shakespeare’s Richard was just the sort of man that this kind of childhood might have produced.  He went on playing king until he was deposed.  Right here lies the difference between Richard and Henry VI, two who have often been loosely coupled as ‘weak kings.’  Henry had the sense to realize his limitations, to stand on the sidelines as it were and let his simplicity, honesty, bravery, and piety have what effect they could; whereas Richard fooled himself into thinking he was born to be a king and made a mess of the kingdom and himself, the mess a man always makes when he accepts a role for which he does not know that he is not fitted.  Shakespeare was to show many men in a like position before he was done.  So this first detailed analysis of one of this type is of quite special interest.

Henry, Duke of Hereford, surnamed Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt and later King Henry IV, accuses Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, uncle of both Richard and Henry, and challenges him to a duel.  Richard, in words that sound pacific and Christian begs the two men to forget and forgive.  But they refuse to be reconciled and on the appointed day are about to begin combat when the King throws down his warder, calls off the duel, and banishes both men from the kingdom.  Bolingbroke for a decade, Mowbray for life, though a little later he reduces the former’s sentence by four years.

Thus Richard averts violence and acts, apparently as a friend of peace.  But examine the matter and the exact opposite turns out to be the fact.  Here was the moment when the destiny of England for a century or more was being decided, and Shakespeare makes clear that hypocrisy, lying, and fear can be worse enemies of peace even than bloodshed.  For Richard was himself not guiltless in the matter of Gloucester’s death, the ostensible occasion of the quarrel.  His show of impartiality, therefore, was pure sham.  It was fear, not love of peace, that led him to call off the duel in an attempt to solve an ugly problem by the easy device of pushing it out of sight.  There were both bad conscience and bad judgment in the discrepancy between the two sentences, and when he cut the lesser one from ten years to six what looked like mercy was a sense of guilt.  By this bit of cowardice, Richard not only sealed his own doom, but initiated that century of feuds and quarrels which culminated in the Wars of the Roses.

O, when the king did throw his warder down,

His own life hung upon the staff he threw;

Then threw he down himself and all their lives

That by indictment and by dint of sword

Have since miscarried under Bolingbroke.

So, many years later (in II Henry IV), cries the young Mowbray, son of the man Richard had banished.  And even then the national chaos was nearer its beginning than its end.  In so far as things historical have any beginning, it was in the murder of Gloucester and the resulting fears and lies of Richard that the young Shakespeare found the answer to the question that the three Henry VI plays had inevitably propounded:  How had these things come to be?

“The evil that men do lives after them.”  Anyone will assent to the proposition in abstract form – and be little impressed.  But demonstrated as it is in these History Plays in dozens of scenes extending over thousands of lines with all the particulars presented, the abstraction becomes an overwhelming reality.  With the aftermath of the moment in mind it is interesting to examine the words Richard speaks to the two dukes after he has called off their duel:

Draw near,

And list what with our council we have done.

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;

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:

You, cousin Hereford, upon pain of life,

Till twice five summers have enrich’d our fields

Shall not regret our fair dominions,

But tread the stranger paths of banishment…

What a denunciation of war!  What an appeal for peace!…And not one word of it sincere!  The torturously long sentence, [MY NOTE:  The above is just one 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.  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.  Don’t awaken peace, says Richard, lest she frighten out of our land…and to our logical consternation we discover that what this aroused infant peace is to scare into exile is, of all things, peace itself!

To wake our peace…


Might from our quiet confines fright fair peace.

Subject and object is the same!  The verbiage between almost conceals that fact.  It is amusing to behold scholars with more linguistic learning than psychological insight laboring, with contortions almost equal to Richard’s, to bring some sense and logic into what Shakespeare only too plainly made senseless and logicless on purpose.  If rhetoric is the art of saying nothing finely, Richard proves himself an arch-rhetorician.  He himself speaks a little later of adders that lurk under flowers.  So do cowardice and injustice lurk under Richard’s flowery words, as appears a moment later in his banishment of Bolingbroke and Mowbray.  It is fear of John of Gaunt, possessor of unpleasant secrets, that leads him to mitigate the sentence of his son.  But he compensates in the next scene for this act of ‘mercy’ by praying God to put in the mind of the old man’s physician

To help him to his grave immediately,

while he, Richard, confiscates his property.  So close to violent thoughts follow ‘pitiful’ ones.

Compared with such a man, an honest fighter like Faulconbridge [MY NOTE:  From King John, our next play] is an angel of peace.  And so Richard’s senseless speech about the infant Peace in its cradle makes sense after all.  But it is Shakespeare’s sense, not Richard’s.  The King’s predicate, because of the verbal meanderings that lay between, forgot its subject.  But Shakespeare takes Richard’s rhetoric-falsehood, cowardice, mixed metaphors, bad grammar and all – and turns it into truth from the gods themselves.  ‘Peace’ will indeed frighten peace out of England.  It did for a century on this occasion.  It did in our own day when an English leader in a difficult position thought he had purchased ‘peace in our time’ by a similar act of fear.”


From Van Doren:

“The play opens with a quarrel between the Dukes of Hereford and Norfolk which only the king can settle, and which in the third scene he settles by banishing both parties.  Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, is the first to lament the sentence.  And what loss does he lament?

The language I have learn’d these forty years,

My native English, now I must forgo;

And now my tongue’s use is to me no more

Than an unstringed viol or a harp,

Or like a cunning instrument cas’d up,

Or, being open, put into his hands

That knows no touch to tune the harmony.

Mowbray’s tongue is his most precious organ because with it he can tune the harmonies of English.  And ‘tongue’ is the key word, the repeated word, of Richard II generally.  The second act opens with John of Gaunt insisting to the Duke of York that something may be accomplished by protests from so old a man as he to the unstaid Richard:

O, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony.

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,

For they breath truth that breathe their words in pain.

He that no more must say is listen’d more

Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose.

More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before.

The setting sun, and music at the close,

As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,

Writ in remembrance more than things lost past.

The word ‘tongues’ in the first line has released the music of which Gaunt is peculiarly capable, and of which he is soon to supply the grand specimen in his apostrophe to…”  (To be continued with Act Two)


And from Garber:

“The gorgeous panoply of the opening scene gives way to an even more formal and more elaborate pageant in the play’s third scene, the trial by combat.  The stage will probably look much the same [as in the previous acts].  The location has shifted to the lists at Coventry, but still the King is seated on the throne, which is – or ought to be – at the center of the stage, at the symbolic center of the world.  An imaginative production might well place the throne awkwardly at one side of the stage rather than in the powerful center, reflecting the actual rather than the ideal conditions of Richard’s rule.  Mowbray and Bolingbroke appear before the King dressed ceremonially in armor, and their language is equally ceremonial.  The ancient terms of challenge and rank are spoken by a marshal, representing the King, and by two heralds, representing the challengers.  The stage is full of heraldic costume and device, flags, pennants, and armor, the entire pageantry of the medieval and early modern state.  Here names have resonant, echoic meanings:

Lord Marshall:

What is they name?  And wherefore com’st thou hither

Before King Richard in his royal lists?

Against whom comest thou?  And what’s thy quarrel?

Speak like a true knight, so defend thee heaven!


Harry of Hereford, Lancaster, and Derby

Am I, who ready here do stand in arms

To prove by God’s grace and my body’s valour

In lists on Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk,

That he is a traitor foul and dangerous

To God of heaven, King Richard, and to me.

And as I truly fight, defend me heaven!

The ancient ceremony is performed, and Bolingbroke, still in formal terms, requests of the Lord Marshal permission to take leave of King Richard, a message that is duly transmitted, according to protocol, by the Marshal to the king.  Richard’s reply foreshadows his own fate:  ‘We will descend and fold him in our arms.’

Not the ceremony now, the formal, correct kiss of homage.  Not Bolingbroke on his knees and Richard on his throne.  Instead, ‘We will descend.’  This is the first of the play’s many fateful downward movements, which will bring Richard off the throne, and down to the base court at Flint Castle, and finally, in the deposition scene, down from the kingship to an ignominious death.

Even more tellingly, as the opponents stand ready in the lists, the Marshal having given them their lances, again with appropriately formal language and gesture, as the trumpets sound and the combatants move forward, there is a sudden gesture on the stage, and we hear, once more, the Marshal’s voice:  ‘Stay, the King hath thrown his warder down.’  A warder is a staff, wand, or baton, a symbol of office.  In throwing down the warder Richard abruptly brings the ceremony to a close before it has properly begun.  This is a broken ceremony, like his earlier ‘descent’ from the throne, and like that gesture it is a visual prediction of things to come, another fateful downward movement en route to Richard’s ultimate surrender of the kingship and the throne to his rival Bolingbroke in the deposition scene.  With this broken ceremony Richard symbolizes, to the audience in the theater as well as to that on the stage, the vulnerability of his idea of kingship:  the imagined ideal of a land unified and personified by a king who rules by divine right and divine guidance, a feudal order of which the king is unquestioned sovereign.  In Hamlet broken ceremonies will be termed ‘maimed rites,’ and this is indeed a maimed rite, the failure of an ideal.  In practical terms, too, Richard’s gesture is untimely, for in keeping the combatants alive, in saving the life of his cousin Bolingbroke, Richard brings down doom upon himself in a more immediate way, making his own tragedy inevitable with the return and ultimate ascendancy of Bolingbroke, who will become Henry IV.

Instead of death, the punishment Richard ordains for Bolingbroke and for Mowbray is banishment.  Mowbray is banished forever – perhaps because he knows the dark truth about the death of Gloucester.  Bolingbroke is banished for ten years, a sentence that is then further commuted to six (‘such is the breath of Kings,’ remarks Bolingbroke with mingled irony and admiration.)  In his dialogue with his father, old John of Gaunt, on how to endure this period of banishment, the audience can hear for the first time something of Bolingbroke’s nature and personality, which stand in such sharp contrast to Gaunt’s, and to Richard’s:

John of Gaunt:

Teach thy necessity to reason thus;

There is no virtue like necessity.

Think not the King did banish thee,

But thou the King.


Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honour,

And not the King exile thee.


Suppose the singing birds musicians,

The grass whereon thou tread’st the presence strewed,

The flowers fair ladies, and thy steps no more

Than a delightful measure or a dance.



O, who can hold a fire in his hand

By thinking on the frosty Caucasus,

Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite

By bare imagination of a feast,

Or wallow naked in December snow

By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?

O no, the apprehension of the good

Gives but the greater feeling to the worse.

Gaunt urges his son to make a world within his own imagination, to ignore uncomfortable reality.  Bolingbroke replies that he can do no such thing, and that such ameliorative wishful thinking would increase rather than decrease his suffering.  Gaunt here plays a part akin to Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, a play written in the same years.  He urges the power of the imagination, of poetry and of transforming language, as a way to deal with things as they are.  But Bolingbroke is a realist, not an idealist, a romantic, or a dreamer.  [MY NOTE:  Is that why he’s destined to win out in the end?]  He cannot ‘[s]uppose the singing birds musicians’ (any more that Romeo can believe, despite Juliet’s urging, that ‘[i]t was the nightingale, and not the lark’ serenading them on the morning of Romeo’s own banishment.)

It is no accident that the two court scene in Richard II, the two scenes of combat and confrontation (I.I and I.3) are separated in the play’s first act by a scene in which John of Gaunt speaks with the Duchess of Gloucester, the widow of his murdered brother – a sad, empty scene in which the older generation is shown to be impotent and powerless, placing its faith in God and in an old world order.  Since Richard, Gaunt says, is ‘God’s substitute,/His deputy anointed in his sight,’ the only challenge to him can come from God, and the only revenge for the murder of Gloucester can be God’s.  This is the old worldview, and the older generation, the relics of Edward III’s seven sons, are weak because they are old, and because the world they live in has changed.  They have outlived their time.  Gaunt will shortly die, and the Duchess of Gloucester as well, and with them will disappear their vision of a world unquestionably ruled, by divine right, by a Christian king ordained by God.

Banishment is the penalty given to Bolingbroke and Mowbray, a penalty exacted for the sin of civil war.  But banishment, while it is a civil penalty, is also one with biblical overtones, [MY NOTE:  Who knew?]  as Mowbray’s parting words make plain:  ‘Farewell, my liege.  Now no way can I stray:/Save back to England, all the world’s my way.’  A half century later, John Milton’s Adam and Eve, expelled from Eden, would face a similar crisis, and a similar opportunity:  ‘The World was all before them, where to choose.’  Bolingbroke, further evoking the burden place on Adam’s progeny in Genesis, will later speak of ‘[e]ating the bitter bread of banishment,’ of banishment as labor and exile.  And yet what is banished is more than a few individuals from a paradisal England.  The fall that takes place is the fall of an ideal.  The garden that was England, the enclosed state of medieval hierarchy, is now itself subject to a fall.  The point is made nearly and explicitly in the garden scene (3.4), a scene that is, like others we have noticed in Shakespeare’s plays, a ‘window scene,’ a moment of perception that introduces characters we have not met before and will not meet again, but whose observations and actions comment trenchantly on the play of which they are a part.  Just as the garden is a common image for the state, so in Renaissance literature the gardener was often both a king figure and a God figure, and this Gardener rules his little island with an orderliness and care that stands in deep contrast to that of Richard.  As one of the Gardener’s men asks, in a question addressed as much to the audience as to the Gardener:

Why should we, in the compass of a pale,

Keep law and form and due proportion,

Showing as in a model our firm estate,

When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,

Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chocked up,

Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,

Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs

Swarming with caterpillars?

Among these ‘caterpillars’ are the high-ranking pests Bolingbroke scornfully labels ‘[t]he caterpillars of the commonwealth,’ Richard’s sycophantic flatters, whose names – significantly for this garden scene and the pervasive garden images throughout the plays – are Busy, Bagot, and Green.  The Gardener himself sees the parallel (and contrast) between his garden and King Richard’s, and mourns for it:  ‘O, what pity is it/That he hath not so trimmed and dressed his land/As we this garden!”  (3.4.56-58).  The Queen overhearing the news of her husband’s defeat and capture, addresses the Gardener in terms that she, too, sees the analogy, calling him ‘old Adam’s likeness,’ who predicts, against her wishes and her hopes, ‘a second fall of cursed man.’  The garden scene is a decorative set piece, foreshadowing the much more realistic and ‘low’ inset scenes of commentary in later plays, like the Porter scene in Macbeth.  The Gardener, although he is a worker, not a nobleman, speaks in verse, not prose, and in fact all of Richard II is in verse, underscoring both its celebrated ‘poetic’ qualities and the degree to which some of its characters, at least, resist facing facts about the changing locus of power in England.  One of Bolingbroke’s first moves when he returns to England will be to court the favor of the common people, a technique developed into an art form – and a way of life – by his charming and calculating son, Prince Hal.”


So for a play that seems, at least on the surface, to be about a king who is a weak ruler with a poetic soul is turning out to be much much more than that.  What are your thoughts?  Does the formal slightly stylized form, the verse, draw you further in or do you find it distancing?  Are you intrigued?  Share your thoughts and questions with the group!



Our next reading:  Richard II, Act Two

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning


Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.


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