“O, that I were a mockery king of snow,/Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke/To melt myself away in water-drops!”

Richard II

Act Three, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


For me, we probably have yet to read a line from Shakespeare more haunting than “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories about the death of kings!”  For whatever reason, it’s a line I just can’t shake.  Have you had any of those yet?


And in our comments section, one of our most loyal readers, GGG, posted this:  “In Act Three, when I read Richard, I feel like I am hearing someone speaking quickly, almost panicking. Northumberland (I think it was) refers to Richard as frantic, and that seemed to fit the tidal wave of words that pour out from him. This is the first time for me (except maybe Mercutio) where the pace/speed/rapid fire of the language really reflected this kind of crazed/crazy character–on the edge of destruction. Not sure if it’s because of the stricter “poetry” of the play or because I’m getting more into the rhythm of Shakespeare.”

My response?  I agreed with her completely, but pointed out something that I think we all (including me) need to reminded of.  Not only are we becoming better at reading Shakespeare; Shakespeare is also becoming a greater and greater writer.  Compare, let’s say, Richard II with his first British king, Henry VI – there’s really no comparison.


I’d like to back to Garber, and her discussion of the importance of names in Richard II:

“But of all those who depend up on the name instead of the thing to bestow identity, the most evident and striking is Richard himself, who returns constantly, throughout the play, to this belief and to the theory of kingship it implies.  In the middle of the third act, for example, word is brought to him that his armies have deserted and gone over to Bolingbroke.  After a moment of despair, Richard regains his courage:

I had forgot myself.  Am I not King?

Awake, thou sluggard majesty, thou sleep’st!

Is not the King’s name forty thousand names?

Arm, arm, my name…!

Richard throughout the play compares himself to Christ, calling bushy, Bagot, and Green his wavering flatterers, ‘[t]hree Judases,’ and labeling those who show him an outward pity ‘Pilates’ who have delivered him to a ‘sour cross.’  In crying out ‘Arm, arm, my name!’ he seems to see his name as possessing a numinous power, like that depicted in the many Renaissance paintings of the ‘Adoration of the Name of Jesus,’ the crowned name circled with angels, receiving homage from saints and worshipers.  Such paintings, like the famous work by El Greco also called The Dream of Philip II (1579), took their cue from a key passage in Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians:  ‘Wherefore God…hath given him a name which is above every name; That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of [things] in heaven, and [things] in earth.’  Thus at Flint Castle, act 3, scene 3, the midpoint of the play, when his downfall is assured, we will hear Richard lament,

O, that I were as great

As is my grief, or lesser than my name…

And in the deposition scene, in act 4, scene 1, h e will say that he has ‘no name, no title,’ now that he is no longer king.  Name and title are, to him, the same.  For this reason old York is right to criticize the presumptuous and ambitious Northumberland outside the walls of Flint Castle, when Northumberland prematurely ‘deposes’ the King:


Richard not far from hence hath hid his head.


It would beseem the Lord Northumberland

To say ‘King Richard’…



Your grace mistakes.  Only to be brief

Left I his title out.


The time hath been,

Would you have been so brief with him, he would

Have been so brief with you to shorten you,

For taking so the head, your whole head’s length.

Not only is the name the title, the name of the king can operate independently of the king. [MY NOTE:  Now, that’s interesting.]  this concept is related to a theory known as ‘the king’s two bodies,’ well described by the modern scholar Ernst Kantorowicz from period documents like the Reports of Edmund Plowden, a law apprentice of the Middle Temple in the time of Queen Elizabeth:

‘For the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic.  His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature of Accident, to the Imbecilities of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other people.  But his Body politic is 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, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body.’

Thus, in political terms, the king ‘never dies,’ and the name of ‘king’ has a continuous power:  ‘the relation to him as King, as King never dies, but the King, in which Name is has relation to him, does ever continue.’  Yet the body natural is also a sign.  When in this play King Richard departs for Ireland to supervise his wars there, it is another indication of his own impotence, and of the sickness in the state, that he leaves old York in command – as York sees more clearly than Richard does:  “Here am I, left to underprop his land,/Who, weak with age, cannot support myself.’  Yet as the surviving onstage voice of the old order, York himself is a fervent believer in the doctrine of ‘the king’s two bodies,’ as he explains to the rebellious Bolingbroke:

Com’st thou because the anointed King is hence?

Why, foolish boy, the King is left behind,

And in my loyal bosom lies his power.

Ultimately, however, the ceremonial body, the loyal bosom of York is as powerless as Richard, for without soldiers to support him York surrenders to Bolingbroke in words that echo Richard’s from the opening scene:

But if I could, by Him that gave me life,

I would attach you all, and make you stoop

Unto the sovereign mercy of the King.

But since I cannot, be it known to you

I do remain as neuter…

‘Neuter’ is our word ‘neutral,’ or ‘neutralized,’ but the undertone of impotence is there as well.  York’s ‘cannot’ directly recalls Richard’s:  ‘We were not born to sue, but to command;/Which since we cannot do…’

The theory of ‘the king’s two bodies,’ the man and the state, raises for York, for Richard, and for the play key questions about the nature of kingship and the difference between essence and role.  Bolingbroke places faith in persona, or role, in malleability and self-creation; Richard in essence of identity.  Broadly, this difference between essence and role is the difference in the play between an old, hieratic view of kingship and a new, early modern notion of monarchy.  In terms of theater it is also the difference between a miracle, or morality, play and a play of dramatic realism and complexity, the difference between the cycle play of Christ’s passion that Richard thinks he is performing and the Shakespearean play of politics, history, and metamorphosis in which Bolingbroke is an eager and complicit actor.  Richard’s view of kingship is expressed clearly in act 3, upon his return to England:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm from an anointed king.

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord.

For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,

God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel.  Then if angels fight,

Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.

Anointed as Christ was anointed, Richard claims the divine right of kings.  God will protect him:  ‘Arm, arm, my name!’  As in all of Shakespeare’s history plays, the symbol of the English kingship is the sun, with its familiar homonym of ‘son’ – or ‘Son.’  Thus in the same speech Richard will appropriate the figure of the sun himself, to demonstrate rhetorically the inevitability of his triumph:

knowst thou not

That when the searching eye of heaven is hid

Behind the globe, and lights the lower world,

Then thieves and robbers range abroad unseen

In murders and in outrage bloody here;

But when from this terrestrial ball

He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines,

And darts his light through every guilty hole,

Then murders, treasons, and detested sins,

The cloak of night being plucked from off their backs,

Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves?

So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,

Who all this while hath reveled in the night

Whilst we were wand’ring in the Antipodes,

Shall see us rising on our throne, the east,

His treasons will sit blushing in his face,

Not able to endure the sight of day,

But, self-affrighted, tremble at his sin.

In his view, and in this resounding speech, Richard is the sun, and when he rises, having returned from Ireland (here rather grandly termed ‘the Antipodes,’ the ends of the earth), Bolingbroke will be exposed and will recognize his sin.

But Bolingbroke does not think in these theological terms.  [MY NOTE:  How could he?]  the kingship is for him a political, not a religious, office until he attains it, when his tune and tone will change.  And the image of the king as the sun will itself chart the pattern of Richard’s tragedy and fall, as it is transferred in the course of this play from Richard to Bolingbroke.  By the end of act 3, scene 2, disbanding his soldiers, Richard has already reversed the image:  ‘Discharge my followers.  Let them hence away/From Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day’ Richard is now the night, and Bolingbroke the day – the shift of the sun image from the one man to the other begins to balance in imagistic terms the transfer of the kingship.  When Richard appears on the walls of Flint Castle, Bolingbroke will compare him to a sun covered with clouds:

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…

The stage picture here, with Richard aloft on the battlement of the castle, is remarkably similar to the celebrated scene in Romeo and Juliet.  Richard is the ‘sun,’ rising in the ‘east,’ here ‘blushing’ as Juliet felt she should blush at being overheard by Romeo, Bolingbroke stands below, on the main stage, and speaks as he gazes up at the King.  In act 3, scene 3, Richard will, like Juliet, invoke the figure of Phaethon, the ill-fated son of Apollo, who tried to control the horses of the sun.   But the culmination of the sun image, and the end of Richard’s kingship, will come in the deposition scene, when Richard, lamenting that he has ‘no name, no title,’ says,

O, that I were a mockery king of snow,

Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke

To melt myself away in water-drops!

It is Bolingbroke, now, who is the sun, and the king, while Richard is merely a snowman, a ‘mockery king of snow.’  Kingship, like power, like language, can melt away into tears, into air.

In the new world Richard must come to experience and know, names are not magic, nomen is not omen, the name is not necessarily equal to the thing.  When, in the course of the deposition scene he is forced to surrender the crown and the kingship it signifies, his speech of reluctant compliance becomes a bitter and bitterly truthful pun.  ‘Are you contented to resign the crown?’ asks Bolingbroke, and Richard’s replay underscores his own divide self, his own indecision and ambivalence.  ‘Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be’ is how editors have tended to print out his answer – ‘Yes, no; no, yes.’  But the First Folio (and the Fourth Quarto of the play), following the standard spelling of the time, presents this conundrum of a sentiment as ‘I, no; no, I; for I must nothing be.’  ‘I, no; no, I’ is a logical picture in words, a chiasmus and a hieroglyph.  We might also translate it with another homonym:  ‘I know no I.’  ‘I know no I’ makes sense for Richard’s own profound experience of loss.  He has no selfhood if he is not king.  Without the crown, he is nothing.

From the beginning, patterns of ascent and descent, up/down movements, dominate the play both in language and in action.  In act 1, scene 3, there is Richard’s cousinly ‘descent’ from the throne (‘We will descend and fold him in our arms’), bringing him to the level of Bolingbroke and foreshadowing the more dire and tragic descents later in the play.  Like the actual deposition, this early descent, though apparently voluntary, is compelled by political circumstances.  To this first descent, and the gesture in the trial by combat, when the King throws his warder down, could be added any number of others, both physical and verbal:  the breaking of the staff of office by the Earl of Worcester, Richard’s steward, who resigns and flees to Bolingbroke; Richard’s dramatic, theatrical, and finally ineffectual gesture when he returns from Ireland, weeping to be again in England, and stooping to touch its soil once more (‘Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,/Though rebels wound thee with their horses’ hoofs’ and Richard’s descent from the walls of Flint Castle (from the upper stage to the base court below), which he glosses, characteristically, with a cautionary tale (‘Down, down I come like glist’ring Phaeton,/Wanting the manage of unruly jades.

In the same scene at Flint Castle, as Bolingbroke kneels before him in apparent homage, Richard will say ruefully, ‘Up, cousin, up.  Your heart is up, I know.’  In the following scene, the Gardener perceives the struggle between the two claimants, accurately, in the image of a scale:

Their fortunes both are weighted.

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 weights King Richard down.

The figure of the scale will recur, as will all these images of descent and fall, in the great and tragic deposition scene, when Richard himself removes the crown, throws down the mirror he has commanded to be brought to him, descends the throne, and gives voice once more to the seesaw movement of up and down:

Conveyers are you all,

That rise so nimbly by a true king’s fall.

Falls of princes, as we have already noted, were the patterns of medieval tragedy.  But in Richard II, which is a history play as well as a tragedy, there is more than one diagonal pattern.  In fact the design of this play, as of a number of others by Shakespeare, is what might be called ‘chiastic’ – that is, X-shaped.  One protagonist rises as another falls.  The man who rises in this play is, of course, Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV – as York will acknowledge explicitly at the time of the deposition:

Ascend his throne, descending now from him,

And long live Henry, of that name the fourth!

Bolingbroke’s ‘descent’ will be an ‘ascent’ – he will ‘descend’ from Richard in a genealogical sense, becoming his de facto heir.  The very idea of descent has been altered to suit the upward ambitions of the new king.  While Richard has surrounded himself with favorites and squandered away his inheritance, Bolingbroke has sought and won the favor of the common people, as Richard comments bitterly at the end of act 1:

Ourself and Bush, Bagot, and Green

Observed his courtship to the common people,

How he did seem to dive into their hearts

With humble and familiar courtesy,

What reverence he did throw away on slaves,

Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles

And patient underbearing of his fortune,

As ‘twere to banish their affects with him.

Off goes his bonnet to an oysterwench.

A brace of drayman bid God speed him well,

And had the tribute of his supple knee

With ‘Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends,’

As were our England in reversion his,

And he our subjects’ next degree in hope.

The form of this report is what I call an ‘unscene,’ a scene that the audience does not exactly see, but that is so vividly described it seems almost to be engraved upon the memory.  Often, as here, such scenes contain bits of dialogue and stage gesture, which heighten the illusion that the scene has been witnessed rather than retold.  (Film directors frequently obliterate the distinction by casting and performing these as-told-to scenes.)  What is accomplished by placing such a scene offstage?  In the present case, the relentlessness of the up/down movement is exacerbated by Richard’s language:  Bolingbroke ‘did dive into their hearts’; ‘[o]ff goes his bonnet’; ‘the tribute of his supple knee.’  All of these gestures, as Richard so clearly sees, are dips preparatory to a rise.”

Bolingbroke senses a change in political realties; henceforth he will take his support where he can get it.  And his politicking serves him well when the rebels join him and he rides, triumphant into London.  York’s weeping narrative of the procession into the city, told to his wife, completes the pattern that Richard’s account has begun:


Then, as I said, the Duke, great Bolingbroke,

Mounted upon a hot and fiery steed,

With his aspiring rider seemed to know,

With slow and stately pace kept on his course,

Whilst all tongues cried ‘God save thee,


You would have thought the very windows spake,

So many greedy looks of young and old

Through casements darted their desiring eyes

Upon his visage, and that all the walls

With painted imagery had said at once,

‘Jesu preserve thee!  Welcome, Bolingbroke!’


Duchess of York:

Alack, poor Richard!  Where rode he the whilst!


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,

Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes

Did scowl on gentle Richard.  No man cried ‘God

  save him!’

No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home;

But dust was thrown upon his sacred head,

Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,

His face still combating with tears and smiles,

The badges of his grief and patience…


[MY NOTE:  I immediately checked, after reading “poor Richard” to see if that was where Benjamin took the name.  Nope.]

Once again internal quotations – ‘No man cried ‘God save him!’’; ‘Whilst all tongues cried ‘God save thee, Bolingbroke!’’ – emphasize the sense of the off-stage scene’s reality, while York’s description of Bolingbroke as an ‘aspiring rider’ underscores his upward trajectory.  The double irony of an actor commenting on the ill fortune of another actor would not be lost on any theater audience.  But the point is really that Richard would not acknowledge his performance to be an act, while Bolingbroke, akin to the protean actors we have seen in other history plays, eagerly embraces the public stage.

For Bolingbroke, language is a tool and performance second nature.  His success is so complete that he turns the inanimate into animate, and animated, objects:  ‘You would have thought the very windows spake’ and the walls had cried out ‘Welcome, Bolingbroke!’  Likewise, when Bolingbroke returns from exile, we hear from Northumberland (not an easy conquest, and shortly to be Henry IV’s enemy and rival) that talking with him was like eating candy; his ‘fair discourse hath been as sugar,/Making the hard way sweet and delectable.’

Bolingbroke is not a courtier – he is a politician, and his ‘fair discourse’ is not flattery but policy.  He wins over the testy Northumberland by his conversation, by the force of his words.  But when there is no need for words, Bolingbroke does not use them.  When his father asks him why he is silent as he begins his banishment – ‘O, to what purpose dost thou hoard thy words,/That thou return’st no greeting to thy friends?’ – Bolingbroke replies, ‘I have too few to take my leave of you.’  In the deposition scene, as Richard progresses from image to image, from ceremony to ceremony, during more than a hundred lines of verse, Bolingbroke says nothing – except to send for a looking glass at Richard’s request.  ‘Mark, silent King, the moral of this sport,’ says Richard.  Richard for much of his play is a voluble king, a king of words, although unable to speak the language of command (‘…which since we cannot do…’)  when, early in the play, Richard repeals four years of Bolingbroke’s sentence, Bolingbroke murmurs, ‘How long a time lies in one little word!/…such is the breath of kings.’  But in fact this king’s breath has no such power, and Bolingbroke will return from banishment when it pleases him to do so.”

(More from Garber on language in Richard II in my next post, plus more…)


Our next reading:  Richard II

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2 Responses to “O, that I were a mockery king of snow,/Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke/To melt myself away in water-drops!”

  1. GGG says:

    GGG=a she, not a he. I can change to my first name if you like–Gaye.

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