“You may my glories and my state depose,/But not my griefs; still am I king of those.”

Richard II

Act Four, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Act Four:  As Bolingbroke attempts to discover the truth behind Gloucester’s murder in Parliament, Richard’s abdication is announced.  Carlisle warns that civil war will break out if Bolingbroke becomes king, but Northumberland has him arrested.  When Richard arrives to abdicate publically, he suggests in thoroughly upstaging his successor with a histrionic and self-pitying performance in which he refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of his deposition.  Carlisle, Westminster and Aumerle are persuaded by his cause and vow to fight back.


It’s striking that mere moments after Bolingbroke accepts Richard’s resignation, the Bishop of Carlisle retorts, “Marry, God forbid!”

Worst in this royal presence may I speak,

Yet best beseeming me to speak the truth.

Would God that any in this noble presence

Were enough noble to be upright judge

Of noble Richard.

Here Carlisle identifies the central conundrum of Richard II (or one of the conundrums anyway):  how can mere subjects condemn their monarch?  Landing in Wales, Richard boldly insisted that “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm from an appointed king,” and this assertion, articulating the ‘divine right’ of monarchy, was a commonplace of Tudor political theory.  But, as we have seen, it was not uncontested, and Shakespeare makes it only too clear just how vulnerable a king can be.  The irony of Richard’s metaphor grows sharp:  Bolingbroke (whose name, spelt “Bullinbrooke” in the early texts, could mean “boiling brook”) will find it only too easy to wash away the King’s political foundation.

Richard II is, in fact, filled with poetic images identifying both of the play’s protagonists with the elements.  Richard beings the play as a “sun-king of fire” opposed to Bolingbroke’s flood, but as the action progresses the two, as we have seen, steadily change places.  On his way to surrender, Richard casts himself as ‘glist’ring Phaeton’ (Apollo’s doomed son, who stole his father’s sun-chariot and drove it too close to the earth), but before long he imagines his body as ‘a mockery king of snow,/Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke.”  The shift occurs when Richard is called upon to hand over his crown “in common view.”  He pictures it as “like a deep well/That owes two buckets filling one another,”

The emptier ever dancing in the air,

The other down, unseen, and full of water.

That bucket down and full of tears am I,

Drinking my griefs whilst you mount up on high.

Rewriting Bolingbroke’s coronation into his own “unkinging,” Richard takes charge of the event.  But the speech also marks a decisive shift in both the tone and focus of the play.  Once Bolingbroke actually takes the crown (Richard wittily insists that he “seize” it), the focus moves decisively away from him.  Bereft of political power, meanwhile, Shakespeare makes Richard free to express himself on stage.  Perhaps his most brilliant moment in front of his enemy occurs when he requests a “mirror” to “show me what a face I have.”  Looking into it he exclaims, “No deeper wrinkles yet?”

   Hath sorrow struck

So many blows upon this face of mine

And made no deeper wounds?  O flatt’ring glass,

Like to my followers in prosperity,

Though dost beguile me!

Richard’s examination of his reflection – which reaches a peak when he dashes the mirror to pieces – is a persuasive gesture, and despite his narcissistic tastes, like all such solo performances, it is a powerful moment of theater.

But…it is the question of how were are to perceive Richard is one that Shakespeare makes remarkably different for his audiences.  To put it simply, it changes as the play develops.  Critics themselves have long been divided in their response to his character (Coleridge dismissed Richard’s “constant flow of emotions from a total incapability of controlling them…a waste of that energy which should have been reserved for action,” Yeats said “I cannot believe that Shakespeare looked on his Richard II with any but sympathetic eyes, understanding indeed how ill-fitted he was to be King, at a certain moment of history, but understanding that he was loveable and full of capricious fancy,”) but few have questioned that in this second phase of the play’s action Shakespeare displaces our sympathy for Richard’s victims and redirects it instead to Richard himself.  In doing so, his play becomes less a history and more what its first printed title promises, “The Tragedy of King Richard the Second,” with Richard as the hero at its center.

Although to some extend the form of Richard II’s title is conventional – the history plays Henry VI Part III and Richard III are also described as “tragedies” in early printed texts – here Shakespeare makes us aware that responding to the King in this is way is not merely forced by events, but enshrined in his personality.  Following Aristotle’s use of the term Richard really is a tragic hero:  a man who (much like Sophocles’ Oedipus or Ajax) blunders and is culpable, and who then suffers terribly for his mistakes.  Richard, perhaps, is more aware of his own experience, but no less solemn:  he repeatedly (and rather inappropriately) compares himself to Christ and his enemies to Judas, exclaiming during the climatic deposition that “[Christ] in twelve/Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none,” yet tragically aware of the gulf between them – a gulf all the more obvious because of Richard’s supposedly godly role.  In fact, much like Gaunt who declares (for all his criticisms of his nephew’s reign) that “God’s is the quarrel” and that humans should not interfere, in the first half of the play Richard believes that his royal status – sanctioned by the King of Heaven – exerts quasi-divine powers.  When Richard arrives on the coast of Wales after returning from Ireland, Richard gives short shrift to Aumerle’s warning that Bolingbroke threatens the realm.  “Discomfortable cousin,” Richard cries,

   Know’st thou not

That when the searching eye of heaven is hid

Behind the globe, that lights the lower world,

Then thieves and robbers range abroad uneven

In murders and in outrage bloody here;

But when from this terrestrial ball

He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines,

And darts in 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?

Richard here uses the “eye of heaven” as a metaphor for the sun(one of his favorite self-images, as we have seen), but also as a literal representation of God – the ferocious Old Testament God who will scourge “thieves and robbers” like Bolingbroke and bring their sins to light.  Yet Richard’s own sense of divinity changes with his experience through the play:  in his last minutes alive he will recall the New Testament teaching of Christ, which insists that Heaven will house those who are powerless and impoverished – the “seely [simple-minded] beggars” rather than the great monarchs as Richard touchingly observes.  Richard’s new awareness of a consoling God adds an unexpected pathos to his deposition, a fate that God himself has apparently done little to prevent.


Harold Bloom elaborates:

“What is troubling comes in the Bishop of Carlisle’s courageous prophecy concerning Bolingbroke:

My Lord of Herford here, whom you call king.

Is a foul traitor to proud Herford’s king,

And if you crown him, let me prophesy –

The blood of English shall manure the ground,

And future ages groan for this foul act,

Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,

And, in this seat of peace, tumultuous wars

Shall kin with kin, and kind with kind, confound.

Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny.

Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d

The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls –

O, if you raise this house against this house,

It will be the woefullest division prove

That ever fell upon this cursed earth.

Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,

Lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe.

The Bishop will suffer for this truthtelling, and yet Shakespeare is on no side or on all, [MY NOTE:  Isn’t that pretty much always the case?}; Bolingbroke and his supporters are unholy thugs, and Richard, no Lear, was no inch a king.  The Earl of Southampton helped arrange that Shakespeare’s company give a performance of Richard II as prelude to the Essex Rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601, six years after the first performance of the play.  Shakespeare cannot have been happy with this, but evidently he could not refuse, and was fortunate that this elicited only Queen Elizabeth’s ironic comments ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’  Essex was no Bolingbroke, and Elizabeth not at all a Richard, and being dragged into potential danger was anything but Shakespeare’s way, since he never forgot what the state had done to Marlowe and to Kyd.

Richard becomes more self-destructively eloquent with each scene.  [MY NOTE:  Nice description!]  Summoned by Bolingbroke to surrender the Crown, Richard arrives, comparing himself to Christ yet once more, and converts the ceremony into a metaphysical dance of conceits and ironies:


Give me the crown.  Here, cousin, seize the crown.

Here, cousin,

On this side my hand, and on that side thine.

Now in this golden crown like a deep well

That owes two buckets, filling one another,

The emptier ever dancing in the air,

The other down, unseen, and full of water,

That bucket down and full of tears am I,

Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.


I thought you had been willing to resign.


My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine.

You may my glories and my state depose,

But not my griefs; still am I king of those.


Part of your cares you give me with your crown.


Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down.

My care is loss of care, by old care done;

Your care is gain of care, by new care won.

The cares I give, I have, though given away,

They ‘tend the crown, yet still with me they stay.


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

One could feel chagrin at Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of a word man and a brutal politician if a critique of poetry were the issue, but of course it is not, and Richard’s juggling with wordplays distracts him from any effective resistance.  He cannot stop his own flood of eloquence, though he knows he must drown by it:

Therefore no ‘no,’ for I resign to thee.

Now, mark me how I will undo myself.

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,

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;

All pomp and majesty I do forswear;

My manors, rents, revenues, I forgo;

My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny.

God pardon all oaths that are broke to me,

God keep all vows unbroken are made to thee!

Make me, that nothing have, with nothing griev’d,

And thou with all pleas’d, that hast all achiev’d.

Long may’st thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,

And soon like Richard in an earthly pit.

God save King Henry, unking’d Richard says,

And send him many years of sunshine days!

What more remains?

An actor as well as a lyric poet [MY NOTE:  Excellent point!], Richard is more fit to join Shakespeare’s company of players than he is to be martyred on behalf of an anointing as king that he never could sustain by royal behavior.  His high theatricalism achieves an apotheosis when he utters his last command as king, sending for a mirror so that he can behold whether he is still the self-same being he was.  Shakespeare both exploits this final caprice and criticizes it by flamboyantly exhibiting his own emancipation from Marlowe, whose Edward II has hovered near throughout the play.  What clearer signal of Shakespeare’s achieved autonomy could he send to the audience than this dazzling parody of one of Marlowe’s most notorious purple passages, Faustus’s acclamation of Helen of Troy:  ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,/and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’  Shakespeare betters this by Richard’s outrageous and desperate narcissism becomes his own Helen of Troy:


Give me that glass, and therein will I read.

No deeper wrinkles yet? hath sorrow struck

So many blows upon this face of mine

And made no deeper wounds?  O flatt’ring glass,

Like to my followers in prosperity,

Thou dost beguile me.  Was this the face

That like the sun did make beholders wink?

Is this the face which fac’d so many follies,

That was at least out-fac’d by Bolingbroke?

A brittle glory shineth in this face;

As brittle as the glory is the face,

       [Dashes the glass against the ground.]

For there it is, crack’ in a hundred shivers.

Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport –

How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.


The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d

The shadow of your face.


Say that again.

The shadow of my sorrow?  ha!  let’s see –

‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within,

And these external manners of lament are merely shadows to the unseen grief

That swells with silence in the tortur’d soul.

There lies the substance.  I thank thee, king,

For thy great bounty, that not only giv’st

Me cause to wail, but teachest me the way

How to lament the cause.

More than ever, the empty poetic-critical laurels go to Richard, and the menacing political realism is entirely Bolingbroke’s.  but what a marvelous poet-playwright/actor-critic is lost in Richard!  The breaking of the glass, the argument over ‘shadow’ (at once sorrow and stage representation), and the culmination of irony in thanking Bolingbroke for instruction – all these constitute a theatrical breakthrough for Shakespeare.”


And from Van Doren:

“The new poet in Richard will develop at a giddy rate, so that in the great deposition scene, he will stand full confessed and wail in perfect glory.  In this scene, far from concealing his art, he calls attention to it with every gesture, he wantonly loses himself to its mazes.  He enters, talking to himself in the role of Christ – a role he fancies now – betrayed by Judas.  Upon York’s reminding him that he is here to hand over his crown he dramatically seizes one side of the golden object, offers the other side to Bolingbroke, and begins a long poem about buckets in wells.  Bolingbroke interrupts him with the prosaic protest:

I thought you had been willing to resign.

Richard’s rhyming answer is perhaps his honestest speech:

My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine.

You may my glories and my state depose,

But not my briefs/ still am I king of those.

But he is not done.  For in his next long speech he must pull out the stops of pity and if possible break other hearts than his own; and after that he must keep the parliament waiting while he wonders what name to call himself, now that he is nothing.  Poets must have names to call things, and minor poets must have names to call themselves.  The thought of his nothingness moves him to request that a mirror be brought so that he can gaze upon his bankrupt self.  It is brought, and it turns out to be a wonderful source of further poetic ideas.  When they are exhausted he dashes it down and breaks it, remarking to Bolingbroke as he does so:

Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,

How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.

The bewildered Bolingbroke, thus far reduced like everyone else to silence and embarrassed awe, makes the mistake of presenting Richard with a metaphor that he can go on with.  ‘the shadow of your sorrow,’ says the new king, ‘hath destroy’d the shadow of your face.’  He has not bothered to search for a fresh image; this one is already stale in Elizabethan poetry.”



What do you think?  How do you see Richard II?  Tragic hero?  Self-pitying schmuck?


My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning.


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1 Response to “You may my glories and my state depose,/But not my griefs; still am I king of those.”

  1. Pat Rosier says:

    I am enjoying this play enormously.richard is more interesting – to me anyway – than many kings because he is so unsuited to the role. His ambivalence about giving Bolingbroke the crown, for example, reminds me of the false humility of some of our current “leaders.” and I love the poetry, self-indulgence and all. So, Dennis, both tragic and a schmuck, I think.

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