“A brittle glory shineth in this face;/As brittle as the glory is the face.”

Richard II

Act Four, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


More from Marjorie Garber on language, symbols, and the loss of a crown:

“Indeed, all around Richard in the opening scenes of the play language itself seems to be dying.  This is a perception, or a phenomenon, related to the dislocation of names from things, the failure of the one-to-one correspondence between ideas and essence in which the King, above all others, continues to believe.  Thus Mowbray speaks feelingly of his own banishment in terms of a loss of language:  ‘What is thy sentence then but speechless death?’  His tongue, he says, is jailed in his mouth; the English he has spoken all his life will be useless to him.  When John of Gaunt dies we are told that he said…nothing.


    Nay, nothing:  all is said.

His tongue is now a stringless instrument.

Words, life, and all, old Lancaster hath spent.

Yet Richard’s own language has a strength as well as a weakness, a strength in personal and in tragic terms that is as great as his weakness in political terms.  If he is unfit to be an early modern king, he is increasingly a man of reflection and sensibility.  Whatever history’s verdict on Richard of Bordeaux, poetry’s assessment of him is, however reluctantly, admiring.  We see in the pairing of Richard II and the man who will become Henry IV an intimation of what will become a familiar Shakespearean contrast, between a complex, even mythic figure imbued with human flaws and human suffering, (like, for example, the heroic and tragic Antony in Antony and Cleopatra) and a more pragmatic, practical-minded figure of political and martial accomplishment (like the ruthlessly businesslike Octavius Caesar in that play).  In fact we could read the chiastic pattern, the X-shaped pattern of rise and fall, in a slightly different way.  Instead of charting the fall of Richard and the rise of Bolingbroke, we could say that both diagonals of the X trace the movement of Richard through the play.  As he falls, he rises.  As he descends in the political world, he rises in the world of drama, tragedy, poetry.  The letter X – often used today as a synonym for the unknown, or the profane – was from early times used as an abbreviation for, and thus a symbol of, Christ.  The ‘fortunate fall’ is the story of Jesus as well as of Adam and Eve:  as they fall, they rise.  Whatever Shakespeare’s Christian audience might have thought, whatever an audience today thinks of Richard, there is little doubt from the nature of his own language in the play that he himself sees this connection, and believes it.  We have heard his impatient speeches ring with words like ‘Judas’ and ‘Pilate’ and ‘sour cross’ when he upbraids his followers for their failures.  But his moral dignity begins to assert itself as his suffering increases – as, for example, in York’s sad tale of his ride through the streets of London, patient though grieving, ‘his face still combating with tears and smiles,’ as if he were Jesus serenely riding to Jerusalem on the back of an ass.  (Matthew 21:2-11).

Politically Richard is not only inept but corrupt.  He has wasted his revenues, farmed out his lands in a way no king can afford to if he is to keep his throne.  He is rightfully accused of harboring favorites, and even if the audience has little affinity for the ‘wavering commons,’ whose love, as  Bagot says, ‘lies in their purses,’ neither are we particularly drawn to Bush, Bagot, and Green, the caterpillars of the commonwealth.  Richard shows nothing but callousness in his plot to seize John of Gaunt’s property as soon as he is dead:  ‘Pray God we may make haste and come too late!’.  But there is something admirable in his demeanor as he faces the loss of power and title, and begins to realize that he is not as king as the modern world defines a king.  Returning from Ireland, stooping to salute the earth with his hand, he is already a denizen of an older and simpler world.  In this scene (3.2), we see him move from an assertion of the divine right of kings to an awareness of his own humanity, an awareness that is also a comment on the transforming power of language.  The failed king – as it is often remarked – becomes a poet, telling the tale of his own downfall.  The failed ruler becomes a playwright, writing the tragedy of Richard II:

For God’s sake let us sit up on the ground

And tell sad stories about the death of kings:

How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,

All murthered – for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks;

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little pin

Bored through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence, throw away respect,

Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;

For you have but mistook me all this while.

I live with bread like you, feel want,

Taste grief, need friends – subjected thus,

How can you see now to me, I am a king?

We might remember Juliet’s similar rejection of ‘[t]radition, form, and ceremonious duty,’ in her case offered in the service of love:  ‘Fain would I dwell on form…but farewell, compliment./Dost thou love me?’  Richard instructs his followers to abandon compliment for a different reason:  because he is, after all, a mortal man like them, ‘subjected’ – made a subject – to Death and to human necessity.  He, and his play, have moved to the contemplation of a greater stage, and a greater kingdom, a kingdom of mankind in which Death holds court.  It is, in short, Richard’s humanity that he discovers when he is stripped of the trappings of kingship – death, and hunger, and want, and grief.  Significantly, he speaks of the future in terms of telling and retelling (‘For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,/And tell sad stories about the death of kings’ – this last line invokes the aforementioned genre concerns between tragedy and history).  He will use the same figure later on, in his highly ceremonial leave-taking from the Queen, as if to underscore that these characters do come from a more formal, less dynamic world, a world of words.

He has already become a literary object.  His metamorphosis is toward tale and myth, rather than toward history and time.  As York has pointed out, Richard is an actor, one fallen out of favor with the audience.  In the scene at Flint Castle, Richard appears, and Bolingbroke describes him – as we have seen – as a sun dimmed by ‘envious clouds.’  By the end of the scene the sun will have set, have come down from the walls to the base court, the lower or outer court of the castle, and York, seeing him appear, will speak of him in loving terms:  ‘yet looks he like a king…Alack, alack for woe/that any harm should stain so fair a show!’  By this time Richard’s kingship is indeed a ‘show,’ and Richard knows it.  As he says to Aumerle, York’s son:  ‘We do not debase ourself, cousin, do we not,/To look so poorly and to speak so fair?  The ‘base’ in ‘debase’ is mirrored in the ‘base court’ to which he is forced to descend, as the play’s dramatic action mirrors its language, Richard knows that in the world’s terms he is a man who plays a king, in Death’s court, and if that is the case, why should he not exchange that role for another, any other – the role, for example, of a Christian penitent remote from power and grandeur:

What must the king do now?  Must he submit?

The king shall do it.  Must he be depos’d?

The king shall be contented.  Must he lose

The name of a king?  a God’s name, let it go.

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads;

My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;

My gay apparel for an almsman’s town;

My figur’d goblets for a dish of wood;

My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff;

My subjects for a pair of carved saints,

And my large kingdom for a little grave,

A little little grave, an obscure grave,

Or I’ll be buried in the king’s highway,

Some way of common trade, where subject’s feet

May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head;

For on my heart they tread now whilst I live:

This is role-playing; those are props.  Richard’s implication is that all life is role-playing, a scepter as much as a stage property as a walking staff, a king’s robes as much a costume as an almsman’s gown.  If the king is not God’s anointed representative, but only a man chosen by other men, then everything that follows is role-playing.  Richard’s language here is decorative and self-consciously poetic.  His rhetorical questions are directed at himself, but his perception is a central one for all persons, not just for kings or actors.  From this moment he is able to move downward toward his fate, still the manager of his own actions and the poet of his own progress:

Down, down I come like glist’ring Phaeton,

Wanting the manage of unruly jades.

In the base court:  base court where kings grow base

To come at traitor’s calls, and do them grace.

In the base court, come down: down court, down King,

For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing.

Richard begins the play attempting to speak the language of command, the language at which Bolingbroke is so adept, but his own language moves increasingly in the direction of solipsism and soliloquy, the language of interior dialogue.  This is nowhere more clear than in the great deposition scene, in which he resigns his crown and throne to Bolingbroke.  He is summoned by his rival in a spirit that shows Bolingbroke, perhaps designedly, in the least favorable light, as a man of authority but not, at this point, a man of sensibility:  ‘Fetch hither Richard, that in common view/He may surrender.  So we shall proceed/Without suspicion.’  On the heels of these politic and peremptory words, King Richard II enters and speaks:

Alack, why am I sent for to a king

Before I have shook off the regal thoughts

Wherewith I reigned?  I hardly yet have learned

To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my knee.

Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me

To this submission.  Yet I well remember

The favours of these men.  Were they not mine?

Did they not sometime cry ‘All hail!’ to me?

So Judas did to Christ.  But he in twelve

Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none.

God save the King!  Will no man say ‘Amen?’

Am I both priest and clerk?  Well then, Amen.

God save the King, although I be not he;

And yet Amen, if heaven do think him me.

Strikingly, this is a dialogue of one, in which Richard is, as he says, both priest and clerk, offering both prayer and response.  He speaks now literally to himself, even in the public court.  There could be no more decisive sign of his isolation, or of his vitality even in adversity.  (For a parallel in a play written in the same years, we might recall the isolation of Juliet:  ‘Nurse! – What should she do here?/My dismal scene I needs must act alone.’  The depositions scene is for Richard a kind of anticeremony – not an interrupted ceremony, like Richard’s throwing down of the warder, but the inversion of a hallowed act, like a Black Mass, the reversal of an act of transubstantiation.  He is determined to make it a ceremony, to perform it with props that are sacred objects, to moralize what for Bolingbroke is an effectual transfer of power.  For this reason Richard describes the crown as a well into which two buckets dip, an image related to the Gardener’s image of the scale:

That bucket down and full of tears am I,

Drinking my griefs, while you mount up on high.

The very act of placing two hands on the crown – ‘Here, cousin, seize the crown’ – is theatrical and tellingly ironic, as Richard forces Bolingbroke to perform, in the court, a literal version of the action that has brought them together at this moment.  Notice that he makes Bolingbroke both actor and accomplice, staging the scene as a vivid enactment of usurpation and loss.  The emblem of two hands on a crown was a palpable sign of civil war, one that will appear again in the early moments of King Lear, when the King instructs his elder daughters, ‘This crownet part between you.’  Richard, like the Bishop of Carlisle, who is among his supporters, has indeed prophesied a civil war that will tear England apart, a war that will become one of the central topics of the Henry IV plays.

Significantly, in this deposition scene, Richard deposes himself.  He will not be deposed.  The ceremony is his to perform, as Bolingbroke stands silently by.  And Richard’s divestment of his office is like an infernal litany, a reversal of a sacred act:

Now mark me how I will undo myself.

I give this heavy weight from off my head,

[Bolingbroke accepts the crown]

And this unwieldy sceptre from myhand,

[Bolingbroke accepts the scepter]


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.


Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,

And soon like Richard in an earthy pit.

‘God save King Henry,’ unkinged Richard says,

‘And send him many years of sunshine days.’

At this point the sun image, the emblem of the King of England, has been fully transferred to the new king, Henry IV.  We may recall Richard’s fervent assertion of the divine right of kings:  ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm from an anointed king.’  that assertion goes unchallenged.  By deposing himself, he retains control over both the ceremony and the scene:

Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,

Showing an outward pity, yet you Pilates

Have here delivered me to my sour cross,

And water cannot wash away your sin.

As water cannot remove the balm, or chrism, from an anointed king, so it cannot absolve the traitors of their own wickedness.  It is perhaps because of his fear that, in losing his identity as king, he has lost all identity, Richard takes the ultimate theatrical step, and asks for a looking glass:

    O flatt’ring glass,

Like to my followers in prosperity,

Thou dost beguile m!  Was this face the face

That every day under his household roof

Did keep ten thousand men?…

Was this face the face?  The echo of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus [MY NOTE:  In my previous post, Bloom thinks that it was more than just an ‘echo.], and would doubtless have resonated for Shakespeare’s audience.  Faustus the magician had asked to see the shade of Helen of Troy, and greeted her with the famous lines ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’  England traces its lineage from the fall of Troy, and one name for London was Troynovant, New Troy.  The abduction of Helen brought about the tragic end of a great civilization.  Richard, purporting to see powerlessness in the mirror (his face one commanded ten thousand, and now can barely command himself), echoes the fate of another city, and another king.  The call for a mirror would also have reminded an early modern audience of the story of Narcissus as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.  And the emblem of the mirror was, as we have noticed in an earlier history play, Richard III, frequently utilized by writers of books of conduct and statecraft (A Mirror for Magistrates; Mirror of the World), since a ‘mirror’ was an example or a model – often set the model set by a prince of a king.  thus Henry V will be called ‘the mirror of all Christian kings’.  Richard is, as he is about to acknowledge, a failed mirror in this regard.  In calling for a looking glass he is summoning the resources of history and chronicle, but in breaking that mirror, in throwing down the looking glass, he means to symbolize the breaking off of his contact with the world:


Mark, silent King, the moral of this sport:

How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face.


The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed

The shadow of your face.

The exchanger is richly resonant, and, as so often in this play, both men are right – or wrong.  Richard’s ceremonial theatricality (a shadow is an actor, as well as a hint, a ghost, and an illusion) is undercut by Bolingbroke’s resolute realism.  But the looking glass, a virtual play-within-the-play in little, is not Richard’s final request in this scene:


     I’ll beg you one boon,

And then be gone and trouble you no more.

Shall I obtain it?



Name it, fair cousin.


Yet ask.


And shall I have?


You shall.


Then give me leave to go.

The Abbot of Westminster describes this as a ‘woeful pageant,’ and it is no less.  Richard’s enacted deposition is a play, and its chief actor is a man who knows now that all men are actors, that they have their exits as well as their entrances.  The wordplay involve din ‘give me leave to go’ substitutes for the expected boon (a jewel perhaps, or a castle, or some other material emolument) permission to depart the king’s company.  (We could say at this point in this career Richard prefers absence to presents.)


Our next reading:  Richard II, Act Five

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “A brittle glory shineth in this face;/As brittle as the glory is the face.”

  1. GGG says:

    I am enjoying Richard II even though I thought it would be hard to do another history play. I thought the mirror moment was great.

    In the paperback copy I am reading, the Royal Shakespeare Company version, they use “Bullingbrook” instead of Bolingbroke. I like the choice because Bullingbrook brings to mind bulls and bullies and conveys more of the utter contrast with Richard.

    Also it is interesting that as soon as these men become king they are convinced that they are divinely appointed, whether they ascended through birth or through treachery.

    • Mahood says:

      You’re right GGG, after the last set of history plays, I didn’t think I’d be enjoying this – but it’s fantastic…it may be my favourite play so far. The “Bullingbrook” (or “boiling brook”) contrast with Richard II is great and I love watching Derek Jacobi’ s interpretation – it’s really interesting to compare it to McKellin’s and Shaw’s very different take on Richard.

  2. GGG says:

    “Boiling brook”–even better!

  3. I’m curious to find out what blog system you happen to be utilizing?
    I’m experiencing some small security issues with my latest blog and I would like to find something more safe.
    Do you have any solutions?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s