“Then am I kinged again, and by and by/Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,And straight am nothing.”

Richard II

Act Five, Part One

By Dennis Abrams

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Act Five:  York and his wife are discussing Bolingbroke’s huge popular support when they discover that none other than their son Aumerle is guilty of plotting against Bolingbroke.  York rushes to plead with the new King that his son should be punished, but Aumerle is pardoned.  Richard is less lucky.  Believing that Henry has ordered the ex-king to be murdered, Exton heads to Pomfret Castle, where Richard is imprisoned, and stabs him to death.  Hearing the news, King Henry vows to go on a penitential pilgrimage.

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As soon as Bolingbroke takes power, it’s obvious, or at least should be obvious, that Richard’s liberty is at an end, and that he can no longer be free – and indeed it won’t be long before he’s dead, murdered by Exton (who believes, perhaps rightly, that Bolingbroke wanted it).  Sent under guard to Pomfret Castle after an emotional (of course) farewell from his wife, Richard is left to contemplate his shattered being.  Alone on stage once more, he eloquently ruminates, ‘Thus play I in one person many people,/And none contented.”

     Sometimes am I king;

Then treason makes me wish myself a beggar,

And so I am.  Then crushing penury

Persuades me I was better when a king.

Then am I kinged again, and by and by

Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,

And straight am nothing.  But whate’er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased

With being nothing.

Richard has sometimes been called an actor rather than a monarch, but if so it’s a role he is unable to give up – or perhaps he remains trapped inside it.  Though his speech calls attention to the uniqueness of his position (he cannot separate his official persona from his human identity, cannot sever what we have seen is called “the king’s two bodies”), his words embrace something larger.  “Any man that but man is” – anyone alive – need to realize that “nothing” is where we come from, and it is to nothingness that we all return.  Richard’s flawed journey to this difficult self-knowledge anticipates, at least partially, that of King Lear.

Towards the end of the play, it is impossible not to think that Richard’s weaknesses have somehow become strengths:  he makes a much better victim than he does a king, arranging the tragic spectacle of himself (or, in other words, playing the role of victim) with impressive aplomb.  His last long speech is, in many ways, his most candid, but it is also the most rhetorically beautiful of many in this overwhelmingly poetic play.  “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me,” he reflects,

For now hath time made me his numb’ring clock.

My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar

Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch

Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,

Is pointing still in cleansing them from tears.

Now, sir, the sounds that tell what hour it is

Are clamorous groans that strike upon my heart,

Which is the bell.  So sighs, and tears, and groans

Show minutes, hours, and times.  But my time

Runs posting on in Bolingbroke’s proud joy,

While I stand fooling here, his jack of the clock.

Having early compared himself to Christ, Richard’s image here is touching rueful.  Haunted by the absurdity of his position, the only self-image he can find for himself is that of a “fool.”

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From Bloom:

“Richard is sent off to Pomfret, to be murdered out of the way, and goes like the grand actor he has become:

York:

As in a theatre the eyes of men,

After a well-grac’d 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 Richard.  No man cried ‘God save him!’

No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,

But dust was thrown upon his sacred head.

What remains is the final scene, where Richard is murdered, but first he speaks an extraordinary soliloquy, the height of Shakespeare’s achievement in this difficult mode before Hamlet perfected it:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix’d
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, ‘Come, little ones,’ and then again,
‘It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.’
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders; how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune’s slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. Music do I hear?

    [Music]

    Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men’s lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To cheque time broke in a disorder’d string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours: but my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke’s proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack o’ the clock.
This music mads me; let it sound no more;
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.
Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me!
For ’tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.

Even here Shakespeare has us keep our distance from Richard, who is more interesting than before but still on the other side of poignance.  No hidden greatness suddenly emerges from him; although he is an anointed king, as intellect and as spirit he counts for precious little – and yet he has just shaped his best poem.  What Shakespeare is inventing here is another aspect of the human, possibly with Marlowe’s personality rather than Marlowe’s Edward II as the provocation.  Overhearing his own reverie, Richard undergoes a change.  He does not acquire any human dignity, but he does begin to incarnate what can be termed an aesthetic dignity.  Richard is the first figure in Shakespeare who manifests this fissure between human and aesthetic stature, but greater personages will follow after, Iago, Edmund, Macbeth among them.  They are free artists of themselves.   [MY NOTE:  This is, I think, a very important insight.]

Richard cannot be that, he is bound within himself even as his body is imprisoned at Pomfret.  Yet there is an aesthetic drive or impulse in Richard, which is new in Shakespeare:  that is why Pater and Yeats were fascinated by Richard II.  There are greater, freer artists of themselves in Shakespeare who preserve both human dignity and aesthetic dignity:  Hamlet, Lear, Edgar, Prospero.  Perhaps Shakespeare pondered great falls in his England – Essex and Raleigh among others – and perceived human and aesthetic dignity departing together.  I do not believe that this fissure exists in literature earlier than Shakespeare.

Shakespeare did not invent the dignity of men and women:  despite Renaissance enhancements, some of them Hermetic, that vision had developed across millennia.  But aesthetic dignity, though not itself a Shakespearean phrase, is certainly a Shakespearean invention, as is the double nature of such dignity.  It either coheres with human dignity, or survives isolated when the greater dignity is lot.  That, I take it, is the importance of Richard’s long prison soliloquy at the beginning of Act V.  Something surprising to Shakespeare himself is coming to birth here, and it will change Shakespeare’s art and the art and lives of many who will come after, who are in the wake of Richard II and of Hamlet.

Hamlet’s intellect leaped to the realization that Denmark and the world were prisons for his spirit, but Richard hammers it out, since he is infinitely less swift in thought.  His little world, his poor self, has no faith in salvation; his desperation can conceive of no escape, and so he recites the earliest Shakespearean litany of nihilism predating Much Ado About Nothing and prophesying Hamlet, Iago, and Leontes:

And straight am nothing.  But whate’er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d

With being nothing.

The equivocal easing by death is wonderfully startled by the music, which provokes Richard into a reverie on the metaphysics of time, his time:

I wanted time, and now doth time waste me.

The elaborate conceit of the deposed king turned into a timepiece is Richard’s last and finest metaphysical image for himself, perhaps because it is much the most destructive, provoking him to the series of trapped rages that conclude his life.  His grotesque denunciation of his horse, for consenting also to be usurped by Bolingbroke, is followed by his sudden rage against the jailer, and then by his death, with its rather lame concluding couplet:

Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high,

Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.

Shakespeare ought to have done better than that for last words, but he probably intended a final regression to an earlier Richard.  Though Richard dies with little dignity, his utterance is still preferable to Bolingbroke’s absurd hypocrisy that closes the play.

Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe

That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.

Come mourn with me for what I do lament,

And put on a sullen black incontinent.

I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,

To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.

March sadly after, grace my mournings here

In weeping after this untimely bier.

Partly this is prelude to the two parts of Henry IV, where the usurper never enjoys an instant of peace, yet the dark taste it leaves badly requires a sweetening of wit.  A year later more than that arrived, with the genius of Sir John Falstaff.”

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Were you wondering, like I was, what was really going on in the scene with the York family and Bolingbroke, the scene that seems to be nothing but a digression?  Harold Goddard explains:

“With Richard’s deposition our sympathy shifts.  Now he is underdog.  Now we see the Queen’s ‘fair rose’ wither, hear of the dust and rubbish that a fickle populace cast form windows on his head after roaring applause at the sigh of his successor.  But it is not just pity that we feel. Our respect for Richard rises also, for, uncrowned, he is free to be a man instead of a king.  (This in part will be the theme of King John.)  He learns through suffering, and though much of what he says is still vitiated by self-pity, he forsees, like Carlisle, the trouble in store for England and the house of Lancaster.  His prophecy, beginning

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal

The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,

was soon to be fulfilled.

In the last act, before the catastrophe, Shakespeare inserts a little tragic-comedy in which three members of the York family and the new king are actors.  Such a diversion of interest so near the end looks questionable.  But Shakespeare’s digressions are anything but digressions.  York, Richard’s uncle and Henry’s regent during Richard’s absence in Ireland, has given his pledge in Parliament for the fealty to the new king of his son, Aumerle, who is suspect because of his friendship for Richard and his part in the Duke of Gloucester’s death.  When York discovers that Aumerle has entered a conspiracy to kill the King, he dashes off, followed by his wife in frantic protest, to expose the villain and demand his death.  He finds him on his knees before Henry asking pardon.  The immediate motives of the four actors in this little drama are plain enough.  But behind each is a deeper fear or sense of guilt for which he is compensating.  Back of Aumerele’s concern for his life is his part in Gloucester’s death.  Back of the Duchess’s mother-love is a dread that her husband thinks her unfaithful.  Back of York’s regard for his pledged word is his treachery to Richard when he was regent.  ‘Fear, and not love, begets his penitence,’ he cries to the King.  He might have been speaking of himself.  He has projected his own sense of guilt on this son and demands for him the penalty he will not admit he himself deserves.  But it is the King’s conduct that is most interesting.  Why does he pardon the man who has conspired against his life?  It is not mercy.  It is an attempted purchase of indulgence in advance for the murder of Richard, against whose life he is conspiring, precisely as his sparing of Carlisle’s life is a begging of indulgence after that deed.  These scenes are a series of unconscious confessions, variations on the same theme of fear and the compensation for fear on which Richard’s own life is one long embodiment.  Shakespeare composes like a musician.  There is more than meets the ear at first hearing.  He is here exhibiting in action precisely those hidden impulses that modern psychology is now attempting to analyze and formulate.”

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From Van Doren:

“The farewell to his queen gives him a particularly audible cue, and we should not it is not her sorrow but his that he embroiders with such beautiful harmonies:

Good sometimes queen, prepare thee hence for France.

Think I am dead, and that even here thou tak’st,

As from my death-bed, thy last living leave.

In winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire

With good old folks and let them tell thee tales

Of woeful ages long ago betid;

And ere thou bid good night, to quit their griefs

Tell thou the lamentable tale of me

And send the hearers weeping to their beds.

The thought of his own death is delicious pleasure; the alliteration in the third line is something of which he is conscious and sadly proud; the good old folks in France are already weeping for him as he sings.

But his last scene is his best, returning as it does to all the themes with Richard the poet has been most at home.  It begins with him in prison – a productive symbol, a mine of metaphor.

I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world;

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,

My soul the father; and these two beget

A generation of still-breeding thoughts,

And these same thoughts people this little world.

The problem is difficult, but since it is a problem in poetry he has plenty of courage.  He continues, and soon he has solved it; ideas flow in upon him, poetry once more is possible.  Then music sounds, since someone outside his cell has taken pity on him and come to play for his comfort.  The imperfection of the playing suggests the imperfection of his life; broken time is now his cue:

I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me;

and he carries on until the petulance of his nature turns him suddenly against the musician, and until a groom enters who supplies him with the new fancy – it is his last one – of himself as Bolingbroke’s horse.  Then his murder and the end of the play; for without Richard’s voice in our ears there is no more to hear.

Richard is Shakespeare’s finest poet thus far, and in spite of everything he is a touching person.  He is not a great man, nor is the play in consequence a considerable tragedy.  But as a performer on the lyre Richard has no match among Shakespeare’s many people.  And as dramatizer of himself he will be tutor to a long posterity, though none of his pupils – Hamlet is the best known – will be exactly like him.  As for his favorite subject, sorrow, there will be Constance in ‘King John’ to explore it even farther than he has explored it – to tread, indeed, the limit which his tact as an artist has prevented him from trampling.  Other persons in the play know grief and taste it:  Gaunt, the Duchess of Gloucester, the Duchess of York when her son Aumerele is in danger of death as a traitor, and the Queen when she overhears the gardener and cannot refrain from coming forward.  But they have nothing like Richard’s perfection in poetry.  And the Duke of York, fussing like old Capulet over the grievous state of the realm, is not so much a sorrower as a worrier; he is perhaps a parody, in the decrepit key, of Richard’s full-noted grief.  At any rate he is the one clearly comic personage in a play otherwise given over to tragic sentiment.  Richard himself would have his comic side if there were a perspective here from which to view it.  Shakespeare has the perspective; Bolingbroke, crowned Henry IV, has still one worry, the behavior of his son amongst the taverns of London where Falstaff is king; and Falstaff will throw a new light on everything.  But ‘Richard II’ admits no such light.  It sings in its own darkness, listening sweetly to itself.”

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For me, I think Bloom comes close to capturing what I love so much about the play – “Overhearing his own reverie, Richard undergoes a change.  He does not acquire any human dignity, but he does begin to incarnate what can be termed an aesthetic dignity.  Richard is the first figure in Shakespeare who manifests this fissure between human and aesthetic stature, but greater personages will follow after, Iago, Edmund, Macbeth among them.  They are free artists of themselves.”  The Richard of Acts One and Two is gone, and in the remainder of the play, Richard by listening to himself, by overhearing his own reverie, changes, and becomes, along with Iago, Edmund, Macbeth, etc., a free artist of himself.  And because we as readers get to “overhear” him, we are witness to that change. And that, it seems to me, is huge.

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My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning

Enjoy.

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One Response to “Then am I kinged again, and by and by/Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,And straight am nothing.”

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