“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.”

Richard II
Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Goddard, picking up from my last post:

“Richard, taken, ominously, not to the Tower as announced but to the dungeon of Pomfret castle, soliloquizes on this very theme of compensation:

I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world…

It’s as if Hamlet were being born under our very eyes…And when music penetrates Richard’s cell there are even premonitions of King Lear:

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 wide men mad.

Richard is in a dream, meditative, yet subtly irritated frame of mind.  But the philosophizing mood (again precisely as with Hamlet) is followed by the lightning bolt of passion in which the scene ends.  Richard kills two of the attendants of the man who has come to murder him before their master can strike him down.  In this one flash of action Shakespeare recapitulates and condenses the meaning of the play.

The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw,

And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage

To be o’erpower’d.

Such was his Queen’s reproach to Richard for his weakness, when she parted from him for the last time.  She would have applauded his translation of her analogy into action at his death.  Does Shakespeare?

The plain implication of the play up to this point has been that a sentimental pacifism is nothing but violence in disguise and is likely to be converted into it at a moment’s notice.  The death scene of Richard is a stunning translation of that truth into act.  How little trust Richard placed in nonresistance and divine aid is revealed, first, when he strikes his keeper:

The devil take Henry of Lancaster, and thee!

Patience is stale, and I am weary of it,

and again, a moment later, when he kills the two attendants, crying to one of them as he strikes him down:

Go thou, and fill another room in hell.

‘O, God forgive my sins, and pardon thee!’ were the words with which Henry VI took leave of his murderer and the world.

Strangely, Richard’s ultimate act has often been admired as bravery, a final burst of courage from a coward.  It is nothing of the sort.  We die as we have lived.  It is just the reflex action of a man without self-control in the presence of death, as little willed as the galvanic twitching of a frog’s leg.  It is a fury of desperation pure and simple, a particularly ignominious and ironic end for a king who pretended to believe that everything from stones to angels would come to his rescue in the hour of need.

But if Shakespeare condemned Richard’s version of divine right, he had just as little use for Henry’s doctrine of the strong man.  Where that doctrine leads, the rest of the History Plays reveal.

Is there no other way?  Is there nothing between the feudal idea and the revolutionary practice that sought to replace it?

Yes, in a little scene that seems utterly incidental, Shakespeare characteristically drops a hint.  Between the doctrine of legitimacy and the belief that he who can seize and hold power is entitled to it, there appears to be a resting place in something resembling what we now call democracy.  In a poetic rather than in a strictly political sense there are intimations of democracy in this seemingly casual scene.

A gardener and his two servants discuss the impending changes in the state, while Richard’s Queen overhears them from the shadows of neighboring trees.  The three are clearly put in to contrast with the murderer and his two assistants in the final scene.  Gardeners and murderers – agents of life and death.

O, what pity is it,

says the Head Gardener of Richard,

That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land

As we this garden!…

Had we done so, himself had borne the crown,

Which waste of idle hours with quite thrown down.

England is compared in so many words to a sea-walled garden, and political and social analogies are found for all the horticultural activities:  for the tender care of the gardener himself, the fertilizing, the weeding, the pruning, the killing of insects.  Inordinate ambition in particular must be restrained:

All must be even in our government.

The good gardener, by submitting himself to the creative forces of nature, but checking them where they grow excessive or unfruitful, becomes a creator himself.  A good ruler, it is intimated, is like a good gardener, particularly in the fructifying activities of his kingdom instead of merely standing off and watching them, interfering with them, or expecting them to intervene in his behalf in an emergency.  Here, in a metaphor, is suggested an everlasting divine right of kings and men alike.  It comes from simple workers with imagination enough to extend their own experience and vocation into a political analogy.  It is central in Cymbeline, one of his last plays.  Whoever would understand Shakespeare’s political philosophy may well meditate on the life of Richard II and on the reasons why, where he failed, his gardeners succeeded.”


Do you think Goddard is on to something here?  Bloom is convinced that Shakespeare’s political philosophy is unknowable.  Who’s right?


From Garber:

“Where Richard does goes is to Pomfret (Pontefract) Castle, the place where it will be possible for him finally to confront his insistent questions of identity, and to answer them in a riddling, philosophical fashion.  His world has shrunk to a small space, a prison, and the even smaller yet infinitely large world of his own imagination.  Like the poet John Donne, who would write that love ‘makes one little room an everywhere’ (‘The Good-Morrow’), wittily punning on stanza, the Italian word for ‘room,’ so Richard, speaking now in soliloquy without even a silent onstage audience, articulates the power of language to contravene perceived reality.  In this, we may note, he is curiously close in spirit to his uncle John of Gaunt, who urged the banished Bolingbroke to “[s]uppose the singing birds musicians,/The grass whereon thou tread’st the presence strewed.’  Here is Richard:

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.

From the opening scene’s admission that he cannot command (‘Which since we cannot do…”), he has come to a point where the impossible is possible (‘I’ll hammer it out’).  Abandoning as he must the royal ‘we,’ he wields, in one sense at least, more power than before, the power of poetic imagination.  Many critics have compared him to the Metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century (Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, and others) because of his willingness to hammer out incommensurable and difficult comparisons.  He ruminates on scriptural texts, and finds them contradictory – how can it be both easy and hard to enter the kingdom of heaven? – and concludes, in a phrase that defines his own method, that these things ‘do set the faith itself/Against the faith.’  The audience may recall the consistent question through this play of the meaning of the Word and the word, God’s word and man’s, names and things.  But now Richard knows he is only an actor, not a godlike king:

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 what’er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased

With being nothing.

From these depths of metaphysical speculation, from these unanswerable questions, he is roused by two visitors with opposite motives:  the groom who brings him music, and by the murderer, Sir Piers Exton.  It is almost as if, at the close of this tragedy of a medieval man caught in an early modern world, those stock figures from medieval drama, a good angel and a bad angel, and angel and a devil, had come to battle for him, and it is reminiscent of the similar splintering of persona into many people, as also seen in Richard’s soliloquy the night before Bosworth.  And Richard himself battles – his last gesture is action, not language.  This man who throughout the play has acted only to suspend action, halting challenges, coming between opponents, throwing down his warder to stop the trial by combat, and in consequence filling his reign – and his stage – with repressed violence, now grabs a sword and kills two of his would-be murderers.  Self-awareness and self-doubt have brought him to the condition of active man as well as contemplative man.  And with this gesture he crosses the threshold from his world to King Henry’s – from poetry to drama, from language to action.  [MY NOTE:  So, who’s right here?  Garber, or Goddard who sees nothing heroic in Richard’s action – simply a reflexive response?]

Richard’s last words may remind his listeners of the medieval debate concerning body and soul, or of the last, despairing words of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.  But where Faustus saw himself as ‘damned perpetually’ by his ambition and hubristic bargain, crying out as the clock strikes eleven on his final night, ‘O I’ll leap up to my God!  Who pulls me down?…Earth, gape! O no, it will not harbour me,’ Richard II offers an oddly serene and confident vision:  ‘Mount, mount, my soul; thy seat is up on high,/Whilst my gross flesh sinks downwards, here to die.’  This is a final triumph of the metaphor of ascent and descent.  The soul rises, the flesh is without significance, for a king who wished to be God’s anointed, and whose lamentable tale will live after him.  But is he a holy king?  Is Richard a hero, a victim, or both?  How is the audience to judge Richard, and to compare him to the ascendant Bolingbroke?  The play seems to invite speculation about its underlying genre.  Is it first and foremost a tragedy or a history play, the tragedy of Richard or the first episode in the chronicle of Henry IV?

There was in Elizabethan art a kind of picture known as ‘perspective,’ or anamorphosis, a distorted projection so designed that when viewed from a particular point, or reflected in a mirror, it appears regular and correctly proportioned.  In Richard II, Bushy [MY NOTE:  As we have seen!] alludes to this art form ion such a way as to make it clear that the audience would have found it familiar, speaking of ‘perspectives, which, rightly gazed upon,/Show nothing but confusion; eyed awry,/Distinguish form.’  One of the most famous examples of this painting practice in the early modern period is Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 portrait The Ambassadors, which depicts two elegantly dressed gentlemen, French ambassadors to the court of the English Henry VIII, surrounded with emblems of wealth and power (globes, astronomical and musical instruments, rich fabrics), and standing on a curiously patterned floor, taken from that of Westminster Abbey.  ‘Eyed awry,’ the portrait when seen from the right-hand corner discloses that the odd pattern in the floor is a skull.  The painting is a memento mori and a vanitas, reminding both the sitters and the viewers of the impermanence of life, wealth, and worldly position.  Shakespeare’s Richard II is, I believe, another such ‘perspective’ or anamorphosis.  Shakespeare gives his spectators two pictures, each of which looks coherent when viewed from a certain angle, yet when ‘eyed awry’ discloses the disquieting shadow of the other.

One good example of such a distorting ‘perspective’ can be found in the rather odd, almost comic episode at the beginning of act 4, when Aumerle, the son of old York, is accused by Bagot of wishing for Bolingbroke’s death, and throws down his gage in challenge.  Then Fitzwalter throws his gage down, and Percy his:  ‘another lord,’ not even named, does so as well, and is joined by Surrey.  Poor Aumerle has run out of gloves, and has to borrow one in order to meet this barrage of challenges.  ‘Some honest Christian trust me with a gage.’  As critics and directors have often noted, this is a parodic revisitation of the first and third scenes of the play, the formal challenges between Bolingbroke and Mowbray.  Now it is Bolingbroke – soon to be King Henry IV – who tries to intervene and stop the violence, [MY NOTE:  Why didn’t I see this????] but is unable to do so because the one man who knows the truth of these accusations, Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, is dead, killed on a holy Crusade in Venice.  King Henry is thus left with a profoundly secular problem, a problem, yet again, of internal strife, rebellion, and civil war.

The other scene in which Aumerle appears teeter equally on the verge of farce.  In act 5, scenes 2 and 3, he is the object of a tug-of-war between his ancient parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, after which all three rush to King Henry and throw themselves on their knees before him.  Even Henry comments that ‘[o]ur scene is altered from a serious thing,/And now changed to ‘The Beggar and the King.’’  The familiar up/down pattern of the ‘Richard’ part of the play repeats itself in both these scenes, the hurling of the gages and the kneeling family.  ‘Good aunt, stand up,’ the disconcerted king entreats the elderly Duchess of York.  There is in both scenes an element of comedy, a genre that seems always to attach itself to the Henry world, and which will emerge full blown in the tavern scenes in Henry IV Part I and Part 2.  But there is also internal strife:  son against father, wife against husband.  We learn that King Henry it himself at odds with his own ‘unthrifty son,’ who will emerge as the Prince Hal of the subsequent history plays.  In short, although Bolingbroke, now King Henry is very different from Richard in personality, he is unavoidably like him in circumstance.  And as Richard is responsible for the death of his uncle Gloucester, a murder that hangs like a curse over his entire role, so Henry, although he wishes it were not so, becomes responsible for the murder of Richard, a curse that will follow him and his son through the next series of plays, as Richard’s former enemies use his death as their rallying cry.

The Bishop of Carlisle had warned that usurpation would lead to civil war:

…if you crown him, let me prophesy

The blood of England shall manure the ground,

And future ages grown for this foul act.


O, if you tear this house against this house

It will the woefullest division prove

That ever fell upon this cursed earth!

Richard is murdered, having himself prophesied dissension, having warned that the ambitions of Northumberland would undermine the state of Bolingbroke.  And the murder of Richard lies on Henry’s head.  The stage position at the end of the play is extraordinarily significant, because it will be dominated by Richard’s coffin, which constitutes the final dramatic irony of the play.  As Richard, living, sat on the throne of state in the first scene, so Richard, dead, presents an inescapable memento mori, a reminder of death.  In an earlier scene, Sir Piers Exton had mused aloud on words he claimed to have heard from the new king, Henry IV:  ‘Have I no friend who will rid me of this living fear?’  Shakespeare’s source here, as throughout the play, is Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in which Holinshed writes:

“[K]ing Henrie, sitting on a daie at his table, sore sighing, said:  ‘Hause I no faithfull freend which will deliuer me of him, whose life will be my death, and whose death will be the presuration of my life?’  This saieng was much noted of them which were present, and espciallie of one called sir Piers of Exton.”

There may well be a resonance, too, with Henry II’s famous query about Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170:  ‘Will no man rid me of this troublesome priest?’  Expecting a reward, Exton sets out to kill Richard.  In the meantime, however, Henry IV has been trying to bring an end to civil strife.  He rewards his supporters and beheads the Oxford traitors, but in a significant gesture of mercy he pardons his old enemy, the Bishop of Carlisle.  When in the final scene Exton enters, triumphantly, with Richard’s body, all Henry’s careful plans are undone.

As a theatrical event, the entry of the coffin might well be monumental and stately, as several men move slowly forward bearing their burden of death.  Exton’s language, as he offers the body to his sovereign, is redolent with unintended ironies, ‘Great King,’ he says, ‘within this coffin I present/Thy buried fear.’  The ‘living fear’ of Henry IV’s rhetorical exclamation is now safely ‘buried,’ Exton suggests.  But Henry’s ‘buried fear’ is in fact something else entirely, a secret, unrevealed fear of guilt and blood upon his hands, so that the death of Richard creates, rather than lays to rest, a ‘living fear’ that cannot be alleviated.  The physical manifestation of the coffin on the stage unburies the buried fear and makes it live.

In vain the new king now turns eagerly to sacred history and to typology, as well as to piety, suggesting a pilgrimage as a remedy for secular failings.  In short, Henry turns to the same vocabulary of Christian kingship that had animated, and disabled, Richard II’s role.  He declares:

I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land

To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.

But history is not so easily appeased, and in Henry VI Part 2 the intended journey to Jerusalem ends with the king’s death in a palace chamber of that name.  Once again, the end of this journey is within, instead of in the outside world, and the double meaning of ‘Jerusalem’ joins all the other ironies of language and intention that complicate these English history plays.  This play does not end in timelessness, with apocalypse, or with Richard’s soul mounting to heaven.  It ends instead in history and in ongoing time, in repetition and reversal.  The tragic death of Richard II, an unintended effect, becomes the cause, and the curse, that hangs over the Henry IV plays and Henry V.  The way up is the way down.  At this point the audience may begin to glimpse the full force of old York’s minted genealogy, his tale of success and succession addressed to Bolingbroke, the new Henry IV, as he assumes the kingship and its ambivalent heritage:  ‘Ascend his throne, descending now from him.’”


And finally, from Tony Tanner, a really nice summation of what we just read:

“Richard’s long dungeon soliloquy – the only soliloquy in the play – is not all that serene; being kind of the inner world brings no royal satisfactions.  He tries to fabricate an alternative world, and fails.  Alone, he is everybody and nobody:

Thus play I in one person many people,

And none contented…

Then am I kinged again and, by and by,

Think that I am unkinged by Boling broke,

And straight an nothing.

The question is often raised as to whether Shakespeare here achieves, or conveys, a sense of deeply felt inwardness, that authentic, anguished self-probing and analysis which we associate with the great tragedies.  Or whether there is too much self-pleasing artifice in the language, too much formal antiphony, too many elegant conceits, too much smooth patterning of statement, to convince us we are hearing the urgent flow of true feeling.  This is perhaps related to the question of whether or not Richard is a ‘poet.’  Many have thought him one.  According to Walter Raleigh, ‘it is difficult to condemn Richard without taking sides against poetry.’  Walter Pater found him ‘an exquisite poet if he is nothing else, from first to last,’ exclaiming enthusiastically ‘What a garden of words!’  (Some have found him simply a bad poet.)  Others have denied him the status, suggesting instead that he likes to spin out elaborate speeches because he is too weak to act (it might just be noted that he is active enough when his murderers set on him – he kills two of them, four in Holinshed!)  One thing is certain – the idea and activity of ‘speech’ is given extraordinary emphasis.  The word ‘tongue’ occurs more often than in any other play, and ‘breath,’ mouth,’ ‘speech,’ ‘word’ are frequent.  Richard Alick thinks that this ‘draws constant attention to the propensity for verbalizing…which is Richard’s fatal weakness,’ and, more generally, underlines ‘the unsubstantiality of human language.’  As I have mentioned, there is, remarkably, no fighting in the play (the knightly combat which is about to occur at the start is arrested and prevented by ceremony – this sets the tone), and Richard does at times give the impression of wishing to arrest the world with words.  By contrast, Bolingbroke is almost dumb about his doings and movings.  It is perhaps worth remembering that Richard II’s court (in the play only slightingly referred to for its interest in foreign fashions and luxury) was known for its splendour, elegance, refinement – including an interest in the arts.  Chaucer and Gower wrote during his reign, as Tillyard reminds us.  I don’t think the question of whether Richard was a good or bad poet (or any poet at all), or the matter of the relative sincerity or ‘conceit-edness’ of his speech, are particularly central (or decidable).  The play is contemporary with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, and clearly Shakespeare was interested in pushing the lyric potentialities of language in new directions.  Richard is plausibly presented as a medieval king of sensibility, who prefers refinement to valour, ceremony to combat, fine words to ferocious wars (perhaps that is why Shakespeare kept silent about his success in fighting the Irish.)  When his (too luxurious, too irresponsible) world collapses around him, he falls back on what he knows, and does, best.  Into what new areas of suffering and deprivation – and ‘degradation’ – all this would take him, he could hardly have foretold.  That is what Shakespeare shows us.  The spectacle is of – the king unkinged.  And it is awesome.”


So now it’s YOUR turn.  What do you think?  Tragedy?  History?  Did Richard’s story move you or leave you unmoved?  Share with the group YOUR thoughts, YOUR reactions, YOUR favorite lines, YOUR interpretations.  Don’t be shy – GO FOR IT!


My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning

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9 Responses to “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.”

  1. Mahood says:

    There’s so much to admire in Richard II (much of it covered in your excellent posts, Dennis), but for me the big thing is how alarmingly relevant it is for our times, despite the traditional ‘reservations’ that literary criticism has had with it…proving as usual, that the Bard is ahead of us all by an infinite number of country miles. Whether it’s brilliant but ineffective Presidents (…), intelligent but ineffective Deputy Prime Ministers (…), ruthless, powerful dictators (…) who suddenly, no longer find themselve so powerful, it’s all here.

    For me, it’s the best play so far in this reading experience (and that comes as some relief since I struggled a bit with our last play!)

    • Mahood:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it so much — I have to say that I enjoyed it (and saw it’s immediate relevancy) more than even I anticipated. (And if you liked this one, I think you’re going to appreciate our next play, King John, a great deal.


      • Mahood says:

        King John seems (to me) to be an odd one in the Shakespeare canon: Historically and chronologically, I can connect Henry IV, V and VI with each other as well as linking them to Richard II and Richard III…but I’m a bit lost with King John (I’m sure it’ll be clarified in the next few posts)- Relatively unknown as it is, I still have a really good feeling about it!

      • Are you jumping ahead already? 🙂 To be honest, it’s not a play I know as well as some of the others, so I’ll be discovering it along with you.

  2. GGG says:

    I liked the line: I wasted time, and now time doth waste me. (from the prison soliloquy)

    We watched highlights of the Queen’s Jubilee celebration last night. During the clips of the lunch at Westminster, I could only think of how it would have been in Richard’s time with the earls and dukes and everyone plotting over their roast duck. I’m sure the plotting (politically) still goes on, just not directed toward the monarch now! Also, the fabulous flotilla on the Thames–a flashback to a different time–where the Queen could float down the river on her barge and the crowds cheered. I thought of Bolingbroke riding into London on Richard’s horse Barbary.

    Enjoyed this one. Hope King John is good.

  3. Catherine says:

    I’m ready to rejoin the group and I’ll try to keep pace instead of leaping ahead – I do enjoy the plays so much more when I’m able to read your posts at the same time. Meanwhile I’ve been reading some great historical fiction either about Shakespeare or set in the 1400-1500s, along with some non-fiction, but I figure I get a good dose of that from you – thanks so much! Appreciate your posting the relevant links also.

  4. laurenemueller says:

    Hello, I am interested in knowing what text the Garber quote is from? is it Shax After All?

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