The Issue of Language: Introduction to Richard II and Hamlet


[A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain, released July 1999. It was last revised in August 22, 1999.





In choosing to offer the pairing of Richard II and Hamlet, I am immediately aware of the considerable differences between the two plays. However, this pairing will enable us to focus initially on an important interpretative issue in Shakespeare’s style, nowhere more evident than in these two plays, the intimate link between important issues of characterization and the styles of speech displayed by particular characters. What I hope will emerge from these remarks is a greater appreciation for the importance of Shakespeare’s varied use of language, not only to denote character but to evoke themes central to the interpretation of these and other plays.


In both of these plays, there is an important dramatic conflict between characters who use language in different ways, that is, who seek to understand and deal with the world (including their role in it) by a characteristic use of words, so that the antagonism between the members of each pair also expresses an important conflict in the way human beings use language deal with the issues which confront them.

We can characterize this central conflict in a number of ways. Most obviously, in both Richard II and in Hamlet, we witness the confrontations between two very distinct characters. The first is one who has what we might call a strong “poetical” streak (using the term very loosely), that is, whose response to experience is characterized by a marked tendency to immediate verbalizing in highly imaginative language. The second is a hard-headed pragmatic Machiavellian, whose speaking style reflects his desire to use his public language as one more way to achieve certain very specific political goals. The first, as often as not, uses language to forestall any need for immediate action; the second sees language as an essential part of a plan of action, that is, as a tool with which to manipulate people.




In his famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (a text which should be required reading for all would-be teachers), the well known modern pedagogical philosopher Paulo Freire distinguishes between two inauthentic uses of language.


As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed--even in part--the other immediately suffers. . . .


An unauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed upon its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating "blah." It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action.


On the other hand, if action is emphasized exclusively, to the detriment of reflection, the word is converted into activism. The latter--action for action’s sake--negates the true praxis and makes dialogue impossible. (75)


Freire’s point is that significant human interaction requires dialogue, some shared interchange which involves a commitment to shared action. Such dialogue becomes impossible if the participants use language for personal purposes which undercut a common bond of love and concern for the human community.


Now, Hamlet and Richard are, from the perspective of this initial analysis, both chatterers, compulsive talkers who use language to protect themselves from action. They would much rather talk about the world and about themselves in a ceaseless verbal reflection than address the world with sense of commitment to action based on an understanding shared with others. Both of them live in a highly-charged political world and have clear responsibilities for action within it. They both demonstrate an incapacity for an intelligent discharge of those responsibilities, because they would sooner comment on the world, reflect on their own situation, and place the people around them in a rhetorically constructed image of their own making rather than listen carefully, assess intelligently, and act on the basis of some understanding established through dialogue.


Operating against these two are Bolingbroke and Claudius, two accomplished Machiavels. Both of these men are shrewd political operators who listen very carefully to others and use their language for the most part not for reflection but for action. They say what the particular situation demands, framing their responses in language immediately appropriate to the active demands of the situation in order to get their own way. It’s characteristic of Bolingbroke, for example, that he talks only when he has to and then he shapes what he has to say to suit the occasion. He spends a great deal of time on stage listening and responding rather than giving orders directly or forcing others to listen to him (an excellent example of this is 2.3). Much of the sense of power emanating from Bolingbroke comes from this guarded silence and careful expression of what needs to be said (in theatrical presentations, a silent person often generates a much greater sense of power than a compulsive talker, just as a person sitting on stage typically expresses more power than a person standing up).


[It’s worth nothing, for example, how in Act 2 as Bolingbroke says very little but spends much of his time listening, observing, and commenting, his power keeps growing scene by scene; whereas, while Richard maintains a constant stream of talk, his power correspondingly diminishes]


Claudius, too, when we first see him in action (in 1.2) impresses us at once as a very sophisticated public speaker, consolidating his power with words. His long speech to the court touches on all the right political bases, involving the people there in his decision making, reminding them of their share in the decision about the marriage to Gertrude, addressing particular people with courtesy and flattery, discharging publicly the nation’s business--it’s a masterful performance which, unlike the characteristic talk of Richard and Hamlet, does not call attention to himself but directs itself outwardly at those listening in such a way as to earn their attention, respect, thanks, and compliance. It’s made clear in the play that Claudius, like Bolingbroke, is primarily a listener, who shapes his language in response to what others say, and the primary purpose of his language is to move others in the direction he wants them to go. In this, he is exactly like Polonius, his chief executive.


In a sense, all four characters are actors, but there’s a great difference in the scripts they follow. Richard and Hamlet are both constructing a play in which they are the main characters (in a sense, the only characters). Their vision of the world is preoccupied with their sense of themselves, and the language they use is in some ways deliberately designed to construct a situation in which they do not have to listen to others and act among other human beings. Richard is impervious to the urgent advice of his senior followers to act. He would sooner sit down on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. Hamlet is not interested in listening to what Ophelia or his mother might have to say. He is interested only in talking to them (often very roughly), smothering them in his language so that he does not have to confront any pictures of the world other than those of his own devising. When Hamlet and Richard are alone, they spend their time in moody introspections centred on themselves.


To claim that Richard and Hamlet never listen invites important qualification. Richard is accused of listening too much to flatterers. But this point, of course, reinforces what has already been said, because flatterers give Richard back the image of himself he is so busy projecting in his talk. In a sense, by listening to flatterers (and, one senses, only to flatterers) he never has to hear any language except his own. Hamlet listens very attentively to his father’s ghost, over eager to act on every word he hears. This rapt attention to someone else is so unusual in Hamlet that it suggests a significant clue to his character lies in the relationship with his father. Of course, here again, it’s important to notice that the ghost talks in many respects in the same language as Hamlet himself (in the characteristic imagery and verbal patterns), so in a sense he is giving back to Hamlet what Hamlet wants to hear (a point which may indicate one reason why Hamlet never pauses seriously to explore the credibility of the ghost, until the idea of the play-within-the-play strikes him).


Claudius and Bolingbroke are also accomplished actors, but the script they are acting in is an improvised one. They are responding to events as they unfold, altering their own dialogue to keep the action going in the way they want. They (particularly Bolingbroke) are more interested in letting others talk themselves into a position in which they expose themselves and become vulnerable. In the famous deposition scene in which Richard surrenders the crown, Bolingbroke exerts no apparent compulsion (certainly not verbally): he just lets Richard talk. Richard’s obsession with compulsive verbalizing, his desire to keep up the stream of dialogue which places himself at the centre of attention, leads him to, in effect, give away his most valuable political asset, the crown. There a sense that he will do anything to maintain a self-dramatizing role, and what better way of getting and holding attention than to surrender his authority? The only alternative to that would be to carry out some active resistance. Bolingbroke lets him act out that role. When Claudius wants to understand what Hamlet is up to, his natural response is to get Hamlet in a situation where he can listen to him, either from behind the tapestry or through the agency of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.


[Parenthetically, I might mention that I once had in my Shakespeare class as a student a senior college administrator who told me afterwards that studying Richard II had taught him more about how to operate politically in a bureaucratic atmosphere than anything else he had ever read. As a result of witnessing Bolingbroke’s tactics, he shifted his style in committees and concentrated on listening and responding rather than on taking the lead in seeking to persuade. He found this gave him much more useful power, since people often talked themselves into a corner or revealed things about themselves which then made getting one’s own way much easier. As a tactic in getting people to do what one wants them to do, such a process is far more effective. Those of you who are going to be teachers and who are thus going to be spending a great deal of time sitting on committees might profit by thinking of this point, although Freire would insist that the better option would be to learn to enter into true dialogue]




When we read these two plays we have to be careful not to overreact to the language Richard and Hamlet use. We need to see it always in the immediate political and social context in which they both find themselves. The reason for this warning is straightforward: Richard and Hamlet are both very seductive talkers. There is, for example, a strongly poetic quality to Richard’s language. He thinks in images. Characteristically he likes to establish an image and expand upon it, letting his imagination play with how far he can extend that image to correspond with his present mood, as he himself admits while sitting in his prison cell:


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. (5.5.1-11)


The result is that Richard’s language is often extraordinarily fertile with evocative poetical images, and it’s no accident that some of the most memorable poetry in this play comes directly from Richard’s facility with language. There is clearly a poetical sensitivity at work in his imagination. But we should not, for that reason, fail to observe just how much Richard is using such poetical language to protect himself from having to think about more complex and significant matters, like the political realities of the world around him or his own responsibilities (to subjects, friends, wife, and so on). We need to be alert to the extent to which Richard is using his poetical inclinations to shield himself from the world and from his responsibilities for acting intelligently within it. His own language in the above quotation reveals in the phrase "still-breeding thoughts" the crux of the matter. "Still" means constantly, without ceasing, and refers us to Richard’s habit of constantly generating poetical images. But "still-breeding" also implies still-born or dead, and reminds us that Richard’s poetry, for all the delight we might take in its quality, is infertile, for it never takes him anywhere other than to more pictures or more detailed aspects of the same picture.


This point we might reinforce by calling attention to the ways in which Richard’s “poetical” nature always has a tendency to call attention to himself and often to evoke a strong sense of self-pity. Richard is more concerned with expressing his own self-dramatizing sense of himself as an injured party than in doing anything effective to meet his present circumstances. His many references to himself as Jesus Christ (in 4.1 especially) are the most forceful indication of this tendency. And there is no indication anywhere in the play that his narcissistic preoccupation with himself ever fractures enough for him to acknowledge his own complicity in his destruction and (we need to note) the destruction of his followers. He fails to learn from what has happened. By contrast, there’s a strong sense that his constant talking is designed to protect him from just such an awareness. There’s an interesting example of this very near the end of the play:


I wasted time, and now doth time waste me,
For now hath time made me his numb’ring clock.
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar. . . . (5.549-51)


The opening clause suggests a potential moment of self-discovery, an admission of responsibility. But Richard denies himself that insight, for he immediately takes the image of time and plays with it (for several lines more) in such a way as to emphasize his own inability to penetrate beneath the desire to play with language as a substitute for intelligent thinking.


The point is not that we should overlook Bolingbroke’s “crime” and harsh treatment of Richard, but rather that we need to have a full appreciation for how Richard’s language indicates one important source of the problem: he has no interest in any dialogue with the world, in any intelligent listening to what other people (like Gaunt and the Duke of York) have to say. If the world does not give him what he wants, he will verbalize away what the world is telling him. In that sense, Richard uses language always to deceive himself: so long as he is talking, he is, in a sense, at the centre of attention. And in order to remain at the centre of attention he must keep talking.


Here a brief comparison with Macbeth might be in order. For Macbeth, like Richard, repeatedly explores his own situation in poetic images. But Macbeth is always unflinchingly honest in his assessment of the deteriorating situation. There is not an ounce of self-pity nor any attempt to evade his own sense of the ironic consequences of his own actions. Indeed, that is probably the most compelling characteristic of this tragic hero and lends a power to his decline and fall. By contrast, Richard’s inability to move beyond the cocoon of his own language severely limits the tragic impact of his death. He become a pathetic figure, without any profound tragic resonance.


Hamlet’s language exercises the same potential seductiveness. We hear a great deal at length from Hamlet in his soliloquies, in which he is much given to moody speculations about the state of the world. These speeches are justly famous, but we have to be careful to interpret them in the context of the play and not to set them up as independent pieces of Shakespearean "wisdom," thus turning Hamlet into some brooding philosopher-prince too intellectually noble to take part in the dirty world of Elsinore politics (a common reaction of nineteenth century critical responses to the play).


For Hamlet’s soliloquies, in general, do not reveal a mature understanding of the nature of the world, some earned insight into higher or richer meaning. They are, by contrast, far more indicative of a restless dissatisfaction with the world and with himself. The imagery there strongly evokes a desire to reduce the world to its lowest common denominator, seeing it as full of weeds, garbage, disease, toil, and futility. There is a strongly suicidal impulse at work in some of his private utterances, combined with an very powerful and inescapable obsession with the duplicity of women, his mother in particular. His language characteristically demonstrates a desire to rest on demeaning generalizations about the world rather than on any sharply focused image which might lead him to decide anything.


What makes Hamlet in his soliloquies a good deal more complex and interesting than Richard is that Hamlet is aware of his tendency to verbalize, to substitute “philosophical” speculation for precise thought which might lead to decisive action. And this awareness really troubles him. He cannot understand himself, especially in comparison to those people around him who do not seem to suffer from the same debilitating condition (e.g., Fortinbras). He (or part of him) really would like to act decisively. At the same time, his only response to what he has to deal with and to what he is feeling is further verbalizing. It’s symptomatic that, while wrestling with his inability, he stalls by using the idea of the language of a play in order not to carry out any firm action, just as, once the play within the play is over and he has had all the confirmation he might need, he rationalizes away with more words the clearest of all opportunities he has to carry out the revenge.


In his dealings with others, Hamlet hides behind his language, adopting a very aggressive set of verbal roles (idiot, insulter, jokster) to keep them at bay with verbal confusion and force them to listen to him and to protect himself from anything they might be trying to learn from him. This form of linguistic protection is more important to him than listening to others or offering any form of genuine dialogue. These exchanges are often quite funny (although we might notice that Hamlet’s humour generally comes at someone else’s expense), but they effectively prevent any dialogue. And they indicate clearly Hamlet’s preference for words over deeds. So long as he talks to people this way, he will not have to deal with them in action.


And if he acts spontaneously, he at once starts talking to push away any awareness of the significance of what he has done. Hence, he can kill Polonius and, casually stepping over the body, lecture his mother on her moral character. For him, the action is relatively unimportant; what really matters is what he has to say to her. When he has to deal with the corpse at the end of the scene or in a conversation with Claudius, the dead Polonius serves as material for some casual verbal jokes.


It interesting in this regard that Hamlet obviously feels most linguistically at ease with the players, those people whose lines don’t need to be taken seriously, because they are not real. His affection for them appears to be the most genuinely warm feeling he expresses to anyone (unless we take the professions to Horatio as candidly meant, rather than as flattery to get Horatio to carry out an action on his behalf). And he listens to them with a rapt attention he does not have for real situations.


Because both Richard and Hamlet are so verbal and because their language is almost always intriguing we may tend to miss the extent to which their verbalizing locks them into an immature emotional stance from which there is no escape. They are both almost impervious to any criticism about their ways of using language (although Hamlet criticizes himself, he is incapable of dealing with the issue), and hence they both ultimately fail to act effectively. Both Richard and Hamlet, we learn, are capable of courageous, impulsive action, but they have to be pushed into it. Their characteristic approach to experience is to shield themselves from the world by imposing a linguistic barrier between themselves and the realities they face (for them, their language is the reality). Hence, they both fall victim to a world that does not answer to one’s self-pitying images of oneself as a victim or to one’s morbid generalizations about the inherently unsatisfactory nature of all experience.




Claudius and Bolingbroke, however, also fail to achieve what they set out to accomplish. Supremely effective in the world of immediate practical action, tailoring their language to shape events in the short-term, they enjoy quick success in a political world in which they can act very efficiently. They are both superbly practical judges of people, responding well to political situations as they arise. This is particularly the case with Bolingbroke who, in a sense, improvises his way to the crown. We are kept in the dark about his exact motives when he returns, but he assures his followers he is seeking only his inherited estates and titles. But once the crown is dangled in front of him, he seizes the opportunity.

Bolingbroke’s political success, as I mentioned above, depends a great deal on his ability to present a personality and a language suitable to the immediate occasion he has to deal with. He is so good at this, that his real personality remains somewhat elusive. What is there to Bolingbroke, who is he, apart from the sum total of political personalities he assumes to direct events the way he wants? We don’t see enough of him alone or at intimate moments to be able to respond.


We do not witness Claudius’ action to obtain the crown and his queen. But we know enough about the events to recognize that he, too, has taken advantage of an opportunity to get rid of Hamlet Senior by a duplicitous murder and has won the queen, in part by persuading others that the marriage is a good idea. There is no sense in the court that anyone other than Hamlet and perhaps Horatio, neither of whom have been in Elsinore during the events, objects to the marriage. So Claudius, like Bolingbroke enjoys short-term success.


Neither of them, however, has reflected upon the consequences of the tactics used to attain their immediate goals. And clearly they are both suffering, because, in part, they lack a language to deal with the psychological problems brought about by their manipulation of others and murder. Since neither Claudius nor Bolingbroke is the single most important character in the play, we don’t get to see their inner thoughts very much (otherwise they might take over the play), but we do learn enough about them to recognize that they are having to deal with long-term consequences of their political efficiency and are having difficulty doing so.


By the end of Richard II and throughout the Henry IV plays Bolingbroke is suffering from an increasing sense of guilt for what he has done. And when we see Claudius at prayer we recognize at once the inner suffering he is going through. In fact, there’s something deeply ironic about watching this master of words in the political realm try to find the right words to earn God’s mercy. He’s intelligent enough to know that he cannot operate with God the way he does with human beings (just as Macbeth is), but he’s going to try anyway because that’s the only way he can think of to deal with a complex problem. Words have worked for him on earth; they might just do the trick with God.




I began this comparison (which may be starting to appear somewhat strained) with a reference to Paolo Freire. By way of winding up this part of the lecture let me return briefly to his remarks on language. Freire is concerned about public language because he stresses that only through authentic discourse can social justice and the absence of domination be achieved. And for authentic discourse there is one absolute requirement, love of other human beings.


Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for men. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself. It is thus necessarily the task of responsible Subjects and cannot exist in a relation of domination. . . . If I do not love the world--if I do not love life--if I do not love men--I cannot enter into dialogue.


On the other hand, dialogue cannot exist without humility. . . . Dialogue, as the encounter of men addressed to the common task of learning and acting, is broken if the parties (or one of them) lack humility. How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from other men--mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize other “I”s? (78)


If we wish to apply this analytical insight to the two plays we have been discussing, we might note that all four main characters suffer from some inability to love. Richard clearly is so much in love with himself, with the image of himself either as king or victim, that he has no contact at all with other people in any meaningful way, either with the subjects whom he is injuring or with his allies in the defense of the realm. Bolingbroke seems to have little sense of love for his country or for those people he wishes to rule; his motive is clearly his own advancement. We have very little idea why he decides to usurp Richard’s throne. Bolingbroke can profess love for someone else (as he does for the Duke of York), but he has a clear political aim in view at such a moment. Whatever the reason for his decision to take the throne, the consequences in this play and the Henry IV plays are clear. He fails to see that using language as a tool for effective action in manipulating others, language used without any deep reflection on how he is treating others (as "its," as objects), may well lead him to a condition where there is no trust in language any more, no possibility for genuine human interaction, only eternal suspicion and fear in a world where language has become suspect because there is no trust in his words, no love. The fact that he thinks he has lost the love of his son indicates just how much he is paying for the way he has used words.


Part of Bolingbroke perhaps realizes this. At the very end of the play, Henry seeks to transfer the blame for Richard’s murder to Exton, who has carried out Henry’s wishes. But very pious public rhetoric of his closing lines, where he vows to undertake a voyage to the Holy Land, “To wash this blood off from my guilty hand,” may be more than one more appropriate public statement. It may answer to Henry’s awareness of the moral consequences of what he has done. It’s hard to tell. We learn from the Henry IV plays that Henry regards such a pilgrimage or crusade primarily as a useful political tactic to unite the factious nobility in a common cause, now that there is no firm unity in England, so it may also be the case that Bolingbroke is so firmly anchored on language only as a useful political tool that he cannot reflect fully on the consequences; all he can do (as he does in the later plays) is seek to keep killing the rebels, his former allies.


Hamlet is surrounded by people who apparently love him, particularly his mother and Ophelia. But he is incapable of responding to them with anything genuinely affectionate, that is, he is incapable of entering into a dialogue with them, because (to use Freire’s terms) he is always projecting onto them all the imperfections of the world without ever once coming to terms with his own by listening to them. Why this should be so is part of the great interpretative mystery of Hamlet’s character. But it is hard to escape the very strong sense which emanates from Hamlet that he fundamentally hates life, or, to use Wilson-Knights’s famous phrase, to miss the extent to which he has become “death infected.” It’s a curious feature of the play (and very significant) that Hamlet is most verbally abusive to these two women, almost as if he is fighting the desire to let love have its say.


Claudius has let his love of Gertrude and for the throne overrule any wider reflections about his fellow human beings. It may well be the case (as some productions make clear) that Hamlet Senior is a particularly unpleasant person and that Claudius and Gertrude really make a warm and loving couple, so that we have a firm sense of how the murder has put in charge a much more compatible and attractive couple. And Claudius’s deep suffering in the prayer scene may earn him considerable sympathy. All that may be true. But Claudius’s actions have clearly been motivated above all by what he wants for himself. There is no sense that seizing the crown of Denmark has come from any genuine love and regard for his fellow Danes, a sense of their needs as opposed to his own.


Shakespeare does not make this theme explicit in either play, at least not in the sense of drawing an easy and clearly articulated moral. His presentation of the action forces us to consider the limitations and the self-defeating consequences of the way these four characters use language to establish or to inhibit relationships between themselves and the world. It’s not that any of these four is a totally unsympathetic person, for it’s possible to find something in each of them to admire. But they all emerge as limited in some significant ways. They become prisoners of their own understanding of the world as that expresses itself in the language they use to cope, and they cannot move beyond that into some fuller and richer understanding of others and of themselves.


Of the four, Claudius appears to have the best grasp of what has happened to him. His acknowledgment of what his life has brought him seems honest and heartfelt enough. Bolingbroke clearly sees some connection between his deeds and his later distress, but that issue is not explored in any great detail (otherwise the story of Henry IV as a tragedy might well overwhelm the focus on Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays). But Richard and Hamlet, for all their remarkable command of language, remain unable fully to understand just how much their suffering and the considerable suffering they bring to others result from their characteristic ways of talking about the world (or if that is too simple, from something which prompts that language).


We will be exploring some of these issue in connection with Hamlet in the later lectures on that play. For now, however, I would like to turn to another aspect of Richard II which is related to, although somewhat different from, the central concern with Richard’s language.


[Note for those interested in the Freire text, the references are to Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos (NY: Seabury Press, 1968)]




There is, however, more to the importance of language in Richard II than what it reveals about the characters of Richard and Bolingbroke, for in the course of the play the language of politics itself and therefore the very nature of politics changes significantly.


At the very start of Richard II we witness Richard carrying out in full state the king’s most important function, the administration of justice. At the end of the play, we witness Bolingbroke doing the same. But the two worlds are very different. The rebellion and usurpation have thus done more than simply replace one king with another; they have also transformed the nature of political life. And that emerges most clearly from the contrast in the language of the opening and closing court scenes.


The opening of Richard II confronts us with a recognizably medieval world. The proceedings are dominated by a shared group ceremony, in which the traditional formality of the occasion manifests itself in the formal dignity and ritualistic quality of the verse (emphasized by the frequent use of rhyme and repetitive phraseology). The full nobility of England stand together, everyone in his own recognized place, with Richard where he belongs, at the centre of it all. There is a formal exchange of charges and countercharges, a formulaic attempt to reconcile the antagonists, and a firm decision about the trial by combat. All this is conducted in the open, in a ceremony that everyone is familiar with. The very concept of a trial by combat rests on a shared faith in the notion of justice as an open and divinely guided business, one over which God’s representative on earth, the king, presides to make sure that the ceremony is done properly.


Here we see Richard at his best. He seems fully up to the task of administering royal justice in the traditional way. Of course, this is fully consistent with what I have mentioned earlier, because this ceremony puts him at the centre of things, keeps everyone’s attention on him, and requires a language which insists on Richard’s importance. We have no sense yet of what might be lurking in Richard’s heart, although the next scene immediately asks us the qualify our sense of Richard, since in 1.2 the Duchess of York charges Richard with the murder of which Mowbry is being accused and John of Gaunt agrees.


Thus, when we come to 1.3, the trial by combat, we do not see it with quite the same eyes as we did 1.2 (splitting the scene in this way with a short interlude which gives us additional information, so that we have to assess Richard differently is a standard practice in Shakespeare, a way of alerting us to the potential complexities lurking under apparently ordered events).


However, what is noticeable about the trial by combat scene (1.3) is that everyone is coordinated in this enterprise, and Richard’s judgment, when it is delivered, is agreed to, even though some people do not like the result. In other words, at the opening of this play, the realm is apparently functioning as it should. There is a shared order to society, and the language and ritualistic action emphasize the traditional and public nature of this communal order. This is possible because everyone shares the same public language and the meanings are clear and out in the open. Disputants have submitted themselves to this in the name of justice.


The point to stress here is that we are witnessing a society facing an important crisis. We know that there are all sorts of ambiguous undercurrents, that all is not as it may seem on the surface. But the traditional ritual is holding the crisis in check: the issue is being worked out according to an old ceremonial custom. No swords are drawn, no one is in a hurry, and everyone shares a common understanding of what is taking place. The rules, codified in the style of language used, are being observed. Thus, by the end of the scene, when Richard has delivered his judgment, justice has been done, and everyone moves off to go about their business.


Near the end of the play, in 5.3, King Henry has to deal with Aumerle, son of the Duke and Duchess of York, who has joined a plot against Henry. This scene is, by contrast with the first one, private, rushed, even improvised, without any of the formal dignity of the opening of the play. Here we are again at a critical moment, but there is no shared way of dealing with it. There is no formal dignity to the pleading (there’s an air of desperation about it), no measured process, no sense of ceremony. There’s a frantic urgency to what is going on. And, of course, nothing is resolved, because the shared order in the kingdom is broken, and now differences between parties will have to be adjudicated by civil war.


To underscore what has been lost, we witness one side of the family arguing against the other (an obvious sign of the disunity in the political world Bolingbroke’s rebellion has created). The power to determine the issue now rests squarely on the king’s whim, for the traditional ceremonies have long since been abandoned. Henry’s verdict offers us perhaps some indication of how he feels about what he has done: “I pardon him as God shall pardon me” (5.3.129). Immediately after that pardon, Henry indicates that he has a civil war to deal with.


Of course, between these two extremes of the play, there is a middle scene (early in Act 4) in which Aumerle and Fitzwater argue about the murder of Richard’s uncle (the issue in the trial by combat at the start). This characters in this scene try to proceed by the old rules (that is, by throwing down their challenges and having them picked up), but it’s clear the old order simply will not work here. There are so many gages being thrown down onto the stage and so much internal bickering going on that we can see quite clearly that the traditional form of justice will no longer work. The formulaic quality of the old ritual does not work when the spirit of it is entirely absent. There is insufficient harmony or agreement and too much mutual hostility and suspicion to permit the rituals of justice to work. All Bolingbroke can do in this situation is to postpone doing anything at all.


The sequence of these scenes suggests that we are invited to contemplate in Richard II a world in which an old order is destroyed and the one which replaces it by the end of the play is clearly different. Justice and cooperative dealing, and the language in which those used to be maintained, have disappeared, and we are now in a world where the personal power of the king to hang onto what he can is going to be the central issue. This, of course, is a central theme of the Henry IV plays. And it’s worth noting that in them public political language is something to be treated with care. People no longer share the old rituals, and those seeking power may shift language about to suit their purposes. One of the most important things Prince Hal has to learn in order to be an effective king is to use language appropriately. He becomes the consummate efficient ruler, in part, because he develops that talent to the fullest. And part of the great attraction of the tavern scenes, in contrast to the court, is that in the tavern one can say what one wants; one does not have to keep one’s guard up at all times.


Shakespeare is not here necessarily endorsing the old order, celebrating it as something we should return to, any more than he is justifying Bolingbroke’s new political style. What the play is doing is forcing us to contemplate the nature of the change; it is pressuring us to come to a fuller understanding of some complex social and political issues without resolving them for us.


Accompanying this transformation of justice (and closely related to it) is the transformation in the understanding of politics. As Katharine Maus has usefully pointed out in her introduction to the play, Richard and Bolingbroke represent different ways of understanding royal authority. For Richard, royal authority comes from above; it is endorsed by God as part of the natural order of things. He ought to be obeyed because he is the Lord’s deputy in England. This view of royal authority appears to be widely shared (or at least adhered to) at the opening of the play and is clearly at work in the difficulties York experiences in sorting out his allegiance and in the objections of Carlisle to Bolingbroke’s ascending the throne.


This vision of order quite clearly depends for its efficacy on the king’s virtue. That is, as the Lord’s deputy in England, the king has the responsibility to act virtuously in using the power he receives from above. Unless he observes this principle, then justice in the community will be compromised (as it is in this play when Richard airily dismisses the objections of John of Gaunt and the Duke of York). There’s a strong sense in this play that, given the lack of virtue in the king, the traditional order which depends upon that virtue is unjust.


Bolingbroke’s conception of politics rests, not on virtue, but on power (that attitude makes him clearly a Machiavel). For him royal authority comes from below, from the following one can gather up among the people and the more powerful nobles. We learn early in the play about how Bolingbroke, on his way into exile, courts the common people (suggesting that his ambitions for the crown may have started very early on), and we see time and again how he wins over people, not by appeals to God or any abstract system of justice, but to the self-interest of those around him.


By the end of the play, Bolingbroke’s vision of politics as power from below has triumphed over Richard’s sense of politics as a part of God’s natural order, but the triumph is a short-term victory, and the story is not finished. The remainder of the second history cycle will explore the key question which Bolingbroke’s defeat of Richard poses: If power from below is the operative principle in the new politics, then how can we ever attain lasting stability? How do we prevent politics from becoming just a succession of power grabs similar to Bolingbroke’s?


[Parenthetically, it might be worth noting that such a question was a very important issue early in the 17th century, and it gave rise in mid-century to one of the very greatest works of modern political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a book which in many ways establishes the basis for the modern state. That text takes the reality of power very seriously, dismisses the notion that virtue in the ruler will ever be sufficient to ensure justice in the community, and sets down the key principle that a clear and equal system of laws enacted and backed up by a strong central government must be the basis of the modern state]




What has led to the destruction of the old order? The most obvious reason is Richard’s failure to respect that structure which it is his major responsibility to uphold. Nothing more clearly indicates Richard’s failure to understand the language of justice than the casual way he dispenses with the Duke of York’s advice not to confiscate Bolingbroke’s property once John of Gaunt dies. The crux of the issue is summed up in York’s lines:


Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights:
Let not tomorrow then ensue today;
Be not thyself, for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?


If Richard violates traditional ceremonies, meanings, the language of the law, then he strikes at the very order which upholds his authority, which depends, above all else, on a shared understanding of and respect for the meaning of things. Bolingbroke’s very name and title, the Duke of Hereford, become meaningless if the position and property that the word Hereford stands for can be arbitrarily taken away upon a whim of the king.


Richard does not bear the entire responsibility, however. For Bolingbroke clearly takes advantage of the social and moral uncertainty created by Richard’s political actions. We have no way of knowing exactly when and what Bolingbroke planned, but there are enough hints of his political actions before the rebellion to suggest that he has had some early aspirations to seek power. And he doesn’t have to take the throne or kill Richard. To that extent Bolingbroke also contributes to the change.


But, and this is the important point, without the fracture of the old way, people like Bolingbroke would not be successful. Richard creates the climate which fractures the unity on which his authority and power depend, leaving people, like the Duke of York, confused. In such a climate, shrewd political operators like Bolingbroke can make their move and be successful, because people have lost their shared sense for the meanings of things. Words like allegiance, trust, and loyalty lose their public definitions, when each person operates with his own sense of the terms. And in such a world, it may well be the case (as we shall see in the Henry IV plays) that Machiavels like Bolingbroke are necessary to maintain any form of civil peace in a nation state. In that sense, a knowledge of and skill in the use of Machiavellian tactics is a necessary component in a king’s character.


The effect of Richard’s actions should remind us of the lines from Ulysses’s speech on degree:


                     O when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead.


Because Richard violates traditional degree, he creates a moral chaos, a political situation in which it is impossible to obtain a clear bearing and thus political questions become inevitably matters of power, and resolving political issues peacefully (as in the opening of the play) becomes impossible.


The clearest evidence of this is the Duke of York, who bears a divided allegiance. He is Bolingbroke’s uncle, the brother of John of Gaunt, and also Richard’s chief political officer in England. In the altered circumstances, he simply doesn’t know what he ought to do. And his moral paralysis (which Bolingbroke very skillfully exploits, first, to neutralize his power and, second, to co-opt his services) is an inevitable outcome of a fractured system of order, in which the person in charge of maintaining that order and the chief symbol of its communal value disregards his own responsibility. (Incidentally, that scene in which Bolingbroke returns as a rebel and confronts York [2.3] is the best example of Bolingbroke’s extraordinary capability to use language to manipulate people for short-term political goals; it repays the closest analysis).


This issue emerges as one of the major themes of the Second History Cycle, the question of the legitimacy of a rebellion against a legal but unjust authority. We will be looking at this point more closely in our discussion of Henry IV. But the issue is clearly established in Richard II. Its characteristic of Shakespeare that neither here nor anywhere else does he give us an easy answer to the problem: in fact, the function of the play(s) is rather to make us realize just how complex such an issue is.