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Unstable identity in Shakespeare's Richard II.

 That which is now a horse, even with a thought
 The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
 As water is in water.
 Here I am Antony,
 Yet cannot hold this visible shape....
 (Antony and Cleopatra 4.14.9-14) (1)

ANTONY'S sudden, shaky sense of his own identity raises an issue that besets several of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists. In this essay I want to consider the character of Richard II asa case in point, (2) to suggest that Richard's struggle to come to terms with the several aspects of his unique self not only lies at the heart of his personal tragedy but also symbolizes a shift from the relative stability of Iris medieval worldview to a more modern, relativistic, and disturbingly uncertain one. The psychic turmoil that the play dramatizes has traditionally given actors difficulty, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because post-enlightenment audiences have been insufficiently cognizant of and sympathetic with the religious and theological assumptions about kingship that would have been taken for granted in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. Consequently, as theater history shows, more secular and even psychosexual strategies for expressing Richard's predicament have been appropriated as the usual means of expressing the character's weakness or shallowness in the face of political adversity. And the tendency has become increasingly prominent in an age when kings are disappearing altogether as national leaders and nowadays, for the most part at least, retain only ceremonial status. My thesis is that Richard's emotional volatility and psychological complexity, frequently discussed in other contexts, stem essentially from conflicts inherent in his dual role as king and man--as both rex imago Dei and as fallible mortal.

Much of Richard's psychic instability comes with his title asa monarch by divine right, for he regards the political attack upon him by Bolingbroke asa violation of the authority vested in him not by men but by God. The political theology of the king's two bodies, borrowed originally from the early concept of the Church as the Body of Christ and articulated and popularized in the writings of the legal scholar Edmund Plowden, became deeply implicated in the Tudor definition of monarchy. The King's natural body incorporated his humanity and was thus subject to the frailties and mortality of the flesh like that of any other man; but his body politic embodied the state and so set him apart from all others, being immortal and ubiquitous. If the doctrine were applied uncritically, particular actions of a king might be interpreted as possessing a mystical and almost unchallengeable authority. The historical Sir John Bushy is supposed to have claimed, for instance, that the "Laws ate in the King's mouth, or sometimes in his breast" (qtd. by Kantorowicz 28, who discusses its provenance). Holinshed (III. 502) makes a version of this comment one of the items (no. 14) charged against Richard in Parliament. Thus Henry V in Shakespeare's play can speak of himself as double-natured--a "god" that suffers "mortal griefs" and so is "twin-born" (Henry V 4.1.233, 241-42). In her first words to the Privy Councillors after her accession in 1558 Elizabeth I adopted the familiar vocabulary, speaking of her sorrow for the death of her sister Queen Mary as a function of her "bodye naturallye considered" but of her power to govern England as proceeding from her "bodye politique" (State Papers Domestic 1558-1566, I, art. 7; qtd. in Axton 38).

Kantorowicz sensitively interprets Richard II as a tragedy of royal christology during the course of which the title figure progressively confronts his peculiar crisis of identity: Richard's dual nature not only defines but magnifies his sufferings, forcing him in stages to come to terms with the fatal disuniting of his human from his mystical body as occasioned by his political situation, and pushing him ultimately to self-deposition and self-annihilation. Kantorowicz speaks of the inevitable "duplications" inherent in kingship and shows how Richard struggles self-consciously, even theatrically, with them: "Thus play I in one person many people" (5.5.31). According to this critic, the most prominent roles that Richard acts are those of "the King, the Fool, and the God"--these dissolving finally "in the Mirror," an emblem of death:
 Those three prototypes of "twin-birth" intersect and overlap and interfere
 with each other continuously. Yet, it may be felt that the "King" dominates
 in the scene on the Coast of Wales (III.ii), the "Fool" at Flint Castle
 (III.iii), and the "God" in the Westminster scene (IV.i), with Man's
 wretchedness asa perpetual companion and antithesis at every stage.
 Moreover, in each one of those three scenes we encounter the same
 cascading: from divine kingship to kingship's "Name" and from the name to
 the naked misery of man. (26-27)

Kantorowicz's formulation reminds us of King Lear, Shakespeare's supreme embodiment in one colossal figure of the tragic nexus of king, fool and god, whose sufferings traverse the full range between the extremes of human misery, the degradation of man nakedly exposed on a heath, and the near-divinity of supreme earthly power sumptuously enrobed and crowned--as implied in Lear's phrase, "every inch a king" (4.6.107). And it should be remembered that James I, the monarch in whose reign Lear made its first appearance, announced to his parliament that "Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Divine power upon earth" (James 307). Also in Hamlet Claudius is ironically able to calm Laertes' rebellious rage with the assurance that "There's such divinity doth hedge a lang / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will" (4.5.124-27). That Shakespeare's Richard is psychologically wedded to such a mystical concept of kingship (he believes at one point that God will protect him from merely human agents with a battalion of "glorious angel[s]" [3.2.61]) is obvious in his language--as, for instance, in his reference to himself as the "deputy elected by the Lord," whom "worldly men cannot depose" (3.2.56-57) and in his several comparisons of himself to Christ. But the same idea is also supported by Gaunt, who uses similar terminology ("God's substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight" [1.2.37-38]) and by Carlisle ("the figure of God's majesty, / His captain, steward, deputy elect, / Anointed, crowned, planted many years" [4.1.126-28]). York refers to Richard as "the anointed King" (2.3.96) and even after his defection to Bolingbroke can still speak of him as "sacred" (3.3.9), a word that crops up more often in Richard II than in any other of Shakespeare's works. Bolingbroke himself partly endorses Richard's iconic conception of monarchy when, invoking imagery from the hierarchy of nature as enshrined in the Great Chain of Being, he envisages their meeting at Flint Castle as the "thund'ring shock" of a cataclysmic storm with Richard as the reigning element of "fire" of lightning and himself as "the yielding water" (3.3.56-58). Of course this sacral and absolutist emphasis reflects only one aspect of the play's complex political vision, but it must nevertheless be the starting point for any analysis of Richard's identity problems.

In the opening scene, where he presides as judge over the quarrel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, Richard seems at least superficially secure in his conception of himself asa divinely sanctioned monarch, even to the point of interjecting a touch of levity: "Our doctors say this is no month to bleed" (1.1.157). He refers to Iris "sceptre's awe" and the "unstooping firmness of [his] upright soul" (1.1.118-21), asserting magisterially, "We were not born to sue but to command" (1.1.196). Nevertheless, he is forced to yield against his will to subjects who refuse to compose their differences peacefully, and who demand a trial by combat. In the tournament scene his demeanor is again impressively regal, but his throwing down the warder to stop the combatants (even though his decision to banish them is supported by his council) conveys an ambiguous impression of capricious theatricality mingled with fear of their possible future disloyalty. Richard embraces Bolingbroke, apparently a gesture of affection as well as an acknowledgement of kinship, before the contestant dons his helmet for battle; but then, privately, he seems jealous and even apprehensive of his cousin's popularity, when he speaks sarcastically of his courting the favor of commoners on his way to exile--"As were our England in reversion his, / And he our subjects' next degree in hope" (1.4.35-36). The heartless frivolity of Richard's reaction to the news of Gaunt's impending death, and the callous confiscation of his properties once death has come, show us another facet of Richard's unstable psyche. Revealingly, his face becomes the reflector of his volatile emotions. Gaunt's rebuke of his nephew's misrule produces anger in the young King, "chasing the royal blood" (2.1.118) from his naturally ruddy face; and the pallor returns later in Wales when onslaughts of bad news drain from his countenance "the blood of twenty thousand men" (3.2.76). Also on his return from Ireland, when Richard's sufferings begin, tears become a regular manifestation of his feelings.

IF the first two acts disclose erratic elements in Richard's personality, Act 3 dramatizes the crisis of identity to which these earlier symptoms have been the prelude. Upon landing on the shore of his own kingdom, Richard at first indulges in a fantasy of royal omnipotence, invoking toads, nettles, and poisonous spiders as defenders of his realm against the invading troops. His speech at this point (3.2.12-26) takes on a noticeably hieratic tone. He salutes the ground of Wales like a mother fondling a child from whom she has been long parted, nevertheless doing the land "favours with [his] royal hands" (3.2.11) in what seems like a variation on the "royal touch," the ancient and miraculous action of curing scrofula traditionally administered by the hands of an anointed sovereign; Richard's saintly predecessor, Edward the Confessor, whose arms Richard adopted, was famous for the practice (see Macbeth 4.3.141-56), and a liturgy for the rite was published in 1597 about the time Richard II was first staged, being afterwards incorporated in some copies of the Book of Common Prayer. Finally after waves of unjustified elation and despondency, in reaction to the encouragement of his friends and the mounting catastrophe of wholesale desertions from his cause, Richard capitulates self-indulgently to the "sweet way" of "despair" (3.2.205). Anticipating in his "doom-eagerness" (3) a totality of defeat that has yet to be visited upon him, the unstable king is the first person after Bolingbroke's return to pronounce the fatal word deposed, obsessively repeating it four times (3.2.56, 150, 157, 158) before his enemy can even suggest such a measure. And attraction to the martyrdom of abdication causes him to ritualize the abandonment of his sacred body, the body symbolized by his throne, to sit upon the ground, where he can meditate on death and the common humanity that unites him in his physical body to his subjects and all other mortals:
 Throw away respect,
 Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
 For you have but mistook me all this while.
 I live with bread like you, feel want,
 Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
 How can you say to me I ama king?

As a monarch Richard never appears weaker, more self-absorbed or more in love with defeat than in this scene, which ends in his renouncing politics altogether: "Discharge my followers. Let them hence away, / From Richard's night to Bolingbroke's fair day" (3.2.217-78). Yet tragic sympathy for Richard begins to emerge with the challenge to his authority, and self-knowledge begins to accompany self-pity. The brittle confidence, arrogant self-possession, and careless indifference--dominant elements in the facade of the earlier Richard--have melted to disclose a richer and more vulnerably complex personality. The much-quoted "hollow crown" speech reveals that the speaker's untested faith in the divine protection of his title has been shattered as completely as the mirror he will later break. The new ingredient is Richard's own questioning of the integrity of the King's two bodies--a unity that heretofore he had shallowly assumed. Attack from without has sparked dividedness within. And the result is a protagonist of greater capacity for self-understanding and emotional depth than has yet been disclosed. Here Shakespeare draws upon the memento mori tradition of late medievalism--the Dance of Death as famously illustrated by Hans Holbein the Younger in his widely circulated series of woodcuts, Imagines Mortis (1538), in which Death the leveler (who "Keeps ... his court" within the golden circlet that "rounds the mortal temples" of its wearer and scoffs "at his pomp" [3.2.161-63]) is depicted as unexpectedly summoning persons of all ranks and classes but especially the great (kings, emperors, bishops, cardinals, nobles), thus provoking a frisson of heightened metaphysical consciousness and erasing all earthly distinctions sub specie aeternitatis. This is the macabre vision, engendered by a sudden reverse in his fortunes, that triggers Richard's doubts about the fancied efficacy of his inherited status and the supposed guarantee of his divine-right powers. At this crucial moment of disorientation Richard could well ask Lear's poignant question: "Does any here know me? ... Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (1.4.226-30).

The fracturing of Richard's royal identity continues in the Flint Castle episode (3.3), where the figure of "Controlling majesty" (3.3.70), who dazzles his subjects like the sun and who reminds his beholders that "no hand of blood and bone / Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre, / Unless he do profane, steal of usurp" (3.3.79-81), nevertheless descends from his royal eminence into "the base court" (3.3.176) at the request of a mere vassal and not only grants Bolingbroke's demands but yields his person to the enemy, all the while indulging in historic and unkingly self-pity:
 I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
 My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
 My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
 My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
 My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff,
 My subjects for a pair of carved saints
 And my large kingdom for a little grave,
 A little, little grave, an obscure grave;
 Of I'll be buried in the King's highway,
 Some way of common trade, where subjects' feet
 May hourly trample their sovereign's head;
 For on my heart they tread now whilst I live,
 And, buried once, why not upon my head?

And through the effective use of anaphora Shakespeare exploits the paradox of a monarch who is theoretically absolute, yet nevertheless constrained by lesser mortals--a king who "must":
 What must the King do now? Must he submit?
 The King shall do it. Must he be deposed?
 The King shall be contented. Must he lose
 The name of King? I'God's name, let it go.

For Richard's frustration at this point, the dramatist probably imitated the similar rhetoric of Marlowe's Edward II, who expresses similar sentiments, e.g., "Am I a king and must be overruled?" (Edward II 1.1.134); "I see I must, and therefore am content" (Edward II 1.4.85); "Must! 'Tis somewhat hard when kings must go" (Edward II 4.7.83). But the seeming contradiction between monarchical absolutism and limitation was inherent in the doctrine of divine right: when Elizabeth I was mortally ill in 1602-03, her secretary Robert Cecil implored her: "Madame, to content the people you must go to bed," to which her withering reply was, "Little man, little man, the word must is not to be used to princes" (Jenkins 323).

One unmistakable evidence of Richard's increasingly disunited self is his plangent clinging to his rank. As Donald Friedman puts it, "Richard, like Lear, must assume that his title is indistinguishable from his identity, just as his will is indistinguishable from the act that it wills" (295). Thus the tragedy of his reduction to "nothing" (4.1.201, 5.5.38, 41) becomes coextensive with his loss of title: "Is not the King's name twenty thousand names? / Arm, arm, my name!" (3.2.85-86); "O, that I were as great / As is my grief, or lesser than my name!" (3.3.136-37); "Must he lose / The name of King?" (3.3.145-46); "I have no name, no title--/ No, not that name was given me at the font--/ But 'tis usurped ..." (4.1.255-57). For Richard, ceasing to be king in name is equivalent to non-existence, a point with which York sympathizes when he rebukes Northumberland for omitting the royal title (3.3.7-8). Richard's obsession with his name betokens his essentialist conception of language--a view of words that allows for no space between signifier and signified, like the priest who transmutes the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ by saying the words of institution: "this is my body ... this is my blood." The mystical uniqueness of his voice, an aspect of his "sacred" status, differentiates it in kind, he believes, from that of ordinary mortals who have no power to annul his divinely conferred authority: "The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord" (3.2.56-57). At times, Richard's words take on something of the force of the Word in Saint John's sense of logos. Thus, when he banishes Mowbray, he assumes that his voice possesses an almost supernatural power to enact the sentence physically: "The hopeless word of `never to return' / Breathe I against thee, upon pain of life" (1.3.152-53). Richard takes for granted the absolutism and inevitability of his language's effect--a painful truth also bitterly acknowledged by Bolingbroke when he reacts to the capricious shortening of his own exile:
 How long a time lies in one little word!
 Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
 End in a word; such is the breath of kings.

The great pageant of Richard's self-unkinging in Act 4 constitutes the emotional climax of the play, exploring the problem of Richard's struggle to define himself in richest complexity. Here Shakespeare contrasts two kinds of power--the political and the theatrical. Bolingbroke may hold the reins of sovereignty, but Richard is the master of self-dramatization with its attendant arts--command of rhetoric and metaphor, the power to embarrass enemies, ironic wit and quicksilver fancy, the capacity to evoke both pity and irritation, the tactic of associating his own sufferings with the passion of Jesus, and the histrionic skill to make the narcissistic contemplation of his own identity coterminous with a ceremony of monarchical renunciation that communicates a sense of desecration and the loss of sacred tradition. Richard manages to endow his own fall with cosmic significance--with the fracturing of an ancient and venerable world order in which the King is seen asa vital link in the great chain that connects the celestial with the earthly. The player-king now triumphs theatrically over the king of realpolitik but at the cost of half-annibilating both himself and the beautiful principle on which he had believed his royalty to be founded.

A certain doubleness of perspective, rooted in the sacramental theology of kingship itself, pervades the episode of discrowning; for paradoxically, Richard contrives to assert the sacred inviolability of his office while simultaneously divesting himself of its symbols and thereby violating it himself. Although Richard has the talents of an actor, inventing "a great ceremony for his humiliation" as Philip Edwards puts it, "kingship is for him no actor's part, put on and put off at will" (102), but rather the definitional ground of his being. The man who had grandly claimed that ala ocean of sea-water could not "wash the balm off from an anointed king" (3.2.55) now affects to remove it "With [his] own tears" (4.1.207). In rituals of priestly and episcopal degradation, only those who have been anointed themselves can presume to officiate in the scraping off of the holy oils and chrism. Yet it is equally clear that such degradations only prohibit the subject from lawfully exercising his sacramental powers since the gifts of the Holy Spirit conferred by anointing at consecrations and ordinations ale permanently valid and beyond the power of human beings to revoke (see Ranald 183-96; Pater, qtd. in Forker, Critical Tradition 297-98). Richard's equivocal answer to Henry's question of whether he is "contented to resign the crown" (4.1.200) encapsulates concisely his divided attitude:
 Ay, no. No, ay; for I must nothing be.
 Therefore, no `no', for I resign to thee.
 (4.1.201-02) (4)

Stripped of its quibbling intricacy, Richard's fundamental response to Bolingbroke's straightforward (and probably impatient) question is that he cannot disentangle "yes" from "no" in the disoriented psychic state to which the questioner has consigned him.

The inverted rite of discoronation to which Walter Pater called attention in his famous essay, (5) and which Richard languishingly draws out to such liturgical length, expunges in a psychological sense the very identity of the speaker. As Ranald observes, the ceremony "is infinitely more than mere formality," constimting as it does "his annihilation asa kingly person, his reduction to the rank of knave, the destruction of his achievements, and, as Richard sees it, his excision from the roster of English kings, since he has become a traitor to the office he had held" (195). Yet at the same time Richard cannot but asseverate the timeless legitimacy of his kingship--his claim to the body mystical that cannot theoretically be sundered from the body physical until death. He condemns the "heinous" act of "deposing ... a king / And cracking the strong warrant of an oath, / Marked with a blot, damned in the book of heaven" (4.1.233-36); he compares himself twice to Christ, the King of all creation, whose Godhead is sempiternal, and he condemns himself for cooperating in the inversion of an immutable hierarchy--for consenting "T'undeck the pompous body of a king," for having made "Glory base and Sovereignty a slave, / Proud Majesty a subject, State a peasant" (4.1.250-52).

Of course the episode exposes also the fallible side of Richard's nature so that a tragic divide opens up between the semi-divine dignity of the rank he once held (and still glorifies) and his own solipsistic exhibitionism. The comparisons to Christ have a double edge. Looked at from a merely human perspective, Richard's claim that his sufferings exceed those of his Savior, since Jesus had only one Judas while he has had to cope with "twelve thousand" betrayers (4.1.172), reveals a degree of presumption approaching blasphemy. At the same time, however, the analogy between the dethroning of an anointed sovereign and the Passion contains a certain theological validity according to the christology of divine-right doctrine. The windlass image of the two buckets (4.1.184-89) carries something of the same doubleness about it. Richard applies it to his own advantage by making the high bucket (Bolingbroke) dance emptily, carelessly and illegitimately in the air while the low bucket, representing himself, is heavy with grief and the weight of sacred tradition. The analogy is tactically clever since it apparently exasperates Duke Henry as intended; but the verbal wit displayed also casts doubt upon the profundity of Richard's grief since the deepest kinds of suffering do not usually accommodate such ostentation. The same point can be made about the emblematic mirror into which Richard gazes before he smashes it in a climactic coup de theatre--an action he himself can refer to as "this sport" (4.1.290). At one level the episode can be read as extravagant escapism, a means by which Richard narcissistically evades a reality he himself has invited. The Epistle of James likens a Christian who hears the word of God but, self-deceivingly, fails to translate it into action "unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass" for "he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was" (James 1.23-24). This is the meaning that Bolingbroke imputes to Richard's gesture as he refers with a hint of contempt to "The shadow of [his] sorrow" (4.1.292). But the mirror, as a reflector of truth (as well as of vanity), also allows the fallen King a moment of deeper insight into his own nature. It becomes for him "the very book ... Where all [his] sins are writ" (4.1.274-75) and the means of representing, as through a glass darkly, "the tortured soul" (4.1.298) that lies beneath the youthfully handsome andas yet unwrinkled countenance. John Nichols quotes a report that in her final illness Queen Elizabeth "desired to see a true looking-glass, which in twenty years she had not sene, but only such a one as was made of purpose to deceive ber sight: which glasse, being brought her, she fell presently into exclayming against those which had so much commended her, and took it so offensively, that some which had flattered her, durst not come into her sight" (3.612). The brittleness of the glass becomes for Richard a symbol of the fragility and impermanence of life itself and links up thematically with the "hollow crown" speech of 3.2 with its effect of expanded consciousness and deepened self-perception. And throughout the fallen monarch's quasi-tragic performance, Bolingbroke has been reduced to the role of a "silent King" (4.1.290), who can only regain a measure of assurance by "conveying" his rhetorically potent enemy "to the Tower" (4.1.316).

Act 5 further explores Richard's identity problems and finally resolves them with his murder. In the scene of parting from his Queen (5.1), Richard communicates another kind of dividedness--on the one hand, sincere grief for the ending of a devoted and mutually enriching relationship (since husband and wife are never to see each other again), and, on the other, an egoistic need to project his own tragedy of dethronement upon her through literary artifice. He instructs her to imagine him dead after their final separation, and, as she sits by the fire in a French cloister listening to stories of "woeful ages long ago betid," to add to the accumulating narratives "the lamentable tale of me"--a story that will outdistance all the others in pathos and send "the hearers weeping to their beds" in grief for "the deposing of a rightful king" (5.1.42-50). Emotionally, Richard is still caught up in the sweet-sour pleasures of literary self-identification, in the "sad stories of the death of kings" (3.2.156) that had occupied his imagination on returning from Ireland, and, in his self-absorption, cannot wholly separate love of his spouse from the aesthetic appreciation of his own fall. Yet he also recognizes that their "former state" was but "a happy dream" from which "grim Necessity" has at last awakened them, "the truth of what we are" finally emerging only through the insight that suffering prompts (5.1.18-21). Again an element of self-recognition mingles with unacknowledged self-regard.

Our final encounter with Richard in his prison at Pomfret, the only episode of the play to stage physical violence, ends by restoring some sense of wholeness to the King's identity, at least as regards the reintegration of his two bodies. The overall purpose is to create as much sympathy as possible, thus muting or helping us to forget his role in Gloucester's death and the other tyrannies that had earlier alienated our responses to his character. And when Richard manfully strikes down two of Exton's assistants before falling himself to the assassin's blade, Shakespeare leaves us with the impression of aman who finally claims the martial tradition of his royal ancestors from which his uncles had seen him as shamefully defecting (compare the speeches of Gaunt and York at 2.1.104-08 and 2.1.171-83, which invoke Richard's heroic forebears, Edward III and the Black Prince). Here Richard reasserts his infrangible identity as King, heroically repossessing the sacred title for which his birth had destined him.
 That hand shall burn in never-quenching fire
 That staggers thus my person. Exton, thy fierce hand
 Hath with the King's blood stained the King's own land.
 Mount, mount, my soul! Thy seat is up on high,
 Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward here to die.

These words contain no hint of a guilty conscience nor any suggestion of unorthodox doubt about the King's two bodies: Richard's body mystical will rise to rejoin the divine source of its sacramental power, while his body natural will sink down and dissolve to earth like that of other mortals. Regnal flaws notwithstanding, eternal condemnation is for regicides, not for legitimate monarchs. If Colley Cibber had adapted this play instead of Richard III, he might have added at this point, "Richard's himself again" (66). The touching loyalty of the Groom, the mixed humor and pathos of the "roan Barbary" incident, and the surliness of the Keeper, who, unlike the King, treats the visitor badly, combine to bring out Richard's humanity and personal charm. And the Keeper's refusal to taste Richard's food on the orders of Exton, who has "lately / [Come] from the King" (5.5.100-01), suggests the possibility that instructions from Windsor are being obeyed. Obviously, Shakespeare rehabilitates Richard in this scene by making him seem more attractive than the politically abler usurper who has unseated him.

The long meditation on identity, isolation, time and harmony with which the scene opens, Richard's only soliloquy, is, however, less unitary in its effect. Here uniquely we see Richard without an onstage audience. His island realm has now shrunk to the enclosure of a prison cell, and, psychologically speaking, to the confines of his own fanciful mind. Now he must "hammer ... out" the imaginary contours of a new kingdom of introversion, peopling it with a "generation of still-breeding thoughts," fragmenting himself into a collection of listeners to his own performance, all of them discontented (5.5.5-11). The imaginary roles include the better and worser aspects of himself, the higher and more divine thoughts being "intermixed / With scruples" and with his consciousness of former pride and worldly luxury. He "set[s] the word itself / Against the word" (5.5.13-14), wrestling with two seemingly incompatible passages of scripture, one of which encourages him to rely on the offer of salvation to the innocent (see Luke 18.16) and the other of which appears to deny redemption to the rich (see Luke 18.25). He ransacks ingenuity to invent analogies for the competing facets of his own personality, exhausting his rhetorical skills in a bewildering confluence of fugitive ideas and speculative associations. See-sawing between opposite conceptions of himself, he must simultaneously be actor and audience, king and beggar, free spirit and frustrated prisoner. But the competing roles engendered by his fancy tend finally to obliterate each other, reducing him to nullity:
 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 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.

This, of course, is a reprise of Richard as the "mockery king of snow" melting himself away "in water-drops" (4.1.260-62) and of the histrionic narcissist dispersing his identity in the smithereens of a shattered looking-glass. (6) The nothingness on which the King muses is the psychological equivalent of death. But Richard's tragic limitation is that, even in defeat, he cannot break free of his own crippling self-consciousness from which only murder can release him.

The intrusion of music awakens him to the disharmony and disproportion that have defined his reign: "I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me" (5.5.49). Here he acknowledges slackness or self-indulgence as a cause of his fall, but paradoxically, his confession occurs in a long rumination that, by elaborately pursuing over-strained conceits, constitutes in itself a form of self-indulgence. Yet of this point also Richard seems aware, for, still resentful of his enemy, he contrasts Bolingbroke's world of political activism to his own enforced stasis: the false king in his "proud joy" has usurped the "time" that should have been Richard's by right, while the legitimate king must "stand fooling" in a cell, the puppet or "jack o'the clock" to an upstart (5.5.58-60). Richard's attempt to come to terms with his own tragedy seems flawed and incomplete, too deeply mired in pain, regret and frustration to allow for full moral self-recognition or access to the larger, more metaphysical significances of his experience. He remains still obsessed with "this all-hating world" (5.5.66). But at the same time he is able to bless the unidentified musician whose playing offers him "a sign of love" (5.5.65) and thereby to show that he has shed enough of his egoism to be capable of gratitude. Moreover we have already been made aware that Richard's thoughts have recently been turning to eternity, for in parting from his Queen, he had referred to "the new world's crown" (see 2 Timothy 4.8) that the couple's "profane hours" have endangered (5.1.24-25). These religious sentiments undoubtedly represent more than a flight to mere platitude since Christian piety was a well-documented aspect of Richard's historical personality (see Saul, 293-326) available to Shakespeare in his sources.

THE mercurial and volatile personality that the protagonist of Richard II so compellingly projects--by turns commandingly royal and neurotically supine, wilfully blind and penetratingly insightful, occasionally arrogant, sometimes maudlin, often witty, engagingly fanciful, capable of friendship and love, ever eloquent--has seemed to many critics, going back to the Romantics and Victorians, to reflect an essentially feminine component or at the least a want of virility. Coleridge spoke of Richard's "intellectual feminineness, which feels a necessity of ever leaning on the breast of others" (Forker, Critical Tradition 131) and Swinburne of the character's "inspired effeminacy" and of his being "the unmanliest of [Shakespeare's] creatures" (Forker, Critical Tradition 396). In 1888 Frank Marshall, a friend and colleague of the great actor Henry Irving, went so far as to use the term "epicene" in attempting to account for Richard's blatant inconsistencies--especially his mixture of tenderness and vindictiveness shown towards Gaunt (Forker, Critical Tradition 290). These commentators seem more or less to have ignored the emotional conflicts created by Richard's struggle with the human and divinely ordained aspects of his role as a sacramentally instituted ruler--the root cause of the instabilities dramatized in Shakespeare's play. Extreme manifestations of human weakness, after all, are scarcely surprising in a character who is born to be what both the Duchess of York in our play and the title character in Sir Thomas More refer to as a "god on earth" (5.3.135; Sir Thomas More, Addition II, scene 4, line 227), yet who at the same time is unsuited by temperament to wield the awesome national authority to which his blood has called him and which the ancient liturgy of his coronation has ritually sanctified. The very premise of the tragedy virtually guarantees wide swings of Richard's emotional pendulum from grand self-assertion to expressions of the deepest personal inadequacy. Moreover, the Victorians and their successors who reprobate Richard for unmanliness tend to forget the King's "rash fierce blaze of riot" and "violent tires" (2.1.33-34) of which Gaunt speaks and "the young hot colt" (2.1.70) to which York likens him.

Among twentieth-century actors, however, the tradition of playing Richard as homosexual has steadily evolved--one obvious, if misguided, means of conceptually unifying a role that incorporates imperious demeanor, personal vanity, histrionic flamboyance, wit, love of ceremony and display, weeping, artistic sensibility, deep-seated insecurity, physical handsomeness, selfishness, cruelty, masochism, and, ultimately, martyrdom. (7) In addition to the historical unawareness that this theatrical tradition reflects, the tragedy itself as Shakespeare conceives it may seem to encourage such a misemphasis. Richard II, being the least plot-ridden of Shakespeare's chronicle plays, eschews heroic action in favor of psychological nuance, rapid shifts of tone, and passive suffering; the American drama professor, George Pierce Baker, could therefore regard it as "a play without a hero" (Forker, Critical Tradition 428). Shakespeare's text also stresses a certain weakness and immaturity in the protagonist--his addiction to flattery, for instance (2.1.17); his distaste for armed conflict and tendency to "yield" "basely ... upon compromise" (2.1.252-55), the campaign in Ireland notwithstanding; his youthful fondness for spendthrift luxury and indulgence in "Lascivious metres" and Italian "fashions" (2.1.19-21)--traits that superficially fit the modern stereotype of the homosexual and might appear to justify Northumberland's phrase, "Most degenerate King" (2.1.262), even though the Earl applies it not to Richard's sexuality but to his tyrannous taxation and confiscation of Gaunt's estates. Although no tendency to sexual misconduct is ever staged in the play (Richard is portrayed throughout as passionately devoted and faithful to Iris consort), supporters of the homosexual interpretation have seized upon Bolingbroke's charge, when he condemns them to death, that Bushy and Green have been erotically involved with the King:
 You have in manner with your sinful hours
 Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him,
 Broke the possession of a royal bed
 And stained the beauty of a fair queen's cheeks
 With tears drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs.

In context this allegation must be taken as an act of political scapegoating on Bolingbroke's part, a device introduced to turn audience sympathy away from the usurper by making him appear more expediently propagandistic and Machiavellian at a moment in the action when the dramatist needed to prepare his audience for a somewhat warmer response to Richard. The detail itself, like numerous others in Richard II, almost certainly derives from Edward II, Marlowe's earlier drama on the deposition of a weak king, which clearly served Shakespeare as a model. (8) Marlowe's grim tragedy of sexual politics, which attributes Edward's fall to his obsessive passion for Gaveston and, later, for the younger Spencer, does indeed portray a king whose overt homosexual attachment to favorites ruins his marriage and creates grief and jealousy in his rejected queen. Significantly, however, Marlowe's play shows no interest at all in the sanctity of kingship, an emphasis wholly singular and original with Shakespeare. I would suggest, indeed, that Shakespeare's strong attraction to divine right as the key element in the psychic conflicts and identity problems that define Richard's tragedy may have come about in part through reaction to its absence in Edward II.

Though one may acknowledge touches of the feminine in Richard's unstable and mutable personality (his almost maternal approach, for instance, to embracing Bolingbroke at Coventry, his touching the ground of Wales like a mother emoting over her baby, his evasion of Northumberland's written charges by the shedding of tears), it is clear that the central conflict in his tragedy, as Shakespeare presents it, is the progressive intensification of his own self-consciousness about the perplexities of royal identity. It is out of this circumstance that his behavior as a player-king exfoliates, prompting his imagination to probe the significances of the buckets and well, of the melting snowman, and of the mirror that reflects inner torment. The loss of political control to his illegitimate cousin forces him to confront the paradox of his being at once a king and no king, on the one hand a divinely appointed sovereign to whom all his countrymen owe fealty and on the other a man humiliated and stripped to the barest essentials, his spacious realm diminished to a cell. Bolingbroke's allusion to the ballad of "The Beggar and the King" (5.3.79) hints at the chasm that has opened up in Richard's psyche between his being both highest and lowest, everything and nothing--an antithesis echoed ironically in the prison soliloquy where again the words "king" "beggar" and "nothing" recur (5.5.32-41).

Ruth Nevo comments on the "disintegrating experience of a total breach between name and self" as expressed in Richard's "snow-king metaphor" (4.1.260-62), calling attention to "the sensuous contraries expressive of Richard's fluctuating states of mind--hot and cold, sweet and sour, pale and red, high and low, solid and melting (or brittle or liquid), harsh and tuneful" that make the characterization so "entirely admirable" (86-87). And in view of the "unmanly" aspect of the character, so insistently invoked by critics and sedulously taken up by actors, perhaps we might add to the list of contraries "male and female" or "active and passive"; for Richard introduces his long prison speech by splitting off his "female" brain from his masculine soul ("the father") in order to "beget" the "generation of still-breeding thoughts" with which he peoples the shrunken kingdom of his interior self, his "little world" (5.5.6-10). For Richard, all these antinomies are anchored in the doctrine of the king's two bodies, in the mystical dualities of divine right which can be dissolved only by the finality of death. But for Shakespeare's audience resolution of the political and intellectual issues raised by the problem of divinity in kingship was probably less assured or complete.

The uncertainties and instabilities of character that Richard II dramatizes so powerfully and that would have been dangerously incipient in any play staging the dethroning of an anointed sovereign may point perhaps to larger uncertainties and instabilities in a shifting conception of the state. In terms of the historical period represented, Shakespeare in his staging of Richard's downfall, depicted the tragic slippage from a unified world order in which king, bishops, peers and commoners theoretically cohered in a cosmic harmony of linked dependencies ordained by and presided over by God. From Richard's perspective, the deposition of a legitimate monarch signaled the irreparable crack-up of this order with the implication of terrible consequences to ensue, both to individuals and to the body politic. But Bolingbroke's practical success as a usurper, despite the guilt and skepticism about future happiness that accompany it, seems also to signify the inevitability of flux and mutation in political affairs. A more utilitarian, individualistic, and less corporate understanding of the state appears to replace Richard's concept of royal order and perhaps to symbolize the unhappy but necessary transition from medieval to more modern ideas about how governments and societies should be organized. The gardeners, for instance, voice their sorrow about Richard's fall but tacitly accept the new, more pragmatic order under Bolingbroke, and York with even greater reluctance does the same. To Elizabethans, this dramatization of sad but ineluctable change--a fracturing of the "unity and married calm of states" (Troilus and Cressida 1.3.100)--must have resonated powerfully.

In 1595 when the play was first mounted, the Virgin queen was nearing the end of her reign; no successor had been designated nor, officially at least, was a successor even allowed to be publicly discussed. Elizabeth was trying to hold together in questionable stability a society riven on the right by Catholic plots to unseat her and on the left by radical Puritans who detested the Anglican settlement with its liturgical reminders of the old religion. To this end she had been forced to shed the blood of her anointed cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, as Henry IV had done in Shakespeare's play. Surrounding herself with virile male courtiers, she delighted in keeping them subservient and teasingly unsatisfied sexually. New men, weary of the Queen's notoriously unpredictable and increasingly erratic decisions, were itching for fresh and more forward-looking reconfigurations of power and authority. By the turn of the century, Essex was foolish enough to attempt to impose his individual will upon the monarchy by force; and his supporters bespoke a revival of Richard II, obviously regarding it as effective propaganda for their cause. The identity problems of Richard himself, as well as of courtiers like York whose allegiance he unsuccessfully claimed, could be taken to reflect the troubled politics of the age in which Shakespeare was composing. But, as befits tragedy, profound loss rather than dubious gain was the burden of his song.


(1) Except for Richard II (quotations from which come from my forthcoming Arden 3 edition) all citations of Shakespeare are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare.

(2) Curiously, Swinburne applies Antony's speech not to Richard II but to minor characters of the play, specifically York, Mowbray, and Aumerle; see Forker, Critical Tradition 256.

(3) Harold Bloom uses this term (2): "Richard is both his own victim, or rather the victim of his own imagination, and the sacrifice that becomes inevitable when the distance between the king as he should be and the actual legitimate monarch becomes too great" (Bloom 3).

(4) Richard's chop-logic turns on two elaborate quibbles: first, a double entendre on I, meaning both ay (= "yes") and also the personal pronoun; and second, a pun on no and know. In the first instance the Folio copytext (the deposition scene does not appear in the early quartos) uses the spelling "I" for both meanings, as is characteristic of Elizabethan orthography (cf. Romeo and Juliet 3.2.45-50). In his narcissistic distress, Richard toys with ambiguous significances which can only emerge in heard speech. Although the nuances of his wordplay tend to blur into each other, at least two ways of understanding these lines may be suggested, which perhaps operate simultaneously: first, "Yes, no. No, yes. But `no' is the equivalent of `I'; for, having lost my identity as king, I am now nothing (= no thing). Therefore the double negative, `no "no"' (= my not being permitted to say `no'), amounts to a `yes', so I resign to you." Second, "I, no. No, I", which in delivery can sound like "I know no `I'"; in this reading, we may paraphrase: "Since I am now reduced to a nonentity, I cannot even know who I am, and therefore whatever I say is meaningless: given such erasure of distinctions, `no "no"' (or `no "know"') might just as well mean `yes'." See also Mahood 87 and Gilman 88.

(5) In "Shakespeare's English Kings" (originally published in Appreciations, 1889; partially reprinted in Forker, Critical Tradition 293-300) Pater called attention to the ritualistic, lyrical, and exquisitely tonal aspects of Richard II in a way that substantially modified interpretations of Richard's character both in the study and onstage. Pater's emphasis on Richard's aesthetic refinement and artistic sensibility significantly influenced such critics of the playas W. B. Yeats, C. E. Montague, and, later, John Dover Wilson and Ernst Kantorowicz, as well as the distinguished actor F. R. Benson, who helped revive Richard as a popular role in the theatre (see Forker, Critical Tradition 21-23).

(6) Shakespeare gives us another image of fragmentation in Bushy's likening of the Queen's "eyes, glazed with blinding tears," to "perspectives" (glasses cut to produce the optical deception of multiplied images), which "Divide ... one thing entire to many objects" (2.2.16-18). The Queen's tear drops form tiny mirrors which, like shards of a shattered glass, convert a single object into many.

(7) John Gielgud, one of the greatest Richards of theatrical history, imparted a certain languid effeminacy to the role when he played it at the Old Vic in 1929 and later at the Queen's Theatre in 1937. Michael Redgrave in his Stratford-upon-Avon interpretation of 1951, "using a shaky tenor voice, a foppish smile, and damp, uncertain eyes to summon up ... instability" and looking "exquisitely over-mothered" (Tynan 11), portrayed the King (in Laurence Olivier's words) "as an out-and-out pussy queer, with mincing gestures to match" (Page 49); another observer of the same production contrasted Gielgud's more sympathetic portrayal with Redgrave's "harsh, unsentimentalized portrait, sharp with cruelty, spite and envy"--the figure of a "feline homosexual" (Findlater 252). Harry Corbett acted Richard in a Theatre Workshop production of 1954-55 as "a weak, treacherous, decadent pervert" (Page 51), while, according to a London Times reviewer (18 November 1959), John Justin, "effeminately ... over-demonstrative to his decorative male friends" (4), also exaggerated Richard's supposed homosexual tendencies in his portrayal at the Old Vic. A French production in 1970 at the Odeon-Theare de France with Patrice Chereau in the lead stressed Richard's "homosexual lust" (Roberts 2. 420); and when John Barton's celebrated Royal Shakespeare Company production (in which Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson alternated in the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke) reached the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1974, American reviewers noted that Richardson played the king "as a kind of drag queen" or "a distasteful, flaming queen" (Grebanier 535). The BBC television Richard II (1978) starring Derek Jacobi, showed the King relaxing with his minions in a state of semi-nakedness in a bath-house; homoerotic overtones were clearly intended. Finally Zoe Caldwell's 1979 production at Stratford, Ontario (with three different actors in the title role on different evenings), made much of the homosexual theme: in the scene at Flint Castle (3.3) "Richard took Aumerle's hand for comfort, and then Aumerle stealthily put his arm round Richard's waist. Richard also gently put a hand on Bushy's knee, while always keeping his distance from his Queen--slight hints towards seeing Richard as homosexual" (Page 70). By the time of Shakespeare's quatercentenary, when David Warner played the King in an RSC production at Stratford-upon-Avon, the tradition of effeminate Richards had become so ingrained that an anonymous reviewer for the London Times (16 April 1964) commented on the "unexpected masculinity" of the interpretation, noting also its near-absence of "narcissism" (6). Nor have actors been alone in their emphasis on the homoerotic. In 1961 A. P. Rossiter noted "something in Richard which calls out the latent homosexuality of critics" (24). Deborah Warner's controversial Royal National Theatre production of 1995 attempted to counter the long tradition of interpreting the title character as homosexual by casting the Irish actress Fiona Shaw as the King, by portraying the relationship between Richard and Bolingbroke as intensely intimate as well as adversarial, and by thus conceiving the protagonist, in the words of Carol Rutter, as "a kind of androgyne" (317), a figure whose "psychic doubleness" could be conveyed by a woman playing the title character without impersonating a man or affecting male behavior, whose "womanishness," far from being deviant, was resonant and integral to the various "duplicities" of the tragedy--its politics, its rivalries, its divided loyalties (316-17).

(8) Holinshed, it is true, mentions Richard's "lasciuious liuing" (3. 502) and the sexuality of his court: "there reigned abundantlie the filthie sinne of leacherie and fornication, with abhominable adulterie, speciallie in the king, but more cheefelie in the prelacie" (3.508); but he says nothing specifically about homoeroticism. The same is true of The Mirror for Magistrates, which merely refers to Richard's "lecherous minde" and predilection to "Venus pleasures" (113). Richard fathered no children by either of his marriages, but his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, may have been barren, and his second, Isabelle of Valois, was a mere child at the time of his deposition (see Saul 457). In addition to Marlowe, a possible influence at this point could have been the anonymous play Woodstock (1591-95), which served Shakespeare in other ways as a source. This drama depicts Richard as especially intimate with Green (see, for instance, 2.1.8-10, 2.2.202-04, 218-19, 3.1.76-80, 4.1.216-18, 5.4.25-35) and the Queen, Anne of Bohemia, as hostile to his minions (see 2.3.10-37). Like Holinshed and the Mirror, however, Woodstock is unspecific about homosexuality, though it is possible to detect hints of it in the Duchess of Ireland's comment that Richard "was the cause" that her dead husband "left [her] bed" (2.3.12), and in Richard's lament over Green: "Hard-hearted uncles ... That here have murdered all my earthly joys!" (5.4.29-30).

Works Cited

Anonymous. Woodstock: A Moral History. Ed. A. P. Rossiter. London: Chatto and Windus, 1946.

Axton, Marie. The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare's "Richard II." New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Cibber, Colley. The Tragical History of Richard the Third. London, 1718.

Edwards, Philip. "Person and Office in Shakespeare's Plays." Proceedings of the British Academy 56 (1970): 93-109.

Findlater, Richard. The Player Kings. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.

Forker, Charles R., ed. Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition: "Richard II." London: Athlone, 1998.

Friedman, Donald M. "John of Gaunt and the Rhetoric of Frustration." ELH 43 (1976): 279-99.

Gilman, Ernest B. "Richard II and the Perspectives of History." Renaissance Drama 7 (1976): 85-115.

Grebanier, Bernard. Then Came Each Actor: Shakespearean Actors, Great and Otherwise, Including Players and Princes, Rogues, Vagabonds and Actors Motley, from Will Kempe to Olivier and Gielgud and After. New York: David McKay, 1975.

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. 2nd ed., 3 vols. in 2. London, 1587.

James I. The Political Works of James I, reprinted from the edition of 1616. Intro. Charles Howard McIlwain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1918.

Jenkins, Elizabeth. Elizabeth the Great. New York: Coward-McCann, 1959.

Kantorowicz, E. H. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Mahood, M. M. Shakespeare's Wordplay. London: Methuen, 1957.

Marlowe, Christopher. Edward the Second. Ed. Charles R. Forker. The Revels Plays. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1994.

Mirror for Magistrates, The. Ed. Lily B. Campbell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1938.

Nevo, Ruth. Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Nichols, John. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. New ed. 3 vols. London: J. Nichols, 1823.

Page, Malcolm. "Richard II": Text and Performance. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1987.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. "The Degradation of Richard II: An Inquiry into the Ritual Backgrounds." English Literary Renaissance 7 (1977): 170-96.

Roberts, Josephine A. "Richard II": An Annotated Bibliography. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1988.

Rossiter, A. P. Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961.

Rutter, Carol Chillington. "Fiona Shaw's Richard II: The Girl as Player-King as Comic." Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 314-24.

Saul, Nigel. Richard II. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Ed. John Dover Wilson Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1939.

--. King Richard II. Ed. Charles R. Forker. The Arden Shakespeare London: Thomson Learning, 2002.

--. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. B. Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Shakespeare, William (and others). The Book of Sir Thomas More. Ed. W. W. Greg. Malone Society Reprints. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1911.

Tynan, Kenneth. Curtains: Selections from the Drama Criticism and Related Writings. New York: Atheneum, 1961.

Charles R. Forker is Professor of English Emeritus at Indiana University, Bloomington. Apart from numerous articles for journals, his publications include Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster (1986), Fancy's Images: Contexts, Settings, and Perspectives in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (1990), the Revels Plays edition of Marlowe's Edward II (1994), and Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition: "Richard II" (1998). His Arden 3 edition of Richard II is forthcoming.
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Author:Forker, Charles R.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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