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Richard II by William Shakespeare is a historical play that chronicles part of the rule and eventual downfall of King Richard II of England. Simultaneously, the play also showcases the rise of Henry Bolingbroke to the throne. Shakespeare employs several recurring images relating to breath, speech, tongues, words, and names in his work, all of which contribute to the major political themes that arise through the conflict between Richard and Bolingbroke. Through imagery relating to language and speech, the two main characters are sharply contrasted, as are the ideas of what a successful monarch is. Richard is cast as an ineffective yet poetic ruler, while Bolingbroke is portrayed as a man of swift action. The emphasis on language in the play, which is essentially given as much weight as life itself, helps to establish Shakespeare’s central question of what makes for the ideal English monarch.
Early in the play, Mowbray introduces the importance of language and speech during his interaction with King Richard II. Immediately following his banishment from the kingdom, Mowbray is appalled at his punishment and remarks that his “tongue’s use is to me no more/Than an unstringed viol or a harp” (I.iii.161-2). Without the ability to speak English to those who will hold him captive, Mowbray will essentially have no use for his language anymore, just as one would have no use for an unstringed instrument. His description of his “enjailed” tongue in his mouth parallels his actual imprisonment at the hands of Richard II (I.iii.166). He compares his sentence to a “speechless death/Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath” (I.iii.172-3). This line establishes that language is power in the world of Richard II, and without the ability to communicate, one is symbolically dead. These words from Mowray in the beginning of the play set the tone for how language and speech will be treated throughout the work, and give them a significant and profound weightiness in Richard’s kingdom.
Another way in which words play a role in Richard II entails how they factor into the portrayal of both Henry Bolingbroke’s and Richard II’s characters. Their differences on the basis of word versus action create a visible conflict between the old political system and the evolving monarchy in England at the time. Richard rules on the premise of the divine right of kings, meaning that he believes he was “elected by the Lord,” and therefore is a model and ideal king (III.ii.57). Because of this belief, Richard does not feel the need to actively defend his crown and instead relies on language. It is evident from his numerous soliloquies, and from the dramatic language used by Richard, that he is a king of many words and few actions, something that eventually contributes to his downfall. He makes several bad decisions and falls out of favor among his own people, but still does not take any action to prove himself worthy of the throne. For example, in Act III Scene ii, when Richard learns that Bolingbroke is going to invade, rather than preparing for battle, he says that he and his companions should instead sit down and “tell sad stories of the death of kings” (III.ii.156). Even in a crucial moment such as this, Richard would prefer only to speak about what is going on, rather than to do something to challenge it.
Richard’s belief that his rule is legitimatized by the divine right of kings represents the old view of the monarchy, in which name and title are the determining factors for who will be king, even if that person is not fit to rule. This mentality is especially clear towards the end of the play, once Richard is forced to abdicate the throne. He says “I have no name, no title…and know not what name to call myself,” a statement which demonstrates a complete loss of identity (IV.i.255, 259). Losing the title of king has rendered him unable to recognize himself apart from the position he once held. The importance of name and title to Richard in this scene further emphasizes Richard’s reliance on language and words as his means of power and control. Without them, he is unable to control something as simple as his own personal identity.
In contrast, Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s successor, rejects the idea that language is power and instead emphasizes that assertive actions are the qualities of a strong English monarch. It is obvious from the play’s first scene, when Bolingbroke challenges Mowbray to a duel, that he is not afraid of physical conflict. He does not speak as often or as poetically as Richard, but instead states, “what my tongue speaks my right-drawn sword may prove” (I.i.46). He also mocks Richard’s way with words in the Act I Scene iii, when he observes that “four lagging winters and four wanton springs/End in a word; such is the breath of kings” (214-15). By saying that Richard’s breath can make time pass, he insinuates that all of his power lies in his speech. Unlike Richard, Bolingbroke believes that words can only be proven by actions that back them up. Bolingbroke’s invasion of England also helps to reinforce this belief, and introduces the idea that selection of the next ruler should not necessarily be limited to the heir to the throne. By taking the crown by force from the weak Richard II, Bolingbroke presents the more democratic idea of a kingship based on the peoples’ needs and the new king’s ability to lead.
Throughout Richard II, William Shakespeare incorporates numerous images relating to speech, breath, tongues, words and names to express a growing conflict between the divine right of kings and principles of effective leadership in England during this time period. Furthermore, the images serve to provide a contrasting view of the play’s two central characters, King Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. Although Richard’s eventual surrender of his crown can be attributed to several different plot points, the root of his downfall lies in his reliance on language as the sole source of control over the kingdom. Bolingbroke’s decisive and forthright actions throughout the play establish him as a worthy and powerful leader who can more successfully rule England than God’s poetic chosen king, Richard II.
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