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William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard II, first published in a quarto edition in 1597, is the first in a sequence of four history plays known as the second tetrology, which deal with the early phases of a power struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. The Richard II of the play has been called both mercurial and self-indulgent; however, several sustained soliloquies in the play demonstrate how deeply realized his character is. During one of these soliloquies, which takes place after his imprisonment and before his murder, he seems to rediscover the qualities of pride, trust, and courage that he lost when dethroned-and so goes onward to meet his death with a spirit more powerful than ever before.
The scene (5.5), begins in the keep of Pomfret Castle, where Richard is being held prisoner, and starts on a despondent note as he tries to reconcile his life in prison with the life he led as king:
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. (5.5.1-5)
Despite his despondency, Richard begins to explore how he might live his life out within the microcosm of the keep, and still keep some semblance of his former life. He finds his life in the keep lacking because it is unpeopled. However, the last line indicates a turnabout in this attitude. He is beginning to fight back against the internal forces that threaten to drag him into despair and loneliness when he states, in line five, that he will ìhammer it out.î
Because a king needs a family and subjects, he seems to have decided to people his private world, as we find out in the next few lines:
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and yet these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humors like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented…. (5.5.6-11)
Aside from the obvious metaphorical qualities of this sentence, that he is creating a world within himself, symbolic relationships seem to exist between some of the words. He names his ìsoulî the ìfather,î as if to express the relationship of God with the soul (i.e., God is the father of the soul). And he places his brain as the female to his soul, implying that the brain nurtures and cares for the soul, who was begat by God. These two concepts are then linked together, as the mother (perhaps symbolic of Mother Earth) and the father (symbolic of God) produce a generation of ìstill-breedingî thoughts-as in the world outside Richard’s prison, where God and the Earth have produced people that are constantly breeding. In this way, Richard creates the same relationship within himself as exists in the natural world.
It is probably significant that Richard speaks of the thoughts and the people as not being contented, because in an historical context the peoples of England had been in revolt since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (McKay et al., 452). McKay, Hill, and Butler state that the Peasants’ Revolt was probably the largest single uprising of the Middle Ages, and that ìdecades of aristocratic violence, much of it perpetuated against the weak peasantry, had bred hostility and bitternessî (453). They add that Richard II later met with the leaders of the revolt, agreed to charters insuring their freedom, tricked them with false promises, and then crushed the uprising.
The next twenty lines of the soliloquy focus upon the breeding thoughts within Richard’s own mind, and slowly transmogrify them into the feelings of comfort that they represent for Richard. He begins with the character of the thoughts:
The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermixed
With scruples, and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, ‘Come, little one’s,’ and then again,
‘It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a needle’s eye.’ (5.5.11-17)
He later moves into their depiction as actual people, painting metaphors of them-and they in a situation similar to his own.
Nor shall not be the last; like seely beggars
Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame,
That many have, and others must sit there.
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like. (5.5.25-30)
With these descriptions of his thoughts-as kindred to others’ thoughts who have suffered the same fate as Richard – he finds solace in realizing that he is not the only one who has been imprisoned, who has had these thoughts of despair. And in comparing himself to a ìseely[simple-minded] beggarî he seems to again face the fact that he has indeed been lowered to mortal status, as he did earlier when speaking to his wife in the first scene of the same act: ì…think our former state a happy dream/From which awaked the truth of what we areî (5.1.18-19).
From these lines(5.5.25-30) until line 41 Richard waffles back and forth as to whether being a king is better than being a beggar. He finally comes to a decision regarding his peace of mind, and links it with his own mortality, when he decides that any man will not find ease until he is happy with what he is, even if he has nothing: ìNor I, nor any man that but man is,/With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased/With being nothing…î (5.5.39-41). Note that, in the first line of those three, Richard lowers himself from God’s representative on Earth to being ìbut [a] man.î
Because this is a history play, time plays an important role-history could not happen without time, and time would have trouble existing without creating history. So, in this sense, the two terms are nearly synonymous in meaning. And Richard’s imprisonment is the physical manifestation of time in its worst aspect, where it can actually cause suffering. It is important to note that Richard is imprisoned in three ways, within his mind, within the natural world, and within time, but equally important to note that time is the main enemy of the imprisoned man-a fact Richard seems to understand well. When he hears music playing, the beat of the music causes him to reflect on time and its passing. He speaks of time as if it were an enemy, or a valuable resource he has misused and mistreated, which has come back to seek vengeance:
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
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears. (5.5.49-54)
Here he not only bemoans his waste of time, but speaks of time in both its inner and outer aspect. He marks time within himself through his thoughts, while from outside himself the minutes mark their path through tears of regret. ì[M]inutes, times, and hoursî (5.5.58), for Richard, have now become ì…sighs and tears and groansî (5.5.57). But even though he cries out to the music and its timed beat ì… Let it sound no moreî (5.5.61), he still gives his blessing to the music itself, because it is a sign of love-stating, ì…love to Richard/Is a strange brooch in this all-hating worldî (5.5.65-66).
By the end of this soliloquy, Richard has realized that he is a mortal man like any other, but that God and his own feelings are still with him-despite his seeming fall from grace. He has discovered for himself the meaning of his life, which is not to rule as a king, as he once thought, but is instead a struggle to live within himself with the ease and comfort of a clean conscience. He has come to terms with his own mortality and the role that time will play henceforth in his life. These realizations have made him stronger, and fortified him against the future, for now he knows that he must depend upon himself, not upon the royal blessings of God.
With Richard’s last words, we see the final result of this moment of truth, this self-realization, as he bravely assaults and kills two of his attackers before dying a noble death: ìMount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high;/Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to dieî (5.5.111-112).
McKay, John P., Bennett Hill, and John Buckler. A History of World Societies. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992. 452-454.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard The Second. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969. 554-667.
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