Richard II

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Themes and Colors
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England Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Richard II, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
England Theme Icon

As noted above, the Henriad and all of the history plays trace the line of the English throne leading up to Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled during the first part of Shakespeare’s career. Thus, running through all of the other themes in the play are a strong sense of English pride and an exploration of England itself. The pride for England, for example, is expressed in the way that Henry and Mowbray react to being banished. Both men clearly are unhappy about leaving their country. Even speaking another language is figured as “speechless death.” These Englishmen want only to speak the English language and live on English soil, indicating both a sense of pride and of English superiority. We can note also that of the all the plays in Henriad, this play is the least concerned with other nations, either through foreign visitors or the conquests of kings. Richard makes a brief journey to Ireland, but no scenes take place there, and it is in this time away from England that Henry takes action and Richard essentially loses his crown.

England is described with figurative language throughout the play, including being portrayed as a garden, as mother, as a nurse, and, of course, as another body of the king in the form of the body politic. These descriptors seem to indicate that the country is maternal, natural, life-giving, and beautiful. However, in a rousing speech near his death, Gaunt at once praises England and laments its current status under the rule of King Richard. In the beginning of the speech, he simply lists epithets that indicate how special England is. The country is described as the throne of kings; it is perfect and likened to an “other Eden”; it is also a “fortress built by nature herself,” as it is surrounded by water and so protected from invasion, leading to the Gaunt’s metaphor calling the country a “precious stone set in the silver sea.” Gaunt also emphasizes England’s reputation, saying that England is known throughout the world. Such a line, along with the list of praises above, can be seen as both Shakespeare pandering to his English audience and the author expressing true passion for his homeland and the deep connection and appreciation for England experienced by his characters and the British nobility.

But under Richard, Gaunt says, England is likened to a tenement, or a land leased out by a landlord. The country that usually wants to conquer others has conquered itself. This important criticism shows a turn in Gaunt, who at first would not criticize his king for fear of breaking his Christian duty. But the harm to England and its reputation that Gaunt attributes to Richard seems to be the only thing capable of causing Gaunt to act and speak out. Gaunt calls Richard the landlord of England, not the king, and says that, as Henry suggests later, the king must be held accountable for his actions and treated as a subject of the law. Thus we see the notion that a monarch’s power and infallibility come second only to the prosperity of England itself, which is figured as “the womb of royal kings.” Kings and queens might replace one another, but the constant is England, which gives rulers their power and apparently must always thrive, despite the individual goals, failings, or desires of its monarchs.

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England Quotes in Richard II

Below you will find the important quotes in Richard II related to the theme of England.
Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

The language I have learnt these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo;
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringéd viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.

What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

Related Characters: Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (speaker), King Richard II
Page Number: 1.3.161-175
Explanation and Analysis:

Mowbray delivers these lines after his near battle with Henry. As the two are about to fight, Richard interjects and decides instead to banish both men. Here, Mowbray reacts to the pain of being banished from England.

His primary complaint about banishment is that he will no longer be able to speak his first language. He has spoken and learned his native English for forty years, and now, since he must live in a different country, he will not be able to speak it, rendering his tongue (with a pun on tongue meaning language) as useless as a broken musical instrument, or, he says, an instrument in unskilled hands.

What’s more, Mowbray characterizes this sentence as “speechless death,” suggesting that going without speaking English (like being robbed of his honor) will lead to his death. Speech then, is given the utmost importance. Speaking is (repeatedly) characterized as breathing; it is an essential component of staying alive. But Shakespeare also emphasizes and elevates his own English language in particular, rather than just praising language itself.


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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.

Related Characters: Henry Bolingbroke / King Henry IV (speaker), King Richard II
Page Number: 1.3.218-220
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry speaks these lines after Richard banishes him for ten years and then reduces his sentence to six years. Like Mowbray’s response, the lines indicate the power and importance of language in the play. However, rather than saying that language is important to Henry, who is more action oriented than speech oriented, these lines refer to the specific power of a king’s speech, which can be understood as a speech act.

Again characterizing speech as breath, Henry notes that one word from Richard’s mouth can change the course of his life. By uttering one sentence, Richard takes four long years off of Henry’s banishment. Richard’s speech can be understood as an act because when a king speaks a (punitive) sentence, it is immediately law. Just saying the words “you are banished for six years” enacts the banishment.

Shorten my days thou canst with sullen sorrow,
And pluck nights from me, but not lend a morrow.
Thou canst help time to furrow me with age,
But stop no wrinkle in his pilgrimage,
Thy word is current with him for my death,
But dead, thy kingdom cannot buy my breath.

Related Characters: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (speaker), King Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke / King Henry IV
Page Number: 1.3.233-238
Explanation and Analysis:

Gaunt speaks these lines in anguish after his son’s sentencing. He says that he only supported the idea of banishing Henry to appear impartial, and that he (Gaunt) will most likely die before Henry returns to England. Richard attempts to comfort Gaunt and tell him that he’s mistaken, but here Gaunt makes an important distinction about the limitations of a king’s speech.

Richard’s speech has the power of action; with one word he could sentence Gaunt to death, basically killing him with words. But Gaunt notes that Richard is powerless to grant him life, to undo or slow time. Like time, Richard can use his word to kill Gaunt, but once Gaunt is dead, no royal words, nor the entire kingdom of England can be used to bring him back to death. This power to give life is one reserved only for God, an important limitation to the speech powers of a king who is understood as God’s substitute on earth.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

Related Characters: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (speaker), King Richard II
Page Number: 2.1.45-66
Explanation and Analysis:

Gaunt speaks this lengthy, powerful monologue on his deathbed, moments before Richard enters. In it, he gives a grand list of epithets for England, employing the literary device anaphora, which means a series of lines beginning with a repeated word or phrase (in this case the repeated word is “this”).

England itself is characterized as a throne, a beautiful, royal island, a majestic place, and a second garden of Eden. Gaunt also speaks to the natural defenses of England, which is guarded by water on all sides like a “precious stone set in the silver sea,” an image of both nature and of jewelry making. This double image is fitting, since Gaunt characterizes Nature as the builder of the fortress that is England.

He continues, transitioning to family imagery, characterizing England as a “nurse” and a “teeming womb of royal kings.” England, which we can note is emphasized on a line by itself in the middle of this long speech, is a maternal nurse figure for Gaunt. It is extremely important to him, evidenced by his four-time repetition of the word “dear.” With his dying breath, Gaunt wants to proclaim that the country that he loves and has just described in all of its majesty is now merely leased out like a farm. The leasing he refers to with obvious disappointment is Richard’s decision to lease out royal lands in order to fund the war with Ireland.

Act 3, Scene 3 Quotes

He is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers' sons
Shall ill become the flower of England's face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation, and bedew
Her pastures' grass with faithful English blood.

Related Characters: King Richard II (speaker), Henry Bolingbroke / King Henry IV
Related Symbols: Blood, The Crown
Page Number: 3.3.95-102
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard says these lines to Henry in a proud speech. In it, he demands that his subjects treat him with the respect a king deserves, and he reminds these subjects that he is ruler by divine right. Here, he addresses Henry directly to say that he will fight to keep the throne. Richard says that Henry is causing a bloody war, and that before he can take the crown he wants in peace, ten thousand bloody crowns (heads) of mother’s sons will stain the face of England, which is figured both as a maiden and as a garden. Richard plays on the two meanings of crown here, and he returns to the image of the blood of thousands of men and the face of England. Though instead of the blood rushing from his own face as above, in Act 3 Scene 2, here the blood will be spilled and will stain the pale face of the body politic.

Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

If you crown him, let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act,
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound.
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called
The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this curséd earth!

Related Characters: Bishop of Carlisle (speaker), King Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke / King Henry IV
Related Symbols: Blood, The Crown
Page Number: 4.1.142-153
Explanation and Analysis:

After saying that technically, Henry cannot be crowned or pass sentence on Richard, Carlisle here offers his prophesy as to what will happen if Henry somehow is crowned. He says that the blood of the English will spill onto the ground, and that future generations will despise the foul deed of crowning Henry. Other lands will find peace while England becomes home to wars, where the family fights itself and people slaughter each other. Chaos and horror, he says, will rule England, if one house (family) rises against another. Dramatically, Carlisle says that it will be the worst split to ever occur on earth. This vivid, intense prophesy, audiences would know, will ultimately come true in later plays in the extremely blood Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York. We can note that part of the horror of this war is that it is a war between two sides of one family. Here the family drama is elevated to a royal scale, and to deadly effect.

Yet I well remember
The favors of these men. Were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry "All hail" to me?
So Judas did to Christ, but He in twelve
Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none.

Related Characters: King Richard II (speaker), Henry Bolingbroke / King Henry IV
Page Number: 4.1.175-179
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard says these lines just before officially turning his crown over to Henry. He laments that all of those who used to be his subjects and used to praise him are now supporting Henry as king. Richard likens this betrayal and the frustration of their shallow loyalty to Judas’s betrayal of Christ. But, as always, Richard expands the example to a kingly scale, saying that he has been betrayed by thousands, as opposed to only one (Judas) who betrayed Jesus. And what’s more, Judas was only one out of twelve apostles who betrayed, whereas Richard claims that none of his thousands were truthful to him. This final point though, is a little over the top, as only moments before these lines are spoken Carlisle has been arrested for treason against Henry for supporting Richard.

Here, cousin, seize the crown.
Here, cousin.
On this side my hand, on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my grief, whilst you mount up on high.

Related Characters: King Richard II (speaker), Henry Bolingbroke / King Henry IV
Related Symbols: The Crown
Page Number: 4.1.190-198
Explanation and Analysis:

In this climactic moment, the transition of power from Richard to Henry is made through the physical object of the crown, which symbolizes power and the throne itself. Both men hold either side of the crown, while Richard characterizes it as a deep well with two buckets alternately rising (when empty) and falling (when full of water). While Richard passes his power to Henry, he envisions Henry as a higher bucket pouring sorrows, grief, and tears down to a lower bucket that is Richard. It is fitting that as his fall is enacted and Henry’s rise to power is made official, Richard uses more low and high imagery with himself occupying the lowly figure.

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths.
All pomp and majesty I do forswear.
My manors, rents, revenues I forgo;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny.
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me.
God keep all vows unbroke are made to thee.

Related Characters: King Richard II (speaker), Henry Bolingbroke / King Henry IV
Related Symbols: The Crown
Page Number: 4.1.216-224
Explanation and Analysis:

In these powerful lines, which utilize anaphora, the literary device in which multiple lines begin with the same word or words (here, “with my own”), Richard officially transfers his powers as king over to Henry. These lines are significant because, while it seems that Henry’s perspective on the ability of subjects to pass sentence on kings has won, the notion that only a king can dethrone a king is not disproven. Rather, it is reinforced, as Henry’s coronation cannot be made official until Richard himself transfers the power. Thus it is crucial that Richard washes the “balm” (his anointment) with his own tears, gives the crown with his own hands, speaks the transfer with his own mouth, and makes Henry king with his own breath. It is also tragic, however, that his last speech act as king is to uncrown himself through the coronation of his foe.

Act 5, Scene 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: King Richard II (speaker), Sir Pierce of Exton
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 5.5.112-116
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard speaks these lines in prison amidst an attack by Exton and a few other murderers. Richard manages to kill two would-be murderers, but Exton gains the upper hand and fatally wounds the former king. The excerpted lines are Richard’s last words before death. He first tells Exton that he has stained the King’s land with the King’s own blood. This image shows that in his dying moments, Richard still thinks of himself as the rightful king. Exton has also stained the king’s land with king’s blood in two senses, since the blood most likely spilled on the literal ground, and on the figurative ground of England in the body politic, which might be considered as Richard’s skin.

With his final words, though, Richard speaks only to his soul. Even though he submitted to Henry and even used the low / high image motif to place himself as the lowly bucket in the crown passing scene, here Richard seeks to embody both the low and the high. While his body and flesh (and potentially England itself) goes downward to die, completing his tragic fall from the throne, his soul is sent upward to heaven, granting him a final victory or respite in death.