As in every Shakespeare play, language is explored and used playfully in Richard II. In this play, language can be seen as a source and means of power, as a connection to native lands, and as an act in and of itself. But Richard II is unique in that it is only one of two (or four, depending on whom you ask) plays that consist entirely of verse. While the next plays in the sequence, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2, feature almost 40% prose and 60% verse, and explore the relationship of informal pub-speech to formal king-speech, Richard II contains no prose whatsoever. The language is all elevated. Instead, characters’ differences in speech come mostly from style and subject matter. King Richard II, for example, uses symbolism and metaphors, whereas Henry speaks more directly.
Speech in this play, especially from the mouth of rulers, is power. Richard decrees laws and binding decisions simply by speaking them; whatever he says is done. Henry expresses the power of Richard’s speech when contemplating his own banishment, and then the reduction of his years in exile from ten to six. He notes that four years of his life are made different by one word from Richard; he says, “Such is the breath of kings.” The king’s speech instantaneously becomes law backed by the power of God. One word has the power to disrupt, end, or change Henry’s life forever. Richard banishes Henry just by speaking, making his words a political speech-act. Another example of a speech act is the coronation of Henry as King Henry IV, which is done with speech, and legitimized by Richard’s verbal concession of the throne. We can also note that language here is described as the “breath of kings,” suggesting that language provides Richard with life and is necessary for him to continue ruling.
The play, though, also explores the limitations of royal speech acts. When Richard banishes Henry, Henry’s father Gaunt tells the king that the banishment will cause him to die sooner, and that he will certainly die before the exile is finished. When Richard tries to tell Gaunt that he has many years to live, Gaunt explains the limitations of royal speech. While Richard can kill him with a word, the king cannot do anything to prolong Gaunt’s life: “Thy word is current with [time] for my death, / But dead, thy kingdom cannot buy my breath.” Though Richard is ruler by divine right and even God’s substitute in England, and though he has the power to sentence Gaunt to death or seize all of his assets (as he does later in the play) just with his words, human language, even of a king, is ultimately insufficient to create or sustain life, a clear distinction between human voice and the divine.
Richard’s banishment of Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke also exposes a way that language works in the play: it connects speakers to their homeland. Upon learning that he has been banished from England for life, for example, Mowbray laments “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.” After learning he has been banished, his first remark is that he will no longer be able to speak his native language, rendering his tongue as useless as a broken or incomplete instrument. Language is of the utmost importance, but particularly native English is the means of connecting with his homeland. Indeed, Mowbray concludes this speech by asking “What is thy sentence then but a speechless death, / Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath.” First we can note that Richard’s political sentencing was delivered simply in the form of sentences, and again that speech is made equivalent with breath. But here we see the consequences of being forced to speak another language in a different land: “speechless death.” Speaking the English language, then, is a life force, and is somehow different and more significant than simply speaking or communicating in a different form.
Language Quotes in Richard II
What I speak
My body shall make good upon this earth
Or my divine soul answer it in heaven.
Thou art a traitor and a miscreant.
Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me.
Let's purge this choler without letting blood.
This we prescribe, though no physician.
Deep malice makes too deep incision.
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed,
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.—
Good uncle, let this end where it begun;
We'll calm the Duke of Norfolk, you your son.
The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation; that away,
Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.
A jewel in a ten-times-barred-up chest
Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.
Mine honor is my life; both grow in one.
Take honor from me, and my life is done.
Finds brotherhood in thee no sharper spur?
Hath love in thy old blood no living fire?
Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one,
Were as seven vials of his sacred blood,
Or seven fair branches springing from one root.
Ah, Gaunt, his blood was thine! That bed, that womb,
That metal, that self mold that fashioned thee
Made him a man; and though thou livest and breathest,
Yet art thou slain in him.
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?
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.
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.
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.
O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony.
Where words are since, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listened more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to gloze.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for His Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel.
Comfort, my liege. Why looks your Grace so pale?
But now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;
And till so much blood thither come again
Have I not reason to look pale and dead?
I had forgot myself. Am I not king?
Awake, thou coward majesty, thou sleepest!
Is not the King's name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm, my name! A puny subject strikes
At thy great glory. Look not to the ground,
You favorites of a king. Are we not high?
High be our thoughts.
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.
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!
Here, cousin, seize the crown.
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.
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.
Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself.
O, that I were a mockery king of snow
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water drops.—
They shall be satisfied. I’ll read enough
When I do see the very book indeed
Where all my sins are writ, and that's myself.
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 humors like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented.
They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee. Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor,
But neither my good word nor princely favor.
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.