From the beginning of Richard II, honor—and particularly the appearance of honor—is of the utmost importance to the characters in the play. The dispute between Henry and Mowbray that opens the play, for example, is essentially one of honor. In the dispute, Henry and Mowbray stand before Richard and call each other traitors. Being a traitor is, of course, extremely dishonorable, and it is this attack on honor and his “spotless reputation” that makes Henry’s accusations so infuriating to Mowbray. Indeed, Mowbray makes explicit how important his honor is to him: “My honor is my life, both grow in one, / Take honor from me, and my life is done.” Honor, then, is a matter of life and death, and both men here are willing to die for their honor and fight to the death to settle the dispute.
Honor is given such value for its relationship to nobility and the chivalric code. The identities of the major characters in the play are all tied to the sense that honor in and of itself is meaningful and important (a notion that Shakespeare will question in Henry IV 1 through the figure of Falstaff). But having honor also seems to have tangible benefits in Richard II. In his angry tirade against the king, Gaunt concludes by saying, “Love they to live that love and honor have,” suggesting that honor is key to a good life. By implication of the rest of the speech, he here suggests that Richard is dishonorable and so will not love to live (or live very long). While Gaunt’s assertion that honor has direct benefits is slightly abstract, his son Henry provides a more concrete example once he has been crowned king. As the play comes to an end, with Richard deposed and those conspiring against Henry killed, Henry chooses to pardon Carlisle seemingly out of nowhere. The new king’s reason: “For, though mine enemy thou hast ever been, / High sparks of honor in thee I have seen.” Even sparks of honor are enough to grant the enemy of a king a pardon. In cases of disagreement, then, a mutual sense of honor can create a mutual sense of respect.
At the same time, the play complicates the notion of honor by suggesting at times that appearing honorable is just as (if not more) important than actually being honorable. Such a complication arises when we consider that the play does not always explicitly say who is honorable or who is not, nor does it lay specific instructions on how to interpret honor. The very first dispute between Henry and Mowbray, for example, is left unresolved. A debate using only language is insufficient to determine who is honorable and who is a traitor, and Richard postpones the fight to the death that would have rendered a legal decision. It’s possible that the fate of each character is an indication of their level of honor, as Henry becomes king and Mowbray dies, but we don’t have any indication that good or honorable characters necessarily reap better fates.
But another possible solution to this problem is that honor is just a matter of appearance, and that putting on the façade and appearance of honor is equivalent to (or better than) truly being honorable. In this interpretation, then, the characters are not obsessed with being honorable, but rather with seeming honorable, which aligns with Mowbray’s complaint that his reputation is tarnished by Henry’s accusation. Such an interpretation calls to mind the common Shakespearean trope of appearance vs. reality, which is also explored during the play. Richard, for example, after relinquishing his throne, says that his grief “lies all within,” and that all of the “external” expressions of this grief are just “shadows” to the internal, where the true substance is. While some characters might not make this distinction between internal and external, this understanding of the self and of the tension between appearance and reality complicates the play’s exploration of honor. This nuanced understanding of selfhood and honor might enable characters to better protect themselves and evaluate who is truly honorable and who is merely pretending. Indeed, we can note that Carlisle is pardoned, despite being an enemy of Henry, for the sparks of honor that the new king sees in him, indicating that Carlisle is truly honorable as opposed to only appearing it, because his honor is internal and therefore legitimate.
Honor and Appearance ThemeTracker
Honor and Appearance 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
'Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, 'tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found.
Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent
With unrestrainéd loose companions,
Yet through both
I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years
May happily bring forth.
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.
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.