Richard II is the first play in a tetralogy (a group of four plays) commonly referred to as the “Henriad.” This set of plays depicts the historic struggles for the English throne, and, along with Shakespeare’s other tetralogy, the changes of power that eventually led to the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch of England during the first part of Shakespeare’s career. In this way, the history plays can be seen as homages to Queen Elizabeth and assertions of her right to the crown. But at the same time, the plays challenge the notion of monarchy and ask difficult questions, such as who has the right to rule, what are the powers of a monarch, how are those powers best enforced, and what is the relationship between a monarch and his or her country?
Richard II is no different. The play begins with Richard firmly in power presiding over a disagreement between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, who both praise their king as a legitimate sovereign and liege. Richard’s power and status of king come from his “sacred blood.” The sacred aspect of his blood is meant literally here—this line of thinking suggests that kings rule by divine right, meaning that they are chosen and supported by God. John of Gaunt expresses this with some frustration while discussing the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, which he (and Shakespeare’s audience) knows Richard was involved with. Gaunt cannot take this issue up with his king, however, and deems it God’s issue to resolve, since Richard is “God’s substitute” on earth. Thus any rebellion against a king is also a blasphemy and rebellion against God, and though Gaunt might disagree with Richard, he believes it against his Christian duty to challenge the king.
The reference to “sacred blood” also indicates the way that Richard receives God’s endorsement for the throne: royalty and divine right are inherited. Richard was crowned king when his grandfather, Edward III, died. It is literally his blood and his family line that place him on the throne. Though there are disputes throughout the history plays about the ways to properly trace inheritance and royal bloodlines, it is generally accepted that the children of kings inherit the throne. However, when John of Gaunt dies, Richard seizes his assets and disinherits Henry Bolingbroke, robbing him of his inheritance in order to fund a war with Ireland. Such a reckless maneuver has two effects. First, it violates the practices of common decency and tradition that provide the backbone of nobility in England, alienating most people close to Richard. Many speak out against him, like the Duke of York, who will ultimately side with Henry, and others privately disagree and turn towards the rebellion based, in part, on Richard’s decision to forcibly disinherit Henry. And secondly, by usurping Henry’s inheritance, Richard at once delegitimizes the means in which he inherited the throne and lays the groundwork for Henry to usurp that royal inheritance and take power.
The other major question Richard II asks regarding the throne is how should and how does a king rule? King Richard utilizes language to enact his laws and his power, and he does so arbitrarily. When Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray are prepared to fight, for example, Richard decides at the last minute to stop the battle and arbitrarily sentences the two men to different lengths of exile. As evidenced by his willingness to fight and his decision to sneak back into England with troops to take his inheritance (and eventually the crown), Henry Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV) seems to favor action over words as a method of ruling. Richard, on the other hand, seems more concerned with his status and appearance as king than with the actual duties or responsibility of being king. He is criticized, for example, for spending more money in peace than his predecessors did during times of war.
As Henry moves to take his inheritance and fight his exile, he constantly puts forth the question of whether worldly men have the power to dethrone a king appointed by God. Another way of asking this question is “what subject can give sentence on his king?” Richard and some of his subjects (including Gaunt, Henry’s father) believe the answer is no, subjects cannot pass sentence on a king or take the throne just because they are dissatisfied with the monarch’s rule. But Henry and his followers suggest that a king can be held accountable for how he acts on the throne. They can make demands on the monarch if the ruler does not lead well, and can even suggest that the king has somehow lost his divine right to rule. Such a difference in belief suggests the move towards modernity, as Richard’s emphasis on divine infallibility of kings is more medieval, while Henry’s emphasis on intelligence, ability, and public support make him a more modern (for Shakespeare) ruler. It is significant, however, to note that Richard must ultimately surrender his crown and give power to Henry. Henry can declare himself king, but he wants it to be legitimized with Richard’s willing surrender of the throne. In later plays, moves for the throne will be much more war-centric as opposed to this threat of war and simple surrender of power.
The Throne ThemeTracker
The Throne Quotes in Richard II
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.
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.
That power that made you king
Hath power to keep you king in spite of all.
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.
What subject can give sentence on his king?
And who sits here that is not Richard's subject?
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!
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.
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.—
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.