I thought maybe it would be helpful to post an essay I wrote five years ago about Shakespeare’s Richard 2. Stylistically, I wouldn’t write the same essay today, but the essay gets at a few important points, and it is adequate enough that I thought I should respect the integrity of the piece as it existed when I composed it. Key points here seem to be that: 1) characters throughout Shakespeare, not only in the comedies, often apprehend more than they comprehend; 2) politicians not being poets, their language sometimes undercuts them. The essay is below.
A GLOSS OF ROYAL ILLUSIONS IN RICHARD II
It’s perhaps only through an understanding of the way Shakespeare operates at the level of poetic form that one can reach a fair appraisal of Shakespeare’s successes and failures (even if the failures indeed are typically only relative to his own standards). Most of the formal decisions work on a small scale, but they’re occasioned by the large-scale authorial choices. In a history play like Richard II, the first authorial questions had to be less about what the plot should be and more about how to tell the plot to get the proper effect. This effect of course involves audience emotion, and a critic might be forgiven for adducing Mr. Eliot’s so-called objective correlative, but given that the play is a history the proper effect also is especially interwoven with the piquing and maintenance of audience intellectual interest in the machinations of politics. Shakespeare had to compose with the presumably aggravating rub of knowing he had to sidestep an invisible line of potential audience offense due to prior historical knowledge; but he had to decide upon the characters whom he needed to add or cut from the play, and to deal with the problem of history-lived rather than history-staged involving so much duration and so many settings, paying attention first to his job as showman. It should not be a controversial claim for me to state that one of Shakespeare’s chief solutions to these problems (i.e. that the play involves many characters and none of the classical unities) is by way of internal summary narration of events he doesn’t have time to put onstage. A slightly more controversial argument may be that one of his chief tools of plot is the evolution of character through slight changes in a character’s manner of speech. The voices change, but the author becomes more disguised, standing offstage constantly devoted to the metamorphic capacity of poetic particulars.
Within the broad organizational structure of acts and time-compressed events, audience attention turns to the language of the story — initially in the innocent effort to watch the show — and the author helpfully turns the language of the story into an issue of the story. Themes of the play take on a double-sidedness; the play is not just about royalty, character, family, England, and property, but about how all of these subjects are shaped and re-shaped by the language in which characters discuss them. Words at once shape their referents and their speakers.
Consider first the language of John of Gaunt. He is one of the play’s more agile characters, verbally speaking. Even though Gaunt barely survives beyond Act One, Shakespeare gives the audience a good glimpse of his manner of speech, and that speech’s alteration depending on emotional condition. Typically, Gaunt is especially calm and rational. Even immediately after his son Bolingbroke is banished from England, infuriating Gaunt personally, he gives his son measured advice — he speaks fifteen lines straight in which every single line is either end-stopped or (when not end-stopped) has one and only one caesura (I.iii.276-290). Earlier in Act One, he has a similar sangfroid during stressful conversation, and Shakespeare imbues Gaunt’s blank-verse speech with a similar voice (figuratively, but also literally in terms of the breath of the poetic line), this while he tells a widow he can’t help her. In that scene, he explains to the Duchess of Gloucester that he cannot help avenge her husband’s death, and suggests the quarrel is God’s to take up (I.ii.37-41). Gaunt’s typically poised and measured blank verse makes the shock therefore audibly stark when Gaunt on his deathbed (II.i) begins speaking to York in rhyming couplets and/or quatrains of Italian/Sicilian rhyme scheme. The rhymes highlight the speech to the ear of the audience, and give it a chant-like momentum. Rhyme indeed seems to be a shorthand Shakespeare uses to signal importunacy on the part of the character; when Gaunt-on-his-deathbed makes unrhymed remarks, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to maintain the intensity of the lines — witness the density of anaphora, which is so high that in a scene of different emotional content it would be embarrassing.
Another authorial device, just as significant as the formal characteristics of sound and prosody in the play’s verse, is one that superficially seems very simple. Shakespeare grants some characters greater facility with language than others. Going with this territory is that the less facile characters sometimes make mistakes of diction — they express themselves imperfectly, and sometimes even ineptly. In Richard II, the courtier Sir John Bushy is a fine example. After Richard has left for Ireland, Bushy tries to encourage the Queen and tell her to forget about a premonition she has had. He ostensibly intends to tell her that her grief is not justified, and that she has no reason to believe anything bad has happened or will happen to Richard. But this is what he actually says:
“Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives which, rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion; eyed awry,
Distinguish form. So your sweet majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Find shapes of grief more than himself to wail,
Which looked on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not; then, thrice-gracious Queen,
More than your lord’s departure weep not: more’s not seen,
Or if it be, ’tis with false Sorrow’s eye,
Which for things true weeps things imaginary” (II.ii.14-27).
A perspective painting, of course — the most famous art historical example is Holbein’s Ambassadors — is designed so that it shows accuracy (that is, accurate “perspective”) only when viewed from the appropriate spot, which is to say, only when “eyed awry.” Bushy says that the Queen indeed is “looking awry upon [Richard's] departure,” and that when the situation is “looked on as it is” — that is to say, without the insight of the perspective — it is “nought but shadows of what it is not.” This would be good, except that the antecedent of “what it is not” is reality.
Bushy’s episode of unaware truth-telling is relevant to an interesting issue: when language is well-used, the alternatives of accurate speech versus inaccurate speech basically have to do with a character’s qualifications to speak on the given subject of conversation. It’s also the case, when language is well-used, that the choice between truth-telling and lying rests more with the speaker/character; but, at the same time, language can nearly have a mind of its own. Honest language can facilitate lies; dishonest language may reveal the truth. An example of the former: a person might tell the truth deceptively. An example of the latter: another person might lie in a way that serves the truth – by either lying ineptly, or lying “ethically.”
Henry Bolingbroke is a perfect example of a character who uses language very precisely, and who chooses to interpret language even more precisely – if less than beneficently. When York castigates Bolingbroke for returning to England during the period of his banishment, Bolingbroke points out that Richard banished him by his title, which was to say as Hereford. Now he has, arguably, returned to England entitled to his father’s dukedom, as Lancaster (II.iii.112-135). Many of history’s more prickly law-abiders would be proud. (Somewhere right now, Antonin Scalia is self-satisfied because of a quick-on-his-feet quip.) Bolingbroke has happily discarded all sorts of relevant context, but he knows how to smile, proclaim his humility, and suggest he’s just calling the balls and strikes like he sees them.
If Bolingbroke consistently uses honest language to facilitate deception, Richard – who as a character is also verbally adept, but whose language sometimes falls short because he politically is so much less shrewd – has a capacity to misapprehend the truth by way of a slight falsehood of verbal values. In other words, Richard is wont to speak by way of euphuism. He speaks more like a fop than like a king; and a king, dandy or not, probably should not speak like a fop. He says more than he needs to say and yet he fails to use language to exert the authority he should be able to command as king. One wonders if he fails to recognize that, for a politician, even the smallest move can have great significance. A fine example occurs on the very first page of the play, moments after the curtain opens. Richard asks Gaunt, at Windsor Castle, if he has appropriately examined Bolingbroke on his accusation against Mowbray, to see if it can be avoided. Although one might well think that Gaunt could pressure Bolingbroke to avoid demanding a duel, Richard has apparently failed to consider what would happen in the event of Bolingbroke being too hot-headed to let go of his charges against Mowbray. So Richard has put Gaunt in the unfortunate situation of having to advocate for his son, and he has created a conflict of interest for Gaunt (who is a court counselor), and he has created a situation that could quite imaginably turn to a situation in which a powerful father and son stand together against Richard. Richard actually becomes more politically sympathetic as the play progresses, not just because he is struck by misfortune after misfortune, but because his language begins to appear emotionally more honest. The more lost Richard’s situation becomes, the more emotionally true his language grows. His language turns personal rather than political; and this is a sympathetic turn not only because his personal expression is honest, but because his earlier political language had been false, even if this was the falsehood of careless embroidery rather than intended deceit.
As Bolingbroke acquires more and more power across the play, his language grows terser and more commanding. He knows what he needs to say to get what he wants, and he contains his language to the subjects that are politically effective for him. When he is in a weak spot – as in the above-mentioned case with York – he hangs a lantern on his problem and goes right for rhetorically undoing the logic that would work against him. When he is a strong spot, he knows he has as much power when he does not speak as when he does, and he exerts the strength associated with allowing others the air of his attention. In Act Four, once Bolingbroke has become king, a good example exists of the equally deft facility with language that Richard and Henry Bolingbroke have, side by side with Richard’s complete inferiority in comprehension of political significance (IV.i.300-315). Richard asks if he may “beg one boon, / And then be gone.” Then we see this exchange:
Bolingbroke: Name it, fair cousin.
Richard: Fair cousin? I am greater than a king:
For when I was a king, my flatterers
Were then but subjects; being now a subject
I have a king here to my flatterer.
Being so great, I have no need to beg.
Bolingbroke: Yet ask.
Richard: And shall I have?
Bolingbroke: You shall.
Richard: Then give me leave to go.
Richard: Whither you will, so I were from your sights.
Bolingbroke: Go some of you, convey him to the Tower.
Richard gets a chance to display how clever he is with language, and yet Bolingbroke gets to seem both patient and benevolent (“Yet ask”), and then, when Richard makes a sarcastic comment, Bolingbroke gets to display the true power of a king by holding Richard to his word. (Of course, Richard’s sarcasm might not actually have been as much of a blown opportunity as it may seem; Richard presumably recognizes that Bolingbroke at this point has him trapped no matter what, save perhaps if Richard can escape abroad.)
In any case, there are points to be gleaned from the alternative stories of Richard and Bolingbroke. As much as Richard and Bolingbroke both may realize that politics is a show, Bolingbroke has a greater understanding that the show must be acted in, that actions seen or unseen have consequences within the drama of even minor political acts. The whole world indeed is like a stage, but the world of politics is a more meta-theatrical stage, where the actors do all realize that they are, to some extent, acting. It is not for no reason that modern politicians often willingly acknowledge the maxim that politics is “show business for ugly people.” The politics of royalty, of course, always involved an element of show business, of assumed status of noble office. He who played well, like Bolingbroke, reaped rewards. Royalty is the reality of he who best upholds the necessary illusions.
In terms of Shakespeare’s tricks of character, and the characters’ own tricks with language, another father-son pair in Richard II begs a look. York is John of Gaunt’s brother, and ultimately the longest surviving of King Edward’s seven sons; York is the father of his nephew King Richard II’s friend, the Duke of Aumerle.
In the first scene in which York appears, he is with the dying Gaunt. Very early in the scene, York speaks to Gaunt pessimistically about the state of England, and of Richard’s ability to take counsel; he offers the remarks in the form of an odd sonnet, though it’s not a traditional Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet (II.i.17-30). Shakespeare in that same scene gives the audience very quickly an impression of York as exactly what he is – not just a guy who will speak in a somewhat quaint manner, but a loyalist to the crown, and to the royal family, through and through. Shakespeare does fail, it should be said, in disguising that he was trying to quickly provide language and sketch out this relatively “flat” character. In the same scene, York says, “The King is come; deal mildly with his youth, / For young hot colts being raged do rage the more.” This line is just watered-down Marlowe. York, however, does become more eloquent as he becomes more impassioned. Once Richard’s behavior around the dying Gaunt piques his ire, Shakespeare grants York a strong blank verse (II.i.163-208).
Aumerle ultimately ends up politically on a different side from his father, but he too is fiercely loyal, and he too is a quick sketch for Shakespeare. Whether counseling Richard or begging Bolingbroke’s pardon, he speaks in short lines, with precise but unadorned language. The pragmatic split in character between Aumerle and York is fascinating, particularly when viewed in parallel with the even greater fundamental character differences between Gaunt and Henry Bolingbroke. A father-son resemblance is clear, but the difference is starkest in terms of values: Gaunt truly does have a loyalty to state and to the royal family at large that is as great as his loyalty to the interests of himself and his immediate family; Bolingbroke is foremost concerned, by far, with his own personal interest. With York and Aumerle, the contrast is most stark in terms of the principle behind their loyalties. York remains faithful to the crown, regardless of whether Henry Bolingbroke’s coup was justified or necessary. (He apparently is willing to forget that Bolingbroke had told him the return to England was only to reclaim his father’s property.) Aumerle remains faithful to his friend Richard and his ongoing claim to the throne.
One obvious conclusion to take from these two father-son relationships is that sons are of their fathers, but not the likeness of their fathers. This has sure pertinence to the question of true nobility, and of royalty. If heredity does not maintain quality of character, then should should royalty be hereditary? And if this is consistent with the notion that royalty, as said before, is the reality of he who best upholds illusions, is Shakespeare actively suggesting that there’s a justice to the Machiavellian processes of the New State? Then again, if royalty is the reality of he who maintains illusions, what better illusion is there than heredity? This question does have reasonable answers – perhaps merit, perhaps effortlessness, or perhaps to the contrary thoroughness of effort – but whether any best answer exists is, well, questionable. One can say that in modernity, and in the Early Modern world of the Renascence, royalty certainly has the highest rewards of any occupation, but, given that royalty is indeed an occupation, requiring a type of quotidian labor towards the aforementioned maintenance, there’s nothing royal about it.
Since the artistic medium Shakespeare is working with in Richard II is drama, the problems and paradoxes of language typically are themselves problems of character. And since these are aristocratic characters, the problems of character also are inherently problems of government and society. Thus, almost any problem of language Shakespeare puts on the stage in the play is also a problem of government and society. The problems of language, as the examples above illustrate, are at least twofold – first, there is the constant issue of character intent with language, and a lack of “authenticity” that can occur in language when people have to reconcile their private thoughts with the desire to appear a certain way in public; second, there is the issue of how the choices a person intentionally or unintentionally makes with language’s form influence expression, and of whether or not any gap exists between meaning and expression.
The problems of language are congenitally related to Shakespeare’s themes, and, it’s worth saying, can also transcend the problems of an individual character. To offer a broad example: the characters in Richard II, rather than sharing the family’s power, are obsessed with who will wear the crown. The crown becomes The Crown, a metonym of royal power. Royal power is a collective illusion based on hereditary rights, and these hereditary rights themselves are a collective illusion based on hyper-idealized notions of both family behavior and divine rights. The world of the play, and the language of the play, is complex enough that the characters, under a microscope, start to take on a sense of inevitability; the world of the play, under that microscope, seems a bit arbitrary and a little silly – but, given that world, and the tautness of the characters’ motivations, the characters begin to seem like their fate might be somehow in the cards. The ardency of each character’s belief in his/her convictions, and the frankly legitimate ideological divides that separate the characters (such as the divide between Aumerle and York), leave a problematic world indeed. Northrop Frye described it this way: “The general principle is that all ideologies sooner or later get to be circumvented by cynicism and defended by hysteria, and that principle will meet you everywhere you turn in a world driven crazy by ideologies, like ours.” The royalty of the play’s aristocracy may be no more real than any costume, but their efforts are true, and their use of language, honest or not, has a determinative role in the quality of the imitations in which they partake politically. Illusion is tied to reality, and, if the play is artificial, it leaves behind the uncannily real sense that its words matter very much.
Anyone who is not thoroughly convinced by this reading of Bushy’s lines would do well to consider the context – discussion of the sense in the Queen’s “inward soul” – and ponder too a professor’s precept on Shakespeare: “The dream is to the drama as the confession is to the church.” I believe this line may have been coined by James Nohrnberg of the University of Virginia.
 Christopher Marlowe, “Hero and Leander,” Sestiad II: “And nothing more than counsel lovers hate / For as a hot proud horse highly disdains / To have his head controlled, but breaks the reins, / Spits forth the ringled bit, and with his hooves / Checks the submissive ground; so he that loves, / The more he is restrained, the worse he fares.”
 “Richard II and Bolingbroke,” by Northrop Frye. From Modern Critical Interpretations: Richard II, ed. Harold Bloom.