Richard II | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard II | Act 3, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Richard II has returned to England from Ireland to find Bolingbroke's support is stronger than ever. Richard and his supporters—including the Duke of Aumerle and the Bishop of Carlisle—are on the coast of Wales, and Richard calls upon the land of England itself to support him, its rightful king, saying, "Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king." But then he receives a string of bad news: Salisbury tells him the Welsh soldiers have fled; some have joined Bolingbroke. Richard is shaken, but brings himself back to confidence, reminding himself of his divine right: "I had forgot myself; am I not king?" But then Sir Stephen Scroop tells him Bolingbroke has many followers, including York; Scroop also reveals Bushy, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire have been executed. Richard loses heart quickly, seemingly bewildered by the failure of his divine right to protect him. He begins to see himself as a mere mortal, and his role as king simply playacting: "For within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits, / Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, / Allowing him a breath, a little scene, / To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks, / Infusing him with self and vain conceit, / As if this flesh which walls about our life / Were brass impregnable; and humored thus, / Comes at the last and with a little pin / Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, king!"

After this realization Richard discharges his soldiers: "Let them hence away, / From Richard's night to Bolingbroke's fair day." He then sets out to take refuge at Flint Castle.

Analysis

This scene is a turning point for Richard. Having ascended to the throne as a child, he knows no other life. In many ways he is still a spoiled child whose every whim has been indulged, and his impulses have created havoc in his kingdom. His ability to preside ceremonially, speak eloquently, and in general perform the role of king have served him—to a point. However, it has become clear he is all style and no substance. Thus the country's people have begun to look more and more to Bolingbroke, who seems to have the substance Richard lacks.

During this scene Richard comes to understand the situation. He begins confident God will fight on his side against Bolingbroke, because God has appointed him and anointed him king. He then receives some bad news, is dismayed, but manages to muster faith in his kingship once again. Finally, he must face the terrible reality: he will not be king much longer; he will lose everything. For a man who has known nothing other than ultimate power, this is a blow not just to ego, but also to identity. Who is he if not king? As he comes to terms with his own humanity, he finally has the coming-of-age moment denied him by his early ascent to the throne. He gains perspective and even some wisdom, speaking poignantly of the nature of mortality as he describes Death as the real king, holding court within "the hollow crown." A monarch is only a mortal man, he realizes, and Death condescendingly allows him to play the role of king for a time. But Death will eventually, "with a little pin," break through the "castle walls" of a man's life—the "walls" of his flesh-and-blood body—and he will die.

Richard's sudden awareness that his own "state" and "pomp" are merely the feeble, vain actions of a mortal man follows from a passage introducing this idea of performance or theatricality. As he suggests "let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings," he frames the death of a king as a story that might be told, or enacted, onstage. Some readers have noted the descriptions of these deaths are like some of Shakespeare's own plots. Even though he acknowledges his own humanity, he can't let go of this sense of himself as an actor in a story.

Richard's imagery reflects Salisbury's metaphor of Richard as a falling star or setting sun. At first Richard compares his absence in Ireland to the absence of the sun at night ("That when the searching eye of heaven is hid / Behind the globe that lights the lower world") and suggests when the sun is away, the traitor Bolingbroke has been thieving. He believes he will rise again, just like the sun rises in the east. But after he hears all the terrible news, he changes the image, speaking of his own sun setting and Bolingbroke's rising: "Richard's night to Bolingbroke's fair day."

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