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Richard II | Symbols



Blood is a powerful symbol of family ties; in a royal or noble line it symbolizes the inheritance and status passed down from a person's ancestors. The political feud between Richard and Bolingbroke is also a family conflict, since both are descended from Edward III's "sacred blood" (Act 1, Scene 2). Bolingbroke refers to his "high blood" in Act 1, Scene 1 and Richard II to his own "sacred blood" shortly thereafter. In Act 1, Scene 3 Bolingbroke calls Gaunt, his father, "the earthly author of my blood," and in Act 3, Scene 1 he describes his family connection to the king by saying he is "[n]ear to the King in blood."

Sunrise and Sunset

The king is often spoken of symbolically as a sun that lights England. For example, Richard speaks of his time away from England as a time "when the searching eye of heaven is hid / Behind the globe," that is, night. As Richard's popularity and power wane, Salisbury says, "Thy sun sets weeping in the lowly west" (Act 2, Scene 4). In Act 4, Scene 1 Richard acknowledges Bolingbroke's ascendancy as he says he is "standing before the sun of Bolingbroke."

These images of the sun rising or setting are ways to talk about the failing power of Richard and the concurrent rise of Bolingbroke, who will be England's new sun. They align with other images of falling or moving downward used to describe Richard's trajectory. For example, in Act 2, Scene 4 Salisbury also describes Richard's downward spiral: "I see thy glory like a shooting star / Fall to the base earth from the firmament." And in Act 3, Scene 3 Richard poetically describes his deposition: "Down, down I come, like glist'ring Phaëton, / Wanting the manage of unruly jades. / In the base court—base court, where kings grow base, / To come at traitors' calls and do them grace." Here, Richard physically comes down from a high castle wall to a lower court as he invokes Phaëton, the son of Apollo who was killed while driving Apollo's sun chariot.


In Act 4, Scene 1 Richard demands a mirror, in which he examines his face and muses despairingly on losing the kingship—a large part of his personal identity: "Was this face the face / That every day under his household roof / Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face / That like the sun did make beholders wink?" In a symbolic action, Richard smashes the mirror, declaring that his glory is now broken: "brittle as the glory is the face, / *He breaks the mirror.* For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers."

The broken mirror represents Richard's broken sense of self, which he only too late sees was only an image of reality, not reality itself. It is only after he loses the kingship that he realizes outward appearance is no substitute for inner substance: "My grief lies all within; / And these external manners of laments / Are merely shadows to the unseen grief / That swells with silence in the tortured soul."


References to gardens in the text are often metaphors for England. In Act 2, Scene 1 Gaunt laments the way Richard has not cared for England, which he compares to the Garden of Eden. In Act 3, Scene 4 the gardener and his man discuss the executions of Richard's followers Bushy and Green, wondering why they should keep the estate's own garden in order, "When our sea-wallèd garden, the whole land, / Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up, / Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined, / Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs / Swarming with caterpillars?" Bolingbroke also refers to Richard's close followers as "caterpillars of the commonwealth" in Act 2, Scene 4, suggesting they are feeding on the garden of England and harming it in the process.


In both reality and in the text, the crown is a symbol of kingly power and majesty. As such, it is significant that in Act 4, Scene 1 York asks Richard for "[t]he resignation of thy state and crown / To Henry Bolingbroke." The crown will not be taken by force, exactly, though Richard has little choice. Richard is asked to give it up of his own volition. He does so in a final symbolic act, offering the crown to Bolingbroke as he continues to hold one side: "Here, cousin, seize the crown. / Here, cousin. / On this side my hand, on that side thine." As he finally lets go of the crown and abdicates the throne to Bolingbroke, he states with finality, "With mine own hands I give away my crown."

Questions for Symbols

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