RICHARD II. is a play little known compared
with Richard III. which last is a play that
every unfledged candidate for theatrical fame
chuses to strut and fret his hour upon the stage
in; yet we confess that we prefer the nature
and feeling of the one to the noise and bustle
of the other; at least, as we are so often forced
to see it acted. In RICHARD II. the weakness
of the king leaves us leisure to take a greater
interest in the misfortunes of the man. After
the first act, in which the arbitrariness of his
behaviour only proves his want of resolution,
we see him staggering under the unlooked-for
blows of fortune, bewailing his loss of kingly
power, not preventing it, sinking under the
aspiring genius of Bolingbroke, his authority
trampled on, his hopes failing him, and his
pride crushed and broken down under insults
and injuries, which his own misconduct had
provoked, but which he has not courage or
manliness to resent. The change of tone and
behaviour in the two competitors for the throne
according to their change of fortune, from the
capricious sentence of banishment passed by
Richard upon Bolingbroke, the suppliant offers
and modest pretensions of the latter on his return,
to the high and haughty tone with which he accepts
Richard's resignation of the crown after the
loss of all his power, the use which he makes of
the deposed king to grace his triumphal progress
through the streets of London, and the final
intimation of his wish for his death, which immediately
finds a servile executioner, is marked
throughout with complete effect and without
the slightest appearance of effort. The steps
by which Bolingbroke mounts the throne are
those by which Richard sinks into the grave.
We feel neither respect nor love for the deposed
monarch; for he is as wanting in energy as in
principle: but we pity him, for he pities himself.
His heart is by no means hardened against
himself, but bleeds afresh at every new stroke
of mischance, and his sensibility, absorbed in
his own person, and unused to misfortune, is
not only tenderly alive to its own sufferings,
but without the fortitude to bear them. He is,
however, human in his distresses; for to feel
pain, and sorrow weakness, disappointment,
remorse and anguish is the lot of humanity, and
we sympathize with him accordingly. The sufferings
of the man make us forget that he ever
was a king.
The right assumed by sovereign power to
trifle at its will with the happiness of others as a
matter of course, or to remit its exercise as a
matter of favour, is strikingly strewn in the sentence
of banishment so unjustly pronounced on
Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and in what Bolingbroke
says when four years of his banishment
are taken off, with as little reason.
"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."
A more affecting image of the loneliness of a
state of exile can hardly be given than by what
Bolingbroke afterwards observes of his having
"sighed his English breath in foreign clouds;"
or than that conveyed in Mowbray's complaint
at being banished for life.
"The language I have learned these forty years,|
My native English, now I must forego;
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cas'd up,
Or being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now."--
How very beautiful is all this, and at the same
time how very English too!
RICHARD II. may be considered as the first of
that series of English historical plays, in which
"is hung armour of the invincible knights of
old," in which their hearts seem to strike against
their coats of mail, where their blood tingles for
the fight, and words are but the harbingers of
blows. Of this state of accomplished barbarism
the appeal of Bolingbroke and Mowbray
is an admirable specimen. Another of these
"keen encounters of their wits," which serve
to whet the talkers' swords, is where Aumerle
answers in the presence of Bolingbroke to the
charge which Bagot brings against him of being
an accessory in Gloster's death.
"Fitzwater. If that thy velour stand on sympathies,|
There is my gage, Aumerle, in gage to thine;
By that fair sun that shows me where thou stand'st
I heard thee say, and vauntingly thou spak'st it,
That thou wert cause of noble Gloster's death.
If thou deny'st it twenty times thou liest,
And I will turn thy falsehood to thy heart
Where it was forged, with my rapier's point.
Aumerle. Thou dar'st not, coward, live to see the day.
Fitzwater. Now, by my soul, I would it were this hour.
Aumerle. Fitzwater, thou art damn'd to hell for this.
Percy. Aumerle, thou liest; his honour is as true,
In this appeal, as thou art all unjust;
And that thou art so, there I throw my gage
To prove it on thee, to th' extremest point
Of mortal breathing. Seize it, if thou dar'st.
Aumerle. And if I do not, may my hands rot off,
And never brandish more revengeful steel
Over the glittering helmet of my foe.
Who sets me else? By heav'n, I'll throw at all.
I have a thousand spirits in my breast,
To answer twenty thousand such as you.
Surry. My lord Fitzwater, I remember well
The very time Aumerle and you did talk.
Fitzwater. My lord, 'tis true: you were in presence then:
And you can witness with me, this is true.
Surry. As false, by heav'n, as heav'n itself is true.
Fitzwater. Surry, thou liest.
Surry. Dishonourable boy,
That lie shall lye so heavy on my sword,
That it shall render vengeance and revenge,
Till thou the lie-giver and that lie rest
In earth as quiet as thy father's skull.
In proof whereof, there is mine honour's pawn:
Engage it to the trial, if thou dar'st.
Fitzwater. How fondly dost thou spur a forward horse:
If I dare eat or drink or breathe or live,
I dare meet Surry in a wilderness,
And spit upon him, whilst I say he lies,
And lies, and lies: there is my bond of faith,
To tie thee to thy strong correction.
As I do hope to thrive in this new world,
Aumerle is guilty of my true appeal."
The truth is, that there is neither truth nor
honour in all these noble persons: they answer
words with words, as they do blows with blows,
in mere self defence: nor have they any principle
whatever but that of courage in maintaining
any wrong they dare commit, or any falsehood
which they find it useful to assert. How
different were these noble knights and "barons
bold" from their more refined descendants in the
present day, who instead of deciding questions
of right by brute force, refer every thing to
convenience, fashion, and good breeding! In
point of any abstract love of truth or justice,
they are just the same now that they were then.
The characters of old John of Gaunt and of
his brother York, uncles to the King, the one
stern and foreboding, the other honest, good-natured,
doing all for the best, and therefore
doing nothing, are well kept up. The speech
of the former, in praise of England, is one of
the most eloquent that ever was penned. We
should perhaps hardly be disposed to feed the
pampered egotism of our countrymen by quoting
this description, were it not that the conclusion
of it (which looks prophetic) may qualify any
improper degree of exultation.
"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,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
(Or as a moat defensive to a house)
Against the envy of less happy lands:
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd for their breed and famous for their birth,
Renown'd for their deeds, as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas'd out (I die pronouncing it)
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious surge
Of wat'ry Neptune, is bound in with shame,
With inky-blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself."
The character of Bolingbroke, afterwards
Henry IV. is drawn with a masterly hand:--patient
for occasion, and then steadily availing
himself of it, seeing his advantage afar off, but
only seizing on it when he has it within his reach,
humble, crafty, bold, and aspiring, encroaching
by regular but slow degrees, building power on
opinion, and cementing opinion by power. His
disposition is first unfolded by Richard himself,
who however is too self-willed and secure to
make a proper use of his knowledge.
"Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green,|
Observed his courtship of the common people:
How he did seem to dive into their hearts,
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves;
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles,
And patient under-bearing of his fortune,
As 'twere to banish their affections with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well,
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With thanks my countrymen, my loving friends;
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope."
Afterwards, he gives his own character to Percy,
in these words:
"I thank thee, gentle Percy, and be sure|
I count myself in nothing else so happy,
As in a soul rememb'ring my good friends;
And as my fortune ripens with thy love,
It shall be still thy true love's recompense."
We know how he afterwards kept his promise.
His bold assertion of his own rights,
his pretended submission to the king, and the
ascendancy which he tacitly assumes over him
without openly claiming it, as soon as he has
him in his power, are characteristic traits of
this ambitious and politic usurper. But the
part of Richard himself gives the chief interest
to the play. His folly, his vices, his misfortunes,
his reluctance to part with the crown,
his fear to keep it, his weak and womanish
regrets, his starting tears, his fits of hectic
passion, his smothered majesty, pass in succession
before us, and make a picture as natural
as it is affecting. Among the most striking
touches of pathos are his wish "O that I were
a mockery king of snow to melt away before
the sun of Bolingbroke," and the incident of
the poor groom who comes to visit him in prison,
and tells him how "it yearned his heart
that Bolingbroke upon his coronation day rode
on Roan Barbary." We shall have occasion to
return hereafter to the character of Richard II.
in speaking of Henry VI. There is only one
passage more, the description of his entrance
into London with Bolingbroke, which we should
like to quote here, if it had not been so used
and worn out, so thumbed and got by rote, so
praised and painted; but its beauty surmounts
all these considerations.
"Duchess. My lord, you told me you would tell the rest,|
When weeping made you break the story off
Of our two cousins coming into London.
York. Where did I leave?
Duchess. At that sad stop, my lord,
Where rude misgovern'd hands, from window tops,
Threw dust and rubbish on king Richard's head.
York. Then, as I said, the duke, great Bolingbroke,
Mounted upon a hot and fiery steed,
Which his aspiring rider seem'd to know,
With slow, but stately pace, kept on his course,
While all tongues cried--God save thee, Bolingbroke!
You would have thought the very windows spake,
So many greedy looks of young and old
Through casements darted their desiring eyes
Upon his visage; and that all the walls,
With painted imag'ry, had said at once--
Jesu preserve thee! welcome, Bolingbroke!
Whilst he, from one side to the other turning,
Bare-headed, lower than his proud steed's neck,
Bespake them thus--I thank you, countrymen:
And thus still doing thus he pass'd along.
Duchess. Alas, poor Richard! where rides he the while?
York. As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-grac'd actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious:
Even so, or with much more contempt, men's eyes
Did scowl on Richard; no man cried God save him!
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home:
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head!
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off--
His face still combating with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience--
That had not God, for some strong purpose, steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted,
And barbarism itself have pitied him."