Challenge and debate

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Act 1: Challenge and Debate


If the essence of much drama is conflict, Richard II begins with a bang. You may have found the language of the opening scenes rather formal, even a little stiff and repetitive as challenges are given and repeated by the characters, but the effect on stage will be a dramatic drawing of battle lines.

How would you set up the stage and the movements of the characters to underline developing conflicts and differing allegiances?

The world of renaissance honor and chivalry, with its challenges, throwing down of gauntlets, and ritualistic language, is very foreign to us. What you will have learned from the discussion of Woodstock and the history of events before the play, as Shakespeare would have read of them, will make you aware of motivations and alliances that lie beneath the surface of the challenges: what nobody says in the opening scene is that Richard himself was believed to have been involved in the death of his uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Gaunt later accuses Richard to his face of being responsible for Gloucester's death (2. 1. 124-131).

If we realize that everyone is aware of this suspicion, the lines of both Bolingbroke and Mowbray become much more complex in meaning, since their silence is as important as their speech.

Look at Bolingbroke's surely outrageous exaggeration:

. . . all the treasons for these eighteen years
Complotted and contriv¸d in this land
Fetch from false Mowbray, their first head and spring.
                      (1. 1. 95-7)

How will the speech be interpreted by those who think that the "first head and spring" of disorder in the realm is the King himself?

How must Mowbray feel as the one chosen to bear the blame in order to protect the King? When Richard first asks Mowbray to end the quarrel peacefully, Mowbray replies: "Take but my shame, / And I resign my gage [give up the challenge]" (1. 1. 175-176).

Could this be interpreted as putting pressure on the King to admit his part in the plot?

Later in this commentary, when we come to look at questions about King Richard's character, we will look at the way in which Richard interrupts the combatants, asks them to make peace amicably, then gives up on his attempt to be peacemaker.

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The opening scene of Richard II is spectacular, with a full stage and passionate speeches; the second scene is quieter and less spectacular as there are only two characters on stage rather than a whole Court--but the language remains very similar: heightened, formal, and again passionate.

And despite the difference in scale, the core of the two scenes is similar, for they are both driven by conflict. Gaunt and his sister-in-law are debating a very basic question faced by those who believe themselves to be the victims of injustice: should they take direct action--vengeance--or should they wait for the injustice to be righted by God? Gaunt clearly believes that they should take no action themselves ("Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven"; "God's is the quarrel"; "Let heaven revenge"--1. 2. 6, 37, 40); the Duchess, however, wants Gaunt to be "spurred" (see 1. 2. 9) to some kind of decisive action, and blames his inaction on "despair" (29) or "cowardice" (34).

Did you notice that in this scene Shakespeare inverts the stereotypical expectations his audience might have concerning sex roles?

The Duchess is the one urging action, her language full of images of blood and violence, while Gaunt urges patience, faith in God, and acceptance of the King's divine right to rule: Richard is God's "deputy anointed," his "minister," against whom he can never "lift / An angry arm" (38-41).

Does the play suggest who has the stronger case in this debate?

The Duchess' use of the image of "vials of sacred blood" (12) can be seen as ambiguous. Blood ties within families are strong, and the shedding of blood is a crime; but the image can also call to mind the Last Supper, with its image of the blood of Christ, and thus undermine the Duchess' argument against waiting for the judgment of God.

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This page last updated July 7, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
© Michael Best and The University of Victoria.