Character or role?

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Character and Role

In the first scene of the play, Richard tries unsuccessfully to be a peacemaker. When his attempt fails, he remarks: "We were not born to sue [to ask, to beg], but to command" (1. 1. 196). Richard is referring to his entitlement as King. As a king his role is to make decisions; others should "sue" to him. Notice that Richard uses what used to be known as the "royal plural" (compare Queen Victoria's often-quoted "We are not amused"); since the monarch represented an entire nation, it was appropriate for him or her to use the plural "we" instead of the singular "I" when speaking. In a similar way, the monarch was often referred to by the name of the country she or he ruled: in Macbeth Malcolm comments, "gracious England hath / Lent us . . . ten thousand men" (4. 3. 189-90), meaning that the King of England has supplied the army.

Thus the language of Shakespeare's time embodies in it a fundamental belief that the King or Queen was not merely the ruler of the country but a symbol of it--and a symbol of a peculiarly concrete nature. You will have learned from the background module that the system of correspondences inherited from the medieval period created a whole pattern of images related to the highest link in the chain of being. The ruler was the element of fire, the sun, a lion, an eagle, an oak. He or she is also like a parent, a physician, or a gardener. Just before his comment that he was "not born to sue, but to command," Richard has described himself as a lion ("lions make leopards tame"--1. 1. 174); watch for other occasions when these images are associated with Richard.

But the opening scene of the play is a reminder that the king's ideal role and what he can actually achieve in the real world may not always be the same, for Richard fails to command Bolingbroke and Mowbray to make peace. The third and fourth scenes of the play explore a further divergence between the king's public role and the private person that is Richard.

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The duel

A crux (central issue for debate) in the early scenes of the play is the moment where Richard interrupts the duel and, after discussion with his council, imposes banishment on both parties rather than letting them decide the issue by "trial" of battle. Richard's action can be seen as the first of a series of mistakes that end up causing his death. To understand this moment we have to make something of a mental shift to accommodate both social and religious beliefs of earlier periods. Duel

So what are we to make of Richard's action in interrupting the trial?

From a political perspective we can see that Richard loses whoever wins the battle: if Bolingbroke wins, Richard is discredited by association with Mowbray; if Mowbray wins, the disaffection of those who oppose him will be increased. He stops the trial, consults with his council, and issues the banishments, thus--for the moment--getting rid of both sides of the problem. Alternatively, we can look to Richard's character as a way of understanding his action: perhaps he is vacillating and indecisive; later in the play we see him changing his mind rapidly and not always logically.

The puzzle that Shakespeare has left us is that Richard's reasons for his action are never explicitly explored by others or by himself. Later in the play Richard is given many speeches of self-reflection, but at this moment we are given only the action, no analysis.

Let's stop for a moment and ask a different kind of question--one not about the action of the play or the characters in the play, but about the kinds of questions we ask as a modern audience.

Why might we want to know why Richard stops the action?

History, which is the basis of the plot of the play, requires that Richard banish both Bolingbroke and Mowbray.

Is it not reasonable, therefore, to accept Richard's action simply as a "given," in the same sense that we are "given" that Gaunt will later die of old age?

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Perhaps the reason we pause over this moment is that the action of the rest of the play springs from it, and we are naturally curious about such a pivotal decision. We look for motivation in terms of the political choices facing Richard and of his character. Kenneth Muir, in his Introduction to the Signet edition, defends Richard's choice, and puts the pivotal point in Richard's downfall in an action that occurs before the play even begins:
He loses his crown not because he stops the duel at Coventry--an action which he takes with the approval of his council, and which can hardly be regarded as an example of his love of play-acting--but because of his murder of Gloucester before the beginning of the play. (439 Complete Signet Edition)
Notice that Muir refers both to political motivation (the consultation with his council) and character (Richard's "love of play-acting").

How can you decide whether Richard did or did not act unwisely at this moment?

Presumably you look at the evidence in the play that might allow you to reconstruct the motive for the action. In effect you become a detective assuming that Richard is a real person, not a creation formulated in words by Shakespeare and constructed into a personality by you as reader. This is very much the way that actors work today, trying to "get inside" a character they are portraying on stage.

It is a characteristic of much modern discussion of Shakespeare that we look primarily to character as a way of understanding the plays, but it is by no means certain that Shakespeare or his actors thought as we do. Remember that in Love's Labour's Lost there are places where generic headings appear for some characters--Costard is called "Clown," Armado "Braggart," Holofernes "Pedant," and Ferdinand, king of Navarre is sometimes "Ferd." sometimes "Nav." and sometimes simply "King." At times Shakespeare seems to have been thinking of generic types rather than individualized characters.

Is Richard in this play sometimes a role--the king--and sometimes a character--a person called Richard?

It is possible of course for a character to be both a representative of a generic type and a specifically imagined variant of that type (Falstaff, in the next play on the course, is a perfect example--he is both a unique creation and a variant of a very old dramatic formula, the "braggart soldier"). As you read on through the play, contrast the public utterances of Richard as King with his private asides when he is securely among his followers. The joking and sarcastic remarks about Bolingbroke in 1. 4 are a good example.

Look also for the times that Richard is seen as a function rather than a person; the imagery that consistently compares him to the highest links on the chain of being is a constant reminder of his ordained role rather than his individuality, as is the way he is often compared to a metaphoric physician, gardener, parent, and so on.

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  1. See Charles Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous: Swordfighting in Shakespeare’s Plays. (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 1992). Although trial by ordeal was outlawed in 1215 and Richard reigned from 1372-1399, Shakespeare may have based his account on a book actually by Thomas of Woodstock that outlines the legalities of fighting to resolve legal issues. [Back]

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This page last updated July 7, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
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