Good government

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Act 2: Order and Good Government

In scene 1, Gaunt begins by claiming that he is a prophet. You may have noticed on your first reading of the play that this is the first of several prophecies--those by the Bishop of Carlisle and Richard himself will be discussed later.

Is there a special function for prophecy within a history play?

Gaunt compares Richard's lifestyle to a "violent fire" (34) that cannot last, in words that echo a sense of transience that you will already have seen in Romeo and Juliet. [Note 1] Then Gaunt embarks on a passage worth looking at in some detail (40-68). Begin by underlining all occurrences of the word "this." Shakespeare has constructed a speech of high artifice; the subject of the first sentence is England, expressed in a series of parallel constructions leading up to the main verb ("Is now leased out"), delayed until line 59. Notice the way that the interval between the often-repeated word "this" is varied from line to line so that the repetition is varied in rhythm--and notice too that the way Anthony Jenkins reads the speech introduces yet more variety in the different emphases he gives the occurrences of the word "this."

Thus the speech is a rhythmic tour de force. At the same time, Shakespeare works in a series of images that reverberate elsewhere in the play. England, separated from the rest of the world by the Channel, is patriotically and triumphantly celebrated at the very moment that Gaunt bewails its decline under Richard. It is compared to Eden (42); later in the play you will find many Biblical references both in the "garden" scene (3. 4) and in the many places where Richard refers to himself as a Christ figure. It is a "little world" (45) a microcosm of the greater world and a potential image of the ideal order that (according to the Tudor Myth) was about to be disturbed by the succeeding events. It is personified as a fertile female, with a "womb" (51) that brings forth epic heroes and crusaders. It is a "dear" land (57), dear both in the sense of being beloved and of high value (expensive)--but it is being exploited by Richard rather than nurtured. [Note 2]

What is the dramatic effect of this speech in the mouth of a dying man?

Look at the rest of the scene, and observe the dynamic between young Richard and old Gaunt. Consider especially the play both of them make on the idea of physical and metaphorical sickness. (Look back to 1. 1. 153-157 where Richard plays the role of physician in trying to heal the breach between Bolingbroke and Mowbray.)

The first occasion when Richard failed as King to govern wisely--the murder of Thomas of Woodstock--occurred before the play began; the second--Richard's stopping the challenge between Bolingbroke and Mowbray--is left ambiguous and unexplained; but the third--Richard's seizing of the property of the Lancasters--occurs in this scene, and for the first time the extent of his irresponsibility is made very clear. Gaunt's death is greeted almost flippantly by the young king, and his immediate confiscation of the wealth of one of the country's oldest families spurs York to an eloquent and reasoned defence of the principle of order. If Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and the son of the Duke of Lancaster, does not inherit his father's lands and titles, Richard is challenging the same rule that gave him the right to govern England, by inheritance from his father the Black Prince and his grandfather Edward III (see especially 195-199).

York concludes with another prophecy: if Richard goes ahead with his seizure of Hereford's lands, he will "pluck a thousand dangers on [his] head" (205). Shakespeare underlines the accuracy of York's words as Richard leaves the stage, leaving a group of disaffected nobles to begin to plot against him (not altogether surprisingly, since their own lands will be as insecure as Bolingbroke's).

What is your reaction to Richard at this point in the play?

Think of him both as a character (list what you see as the characteristics you find in him so far), and as the expression of a role, the king of England (list the way he is fulfilling--or failing to fulfill--his expected function).

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The "Garden" Scene

I want to jump ahead in the play for a moment to look at two other scenes that are especially important in looking at the issue of order and good government.

The garden scene (3. 4) is especially interesting in that it is so isolated from the general drive of the plot. In Romeo and Juliet you will remember that plot is not always Shakespeare's priority--there is always time for a lyrical aria like Mercutio's, or a comic scene that does not advance the plot. But so far in Richard II each scene has advanced the plot in a material way. The gardeners appear only in this scene, and even the Queen is a minor character (we will discuss Shakespeare's marginal women characters in the next module).

Why introduce the gardeners at this point?

The scene is clearly emblematic: the garden is treated by the gardeners (and hence the audience) as an extended metaphor for the state of England. [Note 3]

Read through the scene, and note the careful comparison the gardeners make between the cultivation of the plants under their care, and the need for good government to discipline the ambitious in order for the state to be fruitful and healthy.

What effect does the "rustic" accent of the actors have on your response?

Is the scene intended in part to be comic?

Or are the gardeners choric figures, voicing the response of the audience, and even of the play as a whole?

A garden An Elizabethan garden. The use of symetrical "knots" makes the image of a garden more symbolic of order than a modern garden. From Thomas Hill, A Most Frief and Pleasant Treatise, Teaching How to Dress, Sow, and Set a Garden (1577).
The Queen sees the gardener as "Adam's likeness" (3. 4. 73), making again the parallel between England before the fall of Richard and Eden before the Fall.

Do you see her as a figure simply of pathos, self-pity, even, or a figure of anger, of strength?

England itself has been figured as female in the play.

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The Prophecy of the Bishop of Carlisle

The final section I want you to look at on the topic of good government is the impassioned speech by the Bishop of Carlisle (4. 1. 114-149).

Like the Gardener, Carlisle is a minor character, one of whom we know little. If we know a lot about a character we can, in effect, "filter" what they say through what we know of their view of the world. All we know of Carlisle is that he is a follower of Richard, and might be expected to support him. We have seen him earlier in the scene where Richard returns from Ireland, urging the king to keep up his spirit and reminding the king that he is appointed by God:

Fear not, my lord: that Power that made you king
Hath power to keep you king in spite of all.
                      (3. 2. 27-28)
Earlier in the current scene (4. 1) he brings the news of the death of Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (91-100); it is clear that he admires Mowbray, for he speaks of him in terms of high commendation as a Christian and crusader--and by implication he may be criticizing Bolingbroke as Mowbray's challenger. When Henry announces his intention to "ascend the regal throne" (113), Carlisle speaks, knowing that to speak is dangerous.

Would you react differently to the speech if it were spoken by a more outspoken supporter of Richard, such as Aumerle?

The speech falls into two parts. Carlisle begins by arguing that as the "figure of God's majesty" (125) the King is above judgment by any but God. It is a ringing statement of the doctrine of Divine Right. Carlisle makes something of a tactical error, however, when he argues that Richard himself should be present at the moment of being sentenced, since Bolingbroke is able to appear to answer the whole of Carlisle's attack by agreeing that Richard should be summoned--and when he comes, Richard in effect deposes himself. In the latter part of his speech, Carlisle pronounces his prophecy that civil war will ensue if Richard is deposed. From an Eden, England will become Golgotha, the field of skulls where Christ was crucified. The ironies here are multiple. Because it is a history play, Carlisle can prophesy what will indeed happen; and because Shakespeare wrote his plays about the Wars of the Roses (the three parts of Henry VI) before he wrote Richard II, his audience has already seen a dramatic recreation of the civil war on the same stage that Carlisle prophesies its coming.

How might this knowledge of the accuracy of Carlisle's prophecy modify audience sympathy for Bolingbroke and Richard?

What dramatic effect does the immediate arrest of Carlisle have?

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    I have no joy of this contract tonight.
    It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
    Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
    Ere one can say it lightens.
                          (Romeo and Juliet 2. 2. 117-120)
    Or, if there were a sympathy in choice [of love],
    War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
    Making it momentany as a sound,
    Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
    Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
    That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
    And ere a man hath power to say, "Behold!"
    The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
    So quick bright things come to confusion.
                          (A Midsummer Night's Dream 1. 1. 141-149) [Back]
  2. Gaunt accuses Richard of being "landlord of England . . . not king" (2. 1. 113). In Woodstock Richard divides the kingdom into four parts, giving one part to each favourite, and requiring them to give him "rent" which they can get by taxing the people:
    Scroop: . . . King Richard will betake himself to a yearly stipend, and we four by lease must rent the kingdom.
                          Enter Bagot
    Bushy: Rent it, ay, and rack it too, ere we forfeit our leases, an we had them once. How now, Bagot, what news?
    Bagot: All rich and rare; the realm must be divided presently, and we four must farm it--the leases are a-making.
                          (4. 1 )
    References to Woodstock are to the edition by William Armstrong, Elizabethan History Plays. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. [Back]
  3. There is a passage from Woodstock that may have given Shakespeare the idea of the garden scene; York and Thomas of Woodstock are discussing the trees that shelter the home where Woodstock lives:
    Woodstock: We have all need of some kind wintering [shelter];
    We are beset (heaven shield!) with many storms.
    And yet these trees at length will prove to me
    Like Richard and his riotous minions;
    Their wanton heads so oft play with the winds.
    Throwing their leaves so prodigally down,
    They'll leave me cold at last; and so will they
    Make England wretched; and i'th' end, themselves.
                          (3. 2) [Back]

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