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Fortune's wheel
Fortune's wheel

Act 3: Tragedy and the Wheel of Fortune

When Richard left for Ireland he was a figure of little sympathy. He was seen to be selfish, even cynical in his actions, and had abused his position of power. In 3. 2. Richard returns, and as his power is stripped from him we are forced to reassess our response. As the scene unfolds Richard is confronted with a succession of disappointments and in effect gives up.

He begins by affirming his role as King. He is the mother, the nurturer of England (8-11), and he calls on the earth itself--in its spiders, toads, and adders--to protect him (14-22).

What is the reaction of those with Richard to this speech?

In line 23 he says "Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords"; the Signet edition helpfully glosses "senseless" as "addressed to senseless things," so Richard is not saying that his speech is without meaning. But is there an indirect stage direction here? Do those around Richard chuckle, snicker, or show discomfort at his language? Richard calls on the traditional correspondence between the King and the sun in another extended simile (36-53). To make the structure of the simile clearer I have italicized the basic sentence in this passage:

. . . when the searching eye of heaven is hid
Behind the globe and lights the lower world,
Then thieves and robbers range abroad unseen
In murders and in outrage boldly here:
But when from under this terrestrial ball
He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines
And darts his light through every guilty hole,
Then murders, treasons, and detested sins,
The cloak of night being plucked from off their backs,
Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves?
So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,
Who all this while hath reveled in the night
Whilst we were wand'ring with the Antipodes,
Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face,

Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.
                      (3. 2. 37-53)
This is a very particular kind of figure of speech: an epic simile of the kind used by Homer, Virgil, and English writers of epics like Spenser and (later) Milton. It is specifically designed to give a heightened quality to the language and to those using it. Whatever the reaction of those around him, Richard (or Shakespeare) is building a sense of himself as an epic hero, supported by God in his role of king by divine right:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king
All well and good, but

How will an audience that knows its history respond to his next confident statement:
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord

Because this is a history play and we already know the ending, we know that (whatever the consequences) Richard was in fact deposed by "worldly men."

Stories of the Death of Kings

A key passage in this scene--and indeed in the whole play--is the moment when Richard, after a series of disappointments, gives up. He dramatizes his situation, wanting to speak only of "graves, of worms, and epitaphs" (145); to " sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings" (155-156). Shakespeare is calling upon a long tradition of medieval and renaissance moral tales where those in authority are, at their moment of greatest glory, cast down. Fortune's wheel turns, and all are subject to her power. If you are familiar with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, you may remember that the "Monk's Tale" is a long string of stories of this kind. The tradition is often known as de casibus tragedy, after the title of a book by the early Italian renaissance writer Boccaccio, De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, "Of the Histories of Famous Men," translated into English by the late medieval poet Lydgate as The Fall of Princes. [Note 1] All these writers were following the highly influential Roman philosopher Boethius, whose Consolations of Philosphy were translated by Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth among others, and who taught that the turns of Fortune's Wheel are both inevitable and providential--that is, even the most coincidental of events is actually part of God's plan. Thus the character of the individual is no more important in deciding fate than the influence of the stars, since both are agents of God's will.

There are at least two ways of looking at this passage:

What do you see as the relative importance of Richard's character and of Fortune in his downfall?

Remember that it is by chance--bad luck, one might say--that the Welsh army is disbanded the day before Richard's return (see 2. 4).

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Fortune's Wheel

By the end of the scene, Richard has effectively lost all initiative, choosing to disband the army he has left.

Fire and Water

Richard and the returned Bolingbroke finally meet in the next scene (3. 3). Listen to this scene on tape, and note the contrast between the two protagonists: Bolingbroke almost matter-of-fact, Richard flamboyant both in his public persona of defiance and in his private asides of self-pity.

It is especially important in this scene to keep the physical structure of the stage in mind. Richard and his followers appear "above" on the battlements (the same stage structure from which Juliet speaks to Romeo), while Bolingbroke and his followers are where we would now call downstage, at the point of the stage furthest from the battlements and closest to the audience; Bolingbroke is both below and distant. Northumberland acts as messenger between them. It is a great opportunity for the actor who plays Richard to contrast his public utterances, spoken loud to those below, with his private conversation with his supporters standing beside him.

You will recognize by now some familiar patterns of imagery in the scene. Richard once again is the sun, however obscured by clouds (62); he even likens himself to another figure whose fall is figured in mythology, Phaeton (177), son of the sun-god Apollo, who lost control of the chariot of the sun (the "jades" [178] the unruly horses pulling it) and was finally killed by a thunderbolt from Jupiter in order to prevent disaster. He has similarly lost control of the nobility that should be beneath him, and he has been found unfit to manage his chariot, the kingship. Richard physically descends to the main stage just after he speaks these lines, punning bitterly on the "base court" to which he has been summoned (175; the term comes from the French "basse" meaning "low," not necessarily base). Shakespeare uses the stage as a visual metaphor of Richard's fall.

Richard seems to give up easily. He begins the scene in bluster and ends in rather tame acquiescence.

Does he effectively depose himself?

Bolingbroke's language is similarly rich in reference when he speaks of the meeting:

Methinks King Richard and myself should meet
With no less terror than the elements
Of fire and water, when their thund'ring shock
At meeting tears the cloudy cheeks of heaven.
Be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water:
The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain
My waters--on the earth, and not on him.
Fire is the superior, masculine element, associated with lightening, the sun, and the king; water, which lies under both elements of fire and air, is flexible, accommodating, and feminine. Yet water extinguishes fire. Bolingbroke is enigmatic, claiming that he does not aspire to kingship, yet very conscious that he holds the balance of power and can extinguish Richard.

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  1. A medieval historian, Adam of Usk, specifically described the fate of Richard II as a tragedy of fortune:
    Though well endowed as Solomon, though fair as Absalom, . . . yet . . . didst thou in the midst of thy glory, as Fortune turned her wheel, fall most miserably into the hands of Duke Henry, amid the curses of thy people.
    Quoted in Ross, James Bruce, and Mary Martin McLauglin, ed. The Portable Medieval Reader. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977 [1949]. [Back]

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