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Richard presented with a list of his crimes
Richard is presented with a list of his crimes

Act 4: Abdication

The scene in which Richard publicly gives up his crown (4. 1) begins with an echo of the opening scene of the play. Again the stage is littered with flying gauntlets as hot-headed young nobles challenge each other on matters of honor and politics.

What do you learn of the contrast between Richard and Bolingbroke in the different way each responds?

We have already discussed the powerful prophecy of Carlisle, and the immediate response of Northumberland, acting on behalf of Bolingbroke, in arresting him. The section that follows, the actual abdication of Richard, was omitted in the first printing of the play because it was seen as too politically inflammatory; the reason for this action, which probably seems to us rather extreme, is discussed in the background to this module.

The abdication of Richard is another opportunity for a bravura performance by the actor, for it calls on a wide range of emotion, and--like the earlier scene of Richard's meeting with Bolingbroke--an opportunity for the actor to perform someone who loves performing. You will probably have noticed that Richard enjoys creating the roles that he is forced, or chooses, to play, and in this scene he has centre stage. In a sense he becomes the stage director for the scene, shaping the way that the others respond.

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Images of Fortune and the Self

Richard's first act as stage director is to trick Bolingbroke into physically seizing the crown from him, symbolically representing the struggle for power--the crown--in visual terms. Having caught Henry in this compromising position, Richard explores their relationship in another image that was traditionally used to represent the inevitable movement of Fortune's wheel.

                      Here cousin;
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.
The image captures the movement of the fortunes of Richard and Henry, and in a way can be seen as a graph of the structure of the play: from Bolingbroke's perspective it is a comedy as his fortunes rise; from Richard's a tragedy as he falls and eventually meets his death. We have already discussed Shakespeare's use of highly patterned rhetoric in this play (Gaunt's death speech); Richard's pivotal speech when he finally agrees to renounce the crown (200-221) is similarly constructed with a series of syntactic parallels ("With mine own . . .," "My . . .," "And . . .").

What dramatic or thematic purpose does this formal rhetoric serve?

We have not seen the pomp and ceremony of Richard's coronation before the play begins, but we are watching a kind of de-coronation on stage.

Is Richard creating a ritual for his uncrowning?

Is he searching for a new role now that he has lost his identity as king?

Is the passage again portraying a character who revels in self-pity?

These three questions are not mutually exclusive--it may be that all are to a degree true.

Northumberland presents the list of Richard's crimes to him to be ready (4. 1. 221-226). As Richard is pushed by Northumberland to legitimate the actions of Henry by public admission of guilt, he likens himself to Christ and his deposition to the crucifixion (he says the onlookers are acting "with Pilate" [238]).

Richard has claimed that he is king by Divine Right, but is he guilty of hubris here?

His imagery again picks up the correspondence between sun and king, as for the first time Bolingbroke is likened to the sun:

                      Alack the heavy day!

That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself.
O that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water drops!
Notice again that he does not know what to call himself now he is not the king. In his search for identity he calls for a mirror, and in a passage that recalls some of Marlowe's most famous lines [Note 1] he fails to find an answer in the visual reflection of his face and smashes the mirror he has asked for.

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  1. Faustus speaking of Helen of Troy: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" (Doctor Faustus 5. 1. 108-109). [Back]

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This page last updated July 7, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best, mbest1@uvic.ca.
© Michael Best and The University of Victoria.