Honour, Duels, and Might Makes Right

by David Lowes

This essay was submitted as a research paper in the course Shakespeare Survey I: Individual Studies (September-December 1995). It is reprinted here by permission of David Lowes. While copyright is retained by David Lowes and the University of Victoria, this material may freely be used for educational and non-profit purposes, so long as the author and source are cited.

Please remember that plagiarism is not research.

My body shall make good upon this earth,
Or my divine soul answer it in heaven.
Thou art a traitor and a miscreant.
        (Richard II, 1.1.37-39)

I take it up; and by that sword I swear,
Which gently laid my knighthood on my shoulder,
I'll answer thee in any fair degree
Or chivalrous design of knightly trial;
And when I mount, alive may I not light,
If I be traitor or unjustly fight.
        (Richard II, 1.1.78-83)


The tension-charged exchange between Bolingbroke and Mowbray in the first scenes of Richard II provides exciting action for the audience, and gives a glimpse into trial by combat and the importance of honour in Shakespeare's plays. Trial by combat, or a judicial duel was a traditional way to settle disputes in England and Europe for many generations. People dueled to defend their own honour, and to prove personal claims against the honour of others. Honour. Honour is the accumulation of virtuous deeds that instills a respect in others and in yourself. Possessing, seeking, and defending the elusive trait of honour are crucial elements of Richard II.

The concept of honour has different meanings to individual members of a modern audience, just as it did to an Elizabethan audience. What is honourable? What makes someone honorable? Aristotle thought:

there is no true honor in the world but that which commeth from vertue. Vertue seeks no greater or ampler theater to shew her selfe in, then her owne conscience. The higher the Sunne is the lesse shadow it makes, and the greater a mans vertue is the lesse glorie it seekes. (qtd. in Council 28)

So, by Aristotle's rationale, those people who seek honour are in fact not honourable because they are deliberately seeking honour, which is a vice. Council sums Aristotle's argument very well, "virtue consists in action; the reward of that action is honour; to pursue more honour than virtuous action warrants or to pursue honour for its own sake is a vice" (19). Honour is also eloquently described by Rabelais's definition of honour to the Thelemites, "because men that are free, well-born, and well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them into virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour" (qtd. in Council 29). Are we to belief that honour is an instinct or inborn trait that magically appears? To the Elizabethan audience, birthright would still initially guarantee honour, and respect for a noble, honour which could be lost if it was not maintained or if the gentleman's good name became dirtied. Mowbray

despairs over his lost honour, "I am disgraced, impeached, and baffled here,/Pierced to the soul with slander's venomed spear" (Richard II 1.1.170-171). Honour, being an extremely important commodity in Elizabethan England, was something to fight over.

In Richard II, Mowbray and Bolingbroke are set to have a judicial duel to the death. The duel is judicial because the winner, the survivor, is credited with being true and virtuous. The loser, in death, forfeits claims to honour and innocence. They have told Richard their charges against their rivals, and are prepared to defend their honour, and innocence through personal combat. Their honour, their accumulation of virtuous deeds, has been soiled by the accusations brought against them. Slanderous comments and claims were not to go unheeded; in fact, Mowbray and Bolingbroke refuse to throw their gages up to King Richard and settle their quarrel peacefully. Mowbray pleads with Richard to be allowed to prove his innocence and defend his honour:

Mine honor is my life, both grow in one;
Take honor from me, and my life is done;
Then, dear liege, mine honor let me try;
In that I live, and for that I will die.

Richard II (1.1.182-185)

It is better to die than to live in shame. Fighting a duel also allowed men to redress a wrong or injury done to them. Seldon eloquently states why men should have the right to redress an injury:

One gives me the Lye, `tis a great disgrace to take it, the Law has made no provision to give Remedy for the Injury (if you can suppose anything an Injury for which the Law gives no Remedy) why am not I in this case Supream, and may therefore right my self. (Seldon 45)

The trial by combat was an opportunity to prove your innocence and the truth of your convictions to your peers and countrymen, and it portrays dramatic action to the audience-- an essential ingredient to any production.

One could argue that even if someone is victorious in a duel it proves nothing, because nobody could tell who was honorable, or innocent. However, the Elizabethan audience believed that a duel, in this case a judicial duel, was a fair trial by God to determine who was just. While this seems ridiculously idealistisc to a modern audience, Mowbray boldly cries:

And by the grace of God, and this mine arm,
To prove him in defending myself
A traitor to my God, my king, and me;
And as I truly fight, defend me, heaven!

Richard II (1.3..22-25)

In Table Talk, Seldon says "War is Lawful, because God is the only Judge between two, that is Supream. Now if a difference happen between two Subjects, and it cannot be decided by Human Testimony, why may they not put it to God to Judge between them" (45). It was clear that God could decide the innocence and guilt better than humans. The belief that God would defend the just or honourable combatant allowed people to accept trial by combat as a judge of innocence, morality, and honour.

The judicial duel as a trial in which God was the sole arbitrator of right and wrong was outlawed after 1215 (Best 2, 9); however, there were still occasional duel in special circumstances; the last know instance was in 1571 (Kiernan 78). The private duel was still popular, and was a large part of the consciousness of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. In the video performances of Richard the II that I have seen, Mowbray and Bolingbroke wield longswords, a weapon used for bashing opponents. However, Shakespeare's audiences were more familiar with the rapier that made inroads into England from 1560 (Kiernan 79)-- often armor and weapons on the stage did not fit the time period of the play so it is likely that Shakespeare staged his performances with rapiers and other Elizabethan arms. The rapier, with its deadly point, became a dangerous dueling weapon. Duels were common and deadly, leading officials to pass legislation against dueling in the last years of the sixteenth century. In 1615, the courts "unanimously condemned any idea `that the private duel in any person whatsoever had any ground of honour" (qtd. in Kiernan 82-83). Francis Bacon, leading the court of the Star Chamber, drafted The Charge Touching Duells. He begins The Charge Touching Duells, "I thought it fit for my place, and for these times to bring to hearing before your Lord-ships some cause touching priuate Duells, to see if this Court can doe any good to tame and reclaime that euill which seemes vnbrideled" (Bacon 5). Bacon continues with describing the evils of duelling, and proposes penalties against violators of the law. He goes as far as to predict that it will not be too long until some notable personage falls to temptation: "vntill example may bee made in some greater perfon, which I doubt the times will but too soone afford" (Bacon 7). The enforcing bodies in England, began to view duels as a challenge to their authority, and believed that duel went against the will of God. Bacon quotes that the "King [regarding duels], in his last Proclamation, doth most aptly and excellently call them, bewitching Duells" (Bacon 12). Bacon states himself that "for the law of God, there is neuer to be found any difference made in homicide" (20). While duels would still continue sporatically they were coming to an end.

The practice of duelling to defend honour and settle disputes was well understood by Shakespeare's audience. Eventhough judicial combat, like that appearing in Richard II, had been outlawed for several centuries, fighting was still respected by Shakespeare's audiences. Personal duels were still common, and the belief in the use of the duel to determine justice was widespread. Seldon says, "nor is there any other measure of Justice left upon Earth but Arms" (46), in defence of using swords to solve disputes. Bolingbroke's speech complement Seldon's words, "what my tongue speaks my right-drawn sword may prove" (Richard II 1.1.46-47). The First Act of Richard II provides the modern reader with insights into Elizabethan values of honour, and the practice of duels to determine justice.

Works Cited

  1. Bacon, Francis. The Charge Touching Duells. [1614.] Amsterdam: Da Capo Press, 1968.
  2. Best, Michael. Shakespeare Survey I, Course Guide. University of Victoria, 1995.
  3. Council, Norman. When Honour's at Stake. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973.
  4. Kiernan, V.G. The Duel in European History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
  5. Seldon, John. Table-Talk. [1689.] Ed. Edward Arber. London: Alex, Murray & Son, 1868.
  6. Shakespeare, W. "The Tragedy of King Richard the Second." The Complete
  7. Signet Classic Shakespeare. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Johanovich, Publishers, 1972.


  1. Bacon, Francis. The Charge Touching Duells. [1614.] Amsterdam: Da Capo Press, 1968.
  2. Barber, C.L. The Idea of Honour in the English Drama 1591-1700. Goteborg: Elanders Boktryckeri Aktiebolag, 1957.
  3. Barber, Charles. The Theme of Honour's Tongue. Goteborg: Minab/Gotab, Kungalv, 1985.
  4. Best, Michael. Shakespeare Survey I, Course Guide. University of Victoria, 1995.
  5. Billacois, Fracois. The Duel: Its Rise and Fall in Early Modern France. Trans. Trista Selous. London: Yale UP, 1990.
  6. Chapman, George. All Fools. [1605.] Ed. Frank Manley. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968.
  7. Council, Norman. When Honour's at Stake. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973.
  8. Craig, Horace S. Dueling Scenes and Terms in Shakespeare's Plays. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1940.
  9. Edelman, Charles. Brawl Ridiculous: Swordfighting in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Manchester UP, 1992.
  10. Kiernan, V.G. The Duel in European History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
  11. Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. [1633.] Ed. James R. Siemon. New York: W W Norton, 1994.
  12. Seldon, John. Table-Talk. [1689]. Ed. Edward Arber. London: Alex, Murray & Son, 1868.
  13. Shakespeare, W. "The Tragedy of King Richard the Second." The Complete
  14. Signet Classic Shakespeare. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Johanovich, Publishers, 1972.

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