Richard II is my favourite Shakespeare play. If you know me, you have probably already heard me banging on about it from time to time. Admittedly Hamlet and MacBeth are very close behind, with Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night very close upon their heels. And I know it’s an unusual choice for a fave, most people would pick one of the other plays I’ve already mentioned or another popular play.
And what speech can compare with Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech or with the “quality of mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice?
Richard II was not a nice king. He was shown in all his arrogance self-righteousness from the beginning of the play, and constantly refers to himself not merely as a divinely appointed king whereby:
“Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.”
but more particularly as a Christ-figure, talking about how,
“Did they not sometime cry ’All Hail!’ to me?
So Judas did to Christ”
And the upstart, the exiled and embittered (rightly embittered!) Bolingbroke, who at first seemed so fresh, so zealous, so full of integrity, he soon disintegrates into a man of lesser quality than the king he deposed.
And yes, Richard’s quality may arguably have been found in his “On this side, my hand; and on that side, thine.” speech. Richard certainly knew how to use the power of words and his speeches always left Bolingbroke looking slack-jawed and slightly thick.
But no, I believe Richard’s finest hour comes with his broken speech in prison. He has had the leisure for the first time to really look at himself and to think about what he has done. And here, we see, there is kingly quality in his acknowledgment of his anxiety, his loneliness and his failings.
“I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where i live unto the world;
And for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it. Yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world.
For no thought is contented; the better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermixed
With scruples, and do set the word itself
Against the word; as thus; ‘Come, little ones’;
And then again,
‘It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eyes.’
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders – how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of Fortune’s slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like seely beggars,
Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame
That many have, and others must sit there.
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king.
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar;
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again; and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing. (the music plays) Music do I hear.
Ha, ha; keep time! How sour music is
When time is broke, and no proportion kept.
So is it in the music of men’s lives;
And here I have the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disordered string,
But for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock.
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell. So sighs, and tears, and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours. But my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke’s proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his jack of the clock.
This music mads me. let it sound no more;
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.
Yet blessing on his heart that gave it me;
For ‘tis a sign of love, and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.