Speech by King Richard II
From Richard II, by William Shakespeare
One of the recurring questions raised by the greatest dramatist who ever lived, William Shakespeare, was, “What is a king?” If we think we have done with that question, because now we have presidents and prime ministers instead of kings, we are fools. For the king is an archetype of human existence. In some deep sense, every father of a family is or ought to be a king, and every mother a queen; and that’s the sense of the crowning in an eastern Orthodox wedding ceremony. In some deep sense, the captain of an army company is or ought to be a king, the leader who fights alongside his men, whose allegiance he claims and wins by his courage and wisdom, and they trust him, they give themselves over to his commands, because they know he has their triumph at heart. In some deep sense, the pastor of a church is or ought to be a king, not because he bosses people around, or because he is holier than they are, but because his royalty is involved in the great sacrifice he has made on their behalf, and the people will be the better for their obedience to him, assuming that he is a true king and not a tyrant or a flatterer or a self-promoter or a huckster or some of all four. To obey the good father with cheerfulness and promptness is to share in the father’s authority. A true subject of the king comes to resemble the king himself.
Of course, the ideal is one thing, and the human reality is another. For kings, like all men, have been selfish and short-sighted, and their height exposes them to a more calamitous fall. In Richard II, we have the paradox of a man who is wise enough and genteel enough to be a good king, and in fact he is usually kingly in his bearing, but he has also been selfish, treacherous, and weak-willed, easily overmatched by his cousin, the ambitious Henry Bolingbroke, who will force him to abdicate the throne, and who will have him murdered, not quite according to his will, but not against it either. Bolingbroke is ten times the politician that Richard is, a far more capable leader on the battlefield, and a far more temperate man in his personal behavior. But though he is going to wear a crown, though he will be called King Henry, the fourth by that name, we never quite manage to think of him as kingly. He is always something of an anomaly, a man who has taken on a robe that does not fit his soul.
Here, Richard has just arrived back in England from a military foray in Ireland, and he has learned that his supporters have been put to death, and the whole country has risen up against him, even “boys with women’s voices” who try to “speak big, and clap their female joints / In stiff unwieldy arms” against his crown. All the news is bad. And Richard seems to give up. It’s hard to hear this speech of his, one of despondency and futility, just right. And that’s Shakespeare’s intention. The man pities himself, and sure enough, it’s not good to have a mirror-gazing self-pitying man for your king. He is too quick to give up. On the other hand, Richard does understand the irony of the throne. For it exposes the king to plots and treachery, and death at every pass, such as private men do not fear; and yet it entices him to think he is invulnerable, and that the very flesh that walls him round were like a fortress made of brass. If we toss away the trappings of royalty, and the customs that lead the king to think he is not like other men, what is left? Richard’s final question implies that there is nothing left at all. But that too is not exactly right, and there is a sense in which what he has said in his moment of greater confidence is true, that “not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off an anointed king.”
No matter where; of comfort no man speak: Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth, Let’s choose executors and talk of wills: And yet not so, for what can we bequeath Save our deposed bodies to the ground? Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s, And nothing can we call our own but death And that small model of the barren earth Which serves as paste and cover to our bones. For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings; How some have been deposed; some slain in war, Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; Some poisoned by their wives: some sleeping killed; All murdered: for within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits, Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, Allowing him a breath, a little scene, To monarchize, be feared and kill with looks, Infusing him with self and vain conceit, As if this flesh which walls about our life, Were brass impregnable, and humored thus Comes at the last and with a little pin Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king! Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood With solemn reverence: throw away respect, Tradition, form and ceremonious duty, For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?
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Shakespeare's monologues and speeches are unrivaled, in my opinion, even by many of his contemporaries and followers. Yes, even though I did my Master's Thesis on Milton, I have never found a better speech even in Paradise Lost (which has many absolute masterpieces) than some of Shakespeare's. He is the master for a reason.
I do believe that there was a television adaptation of the history plays on the BBC a few years back that drew its overarching title from this speech: "The Hollow Crown." A striking title, to be sure--it would be great for a novel, but I think it betrays that the creators of the show have the same perspective on the plays as Richard II himself has: that the crown is ultimately hollow and meaningless. A very modern idea, really, and probably not one Shakespeare would have seen as the true meaning of this speech, or his work.
But then again, it wouldn't be the first time that the masses of today have divorced a Shakespeare line from context and applied it to themselves. After all, there are hundreds who parrot that famous line of Polonius, "This above all: to thine own self be true," thinking that it's sage advice without knowing the irony of it, which is that it is advice given out by the biggest doofus in "Hamlet."