William Shakespeare's "King Richard II". Functions and Effects of Subtle Warnings

Term Paper, 2012

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Oh, but they say the tongues of dying man Enforce attention like deep harmony.

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain, For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain. (John of Gaunt, II, 1)

King Richard II is a play which has been written around 1595 by William Shakespeare. Due to the fact that there are references to the following works Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 as well as Henry V , and that these four plays represent a closed period in English history, scholars refer to them as 'the tetralogy' or 'the Henriad'. The author's main source was R. Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1587, to which he also added some aspects while changing or leaving out others. Shakespeare focuses on the conflict between Richard and Bolingbroke who conspires against the king and finally becomes King Henry IV. From the very beginning, we can find speeches, situations, and images hinting at something horrible that will happen. It is the aim of this term paper to examine them in greater detail in order to show how the dark atmosphere is created and why the protagonist King Richard II fails to recognize all warnings from people in his surroundings.

First, I will talk about the functions and effects which subtle warnings throughout a play can have. In my opinion, they are important features, so I agree with Wolfgang H. Clemen who also thinks that “[i]t is strange that the role of anticipation and foreboding in Shakespearian [sic] drama has so far not received adequate attention and treatment” (25). Next, I am going to show act by act what is revealing of the king's cruel fate. The conclusion at the end will sum up where the most important warnings have been, and what other questions are approached in the play. Finally, I quote my primary and secondary sources.

2. Warnings and sinister foreshadowing 2.1 Why are these devices of avail?

According to Wolfgang H. Clemen, it is exactly the way how Shakespeare incorporates foreboding, omens, and prophecies that distinguishes him from others (25). These devices serve several purposes: “For here we find an important feature of Shakespeare's dramatic art which is closely connected not only with the dramatist's technique of preparation, but also with his art of characterization. It bears, too, on the composition and structure of his plays [...]”. Preparation could refer both to the audience anticipating what will go on and taking part in an interaction with the actors, balancing “between a vague presentment and an assured expectation”, and to the play's characters themselves because the latter will either get the clues or not. This is the link to what Clemen meant by “characterization”, having with Richard II a king who is not so wise: “[w]arnings uttered to Richard from various quarters stand in sharp contrast to his own deafness for these voices” (31). This will become particularly clear in the second act when the king does not want to listen to John of Gaunt. Moreover, the devices can structure the tragedy insofar as some images come up several times and become more and more explicit; this, for example, can be seen when looking for expressions meaning “to descend”, which prefigure King Richard's abdication and death.

However, Clemen also draws attention to the fact that it should not be done in a way which is too obvious. Shakespeare was able use warnings and prophecies as “a refined and subtle instrument of dramatic art” (25) and finally comes to the conclusion that “ Richard II shows a more subtle, less obtrusive and explicit use of anticipation and foreboding” (31). When the spectators are caught between not knowing and fearing what is about to happen, the ideal atmosphere for a haunting play is established.

Moreover, the foreshadowing could be seen on another level by going beyond this work. As I have already pointed out that Shakespeare's history plays must be considered as a whole, “[t]he unity of the sequence is conveyed by the use of prophecy which gains subsequent fulfillment, retrospective analyses, a continuity of themes common to all the plays and plots which override the boundaries of individual dramas” (Wards). Therefore we can find prophecies which are not limited to Richard II, such as the murder of the king which will haunt Bolingbroke in King Henry IV.

2.2 Act One

Even before the play began, the reader gets to know that a terrible crime has taken place which is the reason for the dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. The first scene opens with the accusation that Mowbray has planned to conspire against the king (“Thou art a traitor and a miscreant”, 1.39). As the latter is not able to reconcile them, he allows them to duel at Saint Lambert's day. We are faced with a king in whose country law and order do not prevail, which already indicates that Richard's reign has not been, and likely will not be, without problems he cannot resolve. In vain, he tries to reestablish order, but his authority is undermined. The danger comes from inside: “Once did I lay an ambush for your life - / A trespass that doth vex my grievèd soul” (1.137-38). Although Mowbray assures that he regrets what he has done, the reader doubts whether this is really true and whether the king can be safe if he cannot trust even his own men. Having no control makes Richard appear weak; thus, the signs are bad for the incompetent king.

In the third scene, we find the image of Richard descending to Bolingbroke for the first time. After the king's Marshal's ceremonial introduction, Bolingbroke wants to kiss Richard's hand, and the latter replies: “We will descend and fold him in our arms. / Cousin of Hereford, as thy cause is right, / So be thy fortune in this royal fight!” (3.54-56). In the following, King Richard suddenly changes his mind, preferring to banish him and Mowbray. Now it is him who foresees trouble if the two men stay in England ( “our kingdom's earth should not be soiled / With that dear blood which it hath fosterèd / […] civil wounds ploughed up with neighbors' sword”, 3.125-28). He compares the country to a sleeping baby whom they do not want to wake up, using scary metaphors of noisy, destructive weapons. Moreover, the king displays inconsistency when reducing Bolingbroke's sentence because John of Gaunt looks very sad. However, Bolingbroke is still angry and refuses to follow the advice of Gaunt to “[c]all it a travel that thou tak'st for pleasure” (3.262). He leaves an atmosphere of sadness, but also tension, that hangs heavily over this scene. The reader can suggest that Bolingbroke's restrained emotions may eventually escalate.

Another aspect illustrating an advantage of Bolingbroke in contrast to Richard who rightly points out that the first is a threat to him comes up in the next scene. He tells the others that he “[o]bserved his courtship to the common people; / How he did seem to dive into their hearts / With humble and familiar courtesy” (4.24-26). Envying him for having a good relationship to them, he knows that familiarity with and support from his subjects make up an important factor

for his reign. With Bolingbroke's popularity being greater than his own, this foreshadows Richard's downfall. Instead of dealing with his problems, the king escapes into other affairs in order to distract himself; he is even encouraged to do so by his servant Green who says: “Well, he is gone, and with him go these thoughts! / Now for the rebels which stand out in Ireland, / Expedient manage must be made, my liege” (4.37-39). Leaving England is the second mistake he makes that will cost him his crown, as Richard acts in an irresponsible manner. Amanda Mabillard also writes that “[a]lthough severely punishing a man so beloved by the people for a minor offense is political folly, Richard does not seem to take this into consideration. He shows his weakness as a ruler by allowing his emotions to shape his decisions”.

2.3 Act Two

It is in this act where we find the most important instances of prophecies and foreboding by several people. John of Gaunt, who is already close to death, hopes to be able to arouse Richard's conscience, but his expectations are immediately shattered by the Duke of York. He says that the king is surrounded by flatterers and will not listen to the old man's advice. Clemen is aware of the divergence of the knowledge, being convinced that “Shakespeare also makes powerful use of the contrast existing between the growing anticipation on the part of the audience and the entire lack of such presentiment in the hero and in those around him” (25).

Gaunt believes himself to be “a prophet new inspired” (1.31) and predicts that the king's “rash, fierce blaze of riot cannot last” (1.33). He is right insofar as Richard's disastrous way of ruling the country will end with the rise of Bolingbroke who, however, will also have to cope with tumults and wars. Then the king arrives, and despite York's admonition, he scolds Richard by punning (“O, how that name befits my composition”, 1.73) and insinuating that it was him who caused his miserable condition. But Richard is even worse because Gaunt says: “thou diest, though I the sicker be […] he that made me knows I see thee ill” (1.91-93). It was a shame how he behaves and treats England which he, Gaunt, wants to see in glory again. Therefore, he dares to tell the king it would have been better if his grandfather had foreseen this and had not made him king.

Gaunt also predicts that Richard himself is going to seal his fate (“[d]eposing thee before thou wert possessed, / Which art possessed now to depose thyself”, 1.107-8). He rebukes him for

his beloved son's punishment, for wasting money and for listening to his avaricious, false counsellors. This is enough for Richard who interrupts Gaunt, menacing to kill him. But as the latter is not afraid of dying any more, he accuses the king of having been involved in the murder of Thomas of Gloucester, whereupon Richard furiously leaves the room and John of Gaunt dies.

Here we are shown that the king has no clean record; the image of him which Gaunt depicts is entirely negative. His speech is a bad omen for England's future, but Richard is not wise enough to listen to his uncle because he dislikes any critique. He only came to visit him with the ulterior motive to use Gaunt's money to fund the war, not to be given a lecture. Such behavior, childish and disrespectful, will harm himself because even those formerly loyal to him prefer to be on his enemy's side. John of Gaunt's curse is an abundantly clear warning, but not the only one Richard does elide. York, even if he tries to adulate the king (“I do beseech your majesty impute his words / To wayward sickness and age in him”, 1.141-42), admits to be dissatisfied with Richard's ignorance. Never has he said a word, but now he speaks up: “Seek you to seize and gripe into your hands / The royalties and rights of banished Hereford? / Is not Gaunt dead? and doth not Hereford live?” (1.189-191). Possibly offending the nobility does not frighten him off at all, and the king leaves. Braun sees a structuring as far as foreshadowing, warning, and fulfillment are concerned:


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William Shakespeare's "King Richard II". Functions and Effects of Subtle Warnings
University of Stuttgart
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william, shakespeare, king, richard
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Manü Mohr (Author), 2012, William Shakespeare's "King Richard II". Functions and Effects of Subtle Warnings, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/231891


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