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Richard II, Shakespeare Commentary: Excerpt B

Publié le 09/02/2023

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« Richard II, Shakespeare Commentary: Excerpt B In 1962 J.


Austin published How to do things with words in which he establishes the notion of “performative utterance” which is the idea that some sentences accomplish something when expressed.

This is especially true for Kings whom’s words act as legal decisions.

Therefore, analyzing the excerpt we’re given through Austin’s work reveals interesting aspects of Richard II’s authority.

Indeed in this passage, taken form Act 1 scene 3, Richard II bans Thomas Mowbray and Bolingbroke from English lands after having canceled their duel abruptly.

Their quarrel, which was the very opening scene of the play, began when Henry Bolingbroke accused Mowbray of the murder of Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, which in truth was perpetuated by Mowbray on order of the King.

Since the beginning Mowbray has remained loyal to the King by keeping silent on the matter.

In this excerpt, Mowbray reacts to the King’s sentence which differs from that of Bolingbroke and both, Mowbray and Bolingbroke, take an oath to never cross paths or plot against the King. Bolingbroke and Mowabray’s fates lie in the King’s hands, or rather, his words. Therefore we’ll see how this excerpt illustrates the power of the King’s speech while testifying on the prevalence of speech imagery in the play. We’ll first study Mowbray’s punishment, then we’ll explain how speech holds more power than actions in the excerpt.

Finally we’ll show that Richard II’s speech is changing and unreliable. *** We’ll first explain how Mowbray’s severe and merciless punishment reflects the King’s power. Firstly, Mowbray’s loyalty to Richard II isn’t rewarded.

Indeed, since the beginning of the play Thomas Mowbray has remained silent on the matter of The Duke of Gloucester’s murder.

He has almost risked death, he’s now facing eternal banishment for a murder he committed on the King’s orders.

Richard II even alludes to the debt he owes Mowbray in the passage: “Norfolk for thee remains a heavier doom // Which I with some unwillingness pronounce” (l.149,150).

To which Mowbray responds: “A heavy sentence (...) // all unlooked for from your highness’ mouth” (l.154,155).

Even when Mowbray’s pushed to confess to “unburden” his “guilty soul” he remains silent, showing absolute allegiance to the king.

Apart from being one of the few loyal characters to Richard II in the play, Mowbray is also the one to warn Richard II from Bolingbroke’s caracter, he foresees what’s about to come: (speaking to Bolingbroke) “But what thou at, God, thou and I do know // And all too soon, I fear, the King shall rue” (l.203, l.204).

Yet his silence, synonym of fidelity to the King, isn’t sufficient to save him from eternal banishment and questioning Richard II’s decision or attempting to appeal to his pity serves no use. Still, Thomas Mowbray, afflicted by such a punishment, compares his situation to that of an instrument unable to make music.

Indeed, Shakespeare plays with two parallel and complementary sets of metaphors having to do with instruments/music and mouth/speech. By comparing the use he no longer has of English (his native tongue) to an instrument in the hands of an unskilled person, Mowbray stresses the importance of the King’s sentence, and their impact on his own speech.

Furthermore, imagery of the tongue is recurrent in the play, the initial dispute between Mowbray and Bolingbroke is the “bitter clamor of two eager tongues” and now Mowbray’s tongue is “no more // Than an unstringèd viol or harp, // Or like a cunning instrument cased up // Or, being open, put into his hands // That knows no touch to tune the harmony.” (l.161-165). Finally, Richard’s authority is also reflected in the extent of Mowbray’s punishment compared to Bolingbroke’s.

Indeed, Henry Bolingbroke initially faces 10 years of banishment while Mowbray faces eternal exile: “the dateless limit of thy dear exile” (l.151) which is enhanced by the use of “determinate”(l.150) and Mowbray’s metaphor “to dwell in endless nights” which is contrasted by his “country’s light”.

Richard’s authority cannot be challenged or questioned as we can see when Mowbray expresses his distress, Richard replies: “After our sentence, plaining comes too late” (l.175) which says how irrevocable the King’s words are, Richard himself speaks of “hopeless word”(l.152) concerning Mowbray’s sentence. *** Now we’ll see how in the passage words are as powerful – if not more – as actions.

This idea is expressed through the oath taken by Bulingbroke and Mowbray and through the jail imagery used by Mowbray. Firstly, as God’s deputy on earth, the King’s speech is most powerful.

Indeed, by making both culprits take an oath Richard II is exercising his divine right.

According to Tudor authorities, Richard’s power is based on the divine rights of Kings.

Because of Richard’s “body politic”, idea established by E.Kantorowicz which considers a King’s body immortal when embodying God’s power, Shakespeare uses “us”, “our” instead of “me”, “mine” when Richard is speaking:.... »


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