Prophecies and Curses

Foreshadowing plays a significant role throughout Richard II. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the play features many ominous prophecies and curses that predict future conflict and doom. The first consequential prophecy appears in act 2, scene 1, where John of Gaunt warns Richard that his ill conduct has desecrated England and will result in his downfall: “Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land, / Wherein thou liest in reputation sick” (2.1.101–102). For his part, Richard offers his own vision of what will befall those who stand against him. Sounding more like an Old Testament prophet than an English king, Richard tells Northumberland: “my master, God omnipotent, / Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf / Armies of pestilence, and they shall strike / Your children yet unborn and unbegot” (3.3.87–90). As the play’s action intensifies, so too does the frequency of such dystopian visions. Queen Isabel curses her gardener for speaking ill of her husband in act 3, scene 4; the Bishop of Carlisle prophesies civil war in act 4, scene 1; and York warns Bolingbroke, newly crowned as King Henry IV, against showing mercy to his would-be assassins, “lest thy pity prove /A serpent that will sting thee to the heart” (5.3.57–58).

Descent and Ascent

As a play characterized primarily by the fall of one king and the rise of another, Richard II frequently emphasizes images of descent and ascent. From the very beginning, the language of descent is subtly apparent, as when Bolingbroke says to Richard, with a veneer of admiration that already betokens his future rebellion: “Many years of happy days befall / My gracious sovereign, my most loving liege” (1.1.21–22). In act 1, scene 3, prior to the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the king comes down from his viewing platform to embrace Bolingbroke, saying: “We will descend and fold him in our arms” (1.3.54). This downward movement foreshadows another physical descent Richard makes in act 3, scene 3, when he comes down from the battlements of Flint Castle to meet with Bolingbroke: “Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaëton” (3.3.183). These literal descents prefigure Richard’s figurative descent, when he is eventually cast off the throne. And just as Richard falls, Bolingbroke’s fortunes steadily rise. Shakespeare clearly reflects this down-and-up dynamic in the gardener’s metaphor of measuring scales (3.4.91–96) and in Richard’s metaphor of two water buckets (4.1.192–98).


References to blood abound in Richard II, establishing a complex and pervasive motif that relates, variously, to matters of noble lineage, ties of kinship, and the civil conflict of brother against brother. The matter of blood first arises in act 1, scene 2. There, the Duchess of Gloucester urges John of Gaunt to take action against Richard for his role in the murder of her husband: Thomas of Gloucester. The Duchess’s grief is both for a husband and for a man descended from royal blood. Indeed, the spilling of his “sacred blood,” which she mentions twice (in lines 12 and 15), demands retribution—especially against the king, in whose heart pumps the same “precious liquor” (1.2.20). Blood here symbolizes both royal lineage and the violence of brother against brother. Both blood-related motifs continue throughout the play. Perhaps most significantly, blood images play a key role in several prophecies about England’s future downfall. Bolingbroke makes one such prophecy, where he envisions that a “crimson tempest should bedrench / The fresh green lap of fair King Richard’s land” (3.3.48–49). Richard himself echoes this image in his subsequent prophecy of “bleeding war” that will “bedew / [England’s] pastures’ grass with faithful English blood” (3.3.96, 101–102).