Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me.
Let’s purge this choler without letting blood.
This we prescribe, though no physician.
Deep malice makes too deep incision.
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed.
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.
(Act 1, scene 1, lines 156–61)

The play opens with a scene in which Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of killing his uncle—an accusation to which Mowbray responds by throwing down his gage and challenging Bolingbroke to single combat. The tension between these men quickly grows heated, and Richard, seeking to demonstrate his kingly authority, declaims these words. Richard’s speech combines the directness of a command with a certain poetic eloquence. After ordering the disputants to “be ruled by me,” he attempts to ease their wrath through an extended metaphor about illness—theirs is an affliction that cannot be cured by bloodletting. But for all his rhetorical finesse, and despite his authority as king, neither Bolingbroke nor Mowbray agree to “be ruled.”

The language I have learnt these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo;
And now my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringèd viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.
Within my mouth you have enjailed my tongue,
Doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips,
And dull unfeeling barren ignorance
Is made my jailor to attend on me.
(Act 1, scene 3, line 162–71)

After Richard interrupts the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, he announces that both men are to be banished from England. Whereas Bolingbroke must leave for six years, Mowbray must remain in exile for the rest of his life. Gobsmacked by the unexpected severity of this sentence, Mowbray describes his inability to speak. Given their subject matter, these lines are ironic for their eloquence and power. Mowbray succeeds, paradoxically, in expressing the inexpressible. This moment is important for the way it demonstrates a key theme in the play: the less power an individual has to effect change directly, the more elaborate and poetic their language becomes. In this way, Mowbray’s speech anticipates the extravagant soliloquies about grief that Queen Isabel and especially Richard will both deliver later in the play.

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.
(Act 5, scene 5, 31–41)

Alone and held prisoner in the remote Pontefract Castle, Richard attempts to keep himself entertained—and sane—by talking to himself. As his thoughts stray in numerous directions and spawn equally numerous emotions, he pretends that his thoughts are like people, each with their different “humors” (5.5.10). He imagines that these thought-people populate his “little world” (5.5.9). However, he quickly realizes that his elaborate wordplay has obscured a deeper truth: that all these different thoughts belong to him, and that in his “one person” there reside “many people.” In other words, his language games have done nothing but confuse him and lead him to the brink of insanity. He concludes that his suffering will cease only with the dissolution of language—and hence of existence itself.