Richard II

by: William Shakespeare

Act III, scene iii

Summary Act III, scene iii

The events of this scene also point to the hypocrisy of politics, since much of the underlying political maneuvering is masked by half-truths. Bolingbroke, and his ally Northumberland, still claim that they have come to face Richard for no other reason than to restore to Bolingbroke his ancestral titles; yet everyone present is fully aware that Bolingbroke will not be satisfied until he sits on the throne of England. Richard, realizing this, invokes the traditional concept of the divine sanction conferred upon a king: "[W]ell we know no hand of blood and bone / Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre, / Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp" (79-81).

Richard follows this up with another dark prophecy: if Bolingbroke insists upon treasonously opening "[t]he purple testament of bleeding war" (94), then he will never possess the crown until that war has wracked the land, staining "[h]er pastures' grass with faithful English blood" (100). Shakespeare's audience would have recognized this as a foreshadowing of the civil wars that lay ahead in the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. Northumberland does not help matters when he speaks up on Bolingbroke's behalf and swears, by the royal blood and the dead bodies of Richard and Bolingbroke's ancestors, that his leader has only come to reclaim his inheritance and has no thought of becoming king. This claim, clearly an equivocation at best and an outright lie at worst, sets the stage for the horrors that follow when Bolingbroke breaks that vow.

Knowing his reign is at an end, Richard indulges again in the elaborate language of despair that first appeared at Act III, scene ii, and to which we saw Isabel succumbing in Act III, scene i. "O that I were as great / As I have been, or lesser than my name! / O that I could forget what I have been!" laments the king. The famous image he invokes of himself and Aumerle digging their own graves with their tears (160-169) marks a new level of fanciful thought. Although Richard's despair has been transformed into extraordinary poetry, he no longer seems capable of taking much action in the real world. As Northumberland says, he speaks "fondly like a frantic man" (that is, a madman).