The Efficacy of Language

A key theme throughout Richard II relates to the relative efficacy—or inefficacy—of language to create real change in the world. Of all the characters in the play, Bolingbroke is the one for whom word and action are most consistently aligned. He announces this alignment when challenging Mowbray to a duel: “What my tongue speaks my right-drawn sword may prove” (1.1.47). His quick rise in the estimation of commoners and nobles alike reflects a similar capacity to use words to significant effect. Northumberland indicates as much when he comments on how much he’s enjoyed Bolingbroke’s company on the challenging journey to Berkeley Castle: “These high wild hills and rough uneven ways / Draws out our miles and makes them wearisome. / And yet your fair discourse hath been as sugar, / Making the hard way sweet and delectable” (2.3.4–7). The evident sweetness of Bolingbroke’s speech gives him the edge he needs to convert the people to his cause. By the end of the play, when Bolingbroke has been crowned as King Henry IV, he demonstrates the efficacy of his speech by variously executing, exiling, and exonerating his enemies for their transgressions.

In contrast to Bolingbroke, King Richard constantly struggles to make his language effective. As early as the play’s first scene, we get a glimpse of Richard’s inability to issue authoritative commands: “Since we cannot atone you, we shall see / Justice design the victor’s chivalry” (1.1.208–209). But though he fails to command reconciliation, Richard retains the power of his office, which he uses to announce the banishment of both Mowbray and Bolingbroke. In recognition of the king’s capacity to exile him with “one little word,” Bolingbroke marvels bitterly at the power vested in “the breath of kings” (1.3.218 and 220). Yet the king’s word doesn’t prove infallible. Almost as soon as Richard banishes Bolingbroke for ten years, he commutes the sentence to six. Even this number will be ignored when Bolingbroke returns to England early to reclaim his stolen birthright. Bolingbroke’s refusal to respect the king’s word marks a turning point. As the play continues and the king rapidly loses ground, Richard’s increasingly inefficacious speech grows progressively more poetic and long-winded. Unable to make anything happen, his speech grows increasingly elaborate. But however accomplished he may be as a poet, his words remain powerless to effect change in the world

The Alignment between Name and Identity

Linked to the matter of language’s efficacy is the problematic relationship between a person’s name and their identity. For modern readers, it’s notable how many of the characters in Shakespeare’s history plays have numerous names. Though sometimes referred to by their first name or a nickname, they are just as often known by their family name or—if they are part of the nobility—by their title. Names therefore communicate a great deal about relative degrees of formality, familiarity, and honorability. To call someone by their nickname indicates the informal familiarity of close friends or kin. To call someone by their title indicates respect for the reputation of the office or the lineage of that family that holds it. On both social and personal levels, then, names play a significant role in defining or shaping the identities of Shakespeare’s characters. In Richard II, however, we see many characters struggle with misalignments between what others call them and how they perceive themselves.

One characteristic example of this misalignment between name and identity appears in act 2, scene 3, when Bolingbroke breaks the terms of his exile and returns to England early. As Bolingbroke approaches Berkeley Castle, Lord Berkeley greets him as “my Lord of Hereford” (2.3.72). Bolingbroke is quick to correct Berkeley: “My lord, my answer is—to ‘Lancaster’; / And I am come to seek that name in England” (2.3.73–4). With the death of his father, John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke should no longer be addressed by his old title, the Duke of Hereford. Instead, he should inherit his father’s rank as the Duke of Lancaster. Although Richard has chosen not to honor this inheritance, Bolingbroke insists on his right to the higher title. His demand that others recognize him by this name will ultimately lead him to earn an even more regal name: King Henry IV. Just as Bolingbroke gains the highest honorific in the land, Richard loses it. The loss of his kingship is tantamount to a complete loss of identity. He implies as much when, after Bolingbroke asks him if he’s “contented to resign the crown,” he replies: “Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be” (4.1.209–210).

The Divine Right of Kingship

A key theme that links Richard II to Shakespeare’s other history plays is related to the question of whether the king of England is divinely appointed—that is, whether he is, as John of Gaunt puts it, God’s “deputy anointed in his sight” (1.2.40). King Richard himself believes strongly in the divine authority of his appointment. He makes his position clear in act 3, scene 2, where he dismisses Aumerle’s concern that Bolingbroke “grows strong and great in substance and in power” (3.2.35). In response, Richard asserts the divine authority that secures his claim to the throne: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king. / The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” (3.2.55–58). No earthly force can remove the metaphysical “balm” that officially anointed him as king. Likewise, no word from mortal, “worldly men” has the power to depose him. In sharp contrast to Richard’s belief in the divine right of kings, Bolingbroke sees the throne as being purely a matter of politics. Instead of God’s sanction, he wins the throne in a game of political one-upmanship.

Other than Richard, the only character who seems convinced that kingship is divinely granted is the Duke of York. He indicates as much in act 2, scene 3, where he chastises Bolingbroke for thinking he can claim the throne simply by returning to England when the king is gone: “Why, foolish boy, the King is left behind / And in my loyal bosom lies his power” (2.3.101–102). These lines reference the early modern theory of the king’s two bodies. According to this theory, the king has both a mortal body (the “body natural”) and an immortal body (the “body politic”). When the mortal body dies, the political body of the king lives on in his successor. Alternatively, a king may temporarily confer the power of the body politic on to a deputy in his stead. This explains why York claims that the king’s power lies in his own “loyal bosom.” Yet York also recognizes that, despite possessing this divine sanction, he lacks the material means to stop Bolingbroke’s rebellion. This situation contributes to his eventual decision to abandon Richard and implicitly set aside his insistence on the divine right of kings.