Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Richard II - Unking'd[*]

[*By popular demand (viz., two comment requests, which is good enough for me), I am once again giving my Shakespeare posts their own space to roam free, rather than dumping them in this old post here. That post now contains updates discussing Love's Labour's Lost  and The Merry Wives of Windsor — which appear as addenda at the top of the post — in addition to whatever it was I talked about when I originally posted it ... something about editing Shakespeare plays, I think. But I won't be adding to that post anymore.]

At line 16 of Act II, scene i of The Riverside Shakespeare's edition of Richard II, editor Herschel Baker supplies the following footnote gloss for the word "undeaf":
undeaf. One of several such negative words in the play. See unhappied (III. i. 10), uncurse (III. ii. 137), unsay (IV. i. 9), undo (IV. i. 203), unking (IV. i. 220, V.v. 37), undeck (IV, i, 250), unkiss (V. i. 74)
... and that's it; the footnote ends there. Later in the play, at the various occurrences of each of these other odd "un-" words, passim, Baker supplies additional footnotes referring you back to his original "un-" footnote, but offers no more insight.

It's kind of bizarre that Baker proffers this observation but makes no attempt to tell us what he thinks it means in any larger sense. All of the play's strange "un-" words, I would maintain, collectively supply an excellent point of access into one of the main themes — perhaps the major theme — of the play. I suspect Baker thinks so, too — why else would he point this out? — but for some reason never explicitly comes out and says it1. I appreciate the fact that he footnotally brings attention to these words because there's just no way they would have stood out to me on their own. Hiding in plain sight, they are right up there, I would say, with all of the instances of hendiadys in Hamlet except that those, being occurrences of a relatively obscure rhetorical trope, are even less likely to be noticed on a casual, or for that matter even close, reading; and, in fact, no one really noticed how many there were in Hamlet until the 20th century; and the reason for Shakespeare's borderline-obsessive use of hendiadys in that one play, Hamlet, remains a bit of a mystery. People now realize it's there, like some weird textual Tourette's tic, but no one has a particularly compelling explanation as to why.

But the appearance of "un-" words in overplus in RII makes perfect sense because the play is about the undoing of a king; in fact, the word "unking'd" (which may or may not be of Shakespearean coinage — I haven't had a chance to research it yet) appears twice in the play, in both instances spoken by Richard himself. When Bullingbrook2 asks Richard: "Are you contented to resign the crown?", Richard replies
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,
And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!
Long mayst thou live in Richard's seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!
God save King Harry, unking'd Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!
What more remains? [emphasis added]
Later, just before he is murdered, Richard soliloquizes:
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 king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bullingbrook,
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. [emphasis added]
Richard II is about the unmaking of a king, but also about quite a few other kinds of unmakings and undoings, and thus the fact that the text is littered with so many rare and unique "un-" phrasings and neologisms is thematically appropriate and, what's more, meaningful.

Early in the play, Richard himself "uncountries" (so to speak) his cousin Bullingbrook by banishing him from the realm for 10 years — which Richard later reduces to six years when he witnesses the tears this sentence brings to the eyes of Bullingbrook's father, John of Gaunt (who is also Richard's uncle and trusted counselor); later, when Gaunt dies, Richard "uninherits" Bullingbrook by taking control of Gaunt's possessions and lands — which should have gone to Henry Bullingbrook by right — to fund his Irish wars.

It is this insult and gross illegality that causes Bullingbrook, who is far more popular with the common people than Richard, to return early from exile, invade England and demand his rightful inheritance. It is pointed out to Richard that, in taking Bullingbrook's possessions, he is ignoring the very same law of inheritance that made Richard himself King when his grandfather, Edward III, died3. Thus, in a sense, when Bullingbrook invades England, he does so in defense of the principle of inheritance, primogeniture and line-of-succession that made Richard, and every English king, king. Bullingbrook unkings a king who has in a sense unkinged himself at a remove by ignoring the long-standing legal convention that made him king.

The deposing of Richard is, of course, the single most important event (in Shakespeare's universe, anyway) in the civil strife that eventually became known as The War of the Roses; it is the Original Sin, the primary cause of the unrest that ensued and lasted for decades. Richard's "unkinging" cast a pall over every monarch after Richard up until the ascension of Henry VII (in whom the Houses of York and Lancaster were finally reconciled) nearly eight decades later. In Richard II, as in the Henry VI plays, there is much discussion regarding when it is and is not licit to depose a king. And while Richard is portrayed as a poor king, insular, despotic and too easily swayed by sycophantic court  favorites4, when he is deposed and Bullingbrook says "In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne", the Bishop of Carlisle issues this dire warning:
Marry. God forbid!
Worst in this royal presence may I speak,
Yet best beseeming me to speak the truth.
Would God that any in this noble presence
Were enough noble to be upright judge
Of noble Richard! then true noblesse would
Learn him forbearance from so foul a wrong.
What subject can give sentence on his king?
And who sits here that is not Richard's subject?
Thieves are not judged but they are by to hear,
Although apparent guilt be seen in them;
And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy-elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judged by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not present? O, forfend it, God,
That in a Christian climate souls refined
Should show so heinous, black, obscene a deed!
I speak to subjects, and a subject speaks,
Stirr'd up by God, thus boldly for his king:
My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford's king:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call'd
The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child's children, cry against you woe! [Emphasis added]
All of which, of course comes trues, especially during the reign of Henry VI. The play sort of tries to have it both ways, making a case in favor of Richard's deposition, but also foretelling national doom and civil strife for the sin of "unkinging" a legitimate king.

Richard II was a pleasure to read; some of Shakespeare's most beautiful passages appear in the play, including Gaunt's famous paean to the Island of England itself:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
It is, significantly, a speech Gaunt delivers when he recognizes that King Richard, with his policy of leasing out land to raise funds for his war, is in the process of undoing much of what had made England great.

The play also includes this beautiful and despairing speech of Richard's, spoken when he realizes that he will not be able to prevail against Bullingbrook's insurrection:

[... O]f comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bullingbrook's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
The despair of the nobly-born on display in the speech above is destined to be even more fully explored in King Lear. But this passage rivals some of the best in Lear.

1 After I read the play, I read Baker's Introduction (I always read introductions afterwards so they don't unduly influence my own take on the play), and nowhere in his Introduction does he pick up on this "un-" thread. This, for me, was for some reason one of the weirdest things about reading this play.

2 I.e., Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV, who deposes Richard II in a weirdly contrived and unconvincing "deposition" scene in which Richard gives long, self-pitying and -contradictory answers to Bullingbrook's more-or-less straightforward lines, such as "I thought you had been willing to resign" and "Are you contented to resign the crown?" The deposition scene is doubly staged because Shakespeare, as author of the play, stages it for his audience; but Bullingbrook, as the usurper looking to legitimize his power grab, stages the scene for his audience — the English people — as well; Bullingbrook needs to make it seem that Richard is giving up the throne of his own free will so that no one can accuse him of being an illegitimate monarch. But of course when the man who is allegedly granting you his crown does so while being held as your prisoner, that is a set of circumstances that is pretty much designed to strain the definition of "willing"; and, in any case, Richard, in the deposition scene, doesn't comply with the requirement that he admit his crimes nor does he ever really say that he is giving up the throne of his own free will.

3 Richard's own father, Edward the Black Prince, predeceased Edward III and so Richard, as the eldest surviving son of the Prince, became next in line to the  throne.

4 This is more discussed than shown. Shakespeare seems here to rely more on his audience's familiarity with Richard II's reputation as an incompetent king who, at one time during his reign, was semi-unking'd when the Lords Appellant ruled and put an end to some of what were perceived as Richard's abuses. All of this happens in the play's pre-history, in the late 1380s; RII begins in the late 1390s, after Richard has already had his revenge on many of those who had challenged him.


  1. I'm quoting Ron Burgundy. You're quoting Shakespeare. Oy vey. Funny thing is that my mother is an English teacher and very knowledgeable on the subject - somehow it didn't transfer. Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner - well, that is another story.

    My hamstrings are sore after 1.5 miles. How pathetic am I???

  2. This play is a favorite of mine and you've quoted some great passages. Derek Jacobi starred in it on the BBC Shakespeare series some years ago, and now he's going to do King Lear in new York this spring. You wrote that was perhaps Shakespeare's greatest play so I expect you to go to new york to see it (unless, like your dad, you can't get yourself out of the house except to work and do errands).

    Now this hendiadys thing- I never heard of that before and the wikipedia explanation is a bit daunting: "For example, Mark 2, 25 has "in need and hungry" which Richard Young considers hendiadys for "very hungry" but Wayne Leman suggests is instead an example of "semantic intensification due to Hebraic synonymous parallelism."[2]

  3. I'm thinking you found a way to get paid for every time someone clicks a link to things like "hendiadys" (which, apparently, I mispronounce, or perhaps... just perhaps... Wikipedia got something wrong for once).

    @Anonymous: Wayne Leman's right, but you'd have to study ancient Hebrew to really get it. That'd fill you with pith and vinegar (which may or not be hendiadic, I'm not sure).

  4. btw, still reading Chapman's plays and still not getting anything out of them.