Crom’s Deep Dive: Richard II, Act 3 Scene 2

“Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs”

Robert de Vere fleeing the Battle of Radcot Bridge, from the Chroniques of Jean Froissart
See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs”

The first in this series of Deep Dives will look at the language and linguistic devices employed in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II. First, however, a caveat: I have no formal teaching in the analysis of language and as such all observations are based on my own interpretation. I have over the years, however, read widely at times on the techniques used to write emphatic, emotional and persuasive language. This reading has been biased towards my own interests which are bound to exclude and overlook much.

Richard II is one of only two of Shakespeare’s plays written entirely in verse. It oozes the confidence of a man at the height of his prowess and uses King Richard to deliver some of the most flamboyant and fanciful (some may stretched) language he wrote. There are many excerpts that would warrant an article but I’ve chosen this one for, whilst it is lofty and flamboyant, it is also accessible and language easy enough to delve in to.

The play opens with King Richard II exiling one of his noble subjects, Henry Bolingbroke, initially for ten years but reduced to six upon appeal by Bolingbroke’s father John of Gaunt (Four lagging winters and four wanton springs | End in a word: such is the breath of kings.). During Bolingbroke’s exile John of Gaunt dies (leaving us with one of the most incredible of speeches: This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle, | This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars…).

Upon the passing of John of Gaunt, King Richard seizes Bolingbroke’s rightful inheritance to fund his wars in Ireland (Think what you will, we seize into our hands | His plate, his goods, his money and his lands). When news of this is received by Bolingbroke, he breaks his exile and returns to England to rally support from the nobles to, officially, petition King Richard to return his inheritance and not, of course, to overthrow him.

Act 3, scene 2 sees King Richard arrive from Ireland to the beach at Harlech Castle. There is an interesting side note here: in almost all texts the castle is presented as Barkloughly. This is a product of Shakespeare adopting the spelling from his source (The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshead c. 1577) which has Harlech recorded as Barclowie, which just oozes north Welsh accent with the stressed third syllable falling on the ‘w’.

Shortly after arriving on the beach, Sir Steven Scroop approaches King Richard: “More health and happiness betide my liege | Than can my care-tuned tongue deliver him”: the news he is about to deliver is not good. “Strives Bolingbroke to be as great as we?”. And thus the blow that Bolingbroke is rallying the nation is delivered, in real and grim language. This is Scroop’s only speaking role – but what a brilliant bit of dialogue to have. It’s perhaps clever of Shakespeare to deliver this piece of news via somebody who has the capacity to speak in the intense imagery Richard mostly does himself. Any other character delivering the news would have a more vested interest. Instead, independent Scroop is permitted full force which he takes with both hands:

Whitebeards have armed their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty; boys with women’s voices
Strive to speak big and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown;                                       1525
The very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
Of double-fatal yew against thy state;
Yea, distaff-women manage rusty bills
Against thy seat. Both young and old rebel,

And all goes worse than I have power to tell.                               1530

Richard enquires as to how his fawning lackies Bushy, Baggot and Green have let this happen, receiving the reply “their peace is made | With heads, and not with hands”.  It’s quite the blow.

And thus the scene is set up for King Richard’s tongue to let forth a beautifully written, bold and exuberant speech on the validity and meaning of Kingship. There is no original stage direction but the woe and desperation pours forth from Richard. It uncloaks and uncrowns a King not just through the language but through the linguistical devices employed, too.

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 deposèd bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’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 poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed—
All murdered. 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 feared and kill with looks,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable, and humoured 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?

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; 1555

First person objective personal pronoun (us) used to open the line groups Richard and those around him into equals; or, more specifically, it pleadingly includes himself within their group. He has not instructed, as is his right, but instead requested. It mirrors the closing of his speech with the rhetorical How can you say to me I am King?.

graves’; ‘worms’; ‘epitaphs’. We’ll leave aside the obvious imagery of death and decay and note, of course, the hendiatris: three words expressing one idea. The long, elongated vowels slow the cadence of the line down. It’s testament to Richard’s eloquence that his language at this point is not plosive (hard sounding, lip-closed Ps; Bs; etc. he has previously vented his anger at the news O villains, vipers, damn’d without redemption! | Dogs, easily won to fawn on any man!) but initially languorous. It gives the speech a ponderous, woeful tone from the outset.

The stresses from the iambic pentameter fall beautifully upon each noun and delivers the line in a lovely ponderous de-dum-de-dum-de-dum… The semi-colon caesura closing the line gives yet another long pause. The impression is this is not a burst of anger: it’s a man giving voice to his troubles.

As an aside: it’s interesting that Richard automatically thinks of the demise not of the crown but of himself, his mortal body. Much has been written about the imagery of the ‘ground’ and the ‘earth’ in this play with some productions going so far as to have a mound of soil on stage. It’s a common theme throughout.

Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,

Wow. “Make dust our paper”. What a wonderful metaphor, conjuring a dusty barren earth and continuing the identity of it with the body. Following on from 1555 it easily suggests burials with teary attendants “writing sorrow” as the tears fall, invoking a beautiful and stirring dual pathetic fallacy. There’s a transitory and thus mortal, un-kingly imagery, too: unto dust thou shalt return. Powerful stuff.

Bosom of the earth. Once again earth and soil and the ground are invoked as giving life to and suckling us. As mentioned above it’s a very common theme throughout – one for a separate article perhaps.

The dual alliteration of rainy eyes | write sorrow really make the lines fluidly roll into each other. One could argue there’s a sibilance of the Ss in sorrow, bosom, and a plosive element in paper and bosom which informs the following lines, but that’s potentially stretching it somewhat.

Linguistically, Richard is playing with the elongated internal vowels again, stretching each syllable. There is no anger here, it’s a continuity of woe and internal rumination. It has the effect of slowing the meter, forcing the actor to articulate ponderously.

Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposéd bodies to the ground? 1560

There’s that “us” again – objective personal pronoun, including himself within the group around him. Here, Richard expands on his own mortality and upon his death what is there left of him but the body within the ground.

There’s something very subtle here: deposéd bodies. The e-acute (é) forces the extra syllable to match the meter with somewhat of a nice sibilance too. But: deposed bodies?  Richard is invoking and conjoining his mortal and royal body, for both shall be deposed and overthrown and secured within the earth. He’s speaking treasonously against himself and thus poses the question of who can overthrow a rightful King (very important for the actual deposition scene much later).

Whilst Shakespeare gives him some of the most beautiful language he wrote, it largely masks a vain and weak King. Here, upon news of his Kingship being challenged, Richard, within a few lines, mentally consigns his royal status and seems to accept his future demise. It’s very clever by Shakespeare: the play was written around 1595 and likely performed shortly after. Elizabeth I was heirless and the possibility of the play appearing as encouraging a real deposition had to be tactfully avoided.

These few lines seem a preoccupied ramble. Richard is past the flamboyant language and lofty metaphors and is faux-concerned with the legal, the nitty-gritty which ultimately doesn’t gain traction as, as Richard says, “what’s the point?”

It’s wonderfully used to bring Richard back down to the reality of the situation in the following lines. i.e.: Bolingbroke’s challenge.

Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’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.

Note the hendiatrus again, lands, lives, and all, emphasised with the stressed syllable falling on the nouns. There can be no confusion as to Richard’s utter mental forfeiture of his Kingship, but further to that the question is again posed: is the forfeiture of all the Kind’s lands, lives and all enough to wash away an anointed King?

Here’s the first admission of Richard’s thoughts: death. These lines pre-empt what will later come about the mortality of Richard himself; but here is the admission that the removal of all built-up Kingship – the pomp, the titles, the privileges – take those away and he is but a man: a man whose list of ownership extends to his body and the parcel of ‘barren earth’ to lie upon, and to lie under. His grave, for the worms, and no thought of even an epitaph.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;

There’s been a preoccupation for Richard so far: loss and mortality. Here he confronts his thoughts and a fundamental thread of the entire play directly.

“For God’s sake”. It is entirely right that, prior to sitting on this desolate, windy Welsh beach, Richard’s invocation is made. It isn’t one of early-modern and modern frustration: it’s a gaunt, terrified invocation of the protection of God from the reality of Richard being a mere mortal man. The remainder of the speech expounds on this and leaves no stone unturned.

Let us (there’s the us again) sit upon the ground. The visuals of this action would have been far more powerful in Elizabethan age than now. A King, abasing (debasing?) himself to sit not in privilege, not upon a dais or a throne, but upon the ground – upon a windy, desolate beach. It offers a producer a wonderful moment for some very awkward actions from the rest of the actors on stage: do they remain standing, do they sit, do they look comfortable?

It’s possibly opportunistic, and definitely subtle, but the sibilance of sad stories, both book-ended and internal, introduces sadness, a tragic tone rather than the more generally accepted use to sound sinister. The long vowels of death and kings carries this, too, with the last syllable trailing away (and, note, falling on kings itself). And, as for kings: a hard K and wonderful example of a perfectly-used velar stop to truncate the sentence injecting, if the actor wishes, a sound of scorn, mockery or tragedy. Truly beautiful writing.

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: … 1570

Count the Ss in these four lines alone. 13. Out of 163 characters. 8%. Unintentional? Possible. But what’s the effect of them when voiced from an actor upon the stage, all eyes of the audience upon him? Sinister, menacing, detached.

The deposed (twice); haunted; slain; poisoned; killed. It all builds to the half line, spoken in disbelief with the full weight of realisation: all murdered. The vowels play havoc with the meter further increasing the dissonance and detachment of it when spoken. We’ve a few nice plosives going on for some dramatic effect through the lines, too, giving the actor plenty of flexibility on delivery.

In these lines Richard has stopped the lofty metaphors and heightened speaking: it’s reality now speaking. Shakespeare simplifies Richard’s language to further heighten the effect of Scroop’s news on him.

…For within the hollow crown 1570
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, 1575
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! 1580

Wow. Where to start…

Hollow. The connotations attached are many and, in this context, all negative: superficial and without substance. It’s anathema to the crown: prestigious, solid, all-important. It conjures up a crown of thorns, further questioning the validity of an earthly king. The voiceless, glottal fricative of the H carries with it an emptiness – it’s almost onomatopoeic. Followed by the hard C of crown, too, it’s scornful in tone.

The meter is used beautifully with the stresses falling on the first syllable of mortal and temples; but is amended slightly for of a to be unstressed, emphasising the hard velar stop on the K of king – it’s guttural, spiteful, sinister, scornful: bitter.

The alliterative king | Keeps death his court forces the line on, flowing without the pauses and consideration initially seen earlier on by Richard. It picks up pace and passion.

NB: antic: archaic adjective for grotesque. It feeds the disgust of scoffing his state, further increased by the alliterative sibilance and the plosive pomp and the following lines.

As Richard progresses through these lines, his strides and pace quicken and gives forth to beautiful metaphors again but it’s more grounded, simpler and less lofty. He’s becoming master of himself once more, but only his mortal self. They’re less celestial and much more mortal. It builds, a crescendo, a finale to the deflating, flatly resounding, pathetic four syllables of: and farewell King! Note the stress on the velar stop of K followed by the trailing long vowel of the I – it’s strikingly beautiful, utterly perfect writing.

From a producer’s point of view, an actor here has enormous scope of delivery at this point: defiant, bitter, overwhelmed, weak, strong. All would work. But the overall tone remains: a king reduced to a man acutely aware of his mortality, scoffed at by death who builds up the king’s vanity only, at the last, to carry him away, too.

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:

The abasement Richard has imposed on himself throughout comes to a head here. The last line is beautifully built up to: the rolling polysyllabics give way to simple, hard-sounding monosyllabics to deliver that simple message: you have but mistook me all this while. The meter falls off two or three unstressed syllables of all this while, exacerbated by the elongated vowels and a stark contrast to the for you have but. It’s infused with tragedy and more than a tone of bitterness.

I live with bread like you, feel want, 1585

Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a king?

These three lines are possibly some of the most heartfelt Sh wrote (for me). Richard’s vulnerability is so bare to see that we don’t mock his weakness. We are forced to feel pity and sympathy. From his choice of words we see ourselves in him – he’s completely shed the regal cloak and stands (or sits, still?) bare before us: a mortal man plucked down from high.

From the first proclamation; I live….like you. Richard is telling us, he’s like us. He lives, needs nourishment. The invocation of bread of course has religious connotations, too. His need is more spiritual than ours as God’s representative on Earth. He feels. He tastes. He is subjected. The King! Subjected. If there wasn’t such desperate passion in the lines it could invite a chuckle from the audience. Instead, it’s turned round on to us, being rhetorically asked: how can you say to me that I am king? Phonetically the lines are slowed down with word choices containing again those long vowels for a measured pace; there are no hard plosive sounds so it avoids anger; there is few if any examples of true sibilance.


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