, Research Paper
A Royal Reflection: The final soliloquy of Richard II
Richard’s final soliloquy (Richard II, V.v.1-66) marks both the culmination of his transformation from a callous monarch to a poetic philosopher and his moral ascent resulting from his deposition as the King of England. In this scene, Richard is alone, in a prison cell at Pomfret Castle, for the first time in the play. This privacy enables him to reveal an enlightened, reminiscent eloquence nurtured and developed since being freed from the burdens and constraints that weighed him down as king. However, this soliloquy does more than reveal the inner workings of a poet-King.
Of the several functions and purposes that this soliloquy has, none may be more straightforward as its role in the establishment of the setting for the important death scene. From his first few lines, Richard indicates that he is alone, locked away in a prison cell, and isolated from all external influences. Richard loosely summarizes the actions of the play, specifically Bullingbroke’s usurpation of the throne and his own decline. Much of what he says foreshadows his imminent death. However, it is only in the face of death that Shakespeare reveals the nature of the former king. The most important role that this passage plays is to demonstrate the transformation that Richard has undergone since relinquishing the crown. He is no longer a callous, self-absorbed elitist, but is self-reflective and poetic. An early example of this clever use of language is the hammer metaphor, which symbolizes his newfound ability to craft words and sentences in a rich and meaningful manner, and sets his brain and soul to breed thoughts.
Despite having surrendered the crown to his cousin early in Act IV, the unmasking of Richard is not complete until he has been imprisoned for a considerable length of time with nothing to do but think about the past. Despite whatever emotional or spiritual epiphanies Richard may have experienced, it is clear that he regrets his imprisonment. He explicitly states that he wishes he could dig his way out, or “tear a passage through my ragged prison walls” (RII, V.v.20-21). However, with is newfound clarity, he acknowledges the futility of any such effort.
Unfortunately, the exact length of Richard’s solitude is unknown. However, it is long enough for Richard’s false sense of security to be replaced by the opposite and wiser attitude in a world of “unstable values, security, and contentment are beyond human power” (Reed 70). He blatantly admits “no thought is contented” (RII, V.v.11). Richard’s only contentment is of a negative order as he becomes reflective and comforted by the realization that he is not the first to suffer misfortune (RII, V.v.28). In bearing misfortune, men find ‘a kind of ease’ by recalling that others have borne, or will bear, the same misfortune. He further thinks back to when he was still King, but cannot forget the recent circumstances leading to his abdication/deposition and is saddened by these memories.
More painful memories from Richard’s recent past are triggered in this scene. He recalls all of the “roles” he has played in varying degrees, and how he has failed miserably at all of them.
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; (RII,V.v.31-35).
On one hand, a King is wary and fearful of ‘treasons,’ while on the other hand, the beggar is a victim of ‘crushing penury.” Earlier in the play, he identified himself among the ranks of deposed and murdered kings (III.ii), yet here, he identifies with the common people, specifically the beggars in the stocks, recalling Bullingbroke’s reference to the “Beggar and the King” in the previous scene (V.iii.80).
Further philosophizing, Richard abandons his faith in salvation. And acknowledges the only escape that he can possibly conceive is the state of nothingness, or death. Only in death will he be released from his discontentment and pain. In his mind, death is the “ultimate and ironic purpose of existence”
But what e’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d
With being nothing. (RII, V.v.38-41)
As he is eased by the thought of death, unaware of his own imminent fate, Richard is pleasantly startled by the sound of music emanating from nearby his cell. The music restores order to his world, a world in which he lost all concept of time and reality due to the lack of outside influences to frame such a reality. Now he can keep track of time, using the metered signatures of the music. The music also allows him to see how he made so many mistakes. However, upon being interrupted, Richard does not return to his analysis of human discontentment.
The music provokes Richard into a reverie on the metaphysics of time, an image scattered throughout the play. “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me” (RII, V.v.49). He shows a valid knowledge of what has made him an inadequate king, specifically his own misuse of time, which is accomplished in three ways, and a failure to recognize these abuses because of his egotism. First, he departs for Ireland at a time when his major problem is in his homeland and fails to return home in time to save himself by squashing Bullingbroke’s rebellion. Second, he has illegally seized Bullingbroke’s inheritance and violated the ‘customary rights’ of Time. Richard’s third abuse of time has manifestly been his “lavish entertainment of his flatterers,” or his extravagant spending of money when he should have been maintaining a prudent administration. The abuse of time has resulted in an untended “English garden.” This recalls an earlier scene when the Gardener referred to the Richard, whom “waste of idol hours hath quite thrown down (III.iv.66).
Richard ultimately accepts the responsibility of his actions, but, ironically, the punishment for these abuses of time is the enslavement to time, which Richard’s imprisonment represents. The consequence of this foolish mistreatment of such an important office has resulted in Richard’s becoming nothing more than a “numbr’ing clock” (RII, V.v.50). The events and responsibilities of England are now in the hands of other men, the “English garden” has been partially restored to order, and Richard is of no use to anyone and is ultimately murdered as a result.
After crafting his best poetry in the play, Shakespeare gives Richard a dignity that was not present before. Richard is bound within himself even as his body is imprisoned at Pomfret. Yet there is an aesthetic drive or impulse, a newfound aesthetic dignity, in Richard. This is accompanied by Richard’s revealing of his private characteristics, including philosophic insight and self-knowledge. This self-awareness is manifested in his polar annoyance with the music he was turned on by just a few lines before:
This music mads me. Let it sound no more,
For though it hath holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad. (RII, V.v.61-63)
With a new ability to see the errors in his ways, as well as his philosophical questioning of the world around him, Richard is ready to face death in a noble fashion. He may not have achieved full-fledged hero status in his transformation, but has certainly earned a degree of sympathy and respect from the reader that was not possible earlier in the play.