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MonkeyNotes-Richard II by William Shakespeare
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Notes

This scene progresses from a formal public ceremony of a trial by combat to an intimate parting between Gaunt and his son. This pattern of alternation between formal and informal scenes has already been established during the first two scenes and continues throughout the play.

The stylized duel-scene recalls Bolingbroke's exaggerated verbal confrontation with Mowbray in Scene 1. The ritualistic display of formalities to announce the contenders implies that the characters are not simply asserting their own will but are functioning within a larger framework. They accept these mandatory rules and the order imposed by them. The elaborate technical procedures followed--the announcing of the contenders by the heralds, the statement of the cause of the quarrel, the formalized bidding of farewell, the preparation to fight--intensify the sense of conformity and obedience to some higher power. In fact, when Richard orders the trial to proceed, his words underline the governing ethos of the play. Though the two men are thirsty for each other's blood, they will fight only in a civilized fashion, according to the rules laid down by the chivalric tradition.

The ritual of combat provides a spectacular theatrical effect. The medieval tournament was an elaborate affair, involving rich costumes and a large number of attendants. The effect on stage is the creation of a vast setting, with the opposing parties stationed on either side of the monarch. The positions taken up by the characters are metaphorical. For instance, it is clearly evident that the king, who occupies the central position, represents the maintenance of law and order. But this method of settling disputes through duels was questioned by the Elizabethans (Shakespeare's audience) themselves. In the sixteenth century there was a widespread debate between the Christian Humanists, who were against the duel, and the advocates of a neo-chivalric cult of honor, who supported the duel as an effective means of safe- guarding one's name and resolving quarrels. Shakespeare is perhaps on the side of the Christian Humanists and shows Richard's willingness to allow the combat as a deficiency in his character.


Richard presides over the proceedings of the trial with dignity and formality and observes all the conventions and rules. But the elaborate ritual leads to an anti-climax, when Richard, who represents order, suddenly throws down his warder to halt the proceedings. This gesture is in keeping with the tone of the entire scene and is extremely formalized and well timed. The gesture reveals an inherent weakness in Richard's character: Richard, who is the representative of order, has himself disrupted the orderly proceedings of a formal occasion. The structure of this scene is not threatened by external factors, but by its very center, and it collapses from the inside. Richard waits patiently until the very last moment before deflating all the built-up tension. This delay certainly contributes to the dramatic effect.

Richard's action of throwing down the warder is also symbolic of his involvement in Gloucester's murder and his responsibility for the disorder in his own kingdom. It points forward to the later collapse of his own rule. Of course, Richard never really admits that he was involved in the murder of his uncle, but Shakespeare suggests it indirectly throughout the play. The question of the murder of Gloucester remains murky and the matter is never brought out into the open and resolved. The audience remembers, however, that Gaunt explicitly states Richard's involvement in the crime in Act I, Scene 2.

While preventing the duel in mid-ceremony is dramatic, the motive underlying the action appears to be worthy. Richard says that he does not want any bloodshed. However, Richard may be insincere in his declared motive. He may have decided to kill two birds with one stone. Richard is obliged to Mowbray for removing his political rival, Gloucester. The combat could also result in the death of Bolingbroke, who has many supporters. Allowing Bolingbroke to be killed in combat could ultimately provoke Bolingbroke's followers to rise up against Richard. Richard's best possible solution (and the right political decision) is to stop the combat in order to prevent bloodshed among fellow Englishmen.

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