Stability is often dependent upon a clear and accurate self-concept. When an individual’s identity is obscured or falsified, they risk undergoing social and emotional collapse. Shakespeare explores this concept in Richard II, where Richard struggles to internalize the dissolution of his kingly status and desperately searches for a way to redefine himself. In Act IV, Scene I, he reveals the fragmentation of his identity in a poetic and melodramatic speech that underlines his overwhelming anguish and self-pity. The rhetorical strategies employed in this passage exemplify the instability of his persona, a consequence of the dependence of his identity on social hierarchy and political constructs. The reversal of recurring metaphors that appear in this speech highlight the drastic upset of his identity, while his theatricality and poetic language demonstrate his tendency to act rather than exhibit genuine emotion. Furthermore, metonymy and poignant symbolism emphasize the ambiguity of his private identity and the domination of his public image. This reveals a crippling division between Richard’s identity as an actor to the public, and his real or private persona. Ultimately, this passage serves to portray Richard’s identity as fractured and unstable, while suggesting that the obscurity of his self-image is largely responsible for his downfall.
Richard’s abjuration of kingship and subsequent crisis of identity are underlined in his use of metaphors to describe this exchange of power. More specifically, Richard’s speech in Act IV, Scene I reveals that along with his power, he loses the metaphorical representations once used to describe his kingly status. As king, Richard equates himself with the sun, possessing great latitude over the earth and his subjects. Although Bolingbroke also invokes this metaphor, describing Richard as “the blushing, discontented sun,” he suggests the possible diminishment of this seemingly limitless power when he says, “…the envious clouds are bent/ To dim his glory” (3.3 lines 62-65). Therefore, when Richard must finally relinquish his power to Bolingbroke in Scene IV, he laments, “Oh that I were a mockery king of snow, / Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke, / To melt away in water-drops” (4.1 253-254). Richard is forced to lose not only his status, but his self-image, as he imparts this metaphor on Bolingbroke rather than himself. Moreover, he depicts himself as a fluid, unstable element, rather than a cohesive and dominant force. This suggests that not only has he lost his power and kingly status, but he has simultaneously been stripped of substance and stability. This instability is a product of his disconnection with his private identity and the dominance of his public image.
The division between Richard’s public appearance as an actor and his real or private identity is also evident in his use of metaphors. The roles the characters play within his metaphor reveal a parallel between this scene and the play’s first act. While Richard first made orders and judgements against Mowbray and Bolingbroke, in Scene IV, these roles are reversed, and Bolingbroke possesses control. The metaphor demonstrates Richard’s relinquishment of all elements of his public image, which forces him to search for his real, or private identity. However, the inflation of his public image as king hinders the development of his real identity, leaving him with a detrimental sense of internal instability.
The poetic style and garrulity of Richard’s speech underlines the dominance of his public persona and the consequent depreciation of his private identity. The formality of Richard’s address to his noble audience suggests that he is acting or performing rather than expressing genuine emotion. This is evident when he states, “Good King, great King, and yet not greatly good” (4.1 line 256). The alliterative qualities of this statement enhance its musicality, while changes in word order and use provide a similar auditory effect. The repetition of “great” and “good” highlight Richard’s view of himself as a public figure with royal status. However, he repeats these words in such a way that they lose semantic significance, underlining the people’s thoughtless respect and loyalty towards the King as a result of divine right. These techniques remain consistent throughout much of this scene. Prior to this part of his speech, he ends each line in rhyming couplets and uses an anaphora to describe the agonizing process of removing himself from the throne. These techniques similarly emphasize his efforts to appeal to his audience and encourage them to see the consequences of their actions against him. His theatricality and formality therefore reveal that he is speaking from the point of view of his public persona, which is completely disjointed from his real identity.
Richard’s depictions of himself and his actions are characterized by a sense of fragmentation, which further emphasizes the fractured nature of his identity. When demanding to see a mirror to analyze his reflection, he says, “An if my word be sterling yet in England,/ Let it command a mirror hither straight” (4.1 line 257). Here, Richard speaks about “his word” as if his voice were a separate entity from himself. This use of metonymy is also seen when he strips himself of all aspects of noble status, saying, “With mine own tears I wash away my balm,/ With mine own hands I give away my crown” (4.1 lines 199-200). This exemplifies the lack of unity of his identity, as parts of him are described as acting independently of his conscience or command. In other words, Richard reveals that he is performing rather than acting with genuine intent or purpose. This serves to underline the division between the public and private spheres of Richard’s persona, and the ultimate suppression of his real identity by the aggrandizement of his public role.
The objects and figures referenced throughout Richard’s speech carry symbolic significance that similarly emphasizes the duality of Richard’s persona. Richard insists on seeing a mirror, explaining its supposed purpose through his claim that, “…it may show me what face I have,/ Since it is bankrupt of his majesty” (4.1 lines 259-260). Upon looking into the mirror, however, Richard gains no sense of introspection or self-awareness. Instead, he can only see a superficial image of himself, continuing to ask, “Is this the face that faced so many follies?” (4.1 line 278). Despite his attempts to contemplate his identity through literal self-reflection, Richard is incapable of uncovering his private identity because of the artificial role the mirror plays in his speech. In this scene, Richard puts on a performance rather than expressing genuine emotion, and the mirror serves as a prop in his theatrical and melodramatic statement of self-pity. Thus, the mirror highlights the dominant role of his public image over his inborn nature. Furthermore, his face serves as a symbol for his identity, which is subsequently shattered when Richard breaks the mirror. His identity is severely fragmented, divided into the realms of public and private. Richard himself is similarly shattered and damaged as a result of his usurpation, which again reveals his detrimental dependence on his public identity.
The significance of Richard’s title is also made evident in his speech, and role of names as a motif throughout the play further highlights the disunity of Richard’s identity. Richard considers his name to be synonymous with his title as King of England, proclaiming, “I have no name, no title—/ No, not that name was given me at the font—/ is now usurped” (4.1 lines 248-250). Because he so strongly identifies with his status as a royal figure, he is unable to visualize the possibility of an identity independent of this title. Therefore, the loss of the throne disrupts his self-image, making him extremely unstable. As he attempts to redefine himself, he says, “[I] know not now what name to call myself” (4.1 line 252). This demonstrates his inability to uncover his private identity, given the preeminence of his public identity as King. When he is forced to decipher between his name and his title, the disjunction of his identity as a whole becomes remarkably apparent.
Richard’s vulnerability and eventual downfall are directly linked to the bifurcation of his identity and his profound lack of self-awareness. His accentuation of his public role as king proves detrimental when he loses this title and is forced to uncover his inherent identity. His speech, therefore, is characterized by rhetorical effects which accentuate his tumultuous internal state. Richard uses this speech as an opportunity to perform, expressing his emotions in a way that is both superficial and theatricalized. This furthermore demonstrates his inability to fully relinquish his dependence on his public image and expose his inborn identity. This also explains why Richard does not attempt to refrain from self-pity, instead putting on a melodramatic demonstration of his loss in an attempt to garner sympathy from observers. Without a secure identity to preserve, he is not preoccupied with the damage self-pity may have on his dignity. Thus, the speech produced is largely reflective of Richard’s internal imbalance, which is ultimately the central cause of his destruction.
Shakespeare, William. “The Life and Death of King Richard the Second.” The Norton
Shakespeare, edited by Alan Stewart, Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 734-794.