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Richard II /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Richard II

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Richard II, for example, you will find the words complotted (i.e., conspired), exclaims (i.e., outcries), cheerly (i.e., heartily), sprightfully (i.e., full of spirit), regreet (i.e., salute or greet), determinate (i.e., put an end to), and underbearing (i.e., endurance). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Richard II, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. Such words abound in Richard II. In the opening scenes, for example, the word eager is used where we would say “sharp” or “acid,” inhabitable where we would say “not habitable, unfit for human habitation,” the word ill where we would say “evil,” consequently where we would say “subsequently,” envy where we would say “hatred” or “malice,” champions where we would say “combatants,” and baffled where we would say “subjected to public disgrace.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, history, and background mythology. In Richard II Shakespeare creates the courtly and military world of late fourteenth-century England. This is a world inhabited by Lancaster and Gloucester and Hereford, with castles named Flint and Bristow and Pomfret and houses called Plashy and Ely House; it is a world of warders, gages, and pawns; of boist’rous appeals (violent accusations), of careers (charges or encounters), and of royal lists (arenas set up for trials by combat supervised by the king). In this world a character plated in habiliments of war (i.e., dressed in armor) might call another a recreant (i.e., someone who breaks allegiance) or a slander of his blood (i.e., disgrace to his family line), might forbid another to impeach my height (i.e., disgrace my noble standing), or might invoke my scepter’s awe (i.e., the power of my scepter to inspire dread or fear). References to lions and leopards bring into the play traditional hierarchies in the natural world that mirror the social world (the so-called great chain of being) as well as reminders of heraldic emblems on royal and noble shields, and allusions to Saint George (patron saint of England) and Mars (the Roman god of war) give mythological ballast to the play’s military context.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes in order to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes in order to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of a play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does; that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes,” we find “Goes he,” or instead of “He did go,” we find “Did he go”). In Richard II, we find such a construction when Bolingbroke says (1.1.36) “Now, Thomas Mowbray, do I turn to thee” (instead of “. . . I do turn to thee”) and again (at 1.1.78) when he says “Will I make good against thee.”

Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object or the predicate adjective before the subject and verb or between the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him” we might find “Him I hit,” or instead of “It is black” we might find “Black it is”). Richard’s “impartial are our eyes and ears” (1.1.119) is an example of such an inversion (the normal order would be “Our eyes and ears are impartial”), as is his “Free speech and fearless I to thee allow” (1.1.127), where “free speech and fearless” is the object of the verb “allow.” Mowbray’s “My life thou shalt command, but not my shame” (1.1.171) is another example of a sentence in which the object (“My life”) is placed before the verb (“shalt command”). Often in Richard II this kind of inversion appears in combination with subject-verb inversions, as when Mowbray says (at 1.1.54) “Yet can I not of such tame patience boast,” where the normal order would read “Yet I cannot boast of such tame patience.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) The play opens, for example, with a sentence that separates the basic sentence elements from each other with several intervening words, phrases, and clauses:

Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster,

Hast thou, according to thy oath and band,

Brought hither Henry Hereford, thy bold son,

Here to make good the boist’rous late appeal,

Which then our leisure would not let us hear,

Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?


Here the intervening words are bits of narrative information that an audience can absorb as it moves from element to element of King Richard’s basic question: “Old John of Gaunt, hast thou brought hither Henry Hereford to make good the appeal against the Duke of Norfolk?” Later in the same scene, Bolingbroke speaks in a similar kind of interrupted sentence:

Further I say, and further will maintain

Upon his bad life to make all this good,

That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death,

Suggest his soon-believing adversaries,

And consequently, like a traitor coward,

Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood,

Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s, cries

Even from the tongueless caverns of the Earth

To me for justice and rough chastisement.


In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“consequently sluiced out,” “which blood cries to me”). The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or shift in emphasis.

Locating and if necessary rearranging words that “belong together” is especially helpful in passages with long delaying or expanding interruptions. Such interrupted sentences are often used to catch the audience up in the narrative or are used as a characterizing device. In Richard II, Bolingbroke uses such an interrupted construction when he says to King Richard at 1.1.94–100

Besides I say, and will in battle prove,

Or here or elsewhere to the furthest verge

That ever was surveyed by English eye,

That all the treasons for these eighteen years

Complotted and contrivèd in this land

Fetch from false Mowbray their first head and spring.

The Duchess of Gloucester uses a similar construction when she says to her brother-in-law, John of Gaunt, at 1.2.16–21,

But Thomas, my dear lord, my life, my Gloucester,

One vial full of Edward’s sacred blood,

One flourishing branch of his most royal root,

Is cracked and all the precious liquor spilt,

Is hacked down, and his summer leaves all faded,

By envy’s hand and murder’s bloody ax.

The complexity of the language of Richard II is illustrated in this example, where the subject (“Thomas”) becomes so absorbed into the intervening phrases that its verbs seem more closely connected to the nouns vial and branch than to the word Thomas, their actual grammatical subject.

Occasionally, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until subordinate material has been given. Bolingbroke uses this kind of delaying structure when he says, at 1.1.31–35,

First—heaven be the record to my speech!—

In the devotion of a subject’s love,

Tend’ring the precious safety of my prince,

And free from other misbegotten hate,

Come I appellant to this princely presence.

Here the basic sentence elements “Come I [i.e., I come] appellant to this princely presence” are held back until four lines of self-presentation are delivered.

Finally, in Richard II, as in other of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions or delays but because he omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In plays written ten years or so after Richard II, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In Richard II omissions are few and seem primarily a function of the formal, public language of this extremely rhetorical play. For example, Bolingbroke challenges Mowbray at 1.1.71–73 with the lines “Pale trembling coward, there I throw my gage, / Disclaiming here the kindred of the King, / And lay aside my high blood’s royalty.” The third line of this formal challenge omits the pronoun I before “lay,” creating along the way an ambiguity that makes the line seem simultaneously a statement about the speaker (“. . . I lay aside . . .”) and an order to Mowbray (“. . . lay aside . . .”). Later in the same scene (1.1.169) King Richard omits a word (or words) in his order to Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, to throw down the gage he has picked up: “Norfolk, throw down, we bid; there is no boot.” (The full sentence might have read “throw it down” or “throw down his gage.”) Richard’s cryptic sentence allows Mowbray a powerful answer: “Myself I throw, dread sovereign, at thy foot”—a line that completes a rhyming couplet and, with Mowbray’s gesture of kneeling at Richard’s feet, moves the scene into high drama.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings. Some of Shakespeare’s plays use puns routinely; in Richard II they are used very sparingly but complexly. At 1.3.277, for example, when Bolingbroke expresses his dismay at the sentence of banishment passed on him by King Richard, he does so at one point through elaborate puns:

Must I not serve a long apprenticehood

To foreign passages, and in the end,

Having my freedom, boast of nothing else

But that I was a journeyman to grief?

These lines pun on the words passages (which meant, in Shakespeare’s day, both “experiences” and “journeys”), journeyman (which means one who has finished his apprenticeship and works for daily hire, but which here also plays with the sense of “journey-man” as “a man who journeys”), and freedom (which here means freedom from his sentence of exile, but which also alludes to the word’s technical meaning as the right to follow a trade or to become part of a guild once one has completed one’s contract as an apprentice).

Again, at 5.2.54–55, puns are used complexly as York warns his son about how to behave under the new king:

Well, bear you well in this new spring of time,

Lest you be cropped before you come to prime.

The phrase bear you means “conduct yourself,” but it carries a pun on bear (i.e., “bring forth leaves or fruit”) that, together with the words cropped (i.e., “cut”) and prime (i.e., “full bloom”), creates a larger image of the young courtier as a plant vulnerable to the gardener’s shears in this new political springtime.

In all of Shakespeare’s plays, one must be aware of the sounds of words and the possibility of double meanings. In Richard II, however, it is more important to stay alert for metaphors. A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features. Richard II is rich in metaphoric language, often used as a kind of rhetorical flourish. When Mowbray, for example, wants to say that King Richard’s presence prevents him from calling Bolingbroke (Richard’s cousin) a traitor, Mowbray dresses that statement in metaphoric language, using the words curbs, reins, spurs, and post to talk about speech as if it were a horse he was riding:

First, the fair reverence of your Highness curbs me

From giving reins and spurs to my free speech,

Which else would post until it had returned

These terms of treason doubled down his throat.


Later in the same scene (156–61), Richard too uses metaphoric language as a rhetorical flourish when he urges Bolingbroke and Mowbray to make peace:

Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me.

Let’s purge this choler without letting blood.

This we prescribe, though no physician.

Deep malice makes too deep incision.

Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed.

Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.

The speech says, in effect, let’s cure this anger without bloodshed, but Richard’s language plays with the idea of bloodletting as a medical cure, or purge, for choler—biliousness, anger, or other signs of an excess of bile. Richard’s wordplay culminates in a pun on bleed—i.e., (1) to draw blood from the body to remove such excess fluid, and (2) to spill blood.

Often in Richard II, metaphor is used not to dress up a speech but as a potent vehicle for conveying meaning. Indeed, some metaphors seem almost to embody the major movements of the play’s narrative. To take a single example: throughout the play, the king is to England as the sun is to the Earth. In the first half of the play, Richard is the sun. He describes himself as “the searching eye of heaven” that “darts his light through every guilty hole”; his absence from England he sees as having allowed Bolingbroke to “revel in the night,” and under “the cloak of night” to “range abroad unseen / In murders and in outrage.” However, he predicts,

. . . when this thief, this traitor Bolingbroke,

Who all this while hath reveled in the night

Whilst we were wand’ring with the Antipodes,

Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,

His treasons will sit blushing in his face,

Not able to endure the sight of day,

But self-affrighted, tremble at his sin.


As Richard’s fortunes begin to fall, Richard becomes “the setting sun” (2.1.15) and then “the blushing discontented sun” (3.3.65). When Richard sends his followers “from Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day” (3.2.226), the sun image begins its transfer to Bolingbroke. It is as Phäeton disastrously piloting the chariot of the sun that Richard subsequently descends, at Bolingbroke’s command, to the base court of Flint Castle (3.3.183–85). By the time Richard is deposed, the transfer is complete, and he imagines himself as a “mockery king of snow” melting “before the sun of Bolingbroke”(4.1.271–73).

Other metaphors—e.g., Richard as lion, England as garden—have a similar controlling power within the play’s narrative, and they, too, strongly affect audience response to the story.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. This is especially true in reading Richard II since stage action is so often correlated with the play’s metaphors. Richard’s metaphoric descent as Phäeton at Flint Castle, for example, is enacted onstage with an actual descent from “the walls” of the castle to its “base court.” His metaphorical interrogating of his identity in the “Deposition Scene” in 4.1 is enacted onstage as he calls for a looking glass, examines his face in the glass, and then shatters the glass on the stage floor.

Stage action also correlates with character positions in the play’s narrative, as Richard’s and Bolingbroke’s relative positions on the stage shift in the course of the play. In early scenes Richard is placed above and Bolingbroke below (with Richard descending to embrace Bolingbroke in 1.3); in midplay Richard comes down from “the walls” to Bolingbroke’s level, Bolingbroke kneels, and Richard raises him up (all of these stage actions accompanied by descriptive dialogue). Finally, Bolingbroke (as King Henry) ends the play seated above on the throne with Richard in a coffin at his feet. Because in this play stage action so closely mirrors and reinforces language and narrative threads, we need to be especially alert to all signals for gesture, movement, and character positioning.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.