- “Thou livest and breathest, yet art thou slain in him”:1 The Absence of Power in Richard II
Richard II begins with a dead body. There is no corpse present on stage and no funeral procession, yet the body of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and the king’s uncle, haunts the beginning of the play and sets the tone for its exposition. It haunts the opening scene as two opponents—Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray—accuse each other of various crimes in front of the king, among them Bolingbroke’s claim that Mowbray murdered Woodstock. As Nicolas Grene writes, “the event to which Richard II looks back most immediately is the relatively recent murder of the Duke of Gloucester.”2 This unexplained death—Michael Hattaway notes that Woodstock “died in mysterious circumstances” in Calais in 1397—foreshadows future difficulties for the king.3 As I will show, his absent body becomes a vital instrument in the plot of Shakespeare’s play.
Henry Bolingbroke, son of the Duke of Lancaster, and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, are called into the king’s presence to air their grievances. Richard questions their motives: “What doth our cousin lay to Mowbray’s charge? / It must be great” (1.1.84–85). With corresponding accusations and defenses, the scene presents both a polarizing exposition and first impressions of the major characters. As John Blades puts it, it is “crucial in swiftly introducing the principal characters of the play”: the king, his court circle, two of his subjects.4 John Norwich sums this up, recollecting the historical event that “on 29 April 1398…for the first time, the two Dukes appeared face to face before the King; and it is at this point that Shakespeare raises the curtain on The Tragedie of King Richard the Second.”5 The first scene thus reminds the audience of the recent historical events of the rebellion against Richard by his uncles, an action that is not [End Page 195] directly presented onstage but looms over the play like a skeleton in the cupboard. The accusations that Bolingbroke brings forth at the king’s request are grave indeed:
Look what I speak, my life shall prove it true: That Mowbray hath received eight thousand nobles In name of lendings for your highness’ soldiers, The which he hath detained for lewd employments, Like a false traitor and injurious villain. 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 contrived in this land Fetch from false Mowbray their first head and spring. 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. And by the glorious worth of my descent, This arm shall do it, or this life be spent!(1.1.87–108)
Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of three crimes, each more horrible than the previous: corruption, treason, and murder. His speech is well structured: according to John Blades, he shows “full vocal command”; his delivery is “even and controlled.” The third charge is obviously the climax to his speech; the first two “are relatively mild preambles to his most alarming charge.”6 As Hattaway puts it, Bolingbroke’s claim of murder is his “gravest accusation, casting himself in the role of a minister or scourge of God, one sent to cleanse depravity from the world.”7 The dead Gloucester thus provokes this quarrel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, and in doing so, proves to be what Blades has described as the catalyst to Richard’s downfall.8
In response to the charge, Mowbray answers with as much force as his opponent, calling him “so foul a liar” (1.1.114) and the accusation mere “slander” (1.1.113). He takes up each of Bolingbroke’s three charges...