Rebecca Warren-Heys, Royal Holloway

This article will explore via close reading how memories not only create but also complicate identity in William Shakespeare’s Richard II, and particularly how they destabilise Richard’s identity. There are two ways in which this article will achieve this: the first is to look at instances where characters remember and discuss Richard in order to assess how they problematise his identity as king; the second is to examine Richard’s own memories of himself to evaluate how they shape his subjectivity – his experience of, and relationship with, his own identity. These examples will illustrate how memories in the play constantly disclose the potential for alternative forms of subjectivity, even if in the last analysis such alternatives are beyond Richard’s reach.

Remembering Richard

An obvious facet of Richard’s identity, which is complicated by memory, is his royalty. If we track the use of Richard’s name and title through the play, it reveals much about the ways in which his identity is perceived and recalled by those around him. Marvin Spevack confirms that names are very important to identity: ‘Shakespeare [. . .] was obsessed with names. [. . .] In all instances names both define the individual self and populate the world.’1

One of the first references to the degradation of Richard’s title occurs when Gaunt says to Richard, ‘Landlord of England art thou now, not king’ (2.1.113).2 It is significant that this line occurs towards the end of Gaunt’s speech because it is the last in a series of accusations which, when taken cumulatively, exceed the limits of Richard’s endurance; Richard furiously interrupts Gaunt to remind him of his rank, questioning his reprimand: ‘Darest with thy frozen admonition | Make pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood | With fury from his native residence?’ (2.1.117-9) Richard chooses his ‘right royal majesty’ (l. 120) both to rebut Gaunt’s rebuke and to justify his rage at Gaunt’s presumption ‘on an ague’s privilege’ (l. 116). But Gaunt has begun an action which other characters in the play continue; Richard’s title is repeatedly discarded by those who seek his deposition. And Richard may be justified in insisting on his proper title, since, as Spevack notes:

The concentration on name is not the simple ego-building or parading to be expected of tragic characters. The bond it implies may, in fact, increase the vulnerability of the individual to the machinations of agents of destruction who invoke name and heritage to accomplish their own ends.3

Richard rightly senses that Gaunt’s misuse of his title will lead to further ‘machinations’ by other characters in the play who seek to sever the bond between the words ‘king’ and ‘Richard’, an action which, to amend Spevack’s formulation, disconnects ‘name and heritage to accomplish their own ends.’

Just over a hundred lines after Gaunt’s speech, Northumberland argues that ‘The king is not himself’ (2.1.241). He means that the king has been ‘basely led | By flatterers’ (ll. 241-2), but a secondary implication is that Richard has lost his power and authority. In the next act Northumberland is pulled up by York for omitting Richard’s title:

NORTHUMBERLAND Richard not far from hence hath hid his head.
YORK It would beseem the Lord Northumberland
To say ‘King Richard’. Alack the heavy day
When such a sacred king should hide his head.
NORTHUMBERLAND Your grace mistakes; only to be brief
Left I his title out.
YORK The time hath been,
Would you have been so brief with him, he would
Have been so brief with you to shorten you,
For taking so the head, your whole head’s length.


The quibble here on ‘head’, meaning both the uppermost part of the body and ‘title’, is what drives York’s response to Northumberland’s slight. In this passage there are seventy-six words; only ten of them contain more than one syllable (‘Richard’, ‘beseem’, ‘Northumberland’, ‘Richard’, ‘Alack’, ‘heavy’, ‘sacred’, ‘mistakes’, ‘shorten’ and ‘taking’). The cumulative effect of the monosyllabic words is to give the staccato exchange a shortness of breath and temper, which spurs it along and reflects the testy moods of both speakers.

Northumberland begins in the past tense: Richard ‘not far from hence hath hid his head’. The alliteration lends his line an almost mocking tone, but York is quick to point out Northumberland’s misdemeanour by insisting on using titles: both ‘Lord Northumberland’ and ‘King Richard’. His second line – ‘To say “King Richard”. Alack the heavy day’ – is hypermetrical, as if to accommodate Richard’s title and give it extra emphasis. York’s extension of this line, made even longer by the caesura, lends his words the requisite stress and prominence. York then delivers a line that could be seen as fusing past, present and future: ‘Alack the heavy day | When such a sacred king should hide his head’. York’s words involve at once a memory of Richard’s anointed identity as ‘a sacred king’, a reflection on the present ‘heavy day’ when his royalty is being disregarded, and an anticipation of the time when he will indeed ‘hide his head’. York’s line also echoes Northumberland’s alliteration in an attempt to reclaim the latter phrase for his own admonitory purpose.

Northumberland’s response to York’s attack is defensive, but he has understood York’s topic perfectly: he begins with ‘Your grace’, mirroring York’s pointed use of titles. The caesura suspends Northumberland’s speech long enough for York to grasp that the ‘mistake’ was his, not Northumberland’s. Northumberland’s ‘brief’ (because catalectic) line mirrors his excuse: ‘only to be brief | Left I his title out’.

York’s response is unequivocally in the past tense, a memory of Richard par excellence:

The time hath been,
Would you have been so brief with him, he would
Have been so brief with you to shorten you,
For taking so the head, your whole head’s length.


Again York picks up one of the words Northumberland has used. He uses it twice in an identical formulation – ‘have been so brief with’ – changing only the final word, ‘him’, to ‘you’, to transform the meaning of the phrase. ‘Shorten’ complements ‘brief’, and the final line hammers home the quibble on ‘head’ in both senses of ‘title’ and a part of the body. Ultimately, however, the exchange only underscores the fact that, although Richard still possesses his royal title in theory, his power belongs to the past, a mere memory of ‘the time [that] hath been’.

In this exchange, Northumberland is quick to retract his apparent lapse but he subsequently repeats the fault, both when he fails to kneel to Richard (3.3.75) and later during the deposition scene when he calls Richard ‘My lord’ (4.1.252). When Northumberland does not genuflect to Richard, Richard’s response is:

We are amazed, and thus long have we stood To watch the fearful bending of thy knee Because we thought ourself thy lawful king. And if we be, how dare thy joints forget To pay their awful duty to our presence?


Richard adopts the royal plural ‘we’, which reflects his status as the ‘lawful king’; however, he undermines that status by making it conditional (‘if we be’), as if inviting Northumberland to argue that he is not. The way Richard phrases this – ‘we thought ourself thy lawful king’ – likewise allows for the possibility that his belief that he was Northumberland’s lawful king is a subjective supposition rather than an objective fact. Of course Richard employs the phrase ‘we thought ourself’ ironically, but the effect is to allow his auditors the implicit scope to question his status and title. Richard uses the language of memory to upbraid Northumberland for his disrespectful attitude towards him: ‘how dare thy joints forget | To pay their awful duty?’ (my emphasis). His speech reminds Northumberland of the ‘awful duty’ owed him because of his ‘lawful’ kingship. For Northumberland, the forgotten ‘awful’ (reverential, full of awe) duty becomes a remembered present duty, which is ‘awful’ in the sense of being fearful, inspiring dread. Just a hundred lines later, Bolingbroke, as if having taken his cue from Richard here, urges his followers to kneel. But Richard’s reply is once again telling as regards his sense of identity:

BOLINGBROKE Stand all apart,
And show fair duty to his majesty. [He kneels down.]
My gracious lord.
RICHARD Fair cousin, you debase your princely knee
To make the base earth proud with kissing it.


Richard’s reply to Bolingbroke contrasts sharply with his response to Northumberland, not only because Bolingbroke makes a show of remembering and respecting Richard’s sovereignty (albeit somewhat belatedly), but also because Richard by this point has accepted that his title will be stripped from him. Five lines later he confirms this when he says to Bolingbroke: ‘Your own is yours, and I am yours and all’ (l. 196). Bolingbroke is, unlike Northumberland, Richard’s ‘cousin’ (l. 190) and thus of royal blood, but even so the change of tone reflects a radical change in his perception of himself.

  1. Marvin Spevack, ‘Beyond Individualism: Names and Namelessness in Shakespeare’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 56:1 (Autumn, 1993), 383-98 (pp. 386, 387). []
  2. William Shakespeare, Richard II, ed. Charles R. Forker, Arden third series (London: Thomson Learning, 2005). All subsequent references are to this edition. Act, scene and line numbers are noted parenthetically in text. []
  3. Spevack, ‘Beyond Individualism: Names and Namelessness in Shakespeare’, p. 389. []

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