In Richard II, Shakespeare constructs a carefully shaped symmetrical
structure that supports the play and radiates out from its center. There is a microcosm of rising and falling throughout Richard
II, and this shape allows ideas to be mirrored and thus communicated more effectively. The center of the play rests on Act III,
Scene iii, with Acts I and II leading up to it, rising, and Acts IV and V falling away from it.
One of the more notable examples of the rising and falling structure can be
found in imagery that exists in Act IV, Scene i (note that Act IV is actually only one scene). Just as Acts I and V mirror each other,
Acts II and IV also correlate to each other. Before delving into Act IV, one should first examine the structure of the second act. Act
II begins to set up the play’s thematic stance, and offers a hint of Bullingbrook’s rebellion. Conversely, in Act IV, the hint of a plot
against Bullingbrook is revealed. Later in Act II, a more significant event occurs when Bullingbrook arrives, and kneels to York, who
functions as a pivot point between Bullingbrook and Richard. In Scene iv of the second act, the desertion of the Welsh troops
functions symbolically. In Act IV, Bullingbrook holds a trial. There is a parallel accusation and exchange to Act II. Also, Bagot is
brought before Bullingbrook and challenged, much as Bullingbrook himself was brought before Richard in Act I.
It is interesting to examine Carlisle’s speech in Act IV, before the entrance of
Richard. Line 121: “What subject can give sentence on his king?/ And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject?” Carlisle’s cry
against forcing Richard to abdicate in favor of Henry’s ascending the throne gets him charged with treason – another parallel is
seen here in Henry’s having assumed Richard’s place from Act I, Scene i.
The most significant image of rising and falling in Act IV occurs when Richard
is forced to formally abdicate, and employs the metaphor of a well with two buckets. This speech, at line 181, where Richard takes
hold of one side of his crown, and tells Henry to hold the other side, is an image of rising and falling that is consistent throughout
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.
This theme is continued as Richard prattles on about his griefs and woes. At line 260:
O that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bullingbrook,
To melt myself away in water-drops!
This image of melting
conveys more of the symbolic, continuous falling of Richard. It also portrays Bullingbrook as the sun
contributing to the image of Henry rising while Richard is descending. Further reinforcement of this image occurred in a previous
speech of York
’s, which foreshadowed the imagery to come. At line 111, York says to Bullingbrook, “Ascend his throne,
descending now from him,/ And long live Henry, fourth of that name!
As Richard continues with his own speech, he commands a mirror to be
brought, so that he might look at himself in it. Richard examines his face in the mirror, speaks to himself (line 276), and then dashes
the mirror on the ground. This action highlights Richard’s fall from grace, as his life shatters into pieces before his eyes. With his
final lines of the scene, as he is being led away by a guard, Richard says, “O, good! convey! Conveyors are you all,/ That rise thus
nimbly by a true king’s fall” (line 317).
As the play continues into Act V, the parallelism from earlier scenes is carried
through. Richard goes to prison, there is lots of kneeling as before, only this time, it’s to Henry, the new king, and the hinted-at
rebellion is squelched. The differences between Henry and Richard are shown further here. Whereas Richard, in Act I, put himself
above the law by intervening in the duel, Henry handles events within the law properly (for the most part).
The symmetry is carried out, and the mirroring images reflect the thematic
content of the play, that is, the rising and falling symbolism. Through the three main images of the buckets in a well, melting snow,
and broken glass, Act IV continues to uphold the structure with which Shakespeare imbued the entire play. The images of rising
and falling, of Henry’s ascension versus Richard’s descension, are at some times subtle, at others blatant; but they nevertheless
exist as a strong, deliberate undercurrent throughout the entire work, reinforcing what was surely a purposeful attempt on
Shakespeare’s part to structure his play thusly.
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