Richard II

February 17th, 2017 Comments Off on Richard II

Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 12.07.57 PMLast weekend I devoted some hours to re-reading one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Richard II. The story of the deposition of a king was a problematic one for the playwright, given the sensitivity of the issue in his time.

Early in the play, Richard is trying to broker some kind of lessening of tensions between Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, and Henry Bolingbroke, the Earl of Derby. (Ultimately Bolingbroke will drive Richard from the throne and reign as Henry IV.)

Richard has originally decided to have Bolingbroke and Mowbray settle their dispute through armed combat, but then changes his mind and orders both men banished from the kingdom—Bolingbroke for 10 years, Mowbray for life.

Under this sentence, the thing that Mowbray laments is not the loss of property or power, but rather that of his language.

The language I have learnt these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo,
And now my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up—
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.
Within my mouth you have engaoled my tongue
Doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips,
And dull unfeeling barren Ignorance
Is made my gaolor to attend on me.

Those of us whose lives center on the act of communication naturally value language highly, and so Mowbray’s reaction seems highly sympathetic.

Most of the time, of course, we take for granted our ability to express ourselves in our native tongue. In the New York metropolitan area, of course, there are many people who are not native speakers of English, and who have come here to seek better lives, or to flee war and oppression, electing to “engaol” their tongues so that their selves can be free. Mowbray’s speech reminds us of the sacrifices they have made in their quest to become Americans, and should give us all a deeper sense of the promise that this nation has held for people around the world for more than two centuries.

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