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Biblical Betrayals

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Shakespeare refers to the Bible in his plays more than any other Elizabethan playwright, so we're not really surprised when we find a bunch of biblical shout-outs in this play. Let's discuss.

Christ, Judas, and Pontius Pilate

Richard is always comparing himself to Christ, who's betrayed and ultimately crucified in the New Testament. At one point Richard compares the men who have joined forces with Bolingbroke to Judas, the disciple who betrays Jesus: "Three Judases," he says. "Each one thrice worse than Judas! / Would they make peace? terrible hell make war / Upon their spotted souls for this offence!" (3.2.8). After he's forced to give up his crown, Richard even compares the rebels to Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge who sentences Jesus to be crucified: "Some of you with Pilate wash your hands / Showing an outward pity; yet you Pilates / Have here deliver'd me to my sour cross, / And water cannot wash away your sin" (4.1.6).

Okay, it doesn't take a Bible scholar to figure out that Richard sees himself as a Christ-like martyr who thinks he's going to be revenged by God. Here's the catch: Richard is so NOT a Christ figure. Shakespeare suggests that the problem with such a comparison is that Christ's story is the opposite of Richard's.

Think about it: Christ received a crown (instead of having it taken from him). It was a crown of thorns, but it was a crown nonetheless. (According to the New Testament, Roman soldiers place a crown of thorns on Christ's head before he is crucified.) And Richard, far from suffering silently like Christ did, talks nonstop about his suffering. Plus, Christ never had his own uncle murdered, and he certainly didn't go around running entire kingdoms into the ground. Basically, Richard's insistence on the comparison is just another example of how utterly clueless he is.

Cain and Abel

Shakespeare also makes reference to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. (In Genesis 4, Cain commits humanity's first act of murder when he kills his brother.) The story shows up at least twice in Richard II. When Henry accuses Mowbray of plotting Gloucester's death, he says that Mowbray "like a traitor-coward / Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood; / Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries" (1.1.4). Okay, we get it. Henry compares Gloucester to Abel in order to remind us that Gloucester's murder was ordered by his own family member (Richard).

At the end of the play, when Henry finds out that Extor has killed Richard (on Henry's behalf), he banishes him and says, "With Cain go wander through shades of night, / And never show thy head by day nor light" (5.6.6). Hmm, this analogy is pretty ironic, don't you think? It's Henry's fault that his cousin Richard is dead, so really Henry is more like Cain than anyone else.

Brain Snack: By now it should be pretty clear that Shakespeare knew the Bible like the back of his hand. That's probably because 1) Big Willy Shakes was an avid reader, and 2) the Bible was the most printed book in Elizabethan England, thanks to the printing press and the English Reformation. In case you're wondering which version Shakespeare had access to (and we know you were), most literary critics and historians think our playwright read the "Geneva" Bible, which gets its name from the fact that it was printed in Geneva by a group of Protestants who were living in exile while Queen Mary I ruled. The first edition was printed in 1560 and the second in 1570.

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