How much power do words really have? In this play, Shakespeare pits the power of language against the power of action. On the one hand, Richard more or less believes that his speech <em>is </em>power. In one sense, he's right: Richard can end a man's life just by banishing him or ordering a murder. So language <em>is </em>powerful, in the political sense. Later, once Richard is no longer king and his words don't have any political power, he manages to make his language forceful in a different sense: his words are often quite moving and poetic.
Henry Bolingbroke, on the other hand, makes it clear that he doesn't think much of language. Unlike Richard (who describes his fall from grace so poetically that we almost forget he was a bad king), Henry isn't a good storyteller. He thinks action is far more important than language, which is why he's so great at seizing opportunities and creating situations that will give him power.
Questions About Language and Communication
- Compare and contrast Richard's attitude toward language to that of Henry Bolingbroke.
- In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says that "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Would Richard agree?
- The terms "words" and "sword" often show up close together in the play. How are language and physical power related?
- Many characters talk about which side God is on. How important is prayer in the play? Is prayer an effective form of language?
Chew on This
Whereas Henry Bolingbroke is bad with words and seems to think language is less important than action, Richard is a gifted speaker who doesn't understand that speech isn't enough.
One of the conflicts in the play is who gets to tell the story of England: Richard or Henry.