Use of The Royal Plural in Shakespeare's Richard II

In his Tragedy of King Richard the Second, William Shakespeare uses language to influence the way in which the audience perceives the conduct of both Richard and Henry as kings. By comparing and contrasting the use of the royal plural between the two men when they are each kings, I will come to the conclusion that Henry’s more apt use of this linguistic technique characterizes him to the audience as a more suitable king than that of Richard, who uses the language of the royal plural in a manner inconsistent with his actions.

In his very first section of dialogue, King Richard makes use of the royal plural while asking John of Gaunt whether Henry was brought “here to make good the boist’rous late appeal, which then our leisure would not let us hear” (I.i.4-5) his case against Thomas Mowbray. The operative word choice being Richard’s use of plural pronouns (e.g. our, us) rather than referring to himself in the first person.

His use of the royal plural is standard protocol for Richard as the head monarch, but Shakespeare has Richard use this manner of speaking beyond its purely symbolic purpose to the point of diluting the responsibility of the decisions he must make as king among his subjects. While attempting to resolve the conflict between Henry and Mowbray, Richard refers to himself in the first person more than he uses the royal plural. For example, Richard refers to himself in the first person when he makes an exceptionally tactful and diplomatic offering to Mowbray to defend himself against Henry’s accusations of treason: Now by [my] scepter’s awe I make a vow, such neighbor nearness to our sacred blood should nothing privilege him nor partialize him the unstooping firmness of my upright soul. He is our subject Mowbray; so art thou. Free speech and fearless I to thee allow” (I.i. 118-123). However, when Richard has to admit that he is unable to devise a peaceful resolution between Henry and Mowbray, he uses the royal plural exclusively: “We were not born to sue, but to command, which since we cannot do to make you friends, be ready, as your lives shall answer it, at Coventry upon Saint Lambert’s day. There shall your swords and lances arbitrate the swelling difference of your settled hate. Since we cannot atone you, we shall see justice design the victor’s chivalry” (I.i.196-205). When Richard feels he is in control and is saying the right thing, he refers to himself in the first person, but he relies on the royal plural when he must admit a partial failing in his ability to lead to somehow place the blame on his court as a collective rather than himself specifically. He linguistically takes sole credit for his moments of grace, but implies the involvement of others when he must admit that he is in want of more effective leadership.

When Mowbray and Henry are just about to make their first moves in the duel of justice, King Richard alone halts the fight. However, he requests council with his nobles in the first person plural rather than singular, which implies they also wish for an alternative to mortal combat: “Withdraw with us, and let the trumpets sound while we return these dukes what we decree” (I.iii.121-122). During this council, Richard is the only one who says anything before turning back to Henry and Mowbray to inform them of their individual banishment. However, he speaks the whole time referring to all of them in the royal plural. Richard sets himself up for discontinuity when he argues to Gaunt, “thy son is banish’d upon good advice, whereto thy tongue a party-verdict gave. Why at our justice seem’st thou then to low’r?” (I.iii.233-235). As noted above, Richard was the only one who spoke when the decision was made to banish Henry and Mowbray. He seems to justify his assertion that Gaunt concurred to his decision simply because he used the royal plural, which made him alone sound as though the entire council was collectively making the decision.

This gap between Richard’s use of the royal plural and the actual cooperation of his nobles comes through again when he plans to use the recently deceased Gaunt’s estate to fund his war in Ireland. He says, “for these great affairs do ask some charge, towards our assistance we do seize to us the plate, coin, revenues, and moveables whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d” (II.i.159-162). When his uncle, the Duke of York, disagrees with this, asserting that Gaunt’s estate should go to the rightful heir, the banished Henry, he seems to be making use of the royal plural to force York’s inclusion in the usurping of the inheritance: “Think what you will, we seize into our hands his plate, his goods, his money, and his lands” (II.i.209-210). Richard merely reiterates what he says in the above quotation, again using the royal plural despite York’s obvious disagreement. He seems to be trying to manufacture consensus with York and in this case, his use of language gives the audience the impression that he is in an apparent state of denial and insecurity regarding his kingship. At this point he relies solely on his use of the royal plural to assert his ability to lead in a royal position, which he is not doing well.

In that moment of the play where Richard and Henry meet for the unofficial exchange of kingship (somewhat before the actual physical exchange of the crown), Richard completely abandons the royal plural and speaks exclusively of the physical representations of his kingship: “I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads, my gorgeous palace for a hermitage, my gay apparel for an almsman’s gown, my figur’d goblets for a dish of wood, my scepter for a palmer’s walking-staff, my subjects for a pair of carved saints, and my large kingdom for a little grave” (III.iii.147-153). In this quotation, Richard sums up his kingship based on the physical objects associated with the position and his use of first person implies that he considered these things to be his personal possessions.

During this exchange, Henry tells Richard, “I come but for mine own” (III.iii.196). As soon as Richard is out of sight after Henry takes the crown and is at this point no doubt the new king after Richard, the first thing he says is in the royal plural: “On Wednesday next we solemnly proclaim our coronation” (VI.i.319-320). It is not until it is absolutely clear who is in charge that Henry starts making use of the royal plural, while Richard stopped using the royal plural as soon as he had a sense that Henry was ready to depose him, not when he actually became officially deposed in plain sight. This suggests that rather than being an ingrained formality of speech for Richard, he actually made conscious use of the royal plural for his own rhetorical means.

When Henry calls council much like Richard did, as discussed above, when he was deciding to banish rather than let Henry and Mowbray fight, instead of using the plural voice in vain and only speaking and making the decision on his own, Henry allows Aumerle to speak first: “Withdraw yourselves, and leave us here alone. [Exuent Percy and Lords.] What is the matter with our cousin now?” (V.iii.28-29). He actually consults Aumerle after having referred to both himself and Aumerle with the royal plural rather than just using the royal plural to tell himself that he has given him the opportunity to offer opinion.

Henry is willing to take on the full responsibility of pardoning Aumerle and through the language alone, admits personal defeat from the Duchess of York who promised never to rise from her knew until he pardoned her son: “I pardon him as God shall pardon me” (V.iii.131). When the Duchess tells him that his is not enough, he even repeats it, more his use of the emphasising first person language: “With all my heart I pardon him” (V.iii.135). It is likely to assume based on the examples above that Richard would have used the royal plural to imply that it was not he who had been defeated by the Duchess, but his entire court as well.

King Henry acknowledges the murder of King Richard as harm to him personally, but he also employs the royal plural in a somewhat deconstructed manner: “Exton, I thank thee not, for thou hast wrought a deed of slander with thy fatal hand upon my head and all this famous land” (V.vi.34-36). King Henry addresses himself in the first person, but he also addresses the country he is king of separately, conveying a similar effect to the royal plural, while still managing to make it clear that this is how he personally feels about Exton murdering Richard.

Henry is willing to admit his pleasure over Richard’s death and also takes on the guilt he feels over the fact that Richard’s death is an effect of his deposition:

“They love not poison that do poison need, nor do I thee. Though I did wish him dead, I hate the murtherer, love him murthered. . . . Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe that blood should sprinkle me to make me grow. Come mourn with me for what I do lament, and put on sullen black incontinent. I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land, to wash this blood off from my guilty hand” (V.vi.38-50).

Despite the fact that it was Exton without, Henry’s knowledge, who did the actual murdering of Richard, Henry still refers to himself in the first person through his full final speech and accepts the guilt as his own in this way.

King Richard’s use of the royal plural is not consistent with his regal position in that he does not always have the consensus of his subjects that the use of this language suggests, while King Henry uses the royal plural genuinely involving his subjects and taking their opinions into consideration. Furthermore, the fact that Richard uses the royal plural when he must admit personal failing or defeat, and the fact that Henry refers to himself in the first person in such situations conveys to the audience that Henry is more responsible and suited to the title of king.

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