“Such is the Breath of Kings”: Shakespeare’s Richard II and COVID Restrictions

I avoid writing about politics here, for a few reasons. Chiefly because, among my colleagues, there are many political historians and theologians far more expert than I. I’m also an Englishman writing for a predominantly American website. Furthermore, I don’t quite trust myself to speak publicly about politics in a way I won’t later regret. And, lastly, the focus of this blog is meant to be the benefit of theological retrieval for pastoral ministry.

Yet I’ve felt compelled to share something like a political reflection here – something I hope resonates on both sides of the Atlantic, and proves helpful for pastors and laypeople. And my reflections come from Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Richard II is a perfect Shakespeare play for our moment. It may be unfamiliar, despite being “the most purely lyrical”[1] of all his plays, and giving us a few popular Shakespearean idioms (“a true born Englishman,” “this blessed plot”). To briefly summarise the story: King Richard II (1367-1400) banishes two noblemen, Henry Bolingbroke (his cousin) and Thomas Mowbray, who each accuse the other of murdering Richard’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. A series of bad decisions stemming from his own arrogance and flippancy gradually erode Richard’s authority as king. It is eventually revealed that he was the one behind Gloucster’s death. When Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies, Richard seizes his lands to pay for a war in Ireland. Scandalised, Bolingbroke returns to claim his birthright. Richard’s authority erodes to such an extent that he is forced to abdicate, and Bolingbroke is crowned King Henry IV. Thinking Bolingbroke wants Richard dead, one of his supporters murders the deposed king. Guilt-ridden, Bolingbroke pledges to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone.

The tension at the heart of the play is about where the authority to rule lies. Is it in the king’s divine right, since he is “God’s substitute,/His deputy anointed in his sight” (I.1)? Or does it arise from the people, and the ruler’s ability to “dive into their hearts/With humble and familiar courtesy?” (I.4). The play (intentionally so) never truly resolves this. This tension makes Richard II a thoroughly Protestant play, and so I feel it’s relevant for our consideration here at Ad Fontes.[2]

The Breath of Kings

One of Richard’s fatal flaws is his detachment from the lives of his subjects. He has no idea of the catastrophic effect his decrees will have on people.

The first instance of this is when he shortens Bolingbroke’s exile. Having initially condemned him to ten years of exile, Richard is moved by the grief of John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father, and shortens it to six years. Being old, Gaunt knows he will likely die before Bolingbroke returns, and will never see him again.

KING RICHARD [to John of Gaunt]
Uncle, even in the glasses of thine eyes
I see thy grieved heart: thy sad aspect
Hath from the number of his banish’d years
Pluck’d four away. [To Bolingbroke] Six frozen winters spent,
Return with welcome home from banishment.

How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of kings.

Act I, Scene 3

Bolingbroke is staggered that, with a mere breath, his sentence can have been so shortened.

Shakespeare returns to the image of “breath” through Acts 1 and 2 of the play, and uses it to illustrate the gulf between Richard’s outlook and the experience of his subjects.

The shortened exile is cold comfort to aging Gaunt, who will still miss precious years with his son. He responds to Richard: “Thy word is current with him for my death,/But dead, thy kingdom cannot buy my breath.” (1.3). Richard doesn’t think twice about expending a decreeing breath; Gaunt is conscious of every breath, since he knows he does not have many left. When Richard exits, Bolingbroke is left with Gaunt to “breathe the abundant dolour of [his] heart” (1.3) as he pours out grief to his father. Richard’s breath destroys Bolingbroke, and he departs; Bolingbroke’s breath is left only to pour out his sorrows.

Soon, Gaunt lays dying, and summons Richard: “Will the king come, that I may breathe my last/In wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth?” (2.1). With few breaths left, Gaunt wants to make them count. His brother, the Duke of York, counsels him against chastising Richard: “Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath;/For all in vain comes counsel to his ear.” Gaunt will be, quite literally, wasting his breath as far as York is concerned.

Yet Gaunt remains convinced that to speak his dying words to Richard is the best use of his final moments: “Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain,/For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.” Gaunt, dying and bereft of his heir, knows the value of each remaining breath. It’s at this point that Gaunt delivers his famous “this sceptr’d isle” speech on the glories of England, and I can certainly think of worse ways to spend time on your deathbed.

When Richard arrives, Gaunt wastes no time in indicting him. Although Gaunt lies sick and dying, he insists that, in fact, Richard is the one on his way out:

Thou now a-dying sayst thou flatterest me.

O, no. Thou diest, though I the sicker be.

I am in health. I breathe, and see thee ill.

Now he that made me knows I see thee ill;
Ill in myself to see, and in thee seeing ill.
Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick.

Act II, Scene 1

Richard doesn’t get it: he breathes, unlike breathless Gaunt, so how can he be dying? But Richard does not know the value of a breath, and so his careless rule has led to the slow death of his kingship.

Shakespeare’s deft playfulness with “breath” in these scenes nurses a powerful political truth: bad rulers thoughtlessly breathe decrees, ignorant that their subjects do not have a breath to spare. Shakespeare returns to the image several times later in the play, but its most evocative use is in these early exchanges with Gaunt. Richard’s aged uncle (“Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old”, II.1) dies with his son Bolingbroke in exile, the result of a last-minute decision made by the king to cover his own role in the crime for which Bolingbroke was punished. The fact that Richard commuted four years from the exile on a whim is simply salt in the wound; this supposed “allowance” is pointless, since Gaunt still dies before Bolingbroke returns. It only serves to illustrate the flippancy of Richard’s rule, and his disregard for things like the bond between father and son (a bond which, notably, Richard himself lacks, his father having died when Richard was a child, leading to an insular life in the royal court).

The Breath of Prime Ministers

This has all come to the forefront of my mind over the last few days with the whirlwind currently engulfing British politics. American readers may not know: the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, reintroduced various COVID restrictions without warning this week, including COVID-passes for some venues, a widespread mask mandate, and renewed work-from-home guidance. However, this came right in the middle of revelations that this time last year, when the whole UK was in a Christmas lockdown forbidding large gatherings, there were not one, not two, but three separate Christmas parties held around 10 Downing Street by members of the government. The restrictions reintroduced by the PM this week have been widely derided as incoherent, and have, in one way or another, served as an attempt to distract from the Christmas party scandal.[3]

The reintroduction of restrictions has already hit many hard. I have already been counseling one close friend (single, with severe mental health problems) who has been devastated that her church family are withdrawing from fellowship in their homes as a result of these new restrictions even though such things remain perfectly legal. And I know plenty of others feeling very similarly. Our rulers made their edicts out of nowhere, and with it have driven weak, weary, vulnerable people once more into social exile. Such is the breath of kings.

This situation in the UK is, of course, nothing new. Ever since the pandemic began, we’ve had story after story around the world of lawmakers who have seen fit to introduce restrictions which devastate ordinary people, but prove how little thought they gave it all by failing to stick to the laws themselves. California Governor Gavin Newsom’s infamous outdoor dinner party leaps to mind in the US. They legislate as thoughtlessly as taking a breath, unaware that their people are suffocating.

The parallels with Richard II became too much to bear as I watched UK news unfold this week: rulers makes a flippant decree against the perceived crimes of their subjects, overlooking the severe social and relational deprivation it will inflict, and do so as a means of covering up their own sins – the exact sins for which they have penalised the people.

I mentioned that Shakespeare returns to the image of “breath” numerous times after Gaunt’s death. We don’t have time or space to share them all, but I will share his last use of it. It’s when Sir Piers of Exton, an ambitious supporter of Bolingbroke, brings Richard’s corpse to the new king – a king enthroned by the good will of a people who had tired of the arrogance of his predecessor:

Great King, within this coffin I present
Thy buried fear. Herein all breathless lies
The mightiest of thy greatest enemies,
Richard of Bordeaux, by me hither brought.

Act V, Scene 6

Such will be the breath of kings.

  1. A description from Stanley Wells in the “Introduction” to the New Penguin Shakespeare volume of Richard II

  2. This is not to make any claim that we can know Shakespeare’s personal religious or confessional commitments. This is a wild goose chase, and simply takes a lot of the fun out of reading him. But all of his work, I think, is work which could only have come about in a post-Reformation context, for a whole host of reasons. To that extent, then, he is a Protestant playwright. For an excellent summary of this, see “The Protestant World of Shakespeare” by my Ad Fontes colleague Eric Hutchinson.

  3. For a succinct summary of the debacle as it stands on the day of publication, see here. Odds are, things will continue unraveling rapidly.


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