Introduction

This poem is an extract from Shakespeare’s play King Richard the Second. King Richard, who was ousted from his royal position by his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, talks about death, mortality and kingship to his subjects. He tells them how Death controls all of them, including kings with great power.

No matter how powerful in life, every king is rendered powerless before death. Richard II shows his subjects how ordinary of a man he, a king, actually is. The poem is written in iambic pentameter.

Let’s talk- cover our bones.

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills.
And yet not so – for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all, are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death;
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.

The speaker or King Richard II says that they should talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs. He invokes an image of death by mentioning graves, worms and tombstone inscriptions. He says they should make dust their paper and with rainy eyes write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. He further invokes decay and sorrow by talking of paper turning to dust and comparing teary sorrowful eyes to writing instruments.

Richard II wants to choose executors and talk of wills. But he also thinks making wills will be useless because they can actually pass on nothing except their dead bodies to the ground. Their lands, their lives and everything that once belonged to them are Bolingbroke’s now because they have been defeated by him. They do not have anything to call their own but their death, and the small patch of barren earth which will serve as paste and cover their bones after they are buried.

For God’s sake- farewell king!

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murdered – for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Richard II says that for the sake of God they should sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. These sad stories will be about how some kings have been deposed, some killed in war, some haunted by the ghosts of the people they have killed, some poisoned by their wives and some killed while sleeping.

All of them met unhappy ends. All of them were murdered because within the hollow crown that sits on the mortal head of a king, Death keeps his court or rules supreme. The crown is hollow or empty in the middle because power is not solid or strong or permanent. Kings are always surrounded by death, and there is no way to escape it.

Death is a court jester who sits mocking the king’s reign and smiling wildly at his grand ceremonies. Death allows the king to breathe and live a little scene where he plays the monarch who is feared and can kill with looks. This infuses the king with fake and excessive pride in himself, as if the mortal flesh that surrounds his life were like brass that could not be penetrated.

After having humoured the king in this way, Death comes at last and with little effort bores through his castle wall or bodily defenses and bids farewell to the king. The king easily dies because he is unaware of his own mortality.

Cover your heads- I am a king?

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends – subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Richard II asks his subjects to cover their heads and not mock flesh and blood with ceremonial respect. He does not deserve ceremonial respect because he is just a mortal like them. He tells them to throw away respect, tradition, form and formal duty because they have mistaken who he truly is all this time.

Although he is the king, he lives by eating bread just like his subjects, feels want, tastes grief and needs friends just like his subjects too. At the end of the day, he is an ordinary person just like them, who feels the same things as they do. Knowing all this, he asks how they can tell him that he is a king.

Conclusion

This poem serves to show us how even powerful people like kings are just ordinary people at the end of the day. Kings are powerless before death and they cannot escape it. They feel the same things as their subjects and ultimately die like them too.