Tongues: Speech as Treason in Richard II

by Jules Talbot

The Elizabethan era has been characterized as a cultural moment “peculiarly receptive” to the “patterning of language,” where “rhetorical forms … penetrated the vernacular self-expression” (Boyer 21). This sensitivity to language is registered and keenly reflected by Shakespeare in Richard II. First published in 1597 and performed as early as 1595, the play dramatizes Richard’s undoing and culminates in the onstage deposition of a king, a scene censored within quarto editions of the text. Issues germinating during the fourteenth-century reign of the historical Richard II (1377-1399)—specifically, shifting legal definitions of treason—continued into Shakespeare’s present and the text of the fictionalized Richard II, a strikingly and self-consciously linguistic play. Parallel to legal history, as speech acts were increasingly regulated by monarchical authority, speech in Richard II—slandering, pardoning, accusing, and flattering—is also scrutinized and ultimately weaponized.

Treason’s legal definition underwent several stages of transformation in England over the centuries. Before Richard II, the play or historical figure, the English Parliament under Edward III passed the Treason Act of 1351. Prior to this statute, treason was defined by common law, or the branch of English law based on custom, court decisions, and gradually accumulating precedents rather than a written document; accordingly, Edward’s statute was intended to curtail the unwieldy breadth of the common law by clarifying and codifying precisely what treason entailed. Distinguishing between high treason (disloyalty to the sovereign) and petty treason (to a subject), the act established treason as “compassing or imagining the king’s death” (Knight 141)—but terms like “compassing” and “imagining,” prying into the accused’s interiority, created sites of legal ambiguity as lawmakers attempted to prosecute intent. Could the imaginary be proved? Or, worryingly, disproved? This ambiguity, the basis for judicial extensions of statute law referred to as constructive treason, disturbed King Henry IV, who in 1399 warned Parliament about the vagaries of the current statute and its vulnerability to exploitation and manipulation:

… no man [knows], as he ought to know, how to do, speak or say, for doubt of pains of 

treason. How dangerous it is by construction and analogy to make treasons where the law has not done it; for the method admits no limits or bounds, but runs as far as the wit and invention of accusers (Knight 141). 

Around two hundred years later, the 1351 Act was finally revised—although not with the reform-minded caution of Henry IV. Instead, it was Henry VIII who redefined treason in England with the 1534 Treason Act: 

If any person or persons … do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practice or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the King’s most royal person … or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the King our sovereign lord should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown, … then every such person and persons so offending in any premises … being thereof lawfully convict[ed] according to the laws and customs of this realm, shall be adjudged traitors; and … shall be reputed, accepted and adjudged high treason (Lemon 7). 

Reissuing the act extended the category of treason to explicitly include “writings” and “words” directed against the sovereign. Words, even in the absence of direct action, could now constitute treason, although the difference between punishable written and vocal expression (such as slander and libel) was yet undefined (Sokol 371). While this concept of speech as treason had precedents in common law and constructive treason rulings—in fact, “the older law had often been interpreted this way” (Blank 331)—the 1534 statue nonetheless established, with drastic and threatening specificity, the link. Its innovation was in “posit[ing] the eventfulness of speech,” its capability to not only “prompt,” but itself “constitute violent action” (Lemon 2). Treason was transformed into “a form of speech that anticipates,” or even “functions as, violence to the monarch,” where the crime is not an action but “a political and legal construction,” “reshap[ing] definitions of the crime for the next hundred years” (3-5). Henry’s heir Edward VI temporarily repealed the statue, but it was revived once more in 1571 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, declaring traitors those who:

by writing, printing, preaching, speech, express words or sayings, maliciously, advisedly and directly publish, set forth, and affirm that the Queen our said sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth is an heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or an usurper of the crown (9). 

Here, Elizabeth advanced Henry’s statute further still from “words” and “writing” to the ever-more specific reprehension of “writing, printing, preaching, speech, express words or sayings,” “signal[ing] a proliferation rather than a diminishing of treasonous speech acts” (10). It is under this restrictive statue that Shakespeare wrote, and in this court that Richard II was performed and published, late in the reign of a conspicuously childless queen whose age, virginity and lack of heirs made Richard II‘s themes of succession especially and perhaps uncomfortably pertinent. If, in the Elizabethan era, treason did not reside in specific actions against a monarch but was instead diffused into the preemptive language of constructive treason, what happens “to our notion of the crime and the event itself when we approach it not as violent action but as a verbal phenomenon?” (2). Richard II, with its stylized emphasis on speech, the act of speaking, interrogates treason as a verbal and textual phenomenon—just as plays are themselves textual phenomena constructed from a playwright’s text and actors’ speech. These sixteenth-century suspicions of speech as treason imprint on Richard II both on the plot-level in Richard’s court and poetically in its patterns of imagery. Characters repeatedly recall attention to their verbalizing and the mechanics of speech: mouths, lips, and especially tongues, constructing speech from its physical components. This insistence on speech is unique among Shakespeare’s plays, attuned to anxieties about the law’s increasing regulation of language, perils of speaking in the presence of a monarch, and the very notion of speech as a crime.

The text of Richard II features a conspicuous repetition of the words “mouth” (8 instances), “breath” or “breathe” (30), “speak” or “say” (89), “word” (53), and “tongue” (32), with the latter occurring more in Richard II than in any other play (Altick 349). Tongues are central to this web of speech-related terms, and for unraveling how Richard II weaponizes speech—specifically, tongues that wound. In the very first scene, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford (eventually crowned Henry IV) accuses Thomas de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of harboring treasonous intent against King Richard:

With a foul traitor’s name stuff I thy throat,

And wish, so please my sovereign, ere I move,

What my tongue speaks my right-drawn sword may prove (1.1.45-8).

Here, Bolingbroke “stuff[s]” a “traitor’s name” into Mowbray’s “throat,” the traitor’s name embodied and inserted into the other man. Additionally, Bolingbroke associates his tongue with his sword, equating their capacities for causing harm—where his tongue says, his sword enforces. Later, Bolingbroke continues the image: 

Ere my tongue

Shall wound my honor with such feeble wrong

Or sound so base a parle, my teeth shall tear

The slavish motive of recanting fear

And spit it bleeding in his high disgrace (1.1.196-201)

Bolingbroke’s tearing teeth recall mastication as well as speech, but surprisingly, his teeth bite not into Mowbray’s flesh but Bolingbroke’s own hypothetical “slavish motive of recanting fear”: the parle, their discussion. He bites into a speech act, imagining its substance. Later still, when Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, confronts Richard, Richard threatens that the “tongue that runs so roundly in [his] head / Should run [his] head from [his] unreverent shoulders” (2.1.128-9), as if Gaunt’s tongue does not only endanger him, but actually guides the blade of his own decapitation. Gaunt’s tongue, says Richard, performs the execution. If statute law imagined speech as a legal action, then speech acts in Richard II also enter the realm of the tangible to clash spectacularly. 

Conversely, silence can be weaponized as effectively as speech. Tongues are silenced by Richard to quell dissident voices; when Richard exiles Mowbray from England, presumably to a nation which doesn’t speak his “native English,” the King neuters the danger Mowbray poses by depriving him of his “tongue’s use” (1.3.161-3). Mowbray despairs that his banishment is a “speechless death”: “Within my mouth,” he cries, “you have enjailed my tongue, / Doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips” (1.3.168-9), his tongue twice entrapped by the verbs “enjailed” and “portcullised,” or gated. Finalizing his verdict, Richard stipulates that Mowbray and Bolingbroke are forbidden to “by advisèd purpose meet / To plot, contrive, or complot any ill / ’Gainst us, our state, our subjects, or our land” (1.3.192-4) in terms reminiscent of Henry VIII and Elizabeth’s statues—a list of condemned forms of expression (“imagine, invent, practice,” “plot, contrive, complot”), and a ban phrased around plots of violent action rather than violent action directly. 

Beyond poetic representations of speech, Elizabeth and Henry VIII’s statutes also stamp Shakespeare’s play on the level of plot, especially the events surrounding the banishments of Mowbray and Bolingbroke. Richard’s exact motives for banishing them are oblique—maybe to censor some information they have about his own involvement in the murder of Thomas of Woodstock—but he vocally, and therefore legally, justifies the banishment as a preventative measure enacted:

For that our kingdom’s earth should not be soiled

With that dear blood which it hath fosterèd;

And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect

Of civil wounds plowed up with neighbor’s sword … (1.3.127-9). 

Earth soiled with blood, neighbors taking up arms—this entire scenario of civil war, however vivid or persuasive its imagery, is hypothetical. Richard’s rationale is an exclusively verbal phenomenon belonging to a larger trend in early modern drama, conceptually related to constructive treason, where “monarchs report on and narrate the crime not as it materialized but as it might have been,” a legal decision predicated on fiction, a purely narrative creation (Lemon 2). Richard banishes Bolingbroke and Mowbray not because of their language, but of his own. This is exactly what Henry IV warned against in 1399: when treason is not a rigidly-established legal category but instead one constructive, expansive, and ever-changing with the whims of accusers. 

Richard II has been characterized as a play “preoccupied with the unsubstantiality of human language” (Altick 350), but the language is not uniformly insubstantial; instead, it is speech’s variable and unstable substantiality that is frightening. Speech’s uncertain valuation and continual reconstitution under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I’s statutes of treason reflect this fear. Speech is physicalized, but the specifics of its physicalization are unreliable, changeable—especially when Richard is speaking. While Mowbray’s and Bolingbroke’s speech is conveyed by their tongues, physical instruments, Richard’s is usually carried on his noncorporeal “breath.” Richard banishes Mowbray by “breath[ing]” against him the “hopeless word of ‘never to return’,” a paradoxical “dateless limit” of exile (1.3.153-5), and Bolingbroke remarks on the strange properties of king’s breath that warp time and contain infinities: “How long a time lies in one little word! … such is the breath of kings” (1.3.218-20). What breath can and cannot do changes over the course of the play. Initially, Richard claims that “the breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” (3.2.57-8), but breath can, in fact, depose kings. Richard finally resigns and relinquishes the crown to Bolingbroke with “[his] own tongue” that he “den[ies his] sacred state” and “With [his] own breath” that he “release[s] all duteous oaths” (4.1.218-9); and when Richard finally dies, he is rendered “breathless” (5.6.31).  

In the critical tradition, Richard II’s deposition, dethronement, and death are often interpreted as a tragedy of flattery, a king’s ears coaxed on by “flattering sounds” and pleasant “lascivious meters” (2.1.20-2). But speech in Richard II is not defined by smoothing, placating, or assuaging; instead, it agitates. With its physicalization of speech, weaponization of tongues, silencing of voices, and empowerment of breath, the play’s “constant attention to the propensity for verbalizing” makes language itself so conspicuous that it unveils speech’s “illusory nature”: the unbridgeable discrepancy between words, “mere conventional sounds moulded by the tongue,” and “reality” (Altick 350-1). Tensions in language expressed by the fictional Mowbray, Bolingbroke, and Richard in a 1595 play are the same tensions noticed by the real Henry IV in 1399. Elizabethan stages and courts, through the parallel texts of plays like Richard II and treason statutes, both probe the outermost limits of speech: the precariousness of speaking to a monarch, fictional or historical, and the gaps between what is said and what is meant.

Works Cited –

Altick, Richard D. “Symphonic Imagery in Richard II.” PMLA, vol. 62, no. 2, 1947, pp. 
339–365. JSTOR,

Blank, Paula. “Speaking Freely about Richard II.” The Journal of English and Germanic 
Philology, vol. 96, no. 3, 1997, pp. 327–348. JSTOR,

Boyer, Allen D. “Drama, Law and Rhetoric in the Age of Coke and Shakespeare.” The Law in Shakespeare, edited by Constance Jordan and Karen Cunningham. Palgrave Macmillan, 
2007, pp. 20-37. 

Knight, Alfred H. The Life of the Law: The People and Cases that Have Shaped Our Society, 
from King Alfred to Rodney King. Oxford University Press US, 1998, p. 142. 

Lemon, Rebecca. Treason by Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare’s England
1st ed., Cornell University Press, Ithaca; London, 2006. Print. 

Shakespeare, William. Richard II. The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, edited by Richard 
Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, David S. Kastan, and Harold Jenkins. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001, pp. 673-700. 

“Shakespeare: King Richard II.” The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, by Ernest H. Kantorowicz and Conrad Leyser, Princeton University Press, Princeton; Oxford, 1985, pp. 24–41. JSTOR,

Sokol, B. J. and Mary Sokol. Shakespeare’s Legal Language: A Dictionary. London: Athlone Press, 2000.