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Essay on Honor in Richard II

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The Importance of Honor in Richard II  

 
    The tension-charged exchange between Bolingbroke and Mowbray in the first scenes of Richard II provides exciting action for the audience, and gives a glimpse into trial by combat and the importance of honor in Shakespeare's plays. Trial by combat, or a judicial duel was a traditional way to settle disputes in England and Europe for many generations. People dueled to defend their own honor, and to prove personal claims against the honor of others. Honor. Honor is the accumulation of virtuous deeds that instills a respect in others and in you. Possessing, seeking, and defending the elusive trait of honor are crucial elements of Richard II.

The concept of honor has different meanings to individual members of a modern audience, just as it did to an Elizabethan audience. What is honorable? What makes someone honorable? Aristotle thought:

there is no true honor in the world but that which commeth from vertue. Vertue seeks no greater or ampler theater to shew her selfe in, then her owne conscience. The higher the Sunne is the lesse shadow it makes, and the greater a mans vertue is the lesse glorie it seekes. (qtd. in Council 28)

 

So, by Aristotle's rationale, those people who seek honor are in fact not honorable because they are deliberately seeking honor, which is a vice. Council sums Aristotle's argument very well, "virtue consists in action; the reward of that action is honor; to pursue more honor than virtuous action warrants or to pursue honor for its own sake is a vice" (19). Honor is also eloquently described by Rabelais's definition of honor to the Thelemites, "because men that are free, well-born, and well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have natu...


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...mon. New York: W W Norton, 1994.

12. Seldon, John. Table-Talk. [1689]. Ed. Edward Arber. London: Alex, Murray & Son, 1868.

13. Shakespeare, W. "The Tragedy of King Richard the Second." The Complete

14. Signet Classic Shakespeare. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Johanovich, Publishers, 1972.

 

You may wish to begin your essay with the quotes below:

 

Bolingbroke:

My body shall make good upon this earth,

Or my divine soul answer it in heaven.

Thou art a traitor and a miscreant.

        (Richard II, 1.1.37-39)

 

Mowbray:

I take it up; and by that sword I swear,

Which gently laid my knighthood on my shoulder,

I'll answer thee in any fair degree

Or chivalrous design of knightly trial;

And when I mount, alive may I not light,

If I be traitor or unjustly fight.

        (Richard II, 1.1.78-83)

 


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