Richard II Monologue (Act 5, Scene 5) | StageMilk
Richard II Monologue

Richard II Monologue (Act 5, Scene 5)

Written by on | Monologues Unpacked

Richard II has always fascinated me. His downfall seems so inevitable, so warranted, yet once his crown begins to slip away, we as an audience feel an enormous amount of compassion for the fallen king. His speeches during the latter end of the play are beautiful, insightful explorations of the nature of power and humanity. A must-read for me is his famous speech in Act 3 Scene 2 – “No matter where; of comfort no man speak” where he talks with brutal honesty about what it is to be a king. This was in a time where being a king or queen was seen as almost divine, and so to hear Richard speak with such humanity, and almost mock what it is to be a king, appears breathtakingly contemporary. This mix of melancholy and depth in Richard’s monologues makes them some of the most potent in all of Shakespeare’s plays. This monologue from Act 5 Scene 5 – “I have been studying how I may compare” is another example of this same quality and for me, it is the other standout of the play.

The monologue we are looking at here appears at the very end of the play (Act 5, Scene 5) and we see Richard at his most philosophical. Withdrawn, and defeated by his situation, he has turned inward, and through the speech discusses the ephemeral nature of power and once again what it is to be a king. He delves into the nature of thought and an almost spiritual message emerges about coming to terms with being “nothing”.

Notes on performance

The key to this monologue is finding Richard’s state of mind. If you can find in your imagination what it is to go from the heights of being a King, with unchecked power, to being deposed and locked away in these “ragged prison walls” then you are on the right track. I believe finding a clear sense of place will also help you as much of the monologue is in reference to the prison and how this new reality compares to his previous life and life more broadly.

Who am I? King Richard II. You are a king, well, sort of. Just before this scene, you have been deposed by Bolingbroke (your cousin). You are the legitimate heir, but you have been deposed because of your behaviour as the King. You have been spending too much money, and generally disrespecting the nobles. This is an interesting story because you definitely deserve what you have coming, but as an audience, we are made to feel sorry for Richard. Is it ever right to depose a king? For you, as the actor, you must decide whether you think you have done wrong, and how you feel about all the elements of the play.

Where are we? As Stella Adler always emphasises, knowing where you are is essential. And in this monologue, it is very important. Much of the content is in relation to the space around you and the situation you find yourself in. Richard is currently in prison at The Castle of Pomfret.

What has just happened? From a big picture point of view, Richard has just been deposed and sent to prison, but immediately preceding this monologue, we just get the sense that he has been in prison for a fairly short amount of time. That said, if you are going from the most powerful man in the world to a prisoner, it wouldn’t take long for that reality to have hit you. This soliloquy begins Act 5 Scene 5, so there is no immediate action. My suggestion would be to imagine it had been an excruciating time. The more extreme the situation, the more trapped and isolated you feel the higher the stakes of the piece will be.

Richard II Monologue (Act 5, Scene 5)

Enter Richard, alone. 

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world;
And, for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it. Yet I’ll hammer’t out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermixed
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word , as thus: ‘Come, little ones’;
And then again:
‘It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.’
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders – how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of Fortune’s slaves,
Nor shall not be the last, like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I kinged again, and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing.

Unfamiliar Words/Phrases

As always in our monologues unpacked I start by listing the unfamiliar words and giving you a simple modern definition:

hammer: ponder, think hard
beget: give rise to
humours: moods, temperaments (based on the idea of mood coming from bodily fluids: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic
still-breeding: constantly breeding
little world: the prison cell
scruples: doubts
set the word itself / Against the word: find passages of scripture that contradict other scriptures.
“come little ones”: Bible verse Matthew 19: 14
“It is as hard to come as for a camel/ To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.”: Bible verse Matthew 19:24
postern: entrance, side gate
needle’s eye: very narrow opening at the end of a needle
flinty: hard
fortune’s slaves: unlucky people
refuge: shelter from, take refuge from
penury: extreme poverty

Richard II (Act 5, Scene 5) – Modern Translation

I have broken down my modern translation into the 7 main beats, or sections of the monologue, just to make it more manageable. A translation is always difficult so I would use this only as a guide and also make sure to check out the unfamiliar words section above as well. A combination of this translation, the definitions, and your own instincts should get you pretty close and definitely amplify your understanding of the text.

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world;
And, for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it. Yet I’ll hammer’t out.

I have been thinking over and over how I can compare my prison cell to the broader world. And because the world is populated with people, and here is no one but myself, I can’t do it. Yet I will give it a try. 

My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented.

My brain will be the mother and my soul the father and these two will give rise to a whole lot of children (thoughts). And these thoughts will populate this prison I am stuck in. They will have all the moods or personalities of the people of the world. For no thought is ever content. 

The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermixed
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word , as thus: ‘Come, little ones’;
And then again:
‘It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.’

The more elevated, divine thoughts are mixed up with doubts – like when pious people set scripture (bible verses) against other scripture and so show their contradictions. As we can see in the bible verse about “Come, little ones” which seems so welcoming and then ‘It is as hard to come as for a camel/ To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.’ – which makes it sound impossible to get into heaven. 

Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders – how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.

Thoughts about ambition, they have far fetched dreams and think of impossible plans, such as thinking about how my weak nails can break me out of this prison. And because they cannot, die from their pride.

Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of Fortune’s slaves,
Nor shall not be the last, like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.

Thoughts tending to contentment make themselves feel better by the argument that they are not the first unlucky people to have bad circumstances. Like silly beggars who are in the stocks for punishment who reassure themselves that many have been punished before in the same way and many more will after them endure the same fate. And in this thought, they find a kind of contentment (peace). Because they are just like the ones before, and if they have done it, so can I! 

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I kinged again, and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing.

Therefore I as one person play many people and no one is content in this world.
Sometimes I am a king, then people’s reasons (like Bolingbroke’s) make me want to be a beggar, and so I am.
Then extreme poverty makes me want to be a king again, and so I am.
And then I soon lose my crown again because of Bolingbroke. And once again am nothing. 

But whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing.

But whatever I am. I or anyone else can never be pleased till you are content with being nothing. 


If you want another modern version, I am a big fan of Litcharts, you can look at the full translation here. Just take them with a grain of salt, it is just one person’s interpretation, and so don’t take it as an exact translation.

Conclusion

I hope this page has proved a great resource for working on this monologue. This is a fantastic audition choice, especially if you are looking for something more reflective and philosophical. It has room to be very playful, and can be at times be even silly or comical, yet also has scope to be incredibly melancholy and profound. It requires a lot of imaginative work and so make sure to take your time to investigate the images within the text and really understand the piece.

For more on how to act Shakespeare. 

About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is the founder of StageMilk. Andrew trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and is now a Sydney-based actor working in Theatre, Film and Television.

About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is the founder of StageMilk. Andrew trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and is now a Sydney-based actor working in Theatre, Film and Television.

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