The Crown


The Westminster Portrait, Anonymous, 1390s


“Now mark me how I will undo myself. / I give this heavy weight from off my head”

As John of Gaunt, First Duke of Lancaster and uncle to King Richard II, lies dying in William Shakespeare’s Richard II, he warns his king: “A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,/ Whose compass is no bigger than thy head” (2.1.100-101).1 The small diameter of the crown symbolizes the entire realm over which the sovereign governs, a populated place wherein people may “sit.” And not simply any people, but “flatterers,” those notorious for leading the sovereign astray. The crown represents a space that can be plagued with problems. Thus the king and his crown are seen as capable of corruption. Though the crown may be emblematic of a series of positive traits—divine right, political prowess, moral rectitude—John of Gaunt’s language makes clear that what the crown represents is hardly immune to negative influence. The golden circumference of the crown is not a symbol of pristine rule but of a complex political structure. While on one level the crown’s material indicates a lasting potential and sturdiness, the crown is also a location of possible sovereign weakness.

The crown simultaneously participates in and defines the English monarchy. As an ornament that demarcates a hierarchical system, the crown not only differentiates but also distinguishes the wearer with a particular political, cultural, and at times dramatic, value. Shakespeare dramatizes the complex understanding of the crown and kingship in many of his plays but here I will focus on his early history play, The Tragedy of King Richard II. This is in part because the play’s plot is driven by the struggle for the crown, literally and metaphorically, and in part because Richard understands his identity as King of England as constituted by his possession of the crown. By closely examining the language Richard uses to reflect upon his kingship, I hope to illustrate the centrality of the crown to Richard’s own understanding of himself as king. Consequently, I will argue that the loss of the crown results in not only the loss of Richard’s rule but also the complete destruction of his personal identity.

Perhaps the most recognized image of the crown from Richard II is that of the “hollow crown.” The contradictory status, as outlined by Richard himself, of the hollow crown is particularly pertinent to a discussion of the crown as constituting kingly identity. After grieving about the unfortunate fate of kings (that is, death) Richard laments, “For within the hollow crown / that rounds the mortal temples of a king / keeps death his court” (3.2.160-162). Putting aside the obvious material consideration that the crown is not entirely hollow but rather dense, Richard equates the “hollow crown” with a feeling of doom; the crown is hollow in that he perceives it as an agent of death and sadness. Rather than being an emblem of his grandeur, Richard views the crown as his executioner, keeping death within the walls of his court. Yet while the crown may on some level be seen as bringing death, it is also gives Richard life. The crown is what “allow[s] him a breath, a little scene, / To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks” (3.2.164-166). The crown thus animates Richard, allowing him to not only represent the monarchy but actively “monarchize.” The transformation of the noun monarchy into a verb form underscores the notion that the crown affords Richard sovereign power; he is not only the figure of the monarchy but also the agent of its authority. Therefore, function of the crown in relation to Richard is unstable—at times it is seen as his murderer, yet it is also the means of access to his entire social world, allowing him breath, time, and sovereign action.

Structurally, the exchange of the crown from Richard to Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV, is the climax of the drama. After roughly half the scene has elapsed, Richard enters with York and “Officers bearing the crown” (4.1.162). While at this point the Duke of York is already trumpeting Bolingbroke as “Henry, fourth of that name!” (4.1.112), the Bishop of Carlisle is adamant that he is yet to be realized as King of England. Carlisle insists, “What subject can give sentence to his king? / And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject?”; Carlisle furthers his argument in noting that Richard is still “anointed, crownèd, planted many years” (4.1.121-127). For both Richard and Bolingbroke, what is at stake in this scene is the possession of the crown; it is hovering in a strange interim space—Richard has not fully lost it, and Bolingbroke certainly has not gained it. Thus we see that Richard’s fall and Bolingbroke’s ascension are both dependent on their relationship with this one royal ornament. The crown is just as important for Bolingbroke’s transformation into Henry IV as it is in Richard’s loss of selfhood. Furthermore, in extricating the crown from the kingly body, Richard has disrupted both the unity of his person and the unity of his state; just as the king is not complete without the crown, the realm is incomplete without a crowned king.

A king comes into being as a king through the investment ritual of the coronation, and likewise Richard loses his kingship in a type of coronation in reverse. While the coronation ceremony consists, in part, of a dressing of the kingly body, in act four we witness a ceremonial divestment of Richard. He laments:

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;

Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.

Now mark me how I will undo myself.

I give this heavy weight from off my head

And this unwieldy scepter from my hand,

The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.(4.1.201-206)

Whereas in the coronation service the dressing adds meaning to the kingly body, infusing it with the cultural and symbolic importance of the monarchy, in this perverted service Richard erases himself by removing material items, thereby shedding their symbolic value. In the coronation the king becomes king, here Richard “must nothing be”; he negates his identity by discarding the accouterments of kingship. In this ceremonial disrobing, Richard is getting lighter, ridding himself of the “heavy weight” of the crown, both in terms of its material mass and the sovereign responsibilities it connotes.

What is crucial about understanding the act of donning and removing the crown as the entrance and exit into kingship is that these acts position kingship less as a series of virtues and more as a collection of properties. Put differently, the ornaments of the station constitute kingship, and kingly virtues are dependent upon the possession of these accessories. The removal of the intangible “pride of kingly sway” is contingent upon Richard first casting aside “the heavy weight” of the crown and “the unwieldy scepter.” His internal constitution is built around these various ornaments; with their loss, he loses meaning “from out [his] heart.” In this moment, Richard catalogs what makes him king by expressing the things of which he must divest himself in order to cease being king. This same index works to dissolve his sense of self entirely.

It is only after this disrobing that Richard sees himself as “unkinged”; it is only after this speech that Richard actually uses the word “deposing” to refer to his own life’s tale. In Richard’s own conception of himself, without the crown he is no longer king. Yet this undressing extends beyond just his self-identification as king. Without the ornaments of the station, Richard is fully undone as king, and he is also undone on a fundamentally human level. The tragedy of Richard is not simply his deposition, nor the loss of his kingship and his royal power, but the loss of his self. By donning clothing, we absorb the meaning vested in those garments. However, this transference of meaning is dependent upon the wearing of the garment or accessory. Without the physical ornament, this meaning will dilute and ultimately vanish. This is the precise process we see unfolding in act four when Richard “undoes” himself. By removing the trappings of his station, Richard fulfills his command that he “must nothing be”; he has completely erased his self, as king and as man.

The image of Richard’s fractured self is made even more explicit when the looking glass is brought on stage at Richard’s behest. He seems to hope “that it may show [him] what face [he] ha[s]/ Since it is bankrupt of his majesty” (4.1.266-7). Mirrors, of course, function to reflect life; we look in the mirror and we see a true reflection of our self and our world. Steven Orgel summarizes the symbolic importance of the mirror nicely in his book Illusion of Power, explaining that, “they are emblems of worldliness and pride, frail glasses ‘which are as easy broke as they make forms.’ They are also the way to self knowledge.”2 Furthermore, when we look in the mirror, we expect to recognize what we see; the mirror serves to reflect a specific self-conception. Thus the dashing of the glass in line 289 underscores Richard’s crisis of identity spurred by the loss of his kingship; his sense of self, like the mirror, is “cracked in a hundred shivers” with no possibility of repair. When Richard looks in the mirror, he no longer knows himself. He questions the reflection staring back at him when he asks, “Was this the face…. / Was this the face” (4.1.281-283), feeling disconnected from the memories of the past and the reality of his present state; there is an incongruity between his external composition and his interior life.

Following the role that clothing and ornamentation plays in self-conception in these scenes, identity is a visual phenomenon; we understand ourselves by how we see ourselves. When Richard loses the crown, the critical piece of his external kingly self, he in turn loses his understanding of his internal constitution. Without the regalia of his lost station, Richard becomes “The shadow of [his] sorrow” (4.1.294). Without the crown to fill Richard with meaning, he is a shell of his former self, a mere shadow.3 With the loss of the crown Richard not only loses his standing within the institution of the monarchy, but he also loses all of the social and moral codes that accompanied his kingly identity. He is a mere phantom of his past self in that his mode of relating to other people—that is, as king to subject—is no longer available to him. Richard now has no schema for how to exist and interact in a social world. He is more “hollow” than the crown ever was; Richard is without institutional affiliation, he is alone in a world of enemies, he cannot recognize himself in the mirror.

Richard’s intimate reflections on the construction of his kingship provide insight into the way in which a kingly identity is dependent upon and comprised of the ornaments worn in that station. While all ornaments of the station of kingship are necessary—that is, a king requires his full set of regalia—the crown is the only ornament that is alone sufficient. This is to say that the crown is absolutely integral to kingship, both on an institutional and a personal level. The most recognizable symbol of the monarchy is the crown; to dress in the crown is thus to have access to the institutional power of the English monarchy. On a personal level, to the individual who reigns as king, the crown is what first enables the world to see him as sovereign. Furthermore, it is through ornamentation that the king understands his place within his social world. The crown has a power in its own right; its presence can make a king as much as its loss can destroy one. Thus we see that the crown is not merely an object that supplements the life and body of a king, but an ornament inseparable from the kingly body. For the time that the king wears the crown, body and object are one and the same. So viewed, the loss of the crown is tantamount to the loss of self, which is precisely what we see as the true tragedy of King Richard II.

As act four draws to a close, Richard is escorted from the presence of Bolingbroke to be imprisoned in Flint Castle. Richard is acutely aware of his demise, acknowledging himself as “unkinged,” and devoid of any royal presence or power. With the loss of his crown, Richard’s sense of self has been dismantled. Such destruction is of course institutional; Richard is no longer the figurehead of the English monarchy, his reign is a thing of the past. But for Richard, the loss of his kingdom is experienced much more personally. While Bolingbroke ascends to the throne as Henry IV, Richard slowly fades into a shadow of his former self. Shakespeare’s dramatization of the life and death of Richard II forces us to broaden our conception of how kingship is constituted and understood on an individual level as we forced to consider the fragility of an identity constructed around an object. The prolonged and distressing staging of Richard’s deposition requires us to contemplate not only the social or political but also the personal consequences of the loss of kingship through the loss of the crown.

In the final moment of his “undoing” speech, Richard ponders, “What more remains?” (4.1.222). Throughout the course of the speech, Richard has divested himself of all the pomp of his kingship, given away every ornament, in striving to eradicate kingly qualities from his person. In building an understanding of his self that is dependent upon and constituted by an ornament, the ramifications of losing that ornament are, for Richard, unfathomable. Shakespeare’s dramatization of the historical Richard II not only shows the loss of a crown by one ruler and the ascension to the throne of another, but also through the exchange of the crown from hand to hand and head to head, we come to understand the magnitude of the power extant within a single material object. Through the calculated separation of the kingly accouterments from Richard’s body, he erases himself, leaving only the unadorned, value neutral, body of a mortal man. We are left to ruminate on the sad truth that in fact, for Richard, nothing more remains.


  1. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Ed. Stephen Orgel (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 2.1.100-101.  All further quotations from Richard II will be taken from this edition.
  2. Orgel, Illusion of Power, 59.
  3. The use of the word shadow here is also meta-referential as actors on the Early Modern stage were referred to as “shadows.” Richard is not only a shadow, or a phantom version of his former self, but the actor playing Richard on stage is a shadow, or memory, of the historical Richard II.