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 naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them into virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honor" (qtd. in Council 29). Are we to belief that honor is an instinct or inborn trait that magically appears? To the Elizabethan audience, birthright would still initially guarantee honor, and respect for a noble, honor that could be lost if it was not maintained or if the gentleman's good name became dirtied. Mowbray
despairs over his lost honor, "I am disgraced, impeached, and baffled here,/Pierced to the soul with slander's venomed spear" (Richard II 1.1.170-171). Honor, being an extremely important commodity in Elizabethan England, was something to fight over.
In Richard II, Mowbray and Bolingbroke are set to have a judicial duel to the death. The duel is judicial because the winner, the survivor, is credited with being true and virtuous. The loser, in death, forfeits claims to honor and innocence. They have told Richard their charges against their rivals, and are prepared to defend their honor, and innocence through personal combat. Their honor, their accumulation of virtuous deeds, has been soiled by the accusations brought against them. Slanderous comments and claims were not to go...