A woeful pageant, and a clerical plot (not) (4.1.321-334) #KingedUnKinged

Exeunt [all but Abbot of] Westminster, Carlisle, [and] Aumerle

WESTMINSTER         A woeful pageant have we here beheld.

CARLISLE                   The woe’s to come—the children yet unborn

Shall feel this day as sharp to them as thorn.

AUMERLE                  You holy clergymen, is there no plot

To rid the realm of this pernicious blot?

WESTMINSTER         My lord,

Before I freely speak my mind herein

You shall not only take the sacrament

To bury mine intents, but also to effect

Whatever I shall happen to devise.

I see your brows are full of discontent,

Your hearts of sorrow and your eyes of tears.

Come home with me to supper, I’ll lay a plot

Shall show us all a merry day.                     Exeunt.            (4.1.321-334)


So Carlisle has been present throughout the scene, silent following his long, bloodily prophetic outburst against Bolingbroke’s actions. He’s been in the keeping of the Abbot of Westminster, which had suggested that Westminster should be a Bolingbroke loyalist. He is certainly a canny political operator: his first observation here—a woeful pageant have we here beheld—is both more or less neutral, and sharply cognisant of the theatricality of what has just been, quite literally, played out, full of histrionics and elaborate symbolism, complete with props (the mirror—and the crown itself). Carlisle is less cautious, and after all he’s already shown his hand; he’s wholly pessimistic about what’s happening, and fearful for the future. This is only the beginning, this outrage, this sorrow: the woe’s to come. What’s been done today is going to resonate for generations, and he speaks true. His language is characteristically biblical in its cadence, its sense of intergenerational harm (‘the fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’, Jeremiah 31.29 and Ezekiel 18.2: the context is one of oath-breaking, rebellion, and destruction, and Carlisle gives it a particular twist, perhaps, in the invocation of the sharp thorn, although Richard himself has not quite claimed that his crown has become a Christ-like crown of thorns). Carlisle continues as the play’s voice of spiritual authority, but also genuine distress and horror at what is unfolding.

Aumerle, however, is more impatient, more concerned with the immediate future than with the fate of children’s children. Is there no plot to rid the realm of this pernicious blot? His couplet contrasts, with slightly bathetic effect, with Carlisle’s lapidary pronouncement: the blot to which he refers is presumably the moral stain upon the realm which Richard’s deposition has made, but it does rather sound as if he means Bolingbroke himself, in a dismissive way (rhymes with clot). Westminster is the canny politician, guarded in his speech and taking all possible precautions. Nothing he goes on to say is treasonable, quite (what Aumerle has just said certainly is). I will freely speak my mind herein, he says, but before I do that—before I say anything more—you will take the sacrament, receive the Eucharist and make an oath upon that holy act, both to bury mine intents, keep my plans deeply, wholly secret, and also to effect whatever I shall happen to devise, to execute those plans in due course. Westminster is serious: if Aumerle wants to know what’s going on, he needs to be all in, no half-measures, no backing out. And while that sinks in, Westminster brings Carlisle into the conversation too: I see your brows are full of discontent, your hearts of sorrow and your eyes of tears. Neither of you is happy about the situation, I can tell. So, come with me. Come home with me to supper, I’ll lay a plot shall show us all a merry day. There’s a way out of this mess.

There’s a missing foot at the end of that final line and, partly thanks to Aumerle’s earlier rhyming of plot with blot, it’s hard not to supply a final iamb: or not? And that, finally, is the end of this extraordinary scene, and the end of act 4.

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