Bloodletting and blood spilling


The language of the play, however, distinguishes between cleansing bloodletting and soiling, polluting blood spilling.

The tournament as an instance of phlebotomy, of bloodletting of the body politic is credited with purging qualities. Gail Kern Paster has shown that the goal of phlebotomy was "the restoration of an internal state conceptualised as balance or homeostasis" (Paster, 75). It was regarded as a therapy for excessive anger. Richard employs the commonplace trope of combat as phlebotomy, of bloodshed as bloodletting when he interrupts the tournament. His request to Mowbray and Bullingbrook "to purge this choler without letting blood" actually reinforces the idea of tournament as a positive, purging type of violence and shows how the physical and ethical could easily commingle.[21]

Richard adds facetiously, "our doctors say this is no month to bleed". Indeed, the practice of phlebotomy had to be subjected to rigorous control so that the blood spilling should not get out of control. Definite rules defined the how and the when of bloodletting. Summer for example was a bad season for it. (Paster, 69-93) With respect to the bloodletting of the body politic, things could also get out of hand. The purging type of violence could easily turn into the polluting, self-destructive type of violence. The reason Richard gives for cancelling the combat is that:

For that our kingdom's earth should not be soiled

With that dear blood which it hath fostered,

And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect

Of civil wounds ploughed up with neighbour's sword, (1.3. 125-129)

Bloodshed is now viewed as soiling the land of the kingdom. The violence incurred in the combat would be self-destructive, spilling "the dear blood which it hath fostered". It is directed inwards and can breed civil disorder i.e. the reciprocal violence that leads to the sacrificial crisis". Of course the king's arguments are spurious as he himself was guilty of committing this kind of crime in the first place. In Froissart's text, another source of the play, the decision to cancel the tournament was made under the pressure of Richard's councillors who feared a popular revolt. Shakespeare mentions the Council `s collective decision only briefly, making Richard bear the responsibility for the aborted ritual and the disorder that ensued. At the same time Richard's arguments, however disingenuous, do point to a non-violent way of settling the conflict. Along with Gaunt's insistence on "patience" instead of revenge, Richard's action points to a non-violent alternative that was conceivable at the time yet which failed to materialise.

Richard's words describing the danger of polluting violence, where English blood is soiling the ground are echoed in Bullingbrook's threat with force. If the king does not grant him the request:

...I'll use the advantage of my power

And lay the summer's dust with showers of blood

Rained from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen,

The which how far off from the mind of Bullingbrook

It is such crimson tempest should bedrench

The fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land. (3.3.142-47)

It is the blood of Englishmen and not of the French or the Turks that will be shed. This blood will drench the fair island, the Garden of Eden his father praised in the first act. Bullingbrook has always associated himself with water (yielding water) while Richard with the sun. Now this water has been perverted into a blood rain (crimson tempest, showers of blood), suggesting wholesale destruction.

The Bishop Carlisle further takes up the image of the soil polluted with blood when he makes his prophecies of the civil wars following Richard's deposition: The blood of English shall manure the ground

And future ages groan for this foul act

Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,

And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars

Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound. (4.1. 137141)

(my italics)

Bullingbrook's rain blood also echoes Gaunt's conviction that if he cannot correct Richard's crime, God will certainly take care of it and "will rain hot vengeance on offender's heads" (1.1. 8). Bullingbrook's mission to act as God's scourge would thus authorise his acts of violence, questionable as they may be.

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