Fire and Water: Yielding, my rear

In Act Three, Scene Three of Richard the Second, when Bolingbroke is about to meet with Richard to negotiate the terms of Bolingbroke’s return to England–he claims to want only his titles and lands back–he says,


Methinks King Richard and myself should meet
With no less terror than the elements
Of fire and water, when their thundering shock
At meeting tears the cloudy cheeks of heaven.
Be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water:
The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain
My waters; on the earth, and not on him.

— III.iii.54-60

Bolingbroke says they should meet with no preconceived fear. They are but two elements, he says, fire and water. Bolingbroke claims to be the “yielding water,” and from a purely physical perspective, water does yield: it doesn’t have any shape of its own, it will mold to whatever shape the vessel into which it is poured.

Yet, when fire is “on the earth,” and “rain” falls upon it, it’s not the water that yields, but the fire that is extinguished.

Such an interesting speech for Bolingbroke… is he being ironic? sincere? does he realize what he’s saying?

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