The Balance of Power (or “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It”)

In Richard the Second, probably better than just about any play in the Canon, we see the slow rise of one character as another takes the slow ride down.

Vanna, show us that WHEEL… OF… FORTUNE!

The rising/descending image first appears in the shape of a balance scale. The Gardener tells the Queen:

King Richard, he is in the mighty hold
Of Bolingbroke. Their fortunes both are weighed.
In your lord's scale is nothing but himself,
And some few vanities that make him light;
But in the balance of great Bolingbroke,
Besides himself, are all the English peers,
And with that odds he weighs King Richard down.

— III.iv.83-89

Here, the balance “scale” is explicit, and the relationship between Richard and Bolingbroke as well. Richard has only “himself // And some few vanities” which don’t add to his moral or political weight, bur rather make him “light.” While today’s use of vanity usually refers to an inflated opinion of one’s self, in Shakespeare’s day, there were multiple meanings (all Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]):

  • That which is vain, futile, or worthless; that which is of no value or profit.
  • The quality of being vain or worthless; the futility or worthlessness of something.
  • A vain, idle, or worthless thing; a thing or action of no value.
  • Emptiness, lightness; the state of being void or empty; inanity.

Any of the above works: Richard’s attempts to retain the throne are futile; his hangers-on (like Bushy, Bagot and Green) are worthless things; and Richard is now but a shell of what he was, void and empty.

On the other hand (or rather, on the other side of the “balance”), Bolingbroke is not alone but has “all” the English lords, and this gives him political and military weight.

It’s all pretty clear and obvious in the mouth of the Gardener. In Richard’s mouth, however, the image becomes less obvious and more poetic:

On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

— IV.i.183-189

Here, unlike the Gardener’s scale in which the weight is power, Richard’s weights are “griefs,” and his bucket is filled with them. As Richard’s bucket goes down, Bolingbroke’s bucket, empty of griefs, “danc(es) in the air.” But Bolingbroke knows that state won’t last: “Part of your cares you give me with your crown” (IV.i.194), he tells Richard.

Oh, Henry has no idea….