The fi rst of several Biblical allusions in Shakespeare’s Richard II comes at the midpoint of the play’s opening scene when Henry Bolingbroke accuses Thomas Mowbray of murdering the Duke of Gloucester:
That he did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death, Suggest his soon-believing adversaries, And consequently, like a traitor coward, Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood: Which blood, like sacrifi cing Abel’s, cries, Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth, To me for justice and rough chastisement; And, by the glorious worth of my descent, This arm shall do it, or this life be spent. (1.1.100-8)1
Bolingbroke’s accusation comes as part of a ritualistic exchange wherein the king acts as judge before presiding representatives from the Houses of York (Mowbray) and Lancaster (Bolingbroke and Gaunt). Since Bolingbroke assumes the role of appellant and Mowbray that of defendant, it is to be expected that Bolingbroke will accuse Mowbray. But how he accuses him is what is of interest to us here. By comparing the death of Gloucester to that of the Old Testament Abel, Bolingbroke forces us to read this particular medieval encounter in Biblical terms. Indeed, Shakespeare’s decision to use this well-known moment from the Bible invites his readers to reevaluate the passage above and the larger Cain-Abel narrative in relation to several important themes from the fi rst act. In this instance, readers are being asked not simply to recall the particulars of Genesis 4:8-10, but also to consider the larger commentary tradition behind this Biblical passage. By the late sixteenth century that commentary tradition was widespread in England, transmitted through the various editions of the Bible, as well as a range of printed genres including liturgies, catechisms, sermons, and polemics. When we attend to this tradition we begin to see the play differently. And when we accept that the Biblical allusions in Richard II are an essential part of the play’s trajectory it is because we imagine the work as designed for readers well versed in early modern Biblical culture.