The Rise of One Requires the Fall of Another, Like Buckets in a Well or Sun Melting Snow
On March 29, 1591, Thomas North purchased a used, 1582-edition of his Dial of Princes for 5 shillings, signing the back and dating the purchase—a copy now kept at the Cambridge University Library. Then he began rereading or skimming certain sections, skipping from here to there, underscoring certain lines and passages, and adding various notes in the margins. North’s markings are especially important as they confirm that he used this edition as his own personal research-storehouse and workbook for adding new material to Arden of Feversham and The Taming of the Shrew. He also clearly reread one of its chapters when he revised Richard II.
In the page of The Dial shown in the picture below, North underlines two sections of a passage about the changing fortunes of the nobility in which the triumphant rise of one requires the downfall of another. The passage appears in a reflective letter by Marcus Aurelius to his friend Cornelius. The philosophical emperor writes that he had just conquered the Parthians in Asia yet could not help but feel for the brave and noble people he had defeated and taken as captives. He then observes sadly how the rise and success of a ruler often depends upon the fall of another.
Seldom times we see the sun shine bright all the day long, but first in the summer there hath been a mist, or if it be in the winter, there hath been a frost … For we see by experience, some come to be very poor, and other chance to attain to great riches: so that through the impoverishing of those, the other become rich and prosperous… If the bucket that is empty above doth not go down, the other which is full beneath cannot come up.
The latter image is of a well with two buckets on opposite ends of a pulley system, in which when one hangs empty at the top, the other is then full at the bottom. The point is: the rising of one requires the downfall of another. Similarly, the vanquished are like a mist in summer or frost in winter, which will reign for a while before the bright and conquering sunshine melts it all away.
In Richard II, after Henry IV has successfully taken England and usurped the crown, Richard II uses these same analogies to describe their changing positions:
|North’s Dial||Richard II|
|bucket … empty above;|
down the other which is full … up
|buckets … emptier … in the air |
The other down, unseen, and full … up
|sun shine bright all the day,|
winter…. frost [melting]
|sun-shine days, |
winters …snow… melt
As with North’s underlined passage, Richard II describes the victorious Henry IV (Bolingbroke) as the high, empty bucket and himself as a full bucket that has been brought down. Likewise, Richard II states that Henry IV will have a long reign of sunshine days, then compares himself to a “king of snow” as Henry IV is the sun that would “melt myself away.”
There is no doubt that North’s underlined sentences are the origin of Richard II’s political imagery. In his bucket analogy, the playwright essentially repeats all the content words in the same order as North. The only difference is that North has down the other, Richard II says the other down.
The Dial: If the bucket that is empty above doth not go down, the other which is full beneath cannot come up.
Richard II: buckets … emptier ever dancing in the air, / The other down, unseen, and full …/ whilst you mount up on high.
A few other English writers would refer to fortune’s buckets, but EEBO confirms no one before North or Shakespeare used this precise language (see pic below), and no one, before or since, juxtaposed this metaphor with sun-shine days in winter melting away snow or frost. This passage in North’s Dial is necessarily the inspiration for these images in Richard II’s speech — and North underlined the relevant images in his own personal copy of the text.
 I must thank investigative reporter and author Michael Blanding for taking pictures of all the pages in The Dial with North’s markings and sending them to me. He also alerted me to a number of connections between North’s comments and the Shakespeare canon. This includes the story of Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale, and many of the connections to Macbeth. These will be examined in future posts.