Summary of the Play
King Richard II hears accusations made by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, that Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, has embezzled royal funds and is responsible for the recent murder of the Duke of Gloucester. Mowbray vehemently denies the charges. King Richard, unable to reconcile the contending noblemen, orders that a trial by combat will be held at Coventry to settle the matter.
Before the combat can begin, however, King Richard decides to banish both adversaries, Bolingbroke for ten years, later reduced to six, and Mowbray for life. He then makes plans to lead a military campaign in Ireland. News arrives that John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle, is grievously ill. The King expresses the hope that Gaunt will die so he can confiscate his estate to finance his Irish wars.
Gaunt, on his deathbed, tells the King that he has surrounded himself with flattering courtiers and has brought England to the brink of financial ruin. Richard, furious, calls his uncle a fool. When news of Gaunt’s death arrives, Richard seizes his money and lands for the crown. Soon afterward, the Earl of Northumberland announces that Bolingbroke has set sail for England with an army to claim his inheritance. He and his followers, dissatisfied by Richard’s misrule, resolve to join Bolingbroke’s cause.
The Duke of York, appointed Lord Governor in Richard’s absence, prepares to meet the rebels, but he admits that he is ill-equipped to cope with a military emergency. Bolingbroke explains to York that he has returned to England only to claim the title and estate of his late father. York agrees to remain neutral in the conflict.
King Richard arrives in Wales after his Irish campaign, confident that Bolingbroke’s rebellion will be suppressed. Soon afterward, however, he receives bad tidings. Twelve thousand Welsh soldiers in his army have deserted. Bolingbroke has captured and executed two of his favorites, and the common people have sided with Bolingbroke. Even the Duke of York has allied with the rebels. Recognizing the hopelessness of his situation, he resolves to seek refuge at Flint Castle nearby.
Bolingbroke arrives at the castle and vows allegiance to his sovereign if Richard will repeal his banishment and restore his inheritance. Richard appears on the walls of the castle and grants Bolingbroke’s demands. Although Bolingbroke has pledged loyalty if Richard capitulates, Richard himself brings up the idea of abdication and agrees to be led to London where the issue of the crown will be formally resolved. Richard’s Queen learns of his misfortune from the Duke of York’s gardeners.
At the Parliament Hall in London, York announces that Richard has agreed to be deposed in favor of Bolingbroke, who will then be crowned King Henry IV. Richard appears before Parliament and surrenders his crown reluctantly. Bolingbroke orders Richard to be imprisoned and makes plans for his own coronation.
As he is led to prison, Richard bids a sad farewell to his Queen. Alone in his prison cell, he reflects philosophically on his misfortunes. Soon afterward, Sir Pierce of Exton, having overheard King Henry declare his desire to be rid of Richard, arrives with several armed assassins. They enter Richard’s cell, and Richard, with a burst of valor, kills two of the men. However, he is outnumbered, and Exton kills the former king. Exton then escorts Richard’s coffin to King Henry’s throne room. King Henry promptly renounces Richard’s murderer. Stricken with guilt, he plans a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to soothe his uneasy conscience.
Estimated Reading Time
This play should take the average student about five hours to read. It will be helpful to divide your reading time into five one-hour sittings for each of the play’s five acts. The time may vary, however, depending on the length of each act. Shakespeare’s language can be difficult for students who are unfamiliar with it, so each act should be read carefully on a scene-by-scene basis to ensure understanding.