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.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
During the reign of Richard II, the two young dukes Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray quarrel bitterly, and the king finally summons them into his presence to settle their differences publicly. Although Bolingbroke is the eldest son of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, and therefore a cousin of the king, Richard is perfectly fair in his interview with the two men and shows neither any favoritism.
Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray, the duke of Norfolk, of mismanaging military funds and of helping to plot the murder of the dead duke of Gloucester, another of the king’s uncles. Mowbray forcefully denies the charges. Richard decides that to settle the dispute the men should have a trial by combat at Coventry, and the court adjourns there to witness the tournament.
Richard, ever nervous and suspicious, grows uneasy as the contest begins. Suddenly, just after the beginning trumpet sounds, the king forbids that the combat take place. Instead, he banishes the two men from the country. Bolingbroke is to be exiled for six years and Mowbray for the rest of his life. At the same time, Richard demands that they promise they will never plot against him. Persisting in his accusations, Bolingbroke tries to persuade Mowbray to plead guilty to the charges before he leaves England. Mowbray, refusing to do so, warns Richard against Bolingbroke’s cleverness.
Not long after his son is banished, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, becomes ill and sends for Richard to give him advice. Although the duke of York points out to him that giving advice to Richard is too often a waste of time, John of Gaunt feels that perhaps the words of a dying man will be heeded where those of a living one would not. From his deathbed, he criticizes Richard for extravagance and for mishandling the public funds and impoverishing the nation. He warns Richard also that the kingdom will suffer for the monarch’s selfishness.
Richard pays no attention to his uncle’s advice, and after John of Gaunt dies, the king seizes his lands and wealth to back his Irish wars. The aged duke of York, another of Richard’s uncles, attempts to dissuade him from his course, pointing out that Bolingbroke has influence among the people. York’s fears are soon confirmed. Bolingbroke, hearing that his father’s lands have been seized by the king’s officers, uses the information as an excuse to terminate his banishment. Gathering together troops and supplies, he lands in the north of England, where he is joined by other dissatisfied...
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Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1
Richard II: King of England
John of Gaunt: Duke of Lancaster; King Richard’s uncle and Henry Bolingbroke’s father
Henry Bolingbroke: Duke of Hereford and son to John of Gaunt; cousin to Richard II
Thomas Mowbray: Duke of Norfolk; accused by Bolingbroke of
Act I, Scene 1 takes place in the throne room at Windsor Castle. The elderly John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, tells the King he has brought his son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke, who wishes to bring formal charges of treason against Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. King Richard summons Bolingbroke and Mowbray to his presence: “Face to face,/ And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear/ The accuser and the accused freely speak” (15-17).
Bolingbroke and Mowbray enter and greet the King with respectful praise. Richard thanks them, but he comments that “one but flatters us.” He then asks to hear Bolingbroke’s accusations. Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason, but Mowbray replies vehemently that Bolingbroke is “a slanderous coward and a villain” (61). Bolingbroke responds by throwing down his gage (a glove), issuing a challenge to a joust by the “rites of knighthood.” Mowbray picks up the gage and accepts the challenge.
Bolingbroke then lists the specifics of his charge. He accuses Mowbray of embezzling royal funds designated for the King’s army in France and plotting the recent murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, uncle to Bolingbroke and the King. Mowbray calls Bolingbroke a liar; he admits that he once plotted to kill John of Gaunt, but he denies having a part in Gloucester’s death and hurls down his gage to assert his innocence. Richard attempts to reconcile the adversaries: “Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me;/ Let’s purge this choler without letting blood’’ (152-153).
At the King’s request, Gaunt attempts to calm his son and urges him to withdraw his challenge; Richard attempts to calm Mowbray. Bolingbroke and Mowbray refuse to be appeased, however. King Richard then proclaims that the issue will be settled in a trial by combat “At Coventry upon Saint Lambert’s day” (199).
An important event has taken place prior to the beginning of the play. While imprisoned in the French port of Calais (then a part of England’s conquered territory) Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest brother to Richard’s father and John of Gaunt, was murdered in his cell under mysterious circumstances. This incident forms the basis of the quarrel King Richard is asked to arbitrate.
This scene, which features a ceremonious gathering of nobles and attendants, reveals the pageantry and ritual of King Richard’s court. The speech throughout is formal; note that many of the characters conclude their declarations with rhymed couplets. Even the most violent sentiments are expressed in ceremonious language. Note, also, that many of the characters make Biblical allusions and utter religious oaths. These references foreshadow subsequent religious imagery and the many ensuing references to the divine right of kings, which later will become one of the play’s central themes.
Early in this scene we are greeted by images of the four elements—images that will recur frequently during the course of the play. In the opening lines, there are references to earth (which later will be extended to include soil and gardening), air (also sky and heavens), fire (which also will encompass the sun, an emblem of kingship), and water (Richard, the sun-king, will later clash with Bolingbroke, the flood; there will also be many references to tears). The King, for example, remarks of the contending noblemen: “High-stomached are they both, and full of ire,/ In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire” (18-19). Soon afterward, Mowbray expresses that hope that the King’s days will be happy “Until the heavens envying earth’s good hap,/ Add an immortal title to your crown” (23-24).
Shakespeare also makes frequent use of blood imagery throughout this scene—another poetic image that will recur throughout the play. Blood is used in two senses, which often overlap: the blood of murder and violent conflict, and the blood of kinship and inheritance. Bolingbroke, for instance, refers to the Duke of Gloucester’s blood, as “…like sacrificing Abel’s, cries/ …to me for justice” (104-106) and to “…my high blood’s royalty” (71). The true meaning of his words will resonate in scenes to come. Abel, of course, was killed by a member of his own family, and Bolingbroke will later assert more directly the royalty of his lineage. Later in this scene, Richard attempts to settle the quarrel “without letting blood.” He comments, with a diplomatic attempt at humor: “Our doctors say this is no month to bleed” (157). This reference, too, will resonate later in the play when Bolingbroke and Mowbray prepare to settle their quarrel on the tilting field in Coventry.
The youthful king (then in his early thirties) revels in the pageantry of his office and his own central role in the proceedings. Throughout, he attempts to maintain a public posture of kingly impartiality; he comments to Mowbray that “Were [Bolingbroke] my brother, nay, my kingdom’s heir,/ As he is but my father’s brother’s son,/ Now by my sceptre’s awe I make a vow,/ Such neighbor nearness to our sacred blood/ Shall nothing privilege him nor partialize/ The unstooping firmness of my upright soul” (116-121). He questions the adversaries carefully; indeed, he remains silent and detached through many of their contentious exchanges. Yet earlier we have seen a hint of his private feelings when he observed Bolingbroke’s vociferous boldness: “How high a pitch his resolution soars!” (109).
Note that Bolingbroke denounces the murder of Gloucester with particular vehemence, and that his accusations seem directed as much to the King as to Mowbray. Mowbray’s confidence, on the other hand, seems to imply royal support. We learn that he has in the past loaned money to the King. Although he denies that he had a part in Gloucester’s murder, he laments that he had “Neglected my sworn duty in that case” (134). The nature of his duty is never explained, however, and there is no clear indication of who is right and who is wrong in the quarrel.
The throwing down of a gage was a traditional Medieval challenge to a duel on horseback with lances and swords—a challenge that must be answered for the sake of honor, and one that usually resulted in the death of one of the combatants. When Richard is unable to pacify the contentious nobles, he proclaims reluctantly that a joust will be held on September 17—St. Lambert’s Day—to resolve the issue. It was assumed that God would have a hand in the outcome by assisting the rightful claimant to victory.
When Richard proclaims, “Lions make leopards tame” and “We were not born to sue, but to command,” he defines his self-image (174; 196). Indeed, he presides ceremoniously and with serene confidence over the assembled nobles. Yet we are given an indication of his lack of skills as a politician when he fails to successfully arbitrate the Bolingbroke-Mowbray dispute. The contending nobles do not obey his royal decree to throw down their adversaries’ gages; significantly, Bolingbroke also refuses to obey his father’s request that he respect the King’s wishes. Thus, Richard can only settle the matter by ordering the trial by combat Bolingbroke and Mowbray had originally demanded.
Act I, Scene 2
Duchess of Gloucester: sister-in-law to John of Gaunt; widow of the murdered Duke of Gloucester
At his palace in London, John of Gaunt attempts to comfort his grieving sister-in-law, the widow of the slain Duke of Gloucester. He tells her that he, too, is troubled by his brother’s murder, and he assures her that the “will of heaven” will “…rain hot vengeance on offenders’ heads” (8). However the Duchess, tormented by her husband’s death, urges Gaunt to personally avenge her husband. She appeals to Gaunt’s sense of brotherly love. She also tells him that “To safeguard thine own life,/ The best way is to venge my Gloucester’s death” (35-36). However Gaunt tells the Duchess that her quarrel is with God, for “God’s substitute,” King Richard, ordered Gloucester’s murder. If it was wrong, he remarks, God will avenge it. He tells her firmly that he will “…never lift/ An angry arm against His minister” (40-41).
The Duchess of Gloucester bids Gaunt a reluctant farewell, yet she is still eager for revenge and hopes that Bolingbroke will prevail in his joust with Mowbray. Gaunt takes leave of his sister-in-law and prepares to journey to Coventry, where the joust will take place. Before he departs, the Duchess sends greetings to Edmund, Duke of York, her only surviving brother-in-law besides Gaunt. She invites York to visit her but changes her mind when she realizes her sorrow will make her a poor hostess.
This intimate scene stands in sharp contrast to the formal pageantry of Scene 1. Here, we are greeted by a far more human glimpse of the aftermath of Gloucester’s death. In the first scene, the murder of Gloucester was a political issue; in this scene, it...
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Act II Summary and Analysis
Act II, Scene 1
Edmund, Duke of York: uncle to Richard II and Bolingbroke and father of the Duke of Aumerle; brother to John of Gaunt
Earl of Northumberland: a nobleman who sides with Henry Bolingbroke when he learns that Bolingbroke is returning from his banishment
Lord Willoughby: a nobleman loyal to the Earl of Northumberland
Lord Ross: another nobleman loyal to the Earl of Northumberland
Queen Isabel: second wife to Richard II
At Ely House in London, we encounter the dying John of Gaunt. Also present are Edmund, Duke of York (Gaunt’s brother), the Earl of Northumberland, and their attendants. Gaunt asks his...
(The entire section is 3811 words.)
Act III Summary and Analysis
Act III, Scene 1
This scene is set in Bristol, in front of the castle. Bolingbroke, York, and Northumberland enter along with other Lords and Soldiers; they have taken Bushy and Green as prisoners. Bolingbroke proclaims that Bushy and Green will soon be executed. He accuses them of having misled the King. Furthermore, they have brought divisions between the King and Queen, and between the King and Bolingbroke. He holds them personally responsible for his banishment and the subsequent looting of his father’s estate and hands them over for execution. Bushy and Green respond defiantly and welcome their fate, and Northumberland leads them off to the chopping block. Bolingbroke comments to the Duke of...
(The entire section is 4795 words.)
Act IV Summary and Analysis
Act IV, Scene 1
Lord Fitzwater: a nobleman who accuses the Duke of Aumerle of treason
Duke of Surrey: a nobleman who defends the Duke of Aumerle
Abbot of Westminster: a clergyman who plots against Henry Bolingbroke
At Westminster Hall in London, Bolingbroke and the nobles of the realm gather in Parliament. Among those in attendance are the Duke of Aumerle, the Earl of Northumberland, Harry Percy, Lord Fitzwater, and the Duke of Surrey. Also present are two clergymen: the Bishop of Carlisle and the Abbot of Westminster. The issue of the crown is now to be decided, but Bolingbroke has first scheduled an inquest into the Duke of...
(The entire section is 2157 words.)
Act V Summary and Analysis
Act V, Scene 1
Scene 1 takes place on a street in London. We encounter the Queen and her attendants; the Queen comments that King Richard will pass that way as he is led to the Tower of London, where he has been sent as a prisoner by “proud Bolingbroke.” Richard enters, accompanied by a Guard, and the Queen laments the circumstances to which he has been reduced. When Richard sees his Queen he counsels her to “Join not with grief, fair woman,” but rather to “think our former state a happy dream,/ From which awaked, the truth of what we are/ Shows us but this” (16; 18-20). He tells the Queen he is “sworn brother” to “grim necessity” and urges her to seek refuge in a convent in...
(The entire section is 4391 words.)