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...
(The entire section is 1029 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 3871 words.)
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 brother whether the King will come; he hopes to spend his final moments offering “…wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth” (2). The Duke of York tells Gaunt that the King is unlikely to listen to his advice: “All in vain comes counsel to his ear.” But Gaunt assures his brother that “the tongues of dying men/ Enforce attention” (4-6). York responds that King Richard listens only to the flattery of his courtiers, to the “lascivious metres” of popular songs and poetry, and to news of the latest fashions from Italy; he is more interested in
frivolity than in wise counsel.
Gaunt speaks patriotically and at length about his beloved England and the proud tradition of its kings. He expresses his shame that under...
(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 York that he wishes the Queen, residing at York’s palace in London, to be treated fairly; he sends her his “kind commends.” He then orders his army away to do battle with the Welsh soldiers allied with King Richard.
Here, we see further misfortune for King Richard in the capture and subsequent executions of Bushy and Green, two of the King’s favorites. When Bolingbroke charges Richard’s courtiers with having “misled a prince, a royal king,”(8) he is reiterating the charge made by his father on his deathbed. He blames them specifically for his estrangement from the King, his banishment, and the pillaging of his inherited lands and manor house. Although there is some validity to his accusations,...
(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 Gloucester’s murder. Bolingbroke commands that Sir William Bagot be brought forth. When Bagot enters Bolingbroke asks him to confess what he knows about Gloucester’s death—specifically who persuaded the King to order his assassination, and who actually killed him. “Then set before my face the Lord Aumerle,” Bagot replies (6). Aumerle steps forward and Bagot accuses him of boasting that he could assassinate Gloucester at the time the murder was being planned. Bagot also states that Aumerle declared he would refuse the offer of a hundred thousand crowns rather than see Bolingbroke return to England; furthermore, Aumerle had remarked that England would be blessed if Bolingbroke died in exile.
Aumerle vehemently denies the charges;...
(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 France. Only through leading a holy life, he remarks, will they be able to redeem themselves.
The Queen is startled to find her husband “transformed and weakened.” She entreats him not to take “correction mildly,” but rather to react with the anger of one who has been a powerful king. Richard again bids her to journey to France. “Think I am dead,” he comments. He tells her to consider their meeting a final parting and asks her to tell the woeful tale of his deposition to those she will encounter in years to come.
Northumberland enters and delivers the news that Boling¬broke has changed his mind about where Richard will be imprisoned; he must now proceed to Pomfret Castle, and the Queen will immediately be...
(The entire section is 4391 words.)