Richard II Summary

Richard II is a play by William Shakespeare that draws on real historical accounts to dramatize the reign of King Richard II of England.

  • Henry Bolingbroke accuses another noble of embezzling. Richard banishes both Bolingbroke and the other noble, then steals Bolingbroke's estate to finance his Irish wars.

  • When Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that Bolingbroke has rallied his allies in order to reclaim his fortune. Richard's soldiers, meanwhile, have deserted him.

  • Bolingbroke and Richard meet. Bolingbroke doesn't suggest that Richard abdicate, but Richard does anyway. He's then thrown in prison, where his many enemies murder him.

Summary

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Last Updated June 26, 2023.


Introduction: 

Richard II is a historical play written by William Shakespeare, believed to be composed between 1595 and 1597. It explores the events surrounding the reign of King Richard II of England during the late 14th century. This is one of Shakespeare’s history play and is part of a tetralogy known as the "Henriad," which includes Richard II, Henry IV: Part 1, Henry IV: Part 2, and Henry V. Richard II explores themes of power, legitimacy, political intrigue, and the potentially dire consequences of flawed leadership.

What Happens:

Act 1:

  • King Richard II banishes Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford, and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, due to their dispute over the murder of the Duke of Gloucester.
  • Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, becomes critically ill and dies, leaving his lands and inheritance to Bolingbroke.

Act 2:

  • Richard seizes Gaunt's lands to fund a military campaign in Ireland.
  • Bolingbroke returns to England, intending to reclaim his inheritance, but is met with support from various nobles disillusioned with Richard's rule.
  • The nobles pressure Richard into holding a duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, which Richard interrupts and banishes both men.

Act 3:

  • Richard returns from Ireland, where his forces have been defeated, to find Bolingbroke gathering support.
  • Bolingbroke accuses Bushy, Bagot, and Green, Richard's favorites, of corrupting the king, and they are executed.
  • Richard relinquishes his crown, and Bolingbroke is proclaimed King Henry IV.

Act 4:

  • Richard is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle, where he reflects on his downfall and the transitory nature of power.
  • Exton, a supporter of Henry IV, murders Richard at Henry's request.
  • Henry is troubled by Richard's death and vows to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to atone for it.

Why it Matters: 

Richard II holds significant historical and literary importance. Historically, the play reflects the political and social struggles of late 14th-century England, highlighting the challenges faced by a weak and ineffective ruler like Richard II. It explores themes of kingship, legitimacy, and the consequences of unchecked authority.

In terms of literary history, Richard II showcases Shakespeare's mastery of language and his ability to delve into complex characters and their motivations. It presents a psychologically rich portrayal of Richard, who undergoes a transformation from a confident king to a broken and introspective figure, from King of his castle to imprisoned one. The play also contains eloquent speeches and poetic language that is still quoted and performed today.

Furthermore, Richard II sets the stage for the subsequent plays in the Henriad, providing the historical background and laying the foundation for the events and character development in Henry IV: Part 1, Henry IV: Part 2, and Henry V. The play explores themes of succession, rebellion, and the shifting dynamics of power, which are further developed in the later plays of the tetralogy.

Richard II also invites contemplation on the nature of leadership and the delicate balance between power and responsibility. It raises questions about the legitimacy of rulers, the consequences of flawed governance, and the impact of political instability on a nation. These themes remain relevant in contemporary society and contribute to the ongoing relevance and study of the play.

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Act and Scene Summaries