At a Glance

In Richard II, Shakespeare draws on real historical accounts to dramatize the reign of Richard II. Richard banishes his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, whose inheritance Richard steals. Bolingbroke's attempt to retrieve his inheritance leads to Richard's abdication and murder.

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

  • When Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that Henry has gathered people loyal to his cause so he can reclaim his fortune. Richard's soldiers, meanwhile, have deserted him.

  • Henry and Richard meet at a castle. Henry doesn't suggest that Richard abdicate, but he does anyway. He's then thrown in prison, where his enemies murder him.


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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 lords, including Lord Ross, Lord Willoughby, the earl of Northumberland, and the earl’s son, Henry Percy, known as Hotspur.

Richard, heedless of all warnings, has set off for Ireland to pursue his war, leaving his tottering kingdom in the hands of the weak duke of York, who is no match for the wily Bolingbroke. When the exiled traitor reaches Gloucestershire, the duke of York visits him at his camp. Caught between loyalty to Richard and despair over the bankrupt state of the country, York finally yields his troops to Bolingbroke. Richard, returning to England and expecting to find an army of Welshmen under his command, learns that after hearing false reports of his death they have gone over to Bolingbroke. Moreover, the strong men of his court—including the earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, and Green—have all been executed.

Destitute of friends and without an army, Richard takes refuge in Flint Castle. Bolingbroke, using his usurped titles and estates as his excuse, takes Richard prisoner and carries him to London. There Richard breaks down. He shows little interest in anything and spends his time philosophizing on his downfall. When he is brought before Bolingbroke and the cruel and unfeeling earl of Northumberland, Richard is forced to abdicate his throne and sign papers confessing his political crimes. Bolingbroke, assuming royal authority, orders Richard imprisoned in the Tower of London.

During a quarrel among the young dukes of the court, the bishop of Carlisle announces that Mowbray made a name for himself while fighting in the Holy Land and then retired to Venice, where he died. When Bolingbroke affects grief over the news, the bishop turns on him and denounces him for his part in ousting Richard. Bolingbroke, armed with the legal documents he has collected to prove his rights, prepares to assume the throne as Henry IV. Richard predicts to the earl of Northumberland that Bolingbroke will soon come to distrust his old aide for his part in unseating a king. Soon after that, Richard is sent to the dungeons at Pomfret Castle, and his queen is banished to France.

At the duke of York’s palace, the aging duke sorrowfully relates to his duchess the details of the coronation procession of Henry IV. When the duke discovers that his son, the duke of Aumerle, and other loyal followers of Richard are planning to assassinate Henry IV at Oxford, York immediately starts for the palace to warn the new monarch. The duchess, frantic at the thought of her son’s danger, advises Aumerle to reach the palace ahead of his father, reveal his treachery to the king, and ask the royal pardon. She herself pleads for her son before the king and wins Aumerle’s release.

Having punished the conspirators, Henry IV grows uneasy at the prospect of other treasonable activities, for while Richard lives there is always danger that he might be restored to power. Henry IV suggests casually to his faithful servant Sir Pierce Exton that he murder Richard at Pomfret. Exton’s plan to carry out his king’s wish is successful. In his dungeon, Richard is provoked to quarrel with his guard, and in the struggle that ensues the guard draws his sword and strikes down his unhappy prisoner. He then places Richard’s body in a coffin, carries it to Windsor Castle, and there presents it to Henry IV. Distressed over the news of mounting insurrection in the country, King Henry pretends horror at the murder of Richard and vows to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for the death of his fallen cousin.