Act I Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3871

Act I, Scene 1
New Characters:
Richard II: King of England

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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
New Character:
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 is more personal.

In the most significant revelation of Scene 2, we learn that King Richard is responsible for Gloucester’s assassination. The Duchess is eager for revenge, yet Gaunt tells her that only “the will of heaven” can provide justice. When Gaunt refers to Richard as “God’s substitute” we are introduced directly to one of the play’s many themes: the divine right of kings. This doctrine was widely accepted in Medieval and Renaissance England. It was assumed that monarchs ruled with sacred authority. Thus, Gaunt feels helpless to take vengeful action against his sovereign, for to do so would be to rebel against God Himself. The disparity between the notion that Richard rules as “God’s annointed” and his capricious and irresponsible behavior as King will provide one of the central conflicts of the play.

This scene contrasts the contradictory desires for patience and revenge; we are also greeted by frequent reprises of the blood imagery from Scene 1. The Duchess, for example, refers to the seven sons of King Edward III as “…“seven vials of his sacred blood” (12). She reveals the extent of her loneliness and grief when she invites her other surviving brother-in-law, the Duke of York, to visit her home, but then hastily revokes her invitation: “Alack! and what shall good old York there see/ But empty lodgings and unfurnished walls,/ Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones,/ And what hear there for welcome but my groans?” (67-70).

Act I, Scene 3
New Characters:
Lord Marshal: a high official at the court of Richard II

Duke of Aumerle: son of Edmund, Duke of York, cousin to Richard II and Bolingbroke and nephew to John of Gaunt

Sir John Bushy: a courtier and favorite of the King

Sir William Bagot: another courtier and royal favorite

Sir Henry Green: a third courtier favored by King Richard

Scene 3 takes place at the tilting field in Coventry. The Duke of Aumerle tells the Lord Marshal that Bolingbroke and Mowbray are armed and ready for their joust; they await the King’s arrival. Trumpets sound, and the King enters with his entourage, which includes John of Gaunt, Bushy, Bagot, Green, and attendants. After the King is seated, Mowbray enters in armor, accompanied by a Herald.

King Richard asks the Marshal to inquire of Mowbray his name and his cause. The Marshal does so, and Mowbray announces that he means, in defending himself, to prove Bolingbroke “…A traitor to my God, my king, and me” (24). The trumpets sound, and Bolingbroke enters, also in armor. Richard asks the Lord Marshall to formally ask the second combatant’s name and “why he cometh hither/ Thus plated in habiliments of war” (27-28). Bolingbroke announces his name and cause: “Harry of Hereford, Lancaster and Derby/ Am I, who ready here do stand in arms/ To prove by God’s grace, and my body’s valor/ …That [Mowbray] is a traitor, foul and dangerous” (35-39).

Bolingbroke asks for the privilege of kissing the King’s hand and bowing before his sovereign. Richard descends from his throne and embraces him, commenting: “Cousin of Hereford, as the cause is right,/ So be thy fortune in this royal fight.” (55-56) He tells Bolingbroke that if he is killed he will lament the loss of a kinsman, but will not avenge his death. Bolingbroke tells the King he is confident he will win. He takes leave of the King and his cousin, the Duke of Aumerle. His father, John of Gaunt, bestows a blessing upon him.

Mowbray then asserts his loyalty to the King and claims that he, too, looks forward to the combat. Richard praises him for his virtue and valor and commands the joust to begin. The Marshal orders lances distributed to the combatants, and the Heralds again announce the names of the adversaries and their causes. A flourish of trumpets sounds, and Bolingbroke and Mowbray prepare to do battle.

An instant later, however, the King throws his staff of office down and orders the combat to a halt. He commands the adversaries to set aside their helmets and spears and return to their chairs. A long flourish of trumpets sounds; the King confers with his council and then bids the adversaries to draw near. He proclaims that rather than seeing one of his countrymen slaughtered, as in a civil war, he has decided to banish both combatants from England. He sentences Bolingbroke to ten years of exile, a sentence Bolingbroke accepts gracefully. Mowbray’s penalty is harsher; he is banished from England for life. Mowbray is saddened by his sentence, having anticipated a “dearer merit” from his sovereign, but King Richard is unmoved by his grief and disappointment.

Mowbray turns to go, but Richard calls him back again. He orders Mowbray and Bolingbroke to lay their hands upon his sword and to swear an oath never to “embrace each other’s love in banishment” or “by advisèd purpose meet/ To plot, contrive, or complot any ill/ ’Gainst us, our state, our subjects, or our land” (184; 188-190). Mowbray and Bolingbroke swear to uphold his
command. Bolingbroke then asks Mowbray to confess his treason before he journeys into exile. However, Mowbray proclaims his innocence; he tells Bolingbroke: “But what thou art, God, thou, and I, do know/ And all too soon, I fear, the King shall rue” (203-204). He bids the King farewell and exits.

Richard, seeing Gaunt’s sorrow at the imminent banishment of his son, promptly reduces Bolingbroke’s sentence to six years. Gaunt thanks the King, yet he comments that he does not expect to live long enough to see his son’s return. Richard assures his uncle that he has many years to live. However, Gaunt replies wistfully; although duty compels him to respect his sovereign’s wishes, not even the King can prolong his life. Richard wonders why Gaunt, when asked for his advice on the matter, did not argue on his son’s behalf. Gaunt answers that the King has asked him to speak as an impartial judge and not like a father. He laments the harshness of the royal mandate, but Richard reiterates that Bolingbroke’s banishment will be for six years and exits with his courtiers and attendants.

After the King is gone, the Duke of Aumerle bids his banished cousin farewell, and the Lord Marshal pledges to accompany Bolingbroke as far as the coast, where he will board a ship bound for France. Bolingbroke expresses sorrow at his sentence and his father attempts to comfort him: “Call it a travel that thou tak’st for pleasure./ …Think not the King did banish thee,/ But thou the King.” (261; 278-279) Yet Bolingbroke remains saddened by his impending exile, and he prepares reluctantly to leave his beloved native land.

Again we are greeted by a formal, public scene, replete with colorful pageantry. As the scene commences, the conflicts introduced in Scene 1 are now to be resolved by the Medieval code of gentlemanly combat. Mowbray and Bolingbroke are announced ceremoniously by the Lord Marshal and their Heralds. They solemnly defend their causes and prepare to do battle. Throughout, Mowbray maintains a posture of quiet confidence, in contrast to Bolingbroke’s more emotional response to the proceedings. Here, the adversaries echo their exchanges in Scene 1. Yet we now know that King Richard was responsible for Gloucester’s death; Mowbray, in all likelihood, feels that his sovereign will protect him, for he has acted at the King’s bidding.

Critics are divided as to Richard’s motivations in halting the combat at the climactic moment; some commentators feel he has planned this all along, while others are of the opinion that it is a spur-of-the-moment decision. In either case, his reason for halting the combat seems sound: he proclaims that he has done so “That our kingdom’s earth should not be soiled/ With that dear blood which it hath fosterèd” (125-126). Yet here, he makes another veiled allusion to his true feelings for Bolingbroke when he refers to “…sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts” (130). Note, also, that the King pronounces sentence on the loyal Mowbray with “some unwillingness,” and that Mowbray had anticipated a “dearer merit.” He is genuinely upset when the King repays his service by banishing him for life, but Richard doubtless realized that it was politically expedient to disassociate himself from a man who can connect him to Gloucester’s murder.

Bolingbroke’s exile, too, is politically expedient, for, like Gaunt, he is aware of the King’s role in Gloucester’s death. However, Richard is aware that Gaunt respects his authority; he can well afford a noble gesture toward his son. Here, he plays his kingly role with reasonable efficiency. Yet there is shallow flippancy in his declaration that he has “plucked four away” in reducing Bolingbroke’s sentence. Bolingbroke’s response eloquently reveals the extent of the King’s power: “How long a time lies in one little word” (212). We are also given an indication of the King’s character in his condescending response to Gaunt’s lament that he expects to die before his son’s return: “Why! uncle, thou hast many years to live” (224).

This scene contains a number of examples of dramatic irony. Richard, before the combat, descends from his throne to embrace Bolingbroke, a hypocritical gesture, given what we now know about his complicity in the Duke of Gloucester’s murder. When they meet next, he will again descend, but this time from the walls of Flint Castle to surrender his kingdom. When Bolingbroke pledges, at Richard’s request, that he will not plot with Mowbray against the crown, it is a pledge he will indeed fulfill. Yet he will, in fact, return with others to lead a rebellion against his sovereign. And Mowbray’s assertion that Bolingbroke will one day give the King cause for regret will prove prophetic.

The tender parting between Gaunt and his son at the end of this scene recalls the more personal exchange between Gaunt and the widowed Duchess of Gloucester in Scene 2. Here, what has been a public occasion becomes a private one. We see the loving relationship of father and son and again feel their sorrow at Bolingbroke’s impending exile. Bolingbroke’s final speech reveals his patriotic fervor and his love of his native land. This speech foreshadows his father’s eloquent patriotism in Act II, Scene 1 and his own ultimate return to England.

Act I, Scene 4
At the court, the King meets with Bagot, Green, and the Duke of Aumerle. Richard, testing Aumerle’s loyalty, asks his cousin how far he escorted the banished Bolingbroke “…and what store of parting tears were shed” (5). Aumerle tells the King he pretended to be sad at Bolingbroke’s departure, but in truth he was glad to see him go. Richard comments that he and his courtiers have observed that Bolingbroke was ambitious and sought favor with the common people. He worries that the populace might consider Bolingbroke a potential successor to his throne.

“Well, he is gone,” Green comments, and he adds that the King must now turn to more pressing matters: a rebellion in Ireland. Richard proclaims, “We will ourself in person to this war” (42). He is aware, however, that the royal treasury is depleted as a result of his lavish expenditures on his court, leaving limited funds for a military campaign. Thus, he proposes to lease royal lands and demand money from his wealthy subjects to finance his expedition. Bushy enters with the news that Old John of Gaunt is gravely ill and has asked the King to visit him. Richard replies callously, “Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind/ To help him to his grave immediately!” The money from Gaunt’s estate, he comments, “shall make coats/ To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars” (59-62). He prepares to journey to Gaunt’s bedside with his courtiers, yet he hopes they will arrive too late and that Gaunt will already be dead.

Richard is now at ease with his trusted courtiers. He abandons the formality of his public role and engages in private conversation with his favorites. Here, he relinquishes his impartial public persona and reveals his true feelings about the cousin he had hypocritically embraced in Scene 3. We learn through Richard that Bolingbroke—referred to sarcastically as “high Hereford”—has attempted to curry favor with the common people, and that he has lofty political ambitions. Bolingbroke, Richard remarks, has behaved “As were our England in reversion his/ And he our subjects’ next degree in hope” (35-36). Richard speaks of his cousin’s “courtship to the common people” with haughty disdain; unlike Bolingbroke, he apparently has little concern with his popularity among the slaves and poor craftsmen of his kingdom.

Later in this scene, Richard reveals new and startling dimensions of his capriciousness. Callous and money hungry, he solves his problems irresponsibly, on the spur of the moment. To put down the Irish rebellion, he resolves to mortgage the future revenues on his royal lands for immediate cash and authorizes blank checks to be written in the names of his subjects, which his agents will then fill in with whatever funds the crown might need. He also expresses the hope that his uncle, John of Gaunt—a respected elder statesman who is loyal to the crown—will die so that he might seize his revenues for use in his Irish campaign. His decision is doubtless based in part upon the hostility he feels toward Bolingbroke, but he fails to recognize the political danger of his plan, given Bolingbroke’s popularity and his rebellious nature.

The Duke of Aumerle, who is cousin to the King and to Bolingbroke, reveals that his loyalties lie firmly with Richard. He shed no tears at Bolingbroke’s departure, and there is blunt derision in his report of Bolingbroke’s leavetaking. Bushy, Bagot, and Green, flattering courtiers all, also side firmly with their sovereign. They echo Richard’s hope that Gaunt will die with a gleeful, cold-hearted “Amen.”

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Act II Summary and Analysis