Act II Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3811

Act II, Scene 1
New Characters:
Edmund, Duke of York: uncle to Richard II and Bolingbroke and father of the Duke of Aumerle; brother to John of Gaunt

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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 reign of King Richard the nation seems destined for ruin; much of the royal land has now been leased out to raise funds for the crown, and the kingdom “that was wont to conquer others/ Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (65-66).

King Richard enters with Queen Isabel, Aumerle, Bushy, Green, Bagot, Lord Ross, and Lord Willoughby. The Duke of York urges his brother to “deal mildly with his youth,/ For young hot colts being raged do rage the more” (69-70). The King and Queen inquire politely as to Gaunt’s health, and Gaunt puns that his name is appropriate, for in his final illness he is gaunt, indeed. Yet he is also gaunt with sorrow at his son’s banishment and at the King’s mismanagement of his realm. He comments that while he is physically ill, Richard is “in reputation sick,” and has surrounded himself with “a thousand flatterers.” He then remarks to the King that had Richard’s grandfather “with a prophet’s eye/ Seen how his son’s son should destroy his sons,/ From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame/ Deposing thee before thou wert possessed,/ Which art possessed now to depose thyself” (104-108). He tells Richard bluntly, “Landlord of England art thou now, not king.”

Richard angrily interrupts his dying uncle’s criticism, calling him a “lunatic, lean-witted fool.” If Gaunt were not his uncle, he remarks, he would have him beheaded. However, Gaunt, with equal anger, openly chastises the King for ordering the Duke of Gloucester’s murder. He tells the King, “These words hereafter thy tormentors be,” and calls for his attendants to “Convey me to my bed, then to my grave” (137-138). The attendants bear him away, escorted by Northumberland.

King Richard petulantly looks forward to Gaunt’s death, but his uncle, the Duke of York, attempts to smooth things over: “Impute his words/ To wayward sickliness and age in him:/ He loves you, on my life, and holds you dear/ As Harry, Duke of Hereford, were he here” (141-144). The Earl of Northumberland enters soon afterward with the news that Gaunt is dead. King Richard receives the announcement callously, and he immediately turns his attention to the Irish wars. To finance his war effort, he seizes Gaunt’s “plate, coin, revenues, and movables” for the crown.

The Duke of York, grief stricken at his brother’s death, is furious that Richard has confiscated the property that should rightfully be inherited by Gaunt’s son, the banished Henry Bolingbroke. He warns Richard that although he is king “by fair sequence and succession,” he is challenging the entire system that brought him the crown if he wrongfully seizes Bolingbroke’s inheritance. He also warns the King that he will “pluck a thousand dangers” on his head and “lose a thousand well-disposèd hearts” if he carries through on his plan. However, Richard refuses to heed his uncle’s warning and reiterates his intention to seize Gaunt’s estate. York bids his nephew farewell; he tells the King that he cannot predict the consequences of his actions. After York leaves, Richard announces his plan to sail for Ireland in two days. He appoints York Lord Governor in his absence and exits with the Queen and his courtiers. Northumberland, Willoughby, and Ross remain.

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Northumberland remarks tersely on the injustice of the situation they have witnessed, and he adds that “The King is not himself, but basely led/ By flatterers” (241-242). Ross notes that the King has levied excessive taxes on the common people and fined the nobles, and in doing so has “quite lost their hearts.” All agree that the situation in England is grim; they are distressed by Richard’s high-handed policies and feel that he is unfit to be king. Northumberland then reveals a startling piece of news: he has learned that Bolingbroke, along with a number of sympathetic noblemen and three thousand soldiers, has left his exile in France and set sail for England. Their arrival is imminent as they are waiting only for the King to depart for Ireland. Northumberland views Bolingbroke’s arrival as an opportunity for the nobles to “shake off our slavish yoke“ (291). He urges Willoughby and Ross to accompany him when he journeys to meet Bolingbroke, and they swiftly agree.

At the beginning of this scene, John of Gaunt, one of the last survivors of the old order— Richard’s father’s generation—desires only to share his wisdom with the King. Gaunt is aware that Richard has in the past paid little heed to wise counsel, yet he believes that he will pay special attention to his dying words: “My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear” (16). The Duke of York is more pragmatic. He believes, correctly, as it turns out, that the luxury-loving King will listen only to his favorites and flatterers. Gaunt’s wisdom here is a sharp contrast to Richard’s shallow ridicule in the previous scene; he prophesies that Richard’s “rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last.”

Gaunt’s description of England is one of the most famed passages in Shakespeare. In this stirring speech, he makes clear his love of his native land: “This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle/ This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,/ This other Eden, demi-paradise,/ . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” (40-42; 50). Here, he echoes his son’s patriotism at the end of Act I, Scene 3 and comments eloquently on England’s virtues and the noble heritage of its monarchy. When he remarks bitterly that England has “made a shameful conquest of itself,” he is referring directly to King Richard’s mismanagement of the realm. His idealized depiction of England is in sharp contrast to actual conditions resulting from Richard’s misrule.

The King’s polite greeting to his dying uncle is rife with hypocrisy, given what we have seen of his behavior in the previous scene. After Richard arrives, Gaunt puns ironically on his name: he is “gaunt as a grave.” His imminent death gives him the courage to tell the King that he has disgraced England by his erratic policies. Note that he invokes Richard’s grandfather, the honored warrior-king Edward III, when he comments ruefully that had Edward been able to foresee Richard’s misdeeds he would have deposed his grandson before he inherited the crown. Thus, we are given additional justification for the rebellion and deposition that will ultimately ensue.

After the King, outraged by Gaunt’s insubordination, angrily interrupts his uncle’s reproachful accusations, Gaunt, with equal fury, rebukes Richard for his part in Gloucester’s murder. Earlier, Gaunt had commented upon his respect for the institution of the crown, yet here he loses that veneration after Richard’s callous response to his criticism.

When news is brought of Gaunt’s death, the elderly Duke of York, now the last surviving son of King Edward III, also expresses rage at the King’s thoughtless actions: “How long shall I be patient? Ah, how long/ Shall tender duty make me suffer wrong?” (163-164) Like his brother, York is conservative by nature; he, too, has a strong sense of duty to the monarchy. Yet he also possesses a keen sense of right and wrong. His extended reference to Richard’s father (171-183) contrasts the virtues of father and son—the righteous warrior-prince and his capricious heir. Although Richard resembles his late father, York remarks pointedly, he seems to have inherited few of his noble qualities. But Richard greets his criticism with the flippancy he revealed in earlier scenes: “Why, uncle, what’s the matter?”

York, deeply troubled by his nephew’s actions, protests that the banished Bolingbroke is rightful heir to Gaunt’s estate. Although by law Bolingbroke could not immediately claim his father’s property if Gaunt died while he was in exile, Richard had granted him “letters patent” which entitled him to do so when he returned after his term of banishment. Yet Richard now revokes the letters patent, disinheriting Bolingbroke entirely. Significantly, York reminds Richard that he is king by the same laws of inheritance that he has ignored in seizing Bolingbroke’s patrimony: “For how art thou a king/ But by fair sequence and succession?” (198-199). He warns Richard that if he seizes Gaunt’s property he will be upsetting the entire social order. Yet the King, headstrong, morally weak, and confident of his absolute power, ignores his uncle’s warning and reiterates his plan to seize Gaunt’s estate, thus providing ample motive for Bolingbroke’s subsequent return.

After the King and his courtiers have exited, Northumberland, Willoughby, and Ross, prominent noblemen from the north who have witnessed Richard’s capricious behavior toward his uncles and the seizure of Gaunt’s estate, offer a further list of grievances against the King. Richard has been influenced adversely by his flattering courtiers; reproach and dissolution hang over him. Not only has Bolingbroke been “gelded of his patrimony”; Richard has taxed the common people excessively and levied fines against the nobles. In doing so, he has lost the support of both groups. Here, we see the seeds of rebellion stirring in the discontent of the northern lords. Northumberland is unambiguous in his meaning when he suggests that they “Redeem from broking pawn the blemished crown,/ Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre’s gilt,/ And make high majesty look like itself” (293-295).

We now know that Bolingbroke will soon return to England with his aristocratic supporters and an army, although he has pragmatically delayed his landing until the King departs for Ireland. Northumberland, a canny politician, senses that the mood of Willoughby and Ross matches his own and urges them to ally with Bolingbroke’s cause. Clearly, Bolingbroke will have further support when he lands.

Act II, Scene 2
At Windsor Castle, we encounter the Queen, along with Bushy and Bagot. Bushy attempts to comfort the Queen, who is saddened by King Richard’s departure for Ireland. The Queen, at her parting from her husband, had agreed to be cheerful for Richard’s sake, yet she foresees that “Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb/ Is coming towards me” (10-11). Bushy assures her that she is being unduly pessimistic. A moment later, however, Green enters and expresses the hope that the King and his army have not yet departed, for Bolingbroke and his forces have landed at Ravenspurgh, on the northern coast. The Queen is shocked at this news, and she is further alarmed when she learns that the Earl of Northumberland and other noblemen have sided with Bolingbroke’s cause.

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The Duke of York, now Lord Protector in Richard’s absence, enters and announces that he is ill-equipped to deal with a military crisis. A Servingman enters immediately afterward and tells York that his son, the Duke of Aumerle, is nowhere to be found; York fears that his son has allied with Bolingbroke. York then attempts to send the Servingman to his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Gloucester; he hopes to borrow money to suppress Bolingbroke’s rebellion. But the Servingman announces further misfortune: the Duchess is dead. The Duke laments that “a tide of woes/ Comes rushing on this woeful land at once,” and he confesses, “I know not what to do” (98-100). Richard and Bolingbroke are both his nephews; he has sworn to defend the kingdom, yet he knows that Bolingbroke has been wronged. He resolves to muster an army to confront the rebel forces and exits with the Queen.

After he is gone, Bushy admits candidly that it will be impossible for the crown to raise an army comparable to Bolingbroke’s rebel forces; the winds in the Irish channel will assist a ship bringing the news to the King, but will delay Richard’s return to England with his soldiers. He acknowledges that the King has fallen out of favor with the common people: “their love/ Lies in their purses, and whoso empties them/ By so much fills their hearts with deadly hate”(128-130). Bagot adds that he, Bushy, and Green, as royal favorites, are now in grave danger. Bushy and Green resolve to seek refuge at Bristow Castle with the Earl of Wiltshire, while Bagot decides to journey to Ireland to join the King’s army. “We three here part that ne’er shall meet again,” Bagot comments grimly (142). Green, equally pessimistic, predicts that York’s efforts to defend the crown are destined to fail: “Alas, poor Duke, the task he undertakes/ Is numb’ring sands, and drinking oceans dry” (144-145).

In this scene, Queen Isabel speaks at length for the first time. Although present in the previous scene, she had only a single line of greeting to the dying Gaunt. Historically, Richard’s Queen was only ten years old at the time of his Irish campaign. Richard’s first wife had died four years earlier, and he subsequently made an arranged marriage with the daughter of the King of France. Shakespeare chose to take liberties with history, however, and made the Queen a young woman. His dramatic license is understandable, both in this scene and in scenes to come, for Queen Isabel will serve a vital dramatic function in the play: Richard’s growing misfortunes will be underscored by her concern for her husband.

The Queen, devoted to her “sweet Richard,” is genuinely grieved at his absence. We now see the King from a different vantage point. Although Richard has been depicted as callous and irresponsible in earlier scenes, he is presented here in a more sympathetic light: as one who is loved and missed.

The Queen’s premonition of an unknown sorrow to come is soon fulfilled by the grim tidings brought by Green, the Servingman, and York. We are greeted by a sense of gathering doom as one woe follows another: Bolingbroke has landed and mounted a rebellion, the Duchess of Gloucester is dead, and the royal forces are unprepared to deal with an armed insurrection.

Although the Duke of York reaffirms his loyalty to the institution of the crown, it is clear that his emotions are divided; he is also aware of the unjustness of Richard’s decree that stripped Bolingbroke of his inheritance. Even so, he resolves to attend to his duty as protector of the realm in Richard’s absence, although he is pragmatic about his unpreparedness to suppress Boling¬broke’s insurrection. Bushy, Bagot, and Green, favorites of the King, are also pragmatic; they realize that their executions are likely if Bolingbroke prevails. Note that only Bagot resolves to join the King’s forces, Bushy and Green reveal their cowardice when they decide to seek refuge rather than fight for their sovereign.

Act II, Scenes 3 and 4
New Characters:
Harry Percy: son of the Earl of Northumberland

Earl of Berkeley: a nobleman and ally of King Richard

Welsh Captain: commander of the Welsh soldiers in the service of King Richard

Earl of Salisbury: a nobleman loyal to King Richard; commander of the King’s army

In the Gloucestershire countryside, the banished Bolingbroke and his soldiers have now united with the Earl of Northumberland and his followers. Bolingbroke plans to march toward Berkeley and a meeting with the crown forces led by the Duke of York. Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s son, enters; he brings the news that the Earl of Worcester, formerly steward of the royal household, has broken his staff of office and allied with Bolingbroke. Anticipating a battle, he has sent Percy to make an inspection of the size of the Duke of York’s army. Northumberland introduces his son to Bolingbroke. Percy pledges his services to Bolingbroke’s cause. Lord Ross and Lord Willoughby enter and greet Bolingbroke with respectful praise.

The Earl of Berkeley arrives on the scene with a message from the Duke of York. Bolingbroke assures him that his only intention is to claim his title as Duke of Lancaster and his inherited lands. The Duke of York arrives immediately afterward. Bolingbroke kneels at his feet and greets him as “my noble uncle,” but York tells his nephew, “Show me thy humble heart, and not thy knee,/ Whose duty is deceivable and false” (83-84). He calls Bolingbroke a traitor and chastises him for returning from banishment to rebel against his sovereign while the King is away in Ireland.

Bolingbroke again asserts that he is interested only in claiming the dukedom and lands he was bequeathed upon his father’s death: “I was banished Hereford/ But as I come, I come for Lancaster” (112-113). York admits that King Richard is in the wrong; he tells Bolingbroke he has “labored all I could to do him right” (141). However, he reprimands Bolingbroke for leading an armed rebellion against his sovereign. Northumberland reiterates that Bolingbroke means only to claim his inheritance, and he pledges his support.

York confesses that he sees “the issue of these arms” and he acknowledges that his army is too weak to do battle with Bolingbroke’s forces. If it were possible, he proclaims, he would make Bolingbroke and his soldiers “stoop/ Unto the sovereign mercy of the King” (155-156). Since he cannot do so, he promises that he will remain neutral in the conflict. He offers Bolingbroke and his allies lodging for the night. Bolingbroke accepts; he adds that he would like York to accompany him to Bristow Castle, where Bushy, Bagot, and their accomplices—“the caterpillars of the commonwealth,/ Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away”—have taken refuge (165-166). York responds that he may decide to accompany Bolingbroke, but for the moment he will defer his decision, since he is “loath to break our country’s laws.” He adds that “Things past redress are now with me past care” (168; 170).

In Scene 4, set in Wales, the Earl of Salisbury, commander of Richard’s armies in England, meets with a Welsh Captain. The Captain announces that his soldiers are restless after waiting ten days for “tidings from the King” to arrive. He therefore plans to disperse his troops. Salisbury asks the Captain to wait another day, adding, “The King reposeth all his confidence in thee.” But the Captain responds, “’Tis thought the King is dead: we will not stay” (6-7). He remarks that a number of omens—withered trees, meteor showers, a red moon—have seemingly prophesied “the death or fall of kings” (15). He tells Salisbury that many of his countrymen have already deserted, thinking Richard has been killed in Ireland. The Captain exits; Salisbury laments that he anticipates King Richard’s glory will “like a shooting star/ Fall to the base earth from the firmament.” In the future, he foresees only “storms to come, woe and unrest” (19-20; 22).

In Scene 3, we learn that more nobles have joined Bolingbroke’s cause, particularly the Earl of Worcester. Harry Percy, although a minor character in this play, will later be featured prominently in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. Here, he represents the idealism of Bolingbroke’s followers.

Bolingbroke, in turn, is depicted as a born leader who has moved steadily and purposefully toward his goal. Note that the Earl of Northumberland, Percy’s father, had earlier railed against Richard’s flattering courtiers (II, i, 241-242), yet here, ironically, he addresses Bolingbroke with elaborate and deferential praise.

Bolingbroke twice asserts that his only wish is to claim his rightful title as Duke of Lancaster and the lands he inherited from his late father. Critics differ in their opinions as to whether Bolingbroke returned to England with the aim of seizing the crown, or whether circumstances directed his course after his landing. Note, however, that he confesses that one of his aims is to “weed and pluck away” enemies of the state—a privilege granted only to the monarch.

Bolingbroke’s passion in the first act has now been supplanted by a more dignified, stalwart manner, a confidence born of strength which he will retain in subsequent scenes. We are reminded frequently in this scene that Bolingbroke has returned to England with a legitimate grievance. Yet here, too, we are greeted by a number of reminders that Richard, although capricious, is the rightful sovereign. The Duke of York, although sympathetic to Bolingbroke’s claim to his inheritance, tells Bolingbroke in no uncertain terms that he is committing “gross rebellion and detested treason” against his “annointed King.”

Bolingbroke is deferential when responding to his uncle’s charges, yet at the same time he is subtly wooing him to his cause; he remarks that “You are my father, for methinks in you/ I see old Gaunt alive” (116-117). He also argues logically that in seizing Gaunt’s estate, Richard has struck a blow against the entire system of aristocratic inheritance—the same system which enabled Richard to inherit the crown. Here, he echoes York’s similar pronouncement in Act II, Scene 1. Although York professes neutrality, he indicates his true feelings when he offers Bolingbroke hospitality in his castle.

In Scene 4, the brief exchange between the Earl of Salisbury and the Welsh Captain provides a further indication of Richard’s growing misfortunes. The omens related by the Welsh Captain are of a world in disorder, of nature run amok; catastrophe seems imminent. Throughout the play, the sun will serve as an emblem of Richard’s kingship, yet here the sun “sets weeping,” and Richard is described by Salisbury as a shooting star plummeting rapidly from the heavens.

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Act I Summary and Analysis


Act III Summary and Analysis