Act III Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4795

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.

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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, he is also making a propaganda speech for the benefit of his followers. It is uncertain what Bolingbroke means by his reference to Bushy and Green making “a divorce” between the King and Queen, although Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s principal source for this play, refers to the King’s adultery. Shakespeare may also be implying that a homosexual relationship among the King and his courtiers was the cause of Richard’s estrangement from his Queen. This theme was present in Marlowe’s Edward II, another Elizabethan drama about an ill-fated English monarch, and one that may have influenced Shakespeare when he was writing this play. Ironically, Bushy, in his exchange with the Queen in Act II, Scene 2, was concerned primarily with comforting her grief at Richard’s absence. It is also difficult to reconcile this accusation with what we learn of the relationship between the King and Queen elsewhere in the play.

Bolingbroke, despite his public statements that he seeks only his rightful inheritance, is clearly acting in a kingly manner when he orders the beheadings of Richard’s courtiers. In doing so, he reveals the true extent of his ambitions. He shows compassion, however, when he commands that the Queen is to be treated with kindness. This alternation of harshness and mercy will typify his behavior in scenes to come.

Act III, Scene 2
New Characters:
Bishop of Carlisle: a clergyman loyal to King Richard

Sir Stephen Scroop: a soldier and ally of the King

Scene 2 takes place on the Welsh coast, near Barkloughly Castle. With a flourish of trumpets and drums, the King, the Duke of Aumerle, and the Bishop of Carlisle enter, along with Soldiers and Attendants. King Richard, after a rough crossing of the Irish Sea, expresses joy at arriving once again in his kingdom. He weeps and caresses his native soil “…as a long-parted mother with her child” (8). He is aware of Bolingbroke’s insurrection, and he urges the land itself to rise up against “foul rebellion’s arms.” The Bishop of Carlisle assures him that the royal cause is a just one, and that the powers of heaven will ensure that he remains King. Yet he advises Richard not to neglect “the means that heavens yield.” The Duke of Aumerle also entreats the King to take practical action: “We are too remiss,/ Whilst Bolingbroke through our security/ Grows strong and great in substance and in power” (33-35). Yet Richard, comparing himself to the sun, proclaims confidently that thieves and murderers flourish when the sun is absent, but they “stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves” when it rises once again in the east (46). Bolingbroke, he comments, will “tremble at his sin” after learning that he has returned to England. He asserts his divine right to govern and proclaims that the powers of heaven will safeguard his throne.

Soon afterward, the Earl of Salisbury enters with distressing news: he tells the King he has returned from Ireland one day too late, and that the twelve thousand Welsh soldiers he had mustered have deserted or defected to Bolingbroke. The King turns pale when he hears these tidings. Aumerle attempts to rally his spirits: “Comfort, my liege, remember who you are.” Richard swiftly regains his composure: “I had forgot myself: am I not King?” (82-83). He insists that the Duke of York “hath power enough” to suppress the rebellion.

A moment later, however, Sir Stephen Scroop enters with another message of woe. The King prepares himself for the worst: “Say, is my kingdom lost?” Scroop confirms the King’s fears. He tells Richard that Bolingbroke’s forces have swept across England, and that the common people—bearded old men, young boys, even the women—have taken up arms for his cause. Richard inquires
about the fate of the Earl of Wiltshire and his favored courtiers, Bushy, Bagot, and Green: “I warrant they have made peace with Bolingbroke.” “Peace have they made with him indeed, my lord,” Scroop replies (127-128). Richard, enraged, calls them “villains, vipers …Judases,” but Scroop tells him to “uncurse their souls” and explains what he meant: Wiltshire, Bushy, and Green have been captured and beheaded. Aumerle asks Scroop the whereabouts of his father, the Duke of York, and the army he is leading, but Richard interjects woefully, “No matter where—of comfort no man speak./ Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs/ …Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke’s” (144-145; 151). Self-consciously anticipating his own martyrdom, he meditates mournfully and philosophically on the death of kings.

The Bishop of Carlisle urges Richard to fight on to the last; his advice that “wise men ne’er sit and wail their woes,/ But presently prevent the ways to wail” stirs Richard from his self pity (178-179). Aumerle assures the King that his father still maintains the royal army. Richard, heartened by their encouragement, resolves to continue the battle against Bolingbroke’s insurrection. He asks Scroop the current location of York’s forces. But Scroop has more bad news to deliver. He tells the King that York has allied with Bolingbroke, that the northern castles have all been conquered, and that the southern lords have joined Bolingbroke’s cause. Richard immediately recognizes the futility of his situation; he resolves to seek refuge at Flint Castle nearby, there to “pine away,” and he discharges his remaining soldiers to return to their lands.

Richard’s joyous declaration of how happy he is “To stand upon my kingdom once again” (5) and his subsequent paean to his native soil are ironic, for we know with what little regard he has held his kingdom. Here, his speech seems a hollow echo of the dying John of Gaunt’s patriotic sentiments in Act II, Scene 1. Note that he is not only praising his native soil, but is also urging it to rise up against the invading Bolingbroke. His sentiments, although sincere, are clearly overstated. Even the King realizes the excess of his words when he remarks: “Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords” (24).

Again, we are greeted by the theme of the divine right of kings when the Bishop of Carlisle assures his sovereign that “the power that made you king/ Hath power to keep you king” (27-28). Richard reiterates this thought when he proclaims confidently, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/ Can wash the balm off from an annointed king;/ The breath of worldly men cannot depose/ The deputy elected by the Lord” (54-57). For every soldier in Bolingbroke’s army, Richard asserts, he, in turn, has an angel in heaven to defend his cause.

Yet Carlisle and Aumerle wisely counsel the King to take practical measures. They tell him diplomatically that the Lord helps those who help themselves, and that soldiers will be more useful than angels in this particular crisis. Richard, however, perversely refuses to believe that any harm can come to a divinely annointed king.

Even so, Richard is visibly shaken when Salisbury enters to announce that his Welsh soldiers have deserted. At first, he is optimistic that York’s forces can suppress the rebellion, yet he realizes instantly that Scroop has arrived as the bearer of bad news. Hope turns to despair and his remaining optimism erodes rapidly when Scroop tells him that Bolingbroke has gained the support from the common people as he journeyed across the land. When he believes that his loyal courtiers have deserted to Bolingbroke’s cause he continues to allude to his divine right by calling them “Judases.” When he learns the truth of the matter—that Bushy, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire have been executed—we arrive at a major turning point, both in the play and in King Richard’s character.

In the extended meditation that follows, Richard reveals a new facet to his complex personality. In defeat, he emerges as an eloquent philosopher and a sensitive, intelligent poet. He begins to take on the dimensions of a tragic hero. His tone is self-pitying as he becomes conscious of the disparity between his role of divine monarch and his all-too-human despair, yet the hopelessness
of his situation yields soul-searching poetry. In the first two acts, Richard has been depicted as unjust and capricious, but here he appears in a far more sympathetic light.

In one of the most famed passages in this play, Richard responds to the swift reality of what has occurred by telling those gathered with him: “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings/ …for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps death his court” (155-156; 160-162). Later in this speech, Richard refutes the “divinity” which he had spoken of only moments earlier and poignantly refers to himself as only a man: “You have but mistook me all this while:/ I live with bread like you, feel want,/ Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,/ How can you say to me, I am a king?” (174-177). Here, for the first time, we see a new and more human dimension to his character. Though he is clearly assuming a role—that of a martyred King—his sorrow is genuine.

We can, of course, see elements of the capriciousness he evinced in the first two acts in his rapidly changing moods throughout this scene—he alternates between exhilaration and despair. His instability and weakness of character are apparent in his indecisive response to Bolingbroke’s military threat. Although he has vowed to fight valiantly for his cause, he capitulates without a struggle after Scroop delivers the news that York has allied with the rebels.

When Richard, resigned to his fate, discharges the few soldiers he has left “To ear the land that hath some hope to grow,” (212) his generosity seems uncharacteristic of the sovereign we have known earlier. Nevertheless, his concern for his soldiers and his hope that their land might prove fertile is evidently sincere. Prior to this scene, Richard has been offstage for more than four hundred lines; he has been transformed by his voyage to Ireland, and by the series of disasters he encountered after his return. He is now more articulate and self-aware than when he set sail. In defeat he is a pitiable figure, but his poetic eloquence grants him a new stature.

When Richard tells Aumerle, “He does me double wrong/ That wounds me with the flatteries of his tongue,” it serves as a reminder that one of the principal charges made earlier against the King was that he listened only to his flattering courtiers. Yet he has no interest in flattery once he realizes the scene has changed “From Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day” (215-216; 218).

Act III, Scene 3
Scene 3 takes place on the northeast coast of Wales, before Flint Castle. Bolingbroke, York, and Northumberland enter along with their soldiers. Bolingbroke has learned that the Welsh army has dispersed, and that the Earl of Salisbury has gone to meet the King. Northumberland tells Bolingbroke that “Richard not far from hence hath hid his head” (6).

Harry Percy delivers the message soon afterward that Flint Castle has refused to yield and is “royally manned” against Bolingbroke’s entrance; the King and his few remaining supporters are within. Bolingbroke orders Northumberland to tell the King that he “sends allegience and true faith of heart/ To his most royal person; hither come/ Even at his feet to lay my arms and power,/ Provided that my banishment is repealed,/ And lands restored again be freely granted” (36-40). If King Richard refuses his request, however, he resolves to regain his title and lands by force. Yet he orders his soldiers to march “without the noise of threat’ning drum” as they parade outside the castle in a show of strength, and he hopes for an amicable meeting with the King.

Bolingbroke’s trumpets sound a flourish; Richard’s trumpets answer. The King appears on the walls of the castle, accompanied by the Bishop of Carlisle, Aumerle, Scroop, and Salisbury. Northumberland approaches the castle and Richard addresses him. He tells him he is “amazed” that an insurrection should be mounted against the lawful monarch, God’s annointed. He rebukes Northumberland for not showing proper courtesy to his sovereign and proclaims defiantly: “God omnipotent,/ Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf/ Armies of pestilence, and they shall strike/ Your children yet unborn and unbegot/ That lift your vassal hands against my head/ And threat the glory of my precious crown” (84-89).

Richard commands Northumberland to return to Bolingbroke to inform him that he is a traitor who has come to open “…the purple testament of bleeding war” (93). He warns Northumberland that before the crown that Bolingbroke looks for lives in peace, much English blood will be shed. Northumberland replies diplomatically that the divine right of kings prohibits that the castle should be taken by force. He assures the King that Bolingbroke has come humbly; he has sworn by his ancestors’ graves and by his honor as a nobleman that he desires only the restoration of his title and lands. This being granted, he will disband his army and devote himself to “…faithful service of your Majesty” (117).

Richard tells Northumberland that Bolingbroke is welcome, and that his “fair demands” will be met. After Northumberland leaves to convey this message, however, Richard confesses to Aumerle that he is tempted to “send/ Defiance to the traitor and so die” (128-129). Aumerle counsels the King that it is better to wait until “time lends friends, and friends their helpful swords” (131). Richard, suddenly overcome by sorrow, laments that it is necessary to revoke his royal sentence of banishment and cries out in despair: “O, that I were as great/ As is my grief, or lesser than my name!” (135-136).

Northumberland returns from conferring with Bolingbroke. Before he can deliver his message, however, Richard proclaims: “What must the King do now? Must he submit?/ The King shall do it. Must he be deposed?/ The King shall be contented” (142-144). He mournfully anticipates the life he will lead after giving up his kingdom: the trappings of royalty will be replaced by an austere life of religious contemplation and ultimately, an obscure grave.

Aumerle is reduced to tears by his sovereign’s melancholy reflections and Richard attempts to comfort him. Then, abruptly shifting his mood, Richard asks Northumberland sarcastically: “What says King Bolingbroke? Will his Majesty/ Give Richard leave to live till Richard die?” (172-173). Northumberland states that Bolingbroke desires only to speak with the King, and he bids him to come down from the castle walls. “Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaethon/ …at traitors’ calls,” Richard shouts defiantly. He withdraws from the ramparts; Northumberland returns to Bolingbroke and warns him that “sorrow and grief of heart” have made the King speak foolishly, “like a frantic man.”

Richard and his attendants enter on the lower level a moment later. Bolingbroke tells his nobles and soldiers, “Stand all apart,/ And show fair duty to his Majesty” (185-186). He kneels deferentially at Richard’s feet and tells him, “I come but for mine own.” Richard replies, “Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all.” (194-195) He comforts his uncle, the Duke of York, who is in tears and then asks Bolingbroke, “Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?” When Bolingbroke responds in the affirmative, Richard replies, with ironic humor: “Then I must not say no” (206-207).

This scene is in many ways a reprise of Act I, Scene 3, in which the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray was scheduled to take place. Again, we anticipate a battle, but no actual combat occurs. Bolingbroke has assembled an army to meet the King’s soldiers, but they never fight. Instead, there is a formal, ceremonious meeting and Richard submits meekly.

Northumberland is openly hopeful that Bolingbroke will assume the throne. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is more guarded about his ultimate ambitions. Although he realizes that he has triumphed over the royal forces, he still proclaims publicly that his allegience is to the King, and he continues to assert that he desires only the repeal of his banishment and the restoration of his lands. Throughout, he treats Richard with courtesy, although significantly he states that he will not oppose the will of heaven, whatever it might be. He later resolves to use force only if necessary: “Methinks King Richard and myself should meet/ With no less terror than the elements/ Of fire and water, when their thund’ring shock/ At meeting tears the cloudy cheeks of heaven./ Be he the fire, I’ll be the yielding water” (53-57).

Here, we see Richard and Bolingbroke together for the first time since Bolingbroke’s banishment in Act I, Scene 3. The positions of power in the first act have now been reversed; Bolingbroke clearly has the upper hand. Richard is again associated with the sun when Bolingbroke gazes upward and notices his appearance on the castle walls: “King Richard doth himself appear,/ As doth the blushing discontented sun/ From out the fiery portal of the East,/ When he perceives the envious clouds are bent/ To dim his glory” (61-65). As York subsequently observes, he still retains the appearance of a king, yet his glory will soon be a thing of the past.

Indeed, Richard’s long speech that follows is a last moment of dignity and grandeur as sovereign. When Richard speaks, he addresses the abrasive and disrespectful Northumberland rather than Bolingbroke, who stands a distance away. He recovers his majestic tone and again asserts his authority as the “lawful king.” He refers with thinly veiled sarcasm to his divine right: “If we be not [King], show us the hand of God/ That hath dismissed us from our stewardship” (76-77). His claims are reinforced by the presence of the Bishop of Carlisle. Note that here and elsewhere the clergymen have allied with Richard rather than with Bolingbroke.

Again, we are greeted by a prophecy when Richard proclaims that civil war will ensue if Bolingbroke seizes the crown. Here, Richard casts off the self-pitying posture of the previous scene to assert his rights as hereditary king, enthroned by the grace of God. He criticizes Bolingbroke as an ungodly usurper and predicts: “But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,/ Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons/ Shall ill become the flower of England’s face” (94-96). Yet Northumberland, in his reply, stresses that Bolingbroke is also a grandson of King Edward III when he refers to …“the royalties of both your bloods” (106).

The scene is noteworthy for its use of physical contrast
emphasis in the positioning of Richard and his remaining
allies and Bolingbroke and his army. Richard stands high—in Shakespeare’s theatre he would have stood on the balcony or second level of the stage—while Bolingbroke and his men occupy the forestage below.

When Northumberland relates Bolingbroke’s pledge that he desires only the repealment of his banishment and his “lineal royalties” and will then “beg/ Infranchisement immediate on his knees” and lay down his arms, swearing allegience to the crown, Richard promptly grants his request. Yet he has a perverse change of heart immediately afterward. He tells Aumerle that he has debased himself; overcome with grief, he proclaims: “O God! O God! that e’er this tongue of mine,/ That laid the sentence of dread banishment/ On yon proud man, should take it off again/ With words of sooth!” (132-135).

Inexplicably, before Northumberland can deliver Bolingbroke’s response to the King’s pledge (which may, in fact, be a promise of loyalty and good behavior), it is Richard who brings up the idea of deposition. Clearly, Richard sees through Bolingbroke’s public pronouncements of what he claims to be seeking by his insurrection. Yet Bolingbroke’s reply is never made known. Again, Richard’s tone is rife with self-pity. He is more interested in contemplating his downfall than in listening to Bolingbroke’s response to his pardon. He revels in perverse self-display as his thoughts turn eloquently, albeit grimly, to his expectations for the future. Here again, he is the poet-philosopher, self-consciously surveying his feelings of desolation and comparing his past to the destiny he anticipates—the renouncement of his worldly goods, an austere holy life, and ultimately, a lonely death: “I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads;/ My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;/ My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown;/ My figured goblets for a dish of wood,/ My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff;/ My subjects for a pair of carvèd saints;/ And my large kingdom for a little grave” (146-152).

Even so, Richard retains enough self-possession to comfort the weeping Aumerle. Although he despairs over his fate, he is boldly defiant when he submits to Northumberland’s demand that he meet with Bolingbroke in “the base court.” When he cries, “Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaethon/ Wanting the manage of unruly jades,” he is alluding to classical mythology and the recurring motif of the sun as a royal emblem (177-178). Phaethon, an unwise young man half-mortal and half-god, drove his father Apollo’s sun chariot but was unable to command the horses that drew it and plunged wildly out of control. Zeus, seeing his erratic flight across the heavens, struck him down with a thunderbolt
to save the world from destruction. Here, Richard acknowledges that his downfall resulted from a similar inability to manage his kingdom.

The descent from the ramparts that follows is rife with symbolism, for when Richard emerges on the mainstage he and Bolingbroke are on level ground. Although Bolingbroke kneels politely when the King emerges from the castle and maintains a posture of reverence toward his sovereign, Richard quickly punctures the myth of his pledge of loyalty when he remarks that Bolingbroke’s ambitions are “thus high”—meaning, of course, his crown, which he indicates by a gesture. In defeat, he maintains his dignity and is gravely courteous to his adversaries, but he recognizes his own powerlessness when he tells Bolingbroke, “What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too,/ For do we must what force will have us do” (204-205).

Act III, Scene 4
New Characters:
Ladies-in-Waiting: attendants to the Queen

Gardeners: servants to the Duke of York

This scene takes place in the Duke of York’s garden. The Queen asks her Ladies-in-Waiting, “What sport shall we devise here in this garden,/ To drive away the heavy thought of care?” (1-2). One of the Ladies suggests lawn bowling or dancing, but the Queen is in no mood for either diversion. The Lady then suggests telling tales and volunteers to sing for the Queen. However, the Queen, feeling sorrowful, refuses her offer.

Three Gardeners enter, one the master, the other two his men. The Queen and her attendants stand aside and eavesdrop on their conversation; the Queen anticipates that they will talk about England’s recent problems. The Master Gardener bids one of his men to bind up the dangling apricots “Which like unruly children make their sire/ Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight,” and bids the second man to “like an executioner/ Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays/ That look too lofty in our commonwealth:/ All must be even in our government” (30-31; 33-36). While they are at their tasks, the Master Gardener will “root away/ The noisome weeds which without profit suck/ The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers” (37-39).

One of the men wonders why the Gardeners should “keep law and form and due proportion” when England itself “Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,/ Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined/ …and her wholesome herbs/ Swarming with caterpillars?” (41; 44-47). The Master Gardener replies that the sovereign responsible for this disorder has “now himself met with the fall of leaf,” and that the “weeds which his broad spreading leaves did shelter”—the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, and Green—have been “plucked up root and all by Bolingbroke” (49-53). He adds that Bolingbroke has seized “the wasteful King” and remarks that it is a pity that King Richard did not treat his realm with the care the Gardeners have lavished upon their garden. The King, he comments, has already suffered a reversal of fortune and will doubtless be deposed.

Hearing this news, the Queen steps forward and addresses the Master Gardener; she chastises him for saying that the King has been deposed and asks how he came by these ill tidings. The Gardener tells her he has taken little joy in this news, but he assures her it is true, and indeed, has become common knowledge: King Richard has been captured by Bolingbroke, who now has the allegience of “all the English peers.”

The Queen is distraught when she realizes she is the last to learn of her husband’s misfortune. She orders her Ladies-in-Waiting to accompany her to London, where she will meet the King. Before she departs, she remarks, “Gard’ner, for telling me these news of woe,/ Pray God, the plants thou graft’st may never grow” (100-101). After she is gone, the Gardener resolves to plant a bank of rue—the herb of sorrow—at the spot where one of the Queen’s tears fell.

At the beginning of this scene, the Queen finds that there is no consolation for the pain she is feeling. Her comments to her Gentlewomen echo the Duchess of Gloucester’s woe at the death of her husband and Bolingbroke’s sorrow at his impending exile in Act I, Scene 3; the Gentlewomen are of as little comfort as Gaunt was to his sister-in-law and his son.

In the Master Gardener’s instructions to his men, we again hear a series of metaphors used many times earlier in the play. In Act II, Scene 1, for example, John of Gaunt referred to England as “this blessed plot, this earth” (50) and alluded to himself as a “too-long-withered flower” (134). Here, the metaphors of soil, gardening, and harmful insects are extended and developed more fully. England, the Master Gardener argues, has “noisome weeds” and “superfluous branches” which must be rooted and lopped off if the rest of the kingdom is to prosper; we behold the disorder of the kingdom in miniature. When he refers to caterpillars—instruments of a garden’s destruction—it recalls Bolingbroke’s reference to Bushy and Bagot as “The caterpillars of the commonwealth,/ Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.” (II, iii, 165-166)

This extended parable gives the audience (or the reader) time to reflect before the deposition scene soon to come. The Master Gardener comments directly on Richard’s policies: “O, what pity is it/ That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land/ As we this garden! …Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,/ Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down” (55-57; 65-66).
Ironically, the Queen is the last to know of the King’s capture and imminent deposition. Her references to the Garden of Eden recall Gaunt’s similar analogy in Act II, Scene 1. Yet here, Richard has assumed a central place in a cosmic tragedy; like Adam, his transgressions have resulted in the loss of a kingdom granted by divine authority.

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Act II Summary and Analysis


Act IV Summary and Analysis