Act IV Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2157

Act IV, Scene 1
New Characters:
Lord Fitzwater: a nobleman who accuses the Duke of Aumerle of treason

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Duke of Surrey: a nobleman who defends the Duke of Aumerle

Abbot of Westminster: a clergyman who plots against Henry Bolingbroke

At Westminster Hall in London, Bolingbroke and the nobles of the realm gather in Parliament. Among those in attendance are the Duke of Aumerle, the Earl of Northumberland, Harry Percy, Lord Fitzwater, and the Duke of Surrey. Also present are two clergymen: the Bishop of Carlisle and the Abbot of Westminster. The issue of the crown is now to be decided, but Bolingbroke has first scheduled an inquest into the Duke of Gloucester’s murder. Bolingbroke commands that Sir William Bagot be brought forth. When Bagot enters Bolingbroke asks him to confess what he knows about Gloucester’s death—specifically who persuaded the King to order his assassination, and who actually killed him. “Then set before my face the Lord Aumerle,” Bagot replies (6). Aumerle steps forward and Bagot accuses him of boasting that he could assassinate Gloucester at the time the murder was being planned. Bagot also states that Aumerle declared he would refuse the offer of a hundred thousand crowns rather than see Bolingbroke return to England; furthermore, Aumerle had remarked that England would be blessed if Bolingbroke died in exile.

Aumerle vehemently denies the charges; he hurls down his gage and calls Bagot a liar. Bolingbroke commands that Bagot not pick up the gage to accept Aumerle’s challenge. However, Lord Fitzwater hurls down his own gage to challenge Aumerle; he claims that he, too, heard Aumerle confess he was responsible for Gloucester’s murder. Aumerle calls Fitzwater a coward, and Harry Percy protests that Aumerle is a liar; he throws down his gage to challenge Aumerle and is seconded by one of Bolingbroke’s Lords. Aumerle replies boldly that he is ready to accept twenty thousand challenges.

The Duke of Surrey remarks that he was present when Fitzwater and Aumerle spoke. Fitzwater admits that Surrey’s statement is true, and that Surrey can confirm his accusation. But Surrey calls Fitzwater’s charge a falsehood. Fitzwater, in turn, calls Surrey a liar. Surrey hurls down his gage as a challenge and Fitzwater accepts. He protests that Aumerle is indeed responsible for Gloucester’s murder. He adds that he heard the banished Thomas Mowbray confess that Aumerle sent two of his men to accomplish the killing. Aumerle protests that Mowbray is a liar and challenges the banished Mowbray in absentia.

Bolingbroke proclaims that the various challenges will “rest under gage” until Mowbray returns from exile. He pledges that in time Mowbray’s banishment will end and remarks that although Mowbray is his enemy, he will be “restored again/ To all his lands” (88-89). But the Bishop of Carlisle announces that Mowbray, who after his banishment fought valiantly in the Crusades, had since retired to Italy where he died peacefully. Bolingbroke speaks with kindness of his former adversary and commands that the differences between Aumerle and his challengers will be set aside until he can assign the contentious nobles a day of trial by combat.

The Duke of York enters and announces that King Richard, “with willing soul,” has agreed to yield up his “high sceptre” to Bolingbroke. York tells Bolingbroke to ascend the throne and proclaims, “Long live Henry, fourth of that name!” Bolingbroke replies, “In God’s name, I’ll ascend the regal throne” (112-113). But the Bishop of Carlisle immediately objects: “Marry, God forbid!” He proceeds to explain his reasoning. “What subject,” he asks, “can give sentence on his king?/ And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject?” (121-122). He also states that it is a “black, obscene” deed for a King who has ruled by divine right to be judged by those of “inferior breath,” particularly when he is not present. He announces to the Parliament that “My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,/ Is a foul traitor…/ And if you crown him, let me prophesy/ The blood of English shall manure the ground,/ And future ages groan for this foul act” (134-138). He predicts that civil war and “disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny” will follow for years to come if Bolingbroke usurps the throne.

Northumberland promptly orders the Bishop arrested for capital treason and commands that the Abbot of Westminster hold him as prisoner until he can be tried. Bolingbroke then issues the command for King Richard to be brought to Parliament so that he might formally surrender the crown “in common view.” The Duke of York exits to bring Richard before the assembly.

A moment later, York returns with Richard, who laments that he has been called before his successor “Before I have shook off the regal thoughts/ Wherewith I reigned” (163-164). He remarks that those assembled had once cried “all hail” to him, but now they have betrayed him as Judas betrayed Christ. He asks York why he has been summoned; York replies that he must now “do that office of thine own good will,/ Which tired majesty did make thee offer:/ the resignation of thy state and crown/ To Henry Bolingbroke” (177-180).

“Give me the crown,” Richard commands. He holds it out to Bolingbroke and remarks scornfully: “Here, cousin, seize the crown.” They hold it together a moment, and then Richard reluctantly abdicates the throne with an elaborate public display of regal grief. He concludes with a flourish: “God save King
Henry, unkinged Richard says,/ And send him many years of sun¬shine days” (219-220). He then asks, “What more remains?” Northumberland tells Richard he must read the accusations against him and confess to his crimes and those of his courtiers so that “the souls of men/ Might deem that you are worthily deposed” (225-226).

However, Richard protests that his eyes are too full of tears to read, although he can clearly see “traitors here.” He asks Bolingbroke to order a mirror brought to the Parliament chamber. North¬umberland again asks Richard to read the list of charges against him while awaiting the mirror, but Bolingbroke mercifully tells Northumberland to “urge it no more.”

An attendant enters with the mirror soon afterward, and Richard gazes sorrowfully upon his own features: “Was this the face/ That, like the sun, did make the beholders wink?” (282-283). Realizing that his features are no longer those of a king, and profoundly saddened by what he sees, he hurls the mirror down, breaking it. He then asks Bolingbroke’s permission to leave the Parliament chamber. Bolingbroke orders his Lords to escort Richard to the Tower of London, and Richard exits. Bolingbroke decrees that his own coronation will take place the following Wednesday and exits with his court. The Abbot of Westminster, the Bishop of Carlisle, and the Duke of Aumerle remain.

“A woeful pageant have we here beheld,” remarks the Abbot of Westminster (320). The Bishop of Carlisle reiterates that “The woe’s to come,” and that future generations will suffer as a result of the events that transpired that day. Aumerle asks the clergymen, “Is there no plot/ To rid the realm of this pernicious blot?” (323-324). The Abbot of Westminster replies that he does indeed have
a scheme in mind, and he invites Aumerle to supper to discuss
his plan.

The beginning of this act, which contains only a single scene, parallels in many ways the conflicts and challenges of Act I, Scene 1. This time, however, it is Bolingbroke who sits in judgement. Although Bolingbroke has not been crowned, he is clearly acting as king. Again, we are greeted by accusations, counter accusations, and gages hurled down in anger; again, the principal issue is the Duke of Gloucester’s murder.

It is, of course, politically expedient for Bolingbroke to confirm that his original accusations against Mowbray—and by extension, the King himself—were truthful. By establishing that
Richard did, in fact, have a hand in Gloucester’s death, and that his subsequent banishment of Bolingbroke and the seizure of Gaunt’s lands were unjust, Bolingbroke will be solidifying his claim to the throne. Yet Bolingbroke succeeds in arbitrating the conflicts among his Lords no better than Richard did in the first act, and the truth of the various accusations is never revealed. Like his predecessor, Bolingbroke can only decree that the issues raised by the contending noblemen will be put off “Till we assign you to your days of trial” (106).

Nevertheless, Bolingbroke is again revealed as a crafty politician—note that he originally planned to defer judgement until Mowbray’s return from exile, which could occur only by his royal decree. His mood throughout this scene is one of repressed, kingly dignity; he also curries favor with the nobles by his merciful promise to pardon a former enemy, even before he learns that Mowbray has died in Italy.

As audiences in Shakespeare’s time knew, the Bishop of Carlisle’s prediction that if Bolingbroke is crowned the result will be civil war and bloodshed was accurate; civil war would ensue early in the new king’s reign, and Bolingbroke’s grandson, King Henry VI, would later be deposed in the War of the Roses, a conflict between the noble English houses of Lancaster and York. Not until 1485, when King Henry VII ascended the throne, would the conflict ultimately be resolved.

Note that Northumberland does much of the dirty work for his future sovereign. For example, it is Northumberland, rather than the new king, who orders Carlisle’s arrest for treason. Bolingbroke gives no direct indication that he has been affected by Carlisle’s prophecy, yet his next words are significant: he orders Richard to be brought to the Parliament chamber to surrender the crown “in common view” so that he might then “proceed without suspicion.” Indeed, the entire proceeding is a public spectacle arranged by Bolingbroke to legitimize his claim to the throne.

When Richard arrives to formally renounce his “state and crown” he again compares himself to Christ betrayed by Judas in an effort to castigate his foes; later, he compares himself to Christ at his trial before Pilate. Here again, he is referring to his divine right and anticipating his own martyrdom; he asserts that the rejection of God’s annointed is being enacted once again. He is profoundly saddened by the necessity of surrendering his crown, but he realizes that it is the only course available to him. Yet he abdicates with reluctance; he stresses at every opportunity the fact that he is being forcefully and unlawfully deposed. He seizes the moment to dramatize his abdication before a Parliament that had until recently obeyed his commands: “Now, mark me how I will undo myself” (202). When Northumberland asks Richard to read the charges against him, he makes an elaborate show of defiant refusal; in doing so, he makes it clear that he considers Bolingbroke a traitorous usurper.

Soon afterward, we are greeted by yet another reference to the sun, but this time it is a reversal of earlier imagery: Richard proclaims, “O, that I were a mockery king of snow,/ Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke/ To melt myself away in water drops” (259-261). His tone has shifted from defiance to one of indulgent self-pity, but he is eloquent in expressing his feelings. Yet here, as elsewhere, he is conscious not only of his own emotions, but also that he is performing for the assembled nobles.

This scene contains two striking moments of visual drama. The first occurs when Richard asks for the crown, then holds it forth to Bolingbroke; both men grasp it for a moment as Richard stage manages the symbolic transfer of power. Later, when Richard, after gazing sadly at his reflection, smashes the mirror brought at his request, it creates an equally striking stage picture. This is, of course, a grand gesture on the part of the former king; he is genuinely saddened, yet he also realizes that his action is ripe with symbolism. Bolingbroke, too, recognizes the dual nature of Richard’s gesture. As he comments: “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed/ The shadow of your face” (291-292). Here, he accuses Richard of merely putting on an outward show of grief. Richard is momentarily taken aback by his remark, yet he quickly acknowledges that his “grief lies all within,/ And these external manners of laments/ Are merely shadows to the unseen grief/ That swells with silence in the tortured soul” (294-297).

As this scene nears its end, the transfer of power is complete; Bolingbroke looks forward to his coronation, and Richard is led away to prison. But as we learn just before the conclusion, a threat has arisen to the new king in the form of the conspiracy hatched by the Abbot of Westminster—a plot to which the Duke of Aumerle will soon become an accomplice. Thus, Shakespeare introduces further dramatic complications as the fourth act draws to a close.

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Act III Summary and Analysis


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