Act V Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4391

Act V, Scene 1
Scene 1 takes place on a street in London. We encounter the Queen and her attendants; the Queen comments that King Richard will pass that way as he is led to the Tower of London, where he has been sent as a prisoner by “proud Bolingbroke.” Richard enters, accompanied by a Guard, and the Queen laments the circumstances to which he has been reduced. When Richard sees his Queen he counsels her to “Join not with grief, fair woman,” but rather to “think our former state a happy dream,/ From which awaked, the truth of what we are/ Shows us but this” (16; 18-20). He tells the Queen he is “sworn brother” to “grim necessity” and urges her to seek refuge in a convent in France. Only through leading a holy life, he remarks, will they be able to redeem themselves.

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The Queen is startled to find her husband “transformed and weakened.” She entreats him not to take “correction mildly,” but rather to react with the anger of one who has been a powerful king. Richard again bids her to journey to France. “Think I am dead,” he comments. He tells her to consider their meeting a final parting and asks her to tell the woeful tale of his deposition to those she will encounter in years to come.

Northumberland enters and delivers the news that Boling¬broke has changed his mind about where Richard will be imprisoned; he must now proceed to Pomfret Castle, and the Queen will immediately be banished to her native France. Richard chastises Northumberland as the “ladder wherewithal/ The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne” (55-56). He predicts that in the future King Henry’s reign will be plagued by corruption, and that a rift will develop between Northumberland and his sovereign. But Northumberland brusquely tells the King that the hour has arrived when he must part with his Queen. Upset by this news, the Queen asks Northumberland if Richard can share her banishment, or she his imprisonment. But Richard realizes, sadly yet pragmatically, that they now must go their separate ways. They exchange a tender parting kiss and exit, Richard to prison, and his Queen to exile in France.

Although the Queen has appeared in three earlier scenes and we have learned of her devotion to Richard, this is the first time we have seen her in intimate conversation with her husband. This poignant scene illustrates the depth of their affection and their reduced status in the commonwealth; they are no longer king and queen, but rather two private citizens bidding a sad farewell.

Richard, as he is being led to prison, accepts his fate with dignified resignation. The Queen, on the other hand, is irate at his passivity, commenting: “The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw/ And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage/ To be o’erpow’red” (29-31). The comparison of Richard to a lion is one we have heard earlier; in Act I, Scene 1, Richard commented, referring to himself: “Lions make leopards tame.” Similarly, the Queen’s reference to seeing “My fair rose wither” (8) recalls the Gardeners’ scene and the many images of flowers and gardens throughout the play. It is ironic, however, when the Queen compares Richard to a “most beauteous inn” and Bolingbroke to an ordinary “alehouse guest,” for Bolingbroke’s popularity with the common people assisted his rise to the throne.

It is also ironic when Richard tells Northumberland that he will soon rebel against King Henry; as Shakespeare’s audience knew, Northumberland would in fact lead an uprising against his sovereign. Shakespeare later dramatized this rebellion in Henry IV, Part I. Although the Queen pleads for Richard to accompany her into exile, Richard is aware that Bolingbroke, a pragmatic politician, won’t allow this to occur. As he comments, it would be of “some love, but little policy” (84). Bolingbroke, of course, had been exiled and later returned to seize the crown. Thus, Richard and his Queen are forced to part tenderly before the former king is led off to prison.

Act V, Scene 2
New Character:
Duchess of York: wife to Edmund, Duke of York; mother of the Duke of Aumerle

At the Duke of York’s palace, the Duke has been recounting the story of Bolingbroke’s triumphant entry into London when he has been forced to break off his tale by his own tears. The common people, he told his wife, had thrown “dust and rubbish” at King Richard’s head as he was led captive through the streets. Bolingbroke had been cheered by the crowd yet “no joyful tongue” welcomed Richard home. Nevertheless, Richard had endured his demeaning journey with dignity. York assures his wife that “heaven hath a hand in these events,” and he reminds her that as loyal subjects of the crown their allegiance is now to Bolingbroke (37).

The Duke of Aumerle enters; he is in a despairing mood over the fate of King Richard. The Duchess inquires who the new favorites are at court, but Aumerle tells his mother that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care. When York asks his son whether tournaments at Oxford to celebrate King Henry’s accession will be held, Aumerle replies cryptically that they will and that he will be there “if God prevent me not.”

Suddenly York notices a letter tucked into Aumerle’s gown and asks to see it. Aumerle refuses, telling his father it is “a matter of small consequence.” But York is suspicious; he grabs the letter away from his son and glances at it. He is livid at the contents. “Treason, foul treason, villain, traitor, slave!” he exclaims, now knowing that his son is among those who plan to assassinate King Henry (72). He shouts for a servant to saddle his horse so that he might journey immediately to the King.

The Duchess is mystified by her husband’s reaction and urges Aumerle to strike his father. She realizes that Aumerle is involved in a treacherous plot; however, she is determined to protect her only son, even if it means a breach with her husband. But the Duke, furious, tells her that Aumerle is among a dozen conspirators who have pledged to kill King Henry at Oxford. The Duchess protests that they can keep Aumerle at home so he will not have an opportunity to participate in the scheme. But York, determined to reveal his son’s part in the conspiracy, storms out over the Duchess’s protests. The Duchess urges Aumerle to ride swiftly to the King and to plead for his mercy before York can accuse his son of treason. She pledges to follow him and tells him, “Never will I rise up from the ground/ Till Bolingbroke have pardoned thee” (116-117).

At the beginning of this scene we are again reminded of Richard’s humiliating reversal of fortune. York’s vivid account of the new king being acclaimed by the crowd, and of the people of London heaping dust and rubbish on Richard’s head as he was led through the streets, is genuinely poignant; Richard, formerly a capricious and shallow monarch, is again cast in a sympathetic light. Again, we are greeted by a theatrical analogy when York tells his wife that after Bolingbroke’s triumphant entrance, Richard was treated rudely by the assembled crowd: “As in a theatre the eyes of men,/ After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,/ Are idly bent on him that enters next,/ Thinking his prattle to be tedious;/ Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes/ Did scowl on gentle Richard” (23-28).

When York discovers the letter his son has concealed, we learn that the murderous plot devised at the end of Act IV has now been implemented. York, loyal to the crown, has sworn his allegiance to the new monarch, despite his sympathy for Richard. He is furious to learn that his son is implicated in the conspiracy. In Act II, Scene 1 (171-183), York chastised Richard for lacking the virtues of his noble father; here, he finds much the same failing in his own son. Aumerle, on the other hand, has maintained the personal loyalty to Richard he has demonstrated throughout the play. In Act III, Scene 3, for example, he revealed his devotion to Richard by his tears when he learned that the King’s downfall was imminent. York’s exit to bring news of the plot to King Henry, Aumerle’s hasty attempt to get to the King first, and the Duchess’s promise to follow prepare the way for the presence of all three characters in the ensuing scene.

Act V, Scene 3
At Windsor Castle, we encounter Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, along with Harry Percy and other noblemen. Bolingbroke asks if any of his courtiers have heard news of his son, Prince Hal. He has not seen his son in three months; usually, he remarks, Hal is to be found in taverns consorting with “loose companions” and thieves. Percy replies that he had seen the Prince two days earlier and had told him of the forthcoming jousts at Oxford. Hal retorted that he would go to a brothel to obtain a prostitute’s glove as a good luck token, and with that he would “unhorse the lustiest challenger.” Bolingbroke is unsurprised by Hal’s response, yet he is confident that his dissolute heir will change for the better as he grows older.

Suddenly, Aumerle bursts into the royal chamber and pleads for a word alone with the King. Percy and the other Lords depart; after they exit, Aumerle falls to his knees and begs for mercy, without explaining his offense. The King pledges that if his sin is “intended” rather than committed—however heinous it might be—he will issue a pardon. Aumerle asks permission to lock the door and Henry grants it. But as soon as Aumerle turns the key the Duke of York is heard banging on the door with a dire warning: “My liege, beware …/ Thou hast a traitor in thy presence there” (38-39).

Bolingbroke promptly draws his sword and threatens to kill Aumerle, but Aumerle assures him he has nothing to fear. York, in the meantime, has continued to shout that a traitor is within. Bolingbroke opens the door. York enters, and Bolingbroke asks him the cause of his excitement. York hands the King the letter he seized from his son and asks him to read it. Aumerle implores the King to remember his promise of a pardon and tells him he has repented: “Read not my name there;/ My heart is not confederate with my hand” (51-52). York tells the King that his son is motivated by fear and not by loyalty; he urges the King to forego his royal mercy.

Bolingbroke is startled to learn of the conspiracy against his life; he is dismayed that the son of the loyal Duke of York is involved. York tells the King he is ashamed of his son, but his speech is interrupted when the Duchess shouts at the door, begging to be admitted to the royal chamber. Bolingbroke tells his “dangerous cousin” to let her in. Aumerle unlocks the door. The Duchess enters, falls to her knees, and begs for her son’s life. Aumerle, too, falls to his knees, echoing his mother’s plea. The Duke of York kneels as well, but he urges the King to deal harshly with his son.

Bolingbroke, after listening to the Duchess’s entreaties, proclaims that he will pardon Aumerle “as God pardons me.” The Duchess is overjoyed at his magnanimity, but the King promises that the other conspirators will be captured and executed. He orders the Duke of York to lead soldiers to Oxford, or wherever the conspirators have assembled, to suppress the plot. He also expresses the hope that the Duke of Aumerle has truly reformed. The Duchess tells her son, “I pray God make thee new,” and she leads Aumerle away.

Bolingbroke’s reference to his wastrel son at the beginning of this scene would have provoked immediate signs of recognition in Shakespeare’s audience. Prince Hal was a legendary figure in Elizabethan England; although by tradition he spent much of his youth in the company of “loose companions,” he later became King Henry V, one of England’s most honored warrior-kings. Shakespeare would later tell his story in Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V.

The arrival of Aumerle, followed by his father and then his mother, is a logical continuation of the previous scene. The confusion of their conflicting stories is almost comic; even Bolingbroke proclaims after the Duchess’s arrival: “Our scene is alt’red from a serious thing,/ And now changed to ‘The Beggar and the King” (78-79). Bolingbroke, although shaken by news of the conspiracy, is merciful to the son of an ally whose neutrality and ultimate support meant a good deal to his cause. The Duchess’s praise of the new king after he pardons her son—“A God on earth thou art”—reveals that Richard’s role as “God’s annointed” has now been effectively transferred (135).

Earlier, of course, Bolingbroke had been similarly magnanimous to Mowbray, his former enemy, before learning that Mowbray had died in Italy. He doubtless realized that Aumerle, isolated from his co-conspirators, presented little threat, and that his own tenuous claim to the throne might be solidified by an act of generosity toward his cousin, whose loyal father was the last surviving son of King Edward III. His generosity is by no means universal, however, as we will see in scenes to come.

Act V, Scenes 4 and 5
New Characters:
Sir Pierce of Exton: a knight loyal to King Henry IV

Groom: a stable hand who formerly tended King Richard’s horses

Keeper: a jailer at Pomfret Castle

In another part of Windsor Castle, Sir Pierce of Exton remarks to a Servant that twice he had heard the King say, “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” (2). He was referring, of course, to Richard, and to the possibility that he might somehow regain his crown. The Servant confirms that Exton had heard the King correctly. Bolingbroke, Exton comments, had “wishtly looked on me” when he spoke those words, as if to imply that Exton had been selected to kill Richard. “I am the King’s friend,” Exton resolves, “and will rid his foe” (11).

In Scene 5, which takes place in Richard’s prison cell at Pomfret Castle, the former king, in a philosophical mood, reflects upon his present situation. He muses on his imprisonment, with all the contradictory thoughts it has evoked. He would like to tear his way out of his cell but realizes he cannot; he then comforts himself with the thought that he is not the first to suffer misfortune. He thinks back to the days when he was King, yet he cannot forget the more recent circumstances of his deposition and is saddened by his memories.

Music is heard, and Richard remarks, “How sour sweet music is/ When time is broke, and no proportion kept;/ So is it in the music of men’s lives” (42-44). The music’s rhythm leads him to reflect that “I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me” (49). Finally he cries out, “This music mads me: let it sound no more” (61). Yet he realizes that the music was probably meant for his pleasure, and pronounces “blessing on his heart that gives it me,” for he has seen few signs of thoughtfulness recently (64).

A groom of the stable enters and Richard hails him with kindness; he is glad to have company since the only other visitor he has had is the Keeper who brings him food. The Groom tells Richard that he has asked for special permission “To look upon my sometimes royal master’s face.” (75) He adds that he was heartbroken to see Bolingbroke, on coronation day, riding roan Barbary, the horse Richard rode often in the past, and a horse the groom had dressed when Richard was King. “Rode he on Barbary?” asks Richard. “Tell me, gentle friend,/ How went he under him?” The Groom replies that the horse responded to Bolingbroke “So proudly as if he disdained the ground.”(81-83) Richard, heartbroken at this news, curses the horse, but forgives it when he realizes it knew no better.

A keeper enters with a meal for Richard; he orders the Groom to leave. Richard, too, reluctantly commands the Groom to go, and the Groom exits. The keeper asks Richard to begin his meal, but Richard asks him to taste it first to assure that no poison is present, as he has customarily done in the past. The keeper replies that he has been ordered not to taste the meal by Sir Pierce of Exton, who “lately came from the King.” Richard, enraged when he realizes the meal may be poisoned, proclaims, “The devil take Henry of Lancaster, and thee!/ Patience is stale, and I am weary of it” (102-103). He attacks the keeper, who shouts for help.

Sir Pierce of Exton and his armed accomplices rush into the chamber, but Richard, in a fury, grabs one of their weapons and kills one, then another of Exton’s men. But he is outnumbered, and Exton strikes him down. Richard, mortally wounded, pronounces a curse on his murderer: “That hand shall burn in never-quenching fire/ That staggers thus my person.” After telling Exton that he has “with the King’s blood stained the King’s own land” (108-110) he falls to the ground and dies. Exton, looking down at the lifeless form of the former king, praises Richard for his valor and prepares to bear his body to King Henry.

Bolingbroke’s comments that he would like to be rid of Richard are in sharp contrast to the mercy he has shown to Aumerle in the previous scene. Note that his wish to see Richard dead is reported by Exton rather than being spoken by Bolingbroke himself; moreover, it is expressed as a hope rather than a command. This lessens the inevitable negative impact of Richard’s subsequent murder on Bolingbroke’s character. Note, also, that Bolingbroke has thought of being rid of Richard only after learning of the conspiracy against his life.

Richard’s soliloquy at the beginning of Scene 5 is the only moment in the play when we see him alone; his speech contains some of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry. The transformation of Richard from callous sovereign to thoughtful philosopher is now complete; Shakespeare eloquently captures the soul of the deposed monarch. At first, Richard dwells upon the idea of birth and regeneration: “My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul; My soul the father, and these two beget/ A generation of still-breeding thoughts/ And these same thoughts people this little world” (6-9). Significantly, he does not compare his life in prison to his former trappings of royalty, but rather to the world at large.

Richard understands that there is no escape from his confinement, and he becomes reflective as he realizes that others have suffered personal misfortune; he finds “a kind of ease” in thoughts of “such as have before endured the like” (30). In Act III, Scene 2, he had revelled in placing himself among the ranks of deposed and murdered kings; here, he identifies with the common people, specifically beggars in the stocks, thus recalling Bolingbroke’s reference to “The Beggar and the King” in the previous scene, but in a more serious context.

We are again greeted by a theatrical analogy when Richard comments, “Thus play I in one person many people,/ And none contented” (31-32). At times, his thoughts have drifted to his years on the throne, and to his deposition. However, he adds that “whate’er I be/ Nor I, nor any man that but man is,/ With nothing shall he be pleased, till he be eased/ With being nothing” (38-41). Only death, he laments, will bring an end to his pain. Ironically, his own death is soon to come.

The music, perhaps intended specifically for the former King’s pleasure, instead reminds him of “How sour sweet music is/ When time is broke, and no proportion kept” (42-43). When Richard comments, “I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me” (49) it recalls the Gardener’s earlier reference to a king whom “waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down” (III, iv, 66). He is now aware that his situation is a direct consequence of his earlier actions. His mention of “sighs, and tears, and groans” evokes his similar references in his parting with the Queen (V, i, 89). He has gained self-knowledge through experience, yet inner peace has still eluded him.

The concern of the groom for his former sovereign is a poignant reminder that Bolingbroke, though popular with the common people, has not captured every heart. Richard’s wry humor in hailing the groom as a “gentle peer” and his subsequent exchange with the servant who in better times dressed his horses are further reminders of his sadly reduced situation. Both Richard and the groom seem aware that the meal the keeper bears may be Richard’s last—an ominous foreshadowing of subsequent events.

When Richard, furious at his keeper’s deadly mission, attacks him violently, he finally behaves as his wife had urged him to do in Act V, Scene 1: “The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw/ And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage/ To be o’erpow’red.” (29-31) He continues in this vein after the entry of Exton and his assassins, fighting furiously with those who have come to end his life. His valiant struggles at the end prompt the admiration even of his murderer, who expresses sincere remorse: “O, would the deed were good!” (114).

Act V, Scene 6
At Windsor Castle, Bolingbroke and the Duke of York, along with noblemen and attendants, enter to a flourish of trumpets. Bolingbroke tells York that “the rebels have consumed with fire” a town in Gloucestershire, though he is unaware of whether the conspirators who plotted against his life have been captured or executed. The Earl of Northumberland enters and announces that four of the conspirators have been beheaded. Lord Fitzwater arrives soon afterward with the news that two more conspirators have been slain, then Harry Percy enters with the Bishop of Carlisle and announces that the “grand conspirator,” the Abbot of Westminster, “With clog of conscience and sour melancholy,/ Hath yielded up his body to the grave” (20-21). Percy urges the King to pronounce a harsh sentence on the Bishop of Carlisle. Yet Bolingbroke mercifully sentences the Bishop to exile in a remote religious retreat where he might live out his days in peace. He comments: “For though mine enemy thou hast ever been,/ High sparks of honor in thee have I seen” (28-29).

Sir Pierce of Exton enters with attendants bearing the coffin of King Richard: “Great King, within this coffin I present/ Thy buried fear” (30-31). Bolingbroke tells him, “Exton, I thank thee not,” for Exton has “wrought/ A deed of slander …/ Upon my head and all this famous land” (34-36). Exton protests that he killed Richard because the King wanted him dead. But Bolingbroke replies, “though I did wish him dead,/ I hate the murderer, love the murderèd./ The guilt of conscience take thee for thy labor./ …With Cain go wander through shades of night,/ And never show thy head by day nor light” (39-44). Exton exits, and Bolingbroke confesses, “Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,/ That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow” (45-46). He decrees that his courtiers are to dress in mourning for King Richard, and he resolves to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for Richard’s death.

At the beginning of this scene we learn that the conspiracy against the King’s life in which Aumerle had initially taken part has been suppressed. Bolingbroke’s sentencing of the Bishop of Carlisle, one of the principal conspirators, to a life of banishment at a religious retreat is surprising, yet it has been foreshadowed by the earlier pardon of Aumerle. His mercy toward Carlisle, like his similar actions toward Aumerle and Mowbray, elevate his character. These acts of magnanimity, which frame the murder of King Richard, seem illogical, yet Bolingbroke, a canny politician, doubtless realized that he could grant amnesty to the former conspirators without endangering his life or his claim to the throne. Richard’s death, on the other hand, was politically expedient. A living deposed king would have been a threat to the new king’s security; once dead, Richard could never be the rallying point for a rebellion against the crown.

Bolingbroke’s repudiation of Sir Pierce of Exton seems hypocritical, for he had indeed expressed the wish that Richard should be killed. But he doubtless realized that distancing himself from the former king’s murderer was a matter of necessity. His actions thus echo King Richard’s similar renunciation of Mowbray in Act I, Scene 3. Significantly, Bolingbroke condemns Exton to endless wandering like the Biblical Cain. In Act I, Scene 1, he had accused Richard indirectly of shedding the blood of a kinsman as Cain slew Abel; as Bolingbroke realizes, he is now guilty of a similar crime.

Unlike his predecessor, however, Bolingbroke feels a genuine sense of remorse at a kinsman’s murder, and he is sincere in his hope that a religious pilgrimage will in part atone for his deed. Appropriately, the play concludes with images of blood and tears as the new king proclaims: “I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land/ To wash this blood off from my guilty hand./ March sadly after; grace my mournings here,/ In weeping after this untimely bier” (49-52).

At the end of the play, King Henry IV is seated firmly upon the throne; Richard is dead and without heirs, and the recent conspiracies against the life of the new monarch have been thwarted. Yet all is not well in England: King Henry has solidified his claim to the crown yet he bears the burden of an uneasy conscience. And as we know from the play’s many prophecies, civil war and bloodshed will continue for years to come.

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Act IV Summary and Analysis