49 pages 1 hour read

William Shakespeare

Richard II

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1597

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Summary and Study Guide


The Tragedy of King Richard II is a play by William Shakespeare. It was probably first performed in 1595, and published in 1597. The play covers the last two years of Richard II’s life, from 1398 to 1400, during which he was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV in 1399. The play explores Richard’s growing unpopularity and ineffective leadership, leading to his overthrow by Bolingbroke, who not only has a taste for power but, unlike Richard, also has the steadiness of character and purpose to wield it effectively. As Richard loses his crown, he reveals a capacity for self-reflection that infuses his downfall with a sense of pathos, raising questions about The Impact of Corruption and Opportunism, The Problem of Order and Legitimacy, and The Crisis of Identity.

Richard II is the first of a series of four plays known collectively as “the Henriad,” which cover the period 1398-1420 in English history. In addition to Richard II, these plays are Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V.

This guide uses the 1978 reprint of Richard II in the Arden Shakespeare edition, edited by Peter Ure.

Plot Summary

Richard II begins in 1398, about a year and a half before the king is overthrown. In Act I, Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford, accuses Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of treason. Richard is neutral in the conflict and tries to get them to reconcile, but he fails, and he sets a date for their trial by combat. In Scene 2, the Duchess of Gloucester urges John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, to avenge the murder of her husband the Duke of Gloucester, but Gaunt refuses to do so.

In the next scene, as the trial is about to take place, Richard stops it. He exiles Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for 10 years, although he reduces that to six years. Among his own followers, Richard indicates he is aware of Bolingbroke’s popularity with the common people, suggesting he may have some reason to be wary of him. Then Richard says he will go to Ireland to lead the war there, for which he will raise money by imposing taxes on the citizens.

In Act II, Scene 1, Gaunt is dying. He gives a speech in praise of England and condemns how Richard’s foolish, exploitative policies are tarnishing it. He speaks bluntly to the king and accuses him of causing the death of Gloucester. Richard responds with hostility. When Gaunt dies, Richard seizes his wealth and property to fund the Irish wars, thus also denying Bolingbroke his rightful inheritance. This sets in motion the events that will soon cost Richard his crown.

Meanwhile, Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby sympathize with Bolingbroke and are dismayed by Richard’s misguided policies. When Northumberland finds out that Bolingbroke is returning to England, the three of them decide to join him. In Scene 2, Richard’s loyalists, Bushy and Greene, feel threatened by Bolingbroke’s return and take refuge at Bristol castle. York is confused, but for the moment stays loyal to the king. In Scene 3, Northumberland and Bolingbroke meet in Gloucestershire, and they are joined by York, who demands to know why Bolingbroke has returned from exile. Bolingbroke says he has come only to reclaim his rights as Duke of Lancaster. York has no power to oppose him and decides to remain neutral. In the final scene, the Welsh forces that had been awaiting the return of Richard from Ireland disperse, thinking the king must be dead. Richard’s position is thus rapidly getting weaker.

In Act III, Scene 1, Bolingbroke arrests Bushy and Greene and sentences them to death. In Scene 2, Richard, York’s son Aumerle and the Bishop of Carlisle are in Barkloughly, in Wales. Richard expects to defeat the rebellion but, as thousands defect from his cause (including York), Richard sinks into despair. He discharges what forces he has left and goes to Flint Castle, realizing that his reign is all but over.

In Scene 3, outside the castle, Bolingbroke promises Richard his allegiance if his banishment is repealed and his lands restored. He says nothing of any ambition to win the crown. Richard, however, is defiant. He warns Bolingbroke that he is committing treason and the result will be war, but after Northumberland repeats that Bolingbroke comes only for his properties and title, Richard says he will meet these demands. He is aware that this will also involve being deposed and that he will be taken as a prisoner to London, which Bolingbroke tacitly acknowledges. In the final scene, in the Duke of York’s garden, Richard’s queen overhears the gardeners talking about the overthrow of her husband.

Act IV takes place at a session of Parliament at Westminster Hall in London. After various charges and countercharges regarding who was responsible for the murder of Gloucester, York announces that Richard is ready to give up the crown. Bolingbroke says he will take Richard’s place. The Bishop of Carlisle accuses him of treason and says civil war will result. He is immediately arrested. Richard enters and engages in a dialogue with Bolingbroke in which he commands attention as he renounces his kingship. Although he still insists that it is a sin to depose a king, he nonetheless agrees to abdicate. After examining his face in a mirror, he throws the mirror to the ground, smashing it, as a dramatic illustration of how the king has been destroyed. Bolingbroke orders that Richard be sent to the Tower of London; he also announces his coronation for the following week. After the nobles exit, the Abbot of Westminster indicates to Carlisle and Aumerle that he is plotting a rebellion, and he invites them to join it.

In Act V, Scene 1, in a London street, Northumberland tells Richard that he is to be taken to Pomfret in Yorkshire, not the Tower. Richard and his wife bid each other a fond farewell. At the Duke of York’s house, the duke discovers that Aumerle, his son, is part of the plot against the new king. He denounces Aumerle as a traitor and goes to warn the king, while his wife urges Aumerle to seek a pardon. In Scene 3, Aumerle arrives at Windsor Castle and begs a pardon from the king, but York urges Bolingbroke to punish his son. The Duchess of York enters and begs the king for mercy, and Bolingbroke agrees to pardon Aumerle, but the other conspirators will be executed.

In Scene 4, Sir Pierce Exton believes that the king wants Richard killed. He resolves to go to Pomfret and do the job. In Scene 5, Richard is imprisoned alone in Pomfret Castle. In a soliloquy, he tries to become reconciled to his situation and goes through many different emotions about it. A groom tells him about how Bolingbroke rode Richard’s horse, Barbary, on his coronation day. A gaoler enters and then the murderers rush in. Exton kills Richard. In Scene 6, King Henry IV receives news that the rebellion has been put down. Exton enters with Richard’s coffin, but Henry offers him no praise or thanks. Instead, he mourns Richard’s death and plans a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to assuage his own guilt.

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