King Richard II opens the play by asking old John of Gaunt if he has brought John's son, Henry Bolingbroke, to substantiate charges of treason that he has made against Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. After asking Gaunt if he has already questioned his son on the matter, Richard asks that the two men be brought before him; Richard greets them formally, and then he asks Henry Bolingbroke to clarify his case against Mowbray. Bolingbroke charges Mowbray with being a "traitor and a miscreant," but before he can finish speaking, Mowbray breaks in and offers a counter-accusation: "I do defy him and I spit at him, / Call him a slanderous coward and a villain." Mowbray suggests that they settle their quarrel by dueling at Coventry, and Bolingbroke throws down his glove as a symbol of his counter-challenge according to the rites of knighthood. After Mowbray retrieves the glove and accepts the challenge, the king asks Bolingbroke to explain his accusation against Mowbray. Bolingbroke levels the charges: "All the treasons of these eighteen years" have their origin in Mowbray; he did plot the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. Mowbray responds that he committed one grave sin in the past — laying an ambush for old Gaunt's life, but he has since repented it. He denies killing Gloucester. The king tries to calm them both with the words "Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed," and he appeals to old Gaunt for help in the matter. Gaunt cannot decide what to do, and so he exits. Meanwhile, Mowbray refuses to withdraw the challenge. "The purest treasure," he says, that "mortal times afford / Is spotless reputation." Therefore, he tells Richard, the king can command his life, but not his shame; Bolingbroke's reply is similar: "Shall I seem crestfallen in my father's sight?" Richard seemingly cannot determine which of the men is lying and, therefore, refuses to arbitrate any longer; he orders that the duel shall take place at Coventry on Saint Lambert's Day (September 17): "There shall your swords and lances arbitrate."
Scene 2 takes place at the London palace of John of Gaunt; old Gaunt is talking to the Duchess of Gloucester, who is paying him a visit. The duchess is very upset; she wants revenge and she hopes that old Gaunt will see to it that revenge is exacted because Gloucester, her husband, was Gaunt's brother. Gaunt advises his sister-in-law that they can't do anything against the "butchers of [Gloucester's] life." They had best leave the "quarrel to the will of Heaven." The duchess is shocked at Gaunt's apparent lack of will to take vengeance for her "dear lord." Her husband's blood was Gaunt's own blood, she emphasizes. Likewise, she tells Gaunt that her murdered husband and Gaunt shared the same womb, but Gaunt refuses to submit to her tactics. The duchess, however, continues; she argues that "to safeguard thine own life / The best way is to venge my Gloucester's death." Gaunt explains that his hands are tied; the king, "God's deputy," caused the murder, hence revenge must be left to heaven. One cannot defy God's appointed deputy in England, he insists. The duchess appears to acquiesce and bids Gaunt goodbye. She hopes that at least right will triumph when Bolingbroke and Mowbray fight at Coventry, and that Bolingbroke's spear "may enter butcher Mowbray's breast!" Weeping, she bids Gaunt farewell.
Richard and his knights arrive at Coventry, on a field prepared for single combat, and enter to the sound of trumpets. Then Mowbray enters with a herald. The king bids the Marshal to "demand of yonder champion" the cause of the present quarrel. After Mowbray is asked the cause of his being here, he repeats his case, promising to prove himself true and, furthermore, promising to prove Bolingbroke "a traitor to my God, my King, and me." Trumpets are heard again, and Bolingbroke, armed like his counterpart, enters the scene. Richard asks the Marshal once again to inquire the cause of complaint. The Marshal does so, and Bolingbroke repeats his previous accusation: Mowbray is a traitor, "foul and dangerous." Bolingbroke then asks permission to bid farewell to the king by kissing his ring. The king acknowledges the request and descends from his seat to "fold him in our arms." Richard states that despite whose blood will be shed, no revenge will be taken.
Bolingbroke then takes leave of the king, his kinsmen, his followers, and finally his father. He bids them to shed no tears and promises to perform valiantly for his father's sake. His father, in turn, bids him to "be swift like lightning" in the fight.
Mowbray then has his turn to bid farewell to the king, claiming to be a "loyal, just, and upright gentleman" who will fight without boasting about it. "As gentle and as jocund as to jest / Go I to fight," he says, for "truth hath a quiet breast."
Before the fight begins, however, King Richard throws his baton to the ground as a signal to halt the proceedings. "Let them lay by their helmets and their spears," he says "and both return to their chairs again." Richard explains that he does not wish to see blood spilled by his countrymen, as in civil war, and therefore will banish the two contestants from England. Bolingbroke is not to return for ten years, while Mowbray is banished for life. The two men accept their sentences gracefully, though Mowbray, who is never to return, expresses a deep sadness that he will not be able to speak the English language again; he feels condemned to a "speechless death."
As the two turn to leave, Richard stops them and makes them lay their hands on his royal sword and promise never to come into contact with one another again nor to engage in any treasonous act; never are they "to plot, contrive, or complot any ill." Both swear accordingly, but Bolingbroke has a parting word with Mowbray; he asks him — now that he is banished and free from other punishment — to confess the crime against the state that he has committed. Mowbray replies that he'd rather be "from heaven banished" than admit to such a thing. He exits then.
Richard turns to Gaunt and immediately reduces old Gaunt's son's sentence from ten years to six years because Gaunt's old eyes betray a "grieved heart." Bolingbroke gratefully accepts the commutation of his sentence and muses on the ease with which Richard can change the course of another man's life: "Such is the breath of kings." Gaunt also thanks the king but remains saddened because he is an old man who may not live the six years before his son returns. When the king cheerfully reminds him that he is in good health and will live many more years, Gaunt stops him short by saying that even the king "cannot buy my breath." The king questions Gaunt, wondering why he did not defend his son more vehemently. Gaunt replies that he was urged to speak as a judge and not to argue "like a father." His duty to the judgment process forced him to remain as objective as possible, and now he must suffer privately for it.
In the last minutes of Scene 3, Bolingbroke and his father take leave of each other. Gaunt tries to cheer up his son by saying that it won't be too long before he returns and that if he keeps his mind on other things, the time of exile will pass quickly. Bolingbroke, however, asks:
who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat? (294-99)
He departs, swearing that wherever he wanders, he can at least boast that "though banished, [he is] yet a trueborn Englishman."
Scene 4 opens shortly after the last. Richard is subtly trying to test the loyalty of Aumerle, the son of the Duke of York, and, at the same time, to find out from him what Bolingbroke said on his departure, for Aumerle escorted Bolingbroke away. Aumerle says that Bolingbroke said only "Farewell." Clearly, he does not like Bolingbroke and did not enjoy escorting him away, feigning feelings of fond farewell. Richard does not want to seem villainous, and so he reminds Aumerle that Bolingbroke is "our cousin." He then explores another avenue of conversation; he says that he has had certain of his men — Bushy, Bagot, and Green — observing the country people, and they report that the banished Bolingbroke is popular among the commoners. He ponders,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles. (25-28)
To Richard, it seems "as were our England in reversion his."
Green then speaks up and reminds Richard that, at least, Bolingbroke is out of the way; now they must turn their attention to the pressing problem of the Irish rebellion. Richard decides to go into battle himself against the rebels, and he plans to do so with the greatest assurance of success. To that end, he decides that he must first fill his coffers with riches borrowed from (and demanded from) his country's nobles. At that point, Bushy rushes in with the news that Gaunt is extremely ill, probably dying. Richard wishes the old man "good speed" (to death). In fact, his comment is quite mercenary:
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars. (61-62)
They all exit then to go to Gaunt's bedside.
As is the case with Shakespeare's other history plays, this play has as its central concern a civil strife that threatens a country with a weak government. Thus, Richard II opens with a scene that graphically illustrates the point: Two nobles are locked in bitter argument over who is most loyal to the crown, and the only logical outcome would seem to be a physical struggle, even to the death. The best that the king can do is agree to let them fight.
The character of old Gaunt is important here because he is referred to several times as an "old" man and is therefore supposed to be a "sage" man. Richard appeals to Gaunt to help settle the argument but with no success; neither the ruler nor he who possesses the wisdom of age can calm the troubled waters in Scene 1; only a decision based on formal violence will decide the issue.
Note in particular the chivalric atmosphere of Scene 1. When the challengers speak to the king and to each other, they use a very formal style of address. For example, Bolingbroke first speaks to his king:
In the devotion of a subject's love,
Tend'ring the precious safety of my prince,
And free from other misbegotten hate,
Come I appellant to this princely presence. (31-34)
And Mowbray, when he accepts the challenge, also speaks in a formal manner:
I take it up; and by that sword I swear
Which gently laid my knighthood on my shoulder,
I'll answer then in any fair degree
Or chivalrous design of knightly trial. (78-81)
The formal speech patterns and the chivalric code of behavior in Scene 1 act as metaphors for order and control. These men are preparing to kill each other, but they are going about it in a gentlemanly way. Such formal patterns exist, according to Shakespeare's orthodox belief, in the world of government too. There is always an attempt — even when it becomes a struggle — to keep the most violent passions regulated within a pattern.
Speaking of formal patterns, we must not ignore the real passion and invective in some of the remarks that the opponents hurl at each other. Take, for example, Bolingbroke's promise to tear out his own tongue and "spit it bleeding" in Mowbray's face rather than withdraw from the fight. This is naked, unbridled passion. But it is spoken within the formal context of a verbal tournament, preluding the tournament at Coventry. And, in reference to passion, there is an important, implicit clue as to the murderer of Gloucester. Mowbray has indeed had a hand in killing him (and that's what Bolingbroke accuses him of), but Mowbray did it at Richard's request. When Bolingbroke utters the words "the death," Mowbray says, "I slew him not; but, to my own disgrace / Neglected my sworn duty in that case." Mowbray swore, without a doubt, to Richard to see to it that Gloucester was either killed by his hand or by Mowbray's order.
One more matter that should not be neglected in any discussion of language in Scene 1 includes the fact that the language, besides being mostly chivalrous and formal, suggests a religious theme in several places: Such words as "miscreant," "innocent souls," "rites of knighthood," and "our sacred blood" occur frequently. This language will be of even more importance later in the play.
Shakespeare's plays were written for performance without any breaks between the scenes or the acts. The flow of the scenes, their placement, and the effect that was created by contrasting elements in the scene constitutes his chief technical resource. In Scene 1, for example, Richard tries to arbitrate a dispute between two peers of his realm. The issue is one of state — loyalty to the king — and also a personal matter of honor between two men of arms. The tone of the opening scene tells us that something is wrong in the state of England. Scene 2, appropriately, personalizes this wrongness, this grief, by showing us a woman lamenting aloud both the loss of her husband and the fact that she is likely not to see proper vengeance done. That she is suffering personally is certain, and her confusion is clear in her last speech, for she finds it difficult to say farewell to old Gaunt:
Commend me to thy brother, Edmund York.
Lo! this is all: nay, yet depart not so;
Though this be all, do not so quickly go.
I shall remember more. Bid him . . . Ah! What?
With all good speed at Plashy visit me. (62-65)
The phrasing — "Lo! . . . nay, yet depart not. . . . Bid him . . . Ah! What?" — tells more about her distraught state of mind than the words themselves.
At the beginning of Scene 2, when the duchess tries to play on Gaunt's feelings for his murdered brother, her language echoes Christian and biblical phrases. She refers to the patriarch:
Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one,
Were as seven vials of his sacred blood,
Or seven fair branches springing from one root. (11-13)
As she continues, her emotion wells up:
But Thomas, my dear lord, my life, my Gloucester,
One vial full of Edward's sacred blood . . .. . . is hacked down.
Ah! Gaunt, his blood was thine! (16-22)
The effect of this speech is to reinforce her feelings of loss by emphasizing the "sacredness" of their common father's blood. The irony, and a serious religious and political problem for Shakespeare's age, is that another father-figure, one who is also "sacred," is Richard II, the king, and he has had a hand in perpetrating the crime. Gaunt has relatively few lines in this scene, and for good reason. He, like others around him, feels impotent before this impossible dilemma. This old and sage Gaunt, in his helplessness in the face of personal and public grief, is an important early theatrical image in the play. He can only lamely repeat the formula:
God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death. (37-39)
Notice the progression of Scene 3. It begins as a highly formal, almost ritualistic display in the chivalric tradition. The accused and the accusing parties are announced; they state their cases, make their farewells, and prepare to fight. It ends with a father and a son, Gaunt and Bolingbroke, saying goodbye for six years, or, considering Gaunt's age, maybe for the last time in their lives. The scene moves from the affairs of state in a public ceremony to the intimate details of personal, familial relationships. That very pattern, you will recall, was the pattern of Scenes 1 and 2. Here it is repeated with continuous focus on the principals in the drama.
When Richard pronounces the words "orderly proceed" at the start of Scene 3, he is, of course, sounding the keynote to all of Shakespeare's history plays again. The ritual of this hand-to-hand combat, though it is enacted to resolve a passionate dispute and may end in bloodshed, will be carried out according to mutually acknowledged rules. One must imagine the start of this scene as being filled with suggestions of the spectacle of a medieval tournament. Representatives of the opposing camps march in, present themselves to the king, speak their pieces, and take up positions on an elaborate stage tableau. The picture onstage and the accompanying regular trumpet blasts are clear metaphors for a kind of order. And at the center of this ordered world is, of course, King Richard, who is stationed upstage to observe the proceedings. When he descends from his raised platform (which was traditional) and walks downstage to stop the proceedings later in the scene, he travels quite a distance (the depth of Shakespeare's stage was about 25 feet), reinforcing his pivotal place on the stage and in the political picture.
The language of Bolingbroke, describing himself and Mowbray as two men who "vow [to take] a long and weary pilgrimage," continues the religious imagery that is germane to the subject of this play. Bolingbroke wants to take a long farewell with his father because it may be their last farewell. But before he launches into his private farewell, he is embraced by the king, a poignant moment when one considers the scene later in the play when the two of them meet again — when Richard renounces his throne to Bolingbroke. Richard hands him the crown then. Here, the father of the nation, as it were, embraces one of his "sons"; later, that "son" will depose him. Bolingbroke bids farewell to his faithful followers, then to his actual father, Gaunt.
Notice, too, the way that Shakespeare contrasts the characters of these opponents by suggesting a difference in their bearing in these scenes. When they first encountered one another in the first scene of this act, Mowbray made a point of contrasting his own response to the situation with Bolingbroke's. Implicitly, he is claiming that Bolingbroke is somewhat hot-headed and, therefore, less creditable than himself. There he said:
Let not my cold words here accuse my zeal.
'Tis not the trial of a woman's war,
The bitter clamour of two eager tongues,
Can arbitrate this cause betwixt us twain;
The blood is hot that must be cooled for this. (I. i. 47-51)
He has apparently listened to Bolingbroke's enraged words and has decided to respond with a posture of perfect reasonableness. In Scene 3, he strikes the same theme when he says, "Truth hath a quiet breast." The reason for this relatively calm bearing might be his quiet confidence that the king is on his side, and, therefore, he shall come to no harm. Whatever the reason, the posture of one combatant being more feverish than the other is important for dramatic reasons. Besides adding variety in characterization, this contrast prepares for a similar contrast later during the deposition scene (IV. i.). Notice there how quietly Bolingbroke endures the lengthy diatribes of King Richard II.
An important dramatic facet in Scene 3 is Richard's decision to stop the combat and to exile the opponents. All of the spectacle and verbal exchange in the scene is leading up to a violent combat that never takes place. Why does Shakespeare have Richard stop the fight? For one thing, Richard is, in fact, indebted to Mowbray for being instrumental in eliminating a potential enemy (Gloucester). For another, to allow the combat to go forward and risk the life of the apparently popular Bolingbroke would be a poor political move. It seems best to appear the wise and kind ruler by preventing any civil bloodshed at all. Notice that Richard also manages to banish Mowbray, the one who has evidence against him, for life, while commuting the sentence of Bolingbroke from ten years to six years, further mollifying his potential political opponents. Rulers in Shakespeare's age would have been familiar with Machiavelli's famous Prince, a popular and rather cynical manual for rulers, and would have known that it is always wiser to appear harsher at first, making severe punishments all at once, and then to soften one's stance with mercy. The mercy, however, is not received quite as Richard had expected, and this irritates him.
There is a serious undertone of antagonism between Richard, on the one hand, and Gaunt and his son, on the other. Richard knows very well what he is doing in commuting the sentence as he does, and he is hoping that Gaunt will receive this lordly gesture appropriately. When Gaunt takes up his son's cue on the words "such is the breath of kings" and tells the king that though he can easily send a man into exile or even cut a man's life short, he still does not have the power to add one minute to a man's life, he is raising a very sensitive issue and one very important to a central theme of this play. In a play in which the deposition of God's appointed minister, the king, is a central action, it is a highly charged dramatic moment when the matter of the limitation of the power of the king is raised. None of this by-play is openly acknowledged by the speakers, but their words are certainly spoken with an awareness of all connotations. What Gaunt is saying, in effect, is that although Richard may be God's anointed and appointed deputy, he is certainly not God Himself. One wonders if the conversation that he had with his sister-in-law in the previous scene, coupled with the present sorrow of saying goodbye to his son, has given him some of the courage that the Duchess of Gloucester found wanting. That Gaunt's remarks have the desired effect on Richard is clear from the way in which the king exits, with two clipped lines reiterating the sentence just meted out:
Cousin, farewell, and uncle bid him so;
Six years we banish him, and he shall go. (247-48)
The last moments of Scene 3 are especially important for their emotional tone. There is speed in the delivery of the lines between Gaunt and his son, Bolingbroke, that belies the feelings underneath. Bolingbroke is silent at first, until his father urges him to speak.
Gaunt: O, to what purpose dost thou hoard thy words,
That thou return'st no greeting to thy friends?
Bolingbroke: I have too few to take my leave of you,
When the tongue's office should be prodigal
To breathe the abundant dolour of the heart.
Gaunt: Thy grief is but thy absence for a time.
Bolingbroke: Joy absent, grief is present for that time.
Gaunt: What is six winters? They are quickly gone.
Bolingbroke: To men in joy; but grief makes one hour ten.
Gaunt: Call it a travel that thou tak'st for pleasure. (255-64)
This seems a very genuine scene, psychologically. Gaunt's distress is shown by the fact that he is using "arguments" to make his son feel better, which he had, just a few minutes before, rebuked the king for using — that is, that the exile really won't be so long, that it really is only a temporary absence. In addition, it is as if the rush of words they exchange is a way of covering up feelings they would rather not have to cope with. There is an irony in the remark that Gaunt makes to his son, telling him that his absence will serve as a foil to his coming home and make the coming home that much more joyous. In a way, this is true, for Bolingbroke's return will eventually lead to his becoming king, albeit reluctantly. His return will seem greater because of the absence. Also, Richard's behavior, by comparison, will make Bolingbroke seem greater. Interestingly, this metaphor of a foil carries on into the Henry IV plays. There, we find Bolingbroke an older and a wearier man, now the king himself, having to deal with a recalcitrant son, Prince Hal. Throughout the play, Hal's escapades with the lower orders of society are described in such a way that they can be seen as setting his "true" (princely) self off as a jewel is set off by the less precious metal leaf which serves as backing for it in a setting.
There is superb humaneness in old Gaunt as he gives his son some conventional fatherly advice at the end of Scene 3. He is trying to be perfectly reasonable and allay his son's fears: Don't think that the king has banished you, but rather think that you have banished the king; try to think that a foul pestilence sits in the land and you are better off out of the country. In a sense, there is a truth in this, in that there is a less-than-perfect king on the throne, but Bolingbroke can answer only from his heart, and none of his father's arguments makes him feel any better. Who can "wallow naked in December snow / By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?" he asks. The reality of banishment will be so painful that he won't be able to delude himself for a minute into believing otherwise. At the very last, however, Bolingbroke exits with an important, manly, and patriotic flourish:
Where'er I wander, boast of this I can,
Though banish'd, yet a trueborn Englishman. (308-309)
These, undoubtedly, are the words of a hero.
In Scene 4, we see Richard in close-ups; he is a man who is accustomed to exploiting his countrymen, and in this scene he is a marked contrast to the "true-born Englishman" who bade us farewell in the previous scene. Shakespeare shows Richard quite openly preparing to take his country's wealth to spend on a foreign war and also hoping for an early death for the venerable old Gaunt. This is rather bold characterization, somewhat melodramatic, and more typical of Shakespeare's early plays than his later ones. There is no question at this point where an audience's sympathies lie.
Note also the character of Aumerle in this scene. He is a young man, the son of the Duke of York, and naturally enough he shows loyalty to his king. He is proud of having successfully feigned grief at Bolingbroke's departure, and he happily joins Bagot and Green at the king's side. Shakespeare will later sound this note of feigned grief when Richard gives up the crown. There, it will be Bolingbroke who sarcastically commends Richard for putting on a good show of suffering. The matter of loyalty to the king is important with regard to Aumerle because of his actions later in the play when he is chided by his father for behavior disloyal to the new king, Bolingbroke. In the end, of course, Bolingbroke pardons Aumerle, but that pardon will seem all the more magnanimous because of the memory of this early scene in which Aumerle is quite clearly a loyal ally of Richard's and a foe of Bolingbroke's.
Consider the dramatic effect when Richard sarcastically bids his followers to come with him to the dying Gaunt's bedside: "Come, gentlemen, let's all go visit him; / Pray God we may make haste and come too late!" And they reply, to a man: "Amen!" The contrast with the closing of the previous scene is a powerful one.