Richard II By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act III

Summary

Bolingbroke makes his first public, political act. Standing before the castle of Bristol, he passes sentence on Bushy and Green. (Bagot went to Ireland.) He gives a long account of the men's wrongs, including the charges that they "misled a prince, a royal king . . . [and] made a divorce between his queen and him." Furthermore, they seized Bolingbroke's lands, ruined his parks, and removed the coat of arms from his property, and, finally, they unjustly urged Bolingbroke's exile. Bolingbroke has had to live in a land not his own, where he "sighed [his] English breath in foreign clouds, / Eating the bitter bread of banishment." Bolingbroke has not proclaimed himself king, but his actions are very much like those of a king, and the lords present all recognize his authority. He orders the execution of Bushy and Green forthwith. But before the two men allow themselves to be led proudly away, believing their cause to be just, Bushy defiantly proclaims that "more welcome is the stroke of death to me / Than Bolingbroke to England." Green adds that he is confident that "heaven will take our souls."

Summary

Bolingbroke makes his first public, political act. Standing before the castle of Bristol, he passes sentence on Bushy and Green. (Bagot went to Ireland.) He gives a long account of the men's wrongs, including the charges that they "misled a prince, a royal king . . . [and] made a divorce between his queen and him." Furthermore, they seized Bolingbroke's lands, ruined his parks, and removed the coat of arms from his property, and, finally, they unjustly urged Bolingbroke's exile. Bolingbroke has had to live in a land not his own, where he "sighed [his] English breath in foreign clouds, / Eating the bitter bread of banishment." Bolingbroke has not proclaimed himself king, but his actions are very much like those of a king, and the lords present all recognize his authority. He orders the execution of Bushy and Green forthwith. But before the two men allow themselves to be led proudly away, believing their cause to be just, Bushy defiantly proclaims that "more welcome is the stroke of death to me / Than Bolingbroke to England." Green adds that he is confident that "heaven will take our souls."

Bolingbroke then turns to the Duke of York and asks him to see that the queen is looked after and kindly commended. York assures him that he has already dispatched a messenger to her. Bolingbroke then announces that he will set out for Wales, where the king has joined Glendower.

Bolingbroke was right; Richard has indeed landed back in Wales and is now at Carlisle with his army. He is joyous to be back in his native country again, especially after a difficult crossing of the Irish Sea. He weeps for joy and is convinced that his presence will be enough to deter the rebel forces. In a highly emotional soliloquy, he declares,

Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs.
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So, weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favours with my royal hands. (6-11)

He bids the land itself rear up and attack Bolingbroke and his men, but the Bishop of Carlisle wisely suggests that they do something more practical than prattle. "The Power that made you king," he says, will "keep you king in spite of all"; he admonishes that "the means that heavens yield must be embraced / And not neglected." Aumerle, York's son, agrees "that we are too remiss / Whilst Bolingbroke, through our security / Grows strong and great in substance and in power." Richard does not catch their meaning, how-ever, and reiterates his faith that "The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord."

Salisbury enters with the bad news that the Welsh army, believing that the king was slain, disbanded. He says that Richard stayed too long in Ireland; had he returned only a day earlier, Salisbury could have brought him an army of twelve thousand Welshmen. Hearing this, the king falls into despair. "Time hath set a blot upon my pride," he moans; Aumerle turns and reminds him that he should carry himself like a king. Recovering his poise, Richard proclaims confidence in York: The crown will be preserved.

Scroop, a loyal follower of Richard, comes on the scene with yet worse news. He announces that the entire British nation, including women, old men, beardless boys, and clergymen, has risen up in arms against the king. He also tells the king that Bushy and Green have made their peace with Bolingbroke, but before he can explain what he means, Richard launches into an attack on his fickle friends. (Of course, what actually happened was that those who were captured were executed, but Scroop is unable to reveal this to the king until Richard's tirade is over.)

Aumerle asks a very practical question: "Where is the Duke my father?" York, remember, had been left in charge of the kingdom. The king ignores Aumerle, however, and launches into an extended monologue about the sad fate of kings in this transitory world: For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings. (155-56)

Carlisle then begs Richard not to be so morbidly self-absorbed but to put his fear of the foe to good use in opposing him. Richard accepts this chiding and says that he has already taken control of himself: "This ague fit of fear is over-blown / An easy task it is to win our own." Richard's mood, however, is reversed when Scroop continues his report with the information that the Duke of York has joined the rebels who are backing Bolingbroke. Richard plunges once again into despair, and Aumerle is unsuccessful in coaxing him out of it. As the scene ends, Richard says darkly that he will go to "Flint Castle; there I'll pine away." He orders his officers to send their troops home.

Bolingbroke's forces have marched the hundred miles from Bristol to Flint Castle on the northeastern coast of Wales when Scene 3 opens. Now Bolingbroke stands before the castle with York, Northumberland, and their attendants. He has sent Northumberland's son Henry Percy into the castle. When Percy returns, he announces that Richard is inside, along with Aumerle, Lord Salisbury, Scroop, and the Bishop of Carlisle. Bolingbroke instructs his lords to deliver a message to Richard that Henry wishes to speak to him. "On both his knees," he instructs them to tell Richard, he will lay his "arms and power, / Provided that [his] banishment [be] repealed, / And lands restored again be freely granted."

First Bolingbroke, and then York, notices Richard on the castle wall, and both of them describe his majesty. Bolingbroke sees "the blushing discontented sun" peeking out from "envious clouds"; York urges Bolingbroke to notice Richard closely. To York, Richard still "looks . . . like a king! Behold his eye, / As bright as is the eagle's."

Richard speaks first to Northumberland and upbraids him for not showing the requisite courtesy of bending his knee to the king. He wonders if some act of God has dismissed him from his "stewardship." He further instructs Northumberland to tell Bolingbroke that his very presence on English soil is in defiance of the king's express command and that it is, therefore, treasonous. He accuses Bolingbroke of instigating "the purple testament" of civil war, and he warns him that "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." Northumberland tries to soothe Richard's ire, and he tells him that it is not Bolingbroke's intention to use force in any way: "His coming hither hath no further scope / Than for his lineal royalties." Richard answers that "all the number of his fair demands / Shall be accomplished without contradiction." He then turns to Aumerle in shame and wonders aloud if he should send back a defiant answer to Bolingbroke instead. Aumerle advises him to remain calm, that they would do better to give themselves time to find allies before attempting a fight. Richard then cries out in agony, "O that I were as great! /As is my grief, or lesser than my name!" When he hears that he has a message from Bolingbroke, he begins an extended, self-mocking monologue, stripping himself in words of all the accouterments of his royal household and position of power:

I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown. (147-49)

At the end of this heavily ironic speech, he refers to his adversary as "King Bolingbroke," asking "Will his Majesty / Give Richard leave to live till Richard die?"

Bolingbroke shows deference to the office of king by kneeling before Richard and addressing him as "My gracious Lord." Richard refuses to accept Bolingbroke on bended knee with an offer of obeisance, however, and he bids him rise; he says that he will give him what he wants, adding "Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all." Richard then says that he will ride to London; the kingship, it is understood, will be decided on there.

Back in the Duke of York's garden, the queen is waiting for news of her husband, and her two lady attendants are trying to distract her gloom. No matter what they suggest as diversion, though, the queen sighs that it would only remind her that the world is cruel and that her sorrow is too heavy to be lifted. While they are walking and she is weeping, they notice a gardener and his men. The queen decides to spy on them in the hope that they might have something to say about the nation and its problems ("They will talk of state; for everyone doth so").

The gardener gives elaborate instructions to his apprentices about how to prune and trim the plants which they are working on in order to ensure the proper growth and governance of their garden, to prevent its being choked by weeds, and to save it from being in a state of chaos. The servants speak up and make explicit reference to England being like a garden, and they compare Richard and his followers to weeds that once threatened its health. Bolingbroke is named as the one who has "plucked up" those weeds, "root and all." Bolingbroke, they say,

Hath seized the wasteful King. O, what pity is it
That he hath not so trimmed and dressed his land
As we this garden! (55-57)

The queen holds her silence as long as she can; then she comes forward and accuses the gardener of being beyond his station in talking of the deposition of a king:

Dar'st thou, thou little better thing than earth,
Divine his downfall? Say, where, when, and how
Cam'st thou by this ill tidings? Speak, thou wretch. (78-80)

The gardener defends himself by telling the queen that what he has just said is nothing more than common knowledge; all she needs to do is go to London and she will find things exactly as he has described them. The queen decides to do this and departs. After she has left, the gardener tells his servants that "in the remembrance of a weeping queen," he will plant a "bank of rue" where the queen's tears have fallen to the earth.

Analysis

In order for Bolingbroke's character to assume sufficient dramatic stature, he must be seen to grow into the role of king. Although the entire play is not devoted to the "education of a king," as it is in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, it is an important element here for the proper sympathies must be aroused. Two simple things, therefore, take place in Scene 1, both involving Bolingbroke in something of a public role. We first see him as a dispenser of justice, and it is right that we discern some righteous indignation in his manner of dispatching Bushy and Green. He has good cause to be angered by these corrupters of the king. Note that this is where the emphasis is — on the tempters and not on the tempted. In Henry IV, Part 1, Shakespeare returns to this idea in much more complex form. The play involves some of the same characters as this one. Bolingbroke is there the aging King Henry IV, and it is his son, Prince Hal, who must learn to be the next king. The great worry of King Henry is that his son is being led astray by the low company he is keeping, chief among them being Jack Falstaff.

As benefits the good ruler, the last item that Bolingbroke attends to shows him to be a compassionate man: "For God's sake, fairly let her be entreated," he instructs his companions regarding the queen. He can dispense harsh justice when necessary, but he also has an expansive heart. Compare Bolingbroke's behavior here with the cunning of Richard's public dealings earlier in the play. Shakespeare is writing some rather effective propaganda for Henry Bolingbroke and his successors.

Richard has been absent from the stage for quite some time by the beginning of Scene 2, so it is necessary for Shakespeare to use bold strokes in re-establishing the character of the king. The number of times that Richard vacillates in his mood and apparently changes his mind in this scene is a clear indication that he is not what one would conventionally think of as a solid and inspiring leader. Throughout, he is cajoled and rather babied by his companions. There is sorely lacking in him a sense of manly resolve and rightness.

His first long speech seems promising, however; it is patriotic and rather cock-sure, but too often Richard is fond of "poeticizing." There is something slightly absurd in his entreaty to the elements to do his fighting for him. "But let thy spiders," he tells his England, "that suck up thy venom, / And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way, / Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet / Which with usurping steps do trample thee; / Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies." The king is supposed to be divine, according to conventional wisdom, but he is also meant to be a natural warrior and a leader. The problem with this theory is that the mortal king who fills the role isn't always up to the standard of the idea, and here, Shakespeare does seem to be indicating the weakness of this theory.

The other men around Richard are good, strong soldiers and are ill at ease when their sovereign indulges in his romantic ecstasies. This is especially clear as the scene progresses, and they must repeatedly insist that he stop acting the weakling.

This would be very simple characterization indeed if it weren't for the fact that Shakespeare gives to Richard, here and elsewhere, such grand lines of poetry that it is difficult to dismiss him as "just" a whining incompetent. This man, who is also a king, deeply feels his inadequacy, and perhaps the absurdity of his situation, but, more importantly, he seems to observe himself perform. This, at times, renders him virtually immobile. He seems childishly subject to the passing change in fortunes, exchanging phrases like "Have I not reason to look pale and sad?" for "Awake, thou coward majesty! . . . / Is not the king's name twenty thousand names?" It is true that he indulges himself and cries his woes aloud, and often the tone seems self-indulgent, but on many occasions, he does reach majestic poetic stature:

Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.. . . . .For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives; some sleeping killed;
All murdered: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing at his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize. (145-65)

Richard is guilty of "monarchizing" but, one might say, with style. Richard is quick, however, to attack the friends he thinks have turned on him — "O, villains, vipers, damned without redemption" — although when he learns that he has misjudged them and that they have been executed as his allies, he doesn't show the remotest sign of remorse. This leaves a strong impression on us, and most likely such actions do not pass unnoticed by his present associates. Richard's fickleness, they would note, can have dangerous consequences for themselves. This, combined with the almost-certain victory of the armies of Bolingbroke, who have the entire nation in their sympathy, leaves the king a pitiful figure by the end of Scene 2.

The most striking detail in Scene 3 is the appearance of Richard on the castle walls. There must be something majestic about Richard's entrance for the scene to have any power. That Shakespeare wanted it that way can be seen in the reactions that he ascribes to the first two people who see the king. They both see him in a glorious aspect, perhaps seemingly more glorious because he is seen from above and from afar. His position above, high above the others, on the castle wall, says as much as the words he speaks. Notice that he presents a strong position to those below him when he speaks to them as the king but that he weakens visibly in his indecisive aside to Aumerle towards the end of the scene.

After the strong buildup of Bolingbroke as a natural leader, it comes as somewhat of a reversal to see the king back in a position of power even if it is largely a symbolic position. But the emphasis here is on the fact that Bolingbroke, unlike Richard, is not an ambitious man, and he is still rather awed by the idea of majesty and its present physical manifestation. He remains apart throughout most of this scene, as if to emphasize the fact that he does not feel entirely legitimate in his present role. Remember, it is to be characteristic of Bolingbroke that he feels uneasy about his stewardship of the nation. Thus, it is a stroke of dramatic genius to have him appear hesitant about confronting the king, who has just appeared high on a castle wall. Richard's strong warning that the crown will not rest easily on a usurper's head is not lost on Bolingbroke. This theme of ill-fitting royal garments is one that Shakespeare will use again and again in the great tragedies, especially in Macbeth.

In this regard, it is important to note that before Richard makes his appearance, we witness a conversation between the Duke of York and Bolingbroke in which the duke reminds him of the importance of what is about to transpire, and that there was a time when had Bolingbroke dared to act as he now is, the king would have wasted no time in having him executed. Bolingbroke's answer, tellingly, is rather ambiguous:

York: Take not, good cousin, further than you should,
Lest you mistake: the heavens are over our heads.
Bolingbroke: I know it, uncle, and oppose not myself
Against their will. (16-19)

"Oppose not myself / Against their will" is the key phrase here. If Bolingbroke emphasizes "oppose not myself," the meaning would be that he is acting in his own self-interest, as he perhaps has the right to do. But there are other shades of meaning apparent if one pauses between "myself," and "Against their will." In that case, his reply could be taken to mean that the heavens themselves would favor Bolingbroke's cause; all it needs is an emphasis on the "against."

When Richard does appear above, Bolingbroke's confidence obviously seems to weaken. His words express a certain awe before the majesty of the king:

See, see 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, and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident. (62-67)

The phrase "envious clouds" could, of course, refer to Bolingbroke himself, intentionally on his part or not, but that doesn't remove from the passage itself the feeling that we are in the presence of some glorious being, far above us. Earlier, Gaunt made a similar reference to Richard in a negative sense — as one who would expend himself in a "fierce blaze of riot." Here, coming out of "the fiery portal of the east," the context makes him seem heroic.

In Richard's two long speeches in Scene 3, one finds reason for the awed responses of the spectators. There is an authority and dignity with which he speaks to them at first, upbraiding them for their failure to show proper respect for the office of king. When Richard continues, however, his characteristic self-pity begins to take over. What prevents it from descending into mawkishness is a sarcasm in his tone of voice. When Bolingbroke bends his knee to the king, Richard greets him with these words:

Fair cousin, you debase your princely knee
To make the bare earth proud with kissing it.
Me rather had my heart might feel your love,
Than my unpleased eye see your courtesy.
Up, cousin, up; your heart is up, I know,
Thus high at least, although your knee be low. (190-95)

Here, stage directions are inserted after "Thus high at least." The actor playing Richard is instructed to point to the crown on his head. Bolingbroke, reminded of who addresses him, is rather tight-lipped during this scene, as he usually is in the presence of the king. Thus his awkwardness in the situation leaves him no option but to allow the king to do the speaking. The king, at the very end of the scene, plays on Bolingbroke's reticence and more or less forces him to give an order:

Richard: Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?
Bolingbroke: Yea, my good Lord.
Richard: Then I must not say no.

Scenes like Scene 4 in Shakespeare's plays have a very special function: There is something contemplative about them, as if Shakespeare wants the audience to have sufficient time to consider some of the issues — political and individually human — that are at stake. That is not to say that there is no emotion in Scene 4, for we witness the queen's distraught state of mind and her forced silence while the representatives of the common people discuss the demise of Richard; there is clearly an emotional strain in her bearing and in the delivery of her lines in this scene. Also, it is not to be assumed that the gardeners are without feeling, either to the queen or to the nation's desperate condition. The core of the scene, nevertheless, is the long discourse on the sort of care needed to keep a garden at its most productive, a clear and very common metaphor for the kind of governance necessary to keep the nation functioning at its most productive. There is a definite solemnity with which the gardener gives the instructions:

Go thou, and 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.
You thus employed, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers. (33-39)

The gardener is by no means advocating democracy in any form when he says "all must be even in our government"; he is referring to those members of the nobility who have gained excessive favor with the king and who therefore have too much power. To bring things back to "normal," with the proper hierarchy assuming its natural function, these excessive "weeds" and "caterpillars" (an image already referred to) must be removed. Richard is accused only in that he was wasteful and because he did not aid nature in this political pruning operation. The common people, or at least the artisan class as here represented, are perfectly orthodox in their beliefs, recommendations, and wishes:

Superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live;
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours bath quite thrown down. (63-66)

Scene 4 began, remember, with the queen's attending ladies trying to divert her with various trifling games and songs, but these delights are ineffectual in her present state. It is interesting that one feature of Richard's reign was his delight in courtly entertainments and glamorous display. Starting this scene with oblique reference to "entertainments," inappropriate entertainments at that, it is a subtle variation on one of the themes of this play. The gardener refers to "some few vanities" that will be the only things to weigh in the balance with Richard against Bolingbroke. The vanities are also references to his frivolous entertainment-filled lifestyle.

When the queen speaks of "old Adam's likeness" in referring to the gardener and later asks, "What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee / To make a second fall of cursed man?" she is continuing the religious thread that runs throughout the play. As well as describing England as a garden, Shakespeare has her invoke the idea of the Garden of Eden to make it clear that more is at stake than just the ordinary affairs of an ordinary man. The very act of pruning the garden, if it involves also pruning the king of his power, is an act against God's divine will. The queen reminds us of this point. The gardener would probably agree, but he is really just a powerless man reporting what has happened. Yet the gardener remains a sympathetic character. Even though he is from a lower order of society, he responds to events very much like old Gaunt and perhaps York in his better moments. At the very end of Scene 4, it is significant that Shakespeare has the queen curse the gardener — "Pray God the plants thou graft'st may never grow" — but the gardener feels no spite; rather, he feels pity for her. This pity that Shakespeare evokes for the queen acts as a prelude and a cue to our response to her husband when we see him in his fallen state later in the play. The gardener's last words understandably evoke sympathy from us:

Poor queen! so that thy state might be no worse, I would my skill were subject to thy curse.
Here did she fall a tear; here in this place
I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace.
Rue, even for ruth, here shortly shall be seen,
In the remembrace of a weeping queen. (103-108)

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