Summary and Analysis
This act has only one scene, and it takes place in London, in Westminster Hall, about forty days after the king's surrender at Flint Castle. It focuses on a meeting in Parliament, held to decide the matter of kingship and also to discuss Bolingbroke's actions, as well as those of Richard and his accomplices. Among those present for the council are Bolingbroke, Aumerle, Northumberland, Percy, the Earls of Fitzwater and Surrey, the Bishop of Carlisle, and the Abbot of Westminster. Bagot, who escaped earlier to Ireland and thereby escaped execution at Bristol, has now been captured and is now being questioned about Richard's actions.
Bolingbroke wants to know, first of all, who is responsible for Gloucester's death. Bagot's answer is immediate; he points to Aumerle, the son of York. Aumerle, he says, once boasted that he could dispose of his uncle Gloucester and, moreover, that not even one hundred thousand crowns would be enough to bribe him to help return Bolingbroke to England; England, indeed, would be "blest" if Bolingbroke were killed. Aumerle, of course, denies the charge, but the Earl of Fitzwater, Henry Percy, and another lord substantiate Bagot's accusations. Aumerle is defended by the Earl of Surrey, but Fitzwater charges Surrey with lying and swears that he heard the banished Mowbray say that it was Aumerle who arranged for Gloucester's assassination.
Mowbray, as it turns out, cannot affirm or deny the charges. The Duke of Carlisle informs the group that Mowbray was killed during a crusade to the Holy Land. The Duke of York enters then and announces that Richard, "with willing soul," has yielded up his "high sceptre" to Bolingbroke. To Bolingbroke, he says, "Long live Henry, fourth of that name." Hardly has Bolingbroke accepted the throne, however, than the Bishop of Carlisle objects: No one but God, he says, can judge Richard. He objects to Richard being tried for "apparent guilt" without even being present. Bolingbroke's "trial" of the king, he says, is a "black, obscene" deed, and he prophesies that if Bolingbroke is crowned king, "the blood of English shall manure the ground, / And future ages groan for this foul act." The civil wars that follow, he vows, will be worse than the Crucifixion itself. Northumberland interrupts the bishop's tirade and orders him arrested and charged with treason.
When Bolingbroke speaks, he calls for Richard to be brought before them so that he himself can surrender "in common view." When Richard is brought in, he remarks on the many once-friendly faces that are now ready to condemn him; Christ had only one Judas. Yet he tempers his emotion when he hands his crown to Henry. He reminds him of the many "cares" that go with the crown; he then renounces his claim to the throne and wishes Bolingbroke "many years of sunshine days."
Northumberland, not swayed by Richard's poignant words of fatalism and resignation, demands that Richard read aloud the charges against him — "Committed by your person and your followers . . . [so that] men / May deem that you are worthily deposed." Richard, however, says that his tears prevent him from seeing the list of charges. He sobs that he is nothing — a king of snow, melting before "the sun of Bolingbroke." He asks only to "be gone and trouble you no more." Bolingbroke, therefore, orders him to be taken to the Tower of London; the coronation will be performed on the coming Wednesday, he says as he exits.
Alone with the clergymen, Aumerle proposes a plot to do away with Bolingbroke, and the Abbot of Westminster invites Aumerle to his home for further talk. Together, they will conceive such a plot that will "show us all a merry day."
Shakespeare sets up a parallel here with the opening scenes of the play. This simple scene, you should note, comprises the entire fourth act. You will recall that the first words of the play were Richard's: He asked Gaunt to bring forth his son, Bolingbroke, to explain charges of treason that he leveled against Mowbray. The situation has virtually reversed itself by Act IV. Here it is Bolingbroke who is doing the ordering and the judging of the cases. He asks Bagot what he knows about the death of Gloucester, significantly the same issue that preoccupied Richard and the nobles in the first scene of the play. The fact is, Richard was conducting something of a sham inquiry in the earlier scene — that is, he was only trying to keep the facts of the matter under cover while not allowing his nobility to become embroiled in too open a dispute. Bolingbroke accused Mowbray — and justifiably so — of treason, and later we find out that it was indeed Mowbray who had a hand in the assassination of Gloucester. Yet the upshot of that first dispute was the exiling of Bolingbroke and Mowbray — on Richard's orders. Years have passed since then, and it is only after suffering the loss of his father, old Gaunt, and the humiliation of having his property unlawfully seized that Bolingbroke now finds himself in the position of one who can see the full truth revealed concerning what Richard has done and what kind of a man and a king he truly is. Bolingbroke is a victim of grave injustice. Politically it is important for Bolingbroke to raise this issue of Gloucester again so that it be publicly known that he has been wronged — he did not deserve banishment — and that the king and his henchmen have been involved in shady actions.
The main accusation in this act is against Aumerle, York's son, who allegedly had involved himself in the plot against Gloucester. Shakespeare constructs the scene in such a way as to emphasize the heated feelings and potentially anarchic situation of the nobles. Aumerle defends himself against first one, Bagot, and then another, Fitzwater, and then yet another, a nameless lord. The repeated attacks on Aumerle and his challenge to fight all of them for his honor are a graphic representation in miniature of the chaos that has been predicted in the event that the anointed king might be deposed. Surrey and Aumerle are pitted against Fitzwater, Bagot, and a nameless lord.
Bolingbroke is silent through much of this bickering, waiting for the opportunity to quell the stormy atmosphere. This he does by seizing on a detail of Fitzwater's report — "I heard the banished Norfolk [Mowbray] say / That thou, Aumerle, did'st send two of thy men / To execute the noble Duke" — and announcing that all previous disputes and challenges are now concealed until the noble Mowbray returns from abroad. Bolingbroke's cleverness as an arbitrator is obvious here. One way of forcing all those present to cease their arguments is to make the outcome of the argument hinge on the words of someone who is absent and who won't be able to return for some time.
The Bishop of Carlisle's report that Mowbray died in Italy after spending some time abroad fighting the "black pagans, Turks, and Saracens" changes the tone yet again. All in the company are made to consider the fact that he is buried on foreign soil; this should bring them back to an awareness of the wrongs done to many nobles like him who were forced into exile by King Richard. With the question of Gloucester's assassin conveniently put aside for the moment, Bolingbroke utters a prayer-like commendation of the late Duke of Norfolk; he also ends the dispute for the time being: Sweet Peace conduct his sweet soul to the bosom
Of good old Abraham! Lords appellants,
Your differences shall all rest under gage,
Till we assign you to your days of trial. (103-106)
The next lines in the text announce Bolingbroke as the new king, Henry IV, but before he can gracefully accept York's bid to ascend the throne, the Bishop of Carlisle delivers a long speech warning of the consequences. Remember, here, that it was York in the earlier scenes who delivered this sort of warning. Here it is someone else, a clergyman, warning Bolingbroke and the rest that what they are doing goes against God's will:
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth!
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child's children, cry against you "woe!" (145-49)
The heated exchanges and challenges to armed combat that opened this scene are almost a case in point, proving the credibility of the bishop's prophecy.
This speech is an important one because of where Shakespeare positions it in the play. At this point, we have to wonder how Bolingbroke will respond to it. He is aware of the gravity of consequences, and he is not wholly convinced of the rightness of what he is doing. Remember, he is not characterized as an overly ambitious man. He remains quiet throughout Carlisle's speech, and it is Northumberland who orders the bishop arrested for treason. Bolingbroke doesn't respond in words to the speech, but his first words after it are firm:
Fetch hither Richard, that in common view
He may surrender. (156-57)
Foremost here, we should note Bolingbroke's attentiveness to the bishop's words.
The second part of this act belongs to Richard, with Bolingbroke staying largely in the background. Now one should profitably think of Richard in three ways: first, as a king, one who is aware of the behavior appropriate to the office; next, as a man who is suffering the humiliation of defeat; and, finally, as an actor, as a performer with an awareness of situations and specific audiences. It is exactly where these three "roles," as it were, overlap that Shakespeare is at his finest as a dramatist. During Richard's speeches in this act, we should always consider where the "performing" and the "reality" become interchangeable. Since we know that Richard is intensely introspective, we need to be aware of clues in his speeches that suggest that we are hearing the "real" Richard, as well as the one who is "putting on a show" and, finally, the Richard who is aware of himself as such. This is a complicated matter but one that deserves attention.
When thinking of Richard as an "actor," we should recall the two central props that Richard uses in this scene: the crown itself and a mirror that he asks to have brought on especially for him. These are the props of a practiced performer, and he uses them well.
After the first fifteen lines, in which Richard describes himself as a Christ who has more treacherous "apostles" than Jesus did, he asks to hold the crown. During these fifteen lines, he pointedly reminds everyone present that they have, not too long ago, all responded to him as king. In former times, the gathered multitude would utter an "Amen" or a "God save the king" after Richard declared his "God save the king." Here, however, there is no response, and Richard has made his point dramatically: "Will no man say 'Amen?'" he asks sarcastically of the silent nobles.
He takes the crown in his hands and bids Bolingbroke take it from him. They hold the crown on either side while Richard teases his successor with the moment:
Give me the crown.
Here, cousin, seize the crown. Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high. (181-89)
Here, Richard holds the crown on one side, with both hands, and Bolingbroke on the other, also with both hands. These two possessors of the crown look at each other in all of their manifestations: one on the way up, the other on the way down; one virtually a king, one virtually an ex-king. Here, one might profitably jot down the ways in which they are alike, the ways in which they are dissimilar, and the ways in which this crown (used in this way) is like a mirror into which each looks into his soul and into the soul of his counterpart.
In cataloguing the process of his deposition, Richard is no doubt forcing his audience of nobles to be clearly aware of what they are doing, and he also seems to be working his way up to an emotional outburst. The formality of the repetition makes the speech seem less spontaneous than some of his outbursts, but it prepares the way for something else in the next speech.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths.
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forgo;
My acts, decrees, and statues I deny. (207-13)
Here, Richard is the king stripping himself of all the trappings of his office. In the next speech, he is an ordinary man who is embarrassed that he is to be forced to read an account of his transgressions in public:
Must I do so? and must I ravel out
My weaved-up follies?
If thy offences were upon record,
Would it not shame thee, in so fair a troop
To read a lecture of them? (228-32)
When Carlisle was defending the king's divine right of rule in the first part of this scene, he used a word that is associated with the pattern of natural imagery running throughout the play. One thinks of the gardener's speech when Carlisle describes the king as God's "captain, steward, deputy elect, / Anointed, crowned, planted many years." Now that Richard is being forced to step down, he describes himself in relation to Bolingbroke in natural imagery that was conventionally associated with royalty:
O, that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water drops! (260-62)
The command to see his own face in a mirror that he may better contemplate himself is perhaps Richard's greatest historical posture. His language is highly poetical, even at one point reminiscent of the famous "face that launched a thousand ships" speech from Marlowe's popular tragedy Dr. Faustus. Richard says:
Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Is this the face which faced so many follies,
That was at last outfaced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face;
As brittle as the glory is the face,
For there it is, cracked in a hundred shivers. (281-89)
Just before the last line, stage instructions indicate that the actor playing Richard should fling the mirror to the floor. Clearly, Richard is suffering here, but one wonders if he doesn't relish this opportunity for his self-pitying display. Note Bolingbroke's response to the display and Richard's response to that response: "The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed / The shadow of your face," says Bolingbroke, after remaining silent through all of Richard's soliloquy. This is a biting remark, for it accuses Richard of play-acting, dealing with "shadows" and pretence instead of showing real emotion. This remark is the more effective because of Bolingbroke's previous long silence. Notice the clipped few words with which Richard responds to this accusation. He is obviously caught off guard:
Say that again.
The shadow of my sorrow! Ha! let's see.
'Tis very true, my 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. (291-96)
This witty answer comes only after Richard has bought himself time to recover with "Ha! let's see."
The last exchanges between Richard and Bolingbroke are in the form of short sentences. Richard's rhetorical flourishes are at an end; he wants to bring the whole sordid business to a conclusion. His lines are the last ironic gasps of a defeated, once-lordly sovereign:
Richard: Being so great, I have no need to beg.
Bolingbroke: Yet ask.
Richard: And shall I have?
Bolingbroke: You shall.
Richard: Then give me leave to go.
Richard: Whither you will, so I were from your sights. (309-15)
Richard puns on the word "conveyors" in his exit line, calling them all thieves who "rise thus nimbly by a true king's fall."
The scene and the act do not end, however, with the exit of the deposed Richard and the man who has just announced his own coronation date. Shakespeare presses the point that civil strife is in the air after the deposition by having the last people on stage act and sound like conspirators. The Abbot of Westminster, the Bishop of Carlisle, and Aumerle remain behind. The Abbot's last line is: "I'll lay / A plot shall show us all a merry day." The play is not yet over. Richard's spirit of greed and power has infected even a man of the church.