Richard II By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act V


The last act opens with Richard on his way to the Tower. The queen is onstage, waiting for her husband to pass by so that she may tell him goodbye. When she sees him, she likens him to a "beauteous inn" that houses grief; she likens Bolingbroke to a "common alehouse." She urges her husband to stand tall; it pains her to see him not only deposed but physically bowed. She wonders if Bolingbroke has also usurped Richard's intellect, for he seems, truly, a ruined man. Richard begs her not to grieve and urges her to leave England and to enter a convent in France.


The last act opens with Richard on his way to the Tower. The queen is onstage, waiting for her husband to pass by so that she may tell him goodbye. When she sees him, she likens him to a "beauteous inn" that houses grief; she likens Bolingbroke to a "common alehouse." She urges her husband to stand tall; it pains her to see him not only deposed but physically bowed. She wonders if Bolingbroke has also usurped Richard's intellect, for he seems, truly, a ruined man. Richard begs her not to grieve and urges her to leave England and to enter a convent in France.

Northumberland enters and tells Richard that Bolingbroke has changed his mind: Richard is to go to Pomfret and not to the Tower. The queen, he says, has been ordered to France. Richard turns to Northumberland and compares him to a ladder that Bolingbroke used to ascend to Richard's throne. He warns Northumberland that fear and hate will soon separate him and Bolingbroke. But Northumberland refuses to argue with Richard, and he also refuses to allow the queen to follow her husband to Pomfret or him to follow her to France. With deep sorrow, Richard turns to his wife and pleads that their goodbyes be brief, for they make "woe wanton with this fond delay." They part, then, for the last time.

In Scene 2, two or three months have elapsed since Richard was taken to Pomfret. The Duke of York is telling his wife what has happened — how Richard and Bolingbroke arrived in London, how the crowd "threw dust and rubbish" on Richard's head, and how Bolingbroke was hailed with many welcomes and blessings. He thinks that "Heaven hath a hand in these events," and he says that he has sworn allegiance to Bolingbroke.

York sees his son, Aumerle, approaching and says that not only has Aumerle been reduced in rank but that he himself has made a pledge in Parliament for Aumerle's loyalty to Bolingbroke. When York and his wife speak to their son, Aumerle is clearly out of sorts: He does not know who the favorites are at court ("the violets now / That strew the green lap of the new come spring"), nor does he care, and, furthermore, he tells his father that he does not know who's jousting at Oxford. His spirit pales, however, when his father mentions to him a sealed paper that he has spied in Aumerle's pocket. A quarrel ensues, and York seizes the paper and reads it. He loudly denounces his son for being a traitor, and he calls for his boots. Despite his wife's pleas and protestations, he means to reveal what he has learned to Bolingbroke. He and his wife quarrel bitterly over Aumerle's treason. York's wife calls her husband unnatural for disclaiming their son, and he calls her a fool for her blind love. After York leaves, his wife pleads with Aumerle to get to the king before York does. Meanwhile, she herself will saddle up and try to delay York: "Never will I rise up from the ground / Till Bolingbroke have pardon'd thee."

Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, laments to Henry Percy that Prince Hal, the heir to the throne, is wasting his life with dissolute companions and that it has been "full three months since I did see him last."

Aumerle suddenly rushes onstage and asks for a private audience with the king, and when it is granted, he proceeds to beg forgiveness for his involvement in an assassination plot against the crown. With the door locked, Aumerle is prepared to confess, but before he does so, the Duke of York comes to the door and demands that the king should beware of the traitor in his midst. The door is opened, and York dashes in and loudly accuses his son.

"O heinous, strong and bold conspiracy!" shouts Bolingbroke, "O loyal father of a treacherous son." Before any action can be taken, however, the Duchess of York arrives and begs forgiveness of the king in behalf of her son. The king throws up his arms and responds to the turn of events by saying that

Our scene is altered from a serious thing,
And now changed to "The Beggar and the King" (79-80)

The duke and duchess then revive the family squabble of the previous scene and fall on each other in front of the king; they all kneel, making their various pleas, until the king silences them with his decisive judgment: "I pardon him, as God shall pardon me." Bolingbroke then declares that he will execute all of the other conspirators. Quietly, the duchess takes her son in hand and they leave the stage. She vows to Aumerle that she will pray until "God make thee new."

Scene 4, consisting of only eleven lines, takes place a few months later. In Windsor Castle, Sir Pierce of Exton is speaking to his servant; he interprets Bolingbroke's words "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear" to mean that Bolingbroke wants someone to kill Richard and put an end to all thoughts of a counter-coup in the country. He explains to his servant that Bolingbroke uttered these words twice — and looked at Exton "as [if he would] say, 'I would thou wert the man.'" Exton's servant confirms Bolingbroke's words and his actions. Exton says finally, "Come, let's go. / I am the King's friend, and will rid his foe."

Scene 5 opens as Richard is sitting alone in his cell at Pomfret Castle. His only companions, he says, are his thoughts. Thus he speaks aloud. He "peoples" the world with his thoughts and "plays in one person many people" in his imagination. When he hears music from outside his prison cell, it disturbs him: "How sour sweet music is / When time is broke, and no proportion kept." The music maddens him, for the giving of this music to him is a sign of love in the giver, and, to Richard, love "is a strange brooch in this all-hating world."

His soliloquy — in which he compares himself with a clock measuring time, his thoughts being the minutes, his eyes being the dials, and his groans being the striking of the hours — is interrupted when a groom, one of his former servants, enters. The groom remembers having tended to Richard's horse during happier days, and he would like to talk to his former king, but Richard becomes irritated when he hears that Bolingbroke now rides proudly on Richard's "roan Barbary." Richard curses his horse, then speaks words of forgiveness.

A keeper breaks off their conversation and offers Richard his meal. Richard, however, says that he won't eat until the food is first tasted by the guard; he is afraid of being poisoned. The keeper says that Sir Pierce of Exton "commands the contrary."

Exton enters with henchmen and a fight breaks out. After killing one of the would-be assassins, Richard is killed by Exton, but before he dies, he curses his killer:

That hand shall burn in never-quenching fire
That staggers thus my person. (109-10)

Richard's dying words affect Exton; "O would the deed were good!" he says. Clearly he fears the consequences of what he has done.

Some days after Richard has been killed, Bolingbroke is talking with York, and he tells him that rebel forces "have consumed with fire" a town in Gloucestershire, and it cannot be ascertained whether or not the rebels themselves have been killed or captured. But there is good news, for Northumberland announces that "the heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent" have been sent to London. It is next Fitzwater's turn to speak: "The heads of Brocas and Sir Bennet Seely," men who were involved in the Oxford plot to kill Bolingbroke, have also been sent to London. Henry Percy enters then and tells them that the "grand conspirator," the Abbot of Westminster, "hath yielded up his body to the grave," and that Carlisle is being brought as a captive before them. The king sentences Carlisle to life imprisonment; he spares his life because of the "high sparks of honor in thee have I seen."

Exton enters then and presents Richard, lying in his coffin, to Bolingbroke and is rebuked by the king. Exton declares that he killed Richard because of Bolingbroke's own words, but Bolingbroke is deaf to these excuses. He banishes Exton and vows to "make a voyage to the Holy Land" to expiate the guilt that he has accrued to himself.


In Scene 1, we see Richard in a close-up portrait with his wife, and the emotional quality of the scene balances that of the one that preceded it. Then, he was a man of display before his former subjects; here he is a private man saying goodbye to his wife. The queen's lines, in which she describes him, at the beginning of the scene set the tone. Richard is a man to be pitied, a shadow of his former self, a "withering rose." When she compares him to Bolingbroke, she uses a metaphor that characterizes Richard as something elegant and special, while Bolingbroke is common. There is an irony here, of course, as it is Bolingbroke's very "commonness" that accounts in part for his transition to the throne. Earlier in the play, Richard commented on Bolingbroke's popularity with the common people. This will be picked up again in the Henry plays, in which Bolingbroke's son, Hal, is noted for having "the common touch," in the best meaning of the phrase.

A curious thing happens in Scene 1. Not only does the queen's pity set the tone in general for this scene, but the fact that her pity finally becomes annoyance is also significant. She becomes angered by what seems to her to be Richard's too-easy compliance with his fate. Although it is a piteous sight to gaze on greatness fallen low, to her it is also loathsome to see that former greatness going to its slaughter like a lamb. She uses the conventional symbol of the proud lion to make her point: Richard should act like the king of beasts and continue to struggle to the end. This is not the first time that Shakespeare presents Richard within the framework of this metaphor, but one should resist the temptation to label him too quickly; the author's characterization of Richard is a complex one, and Shakespeare doesn't allow a simple progression of responses to the king.

While we can sympathize with Richard in his private suffering, it is a fact that this private suffering occasionally degenerates into self-pity. It seems as though Richard almost enjoys the fantasy of imagining weeping, aged women sitting around a fire during a deep winter's night and telling the woeful and lamentable story of poor King Richard.

With relief, we finally see Richard seem to spring to life during his verbal attack on Northumberland in the next part of Scene 1. His first two lines, calling Northumberland a mere "ladder" that Bolingbroke used to climb to the throne, opens an attack upon Northumberland and expresses a warning to him and those like him: Treason and distrust will breed more of the same, and none of those involved will see a happy end to this business. This is really the first time in the play where Shakespeare has Richard sound this theme so forcefully and explicitly, and Northumberland's easy dismissal of the advice — "My guilt be on my head, and there an end" — betrays a suspiciously cocky and over-confident attitude.

An important point about the conclusion to Scene 1 is the physical action that Shakespeare adds to it. Where it may be difficult to sympathize unqualifiedly with Richard, especially when he is dramatizing his own situation, it is easy to imagine him kissing his wife farewell, then kissing her farewell again, as if to delay the inevitable parting. The farewell is poignant, the tone much like that when Gaunt parted for the last time from Bolingbroke.

One kiss shall stop our mouths, and dumbly part;
Thus give I mine, and thus take I thy heart. (95-96)

There is something oddly farcical about Scene 2 in an otherwise humorless play: We get a glimpse into the household of one of the minors actors in the political drama where the strife of the outside arena is seen in miniature.

Earlier, York was a defender of Richard and the divine right of kingship. When the situation became intolerable, he switched his allegiance to Bolingbroke. This was an important switch because it was not done capriciously. York had difficulty in coming to his decision, and although one might be tempted to see York as a political time-server, it doesn't seem that Shakespeare wanted him to be judged too harshly. York's heart seems to be in the right place, and the interests of the nation at large seem to have motivated him to do what he did. In this scene, we see that his son, Aumerle, has remained faithful to the previous ruler. Why not? His father's sympathies had been there too at one time. Aumerle's personal loyalty supersedes his questionable duty to the new king. Questionable, in fact, is the only word we can use concerning loyalty in this case because one must remember the new king's legitimacy as a monarch is in doubt.

The struggle between the father and son seems serious enough because finally Aumerle's mother has to break in and try to make her husband leave the matter alone and put all thoughts of their turning their only child over to the authorities completely out of his head. They struggle over his boots, most likely (this is not completely clear from the text); she tries to keep them from him, and he tries to put them on so that he can ride to inform Bolingbroke of the plot against his life. Her lines are those of a distracted mother: "Strike him, Aumerle. Poor boy, thou art amazed." His are those of a perhaps over-zealous patriot: ". . . were he twenty times my son, / I would appeach him."

The purpose of Scene 2 is twofold: First, it shows the results of the political uncertainty and impending chaos at the local level, where most ordinary humans would experience it. (A family spat is a civil war in miniature.) And second, it presents the odd games that fortune plays with political loyalties and political necessities. Who is correct in his loyalty? The father's loyalty to the newly crowned king, or the son's loyalty to the man whom he has served? Shakespeare raises the question without answering it. Aumerle's part in the plot and the outcome of his mother's appeal will feature importantly in the next scene.

One final note on Scene 2 should be made concerning the description of Richard, again the performer. This is important as a prelude to Richard's final scene and his now-famous soliloquy. York describes him thus:

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)

One thing this speech does is identify Bolingbroke as the next "actor" in the role of king. The two men gazed into each other's faces through the hollow crown in an earlier scene; we shall see that in more ways than one they will prove to be "mirror images" of one another.

Bolingbroke is now the leader of the nation. What does that mean? For one thing, as Richard predicted, he will never be fully secure for the rest of his days. There is a conspiracy afoot, the first of many, one supposes. And, to make matters worse, as is brought out in the first part of the scene, the king has an unregenerate son, Prince Hal, who whiles away his time with Jack Falstaff (particularly in the Henry IV plays of the tetralogy).

Another errant son, York's, breaks onto the scene as the agent of the conspiracy. One must imagine Bolingbroke taking the threat when it is revealed to him by York quite seriously. There is a real danger to the throne. But when the duchess enters the scene, a bit of the farce of the previous scene spills over into this one. Bolingbroke is now involved in a petty domestic dispute, or what seems like such. There is a pronounced difference between the glamour associated with rulers and ruling and the tedious reality of this sort of administration and arbitration on a daily basis. This does seem to be Shakespeare's point, or at least one of them, because this scene is in such marked contrast with the rather philosophical heaviness of the entire play up until now. Our last view of Richard was a philosophical one; Shakespeare focused primarily on the idea of kingship and what it was. Here, the reality is exposed, with all its boring, melodramatic features. Richard was aloof. That was one reason for his downfall. Henry is not aloof; for that reason, one can easily imagine (from Scene 3) the price that he will pay for keeping himself caught up in petty embroilments.

The vehemence with which York denounces his son seems odd, as if Shakespeare wanted to discredit an over-zealous patriotism. York's words, echoing the theme of civil strife, are harsh:

If thou do pardon, whosoever pray,
More sins for this forgiveness prosper may.
This festered joint cut off, the rest rest sound;
This let alone will all the rest confound. (83-86)

The wisdom is politically sound perhaps, but in reference to his own son, it is certainly extreme. Bolingbroke pardons the son as an act of mercy, showing himself the good ruler in this, but he also dispatches the other conspirators without hesitation: "Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels." He seems to believe firmly in justice and mercy — as a good ruler must — and Shakespeare did want to show him as a good ruler.

Scene 4's action is short and straightforward: Sir Pierce Exton interprets Bolingbroke's words "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear" to mean that he wants someone to kill Richard and put an end to all thoughts of a counter-coup in the country. He explains this to another man and they go to kill Richard. Because of this information, our reception of Richard's final soliloquy will be that much more acute.

In Scene 5, we see Richard at his most naked and honest. His thoughts, he says, could fill this little world in place of people. During his reign, he needed people as audiences and companions; this explains the flatterers in his court, those who contributed to his downfall. But even the world of thoughts, like the world of people, has a falling out with itself: There is not one single thought that enters his head that cannot be immediately countered with its contrary. Even the Bible is not immune to this fact of contradiction. "Come, little ones," says the word of God, but the same book also says that it is as hard to "come" as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The association between contrary thoughts, opposing ideas, and the topsy-turvy turn of events in England and in Richard's life is apparent here:

Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune's slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars
Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like. (23-30)

Optimistic or rationalizing thoughts, then, are false flatterers to themselves and serve no useful purpose in the end. Richard recapitulates his experiences succinctly: "Thus play I in one person many people." He has played many people and many roles throughout the course of this play, and now in his imagination, he re-runs the gamut of the types. He has played the king, and he quakes from fear of treason; he has played the beggar, and he feels crushed by penury into thinking he was better off as king. The end result of this "logic" is that he would be better off dead:

But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. (38-41)

The chords of music heard from outside the cell have a marked effect on Richard. Scene 5 is the most contemplative in the play, and its "philosophy" speaks of a different kind of concern to Shakespeare in this part of the play from what has gone before. Compare the tone of this scene with the "petty squabbling" found in the two preceding ones. In evoking this difference, the music serves the function of being a mood setter. As an art form, music seems able to "articulate" things that cannot be expressed in any other way. Richard's melancholy is thus underscored. Also, the perfect measure and construction of the phrases of music jar on Richard's ear because it unhappily reminds him of his own discordant state of mind:

And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disordered string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me. (45-49)

The play on words — "time" in music, in the sense of measured duration, and "Father Time" — leads to Richard's observation on his own demise:

So sighs, and tears, and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours. (57-58)

At the end of the speech, Richard seems to grow energetic in his anger, shouting, "This music mads me." As he is not so predisposed, music cannot exercise its calming effect on him.

Shakespeare presents the interlude with the groom as a way of reminding Richard of former, better times, and therefore redoubling the pain of his present state. The groom also serves to show that among some of the common people, there is still respect and feeling for Richard. In addition, the groom has secret thoughts that are perhaps rebellious in nature: "What my tongue dares not, that my heart shall say."

To impress us with the villainy of murdering the king, Shakespeare has Exton recoil in horror from his own accomplishment:

As full of valor as of royal blood!
Both have I spilled. O, would the deed were good!
For now the devil that told me I did well
Says that his deed is chronicled in hell. (114-17)

The tradition that regicide originates in hell is here repeated.

The last scene of the play swells with details of civil horror: a razed town, six beheadings, one life imprisonment, one banishment, and the corpse of a murdered king. The prophecies of doom seem to be fulfilling themselves. Bolingbroke thanks "gentle Percy" for his part in fighting the rebels. (In Henry IV, Part 1, Shakespeare shows Henry Bolingbroke's armies in pitched battle against this same Percy.) The mercy that Bolingbroke shows Carlisle, in sparing his life, attests to the general misery of the scene momentarily, but no sooner is the sentence of life imprisonment offered than Exton arrives with Richard's coffin. The note of damnation and possible regeneration through penance that Bolingbroke's last speech contains concludes the play in the religious imagery that has been threaded throughout.

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