Richard II: Plot Summary (Acts 1 and 2)
From Stories of Shakespeare's English History Plays by Helene Adeline Guerber. New York: Dodd, Mead and company.
The first act opens in the royal palace
in London, where Richard II, addressing his uncle
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, inquires whether he has brought his son Bolingbroke hither, so his
difference with the Duke of Norfolk can be settled.
On hearing both men are present, and that no apparent treachery is discernible, Richard decides to
confront accuser and accused in his presence.
A moment later both men are ushered in, and after they have greeted their sovereign with respectful good wishes, Richard invites Bolingbroke to justify his charge against his opponent. Taking
heaven to witness he is free from petty hate, Bolingbroke accuses Norfolk of treachery, offering to stake
his life to prove his words.
This accusation his opponent answers in cool but
vindictive tones, claiming that respect for his sovereign holds his wrath in check, although he gives
the lie to Bolingbroke and defies him, calling him a
coward and villain. At these taunts, Bolingbroke
flings down his gauntlet, offering, although Norfolk's superior in birth, to measure swords with him,
and rejoicing when he sees his gage of battle picked
up, for that is a sign Norfolk accepts his challenge.
In hopes of arbitrating this quarrel, Richard inquires what charge Bolingbroke makes against Norfolk, only to learn he accuses that nobleman of diverting to his own uses money intended for the soldiers' pay, of plotting treason for the past eighteen years, and of having brought about the death of the
Duke of Gloucester, his uncle, whose blood calls for
When Richard bids Norfolk defend himself, assuring him that even were his own brother accused
he would strive to be impartial, Norfolk, who has
already given his antagonist the lie, explains that
the money he received was part of a debt long due,
that he had no hand in Gloucester's death, and
that although he once conspired against the Duke of
Lancaster, it was a sin of youth, long since repented
and forgiven. He adds that such accusations as
have been hurled against him have been dictated
by pure rancour, and throwing down his gauntlet
in his turn, swears to defend his honour to his last
breath. When he implores, thereupon, that a day
may soon be appointed for the judicial duel, Richard wishing the quarrel settled without bloodshed,
pledges himself to hold Norfolk in check if John of Gaunt will do the same with his fiery son.
Then, Gaunt and the King force Bolingbroke
and Norfolk to thrown down again the gage each has
picked up, although both young men resist, for they
deem such a withdrawal cowardly. In his distress,
Norfolk evtn casts himself at the King's feet, imploring his pardon for refusing to obey his commands, but Richard nevertheless insists upon his placing the gage in his royal hand, a sacrifice Norfolk is so reluctant to make, that he exclaims, 'take honour from me, and my life is done.' When the
King next tries to induce Bolingbroke to set a good
example by relinquishing his token, his cousin vows
he cannot be guilty of such a sin, and stalks out of
the room still defying Norfolk. Petulantly declaring he was 'not born to sue, but to command', the King now decrees that since the adversaries will not be reconciled, they shall meet in the lists at Coventry, on St. Lambert's day, and there settle
this quarrel with their swords.
The next scene is played in the Duke of Lancaster's palace, where he is telling his widowed
sister-in-law, the Duchess of Gloucester, that heaven
will have to avenge the murder of her husband, for
he dares not do so himself upon the King. Angry
and disappointed, the Duchess inquires whether he
has no brotherly feelings, declaring that her husband one of Edward VII's seven stalwart sons,
having been foully murdered, he should avenge this murder for his own sake.
When Lancaster assures her that her husband
having died in God's quarrel. Providence will avenge
him, she wonders to whom she can turn for aid,
only to be referred 'to God, the widow's champion
and defence.' Thereupon the Duchess retorts she
will indeed turn to God, bidding Lancaster, meanwhile, witness the conflict between his son and Norfolk, and hoping that the latter, — whom she considers her husband's assassin, — may be slain. Before departing, she sends her compliments to her brother-in-law, Duke of York, bidding him avoid her widowed home.
The next scene is played in the lists at Coventry,
where, with the usual formality, the lord marshal
inquires whether both champions are ready, and
learning that they merely await his summons, vows
they shall be called as soon as the monarch appears.
Blasts of trumpets then herald first the entrance of
the royal party, and next of Norfolk, whereupon
the King bids the marshal inquire of this champion
the cause for which he has come here to fight?
After declining his name and titles, Norfolk states
he has come to defend his truth and loyalty against
Bolingbroke, whom he hopes by the grace of God to
prove 'a traitor to my God, my King, and me.' A
second trumpet peal then announces the appearance
of Bolingbroke, who going through the same form,
declares himself ready to prove Norfolk a traitor,
provided heaven upholds the right.
After the marshal has forbidden any interference
in the coming fight, Bolingbroke craves permission
to kiss his sovereign's hand, a favour which Richard
grants, coldly saying as he embraces him, 'As thy
cause is right, so be thy fortune in this royal fight.'
His condescension and good wishes seem to touch
Bolingbroke, who expresses readiness to die in so good
a cause, ere taking leave of his kinsman and of his
father, wlio bestows upon him a paternal blessing.
Then, both champions take their places, Bolingbroke calling upon his innocence, and Norfolk declaring that whatever the issue of the combat, he
lives and dies a loyal subject of King Richard, who
declares he sees 'virtue with valour couched' in his
At a sign from the throne, both champions receive their lances, and, the heralds having again proclaimed their names and purposes, are about to begin
fighting, when Richard orders them both to lay
aside their weapons, and abide by his decree instead
of by the fate of combat. Then, both champions before him, he proclaims the banishment of Bolingbroke from England for ten years, a decree to
which the culprit bows, gravely saying his only comfort will be that the same sun will continue to shine
upon them both.
Next, turning to Norfolk, the King much more
reluctantly banishes him forever, a sentence passing
heavy to a man, who, having talked English for
forty years, now has to train his tongue to some
new language. When Richard reproves him for
complaining, Norfolk despairingly cries, 'I turn me
from my country's light, to dwell in solemn shades
of endless night.' Then, after making both antagonists swear not to meet or to hold communication during their banishment, nor to plot against
King, countrymen, or native land, Richard hears
Bolingbroke once more summon Norfolk to confess
his crimes, a confession Norfolk vows he would not
make even were he the traitor his opponent supposes! But after bidding the King farewell, Norfolk goes out exclaiming, 'Now no way can I stray; save back to England, all the world's my way.'
On seeing the grief of Lancaster at parting with
his son, Richard cuts off four years of the latter's
term of exile, a boon Bolingbroke appreciates, and
for which Lancaster expresses gratitude, although
he fears he may not live even six years! To cheer
him, Richard assures him he still has long to live, whereupon Lancaster reminds him it doesn't rest
in a king's power to lengthen a man's days, although he may shorten or sadden them at will.
When Richard claims to have banished Bolingbroke 'upon good advice,' Lancaster rejoins that were he a stranger and not a father, he could more
easily plead in the plaintiff's behalf. To end this
painful scene, Richard finally bids father and son
take leave of each other, and departs, repeating his
sentence of banishment for six years.
All his friends now approach to take leave of
Bolingbroke, and one of them offers to accompany
him part of the way. Because Bolingbroke doesn't
answer these kindly speeches, his father inquires
why he 'hoards his words,' only to discover grief
has robbed him of the power of speech. To give
his son courage, Lancaster now bids him make a
virtue of necessity' and enjoy his sojourn abroad,
although the exiled man rejoins every stride he
takes will remind him he is farther away from
home. In fact Bolingbroke does not find the pleasures of imagination satisfying, and assures his father
that although banished, he will ever remain true to England, to which he bids a fervent farewell as
We are now transferred to the court, where
Richard is inquiring of Aumerle, — Bolingbroke's
cousin, — how far he accompanied the exile, only to
learn it was but a short distance. Instead of feeling grief for parting with Bolingbroke, Aumerle shows relief, and when asked to repeat the exile's last words, replies they consisted in a brief farewell, and adds he hopes the term of banishment will
be extended. Although Richard reminds Aumerle
the exile is their cousin, he avers he will not be in a
huny to recall him, for he has noticed Bolingbroke
is as anxious to court the favour of the common
people as if he were heir to England's crown.
At this juncture another courtier reminds Richard
that matters in Ireland are pressing, whereupon the
King decides to hasten thither, and arranges for
new supplies of money by making out blank charters, which are to be granted to all those who contribute lavishly. These arrangements are interrupted by the announcement of the sudden and grievous illness of the Duke of Lancaster, who craves his
presence. Promising to visit his uncle immediately, the King expresses the unkind hope that the
physician will speed his death, for he knows Lancaster is wealthy, and is very anxious to confiscate
his estates for the benefit of his coming campaign in Ireland.
The second act opens in Ely house,
where the dying John of Gaunt hopes the King will
soon arrive, as he wishes to give him some last advice. Although his brother York bids him not trouble thus in vain, Lancaster cherishes the belief a dying man's words will be heeded, and that he may render Richard a last service. When York
assures him the royal ears are stopped by vain, flattering speeches, and that all Richard's time is devoted to frivolities, Lancaster exclaims, 'he tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes,' and wails that England, which he eloquently describes as a 'precious stone set in the silver sea,' is now a prey to misgovernment.
Seeing Richard enter, York urges Lancaster to
remember his youth and deal gently with him, just
as the royal couple draw near their aged uncle's
bed-side with encouraging words. When the King
addresses him as 'aged Gaunt,' Lancaster rejoins he is old indeed, grief having added to his years,
and that he has so faithfully watched over England's welfare, that he is now as 'gaunt'
as his name. Then, he tries to warn Richard
against flatterers and bad advice, tells him his grandfather would not approve of his courses, and reminds him that he is merely 'Landlord of England,' for a time. This speech sorely offends the 'King, who vows had it not been uttered by a sick
man, he should feel his wrath, a threat which fails to
daunt Lancaster, who accuses Richard of having slain
Gloucester. Then, solemnly warning the King he
will some day remember the words he now scorns.
Gaunt bids his attendants bear him first to his bed
and then to his grave, exclaiming that those who
have love and honour may care to live, but that he
The aged Lancaster having been removed,
Richard cruelly comments that those who 'sullens
have' ought to die, although his uncle York tries
to make him take a more kindly view of Lancaster's well-meant advice, by assuring him his uncle loves him as dearly as he does Bolingbroke. A moment later Northumberland enters, announcing the
Duke of Lancaster is dead, and while York mourns
his brother's demise, Richard, after stating 'the
ripest fruit first falls,' proclaims he will take possession of his uncle's wealth, and employ it for the Irish campaign. This decision horrifies York, who audibly wonders how long he will have to bear such things as a brother's death, a nephew's banishment, and the confiscation of ancestral estates; for
he is the last remaining of Edward's brave sons, of whom the Black Prince, Richard's father, was greatest and best.
Seeing his tears, Richard inquires the cause of
his grief, only to be reproached for depriving Bolingbroke of his rightful inheritance, and to be warned this will prove an impolitic move! Ignoring this warning, too, Richard reiterates the order for confiscation, and York departs to avoid witnessing such an act of injustice. His uncle having gone, Richard bids his attendants carry out his instructions ere they depart for Ireland on the morrow, announcing that the Duke of York will act as
regent during his absence. Then, turning to the
Queen, he entreats her to show a merry countenance, as they will have to part on the morrow,
and goes out with her and the rest of his train.
Left alone in the house of the death, friends and
attendants conclude that the old Duke of Lancaster
being dead, Bolingbroke replaces him, although the
King has stripped him of the revenue which should
accompany the title he inherits. After expressing
heartfelt sorrow for what has occurred, they exclaim it is shameful a King should thus ruin a subject, adding this is but foretaste of what will befall
them all hereafter. They add that the weak and
vacillating courses of the King have already
alienated nobles and commons, and that his constant
exactions are fast wearying all his subjects, for bis
revenues, which should suffice to defray all state
expenses, have been madly squandered, and Richard
has spent more in times of peace than many of his
ancestors when waging war! But, when it comes
to robbing his kinsmen to defray the Irish campaign,
all perceive he is conjuring up a storm, wherein
they, too, will perish, unless they take measures to
insure their safety.
Three of these malcontents then reveal how Bolingbroke is assembling a force on the coast of
France, by means of which he expects to invade
England, as soon as Richard has gone, and to win
back his estates. He has chosen as his landing place
Ravenspurgh, where these three lords — Willoughby,
Ross and Northumberland, — mean to betake themselves and join the rebels, for they spur off immediately after making their decision known.
The curtain next rises in Windsor castle, where
attendants are vainly trying to cheer the youthful
Queen, who, ever since her husband's departure has
been in a melancholy mood. Although loath to feel
merry with the King away, Isabella is so unable to
account for her depression, that her attendants assure her 'each substance of a grief has twenty
shadows,' and vow she is taking those very shadows
for realities. The young Queen, however, deems
her depression may be the foreboding of some
'nameless woe,' just as a messenger enters, inquiring whether the King has already gone? This
sudden arrival induces her to ask a few questions,
in reply to which she learns how Bolingbroke has
landed at Ravenspurgh, where he has been joined
by a number of nobles. Appalled by such tidings,
the Queen exclaims her depression was justified,
while the men about her eagerly inquire whether
the proper steps have been taken to declare Bolingbroke a rebel and rouse the people to resistance?
While the Queen is still lamenting over these bad
tidings, the Duke of York comes in, looking so
bowed down with grief, that he inspires neither
Queen nor courtiers with hopes of help or of good
tidings. Instead, he despondently avers 'Comfort's in heaven; and we are on the earth where
nothing lives but crosses, cares, and grief,' and regrets the King's absence leaves him, — an old man,
— to defend the crown against such fearful odds.
The arrival of a servant announcing that York's
son and sundiy other nobles have joined the rebels,
impels the Duke to entrust his ring to this man,
to carry to the Duchess of Gloucester, asking her
to lend him a thousand pounds, as immediate
funds are required to defend the throne. In reply, the servant tells him such an errand would be vain, for, passing near the castle, he heard the Duchess had just breathed her last! After exclaiming it is 'a tide of woes' which has burst in upon
them, York adds he does not know where to procure
funds; so, sending off the servant to collect all the
arms available, he bespeaks the aid of all present,
and leaves the room with the Queen, exclaiming
'everything is left at six and seven.'
When he has gone, the courtiers conclude it will
be vain to oppose Bolingbroke, whose popularity
offers a great contrast to the general disgust with
the King's doings. Two of them. Green and
Bushy, therefore decide to trim their sails according to the wind now blowing and seize Bristol Castle, while Bagot proposes to hasten to Ireland and warn the King, although he has little hope
York will be able to hold out against so formidable
The next scene is played in the wilds of Gloucestershire, where Bolingbroke inquires of Northumberland how far it is still to Berkeley castle? While admitting he is a stranger in these parts,
Northumberland courteously avers the road from
Ravenspurgh has seemed short to him because he
has been too absorbed in Bolingbroke's conversation
to note the flight of time. He opines, however,
the generals of the other forces, — less well entertained, — may have found their journey tedious, just
as Bolingbroke descries some troops which Northumberland discovers are led by his son Percy. Hailing the youth, therefore, he asks news of her brother Worcester, whom Percy evidently expected to find with him since he has deserted the Queen.
When Northumberland inquires what determined
such a move, Percy rejoins that his father, having been pronounced a traitor, Worcester went in
anger to join Bolingbroke at Ravenspurgh, leaving him to ascertain what forces York had stationed
at Berkeley castle.
His curiosity thus satisfied, Northumberland introduces his son to Bolingbroke, who graciously accepts the youth's services, ere they return to the
topic of the nearby castle and the forces manning
it. Percy insists there are but three hundred
men now under York's command, and that only a
few of the lesser nobles have remained true to the
The forces under Ross and Willoughby now
join them, and Bolingbroke welcomes these leaders
also, promising them rich rewards should fortune
favour him. After courteously acknowledging
greeting and promises, all turn to watch Berkeley's
approach. Because the latter addresses Bolingbroke
by his former title, he is haughtily reminded that
since Gaunt's death his son is Duke of Lancaster.
After apologising, Berkeley courteously explains he
is sent by York to ask why Bolingbroke is riding
through the realm with an armed force, just as this
nobleman appears in person and is respectfully
greeted by Bolingbroke as 'my noble uncle.'
Empty courtesy, however, fails to satisfy York,
who haughtily declines relationship to a traitor,
and asks what this armament means? After some
hesitation, Bolingbroke pours out his grievances,
imploring his uncle to do justice to him, as he
would expect it to be done to his own son. Then,
as Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby, all aver
Bolingbroke has indeed been treated unjustly, York
has to admit it, although he denies him the
right 'to be his own carver,' and rebukes all
present for disloyalty. When Northumberland rejoins that Bolingbroke is merely claiming his own,
York, unable to refute the statement, proposes to
remain neutral, and to entertain them all in Berkeley castle. After gladly accepting this offer Bolingbroke invites York to help him oust the traitors,
who have taken possession of Bristol castle, an expedition the King's representative hesitates to undertake, although he pessimistically admits 'Things
past redress are now with me past care.'
The next scene represents a camp in Wales
where a Welsh commander tells Salisbury they have
waited ten days without hearing from the King!
To induce these Welsh forces to remain under arms
a trifle longer, Salisbury vows Richard reposes
great confidence in them, a statement their leader
doubts, for he believes his master dead because many
bad omens have occurred of late. When he has gone
with his troops, Salisbury sadly mutters that Richard's glory like 'a shooting-star,' is falling to earth,
for his friends are deserting him in favour of the
foe, and 'crossly to his good all fortune goes!'
Continue to Richard II Plot Summary (Acts 3, 4 and 5)
Richard II: The Play
Richard II: Q & A
Richard II Character Analysis
Famous Quotations from Richard II