William Shakespeare
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second II
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is a good play, though for me somewhat lacking high interest and profundity of language found in the remaining plays in this tetralogy.

Overview of the Historical Plays: This is the first play in his second tetralogy, which also includes Henry IV parts 1 and 2 (c. 1596-8) and Henry V (1599) and which dramatizes the beginnings of the conflict leading to the War of the Roses. The two tetralogies (the first was written earlier but covers the later reigns of Henry VI and Richard III) together cover the century of conflict in England lasting from the 1390s to Richard III's defeat by Henry VII in 1485.  (For further summaries and royal genealogy, see Henry VI Part 1).

Per Bevington: Principal source was Raphael Holinshed's "Chronicles". The scenes with the Queen in the garden and with the Duchess of York are invented. Northumberland's role as a conspirator is exaggerated as is the depiction Gaunt's importance. Many of the alterations derive from Daniel's "The First Four Books of the Civil Wars" (1595). Other probable or possible sources include "The Life and Death of Jack Straw", "Thomas of Woodstock" [also known as "1 Richard II"], Marlowe's "Edward II", "Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York", "A Mirror for Magistrates", Froissart's "The Chronicles of England" and other French chronicles.

The play was controversial to the Elizabethan court in its dealing with deposing a king, and the part dealing with Richard's deposition was censored in some published versions.

Major themes/events include: The divine right and body of the English King and the doctrine of "passive obedience" and the concept of the bad king as a divine scourge; Richard's sensitiveness and poetic nature but incompetence; his ill-advised use of "farming his realm", "blank charters", and other means of raising funds from his nobility; the unfair banishment of Bolingbroke and confiscation of his properties; Richard's complicity in the death of his uncle Thomas of Woodstock; Dirty politics underlying pomp and ceremony; Bolingbroke as a pragmatic man of action who is popular with the people and acquires de facto power; Balance and symmetry; the contrast between public and private spheres; England as a lost Eden, a garden that has been mismanaged; England as a sick patient; cosmic and worldly disorder (as manifested by comets, shooting stars, withered trees, night owls, etc.); sun imagery.


Act I

Act I Scene 1

Windsor castle (historically 1398). King Richard II ("R2", son of Edward the Black Prince of Wales, who was the 1st son of Kind Edward III; married to Isabella of France; ruled 1377-1399) speaks with his uncle John of Gaunt ("Gaunt", named after his birthplace Ghent; 4th son of Edward III; Duke of Lancaster) about the accusation his son Henry Bolingbroke ("Bolingbroke", Duke of Hereford; future Duke of Lancaster and future King Henry IV "H4") has made against Thomas Mowbray ("Mowbray"; Duke of Norfolk). Gaunt believes the accusation involves danger to the king and R2 requests that the hot-headed adversaries be brought in. 

Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason and challenges him to trial by combat. He says that Mowbray, while in Calais, has improperly kept funds intended for the soldiers and that, while he was under his protection, he has been responsible for the death of the Duke of Gloucester ("Gloucester"; Thomas of Woodstock; 7th and youngest son of E3 and brother to John of Gaunt and uncle to R2; historically died 1397). Mowbray vigorously defends his honor against the charges: he denies slaying Gloucester but hints that he had been charged to do this [by the king?]. He also says the money he kept was owed to him by R2 for his efforts in fetching R2's queen Isabella from the French king Charles VI [historically 1395]. He acknowledges that once he planned an ambush on Gaunt's life but that he has asked for and received pardon from Gaunt for this [unclear if the attack was actually attempted]. R2 wishes the dispute to be settled without bloodshed, and Gaunt also tries to intervene to this effect. Mowbray however refuses to allow the accusation against his honor and good name to stand, and Bolingbroke will also not relent, so R2 decides they will undergo a trial by combat at Coventry on Saint Lambert's day (Sept. 17).

Act I Scene 2

Gaunt's house. Gaunt confers with the Duchess of Gloucester, widow of his slain brother Gloucester. Gaunt responds to her entreaty for justice that he can do nothing, since he believes R2 was responsible and that correction for the wrongful action of a divine king can only be made by God. The Duchess wants vengeance and angrily appeals to his love for his brother and the blood they shared from their father E3, suggesting that he is a coward to not act. But Gaunt insists R2 is God's deputy and must be punished only by Him. She hopes that Bolingbroke will triumph in the combat with Mowbray, whom she also blames for the slaying, and bitterly resigns herself to grief. She considers asking the Duke of York ["York"; Edmund of Langley, 5th son of E3] to visit her at the Gloucester's county seat, Pleshey in Essex, then decides against it.

Act I Scene 3

The lists of Coventry [i.e., the field or space designed for combat]. York's son ["Aumerle", Edward Duke of Aumerle; later Earl of Rutland and D. of York, died at Agincourt], says to the Marshal of the combat that his cousin Bolingbroke is ready. The king and his retinue enter and R2 asks the Marshal to have the combatants formally identify themselves and announce the cause of their combat--they each again proclaim their views in this highly structured rite of chivalry. R2 embraces Bolingbroke and bids him farewell in case he should die, but B. is full of confidence and youthful vigor. He greets Aumerle and Gaunt his father, the latter praying for his success. Mowbray speaks again of his righteous cause. They receive their lances and the heralds announce their intents again.

But just as the charge is sounded, R2 stops it and pauses to confer with his counselors including Gaunt. He then announces that he will not allow his kingdom to be soiled in this manner and that he wishes to maintain the peace. He suggests that sky-aspiring ambition is behind Bolingbroke's challenge [he knows B. is a threat to his rule]. He decides instead to banish Mowbray from the country for life, and Bolingbroke for 10 years. Bolingbroke proudly answers with little concern, but Mowbray bitterly states his more severe sentence is like a death sentence, believing he deserved a dearer acknowledgement of his merit. R2 will not be moved, and requires them both to make an oath that they will not seek out each other, nor plot an attack against his kingdom, nor disobey the ruling. Bolingbroke tries one more time to get Mowbray to confess his treason. Mowbray again denies this but predicts that R2 will rue someday what B. will become. R2 sees the tears in Gaunt's eyes and decides to reduce B.'s banishment to 6 years, but Gaunt sadly says he will in either event be dead by then and that R2 cannot add any years to his life. He bitterly laments that R2 asked him to pass judgement on his own son, which he did as an overly impartial judge rather than as a father, hoping that others would speak out more on Bolingbroke's behalf. Aumerle bids goodbye to B. and wants to keep in touch by mail. Gaunt suggests that B. think positively wherever he ends up, but B. cannot be consoled by his father and insists more realistically that it does little good to think of summer when freezing in winter, etc. B. bids goodbye to England.

Act I Scene 4

The court. R2 asks Aumerle how far he took Bolingbroke. Aumerle indicates to the king it was only a short ways and expresses his dislike for B. and his lack of sadness at his departure [Aumerle is an early Yorkist; father to Richard Earl of Cambridge executed by H5; grandfather to Richard Plantagenet Duke of York who was R3's father. On the other hand, Bolingbroke is son of the Duke of Lancaster]. R2 notes how B. has readily won the affection of the peoples with his easygoing familiar manner and seems to act as if he is already in succession to the throne. 

The courtier Green directs the king's attention to the rebellion in Ireland, and R2 resolves to go there in person to suppress it. His large and extravagant court has depleted the royal funds and to raise more for the campaign, he decides to "farm our royal realm" [i.e., to sell to the highest bidder the right to collect taxes for subsequent personal gain] and if necessary use blank charters [writs authorizing the holder to force loans to the state and to write in the amounts and names of the rich according to their wealth]. 

The courtier Bushy announces Gaunt is ill. R2 hopes his uncle will die soon, hoping to get his assets for the Irish war.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Palace of the Bishop of Ely, in London. Gaunt speaks to his brother York, hoping R2 will come to him before he dies. York says R2 will not listen to advice, but Gaunt hopes the words of a dying man will be more persuasive. York says R2's ears are stopped up with flattery and laments the influence of Italian luxury and fashion etc. on the court. Gaunt views himself as a prophet, and England as a once great island paradise that is now leased out and bound with shame.

R2 arrives with his Queen, etc. He offers comfort to Gaunt, but Gaunt makes wordplay on his name Gaunt, claiming R2 has killed his name by banishing his son. Gaunt says: R2 is dying, though he appears to be in health; the land is sick and R2's reputations also; wasteful flatterers sit within the crown; Edward III would have deposed his grandson R2 had he known he would be like this... R2 is incensed and calls him a presumptous lunatic and threatens that he would have had him beheaded if he weren't Prince Edward's brother. But Gaunt then accuses him of murdering Gaunt's brother, Gloucester--R2 is shamed and this shame will not die with him. Gaunt is borne off.

York tries to make apologies for Gaunt, but R2 is convinced of Gaunt's enmity and of his son's. The Earl of Northumberland (Henry Percy) arrives to inform R2 that Gaunt has died. R2 makes immediate plans to seize Gaunt's plate, coin, and other personal property [i.e., Bolingbroke's inheritance] for the war. York, now the last of E3's surviving sons, cannot bear to be silent and speaks out against this outrage. He reminds R2 that R2's father Edward the Black Prince warred against France, not against his own nobles, and that he spent what he won from France rather than what his father had acquired. He urges him not to seize Bolingbroke's inheritance, reminding him that proper adherence to the rules of succession and inheritance have made him king and that to act otherwise will jeopardize his own rule. But R2 will not be deterred, and makes plans to leave the next day for Ireland. Despite York's previously expressed disapproval, he appoints him as regent.

After the king leaves, Northumberland tells Lords Ross and Willoughby that Gaunt is dead and the banished B. is now Duke of Lancaster. He speaks out against the injustice to Bolingbroke and to the other nobles whose wealth is being plundered. Ross says the common people are losing their affection for R2. N. says R2 has wasted his predecessor's hard-won gains. Ross claims the Earl of Wiltshire has the realm "in farm" (mortgaged). N. hints at rebellion and, with prompting, states that Bolingbroke is coming in 8 ships, furnished by the D of Brittany, and accompanied by Thomas (son of the Earl of Arundel), Cobham, other nobles, and 3000 men. They and will soon land on their northern shore. The conspirators resolve to make for the Yorkshire port of Ravenspurgh.

Act II Scene 2

The court at Windsor. The queen expresses to the courtiers Bushy and Bagot an ill-defined sorrow that is coming her way, and Bushy cannot talk her out of it. Green arrives to announce that Bolingbroke has arrived in arms at Ravenspurgh and that Northumberland, his son Harry [Henry] Percy [future Hotspur], Ross, Beaumont, and Willoughby have joined him, as has the Earl of Worcester [brother to Northumberland]. The Queen despairs. York arrives and is unable to offer her the consolation she seeks. A servingman arrives to inform him that his son Aumerle has left, and York wonders why, fearing further revolt. He wants to send the messenger on to the Duchess of Gloucester at Pleshey to raise money, but he informs him that she is dead. York laments the tide of woes and wonders where he will get the money to fight the battles ahead. 

Left alone, Bushy, Green, and Bagot express their own dismal assessment of their future and Bushy and Green resolve to flee to Bristol Castle and the Earl of Wiltshire [who has helped to mortgage England] while Bagot flies to the king in Ireland. Green expresses the unlikelihood that Richard will prevail.

Act II Scene 3

Gloucestershire, near Berkeley Castle. Bolingbroke meets with Northumberland. N.'s son Harry Percy arrives and informs N. that N. has been declared a traitor, offering his own service to B., which B. graciously accepts. They view the castle wherein are the R2 supporters York, Lord Berkeley, and Seymour. Ross and Willoughby arrive in support of B. B. is modest and insists he is come only to claim his title and can only offer at that time thanks as a reward for helping him. 

Berkeley arrives to parley. B. insists he be called Duke of Lancaster, again insisting he is only there to claim his rightful inheritance. Berkeley has been sent by York to find out B.'s intentions, and York soon follows behind. York chastises B. as a traitor threatening England, recalls when he saved B.'s father in battle, and laments that his advanced age make it hard for him to personally correct the defiant invader. B. wants his title as D of Lancaster and argues the injustice of the confiscation of his father's properties. York admits he has felt some of the king's actions were wrong, but nevertheless cannot condone the rebellion, concluding temporarily and because of his impotence that he will be "neutral", and then eventually going over to their side.

Act II Scene 4

Camp in Wales. The Welsh captain [Glendower?] leading his Welsh troops in support of the king decides R2 is dead (based on numerous bad signs: the bay trees are withered, meteors, moon looks bloody, prophets whisper fearful change, etc.), and announces to the Earl of Salisbury that he is pulling the troops out. Salisbury sees R2's downfall looming.

Act III

Act III Scene 1

Bristol, the castle. B. addresses the captured Bushy and Green, details their misdeeds against R2, their county, and to B., and turns them over to Northumberland for execution [Stephen Scroop is also executed]. He asks of York about the Queen and insists she be kindly treated. 

Act III Scene 2

Coast of Wales near Barkloughly [Harlech] Castle. R2 has landed and gratefully touches the ground, glad to be back to his kingdom, speaking to the ground as to an injured mother, asking the earth not to nurture Bolingbroke but to poison his enemies instead. The Bishop of Carlisle reassures him of God's intent to save him. Aumerle thinks their side has been remiss through overconfidence. But R2 speaks poetically of how the sun eventually exposes traitors like B. and how they will triumph with God's help.

Salisbury arrives to inform him that the Welsh army has gone over to Bolingbroke; R2 pales at this news. Aumerle counsels him to remain like a king in his actions. Sir Stephen Scroop arrives, and R2 is increasingly despairing at the news of extensive defections by the populace. Scroop tells him that Bushy, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire have been executed by B. at Bristol. R2 speaks of graves and worms and epitaphs and the deaths of kings. Carlisle urges him not to wail his woe and to conquer his fear. But Scroop has even more bad news: York has gone over to Bolingbroke, along with his many followers. R2 despairs and resolves to flee to Flint castle in Wales, asking Aumerle to discharge his followers.

Act III Scene 3

Wales before Flint Castle. Bolingbroke stands on the ground before the walls of the castle and chastises Northumberland for disrespectfully saying "Richard" rather than "King Richard". York berates Northumberland also for this show of disrespect and cautions B. not to act in excess. Harry Percy arrives informing them that R2 and the others are within the castle. B. asks Northumberland to send news to R2 of Bolingbroke's unwavering allegiance to him and his desire just to receive his rightful inheritance and repeal of his banishment--only if not granted these requests will he resort to force against R2. 

R2 appears above on the walls with his followers, like the blushing sun discontented by obscuring clouds. He demands of N. below why he does not kneel down in the king's presence, saying that God is preparing retribution for this rebellion against the offpsring of Northumberland and the other rebels. But N. claims assures the king of their continued allegiance and Bolingbroke's limited goals. R2 readily agrees to B.'s demands. 

Privately to Aumerle, R2 expresses regret for being conciliatory but Aumerle counsels gentle words until reinforcements arrive. R2 dislikes lifting the banishment he imposed on B., knowing B.'s power will only grow. 

N. again approaches the walls and R2 asks further what he R2 must do, envisioning his humiliation and humble fate, growing increasingly distracted. N. says B. wants to speak to him face to face. R2 descends and arrives below before B., who kneels before him--R2 grants B.'s requests. B. is heading on for London.

Act III Scene 4

Duke of York's garden. The Queen wants to be distracted by her lady from her woes. She stands aside to overhear a gardener talks to a man. The gardener speaks of weeds like parasitic members of society. The other man suggests the whole land is full of weeds, gone to disorder. The gardener says the king has been the cause of the weeds (Wiltshire, Bushy, and Green), has not kept his court trimmed like a well regulated garden, and will doubtless be deposed (despite B.'s assurances to the contrary in 3.3). The queen comes forth angrily and the gardener informs her the king is indeed being held prisoner by Bolingbroke in London, to her surprise. She resolves to go to London.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Westminster Hall. Bolingbroke calls Bagot before him and demands to know the details about Gloucester's death. Bagot suggests that Aumerle [who supports R2] knows the answer, and adds that Aumerle has spoken against B., and wanted him dead. Aumerle answers by throwing down his gage [a glove, i.e., a challenge to fight]. Lord Fitzwater adds his gage against Aumerle, saying he heard Aumerle say he Aumerle was the cause of Gloucester's death. Harry Percy calls Aumerle a liar and adds his gage, as does another lord. Lord Surrey (an R2 supporter) accuses Fitzwater of lying and throws in his gage. Fitzwater responds claiming he heard Mowbray say that Aumerle sent two men to Calais to do the execution. Aumerle challenges Fitzwater. B. tells the men all to suspend their differences pending a trial by combat, and he will recall Mowbray. But Carlisle informs him that Mowbray was a crusader and has died in Venice. 

York arrives and informs B. that R2 has consented to grant the scepter and kingship to B. Bishop Carlisle speaks out humbly but vehemently against this, predicting that if B. usurps the throne, "the blood of English shall manure the ground/And future ages groan for this foul act...O, if you raise this house against this house,/It will the woefullest division prove/That ever fell upon this cursed earth." [i.e., the houses of York=Aumerle and Lancaster=Bolingbroke will go to war for years to come.] Carlisle is ordered taken into custody by Northumberland for this [but later seems to be free]. 

N. then asks to proceed with the common's suit whereby the king is formally tried on the grounds justifying his deposition. B. says to proceed and tells the assembled lords [which ones?] that they are under arrest. 

R2 is brought in. He is pitiful, recalling the previous devotion of the assembled men and thinking of them now as like Judas. He gives his crown and scepter to B. though he is unwilling to give away his griefs. He tearfully releases all men from their oaths to him. He knows he will not have long to live. N. rudely presents a paper to him to sign, detailing his alleged crimes. R2 refuses despite N.'s insistence. R2 calls for a mirror, reflects on not knowing now what to call himself, and breaks the mirror. B. asks N. not to pursue the demand to sign the paper further. R2 asks to leave, and B. orders him to be taken to the Tower. He plans his coronation for the following Wednesday.

Left alone, the Abbot of Westminster invites Carlisle [who somehow is still free] and Aumerle to have dinner with him to discuss a plot.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

London, A street leading to the Tower. The Queen encounters R2 as he is being led away. He urges her to hasten to France. She wants him to be more defiant, like a lion. But he wants her to think of himself as dead. N. arrives to inform him that instead he is being taken to Pomfret [Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire]. R2 predicts that N.'s own wickedness and ambition will challenge B. and corrupt the land. The king and queen tenderly part with kisses. N. refuses to allow the king to go with her to France. 

Act V Scene 2

The Duke of York's house. The Duchess of York hears from her husband how the commoners threw dirt on R2's head as he rode to London, while Bolingbroke (now King Henry IV, "H4") rode R2's horse and was warmly received by the people. Her son Aumerle arrives. York says their son must now be called the Earl of Rutland as he has lost the Dukedom of Aumerle as a result of his support for R2. [Historically, Aumerle was actually the son of York's first wife, whereas she was the mother of Richard E. of Cambridge]. 

York wonders about the upcoming tourneys and games in Oxford [a conspiracy organized by the Abbot of Westminster]. He spots a paper in Aumerle's blouse and insists on seeing it, though Aumerle resists. In it, he discovers the conspiratorial plan to assassinate H4. York resolves to turn in his own son, but his wife tries to talk him out of it. Seeing he will not relent, she urges Aumerle to go in haste to the king and ask for mercy.

Act V Scene 3

The court at Windsor castle. H4 wonders where his profligate son is (i.e., Henry of Monmouth, future H5). Harry Percy tells him of Henry's dissolute life. Aumerle rushes in and asks a private conference with the king, which he grants. He begs his pardon for a deed not yet done, which H4 grants in advance of hearing it. He locks the door, but York arrives and eventually rushes in as H4 draws his own sword against Aumerle. York accuses his son of being a traitor, showing H4 the paper signed by the conspirators. Aumerle insists he has repented his participation. H4 praises York's loyalty to him. The Duchess of York arrives and condemns her hard-hearted husband, pleading for the life of Rutland her son. After much pleading, and conter-urging by York, H4 pardons Rutland/Aumerle. But he pronounces execution for the other conspirators including Exeter (husband of his sister) and the Abbot.

Act V Scene 4

The court. Sir Pierce of Exton has heard H4 wonder aloud who will rid him of R2 while looking directly at him. He takes this as an order for assassination.

Act V Scene 5

Dungeon in Pomfret castle. R2 thinks out loud in some disarray. A stable Groom enters and speaks sympathetically with him--he used to care for his horse, roan Barbary, which H4 rode subsequently. R2 momentarily blames the horse for not being more loyal to him. A prison keeper runs the Groom off, and offers R2 food which he himself refuses to taste. Exton and his men burst in. R2 valiantly defends himself, killing one of them, but Exton kills him and bears the body off to H4.

Act V Scene 6

The court. H4 has learned that rebels against him have burned the town of Cirencester in Gloucestershire. Northumberland arrives to say that Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent have been executed. Fitzwater arrives to announce that Brocas and Seely (traitors in the Oxford conspiracy) have been executed. Henry (i.e., Harry) Percy arrives with the detained Bishop of Carlisle, saying the Abbot of Westminster is dead. H5 tells Carlisle that he should seek out a quiet religious retirement, since H5 knows him to be his enemy [though apparently he is not one of the conspirators]. 

Exton arrives with the body of R2. H4 is distressed that Exton translated his wishes into action, says a slander has been brought on H4's head, and banishes him. He laments the blood that has sprinkled on him to make his reign grow, and resolves to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to wash off the blood.