Richard II

Act I
Scene 1: Bolingbroke (John of Gaunt's son) accuses Mowbray of corruption and of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (Gaunt's brother, the king's uncle).
Scene 2: Gaunt hears the pathetic complaints of Gloucester's widow.
Scene 3: A formal trial by combat (following chivalric codes) begins; the king stops it suddenly, and sends both into exile, Mowbray for ever, Bolingbroke for ten years. Gaunt appeals to him, and he reduces Boling- broke's term to six years. Sorrowful farewells.
Scene 4: Richard talks of Bolingbroke's popularity, mentions plans to fight in Ireland against rebels. Gaunt's illness welcomed as a possible source of funds.

Act II
Scene 1: Gaunt with his brother York laments the low state to which Richard's misrule has brought England ("This royal throne..."). The king comes, rejects his criticisms angrily, and when Gaunt's death is announced, at once confiscates all his belongings. York weakly protests, in vain; the lords are angry and Northumberland at once announces that Bolingbroke is returning with an army.
Scene 2: The young queen is anxious without reason, then news comes to justify her forebodings: Bolingbroke has landed, all are flocking to him. York shows his weakness, the corrupt favourites are mentioned.
Scene 3: Bolingbroke arrives, a true leader inspiring loyalty, affirming that he only wants his rights. York protests but entertains him. Scene 4: The Welsh troops, frightened by omens, desert Richard.

Scene 1: Bolingbroke has Richard's corrupt favourites executed without trial.
Scene 2: Richard lands from Ireland, speaking at length about royal power; he learns that his army has gone, that his subjects have denied him, that his favourites are dead; he laments ("Let's talk of graves..."). Hearing that York has sided with Bolingbroke, he despairs.
Scene 3: Richard inside Flint Castle confronts Bolingbroke from the walls, then descends on realizing that he has only the name of king, and surrenders without any demands being made.
Scene 4: The queen in a garden overhears gardeners who are comparing England to an overgrown garden. She learns of the king's situation from them.

Act IV
Scene 1: Inquiries into Gloucester's murder stop on news of Mowbray's death. Richard's abdication is announced, the Bishop of Carlisle protests and is arrested. Richard unkings himself, handing the crown to Bolingbroke; he breaks a mirror as sign of his loss of identity. The Abbot of Westminster begins to plot against the new king in favour of Richard's restoration.

Act V
Scene 1: Richard meets the queen in the street, their final parting.
Scene 2: York describes to his wife the contrast between Richard's humiliating journey and Bolingbroke's triumph. His son Aumerle comes in, and York discovers he is involved in a plot against the new king. While the father decides to denounce his son, the Duchess urges the son to ask Henry for mercy first.
Scene 3: Bolingbroke is declared King Henry IV, and at once mentions the problem of his wild son, Prince Hal (later Henry V). Aumerle rushes in, followed by his father, followed by his mother. Henry shows wisdom and mercy, but the danger of having Richard alive is shown.
Scene 4: Exton plots to kill Richard on the basis of some ambiguous words of the king.
Scene 5: Alone in his cell in Pomfret Castle, Richard speaks a broken soliloquy on the theme of fortune, with memories of the past. A faithful servant visits him and tells of Henry's coronation. Exton kills Richard, then repents.
Scene 6: Henry is forced to be harsh in punishing many rebels; Exton brings Richard's body in a coffin. Henry compares Exton to Cain and banishes him, takes black clothing, promises to visit the Holy Land in penance.

Written not long after Romeo and Juliet, this play is remarkable for its ornate rhetoric; there is no prose, and many of Richard's speeches are formal set-pieces that slow down the action, without giving deep insight into his psyche. Instead they give him mythical and symbolic greatness in direct proportion to his loss of royal power, until he becomes virtually a Christ-figure, 'a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief'.

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.
Let's choose executors and talk of wills.
And yet not so--for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill'd,
All murthered--for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour'd thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king! (Act III.ii)

The fall of Richard marks the beginning of the process that was to lead to the Wars of the Roses, shown in the first tetralogy. In Richard's understanding, the killing of the king is a sacrilegious act, the king being seen as God's own image. This was a major theme in the Tudor state propaganda. Elizabeth was threatened in many ways, and this play is remarkable for putting on the stage the successful deposition of a king, then his murder. In the early quarto editions, the actual "deposition scene" was not printed, although it was probably acted.

The play was very popular, there were three quarto editions published in 1597-8. In early February, 1601, the Queen's former favourite, the Earl of Essex, attempted a revolt in London; the day before, he paid for a performance of Richard II at the Globe. His revolt failed, but the democratic cause went from strength to strength in the decades that followed. Some critics have claimed that Shakespeare's play supports the Tudor propaganda, that the Henry IV plays show the curse of disorder descending on England as divine punishment that can only be lifted by the blessing of Tudor rule.

This seems not to treat the texts quite seriously. Almost certainly, Shakespeare shared the opinion that the propaganda was designed to fight, that a ruler in England could only rule with the people's consent. Social harmony is his ideal, not royal absolutism. Shakespeare rewrote history, making old John of Gaunt into a prophet of England's future 'greatness' in a famous speech:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas'd out--I die pronouncing it--
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat'ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! (Act II.i)

In this play, and in Henry V, the English people are shown as helpless pawns in the power struggles of the mighty. Even in the heroic Henry V, war is shown as a very bad thing, bringing pain, grief, and destruction to the poor. There is no clear evidence of an increase of pain giving underlying shape to the second tetralogy. The flow of future history is certainly present in the audience's minds, creating a climate of unspoken irony that overshadows even the fervour of Henry V. As in King John, there is a strong warning to England that the 'enemy within' is more dangerous than any foreign army.

Shakespeare later wrote a play where regicide is followed by sufferings that affect society in general until at last the usurper is overthrown: Macbeth. It is instructive to compare the morality of that play with the structure of Richard II. It should be noted that Bolingbroke never once demands the crown, or seems to want to rule, while in Holinshed it is clear that the deposition of Richard was carefully orchestrated. By making queen Isabel older than the child she was, and by giving dramatic weight to Richard's pain, Shakespeare centres the play on his falling humanity.