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Richard II

William Shakespeare

Act I, scene iii

Act I, scene ii

Act I, scene iv

Summary

At Coventry, the two challengers, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, enter fully armed into the "lists," or the field of ritual combat. Bolingbroke is the accuser, or "appellant," and Mowbray the "defendant." Aided by the traditional officer of the duel (the Lord Marshal), King Richard formally questions them both and has them repeat their accusations against one another. Both Bolingbroke and Mowbray make dramatic speeches restating their own innocence, the criminality of their opponent, their joy in the fight and their certainty of victory; John of Gaunt blesses his son Bolingbroke and King Richard wishes good luck to both. Heralds and trumpets announce the fight's beginning--but then King Richard interrupts it before either can raise a weapon, by ritually throwing down his "warder" (or umpire's baton) and ordering the duel to stop.

After consulting with his advisors, King Richard returns and decrees a sentence of banishment upon both noblemen: Bolingbroke (whom Richard here addresses as "Herford," in recognition of his title of nobility) is banished from England, not to return for ten years; Mowbray (here called "Norfolk") is banished for life. Both lament their sentences, but to no avail: Richard refuses to alter their punishment, and then forces them both to swear upon his sword that they will never again have contact with one another, even outside of England, or plan treachery against the English throne. Mowbray departs in grief, but Richard suddenly decides to reduce Bolingbroke's span of exile from ten years to six, saying that he takes pity upon his saddened uncle, Bolingbroke's father John of Gaunt. Gaunt thanks the King, but notes that he is so old that he will be dead before his son returns, whether the sentence is ten years or six. After the King and his retinue depart, Bolingbroke continues to lament his exile, in anger and unhappiness; his father counsels him to be philosophical and bear it like a man, imagining that he has banished the king and not the king him: "For gnarling sorrow hath less power to bite / The man that mocks at it and sets it light" (292-3). Bolingbroke, however, answers that misery cannot be vanquished by imagination, and they leave the stage together under a cloud of sadness.

Commentary

The precise logic behind the political events of this scene, like those in Act I, scene i, is somewhat obscure: why exactly does Richard stop the fight, why does he banish Mowbray and Bolingbroke, and why does he banish Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke only for a few years? Richard's speech here is rhetorically powerful, but it does not actually address any of these questions. He seems simply to imply that allowing the men to stay in England would open up the possibility of civil war: "For that our kingdom's earth should not be soil'd / With that dear blood which it hath fostered; / And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect / Of civil wounds plough'd up with neighbours' sword... / Therefore we banish you our territories" (125-139).

The actual reasoning behind the events seems to have been complicated. The common people were hostile toward both Mowbray and Richard because of the parts that they supposedly played in the death of Thomas of Gloucester, but, more importantly, they felt that Richard had stirred up the controversy himself--he should have kept peace between the two. Therefore, Richard felt he had to prevent the duel in order to reduce resentment among the Londoners. For similar reasons, Bolingbroke, a popular favorite, had to get the lighter sentence.

The scene's formal and poetic qualities are interesting. As in Act I, scene i, the characters slip into rhymed couplets at dramatically important moments. For example, when John of Gaunt protests that he will never see his son again, he says that, by the time Bolingbroke returns, "My oil-dried lamp and time-bewasted light / Shall be extinct with age and endless night, / My inch of taper will be burnt and done, / And blindfold Death not let me see my son" (221-225). Mowbray also makes use of an interesting metaphor when he protests that he will never have the chance to use his native tongue again: "[N]ow my tongue's use is to me no more / Than an unstringed viol or a harp... / What is thy sentence then but speechless death, / Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?"

John of Gaunt's advice to his son, by which he tries to show Bolingbroke how to bear his banishment more easily, is an interesting philosophical sermon which contains certain phrases which have since become proverbs: "All places that the eye of heaven visits / Are to a wise man ports and happy havens. / Teach thy necessity to reason thus: / There is no virtue like necessity" (275-79).

Gaunt's advice to Bolingbroke consists largely of a kind of metaphysical double-think, in which the idea is that exile will be made easier to bear if the banished party pretends that he has left the country of his own accord: "Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honor, / And not the king exil'd thee" (282-83). Gaunt also suggests that Bolingbroke try to re-shape reality to what would please him, and interpret the objects of the world to be different from what they actually are: "Suppose the singing birds musicians,... / The flowers fair ladies, and thy steps no more / Than a delightful measure or a dance" (288-291). Bolingbroke, however, refuses to view the world from this idealistic perspective, insisting instead on the realistic: "O, who can hold a fire in his hand / By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?... / Or wallow naked in December snow / By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?" (ll. 294-299). This insistence on the failure of the imagination to alter the real shape of the world is one of key Bolingbroke's key traits, and it puts him in direct contrast with Richard. As the play progresses, Richard becomes increasingly poetic; unable or unwilling to face the harsh realities of the world, he articulates beautiful poetry instead. Bolingbroke, as we see in this scene, is his opposite--pragmatic and hard-headed.

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Blog Post: Richard II

by DanMitchell23, January 09, 2013

I've recently read Richard II for my University course, here are my thoughts!

http://inbetweenthelines1.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/shakespeare-play-richard-ii/

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3 out of 3 people found this helpful

Too Much of a Good Thing for King Richard to Keep

by ReadingShakespearefor450th, February 26, 2013

I just finished King Richard II as part of goal to read all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday.

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1 out of 5 people found this helpful

Who killed Richard?

by SallyMcC, November 15, 2013

I've recently seen an RSC production of Richard II and noticed that instead of being killed by Lord Exton Richard was instead killed by Rutland. Can anyone think of explanation for this? I was thinking that the actor playing Exton may have been incapable of playing the part on that night so the actor playing Rutland took over, but there was a clear recognition between the two after the murder so surely another actor would have played the part if this was the case?

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3 out of 3 people found this helpful

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