The dramatic action of Richard II tracks the title character’s downfall, concluding with his being dethroned and, ultimately, executed. In the play’s opening scene, Richard seems to have the proper bearing of a king. He presides over the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and though he fails to reconcile the two men, he comports himself with the impartial formality we’d expect from the king of England. But his inability to effect a successful reconciliation portends his rapid dissolution of power. The seeds for this rapid dissolution were sewn before the play even began, with the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who was uncle to both Bolingbroke and the king. In act 1, scene 2, the audience learns what most of the characters in the play already know, which is that Richard orchestrated his uncle’s assassination. This villainous act, along with the extortionate taxation scheme he devises to pay for his foreign wars, inspires universal hatred for him among commoners and nobles alike. Self-absorbed and inept as a politician, Richard seems destined for a fall.

Throughout the play, the more Richard’s authority as king erodes, the more verbose and poetic his speech becomes. At the beginning, his speech seems driven primarily by fraudulence and outright greed. Despite York’s plea for him to preserve Bolingbroke’s inheritance for when he returns to England, Richard lays claim to John of Gaunt’s estate with two brutally efficient lines: “Think what you will, we seize into our hands / His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands” (2.1.218–19). By contrast, in the play’s final two acts, after being stripped of all power, Richard indulges in increasingly elaborate speeches. Yet for all his rhetorical gifts, his words remain powerless. The only action his speech can effect is his own dethroning: “Now, mark me how I will undo myself” (4.1.212). Among his most extreme proclamations in the play’s second half involves his self-comparison to the martyred Christ, betrayed by “three Judases” (3.2.136) and numerous “Pilates” (4.1.251). This self-comparison is linked to Richard’s belief in the divine right of kings. Just like Christ, he too is favored by God, though also destined for martyrdom. By the play’s end, Richard is reduced to a pitiable figure—alone, gravely deluded, and awaiting death.