Richard II is a play with essentially one major event: the dethroning of King Richard. Shakespeare defers this event to act 4, and everything leading up to this momentous act—which consists of a single, long scene—functions as the play’s rising action.

The play opens with Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, accusing another noble, Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of political assassination. Bolingbroke claims that Mowbray is responsible for the murder of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Richard attempts to reconcile the two men, but their hotheaded insistence thwarts the king’s efforts, and a date is set for a duel of single combat.

This opening scene sets the stage in two ways. First, already we see Richard failing to execute the kingly command he supposes to be his divine right. Second, Richard’s seemingly disinterested formality as he deals with Bolingbroke and Mowbray is a fraudulent show, since he—and not Mowbray—was the one responsible for Gloucester’s death. Yet as we soon learn in the play’s second scene, everyone at court already seems to know that Richard ordered his uncle’s murder. It’s also clear that, in addition to his villainous spilling of “sacred blood” (1.2.12), Richard has also fostered ill will among commoners and nobles alike for his burdensome taxation schemes, which he devised to pay for self-indulgent foreign wars. Thus, from the very beginning, Shakespeare reveals Richard’s ineptitude as a king.

These facts about Richard’s villainy and his poor status among his subjects paves the way for the play’s inciting incident, which occurs in act 1, scene 3. In this scene, Bolingbroke and Mowbray prepare to do battle, only to be interrupted by Richard, who stops the duel and announces that both men are to be banished: Mowbray for life, and Bolingbroke for six years. Though Bolingbroke appears to accept his exile, he knows that Richard has made this pronouncement in bad faith. Richard has apparently banished the men to punish them for refusing his command to reconcile. But from another vantage, Richard’s pronouncement demonstrates a hypocritical refusal to accept responsibility for a crime he committed. To make matters worse, Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies soon after his banishment. Needing more cash to fund his war in Ireland, Richard seizes Gaunt’s estate and thereby deprives Bolingbroke of his rightful inheritance.

Richard’s catalogue of crimes against both his family and his kingdom effectively destines him for a fall. Thus, when Bolingbroke returns to England while the king is away in Ireland, he has an easy time converting the nobility to his cause. By the time Richard makes it back to British soil, in act 3, scene 2, he has already lost his kingdom. The remainder of Richard II traces an X-like pattern as Richard’s precipitous descent plays out in relation to Bolingbroke’s equally sharp ascent.

As Richard reckons with the dissolution of his power, his speech becomes increasingly poetic. He essentially relinquishes command of a kingdom in exchange for the mastery of metaphor. Yet his words remain as empty and ineffectual as ever. In truth, the only thing he can accomplish with his elaborate and even metaphysical poetry is his own dethroning. Significantly, Richard conducts most of the ceremony that takes place in the climactic act 4, effectively uncrowning himself: “Now, mark me how I will undo myself. / I give this heavy weight from off my head / And this unwieldy scepter from my hand, / The pride of kingly sway from out my heart” (4.1.212–15). Bolingbroke stands by and watches as Richard hands him the symbols of his office, thus enabling him to be sworn as the new King Henry IV.

The coronation occurs offstage, between acts 4 and 5. With the transfer of power officially complete, the play’s falling action begins. King Henry IV and his entourage make the journey to London, where the crowds joyfully welcome the new king and throw dirt on the old one. Once in the seat of power, Henry conducts his first business as king, variously executing, exiling, or exonerating those who have stood against him. In these early days of the new regime, the Duke of York discovers that his son, Aumerle, has become involved in a plot to assassinate the new king. Hoping to demonstrate his loyalty to Henry, York pleas with the king to execute his son. Surprisingly, the king shows mercy.

If the king’s mercy seems to betoken a new kind of rule, the play’s final scenes invite skepticism. Believing he’s acting according to Henry’s wishes, Sir Pierce of Exton travels to the faraway Pontefract Castle, where Richard has been sent and kept prisoner. Exton murders the former king and returns to London with his body. When he presents the corpse to Henry, the new king delivers a masterful political performance. Maintaining plausible deniability while also tacitly admitting his involvement with the murder, Henry rebukes Exton and banishes him from court. Thus, the reign of King Henry IV begins with a political assassination that ominously echoes the assassination that initiated the play’s central conflict: Richard’s murder of the Duke Gloucester.