Ere my tongue
Shall wound my honor with such feeble wrong
Or sound so base a parle, my teeth shall tear
The slavish motive of recanting fear
And spit it bleeding in his high disgrace,
Where shame doth harbor, even in Mowbray’s face.
(Act 1, scene 1, lines 196–201)

In the play’s opening scene, Bolingbroke accuses Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of having killed his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. With these lines, Bolingbroke demonstrates his intent to back his words up with action, thereby proving the truthful and honorable nature of his accusation. Bolingbroke’s eagerness to prove himself in single combat shows, from a very early point in the play, that he is a man of action. This is a fact that bears out through the rest of the play, as Bolingbroke systematically converts the people of England to his cause. In hindsight, however, it’s likely that Bolingbroke’s words here are in fact fraudulent. As we learn in scene 2, most of the court knows that Richard, and not Mowbray, was behind Gloucester’s death. If Bolingbroke also knows this at the time, then his accusation of Mowbray is neither truthful nor honorable, suggesting a manipulative nature that underlies Bolingbroke’s veneer of respectability.

Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green,
Observed his courtship to the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
(Act 1, scene 4, lines 24–31)

In act 1, scene 4, King Richard recounts an incident where he witnessed Bolingbroke out among the public crowds. With evident bitterness, he acknowledges that Bolingbroke has been able court “the common people” and “dive into their hearts.” On the one hand, Richard shows his disdain for the common rabble when he says that Bolingbroke wastes his “reverence” on people who are little more than “slaves.” Such a low estimate of his own subjects shows how poorly suited Richard is for his office. On the other hand, Richard is also clearly jealous of Bolingbroke’s ability to court the common people, reflecting a tacit acknowledgment that Bolingbroke has a kinglier bearing than the king himself.

They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee. Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murderèd.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor,
But neither my good word nor princely favor.
With Cain go wander through shades of night,
And never show thy head by day nor light.
(Act 5, scene 6, lines 38–44)

These lines come from the play’s final scene, after Bolingbroke has been anointed as King Henry IV. Newly invested with the power of the crown, Henry addresses these words to Sir Pierce of Exton, who has just returned from Pontefract Castle, where he has murdered the recently deposed king. Exton believes that he executed Richard on Henry’s wishes. However, when he presents the former king’s corpse in court, Henry publicly denounces Exton and banishes him to “wander through the shades of night” like the biblical Cain. The banishment of Exton offers a masterclass of political rhetoric. Henry refuses to incriminate himself directly, even as he expresses delight in Richard’s death. He then handily places the sinful burden on Exton’s shoulders and dispenses with him. Though he may be a gifted political performer, for the audience it’s clear that Henry is not a fundamentally new kind of king.