As the play opens, the young King Richard II has just arrived at Windsor Castle, a royal headquarters near London. There he is to arbitrate a dispute between two noble courtiers, one of whom has accused the other of treachery. The accuser is the king’s cousin, a proud young nobleman named Henry Bolingbroke, also called the Duke of Herford; he is the son of John of Gaunt, the king’s aged and distinguished uncle. Bolingbroke is accusing Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, of several heinous crimes against his king and country. These crimes include embezzlement, general participation in conspiracy against the king for the past eighteen years, and—by far the most serious—Mowbray’s participation in the successful conspiracy to murder another of the king’s uncles (the late Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester) a short time before.

Mowbray denies all these charges, although he does so in rather ambivalent terms. For instance, he acknowledges that he was aware of the scheme to kill Gloucester, and that he once laid an unsuccessful plot to kill the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt. However, he denies actual responsibility for Gloucester’s death and says he has repented all his bad intentions through the Catholic ritual of confession. Mowbray and Bolingbroke insult each other in increasingly heated and creative terms. As Richard says of them, “High-stomach’d are they both and full of ire, / In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire” (1.1.19–20)—that is, both men are rash, hot-tempered, and unwilling to listen to reason.

Mowbray and Bolingbroke call each other liars and traitors, and they eventually throw down their “gages” (that is, their hoods or hats) at each other’s feet, challenging one another to a traditional chivalric duel to settle the dispute. King Richard, with the help of Bolingbroke’s father John of Gaunt, tries to convince the two to reconcile, but they both refuse as a point of honor. So, Richard sets a date—St. Lambert’s Day—for the two to have a formal, traditional duel.

Read a translation of Act 1: Scene 1.


This crowded, busy, and confusing scene has two main functions: it both throws us into the action in medias res—that is, in the middle of things—and provides us with some background information about the meaning of the events that are occurring. We can tell from the very start that this play will be full of characters who are nursing old grudges, and who carry contradictory interpretations of past and current events. We also see instantly that the play will be very heavily influenced by events that have occurred in the past: these two young noblemen, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, accuse each other of committing crimes that took place before the play began.

It is important to bear in mind that this play and its events are part of a larger context: that is, they are part of the long continuum of English history and thus belong to a documentary tradition that chronicles the wars and the dynasties of English royal houses. In Shakespeare’s history plays, nothing happens in a vacuum; all the action is informed by earlier events, which Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with from folklore or history books.

Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s mutual accusations are complicated for various reasons. On the surface, what Bolingbroke says is simple enough: he accuses Mowbray of having embezzled the money which the king gave him to raise and supply his armies. He also claims that Mowbray has been instigating plots against the king for eighteen years (the historical reference is to Wat Tyler’s rebellion in 1381). Finally, he charges Mowbray with having conspired in the murder of the king’s uncle, Thomas of Gloucester. Mowbray frames his rebuttals in ambiguous language, especially regarding the death of Gloucester: “I slew him not, but to my own disgrace / Neglected my sworn duty in that case” (1.1.137–38).

To make matters more complicated, at work beneath this scene is a truth that no one dares speak aloud: everyone is aware that King Richard II himself was, in fact, involved in his uncle’s death. We will learn this fact explicitly from John of Gaunt in the following scene. But in the meantime, the lack of clarity surrounding Bolingbroke’s accusation and Mowbray’s rebuttal introduces the atmosphere of official hypocrisy, the morass of dark court secrets, and the looming shadow of the past, which will affect events at court and in the kingdom throughout the play.

The poetic rhetoric of this scene also sets the stage for the remainder of the play. Richard II is noted for its lyricism, its richness of metaphor and symbolism, and the formality of its language. There is hardly any prose in the play, and characters often speak in rhymed couplets that mark moments of particular importance and emotional intensity. This use of rhyme occurs often in act 1, scene 1. For instance, when Richard tries to reconcile the quarrelers near the end of the scene, nearly everyone begins to speak in rhyme. Mowbray says, for instance, “Mine honor is my life, both grown in one. / Take honor from me, and my life is done. / Then, dear my liege, mine honor let me try. / In that I live, and for that will I die” (1.1.188–91).