While Richard, Bolingbroke, and their respective allies have been having their fateful encounters in the west of England and in Wales, Queen Isabel has been staying at the house of the Duke of York (at Langley, not far from London). Although she has not yet heard the news of Richard’s capture by Bolingbroke, sadness and foreboding weigh very heavily upon her. As she walks in the duke’s garden, her ladies-in-waiting try to cheer her up by suggesting a variety of entertainments—games, songs, dances, and stories. The queen rejects all these ideas, saying that any attempt to forget her grief would only add to it.

An aged gardener and his assistant enter the garden to tend to some of the plants. At the queen’s suggestion, she and her ladies conceal themselves in the shadow of a grove to overhear the men’s discussion. She has noticed that the common folk have been talking about affairs of state, as if expecting an imminent change in the government.

The older gardener tells his assistant to bind an apricot tree against a wall, then the two begin to talk about the state of the country, using the garden as a metaphor. Why, the assistant asks, should the two of them bother to maintain order within their garden, when the country surrounding it has been allowed to sprout weeds and be infested by insects (a reference to Richard’s mismanagement and his unpopular advisors)? The elder gardener tells him to keep quiet, since the person who caused the country’s disorder has “met with the fall of leaf” (3.5.53)—that is, King Richard has been overthrown. He informs the assistant that letters came last night to a friend of the Duke of York’s, bearing the news that the king’s allies—Bushy, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire—are all dead, and that King Richard himself has been captured by Bolingbroke. It seems almost certain that the king will soon be stripped of his power.

Queen Isabel, no longer able to contain herself, bursts from her hiding place to ask the gardener if what he says is true. The gardener apologetically confirms that it is: King Richard is in Bolingbroke’s custody. Isabel, lamenting her misfortune and the sorrow that lies in her future, summons her ladies to come with her to London to meet the captured Richard. She casts upon the gardener a half-hearted, grief-stricken curse as she departs: “Gard’ner, for telling me these news of woe, / Pray God the plants thou graft’st may never grow” (3.4.107–108). But instead of getting angry, the good-natured gardener takes pity upon the queen. He decides to plant a bed of rue, the herb of sorrow, in the place where he saw her tears fall.

Read a translation of Act 3, Scene 4.


This apparently small and insignificant scene carries great metaphorical importance and has interested critics for a long time. Critic Marjorie Garber refers to scenes like this as “window scenes” that give us a glimpse, as through a half-opened window in the street, into the minds and thoughts of everyday people. Commoners usually get short shrift in plays about kings and noblemen. Here, however, we see into the minds of the skilled laborers who maintain the grounds of the Duke of York’s palace. Contemporary plays written in the “high style” certainly had scenes involving commoners, but these plays typically presented such lowly figures as comic relief. Shakespeare, by contrast, portrays the common folk as sober and perceptive. This mixing of commoners and nobility will be developed in much fuller and more complex ways in the later Henry plays.

The metaphor of England as a garden has come up before—most notably in act 2, scene 1, where John of Gaunt offered a moving lament for the ruined majesty of “this sceptered isle” (2.1.45). In that speech, Gaunt specifically refers to England as “this other Eden, demi-paradise” (2.1.47). Eden is, of course, the famous garden described in the biblical book of Genesis. According to that text, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden until they defied God and were cast out, exiled to wander the earth. This exile is commonly known as “the Fall.” In the garden scene at the end of act 3, Queen Isabel echoes Gaunt’s oblique reference to the narrative of the Fall, further implying that England’s current troubles are of biblical proportions: “What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee / To make a second fall of cursed men?” (3.4.82–83).

Other echoes also occur in this scene. For instance, in act 2, scene 3, Bolingbroke referred to the king’s advisors, Bushy and Greene, as “caterpillars” (2.3.170). Here, the gardener’s assistant uses a similar metaphor to describe the current state of political destructiveness: “the whole land / Is full of weeds, . . . and her wholesome herbs / Swarming with caterpillars” (3.4.46–50).

Moreover, the description of Richard defeat as “the fall of leaf” (3.4.53) reminds us of the metaphor the Duchess of Gloucester used to refer to the death of her husband Thomas of Gloucester: “One flourishing branch of [Edward III’s] most royal root . . . Is hacked down, and his summer leaves all faded, / By envy’s hand and murder’s bloody ax” (1.2.18–21). Like the other verbal echoes in this scene, this one is clearly ominous: if Gloucester’s “royal root” died and left its “summer leaves” to fade and fall, then what does it mean for Richard’s leaves to fall? More and more, the king’s eventual assassination in act 5, scene 5, is starting to look inevitable.