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 he. As she walks in the Duke's garden with her waiting-women, they try to cheer her up by suggesting of games, singing, dancing, and storytelling. The Queen rejects all these ideas, saying that making 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 what the men will discuss. She has noticed that the common folk have been discussing 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, and the two then 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" (49)--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 dead, and that King Richard himself has been caputed by Bolingbroke. It seems almost certain that the king will soon be removed from power.
Queen Isabel, no longer able to contain herself, bursts from her hiding place to ask the gardner if what he says is true. The gardener apologetically confirms that it is: King Richard is in Bolingbroke's custody, and, in comparing the resources of the two sides, it has become apparent, while Richard has nothing left, Bolingbroke holds the loyalty of all the English noblemen. He adds that if Isabel will go to London, she will discover that what he says is true.
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: "[F]or telling me these news of woe, / Pray God the plants thou graft'st may never grow" (100-101). But the good-natured gardener takes pity upon the queen instead of getting angry; 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 III, scene iv →
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, we see into the minds of the skilled laborers who maintain the grounds of the Duke of York's palace--a far cry from the aristocracy of the vast majority of the play's characters. While other, contemporary plays in the "high style" certainly had scenes involving commoners, they were usually presented as comic relief, not as the sober and perceptive people Shakespeare gives us. This mixing of the "low" classes with the high is developed in much fuller and more interesting ways in the "Henry" plays which follow (Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V).
The metaphor of England as a garden, and of Richard as a bad gardener, has come up before--most notably in Act II, scene i, in John of Gaunt's speech. Indeed, some of the same figures and images are used: for instance, the king's advisors Bushy and Greene are called "caterpillars" here (47), the same word Bolingbroke uses to refer to them in Act III, scene iii.
Moreover, we see once again the metaphors which associate the king with the land: the description of Richard defeat as "the fall of leaf" (49) reminds us not only of John of Gaunt's rich garden analogies in Act II, scene i, but also 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 hack'd down, and his summer leaves all faded / By envy's hand, and murder's bloody axe" (I.ii.18-21). The verbal echo seems to be loaded with ominous foreboding: if Gloucester died violently and mysteriously, what does it mean that Richard's leaves now are falling too? Already the king's assassination in Act V, scene v--the groundwork for which has been laid nearly from the play's beginning--is starting to look inevitable.