Henry Bolingbroke, his allies, and the captured party of King Richard have returned from Wales to London. There, in Westminster Hall, they call on Bagot to give testimony, asking him who conspired with Richard to kill Thomas, Duke of Gloucester. Bagot claims that the Duke of Aumerle was central in the conspiracy. Aumerle heatedly denies it, setting off a gage-throwing chain reaction which eventually involves six people: Aumerle begins by declaring that Bagot is a liar and throwing down his gage (a glove or a hood) to challenge him to single combat. Immediately thereafter, Lord Fitzwater, Lord Percy, and another unnamed lord all throw down gages against Aumerle; then Lord Surrey throws down his gage on Aumerle's side, and the trigger-happy Fitzwater throws down his gage again--and Aumerle, who is out of gages, is forced to borrow someone else's so that he, too, can throw down his gage again.
As the gage-throwing grows to ludicrous proportions, Bolingbroke cuts them all off, saying that the challenges will have to wait. He plans to bring Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, back from the exile to which Richard condemned him, and Mowbray will help settle the truth of the matter. However, the Bishop of Carlisle tells them all that Mowbray has died while fighting valiantly in the Crusades.
The Duke of York abruptly enters to inform the company that King Richard has capitulated, agreeing to "adopt" Bolingbroke as his "heir" (109) and to yield the throne to him immediately. Bolingbroke agrees, but the Bishop of Carlisle interrupts him, breaking into a long speech in which he condemns Bolingbroke for his insurrection against the rightful king. He tells Bolingbroke that if he takes the crown now from the true king of England, generations yet to come will suffer and the ground will be soaked in English blood. Northumberland promptly arrests Carlisle on charges of high treason.
Bolingbroke summons Richard so that he may abdicate the crown to him in full view of the nobles. Helpless and despairing, Richard enters; he delays giving Bolingbroke the crown with a long, grief-stricken monologue in which he surrenders land, crown, and kingship. Northumberland asks him to read aloud a statement confessing his crimes against the kingdom, so that the people "may deem that you are worthily depos'd" (227), but Richard resists the order. He then calls for a looking-glass, and, after staring into it and wondering aloud about his own identity now that he is no longer king, he dashes it to the floor.
Richard asks Bolingbroke one final favor: that he be allowed to go away freely from the court. Bolingbroke, without explicitly answering no, commands that Richard be taken to the Tower of London (the traditional place for holding political prisoners). Richard departs under guard. Bolingbroke sets the date of his coronation as the following Wednesday. After he leaves, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Abbot of Westminster, and Aumerle begin to speak together, apparently conspiring against Bolingbroke.Read a translation of Act IV, scene i →
This extraordinarily long scene makes up all of Act IV. The effect of this prolonged, uninterrupted staging is to create a sense of headlong action.
The exchange of thrown gages at the beginning of the scene hearkens back to Act I, scene i, when Bolingbroke and Mowbray challenged each other to the duel that resulted in Richard banishing them both. In reflecting this earlier scene, however, Act IV, scene i also alters it. For the unacknowledged secret that lay behind Bolingbroke's accusation and banishment--the fact that King Richard himself was behind Gloucester's murder--has now been brought into the light. Now that Richard has been deposed, his past sin can be brought back as a crime with which to charge him. This scene also foreshadows the way in which Bolingbroke himself will re-enact Richard's crime and his fall, when he, as King Henry IV, becomes partly responsible for Richard's murder in Act V, scene v.
The Bishop of Carlisle's speech is placed centrally in the scene (between Bagot and Aumerle's challenges and Richard's abdication), and is one of the play's key monologues. This speech is the final culmination and most eloquent example of the series of warnings, curses and dark prophecies that have been accumulating since the play's beginning--but the darkness that was, at first, foretold for Richard is now being prophesied for Bolingbroke.
Carlisle starts out by invoking a familiar theme: a king's divine sanction and God's anger at the usurpation of his throne. Carlisle calls the king "the figure of God's majesty, / His captain, steward, deputy elect, / Anointed, crowned, planted many years" (125-27), and says that no subject has the right to overthrow his king. We hear echoes here of earlier speeches, such as Gaunt's reference to the king as God's "deputy anointed in His sight" in Act I, scene ii, York's defense of the king's rights in Act II, scene iii, and Richard's own claim that "Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king" (III.ii.54-55). Carlisle then follows this by prophesying destruction for the usurper--a curse similar to that which John of Gaunt laid on Richard in Act II, scene i, and which Richard himself delivered to Bolingbroke in Act III, scene iii. If Bolingbroke is crowned king, Carlisle prophesies, civil war will tear the realm apart: "Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny / Shall here inhabit, and this land be call'd / The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls" (142-44). Although Bolingbroke and his men ignore the prophecy and arrest Carlisle on charges of treason, his dark prophecy hangs over the rest of the play.
King Richard's several extraordinary speeches during the scene of his abdication are among the most famous passages in the play and are worth reading carefully. The first is built around one of Richard's theatrical gestures: Richard, even as he proffers the crown to Bolingbroke, is not quite ready to let go of it. As the two stand staring at each other, each with one hand resting upon the crown, Richard compares the crown to a well which balances the two princes like a pair of buckets, full of water: as Bolingbroke pours out his water into Richard, causing him to sink, Bolingbroke himself rises higher.
When Bolingbroke asks him straightforwardly if he is willing to turn over the crown, Richard enters into a long soliloquy in which he formally strips himself of his kingship: "With mine own hands I give away my crown, / With mine own tongue deny my sacred state" (208-9).
Finally, comparing himself to a snowman who stands before the sun (since Bolingbroke, now king, has the right to refer to himself as the sun), Richard wonders aloud whether he has melted away and whether he has any identity any more. He calls for a looking-glass (a mirror) so that he may behold whether he still exists. Staring at the face which is no longer the face of a king, he is overcome. He dramatically smashes the mirror upon the floor, shattering his reflection into shards. His meaning is that Bolingbroke's usurpation of his kingship has symbolically, and perhaps literally, destroyed him: "Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport--How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face" (290-91).
Richard's wordiness and theatricality in this scene contrast notably with Bolingbroke's quiet stoicism. As Richard's ability to affect the course of events is reduced, he gets more poetic; nowhere is the contrast between Bolingbroke, the man of action, and Richard, the ineffectual man of words, more obvious than it is here.