At the Duke of York's house at Langley, the aged Duke greets his wife, the Duchess of York, and tells her about the long day he has had: when Bolingbroke rode into London in triumph for his coronation, leading Richard in captivity, the people scowled upon Richard and dumped rubbish onto his head, but cheered wildly for Bolingbroke. Throwing open the windows to watch him pass, they cried out, "God save thee, Bolingbroke! / . . . Welcome, Bolingbroke!" (11-17). York is upset by the bad treatment given to the former King Richard, but he vows to be loyal to the new king.
Aumerle, the son of the Duke and Duchess of York, enters; he is now called "Rutland," apparently having lost his more noble title due to Bolingbroke's judgment on the "trial" of Act IV, scene i. As he listlessly discusses the triumphal celebrations being held at Oxford in honor of the new King Henry IV, his father, York, notices a letter that he is concealing within his shirt. Aumerle tries to prevent his father from seeing it, but York seizes and reads it. He immediately becomes highly agitated, calling his son "Villain! Traitor! Slave!" (72). The letter, it turns out, reveals that Aumerle has joined in a conspiracy of a dozen noblemen who plan to assassinate King Henry at Oxford.
The Duchess tries to reason with York, pleading with him to keep Aumerle's involvement a secret since he is their only son and she is too old to bear more children. York, however, will not listen, and he mounts his horse to ride to King Henry and tell him everything. The Duchess instructs Aumerle to ride after his father and try to reach the King first to beg his forgiveness. She herself will follow as swiftly as she can so that she can plead for Aumerle's life.
At Windsor Castle, near London, we find Bolingbroke complaining to young Harry Percy about the wild ways of Bolingbroke's son, whom he has not seen for a full three months. The young prince has apparently been spending his time in taverns and whorehouses and associating with robbers and highwaymen. Bolingbroke is concerned, but still sees signs of hope in the boy.
Aumerle enters and begs his cousin Bolingbroke for a private audience. The new king dismisses his companions, and Aumerle falls to his knees and says he will not rise until the king has agreed to forgive him for the crime he has committed--nor will he name the crime until he has the king's pardon. He also begs the king to lock the door until their conference is done. Bolingbroke complies, but suddenly the Duke of York is heard banging at the door. He cries out that Aumerle is a traitor; Bolingbroke draws his sword, but Aumerle swears that the king has nothing to fear from him. York then enters and shows Bolingbroke the traitorous letter. The voice of the Duchess is heard from outside, and she, too, enters the chamber; she has ridden from her home to plead with the king to spare her son's life. A strange three-way conversation, in highly formal language, ensues between the Duchess of York, the Duke of York, and the king: York pleads with the king to execute his son as a traitor, while the Duchess begs him to spare Aumerle's life. At last, the king decides to pardon Aumerle, but adds that all the rest of the conspirators will be arrested and executed immediately.Read a translation of Act V, scene ii-iii →
The action of this scene seems oddly distant from the downfall of King Richard, which has preoccupied the play until now. However, the subplot actually does serve to tie up some loose ends and show us that the transition of power has not been altogether smooth. It also lays the groundwork for new themes and plot lines that will come to fruition in the later "Henry" plays. For instance, we hear in this scene the first mention of Bolingbroke's son. The prince, who is never named in this play, is in fact Prince Hal, a major figure in Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, and the title character of Henry V.
In addition, we see that, despite the change in kings, some aspects of court life never change. When Aumerle enters, returning from the king's company, his mother asks him, "Who are the violets now / That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?" (45-46). She means that, since Richard's former allies (including Aumerle), have fallen from grace, there must now be new favorites in the court. Aumerle may no longer be a "violet," but someone will have sprung up to replace him. And, only half-jokingly, Aumerle's father York warns him: "[B]ear you well in this new spring of time, / Lest you be cropp'd before you come to prime" (50-51).
The rather bizarre scene at the climax of Act V, scene iii, in which the Duke and Duchess of York argue with King Henry over Aumerle's fate, seems to beg explanation, but it is difficult to know quite what to make of it. The ritualistic spectacle of Aumerle and the Duchess formally pleading (in rhymed couplets) for the king's forgiveness is placed against the counterpoint of York's insistence that Aumerle be executed as a traitor.
What are we to make of York's almost fanatical insistence that the king execute his son? One possibility is that the conflicts of loyalty which have been tearing at York since the beginning of the play--the enormous burden of responsibility left to him when Richard made him Lord Governor of England during the Irish war, his failure to defend Richard's kingdom against the invading Bolingbroke, the painfully difficult decision to abandon Richard's cause and leave the kingdom open to Bolingbroke's invasion--have left York with the sense that his value systems have been overturned. All he has left to cling to, perhaps, is his firm conviction that he must remain loyal to the King of England--who now is Bolingbroke. As York says in Act V, scene ii, "To Bolingbroke we are sworn subjects now, / Whose state and honour I for aye allow" (39-40). Even if it requires turning in his own son as a traitor, York seems to be obsssed with the idea of maintaining his loyalty to the king.