While the court is waiting for Bolingbroke and Mowbray to settle their mutual accusations of treason in the lists (that is, the place in which knights duel on horseback), John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father, has a visit from his sister-in-law, the old Duchess of Gloucester. The Duchess is the widow of Gaunt's murdered brother Thomas of Gloucester, and she has an ax to grind about Gloucester's death. She urges Gaunt to take revenge for his brother's death, out of family loyalty and a sense of justice. He also ought to act, she says, because if Gaunt lets the murder go unavenged, he will be indicating that he himself is an easy target for political assassination--showing murderers "the naked pathway to thy life" (31).
Gaunt, however, refuses to take action, saying that the two of them must leave the punishment of the murderers up to God: "Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven" (6). We also learn an important secret that Shakespeare's audiences already knew, and which looms large behind the action of Act I, scene i--and, in fact, behind the entire play: the reason Gaunt cannot take action against Gloucester's murderers is that King Richard himself is widely known to have been involved in the conspiracy to kill his uncle. Gaunt refuses to rise against Richard, not out of fear of the king's power (which, as we are beginning to see, is actually weaker than it seems), but because Gaunt believes that the King of England has been appointed by God. Treason against the king would therefore be blasphemy against God, and those wronged by the king must leave it up to God to wreak vengeance.
The Duchess, disappointed, bids Gaunt farewell as he departs to watch Bolingbroke and Mowbray fight it out in the lists. She curses both the younger noblemen--who, she believes, both had a part in the death of her husband Gloucester--and prays that both parties will die in their fight. Finally, as Gaunt leaves, she asks him to send her greetings to his brother, Edmund Duke of York (another of Richard's uncles), and to ask York to visit her at Plashy, her home near London.
This scene—a surprisingly small and intimate one after the scene of pomp and royal arbitration that has just ended—gives readers a window onto two major issues that lie behind both the action and the rhetoric of Richard II.
First is the murder of Thomas of Gloucester ("Woodstock"), the king's dead uncle, which hangs heavy over the early scenes of this play. Thomas of Gloucester—the uncle in whose murder Richard is implicated—was not a king, but he was descended from royal blood. His death casts a long shadow over the play. When the Duchess of Gloucester tries to spur Gaunt to vengeance, she reminds him, "Edward's seven sons, whereof thyself art one, / Were as seven vials of his sacred blood, / Or seven fair branches springing from one root" (11-13). But now Gloucester's vial has been "crack'd, and the precious liquor spilt... by envy's hand, and murder's bloody axe" (19-21). These are important and recurring metaphors for the seven sons of King Edward III. The king's "sacred blood" is an important idea in medieval and Renaissance thought, and when the Duchess urges Gaunt to take revenge, she bases her demands on the idea that his murder was both a crime against the family honor and a sin against nature and God.
John of Gaunt, however, refuses to take action against Richard. His reasoning introduces another very important theme in the play: the idea that the King is divinely appointed by God. He refuses to attack the murderers of his brother, although he, too, would like to be able to have revenge, because the person who is most to blame for Gloucester's murder is Gaunt's nephew, King Richard. Gaunt refuses to raises arms against the King, not out of loyalty to him as a relative, nor out of fear for the power of the king, but rather because he believes, as do many of the play's other characters, that the King of a nation was appointed by God, and that an act of rebellion against the king would therefore be blasphemous. If Richard has caused Gloucester's death, then Heaven must revenge it; for Richard is the Lord's "substitute," and, Gaunt says, "I may never lift / An angry arm against His minister" (40-41). Thus, the Duchess's complaint about the earlier spilling of royal blood is trumped, in Gaunt's eyes, by the fact that the murderer is himself the ultimate royal figure—the King. The question of whether it is blasphemy to mount in arms against the king will continue to be a key issue throughout the play.
The poetry of this scene introduces several important metaphors and symbols which will also recur throughout the play. When the Duchess uses the metaphor of a tree's roots and branches, to refer to the sons of the old king Edward III, she is using a very old metaphor which Elizabethans often invoked to describe their ancestral relations (and which we still use today when we talk about "family trees"). But the analogy between the royal family and the tree, with the dead Thomas being a branch "hack'd down, and his summer leaves all faded" (20), also introduces the idea that the royal family is linked to the natural world—and, specifically, that it is linked to the cycles of nature. Later, we will see other characters specifically refer to the way in that Richard's bad management of the country has left the crops dying and the plants withering.
We are also introduced to another of the play's central themes: the question of how a nobleman, or a king, ought to behave. When the Duchess tells Gaunt, "That which in mean men we intitle patience / Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts" (33-34), she is bringing up the assumed differences between standards of behavior for commoners and the nobilitiy. The question of how a king ought to behave is a crucial issue for Richard throughout the rest of the play.