After Bolingbroke has been banished from England, King Richard returns from Coventry to his court, accompanied by two of his friends and allies, the noblemen Bagot and Greene. King Richard's cousin, the Duke of Aumerle (son of Richard's uncle the Duke of York), has just returned from escorting Bolingbroke down to the sea, where the latter has taken ship for Europe. When asked how the two parted, Aumerle reports that, although Bolingbroke bade him farewell, he himself (Aumerle) was cool to Bolingbroke and was glad to see him on his way.
Richard then begins to muse, describing in great detail to his allies what he and another nobleman, Bushy, saw when they watched Bolingbroke leaving London: they beheld his "courtship to the common people" (24). The commoners love Bolingbroke; he is courteous and friendly to them, and a popular favorite of the lower classes of London. Richard feels that Bolingbroke was behaving as if he were in line to be the next king of England. Clearly afraid of Bolingbroke's popularity among the people, Richard expresses to his friends an ominous doubt that Bolingbroke will ever return to England again.
Greene reminds Richard that, now that Bolingbroke is gone, there is other work to be done: there are rebels against the crown in Ireland, and the king must act quickly to suppress them, for they grow stronger with time. Richard announces that he will himself sail to Ireland to supervise the war there. But, due to the costs of maintaining a court bloated with attendants and the king's wasteful spending habits, the royal treasury is low on funds. To raise money to pay for the Irish war, Richard is going to "rent out" the realm of England; that is, he is going to engage in some complicated methods of medieval taxation. He plans both to demand money from the wealthy and to borrow large sums of money from wealthy people in exchange for a later giving them cut of the royal taxes--taxes that come from the commoners.
Bushy suddenly enters with important news: old John of Gaunt, the uncle of the King and the father of Bolingbroke, lies on his deathbed. Richard rejoices to hear the information, saying that as soon as Gaunt is dead, he plans to seize his money and property in order to fund the war in Ireland. Everyone then heads off to visit John of Gaunt at the castle of the Bishop of Ely, where he lies dying.Read a translation of Act I, scene iv →
This scene is short, but important--it gives us a look at the contrasts between Richard and Bolingbroke, and also lays the groundwork for Bolingbroke's return later in the play. Richard's account of Bolingbroke's departure from London shows us the difference between the ways he and his now-banished cousin interact with the people of London. We learn that Bolingbroke paid "courtship to the common people" (24); he took off "his bonnet to an oyster-wench" (31), and bowed to a "brace of draymen" (a pair of horse-groomers) who greeted him, saying "'Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends' " (33-35). Whether Bolingbroke behaves this way out of a cunning sense of politics or out of an innate humbleness and good nature, we cannot tell. However, we can be sure that Richard thinks himself far above such behavior--"What reverence he did throw away on slaves," he says to his companions (27), implying that Bolingbroke has wasted his courtesy by squandering it on such inferior people.
Bolingbroke's popularity among the commoners casts light, in retrospect, on Richard's decision to banish him: if Richard is afraid of his cousin's popularity and ambition, then he has very good reason to want to get him out of England--but, by the same token, he could not make the punishment too severe for fear of angering Bolinbroke's supporters. Richard is aware that Bolingbroke is in a position to potentially supplant him as king of England: he says that Bolingbroke greeted the common folk "[a]s were our England in reversion his, / And he our subjects' next degree in hope" (35-36)--that is, as if he were the heir to the throne. Richard's inability to perceive that Bolingbroke remains a threat to him, even outside of England, gives us a clue to his willingness to turn a blind eye to certain unpleasant realities.
Richard's callousness in the remainder of the scene also demonstrates to us his inherent weaknesses as a ruler. His plan to go overseas to Ireland while taxing the English and renting out English land shows us a typical Shakespearean flaw in kings: a willingness to ignore one's duty to the country in favor of one's personal interests. A king who focuses on anything other than the government of his kingdom--be it foreign affairs, scholarship, worldly pleasures, or his own self-aggrandizement--is bound to be overthrown. Richard clearly should not be leaving England at such a turbulent time, but his eagerness to wage war in Ireland and his astounding blindness to the precariousness of his position cause him to depart. Leaving for foreign shores will be his final downfall--by the time Richard returns, he will already have effectively lost England to Bolingbroke.
Finally, Richard's callous remarks about John of Gaunt's illness indicate his lack of respect for anyone besides himself--including the elders of his own family. This self-centeredness will help lead to his downfall.