Summary: Act 3: Scene 1

At Bristol Castle in southwestern England, a short distance south of Berkeley Castle, Henry Bolingbroke and his men have apprehended Bushy and Greene, who remain loyal to King Richard. Bolingbroke accuses them of having “misled a prince” (3.1.8)—that is, of having given Richard deliberately bad advice. He then recites a list of charges against them, saying they have stirred up trouble between the king and his queen and that their ill counsel caused Richard to “misinterpret” Bolingbroke and subsequently banished him (3.1.18). He thus condemns them to be executed. Bushy and Greene are defiant but resigned, and Northumberland leads them away to die. Having dispatched this piece of business, Bolingbroke sends greetings to Queen Isabel via the Duke of York, at whose house she is staying, and gathers his men to fight some Welsh rebels before heading to the main battle.

Read a translation of Act 3: Scene 1.

Summary: Act 3: Scene 2

Meanwhile, King Richard has landed on the coast of Wales, at “Barkloughly” Castle (actually called Harlech), accompanied by the Duke of Aumerle, the Bishop of Carlisle, and some soldiers. In a poetic speech, Richard greets the earth and air of England and calls on the land to spurn his enemies. Aumerle points out that, while they delay, Bolingbroke grows stronger in power. The king and his party seem to be aware that Bolingbroke has landed in England, but they don’t have up-to-date news on his progress. Richard responds, in powerful language, that since he is the rightful king, no rebel stands a chance. God is on their side, and they will easily sweep Bolingbroke out of England.

Lord Salisbury enters, and, grieving, delivers terrible news to Richard: only the day before, the army of twelve thousand men of Wales, believing Richard to be dead, dispersed from where they had been waiting for him and fled to Bolingbroke. Richard is now without an army. The king momentarily succumbs to despair, but then recovers his royal self-assurance. Lord Scroop then enters to give Richard the news that, as Bolingbroke made his way through England, all the common people acknowledged him as lord and joined his forces—men, women, and children alike. Richard asks Scroop what has happened to his allies, Bagot, Bushy, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire. When Scroop tells him that they have “made peace with Bolingbroke” (3.2.130), Richard curses and damns them in ferocious terms—but then Scroop explains that he means they have been executed.

Richard gives a long, eloquent, and despairing monologue, but the Bishop of Carlisle tells him to recover hope. Giving in to fear and despair, he says, will do the enemy’s work for him. Richard agrees and declares that he will ride against Bolingbroke despite his losses. But Scroop has yet more bad news: the Duke of York has also defected to Bolingbroke, and all the king’s castles in the north and his allies in the south are in Bolingbroke’s possession or on his side. Richard, hearing this and realizing that he has no hope left, announces his final intention to give in to despair. He declares that he will go to Flint Castle, in northeastern Wales, to “pine away” (3.2.216).

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Analysis: Act 3: Scenes 1 & 2

Act 3, scene 1, in which Bushy and Greene are executed, is brief, but it serves two important purposes. First, it shows us the escalation of events that is building towards the inevitable outcome of the war: King Richard’s capitulation to Bolingbroke at Flint Castle in act 3, scene 3. Richard’s supporters have either defected from him one by one, or else they have been executed. From here, there is no turning back.

Second, this scene provides insight into Bolingbroke’s expertise at political manipulation. Note how, when he arrests and executes Bushy and Greene, he implies that he does so in defense of the king. He feigns continued loyalty to the king when he tells his prisoners: “You have misled . . . a royal king, / A happy gentlemen in blood and lineaments, / By you unhappied and disfigured clean” (3.1.8–10). With these words, Bolingbroke implies that Richard is a good king who has been led astray, and that he (Bolingbroke) is actually attempting to protect the king by disposing of his corrupt and wicked advisors. However, everyone involved—Bolingbroke, his followers, Bushy and Greene, and the play’s readers—knows that Bolingbroke’s intentions are not nearly so pure: his real motivation for executing Bushy and Greene is to weaken Richard so that Bolingbroke himself can take the crown. As in the scenes of political challenge in act 1, scene 1, and of duel and banishment in act 1, scene 3, the real political maneuverings here are never openly acknowledged. Instead, they are masked by clever words.

Act 3, scene 2, which shows us Richard’s return from Ireland and his discovery that he has lost England in his absence, is one of the most crucial scenes in the play. It marks a transformation for Richard: from here on in, the king who has spoken so carelessly and rudely, and who has ignored the words of so many of his advisors, will metamorphose into a brilliant and effective poet, often considered one of Shakespeare’s most eloquent characters. From here until the end of the play Richard’s poetry will become increasingly exalted, and his wordplay obviously superior to that of anyone around him. The elevation of his rhetoric symbolically replaces the heightened, kingly status that he has lost. As a result of this loss, however, his poetic flourishes also grow increasingly self-absorbed and abstracted from the realities around him.

Richard’s speeches in this scene address one of the play’s central questions: What is a king? Is he divinely anointed and invulnerable, or merely a human being like any other? At the beginning of the scene, Richard is secure in his divine power as king—the same power that John of Gaunt respected in act 2, scene 2, when he refused to rise against him. Richard tells Aumerle, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; / The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” (3.2.55–58).

These words reflect the medieval theory of the king’s two bodies, according to which the king consists of both a mortal body (the “body natural”) and an immortal body (the “body politic”). When the mortal man dies, the political body of the king lives on in his successor. Richard initially insists that, as the direct deputy of God, he remains invulnerable. But as he soon learns definitively, he has already lost his kingdom. Almost immediately he sets aside the language of the king’s “body politic” and pitifully emphasizes his own human frailty: “I live with bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus, / How can you say to me I am a king?” (3.2.180–82).