Bolingbroke, along with the Duke of York, Lord Northumberland, and their attendants, rides toward Flint Castle (in northeastern Wales), to which King Richard has fled. York, although he has now joined forces with Bolingbroke, is deeply disturbed about the possibility of divine retribution for the impending overthrow of the king, and Bolingbroke acknowledges his concerns. Young Harry Percy brings the party the news that King Richard is holed up inside the castle with several allies--Aumerle, Lord Salisbury, Sir Stephen Scroope, and the Bishop of Carlisle. Bolingbroke sends Northumberland to Richard with a message: that he, Bolingbroke, has come as a loyal subject to his King, and is prepared to surrender his army if< the lands and title which Richard seized from John of Gaunt at his death are returned to Bolingbroke, who is Gaunt's rightful heir. Otherwise, Bolingbroke will wage war against the King.
However, before Northumberland can enter the castle, King Richard and his allies appear upon the high walls of the castle. Richard proudly, with all the authority of a king, thunderingly tells Northumberland to relay a message to Bolingbroke: if Bolingbroke dares try to usurp the throne, the heavens and the King will rain vengeance upon him. He also says that Bolingbroke will not possess the crown in peace until the fields of England have been stained with blood.
Bolingbroke quickly denies that he has come to seize the throne, claiming that he is there simply to demand that his rights as Gaunt's heir be restored to him. Richard agrees to Bolingbroke's demands, but he realizes--as he says, in highly dramatic and despairing language, to his attendants--that his reign as king has ended; Bolingbroke will certainly not let him retain the crown. Bolingbroke calls upon Richard to come down from the castle and parley with him, and Richard and his attendants obediently descend. Bolingbroke never says aloud that his intention is to take the crown, but Richard asks whether he must go with Bolingbroke and his army to London, and Bolingbroke says yes. Richard, saying that it is clear he has no choice, agrees.Read a translation of Act III, scene iii →
This scene marks a turning point for the balance of power in the play, but it is haunted throughout by an unstated fear: that the overthrow of a rightful king is blasphemous. All the characters inwardly debate the question of whether Bolingbroke has the right to take the crown from the politically incompetent Richard, or whether he is committing a grievous sin for which he must eventually be punished. York, who is still conflicted about whether he has done the right thing in joining Bolingbroke, sharply warns his nephew not to presume too far when he disdains the power of the still-reigning king: "Take not, good cousin, farther than you should, / Lest you mistake: the heavens are o'er our heads" (16-17). He is clearly suggesting that God is watching closely to see what Bolingbroke does next.
Both Richard and Bolingbroke invoke powerful metaphors of kingship in this, their first meeting since Bolingbroke's banishment. Bolingbroke muses, "Methinks King Richard and myself should meet / With no less terror than the elements / Of fire and water, when their thund'ring shock / At meeting tears the cloudy cheeks of heaven" (54-57). Richard does, indeed, seem positively elemental when he appears on the castle's ramparts to challenge Bolingbroke and his party. Bolingbroke, upon seeing him appear, invokes the ubiquitous metaphor of the king as the sun: "See, see, King Richard doth himself appear, / As doth the blushing discontented sun / From out the fiery portal of the East, / When he perceives the envious clouds are bent / To dim his glory and to stain the track / Of his bright passage to the occident" (62-67).
Bolingbroke's words recall Richard's own description of himself in Act III, scene ii: Richard claimed that when Bolingbroke "[s]hall see us rising in our throne the east, / His treasons will sit blushing in his face, / Not able to endure the sight of day" (II.ii.50-53). Richard's anticipated "rising" has come to pass, but it does not work out exactly as he had predicted. Far from being unable to endure the brilliant shining of the rightful king, Bolingbroke realizes that he is quite capable of putting out Richard's sun.
The events of this scene also point to the hypocrisy of politics, since much of the underlying political maneuvering is masked by half-truths. Bolingbroke, and his ally Northumberland, still claim that they have come to face Richard for no other reason than to restore to Bolingbroke his ancestral titles; yet everyone present is fully aware that Bolingbroke will not be satisfied until he sits on the throne of England. Richard, realizing this, invokes the traditional concept of the divine sanction conferred upon a king: "[W]ell we know no hand of blood and bone / Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre, / Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp" (79-81).
Richard follows this up with another dark prophecy: if Bolingbroke insists upon treasonously opening "[t]he purple testament of bleeding war" (94), then he will never possess the crown until that war has wracked the land, staining "[h]er pastures' grass with faithful English blood" (100). Shakespeare's audience would have recognized this as a foreshadowing of the civil wars that lay ahead in the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. Northumberland does not help matters when he speaks up on Bolingbroke's behalf and swears, by the royal blood and the dead bodies of Richard and Bolingbroke's ancestors, that his leader has only come to reclaim his inheritance and has no thought of becoming king. This claim, clearly an equivocation at best and an outright lie at worst, sets the stage for the horrors that follow when Bolingbroke breaks that vow.
Knowing his reign is at an end, Richard indulges again in the elaborate language of despair that first appeared at Act III, scene ii, and to which we saw Isabel succumbing in Act III, scene i. "O that I were as great / As I have been, or lesser than my name! / O that I could forget what I have been!" laments the king. The famous image he invokes of himself and Aumerle digging their own graves with their tears (160-169) marks a new level of fanciful thought. Although Richard's despair has been transformed into extraordinary poetry, he no longer seems capable of taking much action in the real world. As Northumberland says, he speaks "fondly like a frantic man" (that is, a madman).