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 news that King Richard is holed up inside the castle with several allies—Aumerle, Lord Salisbury, Sir Stephen Scroop, 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. 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 calls upon Richard to come down from the castle and speak with him, and Richard and his attendants obediently descend. Even as Bolingbroke continues to feign that he has no intention of taking the crown, Richard addresses his cousin as “King Bolingbroke” (3.3.178) and asks if they should set off the London. Bolingbroke says yes, and with no options left, Richard submits.

Read a translation of Act 3: Scene 3.


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 will eventually be punished. York, who is still conflicted about whether he has done the right thing by 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, further than you should, / Lest you mistake. The heavens are over our heads” (3.3.17–18). He is clearly suggesting that God is watching closely to see what Bolingbroke does next.

Throughout this scene Bolingbroke frequently invokes elemental metaphors of kingship. As he anticipates their first meeting since his banishment, Bolingbroke imagines their confrontation as a shattering storm: “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” (3.3.56–59). Richard does, indeed, seem positively elemental when he appears on the castle’s ramparts to challenge Bolingbroke and his party. Bolingbroke, upon seeing him, conjures the ubiquitous metaphor that equates the king and the sun: “See, see, King Richard doth himself appear, / As doth the blushing discontented sun / From out the fiery portal of the East” (3.3.64–65).

The sun is the official emblem of the king of England. On the surface of things, then, Bolingbroke’s words imply that Richard retains his kingly nature. Yet given all that has happened, it’s clear that his words come laced with scathing irony. Richard is only king in name, soon to be deposed by Bolingbroke, who casts himself as “the envious clouds [that] are bent / To dim his glory and stain the track / Of his bright passage to the occident” (3.3.67–69). Bolingbroke’s words are in fact doubly ironic, considering that they also recall Richard’s own description of himself in the previous scene. There, Richard claimed that when Bolingbroke “shall see us rising in our throne, the east, / His treasons will sit blushing in his face, / Not able to endure the sight of day” (3.2.51–53). Richard’s anticipated “rising” has come to pass, but it hasn’t worked out as he’d predicted. Far from being unable to endure the radiance of the rightful king, Bolingbroke knows he’s capable of outshining him.

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: “For well we know no hand of blood and bone / Can gripe the sacred handle of our scepter, / Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp” (3.3.81–83).

Richard follows this claim with another dark prophecy. If Bolingbroke insists on treasonously plunging England into “bleeding war,” then he will never possess the crown until that war has wracked the land, staining “her pastures’ grass with faithful English blood” (3.3.96, 102). 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 doesn’t 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 evidently false claim sets the stage for the horrors that follow when Bolingbroke breaks that vow.

Yet despite Bolingbroke’s equivocation, Richard intuitively knows his reign has ended. He indulges in the same elaborate language of despair he displayed in act 3, scene 2, and to which we also saw Queen Isabel succumb in act 2, scene 2. The king laments: “O that I were as great / As is my grief, or lesser than my name! / Or that I could forget what I have been!” (3.3.140–41). The famous image he invokes of himself and Aumerle digging their own graves with their tears in lines 165–74 marks a new level of elaborate self-pity. 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, like a madman (3.3.194).