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Richard II: Plot Summary (Acts 1 and 2)

From Stories of Shakespeare's English History Plays by Helene Adeline Guerber. New York: Dodd, Mead and company.

Act I

The first act opens in the royal palace in London, where Richard II, addressing his uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, inquires whether he has brought his son Bolingbroke hither, so his difference with the Duke of Norfolk can be settled. On hearing both men are present, and that no apparent treachery is discernible, Richard decides to confront accuser and accused in his presence.

A moment later both men are ushered in, and after they have greeted their sovereign with respectful good wishes, Richard invites Bolingbroke to justify his charge against his opponent. Taking heaven to witness he is free from petty hate, Bolingbroke accuses Norfolk of treachery, offering to stake his life to prove his words.

From Stories of Shakespeare's English History Plays by Helene Adeline Guerber. Illus. A. Krausse This accusation his opponent answers in cool but vindictive tones, claiming that respect for his sovereign holds his wrath in check, although he gives the lie to Bolingbroke and defies him, calling him a coward and villain. At these taunts, Bolingbroke flings down his gauntlet, offering, although Norfolk's superior in birth, to measure swords with him, and rejoicing when he sees his gage of battle picked up, for that is a sign Norfolk accepts his challenge.

In hopes of arbitrating this quarrel, Richard inquires what charge Bolingbroke makes against Norfolk, only to learn he accuses that nobleman of diverting to his own uses money intended for the soldiers' pay, of plotting treason for the past eighteen years, and of having brought about the death of the Duke of Gloucester, his uncle, whose blood calls for revenge.

When Richard bids Norfolk defend himself, assuring him that even were his own brother accused he would strive to be impartial, Norfolk, who has already given his antagonist the lie, explains that the money he received was part of a debt long due, that he had no hand in Gloucester's death, and that although he once conspired against the Duke of Lancaster, it was a sin of youth, long since repented and forgiven. He adds that such accusations as have been hurled against him have been dictated by pure rancour, and throwing down his gauntlet in his turn, swears to defend his honour to his last breath. When he implores, thereupon, that a day may soon be appointed for the judicial duel, Richard wishing the quarrel settled without bloodshed, pledges himself to hold Norfolk in check if John of Gaunt will do the same with his fiery son.

Then, Gaunt and the King force Bolingbroke and Norfolk to thrown down again the gage each has picked up, although both young men resist, for they deem such a withdrawal cowardly. In his distress, Norfolk evtn casts himself at the King's feet, imploring his pardon for refusing to obey his commands, but Richard nevertheless insists upon his placing the gage in his royal hand, a sacrifice Norfolk is so reluctant to make, that he exclaims, 'take honour from me, and my life is done.' When the King next tries to induce Bolingbroke to set a good example by relinquishing his token, his cousin vows he cannot be guilty of such a sin, and stalks out of the room still defying Norfolk. Petulantly declaring he was 'not born to sue, but to command', the King now decrees that since the adversaries will not be reconciled, they shall meet in the lists at Coventry, on St. Lambert's day, and there settle this quarrel with their swords.

The next scene is played in the Duke of Lancaster's palace, where he is telling his widowed sister-in-law, the Duchess of Gloucester, that heaven will have to avenge the murder of her husband, for he dares not do so himself upon the King. Angry and disappointed, the Duchess inquires whether he has no brotherly feelings, declaring that her husband one of Edward VII's seven stalwart sons, having been foully murdered, he should avenge this murder for his own sake.

When Lancaster assures her that her husband having died in God's quarrel. Providence will avenge him, she wonders to whom she can turn for aid, only to be referred 'to God, the widow's champion and defence.' Thereupon the Duchess retorts she will indeed turn to God, bidding Lancaster, meanwhile, witness the conflict between his son and Norfolk, and hoping that the latter, — whom she considers her husband's assassin, — may be slain. Before departing, she sends her compliments to her brother-in-law, Duke of York, bidding him avoid her widowed home.

The next scene is played in the lists at Coventry, where, with the usual formality, the lord marshal inquires whether both champions are ready, and learning that they merely await his summons, vows they shall be called as soon as the monarch appears.

Blasts of trumpets then herald first the entrance of the royal party, and next of Norfolk, whereupon the King bids the marshal inquire of this champion the cause for which he has come here to fight? After declining his name and titles, Norfolk states he has come to defend his truth and loyalty against Bolingbroke, whom he hopes by the grace of God to prove 'a traitor to my God, my King, and me.' A second trumpet peal then announces the appearance of Bolingbroke, who going through the same form, declares himself ready to prove Norfolk a traitor, provided heaven upholds the right.

After the marshal has forbidden any interference in the coming fight, Bolingbroke craves permission to kiss his sovereign's hand, a favour which Richard grants, coldly saying as he embraces him, 'As thy cause is right, so be thy fortune in this royal fight.' His condescension and good wishes seem to touch Bolingbroke, who expresses readiness to die in so good a cause, ere taking leave of his kinsman and of his father, wlio bestows upon him a paternal blessing. Then, both champions take their places, Bolingbroke calling upon his innocence, and Norfolk declaring that whatever the issue of the combat, he lives and dies a loyal subject of King Richard, who declares he sees 'virtue with valour couched' in his eye.

At a sign from the throne, both champions receive their lances, and, the heralds having again proclaimed their names and purposes, are about to begin fighting, when Richard orders them both to lay aside their weapons, and abide by his decree instead of by the fate of combat. Then, both champions before him, he proclaims the banishment of Bolingbroke from England for ten years, a decree to which the culprit bows, gravely saying his only comfort will be that the same sun will continue to shine upon them both.

Next, turning to Norfolk, the King much more reluctantly banishes him forever, a sentence passing heavy to a man, who, having talked English for forty years, now has to train his tongue to some new language. When Richard reproves him for complaining, Norfolk despairingly cries, 'I turn me from my country's light, to dwell in solemn shades of endless night.' Then, after making both antagonists swear not to meet or to hold communication during their banishment, nor to plot against King, countrymen, or native land, Richard hears Bolingbroke once more summon Norfolk to confess his crimes, a confession Norfolk vows he would not make even were he the traitor his opponent supposes! But after bidding the King farewell, Norfolk goes out exclaiming, 'Now no way can I stray; save back to England, all the world's my way.'

On seeing the grief of Lancaster at parting with his son, Richard cuts off four years of the latter's term of exile, a boon Bolingbroke appreciates, and for which Lancaster expresses gratitude, although he fears he may not live even six years! To cheer him, Richard assures him he still has long to live, whereupon Lancaster reminds him it doesn't rest in a king's power to lengthen a man's days, although he may shorten or sadden them at will. When Richard claims to have banished Bolingbroke 'upon good advice,' Lancaster rejoins that were he a stranger and not a father, he could more easily plead in the plaintiff's behalf. To end this painful scene, Richard finally bids father and son take leave of each other, and departs, repeating his sentence of banishment for six years.

All his friends now approach to take leave of Bolingbroke, and one of them offers to accompany him part of the way. Because Bolingbroke doesn't answer these kindly speeches, his father inquires why he 'hoards his words,' only to discover grief has robbed him of the power of speech. To give his son courage, Lancaster now bids him make a virtue of necessity' and enjoy his sojourn abroad, although the exiled man rejoins every stride he takes will remind him he is farther away from home. In fact Bolingbroke does not find the pleasures of imagination satisfying, and assures his father that although banished, he will ever remain true to England, to which he bids a fervent farewell as he departs.

We are now transferred to the court, where Richard is inquiring of Aumerle, — Bolingbroke's cousin, — how far he accompanied the exile, only to learn it was but a short distance. Instead of feeling grief for parting with Bolingbroke, Aumerle shows relief, and when asked to repeat the exile's last words, replies they consisted in a brief farewell, and adds he hopes the term of banishment will be extended. Although Richard reminds Aumerle the exile is their cousin, he avers he will not be in a huny to recall him, for he has noticed Bolingbroke is as anxious to court the favour of the common people as if he were heir to England's crown.

At this juncture another courtier reminds Richard that matters in Ireland are pressing, whereupon the King decides to hasten thither, and arranges for new supplies of money by making out blank charters, which are to be granted to all those who contribute lavishly. These arrangements are interrupted by the announcement of the sudden and grievous illness of the Duke of Lancaster, who craves his presence. Promising to visit his uncle immediately, the King expresses the unkind hope that the physician will speed his death, for he knows Lancaster is wealthy, and is very anxious to confiscate his estates for the benefit of his coming campaign in Ireland.

Act II

The second act opens in Ely house, where the dying John of Gaunt hopes the King will soon arrive, as he wishes to give him some last advice. Although his brother York bids him not trouble thus in vain, Lancaster cherishes the belief a dying man's words will be heeded, and that he may render Richard a last service. When York assures him the royal ears are stopped by vain, flattering speeches, and that all Richard's time is devoted to frivolities, Lancaster exclaims, 'he tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes,' and wails that England, which he eloquently describes as a 'precious stone set in the silver sea,' is now a prey to misgovernment.

Seeing Richard enter, York urges Lancaster to remember his youth and deal gently with him, just as the royal couple draw near their aged uncle's bed-side with encouraging words. When the King addresses him as 'aged Gaunt,' Lancaster rejoins he is old indeed, grief having added to his years, and that he has so faithfully watched over England's welfare, that he is now as 'gaunt' as his name. Then, he tries to warn Richard against flatterers and bad advice, tells him his grandfather would not approve of his courses, and reminds him that he is merely 'Landlord of England,' for a time. This speech sorely offends the 'King, who vows had it not been uttered by a sick man, he should feel his wrath, a threat which fails to daunt Lancaster, who accuses Richard of having slain Gloucester. Then, solemnly warning the King he will some day remember the words he now scorns. Gaunt bids his attendants bear him first to his bed and then to his grave, exclaiming that those who have love and honour may care to live, but that he does not!

The aged Lancaster having been removed, Richard cruelly comments that those who 'sullens have' ought to die, although his uncle York tries to make him take a more kindly view of Lancaster's well-meant advice, by assuring him his uncle loves him as dearly as he does Bolingbroke. A moment later Northumberland enters, announcing the Duke of Lancaster is dead, and while York mourns his brother's demise, Richard, after stating 'the ripest fruit first falls,' proclaims he will take possession of his uncle's wealth, and employ it for the Irish campaign. This decision horrifies York, who audibly wonders how long he will have to bear such things as a brother's death, a nephew's banishment, and the confiscation of ancestral estates; for he is the last remaining of Edward's brave sons, of whom the Black Prince, Richard's father, was greatest and best.

Seeing his tears, Richard inquires the cause of his grief, only to be reproached for depriving Bolingbroke of his rightful inheritance, and to be warned this will prove an impolitic move! Ignoring this warning, too, Richard reiterates the order for confiscation, and York departs to avoid witnessing such an act of injustice. His uncle having gone, Richard bids his attendants carry out his instructions ere they depart for Ireland on the morrow, announcing that the Duke of York will act as regent during his absence. Then, turning to the Queen, he entreats her to show a merry countenance, as they will have to part on the morrow, and goes out with her and the rest of his train.

Left alone in the house of the death, friends and attendants conclude that the old Duke of Lancaster being dead, Bolingbroke replaces him, although the King has stripped him of the revenue which should accompany the title he inherits. After expressing heartfelt sorrow for what has occurred, they exclaim it is shameful a King should thus ruin a subject, adding this is but foretaste of what will befall them all hereafter. They add that the weak and vacillating courses of the King have already alienated nobles and commons, and that his constant exactions are fast wearying all his subjects, for bis revenues, which should suffice to defray all state expenses, have been madly squandered, and Richard has spent more in times of peace than many of his ancestors when waging war! But, when it comes to robbing his kinsmen to defray the Irish campaign, all perceive he is conjuring up a storm, wherein they, too, will perish, unless they take measures to insure their safety.

Three of these malcontents then reveal how Bolingbroke is assembling a force on the coast of France, by means of which he expects to invade England, as soon as Richard has gone, and to win back his estates. He has chosen as his landing place Ravenspurgh, where these three lords — Willoughby, Ross and Northumberland, — mean to betake themselves and join the rebels, for they spur off immediately after making their decision known.

The curtain next rises in Windsor castle, where attendants are vainly trying to cheer the youthful Queen, who, ever since her husband's departure has been in a melancholy mood. Although loath to feel merry with the King away, Isabella is so unable to account for her depression, that her attendants assure her 'each substance of a grief has twenty shadows,' and vow she is taking those very shadows for realities. The young Queen, however, deems her depression may be the foreboding of some 'nameless woe,' just as a messenger enters, inquiring whether the King has already gone? This sudden arrival induces her to ask a few questions, in reply to which she learns how Bolingbroke has landed at Ravenspurgh, where he has been joined by a number of nobles. Appalled by such tidings, the Queen exclaims her depression was justified, while the men about her eagerly inquire whether the proper steps have been taken to declare Bolingbroke a rebel and rouse the people to resistance? While the Queen is still lamenting over these bad tidings, the Duke of York comes in, looking so bowed down with grief, that he inspires neither Queen nor courtiers with hopes of help or of good tidings. Instead, he despondently avers 'Comfort's in heaven; and we are on the earth where nothing lives but crosses, cares, and grief,' and regrets the King's absence leaves him, — an old man, — to defend the crown against such fearful odds.

The arrival of a servant announcing that York's son and sundiy other nobles have joined the rebels, impels the Duke to entrust his ring to this man, to carry to the Duchess of Gloucester, asking her to lend him a thousand pounds, as immediate funds are required to defend the throne. In reply, the servant tells him such an errand would be vain, for, passing near the castle, he heard the Duchess had just breathed her last! After exclaiming it is 'a tide of woes' which has burst in upon them, York adds he does not know where to procure funds; so, sending off the servant to collect all the arms available, he bespeaks the aid of all present, and leaves the room with the Queen, exclaiming 'everything is left at six and seven.'

When he has gone, the courtiers conclude it will be vain to oppose Bolingbroke, whose popularity offers a great contrast to the general disgust with the King's doings. Two of them. Green and Bushy, therefore decide to trim their sails according to the wind now blowing and seize Bristol Castle, while Bagot proposes to hasten to Ireland and warn the King, although he has little hope York will be able to hold out against so formidable an opponent.

The next scene is played in the wilds of Gloucestershire, where Bolingbroke inquires of Northumberland how far it is still to Berkeley castle? While admitting he is a stranger in these parts, Northumberland courteously avers the road from Ravenspurgh has seemed short to him because he has been too absorbed in Bolingbroke's conversation to note the flight of time. He opines, however, the generals of the other forces, — less well entertained, — may have found their journey tedious, just as Bolingbroke descries some troops which Northumberland discovers are led by his son Percy. Hailing the youth, therefore, he asks news of her brother Worcester, whom Percy evidently expected to find with him since he has deserted the Queen. When Northumberland inquires what determined such a move, Percy rejoins that his father, having been pronounced a traitor, Worcester went in anger to join Bolingbroke at Ravenspurgh, leaving him to ascertain what forces York had stationed at Berkeley castle.

His curiosity thus satisfied, Northumberland introduces his son to Bolingbroke, who graciously accepts the youth's services, ere they return to the topic of the nearby castle and the forces manning it. Percy insists there are but three hundred men now under York's command, and that only a few of the lesser nobles have remained true to the King.

The forces under Ross and Willoughby now join them, and Bolingbroke welcomes these leaders also, promising them rich rewards should fortune favour him. After courteously acknowledging greeting and promises, all turn to watch Berkeley's approach. Because the latter addresses Bolingbroke by his former title, he is haughtily reminded that since Gaunt's death his son is Duke of Lancaster. After apologising, Berkeley courteously explains he is sent by York to ask why Bolingbroke is riding through the realm with an armed force, just as this nobleman appears in person and is respectfully greeted by Bolingbroke as 'my noble uncle.'

Empty courtesy, however, fails to satisfy York, who haughtily declines relationship to a traitor, and asks what this armament means? After some hesitation, Bolingbroke pours out his grievances, imploring his uncle to do justice to him, as he would expect it to be done to his own son. Then, as Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby, all aver Bolingbroke has indeed been treated unjustly, York has to admit it, although he denies him the right 'to be his own carver,' and rebukes all present for disloyalty. When Northumberland rejoins that Bolingbroke is merely claiming his own, York, unable to refute the statement, proposes to remain neutral, and to entertain them all in Berkeley castle. After gladly accepting this offer Bolingbroke invites York to help him oust the traitors, who have taken possession of Bristol castle, an expedition the King's representative hesitates to undertake, although he pessimistically admits 'Things past redress are now with me past care.'

The next scene represents a camp in Wales where a Welsh commander tells Salisbury they have waited ten days without hearing from the King! To induce these Welsh forces to remain under arms a trifle longer, Salisbury vows Richard reposes great confidence in them, a statement their leader doubts, for he believes his master dead because many bad omens have occurred of late. When he has gone with his troops, Salisbury sadly mutters that Richard's glory like 'a shooting-star,' is falling to earth, for his friends are deserting him in favour of the foe, and 'crossly to his good all fortune goes!'

Continue to Richard II Plot Summary (Acts 3, 4 and 5)


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