Richard II abbreviated

Richard II is the first in the series of eight Shakespeare histories that cover fifteenth century England.  England was led throughout the century by members of the Plantagenet family, and for most of the century was led by descendents of John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III, the sons all being “fair branches springing from one root.”  Edward Plantagenet, Edward III, Richard II’s grandfather was the root.  He was the patriarch of this powerful political dynasty.  Seven of these histories, including this one, cover descendents of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster.  The eighth covers a distant descendent of Edmund of Langley, the duke of York, better known as York, Edward III’s fifth son. That Gaunt was Edward III’s fourth born son and York the fifth was a very big deal.  John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley were born in towns or townships named “Gaunt” and “Langley.”  That’s how it worked. 

This play begins in 1399 when the thirty-two year old English King Richard II, the son and only child of Edward, the Black Prince, Edward III’s first son, calls forward his thirty-two year old cousin Henry Bolingbroke (John of Gaunt’s son), along with a Thomas Mowbray, each having been accused of complicity in the death of the king’s uncle, the duke of Gloucester, Edward III’s sixth of seven sons.  Richard II has been king for twenty years, his father predeceasing his father, a matter that placed the young Richard first in line to be king.  Richard became Richard II at age twelve in 1379, the year his grandfather, Edward III, died. 

Bolingbroke and Mowbray are called before the king and John of Gaunt to defend themselves.   Bolingbroke and Mowbray promptly engage each other in a serious verbal spar. (Honor, Act 1, Scene 1) The king decides that the two of them must settle their differences in a duel at Coventry.  Later, at Coventry, just before the duel is to begin, the king decides to ban Mowbray from England for life and to exile Bolingbroke to France for six years.  At about this point, the duchess of Gloucester, the widow of Edward III’s sixth son, the recently deceased Gloucester, seeks out John of Gaunt, asking him to help her avenge her husband’s murder. Gaunt offers her thin support, saying “It’s God’s quarrel,” the king in that era considered God’s substitute in England. (Grief, Act 1, Scene 2)  She soon leaves for her castle at Plashy, not to be heard from again.  We soon learn she has died. 

As Henry Bolingbroke is about to leave for France, having as we say been exiled for six years, his father offers some nice advice, suggesting his son while in France “imagine each flower a fair lady; each step a measured dance.” (Father to Son, Act 1, Scene 3) Soon after Henry Bolingbroke leaves for France, we learn that his father’s health has taken a turn for the worse.  He is comforted by his younger brother, the duke of York. (Insight, Act 2, Scene 1) As a weak and defenseless John of Gaunt nears death, Richard II enters and stands over him saying “Let them die that age and sullens have, for both hast thou, and both become the grave.”  The king no doubt later regretted the line. John of Gaunt then dies, shortly after delivering his classic soliloquy “……This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” (Pride, Act 2, Scene 1) As events develop, the duke of York’s support for the king begins to wane, York traditionally loyal to the crown, whoever he might be.  (Pleading, Act 2, Scene 1)

As we say, the late Edward III’s surname was Plantagenet; Plantagenet having been the family name of Geoffrey, count of Anjou, an ancestor of Edward III’s, Anjou being a province in western France.  Though their surname was Plantagenet, this powerful political family found itself for decades split primarily into two groups; the Lancastrians, descendents of John of Gaunt, and the so-called Yorkists, descendents of Edmund of Langley.  Political loyalties to those two Plantagenet branches were the source of the “War of the Roses,” a subject discussed in later history plays. 

By this time Richard II has made plans to wage war with the Irish, and has expropriated Gaunt’s and Bolingbroke’s assets to help finance his war effort.  A young Henry Bolingbroke, biding his time in France, aware that Richard II has lost some domestic support and eager to reclaim his title and rights to his and his father’s property, having by now gained the support of France’s duke of Brittany, leaves France with a substantial armada.  His plans are to land at Ravensburgh on England’s northern coast.  It is also rumored about that Bolingbroke has plans to attempt to seize the crown from his cousin Richard II. 

A friend of the king’s, John Bushy, counsels and consoles Richard’s queen, who justifiably fears for her husband. (Grief, Act 2, Scene 2) Henry Bolingbroke and his entourage by now have arrived at Ravensburgh and have headed south for Bristow Castle.  The monarchist York, now older and afflicted, confronts the young, virile and ambitious Bolingbroke, making a brave and heart-felt attempt to encourage Bolingbroke to support the king. (Anger, Act 2, Scene 3) With compassion and diplomacy, Bolingbroke holds firm, winning York over. (Deference, Act 2, Scene 3)

Separately and in a sign of things to come, the Welshmen, long the king’s allies, flee the king on his return from Ireland. Meanwhile at Bristow Castle, Bolingbroke captures Bushy and Green, two of the king’s confidants, and has them executed. (Courtesy, Act 3, Scene 1)  Bolingbroke moves further inland.  The king learns of his own deteriorating support among a number of key aides and their friends, many having defected to Bolingbroke, including the powerful Northumberland and his son, Harry Percy.  Harry (or Henry) Percy is better known as Hotspur.  He has a major role coming up. Salisbury, a friend of the king’s, delivers bad news to a depressed Richard II.  Salisbury is quickly followed by Stephen Scroop who offers even worse news. (Despair, Act 3, Scene 2.1) The king talks freely of death. (Despair, Act 3, Scene 2.2) He is taken to task and temporarily encouraged by the Bishop of Carlisle. (Counsel, Act 3, Scene 2) Furthering his dismay, the king learns that his uncle York has joined Bolingbroke and his cause. 

The young Harry Percy (Hotspur) then informs Bolingbroke that the king and a few of his supporters have sought protection in Flint Castle.  Bolingbroke dispatches Northumberland to talk with the king and to let him know that he only seeks to have his banishment repealed and to have his lands and other assets returned.  Initially, Richard II puts up a good front, but soon succumbs to talking a little incoherently; addressing many issues, but in the doing doesn’t directly address Bolingbroke’s questions. (Resentment, Act 3, Scene 3) The king soon buckles and is bloodlessly deposed, a discouraging moment for his supporters and a defining moment in English history. (Acceptance, Act 3, Scene 3)

Separately, the dispirited queen and her aide are walking in the queen’s garden when the Gardener offers a metaphor for the realm, irritating the queen. (Disillusionment, Act 3, Scene 4) At about this time, the duke of York reports to Bolingbroke that Richard II is ready to publicly give up his crown.  York declares that Henry Bolingbroke is now King Henry IV.  Richard II comes forward.  Gently, Northumberland tells Richard II that he must sign certain papers acknowledging his crimes against the state.  Richard puts up an emotional defense, saying “I have hardly yet learned to bend my knee.”  Finally he says, “Here, cousin, seize the crown.”  When Bolingbroke asks him “I thought you had been willing to resign,” Richard replies, “My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine, for I must nothing be.” (Capitulation, Act 4, Scene 1) After a period of verbal sparing, Henry IV holding firm, the new king sends Richard to the Tower, a prison initially constructed by Julius Caesar.  Northumberland proceeds to tell the queen that she has been banished to France and that Richard will be transferred to Pomfret Castle.  To no avail, the queen cries “whither he goes, thither let me go.”  Richard says, “Weep for me in France, I for thee here.” 

Separately, Henry IV pardons his cousin Aumerle, York’s son, who throughout the play had been politically naïve and had treated Bolingbroke poorly.  (Pleading, Act 5, Scene 3)

Richard is relegated to Pomfret Castle to be its lone prisoner.  Shakespeare has Richard reflect on his life and his own sense of being, and on what was and what might have been.  (Introspection, Act 5, Scene 5.1) (Introspection, Act 5, Scene 5.2) A badly misguided but well intentioned friend of the new king kills Richard at Pomfret Castle, an act that will haunt kings and England for a century.  The deposing of Richard II, followed by his murder at Pomfret, leads to rumors and innuendos and gossip and justification for decades to come, burdening Henry IV’s reign and those of his son and grandson.  But Richard’s loss of his crown, his wife and his life, sad as it was, leads to a wonderful series of history books.

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