Richard II | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard II | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

As the play begins, King Richard II is in his palace in London, waiting for Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray to arrive. John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father, is answering the king's questions about the argument between Bolingbroke and Mowbray. Then Bolingbroke and Mowbray enter. After greeting the king, Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of being "a traitor and a miscreant." Bolingbroke says Mowbray murdered the Duke of Gloucester—uncle to Bolingbroke and Richard. He further accuses Mowbray of stealing the king's money and generally acting against the king's interests for the last 18 years. Mowbray denies the charge of treason vehemently, though he admits he neglected his duty regarding Gloucester. Bolingbroke challenges Mowbray to combat, and Mowbray accepts; they angrily level insults at each other. Richard and Gaunt try to force them to give up their argument, to no avail. Richard tells them to settle their differences in combat at the lists at Coventry, northwest of London, on Saint Lambert's day.

Analysis

Notably, the stage directions do not include settings, although some of them can be inferred and others are based on traditional stagings. This scene at the London palace draws the audience into the play without delay. King Richard and John of Gaunt are already aware Mowbray and Bolingbroke are having a serious quarrel; Richard alludes to having put off hearing Bolingbroke's accusation on a previous occasion. After Mowbray and Bolingbroke enter, they make the briefest possible greetings to the king before they launch into a heated argument peppered with accusations and denials. The interactions between characters here also include a great deal of gage throwing. A gage is usually an item of clothing such as a glove or hood, and quite often a gauntlet, or armored glove. Throwing down a gage began in medieval times, to communicate a challenge to a trial by combat—a fight to the death in which the winner is declared to have been in the right. (Today, to "throw down the gauntlet" means to confront or challenge someone—though not usually to a duel.) To show how serious he is, Bolingbroke throws down a gage; by picking up the gage, Mowbray accepts the challenge.

Apart from being exciting and action packed, this scene introduces some of the central characters and themes of the play. Richard II is the rightful king, and as such, he is believed to have been divinely appointed by God to be ruler of England. At this point, all the characters accept his right to the throne. Mowbray and Bolingbroke dutifully praise their king before airing their quarrel, tying their honor to how they act toward the king. And Richard clearly sees himself as God's representative, using the "royal we" as he tells Mowbray, "impartial are our eyes and ears," and says he will not give preference to Bolingbroke even though Henry is related to "our sacred blood."

Family ties, an important theme in the play, are shown to be quite complicated. John of Gaunt is Henry Bolingbroke's father, and Bolingbroke and King Richard II are cousins. The murdered Duke of Gloucester is Bolingbroke and Richard's uncle and Gaunt's brother. Although the play's events concern the political realm—as one leader is deposed and another takes power—they are also family conflicts. To understand the Henriad, including Richard II, readers must keep both the political and the familial relationships in mind.

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