Richard II | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard II | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

At his home John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, meets with his late brother's widow. The Duchess of Gloucester asks Gaunt to avenge the death of his murdered brother, the Duke of Gloucester, reminding him "his blood was thine." Gaunt refuses, because Richard II ordered the killing, and no one can act against the king, whom God himself appointed: "God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight, / Hath caused his death, the which if wrongfully / Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift / An angry arm against His minister." Gaunt then tells her he is going to the city of Coventry, where Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray are scheduled to trial by combat. The duchess prays Bolingbroke will kill Mowbray.

Analysis

This scene directly reveals Scene 1's unspoken truth: Richard II is the one who ordered the Duke of Gloucester's death. Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar with this fact, adding dramatic irony to the play's already turbulent beginning. It is likely Henry Bolingbroke also knows Richard was involved in the Duke of Gloucester's death. Thus it is possible Bolingbroke knowingly becomes a threat to Richard II by raising the issue of the Duke of Gloucester's killing.

This short scene further develops themes of family ties and rightful king. John of Gaunt faces a conundrum as he weighs his duty to support the God-given king against his familial duty. Although the duchess argues passionately for Gaunt to remember and avenge Gloucester, reminding him they share the same blood, he cannot entertain the idea that Richard, God's "deputy anointed in His sight," could have been wrong. As a result he adamantly refuses to do anything to harm Richard. Though Gaunt seems to view his duty clearly, it remains to be seen if others share his aversion to acting against the king.

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