Richard II | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard II | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary



Richard II, John of Gaunt, and other nobles are at the lists at Coventry—an arena where trials by combat can take place. Here, Bolingbroke and Mowbray are to fight to the death. Richard II presides over the beginning of the trial, which begins formally: "Marshal, ask yonder knight in arms / Both who he is and why he cometh hither / Thus plated in habiliments of war, / And formally, according to our law / Depose him in the justice of his cause." The combatants are armed and swear loyalty to the king. But just as they prepare to fight, Richard stops them, banishing them both instead for the way they sought to shed each other's blood: "And for we think the eagle-wingèd pride / Of sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts .... make us wade even in our kindred's blood." Bolingbroke is banished for 10 years and Mowbray for life. Mowbray is distraught about leaving England. He says Richard will someday realize Bolingbroke is the one who lacks loyalty.

John of Gaunt is anguished about his son's banishment, so Richard relents a little, reducing Bolingbroke's banishment to six years. However, old Gaunt does not think he will live to see his son return. Trying his best to brighten his son's mood, Gaunt then advises Bolingbroke to think of the six years as an opportunity to visit other places. But Bolingbroke refuses to imagine banishment as anything but punishment: "O, who can ... cloy the hungry edge of appetite / By bare imagination of a feast? / Or wallow naked in December snow / By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?"


This scene begins with a formal ceremony in which Richard seems completely at ease. He tells the Marshal to swear in the combatants according to the rules. His language is unemotional and ritualistic as he asks the Marshal to question Mowbray as to "the justice of his cause" and instructs the Marshal to "ask yonder knight in arms / Both who he is and why he cometh hither." Richard knows full well who the combatants are. The king—a man who assumed the throne at age 10 and puts great stock in the idea he is God's representative—is in his comfort zone. His pleasure in the trappings and appearances of kingship is on full display.

This attentiveness to the rules, and the apparent enjoyment Richard seems to find in all the pomp and ceremony, leaves both the audience and the characters unprepared for the reversal that takes place as Bolingbroke and Mowbray face off. Suddenly the king throws his warder (staff) down, signaling the end of combat even before the men begin to fight. His change of mind seems impulsive, and while there is no obvious motivation, the possibilities do not reflect well on his character. Does he want to stay in the spotlight, preferring his own artful speech to a bloody fight to the death? Does he want to get rid of Mowbray, who knows Richard's role in Gloucester's murder, and decide Bolingbroke might not be successful in winning the combat?

Richard also acts on impulse when he reduces Bolingbroke's sentence by four years, and this underscores the king's weakness as a leader. He likes to have the appearance of kingliness—making pronouncements, meting out justice—but his decisions lack substance and sound reasoning. This fundamental tension will surface again and again throughout the play. He is the king. Yet he lacks the strength of character to be much more than the image of a king.

In contrast Bolingbroke rejects appearance and image in favor of stark reality. Richard relies on poetry and metaphor as he banishes Bolingbroke and Mowbray. Yet even when John of Gaunt encourages Bolingbroke to "imagine" his banishment as something enjoyable, Bolingbroke has no heart for metaphor or imagination, pointing out the "hungry edge of appetite" cannot be satisfied by "imagination of a feast" and the coldness of snow cannot be made warm by thinking on "fantastic summer's heat."

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