Richard II | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard II | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Many of the lords are present at Parliament, along with the Bishop of Carlisle and the Abbot of Westminster. Bolingbroke presides over the meeting. He questions Bagot about the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and Bagot accuses Aumerle of being involved. Aumerle vehemently denies the charge, throwing down a gage as a challenge to trial by combat. Lords Fitzwater, Percy, and Surrey join in the quarreling, and multiple gages are thrown down and picked up. Suddenly, the Bishop of Carlisle announces the banished Thomas Mowbray has died. At this news, Bolingbroke delays the trials by combat to a later date.

York arrives and tells the assembly Richard has consented to abdicate the throne, and Bolingbroke announces he will ascend the royal throne. The Bishop of Carlisle objects, saying God appoints kings, and no man there has any right to judge Richard. He says deposing the king will result in civil war. Northumberland praises this speech but then arrests Carlisle for treason.

Richard enters to surrender his crown to Bolingbroke. He speaks eloquently and sadly about what has happened, offering one side of the crown to Bolingbroke as he holds on to the other: "Now is this golden crown like a deep well / That owes two buckets, filling one another, / The emptier ever dancing in the air, / The other down, unseen, and full of water. / That bucket down and full of tears am I, / Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high." As usual, Bolingbroke has no time for these poetic phrases, replying, "I thought you had been willing to resign."

Then Richard calls for a mirror, and, looking at his face in it, describes what he sees as easily broken: "A brittle glory shineth in this face. / As brittle as the glory is the face." To show just how easily broken is his brittle visage, he shatters the mirror, saying: "For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers ... How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face." And again, Bolingbroke has no time for Richard's introspection: "The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed / The shadow of your face." Bolingbroke then gives orders for Richard to be imprisoned in the Tower of London, then announces his upcoming coronation.

As Bolingbroke exits, the Duke of Aumerle, the Bishop of Carlisle, and the Abbot of Westminster, who are still loyal to Richard, stay behind. They make plans to meet and devise a plot against Bolingbroke.

Analysis

The beginning of this scene is almost a parody of the opening scene of the play, with accusations and gages flying every which way. However, it gives Bolingbroke the opportunity to play the kingly role, rather than Richard, as was the case in Act 1, Scene 1.

The Bishop of Carlisle's prediction that civil war will result from Bolingbroke's actions is more foreshadowing. The prediction concerns not only events in the Henriad, though Henry IV's reign was marred by a great deal of civil unrest, but also the Wars of the Roses—bloody civil wars fought between two families descended from the Plantagenet royal house. Henry IV is the first Lancastrian monarch, and the Lancaster family eventually will be locked in a terrible conflict with the House of York. The conflict between the Lancaster and York Houses will be resolved only when marriage between a Lancaster and a York gives rise to the House of Tudor—the house of Elizabeth I.

This scene contains powerful imagery. Richard and Bolingbroke hold the crown between them, and Richard describes it in metaphorical terms. The "golden crown" is "like a deep well" that links two buckets: Richard and Bolingbroke. Richard's bucket is filling with tears and grief, so it sinks, and at the same time Bolingbroke's bucket is draining and thus rising. This beautiful and poignant image makes use of the rising/falling symbolism, but it also shows that Richard was emptier before and now is becoming filled. This suggests that he is gaining something—grief, mortality, humility—even as he loses his identity as king.

Richard also describes beautifully the symbolic act of shattering the mirror; he figuratively equates his kingly "glory" with his reflection in the mirror to show that the mirror, his divine glory, and his face are all "brittle," and easily shattered.

Richard's repertoire of symbolic imagery, and his gift for employing it, is an important feature of his character. In this scene he gives his all to the theatrical performance. The crown, symbol of his kingship, is given to Bolingbroke. Richard's kingly glory and identity, represented by his image in the mirror, is shattered and broken. It really is an admirable performance.

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