Richard II | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard II | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

The play begins as Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke bring a quarrel before King Richard. Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of various crimes, including responsibility for the death of the Duke of Gloucester, who was Bolingbroke and Richard's uncle. Mowbray denies responsibility, and the two challenge each other to a trial by combat, or duel. Richard reluctantly agrees to allow it.

At Coventry, Bolingbroke and Mowbray meet to engage in combat. The one who lives will be deemed in the right. Richard II presides over the combat's "opening ceremonies." But just as Bolingbroke and Mowbray prepare to fight, Richard calls the whole thing off and banishes the two instead—Bolingbroke for six years and Mowbray for life.

Act 2

After Bolingbroke leaves the country, Richard II reveals his dislike of Bolingbroke stems, in part, from the latter's popularity with the people of England. One of the king's close advisers, Henry Green, reminds him of an Irish rebellion he should quell, and Richard agrees he should take action. John Bushy, another of Richard's close advisers says John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father and Richard's uncle, is close to death. Richard hatches a plan to seize Gaunt's lands and wealth while Bolingbroke—Gaunt's heir—is still banished.

As Gaunt nears death, he has a conversation with the king, during which he says Richard is doing a poor job managing the country. But Richard doesn't listen to his uncle's scolding, and after Gaunt dies, Richard follows through with his plan to seize his uncle's estate and assets. This proves to be a grave mistake. Popular sentiment favors Bolingbroke, Richard looks like a tyrant who doesn't respect the conventions of inheritance, and Bolingbroke is provided with an excuse for coming back to England to take back his rightful inheritance. And return he does, with an army alongside him.

Act 3

While Richard is away in Ireland to quell the rebellion, Bolingbroke confronts Green and Bushy with the injustice of Richard's acts, and he orders both executed. Bolingbroke's return is polarizing; some nobles side with him, and others maintain that Richard, no matter his weaknesses, is still the rightful king. However, Bolingbroke's popularity indicates he will eventually force Richard out of power. When Richard learns of Bolingbroke's actions, he plummets into despair and self-pity, seemingly certain the kingship has been lost to him; he sends his troops home and retreats to Flint Castle in Wales.

Bolingbroke and his troops travel to Flint Castle, and Bolingbroke tells the king he wishes only that his banishment be repealed and the lands he rightfully inherited be returned to him. Richard agrees to Bolingbroke's terms, effectively surrendering his power, and says he will go to London; there, it seems, the kingship will be formally decided.

Act 4

In London's Parliament Bolingbroke meets with a group including several powerful people aligned with Richard—among them the Duke of Aumerle, the Bishop of Carlisle, and the Abbot of Westminster—to discuss his and Richard's actions and to decide whether Richard will remain king. During the meeting, the Duke of York enters and announces Richard has willingly ceded the throne to Bolingbroke. When Bolingbroke accepts the kingship, the Bishop of Carlyle strongly objects, accusing Bolingbroke of unfairly putting Richard on trial; he predicts dark days for England if Bolingbroke takes the throne. Bolingbroke's ally the Duke of Northumberland orders Carlyle arrested for treason.

Bolingbroke calls for Richard to be brought before the group. Richard, alternately emotional and resigned to his fate, hands his crown to Bolingbroke. After ceding the throne, Richard is taken away, heading for prison.

Act 5

After Bolingbroke is crowned King Henry IV, the Duke of Aumerle's parents visit him to beg mercy for their son, who was involved in a plot against him. Henry agrees to pardon Aumerle but says he will kill the other plotters. Sir Pierce of Exton, an overly enthusiastic supporter of the new king, hears Henry say he wishes to be rid of Richard, so he finds Richard in prison and kills him. Exton brings Richard's body back to show Henry, and the new king is appalled at what Exton has done. He reprimands Exton but seems to understand he is complicit in Richard's death, vowing to "make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash the blood off from my guilty hand."

Richard II Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Richard II banishes Henry Bolingbroke.

Rising Action

2 While Bolingbroke is away, his father, John of Gaunt, dies.

3 Richard II seizes the wealth John of Gaunt left.

4 Richard II goes to fight in an expensive war in Ireland.

5 Bolingbroke returns to England to demand his inheritance.

6 Richard II returns to England to confront Bolingbroke.

7 Many of the English people side with Bolingbroke.

8 Bolingbroke and Richard II confront each other.


9 Bolingbroke forces Richard II to surrender.

Falling Action

10 Richard II formally gives up his crown.

11 Bolingbroke is crowned Henry IV.


12 Richard is imprisoned and later murdered.

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