Richard II, Act 1

Almost all of the first act is spoken in ceremonious and formal language, augmented by a large amount of rhyme. The final scene breaks the tone, as if the veil is being drawn back to reveal what the king really thinks and to hint at the reality behind all the formal charges and counter charges. We did begin to get something of this reality in 1.2 in Gaunt’s dialogue with the Duchess of Gloucester, widow of the murdered duke.

The first scene creates something of mystery that’s cloaked in all the formal and legal language. All we can tell initially is that quarrel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray involves in part the payment of money the king had entrusted to Mowbray, some portion of which Mowbray kept in repayment owed, apparently, by the king. Mowbray confesses that he once lay in ambush to slay Gaunt, but he insists he has repented and confessed the sin and appealed to Gaunt for forgiveness. Beyond this we’re in the dark about the quarrel. But gages have been thrown down and picked up in the formal engagement of a trial by combat. Richard presides over all this, but perhaps with some uneasiness as he urges them to “forget, forgive” and makes what appears a small witticism: doctors say this is not a good month to let blood. He orders Mowbray to throw down Bolingbroke’s gage and encourages Gaunt to order Bolingbroke to do the same with Mowbray’s. Richard may make another small joke when he suggests that the lion, himself,
should rule over a leopard. Who is the “leopard”? But neither appellant is inclined to obey, and Richard is obliged to schedule their trial by combat.

If there’s more here than meets the eye, we learn some of it in the scene with Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester. Gaunt speaks of his part in Gloucester’s blood as his brother, and this would suggest he should avenge his murder. But in the way it’s phrased, we might wonder initially if he means he has had some part in the death. This is not the case, but Gaunt indicates that correction of the murderer lies in the hands that caused the death, by which he must mean Richard. But in that case, vengeance is not possible without the grave sin of regicide. This does not appease the duchess, who appeals to Gaunt in terms of his brotherhood to Gloucester and his filial piety to their mutual father, Edward III. But the ultimate responsibility, Gaunt insists, is beyond his reach; vengeance must be God’s, since no mortal may raise his hand against God’s deputy, the king. The duchess seems despairing in her grief. Gaunt’s dilemma may also be the king’s, though we’re not yet aware of this. But 1.3 is the lists prepared at Coventry where the trial by combat will occur. Richard apparently is allowing the combat to go forward, and much is made of the formalities. But just as it is about to start, Richard ceremoniously drops his warder down to stop the combat. In this he may appear to benevolently save the life of one of the combatants. But if the idea of a trial by combat is that the guilty one is slain by the innocent, then Richard may in some way be exposed. So supposed benevolence is also self-preservation? In this the unequal sentences may indicate Richard’s real motive is self-preservation: Bolingbroke is sentenced to ten years’ banishment, quickly commuted to six, and Mowbray to permanent banishment; if the latter was Richard’s agent in the killing of Gloucester, then this is a way to hide Richard’s guilt. The speeches of both indicate a poignant acceptance of the sentences, though Mowbray hints at the injustice of his, especially since his lack of another language will confine him also to silence. It’s only after Mowbray departs that Richard reduces Bolingbroke’s banishment to six years, which may suggest Richard’s sense of Bolingbroke’s comparative innocence. In any case, Gaunt appears the wise philosopher in his acceptance of the banishment, even though, we later learn, he doubts of his own survival of its length.

In the final scene of the act, Richard’s true sentiments are evident in the discussion with Aumerle, Bagot, Green, and eventually Bushy. The king call Bolingbroke “high Hereford,” presumably characterizing his pride. Aumerle is rather ironic in his description of his parting from Bolingbroke, which seems to elicit Richard’s approval. The king also notes his courtship of the common people. At the end Bushy brings in news of Gaunt’s sickness, which Richard hopes is mortal and will enable him to seize his wealth for the Irish war. Richard’s attitude toward Gaunt comes in the final line of the scene, “Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!”

Does it signify that the play is called in the quarto “The Tragedy of King Richard the Second” and in the Folio “The Life and Death of Richard the Second”? Are we to regard Richard as a tragic figure? The play is set in 1399, the year Gaunt dies and Richard is deposed. Much is made of Richard’s “youth,” and indeed he was crowned in 1377 at age ten. But in 1399 he is 32, the same age as Bolingbroke. I too noticed the prominence of rhyme in the first act, and thought your suggestion of ceremony/rhyme vs. realpolitik/blank verse a good way to account for it. But it turns out that there is a lot of rhyme in the second act too, and out of the mouths of several of the characters.

It does not seem to me that the link between formal ceremony and rhyme continues. Sometimes there is rhyme in the middle of a speech It seemed to me that in the first act, until the final scene, Richard was appropriately firm and regal. You may be right to suspect him as complicit in the murder of Gloucester, but I did not see it. In 1.2 the Duchess of Gloucester, in calling for revenge, wants Gaunt to kill Mowbray,
not Richard. Maybe it’s a sign of Richard’s weakness that he is not able to get Bolingbroke and Mowbray to back off. It seems odd that Richard orders the trial at 1.3.199 and then breaks if off just twenty lines later. He says he has spoken with his “Council,” but that conference must have taken place earlier, unless it is a hurried huddle during those twenty lines.

I thought it interesting that Mowbray laments losing the English language. Maybe the play celebrates not only “this England” but also “this English.” That Bolinbroke claims to be a “true-born Englishman” suggests that we should keep our eye on him. (Maybe he means to imply that he stands in contrast to Italianate Richard.) 1.4 is a short but important scene because, as you say, it pulls the curtain back. Bolinbroke is going to cultivate the people — we will hear about this again in 1 Henry IV. And Richard gives two signs of misrule: he has been spending recklessly and will raise money unscrupulously, and
hopes for Gaunt’s early death so that he can seize his goods.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell