Richard II, Act 3


Act 3 begins with what looks like a darkening of Bolingbroke’s image, his peremptory execution of Bushy and Green. Amid his charges is the strange one of having made “a divorce betwixt his queen and him” and having broken possession of the royal bed. Richard was without issue, so is Bolingbroke alluding to a homosexual relationship between them and the king? They’re also accused of having dispoiled B’s own property. Or does it in fact darken?

In the following scene Richard veers back and forth between understanding his kingship in mystic, divinely protected terms and despair at his current circumstances. The language is florid, but not rhyming except in a closing couplet. Carlisle encourages him to see his kingship protected by God, but Richard then quickly loses the confidence when he hears of more setbacks. The poetic high point may be his speech in which he seems to revel in an acceptance of death, “Of comfort no man speak . . .” On the one hand it seems a speech of wisdom and renunciation of the pretensions of kingship, but perhaps a premature embrace of his loss. Carlisle now chides him for his defeatism, and Richard momentarily revives, but only to collapse at more bad news.

This clearly draws on the skill of the actor playing Richard, but the result must be an undercutting of the very idea of divinely protected kingship, especially in the scene that follows at Flint castle. York chides Northumberland for omitting Richard’s title, but clearly the tide has turned against the sonorous language we heard at the opening. Still, Bolingbroke performs the ritual obeisance and speaks the language of submission to divine kingship. Northumberland delivers B’s demands. Richard accedes to these, but then seemingly deposes himself in what he says when N. returns. What was the effect of this on the Elizabethan stage. We do know that the deposition scene that follows was not allowed to be played, but Richard seems to speak it himself here.

The scene that follows between the queen and her ladies and the supportive gardener seem designed to surround Richard’s defeat with poignant but ineffective sympathy.

The play seems to enact a kind of poetic contest between the language of divinely ordained kingship and an undercutting of any idea of its reality.


It would seem that Bolingbroke is indeed accusing the favorites Bushy and Green of some kind of homosexual relationship. I don’t think it darkens Bolingbroke’s reputation, but does suggest that he will impose his rule ruthlessly.

The reference to Glendower has apparently puzzled editors, but it makes sense that he is the same as the Welsh “captain” in the previous scene, especially since the captain believes in portents, as does Glendower in 1 Henry IV. At this point Bolingbroke does not yet know that the Welsh have deserted Richard.

Richard gets some good speeches in 3.2, both the address to “Dear [English] earth” and his  reassuring comfort in “the searching eye of heaven.” He has confidence in the divine election and protection of “an anointed king.” But as you say he waffles when bad news arrives: the Welsh desertion, the subjects revolting, the death of his favorites. (I wonder why Richard initially suspects the favorites of deserting him. Does this suggest his paranoia and unsteadiness?) He pales, and seems ready to submit to the will of Bolingbroke and falls into what he later calls “an ague fit of fear.” Then comes his famous speech about telling sad stories of the death of kings. Any good actor could presumably speak these lines in such a way as to draw the audience’s sympathy.

Richard rallies under the chiding of Carlisle. The news of York’s desertion has been withheld, presumably so that Shakespeare can show yet another of Richard’s mood swings, this time to despair, and by the end of the scene he basically gives up.

It’s hard to figure out York in 3.3. On the one hand, he has joined forces with Bolingbroke, but on the other he still reveres Richard as divinely appointed king. Again we get Richard swerving from high to low, defiant when he is pumped up by York, but quickly agreeing to terms with Bolingbroke when Northumberland tells him that all Bolingbroke wants is his title and lands, but then doubts himself for being too ready to yield. And then he is ready to abdicate, even though Bolingbroke has not pressed him to do so. (This seems to support the argument that the king abdicated and not that he was “deposed.”)

3.4 makes interesting use of common people, here represented by the Gardener, who compares England to an unweeded garden, and passes on a rumor that Richard will be deposed. (This bookends the rumor at the beginning of the act that Richard had been killed.) Apart from the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, the Queen is the only woman in the play who gets to say more than a few lines. The Henry IV plays, and even Henry V, make more room for women. Is it significant that Bolingbroke does not have a wife? Does this make him more like Richard, who though married seems to have abandoned  his Queen?

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell