Richard II, Act 5


Act 5 continues the tilting of sympathy to Richard. The scene between Richard and his queen doesn’t address what I assume is the real reason for their separation, so that they cannot conceive a child who would be a legitimate contender for the throne, but it does link their marriage and its vows to his kingship. And again Northumberland plays his part, now sending Richard to Pomfret, seemingly farther from where the queen will be.

The scene between York and his duchess, describing the humiliation of Richard, seems to extend sympathy, but it leads to the apparent absurdity of York’s necessary change of loyalty. The quarrel between the duchess and duke comes almost comic as he calls for his boots and his horse.

Scene 3 begins with a prequel of 1 Henry 4 in Henry’s query about his unnamed son. But that’s not developed as Aumerle comes in with anticipation of his father’s charge of his treason. Whether or not the scene in which the duchess and York continue their quarrel before the king is comic — and I tend to think it is — it certainly points to the problematic matter of loyalty. York’s position has always been difficult, and now he must betray his son, even though the son repents his loyalty to Richard, because he must now support Henry. The duchess’s loyalty is to her flesh and blood, irrespective of who’s king. I think we tend to favor the duchess and her stubborn loyalty since we understand the shift that York has had to make.

Richard’s soliloquy solidifies our interest in him, as he becomes poetically thoughtful in his musing about his life and status. He even notes the ways in which sacred texts conflict and contradict, which becomes almost philosophical. It’s as if Richard, finally and fully separated from the burdens of kingship has become interestingly human. He hears and critiques the music that is played for him. The keeper’s loyalty seems to support Richard, and the disloyalty of his horse Barbary gives him more to consider. When the attempt to poison him fails and leads to swords and bloodshed, Richard’s dignity seems to be confirmed. He dies, but with more spirit (or manliness?) than we’ve seen before.  And even Exton must extol this.

In the final scene, the number of heads of presumed traitors being sent to London seems a dark completion of the change of kingship. None of these names have figured in the play. The abbot of Westminster seems to have died of his disloyal grief, and the bishop of Carlisle is sent to some remote hermitage. And now Exton brings in the coffin of “the mightiest of thy greatest enemies,” called now simply “Richard of Bordeaux.” It seems a moment that is both historical and tragic. The dilemma of Bolingbroke/Henry 4 is expressed in his condemnation of Exton, to wander like Cain and never show his face again. So the play ends with the same sense of banishment that it began with. Henry needed Richard’s death, but regrets and laments it nonetheless.

I think the strength of the play lies both in its development of the character of Richard and the sense throughout of the dilemmas both of loyalty and of competence in relation to legitimacy. It seems a fitting overture to the three Henry plays. 


I am not sure about the comedy that you found in Act 5. All seemed pretty dark and dreadful. And I heard lots of echoes of the beginning of the play.

In 5.1 Richard has reverted to his claim that he has not resigned or abdicated but has been “deposed.” Inviting his Queen to “tell the tales/ Of woeful ages long ago” recalls his famous lines about “tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Richard objects that he is being separated from his Queen, which in Act 1 was a charge made against Richard’s favorites. We also look forward, as Richard predicts Northumberland and Bolingbroke will fall out, as they do in 1 Henry IV. Lots of rhyme in this scene, as Richard and the Queen part. As you say, Richard is something of a poet — but his interlocutors also speak in rhyme. And there is no prose in the play. That means the only way Shakespeare can “heighten” a scene is to shift from blank verse to  rhyme.

In 5.2 York discovers his son’s part in the Oxford conspiracy. (It’s to take place at a joust in Oxford, but is halted, an echo of the trial by combat in Act I which is also halted.) York had by now already thrown in with Bolingbroke. I don’t know why it takes him so long to leave the room. You suggest that the business with the boots is comic. But that would seem to shatter the general mood. But I don’t know why else he needs help putting on his boots.

In 5.3. maybe Bolingbroke indulgently mentions his errant son here (another reference ahead to 1H4) so as to serve as a contrast to York, who denounces and disowns his own son. (It’s odd that in this play with two prominent father-son pairs — Northumberland and Percy, York and Aumerle — Bolingbroke’s son doesn’t appear at all. Maybe Shakespeare was saving him for later plays.) I wonder why York seems so determined to sacrifice his son. Could he not acknowledge Aumerle’s guilt and nonetheless plead for his son’s life? Family ties don’t seem to count for much in this play.

The explicit reference to a stage comedy at l. 80 supports your idea that there is something comic in this act. There are at least two other theatrical references in this act, one at 5.2.23 (“as in a theatre . . .”) and 5.5.41 (“Thus play I in one person many people.”) Lots of rhyme in this scene, and maybe some implicit comedy in the successive entrances of Aumerle, his father, and his mother.

The short 5.4 reminded me of Henry II’s words about Becket in A Man for All Seasons: “will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Did Robert Bolt take the words from Shakespeare?

In 5.5 I was surprised that Richard had the physical strength to kill two men — I imagined him as physically frail, even slightly effeminate. I guess not.

5.6 makes a strange finale. It opens with “the latest news” that the conspirators have burned Cirencester, though it is not known yet whether they were taken or slain. Then we get a rapid succession of entrances of Henry’s allies. The conspirators have been both taken and slain, and one set of heads has been sent to London, and then another entrance and another set of heads, then a third entrance but this time Henry commutes the sentence of Carlisle to banishment. (An echo of Act  1, in which Mowbray was banished.) And finally a fourth entrance — can you stage this without falling into comedy, almost into farce? This time it’s Exton, who brings a coffin with him! But this time Henry disowns the murderer: “Though I did wish him dead,/ I hate the murtherer, love [Richard] murthered.” This recalls the earlier report in Act 1 that Gloucester was murdered at the instruction or at least the implicit OK from Richard, though Richard disclaims responsibility. And Exton is banished, another echo of Act 1.

Henry does not explicitly concede his responsibility for Richard’s murder. On the one hand he “mourns” and “laments” Richard’s death. On the other he admits “guilt,” promising a trip to the Holy Land (which was Mowbray’s destination in Act 1) “To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.” That makes a very downbeat ending for the play: a king is dead, and his successor acknowledges some role in his death. Do all these echoes of Act 1 suggest that England is in for another cycle of violence and rebellion?


I suppose I mean something different from real comedy in my “almost comic,” more like something absurd, darkly so, when they run out of gages to throw down; the fact the it’s “another lord” who participates in the gage throwing seems to add to the absurdity. Similarly, the quarrel of the Yorks has the dark side both of Aumerle’s filial relation and the duke’s former loyalty to Richard behind it, as they both insist on kneeling before Bolingbroke.

I think the line that comes in A Man for All Seasons was originally attributed, in some form, perhaps not so cogently phrased, to Henry II by a biographer, perhaps of Becket. It seems to have a long history.


Yes, I was also thinking “absurd” or “black comedy.” Are there similar Elizabethan plays?

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell