What happens in Richard II

Richard II is up next on What Happens in Shakespeare, which means we’re almost, almost to the Wars of the Roses, so hold your Dothraki horses. Richard II seems cruel and wackadoodle enough to qualify as the inspiration for an early Targaryen king, but that’s only because you haven’t met Richard III yet.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Absolute power corrupts two in the bush.”

What happens in Richard II
(King of England from 1377–1399)

King Richard II is arbitrating a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (the future King Henry IV). Richard has accused Mowbray of squandering money meant for the king’s soldiers and murdering Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, believes Richard himself was responsible for the murder. Richard orders a trial by battle between Bolingbroke and Mowbray to sort things out.

The tournament gets underway, but Richard interrupts it, changing his mind and banishing Bolingbroke and Mowbray from England. He sentences Bolingbroke to be banished for ten years, but reduces it to six years when he sees John of Gaunt grieving for his son. Mowbray he banishes permanently.

Creepily, Richard never does anything to really dispel the suspicion that he murdered the Duke of Gloucester.

Mowbray predicts that sooner or later Richard will fall at the hands of Bolingbroke (it’s sooner).

John of Gaunt, who is just about the only nice person we’re going to meet, dies. Richard seizes his property. The nobles get angry and accuse Richard of fining them for crimes their ancestors committed, taxing the commoners (and how noble of the 1% to care), and using Gaunt’s money (which should go to his son, Bolingbroke) to fund the war in Ireland. They help Bolingbroke (remember he was exiled) secretly return to England with a plan to overthrow Richard.

Richard goes to Ireland to supervise the war and probably conduct a little old-fashioned peasant slaughter in person. He leaves the Duke of York in charge.

Bolingbroke seizes the opportunity to assemble an army and invade England. He executes some of Richard’s allies and wins York over to his side.

As soon as Richard returns to England, Bolingbroke lays claim to the throne and crowns himself King Henry IV. He has Richard taken prisoner.

Richard’s allies plan a rebellion against Henry, but York finds them out. They get executed.

An ambitious nobleman who is loyal to Henry murders Richard in prison.

Henry announces his plans to cleanse his soul of any association with murder by going on a crusade to Jerusalem. Apparently it wasn’t realistic for him to give up sex by moving into a brothel. The original, long-lost final line of the play is “hypocrisy and empire go together like peanut butter and chocolate.”


For more on this barely-known play, there’s an illuminating breakdown of recent performance history in The Guardian’s writeup, “Richard II: a play for today.”

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