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Charles Kean as Richard II, 1857

Richard II

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Richard II

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): Richard wastes money, steals land, and kills political rivals; people are angry and rebel; Henry becomes king.; he kills political rivals.

Richard II Summary

King Richard II banishes Henry Bolingbroke, seizes noble land, and uses the money to fund wars. Henry returns to England to reclaim his land, gathers an army of those opposed to Richard, and deposes him. Now as Henry IV, Henry imprisons Richard, and Richard is murdered in prison.   

More detail: 2 minute read 

Act I 

The play opens in King Richard's court, as Henry Bolingbroke, son of Gaunt (the Duke of Lancaster), challenges Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Henry accuses Mowbray of being involved in the recent death of the King's uncle (who is also Henry's uncle; Henry and the King are cousins). Richard gives in to their demands to work out their differences in one-on-one combat at Coventry. 

As the tournament begins, the uncertain and impulsive Richard stops the contest. Instead Richard chooses to exile both Henry and Mowbray. He banishes Mowbray for life. And responding to Henry's father Lancaster's pleas, he limits Henry's exile to six years.

Charles Kean as Richard II, 1857. Helmeted and in armour with a black surcoat, he stands feet apart, grasping the hilt of his sword with his left hand, staring fiercely forward. His right hand is raised, holding what may be a dagger.
Charles Kean as Richard II, 1857

Act II

In line with his customary behaviour, Richard is misled by his friends into poor government of the country. Henry's father, Gaunt, dies, finally broken by his son's banishment, and by the state of the kingdom under Richard's rule. Richard takes possession of Gaunt's land and money. It turns out that he has also been leasing out royal land. Both of these monetary acquisitions have helped him to fund wars with Ireland. His nobles are dismayed, not only because of the waste of the kingdom's money but also for fear over the security of their own estates. 

To make matters worse, Richard leaves on an expedition to Ireland. When Henry hears that his father has died and that Richard took his inheritance, he returns from exile with an invading army. The commoners and nobles are already critical of Richard. They welcome Henry in the north, led by the powerful Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Henry marches through England, gathering his willing forces. 

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle… This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

— Richard II, Act 2 Scene 1
The king, crowned, in a long robe and with long black hair, holds a sceptre as he stands watching a procession of clerics and bishops. His decorated throne is beside him, and to his right and behind him is an attendant holding a very long sword.
Richard II, 1903


Richard arrives back after the Irish war to find that his Welsh allies have dispersed. Furthermore, his cousin, Duke of York, unable to prevent Henry's triumphant return, has joined him instead. Some more of Richard's friends have also betrayed the King's cause. Others have been executed on Henry's orders. After taking refuge at Flint castle, Richard surrenders and agrees to go to London, where the lords will decide what should happen next. 

Act IV-V

In view of the insurrections against him, King Richard is persuaded to step down in favour of Henry Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV. Richard hands over his crown in a ceremony. Henry subsequently imprisons him in Pontefract castle. Richard's queen is sent home to France. Some lords join in a plot against Henry but York, the father of one of the nobles, relates their machinations to Henry. Henry spares the son of York, but he is now aware of his tenuous position as king.

Henry implies to Exton that he would like to be rid of his threats, and Exton then murders Richard. He brings the body to London. Henry claims innocence, blaming Exton for misunderstanding his intentions. The play ends as King Henry banishes Exton, orders a funeral for Richard, and swears to make reparation for his cousin's death by going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Richard II. The two actors, Pasco and Richardson, each holding one side of the crown.
Richard II, RSC, 1973

With mine own tears I wash away my balm, With mine own hands I give away my crown.

— Richard II, Act 4 Scene 1

King Henry IV's rule (and his dealings with his son, Hal, who eventually becomes King Henry V) are the subject of Shakespeare's plays, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2

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