At Ely House in London, John of Gaunt hangs out with the Duke of York.
Gaunt is at death's door, and he says he hopes King Richard will listen to good advice if it comes from a dying man.
York tells him it's useless. Richard's too busy listening to all the brown-nosers who only tell the king what he wants to hear.
Gaunt prophesies that Richard is like a violent fire that will burn out too quickly and come to a bad end. (Sound familiar? Friar Laurence says something similar about the love affair between Romeo and Juliet: "These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder" (Romeo and Juliet, 2.6.1). By the way, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet around the same time he whipped up Richard II. 1595 was a productive year.)
Henry compares Richard to a cormorant, a greedy bird known for eating fish whole. Richard, Gaunt says, will end up eating England herself. He gives a gorgeous description of England, then laments that Richard has already mortgaged it like a "worthless farm."
When the king and queen arrive, Gaunt puns on his name and describes himself as literally "gaunt," starving from grief because of his son's banishment.
Richard is all, "Gee, Gaunt can't be that sick if he's got enough energy for witty wordplay."
Gaunt answers that though he himself is sick, Richard is the one dying.
Gaunt warns Richard that he is "in reputation sick," and that instead of seeking help from good doctors, he's entrusted his health to the very doctors who first made him ill. (Translation: Richard has surrounded himself with a bunch of brown-nosers, and this bad decision is destroying the country. If Richard doesn't watch out, he'll lose all his power.)
Gaunt ends by calling Richard a landlord, not a king, since he's leased out royal lands to raise money.
Richard gets all huffy and calls Gaunt a "lunatic lean-witted fool." He says the only thing saving Gaunt from being beheaded is the fact that he is Richard's uncle, brother to his father. (Yep, this is ironic all right. As we know, Richard has already had one of his uncles murdered.)
Gaunt tells Richard not to bother sparing his life. He compares him to a bird again, this time a baby pelican.
FYI – it was thought that mother pelicans wounded themselves to feed their ungrateful children on their own blood. Rather than call Richard "king," he calls him "my brother Edward's son" and accuses him of greedily drinking his ancestors' blood.
Brain Snack: Shakespeare's monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, often used the pelican as a symbol of her maternal relationship with her subjects. But don't just take our word for it. Check out this famous painting of Elizabeth known as the "Pelican Portrait." It features a brooch (a fancy pin) with a picture of, you guessed it, a mother pelican.
Gaunt dares Richard to go ahead and kill him. Then he makes a dramatic exit by demanding to be taken first to bed, then to his grave. Only men who have love and honor want to live; since he has neither, he wants to die.
York tries to make excuses for Gaunt. He's all, "Hey – the old man misses his son and he's dying, so he's acting a little crazy right now." He tells Richard that Gaunt really loves him just as much as he loves his son Henry.
Richard purposely misunderstands York and says something like, "Yeah, Gaunt's love for me is like Henry's 'love' for me." (Remember, Richard banished Henry for possible treason.)
The Earl of Northumberland enters to announce that Gaunt has died. Richard is all, "It's about time!"
Richard announces that he's going to seize all of Gaunt's property to help pay for the Irish wars.
York (who, remember, is Gaunt's brother and Richard's uncle) feels things have gone too far. He tells Richard that up until now, he overlooked his brother Gloucester's death, Henry's banishment, England's troubles, and his own disgrace. Not anymore.
York tells Richard that he's nothing like his father was, because his dad (King Edward) didn't go around killing his own relatives.
Richard asks why York is all mad.
York says he's got to be honest. It's totally not cool for Richard to steal Gaunt's property, which is supposed to go to his heir, Henry.
York warns Richard that if he goes through with this, everyone's going to hate him – maybe even turn against him.
Richard basically says, "But look at all the money!" York tells Richard he'll have nothing to do with it and leaves.
Richard tells Bushy to start seizing Gaunt's property ASAP. Then he appoints York Governor of England while he's off at war in Ireland.
Everyone exits except for Northumberland, Willoughby, and Ross.
Willoughby, Northumberland, and Ross can't believe what the king has done. They're shocked that Henry's going to lose his inheritance after being banished from England. This is not fair, they say.
Then they start to badmouth Richard and name all the reasons he's such a lousy king: he's stolen money from the nobility and he's also bankrupted England.
Northumberland says he heard a rumor that Henry has just slapped together an army and is headed to England to challenge the king.
Northumberland's on his way to hook up with Henry's army. Willoughby and Ross say they'll come too.