At the royal pad (that would be Windsor Castle), King Richard II tries to settle a fight between two seriously ticked-off noblemen, Henry Bolingbroke (the Duke of Hereford) and Thomas Mowbray (the Duke of Norfolk). Bolingbroke's got a beef with Mowbray and he's come before the king to officially accuse Mowbray of the following crimes: 1) plotting against England, 2) stealing money from the crown, and 3) murdering the king's uncle, Thomas of Woodstock (a.k.a. the Duke of Gloucester). Mowbray, of course, does NOT appreciate being accused of treason.
Before Richard can make an official decision about who's telling the truth and who's a big fat liar, Bolingbroke calls for a medieval smackdown by throwing down his "gage" (a hat or a glove). This is an official challenge to a "trial by combat," where two "gentlemen" go into an arena with swords until just one man is left standing. Mowbray reaches down and picks up Henry Bolingbroke's gage. Game on.
After witnessing a lot of trash talk and even more gage throwing, King Richard tries to make peace between the two noblemen. But they're way too fired up and demand to be allowed to hack into each other with their swords. Eventually Richard gives in and says fine – they can have their fight. It'll go down at the big tournament arena in Coventry, which apparently was like the Las Vegas of medieval England when it came to combat fighting.
In the meantime, over at John of Gaunt's house, Shakespeare lets the audience in on a little secret: Mowbray did kill the king's Uncle Gloucester, but King Richard is the one who told him to do it. (Gasp!) Apparently everybody at court already knows this, but nobody's really doing anything about it. (Unless you count Bolingbroke, whose recent charge against Mowbray is obviously his passive-aggressive way of accusing the king of murder.) But when Gloucester's widow begs Gaunt to avenge her husband's death, Gaunt is all, "Gee, I can't do anything about it because Richard's the king of England, which means he doesn't have to answer to anybody but God."
In Coventry, a big crowd gathers at the tournament arena to watch Mowbray and Bolingbroke go toe to toe. (Psst. Here's what a medieval tournament arena looks like.)
Just as Henry Bolingbroke and Mowbray are getting pumped up for the big showdown, Richard steps in at the last minute and... cancels the fight. (Cue the loud boos and hissing.) Richard says he's changed his mind about the trial by combat and he's decided that he doesn't want anyone spilling blood all over England's soil. (That stuff totally stains.) Instead of letting the guys fight, he's banishing Bolingbroke for ten years and Mowbray forever. (Of course, everyone knows that Richard doesn't care about spilling blood – he's just trying to cover up the fact that he's the one who ordered Mowbray to kill Gloucester.)
When Richard sees that Henry Bolingbroke's dad (John of Gaunt) is really bummed out about all this banishment business, Richard changes his mind again and says, something like, "Okay, fine, Bolingbroke can come back in six years instead of ten – will that make you happy, Uncle Gaunt?" Gaunt says this is a nice idea but it doesn't really matter because he's so old and heartbroken that he'll be dead by the time his son gets to come home.
Gaunt's not kidding: soon after Henry Bolingbroke is booted out of the country, he croaks. But first he gets in a famous speech about how awesome England used to be until Richard came along and trashed it by spending all of its money and leasing out the royal lands. (Actually, these are probably the most famous lines in the play: "This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise." You really should read Gaunt's speech. After all, he used up his last breath to deliver it.) This is when we find out that Richard has not only blown through England's savings account, but he's also come up with some rather creative fundraising ideas – he's even leased out some royal land, which is a big no-no.
It gets worse when Richard finds out Gaunt is dead. Instead of being sad or feeling guilty about speeding up his death by banishing his son, Richard thinks he's hit the jackpot. Since Richard is broke and needs some quick cash to pay for his war in Ireland, he decides to snatch up all of Gaunt's property to fund his army.
The Duke of York (another one of Richard's uncles / trusted advisors) thinks this is a terrible idea. He chimes in that taking Gaunt's property is sort of illegal. As Gaunt's oldest son, Henry Bolingbroke is the legal heir to all of Gaunt's property, titles, and wealth, so technically, Richard would be stealing. But Richard couldn't care less. He figures, "Hey, God's chosen me to be the king of England, so I can do whatever the heck I want."
So far, the members of the nobility have been willing to let Richard get away with murder, and they've also pretty much kept quiet about Richard's bad financial decisions. But apparently, stealing property from a nobleman is the final straw. (The nobility get all their power from the land they control, so they're never happy when someone comes along and tries to take it from them.)
Meanwhile, Henry Bolingbroke is still banished. But instead of moping around on the couch, watching Family Guy reruns, and ordering take-out, he's started building an army across the English Channel in Brittany (northern France). He's also got a bunch of English noblemen on his side, and the commoners all seem to love him. While Richard's away in Ireland (fighting that war we mentioned earlier), Henry makes his move. He shows up in England with a bunch of troops to claim his rightful inheritance. Richard hightails it back home to confront Henry, but when he gets there, he finds out that he's got little to no protection. (Apparently, an army was supposed to meet him there, but when they heard a rumor that Richard was dead, they decided to leave and go out for pizza instead.) Now Henry, who's been marching across England to confront the king, can take back his land.
When Henry Bolingbroke finally corners Richard at Flint Castle, he orders Richard to... hand over his crown. Huh?! When did Henry decide he wants to be king? We thought he just wanted his land back. Has he been planning this all along, or did he just now decide that, what the heck, why not take Richard's crown, since he can't defend himself? Seriously – let us know when you work that one out, because it's had audiences and literary critics scratching their heads for centuries.
Richard has no choice but to give up his crown peacefully, but that doesn't stop him from kicking up a fuss and being a total drama queen (drama king, that is). In a theatrical "deposition scene" (where the king is "deposed," or stripped of his title and power), Richard makes a big show of removing his crown and handing it over to Henry Bolingbroke (along with his matching gold wand). Then Richard says a tearful goodbye to his wife and is imprisoned at Pomfret Castle, where he spends all of his time moping about his misfortune and trying to figure out who he is now that he's not king anymore.
While Richard's busy soul searching and making a lot of big, dramatic speeches about his feelings, King Henry gets down to the business of ruling England. Henry's got a ton of stuff to worry about, like figuring out what to do with the ex-king and his loyal followers. Also, Henry's been trying to track down his good-for-nothing son, Prince Hal, whom he hasn't seen in three months. (Not a good sign, since this kid is now heir to the English throne.) We learn that Hal is probably off partying at one of his favorite bars in London. If he's not there, then he's likely to be out getting rowdy with his posse of loser friends. (This is Shakespeare's way of gearing us up for Henry IV Part 1, which is all about Prince Hal's wild ways.)
Meanwhile, a guy named Exton thinks that King Henry wants him to make Richard disappear... permanently. We wonder where Exton got that idea. Oh, we know. Henry looked right at him and said something like, "Dang, I'm so stressed out. I sure wish I had a friend who loved me enough to help me get rid of the thing that's causing me so much anxiety." Hint, hint.
Naturally, Exton kills Richard at Pomfret Castle. But when he proudly drags Richard's body over to Windsor Castle, Henry is all, "OMG! What the heck have you done? Who told you to kill Richard?!" When Exton replies, "From your mouth, my lord, I did this deed," Henry backpedals. He admits that he wanted Richard dead but he never fesses up that he actually asked Exton to kill him. (Yep – Henry is being a hypocrite, all right.)
Henry feels really guilty about the "mix-up," so he does a couple things to make himself feel better. First he banishes Exton so he doesn't have to see the guy's face and be reminded of what he's done to the former king. (Hmm – remind you of anybody else? Like, say, Richard himself, when he exiled Henry?) Second, Henry orders everyone to be officially sad about Richard's death. Third, he announces that he's going to go on a pilgrimage (read: take a road trip to Jerusalem and start a Holy War) to make up for his sins. He says, "I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand." Okay, we really like the way our new king rhymes, but maybe someone should tell Henry to go talk to Lady Macbeth. She can probably explain to him how hard it is to wash a dead king's blood off your hands (Macbeth, 5.1.1).
To be continued in Henry IV Part 1...