Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Strap on your emotional seatbelts, Shmoopsters, because the tone is all over the place in this play. (Think about your favorite roller coaster ride at Six Flags and then multiply by three.)
The play starts off incredibly formal in the opening scene, with Mowbray and Bolingbroke trying to outdo each other in pompous declarations of loyalty and honor. It's melodramatic in Act 5, Scene 1, as Richard and the queen say their farewells and repeat the word "groan" over and over. It's just plain sad when Richard is imprisoned and thinking about his life. It even gets funny: Act 5, Scene 3 is weirdly comic in tone, especially when the Duchess of York and her husband show up at Windsor Castle to tell King Henry about Aumerle. Take the lines where the Duchess bangs on Henry's doors and yells out with a "shrill voice": "Speak with me, pity me! Open the door!
A beggar begs that never begged before" (5.3.1). Even King Henry notices the strangeness of the scene he's in. He says, "our scene is altered from a serious thing" (5.3.12).
But by the time we get to the end of the play (when Richard is dead and Henry feels guilty), the tone is incredibly dark and leaves us with a sick feeling in our stomachs. Read more about this under "What's Up With the Ending?"