The Duke of York is King Richard's uncle and one of his most trusted advisors (sort of like Tom Hagen, the "consigliere" to the Godfather). But when Richard is tossed off the throne and replaced by King Henry IV, he switches sides and joins "Team Henry." He even rats out his own son, Aumerle, when he finds out that he is plotting against the new king. What gives? Is York the biggest traitor ever?
There are a few different ways to read the Duke of York, so let's break them down.
If you're leaning toward Option 1, your best evidence is the fact that when a new king takes the throne, York switches sides faster than you can say "Benedict Arnold." On the surface, York does seem pretty two-faced, but we should warn you that things are always more complicated than they seem.
This leads us to Option 2. The thing about York is that he really does try to be loyal to the office of the king, even if it means betraying individual people. His switch over to Henry Bolingbroke's side seems reluctant, as if he's only doing it because he thinks it's the right thing to do. In other words, it doesn't seem like his heart is in it.
But then something crazy happens, which brings us to Option 3. When it turns out that his son, Aumerle, is a co-conspirator in a plot to overthrow the new king (Henry), York savagely turns on him and begs the king to kill Aumerle for being a traitor. His wife thinks York is out of his mind for wanting to betray his own flesh and blood, but York insists that being loyal to the king is more important. Obviously, York isn't going to be winning any "Father of the Year" awards, and his loyalty to the king seems pretty crazy. What is Shakespeare trying to tell us about York's sense of loyalty?
P.S. If you're still undecided, check out what we have to say in "Themes: Loyalty," or read "Characters: The Duchess of York."