Act One, Scene One
Richard II is majestically seated on his throne preparing to judge two noblemen accusing each other of treason. Richard orders both men to be brought before the throne. They enter and immediately hurl accusations at each other, in the process getting so mad that each man throws down his gage (a glove), which is a challenge to a duel.
Richard tries to reestablish order by asking Bolingbroke to tell him the exact charges of treason. Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of stealing money which was designated for army purposes. He further accuses Mowbray of killing the Duke of Gloucester, or Thomas of Woodstock, one of Richard's uncles whom Mowbray was ordered to guard. Mowbray defends himself, telling Richard that the money was his because it paid off a loan he had previously made to the king. He admits that he failed to protect Gloucester, and is ambiguous about how it happened. However, most detrimental of all, Mowbray admits to having once plotted against Richard, but claims to regret it.
Richard orders the two men to obey his command, and asks them to forgive and forget the entire episode. John of Gaunt pleads with Bolingbroke to give up the challenge to a duel, and Richard tries to make Mowbray listen to him, but in vain. Both men remain resolute, and Mowbray finally bows down and indicates he cannot avoid the fight since his honor is at stake. Richard is unable to control the two men, and finally is forced to allow them a chivalric duel in the ancient medieval manner.
Act One, Scene Two
John of Gaunt laments the fact that his son is starting a new quarrel over the Duke of Gloucester's death. The Duchess of Gloucester does not agree with his sentiments, saying instead that her husband's death should be revenged. Powerless to intervene in the state affairs, the Duchess wishes that Mowbray will be killed immediately during the duel with Bolingbroke. Gaunt informs her that he must leave for Coventry where the fight will take place, but that she should pray to God for her revenge.
Act One, Scene Three
The two quarreling noblemen are armed and ready to fight in the arena at Coventry when King Richard arrives. The duel is conducted ceremonially, with the Lord Marshal obeying the king's orders. He first makes Mowbray come forward and state why he is present, followed by Bolingbroke. Both men give their names and reasons for fighting.
Bolingbroke, before the fight begins, asks if he may have permission to kiss Richard's ring. Richard instead chooses to break with the usual ceremony, saying, "We will descend and fold him in our arms" (1.3.54). Both men say some final words to their friends and family and take up their positions. The Lord Marshall orders the weapons to be given to the men, and then waits for the signal to begin.
Just as the trumpet sounds, King Richard allows his warder, the staff that the king traditionally carries, to fall. The Lord Marshall immediately halts the duel and makes the men return to their chairs. Richard decides that rather than allow bloodshed, he would prefer to banish the two men. Mowbray is forever banned from England, and Bolingbroke receives a banishment of ten years.
Mowbray still refuses to ever admit to being a traitor, and departs in exile. Richard, seeing how sad John of Gaunt appears over the banishment of his son, immediately reduces the time to only six years. Gaunt is still not happy because he realizes that he will be dead before his son ever returns. Richard tries to reassure him, and asks why he supported the decision to banish his son earlier. Gaunt replies that he was deciding as a judge, not a father, and that he now regrets his decision. Richard refuses to alter the sentence any more, and departs from the arena.
Gaunt notices that Bolingbroke refuses to speak to anyone and tries to cheer him up. However, Bolingbroke feels that being banished is a disaster. He unwillingly departs from England.
Act One, Scene Four
Richard asks Aumerle how Bolingbroke reacted after the sentencing. Aumerle says that he pretended to be overwhelmed with grief rather than tell Bolingbroke "farewell." Richard tells the assembled men that Bolingbroke was becoming dangerous because of his popularity among the common people. "Observed his courtship to the common people, / How he did seem to dive into their hearts" (1.4.23-24).
Now that Bolingbroke is gone, Richard starts to prepare for a war with Ireland, which is in revolt. He makes the decision to go to Ireland himself, and in an effort to get money for the war he chooses to sell the king's right to tax as well as write blank charters, or forced loans. After making these decisions, Richard is informed that John of Gaunt has fallen ill and will likely die soon. Richard immediately expresses his will to confiscate Gaunt's estate, which would technically become Bolingbroke's land and money.
One of the great ironies of Richard II is that Richard is unable to arbitrate the opening dispute since he is himself guilty of the crime. The Duke of Gloucester had been entrusted to Mowbray, but it is likely that Richard ordered Mowbray to kill the duke. Thus Mowbray cannot accuse the true culprit, and his understandably outraged at being called a traitor.
The opening scene serves as a direct challenge to Richard's power, a challenge which will build throughout the play. Mowbray and Bolingbroke become so impassioned that Richard orders them, "Wrath kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me" (1.1.152). He then commands the two men to forget the entire affair and to return home. They, however, refuse to be ruled by Richard. The result is the archaic trial by combat, as well as the immediate view of Richard as being an impotent king. Richard sees this quite clearly himself, saying "We were not born to sue, but to command; / Which since we cannot do..." (1.1.196-197). This is a mark of resignation, of defeat for Richard, who cannot control his own subjects.
As in other plays, the old, powerless characters represent the old order, the worldview as it used to be. Thus the Duke of York has loyalties to the crown which he will place over his loyalties to his family. The Duchess of Gloucester represents the opposite worldview, that of placing family loyalty over those to the crown. However, what quickly becomes apparent is that neither conception is acceptable. Instead, Bolingbroke will emerge with a very materialistic, Machiavellian view of the throne which will displace both of these older notions.
The use of language is very significant throughout this play. Richard controls language, but has no authority, whereas Bolingbroke rejects language and relies on material possessions to win his wars. Language quickly is seen as something which belongs to ceremony, but not necessarily to rule. Thus Mowbray, when banished, says "The language I have learnt these forty years, / My native English, now I must forgo, / And now my tongue's use is to me no more" (1.3.153-154). This represents the fact that without language Mowbray is unable to rule. Bolingbroke harbors no such illusions, though, since he rejects the arbitrariness of language and ceremony. When Richard dismisses four year of his banishment, he comments, "How long a time lies in one little word! / Four lagging winters and four wanton springs / End in a word: such is the breath of kings" (1.3.206-208). Bolingbroke's preference for material control rather than language is offered in stark contrast to not only Richard and Mowbray, but also to his father. Gaunt pleads with his son, "O, to what purpose dost thou hoard thy words" (1.3.242-243). Bolingbroke represents the newer model of monarchy, one in which ceremony and words alone are not sufficient to rule a country.
Richard II is in many ways a tragedy, and follows the traditional pattern of a hero who will fall. Thus throughout the play we are given images of Richard descending from his throne. This is first brought out in 1.3, where Richard tells Bolingbroke that, "We will descend and fold him in our arms" (1.3.54). The act of descending for Bolingbroke is of course foreshadowing the actual plot, since later in the play Richard will literally be forced to descend the throne for Bolingbroke, who will ascend it. While the play focuses on Richard's descent, it also serves to illustrate Bolingbroke's ascent, which is from the bottom upwards. In fact, one of the reasons Richard gives for banishing Bolingbroke is his familiarity with the commoners. "Observed his courtship to the common people, / How he did seem to dive into their hearts" (1.4.23-24). For Richard such descent to the common people would be unthinkable, but for Bolingbroke it is a stepping-stone on his path to the throne.