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MonkeyNotes-Richard II by William Shakespeare
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PLOT

Aristotle stated that tragedy is "an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude . . . A whole is that which has beginning, middle and end." According to the classic Aristotelian conventions, Richard II does not have a real beginning, as it starts in medias res. There is no Chorus or any expository conversation among waiting nobles and minor characters, as in other plays of Shakespeare. The audience is plunged into the midst of a quarrel between two warring lords. The play has a coherent middle, and some critics hold that the play's central experience is in that middle (Acts III and IV). Richard steadily slips into disaster because of the force of circumstances and his own shortcomings. His downfall is the result of two factors: the quarrel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, which he mishandles, and York's transference of loyalty to Bolingbroke. Structurally speaking, the play's action moves forward in four distinct stages: Richard as the king (Act I, Scene 1 to Act III, Scene 3); the transfer of power to Bolingbroke (Act III, Scenes 3 & 4); the deposition of Richard by Bolingbroke (Act IV, Scene 1); Bolingbroke as king (Act V).


At the start of the play, Richard is an absolute monarch who has a firm belief in his divine right to rule. Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of complicity in Gloucester's murder and is challenged to a duel by Mowbray. It is hinted indirectly that Richard is responsible for the crime in question. In Act II, Gaunt plainly states that Richard himself is implicated in the murder of Gloucester but says that he cannot act against the deputy of God on earth. Bolingbroke and Mowbray are arbitrarily banished. When John of Gaunt dies and Richard confiscates his property to finance the Irish wars, Bolingbroke returns from exile, and a civil war is declared. Richard is deserted by his supporters one by one, and he sinks into despair. Finally, he is captured by Bolingbroke and brought to London. He abdicates and is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle. Meanwhile, a rebellion is planned against Bolingbroke by the Abbot of Westminster, the Bishop of Carlisle and Aumerle. The plot is revealed to Bolingbroke by York. Although Aumerle is lucky to gain a pardon from Bolingbroke, the other conspirators are not spared. Exton misinterprets Bolingbroke's words and kills Richard. He is banished, and Bolingbroke vows to go on a voyage to the Holy Land to atone for his deeds. Thus, while the tragic action progresses and one king succeeds another, there is a repetition of events so that the plot movement is almost cyclical.

In the first act Richard struggles vainly to deal with his quarreling nobles, and in Act IV, Scene 1, Bolingbroke has to contend with the same behavior from the nobles. Similarly, the play begins with a king who is guilty of the murder of his own uncle and ends with the new king, also partly responsible for the murder of his cousin and former king. Richard had been plagued by the Irish rebellion and countless conspiracies. Likewise Bolingbroke has to deal with rebellions and conspiracies in Act V, Scenes 3 and 6.

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