When Act One of Richard the Second ended, Bolingbroke had been banished and word reached Richard that Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, was dying. The King’s plan was to take Gaunt’s property and use it to arm the English army against the Irish.
At the beginning of Act Two, Scene One, we find the dying Duke of Lancaster (Gaunt) at Ely House, waiting for the king to arrive so that he can breathe his “last … counsel to (the King’s) unstaid youth” (II.i.1-2). His brother, the Duke of York, has no illusion that the king will listen. The two continue to discuss the King. For John of Gaunt, Richard rules over an England that is “this nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings” (II.i.51).
Richard does arrive, and when he does, the dying man revises his view–England is no longer a womb, but a tomb: “Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land // Wherein thou liest in reputation sick” (II.i.95-96). Richard is now merely “Landlord of England… not king” (II.i.113). Richard calls him “a lunatic lean-witted fool” (II.i.115), one whose “tongue that runs so roundly in (his) head // Should run (his) head from (his) unreverent shoulders” (II.i.122-123). Gaunt, before leaving, tells King Richard that will suffer a fate prone to all evil men: “These words hereafter thy tormentors be” (II.i.136).
a type of Shakespearean foreshadowing…
Within moments Lord Northumberland arrives with word that old John of Gaunt is dead. Who is this Northumberland? Henry Percy, father to one Hotspur (but that’s next month’s play). Richard is dismissive, even saying, “So much for that” (II.i.155), when he hears the news. York, Richard’s last surviving uncle, cannot take much more. It’s bad enough with Gloucester’s death, Bolingbroke’s banishment, the “prevention of poor Bolingbroke(‘s)…marriage” (II.i.167-168), but taking away Bolingbroke’s rights to his father’s lands, titles and properties, is just too much to take.
Again, the King is less than sympathetic, saying, “Think what you will, we seize into our hands // His plate, his goods, his money and his lands” (II.i.209-210), and then he leaves the English lords to stew. They all feel sorry for Bolingbroke, who, they hear, will shortly return to England.
Act Two, Scene Two, finds the queen sad over what she senses is a bad future for Richard, especially since Bolingbroke has landed in England. York arrives, but he is less sad than ambivalent. As he explains,
The one is my sovereign, whom both my oath
And duty bids defend; the other again
Is my kinsman, whom the king hath wronged,
Whom conscience and my kindred bids to right.
He doesn’t know whom to support… and he’s willing to say this before the queen.
In Act Two, Scene Three, Bolingbroke is met by the supportive English lords, including the “tender, raw, and young” (II.iii.42) Hotspur, who has joined his father in support of Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke claims to return to England only for the rights to his father’s lands. When he greets his uncle York, his uncle reprimands,
Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle:
I am no traitor's uncle; and that word 'grace.'
In an ungracious mouth is but profane.
Why have those banished and forbidden legs
Dared once to touch a dust of England's ground?
It seems that York, over the course of the last scene, has made his decision to support the current king, and “in (York’s) loyal bosom lies (Richard’s) power” (II.iii.97-98). He denounces the banished nephew to suddenly appear in his land of exile. Bolingbroke’s argument is a legal one:
As I was banished, I was banished Hereford;
But as I come, I come for Lancaster.
Will you permit that I shall stand condemned
A wandering vagabond; my rights and royalties
Plucked from my arms perforce and given away
To upstart unthrifts? Wherefore was I born?
He is no longer the banished man he was, but is now the heir to his father. He claims not to be here for the throne of England. And this argument seems to have had a effect on the once ambivalent York: he is now a “neuter” (II.iii.159), neither for the King or Bolingbroke.
In the short Act Two, Scene Four, the Earl of Salisbury and a Welsh Captain await the King’s return in Wales. But as he hasn’t returned to defend his own throne against Bolingbroke, they can only come to one assumption/conclusion: “Richard their king is dead” (II.iv.17).