When we last left Richard the Second, both the man and the play were heading to London, where regime change hung in the air. Bolingbroke had returned from exile to England, and Richard had agreed to meet Bolingbroke’s demands, which had been explicitly to have his titles and properties restored, but the implicit demand was for the throne itself.
At the beginning of the single scene of Act Four, at Westminster Hall, Bolingbroke calls forth Bagot (another of Richard’s former advisers/servants–along with Bushy and Green) to present testimony against Aumerle (the Duke of York’s son–and thus, Bolingbroke’s own cousin), implicating him in a conspiracy against Bolingbroke himself. When the accusation is made, Aumerle’s response is to call for his own trial by combat against his accuser: “There is my gage, the manual seal of death” (IV.i.25).
While Bagot is cautioned by Bolingbroke not to accept the challenge, Fitzwater, “Hotspur” Percy and “another lord” take up the challenge. When only Surrey backs Aumerle’s claim, Fitzwater says,
If I dare eat, or drink, or breathe, or live,
I dare meet Surrey in a wilderness,
And spit upon him, whilst I say he lies,
And lies, and lies...
Besides, I heard the banished Norfolk say
That thou, Aumerle, didst send two of thy men
To execute the noble duke at Calais.
Aumerle then challenges Norfolk in absentia, and Bolingbroke puts on hold all these trials by combat until “Norfolk be repealed” (IV.i.87). Even though Norfolk is Bolingbroke’s enemy, he will be “restored again // To all his hands and signories” (IV.i.81-82), so that the man accused of plotting his death can defend himself in a trial by combat. When we compare these actions to those of Richard in Act One, Bolingbroke comes off as the better leader, the more astute and stronger KING. When he learns, however, that Norfolk is dead, he proclaims that the trials will take place on a date to be set.
York then enters and states that Richard
Adopts (Bolingbroke) heir, and his high scepter yields
To the possession of (Bolingbroke's) royal hand:
Ascend his throne, descending now from him;
And long live Henry, fourth of that name!
Bolingbroke, of course, accepts.
The only man to speak against this is Carlisle, who states that Boilingbroke is a “foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king” (IV.i.134-135) and prophesizes
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called
The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child's children, cry against you woe!
a pretty straightforward vision of the War of the Roses, right? of course, Shakespeare knew where this was going, had already taken us there…
Northumberland (Papa Percy) then arrests Carlisle for “capital treason” (IV.i.151). Bolingbroke sets “Wednesday next” (IV.i.319) as coronation day then leaves, Carlisle again predicts dire days ahead, and Aumerle asks the abbot if there is any “plot // To rid the realm of this pernicious blot” (IV.i.324-325). The abbot tells Aumerle that there is such a plot… and the scene and act is over.
Wait a minute… did you notice something there?
What, you didn’t?
Go back, read that paragraph again. Between Carlisle’s arrest and Bolingbroke’s announcement of the date of his coronation is a span of nearly 160 lines.
Did you think I skipped that?
Well, I did. And so did Shakespeare.
And more on that tomorrow.