Tragical Historical Comical

Today, we move from the possibly inflammatory Act Four deposition/abdication scene of Richard the Second to the concluding six-scene fifth act, which has some interesting tonal changes for our tragical history/historical tragedy.

In Act Five, Scene One, we find the queen in London waiting for her husband Richard to pass before her on his way to the Tower. She refers to him as her “fair rose” (V.i.8), a subtle alignment of Richard to the White Rose of York (as opposed to the Red Rose of Lancaster, who had John of Gaunt as its root).

While Richard is a man broken (“our former state a happy dream” [V.i.18]), the queen is stronger and incredulous to his change: “What, is my Richard both in shape and mind // Transformed and weakened?” (V.i.26-27). Richard is a pragmatically embittered man, and he warns Northumberland/Percy:

                               Thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all.
And he shall think that thou, which know'st the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urged, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.

— V.i.59-68

hmmm, nothing like Act Five foreshadowing for the sequel, right?

Richard then complains that he’s been “doubly divorced” (V.i.71), not just he from his crown, but he from his wife as well, and what follows is a mature and touching good-bye between husband and wife.

Wait a minute, hadn’t Bolingbroke insinuated a homosexual relationship between Richard and Bushy and Green (their “sinful hours” [III.i.11] having created a “divorce betwixt his queen and [Richard], // Broke the possession of a royal bed” [III.i.12-13])? Maybe, but there seems to be real affection between Richard and his queen. While both sex with Bush and Green AND affection for his queen may not be mutually exclusive, it does call into question Bolingbroke’s accusation… was it a smear campaign? And if so, how much worse does that make our new king?

In Act Five, Scene Two, we move from the marriage of the deposed king, to the household of the Duke of York. Here, we learn that as Richard went through the streets of London, “dust and rubbish” (V.ii.6) was thrown down upon him by the “rude misgoverned” (V.ii.5). York then says that he has come to London to appear before “parliament (and) pledge for his (son’s) truth // And last fealty to the new-made king” (V.ii.44-45). Remember, York’s son Aumerle had openly supported Richard, and because of this, his titles had been stripped, and has now been demoted to “Rutland” (V.ii.43).

What’s worse, however, is that York finds on Aumerle/Rutland himself proof of the abbot’s plot “to kill the king at Oxford” (V.ii.99). There is then a slightly funny sequence in which York calls upon his servants to bring him his saddle then boots so he can warn the king. The farcical slapstick (or at least I can definitely see it played that way) is wacky given the solemnity of all that has come before, but the scene itself has a very serious purpose. What we see in the York household is a microcosm of what is happening (and will happen) all through England: breakdowns of family loyalties caused by the usurpation of the crown. York leaves to warn the king, and the duchess tells her son to go to the king and “beg (his) pardon ere (his father) do accuse” (V.ii.113) him.

Act Five, Scene Three opens with Bolingbroke on the throne as Henry IV, bemoaning his “unthrifty son” (V.iii.1). It’s a nice lead-in to the two parts of Henry the Fourth, which will deal with Prince Hal’s reformation, one that is foreshadowed even here as Henry says he “see(s) some spark of better hope, which elder years // May happily bring forth” (V.iii.21-22). What makes this foreshadowing play even better is to whom Henry is complaining: Percy.  Not papa Percy, but the son… that’s right: HOTSPUR.

nicely played, Willie boy, nicely played…

Into this scene comes Aumerle, ready to confess. Henry excuses everyone else and asks his cousin what the problem is.  Now it’s interesting that although Henry knows of a possible plot by Aumerle to kill him, he sill allows himself to be in a room alone with him. Aumerle says that says that he needs to tell Henry something, but wants a pardon first. Henry’s response is all pre-emptive forgiveness:
Intended or committed was this fault?
If on the first, how heinous e'er it be,
To win thy after-love I pardon thee.

— V.iii.33-35

As long as you only thought about it and didn’t actually do it, I forgive you, Henry says. And just as Aumerle is about to confess, who should come banging on the locked door but York, warning the king of “a traitor in (his) presence there” (V.iii.40).

Henry draws his sword for protection, and you think this is about to go south and sad in a hurry, but it doesn’t. Henry lets York in, York shows him the evidence, and what does Henry do? He lives up to his word to Aumerle, telling York, “And thy abundant goodness shall excuse // This deadly blot in they digressing son” (V.iii.65-66). York’s response sends the tone of this scene back to the comic wackiness of the preceding scene’s slapstick: York won’t allow it, he wants his son executed. Interrupting this plea to have his son killed is the arrival of the Duchess of York, pleading for her son.

Henry’s response is purely comic: “Our scene is altered from a serious thing, // And now changed to ‘The Beggar and the King'” (V.iii.79-80). The duchess grovels on the floor and begs for leniency, Aumerle kneels for forgiveness, York kneels for justice against both son and wife; meanwhile, Henry just wants them all to rise.

But the Duchess will not rise until Henry pardons her son (which he had already done); Henry’s response is an interesting one: “I pardon him as God shall pardon me” (V.iii.131). What a wonderfully complex statement! Is it just wishful thinking on Henry’s part? Does he believe himself justified in deposing Richard? Is he planning to punish Aumerle, and knows he will be punished for Richard? The mother’s response, however, brings the King of England’s divine right to rule: “A god on earth thou art” (V.iii.136).

But he’s not an all-forgiving God… the other members of Aumerle’s plot (the ones who haven’t begged for pardon) are to be captured then executed: “They shall not live within this world, I swear” (V.iii.142).

In the short Act Five, Scene Four, a Sir Exton interprets Henry’s overheard statement “I would thou wert the man // That would divorce this terror from my heart” (V.iv.9-10) as an order to murder Richard.

This murder takes place in Act Five, Scene Five, after a long soliloquy by Richard, as he looks upon his state and “compare(s) // This prison where (he) live(s) unto the world” (V.v.1-2). It’s a long a beautiful speech, befitting a “poet king” and we’ll discuss it further later in the month, I’m sure. Suffice to say, Exton and an accomplice rush in and kill the King.

gotta love irony…

The sixth and final scene of the Act (and of the play) takes us back to the palace, where Henry welcomes Northumberland, who tells of sending to London the “heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt and Kent” (, for which Henry can only thank “gentle Percy” (

Fitzwater has also sent the heads of Brocas and Seely to London. Hotspur announces that the Abbot of Westminster has “yielded up his body to the grave” (, as well. Henry tells Carlisle to find a “secret place” ( to either exile himself or die.

in a sense, does this parallel the regime change: did Henry want the crown, but wouldn’t take it until it was given?

Into all this talk of traitors and death comes Exton with the body of Richard. Henry is stunned; he never asked for this. Yes, he wanted him dead, but never ordered it.

Henry ends the play with a promise to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land “to wash this blood off from (his) guilty hand” (

And the play is done.

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