It is England of 1398, during the reign of King Richard II; and one of Richard’s powerful uncles, Thomas, the duke of Gloucester, has been mysteriously murdered. Henry Bolingbroke, a nephew of Gloucester and cousin to King Richard, appears before the king and accuses the king’s supporter, Thomas Mowbray, of treason, including the murder of Gloucester. Mowbray claims innocence and demands a trial by combat. Despite Richard’s appeals, seconded by Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, the two noblemen insist on fighting; Richard gives in and appoints a trial by combat at Coventry. In the meantime, Gloucester’s widow begs Gaunt to avenge her husband’s death. Gaunt, while suspecting Richard’s complicity, insists that God alone can avenge any wrong committed by his earthly representative, the king, thus setting up many of the conflicts of the play.
At Coventry, Richard unexpectedly stops the combat and banishes Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for six years, thus ridding himself of two dangerous rivals. Not long after, while condemning Richard’s serious mismanagement of England, Gaunt dies. Richard immediately confiscates Gaunt’s wealth, partly to finance his fighting of a rebellion in Ireland. The Duke of York, also a brother to Gloucester and uncle to Richard and Bolingbroke, is horrified and chastises the king for this illegal seizure, comparing it ominously with the usurpation of a crown. The king, ignoring this outburst, departs for Ireland and leaves York to be governor of England in his absence.
In his absence, Bolingbroke returns from exile, ostensibly to claim his inheritance. Many nobles, headed by the earl of Northumberland, flock to him. York arrives, bewailing his present dilemma: both king and invader are his kinsmen, and he feels he owes loyalty to each of them. Uncertain what to do, he leaves with the queen. Bushy, Bagot, and Greene, three of the king’s favorites, flee, realizing that trouble lies ahead. Meanwhile Richard is succeeding on the battlefield, and the king’s men are flocking to him.
Bolingbroke and Northumberland, on the march, meet Northumberland’s son, Harry Percy, who brings news that York and a small force are stationed nearby at Berkeley Castle. Soon Lord Berkeley enters, bearing York’s demand that Bolingbroke explain his presence in England. York himself follows, and he castigates his nephew for disloyalty to the king. Bolingbroke insists that he has returned only to claim what is rightfully his--the estate of his father, Gaunt. Bolingbroke’s supporters back him up. York continues to insist on the treasonous nature of their opposition to the king, but he declares that he will remain neutral, lacking power enough to oppose them.
Richard, having returned from Ireland, responds to the news with wild emotional swings, veering between confidence in divine support and dark despair. Finally, informed that York has joined Bolingbroke and that Bolingbroke is after more than just his inheritance, he subsides into resignation and concedes defeat.
Bolingbroke ascends the throne; but in order to confirm his power, he summons Richard to resign the crown formally. The bishop of Carlisle warns that the deposing of a lawful king promises great danger for England; nevertheless, Richard performs the unholy reversal of his coronation, parting with his crown, his kingdom, even his name. Then after parting forever from his queen, Richard is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle.
Bolingbroke’s power is not completely secure, however. York’s son, Aumerle, joins a conspiracy against the new king. York, fearing the wrath of the king, reveals his son’s treachery, but the duchess of York pleads for mercy, moving Bolingbroke to pardon Aumerle, though he condemns the other conspirators.
Alone in prison, Richard contemplates his failures and sorrows. A still-loyal groom visits him with news of King Henry IV’s coronation. Suddenly, Exton, acting on a vague hint from the new king, enters with armed men and murders Richard. Just as Gloucester was killed to strengthen Richard’s power, so now Richard is killed to confirm Bolingbroke’s rule. The new reign, begun in sacrilege, continues in guilt.