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The action of the play opens with the confrontation between Bolingbroke and Mowbray under the eyes of their king. The dialogues exchanged by the characters are marked by a high degree of formality, which recalls the code of chivalry. Richard reminds Gaunt of "oath and band" and Gaunt answers "my liege." The formality serves more than a merely aesthetic purpose. It is symbolic of the order and on which this society is based, and it implies subordination and loyalty to the monarch by his subjects. The formal speech patterns also underline the most essential premise of the play, that the institution of monarchy is divinely ordained.
Bolingbroke and Mowbray symbolically replace unity and harmony by discord and disagreement. They replace loyalty and obedience to the king by a passionate assertion of the self. Yet they are still aware of the deference required in the presence of the king. Bolingbroke greets King Richard in eloquent terms: "Many years of happy days befall / My gracious sovereign, my most loving liege!" Mowbray attempts to better Bolingbroke's eloquence in the expression of his loyalty and allegiance to the king: "Each day still better other's happiness; / Until the heavens, envying earth's good hap, / Add an immortal title to your crown!" As the scene proceeds, however, both Bolingbroke and Mowbray passionately cast aspersions on each other and are not reconciled, despite Richard's orders.
Three groups eventually emerged out of the struggle for power. The first of these was comprised of John of Gaunt and his Lancastrian supporters. John of Gaunt was very wealthy and powerful. Shakespeare has cast him as a figure of great wisdom by referring to him as "old John of Gaunt." Gaunt remained loyal to Richard and was his trusted advisor throughout the 1390s. As Richard grew up, he began to choose his own set of friends. This consisted of a party of courtiers who were dependent upon his favors and encouraged Richard to act on his own, without the guidance of his relatives. This group of courtiers formed the second group in the struggle for power. The parliament often attributed Richard's willful behavior to the evil guidance of his favorites. The third group was led by the Duke of Gloucester, along with the Earl of Warwick and the Earl of Arundel. They were later joined by Henry of Bolingbroke (Gaunt's son) and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. This group complained about the increasing influence of the courtiers in Richard's decision-making process and raised an army of their own.
In 1397, Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel infuriated the king and were arrested. All three lords were convicted. Warwick was exiled. Arundel, who was unrepentant, was beheaded. Gloucester, who had been assigned to the protection of Norfolk in the fort at Calais, died under mysterious circumstances. Obviously, he was murdered. It has been suggested that Richard II was involved in Gloucester's murder. This complicity explains the moral weakness of the king's position in the first and second acts: here is a king, who is divinely ordained to rule, but whose hands are stained with the blood of his own uncle. Richard is thus morally unfit to rule.