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Richard's elimination of Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel greatly alarmed the remaining two of the group, Bolingbroke and Mowbray. They feared revenge from Richard. Mowbray warned Bolingbroke of Richard's intentions. Bolingbroke, however, charged Mowbray with treason before parliament in January of 1398. The parliament set up a committee to deal with this charge and met for a second time in April of 1398, when Bolingbroke extended his charge to include embezzlement and involvement in the death of Gloucester. Mowbray denied all the charges and challenged Bolingbroke to a trial by combat. Richard ordered that such a trial would take place in September at Coventry.
In the play Richard's agreement to a trial by combat demonstrates his inability to control his subjects. The first scene is extremely vague in delineating Richard's character. He does not say much, and he speaks from within his public role as a king. Shakespeare has not given any concrete indication that Richard was indeed implicated in Gloucester's murder; this is only suggested. Richard conducts himself very well as a man and as a king by assuring Mowbray of his impartiality and by promising to seek a peaceful solution to the dispute. But a violent quarrel results, and Richard faces a dilemma in resolving it. Bolingbroke is his cousin and a member of the royal family.
The character of John Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, is significant. Shakespeare establishes him from the very beginning of the play as a figure of wisdom and dignity by referring to him as "old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster." He is portrayed as a well- meaning soul whose counsel is needed in these troubled times. But when Richard asks Gaunt to help resolve the quarrel, Gaunt's intervention proves futile. The representative of "wisdom" is forced to walk away.
The first scene is also marked by an expression of unrestrained passion as Bolingbroke and Mowbray make accusations against at each other. The two men are easily provoked, and their speech rises to an extremely high emotional pitch. Bolingbroke charges Mowbray with being, "a traitor and a miscreant, / Too good to be so and too bad to live..." Mowbray becomes incensed, and forgetting royal decorum, he says, "I do defy him, and I spit at him; / Call him a slanderous coward and a villain." This open display of feeling and animosity refuses to be contained in any conventional policy of forgiving and forgetting and must resolve itself in outright violence.
The language of the scene evokes religious imagery, which assumes greater significance as the play proceeds. For instance, phrases such as "divine soul," "innocent souls," and "our sacred blood" lend a religious and ethical dimension to the historical context of the action. The religious imagery serves to universalize the individual tragedy of King Richard and transforms it into the tragedy of the whole of England.