This scene begins formally in the lists, a small enclosed space for tournaments and fights like that between Mowbray and Henry. After a long ceremony in which the two men are introduced, armed, and given the opportunity to swear to the king. Each man says that if he is willing to fight to the death, and that he believes the verdict rendered by the battle will be just. Henry, for example, says that if he dies, he doesn’t want anyone to mourn his loss, since his death will mean that he was a traitor. After these speeches and official proclamations, the fight is set to begin.
The ceremony here is extremely official and lengthy, possibly mocking such courtly spectacles. Within this ceremony, Richard’s power is still absolute. The two men continue emphasizing that honor (or appearing honorable) is worth dying for, and both men seem confident in their causes and absolutely willing to accept the results of the trial.
Just as the fight is about to start, however, Richard arbitrarily stops it. He says that the kingdom’s earth should not be stained with the blood that it made, and that he hates to see neighbors fight. He continues to say that this hatred between the two men might disturb the nation and its peace, which he describes as an infant in a cradle. Thus, in the name of keeping the peace, Richard decides to banish Henry for ten years and to banish Mowbray for life.
This is the first in a series of mistakes that will lead to Richard’s downfall. He asserts his power as king, using speech in place of action. He also characterizes England as a mother, and then alternatively as an infant, relying heavily on metaphorical language. We can also note that the difference in banishments appears completely arbitrary, and perhaps based off of the king’s familial relationship to Henry, as pointed out earlier by Mowbray.
After hearing this harsh sentence, Mowbray asks for mercy. The most disturbing part of the banishment, it seems, is that Mowbray will no longer be able to speak his native tongue: the English language. The sentence is so harsh that Mowbray deems it a “speechless death.” But Richard does not relent. Instead, he makes the two men swear to follow his command, observe the exile, and never speak to each other again. The two men agree, swear, and part as enemies, as Mowbray leaves.
Mowbray’s reaction to his banishment showcases both the significance of language and of English and England itself. Being prevented from speaking English is figured as a verbal, silent death. But though both men are unhappy with this outcome, they still must appear honorable and accept the king’s ruling as absolute. Richard’s commandment that the two men will not speak to each other reflects possible concerns about rebellion.
But just after his exit, Richard sees how sad Gaunt is to lose his son to banishment, so the king reduces Henry’s exile from ten to six years. Here Henry remarks that the speech of kings is so powerful that in one word Richard has changed four years of his life. Gaunt thanks the king, but says he still believes he will be dead before Henry returns. Gaunt explains that he supported the decision to banish Henry so as to appear unbiased, but in reality he believes the decision is destroying his life. When Richard tries to reassure Gaunt, the Duke makes an important distinction about the power of a king’s speech. While Richard can sentence Gaunt to death with a word or banish Henry forever, he cannot give someone life or restore life to Gaunt after he is dead.
Richard continues to appear inconstant and arbitrary by reducing Henry’s sentence, again influenced by family obligation. Gaunt, we see, has continued to favor appearance and honor over family obligation, as he recommended the banishment so as to appear unbiased. Gaunt and Henry explain both the power of king’s speech and its limitations; Richard can make laws by uttering them, but unlike a true God, he cannot use words to create life.
After the king’s exit, Gaunt tries to comfort Henry, who is distraught that he must leave his native land. Every step away from home that he takes, he says, will be a painful one. Gaunt suggests that his son try to think of the banishment as a vacation, or pretend that it’s by choice, but Henry ultimately says that merely pretending wouldn’t make it any less painful. The scene ends with Henry bidding goodbye to England, which he describes as his “mother” and his “nurse.”
Henry, like Mowbray, experiences the banishment as extremely painful. Despite his father’s efforts to reframe the banishment as something intentional or pleasant, Henry believes that any sort of pretending or mental acrobatics cannot make his removal from England, which he also figures as a motherly nurse figure, any less painful.