This scene begins with Henry continuing his investigation into the murder of Gloucester. He begins by calling forward Bagot, who indicates Aumerle’s involvement in the crime and says that Aumerle even hoped for Henry’s death. Aumerle, of course, denies all of this, and, in a gesture that parallels the play’s first scene, he throws down his gage in an offer to battle Bagot to the death.
Again, despite publicly denying that he wants the crown, Henry is already acting like a king. He continues to preside over the murder of Gloucester in an echo of the play’s opening scene, but Henry is acting as king in this scenario instead of accuser.
Though Henry stops Bagot from picking up the gage, Fitzwater steps up and throws his own gage, also accusing Aumerle of treason and of involvement in Gloucester’s death. When Aumerle calls Fitzwater a liar, Percy steps up to defend his honor. Another lord begins to attack Aumerle, who is finally defended by Surrey, who in turn begins to quarrel with Fitzwater. Henry ultimately says that all of these challenges will wait until his banishment is officially revoked.
This exchange is slightly ridiculous, and it at once suggests the humor and excessiveness of ceremony and asserts the difficulty of knowing for certain who is honorable, who is a traitor, and who merely appears to be one way or the other.
After a snarky comment from Carlisle, York enters and says that Richard has agreed to make Henry his heir and descend from the throne. York then announces Henry as king Henry IV, and Henry says that he’ll ascend the throne in God’s name. But to this announcement Carlisle speaks out: he asks, “What subject can give sentence on his king?” and challenges the legitimacy of Henry’s claim to the throne. He calls Henry a traitor, and then makes a prophesy: “If you crown him, let me prophesy / The blood of English shall manure the ground / And future ages groan for this foul act; / Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels, / And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars / Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound.”
Despite his public denials, Henry becomes crowned King Henry IV, and he assumes the position by, according to himself, divine right. But Carlisle boldly speaks out against Henry, arguing that subjects do not have the power to sentence kings, to make demands on kings, or to depose them. Henry’s claim, he says, is illegitimate. He then prophesizes that a great deal of blood will be shed in England following this coronation. Carlisle’s prediction is ultimately proved true by the Wars of the Roses that will follow and lead to the rise of the Tudor line.
But since Henry has been crowned, Carlisle’s speech is figured as treason, and so he is arrested. Henry then calls forth Richard so that he may surrender in public. Richard soon enters and laments the betrayal of so many of his former allies; whereas only one Judas out of twelve apostles betrayed Jesus, he says, Richard feels betrayed by twelve thousand men and all of England itself. He then asks why he has been summoned, and York answers that it is to publicly resign and pass the crown to Henry.
Carlisle’s bold speech in support of the old king is treason to a new king. Richard believes that he has been betrayed by all of the people in England and the very country itself, since they all sided with Henry and forced him to give up the throne. Even though Richard is basically powerless, he is still required to publicly crown Henry to make it legitimate, suggesting a grain of truth to Carlisle’s speech that only a king can depose a king.
Richard then takes the crown and tells Henry to seize it. They both hold on to either end of the crown, which Richard compares to two buckets, one pouring woe and tears into the other from a higher position. Richard is willing to resign his crown, but his griefs, he says, cannot be passed on; he will still remain king of those. Ultimately, he says that “With mine own hands I give away my crown,” a key step for Henry’s hope for a legitimate claim. Richard must denounce his crown and dethrone himself using the official speech and power of a king.
This striking image of both men holding the crown symbolizes the transfer of power, and the pouring bucket imagery is the climax of a series of rise and fall images that mirror Henry’s rise to the throne and Richard’s downfall. As Richard said earlier, only a king can de-crown a king, and so he is forced to make one final speech as king in order to officially transfer his powers to Henry.
The final thing required of Richard is that he read out loud the list of accusations against him for crimes against England while in power. Richard at first refuses, and then says his eyes are too full of tears, and he soon claims that he is now nameless, since his identity was so tied up with the crown. In his distress, he requests a mirror, and while it is brought out, Northumberland encourages him to read from the list of crimes. But Richard says instead that he will read from the book he sees in the mirror, where all his sins are recorded in himself and his reflection.
Having transferred power officially to Henry, Richard is now nameless and feels like he has lost his identity. To humiliate him, Henry and his men force Richard to read a list of his crimes, but the ever figurative Richard says that he will read from the book he sees in the mirror, suggesting that all his crimes are personal faults. We can also note a clever multi-language pun here, as the words for body and book in Latin are both “corpus.”
Looking into the mirror, Richard reflects on his face and the kingdom he has lost, before throwing it to the ground and shattering the glass. He says then that sorrow has destroyed his face. To this comment the new king responds that the shadow of sorrow destroyed the shadow of his face, and Richard responds by saying that it’s true, beginning a brief speech that explores interiority. Richard says that any outward showing of grief is just a shadow to the true, internal grief. Inside, says Richard, is where the true substance lies. After this speech, Richard asks to be taken away, just so that he doesn’t have to see Henry anymore; the old king is then taken to the tower, and most everyone exits.
Dramatically, Richard shatters the mirror on the ground. Henry jokes that the shadow of sorrow (the outward expression of sadness) has destroyed the shadow of Richard’s face (his reflection). Richard then remarks that Henry is right, saying that any outward display of grief is just a shadow of the true substance of grief, which is purely internal. These lines show Shakespeare’s forward-thinking work on the self and ideas of appearance and reality and the interior vs. the exterior.
Aumerle and Carlise, however, remain on stage, along with the Abbot of Westminster. Aumerle asks the other two men if there is any plot to rid the country of the usurpation that has just occurred, and the Abbot tells Aumerle to follow him home, where they’ll discuss a plot to assassinate Henry.
Though this plot to assassinate Henry will be thwarted, the fact that it immediately surfaces after his coronation foreshadows the resistance he will face from former allies in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2.