“This happy little breed of men, this little world,/This precious stone set in the silver sea,/Which serves it in the office of a wall,/Or as the moat defensive to a house /Against the envy of less happier lands;/This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…”

Richard II

Act Two, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Act Two:  Joined by the Duke of York, the dying Gaunt bemoans the state of the country, which is struggling under Richard’s increasingly unpopular rule – a point that Gaunt makes to the King personally.  Richard is unmoved, though, and as soon as Gaunt dies makes a point of seizing his estates.  Rumors arise that Bolingbroke is gathering forces to return home, and, sure enough, as soon as Richard departs for Ireland he lands at Ravenspurgh.  Richard’s supporters panic, while York (made regent in Richard’s absence), finds his loyalties split, and when Bolingbroke and his army reach Berkeley Castle, he reluctantly allows them to enter.


One of the many things that interest me about this play is how the parallels been Richard II and Queen Elizabeth’s reign were sensitive enough for the scene depicting the King’s abdication to be cut out by censors (or, perhaps cut out before they reached them), only being restored in the 1608 text, published just five years after the Queen’s death.  And those resonances are definitely unflattering.  Much is made of Richard’s political mismanagement and unpopularity:  the Earl of Northumberland accuses the king of financial largesse and being ‘basely led/By flatterers’’ Ross laments the ‘grievous taxes’ he has imposed; Willoughby grumbles how ‘daily new exactions are devised’.  Nahum Tate, whose adaptation of the stage was a brief hit on the Restoration stage, observed that Shakespeare’s Richard was “Painted in the worst Colours of History.”

Furthermore, England itself – as one critic suggests, the ever-present ‘hero’ of Shakespeare histories – seems to be in mortal danger.  Close to death at the start of Act Two, Gaunt gives impassioned voice to his nephew’s fickle betrayal of ‘”this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,”

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy little breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as the moat defensive to a house

Against the envy of less happier lands;

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…

Though this speech is often (WAY too often) cited as a patriotic celebration of England and Englishness – it was anthologized as one of “the Choicest Flowers of our English Poets” as early as 1600 – its dramatic purpose is (as you’ve probably noted) markedly different.  Gaunt uses the speech to underline everything that England should be under Richard’s command but decidedly and obviously isn’t.  The nation is, Gaunt objects, “leased out…Like to a tenement or a pelting farm,’ “bound in with shame”; the King is its “landlord”; not its ruler.  And Richard’s betrayal of England is further compounded by a personal betrayal.  Just moments after Gaunt’s death, the king coolly announces that he will seize his “plate, coin, revenues, and movables” in order to fund the Irish wars – in effect disinheriting Gaunt’s banished son, Bolingbroke, and setting into motion the events that can only end in Richard’s own deposition.

Up to this point in the play, the case against Richard seems cut and dry – particularly because Bolingbroke, his opponent and eventual successor, is presented in terms starkly antithetical to those of the King.  Banished by Richard, on paper for challenging Mowbray (but in reality because Richard seems, reasonably so as it turns out, anxious about his growing power), his response to the news is calm rather than histrionic; although he expresses pain at saying goodbye to England, he promises to carry consoling thoughts of its ‘sweet’ soil’ with him:

Whe’er I wander, boast of this I can:

Though banished, yet a trueborn Englishman.

Bolingbroke astutely plays the patriotic card, a successful strategy (used by politicians on the make since time immemorial) underscored just a scene later by reports of his mounting popular support – and Richard’s rancorous jealousy at it.  Though Bolingbroke is never that blunt, the play has begun to present him as England’s savior, a “trueborn” liberator who will combat the (French-born) King.  As Northumberland put it, it is Bolingbroke who will “shake off our slavish yoke,”

Redeem from broking pawn the blemished crown,

Wipe off the dust that hides our scepter’s gilt,

And make high majesty look like itself…

But, as often happens, things are not so straightforward.  Bolingbroke’s own views on the progress of his career are rarely made public.  His main attraction – that he is utterly and completely different from Richard – is also his most enigmatic quality.  Shakespeare never permits him to speak in soliloquy, and so his motives remain constantly in shadow, open for debate.  Even so, his opportunism is unmistakable:  as soon as Richard is out of the country, Bolingbroke stages a surprise reappearance with several thousand of his closest friends.  The question of precisely what he will do once he arrives is left open:  the return from banishment takes place off stage, and it is left to Bolingbroke’s ally Northumberland to insist that “the noble Duke hath sworn his coming is/But for his own”, in a word, that he has come to reclaim the property illegal seized from his father.  Nearly everyone else, of course, suspects that he has come to claim the throne itself, and when the King disappears to Ireland during the crucial center of the play, the balance of power suddenly shifts.  York, left in control of England, cannot resist the invading army; Richard’s favorites, “the caterpillars of the commonwealth” fall into Bolingbroke’s hands and are disposed of; and the King’s Welsh troops melt away as the rest of the country rebels.”


From Bloom:

“Walter Pater, amiably ignoring the Richard of Acts I and II, praised the royal masochist of Acts III to V as an ‘exquisite poet.’  One should never underestimate Pater’s ironies, moralizings that did not interest the great Aesthetic Critic, and he knew very well that Richard was a hollow man, yet he wished to judge a poet only as a poet.  And as Pater said with a (for him) surprising gusto, ‘No!  Shakespeare’s kings are not, nor are meant to be, great men.’  Several astute critics have insisted that Richard II is not, nor is meant to be, a great or even a good poet.  A.P. Rossiter thought Richard ‘surely a very bad poet,’ and Stephen Booth implied that Richard did not distinguish the manipulation of words from the manipulation of things.  Ironies of syntax and of metaphor abound in Richard II, and Shakespeare seems intentionally to make us uneasy with not less than everything that is said by everyone in the play.  In that respect at least, Richard II is an overture to Hamlet.  [MY NOTE:  The actor Maurice Evans (best remembered as Samantha’s father on Bewitched) had major critical success playing both Richard II and Hamlet.]  Hamlet rarely means what he says or says what he means; …he anticipates Nietzsche’s dictum that we find words only for what is already dead in our hearts, so there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.  When Richard, in Act V, begins to sound a little like a proleptic parody of Hamlet, we distrust the king as much as ever, and yet we also come to realize that he has been dazzling us since Act III, Scene ii, though with a purely verbal brilliance.  So elaborate are Richard’s conceits, from there to the end, that sometimes I wonder whether Shakespeare had read some of the earlier poems of Donne that were not published until Songs and Sonnets appeared in 1633, two years after Donne’s death.  This is, alas, unlikely; Richard II was written in 1595, and while Shakespeare doubtless read some Donne, freely circulated in manuscript, it was likelier to have been the Ovidian Elegies than anything that eventually became the Songs and Sonnets.  This hardly matters, since Shakespeare invents Metaphysical poetry in Richard’s laments and soliloquies, and perhaps Donne attended a performance of Richard II, so that the influence (or parody) went in the other direction.  Either way, the modes have much in common, though Donne is the real thing, and Richard is a troublesome and problematic rhapsode of royal martyrdom.  His comparisons of himself to Jesus are unnerving – though technically not blasphemous, since Richard does not see himself as sharing in any aspect of Jesus except for being God’s anointed.

Since we are not meant to like Richard, and no one could like the usurper Bolingbroke, [MY NOTE:  Is this true?  Isn’t Bolingbroke being set up as the ideal antithesis to Richard?] Shakespeare has little trouble distancing us from the only actions of the play, abdication and murder.  Whatever judgment an individual critic renders of Richard as poet, the last three acts of the play depend almost wholly upon the originality and vigor of Richard’s language.  Perhaps we could say that Richard has the language of a major poet but lacks range, since his only subject is his own sufferings, particularly the indignities he endures though he is the rightful king.  His performance as king is early typified by his reaction, at the end of Act I, to the final illness of his uncle, John of Gaunt, the father of the just-exiled Bolingbroke, who will return from abroad to depose Richard. The historical John of Gaunt was just another robber baron more egregious than most, but Shakespeare, needing an oracle in this play, promotes John of Gaunt to be a patriotic prophet.  Richard’s callousness closes Act I:

Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind

To help him to his grave immediately!

The lining of his coffers shall make coats

To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.

Come, gentlemen, let’s all go visit him,

Pray God we may make haste and come too late!

This is a marvelous antithetical prologue to John of Gaunt’s famous deathbed prophecy; its plain nastiness contrasts to Gaunt’s unworldliness:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspir’d,

And thus expiring do foretell of him:

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last.

For violent fires soon burn out themselves;

Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;

He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;

With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder;

Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,

Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy little breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as the moat defensive to a house

Against the envy of less happier lands;

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home,

For Christian service and true chivalry,

As is the sepulcher in stubborn Jewry

Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son;

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,

Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is no leas’d out – I die pronouncing it –

Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,

Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege

Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,

With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;

That England that was wont to conquer others,

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

This splendid patriotic rant, together with a similar declamation by John of Gaunt’s grandson, Henry V, in his play, had their finest reverberations in the London of 1940-41, when England stood alone against Hitler.  Both litanies can still be admired as eloquence, yet are troublesome when analyzed.  Shakespeare makes us wonder that this other paradise should be the seat of Mars, not a deity we ordinarily associate with Eden. There is also the ironic prophecy – of royal crusades ‘for Christian service and true chivalry’ – unintended by John of Gaunt, since his son Bolingbroke, confirmed as King Henry IV by his murder of Richard II, will vow at the play’s close to expiate the murder by leading a Crusade:

I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,

To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.

‘Stubborn Jewry,’ already massacred by English kings both in York and in Jerusalem, had nothing to fear from Henry IV, whose Crusade reduced to his dying in the Jerusalem chamber of his palace.  The Crusaders’ zeal passed to Henry V, who took it out upon the French, not the Jews, as all in the audience knew.  We like Gaunt less as a prophet than when he berates Richard quite directly for his commercial depredations:  ‘Landlord of England art thou now, not king.’  Gaunt dead, Richard cheerfully confiscates ‘His plate, his goods, his money and his lands.’

Vengeance arrives with Bolingbroke, who arrives in England with an armed force, to be welcomed by most of his fellow nobles.  As Act II closes, we begin to understand the language of politics in this play.  Bolingbroke and his supporters insist he has returned only for his inheritance, to become Duke of Lancaster as was his father, John of Gaunt.  But everyone knows that the future Henry IV has come for the crown, and Shakespeare will explore this hypocrisy with marvelous skill until the moment of forced abdication.  Thus, with Richard occupied with the Irish wars, Bolingbroke in Richard’s name executes all of Richard’s closest supporters that he can apprehend, and carefully sends messages of his affection to Richard’s queen, which means that she is as good as imprisoned.  Shakespeare has readied us for one of the play’s great effects, the landing of Richard on the coast of Wales, returning from Ireland, perfectly ignorant that pragmatically he already has been deposed.”


And finally, this from Frank Kermode:

“John of Gaunt’s famous scene (II, i.) opens with a burst of irregular and, one might think, intrusive rhyming, a trick that is at once caught by the Duke of York.  The rhyming stops for Gaunt’s eulogistic lament for England, a fine set piece on a theme popular at the time.  The King himself is given to rhyming, but that is because it better suits his habit of thought.  Far from being simple ornament, it is part of the stylistic resource of the play.  For Richard II has a new variety and flexibility.  Take, for instance, the speech of Richard’s favourite, Bushy, to the Queen:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,

Which shows like a grief itself, but is not so;

For sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,

Divides one thing entire to many objects,

Like perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon

Show nothing but confusion; ey’d awry

Distinguish form; so your sweet Majesty,

Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,

Find shapes of grief, more than himself, to wail,

Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows

Of what is not; then, thrice-gracious Queen,

More than your lord’s departure weep not – more is not seen,

Or if it be, ‘tis with false sorrow’s eye,

Which for things true weeps things imaginary.

Bushy is thinking; he has hit upon a difficult analogy and is working it out as cleanly as h e can.  The poet who wrote this speech is the poet of many difficult sonnets and, in time to come, of ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle.’  He has some feeling for Bushy, who is kindly urging the queen not to multiply her woes (she has spoken of ‘some unborn sorrow’ that seems to threaten her), and the tenor of what he says is clear enough:  the substantial woe is her sorrow at the departure of Richard, and all the others are mere shadows of it.  Tears of sorrow may impair the sight and make us suppose we can see several objects rather than just one, the important one, breaking its unity up into several elements.  It is a neat and not obvious analogy.  Developing this idea, Bushy thinks of ‘perspectives,’ meaning those anamorphic pictures (of which the most famous is probably Holbein’s The Ambassadors) which offer a different image when viewed from the side (awry) rather than from directly in front.  Later, in the seventeenth century, there were secret memorial portraits of King Charles I in which one could see nothing without the aid of a prism, a device which undistorted, as it were, the confusion between one’s eyes.  Indeed, ‘rightly’ may be misleading in Bushy’s speech, since the ‘right’ view of a ‘perspective’ of this kind is not from the front, the approach that seems to be meant here.

So Bushy, courteously developing his analogy, makes something of a muddle.  The Arden [edition] editor, Peter Ure, remarks that there were actually two kinds of perspective, only one of which could be thought to give an effect like that attributed to the Queen’s tears.  This is the device sometimes called a ‘multiplying-glass,’ as Webster illustrates in Flamineo’s speech against jealousy in The White Devil:  ‘I have seen a pair of spectacles fashioned with such perspective art, that, lay down but one twelve pence o’ the board, ‘twill appear as if there were twenty, and see your wife tying her shoe, you would imagine twenty hands were taking up your wife’s clothes, and this would put you into a horrible causeless fury.’  This contrast of substance and shadow (‘What is your substance, whereof are you made/That millions of strange shadows on you tend?’ [Sonnet 53) seems, as I have said, to be a recurring preoccupation of the poet.  But of Bushy is thinking of multiplying-glasses, he seems also to be thinking of anamorphoses, and argues that the Queen has been eyeing the substance ‘awry,’ whereas his main contention is that she has wrongly viewed it ‘rightly.’

If I myself am viewing the passage rightly, it is one of a kind not infrequently to be found in Shakespeare, where a complicated idea fails to find perfect expression – the kind of thing Dr. Johnson had in mind when he wrote the words I quoted in the Introduction.  [“It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldly sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.”]  Johnson liked Shakespeare best when he was least rugged, but on the whole we, after the best part of a century of modernism, we do not share this view, and are inclined to discover depth where Johnson found muddle, and in the sounding of that depth we bestow our leisure.  The exciting thing about Bushy’s speech is that in it we find Shakespeare struggling with a sentiment rendered stubborn by the circumstance that the speakers appears to be thinking, and is doing his intellectual best to get his consolation across, and is getting slightly muddled in the process, the slight muddle being a by-product of the effort to represent intellection, or rather to do it.  Bushy is consoling the queen, and there were rhetorical rules for consolation, but he is not using them.”


My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, more on Act Two


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7 Responses to “This happy little breed of men, this little world,/This precious stone set in the silver sea,/Which serves it in the office of a wall,/Or as the moat defensive to a house /Against the envy of less happier lands;/This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…”

  1. GGG says:

    I am finding this easier to read–almost like Titus Andronicus in that the writing and action is more straightforward. Maybe it is because the writing seems somehow more contained, less prismatic, if that is the right word for the wordplay in some of the other plays. Maybe that is what makes this not one of the most popular plays? Or is it because the English history is so tangled to understand?

    I guess there will always be a Duke of York, Lancaster, Northumberland, etc. so am trying to focus more on them as political entities rather than individuals, because they are hard to differentiate after several history plays.

    The song “Duke of Earl” has started going through my head…..

    Here is a link to the lyrics, which could work for just about any of the dukes so far….(insert emoticon of smiling face here)

    • GGG: I’m not certain why it’s not one of the most popular plays — I don’t think it has to do with it being history — Richard III and Henry IV are certainly popular — perhaps it’s the verse, or the lack of any real action, or, maybe, it’s just Richard himself. Maybe we’ll have a better sense by the time we finish reading it. As for the various Dukes of York, etc., I think that Shakespeare tends not to really treat them as individuals tells us what we need to think and know about them.

  2. GGG says:

    Yes, the verse is a plus and a minus for me–more rhythmic to read but begins to feel like a long narrative poem.

    I’m still having fun imagining a “doo wop” version with little singing groups of dukes–must get serious again and read the next act….

  3. Mahood says:

    The word ‘tongue’ pops up a lot in this play, I’ve noticed. I love these following lines:

    (The King’s warning to Gaunt)
    ‘This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head
    Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders’


    (News of Gaunt’s death, as told by Northumberland)
    ‘Nay, nothing; all is said
    His tongue is now a stringless instrument;
    Words, life and all, old Lancaster hath spent’

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