“What dies with John of Gaunt? Nothing less than a vision of the world.”

Richard II

Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


As I was re-reading Act Two of Richard II last night, I was struck by the bitterness in the exchange between the dying John of Gaunt,

Ill in myself to see, and in thee seeing ill

Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,

Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;


A thousand flatters sit within thy crown,

Whose compass is no bigger than thy head…


O, had thy grandsire, with a prophet’s eye,

Seen how his son’s son should destroy his sons,

From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,

Deposing thee before thou wert possessed,

Which art possessed now to depose thyself…

And Richard’s response:

A lunatic lean-witted fool,

Presuming on an ague’s privilege,

Darest from thy frozen admonition

Make pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood

With fury from his native residence…

Were thou not brother to great Edward’s son,

This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head

Should run they head from thy unreverent shoulders.

Love it.


From Garber, picking up from an earlier excerpt, referencing the use of gardens in the play: (and VERY much worth reading – great insights into Shakespeare’s use of language, of names and titles signifying their objects, and into John of Gaunt himself, and his curious link to, of all characters (or people), Mercutio!)

“In fact, the garden scene (3.4.41-48) is an echo in dramatic terms, with characters and setting, of an analogy first presented to the audience in poetic and rhetorical terms in this play, most strikingly in John of Gaunt’s deathbed speech in act 2, our first image of England as a sea-walled garden now in the condition of a fall.  This is one of the first great speeches of all early Shakespearean drama, one often – like many such ringing pronouncements in the plays – quoted out of context as pure patriotic praise of the land and its people.  But as a full citation of the speech will make plain, the joyous note with which the speech appears to begin soon reveals itself as an elegiac lament.  John of Gaunt’s speech is addressed, significantly, not to his nephew King Richard, who arrives too late to hear it, hoping to find Gaunt already dead, but instead to Gaunt’s brother York, the last survivor of the older ordered world, the world of the sons of Edward III:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred 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 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 a 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,

Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home

For Christian service and true chivalry

As in 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 now leased out – I did pronouncing it –

Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

This is a breathtaking speech in more than one sense, because the whole speech of twenty lines is a single sentence, virtually an apostrophe to the land, that gestures in demonstrative language toward a familiar and beloved object.  Significantly, the grammatical subject of the sentence, ‘this England,’ appears for the first time halfway through the passage, having been preceded by a long list of metaphors, epithets, and appositives (‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,/This earth of majesty…).  What the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’ refers to is not made explicit until ten lines later, and by the logic of Gaunt’s speech it does not need to be, because everyone – whether on or off the stage – who hears him speak should know without question what he means.  The name fits the thing.  The liens of praise, with description after description (‘This other Eden,’ ‘This precious stone set in the silver sea’), offer recognizable synonyms for the perfect England of Gaunt’s memory and imagination.  (MY NOTE:  Not unlike our own “shining city on the hill.”)  As the Latin phrase nomen est omen (the name is the sign) suggests, there is a direct correspondence between the word and what it describes or signifies.  England is a ‘royal throne of kings,’ a ‘sceptred isle,’ a ‘demi-paradise,’ and anyone who hears those phrases spoken ought to recognize their rightness.  And yet, as Gaunt goes on to explain, this vital correspondence – this identity – has been lost.  That names and titles once directly signified their objects – a notion of a pre-fallen linguistic world – is one reason why he puns so insistently on his own name and its appropriateness to his condition:

Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old.

Within me grief hath kept a tedious fast,

And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?

For sleeping England long time have I watched.

Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt.

The pleasure that some fathers feed upon

Is my strict fast:  I mean my children’s looks.

And therein fasting, hast thou made me gaunt.

Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave,

Whose hollow womb inherits naught but bones.

Gaunt is gaunt; but is the King the king?  Again, bearing in mind how close the two plays are in their time of composition, we might notice some similarity between John of Gaunt’s flippancy on his deathbed and that of Mercutio (‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.’)  Like the death of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, the death of John of Gaunt is an epochal event in this play’s development, a turning point from which there is no going back.

What dies with John of Gaunt?  Nothing less than a vision of the world.  The vision of England as a garden, an unfallen earthly paradise.  The vision of its king as a ruler by right and not by nature, by title and entitlement rather than by credit and merit.  And the vision of England as a redemptive Christian nation, a land whose soldiers are, as Gaunt says ‘[r]enowned for their deeds as far from home/For Christian service and true chivalry/As is the sepulcher, in stubborn Jewry’ – that is, in Jersualem.  (‘Jewry’ is imagined as ‘stubborn’ because it does not accept the truth of Christ as redeemer.)  The past is a history of glorious foreign wars, King Edward III’s wars against the French and the Crusades against the ‘infidel,’ all unifying England its people against a common enemy without.  But the only remnants in this play of that glorious, and gloriously unified, past is the report of the heroic deeds of the banished Mowbray.  Mowbray is himself a member of that older order, a hero and a knight, who dies – offstage – on a Crusade fighting against external enemies:  pagans, Turks, and Saracens.  By contrast, Richard’s wars are all civil wars; wars against Ireland, wars against Bolingbroke and the rebels; wars against his own land, which he farms out for money to support his own corruption and mismanagement; and, of course, wars against himself.  Yet perhaps the most significant of all is the loss of name, the loss of identity, the imagined one-to-one correspondence between the word and that for which it stands.

Consider the many names by which Bolingbroke is known in the course of the play – Bolingbroke who is this play’s shape-shifter, a man of many roles, who seems to progress not only from name to name but also from identity to identity.  At the beginning of the play, in that very formal trial scene, he is ‘Hereford’ and ‘Bolingbroke’ and ‘Derby,’ and the King’s relation, although in a moment of significant ambiguity and irony he says to Mowbray in that first scene that he disclaims ‘the kindred of the King’ – in other words, that he does not seek any special privilege from the fact that he and the King are cousins.  His ostensible reason for doing so is to allow Mowbray to challenge him without danger, according to protocol, but for the audience this is a glance toward his later rebellion.  When Bolingbroke returns from banishment it is, he says, to seek another name, the name of ‘Lancaster,’ and the property that he should have inherited from his father, John of Gaunt, property that Richard seized.  Addressed by Lord Berkeley as ‘Hereford,’ he is sharp in his replay:

My lord, my answer is to ‘Lancaster,’

And I am come to seek that name in England,

And I must find that title in your tongue

Before I make reply to aught you say.

‘Lancaster’ is his father’s name, his father’s title, and he will have Bushy and Green put to death for taking over his property, and feeling his woods, and above all for removing his coat of arms, his heraldic name, from the windows of his estate.  By the end of the play, of course, Bolingbroke will have progressed to yet another identity, that of King Henry IV.  Yet all of this concern on part for names and naming is policy and politics, instrumental rather than personal.  Identity for Bolingbroke is a matter of realpolitik, of what he can do rather than (only) who he is by birth.  It is for this reason that we will see him seek and get the favor of the common people.  In this attitude toward power and legitimacy he stands in sharp contrast both to Richard and to the supporters of the old order; to his father, Gaunt, who could riddle on his name, even on his deathbed, because he was secure in his own identity, and to York, who warns Richard that to disregard the laws of inheritance is to put his own right in jeopardy:

Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time

His charters and his customary rights:

Let not tomorrow then ensue today;

Be not thyself, for how art thou a king,

But by fair sequence and succession?

York, finding himself addressed by the rebellious Bolingbroke as ‘My gracious uncle,’ snaps back at him, ‘Tut, tut, grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.’  ‘Grace,’ a courtesy title given to a duke or duchess, and ‘uncle’ are serious names:  ‘I am no traitor’s uncle.’  For York, names and titles are identities, and must not be misused.”


And this, from Tanner:

“Richard, then, appears sufficiently, if precariously, kingly in the first three scenes, trying, though only imperfectly succeeding, to control the unruly and quarrelsome barons.  But the next, more private, less formal scene, among his favourites, reveals a cynical and callous side to his character as we hear him expressing the hope that John of Gaunt will die (‘God…help him to his grave immediately!’) so that they can raid his ‘coffers.’  And the next scene, shows him in much the same vein as John of Gaunt indicts him with his dying breath.  Gaunt, at this point, takes on prophetic status:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired,

And thus expiring do foretell of him:

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,

For violent fires soon burn out themselves.

and utters his famous lament over England (‘This precious stone set in the silver sea’,) because, under Richard, ‘this dear dear land’ –

Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –

Like to a tenement or pelting farm.


is now bound in with shame,

With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds.

Blots on parchment, on paper, on books, on ‘pride’ or just ‘blots’ – the image occurs more often in this play than in any other by Shakespeare.  It refers here, literally, to the deeds and leases by which Richard has ‘farmed’ out the royal demesnes – substituting economic contracts for earlier bonds of fealty; but also metaphorically in the growing evil which seems to be staining the land (not just from Richard’s dissolute mismanagement; Bolingbroke is called a ‘pernicious blot’ by Aumerle – IV, i, 324).  Gaunt repeats his reproach to Richard’s face:

Why cousin, wert thou regent of the world,

It were a shame to let this land by lease;

But for thy world enjoying but this land

Is it not more than shame to shame it so?

Landlord of England art thou now, not king.

He also says something else to Richard which is more prophetic, perhaps, than he realizes:

O, had thy grandsire with a prophet’s eye

Seen how his son’s son should destroy his sons,

From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,

Deposing thee before thou wert possessed,

Which art possessed now to depose thyself

The second line refers, in particular, to Richard’s murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester (Woodstock) which was, indeed, an infamous ‘blot’ on Richard’s reign.  This murder is rather glossed over in the play – indeed, Shakespeare makes it uncertain whether Mowbray, Aumerle, or Richard was the murderer.  Only the dying Gaunt speaks out unequivocally about it:

My brother Gloucester, plain well-meaning soul

May be a precedent and witness good

That thou respect’st not spilling Edward’s blood.

The line [that I have partially bolded] continues that compulsive play on words which marks Gaunt’s last speeches.  He is saying that though Richard is ‘possessed of the crown,’ he is now also ‘possessed’ in the sense of being in the grip of diabolical influences – to the extent that he will lose the throne.  But Gaunt could not have foreseen how accurately his words describe what we are about to see – which is, exactly and literally, a king deposing himself.

At the news of Gaunt’s death Richard continues to show his callous side – ‘His time is spent…so much for that’ – and announces, ruthlessly, his intention to ‘seize’ all that Gaunt possessed – ‘for our Irish wars.’  In doing this, he is robbing Gaunt’s son, the banished Bolingbroke (Hereford), of his legitimate inheritance, his ‘rights and royalties.’  This provokes another of Richard’s wise-counseling uncles, the stalwart and long-suffering York, to protest:

Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time

His charters and his customary rights:

Let not tomorrow then ensue today;

Be not thyself, for how art thou a king,

But by fair sequence and succession?

Matters of ‘sequence and succession’ were of vital concern to the Elizabethans, not only as they surveyed their turbulent history, but also as they wondered whether the ‘succession’ to their own Queen would be ‘fair’ or, in one way or another, foul.  Richard was the last king ruling by direct hereditary right in ‘succession’ from William the Conqueror, and to see him thus ignoring, or rather profaning and violating, ‘customary rights,’ those same sacrosanct rules of inheritance which had made him king, is, indeed, shocking.  He is willfully disrupting those sacred continuities on which all peaceful transactions and transmissions depend – the ‘sequence of days’ no less than the succession of kings.  And he will prove to be the most spectacular victim of his culpable abrogations.  But, for now, he is mindlessly indifferent to York’s warnings:

Think what you will, we seize into our hands

His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.

and it’s off to Ireland, to settle those ‘rug-headed kernes’ (at which, incidentally, he was very successful – though Shakespeare leaves that out as well).

We will not see Richard again until Act III, scene ii, when he will soon seem a changed man as the long ordeal and anguish of his self-deposition begins.  In the interim we witness Bolingbroke’s return to England, and the nobles’, if not the country’s rush to support him.  And here we should note one of those interesting departures by Shakespeare from his sources.  The Holinshed Chronicles makes it absolutely clear that Bolingbroke (Hereford, and now, after the death of Gaunt, Lancaster) was invited back to England by the discontented nobles (‘requiring him with all convenient speed to convey himself into England, promising them all their aid, power, and assistance, if he, expelling King Richard, as a man not meet for the office he bare, would take upon him the scepter, rule, and diadem of his native land and region’.)  Whatever else, this at least exonerates Bolingbroke from having initiated the idea of usurpation.  Not a word of this in Shakespeare.  Instead, when the nobles collude in exasperation after Richard has left for Ireland, Bolingbroke is already, mysteriously, back in England, and had been waiting in Brittany, with allies and troops, simply for Richard’s departure for Ireland.  This puts a very different color on Bolingbroke’s possible motives and intentions.  Until he suddenly announces that h e will ‘ascend the regal throne,’ he continually insists that he has only returned to claim his rightful inheritance – ‘I come for Lancaster,’ ‘I am come to seek that name in England,’ ‘I lay my claim/To my inheritance of free descent.’  But, in the time scheme of the play, he is already in England sixty lines after Richard announces he is going to Ireland, which in turn occurs only some seventy-five lines after the death of Gaunt (all in the same scene).  This means that, dramatically, Bolingbroke could hardly have known of his father’s death and of Richard’s infamous expropriation of the whole Lancaster estate.  Or at least, to a spectator it would seem that way.  It is another example of the way Shakespeare likes to problematize time, inducing, in this case, a calculated and crucial uncertainty.  Did Bolingbroke somehow know about his father’s death and the regal robbery, and did he genuinely come just for his ‘rights and royalties’ – with subsequent unforeseen circumstances somehow propelling him on to the throne?  Or was he already bent on invasion and usurpation?  One thing is certain – there was no prior invitation and request from the English nobles.  This man came of his own volition.”


Our next reading:  Richard II, Act Three

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning.


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5 Responses to “What dies with John of Gaunt? Nothing less than a vision of the world.”

  1. Minnikin says:

    Fiona Shaw is a great actress: intelligent, witty, smart – She performs in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Beckett, Eliot, Synge, Austen etc. … and then shows up in Harry Potter, 3 Men and a Little Lady, The Avengers, True Blood and the rest. She’s always woth listening to.

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