This week Shakespeare gives us a lesson on how to deliver a brilliant take-down. John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II unreels as a powerful and poetic testament to all that makes England great. But…
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d 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,
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 sepulchre 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 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 watery 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.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
–from Richard II, Act II Scene i
In the end, however, at ‘Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it’, Gaunt turns his brilliant evocation of England’s beauty into a condemnation of Richard–to the King’s face. Gaunt delivers this speech from his deathbed, and after finishing it shambles off stage to die–before the infuriated Richard can have him killed.
More than just a turning point in the play, this speech is a great example of Shakespeare’s ability to set up expectations and then turn them on the audience. But rather than frustrate us, it surprises and delights.
Richard II was a risky play for Shakespeare. In Elizabethan times, any hint that a playwright might be criticizing the monarch could be taken the wrong way. In fact, years after the play was first produced, supporters of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, arranged for a repeat performance of Richard II in connection with Essex’s attempted coup of Elizabeth’s throne. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, including Shakespeare, had to do some fast taking to exonerate themselves, pleading ignorance of Essex’s plot. Eventually, Essex was executed for treason.
The image is of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.