In William Shakespeare’s English history play Richard II John of Gaunt delivers a patriotic speech, which has been often quoted ever since.
In Act II, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s English history play Richard II the dying John of Gaunt awaits the arrival of King Richard II at Ely House in London, while talking to the Duke of York, his brother. Both have a very critical attitude towards the king.
John of Gaunt eventually delivers a famous speech. As far as the reception of Shakespeare is concerned, his speech has been regarded as an invocation of English patriotism. Correspondingly, it has been often quoted ever since. This especially applies to phrases like “this scepter’d isle” or “[t]his blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.
First of all, Gaunt’s speech evokes an image of England that is majestic, beautiful and protected from outside attacks or harm. It is also depicted as a fertile, feared, highly respected and divinely favoured country. Generally speaking, the depiction of “[t]his blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” gives the impression of a natural fortress and an organic whole.
However, John of Gaunt then laments that England has been rented out. Here he refers to King Richard’s methods and plans to fund his wars in Ireland. (That is, parcels of land are leased to wealthy noblemen to raise money.) Thus, England (“this scepter’d isle”) – which is safe from outside harm and, in the past, conquered others – harms itself at present or, so to speak, “[h]ath made a shameful conquest of itself” because of internal corruption.
A Part of John of Gaunt’s Speech (and Photos)
“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!”
Note: The other photos show Rochester (Kent), Rochester Castle, Leeds Castle (Kent), St Martin’s Church (Canterbury, Kent), Rochester Cathedral (outside and inside), Battle Abbey (Sussex; inside), a tomb in a chapel at Arundel Castle (West Sussex), Battle Abbey (outside).
Hammerschmidt-Hummel, Hildegard. (Ed.) Die Shakespeare-Illustration (1594-2000). Teil 2. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003.