When kings the sword of justice first lay down,
They are no kings, though they possess the crown.
Titles are shadows, crowns are empty things,
The good of subjects is the end of kings. --Daniel Defoe
By bowing down to the needs of his subjects, a king allows others to dictate his actions and hence compromises the essence of his power. Paradoxically, failing to heed the desires of his subjects transforms a king into a self-indulgent tyrant and propels his kingdom towards ruin and decay. Can a sovereign rule his subjects without considering their general welfare? If a king rules unconscionably, do his subjects have the right to replace him? William Shakespeare's Richard II considers this authoritarian quandary at great length. In particular, John of Gaunt's "other Eden" monologue (2.1.31-68) delves into the perilous nature of unfettered autocracy. Gaunt proclaims that King Richard should relinquish his crown, because he has figuratively raped "mother" England by exploiting the loyalty of his subjects and debasing the grandeur of "this blessed plot" (2.1.50) for his own personal glory.
John of Gaunt's speech takes place from his deathbed. This setting heightens the resonance of his denouncement of Richard, for as Gaunt says, "Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain / For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain" (2.1.8-9). By referring to himself as "a prophet new-inspired," (2.1.31) Gaunt realizes his opportunity to speak with immunity, since there is no physical harm Richard can do him. Every disparaging truth he utters is a lethal arrow aimed directly at Richard's overblown sense of power.
The first section of his monologue deals explicitly with identifying the nature of Richard's vices. Gaunt alludes to Richard's character by employing several brief end-stopped aphorisms that rely heavily on metaphors of self-destruction. This staccato like verbal rhythm brings a firmness and urgency to Gaunt's exhortations. When Gaunt utters, "His rash, fierce blaze of riot cannot last, / For violent fires soon burn out themselves" (2.1.33-34), he warns Richard that the "fierce blaze of riot" that he has wrought throughout the kingdom will inevitably consume him as well. Gaunt expresses the belief that Richard's actions are not beyond reproach. Contrary to traditional doctrine, King Richard may indeed have to reap what he has sown, rather than hide behind the monarchical veil of infallibility. Gaunt expounds upon this theme when he says,
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder.Gaunt's own son, Harry Bolingbroke, was feasted upon by Richard's insatiable desire for control. Richard does not realize that men like Bolingbroke, who are unjustly victimized, will not be digested and disposed of easily. By continuing to rule in the same ignorant manner, each destructive decision Richard makes will eventually resurface to "prey upon" him.
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself. (2.1.37-39)
This other Eden, demi-paradise,Gaunt implies that England exists as a type of blessed sanctuary for man on Earth. By declaring that England is a "fortress built by nature for herself," Gaunt accords it preternatural status. When described as a "precious stone set in the silver sea," one can almost imagine God Himself extending His hand down from heaven to gently rest England in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean and bestow His personal blessing upon it.
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. (2.1.42-47)
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,Richard has broken the purity of the bond with his mother by failing to honor all of the "dear souls" that likewise dwell within her bosom. Instead of cherishing the sanctity of England and her people, they have been "leased out" like common prostitutes. Richard perceives his entire kingdom as a series of commodities that can be manipulated and exploited at his whimsy. "This blessèd plot" has been transformed into a lowly "tenement."
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out -- I die pronouncing it --
Like tenement or pelting farm. (2.1.57-60)
Defoe, Daniel. The True-Born Englishman 2.313. From Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. 15th ed. Ed. Emily Morrison Beck. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980, 318.
Shakespeare, William. Richard II. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 943-1014.