The Rape of a Nation

by Brian Fleming '99

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.
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself. (2.1.37-39)
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.
The next significant portion of Gaunt's speech pertains to the God-given glory of "mother" England and all her natural attributes. Contrary to the opening segment of the speech, this section is one continuous run-on sentence with only commas to provide subtle caesuras. This fluid style brings unity to Gaunt's central symbolic image, England as a mother to her kings. He establishes an allegorical precursor to this metaphor by characterizing his beloved homeland as:
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. (2.1.42-47)
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.
Once Gaunt has engendered England with all of the mythic qualities that earn it the title of "this other Eden," he focuses on the concept that England is a figurative mother to all of its kings. Gaunt calls England, "This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings" (2.1.50-51), and hence ascribes a female gender to it. Beyond the mere allusion to femininity, lies the more essential inference that England is a mother to its rulers. Kings become exalted only after they learn to suckle the inherent divinity and grandeur from England's bosom. In essence, kings owe all that they are to the glory of their mother England, since all of their eminence is derived from their royal birthright.
Gaunt's primary dilemma occurs when he tries to reconcile the wretchedness of King Richard with the illustrious legacy of kings that mother England has begotten. Once again, Gaunt returns to the urgency of his earlier statements, employing small groupings of end stopped lines. He proclaims,
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 tenement or pelting farm. (2.1.57-60)
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."
Gaunt decries England's shameful plight when he says, "That England that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself" (2.1.65-66). This statement contains a dual meaning. In the literal sense, Gaunt accuses Richard of ripping apart the glory of England through all of his devious machinations. In an abstract sense, the degree of Richard's transgressions is heightened through the insinuation that he has raped his figurative mother. A clear sexual connotation accompanies the use of the phrase "a shameful conquest" and since the parallel has already been drawn between the role of Richard as a son of England the connection is unavoidable. By exploiting and abusing the power of his crown Richard has committed spiritual rape against his mother and debased the sacred bond between England and her kings, thus de-legitimizing his claim to the throne.
Gaunt's speech persuades the audience of Richard's malfeasance, but does it have an impact on the other characters in the play or is it merely spoken to clear his own conscience? It is important to remember that there is one other character that is in Gaunt's presence while he gives his monologue, the Duke of York. Even though it appears that Gaunt does not specifically address York, the sheer fact that he observes the speech firsthand has significant consequences. During the subsequent opposition that arises to Richard's reign, York remains steadfast in his faith and his sense of duty to his king, but eventually even York bows to the supremacy of Bolingbroke and abandons Richard. One cannot help to think that this is exactly what Gaunt was hoping for all along. By planting the seeds of inconstancy in York's mind, Gaunt cultivates his dying wishes into reality.
John of Gaunt's "other Eden" speech poses an essential question: does a king, legitimate by birth, deserve to rule regardless of how much he abuses his power? Gaunt's speech is intended to expose Richard's violation of the union between a monarch and his kingdom and hence stir opposition to the divine right of kings. Obviously, Gaunt knows that his own son may stand to gain the throne if Richard abdicates, but his words have far greater implications. Once the English throne has been usurped once, what will prevent it from being arrogated again? Can there ever be a true claim to legitimacy once the royal lineage has been besmirched? In a sense, the reconciliation of these very problems not only signified a fundamental change in the concept of autocratic rule in England, it also paved the way for the development of a more socially equitable system of parliamentary democracy, for once the will of the people is finally recognized, kings are reduced to mere anachronisms.

Works Cited

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.

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