Richard II - The Rape of a Nation
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...