Gaunt’s Warning to Richard II

Gaunt’s Speech 251-4

Quick Summary: Gaunt describes Richard’s abuse of his crown and prerogative.

Plot

Placed at Act 2, scene 1, this speech acts a key pivot in the two large movements of the play. The first being the gathering of forces by Bolingbroke, and the slowly deteriorating power of Richard, whilst the second is the assertion of power and Richard’s swift downfall, from king to subject, to murdered. This speech is important in beginning to shape the second movement of the play, by highlighting the flaws of the tragic hero, versus the values of the tragic adversary.

Behaviour of tragic hero

“too careless patient”

The illness imagery is extended by this phrase. However, here Shakespeare guides the audience to feel less sympathy for the tragic hero. Firstly, the Elizabethan audience would be shocked for a King to be labelled a patient, someone who is reliant or in submission to another higher person, or doctor in this case. Already there seems to be a degree of fall for the tragic hero: the Perepeteia has already begun. But, this quote also illustrates the fatal flaw of the tragic hero: being too careless and ignorant to repair his “reputation sick”, making a common illness a fatal one by failing to correct it.

“thy anointed body”

This quote simply stresses the idea of divine right, yet juxtaposed with “patient” it serves to really underscore the tragic hero’s kingship. The real failure to govern a kingdom with good reputation is foreshadowing the entry of the tragic adversary, Bolingbroke, who will later be renowned for his pragmatism and statesmanlike qualities. Therefore, Shakespeare uses this speech to carefully set up the tragedy by already exposing the flaws of the tragic hero.

Inevitability and Fate

“bondslave to the law” “landlord of England”

Again, these belittling phrases are used by Shakespeare to undermine the deification of Kings. Shakespeare introduces a feeling of inevitability and helplessness, in the finite rule of the tragic hero, who will just another “landlord” of England. This debases England and its Kings to a mere changing of hands, a new shopkeeper to run a shop. Being “bondslave to the law” is suggesting that the King no longer has the legal status of a supreme king of England by divine right, but is now subject to the law just like any “landlord is with reference to his private estate” (Kittredge, 1946). Through Gaunt’s voice Shakespeare foreshadows the inevitable collapse of Richard’s kingdom, with the collapse of law and with a new landlord to come.

Contextual point

“a thousand flatterers sit within thy crown”

Here, Shakespeare makes strong connection between his representation of Richard II, and that of Elizabeth I, whose favourites worried the court at the time. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester grew very close to her, which was alarming because he was a “unknown quantity” (Briscoe, 2014) and therefore was feared to be poisoning her views and rule with his advice. This directly connects to Gaunt’s speech here, who accuses Richard of being falsely led by flatterers, who have given this illness of state. The contextual ripples that this line creates really charges this accusation with power, and stresses the importance of the line. Furthermore, the assonance (the ff and th sound in this case) here allows the actor to really belt out the line to give it dramatic importance. Shakespeare almost speaks from the stage himself: here is the tragic flaw of my hero, a blindness and ignorance that will insidiously destroy him.

 

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