Thursday, August 9, 2012

Theatre Thurs: John of Gaunt's Description of England in Richard II

A portrait of 14th century Prince John of Gaunt, painted circa 1593 for Sir Edward Hoby of Queensborough Castle, Kent. This portrait currently resides in the collection of a descendant of John of Gaunt and his third wife, Katherine Swynford,  the Duke of Beaufort. In addition to being the Duke of the vast and agriculturally rich duchy of Lancaster,  John of Gaunt was the titular King of Castile and Leon, (through his second wife) and Duke of Aquitaine, Earl of Derby, Leicester and Lincoln, and Seneschal of England. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

One of my favorite historical personages, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (14th century), was immortalized in Shakespeare's tragedy Richard II. In the play, Gaunt delivers one of the most famous descriptions of England in literature, in Act 2, Scene 1.

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,...
...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! 

The ruins of Kenilworth Castle. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Dave. Image public domain.

Interestingly, Kenilworth Castle, which Queen Elizabeth I gave to her life-long favorite Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester in 1563, was previously in the possession of John of Gaunt.