These words are some of the last words spoken by John of Gaunt, father to Henry Bolingbroke, in the moments preceding one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches. These lines set the scene for this speech – a dying man who sees the world as he knows it crumbling around him, and he feels it necessary to use his dying words to desperately try and influence the King and change the fatal heading of his beloved country. If John of Gaunt could see what wars and times of horror were to follow his death, I’m sure his speech would be even more fuelled with emotion and desperation… Let’s begin our conversation about this speech by taking a look at the play.
We begin our story in King Richard the Second’s court, as Henry Bolingbroke, son of our good friend John of Gaunt and the subject of this monologue, challenges Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk. Henry accuses Mowbray of being involved in the recent death of the King’s uncle (who is also Henry’s uncle; Henry and the King are cousins). Richard gives in to their demands to work out their differences in one-on-one combat at Coventry.
When the tournament begins, Richard stops the contest. Instead Richard chooses to exile both Henry and Mowbray. He banishes Mowbray for life. And responding to Henry’s father Lancaster’s pleas, he limits Henry’s exile to six years. This act, however foolish, is like the final nail in the coffin that holds John of Gaunt’s hope in this world, and as we begin the second act of the play, lamenting the exile of his son from his death he says…
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred 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,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
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!
Sceptered: 1 : invested with a scepter or sovereign authority. 2 : of or relating to a sovereign or to royalty.
Mars: The Latin of the God Ares, God of War
Office of a wall: Serves as a wall to the outside world
Christian service/ sepulchre in stubborn Jewry: Referring to the Crusades in Jerusalem
Tenement/ Pelting farm: leased out land
Neptune: Latin name for Poseidon, God of the sea in Greek/ Roman Mythology
Inky blots/ rotten parchment bonds: Literally the blots of ink from signatures on parchment contracts written for Richard to sign.
This royal Kingdom, this royal island, this majestic land, this fortress and garden of Eden built by Nature herself for protection from disease and war, this lucky people, this little world, this island set like a gemstone in the sea which acts as a wall or a house, protecting us against the jealousy of other nations, this blessed land, this earth, this realm, this England, this midwife and breeding ground of royal Kings who are feared and famous by their birth, famous for their deeds across the world, this land full of great people, this dear dear land, famous throughout the world, is now rented out and I must die whilst it happens. England, bound in by sea but who is protected by its rocky walls is now bound in by shame with signatures and contracts. That England, who has conquered so many others, is now conquering herself. I wish this disaster would vanish with my death, how happy I would be then in dying!
Notes on Performance
The fame of John Gaunt’s words in this speech come from it’s patriotism and acclaim of Britain, (England, specifically). A speech famously quoted by prominent English figures like Winston Churchill, these words are a proud and beautiful eulogy for a country in a time of strife.
For the actor playing Gaunt, this pride and patriotism is essential to access in performance. This praise of the British isles is how this man chooses to spend his last breath – it is indeed no small matter. Though frequently taken out of context and used as merely a way to praise England, Gaunt in this speech has a much more direct and pressing intention with this speech. He wishes to find the courage and clarity to change the behaviour of the rash and careless King Richard the Second, who Gaunt sees as one who is leasing away the country, spending money too frivolously and leading England down a path of obligation to other nations who they are indebted to.
Moments before this speech, Gaunt tells the Duke of York,
‘O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.’
Gaunt is, as his name suggests, gaunt, dying, and on his last breaths. Time is of the essence. In this moment and during the speech the King is yet to arrive, and Gaunt, all too aware of death looming over him, is growing anxious as to whether he will be able to deliver his scathing message to the King in time.
What I’m driving at here is the need for stakes in this speech. Given the fame and patriotic tune of the speech when taken out of context, it is easy for the actor to fall into the trap of being flowery and polite with the words being spoken. This speech is anything but flowery and polite. The stakes are high, the time is short and the situation is desperate.
We can glean more evidence for the high stakes nature of this speech through analysing the text itself. Take another look at the text, and notice that the first thought break (In the form of a colon), rather than thought addition (in the form of a comma) comes all the way down in the last third of the speech, in the line “Like to a tenement or pelting farm:”. If we are to observe classical thinking about performance as it pertains to punctuation, we learn from this that this single thought may be spoken by the actor with one breath. Now, this may be impractical and even impossible in performance, but it is essential for us to take note of. In your rehearsals of this speech, try the speech up to this ‘Like to a tenement or pelting farm:’ on one single breath. You may not be able to get all the way through til this point, but assess what arises for you physically and emotionally in your performance. The stakes are raised, huh? Gaunt is consciously spending his last breaths by speaking these words, and this is a physical experience the actor needs to connect with. If we have a finite number of breaths left to breath, you can be sure we are going to choose our words carefully and speak them with passion and intent.
As well as this, we have the repetition of the allusion to England through the use of the word ‘This’. The word ‘This’ appears 17 times – 17 times – in this speech. The effect of this repetition acts as a building of suspense and intensity as the speech goes along. Pay attention to this repetition, use it, and by no means should you diminish it.
It’s also useful for us to take note of the infrequently quoted beginning of Gaunt’s speech, which goes
‘Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:’
Notice Gaunt’s use of the phrase, “Methinks I am a prophet new inspired”. Consider the weight of these words. Gaunt, on his deathbed, is awoken like a prophet to the truth of the world around him. This is a desperate, overwhelming and all-consuming experience. The actor playing Gaunt can use this new-found inspiration of Gaunt to fuel the fire of this scene. Using the Stanislavsky tool as imagining ‘as if’ I was in the shoes of John Gaunt can be really effective for us at this moment. Imagine yourself ‘as if’ you are John Gaunt, newly inspired with the truth and what needs to be said to the King and the beauty and majesty of his homeland of England, as if he is only left with moments and a handful of breaths left to speak this truth. It’s enough to leave you gasping for breath.
Reverence for the beauty of language has no play in acting. John Gaunt is not speaking these words to sound beautiful or to say something pretty about England, he is a dying man whose son has just been banished by an ineffective King who will lead his beloved country to ruin.
Tap into the ‘as if’ of the scene – the desperate truth of the situation, and play the speech through that lens. Acting Shakespeare is not the same as quoting Shakespeare in academia. As actors we must access the grit, emotion and desperation of the characters, and leave the quotation and politeness for the scholars.