David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s RICHARD II: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

At Ely House, a dying John of Gaunt spoke to the Duke of York, his brother. Attendants were also present.

John of Gaunt said, “Will the King come, so that I may breathe my last while giving wholesome counsel and advice to his unrestrained youth?”

“Don’t vex yourself, and don’t strive with your breath,” the Duke of York said, “because all in vain comes counsel to his ears.”

“Oh, but they say the tongues of dying men force others to pay attention as if they were hearing deep harmony and beautiful music. Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain because people who breathe and speak their words in pain breathe and speak truth.

“He who soon must say no more is listened to more than they whom youth and ease have taught to prattle and talk superficially. More are men’s ends marked than their lives before: People pay special attention to the dying.

“The setting sun, and music at its close, just like the last taste of sweets, are sweetest because they are last, and they are written in remembrance more than things long past. A person’s last words linger longest in the memory of other people.

“Although Richard would not hear my counsel while I was healthy, my death’s sad tale may yet undeafen his ears so that he will listen to me.”

“No,” the Duke of York said. “His ears are stopped with other flattering sounds, such as praises, of whose taste even the wise are fond. His ears are also stopped with lascivious, sexual meters, to whose venomous sound the open ears of youth always listen. In addition, his ears are stopped with reports of fashions in proud Italy, whose manners our apish nation always basely imitates after they are outmoded.

“Where does the world thrust forth a vanity — as long as it is new, no one cares how vile it is — that is not quickly buzzed into King Richard II’s ears?

“Then all too late comes counsel to be heard in the place where desires mutiny against reason’s considerations.

“Don’t try to guide King Richard II because he himself will choose which way he will go.

“It is breath you lack, and that breath you will lose if you try to guide the King with wise counsel.”

John of Gaunt replied, “I think that I am a prophet newly inspired, and thus expiring I foretell the King’s future. His rash and fierce blaze of riotous and wasteful living cannot last, for violent fires soon burn themselves out.

“Light showers last long, but sudden storms are short.

“A man tires betimes — soon — who spurs his horse too fast betimes — early in the day.

“With eager and hasty feeding, food chokes the feeder.

“Light vanity is frivolous, unthinking pride. It is like an insatiable cormorant — a seabird that gulps its prey. Once it has consumed the resources at its disposal, it soon preys upon itself.”

John of Gaunt then began to talk about the British island:

“This royal throne of Kings, this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty, this seat — throne — of the war-god Mars, this other Eden, this 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 role of a wall to keep out invaders, or which serves it as a defensive moat to a house, against the envy and malice of less happier lands. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England, this nurse, this teeming — fertile — womb of royal Kings, feared because of their lineage and famous by their birth, renowned for their deeds as far from home for Christian service in the Crusades and true chivalry as is the Holy Sepulcher in the land of stubborn Jews who rejected Christ, the Holy Sepulcher of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son —

“Yes, this land of such dear souls, this dear and again dear land, this land dear for her reputation throughout the world, is now leased out — I die as I say this — as if it were a tenement or a paltry farm.

“England, bound in with — surrounded by — the triumphant sea whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege of watery Neptune, is now bound in with — legally restrained by — shame, with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds, with blank charters and the farming-out of taxes.

“England, which was accustomed to conquer others, has made a shameful conquest of itself.

“Ah, if the scandal would vanish with my life, how happy then would be my ensuing death!”

Several people entered the room: King Richard II, the Queen, the Duke of Aumerle, Bushy, Green, Bagot, Lord Ross, and Lord Willoughby.

The Duke of York said to John of Gaunt, “The King has come. Deal mildly with his youth; for once young hot colts are enraged they rage all the more.”

The Queen asked, “How fares our noble uncle, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster?”

“What comforting thing can you say to me, man?” King Richard II asked. “How is it with aged Gaunt?”

“Oh, how that name ‘Gaunt’ fits my condition!” John of Gaunt replied. “I am old Gaunt indeed, and I am gaunt through being old. Within me grief has kept a painful fast, and who abstains from food who is not gaunt?

“For sleeping England I have stayed awake and watched a long time. Watching breeds leanness, and leanness is all gaunt. The pleasure that some fathers feed upon is something from which I strictly fast — I mean, the pleasure I would receive from looking at my children. Because Henry Bolingbroke, my son, is in exile, I cannot look upon him.

“And because I am fasting from that pleasure, you have made me gaunt. Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave, whose hollow womb inherits and receives nothing but bones since all else has wasted away through fasting.”

“Can sick men play so nicely and subtly with their names?” King Richard II asked.

“Misery makes it a sport — an entertainment — to mock itself,” John of Gaunt said. “Misery entertains itself by mocking itself.

“Since you seek to kill my name in me by exiling my son, I mock my name, great King, to flatter you.”

John of Gaunt was saying that the King had tried to ruin John of Gaunt’s family by exiling Henry Bolingbroke, his son, and therefore the King should be pleased when John of Gaunt mocked his own name.

“Should dying men flatter those who live?” King Richard II asked.

“No, no, men who are living flatter those who die,” John of Gaunt replied.

“You, who are now dying, say that you are flattering me.”

“Oh, no!” John of Gaunt said. “You are dying, although I am sicker than you.”

“I am healthy, I breathe, and I see you ill,” King Richard II said.

“Now He who made me knows that I see you ill,” John of Gaunt said. “Ill in myself to see, and in you seeing ill. I see ill — badly —but I see that you are ill — evil.

“Your deathbed is no lesser than your land — England — wherein you lie sick in reputation. And you, a patient too heedless to take care of yourself, commit your anointed body to the cure of those physicians — flatterers — who first wounded you.

“A thousand flatterers sit within your crown, whose compass is no bigger than your head, and yet, caged in so small a compass, the waste is not a bit less than your land.

“Oh, had your grandfather — King Edward III — with a prophet’s eye seen how his son’s son should destroy his sons, from out of your reach he would have laid your shame, deposing you before you were possessed of the crown — you who are now possessed by the Devil and acting in such a way as to depose yourself.

“Why, nephew, even if you were regent of the whole world, it would be a shame to lease out this land. Since you don’t rule the world but only this land, isn’t it more than shame to shame it so by leasing it out?

“You are now the landlord of England, not its King. Your state of law is bondslave to the law. If you were King, you would be the law, but since you are a landlord you are subject to the law and must keep the legal arrangements you have entered into.

“And you —”

King Richard II interrupted, “A lunatic lean- and gaunt-witted fool, presuming on an illness’ privilege, you dare with your frozen admonition to make pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood with fury away from its native residence. You are using the excuse of your illness to make me pale with anger.

“Now, by the right royal majesty of my throne, if you were not brother to great King Edward III’s son — if you were not the brother of my father, Edward the Black Prince — this tongue that runs so roundly and bluntly in your head should run your head from your disrespectful shoulders. Such speech would get your head chopped off if you were not my uncle.”

John of Gaunt replied, “Oh, spare me not, my brother Edward the Black Prince’s son, simply because I was the son of his father, King Edward III. That blood, as does the pelican, you have already tapped out like a drink drawn from a tapped barrel and drunkenly consumed as you caroused.”

In this culture, the pelican was thought to bite its chest so that its young could drink its blood. This was a metaphor for parental love and filial ingratitude. John of Gaunt was going to accuse King Richard II of spilling King Edward III’s blood in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, one of the sons of King Edward III.

He continued, “My brother the Duke of Gloucester, a plain well-meaning soul, whom may good things befall in Heaven among happy souls, may be a worthy example and good evidence that you have no qualms about spilling King Edward III’s blood.

“May you join with the sickness that I now have, and may your unkindness be a scythe that is crooked and bent like old age, so that you may cut down at once a too long withered flower.

“Live in your shame, but may your shame not die with you! May your shame continue after you are dead! May these words hereafter your tormentors be!”

He then said to his attendants, “Convey me to my bed, and then to my grave. People who have love and honor love to live. I receive no love and honor from King Richard II.”

John of Gaunt’s attendants helped him exit.

King Richard II said, “And let them die who have old age and sullen moods, for you have both, and both are fitting for the grave.”

The Duke of York said, “I do beseech your majesty to impute John of Gaunt’s words to his perverse sickliness and old age. He loves you, on my life, and he holds you as dear as Harry, Duke of Hereford, were he here.”

The Duke of York meant that John of Gaunt loved King Richard II as much as he loved his own son, but Richard II deliberately misinterpreted him to be saying that John of Gaunt loved him as much as his son, Henry Bolingbroke, loved him — that is, not at all.

King Richard II replied, “Right, what you say is true: As the Duke of Hereford loves me, so does John of Gaunt. As their love for me is, so is mine for them, and let all be as it is.”

The Earl of Northumberland entered the room and said, “My liege, old Gaunt commends him to your majesty. He conveys his greetings.”

“What does he says?” King Richard II replied.

“Nothing; all is said,” the Earl of Northumberland said. “His tongue is now a stringless instrument. Words, life, and all, old John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, has spent. He is dead.”

The Duke of York said, “May I, the Duke of York, be the next who must be bankrupt — dead — so! Although the state of death is poor, it ends a mortal woe.”

“The ripest fruit first falls, and so does he,” King Richard II said. “His time is spent; our pilgrimage through life must also be.

“So much for that.

“Now for our Irish wars. We must get rid of those rough and shaggy-headed lightly armed Irish foot soldiers, who live like venomous snakes where no venomous snakes other than themselves have privilege to live.”

According to tradition, Saint Patrick had driven all snakes out of Ireland.

King Richard II continued, “And because these great affairs require some expense, towards our assistance we seize to us the plate, coin, revenues, and moveable possessions that our uncle John of Gaunt possessed.”

“How long shall I be patient?” the Duke of York said. “Ah, how long shall tender duty make me tolerate wrong? Not the Duke of Gloucester’s death, nor the Duke of Hereford’s banishment, nor King Richard II’s rebukes and insults to John of Gaunt, nor wrongs done to private individuals in England, nor Richard II’s preventing poor Bolingbroke from marrying the cousin of the King of France, nor my own disgrace have ever made me sour my patient cheek, or bend one wrinkle on my sovereign’s face. I have never frowned at Richard II, and I have never caused Richard II to frown at me.

“I am the last survivor of noble King Edward III’s sons, of whom your father, Edward the Black Prince, the Prince of Wales, was the first and the eldest. In war a lion never raged more fiercely, in peace a gentle lamb was never milder, than was that young and Princely gentleman.

“His face you have, for he looked just like you when he was your age, but when he frowned, it was against the French and not against his friends; his noble hand won what he spent, and he did not spend that which his triumphant father’s hand had won. His hands were guilty of no kindred blood; instead, they were bloody with the enemies of his kin.

“Oh, Richard! York — me — is too far gone with grief, or else he never would compare between —”

King Richard II, who had not been paying attention but instead had been looking around, appraising the value of the former possessions of the late John of Gaunt, asked, “Why, uncle, what’s the matter?

“Oh, my liege,” the Duke of York said, “pardon me, if you please; if you don’t please to pardon me, I, who will be pleased not to be pardoned, am content nevertheless.

“Do you seek to seize and grab into your hands the prerogatives and rights of the banished Duke of Hereford? Is not Gaunt dead, and does not Hereford live? Was not Gaunt just, and is not Harry, Duke of Hereford, true and loyal? Did not the one deserve to have an heir? Is not his heir a well-deserving son?

“If you take Hereford’s rights away, then you take from Time its charters and its customary rights. One time-honored tradition is legal inheritance.

“Unless you respect legal inheritance, then don’t let tomorrow follow today. Be not yourself — a King. Why? Because how can you be a King except by fair sequence, progression, and order of succession?

“Now, before God — may God forbid that what I say will become true! — if you wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights, if you wrongfully call in and reject all the letters patent that allow him to use those whom he has given his power of attorney to sue and institute proceedings for him to lawfully inherit his father’s lands and other possessions, and if you wrongfully deny him the opportunity to offer the homage he would give to you as part of inheriting his father’s estate, then you pull down a thousand dangers on your head. You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts and prick my tender patience to think those thoughts that honor and allegiance cannot think.”

King Richard II replied, “Think what you will, we seize into our hands his gold- and silverplate, his goods, his money, and his lands.”

“I’ll not be present for this,” the Duke of York said. “My liege, farewell. What will ensue from this action, there’s no one who can tell, but we understand that the consequences of bad courses of action can never fall out good.”

The Duke of York exited.

King Richard II said, “Go, Bushy, to the Earl of Wiltshire, my Lord Treasurer, straightaway. Tell him to make his way to us at Ely House to see about this business of seizing John of Gaunt’s estate. Tomorrow we will make for Ireland, for it is time, I know. And we create, in absence of ourself, our uncle the Duke of York lord governor of England because he is just and has always loved us well.

“Come on, our Queen. Tomorrow we must part. Be merry, for our time of stay is short.”

King Richard II, the Queen, the Duke of Aumerle, Bushy, Green, and Bagot exited, leaving behind the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Ross, and Lord Willoughby.

“Well, lords, the Duke of Lancaster is dead,” the Earl of Northumberland said.

“And living, too,” Lord Ross said, “for now his son is the Duke of Lancaster.”

“Barely in title, and not at all in revenue,” Lord Willoughby said.

“He would be richly in both, if justice had her right,” the Earl of Northumberland said.

“My heart is great,” Lord Ross said, “but it must break with silence, before it is disburdened with an indiscreet tongue.”

“No, speak your mind,” the Earl of Northumberland said, “and let him never speak again who repeats your words to do you harm! If anyone causes you harm by repeating your words, let him never again say anything!”

Lord Willoughby said, “Does what you would speak relate to the Duke of Hereford? If it does, then out with it boldly, man. Quick is my ear to hear of good towards him.”

“No good at all can I do for him,” Lord Ross said, “unless you call it good to pity him because he is bereft and gelded of his patrimony.”

The Earl of Northumberland said, “Now, before God, it is shameful that such wrongs are borne by him, a royal Prince, and by many more of noble blood in this declining land. The King is not himself, for flatterers basely and shamefully lead him; and whatever they will inform him of, merely and purely out of hatred, against any of us, that will the King severely prosecute against us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.”

“He has pillaged the common people with grievous taxes, and quite lost their hearts,” Lord Ross said. “He has fined the nobles for ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts.”

“And daily new exactions of exorbitant taxes are devised,” Lord Willoughby said, “such as blank charters and forced loans, and I know not what else, but what, in God’s name, is done with this money?”

The Earl of Northumberland said, “Wars have not wasted it because King Richard II has not warred. Instead, he shamefully and basely yields upon compromise that which his noble ancestors achieved with blows.”

An example of what the Earl of Northumberland was referring to occurred in 1397, when King Richard II surrendered the port of Brest to the Duke of Brittany.

He continued, “King Richard II has spent more money in peace than they in wars.”

Lord Ross said, “The Earl of Wiltshire has the realm in farm so he can make money through taxation.”

“The King’s grown bankrupt, like a broken man,” Lord Willoughby said.

“Reproach and dissolution hang over him,” the Earl of Northumberland said.

“He has no money for these Irish wars,” Lord Ross said, “despite his burdensome taxations, except by robbing the banished Duke of Hereford.”

“The Duke of Hereford is his noble kinsman!” the Earl of Northumberland said. “Richard II is a most degenerate King! He is not the man his father and grandfather were! But, lords, we hear this fearful tempest sing, yet we see no shelter in which we can avoid the storm. We see the wind sit sore upon our sails, and yet we strike not, but heedlessly perish because of our overconfidence that we are secure.”

The word “strike” was ambiguous. It could mean to strike — lower — one’s sails, as in greeting a larger ship or as a defensive maneuver when a sudden squall sprang up. In each case, lowering one’s sails was a sign of inferiority. The word “strike” could also mean to strike with weapons against the King. One option was to submit to King Richard II; another option was to rebel against him.

“We see the very wreck that we must suffer,” Lord Ross said, “and unavoidable is the danger now because we have been tolerating the causes of our wreck.”

“That is not so; the danger is avoidable,” the Earl of Northumberland said. “Even through the hollow eyes of death I spy life peering, but I dare not say how near the tidings of our comfort are.”

“Let us share your thoughts, as you do ours,” Lord Willoughby said.

“Be confident that you can speak freely, Earl of Northumberland,” Lord Ross said. “We three are just like you, and if you speak freely to us, your words are like thoughts and will not be heard by anyone else; therefore, be bold and speak freely.”

The Earl of Northumberland said, “Then listen to this: I have from Port le Blanc, a bay in Brittany, received news that Harry, the Duke of Hereford; Rainold Lord Cobham; Thomas Arundel, the son and heir of Richard Arundel, who until his beheading in 1397 was the Earl of Arundel — Thomas Arundel recently broke away and escaped from the Duke of Exeter; Richard Arundel’s brother, who was recently Archbishop of Canterbury until King Richard II asked the Pope to remove him from that office; Sir Thomas Erpingham; Sir John Ramston; Sir John Norbery; Sir Robert Waterton; and Francis Quoint, all these well furnished by the Duke of Bretagne with eight grand ships and three thousand soldiers of war, are making for England with all due speed and shortly mean to land on our northern shore. Perhaps they would have landed before this, except that they are waiting first for the departure of King Richard II for Ireland.

“If then we shall shake off our slavish yoke, and graft new feathers on our drooping country’s broken wing, redeem from the pawnbroker the blemished crown, wipe off the dust that hides our scepter’s gilt, and make high majesty look like itself, then go with me posthaste to the port called Ravenspurgh.

“But if you are fainthearted, and are afraid to do so, then stay and keep this secret, and I myself will go.”https://www.amazon.com/William-Shakespeares-Richard-II-Retelling-ebook/dp/B01F47DL8G/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=richard+ii+retelling+David+bruce&qid=1547914450&s=Kindle+Store&sr=1-1-catcorr

“Let’s go to horse, to horse!” Lord Ross said. “Use your persuasive powers on them who are afraid, not on us!”

Lord Willoughby said, “If my horse holds out, I will be the first one there.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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