Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Richard II - This Other Eden

John of Gaunt. Methinks I am a prophet new inspired

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,
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!
(Richard II, 2.1.713-750)

John of Gaunt's speech about his country is justly famous - surely one of the most beautiful patriotic things ever written by anyone, anywhere...

I absolutely thrill when I read it, and I'm an American and have never even been to England! I mean, what can one say about it? Like any great work of art, at some point it defies commentary, standing stalwart in its own beauty. Look at just this one gorgeous line: This precious stone set in the silver sea. All the 's' alliteration creates the very sound of the washing of waves and water. Of course, the striking thing about the speech is that, while praising his homeland, Gaunt at the same time manages to be, shall we say, very uncomplimentary about England's present course. I love Shakespeare - never simple.

To see a great actor deliver some of these lines, watch this clip of Leslie Howard. If you want to see the end of the story of The Scarlet Pimpernel, you can watch the whole video; otherwise, if Shakespeare is what you're after, start at 5:30. Enjoy!

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