Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

In Act two of Scene one, the audience or the reader sees the Duchess of Gloucester, who is the widow of the Duke of Gloucester, implore John of Gaunt to avenge his murdered brother. She notes many intelligent reasons as to why he should do this, both mentioning the fact that he was in fact Gloucester’s brother as well as the fact that “If Suff’ring thus they brother to be slaughtered/Thou show’st the naked pathway to thy life” (1.2.30-31). What she means by this is that if he does not avenge his brother, he is showing that he is an easy target to be assassinated next.
However, we see that John of Gaunt refuses to avenge his brother’s death, even though he laments that his brother is indeed dead. The oddest reason of all for his lack of avenging his brother comes up: he believes to know who had the mightiest part in his brother’s assassination. Once we learn that the person whom he suspects is in fact the king, his nephew, Richard the second, however, the audience can see why it would be that he would avoid avenging his brother. If he were to go about the more righteous route, he would be turned down and possibly killed himself—or accused of treason and killed—because the person who could punish the offender is the one who did the deed, which makes it certainly difficult to bring it to court, as it were.
His reason for why he does not go against him by assassinating Richard himself is the more interesting reason, however, for all that it only takes up five lines. He believes, as all did in this time, that Richard was appointed by God. And as such, to assassinate Richard is to go against the will of God, which he will not do. He would rather for God to punish him, if that were the case. It leaves him in a tough spot. He believes that he knows who killed his brother, but is unable to exact his revenge because it could in turn cause his soul to rot in Hell for going against God’s minister. What John of Gaunt thus decides to do is to “Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift/An angry arm against his minister” (1.2.40-41). It makes the reader or watcher feel for John, because what guilt must be laying on him to know who he could revenge, but is unable to do so due to his beliefs.
Perhaps revenge could be exacted by God however, due to another reason. If Richard truly is guilty, he could be punished for breaking up a seven. What I mean here is the Duchess of Gloucester mentions that John and the late Gloucester were the seven sons of Edward; in fact a good part of her speech is dominated by her stating them being seven branches of one tree and seven vials of his holy blood. Seven is a very important number, and one to note when reading through any story or play. Sevens and threes often mean something. From seven days of the week, to seven dwarfs, it has made an appearance in just about everything, including the Bible. It was said that Cain would be avenged sevenfold, and Cain and Abel were already mentioned previously.  So perhaps Richard will be punished by God, or perhaps by mortal hands working, as they might believe in this time, for God.
But not by John of Gaunt, for he still finds himself trapped in between a rock and a hard place with his beliefs. Both stuck in between the belief that Richard was appointed by God, and the fact that to go against the one who could make the punishment for the crime could label him as one who commits treason. He does, however, manage to get his soul peace, I suspect, in cursing Richard before he dies.
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4 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

  1. Jade Asta

    Gaunt’s loyalty to the King, despite all of the wrongs, or accused wrongs, of Richard II is a testament to the power of his faith in the social contract between the King and his subjects, as well as the idea of “divine right.” However, when he is on his death-bed, it is interesting to see his reversal and admonishment of Richard II. It is curious he speech about the King being a sell-out after the scene with the Duchess of Gloucester.

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  2. Sam Montagna

    I really like your focus of religion. Gaunt's logic is correct. In those times, the King was considered to be appointed by God. To go against that is to go against God. Gaunt may curse Richard all he wants and he is not going against God at all. It is also a really "divine" coincidence that killing Richard would be breaking the "seven." So, if Gaunt actually took revenge and killed Richard, it would be double disrespect towards God.

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  3. Tori Holm

    Revenge is a touchy subject when it comes to kings and royalty in general. Revenge is a re-occuring theme within Shakespeare and must be taken seriously consdering the repercussions that can come from the topic. I find it interesting that your talk of revenge and religion fit so perfectly together. I go along the same point of Sam and state that the king was chosen based on "divine" reasons and to fight against that is to fight against God himself. I am curious as to how this play is going to end and how the revenge is going to surface throughtout the rest of this play. Perhaps there will be more blood in the water?

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  4. Cyrus Mulready

    You so nicely anticipate a topic that becomes important in our play (and important to our class) in this probing and thoughtful post, Steph! It is interesting to wonder if the events that transpire at the end of the play are a kind of punishment on Richard–God taking his revenge for the transgressions of the king. We'll have to see what we think in the play's conclusion!

    Reply

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