What most interested me about our class discussion on Friday was the idea of England being “rented out” at the greedy hands of King Richard II. I tried re-reading this section of Act II while thinking about the cultural significance of land at the time. Land back in the time of this play was probably much more sacred than it is now. I say this because these days we have far fewer independent farmers, as everything is mass-produced. Granted, there was no plumbing and the streets were filled with excrement, but that’s beside the point. People in Shakespeare’s time (and historically in Richard II’s time) were more likely to lay in a meadow and take in the surroundings. They appreciated luscious gardens. Nowadays people will sit inside on computers surfing the Internet more often than not.
Gaunt remarks “England, bound in with the triumphant sea, / Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege / Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame, / With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds” (II.i.60-64). Here, he is deconstructing a very map-like image of England in order to make sense of the way it is falling apart because of Richard’s corruption. The images he provides by using the words “inky blots” and “rotten parchment” made me think of England as a deteriorating, soggy map of a fallen nation. He obviously isn’t happy with how the country is being led. It even seems as if he’s dying happily – a strong comment on the current state of things. He is imagining an end to his life as a better fate than enduring whatever the King is bringing on his people (“How happy then were my ensuing death!” [II.i.68]). We also get the idea that England is fighting a war with itself (the people against their ruler) that is doomed to stalemate, because the surrounding sea is triumphant, but the shore continues to beat back. The beautiful language Gaunt uses that relates to England’s land shows his love for his country and further solidifies the importance of his character.
I hadn’t before known exactly how I felt about Richard’s character. Was he selfish and greedy? Was he a victim of the crown? Or was he corrupting it? John of Gaunt’s speech in Act II Scene I really helped me shape my opinion of Richard’s character. And I realized that falling victim to greed for power was his own fault, and he cannot change the entirety of a culture (in this case England) just to suit his own needs (i.e. by overtaxing to fund a war that arguably needn’t happen in the first place).