This royal throne of kings, this sceptered 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 blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renownèd for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulcher in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessèd 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.
(Act 2, scene 1, lines 45–61)

This lengthy quote consists of a single sentence, uttered by John of Gaunt on his deathbed as he awaits the arrival of King Richard. The dying man wishes to confront Richard on several accounts, including the king’s murder of his brother, and the king’s uncle: the Duke of Gloucester. This political assassination, matched with Richard’s burdensome taxation schemes and decision to lease out crown lands, has desecrated England. John of Gaunt communicates his vision of England’s desecration in the rightly famous speech that begins with these lines. Notably, the speech starts as a hymn to England, celebrating the Edenic majesty of “this sceptered isle.” Through a series of subordinate clauses all beginning with the word “this,” Gaunt puts off naming the actual subject of his sentence—“England”—until the eleventh line. He then continues to praise England’s history and its heroes for another eight lines before finally getting to the predicate of his extended sentence. England, he says, “Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it— / Like to a tenement or pelting farm.”

The long build-up to these final lines gives Gaunt’s speech its ringing rhetorical power. After praising England’s land and people for nineteen lines, he concludes with a shocking reversal that emphasizes the tragedy of England’s degeneration. This final turn also implicitly laments the brutal injustice and mismanagement that has characterized Richard’s rule. The irony of this magnificent speech is that, though meant for Richard’s ears, Richard isn’t present to hear it. Indeed, as he announces in the closing lines of act 1, Richard intentionally delays his journey to Gaunt’s estate in the hope that his uncle will die before he arrives. “Come, gentlemen,” he says to his companions: “let’s all go visit him. / Pray God we may make haste and come too late” (1.4.64–65). Yet even though Richard doesn’t hear the speech, Gaunt’s ominous message echoes throughout the rest of the play. Richard will pay for the harm he’s done to England’s “reputation through the world.”