John of Gaunt, ill and dying in his house, talks with the Duke of York while he awaits the arrival of King Richard. Gaunt hopes that, with his dying breath, he will be able to give the foolhardy young King Richard some advice that he will listen to. York says that that is unlikely; the King is too much surrounded by flatterers, and too interested in the follies and fashions of the world. Gaunt replies that, if that is the case, he must prophecy with his last breath that Richard is headed for doom: "His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last. / For violent fires soon burn out themselves" (33-34).
He goes on to lament, in the play's most famous speech, that the beautiful, fertile, and divinely favored country of England has been rented out. "This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise... / This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England... / Is now leas'd out--I die pronouncing it— / Like to a tenement or pelting farm" (40-60).
King Richard arrives with a large train of followers—Queen Isabel, Aumerle, Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and more. When Richard inquires casually after Gaunt's health, Gaunt bitterly rebukes Richard for the exile of his son Bolingbroke. He then goes on to admonish Richard, in scalding terms, for the ways in which he has been wasting money, taxing the people too heavily, allowing the country to go to ruin, and letting himself be flattered by his power-hungry and self-interested advisors. Richard, completely infuriated, interrupts his uncle, saying that were Gaunt not of the royal blood, he would destroy him; but Gaunt, raging and made bold by the knowledge that he is dying anyway, points out to Richard that he has not hesitated to shed the blood of royalty before and brings up the king's involvement in the death of his uncle Thomas of Gloucester. He finishes by cursing Richard with his dying breaths and walking out on the king. York tries to make excuses for Gaunt's behavior to Richard, but Richard, understandably enough, is not in a very good mood.
The Earl of Northumberland comes in to tell the company that Gaunt has died. Richard promptly announces his intention to seize all of Gaunt's worldly goods in order to finance his war in Ireland. His uncle, the Duke of York, protests vehemently, pointing out that Gaunt was a loyal subject and that his estate should by rights now belong to his son Bolingbroke, who, though currently in exile, will eventually return to England to claim it. But Richard will not listen to him, and York departs. Richard, blithely ignoring his powerful uncle's distress and concern, tells his allies that tomorrow he plans to set sail for Ireland, and that he will make his York Lord Governor of England while he himself is gone.
After Richard leaves with his attendants, three lords—the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Ross, and Lord Willoughby—remain behind. Indignant at Richard's latest injustice, the three agree that England is being ruined under Richard's reign. Northumberland confides to the other two that he has secret news: Bolingbroke, with many English allies and with with ships supplied by the King of Brittany, plans to sail for England as soon as Richard leaves for Ireland. Their plan is to invade England's northeast shore and stage a royal coup. The three decide to join him, and they depart together for Ravenspurgh, in the north, where Bolingbroke plans to land.
This long scene is a turning point in Richard II, and one of the two or three most important scenes in the play.
Gaunt's dying curse upon Richard is an extremely bad omen for his future, since curses in Shakespeare nearly always come to some kind of fruition, and curses issued by the elderly or the dying are especially potent. It is a sign of Richard's foolishness that he chooses to ignore the advice of his dying uncle. When Gaunt says to Richard, "Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee! / These words hereafter thy tormentors be!" (135-36), the curse, or "prophecy" (as Gaunt calls it in lines 31-32), apparently begins to come true almost immediately: Richard's earlier decision to seize Gaunt's goods to help fund the Irish war is, as he should have expected, so unpopular that it turns Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby against him. It also triggers in his devoutly loyal uncle York a process of self-questioning which will eventually drive him, too, to Bolingbroke's side. By the time the scene closes, we have learned of the imminent invasion of England by Bolingbroke's forces--a piece of information which, combined with what we already know about Bolingbroke's popularity and Richard's merited unpopularity with the English commoners, implies already the inevitable outcome: Richard's deposition and defeat at the hands of Bolingbroke.
Moreover, Gaunt's curse also suggests the shadow of a dynastic and cross-dynastic curse, laying the first groundwork upon which Shakespeare will build in the sequels to this play: Richard's shame will in fact not die with him, but will hang over the "Henr y" plays which are sequels to this one. This theme will continue to crop up during "Richard II," most notably in the Bishop of Carlisle's prophecy in IV.i.
John of Gaunt's speech early in the scene is among the most famous in all of "Richard II," and has been often quoted down through the centuries as a stirring invocation of English patriotism. Certain phrases from it—"this scepter'd isle," "[t]his happy breed of men, this little world," "[t]his blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" (40-50)—have become cliches. Gaunt's speech also suggests an organic, natural unity within the country, through his comparison of the nation both to a fertile garden and to a mother: "This other Eden, demi-paradise... This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings" (42, 51). This organic wholeness is apparently being eaten away from within by the leases Richard has issued: with "inky blots and rotten parchment bonds," England "hath made a shameful conquest of itself" (64-66). The idea is that England, safe from harm from the outside world, can on ly be conquered by internal dissension and corruption--and that is the path with Richard is on.
This scene has important reverberations both in the remainder of the play, and in scenes which have already passed. The "renting out" of parts of England—what Richard referred to when he said in I.iv, "We are inforc'd to farm our royal realm"(45)—carries an enormous weight of symbolic importance. As the language of organic unity in this scene suggests, the concept of subletting any part of the country seems to be anathema in Shakespeare. The ideal of good kingship put forward in many of Shakespe are's plays seems to be based in an organic, fully integrated relationship between the king, the land, and that which the land produces: its people and its fertile crops. Sub-dividing the kingdom in any way is a very bad idea (and one that the losing side in a battle for England attempts more than once in other plays, such as Henry IV, Part 1).
References to a decaying or a rotting land should alert us as readers that something very ominous is being foreshadowed. The metaphor of the decaying land also appears in other Shakespeare plays; consider, for instance, Marcellus's famous line from Hamlet—"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." In ancient, pagan England, the idea of decay and rebirth of the land was linked ot the idea of the sacrifice of the ruling king, and his replacement by another—the "Green Man" myth. In Shakespeare, when a king finds his land decaying around him, it should set off warning bells that the death and replacement of the king may be imminent; this is the case in Hamlet, and it is also the case in Richard II.