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 doubts that Gaunt’s plan will work; the King is surrounded by many flatterers and too interested in the follies and fashions of the world. Gaunt replies that, if that is the case, he must prophesy 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” (2.1.37–38).

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 sceptered 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 leased out—I die pronouncing it— / Like to a tenement or pelting farm” (2.1.45–66).

King Richard arrives with a large train of followers—Queen Isabel, Aumerle, Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and others. 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 for how he has been wasting money and taxing the people too heavily to make up the difference. Gaunt claims that Richard is allowing the country to go to ruin, all the while letting himself be flattered by his power-hungry and self-interested advisors. Richard, completely infuriated, interrupts his uncle, saying that were Gaunt not of royal blood, he would destroy him. But Gaunt, emboldened by the fact that he is dying anyway, references the king’s involvement in the death of his uncle, Thomas Gloucester. Clearly, Richard has no qualms about shedding royal blood. He finishes by cursing Richard 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 Gaunt’s estate 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, 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 Richard’s reign is leading England into ruin. Northumberland confides to the other two that he has secret news: Bolingbroke, with many English allies and 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.

Read a translation of Act 2: Scene 1.


This long scene is a turning point in Richard II, and one of the most important in the play.

Gaunt’s dying curse upon Richard is an extremely bad omen for his future. 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. Gaunt says to Richard, “Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee! / These words hereafter thy tormentors be!” (2.1.142–43). This prophetic curse begins to come true almost immediately. Indeed, 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 that 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 that, combined with what we already know about Bolingbroke’s popularity and Richard’s unpopularity, 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 groundwork upon which Shakespeare will build throughout the sequels to this play. Indeed, Richard’s shame will in fact not die with him, but will hang over all three of the Henry plays that follow: Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. This theme will also continue to crop up during Richard II, most notably in the Bishop of Carlisle’s prophecy in act 4, scene 1.

John of Gaunt’s speech early in the scene is among the most famous in all of Richard II, and it has often been quoted as a stirring invocation of English patriotism. Certain phrases from this speech—such as “this sceptered isle”—have become cliches (2.1.45). What’s significant about the speech is the way it suggests an organic, natural unity within the country. He makes this association clear 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” (2.1.47, 57). The organic wholeness of the nation is apparently being fractured from within by the leases Richard has issued: with “inky blots and rotten parchment bonds,” England “hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (2.1.70, 72). In other words, Richard is in the process of degrading all that has made England great.

It's also important to note the way sickness and death hang over this scene, offering another ominous sign of Richard’s future downfall. Most obviously, Gaunt himself is on his deathbed. In a surprising twist, however, he claims that it’s Richard who truly stands closer to death: “thou diest, though I the sicker be” (2.1.97). Gaunt then extends the metaphor of the king’s sickness, saying: “Thy deathbead is no lesser than thy land, / Wherein thou liest in reputation sick” (2.1.101–102). These lines are significant for the way they obliquely reference the doctrine of the divine right of kings. According to this doctrine, the king isn’t just a ruler; he’s divinely appointed and hence spiritually bound to his kingdom. In a strong sense, the king is his kingdom. This symbolic equivalence explains the importance of the Fisher King figure in medieval Arthurian legend. The Fisher King sustained a sexual wound that rendered him impotent, which in turn left his entire kingdom barren. In a similar way, Richard’s villainous behavior has degenerated the land. As such, England itself becomes a deathbed for what Northumberland describes as a “most degenerate king” (2.1.272).