Sunday Pages: The Final Soliloquy of John of Gaunt

Trump's rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last. Shakespeare said so.

Dear Reader,

A wonderfully rousing thread came to my attention this week. In it, the Rev. Jeff Black compares Donald John Trump to King Richard II (William Shakespeare version):

“[T]hough essentially a fop,” Black writes, Richard II “has to struggle with two great problems: his own inability to focus on affairs of state, and his growing awareness that all around him know that he is utterly inept—an entitled party-boy who constantly sees himself as a victim.” He notes similarities between the England of the late fourteenth century and her former colony of the early twenty-first: “We have lifted into power a fool, a man with no access to his own weaknesses, a liar, an adulterer, a failing businessman who burned through vast fortunes, a false patriot who has made himself an asset of hostile powers, and who now thrashes in their grip.”

Reading the thread, I realized that, while I have a degree in English Literature, and took an course on Shakespeare (the actorly professor loved to listen to his own dramatic readings of the speeches, and taught the class as if on a quixotic mission to rebut his wife’s axiomatic assertion that the tragedies are objectively better than the comedies; he was the sort of self-important dandy that Shakespeare would ridicule; I got a C+), I had never read The Life and Death of King Richard the Second. It’s not, after all, one of the biggies. Heck, it’s not even the best Shakespeare play about a king named Richard.

So, for today’s “Sunday Pages,” and with a crown-tip to the Rev. Black, we go back to 1595. Below are the last words of John of Gaunt (pictured), the king’s aging uncle, who has his feckless nephew pegged—and who managed to speak in perfect iambic pentameter even while dying:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d 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 blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed 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:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

England survived the feckless Richard II, and over the course of the next five centuries, became the most powerful nation on earth. Likewise, we will survive Trump—and while things feel grim at the moment, our best days, too, are in front of us.

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