Gaunt Rhetoric

In Act Two, Scene Two of Richard the Second, the king visits the dying John of Gaunt and asks, “What comfort, man? how is’t with aged Gaunt?” (II.ii.72).

Gaunt’s response is an amazing piece of what Elvis Costello would call “verbal gymnastics”:

O how that name befits my composition!
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old:
Within me grief hath kept a tedious fast;
And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?
For sleeping England long time have I watched;
Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt.
The pleasure that some fathers feed upon,
Is my strict fast; I mean, my children's looks--
And therein fasting, hast thou made me gaunt.
Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave,
Whose hollow womb inherits nought but bones.

— II.i.73-83

Any memory of King John‘s Constance constant railing is banished. Look at the precise way Gaunt folds in the use of his own name (referencing even the word “name” in the opening line): six uses in eleven lines. He then throws in three uses of “fast” and two “graves” in his complexly crafted response.

First, let’s take a quick look at the definitions of those three main words (all definitions Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]):

gaunt

  • In favourable or neutral sense: Slim, slender, not fat.
  • Abnormally lean, as from hunger; haggard-looking; tall, thin, and angular in appearance. 
  • Hungry, greedy, ravenous. rare.

fast

  • An act or instance of fasting: a.1.a as a religious observance, or as an expression of grief. 
  • The action of fasting; abstinence from food. Also personified. Obs. rare. 

grave

  • (N) A place of burial; an excavation in the earth for the reception of a corpse; †formerly often applied loosely to a receptacle for the dead not formed by digging, as a mausoleum. 
  • (ADJ) Having weight or importance; influential, respected
  • (ADJ) Weighty, important
  • (ADJ) Marked by weighty dignity; of reverend seriousness

Let’s see how those definitions can alter our reading:

O how MY name befits my COMBINATION!
Old Gaunt indeed, and FAVORABLY SLENDER in being old:
Within me grief hath kept a tedious RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE;
And who abstains from meat that is not ABNORMALLY LEAN?
For sleeping England long time have I watched;
Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all ABNORMALLY LEAN FROM HUNGER.
The pleasure that some fathers feed upon,
Is my strict ABSTINENCE FROM FOOD; I mean, my children's looks--
And therein STARVING, hast thou made me ABNORMALLY LEAN.
HUNGRY am I for the WEIGHTY OR IMPORTANT, HAGGARD-LOOKING as a PLACE OF BURIAL,
Whose hollow womb inherits nought but bones.

Gaunt’s name fits how he is constructed now, since he is both “old” and “gaunt.” And, thus, he’s fittingly slender since he’s old. However, there is a grief (over his son’s banishment) inside him that has held a vigil. [but before he gets too caught up down that path of discourse, he switches back to something less overtly political or religious] Then again, he says, anyone who abstains from food will become abnormally skinny. He has watched a long-sleeping England [and make no mistake here, Gaunt knows as well as we, that when we wake from a long sleep, we break that sleep-enforced fast with a meal… breakfast]. Even in his watching, he has grown thin, but abnormally so from hunger. [Gaunt cannot resist the opportunity, and he ventures back into current political affairs] Some fathers can feed upon the pleasure of their children’s looks, but Gaunt is in a strict abstinence from this type of sustenance, as Bolingbroke is gone, and thus Gaunt is starving. And here he finally lays blame (“thou”): the king’s to blame from Gaunt’s abnormal leanness. And because Gaunt has been starved, he is hungry, but not for food, not just for his son’s looks, but for something weighty and important (the implication here is that Richard is neither weighty nor important); Gaunt is also as starved and haggard-looking as an empty place of burial. But this burial place, while being a place for “nought but bones,” is also a “womb.”

Out of Old Gaunt’s grave will rise Bolingbroke.

It’s a masterful speech… a masterful “composition” in Gaunt’s own words.

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