Act 2 begins with John of Gaunt, who is sick, talking with his brother the Duke of York. Gaunt hopes the king will visit so he has the opportunity to give final advice to Richard, which he believes will be taken more seriously since it is coming from a dying man. York, though, tells Gaunt that it is useless, since Richard doesn’t listen to counsel and is constantly flattered by his friends.
Gaunt’s illness appears to have shaken the foundations of his belief, as he now wishes to give honest advice to Richard instead of fearing the religious implications of standing up to the monarch. He notes that the language of a dying man is imbued with a special kind of power, and thus hopefully Richard will listen to him.
But Gaunt says that he believes himself a newly inspired prophet, and he launches a long speech in which he characterizes England as being like the Garden of Eden and as a mother to its people, and as a land that has its reputation in jeopardy. England, he says, is conquering herself.
This monologue describes England in beautiful figurative language. It emphasizes the paradisal and motherly qualities of the state, as well as the peril England faces under the rule of Richard.
After Gaunt’s speech concludes, Richard enters, and Gaunt begins punning on his own name (since gaunt also means lean and old), immediately taking up a new, confrontational tone with the king. The two exchange single lines (known as stichomythia), and then Gaunt launches another speech, this time directed at Richard. Gaunt says that Richard is sick and dying, and that flatterers surround him. If Edward III, he says, had seen how his grandson (Richard) would treat his sons (Gloucester, and Gaunt himself), then Edward would have prevented Richard from ever becoming king. Gaunt continues berating Richard, who he says is merely a landlord of England, now subject to its laws instead of master of them.
The change in Gaunt’s attitude is apparent, as he stands up to Richard here and also mocks himself on his deathbed. Gaunt’s second speech is made even more powerful in contrast with the short, one line exchange preceding it. Though Gaunt is the one dying, he says that Richard is figuratively sick, suggesting that his position on the throne is in jeopardy. Following the Duchess’s advice, Gaunt invokes family, berating Richard for acting so badly against members of his own family line.
Richard interrupts this rant and even threatens to execute Gaunt, but Gaunt continues his tirade, saying that he should not be spared just because he is the son of Edward III, since Richard has already killed a son of Edward III: Gloucester. Gaunt exits the stage, and York urges the king to take the rant as only the ravings of a very sick and old man who still loves the king. Just as Richard agrees with this, Northumberland announces that Gaunt has died.
Here, Gaunt makes explicit the accusation that Richard was involved with Gloucester’s death. This marks a full departure from Gaunt’s earlier position, that a family trifle is less important than keeping his honor and his religious duty to the king. Just as Gaunt’s important warnings are ignored as the nonsense of a sick man, Northumberland announces that Gaunt has died.
Upon hearing this announcement, Richard immediately decides to seize all of Gaunt’s property to support the war in Ireland. At this decision, York starts to speak out against Richard, saying that though he has remained patient through the death of Gloucester, the banishment of Henry, and all of the bad things happening in England, he feels Richard is “bloody with the enemies of his kin.” York explains that Gaunt’s lands and money should legally be the inheritance of Henry, and that inheritance is the very means by which Richard received the crown. Seizing Henry’s inheritance, he says, is dangerous, since it calls into question Richard’s own power.
Here Richard makes a major mistake, seizing Gaunt’s property and thereby disinheriting Henry for the advancement of his ill-advised war with Ireland. York, whose brother has just died, attempts to stand up to Richard and counsel him against this decision. He has been quiet even throughout the crimes Richard committed against their mutual family, but York warns Richard that by disinheriting Henry he continues this series of actions and delegitimizes the very means by which he was crowned king of England.
Ultimately, though, Richard ignores York and takes the land and money anyways. After York exits, Richard sends his men out and announces that he will leave the next day for Ireland. The king then exits as well.
This is the last, critical mistake of king Richard. Not only does he turn his nobles against him by disinheriting Henry, but he also leaves the country at a dangerous, inopportune time.
Northumberland, Willoughby, and Ross all stay on stage, and begin talking about what has just happened. After reassuring each other that they are trustworthy, they begin speaking their minds, saying that the king is not acting like himself and that they disagree with the decision to disinherit Henry. Northumberland notes that Richard has spent more money during peace times than other kings have in war, suggesting Richard is irresponsible and an over-spender. Thus, to fund the Irish war, Richard must impose heavy taxes. Northumberland then announces that Henry, along with a group of men, is coming back to England with an army the moment that Richard leaves for Ireland. Northumberland hopes this will provide them with the opportunity to “redeem from broking pawn the blemished crown.”
Here we see nobles beginning to grow in boldness, unafraid to (privately) criticize the supposedly infallible and divinely appointed ruler of England. Richard is characterized as irresponsible and vain, leading to the need for unpopular taxes to fund the Irish war. Northumberland’s reference to the “blemished crown” currently in the hold of a pawn broker is a perfect example of the crown symbolizing the state of the monarchy itself. As Richard’s reputation is stained, so the crown in Northumberland’s imagery is blemished and in need of redemption.