The dying words spoken by John of Gaunt have a long afterlife: as sententious lines bound to catch the eye of a commonplacing reader, they seem almost designed to appear outside their dramatic setting, in manuscript and printed compilations. This essay reads Gaunt's deathbed scene, in William Shakespeare's Richard II 2.1, in the light of two anthologies printed in 1600, Englands Parnassus and Belvedere, both derived in some way from the circle of printers and editors surrounding John Bodenham. Richard II's strong representation in both volumes testifies to its wider popularity, and that popularity was doubtless aided in turn by these anthologies. Beyond that, though, this moment of the play seems peculiarly anthologizable. Words spoken on the point of death were frequently thought to acquire a special truthfulness, even a sense of prophecy. Through an examination of dying moments in a variety of early modern sources, from Michel de Montaigne to Antonio Minturno, this essay is an experiment in thinking about how William Shakespeare might have shaped his plays for a commonplace-book culture. It looks closely at the unexpectedly lyrical quality of the sententiae themselves and the intimate relationship between lyric and sententiae in the play and the anthologies. It reads Gaunt's famous encomium to "this sceptred He" as it appears when read through the anthologies' negotiation of poetry and nationhood. And it considers the affinity between the peculiar life of the "choicest flowers" gathered in these anthologies, and the dying words they choose.
JOHN of Gaunt is waiting on his deathbed for the arrival of his nephew, the capricious young king whose decline and death are the subject of William Shakespeare's Richard II. "Wil the King come," he frets, "that I may breathe my last? / In holsome counsell to his vnstaied youth." (1) On the evidence of Richard's prior conduct, Gaunt's companion, the Duke of York, is doubtful: "all in vaine comes counsell to his eare" (2.1.4). But if ever this most absolute of monarchs could be made to listen to counsel, this would be the moment:Oh but they say, the tongues of dying men, Inforce attention like deepe harmony: Where words are scarce they are seldome spent in vaine, For they breathe truth that breathe their wordes in paine: He that no more must say, is listened more Than they whom youth and ease haue taught to glose, More are mens ends markt than their liues before: The setting Sunne, and Musike at the close, As the last taste of sweetes is sweetest last, Writ in remembrance more than things long past[.] (2.1.5-14)
Against York's skepticism, John of Gaunt summons the authority of a proverb: the last words of dying men, "they say," are invested with a peculiar sort of power by virtue of the occasion on which they are spoken. This scene might prove a new beginning for Richard, however dissolute his career so far. Gaunt is improvising variations on the proverbial idea, familiar in early modern England, that "dying men speak true." (2)...