Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


In The Crito Plato says: Now you, Crito, are not going to die tomorrow—at least, there is no human probability of this, and therefore you are disinterested and not liable to be deceived by the circumstances in which you are placed. Tell me then, whether I am right… Socrates has been condemned and is scheduled to be executed. He’s close to death; Crito isn’t. Therefore, Socrates reasons, Crito can be more objective. Whether this is true or not is open for debate. Does someone approaching death become more clouded in their thought processes? Or do they actually become more clear-minded?

This is one of the themes Shakespeare explores in King Richard II. In Act 2, Scene 1 John of Gaunt is very sick and is talking with the Duke of York. John of Gaunt tells the Duke that they say the tongues of dying men Enforce attention like deep harmony… He that no more must say is listen'd more Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose (Glose: To flatter; to wheedle; to fawn; to talk smoothly) What John's basically saying is that dying men don’t have anything to fear so they can talk straight. They’re facing death and no longer have to worry about things; not reputation, not retribution, not anything. Socrates says men facing death can’t be objective because the idea of dying has clouded their minds. John of Gaunt says the nearness of death gives him an opportunity to speak his mind without fear. Who’s right?

John of Gaunt may be able to speak his mind freely but that doesn’t mean that his speech will be any good. In fact, the Duke doesn’t think it will matter anyway because Richard simply won’t listen. He gives John this advice: Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath; For all in vain comes counsel to his ear. Even if Richard does listen to John, he won’t follow his advice anyway. But John of Gaunt doesn’t give up and counters that Though Richard my life's counsel would not hear, My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear. At this point John may or may not be totally sound of mind when he says Methinks I am a prophet new inspired And thus expiring do foretell of him. Anyone who tells you that they’re a “prophet new inspired” may be just plain nuts; but they may actually be inspired. Maybe you should listen to what he has to say. Any prophet who is “new inspired” will seem crazy to people at first. In this case John may truly foresee what will happen to Richard. It might be in Richard’s best interests to listen.

Of course he won’t. People rarely do. Only the wise can really discern which new-inspired prophets are nuts and which ones are worth listening to. Richard isn’t a wise man; he may not even be a good man. Confiscating Bolingbroke’s estates is an extreme penalty. On the other hand, Bolingbroke isn’t lily pure himself. To depose a sitting king is about as extreme as it gets in Elizabethan England. Therefore, neither Richard nor Bolingbroke seems kingly. England deserves better. As the dying fool/prophet John of Gaunt sees things, England is 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…What great lines; we might add: this Shakespeare!


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