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Act I, Scene 2
The second scene shifts to Gaunt's palace in London, where he is talking with the Duchess of Gloucester, who is very upset. Gaunt laments that his blood relationship with Gloucester urges him to take revenge for his brother's murder, but that he cannot take action against these "butchers of his (Gloucester's) life." Since he can do nothing to avenge the death of his own brother, Gaunt advises the duchess to place her trust in providence. The duchess (Gloucester's widow and Gaunt's sister-in-law) is amazed at Gaunt's cold response and wonders whether brotherhood has any claims on him. She reminds him that Gloucester was his own brother and one of seven sons fathered by Edward III. Of these seven some have died due to natural causes, while destiny has shortened the lives of others. But Gloucester's life, she says, has been cut short by "envy's hand and murder's bloody axe." She tries to incite Gaunt to action by emphasizing that Gloucester's blood was his and that he had shared the same womb as her husband. She tells him that a part of his own self has been killed. Seeing that her strategy is not having much effect, she tries to play on Gaunt's sense of honor and says that his lack of action is not representative of patience, but of "pale cold cowardice." She further says that Gaunt's refusal to avenge his brother's murder will only encourage the murderers and result in a threat to his own life.
This passionate outburst of grief fails to move Gaunt from his firm decision that the quarrel is God's, since the king, who is God's agent on earth, ordered the murder. He says that he cannot take action against the king, God's deputy. The duchess helplessly consents to leave things to the course of providence. She hopes that her husband's murderer, Mowbray, is killed by Bolingbroke, or if that should fail, she prays that the weight of Mowbray's sins may throw him from the back of his horse headlong into the lists (a fence made of stakes that enclosed a tournament area). She bids a tearful farewell to Gaunt and says that she will spend the rest of her life alone, nursing her grief.
In distinct contrast to the courtly ambiance of Scene 1, the second scene is domestic in feel and focuses on only two characters, Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester. This scene has been deliberately inserted between the courtly scenes and serves a dramatic purpose. Act I, Scene 2 serves to recall past events and also exposes the emptiness of words. Structurally, too, this scene fits within the overall pattern of the play: there is an alternation between formal and informal scenes. Similarly, there is an alternation between lengthy and short scenes. Some scenes in the play are clearly more personal and constructed on a small scale. Scene 2 is one such scene and is somewhat limited in its focus. The contrast between the formal and informal scenes is more striking on the stage, where Shakespeare intended the play to be performed without breaks between acts or scenes.
The Themes of Scene 1 continue into Scene 2. Issues of loyalty are discussed: Scene 1 focuses on loyalty to king and country, while Scene 2 explores loyalty to blood relatives. The second scene provides a glimpse into the personal implications of state corruption by depicting the grief of the Duchess of Gloucester.
The duchess tries to rouse old John of Gaunt to avenge his brother's death. The language of her exhortations implies religious belief. The duchess believes that Richard has disrupted the order through an act of deliberate violence. She tries to emphasize the horror of the crime by saying that Richard has spilled sacred blood. Her emphasis on the sacredness of the blood spilt positions family loyalty against allegiance to the king, whose blood is also sacred because he is God's representative.
John of Gaunt emerges as a helpless old man. He disapproves of the crime against his brother but cannot take any action. His character emerges as a distinct contrast to that of his energetic son, Bolingbroke, who does not philosophize, but acts. Gaunt takes refuge in the conventional belief that the king is God's deputy on earth. Gaunt's decision to leave the quarrel to the will of heaven parallels Richard's expectation of intervention by God in human affairs.