Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Mocking Dead Bones: Historical Memory and the Theater of the Dead in Richard III

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Mocking Dead Bones: Historical Memory and the Theater of the Dead in Richard III

Article excerpt

Nicholas Brooke's 1965 landmark essay, "Reflecting Gems and Dead Bones," still largely determines the critical understanding of the relationship between history and tragedy in Richard III: "It is ... supremely ambivalent: a simultaneous perception of two utterly different and opposed scales of value, the historical and the tragic. The sense of History and the sense of Order here become synonymous ... in this play, one does not eclipse the other." (1) Brooke's recognition of the uneasy tension between the tragic and the historical within the religious dimension of the play continues to influence the mainstream of Richard III criticism. (2) However, new readings of the relationship between tragedy and religion in the early modern period have begun to place emphasis on the dead, a concern vital to history and tragedy. Both Michael Neill's Issues of Death and Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory identify an intimate connection between tragedy and the transformation of religious ideas about the dead in the Reformation. (3) Dennis Kay, in Melodious Tears, argues that many literary and religious forms of discourse were established as replacements for the Requiem Mass: "The culture of pre-Reformation Europe has been characterized as 'a cult of the living in the service of the dead.' At the simplest level, the sheer number (in excess of two thousand) of chantries in England, and the evidence from wills, testifies to the immense importance attached to praying for the repose of the souls of the deceased. With the Reformation, everything changed." (4) The critical understanding of the centrality of this change demands inquiry into the ambivalence that Brooke first articulated. We must reexamine the relationship of history and tragedy in Richard III in the light of a change in the general and communal response to the dead because that response is a concern essential to both history and tragedy.

Richard III has always been a notoriously difficult play to categorize. Part of the problem is specific to the story of Richard itself and precedes Shakespeare's adaptation. Not only do the previous history dramas such as Thomas Legge's Richardus Tertius and the anonymous True Tragedy of Richard III identify his story as a tragedy, but so also do Hall's Chronicle and the account added in 1563 to The Mirror for Magistrates. (5) There is also the generic looseness of the stage, as Phyllis Racklin has noted:

   The distinction between history and tragedy was by no means
   clear.... [I] n the Renaissance as in antiquity, plays identified as
   tragedies frequently took their subjects from history. (Shakespeare
   himself is a good case in point: of the eleven plays designated as
   tragedies in the First Folio, all hut Romeo and Juliet and Othello
   have historical subjects.) (6)

Richard III is a case where the reverse is true; it bears the name of tragedy in the First Folios history section. (7) The problem is not merely formal or categorical in nature. The content of Richard III exists somewhere between history and tragedy. Rackin notes: "The movement in Richard III from historical chronicle to tragical history is also a movement into modernity.... As a dramatic genre, moreover, tragedy represented the wave of the future, while the vogue of the history play was remarkably short-lived, beginning in the 1580s and ending soon after the accession of James I." (8) Richard III was at the forefront of this transformation, equally preserving the tradition of the chronicle play and exploring the possibilities of tragic drama: it is history within tragedy and tragedy within history.

This double nature is present from the beginning of the drama and is particularly evident in the images of and references to the dead. In the obscurity of the first act, when Clarence's darkness is still mitigated by the expectation of release, his dream is on one level simply prophetic of his coming murder at his brother's hands, yet on another it contains the foreboding and terror of the play's vision of mortality:

   What sights of ugly death within my eyes! … 
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