Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Eating Richard II

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Eating Richard II

Article excerpt

IN RICHARD II SHAKESPEARE is as unsystematic in his use of history as he is systematic in his use of poetic imagery and sustained metaphor. Students of the play have been efficient in developing critical vocabularies that express the latter fact and obscure the former. Madeline Doran noted in 1942 that Richard's character "is exhibited directly. He is a poet and he speaks poetically"; the play's images "tend to be direct or explicit, complete, correspondent, point by point to the idea symbolized, and separate from one another" (113). (1) The play's critical and theatrical traditions have borne Doran's argument out. (2) The feeling of completeness and coherence a reader or spectator gets from the poetry of Richard II is probably what makes it seem trivial, or at least inconsiderate, to point out the way in which virtually everything in this history play--from its elision of the majority of Richard's reign, (3) to its imagining of Woodstock, (4) to its representation of Richard's queen, (5) to its hyperbolically poetical representation of Richard himself--is a historical travesty. (6) In this play we get almost no sense of the Richard we find in Holinshed, and much less of the Richard we find in modern historical scholarship, such as Anthony Steel's or Nigel Saul's biographies of the king. Even putting factual and chronological details aside, Shakespeare gives us a Richard who is always, or can always be, solely to blame for his troubles--not a Richard who was repeatedly hemmed in by competing factions from the moment, in his early youth, of his father's untimely death; nor a Richard whose work in maintaining England's status as a European power was continually hampered by the fallout from the fiscal and military crises of the end of Edward III's reign; nor a Richard who was throughout much of his reign capable of cultivating strong internal political alliances (notably, in contrast to Shakespeare's play, with Gaunt) and of imagining and carrying out ambitious foreign policy aims (notably in his first Irish campaign). (7)

In the following pages I attempt, in three movements, to create a critical vocabulary for the study of Shakespeare's history plays and Holinshed's Chronicles that does justice to Shakespeare's disregard for written historical fact, and that goes beyond construing the relationship between Shakespeare and Holinshed as one of dependence, where Shakespeare's "departures" from his "sources" ultimately reinscribe the importance of those sources. In the first movement, which is as much the demonstration of a critical method for analysis of historical drama as it is an argument about Richard II, I argue that Shakespeare's thinking about Richard II and his use of Holinshed are imprecise: (8) understanding, or at least imagining, Shakespeare's work in this way makes it possible to see how he and Holinshed are working with the same material for purposes that are not merely entirely different, but largely unrelated. I begin by locating the traces of some of Shakespeare's imprecise, impressionistic thinking in some labored, underdeveloped poetic images that seem to me occasionally to jut out awkwardly in this densely patterned, highly symmetrical play. The palimpsestic metaphorical pattern I focus on is one that has largely gone unnoticed as such in the prolific imagery-criticism of Richard II: a pattern of images involving food and eating. I argue that these undeveloped, or awkwardly introduced, or clumsily artificial images are symptomatic of a form of compression analogous to that which results from the deliberate effacement of historical narrative for the sake of theatrical effect. In the images of food and eating that occur only erratically throughout the play, we see Shakespeare attempting, not always quite successfully or elegantly, to compress what he sees-and what we might see--as essential material from an antecedent text into a poetic shorthand, conferring upon it the force and energy of lyric.

In the essay's second movement, I address specifically some critical language that is conventionally brought to bear on discussions of Shakespeare's use of antecedent historical writings. …

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