Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Language of Treason in Richard II

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Language of Treason in Richard II

Article excerpt

I

POSTWAR CRITICISM of Richard II characteristically has addressed its portrayal of "the secularization of politics ... paralleled by the commercialization of the word."(1) The play is often perceived as describing the transition from a medieval political ethos to early modern conditions. In depicting the violent extinction of Plantagenet monarchy, Richard II also distinguishes the ascendancy of Lancastrian pragmatism, setting a "divinely sanctioned monarch against Machiavellian `new man' whose power resides exclusively in his own will."(2) In particular, the language of Richard II has been identified as expressing this shift from a world which assumes political values are divinely ordained, to one dominated by the functional pursuit and maintenance of power. In James Calderwood's influential account of "the fall of speech," the play represents "the surrender of a sacramental language to a utilitarian one in which the relation between words and things is arbitrary, unsure and ephemeral."(3)

However, increasingly telling questions have been raised concerning the adequacy of this interpretation of the play and the kinds of political recognition it advances. Joseph A. Porter reminds us that there are a variety of idioms in Richard II, which qualify any reception of, and identification with, the monarch's: "What falls after all, is only Richard's speech--his conception of language--not as he [Calderwood] would have it, `Speech' itself."(4) More recent criticism has been similarly attentive to the range and ambivalence of Richard II, as well as its sympathy for the language and values of those who challenge the integrity of Richard's "sacramental" speech and bring about his deposition. The play's notable utility for the Essex rebels has inflected historicist readings of its theatricality as demystifying, subverting dominant conceptions of political obedience.(5) From this perspective, Richard II is held to envision the "medieval past not as a lost world of symbolic unity but as the scene of a continual struggle between aristocratic and constitutional liberties and a monarchy that kept trying to appropriate public resources for its private interests."(6) The stress on parliament as the context for the deposition scene, as well as its striking absence from the three Elizabethan quartos of the play, has been interpreted by Cyndia Susan Clegg, as endorsing "an authority over the monarch far more consonant with resistance theory than with the government's understanding of parliamentary authority."(7)

Such distinct critical emphases are expressive of the ambivalence created by the play's opposing perspectives, and these can be analyzed in terms of their shared concern with defining treason. Any political reading of Richard II involves an evaluation of treachery, emphasizing either Richard's or Bolingbroke's betrayal of fundamental obligations; the play foregrounds this issue. In Richard II, "treason" and cognate words appear with greater frequency than in any other Shakespeare play, and its principal conflict might well be characterized as a struggle over the authority to define the offense.(8) In a play peculiarly devoid of realized action, its language is dominated either by the attribution or the evasion of the stigma of treachery; virtually every significant dramatic episode is constructed around purported breaches of trust, and most characters are depicted as implicated in or, at the very least, reacting to such violations. Specifically, formal accusations of treason provide an induction into the distinct regimes presided over by Richard and Bolingbroke, and the adjudication of these helps decipher their respective strategies of governance, as well as the forms of opposition they arouse. The drama culminates, of course, with the defining actions of high treason: the deposition and assassination of a monarch.

What is distinctive to Richard II is not simply the centrality of treachery to its political exchanges, but the inquisitiveness with which competing formulations of the offense are considered. …

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