Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge, eds. Thomas of Woodstock or Richard the Second, Part One. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2002. 215pp. ISBN 0 7190 1563.
Egan, Michael. "Review of Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge, eds. Thomas of Woodstock or Richard the Second, Part One." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): 9.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-2/eganwood.html>.
Thomas of Woodstock or Richard the Second, Part One is an anonymous and untitled Elizabethan manuscript play of some 2989 lines, missing a front cover, list of dramatis personae and an unknown number of final pages. This new edition reconsiders many of the textual and critical issues that have accumulated in the nearly 60 years since A.P. Rossiter's Woodstock, a Moral History (1946), still the standard version.
It is impossible to come away from the text without an overwhelming sense of Shakespeare's presence--one way or another. Either he wrote it or knew it extraordinarily well, stealing scenes, characters and lines with ruthless abandon. Richard II and 2 Henry VI offer particularly close analogies, though in fact there is not a single work in the canon (including the long poems and sonnets) which does not contain striking parallels and/or echoes.
Possibly for these reasons the editors all but identify Shakespeare as
the author, noting that "intriguingly" he "is perhaps the
one known dramatist in the 1590s whose dramatic style most closely resembles
that of Thomas of Woodstock." And while they quickly add that
"any attempt at identification must remain conjectural" (4), firmly
ascribing the play on its title page to "Anon.", they do adumbrate
a series of stylistic criteria matching it to its most likely originator.
These include the juxtaposing of court and rural life; the sophistication
of its treatment of history; 'England' as a major character; assurance in
dramatic technique; persuasive female figures; what they call
"Nimble's malapropisms, anticipating Costard, Dogberry and Mrs. Quickly,"
(a misprision of their own: Nimble never misspeaks, though Bailiff Ignorance
typically does, and is often compared to Dogberry, etc.); the writer's
skill in manipulating his audience; and the way that Woodstock's character
anticipates Richard II' s John of Gaunt. (4)
They also take the level of critical analysis up a notch, showing that
the play is much more than the crude "moral history" of Rossiter's
over-simplified reading. Woodstock in their view is not just a symbolic
figure of ethical and political rectitude but a persuasive and contradictory
character, a real man "continually at war with himself" (35).
Even the piously virtuous Queen Anne conveys "a sense of insecurity
and even embarrassment" at her first meeting with the peers, while
the King too is not merely a political villain destined for the inevitable
chop of history. His grief at the death of first his wife and then of his
lover Green, and his repentance for Woodstock's treatment, "draw the
audience's sympathy towards his personal suffering if not his political
Corbin and Sedge are also impressed by the drama's "skill in narrative
construction," which they contrast with the "repetitive"
and "broken-backed" architecture of Marlowe's Edward II
(9). They note the subtle comprehensiveness of its clothing imagery,
both linguistic and visual, which is used to emphasize the contrast between
"misrule, ungoverned appetite and intemperate will," and "established
order, compassion and communal responsibility" (26-7). The playwright's
ability to orchestrate dramatic tonal registers (from gravity to comedy
and thence to suspense and turmoil) is equalled only by the "inventive
flexibility" of his deft rhetorical capacities (30-2.)
Textually, the editors approach their task with resolution, altering the
manuscript as judgment and experience dictate. Despite some inaccuracies
and a few crude footnote plagiarisms from Rossiter and his predecessor W.P.
Frijlinck, they make at least two vital emendations that deserve to be permanently
included in all future editions--redraftings of III.i.58-65 and III.ii.60-6.
Almost equally valuable is their conscious retention of the subjunctive
in Richard's exit line at the climax of IV.iii, "My wounds are inward.
Inward burn my woe!," which Rossiter insensitively emended to the indicative,
"Inward burns my woe!"
Thomas of Woodstock: or King Richard the Second, Part One is a handy
new edition that fails to replace Rossiter because it has less to say, both
critically and in terms of scholarship. It flirts with the authorship question,
coming close but not quite crossing the line between convention and discovery
(or recovery). Some of its textual emendations are of permanent value, as
are several footnotes, but in the end it marks time only, moving the discussion
of key issues neither back nor forward.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).