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.
Michael Egan

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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)

  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 acumen" (35).

  5. 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.)

  6. 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!"

  7. 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).