Charles R. Forker, ed. Richard II, 1780-1920. London: Athlone, 1998. xviii+593pp. ISBN 0 4858 1002 6
Southern Methodist University
Rosendale, Timothy. Review of Richard II, 1780-1920. Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 8.1-9<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-3/revrosen.html>.
A number of years ago,
I put together a course on Shakespearean criticism that included a unit
on Richard II and the history of criticism. This play, I reasoned,
would be a good choice, not only because of the famously implied commentaries
on it produced early on by Queen Elizabeth, the Essex conspirators, and
Nahum Tate (who happened to agree, more or less, on its political import),
but also because the play’s complexity and profound ambivalence tend to
generate widely varied and often externally-determined readings. Assembling
a set of pre-1900 readings for this unit, though, was something of a chore:
even with the help of Josephine Roberts’ annotated bibliography, it took
a long day and more to track down, read, evaluate, and select a semi-coherent
set of pieces.
This task would have
been much easier and more pleasant had I had access to Charles Forker’s
compilation, part of Athlone’s series “Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition”
(a series that now includes volumes on Coriolanus, King John, Measure
for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice).
This thickish book contains 435 pages of excerpted criticism dating from
1780 to 1920, from Capell and Malone to Creizenach and Marriott. Among its
eighty-two entries you will find Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb, Pater, Swinburne,
and Yeats, as well as Schlegel, Ulrici, Gervinus, Manzoni, and Verity. Within
its limits—more on which later—it is a remarkable resource, both useful
and inherently (sometimes surprisingly) interesting.
Forker’s lengthy introduction
is itself a rather fascinating survey of Richard II’s critical history.
After a strong start (in addition to its notorious political history, it
was frequently quoted in miscellanies, and was Shakespeare’s only play to
be printed three times in two years), the play was subjected to the indignities
of Tate’s and Theobald’s adaptations, indicating its descent into the hell
of neoclassical disapproval. There, for decades, its generic ambivalence,
structure, characterization, and linguistic exuberance were subjected to
withering criticism and “correction.” But after an editorial countercorrection
in the late eighteenth century, Romantic critics began the long and conflicted
process of reevaluating the play.
Here, in the period
this book documents, we can see the play’s vigorous critical life, and within
that, the occurrence and recurrence of questions both familiar and alien,
retrograde and visionary. How faithful is Shakespeare’s play to history,
and how much does that matter? To what degree is it topically implicated
in Elizabethan politics? How do we understand and evaluate the characters
of Richard and Bolingbroke, and which one are we supposed to ally ourselves
with interpretively, and why? What is the true structure of the play? What
do we make of its political and moral discourses? Is it suitable for the
Looming behind many
of these debates, and continuing well into the twentieth century, is the
ghost of neoclassicism, and the seemingly unkillable master question: Is
this a good play or a bad one, and how can we determine just how excellent
or awful it is? This tendency toward moral and aesthetic evaluation is,
of course, fundamental to the era’s criticism; it is also, of course, one
of its most alienating features to current critics who have abandoned (or
at least, in their writing, repressed or sublimated) this impulse. But behind
the curtain of such critical and editorial presumption, we can see not only
moments of piercing insight but also the shaping of our current critical
discourse. For instance, the nineteenth-century identification of a tetralogy
of epic nationalism paved the way for Tillyard and the “Tudor myth,” which
in turn proved such a productive punching-bag for subsequent New Historicists;
at the same time, these latter iconoclasts demonstrate a concern for historical
topicality that itself harks back to rather old arguments. Old neoclassical
debates over aesthetic unity found themselves recycled as conflicts between
New Critical coherence and later emphases on faultlines and heteroglossia.
As Forker observes, we “sometimes forget that our supposedly fresh insights
are frequently reinventions or reformulations of what in truth was perceived
by our forebears” (55).
Reading these critics,
then, is at once an alienating and a familiar experience, and both aspects
are illuminating. Their evaluativeness and positivism are sometimes offputting,
and may in the end teach us more about them and their time than about the
play. But as I often tell my students, though critical trends are periodically
discarded (or are they?), not all old critics should be; one can always,
always benefit from the insights of Johnson, Coleridge, Pater, and the like,
who read with a depth and sensitivity not often found among more up-to-date
critics. And so, alienation aside, there is a great deal to be learned from
what’s in this book, about Richard II, about the interests of the
period in question, and about the genealogy of our own critical discourse.
Traversing this book
from cover to cover is, I should say, something of a grind; to go through
the repeated rehashing of issues, retilling of familiar ground, luxuriant
redescription of structure and characters, can test one’s patience and level
of enthusiasm. To be fair, this is not the way most people will use the
book, nor perhaps the way it is intended to be used. But, in addition to
the benefits discussed above, it does sensitize one to the brighter flashes
of insight and even humour that enliven this survey. A few of the things
that stand out in retrospect: the striking and influential anti-performative
bias of Coleridge, who “never saw any of Shakespeare’s plays performed,
but with a degree of pain, disgust, and indignation” (97); Henry Hudson’s
prescient appreciation of the play’s ambivalent “equipoise” (238); Pater’s
eloquent meditation on the “irony of kingship” (298); Yeats’ lyrically compassionate
view of Richard, that “unripened Hamlet” (377); H.F.P. Battersby’s delightfully
arch review of Beerbohm Tree’s production of “King Richard the Secondary”
(“The flittings of [Richard’s] delicate fanciful mind Mr. Tree rendered
at times with a hard sonority, which suggested nothing less transient than
the Decalogue; while, when he lowered his voice, it was to touch not thought
but insanity” ). Perhaps most memorable of all is Swinburne’s wildly
exaggerated excoriation of the play, which is misinformed in many ways—but
his wicked attacks on the characterization of York (“an unintelligible and
a monstrous nullity…a living and drivelling picture of hysterical impotence”
’) and on Coleridge’s efforts to “justify the ways of York to man”
are too gleeful and fun to be missed.
Finally, a criticism
and a wish. The criticism has to do with Forker’s introduction, which, while
generally enlightening and excellent, at times strays from dispassionate
survey into polemic against current critical trends that he finds reductive
(he shows particular contempt for New Historicism and its tendency to “reduce
Shakespearian dramas to tracts on class-gender conflict or to some other
species of power relations” ). This is surely a valid point regarding
some recent criticism, but, if some polemic is unavoidable, perhaps his
recognition of the historical interconnectedness of critical practice might
work the other way as well, allowing that each age has its preoccupations
and its blind spots.
The wish has to do with the scope of the book. The depth of its focus makes it extremely useful for the superspecialist or the (very) curious scholar. But I’d like to see a book that surveys less exhaustively but more broadly—say from 1600 to 2000. Such a book would demonstrate what Forker is forced to simply describe about seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth-century views of Richard II, and would thus make the outlines of the play’s entire critical history visible and available in one volume; in so doing, it would likely also be more accessible to more people. But this is not really a criticism of the book in question, which does what it sets out to do very well, and makes a valuable contribution in so doing.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).