Charles R. Forker, ed. Richard II, 1780-1920. London: Athlone, 1998. xviii+593pp. ISBN 0 4858 1002 6

Timothy Rosendale
Southern Methodist University

Rosendale, Timothy. Review of Richard II, 1780-1920. Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 8.1-9<URL:>.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 stage?

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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” [389]). 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” [396]’) and on Coleridge’s efforts to “justify the ways of York to man” are too gleeful and fun to be missed.

  8. 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” [48]). 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.

  9. 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.

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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).