“I Live With Bread Like You”: Forms of Inclusion
in Richard II
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Landau, Aaron. "'I Live With Bread Like
You': Forms of Inclusion in Richard II". Early Modern Literary
Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 3.1-23 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/richard.htm>.
- When it comes to Shakespeare, Richard Helgerson’s very fine discussion of
the English history play and its contribution to the early modern project
of forging English nationhood ends up having a fairly familiar ring to it:
in comparison with the history plays written for the companies under Henslowe’s
control, and increasingly over the decade of the 1590s, Shakespeare’s histories
grow more exclusive and elitist; they concentrate chiefly on upper-class figures
and leave out popular characters, perspectives, and traditions; ideologically,
they are “concerned above all with the consolidation and maintenance of royal
power” (1). In a recent critique of this position, Jean
Howard has taken exception, not so much to Helgerson’s vision of Shakespeare
as a gentrified author (although she does suggest in passing that Helgerson
largely overstates Shakespeare’s elitism and conservatism), but most fundamentally
to Helgerson’s vision of the so-called Henslowe dramatists as inclusive and
progressive: their histories, she argues, are not more inclusive than Shakespeare’s;
they are as exclusive, only in different ways (2).
- In this paper I should like to propose an alternative to both these assessments,
one that will hopefully be more case-sensitive, so to speak, to the subtle,
intricate, and roundabout ways in which popular voices and perspectives form
part of Shakespeare’s historical imagination. Instead of discussing here the
entire body of the histories, a task that is beyond the scope of this paper,
I will choose one play, Richard II, that is concerned almost entirely
with dynastic struggles within the aristocracy and leaves very little room
for actual representations of non-aristocratic characters. By showing that
even this play, ostensibly the most exclusive and elitist in the genre, is
substantially more inclusive and popular than it might at first appear, I
would like to suggest that Shakespeare’s take on English history is as a rule
popular and inclusive, although the particular forms of inclusion differ depending
on changing conditions and circumstances (3). If in the
beginning of the decade, in 2 Henry VI (c.1590-2), Shakespeare
could still afford to stage popular revolt directly and to give explicit,
if largely unfavorable, expression to various popular claims, the civic disturbances
that shook London during the summer of 1592 and, even more severely and protractedly,
during 1595-6 would have induced him to incorporate popular perspectives within
Richard II in less explicit, if arguably more radical, ways (4).
Thus, the specter of popular revolt keeps haunting Richard II, notwithstanding
the strictly aristocratic aspect of its many intrigues and conspiracies.
When the Welsh Captain informs Salisbury that his forces have fled, he slips
from what is supposed to suggest a typically Welsh brand of mysticism and
superstition to a more straightforward analysis of class conflict and social
Rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap,
Similarly, when Scroope informs Richard of the rebellion against him, he moves
from a very brief mention of Bullingbrook’s own agency, somewhat depersonalized
in terms of his overflowing rage which covers the land with steel, into a
detailed description of a general, popular uprising:
The one in fear to lose what they enjoy,
The other to enjoy by rage and war.
These signs forerun the death of fall of kings.
Whitebeards have armed their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty, boys with women’s voices
Strive to speak big, and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown.
Thy very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
Of double-fatal yew against thy state.
Yea, distaff women manage rusty bills
Against thy seat. Both young and old rebel
And all goes worse than I have power to tell.
- For spectators watching this play in 1595, these words would have suggested,
albeit hyperbolically, the reality of mounting social unrest and rising popular
protest outside the theaters. These were years of severe economic and social
crisis known by historians as the “crisis of the 1590s”. The decade saw a
disastrous series of harvest failures (1593-7) followed by soaring food prices,
general economic depression, widespread poverty, and high mortality rate from
starvation and plague. Among the violent reactions to the recession were numerous
food, enclosure, and anti-alien riots conducted by apprentices, wage-laborers,
unemployed soldiers, and other discontented members of London’s working classes
(6). The years 1595-6 were particularly turbulent. Lower-class
hostility towards the city authorities had been bottling up since early June
1595 (7). Later that month, on various occasions, apprentices
and youths confiscated stocks of butter and fish supplies that were sold at
exorbitant prices in order to sell them at more reasonable rates (8).
The Star Chamber’s decision to sentence the apprentices involved in these
incidents to be flogged and pilloried, instead of serving as a deterrent,
had only caused the situation to escalate. When the apprentices’ sentence
was known, no fewer than 1,800 apprentices, convoyed by discharged soldiers,
demolished the pillories in Cheapside and Leadenhall and proceeded to build
up gallows next to the house of the Lord Mayor in a gesture of defiance and
threat. Two days later, a crowd of apprentices gathered at Tower Hill and
proclaimed their intention to dispossess the wealthy inhabitants of the city
and to win over political control from the governors. This last incident prompted
a series of harsh repressive measures such as the enforcement of a state of
martial law, intensive police action to track down protestors, and eventually
the arrest and execution, by hanging, drawing, and quartering, of five of
the demonstrators on July 24 (9). According to the historians
Roger Manning and Peter Clark, the disorders of 1595-6 were among the most
serious to threaten London up until the Civil War (10).
- This climate of increasing social unrest and escalating class conflict,
invoked in the aforementioned references to a general revolt, permeates Richard
II in a variety of other ways as well. The nominally upper-class character
of Bullingbrook, for example, occasionally echoes lower-class grievances,
most notably, when he re-articulates common apprentice anxieties about the
diminishing prospects, given the severe economic recession, of apprentices
ever finishing their terms and becoming independent members of their livery
companies. When sentenced to exile by Richard, Bullingbrook protests:
Must I not serve a long apprenticehood
To foreign passages, and in the end,
Having my freedom, boast of nothing else
But that I was a journeyman to grief?
- A few lines later Bullingbrook again gives a particularly lower-class twist
to his father’s idealizing depiction of his exile in terms of a highly refined,
aristocratic journey. Gaunt urges his son to think of the birds as musicians
and to conceive of the grass as the carpeted floor of the royal chamber; to
imagine the flowers as fair ladies and his own steps as “no more than a delightful
measure or a dance” (1.3.281-90) (12). Bullingbrook’s
rhetoric, by contrast, puts a suggestively plebeian stress on the inexorable
nature of material and bodily deprivation when he flatly dismisses his father’s
sentimental call for patience and resignation with a more realistic insistence
on the relentlessness of hunger and cold:
Oh, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By rare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?
- David Norbrook perceptively notes in this episode a pronounced shift from
“an exclusively aristocratic to a generally national” stance
(13), a shift that culminates in Bullingbrook’s concluding exclamation:
Then England’s ground farewell, sweet soil adieu,
It is interesting to notice -- especially in view of Helgerson’s claim that
in Shakespeare the construction of English nationhood is largely and increasingly
exclusive and gentrified -- that in this scene Englishness is, by contrast,
very nearly predicated on inclusion: to be ”a true born Englishman” consists
of being, or at least knowing what it means to be, also an apprentice, a journeyman,
a starveling, a homeless vagrant. The use of “true-born” rather than “free-born”
is revealing, since in early modern England the words “free-born” referred
principally to the nobly born, or at the most to the propertied, whereas the
epithet “true-born” denoted Englishness at large (14).
Norbrook associates this all-inclusive sense of nationalism, which stands
out as rather anachronistic in the play’s medieval setting, with the celebration,
on the part of Essexians among the audience, of a kind of aristocratic constitutionalism
(as opposed to royal absolutism) that was advertised as analogous to the national
and common good (15). But lower-class spectators in the
audience, either unfamiliar with or indifferent towards court factionalism,
would have applauded the very inclusion of their own kind of popular discontent
in Bullingbrook’s defiant sense of nationalism. Bullingbrook is continuously
associated with the popular segments of the population in the course of the
play: he is reported to court “the common people” (1.4.24); to throw away
reverence on slaves and woo poor craftsmen (1.4.27-8); to lift his bonnet
to an oysterwench (1.4.31); to be embraced by a throng of “draymen” (1.4.33);
and finally to receive ample support from the multitude on his triumphant
entry to London (5.2.5-40). His nationalist stance is thus also to a large
extent a provocatively popular one, in addition to, or irrespective of, the
“original” political intention behind such populism (16).
My mother and my nurse that bears me yet.
Where’er I wander, boast of this I can,
Though banished, yet a true born Englishman.
- The “original” intention behind early modern drama is in any case particularly
difficult to ascertain and delimit given, among other things, the collective,
dynamic, and extremely versatile aspects of early modern performances. One
of the working principles of this paper is an intent to look beyond intentionality
as a unified and unifying factor, to deliberately do away with the idea of
the text as a well-wrought urn with immanent properties, and to ponder instead
what bits and pieces of it might have meant to plebeian spectators under specific
historical circumstances (17). In the case of Richard
II, the popular is indelibly there, not only in the actual persons of
players and spectators, or the location and status of the theater, but also,
quite audibly, at the level of the text itself; it constantly lurks behind
the high-sounding phrases of aristocratic figures, just waiting to be seized
upon and brought to full effect at the right moment by an apt actor and a
ready audience. Thus, to go back to the text, even a glaringly elitist and
exclusive conception of England as that of Gaunt, who relates to it as a “royal
throne of kings” and a “sceptered isle” (2.1.40) (18),
soon develops into an embittered, anxious complaint against what is quite
radically denounced as the country’s disgraceful commodification, its disastrous
fall from medieval grace to the crass realities of a market-oriented economy.
The supposedly Edenic, heroic, and chivalrous England of the feudal past,
the idealized England which Gaunt nostalgically conjures up in the first part
of his speech, is at present shamefully reduced, so he protests, to no more
than a tradable property, a piece of land that one cannot even denominate
as “dear” without having instantly to clarify that the word is meant in a
moral, not a financial, sense:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
The marked emphasis on the “dearness” of the land should have suggested to
spectators the inflationary waves of the 1590s as well as the harshness of
the dearth, both of which were major causes for social unrest in the period
(19). The complaint about the country’s having been “leased
out . . . like to a tenement” is an allusion to the gradual changeover
from freehold and copyhold (i.e., long-term and relatively secure forms of
land tenure) to unprotected and temporary leasehold (20).
This was part of an overall transition from a more traditional economy based
on customary rights to land and other natural resources to an emergent capitalist
economy driven increasingly by competition and the overriding pursuit of profit.
These socioeconomic changes were the cause of widespread anxiety, in city
and country alike. They had devastating effects on the lower orders of society
and were regarded by a wide array of writers as responsible for such ills
as famine, unemployment, vagrancy, poverty, as well as social disintegration
and moral degeneration at large (21). Gaunt’s jeering
commentary on how England “is now bound in . . . with inky
blots and parchment bonds” characteristically targets the entire administrative-legal
apparatus that was instrumental in this transition; it suggests an hostility
towards the law similar to that which, according to Christopher Hill, characterized
the common people in their endeavor to defend their customary rights and liberties
against upper-class legislation and law enforcement (22).
Finally, the nationalistic ring to Gaunt’s lament about a once heroic England
that has “made a shameful conquest of itself” would invoke, on top of a general
sense of common English nationhood, also a distinctively lower-class variant
of chauvinist radicalism, so to speak. Consider, for example, the mixture
of radicalism, patriotism, and xenophobia with which Doll Williamson, the
carpenter’s militant wife in The Booke of Sir Thomas More (1593-5),
incites her fellow working-class men to rise against London’s rapacious and
well-to-do aliens: “I am ashamed that free borne Englishmen, hauing beatten
straungers within their owne boun[ds] should thus be brau’de and abusde by
them at home” (23). Doll’s suggestive use of “free-born”
would reinforce the inherent nobility or at least the heroic stature and political
agency of London laboring classes in a kind of a “mirror image” version of
Bullingbrook’s inclusive reference to himself as “true born”.
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds,
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
- This brings us straight to the next issue in our discussion: women and
their particular contribution to the inclusive social vision of Richard
II. It is important to consider, in this respect, Jean Howard and Phyllis
Rackin’s general thesis concerning the representation of women in Shakespeare’s
histories, a thesis that might be regarded as the gender-oriented counterpart
of Helgerson’s class-based approach. In Engendering a Nation, Howard
and Rackin argue, along lines similar to those of Helgerson, albeit from a
strictly feminist perspective, that over the decade of the 1590s Shakespeare’s
history plays grow more restrictive and exclusive in the way they represent
women. Whereas in the first tetralogy women are granted considerable power
as warriors and politicians, in the second tetralogy there are “fewer female
characters; they have less time on stage and less to say when they get there.
Moreover, virtually all the women we see in these plays are enclosed in domestic
settings and confined to domestic roles” (24). To the
extent that they are at all allowed to speak and act, women do so only in
their capacity as wives, widows, and mothers. This reduction of women to their
domestic and familial roles marks, according to Howard and Rackin, a “movement
into modernity, the division of labor and the cultural restrictions that accompanied
the production of the household as a private place, separated from the public
arenas of economic and political endeavor” (25).
- The women in Richard II, although admittedly few -- even if not substantially
fewer than women in other plays by Shakespeare -- have nonetheless an important
role to play in making Richard II more inclusive than it may, prima
facie, seem to be the case. Thus, even such a flagrant instance of
upper-class bias as the one in which the Duchess of Gloucester exempts the
aristocracy, the aristocracy alone, from the obligation to acquiesce to unjust
political authority -- even this glaring instance of patrician one-sidedness
takes on a surprisingly radical edge when the overall social and cultural
conditions of the utterance, not least the gender of the speaker, enter into
consideration. The Duchess, urging Gaunt to avenge her husband’s murder, debunks
the notion of patience -- the only proper response to oppression according
to contemporary orthodoxy -- as both disgraceful and dangerous, binding, if
at all, only for the baser sort of people:
Call it patience, Gaunt. It is despair.
One wonders what the actual effect of these words might have been, words that
in theory were delivered confidentially to Gaunt in an aristocratic tête-à-tête
but in practice were “overheard” by an audience which to a significant degree
comprised of “mean men and women”. Could not these words, when spoken by a
common actor who might occasionally, in performance, step out of role and
engage, avant la lettre, middle- and lower-class spectators, also highlight
the demeaning and deceptive aspects of political conformity, perhaps even
incite non-aristocratic spectators to adopt the less compliant approach of
their social betters?
In suffering thus thy brother to be slaughtered
Thou showest the naked pathway to thy life,
Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee.
That which in mean men we entitle patience
Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts.
What shall I say? To safeguard thine own life
The best way is to venge my Gloucester’s death
- We do know that history plays were often regarded by contemporaries as capable
of inspiring playgoers to imitate the momentous action taking place on stage.
In 1594 Thomas Nashe suggested so much when he famously praised English history
plays for exhuming “our forefathers’ valiant acts” from “worm-eaten books”
and making them available to mass audiences in an act of “reproof to these
degenerate effeminate days of ours” (26). In 1595, the
turbulent year in which Richard II was composed, a group of London’s
aldermen complained to the privy council that plays “are so set forth as that
they move wholly to imitation and not to the avoiding of those vices which
they represent, which we verily think to be the chief cause. . . of the late
stir and mutinous attempt of those few apprentices and other servants, who
we doubt not drew their infection from these and like places” (27).
In An Apology for Actors (1612),Thomas Heywood fully acknowledged the
theater’s capacity to inspire imitation in ordinary spectators but tried to
minimize the potential subversiveness of such capacity by emphasizing its
beneficial, patriotic uses:
To turne to our domesticke hystories, what English blood seeing
the person of any bold English man presented and doth not hugge his fame,
and hunnye at his valor, pursuing him in his enterprise with his best wishes,
and as beeing wrapt in contemplation, offers to him in his hart all prosperous
performance, as if the Personator were the man Personated, so bewitching
a thing is lively and well spirited action, that it hath power to new mold
the harts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and
notable attempt. What coward to see his contryman valiant would not bee
ashamed of his owne cowardice? (28)
Realizing, however, that imitation could also have a radical, destabilizing
edge, Heywood insists, later on in the Apology, that the “true use”
of plays is to “teach the subiects obedience to their king, to shew the people
the vntimely ends of such as haue moued tumults, commotions, and insurrections,
to present them with the flourishing estate of such as liue in obedience,
exhorting them to allegeance, dehorting them from all trayterous and fellonious
- But if there is something that Richard II, for one, shows most vividly
it is, on the contrary, the dire consequences of obedience and the considerable
benefits, if not the very urgency, of rebellion. In a climate of mounting
social unrest, with the rich and the powerful popularly portrayed as murderous
and predatory and their economic policies often denounced as a direct and
deliberate attempt against the lives of the poor, this entire episode would
have served to articulate, not only the anti-absolutist sentiments of the
aristocracy, but also a growing apprehension among the lower-classes that
a patient endurance of injustice is dangerous, self-defeating, and might well
prove fatal (30).
- Most importantly perhaps for our purpose here, the Duchess’s destabilizing
call for political action is intimately connected with her being, aside from
an aristocrat, also a disempowered female, a wronged and defenseless widow,
with everything that this status implied, culturally and socially. In scripture,
the afflicted widow was a stock figure of socioeconomic vulnerability, a very
synonym for want and poverty (31). As such the image was
frequently used in early modern denunciations of social injustice, for example,
in John Ball’s sermon in The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1590-3)
where the oppressed widow occupies a central place in the priest’s listing
of present-day social iniquities:
Now tis come to a wofull passe,
The Widdow that hath but a pan of brasse,
And scarce a house to hide her head,
Sometimes no penny to buy her bread,
Must pay her Landlord many a groat,
Or twil be puld our of her throat.
- In general, when it comes to early modern women, aspects of gender and class
tend considerably to overlap, since women, however privileged, were still
-- qua women -- part of a largely underprivileged female “fourth estate”,
so to speak. As such, they were readily associated en masse with social
marginality and discontent. In a 1596 letter to Lord Burghley, for example,
in which Edward Hext, justice of peace at Somerset, expressed alarm at the
rapid increase of rogues and vagabonds, Hext lumps together “the simple citizens
and women” as especially sympathetic towards the homeless, whom he regards
as a major source of sedition against the rich by “continually buzzing into
[the] ears [of the lower-classes] that the rich men have gotten all into their
hands and will starve the poor” (32). As Natalie Zemon
Davis had shown a while ago -- and Richard Wilson has recently reminded us
-- the association of women and lower-class militancy dates back to the distant
medieval past when “Maid Marion had queened over rebellious May games long
before Robin Hood joined her in the fifteenth century” (33).
In the early modern period, “enclosure riots frequently took the form of masked
night-time attacks by bearded ‘ladies’,” that is, men disguising themselves
as women, since, as John Walter suggests, women were not considered punishable
by law (34). We have already seen how the very condition
of the Duchess as a widow in distress might have suggested to contemporary
audiences specifically socioeconomic forms of oppression far and beyond her
aristocratic mien. Her explicit call for active disobedience, notwithstanding
her own eventual dependency and helplessness, would have similarly invoked
the kind of radical female militancy that informs, for example, the character
of Doll Williamson in Sir Thomas More. This heavily censored anti-alien
play, which Shakespeare himself eventually helped to revise, shows Doll upbraiding
her husband for his excessive docility (1.28-9) and then inciting other working-class
men who likewise feel “curbd by dutie and obedience” (1.42) to defend themselves
against the aliens with a provocative exhortation: “if you men durst not vndertake
it before God we women” will (1.71) (35).
- There is no such sense of agency, however, in the case of the Duchess: once
her petition to Gaunt is declined, she does not seem to have much choice but
to go back home, grieve, and die. But the subversive potential of her initial
posture, the fact that one would expect a figure like her to go on ranting,
and that her provocative role is somehow cut short -- all these are insinuated
in her own statement: “I take my leave before I have begun” (1.2.60). If the
Duchess takes her leave at this point, the rest of the play with its numerous
instances of active resistance to royal authority actually ratifies and puts
into effect her initial position; in that sense she never really leaves stage.
To go back to the thesis of Howard and Rackin, the Duchess’s restrictive association
with family and domesticity does not imply her effective separation from the
public sphere. On the contrary, her subject position as a bereaved wife actually
allows her, as we have seen, a uniquely demystifying insight into the concrete,
pragmatic workings of politics. Her superior political acumen, superior by
far to that of Gaunt, for she anticipates with startling accuracy the dangers
lurking in his acquiescence, is inseparable from her own first-hand experience
of personal injury.
- In general, the play’s insistence, in contradistinction with official Tudor
doctrine, that the imperfections of the actual person of the monarch (his
body natural) are not purged by the impersonal office of kingship (his body
politic) but, on the contrary, that these imperfections fatally contaminate
it -- this overall insistence would seem to vindicate and reinforce an embodied
and private understanding of politics, one that would qualify as more “female”
than “male” by Howard and Rackin’s standards (36). In
other words, the conscription of women to the private sphere of body, home,
and family, which for Howard and Rackin marks their exclusion from politics
in the histories, turns out to be, in Richard II, yet another form
of inclusion, for the politics of body and family -- the politics, in other
words, of narrow private interests -- turns out to be, in this play, the only
politics there is.
- I shall not discuss here in great detail the roles of the queen and the
Duchess of York, since their particular contribution in this respect does
not consist precisely of incorporating elements of popular protest into the
play. But I should like to point out that they too offer highly gendered interventions
in history that manage to override and undermine, in a variety of different
ways, the play’s homogenizing and elitist aspects. In the case of the Duchess,
her pleading for the life of her son, Aumerle, serves to mix the “high” genre
of history with the “low” genre of domestic drama as well as to subject official
absolutist claims to parody and farce: the king may indeed prove to be “A
god on earth” (5.3.135), as the Duchess finally affirms that he is, but only
on condition that he does exactly as told by his aunt, not just pardoning
her son, but repeating the pardon twice. In the case of the queen, her character
seems to change considerably depending on whom she talks to. When talking
to Bushy and Green early on in the play, she exhibits a remarkable degree
of intuition; her intimate premonition of an impending disaster allows her
to see through the “public” lies of her courtiers and even to name these professional
liars for what they are: flatterers and parasites (2.2.69-70). Interestingly,
this superior foresight, grounded in an unfathomable sense of grief that is
purely internal, a melancholy that is all her own, is also very carefully
gendered, riddled with sexual and natal puns; it culminates in the queen’s
description of herself as “a gasping new-delivered mother” who has “woe to
woe, sorrow to sorrow joined” (2.2.65-6). The queen’s symptomatic confusion
of cause and effect, assuming that her grief has somehow brought about --
“begot” -- the actual reasons for it in reality, is of course not something
that court politicians like Green and Bushy, who lie for a living, would care
to point out. But it is certainly something that gardeners, who work physically
for a living, can bring into sharp relief. Thus, the same queen, whose self-absorption
had made to look quite dignified and true to herself in the company of courtiers,
appears to be rather hysterical and noticeably out of touch with reality in
the company of working-class people.
- This brings us to the garden scene, one of the very few occasions in the
play on which lower-class characters are allowed to speak directly. That this
happens in such a short and marginal scene is admittedly not much. But what
a scene this is, for all its shortness! Usually in Shakespeare, whenever commoners
are allowed to speak about politics, there is at least some degree of ridicule
and clowning involved. Not here. The ridicule, it seems, had been reserved
for the high-sounding proclamations of divine right monarchy and the many
hyperbolic oaths of patrician figures, all of which are debunked, one after
the other, by the actual turn of events. The gardeners’ political commentaries,
by contrast, are not just accurate in concrete terms, but also, despite their
extensive use of allegory, remarkably free of mystification. In part, the
resort to allegory can be attributed to the gardeners’ concern about the (very
real) possibility of being overheard and the need therefore to speak in tropes.
But even so the allegorical language that they use does not serve to conceal
or obfuscate the political dimension of things; on the contrary, it helps
them to vividly illustrate what they have to say about politics with familiar,
down-to-earth parallels from their own professional lives. Most importantly
for our purposes, it invests their analysis with an extra layer of radical
signification, bringing social reality more fully into the discussion rather
than aestheticizing it away: the first gardener talks of the “oppression”
(3.4.31) that results from the fact that some fruits have excessive “prodigal
weight” (3.4.31) and the need therefore to give “some supportance” to the
weaker “bending twigs” (3.4.32); he also talks about the urgency in this respect
of cutting off, in the manner of executioners, “the heads of too-fast-growing
sprays / That look too lofty in our commonwealth” (3.4.34-5). “All must be
even in our government” (3.4.36), he concludes. All this is supposed to suggest
of course, not just horticultural know-how, but politics as well, and not
only court politics at that. The very same phrases that at some level refer
to aristocratic power struggles also invoke, at another level, typically plebeian
concerns: anxiety about growing inequality and diminishing social solidarity;
longing for some retributive and reparatory “reign of terror” for the rich,
so to speak; and even that most radical of working-class ideals according
to which everyone must be equal and everything must be equally distributed
in the laborers’ alternative commonwealth. Even after clarifying that the
comments he was just making refer specifically to intra-aristocratic affairs,
the gardener still uses terms that could easily be appropriated by plebeian
spectators to fit their own agenda: he talks, for example, about Richard’s
favorites as superfluous branches, deleterious to the whole arboreal economy
since they are “overproud in sap and blood / With too much riches” (3.4.59-60).
- By the same token, the second gardener’s reference to England’s decay in
terms of its ruined hedges (3.4.25) -- that is to say, his largely positive
view, by implication, of enclosure -- is really a double-edged sword; the
passage as a whole, even as it celebrates enclosure as coterminous with orderliness
and prosperity, serves to justify lower-class insubordination by putting the
blame for it, as much as for the deplorable state of the land at large, on
the reckless behavior of England’s ruling classes:
Why should we, in the compass of a pale,
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing as in a model our firm estate,
When our sea-wallèd garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?
- As James Siemon has perceptively pointed out, “the word enclosure,
like the hedges that embody it, functions during the period as an exemplary
instance of the heteroglossic -- an arena for the criss-crossing of disputed
and competing values and orientations” (37). While attitudes
towards enclosure were overwhelmingly negative, their complexity deserves
a close and nuanced attention. There is evidence to suggest, for example,
that some people “who were attacking enclosure or being defended against it
were often themselves engaged in acts of enclosure and in defending enclosures”
(38). The Levellers, for instance, named so after their
leveling of hedges and fences, were willing to accept enclosures that were
“only or chiefly for the benefit of the poor” (39). While
large-scale enclosures that caused massive depopulation and/or converted common
arable land into pasture were almost universally condemned, enclosure of arable
land for improvement, enclosure by agreement, or small-scale enclosure of
common land for private use by individual tenants, were widely accepted (40).
The disparked fields in the gardener’s description with their disordered knots,
unattended trees, and unwholesome weeds -- the visible signs, not of inefficient
communal cultivation, but of a complete and utter abandonment to nature --
these fields might have suggested to contemporary audiences, not necessarily
the process of putting private land to public use, but rather the conversion
of land from tillage to pasture. This most notorious form of early modern
agricultural change was frequently associated with such images of decivilization
as deserted villages, abandoned fields, and grazing herds of sheep roaming
undisturbed where people were once wont to live and work. For example, in
his 1587 edition of The Description of England William Harrison remarked
about enclosure: “Certes if it be not one curse of the Lord to have our country
converted in such sort, from the furniture of mankind into walks and shrouds
of wild beasts, I know not what is any”, adding the note, “The decay of the
people is the destruction of a kingdom” (41). In 1604,
Francis Trigge takes pain to clarify that he does not condemn past enclosure
of woodland but rather enclosures which “deca[y] tillage”, those “covetous
& new devised Inclosurs, which convert champian and fruitfull soiles,
being good arable ground, to pasture; casting halfe a cornefield to a sheepes
pasture. And so thereby diminish Gods people, and depopulate townes” (42).
In the mid-seventeenth century, in his Inclosure thrown open (London,
1650), Henry Halhead, concludes his extensive discussion of the pros and cons
of enclosure with his own retrospective vision of more than half a century
of enclosure in terms of general degeneration and decay:
Oh, that in all the Counties of this Kingdom, there might be
a View of all the Villages, and Towns, and Houses of Husbandry, that have
been decayed within these fifty-yeers, and the Desolation that hath come
by that means, by laying of Lands accustomed to Tillage, and now turned
into Pasture-grounds; whereby Idleness, one of the sins of Sodom,
is much increased, Men, women, and children, and their progenies be diminished,
and Husbandry, the greatest Commodity of the Land (for the furtherance of
Man) is decayed, Churches and Market-towns be brought to great ruine and
decay, Necessaries for mans use and furtherance be made scarce and dear.
- As it turns out, it is the destabilizing potential of the first gardener’s
speech -- his disruptive reluctance to work, his implicit justification of
lower class noncompliance, and finally his critique of socioeconomic and political
reality at large -- that alarms his colleague who orders him to “Hold [his]
peace” (3.4.48). The somber prospects of surveillance and discipline, the
almost “panoptic” feel to this entire scene, are further underscored by the
punning exclamation of the eavesdropping queen, “Oh, I am pressed to death
through want of speaking”(3.4.72). Pressing to death, the peine forte
et dure, was a well-known form of medieval interrogation still largely
in use during Elizabeth’s reign (44). What follows is,
correspondingly, an intense interrogation that serves to illustrate the kind
of trouble that potentially awaited “rude-tongued” men who dared talk of state,
be they gardeners or, by implication, playwrights:
Thou, old Adam’s likeness set to dress this garden,
How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news
What Eve, what serpent hath suggested thee
To make a second fall of cursèd man?
Why dost thou say King Richard is deposed?
Darest thou, thou little better thing than earth,
Divine his downfall? Say, where, when and how
Camest thou by this ill tidings? Speak, thou wretch!
- “[T]hou little better thing than earth” -- these words, which in effect
set apart the plebeian character of the gardener from the aristocratic figure
of the queen, are in a sense what the play as a whole has finally to say about
the monarch himself. And this is where another form of inclusion comes into
play. Richard Helgerson has emphasized the extent to which Shakespeare’s histories
suppress, increasingly over the decade of the 1590s, the popular heritage
of carnival and the jig. But if these are indeed absent from Richard II,
there is another equally popular tradition that is central to it: the morality
play. This popular and communal tradition, predating the commercialized phase
of professional drama, is vital for exposing Richard for what he really is:
not a godlike monarch but Everyman. The morality tradition is implicit in
the queen’s description, quoted above, of both the gardener and Richard as
Adam-like. But it is much more amply and explicitly present in a variety of
passages such as the one in which Richard expatiates about the death of kings
in characteristically allegorical terms:
For within the hollow crown
Or when he moralizes to his wife with similar doses of allegorical personification
and residual medievalism:
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene
To monarchise, be feared and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable, and humoured thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall and farewell king!
Learn, good soul,
Or, finally, in prison, when Richard sums up, for himself and for our own
sake, what this historical pageant, as well as the pageant of life in general,
is really all about:
To think our former state a happy dream,
From which awaked, the truth of what we are
Shows us but this. I am sworn brother, sweet,
To grim Necessity, and he and I
Will keep a league till death. Hie thee to France
And cloister thee in some religious house.
Our holy lives must win a new world’s crown
Which our profane hours here have thrown down.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contended. Sometimes am I king,
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king
But whate’er I be
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing.
- These are just a few manifestations of the morality tradition in Richard
II -- a tradition whose presence in the play is in fact so pervasive that
it can be said to counterbalance, undermine, and to a large extent overwrite
official absolutist rhetoric, if not secular conceptions of politics in general
(46). The morality tradition, which was part of a residual
cultural legacy shared by many in Shakespeare’s generation and a major source
of influence on early modern drama at that, was popular not only in the sense
of pertaining to the people, of forming an organic part of their lives by
being communal, collective, ritual, and local; it was also popular in the
sense of conveying an alternative people’s ideology, in displaying an oppositional
and more subversive attitude toward political and economic power, one which
had ultimately to do with its egalitarian religious premises, for example,
its tendency to concentrate on death, the great leveler, as an incorruptible
agent of divine justice “set not by gold, silver, nor riches, / Ne by pope,
emperor, king, duke, ne princes”
- Thus, when Richard urges his followers to cover their heads and not to mock
“flesh and blood / With solemn reverence” (3.2.172), his words, though intended
perhaps to provoke a scandalized sense of empathy, also call to mind the leveling
rhetoric of generations of religious radicals from John Ball, in the fourteenth
century, to Gerrard Winstanley, in the seventeenth century:
King Richard lives with bread, feels want, and tastes grief, “like you” --
these words also resonate with the specific suffering of ordinary spectators
in the 1590s, forcefully including lower-class subjects and their material
and economic deprivation in the play’s overall representation of English history.
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?
(1) Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England
(Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), 234. Helgerson’s revaluation of
the non-Shakespearean history play is important and salutary, but his overall
assessment of Shakespeare’s history plays as, by contrast, orthodox, elitist,
and exclusive in effect reproduces an inveterate critical tendency to separate
Shakespeare from “all the rest” as well as a conventional association of
Shakespeare with official ideology and power. This tendency is common both to
old historicist commentators of the Tillyard-Campbell vein and, mutatis
mutandis, to New Historicist commentators of Foucauldian and/or Althusserian
orientation. For a wonderfully comprehensive and astute survey and critique of
these critical tendencies, see Stephen Longstaffe, “What is the English History
Play and Why are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?,” Renaissance
Forum: An Electronic Journal of Early-Modern Literary and Historical
Studies 2.2 (1997): 35 pars. 27 October 2004
(2) Jean E. Howard, “Other Englands: The View from the Non-Shakespearean
History Play,” in Other Voices, Other Views: Expanding the Canon in English
Renaissance Studies, eds. Helen Ostovich, Mary V. Silcox, and Graham Roebuck
(Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1999), 137. Howard insists that Helgerson overstates
the inclusiveness and progressiveness of the social vision offered by the so-called
Henslowe dramatists and, using Heywood’s Edward IV as a case in point,
argues that this play, although not concerned primarily with the aristocracy,
is neither progressive nor inclusive; it caters to the taste of only a segment
of the population -- the middle-class members of London’s great city guilds --
subordinating women and criminalizing aliens and masterless men in a manner that
is as conservative and one-sided as is Shakespeare’s. Howard obviously has a point
when she insists that any symbolical representation of reality is necessarily
to some extent exclusive and partial, walling someone out even as it walls others
in. But notwithstanding this, I still believe, like Helgerson, that a representation
of English history that is not restricted to the affairs and perspectives of the
aristocracy (between two and five percent or so of the population in early modern
England) is significantly more inclusive than its strictly aristocratic counterpart,
even if admittedly not all-inclusive. With that being said, while I tend to agree
with Helgerson that there are marked differences, in this respect, between Shakespeare
and other dramatists, I do not think that Shakespeare’s histories should be viewed
as less inclusive and more orthodox on this account.
The choice of this one play is a purely ad hoc decision vis-a-vis
Helgerson’s and Howard’s arguments. In doing so I do not propose to insulate
Shakespeare from other dramatists or to argue for the uniqueness of this
particular play. On the contrary, in the face of the extensive comparative work
done by other scholars, I rather wish to play down the kind of principled,
qualitative differences which allegedly demarcate Shakespeare from other
playwrights and/or too sharply set off his later histories from earlier ones. I
think that Richard II is an especially useful choice, since, as Ralph
Berry puts it, “Of class interest in the usual sense, there is almost nothing in
Richard II. The action is all but confined to the aristocracy and their
followers, with a couple of modest interventions by the Gardeners and the
Groom.” (Shakespeare and Social Class [Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities
Press International, Inc.: 1988, 75]) Berry’s approach is quite common. Even the
compellingly maverick readings of David Norbrook and Graham Holderness tend to
locate the radical content of the play in the conflict between an absolutist
early modern monarch and a dissenting aristocracy keen on preserving its feudal
and/or parliamentary liberties, not so much on plebeian opposition as such. See
David Norbrook, “A Liberal Tongue”: Language and Rebellion in Richard II,”
in Shakespeare’s Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, eds. John
M. Mucciolo et al. (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), 37-51; and Graham
Holderness “Shakespeare’s History: Richard II,” Literature and History
7 (1981): 2-24.
Leaving aside for the moment the vexed question of whether 2
predated or was actually a response to the riots of the summer of 1592, the fact
is that Shakespeare did not again risk staging popular uprising as such until
well into James’s reign, in 1607-9, and that too in a Roman, not an English,
history play. Dates of performances are usually difficult to ascertain, but if
The Life and Death of Jack Straw was performed, as many assume, before
1592, the only other attempt to stage popular uprising in an English history
play after that date took place in Sir Thomas More (c.1593-5),
with quite discouraging consequences: the play probably did not get beyond the
manuscript stage due to the heavy censorship of its insurrection scenes. On
censorship and the history plays of the 1590s, see Janet Clare, “Art Made
Tongue-Tied by Authority”: Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatic Censorship
(1990. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999), 45-80; Richard Dutton, Mastering the
Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Iowa
City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1991), 74-116.
All quotations from the play are from the New Cambridge edition of King Richard II, ed.
Andrew Gurr (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984). The word “ruffians” does not
suggest of course low social class strictly and properly speaking. But the
juxtaposition of “ruffians” with “rich men” and perhaps also the carnivalesque
“leaping and dancing” would reinforce the sense of class tension in this
See especially Peter Clark, ed. The European Crisis of the 1590’s: Essays in
Comparative History (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985), esp. chaps. 1-3.
See also William C. Carroll, Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of
Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996), 34-5; Ian
Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London
(New York: Cambridge UP, 1991), 1-17; Roger Manning, Village Revolts: Social
Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Oxford: Oxford UP,
1988), 187-219; Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans
and Riot in the West of England 1586-1660 (Berkeley: Univ. of California
Press, 1980), esp. 17-21; Mark Thornton Burnett, “Apprentice Literature and the
‘Crisis’ of the 1590’s,” The Yearbook of English Studies 21 (1991):
For example, On June 6, a silkweaver about to be disciplined for criticizing
the Lord Mayor was set free by a throng of apprentices, and later that month an
attempt to imprison some servants for offending the magistrates again occasioned
apprentice rescue efforts. See Burnett, “Apprentice Literature”, 36.
Clark, “A Crisis Contained? The Condition of English Towns in the 1590’s,” in
The European Crisis of the 1590’s, 53.
Social unrest did not stop there, however: in October that year, in Cheapside,
apprentices confiscated a cart-load of starch from a patentee of the Queen, and
in July and September 1596 there were further eruptions of dissident libelling.
The events had strong repercussions outside London as well. In 1595, in Norwich,
a pamphlet spoke of 60,000 craftsmen in London and elsewhere prepared to revolt;
a year later, in Oxfordshire, artisan protesters contemplated attacking London,
expecting ample support of apprentices there. See Clark, 53-4; Burnett,
“Apprentice Literature”, 36; Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular
Voice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 41; Manning, 223; Sharp, 20-21.
Manning, 208; Clark, 54.
Only 40 percent or so of apprentices actually worked for an entire term. For
apprentices’ anxieties and grievances during the period, see Mark Thornton
Burnett, Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture:
Authority and Obedience (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), 16-17 and passim.
(12) As if to further underscore the heterogeneity implicit
in this scene, perhaps even to highlight the histrionic elements involved in fabricating
class itself, many of the references in Gaunt’s speech invoke the environment
of the theater as much as the realm of aristocratic privilege: the musicians;
the dancing measures; the royal chamber (“presence”) covered in rushes (“strewd”)
as was in fact the Elizabethan stage; the reference to exile as an imaginary flight
from a “devouring pestilence [that] hangs in our air / . . . to a fresher clime”
(1.3.283-4) -- all these would serve to refigure social class as an ambivalently
performed role, not an essential quality. The allusion to the plague is especially
intricate, since the plague was known to affect chiefly the lower-classes while
the possibility of fleeing from it to the countryside was a privilege reserved
to the well-to-do or in turn to professional rogues like touring players. For
the plague as endemic to the lower classes, see Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague
in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Routledge, 1985), 239-40.
(13) David Norbrook, 42.
See Christopher Hill, Liberty Against the Law (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1997), 68, 242-4.
Norbrook reads this play in the context of Essex’s rebellion of 1601 and regards
it as celebrating the triumph of feudal aristocratic constitutionalism
(represented by Bullingbrook) over early modern royal absolutism (represented by
Richard), a triumph which the Essexians would have associated with the
well-being of the nation as a whole.
(16) More than anything else Bullingbrook’s figure is ambivalent:
for instance, he speaks as a prototypical victim of enclosure -- a “wandering
vagabond” (2.3.119) -- as well as a defender of absolute property rights -- an
enclosing lord who protests, among other things, the disparking of his parks (3.1.23).
But this is surely a sign of inclusion rather than exclusion.
David Wiles has some very perceptive and eloquent remarks in this regard in
“The Carnivalesque in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in Shakespeare and
Carnival: After Bakhtin, ed. Ronald Knowles (London: Macmillan, 1998), 67
and 78-9. Robert Weimann’s elaborate studies of the multifaceted and dynamic
nature of early modern acting space and playing modes offer fascinating new ways
of extracting the radical and popular dimension of early modern drama. See his
classical Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in
the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, trans. Robert Schwartz
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1978) and, more recently, his Author’s Pen
And Actor’s Voice: Playing and Writing in Shakespeare’s Theatre (Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2000). Stephen Longstaffe’s Bakhtinian and performance-oriented
readings of Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean history pays also offer many
valuable examples of how these plays are hardly the homogenous, conservative,
and elitist “texts” that most critics all too readily make them out to be. See,
for instance, his “‘A Short Report and Not Otherwise’: Jack Cade in 2 Henry
VI” in Shakespeare and Carnival: After Bakhtin, ed. Ronald Knowels
(London: Macmillan, 1998), 13-35, and his admirable Introduction to A
Critical Edition of “The and Death of Jack Straw 1594”, ed. Stephen
Longstaffe (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), 1-124. The composition of
early modern audiences is of course a vexed issue, but there is considerable
evidence to suggest that playgoers where largely heterogeneous and to a
significant degree middle and lower class. See, in addition to Burnett,
“Apprentice Literature”, Charles Whitney, “‘Usually
in the werking Daies’: Playgoing Journeymen, Apprentices, and Servants in Guild
Records, 1582-92," Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999): 433-58; and more
recently, Christopher Holmes, "Time for the Plebs in Julius Caesar."
Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (2001): 32 pars. 29 November 2004
The most general reference is to England as “a happy breed of men” (2.1.45) with
“breed” giving it a distinctly chivalrous and aristocratic touch.
According to the OED the adjective “dear”, could also be used in the
period for “a time or place in which prices for provisions, etc. are high;
dear year, a year of dearth” (Def. 6b). Bishop William Barlow
conflated “dear” and “dearth” in his translation of Lavater’s Three Christian
Sermons (London, 1596) when he defined dearth in directly inflationary
terms: “Dearth is that, when all those thinges which belong to the life
of man . . . are rated at a high price” (5). As we have seen, many of the
popular disturbances in London in 1595-6 were directly connected with both the
dearth and inflation. For an insightful discussion of the intricate connections
between the dearth, inflation, and royal power which reads this passage as
primarily concerned with the tension between real wealth and its symbolic
representation, see James E. Berg, “‘This Dear, Dear Land’: ‘Dearth’ and the
Fantasy of the Land-Grab in Richard II and Henry IV,” ELR
29:2 (1999): 225-45.
(20) See Hill, 25-6. For a meticulous and highly informative
study of the legal aspects of land ownership in Richard II, see William
O. Scott, “Landholding, leasing, and Inheritance in Richard II,” SEL
42:2 (2002): 275-292. See also James R. Siemon, “Landlord Not King:
Agrarian Change and Interarticulation,” in Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property,
and Culture in Early Modern England, eds. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer
(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994), 17-33. Siemon cogently argues that in this speech
“Richard is represented as doing what Elizabethans lords are so frequently criticized
for doing: violating customary tenurial relations by converting his own demesne
lands to leasehold property.” (28)
(21) There is a vast body of literature on the traumatic transition
from feudalism to capitalism in early modern England and the myriad economic,
social, and cultural aspects of this transition. For a very selective assortment
of sources see, in addition to Hill’s wonderfully integrative approach, Ellen
Meiksins Woods, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso,
2002), on the economic and agrarian aspects of the transition. For an analysis
of social problems, see A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in
England 1560-1640 (London: Methuen, 1985). For a discussion of cultural and
literary aspects, see Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation:
English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca: Cornell
UP, 1991). For a religio-cultural context, see David Hawkes, Idols of the Marketplace:
Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in English Literature, 1580-1680 (New York:
Hill, 19-43, 242-269, and passim.
W. W. Greg, gen. ed. The Book of Sir Thomas More (1911. Oxford: Oxford
UP, 1961), 1.55. The patriotic zeal and heroic qualities of English commoners
were fairly common in the literature of the period. See Siemon 19-20 for the
role of the yeomanry in this respect and Burnett, Masters and Servants,
16-28 and passim, for the role of apprentices, servants, and
Jean H. Howard and Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account
of Shakespeare’s English Histories (London: Routledge, 1997), 137.
Howard and Rackin, 139.
Thomas Nashe, “Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil” (1592), in The
Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books, 1985), 113.
E. K. Chambers, English Stages (4.318); cited in Helgerson, 211.
Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (London, 1612), B4r.
For common constructions of the rich as murderous and predatory, feeding of the
impoverished bodies of the poor, see Hill 37-8. Hill cites, among other cases,
Henry Vaughan’s forcible accusation that “the rich and the great amongst us not
only feed upon and live by the sweat, the slaughter and the blood of the poor
and oppressed, but esteem them (of all others) their choicest dainties; for they
are swallowed without much chewing, and there is none to deliver them.” (38)
Vaughan’s pronouncement is a late specimen of a discourse that was already in
full sway decades earlier. In 1583, Philip Stubbes blamed enclosures for being
“the causes why rich men eat vp poore men, as beasts doo eat grasse.” (cited in
Siemon, 21) Similar references can be found, among other places, in plays like
Jack Straw, Sir Thomas More, 2 Edward VI, and
popular libels and pamphlets, such as the one posted in May 1593 on the Dutch
church in Austin Friars. The full version of this libel appears in
Arthur Freeman, “Marlowe, Kyd, and the Dutch Church Libel,” ELR 3 (1973):
There is a direct reference to the Biblical connotations of the widow in Gaunt’s
insistence that she should only complain to God, “the widow’s champion and
defence” (1.2.43), which invokes, among other places, Eccles. 35.14 and Ps.
68.5. But there is of course also a Biblical tradition that places the widow at
the very crux of social protest as in the early dictum: “Ye shall not afflict
any widow, or fatherless child” (Exod. 22.22). In the prophets, the widow is
often mentioned at one breath with the foreigner, the orphan, the hireling
deprived of his wages, and the poor in general. See, for example, Isa. 1.17, Jer.
22.3, and Ezek. 22.7. In the New Testament, widows are repeatedly referred to as
poor and unprotected (Mark 12.42; Luke 4.14-30; Luke 21.2; Rev. 18.7).
Cited in Hill, 52. In late medieval and early modern social satire, society was
frequently divided into four standard estates: those who prayed; those of
fought; those who worked; and women. When Bathsua Makin advocated education to
gentlewomen in the late 17th century, he had to work against an
entire tradition of reducing all women, regardless of their actual income, to
one lowly estate: “Women are of two sorts,” he insisted on separating them out,
“rich, of good natural parts” and “poor, of low parts” (An Essay to revive
the Antient Education of Gentlewomen [London, 1673], 22).
Richard Wilson, Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (Detroit:
Wayne State UP, 1993), 73. Natalie Zemon Davies, “’Women on Top’ Symbolic Sexual
Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe,” in The Reversible
World, ed. B. B. Babcock (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978), 147.
Wilson, 73. John Walter, “Grain Riots and Popular Attitudes to the Law: Maldon
and the Crisis of 1629,” in An Ungovernable People: The English and Their Law
in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, eds. John Brewer and John
Styles (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 63.
Many of the previously mentioned marks of lower-class female militancy are also
present in Doll, for example, the association of women with rebellious Mayday
festivities underlies her threat: “we may well make bonfires on May day, as at
Midsommer, weele alter the day in the Calendar, and set it downe in flaming
letters.” (3.427-8) Similarly, the notion that women are outside the reach of
the law finds expression in Doll’s statement to the aliens, “if our husbands
must be brideled by lawe, and forced to beare your wrongs, their wiues will be a
little laweless, and soundly beate ye.” (1.52-3)
For a classic study of the fiction of the king’s two body and a reading of
Richard II as staging the failings in practice of this theory, see Ernest
Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology
(Princeton, N. J.: Princeton UP, 1957). For a more recent attempt to examine
this myth in its specific legal, political, and historical context under
Elizabeth, see Marie Axton, The Queen’s Two Bodies: Drama and the
Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977).
Siemon, 23. The rest of this paragraph is indebted heavily to Siemon’s very fine
Cited in Siemon, 22.
Francis Trigge, The humble petition of two sisters the Church and
Common-wealth (London, 1604), B2v.
Henry Halhead, Inclosure thrown open (London, 1650), 16.
See Francis Barker, The Culture of Violence: Essays on Tragedy and History
(Manchester: Manchester UP, 1993), 173-4 and 176-9.
The queen’s extensive reference to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve would have
itself suggested radical possibilities to audiences familiar with the “leveling”
implications of this story. The queen’s derogatory reference to the gardener as
“little better thing than earth” (3.4.78), as if she and the king were somehow
better than that thanks to their royal status, stands in stark contrast with
their eventual realization of their own “earthly” essence later in the play.
For an insightful understanding of Shakespeare’s entire conception of politics
as indebted to the Augustinian condemnation of earthly power as this was figured
in and transmitted through the morality tradition, see John D. Cox,
Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton UP:
A. C. Cawley, ed., “The Moral Play of Everyman”, in Everyman and Medieval
Miracle Plays (London: Dent, 1993), lines 125-6.
Archer, Ian. The Pursuit of
Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London.
New York: Cambridge UP, 1991.
Axton, Marie. The Queen’s Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession.
London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.
Barker, Francis. The Culture of
Violence: Essays on Tragedy and History.
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