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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.2 (2000) 241-260

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"Therefore, Since I Cannot Prove a Lover"

Donna J. Oestreich-Hart

Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard;
What other pleasure can the world afford?
I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap,
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O miserable thought, and more unlikely
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns!

III Henry VI (III.ii.146-52)

Grim-visaged War hath smoothed his wrinkled front;
And now instead of mounting barbèd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover [End Page 241]
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain.

Richard III (I.i.9-30)

For New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt, "The study of the literary is the study of contingent, particular, intended, and historical embedded works." 1 In Greenblatt's opinion, documents from the past, whether they are nominally "historical" or "literary," "cannot be divorced from textuality, and all texts can be compelled to confront the crisis of undecidability revealed in the literary text. Hence history loses its epistemological innocence, while literature loses an isolation that had come to seem more a prison than a privilege." 2 If we agree with Greenblatt, we might argue, then, that all texts are "historical" and all texts are "literary." Thus, if we will understand one text, we must necessarily examine its conversation with or "embeddedness" within its contingent texts. I intend in this paper to examine such a conversation between Shakespeare's Richard III and three other texts, which are both historical and literary: Ovid's Ars amatoria and Amores from first-century B.C. Rome and Andreas Capellanus's Tractatus de amore from late-twelfth-century France.

Scholarly attention to the character of Shakespeare's Richard III has been anything but convergent over the years. Richard has been variously described as an intrepid warrior,a comic or satirical Vice, a diabolic Machiavel,a "heartless villain of Senecan melodrama," a "spurned child,"a deft deceiver,a proficient rhetorician,and even a tragic or picaresquehero. 3 Certainly, we have confronted the "crisis of undecidability" in this text and its portrayal of this character. Our problem stems, I believe, from the fact that most readers have failed to place Shakespeare's Richard III (at least act I, scene ii) within its appropriate set of kindred works and that they have taken Richard at his word that he could not "prove a lover." Thus, in this scene, where, in the space of merely 200 lines, he transforms Anne from a spitting, vituperative virago to his submissive bride-to-be, these readers relish with astonishment that he is able to do such wooing, but they do not often resolve how he does it. 4

In fact, according to John Palmer, "The critics are divided upon the merits of this famous scene. Some wish that Shakespeare had never written it, or declare that he could never have done so. Others are of the opinion that only Shakespeare could have succeeded or even attempted such an astonishing performance." 5 Some critics assert, "This courting scene . . . is a great triumph," a "tou[r] de force," and "one of the most remarkable in the play." 6 Others describe it as "bravado in brazenness"--"seldom surpassed for sheer audacity"--and "unparalleled, high-fantastical wooing!" 7 [End Page 242] Still others muse that the scene is "rather bewildering" but "by no means unnatural." 8...