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Mocking Dead Bones: Historical Memory and the Theater of the Dead in Richard III Stephen Marche Nicholas Brooke's 1965 landmark essay,"Reflecting Gems and Dead Bones," still largely determines the critical understanding of the relationship between history and tragedy in Richard III: "It is . . . supremely ambivalent: a simultaneous perception oftwo utterly different and opposed scales of value, the historical and the tragic. The sense of Historyandthe sense ofOrderhere become synonymous ... in this play, one does not eclipse the other."1 Brookes recognition ofthe uneasy tension between the tragic and the historical within the religious dimension of the play continues to influence the mainstream of Richard III criticism.2 However, new readings of the relationship between tragedy and religion in the early modern period have begun to place emphasis on the dead, a concern vital to history and tragedy. Both Michael Neill's Issues ofDeath and Stephen Greenblatts Hamlet in Purgatory identify an intimate connection between tragedyand the transformation ofreligious ideas aboutthedead in the Reformation.3 DennisKay,inMelodious Tears, argues that many literary and religious forms of discourse were established as replacements for the Requiem Mass: "The culture of pre-Reformation Europe has been characterized as 'a cult of the living in the service ofthe dead.'At the simplest level, the sheer number (in excess of two thousand) ofchantries in England, and the evidence from wills,testifies to the immense importance attached to praying for the repose of the souls ofthe deceased.With the Reformation, everything changed."4 The critical understanding ofthe centrality ofthis change demands inquiry into the ambivalence that Brooke first articulated. We must reexamine the relationship of history and tragedy in Richard III in the light of a change in the general and communal response to the dead 37 38Comparative Drama because that response is a concern essential to both history and tragedy. RichardIIIhas always been a notoriouslydifficult playto categorize. Part ofthe problem is specific to the storyofRichard itselfand precedes Shakespeare's adaptation. Not only do the previous history dramas such as Thomas Legge's Richardus Tertius and the anonymous True Tragedy ofRichardIIIidentifyhis storyas atragedy,but so also do Hall's Chronicle and the account added in 1563 to The Mirrorfor Magistrates.5 There is also the generic looseness ofthe stage, as Phyllis Racklin has noted: The distinction between history and tragedy was by no means clear.... [I]n the Renaissanceas in antiquity,plays identified as tragedies frequently took their subjects from history. (Shakespeare himself is a good case in point: ofdie eleven plays designated as tragedies in the First Folio, all but Romeo andJuliet and Othello have historical subjects.)6 Richard III is a case where the reverse is true; it bears the name of tragedy in the First Folios history section.7 The problem is not merely formal or categorical in nature. The content ofRichardIIIexists somewhere between history and tragedy. Rackin notes: "The movement in Richard III from historical chronicle to tragical history is also a movement into modernity.... As a dramatic genre, moreover, tragedy represented the wave of the future, while the vogue of the history play was remarkably short-lived, beginning in the 1580s and ending soon after the accession ofJames I."8RichardIIIwas atthe forefront ofthistransformation,equally preserving the tradition of the chronicle play and exploring the possibilities of tragic drama: it is history within tragedy and tragedy within history. This double nature is present from the beginning ofthe drama and is particularly evident in the images ofand references to the dead. In the obscurity of the first act, when Clarence's darkness is still mitigated by the expectation of release, his dream is on one level simply prophetic of his coming murder at his brother's hands, yet on another it contains the foreboding and terror ofthe play's vision of mortality: What sights of ugly death within my eyes! Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks; Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon; Wedges ofgold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, Inestimable stones, unvalu'd jewels, AU scatter'd in the bottom of the sea. Stephen Marche39 Some lay in dead men's skulls, and in the holes Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept— As 'twere in scorn of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 37-57
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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