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'The meanest man . . . shall be permitted freely to accuse": The Commoners in Woodstock Alzada J. Tipton The 1590s saw an upsurge of interest in the medieval king Richard II. This interest culminated in 1601, when the Earl of Essex requested a version of Richard II's story to be staged on the eve of his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.1 An important early contributor to the Renaissance debate on the politics of the Richard II story, one that is often overlooked by students of the early modern drama, is the anonymous play Woodstock, written around 1592. Woodstock comes to us almost completely devoid of a history of its own; we know nothing about its author and very little about the circumstances of its production. It survives in only one manuscript (probably owned by Lord Pembroke's players2), which is missing a few pages at the end. All critics who have examined the manuscript agree that the amount of wear and tear shown by manuscript, which was used as a prompt copy by the company, indicates that the script was often in use, and hence that the play was quite popular.3 This evidence of popularity becomes more intriguing when we contemplate the play's unabashedly radical politics. For Woodstock is unparalleled among Renaissance texts in its willingness to question princely authority and imagine the redistribution of that authority in more satisfactory ways. Throughout, the play makes itself a staunch advocate of the commoners, as it portrays the reign of a despotic prince from the perspective of those who must live under that reign. Paralleling the lack of known historical detail about the play is the lack of critical attention that has been given to it. Its critics have mainly interested themselves in questions of the relationship between Woodstock and Shakespeare's Richard II, as well as between Woodstock and Samuel Daniel's The Civil Wars, especially as these critics have tried to determine the chronology of influence . Virtually ignored has been the prominent place the play 117 118The Commoners in Woodstock accords to contemporary resistance theories that were part of the political dialogue of the day. Lily Campbell is one of the few critics who remarks on Woodstock's politically inflammatory nature. Contrasting Woodstock with Shakespeare's Richard II, she describes how Woodstock stages ideas at which Shakespeare merely hints, including Richard's "favoritism, his alienation ofhis subjects by heavy financial burdens imposed upon them, his farming out of crown lands, his connection with his uncle [Woodstock 's] murder."4 And Michael Manheim states that the play "poses the question whether a king clearly unfit to govern should be allowed to reign . . . with harsh, pressing insistence."5 The play is indeed remarkable: not only does it offer a persuasive indictment of the king, Richard II, but it also does much to justify the popular revolts it depicts as the natural result of Richard's incompetence . In fact, Woodstock's depiction of both loyal and rebellious commoners is unique in the depths of its allegiance to them and its commitment to free social commentary. Although Richard and his favorites on one hand and his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, and his party on the other dominate much of the play, the commoners, who belong to neither of these factions, play an important and dramatically interesting role. The commoners both appear themselves and are the subject of much of the other characters' dialogue, and in both cases it becomes immediately clear that the playwright focuses his attention on the commoners to engage our sympathies with them and bring to light the court's poor treatment of them. Further, the commoners' resistance to the tyranny imposed on them is staged in a detailed and sympathetic way which shows them to be a powerful motivating force for the rebellion that Richard faces at the end of the play. In this way, the playwright establishes the commons as a significant force in political events and reminds any magistrates who may be watching the play to take them seriously. I Commoners' Rights in Law and Parliament. One such salutary reminder of the commons' significance lies in the play's high regard for those institutions which are meant...


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pp. 117-145
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