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MARTHA A. KURTZ 'Mock Not': The Problem of Laughter in Richard II Richard II'S fall from power in Shakespeare's play has been attributed to many causes: the weakness ofthe king's 'poetic' temperament; the strength of his un-poetic determination to 'affirm a policy of royal absolutism'; his un-Christian willingness to allow a trial by combat; his failure to allow the trial by combat to proceed; his excessive leniency to both friends and enemies; his complicity in his uncle's murder.1 Most recently, his fate has been ascribed to the effect of a pervasive 'carnival spirit' that shapes the world of this play and the plays that follow it. Richard, according to David Bergeron's 'RichardIIand Carnival Politics,' is a 'mock king' who, governed by the rules of carnival games, must inevitably be thrust down, belittled, and cast out to make place for another: 'history and the play's carnival spirit ... displace him, subvert and substitute him.,2 There is, of course, no actual carnival in the play, but Bergeron argues that Shakespeare 'uses language and ideas associated with carnival as a means of exploring the topsy-turvy world ofthis play,' with the result that'carnival is not marginal but preeminent in the playas metaphor and reality.,3 In the spirit of popular festivity Bolingbroke too will 'have his day to "monarchize,'" but will eventually be subsumed in the carnival process that dethrones every king, every power. '[C]arnival pulls down, if only for a moment, established order, whether governmer church.,4 Bergeron makes the indisputable point that Richard II is concerned with the transitory nature of power and prestige. His. focus on 'carnival' as a metaphor for this deeply popular theme allows him to draw attention to a number of interesting details of the characters' language, such as Mowbray 'S description of his forthcoming battle with Bolingbroke as a 'feast' which 'my dancing soul doth celebrate' (Liii. 91-92),5 or Richard's attempt to make light of Bolingbroke's successes by claiming that his rival 'all this while hath revell'd in the night I Whilst we were wand'ring with the Antipodes' (I1Lii.48-49) - details which suggest an energy, even wildness, in these characters that is all too often forgotten by critics and producers who complain that the play is static and dull.6 Perhaps most important, he adds one more voice to the list of critics who have begun to see evidence of what Bergeron calls a 'playful, sometimes farcical mood' in what was once considered Shakespeare's most consistently serious play? UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 65, NUMBER 4, FALL 1996 LAUGHTER IN RICHARD II 585 Yet Bergeron's use of 'carnival' to describe the political processes of this playultimatelydistorts more than it reveals. Carnivalswere,ifnothingelse, celebratory occasions, yet in Richard II there is little of the festive tone, the delight in material abundance and sexuality, the sense of exuberance and possibility, that characterize carnival.8 Although, as Peter Burke has pointed out, aristocrats certainly participated in carnivals, they were predominantly plebeian festivals; Bakhtin's work has made the term inseparable from ideas of popular culture and 'popular' laughter.9 Laughter is a critical element in Richard's fall from power, as I will be arguing, but it is something quite different from Bakhtin's 'laughter of the marketplace' or 'carnivalesque.' Finally, to speak of a disembodied 'carnival spirit' as the cause of Richard's fall and Bolingbroke's rise obscures the extent to which the two men are responsible for their own fates. This play does not show Richard and Bolingbroke as interchangeable mock kings who are thrown down from power by an absurdist carnivalesque universe, but as two quite different personalities who are distinguished from each other in many ways, one of the most important of which is the way each uses laughter. Richard is unlikely to strike anyone as a 'mock king' in the play's opening scene; he sounds confident and authoritative as he leads Gaunt, Bolingbroke , and Mowbray through the steps of a formal inquisition into accusations of high treason.10 Yet it may occur to us that he is, at times, a mocking king...


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