- The Oxford Shakespeare Richard II ed. by Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin
Richard II is distinctive in that while most differences between versions of the play in the 1623 First Folio and previous quarto editions are relatively small (aside from the Folio’s ampler stage directions), the one big difference has led to an inordinate amount of discussion. The deposition scene (4.1.155–318), included in the Folio, is missing from the earlier quartos, leading to the fiercely debated suggestion that it was censored by the Master of Revels, the licenser, or both. In the scene, Richard interrupts the transfer of his crown to Henry Bolingbroke to compare the crown itself to a well, with
two buckets filling one another,The emptier ever dancing in the air,The other down, unseen and full of water.(ll. 184–87)
He further prolongs the moment by dramatizing the destruction of his own face with a mirror he addresses and then breaks. The two passages rank with Hamlet’s skull and Cleopatra’s asp among Shakespeare’s most memorable uses of stage props, and the scene’s dramatic power has been in the middle of the debate over its textual history. Janet Clare calls its omission the “suppression of the most theatrical moment in the play.”1
In Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin’s edition of the play for Oxford, the scene is given a deserved centrality. Their introduction comments at various points on its complex characterizations, the crown and mirror images, and Richard’s meditation on the word “nothing.” Their Solomonic solution to the censorship question is to conclude that the play was indeed censored in print although not in performance, but their treatment of the debate points to the scene’s larger implications. William Empson once observed (about The Spanish Tragedy) that because censors try not to leave evidence, a critic “cannot be blamed for not producing it,” and a certain freedom results.2 Dawson and Yachnin follow Empson’s lead in determining [End Page 209] the question aesthetically; in the first quarto, “the rhythm of events seems truncated . . . the skipping from one plot element to another . . . lacks dramatic punch” (13). Therefore, they conclude, the Folio version must be the original one and probably performed too (since surely the censored version, if performed, would have “fuller and subtler stitching”  to cover the excised portion), while conceding that an approach based partly on lack of evidence is “unsatisfactory” (9). The commentary, less tentatively, says that the cut scene “no doubt resulted from official censorship” (l. 155n).
Such attention to dramatic effect is consistent. The lengthy introduction features sections on the political context of the play and its subject matter, language, character, performance, and text. Discussions of sources and critical history are covered within those sections, and there is no distinct bibliography, survey of criticism, or appendix (there is a helpful index, however). The theatrical history is remarkably comprehensive, with particular attention to the close relationship between performance and criticism of the play in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Influenced by Walter Pater’s praise of Richard II’s “stylistic unity” (64), critics have sometimes considered the verse play in overly poetic terms. The greatest contribution of this edition is to show how the stage is central to Richard II in Shakespeare’s conception and modern interpretation.
The commentary, which is extensive, is similarly attentive to issues of performance in addition to the play’s diction and historical references. A valuable example is the careful discussion of the theatrically complex scene in which Northumberland approaches Richard on Bolingbroke’s behalf (3.3). Dawson and Yachnin describe how movements across the Renaissance open stage might indicate who is within earshot for which conversations. A few of these staging notes— such as that on Richard’s famous “Down, down, I come” speech (l. 176–82)—also reference modern productions. Another distinctive feature is the lengthy note at the start of each scene summarizing it and...