- “Many a time and oft had I broken my Neck for their amusement”:1 The Corpse, the Child, and the Aestheticization of Death in Shakespeare’s Richard III and King John
The deaths of the two princes of Richard III (1592) and young Prince Arthur in King John (1595–96) are pivotal moments in the dramatic structure of both plays. As with many of Shakespeare’s children, their deaths are of more consequence, in terms of plot, structure, and overall narrative design, than their lives, and their dramatic significance is disproportionate to their relatively small number of lines. They not only precipitate the downfall of the main protagonists and drive the plots to their dénouements, but they also create an absence into which the other characters can project their adult fantasies of childhood. These three young children have provided inspiration for paintings, films, historical novels, popular television dramas, and documentaries across the centuries. A morbid fascination with their premature demise reached its apotheosis in the nineteenth century, yet there is still a tendency to sentimentalize and aestheticize their deaths even today.
With the discovery of King Richard III’s body in a Leicester car park in 2012, there has been renewed interest in the fate of the two princes. James Northcote’s 1785 painting of “The Murder of the Princes in the Tower,” which was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, remains one of their most enduring images (see figure 1).2 However, although the deaths of both Arthur and the princes have provided inspiration for artistic fetishization, both in and beyond the theatre, the dramatization of their deaths in Shakespeare’s texts is remarkably understated. The princes of Richard III [End Page 209] die offstage, and Arthur’s accidental death is notable more for its bathetic absence of sentimentality rather than for any feeling of pathos it evokes. The desire to aestheticize the deaths of these three children is therefore less an authentic interpretation of the original texts and more a reflection of a voyeuristic-scopophilic fascination arising out of a larger impulse to preserve and extend fantasies of childhood innocence—a fantasy that, as childhood scholars including James Kincaid and Anne Higonnet have observed, is shadowed by titillation, eroticism, and violation.3 If childhood innocence is the opposite of adult sexuality, then it risks, according to this critical perspective, becoming alluringly off-limits. Kincaid explains as follows: “We see children as, among other things, sweet, innocent, vacant, smooth-skinned, spontaneous, and mischievous. We construct the desirable as, among other things, sweet, innocent, vacant, smooth-skinned, spontaneous, and mischievous. There’s more to how we see the child, and more to how we construct what is sexually desirable—but not much more.”4 The deaths of the doomed young princes of Shakespeare’s Richard III and King John are only constructed in this fetishistic way retrospectively through the rhetoric of the adults. To aestheticize their deaths in visual form is thus to undermine the intention of the original text. But more crucially, it also risks evoking the equivocal fantasy of childhood that Kincaid describes.
In this essay, I argue that Shakespeare deliberately creates a dissonance between the idealizing rhetoric surrounding his three young princes and their embodied presence by refusing to sentimentalize or fetishize the deaths. The desire to make manifest what the plays obscure, to fill the absence with a body, reflects culturally and historically specific concerns surrounding childhood and what it represents rather than a faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s texts. In this essay, through a dialectical analysis of dramatic and artistic representation and close textual reading, I examine both the dramatic significance of this absence and the various and changing ways in which it has been filled. Through a brief history of the shifting fortunes of these children, I explore the ways in which their deaths have been fetishized and aestheticized, and consider the small but growing movement toward a return to the de-idealization of childhood that Shakespeare intended. [End Page 210]
Murdering Innocence in Richard III
In terms of cultural purchase, the murdered princes in Richard III are as iconic an image of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy as Richard himself. However, although...