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Sigurd Burckhardt (essay date June 1967)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7291

SOURCE: Burckhardt, Sigurd. “‘I Am but Shadow of Myself’: Ceremony and Design in 1 Henry VI.Modern Language Quarterly 28, no. 2 (June 1967): 139-58.

[In the following essay, Burckhardt proposes that the hyperbolic, ceremonial language of Henry VI, Part 1 perfectly matches the play's dramatic action, in which the characters are impelled to disaster by their adherence to a ritualistic mode of confrontation, defiance, and combativeness.]

In speaking of Shakespeare's treatment of Joan of Arc, E. M. W. Tillyard observes that “in literature the things which initially are the most troublesome [often] prove to be the most enlightening.”1 The observation is an excellent one—provided we allow ourselves to be troubled by the right things. Tillyard himself, for example, is much concerned to show that 1 Henry VI, far from being an episodic, chronicle-style dramatization of exciting events, is a carefully designed whole within the larger whole of the First Tetralogy. In keeping with his “integralist” view of the play, he argues (rightly, I think) that the hand of the dramatic strategist disposing events according to a master plan is everywhere discernible.2 Yet neither he nor other integralists have been troubled by what he himself calls a “startling but irrelevant anecdote” (p. 158)—the scene between Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne (II.iii).

Quickly to recall it: Immediately after the conquest of Orleans, Talbot is invited to visit the Countess at her castle. When he presents himself, she firsts taunts him with his smallness of stature; when he turns to leave, she reveals that she has lured him into a trap and means to hold him prisoner. But Talbot has anticipated her plot; soldiers whom he has placed in readiness occupy the castle. The scene ends amicably, with apologies offered and accepted and a joint feast.

The scene seems indeed irretrievably anecdotal. It grows out of no prior event, leads to no subsequent one; the Countess appears in no other scene, nor is she heard of again. No major theme is illustrated, no moral pointed; none of the play's sources gives a hint of the incident. Shakespeare appears to have composed, with full deliberation, a scene as purely episodic as he knew how to make it. Why?

Here is the opening exchange between the Countess and Talbot:

                                                  Is this the scourge of France?
Is this the Talbot, so much feared abroad
That with his name the mothers still their babes?
I see report is fabulous and false:
I thought I should have seen some Hercules,
A second Hector, for his grim aspect,
And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs.
Alas, this is a child, a silly dwarf!
It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp
Should strike such terror to his enemies.
Madam, I have been bold to trouble you;
But since your ladyship is not at leisure,
I'll sort some other time to visit you.


What happens here is that a ceremony is startlingly interrupted. The ceremony is that of the taunt, and the Countess' language is properly ceremonial, in the true Marlovian cadence: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Her lines call for a counter taunt or defiance, a reply in the manner at least of Gloucester defying Winchester: “Presumptuous priest! this place commands my patience, / Or thou shouldst find thou hast dishonoured me” (III.i.8-9). Substitute “lady” for “priest” and “thy sex” for “this place,” and the reply should serve quite nicely. Elsewhere in the play, Talbot himself knows what the ceremony calls for:

 Foul fiend of France, and hag of all despite, Encompassed with thy...

(This entire section contains 7291 words.)

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 lustful paramours! Becomes it thee to taunt his [Bedford's] valiant age, And twit with cowardice a man half dead?


But here he refuses to play his part, to pick up the verbal gauntlet. With ironic urbanity, he implies that he has broken in upon the Countess as she was rehearsing a set piece; his apology leaves her in the silly posture of someone striking a mighty blow at a vanished target.

It is the Countess, not Talbot, who in this scene speaks the language of the play. About her style there is nothing unusual; it is of a piece with the play's world. That world is one of vaunt and taunt, of “high terms” ceremonially put forward and ceremonially responded to—usually with the explicit or implicit invocation of force as the final arbiter. Thus Charles challenges Joan:

Thou hast astonished me with thy high terms:
Only this proof I'll of thy valour make,
In single combat thou shalt buckle with me,
And if thou vanquishest, thy words are true;
Otherwise I renounce all confidence.


“Single combat” or multiple—the sword is always at least half unsheathed to make good the words. Gloucester or Winchester, Red Rose or White, England or France, it is all the same; as the Mayor of London says: “Good God, these nobles should such stomachs bear!” (I.iii.90).

My point is not that the language is appropriate to the world, but rather that it allows of no other. Every major actor is compelled—not necessarily by pride and pugnacity but by the language available to him—to step onto the stage, assume the proper posture, and rehearse his piece. The burden of the piece need not always be self-assertion or defiance, though most often it is. The mode lends itself equally well to grief:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!


or to praise:

And all the priests and friars in my realm
Shall in procession sing her endless praise.
A statelier pyramis to her I'll rear
Than Rhodope's of Memphis ever was.


or even to submission:

In sign whereof, this arm, that hath reclaimed
To your obedience fifty fortresses,
Twelve cities and seven walléd towns of strength,
Beside five hundred prisoners of esteem,
Lets fall his sword before your highness' feet,
And with submissive loyalty of heart
Ascribes the glory of his conquest got
First to my God and next unto your grace.


Praise and submission are almost indistinguishable from self-assertion. The ceremonial mode lends itself to every occasion, but what matters is that it makes an “occasion” of whatever it lends itself to. It is like Concord grapes: no matter what it is made into, the residual taste is always the same.

Prosodically, the mode engenders the end-stopped line. The lines of verse behave like the characters, each striving to stand in self-sufficient and self-assertive orotundity. A speech is like a recital of titles and honors (or dis-honors, it makes no real difference):

But where's the great Alcides of the field,
Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury,
Created, for his rare success in arms,
Great Earl of Washford, Waterford and Valence;
Lord Talbot of Goodrig and Urchinfield,
Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdun of Alton …

etc., etc., for six more lines. Joan's response is predictable:

Here's a silly stately style indeed! …
Him that thou magnifi'st with all these titles
Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet.


But even in ridiculing the stately style, Joan pays unwilling homage to it by obediently falling into the vaunt-taunt pattern. The speakers may think they master and use the style, but in fact it masters and uses them. Margaret of Anjou becomes a kind of embodiment of it:

Your wondrous rare description, noble earl,
Of beauteous Margaret hath astonished me.
Her virtues gracéd with external gifts
Do breed love's settled passions in my heart,
And like as rigour of tempestuous gusts
Provokes the mightiest hulk against the tide,
So am I driven by breath of her renown
Either to suffer shipwreck or arrive
Where I may have fruition of her love.
Tush, my good lord, this superficial tale
Is but a preface of her worthy praise;
The chief perfections of that lovely dame,
Had I sufficient skill to utter them,
Would make a volume of enticing lines,
Able to ravish any dull conceit:
And, which is more, she is not so divine,
So full replete with choice of all delights,
But with as humble lowliness of mind
She is content to be at your command.


Is she indeed? This “volume of enticing lines” will presently become Queen of England: contentious rather than content, overbearing rather than humble. She will have a major share in the ensuing shipwreck. As she is here talked about, she furnishes as neat an illustration as we can hope for of a style which, seeming to do its master's bidding, drives him toward a disastrous conclusion.

Rhetorically, the mode engenders hyperbole—a compulsive reaching for the superlative, which, in the effort to outdo what has gone before, is sure to end in collapse. We are warned at the outset:

England ne'er had a king until his [Henry V's] time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command:
His brandished sword did blind men with his beams:
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings;
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech.


Here the mortal contention, closing with a feeble gasp, is between the similes of one speaker; elsewhere it is between those of two. In either case it is a “jarring discord of nobility”:

But howsoe'er, no simple man that sees
This jarring discord of nobility,
This should'ring of each other in the court,
This factious bandying of their favourites,
But that he doth presage some ill event.


Where every line, every trope, every man strives for pre-eminence, what can come of it but “intestine broils”?

The mode of 1 Henry VI seeks, in fact compels the seeking of, maximal self-assertion at every moment; it is impatient of indirection, refuses to sacrifice immediate effects for long-range gains. It permits strategic retreats as little as litotes, genuine negotiations as little as genuine dialogue; it always “goes for broke.” It has no sense of the implicit; whatever is not asserted does not exist. Its “order,” except where it is kept in check by external, higher authority, is that of combat; by inner necessity it escalates toward more and more violent confrontations. The duel, single or multiple, is its most adequate metaphor, until finally it drives even dueling into “mere oppugnancy,” sheer, vengeful slaughter (as in 3 Henry VI).

My intention has not been to show up once again the obvious faults of Shakespeare's “immature” style, but rather to suggest that he himself was fully aware of them. Even in this early play, he has mastered the trick of making the style he employs comment upon itself. Is a better description of it imaginable than “rigour of tempestuous gusts,” a phrase which catches precisely both its rigid compulsiveness and its destructive, blow-hard yet short-winded unrestraint? But more important: Shakespeare has discovered that there is a perfect analogy between the verbal and the social order—an analogy that is almost an identity. Both the modus loquendi and the modus agendi of a society are governed by the same inner law or laws. For the dramatist who grasps this law, the stage is the world.


But what and whose world? It was the world of the Hundred Years' War and of the Wars of the Roses; was it also that of the God of history? It was the world of the chronicles; was it also that of the playwright? Was its inner law a grim and destructive necessity governing kingdoms, plays, actors, and discourse alike? Or was there a truer and better law for the ordering of men and events?

I shall suggest that Shakespeare asked himself these questions—that he had to ask them because they concerned not only his subject but his craft. I shall also suggest that, in asking them, he took a searching look at the image of order, the “world picture” which underlay the ceremonial style in the affairs both of state and of the stage. In doing so, I may seem to be “reading Shakespeare's mind,” but I intend what follows as no more than a model—a hypothesis designed to solve the problem of the Auvergne scene.

The first need would seem to be the discovery of what might be wrong with the “picture.” What were its essential qualities? One was that it was static; it existed in space but not in time. It allowed for a limited amount of internal motion (though even that seemed rather an unhappy violation of its spirit, commotion rather than motion); but it did not allow for general progressive change. It valued stability to the point of rigidity; what occurred in it was not so much an ordered sequence of events, leading from the past into a different future, as a succession of exempla, episodes meant to point the same permanent morals. Enthroned at its apex sat God, the fount of honor, the source of all authority, more unmoved than mover, more substance than energy, a figure encrusted with the symbols of macrocosmic sovereignty. Below Him, step by step, stood the hierarchical “orders”: the angels in their various “degrees,” and then men—kings, nobles, burghers, peasants, and even (near the very bottom) vagrant comedians.

A second quality of the picture was that it was insistently analogical. Differences were of degree; unity was assured by analogical identity. A king was “God in little,” while God was the “King of kings.” A kingdom was to Christendom what dukedom was to the kingdom. There were also, of course, innumerable “collateral” analogies, whose force was symbolic rather than legal: to the animal kingdom, the vegetable kingdom, the “little kingdom” man, the kingdom of the heavens. For the explaining of actual events, these analogies were heavily drawn upon: “distempers” or “perturbations” at one level were mirrored by disturbances at other levels; a king who did not control his subjects was like a man who did not control his appetites. Everything was like everything else; beneath the diversity in degree, there was a remarkable likeness in kind.

Thirdly, harmony at any level depended on both the acknowledgment and the effective exercise of the authority vested in the next higher level. Order was not implicit but always external to what was being “kept in order”—and consequently explicit. Of course, the picture as a whole was supposed, ideally, to rest in beautiful and total harmony; if every inferior acted in unfailing obedience and every superior in unfailing wisdom and justice, there was no reason why authority had to become explicit. But obviously this was a mere ideal, not the observable reality; and since the picture was in fact used as a tool of government, as a means to inculcate obedience and to discourage “rebellion,” what was emphasized was the danger and wickedness of conflict and the duty, whenever conflict did arise, to submit to “authority.” The picture militated against any distinction between political and religious duty, between unlawful acts and sinful acts. Disobedience was the root and prototype of all evil, private as well as public; to it all sins were reducible. At every level—since every level had some authority, i.e., some beings inferior to it over which it was appointed to rule—there was need for constant and explicit assertion of that authority. The logic that demanded submission in one direction demanded self-assertion, jealous insistence on one's place, titles, and prerogatives, in all others. “Answerability” was always vertical, never horizontal—always public, never private. When a man spoke on matters of importance, he spoke ceremonially, as belonging to a certain “order,” occupying a certain “degree” in the picture.

These, then, were the essential qualities of the picture. But how well did it explain the actual events to be accounted for, the Wars of the Roses? At first glance, all seemed easy: England, under the rule of an ineffectual king, had fallen into dissension; her nobles had become rebellious and self-willed; and God had grievously punished her for these sins and failings. First she had lost her French possessions, and then she had turned upon herself, falling into chaos and tyranny, until finally God had mercifully sent a redeemer, Henry VII.

But upon a closer look, the picture proved to have some very disturbing consequences. Its structure of analogies contained the equation king-God; Tudor doctrine never tired of making that equation emphatically explicit—seemed, in fact, designed for no other purpose. But if under a king's ineffectual rule England suffered the horrors of the Barons' War, what followed about the King of kings and the horrors of, say, the Hundred Years' War?

A question not to be asked; and scholars and critics are virtually unanimous that Shakespeare, at least the Shakespeare of the histories, did not ask it. He would never have thought of drawing the analogy between the civil wars in England and the English wars against the “arch-enemy” France, however imperatively the God-king/Christendom-kingdom analogy seemed to demand it; his patriotism was logic-proof. But was it? Let us listen:

See, see the pining malady of —————————;
Behold the wounds, the most unnatural wounds,
Which thou thyself hast given her woful breast.
O, turn thy edgéd sword another way;
Strike those that hurt, and hurt not those that help.
One drop of blood drawn from thy country's bosom
Should grieve thee more than streams of foreign gore.


This is not Henry or good Duke Humphrey pleading with one of the English barons; it is the witch Joan persuading Burgundy to break off his English alliance and return to his true allegiance. To be sure, as soon as Burgundy yields, she comments cynically, “Done like a Frenchman: turn and turn again!” (85). But that is precisely the point: this fine patriotic rhetoric is as available to her as to the sincerest Englishman—and more effective. The rhetoric is quite independent of the speaker's motives; it belongs to the nation. Which nation? We are at liberty to fill in the blank. Shakespeare gives it to France; and it strains credulity to believe that he did not know what he was doing. If Elizabethan attitudes argue otherwise, what—apart from the picture's logic, apart from Shakespeare's composing such a speech and then giving it to Joan—about medieval attitudes? The time lay not so far back when Christian kingdoms were considered provinces of Christendom and wars between Christian kings were regarded as civil wars (so that the only pious war a king could wage was a crusade against the infidel). But if they were, what kind of sovereign was the King of kings?

There is, in 1 Henry VI, at least one clear sign that Shakespeare did ask this forbidden question. Claiming to “be umpire in this doubtful strife” between Lancaster and York, Henry puts on a red rose and explains this gesture, seemingly so contrary to the impartiality he has just professed:

I see no reason, if I wear this rose,
That anyone should therefore be suspicious
I more incline to Somerset [Lancaster] than York:
Both are my kinsmen, and I love them both.
As well they may upbraid me with my crown,
Because, forsooth, the king of Scots is crowned.


I have not seen the last two lines glossed, though surely they are puzzling. Henry's argument makes sense only on the assumption that he happens to be King of England (and of France—he has just been crowned in Paris) in exactly the same sense as he happens to be of the house of Lancaster. Both are accidents of birth; they have no bearing on his function as umpire, which thus must rest on another quality altogether. That quality can only be his pious and loving Christian spirit, which is independent of his royal degree and both commands and entitles him to “instruct or teach” men to “continue peace and love.” This view of himself is perfectly in keeping with his bearing throughout the trilogy; but of course it is this same view that makes him so disastrously ineffectual as a king. Christian precept and example are not enough to keep the ceremonial world in order; what is required is the full exercise of higher authority. Henry's claim to impartiality even while he puts on the symbol of partisanship can mean only that he refuses to exercise that authority.

An impartiality truly divine; how many divisions has God? Suppose there is a war between England and Scotland (there had been so many that Scotland was almost as much an “arch-enemy” as France—was, in fact, usually in league with France against England); what then? Is not Henry here saying that a king of England warring against a king of Scotland (or any other Christian king) is, from the divine purview, doing exactly the same thing as Somerset quarreling with York? And in saying this, is he not faithfully obeying the “ana-logic” of the Elizabethan world picture? If, therefore, Christendom is continually ravaged by wars—

                                                                      I always thought
It was both impious and unnatural
That such immanity and bloody strife
Should reign among professors of one faith


—what blasphemous inference inescapably arises about the governance of the world and the fitness of its supreme head? Given the manifest facts of history, does not the world picture that is devised to give them meaning positively compel an impious conclusion?


At this point—if I may push my speculation a step farther—it may well have occurred to Shakespeare that there was a mode of ruling other than that which the picture provided for, a form of authority other than that of ceremony backed by force. He did not even have to invent it; it was embedded in the story itself, but so overlaid with the ceremonial pomp of the picture that it was easily overlooked. As told by Hall and others, the story was, after all, not just one of discord, a succession of more and more savage spectacles; it did have a unifying design: beginning, middle, and end. It began with Richard II and ended with Henry VII; it told how the English monarchy, once having fallen from the happy state of unbroken succession and unquestioned legitimacy, sank into ever deeper confusion (except for one brief and glorious reign) and had to suffer all the horrors of civil war and tyranny before order was restored through the happy “Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and Yorke” in the persons of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. That was the over-all plot within which the events of the story had meaning; that was the design which created order out of the apparent chaos.

“Plot”? “Design”? What words were these? The effort to grasp the unity of the story seemed to call forth the vocabulary of sedition. In the picture, designs and plots were proscribed; they were the work of “designing, crafty knaves,” sinister and ill-meaning men whose “policy” could not stand the light of the sun. The world, unless it was disordered, was a “goodly frame,” essentially stationary, a palace that was like a statuesque body, or, in Spenser's image, a body that was like a palace:

And all her body, like a palace fair,
Ascending up with many a stately stair.

(Epithalamion, 178-79)

Men who had grievances expected, and men who had done evil were summoned, to appear before the throne of justice to have their cases adjudicated—openly, explicitly, in due form. Sovereign decrees were solemnly promulgated and proclaimed by heralds or angels; every occasion was an occasion “of state,” provided with the appropriate ceremony. Even war and combat, though temporary breaches of order, were ritualized; “stratagems” were wicked and dishonorable, devil's work. Indeed, all that was indirect and hidden belonged to the ignoble sphere of Satan; God's world had no room for it.

Oddly, the God of Tudor history turned out to be a being altogether different from what the picture called for. The range and complexity of His plots—not to mention the Master Plot from Fall to Resurrection—were the envy and despair of any merely human plotter. History, more particularly English history from Richard II to Henry VII, was anything but an orderly succession of events in the ceremonial mode of Henry VI's pastoral dreaming:

So many hours must I tend my flock,
So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself. …(4)

“How sweet! how lovely” the world would be in which the Lord could be our shepherd. Evidently, He could not; at least, He was not. But neither was He the stern and prepotent judge and lord who in the fullness of His power and glory summoned evildoers directly and openly before His seat to receive their punishment and correction or in righteous anger led His hosts against the rebellious. If He had heavenly hosts at His command, they must be committed elsewhere; at least they were not deployed in Christendom to check the wicked. The King of kings, it appeared, was altogether unlike His ideal earthly image, altogether unlike what the analogy to Henry V would lead one to expect.

What was He like then? Surprisingly, He was like a dramatist. He planned, designed, plotted, employed stratagems; He worked by indirection and implication. Unable or unwilling to exert open authority and force, He nevertheless did not retreat into the pastoral mode, writing wistful Third, Fourth, and Fifth Shepherds' Plays and appealing to the still, small voice in men's hearts to do the rest. He wrote histories which, though on the surface they might look like savage spectacles, moved in truth by careful plotting toward an ordered conclusion. His purposes were hidden, wholly implicit in the design; while the action was still in progress, they could at most be guessed at. To the careless spectator as to the vain actor they were invisible: the actor would imagine that the play existed only to give him a chance to strut and rant and upstage his rivals, while the spectator would see it as a string of exciting episodes intended to entertain him, to confirm his nationalist self-esteem, and here and there (no pleasure is unalloyed) to point an obvious moral. But the divine dramatist knew better; in the end, and only then, His design would be manifest. And it might well be that the seemingly most episodic would, in retrospect, prove the most calculated and revealing.

With respect to kings and men of power, God evidently resembled the “bad” much more than the “good.” Poor Henry VI, bullied by ambitious subjects, spoke his pitiful pieces and was discarded; but Richard III had an almost divine talent for long-range plotting. Generally, the more a king relied on the ceremonial mode and on the “picture” behind it, the surer was he to come to grief; witness Richard II. True, in the end even the plotters were only actors; the prouder they were of their subtle designs, the more harshly were they shown that they themselves had only played parts in a master plot. Their self-seeking vanity betrayed them; they could never resist the temptation to become explicit, to brag at least to the audience of their clever schemes. They fell short of the master dramatist's ultimate achievement: total self-effacement, complete immersion in the design. They wanted the glory as well as the power; even when, like Warwick, they were satisfied with being king-makers rather than kings, they wanted the world and the kings to know them as such. By their soliloquies they reimbursed themselves for the self-denial of plotting; they had not grasped the secret of divine dramaturgy: never to speak in the first person. Still, they had grasped enough of it to be temporarily successful. It was as though God, like men, judged less by virtue than by likeness to Himself and by pleasure received—as though He were bored by the arrangers of ritual and ceremonial tableaux and inclined to reward even wicked plotters for pleasing Him with genuine drama.


I seem to have moved far away from the Talbot-Countess episode, to have plunged headlong into the Intentional Fallacy. To repeat: I know no more about Shakespeare's ideas than anyone else; I have tried to construct a model to account for an observable and deliberate oddity in 1 Henry VI. Like any other model, mine must be judged by the problems it solves—which brings me back to Talbot and the Countess, whom I hope I have kept in mind throughout.

Briefly to recapitulate: I began by pointing out that the scene shows every sign of being deliberately episodic, and I called attention to the programmatic contrast between the Countess' mode of speech and that of Talbot's reply. I identified the Countess' mode—which is that of the play as a whole—as ceremonial and argued that it is inherently combative. I then speculated on how Shakespeare may have discovered some disquieting analogies between questions raised by his subject and by his effort to give it dramatic shape and questions at the heart of the Elizabethan world picture. The answer to these questions I stated in terms of plotting.

Both Talbot and the Countess are plotters; but their plots are as different in quality as they are in final success. The Countess cannot resist telling us about hers:

The plot is laid: if all things fall out right,
I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus' death.


Contrast Talbot's acceptance of the Countess' invitation: “Come hither, captain. [whispers] You perceive my mind?” (II.ii.59). It is a contrast between a design announced, made explicit, and a design barely hinted at. At the same time, it is a contrast between a less and a more encompassing plot, as well as between one that aims at personal glory and one that has no such aim. The parallel to, respectively, the Countess' mode of speech and Talbot's is evident.

What does the parallel signify? This question leads to the second part of the scene, in which the reason for the Countess' ill success is explained:

Long time thy shadow hath been thrall to me,
For in my gallery thy picture hangs:
But now the substance shall endure the like. …
Ha, ha, ha! …
I laugh to see your ladyship so fond
To think that you have aught but Talbot's shadow. …
No, no, I am but shadow of myself:
You are deceived, my substance is not here;
For what you see is but the smallest part
And least proportion of humanity. …
How can these contrarieties agree?
That will I show you presently.
[winds his horn: drums strike up: a peal of ordnance: enter soldiers]
How say you, madam? are you now persuaded
That Talbot is but shadow of himself?
These are his substance, sinews, arms and strength.


Talbot is the more successful plotter because he does not naïvely and vainly assert himself as a “first person,” a substantial being in and of himself. He is not what he is—to cite Shakespeare's favorite paradox for describing effective plotters. His strength lies precisely in his “negative capability,” his having learned the secret of self-effacement, of assertion only through the larger design.

We must be clear that this is the Talbot of the episode, not that of the rest of the play. The “character” Talbot does not essentially differ from the other characters. He is, to be sure, loyal to his king and country; he puts the common cause above personal gain if not always glory. But his style is ceremonial, and it is style that determines likeness. The first time we see Talbot, he shows himself as concerned about his dignity as the proudest baron. When he was a prisoner of the French,

          with a baser man of arms by far
Once in contempt they would have bartered me:
Which I disdaining scorned and cravéd death
Rather than I would be so pilled-esteemed.
In fine, redeemed I was as I desired.


The French offer a remarkable bargain: the foremost English general for some nondescript soldier of their own. But ceremony is so much more important than function that Talbot refuses the bargain and, at risk of total loss, insists on a much worse one.

Talbot's notion of warfare is literally medieval, strictly ceremonial. When Joan takes Rouen by stratagem, he shouts “treason” and “hellish mischief” and challenges the French to come out and fight “like soldiers”:

Dare ye come forth and meet us in the field?
Belike your lordship takes us then for fools,
To try if that our own be ours or no.
I speak not to that railing Hecate,
But unto thee, Alençon, and the rest;
Will you, like soldiers, come and fight it out?
Signior, no.
Signior, hang! base muleters of France!
Like peasant foot-boys do they keep the walls
And dare not take up arms like gentlemen.


Railing Hecate! There is no need to multiply instances; Talbot never opens his mouth but to pay tribute to ceremony. In the end it is not he who captures Joan, but the wily plotter Richard of York. Talbot, unsuccored by his contentious countrymen, is “tangled” in French “snares” and dies in nobly ceremonial rhymed combat with his son over who should flee to fight again and who should die for the honor of the Talbot name. He makes a grand exit:

Then follow thou thy desperate sire of Crete,
Thou Icarus; thy life to me is sweet:
If thou wilt fight, fight by thy father's side;
And, commendable proved, let's die in pride.


Just a reminder of what he sounded like when he did not get tangled in French snares, here is his reply to the Countess once more:

Madam, I have been bold to trouble you;
But since your ladyship is not at leisure,
I'll sort some other time to visit you.


Which of these two men, so strangely yoked by one name, is the “real” Talbot? It is the Countess' question. Relying on “great rumour” and “rare report,” as well as on his picture in her gallery, she thinks to trap the man's substance, “writhled shrimp” though he suddenly turns out to be. His laughter compels her to ask: “Why, art not thou the man?” It develops that where before she had but the shadow of his shadow, she still has no more than his shadow; substantiality is inversely proportional to illustriousness and “presence.” The substance escapes her, but in that one little scene she and we come as close as we ever shall to seeing the real Talbot. For only in that scene is he gifted, for a moment, with the style of speech and action which must be learned if his true purpose, the cause of England, is to be served. Sincerity of intention is not enough; valor and nobility do not ensure success—rather, the contrary. His one brief moment, not of glory (of those he has only too many), but of genuinely dramatic effectiveness, comes when he realizes that his substance is in the “sinews, arms and strength” of common, anonymous Englishmen and in the plot, the design in which they are made to act.

I believe that we can and must expand the question: “Who is the real Talbot?” into the broader one: “What is the real play, the real 1 Henry VI?” Some critics have called it a “Talbot-play,” taking their lead from Nashe's Pierce Penniless:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lien two hundred years in his tomb he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new-embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least, at several times, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.5

(There is the Countess' “picture” again!) Others have argued that the real heroine of this as of the other histories is England, and that even Talbot is no more than a servant in her cause. I should say that they are demonstrably in the right—but mostly on the strength of the Auvergne scene. For it is there, and there only, that Talbot clearly eliminates himself as “hero”; everywhere else he plays the part to the hilt.

This suggests that this most episodic of episodes is the “real” play, just as the Talbot in it is the “real” Talbot. How can that be? I am afraid the explanation will sound rather paradoxical, because in answer to the question: “How can these contrarieties agree?” I am unhappily not in the position to “wind my horn” and enact the answer physically. I shall try, however, to find help in my model. I suggested that Shakespeare saw the Wars of the Roses as a function and necessary product of the ceremonial style. On the one hand, this meant that his immediate subject, if it was to be truly represented, required that style; on the other hand, his larger subject—the divine plot in which all the disorders and episodic contentions were but steps toward a new kind of unity and order—required a style altogether different. His way out of the dilemma was this: he plotted, on the whole, according to the new, functional style—looking ahead, condensing, eliminating episodic matter, adding and elaborating anticipatory scenes, strengthening the themes most important to the general design. But he wrote according to the old, ceremonial style—in part, quite possibly, because it was still the only style he fully controlled. But being Shakespeare, he could hardly be happy with these unresolved “contrarieties”—even though they were implicit in Tudor doctrine. So he plotted a scene which, looked at casually, seems purely episodic. But into the scene he wrote an utterly unexpected speech of three lines, which should startle us into looking closely. If we do, we discover that here the contraries, both in speech and in plotting, are made to confront each other, and that the victory goes to the new style—again both in speech and in plotting. Drama wins over ceremony, self-effacement over self-assertion, the implicit over the explicit.

The expression “wins over” contains an ambiguity most useful for my purpose; it can be read with the stress either on the first word or on the second. This brings me to the last part of the scene, which contains a final surprise. Of the “brave” Talbot, the “terror of the French,” we would surely expect that he would take the Countess' treachery in very ill part. How is a man who is outraged by a ruse of war (employed by a declared enemy) likely to react to the discovery that he was to be trapped by feigned hospitality? Given the general level of rage and vengefulness in the play, a clean killing—after fearful verbal abuse—would seem a mild form of retaliation. But no; apology is sufficient to win grace:

For I am sorry that with reverence
I did not entertain thee as thou art.
Be not dismayed, fair lady; nor misconster
The mind of Talbot, as you did mistake
The outward composition of his body.
What you have done hath not offended me;
Nor other satisfaction do I crave,
But only, with your patience, that we may
Taste of your wine and see what cates you have;
For soldiers' stomachs always serve them well.
With all my heart, and think me honouréd
To feast so great a warrior in my house.


End of our scene. Having won over the Countess, Talbot now wins her over. Not with words or postures of ceremonial forgiveness; there is no kneeling and lifting up, no begging for mercy and magnanimous, magniloquent granting of it. The reconciliation is managed with unassertive kindness and wholly implicit generosity: “What you have done hath not offended me.” It has not offended him because this is the real Talbot, whose mind we misconstrue if we interpret it by his “outward composition” in the rest of the play. This is the sovereign plotter, who has learned from his divine counterpart both the style and the responsibilities that go with such plotting and such sovereignty.

Shakespeare's ultimate purpose is not to unite the English by whipping and stirring them with self-assertive nationalist sentiment into once again being “the terror of the French,” by directing their vainglory and ceremonial combativeness outward. That style is outdated, undramatic; worse, it is self-defeating. Not only do the French master the same style (in fact, Henry V suggests that originally it was a French style, which the English adopted to their sorrow); it is too easily importable for domestic use. Having learned to employ it against the French, the Yorks and Lancasters, the Suffolks and Cliffords (as well as the Raleighs and Essexes?) are only too ready to use it upon each other. The disorder in the world of Henry VI is not so much a rupture, a break in the chain of ordered being; it is a disease, an infection endemic in the all-too-pure, all-too-ceremonial lily that makes the noble flower smell far worse than weeds.

Shakespeare's ultimate plot is larger, more encompassing, dictated by the new analogy (God-dramatist) he has discovered and by the old analogy (Christendom-kingdom) he has rediscovered beneath the rhetoric of nationalism. His immediate responsibility is to his nation; he does speak English, he is not God. But that responsibility is to teach his nation a new style: of grace, of easy self-confidence, of implicit courtesy and generosity, of function rather than ceremony. United by and in this style, England would deserve to “win over” other nations and to play a leading part in the divine master-plot. After the “Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and Yorke,” there is promise of a still greater union, no longer “noble and illustre” but for that very reason likely to prove finer and truer, more lasting and closer to men's real needs:

Nor other satisfaction do I crave,
But only, with your patience, that we may
Taste of your wine and see what cates you have.

But that final feast is still far off—many wars off. The action is still in progress; the design can only be guessed at. Meanwhile—a brief interlude of ease and grace in a spectacle of bloody stridency—the merest taste of it must suffice to keep up the soldier's energy and spirit: “For soldiers' stomachs always serve them well.”


  1. Shakespeare's History Plays (New York, 1946), p. 163.

  2. It is difficult to say anything about 1 Henry VI without raising the still vexed question of authorship. I would like to stay clear of it, so I will state my position as a working assumption, in the hope that what follows will bear me out. I shall assume that 1 Henry VI was written or thoroughly reworked—possibly both—by Shakespeare himself.

    For the most complete recent statement of the “integralist” case, literary as well as textual, see Andrew S. Cairncross' introduction to the Arden edition of 1 Henry VI (London, 1962), which refers abundantly to other criticism. For the opposite view, see John Dover Wilson's introduction to the Cambridge edition (1952).

  3. First Part of King Henry VI, ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge, Eng., 1952); all quotations from the play are from this edition.

  4. Third Part of King Henry VI, ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge, Eng., 1952), II.v.31-34.

  5. Thomas Nashe, Selected Writings, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), pp. 64-65.


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Ritual and Ceremony in Shakespeare's Plays

Research by cultural anthropologists and historians has contributed greatly to our understanding of the significance of ritual and ceremony in Shakespeare's plays. These scholars have demonstrated that when a community observes traditional ceremonies, it expresses its belief in universal order and affirms its own continuity. They also point out that although a society may be renewed through rituals, it can be disrupted when the sacred origins of these ceremonies are perverted to serve ideological purposes or personal ambition. Many literary critics argue that the disruption of ritual, the desacralization of ceremony, and discrepancies between the intent and the effect of ritual observances are central features of many of Shakespeare's plays, especially the English histories.

The perversion of ritual in Richard II, often described as the most ceremonious of Shakespeare's plays, is the focus of commentary by Barbara D. Palmer (1985), James Black (1985), Richard Harrier (1987), and Naomi Conn Liebler (1995). Palmer asserts that in Richard II, ceremonial pageantry is deprived of its principal functions and becomes a sham. She describes the uncrowning of Richard at Whitehall (Act IV, scene i) as a “negative or reversed” form of ritual. Black also views this scene as an inverted rite, arguing that it enforces the notion of Richard as a monarch more concerned with the outward show of majesty than its inherent meaning. For Harrier, the episode at Flint Castle (Act III, scene iii) represents the play's climactic depiction of Richard's affectation of the appearance of kingship as well as his refusal to take responsibility for the part he played in bringing about an end to his reign. By contrast, Liebler contends that Richard never loses his conviction that, as the king, he must honor the ceremonial basis of his culture. In her judgment, the Flint Castle scene and the formal deposition before Parliament show that Bolingbroke and his supporters are as responsible for the dissolution of traditional order as Richard himself.

Several critics have examined the use or misuse of ceremony and ritual in the two plays that follow Richard II in the second tetralogy: Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Palmer maintains that in these plays it becomes evident that Henry understands how to use royal pageantry for political purposes. The critic also suggests that Shakespeare exposed the manipulation of courtly ceremony in the tavern scene (Part 1, Act II, scene iv), where Falstaff substitutes a simple chair for a throne, a dagger for a royal scepter, and a cushion for a crown. Minoru Fujita (1982) is principally concerned with what he views as Shakespeare's appeal to the conception of majesty derived from Elizabethan civic pageantry. Contrasting Hal's arrival in regal costume and procession in Act V, scene v of Henry IV, Part 2 with Falstaff's appearance in dirty and disheveled clothes, Fujita contends that the fat knight's disregard of ceremony and his mockery of royalty, though amusing in Part 1, can no longer be tolerated by the new king. Derek Cohen (1985) focuses on the relationship between Hal and Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1. Noting that the combat between them is preceded by a “provocative” exchange of boasts, he characterizes Hotspur's death as a ritual action that heals the nation and ensures its continuity. A similarly provocative exchange of boasts before combat is typical of characters in Henry VI, Part 1, as Sigurd Burckhardt (1967) points out. Describing this defiant, self-assertive style as “the ceremonial mode,” he argues that Shakespeare depicted the conflict between Yorkists and Lancastrians as the inevitable outcome of both parties' adherence to ritual combativeness.

The subversion of traditional rituals and ceremonies in Shakespeare's tragedies is the subject of essays by Susan Letzler Cole (1985), Stephen X. Mead (1994), Mark Rose (1989), Gillian Murray Kendall (1992), and Naomi Conn Liebler (1995). In an essay on Hamlet, Cole argues that the primary impulse of the play's dramatic action is Claudius's disregard for customary funeral rites. Because Hamlet is denied traditional expressions of his grief, the critic contends, he cannot make the transition from mourner to heir that would allow him to reconcile his ambivalent responses to his father's death. Mead suggests that the sacrificial death of Alarbus at the beginning of Titus Andronicus, though intended as a ceremonial means of appeasing the spirits of the dead and atoning for their deaths, not only fails to do this but instead instigates all the violent actions that follow. Similarly, Rose addresses the efficacy of ritual and the unintended consequences its observance may give rise to in Julius Caesar. He points out that the assassination of Caesar, rather than being a sacrificial death that restores the republic, leads to internal warfare and the institution of an imperial government. Both Kendall and Liebler consider Shakespeare's treatment of ritual and ceremony in King Lear. Kendall analyzes the trial by combat between Edmund and Edgar, arguing that for all its accoutrements of ritual, it is a hollow, artificial enactment of the idea that the outcome of such contests will affirm justice and social order. Liebler also finds no restoration of social order at the conclusion of Lear. Indeed, she regards the scenes on the heath as central to the play's vision of a society where custom, ritual, and law are all under attack. Liebler discerns similar violations of social customs and ritual in Macbeth, where, she contends, ceremonies meant to bind a community together fracture it instead.

Susan Baker (1989) and Frank Nicholas Clary (1996) address the theme of ceremony and ritual in two of Shakespeare's comedies: As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Baker examines the rites of passage that the characters undergo in As You Like It. The critic suggests that Shakespeare intended the theatrical experience of life in the Forest of Arden to be as transformative for audiences as it is for the characters in the play. Both ritual and drama, she contends, provide an opportunity to organize—or disrupt—human experience, and audiences attending this play as well as its characters are disconcerted by the movement from one perspective to another. Focusing on another rite of passage, the wedding night revelry in the final scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Clary evaluates the function and impact of the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude. He views it not only as an episode that serves as a transition between the nuptial ceremonies and the physical consummation of those formal unions, but also as an initiation rite for Hippolyta, the outsider who must be made part of Athenian society.

Susan Letzler Cole (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Cole, Susan Letzler. “‘Maimèd Rites’: Shakespeare's Hamlet.” In The Absent One: Mourning Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance of Ambivalence, pp. 41-60. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Cole compares Hamlet to Xerxes, the protagonist of Aeschylus's The Persians, arguing that because Hamlet has been denied the catharsis of traditional funeral rites, he becomes obsessed with replacing his father rather than forging his own, separate identity.]

All of the components which serve as links between funerary ritual and tragic drama are present in Shakespeare's Hamlet. There is not one deceased father but three (the elder Hamlet, the elder Fortinbras, and Polonius). A ghost appears outdoors, wearing armor, and indoors, apparently wearing a dressing gown. There is evidence of antithetical style (“With an auspicious and a dropping eye, / With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage”1) and antiphonal exchange (Ophelia's “mad” songs of lament for her dead father). A permanent liminal status is associated with the protagonist, reflected in liminal space and journey, both physical (the place where Hamlet and the Ghost meet; the graveyard; the sea voyage) and psychic (the “antic disposition”; the soliloquies in acts I, II and III). Finally, there is ambivalence—expressed as intrapsychic conflict in the asides and soliloquies of both Hamlet and Claudius; implied or expressed in the relationships between deceased and mourner, between father and inheriting son, and between father-surrogates and son-surrogates (Claudius and Hamlet; Polonius and Hamlet; Claudius and Laertes; “old Norway” and his nephew, Fortinbras); and expressed by the governing structure of the whole play: a defeat of Danish corruption is a victory for Norwegian opportunism. While Aeschylus's The Persians is a tragic drama centered on, almost fused with, ritual mourning, Hamlet is the tragedy of a mourner in a world which provides no context for mourning.

Hamlet begins with reminders of the deaths of two father-kings. We are told by Horatio that young Fortinbras of Norway is preparing war against Denmark on behalf of his dead father; by the end of this act Hamlet has been stirred to thoughts of revenge by the ghost of his murdered father. Neither of these intended acts of retaliation, however, comes to fruition in any direct or immediate way. Fortinbras's revenge is transposed to fighting “for an eggshell” in Poland. Hamlet's long warfare with the very concept of revenge seems to end just before he exposes himself to the treachery of Claudius and Laertes: “The readiness is all. … Let be.” Even Laertes' revenge, seemingly a direct expression of his mourning for his dead father and sister, is co-opted by Claudius. The act we are continually led to expect—revenge as “a function of mourning”2—is continually aborted, deflected, or neutralized. The “action” of The Persians is mourning. The “action” of Hamlet is the foiled attempt to mourn. Claudius is the despoiler of all rituals, especially the ritual of mourning, as evidenced by the abbreviated and maimed funerary rituals for his brother, for Polonius, and for Ophelia. By the end of the play it has become increasingly clear that this is a court which cannot mourn and that the continually aborted mourning is a symptom of the impoverished life of the survivors. Only when the chorus of mourners-who-can't-mourn become public witnesses of Hamlet's final “passage,” and the ritual of mourning that will accompany it, can life be genuinely renewed.

In The Persians, Xerxes achieved final authority by accepting and enacting his liminal status as chief mourner of the deceased; in that role, he gained command of and directed the chorus of ritual mourners. Unlike Xerxes, Hamlet is not to inherit from, overreach, or even fully mourn his deceased father-king. Instead, he is invited by Claudius to be a ghastly parody of his father's killer: “Be as ourself in Denmark,” an inheritor of sterile ritual, false rhetoric, ingenuine feeling. Claudius never seems to feel the ambivalence toward his deceased brother that he talks about so well, but he senses that ambivalence in Hamlet and wants it neutralized. The liminal role Hamlet chooses instead—his “antic disposition”—brilliantly reflects and resolves his dilemma. Hamlet is not simply dispossessed of his role as chief mourner; he is dispossessed of all his expected rituals and roles. His role as son is made intolerable by the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. The ritual of love and courtship of Ophelia is aborted by Laertes and Polonius, and the ritual of friendship tainted by Claudius, who uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to “sift” Hamlet. His intended role as caretaker of his mother in his father's absence is removed rather imperiously by the Ghost himself. Hamlet's authority as prince is called into question by his public response to the Ghost's appearance, and permanently lost when he elects an antic disposition. Hamlet now appropriates the only role possible to him in a world which considers ritual mourning “a fault against the dead”: the “antic disposition” is a form of liminality that enables Hamlet to identify with the deceased whom he is not allowed to mourn.

It is through his incorporation of his father's spirit that Hamlet enacts his ambivalence toward the beloved dead. In the Chinese and African funerary rituals analyzed earlier, the eldest son does not impersonate the dead father; in the Edo rite, the eldest son is specifically forbidden to represent the deceased. Hamlet's “impersonation” of his deceased father has clear implications of tabooed aggressiveness. In the last act he repossesses the name with which he first addresses the Ghost; he engages in (mock) single combat with a rival, as his father did with Fortinbras; and, dying—like his father, poisoned by Claudius—he becomes in his final passage the military-royal presence prefigured by the Ghost. He even seems, to the dismay of certain critics and readers, to grow older when he enters the graveyard in act V.

Enactment of the ambivalence which characterizes the role of mourner-heir is more complicated, infinitely more complicated, for Hamlet than for Xerxes, or any other tragic protagonist. No longer son but nephew to his royal parents (“my uncle-father and aunt-mother”), his mourning defined as “impious” and “incorrect” by the despoiler-king who has usurped both his father's political and familial role and his own (“Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion, and the mold of form, / Th'observed of all observers, quite, quite down!”), Hamlet has been denied the conditions that would allow the performance of ambivalence directly, as mourning heir. Unable to perform his own role, he deflects his ambivalence onto the performance of others—Claudius as the new familial and royal father; Ophelia as obedient child (especially in III. i); Gertrude as obedient wife and Queen (especially in III. iv); Laertes and Fortinbras as obedient subjects and sons whose revengeful impulses are sanctioned directly or indirectly by their surrogate-fathers and kings; Polonius as parody of designing and manipulative paternal-political authority; Horatio as rational philosopher (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”) Finally, and most strangely, Hamlet's ambivalence is directed toward the acting of the “tragedians of the city,” the only public performance of mourning welcome at Elsinore.

Hamlet's “antic disposition” has given trouble to audiences and critics alike. Analyzing this “disposition” from a perspective quite different from my own, Eleanor Prosser offers a valuable clue to its essential nature:

Hamlet's choice of words, “antic disposition,” is significant. In Shakespeare's day, “anticdid not meanmad.It was the usual epithet for Death and meant “grotesque,” “ludicrous.” The term is appropriate for the grinning skull and the tradition of Death laughing all to scorn, scoffing at the pretenses of puny man. May not this meaning be the operative one?3

(Italics mine)

It may, indeed. Hamlet takes on the “antic disposition” and becomes what he is haunted by. John Shakespeare, Shakespeare's father, was buried on September 8, 1601. Noting this, Alexander Welsh speculates that “the tradition that Shakespeare was the actor who played the ghost suits perfectly the identification with the deceased that is common in mourning.”4 One may or may not wish to acknowledge a possible reflection of the playwright-actor's own participation in mourning in his greatest tragedy. But the protagonist himself clearly identifies with the deceased father through his enactment of liminality in the form of the antic disposition.

We see this rather startlingly in Ophelia's speech to Polonius, describing Hamlet's visit to her:

O my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!
With what, i' th' name of God?
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet …
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport,
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors—he comes before me. …
He falls to such perusal of my face
As 'a would draw it. Long stayed he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being.

(II. i. 75-78, 81-84, 90-97. Italics mine)

Compare Ophelia's account of Hamlet's appearance and behavior with Horatio's description of the ghost:

                                                                                Thrice he walked
By their oppressed and fear-surprisèd eyes,
Within his truncheon's length, whilst they, distilled
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. …
But answer made it none. Yet once methought
It lifted up it head and did address
Itself to motion like as it would speak. …
What, looked he frowningly?
A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.
Pale or red?
Nay, very pale.
And fixed his eyes upon you?
Most constantly.

(I. ii. 202-6, 215-17, 231-34. Italics mine)

Some of the points of comparison italicized above may appear trivial, yet the cumulative effect is significant. Hamlet comes to Ophelia just as the Ghost came to the sentinels guarding the castle—pale, silent, sorrowful, lifting his head and fixing his “fear-surprisèd” audience with a constant look that seems to speak of hellish horrors. The Ghost comes to those who are on guard uselessly, protecting a political realm distrustful of the rituals and values that might save it. Hamlet, ghostlike, comes to one who is also on guard uselessly, having taken on the self-protective suspicions and defenses of her family and especially of her father, a parody of the new king.

Hamlet's physical as well as psychic transformation is observed closely by Claudius as well as by Ophelia. Speaking of his nephew to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he says: “Something have you heard / Of Hamlet's transformation: so call it, / Sith nor th'exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was. What it should be, / More than his father's death, that thus hath put him / So much from th'understanding of himself, / I cannot dream of.” Claudius's reference to Hamlet's outer as well as inner change focuses not on the condition itself but on the cause. Claudius's concern, characteristically, is with his own safety; yet, as usual, he intuits the truth of the situation. Hamlet's self-alienation is a reflection of ritual mourning aborted. He has begun the liminal journey without a governing context or a ritually sanctioned role. Claudius has inherited all but the spirit of Hamlet's father. This spirit Hamlet incorporates and enacts in increasingly assured ways.

Margaret Alexiou claims that “an appeal to the dead by name … was frequently avoided, even in a direct address to the dead.”5 The Chorus in The Persians invokes Darius by name twice, hoping to cause the return of his spirit, yet shrinking in dread—unable to look or speak—when the Ghost first appears. Hamlet's direct address to the Ghost of his father in act I is a bold attempt not to raise the dead but to establish a certain kind of contact:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. O, answer me!

(I. iv. 39-45)

Hamlet addresses the Ghost not with the “If … then” logic of Horatio's earlier unsuccessful appeal, but in a vocabulary of ambivalence (“health … or … damned,” “heaven or … hell,” “wicked or charitable”); therefore he can be answered.

Hamlet's appealing to the Ghost by name may be an example of a “ritual of reversal,” like that moment during the Tallensi funeral when the son looks into his father's granary for the first time. There is clearly a hint of replacement in Hamlet's later appropriation of this way of addressing his dead father (I'll call thee Hamlet, / … royal Dane”) when he confronts Laertes at Ophelia's open grave: “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane.” Hamlet's announcing himself in the same terms he used to address the Ghost is an ironic form of homeopathic protection. For he defines himself as the kingly-paternal-military figure he will only become in death.

The Ghost's final command is “Remember me,” and Hamlet “remembers” his father by assuming an antic disposition. His immediate reaction to the Ghost's revelation of regicide, fratricide, and adultery has been thought puzzling, especially in its emphasis on memory rather than on revenge:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell? O fie! Hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
                                                                                          … Now to my word:
It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me.’
I have sworn't.

(I. iv. 92-104, 110-12. Italics mine)

Hamlet is to make his liminal journey in his mind. The act of recollection is the act of allowing himself to become haunted by what he wishes to recollect. Dying to his former self, “all forms, all pressures past,” Hamlet is taking on the disposition of the deceased with a vengeance. (Indeed, he is fearful that his very body will become impotent, will grow old too quickly.) In Claudius's court, memory is a kind of revenge. Hamlet's “antic disposition” will eventually turn the court into the mourners they refuse to be, will provoke the response that his father's dead body could not. In act II, scene ii, Polonius concludes his silly dissection of Hamlet's “madness” thus: “the madness wherein now he raves, / And all we mourn for” (Italics mine). Like Xerxes, but in a more complex and less direct way, Hamlet will achieve final authority as leader of the chorus of mourners through his surrogate, Horatio: “Absent thee from felicity awhile, / … To tell my story.”

Hamlet's perspective edges eerily closer to that of the “antic” Death in his famous definition of man. His dialogue with Polonius (II. ii) anticipates that speech:

Will you walk out of the air, my lord?
Into my grave.
—My lord, I will take my leave of you.
You cannot take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal—except my life, except my life, except my life.

(II. ii. 208-9, 215-19)

These lines express more than Hamlet's characteristic contempt for Polonius. The antic expresses his longing for identification with the deceased in a way fully suited to Polonius's limited understanding: a simple desire for physical extinction. When Hamlet tries to describe his “disposition” for his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, now become Claudius's spies, he reveals how far he has come in the liminal journey of the mind: “[I]ndeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. … What a piece of work is a man … and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Hamlet's definition of man as the “quintessence of dust” is the quintessential expression of the “antic” disposition: “laughing all to scorn, scoffing at the pretenses of puny man.” Compare Hamlet's response to Rosencrantz after he has killed Polonius:

What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?
Compounded it with dust, whereto 'tis kin.

(IV. ii. 4-6)

With the arrival of the “tragedians of the city,” Hamlet's situation finds itself depicted in that of the adult actors. The prince seems to compare the usurpation of the adult players' position in the city by the children's companies with Claudius's usurpation of his (presumably) older brother's position at Elsinore. In each case, we see a distortion and corruption of what is natural: that the younger inherit from, and eventually supplant, the older generation. The situation in the city is a cruel mirror-image of Hamlet's situation at Elsinore, his role as child-inheritor-mourner usurped by the consummate adult actor, Claudius. But the most suggestive analogy is perhaps this: forced to take to the road, the “tragedians of the city” have become a kind of liminal company. The tragic actors—displaced, like Hamlet, by “the late innovation”—will attempt to present the only performances of mourning for a dead king sanctioned in Claudius's court: Hecuba's mourning for Priam, and the Queen's “passionate action” of mourning for the dead King in the Dumb Show.

Hamlet openly discards his antic disposition only once in front of Polonius, in order to take on the role of tragic actor delivering “a passionate speech” describing Priam's murderer. The parallel between Hamlet as displaced mourner and the tragedian as displaced actor accounts, in part, for Hamlet's reaction to the Player's presentation of the Pyrrhus speech. Both Hamlet and Polonius are distressed by the tragedian's portrayal of Hecuba's mourning for her murdered husband-king, Priam. Polonius, characteristically, is not able to bear the verisimilitude of the tragic actor's performance: “Look, whe'r he has not turned color, and has tears in's eyes. Prithee no more.” Hamlet, on the other hand, characteristically cannot bear the disparity between the “forms, moods, shapes of grief … actions that a man might play,” and “that within which passes show”:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears …

(II. ii. 561-72)

Hamlet's reaction to tragedian-as-mourner is deeply ambivalent. The tragic actor is performing mourning before a dispossessed mourner unable to make his “whole function … [suit] / With forms to his conceit.” In this moment of performance, the tragedian is one more usurper of the protagonist's expected role. Here at last is a context—tragic performance—where mourning can be expressed, even in a world which denies its reality. And yet, to Hamlet, a “fiction” of mourning is monstrous because all mourning has become fictional. Except for the Dumb Show, there is no enactment of mourning in “The Mousetrap” as performed. The mourning which should properly follow the murder of Gonzago is aborted by Hamlet himself.

The play-within-the-play is the production par excellence of the antic disposition. Hamlet uses the “tragedians of the city” to recreate the moment of death and to provide a stimulus and context for response to that death. “The Mousetrap” is, above all, a performance of ambivalence for Hamlet; he too must watch a scene “something like” the murder of his father, but now he is free to respond. He has intended to “tent … [Claudius] to the quick,” but his attempted exposure of “guilty creatures sitting at a play” is an exposure of his own unresolved responses to the death/murder of his father. Thus, he seems to lose control, stopping the action at the moment of death by blurting out the sequel to Claudius who rises and calls for lights. Hamlet's aborting the play, by changing the mode from drama to narrative, is a troubling and ambiguous action, one which seems to parallel Claudius's attempt to cut off Hamlet's own process of mourning after his father's death. In order to understand why Hamlet does this, we must look more closely at what he aborts.

The staging of “The Mousetrap” is clearly too potent, too full of ambivalence, for Hamlet to control and bring to completion. “The Mousetrap” could just as easily close on him, for he is, in a sense, killing the king—but which king? The murderer is named Lucianus; Hamlet tells us Lucianus is “nephew to the King.” The victim is referred to, in stage directions and speech headings, as King and Player King, but Hamlet tells us that the victim is a Duke named Gonzago. Thus the identity of the victim is permanently veiled, ambiguous. Lucianus murders a man who is both his uncle-king and at the same time a lesser figure, Duke Gonzago. The identity of the victim is blurred so that two men seem murdered rather than one. At the same time, the motive for the murder is doubled, as if two murderers are fused in the figure of Lucianus. Hamlet's cry to the actor playing Lucianus, “Begin, murderer. Leave thy damnable faces and begin. Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge,” is odd, makes a claim that his later summary of the plot of “The Mousetrap” does not corroborate. Revenge is nowhere stated as Lucianus's motive: “This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna. … 'Tis a knavish piece of work. … 'A poisons him i' th' garden for his estate. His name's Gonzago. You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife” (Italics mine). Revenge is Hamlet's cue for action, not Lucianus's. His giving the actor his cue confirms that Hamlet is staging, and watching, two murders, not one. The victim is both Hamlet's father and his uncle; the murderer is both Claudius and Hamlet. In producing “The Mousetrap,” Hamlet is simultaneously “murdering” his father and revenging his father's murder.

When Hamlet stops the action of the play at the moment of death, he prevents the enactment of its consequences: mourning, the cessation of mourning, replacement of the dead man by his murderer. The stage directions for the Dumb Show give the intended scenario: “The Queen returns, finds the King dead, makes passionate action. The poisoner, with some three or four, come [sic] in again, seem to condole with her. The dead body is carried away. The poisoner woos the Queen with gifts; she seems harsh awhile, but in the end accepts love.” It is possible to infer that Hamlet is overexcited, that again he cannot bear to see someone else perform his role as mourner of the beloved dead. (Compare not only his distress at the tragedian's portrayal of the mourning of Hecuba for the murdered Priam, but also his mockery of Laertes' hyperbolic grief at Ophelia's grave.) But it is also true that cutting off the performance of mourning is in some way to deny the reality of what he has staged, just as Claudius and Gertrude do in their refusal to mourn for the deceased king or to sanction any extended period of public mourning by others. To eliminate the performance of mourning is, for both Hamlet and Claudius, to refuse to be implicated in the consequences of one's aggressive and murderous desires. It is possible to claim that finally Hamlet cannot present on the tragic stage what has not been fully worked through in the theatre of his own mind.

After the performance of “The Mousetrap,” Hamlet's antic disposition seems to take the form of “a certain abnormal condition of the dead about which very definite ideas are everywhere held. … It is believed that under certain conditions a dead body is withheld from the normal process of corruption, is re-animated.”6 Hamlet images a setting for the emergence, and placation, of the buried dead and then places himself, ambiguously, in that scene: “'Tis now the very witching time of night, / When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood. …” “When churchyards yawn” can only mean: when graves open. Despite the inconclusiveness implied by the use of the conditional verb, “Now could I drink hot blood” suddenly establishes a link between the speaker and the newly opened graves. Hamlet seems to be imagining himself into the scene and thereby into that abnormal condition of the dead which is ultimately a kind of vampirism. The rest of the soliloquy reflects the struggle to ensure that nourishing the dead by sacrificing the blood of the living will not be the “bitter business” of Hamlet's visit to his mother: “I will speak daggers to her, but use none.”

But Hamlet has gone too far. Not only is sacrificing warm blood his “business” (III. iv), but Hamlet succeeds, ironically, in setting up a context for the reemergence of the buried dead, whose role he has usurped and betrayed. We recall that Xerxes' hubris, forcing his route to take a shape against its nature, was a threat to the ghostly father in Aeschylus's The Persians; the son's symbolic sexual defilement of his mother in that play was a kind of “impious liminality.” In his dialogue with his mother, Hamlet's very use of stichomythia, the ancient mode of communication between the living and the dead, reveals the degree to which he has usurped the role of his deceased father. The content of the stichomythic dialogue (III. iv) shows clearly Hamlet's impious liminality. He is attempting verbally to harness, and physically to subdue, his mother:

Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Mother, you have my father much offended.
Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.


Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge.


What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? Help,

(III. iv. 10-13, 19, 22)

We have already seen how Hamlet's incorporation of the spirit of his father contains hints of tabooed aggressiveness. The Ghost's last words to Hamlet in act I, scene iv, were “Remember me.” The first words of the Ghost's sole speech in act III, scene iv, will be “Do not forget.” But by this time Hamlet is not remembering his father: he is replacing him.

The reemergence of the buried dead—the intervention of the Ghost in this scene—has always been a source of great controversy and general dismay. Eleanor Prosser speaks for many when she says, “The final appearance of the Ghost presents an insoluble problem. Every theory about its purpose is faced with some contradiction.” To Prosser, the Ghost's appearance “has served only one purpose: not to lead Gertrude to Heaven but to leave her to Hell.”7 Prosser's view illustrates a general tendency to determine once and for all whether the Ghost is a good or an evil spirit and thus to fail to recognize the ambivalence that characterizes the roles, relationships, and structure of the tragedy. Contradictory theories about ghosts' purposes might better be used as pairs than rejected, or regarded as mutually exclusive. The view, for example, that the Ghost is merely a malign spirit can be fruitfully opposed without denying the presence of the destructive daimōn in this scene, or in the play as a whole.

At the moment the Ghost reenters the play, Hamlet seems to have forgotten the form his father's ambivalence took, its explicit splitting off of revenge (for Claudius) from compassion (for Gertrude). The Ghost had told Hamlet that he must “leave … [his mother] to heaven”; he would not enter now in order to leave her to Hell. Just after the Ghost exits, Hamlet tells his mother, “Confess yourself to Heaven,” and she responds, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.” The image of the heart divided in two (“the worser part” and “the purer”) is crucial. Whatever impulses towards repentance and reconciliation have been awakened in Gertrude are still available to her after the Ghost's brief appearance. What prevents her full repentence is her own ambivalence, emblematized by the Ghost.

The preceding scene (III. iii) provides an illuminating parallel to this one. There Hamlet maintains a kind of ghostlike presence on the peripheries of Claudius's unsuccessful attempt to repent. Hamlet's way of being in on his uncle's self-struggle is as an embodiment of the evil impulses Claudius is struggling against. Similarly, the silent “piteous action” of the Ghost is an enactment of those impulses Hamlet is struggling against. The Ghost's reasons for appearing to Hamlet (and not to Gertrude) have more to do with Hamlet's disposition than with Gertrude's:

                                                                                Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable.—Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects. Then what I have to do
Will want true color; tears perchance for blood.

(III. iv. 126-31)

The major contradiction to the view that the Ghost is evil is the reference to “piteous action.” The Ghost had first appeared in armor and “with martial stalk” to armed sentinels guarding Elsinore. The Ghost of the first act, though “courteous,” manifested himself primarily as the daimōn of the royal house whose destructive power, once directed against the King of Norway, has veered, is now redirected against the new King of Denmark. The ambivalence of the daimōn who stalks this royal family is nonetheless made clear in the Ghost's command that Hamlet “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” but not “contrive / Against thy mother aught.” When the Ghost appears to Hamlet in the Queen's “closet,” not in armor but “in his habit as he lived,” he again presents himself as the ambivalently perceived dead, but this time the good daimōn is dominant.

Hamlet, killing his mother verbally (“These words like daggers enter in my ears”), has exchanged roles with the ghost in armor of act I but, at the same time, he has violated the Ghost's command, “Leave her to heaven.” Like Xerxes' symbolic violation of mother and nature, Hamlet's hubristic attempt to replace father, king, and God in his mother's life provokes the compassionate rebuke of the ghostly father-figure. Like Darius in Atossa's dream, the Ghost is both disappointed and pitying: “How pale he glares!” Hamlet is afraid that his father's very “look” will “convert” him, will force him perhaps to exchange “tears … for blood,” mourning for murder. And yet, Hamlet is being directed more and more toward his true role: that of mourner, ultimately mourner for the loss of his own kingly life.

After the Ghost's intrusion, Hamlet, far from convincing his mother he is mad, does just the opposite. He exposes, and seems to reject, the antic disposition he has put on since his first meeting with the Ghost. In its place, Hamlet takes on his new paradoxical role, that of “scourge and minister.” Here is the real embracing of the ambivalence of the mourning heir, translated into paired opposites: the scourge, a sinner who may be punished; the minister, an agent who may execute divine judgment. The role of “scourge and minister,” like the appearance of the Ghost, has vexed critics of the either-or school: “The two terms are so contradictory that they are irreconcilable. … [Hamlet] does not say that he has been Heaven's scourge but now will become its minister. He says he is both, which is impossible.”8 But being both is Hamlet's only possible role: destroying and healing, murdering and bestowing (“I will bestow him and will answer well / The death I gave him”); stern and pitying (“I must be cruel only to be kind”); embracing, and not choosing between, tears and blood. Nor are we allowed to choose for Hamlet. Gertrude's seemingly straightforward description of Hamlet (IV. i), “‘A weeps for what is done,” is especially ambiguous, since it is spoken to Claudius. It is impossible to know if Hamlet's weeping is an authentic action unseen by the audience (and thus symbolic of the absence of a context for mourning in the play) or if it is merely a useful deception.

Until the final moments of the play, grieving is distrusted in Claudius's court because it is too richly evocative, too revealing. Things must only be what they seem in Denmark, not what they paradoxically are. Grieving is sanctioned at court only in the form of Ophelia's mad songs of lament, Hamlet's antic disposition, and the tragedians' performance; mourning is, by implication, either mad or feigned. Hamlet, by his antic disposition, might have turned Claudius's court into a chorus of mourners, as suggested in Polonius's description of the Prince's transformation: “the madness wherein now he raves, / And all we mourn for.” Polonius's own death, “caused” by Hamlet's antic disposition, evokes the nearest thing to genuine grief we ever get from Claudius:

Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety,
Which we do tender as we dearly grieve
For that which thou hast done, must send thee hence
With fiery quickness.

(IV. iii. 40-43. Italics mine)

The political expediency, hypocrisy, and yoking of the genuine and the ingenuine (grief for Polonius's death, concern for Hamlet's “safety”) recall the long opening sentence of Claudius's first speech in the play, in which the memory of his “dear brother's death” is placed discretely in a subordinate clause while the main clause ends resoundingly on its true emphasis: “ourselves.” I have already quoted the ironic use of antithesis in that speech:

With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage.

(I. ii. 11-12)

The awkward visual image—one eye looking hopeful, one eye looking sad—is strained language working unsuccessfully to cover up a strained situation. The conventional expression of ambivalence (“mirth in funeral,” “dirge in marriage”) is mere rhetoric, not an attempt to record complex human truths. In the later speech quoted above, the implication that Claudius's emotions are equally balanced between holding dear Hamlet's life and dearly grieving for Polonius's death is as false as the semblance of a natural balance of emotions and events in his first speech as new king. If there is a note of genuineness in grief (perhaps largely reflecting self-interest) in Claudius's references to Polonius, there is still the “huggermugger” (secret haste) of his interment. Hamlet has forced Claudius to expose again his inability to provide or honor full rituals of mourning for the dead.

Ironically, the repression of grief's rituals only causes more grief. Ophelia's madness; Laertes' disaffection; the people's incipient rebelliousness—all of this, as Claudius says, “Like to a murd'ring piece, in many places / Gives me superfluous death.” The absence of adequate death rituals can only bring death; failure to respond genuinely and appropriately to death is itself a kind of death.

Claudius's violation of Polonius's right to full funerary ritual almost leads to his literal death at the hands of an enraged Laertes:

His means of death, his obscure funeral—
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his bones,
No noble rite nor formal ostentation—
Cry to be heard, as 'twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call't in question.

(IV. v. 211-14)

Laertes “stands for,” and would have performed, proper rites of mourning for the dead, but belatedly and impotently (compare his speeches at Ophelia's funeral). That Laertes seems to hear a cry “as 'twere from heaven to earth”—i.e., from the world of spirits—suggests that he might have become a surrogate for Hamlet in his outrage and frustration at the failure of the king to provide and sustain proper funerary ritual for his dead father. But only the removal of Claudius, abortively begun by Laertes' “riotous head,” can ensure the return of those death rituals necessary for life itself. Laertes' way of mourning is subsumed in revenge and co-opted by Claudius who has removed all other forms for the expression of genuine grieving:

Laertes, I must commune with your grief,
Or you deny me right. Go but apart,
Make choice of whom your wisest friends you will,
And they shall hear and judge 'twixt you and me.
If by direct or by collateral hand
They find us touched, we will our kingdom give,
Our crown, our life, and all that we call ours,
To you in satisfaction; but if not,
Be you content to lend your patience to us,
And we shall jointly labor with your soul
To give it due content.

(IV. v. 211-14)

The language is appropriate (“commune with your grief,” “jointly labor with your soul”) but the action is not. The offer of “kingdom,” “crown,” “life,” and “all that we call ours” would be more appropriately made to Hamlet, for it is he, not Laertes, who has been denied the role of son-as-heir to the deceased. Perhaps most revealing of all, Claudius's offer of communion in grief amounts to a rather legalistic “court” of judgment to determine if Claudius is implicated in Polonius's death (and, presumably, “if not,” who is). The offer of “due content” is the joint labor of revenge. Claudius's later questioning, “Laertes, was your father dear to you? / Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart?” is ironic and self-reflective. It is Claudius whose denial of full funerary rituals limits the expression of feeling at Elsinore.

Laertes' aggressive responses to the death of his father become quickly organized into an elaborate revenge plot. His way of “mourning” his father is like that of Fortinbras: both enact their tabooed aggressiveness in murderous acts sanctioned by their respective kings (Laertes' duel-to-the-death with Hamlet; Fortinbras's senseless war against the Poles). Only Hamlet questions, and requestions, the automatic acceptance of murderous and revengeful impulses as “due content.”

Unlike Hamlet, Laertes and Ophelia are would-be mourners who finally perform their mourning: Laertes, in the mode of treachery; Ophelia, in the mode of madness. Laertes' enactment of revenge as a way of mourning the paired losses of “a young maid's wits” and “an old man's life” contrasts with Ophelia's “mad” lamenting. Ophelia's mad songs are the only explicit examples of ritual lamentation in the play:

He is dead and gone, lady,                    (Song)
                    He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
                    At his heels a stone.
(Sings.) White his shroud as the mountain snow—
                    Larded all with sweet flowers                    (Song)
Which bewept to the grave did not go
                    With truelove showers.
They bore him barefaced on the bier                    (Song)
                    Hey non nony, nony, hey nony
And in his grave rained many a tear—
And will 'a not come again?                    (Song)
And will 'a not come again?
                    No, no, he is dead,
                    Go to thy deathbed,
He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll [head].
                    He is gone, he is gone,
                    And we cast away moan.
God ‘a’ mercy on his soul!
And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God bye you. (Exit.)

(IV. v. 29-32, 36, 38-40, 164-66, 188-98)

Here is the antiphonal singing of the ritual lament for the dead: “And will 'a not come again? / No, no, he is dead, / … And we cast away moan.” Only Ophelia, in the archaic recesses of her “madness,” can provide a context and a text for the ritual mourning of the beloved dead. There is some ambiguity in these songs of lament, expressed, for example, in the juxtaposition of references to her (sexual) lover and references to her white-haired father. It is not immediately clear whether she is lamenting the loss of her father or the loss of the lover he forbade her. It is also possible that she incorporates here a lament for the death of the elder Hamlet, as well as that of Polonius.

Ophelia partly narrates and partly participates in a funerary rite which seems to be both a literal and an imaginative experience. Her responses are simple, full of understanding and genuine feeling. Nowhere in the sane world of Elsinore is such an experience possible. These songs, which are among the most poignant moments in the play, are, as it were, put in quotation marks: mourning is merely madness in the deadened world of Hamlet.

Even the very attempt to make explicit the problem of the mourner in a world which refuses to ritualize mourning is rejected. Thus, Hamlet's questioning of Laertes at Ophelia's grave, “What wilt thou do for her?” is immediately characterized as “mad” by Claudius. Amid the “maimèd rites” of Ophelia's burial, Laertes' cries reiterate a theme of all the mourning children (Fortinbras, Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes) in this play: “What ceremony else?” “What ceremony else?” “Must there no more be done?” (Italics mine.) Hamlet's full challenge to Laertes is madly to the point:

'Swounds, show me what thou't do.
Woo't weep? Woo't fight? Woo't fast? Woo't tear thyself?
Woo't drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile?
I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I.

(V. i. 276-81)

Laertes' hyperbole as he leaps into the grave of his sister is being mocked by a protagonist who knows well the absurdity of the mourner without a sanctioned context for mourning. But Hamlet's seemingly irrational resolution, the identification with the dead (“be buried quick with her”), is a serious taunt. Hamlet has, in a sense, been “buried quick.” Through his antic disposition, he has made the imaginative journey into the liminal realm, giving up the role of antic only to make a literal and symbolic journey out of Denmark, across water, returning to a graveyard where he finds a potential surrogate for himself as frustrated mourner. Later, repenting his outburst at Ophelia's grave, Hamlet explicitly links his dilemma with Laertes': “For by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his. I'll court his favors. / But sure the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a tow'ring passion.” But Laertes is always an ironic surrogate for Hamlet. He is continually offered what Hamlet is denied: first, the opportunity to leave Denmark; then, on his return, the royal inheritance, if Claudius can be found to be implicated in his father's death; finally, the sanctioning of revenge as a form of mourning by a new, unambivalent father-figure whose values and needs at this moment of crisis match his own. Only in his dying moments does Laertes “acquire and beget a temperance” “in the very torrent, tempest, and … whirlwind of … passion” that makes him a fitting “image” of Hamlet's “cause.”

Hamlet's post-graveyard perspective suggests a new attitude toward dying. He no longer feels that puzzling “dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” When he delivered those lines, Hamlet had already witnessed the “return” of the spirit of his deceased father. He was imagining, and dreading, a “bourn” from which there was no return, an end to the liminality of the Ghost and thus to his own role as a liminal figure able to cross boundaries at will. Implicit in Hamlet's “To be or not to be” soliloquy (III. i) and in his final soliloquy of act IV—there are no soliloquies in the last act—is a fear of death. Compare “while to my shame I see / The imminent death of twenty thousand men / That for a fantasy and trick of fame / Go to their graves like beds.” If not a fear, then at least a shared avoidance of death is reflected in Hamlet's letter to Horatio: “Repair thou to me with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death.” In sharp contrast, we hear Hamlet tell Horatio, “Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave [die] betimes? Let be.” His new attitude becomes more explicit in his dying speech to Horatio:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

(V. ii. 347-50)

“Felicity” is death, and though this simple definition may not capture Hamlet's complex attitude toward all that is to come, it does capture his sense of the present moment. His final speech, which begins, “O, I die, Horatio! / The potent poison quite o'ercrows my spirit,” contains a quiet allusion to the cock's crow that marked the departure of his father's spirit, as reported by Horatio:

But even then the morning cock crew loud,
And at the sound it shrunk in haste away
And vanished from our sight.

(I. ii. 218-20)

The allusion to the cock's crow in the fifth act comes at the moment when Hamlet's father's spirit is vanishing from our sight: Hamlet's appropriation of the spirit of the deceased has become his own reality.

At the end, Hamlet has not willed his acceptance of death any more than he has willed his killing of Claudius. After aborting the literal performance of ambivalence—“The Mousetrap”—in act III and aborting the literal journey across the sea in act IV, he has unexpectedly come to rest in a graveyard in act V. There, beside the open grave of one he loved and indirectly killed, Hamlet has announced himself: “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane.” Symbolically and in public view he has supplanted his father. At the grave he finally expresses his ambivalence toward the beloved dead in the twin acts: his fervent confession of love (for Ophelia) and his physical and verbal attack (on Laertes as surrogate mourner). The “Let be” of the next scene is an acknowledgment that the performance of ambivalence of the displaced mourner is at last over.

This is Hamlet's legacy: he removes the despoiler of ritual, especially the paradigmatic ritual of mourning, and in his death provides an occasion for the state to renew itself through the catharsis of ritual mourning. In contrast to the deaths of Hamlet's father, Polonius, and Ophelia, at the moment of passage someone is there to give an epitaph and to initiate public and private mourning with complete exposure of the dead “high on a stage … placèd to the view.” In this line, for a moment, tragic drama and funerary ritual touch, complete each other. Horatio will tell Hamlet's story, becoming, like the tragedians of the city, an “abstract and brief” chronicle of the time. But Fortinbras delivers the final speech of the play:

                                                                                Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal; and for his passage
The soldiers' music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies. …
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

(V. ii. 396-402, 404)

The funerary ritual which clears the stage of bodies will be conducted by the foreigner-inheritor, Fortinbras. Thus, at the last, we have, as with The Persians, a performance of ambivalence as the governing context of the play: a defeat (Persian, Danish) which is also a victory (Greek, Norwegian). The final passage is celebrated with the only rite Fortinbras knows, “the rite of war,” but this is an appropriate emblem for that conflict, internal and external, which characterizes the performance of ambivalence so long resisted by Hamlet and now divided between Horatio and Fortinbras, different kinds of inheritors. In their responses to the Prince's death, they represent Hamlet's own response to the death of his father-king: Horatio, wishing to carry his mourning to its ultimate expression, self-slaughter; Fortinbras, wishing to take charge of that “passage” which also marks his own emergence as successor to paternal-royal authority.


  1. All citations of Shakespeare are taken from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963).

  2. See Alexander Welsh, “The Task of Hamlet,” Yale Review 69, no. 4 (1980): 481-502.

  3. Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 149.

  4. Welsh, 501.

  5. Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 136.

  6. John Cuthbert Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, A Study in Survivals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), 485, 363.

  7. Prosser, 195, 198.

  8. Prosser, 199, 201.

Susan Baker (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6124

SOURCE: Baker, Susan. “Shakespeare and Ritual: The Example of As You Like It.Upstart Crow 9 (1989): 9-23.

[In the following essay, Baker examines the rites of passage that the characters undergo in As You Like It and suggests that Shakespeare intended the theatrical experience of life in the Forest of Arden to be as transformative for audiences as it is for the characters in the play.]

Old theories die hard. Old evolutionary theories seem not to die at all, at least in the case of those propounded by the Cambridge classicists more than a half-century ago. The emergence of drama from ritual makes a good story, whether one of civilization's triumphing over primitive irrationality or one of drama's energies arising from its origins in primitive vitality. Perhaps sheer narrative charm keeps such notions alive for critics long after most scholars have discarded them for lack of supporting evidence. A recent essay by Richard F. Hardin summarizes the persistence of evolutionary theories and other problems with uses of the term ritual in literary criticism over the past few decades.1 In turn, he commends and recommends attention to the work of more up-to-date anthropologists, particularly Victor Turner. And indeed several important Shakespearean studies draw upon Turner's descriptions of rites of passage.2 Yet I believe we need to rethink altogether the relationships between ritual and drama, particularly Shakespearean drama.

Even the best instances of literary criticism's borrowings from anthropological theories of ritual continue to risk being burdened by the covert premise that as drama imitates life, critics can explain its representations by reference to studies of “real life” phenomena. The assumption persists that drama is somehow validated by our discoveries that it replicates patterns social scientists have identified empirically. Dramatic criticism is in this way doubly distanced: drama itself is predicated, if you will, on life-as-it-is-lived, and criticism of the drama is thus validated by references to studies of “real life,” as if anthropologists were engaged in an endeavor closer to reality than our own. We are still uncomfortable with our painted chairs.

Now that resemblances between ritual and Shakespearean drama are well-documented, it is time to consider possible explanations for these resemblances. Indeed, it is vital to do so, since any explanatory system invites reification and oversimplification. Only by careful attention to the assumptions implicit in comparing drama with ritual can critics avoid making one subservient, making one a pale imitation of the other. Of course, the evolutionary theories prevalent earlier in this century accounted for resemblances by ascribing origins; let us dispose quickly of the genetic argument.

Ritual and drama are related activities. Both manifest the human ability and need to construct symbolic configurations for ordering and organizing experience. More specifically, both present performed symbol systems: public, communal, enacted. The temptation to derive one from the other is nearly irresistible. But logically and temporally, drama would have to be prior to ritual. Certainly, the first performance of any ritual-to-be must be drama rather than ritual because it cannot be repeating anything, a necessary condition for an activity to be called ritual in any rigorous sense of the term. (It cannot simply be called life or random event either, because a clearly demarcated realm of the non-ordinary, non-workingday, is another necessary condition for ritual.) Only on a second performance does a proto-ritual begin to qualify as ritual. So every ritual turns out to be a repetition of an originating drama. This is to say that the existence of any ritual demonstrates the prior existence of drama as a human possibility. If a ritual imitates an originating drama, it must be less “real” than that drama, a step further removed from whatever reality may be. (Turner, in fact, draws upon his understanding of drama to develop his theories of ritual.) In practice, of course, we can simply acknowledge that ritual and drama often tell the same stories, orchestrate the same sorts of experiences. As analogues, then, ritual and drama are mutually illuminating, aside from any assumptions about origins or priorities. To treat ritual and drama as analogues, however, still assumes some justifying connection between them, and I propose the following relationship.

Victor Turner has continued the work begun by Arnold Van Gennep in demonstrating that rituals, like plays, are complex symbolic structures that can be analyzed as such, and that, again like plays, apparently diverse rituals can be shown to share a generic structure.3 Indeed, certain symbols and symbolic manipulations cluster together in widespread rituals with related purposes, much as certain kinds of symbolic configurations insistently recur in various articulations of any given literary genre. Evidently, particular patterns are logically appropriate to particular purposes or concerns—whether those of ritual or art. Given this inevitable connection between pattern and purpose, the striking correspondences between Shakespeare's characters in Arden and neophytes undergoing a rite of passage suggest that a play such as As You Like It shares an underlying motive (in Kenneth Burke's sense) with initiatory rituals.4 Change—in individuals, in their cultures, in their institutions—is a fact of human life. That such change be significant (rather than random) and beneficent (rather than destructive) is surely a deep human desire. Both the fact and the desire are reflected in the symbolic clusters which human beings have developed to commemorate and to facilitate important changes. I suggest that we can posit a “transformative mode” that informs many human activities, including at least some rituals and some works of art—wherever the motive of transformation is central.

I hope to demonstrate that this motive adequately accounts for the remarkable parallels between As You Like It and ritual without resorting to attenuated assumptions about Shakespeare's relation to particular rites and without claiming any necessary historical or genetic relationships between drama and ritual. Moreover, I shall argue that the play itself is transforming, that—like a rite of passage—it engenders as well as imitates transformation. Rites of passage exist primarily for their immediate participants; the central enactors of a ritual are those transformed by it. But plays are performed by actors for audiences. To the extent that a ritual and a play incarnate homologous structures, the role or function played singly by a neophyte, say, is divided between the characters in and the audience of a play. One can therefore expect the audience of As You Like It to be transformed by their experience of the play.5 My purpose here is to define the precise nature of this “transformation” and the artistic strategies that engender it.

As I have suggested, the broadest term for the motive shared by rites of passage and Shakespeare's green-world comedies is transformation. The ritual and artistic assumption seems to be that when something is transformed into something else, there exists a moment betwixt and between, a moment of formlessness, a brief return to undifferentiated—uncategorized—primordial matter. Liminality and the sojourn in the green world, then, symbolically represent and elaborate this moment, largely through the suspension or blurring of customary boundaries. At a lower level of abstraction, preparation for a new role involves shedding qualities and attitudes appropriate to the old and growing those appropriate to the new, with a moment of spiritual and psychological nakedness in between. In practice, whether ritual or dramatic, this shedding is less than total. One temporarily discards old habits of categorical perception in order to reclaim them, sheared of inappropriate accretions, with a refreshed sense of their validity and significance. The process is one of regeneration rather than replacement.

Turner's work on ritual has been so influential that it will be useful here to foreground those aspects that are pertinent to this essay. As noted earlier, Turner, drawing on Van Gennep, describes a generic structure for rites of passage. Such rites include three movements: separation, margin (limen or threshold), aggregation. Turner has concentrated on the liminal phase—an instance, by the way, where the “marginal” is “central.” According to Turner, liminality is constituted as an anti-structural interlude within a necessarily structured social order; this interval of anti-structure can create a sense of communitas (or flow) and allows for a return to a regenerated society (societas).6 His studies provide subtly elaborate descriptions and analyses of both liminality itself and its transforming role in society. One might call Turner the structuralist of anti-structure. For this paper, I will rely on his characterization of liminality as a ritually circumscribed time and place in which a society's customary categories for perceiving and ordering experience are temporarily suspended. Among the boundaries liminality typically denies are those between highborn/lowborn, male/female, human/animal, living/dead.

As numerous critics have noted, the tripartite structure of Shakespeare's green-world plays resembles the generic pattern of rites of passage. The portrayed green world corresponds structurally to ritual's marginal phase, and, indeed, it abounds with instances of blurred distinctions. Both its place and displacing parallel those of liminality. Status reversal, dissolution of hierarchies, (boys playing) girls playing boys (playing girls), mergers of man and beast (most literally in the figure of Bottom), distortions of temporality, even characters who straddle the border between life and death—all are among Shakespeare's favorite images and plot devices. (It is too seldom noted that these and similar categorical disruptions pervade all the plays, not just those with explicit green worlds.) Clearly, liminality—or something very like it—often appears in the plays. I will argue, however, that typically Shakespearean artistic strategies can be called liminal as well; that is, they operate to disrupt the customary categories we bring to the plays and thus create liminal responses in us.

Let us look at As You Like It, a play whose characters obviously undergo liminal experiences. Neophytes undergoing an initiation rite transcend their society's categories, such as those of sex and class. Sex distinctions are blurred so that one may be “treated or symbolically represented as neither or both male and female” (Symbols, p. 98). Consider Rosalind playing Ganymede playing Rosalind. Liminality negates variations in rank and degree; within a group of neophytes, all are equal. In the forest, Duke Senior calls his men “co-mates and brothers in exile” (II. i. 1), and Rosalind—disguised as the shepherd Ganymede—can flippantly tell him that her parentage is as good as his (III. iv. 32-33). (The confusion in I. i., about which girl is the current princess, and about how many princesses there are, may be accidental, but it also foreshadows the casteless society of Arden.) The best emblem of this equality is the litany in Act V:

It is to be all made of sighs and tears; And so am I for Phebe.
And I for Ganymede.
And I for Rosalind.
And I for no woman.

(V. ii. 79-83)

And so on. Here the individuality of the characters is masked by the similarity of their speeches. Moreover, liminality also denies the boundaries of life and death; neophytes are symbolically represented as neither living nor dead, or both living and dead. Even this most extreme blurring of categories is echoed in As You Like It: several of the characters exist, as it were, on the border between life and death, since they are under sentence of death should they return to the court. Moreover, Rosalind tells Orlando to “die by attorney” (IV. i. 85), which would be both to die and not to die.

Turner points out that “people can ‘be themselves,’ it is often said, when they are not acting institutionalized roles” (Symbols, p. 107). So, too, the merging and blurring of categories in Arden, the suspension of society's fixed and rigid roles, can be seen as propaedeutic to the self-discovery that takes place there, especially for Rosalind. But, at least in some primitive societies that perform elaborate initiation rites, the “arcane knowledge or gnosis obtained in the liminal period is felt to change the inmost nature of the neophyte. … It is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but a change in being” (Symbols, p. 102). Such a profound change occurs in both Duke Frederick and Oliver when they come into the green world, and Oliver can say of the man rescued by Orlando, “'Twas I; but 'tis not I” (IV. iii. 136). The sojourn in Arden does function as an initiation for the courtly characters. When they leave Arden, their lives in “this working-day world” will begin again, but their social roles will be new ones. So it is not surprising to find the playwright creating patterns similar to those which otherwise diverse cultures use in their rites of passage. The play, after all, culminates in multiple marriages: Rosalind and Orlando's chances for a sane and joyful married life have been enhanced by what they have experienced in the Forest; Oliver's conversion has made him worthy of Celia; Touchstone has chosen a sacramentally sanctioned wedding with Audrey, who will change her social as well as her marital status (though one may wonder whether she has been adequately prepared for her new role). Duke Senior resumes rather than assumes the role of ruler, and in the final scene he steps out from the crowd of spectators to certify the other characters' futures and authorize the beginning of the marriage ceremony. Although there is no reason to doubt that he (unlike Prospero) was a good ruler before his exile, there exists a suggestion that his stay with his “co-mates” in Arden, with its “sermons in stone,” has taught him something of what Lear learns in anguish on the storm-beaten heath.

As a mythic and metaphoric rendering of a psychological process, the green world is a realm isolated from a surrounding “working-day world,” in which a person may sojourn for a limited time, freed from many constraints of his usual environment. The green world has its own trials (more often tests than hardships), but they function to provide an examination, a clarification, and sometimes an alteration of qualities so as to prepare one for return to the everyday world. The psychological matrix of the green world can be called liminal, partly because of its marginal and transitional status, but more importantly because it operates through dislocation, disorientation, and disruption of customary structures to create refreshed, revitalized, and regenerated perceptions of reality.

As manifestations of the human propensity for symbolic activity, ritual and drama share motives and symbols appropriate to those motives. But ritual and drama differ in their primary targets. The neophyte is the object of a rite of passage, the one whose transformation is its immediate purpose.7 Although As You Like It portrays characters undergoing a ritually educational transformation, the play exists not for them but for the audience. I have outlined the ways As You Like It presents characters whose experience resembles ritual in structure; I would now like to turn to the related issue of how the play's strategies create a similar experience for its audience.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare both presents and represents liminal experience. We are separated from our everyday lives when we enter the theater (whether the actual one of performance or the imaginative one of reading a play), and we return to those lives when the play is finished. For the audience, then, the entire play can be a liminal occasion. Responding to As You Like It, we share vicariously the characters' experiences; their liminality becomes ours. Equally important, however, the play's strategies—including its details of language, its treatment of metaphoric conventions, and its attitude toward its own genre—work to interrupt the audience's unconsidered categorical habits. In this sense, one can appropriately call Shakespeare's strategies and the play's effects liminal.

The minimal signifying unit of a Shakespearean script is the single word, so it is logical enough to begin this discussion of categorical disruption by examining Shakespeare's treatment of specific words. Words, of course, designate categories of phenomena, and thus to disrupt connection between signifier and signified is to suspend a word's categorical force, to frustrate its referentiality. As Sigurd Burckhardt argues, “the nature and primary function of the most important poetic devices—especially rhyme, meter, and metaphor—is the release of words in some measure from their bondage to meaning.”8 This divestive process can be seen as a movement away from a conceptual, intellectual response and toward a more physiological perception of sound as sonic, recurrent and rhythmic. For example, a single word repeated again and again—keep, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep—loses its referential meaning, and becomes only a collection of phonemes. (Psychologists have called this referential stripping by repetition the “banana effect.”) This estrangement of words from their ordinary, prosaic signifying function leads us to surrender—temporarily—our customary attachments to thematically foregrounded words. Brief examples from As You Like It should suffice to confirm Shakespeare's divestive or liminal use of poetic techniques.

In the opening scene, Orlando continually plays on words, yet this wordplay is not very funny. Rather, his punning responses reveal his obsession:

My brother Jaques he keeps at school, and report speaks goldenly of his profit. For my part, he keeps me rustically at home or, to speak more properly, stays me here at home unkept: for call you that keeping for a gentleman of my birth that differs not from the stalling of an ox?9

(I. i. 4-9)

Each additional inflection of the word keep moves toward increasingly precise definition; but at the same time, the forms of keep begin to lose their particular meanings as they become primarily vehicles for Orlando's anger and frustration. The obverse of this process can be seen when Oliver asks Orlando, “Now, sir, what make you here?” (a sentence in which the individual words carry about as much content as those in our “How do you do?”). Orlando replies, “Nothing. I am not taught to make anything” (I. i. 26-27). Here, Orlando jolts the formulaic make into a concrete meaning relevant to his unhappy situation. Although these two strategies of punning might seem to work in opposite directions—one divesting meaning, the other investing it—both serve to increase our awareness of words qua words, to remind us how fragile the link between signifier and signified can be. No longer secure in categorical referentiality, we must attend to the categorizing medium itself.10

If punning is the characteristic dissociative device of the first scene, repetition predominates in the second. For example:

Nay, now thou goest from Fortune's office to Nature's. Fortune reigns in gifts of the world, not in the lineaments of Nature.
Enter [Touchstone] the Clown.
No; when Nature hath made a fair creature, may she not by Fortune fall into the fire? Though Nature hath given us wit to flout at Fortune, hath not Fortune sent in this fool to cut off the argument?
Indeed, there is Fortune too hard for Nature when Fortune makes Nature's natural the cutter-off of Nature's wit.
Peradventure this is not Fortune's work neither, but Nature's, who perceiveth our natural wits too dull to reason of such goddesses and hath sent this natural for our whet-stone of the wits.

(I. ii. 38-52; italics mine)

This dizzying repartee, as it rings a series of changes on Fortune and Nature, is a sophisticated version of the banana effect; by the time Touchstone interrupts, we have become (not quite consciously) detached from our immediate associations with these two key words. This temporary stripping of meaning from Fortune and Nature would seem to free us to absorb the delicate calibrations these terms undergo through the play. They will not remain referentially empty for long, but as the phonemes again attract significance in our minds, we are likely to be alert to the intractable complexity of the conceptual bundles they strive to subsume under two categorical names.

While pertinent to the play's themes, many of the memorable scenes in As You Like It are irrelevant to the plot. The recurrent pattern is to show the characters confronting incongruities in customary modes of structuring and categorizing experience. (Much of the play's lighthearted humor derives from the audience's being alerted to these incongruities, but the cumulative effect may be called liminal.) Sometimes the inadequacies of conventional categories or structures are addressed directly, as in Touchstone's and Corin's exchange on the relative merits of court and country (III. ii. 11-81) or in Rosalind's disquisition on the relativity of perceptions of time (III. ii. 293-316). Sometimes a customary structure is persuasively outlined, only to be undercut; numerous critics have noted this technique when Jaques' speech cataloging the seven ages of man is followed by the entrance of Orlando bearing Adam on his back. And sometimes sheer exaggeration points up a confusion in categories: when Jaques anthropomorphizes imaginary deer or Touchstone accuses Corin of playing bawd to his sheep, they blur our habitual boundary between animal and human as categories of being.

While these and similar incidents participate in the play's determined juggling of customary categories, more central are the episodes in which the characters confront and expose conventional modes of thinking and talking about romantic love—the sojourn in Arden is, after all, a prelude to the several marriages. Not surprisingly in this consciously artful play, the scrutinized attitudes toward romantic love are those represented by literary metaphors, and Shakespeare makes us consider the nature of those metaphors.

The ability to think metaphorically is humanly useful as well as pleasurable. To reify metaphors, however, to invest them with an independent ontological status, is always limiting, and sometimes dangerously stultifying. As Rosalie Colie has shown, artists can reawaken us to the metaphorical nature of a given figure or convention by creating personae who treat it literally. This technique, which Colie calls unmetaphoring, “makes us reconsider the function of figurative language, of the idioms developed to answer to needs of communication, of attempts to contain and to transcend different categories of experience.”11 Clearly, the process of unmetaphoring in art resembles that of disrupting categories in liminality. Both categories and metaphors link entities that share one or more qualities but differ in others. Both mental constructs emphasize similarities, but processes like unmetaphoring in art and categorical disruption in liminality create an awareness of difference, of those points where correspondence ceases. Thus, when we reaffirm likenesses in a return to metaphor and category—we cannot live sanely without them—it is with a refreshed sense of resemblances. (Sometimes, of course, such significant dissimilarities are exposed that a customary association must be discarded or redefined.) Both these processes potentially modify, clarify, and regenerate modes of thinking.

A typical unmetaphoring occurs when Rosalind deliberately misinterprets Phebe's painfully conventional letter to Ganymede, taking it literally and thus exposing the folly of treating the highly stylized Petrarchan idiom as if it were a literal model for lovers rather than a very elaborate, very conventional sequence of metaphors. Similarly, Rosalind treats Petrarchan conventions quite literally when she pretends to disbelieve Orlando. She claims he bears none of the marks which distinguish one in love:

Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation. But you are no such man; you are rather point-device in your accouterments, as loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other.

(III. ii. 357-62)

Rosalind's playful exercise in measuring Orlando's love according to traditional attributes leads her to assert that he is not in love. Since we (and Rosalind) know that Orlando does indeed love her, the conventions which lead to a denial that his love exists are called into question. Even by Ganymede's standards, however, Rosalind's feigned disbelief is unfair to Orlando. He may not look like a Petrarchan lover, but he does his best to act like one. In fact, we believe that Orlando is in love largely because Shakespeare has him behave in ways conventional to the category of literary or stage lover: Orlando is tongue-tied around Rosalind, but talks obsessively about her with Ganymede; he writes inept sentimental poems and hangs them on trees; in his own way he pines for Rosalind, feeling bittersweet about his reformed brother's happiness in love because it intensifies his own disappointment. The playwright on one hand is using the artistic shorthand of conventions to denote Orlando's love to the audience, while on the other he is forcing us to question and reconsider a whole set of these same conventions. This complex mingling of perspectives finally encourages us not to reject the traditional languages of love, but rather to perceive their status as metaphors. In this quite typical instance, the attempt to define one-who-loves according to appearance fails, but in recognizing this inadequacy we are reawakened to the metaphoric process by which disorder in dress comes to represent the unsettling, disorienting, disordering effects of love. The worn-out metaphor is only temporarily disclaimed so that it can take on a new vitality. It is not so much Petrarchism that is subverted here, but rather our thoughtless response to it.

Petrarchism represents only one set of conventional poses challenged in As You Like It. Rosalind's “die by attorney” speech depends upon Ganymede's treatment of myths—metaphoric embodiments of psychological states—as if they provided naturalistic tales of “real” people. The effect of “Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (IV. i. 96-98) is much less cynical in context than one might expect. Ganymede responds from a realistic point of view to the stories of Troilus and Leander, but the literal-minded insistence that men do not die for love surely reminds us that these old stories are mythic and metaphoric. Only a powerful force demands so extravagant a metaphor as this.

Touchstone, too, sounds cynical, and indeed his reminiscences of Jane Smile effectively deflate Silvius' overblown love rhetoric (II. iv. 20-51). But the clown's condescension toward Audrey is as exaggerated as the hero's idolizing of Rosalind; a deliberate degrading of one's love and one's beloved involves as conventional a pose as the exaltation of them. Touchstone's repeated equations of men and beasts evoke thoroughly traditional metaphors for the physical side of love. Moreover, his statements about love and marriage are belied by his actions—he enters a binding marriage with Audrey even though she apparently would settle for a few words from the hedge priest. Clearly, this fact undercuts the attitudes the clown expresses. Touchstone's metaphors are no more, and no less, valid than Orlando's. And both are subject to liminal suspension.

Given all that I have said so far, it should not be surprising that the sharpest challenge in the play is to its own generic base. The outlines of As You Like It's interrogation of pastoral are too well-known to need reiteration here, but a brief sketch of the play's self-reflexive pastoralism will be useful in considering what happens when the audience is urged to attend consciously to this complex of conventions.12 As the play unmetaphors pastoral and blurs the boundaries between orders of experience, the effect on the audience is liminal.

First of all, the opening scene of the play immediately prepares the audience for a fairy tale; Shakespeare certifies and reinforces this reaction by having Celia echo the audience's feelings: “I could match this beginning with an old tale” (I. ii. 107). We know at once that this play will present a second world that will not even pretend to be a naturalistic imitation. The dramatist can begin to call our attention to the metaphoric nature of poetic traditions simply by placing before us characters who, played by flesh and blood actors, become literal embodiments of conventional figures carrying out conventional roles. (Think of Silvius and Phebe, for example.) By presenting an enacted world of the court juxtaposed against an enacted world of the forest, the dramatist can “set the stage” for challenging pastoral conventions. Moreover, editors since the eighteenth century, cued by the play's words, have set the first scene of As You Like It in an orchard or garden and the second outdoors on the palace grounds. The entire second world that is this play can be seen as a green world; here, what Frye would call the “red and white world of history” is itself set within a fairy-tale green world.

Within the play's second world (i.e., Arden) Shakespeare juxtaposes several kinds of rustics. The courtly figures are visitors in the Forest of Arden; their actions and reactions call various pastoral assumptions into question. For example, the Duke's awareness that he and his men are essentially intruders who kill the native deer points up the anthropocentric obsession of most pastoral inflections, as does Touchstone's foolery about Corin's playing bawd to his sheep. Jaques' anthropomorphizing of the weeping deer is especially amusing if we recall the tradition of the pastoral elegy. When Corin asks Touchstone how he likes a shepherd's life, the clown's answer specifically encourages the audience to question the usual valuations assigned court and country in pastoral:

In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life, look you, it fits my humor well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach.

(III. ii. 11-20)

This passage humorously points to the double-edged nature of the idealized pastoral sojourn. And the play forestalls any easy conclusions about the pastoral world by presenting multiple kinds of shepherds: Rosalind and Celia, who pretend to be a shepherd and his sister, Silvius and Phebe, who are entirely artificial, literary pastoral lovers; Corin, who has been described as “the only shepherd who knows anything about sheep”13 and as the traditional wise shepherd of the moral eclogue.14 Corin does seem a “realistic” counterpoint to Silvius—but only until we see William. Poor dull William must be the most “realistic” character in the play; his answers to Touchstone are roughly as interesting as most everyday conversations would be if reproduced on stage. And they reveal Corin for what he is—a convincing dramatic representation of a shepherd. Indeed, the juxtaposition of Corin and William enlivens our perceptions of the moral eclogue's conventional nature much as Silvius and Phebe alert us to the metaphorical status of the love eclogue.

While I have sketched only a brief outline of the devices by which Shakespeare sharpens his audience's perceptions of pastoral conventions, it should be sufficient to indicate the degree to which the play calls attention to its fictive status and disrupts our conventional perceptions of its conventions. All of Shakespeare's plays contain self-reflexive moments, but in experiencing As You Like It (and other green world plays), we are continually moved not just between fictive and actual worlds, but among multiple fictive worlds as well. The effect of this giddy disorienting is essentially liminal in that it disrupts our customary perceptions of the boundaries between categories of existence, encourages us to reconsider these perceptions, boundaries, and categories, and finally reaffirms them in Rosalind's epilogue which expels us from the green world and situates us firmly as theatergoers. We return to the working-day world, taking with us a refreshed sense of the reality of art.

My argument, then, is that As You Like It resembles a generic rite of passage because both are informed by the motive of transformation. The play's shape is analogous to that of all rites of passage, moving its characters into and out of a liminal-like green world. Moreover, the play becomes such a green world for its audience, which shares the experiences of the characters and undergoes distinct but analogous experiences of its own.

While the play's strategies are illuminated by this comparison with rites of passage, it is vital to remember that As You Like It is drama; it is neither ritual nor derived from ritual. So it seems appropriate to conclude by identifying some crucial differences between ritual and dramatic articulations of the transformative mode. During the liminal phase of a rite of passage, the neophyte's customary categories for perceiving reality are disrupted, clarified, and reclaimed. Shakespeare's characters undergo an analogous process in Arden, and indeed their conventional perceptions of romantic love are challenged and reaffirmed. Shakespeare's audience, however, while experiencing vicariously the transformation of the characters, experiences in addition a disruption and ultimate sharpening of its perceptions about the nature of art's metaphoric relationship to experience. Moreover, for neophytes the most important rituals are obligatory, one-time occurrences; they need not understand a ritual's significance for it to effect its primary purpose of marking transition. So too with Shakespeare's characters in As You Like It: they learn by going where they have to go; the transformed characters must leave Arden; Audrey will be as officially married as Rosalind. Shakespeare's audience, however, must choose to experience the play, may choose to return to it time and again, and will discover with each increase in understanding a corresponding increase in enjoyment. Unlike a tribal neophyte or a fictive character, we can invoke this green world at will; its power to transform us is never exhausted, but rather is enhanced each time that we surrender to it.


  1. PMLA, 98 (1983), 846-62.

  2. C. L. Barber suggests that “Shakespeare's mature plays show people in passage from one stage of life to another, succeeding in comedies, failing in tragedies.” “The Family in Shakespeare's Development,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, eds., (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), p. 197. Three major studies draw directly on Turner. In Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1981), Marjorie Garber details the presentation of characters at moments of passage. Edward Berry relates the prevalence of such moments in Shakespeare's plays to family practices in Renaissance England, Shakespeare's Comic Rites (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984). And David Bevington stresses the disruption of hierarchy during liminality, Action is Eloquence: Shakespeare's Language of Gesture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984).

  3. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1967); hereafter, citations will be given in the text. I find Turner's early work on the symbology of ritual more directly relevant to literature than his later work which emphasizes effects of ritual on the community. That is, I am more interested in the parallel ways ritual and drama manipulate symbols than in the ways drama can imitate ritual-like experience.

  4. I am using motive in Burke's sense, where it implies a complete symbolic situation (act, scene, agent, agency, purpose) assumed to be recognizable in a literary work, although not necessarily consciously active in the artist's creation of that work. See the introduction to Burke's A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), pp. xv-xxiii, and his “Poetics in Particular, Language in General,” in Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 25-43.

  5. For a discussion of literature as therapeutic, as literally altering personality, see Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr., and Mark Bracher, “Literature, Psychoanalysis, and the Re-Formation of the Self: A New Direction for Reader-Response Theory,” PMLA, 100 (1985) 342-54.

  6. See for example, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1969).

  7. This assertion perhaps oversimplifies an audience's role in ritual. Certainly, an initiation rite demands participants other than the neophyte, and they can be perceived as altered by the ritual—at the very least in their relationship to the neophyte. But in no sense does a play exist for the sake of its characters, so the distinction made here is necessary.

  8. “The Poet as Fool and Priest,” ELH, 23 (1956), 380.

  9. References are to As You Like It, Ralph M. Sargent, ed., in the Pelican edition, Alfred Harbage, general ed., William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969). Hereafter, citations will be given in the text.

  10. Adena Rosmarin draws upon E. H. Gombrich to make a similar point, “Hermeneutics versus Erotics: Shakespeare's Sonnets and Interpretive History,” PMLA, 100 (1985), 29-30.

  11. “My Echoing Song”: Andrew Marvell's Poetry of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), p. 173. Clearly, “unmetaphoring” resembles that effect of art the Russian Formalists call “defamiliarization,” or, as it is more elegantly translated, “estrangement.” As I understand the terms, however, “defamiliarization” generally relates directly to reality, “unmetaphoring” to metaphoric representations of reality.

  12. Some of the most interesting work on As You Like It emphasizes this self-reflexive quality of the play. See for example, Albert R. Cirillo, “As You Like It: Pastoralism Gone Awry,” ELH, 90 (1975), 885-93. In an effort to minimize duplication, I have sketched only the outline of Shakespeare's treatment of pastoral necessary to my central concern.

  13. Harold Jenkins, “As You Like It,”Shakespeare Survey, 8 (1955), 47.

  14. Helen Gardener, “As You Like It,” in More Talking of Shakespeare, John Garrett, ed. (London: Longmans, Green and Company, Ltd., 1959), p. 17.

Minoru Fujita (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8016

SOURCE: Fujita, Minoru. “Royal Procession in Henry IV.” In Pageantry and Spectacle in Shakespeare, pp. 71-93. Tokyo: The Renaissance Institute, 1982.

[In the following essay, Fujita contrasts Hal's arrival in regal costume and procession in Act V, scene v of Henry IV, Part 2 with Falstaff's appearance in dirty and disheveled clothes, and contends that the fat knight's disregard of ceremony and his mockery of royalty, though amusing in Part 1, can no longer be tolerated by the new king.]


In his tribute to Hamlet, Fortinbras says that he was likely “to have proved most royal.” The ideals and values invested in the word royal make it a richly complex term, one no doubt owing something to politics and society in Shakespeare's day, but one more important to us for its symbolism and its representation on the Elizabethan stage. We may hypothesize that the idea had much to do with the civic tradition of pageantry and that Shakespeare shared with his audience theatrical as well as aesthetic associations in their conception of “royal.” The evidence to support this can be discovered most readily in the history plays, through an examination of the connotations the word possessed. Other evidence and associations can be found in the tradition of pageantry.

In his history plays Shakespeare sometimes employs the word royal in a manner apparently redundant and meaningless. It serves as an epithet, with little positive significance. For in the third part of Henry VI, we find the following:

And now to London with triumphant march,
There to be crowned England's royal king.

(II. vi. 87-8)

Or in the first part of the play, the adjective is attached to “queen”:

Therefore, my Lord Protector, give consent
That Margaret may be England's royal queen.

(V. v. 23-4)

A king or queen, of course, belongs to the royal family and is royal by definition. Therefore, the wording “royal king” or “royal queen” may seem tautological. In the above examples, however, the speakers are talking of the future enthronement of the persons concerned, and the epithet royal describes the speakers' own expectation or hope that those persons will prove to be truly equal to the office and dignity of majesty, or that, upon their accession to the throne, they may be richly invested with the bliss and glory befitting a king or a queen. The apparent redundancy of this epithet is by no means meaningless.1

When, therefore, Shakespeare says “royal king” we may understand that the words connote the idealization of a king and are not necessarily meant to give a real description of him. In Richard II we find England idealized by Gaunt, and the word royal harmonizes well with his praise:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars. …
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings. …

(II. i. 40-1, 50-1)

Royal is a word that can heighten a happy and congratulatory feeling; there is felicitation involved in the pomp and majesty of royalty, and other such words, like kingly and regal, cannot vie with royal in its rich connotations or its joyful, auspicious mood. In a tragedy, the effect of this adjective may enhance the tragic feeling. As we have seen, young Hamlet's death is felt the more painful and pathetic, “For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royal.”2

The sense of rejoicing conveyed by the word royal has to do with a public, ceremonial world transcending ordinary experience. It conveys feelings aroused by royalty on public view. Although it represents something above the workaday lives of the time, it retains its universal, irresistible appeal. On Shakespeare's stage we often find that the auspicious joy suggested by the adjective royal takes a concrete, visible form and appeals directly to the senses of the spectators. In Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene i, we see a stage version of Queen Anne's coronation procession “pass over the stage in order and state.” The nature of the visual appeal obtained from this spectacle can well be understood from its detailed stage direction.3 Attention to appropriate detail is evident. Costly items such as “sceptre of gold,” “robe of estate,” “coronal of gold,” etc. embellish the parade in this scene, and under the canopy borne by four of the Cinqueports goes “the Queen in her robe, in her hair, richly adorned with pearl, crowned.” Seeing the sumptuous sight, one of the stage spectators speaks admiringly: “A royal train, believe me” (IV. i. 37). “Royal” here is meant to describe the impression of the spectacular beauty which the costumes, properties, and procession as a whole present to the audience. The OED cites this line as an example of the definition “finely arrayed; resplendent; grand and imposing.”4 What is interesting here is that, although the beauty portrayed in the stage procession is directly borrowed from the world of royalty, the word royal does more to qualify the nature of the beauty itself than to suggest the initial relationship of that beauty to kingship. In other words, the kind of beauty termed “royal” is, despite its origin in kingship, now felt to form an independent aesthetic category which is complete in itself and distinguished for its gorgeous, stately splendour.

Another interesting example of the use of the adjective royal is found in Henry VIII. In Act I, Scene i, Norfolk reports upon “the earthly glory” displayed by the British and French kings meeting in the Field of the Cloth of Gold:

                                                                                                                        … men might say,
Till this time pomp was single, but now married
To one above itself. Each following day
Became the next day's master, till the last
Made former wonders its. To-day the French,
All clinquant, all in gold, like heathen gods,
Shone down the English; and to-morrow they
Made Britain India: every man that stood
Showed like a mine. Their dwarfish pages were
As cherubins, all gilt; the madams too,
Not used to toil, did almost sweat to bear
The pride upon them, that their very labour
Was to them as a painting. Now this masque
Was cried incomparable; and th' ensuing night
Made it a fool and beggar. The two kings,
Equal in lustre, were now best, now worst,
As presence did present them: him in eye
Still him in praise; and being present both,
'Twas said they saw but one, and no discerner
Durst wag his tongue in censure.

(I. i. 14-33)

This may well sound extravagant, and Buckingham quite naturally responds by saying, “O, you go far.” But in Norfolk's opinion even this is not sufficient to express what he has witnessed in the spectacular encounter of the two kings, and, full of admiration, he says, “All was royal.”

Norfolk's story is remarkable for its reference to gold and for its intimations of the contemporary fashion of pageantry. The first matter bears very much upon the second. The magnificent appearance of the two kings and their parties is likened to the visual effect of gold. In order to make his audience experience the utmost splendour of the kingly meeting, Shakespeare felt no hesitation in appealing outright to that sense of beauty and visual imagination which had been universally cultivated among people through their years of contact with pageantry. And doubtless the brilliance of gold was a source of pleasure to people's sense of sight. In a pageant it always took the lead in affording the feeling of luxury and splendour to the spectacle. Chroniclers tried to strengthen the impression of magnificence by giving all the sumptuous details of a spectacle. In his chronicles, Hall records the Christmas kept by the king in 1512:

… within the Castle wer six Ladies clothed in russet satin laide all over with leves of golde, and every owde knit with laces of blewe silk and golde: on their heddes, coyfes and cappes all of gold. After this Castle had been carried about the hal, and the Quene had behelde it, in came the Kyng, with five other appareled in coates, the one halfe of russet satyne, spangled with spangels of fine gold, the other halfe rich clothe of gold; on ther heddes cappes of russet satin embroudered with works of fine gold bullion.5

Neither historians nor theatre audiences were bored by the artless repetition of “gold.” And it is interesting to note that, in British pageantry and historical writing at this time, the idea of conspicuous costliness, sheer sumptuousness, was an important index of the concept of the beautiful. Apart from political or sociological implications, then, the adjective royal implied the costly beauty that had traditionally been associated with kingship. People were conscious of royalty as the office, dignity, and power of a prince, and at the same time they felt it was a basis for their cult of beauty.

In the descriptions of public pageants, the word royal was often used to deepen the sense of luxury and magnificence. On his return from Agincourt in 1415, Henry V was welcomed by a pageant show. According to a contemporary account, the king was “riolly receyvet with procession and song,” and when he entered London,

the stretes were riolly hanget with rich clothes, & in Cornhylle was made a riol toure full of patriarches syngyng. … And the cros in the Chepe was riolly arrayet like a castell with toures pight full of baners.6

When Queen Elizabeth was crowned at Westminster on January 15, 1559, Westminster Hall where she dined “was richlie hoong, and everie thing ordered in such roiall maner as to such a regall and most solemne feast apperteined,” and this feast was “celebrated with all Roial Ceremonies and high solemnities.”7

In the same vein, James I, Queen Anne, and Prince Frederick were received with several pageants when, in March 1604, they visited the City of London. The entertainment was designed by Thomas Dekker. According to his own explanation, a “Device” was “made up, as the first service to a more Royall and serious ensuing Entertainment,” and in the structure of the Italians' pageant “King Henry the Seventh was royally seated in his imperiall robes; to whome King James … approches, and receyves a scepter.” There followed the pageant of the Dutchmen; and “it was a Royall and magnificent labour.”8 In 1610, on the day when King James' son was created Prince of Wales and granted other titles, “after a most Royall and sumptuous tilting, the water-fight was worthilie performed.”9


Fresh, brilliant beams of light have never ceased to be experienced as a source of exquisite aesthetic pleasure. Poets and painters often work on the visual effects of sunrise and sunset, starlight and candle light, in order to fix the impression of the pleasing moment in an artistic form. It would be too much to say that Shakespeare was particularly given to the charm of a bright light, but from the passages describing the fascination of objects of beauty with the aid of light-imagery, we may infer that his imagination worked most actively when he tried to elaborate an image dealing with light. A typical example is found in Romeo's remark when he first catches sight of the beauty of Juliet:

O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear—

(I. V. 44-6)

The “torches” and the “rich jewel” contribute their attractive luminosity to Juliet's beauty. As to the rendering of the light effect, painting naturally possesses an advantage over literature in its direct appeal to the visual sense. Light, however, often reveals deep significance to a poet. Through his contemplation of the rich brilliancy caused by light, he is introduced to a visionary or introspective world beyond the ordinary, phenomenal one. As a theme of literature, light was most particularly favoured by the poets of Romanticism.

Not only the sun, the moon, the stars and rainbow, but nature itself, when it appeared illuminated by light, was a source of creative imagination. A visionary light was as frequently seen in romantic poetry: a mariner saw, upon the slimy sea, the death fires dance about and the water, like a witch's oils, burn green and blue and white; he further watched the water-snakes whose tracks on the water emitted flashes of golden fire: a fearful symmetry was framed by the tyger's eyes burning bright in the dark forest night. These lights were perceived more by the poets' internal eye of the mind. Romantic poets desired to create an unprecedented image of light through concentrated observation of the visible phenomenal world around them or of their inward, visionary universe. In Shakespeare, however, light does not appear as a vision immediately springing from his individualized perception. His presentation of light is often accompanied by darkness as a necessary background. The contrast thus brought out between light and darkness tends to assume an allegorical character, and this character combines with the specific power of the dramatist's figurative language. One of his sonnets (XXVII) reveals an apparent variation of the idea concerning the light of a jewel in Romeo and Juliet, but no personal, individualized concern with jewelry need necessarily be taken into account when we estimate the poet's particular mental experience expressed in the sonnet.

The “light” referred to in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel is the eternal idea of light, and all empirical lights are transient copies of it.10 The sight of a bright light creates within the seer an aspiration for the infinity in value, spiritual as well as material, implied in the light. These senses of the sumptuous and the sublime are seldom enjoyed separately. They are usually mingled in light, but when they are combined into one light and work together, a sense of utmost richness results. Thus, in the literary or artistic presentation of light, if it is of a supreme kind, aesthetic beauty can be immediately interpreted as spiritual truth. The light, then, demonstrates at once what is true and what is beautiful. The poetry of Romanticism particularly preferred imagery concerning light, because the imagery could most effectively suggest what is high and remote, exotic and uncontrolled, and after all what defies conceptual knowledge. The literary cult of light characteristic of romantic literature is never a temporary fashion limited to one age. On the contrary, it arises from the built-in, native aptitude of Europeans to apprehend beauty and truth in one luminous brightness.

Before romantic poets acquired the technique of giving superb expression to their individual experience and insight concerning light, it was the task of the painters to present the visual effect of light in an artistic form. But dramatic art also utilized the remarkable ability of people to perceive the sense of luxury and sublimity caused by a bright light. This was not merely through poetic, dramatic diction, but through visual representation furnished on the stage. It should be noted that visual appeal was as significant and effective as dramatic speech on Shakespeare's stage. This is most remarkably evidenced in the scenes of his history plays where a mediaeval king appears in sumptuous apparel of state, followed by his train similarly attired. They are all richly adorned. The elaborate display of royal splendour was an integral part of the scenes produced upon the Elizabethan stage, especially when devoted to the theme of royalty. We may infer from this that the Elizabethan audience took unfailing delight in the rich, luxurious light which emanated from the regalia and sumptuous costume as well as in the realistic unfolding of a play. This theatre aestheticism has, of course, much to do with the Elizabethan aesthetic concept of the “royal.” The gorgeous, stately spectacle may justly be classed under this category of beauty. As for the importance of the visual effect that a royal figure should produce on the eyes of the general public, this is shown by the king in the first part of Henry IV:

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wond'red at, and so my state
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast,
And wan by rareness such solemnity. …

(III. ii. 55-9)

He goes on to talk about people's “extraordinary gaze, / Such as is bent on sun-like majesty, / When it shines seldom in admiring eyes.” From this we may glean important information about the popular, visual conception of royalty. In people's eyes a king was the essence of sumptuousness, the likes of which they seldom had the opportunity to see directly with their own eyes. When they were fortunate enough to see it on such an occasion as a Royal Entry, it was a rare visual feast, a solemn, majestic spectacle or show which people invariably “wond'red at” with “extraordinary gaze.” The popular, conventional pattern of viewing kingship developed, not from abstract speculation about it, but from real experience gained from rare opportunities to witness the processional pageantry of royalty. In this connection it is interesting to note that Dekker did not omit to record in his account of King James' entertainment the fact that “his Majestie … did most graciouslie feede the eyes of the beholders with his presence.”11

A king's presence in the setting of a royal procession remained an unfailing source of sumptuous spectacular beauty, which was comparable only to the fully arrayed magnificence of the Pope in his ceremonial dress. People attached spiritual and aesthetic values to royalty, just as to papacy, and the two kinds of values were so closely amalgamated that it was difficult to appreciate one separately from the other.12 When people admired the costly beauty embodied in kingship, it necessarily meant that they appreciated the divine quality of an anointed king. The abstract concept of beauty had not developed yet. Beauty was discussed without much discrimination between the moral or spiritual value of the thing and the beauty it incorporated. Popular experience concerning royalty was, therefore, markedly characterized by the appreciation of the royal beauty that was the visible equivalent to the essentially transcendental idea of kingship. This bears a parallel to the experience of religious piety which, in Catholicism, took place in terms of the symbolically and aesthetically organized forms of ritual. “Admired” or “wondered at” is the description of the way people generally responded to the sight of the “sun-like majesty” portrayed in a public ceremony of royalty or on an occasion of pageantry. In an earlier scene of the first part of Henry IV, there is another example of the conventional pattern of popular response to visualized royalty. After Falstaff and his crew have made their exit towards the end of Act I, Scene ii, Prince Hal, remaining on stage, reveals his secret intention of pretending to be a prodigal in order later to show his royal quality the more effectively.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness,
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contageous clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wond'red at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

(I. ii. 187-95)

The pattern is repeated with a slight variation in the king's speech in Act III:

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wond'red at.

(III. ii. 46-7)

“Wonder at,” it should be noted, describes, not the individual's incipient surprise at the solemn, sumptuous sight of royalty, but rather the common mould of action in which popular emotion was excited by spectacle. The generalization, however, proves that there was a long course of time in the history of man's experience when access to a royal show invariably meant awe and admiration at the sight of “sun-like majesty.” As a dramatist, Shakespeare was well aware of this reaction to such spectacles. He also knew that he could best treat royalty in his plays by dealing with it in the visual, aesthetic terms understood by his audience.

In the first part of Henry IV, we repeatedly hear the king talk of his concern about kingship and refer to his consciousness of the optical effect of kingly appearance:

Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackneyed in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession,
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.

(III. ii. 39-45)

The king has met the crown by “by-paths and indirect crookt ways,” and therefore the prudence and tactics he reveals here may be regarded as reasonable in this scheming usurper. But such a strong concern for the appeal of outward show may as reasonably be expected from the artificer of a Renaissance pageant, whose business it was to feed people's eyes with splendid spectacles. In imagining an upstart king, therefore, Shakespeare seems to have formed his idea of the king more or less in accordance with the popular or vulgar way of understanding royalty. For the Elizabethans, royalty more immediately signified what they saw with their aesthetic and emblematic eyes on occasions of royal pageantry than what they speculated about in abstract, political terms. If they speculated about royalty, it was presumably in terms of the image of the rich spectacle that they had derived from the magnificent sight of royal ceremony and pageantry.

When we consider the nature of the so-called rejection scene of the second part of Henry IV (V. v), wherein Falstaff is disowned and banished by his old companion Prince Hal, now Henry V, the prince's conversion translated in visual, aesthetic terms plays a very important role in the scene. In Act V, Scene ii, we hear the prince declare that he has been reformed:

                                                                                                    The tide of blood in me
Hath proudly flowed in vanity till now:
Now doth it turn and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with the state of floods,
And flow henceforth in formal majesty.

(V, ii. 129-33)

The “state” and “majesty” he is now to assimilate have their visual correspondence in his superb kingly array, namely, “this new and gorgeous garment, majesty.” The audience readily interpret Prince Hal's conversion in terms of this “new and gorgeous” appearance of royalty which he has assumed upon himself. In the traditional pageantry, costume constituted an important element of spectacle presented on the stage, and afforded its spectators an attractive, entertaining sight full of rich colour. Consideration, then, should be given to the visual appeal which the splendid costume must have produced on the stage at the time the stage version of Anne Bullen's coronation procession was presented in Act IV, Scene i of Henry VIII.

From the extended, detailed stage direction showing “The Order of The Coronation” (IV. i. 36. s.d.), we gain the general idea of a coronation procession actually produced on the Elizabethan stage. Under the canopy borne by four of the Cinqueports goes the queen, Anne Bullen, in her robe, with her hair richly adorned with pearls. Several lords are seen to attend her. The Marquis of Dorset bears a sceptre of gold, with a demicoronal of gold; the Earl of Surrey proceeds bearing the rod of silver with the dove, and crowned with an earl's coronet. The Duke of Suffolk in his robe of state, and with his coronet on his head, holds a long white wand, as high steward. These peers are preceded by high officials, such as Lord Chancellor, with a purse and a mace before him; the Mayor of London, bearing a mace; the Garter King of Arms, in his coat of arms, and on his head a gilt copper crown.

When this procession passes over the stage “in order and state,” the two gentlemen as stage spectators of the procession say,

A royal train, believe me. These I know.
Who's that that bears the sceptre?
                                                                                          Marquess Dorset;
And that the Earl of Surrey, with the rod.

(IV. i. 37-9)

Other characters joining the troop are likewise identified by what they carry as their attributes. An important fact about the stage procession is that these ornamental objects were carried by the characters in order to make up the necessary visual appeal. Comparison of Holinshed's text with Shakespeare's version shows how carefully and minutely Shakespeare desired to revive upon his stage the original image of the coronation procession given in the chronicle.


Already in Act V of Richard II the fair prospect of Prince Hal's future reform has been alluded to by his father, Henry IV (“I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years / May bring forth”). In Act I of the first part of Henry IV, we hear Prince Hal reveal his secret intention to be converted and become a true prince. He utters a soliloquy after Falstaff and his crew have made their exit from the scene:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyok'd humour of your idleness,
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wond'red at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

(I. ii. 187-95)

The idea of the sun signifying royalty was one of the most persistent of all Elizabethan commonplaces. More than logical correspondence or verbal allegory was, however, implied in the sun-king relationship especially when the relation was given a theatrical and pageant interpretation. Prince Hal is likened to the sun permitting “the base contagious clouds / To smother up his beauty.” He assumes that, once he is determined to be himself again, he will be wondered at by displaying his most admirable figure as a genuine prince to the public just as the sun reveals its brightest beam through a break in the clouds. This is spoken through the prince's mouth and conveyed as his true will, since the Elizabethan audience conventionally accepted what was expressed in a monologue as true. Until the time of his conversion in the last act of the second part of Henry IV, Prince Hal firmly keeps up this secret intention. The monologue is, therefore, sometimes understood to be an indication of the prince's very detached and self-controlling nature. In the author's idea, the soliloquy does not essentially serve to describe the inmost desire or private feeling the prince may have entertained. The idea suggested in this soliloquy does not basically originate in himself. There is nothing particularly individualized in the quality of the wisdom revealed here, nor do his words serve to clarify the natural tendency of the prince or his character as a whole.

The monologue is remarkable in that it expresses the prince's exclusive concern for the spectacular visual effect that will be produced on the eyes of the public when he succeeds in achieving his true royal character. He discloses his will to “imitate the sun,” which logically signifies his future spiritual rebirth as a genuine prince or king. From this divulging of his secret will, the Elizabethan audience deduced more than a conceptual knowledge of his future conversion. The monologue created in the audience the expectation that the prince would achieve a “sun-like majesty” once he was converted. According to their experience, the “sun-like majesty” was what they saw with their own eyes, or rather what they wondered at on the rare occasions when they had access to the royal show. Elizabethan spectators were gifted with an excellent eye for spectacular beauty. Therefore, they naturally expected to see the theatrical interpretation of the prince's spiritual reform which, in the dramatist's own words, would involve the spectacular effect of the sun “Breaking through the foul and ugly mists / Of vapours.” From this it follows that Shakespeare's intention in the rejection scene does not lie in a realistic portrayal of the internal change in the personal character of the prince. If we look for reasonable psychology in what the scene presents to us, we are looking for an unobtainable goal and analysis of character will yield no adequate results.

In Act IV, Scene v of the second part of Henry IV, Prince Hal removes his father's crown from the pillow, since he believes his father has died. But the king awakes to find the crown gone, and seeing the crown in the prince's hands, he severely accuses his son of desiring his death. On his son's apology, the king gives important counsels to the future king. In Act V, Scene ii, the Lord Chief Justice strongly defends his former conduct in jailing the prodigal prince in his madcap days and, as upholder of “the majesty and power of law and justice,” he remonstrates with the prince very severely for his habitual unscrupulous conduct. The sincere force of this remonstrance strikes Prince Hal remarkably. He says, “The tide of blood in me / Hath proudly flowed in vanity till now; / Now doth it turn and ebb back … And flow henceforth in formal majesty.” The audience is thus informed that the prince is now converted. But sometimes the audience's moral sympathy with the prince ends on witnessing the harshness of mind unveiled in his rejection of Falstaff. A negative view of the prince which is often heard is that he is not a hero, not a thinker, not even a friend; or that he is a common man whose incapacity for feeling enables him to change his habits whenever interest bids him. A. C. Bradley, as is well known, indignantly asserts that the prince ought in honour long ago to have given Sir John clearly to understand that they must say good-bye on the day of his accession.13

When, however, we take into consideration the actual production of the second part of Henry IV on the Elizabethan stage, we become doubtful whether Shakespeare's audience could have entertained such an objection against the hero. Prince Hal's splendid reformation is fully portrayed in the final scene. The dramatist presents the coronation procession of the new young king, in order to augment the auspicious, spectacular beauty of the finale where the rejection of Falstaff takes place. The rejection of the “foul” figure is, in the author's view, subordinated to the triumphant display of the rich, joyful spectacle of royalty, which, as the main issue has been predicted to take place as the sun suddenly breaks “through the foul and ugly mists.” Shakespeare's audience would have justly expected to “wonder at” the prince's reformation portrayed in such a stage spectacle.

The audience sees, in Act V, Scene ii, Prince Hal enter arrayed in his new kingly costume. He says to the Lord Chief Justice, “This new and gorgeous garment, majesty, / Sits not so easy on me as you think.” From this remark we learn that the garment is of “gorgeous” make. Adorned in his costume and followed by his train, the new king reappears in Scene v. As to the entrance of the king and his train in the scene, there is a remarkable difference in the stage direction between the Quarto and the Folio texts. According to the Folio, “the king and his train” enter the stage only once, and the stage direction indicating their entrance comes after the 37th line. Other modern editions usually follow this arrangement. In the Quarto text, on the other hand, “the King and his train” make their entry twice, their first entrance coming after the 4th line, when the grooms, strewing rushes in the street for the passage of the royal procession, have finished their work. Trumpets sound, and the king and his train pass over the stage, and they make their exit. Dover Wilson, who revives the Quarto's stage direction in his edition, insists that Shakespeare's intention was to have two processions, one to and the other from Westminster Abbey. He adds that the whole coronation ceremony should be imagined as taking place during the thirty-five lines of dialogue between the king's first entry and his second. In all probability Shakespeare's initial arrangement of the scene was preserved in the Quarto text, which was presumably printed from Shakespeare's original manuscript, whereas the Folio text was probably printed from a transcript. This transcript is thought to have been prepared for reading, not for acting.14 We may conjecture that the omission from the Folio text of the first entrance of the procession was more or less due to disrespect for or ignorance of the Elizabethan idea of a royal procession included in Shakespeare's original plan of the scene.

The first procession of the king and his train going around the stage must have taken a certain space of time. This stage procession, though mute and unwitnessed by stage spectators, must have produced a remarkable spectacular effect, and entertained or captivated the eyes of the audience with the “gorgeous” splendour characteristic of processional pageantry. In the original production, Shakespeare must have presented it in the manner more decidedly employed when he later displayed the sumptuous procession in Henry VIII. As suggested in the prince's own remark in V. ii, his garment was a gorgeous one, and he joined the coronation procession in this “best attire” of a king. We may assume that other members constituting “his train” were as splendidly arrayed as the peers and officials participating in Anne Bullen's coronation procession. Shakespeare merely gave a simple stage direction saying, “the King and his train pass over the stage,” and there is no extended stage direction showing “The Order of The Coronation” such as is found in Henry VIII. The simple stage direction suggests that Shakespeare had no particular intention of producing such a gigantic, pompous spectacle as Anne Bullen's coronation procession displayed. Henry V's royal parade was undoubtedly far smaller in scale. We may, however, conjecture that the king's procession was similar in visual quality. It was simpler and less decorated as a procession, but nonetheless it was “a royal train.”

In the printed text composed merely for reading, the repeated entrance of Henry and his train seems redundant, and modern editions of this play following the Folio's arrangement are justifiable in their own way. On the modern stage the mute, ceremonial procession simply passing over the stage may give little help to the rational and realistic presentation of the drama. But, according to the Quarto text, there was a certain period of time when the spectators thoroughly feasted their eyes on the sight of a royal procession which was colourful, splendid, and full of majesty. In this respect it is necessary and proper to remember the fact that the same spectators could see a real royal procession in the London street when a Royal Entry was held there. As in the case of the Royal Entries of Queen Elizabeth in 1559 and of King James in 1604, a coronation was regarded as a typical occasion of pageantry. In this spectacular stage version of a coronation procession, the Elizabethan audience saw Prince Hal imitating the sun and assuming sun-like majesty. It is with these circumstances taken into account that we should consider the essential nature of the rejection scene.

The audience see Falstaff and his crew enter the stage immediately after Henry's procession has made its first exit. The remarkable thing about their entrance is that the sordid appearance of these people, especially of Falstaff, affords a shocking contrast with the solemn, sumptuous beauty that King Henry and the royal procession as a whole has presented to the eyes of the audience. It should be noted that Shakespeare intentionally makes Falstaff refer to his own shabby appearance in which he is going to meet the new king:

O, if I had time to have made new liveries, I would have bestowed the thousand pound I borrowed of you. But 'tis no matter, this poor show doth better, this doth infer the zeal I had to see him.

(V. v. 11-4)

It is necessary here to remember Shakespeare's particular concern about the “best attire” that is associated with pageant occasions. It is in their “best attire” that in Julius Caesar Roman citizens go to meet Caesar's triumphal procession, or in their own words, to “make holiday, to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph.”15 In Richard II the Duchess of York insists, defending her son from suspicion, that he has run into debt to order his “gay apparel 'gainst the triumph day.”16 Not only common citizens but also nobles were, in Shakespeare's idea, supposed to wear their holiday clothes to celebrate a festal day of pageantry. From these examples we may conjecture some of the popular, customary attitudes of the Elizabethan mind toward pageantry. In Elizabethan England a pageant occasion such as a “Triumph,” a Royal Entry, or a Lord Mayor's Show existed as a holiday event which was superior to, or different from, any workaday event. It was an occasion requiring people participating in it to wear holiday dresses or “gay apparel.” Needless to say, this is a habitual bent of mind connected with pageantry in general and almost universal among all nations of all times, and the mentality forms a subject of anthropological interest. Therefore, it is highly significant that Falstaff speaks of his own holiday clothes, or “new liveries,” on this particular pageant occasion of Prince Hal's coronation procession.17

It seemed, therefore, somewhat outrageous to the Elizabethan audience that Falstaff did not take his dirty, miserable attire very seriously. He believed, what is worse, that he could make the best of his shabby appearance to win the favour of the new king:

But to stand stained with travel, and sweating with desire to see him, thinking of nothing else, putting all affairs else in oblivion, as if there were nothing else to be done but to see him.

(V. v. 24-7)

The filthiness of the clothes of Falstaff and his men has already featured in an earlier scene, where Davy says: “… they have marvellous foul linens” (V. i. 32). The repeated reference to their filthiness is by no means casually made. The gorgeous spectacle of the coronation procession and the “foul” show of Falstaff must have presented a shocking contrast and discrepancy in outward appearance. In discussing the finale of the second part of Henry IV in which the rejection of Falstaff takes place, we cannot overlook the visual scene thus presented on Shakespeare's original stage.

The total dramatic effect of this closing scene is less one of realism than one of pageantry, and this is due largely to the traditional aesthetic cult of kingship in the pageants. Shakespeare's dramatic task in the finale was to exhibit “the sun-like majesty” of the new king, or more especially to present the newly-crowned king who, in rejecting Falstaff, shines forth in the way the sun suddenly breaks “through the foul and ugly mists.” Special attention should be paid to the fact that the visual impression of “a sun breaking through the clouds after a thunderstorm” was a subject favoured in painting in the fifteenth century, and painters were “occupied with the problem of fixing the light effect of a moment.”18 In pageantry, too, this theme seems to have found great favour. Upon the battlements at Fenchurch in London was set a miniature City of London when King James was received on his way to his coronation in 1604. The whole frame of the city “was couered with a curtaine of silke, painted like a thicke cloud, and at the approach of the K[ing] was instantly to be drawne.” The allegory of this device is that “at the rising of the Sunne,” which means the king, “all mists were dispersed and fled,” and people in London enjoy the idea of the sun breaking through the clouds.19 In the Lord Mayor's Show of 1613, Middleton produced the idea of a “Mount Triumphant.” The beauty and glory of the Mount is “overspredde with a thicke sulphurous darknesse,” which is “a fog or mist raised from Error, enviously to blemish” the Mount, or London. Truth's chariot then approaches, and says, “with this fanne of starres I'll chase away” “that foule cloude to darken this bright day.” The mists vanish, the cloud suddenly rises, and it “changes into a bright spredding canopy, stucke thicke with starres and beames of gold, shooting forth round about it, the mount appearing then most rich in beauty and glory.”20 In all these pageant devices the foul, darkening clouds are banished in order to disclose the bright sunbeams. The visual impression of the moment when the sun breaks through the thick, dark clouds is remarkably emphasized. The creation of this kind of marvellous, spectacular impression must have been one of the most attractive features of Renaissance pageantry in England. It is evident that Shakespeare introduced this aestheticism of Renaissance pageantry and painting into his rejection scene. When Falstaff as the foul cloud covering the sun is banished and dispersed, the new king who imitates the sun shines forth brightly. In this aesthetic scheme is found the theatrical presentation of royal felicity and well-being.

In his soliloquy given in the first part of Henry IV, Prince Hal says that he will associate with Falstaff and his crew in order that, “when he pleases again to be himself, / Being wanted he may be more wond'red at.” In the second part, we see Falstaff wholly given up to dishonest behaviour and, in spite of the pleasure gained from Falstaff's company, it seems necessary and fair for the prince to reject this jovial but corrupted rogue. Prince Hal, it is true, ought to have intimated his intention to Falstaff before he publicly rejects the fat knight. Some readers of the rejection scene naturally feel a certain regret or discomfort, remembering the infinite enjoyment the prince obtained from his communion with Falstaff's world. But the feelings of the spectator of the Elizabethan stage on witnessing the rejection scene must be considered and analyzed from an entirely different, historical angle. The rejection scene delivered a message to the Elizabethan audience on a different plane of human experience.

The stage royal procession must have served as a kind of framework for the rejection scene. The censure upon the prince's ruthless conduct, a censure essentially arising out of sympathy for Falstaff, becomes unreasonable when viewed within this framework of Elizabethan aesthetic symbolism. When we examine the rejection scene as a typical case of the resolution scene of a Shakespearean historical play, we may perceive that the sight of the prince's reformation plays a crucial role in it. When this royal procession first appeared, the audience must have watched the spectacular display of royal magnificence with full admiration, or wondered at the rare royal spectacle. This brilliant sight appeared to the eyes of the Elizabethan audience as an indication of the prince's newly acquired personality, spiritual height and moral integrity. Placing himself in the centre of the coronation procession, he now appeared a more impersonal, public figure. This appearance corresponded with his inner consciousness that the tide of blood was flowing “in formal majesty” within him.

Moreover, when Shakespeare made Falstaff and his crew wear dirty clothes, the foulness of their costumes must have been interpreted by the Shakespearean audience as a sign of their moral foulness or degradation, which, in the ethical scheme of the play, may be set as opposite to the moral integrity the new king has achieved. More directly, the unclean appearance means, in the visual arrangement of this scene, that which is to defile the fair beauty the newly crowned king has now assumed. It was a serious offence against the Elizabethan sense of righteousness to befoul the “royal” beauty which was regarded as the supreme aesthetic category. It is worth while to remember York's remark when Bolingbroke is going to depose Richard II: “… alack, alack, for woe, / That any harm should stain so fair a show!” This explains the spectator's fear of Falstaff committing this offence against the new, blessed king when the beautiful royal procession next enters and this foul figure meets it. The spectator would have naturally anticipated the king's rejection of the corrupted, “foul” rogue when the scene was first produced on Shakespeare's stage. It was not Prince Hal's personal will that necessitated the rejection. It was, politically, the order of the realm that required this rigour. But within the framework of Shakespeare's dramaturgy, the rejection served above all to excite the blissful, congratulatory mode of feeling with which the play could favourably end.

When the king in his royal procession next enters, Falstaff approaches him, addressing him as “King Hal, my royal Hal.” But the king replies, saying, “I know thee not, old man.” In the king's speech the fact of his reformation is pointedly emphasized:

Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self:
So will I those that kept me company.

(V. v. 57-60)

Theatrically, his internal change is made clear and apparent to the audience's eyes by means of the “gorgeous garment” he now wears. The sight of the young king speaks, more eloquently than the speech itself, of the dramatic fact that he has thrown away his “former self” and has acquired his true self. Falstaff alone is not convinced of the prince's conversion, however palpable and apparent it may be to the audience through the visual device. It is here that Falstaff shows his true character; he says, “… look you, he [i.e. the prince] must seem thus to the world.” The realist refuses to be persuaded by the prince's new outward show. He has first appeared in dirty clothes in spite of this holiday occasion, thereby constituting a strong, dangerous antithesis to the fair, ceremonial show of the new king. He now openly discloses his utter disbelief in the validity of the conventional outward show. Consequently the danger of the fat, unrestrainable character seems redoubled. Falstaff's evil doings have now become too manifest and must have made the audience far less sympathetic. When he is rejected, the congratulatory feeling largely due to the pageantlike spectacle of the splendid royal procession unfolds itself more openly in the purging of this now undesirable foul figure.


  1. See also Richard III, III. vii. 20-22. The OED says of the word royal: “In a number of Shakespearean passages … the adj. has a purely contextual meaning, the precise force of which is not always clear” (“Royal,” A. adj.).

  2. Hamlet, V. ii. 395-96.

  3. Henry VIII, IV. i. 36 s.d.; cf. Alice V. Griffin, Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage (New Haven, 1951), pp. 23-24.

  4. OED, “Royal,” adj. II. 8. B.

  5. John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. (London, 1823), I: 70.

  6. Cited from Robert Withington, English Pageantry, 2 vols. (New York, 1963), I: 132-34.

  7. Nichols, The Progresses of Queen Elizabeth, I: 60-61.

  8. John Nichols, The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First, 4 vols. (London, 1828), I: 338, 346 and 349.

  9. Ibid., II: 322

  10. C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, 1954), p. 203.

  11. Nichols, The Progresses of King James, I: 358.

  12. John Huizinga, in this connection, says, “The very notion of artistic beauty is still wanting. The aesthetic sensation caused by the contemplation of art is lost always and at once either in pious emotion or a vague sense of well-being” (The Waning of the Middle Ages [London, 1955], p. 268).

  13. A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London, 1955), p. 254.

  14. J. Dover Wilson, ed., Henry IV, Pt. II, note to V. v, and pp. 115-116.

  15. Julius Caesar, I. i. 33-34, and 52.

  16. Richard II, V. ii. 66.

  17. Cf. Griffin, pp. 29 and 151.

  18. Huizinga, p. 290.

  19. C. H. Herford, P. and E. Simpson, edd. Ben Jonson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1925-47), VII: 90.

  20. Nichols, The Progresses of King James, II: 690-91.

All the citations from Shakespeare are (unless otherwise indicated) to the New Shakespeare editions, under the general editorship of J. Dover Wilson. All the references to the First Folio are to the facsimile edition prepared by Charlton Hinman (New York, 1968).

Mark Rose (essay date autumn 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5398

SOURCE: Rose, Mark. “Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony, History, and Authority in 1599.” English Literary Renaissance 19, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 291-304.

[In the following essay, Rose compares the political strife in Julius Caesar with the divisiveness that roiled the Protestant church in Elizabethan England. The critic contends that the late sixteenth-century Puritan campaign against church rituals and ceremonies is analogous to the anti-authoritarianism of Cassius, Casca, and the tribunes.]

Julius Caesar opens with Marullus and Flavius rebuking the plebeians for transferring their allegiance from Pompey and making a holiday to celebrate Caesar's triumph. It is commonplace to remark that the plebeians in this scene, the cheeky cobbler who makes puns about mending bad soles and the other workmen, are more Elizabethan than Roman. But it is not usually noted that the tribune Marullus sounds strikingly like an indignant Puritan calling sinners to repent:

O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way,
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.(1)

Besides the emotionalism and rhetorical urgency which were characteristic of the Puritans and their “spiritual” style of preaching, we can note that the imagery of hard hearts, plagues, chariots, and trembling waters recalls that favorite Old Testament story of the reformers, Exodus. In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, similarly styled calls to prayer and repentance might be heard from pulpits all over London.2

In the tangled world of Elizabethan England, religion and politics were more often than not indistinguishable, and we need not be surprised to find that Shakespeare, trying to understand the nature of the political contentions of ancient Rome as he found them described in Plutarch's Lives, should think of the contemporary struggle in the church. A crucial point of contention between Anglican conservatives and Puritan reformers was whether a clergyman's authority came from above or from below, from the crown or from the congregation. Anglican clergy maintained the importance of episcopal ordination, and thus also the principle of the monarch as the final reservoir of power. The reformers insisted that authority derived from the inward call of the spirit, confirmed by the outward call of the congregation. The prescribed role of the Roman tribunes of the people—the “tongues o' th' common mouth” as Coriolanus contemptuously calls them—was as spokesmen and defenders of plebeian rights. Furthermore, the tribunes were not appointed but elected by the plebeians themselves. Perhaps then the reformers' claim to an authority derived not from the crown but from God and the congregations of the faithful led Shakespeare to conceive an analogy between the ancient tribunes and the Puritan preachers of his day.

That Shakespeare was in fact making this connection is only speculation of course, but the readiness with which this analogy might come to mind is suggested by the fact that a few years later King James made a similar association. Irritated by the independence of the English parliament, he asserted in 1605 that there were in the House of Commons “some Tribunes of the people, whose mouths could not be stopped, either from the matters of the Puritans, or of the purveyance.”3 Moreover, a number of details in the play suggest that some such analogy might be at work in Shakespeare's mind. Casca reports that “Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar's images, are put to silence” (1.2.282-83), a phrase that recalls precisely the action which was commonly taken against a Puritan who had become a thorn in the side of authority. In a well-known episode in 1586, for example, Archbishop Whitgift intervened in the running debate at Temple Church between the orthodox Richard Hooker and his Puritan deputy Walter Travers by prohibiting Travers from further preaching, or in Hooker's phrase, enjoining him to silence.4 And in 1599 Laurence Barker complained that Londoners would rush to hear any preacher “that will not sticke to reuile them that are in authoritie, that his sectaries may crie he is persecuted, when hee is iustly silenced.”5

Also suggestive is the exchange at the end of the opening scene when the tribunes go off to “disrobe” the images:

                                                                                                    Disrobe the images,
If you do find them deck'd with ceremonies.
May we do so?
You know it is the feast of Lupercal.
It is no matter; let no images
Be hung with Caesar's trophies.


The language seems to glance at the controversies over garments and the use of images; in the word “ceremonies”—Plutarch speaks of “diadems”—Flavius employs a term of great contemporary resonance, one containing within itself nearly the entire history of fifty years of passionate struggle. Again and again the Puritans condemned what they called “superstitious” and “filthy” ceremonies, the “chains,” as one put it, “whereby we were tied to popish religion.”6 With equal determination, the Anglican establishment insisted on the retention of those ceremonies necessary to maintain, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “a decente ordre, and godlye discipline” (1599, sig. D1). Over the years the term “ceremony” had been used so often and had acquired so many associations that it had become, as W. Gordon Zeeveld remarks, “a word of extraordinary emotive power with verbal and conceptual values instantly resonant in the theatre.”7

One form of ceremony that offended the Puritans was the keeping of holidays—the term still carried much of the old sense of holy day—other than those specifically appointed in the Bible. Flavius' dismissive attitude toward the feast of Lupercal may well have sounded Puritanical in the late 1590s when the reformers were making a point of refusing to stop work to celebrate such feasts as saints' days.8 His comment here recalls the contempt with which he chastises the workmen at the play's start:

Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home:
Is this a holiday? What, know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession?


From the first lines of the scene, then, even before Marullus' harangue, a certain aura of Puritanism clings to the tribunes.

The confrontations between the Puritans and the Anglicans often focused on matters of ritual or ceremony, but as the phrase “decent ordre” in the Book of Common Prayer implies, the issues raised were felt to be fundamental and far reaching. The discarding of the symbols of religious authority might lead, as many understood, to the questioning of other images of social authority, and thus to a challenge to the crown itself: no bishop, no king. At stake ultimately was the matter of power in the realm—which is of course also at stake at the opening of Julius Caesar.


Although the tribunes themselves do not reappear after the first scene, the opposition between puritanical anti-ritualism and a more conservative belief in the efficacy of ceremony is at work throughout the play. Caesar's first appearance shows his concern about ceremonies as he enters speaking about the Lupercalian rite and his desire to have Antony touch Calphurnia. “Set on,” he commands, “and leave no ceremony out” (1.1.11). Later Cassius remarks to the conspirators that Caesar “is superstitious grown of late, / Quite from the main opinion he held once / Of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies” (2.1.195-97). “Ceremonies” here may refer to portents or omens, as it does when Calphurnia comments that although she “never stood on ceremonies” (2.2.13) they now frighten her, but the word's other sense is not lost. We can note, too, Cassius' Puritanical dislike of plays and music, pointed out by Caesar; and in this context Casca's sour dismissal of the ceremony of the offering of the crown as “foolery” may also be suggestive.

In a general way, then, the anti-Caesar parties—both the tribunes and the bitter republicans of the second scene, Cassius and Casca—are associated with anti-ritualism. But Brutus, whom the play carefully distinguishes from the other opponents of Caesar, is no enemy to ceremony as such. Indeed, it is precisely because of his belief in the power of ritual that he comes to the conclusion that Caesar must die. As Frank Kermode observes, anachronistic assumptions about the significance of a coronation ceremony are at work in Brutus' soliloquy in his orchard. For Plutarch, Caesar is already a king de facto. But Brutus, thinking more like an Elizabethan subject than a Roman citizen, attaches great importance to the actual crowning: “He would be crown'd: / How that might change his nature, there's the question” (2.1.12-13). Crown Caesar and he will be put beyond reprisal. The ritual itself is what must be prevented.9

From the solemn shaking of hands in 2.1 to the bathing in Caesar's blood, the conspiracy is, under Brutus' direction, carried out in a conspicuously ceremonial manner. As Brents Stirling and others have noted, onstage the ritualistic character of the assassination is clear.10 One by one the conspirators kneel to Caesar, begging him to repeal Publius Cimber's banishment although they know he will not. By arrangement Casca strikes first, rearing his hand over Caesar's head. Each conspirator then stabs in turn, after which they bathe in the blood. But long before the event, Brutus insists that the assassination must be conducted as a sacrifice. His well-known speech evokes both ritual slaughter and the notion of purging or bleeding a sick commonweal in a medicinal act that he conceives as a kind of exorcism of Caesar's spirit.

Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide 'em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary, and not envious;
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers.


Interestingly, some of these motifs recur when Caius Ligarius enters dressed like a sick man and explicitly refers to Brutus as an “exorcist” who can give health: “Brave son, deriv'd from honourable loins! / Thou, like an exorcist, hast conjur'd up / My mortified spirit” (2.1.321-24).

There is, however, an ambiguity in Caius Ligarius' speech, for in Elizabethan usage “exorcise” can mean to raise a spirit as well as to expel one, and this ambiguity perhaps foreshadows the ironic turn that events in Rome are to take. Is Brutus an exorcist or a conjurer, Rome's doctor or the means by which the spirit of Caesar is permanently established in the state?

Early in the play, Cassius rather sardonically introduces the notion of conjuration when he attempts to move Brutus against Caesar by speaking of the relative power of their names:

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
“Brutus” will start a spirit as soon as “Caesar”.


Later, in his soliloquy over Caesar's corpse, Antony imagines civil war in Italy with “Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge” (3.1.270). Antony no doubt is only speaking metaphorically, and yet, together with other allusions to exorcism and conjuration, his picture of the ranging spirit invites us to consider the play's action as an attempt at exorcism that turns into a conjuration, two rituals that are dangerously similar in that each involves the demonstration of power over spirits.11 In any case, the play makes much of Caesar's spirit, and at the end that spirit does literally range the world, manifesting itself to us as well as to Brutus before the battle of Philippi.


But to speak of Julius Caesar in terms of spirits and conjuration perhaps seems odd. We may be more accustomed to thinking of this play as a hard-headed political study, one that treats Brutus' attempt to ritualize and purify the assassination with scornful irony. Our approach tends to be in the skeptical vein of Cassius or in that of Antony, who regards the assassination as exactly what Brutus sought to avoid, a butchery. And yet although Antony, the cynical manipulator of the plebeians, may be disenchanted, Julius Caesar, with its ghost, its soothsayer, its prophetic dreams and supernatural prodigies, is not. The world of this play is fundamentally mysterious. Minor mysteries such as Cassius' death falling on his birthday are emphasized, and the play implies that Caesar was right to have grown superstitious, to have changed his opinion about dreams: the portents that prefigure the assassination are not merely daggers of the mind. By the play's end even Cassius has lost some of his enlightened skepticism and come to grant some credit to omens.

Of course we do not need to believe that Shakespeare himself had to be superstitious to write Julius Caesar. The Elizabethan stage was filled with supernatural beings such as witches, fairies, conjurers, and ghosts. Purged from the church by the new enlightenment of the Reformation, magic reappeared in the ostensibly circumscribed and make-believe world of the theater. If sixteenth-century Englishmen could no longer experience the real physical presence of God on the altar in church, they could still experience the pretended physical manifestation of demons and spirits in the theater. We are sometimes inclined to dismiss the Puritan objections to the theater as sour crankiness, but their antagonism can perhaps be sympathetically comprehended as part of their larger campaign against superstition and idolatry.12 Moreover, there is a real connection between magic, ritual, and drama, and it is sometimes hard to say where the boundary lies between attending a play that is about ritual and participating in a ritual.

Julius Caesar is a case in point. The assassination is so conspicuously ritualized—the conspirators kneeling before Caesar, the repeated stabbing, the ceremonial bathing in Caesar's blood, the clasping of purpled hands when Antony enters—that an audience may well feel that it is not only witnessing but participating in a kind of ceremony. Indeed, in its dramatic self-consciousness, the play calls attention to its special quality as a kind of ritual when, immediately after the death, Cassius speaks of it as an event that will provide high drama in future tongues and states:

Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!
How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along,
No worthier than the dust!
                                                                                          So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call'd
The men that gave their country liberty.


This ritual quality is directly related to the special historical status of this play's subject: for the Elizabethans as for ourselves, the assassination of Julius Caesar was probably the single most famous event in ancient history. It would have been quite possible for Shakespeare to have suppressed our knowledge of this history in the interest of illusionism, of making us forget that we are attending a performance, but in fact he does the opposite. For example, the soothsayer who appears in the second scene and again just before the assassination activates our own retrospective foreknowledge. Again and again, Shakespeare in effect reminds us that the story is famous and the outcome known. What does the night of prodigies signify? What is the meaning of the beast in which Caesar's augurers cannot find a heart? What does Calphurnia's dream portend? For the characters these are riddles, and indeed the difficulty of interpreting becomes an important motif in the play. As Cicero says on the night of prodigies, “men may construe things, after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (1.3.34-35). But the audience has no difficulty in construing these signs because we are participating in a reenactment of an event whose most important meanings are already known. Why should the name Caesar be sounded more than any other? Because, as we know, this name will become a title greater even than king. Why should the ghost of Caesar range the world? Because, as we know, the assassination was not the end of Caesarism but effectively the beginning.

A few words about the play's structure as historical drama are necessary. Julius Caesar is built upon a tautology: Caesar becomes Caesar, the past becomes the completed past that we know. Much like ourselves, the Elizabethans seem to have imagined ancient Rome in architectural terms, thinking of pillars, arches, and statues; and Shakespeare's Rome is notably a city of statues: Caesar's images, Junius Brutus' statue, the statue of Pompey the Great.13 Cassius warns Brutus that Caesar has turned himself into a Colossus, and indeed Caesar, who repeatedly suppresses his private fears in order to play out his historical role as “Caesar,” does present himself as a kind of monument. As a historical tragedy, then, Julius Caesar is built upon the tension between the present tense of dramatic reenactment and the past of history, between the ordinary flesh and blood of life and the immobile statues of antiquity. The play insists throughout upon Caesar's fleshly vulnerability: his falling sickness, his deafness, his near drowning in the Tiber, and his fever in Spain. What Shakespeare shows us is—to employ the grotesque imagery of Calphurnia's dream—marble statues spouting blood; or, conversely, it shows us flesh and blood aspiring to monumentality. Ironically, it is precisely because of his aspiration to a monumentality as fixed as the north star that Caesar is vulnerable to the conspirators' plot. “Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus?” (3.1.74) he exclaims the moment before the assassination. This is hubris of course, but in the different sense that the play's historical perspective provides, it is true. “Et tu, Brute?” As Caesar leaves behind the frailty of the flesh and enters history, Shakespeare gives him the one Latin line in the play, underscoring the transformation. The vulnerable man has been revealed as the marmoreal figure of history. Caesar has become Caesar.

What I am suggesting is that the play's mystifications, its magical elements, are associated with this tautological design. Couched in terms of prophecies and omens, our knowledge of events is represented in the drama as a magical necessity embedded in history. The result is that dramatic irony is raised to a metaphysical level and presented as fate. In this manner the play creates a feeling of necessity and persuades its audience that in witnessing Caesar's death and the collapse of the republican cause it has witnessed something inevitable.


Why should Caesar's assassination and apotheosis as an immortal spirit be ceremonially repeated on the stage of the Globe? Why should Shakespeare conjure up Caesar? Considered not merely as a play about ritual but as itself a version of ritual, Shakespeare's historical drama becomes a ceremony of sacrifice and transcendence that I would like to term a kind of political Mass. As David Kaula has pointed out, there are Eucharistic overtones in Brutus' ceremonial charge to the conspirators to wash their hands in Caesar's blood, an action that echoes the New Testament invocations of Christ having “washed us from our sins in his blood” (Rev. 1.5). So, too, there are allusions to Christian sacrifice in Decius Brutus' interpretation of Calphurnia's dream, in which he claims that the statue spouting blood signifies that Caesar will be the source of renewal for Rome and that Romans will come to him, as to a saint, for “relics” (2.2.83-90). And there are similar overtones when Mark Antony, speaking over Caesar's body, tells the populace that if they heard Caesar's testament they

                    would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds,
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And, dying, mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.


“Behind all the oblique allusions to Christian sacrifice,” Kaula remarks, “lurks the notion that what the conspirators produce is a disastrous imitation of the true redemptive action.”14 The assassination of Caesar is in other words merely a parody of Christian sacrifice. What I want to suggest by speaking of the play as a kind of political mass, however, is an alternative way of understanding these Eucharistic overtones. Brutus may be misguided in his conception of the assassination, Decius Brutus may be trying to flatter Caesar in order to persuade him to go to the Senate House, and Mark Antony may be a demagogue manipulating a crowd; nevertheless, like the mass, Julius Caesar centers upon a sacrificial death that initiates a new era in history, the emergence of imperial Rome. Perhaps the association of Caesar and Christ is not wholly ironic.

Let us recall again the intermingling of religion and politics in the sixteenth century. The struggle within the church, glanced at in the opening scene, represents one aspect of this intermingling. Another is the way the crown penetrated the church. The penetration was literal; in place of the holy rood the royal coat of arms was erected in the chancel arch of English churches. At the same time, religious forms such as the figure of the double nature of the man-god Christ were systematically displaced onto the political sphere. Drained out of the official religion, magic and ceremony reappeared not only on the stage, but in the equally theatrical world of the court, where, for example, something reminiscent of the rejected cult of the Virgin reappeared as the cult of Gloriana with its attendant rites and ceremonies such as the spectacular Accession Day celebrations.

Particularly interesting, given the statues in Julius Caesar, the destruction of “popish idols” was paralleled by the rise of the sacred image of Elizabeth, forever young and beautiful. Shakespeare's Caesar turns himself into a monument of greatness; Shakespeare's Queen did something not altogether different, presenting herself as a living idol to be worshiped.15 Moreover, the Roman imperial theme had immediate significance in sixteenth-century England where Elizabeth, determined to maintain her independence from the threatening powers of Catholic Europe, dressed herself in the symbolism of an empress, the heir ultimately of the Caesars.16 Even Caesarian triumphs were part of her style. In 1588 she marked the defeat of the Spanish Armada with an entry into London in the ancient Roman manner, and one of the most famous of her late portraits, the procession picture attributed to Robert Peake, is as we now understand a version of the triumph á l'antique with affinities to Mantegna's Triumph of Caesar.17 Probably many in Shakespeare's audience would have been prepared to see parallels between the first Emperor, as Caesar was commonly if erroneously regarded, and the great Queen.18

I hardly mean to suggest that Julius Caesar is to be taken as an allegory, although some in Shakespeare's audience may have interpreted it in this way, as they evidently did Richard II a few years later. Nevertheless, the play does have political dimensions, and as a representation of the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Empire, Julius Caesar may be understood as yet another of the many originary myths of the Imperial Tudor State, a fable parallel in its way to that of the descent of true British authority from the ancestral figure of Trojan Brute, or to that of the apocalyptic union of the red rose and the white. Furthermore, by transforming the historical fact of the defeat of Brutus and the republican movement in Rome into a metaphysical confirmation of the inevitability of imperial greatness, Shakespeare's play implicitly confirms the legitimacy of the Tudor state. And yet, even as it does this, Julius Caesar is far from univocal. Shakespeare's Caesar may be great, may even be the greatest man who ever lived in the tide of times, but he is also inflexible and pretentious. Nor is Brutus a foul traitor condemned to the deepest circle of Hell like Dante's Brutus, but rather a patriot and an idealist, albeit a misguided one.19

In the last years of the sixteenth century it became increasingly difficult for the old Queen to play the role of Gloriana. Elizabeth was still of course a figure of awe and admiration to her people, most of whom, including Shakespeare, had never known any other ruler; nevertheless, many of her loyal subjects were impatiently looking forward to the end of her reign. Office-seekers were anxious for advancement and for the titles of honor that Elizabeth so rarely bestowed, and the Puritans were waiting for a monarch more disposed to continuing the reformation of the church. To make matters worse, the old Queen obstinately refused to name her heir.20 Perhaps Julius Caesar incorporates, in significantly displaced form, something of the ambivalence and frustration with which many regarded the resident deity of England in her final years. In any event, a suggestive doubleness inheres in the play, which allows us at once to do away with Caesar and to submit to him.

Drama, like any form of narrative, has as one of its functions the mediation of contradictions that lie too deep in the culture to be resolved or, sometimes, too deep even to be effectively articulated. Two years after Julius Caesar was performed, there was a confused and traumatic revolt in England, the Essex uprising. But this was not a revolution, for no general principles lay behind it, and it was pursued, significantly, in the form of loyalty to the Queen. The last years of Elizabeth's reign are still a long way from the Civil Wars and the public bleeding of King Charles. Nevertheless, the Puritan reformers, however loyal to the person of the Queen they might be as individuals, had made an important step toward the future with their subversive claim to an authority derived not from the crown but from the congregation. No bishop, no king. At stake in the controversy over discarding the ceremonies in the church and the attendant symbols of social legitimation was indeed the matter of power in the realm. In its strategic ambivalence, Shakespeare's play can perhaps be understood as mobilizing some of the contradictory feelings toward the absolute authority of the crown that were beginning to be felt even as early as 1599.


  1. 1.1.36-55. All quotations of Julius Caesar are from the Arden edition, ed. T. S. Dorsch (London, 1955).

  2. On the “spiritual” style of preaching, which developed in the 1580s and 1590s, see William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York, 1938), pp. 19-34, 128-72. David Kaula in “‘Let Us Be Sacrificers’: Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar,Shakespeare Studies, 14 (1981), 197-214, also observes the analogy between the tribunes and the reformers. Kaula develops the point rather differently from the way I do, suggesting that Caesar worship in this play is something akin to Roman Catholic worship and that Caesar himself can be associated with the Pope.

  3. William Cobbett, Parliamentary History of England (1806), vol. I, cols. 1071-72. In the ensuing debates over purveyance reform, the principal supporters of reform became associated in the public mind with tribunes. See W. Gordon Zeeveld, “Coriolanus and Jacobean Politics,” Modern Language Review, 57 (1962), 321-34, who discusses the episode in relation to the tribunes in the later play.

  4. The Works of Mr. Richard Hooker, ed. J. Keble (Oxford, 1863), III, 570.

  5. Christs Checke to S. Peter (1599), sig. M8. On preaching as a crucial area for political control see Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (London, 1964), pp. 30-78.

  6. Robert Crowley, An Answere for the tyme (1566), quoted by W. Gordon Zeeveld, The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought (New Haven, Conn., 1974), p. 25.

  7. The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought, p. 15.

  8. By the 1590s an anti-holiday attitude had become virtually “official” Puritan doctrine. See Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London, 1982), pp. 436-37, and Hill, Society and Puritanism, pp. 145-218, who reports that Puritans were regularly penalized for insisting on working on saints' days.

  9. See Kermode's introduction to Julius Caesar in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974), p. 1103.

  10. See Stirling's influential “Or Else This Were a Savage Spectacle,” PMLA, 66 (1951), 765-74. My reading differs significantly from Stirling's in that I do not see the play as treating ritual with enlightened scorn. Naomi Conn Liebler, “‘Thou Bleeding Piece of Earth’: The Ritual Ground of Julius Caesar,Shakespeare Studies, 14 (1981), 175-96, is particularly concerned with Shakespeare's use of Roman rituals. Her argument is that in the Caesarean period there was confusion about ritual practices as one social order was coming to an end and another was emerging. Brutus' desire to preserve ritual seriousness, to treat the assassination as a religious sacrifice, suggests, in her reading, his “impossibly idealistic conservatism” (p. 180).

  11. Exorcism, which was associated with the enemies of the Elizabethan establishment, was much in the news in the 1590s in connection with John Darrell, the famous Puritan exorcist whom the authorities put on trial as a fraud. For an account of this affair see D. P. Walker, Unclean Spirits (London, 1981), and for a suggestive recent discussion that is particularly concerned with possession and dispossession in relation to King Lear see Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare and the Exorcists,” in After Strange Texts, ed. Gregory S. Jay and David L. Miller (University, Ala., 1985), pp. 101-23.

  12. Michael O'Connell explores the seriousness of some of the Puritan objections in “The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm, Anti-theatricalism, and the Image of the Elizabethan Theater,” ELH, 52 (1985), 279-310.

  13. Collections of engravings of Roman ruins such as Hieronymus Cock's Praecipua Aliquot Romanae Antiquitatis Ruinarum Monimenta (Antwerp, 1551) or Antonios Lafreri's Speculum Romanae (Rome, 1579) would give a sense of ancient Rome as a city of gigantic columns, arches, and statues. John W. Velz, “The Ancient World in Shakespeare: Authenticity or Anachronism? A Retrospect,” Shakespeare Survey, 31 (1978), 1-12, observes that “Shakespeare thought of Rome in architectural terms” (p. 11).

  14. Kaula, “‘Let us be Sacrificers’: Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar,” pp. 209-10. The pattern of Eucharistic allusions in the play was also pointed out to me by Frank Burch Brown at the American Academy of Religion in 1985.

  15. John Phillips comments on the parallel decline of images of Christ and rise of images of Elizabeth; see The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535-1660 (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), esp. p. 119. On the displacement of religious themes onto the monarch see Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1975), pp. 29-87, and Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (London, 1977).

  16. See Yates, Astraea, esp. pp. 29-87. On the emergence of Tudor imperial claims in the reign of Henry VIII see Richard Koebner, “‘The Imperial Crown of This Realm’: Henry VIII, Constantine the Great, and Polydore Vergil,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 26 (1953), 29-53.

  17. See Roy Strong, “Eliza Triumphans,” in The Cult of Elizabeth, pp. 17-55. The royal entry of 1588 in a symbolic chariot-throne surmounted by a “Crowne Imperiall” is described by John Stowe, Annales (1631), p. 751, quoted by Strong, p. 120.

  18. I have noted that Kaula in “‘Let us be Sacrificers’: Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar” suggests that Caesar can be associated with the Pope. Some in Shakespeare's audience may well have made this connection. Others, however, might have been more interested in the analogy with Elizabeth.

  19. Indeed, the play even treats Brutus' republican politics with some sympathy, although the anti-Caesarean voice as it speaks here is perhaps more the antithesis implicit in absolutist monarchy than it is classical republicanism. J. L. Simmons argues suggestively that the republicanism of Julius Caesar is colored by the radical ideal of “godly egalitarianism”; see Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies (Charlottesville, Va., 1973), pp. 80-84.

  20. J. E. Neale discusses relevant aspects of the late Elizabethan court in “The Elizabethan Political Scene,” in Essays in Elizabethan History (London, 1958), pp. 59-84.

Frank Nicholas Clary (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Clary, Frank Nicholas. “‘Imagine No Worse of Them’: Hippolyta on the Ritual Threshold in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Ceremony and Text in the Renaissance, edited by Douglas F. Rutledge, pp. 155-66. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Clary discusses the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude in A Midsummer Night's Dream in terms of the ritual of wedding-night revelry. The critic argues that although traditionally the principal function of this rite is to allay male fears of domestication, here it is also designed to initiate Hippolyta into Athenian society.]

The Pyramus and Thisbe episode at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream is the threshold moment in a pageant of events that began with an early morning observance of the rite of May and will continue for a fortnight in nuptial solemnity and nightly revels. Between after supper and bedtime on the wedding night of Duke Theseus and his Amazonian bride, a group of artisans perform an interludic version of the popular myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. This story provides the site for court and commoners alike to “beguile the lazy time” before three newly married couples go off to bed. More purposeful than a mere diversion, this interlude occupies the liminal phase in ritual time when persons move between fixed points in the social structure. According to Victor Turner, this transition phase in the ritual process is “an interval when the past is momentarily negated, suspended, or abrogated, and the future has not yet begun, an instant of pure potentiality when everything trembles in the balance.”1 Hippolyta, at this moment, is also initiated into Athenian culture. As an outsider, her ritual experience is more complex than that of the other characters who actively engage in this phase of the nuptial ceremony. In fact, her participation during the interlude checks the liminal release of the others. From moment to moment, all are aware that she can challenge or comply with the counsels of Theseus, that she can join in the revelry or threaten it with her disapproval. During the Pyramus and Thisbe episode, the bridegrooms and the artisan players transform the ritual efficacy of the wedding-night interlude as they press it to the service of Hippolyta's initiation. Thomas Greene finds such improvised ceremonial play both “benign” and “propitious for inventing meanings.”2 As everyone participates variously in a version of “countercanonical play,” in anthropologist James Boon's sense of the phrase,3 they subject the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe to “orthodox and permitted iconoclasm,” which generates a new cultural text.4

Anthropologist Joseph Henderson illuminates the relationship between wedding-night revelry and nuptial solemnities. Noting that the marriage ceremony is essentially a woman's initiation rite, “in which a man is bound to feel like anything but a conquering hero,” he points out that societies organize “counterphobic rituals” that enable the man to cling to the remnants of his heroic role at the very moment that he must submit to his bride and assume the responsibilities of marriage.5 While Henderson does not find it surprising that in tribal societies, male counterphobic rituals often took the form of an abduction or rape of the bride,6 in early modern European culture this counterphobic purpose led to the development and incorporation of such mock-agonistic rites as the sword dance and the morris dance into the folklore of fertility festivals. In fact, Jackson Cope maintains that, within the context of wedding celebrations, the mock-agon complements and collaborates with the nuptial motif rather than conflicts with it.7 Within the particular context of Theseus's entrance into marriage with Hippolyta, the bridegroom's fear is implicitly intensified in light of the effects that an Amazonian mate may be imagined to have on him. Spenser, for example, graphically narrates such effects in his account of Radigund's effeminizing of Sir Artegall in book 5 of The Faerie Queene.8 Under such circumstances, the wedding night revel's counterphobic efficacy is especially desirable.

The counterphobic impulse perhaps accounts for Petruchio's behavior on his wedding day in The Taming of the Shrew. After carnivalizing the marriage sacrament in the church, Petruchio interrupts the evening's festivities by improvising a scenario in which he pretends to rescue Katherina from thieves.9 When he whisks his bride from her father's house, he carries her over the threshold and into a protracted phase of ritual-like liminality. Contained though it is within the framework of a play purported to be a curative for the deluded Christopher Sly, Petruchio's fully improvised scenario lacks the formality and communality characteristic of ritual. In comparison, the Pyramus and Thisbe episode is a model of ritual decorum.

Although the specific evolution of the wedding-night interlude as a distinct subgenre in England is difficult to trace, it owes its formal genesis to dramatic parodies that were devised as ornaments within a liturgical context. Glynne Wickham points particularly to the play of Balaam and his Ass in the Ordo Prophetarum and to plays relating to St. Nicholas during the Christmas season as illustrations of the earliest versions of these English parody festivals. Because such discordant elements presented a threat to the gravity of the original officium, the term ludus was adopted to distinguish these playful commemorative impersonations from dramatizations of a more devotional kind.10 Pre-Tudor interludes, Wickham maintains, developed alongside vernacular Corpus Christi dramas, morality plays, and saint plays during the fifteenth century, though “no representative texts of the genre in English have survived to us.”11 While several Tudor and Elizabethan interludes invite speculation on the sort of text that might be suitable for a wedding-night interlude, Suzanne Westfall maintains, “None of the extant plays was clearly designed to be used for wedding revels.”12 The scenes in which the mechanicals prepare and perform their version of the Pyramus and Thisbe myth illustrate the way in which an interlude might be fashioned from an available script and suited to the purposes of nuptial revelry. Counterphobic in purpose, the wedding-night interlude relates to the sacrament of marriage as the early ludus relates to the liturgical officium: It is a playfully parodic inversion festivity that permits a release of energy in action.

During the reign of Elizabeth, interludes designed for performance at marriage festivities were both popular and protected. Even when stage plays were the focus of heated public controversy and official censure, such interludes were repeatedly excluded from prohibition. For example, the Act of Common Council for 6 December 1574, which forbade “public plays and other idle pastimes,” specifically exempted certain private entertainments, including interludes “played or shewed … for the festivity of any marriage.”13 Ten years later, in reply to the Queen's Players' petition to perform within the city of London, the Privy Council maintained its prohibition of open spectacles, but excluded interludes designed to be played “at marriages and such like.”14

As a distinct component in a composite ritual, the wedding-night interlude of the mechanicals fills a specific space within the Duke's nuptial solemnities. Michael Bristol rightly describes the episode as “a noisy, burlesque counter-festivity” to the ceremonial formality of a wedding.15 As such, it provides an opportunity for the bridegrooms to engage in merriment as a way to cope with the anxiety that might otherwise characterize their liminal experience on the threshold of transition to the married state. By engaging in playful commentary and causing disruptions in the flow of the performance, they indulge in mockeries along the margins of the stage action. The bridegrooms, thereby, enjoy hilarious release from the prospect of their impending domestication as well as from the potentially sobering morality of a dramatized story on the dangers of romantic love and the consequences of its prohibition. At the same time, they divert their agonistic energies away from their brides and toward the artisan players. When Theseus chooses a play performed by “hard-handed men that work in Athens,” he invites the lowest end of the social hierarchy to furnish the pretext for nearly unrestrained mirth. The liminality of antistructure permits the Duke and the bridegrooms to enjoy the liberty and comradeship normally associated with the common folk at play. On the other hand, the artisan players have an opportunity to enjoy a different kind of escape. Victor Turner notes that participants in ritual who occupy diametrical statuses within the culturally defined socioeconomic structure seek different effects: “while the structurally well-endowed seek release, structural underlings may well seek, in their liminality, deeper involvement in a structure that, though fantastic and simulacral only, nevertheless enables them to experience for a legitimated while a different kind of ‘release’ from a different kind of lot.”16 What the mechanicals seek for themselves, then, is the liminality of pseudostructure in their enactment of a myth.

While the wedding-night interlude provides the Athenian bridegrooms with a focus for their indulgence in the mirth of ritual abuse, the mechanicals commit themselves to the discipline of their adopted roles. Glynne Wickham notes that because interlude performers were uncertain of their reception by celebrants in a festive mood, they routinely “defended themselves with apologetic prologues and epilogues” as well as “frequent ad lib exchanges”17 and were attentive to develop “devices to keep the audience informed of the character behind the disguise, the face behind the mask, the actor behind the character.”18 In both the casting and the rehearsal scenes, Shakespeare's mechanicals amend their script and make performance decisions that are consistent with those of interlude performers generally. Because their interlude is to be presented within the particular context of the Duke's marriage to a foreign queen, however, they show more than customary concern. In fact, even after their success in moving Philostrate to merry tears and loud laughter during their audition, they remain earnest rather than playful throughout the performance by staying alert to signs of misunderstanding or distress. As an outsider, Hippolyta is as unfamiliar with the wedding-night interlude as she is with the laws and social customs of Athens. Her presence, therefore, intensifies the anxiety of the mechanicals. It also checks the complementary liminal releases sought by participants at both ends of the social spectrum.

By trading places, the bridegrooms and the commoners implicitly seek to enjoy one another's accustomed liberty from the constraints proper to their positions within the cultural hierarchy. Under other circumstances, they might enjoy ritual effects similar to those described by McKim Marriott in his idealized reflection on the social function of the Holi festival (“the feast of love”) in Indian village society: “Each actor playfully takes the role of others in relation to his own usual self. Each may thereby learn to play his own routine roles afresh, surely with renewed understanding, possibly with greater grace, perhaps with reciprocating love.”19 In fact, C. L. Barber speaks of English festival tradition in similarly idealized terms when he describes them as “occasions for communicating across class lines and realizing the common humanity at every level.”20 In the case of the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude, however, communication between the mechanicals and the court is a dialogue at cross-purposes. The obvious failure of the two communities to translate one another's system of signs, in fact, makes the court's mockeries seem insensitive, and the mechanicals' efforts to prevent tragic catharsis appear laughable or pathetic. Rather than illuminate what the court and the commoners learn about one another's customary roles, the episode reveals to the outside observer the implications of cultural difference and social separateness. Even before the play begins, Hippolyta expresses her reluctance to see “wretchedness o'ercharged, / And duty in his service perishing.”21 Theseus, however, appeals to her capacity to adopt and maintain the subjunctive mood proper to ritual. In doing this, he makes it clear that the evening's revel will provide an opportunity for her to comprehend the relationship that exists between the court and the common people in her realm.

According to anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, the most successful rites of initiation transmit and communicate the culture, “not simply as an external, neutral set of principles, but as a motivational, internalized system.”22 In a preliminary instruction, Theseus sets up an analogy between the mechanicals who perform the interlude and “great clerks” who have welcomed him on state visits (5.1.93-103). By positing this analogy, Theseus evokes the fabled entertainments provided by Elizabeth's civic hosts during her many royal progresses. David Bevington, in his study, cites two royal entertainments that scholars customarily nominate in connection with this passage: “Shakespeare does seem to have had in mind the spectacular entertainments of Kenilworth (1575) and especially Elvetham (1591).”23 Accounts of other royal entertainments, which were often subsequently published, provided Elizabethan audiences with a broad array of models by which they might comprehend Theseus's analogy.24 More than its usefulness as a model for the appropriate critical disposition during a wedding-night interlude, Theseus intimates that this entertainment is to be pressed to the service of civic instruction. In the process of exerting transformative pressure on the interlude that is to follow, Duke Theseus also underscores the political efficacy implicit in state weddings attended by Elizabeth, which may evoke still other entertainments enhanced by the presence of the queen, as guest of honor.25 In this respect, the Pyramus and Thisbe episode serves a central function of ritual, both for Hippolyta and for the offstage audience: namely, to achieve a shift of consciousness by dramatizing and rearranging fundamental assumptions about relationships within the social structure.26 The conflation of nuptial revelry and civic instruction puts Hippolyta's marriage into a political frame of reference, which organizes her perspective on the implications of hierarchy. Furthermore, the Duke's prescription and modeling of an improvisational engagement with the interlude serves to define the earnestness of ritual as an occasion of playfulness.

Revelry of this sort is not incompatible with political and civic celebrations. However, as John MacAloon indicates in his study “Sociation and Sociability in Political Celebrations,” “We in the West typically fail to recognize such unity [between the serious and the playful] because of our tendency to separate the ‘core’ rite, its ‘serious business,’ from what we take to be the peripheral ‘carrying on,’ ‘letting loose,’ and ‘screwing around’ that accompany it.”27 As one among several examples, he cites the Incwala ritual of the African Swazi as a rite that possesses “an irreducibly ludic aspect,” even though it engages “the most sacred, serious, and socially consequential features of Swazi life.”28 If hierarch and subject alike feel good at these rites, he claims, “a fine augury for the future course of the leader's tenure and rule has been achieved.”29 Louis Montrose, emphasizing “the purposefulness rather than the gratuitousness of play” in Shakespeare's romantic comedies, sees revelry functioning within a frame that accommodates both conservation and change by dramatizing the symbolic assimilation of “potential disorder by a normative system.”30 The Pyramus and Thisbe interlude would appear to be well suited to the political purposes of the Duke.

From the start, the court playfully mocks the performers in a parody of ignorance and misrule. This permits abuse in the interests of counterphobic release. The mechanicals, on the other hand, earnestly tend to the enactment of a mirthful version of their cautionary tale, which satisfies their wish for pseudostructure. Initially Hippolyta joins the Duke and the bridegrooms in making fun of Quince's prologue. Later, however, she summarily complains, “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (5.1.210). Perhaps detecting a sign of resistance in this remark, Theseus apologizes for the performance and casually recommends that imagination can “amend” the players' limitations. When Hippolyta deflects this suggestion (“It must be your imagination then, and not theirs” 5.1.213-14), Theseus instructs her in greater earnest. Clearly the active participation of Hippolyta calls for improvisations of a different order than those proper to revelry. The mechanicals, too, are so fully committed to not offending the ladies that they repeatedly depart from the script whenever they detect a sign of misunderstanding that might cause disapproval. As they dramatize their parallel commitments to assure Hippolyta's pleasure and enlightenment, the Duke and the mechanicals collaborate in complementary fashion as con-celebrants of Hippolyta's ritual passage. Without achieving effective communication themselves, they organize Hippolyta's perception of a mysterious rapport that exists between the highest and lowest ends of the social hierarchy. Like the story told by the lovers, it may witness more than “fancy's images” and grow to “something of great constancy … strange and admirable” (5.1.23-27).

In an ideal sociological world, Georg Simmel notes, “the pleasure of the individual is closely tied up with the pleasure of the others,” so that in principle, “nobody can find satisfaction … if it is at the cost of diametrically opposed feelings which the others may have.”31 In one respect, the comic incongruity between the Duke's playful ignorance (“The wall methinks, being sensible, should curse again” 5.1.182-83) and Nick Bottom's earnest intelligence (“No, in truth, sir, he should not. ‘Deceiving me’ is Thisby's cue … ” 5.1.184-85) provides evidence of mutual misunderstanding between the speakers. In another respect, it displays a lively sociability to the extent that each speaker's satisfaction is a function of the other's.32 The possibility of shared good feeling would seem to be precluded by the cultural gulf that separates Athenian brides from Athenian bridegrooms, the leisured nobility from the working craftsmen, the natives from the foreigner. However, the disposition of attention that Theseus explicitly prescribes for Hippolyta defines the liminal subjunctivity that permits her to comprehend the possibility of reciprocal pleasure without mutual offense: “If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men” (5.1.215-16).

Whether Hippolyta needs to be instructed or simply plays her ignorance in a different key, she repeatedly draws out the discontinuities between her husband's expressed ideals and the apparent violation of them in his revelry. Though she displays no fear during the brief appearance of Snug's Lion, her openness to express herself throughout the performance regularly reminds the mechanicals that her displeasure may get them hanged as surely as her pleasure might earn them rewards. As an outsider, Hippolyta's precise experience is difficult for the native Athenians to know. Her initial mockery of the prologue and her later pity for Pyramus suggests that she is either deeply ambivalent or undergoing a noticeable transformation. Similarly, her expression of early distaste for Wall's silliness is counterpointed by her later commendation of Moon's graceful shining, which may be taken as evidence of her poised objectivity or her mellowing during the episode. The progress of her experience, however, is not simple, for in her last interruption she expresses renewed impatience, after an earlier weariness, rather than display her pleasure. By announcing her hope that Thisbe's passion be brief, Hippolyta challenges the Duke and the mechanicals to comprehend her and to act appropriately. Although Thisbe's swan song is not discernibly abbreviated, Nick Bottom grants Theseus the option to eliminate the prepared epilogue in favor of a Bergomask dance. And after commending the play in a final flourish of ambiguity (“Marry, if he that writ it had played Pyramus and hanged himself in Thisbe's garter, it would have been a fine tragedy: and so it is, truly, and very notably discharged” 5.1.357-61), Theseus chooses the rustic dance in a delayed concession to Hippolyta's expressed wish for brevity.

As the stage clears before the arrival of the fairies, the audience may already have begun to wonder at the most rare vision it has witnessed. Hippolyta's ennui and final expression of impatience evokes Queen Elizabeth's own occasional theatricality at the end of entertainments organized for her pleasure and her enlightenment. Under varying circumstances, Elizabeth had sometimes orchestrated a public instruction in a calculated gesture. At Oxford, for example, she had found the entertainment tedious, and “being something weary of it, sent twice … to cut it short.”33 The orator, however, ignored the queen's request and thereby intensified her discomfort. The next morning, as Elizabeth was delivering her own farewell oration, she dramatically interrupted her presentation to call for a stool, so “the old Lord Treasurer Burleigh” would not have to stand on “his lame feet.”34 While the official recorder emphasizes the queen's superior skill as an orator (“She did it of purpose to show, that she could interrupt her speech, and not be put out, although the Bishop durst not adventure to do a less matter the day before”),35 Elizabeth's theatricalized corrective as well as her edifying solicitude were not to be overlooked. Similarly, Hippolyta turns the occasion of her cultural initiation into an opportunity to instruct the natives by inducing them to acknowledge her satiety and thereby respect the principle of sociation at the heart of ritual. Maintaining her distance on the threshold of incorporation into a newly reconstituted social hierarchy, she invites Theseus to comprehend the limits of his power and privilege in the very process of exercising his authority over the conduct of this revelry.

During liminal moments such as this, Turner suggests, ritual participants are reminded not only of their common humanity, but also of the “mystery of mutual distance, which is just as humanly important as the mystery of intimacy.”36 When Theseus chooses the Bergomask dance instead of the epilogue, the wedding-night interlude ends on a note of appropriate mirth. Bottom does not specify, however, which two members of the company dance. This matters less than that all the ritual participants are not brought together in a final festive joining. Keeping the court and the mechanicals at a respectable distance from one another, this dancing provides a most fitting coda for an evening's revel that has taken place while everyone was temporarily betwixt and between and no one was his own. As Myerhoff notes of the liminal stage in rites of passage: “Moral choice, creativity, and innovation are possibilities that emerge from the agony of isolation and the joy of communitas.”37 It is just such effects that the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude produces.


  1. Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre (New York: Performing Arts Group Publications, 1982), 44.

  2. In the context of his study of Renaissance examples from Boccaccio to Donne, Greene suggests that improvisations such as this “imply hopefulness about the continuity of past and present, suggesting that the patterns and repetitions we inherit can be accommodated to transpositions, can become flexible.” See Thomas Greene, “Ceremonial Play and Parody in the Renaissance,” in Urban Life in the Renaissance, ed. Susan Zimmerman and Ronald Weissman (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1968), 291-92.

  3. Noting that in countercanonical play “the would-be subversive and the wished-for conservative may be complicit in each other,” thereby continually reopening the question does such play serve the political left or the right, Boon suggests that “genres and situations of performances may simultaneously implement subtler shifts and contestings across different statuses, roles, and systems.” See James Boon, Affinities and Extremes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 68-69.

  4. Victor Turner maintains that instances of such iconoclasm “always take place in the liminal or marginal phase of major rites of passage, in the portion of institutionalized time assigned to the portrayal of anti-structure.” The particular appropriateness of the Pyramus and Thisbe story as an interlude subject may be explained by reference to Turner's addendum: “Sometimes they are associated with an act of sacrifice, but often they occur independently of such an act though they have a sacrificial character.” See Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 295-98.

  5. Joseph L. Henderson, “Ancient Myths and Modern Man,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. Carl G. Jung and M.-L. von Franz (New York: Dell, 1964), 127.

  6. Henderson, “Ancient Myths,” 127.

  7. Jackson I. Cope, The Theater and the Dream (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 204. Cope, in fact, maintains that the mock-agon is as central to fertility festivals as nuptials themselves. In this connection, he cites Paolo Toschi's conclusion that “in spring rites the motif of struggle is no less petitionary and fecundative than is the sexual motif, and we see them both present in May festivals.”

  8. Janet M. Spencer, in a letter dated 21 March 1993, called my attention to the Radigund/Artegall episode from The Faerie Queene, bk. 5, canto 5, st. 20-25.

  9. The Taming of the Shrew, Riverside edition, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 3.2. 222-39.

  10. Glynne Wickham, The Medieval Theatre (1974; reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 43-51.

  11. Wickham, Medieval Theatre, 170.

  12. Suzanne Westfall, “The Entertainment of a Noble Patron: Early Tudor Household Revels” (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1979), 275-76. Although neither Westfall nor Wickham is able to identify a surviving example, the latter suggests that Shakespeare “obligingly supplies us with a vivid portrait in his Athenian mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream who find themselves so unexpectedly required to bring their ‘brief interlude’ of Pyramus and Thisbe to Court.” About the interlude itself, Wickham notes: “scripts of that character probably represent the peak of what was attempted by ‘artisans in good towns and great parishes … to make people merry.’” See Wickham, Medieval Theatre, 191.

  13. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (1923; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 4:273-76.

  14. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4:298-302.

  15. Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater (New York: Methuen, 1985), 176.

  16. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process (Chicago: Aldine, 1969), 201.

  17. Wickham, Medieval Theatre, 175.

  18. Ibid., 189.

  19. Turner, Ritual Process, 187-88.

  20. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 111.

  21. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Riverside edition, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 5.1. 85-86.

  22. Barbara Myerhoff, “Rites of Passage: Process and Paradox,” in Celebration, ed. Victor Turner (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982), 118-21.

  23. David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 16. See also, Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 119-24.

  24. Matthew Wikander's more recent examination of Thomas Churchyard's A Discourse of the Queenes Maiesties entertainment in Suffolk and Norfolk (1578), for example, provides specific confirmation that actors, under the strains of performance before the queen, betrayed anxieties like those displayed by Shakespeare's mechanicals, which Theseus seeks to assuage. See Matthew H. Wikander, Princes to Act: Royal Audience and Royal Performance, 1578-1792 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 1-43. Wikander might also have cited Elizabeth's Entertainment at Oxford (1592), in which Matthew Gwin's “premeditate oration” wonderfully illustrates the kind of nervousness clerks have shown in their “premeditated welcomes” to Theseus. See John Nichols, ed., The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth (London: J. Nichols and Sons, 1823), 3:153. Two different versions of this particular entertainment were published: one by an Anthony Wood, an Oxfordian; the other by Philip Stringer, a Cambridge observer. Reference here is to Stringer's account.

  25. Bevington cites three specific state weddings that various scholars have attempted to link to A Midsummer Night's Dream: “Stanley-de Vere, Berkeley-Carey, [and] Thomas Heneage and the Countess of Southampton (the Earl of Essex's dowager-mother.” See Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, 16. While Bevington finds the arguments for any one of these occasions, to the exclusion of the others, unconvincing and fruitless, each provides historical precedent for the kind of occasion dramatized at the end of Shakespeare's play.

  26. Myerhoff, “Rites of Passage,” 128-29.

  27. John J. MacAloon, “Sociation and Sociability in Political Celebrations,” in Celebration, ed. Victor Turner (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982), 263.

  28. MacAloon, “Sociation and Sociability,” 256.

  29. Ibid., 263. Georg Simmel uses the term sociation to identify the feeling that derives from being with or for others in the construction of society out of contending interests, duties, and purposes. He calls the discrete sociological drive “sociability,” the “play-form of sociation.” MacAloon explains further: “Interior relationships between the antinomies we have been exploring—hierarchy and equality, social structure and antistructure, solemnity and festivity—are revealed in the properties of sociability in a way that throws light on political and civic rites. These performances are supreme acts of sociation, using differentiated rules, roles, and ranks to answer to sober, ineluctable material interests. Yet they depend just as fully for their efficacy on the generation of sociability, which is, according to Simmel, ludic and democratic in nature.”

  30. See Louis A. Montrose, “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios n.s., 7, no. 2 (1979-80): 61, 67.

  31. MacAloon, “Sociation and Sociability,” 264; Simmel further notes that “the democracy of sociability even among social equals [much less among superiors and subordinates] is only something played.” [In this note, the bracketed emendation is MacAloon's, who is quoting from Simmel's The Sociology of Georg Simmel, translated and edited by Kurt. H. Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950). In addition, the word “played” is italicized by Simmel for emphasis.]

  32. Wikander sees something of this in his own observation: “The rude mechanicals' incompetent playing, like the ‘great clerks” throttled mumbling, betokens a subject's love: the monarch's charitable apprehension of that love embodies a reciprocal gesture of generosity.” See Princes to Act, 23.

  33. Nichols, Progresses, 3:146.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid., 3:147.

  36. Turner, Ritual Process, 139.

  37. Myerhoff, “Rites of Passage,” 117.

Derek Cohen (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6007

SOURCE: Cohen, Derek. “The Rite of Violence in 1 Henry IV.Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 77-84.

[In the following essay, Cohen views the combat between Hal and Hotspur in Act III, scene ii of Henry IV, Part 1 as a ritual purification of the violence that has engulfed England.]

Hotspur is a character whose career runs the gamut of dramatic expression. Commencing on a note of furious, even farcical, comedy, it concludes on a note of tragic grief so poignantly realized as to have inspired Northrop Frye's perception that his dying remark, ‘thoughts, the slaves of life’, comes out of the heart of the tragic vision.1 Hotspur's brave death is placed squarely and deliberately before the audience and provides the final means by which they can comprehend the nature and meaning of his life. Gradually the character has been moulded and determined by forces and events that culminate in the great encounter between himself and Prince Hal. The forces, both those seen by and those hidden from Hotspur, are the means by which the audience and reader are able to apprehend the development of a character whose existence has been bent into the shape of tragic suffering shown by that last speech:

O Harry, thou hast robb'd me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh:
But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time's fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust,
And food for—

(1 Henry IV, 5.4.76-85)

This speech, to which I shall return, is the apotheosis of Hotspur. By virtue of the transmogrifications wrought in drama through deliberately vivid depictions of dying moments, Hotspur becomes, during this quiet, nearly still, moment in the play, hero, god, and sacrificial creature of society.2 The fallen hero speaking and looking upwards at his conqueror commands the world he has lost just as he leaves it; and he does so in a manner and with a completeness that have been denied him up to now. It is the concentration of the audience's, the reader's, the prince's passive energy upon the spectacle of the dying soldier that emphasizes his role as the sacrificial victim of his and our world—a transcendence which involves us with his conqueror and his society in a silent collusion in the sacrifice. The production and reproduction of this play over the centuries testifies to a persisting pleasure (aesthetic and moral) in what is arguably the central emotional event of the drama.

Hotspur's death, a palpable and carefully prepared ritual, is directly referable to Prince Hal's vow of fealty to the King, his father.

Do not think so, you shall not find it so;
And God forgive them that so much have sway'd
Your Majesty's good thoughts away from me!
I will redeem all this on Percy's head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which wash'd away, shall scour my shame with it;
And that shall be the day, whene'er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
The gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! For the time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf,
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
This in the name of God I promise here,
The which, if He be pleas'd I shall perform,
I do beseech your Majesty may salve
The long-grown wounds of my intemperance:
If not, the end of life cancels all bands,
And I will die a hundred thousand deaths
Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow.


The power of the speech derives not only from the solemnity of the vow and its invocation of the imagery of blood sacrifice, but also from the variegation of mood within it. The telling first line contains a note of beseeching which hovers on the verge of the imperative. It takes strength from its repeated negatives and urgent exhortation. ‘Do not think so; you shall not find it so’—the first ‘so’ neatly dividing the line and balancing with the second in a parison of rhythm and harmony of logic. The monosyllables of the line, coming as they do immediately after King Henry's Latinate, almost otiose, ‘degenerate’, emphasize the contrast between the speakers.

Hal's speech is the climax of the play in the sense that here the death of Hotspur is given substance and form as an inevitable consequence of what is occurring between the King and the prince.3 Thus is the destruction of Hotspur by Hal transformed from a shadowy probability into a central fact of the play. It is the fact by which Hotspur becomes the ritual object of a revenger's quest. Resolution through death, as Lawrence Danson argues, ‘is necessary to assure the sort of enduring memorial [the hero] and his creator seek, and is an integral part of the play's expressive form’.4 This shift in emphasis from the probable to the actual takes force less from the known historical details on which the play is based than from the nature of the sacred vow, taken in private and hedged with such images of bloodshed as are traditionally identified with ancient, pre-Christian rites of purification.

As the willing captive of drama's most private moments and thus the willing possessor of the secret thoughts and desires of characters in a play, the audience becomes, perforce, a collaborator in the action. That is, the mere fact of silent observation of a ceremony (social, religious, theatrical) compels one into a posture of collusion. That the audience is forced to collude in Hal's oath-taking is a consequence of the natural, but nonetheless dramatically contrived, fact of Hotspur's absence which further separates the warrior from the ethical circle of ‘right’ action to which the audience is willy-nilly a party. The confrontation of father and son, with its ramifying features of paternal accusation leading directly to the solemn blood oath, is a re-enactment of a mythical encounter, a direct step towards purification in a blood ritual through which society itself will be saved. The blood images of this speech are unlike almost all the other blood images in the play. Where those elsewhere are emotionally and morally neutral, in Hal's vow the images of the bloody mask and the garment all of blood harness the full force of traditional, even archetypal, mythic sanctity. Hal's promise to redeem himself by shedding Percy's blood is the moment to which the play has logically tended from his first soliloquy—‘I know you all …’—where he promised to reveal his hidden and greater self to the world. In this later private scene, the playwright significantly extends the circle of confidence by one; to the theatre audience is added King Henry himself.5 In staking his life upon his honour, Hal adds potency to his promises by reference to a set of quasi-magical acts and symbols which help to conjure up dire images of fulfilment through the enactment in blood of timeless rites. Such primitive ceremonies inform the conventional concepts of honour and loyalty with new depth and so diverge from the mainstream of acts and images of the drama as to reinforce the idea of Hal's separateness and superiority. Virginia Carr has noted the violations of the ceremonies of kingship in the Henriad, commencing with Richard II's part in the murder of Thomas Duke of Gloucester and reaching their extreme form with the murder of Richard himself in which ‘we see the ultimate violation of the sanctity of kingship’.6 If we accept this view of the causes and manifestations of the destruction of ceremony, we might recognize in Hal's highly ritualized oath and performance of his vow a gradual, but concrete, reintroduction of the substances and linked ceremonies of kingship into the state.7

It is in distinguishing between beneficial and harmful violence that this drama advances through mime and illusion an age-old practice of blood ritual. Ritual, René Girard reminds us, ‘is nothing more than the regular exercise of “good” violence’.8 He adds: ‘If sacrificial violence is to be effective it must resemble the nonsacrificial as closely as possible.’ Hal's is a promise to commit a deed of ‘good’ violence, and the elements of ceremony with which he intends to inform the deed only add to its ritualized nature. To Hal, his blood-covered features and the garment of blood are the necessary stage of pollution precedent to the promised regeneration. In these images, Hal imagines himself stained with Hotspur's blood and presenting himself to his father as the conqueror of his father's—and of ‘right’ society's—enemy, and thus the saviour of the nation. The bloody mask is a token or a symbol of his effort on behalf of established order and will publicly proclaim him as hero.

And yet it is a mask. As such, it can possess the power to disguise the wearer. Hal imagines himself not precisely bloody or blood-smeared, but as wearing bloody robes. To wear a garment of blood is different from bloodying one's own garments: it can mean to wear outward dress or covering which is stained with blood or to be so covered in blood as to seem to be wearing such a robe. It is likely that both meanings are intended. The latter is used as an assurance of heroic behaviour, as a part of the ritual of purification being described and, furthermore, the latter use accords more literally and immediately with the notion, two lines later, of washing away the accumulated gore on garment and face. The idea of the garment, however, as a separate robe and of the mask as an adopted guise enforces an impression of Hal as separate from the bloody object. In part, the self-imagined picture of the prince clad in his garment and mask has the effect of portraying Hal as priest or ritual slaughterer. As such, the image helps make concrete the early notion, gleaned from Hal's first soliloquy, that Prince Hal is in control of the events of this drama. Seeing himself in this functionary role, Hal is enforcing upon our attention his confident knowledge of himself as director of events. The idea of the garment is more usually associated with the softness of the priest's robes than with steely armour. The mask, too, is a part of the garb of the priest of the common imagination and known tradition who participates in the ritual.

If this is convincing—if Hal's perception of his killing of Hotspur can be accepted as an act of cleansing (‘Which washed away shall scour my shame with it’)—then we might also accept that Shakespeare has identified yet another crucial, if not the crucial difference between the hero and his heroic antagonist. The image of their encounter is variously imagined by Hal and Hotspur, and in this very variety of imagination lies the key to their essential characters. Hal shows his own control of his emotions and of his imagination. As Hotspur can be driven beyond the bounds of patience by imagination of huge exploits, Hal remains firmly anchored within his own sensible sphere. He is the most entirely self-controlled character in the play, perhaps in the canon. In identifying the difference between Hal and Hotspur, James Calderwood notes that ‘as a future king Hal knows very well that his business is to shape history, not to be shaped by it. To Hotspur history is a fixed and final reality to which he is irrevocably committed. He has given his word, as it were; he cannot alter his role. To Hal on the other hand history is a series of roles and staged events.’9

Hal decidedly lacks what Maynard Mark once characterized as the first quality of the tragic hero: the driving impulse to overstatement,10 which is possessed in such impressive abundance by Hotspur. For many, Hal seems to have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong. Equally, and equally unlike Hotspur, part of Hal's amazing political success in the play has to do with his ability to move familiarly through a variety of speech styles, each apparently selected with a view to the occasion. We have noted in the speech quoted above the impressive opening line—its straightforwardness, its rhythm, its explicit contrast with the words to which it is a response. Immediately thereafter follow seventeen lines in which Hal commits himself to the fulfilment of a mission. These seventeen lines form a unit which is separate from that dramatic, assertive first line whose loneliness in the speech lends it an air of authenticity of emotion separable from the carefully contrived rhetoric of all that follows it. Within the following lines lies deep the notion of vengeance sanitized by reference to the cleansing ritual described. The idea of revenge is concentrated in the imagined destruction of an even greater Hotspur than exists—‘For every honour sitting on his helm, / Would they were multitudes, and on my head / My shames redoubled!’—and is given an even sensual texture by the use and placing of the two key Latinate words in the sentence, ‘multitudes’ and ‘redoubled’. The contrast of these words and this entire section of the speech with the blunt monosyllables of line 1, of the large and conventionally noble concepts of this part of the speech with the sound of outrage and grief conveyed by that first line, lends the speech the tinge of self-consciousness. What follows these seventeen lines seems to me, even more obviously, to point to a kind of cleverness in Hal that diminishes the felt rage he is trying to express: for he overlays it with metaphors too mundane to be able to carry with them the burden of moral distress by which he is ostensibly moved. I refer to the mercantile terminology by which Hal concludes his plea: ‘factor’, ‘engross up’, ‘strict account’, ‘render every glory up’, ‘tear the reckoning from his heart’, ‘cancels all bands’, ‘smallest parcel’, establish in the oath-taking a tone of marketplace transaction which tends to dull the burnishing imagery of ritual and heroism with which he begins. He introduces here a new mode of speech that contrasts with the heroically extravagant promise of the culminating lines of the preceding part—

                                                  For the time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.

Norman Council observes that the speech demonstrates the pragmatic side of the prince who determines here ‘to use Hotspur's reputation for his own gain … Hotspur's honourable reputation is useful to Hal and he means to acquire it.’11 The speech as a whole speaks of the sheer, even miraculous, competence of the speaker. The manipulation of styles and the variegation of tones and metaphors all denote a virtuosity which, while commendable in itself, is somewhat vitiated when compared to the different kind of virtuosity of Hotspur's speeches. Finally we must note that the rhetoric of Hal's speech, in all its variety, accomplishes its end of gaining the King's good opinion. In this sense, of course, the speech is bound to be suspect, since the whole is motivated by a desire or need of the prince to persuade the King, his powerful father, of his loyalty. And there must be satisfaction for Hal and his partisans in Henry's clear change of heart, conveyed by his confident assertion, ‘A hundred thousand rebels die in this’.

All theatre audiences are accustomed to seeing people temporarily transformed into other people for the duration of the play. Audiences and participants in rituals, however, see the process and function of ritual as a means to permanent transformation of a person into, essentially, another person—a boy becomes a man, a girl a woman, a man a priest. Most Shakespeare critics have been united in recognizing the transformation of Hal from wayward boyhood to manhood after this speech. Harold Jenkins, for example, sees this exchange between father and son as the ‘nodal point’ of the play.12 One may go further, I believe, in recognizing the transformation of Hal as being the transformation of the protagonist of the play into a hero—and one may identify the moment of transformation as the first line of this speech. To recognize the transformation as made permanent by virtue of a ritualized oathtaking has the effect of strengthening and universalizing the nature and extent of the change and, hence, of adumbrating with certainty the triumph of this hero in a drama which seems to depend frequently upon the formal modes of myth.

I say ‘this hero’ because the uniqueness of 1 Henry IV resides very largely in the fact that this is a play with two heroes, each of whom stands at the centre of a world which has been conceived in opposition to that of the other. Those worlds are separately defined units of place and ideology which cannot coexist; for their separate existences are partially defined by the pledge of each to destroy the other. The ideologies for which the two heroes stand are at bottom the same—those of power and control.

The encounter between them is the occasion of the play's greatest emotional intensity. The moment has been predicted, vaunted, hoped for by participants and heroes alike. The privacy of the confrontation—interrupted briefly by Douglas and Falstaff—does not in any sense diminish the timeless ritual with which it is informed. We note the common expressions of recognition and identification, whose tone of defiance maintains the note of hostility necessary to such life-and-death meetings as these. And we note the nearly compulsive need of each hero to articulate to the other his sense of the meaning of the moment. The form of the expression of each is remarkable: Hal's chivalry and Hotspur's haste are appropriate symbolic denotions of each as he is given the opportunity to express his sense of the significance of the moment, demonstrating that he knows, as his opposite knows, that for one of them it is a last encounter. It is this awareness of finality that endues the moment with solemnity and the ritual with its form—that of a last accounting, in the dazzling light of a certain death to follow.

The encounter, when it finally comes, is preceded by a provocative ritual of boasting in which each of the combatants—almost as if to rediscover the basis of his hatred of the other—recalls the very spirit of his own animosity. In Hal's recollection of the Ptolemaic principle that ‘Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere’, he falls back upon the natural law, resistance to whose principles he has begun to abandon since his vow to the King. And indeed it is in obedience to the laws of nature that Hal has ritually dedicated himself. Hotspur's overweening vanity makes him hark back, compulsively almost, to the lust for greatness that dooms him. But it is when Hal, oddly and mockingly, borrows Hotspur's own demotic language and metaphors of violent action, that the Northern youth is finally left without images and must act:

I'll make it greater ere I part from thee,
And all the budding honours on thy crest
I'll crop to make a garland for my head.
I can no longer brook thy vanities.


Hal's words, his image of Hotspur's ‘budding’ honours, suggest to his adversary that those honours are not yet full-grown, not really the honours of an adult hero. His threat to ‘crop’ them from his crest contains an insulting contempt: to crop, according to the OED, is ‘to poll or to lop off’. The term, in other words, carries all the easy arrogance of a simple, almost casual, single deadly blow. In Hal's brilliantly infuriating image we and, more important, Hotspur are presented with the image of Hotspur as an unresisting plant and the prince as a carefree courtier in search of ‘a garland for [his] head’. Hotspur's single line of reply is, thus, reasonably one of powerful anger: his only possible reply to Hal's vanities is the testing action of combat.

Of the dying Hotspur, George Hibbard has written that he ‘eventually becomes capable of seeing all human endeavour, including his own, in relation to the great abstract ideas of time and eternity, and voices this vision of things in the moving lines he utters at his end’.13 This observation in part explains the tragic element of this character in the coalescence of his comic and tragic selves into mutually supporting images of comedy and tragedy whose very extremism lends intensity to the character. There is tragedy, too, in the dying man's sheer magnificent truth to himself, to what he is and has ever been;

I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me

comes not from the large heart of the tragic vision but from the authentic, single, separate self of Harry Hotspur, uniquely and eternally apart. That difference from his fellows, from all other heroes, is gloriously captured in the penultimate realization that the instrument by which he has lived, by which his life and character have been defined, has been stilled—‘the cold hand of death / Lies on my tongue’. Hotspur, whose eloquence has elevated him, is unimaginable in a silent state, and Shakespeare, knowing the absolute truth of this for the character and the audience, rivets all attention upon the death of his hero's speech. Thus does silence become synonymous with tragedy.

The prolonged antagonism of Hal and Hotspur has no obviously alternative outcome to this final violent conflict. And in the conflict itself we can discern the fact that the physical closeness of the antagonists is a metaphor for a larger issue evident in the spectacle: that, as the two have been driven gradually closer through the play, so have they become with the subtle aid of ritual more and more alike until, in the moments of, and those immediately after, the fatal fight, they are almost images of each other. During the violent encounter differences between combatants tend to evanesce: the violence itself is the correlative by which individuals are connected as their whole selves are absorbed by physical contention. Hal and Hotspur do not speak during their fight and thus are transformed by their attempts to kill each other into a single unit of dramatic action—the differences between them disappear; their personalities meld. And, indeed, it would seem that in killing Hotspur, and through the combat itself, Hal has absorbed something of his opponent's vital essence. There is an indication, in his tribute to the fallen hero, of love and something, too, of the generosity of soul which is Hotspur's hallmark.

For worms, brave Percy. Fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weav'd ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough. This earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy
I should not make so dear a show of zeal;
But let my favours hide thy mangled face,
And even in thy behalf I'll thank myself
For doing these rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave,
But not remember'd in thy epitaph!


The ritualistic element of the speech takes the form of a loving tribute to the fallen hero and an action of passing symbolic import. Hal, Herbert Hartmann has convincingly argued, disengages his own royal plumes from his helmet to shroud the face of his dead rival.14 These plumes are equivalent to Hotspur's ‘budding honours’ and thus Hal's act of placing them upon the face of the beloved enemy is a gesture of weight. In the purest sense of the phrase, Hal identifies with Hotspur, and that identification is given a poignant depth by the ritualistic means through which it is achieved. In addition, by concluding Hotspur's dying speech Hal has appropriated to himself something of the power of his rival's speech; he has almost literally absorbed his last breath. Despite the obviousness of the tendency of Hotspur's last words, Hal's mere capacity to utter them cements the identification.

Ten lines later, concomitantly with his ‘rites of tenderness’, Prince Hal bends over the body of Hotspur to lay his favours on the soldier's face. In so doing he closes once again—and for only the second time in the drama—the physical space between them as he touches his erstwhile adversary. Hal thus bathes his own favours in the blood of Harry Hotspur. And thus, ironically, does Hotspur acquire a mask soaked in his own blood and the blood of the prince. For, as Hal performs his act of homage, we are powerfully reminded of his solemn oath to the King to ‘stain my favours in a bloody mask’. In the mingling of the blood of Prince Hal and Harry Hotspur is the fusion of their two souls symbolically extended. The words by which Hal accompanies his gesture complete the connection: ‘And even in thy behalf I'll thank myself …’. The pronouns of that line, by their self-conscious interplay, bind their subjects ever more firmly to each other. As well, history furnished Shakespeare with one additional means by which the two characters are made to merge; that is, of course, the unforgettable fact that they have the same Christian name.

The degradation of honour and courage which Falstaff's presence offers the scene has often been discussed. One is reminded of Falstaff's capacity for sheer bestiality as he defiles the body lying near him; a capacity made more real, perhaps, by the use to which he subsequently puts the newly mangled corpse. As an ironic travesty, the gesture has an axiomatic dramatic function in keeping with the structure of parody running through the drama. However, less obvious—aside from the action's merely narrative purpose—is the reason for the action in relation, not to the scheme or structure of the drama but, precisely, to the Prince's killing of Hotspur.

A nation in a state of civil war is one in which law has failed to create or maintain order. And so it is beyond the law that the state must seek the means of stability. The means are often those of repression, which always carries the threat of resistance. Thus do the two opposing forces of tyranny and resistance to tyranny promise the fruition of actual conflict. Societies suffering repression can explode in violence which is artistically expressed as an image of the artist's political prejudice. As the violent riots of Henry VI are devoid of the seeds of social order, in 1 Henry IV the conflict and its hero are presented so as to emphasize a socially beneficial outcome. Here, the blood that is shed fulfils the requirements of blood rituals. It is, one might say, ‘clean’ blood resulting from what René Girard has called ‘good’ acts of violence.15 That is, it is blood which has been shed for the larger advantage of national welfare. And as we look back at the blood imagery related to the Hal/Hotspur conflict, it becomes clear that Hotspur's blood has been represented as that of the sacrificial creature whose death will redeem his world, and into whose life and person are concentrated the rage, anxiety, and fear of a threatened nation. His death, then, sometimes regarded as tragic, is also utterly necessary for the continuation of the nation. Dover Wilson regards it as a favourable feature of Hal's character that his ‘epitaph on Hotspur contains not a word of triumph’,16 and perhaps he is right. But for Shakespeare and his audience, more significant, perhaps, is the fact that Hotspur's greatness was very nearly sufficient unto his purposes: the world was almost overturned, and with it the reign of the regicide Henry IV. Hal's presence here naturally palliates the thought, since Hal is the successor to the throne of the tyrant and, just as surely, the golden hero of the drama.

At his death and because of it, Hotspur is transformed into a hero of tragic magnitude. Thus, when Falstaff rises and hacks at his corpse, he commits a direct assault upon the sanctity of the ritual that has just been performed. His act suddenly infuses the scene with uncleanness by an almost casual reversal of ritual that has just passed. The return to life of Falstaff is no miracle, but a rather sour joke, made somewhat sourer by the attitude of shallow boasting which accompanies it. The return to prose, to a disordered, unrhythmic speech which breathes selfish relief and opportunism is a wicked riposte to Hal. But the physical attack on Hotspur's corpse is a crime against the ethos of heroism to which the prince and, in a dramatic sense, the nation have been committed. Falstaff's act is a negation and a degradation of the cleansing by blood. And yet the repeated exposure to violence can inure us to it. While we are indeed shocked by the callous treatment of Hotspur's corpse, the very brutality of that treatment and its very extensiveness gradually accustom us to the initially shocking fact that a slain hero is being dragged around like a side of beef. The corpse of Hotspur gradually becomes the focus not merely of Falstaff's opportunism, but of a grotesque, huge, successful joke—‘one of the best jokes in the whole drama’17—upon whose point is balanced the question of ritual purification. Yet Falstaff's imitative act of violence rebounds upon himself: any doubts as to his locus in the moral scheme of the play are vividly resolved by his disruption of the cycle of the ritual. The emphatic terminus implied by Hal's parting words is crassly mocked by Falstaff rising up. The act of cutting Percy's thigh is represented as antithetical to Hal's death-fight with Percy: as the fight was a lucid example of the purifying violence seen only in drama and ritual, so the attack on the corpse affirmed the value of the rite by its implied but debased re-enactment of the encounter.

Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff are, then, related through ritual, both in itself and as depicted through the dark glass of parody and travesty. Furthermore, it is through ritual that they are connected to their world in the play's intensest moments. To call Falstaff's impersonation of Hal's father in the tavern scene a parody is to diminish the force of a scene in which a youth enacts one of the deepest universal desires of man as he overthrows his tyrannical father. The scene of oath-taking, discussed earlier, is a conscious, deliberate, and calculated retraction of the desires enacted in the tavern. As such, it is either utterly false or it is the heroic conquest of reason and responsibility—i.e. social pressure and expectation—over the urging of the unconscious mind—i.e. individual nature. It is thus profitable to see the tavern ritual and its climactic, if soft-spoken, conclusion (‘I do, I will’) as a ritual of exorcism by which Prince Hal, through the contrived dramatization of his innermost promptings, rids himself of the demons of his deepest desires. As J. I. M. Stewart has argued with reference to the rejection of Falstaff: Hal, ‘by a displacement common enough in the evolution of a ritual, kills Falstaff instead of killing the king, his father’.18

Hotspur, on the other hand, does not grow or change. From first to last his purpose is to gain glory and renown. Even at his death, it is to his honours that he refers as having been more dearly won of him than his life. His sheer consistency makes him an apt victim in the cruel drama of ritual sacrifice. A Hotspur who can go to his death proclaiming the value of a moral system which is by its nature exclusive of the vast world from which it derives, cannot be the hero who heals the world. His presence nearly always provides discordancy—charming and witty though it may be. He is the heart of the whirlwind that rages through the nation, and it is this heart that must be stilled for the sake of peace. In short, as with other tragic characters, it is Hotspur's death alone that can heal the world.


  1. Northrop Frye, Fools of Time (Toronto, 1967), p. 4. References to 1 Henry IV are taken from the new Arden, ed. A. R. Humphreys (1960).

  2. In The Scapegoat (1913), p. 227, James Frazer discusses the role and function of that human being upon whom the evils and sorrows of the society are concentrated and through the death of whom the society is released from its suffering. The process of Hotspur's death suggests that he is Hal's and the nation's scapegoat. Frazer remarks the many ceremonies in primitive and ancient societies whereby regeneration and purification were possible only after the killing of a human scapegoat or the death of a god.

  3. In describing dramatic climax, Fredson Bowers emphasizes the conscious ethical decision of that moment in the drama which determines the inevitability of its outcome. He argues that ‘the rising complications of the action culminate in a crucial decision by the protagonist, the nature of which constitutes the turning point of the play and will dictate the … catastrophe’ (‘The Structure of King Lear’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 31 (1980), 7-20; p. 8).

  4. Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet (New Haven and London, 1974), pp. 20-1.

  5. If the status of Hal as hero is acknowledged, we must recognize that it is owed in large measure to the sheer stage power of the soliloquy. Hal's presumption in addressing us directly has the effect of placing him uppermost: he goes beyond the audible reflection of, say, Falstaff on honour, to the point of taking us into his confidence, promising us a happy surprise, and then, here, realizing that promise.

  6. Virginia M. Carr, ‘Once More into the Henriad: A “Two-Eyed” View’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 77 (1978), 530-45; p. 535.

  7. Carr's reference to the gradualism of the reintroduction of ceremonies which integrate their primitive substances is consistent with the prince's so-called ‘lysis’ conversion, described by Sherman Hawkins as one which ‘may include more than one crisis experience separated by periods of steady advance’ (‘The Structural Problem of Henry IV’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 33 (1982), 278-301; p. 296). I am suggesting that Hal's use of ritual in this scene is more significant than a single stage of development or an advance to his next strength: he is demonstrating, by this use of the language of ritual, his own actual control of a situation which by rights belongs to the monarch. King Henry's subjection to this control is signalized by the conviction of his acceptance of the vow.

  8. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, 1979), p. 37.

  9. James L. Calderwood, ‘1 Henry IV: Art's Gilded Lie’, English Literary Renaissance, 3 (1973), 131-44; p. 137.

  10. Maynard Mack, ‘The Jacobean Shakespeare’, in Jacobean Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 1 (1960), pp. 11-41; p. 13.

  11. Norman Council, ‘Prince Hal: Mirror of Success’, Shakespeare Studies, 7 (1974), 125-46; pp. 142-3.

  12. Harold Jenkins, The Structural Problem in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth (1956), p. 9.

  13. George Hibbard, The Making of Shakespeare's Dramatic Poetry (Toronto, 1981), p. 180.

  14. Herbert Hartmann, ‘Prince Hal's “Shewe of Zeale”’, PMLA, 46 (1931), 720-3; p. 720.

  15. Girard, p. 37.

  16. J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge, 1964), p. 67.

  17. Ibid., p. 89.

  18. J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1965), p. 138.

Gillian Murray Kendall (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6685

SOURCE: Kendall, Gillian Murray. “Ritual and Identity: The Edgar-Edmund Combat in King Lear.” In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 240-55. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Kendall argues that the elaborate ceremony surrounding the trial by combat between Edgar and Edmund in Act V, scene iii of King Lear betrays the hollowness of the ritual and highlights the ineffectuality of all human constructs designed to establish legitimacy or affirm a natural order.]

An enterlude!

Broken rituals complicate the action of many of Shakespeare's plays: Ophelia's already “maimed rites” are further marred by an impromptu performance on the part of Hamlet; in Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio turns on Hero and puts an end to the marriage ceremony; in the scene of ritual combat in Richard II, King Richard throws his warder down and interrupts the action. King Lear, too, employs broken ritual as drama, opening with a scene steeped in what are apparently ceremonial exchanges1—exchanges that are broken down by the intrusion of spontaneous and unexpected language (“Nothing, my lord.” “Nothing?”).2 Such a disruption of ritual, of events meant to be patterned and ordered, foreshadows what is to come. In the world of King Lear, all concepts of order and justice, whether human or divine, are shortly to disintegrate into the vision of a mad king battered by an indifferent tempest on a wild heath. And yet, in the final minutes of King Lear, the play returns to an extreme form of ritual in the trial by combat of act V, scene iii.

No interruptions mar the confrontation between Edgar and Edmund. Curiously, just before the play produces an apocalyptic vision of injustice in the deaths of Cordelia and Lear, the action pauses. The consequences of the (brief) battle for England, the question of the fate of Lear and Cordelia, these things are set aside. Instead, the audience must pause in its contemplation of images of horror and view from beginning to end the uninterrupted workings of a ritualistic trial by combat.3 The conclusion of the play must wait; the audience is distracted from the plight of Lear and Cordelia (“great thing of us forgot!”). The characters consent to the enactment of a ritual that will hold the play in thrall until one or both of two combatants is released by death. And in the trial by combat we witness precisely what the rest of the play negates: a vision of deep order, a working out of natural and, of course, poetic justice.

In this scene, the scripted language of ritual—a language that in itself acts as an emblem of order and culture, a negation of chaos—displaces the spontaneous exchanges of the squabbling victors of the battle. The characters reverse the movement of the first scene of the play, replacing the unexpected, the disordered, the impromptu, with a script. The combat really is, to use Goneril's word, an “enterlude,” a brief play (in this case one that asserts a powerful vision of order) that, ironically, is contained within a script (King Lear) that undermines all visions of order. In the context of the larger play, this enterlude seems, I think, curiously displaced—a relic from a world that no longer exists.4 The descent of King Lear into chaos and inarticulate despair is being interrupted by a mini-drama so morally pat and so old-fashioned (even to a Renaissance audience) that, in the end, it fails to satisfy—even given that trial-by-combat might be the modus operandi of the King Lear world.5 This sudden obsession with ritual—seen in the calling of heralds, the ceremonial trumpetings, the concern with traditional wording and the rules of combat—finally becomes an empty and distorted assertion of order in a world that has already stripped ritual of meaning. The elaborate concern with rules, with scripted language, with rank and degree plays itself out to the end, only to reveal, finally, its essential meaninglessness. Naturally the way the combat is staged would have a profound impact on the way an audience might come to perceive this lack of meaning. Marvin Rosenberg notes that traditionally the combat has been staged as something formal, and directors have engaged in “such cliches as Edgar knocking Edmund's sword away and letting him retrieve it.”6 More recently, however, “the savagery of both fighters has been emphasized, they are in to kill—in the Dunn Lear, Edgar knifed the fallen Edmund repeatedly, and had to be dragged off.”7 A more formal staging would enhance the emptiness of ritual in the context of the Lear world; a savage battle—a choice in staging I would strongly favor—would exhibit the enormous gap between the language of ritual and what it supposedly represents.8 Either extreme of staging indicates that, in some sense, this trial by combat begins what becomes a final movement away from ritual and ceremony at the end of the play. It is an enterlude that, in calling attention to itself as artifact, reveals the fragility of all scripts, all artifacts of order, even the script of King Lear itself. Indeed, in the final lines of the play, Edgar directs us away from scripted language altogether.9

Justice has difficulty triumphing on stage in King Lear, not only because villains commit evil acts, but, more importantly, because they refuse to take law and the righteous pronunciations of other characters seriously. When Albany tells his wife “O Goneril, / You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face,” Goneril responds by calling him “Milk-liver'd man.” His moralism about women and evil (“Proper deformity [shows] not in the fiend / So horrid as in woman”) earns him the epithet of “vain fool.”10 Goneril makes of Albany's schoolbook morality something stodgy, something learned, perhaps out of a book of emblems; her energetic evil (and Edmund's) invigorates and dominates the play.

Asserting any kind of moral framework or justice in the play seems first to require getting the serious attention of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund in order to reveal to them—as well as to the audience—evidence of a deep order that must finally thwart evil. And Edgar and Albany attempt to do this. Not surprisingly, then, Goneril's very contempt toward any law that might attempt to bring her to account serves to introduce the trial by combat—as if the ritual were to undermine her position. She scoffs at Albany's ironic words as he reveals her wrongdoing, and proclaims the interchange an “enterlude”—she means a comic entertainment. Her contemptuous response, however, ushers in what might well be called an enterlude—but one of the didactic, rather than comic, ilk:11 the ritual confrontation of Edgar and Edmund:

An enterlude!
Thou art armed, Gloucester, let the trumpet sound.
If none appear to prove upon they person
Thy heinous, manifest, and many treasons,
There is my pledge. I'll make it on thy heart,
Ere I taste bread, thou art in nothing less
Than I have here proclaim'd thee.


An “enterlude,” indeed. The language and action have become stylized; King Lear retreats into a world belonging to a much older kind of play.12 Once the challenge is accepted, both Albany and Edmund reinforce how separate this piece of ritual drama is from the language and events that precede it. Suddenly, new rules are in effect. And Albany13 calls for the member of the cast necessary before the play can continue: “Alb. A herald, ho!” The herald, with his traditional language and station, makes this scene one of public ritual instead of private vengeance. And in Edmund's calling for sounding of the trumpet, and Albany's calling for the herald, they both, in some sense, subscribe to the ritual that will follow. Meanwhile, their joint focus on the niceties of a trial by combat turns us away from the action of King Lear as a whole (where Cordelia and Lear are in peril).

Rituals like the trial by combat imply by their very design that a kind of deep order exists in the world—an order inherent in nature, not imposed on it by human law.14 But the very terms in which Edgar chooses to reestablish himself and take his place in this (supposedly) natural order are suspect, since ritual—to reflect some kind of underlying order—tends to define itself in its own terms. Once governed by the heralds, the participants in the combat (should it follow uninterrupted to its conclusion) belong to a world where there is no conclusion but a just conclusion. The gods may appear not to be watching over the characters of King Lear, but in this instance, the gods can be replaced with heralds, trumpets, rules of combat. Lear and Cordelia may, contrary to all sense of justice, lose a battle, and later their lives, but the rules of ritual combat create justice from its outcome—whatever outcome. The combat might prove Edmund not to be the traitor that we all consummately know he is, but this conclusion would not undermine the ritual itself—since according to such ritual the final result must be just. This enterlude of combat thus provides an image of order that is like a snake with its tail in its mouth—endlessly circular and self-contained. The result of the trial by combat cannot really affect the audience's vision of the bleak chaotic landscape of the play, nor will it provide a lasting endorsement of Edgar's legitimacy: the result of the combat is undermined by the terms under which it is created.

In the introduction to Secular Ritual, Sally Moore and Barbara Myerhoff write: “In the repetition and order, ritual imitates the rhythmic imperatives of the biological and physical universe, thus suggesting a link with the perpetual processes of the cosmos. It thereby implies permanence and legitimacy of what are actually evanescent cultural constructs.”15 The word “legitimacy” has, I think, a special meaning when this statement is applied to King Lear. For “legitimacy” on a very basic level is precisely what Edgar is attempting to establish; among other things, the very concept of legitimacy and illegitimacy—and, as a corollary, primogeniture—that Edmund challenges early in the play is on trial here.16 Edgar, who has every reason to buy into a patrilineal ideology that privileges the first legitimate son, comes to displace the ideologically wicked Edmund.17 What Moore and Myerhoff suggest by their analysis of ritual, however, is that legitimacy—any kind of legitimacy—is a cultural artifact, not a God-given constant or a fact of nature. Edgar, by engaging in the combat, attempts to re-legitimize the concept of the legitimate (a concept eroded by the action of the play), to re-create his name and identity in a ritual that is also a kind of macabre baptism in his brother's blood (I have seen one production of King Lear in which Edgar, rising from his brother's body, has blood on his forehead—clearly the mark of Cain). But as a means of validating an identity as something concrete and “real” (i.e., something that cannot be created simply by the pronouncements of Cornwall or the machinations of Edmund), ritual here proves inadequate. Indeed, the exaggerated nature of all the ceremony surrounding the combat suggests, I think, that there is something hollow at its core. Myerhoff and Moore write: “Through form and formality it [ritual] celebrates man-made meaning, the culturally determinate, the regulated, the named, and the explained.”18 Here, however, the form of the ritual begins to reveal the indeterminate, the unregulated, the culturally unstable nature of the identity—the name, the status—that Edgar seeks to regain:

Know, my name is lost,
By treason's tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit,
Yet am I noble as the adversary
I come to cope.
Which is that adversary?
What's he that speaks for Edmund Earl of Gloucester?
Himself; what say'st thou to him?


Identities here become part of formulaic responses—but what the formula at first establishes is the doubtfulness of the identity of the participants going into battle. Edgar makes no claim to any name. He has no identity other than that of mysterious combatant—he only plays a role; he cannot unselfconsciously be Edgar—nor has he been unselfconscious since first assuming the role of Poor Tom. His identity has been absorbed by the many roles he plays.19 And Edmund, in this formula, can, in his answer, claim only to speak for Edmund Earl of Gloucester, not as Edmund Earl of Gloucester. Moreover, he refers to himself in the third person. Roles take the place of names; names (or the acknowledged lack thereof) are simply part of the ritualistic form that at this stage reminds the combatants not of who they are, but of what they are. Edgar and Edmund are both here at one remove from their names. The roles they take up, however, in turn have the potential to give renewed meaning and determinacy to the name and title “Duke of Gloucester.” The initial questions that introduce the above exchanges, after all, are ones meant to determine who the combatants are:

Ask him his purposes, why he appears
Upon this call o' th' trumpet.
What are you?
Your name, your quality? and why you answer
This present summons?


Albany wants to know about purpose, but the herald asks first the ritual questions about name and station. The question that is, essentially, asked twice adds significance to the answer (which at the end of the combat will be an answer that establishes identity). The questions, of course, do not proceed from spontaneous curiosity, but are part of the form of the challenge.20 Edgar's reply—or lack of reply—to the herald, artificially reinforces his later assertion of identity. The disguised knight who comes unknown to the lists is, after all, a very old literary convention. By participating in it, Edgar adds to the illusion that the identity that is going to be revealed and asserted is in some very deep sense “real.” But at this moment, as Edgar and Edmund face each other, they risk a realization of the fragility of the very concept of identity—a realization Lear experiences when he tries to find a person beneath the title of King. While Edgar, unlike Lear, does not seem to feel the need to ask “who is it that can tell me who I am?” (he believes he holds the answer to the riddle), the ritual itself comes to reveal how tricky such answers, and such riddles, can be.

When Edgar confronts Edmund he risks more than the knowledge of how fragile a thing identity is (something he should already realize from his experience as Poor Tom); he risks a confrontation with as deep and profound a chaos as any that Lear encounters in his mind. For rituals like the trial by combat are necessary only because the workings of order are not in actual fact clearly stamped on the natural world. Just as the Renaissance insistence on the validity of the great chain of being suggests a certain lack of security about hierarchy, the very order of ritual serves as a reminder of the threat of chaos: “And underlying all rituals is an ultimate danger, lurking beneath the smallest and largest of them, the more banal and the most ambitious—the possibility that we will encounter ourselves making up our conceptions of the world, society, our very selves. We may slip in that fatal perspective of recognizing culture as our construct, arbitrary, conventional, invented by mortals.”21 Essentially, what happens in the course of the trial by combat is that we, as audience, can see that Edgar is encountering himself in the act of creating himself—and his place in the social hierarchy. In facing a bastard brother who has usurped his name and title, Edgar is, to some degree, facing a distorted reflection of himself.22 Indeed, he equates himself with Edmund, saying that although his name is lost, “Yet am I noble as the adversary.” In winning the combat, too, Edgar's language is suggestive:

Let's exchange charity.
I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;
If more, the more th' hast wrong'd me.
My name is Edgar, and thy father's son.


He proclaims himself to be Edgar (and it has been noted how much less compelling this is than Hamlet's similar assertion of identity—which occurs as Hamlet disrupts a ritual). Edgar does so, however, by comparing himself to Edmund and claiming “thy father” as his own. Edgar, in reestablishing his name and status as the legitimate son and heir to the title of Gloucester, shows his act of assertion to be similar in nature to Edmund's seemingly false creation of himself as Gloucester's heir—as the legitimate Duke of Gloucester. Edgar needs Edmund in order to define himself, but by so using his bastard brother, Edgar reveals the fragility of the constructs of legitimacy. Indeed, Nahum Tate, in rewriting King Lear into a comic form that raises few, if any, questions about established social order, makes important changes in the combat scene. These changes are designed to allay any uneasiness we might feel about the battle over the Gloucester inheritance. First, the moment that Tate's Edgar enters, armed, Albany exclaims, “Lord Edgar!” (V.v.14),23 thus instantly giving the legitimate son a title and name. Secondly, upon seeing Edgar, Edmund is immediately smitten with guilt. He has clearly internalized and accepted the patrilineal ideology of primogeniture and legitimacy. Thirdly, Edmund states he may well not be Gloucester's son at all, since his mother “disdaining constancy, leaves me / To hope that I am sprung from nobler blood, / And possibly a king might be my sire / … Who 'twas that had the hit to father me / I know not” (V.v.49-54). The idea that Edmund is not Gloucester's son at all changes the terms of the combat entirely, and, of course, frees Edgar from the taint of having committed fratricide.

Legitimacy was, of course, an important social concept in Renaissance England, and The Bastard was a stock villain in literary works—one has only to think of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Spurio in The Revenger's Tragedy. But the very vehemence with which both society and literature condemned bastardy and the begetting of bastards indicates an unease with the subject—an unease perhaps out of proportion to the practical difficulties bastards might pose to questions of inheritance or social position. The reaction against bastards may have come partially, I think, from the possibility that by their very existence they might raise questions about the artificiality of concepts of legitimacy. To Angelo, for instance, in Measure for Measure, bastards are counterfeit, not “true made,” and his language is excessive and violent in his assertion of this difference:

It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stol'n
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
In stamps that are forbid. 'Tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made
As to put metal in restrained means
To make a false one.


To Angelo, making a bastard is as bad as committing murder. Bastards are “false”—the implication is that they are made in an entirely different manner than the legitimate. Actually, of course, the difference between legitimate and illegitimate is not in the making, but in the exchange of words that constitute the ritual of marriage. But to acknowledge this is to come close to raising the insidious and subversive question that Edmund asks, and that Angelo's language (and imagery of counterfeiting) would keep suppressed:

Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?


Edmund peers into the abyss that ritual and convention attempt to cover; he consciously flouts the artificial order that covers chaos.24 Interestingly, once Edmund has achieved the position he covets, it becomes in his interests to establish it as a socially conventional position within a conventional moral scheme. Hence, perhaps, Edmund's willingness to fight Edgar even though he need not:

In wisdom I should ask thy name,
But since thy outside looks so fair and warlike,
And that thy tongue some say of breeding breathes,
What safe and nicely I might well delay
By rule of knighthood, I disdain and spurn.


The trial by combat, should he win, would secure him in the social order. Edmund sounds, here, not unlike a social climber, as he shows himself to be even more chivalric than the “rule of knighthood” requires. He will use no loopholes to delay the combat, and he seems to embrace the opportunity to leave behind the shadowy status of the Renaissance illegitimate. For Edmund the outsider, conventions have little value; but once on the inside of society, his newly created self needs, and seems to crave, some way of establishing that that self was not self-created at all, but part of the natural universe.25 We might see that Edmund's fall comes from a participation in the act of creation that Edgar is trying to bring about. Edgar absorbs Edmund into his plot—his scripted ritual of combat—and by so doing disarms Edmund, whose energy and ability to new-create himself came from the rejection of conventional scripts.26 Goneril protests that Edmund's fall comes from trickery:

This is practice, Gloucester.
By th' law of war thou wast not bound to answer
An unknown opposite. Thou art not vanquish'd,
But cozen'd and beguil'd.


Albany, as much a conventional moralist as Edgar throughout the play, responds as though stung to Goneril's undercutting of an act that has just appeared to reestablish some kind of justice in the world: “Shut your mouth, dame, / Or with this paper shall I stopple it” (V.iii.155-56). Albany's angry reaction draws attention to Goneril's claim. Her refusal to accept the results of the ritual combat are as dangerous to established morality as her statement that “the laws are mine” is “most monstrous.” This is especially true because, in some sense, by waiving his right to refuse combat, Edmund has been tricked by appearances into fighting his brother on his brother's terms. The ritual of combat, because it is conservative, traditional, should, of course, do just what it does here—lay bare the falseness of Edmund's assumed identity as Duke of Gloucester. Goneril, though, threatens to lay bare the artificiality of all tradition, ritual, and law.

Ritual, like law, only appears to be a part of the ordering of the universe. As mentioned above, the security of ritual covers a deep and fundamental insecurity about all of human artifice, culture, and order. In fighting Edmund, moreover, Edgar engages in the same kind of self-creation that his brother did (hence, I think, the reflective imagery within the dialogue concerning the combat). The legitimacy conferred by marriage, after all, is purely a cultural artifact, something created from nothing by going through a ritual—the marriage ceremony—that, like that of trial by combat, defines itself in its own terms. One is married when one has been married. Lear himself hints at the tenuousness of the kind of legitimacy (and legitimacy and morality become closely linked in the play) that marriage imparts to offspring:

Die for adultery? No,
The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got 'tween the lawful sheets.


Of course, Gloucester's bastard son is not, as it turns out, very kind to his father, but no less kind than Lear's daughters. When Edgar says “Edgar I nothing am,” he approaches the vision of the world that ritual and ceremony attempt to cover, the vision of the world where legitimacy, order, titles have no meaning. No wonder then that he uses the trial by combat to establish that his “name is Edgar.” This ritual, by its very nature, is designed to turn Edmund's vision of the world—one that would have it that might is right (or, rather, that whoever has ability will triumph)—into Edgar's moralistic version of the same—that right has might. The conclusion of the combat between Edgar and Edmund reinforces the image of ritual as order, justice, completion:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.
Th' hast spoken right, 'tis true.
The wheel is come full circle, I am here.


Edgar, like Albany, has found morals and meaning in many of the events of the play. Here, Edmund accepts Edgar's moralistic vision of the world and his version of events—a change that presages his change of heart about the murders of Lear and Cordelia. Like most of Edgar's moralisms, however, this one, which crowns the scene of ritual combat and completes it, finally proves inadequate, hollow, and just a little too pat. As many critics have noted, it is also an astounding thing to say of one's father.27 Moreover, the gods do not, in the final analysis, seem very just. Ensuing events will reveal the inadequacy of the entire trial by combat, of Edgar's assertions of identity, and of ceremony and ritual in general. The completion of this morality play acted out between Edgar and Edmund is “but a trifle.”28

For, despite Edmund's words, the wheel has not yet really come full circle. The ritual combat which has captured the attention of the characters onstage, which has come to a pat conclusion with a tidy moral, is not the completion of that larger moving wheel, King Lear. Something great has been forgot, and that something undercuts all the bulwarks against chaos that the ritual combat set out to construct. The death of Cordelia and finally of Lear take the play beyond the scope of pat moralisms or proclamations of innate justice. The hollow effort of Edgar to re-create himself—without acknowledging that he is so doing—is not only circumvented by the reflection of his act in the creative act of Edmund, but by a sudden vision of the hollowness of all ritual.29

The ritual combat of Edgar and Edmund is only an enterlude in the relentless spiraling of the play beyond the normal bounds of theater, beyond, in fact, anything that ritual can encompass. King Lear is itself in some sense a ritual, but one that ceremonially works to undermine all ceremony. William Frost notes of Cordelia and Lear that “these two personages have passed beyond ritual altogether at the close. They cannot be expressed or comprehended by any of its forms—this fact is their greatness and their tragedy.”30 Edgar is left behind, to close the play. And there is reason, I think, to prefer to have Edgar as the speaker of these final lines (although Albany, too, after all his pat attempts to find morals in the events of the play, might speak them effectively as well). Edgar says this:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


This is a different Edgar from the Edgar who announced his identity and asserted that his father's blinding was an action of just gods. This final speech is a statement that is as anti-ritualistic as it is possible to imagine. Edgar sees that it is time to pass beyond the script and “speak what we feel,” not use the formulaic and deceptive language of ritual and order. The final two lines of the play, too, are a statement of the uniqueness of events: what has happened will not happen again.31 Again, this is a statement of anti-ritual; these events cannot participate in the repetitions that give to the world an artificial sense of meaning.

And yet this movement toward anti-ritual, toward the undercutting of all order and hierarchy and meaning is only an “image of that horror,” and an image that is itself ritualistic. For King Lear transforms the unique into the repeated, the chaotic into the ordered by the very act of being a scripted play. Perhaps ironically, it is through the ordered artifact of drama that the audience can come close to a vision of the void, and the very ritual that undoes itself finally contains itself.

The ritual trial by combat that seems to promise the restoration of a kind of order and justice may fail to do so, but the anti-ritualistic epilogue spoken by Edgar succeeds in reestablishing a sense of ceremony and order where words spoken in double script (the script of ritual combat and the script of King Lear) fail. Perhaps more than anything else, the enterlude of ritual combat prepares us to accept in the place of moralisms a simple expression of deep feeling.


  1. Lawrence Danson, in Tragic Alphabet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 164, notes that the “love-trial is staged with all the pomp and symmetry which is ritual's way of setting words and gestures apart from their ordinary contexts.”

  2. One can no longer write on King Lear without addressing the textual issues involved. While the jury may forever be out on the question of whether or not Shakespeare was responsible for the Folio revisions, the fact remains that we have two authoritative versions of the play. I have chosen the tighter, Folio version of the play to work with, although to use the Quarto would not substantially alter my argument. For ease of reference, all quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Where this conflated text inserts material from the Quarto, I have deleted that material and noted the fact. For a discussion of the two texts and their effect on our reading of the play and our understanding of Edgar, see Michael J. Warren, “Quarto and Folio King Lear and the Interpretation of Albany and Edgar,” 95-107, in Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, ed. David Bevington and Jay Halio (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1978); see also Stephen Urkowitz, Shakespeare's Revision of King Lear (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), and The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). For a discussion of the implications of having two authoritative texts, see Jonathan Goldberg, “Textual Properties,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 37:2 (1986): 213-17, and Marion Trousdale, “A Trip through the Divided Kingdoms,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37:2 (1986): 218-23.

  3. Stephen Booth, in King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), discusses the way in which the ending of King Lear is consistently delayed. He notes that “Edgar's victory—the triumph of virtue—has the feel of dramatic conclusion, and the lines that follow it offer an anthology of familiar signals that a play is ending,” 7. I agree, and view the combat as a play complete unto itself.

  4. Rosalie L. Colie, in “King Lear and the ‘Crisis’ of the Aristocracy,” in Some Facets of King Lear, ed. Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (London: Heinemann, 1974), notes that the trial by combat was an anachronism as far as the play's Renaissance audience was concerned, and that Edgar is to “prove himself by an old-fashioned and quintessentially aristocratic method, the formal trial-at-arms outmoded in the late sixteenth century as a customary proof. … The anachronism stresses the play's archaism. … With this episode we are back in the world of chivalry of which we have heard nothing in the play and to which, under normal circumstances, Edmund the bastard could never have aspired,” 208.

  5. G. Wilson Knight, in The Wheel of Fire (London: Methuen and Co., 1930), views the scene somewhat more optimistically, stating that “It is Edgar's trumpet, symbol of natural judgement, that summons Edmund to account at the end, sounding through the Lear mist from which right and wrong at this moment emerge distinct,” 194-95.

  6. Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 305.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ritual, then, is a mediator in the same way that Howard Felperin sees morality and madness as being mediators. Felperin writes that “in the end, the play renounces its own mediations of morality and madness alike and redirects our attention to an undetermined reality that exists prior to and remains unavailable to both.” Shakespearean Representations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 104.

  9. In Q, Albany speaks the final words of the play. For the implications of Edgar as speaker, see Warren, “Quarto and Folio,” 105. For the idea that Edgar's name makes him, historically, a good candidate for the kingship, see F. T. Flahiff, “Edgar: Once and Future King,” in Some Facets of King Lear, 221-37. In this article, Flahiff identifies Edgar with the King Edgar who drove the wolves from Britain. See also Donna B. Hamilton, “King Lear and the Historical Edgars,” in Renaissance Papers, ed. A. Leigh Deneef and M. Thomas Hester (Raleigh: The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1983), 35-42.

  10. These are the exchanges as written in the Folio. The Quarto version is longer: see IV.ii.31-49, 53-59, 62-68, in The Riverside Shakespeare for the Quarto dialogue.

  11. Enterludes (somewhat old-fashioned entertainment at this time) came in two varieties, the entertaining and the didactic. Goneril refers to the former, but inadvertently introduces the latter.

  12. Felperin, Shakespearean Representations, sees the Gloucester plot as closely related to the morality play tradition: “the air of contrivance that hangs about the Gloucester action is pervasive, and it smells of morality,” 94. Felperin sees this motion toward the morality tradition as mediating between characters and “the confusion of raw experience,” 101, and as gesturing toward a new kind of mimetic experience.

  13. In Q, Edmund also calls for a herald. This emphasizes his interest in the socially accepted rules of combat, but the deletion of the line from the Folio makes Albany more central as a master-of-ceremonies presiding over the combat.

  14. See, for instance, the introduction to Secular Ritual, ed. Sally Moore and Barbara Myerhoff, which discusses the ways in which secular rituals are created to reinforce the idea that order exists (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1977).

  15. Ibid., 8.

  16. Phyllis Rackin, in “Delusion as Resolution in King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970): 29-34, notes that Edgar challenges Edmund “dressed in all the formal splendour that the hierarchy can afford,” 32, and hence, as I see it, as a kind of force of order and legitimacy. She also states that “the representation is, at least from one point of view, a delusion,” 32.

  17. Lynda Boose, in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's King Lear (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1986), notes that “having been cast out by the father and displaced by the rival brother, each struggles violently to get back into the family enclosure and inherit the privileges of the father … the very privileges that, by the laws of primogeniture … set up the competitive, ultimately fratricidal rivalry that this drama plays out,” 63.

  18. Moore and Myerhoff, Secular Ritual, 16.

  19. M. C. Bradbrook in Aspects of Dramatic Form in the English and Irish Renaissance (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983) notes of disguise on the Elizabethan stage that “there could be no such thing as a mere physical transformation. … A character could be really changed by the assumption of a disguise,” 37-38. Clearly, Edgar is changed by, among other roles, that of Poor Tom. And Alexander Leggatt notes, in King Lear (Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare [Boston: Twayne, 1988], 63), that “the sheer variety of his roles … makes him as much a chameleon as Richard III or Iago.” Janet Adelman, in the introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), writes that “both of Edgar's decided actions—his killing of Oswald and his killing of Edmund—are performed in disguises that allow him to submerge himself in a role,” 16. For an insightful discussion of Edgar's relationship to his Poor Tom role, see William C. Carroll, “‘The Base Shall Top th' Legitimate’: The Bedlam Beggar and the Role of Edgar in King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly 38:4 (1987): 426-41. Carroll notes that Edgar “far out-tops even his brother's histrionic genius,” 485.

  20. There is, of course, a parallel scene also using ritual wording in Richard II, I.iii.7-35. This trial by combat is broken off.

  21. Moore and Myerhoff, Secular Ritual, 18.

  22. Many critics, for example, have noted how interchangeable the names of the two brothers are. Carroll, “‘The Base Shall Top th' Legitimate,’” sees in the subplot a “doppelganger tale,” 439.

  23. All quotations come from The History of King Lear, ed. Nahum Tate and James Black (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975).

  24. Danson, Tragic Alphabet, writes that “Edmund reduces the traditional values of kinship to so many empty words—words without fixed meanings, but only the meanings we as individuals want to give them. … Edmund will define himself, choose his own words, and not accept society's evaluation,” 169. In this sense, Edmund's language is anti-ritualistic—until he joins Edgar in the trial by combat.

  25. Jonathan Dollimore, in Radical Tragedy (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984), makes the interesting point that “Edmund's sceptical independence is itself constituted by a contradiction: his illegitimate exclusion from society gives him an insight into the ideological basis of that society even as it renders him vulnerable to and dependent upon it,” 201. I would further argue that he is co-opted into the ideological society he initially rejects.

  26. In some sense, we can see Edgar here as what Stephen Greenblatt might call an improvisator, as well as someone engaged in an act of self-fashioning. See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-fashioning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 222-54.

  27. This quotation and Edgar's behavior on the “cliff” near Dover have proven to be the loci for discussions about Edgar's character. Leggatt, in King Lear, calls Edgar's words “repulsive” and notes that “there is unexpected, self-satisfied cruelty in his reference to the way the gods have punished Gloucester,” 62. Harry Berger, Jr., in “Text Against Performance: The Gloucester Family Romance,” in Shakespeare's Rough Magic, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), sees Edgar as committing “symbolic parricide,” 222-23. James Calderwood, in “Creative Uncreation in King Lear,” notes that “as a poete manque … he settles too readily for conventional forms and ideas,” 11. Stanley Cavell, in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), writes that “Edgar's capacity for cruelty … shows how radically implicated good is in evil,” 283. Adelman, however, in Twentieth Century Interpretations, notes that “the absolute goodness and nobility of Edgar … has been assumed in much of the criticism of the twentieth century,” 8. See, for example, Russell A. Peck, “Edgar's Pilgrimage: High Comedy in King Lear,Studies in English Literature 7 (1967): 219-37, and John Riebetanz, The Lear World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), who writes that Edgar is a “most selfless intriguer,” 62, and “our Virgil,” 126.

  28. For King Lear's use of the morality play tradition, see Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964), 59-63, 78-79; Alvin B. Kernan, “Formalism and Realism in Elizabethan Drama: The Miracles in King Lear,Renaissance Drama 9 (1966): 59-66; Bridget Gellert Lyons, “The Subplot as Simplification,” in Some Facets of King Lear, op. cit.; Howard Felperin, op. cit. (and see also endnote 12).

  29. Stephen Greenblatt, in “Shakespeare and the Exorcists,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), writes that “King Lear is haunted by a sense of rituals and beliefs that are no longer efficacious, that have been emptied out,” 177.

  30. William Frost, in “Shakespeare's Rituals and the Opening of King Lear,” 200, in Shakespeare: The Tragedies, ed. Clifford Leech (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

  31. David Scott Kastan, in Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1982), writes that “in Shakespeare's King Lear time proceeds with a vicious linearity. The past cannot be escaped, and the future offers neither redemption nor renewal. Youth will not be recalled, Lear will not be king again, and death is inescapable and final,” 104.

James Black (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4045

SOURCE: Black, James. “The Interlude of the Beggar and the King in Richard II.” In Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 104-13. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Black contends that Act IV, scenes ii-iii of Richard II validate rather than mock the stately rituals of the deposition scene that precedes them. The critic argues that during the grievous pageant of his uncoronation, Richard becomes a self-declared beggar, praying for the same dispensation from Henry IV that Aumerle asks of him in the subsequent scenes.]

Everyone is by now perfectly familiar with the point of view that regards Richard II as an exposé of the sham of kingship. Criticism has come, with its little pin, to pierce through the hollow crown or burst the bubble of “Ceremony.” And we also are familiar with the idea that a metaphor of playacting is developed throughout this tragedy to expound the lesson that it is futile for anyone to embrace this sham of kingship too seriously. In Richard II Richard does not “play the king” as efficiently as Bolingbroke does; nor indeed can anyone—even Bolingbroke—quite satisfactorily bridge the chasm that yawns between the “realities” of political power and the “appearances” of majesty itself. At the end of his reign, in 2 Henry IV (IV.v.198-99) Bolingbroke will admit that “all [his] reign has been but as a scene Acting [the] argument” of half-deserved kingship. G. A. Bonnard, Leonard F. Dean, and Anne Righter1 have prompted us to regard Richard II as a play about playing, whose action frequently is acting, with first Richard and then Bolingbroke as producers of the scenes in which they appear—all this despite Peter Ure's well-taken caution that in fact it is neither Richard nor Bolingbroke but Shakespeare who sets these scenes before us.2

If a theme of Richard II is playacting, what kind of play or scene is being enacted in the passages which follow just after Richard's deposition and parting from his queen? These are the passages (V.ii; V.iii) in which Aumerle's plot is discovered, proclaimed to the new king, and pardoned. Analyzing these scenes in his article “Aumerle's Conspiracy,” Sheldon P. Zitner asserted that they are “fully intended farce, sometimes roaring, sometimes savage, but farce with such salt and savour as to distress the taste for pageant, pathos, and elevated death the play otherwise appeals to and satisfies. … In the Aumerle scenes Shakespeare has inserted a satyr play into the last act of his tragedy.”3 “Distress the taste” hints at a vitiation of the more serious scenes by this farcical element, and Zitner's conclusion is explicit: the Aumerle conspiracy scenes “mock [Richard II's] elevation and seriousness; they riddle its style. They destroy the fine trajectory of emotion that ends in the intensity of Richard's murder in Pomfret Castle and the eloquent guilt of Bolingbroke in the last scene. They strike at almost everything that moves us in the tragedy. [Yet they indicate] Shakespeare's complexity and toughness of mind.”4

Zitner's conclusion of farce is predicated mainly upon the action the scenes clearly seem to call for: Aumerle with his plot indenture foolishly hanging from his clothing; York struggling with his riding boots; the seriatim arrivals at Bolingbroke's presence chamber and the hammering on the doors by the old duke and duchess; the exaggerated kneeling. There seems no doubt that Shakespeare meant these scenes to be comic. The question is, Did he mean them to be comic in a way that mocked the rest of the play and tended to drag that playacting down to their level?

Bolingbroke is made to comment upon the comic turn. Taking up the words of Aumerle's mother, “A beggar begs that never begg'd before,” he says, “Our scene is alt'red from a serious thing, And now chang'd to ‘The Beggar and the King’” (V.iii.77-78). It is the first time in the play—in his trilogy—that he speaks in “theatrical” terms. When he last speaks so—saying that all his reign has been but as a scene—he will use the same word, “scene,” that he uses here in Richard II. And this should make us ask whether, though Bolingbroke is capable of irony and of the rather stiff witticism, he is exactly the kind of character we would associate with full-blooded farce. I think that the farce of these scenes may be in flow, but it is a flow which, like the flow of argument in the trial scene which Bolingbroke conducted in IV.i (Aumerle is one of the disputants there), beats without injury against Bolingbroke's adamant. Perhaps his word “scene” refers not just to this scene in which he is an embarrassed participant, but the wider scene which embraces the events in which he already has played. Those events are to him “a serious thing” indeed; they may be meant to be serious to us as well, and the “farce” may be supposed to counterpoint that seriousness.

The “serious thing” that the beggar and the king matter follows is the deposition scene of Richard and that scene's aftermath: Richard's parting from Isabel and York's report of Bolingbroke's and Richard's entry (about which I will say more later on) into London. In V.i Richard and his queen in parting play out a duet of grief. The scene has a distinct parallel in Romeo's and Juliet's first meeting, which takes place at a masquelike domestic revel (Romeo and Juliet I.v). Just what did Shakespeare in the 1590s conceive a masque to be? Enid Welsford discusses A Midsummer Night's Dream as “a masque-like” play while affirming that “the suggestion that [the Dream] should be regarded as [a masque] has little to recommend it.”5 In The Merchant of Venice Shylock describes a masque as a kind of street revel, a saturnalia with fife and drum and a “shallow foppery” indulged in by “Christian fools with varnish'd faces” (II.v.28-36). The rout of young men approaching the Capulet house in Romeo and Juliet initially has something of this flavor, but Capulet's old-accustomed feast, which is called a masque by Romeo and in quarto and folio stage directions,6 has all the ordered dignity befitting the festivity of “earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light” (I.ii.25)—a spectacular display of wealth and courtliness, masked revelers and stately dancers. The most common Elizabethan form of masque was simply a formal dance by the masquers alone.7

The patterned speech and patterned movement of Romeo's and Juliet's meeting fuse in the complete and partial sonnets (I.v.95-111) which they join in speaking. Their lyrical speech is appropriate to a masque though also (and more importantly) to the tragedy denoted by their brief spell of perfect harmony's being broken into by the feud's hatred and danger. In Richard II the deposed king and queen, surrounded by enemies, also “let lips do what hands do” (Romeo and Juliet I.v.103) as they develop and speak a sonnetlike conceit while they touch, kiss and part:

Come, come, in wooing sorrow let's be brief,
Since, wedding it, there is such length in grief:
One kiss shall stop our mouths, and dumbly part;
Thus give I mine, and thus take I thy heart.
Give me mine own again; 'twere no good part
To take on me to keep and kill my heart.
So, now I have mine own again, be gone.


This little ceremonial at the parting of Richard and his queen also emphasizes—as masques could do8—a theme of seasonal change:

Part us, Northumberland: I towards the north,
Where shivering cold and sickness pines the clime;
My wife to France, from whence set forth in pomp,
She came adorned hither like sweet May,
Sent back like Hallowmass or short'st of day.


What we appear to have in these scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, then, are examples of what Welsford refers to as “the masque influence”:

The masque influence made itself felt, not only by causing interruptions in the action, but by permeating the form and spirit of tragedy in a way that is easier to feel than to define. In the Elizabethan age masquerading was so much in the air that insensibly, inevitably, it coloured the imagination of playwright and play-goer, and infected the epical imitative play with something of the symbolic movement of the masque.9

In fact, Richard II is strongly “infected … with … the symbolic movement of the masque.” The masque influence is especially present in the high ceremonial of Richard's deposition—the “inverted rite” as Walter Pater called it, a “long, agonizing ceremony, reflectively drawn out, with an extraordinary refinement of intelligence and variety of piteous appeal, but also with a felicity of poetic invention.”10 No such ceremonial is indicated in Holinshed's account of Richard's overthrow, which confines itself to Richard's capitulation at Flint Castle and his committal to the Tower, with detailed transcriptions of the major articles and instruments of deposition. Far more striking in Holinshed is the description of “the manner and order of the king's [that is, Richard's] coronation,” which runs to nearly two thousand words (by way of comparison, Edward II's and Edward III's coronations are not described at all by Holinshed; Edward I's is recounted in about two hundred words). Richard's crowning, as Gervase Mathew notes, was a new, elaborate ceremonial for an English king.11 In Holinshed it is an astonishing event, with the anointing ritual amounting to an assault on the senses:

When the people with a lowd voice had answered that they would obeie him, the archbishop vsing certeine praiers, blessed the king; which ended, the archbishop came vnto him, and tearing his garments from the highest part to the lowest, stripped him to his shirt. Then was brought by earles, a certeine couerture of cloth of gold, vnder the which he remained, whilest he was annointed.

The archbishop (as we haue said), hauing stripped him first annointed his hands, then his head, brest, shoulders, and ioints of his armes with the sacred oile, saieng certeine praiers, and in the meane time did the queere sing the antheme, beginning, Vnxerunt regem Salomonem, &c. And the archbishop added another praier, Deus Dei filius, &c. Which ended, he and the other bishops soong the hymne, Veni creator spiritus, the king kneeling in a long vesture, & the archbishop with his suffraganes about him. When the hymne was ended, he was lift vp by the archbishop, and clad first with the coate of saint Edward, and after with his mantell, a stoale being cast about his necke, the archbishop in the meane time saieng certeine praiers appointed for the purpose. After this, the archbishop and bishops deliuered to him the sword, saieng, Accipe gladium, &c.12

Mathew conjectures that the ceremony may well have influenced Richard for the rest of his life, and Pater shrewdly conceives that the chronicle accounts of this terrific ritual influenced the creation of a Shakespearean tragic hero who emphatically reiterates his dream of sacredness:13

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.

The coronation account is unmatchable by anything that the Elizabethan theater could have displayed in terms of pageantry. (It is easy to imagine a playwright's wistfulness on reading this section of Holinshed, and it is impossible to conceive of the play without the deposition events, which were omitted from the printed quartos 1-3, quite likely because of the political climate in 1597-98. As Peter Ure suggests, the deposition is likely to have been performed on the stage even though it was considered too risky for print.14) The high point of Richard II is at any rate the deposition moment which, as mentioned, Holinshed tends to surround with a thicket of documentation. Shakespeare not only clears away the verbiage here; he also has the idea of extending the play's rhetorical device (noticed by Miriam Joseph15) of negative or privative terms—“undeaf,” “unhappied,” “uncurse,” “unkiss.” Richard becomes “unkinged,” and in becoming so goes through a form of uncoronating, a ceremony of decoronation. The abdication scene of IV.i is rather like a coronation ritual filmed and then run backwards, not with the speed and jerkiness usually associated with a film so run, but with elaborate stateliness. For Richard's music at the close of his reign is spoken to accompany a pattern of movement as well: the proferring of the crown (IV.i.181), the “buckets in the well” tableau; the visible process (“in common view,” l. 155) of giving away the crown, then the scepter, washing away the balm, and proclaiming the successor: “God save King Henry, unking'd Richard says” (l. 220).

The poetic invention seen by Pater comes so predominantly from one character that it is very easy to conceive of Richard's deposition scene as written for solo voice and figure. But Bolingbroke's cryptic and reluctant contributions actually make him as much a foil and partner for Richard as the queen will be in the next scene. In fact, the queen there is at first as reluctant (see V.i.26-34) to join Richard's recital of grief as Bolingbroke is to particpate in Richard's deposition ritual. Bolingbroke's contribution to the decoronating is notably wary, stilted, and even clumsy. Richard, all too skilled in this patterned self-destruction, has to place his rival's hand for the tableau with the crown:

Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown.
Here cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.


Thus Bolingbroke's first touch of the crown is a compelled one—and how he must involuntarily start to comply with the order, “Here, cousin, seize the crown,” and then draw back! He makes as sure of being forced as Richard does of forcing him, and in Henry IV Part Two will say, “I and greatness were compelled to kiss” (III.i.74). But once his hand is on the crown he is a close, thralled participant in Richard's tragic rite, suffering the agonies of Richard's apparent indecision:

Are you contented to resign the crown?
Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.
Therefore no “no,” for I resign to thee.


Daniel's Civil Wars has it that “'Tis said with his owne hands he gave the crowne / To Lancaster” (II, st. 119), and it is tempting to speculate that in the decoronation Richard adds to the silent Bolingbroke each appurtenance of kingship which he removes from himself. Finally, there is the business with the mirror, and at last the shattering of the glass leaves Richard face to face not with himself but with Bolingbroke, beggar and king:

I'll beg one boon,
And then be gone, and trouble you no more.
Shall I obtain it?
Name it, fair cousin.
Fair cousin! I am greater than a king;
For when I was a king, my flatterers
Were then but subjects; being now a subject,
I have a king here to my flatterer.
Being so great, I have no need to beg.
Yet ask.
And shall I have?
You shall.
Then give me leave to go.


Editors have tended to look outside Richard II for some ballad prototype of Bolingbroke's “The Beggar and the King,” but there really is no need to do so. Richard says of himself:

Sometimes am I king,
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again. …


“The Beggar and the King” could be the title of this deposition episode as well as of the Aumerle scenes which follow. The deposition episode's seriousness and harmonies, matched by those of the immediately following duet with the queen, are soon contrasted with the disorganized blundering of the Aumerle incident in V.ii. For example, Richard's unwillingness to read for Northumberland the articles of his wrongdoings (IV.i.222-69) seems to be reversed in York's eager perusal and proclamation of Aumerle's incriminating bond; we may wonder whether York's struggle with his boots is not a kind of comic dressing which counterpoints Richard's dismantling of himself; and the duke's robust tearing away from his duchess—“Make way, unruly woman!” (l. 110)—together with the general violent dispersal of wife, husband, and son to ride pell-mell to King Henry must surely glance at the long-drawn-out parting of the preceding scene.

To return to the question which I posed at the outset, What kind of play or scene is being enacted in these passages which follow just after, and both echo and contrast so sharply with, the scenes of Richard's deposition and parting from his queen? If it could be argued that Richard's “passion” (to use Peter Ure's term16) is a masque, then the Aumerle episode might be classified as a kind of antimasque. But although, as I have suggested, music and gesture are lovingly drawn out in IV.i and IV.ii, these masquelike scenes are not a masque. At any rate, losers like Shakespeare's Richard II traditionally do not figure in masques, which are for winners. As Stephen Orgel points out (by an irony, citing a Christmas 1377 entertainment in which Prince Richard actually participated), “The sovereign wins, the masque says, because it is his nature to win; and this concept of the nature of the monarch is, in one form or another, at the root of every court masque.”17

The most helpful proposal on this question of classification comes in the play itself from the abbot of Westminster, to whom the spectacle of Richard's decoronation is “a woeful pageant” (IV.i.251). The abbot is right, of course: Richard has been a pageant king, a king of shows and a king in show. At Flint Castle, for instance, he looks marvellous:

See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the East,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident.
          Yet looks he like a king. Behold, his eye,
As bright as is the eagle's, lightens forth
Controlling majesty.


Yet the spectacle, like that mounted on any pageant wagon, is pasteboard-thin. At this particular moment it is propped up by Aumerle, who stands behind this cut-out of a king almost as it were with paste, scissors, wire, and string, repairing the flimsy and battered image between speeches. Aumerle will do anything for Richard (though he is the very same duke of York who will die so magnificently at Agincourt, fighting for Bolingbroke's son). His loyalty to Richard makes him, to use the metaphor of the king's career as theater, construct the appearance of Richard at Flint, possibly script it (“Good my lord, let's fight with gentle words,” l. 131), certainly prompt it (“Northumberland comes back from Bolingbroke,” l. 142), then weep with frustration (l. 160) at Richard's unpredictable conceits of despair.

The pasteboard cut-out at Flint, the mockery-king of snow (IV.i.260), the hollow crown—all of these tend to suggest a crude kind of theatrical pageantry. The entry into London is a pageant show of king and beggar. To Bolingbroke:

… all tongues cried “God save thee, Bolingbroke!”
You would have thought the very windows spake,
.....… and that all the walls
With painted imagery had said at once
“Jesu preserve thee! Welcome Bolingbroke!”

While of Richard

No man cried “God save him!”
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head.

[V.ii.11-17, 28-30]

Could Shakespeare, when he has the decoronation events described (by a churchman) as “a woeful pageant,” possibly be glancing at the theater of Richard's time and the theater of Passion plays—the pageant mysteries? Seeing Richard fancy his deposition as a passion wherein he is mocked, stripped, and delivered by Pilates and Judases to his “sour cross” (compare IV.i.167-71, 239-42), we remember that what usually comes next in the mystery cycles is the “Harrowing of Hell” interlude, that passage of thunderous knocking at the gate, devil-portering, and high excitement. Shakespeare will look more directly at the harrowing of hell in Macbeth; here in Richard II we at most can say only that he has it in the corner of his eye. Some of the sounds are there: “The Duke of York knocks at the door and crieth” (Qq. V.iii.275, S.D.), and undoubtedly his duchess thunders on the same door to Bolingbroke's presence-chamber when she arrives after her husband. And there is a muted Resurrection note at the end when, after Aumerle has been pardoned, his mother says, “Come, my old son, I pray God make thee new,” wherein she seems to echo the Book of Common Prayer's “Grant that the Old Adam in this child may be so buried, that the new man may be raised up in him.” (Aumerle gets more interesting the more we look at him: errant Aumerle is not just a preview of errant Hal, but in his final acceptance by Bolingbroke and rejection of the Old Adam he adumbrates Hal's reformation as well.)

“The Beggar and the King” does not go very far at all along the way to being a harrowing of hell: the chief correspondence with the mystery incident is in its placing directly after the passion scenes. Yet the fact that we are able to speculate or muse upon possibilities—upon the possibility that “The Beggar and the King” is an interlude in a woeful pageant, seems to suggest that the business which Shakespeare is about is not that of undercutting or mocking the seriousness of the play, but rather intensifying that seriousness by contrast or counterpoint. For if the “beggar and king” relationship is something to smile about in the Aumerle scenes then we may be meant to take it all the more seriously in the Richard scenes; the passion in the mysteries is intensified, not lessened, by the comic interlude in hell.

And so I believe that “The Beggar and the King” episode with its farcical element is designed to make us consider and value the stately ceremonials of kingship and grief that precede it. For even when these ceremonials of kingship are performed “backwards” and then burlesqued they still are very grand. The pageant may be pasteboard-thin and the patterns of the ceremony of monarchy ultimately shattered—indeed, Shakespeare requires us to consider all the hollowness and mockery. Authority, he is saying, is little and brief, and can decline to farce. The figures that move in the rays of Richard II's setting sun are motes; yet they are beautiful, and worth the elegy of music at the close.


  1. G. A. Bonnard, “The Actor in Richard II,Shakespeare Jahrbuch 87 (1952): 87-101; Leonard F. Dean, “Richard II: The State and the Image of the Theatre,” PMLA 67 (1952); 211-18; Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), chap. 5.

  2. Peter Ure, Introduction to King Richard II, New Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1961), p. lxxix. All references to Richard II in this essay cite this text.

  3. Sheldon P. Zitner, “Aumerle's Conspiracy,” Studies in English Literature 14 (Spring 1974): 240.

  4. Ibid., p. 257.

  5. Enid Welsford, The Court Masque: A Study in the Relationship Between Poetry and Revels (1927; rpt. ed., New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), p. 324.

  6. Romeo and Juliet I.iv.48; I.iv.1, S.D.; I.v.16, S.D.

  7. John C. Meagher, Method and Meaning in Jonson's Masques (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), p. 7.

  8. Welsford, The Court Masque, p. 3.

  9. Ibid., p. 294.

  10. Walter Pater, “Shakespeare's English Kings,” in Appreciations (London: Macmillan, 1927), p. 198.

  11. Gervase Mathew, The Court of Richard II (London: John Murray, 1968), p. 15.

  12. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles (New York: AMS Press, 1965), 2:713.

  13. Mathew, The Court of Richard II, p. 11; Pater, “Shakespeare's English Kings,” pp. 196-97.

  14. Introduction to New Arden Edition, pp. xiii-xiv. But for a contrary view, see David M. Bergeron, “The Deposition Scene in Richard II,Renaissance Papers 1974 (1975), pp. 31-37.

  15. Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), p. 140.

  16. See Ure, Introduction to the New Arden Edition, pp. xiii-xiv.

  17. Stephen Orgel, The Jonsonian Masque (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 19.

Stephen X. Mead (essay date fall 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7751

SOURCE: Mead, Stephen X. “The Crisis of Ritual in Titus Andronicus.Exemplaria 6, no. 2 (fall 1994): 459-79.

[In the following essay, Mead contends that the ritual slaying of Alarbus in Titus Andronicus, intended as a means of appeasing the dead Andronici and forestalling further violence, instead initiates a cycle of retaliatory bloodletting.]

Shakespeare's first tragedy has often been defined as a spectacular tragedy of blood that is shed for its own sake.1 Frank Kermode writes in the introduction to the Riverside edition of the play,

there is small point in denying that an exhibition of horror … is a prime motive of Titus Andronicus.2

Certainly Titus is a tragedy of blood, but to attribute this fact to an Elizabethan taste for grotesque violence is to ignore the profound role ritual, often violent ritual, played in ordering Elizabethan cosmology. In Titus, Shakespeare manifests a profound interest in the ability of sacrifice to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate violence, and in the chaos that ensues when such distinctions become ambiguous. Educated in Seneca and other Roman dramas steeped in ritual, Shakespeare appears to have associated Rome with ritual, for his Roman works—including even the marginally Roman Romeo and Juliet—stand out from the rest of the canon in their use of ritual as a major dramaturgic device. Recalling Lucrece's death scene and the noble Romans' dipping their hands in the blood of the slain Caesar, one also suspects that Shakespeare's own violent society might well seek meaning or reference in associating Roman civilization with a more primitive—and direct—confrontation with the violence that occurs routinely in a community and sometimes spectacularly in an empire, and which is often regulated by religious ritual.

Shakespeare's understanding of pagan rituals has proven enigmatic to modern audiences, whose unfamiliarity with or rejection of ritual colors their understanding of Shakespeare's Roman world. Modern anthropological commonplaces concerning primitive religious culture can disclose patterns of meaning in Shakespeare's rendition of ritual, and a better understanding of primitive religion may well improve our understanding and appreciation of the function of ritual in Shakespeare's Rome.

For a primitive community to survive, it must have a clear and definable sense of distinction—not just social distinction (although certainly that), but, more primally, distinctions between the living community and the dead community, between community members and aliens, and between purity and pollution. The idea of holiness includes a fundamental separateness, as Mary Douglas has argued:

Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused.3

To make or acknowledge something holy, one must remove it from the profane, an action that in effect makes removal or insulation a precondition to sanctity; in Durkheim's words, “the world of sacred things is, by definition, a world apart.”4 The great enemy of any community is routine and indiscriminate interaction, and the role of religious ritual is to combat this enemy. Ritual and religion function to define what is pure and impure, and thereby enable people to achieve purity and establish clarity in a threatened community.

Ritual is, then, more than the outward expression of commonly held human needs, fears, and desires. It is perhaps the most effective means by which human beings have created order in the world and in their lives. In Titus, Shakespeare employs a pre-Reformation conception of ritual, a concept established before the paradigm moderns have inherited, which states that all ritual is really self-deluding, merely empty form. Mary Douglas makes a crucial point when she notes,

The Evangelical movement has left us with a tendency to suppose that any ritual is empty form, that any codifying of conduct is alien to natural movements of sympathy, and that any external religion betrays true interior religion.5

In the Roman world of Titus, Shakespeare creates a community in which ritual is of vital and immediate importance.

One of the most pervasive indicators of distinction in the pagan culture that Shakespeare recreated (however imperfectly) is the manes, the Roman dead who, if properly interred, become something very much akin to local genii.6 But far from being a term thrown in to give the tragedy some Roman color, the manes in Titus are the cynosure of the play's energy: through them the dramatist distinguishes the living community from the underworld and, even more specifically, distinguishes those who have been ritually cleansed from those who are impure. Shakespeare's use of the manes also connects the two communities of the living and the dead. If the manes are properly cared for (typically by offerings of food and drink at the grave site, but in Shakespeare's play by the human sacrifice), the distinction between the living and the dead will keep its integrity. Apparently, the satisfied dead do no particular good for the living, but the unsatisfied are feared as agents of great harm.7 Quite beyond the plagues, famine, and misbirths they might bring, the greatest disaster would be the blurring of boundaries of the two communities by the palpable presence of the dead (here more correctly called the undead) amid the living community. Such a disaster is much more threatening to a community than, say, a flood or some other “natural” calamity, because some fraction of the community will most likely survive even the worst of elemental disruptions. The presence of the dead in the world of the living threatens not only the members of the community, but the very idea of the community. Thus, classical literature and drama is replete with visits to the underworld (Orpheus, Odysseus, Theseus, Aeneas), and these trips point to a terror of the underworld per se. A special kind of terror, however, arises when there are trips from the underworld because in this case the revenant challenges the very definition of worlds. The revenant's challenge to the defintions of worlds is the source of the terror that Seneca invokes so frequently. His Hippolytus, which Shakespeare quotes twice in Titus, draws much of its energy from the fear aroused when the boundaries between the living and the dead are breached.

Finally, the notion of distinction needs to be clarified by noting the specific social problems of too-alikeness. A community must have a means of overcoming the obstacle that too-alikeness poses. In some primitive societies, for example, twins inspire a particular terror, and one or both is often destroyed.8 In Western societies, systems such as primogeniture have traditionally fought off the threat of chaos that too-alikeness poses. The problems in Titus Andronicus might well be summarized as a community's contention with a preponderance of twins: Saturninus and Bassianus, Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia and Tamora, and—ironically—Titus and Aaron.9 These pairs represent an increasingly complicated and threatening series of obstacles to the survival of the community.

These are the problems ritual addresses in Titus. In addition to—and much more important than—the triumphs, elections, marriages, trials, role playings, feasts, and negotiations, the human sacrifice of Alarbus and its dual functions of appeasement and expiation offer a meaningful and even logical cause for every subsequent act of violence in the play.10 Peter Brook has written that

Everything in Titus is linked to a dark flowing current out of which surge the horrors, rhythmically and logically related—if one searches in this way one can find the expression of a powerful … barbaric ritual.11

Miola suggests that “The hint of blood ritual at the end of Lucrece becomes a potent symbol in Titus Andronicus. …”12 If we read Titus as a crisis of community-binding ritual, the drama of blood increases in coherence. And the Elizabethan anxieties concerning “Englishness,” in an increasingly competitive European and New World market, may explain the great popularity of Titus among Elizabethans and early seventeenth-century audiences. From this perspective, the violence of Titus appears less as gratuitous spectacle and more as the result of a failed ritual—that is, the failure of sacrifice to protect a community from its own violence by channelling that violence into a ritually meaningful experience. This channelling is made possible only by the communally acceptable choice of a victim, what René Girard calls “the unanimity-minus-one of the surrogate victim.”13

The crisis of community that Rome faces at the play's inception is indicated by two ritually significant topoi. First, the audience sees a volatile, competitive Rome threatened by the chaos that results from a loss of social distinctions. As elder brother, Saturninus argues for distinction based on birthright:

Noble patricians, patrons of my right,
Defend the justice of my cause with arms;
And, countrymen, my loving followers,
Plead my successive title with your swords.
I am his first-born son, that was the last
That ware the imperial diadem of Rome,
Then let my father's honors live in me,
Nor wrong my age with this indignity.


Brother rivalry is a common form of internal strife in any community. Like Eteocles and Polyneices, Saturninus and Bassianus are too alike to coexist; their alikeness threatens the community. Acknowledging this, Saturninus appeals to primogeniture, a system whose primary function is to impose distinctions upon like persons and claims. The second topos is that of the conquering hero returning home. Like Euripides's Heracles and Homer's Odysseus, Shakespeare's Titus returns from a war (of ten years' duration, reminiscent of Odysseus) victorious, but made impure by the blood spilt.14 Marcus informs the royal brothers that Titus “hath return'd / Bleeding to Rome” (1.1.33-34). Unless Titus is ritually cleansed, the residual violence of the Gothic Wars, which clings to him like dried blood, threatens to contaminate Rome and to erupt into civil violence. According to the First Quarto, Titus must perform a “sacrifice of expiation.”15 A sacrifice of blood must, paradoxically, wash the impure blood away. These sacrifices must be performed in a spirit of piety to be successful—and Titus, when first mentioned, is called by his surname Pius (1.1.23). These two topoi represent violence from within and without Rome that must be channelled into “spending itself on victims whose death will provoke no reprisals.”16

The physical properties of blood are of great importance in ritual and help to distinguish the pure from the impure. Classical tales repeatedly emphasize that dried blood is impure. Girard explains the matter:

Blood that dries on the victim soon loses its viscous quality and becomes first a dark sore, then a roughened scab. Blood that is allowed to congeal on its victim is the impure product of violence, illness, or death. In contrast to this contaminated substance is the fresh blood of newly slaughtered victims, crimson and free flowing. This blood is never allowed to congeal, but is removed without trace as soon as the rites have been concluded.17

Sacrificial blood maintains the distinction between the pure and the impure, much as sacrifice asserts the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this illustrative nature of blood in classical literature and its importance in the social function of ritual. In The Rape of Lucrece, after Lucrece has effectively sacrificed herself, he describes her blood:

Bubbling from her breast, it doth divide
In two slow rivers, that the crimson blood
Circles her body in on every side,
Who like a late-sack'd island vastly stood
Bare and unpeopled in this fearful flood.
Some of her blood still pure and red remain'd,
And some look'd black, and that false Tarquin stain'd.
About the mourning and congealed face
Of that black blood a wat'ry rigol goes,
Which seems to weep upon the tainted place,
And ever since, as pitying Lucrece' woes,
Corrupted blood some watery token shows,
And blood untainted still doth red abide,
Blushing at that which is so putrefied.

Rape of Lucrece 1737-50

As a sacrifice, Lucrece's suicide is both necessary and lamented. The purpose of the ritualized death is the same as the purpose of all sacrifices: to maintain in the community the distinction between purity and contamination—and hence to assure the survival of that community. Her blood is both pure and tainted, just as Rome's community contains both pure members (Brutus) and corrupt members (Tarquin). Lucrece's sacrifice will expedite the purgation of Rome and ensure the community's survival.

The first act of Titus, then, serves to expose the violence already fomenting within Rome which is about to clash with the residual violence of the Gothic campaign. Between these two forces, the burial of Titus's sons and its attendant sacrifice become a potential means of removing violence on both sides by relocating it in the death of Alarbus and the prayers over the dead Andronici. In addition, the fresh blood of the victim shed over the stale blood of the slain Andronici will wash away the impurity of the slain and allow them to cross over the river of the dead.18 This ritual fails—for a number of reasons—but paramount among them is the sudden disappearence of the social distinctions that the ritual requires.19

The religious rationale for the sacrifice—that is, the reason the Andronici perform the sacrifice—is “so the shadows be not unappeased, / Nor we disturbed with prodigies on earth” (1.1.100-101). While the sacrifice is an attempt to keep the dead separate from the living, the typical effect of the sacrifice should be to stem the tide of violence from within and without that would otherwise break out into a cycle of reciprocal vengeance—which would eventually destroy the community. The unappeased dead can instigate forms of reciprocal violence among the living such as feuds, wars, revenge, and individual acts of assault, rape, and murder; these are the “prodigies” that Lucius fears.20 In Titus, Shakespeare asks us to understand revenge not solely as a product of human will, but also as a supernatural consequence of bad sacrifice. A sacrificial ritual isolates violence from provocation; the sacrificial victim is not guilty of any crime. Into this victim the community invests all its violent impulses. However fanciful the religious motivation for the sacrifice may sound to modern ears, one cannot deny that the subsequent action of Titus is an array of the disasters Lucius has attempted to prevent—his worst fears come true.

The choice of Alarbus for sacrificial victim is crucial—not only to the working of the sacrifice, but also to the play as a whole. His very name is temptingly reminiscent of Alaric (ad 370-410), the Visigoth who was for a time the commander of Gothic forces in the Roman army and whose sack of Rome in 410 symbolized for Shakespeare's audience the end of the Roman Empire. This connection may be more than nominally significant, for Alaric, like his possible namesake, was both an insider and an outsider in regard to Rome. In order to understand the importance of Alarbus as a focal point upon which all subsequent actions in Titus turn, we must review the usual requirements for a sacrificial victim. For a sacrifice to protect a society from its own violence, the victim must be both like and unlike the community members. That is, the victim must in some way resemble a community member, but this resemblence must be superficial. Girard asserts that

this resemblance must not be carried to the extreme of complete assimilation, or it would lead to disastrous confusion.21

Initially, Alarbus is ideal. He is a young man, son of a queen, a soldier—in short, like the Andronici in every way except that he is a Goth. Moreover, as eldest son, Alarbus reflects the primogeniture that Titus will support as the Roman Way in the brothers' rivalry for the throne. Lucius formally requests from his father

… the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh
Before this earthly prison of their bones.


Titus's response is equally ritualized, verbally echoing his sons' request:

I give him you, the noblest that survives,
The eldest son of this distressed queen.


The exchange indicates why Alarbus is the ideal victim. He is an alien whose availability is enhanced by his relation to royalty, his nobility, and his pride (all attributes of the slain Andronici): Alarbus is a mirror image of the slain Andronici. He will join the Andronici in death, even at the family tomb. Shakespeare's insertion of the Latin phrase ad manes fratrum, is more than mere historical color. Alarbus literally becomes brother to the slain Andronici by his sacrifice. The details of the manner of his death, the hewing and lopping of his limbs and the setting of those limbs on a pile, are intended to disguise the lack of resemblance between the victim and the corpses. But, as Douglas reminds us in Purity and Danger, the body in ritual is always an image of society at large.22 This heap, in fact, looks ahead to the splintering of the Roman community. Still further, the heap of mangled limbs recalls the corpse of Hippolytus—an abomination in Seneca, a failed sacrifice which brings on abominations in Shakespeare.

Tamora's plea for her son's life attempts to undo the ritual by capitalizing on the brotherhood of Roman and Goth. In a way, she turns the unanimity-minus-one to unanimity-minus-four: Chiron and Demetrius call Titus a Scythian, the most barbarous name they can think of. While the ritual has been functioning to impose a faceless yet familiar identity upon Alarbus, Tamora attempts to save her son's life by insisting on universal ties among human beings:23

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious Conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother's tears in passion for her son;
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!


Her tactics, however, only reinforce the mirror-imaging that the ritual has instigated. At this point, on the stage, Alarbus is presumably with Titus's sons, and as she calls to these brothers, Alarbus is further incorporated into his identity as surrogate victim for the slain brothers. Titus responds by using Tamora's own word and theme to justify the sacrifice:

Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me.
These are their brethren, whom your Goths beheld
Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain
Religiously they ask a sacrifice.


To Titus, passion is the very emotion that the ritual is meant to erase. Sorrow and revenge are precisely the human responses that lead to reciprocal violence; ritual attempts to channel these responses into a cold-blooded, passionless ceremony.

But the ritual causes the mayhem and cyclical violence it means to obviate: the slain are unappeased, and Rome will immediately be visited by the “prodigies” Lucius has hoped to avoid.24 The distinction upon which everything hinges has been blurred. Tamora has unknowingly caused this blurring by intensifying the similarity between Alarbus and the dead Andronici, while the dissimilarity between them—crucial for the sacrifice to work—dissolves. Her words cause Titus to hasten this loss of distinction by repeating the word brethren twice. In effect, Alarbus has been too fully assimilated into the Roman community to serve as an appropriate sacrificial victim. The ritual immediately skews the social structure and redistributes individual identity rather than binding the community in an affirmation of its identity. Saturninus thinks Titus will steal the empire from him; son rises up against father, and father kills son; most significantly, the quintessential outsider, Tamora, becomes subsumed into the center of Rome: “I am incorporate in Rome,” she tells Titus (1.1.462). By her accession, Alarbus retroactively becomes a Roman prince—the legitimate sacrifice of an ideal victim is transformed into regicide, and conquering Titus into a criminal outcast.

The very plot elements that have given Titus its singular, if unflattering, status in Shakespeare's canon are the direct and logical results of the sacrificial crisis that occurs because of the failed ritual. Titus himself indicates the significance of the sacrifice when he asks,

Titus, unkind and careless of thine own,
Why suffer'st thou thy sons, unburied yet,
To hover on the dreadful shore of Styx?


The burial and its attendant rituals are means of separating the living and the dead—a separation that serves first and foremost to bind the living community.

The sacrificial ritual in act 1 also gives voice to the needs of the living community; hence, it both connects and distinguishes the two communities. Titus may spur himself to the sacrificial act by reminding himself that his sons hover by the shore of the Styx, but his benediction speaks more eloquently of the good life than the good death:

In peace and honor rest you here, my sons,
Rome's readiest champions, repose you here in rest,
Secure from worldly chances and mishaps!
Here lurks no treason, here no envy swells,
Here grow no damned drugs, here are no storms,
No noise, but silence and eternal sleep.
In peace and honor rest you here, my sons!


Titus's speech of farewell aptly expresses the needs of the living community. We should recall that ritual confronts a community's deepest fear: the inexorable death of each community member. To allay this fear, a community establishes a group identity that will survive the death of the individuals. Deaths are attended by ritualistic ceremonies that serve to reaffirm the collective life of the community as much as to construct a positive meaning for the individual death. Especially in the case of the violent, untimely death of an individual, burial rituals often incorporate sacrifices. And sacrifices serve two purposes: to serve the dead and to separate the dead from the living.

Lavinia's first words as she enters the stage, cued by this speech of Titus, are therefore especially apt, as they redefine and redirect the living community, thus distinguishing it from the realm of the dead: “In peace and honor live Lord Titus long! / My noble lord and father, live in fame!” (1.1.157-58). Lavinia's address twice directs Titus to “live,” underlines the ideal conditions of life (peace, honor, fame), and emphasizes Titus's civic and domestic identity in the community (“lord and father”). Her exhortation to the living is amplified by other members of the community, giving flesh to the body politic. Titus responds to Lavinia: “Lavinia, live, outlive thy father's days, / And fame's eternal date, for virtue's praise!” (1.1.167-68). Marcus, who has just returned, speaks to Titus's sons: “you that survive, and you that sleep in fame!” (1.1.173). He reinforces the idea of the community at large by asking Titus to “set a head upon headless Rome” (1.1.186). Once Saturninus is installed as that head, both Titus and Marcus exhort the crowd to shout out, “Long live our Emperor,” “Long live our Emperor Saturnine!” (1.1.229, 233). The movement from the death of the individual to the life of the community is clear. Saturninus and Tamora, as the Emperor and his Consort, invoke domestic and civic peace on this occasion. Tamora (disingenuously) declares that “This day all quarrels die” (1.1.465), and Saturninus proclaims that “This day shall be a love-day” (1.1.491). The Emperor's proclamation is followed immediately by Titus's suggestion that the next day they participate in that timeless celebration of community, the hunt.25

Until this point in the play, all seems (to the Andronici and in-laws) to be well. The potential outbreak of chaotic violence—urged by the convergence of residual war-violence, internal rivalry, and the introduction of aliens into the community—appears to have been rechannelled through a steady but many-phased process of sacrifice, burial, reaffirmation of the community, marriage, and reinstatement of its members. The capstone of this process is the community hunt. The hunt subsumes the incipient violence in the community and redirects it outside that community, in effect turning possible murder and mayhem into recreation and food gathering. It is also the community's chance, after a crisis, to resume business as usual.26

It seems then no mere coincidence that Titus offers us Shakespeare's only direct quotation of Seneca (4.1.81-82) and a rather startling adaptation (2.1.135), as Seneca's art was especially concerned with ritual in community.27 Little has been made of Shakespeare's superabundant allusions to classical works in Titus.28 From Spencer's witty conclusion that the young Shakespeare sought not to get it all right, but to get it all in, to Forker's more penetrating idea that the allusions point to a “restless search for forms of expression equivalent to a ‘wilderness of tigers,’” critics have apparently dismissed the possibility of a sound artistic purpose to Shakespeare's use of classical—and particularly Senecan—sources.29 In general, the classical allusions point to recurring motifs of pagan sacrifice, to taboo and the pollution of substances that taboos are designed to prevent.

In the second scene of the play, Demetrius imperfectly quotes Seneca to describe his yearning anticipation of enjoying Lavinia:

Sit fas aut nefas, till I find the stream
To cool this heat, a charm to calm these fits,
Per Stygia, per manes vehor.


The lines in Seneca are spoken by Phaedra over the mangled corpse of Hippolytus:

per Stygia, per amnes igneos amens sequar.
placemus umbras.
through Styx, through rivers of fire will I
madly follow thee. Let me appease thy shade.(30)

In Newton's 1581 edition of Seneca's plays, the lines are translated:

Through Styx and through the burning lakes I will come after thee:
Thus may we please the lowring shades.(31)

There are two striking elements to Shakespeare's adaptation.32 First is the direction of travel. In Seneca, the speaker is yearning to enter the underworld to be with her loved one; in Shakespeare, the speaker is metaphorically in hell until he is with his “loved” one. Second, Shakespeare chooses the word manes to speak of the dead, as opposed to Seneca's umbra. Both these elements work in concert to establish the failure of ritual in the first act. If part of the purpose of a funeral ritual is to keep the dead at bay in the underworld, then the ritual is both literally and figuratively a failure, for Demetrius will have Lavinia and his having her constitutes one of the dangers that the ritual was meant to prevent. The repetition of Lucius's word manes by Demetrius connects the Goth's lust with the wrath of the unappeased dead. Further, both Titus and Demetrius mention the Stygian realm. Titus adopts the traditional distinction between the worlds of the living and the dead in wanting his sons to cross over the river that divides the two kingdoms. Demetrius, on the other hand, uses Stygia to signify the whole region, not just the river. For him, the distinction that Titus relies upon is already blurred since he is experiencing the Stygian realm on earth (and will go on to create hell on earth for others). Finally, there may be an anagrammatic play at work when Shakespeare deliberately or unconsciously misquotes Seneca: Seneca's per amnes becomes Shakespeare's per manes. If this is deliberate, Shakespeare may be taking his cue from Seneca's own anagrammatical play upon the word (amnes igneos amens). Such a “misremembering” underlines and reinforces the central idea of dissolving boundaries. The border that separates the living and the dead, the river (amnes) becomes the dead themselves who are currently recking havoc on earth (manes). Such a transformation signals a pernicious collapse of the distinctions between the living and the unliving.

Also of great importance is the internal strife between Chiron and Demetrius. Their rivalry is a complex of taboos: brothers wanting the same woman, who is already married. Their problem and Aaron's solution begin to dissolve the boundaries of marriage and the integrity of incest laws, civil peace, and ordered government.

The hunt, then, when it does occur, will expose the failure of the sacrifice. The melting of Lavinia's identity into that of a “dainty doe” signals the initial loss of distinction between a member of the community and a sacrificial victim to the community.33 This loss quickly turns the violence back into the community and, not surprisingly, initiates the cycle of reciprocal civil violence. Moreover, the transformation of the word rape, signalled in the exchange of two other brothers (1.1.404-5), from meaning “elopement” to meaning “sexual assault” suggests a loss of lexical distinction which reflects and affects the community. The separate and distinct meanings of rape, one licit and the other illicit, melt into each other, just as the communal hunt substitutes human beings for animals as the target of human violence. Hence, when Aaron instructs Chiron and Demetrius that the forest walks are “fitted by kind for rape and villainy,” he is both recalling and redefining the lexigraphical function of rape in 1.1 (2.1.116). Sommers and Tricomi have both noted the symbolic nature of the forest and how it turns from the pastoral playground to the wilderness of tigers—in short, from civilization to savagery.34 The blurring of distinction occurs also in other ways. Community members, who are supposed to be in the community and pure, suddenly transform into abominable aliens: Quintus and Martius, in sharp contrast to their dead brothers interred in the family monument in act 1, are living but condemned (and hence neither living nor dead) and ascend out of the pit.

As Shakespeare's most abstract and disturbing dramatis persona, Lavinia is deprived of human characteristics early in the play, but nevertheless must plod across the stage until the final scene.35 Precisely speaking, she is an abomination (one thinks of her nephew running away from her in horror and fear in act 4, scene 1). Her mangled physical condition consistently signifies the loss of distinction, of separation of the pure from the corrupted. It is not that, for three and a half acts, the audience must view her blood-spewing stumps and mouth, but rather that the audience must watch that fresh, sacrificially-charged blood that Marcus discovers (and so ritualistically identifies as fountains—moving fluid) slowly congeal. What allows Marcus, with whatever success, to make poetry out of her mutilation is the sacrificial nature of the wounds—the freshness of the blood: Marcus sees a “crimson river of warm blood” (2.4.22), a “bubbling fountain” (23), a “conduit” (30), “issuing spouts” (30). All the images of blood are moving images—sacrificial. Later, when Titus and Lavinia revenge themselves on Chiron and Demetrius by slitting their throats, Titus speaks in unmistakably sacrificial language. The Lavinia of acts 3, 4, and 5 is the living figure of Failed Sacrifice, and her rape, which follows close upon her marriage, signifies in another way the loss of distinction, the blurring, of societal boundaries. If, as Mary Douglas argues, the body is a symbol of society, then Lavinia signifies not only the dismembered state of Rome, but also the sacrifice that fails to knit together the community members.

Aaron, for whom Chiron and Demetrius are mere tools and who is silent and insignificant during the initial ritual, is subsequently set loose upon the other characters. Like Chiron and Demetrius, he becomes the agent of the undead who populate the play in a vast multitude and who visit the earth with prodigies and disasters. In act 2, the body of Bassianus is stowed in the pit, then exhumed, as is the bag of gold that Aaron buries. In act 3, Quintus and Martius return from the dead as heads on a platter. In act 5, Chiron and Demetrius reappear at the supper table. Perhaps the starkest image of the undead occurs in Aaron's gleeful confession before Lucius and the Goths:

Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends' door,
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
“Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.”


By depriving the dead of their graves, Aaron conjures up an image of the play's central problem. His grotesque story is merely a graphic image of what has occurred throughout the play. Here, even death does not bless the bereaved with finality. Aaron's tale looks forward to his own torture and death, half-buried and starving. The mutilations also represent a kind of undying, a further disintegration of the community. Titus's severed hand returns to him, and Lavinia's condition marks her as a symbol of the undead, unappeased Andronici, of the sacrifice that has failed.

Aside from these more obvious effects of the sacrificial crisis, the play is filled with images of violence that are not arbitrary, but stem directly from the events of act 1. Chiron and Demetrius, arguing over Lavinia, reflect the quarrelling Roman brethren Saturninus and Bassianus. Lavinia's plea to Tamora and Titus's plea to the judges echo Tamora's earlier plea to Titus. In short, the violence that the ritual means to avoid accelerates to the point of immediate reciprocity in the split-second revenges of Titus (killing Tamora), Saturninus (killing Titus), and Lucius (killing Saturninus).36

A series of sacrificial events stops this cycle and ensures—at least until the next crisis—a stable community. If we accept Lavinia as a figure of the corruption of failed sacrifice, we must expect the dried blood to be washed away by fresh, sacrificial blood in order for Shakespeare's pagan world to recover its integrity. The abomination that Lavinia has become must be purified by a new sacrifice. This purgation begins with the ironically appropriate appearance of Tamora and her sons at Titus's house dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rape—the underworld has literally found its way to Rome. In the highly dramatic and ritualized deaths of Chiron and Demetrius, much is made of the flowing and the collecting of their blood.37 Titus's nearly liturgical, “Lavinia, come, / Receive the blood” (5.2.196-97) underlines the ritualized, sacrificial nature of the revenge. The simple killing of Alarbus's brothers in part corrects the failed sacrifice of act 1 in that two persons who most objected to the sacrifice are gone—the unanimity-minus-one is a step or two closer. By cooking the flesh and blood of the two Gothic boys, Titus creates his own controlled abomination.38 By feeding it to Tamora—from whence it ultimately came—Titus in effect causes the pollution to subsume itself. Moreover, since Tamora has already presented herself as Revenge from the Underworld, Titus's pasties ironically suggest the typical food offering for appeasing the dead. Secondly, Lucius plays an essential role in ending the cycle of violence, not by simply killing Saturninus, a victim whose death (now) will provoke no reprisal, but rather by mirroring the initial sacrificial victim, Alarbus. As Lucius was the one to call for a sacrificial victim in act 1, he is the logical person to rectify the failed ritual. In both condition and circumstance, Lucius reflects, one might even say resurrects, the figure of Alarbus. By the end of the play Lucius's relationship to Rome is nearly identical to Alarbus's: he is both Roman and Goth, alien and emperor. By entering Rome as he does, Lucius revives the figure of the sacrificial victim with both similarities and differences intact.

The obsequies that conclude the play offer a sharp contrast to those of act 1 in their precise affirmation of social distinction.

Some loving friends convey the Emperor hence,
And give him burial in his fathers' grave.
My father and Lavinia shall forthwith
Be closed in our household's monument.
As for that ravenous tiger Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man in mourning weed,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial,
But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey.


Each disposition reestablishes the social context that defines Rome, asserting who is in the community and who is not and what identities distinguish members of the community from one another. As an image of the undead, Aaron is fittingly half-buried, a figure stuck between two communities. It is probably also significant that he will shout and cry for food—which is the recurring need of the Roman manes.39

Still, the conclusion of the play is unsatisfying—only partially due to modern audiences' skepticism regarding ritual. For while the funereal dispositions reassert community, the Gothic army stands ready to reinfuse Rome with non-Roman community members. Of course, Shakespeare's audience knows that these Goths will soon enter and dominate the Roman civis. And perhaps there is a hint of this doom in the Alarbus-Alaric association: perhaps the play's greatest prodigy is that Rome fell in spite of its rituals.

The tale of Titus Andronicus, as Shakespeare probably received it, was no doubt a tale of blood as spectacle.40 But that tale, we will recall, lacked both the character of Aaron and the sacrifice of Alarbus. By these crucial additions, Shakespeare imbues the tale with a serious consideration of ritual and sacrifice in societies whose internal and external violence continually threaten to dissolve the community. In all his Roman works, Shakespeare unfolds a dynamic of humankind's participation in its history by easing and making taut the tension between the grounding of ritual and the groundbreaking events that alter the world in which we live. The crisis in Titus Andronicus is that more often than not ritual is too static for the play's changing Rome.

It is now a commonplace to assert that Shakespeare was especially interested in the importance of a strong central government in and after times of crisis. Critics have generally examined this interest in terms of power: how it is wielded and who wields it. The intricate underpinnings of ritual in Titus Andronicus may well reveal other, more primal, impulses that affect the much debated power structures of Roman or Elizabethan or other violent societies. If this is so, then perhaps a host of Elizabethan anxieties, from the Catholic-Protestant debate over ceremony to emerging notions of nationalism, may be explored through shifting definitions of ritual as agent, reflection, or consequence of social and ideological change.


  1. I would like to thank Professor Sara Hanna for her many suggestions of substance and style while this paper was being written; I also wish to thank the anonymous reader for Exemplaria, whose suggestions were most helpful.

  2. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1021; all references to Shakespeare's work are from this edition.

  3. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger, 1966), 53. See also 49 for Douglas's version of the root meaning of “holiness.”

  4. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: The Free Press, 1968), 357.

  5. Douglas, Purity and Danger, 61.

  6. See Durkheim, Elementary Forms, 309-12.

  7. See E. O. James, Sacrifice and Sacrament (London: Thames and Hudson, 1962), 182-83.

  8. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 56.

  9. See Eugene Waith, “The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957): 45. Waith argues in his groundbreaking essay that Titus and Tamora are meant to be seen as a pair. Titus and Aaron are less obviously twins; still, each is conspicuously willing to sacrifice all for his offspring, and each is, at different times, the most marginal character in the play's world.

  10. Human sacrifice to the manes, of course, was not historically a Roman practice. That Shakespeare deliberately departs from historical accuracy probably suggests the importance of this trope in the play. See Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 46-47; see also Ronald Broude, “Roman and Goth in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970): 27-34, esp. 30.

  11. Peter Brook, The Empty Space (New York: Atheneum, 1968), 95.

  12. Robert Miola, Shakespeare's Rome, 16.

  13. Girard, Violence, 259.

  14. See 1.1.380, where Marcus makes explicit the connection between Titus and Odysseus.

  15. Riverside Shakespeare, 1051.

  16. Girard, Violence, 36.

  17. Ibid., 36-37.

  18. For an opposing view, see Larry S. Champion, Shakespeare's Tragic Perspective (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976), 11:

    The human sacrifice is never justified; the occasional comments that these are rites enacted to appease the dead simply fail to provide the rationale so distinctly needed when the action has been openly challenged; no god's name is invoked, no spiritual efficacy described.

    And while I am here challenging much of Miola's argument, his observation on the ritualization of burial is significant (Shakespeare's Rome, 46):

    Prominent in the center stage, the Andronici tomb joins the historical past of Rome with its living present and undreamed future. It is the focus of a communal ritual that transforms the deaths of sons and brothers into an affirmation of Roman life.

  19. See Emily C. Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 455-69. Bartels writes (443) that

    What puts the play, the state of Rome and Titus himself in crisis is the breakdown of distinctions between ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, and the destabilization of legitimating rights. Before Titus hands the rule to Saturninus, the bounds between Romans and Goths are clearly and absolutely in place.

    See also Jacqueline Pearson, “Romans and Barbarians: The Structure of Irony in Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies,” Shakespearian Tragedy (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1984), 159-82. Pearson writes (169) that

    the central contrast in the play is between the ‘barbarous’ (seven times in Titus, more than in any other Shakespeare play) and the Roman. Almost at once, though, the sharp distinction is blurred. As Lucius demands the Gothic prince Alarbus to be sacrificed, the distinction between barbarian and Roman is abolished.

  20. Tamora, of course, becomes the great figure of the blurring of the dead and the undead and a figure of the unappeased dead when she calls herself and is welcomed by Titus as “dread fury,” accompanied by Rapine and Murder (5.2.82).

  21. Girard, Violence, 11.

  22. Douglas, Purity and Danger, 115.

  23. See Miola (Shakespeare's Rome, 47, 48):

    Tamora appeals to the individual persons beneath the Roman togas; [she appeals to] Roman pietas to encompass these brothers outside the immediate family, to recognize the human identity that transcends national disputes.

  24. Titus's slaying of Mutius (a true mutineer, as he is the loyal son who turns his sword against his father) probably recalls Heracles's slaughter of his family in Hercules Furens. See Frank Justus Miller, trans., Seneca's Tragedies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), 1:87ff. See also Girard, Violence, 39-41, for a relevant discussion of Euripides' play.

  25. I am indebted to Professor Michael Curley for pointing out the ritual and community-binding significance of the hunt.

  26. See Donald Willbern, “Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus,ELR [English Literary Renaissance] 8 (1978): 159-82. He reads the hunt differently (164), as

    a version of what happens after marriage. … Hunting and sexuality are traditionally connected in myth and literature.

  27. A debate has long endured over the relative influence of Ovid and Seneca on Titus Andronicus. Since Professor Waith's first article on the subject, Ovid has usually been deemed the greater or more important influence. Without wishing to enter this debate, I have concentrated on Seneca, as seems most appropriate for my topic. See Grace Starry West, “Going by the Book: Classical Allusions in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus,SP [Studies in Philology] 79 (1982): 62-72, esp. 63n. Also see Barbara A. Mowat, “Lavinia's Message: Shakespeare and Myth,” Renaissance Papers (1981), 55-69; esp. 56n.

  28. West, of course, does make much of the classical allusions. She argues that Shakespeare may be trying “to show the limits of Roman tradition as well as Roman literary education” (“Going by the Book,” 75). See also R. A. Law, “The Roman Background of Titus Andronicus,SP 40 (1943): 145-53.

  29. T. J. B. Spencer, “Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans,” Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957): 27-38; see esp. 32. Charles R. Forker, Fancy's Images: Contexts, Settings, and Perspectives in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), 33.

  30. Miller's translation, 414-15.

  31. Thomas Newton, ed., Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), 180.

  32. See West (“Going by the Book,” 64n.) for a differing but engaging response to these lines.

  33. François Laroque connects “dainty doe” here with Titus' assertion in act 5 that Tamora has “daintily” fed on her sons:

    The framework of Titus' culinary revenge is thus a direct extension of the ritual of the hunt … [and] echoes the circumstances in which they raped Lavinia.

    See Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

  34. See Alan Sommers, “Wilderness of Tigers,” EIC [Essays in Criticism] 10 (1960): 275-89.

  35. See Waith, “Metamorphosis of Violence,” 44: “The rape and mutilation of Lavinia is the central symbol of disorder, both moral and political.” Albert H. Tricomi, “The Mutilated Garden in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 89-105, argues that Lavinia becomes “an emblem of ceaseless suffering and loss” (94). Peter Sacks, “Where Words Prevail Not: Grief, Revenge, and Language in Kyd and Shakespeare,” ELH 49 (1982): 576-601, writes that Lavinia is “a frozen emblem of loss” (590). Douglas S. Green, “‘Interpreting her martyr'd Sign’: Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 317-26, argues that Lavinia's mutilated body “‘articulates’ Titus's own suffering and victimization” (322). Gillian Murray Kendall, “‘Lend me thy hand’: Metaphor and Mayhem in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 299-316, asserts that “Lavinia, as a speechless emblem, becomes a work of art (made by Shakespeare) designed to show the limits of art and artful language” (306). This idea seems indebted to Charles R. Forker, “Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and the Limits of Expressibility,” Hamlet Studies 2 (1980): 1-33.

  36. See A. R. Braunmuller, “Early Shakespearian Tragedy and its Contemporary Context: Cause and Emotion in Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and The Rape of Lucrece,Shakespearian Tragedy (n. 19 above), 97-128, esp. 115.

  37. In its formality, repetition, and rhythm, Titus's speech at 5.2.166-205 is highly ritualized. It may also be significant that the chapbook illustration (reprinted in Riverside Shakespeare, 1022) emphasizes the blood pouring out of Chiron and Demetrius, and Lavinia catching the blood in a bowl. S. Clark Hulce, “Wresting the Alphabet: Oratory and Action in Titus Andronicus,Criticism 21 (1979): 106-18, argues that the death scene of Chiron and Demetrius is “a second visual recapitulation both of her [Lavinia's] rape, and of the death of Titus's sons” (116); even Miola, who views the Titus of act 5 as a “demented man, completely out of touch with human realities,” acknowledges Titus's understanding of the human pasties (Shakespeare's Rome, 70):

    Titus considers this gruesome desecration of familial bonds [Tamora's eating her sons] an assertion of his own pietas, of the values that bind the Andronici together.

  38. Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World, argues (275) that Tamora's eating the pies “represents the transgression of a triple taboo” of cannibalism, castration, and incest.

  39. The final lines of Q2-3, F1, probably not Shakespeare's, nevertheless support the argument that Shakespeare's audience would have understood Titus as a play of how a community must order itself to meet the continual challenges of human violence (Riverside Shakespeare, 1054):

    See justice done on Aron that damn'd Moore,
    By whom our heavie haps had their beginning:
    Than afterwards to order well the State,
    That like events may nere it ruinate.

    The mysterious poetaster of the printing house seems to have believed that Aaron's evil was the source of the play-world's earthly woes and that a well-ordered state was the best security against the “like events,” which in this context seem inevitable.

  40. See Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 618-22, for an early, helpful discussion of Titus. Highet also points to Edgar H. McNeal, “The Story of Isaac and Andronicus,” Speculum 9 (1934): 324-29, for a fascinating glimpse at a possible source for Shakespeare's play.

Barbara D. Palmer (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Palmer, Barbara D. “‘Ciphers to This Great Accompt’: Civic Pageantry in the Second Tetralogy.” In Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 114-29. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Palmer points out the subtlety of Shakespeare's depiction of pageantry and ceremony as political tools in Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.]

A single definition of pageantry in Shakespeare's plays is elusive at worst and probably unprofitably reductive at best, but the diversity of forms that scholars have called pageantry does make discussion confusing. As Robert Withington observed in his pioneering study, “We have in pageant a term which is extremely elastic,”1 stretching to include tableaux vivants; emblematic representation; acrobats, waits, and minstrels; tournaments and jousts; royal, civic, and ecclesiastical ceremonies; masques, interludes, and allegories; dancing, from morris to bear; and any procession slightly more orderly than Wat Tyler's. Its general characteristics, however, can be agreed upon. An event or action of living picture calculated to be seen, the form of display is as important to its effect as the content. It is public rather than private, orderly and planned rather than chaotic and spontaneous. Above all, pageantry is spectacle with a public purpose: to entertain, to impress, to appease, to reassure, to reaffirm a belief or commitment, sacred or secular.

One difficulty in analyzing pageantry stems from disagreement about whether what is shown is more definitive than how it is shown and, further, the relation of pageantry to or within the drama of the public theater. Essentially, the question is whether pageantry within drama is active or static, whether its function is to advance the themes, pace, and structure or to suspend them while perhaps adding stature, scope, and color. The most extreme expression of static pageantry invites us to see Shakespeare's audience as that fictive tribe of unlettered apprentices, dissolute young gentlemen, and distracting orange-wenches, tolerating the soliloquies for the hope of the swordfights, not hearing the pentameter because gawking at the procession.2

Such a naïve view of pageantry, on- or off-stage, underestimates its political dimension. Whether pageantry at court, pageantry by or for the commons, or pageantry in the drama, these displays all share a political purpose beyond their obvious function as entertaining spectacle. That political purpose of course varies with the occasion, and this study in no way seeks to link court with commons with theater pageantry: the concern here is simply to assert and examine a political bias to pageantry, not to trace connections from historical monarch to civic display to dramatic character.

This point of view, the assertion that all pageantry is inherently political, also may seem naïve because it rests on very basic and often overlooked human factors. In general, people seldom spend time, effort, and money unless either they have to or else they get something of value in return, a generalization particularly apt to the intermittently parsimonious Tudors and consistently parsimonious middle-class Elizabethans. For these tremendously expensive displays to continue, as they did year after year, both royalty and commons must have received satisfaction, one aspect of which was visible advertising: a city's prestige or loyalty, a guild's products or skills, a king's power.3

Content aside, the mere fact of such presentations was a political statement, whether the impressive display of a victorious king's person or the purposeful Harmony of Heaven pageant contrived for Henry VII's first visit to the city of York. Part of rising nationalism, class identity, civic pride, and conscious governance, pageantry can be viewed as a reflection of social and political phenomena rather than as disengaged entertainment.4 The medieval and Renaissance dramatic records, which give detailed accounts of civic pageantry, support such a political interpretation of spectacle. That interpretation, in turn, encourages a reexamination of the verbal and visual ways in which Shakespeare presents pageantry in the four plays from Richard II to Henry V, plays often cited as devoid of pageantic spectacle.

These four plays are particularly interesting because they picture a world in change: the fall of a divine-right king, the rise of a citizen king, the washing off of balm, the very process of exchanging kingly robes for an almsman's gown, a progress from the flower of all chivalry to the mirror of all Christian kings. Because the concept of governance changes in these plays, one might expect Shakespeare's treatment of pageantry, the display of governance, to change as well, and so it does. Instead of innocent, timeless ritual or popular entertainment alone, pageantry in these plays can be defined as the calculated public display of the king's person and the commons' response to such a display, what Richard II calls “respect, / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty” or what Henry V characterizes as “general ceremony … place, degree and form, / Creating awe and fear in other men.”5 Rather than static spectacle, pageantry or ceremony is a gauge of the king's power, a metaphor for the way in which and the success with which he governs.

In the “citizen king” plays, one might expect an abundance of civic pageantry, the kings' public appearances to the commons. Here kingship ostensibly is based on the goodwill of the commons, and here are kings who lose or gain their thrones by their relation to and manipulation of the people they govern. Instead, however, of presenting civic pageantry on stage in these plays, Shakespeare seems to rely on his audience's knowledge of such pageantry, reinforcing that knowledge with numerous textual references to the commons and their displays of power. To argue thus, that civic pageantry is a thematic force albeit not a visual one in these plays, is no more farfetched than to argue that the Elizabethan audience's familiarity with Renaissance psychology, rhetoric, or fashion informs other plays.

That Shakespeare does not choose to display civic pageantry on stage in these plays is not surprising: the content and forms of such displays were essentially unvaried over the years, his audience brought their collaborative imaginations and memories with them, and his thematic perspective in these plays is looking down from the throne rather than up from the street. As David Bergeron points out, however, “Something as innocent as a civic pageant can be a two-edged sword in serving nationalistic purposes,”6 and Shakespeare's kings are not the only force wielding the weapon of pageantry. The English town, whether Coventry or York or Bristol, was not a pawn in a feudal system but a powerful, wealthy, corporate body seeking to define and exert its individual identity. One of the public means of displaying this identity was civic pageantry, particularly the pageantry devised for a king's entrance to the city. Although apparently naïve in content and form, such civic display “often carried meanings far beyond anything which its surface tedium might suggest.”7 As various scholars have noted, the content of civic pageantry at kings' entries seldom was overtly political.8 The event itself, however, was political, an open statement of a city's power, wealth, ingenuity, technology, culture, and identity.

Representative examples of these entries can help modern readers to share the vision of civic pageantry possessed by Shakespeare's audience as well as to understand the support or threat that the commons held for the king.9 Full texts of welcoming speeches, physical necessaries for shows, exact procession routes, yardage and colors of livery, banquet menus, and costs—always costs—are recorded, visit after visit. The sheer repetition of detail substantiates the generalization that Shakespeare's audience was familiar with these forms: civic pageantry was dictated by tradition and then varied as political and economic circumstances demanded. One finds frequent reference to how it was done at the last king's visit, often a decade or more earlier; in York, at least, these forms were so securely in memory and in record that an “etc.” sometimes suffices. “Certain blanks are filled with new names, as the years pass; but the formulae remain pretty nearly the same. … Kings, queens, archbishops, and mayors may come and go; but the companies and the citizens are always there to greet their successors.”10

The four major divisions of a king's visit that can be examined for political and propaganda nuance from the records are the initial meeting site and company, the mayor and civic officials' meeting site and pageantry, the preparation of city and citizens along the procession route, and the welcoming ceremonies themselves. In general, numbers and distance count: how far from the city the initial authority rides out to meet the king's party, whether the mayor goes outside the city walls,11 how many city streets are included in the procession route and consequently have to be refurbished, and the number of citizens on horse and foot at various stations carry significance to both king and commons. Thus in the York records, Richard III's visit in 1483 reflects the unease occasioned by the Wars of the Roses, and Henry VII's first visit to the city in 1486 stands in striking—and, at this distance, amusing—contrast.12

The competitive nature of civic displays deserves further study, as the accounts from the remainder of this 1486 progress suggest.13 Hereford seems to have received Henry rather shabbily only a mile outside town and laid on a Saint George pageant, Gloucester's officials rode out three miles but produced no pageant or speech, and Bristol's three-mile meeting and pageantry are comparable to York's. Certainly the cities compared notes, most likely for both prestige and for cost reduction, as the York record of Princess Margaret's 1503 visit attests: “Item that my lord of the common costez schall send an Officer vnto Colyweston to knawe howe the Qwene of Scottes hase ben receyued at Northamton & othir placez & if she kepe hir gestes appoynted.”14

These brief examples, among many others, are representative of the pageantry employed for a king's visit to a civic community. Aside from the detailed production knowledge one gains from the records—for example, civic officials usually are scarlet-gowned, sheriffs' ceremonial white rods are four and a half feet long, streets are indeed strewn with rushes and herbs, bells are rung and trumpets blown—one also gains a sense of pageantry's being used to political profit. The citizens are absolutely clear on why they are going to all this bother and expense: to have their particular city in a king's “tendre and graciouse remembraunce.”15 The king is equally clear on his purpose: “I will haue no Coach, for the people are desirous to see a King, and so they shall, for they shall aswell see his body as his face,”16 a calculated statement that James I did make and which Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV, or Henry V could have made.

Of the history plays, Richard II is the most formally patterned, and certainly of the four considered here it displays the most conventional pageantry: court entrances, the elaborate mock tournament, the deposition, tableaux vivants, in addition to the diction and imagery of pageantry. The abundance of chivalric language, the rhetoric of courtesy, points to the central conception of pageantry in this play: words without action, form without content, a substitute for proper governance instead of an orderly display of it. Heavily centered in personal adornment and the signs of office, pageantry here is a self-indulgent display directed to nobles and court while utterly disregarding the commons.

Part of Shakespeare's treatment of pageantry in Richard II is simply to show it as empty, an aspect that becomes visible in the aborted tournament.17 The preparation for Mowbray's and Bolingbroke's physical confrontation is replete with visual and verbal pageantry. According to Holinshed, “There was a great scaffold erected within the castell of Windsor for the King to sit with the lords and prelates of his realme,”18 and the gages, trumpets, formal entrance, combatants' chairs, and “such officers / Appointed to direct these fair designs” are an eyeful. The language of chivalry supports the visual effect of “this princely presence” as language and spectacle become an inflated substitute for action in the alternation of speeches and the extenuated repetition of formulas. Further characterization of such pageantry ironically is foreshadowed in Richard's diction as he stops the combat with words that describe a rebellion rather than a formal tournament (“wake our peace,” “boist'rous untun'd drums,” “fright fair peace,” “trumpets' dreadful bray,” “grating shock of wrathful iron arms”), describe rebellion so accurately, in fact, that Shakespeare will use many of them again in Henry IV's opening speech.

A second aspect of pageantry in this play is what one only can call negative or reversed pageantry: the formal stripping of “respect, / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,” the undecking of “the pompous body of a king.” This “woeful pageant” Richard himself anticipates before the actual deposition as he verbally exchanges jewels for beads, scepter for palmer's staff, and so on. Both of these types of pageantry, empty abortive ceremony and negative, reverse ceremony, are seen by the audience of Richard II. A third type of pageantry, however, is wholly verbal rather than visual: accounts of Bolingbroke's entrances to the towns and his own diction in this play. Whereas Richard's visual spectacle is much like his kingship, “seen, but with such eyes / As sick and blunted with community,” Bolingbroke's pageantry often is heard but not seen.

One can be tempted to portray Richard as a chivalric, poetic king in this play and Bolingbroke as an unrefined usurper, a simplistic contrast that Bolingbroke's language belies. His diction and rhetorical structure in the prebanishment scenes convey the liberal temper and imagination assigned to Hotspur later: “And even as I was then is Percy now” describes more than the act of rebellion itself. Characterized as “bold … Boist'rous … high-stomach'd … full of ire / In rage, deaf as the sea, hasty as fire,” Bolingbroke's fury elicits Richard's “How high a pitch his resolution soars!,” a line remarkably echoed in Northumberland's and Worcester's asides on Hotspur's outburst in 1 Henry IV, I.i. Likewise, the imagery of Bolingbroke's “Shall I seem crestfallen in my father's sight? / Or with pale beggar-fear impeach my height” is paralleled in Hotspur's “To pluck bright honour from the pale-fac'd moon.”

But highflown as Bolingbroke starts out in language and behavior, the reality of banishment quickly tempers his nature, his view of pageantry, and his expression. The change is rung in his response to Gaunt's plea for him to use his imagination: “O, who can hold a fire in his hand / By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?” (Richard II, I.iii.294-95). From here until his death in 2 Henry IV, Bolingbroke's imagination and use of ceremony consistently will be yoked to political expediency. Although his language retains the elegance of courtesy, his visual pageantry is of war, a juxtaposition of martial threat with courtly parlance heard distinctly on his drum-and-colors entrance to Berkeley Castle:

If not, I'll use the advantage of my power,
And lay the summer's dust with showers of blood
Rain'd from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen—
The which, how far off from the mind of Bolingbroke
It is, such crimson tempest should bedrench
The fresh green lap of fair King Richard's land,
My stooping duty tenderly shall show.

[Richard II, III.iii.42-48]

The visual images of the two protagonists are as clearly juxtaposed: Henry's “glittering arms” and “barbed steeds” below, Richard's “so fair a show” above. Richard “yet looks … like a king”; Henry is well on his way to being one.

Perhaps Northumberland best summarizes the effect of hollow pageantry in his hopes for Bolingbroke:

If then we shall shake off our slavish yoke,
Imp out our drooping country's broken wing,
Redeem from broking pawn the blemish'd crown,
Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre's gilt,
And make high majesty look like itself,
Away with me in post to Ravenspurgh.

[Richard II, II.i.291-96]

Although using the terms of pageantry, Northumberland implicitly is referring to the necessary content of kingship: sound finances, allegiance of commons and nobles, and good management, a thoroughly Tudor view of governance. Richard's pageantry and domestic extravagance have cost an enormous amount of money, money drained from both nobles and from “wavering commons,” whose “love lies in their purses.” Bolingbroke will not miscalculate so grossly, and his concept of pageantry as a tool of governance, a weighing of the show's value against its cost, pervades the two Henry IV plays.

It frequently has been asserted that the Henry IV plays are devoid of pageantry, with various reasons, from Falstaff's consuming stage presence to Henry's guilt to possible shifts in the Chamberlain's Men's fortunes speculated as the cause. In fact, these plays are not devoid of pageantry: they simply do not show the kind of court spectacle found in Richard II because Henry's court is not Richard's. Had it been, this canker Bolingbroke, “this vile politician,” would not have seized the throne from that sweet, lovely rose, Richard. In these plays, as in Richard II, Shakespeare structures the pageantry to the dramatic or thematic explication of a king instead of using spectacle solely for its own sake.19

As noted above, Henry's opening speech on civil war echoes Richard's phrases on the Bolingbroke-Mowbray dispute, but the first account of civil war hardly is chivalrous. Instead of seeing a mock tournament, we hear of Welshwomen mutilating bodies, discharges of artillery, “civil butchery” indeed. The image of governance which Henry sets in his first speech, however, is not Richard's glistering show: the end of this king is that his subjects

Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way, and be no more oppos'd
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies,

[1 Henry IV, I.i.14-16]

a military image of order which almost characterizes the pageantry, visual and verbal, in 1 and 2 Henry IV.20

Before establishing a new image of pageantry, however, Shakespeare first blackens both the language and spectacle of the pageantry seen in Richard II by here turning it into mock pageantry. Most clearly this debunking occurs in the tavern play, where Falstaff's state is a joint stool, his golden scepter a leaden dagger, and his precious rich crown a cushioned bald crown. Through this parody of pageantry both the mock symbols of kingship and the real are brought into question, inviting us to look to the further reality of power behind the symbols. Richard looked like a king but failed to rule like one; Falstaff does not remotely look a king except perhaps of Misrule or Vice; Hal does not behave like a king but tells us in his first soliloquy that he knows how to be one; Douglas cannot tell who the king is because all men on the field of battle can dress like a king. The message to look through the hollow crown, through the appearance or symbol of kingship, to the power beyond is clear.

As courtly ceremony and the signs of office are questioned in this play, so too is inflated courtly language mocked, although both Henry and Hal are capable of being articulate in the extreme when it serves their purposes. Fulsome language—“holiday and lady terms,” “bold unjointed chat”—is mocked in Hotspur's scathing account of the perfumed courtier, while Falstaff's lying, bandying words of honor, courage, and kingship point to a further schism between word and deed. In Richard II, language was presented as an alternative, albeit an ineffectual and temporary one, to action. In this play, however, both language and spectacle are directed toward war, whether the action of the mock war centered in the tavern activities or the very visible war at the end of the play. Falstaff by his words and his very presence provides the contrast of mock war to real: his cowardice, the self-inflicted nosebleeds and hacked swords from the robbery, his numerous references to the heir apparent, honor, and “instinct” all build to point to Hal's payment of “the debt [he] never promised,” his real courage in his father's field of battle and later in his own.

Two juxtaposed descriptions bring the image of real war and mock war into inescapable contrast, the first Vernon's account to Hotspur of Henry's troops and the second Falstaff's account of his own “toasts-and-butter.” Vernon's description of Hal and his comrades is a pageantic description, complete with costumes and deux ex machina, while Falstaff's mock soldiers are “the cankers of a calm world and a long peace, ten times more dishonourable-ragged than an old fazed ancient,” a straggling assortment of villains and cowards whom he paints wandering by the hedges to steal linen.

In contrast to these stragglers is the repeated orderly appearance of Henry, his sons, and his armed nobles, marching all one way “in mutual well-beseeming ranks,” the image with which the play began and with which it ends. The king himself characterizes the change in pageantry as he charges that the rebels “made us doff our easy robes of peace / To crush our old limbs in ungentle steel,” and instead of the “gay apparel” of Richard's court, we here see the armor, plumes, and bloody swords of Henry's. This pageantry may not be the courtly ceremony of Richard II, but to deny it as pageantry at all is nit-picking. In the armed, orderly war councils, in the trumpets, colors, and plumes, and in the abundance of chivalric language, Shakespeare here has created an image of display linked with force, display with a purpose, not an inappropriate image for his “vile politician.” Instead of the interminable hurling of gages in Richard II, the pageantry of 1 Henry IV repeatedly shows the pulling on of gages.

If pageantry is, as has been asserted above, a metaphor for the way in which and the success with which a king governs, then 2 Henry IV is almost a long discussion of ceremony rather than the thing itself, a summing up of how to turn “past evils to advantages.” This extensive reference to ceremony and its function pulls together the strands of display woven in the preceding two plays. In Richard II the symbols of office were seen as adornment, the decking of the pompous body of a king. In 1 Henry IV these symbols were first parodied and then exchanged for war weeds. In 2 Henry IV the crown and other appointments are firmly associated with duty, worry, and care: the omnipresent crown in this play comes to symbolize the orderly and responsible passing of power.

On-stage pageantry, however, is minimal, restricted to the initial appearance of “Rumour, painted full of tongues,” Henry V's first entrance as king,21 and the final rejection-of-Falstaff procession. This sparcity of ceremony does not necessarily suggest that the court scenes are informal: quite the contrary, with the consistent presence of princes, counsellors, and Henry IV's elaborately balanced rhetoric. But the visual images in this play are not of court or civic pageantry: instead, one retains scenes of tavern, country, and town streets, populated by bawds, whores, diseased soldiers, and garrulous old men. Even the scenes of the armed rebels bring no visual fruit as no actual combat occurs in the play: it essentially is a play of talk rather than of action. It is a play that debates at length whether order or chaos will rule the kingdom, a tenuous condition best expressed by Henry IV in terms suggestive of pageantry when he fears that Hal will pluck down his officers, break his decrees, and “mock at form.”

That Henry IV need not fear that his “poor kingdom … wilt be a wilderness again” is seen clearly in Henry V's post coronation procession. Here, where ceremony and drama are linked, Shakespeare employs elaborate pageantry: rushes are strewn, trumpets sound, a full procession follows the king's entrance, all exit, shouts and trumpets sound again, and the king and his train reenter. One might ask, as various scholars have done, why Shakespeare does not show the coronation itself, since he obviously had sufficient resources for the elaborate procession. A possible answer lies in his propensity to yoke pageantry to theme in these plays, to avoid empty spectacle unless it substantiates the portrayal of kingship.

The audience does not see Hal's coronation; neither, apparently, does Falstaff, nor does he see Hal's initial processional entrance, which prepares the audience for the inevitable confrontation between the majestically arrayed, anointed king and his “stain'd with travel” former companions. Falstaff's interruption of the procession thus is both visually and verbally inappropriate, a point which the audience grasps somewhat earlier than Falstaff.22

The primary thematic issues of this play are the death of Henry IV, the state of the kingdom, and the capability of his successor, not the coronation itself. From his heir-apparent garters on, the true prince's being crowned was not in doubt; the only question Shakespeare raises is what kind of king he will prove. The final focus on the rejection rather than on the coronation answers the question, and thus once again pageantry is chosen to illustrate governance, the dramatic incident over the static display.

Henry V, a play curiously flat in many respects, is extraordinarily subtle and complex in its treatment of pageantry. We have been assured by Henry IV that the crown “shall descend with better quiet, / Better opinion, better confirmation” to Hal, and we have been assured by Hal that he will maintain it “with more than a common pain / 'Gainst all the world”: we thus might expect to see the courtly pageantry of Richard II restored to symbolize Henry V's right to the throne. Shakespeare instead, however, collects the various aspects of pageantry presented in the preceding three plays and uses them all; in terms of the fullest definition of pageantry, Henry V does indeed reflect “the mirror of all Christian kings.”

In its formal opening and formal close, verbal pageantry frames the play. The Prologue sets a picture of pageantry but then confesses the inadequacy of representation, asking that we use our imaginations to piece out the imperfections of the theater. We have served as “ciphers to this great accompt” before: Bolingbroke's civic entrances, Vernon's description of Hal, and Hal's coronation, among many other verbal accounts of or references to pageantry, ceremony, or chivalry. The Chorus's four speeches that open the acts further invite imaginative collaboration as they verbally present the pageantry of the English army's preparations, their departure “with silken streamers,” the night vigil that asks us to mind “true things by what their mock'ries be,” and the full description of a victorious king's entrance to London, “which cannot in their huge and proper life / Be here presented.”23 In the Chorus's close as Epilogue, both content and structure are formal and ceremonious, the content again reminding us that the “full course of their glory” cannot be portrayed in stage pageantry, the structure a sonnet.

These verbal descriptions of pageantry not shown on stage serve several functions, namely, bridging time, space, and cast limitations, but the one most relevant here is the indirect enhancement of the throne. By extending the glory, the scope of power through words, Shakespeare is able to focus on the king as man, “his ceremonies laid by,” and retain some of the complex character of Hal developed in the preceding two plays. Only at two points are we shown Henry V in active pageantry: I.ii, a formal entrance to the presence chamber, and V.ii, the full court entrance of both French and English. The first scene is contrived carefully to build up a sense of history, tradition, justice, and chivalric nostalgia (vis-à-vis the Black Prince): in many respects, this scene serves as Hal's coronation ceremony, the visible proof of an anointed king sanctioned by church and state. The challenge Henry issues to the Dauphin clearly suggests that he understands the function of arrogant display:

But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king and show my sail of greatness
When I do rouse me in my throne of France:
For that I have laid by my majesty
And plodded like a man for working-days,
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.

[Henry V, I.ii.273-80]

The Constable's summary to the French of the occasion attests to the stage display's pageantry: “With what great state he heard their embassy, / How well supplied with noble counsellors.” The court entrance of French and English in V.ii also allows Shakespeare to shift to the character of Hal in the following wooing scene without loss of face to the character of Henry V and England. After the splendor of that entrance, the number of actors, the formality of language, Hal can rather charmingly protest to Katharine his being “such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown” without disturbing the political balance and nationalistic fervor of the play as a whole.

In the middle three acts, however, no formal pageantry is ascribed to the king; instead, Henry is presented repeatedly in images of war, but they are images stripped of glamour and orderly form. Not here does one find the “glittering arms” or “barbed steeds” of Richard II or 1 Henry IV; rather, the stress is on a reverse pageantry, an insistence on the English poverty of appointment. The grime and tatter accumulate—“poor soldiers,” “yond poor and starved band,” “island carrions,” “ragged curtains,” “poor jades”—until Henry directly links the absence of martial pageantry with the thematic point:

It earns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
.....We are but warriors for the working-day;
Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch'd
With rainy marching in the painful field;
.....And time hath worn us into slovenry.

[Henry V, IV.iii.26-27, 109-11, 114]

If martial pageantry is so determinedly stripped from the English soldiers, it is used to dress the French, who display the empty spectacle of Richard II. Their Act III entrances are alternated with homely scenes of English soldiers, the Dauphin's incessant hot-tempered boasting of his armor and horse sounds vaguely like a less-commendable Hotspur, and the image one receives is of a decorative French court waiting for a war to happen, a static vision of inactivity. The Dauphin's remorseful conclusion, that “Reproach and everlasting shame / Sit mocking in our plumes,” again suggests that Shakespeare has harnessed pageantic appointments to political theme.

These various uses of pageantry suggest that the show of kingship cannot replace the substance of kingship, but when the substance of power and governance is present, ceremony effectively can display and enhance it. Such a summary of royal spectacle, however, does not begin to address the full scope of pageantry in this tetralogy, for it omits the vital role of the commons in destroying or forming these kings. In the Henry plays, particularly, Shakespeare gives no view of a naïve kingship unaware of the uses of pageantry, and the dramatic records, conversely, give no view of a naïve citizenry unaware of the city's importance to the throne. We see instead two forces, king and commons, charily using pageantry to manipulate each other, a tool intrinsic to the changing concept of governance that these plays embody. Reinforced repeatedly is the commons' response to king and king's consciousness of commons, starting with Bolingbroke's climb to the throne in Richard II. Whereas Richard has “quite lost their hearts” and “the commons they are cold,” Bolingbroke “did seem to dive into their hearts / With humble and familiar courtesy”: no fewer than six accounts in the play cite Henry's calculated attention to the commons,24 and Holinshed confirms this attention as well.25

His son, the madcap prince of Wales, learns his lesson well but modifies it to include knowledge of the commons, an amplification of pageantry into governance. From his early statement to Falstaff that “wisdom cries out in the streets and no man regards it” to the image in his first-act soliloquy of “bright metal on a sullen ground,” which will “show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off,” Hal both knows and uses the commons with pageantry as propaganda. Although he asserts that “the king is but a man, as I am: … his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man,” he seldom is foolish enough to lay by those ceremonies, as the Chorus clearly shows in his imagined account of Henry V's victorious entrance to London.

At no point in the plays, however, does Shakespeare suggest that either Bolingbroke or Hal actually feels love and respect for the commons. Richard's initial characterization of the populace as “slaves … poor craftsmen” and Bagot's contempt for “the wavering commons … the hateful commons” are not amended by Bolingbroke: at no place in the text does he utter a positive word about the citizens of the country he has just usurped. In 1 Henry IV, his concept of the commons as a tool to be manipulated emerges in his account to Hal of how he got the throne, and in his final accusation of the rebels his description of the commons is more scathing than Bagot's: “fickle changelings,” “poor discontents,” “moody beggars.” For all his direct contact with “the very base-string of humility,” Hal has no more love for them than his father had, nor does he ever find cause to alter the Archbishop's view of “the fond many,” “the beastly feeder,” “the common dog.”

The view of the commons is not flattering in these plays: they clearly are a force to be manipulated by the throne, and Shakespeare's kings waste no words of admiration or affection about them. But as the nature of governance shifts through these plays, so too does the means of controlling the commons. From Richard's fatal mistakes of ignoring them, piling them “with grievous taxes,” attempting to subdue by force the “rough rug-headed kerns” of his Irish kingdom, and casting them aside as “wavering,” we see Henry IV's calculated moves to gain their goodwill through pageantry and the selective display of his royal person. If the commons indeed are “wavering,” and little in these plays suggests that they are otherwise, both Bolingbroke and his son draw the wavering toward their throne rather than in opposition to it.

As the dramatic records show, however, “the still-discordant wav'ring multitude” could be as adept in its use of pageantry as the crown. Its “general ceremony” is not that of kings but on that account no less significant as a political force behind these plays. Shakespeare's kings have their “tide of pomp,” the

                    balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
The sword, the mace, and crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on …,

[Henry V, IV.i.257-61]

and the commons too has its tide of pomp: the costumes, signs of office, processions, welcoming ceremonies, calculated exhibits of their persons and cities. Both forces, king and commons, share a motivation and purpose: “Creating awe and fear in other men” through the judicious use of pageantry.

Shakespeare's dramatic treatment of pageantry is equally judicious in these four plays. Not spectacle alone, not mere entertainment, not empty static ritual, pageantry is a symbol of kingship. When backed with power, economic, political, or martial, the display of kingship becomes a vital means of keeping the throne. When not backed with power, however, the empty display of kingship is shown to be a means of losing the throne. The hollow crown, the symbol of pageantry, ceremony, and governance in these plays, thus takes its definition from the power, purpose, and wisdom of the king himself. To note this glistering stage property's shift from egocentric adornment on Richard's head to uneasy burden on Henry IV's to parodic misrule on Falstaff's to near-divine approbation on Henry V's is also to note Shakespeare's fluid treatment of ceremony as a political tool.


  1. Robert Withington, English Pageantry: An Historical Outline (1918-20; rpt. ed., New York: Benjamin Blom, 1963), 1:xix. Other helpful studies include David M. Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971); Alice S. Venezky [Griffin], Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage (New York: Twayne, 1951); Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975); Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages 1300 to 1660 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959-); and, of especial use to the approach taken here, Sydney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

  2. In part Venezky presents this view—“the promise of a glittering parade drew many to the playhouse” (p. 27)—but she also adds that “even playwrights of the popular stage might forego the splendor of a royal entry in favor of a more dramatic effect” (p. 41).

  3. Long noted as has been the frequent correspondence of medieval guild to the business of properties of the cycle play assigned to it: Shipwrights, Fishmongers, or Drawers to the Noah pageant; Tanners clothing God in a white leather robe for their Creation pageant; Goldsmiths or Merchants responsible for the elaborately garbed Magi; or Vintners for the Miracle at Cana. Whether parodic (the Shipwright Noah's ineptitude in ark building or the Vintners' starting with water) or practical assignments, the guild's abilities and products nevertheless were advertised.

  4. Also reflecting Tudor sociopolitical phenomena was the popularity of English chronicles, which stressed such pageantic splendor. See Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935), pp. 297-338.

  5. King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, 5th ed. (London: Methuen, 1961), III.ii. 172-73; and King Henry V, ed. J. H. Walter (London: Methuen, 1954), IV.i.243-44. Other Arden editions cited in the text are The First Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys, 6th ed. (London: Methuen, 1960); and The Second Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London: Methuen, 1966).

  6. Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry, p. 25.

  7. Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy, p. 3.

  8. See Bergeron (English Civic Pageantry), Venezky (Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage), and Anglo (Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy), although all three cite instances that were sufficiently political to approach treason.

  9. Gordon Kipling's essay in this volume centers on one of the more remarkably political entries, Richard II's 1392 return from York, where he had moved his court “for grete malice of the cite of London” when its citizens refused him a loan. See Withington, English Pageantry, pp. 129-30.

  10. Ibid., p. 180. The volumes of dramatic records currently being edited by the Records of Early English Drama, University of Toronto Press, are a source for continuous rather than selective civic pageantry and, consequently, for the continuous political subtext that motivates that pageantry.

  11. “Typically, it was their walls that the men of London and Canterbury, of Oxford, Colchester and Shrewsbury, chose to depict on their seals. In contemporary art, it was the wall of a city which identified it.” Colin Platt, The English Medieval Town (London: Granada, 1979), p. 50.

  12. The archbishop, civic officials, and Sir Henry Hudson, who devised the pageants, conspired to represent York as poor, loyal, and exhausted, in order that Henry might “the rather be movid to think that the said maier Aldermen Sheriffes and other inhabitances heyr be gladdid and loifull of the same his commyng of other kinges yer souerain lord.” Alexandra F. Johnston and Margaret Rogerson, eds., York Records (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 1:138.

  13. See Withington, English Pageantry, pp. 159-60, and Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy, pp. 28-36.

  14. Johnston and Rogerson, York Records, 1:193.

  15. Ibid., 1:193.

  16. Ibid., 1:515.

  17. See Wickham, Early English Stages, 1:13-50, where he notes that “the performance, for such it may be called, at first no more than a crude mock battle, was gradually transformed into an elegant entertainment which conformed to an etiquette as elaborate as its staging.”

  18. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957-75), 3:389.

  19. For further discussion of this point, see Gerard H. Cox's essay in this collection.

  20. Froissart's account of Henry IV's 1399 coronation in fact describes an almost military show of power in the king's procession of six thousand horses; likewise, his entry to London earlier that year displayed pomp and power but no pageantry as entertainment. Withington comments that “perhaps the troublous times account for the absence of pageantic features at this royal-entry” (English Pageantry, p. 132).

  21. There seems no reason not to read Henry V's entrance lines in V.ii.44 as literal description: “This new and gorgeous garment, majesty, / Sits not so easy on me as you think.”

  22. Alice Venezky cites only a single procession “returning from the coronation ceremonies at Westminster”; rather, there are two entry processions, separated by Falstaff and his followers' arrival and longish discussion. “Shouts within. The trumpets sound,” which ends the discussion and signals the second entry, seems to suggest that the coronation has occurred in the interval, thus strengthening Venezky's estimate of “this effective technique of placing an irregular incident within a framework of formality” (Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage, p. 29).

  23. Considering that Henry was greeted, at various stations, by mayor, aldermen, twenty thousand citizens, a giant, lion, antelope, singing angels and patriarchs, twelve singing apostles, twelve kneeling “kings,” and fourteen bishops, the Chorus's judgment probably is wise. See Withington, English Pageantry, pp. 132-36.

  24. The six accounts are by Richard (Richard II, I.iv.23-36), York (V.ii.7-21), Henry IV (1 Henry IV, III.ii.39-84), Hotspur (IV.iii.66-88), Scroop (2 Henry IV, I.iii.88-108), and Westmorland (IV.i.131-39).

  25. Holinshed notes the “woonder it was to see what a number of people ran after him in everie towne and street where he came, before he tooke the sea, lamenting and bewailing his departure” and, on Bolingbroke's return, how he “shewed himselfe now in this place, and now in that, to see what countenance was made by the people, whether they meant enviouslie to resist him, or freendlie to receive him.” Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 3:394, 397.

Naomi Conn Liebler (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12216

SOURCE: Liebler, Naomi Conn. “The Hobby-Horse Is Forgot: Tradition and Transition.” In Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Genre, pp. 173-223. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Liebler focuses on the violations of ceremony in King Lear and Macbeth.]


It is necessary to recall briefly the Aristotelian definition of tragic action as the violation of specific social bonds:

Now if an enemy does something to an enemy there is nothing piteous. … Nor … when the two are neither friends nor enemies. But … when killing or something else of this sort is either done or about to be done by brother to brother, son to father, mother to son, or son to mother, these the poet ought to seek.

(Else 1967: Poetics 1453b18-23)

For Aristotle, the essence of tragic action was the violation of kinship and thus of community.

A community is a dynamic organism; it grows and changes, and in this sense is subject to the same kinds of “rites of passage” and endures the same kind of agon we have come to associate with protagonists. Both Macbeth and King Lear present a society in a liminal moment, in transition from one type of structure to another. It is possible to forget, while engaged in Macbeth's treachery or Lear's suffering, that their respective communities are also in upheaval. At the beginning of Macbeth, the external threat posed by the Norwegian invasion is compounded by the interior treasons of Macdonwald and the Thane of Cawdor. Scotland's feudal government is transformed by the end of the play into a specifically English hierarchy when Malcolm constitutes his courtiers as “Earls, the first that ever Scotland / In such an honour nam'd” (V.ix.29-30). Similarly, from the division of the kingdom at the beginning to Albany's attempt to install Edgar and Kent in a dual kingship at the end—“Friends of my soul, you twain / Rule in this realm, and the gor'd state sustain” (V.iii.320-1)—King Lear enacts the rupture of Britain, for which Lear's disintegration throughout the play is a sustained personified emblem. In both plays, though differently in each, the structures Victor Turner labelled “hierarchy” and “communitas” are themselves made subjects; that is, both hierarchy and communitas per se are contested, not only in the sense of who occupies and instantiates their various strata, but as coordinates of structure altogether. Both plays interrogate the possibility, the viability, of ordered civilization: can it survive human interference? How much interference? Does its shape alter? If so, does its name change? Whereas Hamlet's Denmark and Coriolanus's Rome are absorbed by other recognized nations, Lear's Britain and Macbeth's Scotland (like Titus's Rome) change their identities by a kind of internal combustion. These later plays represent the subjectivity, the subjection, and through it, the precariousness of political/cultural identity.

In discussing the relation of social structure and discourse, Bruce Lincoln describes the 1917 débacle within the Society of Independent Artists in New York over Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (the famous inverted urinal), one of the more exquisite statements of “symbolic inversion” in modern art, which led to the defection from the society of both Duchamp and his patron Walter Arensberg. This event, says Lincoln, is generally understood by art historians as a turning point in the development of the New York avant-garde (1989: 143). Following Victor Turner, Lincoln argues that in such instances of profound cultural alteration, “a previously latent cleavage within the group was called into focus”; following failed attempts to resolve the resultant crisis, “schism followed along the lines of the preexisting cleavage. … What is of paramount interest … is that the initial violation was nothing other than an act of symbolic inversion” (1989: 144). Symbolic inversion is as powerful as, and sometimes more powerful than, active revolt in moving social change. When the symbols that signify important relations in culture are tampered with, ruptures occur along fault-lines whose integrities those symbols are meant to insure: “Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins” (Douglas 1966: 121).

The vulnerability of identity at the margins, the boundaries of bonds, is a focal concern of King Lear and Macbeth. Both plays interrogate virtually every kind of human interrelatedness and definition of identity: feudal, familial, spousal, national. In Lear most obviously, the inquiry begins with a concrete objectified symbol of identity, boundaries, and margins, the map of Britain.

Elizabethan audiences had heard, perhaps with some amusement, the bickering for Britain among the rebels Hotspur, Glendower, and Mortimer in 1 Henry IV (III.i.71-139). Hotspur thinks he can move the boundary-river Trent as easily in reality as on a map—“a little charge will do it” (114)—but he is quickly diverted from his course in the debate by Glendower's shift to the topic of music, and finally gives up the game: “I do not care … / But in the way of bargain, mark you me, / I'll cavil on the ninth part of a hair” (135-8). Hotspur is a complicated representation, and it is difficult to know whether the debate over the map proves him mad or merely contentious. In the event, it had no serious consequence in the play, and the Trent flowed on undisturbed. Doubtless Jacobean audiences, some eight years later, heard Lear's map-altering command in a very different register, despite the similar language used in both plays: “Come, here's the map: shall we divide our right / According to our threefold order ta'en?” (1 Henry IV, III.i.69-70); “Give me the map there. Know that we have divided in three our kingdom” (King Lear, I.i.37-8). In the latter event, the consequences are a “gor'd state” and the rest of the tragedy.

A map is a symbol of both structure and communitas, replacing “the discontinuous, patchy space of practical paths by the homogeneous, continuous space of geometry” (Bourdieu 1977: 105); its lines inscribe fissures along which crisis occurs, and like Duchamp's urinal, its inversion interpellates other cultural definitions. Thus, in King Lear, when the fundamental inscription of known national identity is altered, the definitions of all relations are destabilized, including (as in Hamlet) the definition of “human.” At the spatial center of the play is the question of what that word means, and with it the definition and possibility of civilization. Lear's “unaccommodated man” is “a poor, bare, forked animal” (III.iv.106-8) who, as the Fool notes with relief, had “reserv'd a blanket, else we had all been sham'd” (III.iv.65). The nearly naked Edgar appears as liminal man, in transit from his animal origins; the shame from which “we all” are saved by his rags is that of confronting a beastly kinship. Lear looks through the “loop'd and window'd raggedness” to an undifferentiated communitas in the company of Edgar/Tom, Kent, Gloucester, and the Fool—statusless outcasts like himself, momentarily related in the liminal locus of the heath. Man is “no more than this,” and the tangled bestiary of the play's animal imagery—from dogs and tigers to pelicans and centaurs—implies the fragility of civilized veneers. Lear's cartographic gerrymandering makes Britain the object of a contest for ownership that contextualizes both Edmund's scheme (“Well then, / Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (I.ii.15-16)), and the proprietorship that allows Goneril and Regan to shut their doors against the king. It creates the statusless limbo of liminality which dissolves all the security of familiar social structures.

The world of King Lear is circumscribed by several kinds of boundaries, all of which are breached at the start of the play. Gloucester acknowledges the violations of his marriage vows and jokes about it; the king vivisects his kingdom and abdicates, while somehow hoping to “retain / The name and all th'addition to a king” (I.i.135-6), as if that were possible. Lear sets up the testy game between his daughters in order to give the “third more opulent” (I.i.86) part of Britain over to a foreigner, France or Burgundy, whoever marries Cordelia, as if Britain were Lear's personal estate, and not a nation. He disowns his loving daughter, while the other two compete for Gloucester's bastard son. Lear and Gloucester act as if social roles were unrelated to social contracts.

Marxist critics were perhaps the first to notice that the play repeatedly interrogates the strength of the bonds that linked the constitutive elements of feudal society, and that alterations in these bonds were the specific “forces of change at work in the kingdom” (Delany 1977: 432). Like Richard II, Lear and Gloucester “are addicted to precedent and ceremony” (Delany 1977: 433), and the old forms on which they rest are contested by a swelling bourgeois acquisitiveness and social functionalism, represented by Goneril, Regan, and Edmund (Delany 1977: 433; Selden 1987: 146-7). The battle between old and new (or old and young) is real enough in this play; but however repulsive and dangerous Edmund, Goneril, and Regan appear to be, Shakespeare makes it clear that the fathers broke the rules first by violating the same “traditional” bonds whose loss they come to regret: Gloucester broke his marriage vows in fathering Edmund, though he retained the tradition of endowing his legitimate elder son; Lear violates his royal obligation to protect the realm, and also the custom of primogeniture in promising the “third more opulent” portion of the land to his youngest, not his eldest, daughter. The encroachment of bourgeois “functionalism” is symptomatic of the play's variously represented violations, enabled by the gap in social processes created by the dysfunctional guardians of traditional feudal codes.

One problem that arises in Marxist readings of King Lear such as Delany's is the tendency to valorize the actions of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund for working against the economic and social inequities of the feudal system. That view leaves us with something of a moral problem, because however pragmatic and progressive their levelling efforts may seem, neither their actions nor their motives aim toward the common good, nor do they result in anything but the destruction of order. Delany acknowledges that they do not intend to replace the old order with a new egalitarian structure and that the outcome of the struggle is “too dark and bloody to be redeemed by the vapidly moralistic Edgar” (1977: 437). Others (Selden 1987; Patterson 1989) have read Lear's “poor naked wretches” speech (III.iv.28-36) as a kind of proto-Marxist self-criticism on Lear's part about the inequities of a feudal economy. Patterson's analysis particularly exemplifies a failure to distinguish the reader's reading from the text's explicit content. Finding a charitable message in the passage, she says:

the play as a whole does not remain faithful to that message, not, at least, at the deep structural level of socioeconomic analysis. For Lear recovers from his wisdom-as-madness, and takes nothing from it into his reconciliation with Cordelia that is not a purely domestic intelligence. …

Is this, then, to be construed as Shakespeare's … conclusion that the hope of changing places is, after all, a delusion from which we should recover? I doubt it. Such a conclusion is barely compatible with his most transgressive strategy so far, to make the king his own most powerful social critic. [The] play retreats finally into the domestic and familial, as a shelter from sociopolitical awareness …

(Patterson 1989: 116)

Patterson is not the first critic to locate a potential interpretive trajectory in a single line and then criticize the play's infidelity to that trajectory, or to find a thinly veiled “irony” in the play's “failure” to deliver the message that the critic would like to see delivered. The play “does not remain faithful to that message” because the message is not the play's but the critic's. Lear's reconstructed domesticity in Edgar/Tom's hovel does not constitute a retreat “from sociopolitical awareness” but the consequence of that awareness, an elliptical rather than a circular return to the focus of his original violations. As for the “poor naked wretches” who immediately elicit Lear's apparent transformation, as Jonathan Dollimore observes, the play offers us no view of the large population of Jacobean poor. The actual wretches Lear sees before him were, are, and remain members of the court: the King, his Fool, and an Earl, joined a few moments later by a Duke and then that Duke's legitimate son who survives at play's end to assume the king's throne.

In a world where … a king has to share the suffering of his subjects in order to “care”, the majority will remain poor, naked and wretched. The point of course is that princes only see the hovels of wretches during progresses (walkabouts?), in flight or in fairy tale. … So, far from transcending in the name of an essential humanity the gulf which separates the privileged from the deprived, the play insists on it.

(Dollimore 1989: 191-2)

Lacking accommodations, the hovel's refugees are the “unaccommodated man” Lear sees in Poor Tom. And they are the only ones he sees. None of them ever goes home again—even Edgar will presumably move to new, royal, quarters.1

The play not only interrogates a moribund feudal-aristocratic system; it also exposes the structures of civilization per se as system, articulated in relationships that require careful, consistent protection by some structure of hierarchy and communitas. The feudal structures of King Lear are the particular instantiations of “system” in general. Cordelia loves Lear “according to [her] bond” (I.i.93); Kent persists throughout the play in the duty of serving his master; the Fool performs his professional role of tutoring the king; Edgar remains bound to his father. It is Edmund, whose “bonds” as he rightly says were severed by and under the conditions of his birth and who therefore stands outside both structure and communitas, who identifies the crux:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me … ?
                                                                                … Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
.....Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th'legitimate. Fine word, “legitimate”!


Unlike Edgar, born “by order of law” (I.i.19), Edmund recognizes, as only one excluded by structure can do, that “legitimacy” is merely a matter of civil law, the “curiosity of nations.” Thus his bond is properly to Nature, as bastards are “natural” children; only by Nature's law is his existence recognized. Edmund's rejection of (and by) the “plague of custom” ironizes Edgar's later quip as lunatic Tom when mad Lear asks him about his “study”: “How to prevent the fiend and to kill vermin” (III.iv.159). For Edmund custom is a plague; for everyone else in the play, custom is plagued. King Lear pushes Hamlet's citation of ritual crisis to an extreme: here custom is not “More honor'd in the breach” (I.iv.16); it is entirely breached. As a new-made outcast, sharing to some extent Edmund's permanent condition, Edgar can identify what all of the play's principal characters neglect, and what I have argued throughout this book is the prophylactic and curative function of ritual.

The fissures that weaken structure can best be seen from the outside, and only Edmund begins from that position. Very quickly after the play begins, Lear's court is vacated and the principal characters move outside to the liminal heath, but instead of leaving behind the structure to which they subscribe and within which they are themselves inscribed, they remain in important ways bound to it. That is why, as Dollimore notes, the play “insists” on the gulf created by hierarchy.

In, boy, go first.—You houseless poverty—
Nay, get thee in; I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.


Having expelled Cordelia and Kent, and then having been himself evicted by Goneril and Regan, Lear becomes the victim of his own diaspora. He is what Gaston Bachelard calls the “dispersed being” (1969: 7) without a stable point of reference, unable to re-cognize the once-familiar.

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night.


However, contested social structures do not necessarily provide the safety and security one seeks in them. Lear hesitates before Tom's hovel, ostensibly because he is distracted by what the thunder says, by recent memories of his displacement by his daughters, and by a paternal concern for the well-being of his Fool. A hovel is precisely not the kind of domicile Lear is accustomed to. A king's entry into such a structure entails the annihilation of his status as king, his deconstruction along with that of all that monarchic structure implies. It is precisely the action and the locus required in Turner's definition of liminality, and if this action were performed in the context of a properly ordered Swazi ritual (see above, chapter 4) instead of a Jacobean tragedy, the king's lesson in lowliness would assure his and his kingdom's renewal.

In order to take refuge in the hovel, Lear must first do battle with all the constructs of his courtly microworld. The larger universe, represented by the heath and its inhospitable weather, offers a space in which the hypocrisies and abuses familiar at court—those of the simp'ring dame, the rascal beadle, the corrupt judge—are exposed and challenged. “O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this” is a massive understatement. Simplistically read, Lear's “revelation” might result in a radical re-ordering of the play's social structures. But when we see what in fact happens, we see too that such a re-ordering does not occur, and indeed may not be possible. Wherever they go, people carry with them the positions they have occupied in the social structure; these are imprinted as “dispositions which are so many marks of social position and hence of the social distance between objective positions”; consequently, they are “reminders of this distance and of the conduct required in order to ‘keep one's distance’ … (by … ‘knowing one's place’ and staying there)” (Bourdieu 1977: 82).

Bourdieu's commentary helps to locate Lear's behavior before the hovel not as a demolition of hierarchy but as its perpetuation, and not because Lear wills it so but because of the conditions set by what Bourdieu calls “habitus,” the complex social principle in which individuals “wittingly or unwittingly” produce and reproduce social meaning: “[Each agent's] actions and works are the product of modus operandi of which he is not the producer and has no conscious mastery. … It is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know” (Bourdieu 1977: 79). The situation represented in Lear III.iv entails just such a misrecognition: among the band of refugees, two (Kent and Edgar) are disguised from the rest and from each other; when Gloucester first enters the scene, he does not recognize and is not recognized by the others. Moreover, the refuge itself is illusory: there is no lunatic's hovel because there is no lunatic, and the shelter of the hovel is in any case a one-night stand. Lear, the Fool, Kent, Gloucester, and Edgar are dispossessed of their habitual homes, which in each case was previously the court and its substructures.

By the operation of “habitus,” once he has installed himself, nested, in the hovel, Lear can only reconstruct himself regally, ordering “Come, unbutton here” (III.iv.109); two scenes later he establishes a moot court and arraigns his daughters in absentia.2 Lear can no more jettison the hierarchic structures of his former life than Edgar can become Tom o' Bedlam. The Fool's earlier analogy of Lear and a snail was more than a witty criticism:

… I can tell why a snail has a house.
Why, to put's head in, not to give it away to his daughters, and leave his horns without a case.


Social man carries his house with him. Even the birdcage haven Lear imagines with Cordelia (V.iii.8-19) is a home for retired courtiers gossiping about their former domain; it would not be mistaken for a farmhouse or a hovel. It belongs to the same social structure as does Lear himself. To be wrenched out of one's home, displaced, dislocated, dispossessed by any agency whatsoever, even oneself as Lear is in the very first instance, constitutes a genuine and profound threat to identity, and therefore to social existence. As Lear says, “home” is not a matter of physical comfort or simple protection from elemental weather, but of “habitus,” the full set of relationships, hierarchies, and ordered activity that the word signals. Tormented by the loss of those relationships, he does not feel the weather's fury:

                                                                                          When the mind's free,
The body's delicate; this tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else,
Save what beats there—filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to't? But I will punish home.


“Home” in this passage carries two meanings: “on target,” and the domain of all that is, or would be in a mundus rectus, socially constructive. It is a Foucaultian “heterotopia,” a “kind of effectively enacted utopia in which … all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality” (Foucault 1986: 24). Lear's “homes” in the hovel and the birdcage are in this sense “heterotopias,” where hypocrisy, though it prevails, is also arraigned; where poverty and misery are not relieved but are at least shared.

In this play, however, as in Macbeth and Hamlet, “real” homes, specifically castles, are sites of violations. In Lear's case these violations are mixed in with the political or stately issues of the division of the kingdom and the early retirement of the king.3 The subplot allows us to focus more particularly on the specifically domestic dissolutions. When Regan and Cornwall arrest Gloucester and blind him, the first point that penetrates his mind is the fact that this is occurring in his own house. He is more horrified by the violation of his role as host than by the denial of his authority:

What means your Graces? Good my friends, consider
You are my guests. Do me no foul play, friends.
.....                                                                                … I am your host,
With robber's hands my hospitable favors
You should not ruffle thus. What will you do?


He invokes the same code that is perversely cited by Macbeth in his moment of conscience before Duncan's murder and by Lady Macbeth's false horror afterwards:

                                                                      He's here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murtherer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself.


Woe, alas!
What, in our house?

(II.i: 87-8)

The fact that Macbeth casts regicide in the language of inhospitable behavior signals the weight of that code for Shakespeare's audience. These concerns, however ironically voiced, are recognizable retentions from the Anglo-Saxon code of comitatus, the system in which the most prominent relationship was a lord's protection of his followers, and the most prominent locus for that relationship was the mead-hall, where all significant social operations were defined. As Bourdieu observes:

Inhabited space—and above all the house—is the principal locus for the objectification of the generative schemes; and, through the intermediary of the divisions and hierarchies it sets up between things, persons, and practices, this tangible classifying system continuously inculcates and reinforces the taxonomic principles underlying all the arbitrary provisions of this culture.

(1977: 89)

Comitatus was more than a matter of hospitality, or rather, hospitality meant in this context something more than it would mean today. The code itself persisted well through the late medieval period as well, although as social life became more centralized, the term comitatus gave way to the medieval familia; both terms specifically signalled the full complex of relations and obligations implicit and explicit in the word “hospitality.” It was not an optional manifestation of polite behavior, but an absolute requirement of aristocracy (Keen 1990: 169).

Noting that “Regan's neglect of hospitality is a fault which has at least as wide a significance as her want of filial respect” (1987: 148), Selden locates the “corruption of hospitality” (149) in the play by reviewing Elizabethan vagrancy statistics and legislative debates regarding the disposition of “rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars” created by enclosures and other consequences of increasing urbanization (1987: 150-2; also Underdown 1985: 34-6). But he omits the Tudor legislation, and especially Elizabeth's Poor Relief Act of 1598 (reissued in 1601), that had made support of the poor a legal obligation of every parish. In regard to King Lear, the two most interesting stipulations of these acts are the one requiring “That the parents or children of every poor, old, blind, lame, and impotent person … shall at their own charges relieve and maintain every such poor person … upon pain that every one of them to forfeit 20s. for every month which they shall fail therein” (39 Eliz. c.3: VII, in Tanner 1940: 491), and the opening statement of the 1598 document: “Be it enacted by the authority of this present Parliament, That the Churchwardens of every parish, and four substantial householders there … who shall be nominated yearly in Easter week, … shall be called Overseers of the Poor of the same parish” to establish and administer provision of work, shelter, and cash donations (in Tanner 1940: 488-9; emphasis added).4 Two points thus emerge: the first is that Goneril's and Regan's behavior is not only a filial fault; it is also illegal; the second is that ordinary (albeit “substantial”) householders, not just the aristocracy, specifically were made responsible for maintaining the homeless. In view of these statutory provisions, the social violations performed by the various characters in King Lear are inflected not only against early modern “Christian” morality but also against established law. It is not only the aristocracy or the government who failed in their social obligations but persons of various social and economic strata, including even solvent parents or children of the poor. The legislations of 1598 and 1601 indicate at least a formal recognition of the “partnership” (an ideologically utopian heir to comitatus) required for a stable society, however much that recognition (then as now) was more honored in the breach than in the observance. Such a recognition began long before Elizabeth's reign, and long before the kind of entrepreneurial urbanization to which the critics I have noted attribute the social dissolution reflected in the play; in fact, legislation concerning beggars began in the mid-fourteenth century (Tanner 1940: 469) and by 1531, in a statute recognizing the difference between able-bodied (“sturdy”) poor prohibited from begging and “aged, poor, and impotent persons” permitted to do so, the population Lear categorizes as “houseless poverty” was officially recognized not as a social anomaly but as a demographic reality.

Selden's essay suggests that King Lear should be read as a reflection of the specific consequences of urbanization, enclosure, etc., none of which is mentioned in the play as a cause of homelessness or of anything else. Even Edgar/Tom's recitation of the causes of his “condition” (III.iv.85-98), aside from being entirely made up, is a litany of abuses committed by, not upon, him: whoring, gambling, drinking, pickpocketing, borrowing, and generally aspiring to live beyond his means. Moreover, before he launches his recitation, he counsels obedience to biblical commandments specifically in regard to family relations: “Obey thy parents, keep thy word's justice, swear not, commit not with man's sworn spouse, set not thy sweet heart on proud array. Tom's a-cold” (III.iv.80-3). Lear's born-again concern for “wretchedness” springs first from his insistence that no one could fall to Tom's condition unless he had “give[n] all to thy two daughters” (III.iv.49). Family relations, domestic relations, the relations of comitatus, appear to be the focus in these scenes. Anglo-Saxon elegies such as The Wanderer, The Husband's Message, The Wife's Lament, and The Seafarer remind us that homelessness existed long before capitalism. We follow Lear and his mini-court of vagrants, but we never learn what happens to his “hundred knights,”5 presumably also left homeless, who were “riotous” even under Goneril's roof, that is, before they were dismissed and dispersed. We can assume that they met a fate quite similar to the one recited by Tom. “The vagrant was the extreme case of that much-feared menace, the ‘masterless’ man or woman. A society held together by the cement of the household required that everyone have a parent or a master” (Underdown 1985: 36). If Shakespeare addressed contemporary developments in economic practices, as Selden and others suggest, he did so in the context of the breakdown in family relations and codes of loyalty and reciprocal responsibility.

The liminal heath, in King Lear as in Macbeth, stands as the antithesis of all that words like “home,” “court,” and “civilization” normally signify. Such marginal loci are distinct places contextually reserved in ritual for actions that cannot (properly) occur within the bounds of normal life. “Physical space helps to structure the events which take place in it” (P. Burke 1978: 108). Roberto Da Matta, an anthropologist investigating the Brazilian Carnival, writes at length about the social expectations and appropriations of open and closed spaces:

The category “street” indicates the world with its unpredictable events, its actions and passions. The category “house” pertains to a controlled universe, where things are in their proper places. …

The distinctive feature of the domain of the house seems to be control over social relations, which implies a greater intimacy and a lesser social distance than elsewhere … but the street implies a certain lack of control and a distancing between self and others. … It is an area of confusions and novelties, where robberies occur and where it is necessary to walk carefully, suspicious and alert. In sum the street, as a generic category in opposition to the house, is a public place, controlled by the government or by destiny—those impersonal forces over which we have minimal control.

In this sense the street is equivalent to the category scrub land (mato) or forest (floresta) of the rural world, or to the “nature” of the tribal world. In each case we are speaking of a partly unknown and only partly controlled domain peopled with dangerous figures. Thus it is in the street and in the forests that the deceivers, the criminals, and spirits live—those entities with whom one never has precise contractual relations.

(1984: 209-11)

Da Matta's distinctions illuminate Shakespeare's heath, which encompasses some of the same social operations as the Brazilian “street” (or scrub land or forest). It too is a place of uncertain social relations, imprecise contracts, dangerous figures. It is of course a symbolically liminal space, but symbolic terms do not adequately convey the real, physical, material dangers of social annihilation. In a society that recognizes the primacy of the house and of households, to be homeless is to be inhuman, even less than animal:

This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fur dry, unbonneted he runs,
And bids what will take all.


Domesticity in this sense adumbrates a law of natural behavior that gives wild animals the sense to come in out of the rain. Against those forces that would thus annihilate them, Shakespeare's outcasts establish domesticity wherever they find themselves, even in a hovel on the heath. This kind of domesticity, it should be said, is in one sense quite distinct, and in another sense difficult to separate, from material issues of property, land, and the ways in which land is bound up in the operations of ideology. In King Lear those issues are most clearly articulated in the Gloucester-Edmund-Edgar constellation, though they are also present in Lear's focus on the enfranchisement of Goneril and Regan and disenfranchisement of Cordelia (Dollimore 1989: 199-201). The domestic and the ideological are in this context reciprocal interventions. Nevertheless a distinction can be made between land as commodity, with all the attributes of “power, property and inheritance” (Dollimore 1989: 197), and land as a site for the affective emotional operations of domestic life. Lear's imagined haven with Cordelia in a birdcage-prison does not seem so crazy when we realize that birdcages, like some asylums and some prisons, are meant to protect their inmates from predators.

The primacy of domestic structure as well as of such “feudal” customs as monogamy, intrafamilial obligations, and the reciprocal duties of monarchy were not immediately eradicated by the rise of an individual-centered bourgeois system. The multiple breaches of order in King Lear are rooted in the several failures by half of the central characters, and especially the ones invested with power, to guard any idea of interconnectedness. Those who retain and embody socially constructive values must do so by dissembling (Edgar, Kent, and in his own way the Fool) or in exile (Cordelia). In the face of such rivings and rivalries as we see in this play, no civilization can survive, let alone flourish.

Because the play attends at length to Lear's painful anagnorisis and Gloucester's and Kent's abiding loyalty, it permits a degree of sympathy toward “a sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch, / Past speaking of in a king” (, and a degree of righteous satisfaction at Goneril's poisoning, Regan's suicide, and Edmund's relatively honorable death by duel. The play's characters assign a certain traditional logic to its fatalities: “This shows you are above, / You justicers, that these our nether crimes / So speedily can venge! But, O poor Gloucester” (Albany, IV.ii.78-80); “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us” (Edgar, V.iii.171-2) and Kent's apocalyptic question about the “promis'd end” (V.iii.265) suggest that divine justice has been served. Even the cynical Edmund, whose goddess was “Nature,” dies acknowledging a tidy cosmology: “The wheel is come full circle, I am here” (V.iii.175). But there is something unconvincing, unsatisfying, about such lip-service to supernatural order near and at the end of a drama that repeatedly insists on human rather than divine interventions as the causes of disaster. Abstract and malleable concepts of justice, whether human or divine, have no practical consequence for a state “gor'd”—that is, covered with blood (from the Old English gor or filth, recalling Douglas's “matter out of place”) and also split, pierced, triangulated (from the Old English gara, a pointed triangular piece of land, and gar, spear). Kent is wise to reject Albany's suggestion that he and Edgar jointly “sustain” it, not only because, as a faithful feudal retainer, he will soon join his lord in death (V.iii.323), but also because a dual kingship replicates the division of the kingdom that constituted the play's initial rupture. The play's end implies no restoration or resurrection. The image of “sustaining” a “gor'd state” is that of holding together the edges of a gaping wound until time's sutures can reconstitute the flesh. Shakespearean tragedy consistently concludes with a wish that such a healing might occur extra-dramatically, in some unrepresented future time, and simultaneously represents that wish as impossible. The “promis'd end / Or image of that horror” is the total dissolution of both structure and communitas.

In Macbeth, a loyal thane violates the “double trust” of his kinsman/king and guest. Duncan more than once counted on the trust mandated by comitatus; before he placed it in Macbeth, he had similarly relied on Cawdor: “He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust” (I.iv.13-14). With the king's “most sacrilegious murther” (II.iii.67)—the violation of more than his trust—comes statuslessness, liminality, the negation of all structures and definitions; “nothing is / But what is not” (I.iii.141-2). Such moments are dangers against which the instantaneous succession in the formula “the king is dead; long live the king” is posed, and are to be avoided—except in drama, where they are explored in the safety of a hypothetical question: what if?

Macbeth moves by and is built around questions. The first four scenes and II.i all begin with interrogatives. The opening question, the Weird Sisters' “When shall we three meet again?” quickly establishes the perhaps surprising fact that a disciplined order governs their world: they will meet again, at a specific time and place, according to a plan. We see that same careful attention to detail in the list of the caldron's ingredients. The question Duncan asks in the first line of the second scene offers a disturbing contrast: “What bloody man is that?” The bloody sergeant appears as a man turned inside-out, an inversion that emblematizes the whole play. There will be a good deal more blood turned outward before the play ends. The grooms' faces will be smeared with blood; so will Macbeth's and his wife's hands. Macbeth tells Banquo's murderer: “There's blood upon thy face. … / 'Tis better thee without than he within” (III.iv.13-14). Lady Macbeth mutters as she sleepwalks, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (V.i.39-40). Indeed, how much blood is within is something we are never expected to know unless the body's boundaries are breached. “Blood” in this context (or out of its proper context) is Douglas's “dirt,” defilement, pollution, like the “gor'd state” that remains at the end of King Lear. The bloody sergeant instantiates a discourse of inversions that signal confusion and disturb rational clarity: the man turned inside-out is not a pretty sight. The image appears again when Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost: “the time has been, / That, when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end; but now they rise again” (III.iv.77-9).

Inversion is inextricable in this play from paradox and contradiction. The musical cadences of the Sisters' chant, “fair is foul and foul is fair” (I.i.11), contrast sharply with Macbeth's chilling citation of paradox in his first scene, after Duncan's envoy names him Cawdor and proves half of the Sisters' prophecy. His mind turns to kingship and the means of achieving it:

My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man,
That function is smother'd in surmise,
And nothing is but what is not.


Paradox signals the permeability and thus the contamination of logical boundaries and definitions: “To be King / Stands not within the prospect of belief, / No more than to be Cawdor” (I.iii.73-5). The impossible is the only truth.

It is in this context that the play represents Scotland's transformation to a structure modeled on English hierarchy, when Malcolm declares to his followers at the end of the play, “My thanes and kinsmen, / Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland / In such an honor nam'd” (V.ix.28-30). Culture, too, is turned inside-out in Macbeth. Its structure is derived by way of human anatomy; the play's definition of culture, like Hamlet's and Lear's, waits upon its definition of “human,” which is predominantly, in this play, collapsed into definitions of (mostly masculine) gender. Macbeth claims that he “dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none”; his wife replies, “What beast was't then, / That made you break this enterprise to me?” (I.vii.46-8). Later, explaining why he killed Duncan's grooms, he says, “who can be wise, amaz'd, temperate and furious, / Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man” (II.iii.108-9). To be human, he suggests, is to live in clarity, without contradictions, but that idealistic notion too is overturned in this play of paradoxes. It is interesting that the opposite of “loyal” here is “neutral,” not “treacherous”; there are some words Macbeth can not say. Still later, he reasons with the men he hires to kill Banquo, seeking their personal commitment to the murder; evidently he does not rely on mercenary contracts. He asks if they will submit to Banquo's suppression of their advancement; they reply, “We are men, my liege,” like the soldier in Lear, ordered by Edmund to hang Cordelia, who says, “I cannot draw a cart nor eat dried oats; / If it be man's work I'll do't” (V.iii.38-9); but, as Lear said, the distinction between human and animal is sometimes difficult to locate: “Man's life is cheap as beast's” (II.iv.267). Macbeth presses for further distinction, saying that there are men and men, as there are all kinds of dogs in the canine catalogue (III.i.91-100). The definition of “man” in these instances is derived by slight degrees of differentiation from an animal. Lady Macbeth thinks that manhood is fearlessness: “When you durst do it, then you were a man” (I.vii.49), but fearlessness or fierceness is the woman's part in this play, and in any event, the play's debate over gendered behavior is doubly interpellated by both the Weird Sisters' androgynous appearance and Macduff's insistence on his right to grieve for his dead wife and children: “I must also feel it as a man” (IV.iii.221). When Macbeth is frightened by Banquo's ghost at the banquet (III.iv), Lady Macbeth can easily mock her husband's manhood; the ghost does not, after all, appear to her. His defense is that he would not fear what he could fight: a Russian bear, a Hyrcanian tiger, an armed rhinocerous. Man to man or man to beast, “what man dare I dare” (III.iv.98-100). Human and animal are in very close relation here, and that relation is fundamentally combative. What may finally distinguish human from bestial, as in the case of Edgar as Poor Tom, is the fact that human beings wear clothes.

Simultaneously with even the most rudimentary forms of civilization, costume became a cultural artifact, the robe encoding the role. Costume is as central to ceremony and ritual, to all the forms of order that identify culture, as to the stage and the court. In the early modern period, dress not only signified role, but also was dictated by it; as Lisa Jardine has noted, Sumptuary Laws, beginning “within a year of Elizabeth I's accession,” and culminating in the elaborately detailed legislation of 1597, marked “the tension between the old, outgoing feudal order and the new mercantile order” (1983: 141-2); they were evidence of the acute anxiety produced by changing social structures. Stephen Orgel points out that when monarchs appeared in masques at court, they “were revealed in roles that expressed the strongest Renaissance beliefs about the nature of kingship” (1975: 38-9). In the masque, a theatrical form saturated with sumptuousness, the monarch's costume was even more sumptuous than the rest; Elizabeth reportedly had difficulty walking in her gowns, and their elaborate patterns iconographically told volumes' worth. Even in the earliest cultures, clothes made the man, and decoration was designation: hunters and priests put on the skins of their animal victims as a sign that they had absorbed and become fully identified with the power of the slain.

Early in the play Macbeth asks Ross, who has just hailed him as Thane of Cawdor, “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” (I.iii.108-9). Lady Macbeth thus prods her husband to action: “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress'd yourself?” (I.vii.35-6). New regimes call for new uniforms, and the governed must wear them as well as they can, as Macduff cryptically warns when he announces Macbeth's accession: “Adieu, / Lest our old robes sit easier than our new” (II.iv.37-8). Macbeth's new robes fit worse than Macduff's: “Now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief” (V.ii.20-2). Shakespeare's frequent derision of courtly fondness for borrowed style is represented only once in this somber play by the Porter's remark about French hose (II.iii.14). In Lear, too, costume marks social differentiation: “If only to go warm were gorgeous, / Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st” (II.iv.268-9). On the liminal heath, Lear's robes represent “superflux,” “lendings” he would tear off (III.iv.35,108). Distinctive clothing is an inscription of structure, and it is inextricably woven in with the ceremonies and rituals that bind the elements of particular cultures.

Those ceremonies and rituals are not neglected in Macbeth, but the attention given them reverses expectations. The formal ceremonies of court are quickly dispensed with; Duncan's burial is reported in three lines (II.iv.33-5), while Macbeth's coronation gets one and a half: “He is already nam'd, and gone to Scone / To be invested” (II.iv.31-2). These stately rituals are clearly not what the play examines. Far more attention is paid to the banquet in Macbeth's palace and to the Sisters' dance around their caldron. The formal banquet is a rite of confirmation, and marks—or should mark—the acceptance of Macbeth as king. It is therefore very important that formal procedures and rules of hospitality be observed. Early in the day set for the “solemn supper,” as Banquo enters the court, he is announced by the king as “our chief guest”; Lady Macbeth epitomizes the discourse of hospitality: “If he had been forgotten, / It had been as a gap in our great feast, / And all-thing unbecoming” (III.i.11-13). The code of hospitality protects the social order; its violation heralds anarchy. But as both Duncan and Banquo learn fatally, hospitality at the Macbeths' takes perverse forms. At the banquet itself, Lady Macbeth struggles to play the perfect hostess, cover Macbeth's lapses, and maintain the required order. The entire scene (III.iv) oscillates between the signs and processes of order and those of chaos. Macbeth calls his guests to the table: “You know your own degrees, sit down. … / Our hostess keeps her state; but in best time, / We will require her welcome” (1-6). Lady Macbeth speaks more truth than the guests realize: “to feed were best at home; / From thence, the sauce to meat is ceremony” (34-5); her husband adds, “Now good digestion wait on appetite, / And health on both” (37-8). Almost immediately the illusion of order is undone by Macbeth's vision of Banquo's gory locks.

Banquets began in civilization as the communal breaking of bread, bonding by feeding the body politic.6 They came to be formal, institutionalized rituals, processes of statecraft in which hierarchy was encoded in seating and food-distribution plans. Such a visible encoding of the social order not only celebrated, confirmed, and perpetuated the status quo but, by reifying it, also exposed it to possible contestation (Lincoln 1989: 81). Hierarchy thus informs and shapes hospitality, and hospitality, although it often looks like the instantiation of egalitarian communitas, ratifies structure: “You know your own degrees, sit down.”

From the start of his career, Shakespeare was interested in dining as a constitutive element in the ecology of social life: in The Comedy of Errors V.i.73-6, Aemilia meditates on the dangers of disrupted dining; in Titus Andronicus there is the perverse culinary intervention of a manic cook and a Thyestean pie. In Macbeth, the concern for peaceful eating (and sleeping) extends on all sides, and signals anxiety in regard to both personal and political health: a nameless lord tells Lennox that he hopes, with God's help and Macduff's, “we may again / Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights, / Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives, / … All which we pine for now” ( In an earlier scene, Macbeth would “let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, / Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams, / That shake us nightly” (III.ii.16-19). Dining and repose most famously intersect again in

                                                                                          … the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.


But in this play's discourse of inversion, where fair is foul, sleep provides the occasion for Duncan's and the grooms' murders; the hapless sailor whose wife insulted the Weird Sister is punished with eternal waking (I.iii.19-20); Macbeth will sleep no more, and Lady Macbeth sleeps walking.

The biological need for food and sleep was satisfied in early societies by appeal through ritual to divine powers (gods, spirits, demons, or totems); hunting and farming in particular were invested heavily with sacred functions.7 In modern societies where these needs are supplied by technology and commerce, secular and social rituals retain some of their vestigial meanings. Certainly the food supply was still a matter for concern in Shakespeare's day, when natural disasters such as drought and plague combined with human interventions such as war embargos, grain-hoarding, price manipulations, and speculation (see the Porter's line about the farmer “that hang'd himself on th' expectation of plenty” [II.iii.4]), and kept these commodities from being taken for granted.

Against that anxiety, the fullest image of plenitude in the play occurs in the ingredients list for the Sisters' caldron. Like Lear's band of refugees, these outcast, marginal women with beards set up housekeeping on a heath. Persistently demonized, the Weird Sisters ironically live the most ordinary and orderly of domestic lives. This is especially evident in comparison with the Macbeths, whose domesticity is a perversion, and the Macduffs, whose domesticity is shattered. The caldron (a uterine symbol?), the receptacle and vessel for their mysterious recipe, is the locus of their power; they are “the most fertile force in the play” (Eagleton 1986: 3). Who in the audience did not wonder—and who could ever admit to knowing—what that famous recipe produced? They are the first characters we meet as the play begins, where in an expression of absolute, even academic, order, they plan their next meeting and announce the play's dominant paradox: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” (I.i.11). We must wait until IV.i to see the women more intimately at their kettle.

Even the appearance of the Sisters is paradoxical and baffles Banquo: “you should be women / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (I.iii.45-7). Old women with facial hair, the Sisters typify the mysterious folk in rural places who gather herbs and practice healing, and who are believed to be able to tell the future. In most of Celtic folklore, they did not curse or cause evil except in retaliation for harm or slander done to them, as they do to the hapless sailor whose inhospitable wife denied one chestnuts and called her a witch. The sailor's wife's remark is the play's only spoken instance of the epithet, although the Folio speech prefixes and stage directions, as well as much subsequent critical discussion, have literally demonized them. They are, as Kenneth Muir pointed out, “the kind of old women who, because of their appearance, get credited by the villagers with possessing supernatural powers—and if a cow dies or if a child falls sick they get the blame for it” (K. Muir 1962: 238). The seventeenth century's view of “witches” was by no means stable or consistent: while James I's belief in witchcraft was well known, it was not universally shared, and was countered by the sceptical positions of Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), which James ordered burned, and Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603) (Monter 1983: 32). Simon Forman's description of the 1611 performance of the play refers only to “3 women feiries or Nimphes” (K. Muir 1962: xiv). Holinshed describes them as “three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of the elder world … either the weird sisters, that is … the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science, bicause everie thing came to passe as they had spoken” (Bullough 1973: VII: 494-5). Travellers among the audience might have seen a resemblance to Italian benandanti, who were called witches and warlocks by Church inquisitors, but who saw themselves as “anti-witches,” procurers of good, practicing specifically agrarian fertility rites to insure and protect crops (Ginzburg 1983: 4, 22). Or the Sisters' appearance might have signalled to the more learned in the audience the hermaphrodite figure in alchemical iconology, which coincidentally represents perfect harmony and synthesis out of seeming paradox (Heninger 1977: 3, 188-90). Exotic (literally excluded, alien) power, like that of the pharmakon, works as both poison and cure; “it is an idea, before it is a phenomenon … [and] may include inversions of any of the positive values peculiar to a given society” (Larner 1981: 2). In any case, Larner argues, the European phenomena of witch-hunting and witch scares had abated by the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, and did not take hold in Scotland and England until the 1620s (1981: 18). Moreover, variant Protestant (Lutheran, Anglican, and Puritan) distinctions of “witchcraft” from other forms of “magic” and “superstition” (Monter 1983: 28-32) radically problematize the Sisters' contemporary reception in Shakespeare's play. We cannot be sure what these women would have signalled to their audience. They are not accounted for in the play's conclusion; they simply disappear after IV.i.

What we do know about them is that in the dialogue they are called “Weird.” In the earliest, that is, the First Folio, printing, the word is spelled “weyard” (Acts III and IV) and “weyward” (Acts I and II). The OED defines it, even in the notable spelling, as: “having the power to control fate or destiny, or dealing with it, or partaking or suggesting of the supernatural.” But the Folio spelling for Acts I and II obviously suggests reading “weyward” as “wayward,” “by the wayside,” beyond the social pale; in other words, marginal and liminal. Thus the Sisters stand as foils to Lady Macbeth (Belsey 1985: 185), who begins within the social domain and willfully moves outside it. Their beards make their gender ambiguous, unknowable, and therefore dangerous, like Lady Macbeth whose famous wish to be unsexed is affirmed in her husband's “Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (I.vii.72-4). Women who subvert standard social definitions of the “feminine” tend to be demonized by those for whom alterity is otherwise unintelligible (Belsey 1985: 185; Larner 1981: 20).

In a play that gives a great deal of attention to domestic dysfunction, the Sisters paradoxically present the nearest thing we have to “normal” domesticity. The probably interpolated figure of Hecate provides a mistress for their household: she praises their management of the caldron (IV.i.39-43), and when they transgress, as they appear to have done in the first of her two scenes, she promptly scolds them as “saucy and overbold” (III.v.3). Thus chastened, they turn to their kettle and stir things up. The marginal liminal heath where the Sisters live is the appropriate locus for them, as it is for Macbeth in his transformation from loyal thane to murderer and tyrant. In the open, undomiciled space of the heath, again inversely, public becomes private and unbounded “waywardness” is domesticated.

Liminality does not force transformation; if it did, Banquo would have been similarly changed. But it is required when such changes are taking place; it provides the space between what was and what will be. In Hamlet, Lear, Richard II, and Coriolanus, the dramatic action begins at the center (the court, the city) and moves outward, respectively, to England, to the heath, to Wales, to the Volscian camp. In Macbeth, where all structure is inverted and fair is foul, two of the first three scenes take place on the heath and the other in “a camp near Forres.” We do not see the inside of a castle until the fourth scene. The action moves from marginal to central space, but in this play, the space inside structure is more dangerous than outside. There is no safety in castles. There is no reincorporation of the hero who is also the villain. There is no reintegration of Scotland, which instead is transformed to a version of English hierarchy. What that transformation registered for an audience whose monarch was a Scot turned English is a speculative matter: on the one hand, it looks like a confirmation of English political structure; on the other, it discloses the arbitrariness, the instability, of political/cultural definitions inscribed within the play's discourse of inversion.

The force of transformation—“the first that ever Scotland / In such an honor nam'd” (V.ix.29-30)—is the fiat of nomenclature, the ordering system of signifiers. The play's action moves through a lexical progression from things that cannot be named, as when Macbeth could or would not say “treacherous” as the opposite of “loyal,” to those that must. Lady Macbeth, early on, says, “Glamis thou art … and shalt be / What thou art promis'd” (I.v.15-16); she does not say what that is. Macbeth cannot say “Amen” (II.ii.26). Throughout most of the play, Duncan's murder is simply called “the deed,” especially after the fact; regicide is unspeakable. Macduff cannot say it either: “Tongue nor heart / Cannot conceive, nor name thee!” (II.iii.64-5). Macbeth asks the Sisters what they do; they reply, “A deed without a name” (IV.i.49). Malcolm refuses to say Macbeth's name; it blisters his tongue (IV.iii.12) until he links it with the word “treacherous” (18), the word Macbeth would not say. That word marks the turning point, after which names emerge steadily as ordering forms of differentiation. Ross calls Scotland not “our mother, but our grave” (IV.iii.166). Malcolm says that Macbeth smacks “of every sin / That has a name” (IV.iii.59-60). Finally, the naming comes to closure when, as noted above, Malcolm re-names his “thanes and kinsmen” as the first Scottish Earls, signifying with that naming the absorption of one cultural structure into another. Names are always signifiers, indicating identities and relationships when they are assigned. But when they are used, spoken, vocally inflected, they signal a range of possibilities, from affirmation to deception (Eagleton 1986: 6). Naming is magical invocation: after Marlowe's Faustus signs his contract, Mephistopheles is forbidden to name “who made the world” (II.ii.67-73). Inversely, in the parodic scenes, Faustus, Wagner, and even the clown Robin can invoke by naming major and minor demons at will. Traditional Judaism uses the Tetragrammaton to mask the true (and unspeakable) name of God; conversely, in Islam, “the ninety-nine names, or epithets, of God, comprising all the divine attributes, may be written on paper (or simply repeated) in order to produce far-reaching effects” (Goody and Watt 1968: 227). The study of cultures, from Freud (1950) to Lévi-Strauss (1966), Goody and Watt (1968), and Foucault (1970) is in large measure the study of names.

Macbeth as hero/villain remains one of the most vexing definition-defying constructs in Shakespearean tragedy. His status as villain, as “butcher,” poses no difficulty, but if he is not at the same time the tragic hero, then he is the only titular protagonist in Shakespearean tragedy (except perhaps for Julius Caesar) who is not. Derrida's model of the bivalent pharmakon, poison and cure, reconciles this interpretive dissonance. So too do Girard's early theories of mythic process and the “sacrificial crisis.” He notes the “conflictual aspects in the narrative elements at the beginning of many primitive myths [which] suggest violent disorder rather than a mere absence of order, primordial or otherwise. We often have a confused struggle between indistinguishable antagonists” (1978: 185). Eliminating one of the antagonists permits differentiation of character, which represents the differentiation of human thought, which, in turn, in Girard's view, is the birth of cultural order. Differentiation, i.e., separation, alienation, is served by scapegoating, for which a given myth provides the narrative context. Scapegoating requires motive; thus the goat is invested with “a truly fantastic and superhuman power to harm the community” (Girard 1978: 187). We have already seen how these distinctions apply to Bolingbroke and Richard in Richard II. They apply equally well to the Weird Sisters and the Macbeths. The malefactor/victim is presented as someone special, either alienated from the community from the start or one who moves outside it. The Sisters and Lady Macbeth may serve as the most obvious figures of separation and alienation, but ultimately it is Macbeth who is “sacrificed” as malefactor and victim. The difficulty of seeing Macbeth as victim, sacrificial or otherwise, except of a will to power, is offset by recognizing that as a constructed subject Macbeth embodies all that is feudal Scotland at the start of the play. Scotland is full of contradictions: its values of bravery and fealty are already threatened by the first Thane of Cawdor, the traitor whom Macbeth in every respect replaces. Its structure of monarchic succession is unclear until Duncan names his successor. Like Macbeth's, its “single state” is “shaken”; its function is “smother'd in surmise / And nothing is but what is not” (I.iii.140-2). “There's no art,” says Duncan, “To find the mind's construction in the face” (I.iv.11-12); it resides deeper. Macbeth is Scotland's “monstrous double”; he replicates its contradictions, its feudal values and the violence that sustains them. From loyal thane, “brave Macbeth,” “valiant cousin! worthy gentleman” (I.ii.16, 24), he is quickly turned around, or rather, like the bloody sergeant's appearance, turned inside-out. And he in turn is doubled and inverted by Malcolm.

Just before he announces his virginity to Macduff, Malcolm prepares himself for heroic function, in Girard's terms, by identifying himself completely with Macbeth. This long passage (IV.iii.50-100) is more than just a test of Macduff's loyalty to Scotland. Reciting a catalogue of extraordinary vices, Malcolm makes himself more dangerous to Scotland than Macbeth:

It is myself I mean; in whom I know
All the particulars of vice so grafted,
That, when they shall be open'd, black Macbeth
Will seem as pure as snow; and the poor State
Esteem him as a lamb, being compar'd
With my confineless harms.


In a complicated process of repeated inversions and identifications, Malcolm turns himself inside-out, “open'd,” exposing vices in comparison with which Macbeth appears as “a lamb,” the emblem of innocence and sacrifice. The ritual subject identifies with his opponent and becomes what must be destroyed, and then redifferentiates himself as he emerges newly forged, new born. The next coronation at Scone, Malcolm's, will doubtless be fully and properly attended, except, perhaps, for his brother Donalbain. Duncan's other son disappeared from the play after II.iii, even earlier than the Weird Sisters. His last ominous line, “the near in blood, / The nearer bloody” (140-1), suggests the possibility of another cycle of treachery and kin-killing.

The play ends with only an illusory order emerging out of paradox and contradiction. When Macbeth hears that “none of woman born / Shall harm” him (IV.i.80-1), he believes that there is no such thing and thus misrecognizes Macduff's threat. The symbolic contradiction entailed in the Sister's prophecy likewise appears to bring about, but in fact problematizes, Scotland's rescue by Macduff, not “born of woman” and left childless, and its restoration of “measure, time, and place” (V.ix.39) by Malcolm, “yet / Unknown to woman” (IV.iii.125-6). Like Marcus Andronicus's ironic promise to knit the “scatter'd corn” of a Rome imagistically left without women, Malcolm's and Macduff's combination of unusual birth, childlessness, and virginity suggest no potential for procreative renewal. The hope that “Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward / To what they were before” (IV.ii.24-5) is shattered by the end of the play, when it is clear that “things” will not return “to what they were before.” Scotland will not be restored; it will be reconstructed in the image of its southern neighbor.

Arguing for Macbeth's status as tragic hero, Kenneth Muir wrote:

We cannot divide the world into potential murderers and those who are not. It consists of imperfect human beings. … If they commit evil it is because they hope thereby to avoid another evil, which seems to them for the moment to be worse, or obtain another good, which seems attractive if only because it is not in their possession.

(1962: lxix)

Once again, Tom o'Bedlam's formulation says this better: he studies “How to prevent the fiend, and to kill vermin” (Lear III.iv.159). Warding off spiritual harm and preventing disease are exactly the functions of ritual practice. Rites of passage specifically are defined as prophylactic rather than purgative. They clarify and decontaminate entrance to a new status, and they emphasize the permanence and value of all societal classifications (Douglas 1966: 56). In representing the processes of alienation, identification, and scapegoating, King Lear and Macbeth represent the basic processes of civilization-under-construction and the difficult and problematic birth of structure and hierarchy.

Writing about King Lear, Stephen Greenblatt notes the “intense and sustained struggle” at the juncture of Elizabethan and Jacobean England “to redefine the central values of society. … At the heart of this struggle … was the definition of the sacred, a definition that directly involved secular as well as religious institutions” (1985: 165-6). He concludes by saying that Lear's concerns are still ours:

Because the judicial torture and expulsion of evil have for centuries been bound up with the display of power at the center of society. Because we no longer believe in the magical ceremonies through which devils were once made to speak and were driven out of the bodies of the possessed. Because the play recuperates and intensifies our need for these ceremonies, even though we do not believe in them, and performs them, carefully marked out for us as frauds, for our continued consumption.

(1985: 183)

He thus reasserts the appeal to systems of order through ritual and ceremony. Nevertheless, the nihilistic images of their violations peep out from under these plays in performance, reminding us that cultural structure is always held in a delicate balance. “Double, double, toil and trouble.” Like Duncan approaching Macbeth's castle, we are always “here in double trust.”


  1. The variant assignments of the play's closing lines in Quarto and Folio texts do not affect this supposition. Regardless of whether Albany or Edgar speaks “The weight of this sad time we must obey,” the penultimate lines, “Friends of my soul, you twain / Rule in this realm” are delivered to Edgar and Kent, the latter declining.

  2. These “mock trial” lines occur in the Quarto version, but not in the Folio.

  3. The commonplace Renaissance analogy of state and family is implicit here, of course, and has been thoroughly explored in recent critical texts, e.g., Selden 1987. Selden's argument, like that of his Jacobean textual citations, focuses on the “family” as a social unit, and not upon the physical structure it occupies.

  4. The following stipulation of Section II of the 1598 document might have interested Shakespeare: among those specifically to be “taken, adjudged, and deemed rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars, and [to] sustain such pain and punishment as by this Act is in that behalf appointed” were

    all persons calling themselves scholars going about begging, … all fencers, bearwards, common players of interludes, and minstrels wandering abroad (other than players of interludes belonging to any baron of this realm, or any other honourable personage of greater degree, to be authorised to play under the hand and seal of arms of such baron or personage) …

    (in Tanner 1940: 485)

  5. An important subtext in Lear's insistence on retaining his hundred knights and his daughters' systematic reduction of that number to zero is indicated in Old Irish legal texts which specified how different ranks within nobility were distinguished; the size of the retinue they commanded was a visible encoding of status (Lincoln 1989: 78). Thus to dismantle Lear's retinue is not only to leave him unprotected but also to eradicate his status altogether.

  6. This is, unsurprisingly, no idle metaphor. Lincoln reprints a composite of the hall plan from the Feast of Tara, the royal and ceremonial center of medieval Ireland, compiled from detailed descriptions in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster and the slightly later Yellow Book of Lecan. The plan indicates not only a complex seating hierarchy from the king and queen (the only female permitted at the banquet) down to the satirists, clowns, wall-makers, ditch-diggers, and royal doorkeepers, but also the portions of meat to be served to each rank. Carvers and butlers, seated nearest the kitchen, were served the head, the king a tenderloin, the queen a rump steak, and the royal doorkeepers the coccyx:

    [Given] the spatial contrast between the top of the diagram/head of the animal/kitchen area, on the one hand, and the bottom of the diagram/coccyx of the animal/doorway on the other, it does not seem too farfetched to suggest that a trip from one end of the hall to the other might well be associated to a similar (and not unrelated) passage through the alimentary canal.

    (Lincoln 1989: 80)

  7. In an interesting and brief essay, Holland links the botanical imagery in the play with the cycles of legendary vegetation kings. The moving Birnam Wood, he says, visually suggests May Day or midsummer rites in which the celebrants were

    so decked out in sprigs and green branches that it seemed as though a whole forest came marching. The parade signifies defeat for … a hibernal giant whose rule comes to an end when the May festival begins. … Thus when Birnam Wood moves, Macbeth is killed and Malcolm turns to things “which would be newly planted with the time.” The vegetable qualities of the legendary year-king are grafted onto Macbeth's rise and fall.

    (Holland 1960: 37-8)

    The play abounds in images related to the processes of generation that Macbeth and his wife violate. Shakespeare undoubtedly knew (or knew of) the drawing of the “Banquo Tree,” the genealogical tree complete with flowers that accompanied Leslie's 1578 De Origine, Moribus, et Rebus Gestis Scotorum (Bullough 1973: VII: 516). Aligned with its iconography, Scotland under Macbeth is a “grave” where “good men's lives / Expire before the flowers in their cups” (IV.iii.166, 171-2) and his defeat figures a ritual cleansing of the Wasteland: the sterile old king is sacrificed and replaced by the virginal Malcolm whose fertility is yet to be verified while Scotland waits for Banquo's scion, James VI.


Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare are taken from the Riverside edition of the Complete Works, ed. G. B. Evans, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Aristotle (1961) Poetics, trans. K. Telford, Chicago: H. Regnery.

Bachelard, G. (1969) The Poetics of Space, trans. M. Jolas, Boston: Beacon Press.

Belsey, C. (1985) The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama, London: Methuen.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. R. Nice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bullough, G. (1973) Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols, New York: Columbia University Press.

Burke, P. (1978) Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, London: Temple Smith.

Da Matta, R. (1984) “Carnival in Multiple Planes,” in J. J. MacAloon (ed.) Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance, Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Delany, P. (1977) “King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism,” PMLA 92: 429-40.

Dollimore, J. (1989) Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2nd edition, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London: ARK Paperbacks.

Eagleton, T. (1986) William Shakespeare, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Else, G. F. (1967) Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Foucault, M. (1970) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, London: Tavistock.

Foucault, M. (1986) “Of Other Spaces,” trans. J. Miskowiec, Diacritics (Spring): 22-7.

Freud, S. (1950) Totem and Taboo, ed. J. Strachey, New York: Norton.

Ginzburg, C. (1983) The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. J. and A. Tedeschi, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Girard, R. (1978) “To Double Business Bound”: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goody, J. and Watt, I. (1968) “The Consequences of Literacy,” in J. Goody (ed.) Literacy in Traditional Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Greenblatt, S. (1985) “Shakespeare and the Exorcists,” in P. Parker and G. Hartman (eds) Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, London: Methuen.

Heninger, S. K. (1977) The Cosmographical Glass: Renaissance Diagrams of the Universe, San Marino: Huntington Library.

Holland, N. (1960) “Macbeth as Hibernal Giant,” Literature and Psychology 10: 37-8.

Jardine, L. (1983) Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, Sussex: Harvester Press.

Larner, C. (1981) Enemies of God: The Witch-hunt in Scotland, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966) The Savage Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lincoln, B. (1989) Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification, New York: Oxford University Press.

Monter, W. (1983) Ritual, Myth and Magic in Early Modern Europe, Athens: Ohio University Press.

Muir, K. (ed.) (1962) William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Arden Shakespeare, London: Methuen.

Orgel, S. (1975) The Illusion of Power, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Patterson, A. (1989) Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.

Selden, R. (1987) “King Lear and True Need,” Shakespeare Studies 19: 143-69.

Tanner, J. R. (ed.) (1940) Tudor Constitutional Documents a.d. 1485-1603, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, V. (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Underdown, D. (1985) Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

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Alvis, John. “A Little Touch of the Night in Harry: The Career of Henry Monmouth.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 95-125. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

Argues that Hal/Henry's intent throughout the second tetralogy is to repudiate the concept of official, ceremonial monarchy and replace it with the spectacle of the king's personal glory.

Bristol, Michael D. “Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello.Renaissance Drama n.s. XXI (1990): 3-21.

Compares the degradation and punishment of Othello to the carnivalesque social custom of charivari, through which xenophobic and misogynist communities controlled erotic desire and expressed their disapproval of unsuitable marriages.

Cannon, Walter W. “The King's Three Bodies: The Textual King and the Logic of Obedience in Henry V.Upstart Crow 18 (1998): 84-94.

Examines Henry's soliloquy on ceremony in Act IV, scene i of Henry V with respect to the issue of monarchial authority. Cannon proposes that the king's conviction that as God's substitute he is entitled to his subjects' unquestioning subservience is seriously challenged in this scene.

Carroll, William C. “‘The Form of Law’: Ritual and Succession in Richard III.” In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 203-19. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Traces Richard III's repeated assaults on form and ceremony—especially the rituals of birth, marriage, and death—even as he continues to uphold the logic of succession. Carroll argues that, ironically, Richard's frequent professions of the sacramental nature of succession cast serious doubt on its ultimate validity.

Cohen, Eileen Z. “The Visible Solemnity: Ceremony and Order in Shakespeare and Hooker.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 12, no. 2 (summer 1970): 181-95.

Compares Shakespeare's treatment of civil ceremony in the second tetralogy with the Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker's defense of Anglican ritual in Laws of Ecclesiastical Politie.

Cox, Gerard H. “‘Like a Prince Indeed’: Hal's Triumph of Honor in 1 Henry IV.” In Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 130-49. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Suggests that even though chivalric rituals and pageantry are prominent in Henry IV, Part 1, the play demonstrates they are inadequate measures of determining a character's true worth.

Fujita, Minoru. “‘Triumph’ in Richard II.” In Pageantry and Spectacle in Shakespeare, pp. 23-70. Tokyo: The Renaissance Institute, 1982.

Examines the trial by combat between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the deposition scene, and the description of Henry IV's procession through the streets of London in the context of historical accounts of Renaissance chivalric pageantry. Fujita asserts that these episodes, each of which alludes to traditional spectacles of fame and honor, illustrate the debasement of true majesty in Richard II.

Jacobs, Henry E. “The Banquet of Blood and the Masque of Death: Social Ritual and Ideology in English Revenge Tragedy.” Renaissance Papers (1985): 39-50.

Contends that English Renaissance revenge plays consistently link personal vengeance with subversions of social rituals that affirm legitimate order and power and looks briefly at perverted rituals in Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (1592), John Marston's Antonio's Revenge (1602), and Cyril Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedy (1606).

Liebler, Naomi Conn. “‘Thou Bleeding Piece of Earth’: The Ritual Ground of Julius Caesar.Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 175-96.

Argues that in Julius Caesar ceremonial forms have been emptied of their significance. Liebler points out that Rome is undergoing political upheaval as it moves from a republic to a monarchy, and this chaotic situation is reflected in the perversion of the ritual of the Feast of Lupercal that opens the play and in Brutus's misguided attempt to represent Caesar's assassination as a religious sacrifice.

———. “The Mockery King of Snow: Richard II and the Sacrifice of Ritual.” In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 220-39. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Asserts that Richard's desire to uphold the significance of traditional ceremonies—evident, for example, in his ritualistic uncrowning of himself—is overpowered by the movement away from reliance on old beliefs in favor of political expediency.

———. “King of the Hill: Ritual and Play in the Shaping of 3 Henry VI.” In Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, edited by John W. Velz, pp. 31-54. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1996.

Compares the dramatic action of Henry VI, Part 3 to a children's game in which the crown of England becomes a parodic trophy whose possession is constantly shifted from one contestant to another. Liebler views this formalized play as a perversion of ceremony, a kind of anti-ritual that underscores Shakespeare's depiction of the crisis of government.

Martin, Randall. “Elizabethan Civic Pageantry in Henry VI.University of Toronto Quarterly 60, no. 2 (winter 1990-91): 244-64.

Calls attention to the relation between sixteenth-century public rituals and Shakespeare's scenic design in the Henry VI trilogy.

McCoy, Richard C. “‘Thou Idol Ceremony’: Elizabeth I, The Henriad, and the Rites of the English Monarchy.” In Urban Life in the Renaissance, edited by Susan Zimmerman and Ronald F. E. Weissman, pp. 240-66. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

Describes Elizabeth I's successful substitution of civic pageantries for church-ordained rituals to affirm her royal authority. McCoy contends that public stagings of such plays as Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V further undermined the mystery of royal ceremonies by showing how monarchs could manipulate and exploit them.

Neill, Michael. “‘Exeunt with a Dead March’: Funeral Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage.” In Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 153-93. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Characterizes the funerals of Elizabethan nobles, landed gentry, and rich merchants as forms of civic triumph: ostentatious displays that served as both biography and political theater. In this context, Neill discusses the social and political significance of stage funerals in several Shakespearean tragedies and history plays.

Palmer, Barbara D. “Shakespearean Openings with a Flourish: Pageantry as Introduction.” In Entering the Maze: Shakespeare's Art of Beginning, edited by Robert F. Willson, Jr., pp. 27-36. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Examines Shakespeare's innovative conception of using full ensembles with accompanying pageantry as opening structural devices that variously foreshadow or subvert the ensuing dramatic action. In her review of Shakespeare's unconventional “art of beginning a play,” Palmer comments on the first scenes in All's Well That Ends Well, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Winter's Tale.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. “The Degradation of Richard II: An Inquiry into the Ritual Backgrounds.” English Literary Renaissance 7, no. 2 (spring 1977): 170-96.

Highlights analogies between Shakespeare's depiction of Richard II's uncrowning and sixteenth-century traditions surrounding official chivalric, military, and ecclesiastical disgrace. Ranald remarks that common elements in these ceremonies include the stripping away of symbolic clothing and belongings, the divestiture of rights and privileges, and the reduction of the dishonored person to the rank of ordinary men.

Rhome, Frances Dodson. “From the Street to the Stage: Pageantry in the History Plays.” Upstart Crow 5 (fall 1984): 64-74.

Provides a synopsis of the relation between various dramatic techniques of late sixteenth-century civic pageants and scenic elements in Shakespeare's English chronicle plays, with particular reference to the Henry VI trilogy.

Smith, Bruce R. “Pageants into Play: Shakespeare's Three Perspectives on Idea and Image.” In Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 220-46. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Provides an overview, from Love's Labour's Lost to Pericles, of Shakespeare's increasingly complex coordination of pageant and stage devices in his plays.

Willis, Deborah. “The Monarch and the Sacred: Shakespeare and the Ceremony for the Healing of the King's Evil.” In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 147-68. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Discusses references in Macbeth and the late romances, particularly Pericles, to the ceremony in which a monarch cures a diseased subject. Willis highlights the survival of this medieval tradition into the Renaissance, pointing out that both Elizabeth I and James I performed the ritual before court audiences to underscore the supernatural power of sovereignty.

Young, Bruce W. “Ritual as an Instrument of Grace: Parental Blessings in Richard III, All's Well That Ends Well, and The Winter's Tale.” In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 169-200. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Discusses Shakespeare's use of the parental blessing, describing it as “one of the most important and pervasive rituals of Renaissance England.”

Richard Harrier (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Harrier, Richard. “Ceremony and Politics in Richard II.” In Shakespeare: Text, Language, Criticism: Essays in Honor of Marvin Spevack, edited by Bernhard Fabian and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador, pp. 80-97. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms-Weidman, 1987.

[In the following essay, Harrier examines Richard's conduct in Act III, scene iii of Richard II. In the critic's opinion, the king's increasing inability to preserve the ritual show of monarchy is an outward manifestation of his loss of confidence in his entitlement to the throne.]

Interpretation of Richard II has inevitably focused on Richard's shortcomings as a man and a king. The special interest of his dramatic figure derives precisely from the interrelations of his double aspect—the flawed mortality and the ritually endowed divinity. It is the purpose of this essay to pursue their connections in ways that may risk the charge of being speculative.

Although it may be argued that the realizable effects of a live performance should be used as a measure of what academic analysis should propose, I suggest that much can be lost by attempting to reconcile the two. Let performance of a play have its privilege of vivid distortions. In the restrospect of academic forums—the lecture and the essay—we should explore all implications of the poetry in order to redefine the margins of relevance and distracting ingenuity.

One line of argument I wish to develop here is that Richard dooms himself by failing to complete a ritual act he has more than one opportunity to perform. There is considerable irony in this lost possibility, considering Richard's vacillation between stiff dependence upon ceremonial magic and cavalier violation of its forms. The crucial failure occurs in 3.3, after Bullingbrook recovers from his shock that Flint “castle royally is mann'd” (3.3.21).1 At that point Bullingbrook responds with a brilliant oration proposing how he and King Richard “should meet” (54).

Richard's failure to rise to the occasion, to sustain “so fair a show” as he appears to be initiating, has been prepared for in a sequence of scenes and moments we must review. The first and third scenes of the play present a Richard who seems entirely confident in the possession of majesty and grace. The legal process brought by Bullingbrook against Mowbray for the death of Gloucester constrains inventive speech within expected topics of ceremonial rhetoric.

Thus Richard has the advantage of response from the position of both judge and jury. He can playfully and pointedly accuse “one” of the accusers—obviously Bullingbrook—of flattery in wishing him “Many years of happy days” (1.1.20), since it is clear to all that Mowbray is the King's man in this “cause” of high treason. And he can joke about the inconvenience of bloody combat at this point in the calendar: “Our doctors say this is no month to bleed” (157). Even the embarrassment of Mowbray's refusal to play his part in aborting the movement towards bloodshed serves only to reveal a Richard who was “not born to sue, but to command” (196). For, as Richard has already warned Mowbray, “Lions make leopards tame” (174).

Whether Richard's refusal to allow the trial by combat to take its course be a sign of weakness or simply a tactical error will no doubt continue to be debated. It is clear that the decision was reached beforehand with Gaunt's approval and that of the royal council. I take that to be implied by the phrases “good advice” and “party-verdict” which Richard hurls at the old man when grudging against the banishment of his son (1.3.233-4). Perhaps there was already no escape from events. Either the combat eventuated in bloodshed and the risk of more “civil wounds” (128) or the hostile parties had to be sent into exile. It is worth noting that the King fears only that Mowbray and Bullingbrook might combine against him in some foreign place. To obviate that he makes them swear an oath never to “Embrace each other's love in banishment” (184),

Nor never by advised purpose meet
To plot, contrive, or complot any ill
'Gainst us, our state, our subjects, or our land.


With regard to Mowbray, Bullingbrook keeps his oath, but he does combine with others against the King's person and his land. However, by then Bullingbrook has hit upon a witty legalism for just who he is.

What Bullingbrook's behavior and style have suggested to the King up to this point is left largely undefined by Shakespeare, no doubt for good dramatic reasons, since we also, as spectators and readers, must find Bullingbrook's psyche even more puzzling than Richard's. Inevitably, our impression of a relatively free development in the choices made depends upon Shakespeare's ability to compose in a condition of suspended ambivalences. We note that Bullingbrook's indictment of Mowbray in the opening scene is phrased on the level of Biblical grandeur as he assumes the authority of a divine minister to punish Mowbray for shedding Gloucester's blood:

Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth,
To me for justice and rough chastisement.


But the Biblical context should also be a warning to the speaker, were he aware of it, since God pronounced that vengeance would be taken “sevenfold” upon that man who presumed to avenge Abel by slaying Cain.

The King's reply to these words is almost a dismissal: “How high a pitch his resolution soars!” The irony here is difficult to place within the large reaches of humor. No doubt the falcon image does register an awareness of ambition testing the boundaries of natural movement. But there is also the note of pointing to a gesture in bad taste, as if Bullingbrook should be embarrassed for going beyond what the rules of the game would allow as proper to him.

Since Bullingbrook is invoking the royal blood he shares with Richard, the King nicely puts him in his place by acknowledging the kinship while observing how far Bullingbrook is from the throne, “As he is but my father's brother's son” (117), which amounts to a “neighbour nearness” (119). In all of this there is no evidence that Richard feels any guilt or fear of punishment. If he were the sort of character to articulate his thoughts on the matter—and he is not—he could appeal to the cautious and reverent defense offered to the widow of the murdered man in the second scene by Gaunt:

God's is the quarrel, for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caus'd his death, the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.


Here in private Gaunt uses the saving phrase, “if wrongfully.” Gaunt's piety only reinforces one's sense of the audacity resonant in the language of Bullingbrook's accusation speech. Vengeance is the Lord's, and Bullingbrook is usurping the language of God when He said to Cain: “the voyce of thy brothers blood cryeth vnto me from the grounde.”2

Shakespeare prepares for the crucial ceremonial moment in 3.3 by allowing Bullingbrook to combine tradition with invention in the third scene of the first act. After the King and the Earl Marshal have guided the potential combatants through the lines prescribed by chivalry he suddenly makes a request that momentarily suggests his own doubt as to which side God will favor.3

Lord Marshal, let me kiss my sovereign's hand
And bow my knee before his Majesty,
For Mowbray and myself are like two men
That vow a long and weary pilgrimage.
Then let us take a ceremonious leave
And loving farewell of our several friends.


As if Richard cannot hear these words the Earl Marshal transmits the request in simpler language.

What follows is a triumphant descent by Richard, significantly contrasted by his despairing one in the third act:

We will descend and fold him in our arms.
Cousin of Herford, as thy cause is right,
So be thy fortune in this royal fight!
Farewell, my blood, which if to-day thou shed,
Lament we may, but not revenge thee dead.


This moment of perhaps eye-to-eye encounter is one that invites novelistic interpretation, a temptation that should be resisted. I have already argued that Bullingbrook, in giving himself away to grandiloquence, may be harboring fears of retribution. Indeed, why should he be pondering “a long and weary pilgrimage?” Shakespeare, in his authorial capacity, foresees that pilgrimage all the way to the Jerusalem Chamber in which Henry the Fourth will die. Here we surmise one of those points of interaction between poet and dramatic character that are all the more rich for their openness.

Note that the King takes the moral risk of allowing Bullingbrook a victory in this trial by combat if his “cause is right.” Surely this is a sign of Richard's self-righteous assurance, of his conviction that anything he has done or will do will be favored by heaven. I shall postpone further speculation about Bullingbrook's attitude towards the royal mystery until later in this essay.

From the moment that the King hears of Gaunt's impending death to his departure for Ireland, having seized “the plate, coin, revenues, and moveables” (2.1.161) now rightly Bullingbrook's, we observe only an increase in arrogance. Gaunt's denunciation of Richard as having traded the name of King for that of “Landlord” includes a rather subtle legal quibble about deposition as a royal right or punishment:

O had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye
Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons,
From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame,
Deposing thee before thou wert possess'd,
Which art possess'd now to depose thyself.


What is interesting here is that Gaunt speaks of a hypothetical deposition by preventing a coronation ceremony, and one clearly based upon a miraculous foresight. In prophesying that Richard will depose himself, Gaunt does not grant such power to anyone of lower station.4 These words foreshadow what Richard invents as a ceremonial transference of his crown to Bullingbrook, and that “show” is so well done that it leaves Bullingbrook with the feeling of having received full royalty from the King's own hand.

In 3.2, Shakespeare gradually builds to a crisis in the King's psyche from which he does not recover until the last few moments of his life. The dramatic problem here is unusually instructive, because it reveals—upon reflection—the limits of theatrical preparation before a large poetic leap. Richard's posturing is unnerving not only to us but to his supporters, the deeply religious Carlisle and the intimate Aumerle. They are unmistakably shocked by his magical and pointless, that is, “senseless” solicitation of actions on the part of his “gentle earth.” They must be looking at him in a state of wonder when he rebukes their silent disapproval:

Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords,
This earth shall have a feeling, and these stones
Prove armed soldiers, ere her native king
Shall falter under foul rebellion's arms.


The King's consciousness, however, is as much attuned to “the blood of twenty thousand men” (76) as it is to each “glorious angel” (61) he insists God has “in heavenly pay” (60) to fight on his behalf. And he does not finally give in to despair until Scroop informs him that his “uncle York is join'd with Bullingbrook” (200).

These pragmatic considerations, in rhythmic sequence, tend to undermine Richard's assertion of the magical force his royal image will have on the criminal Bullingbrook:

So when this thief, this traitor Bullingbrook,
Who all this while hath revell'd in the night,
Whilst we were wand'ring with the antipodes,
Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day.


However vainglorious these words may seem, it is my contention that they represent all that Richard needs—if he could maintain the “show”—to deal with Bullingbrook's return. Before this scene is completed, however, Richard has lost conviction of his royalty, and with that loss the force to sustain a style adequate to another close confrontation. His appearance in the following scene will therefore lack all the dimensions of a sun-like presence.

The break within Richard has a superb effect on the stage. His lines make for powerful theatre, and it is arguable that they are the best lines in the whole play. In their peculiar quality, however, we can perceive a quantum leap from psychological realism to poetic form. The particular lines I refer to conclude Richard's outburst after he has been told by Scroop that Bushy, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire “have felt the worst of death's destroying wound” (139). The impact of their deaths seems to penetrate Richard as no other event has as yet been able to do. He brushes off Aumerle's inquiry about York's army and delivers twenty-six lines that resonate with his sudden register of death's power over everyone—even over kings (3.2.144-70). These lines are Richard's imaginative re-creation of a morality play in which Death, playing the role of fool or “antic,” allows the king “To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks” (165), but only for a while. Thus we are skillfully drawn into the nightmare Richard is inhabiting.

His conclusion, however, makes another sort of demand upon our imaginations. Indeed, one may find the lines which follow tinged with the deeper magnetism of the incredible:

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence, throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?


In the history of English verse this speech has a special place. The longer first part is more oratorical and impassioned, but it is constructed primarily of monosyllables well within the general stream of English colloquial language. Therefore, the few points of ornament come as awaited emphases of figuration: terms like “monarchize,” “infusing,” and “brass impregnable.” The conclusion is even more straightforward. It achieves that “moral sense of simplicity” we have come to accept as the linguistic correlative of sincerity.5 Thus we get the impression that some secret depth of the King has been sounded by the time the last word has been uttered. In substance, what is being asserted is hard to credit: that common human vulnerability to need and to its sharpest form, death, has destroyed Richard's conviction that he is a king. Or, as he would further assert, any man's ability to “monarchize.” But that is as far as we can go into the mystery of Richard's collapse. There are psychological labels available that would only reduce him to a paradigm to some degree shared by all mankind, and by other dramatic personae, especially King Lear. We learn more about the play by staying within its own limits.

After Scroop has informed Richard that he can expect no help from York, Richard forbids all future talk of comfort and embraces “that sweet way” he was working out “to despair” (3.2.205). The confession of taking pleasure in the process of his own destruction is characteristic of Richard's child-like nature. His ability to act and command has clearly been dissolved into the mist of sounds. It is not surprising, then, that the crux of the problem has sometimes been reduced to the formula: Richard is too much of a poet and not enough a king.6 But the definition of “poet” here implied is post-Romantic rather than Renaissance, if the expression of strong and self-indulgent emotion is to be the defining quality of poetry. Renaissance poetic assumes that poetry can illuminate through a precision of statement and argument. It is not primarily an instrument of personal recollection or the expression of personal feeling. If Shakespeare had not inherited those assumptions his own poetry would have been diminished by more than half of its dimensions. In applying this truth to the play at hand, we should grant Bullingbrook the title of poet also, even though his style is curt and the control over feeling sometimes severe.

As we begin to examine the confrontation in 3.3, let us remember that Richard has already described his body as “deposed” (3.2.150) and has added, “Our lands, our lives, and all are Bullingbrook's,” ending the scene with “From Richard's night to Bullingbrook's fair day.” The reader or spectator is thus prepared for the King's failure in the following scene. But the dramatic issue is not that simple. The crisis is redefined by Bullingbrook himself, since he faces the dilemma of presenting his claim in a way that will escape the charge of seizing the crown.

Bullingbrook knows that he must “play the orator” after he learns from Percy—Hotspur to be—that Flint Castle contains the King, the lords Aumerle and Salisbury, Sir Stephen Scroop and “a clergyman / Of holy reverence,” Carlisle. His speech ex tempore is masterful and familiar enough to be outlined rather than quoted in full (3.3.31-61).

The salient political and psychological point of these lines is the balance of ceremonial obeisance (kneeling) with the alternative use of military force. Since his unauthorized re-appearance in 2.3, Bullingbrook has emphasized that the scope of his demands lies entirely within his legal right to the title and properties of Lancaster. Again Bullingbrook repeats this circumscribed claim, one that even York has been unable to contradict directly. Of course that demand here takes the form of a “proviso,” which, if refused, would be followed by the use of force even to the level of civil war.

But let us focus upon Bullingbrook's promise to kneel “On both his knees” to “kiss King Richard's hand,” bearing of course the royal signet. At the end of this scene he makes good that pledge. To give his gesture a proper style, Bullingbrook orders that no “threat'ning drum” be sounded. Then he concludes with an allegorical characterization of his meeting with the King, assigning himself the natural position of “the yielding water,” fire being the highest and royal element.

His last words are a challenge to Richard's royal style:

Be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water;
The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain
My waters—on the earth, and not on him.
March on, and mark King Richard how he looks.


Bullingbrook is a poet of grammatical ambiguity. The “be” here implies both a condition, “If he truly is,” and a courteous hope, “May he prove to be.” Bullingbrook even concedes the King the right to rage, and rather astonishingly, his own need to weep, all on condition that he be asked to rise from the kneeling position as Lancaster—no longer merely Herford. In 2.3, at his first encounter with York acting as Regent, Bullingbrook went down on his knees but received no decisive confirmation after a severe tongue-lashing.

Despite Scroop's report to Richard that his uncle York has “join'd with Bullingbrook,” York has only declared that he will “remain as neuter” (2.3.159), since he cannot “mend the issue.” But York's problem is not simply one of lacking a police force large enough to “attach” Bullingbrook. For Bullingbrook has already brilliantly challenged the authority of any magistrate to arrest him as a man who is still under the sentence of banishment. As he puts it:

As I was banish'd, I was banish'd Herford,
But as I come, I come for Lancaster.


If, as the director of a performance, one were to choose the exact moment for Bullingbrook to rise from his knees by his own volition, these lines would best serve.

Thus Bullingbrook has independently asserted that he is not the same man who was banished; and, as even York cannot deny, he has every right to be confirmed in the title of Lancaster, which is inescapably the royal duty. In Act 1 Bullingbrook could be raised from the ground by the King. Here he may rise by his own authority. At the end of 3.3 the King will invite him to rise as high as the royal crown.

When King Richard, as Bullingbrook carefully terms him in 3.3, looks down from the walls of Flint Castle, his image is described by two observers, Bullingbrook and York. Bullingbrook's words may be fairly described as a conventional portrait of majesty as “the blushing discontented sun.” York follows with phrases both hopeful and apprehensive:

Yet looks he like a king! Behold, his eye,
As bright as is the eagle's, lightens forth
Controlling majesty. Alack, alack for woe,
That any harm should stain so fair a show!


The word “show” here is central and worth some consideration since Shakespeare's usage has implications far beyond the modern reduction of “show” to the superficial and spectacular. Because he is physically powerless, Richard's presence in this crisis must be in one sense merely a show, but in another it could be the ultimate realization of royalty as an honored and all-powerful presence. The challenge to the King here is to make good his words at the opening of 3.2, when he asserts that “the searching eye of heaven,” his royalty, will make the traitor Bullingbrook unable to “endure the sight of day.”

As the King begins to speak no one is kneeling.7 The stage directions in the Riverside text seem to suggest that only Northumberland is close enough to the castle to be in the royal presence, and Richard's rebuke is therefore addressed to him. At this moment in the action York would surely be kneeling if he thought it appropriate, as would Bullingbrook, since he has made it a special point in his speech. Richard should break this impasse with an assertion of his presence. He should descend of his own free will and “progress” calmly up to Bullingbrook until he is forced to make good his promise to kneel. Thus the “show” of royalty would be sustained and Richard would himself be facing the decision of granting Bullingbrook his title of Lancaster.

After some “rage” the King would have to ask Bullingbrook to rise as Lancaster or, as he later suggests to Aumerle, give “Defiance to the traitor and so die.” But a stylish and positive execution of bestowing on Bullingbrook what is rightfully his would indeed give Richard the time he needs. That would indeed be playing for time, as Aumerle later suggests. But this neglected ceremony is only a necessary subtext for what is there. We are not surprised that Richard cannot make a royal “show” of the occasion. We are asked to become absorbed in his inadequate substitute for a sun-like persona.

As I have already attempted to argue, Shakespeare has left some margin of doubt about Bullingbrook's thoughts. I do not mean to imply that there is reason to wonder whether Bullingbrook would not be as good as his word. Rather, we are left puzzled as to Bullingbrook's conception of the royal condition and whether the use of force could put him or anyone fully in possession of it. We have heard Bullingbrook's appreciative weighing of royal power when Richard reduces his banishment from ten years to six, “such is the breath of kings” (1.3.215). And at the end of that scene his parting words seem to reveal a mind that cannot entertain the possibility of an intellectual realm that could dominate sensory experience:

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucusus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?
O no, the apprehension of the good
Gives but the greater feeling to the worse.


This is Bullingbrook's reply to Gaunt's fatherly advice to rise above the pain of banishment. As Gaunt puts it:

For gnarling sorrow hath less power to bite
The man that mocks at it and sets it light.


The Bullingbrook we see here is somewhat like the grief-stricken Richard, and in his sorrow he does not consider the possibility of drawing upon the spiritual resources that would sustain royalty.

Had Bullingbrook in the course of the action been forced to simply seize the crown, the state of his mind could have become central to the play. As it is, Bullingbrook's psyche makes a fascinatingly vague ground upon which Richard's emerges into verbalization. Bullingbrook is fortunate enough to have the King deliver the crown to him in what appears to be a coronation ceremony invented to deal with Richard's personal sense of loss. Whether or not Bullingbrook harbors a deep sense of awe for royalty, he is bound to give that impression. Since he is taking the utmost precaution to avoid the accusation of seizing the crown, he must find it a particularly delicate moment when Richard suddenly thrusts it upon him.

Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;
Here cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.


The Riverside text does not indicate whether or not Bullingbrook does cooperate by holding his side of the crown. I would suggest that he declines to do so. Withholding his hand would re-inforce his somewhat pained reply, “I thought you had been willing to resign.” Bullingbrook thus succeeds in giving the impression that he will receive the crown from the King's own hand, and that it is being delivered with the full grace of God's anointed.

It is important to recall that, at the end of 3.3, after Richard has talked himself down “like glist'ring Phaeton,” Bullingbrook for the last time went down on his knees before the King. There again, Richard could have asked him to rise as Lancaster rather than willfully raising him as high as his own head. In so doing and in even taking the initiative of deciding that they should both go to London, as if reading Bullingbrook's intent, Richard is instinctively feeling his way towards making his own deposition an accomplished fact.

There also Shakespeare suggests in an almost offhand way that Richard will be unable to bring the pressure of his countenance upon Bullingbrook. In addressing the defiantly erect Northumberland, Richard gives him a message for Bullingbrook with a tell-tale interjection:

Tell Bullingbrook—for yon methinks he stands—
That every stride he makes upon my land
Is dangerous treason.


If the King cannot fully acknowledge, even from that distance, that Bullingbrook is standing there, he is not likely to enhance his awareness by physical approach. But Richard's problem cannot be simplified by concluding that he cannot overcome a streak of cowardice. The root of the King's indecision must lie deeper, in his refusal to acknowledge that his position in the nature of things is bound to the same rules that guarantee Herford's right to become Lancaster, a right he is duty-bound to confirm.

Thus he determines to unburden himself totally of all responsibility for being at the apex of the rituals which give an every-day reality to “sequence and succession.” First he sends Northumberland as messenger to Bullingbrook, going so far as to declare that Bullingbrook “is right welcome hither” and that “all the number of his fair demands / Shall be accomplish'd without contradiction” (3.3.122-4). But to Aumerle, privately, he expresses his sense of debasement at not making a better show of it, “to look so poorly and to speak so fair.” Now his impulse is to “send / Defiance to the traitor, and so die” (128-30).

Ironically, Aumerle advises that they “fight with gentle words, / Till time lend friends.” Since the semantic dimensions of Time have been given an almost allegorical force in the play, the appeal to time here, which Richard has violated beyond repair, signals the domination of events by a providential authority. But Shakespeare again places the dramatic accent upon the King's sense of private grief:

O God, O God, that e'er this tongue of mine
That laid the sentence of dread banishment
On yon proud man should take it off again
With words of sooth! O that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!


These words represent the completion of a process that began with the challenging lines: “subjected thus / How can you say to me I am a king?” (3.2.176-7)

It is important to realize that Shakespeare keeps the emphasis upon Richard's dilemma as he states it here, and that he does not take it any deeper until 5.5. The King of this play is not an introspective character who might, say in a scene alone with Aumerle or in soliloquy, turn some analytical beam upon himself. Nowhere does the King directly address himself to his inner substance. He expresses only conflict in terms of frustration and grief. Once his mortal limitations are thrust upon him he is occupied only with his moment to moment embarrassment on how to conduct himself, a king and no king, and how to finally divest himself of his royalty. That accounts for some of the critical dissatisfaction with the figure at the center of the play, and why he has been thought too much poet and too little king. As he descends into the “base court,” now at the request of Bullingbrook and not of his own free royal will, he can only compare himself to “glist'ring Phaeton.” The allusion is a measure of how desperate he is for self-styling authority. Bullingbrook, on his knees, is once again willing to settle for his own but ready for as much as his “true service shall deserve” from the king's “love” (199). With perfect deftness Bullingbrook awaits the now inevitable, even to the point of making Richard decide to proceed to London.

At his entrance in the deposition scene Richard announces that he has not sufficiently “shook off the regal thoughts” he needs to unburden himself of, but his new image of himself is that of divine scapegoat, accusing those in attendance of doing to him what “Judas did to Christ” (4.1.162-70). That Shakespeare means these words to be taken seriously is shown by what he makes of them in the experience of York. For, as we learn later in 5.2, York has become the subject of Bullingbrook because he now views Richard as the divinely appointed scapegoat in a necessary development of English history.

But since we are still in the dark as to York's thinking, it is an effective stroke to have him invite the “Great Duke of Lancaster” to ascend the throne as “Henry, fourth of that name!” (107, 112). The focus of the play has been so intensely upon Richard and his unburdening that we can hardly expect Shakespeare to turn aside to York's change from “neuter” to a new commitment of loyalty. If Shakespeare seems to be risking the impression of allowing Richard one more inflated self-characterization he more than compensates for it later in York's account of his reaction to the humiliation Richard suffered at his entry into London.

          No man cried “God save him!”
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head,
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combating with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience,
That had not God, for some strong purpose, steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted,
And barbarism itself have pitied him.
But heaven hath a hand in these events,
To whose high will we bound our calm contents.
To Bullingbrook are we sworn subjects now,
Whose state and honor I for aye allow.


Richard's head is still “sacred” but it is a head that must be sacrificed in the procession of English monarchy that reaches its apex in the career of the usurper's son, Prince Hal and Henry V. I refer now to Shakespeare's conception of the myth dominating the second tetralogy and not to York's private vision. But York's conversion is so complete that he insists upon the execution of his own son Aumerle, when he proves to be a potential assassin of the new Henry. Again, the allusive background of all this is Biblical, recalling the offered sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac as proof of his subjection to the Lord. York, after Gaunt the reverent conservative of the play, owes his allegiance finally to God and his chosen minister.

The conclusion of Richard II works out the interaction of ceremonially constituted authority with brutal violence. In 5.5 Richard undergoes a rapid series of developments that culminate in his surprising leap from passive victim to royal warrior. Before he is slain by Exton he seizes a weapon and kills two of his would-be murderers. That action is surprising, but what precedes it does convincingly outline the introspective descent into a condition of nothingness that could trigger a sudden emergence.

As the scene opens Richard is engaged in a moody and obscure attempt to understand all the roles men may be forced to play in the world outside his prison. He appears to have reached some sort of resolution of the problem by noting the common fate of all men in misfortune and mortality.

          But what e'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas'd, till he be eas'd
With being nothing.


The tone of these lines is in unmistakable contrast to the agonized “Ay, no, no ay; for I must nothing be” (4.1.201) of the deposition scene. Also, we recall the melodramatic response Richard showed to the deaths of his closest friends and flatterers.

With the penetration of music into his cell, however, he is deeply disturbed by the realization of how he wasted time: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” His feelings reach a peak close to hysteria before he recovers with a sense of gratitude towards those playing the music, who alone in the world seem to be trying to bring him some relief.

When the Groom of his stable enters he jokingly rejects the title of “royal prince.” But it is the behavior of his personal mount, “roan Barbary,” as described by the Groom, that precipitates the crucial leap in the psyche of the King. In railing at the horse for proudly carrying Bullingbrook, Richard seems to be reverting to the magical view of his power expressed in 3.2, on his return from Ireland. But with these words he finally grasps and exorcizes the unnaturalness of his passivity:

          I was not made a horse,
And yet I bear a burthen like an ass,
Spurr'd, gall'd, and tir'd by jauncing Bullingbrook.


Two grace notes fittingly introduce Richard's violent end. He asks the Groom to leave him as a gesture of love. Then he demands that the ceremonial tasting of his food be carried out. When that is denied he knows that the food is poisoned and goes into action. Appropriately, however, he grants Herford his title as he curses him and his keeper:

The devil take Henry of Lancaster and thee!
Patience is stale, and I am weary of it.


While falling to the ground Richard re-asserts his royalty, which is acknowledged by Exton, the murderer. And Exton's acknowledgement of manly qualities in Richard, “As full of valure as of royal blood!”, puts a chivalrous period to the agony the King has undergone and overcome.8

When we weigh Shakespeare's presentation of Richard II's tragic dissolution against his portrayals of Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III, the gain in psychological complexity can hardly be overestimated. The ineffectuality of the child-monarch Henry VI never becomes a medium for the exploration of his psyche. His enslavement to Queen Margaret is worked out in the conventional patterns of courtly love. His lamentations for the sufferings of his people or for a patriot like good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester are only occasional and soon exhausted. Further, in three plays devoted to his reign the dramatic interest is focused more upon contending barons like Talbot, the Duke of York, king-maker Warwick, and the Machiavellian Duke of Gloucester.

Before Richard II, none of the monarchs reveals any of the deeper human capacities that may sustain the burdens of a ceremonial power capable of ruling an entire nation. Of course, that imaginative subject does not dominate Shakespeare's work until the second tetralogy is begun. It is merely a haunting presence in the background, the England addressed in an apostrophe by a neutral figure such as Salisbury in 2 Henry VI. Even the more calculating Richard III presides over the destruction of a family and the state, and his only moment of inner conflict occurs in the form of a nightmare. In the daylight he knows no fear. His cynical and mocking attitude towards the implied divinity of the monarchy adds a strong note of grim comedy to the last act of the civil wars.

The contrast between Richard of Gloucester and Bullingbrook may further define a significant aspect in Shakespeare's treatment of royalty as a human condition as well as an institution. Bullingbrook's careful ambiguity of procedure avoids the charge of atheistical power-grabbing. Bullingbrook may be presumptuous, but he is never a mocker of a possible divinity behind the crown he finally receives from the King's own hands.

A phrase from King John, perhaps written as early as 1590-1, points to the central object of Shakespeare's political imagination in the two tetralogies. In his rebuke of Hubert for the supposed murder of Arthur, King John invokes “the meaning / Of dangerous majesty” (4.2.212-3). Shakespeare's earlier plays show a growing capacity to dramatize the danger that majesty has both for the possessor of it and for those who would intrude upon its ambience. The figure of King John himself displays only a sense of blustering confusion that transfers power to others such as Hubert and the Bastard son of Coeur-de-Lion. The latter character begins the play as a cynical adventurer and ends it as a patriot whose moral life began when he was touched by the mystery of a royal presence, the fallen Prince Arthur, who somehow represents all of England.

The Life and Death of King John is a pastiche of rhetorical debates and set speeches, but it powerfully suggests the issues which are given their first analytical treatment in The Tragedy of Richard II. The weight of public responsibility on a national scale, borne with increased concern by Shakespeare's moral imagination, emerges as the drama of an individual royal person. Fundamentally different as they are, Richard II, through his disintegration, makes possible the finely detailed unfolding—or is it development?—of Prince Hal.


  1. My greatest debt in this essay is to the edition of the play by Peter Ure (London, 1956). I am aware of no fundamentally different view of the play since Ure's work was published, although there have of course been different emphases. My suggestion of an unperformed ritual in 3.3 is simply a more specific application of commonly held views about Bullingbrook's right to the title of Lancaster.

  2. Quoted from The Geneva Bible: a Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison, 1969), Gen. 4, 10.

  3. On the pilgrimage motif see James Black, “Henry IV's Pilgrimage,” ShQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 34 (1983), 18-26.

  4. See Clayton G. MacKenzie, “Paradise and Paradise Lost in Richard II,ShQ, 37 (1986), 318-39.

  5. I believe this potent phrase was invented by Richard F. Jones, but I have been unable to trace its exact source in his writing. Similar to this formulation is his note on “moral distrust of eloquent writing.” See The Triumph of the English Language (Stanford, 1953), p. 253, n. 34, and also p. 304, n. 23.

  6. See Peter Ure, ed., King Richard II, pp. lxix, lxxviii-lxxix.

  7. Shakespeare makes fundamental changes from his sources in this sequence. Holinshed reported that Northumberland and his colleagues did kneel before the King. Froissart said that Bullingbrook actually “entered in” Flint Castle “and persuaded Richard to go with him to London.” Still more significant is the character of the historical Richard, who was “capable of long and patient deception.” See the New Variorum of The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, ed. Matthew W. Black (Philadelphia, 1955), pp. 206, 216, and 221 in the notes.

  8. I owe a large debt of re-assurance to the clear-sightedness and erudition of Larry S. Champion in his Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories (Athens, Ga., 1980), especially to Chapter 3 and the elegantly concise notes.

Naomi Conn Liebler (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Liebler, Naomi Conn. “The Ritual Groundwork.” In Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Genre, pp. 51-111. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Liebler examines the way ritual actions in Richard II are honored, abruptly curtailed, subverted, or ignored. The critic focuses on the joust between Bolingbroke and Mowbray at the opening of the play, the formal deposition of Richard at Westminster, and the continuing degradation of the sacred bonds of kinship.]

“What is a ceremony?” I asked. “It is a proper way to behave. You do this and that, so the gods do not punish you,” said Amah.

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

Tragedy is part of a genealogy of related encodings that begins in ritual, myth, and folklore, whose interests are the same and whose vestiges remain visible even in the most complex and sophisticated plays. Since drama is communal production, “the critical intensification of collective life … and the possibility it creates for action and initiative” (Bristol 1985: 3), we can expect to find in it the expression of concerns that matter most urgently to the population that produces it. In Shakespearean tragedy, where the protagonists, along with any number of their communities, are destroyed, we find that sociopolitically important rituals have been honored in the breach, that is, they have been perverted or ignored. The community's need for ritual redress is misconstrued or neglected, and, as the Prince says at the end of Romeo and Juliet, “All are punished” (V.iii.295).

Ritual is the formal structuring or ordering of the life of any community that seeks to perpetuate itself. The definition of ritual, like that of tragedy, is problematized first of all by variations across different disciplines and disputes among proponents within a given discipline (e.g., anthropology), and further, by a widespread casual application of the term within and outside the academy to refer to any structured or repetitive behavior by either individuals or groups. “Any analytic system that cannot (or does not) discriminate between performances of Hamlet, the State Opening of Parliament, and the Mass is wasting our time by trivializing the study of social behavior” (Goody 1977: 28-9). Repetition is an important formal property of ritual, an imitation of “the rhythmic imperatives of the biological and physical universe, thus suggesting a link with the perpetual processes of the cosmos. It thereby implies permanence and legitimacy of what are actually evanescent cultural constructs” (Moore and Myerhoff 1977: 8). But repetition alone does not identify or define ritual. Collective agreement and belief in its efficacy for cultural and physical survival are more significant hallmarks. Regularly repeated conventional behaviors or obsessive-compulsive repetitions in the domain of psychiatry are not rituals. Beyond those distinctions, there is little agreement among sociologists and anthropologists on what ritual is and is not: Durkheimians separate sacred from mundane; others argue that secular ritual is an equally compelling counterpart to religious ritual; still others attempt to distinguish ritual from ceremony and custom from tradition (Moore and Myerhoff 1977: 21-2). Most recent anthropological studies agree, at least, that ritual is social action requiring “the organized cooperation of individuals, directed by a leader or leaders” recognizing a “correct, morally right pattern that should be followed in any particular performance” (LaFontaine 1985: 11-12). It is prescriptive, that is, it must be done (but not necessarily by the total community), and its structure is modeled either directly or inversely on that of the community concerned (LaFontaine 1985: 12; T. S. Turner 1977: 61-2). It is indistinguishable from a community's sense of its own complicated identity. As Catherine Bell has recently argued,

ritual systems do not function to regulate or control the systems of social relations, they are the system, and an expedient rather than perfectly ordered one at that. In other words, the more or less practical organization of ritual activities neither acts upon nor reflects the social system; rather, these loosely coordinated activities are constantly differentiating and integrating, establishing and subverting the field of social relations. … Insofar as they establish hierarchical social relations, they are also concerned with distinguishing local identities, ordering social differences, and controlling the contention and negotiation involved in the appropriation of symbols.

(1992: 130)

Actions that are communally significant (the core of Aristotle's concept of tragedy) are marked by practices that link the group's past to its present and to its future. In traditional cultures, such practices operated comprehensively in the ordinary life of the community, whereas in modern cultures they operate in distinctly separated areas of life (Douglas 1966: 40). Modern ritual, both ecclesiastic and social, is separated out from daily concerns. The putative “advancements” of industry and technology have enabled us to compartmentalize and manage what we need for survival.1 In traditional cultures, that management was ensured by ritual, without which survival was considered to be doubtful if not altogether impossible. As a way toward “understanding” Shakespeare, we sometimes try to see his culture as an image, an early pattern, of our own: the term “early modern,” which suggests “forward-looking” and “anticipating the modern,” has replaced “Renaissance” (the rebirth of interest in the distant past) in many recent discussions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century culture. Though both rubrics denote epistemic change, it is worth remembering that while it initiated what we now know as industry and technology, Shakespeare's England, both rural and urban, had not yet jettisoned all of its links to its immediate preindustrial past. Pestilence and drought, however abetted by such political and economic (that is, human) interventions as land enclosures and gerrymandered parish boundaries, could still wreak havoc with systems of economic and personal survival on the farms, and drive up prices in the cities. Natural phenomena, as well as human behavior that fell outside the domain of acceptability and management, were the constitutive conditions that called for ritual redress. The continuities of tradition, expressed in ritual practices, reminded people that they lived in a universe larger than individual selves, local events, and personal satisfactions.

On this view, Roger Caillois identifies “two complimentary universes” for religious man: the profane, “in which he can act without anxiety or trepidation, but in which his actions only involve his superficial self” and the sacred, “in which a feeling of deep dependency controls, contains, and directs each of his drives, and to which he is committed unreservedly” (1959: 19). The dialectical opposition between the two is “a genuinely intuitive concept. We can describe it, analyze it into its elements, and theorize about it. But it is no more within the power of abstract language to define its unique quality than to define a sensation” (1959: 20).

Caillois's description of the sacred underpins much of Shakespearean tragedy in the shadows, echoes, and vestiges of ritual that appear, often overtly, in the action of the plays. This is more than a matter of language, although language is a frequent vehicle of expression. The symbolic content of much of social reality is “verbally non-retrievable information. … Language and culture are quite different sorts of codes and there is no easy and immediate way of translating from one into the other” (Aijmer 1987: 4). But when language supports and is supported by the specific action of the drama, it is more than metaphor, figurative decoration, or a prod to the intellect. Combined with specifically ritualistic action, the words and actions of Shakespeare's tragic characters reflect the plays' suspension in the dialectic Caillois describes. His point about the ineffable quality of the relation between sacred and profane applies to the powerful affect of the relation between community and hero. In Shakespearean tragedy, the community's commitment to the sacred,2 its “deep dependency,” is threatened by a crisis whose source and embodiment the community assigns to the hero. The community's drive to survive its crisis emerges as an urgent need to kill its hero-scapegoat. Caillois's concept of “two complimentary universes for religious man” applies equally to the Elizabethan audience whose religious concerns were thoroughly infused with secular interests. This interweaving is by no means immediately clear at all points, even to the community that animates it. As Barbara Myerhoff notes,

All rituals are paradoxical and dangerous enterprises, the traditional and improvised, the sacred and secular. Paradoxical because rituals are conspicuously artificial and theatrical, yet designed to suggest the inevitability and absolute truth of their messages. Dangerous because when we are not convinced by a ritual, we may be aware of ourselves as having made them up, then on to the paralyzing realization that we have made up all our truths; our ceremonies, our most precious conceptions and convictions—all are mere invention.

(1978: 86)

Rituals are containers that shape and reveal the contours of a culture's collective values (Myerhoff 1978: 86). Through precise, regular, repetitive, and predictable formal ritual practice members of a given culture clarify and reiterate those values, most urgently when they seem because of some real or impending crisis to be in question or to have been obscured altogether. Changes in government or impending changes to any level of the sociopolitical structure are the situations that most commonly revive interest in ritual; not coincidentally, these are also the most common situations illustrated in Shakespearean tragedy. The complexities and ambiguities of Elizabethan culture summoned just such clarification during Shakespeare's lifetime. And we can fully expect to find evidence of that summons embedded in the drama of the period, “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time” (Hamlet II.ii.524).

Ritual processes are difficult to define because they operate in a domain that defies semantic anchorage. They call for belief, but this may be more a matter of conviction than of cognition. Ambiguity in word or gesture may be

glossed, even celebrated, then transcended in ritual performances. Through ritual we organize our understandings and dramatize our fundamental conceptions … rearranging our fundamental assumptions in the course of rituals themselves. Rituals begin with a cultural problem, stated or unstated, and then work various operations upon it, arriving at … reorganizations and reinterpretations of the elements that produce a newly meaningful whole. Achieving the appropriate shift in consciousness is the work of ritual.

(Myerhoff 1982: 128-9)

The origins of ritual behavior are usually unrecoverable; indeed, “in some societies there is no tradition of exegesis or discussion; … questions may even be frowned on” (LaFontaine 1985: 12). Understanding complex ritual operations without collapsing important distinctions into meaningless generalizations requires comprehension of what Ronald Grimes has described as two different ritual strategies, “superstructuring” and “deconstructing” ritual performances. The former is a mode of “symbolic amplification,” expansive, sometimes inversive, “magnifying and turning a culture's good, virtuous, proper side to public view”: this is the mode commonly understood by the term “celebration.” The latter is a negative mode of “symbolic stripping” which foregrounds “the under, down, dark, unstructured, or emergent side of culture” (Grimes 1982: 273-4). “Superstructuring” and “deconstruction” in this sense also distinguish comic from tragic drama. Each constitutes a separate “ritual fiction.” The object of such a fiction

is not merely to reflect the cultural status quo but to transform it in a moment of specially concentrated time. … [Rituals and dramas] are not practice for some more real kind of action, say, pragmatic or economic action, nor are they sublimations for some remembered or more desirable action. In a celebratory moment the ritual action is a deed in which the symbols do not merely point, mean, or recall but embody fully and concretely all that is necessary for the moment.

(Grimes 1982: 252)

The specific subject of Grimes's essay is a performance during the Santa Fe Fiesta, but the principles he outlines apply equally well to any cultural performance. The “deconstruction” he identifies is not the nihilism of certain post-modern French theoretical practice; instead it unpacks the layers of fictional expression to locate underneath it and reiterate not indeterminacy or meaninglessness but rather something very real and significant for participating members of the community: the foundation of values upon which that community developed. Moreover, as Grimes says, rituals

are not only embedded in social processes, they also process actors, things, spaces, and times. Furthermore, they are in process; they develop and decline. So one should not too quickly summarize the essence of some type of ritual (say, celebration) without noting … the social processes surrounding ritual; the work of processing which a ritual does; and the process of change which a ritual undergoes.

(1982: 274)

Ritual in performance therefore does not merely remind its audience/participants of its significance as a purely intellectual or moral exercise; as a functioning component of the performance it transforms its agents and its auditors during the course of the performance in which it occurs, just as it would in a formal, liturgical setting such as a Mass.

The “under, down, dark, unstructured, or emergent side of culture” is also the subject of tragedy. As a cultural performance embodying ritual action, it is not a marker or a prompt for another kind of action; it is itself a complete action. It tells a story, a “ritual fiction,” for the story's own sake. By mediating fictionalized action and the “real” or re-cognized world that operates before and after the performance, ritual performance clarifies and reaffirms the cultural values of the audience/participants. Tragedy “deconstructs,” in Grimes's sense, the cultural properties of the audience/participants and brings these up from underneath the historical and mundane layers of experience that conceal them between performances: the mask of performance, as it were, unmasks the cultural substratum. Such disclosure occurs not discursively or analytically, but in a flash. At the conclusions of such performances, “entropy is a fundamental law, and therefore whatever is achieved ritually begins to erode in the very moment of its success” (Grimes 1982: 252).


Because of this entropic law, rituals must always be repeated, regularly and systematically. Their efficacy does not last long. Neither does that of theatrical performance, and for the same reason, the flash of specific tragic performance does not ignite revolution and anarchy. From Plato through Gosson (1579) and Stubbes (1583), down to the present time, critics of the drama have been interested in the relation between rebellion and performance, but no clear interpretation emerges. One of the most infamous examples of theater pressed into partisan service—the staging of Richard II in February 1601 on the eve of the Essex rebellion—occurred to support a plot already under way. The play did not inspire the rebellion, nor did it engender one on the occasion of its original performance some four to six years earlier.

Noting Elizabeth I's famous remark about the play's performance “40 times in open streets and houses,” Stephen Greenblatt asks, “can ‘tragedy’ be a strictly literary term when the Queen's own life is endangered by the play?” (1982 [ed.]: 4).3 By decontextualizing Elizabeth's remark, Greenblatt implies that she was responding immediately to the performance of 5 February 1601. But in fact the remark was made much later, in a conversation recorded by the antiquary William Lambard, Keeper of the Records of the Tower. Reviewing the entire set of Tower documents, Elizabeth came to those from the reign of Richard II, and said, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” Lambard answered tactfully, “Such a wicked imagination was determined and attempted by a most unkind Gent. the most adorned creature that ever your Majestie made,” to which Elizabeth replied, “He that will forget God, will also forget his benefactors; this tragedy was played 40 times in open streets and houses” (Albright 1927: 692; Heffner 1930: 771; Neale 1957: 398). The conversation continued, “until an explanation prompted another reflection: ‘In those days force and arms did prevail; but now the wit of the fox is everywhere on foot, so as hardly a faithful or virtuous man may be found’” (Neale 1957: 398). This exchange took place on 4 August 1601, six months after the “dangerous” performance (which proved far more dangerous to Essex than to Elizabeth), and as the queen's further remarks indicate, reflected on the general tenor of politics “in those days” (i.e., in Richard's time) as compared with “now.” The threat posed by the performance itself cannot have been perceived, at least by the queen, as very immediate. It was Lambard who made the reference to Essex; there is perhaps a careful distinction to be made between the queen's own perceptions and her awareness of the analogy in the minds of her subjects (Albright 1927: 691).

The ambiguously understood “danger” of Shakespeare's play resides in large part in its “deposition” scene, whose original performative impact remains unknown. There are actually two “deposition” scenes. The first is III.iii.144-77, at Flint Castle before Northumberland as Bolingbroke's emissary. The second is IV.i.162-318, the formal deposition before the Parliament, and is the one usually referred to as “the” deposition scene. Although this second deposition scene was not printed until the fourth quarto of 1608, five years after Elizabeth's death, it may have been performed at least once by the Chamberlain's Men, and if the queen's own report was accurate, “40 times,” evidently without incident of rebellion. If, like the Essex conspirators, Elizabeth saw a threat to her rule in the play's representations of deposition, this could not have been a widespread association or more than an afterthought; otherwise, presumably, the play would not have been performed “40 times in open streets and houses” with apparent impunity. Moreover, it may not have been any particular scenes, but rather the play's whole representation, that prompted Elizabeth's response.

So much has been made of the queen's remark in connection with Shakespeare's play that a corollary situation has been obscured.4 In 1599, John Hayward's The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV was printed and dedicated to Essex. The dedication was added after the printing had been licensed and was deleted by orders of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but not before some five to six hundred copies had been sold. The book was extremely popular, with another six hundred copies sold after the deletion, and demand continued even after a second printing was suppressed (Albright 1927: 701; Guy 1988: 447-8). Despite the fact that the title pointed to Henry IV, the principal subject matter of this popular book was the reign and deposition of Richard II. Bacon noted in the “Essay Concerning the Earl of Essex” that Elizabeth explicitly found the book “a seditious prelude to put into the people's heads boldness and faction, [and] said she had good opinion that there was treason in it” (quoted in Albright 1927: 700). The charges against Essex at his trial in 1601 included his use of Hayward's book, “no sooner published but the Earl, knowing hundreds of them to be dispersed … has confessed that he had the written copy with him to peruse 14 days plotting how he might become another Henry IV” (quoted in Albright 1927: 704). For unknown reasons, but perhaps through the influence of the Lord Chamberlain, or perhaps because the queen's wrath was focused upon Hayward's book (Heffner 1930: 771), Shakespeare's company and their play managed to evade suppression.

The latter-day attribution, adaptation, or interpretation of a Shakespearean performance should not be mistaken for its original, unrecoverable intent (Marcus 1988: 42). The current critical interest in identifying in Shakespeare's plays an array of specific political mirrors ignores the capacity of these mirrors to reflect and refract each other and turn the theater into a fun-house: the critical debate then becomes its own end and its own self-perpetuating subject. There is no evidence that any change to the Elizabethan or Jacobean sociopolitical structure occurred consequent (or even immediately subsequent) to the performance of any of Shakespeare's plays. If they were indeed pressed into subversive service, that subversion, like the Essex plot, failed.

This does not deny a political discourse to Shakespearean tragedy; the shaping of these plays, and in particular their incorporation of selected ritual elements, reveals a dialectic that is unmistakably political. The deposition scenes in Richard II, for example, reverse the rites by which the king is invested; their “undoing” in effect deconstructs or anatomizes the process of investiture, arguably for the purpose of “reconstructing” it. It is the interpretation of the dialectic, not its presence within a text or a performance, that is subject to debate. Because the design and application of ritual require communal agreement, the inclusion of ritual elements within a play's action marks that play's concern with how, by whom, and for whom, such agreement is negotiated. When a play such as Richard II or Julius Caesar performs the breakdown of communal accord, it reveals the conditions necessary for such accord, the consequences of its breakdown, and the potential for a new and perhaps different accord.

Richard II opens with an aborted ritual, the joust between Bolingbroke and Mowbray whose cancellation appears to illustrate Richard's inability to rule: “We were not born to sue but to command; / Which … we cannot do to make you friends” (I.i.196-7). The joust is (or would have been) one of several ritual events depicted in the play whose close observation mark the normative relationship of king and state but here, in Richard's crisis of kingship, are aborted or evacuated of meaning. Close examination of those rituals and of the way Richard handles them in his crisis reveals a complex portrait of the king as one who attempts to hold on to certain aspects of a traditional order while violating others. Since that order is itself in the process of change, Richard participates in but does not control the destruction of tradition and, at the same time, of himself. Responsibility for the monarchic disorder that governs this play devolves on other heads besides the king's.

The ritual function of the joust and its sequent events can be understood in terms outlined by Victor Turner. When a “norm-governed social life is interrupted by the breach of a rule controlling one of its salient relationships,” a state of crisis results, which splits the community into contending factions. Redress is undertaken by those in authority, usually in the form of ritualized action, either legal, religious, or military. The aim of such action is to defuse the conflict, and then, barring immediate regress to crisis, to reconcile the conflicting parties through the outcome of the ritualized action. Failing that, the alternative solution is a “consensual recognition of irremediable breach” and a “spatial separation of the parties.” If neither solution works, the state of crisis prevails “until some radical restructuring … sometimes by revolutionary means, is undertaken” (V. Turner 1982: 92).

Richard's management of the joust in the play's sources, radically contracted in Shakespeare's version, shows a complicated dynamic in which the king is an actor in the monarchic crisis, but not its instigator. Both historically and in Shakespeare's representation, Richard's reign was a troubled time in which old orders gave way to new. It is frivolous to attribute the toppling of whole social and political structures to one individual, even to a king, let alone to one who is removed or removes himself from the throne. In the patterned terms Turner uses to describe such crises, the management of ritual in the play reveals a range of social and political meanings in the changes that occur.

The play begins, of course, in medias res. The initiating breach was the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, in which Richard may or may not have been implicated, and for which Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason. Mowbray counters with a similar charge. The ritual of trial by combat was prescribed by tradition in such cases. Shakespeare employed it again in King Lear V.iii, when Albany charges Edmund with treason and Edgar arrives to take up Albany's cause. By the time of Richard's reign, the ritual itself had devolved to a theatricalized event, and by Shakespeare's time, in England as well as on the continent, it was more often associated with carnival festivities than with judicial decisions. In Venice, for example, jousts were part of the Sensa festival (celebrating the marriage of the sea) that marked the beginning of the theatrical season (E. Muir 1981: 121 n.) and lent an element of structure to the more topsy-turvy processes of Carnival (E. Muir 1981: 177). The one-to-one combat of the joust originated as a substitute for the dangerously chaotic mêlée of the tournament, involving whole armies, that had disturbed the reigns of Henry II and Richard I; the latter attempted to regulate his knights' participation by requiring royal licenses for combats. In time the joust, using blunted weapons and forbidding a fight to the death, replaced the tournament and ultimately became mere ceremony (Bucknell 1979: 148). By the end of the Middle Ages, jousts had become an entertaining part of ceremonial pageantry, “a festival ritual of homage and service to the crown,” and had become so controlled and theatricalized that “[in] 1343 the challengers at a tournament in Smithfield came dressed as the Pope and his cardinals. Forty-three years later Richard II looked on to see knights led in by silver chains held by ladies mounted on palfreys” (Strong 1984: 13).

Chaucer's Knight's Tale, written during Richard II's reign, gives a detailed account of the preparations for a combat between Palamon and Arcite, which Theseus, whose control is much better than Richard's, cancels swiftly and authoritatively. The Chaucerian version presents in six lines what Shakespeare stretches out over two scenes. Theseus's herald announces:

The lord hath of his heigh discrecioun
Considered that it were destruccion
To gentil blood to fighten in the gyse
Of mortal bataille now in this emprise.
Wherfore, to shapen that they shal nat dye,
He wol his firste purpos modifye.


The herald then announces in the next nineteen lines the rules and restrictions for the combat, especially stipulating that no lethal weapons be used, and that opponents may only capture each other. The combat is thus transformed into a joust, and Theseus's pacific command receives boisterous popular approval (2561-4). Shakespeare's Richard, pleading the same cause, more than doubles the length of the herald's proclamation, and delivers it himself, closing the distance between king and combatants. His decision, however, does not get the same response as Theseus's.

The account of the cancellation in Froissart's Chronicle (translated 1523-5) reveals Richard's predicament in terms omitted by Shakespeare. The king's councillors warn him of popular revolt if the combat proceeds:

The Londoners and dyvers other noble men and prelates of the realm say howe ye take the ryght waye to distroye your lygnage and the realme of Englande. Whiche thynge they saye they wyll natte suffre. And if the Londoners rise agaynste you, with suche noble men as wyll take their parte, … ye shall be of no puyssaunce to resyst they. …

(Bullough 1973: III: 424)

Having impressed upon Richard his inability to control his citizens, the councillors remind the king of the people's love for Derby (Bolingbroke) and their hatred for “the erle Marshall” (Mowbray), and point out that when the quarrel first arose, Richard should have settled it and commanded peace. Furthermore, he should have shown Derby some preferential affection in order to maintain the popular good will. Because he did not do that, say the councillors, he is rumored to favor Mowbray. They close by urging him to heed their advice: “sir, ye had never more nede of good counsayle than ye have nowe” (Bullough 1973: III: 424-5).

Froissart's account shows a Richard whose power depends upon popular approval, and who takes the advice of his councillors in order to win that approval. Their advice also included the plan to banish both Mowbray and Bolingbroke. Shakespeare omits the scene of counsel, and has Richard acknowledge it only obliquely in chastizing Gaunt's grief: “Thy son is banish'd upon good advice, / Whereto thy tongue a party-verdict gave. / Why at our justice seem'st thou then to low'r?” (I.iii.233-5). Gaunt replies that he argued as a judge, not as a father: “A partial slander sought I to avoid, / And in the sentence my own life destroy'd” (241-2), taking upon himself what in Froissart's account was Richard's predicament. There are no councillors in the play to tell the king that he should have commanded peace. Richard tries that on his own initiative and it does not work. It is the first form of post-ritual redress noted in Turner's pattern. The banishment is his second choice (in Turner's terms, the “consensual recognition of irremediable breach … followed by the spatial separation of the parties”); it is prompted in part by his councillors' advice but more by the combatants' refusal to obey, which takes up a substantially greater proportion of the scene than does the brief exchange between Richard and Gaunt. The power of the king is compromised as much by the combatants' stubbornness as by his own and his advisers' vacillation. The disruption of order is present from the start, and resides both within the king's character and outside it.

The general applicability of the pattern Turner describes indicates that structures of authority sometimes do not prevail over recalcitrant subjects. Such failures of authority may indicate a king's unfitness. They may equally well indicate his subjects' violation of their contractual allegiance. Shakespeare's kings never seem to operate in an unreal world of absolute power. When they are shown trying to do that (e.g., Lear, Macbeth, Richard III) they are inevitably stopped. In Richard II Shakespeare shows a monarch hewing closely to a normative pattern for the resolution of conflicts. His effort is overpowered by Bolingbroke's and Mowbray's intractability. Froissart's document presents a clear image of Richard caught in a kind of “Woodstock-gate,” and helpless before the threat of popular uprising. Working toward theatrical rather than historical clarity, Shakespeare gives Richard the opportunity to control, and thereby directs our attention to the centrality of the monarch. This is figured both visually and politically in the opening scene as he stands between the two antagonists; the image prefigures his isolation at the center of his circle of supporters in the center of the play (III.ii), when he sits upon the ground and talks of graves. As the first test of his authority in the play, the episode of the combat becomes an emblem of the play's political/ritual crisis.

The situation presented to Richard at the beginning of Shakespeare's play is not only one that performs the failure of kingly authority but one for which the ritual prescribed to close the rupture in the kingdom had long since become theatricalized and ambiguous. Nevertheless, Froissart's account indicates that the combat retained the potential for real danger, not only to the combatants but to the commonwealth as well. There is no suggestion in Shakespeare's play that the combat between Mowbray and Bolingbroke was meant to be merely ceremonial. Historically, by Richard's time it would have been, and it would have been if Richard had declared it so. The difference between theatricality and actual mêlée in the fourteenth century depended upon the ad hoc rules of the game. Richard's own sense of theatricalism in the play has often been cited as evidence of his unfitness to rule, but as Kernan (1970: 254) and more recently Kastan (1986: 470) have pointed out, the Lancasters, father and son, are no less thespian in mounting their kingly personae. All the characters of the Second Tetralogy live in theatrical times.

The late fourteenth century had long since ceased to honor the original adjudicating function of ritual combat. Strong argues that its growing theatricalism indicates not the form's decline and decadence but rather its response “both to the evolution of the aristocrat as courtier and to the demands of nationalistic chivalries, which focused the loyalty of knights on the ruling dynasty” (1984: 12). The shift was evidently an adaptive strategy, a compromise between the total extinction of old ways and the movement of social change, which often occurs at the cost of stability and peace. If the ritual of combat did not decline and decay, its political function altered radically. Shakespeare's use of it to open his play shows a concern for the progress of a civilization at those moments in its history when the rituals and ceremonies that once signified and guaranteed its orderly functioning and integration had been reduced to outward shows. The dilution by Richard's time of the joust's ritualistic force contextualizes what happens more disastrously, as the play eventually represents, to the sacred permanence of the king's enthronement.

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.


Richard counts on his protected status as God's anointed deputy on earth. But as we have begun to see, when one traditional action loses its meaning, the significance of and adherence to others are also problematized. Since rituals are acts of faith, the very act of questioning is itself dangerous to stability. The play takes up at other points what happens when traditional understanding of God's law is suddenly interrogated. The Duchess of Gloucester's appeal to Gaunt to support her accusation against Richard merits a whole scene, set between the two parts of Richard's combat dilemma. Besides inculpating Richard in Woodstock's death, the scene sets forth the inherent ambiguity in Richard's England regarding kingly immunity when the king is involved in a murder. The Duchess appeals to the older law of retribution for the murder of a husband and a brother. Gaunt tells her to go complain to God. Gaunt's refuge, like Richard's, is in the code of the king's divine ordination. The Duchess's sympathetic plea, the fact that she can question the king's immunity, exposes the instability of that code. Like Richard's command to Mowbray and Bolingbroke, England's belief in divine ordination by Richard's time lacked the force of communal agreement. The historical records, including Holinshed's, show that in the matter of Richard's deposition the code of divine ordination was in fact ignored: the deposition was not Richard's own idea—he is consistently a believer in tradition—but was forced upon him by both Henry and Parliament (Bullough 1973: III: 406). The conditions of social collapse that Girard calls the “sacrificial crisis” (1977: 49) are set up in the first act of the play, and all the travesties of formal order that follow are blazes on the trail toward that end. The detailed formal preparations for the combat (I.iii.7-45)—the formulaic pronouncements by the marshall and by Bolingbroke and Mowbray of their names, titles, and charges against each other, Richard's ceremonial decoronation before his followers (III.iii.147-53) and again before Bolingbroke (IV.i.203-15), York's agonized narrations of Henry's entrée into London followed by the deposed and publicly degraded Richard (V.ii.23-36)—all punctuate the play with instances of rituals aborted, inverted, and finally rejected in favor of a new order, which in turn proved more disordered than Richard's.

The traditional critical response to this series of events is that it was Richard's responsibility, that his was the first rupture in parcelling out the kingdom to profiteers, “Like to a tenement or a pelting farm” (II.i.60), and then appropriating Hereford's estate, “tak[ing] from Time / His charters and his customary rights” (II.i.195-6). But as even those who hold this Richard-centered view have noted, “the old world is breaking up” (Kernan 1970: 247). Shakespeare creates enough sympathy for Richard at several points—most dramatically in the speech beginning “Of comfort no man speak! / Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” (III.ii.144-77) at the center of the play—to suggest more ambivalence than blame. In other plays, Shakespeare shows what real disregard for order can unleash. At a similarly transitional moment in Julius Caesar, Antony incites the mob to riot and then absolves himself: “Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt” (III.ii.260-1); later, in Antony and Cleopatra, he would “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the rang'd empire fall!” (I.i.33-4) rather than give up Cleopatra. In his most intense despair, Lear urges the heavens to “Strike flat the thick rotundity o'th'world, / Crack nature's molds, all germains spill at once, / That make ingrateful man!” (III.ii.7-9). Unlike these later creations, Richard in crisis cleaves to order, the old order of the generation of York and Gaunt, which he honors even as it passes. There is an interesting and subtle irony in this alignment of Richard and Bolingbroke's father: Richard is not absolute villain and Henry is not absolute savior. Even though (or perhaps because) it means his death, Richard ensures the legal passage of control to Bolingbroke before he is finished. Doubtless he has no choice, but his gesture lends formality and legitimacy to the inevitable. Whatever else he misconstrues in his troubled government, he retains to the end a clear sense of purpose in honoring the ritual underpinnings of his culture.

The king realizes his negligence by the middle of the play. He stands far from his London court, with Aumerle, Carlisle, and his soldiers, on the wild Welsh coast. Wales, in this play as in Henry V, is home to fierce, primitive, superstitious, mystical, and above all, loyal men like the Welsh captain in II.iv, and Fluellen in the later play. At the margin of England's map, it is the appropriate locus for Richard's transition, and Wales is where he stays until he is brought back to Westminster, “plume-pluck'd,” for the formal transfer of power in IV.i. At the Welsh outpost, Richard becomes liminal; such figures are “neither here nor there; … betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. … Their behavior is normally passive or humble” (V. Turner 1969: 95).

                                                                                I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs.
.....So weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favors with my royal hands.
.....Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords,
This earth shall have a feeling. …


Such reverent animation of the land belongs to a ritual-centered king. The contrast in this regard between Richard and Bolingbroke is most obvious when the latter addresses the land at the moment of his departure into exile: “Then, England's ground, farewell; sweet soil, adieu, / My mother, and my nurse, that bears me yet!” (I.iii.306-7). Bolingbroke relates to the land in terms of himself, not as an externally and independently potent locus for respect as Richard does. With the fatal exception of the leasing-out, the synecdoche of the land was Richard's concern from the start. When he stopped the combat, in language that amplifies Chaucer's model, he did so

For that our kingdom's earth should not be soil'd
With that dear blood which it hath fostered;
And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect
Of civil wounds plough'd up with neighbours' sword.


Yet it will come. The Bishop of Carlisle, keeper of Christian ritual in this play by virtue of his office, warns Bolingbroke's followers:

The blood of English shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound.
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call'd
The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.


His office may be Christian, but his diction casts the civil war in terms of pre-Christian ritual: kin-killing, civil war, will turn England into its own pharmakos whose blood will fertilize the soil, but the dead crop of the “cursed earth” is only skulls. Properly conducted in a culture where such rites still have active meaning, a blood libation would insure fertility, but this England-in-transition has sacrificed its rituals under Richard and will continue to do so in the new (dis)order under Bolingbroke.

In his speech if not in action, Richard often appears as the last true defender of the old faith. From his and the play's opening lines—“Old John of Gaunt, time honoured Lancaster, / … according to thy oath and band” (I.i.1-2)—Richard shows himself wrapped for security in tradition and ritual. The ceremonial quality of his language and his reliance on Gaunt's loyalty to the old codes has been well noted (e.g., Berger 1985: 215). Critics have made much of Richard's neglect of inheritance laws, but this neglect is actually brief, confined to Bolingbroke, and committed for political expedience. Richard is certainly not alone in it; at some point in the play, all of the principals neglect the laws of inheritance, most obviously in accepting Richard's deposition and Bolingbroke's accession. York's admonition, “for how art thou a king / But by fair sequence and succession” (II.i.198-9) is ironized by the sequence and succession of the rest of the play: Bolingbroke's “right” to be king, whatever its retributive justice and its parliamentary endorsement, is certainly not granted by the code York endorses in that line. Moreover, the principle of “fair sequence and succession” is problematic for all claimants in this play and in the history behind the play. Richard succeeded his grandfather Edward III, not his father Edward who had died the year before and never inherited the throne; thus Richard's kingship was not by intact dynastic inheritance (Saccio 1977: 19), although York's citation of “fair sequence and succession” suggests that there was no question about Richard's right. Shakespeare notes Bolingbroke's coronation in much the same way as he was later to note Macbeth's: it is simply recorded as a done deed, and attention is given instead to the theatricalism of Richard's public disgrace and Bolingbroke's acclaim (V.ii.23-4). Hall gives little notice to the ceremony, and points out that “who so ever rejoysed at this coronacion, or whosoever delighted at his high promocion” (Bullough 1973: III: 364), certainly Richard's originally designated heir, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March was not among them. Bolingbroke's real claim rested only on conquest and on parliamentary assent, which was granted immediately upon request, and he became king by election rather than by inheritance or designation (Bullough 1973: III: 364; Oman 1906: IV: 153). Despite the fact that there was some precedent for passing over a designated successor (Arthur of Brittany had been passed over in 1199) as there was, after Edward II, for deposing a king, the cultural significance of substituting election for traditional modes of succession was unmistakably problematic. The rule of primogeniture became ambiguous when Edward III died, and remained so through the generations of the Tudors. Thus everyone who moves to Bolingbroke's side in the course of the play does so not from principled adherence to ancient law but for political exigency; nearly everyone who does not (except for Aumerle, who comes around eventually) is destroyed. The old ways are past, or passing.

Only Richard clings to ritual. His deposition is widely recognized as an inverted coronation ceremony (e.g., Girard 1977: 304). It is usually cited as evidence of Richard's unfitness: he gives up his crown too quickly, too willingly, to his eager cousin. It is, however, also evidence of his care for the proper formalities of his culture's rites. We should focus as much attention as Richard does, and as Shakespeare does, on how he gives it up. The first of the two deposition scenes occurs with his homage to the land at Flint Castle in Wales. Richard appears with his supporters atop the castle walls, and receives Northumberland as Bolingbroke's emissary.

What must the King do now? Must he submit?
The King shall do it. Must he be depos'd?
The King shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of king? A God's name, let it go!
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figur'd goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
.....What says King Bolingbroke?


The first four lines of this passage inversely echo the rhetoric of the “Homilee agaynst Disobedience and wylful Rebellion” (1574): “What shall subjects do then? Shall they obey valiant, stout, wise, and good princes, and condemn, disobey, and rebel against children being their princes, or against indiscreet and evil governors? God forbid.” It may be that Shakespeare's audience heard Richard's lines ironically in the context of that echo, reminding them that Richard submits here to nothing less than “Disobedience and wylful Rebellion.” The meticulous catalogue of what Richard will trade refers to the outward signs of his state, the concrete ways in which early modern England “knew” its monarch from any other human being. They are the symbols that most actively occupied Richard's attention as well: name, jewels, palace, robes, plate, sceptre, subjects, kingdom. Their exteriority is echoed in the scene's locus—at an outpost, atop the “rude ribs of that ancient castle” (III.iii.32), in the open air. Although they are outward signs, they are not superficial, but as tangible and fragile as the land itself. They entail all the metonymy that a monarchic symbol-system imbues in them.

The audience (but not Richard) has just heard Bolingbroke tell Northumberland the conditions he will offer the king: “Even at his feet to lay my arms and power, / Provided that my banishment repeal'd / And lands restor'd again be freely granted” (III.iii.39-41). Conditional allegiance is no allegiance, and Henry intends none; his repetition of the name “King Richard” four times in a speech of thirty-six lines rings with sarcasm (like Richard's “What says King Bolingbroke?”). More interesting, however, is the threat that Bolingbroke offers if Richard rejects his conditions. He will “lay the summer's dust with show'rs of blood / Rain'd from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen. … The rage be his, whilst on the earth I rain / My waters—on the earth, and not on him” (III.iii.43-4, 59-60). Bolingbroke's token respect of the king's person is meaningless in the face of his anarchy against the king's other body, the kingdom and its people. Moreover, he immediately retracts even that token respect when Richard, “the blushing discontented sun,” appears just after these lines. Caught up in his blood-rain metaphor, Bolingbroke expands it to a cloudburst that will “stain the track / Of his bright passage to the occident” (III.iii.66-7), that is, to the west, where the sun sets. York, in attendance, catches his drift immediately and warns against it: “Yet looks he like a king. … Alack, alack, for woe, / That any harm should stain so fair a show” (III.iii.68-71). Richard apparently intuits Bolingbroke's specific threat, as he counter-warns in similar diction: “Yet know, my master, God omnipotent, / Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf” (III.iii.85-6) an appropriate inheritance of pestilence upon succeeding generations. This blood-rain is what Richard offered to prevent at the start of the play, what Carlisle later warned would issue from Bolingbroke's accession, what Bolingbroke himself now actively and irresponsibly threatens, and what in fact plagued his subsequent rule. It is arguably to stave this off as much as to submit to the inevitable that Richard so readily capitulates.

The care with which Richard enumerates his relinquished symbols belongs to all ritual; it is the appropriate preparation for the formal and final rite of the second, “real,” deposition scene in IV.i, set at Westminster, in the full court. The procession into the hall is fully ceremonial: “Enter, as to the Parliament” (stage direction). As at the beginning of the play, the scene begins with reciprocal charges of treason, this time by Bagot and Aumerle, with Bolingbroke adjudicating. The wheel is coming full circle. Again there is no resolving combat. Bolingbroke says, “These differences shall all rest under gage / 'Till Norfolk be repeal'd” (IV.i.86-7), but Carlisle informs the court that Norfolk is dead. Thus the prescribed restorative rite is again aborted. In this ominous and official setting, Richard's full deposition occurs. The process is the exact reverse of the order of investiture:

Now mark me how I will undo myself.
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths.
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forgo;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny.
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke are made to thee!
.....God save King Harry, unking'd Richard says. …


The speech is both pitiable and dangerous. Richard undoes himself, as well as his kingship. In denying his acts, decrees, and statutes he erases the record of his existence and occupation of the throne. This is more than the passage of control; it widens the hole in the historical record, the breach in the “fair sequence and succession” of the Plantagenet dynasty that began when Edward III died. This is nihilism of the most terrifying order, “mark'd with a blot, damn'd in the book of heaven” (IV.i.236).

Girard reminds us that the traditional monarchic system is rooted in the function of the king as surrogate sacrificial victim. “The sacred character of the king—that is, his identity with the victim—regains its potency as it is obscured from view and even held up to ridicule. It is in fact then that the king is most threatened” (1977: 304). Richard himself acknowledges,

Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself,
I find myself a traitor with the rest;
For I have given here my soul's consent
T'undeck the pompous body of a king. …


As Girard points out, Richard has become both victimizer and victim, erasing the distinction between himself and those who do him violence (1977: 304).

Richard's identification with his enemies is more than histrionic. From the perspective of ritual it is also accurate. Throughout the play Shakespeare repeatedly emphasizes the factor of kinship, especially that of Richard and Bolingbroke. The play insistently refers not only to the tragedy of state but to that of family as well, in true Aristotelian fashion. Among the several scenes that illustrate this insistence, two do so with special force.

Just after Richard imaginatively turns his eyes upon himself in the lines quoted above, he calls for a mirror in order to see himself literally. In the mirror he sees “the very book indeed / Where all my sins are writ, and that's myself” (IV.i.274-5). The replication of his face in the mirror enables him, in Girard's terms, “to polarize, to literally draw to himself, all the infectious strains in the community and transform them. … The principle of this metamorphosis has its source in the sacrifice of the monarch and … pervades his entire existence” (1977: 107). When Richard shatters the glass and says to Bolingbroke, “Mark, silent king … / How soon my sorrow hath destroy'd my face,” Bolingbroke equivocates, “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd / The shadow of your face” (IV.i.290-3). And well he might; it is urgent for him to distinguish rigorously between the substance and its replicated image. Besides the face reflected in the glass, so easily “crack'd in an hundred shivers,” the other double of Richard is Bolingbroke himself. Shakespeare unmistakably presents this relationship to us earlier in the same scene, just before the formal deposition:

          … Here, cousin, seize the crown.
Here, cousin.
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
.....That bucket down, and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.


The tableau presents the two men frozen in the liminal moment, equal and opposite.5 On stage this moment represents what Girard calls the “sacrificial crisis,” built on “fierce mimetic rivalries” that oscillate constantly until distinction between the two is blurred, undifferentiated. Noting the prevalence of enemy twins and mirror effects in traditional ritual and mythology, Girard concludes that such symmetries of conflict must represent a genuine threat to cultural identity: the “world of reciprocal violence is one of constant mirror effects in which the antagonists become each other's doubles and lose their individual identities” (1978: 164, 186). The threat of indistinction is removed by redifferentiating the twins, establishing stable binary patterns in place of the “fearful symmetry.”

Shakespeare ensures that we will see the binding symmetrical patterns of rival brothers at the beginning and end of the play. When Mowbray charges Bolingbroke at the start, “and let him be no kinsman to my liege,” Richard answers that he would be impartial “Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom's heir, / As he is but my father's brother's son” (I.i.59, 116-17), although he later confides to Aumerle that he suspects Bolingbroke feels a little less than kin: “He is our cousin, cousin; but 'tis doubt, / When time shall call him home from banishment, / Whether our kinsman come to see his friends” (I.iv.20-2). Meanwhile Bolingbroke vows to avenge the Duke of Gloucester, whose “blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries / … To me for justice” (I.i.104-6). By the end of the play, in a structural symmetry, Bolingbroke is associated not with Abel but, via Exton's surrogacy, “With Cain [to] go wander thorough shades of night” (

Neither the historical sources nor the recognized dramatic antecedents for this play (the anonymous Woodstock and Marlowe's Edward II) suggest any association of Richard and Bolingbroke with Cain and Abel; it was apparently Shakespeare's own idea to bind this play in the framework of the First Murder. On first glance this frame might appear to be merely decorative, a foil against which Richard's fall and Bolingroke's ascent stand out clearly. But after that first glance, it immediately seems more than that. Gloucester is likened to Abel (I.i.104) with Mowbray standing in for Cain, and Bolingbroke casting himself as God the avenger; why then at the end does Bolingbroke link his surrogate murderer Exton (and thus himself) with Cain? And why introduce the biblical analogy at all, let alone as the bracketing format of the play, at I.i and At the end, the analogous positions are reversed in a complicated twisting of narrative strands that began early in the play: Richard (as Abel) is killed, and Bolingbroke, whose Cain-like banishment began in I.iii, at the end imposes upon himself the penance of pilgrimage to expiate the double sin of regicide and fratricide.

Because they are, seriatim, kings, the crimes attributed to Richard and Bolingbroke respectively must be displaced. Richard's involvement in Woodstock's murder is the unresolved charge displaced onto Mowbray at the start of the play; Bolingbroke's “contract” on Richard is displaced onto Exton and revealed only by report and implication in the very brief conversation between Exton and “a servant”: “‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’ / … he spake it twice, / And urg'd it twice together, did he not?” (V.iv.2-5). Because Richard and Bolingbroke are each other's doubles, the surrogated murder puts Bolingbroke in the position not of avenger but of fratricide. There is no doubt of his identification with Exton/Cain, for in the next lines he pledges to “make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash the blood off from my guilty hand” ( Like the other restitutive rituals represented in the play, Bolingbroke's expiation too was aborted by the continuing civil strife, as dramatized in the rest of the Second Tetralogy.

Cain's punishment, exile from Eden, is accompanied by the divine protection of God's mark; thus, in the 1560 Geneva Bible: “Douteles whosoeuer slayeth Kain, he shalbe punished seuen folde. And the Lord set a marke vpon Kain, lest anie man finding him shulde kil him” (Genesis 4:15).6 The mark is both stain and anointment; the marked one is both shunned and protected, villain and consecrated victim, in other words, the tragic protagonist. In Shakespeare's play, Cain is incorporated in both Richard and Bolingbroke, serving as a link that binds them together.

The mirrored relationship of Richard and Bolingbroke is set forth once more, this time by verbal recitation. The Duchess of York reminds her husband to “tell the rest / When weeping made you break the story off, / Of our two cousins coming into London” (V.ii.1-3). Besides the immediate pairing of “our two cousins” as kin and equals, the narrative relates the double royal entrée as the last formal ceremony in the play. Since there cannot be two kings, the description images appropriately York's—and England's—crisis in witnessing and recording it, and completes the redifferentiation of the royal pair.

Then, as I said, the Duke, great Bolingbroke,
Mounted upon a hot and fiery steed
Which his aspiring rider seem'd to know,
With slow but stately pace kept on his course,
Whilst all tongues cried, “God save thee, Bolingbroke!”


In grotesque contrast, there is the mirrored reverse:

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
.....Did scowl on gentle Richard. No man cried, “God save him!”
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head—


No doubt the sight of a monarch so degraded and abused by the citizenry was too painful to be enacted, and so it is theatrically displaced as narrative. According to a Tudor law derived from a 1352 statute from Edward III's reign, it was also treason even to imagine it (Kastan 1986: 473). The verbal re-creation crystallizes York's own crisis of partisanship so that weeping chokes him off. But York did see it; his narrative underscores the painful paradox of what cannot be and nonetheless is. In the exchange between the Duke and his wife, the audience hears it twice, in York's line and in the Duchess's recall of “that sad stop, my lord, / Where rude misgovern'd hands from windows' tops / Threw dust and rubbish on King Richard's head” (V.ii.4-6), and knows that it was said a third time, when the Duke broke off. The imagined/actualized scene also constitutes a third deposition, the public witness and approval of Richard's disgrace. The unthinkable has come to pass, “But heaven hath a hand in these events” (V.ii.37). The issue has already been foretold, and now is told again: “To Bolingbroke are we sworn subjects now, / Whose state and honour I for aye allow” (V.ii.39-40). It is easy to hear this as the “eye for eye” of retribution; indeed in the next lines we learn that Aumerle has been stripped of his title by Henry for supporting Richard, though allowed to remain Earl of Rutland, recreating in part Bolingbroke's position in the early scenes of the play.

In his degraded state, Richard's passage through liminality is momentarily frozen; he is stuck in a nameless, faceless, uncreated condition, neither what he was nor what he will be:

                                                                      I have no name, no title—
No, not that name was given me at the font—
But 'tis usurp'd. Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself!
O, that I were a mockery king of snow,
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,
To melt myself away in water drops!


He has assumed, in Girard's terms,

the role of the unworthy king, the antisovereign. The king then unloads on this inverted image of himself all his negative attributes. We now have the true pharmakos: the king's double, but in reverse. He is similar to those mock kings who are crowned at carnival time. … But once the carnival is over the anti-king is expelled from the community or put to death, and his disappearance puts an end to all the disorder that his person served to symbolize for the community and also to purge for it.

(1977: 109n.)

The redifferentiation of paired contestants is necessary for both individual and national identity and is accomplished through the ritual process. The relationship between Bolingbroke and Richard, and the double identification of both, at different moments, with both Cain and Abel, is more than a matter of imagistic or symbolic cross-matching. In so far as the stewardship of the “blessed plot” of Gaunt's famous speech (II.i.40-68) is a material manifestation of God's blessing, the differentiation of paired contenders is reiterated throughout the tetralogy, reflected in only slightly altered forms in the pairings, in 1 and 2 Henry IV, of Hal and Falstaff (or as versions of the father, of Henry and Falstaff), and Hal and Hotspur, and in Henry V, of England and France.

Ricardo Quinones locates the origin of civilization with the biblical brothers: “Cain, who aspires to possession, to rights, to identity, is the founder of the first city. Abel then becomes the figure of the right-thinking man who knows he is a stranger and a sojourner among earthly things” (1991: 26-7). Both Richard and Bolingbroke so aspire, and both Richard and Bolingbroke become at alternate moments the stranger and sojourner: Bolingbroke when he is banished and returns in Richard II, and again as he waits to die in the “Jerusalem Room” in 2 Henry IV, and Richard politically excommunicated as “landlord of England” at the start of his play and marginalized at Flint Castle towards the end. In the next generation, Hal reiterates this duality in the Gadshill and Boar's Head episodes, and in a different way, at Agincourt.

The “monstrous Cain” is at once a criminal and a permanent outcast, marked to prevent any possibility of reassimilation. As Quinones argues, the threat that such outcasts pose to material societies is the possibility that they may return to avenge their deprivations; that threat is interpreted not only as against the specific agent of their exclusion but as against civilization itself (1991: 41-3). In the extant dramatic versions of the Cain-and-Abel narrative, the medieval cycle plays, Cain's act of fratricide is given a specifically materialist base; that is, the differentiation of the brother-rivals for God's blessing occurs in the context of their respective “professions,” Abel's as shepherd and Cain's as farmer. Specifically, in the Towneley Mactatio Abel (Stevens and Cawley 1994), Cain evinces a certain stinginess in regard to the number of sheaves of grain to be offered, and his grudging sacrifice produces only a choking smoke in contrast with Abel's clean voluntary burning. The Chester Cain (Lumiansky and Mills 1974), is even more fully dramatized and presents a more complicated discourse. There he hopes to get away with offering his second-best cuttings, saving the best for himself: Cain's polluting sin was not only his unwilling sacrifice but his conversion, or perversion, of sacred ritual to economic or material concerns. Cain not only refuses God any grain fit for human consumption: “This corne standinge, as mote I thee, / was eaten with beastes, men may see. / God, thou gettest noe other of mee” (533-5), but offers fruitless stalks only: “This earles corne grewe nexte the waye; / of these offer I will todaye. / For cleane corne, by my faye, / of mee gettest thou nought” (541-4). His whole intention is only “too looke if hee / will sende mee any more” (519-20). His offering does not catch fire at all; it is rejected totally. Cain is thoroughly shamed: more than the grain, he himself is an abomination. His punishment is prophesied down to the seventh generation (659-60), which situates the Chester play at the foundation of the genre of dynastic drama and thus of the Shakespearean tetralogies.

The political and economic impact of the Cain-and-Abel narrative resonates in Shakespeare's play, where the crisis of the monarchy stands in close parallel to the contest for land and/or divine favor, which may ultimately be the same thing, the one manifesting the other in material terms. This is clearly illustrated in the Gardeners' scene in III.iv, and in the resonating language and imagery of aborted or inverted crop production throughout the play: in Carlisle's terms, “the blood of English shall manure the ground” and yield “the field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls” (IV.i.137, 144). Both narratives are concerned with kinship and its sacred ritual status, but if one asks why that relationship is sanctified, the materialist answer is because of land use. That issue, we will recall, was the principal charge laid against Richard in Gaunt's deathbed speech: Richard “leas'd out” the “blessed plot,” the “other Eden, demi-paradise,” and became “landlord of England … not king.” The commodification of land through enclosures had been an accelerating factor in a growing social and economic crisis from Richard's time through Shakespeare's. There is an interesting symmetry between the banishment of Cain and his loss of the post-Edenic garden, and Richard's undoing and his commodification of the “blessed plot.” Such evidence of materialist realism serves, as Robert Weimann pointed out, to anchor awareness of “an aesthetic and historical problem beyond the traditional context” as well as within it, and to record “a new mimetic form of self-expression and self-portrayal” (1978: 63). The way in which a late Elizabethan audience responded to a cycle play such as Cain and Abel probably differed from the way a medieval audience did, just as twentieth-century responses to Shakespeare's plays (and to medieval drama) must differ from those of the original audience. In the case of Richard II and the Cain-and-Abel plays, the awareness Weimann identifies resonates with multiple referents: the ground of Eden is in Shakespeare identical with England (Berninghausen 1987: 4). Sibling rivalry for God's blessing, the urgency of redifferentiation, fratricide, and the establishment of a new dynasty: these are among the emphases Shakespeare found in the drama of Cain and Abel that linked the crisis of the Tudor monarchy with the history of the world, rendering it at once unavoidable, contemporary, and cyclical.

The idea that the Second Tetralogy, and Richard II in particular, tells the story of the passage of England from the Middle Ages into “history” has been widely recognized (Berninghausen 1987; Kernan 1975: 273; cf. Frye 1967: 14). But critics differ in the interpretation of that idea. The general interpretation suggests that the loss of Eden equates with the loss of a medieval “world view,” that the historical and political passage we witness in the Second Tetralogy is a fall tantamount to Adam and Eve's, and then again to Cain's. But this view requires a nostalgia that may not have been universal in Tudor England, especially when we consider that the Tudor reign depended heavily upon the deposition of Richard in the first place. As Kernan writes,

In that Edenic world which Gaunt describes and Richard destroys, every man knew who he was. His religion, his family, his position in society, his assigned place in processions large and small, his coat of arms and his traditional duties told him who he was, what he should do and even gave him the formal language in which to express this socially assigned self. But once, under the pressures of political necessity and personal desires, the old system is destroyed, the old identities go with it. Man then finds himself in the situation which Richard acts out in IV.i, the deposition scene.

(1975: 273; emphasis added)

In the story of Cain Shakespeare found the movement of historical change “under the pressures of political necessity and personal desires.” Cain's banishment extends the map of the world beyond Eden, and further, beyond that East-of-Eden legitimized for Adam and Eve after the expulsion from the garden. In the 1560 Geneva Bible, Cain is the “vagabonde and rennegate” whose punishment clearly differentiates center (Eden), margin (East-of-Eden), and outside (the Land of Nod, where Cain lived out his banishment). In this instance too we find material that is replicated in Richard II. Before the murder, Cain and Abel inhabit ground that is already outside of Paradise, from which their parents had been expelled (Frye 1967: 14). But it is still legitimate ground, in so far as their residence there is divinely authorized. It is, in other words, the “margin” between Eden and elsewhere, and is identified as “East-of.” Such marginal loci, like marginal statuses, are liminal, ambiguous, and therefore both vulnerable and dangerous (Douglas 1966: 145). This marginalization of Cain and Abel, the immediate context of the fratricide, is replicated in Shakespeare's III.ii and III.iii, in Wales, just before the first deposition. There, abject Richard embeds the humble figure of Abel, with the mocking Henry Bolingbroke in the role of arrogant, rebellious Cain. At this liminal outpost, in this liminal moment, the roles of both men in relation to each other and to the crown and kingdom are ambiguous, ambivalent, neither what they were nor what they will be. They are becoming what the historical record will say they were, but Shakespeare stops the action of that passage and centers attention on Richard's self-deposition and his inscription of his own story among the “sad stories of the death of kings” (III.ii.156). In both Richard II and Cain and Abel, we have more than a version of an historical/biblical record; we have a dramatic interrogation of the reasons for and the process by which it happened, and this interrogation yields a complicated thesis. In the story of Cain we find the explanation of political necessity, for when Cain rose up against his brother, partisanship and dynasty were invented. Gaunt's famous identification of England as “other Eden” would be meaningless if his audience could not distinguish “other than Eden,” to differentiate “demi-Paradise” from the fallen world. By echoing the cycle play's resonance, Shakespeare directs his audience's attention to both its own proximal past—the generation that saw cycle plays performed—and its very distant past. The contest for husbandry of the “blessed plot” did not begin with Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke but with Cain.

Just as tradition and custom serve political ends, so do retentions of specific traditions and customs a generation or more after they have apparently departed the scene of contemporary life. Foucault's definition of “subjugated knowledges,” mentioned earlier, serves well to describe the Elizabethan fate of the cycle plays and all such occluded traditions and customs. Subjugated knowledges are

a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate … or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy. … [A] particular, local, regional knowledge … which owes its force only to the harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it … [and] allowed to fall into disuse whenever they are not effectively and explicitly maintained in themselves.

(Foucault 1980: 82)

The mechanism of suppression first trivializes and then erases both the knowledge and the language that sustains it. Subjugated knowledges “entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchise and order them in the name of some true knowledge” (Foucault 1980: 83). The relation of this strong language to the demise of the cycle plays may not be immediately evident, especially in view of the relatively privileged and protected status of cycle plays authorized by town, guild, and to some extent ecclesiastic warrant, compared with the marginalized loci and status of Elizabethan public playhouses (Mullaney 1988: 26-59). But Foucault's definition of “subjugated knowledges” applies easily to the demise of the cycle plays in general as a social and theatrical institution, and in fact illuminates Shakespeare's imbrication of the cycle play material in Richard II. Localized by both townships and guild management, cycle plays constitute exactly that “particular, local, regional knowledge … allowed to fall into disuse whenever they are not effectively and explicitly maintained in themselves.” It is useful to recall that although they operated for a time under the aegis of the Catholic Church, they were not strictly the productions of that Church, and therefore when Catholicism and its festivals were suppressed in England, the cycle plays did not immediately suffer the same radical fate. Drama that endures through long passages of time functions kaleidoscopically: turned one way or another, it yields one or another view, or one or another perspective of any particular view, and perhaps reveals more about the focusing powers of the observer than about the observed. What did Shakespeare hear in the Cain and Abel play that still spoke loudly to his Elizabethan audience? If, as some critics believe, Richard II is “about the end of medieval history” (Berninghausen 1987: 5), then echoes from a specific medieval play about the first murder and the first dynastic differentiation, the first play of politics, serve as a carefully chosen mnemonic of how such a horrific event as fratricide could happen in “demi-paradise.” It could happen precisely because it replicates the first such event in the first paradise. The basic outline of the story could of course be identified in the biblical tale, but not the concerns and dimensions of Cain and Abel as homo economicus, each negotiating for his patch of the garden and favorite-son status. For that fleshed-out model Shakespeare had the dramatic antecedent of the cycle play, which fills in the outlines of the biblical tale in economic terms. The issue of material concerns is evident elsewhere in the Second Tetralogy: in all of the tavern and Gadshill scenes in 1 and 2 Henry IV, and in the opening dialogue between the Bishops of Ely and Canterbury in Henry V, where the contested matter of lands promised for the church is the reason why the bishops urge Henry to engage the war against France that takes up the rest of the play. The Cain-and-Abel play is the first play, and one already known to many in Shakespeare's audience, that interrogates the issue of land use and retention of goods. Shakespeare's selection and placement of the mnemonic as the frame of his play anchored the transition from medieval history to Elizabethan early-modernity.

Tracing the roots of Richard II back to the Cain-and-Abel cycle play offers a view of several kinds of succession, both dynastic and dramaturgical, as the process of political and material selection. Shakespeare's interpolation of the cycle play material was deliberate and pointed: it reminded his audience that what they were seeing in Richard II was something they had seen in another form in a previous generation's drama. The public theaters and the plays they housed were the functional archives of what Linda Woodbridge calls “shadow genres,”7 her term for what Bakhtin describes, in language reminiscent of Foucault's, in discussing the development of the novel:

Contemporaneity, flowing and transitory, “low,” present—this “life without beginning or end” was a subject of representation only in the low genres. Most important, it was the basic subject matter in the broadest and richest of realms, the common people's creative culture. … The “absolute past” of gods, demigods and heroes is here … “contemporized”: it is brought low, represented on a plane equal with contemporary life, in an everyday environment, in the low language of contemporaneity.

(Bakhtin 1981: 20-1)

The Cain and Abel cycle play stands in precisely this relation to Shakespeare's Richard II. As a popular genre, the cycle play mediates the canonical biblical text and the de casibus material of Holinshed, Hall, Froissart, and The Mirror for Magistrates; it constitutes a “shadow genre,” a parallel text which stands in relation to the canon in much the same way as a Haftorah encodes a portion of the Torah, as a covert echo of a subjugated knowledge. Despite, or perhaps because of, its discontinuation by 1595, the cycle play's echoes in Richard II establish a Bakhtinian heteroglossia (Bakhtin 1981: 428) of related discourses—theatrical, biblical, historical, and contemporary. Such a view “reveals the same kind of continuity in drama that was characteristic of early modern culture as a whole. Rather than sacred culture suddenly giving way to secular, what we find is a gradual transformation of ideology that accompanies the transformation of social and political relations” (Cox 1989: 31). The ritual foundation of Richard II anchors its act of fratricide in a long and authorized tradition rooted in the economic motivations of political action. In this mirror of English “history,” both biblical and dynastic, the Tudor age checked its own appearance.

Folded in with the “shadow genre” of the cycle play is another discourse “subjugated” during Elizabeth's reign. Richard's self-carnivalization as “a mockery king of snow” condenses an extended narrative in Holinshed which begins: “Thus was king Richard deprived of all kinglie honour and princelie dignitie, by reason he was so given to follow evill counsell, and used such inconvenient waies and meanes, through insolent misgovernance, and youthfull outrage, though otherwise a right noble and woorthie prince” and ends: “[Yet] hee was a prince the most unthankfullie used of his subjects, of any one of whom ye shall lightlie read” (Bullough 1973: III: 408-9). His sins are enumerated by Holinshed as prodigality and lasciviousness, in which he was not alone: “speciallie in the king, but most cheefelie in the prelacie” (Bullough 1973: III: 409). These are hardly high crimes and capital treasons; Holinshed's Richard was more a Lord of Misrule than a criminal. His implication in Woodstock's death is barely noticed in Holinshed, and however much is made of it by Shakespeare, it is not mentioned again after Act I.

The seriousness of identifying an anointed monarch as Misrule would not have been lost upon Shakespeare's audience. For clearly political reasons, Misrule performances were discontinued in the courts of Mary and Elizabeth after periods of great popularity under Edward VI and occasionally under Henry VIII (Barber 1959: 26; Laroque 1991: 68). Although Elizabeth promoted and supported various seasonal festivities in and out of court, Misrule was not one of them. Even a temporary release of control is fatal to the monarch in unstable times. Elizabeth knew that; Richard learned it in a shower of dust and rubbish.

The carnivalization of Richard, first by himself and then by his trash-throwing subjects, prepares him, as Girard notes, for the role of pharmakos, for it is only as his own double, not as his kingly self, that he can take on the sacrificial function of the scapegoat. Richard wants to see Henry, not himself, as the roi soleil. But Henry has already identified himself inversely with rain, not sun, in the lines quoted earlier from III.iii. It is Richard who is linked with the defeated sun (II.iv.21). Richard thinks himself inadequate to the role of sun; he is the sun's son (or, if “sun” signifies an anointed king, the sun's grandson): “Down, down I come, like glist'ring Phaeton” (III.iii.178); in that image is his own admission of his failed potential. The mockery king of snow is the inverse and alter-ego of the sun-king; in those terms, as sun turns to snow, Richard undoes himself. But snow is also the frozen, rigid form of rain, Henry's symbol, and rain melts and washes away snow. Sun and rain are potentially both destructive and restorative elements. The ambivalent meanings of these meteorological images prevent facile conclusions about Shakespeare's view of Richard's sins and Henry's heroism.

Commenting on Richard's humiliation, Bristol writes:

These images of royal abjection and victimization do not have the purely redressive and exemplary features of an actual ritual. The violent uncrowning of the royal martyr or royal villain is invariably accompanied by a more generalized, pervasive social violence or civil war. … The relationship between victimized king and victimized kingdom is complex and elusive.

(1985: 197-8)

For Richard's deposition and Henry's accession to have those redressive features, the ambiguity of Richard's alternately conservative and destructive behavior would have to be resolved as preeminently negative, and the matching ambiguity of Henry's restructuring of the monarchy would have to appear as positive. But the play does not allow such an easy and comfortable resolution; the sugar-coating of the “Tudor Myth” did not entirely mask the bitter taste of Richard's deposition and the continual outbreaks of rebellion during Henry IV's reign. The restorative function of uncrowning followed by new crowning is absent from the play because the redressive capabilities of such rituals had long since been lost to medieval and Renaissance England, leaving only the outward forms of ritual actions. Rituals evacuated of meaning cannot work, and historically they did not work; the restoration of England's political stability took longer than the unquiet reign of Henry IV. Against the backdrop of an England whose rituals had turned from religious to secular to spectacular, and from purgative to political to pro forma, Richard II performs the “movement from ceremony and ritual to history” (Kernan 1970: 247) of the rest of the Henriad. By attending to the changes during Richard's reign in the way ritual was variously honored, aborted, subverted, debased, and ignored, Richard II dramatizes the inescapable cost of secularizing a ritual-centered political ecology. The price of “history” is a loss of the ritual integrity that stabilizes its movement and protects its original social, political, and religious structures.


  1. Bocock (1974), working from a sociological rather than an anthropological argument, discusses ritual as “non-rational action” in modern industrial England, and includes what he calls “aesthetic” (i.e., dance, theater, music) as well as religious domains. Although he cautions against stretching the parameters of “ritual” to include the most mundane activities, he nevertheless includes such transitory activities as “pop” festivals, athletic events, labor strikes and political rallies. From an anthropological perspective, Bocock's approach is problematic because it privileges activities common during the decade in which he was writing that have diminished since that time, for example, “pop festivals” and other so-called “counter-culture” gatherings specific to one or at most two generations. Part of the difficulty of analyzing ritual in the twentieth century is the extreme fragmentation of culture itself. Unlike ritual in traditional cultures, what Bocock identifies as those of modern times do not link past, present, and future. They are not designed to ensure survival beyond the moment and are often random or spontaneous occurrences.

  2. Dumouchel makes the important point that “societies, though they have always resulted from human actions, have almost everywhere conceived of themselves as instituted by the sacred: by powers beyond the reach of humanity” (1988: 17).

  3. In a footnote to this rhetorical maneuver Greenblatt acknowledges the “intensified ambiguity” of the remark, but he clearly intends the implication of the play's immediate threat to stand. An alternative, and ironic, speculation is suggested by W. Gordon Zeeveld at the end of his essay on Coriolanus: “Had Shakespeare's audience been able to foresee the course of seventeenth-century history as clearly, the upheaval some forty years later might have been averted” (1962: 334). A theater that can spark revolution can also avert it; but it appears in Shakespeare's case to have done neither. See also Marcus 1988: 27-9.

  4. That is, it has been obscured in recent criticism. The connections between Shakespeare's play, Hayward's book and the Essex plot are debated at length in Albright 1927, Heffner 1930, and Albright 1931.

  5. In a Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play some years ago, the actors did in fact freeze the moment for several seconds in a tableau. To underscore the reciprocal identity of the two kings and kinsmen, the actors playing Richard and Henry switched roles on alternate evenings throughout the run of the play.

  6. Besides the obvious biblical source, Shakespeare and his audience would have known the dramatizations of the Cain and Abel story in the cycle plays at Coventry and elsewhere, which continued, despite various statutory suppressions during the Reformation, through the 1570s (Laroque 1991: 56; Cox 1989: 22, 39), and possibly until 1591 (Ingram 1981: xix).

  7. Personal communication.


Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare are taken from the Riverside edition of the Complete Works, ed. G. B. Evans, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

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Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism