William Shakespeare Ritual and Ceremony in Shakespeare's Plays

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

(The entire section is 107,146 words.)