The Politics of the Spectacular and the Poetics of the Specular in William Shakespeare's Richard II
In his 1957 The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Kantorowicz reads Richard’s coup de théâtre in (act 4, scene 1) as marking the instantaneous end of his “body politic:”
Much of the scholarship1 written on Richard II primarily gravitates towards the study of the play as history which bears relevance to the paranoid and unstable political climate of Tudor England, and specifically to the aborted Essex uprising orchestrated by Robert Devereaux to rebel against Queen Elizabeth in 16012. Moreover, the study of Richard II has been minutely examined and developed under the lens of literary history and critical theories, ranging from new criticism, old historicism, new historicism, cultural materialism, to poststructuralism.3
Although Richard II reverberates with the iconographic tradition of the mirror and is rife with a related cluster of motifs, which alludes to the Tudor artistic legacy of perspectives4, defined as, “a picture or figure designed to appear distorted or confused except when viewed from a certain position” (OED)], or anamorphosis, little has been offered—in comparison with the colossal body of scholarship mentioned above—to the study of the political and poetical aspects of mirrors in Shakespeare’s Richard II5, which this essay will study in full detail.
Before I go to great lengths explaining what and how politics, poetics, and mirrors are drawn together and why it matters, I would like to situate this essay within the studies that have investigated the imagery of mirrors and the anamorphic qualities of pictures in Richard II. In her 1983 “Anger, Wounds, and the Forms of Theatre in King Richard II,” Murray M. Schwartz seems to disagree with Kantorowicz who believes that Richard has lost “even the most human griefs residing in inner man” when he breaks the mirror in the fourth act (40).
Drawing upon poststructuralist psychoanalysis, the critic contends that the deposed king has unearthed his ‘real’ self that has been buried beneath the regal identity of the body politic. Scott McMillin in his 1984 “Shakespeare’s Richard II: Eyes of Sorrow, Eyes of Desire,6” demonstrates how Shakespeare dramatizes the unseen in the play: “This is the problem of making manifest and accessible to normal seeing those qualities of identity which originate in such unseeable characteristics as absence vacancy” (40). Starting off from his analysis of Bushy’s references to the imagery of mirrors, reflections, and anamorphic objects, Jeanie Grant Moore approaches Richard II from a feminist perspective in her “Queen of Sorrow, King of Grief: Reflections and Perspectives in Richard II7 (1991) to argue how “Isabel has exerted an influence in the play disproportionate to her minor role” (32). Moore juxtaposes the Queen’s grief with Richard’s through “the visual symbol of the looking glass itself through her function as a reflector (19).”
She writes, “Connected to the visual symbol of the looking glass itself through her function as reflector, Isabel becomes a visual medium … (19).” Robert M. Schuler opens his 2004 essay “Magic Mirrors in Richard II” commenting on Kantorowicz’s quote [with which I opened this essay] as follows: “Almost fifty years ago, Ernest Kantorowicz opined rather enigmatically that the looking glass in Richard II’s deposition scene in (act 4, scene 1) “has the effect of a magic mirror” (151).” The critic undertakes the task of exploring the “effect” to “expose the contrived proceedings … a ceremonialized theft, a demonically inversive theatre of state befitting Bolingbroke’s upside-down “new world” (151-52). Instead of building off of Schuler’s analysis of Richard’s shattering of the mirror as a demonic ritual to initiate a reversal of the coronation ceremony, this essay will discuss Richard’s act of violence in the mirror scene not as just relinquishing and disintegration of Richard’s ‘Body Politic’ and ‘Body Natural’—as Kantorowicz did—but rather as a major turning point that announces Richard’s progressive shift from the spectacular (which constitutes the political essence of divine rule) to the specular (which constitutes Richard’s new born self) in his analogical microcosmic world8. I am couching my argument in the concept of an analogical world order where different entities in the macrocosmic and microcosmic realms reflect/mirror each other. For instance, Man’s humors reflect natural elements; the king who rules over his kingdom reflects the image of God ruling over the cosmos.
Accordingly, I believe that the analogical world in Tudor England is a close-knit system of mirrors, perspectives, and shadows where all elements (man, angels, god, animals, plants, and planets) interconnect. Following the deconsecrated ceremony of bequeathing the crown to Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s identity, firmly instilled in the ethos of the divine right of kings, experiences an ontological annulment and crisis. Having lost all his titles, Richard is unable to locate his selfhood. In Shakespeare After All (2004), Marjorie Garber writes “in breaking that mirror, in throwing down the looking glass, he means to symbolize the breaking off of his contact with the world” (264). What constitutes his identity has shifted from the spectacular, the theatrical, and the outward to the specular, the inward, the introspective, and the “extraordinary poetic and introspective gifts [that] allow [Richard] to analyze his own situation with delicacy and insight” (Maus 891). Like Moore and McMillin, I am opening this essay’s body with an analysis and discussion of the dialogue between Richard’s advisor Bushy and Queen Isabel since it bears early references to anamorphic pictures, shadows, and perspectives in Richard II. Why does it matter? It will serve as an entry point to a thorough contextual, literary, and historical study of a Tudor art form: the perspectives. This done, I will transition to a discussion and analysis of Richard’s journeying from the spectacular to the specular in his analogical world view.
When King Richard II journeys to Ireland to subdue the rebels and to “supplant those rough, rug-headed kerns” (2.2.156), the Queen expresses to Bushy her angst, an “unborn sorrow … / … coming towards me, and my inward soul” (2.2.10-11). Bushy responds to the Queen’s substantiated anxiety as follows:
In an attempt to help the Queen dispel feelings of grief, Bushy draws upon a cluster of anamorphic (“distorted projection,” OED), specular (“having the reflecting property of mirror,” OED), and perspectival imagery which includes ‘shadows,’ ‘eye,’ ‘tears,’ ‘perspectives,’ awry,’ and ‘form.’ Accordingly, the Queen’s tears, which possess anamorphic qualities, divide her ‘grief’ into ‘objects,’ perspectives or ‘shadows’ of various ‘griefs.’ In Bushy’s foregoing lines, the word ‘awry’ bears historical and cultural implications. First, the OED defines awry as “away from the straight (position or direction); to one side, obliquely; unevenly, crookedly, askew,” (awry, adv. 1a). Second, ‘awry’ harkens back to anamorphic paintings during the English early modern period, more specifically Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 The Ambassadors9 that Shakespeare might have been familiar with.10
Quoting from Frye’s 2014 The Renaissance Hamlet, Schuler writes that “By Shakespeare’s time, the mirror has become “an almost universal symbol for instruction, knowledge, and understanding” (161). Holbein’s painting memorializes two affluent and wealthy French ambassadors to the Tudor court. What is visually striking is the anamorphic object that lies on the floor. If a spectator adopts a centric view to examine the painting, s/he misses the skull and mistakes it for a different object. If looked awry, the object reveals itself to be a skull. “Its presence is thus at once affirmed and denied; if it can be visible to us, when we take up the appropriate position at the angle of the painting, it is manifestly not accessible to the figures in the painting, (19)” argues Greenblatt in Renaissance Self-fashioning. Third, images of mirrors and their capacity to reflect/refract reality abound in Renaissance English literature11. In his exhaustive study of mirror-imagery in medieval and Renaissance literature, Herbert Grabes, in his Mirror-imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and English Renaissance, writes that “the employment of the mirror in metaphorical contexts is so frequent and deliberate a strategy in the English literature of the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries that the mirror can be said to constitute the central image for a particular world-view (4).” I believe that the mirror—and its various signifiers of shadows, perspectives, and images—as metaphor and symbol, is intrinsic to the English Renaissance world picture, whose archetypal structure heavily hinges upon analogies and correspondences in the microcosmic and macrocosmic scales of creations12.
Another word of equal importance to ‘awry’ is ‘perspective,’ which the OED defines as “a picture designed to appear distorted or confused except when viewed from a certain position or presenting totally different aspects from different positions” (perspective, n2b). Surveying the context of visual arts in England—including, anamorphoses, catoptrics, and dioptrics—and drawing upon the works of Jean Francois Niceron, Jean Dubreuil, and the experiments of Bacon and Hobbes, Gilman, in his The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century, contends that “The curious perspective undermines the viewer’s authority by dislocating him from the “centric point” and obliging him to see the work of art from multiple “perspectives” before he grasps it fully (50). In this vein, Bushy coaxes the Queen not to [eye] awry her feelings of grief, which for Bushy might be unfounded and to adopting a “centric” view/linear perspective of her griefs. Imploringly, he tells the Queen:
However, the Queen’s apprehensions have been validated upon hearing that the banished Bolingbroke has returned from exile later in the scene, despite Bushy’s dismissal of her griefs as “false sorrow’s eye.” Therefore, looking at things from a centric view, as Bushy has urged, proved false. The perspectival scene has thus generated a ‘paradoxical notion,’ akin to an anamorphic painting. Moore contends that “Through her tears, the Queen perceives the substance of what she feels; for her “looking awry” is the correct or “right” way to look, and the centric view or traditionally “right” way is wrong” (25). I would extend Moore’s argument to say that Richard’s demise has been accelerated because he has been adopting a centric viewpoint when looking at things. How so?
Unlike Isabel, Richard—until the deposition scene has adopted a centric view of his kingdom, which stands for the spectacle of pageantry, royalty, divine rule, harmony, and stasis; every element in his kingdom is reflective and a constant reminder of his royal persona. When he learns about Bolingbroke’s conspiracy to dethrone the King of England, Richard indulges in ‘gargantuan’ and hyperbolic speech to remind his “spectacle” of his ‘grandiose’ self that occupies the center:
In light of his rhetoric of pomposity and self-centeredness, Richard is appropriating the symbol of the sun, which is positioned in the center, to prove that his anthropomorphic figure (he sees himself as divine with human qualities) is impossible to subdue and defeat. Indulging in surfeited rhetoric, Richard says that “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm from an anointed king. / The Breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” (3.2.39-53). With that centered view he adopted, Richard has been blind to different ‘perspectives,’ facets, limits, dangers lurking in his kingdom. He is blind to the “the noisome weeds that without profit suck / the soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers” (3.4.39-40). In 3.4, the gardener develops the horticultural metaphor and announces to the second servant Richard’s demise and Bolingbroke’s ascension to the throne: “Oh, what a pity is it / That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land / As we this garden (55-57). In a ‘metatheatrical’ moment in the act IV, Richard asks for a mirror to ‘read himself’ in lieu of reading from Northumberland’s paper about “These accusations and these grievous crimes / Committed by your person and your followers (4.1.215-17). Richard announces that “I’ll read enough / When I do see the very book indeed / Where all my sins are writ, and that’s myself” (4.1.266-68). Following his self-examination, Richard elaborates on a simile in which he compares the “flatt’ring glass” to “my followers in prosperity” (272-73). In an epiphanic moment, he learns that his subjects are as beguiling and deceiving as the mirror, something he has missed when Gaunt—who might stand for a mirror of truth—tells him on his deathbed: “A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown, / Whose compass is no bigger than thy hand” (2.1.100-01). His “followers,” metonymic of his kingdom, constitute one reflecting image among the plethora of images that embody the spectacle of his pageantry and royalty. Therefore, Richard’s spectacle is the reflection of his monarchic image, which buttresses his uncontested political divine rule. In the analogical doctrine, God’s divine rule over the macrocosmic world parallels that of the King’s rule over his microcosmic world. Within the microcosmic world, the king performs the spectacle of royalty which is manifest in the cluster of images consisting of “God’s name,” “jewels,” “gorgeous palace,” “gay apparel,” “figured goblets,” “scepter,” “subjects,” and “large kingdom” (3.3.146-53). Richard II13 exercises a resemblance of divine power on earth. The foregoing signifiers gravitate towards one logocentric signified: his royal self which underpins Richard’s Medieval ethos of divine rule. He was the “face / that every day under his household roof / Did keep ten thousand men / ... the face / That like the sun did make beholders wink” (4.1.274-77). In parallel with the metatheatrical moment of shattering the glass, Richard deconstructs his logocentric and royal signified (his ‘monarchic self) and relocates it in his grief:
Thereupon, Richard reaches his anagnorisis. He realizes that his substance (real self) lies not in the outward spectacular images of pageantry and divine rule; rather, it lies in his bare and naked soul. Let us examine more closely the fourth act to Richard II. Richard begins the act of self-deposition in a spectacular fashion. The king ‘performs’ the ritual of uncrowning himself. In a “ceremonial” manner, Richard opens line 196 with the temporal marker “now” followed by the imperative verb form “mark” to start the process of [undoing]: “Now mark me how I will do myself” (4.1.196). Richard starts the ‘process’ of his ontological annulment, one that affects his way of being. For instance, Richard opens his cue with the chiastic line “Ay, no; no, ay” (4.1.194) in which the adverb “Ay” rhymes with “I”; thus, Richard superimposes himself (“I”) upon the negative marker “no.” He cleaves the same line with the hyphen to mark a pause and then officially and solemnly declares “for I must nothing be” (4.1.194). With the act of self-deposition, Richard “trifles” with the idea of the coronation ceremony tinged with much sanctity. He reverses the “consecrated” performance of royal crowning and turns it into a “deconsecrated” uncrowning. The spectacular uncrowning is carried out with Richard’s relinquishing of “manors,” “rents,” “revenues,” “acts,” “decrees,” and “statutes” (4.1.205-6). Richard’s ontological annulment unleashes much grief that has further worsened with the relinquishing of the outward elements that used to sustain his identity as king. He thus dejectedly proclaims: “Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved” (4.1.209). The rhetorical device creates a sustained rhythm of mourning:
Richard emphatically (via repetition) “exorcises” his body, metonymically presented via “tears,” “hands,” “tongue,” and “breath,” of the spectacular image of a King. Although the act of uncrowning might be considered a deconsecration of the coronation ceremony itself, Richard renders the act of self-deposition a solemn and holy one. He compares himself to Jesus Christ and the betrayal that has led to his self-deposition to an act of crucifixion. Richard continues his speech, lamenting his “wretchedness” (4.1.231):
The biblical metaphor works as follows. The metaphor is extended and served to compare Richard’s “troop” (4.1.223) to “Pilates” (4.1.233). The troop’s conspiracy to tell on the King is equated to an act of sin, “And water cannot wash away your sin” (4.1.235). The biblical trope suggests a tragedy of magnanimous and universal caliber with a heightened sense of pathos and suffering: “sour cross,” “wretchedness,” “outward pity,” and “sin;” it articulates the Judeo-Christian story of Jesus Christ who was sentenced by Pontius Pilate to be flogged and finally crucified by the Romans. I believe the parallelisms have been established: Richard compared to Jesus Christ, his troop to Pontius Pilate, and the conspiracy to an act of sin. Now, why is this important to point out? Richard is a King. He perceives of himself as having anthropomorphic attributes and semi-divine powers. He has in him the two bodies: The Body natural and the Body politic. His selfhood and identity have always been tied to the outward appearance, to the spectacular and theatricality of pageantry and royalty. In the same vein, Kantorowicz argues that
Richard, before reaching his introspective moments (that I will analyze shortly), theatricalizes his grief; and comparing himself to the figure of Jesus Christ is one way to elevate his despondency to higher realms and most importantly displays it in novel spectacular ways. Richard’s perception of himself up to this point (of deposition) has been outward-looking. His ontology or way of being has been constructed around a cluster of “spectacular” and “histrionic” images of divine rule and monarchy.
Stripping himself of his “pompous body” (4.1.243), or his splendidly dressed body that is used to sustain the theatricality of his pageantry and royal display, Richard reaches anagnorisis following his ontological annulment. Richard lost his titles; and therefore, he has lost his essence, being, and identity. To elaborate on this point, let us examine the following lines:
Richard’s reversal of the situation follows a transition from the spectacular to the specular. He has undergone an ontological annihilation by losing his identity and essence, firmly buttressed in the royal and chivalric ethos fully displayed in theatrical and spectacular fashion. In Medieval theology, the identity is constructed around the spectacle or display that one gives of oneself in the eyes of the others (Iselin, “Poetique/Politique”). Yet, the specular is by definition “Of vision: obtained by reflection only; not direct or immediate,” according to the OED. Chardin contends that Richard starts a process of self-inspection. Therefore, his interiorized gaze allows a self-reading through introspection and the unearthing of an unknown self. His ‘being’ metaphorically “[melts] ... away in water-drops.” Richard’s “new perception” of himself operates in and through the “tears,” “a screen that blurs the view, but redirects the gaze onto himself.” Richard laments saying, “Mine eyes are full of tears; I cannot see. / And yet salt water blinds them not so much.” Dejected and confused, Richard asks for a mirror to “read” (4.1.268) and inspect himself: “And made no deeper wounds? O flatt’ring glass, / Like to my followers in prosperity, / Thou dost beguile me” (4.1.272-274). The mirror no longer reflects perfect spectacular images known to him; “it specularly shatters them” (Chardin 17). In a metatheatrical moment, Richard finally breaks the mirror:
The mirror’s “shivers” and “shadows” convey Richard’s shattering of his self and identity; they reflect back the shadows of Richard’s distorted image. Richard like the “glist’ring Phaethon” (3.3178), is finally deposed.
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1.) For a full survey of the scholarship dedicated to the study of Richard II, see Andrew Gurr’s third edition to King Richard II, NCS, 2019, Katharine Eisaman Maus’ introduction to Richard II, The Norton Shakespeare (2016), Jeremy Lopez’s edition to Richard II (2012), and Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All (2004).
2.) See Arthur Kinney’s “Essex and Shakespeare vs Hayward,” Shakespeare Quarterly (1993); Richard Dutton’s Licensing, Censorship, and Authorship in Early Modern England: Buggeswords, (2000); Ray Heffner’s “Shakespeare, Hayward, and Essex,” PMLA (1930); G.P.V Akrigg’s “Something More About Shakespeare’s Patron.” Shakespeare Quarterly (1977); Carole Levin’s The Reign of Elizabeth I, (2002); James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2006); Evelyn May Albright’s “Shakespeare’s Richard II and the Essex Conspiracy,” PMLA (1927); and Donna Hamilton’s “The State of Law in Richard II,” Shakespeare Quarterly (1983).
3.) See E. M. W. Tillyard’s Shakespeare’s History Plays (1944); E. W. Talbert’s The Problem of Order (1962); Stephen Greenblatt’s The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982); Jonathan Goldberg’s “Rebel Letters: Postal Effects from Richard II to Henry IV, Renaissance Drama (1988); Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield’s Political Shakespeare (1985); Leeds Barroll’s “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time,” Shakespeare Quarterly (1988); Christopher Pye’s 1988 “The Betrayal of the Gaze: Theatricality and Power in Shakespeare’s Richard II,” ELH (1988); Geraldo U. de Sousa’s 1988 “Semiotics of Kingship in Richard II,” in Douglas and Bergeron’s Shakespeare and Deconstruction.
4.) It should be noted that this essay uses the words ‘mirror,’ ‘perspective,’ and ‘anamorphosis’ interchangeably.
5.) However, there exists a profusion of critical scholarship dedicated to the study of the iconographic tradition of mirrors/shadows/perspectives/anamorphosis in Medieval and Early Modern European and English literature, some of which this essay has had recourse to. Some of these include Stephen Greenblatt’s 1980 Renaissance Self-fashioning from More to Shakespeare; Ernest B. Gilman’s 1978 The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century; Claudio Guillen’s 1968 “On the Concept and Metaphor of Perspective;” Walter J. Ong’s 1957 “System, Space, and Intellect in Renaissance Symbolism;” Herbert Grabes’ 1982 The Mutable Glass: Mirror-Imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and English Renaissance; Denis Hue’s “Un Miroir des Dames a la Renaissance,” in Miroirs et Jeux de Miroirs Dans la Litterature Medievale (2003) Fabienne Pomel (ed.).
6.) Although his main argument is peripheral to this essay’s argument, McMillin’s analysis and discussion of Bushy’s anamorphic imagery and perspective references are useful.
7.) I would like to acknowledge my debts for Moore’s article that introduced me to the study of perspectives, mirrors, and shadows in Richard II and for having introduced me to a comprehensive work written on anamorphic pictures in Medieval and Early Modern literature.
8.) Although Tillyard’s study of Shakespeare’s history plays as a replication/echo of the Medieval archetype of the great chain of being that survived into Tudor England (see his “The Cosmic Background” in Shakespeare’s History Plays and The Elizabethan World Picture) has been by and large dismissed by new historicists and cultural materialists (see Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England and Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries) as a reductive old historicist account, theological accounts and political treatises on the analogical world, natural world order, the great chain of being, microcosmic and macrocosmic ‘parallel universes’, and the king as image of God abound in Tudor England and beyond. Some of these include, Richard Hooker’s 1597 Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity; Sir Thomas Elyot’s 1531 The Boke Named the Governour; Francis Bacon’s 1620 Novum Organum; James VI of Scotland’s 1599 The Basilikon Doron and his 1609 “Kings are Justly Called Gods” when he later became James I of England in 1603. I am couching my argument in the concept of an analogical world order where different entities in the macrocosmic and microcosmic realms reflect/mirror each other. For instance, Man’s humors reflect natural elements; the king who rules over his kingdom reflects the image of God ruling over the cosmos. Accordingly, I believe that the analogical world in Tudor England is a close-knit system of mirrors, perspectives, and shadows where all elements (man, angels, god, animals, plants, and planets) interconnect. Therefore, it is possible to study Richard’s shift from the spectacular to the specular. This essay will explain the connection later.
9.) For further study on Holbein’s painting and its relevance to Tudor culture and literature, refer to Mary Hervey’s Holbein’s Ambassadors: The Picture and the Man (1900), Ernest B. Gilman’s 1978 The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century, John Rowlands’ Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger (1985), and Elly Dekker and Kristen Lippincott’s “The Scientific Instruments in Holbein’s Ambassadors,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1999).
10.) In fact, Gilman contends that “Shakespeare’s use of the painter’s “perspective” as a metaphor for the understanding is one of the earliest in English … In the seventeenth century, perspective provides a metaphor for cognition as well as illusion … like the figures in a painting, the objects of knowledge are “seen” at various distances or in different aspects in a conceptual space (95,96). Refer also to Claudio Guillen’s 1968 “On the Concept and Metaphor of Perspective,” Comparatists at Work, William S. Heckscher’s 1971 Shakespeare in His Relationship to the Visual Arts, Christopher Pye’s 1988 “The Betrayal of the Gaze: Theatricality and Power in Shakespeare’s Richard II,” ELH, and Marjorie Graber’s 2004 Shakespeare After All.
11.) Walter J. Ong argues that the Renaissance had brought about a new vision of perceiving reality. He writes that “…certain phenomena characteristic of the Renaissance can be regarded as the culmination of a quantified, visualist drive more concerned than the world had ever before known. This drive is marked by an increased sensitivity to space and a growing sophistication in ways of dealing with quantity and extension (126).”
12.) For instance, in his 1597 Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, Richard Hooker, an English priest in the Church of England, believes that the universe is governed by two laws: that of the nature of God and that of the analogies and correspondences seen everywhere among all the scales of creation. The former relates to God as a law unto Himself, “that involves the cosmic laws that govern the structure and behavior of planetary universe,” and the latter involving the principle of analogies and correspondences between all scales of creation, including the stars, the planets, the angels, the elements, Man, the plants, the animals and the inanimate objects.
13.) Richard II’s royal profile fits James I’s description of what a king is in a speech he delivered before parliament on March 21st, 1609: “Estate of Monarchy is the supremest upon the earth, for kings are not God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne (…) Kings are compared to fathers of families; for the king is truly parens patriae, the politic father of his people (…) [they] are compared to the head of microcosm of the body of man.”