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Review of TRAGEDY OF RICHARD II Part One, Edited by Michael Egan

By Ramon Jiménez

The Tragedy of Richard II, Part One: a newly authenticated play by William Shakespeare Edited, introduced and with variorum notes by Michael Egan. 4 v. The Edwin Mellen Press 2006.

The precise size of the canon of Shakespearean drama has fluctuated little in the nearly four hundred years since the publication in 1623 of thirty-six plays in the First Folio. Pericles was admitted in the late eighteenth century, and The Two Noble Kinsmen was added to the Penguin Shakespeare in 1977, the Oxford Shakespeare in 1987, and to the Arden in 1997, albeit as a collaboration with John Fletcher. After Eric Sams made a decisive case for it in 1996, Edward III was included in the 2nd edition of the Riverside Shakespeare in 1997 and in the New Cambridge series in 1998.

On the other hand, scholars and critics have steadily chipped away at the edges of the canon by assigning parts of half-a-dozen plays to collaborators, the most recent being Brian Vickers, who in 2002 assembled the evidence that The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII were co-authored by Fletcher, and that three other authors in addition to Shakespeare were responsible for Pericles, Titus Andronicus, and Timon of Athens. .

Therefore, Michael Egan’s ascription to Shakespeare of the anonymous history play known to most as Thomas of Woodstock is a major event in Shakespeare attribution studies. His case is admirably researched, argued, and documented, and is totally convincing. Although Egan is not the first to make this claim, his is the most complete and authoritative brief for the addition of this play, which he calls I Richard II , to the Shakespeare canon. His attribution is based on abundant parallels of thought, imagery, vocabulary, and style between the anonymous play and those in the accepted canon, especially its sequel, Richard II. This addition to the canon is not only significant in itself, but also because of its clear implication that there are other anonymous history plays that may also merit inclusion.

Thomas of Woodstock or I Richard II (the title page is missing in the ms.) is one of fifteen anonymous plays found in the notorious British Library manuscript-Egerton 1994-that has intrigued and puzzled scholars since James Halliwell discovered it in the late 1860s. The individual play manuscripts are thought to have been owned by the actor William Cartwright, and assembled and bound in the mid-seventeenth century. Several of them have since been attributed to John Fletcher, Thomas Heywood and others. The only other play in the collection that has received extended attention is Edmond Ironside , which was identified by Eric Sams in 1985 as a Shakespeare play dating to c. 1588. The fact that these two important plays would be entirely unknown to us except for this single manuscript (assembled some sixty years after their composition) calls attention to the shallow and sketchy knowledge we have of Elizabethan drama.

As for Thomas of Woodstock , Egan writes that “Nothing definite is known of the play’s origins and early stage history . . .” His analysis leads him to conclude that Shakespeare wrote it for a touring company, possibly Pembroke’s Men, in 1592-3, after the Henry VI series and before Richard II. The events of the play are arranged in eighteen scenes that take place during a ten-year period (1387-97) during the reign of Richard II (1377-99)- Woodstock thus fitting neatly between Edward III and Richard II in the scheme of Shakespeare’s history plays . The dialogue contains just under 3000 lines delivered by thirty-nine named characters, all but five of whom are men, including two ghosts. The horse that appears onstage in Act III does not speak, but is addressed at length by Woodstock himself. The poetry is primarily blank verse marked by “a relatively high proportion of feminine verse-endings,” which is “consistent with Shakespeare’s early practice.”

The action of the play opens with Richard’s abortive attempt to assassinate his uncles, followed by his appointment of his crony Tresilian as Lord Chief Justice, and culminates in the arrest and murder in 1397 of Richard’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. The dramatist is casual in his arrangement of historical events, but clearly intended to adhere to the basic story of Richard’s reign, whether factual or rumored. Thomas of Woodstock ends with Richard still on his throne, but weakened after a confrontation with his nobles over the murder of Woodstock . This is the state of affairs at the opening of Richard II , which is generally dated 1594-5. Over the five acts, Richard is transformed from an “arrogant youth” into the “self-pitying, self-dramatizing masochist” we find in Richard II .

 

Thomas of Woodstock and the Shakespeare Canon

In his discussion of the play, which runs to more than 500 pages, Egan repeatedly points to the typically Shakespearean markers to be found in Woodstock , including “careful blueprinting, grand historical sweep, biting political concerns, sharp differentiations of character, vivid personal dictions, inventive prose, flashes of lyricism, [and] tragi-comic portraits of court and country life.” Its themes resemble those of Shakespeare’s histories, which “typically concern themselves with the dilemmas of succession complicated by the ambitions of the boy-king’s relatives.” The “historical grasp, range and scholarly industry” of the anonymous playwright “are matched,” according to Egan “only by Shakespeare . . . among Elizabethan dramatists, Marlowe and Jonson not excluded.”

Both Richard II plays deal with the “military and political confrontation between the emergent land-owners of the late fourteenth century in close association with the monarchy, and the long-established feudal aristocracy represented by the uncles of the King.” Readers of the history plays, especially Oxfordians, will not be surprised by Egan’s observation that both plays “uphold the uncles and their allies . . . ” Nor will they be surprised at his remarks that the author “was no ordinary playwright,” that he “seems to have had access to the Revels office,” and displayed “familiarity with the court.”

In the cast are not only almost all the characters we find in Richard II , but several who could fit in many another Shakespeare play. Nimble is an affable but devious assistant to the Lord Chief Justice, Cowtail a grazier, and Simon Ignorance a self-important but illiterate bailiff who has more than a passing resemblance to Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing . These three are involved in the comic sub-plot, which centers around extorting money from local officials-another dramatic device that points ahead to Shakespeare, this time to Falstaff. In his cell, Woodstock is visited by the ghosts of his father, Edward III, and his eldest brother, Edward the Black Prince, who warn him of his impending assassination, which is then accomplished by two anonymous murderers at the direction of a henchman of the King, much as the murder of Clarence was accomplished in Richard III .

The core of Egan’s case for Shakespeare’s authorship is the swarm of images, thoughts, words, phrases, and rhetorical and dramatic devices found in Thomas of Woodstock , of which there is “some sort of echo, parallel or strong resemblance” in Shakespeare’s plays. There is no Shakespeare play without them, and Egan cites more than sixteen hundred.

In another category of evidence are the close connections between Woodstock and Richard II that go beyond characters, lines and phrases, and extend even to the manner of composition. Egan quotes previous editors and critics who remarked on the similar dramaturgy and characterization in the two plays-compressions of time, scenes of leave-taking, the histrionic Richard, and the plain simplicity of Woodstock himself, etc. Most of these details are peculiar to the two plays, and are not supported in the chronicles of the period.

Another aspect of the two plays’ connections are the numerous details of plot, action, language, and characterization in Richard II that are explained or clarified by reference to Thomas of Woodstock . Egan quotes one recent critic on this topic:

[The two dramas are] halves of a dramatic diptych, a theatrical interplay of cause and effect in which the consequence of the events in Woodstock is displayed in Richard II . . . Woodstock is not merely background or source material for Shakespeare’ s play, but a companion piece which articulates some of the silences and absences of Richard II . . . Without Woodstock , Richard II , as it was written by the Elizabethan Shakespeareand experienced by its early audiences, is incomplete.

 

Nearly all previous editors and commentators noted these and other similarities, but treated them as coincidences or simple borrowings by Shakespeare, and refused to assign the play to him. A handful suggested that this evidence pointed to Shakespeare, but did not support their claims with anything like the extended analysis that Egan has produced.

Those few scholars who have attempted it have ascribed Thomas of Woodstock to half-a-dozen different authors from Peele to Nashe, but most declare the playwright unknown. In 2001 MacD. P. Jackson dated Woodstock to 1608 and named Samuel Rowley as the author on the strength of his single extant play, When You See Me You Know Me (1604). This late date makes Rowley the debtor for the similarities between Woodstock and Richard II . But Egan exposes the omissions and contradictions in Jackson ‘s argument, and easily rebuts his narrow stylometric analysis with Jackson ‘s own evidence.

Despite a dozen previous editions, Woodstock has been largely ignored by academia, and is not even found on most lists of Shakespeare apocrypha. Egan credits Oxfordians with bringing attention to it in the late 1990s, leading to several pioneering productions, one of which Mark Anderson and C. V. Berney reported on in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (35:2, Summer 1999). The play was also presented, with Edward III and Richard II , as part of a thrilling single-day marathon by the Pacific Repertory Theater during the SOS Conference at Carmel in 2001.

Thomas of Woodstock or I Richard II ?

Editors and critics appear to be evenly divided about what to call the play. In his edition, which he calls Woodstock , a Moral History (1946), A. P. Rossiter observed that the play was not about the fall of Richard, and that “throughout it keeps to the character, dismissal, retirement, arrest and murder of Woodstock .” For these reasons, Thomas of Woodstock is the better title. It is also a welcome departure from the numbered kings and parts, and obviates adding a confusing “Part II” to the existing Richard II .

The four volumes of Michael Egan’s The Tragedy of Richard II, Part One are arranged in three parts that include not only the play text and his detailed discussion of it, but also a variorum (in two volumes) of the text and notes of all twelve previous editions. It is hard to imagine that there will be much more to be written about Thomas of Woodstock than what Egan has included in these 2100 pages. The Edwin Mellen Press merits a compliment for subsidizing what can only be called an author’s dream. On the other hand, it might be a reader’s nightmare. Egan’s commentary and analysis range over two volumes and are so erratically organized that they are difficult to use. Without an index, it is nearly impossible to find specific items, and there is no index. It’s also nearly impossible to find an affordable copy of Woodstock . However, the publisher is offering all four volumes in paperback for $50. + shipping through June only. Also, Rossiter’s text is online, but without notes, in the Oxford Text Archive at http://ota.ahds.ac.uk.

In the end, Egan’s case is so thoroughly documented that it cannot be denied. He fully proves his remark that ” I Richard II is . . . easily as good as Shakespeare’s early Histories, whose mode and manner it closely resembles.” And he is justified in claiming that the author of Woodstock not only influenced Marlowe, but “was responsible for some of the most important technical advances in the theater of his day.”

Michael Egan is Scholar in Residence at the Hawaii campus of Brigham Young University , and has written or edited ten books, including studies of Ibsen, Mark Twain, and Henry James. All Shakespeare scholars have reason to be grateful to him for not only resolving a longstanding authorship puzzle, but adding another rich and glittering history play to the Shakespeare canon. Although Egan adheres throughout to the Stratfordian theory of authorship, those who dispute it owe him further thanks. His convincing demonstration of Shakespeare’s authorship of the anonymous Thomas of Woodstock suggests that the path will be easier for those who seek to bring other anonymous, but obviously Shakespearean, history plays, such as Edmond Ironside , The True Tragedy of Richard the Third , and The Troublesome Raigne of John , into the canon, where they belong.

 

Reprinted with Permission of the author from the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter

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