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The inauguration of Modern Subjectivity: Shakespeare’s “lyrical tragedy” Richard II


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1During the theorisation of Renaissance studies in the 1980s the focus was on the punctual emergence of the early modern subject circa 1600, the “decisive transitional moment” usually hinging on a reading of Hamlet’s emergent sense of interiority (Aers, “A whisper in the ear of the early modernists” passim). There are of course huge advances in such a reading as it highlights the contingent and created nature of human experience. Post-structuralism usefully isolated the ‘human’ as an invention of relatively recent date and new approaches such as cultural materialism and new historicism offered useful critiques of the condition under which modern subjectivity was produced as well as demonstrating the range of ways in which the “modern” subject was reinscribed as a object of rational knowledge. A theoretical approach to the question of subjectivity thus helped to overcome what had hitherto been a restrictively idealist and unified conception of the self. Yet in emphasising the transgressive impulse of overcoming the self and in breaking with more traditionalist approaches, radical critics did not weigh the consequence of this event reflectively enough. In this paper I want to explore the terms by which (for humanist and non-humanist alike) the instantiation of autonomy is necessarily bound up with an act of witness – an attempt to come to terms with the “performance of grief”. In weighing the political implications of this identification we are never far away here from the figure of the scapegoat; one who suffers alone, and although once “excoriated” by their contemporaries, latterly becomes “the founding figure of community” – a “sacred other” whose original plight and exile is now remembered long after, as being forgotten in their own time (Kearney, “Aliens and others”). In the political memory of a culture one might say that the scapegoat comes both too early and too late. The figure of the scapegoat locates a crossing point where the political and the singular conjoin powerfully, as a community negotiates its sense of collective identity according to its original exclusion of the other and its ability (or inability) to make reconciliation in the political present. In other words we need to understand that the disorder of identity conjured up by the scapegoat lies in a relation between the political and poetic. Moreover these exclusions of, and from citizenship become poignant: creating a form of testimonial singularity which evokes a sense of lost community but then also simultaneously provides the native language to call a new relation to community into being.

2Critics are customarily drawn to Hamlet in terms which evoke precisely this paradoxical logic of “exemplary” suffering, as a figure who is invoked as unprecedented and singular and yet one whose fate can simultaneously be formalised into a law concerning the generally applicable significance of such isolation. This situation becomes clear in the scene of mourning which is often selected ahead of the rampart scene as the opening of the play:

Queen: Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thy know’st ’tis common: all that lives must die
Passing through nature to eternity.

Hamlet: Ay, madam, it is common.

Queen:                       If it be
Why seems it so particular with thee?

  • 1  Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, London 1982. All subsequent quotes taken from this edition of the play

Hamlet: Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not “seems”.
“Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful river of the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed might seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe […]
                             (1. 2. 68-86)1

3In situ of course, Hamlet’s own performance of grief (which he carefully insists is not a matter of show) already remains wilfully misunderstood by those who witness it, so that his Uncle reprimands him for his “obstinate condolement”(1.2.93). Indeed, as Graham Holderness comments, Hamlet’s grief introduces an:

unwelcome discontinuity as he continues to “seek for [his] noble father in the dust” (1.2.71), staring downwards at the earth, not upwards towards the king; looking to death, not life, the past, not the future. In clinging to an unappeasable wounded “memory”, Hamlet nurtures a destabilising and oppositional historical consciousness (Shakespeare: The Histories 65 )

4This is surely right. Yet more accurately still we might say that what Hamlet grieves for here is to be deprived of mourning itself, a fate he feels bitterly and which surfaces as a recurrent preoccupation in the play as Hamlet is increasingly insistent in drawing a distinction between the mere theatricalisation of grief and his own inability to mourn openly, so that, as he later complains of the player:

 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 wann’d,
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 her,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? (2.2.545-56)

5Here, as elsewhere when he himself is cast as a spectator of grief, Hamlet “weeps at not weeping” (“O what a rouge and peasant slave am I” etc.) and as such, the “authentication” of his position as a mourner is curiously tantamount to a form of dispossession – reminiscent of Jacques Derrida’s description of the outlaw “a mourning not allowed […] a mourning without tears, a mourning deprived of weeping” (Of Hospitality: 111). Again, Hamlet’s experience of alienation and its relation to the figure of the scapegoat are never far away here and directly reminiscent of course of the generational legacy of Oedipus or Christ, as “officially” at least, the late king his father is forgotten. Indeed, it is as if Hamlet’s father (“Remember me”) already died elsewhere and as such Hamlet remains a hostage or a foreigner in his own land as there is no “determinable resting place” for his indeterminable mourning, no official commemorative monument for Hamlet Senior. The former King, is as Derrida might put it: “without monument without a localisable and circumscribed place of mourning” (111). In place of the stately procession of monumental grief we are offered instead the undue hast of “funeral bak’d meats” unceremoniously reprocessed for the marriage table (1. 2. 180-1).

Richard II

6In many respects, the dramatic prototype for Hamlet is already drawn in Shakespeare’s Richard II and, unsurprisingly perhaps, critics are frequently attracted to Richard and Hamlet in a similar vein, often again in terms of plotting the emergent subjectivity of each, a condition which Richard casts in terms roughly analogous to Hamlet, insofar as he tells us that the “external manners” of his lament:

  • 2  Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, London 1985. All subsequent quotes taken from this edition of the play.

Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur’d soul
There [Richard assures us] lies the substance […] (4. 1. 296-9)2

7Insofar as Hamlet and Richard offer a personal testimony to grief and solitude, then, as I’ve already suggested, the lyrical as well as political legacy of their suffering is no less significant. In Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories the “poetry” as well as the performance of grief conveys an autobiographical intensity which is again, at once uncommon and “singular” and yet typical. This poignant language of inconsolability which is at times almost reminiscent of the psalms in terms of its recitation of suffering and exile comes close to the experience of originary alienation characteristic of the “native speaker” that Derrida terms monolingualism of the other – a testament to suffering uttered in a language which both precedes and exceeds the speaker:

I am monolingual. My monolingualism dwells, and I call it my dwelling; it feels like one to me, and I remain in it and inhabit it. It inhabits me. The monolingualism in which I draw my very breath is, for me, my element. Not a natural element, not the transparency of the ether, but an absolute habitat. It is impassable, indisputable: I cannot challenge it except by testifying to its omnipresence in me. It would always have preceded me. It is me. For me, this monolingualism is me […] I would not be myself outside it […] This inexhaustible solipsism is myself before me. Lastingly. [A demeure.]

8Yet it will never be mine, this language, the only one I am destined to speak, as long as speech is possible for me in life and in death; you see, never will this language be mine. And truth to tell, it never was.

You at once appreciate the source of my sufferings, the place of my passions, my desires, my prayers, the vocation of my hopes, since this language runs right through them all. (Monolingualism of the Other 1-2)

  • 3  In Richard II while the terms of this linguistic dispossession are insistent they are by no means (...)

9In Richard II this lyrical excess of native language is not a matter of possession or dispossession in any straightforward sense, yet insofar as it is a language beyond temporal lease (“myself before me”) it is certainly linked insistently to a more haunting sense of inheritance and testimony. In a variety of permutations, “death” and “breath” mark the most insistent rhyming couplet of Richard II. The death of sovereigns and princes constitute overdetermined chronotopes, where, in speaking of the past and prophesising the future we are continuously yoked together in untimely dislocation (see esp. Gaunt’s “scept’red isle” speech 2.1.5; 31-2). Moreover, a sense of the impregnable insubstantiality of language also prevails – maybe it is a matter of native spirit or Seelenstoff ? – and intriguingly it tends to resurface when the most material and time bound matters of property are at stake. In this respect the theme of possession and dispossession is central to the play’s topographical as well as its linguistic axes in terms which no doubt simultaneously attest (in terms of the play’s representation of the body politic) both to the prepossession of feudalism and to the repossession and dislocation of a feudal world of which it is letting go3. As a consequence, the effect of speaking one’s native tongue frequently enacts precisely a sense of the strange intimacy of which Derrida speaks – I have only one language, yet it is not mine – a surrender to the disconcerting awareness of being possessed or dispossessed by an other.

10Richard’s deposition is entwined in an analogous sense of linguistic exappropriation, not merely in the sense that his “own breath” will release his sovereign oaths (4.1. 210), but also insofar as he has cause to imagine his own last breath might also serve as a political act of legacy, precisely in terms of a language which is insufficient to the present, but will live on in a future to come elsewhere:

Think I am dead, and that even here thou takest,
As from my death-bed, thy last living leave,
In winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid good night, to quite their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds;
For why, the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent of thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out,
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal-black,
For the deposing of a rightful king. (5. 1. 38-50)

11Richard’s claim is characteristically overblown, indeed, his sense of the way in which his language will “move” the world, so that even the senseless brands (or logs) in the fire will sympathise, is directly reminiscent of the way in which, at an earlier juncture in the play, he attempts to change reality by conjuring the very earth and stones to help his cause (3. 2. 23-6); yet his evaluation of the poetic experience of language is actually far more precise and to the point: that in some sense this language is not his own and that the voice he uses must eventually cede to the tongue of another. Insofar as Richard would willingly exchange death for a language in perpetuity, he does so in the knowledge that in death one no longer speaks the same language, invoking a sense of future advent or a “coming to pass” – “of an event that would no longer have the form or appearance of a pas: in sum, a coming without pas” (see Derrida, Aporias 8).

12To summarise then, Hamlet and Richard remain haunting yet exemplary figures, each uncommon yet somehow typical insofar as each is cast in “a supposedly singular situation by bearing witness to it in terms which go beyond it”(see Monolingualism of the Other, passim and also see Bennington “Double Tonguing”: 5). Rather like the unknown soldier, they serve to confirm that we cannot “know” what they suffer, yet they do so in a language of generality which is in some sense transcendental and with which we can all identify. What goes for me they seem to say goes for everybody, it’s enough to hear me “I am the universal sacrificial victim” (see Monolingualism of the Other 19-20)

13In short ’tis common, but then why seems it so particular with them? In the case of Hamlet, as Francis Barker remarks, it is almost as if history itself is hypostatised as individual grief (“Which Dead?”). Hamlet is historical then because inconsolable and this again in turn points us to the problem of the political, as Hamlet’s petition to justice (and indeed Richard’s) remain in some sense unfulfillable – we can’t “set things right” . Grief introduces a disruptive continuum which will continue to haunt us partly because as Freud reminds us for human’s pain and memory are clearly linked, it is not so much that history makes us suffer, we suffer (Hamlet insinuates) because we are historical. Yet having introduced this relation which hints at a being in common Hamlet then still insists that this grief is particular only to him and thus simultaneously defies our comprehension. His father’s death then like history manifests itself as an otherness which both attracts and defies our understanding, presenting us with unimaginable horrors to which we nevertheless share an affinity.

The aporia of autonomy

14One might say that the ontological uncertainties of Richard’s and Hamlet’s “hauntology” re-enact an exemplary horror tract, wherein those spectres that exceed embodiment paradoxically ensure the emergence of an equivocal “self-consciousness”. In attempting to retell this story we are confronted with a subject “tremulous” and alone from the point of its inception onwards: a “self” hovering on the point of collapse as the unstable fiction that it “actually is”. A self, unsure of its “self”, and equally unsure of its knowledge of the existence of others. Yet paradoxically of course, on this, the terrifying brink of the body’s disappearance, new figures and forms of authenticity are simultaneously required to overcome and combat the condition of actually being individuated, or modern. And within the discourses that attempt to rationalize, justify and politicise the emergence of an autonomous self, every attempt is made to counteract the concomitant alienation and solitude that our possession of this dubious “freedom” of individuality entails. This gives rise to what Jay Bernstein aptly labels the “aporia of autonomy” (“Autonomy and Solitude” 192-3). So that, as a direct result of its positioning within the philosophical discourse of modernity, the “self” which would do away with the body now also simultaneously strives to reincorporate that which is heteronomous to the self – the body, history, community – even as it (the self) continues to locate substantially new figures which acknowledge in their very excess, the failure of these attempted acts of incorporation (“Autonomy and Solitude” 192-3). In turn, the failure to re-assimilate that which is lost or beyond self-assimilation gives rise to the despairing mournful thought which was our first regret and our necessary accomplice in initially turning away from and doubting the body. And so, on it goes […]

15For his part, Richard returns compulsively to retrace this indeterminate boundary between self and other and self as other, as each claim for his new found autonomy is secured “only in its non-appearing” or in its “remaining in excess of whatever form or configuration is given it” (see Bernstein, The Fate of Art 175-6):

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it. Yet I’ll hammer it out.
              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, and by and by
Think I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Not I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d
With being nothing. (5.5. 1-5; 32-41)

16As we have seen, insofar as figures of and for death and the experience of demise litter the play they are consistently linked to Richard’s problematic relationship to language; wherein he contemplates the consequence of an abyssal collapse – of “becoming a nothing”, which he can neither affirm or deny, and which appears only “in its non-appearing”:

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.
Therefore no “no”, for I resign to thee.
Now, mark me how I will undo myself. (4.1. 201-3)

17Here again in the yoking of past and present the tension lies not so much in what Richard once was, but in what he must become, as, in acknowledging the extent to which suffering secures testimonial exemplarity (where as we’ve seen less is finally more), Richard nevertheless already finds it difficult to embrace the obligation of his new found singularity:

[…] O that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been!
Or not remember what I must be now! (3.3. 136-9)

18The impossible relation of which Richard speaks only confirms and re-launches endless new possibilities for his affinity to solitude and isolation into being. As such, the soon to become former King, experiences nothing more or less than a living interment; and, in being “dead without being dead”, he now looks at things simultaneously from below, above and beyond – trampled into the dust:

 […] I’ll be buried in the king’s highway,
Some way of common trade, where subject’s feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head;
For on my heart they tread now whilst I live:
And buried once, why not upon my head?

19In Richard II these paradoxical tropes of self-erasure and omniscience necessarily open out onto a political dimension – one which is acutely over-determined by the doctrine of the King’s two bodies (see Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies); yet, as Hugh Grady recently reminds us, in the extreme dislocation of his exile and suffering, Richard also anticipates the emergence of what we might term a poetic subjectivity: “an unfixing of identity and the construction of alternative but unfixed subjectivity” effected in the play as a “self-severing – or disinterpellation – from a previously taken-for-granted world of legitimated values and ideologies” – a process which, in the case of Richard, Grady argues, is synonymous with “a new idea of subjectivity” and of the emergence of the new category of an autonomous aesthetic in Western culture. Such subjectivity Grady reminds us is coded as:

unfettered, aimless, disconnected and alienated – but also suffused with libido and creative of some of the most remarkable insights, poetry and dramatic moments of these great plays. (Grady, “On the need for a differentiated theory of (early) modern subjects” 47)

20While cultural materialism and new historicism have offered us the reductive functionalism of an “automaton-like” subject determined by an Althusserian/Foucauldian matrix of ideology and power, Grady argues that we need to think of the creative and transfigurative potentials of Richard’s self-hood as a direct precursor of aesthetic modernity.

21Yet interestingly of course Richard’s poetics of grief also simultaneously invokes an earlier legacy of lament that pre-dates Shakespearean drama as, in casting himself as a sacrificial victim and in inviting us to “peer into heart of nothing” his appeal is already directly reminiscent of the radical reflexivity of an earlier Christian tradition, where the path to a “saving self-knowledge” simultaneously locates an increasing “bemusement” concerning the self, so that, as Augustine puts it in his Confessions: “I became a great riddle to myself” (cited in Aers, “A whisper in the ear of the early modernists” 182 and also see Taylor, Sources of the Self 131). As such Richard’s appeal is already curiously outmoded – reminiscent of the lyrical suffering evoked by antecedents of poetic subjectivity in sources as wide-ranging as hagiographic writing and courtly romance (also overlooked by cultural materialism) and especially in terms of the “confessional Augustianism” of Petrarch and other poets (again see Aers passim). In short, Shakespeare’s “lamentable tragedy”, Richard II, is a Passion play, where the legacy of an incomprehensible grief and the aporetic configuration of its interiority is entwined with the homilectic exemplum – we are confronted with the sublime alterity of our own being configured as the “inward beholding” of an external truth in which we now may acknowledge a share. As such, Richard’s lyricism dramatises a process self-iconisation where Christological metaphors and allusions to sacrifice and martyrdom are painfully embodied in the act of performance itself:

  • 4  Here as elsewhere Richard bears a striking resemblance to Walter Benjamin’s description of the Ger (...)

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 little kingdom for a little grave

22In his insistent apprehension of bereavement Richard eventually settles for casting himself in terms of those future commemorative practices that will canonise his memory and by which his anonymity will simultaneously guarantee his legacy – as the impossible object of his own grief. Yet the risk is that Richard’s hyperbole will be taken literally, or rather as merely theatrical. And of course it is precisely in these terms that Richard is often accused by his latter-day critics of waxing too lyrical, his overt theatricalisation of grief drawing the accusation of improbability, the tears of a “player king” re-enacting the terms of what Freud would term a “hysterical” mourning – interminably immersed in sad events that “occurred long ago”. Yet if the denial of Richard’s grief by others only consolidates the process by which he is cast as irretrievable, it also offers an audience a position from which to redeem themselves. In short, the extent of Richard’s over-dramatic isolation will in time also itself prove a measure or gauge of an audience’s willingness to overcome their scepticism and to commit to the very rites of pilgrimage he envisages.

The asymmetry of suffering

23In setting these arguments concerning the poetics of subjectivity in a theatrical context I want to argue that if autonomy and the performance of grief are entwined then this is because autonomy is finally the gift of the other. In the face of suffering as Jay Bernstein reminds us “‘recognition is always a risk, an exposure of the self to the other, and being recognised always a gift” (The Fate of Art 179) . In some sense this is surely the risk of sacrifice too? Again, in relation to Richard II, it becomes possible to construe a complex relation between victim and viewer here as we simultaneously act as host and hostage for Richard’s grief only insofar as in granting it exemplary status (insofar that it is shared and particular) we then also acknowledge our own responsibility for his suffering. It is as if Shakespeare’s theatre involves us in a ritualised “cult of the dead”: one which serves to accentuate our “bereaved apprehension” of the interminable border between self and other and self construed as other – of a being together in isolation and of a self-relation which welcomes and witnesses the other within “its being itself as different from itself”(see Aporias 61). The “performance of grief” not only casts the inevitable fact of this “separateness” into open relation, but in demonstrating the conditions through which “the dependence between self and other” becomes recognised, it also discloses the “asymmetrical relation undergirding mutual recognition itself” (see Bernstein, The Fate of Art 179). And if our relation to suffering, and suffering the suffering of others, is necessarily asymmetrical then surely this also indirectly acknowledges the place of the spectator as potentially securing the heteronomous conditions for autonomy? The risk of tragedy – the risk of Antigone if we construe her death as an act of love, lies in a “recognition of the ethical totality to which she belongs” rather than as an act of expatiation or recompense (180). This process makes an alternative account of the relationship between the poetics and politics of autonomy possible, as, inside and outside the theatre, we might say that sacrifice presents with the possibility that the risk of the political is to be found in conceiving “separateness as the unity of our condition” – we belong together but only apart (see Mulhall below). Consider, for example, the demonstrator helplessly waving a flag in front of a tank on Tiananmen Square which lives on, not only as an enduring memory of sacrifice, but also as a form of joint responsibility which we acknowledge both as an obligation and as a prompt to future action. This anonymised “iconic” image continues to be shared, exchanged and reprocessed. It is endlessly iterable yet is this to say that in its “interruption of history” nothing else should survive? Like Richard’s, the moment is not without trace, and its after-effect offers us a tangible alternative. In “staging” noble memory as “an impossible site of action” the sublime no doubt offers us a consolation in its “aestheticisation” of the political (Bernstein, Fate of Art 182). Yet, as Bernstein reminds us, it is possible to comprehend the sublime otherwise, if we concede that: “the price of “knowing” the sublime as the sedimented memory of a tragic politics reduces its heterogeneity, gives it and the history of which it is part an impossible unity”(182).

24From an audiences’ perspective, insofar as the witness of sacrifice intensifies this asymmetrical relationship between viewer and victim it then also then exposes us to the risk of the unity of performance as a form of political praxis. The theatre creates a place where as Stephen Mulhall puts it (commenting upon Stanley Cavell’s reading of Shakespearen Tragedy): “citizens can affirm the inevitable fact of their separateness as the unity of their condition, and acknowledge their joint responsibility for the further available facts of differentiation, of denial and separation, that pervade their society.” (Stanley Cavell 201) Rather than cede sacrifice to the non-knowledge of sublime alterity, we need to acknowledge sacrifice as a “historical site” in which to reactivate a “political memory”, one which in recognition of political action needs to be appropriated “for the sake of the other” (see Bernstein, The Fate of Art 182-7).

              In the name of the Rose

Bushy: Each substance of a grief has twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so.
For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon,
Show nothing but confusion; ey’d awry,
Distinguish form. So your sweet Majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Find shapes of grief more than himself to wail,
Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not; then, thrice gracious queen,
More than your lord’s departure weep not – more’s not seen,
Or if it be,’tis with false sorrow’s eye,
Which for things true, weeps things imaginary. (2.2. 14-27)

25In Richard II the visual turn of anamorphism surfaces as the most persistent register of, and for, the asymmetrical relationship between the spectator and the performance of grief. Here, as Howard Caygill observes, in the course of refuting the Queen’s “apprehension of nothing”, Bushy’s argument could be cast as classically philosophical, in that it is unable to conceive a reality that would not partake of being. In the face of Isabella’s grief Bushy’s response is to make a reductive distinction between being and nothing and to refuse the “equivocal character of nothing and the sadness it can provoke” (Caygill, “Shakespeare’s monster of nothing”107-11). With the benefit of hindsight Bushy argues that the Queen will see the error of her ways and for the time being “rightly gaz’d upon” she should look instead to the “substance” (rather than the shadow) of her grief “which is indeed the king’s departure” (111). Yet, of course, Queen Isabella’s tears repeat the chronotope of leave taking that we have already rehearsed in some detail above, as, from the outset of the scene, she is preoccupied with the unsettling anticipation of a future anterior, so that her first farewell might well be her last, or at least is already cast in anticipation of a future to come – as such she is already a hostage and a host to a grief that is tangible even as it is unpremeditated:

[…] yet I know no cause
Why I should welcome such a guest as grief,
Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest
As my sweet Richard. Yet again methinks
Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb
Is coming towards me, and in my inward soul
With nothing trembles; at some thing it grieves,
More than with parting from my lord the king.
For nothing has begot my sometime grief,
Or something hath the nothing that I grieve –
’Tis in reversion that I do possess
But what it is that is not yet known what,
I cannot name: ’tis nameless woe, I wot.
                      (2.2.6-13; 36-40)

26Isabella’s untimely dislocation is sited here in the abyssal relation to an interminable mourning that has “the uncanny quality of being experienced without being an object of experience; it has the effect of an object without being an object” (“Shakespeare’s monster of nothing”111), as Caygill argues Isabella’s “heavy nothing” is not subsumed within the classical opposition between nothing or something, but it is still a nothing that is not nothing. In short this too is a type of nativity, but as yet it is only stillborn (cf. 2.2. 62-66).

27More particularly of course the conceit of anamorphism already anticipates the sublime apprehension of “death-in-life” that pervades Richard II and again Shakespeare knowingly stages a carefully orchestrated hermeneutic dilemma here by invoking the asymmetrical figure of the distorted momento mori most famously prefigured in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, where, as Catherine Belsey reminds us, the anamorphic skull acts in an analogous fashion to “an uncanny phrase or figure” which in disrupting “our seamless mastery of the text, takes it in an unprecedented direction, or leaves us undecided between possible interpretations” (Belsey, “English Studies in the Postmodern Condition: Towards a Place for the Signifier”). Interestingly enough, in the critical afterlife of the play it is precisely this anamorphic or indirect view of an unprecedented history witnessed from the sidelines that gains prominence, most evidently in the post-deposition report of Richard’s entrance into London (5. 2) which, as Nicolas Brooke notes, is endlessly rehearsed by eighteenth and nineteenth century commentators and rapidly becomes the single most anthologised speech of the whole play (Brooke, Shakespeare: Richard II):

York: As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-grac’d actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious;
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on Richard. 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.
                           (5. 2.23-36)

28Strikingly of course, York’s “elegy” evokes nothing more or less than Richard’s progress to Calvary, as “wearing the badges of his grief” the former King is now firmly cast as the ambivalent witness of his own fate, “his face” contorted in pleasure and pain “still combating with tears and smiles”. Intriguingly an analogy to the theatre is also close by, as we learn of the “contempt” of those who refuse to acknowledge Richard or who avert their gaze or worse still “scowl” on him. The audience is offered a Cavellian-like exposure of the failure of others to acknowledge alterity and invited to chose complicity or to place themselves in the open presence of Richard’s isolation, in order to make Richard’s present “his” and “theirs”. As the poet Dryden remarks in his recitation of the scene: “Refrain from pity if you can […] ” (Dryden, “‘The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy’, Preface to Troilus and Cressida [1679]” : 19). By the time Hazlitt considers the play, the aesthetic implications of the speech are so evident as to be superfluous:

There is only one passage more, the description of his [Richard’s] entrance into London with Bolingbroke, which we should like to quote here, if it had not been so used and worn out, so thumbed and got by rote, so praised and painted, but its beauty surmounts all these considerations […] (Hazlitt, “Mr Kean’s Richard II [1815]” 40)

29For Coleridge too, the exemplification of Richard’s grief rests simultaneously on its singularity and on its pathos, observing that Shakespeare “has represented this character in a very peculiar manner. […] relying on Richard’s disproportionate sufferings and gradually emergent good qualities for our sympathy” (Coleridge, “Marginalia and Notebooks” 30).

30Yet, of course, in advance of York’s retrospective account of Richard’s grief we already witness the entrance to London during 5. 1., where it is presented “at first hand” as an encounter between Richard and his Queen:

Queen: This way the king will come; this is the way
But soft, but see, or rather do not see,
My fair rose wither – yet look up, behold,
That you in pity may dissolve to dew,
And wash him fresh again with true-love tears.
Ah, thou, the model where old Troy did stand!
Thou map of honour, thou King Richard’s tomb,
And not King Richard! Thou most beauteous inn,
Why should hard-favour’d grief be lodg’d in thee,
When triumph is become an alehouse guest? (5. 1. 1, 7-15)

31Again, several of the lyrical antecedents to suffering that we have already rehearsed above resurface here: “but see, or rather do not see”; “thou King Richard’s tomb,/And not King Richard” confirms the trope of anamorphism as the visual cue for Richard’s outlaw status – the scapegoat who is held hostage but also now a belated host to Bolingbroke, whose act of usurpation is as undeserving “alehouse guest” to Richard’s “beauteous inn”. In its entirety the first fifty lines of 5.1. double as a sonnet sequence rehearsed between Richard and his Queen “in the name of the rose” – the religious connotations of which are self-evident and where, as usurping sorrow and pitying love combat “hard-favour’d grief” the thornful act of love’s sacrifice is refreshed with the embalming “true love tears” of love’s pilgrimage. In the sonnets, as Lisa Freinkel recently reminds us, the withered or cankered “Rose” is one of the key tropes in this, Shakespeare’s “theology of figure”, insofar as it secures its own form of singular exemplarity in perpetuity, as it awakens our desire for a lost love that will ever be, and yet will never be:

Given that any particular Rose of beauty will surely die, we desire increase that thereby the general rose of beauty might live. The individual may be lost, but that which we envisioned through him, the universal that inspirited his particular flesh, the rose that animated the Rose, this will live on in others. The Rose who enfigured beauty – who was the Rose, the paradigm of beauty, in fact – this Rose will live on in later Roses who carry his name and copy his example. (Reading Shakespeare’s Will 196)

32In response, if, for Isabella, Richard’s wounded memory remains in some sense unappeasable the former monarch’s momentary advice to his former Queen is at once to look to the present:

Rich.: Join not with grief, fair woman, do not so,
To make my end too sudden. Learn, good soul,
To think our former state a happy dream;
From which awak’d, the truth of what we are
Shows us but this. I am sworn brother, sweet,
To grim Necessity, and he and I
Will keep a league till death. Hie thee to France
And cloister thee in some religious house.
Our holy lives must win a new world’s crown
Which our profane hours here have thrown down. (5.1. 16-25)

33Here, at last, Richard offers a place out of joint (“Join not”) from which not to merely “join” with grief (“do not so, / To make my end too sudden”) but to learn to read it too. We might say that Richard en-joins his Queen to read from another position, and in doing so, he draws attention to the subject as precisely positioned, “making sense from a specific and limited place” (see Belsey, “English Studies in the Postmodern Condition”). In inviting his Queen to see “the truth of what we are” (repositioned now by what Richard terms “grim Necessity”) he locates a site for grief which is sited “in history, in culture, in this moment as opposed to that” – and dislocated, unheimlich, “other than it is, beside itself” – outside of the comfortable command of hindsight or the “imaginary mastery” from which he reminds Isabella she must now awake: “Learn, good soul to think our former state a happy dream”. Although characteristically, Richard equivocates to the last and quickly replaces an opening yet to be determined, with an abrupt form of idealised closure, directing his Queen to remain cloistered in religious seclusion from worldly concerns: “Hie thee to France / And cloister thee in some religious house.” Yet read in “a league till death” the grim necessity of Richard’s closing injunction also turns against itself, as he urges his Queen to practise a form of devotion that will build a new world of caring out of grieving and embrace a lyrical union (an impossible unity of the sublime) as the share of the gift of a divine love, thus winning a future sacred out of the profane temporal:

Our holy lives must win a new world’s crown
Which our profane hours here have thrown down. (5.1. 24-5)

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1  Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, London 1982. All subsequent quotes taken from this edition of the play.

2  Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, London 1985. All subsequent quotes taken from this edition of the play.

3  In Richard II while the terms of this linguistic dispossession are insistent they are by no means uniform. Here, for example, is
Mowbray on the verge of exile, taking his leave at the very beginning of the play:
The language I have learnt these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo,
And now my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cas’d up –
Or being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.
What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?
(1.3. 159-65; 172-3)
On the face of it Mowbray’s plea is grounded as a claim for free speech although it is difficult to see how free speech could ever prevail in the political regime in which he locates himself. In speaking of “nativity” in these terms Mowbray nostalgically equates locality and utterance, reminiscent in some ways of a harmonious pre-lapsarian Adamic language where, as part of their natural property, words are perfect in their equivalence to things. As a consequence, to be banished from the air of one’s native breath is, as Terry Eagleton puts it in his summary of Mowbray’s speech “to be drained of the breath of its language” (William Shakespeare). This seems to be an extreme form of monolingualism then, one which secures a form of absolute ontological claim insofar as in a rather fixed sense, there is no sense of differentiation between place, language and identity, it is as if “native language were life itself”.

4  Here as elsewhere Richard bears a striking resemblance to Walter Benjamin’s description of the German Trauerspiel or Mourning Play, where again as George Steiner remarks: “It is not the tragic hero who occupies the centre of the stage, but the Janus-faced composite of tyrant and martyr of the Sovereign who incarnates the mystery of absolute will and of its victim (so often himself)” (Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama 16).

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John J. JOUGHIN, « The inauguration of Modern Subjectivity: Shakespeare’s “lyrical tragedy” Richard II »E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 28 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Central Lancashire
Reader in English Literature
John J. Joughin is Head of Humanities and Reader in English Literature at the University of Central Lancashire. He is editor of Philosophical Shakespeares (Routledge 2000) and co­editor with Simon Malpas of The New Aestheticism (MUP 2003).

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