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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: November 2010

Richard II's Yorkist Editors

Summary

The possibility that Shakespeare's Richard II was the play described as ‘the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II’ and performed on the eve of the Earl of Essex's rebellion in February 1601 has assured its status as New Historicism's poster boy. The association with Essex makes the play into a perfect exemplar of the Elizabethan theatre's doomed gestures towards subversion; if it didn't exist, we would have to invent it (which, of course, perhaps we have). But even as criticism has emphasized the radical energies of a play in which a lawful king is deposed without any immediate consequence for his enemies, the editorial tradition has sought to neutralize its political challenge. As this article will show, we read Richard II in texts that are much less comfortable with the fact of the transfer of sovereigns dramatized in the play than its earliest printed versions. Furthermore, in always preferring to reprint the 1608 text (Q4) over the popular Elizabethan editions, recent editors have tended to sacralize Richard's kingship, and to neutralize those aspects of the early texts that most challenge a mystificatory myth of unitary monarchical authority. In this delicate play of shifting allegiances and changing sides, few editors have easily followed Shakespeare's own examples of York, Northumberland and even roan Barbary, in accommodating themselves to the Lancastrian rule of Bullingbrook as Henry IV. Rather than seeking the play’s political charge in putative early modern performances, therefore, this article describes a Ricardian tradition of editing Richard II in the late twentieth century, an uninvestigated editorial consensus silently complicit in minimizing the play’s political charge.