Music at the Close: Richard II in the Elizabethan Anthologies

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Abstract

The dying words spoken by John of Gaunt have a long afterlife: as sententious lines bound to catch the eye of a commonplacing reader, they seem almost designed to appear outside their dramatic setting, in manuscript and printed compilations. This essay reads Gaunt's deathbed scene, in William Shakespeare's Richard II 2.1, in the light of two anthologies printed in 1600, Englands Parnassus and Belvedere, both derived in some way from the circle of printers and editors surrounding John Bodenham. Richard II's strong representation in both volumes testifies to its wider popularity, and that popularity was doubtless aided in turn by these anthologies. Beyond that, though, this moment of the play seems peculiarly anthologizable. Words spoken on the point of death were frequently thought to acquire a special truthfulness, even a sense of prophecy. Through an examination of dying moments in a variety of early modern sources, from Michel de Montaigne to Antonio Minturno, this essay is an experiment in thinking about how William Shakespeare might have shaped his plays for a commonplace-book culture. It looks closely at the unexpectedly lyrical quality of the sententiae themselves and the intimate relationship between lyric and sententiae in the play and the anthologies. It reads Gaunt's famous encomium to "this sceptred Ile" as it appears when read through the anthologies' negotiation of poetry and nationhood. And it considers the affinity between the peculiar life of the "choicest flowers" gathered in these anthologies, and the dying words they choose.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)696-727
JournalStudies in Philology
Volume116
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2019

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