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Essay on Narcissism and Metadrama in Richard II

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Narcissism and Metadrama in Richard II   


  Over the last thirty years, Shakespeare criticism has demonstrated a growing awareness of the self-reflexive or metadramatic elements in his works. Lionel Abel’s 1963 study, Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form, provided perhaps the first significant analysis of the ways in which Shakespeare thematizes theatricality, in the broadest sense of the term, in his tragedies, comedies, and histories. In his discussion of Hamlet, he makes the observation—perhaps a bit commonplace and obvious to us thirty years later—that the famous “play within a play” is only the most blatant example of self-conscious technique found throughout the tragedy: once we begin to look closely, we notice that nearly “every important character acts at some moment like a playwright, employing a playwright’s consciousness of drama to impose a certain posture or attitude on another” (46). Elsewhere in his book, Abel argues implicitly that Shakespeare, though he often used metadramatic techniques more in the interest of developing character than creating “an event,” the way later playwrights do, nevertheless composed plays which “are theatre pieces about life seen as already theatricalized” (60). In making such statements, Abel laid the groundwork for a number of subsequent studies, from Thomas F. Van Laan’s Role-Playing in Shakespeare, which appeared in 1978, to Judd D. Hubert’s more recent Metatheatre: The Example of Shakespeare.

            Critics following Abel’s lead have been especially interested in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. James L. Calderwood, for instance, reads the Henriad as Shakespeare’s reflection not only on a period of British history during which political authority, political “truth,...


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...l. Metatheatre. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.

Calderwood, James L. Metadrama in Shakespeare’s Henriad. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Dean, Leonard F. “Richard II: The State and the Image of the Theatre.” PMLA 67 (1952): 211-18.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Glasser, Marvin. “The Poet and the Royal Persona: Lyrical Structures in Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy.” Modern Language Quarterly 50 (1989): 125-44.

Hubert, Judd D. Metatheatre: The Example of Shakespeare. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Shakespeare, William. Richard II. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. G. B. Harrison. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948. 430-67.

Van Laan, Thomas F. Role-Playing in Shakespeare. Buffalo: U of Toronto P, 1978.


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