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Fact, fiction and faction : a study of Richard II in the light of the historical sources and conflicting attitudes toward man and his role in the historical process Alston, Brent


A narrative description of an historical event reflects the nature of such an event as seen from a particular perspective. However, Shakespeare's History Plays equate history and drama by re-presenting the drama implicit in events that are surrounded by speculation and interpretation. The audience is thereby placed in the position of having to interpret the drama that purports to be both "dramatic" and "historical" or accept the impossibility of understanding history. Confronted with a representation of a past event, the audience is thrown back upon its own attitudes towards man in the world: the drama merely reflects human nature as the observer experiences and articulates his view of the historical drama. Confounded by what I term the "tragic perspective"—a perspective that the audience is encouraged to experience—the audience's prejudices are purged, momentarily. Finally, the tragic perspective encourages the audience to adopt a paradoxical view of man in the world; despite the seemingly incontravertable evidence that history affords as proof of the essentially "bad" nature of man, we are asked to adopt an essentially creative view that assumes that man is indeed made in the image of his Creator and basically "good". The drama draws upon a deeply rooted hope that man is at least redeemable. Shakespeare reveals the paradoxical consequences of assuming that man is fundamentally "bad" by showing the human suffering that results from assuming the worst. The audience is, of course, free to choose; but our views of the past and the present to a large extent determine the future. This realization is characteristic of the tragic hero's retrospective wisdom—a wisdom that is attained too late. By examining Richard II in the light of the historical sources, I hope to reveal how the audience is left in an ambiguous state when it comes to interpreting the motives of the characters that are both fictional and historical. The Machiavellian attitude toward man, which governs Richard III and is tempered in Richard II, is often brought to bear on the drama when critics attempt to judge the motives of the main characters. In writing History Plays, Shakespeare is recreating ambiguity in the broadest sense. Mystery, as opposed to definitive history, is perhaps the true subject and conclusion of the drama.

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