"The meanest man...shall be permitted freely to accuse": The Commoners in Woodstock


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

The 1590s saw an upsurge of interest in the medieval king Richard II. This interest culminated in 1601, when the Earl of Essex requested a version of Richard II's story to be staged on the eve of his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.1 An important early contributor to the Renaissance debate on the politics of the Richard II story, one that is often overlooked by students of the early modem drama, is the anonymous play Woodstock, written around 1592. Woodstock comes to us almost completely devoid of a history of its own; we know nothing about its author and very little about the circumstances of its production. It survives in only one manuscript (probably owned by Lord Pembroke's players2), which is missing a few pages at the end. All critics who have examined the manuscript agree that the amount of wear and tear shown by manuscript, which was used as a prompt copy by the company, indicates that the script was often in use, and hence that the play was quite popular.3 This evidence of popularity becomes more intriguing when we contemplate the play's unabashedly radical politics. For Woodstock is unparalleled among Renaissance texts in its willingness to question princely authority and imagine the redistribution of that authority in more satisfactory ways. Throughout, the play makes itself a staunch advocate of the commoners, as it portrays the reign of a despotic prince from the perspective of those who must live under that reign.

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