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“Thou livest and breathest, yet art thou slain in him”: The Absence of Power in Richard II


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

“Thou livest and breathest, yet art thou slain in him”:1The Absence of Power in Richard II

Richard II
begins with a dead body. There is no corpse present on stage and no funeral procession, yet the body of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and the king’s uncle, haunts the beginning of the play and sets the tone for its exposition. It haunts the opening scene as two opponents—Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray—accuse each other of various crimes in front of the king, among them Bolingbroke’s claim that Mowbray murdered Woodstock. As Nicolas Grene writes, “the event to which Richard II looks back most immediately is the relatively recent murder of the Duke of Gloucester.”2 This unexplained death—Michael Hattaway notes that Woodstock “died in mysterious circumstances” in Calais in 1397—foreshadows future difficulties for the king.3 As I will show, his absent body becomes a vital instrument in the plot of Shakespeare’s play.


1.William Shakespeare, King Richard II, ed. Charles R. Forker (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2013), 1.2.24–25. All further references are from this edition unless otherwise specified.

2. Nicholas Grene, Shakespeare’s Serial History Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 166.

3. Michael Hattaway, Richard II (Tirril: Humanities-Ebooks, 2008), 54.

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