Article Title

“Many a time and oft had I broken my Neck for their amusement”: The Corpse, the Child, and the Aestheticization of Death in Shakespeare’s Richard III and King John


Gemma Miller


Children feature more numerously and prominently in the Shakespearean canon than in any other early modern playwright.[i] Yet, in spite of a growing body of work by scholars including Carol Chillington Rutter, Katie Knowles, Ann Blake, Joseph Campana, Kate Chedgzoy, Lucy Munro and Mark Heberle, they remain a marginalized area within the critical field. Extensive work has been carried out over the past thirty years to recuperate voices subordinated by class, gender and race. However, the significance of the children, and their deaths, remain areas to be examined more rigorously. Although it is perhaps forgivable to gloss over the deaths of Shakespeare’s child-characters when reading the plays (and many have), the phenomenological effects of their embodied presence in performance precludes such interpretive oversights. Through a consideration of Richard III and King John, this paper will conduct a dialectical analysis of stage and film performance and close textual reading to examine the significance of three of Shakespeare’s most dramatically effective dead children. It will argue that both the Richard III’s “Princes in the Tower” and King John’s Arthur Duke of Brittany function as “structuring absences”, whose deaths provide the turning-point that precipitates the downfall of the plays’ protagonists. Their over-determined presence as disembodied symbols of pathos and mawkish sentimentality has long dominated stage, film and artistic representations. However, there has been a movement over the past thirty years towards de-idealizing their deaths and subverting the aestheticizing rhetoric of those who mourn them. This paper will trace a brief history of the shifting fortunes of these children and the ways in which their presence and absence have functioned to create meaning in performance.

[i] The total is between thirty and fifty, depending on the different ways in which scholars have accounted for textual ambiguities such as the indeterminate age of characters and the number of children in specific scenes. For variations on this figure, see, for instance, Ann Blake, “Children and Suffering in Shakespeare’s Plays”, The Yearbook of English Studies, 23 (1993): 293-304 (293); and Carol Chillington Rutter, Shakespeare and Child’s Play: Performing Lost Boys on Stage and Screen (London: Routledge, 2007), xiii and Mark Lawhorn, “Children in Shakespeare’s plays: an annotated checklist”, Shakespeare and Childhood, ed. Kate Chedgzoy, Susanne Greenhalgh and Riobert Shaughnessy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 233-249.

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