Friday, November 28, 2014

Shakespeare Rips Off Shakespeare: Richard II and King Lear

Recently, I was watching The Hollow Crown -- that's the superb BBC miniseries adaptation of Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry V -- when this strangely familiar exchange played out between a noble father and his son. Mom jumps in for one line, but it's the father and son we're interested in. Keep an eye on the bits in italics.

DUKE OF YORK
What seal is that, that hangs without thy bosom?
Yea, look'st thou pale? let me see the writing.

DUKE OF AUMERLE
My lord, 'tis nothing.

DUKE OF YORK
No matter, then, who see it;
I will be satisfied; let me see the writing.

DUKE OF AUMERLE
I do beseech your grace to pardon me:
It is a matter of small consequence,
Which for some reasons I would not have seen.

DUKE OF YORK
Which for some reasons, sir, I mean to see.
I fear, I fear,--

DUCHESS OF YORK
What should you fear?
'Tis nothing but some bond, that he is enter'd into
For gay apparel 'gainst the triumph day.

DUKE OF YORK
Bound to himself! what doth he with a bond
That he is bound to? Wife, thou art a fool.
Boy, let me see the writing.

DUKE OF AUMERLE
I do beseech you, pardon me; I may not show it.

DUKE OF YORK
I will be satisfied; let me see it, I say.


The scholars tell us this play, Richard II, was written before 1595, during a phase of Shakespeare's career now known as the Period of Early Mastery. A later phase of his career comes between about 1601 and 1606, the so-called Dark or Tragic Period. One of the great tragedies from this later period, of course, is King Lear. Take a look at the strikingly similar passage below from that play, also between a father and son. The italics mark direct parallels with the scene from the earlier play.



GLOUCESTER
What paper were you reading?

EDMUND
Nothing, my lord.

GLOUCESTER
No? What needed, then, that terrible dispatch of it into your pocket? the quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let's see: come, if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles.

EDMUND
I beseech you, sir, pardon me: it is a letter from my brother, that I have not all o'er-read; and for so much as I have perused, I find it not fit for your o'er-looking.

GLOUCESTER
Give me the letter, sir.

EDMUND
I shall offend, either to detain or give it. The contents, as in part I understand them, are to blame.

GLOUCESTER
Let's see, let's see.




I can't imagine I'm the first person to have noticed this, but it's worth pointing out regardless. The bits I've italicized from the first scene, along with the whole idea of the exchange, seem to have served as writing prompts for Shakespeare in King Lear. Translation: He recycled his own stuff, assuming no one would ever notice. What's exciting for me is that the second passage is so much more sophisticated than the first. Edmund wants his father to notice the letter and make him hand it over; the word "nothing" is an important thematic touchstone in King Lear; unlike the earlier play, King Lear alternates between verse and prose for effect, and here shifts into prose for a sense of intimacy that contrasts with the earlier, formal verse of the play's first scene. Shakespeare learned a lot in the years between these two passages.

There are dozens of these self-plagiarisms -- I call them echo scenes -- in Shakespeare. As the mood strikes me, I'll post more.