“Pierced to the soul”: The politics of the Gaze in Richard II

Richard Ashby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most modern critics of Richard II have sought to overturn the idea – inherited from the “old” historicism – that the play depicts an epochal transition from a medieval feudal order in which political values are divinely ordained to a more modern order that concerns itself solely with the pursuit and preservation of power. Nevertheless, the idea of a change in historical perception in Richard II still has some credence. This is particularly apparent in the representation of vision in the play. Richard II is a play of seeing, looking and watching in which a change in historical outlook occurs. This change, I contend, corresponds to the split which the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theorizes between the “eye” and the “gaze”. At the beginning of the play, Richard ties the radiant and awe-inspiring presence of the Kingly body to the ability to see all before him – the masterly sovereignty of the “eye”. Bolingbroke turns the tables on Richard, however, by revealing the way in which a fantasy of complete visibility that is still tied to the spectacular presence of the sovereign depends on the “pre-existence to the seen of a given-to-be-seen” – the destabilizing but usually repressed influence of the “gaze”. With the rise of Bolingbroke to power, Richard becomes cognizant of being looked at, which destabilizes his wholesale identification with the (symbolic) mandate of a divinely “anointed” (1.2.38) monarch and turns Kingship into a desacralized masquerade – a performance staged for the eyes of others. What most critics seem to have missed about the play, however, is that the notion of Divine Right persists as the irrational, “indivisible remainder” which continues to wield its power in the new social and political order. By turning the King into a spectacle – or a “woeful pageant” (4.1.311) of himself – Bolingbroke and his henchman achieve the crown only by allowing Richard to retrospectively reconstitute his “Divine Election”. Overturning the legitimacy of Richard from the “outside”, Bolingbroke inadvertently offsets the contradictions which are intrinsic to royal power, allowing Richard to transform himself from an impetuously tyrannical despot into a sacrificial martyr.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-213
Number of pages13
Issue number2
Early online date29 Jul 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Cite this