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Shakespeare’s Richard II, "Popularity," and the Early Modern Public Sphere


Recent discussions of the early modern public sphere have excluded the theater as a space where substantive political thinking occurred, focusing instead on print culture and on how high-ranking elites conjured a "public" in relation to political controversies. In this article, Doty argues that in Richard II, Shakespeare draws attention to how the commons see, judge, and participate, both cognitively and emotionally, in political life. Shakespeare raises these issues by transforming Bolingbroke into a figure of "popularity." By the mid-1590s, "popularity" was a controversial concept, signifying the cultivation of popular favor. It was also the term that elites used to talk about public opinion and fears about a public that, on the one hand, wanted to feel an intimacy with members of the ruling class, and on the other, wanted to evaluate, discuss, and read about political controversies. By exploring the contemporary phenomenon of popularity, Shakespeare invites his audience to explicate how they are positioned by elites through emotional appeals and public arguments about matters of state. In undertaking this act of explication—in which playgoers are invited to judge first Richard, Bolingbroke, and finally the commons—Shakespeare transforms the theater into a space in which playgoers could practice thinking about how power works in the political domain. Therefore, Richard II not only dramatizes the new phenomenon of popularity, but in its creation of a space in which private people explicated political content, enacts a type of popularity—or, in our critical terminology, a public sphere.

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