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Grammatical Theatricality in Richard III: Schoolroom Queens and Godly Optatives


Shakespeare learned English lessons in school that were unintended consequences of Latin grammar lessons. These included lessons in the optative mood from Lily’s Grammar, a text of Reformation origins that inserted a God-term or agentive role for God in translating (or mistranslating) speech acts of wishing and desiring into Early Modern English. The resulting formulations are all on display in curses like Queen Margaret’s “God I pray him, / That none of you may live” in Richard III. Godly optatives in prayers, blessings, and curses represent a form of passionate speech act strongly reminiscent of the all-male grammar-school classroom and yet characteristic of the play’s female characters, who would themselves have been played by boy actors. Experimenting with this mistranslated verbal construction, Shakespeare not only explored an alternative form of potency or agency in the speech acts of his female characters. Literalizing the mistranslation, bringing God’s intervention into the performative speech acts of human wishing, he also created an effective structural pattern for an apparently providential tragedy. In more general terms, this essay emphasizes the scope and importance of grammatical culture for early modern theater, articulating a conception of grammatical theatricality. It argues that Richard III is a grammatical play, framed upon a virtuoso set of grammatical variations and strongly suggestive of how much Shakespeare got out of, and made out of, the accidental English grammar lessons in his early schooling.

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