Richard II and Tacitus: Shakespeare's Reading

Herbert W. Benario

Emory University

At the conclusion of his narrative relating Vitellius' end, Tacitus paints a picture both brutal and touching.  Although Vitellius has been a dismal emperor, in his final minutes he displays an unaccustomed dignity while being abused and unpitied.  So too, in Shakespeare's description of Richard II's entry into London, as part of Bolingbroke's (Henry IV's) triumphal procession, after Richard had resigned the throne, he too is abused by the spectators.  Most exemplary of the parallel is the pouring of dust on the deposed monarch's head.

Sir Henry Savile's translation of the Annals and Histories had appeared only a few years before Shakespeare wrote Richard.  Other parallels between the Histories and the Bard's history plays have been detected, and Sir Francis Bacon noted to Queen Elizabeth that a contemporary historian had committed "felony" by stealing "sentences and conceits out of Cornelius Tacitus."  Shakespeare did not "commit felony," but, with his own genius, borrowed an idea and made it his own.


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