‘The Truth Should Live from Age to Age’: Child Ciphers in Richard III and Elizabethan Civic Pageantry

Jonathan E. Lux


While recent scholarship on Shakespeare’s Richard III has greatly increased our understanding of the historicity and representation of the famous princes in the tower, it has also created the unfortunate habit of reducing all the play’s children to simple tragic spectacles—infant victims that appall the audience and aver the ‘unnaturalness’ of Richard’s challenge to Tudor power.  Yet children in Richard III do far more than simply die.  The play’s children facilitate a staging of serious questions about legitimacy, natural affection and sovereign power.  This article argues that the juxtaposition of children and the sovereign figured prominently in Elizabethan pageantry, in courtly rhetoric and on the stage.  Such juxtaposition provided a metaphorical reminder to the sovereign to fulfill the role of a good parent and treat their subjects with tender, familial affections.  Furthermore, because these children could be understood as ciphers—the carriers of implanted narratives for which they stood in a forced metonymy—they became representatives of repressed narratives or taboo claims that refused to mold themselves to the contours of power.  In Richard III, which bombastically confronted its audience with the spectre of unnatural sovereignty, children became loaded symbols of legitimacy tasked with speaking truth to power and, by their deaths, demonstrating that the truth ‘should live from age to age.’ 


Shakespeare; Early Modern Children; Sovereign Power; Early Modern Civic Pageantry;

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