Theatre, History, Politics

  • Donald G. Watson

Abstract

Shakespeare’s history plays have been attracting more and more of their fair share of scholarly attention in recent years, but less often than comedies and tragedies are the histories discussed critically from a theatrical perspective. Enlightening studies of their dramaturgical strengths and weaknesses do, of course, exist, but consideration of their technical achievement is far outweighed by examinations of their topical politics, theological issues, world pictures, and ideas of kingship — all most carefully placed against the historical background of Elizabethan England in the 1590s. We can know them as embodiments of Renaissance ideas of political morality, as mirrors of Elizabethan policy, as essays upon the relationship of family and state, as meditations upon the king’s two bodies, as rituals of the ethic of order, as warnings against rebellion, as dramatic treatises about the Tudor myth, as inquiries into the concept of divine providence, as formal developments of the chronicle and morality play, as explorations of the historian’s art. We can know their sources and analyze the playwright’s manipulation of events and personages, memorize genealogical charts, and map out the battles. And we can do much more to know the history plays as plays.

Keywords

Rubber Social Stratification Trench Volatility Alan 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    This point has often been made, particularly in response to the adaptation of the methods of New Criticism to the drama. See, for example, John Russell Brown’s “Theatre Research and the Criticism of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962), reprinted in his Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969 [1966]), 237–52.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A number of interesting discussions of the role of the Shakespearean director would take us further into the question but away from our plays. But see Richard David’s brief comments on the director as cook in his Shakespeare in the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 13–16, and John Russell Brown’s Free Shakespeare (London: Metheun, 1974).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    So David Daniell remarks, near the conclusion of a long review: “Having watched these three plays several times, I am not aware of the ‘Tudor myth’ at all, nor of any Providential process ….” See “Opening up the text: Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays in performance,” in Drama and Society, ed. James Redmond. Themes in Drama, I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 274.Google Scholar
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    The treatise was The Discoverie of a gaping gulf whereinto England is like to be swallowed by another French mariage, if the Lord forbid not the banes by letting her majestie see the sin and punishment thereof. Sinfield comments on the Stubbs case, and a fuller analysis of The Gaping Gulf is in Wallace T. MacCaffrey’s Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572–1588 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 255–62.Google Scholar
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    Sidney, Miscellaneous Prose, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 33. For comment upon Stubbs and Sidney, see Sinfield, “Power and Ideology,” 259–60, 274–5.Google Scholar
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    This incident remains somewhat obscure, alluded to briefly by M. C. Bradbrook in The Rise of the Common Player (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), 255 and 313 n. 6. See also D. Cressy, “Binding the Nation: the Bonds of Association, 1584 and 1696,” in Tudor Rule and Revolution, ed. D. J. Ruth and J. W. McKenna (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 217–26. Christopher Haigh writes that “Its conception and organization show an astonishing lack of confidence in the mechanisms of government and in the breadth of support which the regime enjoyed” and concludes that “The realities of the Elizabethan polity had been laid bare.” In his “Introduction” to The Reign of Elizabeth I, 17.Google Scholar
  26. 38.
    “All the conventions of a highly formalized court asserted the unique and lofty authority of the monarch and the submissive role of the subject. Yet these conventions barely served to veil the unceasing and often bitter struggle between royal and conciliar wills,” writes Wallace T. MacCaffrey. “Place and Patronage in Elizabethan Politics,” in Elizabethan Government and Society, ed. S. T. Bindoff, Joel Hurstfield, and C. H. Williams (London: Athlone Press, 1961), 97.Google Scholar
  27. 40.
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    The most thorough treatment of Elizabethan efforts to regulate the theater is Glynne Wickham’s in his Early English Stages, 1300 to 1660. 2 vols in 3 parts (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959–72), II, pt. 2, 54–149. Notes below will refer to these volumes as Wickham, EES.Google Scholar
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    The interrelationship of patronage and letters in Elizabethan and Jacobean England has been shown to be much more complex than previously thought, as scholars have demonstrated that even the language of poetry was influenced by court politics and personalities and by an intricate configuration of elements which more often suggest a maze than a system. In any case, the intentions varied with the sponsoring Court or regional aristocrat, and seldom is artistic patronage free from the larger maze of political patronage. For recent perspectives, see the essays in Patronage in the Renaissance, ed. Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), especially Arthur F. Marotti’s “John Donne and the Rewards of Patronage” and Leonard Tennenhouse’s “Sir Walter Ralegh and the Literature of Clientage.”Google Scholar
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  34. 47.
    For the apparel given by noblemen to their servants, who in turn sold it to the players (where could servants wear such finery?), see Thomas Platter’s Travels in England, 1599, trans. Clare Williams (London: Jonathan Cape, 1937), 167. For incidents of the sale of clerical vestments, see Wickham, EES, II, part 1, 38–9.Google Scholar
  35. 48.
    See David Bevington’s helpful comments about the interrelationships of costume, spectators’ interpretive expectations, the morality plays’ didacticism, and the later drama’s “putting theatrical entertainment and illusion ahead of certainty of meaning”; in Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 35–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 49.
    On the survival and transformation of such villains as the Vice and Sedycyon in Shakespeare’s plays, see Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), esp. 120–60.Google Scholar
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    The phrase is Roy C. Strong’s in Splendor at Court (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), Chapter 1.Google Scholar
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    The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington, ed. Norman E. McClure (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1930), 122. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt also discusses this passage but draws different conclusions.Google Scholar
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    On the audience’s commanding “celebrations of royal power and assertions of aristocratic community,” see Stephen Orgel’s The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), Chapter 1, 1–36, esp. 5–7.Google Scholar
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    See Alvin B. Kernan, “Shakespeare’s Stage Audiences: The Playwright’s Reflections and Control of Audience Response,” in Shakespeare’s Craft: Eight Lectures, ed. Philip H. Highfill (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 113–37. Kernan examines five plays within plays for what they tell us about Shakespeare’s “theatrical epistemology.”Google Scholar
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    My discussion in these paragraphs is indebted to Bernard Beckerman’s “Historic and Iconic Time in Late Tudor Drama,” in Shakespeare, Man of the Theater, eds. Kenneth Muir, Jay L. Halio, and D. J. Palmer. Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Shakespeare Association, 1981 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), 37–44.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Donald Gwynn Watson 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donald G. Watson
    • 1
  1. 1.Florida International UniversityMiamiUSA

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