Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII
Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII
Ivo Kamps, University of Mississippi
The methods and politics of history writing intrigued Shakespeare throughout his career as a dramatist. Among his earliest plays, Shakespeare's first tetralogy already offers a full-blown conception of the shape of English history, interlacing Machiavellian ideas, providentialism, and Tudor ideology (see Rackin 27-9). The second tetralogy, culminating in Henry V, successfully dramatized a more complex grasp of the past, tarnishing the popular Elizabethan notion of the "great man" who bends history to his will (see Kamps 94-104). Even in a late romance such as The Tempest we discover that Shakespeare frames the basic conflict between Prospero and Caliban in terms of Prospero's "history" of his tenure on the island and Caliban's account of the same events (see Barker and Hulme). Other examples of Shakespeare's fascination with things historiographical are plentiful in the Roman plays and througout his oeuvre, but nowhere is his interst in the nuances of the production of historical accounts more pronounced and more thoughtfully treated than in Henry VIII (1613), a dramatic collaboration with John Fletcher. Deeply steeped in the historiographical developments that occurred in sixteenthand early seventeenth-century England, this play appropriates and dramatizes various contradictory historiographical methods and bespeaks a decisive break with official Tudor ways of thinking about the English past.
In The Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham represents the view of many Elizabethans when he decrees it to be the task of "historical Poesie" to record the "famous acts of Princes and the vertuous and worthy lives of our forefathers" (54). Arthur B. Ferguson, in his influential study, Clio Unbound, expands on this notion and suggests that Tudor historians cared little about social customs, institutions, and beliefs, and perhaps even less about secondary and largely informal causes, or anything else that reached "beyond the history of states as told in terms of the acts, the ambitions, and the tragic dilemmas of the actors themselves" (4,5). Alvin Kernan unites these views when he observes that Tudor playwrights appropriate the typical historical pattern for their historical dramas: "a weak or saintly king makes political mistakes and is overthrown by rebellious and arrogant subjects; the kingdom becomes a wasteland and society a chaos in which every man's hand is set against his fellow; after a period of great suffering, reaction against the forces of evil occurs, and a strong and good king restores order" (264). Henry VIII, it has been claimed repeatedly, is an aesthetic failure because it lacks a strong king as well as cohesive philosophy of history (Ribner 191).
It must be conceded that Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII fails to meet expectations raised by both Tudor historiographical practice and...
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Ii. Buckingham, Katherine, And Wolsey: "The Chronicles Of Their Doings"
II. BUCKINGHAM, KATHERINE, AND WOLSEY: "THE CHRONICLES OF THEIR DOINGS"
The judicial proceedings against Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey manifest none of the disinterestedness, uniformity, and stability one might hope to expect in a nation of law. Although conducted—at least in name—on behalf of the state, the three trials reveal a variety of motivations and methods of legal protocol, in particular with regard to the composition and treatment of evidence. The purpose of this variety is to show how radically different legal and historiographical discourses are able to exercise power and claim knowledge (or what passes for knowledge) under a single rubric, that of justice or truth or law.
Although many of the events that bear on the fates of these three characters do not lie in the distant past, common historiographical principles apply because, as D. R. Woolf observes, the kind of accounts of "current events, which would now be deemed journalism, were [then] commonly referred to as histories" (16). In understanding the trials of Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey it is therefore significant that Renaissance historians were generally dubious about the construction of reliable accounts of current or recent history. Bodin observes: "Sure those that will write of the present, can hardly write truly, but [because] they must touch the credit and reputation of some men" (11). Annabel Patterson, among others, has...
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Iii. Historiography And Royal Legitimacy
Judith H. Anderson astutely observes that "looking back from Cranmer's vision to the rest of the play, even in the absence of an intentional signal from the playwright[s], we should have difficulty not wondering whether so nice a vision is not merely rhetorical" (153). At the christening of the infant Elizabeth, Archbishop Cranmer's exalted historical vision of a Golden Age to come is plainly intended to erase the historiographical eclecticism and the inscrutability of history itself that the play has given voice to up until that point. As behooves the king's impromptu historian, the divinely inspired Cranmer presumably affords special insight into the "deep structures" of history by suggesting that while certain historical moments and figures may fade, essential patterns and attitudes remain (see Kastan 137). He craftily links James I to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I through the image of the phoenix, declaring that when "The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix, / Her ashes new create another heir / As great in admiration as herself (5.4.40-42). The image certainly constitutes a potent compliment to James, not in the least because it designates him the heir not merely of the Queen's crown but also of her "peace, plenty, love, truth, [and] terror" (46). But if we listen closely to the churchman we notice that even in the speech that most eloquently invokes a providential view of Tudor-Stuart legitimacy and continuity (5.4.14-55), the controlling...
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Anderson, Judith H. Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.
Barker, Francis, and Peter Hulme. "'Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish': The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest." Alternative Shakespeares. Ed. John Drakakis. New York: Methuen, 1985. 191-205.
Blundeville, Thomas. The true order and Methode of wryting and reading Hystories. Ed. Hugh G. Dick. Huntington Library Quarterly 2 (1940): 149-170.
Bodin, Jean. "Of Choice of History, by Way of Preface." Thomas Heywood's translation of Sallust, The Conspiracy of Cataline and The War of Jugurtha (1608). Trans. Thomas Heywood. New York: Knopf, 1924.
Camden, William. The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth, Late Queen of England (1615). Ed. Wallace T. MacCaffrey. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.
Candido, Joseph. "Fashioning Henry VIII: What Shakespeare Saw in When You See Me, You Know Me." Cahiers Elisabéthains 23 (1983): 47-59.
Cespedes, Frank. V. "'We are one in fortunes': The Sense of History in Henry V7//." English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 413-38
Dean, Leonard E Tudor Theories of History Writing. Contributions in Modern Philology. No. 1. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1947.
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