William Shakespeare Shakespeare and the End of History - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Shakespeare and the End of History

Gordon McMullan, King's College, Cambridge


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The study of a writer's late work as often as not invokes two apparently incompatible models of history, linear and cyclical. The concept of the career (with one possible OED definition humorously quoted by Michael Millgate [in Testamentary Acts: Browning, Tennyson, James, Hardy, 1992] as 'a short gallop at full speed') seems to imply a conscious, if imperilled, linearity, within which 'late writing' can be seen either as evidence of decline or as an act of will, a looking forward beyond death, a bequeathing, a rejection of the finality of the final (2). At the same time, this bequeathing can be, and often is, manipulative, a deliberate rewriting of the past for the benefit of posterity. In this sense, the 'testamentary act' can be seen as cyclical rather than linear, a return to the 'early' in order to reshape it for those coming after. In other words, late writing is as much about revision, rethinking, and reshaping for the future as it is about finality.

The peculiar tensions and uncertainties that characterise Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII are, I would argue, the product of its status as just such a 'testamentary act.'1 Coming as it does at the very end of Shakespeare's career, the play has been seen as a failure or at best a partial success, as evidence of artistic decay or actual illness. Even those who accept that the play is collaborative tend to read the partnership with Fletcher as a possible sign of weakness or lack of interest, begrudging Shakespeare his return to professional activity in the wake of The Tempest. Yet it is also possible to see the play's disjunctions as deliberate, and to argue that, in turning back to history thirteen years after Henry V, Shakespeare is knowingly returning with experimental...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The word 'truth' turns up no fewer than twenty-five times in Henry VIII, along with eighteen appearances of 'true' (nineteen, if you count the title of the play as reported by contemporary observers, All is True), six of 'truly,' and one of 'true-hearted.' The Prologue alone offers two mentions of 'truth' and one of 'true,' connecting the concept first of all with a nexus of faith, hope and expenditure ['Such as give / Their money out of hope they may believe, / May here find truth' (Prologue 7-9)], then with a sense of deliberate selectivity or, perhaps, election ['our chosen truth' (Prologue 18)], and finally with the relationship between artistic intention and representation ['the opinion that we bring / To make that only true we now intend' (Prologue 20-21)].2 The play seems almost to tease its audience with 'truth,' hinting at contemporary relevance while retaining a certain ambivalence: 'Think ye see / The very persons of our noble story / As they were living' (Prologue 25-7), the Prologue demands, though it is not clear whether this is merely an exhortation to forget the time-lapse between the events on stage and the England of the present, or whether it is a broad hint that the characters have their counterparts in contemporary politics. A number of recent critics have opted for the latter, reading the emphasis on 'truth' as a straightforward assertion of the conscious topicality of the play.

The year of first performance of Henry VIII was an extraordinary one for English politics and in particular for the politics of English Protestantism. The death of Henry, Prince of Wales, in November 1612 shattered the millenarian hopes that militant Protestants had invested in him, with his passion for military display and his allegiance to the dream of a Protestant Europe. Henry's enthusiasm for the impending marriage of his sister Elizabeth to Frederick the Elector Palatine, the principal Continental Protestant ruler, was taken up with a fervour verging on desperation after his death, with the result that (ostensibly, at least) James and his militant Protestant subjects were in atypical harmony at the beginning of 1613. Henry's death had been a terrible blow, though, and the outpouring of grief for the dead prince was continually in danger of overshadowing the celebrations for the wedding, which was postponed to February. Like its sister collaboration The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII dwells on the mixed negative and positive emotions induced by the rapid succession of funeral and wedding.3 The Prologue predicts a melancholy play: 'if you can be merry then, I'll say / A man may weep upon his wedding day' (Prologue 31-2). And the two wry choric Gentlemen, commenting on the speed of political and emotional change, capture (as they do throughout the play) the mood of the moment:

2 Gent. At our last encounter
The Duke of Buckingham came from his trial.
1 Gent. 'Tis very true. But that time offer'd
This general joy.
(IV. i. 4 7)

It is hard not to see a parallel between the emotions expressed on stage at moments such as this and the political situation at the time of composition. And it is not surprising that those critics who concentrate on the topicality of the play are also most closely concerned with its relationship to Protestantism.

R. A. Foakes, in his influential Arden edition, points out that a 'play on the downfall of Wolsey, the last great Catholic statesman of England, on the rise of Cranmer, and the birth of 'that now triumphant Saint our late Queene Elizabeth' would have been very appropriate at such a time' (Foakes 1957, xxxi).4 He suggests that Henry VIII may well have been performed for the wedding itself, demonstrating a series of verbal parallels between contemporary descriptions of the occasion and the unusually detailed stage-directions in the Folio text, and emphasising the deliberate parallels drawn between Princess Elizabeth and her earlier namesake in sermons and pamphlets at the time. Frances Yates, in Shakespeare's Last Plays, [1975], examines the political effect that nostalgia for Elizabeth exercised in James's reign and notes the focus of Protestant hopes on Prince Henry. For her, Henry VIII is an unequivocally Protestant play which 'reflects the Foxian apocalyptic view of English history' (Yates 1975, 70).5 More recently, William Baillie ["Henry VIII: A Jacobean History," Shakespeare Studies 12, 1979] has analysed a series of topical motifs in the play which would be of particular relevance to militant Protestants, including 'the expansion of the monarch's personal authority in relation to the law, the sudden fall of a court favorite, and a divorce' (that of the Earl of Essex and Frances Howard) 248). And Donna Hamilton [Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England, 1992] has extended these claims, the latter in particular, arguing that Henry VIII aims specifically to discredit the 'Howard faction at court—a faction dominated by Catholics—by associating their values and projects … with Wolsey and the values he represents' (164). The consensus of these views (whatever the flaws of some of the individual arguments) is that Henry VIII was involved to a substantial degree in the politics of Protestantism at the time of composition.

'Topical' critics tend to emphasise the very last scene of the play—and in particular Cranmer's...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

This context for Truth would seem to confirm readings of Henry VIII, or All is True as a firmly Protestant, apocalyptic play. Cranmer's prophetic emphasis on Time and Truth evokes an iconographie tradition central to the representation of Protestant hopes and it provides a resounding resolution to the political dilemmas dramatised in the course of the play. Yet several critics (e.g. [Lee Bliss, "The Wheel of Fortune and the Maiden Phoenix in Shakespeare's King Henry the Eighth, " English Literary History 42; 1975]) have rejected readings of Henry VIII which begin with Cranmer's speech and then look back at previous events in light of that speech. For these critics, there is a strangeness, an...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

There is little doubt that, for all the problems of truth and testimony the audience have witnessed by the time they arrive at Elizabeth's christening, Cranmer's prophecy nonetheless has a powerful and direct emotive charge. Foakes is clearly right in arguing that the Jacobean audience would have been attuned to two Elizabeths and two royal ceremonies. The prophecy is thus directed at a series of futures, some already completed by 1613, others still projected. And it depends heavily upon the audience's hindsight for its success. The completed predictions serve to validate those as yet unfulfilled, offering a clear linear dynamic to the eschatological mindset, but it is important both to recognise the play's rejection...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

There is one further level on which Henry VIII can be seen as a testamentary act, a very specific act of 'will.' Marking and, I would argue, embracing the transition from Shakespeare to Fletcher (the scene of Cranmer's prophecy is, after all, Fletcher's, not Shakespeare's), Henry VIII returns to Elizabeth and to the history play both to mark the genre's roots in Shakespeare's early work and to project its future in Fletcher's post-Shakespearean plays. For Shakespeare to give up this moment to Fletcher (whose usual pattern of collaborative work was to write the central acts of a play and leave the beginnings and endings to his partner) can be read not as a sign of weariness or illness but as a significant...

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