William Shakespeare Shakespeare and the End of History

William Shakespeare book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download William Shakespeare Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(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 motivation to a form associated with the early part of his career in a manner characteristic of the 'testamentary act.'

In his work on late nineteenth-century writers, Michael Millgate notes alternative etymologies for the term 'testament.' Two in particular hold resonances which are curiously apposite for analysis of Henry VIII. The word, he observes,

has popularly taken on something of the aura of its now archaic meaning of 'covenant,' especially as found in scriptural accounts of the Last Supper (according to the Authorized version). Its use in legal contexts may also have tenuously attracted to it the sense of testifying or bearing witness, the word 'testator,' indeed, having historically been used as meaning both 'one who makes a will' and 'one who or that which testifies; a witness'. (Millgate 1992, 186)

The religious significance of 'testament' has immediate relevance for a play which looks back to the time of England's break with Rome and which examines the meaning of the birth of Elizabeth for English history. The play's religious (or perhaps better, ecclesiological) meditations, though, remain unsettling, exploring issues of conscience and motivation at the time of the Henrician schism whilst avoiding representing that schism directly. This evasion of direct representation is itself typical since it is the question of 'testimony,' of pinpointing and recounting the truth, which is repeatedly at stake in the play's uncertainties. The act of witnessing is demonstrated to be essential to the construction of history, and it is history as construct, rather than as event, which is emphasised throughout.

I would argue that an examination of the logic of truth in Henry VIII suggests that the play is best viewed as a complex and unsettling meditation on the 'end of history,' simultaneously promoting and denying the possibility of truth at a moment of cultural crisis within which the word 'Truth' held very specific sectarian resonances. In deploying the phrase 'the end of history,' I wish to invoke both eschatology and historiography: on the one hand, the sixteenth and seventeenth century apocalypticism (the End of History) that provided a radical...

(The entire section is 7,755 words.)