William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare's Historicism: Visions and Revisions

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Paola Pugliatti, University of Florence

Paul Valéry said that history is "the most dangerous compound that the mind's chemistry has ever produced," because "it can justify whatever one wishes."1 This article is an attempt to deal with several aspects of this dangerous compound: that of Shakespeare's historical plays themselves and the things they seem and have seemed to justify; that of the interpreters and their histories and the things they have justified through their readings of Shakespeare's historical plays; and finally the things that our revised perception of history, of historiography, and of historicism may still justify as regards Shakespeare's historical writings.

The debate about Shakespeare's English history plays has been in many ways peculiar. What makes the difference, of course, is the conviction that when dealing with political texts one has direct access to "reality"—indeed, to several levels of reality and even of "truth": on the one hand we have the impression—or conceive the illusion—that tackling Shakespeare's re-creation of English history may provide a key to "his" evaluation of both past and contemporary political issues, and that Shakespeare's reading of past events may shed light on the political "self-image" of Elizabethan England; on the other hand those texts have been used, more or less consciously and more or less explicitly, in order to extrapolate from them those "vibrations" that may serve as a comment on the interpreter's own historical and political context. The two perspectives are often inextricably entwined, for it is certainly impossible, and maybe not even desirable, for the. interpreter to ignore those vibrations. But there is probably a feeling, looming behind all criticism of the history plays, that dealing with history means not merely interpreting but also restoring and reviving, a feeling deriving from the fact that history is not simply knowledge; for "memory," as Jacques Le Goff says, "is the locus of power."2

It is perhaps this sense of power that has marked the debate with rhetorical features that are not to be encountered in other areas of Shakespeare criticism. The debate has been cohesive, dialogic, and highly controversial. Refuting, confuting, disproving have been and still are its privileged procedures and have been employed throughout the century: initially to demolish the theories of the disintegrators; then, following this, but also as a consequence of it, to prove that those plays were worth the effort of reading and writing about; then to dismantle the prejudice that negated their political relevance; then to argue opposing views as regards Shakespeare's attitude toward a number of crucial political issues; and finally to challenge the "orthodox" representations established by the "old historicism."

The controversial character of the debate has also determined the need for frequent assessments: Shakespeare Survey published the first one, by Harold Jenkins, in 19533 and a sequel by Dennis Burden in 1987.4 That the eighties was a decade in which the need was felt for new recapitulations of the "state of the art" is shown by at least two other essays: one by Graham Holderness, entitled "Agincourt 1944: Readings in the Shakespeare Myth," published in 1984,5 and the other by Robin Headlam Wells, entitled "The Fortunes of Tillyard: Twentieth-Century Critical Debate on Shakespeare's History Plays," published in 1985.6 Reading these assessments, one has the distinct impression that their aim is less that of reviewing a fragment of critical history than that of revising the various different contexts that determined those readings. The last link in the chain of recapitulations is, to my knowledge, a chapter entitled "Appropriations" in Shakespeare Recycled by Holderness, published in 1992.7

The liquidation of previous views established as "orthodoxies" led to the discovery of certain "prophet-critics," some of whom had long remained unheard. The most frequently quoted of those...

(The entire section is 5,947 words.)