William Shakespeare Shakespeare's Representation of History

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Shakespeare's Representation of History

Shakespeare dramatized the national history of England in two tetralogies, which cover English history from 1398 to 1485. The first tetralogy includes Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three and Richard III, and the second tetralogy includes Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. While the series from Richard II through Henry V deals with a historical time earlier than the Henry VI plays and Richard III, it is usually referred to as the second tetralogy in reference to the order in which Shakespeare composed the plays. The two other English history plays, King John and Henry VIII, have been viewed as prologue and epilogue to the other eight plays. The sources from which Shakespeare drew to write the history plays include Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548) and Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577; the second edition, that used by Shakespeare, was published in 1587).

Much modern critical attention has focused on the way Shakespeare utilized his sources in his interpretations of historical events. The characteristics of Renaissance historiography—the narrative presentation of history based on critical evaluations of primary and secondary source materials—is often compared with Shakespeare's own historiographical style. Graham Holderness (1985) stresses that most of Shakespeare's plays, and especially the English history plays, were intended as historiography. Holderness contends that the new, bourgeois historiography employed by Shakespeare grew out of two other historiographical traditions, that of providentialist orthodoxy and humanist historiography. (Providentialism stressed that God's divine will governed the world and ordained the succession of English monarchs; rebellion against God's anoited monarch, it was argued, was punished by political disorder, warfare, and bloodshed. Humanism emphasized the dominance of individual human will and intellect.) Matthew H. Wikander (1986) similarly states that the revolution in Renaissance historiography in which Shakespeare took part grew out of both providential and humanist attitudes. The central issue within this new historiographical attitude, states Wikander, was the problem of how to moralize the past. Tracing the development of Shakespeare's historiography from early histories such as Henry VI, Part One to later histories, including Henry IV, Part One and Henry VIII, Wikander finds that the moral patterns and lessons in the earlier plays are more straightforward than in the later histories. Additionally, Wikander comments that Shakespeare's attitude toward his sources was “cavalier,” but that Shakespeare, as well as the authors of his sources, were all guilty of drawing parallels and analogies, allegorizing historical figures, and telescoping historical time. While Wikander sees these tendencies as “faults,” Don M. Ricks (1968) observes that sixteenth-century historiography was not bound by modern rules of objectivity and historical accuracy. Rather, it was understood that historical data should be presented in a way that made a subjective and moralistic argument. Such biases, including Shakespeare's, Ricks maintains, resulted from the attitude toward history and its purposes, rather than from ignorance. Ricks further argues that although Shakespeare's own political bias was geared toward defending the Tudor status quo, his views regarding the doctrine of providential order were more subtle and complex than many of his contemporaries. Clifford Leech (1962) agrees, maintaining that although Shakespeare does “enshrine” many of the sixteenth-century attitudes regarding history and its values, his purpose transcends that of stressing the danger of civil rebellion and glorifying England.

The relationship between the two tetralogies in general, and the parts of Henry IV in particular, is also an area of tremendous critical interest. Many critics have sought unity in...

(The entire section is 68,697 words.)