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Paul Yachnin (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6914

SOURCE: “History, Theatricality, and the ‘Structural Problem’ in the Henry IV Plays,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2, 1991, pp. 163-79.

[In the essay that follows, Yachnin contends that what is perceived to be a structural problem in Henry IV Parts 1and 2 (that is, the question of whether the plays should be approached as one ten-act play or two separate five-act plays) ceases to be an issue when the plays are understood to be performance texts, rather than literary texts. As such, the critic maintains, the two plays reveal Shakespeare's critique of Renaissance historiography and demonstrate the ‘open-ended’ character of historical change.]

The question of whether Shakespeare's Henry IV plays constitute one ten-act play or two separate plays of five acts each is one of those embarrassments literary criticism has brought on itself by its investment in the notion of organic form.1 The fact that the two plays were never performed together in Shakespeare's time should have constituted definitive evidence against the view that the two plays are in fact one play with two parts—but it has not, and the view is still current.2 Indeed, the entire controversy concerning the relationship of the plays—on both sides of the issue—has arisen from what I believe is the mistaken attempt to force the idea of aesthetic unity upon the genre of Shakespeare's Histories. In this essay, therefore, I want to argue that the “structural problem in Henry IV” lies not in the plays themselves, but rather in the “structural” approach which has both created the problem and has gone on to produce a range of correspondingly problematic solutions. I want to suggest that the seeming puzzle of the two Henry IV plays can be solved merely by replacing the term “structure” with the term “sequence.” Moreover, as I shall argue, this rethinking of the Henry IV plays in terms of sequence rather than structure allows us to see how the two plays develop Shakespeare's critique of Renaissance historiography, and enact the revisionist, open-ended nature of historical change which provides one of their two central thematic interests (the other being the operations of political power).

Of course, there is no novelty in referring to the second Henry IV plays as the “sequel” to the first: Dr. Johnson called the second play a “sequel,” as has Sherman H. Hawkins (and both Johnson and Hawkins hold that the two Henry IV plays are one play).3 However, neither of these critics develops the idea of sequence into an interpretive approach. On the contrary, most, if not all, critics assume that the Henry IV plays constitute either one or two literary texts, that the meaning of a literary text subsists outside the movement of time, and that literary meaning is, by its nature, structural and synchronic; whereas if one takes seriously the theatrical idea of sequence, then one will assume that meaning is produced in time, that therefore meaning is either cumulative or revisionist, and, specifically, that the meaning of the Henry IV plays is changeable as well as contingent upon one's temporal position with respect to the sequence.

The very terms of the question of the “structural problem in Henry IV” point to a kind of thinking at odds with the emphases of theatricality. The central question about the relationship between the two plays, in Harold Jenkins's formulation, has been: “is Henry IV one play or two?”4 The question can be elaborated—as Jenkins recognizes (p. 3)—in metaphysical terms: is Henry IV one unity or two, one “structure” of stable meanings or two distinct “structures”? It...

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is easy to see that the “structural problem inHenry IV” is a consequence of the desire to render Shakespeare's meaning full, stable, and permanent, since interpretive stability depends upon the construction of a unified text in which all meaningful relations between parts will be fully present “all at once.” Such a network of synchronically related meanings can be achieved only in terms of an interpretive model which excludes change as a condition of the text. In contrast, the interpretive model I will apply to the Henry IV plays includes change as the central condition of the production of meaning. From this point of view, meaning is never stable or full, but rather is constantly changing and revising itself. This model dissolves rather than resolves the “structural problem in Henry IV.” Since, as I shall argue, neither play is a structure, there is no logical dilemma attendant upon their relationship—the second play merely follows the first, in basically the same way as scene follows scene within the individual plays.

The eighteenth century was the first great age of Shakespeare editing (as opposed to Shakespeare performance), and it was, not surprisingly, in the context of this shift from theater to text that the “structural problem” first appeared.5 John Upton was the first to raise the relationship between the Henry IV plays as a problem in need of a solution. In his Critical Observations on Shakespeare (1746), Upton argued that both the Henry IV plays had what Aristotle demanded of a unified work—a beginning, a middle, and an ending—that each was therefore an independent play, and that it was an error to speak of a first and second part.6 Dr. Johnson responded to this claim by insisting that the “two plays will appear to every reader, who shall peruse them without ambition of critical discoveries, to be so connected that the second is merely a sequel to the first; to be two only because they are too long to be one.”7 In spite of Johnson's use of the word “sequel,” it is clear that both his response and Upton's original claim depend upon seeing the Henry IV plays as literature rather than as performance-texts (so Johnson assumes that the plays are for readers rather than for audiences). This local dispute is in turn an effect of the larger eighteenth-century cultural project which sought to recuperate the player Shakespeare as an icon of conservative values by arresting and hypostatizing the traffic of the stage. The controversy that, since the eighteenth century, has swirled intermittently around the Henry IV plays has obscured the overall purpose, shared on both sides, of rescuing Shakespeare from the instability and temporality of theatricality. While the structural approach has changed Shakespeare's plays from their original nature as theatrical events, and while it has worked efficiently in terms of the critical privileging of synchronic over diachronic elements in the Comedies and Tragedies, it has nonetheless broken down with respect to the Henry IV plays since time-charged theatricality is crucial to those plays' production of meaning.

None of the attempts to impose structure upon the Henry IV plays has been entirely successful. Sherman Hawkins' recent argument for seeing the plays as a single unified structure succeeds in rebutting many points of Jenkins's influential Structural Problem in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth; but fails, we shall see, to validate its own position. Moreover, in spite of Hawkins' strictures, Jenkins's argument—of all the attempts to solve the “structural problem”—still comes closest to being entirely satisfactory, although only by describing the relationship between the two plays in terms of a paradox—that “Henry IV … is both one play and two. … The two parts are complementary, they are also independent and even incompatible” (p. 26). Further, if Jenkins's paradox is the right answer to the structural problem (and it has won wide acceptance),8 then it seems to follow that the structural approach to the Henry IV plays—since it produces a paradoxical conclusion—must itself be inherently illogical. I would even suggest that Jenkins's argument could be seen as a reductio ad absurdum which demonstrates the inadequacy of the structural approach.

Sherman Hawkins's argument against Jenkins represents the most sustained attempt to prove the single-play theory. If Hawkins's argument fails (as I think it does), it is probably not the fault of the advocate, but rather the necessary consequence of attempting to apply structural terms to material whose meaning is produced temporally and sequentially.

Following the general views of Dr. Johnson, Dover Wilson, and E. M. W. Tillyard, Hawkins argues that “Part 1” looks ahead to, and is incomplete without, “Part 2,” and that the “double conversion” of Prince Hal does not contradict the single-play theory.9 According to Hawkins, the ending of the first play, as well as the presence of the Archbishop of York within the play, anticipates and necessitates the second:

Part I ends in a battle that establishes the house of Lancaster
as the present and probably future victor in the civil war. But again triumph
is blended with precaution: Northumberland and the Archbishop are “busily
in arms” and Westmoreland and Lancaster must set off to meet then with “dearest
Rebellion in this land shall lose his sway,
Meeting the check of such another day;
And since this business so fair is done,
Let us not leave till all our own be won.


Could Shakespeare say more plainly that while Hotspur's
business is done, he does not mean to leave his story yet? Shrewsbury is not
its ending end: the King, the Archbishop, and the audience all look forward
to “such another day” (pp. 280-81).

It is true that the ending of the first play looks ahead to the future. However, the first play's anticipations of the second do not constitute proof that the two are one work; rather, the point is that such cues as the King's “such another day” or the presence of the Archbishop in act 4, scene 4 will strike us as anticipatory of a sequel only when they are in fact fulfilled by a sequel.10 As every story-teller knows, narrative is written backwards as well as forwards: links with earlier parts in the story are “discovered” as later parts are invented, unity is seldom planned out from the beginning (on the contrary, it is normally a product of the ending); more to the point, sequels (or continuations) are usually produced by opening up points of entry in the already written story, and sequels always change the meanings of the points of entry they create in the original. Therefore the ending of the first play means one thing in itself, and another from the viewpoint of its sequel; and the same is true of Hal's soliloquy in part 1, act 1, scene 1, of Falstaff's references, in the same scene, to Hal's eventual accession to the throne, and of the appearance of the Archbishop in act 4, scene 4.11

If, as Hawkins wants to argue, the Henry IV plays constitute a unified two-part play, then he must explain the fact that Hal redeems himself in the first play, but then must redeem himself again in the second. Hawkins argues that the two conversions are “stages in a single process” on the basis of a series of claims about the psychological realism of the portrayal of Hal, the nature of Hal's conversion, the relationship between Hal and Henry, and the nature of history in the plays. However, none of these can substantiate the central claim that Hal's double conversion is a single process, since neither the King nor Worcester seems to think that Hal's delinquency in the second play is anything other than a continuous and uninterrupted state of lawlessness (2H4 4.4.54-80; 4.5.92-137); they do not seem to think Hal has relapsed after having been converted because neither seems able to remember that Hal has already redeemed himself in the first play. Finally, Hawkins seems unable to account for this crucial discontinuity between the plays he wishes to see as an unified structure.

Once we dispense with the desire to render Shakespeare's meaning stable and “structured,” and replace the term “structure” with the term “sequence,” the relationship between the two plays can be seen to be straightforward and coherent. Hal's interview with his father in the first play provides an illustration. For most critics, this scene, containing Hal's promise to vanquish Hotspur or to die trying, has seemed decisive, a moment around which Hal's story is organized and in whose terms it can be hypostatized as a structure of chivalric reformation.12 Jenkins calls the scene a “nodal point”: “when the King rebukes his son, the Prince replies, ‘I will redeem all this …’; in the fifth act he fulfils this vow at Shrewsbury, as is signalized by the King's admission that the Prince has ‘redeem’d his lost opinion.’ … The curve of the plot could hardly be more firmly or more symmetrically drawn” (p. 9).

It is true that, at the moment we witness Hal's interview with his father, we are likely to agree that the scene is crucial. More than that, we are likely to feel that Hal's promise to his father is the emotional fulfillment of the promise he made himself to “redeem all this” in soliloquy in act 1, scene 2, and (if we are thinking of the play in terms of structure) that the promise to his father links up with the earlier soliloquy and with the upcoming victory at Shrewsbury in order to provide the dramatic action with a solid interpretive framework. However, what this structural analysis overlooks is not merely that Hal returns to the tavern in act 3, scene 3 (a minor derogation which in any case is easily assimilated into the proposed pattern), but more importantly that Hal revises the meaning of the interview with his father in such a way as to destabilize it and to disable it as the “nodal point” in the proposed pattern of reformation. “O, my sweet beef,” Hal says to Falstaff after the apparently decisive interview with his father, “I must still be good angel to thee.—The money is paid back again. … I am good friends with my father and may do any thing” (1H4 3.3.176-81).13

Hal's revisionist glance backwards to his interview with his father forces a revaluation of that apparently decisive turning-point in terms of Hal's apparent desire to persist in delinquency. Further, Hal's conduct at Shrewsbury in turn invites a revision of his revision of his interview with his father, so that Hal's remark to Falstaff can then be seen to be inconsequential, and his promise to his father can be restored—but now only provisionally—to its former authenticity. Revisionism, as I have said, the way the meaning of actions and words is changed and destabilized by subsequent actions and words, constitutes the central condition of the production of meaning in the plays. The first speech of the first play breaks between Henry's expression, on the one hand, of his intention immediately to mount a crusade (“No more the thirsty entrance of this soil / Shall daub her lips with her own children's blood, / … those opposed eyes, / Which … Did lately meet in the intestine shock / … Shall now … March all one way” [1.1.5-15]) and his statement, on the other, that a crusade is out of the question at this time: “But this our purpose now is twelve month old, / And bootless ’tis to tell you we will go; / Therefor we meet not now” (1.1.28-30). The second part of the speech revises the first part as largely Henry's actorly performance of zeal rather than as his authentic expression of zeal. In this respect, of course, the revisionism of the play's production of meaning persistently reveals the actorly nature of characters' actions and words, in the sense that the characters are shown, not merely performing historically significant actions and speaking historically significant words, but rather that actions and words constitute the characters' attempts to crystallize their own meanings in the face of the fluidity of meaning. That is, that which is defined as authentic is constitutive of its own meaning; it may be interpreted subsequently, but there will remain in the authentic action itself a core of meaning which is stable by virtue of being prior to interpretation.14 On the other hand, an actorly performance of an action is already an interpretation; consequently, a performance of an action has no stable core of meaning. In this view, Hal's soliloquy, “I know you all,” constitutes Hal's attempt to predetermine the meaning of his own history. In the course of the two plays, Hal's initial construction of his history—his self-construction—is revised several times, repudiated and confirmed by turns; however, once revealed to be not a speech from the heart, but rather the performance of a speech from the heart, the soliloquy remains actorly, or theatrical, and thus radically changeable in meaning rather than authentic and permanent.15 The revisionism attendant upon the dramatic movement thus disables Hal's soliloquy from standing as a reference point which might be construed as stable by virtue of its externality to Hal's self-conscious construction of his history.

The relationship between the two Henry IV plays is also revisionist in that the second play constitutes a critique—even an undoing—of the first. The central problem in the relationship between the two plays, as we have seen, consists in the fact that Hal must redeem himself twice. Jenkins claims to see no problem in this repeated pattern. He bases his explanation of Hal's double conversion on his idea that Shakespeare intended to write only one play, but then found he had sufficient material for two.16 However, according to Jenkins, the sequel also required an unreclaimed prince in order to achieve the desired dramatic effect: “The Prince cannot come into Part 2 unreclaimed without destroying the dramatic effect of Part 1. Yet if Part 2 is not to forego its own dramatic effect … it requires a prince who is unreclaimed. This is Part 2's dilemma, and the way it takes out of it is a bold one. When the King on his deathbed exclaims against the Prince's ‘headstrong riot,’ he has not forgotten that at Shrewsbury he congratulated the Prince on his redemption. He has not forgotten it for the simple reason that it has never taken place. … Accordingly the ideal spectator of either part must … sometimes remember what he knows and sometimes be content to forget it” (pp. 25-26).

As Sherman Hawkins has remarked, it is incredible to suppose that Shakespeare expected his audience to forget the main action of a play in that play's immediate sequel (p. 300). Indeed, far from expecting us to forget Hal's first reformation, Shakespeare seems to want us to remember it: the first scene of the second play provides a lengthy account of Shrewsbury, and Poins recalls Hal's reformation the first time Hal is onstage in the second play (Hawkins, p. 294).

What, then, is the nature of the relationship between Hal's reformation in the first play and the apparent requirement that he reform again in the second? I suggest that the second play relates to the first in basically the same way as the second part of Henry's “pilgrimage” speech relates to its first part, or as Hal's radically destabilizing comment (“I am good friends with my father and may do anything”) relates to the interview with his father. That is, Hal's unreclaimed state in the second play contradicts the apparent reclamation in the first. In the light of this contradiction, Hal's actions at Shrewsbury are recast as an actorly performance of a reformation rather than a reformation itself; the meaning of Hal's actions is not then constituted in itself as a stable and permanent point in a changeless text, but rather is destabilized and made subject to the revisionist interpretations that come with the future.

The revision of Shrewsbury engineered by the second play brings into different focus Hal's rescue of his father. Whereas from the point of view of the first play, the moment of rescue authenticates the reconciliation between father and son, from the viewpoint of the sequel, the moment is burdened by continued mutual distrust and resentment—the father's praise is grudging and the son's response is uncomfortably defensive:17

King. Thou has redeem’d
thy lost opinion,
And show’d thou mak’st some tender of my life,
In this fair rescue thou has brought to me.
Prince. O God, they did me too much
That ever said I hearken’d for your death.
If it were so, I might have let alone
The insulting hand of Douglas over you,
Which would have been as speedy in your end
As all the poisonous potions in the world,
And sav’d the treacherous labour of your son.

(1H4 5.4.47-56)

The revisionist relationship between the two plays explains why the first play is complete in itself until it is brought into juxtaposition with the second; the second play, that is, undoes the first, revises its meaning in order to appropriate it to its own darker view of political life.18 The difference between the revisionist relationship between the plays and the revisionist movement within each of the plays consists, then, only in the fact that the latter is necessary and inescapable whereas the former is optional—was optional initially for the playwright himself, and has been subsequently for Shakespeare's audiences.


In the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare's idea of history is implicit in both the revisionist dramatic movement and the ironic undercutting of the characters' historiographical assumptions. Shakespeare's version of history as revisionist and open-ended (and therefore not providentialist)19 seems to be a product of his sceptical engagement with conflicting Renaissance models of history. In the broadest terms, these historiographical models are divisible according to two patterns (linear and cyclical) and two modalities (providentialist and humanist). (While it is not always the case, there is nonetheless a strong tendency for linear models of history to be providentialist and cyclical models to be humanist.)20 Thus Shakespeare had available to him a wide variety of combinations, all sharing the basic assumption that history is explicable in terms of a particular pattern and a particular modality.21

It should also be noted that while the Henry IV plays do critique the idea of history as patterned and hence as grounded in the transhistorical, Shakespeare does not develop an exclusively materialist account of history, since—in spite of their tendency to ascribe the causes of historical change to the level of nature—the plays do preserve an atmosphere of the uncanny. The dramatic irony of Henry IV's death in a room called “Jerusalem” in fulfillment of the prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem or the persuasive, but unauthoritative, “fatefulness” of Hal's meeting-up with Hotspur at Shrewsbury both suggest the persistent operation of the uncanny in spite of Shakespeare's generally sceptical representations of history.

Shakespeare was able to find the two principal Renaissance patternings of history in two of his favorite authors—Holinshed and Plutarch. In spite of his intermittent expressions of scepticism, Holinshed's construction of history as a linear causative chain represents merely a post-Reformation softening, rather than a repudiation, of Augustinian apocalyptic history, an historiographical model given a harder and more political turn by Reformation polemicists such as John Bale and John Foxe.22 Holinshed's linear historiography remains basically providentialist in conception (especially in the 1587 second edition which was used by Shakespeare), and therefore progressivist, figuring the “great perplexitie and little pleasure” of Henry IV's reign as the necessary consequence of the usurpation of Richard II and as the precondition of Henry V's victorious reign, all of which events are seen in turn as contributing to the accession of the Tudors.23 In contrast, North's translation of Amyot's translation of Plutarch (which Shakespeare was getting to know when writing Julius Caesar, c. 1599)24 emphasizes the basic repetitiveness of history, the cyclical structuring of time which underlies Plutarch's paralleling of famous Greeks and Romans, and which allows Amyot's conventional recommendation of the educational value of history so conceived—“it is a certain rule and instruction, which by examples past, teacheth us to judge of things present, and to foresee things to come: so as we may know what to like of, and what to follow, what to mislike, and what to eschew.”25 Further, Plutarch's late classical model of cyclical history was renewed in Renaissance humanist versions of historical recurrence such as that of Machiavelli.26

The conventional Christian response to the apparent circularity of history (and, implicitly, to the model of history as cyclical) was to assimilate repetition into the overarching linearity of Providence. Thus the Tudor historians routinely dovetail the retributive cycles following upon the usurpation of Richard II with the overall linear movement towards the accession of Henry VII, an ideological maneuver which may be epitomized by Thomas Browne's statement that the operations of Fortune constitute in fact “that serpentine and crooked line [whereby God] draws those actions that his wisdom intends in a more unknown and secret way.”27 In contrast, Shakespeare's history is open-ended because Shakespeare conflates, and thereby cancels, the two principal Renaissance patternings of history—history as linear and progressive (or regressive); history as cyclical and repetitive—so that we simply cannot know where we are or even what kind of “where” we are in. In other words, the crowning of Henry IV might feel like a moment of real progress, but might merely be a step in a cyclical movement which will return us to where we have already been—civil disharmony and feuding over the throne. On the other hand, the delinquency of Hal might seem a mere repetition of Richard II's “skipping” trespasses (1H4 3.2.60-128), but might turn out to be a step in a progress towards the recuperation of royal authority (a recuperation which itself might be assimilated into a cycle of national expansion and senescence). The revisionist nature of historical change has the effect of persistently altering the basic shape of history, and so depriving history of basic shape altogether. History's consequent failure to resolve itself into a determinate shape means, then, that the full significance of events is unknowable at any time.

In the face of the open-endedness and “unpatterning” of history, the characters in the Henry IV plays undertake to adapt one or the other of the basic conventional constructions of historical movement, if only to explain their own meanings to themselves. Hastings, Warwick, and Henry IV construct history as repetitive and cyclical; each invests cyclical history with a different modality—Hastings adopts a secularized retributive cycle (2H4, 4.2.44-49), Warwick a pragmatic analysis of personality types (past behavior determines future behavior [2H4 3.1.80-92]), and Henry a fatalistic nihilism (1H4 3.2.93-128; 2H4 3.1.45-65). In each case, the historiographical model is revealed as a rationalizing attempt to shape time by the measure of either the character's sense of defeat (Hastings and Henry) or the character's sense of present political requirements (Warwick needs to bolster the King's confidence); and in all cases the model fails to provide an adequate account of events.

In repudiation of Hastings' prophecy of ongoing civil war “Whiles England shall have generation” (2H4 4.2.49), is the audience's plain awareness that Gaultree Forest did not spawn such an endless civil war and Prince John's assertion of the open-endedness of history and the impenetrable depth of the future: “You are too shallow, Hastings, much too shallow, / To sound the bottom of the after-times” (2H4 4.2.50-51). In Henry's despairing speech in the middle of the second play (3.1.45-79), “the revolution of the times” acquires its root meaning of a “turning of the times,” in telling opposition to Henry's earlier view (in Richard II) of his own revolutionary role in history, then conceived as linear, progressive, and avowedly providential. Henry's fatalistic and inadequate construction of history in the second Henry IV play, and in his interview with Hal in the first play, implies a critique of history (as record of events) as fundamentally a misdirected and covert legitimation of the present.28 In this sense, the past is revealed to be a product of the present, and history (as record of events) as well as history (as the events themselves) is shown to be constructed in terms of revisionism. Moreover, as I have already suggested, history as record and history as the events themselves are tightly linked in the Henry IV plays, for the reason that interpretation begins with and is integral to the event. Finally, Warwick's account of history as recurrent by virtue of the predictability of human behavior remains unable to explain or to predict the change which takes place when Hal becomes Henry V.29

While, however, all constructions of history as cyclical are weakened by the bad motives of their advocates and vitiated by the actual unpredictability of events, all attempts to conceive history as linear—or to act as if history were linear—are equally undermined by the second play's patterned duplication of scenes from the first play, an effect which is especially prominent in the early scenes of the second play.30 For example, the conspirators in Henry IV, act 1, scene 3 construct their role as political revolutionaries in terms of linear and progressive history: “in this great work,” Lord Bardolph says, “Which is almost to pluck a kingdom down / And set another up” (48-50). However, while the conspirators believe they are making progress, it is difficult for us to escape the impression that they are merely repeating the previous conspiracy between Hotspur, Northumberland, and Worcester, which took place at the same point in the previous play. The duplication of scenes, then, has the effect of making the characters in the second play appear to be merely time's fools, and, by virtue of their seemingly inevitable repetitions of the past, of repudiating their construction of history as linear and progressive. The “unpatterning” of history within the world of the plays, then, parallels the thwarting of structure in the plays themselves; the Henry IV plays thus recast both history and literature in terms of the mind's provisional attempts to order the unstructured movement of time.

Finally, the unpatterning of history in the Henry IV plays, achieved by conflating and cancelling the two principal models of history, is folded into Shakespeare's sceptical representation of Hal's construction of his own history. In terms of the first play on its own, Hal's history seems linear: in his interview with his father, Hal acknowledges the open-endedness and unpredictability of time; and at the moment of victory over Hotspur, he seems the beneficiary of a quasi-providential “destiny” to which he has submitted his will. On the other hand, Hal, from the viewpoint of the end of the second play, seems merely to have circled around to where he began (in his soliloquy in 1H4 1.2), so that Hal's conversion—at the very moment of its fulfillment—is brought under a sceptical analysis which is empowered to see Hal's history as cyclical rather than as linear (so that the last scene constitutes merely the public rejection of the man whom Hal has, from the outset, already secretly cast off), as occasioned by Hal's manipulative will to power rather than by “destiny,” and, consequently, as no conversion at all. Or not. That is, Hal's story can be seen as consistently linear and providential in spite of the availability of a sceptical viewpoint, since the second play empowers, but does not authorize, scepticism. Further, at this moment in the second play and in terms of the story of Hal (who is both the thematic focal point and, in Bakhtinian terms, a “semantic position” by virtue of his self-conscious production of his own meaning), questions about the shape of history merge with questions about the operations of political power, and in both cases all possible answers are revealed to be the always provisional and partial (in both senses) positions produced by the mind in the face of the fluidity of meaning and in its attempts to wrest the Real from the merely actual—by Hal's mind and by the minds of the individual members of the audience with respect to Hal. In this regard, the nature of history becomes, in a full sense, a matter of interpretation.

In most of his plays, Shakespeare seems to be developing what I have characterized elsewhere as a Sidneian mystification of literary discourse.31 In the Apology for Poetry, Philip Sidney set the poet above the historian by virtue of the poet's freedom from the constraints of Nature. Sidney crystallized an ideology of literature as opposed to historical and other mundane discourses, as separate, self-enclosed, and expressive of permanent Truth (in contrast to history's mere facticity) and—most importantly—as removed from the flow of time by virtue of poetry's connection with the transcendent, and hence as productive of stable and unified meaning. To a large degree, Shakespeare shared Sidney's ideology of literary discourse. However, as I would like to suggest, in Shakespeare's time, and particularly in Shakespeare's theatrical milieu, the idea that a theatrical performance might be seen as both unified and separate from the world must have seemed avant-garde if not downright presumptuous. In this view, then, the “structural problem in Henry IV” is a consequence of the interpretation of the Henry IV plays in terms of a Sidneian theory of poetry; and that kind of interpretation has generated confusion, I suggest, because the Henry IV plays represent Shakespeare's critique of Sidney's, and his own, attempts to remove dramatic literature from both the context of theatrical performance and the day-to-day world of time.32


  1. I will refer to what are normally called “1 & 2 Henry IV” as “the Henry IV plays” throughout this essay. My designation reflects a theatrical rather than a literary emphasis, and is in conformity with the practice of designating the first Henry IV play in the quarto editions, whereas the received “unifying” designation derives from the single quarto edition of the second play and from the First Folio, which, as Leah S. Marcus has recently argued (in Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and its Discontents [U. of California Press, 1988], pp. 2-32), itself marks the inception of the movement to turn Shakespeare into a stable iconic figure, to transform (according to Marcus, p. 26) “the playtexts from records of performance to a form of literature in its own right, part of the realm called Art.” A related case is Tamburlaine, where the second play's prologue explicitly states that the playwright wrote the second play in response to the success of the first, but where the title page of the first edition (1590) unifies the two plays as one work “divided into two Tragicall Discourses, as they were sundrie times shewed upon Stages in the Citie of London.”

  2. Of course, my point that the two Henry IV plays were never presented in a single performance is unexceptional. In addition, see Mary Thomas Crane, “The Shakespearean Tetralogy,” SQ 36 (1985): 282-99, for an analysis of Elizabethan multiple-part drama which concludes that there is little evidence for the consecutive performance, on successive days, of the Henry IV plays. For a brief account of the “structural” controversy up to 1983 see Dennis H. Burden, “Shakespeare's History Plays: 1952-1983,” Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 13-14. Recent studies which depend upon a structural account of the relationship between the two plays include Catherine M. Shaw, “The Tragic Substructure of the Henry IV Plays,” Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 61-67; and Robert B. Bennett, “Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy,” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 61-85 (Bennett's study depends upon the structural coherence of all four plays from Richard II to Henry V).

  3. Samuel Johnson, Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson and Jean M. O’Meara (Yale U. Press, 1986), p. 178; Sherman H. Hawkins, “Henry IV: The Structural Problem Revisited,” SQ 33 (1982): 282.

  4. Harold Jenkins, The Structural Problem in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth (London: Methuen, 1956), p. 2.

  5. For a stimulating discussion of the eighteenth-century redefinition of Shakespeare as a literary artist (as opposed to a player and playwright), see Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), pp. 52-99.

  6. See Henry the Fourth, Part I, ed. S. B. Hemingway, New Variorum (Philadelpha and London: J. B. Lippincott, 1936), pp. 11, 41-42, 70-71.

  7. Johnson on Shakespeare, p. 178.

  8. See, for example, James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (U. of California Press, 1979), p. 114. A. R. Humphreys, “Introduction,” King Henry IV, Part II, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1966), p. xxvi.

  9. See John Dover Wilson, “Introduction,” The First Part of King Henry IV, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge U. Press, 1946), pp. vii-xiii; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (1944; rpt. Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1964), pp. 264-68.

  10. This point does not apply to the Epilogue of the second play, since it explicitly promises a sequel.

  11. Cf. Hawkins, pp. 285-86. These two basic points—that a sequel changes the meaning of the play it follows; and that it creates, in the play it follows, the signposts which then are seen to anticipate it—can be illustrated by reference either to the revisionist relationship between The Return of the Jedi and Star Wars, or to the typological relationship between the New and Old Testaments.

  12. See, for example, Derek Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford U. Press, 1957), p. 84; John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (U. of Delaware Press, 1983), pp. 155-64.

  13. All quotations are from A. R. Humphreys' Arden editions, King Henry IV, Part I (London: Methuen, 1961) and King Henry IV, Part II (London: Methuen, 1967).

  14. The conversion of the Prince in Famous Victories provides an excellent example of an authentic action which retains a stable core of meaning. The ideological difference between the Famous Victories Prince and Shakespeare's Hal consists in the fact that the self in Shakespeare (Hal himself) remains radically interiorized and maintains its hegemony over action and expression whereas action and expression in the earlier play are authentic by virtue of their power to determine character.

  15. For a related discussion of the hero as provisionally self-constructed, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson, Theory and History of Literature, 8 (U. of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 47-77, 101-2, passim.

  16. Hawkins, pp. 282-84, decisively rebuts Jenkins' argument that Shakespeare wrote two Henry IV plays because he had too much material for one.

  17. For readings which interpret the Shrewsbury reconciliation between Hal and Henry as strained and ironic in its immediate context, see Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Harvard U. Press, 1972), pp. 150-51; and Hawkins, pp. 293-94. Of course, I would agree that this reading is valid, but only from the revisionist perspective of the second play.

  18. Anthony B. Dawson, Watching Shakespeare: A Playgoer's Guide (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 88-89, discusses the ways in which the two plays together are different from the first on its own.

  19. For a persuasive critique of the providentialist view of the Henry IV plays, see H. A. Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Harvard U. Press, 1970), pp. 109-60; for a good discussion of both the question of Shakespeare's providentialism and the open-endedness of history in Shakespeare, see David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 9-33.

  20. See Tom F. Driver, The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama (Columbia U. Press, 1960), pp. 19-66, for an extensive discussion of these historiographical models.

  21. For a brief account of the various linear and cyclical models of time which were available to Renaissance historiography, see Bennett, “Four Stages of Time,” pp. 61-67.

  22. For an account of Holinshed's historiography, see F. J. Levy, Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1967), pp. 182-86.

  23. For the differences between the 1577/78 and 1587 editions of Holinshed with respect to their providentialism, see Kelly, Divine Providence, pp. 138-60.

  24. Shakespeare seems to be sending up Plutarch's historiographical model in Fluellen's comparison of Alexander and King Henry. See “Introduction,” Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. T. J. B. Spencer (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 11-12.

  25. Plutarch's Lives Englished by Sir Thomas North, 10 vols. (1579; rpt. London: Dent, 1908), 1: 8-9. For an account of the relationship between linear and providentialist history on the one hand and cyclical and (what he calls) “exemplary” history on the other, see Kastan, pp. 12-23.

  26. On Machaivelli's construction of history as recurrent, see G. W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought: From Antiquity to the Reformation (U. of California Press, 1979), pp. 250-312.

  27. Quoted in Herschel Baker, The Race of Time: Three Lectures on Renaissance Historiography (U. of Toronto Press, 1967), p. 65. Also see Baker's brief discussion of the Christian appropriation of the cyclical model of history, pp. 59-66.

  28. In 1H4 3.2, Henry draws a parallel between Hal and Richard II which assumes cyclical view of history. Henry's reasons for seeing history in this way are far from disinterested: he seems to desire a repetition of the original regicide, this time with Hal as Richard and Hotspur as Henry Bolingbroke, as expiation for his own crime. However, Hal is not like Richard for a number of reasons, the most immediate being that Hal is not king, that even if he were, he would not have Richard's de jure claim to the crown, and that Hal will not be overthrown.

  29. Bennett, p. 74, has noted that while Warwick predicts Hal's transformation, he does not in fact believe his own prediction.

  30. Needless to say, the plays do not resolve into a “diptych” structure (as G. K. Hunter has argued, “Henry IV and the Elizabethan Two-Part Play,” English Studies, n.s. 5 [1954]: 236-48), for the reason that the duplications serve to contradict a linear account of history and so to problematize rather than to validate the attempt to structure history. Further, as Hawkins has pointed out (p. 298), the pattern of duplication dwindles and disappears in the later acts of the second play.

  31. “The Powerless Theater,” English Literary Renaissance 21.1 (1991): 49-74.

  32. This article represents a version of a paper given at the Tri-Universities Conference on Literature and History at the U. of British Columbia in 1990. I am grateful to the members of the conference for their insightful and helpful comments, especially Ed Berry, Tony Dawson, Terry Sherwood, and Kay Stockholder.


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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 history plays, while others emphasize the problems with trying to link plays that Shakespeare intended as separate units. Ricks argues that the unity of the two tetralogies stems primarily from the fact that the plays coherently dramatize the consecutive reigns of several kings, but that the eight plays do in fact stand distinctly apart from one another. Paul Yachnin (1991) and Paola Pugliatti (1996) focus their attention on the structural relationship between the two parts of Henry IV. Yachnin argues that the plays should be thought of in terms of sequence rather than structure, and that they should be viewed as performance rather than literary texts. As such, Yachnin maintains, the two plays reveal Shakespeare's critique of Renaissance historiography and demonstrate the “open-ended” character of historical change. Yachnin further states that the first play stands as a complete unit until the second play revises the premises of the first, and that the second play has a darker conception of politics which undercuts the views of the first part of Henry IV. The revisionist relationship between the plays, Yachnin asserts, demonstrates that Shakespeare's view of history was not providentialist. Pugliatti agrees with Yachnin's claims in general, but argues that the second play, rather than contradicting the premises of the first, further develops certain elements, particularly the concept of political, as well as historiographical, instability. The two plays are based on the concept of this instability, Pugliatti argues, and this framework of instability is used by Shakespeare to question the providential view of history.

Clifford Leech (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “History for the Elizabethans,” in Shakespeare: The Chronicles, Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. 7-12.

[In the essay below, Leech argues that while Shakespeare does honor sixteenth-century attitudes toward the value of history to some degree, the playwright also transcends—both in literary expertise and poetic insight—the chronicles he used as source material.]

Most of us to-day know that history does not repeat itself, that few things are more dangerous than responding to present circumstances as if they duplicated those that a previous generation had to cope with. Of course, some of our public men and some of our military strategists do exactly that, but the colder manner of contemplation, difficult to maintain in a position of power, makes us recognise a dynamic principle in men and society. Such a principle is incompatible with the notion of repetition. In the sixteenth century, however, men commonly saw the world as essentially static. Each man's life throughout history showed a conflict between an unchanging good and evil, and the threats to a society's health were similarly unchanging. In The Thre Bokes of Chronicles (1550) translated by Walter Lynne from the German of Johann Carion, it is argued that rulers must study history in order to see how disasters of the past may be avoided in the future, and this is buttressed by an assertion of constancy in the world's pattern. From a knowledge of past attacks on government, Lynne's readers are told, rulers:

maye learne to beware in theyr governaunce, lest any such lyke do befall: For such cases do dayly befall. Yea though the persons do sometyme chaunge in commune welthes, neverthelesse so much as is concernynge the qualytye of mattiers, the worlde is and alwayes abydeth lyke to hym selfe.

This view of the value of history underlies the historiography that Shakespeare knew, and for this reason it is common to find him giving utterance to a generalisation concerning a recurrent political condition. Thus in Part I of Henry VI on the danger that threatens when the King is a child and dissensions grow among the nobles:

’Tis much when sceptres are in children's hands;
But more when envy breeds unkind division:
There comes the ruin, there begins confusion. 


And his eight histories covering the sequence of events from the time of Richard II to the accession of Henry VII show certain events virtually repeated: Bolingbroke and the Percies rebel against Richard II; the Percies rebel against Henry IV, formerly Bolingbroke; Northumberland deserts the rebels in Part I of Henry IV, and again in Part II; Edward of York, on returning from exile in Part III of Henry VI, declares that he has returned only for his father's dukedom, not for the crown, exactly as Bolingbroke did in Richard II; and in Henry VIII we shall see that the substance of the play is a series of falls from high estate, with an implication that such a fall is part of a regular pattern of things. Of course, both Shakespeare's sources and his own observation told him that there was always an element of variation within any repetition, but the repetitive character of the action is emphasised and embodies the political lesson.

So simply didactic is historiography outside the drama in the sixteenth century, so obviously does Shakespeare depend on the sixteenth-century chroniclers in his history plays, that the assumption is often made that these plays are merely a dramatic exposition of the chroniclers' ideas, that, however much the didacticism may be enlivened by the judicious employment of stirring incident and characterisation and comic admixture, the writer's dominating purpose is to urge a political lesson on the dangers of civil dissension and the glories of national well-being. But such an assumption is hardly compatible with a recognition of Shakespeare's status as a poet. Whatever a major poet's intellectual starting-point may be—and, of course, in any age he may as a member of society adhere to a particular religion or political party—he will be characterised ultimately by his power to enter into an experience that he has directly known or deeply imagined, and by his ability to relate that experience to the sum total of the human story. In the Henry VI plays one of the characters that does most harm is Queen Margaret, the French princess who married Henry VI and became notorious for the major part she played in the disturbance of England's peace and the savagery with which she treated her adversaries. Yet, though Shakespeare shows all this, what we remember most sharply in his presentation of her is the scene in 3 Henry VI when she is finally defeated and her son Prince Edward, a prisoner of war, is stabbed to death by his captors. At this point she becomes a representative of suffering humanity, she is at one with that king-husband of hers whom she had despised for his gentleness and compassion and sense of powerlessness. What, in fact, impresses us most in Shakespeare's history plays, and what makes them much more than merely approximately accurate records of past events, is the presentation within them of struggling and suffering humanity. Of course, they also have an interest as enshrining much of the sixteenth-century attitude to history and its lessons, but that would not in itself give them high status as literature.

But, if Shakespeare's plays transcend, not merely in literary skill but in poetic insight, the chronicles that he used in his quest for material, it is still important to see his work in relation to those sources. Englishmen of the sixteenth century were profoundly interested in the history of their own nation, and this interest was ministered to by a whole series of writings and compilations. The most important of these were Edward Hall's The Union of the two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), which more directly than any other piece of sixteenth-century historiography devoted itself to demonstrating how the establishment of the Tudor monarchy in 1485 had rescued England from the long period of disturbance ensuing on the deposition of Richard II in 1399, and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande (1577; second edition, used by Shakespeare, 1587), which was a compilation incorporating much of the earlier history-writing of the century. Underlying all such historiography is not only the growing thirst for information of all kinds that characterised the men of the Renascence but the desire to understand the present through a knowledge of the past.

History became material for narrative poetry as well. A Mirror for Magistrates (1559; seventh edition, 1587) demonstrated through its title the informing notion that rulers could learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. William Warner's Albion's England (1586-89), Samuel Daniel's Civil Wars (1595-1609), and Michael Drayton's The Barons' Wars (1603) show how, at the apex of English literary achievement, the poets went to history for their material. It cannot surprise us that in the last decade of the sixteenth century many dramatists looked in the same direction. New plays in quantity were needed for the recently built theatres and their growing audiences. In English history as presented by the prose chroniclers and the contributors to A Mirror for Magistrates there was material both immediately available and sure to command the interest of Elizabethans. In addition to Shakespeare, Marlowe and Peele and Heywood were among the writers who contributed to the history plays during the years immediately preceding 1600. After that date the play on an English historical theme became much rarer, although Shakespeare contributed Henry VIII in 1613 and Ford's Perkin Warbeck came about twenty years later than that. It appears that the popular concern with the country's recent past was at its height in the second half of the sixteenth century, and that the drama (as often, a consolidating rather than a pioneering force) ministered to that concern in its final phase.

In the First Folio of 1623, the title-page indicates a three-fold division of Shakespeare's plays into comedies, histories and tragedies, and the plays are arranged in these three sections. By ‘histories’ were meant the plays on English historical themes of comparatively recent date—not plays on Roman history or on stories taken from the chronicles of Britain but set in very early times (e.g. Macbeth, Lear, Cymbeline). The history-section of the Folio therefore comprised ten plays, arranged in chronological order of subject-matter, beginning with King John and ending with Henry VIII. In the present series of essays on Shakespeare, it has been decided to make a somewhat arbitrary division between ‘chronicles’ and ‘histories’: ‘chronicles’ is the term used for the plays on the reigns of Henry VI, Henry IV and Henry VIII; ‘histories’ is used for King John, Richard III, Richard II, Henry V. The division is not chronological, either in composition or in subject-matter: Henry VI was the earliest of Shakespeare's histories, Henry VIII the last; the historical sequence runs from King John to Henry VIII. Nevertheless, the plays we shall be concerned with in the present essay have certain features in common which distinguish them from those that will be dealt with separately as ‘histories’. Henry VI is in three Parts, Henry IV in two Parts: both of them have therefore an amplitude which makes possible the incorporation of a greater range of incident, and facilitates a longer time-sequence, than we find in the other plays. Henry VIII is a single drama, but we shall see that its construction is such as to bring it in some measure closer to Henry VI and Henry IV than to the other historical plays: it has not the integrated action of Richard III or Richard II, for example, but surveys in turn the fate of a variety of the King's subjects, approaching the manner of an historical pageant rather than a sequence of events governed by a cause-effect relation.

We can thus say that this essay is concerned with Shakespeare's ‘open-textured’ historical writing, the kind of drama in which there is not a persistent consciousness of an ineluctable march of events. It is writing which incorporates some incidents almost haphazardly, like the bogus miracle at St. Alban's in 2 Henry VI or the Gadshill robbery in 1 Henry IV; in Henry IV, moreover, this kind of writing can make use of fictitious characters along with historical ones, and these creatures of the imagination can take on a life of their own, can be felt as having an existence outside the historical frame. Shakespeare, in response to popular and perhaps royal desire (for there is a legend that it was the Queen who suggested the idea to the dramatist), could even transport his Sir John Falstaff from the reign of Henry IV to his own times and put him in a play set in Elizabethan Windsor. The fact that the present essay will include a brief comment on The Merry Wives of Windsor will underline the ‘open-textured’ character of the historical writing in this group of plays.…


  1. Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Tudor Shakespeare, edited by Peter Alexander. Line-references are to the Globe edition.

Paola Pugliatti (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Time, Space and the Instability of History in the Henry IV Sequence,” in Shakespeare the Historian, Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1996, pp. 102-36.

[In the essay below, Pugliatti responds to several of Paul Yachnin's arguments, maintaining that Henry IV, Part Twostrengthens and clarifies elements of Henry IV, Part One, rather than revising premises of the first play, as Yachnin suggests. Pugliatti also examines the concept of political, as well as historiographical, instability in the plays.]


The issue of the ‘structural problem’ of the Henry IV plays seems still to attract the attention of critics. In a recent article, Paul Yachnin has taken up the subject once again, remarking that those critics who have argued for the unity of the two plays have normally not developed ‘the idea of sequence into an interpretive approach’.1 Starting from what are considered discrepancies in the sequence (Hal's two reformations being the main one), Yachnin adopts an interpretative model which, far from viewing change as an element producing discontinuity, ‘includes change as the central condition of the production of meaning’2 and in the second play shows a revisionist attitude which, he holds, works as a critique and even as an undoing of the first.

Yachnin's model is interesting in the first place because it rejects the assumption, which has been fundamental to virtually all discussions of the ‘structural problem’, that we should ‘render Shakespeare's meaning full, stable, and permanent’; and in the second place because it pertinently discusses the ‘structural problem’ in close connection with the kind of historical vision that the sequence presents. In particular, Yachnin argues that the two plays ‘develop Shakespeare's critique of Renaissance historiography, and enact the revisionist, open-ended nature of historical change’, ‘persistently altering the basic shape of history, and so depriving history of basic shape altogether’.3

However, although I agree with Yachnin's general claims, I prefer to consider the second play as a development of certain equivocal elements which are present in the first rather than, like Yachnin, as an outright contradiction of its meanings; I will therefore discuss ‘change’ and ‘open-endedness’ from a different set of premises. In particular, I see destabilisation in the progressive corruption of the value system which the first play presents. Apparently neatly defined and delimited and mutually contrasted, the three axiologies which determine the conflicts of the sequence—rule, misrule and rebellion—are in reality blurred right from the start, and they get more and more disfigured as the action progresses: basically, the space of rule is corrupted by being occupied by an illegitimate king;4 the popular nature of the sphere of misrule is contaminated and deflected from ‘low’ style by the presence in it, and belonging to it, of the heir apparent (in the sphere of misrule, we may say, the disruption of the norm is accompanied by a corruption of the form); while the sphere of rebellion tends to present itself as a space of legitimation, for it supports the restoration of someone who is presented as the legitimate heir of Richard II. These discrepancies vitiate the plays' alleged system of values and therefore compromise the possibility of clear moral and political discriminations.

More generally, the sequence puts forward the idea that instability of meaning is a problem which also affects historiography: there are, as we shall see, more or less explicit suggestions that transmission may corrupt historical truth and that knowledge of past events is in any case problematic; but even more problematic is the business of foreseeing and planning future developments for, principally in the sphere of rule, the course of (historical) events does not develop according to either projects or expectations. Time corrupts, infects, contaminates and disfigures, and future developments often bring the frustration of expectations. Thus, both historical knowledge and political project are presented as uncertain predicaments, and historical time tends to be reduced—again, mainly in the sphere of rule—to the mere consciousness of the present.

The whole structure of meaning is developed progressively and cumulatively, although this is brought about in the two plays by means of different strategies. As regards the ‘structural problem’, then, my idea is that the second play strengthens and clarifies certain premises of the first; that what have been considered discrepancies cease to be problematic if we acknowledge the fact that the framework of the sequence is one of instability rather than one of coherence or consistency; and that this framework is precisely the means by which the sequence questions the pattern of coherence which is at the basis of all providential views of history. Nevertheless, while it is undoubtedly true that Part Two integrates Part One, I would not go so far as to affirm that Part One would be incomplete without Part Two.5 Simply, as Harold Jenkins argued, Henry IV ‘is both one play and two’, and if ‘The two parts are complementary, they are also independent and even incompatible.’6

My presentation of the framework described will start from a reading of the incipit of the two plays where I consider many of the premises of future developments to be laid. As a start, I will go back to Yachnin's article and pick up a few of the points he makes, which, I believe, call for some comment.

Yachnin quotes, as one of the moments in the sequence in which ‘the meaning of actions and words is changed and destabilized by subsequent actions and words’,7 Henry's speech which opens the first play. However, he reads the speech as expressing in the first part the king's intention to go on a crusade and as disclaiming this same intention in the second. In particular, he interprets Henry's meaning in ll. 28-30 (‘But this our purpose is now twelve month old / And bootless ’tis to tell you we will go; / Therefor we meet not now’) as ‘his statement … that a crusade is out of question at this time’. Yachnin's reading of the speech as ‘Henry's actorly performance of zeal’, then, triggers a series of metatheatrical comments about ‘the actorly nature’, in the play, ‘of characters' actions and words’ as intended ‘to crystallize their own meanings in the face of the fluidity of meaning’; ‘actorly’, then, is equated with ‘non-stable’ and ‘changeable’, as opposed to a not altogether clear authentic, meaning.8 These assumptions, I believe, and in particular the unclear relationship obtaining between the notions evoked (revisionist attitude, actorly performance, instability, authentic meaning), obscure Yachnin's arguments; besides, I believe that Henry's opening speech in the first play may be read in a light which might better support Yachnin's main claims about the representation of history as unpredictable and open-ended, albeit on the basis of a different set of arguments.

Let us bear in mind, in the first place, that the speech is the statement which opens the sequence and that, therefore, it is through that speech that the spectators—and the readers—are introduced into the world of the play; and in the second place that the occasion is official and ceremonial and that it involves onstage witnesses of a certain importance who are listening to a public statement from the king. The speech has, therefore, a decisive function in establishing the text's historiographical perspective.

Whether Henry is here putting up an ‘actorly performance’ or not (an attitude which, besides, does not seem to be suggested by the text, either explicitly or implicitly) is, I believe, hardly important. What is crucial, instead, is his recognition—and both the onstage and offstage audience's recognition—of the inanity of his own purposes and of the unreliability of (historical) predictions. (Henry had expressed the same purpose to go on a crusade, in an almost prophetic tone, when, so to speak, we last saw him, in the lines with which he closes Richard II.)

It seems clear to me that in the first part of his speech Henry is expressing his purpose with perfect assurance (‘As far as to the sepulchre of Christ / … Forthwith a power of English shall we levy’, 19-22) and that in the last part he is simply reminding the nobles—and the audience—that the project is long rife and that its execution is beyond doubt. At the same time, he stresses his conviction with a negation of the necessity of the reminder (‘But this our purpose now is twelve month old, / And bootless ’tis to tell you we will go’, 28-9); the sentence which follows (‘Therefor we meet not now’, 30) means precisely that the decision has been taken, and that the present meeting is not meant to establish whether to go or not. Instead, the king's purpose now is simply to hear what suggestions the Council has made ‘in forwarding this dear expedience’ (33). Besides, Henry does not seem to depend on the Council's opinion; on the contrary, he is merely expecting them to ‘decree’ what support or marginal advice they can supply in forwarding the enterprise.

It is, in all evidence, Westmoreland's speech which introduces a new and unexpected element which disrupts the fulfilment of Henry's purpose. This, moreover, is characteristically unexpected for, as Westmoreland explains, it was determined by a sudden interruption of the Council's meeting with the irruption of the post from Wales. None of the ‘heavy news’ (37) that the post has brought to the Council has as yet been disclosed to Henry, who is informed of them at the same time as the audience and is therefore forced to abandon his ‘twelve month old’ project: the decision to abandon the expedition is therefore dictated by an external destabilising factor which gives an unexpected turn to what the king appeared to envisage as the predictable chain of (historical) events. The spectacle of the king's failure is displayed before our eyes.

But the sequence stages an even more explicit and crucial instance of destabilisation. It is again an opening, again the audience's first contact with a dramatic world: Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues.

Directly addressing the audience, Rumour opens his speech imposing attention:

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?

(2 Henry IV, Induction, 1-2)

Rumour proceeds to communicate—albeit somewhat indirectly—the news of Henry's victory at Shrewsbury and of Hal's killing of Hotspur, but he then goes on to say that he has been spreading news to the contrary. It might seem reasonable to suppose that the Induction was intended as a device to sum up the main events of Part One, or at least as a reminder of the outcome of the battle of Shrewsbury. However, it deserves attention for it is unique in the whole corpus of histories (why, in the first place, did Shakespeare not feel that a similar link was needed to connect the events of the Henry VI plays?), with perhaps the sole exception of Gloucester's soliloquy which opens Richard III (this, however, focuses much more on future events than on past ones).

Yet, by the time we get into the first scene of the play we feel that Rumour's speech was by no means necessary as a means of setting out past events. The play might in fact easily have started around line 30 with Travers arriving and informing Northumberland of the disaster at Shrewsbury. No clumsiness in the exposition would have followed, for no information already possessed by the characters would have been transmitted. But quite apart from that, the Induction triggers a rather peculiar scene in which the audience's attention is strongly directed towards the workings of the mechanism of news-spreading. This involves three onstage ‘messengers’ (Lord Bardolph, Travers and Morton), two offstage ‘gentlemen’ who in turn communicated the news, good to Bardolph and bad to Travers; it makes it impossible the first two messengers (Lord Bardolph and Travers) to be eye-witnesses—which is rather unusual—and the questions from Northumberland to Bardolph, ‘How is this deriv’d? / Saw you the field? Came you from Shrewsbury?’ (23-4), which sound slightly odd, since it is conventionally agreed that messengers are considered to be reliable. Obviously, the mechanism of the Induction was not meant to create suspense in the audience, for it is precisely from the Induction that the spectators know what the truth is (but, do they really know?); nor does Northumberland's grief at his son's death deserve the emotional enhancement which may come from the strain of absorbing subsequently contrary truths (we, again, know from Rumour that the sickness which he alleged as an impediment to his taking part in the battle was crafty).

In other words, the device is not technically necessary; on the contrary, its inclusion renders necessary an overelaboration of the first scene which is not easy to justify in terms of dramatic logic. But, apart from its uniqueness, this particular Induction may seem rather surprising as an introduction to a historical play because it is eminently and overtly destabilising.9 What Rumour in the final analysis seems to communicate to the audience is a reflection on the instability of meaning in historiography: past events, when they are reported, are subjected to distortions; ‘rumour’ stands, therefore, for one of the possible factors which contribute to the falsifications of historiography, of its ‘continual slanders’ (6), others being ‘surmises, jealousies, conjectures’ (16). The implication is clear: what has already been told about this story—in the first play of the sequence—may have suffered from falsification, and may therefore stand in need of revision.

A different reading of the Induction is possible, one which once again focuses on instability, change and uncertainty but which treats these as an unavoidable part of the pursuit of historical awareness and thus as inherent in historiographical practice. By spreading false news, Rumour is in fact suggesting that witnesses need to be evaluated on the basis of their proximity to the events (‘Saw you the field? Came you from Shrewsbury?’), and of their reliability (‘A gentleman well bred, and of good name’, 26; ‘A gentleman almost forspent with speed’, 37; ‘some hilding fellow that had stol’n / The horse he rode on’, 57-8); in short, he is prompting research. Naturally, research may lead us to change and revise our account of events, and change and revision are, as Yachnin says, the central conditions of the production of meaning in the Henry IV plays.

In the following pages, I aim to show that the moral and political system of values is not only presented right from the start as unstable, but also gets progressively more and more distorted and corrupt. This is achieved by means of different but concurring strategies in the two plays: in Part One it is time—both as a topic of discourse and as an element in the plot's development—which is used to compare and contrast the three axiologies mentioned above; while in Part Two the corruption of those same axiologies is brought out mainly through space manipulation and in particular through the trespassing implicit in the action of border-crossing.

As I have suggested, the various spaces of the plays—roughly, what is commonly identified with the double plot plus the rebels' space (to which is assigned an independent semantic space in both plays)—adumbrate notions which are obviously not simply spatial, since they evoke the easily identifiable and highly charged political and moral models of rule, misrule and rebellion. My aim is to show that the sorts of political and moral evaluations that the plays apparently encourage are undermined by the way in which the various spatial configurations are organised and interconnected in time and by the way in which they are made to interfere with each other.10 In particular, following certain suggestions by Lotman regarding the organisation of space, I am interested in developing the notion of border, holding that peculiar meanings may be connected—in a given text and in a given culture—with the ideas of keeping within or transgressing certain boundaries.11

In Part One, each of the three semantic spheres is presented as managing and, up to a point, controlling its own space and time; the separation between them is responsible for the comparatively neat differentiation of the political and moral issues which each of the spaces stands for: rule, rebellion and misrule each dominate certain relevant space—time loci which are mutually contrasted by means of sequential juxtapositions and of the contrasts produced by certain of their characteristics: night/day, north-west/south, inside/outside, moving/still, etc., are some of the ways in which the various axiological differences are made relevant and by which the various settings and their inhabitants are made to make sense. But the overall structure of meaning is constructed sequentially and is developed in time. While, in fact, the first play mainly establishes those axiologies and meanings and gives them a comparatively clear set of distinctive prerogatives, in the second we see their progressive disfigurement and finally their utter corruption: trespassings and interferences, in fact, are comparatively ineffectual in the first play, where they figure merely as hints and suggestions of what may in the end happen and as partial and temporary distortion of the prerogatives of each of the spaces; while in the second they are responsible for the blurring and final collapse of the issues for which each of the spaces stands. Besides, although the dénouement of the sequence is the triumph of the space of rule, the way this comes about involves an interesting exchange of prerogatives, for it is achieved by means of a double betrayal: the betrayal by John of Lancaster of the forces of rebellion and the betrayal by Hal of the forces of misrule.

This general frame is established in different ways in the two plays: while in the first it relies principally on time (the impression of simultaneity is the means by which the various spheres are both contrasted and interrelated), in the second it is constructed mainly by playing on the different spaces and on the various events which involve crossings of their boundaries, with violations which become more and more frequent and more and more fatal.


That time, in a number of aspects, is an extremely important component of 1 Henry IV is evident throughout the text.12 Indeed, nowhere else does Shakespeare emphasise the time component so punctiliously or underline its importance for almost all the characters in so many different circumstances. Scarcely a scene goes by without our attention being drawn to time or without some discussion of the meaning of time: thus, there are occasions where basic information about the time of day (or of night) is given, occasions where some future time is envisaged and looked forward to, occasions where it is stated that the time has come for some enterprise to be set in motion; finally there are occasions where alien times (and spaces) thrust themselves before us through the arrival of posts and through the delivery of letters. Allusions to and specifications of time tightly connect the sequences developing in the various spaces activated by the action; they help to create contrasts between diverging thoughts occurring at the same time to different characters while connecting and/or contrasting axiologies and attitudes by creating an impression of temporal contiguity or coexistence. Indeed, the play exploits this basic historical (and theatrical) component almost obsessively, although it suggests that there is profound difference between the various views of time (and therefore utter instability in any definition of historical time), a difference which is determined by the characters that inhabit the various times and by the way they manage and master—or are not able to master—time; this until the battle of Shrewsbury forces all to meet in one and the same time and space—a space which is alien to all and which is entrusted with the task of dispersing, albeit temporarily, Henry's rival axiologies.

Henry's time is indeed unquiet. The time which he mentions in the second line of the play, which he has planned to devote to the ‘frighted peace’ and to the crusade is, as we have seen, turned into a time of war by the news which arrives from Wales and Scotland. But it is in the second scene of the play that the temporal component is made thematically relevant. The very first words we hear from Falstaff at the opening of the scene concern time (‘Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?’, I.ii.1), and they are used in Hal's reply and in the subsequent five speech turns in a way that completely deautomatises the casual character of Falstaff's question. Hal does not answer it but replies elaborating on its absurdity and thus uses his speech to introduce Falstaff to the audience:

Prince. … What a devil
hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack,
and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of
leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured
taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the
time of the day.


Falstaff then further elaborates on Hal's cue in two subsequent speeches, establishing the first significant opposition of the play regarding time, namely, the night/day opposition:

Fal. … we that take
purses go by the moon and the seven stars, and not ‘by Phoebus, he,
that wand’ring knight so fair’. … Marry then sweet wag,
when thou art king let not us that are squires of the night's body be
called thieves of the day's beauty: let us be Diana's foresters,
gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of
good government, being governed as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress
the moon, under whose countenance we steal.

(13-15 and 23-9)13

Even Falstaff's space is inhabited by some kind of temporal prospect: there we find both short-term forward projections (‘tomorrow morning, by four o’clock’, 120-1, ‘tonight’, 125, ‘tomorrow night’, 126, 187, ‘tomorrow’, 156-7), which envisage in advance suppertime and the time appointed for the highway robbery, and a longterm one (the often repeated ‘when thou art king’, 16, 58, 60, 141-2), in which Falstaff foresees a better legitimation of his revels once Hal has assumed the role of king and maybe even an extension of his own kind of time to the space of rule. But the scene is sealed by Hal's mention of a different kind of time, which makes us perceive the groundlessness of Falstaff's expectations. In the closing line of his soliloquy, in which he reveals his project to forsake his present friends (one of the few projects in the sequence which are not destined to be frustrated), it is not by chance that Hal chooses time—Falstaff's transgressive time—as the present offence to be ‘redeemed’.

Following what appears to be a neat expositional pattern, the third scene presents the face of rebellion, and with it yet another view of time. Hotspur's time is forward-projected and characterised by impatience. Once the plot is sketched and the rebellious enterprise is agreed between him, Northumberland and Worcester, Hotspur produces an explicit statement of his attitude towards time: ‘O, let the hours be short / Till fields, and blows, and groans applaud our sport!’ (I.iii.295-6), which pertinently concludes the encounter.

All three spaces have by now been presented, and all three have been associated with the different projects which are going to fill out the play's plot. In the space of rule, the initial project is thwarted by the intrusion of external circumstances; in that of misrule, time appears short-winded, and the project of betrayal formulated by Hal (who is the spurious element in that space) also makes it short-lived; while in that of rebellion it appears characterised by impetuosity and presumptuousness. The idea that the conflict between the three main spaces is going to be a conflict between different conceptions of time is thus suggested right from the start. Quite surprisingly, however, the king's time is presented as the least stable and the most powerless. Henry's inability to formulate a project of his own, unaffected by external pressures, condemns the time of state politics and the locus of political power to the instability of unplanned action.

But it is in Act II (with a coda in III.i.) that we encounter the most interesting treatment of time and a clearer juxtaposition of, and confrontation between, the two destabilising axiologies of the play, those of misrule and rebellion.

In the sequence of scenes which I am going to discuss, time is on the one hand used as a dramaturgical tool to produce contrasts by suggesting simultaneity and on the other evoked as a topic for reflection. In the first scene, which is set in Rochester, time is repeatedly mentioned and specified as a relevant element of the plot. The first line, spoken by one of the two Carriers (‘An it be not four by the day I’ll be hanged’), signals the man's impatience to leave for London, to which he and his companion have to transport goods and passengers; Gadshill enters asking ‘what’s o’clock?’ (31) and is answered by the First Carrier ‘I think it be two o’clock’ (32); when he further asks the Carrier ‘what time do you mean to come to London?’ (40-1), he is answered ‘Time enough to go to bed with a candle, I warrant thee’ (42-3). Obviously, ‘two o’clock’ has a different meaning for the Carriers and for Gadshill: the former are concerned to leave as soon as possible in order to deliver their goods, to get their passengers to their destinations in due time and not to spend too many hours of the day travelling; while for Gadshill, who is ‘one of the squires of the night's body’, two o’clock is the right time for purse-cutting. Scene ii, with the highway robbery and the trick played on Falstaff by Hal and Poins, who rob the robbers of their booty, presumably takes place a little later, the same night. By the end of the scene, Hal's night of revels seems to be concluded after Falstaff, Gadshill and Bardolph have fled. Leaving the prince and Poins on the highway, we are abruptly introduced to the presence of Hotspur, solus, Hamlet-like, reading a letter (the first of many epistolary intrusions from a different space and time in the space of rebellion). One of his possible allies in the dangerous enterprise of revolt has forsaken him. Nevertheless, in the dialogue which he starts with the absent and unknown (to us) sender of the letter, Hotspur shows a courageous heart: he will proceed relentlessly in his project.

In the first moments of this scene, the evident discrepancies—linguistic, stylistic and situational—with the preceding one prevent us from appreciating Hotspur's mood and from siding with the seriousness of his undertaking. However, by the end of the Hotspur scene, emotion and sympathy have been raised, mainly thanks to the dialogue which follows the appearance of Lady Percy (the encounter is an antecedent of that between Brutus and Portia in Julius Caesar, II.i.233-309); so that when, with equal abruptness, the Eastcheap scene is revealed, we feel that the pressure of estrangement is also working in the opposite direction: for a few moments, in fact, laughter is blocked and we are compelled to absorb the irreconcilable diversity of the two worlds.

The technical need to interpose a scene which takes place in a different space between two scenes showing the space of Hal's revels does not by itself fully account for the interpolation of the incongruous fragment. More compelling seems to be the need to contrast Hal's wild night with the serious and pathetic thoughts and activities which in the meantime are keeping his rival awake. In this case, it is not clear whose interests are served by the perception of the discrepancy. Certainly, however, the audience's tendency to side with the prince is blurred, and we are compelled to discern and discriminate; even to choose between the time and space of comedy and those of tragedy, between the laughter that accompanies Falstaff's cowardice and Hal's idleness and the pathos that attends on Hotspur's desperate courage; and finally, we are made to consider that events and motivations are neither neutral nor transparent and that our shifts in sympathy from the prince to his rival have been meticulously planned, directed and monitored.

Hotspur's monologue (a dramatic privilege which he shares with Hal and which gives him a chance to make the audience appreciate his point of view) closes with yet another mention of time (‘I will set forward tonight’, 35) which, again, presents rebellion's time as wilful and rash. In his dialogue with Lady Percy, then, Hotspur repeats his intention to leave ‘within these two hours’ (36-7), and we leave him making preparations for the journey.

At this point, the text makes a temporal leap of more or less 24 hours, and once again presents two scenes which seem to be taking place simultaneously, probably the following night.14

In II.iv, the first tavern scene of the sequence, time is again a conspicuous topic, while we have an explicit comparison between Hal's and Hotspur's time. The first 100 lines of the scene are occupied by Hal's ungenerous jest towards Francis. This, which is suggested by Francis's busy although unconsequential running here and there and answering calls with ‘anon, anon’, reveals yet another attitude towards time which is peculiar to this character. It has been argued that Francis lacks both memory—he cannot answer the simple question about his age—and forward vision and that ‘he is the man who is never capable of questioning his immediate predicament, … lacking what Augustine called distensio animi, memory and project’.15 In his ‘dialogue’ with Francis, Hal is precisely exposing the man's lack of future perspective: to his question ‘when’, which requests the specification of a time in the future, Francis in fact replies again with ‘Anon, anon.’ (61-3)16 The prince's reply is jestingly didactic in its superfluous listing of possible future times, while the redundancy of the drawer's name is perhaps meant to prompt a further ‘anon’ from him (‘Anon, Francis? No, Francis, but tomorrow, Francis; or, Francis, a-Thursday; or indeed, Francis, when thou wilt’, 64-6); but the drawer further confirms his perception of the present time as merely ‘anon’ when, to Hal's direct question ‘What’s o’clock, Francis?’, he again replies ‘Anon, anon, sir.’17

Hal's final comment on Francis's ‘fewer words than a parrot’ and on his unconsequential running here and there triggers the thought of ‘the Hotspur of the north’:

Prince. That ever this fellow
should have fewer words than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman! His industry
is up-stairs and down-stairs, his eloquence the parcel of a reckoning. I am
not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the north, he that kills me some
six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands and says to his
wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life, I want work’. ‘O my sweet
Harry’, says she, ‘How many hast thou killed today?’ ‘Give
my roan horse a drench’, says he, and answers, ‘Some fourteen’,
an hour after; ‘a trifle, a trifle’.


The shift from Francis to Percy has always been considered a sudden and almost inexplicable change of subject; this has led commentators to explain it as prompted by Hal's declaration, in line 90, about his being ‘of all humours’, and therefore as a contrast with Hotspur's gloomy bent on war. The interpolation of the comment on Francis between l. 90 and the mention of Hotspur starting on l. 99, however, remains unexplained unless Francis, too, is included as one of the elements in the comparison;18 and it seems to me that the incongruity vanishes if we acknowledge time as the element which triggers the associative link which brings Percy into Hal's mind. The ‘Hotspur of the north’ (and the mention of Hotspur's space of action is not irrelevant) is evoked by Hal in a parodic mood in which his rival's headstrong way of living his time is equated to Francis's amnesic (namely, not historically-oriented), non-projectual and inconsequential sheer present (see, ‘at a breakfast’, 101, and ‘an hour after’, 106).19

Twice more time is specified in the scene, and on both occasions in connection with an interference from a different space. When the hostess announces that ‘a nobleman of the court ‘ (283), ‘an old man’ (289) is at the door and asks to speak to Hal, Falstaff's comment is ‘What doth gravity out of his bed at midnight?’ (290; the gentleman's appearance seems to him improper, for he comes from a space whose time is the day). Together with the call to duty from the king, who sends word to the prince that he ‘must to the court in the morning’ (330-1), the messenger brings the ‘villainous news’ (329) of the rebellion of those who, in Falstaff's words, are ‘That same mad fellow of the north’ and ‘he of Wales’ (331-2; my emphasis). This first attack on the space of misrule, brought jointly by the king and the rebels, is followed a little later by the attack of justice: ‘The sheriff and all the watch’ (483), accompanied by the Carrier whose passengers have been robbed the night before, are at the door. In the brief exchange between Hal and the Sheriff at the end of the latter's visit, clock time is again specified:

Sher. Good night, my noble
Prince. I think it is good morrow,
is it not?
Sher. Indeed, my lord, I think it
be two o’clock.


The two invasions from an alien space have spoiled the night's fun. In an impatient projectual mood which he manifests for the first time, before Falstaff ‘fast asleep behind the arras’ (521-2), Hal seals the sequence and the night with words which dispel the lazy atmosphere of the tavern. The space which contains misrule has been invaded by the pressure of its rival axiologies and, besides, the coming of day disbands the night's revels:

I’ll to the court in the morning. We must all to the wars, and thy place shall be honourable. I’ll procure this fat rogue a charge of foot, and I know his death will be a march of twelve score. The money shall be paid back again with advantage. Be with me betimes in the morning; and so, good morrow, Peto. (536-42)

Between Hal's night in Eastcheap and his interview with the king the following morning, we are introduced to the heart of rebellion. The scene in Bangor, like the one in Warkworth, takes place during the night, and its location—immediately after the Eastcheap night and before Hal's encounter with the king the following morning—means that we perceive it as taking place simultaneously with the tavern events in II.iv.20

Unlike Hal's, Hotspur's night is packed with events, of which the most important is the agreement between him, Mortimer and Glendower about the ‘indentures tripartite’ to be drawn and ‘sealed interchangeably’ (III.i.76-7). Space in this scene is mainly the map of the country, a model territory and a figure of dominion by which the rebels are measuring their influence and building up their expectations of future sway. South-east, west and north, reduced to contractual items, are the terrains on which the rebels are constructing their potential power. Time, intensely projectual, is again charged with the haste to achieve the desired results which we by now recognise as Hotspur's main characteristic, and which is repeatedly signalled in the scene.21 The night is spent drawing the deed of partition and in the encounter with the ladies; Hotspur says to Lady Percy that he will soon leave (‘And the indentures be drawn I’ll away within these two hours’, 254-5), and the scene is concluded with yet another hint of his haste as compared to the attitude of ‘slow’ Mortimer:

Glend. Come, come, Lord Mortimer,
you are as slow
As hot Lord Percy is on fire to go:


The following two scenes have closings which present the remaining two spaces of the play, which are both equally projected towards the meeting with the enemy. In III.ii., once the news that the rebels' forces have gathered in Shrewsbury reaches Henry, the king's time, too, becomes forward-bent. (Henry's time, however, remains inhabited and determined by the moves of others):

King. … 
On Wednesday next, Harry, you shall set forward,
On Thursday we ourselves will march.
Our business valued, some twelve days hence
Our general forces at Bridgnorth shall meet.
Our hands are full of business, let’s away,
Advantage feeds him fat while men delay.


The effects of the invasion of justice and war into the space of misrule start to be felt in the following scene. Falstaff complains that he has been robbed of a ring in the tavern and the Hostess replies by accusing him of not paying his debts. Hal, who joins them, does not appear to have changed attitude after his interview with his father; rather, he seems to be profiting from his recovered friendship with the king (‘I am good friends with my father and may do anything’, III.iii.180-1); and rather than reform his friends in view of the war, he seems to be willing to bring the tavern's space of misrule into the final conflict:22

Prince. … 
Go, Peto, to horse, to horse, for thou and I
Have thirty miles to ride yet ere dinner-time.
Jack, meet me tomorrow in the Temple hall
At two o’clock in the afternoon:
There shalt thou know thy charge, and there receive
Money and order for their furniture.


In the last two lines of this speech, however, Hal's impatience to meet Hotspur and the impression that he is inflamed by patriotism are somewhat quelled by the formal tone suggested by the sudden use of verse for his speech and by the rhyme which appears in the closing lines (‘The land is burning, Percy stands on high, / And either we or they must lower lie’, 202-3).

In Acts IV and V, it is messages to and from the rebels and ‘rebel letters’ that are responsible for the border-crossings of time and space. Letters are delivered to Hotspur before the battle, but he ‘cannot read them now’ (V.ii.80).23 Why does he not? What might their function be, given that we are never going to be allowed to know their contents? Again, border-crossing seems to be the point. By now, signals of discomfiture have gathered over the rebels' heads, and the spectators may imagine that the unread letters contain more defections on the part of prospective allies. For letters to the rebels, as we know by now, contain betrayal since a letter cannot but convey absence: ‘it is only letters that arrive at the battlefield: death is their destination.’24 Here, again, time and space play an important role. For, by definition, letters come from a different time and a different space. Those letters, then, apart from conveying absence, reveal that the betrayal of the rebellion has already been planned and executed and that the death sentence on the rebels was in fact pronounced in a time in which the rebellion still nourished expectations of solidarity and help: those that even now were still thought to be co-conspirators, have at a certain moment in the past forsaken the rebellion. It is here, maybe, that Hotspur realises for the first time that he—as one of his last sentences will reveal—is being made ‘time's fool’. The letters remain sealed: we, like Hotspur, know that death has already been decreed and is now trying to force the boundaries of rebellion, that death, coming from afar and from the past, is the message of the unsealed letters. By refusing to read them, Hotspur is making a last desperate attempt to keep away the death sentence they carry.

When he meets Hotspur on the battlefield, Hal speaks in spatial terms of the impossibility of them both living on the same historical scene:

Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.


while Hotspur acknowledges the coming of his own death in terms of time:

But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time's fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop.


However, neither rebellion nor misrule are actually vanquished. York and Wales are the spaces where the first is still ‘busily in arms’ (V.v.38), and the king's prospective closing leads us to meet the circumstance of ‘such another day’ (42); besides, we also perceive from Hal's complicit aside to Falstaff in V.iv (‘if a lie may do thee grace / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have’, 156-7) that misrule has by no means been dispersed.

The spaces—as well as styles and persons—that we encounter in Part One are comparatively independent from each other and remain in the end conflictual. Although there have been a number of border-crossings (war and justice have violated the space of misrule and rebellion has openly insinuated itself into both the opposing spaces), the boundaries of each sphere have not been fatally affected by those attacks and by the end of the play they seem to have been reconstituted—except for the uncertainty of Hal's position. The lasting violation of spaces will be a decisive feature of the next play.


Rather than considering the second play as a revision and even an undoing of the meanings of the first (as Yachnin does), I prefer to describe it as enacting a process of corruption whose seeds are already present—albeit hardly stressed—in Part One.25 Various forms of sickness now attack the core of the three spaces and, in the end, the axiologies which militate against the king are defeated by a process of pollution which changes their very nature; but even the natural body of the king is attacked by corruption, and illness decrees the end at least of that power which is associated with the illegitimate Henry IV.

In 2 Henry IV there are repeated and open allusions to sickness, bodily decay, old age and the prospect of death; at the same time, the violations of what in Part One are comparatively independent and ‘healthy’ spaces become more and more frequent and aggressive. Border-crossing thus becomes the agent of malady: almost literally, a foreign body is insinuated into a healthy organism where it produces disease and corruption. Repeatedly, inversions and exchanges of attributes are given explicit verbal expression, and these represent an attack on the axiological integrity of the various spaces, whose nature is finally perverted.26

In his first appearance in I.ii., Falstaff questions his Page about the doctor's examination of his urine; ‘He said’, the Page answers, ‘the water itself was a good healthy water; but, for the party that owed it, he might have moe diseases than he knew for’ (2-4): Falstaff's, then, is a hidden disease, impossible to detect physically. In the same scene, we witness Sir John's first encounter with justice. After attempting to avoid the encounter by pretending to be deaf, he tries to exorcise the presence of the Lord Chief Justice and to undermine his sphere of action by alluding to an illness which supposedly affects him and to his age:

I am glad to see your lordship abroad, I heard say your lordship was sick. I hope your lordship goes abroad by advice; your lordship, though not clean past your youth, have yet some smack of age in you, some relish of the saltness of time; and I most humbly beseech your lordship to have a reverend care of your health.


The Chief Justice does not seem to be affected by Falstaff's allusions to his health. It is Falstaff, instead, who appears troubled by the thought of illness. First, he mentions the king's sickness (‘I hear, his majesty is returned with some discomfort from Wales’, 102-3; ‘And I hear, moreover, his Highness is fallen into this same whoreson apoplexy’, 106-7), which he describes at length, simply annoying the officer: ‘This apoplexy, as I take it, is a kind of lethargy, and’t please your lordship, a kind of sleeping in the blood, a whoreson tingling’ (110-12). The attempted attack on the king is rejected by the Chief Justice: ‘What tell you me of it? Be it as it is’ (113), but Falstaff repeats the assault with a more precise diagnosis of causes: ‘It hath it original from much grief, from study, and perturbation of the brain; I have read the cause of its effects in Galen, it is a kind of deafness’ (114-16). But ‘deafness’ is Falstaff's malady, as the Lord Chief Justice promptly retorts. The exchange that follows reveals that it is Sir John who has been infected by the disease he has mentioned and defined:

Ch. Just. I think you are
fallen into the disease, for you hear not what I say to you.
Fal. Very well, my lord, very well.
Rather, and’t please you, it is the disease of not listening, the malady
of not marking, that I am troubled withal.
Ch. Just. To punish you by the heels
would amend the attention of your ears, and I care not if I do become your


The last attack on the integrity of the space of misrule is launched by the king: ‘The king has severed you and Prince Harry’ (202-3), says the Lord Chief Justice, and although Falstaff and Hal will meet again later on in the play, we know that the process of separation is already under way.

After the exit of the Lord Chief Justice, Falstaff enquires of the Page about his cash in hand; and, again, he comments on the emptiness of his pockets in terms of sickness:

I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse; borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable. (237-9)

Then, passing from metaphor to the literal meaning, he curses his gout:

A pox of this gout! or a gout of this pox! for the one or the other plays the rogue with my great toe. ’Tis no matter if I do halt; I have the wars for my colour, and my pension shall seem the more reasonable. A good wit will make use of anything; I will turn diseases to commodity. (244-50)27

Act Two is, as in Part One, almost entirely devoted to the space of misrule and develops the idea of the corruption and dissolution of the Eastcheap world. When we next see Falstaff (in II.i.) he is being sued by the Hostess, who is trying to have him arrested on account of his debts and the breach of a marriage promise. Again the Lord Chief Justice crosses the border of Falstaff's space. Those wrongs, he says, must be redressed promptly: the one ‘with sterling money, and the other with current repentance’ (119-20). But, while the Justice is trying to patch up the quarrel, a further disturbance breaks in. This time it is war, news of which is brought by Gower from the king and the Prince of Wales, together with a letter giving details of the present situation. From line 135 to line 162, the scene presents the interesting configuration of a divided space. While the Chief Justice is absorbed in the reading of the letter, Falstaff tries to recover what is left of his space and succeeds in softening the Hostess's heart and in having her withdraw her action. By the end of the exchange, the Hostess promises to give him supper and to invite Doll Tearsheet to cheer him up. But after the Hostess and his other friends are gone, Sir John loses control of the situation. Once the space he dominates has dissolved, he is left alone with the Chief Justice and Gower and obliged to share the space of their present preoccupations and the subject of their conversation, which he tries to do to no effect. His repeated questions—‘What’s the news, my lord?’ (164), ‘I hope, my lord, all's well. What is the news, my lord?’ (167), ‘Comes the King back from Wales, my noble lord?’ (172)—are left unanswered by the Chief Justice, who thus, by breaking a basic conversational rule, manifests his utter contempt for Sir John. For the first time in the whole sequence, the audience, too, may tend to abandon Falstaff in his pathetic attempt to gain credibility in the sphere of state politics. His invitation of Gower to dinner and Gower's refusal do not raise laughter, for Falstaff's endeavour to captivate Gower's sympathy appears disturbingly grotesque and out of place; and there is more than a chance that we may share the Chief Justice's scorn and agree with his final verdict on the fat knight: ‘thou art a great fool’ (189-90).

In the following scene, the space we are in is even more equivocal and more distorted. The first part of the conversation between Hal and Poins was the starting point of Auerbach's essay on ‘The weary prince’.28 However far one may be from sharing Auerbach's interpretation of the scene as the epitome of Shakespeare's tendency to attribute dignity only to ‘high’ characters (the most surprising of Auerbach's examples of this is Shylock), one cannot but agree with the importance that he attributes to the Prince's sadness. The blending of styles—which Auerbach reads, through the intrusion of the ‘humble’ element represented by Poins and ‘small beer’, as a shame to Hal's greatness—is certainly relevant in this scene; for no other reason than simply because it is here that Hal remarks—and makes the audience realise—that there is a (stylistic) difference and discrepancy between him and his ‘friends’. Indeed no such discrepancy is noticeable in the tavern scenes, where Hal seems to be perfectly at home in the ‘low’-style discourse. In the scene with Poins, the discordance of styles is being openly enunciated and presented, as it were, as one of the problems that arise at this stage in the dissolution of the space of misrule and in Hal's gradual assumption to the space of power. The mixture of styles and persons is now for the first time seen as a disease in the body both of the story's development and of the text's decorum.

The reason the Prince gives for his sadness is his father's illness. But Hal's weariness may well derive from a more complicated mixture of feelings. He knows that in the world's eyes his father's sickness is not an adequate reason for his sadness (‘it is not meet that I should be sad now my father is sick’, 38-9), but perceives that the real reason behind his sadness is unspeakable: the mortal disease affecting the very heart of the space of rule is also infecting the space of misrule, and will in the end decree its dissolution. Besides, Hal's weariness, and the very fact that he speaks of his sadness, are also a hint to the audience: a melancholy separation is near, and in a short time the spectators will have to cope with the prince's betrayal of his former friends and the dissolution of the comic plot. While, on the one hand, by revealing his sadness, Hal is trying to increase the audience's sympathy through its appreciation of his divided mind, on the other, by showing contempt for his ‘low’ friend Poins, he is preparing the audience for his final desertion of Falstaff.

The next time we see Hal at the Boar's Head (II.iv.) is also the last.29 The prince is wearing a drawer's costume—at this stage the disguise is necessary for him to meet his former friends on the same (stylistic) level. By the end of the scene, time in the tavern undergoes an acceleration which is wholly extraneous to the rhythm of laziness that we tend to associate with the space of misrule; the prince's last verbal jest is left incomplete (‘You, gentlewoman,—’, 346), for war knocks at the door in the person of Peto. Hal's farewell to Falstaff's world is couched in a formal style which once more signals the (stylistic) gap:

By heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame,
So idly to prophane the precious time,
When tempest of commotion, like the south
Borne with black vapour, doth begin to melt
And drop upon our bare unarmed heads.


and his farewell to Falstaff is cold and distant (‘Falstaff, good night’, 363).

A further (Bardolph's) knocking at the door summons Sir John to court, away from Doll and the prospect of yet another night of revels. After a last boast of self-praise (‘You see, my good wenches, how men of merit are sought after’, 371-2), Falstaff pronounces a warm farewell to the women (‘Farewell, good wenches: if I be not sent away post, I will see you again ere I go’, 374-5). And while not a single word has accompanied Hal's exit, Falstaff's departure is followed by tears of deep nostalgia.

The comic plot is soon to find other participants, in a space which is even more affected by war and almost obsessively corrupted by the thought of old age and death.

In his home in Gloucestershire, old Justice Shallow has gathered a company of ragged men for conscription. While waiting for Falstaff's arrival together with Justice Silence, he strikes the keynote which is going to colour the whole encounter: nostalgia for the mad days of his youth at Clement's Inn and the thought of his old acquaintance:

Shal. … Jesu, Jesu,
the mad days I have spent! And to see how many of my old acquaintance are
Sil. We shall all follow, cousin.
Shal. Certain, ’tis certain,
very sure, very sure. Death, as the psalmist says, is certain to all, all
shall die.


Shallow's inane comments on death go on for a while. He asks Silence about an old common friend:

Shal. Death is certain. Is
old Double of your town living yet?
Sil. Dead, sir.
Shal. Jesu, Jesu, dead! A drew a
good bow, and dead! A shot a fine shoot. John a Gaunt loved him well, and
betted much money on his head. Dead!


After Falstaff has examined and ‘pricked’ the men, Shallow resumes the topic, and asks Sir John about Jane Nightwork (obviously, a prostitute). Falstaff himself seems to be affected by the thought of old age: the woman is living, he says, but she is ‘Old, old, Master Shallow’ (201). His answer gives the JP an opportunity to produce more silly and entirely tautological comments, this time on old age: ‘Nay, she must be old, she cannot choose but be old, certain she’s old’ (202-3).

But corruption also makes its appearance in other forms in this scene: Bardolph and Falstaff accept money from Mouldy and Bullcalf to free them from conscription; besides, according to Falstaff, Shallow's account of his ‘mad days’ at Clement's Inn is sheer corruption of the truth (again, an instance of distortion of past events), ‘every third word a lie’ (301). Here, again, the thought of old age affects Falstaff, who produces a melancholy comment in a reflective mood, an entirely new note in his humour: ‘Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying!’ (297-8).

But the sphere of rule, too, is affected by an incurable disease which endangers the life of its very heart, the King. We see Henry for the first time in III.i., but his illness has already been hinted at on several occasions. From his first speech, moreover, we know that sleep has abandoned him.31 But sickness is not simply attacking the King's natural body: in the shape of rebellion, it is attacking the body politic and the country itself. To Warwick and Surrey, Henry speaks of the danger coming from the north as of a malady which has attacked the body of his kingdom:

King. Then you perceive the
body of our kingdom
How foul it is, what rank diseases grow,
And with what danger, near the heart of it.


Warwick takes over the metaphoric suggestion and further elaborates it:

War. It is but as a body yet
Which to his former strength may be restor’d
With good advice and little medicine.


Other hints at sickness appear in the same scene. To Henry's preoccupations about the large number of soldiers in the rebels' army, Warwick answers by recalling that rumour may corrupt the truth (‘Rumour doth double, like the voice and echo, / The numbers of the feared’, 97-8); then he explains Henry's present state of mind with his illness:

Your Majesty hath been this fortnight ill,
And these unseason’d hours perforce must add
Unto your sickness.


The next and last time we see the King (IV.iv.), he is again projecting a crusade, this time in a sort of delirium.32 If the present ordeal meets with success, Henry says, ‘We will our youth lead on to higher fields, / And draw no swords but what are sanctified’ (3-4). But the news that the rebels have suffered a defeat hardly cheers him, and the thought of illness returns implacably: ‘And wherefore should these good news make me sick?’ (102). The end, we know, is near:

I should rejoyce now at these happy news,
And now my sight fails, and my brain is giddy.
O me! come near me, now I am much ill.


But, before he dies, Henry is still to experience a final violation of his space in what is perhaps the most serious of the trespasses perpetrated by the heir apparent. The theft of the crown, by which Hal performs his premature appropriation of the space of rule, accelerates the King's death: ‘This part of his conjoins with my disease, / And helps to end me’ (IV.v.63-4).

But sickness has attacked the rebels' camp as well: when acting as messenger from John of Lancaster, Westmoreland remarks on the paradox of seeing the Archbishop in arms. He comments on the absurdity of York's transformation in terms of linguistic translation, and remarks that his presence produces a corruption of the nature of rebellion (IV.i.32-52). Quite pertinently, the Archbishop answers by claiming that his transformation into a warrior was dictated by the sickness of the whole realm and the necessity to cure it. His speech, a long medical metaphor (53-87), employs in thirteen lines no less than eleven expressions related to sickness (‘diseas’d’, ‘burning fever’, ‘bleed’, ‘disease’, ‘infected’, ‘physician’, ‘diet’, ‘rank minds’, ‘sick’, ‘purge the obstruction’, ‘veins of life’). The encounter between the rebels and the emissaries of the King ends with John of Lancaster's arrival (the most fatal of all the border-crossings happening in the rebel's space) and with the rebels being sent to death. Quite pertinently, while they are drinking with Lancaster to what they still believe is their reestablished friendship, Mowbray feels ‘on the sudden something ill’ (IV.ii.80). The fatal disease, this time, has come from the King's sphere; rebellion is defeated in much the same way as misrule is going to be defeated. But misrule lingers on longer, and we are still to encounter what is left of Falstaff's world in Act Five.

Again, the last scenes of the play give us the impression that the various fragments take place simultaneously. While Falstaff and Bardolph visit Shallow in Gloucestershire (V.i.), the news of the king's death is given to the Lord Chief Justice (V.ii), and we first see the prince as Henry V who reconciles himself with the judge and promises to ‘frustrate prophecies’ (127); and while Pistol brings Falstaff news of the king's death (V.iii), Quickly and Tearsheet (we are driven to think, as an effect of Henry's reconciliation with justice) are brought to jail (V.iv). The last scene of the play seals the triumph of power and the unification of rule with justice by means of another betrayal. If it is true that Hal has mocked ‘the expectation of the world’ (V.ii.126), he has certainly not frustrated the spectator's forecasts. Time is finally redeemed, although by means of a cruel dramatic sin: the annihilation of the universe of comedy.33

There remains to discuss the moment where we encounter what is perhaps the most lengthy and elaborate, but also the most ambiguous meditation on (historical) time and change in the whole canon.

The passage, it seems to me, enunciates two distinct views of historical time and change, which reveal two opposed historiographical conceptions: on the one hand we have Henry's conception, the weak choiceless view of a world dominated by chance—or maybe by an inscrutable providence; on the other hand, we have Warwick's empirical view, which shows greater confidence in the possibility of formulating historical predictions. Warwick's somewhat facile forecast (‘My Lord Northumberland will soon be cool’d’, 44), obviously intended to soothe the king's anxiety, triggers Henry's meditation on our impotence in predicting what is in store for us:

King. O God, that one might
read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea, and other times to see
The beachy girdle of the ocean
Too wide for Neptune's hips; how chance's
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors!

(III.i.45-53; my emphasis)

Henry's speech is remarkably confused—as is his state of mind—for it oscillates between the idea of inspired prophecy (the conjunction of the expressions ‘read the book of fate’ and ‘see the revolution of the times’ evokes the prophecies produced by astrologers) and that of mere chance. The shape of events is written in the ‘book of fate’, and to read in that book the changes that time will bring is not given to us. To signify change, Henry chooses the alterations which take place in nature: mountains being made level and the ground being invaded by the waters; but he insists on a weak explanation of change—one which does not apply to the kind of mutational phenomena he has described—indicating ‘chance's mocks’, the unforeseeable tricks produced by mere chance, as the various causes (‘divers liquors’) which actually bring about changes (‘fill the cup of alteration’).34 What is interesting in Henry's speech is his insistence on the idea of change and the hidden thought which it reveals. Although the images of his speech are taken from the natural world, and although the starting point of his meditation seems to be the change in attitude on the part of the Percies, it is evident that the kind of change he is envisaging if he should be defeated by the rebels is one which will take the form of the transference of power to a different person. Not improperly, in fact, the word he uses is revolution. The word's meaning is ambiguous: Henry might here simply be suggesting a ‘process of change’ in a linear causative chain of events,35 but he might also be using revolution in its astronomical (and etymological) sense, where it connotes a revolving, a cyclic movement in a course which ends where it started (in this way he might be connecting the idea of prophecy to astrology and at the same time alluding to the possible repetition of his act of usurpation). To a modern reader, however, the word conveys the political connotations which are connected with the kind of change which is produced by the overthrow of an established government, a connotation by no means improbable in the passage quoted, since it has been shown that by the end of the sixteenth century the word was already on the way to acquiring its modern meaning.36 That this last meaning is at least coexistent with the old ones is further shown by the fact that immediately following these lines Henry evokes the revolution he himself produced by overthrowing Richard,37 although he evokes the event by recalling the change in attitude of the Percies:

… It is but eight years since,
This Percy was the man nearest my soul;
Who like a brother toil’d in my affairs,
And laid his love and life under my foot;
Yea, for my sake, even to the eyes of Richard
Gave him defiance.


But the course of Henry's meditation on time and (historical) change is at this point complicated by yet another different theme: that of political prophecy and of Richard's ability—which contrasts with his own impotence—to produce a foretelling of future events:

                                        But which of you was by—
[To Warwick] You, cousin Nevil, as
I may remember—
When Richard, with his eye brimful of tears,
Then check’d and rated by Northumberland,
Did speak these words, now prov’d a prophecy?
‘Northumberland, thou ladder by the which
My cousin Bolingbroke ascends the throne’
‘The time will come, that foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption’—so went on,
Foretelling this same time's condition,
And the division of our amity.


Warwick's speech in answer to Henry's tends to steer the king's weak and confused acknowledgement of his impotence towards the idea of political prediction, by suggesting that careful observation of human behaviour is all that is needed to make the foretelling of future events possible. Warwick at the same time explains how Richard was able to foresee what was to happen eight years later and suggests that the present situation, too, if examined in the light of past events, will allow predictions to be made:

War. There is a history in
all men's lives
Figuring the nature of the times deceas’d;
The which observ’d, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, who in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time;
And by the necessary form of this
King Richard might create a perfect guess
That great Northumberland, then false to him,
Would of that seed grow to a greater falseness,
Which should not find a ground to root upon
Unless on you.


In other words, if we observe the events in the life of a person, we can detect a pattern, or, as it were, a sort of personal behavioural norm in accordance with which each of us tends to act; and, by observing this pattern, we can predict ‘with a near aim’ what this person's future actions will be (‘the main chance of things as yet to come’).38 Thus, predictions may be made by observing the ‘seeds’ and ‘weak beginnings’, the basic tendencies of human behaviour. In other words, Warwick is suggesting that a reading of the future presupposes the capacity to read the past.39

Warwick's speech, I believe, should be read as a more general and complex statement than is suggested by Yachnin's reading of it as ‘a pragmatic analysis of personality types’.40 Indeed, the passage illustrates a historiographical procedure which places inference at the basis of historical research: although Warwick is exposing the procedure in the direction of prediction which goes from cause to effect, his speech may imply the contrary direction—the eminently historiographical one which proceeds from effects to their causes.

Indeed, it seems not improper to connect Warwick's idea of reading the ‘seeds’ and ‘weak beginnings’ to the circumstantial and conjectural model (particularising versus generalising) described by Carlo Ginzburg as the basic paradigm of historiography.41 In his essay, Ginzburg envisages the possibility of formulating retrospective prophecies starting from the close, microscopic, analysis of details, a procedure which he sees as common to all the historical sciences. His claim is that scraps and marginal data, the fingerprints, as it were, of past events, allow the historian to grasp and discern a reality which would otherwise be unattainable, and that minimal details and circumstances have often been the key elements in the understanding of more general phenomena.

What Warwick is talking about is essentially the same procedure, although he is concerned with applying it in the direction of historical prediction. Indeed, the two perspectives share a method of close reading and of sign interpretation that allows both diagnosis and prognosis, and both are founded on intuition and on inferential procedures.42

It is easy to see how closely the conjectural paradigm applies to the (historical) dramatist. Unable to produce generalisations owing to the constraints of the genre, the dramatist cannot but produce a particular experience, whose decoding cannot but be indirect and conjectural.

But Warwick's idea of change taking place in time and his stress on the observer's activity also epitomises the spectator's experience, which is obviously the mirror image of the dramatist's. The ‘weak beginnings’ of the conflict, which we saw ‘intreasured’ in the first play and which Henry was not able to read—let alone dominate—have grown to produce the second play's ‘necessary form’. Through the ten acts of the sequence, the audience has been driven to forecast ‘with a near aim’ the present state of affairs. This, however, is not the end of the story. To remind us at the same time that historical ‘closings’ are always open-ended and that the closing of a history play is never a conclusion, the play enacts two different endings: John of Lancaster's forecast of a campaign to conquer France as historical prediction and the Epilogue's promise that ‘our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it’ (Epil., 27.8) as dramaturgical projection.


  1. P. Yachnin, ‘History, Theatricality and the “Structural Problem” in the Henry IV Plays’, Philological Quarterly LXX (1991), 163-79, p. 164. Recently, the ‘structural problem’ has been discussed also by S. Hawkins, ‘Structural pattern in Shakespeare's histories’, Studies in Philology LXXXVIII (1991), 16-45.

  2. ‘History’, p. 164.

  3. Ibid., pp. 164, 163, 173.

  4. I wish to point out that in the second play legality occupies a sphere of its own, that of the Lord Chief Justice, who never shares the same scenic space with Bolingbroke.

  5. In the wake of Dover Wilson (ed.), 1 Henry IV (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1946) and Tillyard (op. cit.), Sherman Hawkins has restated this claim, speaking of ‘a premeditated second part’ (‘Henry IV: the Structural Problem Revisited’, SQ XXXIII [1982], 278-301, p. 281). In his later essay (‘Structural Pattern’) Hawkins is less explicit on this point.

  6. H. Jenkins, The Structural Problem in Shakespeare's ‘Henry IV’ (London: Methuen, 1956), p. 26.

  7. ‘History’, p. 168.

  8. Ibid., pp. 168-9.

  9. G. Melchiori discusses the importance of the exceptional prescription of costume (‘painted full of tongues’) in the 1600 Q stage direction (the prescription is absent in F) and suggests that the actor playing Rumor might reappear immediately after as Lord Bardolph, ‘the bringer of false news, the personification of Rumor in the world of history’. ‘The Primacy of Philology’, in K. Elam (ed.), Shakespeare Today, pp. 39-50, 44.

  10. This claim, like many others in this book, is certainly of the kind that would be challenged by Richard Levin as an ‘ironic’ reading. Levin's article on ‘Performance-critics vs Close Readers in the Study of English Renaissance Drama’, MLR LXXXI (1986), 545-59, has raised in radical (although ironic) terms the serious question of the spectator's perception as different from the reader's. His conclusion against the extremities of both performance-critics and ironic readers, however, leaves the issue unsolved. Granted, as Anthony Dawson argues, that performances cannot deliver, and audiences cannot ‘absorb, the same kind of meaning that reading can produce’ (‘The Impasse Over the Stage’, ELR XXI [1991], 309-27, p. 317), one fails to see why criticism should not construct readers' (ironic) meanings and why a performance should not use those—and other—hidden, implied, indirect or even possible meanings and convey them with its own communicative tools. On this topic, see H. Berger, Imaginary Audition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

  11. The way in which time and space are represented in literary texts has produced a number of differently focused theories. From a dramaturgical perspective, Elam is interested in the construction and reception of time as it is transmitted through the organisation of the play's syntagmatics in connection with action development. A dramatic text, he holds, is discontinuous and incomplete; the audience, therefore, needs to actualise the logical connectives suggested by the text's organisation in order to fill in the gaps and complete its furnishing. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London: Methuen, 1980), Chapter 4. Such implicit connections are, I believe, particularly relevant to historical drama for they constitute the most efficacious substitute for the category of causation. Bakhtin considers the representation of time and space in literary texts (what he calls the chronotope) as the way in which literature takes hold of historical reality and masters it. Space and time are, in texts, fused into an inseparable whole: time, Bakhtin says, is in literary texts a fourth dimension of space (‘Discourse in the novel’). Lotman attributes an exceptional importance to the way in which space is represented in texts, holding that through a particular space configuration we tend to simulate notions which are not of a spatial nature, but are ways of representing cultural, social, religious and moral models. Lotman shows how such antitheses as high/low, open/closed, right/left, inside/outside, and so on, are used to represent hierarchies, moral evaluations or value judgments and so on. The Structure, pp. 217-31; see also ‘The Notion of Boundary’ in Universe of the Mind. A Semiotic Theory of Culture (London: Tauris, 1990), pp. 131-42.

  12. See M. Hunt, ‘Time and Timelessness in 1 Henry IV’, Explorations in Renaissance Culture X (1984), 56-66.

  13. The editor of the Arden edition, A. R. Humphreys explains ‘squires … beauty’ as ‘Since we serve the night's excitements, do not complain that we are inactive by day’; he also signals a possible pun ‘night-knight’: ‘“Squires of the body” were a nobleman's attendants.’ But perhaps the most interesting passage of Falstaff's speech is the possible topical allusion to Elizabeth-Diana, ‘our noble and chaste mistress, the moon’; Falstaff alludes to some form of royal protection in the play's situation (‘under whose countenance we steal’) and to its legitimation in the future when Hal will be king. Kastan comments on these lines, saying that ‘for Falstaff this is not a submission to authority but an authorization of transgression’. ‘“The King has Many Marching in His Coat”: or, What Did You Do During the War, Daddy?’, in I. Kamps, (ed.), Shakespeare Left and Right (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 241-58, 248.

  14. In II.iii. Hotspur is leaving Warkworth for Bangor and tells his wife: ‘Whither I go, thither shall you go too: / Today will I set forth, tomorrow you.’ (116-17) In III.i. Hotspur has joined Mortimer and Glendower in Bangor, and Lady Percy is with them. As regards Hal, we leave him on the highway in II.ii., presumably towards the break of day, given the intense activity during the night which started at two o’clock in the inn-yard at Rochester; and find him again in II.iv. at the ‘Boar's Head’ in Eastcheap, again at night (see, ‘this present twelve o’clock at midnight’, 92-3); it seems reasonable to suppose that this is the night immediately following the robbery, given Hal's impatience to follow up the joke played on Falstaff.

  15. G. Martella, ‘Henry IV: the Form of History’, unpublished, p. 8. To a certain extent, Francis shares these characteristics with Henry's impotence of prediction and project. The same idea of the unconsciousness of the present is expressed in Macbeth: ‘Thy letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present’ (I.v.56-7; my emphasis).

  16. E. P. Thompson argued that ‘in general, the populace has little predictive notion of time’. ‘Eighteenth-century English Society: Class Struggle without Class?’, Social History III (1978), 133-65, p. 158.

  17. That with his question Hal is simply testing Francis's awareness of time is shown by the fact that the question comes immediately after his own ‘this present twelve o’clock at midnight’ (92-3).

  18. Certain editors also suggest that the connection may lie in ‘Francis's busy-ness, or his limitation of ideas’ (Humphreys); or that ‘Perhaps, too, this thought of Hotspur is prompted by Francis's feverish activity’. D. Bevington, Henry IV Part 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

  19. Bevington suggests that ‘Like Francis, Hal is being pulled simultaneously in two directions, and has not devised as yet a better response than Francis's own “Anon, anon, sir!”’ (ibid., p. 60); interpretations of the passage are in M. Rose, Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 50 ff.; Sheldon P. Zitner, ‘Anon, Anon: or, a Mirror for a Magistrate’, SQ XIX (1968), 63-70; Tillyard, op. cit., p. 275.

  20. In III.ii, the dialogue between Henry and Hal is interrupted by Sir Walter Blunt, who communicates to the king ‘That Douglas and the English rebels met / The eleventh of this month at Shrewsbury’ (165-6). This piece of news locates the Bangor scene earlier than the preceding night (a few days are needed for the journey, and Henry answers Blunt that ‘this advertisement is five days old’, 172). The possible anachronism, however, does not cancel the impression of simultaneity between the two preceding scenes.

  21. No other reason than a need to stress Hotspur's impetuousness can be given for his imprecation ‘A plague upon it! I have forgot the map’ (III.i.4-5) while the map is before him; and the same can be said of his quarrel with Glendower and his complaint that ‘He held me last night at least nine hours / In reckoning up the several devils' names’ (150-1). These two lines, however, run counter to the hypothesis that Hotspur's previous night was the night in Warkworth, although, again, the spectator's perception of its simultaneity with the highway robbery is not likely to be affected by this punctualisation. That Hotspur's time is precipitous is stressed even in Lady Percy's description of his way of speaking in Part Two (II.iii.24-5).

  22. Falstaff seems to pick up the feeling when he seals the scene by asking the Hostess for breakfast and adding: ‘O, I could wish this tavern were my drum.’ (204-5).

  23. Goldberg develops the idea that rebellion is strictly allied with writing while there is an ‘ideological and logocentric suppression of any connection between power and writing’. ‘Rebel Letters: Postal Effects from Richard II to Henry IV’, Renaissance Drama New Series, XIX [1988], 3-28, p. 13. It should be remarked, however, that in the second play of the sequence letter-writing and the reception of written messages are mainly connected with the king and his entourage.

  24. J. Goldberg, ibid., p. 12.

  25. The idea of revision largely depends on the importance that we attribute to Hal's ‘reformation’ in the battle. If we don’t expect absolute coherence from Hal's behaviour and see his final conversion as a sequence of comparatively irregular false starts, we tend to attribute much less importance to Shrewsbury as the expected moment of his reformation. There is even a danger that we may mistake for patriotic involvement his aggressiveness and ‘unruly disposition’ if we conclude that Shrewsbury constitutes his reformation. Is Hal not simply harnessing to his father's service the riotous habits which he normally puts to quite different use in the tavern and on the highway? Jenkins remarks that ‘The only man at court who believes in the Prince's reformation, the Earl of Warwick, believes that it will happen, not that it has happened already’ (op. cit., p. 25).

  26. Among these inversions, see Mortimer's statement that success will follow thanks to the fact that ‘the Bishop / Turns insurrection to religion’ (I.i.200-1); we encounter another verbal and conceptual inversion in I.ii.:

    Ch. Just. … God send
    the prince a better companion!
    Fal. God send the companion a better

    (I.ii. 199-200)

    When planning with Poins to dress as servants, Hal describes the disguise as an exchange of attributes:

    From a god to a bull? A heavy descension! It was Jove's case. From a prince to a prentice? A low transformation, that shall be mine. … (II.ii. 166-8)

    Later on, Westmoreland remarks on the transformation of the Archbishop of York into a man of war and a rebel. Using a linguistic metaphor, he asks York: ‘Wherefore do you so ill translate yourself’ (IV.i.47) from a discourse of peace into the ‘tongue of war’ (49), ‘Turning your books to graves, your ink to blood, / Your pens to lances, and your tongue divine / To a loud trumpet and a point of war?’ (50-2).

  27. In this speech, Falstaff makes use of two inversions: the one between pox and gout and the turning of disease into a commodity. This last reminds us of Pistol's speech in Henry V (V.i.84-93).

  28. ‘Der Müde Prinz’ in Mimesis (Bern: Francke, 1946); English transl., Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), pp. 312-33.

  29. In the dialogue which opens Falstaff's encounter with the Hostess and Doll, venereal diseases are one of the topics of conversation.

  30. Peto, in his role of war messenger, is allowed a verse speech (352-7). Earlier I remarked on a similar formal closing with the switch to verse in Part One, at the end of III.iii.

  31. Henry develops the conventional kingly theme of sleep which abandons the great on account of their cares and responsibilities while it visits the untroubled subject. In the preceding scene, Falstaff put forward a similar claim to greatness: ‘the undeserver may sleep, when the man of action is called on’ (II.iv.372-3).

  32. In IV.iii.75, John of Lancaster informed us that the king is ‘sore sick’; to Lancaster, in turn, has been attributed by Falstaff ‘a kind of male green-sickness’ (91) on account of his sober habits (‘thin drink’, 89); ‘green sickness’, Humphreys explains, is ‘anaemia incident to unmarried girls’.

  33. L. Falzon Santucci says that ‘the task that faces Shakespeare at this point … is that of guiding 2H4, and the audience, as swiftly and credibly as possible out of the world of comedy into that of serious historical drama; the closure must authenticate seriousness and not the irreponsible Falstaff world’. (‘Theatrical Transactions’, Strumenti Critici XV [1991], 317-33, p. 327)

  34. Commentators remark that the imagery in ll. 46-51 is analogous to that of Son. 64. 5-8, and also recall a passage of Ovid's Metamorphoses (xv. 262 ff.) in Golding's translation (1567).

  35. Melchiori's reading in the footnote to this passage in G. Melchiori, The Second Part of King Henry IV (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  36. The modern meaning is reported in the OED as first occurring after the 1688 revolution. As I have shown elsewhere (P. Pugliatti, ‘Shakespeare's names for rebellion’, in C. Nocera Avila, N. Pantaleo and D. Pezzini [eds], Early Modern English: Trends, Forms and Texts [Fasano: Schena, 1992], 81-93), it seems that the transition from a conservative meaning, deriving from astrology and indicating a revolving movement leading back to the starting point, to the modern one indicating a sudden breach with the past, was achieved through an intermediary phase where the word started to mean a ‘change in condition’. In its five occurrences in Shakespeare's canon (Hamlet, V.i.88, Antony and Cleopatra, I.ii.125, Love's Labour's Lost IV.ii.68, Son. 59.12 and the one I am discussing here), the word seems to me to be well on its way to the modern meaning. It is quite possible, therefore, that the semantic change in English is to be attributed to Shakespeare. Christopher Hill has shown that the word acquired its modern political implications long before the 1688 revolution. ‘The Word Revolution’, in A Nation of Change and Novelty (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 82-101.

  37. Three and a half lines which appear in Qb (in Qa the entire scene is omitted) and do not appear in F are interposed between the end of the passage quoted and the beginning of the evocation of Richard:

                                                                O, if this were seen,
    The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
    What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
    Would shut the book and sit him down and die.


    Whatever the reasons for the omission of these lines in F, it should be noticed that the first half of l. 53 (‘With divers liquors!’) is completed by the otherwise inexplicably short l. 57 (‘’Tis not ten years gone’); and that the meaning of the added (or subtracted) lines contradicts Henry's wish to foresee future events. The lines, in fact, express the idea that even if it were possible to read the future we would become passive and sit still, waiting for death.

  38. The word chance here does not have the same meaning as in Henry's speech; Warwick simply means ‘the way in which things will fall out’ rather than a capricious and therefore unforeseeable turn of events.

  39. This idea appears, once again in connection with prediction or prophecy, in Macbeth. The expression is used by Banquo when he questions the witches about his future: ‘If you can look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow, and which will not …’ (Macbeth, I.iii.58-9).

  40. ‘History’, p. 173.

  41. C. Ginzburg, ‘Spie’.

  42. Ginzburg mentions the word intuition only in the last page of his essay. His claim is that the human sciences, confronted by the dilemma of choosing a weak scientific status and reach remarkable results or choosing a strong one and reach less remarkable results, should choose the first, opting for the ‘elastic rigour’ of conjectural paradigms.

Don M. Ricks (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10568

SOURCE: “The Shakespearean History Play,” in Shakespeare's Emergent Form: A Study of the Henry VI Plays, Monograph Series, Vol. XV, No. 1, June, 1968, pp. 11-36.

[In the essay below, Ricks examines the relationship between politics and history in Tudor—and in particular, Shakespearean—historiography, maintaining that Shakespeare's historiography was characteristic of his age in its didacticism.]


There has been some question as to whether Shakespeare wrote “history” plays or “political” plays. The truth is, of course, that neither adjective is by itself adequate. Social history, economic history, intellectual history, all are modern concepts; for the Elizabethans, history was political history. Louis B. Wright has shown, moreover, that in spite of Sidney's argumentative preference for poetry, for the Elizabethans “the reading of history was an exercise second only to a study of Holy Writ in its power to induce good morality and shape the individual into a worthy member of society.”1 It is not necessary here to treat in detail the multiform varieties of Renaissance historical writing and their relevance to Shakespeare and the history play. F. E. Schelling long ago recognized that “the greatest vogue of the epic historical verse precisely coincides with the period of the popularity of the Chronicle Play,” and numerous recent studies have expanded upon the theme.2 A few preliminary assumptions should be established, however.

First, most modern distinctions between literature and history have no bearing upon the study of Shakespeare's histories. When Shakespeare chose to write history plays, plays in which political virtue is the controlling standard of reference, and constructed them as political lessons applicable to his own time, he was violating no relevant conception of the function of literature. Rather, he was writing in a larger literary tradition encompassing almost all types of artful rhetoric, purely historical writing included. W. K. Ferguson has pointed out that the Italian humanists considered history “a form of literature, highly regarded by the ancients and presenting attractive opportunities for the exercise of style.”3 English humanistic history was not, of course, an exact mirror of the Italian. When it first began to take distinctive shape in the 1530's and 1540's, it was due, according to W. R. Trimble, “not to the influence of Renaissance historians on the Continent, but rather to the forces of religious change, political and military events, and a growing nationalism, which were unified by the strong leadership and exalted conceptions of the monarchy.”4 Nevertheless, Tudor historiography did learn from the Continent a vigorous secular didacticism and a sense of literary mission. Its purpose was to glorify England in general and the Tudor government in particular; to trace the errors of the past that they might not be repeated; to rededicate magistrates to their duty and subjects to their loyalty; and to define for Englishmen the ethical responsibilities of citizenship necessary in an ordered society. Moreover, Tudor historiography avoided the heresy of Machiavellian pragmatism by remaining firmly grounded in the medieval Christian philosophy of history; in addition to taking a secular stance, it continued to illustrate the operation of divine providence in the affairs, and especially the political affairs, of men. History, it was felt, provided flashes of insight into that divine plan which, in spite of a vastness and complexity which put it out of the reach of man's tainted understanding, nevertheless functioned in rationally guiding his destinies to a purposeful end.

Thus the works of the Tudor historians were very similar in essential intention to the works of the poets and dramatists who used them as sources. No very significant distinctions can even be made on the grounds of utile versus dulce. Artful rhetoric was an accepted standard for prose histories, and when Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, and Thomas Heywood wrote history, when the contributors to the Mirrour for Magistrates and William Warner culled the past for instructive narratives, they told their stories in verse. And, as the present argument maintains, Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists were working in the historical mode—as the Renaissance saw it—when they recreated upon the stage events from the past, when they gave life and speech and movement to the men and women who had participated in those events. As Ribner puts it, “in the history play the dramatic and historical intentions are inseparable. The dramatist's first objective is to entertain a group of people in a theater. When he goes to history for his subject matter, however, he assumes the functions of the historian as well.”5 It is, therefore, irrelevant and even misleading to require that Shakespeare's histories be evaluated in terms of some narrowly defined standard of “pure literature.” Literature they are, and of a very special kind—poetic drama—but they are also a part of the tradition which included the works of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, of Lord Berners, John Bale, John Stow, Richard Grafton, John Foxe, and Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as two other “great products of the high age of Elizabeth with a strong political intention: Spenser's Faery Queen and Sidney's Arcadia.6

As has already been implied, when the dramatist accepted the role of historian he accepted with it the historian's responsibilities as teacher. Thus another issue enters in, that of didacticism in Shakespeare. The venerable tradition that Shakespeare is “the poet of all times” has too often included the corollary that he was the poet of no one time, and it has long been fashionable to exonerate him of the typical “faults” of his age either by insisting he rose above them, or, following the lead of Dr. Johnson, by explaining them as regrettable concessions to a simple and even barbaric audience. And no characteristic of the Elizabethan age has been subject to more suspicion than its taste for didactic literature. Early in this century H. H. Furness exclaimed, “I cannot reconcile myself to the opinion that Shakespeare ever made use of his dramatic art for the purpose of instructing, or as a means of enforcing his own views.” Twenty years ago John Palmer argued that Shakespeare created no truly “political characters,” that the expectations of his audience required him to write of the politically powerful in spite of his own interests. Even more recently, Clifford Leech insisted the assumption that Shakespeare's histories are a dramatic expression of the “simply didactic” sixteenth-century chronicles “is hardly compatible with a recognition of Shakespeare's status as a poet.”7

But Shakespearean didacticism—or Elizabethan, for that matter—is not something that needs to be explained away. The Golden Age of sixteenth-century literature owes much of its greatness to the confidence with which the writer could speak out, to his assurance that his purpose was the non-personal communication of the universal, the eternal, of the assumed. There were no Elizabethan poems exploring the nature of poetry (as there were to be in the nineteenth century); there were relatively few critical treatises, and with the exception of the Puritan attack, no significant critical polemic. The purpose of the literary artist was to dress up Truth in the “garment of style,” to give her “a local habitation and a name.” As Rosamond Tuve has said, “the Elizabethan thought of the poet's function as close to that of any other thinker—philosophers, preachers, and orators included. He did see the world as a world in which the ideas of human beings were paramount realities—and images convey a man's ideas movingly to others.”8

Thus there is no more point in denying Shakespeare's didactic stance than in denying his use of drama as a vehicle for political and historical materials. Only our own age, with its hypersensitive objectivity possibly born of a thoroughgoing scepticism, needs be embarrassed by an outspoken assertion of Truth. The Elizabethan, to the extent he thought about the matter at all, felt his rational powers were a divine gift intended to help him “repair the ruins of our first parents,” and he looked to literature as one of the teachers of rationality and good conduct.9

One important qualification must be made, however. Shakespeare was not “simply didactic.” His history plays constitute no more shallow dramatic version of the 1574 homily Against Disobedience and wilful Rebellion than the Faery Queen is just a book whose end is “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” No other artist has been more aware of the complexities of man's ethical predicaments, and none has more effectively molded his genre into an expression of those complexities. Recently Alfred Harbage correctly, if perhaps too apologetically, explained how Shakespeare “reckons with the craving for justice in moral mankind”: “in some of his plays evil misses its mark and is disarmed: the result is happiness. In others the issue is undetermined: such plays present single acts in the larger drama of history which is always unfolding and in which mingled good and evil bring in their train mingled joy and sorrow. There is justice in all these plays in the largest sense, a satisfying concatenation: unhappiness is never the product of good, and happiness never the product of evil.”10 Harbage, however, is oversimplifying; he is assigning to plot alone the didactic function. (Only one result is his reading of the “justice” of the histories as something lying outside the plays.) The Shakespearean play additionally carries a very real, if seldom obvious, complex of ethical meanings in the juxtaposition of its scenes and characters, in the strategic placement of its rhetorical amplifications, in the emotional coloring of its image patterns, even (for the scholar) in what was adopted and what omitted from its sources, and above all in the general impression made by its structure. Shakespeare's judgments upon his material are everywhere implicit, and his plays cannot be interpreted as “a new organ of thought” unless it is first granted that the kind of thinking they embody is essentially moralistic.

Two additional matters need to be discussed concerning Shakespeare as a historian: first, the significance to his own age of his political “message,” and second, the extent, as far as it can be estimated, of his historical knowledge.

The details of Shakespeare's political thought will be discussed in the next section of this chapter. For now it is sufficient to say that in broad outline his central political theme was simply this: social stability, a manifestation of the universal order which was reflected in the hierarchy of rank and degree and crowned by God's lieutenant on earth, the anointed monarch, had to be strictly maintained if the nation was to avoid total anarchy. The fact that Shakespeare's was only one of the many voices vigorously defending the status quo and portraying the horrors of internal dissension attests to the psychological undercurrents of the time. As Reese suggests, “the Elizabethans never really knew security,” and “only a century so persistently troubled by fears of rebellion and a disputed succession would have needed to evolve such a rigid theory of obedience and to proclaim it so frequently.”11

The threats to order and stability seemed to come in many forms. Thanks in part at least to Henry VIII's grandiose notions of his own destiny, there was at various times during the sixteenth century the possibility of French or Spanish invasion, or worse yet, of mass attack by a much-feared though never formed league of Catholic powers. Under Elizabeth, England was but on the threshold of becoming a European power, and although the victory of 1588 assured Englishmen that their navy, the radically new war machine designed by Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake, was an effective shield (and one probably more dependable than Elizabeth's international coquetries), the intensity of the English exuberance following the defeat of the Armada is perhaps symptomatic of the nation's fearful anticipation of invasion and of the deep-seated doubts it had had about its ability to defend itself.12

Foreign aggression, however, in spite of the emotion with which its possibility was treated in much of the literature, was for most Elizabethans the lesser danger of the time. A country united had some hope of withstanding external pressures, but the internal dynamics of a nation in sweeping transition produced constant possibilities for intense cleavages at home. The Tudor dynasty was born of a quarter century of civil war, and not until well into the sixteenth century could Englishmen feel secure that Bosworth had been the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. There were, however, other battles: between 1486 and 1601 the Crown had to put down a full dozen armed rebellions, three of them (counting the Irish) in Elizabeth's reign. J. K. Lowers has pointed out that the first uprising Elizabeth faced, the one in the North in 1596, was portrayed in the ballads, tracts, and pamphlets throughout the reign as a “mirror” imaging the immorality, destructiveness, and inevitable failure of armed revolt.13

To the tenor of the age was added, moreover, multiple factions seeming to threaten imminent organized resistance. The question of the succession, left unsettled by Elizabeth almost up to her death, made any pretender, legitimate or not, a potential rallying point for dissidents, as evidenced by the two political enigmas of Elizabeth's later years, Mary Queen of Scots and Essex. Agrarian discontent, an ominous rumble throughout the century, seemed poised to follow any lead which promised its remedy. Finally, the deep gulf between the religious extremes appeared to presage the most bitter conflict. The Elizabethans probably overestimated the seriousness of the Roman Catholic threat; the differences between Hapsburg and Valois were too far-reaching for mere religion to settle, and the Jesuits smuggled into the country were neither as multitudinous nor as militant as portrayed. But Englishmen had, under Mary, smelled the smoke from Smithfield, and the stringency of the recusancy acts and the summary execution of Campion and his fellows, as well as the urgency of the current anti-papist propaganda, are indicative of the underlying fear of a Catholic revival. Nor were the Puritans considered harmless; moderate Elizabethans thought they recognized in the Puritanism of their own day potentialities for insurrection that were not to be realized for another half century. As Brents Stirling points out, in the polemical literature “the Puritan movement, a moderate one which resulted in a ‘middle class’ revolution, was characterized persistently and quite sensationally as a program of mass rebellion dedicated to leveling of social gradation and even to ‘Anabaptistical’ communism.”14 The emotional intensity generated by religious conflict in the Elizabethan age cannot be overestimated. In the words of Christopher Morris, “bitterness was all the more inevitable because sixteenth-century conflicts were conflicts about the eternal verities. The Reformation … ensured that for well over a century our political parties were not mere factions and that their struggles were not solely for place and power and interest but for rival conceptions of human character and purpose.”15

Hence Shakespeare's history plays should be read against the background of an age which saw itself as living from crisis to crisis. Hindsight suggests the sixteenth-century Englishman exaggerated the tensions of his time. The moderation of Elizabeth's settlement provided a broad religious path which could be easily followed by all but the most intense; her ingenuity, flexibility, and even at times compassion served to quiet most of the economic and social unrest; and her Machiavellian diplomacy kept the Continental powers constantly off balance. But the citizen of the day could not of course see the larger pattern. For him the constant change, and worse yet, what seemed to be the ever-present threat of unpredictable upheavals in the immediate future, boded ill for life and property. Karl Brunner probably overstated his case in suggesting that the early histories speak in the voice of “the conservative elements in the population—the old landowners, the well-to-do citizens—just the class from which Shakespeare came.”16 Nevertheless, the early plays do proclaim the message which that class wanted to hear: rebellion against the throne is rebellion against God and will be punished in Heaven as well as on earth; the collective judgment of the establishment, however inadequate and fallible, is far preferable to the ephemeral whims of the rebellious and the ambitious; and, in the words of the often quoted speech of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida,

Take but degree away, untune that string;
And hark what discord follows.


That Shakespeare, even as early as the Henry VI plays, was growing into a more philosophic conception of the doctrine of order than the one in the minds of his average contemporaries does not in the least dilute the practical relevance to his audience of his political theme. The product of his age, he was voicing what at the time seemed to be some of the most vital of the verities; and in so doing he was fulfilling the responsibilities assigned to the literary artist.

One final point relevant to Shakespeare as a historian needs to be made, and that briefly. Contrary to the old tradition, long since disproved, that Shakespeare was the unlearned “poet of nature,” it is quite evident he knew enough about history to write history plays as the Elizabethans conceived them. This last qualification is of course important. As has already been suggested, in the sixteenth century historiography was not bound by the standards of objectivity and accuracy implicit in the modern term “social science.” The historian was not expected to record facts (although that seems to have been the function of the antiquaries such as John Leland) or even to interpret them objectively; rather, he was supposed to construct from historical data a subjective and moralistic argument. Thus when Shakespeare violates strict chronology, mingles several historical events, misplaces historical characters by several decades, or seems to completely misinterpret historical causes, he in most cases can be charged with only the bias which was expected of him, not with ignorance.18 Recently V. K. Whitaker insisted that when writing the early histories, “Shakespeare was, to put it bluntly, profoundly ignorant of English history but a very good dramatist.”19 However, Whitaker's unquestionably sound thesis—that over the years Shakespeare's learning and intellect matured concurrently with his artistry—commits him not only to proving how much Shakespeare learned, but also to suggesting how little he knew to begin with; and the dangers inherent in such a method are obvious. Shakespeare of course knew more in 1605 than he had known in 1590, but that is not to say he was totally uninformed when he wrote his early plays. On the contrary, he had apparently thoroughly digested, when he wrote the Henry VI plays, Hall's The Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and York, and was well acquainted with Holinshed's Chronicles as well. Moreover, the concern with political themes in Titus Andronicus and Comedy of Errors suggests he had meditated deeply upon matters of history and politics even before he started writing plays. Yet even such a firm defender of Shakespeare's knowledge as Tillyard, who argues that “Shakespeare … had much the same general equipment of learning as his more highly-educated contemporaries, Sidney and Spencer for instance,” feels constrained to add, “though it may have been less systematic, less detailed, and less derived from books.”20 But recent investigations into Shakespeare's sources have collectively uncovered evidence of probably vast reading on his part, and although many of the claimed “analogues” may be but coincidental echoes, it has become increasingly clear that Shakespeare was stimulated in his work by wide reading, and that he “read any relevant book on which he could lay his hands.”21 His erudition was considerably greater than that of the average well-informed middle class citizen, and although he may have been somewhat deficient in the classical learning in which some of his contemporary dramatists took pride, he had absorbed most of what was important in his native culture.

The first section of this chapter has been an attempt to elucidate some assumptions about the nature of Shakespeare's history plays which will be implicit in the structural analyses to follow in later chapters on the three parts of Henry VI. What these assumptions add up to is simply this: the plays were written by a dramatist essentially knowledgeable of English history who was working in close harmony with the energetically didactic literary-historical tradition of his age, and, moreover, their political themes were those that seemed of utmost importance to the Elizabethans. To this a further postulate of special relevance to the Henry VI plays should be added: that when Shakespeare was a beginning dramatist just starting to explore his own powers and to find his way in his genre, he was more self-consciously didactic, more obvious in stating his message, than he was to be later when he wrote with the confidence of experience and maturity. The starting point for analyzing the Henry VI plays is, rather deceptively, right on the surface; Shakespeare is at times almost embarrassingly explicit in his thematic statements. There is already complexity in the early plays, certainly, but subtlety and suggestiveness are as yet infrequent.

Before the Henry VI plays themselves can be considered, however, two further preliminary matters remain to be discussed in this chapter: first, the details of Shakespeare's political theme; and second, the various ways in which the total achievement of Shakespeare's ten history plays has been described.


Some thirty years ago Alfred Hart asked, with obvious embarrassment, “why did the poet give so much prominence to doctrines favoured by authority and to a system of government which, a quarter of a century after his death, led to a prolonged civil war and the temporary downfall of the Stuart dynasty? Did he believe in the doctrine of the divine rights of kings?” Hart's rather strained answers were that the doctrine is “as logically defensible as the modern worship of a majority,” that Shakespeare “probably thought the principle itself and the system of government based upon it not unsuited to the people of his times,” and that after all, the companies of actors depended upon the favor of the sovereign and her court for their very existence.22 Hart's quandry is suggestive of the thinking of a long line of critics who found distasteful the idea that Shakespeare may have written of mere politics, and even worse, the evidence that he held to markedly undemocratic biases. Armed with a theory of literature disallowing such mundane concerns and with a theory of history requiring of all sensitive thinkers sympathy with the long struggle of the masses against oppression, they attacked problems of interpretation by assuming Shakespeare shared their own enlightenment and would therefore be likely to say the things they wanted to hear; and they easily outmaneuvered history and politics by defining them as the subordinate vehicle for a more aesthetic investigation of human principles.23 Nor is this tradition dead; recently Clifford Leech wrote: “what, in fact, impresses us most in Shakespeare's history plays, and what makes them much more than merely approximately accurate records of past events, is the presentation within them of struggling and suffering humanity. Of course, they also have an interest as enshrining much of the sixteenth-century attitude to history and its lessons, but that would not in itself give them high status as literature.”24

Such criticism, however, unduly minimizes the significance of those concerns in the Shakespearean history plays which are now called political. As Hardin Craig has suggested, Shakespeare's originality seems to have been partially expressed in his ability to find in his sources “great significant patterns” and to synthesize and amplify them into structured drama.25 And in the prose histories, especially Edward Hall's, treating of the Wars of the Roses, Shakespeare found great significant patterns: patterns of political chaos and rebellion, of destructive ambition and pride, of political crime and the inexorable retributive justice which followed. In the histories he explored man's public role in an ordered society, the problems of power and its uses, of discord in the body politic, of national destiny and the providence of God. If such matters are ephemeral and unliterary, then Absalom and Achitophel, Essay on Man, Idylls of the King, and Leaves of Grass, to mention only a few possibilities, can be given but qualified praise.

Moreover, critics who, like Leech, would subordinate the politics in Shakespeare's histories err in attempting to sort the literary ingredients into the relevant and the irrelevant, into those having application to the human condition generally and eternally and those which are but the accretions of the particular time and place. The drawing of such distinctions, so tempting to the critic treating the literature of a past age, rarely stands the test of modern analogy. Few would agree, for example, that Faulkner's novels could be passed through a critical screen which would neatly separate the “presentation of struggling and suffering humanity” from its matrix of “sociological” tensions in the South during the first half of the twentieth century. The “history” can no more be detached from Shakespeare's history plays than the humours can be removed from Jonson's earlier comedies. Each of the plays depicts political characters materialized in a series of political actions, and Shakespeare's judgments upon those characters and actions are expressed in the dramatic structure. That he chose to write ten such plays, to expend over one-fourth of his creative energies on questions of politics, is sufficient evidence of their importance to him and to the reading of his plays; and the intensity with which they are realized in the artistic shape is sufficient evidence of their literary value. The scepticism later times have developed toward man's political organizations is irrelevant.

Nor should it be disturbing that Shakespeare failed to foresee and to sympathize with the French Revolution. The “class struggle” of the sixteenth century, as far as that term can even be applied, had very different ramifications from what it was to have later. It is often forgotten that traditional democratic thought objects not so much to monarchy per se, but to the potentialities for tyranny inherent in monarchy, and the so-called “Tudor despotism” never realized those potentialities to any great extent. Its centralization of power in fact seems to have increased the freedom of the average Englishman. It made the local authority of the justice of the peace a mere echo, although usually an efficient one, of far-off London, and at the same time diluted the immediate power of the neighborhood aristocrats. Likewise, the frequently castigated Star Chamber, in spite of the casual nature of its justice, gave even the peasant the right of appeal to a disinterested court outside the local power structure. “Democracy,” on the other hand, meant for Shakespeare's contemporaries little more than anarchic mob rule in the tradition of the medieval peasant revolts, and the Puritan demands for “freedom of religion,” so staunchly denied by Elizabeth, were recognized as efforts to acquire the power with which to deprive others of religious choice (as the American colonies were soon to witness). Elizabeth's government was, by modern standards, tyrannic in its censorship, in its persecution (if that word can be applied to the reign following those of Edward and Mary) of religious dissent, and in its summary handling of those suspected of political unorthodoxy; but at the time, the seemingly vicious character of the real or imagined opponents of established authority seemed not only to justify extreme measures, but to make them necessary. In Elizabethan England the protection of individual freedom was an issue, but what appeared to need defending was the productive well-being of the kind of people represented by Arden of Feversham, not the mindless anger of the aroused mob or the fanaticism of the nonconformists. Thus the political context and value structure of Shakespeare's histories are totally different from those of any recent or modern set of concepts. When the plays unsympathetically portray the unthinking violence of the mob or assert the necessity for constituted authority, they are not arguing for the power of the few over the many but for the broad center's right to protection from the irrationalities and ambitions of the fringe.

Yet Shakespeare's histories stand as much more than a pragmatic argument for political stability in a time of threatened disorder. The psychological undercurrents detectable during Elizabeth's reign may have contributed to the urgency which can be sensed here and there in the tone of the plays, especially that of the earlier ones, but the questions Shakespeare explored were as large as mankind itself. He lived, in the words of Reese, “in an age which believed a man's social relations to be, next to his relations with God, the most important thing about him; which, in fact, found the value of the state in the value of the individual. A man was most intensely himself when moving and acting in society: and to the eye of a poet, public life might be only a symbol of the private life, and enquiry into government merely a way of describing a man's efforts to order his nature.”26 What needs to be discussed, in other words, is not whether Shakespeare wrote political plays, or whether he was sympathetic with the right or the wrong side in the class struggle, but what he chose to say about the responsibilities of man in a cosmos whose lineaments were figured forth in the body politic. The remainder of this section will be devoted to adumbrating that complex of themes.

Shakespeare's political thought of course took shape within the frame of what Tillyard has called the “Elizabethan world picture.” This set of first premises is now well-known and needs no summary.27 It does require considerable qualification, however, before it can be used analytically. First, the warning of Alfred Harbage should be heeded: “we are all familiar with the tendency in others (and ourselves) to apply colors recklessly to any part of a canvas depicting the lusty age of Elizabeth. Enthusiastic brushwork transforms human beings into Elizabethans.”28 In sixteenth-century England, in other words, the essential eternality of the human animal was not interrupted by a temporary mutation resulting in a sudden abundance of naiveté and adrenalin; simplicity and sophistication, dullardry and enthusiasm, dogmatism and flexibility, all were as current then as now. So when “Elizabethan thought” is described, the best that can be hoped for is a rough approximation of a few of the central assumptions held in common by something approaching a majority of Elizabeth's subjects. Similarly, when treating the thought of any individual Elizabethan it must be further granted that at least ninety percent is irretrievable and the remainder too complex to be outlined in clean, unequivocal strokes.

Second, and of special importance to literary analysis, such things as the Great Chain of Being, the Macro-Microcosm, or even the medieval Wheel of Fortune are not concepts. They are metaphors imaging concepts. And they picture to the eye only a small part of the complexity the sixteenth-century Englishman conceived. It is quite likely that many Elizabethans, whose thought seems to have been more inclined to figures than our own, often failed to distinguish between the picture and what it stood for; and in argument both poetic and scholastic the images were frequently manipulated just as if they were themselves the actuality. However, the metaphors were but the manifestation of an amorphous body of thought characterized by considerably more subtlety and far less consistency than is often supposed.

All that can be done, then, is to study the recurrent ideas, the automatic responses, the repeated assertions, assumptions, and prejudices to be found in Elizabethan writing of all kinds and qualities—the sermon and the broadside as well as the epic and the stage play, the pedestrian as well as the inspired—and set them beside those patterns of thought discoverable in Shakespeare's plays. When all this is done the result is a rough sketch of an exceptionally sensitive mind which seems to have run in approximately the same channels as those of his intelligent and informed contemporaries, and which was, like theirs, neither simple nor static. “Shakespeare's political thought,” L. C. Knights insists, “is not a body of abstract principles to be applied and illustrated. It is part of a continuous exploration and assessment of experience: it grows and develops.”29 So when that part of Shakespeare's thought of particular relevance to the history plays is considered, about all that can be defined with any confidence are a few intellectual and emotional reference points which appear to remain in relatively constant focus. The three most significant of these seem to be Christian teaching, the doctrine of order and degree, and the spirit of patriotism.

In regard to Christian thought, the histories have many times been interpreted as demonstrations of the doctrine of divine providence. Ribner uses Shakespeare's plays to illustrate the function of the “providential scheme” as “the most important aspect of medieval historiography which we find in the Elizabethan history play”; and he adds that “one of the most important historical purposes of many Tudor dramatists was to show the logic and reason in God's control of political affairs.”30 In addition, E. M. W. Tillyard (as will be discussed in more detail later) sees Shakespeare's whole historical canon as a structured exposition of God's providential punishment of an England which had sinned and which had to undergo a long series of disasters before it could be restored to divine favor. However, there seems to be no real evidence in the history plays themselves that the doctrine of providence was a central concern. As Michael Quinn argues, Shakespeare even in the earliest plays had a more complex and subtle view of the doctrine of providence than did most of his contemporaries. That is, providence for him was not merely “miraculous or arbitrary interventions by God,” although he probably would not have denied such things were possible; rather, “God's normal mode of working is to allow the wicked to be caught up in the ‘mechanism’ of general providence which ensures that dissension breeds murder, revenge, civil war, and ultimately, tyranny, and that this process includes the punishment of the wicked.”31

Thus first causes are dimly seen only in the background, or even outside the plays in the mind that created them and in the assumptions common to the audience that viewed them. What is portrayed upon the stage are the secondary causes to be found in the motives and actions of men. That the men represented by the dramatic characters will get their just deserts on earth as well as in heaven or hell is not questioned; but what they do to earn these deserts, and more important, the effects their actions have upon the society in which they live, make up the ethical core of the history plays. The essential relevance of Christian thought to Shakespeare's histories is, therefore, that the plays were written by a Christian, though not one as doctrinally intense as a Milton or a Bunyan. Their author, in the words of R. M. Frey, “emerges as an intelligent and maturely informed layman, whose citation of theological doctrines for purely dramatic purposes shows an easy and intimate familiarity with Christian theology;” however, Frey insists throughout his study, Shakespeare “never treats these doctrines as ends in themselves, but always makes them subordinate to his development of character and action.”32

The doctrine of order and degree cannot of course be treated as something separate from religion. The Elizabethans thought in terms of a God-centered universal order in which the heterogeneity of the perceptible world was given coherence and meaning by a system of rank and degree reflecting the higher organization of the spiritual world. Because the monarch was conceived as God's earthly counterpart and, in a sense, His local administrator, the doctrine of order was of both religious and political significance. Thus a corollary, the doctrine of the divine right of kings, was not simply a convenience in justifying the existing political and social structure; it was an admission of the heavenly origins of civil government. Nor was the doctrine of order as superficial and naive as its metaphoric expressions would suggest. No one would have hesitated to cut down an oak or kill a lion for fear of disturbing the universe. In the words of Knights, “order—especially order dependent on absolute rule and unargued acceptance of the powers that be—was not for Shakespeare a simple and unquestioned value: essential order, simultaneously political and more-than-political, was something that needed his full mature powers to define and assert”; and as Knights says in another context, as a result of our experience of the histories “we are inevitably prompted to a clearer recognition of the fact that a wholesome political order is not something arbitrary and imposed, but an expression of relationships between particular persons within an organic society.”33

Moreover, the doctrine contributed to the history plays just as firm a set of ethical principles as Christian teaching. As Reese says, “the feeling for order and stability everywhere evident in Shakespeare's plays was an expression of his deepest moral convictions. The point to be made is that they were moral convictions, for society, as he and his age understood it, was a moral idea. He never divorced ‘politics’ (a word he did not use) from the larger context of society and human relationships.”34 For Shakespeare the doctrine of order and degree was, in other words, a fertile realization of the universe in its totality. It gave him a means of interpreting men and their actions in terms of simultaneous values both divine and worldly. Yet it must be added the doctrine serves the same function in the ethical structure of the histories as Christian morality. That is, it is a part of the moral assumptions underlying the plays, not the proposition of an argument they are constructed to prove. If it were, critics would not be so dependent upon Ulysses' famous speech in Troilus and Cressida (I.iii. 75-137) for evidence of Shakespeare's assimilation of the doctrine. Those lines are the only extended and positive declaration of the principle in the Shakespearean canon. Elsewhere, and especially in the earlier history plays, the doctrine is realized in the dramatization of its violation; order is the assumed ideal, disorder the portrayed reality.

The third, and for dramatic purposes the most important, of the major reference points suggested by the fabric of Shakespeare's histories—the spirit of patriotism—is characteristic of the literature of the period generally. The famed “Elizabethan patriotism” had far deeper roots than the jingoistic exuberance generated by the defeat of the Armada. Taking intellectual justification and literary expression from English humanism, and direction and fervor from Protestantism, it motivated the multitude of chroniclers, topographers, and antiquarians as well as the poets and dramatists who were writing in the last half of the sixteenth century. The constant focal point of this patriotism was the figure of the monarch, and when in Elizabeth that figure combined the romantic aura of the Virgin Queen and the more mundane appeal of efficient government, the resulting attitude is best described by Shakespeare himself:

She shall be lov’d and fear’d. Her own shall bless
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow. Good grows with her;
In her days every man shall eat in safety
Under his own vine what he plants and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours.
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.

(Henry VIII, V.v.30-38)

A leitmotif throughout Shakespeare's plays, in the comedies and tragedies this patriotism is frequently exhibited in irrelevant intrusions, such as the praise of English drinking capacity in Othello, or in unnecessary amplifications, as in Cymbeline:

                                                            Our countrymen
Are men more ordered than when Julius Caesar
Smiled at their lack of skill, but found their courage
Worthy his frowning at: their discipline,
Now mingled with their courages, will make known
To their approvers they are people such
That mend upon the world.


In the history plays, however, patriotism seems to be the moving force. Apparently in Shakespeare's mind the conception of the ordered Christian society took tangible form in the face of England, and “Respublica” became the symbolic hero of the plays.35 As Reese says, “the histories lie uniformly within a comprehensive vision which determines plot, argument and characterization in sole reference to the safety of England and the political qualities that minister to it.”36 The evidence is everywhere. In King John a principle, echoed in dozens of speeches in other plays, is given forthright statement:

Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.


Woven into the plays from 1 Henry VI on are image patterns reflecting plant productivity—cultivation, fertility, ripeness, harvest—as a measure of the damage done by rebellion and misrule to “the world's best garden.” The action of Henry IV traces Prince Hal's maturity into not responsible manhood alone but into English kingship, and the charged tone of Henry V is a response to the nation's achievements under his dedicated and heroic rule. The crux of Richard II results from the insoluble simultaneity of two issues of vital national importance—the anointed but ineffectual king and the need of the commonwealth for unselfish leadership.37 And the suggestions of individual personality which tend to soften the political outlines of the characters (and to mislead critics) in these later histories are almost nonexistent in the Henry VI plays. There the complete measure of each character is taken according to the extent his motives and actions are contributory to or destructive of the national welfare.

Christianity, order, and patriotism are the three constant premises of Shakespeare's political thought. Behind the history plays stands the image of the “sceptered isle,” of an English nation in which king and subject are organically fused into the Christian commonwealth ruled by natural law. The king bears the heavy responsibility of giving focus and direction, by means of his own dedication and self-mastery, to the constructive energies of his people. They, likewise, are charged with following, not with servility and fear but with enthusiasm and religious purposefulness, his lead in the realization of national greatness.


Heminge and Condell were clearly correct in separating the history plays from the comedies and the tragedies in the Folio. Richard III was titled a “Tragedy,” and the Life and Death of Richard II has tragic overtones in its portrayal of a potentially noble king whose character fails to meet the demands made upon it; but both plays are quite distinct in effect from Macbeth and Lear, also dramatizations of the downfall of historic British monarchs. Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, and perhaps Hamlet as well, are studies in the conflict between the private man and his political responsibilities, but the distribution of dramatic emphasis within each sets them apart from King John and 1 Henry IV. The difference between Shakespearean tragedy and Shakespearean history lies, L. B. Campbell suggests, in “the distinction between private and public morals.” “Tragedy is concerned with the doings of men which in philosophy are discussed under ethics; history with the doings of men which in philosophy are discussed under politics.38 And Campbell is essentially correct, although as Ribner warns, no definition of the history play based solely upon the separation of history and tragedy into “mutually exclusive categories” will stand the test of close examination.39 The histories differ from the tragedies in their concern with suprapersonal values, in their emphasis upon themes pertaining to man as a participant in that part of the universal moral order reflected in the structure of the society rather than that part reflected in the shape of the individual psyche.

But the histories also stand apart from the rest of Shakespeare's plays by virtue of a characteristic unity all their own. The tragedies and comedies are of different times and places, different situations and characters, but the histories (excluding King John and Henry VIII, which have been seen as the “prologue” and the “epilogue” to the others) are a more or less coherent dramatization, with no significant gaps, of English history through the consecutive reigns of six kings. Their central action, involving more than two hundred characters (many of which are carried over from play to play), traces the dynastic conflicts of the Wars of the Roses from what for Edward Hall was their first cause, the banishment of Bolingbroke in 1396, to their cessation in the “union of the two noble houses” following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Since Schelling it has been fashionable to describe this broad sweep loosely as “epic,” but the exact nature of Shakespeare's total achievement in the history plays has resisted definition.

According to the traditional view epitomized by Una Ellis-Fermor, Shakespeare in writing the histories was merely groping his way toward tragedy.40 As a beginning dramatist, Ellis-Fermor argued, he chanced to write or was assigned to write one or more plays depicting the reign of Henry VI. In portraying the disasters of that reign he discovered they resulted from the lack of some vital “element of kingliness” in the pious but politically and militarily inept Henry VI. Thus he became interested in the requirements necessary to the ideal statesman-king and set out in an artistic quest for them by experimenting, in subsequent plays, with “a vast, closely articulated body of thought imaged always in terms of actual character, yet completely incorporated in no one character.” Working carefully and “choosing out by trial and error” the qualifications necessary for ideal kingship from a dozen or more political characters, both positive and negative, Shakespeare finally arrived at the epitome, Henry V. But, having “built the figure with such care, out of the cumulative experience of eight plays,” he “begins to recoil from it. … he rejects its findings as invalid before the deeper demands of the less explicit but immutable laws of man's spirit.” For Shakespeare discovered, when he had finally created his ideal, the ideal was not human; its humanity had been sacrificed to the demands made by the body politic for unwavering dedication and efficiency. Thus the history plays constitute, according to Ellis-Fermor, “a magnificent plea … for the supreme claims of the individual spirit,” and Shakespeare turned from them to tragedy in order to explore those claims.

This traditional view, with its subordination of history to tragedy, proceeds from the implicit principle (already questioned in this study) that matters of mere politics are somehow unworthy of artistic expression. But as Tillyard, Campbell, and Reese all insist, the political theme in Shakespeare's histories exists in its own right. As Reese points out, the re-direction of Shakespeare's efforts after Henry V, in addition to whatever practical reasons there may have been for it, does indicate new personal and artistic interests. “Where the only test is political, a political failure is just that and no more; the dramatist has no freedom to consider its personal implications, and throughout the histories Shakespeare had been prevented by his artistic discipline from developing the tragic potentiality of his characters.” However, Reese insists, the historical themes remained valid: “the great political virtues of obedience, love and disciplined dedication have a strength and permanence that carry them triumphantly through the disordered world of Shakespearean tragedy.”41 It is worth noting that the four great tragic protagonists—Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, and Othello—fail politically as well as personally, and for the same reasons. Shakespeare certainly learned from writing the histories (if it is to be supposed he did not already know) that there is often a deep conflict between the self-fulfillment of the individual and his responsibilities to the social order; but it is upon such discrepancies that art is built, and there is no reason to believe Shakespeare's turning from the consideration of the world to the investigation of the psyche constitutes a renunciation.

In addition, the older critics (along with many recent ones, including Tillyard and Reese) seem to have distorted the shape of the histories by reading them through the glass of “kingship.” The tetralogies do seem to follow parallel patterns in this respect. Both begin with kings who are, in differing ways, weak; each of these is overthrown by an equivocal figure, the moderately bad Edward IV and the moderately good Henry IV; and each of these in turn is succeeded by an epitome—the murderous tyrant Richard III and the glorious Henry V. When to these are added the various protectors, aspirants, and line-of-successioners—such as Humphrey of Gloucester, Richard of York, Clarence, Mortimer, and Hotspur—the history plays emerge as a veritable laboratory for the study of kingship.

When considered individually, however, the plays do not support such a conclusion. The significance of Henry VI's character seems not to be his weak leadership itself, but the consequent hiatus in central authority which allows unhindered political anarchy, the true matter under investigation in the Henry VI plays. Richard III is the epitome not so much of tyranny rampant as he is of tyranny relieved; the depiction of his physical and moral deformation and his brutal political crimes but leads up to his destruction and the restoration of the natural order under Henry VII. What is defined in Richard II is not the failure of royalty in Richard, but the boundary between weak rule that must be tolerated and misrule that may be overthrown. And if the sub-plot of 1 Henry IV is Hal's “imitation of the sun,” it must be remembered that the main plot is political rebellion. For Shakespeare the office of king was an order-symbol that was sufficiently complex to require exploration; but its definition does not seem to have been the unifying artistic motive of the histories.

The more recent, and for the last twenty years the most generally accepted, critical synthesis of Shakespeare's histories is that of Tillyard, who sees the plays as a purposeful dramatization of Edward Hall's theme in the Union of the Two Noble Houses. That is, England as a national entity was caught up in the providential scheme of punishment for sin when the natural order was violated by the deposition and murder of Richard II. Her punishment was a long series of external disasters and internal dissensions—primarily the loss of France and the Wars of the Roses—which could end only when the normal order was restored by the union of Lancaster and York effected by the marriage of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York.42 Tillyard's view is very attractive, primarily because it is so neat. It explains the “historicity” of the plays: the dramatization of consecutive reigns, the building of characters throughout a series of plays, the carefully written links coupling the end of each play with the beginning of the next, and the recapitulation of events occurring in previous plays. It also explains our reaction to the apparent unity of the plays by making that unity the conscious creation of Shakespeare rather than the accident of his use of historical sources.

However, Tillyard's synthesis does contain a number of weaknesses. For one thing, it does not correspond to the order in which the histories were written. If Shakespeare set out to dramatize Hall's theme, why did he begin in the middle of the story with the Henry VI plays? He opened Richard II at the exact historical point Hall's Union began—the argument between Mobray and Bolingbroke—but that was some five years and five history plays later. Tillyard tried to plug this obvious gap in his argument by postulating “earlier versions” of Richard II, Henry VI, and Henry V which Shakespeare later “recast” into the plays we now have, but he is not very convincing. Nor have his subsequent attempts to explain “what he really meant” helped to strengthen his thesis.43 Either the history plays are a dramatization of Hall's theme, or they are something else; something, it should be added, which could certainly contain Hall's theme in addition to much more.

This postulate leads to the second objection to Tillyard's view: it is too simple. As A. P. Rossiter has colorfully put it, “there is more in the dark glass than the moral history of the Lancastrian House of Jeroboam and the happy ending in the dawn of Tudarchy.”44 Although Hall's tract probably contributed to Shakespeare's general view of the Wars of the Roses and to the energy of his artistic denunciation of civil discord, it seems to have stimulated him in his own exploration, not committed him to a single conclusion.

Moreover, and this is the third objection, each of the eight plays is too individually distinct to have been conceived as an increment of a larger whole. Working from probably the best possible evidence—a viewing of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre's 1951 presentation of the Lancastrian plays as a structured tetralogy—Richard David concluded: “Though every effort was bent on making the four plays coalesce, the effect of each is so distinct, so complete in itself, their styles are so divergent, their loose ends so uncompromisingly resist all attempts to marry them, that no single, comprehensive impression emerges. Not only do Richard II and Henry V insist on standing out from the main block, but even the two parts of Henry IV seem to spring asunder and proclaim their independence of each other.”45 The same, this study is intended incidentally to establish, would be the case with a production of the Yorkist tetralogy. Each of the Henry VI plays, in spite of their abundant similarities, upon close examination takes shape as a unique dramatic structure. In addition, their emphasis is upon the sins committed during the reign of Henry VI, not upon the earlier crime against Richard II, so Hall's theme stands at one remove at least.

Nor does the theatrical situation in which Shakespeare began writing suggest his first efforts would take the direction of an epic cycle. It is difficult to imagine either the Elizabethan companies, busy as they were exploring the possibilities of a new form of public entertainment and at the same time trying to judge the tastes of the admission-paying audience, or the audience, which for the most part had not had enough experience of its own to have even discovered its tastes itself, thinking in terms of tetralogies, or even more sophisticated, double tetralogies. Shakespeare is not necessarily answerable to such limitations, of course; the contradictory images of him as businessman-playwright and as independent genius can almost always be resolved in favor of genius. But it is doubtful he would have been so sweepingly original in the early nineties when he was attempting to get started. The primary problem of the young dramatist must have been much the same then as now: he needed to get something into production which would draw an audience. That his probably first play, 1 Henry VI, is distinctively different in its structure from anything written up to that time would seem to be a sufficient claim to originality, even for Shakespeare; it seems too much to look for an incipient epic also.

Thus there are a number of reasons for doubting that Shakespeare's histories form some sort of single entity. Yet there is no denying visible relationships between the plays. There are, to begin with, certain conspicious transitions. As R. A. Law has pointed out, the opening scene of each of the eight plays either dovetails with the action of the final scene of the preceding play, or else it contains a speech which echoes something said at or near the end of the preceding play.46 These transitions, however, are mere connective filaments when compared with the massively cumulative patterns which result from the recapitulation of symbols; from the sustaining of characters and conflicts through two, three, or even four plays; from the accumulation of extended historical narration in which past causes of present events are carefully explained; and from the recurrent use of predictions and foreshadowing. It is not sufficient to say that when Shakespeare pulled from his sources the roots of his stories the soil of history clung to them and gave to his plays an unintended coherence. He invented the more obvious links, and many of the others are amplified beyond the needs of the immediate dramatic context.

What synthesis then can be made of the histories? Individually the eight plays stand quite distinctly apart, yet they are connected at many points. R. W. Law thinks they “are carefully coupled together like separate coaches of a railway train,”47 but such a description does not explain very much. Ribner offers a more thought-provoking suggestion: “the gap of years between his two historical tetralogies is an important factor. When he came to write Richard II, Shakespeare had developed both as a dramatic craftsman and as a thinker, and he could examine political problems with new insight.”48 If the problem is approached from this direction, it would seem Shakespeare wrote four history plays when a neophyte dramatist and four more after he had accumulated considerable experience, and each tetralogy is coherent within itself because it represents the consecutive efforts of the same mind upon a linear historical sequence. The similarities between the two tetralogies, however, are attributable only to the continuity they of necessity achieve from history and to the fact that Shakespeare, though more mature when he wrote the later tetralogy, continued to believe in the same basic principles of political morality and historical causation.

This explanation is not completely satisfactory, for it leaves too much to happenstance and too little to artistry; but it accounts for most of the relationships between the plays and seems to be a good starting point. Perhaps Shakespeare's achievement in the history plays can be conceived only by analogy: perhaps fifteenth-century England was his Yoknapatawpha County. He found in it both the violation and the realization of those political concepts he most deeply felt were of prime importance to the human condition, and he explored its three dimensions by expanding upon the inherited techniques of dramatic expression. It thus provided him with material for eight independent plays, and at the same time it gave him rich opportunities to express the overflow of his creative energies in synthesizing, but artistically gratuitous and not wholly consistent, links of character, action, and symbol. Richard II does not have to be read before the concatenation Richard III can be appreciated, nor does the recognition of anarchy in the Henry VI plays depend upon familiarity with the picture of order in Henry V, but when all the history plays are read in sequence they project a satisfying impression of architectonic structure, and each complements the others in being a part of the organic comment genius has made upon the affairs of men.


  1. Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill, 1935), p. 297.

  2. Felix E. Schelling, The English Chronicle Play (New York, 1902), pp. 38-39. Other relevant studies are E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, 2nd ed. (New York, 1962) Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories” (San Marino, 1947); Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, 1957); and M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London, 1962).

  3. Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought (Boston, 1948), p. 5.

  4. William R. Trimble, “Early Tudor Historiography, 1487-1548,” JHI, XI (1950), 40. Another valuable study of this subject is Leonard F. Dean, Tudor Theories of History Writing, Univ. of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, No. 1 (1941), p. 23.

  5. Ribner, p. 26.

  6. Tillyard, p. 108.

  7. H. H. Furness, Jr., ed. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Life and Death of King John (Philadelphia and London, 1919), p. xii. John Palmer, Political Characters in Shakespeare (London, 1945), p. viii. Clifford Leech, Shakespeare: The Chronicles, Writers and Their Work, No. 146 (London, 1962), p. 8.

  8. Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (Chicago, 1947), p. 190.

  9. See, however, Richard H. Poplin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (Assen, Netherlands, 1960), especially Chapters I and II.

  10. Alfred B. Harbage, As They Liked It: An Essay on Shakespeare and Morality (New York, 1947), pp. 161-162.

  11. Reese, pp. 29 and 33.

  12. As to the often suggested relevance of the defeat of the Armada to the patriotic tone of Elizabethan literature, see Garrett Mattingly, The “Invincible” Armada and Elizabethan England (Ithaca, 1963), pp. 31 ff. Mattingly argues that “there does seem to have been an effervescence of patriotism (or chauvinism, or jingoism, call it what you will) in Elizabethan literature. But it is hard to find much evidence for it before 1595, and it would appear to be connected rather with the resumption of a vigorous naval offensive and Essex’ capture of Cádiz than with any earlier event.”

  13. James K. Lowers, Mirrors for Rebels: A Study of Polemical Literature Relating to the Northern Rebellion, 1569, Univ. of California Publications, English Studies, No. 6 (Berkeley, 1953).

  14. Brents Stirling, The Populace in Shakespeare (New York, 1949), p. 99.

  15. Christopher Morris, Political Thought in England: Tyndale to Hooker (Oxford, 1953), p. 4.

  16. Karl Brunner, “Middle-Class Attitudes in Shakespeare's Early Histories,” Shakespeare Survey, VI (1953), 36.

  17. Citations from Shakespeare in this study are from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (London and Glasgow, 1951).

  18. As to anachronisms (such as the cannon in King John) and the occasional failure to distinguish between history and English mythology, the confusion must be laid to the historical credulity of the age itself, not to Shakespeare alone.

  19. Virgil K. Whitaker, Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino, 1953), p. 52.

  20. Tillyard, p. 15.

  21. Kenneth Muir, “Source Problems in the Histories,” Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, XCVI (1960), 63. See also Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. III (New York, 1960); and, of course, the classic work on this subject, T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare's Small Latin & Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (Urbana, 1944).

  22. Alfred Hart, Shakespeare and the Homilies (Melbourne, 1934), pp. 74-75.

  23. Brents Stirling says the “standard exemplars of [this] orthodox view are Coleridge, Dowden, Bradley, Tannenbaum, R. W. Chambers, Wood, Thaler, and Palmer.” The Populace in Shakespeare (New York, 1949), p. 81.

  24. Clifford Leech, Shakespeare: The Chronicles, Writers and Their Work, No. 146 (London, 1962), p. 9.

  25. Hardin Craig, “Motivation in Shakespeare's Choice of Materials,” Shakespeare Survey, IV (1951), 26-36.

  26. Reese, p. 135.

  27. See especially E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London, 1943), and Shakespeare's History Plays, especially Chapter I; Hardin Craig, The Enchanted Glass (New York, 1935); and Theodore Spencer; Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, 2nd ed. (New York, 1949).

  28. Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare's Audience (New York, 1941), p. 138.

  29. L. C. Knights, Shakespeare's Politics, Annual Shakespeare Lecture of the British Academy, 1957, p. 122.

  30. Ribner, pp. 23-24.

  31. Michael Quinn, “Providence in Shakespeare's Yorkist Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959), 45-52.

  32. Roland Mushat Frey, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton, 1963), pp. 13 and 271. See also Robert Stevenson, Shakespeare's Religious Frontier (The Hague, 1958).

  33. L. C. Knights, William Shakespeare: The Histories, Writers and Their Work, No. 151 (London, 1962), p. 15; and Shakespeare's Politics, pp. 123-124.

  34. Reese, p. 91.

  35. Tillyard, p. 185.

  36. Reese, p. 121.

  37. For a study of the political crux of Richard II see Ernest William Talbert, The Problem of Order (Chapel Hill, 1962), especially Chapter VI.

  38. Campbell, p. 17.

  39. Ribner, pp. 11-12.

  40. The following summary is of Una Ellis-Fermor's “Shakespeare's Political Plays,” The Frontiers of Drama (London, 1945), Chapter III.

  41. Reese, p. 334.

  42. See Tillyard, especially pp. 51-62. See also Reese, pp. 51-58.

  43. See E. M. W. Tillyard, “Shakespeare's Historical Cycle: Organism or Compilation?,” Studies in Philology, LI (1954), 34-39. Tillyard's article is accompanied by a rejoinder by R. A. Law, pp. 40-41.

  44. A. P. Rossiter, “Ambivalence: the Dialectic of the Histories,” Angel with Horns: And Other Shakespeare Lectures, ed. Graham Storey (New York, 1961), p. 44. See also Ribner, p. 12.

  45. Richard David, “Shakespeare's History Plays—Epic or Drama?,” Shakespeare Survey, VI (1953), 132.

  46. R. A. Law, “Links between Shakespeare's History Plays,” Studies in Philology, L (1953), 196.

  47. Law, p. 187.

  48. Ribner, p. 110.

Graham Holderness (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9176

SOURCE: “Introduction 2: History,” in Shakespeare's History, Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1985, pp. 14-39.

[In the essay below, Holderness maintains that many of Shakespeare's plays, especially the English history plays, were intentional acts of historiography. In particular, Holderness analyzes the second tetralogy (Richard II through Henry V) and argues that the historiography offered in these plays was a new, emergent form with a bourgeois viewpoint.]

The argument of this book could, and ideally should, be applied more broadly than the scope of the enterprise allows. Although it is based on an underlying hypothesis that most of Shakespeare's plays were conscious and deliberate acts of historiography, it adheres to that group of plays categorised as ‘Histories’ as early as the First Folio of 1623, and uncontroversially acknowledged as ‘English History Plays’ ever since. From the whole range of Shakespeare's drama of national history (the series of eight plays which together constitute a dramatised chronicle of English history from 1398 to 1485, plus the early King John and the late Henry VIII) I have chosen to concentrate the first part of the argument on the familiar ‘second tetralogy’ (Richard II-Henry V), focusing with even more selectivity on Richard II and Henry IV Part One. Henry V and the earlier ‘first tetralogy’, Henry VI-Richard III, are used to illustrate the history of ‘Shakespeare’ reproduction in the second part of the book. Methodologically this selection is entirely arbitrary and based on pragmatic rather than theoretical distinctions. As historiography the English chronicle plays are no different in kind from other plays grounded in written historical sources: Macbeth, for example, or the Roman plays based on Plutarch's Lives. This particular point would not be widely disputed: modern critical studies frequently link the English history plays with plays conventionally assigned to other genres (though the intention is, as often as not, to subsume the category of history into some mythical or metaphysical conception of reality, rather than to clarify the nature of historical drama).1 The category can be broadened considerably by abandoning excessively rigid and limiting concepts of what is and what is not ‘historical’ writing: if we accept, for example, the mode of legendary history, dislodged by some humanists and by the antiquarian school, as a legitimate exercise of Renaissance historical consciousness, then King Lear is a history play; and if we were prepared to acknowledge the sociological precision and historical particularity with which Shakespeare drew his images of Venetian society in Othello and The Merchant of Venice, they too would become historical drama—not an empirical ‘history of the times deceas’d’, but an analytic and sociological ‘pre-history of the present’.

The foregoing theoretical introduction will already have suggested some practical reasons for concentrating on the second tetralogy: the plays remain current, constantly reproduced, consistently privileged, held firmly in place in the hierarchy of literary value by the rigid structures and conventions of the educational system. They are also the principal foundation on which the most influential historicist theories of Shakespearean historical drama have been constructed: the organicist and providential arguments of E. M. W. Tillyard, Lily B. Campbell, L. C. Knights, though widely disputed today, have nonetheless successfully imposed their own ideological colouring on the plays and on subsequent criticism, and still exercise enormous influence over the practices of teaching and examining in institutions of education, especially secondary schools. These plays offer an appropriate ground for the exercise of this study's two main objectives: to engage with the residual constrictions of the old Tillyardian orthodoxy, which is partly a matter of analysing the history of reproduction, and to interrogate some of the counter-orthodoxies offered from within bourgeois criticism; and to situate the plays into a more genuinely materialist analysis of the structural complex of Renaissance historiographical practices.


What emphasis is intended, what theoretical definition proposed, by terming the plays ‘historiography’; and how does that classification relate to other possible ‘historical’ descriptions, some of which would be universally accepted? A convenient theoretical formulation is provided by the trivium history, historical evidence and historiography.

The plays would be accepted as historical evidence—surviving records and documents attesting to the existence of historical fact—only in a very limited sense: as the record of an Elizabethan intellectual's view of his own society, mediated through fictional reconstructions of that society's past. They could be judged relevant to history—the ‘aggregate of past events’, the chronological sequence of happenings which can be assumed, by a reasonable consensus of historical analysis and judgment, to have occurred—insofar as they adhere to works of historical record and interpretation as sources; the closer the plays approximate to written records, to the chronicles of Halle, Holinshed and other Tudor historians, the nearer they can be judged to approach to actual ‘history’. These definitions make good sense in terms of the dominant practices of historiography in modern western societies—essentially literate, empirical, positivist and quasiscientific—but when applied to Renaissance historical drama, they reveal certain inadequacies. Henry V was a historical character, King Lear a legend (i.e. there is no surviving historical record except tradition to enable us to attribute to Lear a real existence): therefore Shakespeare's Henry V is a history play, King Lear a fable.2 If the argument is conducted entirely within the parameters prescribed by modern historical thought, which has its roots in those decades of the seventeenth century immediately following the demise of the historical drama, some of Shakespeare's history plays—in common with other works of the period—must be acknowledged a loose and confused mixture of historically authenticated facts and imaginatively-invented fictions. According to the positivistic criteria prescribed by modern historiography, the two categories can be rigidly demarcated, and plays like Richard II and Henry V can be privileged as possessing a certain authenticity (with suitable allowances made for poetic licence), since they achieve a medium of articulation which observes the distinction between fact and fable, rigorously excluding all legendary and fabulous matter (the victory of Agincourt is ‘legend’ in a different sense from the ghosts who visit Richard III on the night before Bosworth, or the fiends who support Jeanne d’Arc in Henry VI Part One), all folk-tale and romance situations, all supernatural apparitions; and limiting the elements of historical ‘fiction’ to an emblematic interlude or a segregated comic sub-plot. From the perspective of modern historiography, the English history plays of Shakespeare would not normally be considered historiography, to a culture dominated by medieval ideas, the universal Christian providentialism of the Middle Ages, and the new science of history as it developed in the seventeenth century, the plays belong to a world without a proper historiography, to a culture dominated by mediaeval ideas, mingling legend and fact, myth and reality in a glorious confusion, relying on tradition rather than documentary record and primary source; unable, in short, to see the past as anything other than a distorted reflection of its own contemporary present.


The success of that influential school of historicist criticism to which I have already referred, which established its basis of cultural power and secured its ideological dominance after the Second World War, and can still be accurately summarised by the name of Tillyard, can be attributed partly to that school's skilful evasion of this problem. However, as I shall be demonstrating below, although its object of address was as much the contemporary world as that of the Renaissance, it systematically denied the relevance of modern thought to a historical understanding of Shakespeare's time. The historical ideas informing Shakespeare's plays were to be located within a general world-view dominated by the heritage of medieval Christianity: a philosophical system in which the state, or ‘body politic’, was never considered relativistically as a particular form of social organisation, developed from and subject to change—but as one of the functions of a universal order, created and supervised by God, and ruled directly by the machinations of divine providence. A state or human society occupied a median position in a cosmic hierarchy (the chain of being) with God and the angels above, and the animal and plant kingdoms below. The structure of a well-ordered state was itself a microcosm of the heirarchical cosmos, containing within itself a chain of being, from the monarch at the head, through the various gradations of social rank down to the lowest orders. The ruler of a body politic possessed power which reflected, but was also subject to, that of God: a king therefore ruled by Divine Right. The natural condition of a state, like the natural condition of the cosmos, was ‘order’, defined primarily in terms of the maintenance of this rigid hierarchy. Any rupturing of this pattern would produce disorder or ‘chaos’; since the state was a component of divine order, such alteration could not be accepted as legitimate social change, but had to be condemned as a disruption of the divine and natural order, to the displeasure of God. The extreme forms of such disruption, such as the deposition of a king and the usurpation of a throne, would constitute a gross violation of order, inevitably punished by the vengeance of God, working through the machinery of providence.

This comprehensive system of Elizabethan thought was developed fully by Tillyard in The Elizabethan World Picture (1943), and applied specifically to the functioning of the state within the universal order in Shakespeare's History Plays (1944). Here the whole sequence of English chronicle plays becomes a grand illustration of the operation of divine providence in human affairs, with the deposition and murder of Richard II initiating a disruption of the universal order, a century of social chaos and civil war, the punishment of those responsible and their descendents by the exercise of divine wrath—a process ended only by the ‘succession’ of Henry VII to the English throne. The plays are said to offer a unified historical narrative expressing a politically and morally orthodox monarchist philosophy of history, in which the Tudor dynasty is celebrated as a divinely sanctioned legimitate regime, automatically identifiable with political stability and the good of the commonwealth. Reflecting rather than expressing, since the system had already been developed by the great Tudor historiographers, especially in Edward Halle's Union of the Noble and Illustrious Houses of Lancaster and York (1548); and was embodied in various forms of loyalist political discourse, from government directives like the homilies against rebellion to comprehensive works of political science.3

This authoritarian school of criticism, anticipated by L. C. Knights and G. Wilson Knight, and extended by J. Dover Wilson, constructed its model of Elizabethan culture from a highly selective range of sources, arbitrarily privileged and tendentiously assembled. The sources drawn on are either works of government propaganda or of Tudor apology from the more conservative ‘organic intellectuals’ of the state (Tillyard asserts for instance that the Machievellian school of Italian humanist thought had no impact on English culture); or convenient details arbitrarily stripped from works which are by no means as reductively orthodox as Tillyard implies. These materials constitute a fair description of the dominant ideology of Elizabethan society: in no sense do they represent a complete or even adequate picture of the true complexity and contradictoriness of culture and ideology in this rapidly-changing, historically-transitional period. In the writings of Tillyard the plays derive their ‘historical’ character entirely from the very rigid ideological constrictions of their own time: they present the past as a mirror-image of the present; they speak of the history of the late sixteenth century rather than the history of the later middle ages; they are historical evidence rather than historiography.


In the last twenty years this model of Elizabethan culture has been thoroughly displaced. Historical scholarship has demonstrated, by researching more deeply into the cultural and ideological context of Tudor and Elizabethan England, that this ‘world-picture’, powerful and influential though it may have been, was only one dimension of Renaissance ideology, an official or orthodox world-view held, imposed and preached by church and state and by an organic establishment intelligentsia. In practice, Elizabethan culture was as diverse and as contradictory as could be expected of the culture of a rapidly-changing and at times turbulent historical period. Not every Elizabethan accepted the state's official ideology: there were Catholics who thought differently from Protestants, Puritans who thought differently from either, and not only about religion; there were apologists for absolute monarchy and opponents of it. This is more than just a way of saying that in any society there is likely to be a wide diversity of opinion about everything, more than a liberal celebration of cultural plurality: it is rather an insistence that in any society there are connected but separable and conflicting ideologies, dominant, residual and emergent; antagonistic and competing bodies of thought and systems of value, which in their perpetual struggle for political power constitute the complex and contradictory structure of a given historical conjuncture.

In particular these competing ideologies delivered different modes of understanding the past. As long ago as 1957 Irving Ribner wrote:

What Tillyard says of Shakespeare is largely true, but by limiting the goals of the serious history play within the narrow framework of Halle's particular view, he compresses the wide range of Elizabethan historical drama into entirely too narrow a compass. There were other schools of historiography in Elizabethan England. The providential history of Halle, in fact, represents a tradition which, when Shakespeare was writing, was already in decline.4

It was however the encyclopaedic chronicles of Halle and Holinshed, with their heritage of medieval providentialism, that Shakespeare tended to use as major sources for his English historical dramas; and before considering the importance of the different schools of historiography, those sources should be re-examined to determine whether or not they contain historiographical materials of sufficient complexity to engage the interests of an intellectual probably quite uncommitted to antiquated medieval theories of providential disposition; to establish whether the writing of history in the period prior to the emergence of the historical drama, though not as yet graduating to the sophistication and objectivity of the ‘new historiography’, was not more complex in practice than the medieval theories the historians sometimes espoused.

Sixteenth-century England was itself, of course, a period which experienced crises of the monarchy, though no supplanting of the Tudor dynasty. The historical period which, above all others, Tudor historiographers sought to analyse, that stretching from the death of Richard II to the accession of Henry VII (1399-1485)—the period given shape by Halle's Union and Shakespeare's two tetralogies—was much more notable for its dynastic changes and civil conflicts. A simple theological theory of history such as that outlined by Tillyard would have been singularly ill-adapted for understanding the battles, real and ideological, of those turbulent times; in fact the Tudor historians were not confined within any such simple and reductive theoretical framework. One writer who has helped to subvert the Tillyardian view is H. A. Kelly,5 who undertook a massive study of the Tudor historians and their own sources in fifteenth-century chronicles, to reveal some of the complexities underlying the whole Tudor historiographical enterprise. Kelly's main theme is the attempt to disprove that there was any general acceptance of providential theories of history in the Renaissance; and in the course of making this argument he uncovers much of interest and significance about Renaissance historical writing. Kelly shows that roughly three bodies of myth were generated in the period 1399-1485, and transmitted to the humanist historians of the early Renaissance—Polydore Vergil, Halle, Holinshed: a Lancastrian myth, a Yorkist myth (subsuming material sympathetic to Richard II), and a Tudor myth. When Richard fell, opinions were naturally divided between Ricardian and Lancastrian sympathisers: French chroniclers such as Froissart and Jean Creton wrote of Richard's fall as an unjust tragedy; while Thomas Walsingham gave a Lancastrian account—God punished Richard for the murder of Woodstock, and inspired Henry Bolingbroke's return from banishment. The Lancaster myth is summarised by Kelly:

The corrupt reign of Richard II was providentially overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, his cousin, who was next in line for the crown. God continued to bestow his benificence upon the new king until the end of his life, and showed his favour even more to his pious son, Henry V, and aided him in maintaining his sovereignty both in England and in France.6

The York myth reversed the Lancaster myth: the Lancastrians were usurpers who overthrew the rightful king; they were providentially deprived of their stolen crown by the divinely supported claim of the true heirs, the Yorkists. In the Tudor myth, the Lancastrian line was divinely vindicated and restored in the person of Henry VIII, the Yorkist usurpation punished, but with their royal pretensions appeased—the heiress Elizabeth joined in marriage to the inheritor of the Lancastrian right.

Tudor historians drew on these accounts, often in a judicious and discriminating way, creating their own interpretations from collation of their diversified sources. Polydore Vergil, for example, Halle's primary source, accepted some aspects of both the Lancastrian and Yorkist myths. He regarded Richard II as imprudent, though not deserving of the fate he encountered; but he didn’t condemn Henry IV, and regarded Henry V as the recipient of divine grace. Later he suggests that the loss of France after Henry V's death was providential—God was on France's side—and he admires Jeanne d’Arc; though there is no corresponding attack on Henry VI. An intelligent humanist account like Vergil's could choose from a wide range of interpretations and construct a narrative which, despite its attempt to subsume all these details into an overriding providential pattern, contains much awareness and evidence of the ideological conflicts which naturally characterised the period under discussion. This is so even in the chronicle of Halle, which is conventionally regarded as the major source of the providential theory of the history of England from 1399-1485, and of the Tudor myth. Halle in fact was himself extremely sceptical about providential explanations of history. And it is particularly the case in Holinshed, whose encyclopaedic method of compilation gives a very full representation to diverse and contradictory accounts.

Shakespeare's historical sources, then, were more complex than we often take them to be. Through their compilation of the ideological conflicts inscribed in the fifteenth-century chronicles, they offered to the Elizabethan dramatists a rich and detailed repository of historical evidence, the materials necessary for a more rational and objective understanding of the past.

The materials themselves, of course, were not enough: every ‘understanding’ of history is to some degree ideological, and the providential theory embodied in the Tudor myth was particularly adept at incorporating contradictions—no event, however unpredictable or apparently the result of an arbitrary and capricious chance, can resist explanation in terms of an overriding divine will, mediated through the complex machinery of ‘fortune’ and the ‘secondary causes’ of human action. A new historiography could not be constructed simply on the basis of a broader and more diverse reservoir of empirical evidence; for such materials to attain a new significance, they had to be incorporated into new theoretical models, new modes of conceptual analysis, new techniques of investigation and new methods of sociological definition.


Several post-Tillyard critics discussing the English history plays have observed that historiography in this period was not a passive reflector of medieval providential theology nor a loyal transmitter of Tudor political commonplace, but a varied and changing activity producing different and competing methods and forms. Providentialism was part of the cultural apparatus of medieval Christian Europe and, with the Reformation and consequent cultural isolation of the Tudor nation-state, lost its predominant position: compared with the theology of Aquinas the providentialism of the Tudor myth was a feeble affair, self-evidently apologetic, in its extreme form of Stuart absolutism ripe for interrogation and challenge by the Puritan idea of providence, which saw the course of history in quite different terms. ‘Modern’ historiography was established in the early seventeenth century in the writings of Bacon, Stow, Camden and Selden, in the studies of philologists, the curiosity of antiquarians, the passion and patronage of bibliophiles, the conscientiousness of public recordkeepers. From these varied roots grew the recognisable shape of secular, empiricist, progressive historiography, later to become ‘Whig’ history, later still to become visible as itself historically relative, inseparable from the ideological coherence of the bourgeois state. The period of the English Renaissance history play falls precisely between these decisive historical ‘breaks’, and represents inevitably a transitional period in which different ideas of history competed for dominance. The enormous success of the victorious historiography which emerged dominant after the Restoration should not be allowed to persuade us that it was always the only and inevitable historical method.

The old Christian providentialism continued to exert an influence upon even those writers whose findings increasingly seemed to contradict it, and it provided the Stuarts with the concept of divinely sanctioned monarchy which they developed into a defence of their legitimacy. It was giving way to the influence of Italian humanism, which brought a more secular and sceptical spirit of enquiry to bear on historical issues.7 Sir Thomas More's Historie of King Richard the Third (1513) followed the principles of Leonardo Bruni and his school: unlike Shakespeare's play, based on later sources, it has little to say of the operations of providence. Humanist history could be Christian, providential and apologetic, but its tendency was towards a more rationalist, secularised and positivist historiography. Where the medieval chronicles wrote of universal world history, beginning with the creation, treating indiscriminately historical events and biblical fictions, Italian humanists on the other hand wrote histories of their city-states, based on principles derived from classical historiography, observing sharp distinctions between truth and falsehood, rejecting myths of origin and studying historical records, glorifying the prince or oligarchy rather than God. The later Florentine school of Machievelli and Guicciardini, which made historiography a kind of political science, a method of harnessing history for the purposes of political instruction, also had a tangible impact on English writing, as testified by Bacon's Historie of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh (1622).

It has been argued, for example by Irving Ribner, that in Italian humanism, and particularly in the political science of Machievelli, we can see the shape of a ‘new history’ emerging in Shakespeare's plays. Contrary to Tillyard's providentialist orthodoxy, critics such as Moody E. Prior (in The Drama of Power, 1973) have argued that in plays like Richard II the traditional ‘providential’ ideas are shown giving way to a new ‘political’ understanding of history: the breakdown of an order reposing on providence and the emergence of a new regime deploying a flexible political pragmatism.8 Clearly this distinction has considerable value, and is particularly helpful in providing a more genuinely historical approach to Richard II. On the other hand, the thought of the humanists does not by any means represent an accomplished transition from a medieval to a modern historiography. As organic intellectuals of the new Renaissance state, the humanists were concerned with history as a source of moral instruction and political wisdom: with how a prince should rule, how a people should conduct itself, in the light of an intelligent and informed reading of history. This concern with practical utility and contemporary relevance gave humanism common cause with medieval providentialism: both, being committed to learning from history, were forced to assume that past societies were essentially no different from the present. The classical sources used by the humanists, as J. G. A. Pocock observes, ‘did not quite reach the point of postulating that there existed, in the past of their own civilisation, tracts of time in which the thoughts and actions of men had been so remote in character from those of the present as to be intelligible only if the entire world in which they had occurred were resurrected, described in detail and used to interpret them’.9 Pocock further suggests that the humanist enterprise was self-contradictory: their original purpose was to resurrect an ancient world as precisely as possible in order to apply its lessons to the present, but the world they recovered was so utterly unlike their own world that the task of application became increasingly difficult.

The emphasis on humanist historiography as a means of interpreting Shakespeare's history plays, though a definite advance on the providentialist orthodoxy, has led critics into a complicity with those ideologues of the Italian Renaissance and their English apostles. Bacon is not Shakespeare and yet the history plays have often been discussed in terms of an extremely abstract definition of ‘politics’, conceived not as the specific discourses and practices of power in a particular historical moment, but as a Machievellian system located in the universal shabbiness of political practices throughout the ages. In criticism of the late 1960s and 1970s, the providential organicism of post-war reconstruction gave way (especially in American academic circles) to a sceptical and pessimistic existentialism, prone to reduce politics to a series of dirty tricks characteristic of the degenerate but unchanging nature of abstract ‘society’. A curious effect of this cultural matrix, to some extent negating its intensified historicity, is to elide the contradictions between the medieval and Renaissance worlds: medieval pessimism and humanist pragmatism, adopting an equally cynical view of human life as fundamentally unchanging and unchangeable, are made to share a common discourse. In both philosophies change occurs relative to a larger stability—the universal power of God or the unchanging imperfection of man. In both, little significance or value can be attached to many human actions, for the willed and conscious actions of men are overdetermined by a predetermined fate or the subtle power of the ruler. At least one work of recent criticism is remarkable for its open embracing of these apparently remote ideologies: The Lost Garden (1978) by John Wilders begins by rejecting both the orthodox view of the plays as patterns of divine providence, and the counter-orthodoxy which constitutes the plays as humanistic treatises teaching the secular lessons of history to rulers and peoples. They embody, rather, ‘the expression of a consistently-held view of the human condition as one in which the solution of one problem creates problems of another kind, in which men thrive or suffer in ways which do not correspond to any ideal principles of justice, and choices are forced upon them, not between right and wrong, but between various courses of action all more or less unsatisfactory’. This theory of ‘the human condition’ was achieved by conflating the pessimism of Boethius and St Augustine with the sceptical pragmatism of Machievelli; the result could be incorporated into the theological doctrine of the Fall of Man. ‘Shakespeare portrays history as a struggle by succeeding generations of men to establish ideal worlds which are beyond their power to create … portraying in social and political terms the theological idea of a “fallen” humanity’.10


Meanwhile, in circumstances apparently remote from the colourful world of the public playhouse, ‘modern’ history was being created: making use of the advances in philological studies, the growth of book and manuscript collections, the increased efficiency in techniques of record keeping, the ‘antiquarians’ were developing a science of historiography, approaching the past through empirically verifiable evidence; interested in the past as fact, not as theological pattern, moral instruction or political wisdom. William Camden's patriotic national history Britannia (1586), John Stow's Survey of London (1598) a middle-class urban history, and John Selden's secularising History of Tithes (1618), which offered a naturalistic explanation of theologically sanctioned customs, can be regarded as landmarks in the growth of the new historiography. In the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the writing of history was approaching the point where the past would become visible as nothing more or less than ‘the history of man pursuing his ends’, a naturalistic rather than a providential process, and therefore subject to question and rational analysis; not a mirror-image of the present, but a lost world of experience as alien as the most distant foreign country.11

This latter point, which brings us to the heart of the argument, has to be approached with great delicacy. It would be foolish to underestimate, in this period or any other, the overpowering force of the universalist idea of human nature. If the Italian humanist could walk with ease and familiarity into the civilisations of Greece and Rome, what Elizabethan Englishman would be capable of recognising his own national history as in any way remote or foreign to his immediate experience? Camden wrote for the patriotic noble, Stow for the proud London bourgeois, both anxious to establish continuity with their own past, not to voyage into strange and uncharted seas of alien history. And yet it was in this very period that European scholars discovered and guessed at the most remarkable and disturbing feature of their history: the fact that, in the centuries between the fall of Rome and their own civilisation there had developed, flourished and decayed a unique and self-contained social formation, with its own peculiar economic and military systems, its own hierarchical social structure, its own individual codes of values and conventions of behaviour: feudalism.

It was in legal theory that this great breakthrough took place in England: in the developments of constitutional and jurisprudential thought characteristic of a period when questions of right and legitimate title, and debates on forms of government, were emerging into prominence and sharpening until they became life-or-death issues in the Civil War.12 The French humanist school of legal scholars in the sixteenth century attained a highly sophisticated understanding of feudal customs by studying the only written systematisation of feudal law, the Lombard Libri Feudorum. They succeeded in defining the central relationship of feudalism, and debated whether its origin should be traced back to Roman law or to the customs of Germanic barbarian tribes. A Scots historian, Sir Thomas Craig, who studied law in Paris in the late 1550s, applied the findings of the French scholars to his own country, arguing that feudal law had been established in England at the Norman Conquest, in Scotland a century earlier through an alliance with France, and remained the basis of all property law to the present day. Though he failed to recognise the passing of feudalism, Craig was able to recognise that in England the Norman Conquest succeeded in establishing an entirely new social form, wiping away all Anglo-Saxon law and custom. It was this acknowledgment of the possibility of fundamental social change—the realisation that a historically-constituted social structure could be created simply by military conquest, and could subsequently wither away leaving a legacy of custom and practice sustained by, but barely intelligible to, subsequent generations—that offered the most radical challenge to the dominant universalist ideas of permanence in human societies. In legal thought those ideas were embodied firmly in the institution of the English common law. Common Law is the law of custom and precedent: not a written body of theoretical doctrines or a systematised structure of legal rules, but an empirical assemblage of practices conceived as immemorial custom. The law was supposed to evolve organically, always changing but always the same, a premise which permitted the lawyer to read back existing law into the remote past, and hold that no radical constitutional change had ever taken place:

For the Common Law of England is nothing else but the Common Custom of the Realm, and a Custom which hath obtained the force of a Law is always said to be Jus non scriptum: for it cannot be made or created either by Charter, or by Parliament, which are Acts reduced to writing, and are always matter of Record: but being only matter of fact, and consisting in use and practice, it can be recorded and registered nowhere but in the memory of the people.13

The memory of the people is an unreliable historical record; and the ideologues of the Common Law held absolutely that the Norman Conquest, the one radical discontinuity in the nation's history, did not in fact change the native institutions. The laws of Anglo-Saxon England had been confirmed by William and maintained by his successors: this historical myth (initiated by the Normans themselves) became in the sixteenth century a means of denying the possibility of fundamental social change, in the past or in the future. The common law could of course be used as a parliamentary argument by identifying Parliament with immemorial custom in resistance to the royal prerogative. But defenders of the monarchy employed the same argument: there was certainly an immemorial law, and the king's prerogative was part of it. In the 1640s and 1650s the common-law constitutional position became identified with royalism: the best safeguard of an ancient constitution and an immemorial law was in fact the restoration of an ancient and immemorial monarchy. The progressive forces in the Civil War used the argument in an entirely different way: the Leveller theory of history insisted that the Norman Conquest had fundamentally changed the old native customs, by imposing a system of tyranny (the ‘Norman yoke’) on Anglo-Saxon representative institutions. And while common-law apologists like Sir Edward Coke believed that the law was immemorial,

What Walwyn, Lilburne and Winstanley said was the very reverse of this. Being engaged in a revolt against the whole existing structure of the common law, they declared that there had indeed been a Conquest; the existing law derived from the tyranny of the Conquerer and partook of the illegitimacy that had characterised his entire rule. Their historicism was not conservative. It was a radical criticism of existing society; the common-law myth stood on its head, as Marx said he had stood Hegel. Both parties indeed looked to the past and laid emphasis on the rights of Englishmen in the past, but what the common lawyers described was the unbroken continuity between past and present, which alone gave justification to the present; while the radicals were talking of a golden age, a lost paradise in which Englishmen had enjoyed liberties that had been taken from them and must be restored.14

The great English discoverer of feudalism was Sir Henry Spelman, an antiquarian whose scattered writings were haphazardly published between 1626 and 1721.15 Spelman's research produced a comprehensive description of feudal relationships, customs and institutions, and also offered a historical view of feudal society as a system introduced into England in the eleventh century and decaying in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: once history revealed the existence of freeholders attending Parliament, voluntarily rather than in fulfilment of a statutory obligation to the king, feudal relations were visibly, at that point, a thing of the past.


While it is possible with confidence to ascribe the origins of Shakespeare's historical plays to the Tudor chronicles and the humanist histories, there is no possibility of postulating such a cause-and-effect relation between the new historical ideas and the drama; and to argue that the plays express a seventeenth-century historical consciousness will seem a very unhistorical procedure, inevitably drawing the charge of anachronism. In addition, the diverse cultural spaces occupied by those different activities will seem so remote as to defy identification: what connection could there be between the antiquarian historiographer, laboriously and conscientiously researching the dusty records of the past and preserving them for posterity—and the busy professional dramatist, writing quickly and carelessly for a showy and ephemeral medium of entertainment? But what we call literature is not merely the effect of a cause, and historical drama is not a mere reflection of a discourse which can claim greater authenticity by virtue of its proximity to the ‘real’ of history. Shakespeare's historical plays are not just reflections of a cultural debate: they are interventions in that debate, contributions to the historiographical effort to reconstruct the past and discover the methods and principles of that reconstruction. They are as much locations of historical controversy as the history books: they are, in themselves and not derivatively, historiography. We cannot establish whether or not Shakespeare was familiar with new currents of historical thought; but we cannot establish, except by inferring from the plays, precisely what ‘he’ thought about anything. We can only say that ‘he’ wrote his plays in a critical and transitional epoch of his national history, a few decades before that history was to be put in fundamental question by the greatest historical upheaval since the Norman Conquest; and we can attempt to maintain, by practical demonstration, that the plays can be read as serious attempts to reconstruct and theorise the past—as major initiatives of Renaissance historical thought.

I am proposing, and will be attempting to demonstrate, that these plays embody a conscious understanding of feudal society as a peculiar historical formation, revealing unique cultural characteristics, codes of value, conventions of manners, based on particular structures of political organisation and social relationship. This ‘understanding’ should not be exaggeratedly identified with the discoveries of a historical scientist like Spelman or with the radical speculations of a theoretician like Winstanley: we will find no attempt in Shakespeare to establish the origins of the feudum, or to define precisely the links between land tenure and military service; nor will we find any characterisation of the post-feudal ruling class as Norman tyrants—they are very definitely English, and Henry V has barely mastered the basics of French grammar. What the plays offer is rather a form of historiography analogous to the new science, in that it perceives human problems and experiences to be located within a definable historical form, a society visibly different in fundamental ways from the society of the late sixteenth century. That assertion in itself will require demonstration since the orthodox historicism of post-Tillyard criticism insists so firmly on the rudimentary character of Renaissance historiography that we will consider it very unlikely that a thoughtful Elizabethan would have been able to draw any firm historical distinction between the kingship of Edward III and that of Elizabeth; between the punctilious pride of a Renaissance noble and the ‘honour’ of a feudal knight; between the crusades and the war against Catholicism, the Turk and the Spaniard; between the blood-feud and the duel. I will be attempting to prove in a brief discussion of Henry V that despite the sixteenth century's inheritance of a visible legacy of feudalism, there is no question of the plays confusing the present with the past, the modern national sovereign of a Renaissance state with the warrior-king of a feudal society.


In defining and describing these three historical methods—the chronicle-compilation with its providential theory and encyclopaedic practice; the didactic political science of humanism; and the ‘new history’, with its discovery of the pastness of the past—we have not entirely exhausted the diversified currents of English Renaissance historiography. The three ‘schools’ already mentioned will serve to characterise the historiography of a certain type of history play such as Richard II; but the approach to a play like Henry IV Part One cannot proceed without acknowledging other, more venerable modes of historical discourse.

Richard II represents a distinct type of historical drama, remarkable for its strict adherence to historical sources: in this respect it resembles Marlowe's Edward II, since in both plays action and incident are drawn largely or exclusively from written historiographical materials. However elaborate and innovative the dramatisation and poetic stylising, the events and characters (with a few minor exceptions, such as the gardeners in Richard II), follow those authenticated as historically accurate by the chronicles. Such plays derive from and are inextricably involved with a highly literate culture: they dramatise what has already been written, they speak to those already familiar with the literary discourses of historiography, with Halle and Holinshed. This fact has its implications for the plays' visions of history: they are necessarily deterministic, since they record a finished historical narrative cast into permanence by the fixity of the written word, a chronological sequence of events which admits of no change or fundamental reconstruction. Obviously Marlowe and Shakespeare reshaped their historical materials to create new narrative and dramatic patterns, but they observed, in these plays, a strict adherence to the authoritative diktat of the written historiographical text. It is natural then that these works should be tragic: in the secularising Renaissance drama tragic nemesis and historical determinism begin to share a common discourse. In Marlowe's Edward II, Shakespeare's Richard II and Henry VI, images of flight and recapture symbolise the helplessness of the individual confronted by the ineluctable tyranny of history, the inescapable determination of the unalterable past.

The genre of the Renaissance history play was, however, considerably more elastic and flexible than the deterministic medium of these literary tragedies. It contains plays in which the style of historiographical drama interacts with older modes, with the conventions of romance and the manners of comedy. In such plays the historical drama reveals itself as very much a popular genre, often acknowledging by its themes and situations an origin on the public stages of citizen London. It did not recognise the absolute authority of the chronicles, maintaining a freedom to invent actions and situations without precedent, or quite unthinkable, in written history. Its sources were less the written chronicles, more materials from a still largely oral popular culture—ballads, romances, songs and stories incorporating legends, folk-tales, fairy-stories, myths. It represents an older kind of history, still indeed visible in the Tudor chronicles, in which the rich and varied fantasy worlds of myth and legend consort with the new positivism of historical narrative. In historical medleys such as James IV and also Edward I, historical characters mingle with citizens and figures of legend such as Robin Hood and Maid Marian. It was in fact this genre which produced the dominant tradition for the dramatic representation of Henry V: a comic tradition, in which the king's ‘riotous youth’ is used positively as a means of humanising the monarch. This king is not so much the hero of Agincourt as the good fellow of Eastcheap; not the mirror of all Christian kings, but the prince of carnival. In Dekker's The Shoemakers Holiday (1599), a carnival play based on the London apprentices' Shrove Tuesday Saturnalia, Henry V appears as a ‘bully king’ who associates freely with citizens and apprentices, dispenses justice and equality, resolves conflict and promotes harmony. The King does not pose as a common man, but acts like one; and Simon Eyre, the ‘madcap’ Lord Mayor, humorously claims ‘princely birth’—an inversion of social roles characteristic of carnival and festive, saturnalian comedy. The main source for the Henry IV and Henry V plays, the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, is mainly in the comic mode.

Anne Barton has discussed in an illuminating article16 the relation of Henry V to the comic history; and called attention to the most striking emblem of this drama's freedom from the determinism of historical event, the motif of the ‘king disguised’. Most of the romance and comic histories contain a king who poses as a common man and mingles with a varied company of folk heroes and common citizens, the outlaws of Sherwood forest or the shoemakers of London. In the tragic history, disguise is a hopeless attempt to evade the inevitable—capture, imprisonment, death: the king's tragic destiny written inexorably into the unchangeable past (cp. Henry VI). In the comic history disguise is a liberation: it dispenses with the distances of class and hierarchy separating the king from his common people, and enables a direct rapprochement (usually complicated by comic misunderstanding) between monarch and subject. Anne Barton quotes from Maurice Keen's The Outlaws of Mediaeval Legend, which sees the ‘informal meeting of commoner and king’ as ‘the wishdream of a peasantry harried by a new class of officials, an impersonal bureaucracy against which the ordinary man seemed to have no redress’:

They only knew that the king was the ultimate repository of a law whose justice they acknowledged, and they saw treason against him as a betrayal of their allegiance to God himself. If they could only get past his corrupt officers, whose abuse of the trust reposed in them amounted to treason in itself, and bring their case before the king, they believed that right would be done. Their unshakeable faith in the king's own justice was the most tragic of the misconceptions of the mediaeval peasantry, and the ballad-makers and their audiences shared it to the full.17

The motif of the disguised king certainly originates from that historical conjuncture: but the image of a king humanised, crossing barriers of hierarchy and class to mingle freely with his subjects in mutual affection and concord, seems almost endemic to the ideology of monarchy itself: it has its modern counterpart in that popular curiosity about the lives of the royal family, which mingles a gratified welcome at their revealed humanity with a malicious and cynical contempt at their descending to the level of their own ‘subjects’. But there is also a strong egalitarian impulse behind this wish to confront the ruler directly, man to man—to be able to explain the abuses, demonstrate the social evils which the monarch would surely redress if only he could be made aware. A tragic misconception, certainly, but scarcely a futile one: it was the programme of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the ambition of the Blanketeers' March of 1816, the slogan of the 1930s Hunger Marches and of the ‘Right to Work’ marches of today.

It is misleading to explain such a mixed form in terms of a single ideology; the style is more a receptacle for varied and possibly even antagonistic ideologies to interact. Perhaps the primary ideological function of such drama was to endorse monarchy—to propose that the rigidity of hierarchical social relations concealed the true equality of king and subject, ruler and ruled. But the romance mode of such plays could also function quite differently: by posing an ideal commonwealth in romantic-comic terms, a play could differentiate sharply between its own self-evidently fantastic world and the reality its fantasy denied. Anne Barton attaches the plays too firmly to that peasant ideology (which could scarcely have had much currency in the London of the 1590s); and consequently underestimates those potentialities of the comic romance which Shakespeare exploited most strikingly in Henry IV:

By 1599, the comical history was a consciously reactionary, an outdated dramatic mode …18

In fact Barton does not acknowledge the comic history genre to be active in Shakespeare's plays at all. Rather, she differentiates sharply between the comical history and Shakespeare's essentially tragic history, showing that in Henry V the king attempts to implement the rapprochement of monarch and subject but fails, for he is caught in an insoluble contradiction between the king's personal and his public natures. The later play The True and Honourable History of Sir John Oldcastle, by contrast, turns Shakespeare's tragic history back into comic romance:

As it was defined by Shakespeare, the tragical history became a serious, and politically somewhat incendiary, examination into the nature of kingship.19

This differentiation of ideological functions between the separate categories of historiographical drama is unsatisfactory. The tragic history, with its submission to the deterministic authority of written historiography, certainly represents a new secular positivism associated with the new priorities of the Tudor state, reflecting the new humanistic status of history and of the written word. But it would be unwise to categorise every cultural development of that state as necessarily ‘progressive’. The Tudor construction of a positivistic historiography, initiated by Henry VII, was certainly an instrumental factor in the consolidation of the Tudor state apparatus, and it was also a method of imposing new and increasingly sharp ideological constraints on the human understanding of the past: history became necessity, and the outcome of necessity the Tudor dynasty. The determinism of the tragic history foreclosed on the liberty of the comic history play; evidently Shakespeare recognised this process, since he moved from the pure chronicle-play style to a drama constructed on a confrontation of chronicle and popularcomic historical discourses. In Henry IV, it is actually the popular tradition which points to a progressive, egalitarian and democratic tendency: an oppositional energy which is gradually narrowed, controlled and ultimately destroyed by the necessitarianism of chronicle drama.

The comic history, then, is a mixed mode, without the stylistic consistency of the chronicle play. It is fantastic and utopian rather than realistic and historically accurate. It is a popular form, which makes free use of the conventions of drama, and thereby provides a space of freedom from event, from the necessity of a complete history; thus a historical character can be liberated from his historical destiny, can play roles not dictated to him by the written authority of history. It is festive and saturnalian in character—the mighty are put down from their seats, and those of low degree exalted. The plays are written and performed as popular entertainment: they make much use of song, dance, popular pastime and holiday custom. They are a contradictory fusion of chronicle and carnival.

Henry IV is a ‘mixed’ type of drama not only in Coleridge's sense of the fusion of comedy with history; but in its rapprochement of popular and patrician discourses. Broadly speaking, the central figure of the chronicle-history dimension is the king himself, and the central pre-occupation is an extension of the historical narrative commenced in Richard II. The popular-comic-history element is dominated by the figure of Falstaff, centre of an oppositional play of comic energies. Prince Hal straddles the two dimensions and seeks reconciliation between them, a reconciliation achieved at the end of Henry IV Part One, and broken at the conclusion to Part Two.


Shakespeare's plays of English history are chronicles of feudalism: they offer empirical reconstruction and theoretical analysis of a social formation firmly located in the past, and distinctly severed from the contemporary world. In this historiographical reconstruction, which focuses on the decline of feudalism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, society is seen as a historical formation built on certain fundamental contradictions, and incapable of resolving or overcoming them within the framework of political and ideological determinants provided by the historical basis itself. As the vision of feudal society is historically specific, the disclosure of contradictions cannot be defined as reversion to medieval pessimism or a compliance with machievellian pragmatism: if a conception of the past admits the possibility of fundamental social change, the contradictions of a particular historical formation cannot be identified with ‘the human condition’; and an acknowledgment of distance between past and present confirms that a society's contradictions can be resolved or negated simply by the fact of radical and irreversible social change.

In the sixteenth century this recognition of historical relativity was a progressive development: the consciousness of a new society awakening to the fact of past transformation, the possibility of future change. Inevitably, however, the progressive quality of this discovery was equally relative to the limitations and contradictions of the emergent social formation, the nascent capitalist state. A few years after Shakespeare's death the transitional society of the Tudor state was overthrown by a bourgeois revolution, which required for its ideological constitution a historiography based on the principle of change. The bourgeois revolution accomplished, the alliance between old and new ruling classes required a conservative historiography, to secure ideological stability by insisting on the gradualist, evolutionary nature of social change: the revolutionary historiography of Milton and Winstanley was smoothly incorporated into the moderate empiricism of ‘Whig’ history.

Shakespeare's direct analysis of feudalism in Richard II seems to be accomplished within the context of this ‘new’ historiography: both the providential and the pragmatic views of history are strategically manipulated within the framework of a theory conscious of the relativity of both. The historical approach is progressive insofar as it locates its problems in a self-contained society of the past, neither idealised nor regretted but objectively analysed and evaluated. But the play is also potentially reactionary, since its combination of tragic form and literate, deterministic historiography can too easily collapse into a resigned pessimism where ‘mutability’, without its parent principle of universal order, becomes an appropriate metaphor for the ‘human condition’. Perhaps it was a growing dissatisfaction with the tragic determinism of the literary chronicle-drama that induced Shakespeare to bring into play a force capable of challenging it, a popular and comic mode of historical drama which challenges deterministic historiography with the utopian purity of an inflexible and unqualified demand for freedom. The new historiography was in fact emergent bourgeois historiography, and in Henry IV Part One an older popular culture is invoked to interrogate the terms on which that historiography was constructing both the past and the present.


  1. See for example John Wilders, The Lost Garden (London, Macmillan, 1978), discussed below p. 26.

  2. See Alfred Harbage, As They Liked It (New York, 1947), pp. 123-5.

  3. See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944).

  4. Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 12.

  5. H. A. Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970)

  6. Ibid., p. 36.

  7. See for example Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1947), pp. 59-60.

  8. Moody E. Prior, The Drama of Power, (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973). To some extent Prior's book is an extension of the arguments of L. C. Knights and Derek Traversi, though his attempt to relate intellectual currents in the plays to contemporary Renaissance ideas was an innovatory intervention.

  9. J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1957), p. 1.

  10. Wilders, The Lost Garden, p. 9.

  11. See F. Smith Fussner, The Historical Revolution (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962).

  12. See Pocock, The Ancient Constitution, passim.

  13. Sir John Davies: ‘Dedication’ to Irish Reports (Les Reports des Cases et Matters en Ley, Resolves et Adjudges en les Courts del Roy en Ireland), London, 1674. (The spelling and punctuation of quotations from sixteenth and seventeenth century sources have been modernised throughout).

  14. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution, p. 126.

  15. Ibid., p. 93.

  16. Anne Barton, ‘The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History’, in Joseph G. Price (ed.), The Triple Bond (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975).

  17. Ibid., p. 97, quoting from Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Mediaeval Legend (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961).

  18. Barton: ‘The King Disguised’, p. 111.

  19. Ibid., p. 116.

Select Bibliography

Barton, Anne, ‘The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History’ in Joseph G. Price (ed.), The Triple Bond (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975)

Campbell, Lily B., Shakespeare's Histories (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1947)

Davies, Sir John, ‘Dedication’ to Irish Reports (Les Reports des Cases et Matters en Ley, Resolves et Adjudges en les Courts del Roy en Ireland (London, 1674)

Fussner, F. Smith, The Historical Revolution (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962)

Harbage, Alfred, As They Liked It (New York, 1947)

Keen, Maurice, The Outlaws of Mediaeval Legend (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961)

Kelly, H. A., Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1970)

Pocock, J. G. A., The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1957)

Prior, Moody E., The Drama of Power (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973)

Ribner, Irving, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957)

Tillyard, E. M. W., Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944)

Wilders, John, The Lost Garden (London: Macmillan, 1978)

Matthew H. Wikander (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18905

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Dramatic Historiography: I Henry IV to Henry VIII,” in The Play of Truth and State: Historical Drama from Shakespeare to Brecht, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 13-49.

[In the following essay, Wikander examines the nature of Shakespeare's historiography in the English history plays, demonstrating the way in which Shakespeare incorporated elements of the medieval, providential view of history and humanist historiography in his approach to English history.]


Right in the middle of I Henry IV a memorable sequence of three scenes—the tavern scene (II.iv), the Welsh scene (III.i), and the royal interview (III.ii)—forces the audience into a shift of attitude essential to the play's success as a dramatization of the English past. The range of response Shakespeare demands is astonishing: in the tavern scene, the tired slapstick of baiting Francis gives way to the exuberance of Falstaff's boasts, the half-serious, half-comic rehearsal for Hal's interview with the king, and finally the muted comedy of ransacking the sleeping fat man's pockets. The Welsh scene is as various as the tavern scene. Hotspur provokes Glendower into monstrous Falstaffian boasts, all in good fun until tempers flare over the division of the map; peace and quiet descend as the Welsh lady sings. Hard upon her strange lyricism follow the stately rhythms of the royal interview and Hal's self-dramatization, before a wholly serious audience this time, as returned prodigal, hero, and warrior-prince. The audience's laughter must give way, at the end of this sequence, to an endorsement, however qualified, of Hal's vow to kill Hotspur and win his honors.

The prince's effort to convince the king of his good faith is equally Shakespeare's effort to convince the audience to accept his difficult and confusing portrait of the prince. The techniques employed here are characteristic of Shakespeare's dramatic construction, especially the tripartite design in which analogous situations in a beginning (the tavern) and an end (the interview) are played off against each other and also against an apparently unrelated middle (Wales). Hence the true prince / false thief dichotomies spoofed by Falstaff receive utterly serious expression after, rather than before, their comic deflation. Hal's promise to tear a “reckoning” from Percy's heart follows our last view of him searching Falstaff's pockets, exclaiming over unpaid bills, and promising to pay back with advantage the money stolen at Gadshill. Both promises recall, with enriching ironies, Hal's troublesome soliloquy, his paradoxical vow to “pay the debt [he] never promised” (I.ii.197) and his theatrical challenge to the audience: “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill / Redeeming time when men think least I will” (lines 204-5).1 Between the two scenes in which Hal figures, we see Hotspur quibbling over a contract.

Fathers confront sons in all three scenes. Falstaff plays father and son to Hal, and Hal plays himself and his father. The same reversals and readjustments animate the royal interview, as Hal offers to “Be more myself” (III.ii.92). In between, just after Hal, in mockery—with serious overtones—has banished his grey-beard Satan, we see Hotspur, his father curiously not present (and he will be absent again at the play's end) match wits with a self-avowed Satanist (undoubtedly bearded) only to be brought to heel by that “notorious misleader of youth,” Worcester. Worcester's mixture of Machiavellism and fatherly advice carries over into the king's advice to his son.

The thematic, structural, and theatrical centrality of these three scenes to I Henry IV cannot be denied, whether we call them the central triptych (with Mark Rose), the climactic plateau (with Bernard Beckerman), a sequence of mirror-scenes (with Hereward T. Price), or merely a Freytagian turning point.2 In all the critical attention that has been lavished on the play, the Welsh scene has been somewhat slighted; partly to redress the balance, we can use this scene as a key to understanding I Henry IV and as an epitome of Shakespeare's historical drama. Hotspur's appeal to an audience must be subordinated to the larger design of the whole play, and the subordination takes place here, in a scene most frequently characterized as a kind of intermission, an interlude instructive of the folly of civil division, a lull before the storm.3

As the central scene in the central sequence of scenes in the play, however, III.i should be expected to reach out beyond the system of echoes and anticipations that link it to II.iv and III.ii. Given the centrifugal nature of Shakespeare's art, we should be surprised if the scene did not. Glendower, who appears only here, in a magnificent gust of theatrical exuberance, is talked about throughout the play. His fantastic speech and appearance make his failure to show up at Shrewsbury as much a theatrical disappointment to the audience as it is a political disappointment to the rebels. His eccentricity, for a few moments, challenges Falstaff's. Also introduced here, and vitally important to the politics of the play, is Mortimer, as pale and languid a presence as Glendower is vivid. As “next of blood” whose claim to the throne supposedly legitimizes the rebellion, he should be of great interest to an audience. In a play so full of counterfeit kings, here apparent heirs apparent, and thieves of thrones, one would expect Mortimer to take his proper place among the false princes and player kings. It is perhaps revealing that he does not.

But the linkage of the scene to the design of the play has to be tighter than its mere presentation of two figures much discussed by other characters. Shakespeare's usual practice is to anticipate a play's center in its beginning, echo it at the end. Wales looms distressingly large in both. “A post from Wales” (I.i.37) breaks off the council's discussion of Henry's favorite project, a penitential and politically desirable crusade. Welsh troubles cloud the horizon at the end of the play; Glendower's absence from the field at Shrewsbury means that while the battle may be won, the war is not. “Myself and you, son Harry, will towards Wales,” says the king, “To fight with Glendower and the Earl of March” (V.v.39-40). Wales becomes a metaphoric backdrop against which the rest of the play's English action takes place. The play's Welsh frame suggests that the problems that have frighted peace at the beginning remain to be solved at the end.4

Wales is particularly important as an idea in I Henry IV because it is nominally Hal's principality. The title itself becomes the name for Hal's reformed personality. “Tell your nephew,” he instructs the unreliable Worcester, “The Prince of Wales doth join with all the world / In praise of Henry Percy” (V.i.85-87). The name enhances the formality of the challenge. Throughout the final act of the play, Hal insists upon it. With another direct echo of his soliloquy in I.ii, he pounces on the Douglas and rescues his fainting father: “It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee, / Who never promiseth but he means to pay” (V.iv.41-42). Again, in the confrontation with Hotspur, the name becomes all-important: “Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name,” he answers to Hotspur's denigratory reference to him as Harry Monmouth (V.iv.60). His challenge to his rival is itself a formal assertion of identity:

I am the Prince of Wales, and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more.
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.


James Black has suggested that the “favors” (line 95) that Hal lays on Hotspur's face are the traditional emblems of his principality: the ostrich feathers associated with the motto ich dien (“I serve”). Hal's reformation is, at this point, emblematically complete.5

One of several ironies attendant upon this emphatic identification of Hal not only as Prince of Wales but as a Welsh prince (picked up later in Henry V) would be more immediately apparent to an audience member familiar with Holinshed and the Mirror for Magistrates than it is to us. In response to the tradition of Merlin prophecies derided by Hotspur in III.i (but Percy gets them confused6), the historical Owen Glendower had had himself named Prince of Wales by a rebel Welsh parliament in 1404. The historical Prince Henry had been given the title in 1401, but of Wales a French observer reported “I think he must conquer it if he will have it.”7 Shakespeare deliberately obscures the political situation in Hal's Wales in favor of a larger metaphoric significance. But the emphasis on the Welshness of Glendower and the reference, through Hotspur, to the vaticinatory tradition to which Owen Tudor and Henry VII also appealed provides the central scene of I Henry IV with a Tudor resonance.8 Harry Monmouth becomes by extension a true Tudor prince; Glendower, a monstrous counterfeit.

Wales stands not only outside the play's politics but also outside civilization itself. Our first news from there suggests brutality of a most savage kind. The fate of Mortimer's troops—

Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse,
Such beastly shameless transformation,
By those Welshwomen done as may not be
Without much shame retold or spoken of


—may draw no strong response from the king, but it establishes Wales in an audience's mind as a primitive, horrible place. Black has pointed out that the wound that Falstaff inflicts upon the dead Hotspur's “thigh” is a visual enactment of the Welsh women's mutilations, reinforcing an identification between rude Glendower and Falstaff.9 Hotspur derides Welsh language as crude—Glendower's translation and the Welsh lady's song belie him—and jokes that “the devil understands Welsh.” His last remark rings truer than he knows.

Precisely where in Wales the scene takes place has puzzled Shakespeare's editors since Nicholas Rowe. The Tripartite Indenture was signed by Glendower, Mortimer, and Northumberland after the battle of Shrewsbury at the house of the archdeacon of Bangor, so this traditional stage direction is obviously incorrect. There is no historical source for an agreement before Shrewsbury involving Hotspur.10 While we are clearly on Glendower's turf, this is a metaphorical Wales, set apart from the rest of the play by tradition and suggestion as a location for the enactment of moralized spectacle.

In fact, this Wales is something of a theater. “These promises are fair, the parties sure, / And our induction full of prosperous hope,” intones Mortimer (III.i.1-2). The language suggests a self-contained playlet. Unlike the world of the court, bustling with news, or the world of Falstaff, rowdy and idle, the world of the Welsh scene is magical, ancient, primitive. Glendower's musicians, at the end, “hang in the air” (unless we remember that they are sitting in a gallery above the stage). “A plague upon it,” says Hotspur, “I have forgot the map” (lines 4-5), and the remark begs emblematic interpretation.

Glendower produces the map (by sleight of hand?), and the fencing begins. His long-winded compliment draws from Hotspur a cleverly disguised insult in response: “And you in hell, as oft he hears Owen Glendower spoke of” (line II.). The language of heaven and hell may remind us of Falstaff's unholy trinity—“that fiend Douglas, that spirit Percy, and that devil Glendower” (II.iv.351)—and it persists in Glendower's blasphemous boasts about his “nativity.” Hotspur attempts to bring the scene back down to earth with medical, rationalistic explanations (“Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth / In strange eruptions,” lines 27-28), which draw laughter partly because of their common sense but mostly because of their veiled scatology. Glendower's wrath and boasts mount; Hotspur threatens to go to dinner; Mortimer must intervene.

A few observations about this first portion of the scene are in order. First, the comic sparring has its political dimension: this is a struggle for dominance in the rebel camp, another falling-out among thieves. Further, it reminds us in its give-and-take of the interaction between Falstaff and the prince. Glendower's insistence upon a supernatural birth and a miraculous life that exempts him from “the roll of common men” (line 43) is a curious exaggeration of Falstaff's doctrine of “instinct. The lion will not touch the true prince” (II.iv.257). Bearing in mind Glendower's identity in the Mirror as an impostor Prince of Wales, we can see in Glendower's claims of astronomical portents at his birth a challenge to Hal's vision of himself in his soliloquy as a restorer of astronomical regularity, imitating the sun. King Henry calls the armies of civil war “meteors of a troubled heaven” (I.i.10). As both sun of heaven and son of England it is Hal's job, Falstaff suggests, to resolve cosmic and civil unrest:

Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries?
A question not to be asked. Shall the son of England prove a thief and take
purses? A question to be asked.


The mingling of comic and serious, public and private, cosmic and domestic in the tavern scene receives further expansion and qualification in the posturing of Glendower.

The relationship of II.iv to III.i is one of what Robert Merrix and Arthur Polacas call “proleptic parody”; the relationship becomes more complex, however, when we realize that both scenes stand together as parodic anticipations of III.ii, the royal interview.11 Bardolph, for example, anticipates Glendower:

My lord, do you see these meteors? Do you behold these exhalations?
Prince: I do.
Bardolph: What think you they portend?


Like the Welsh magician, Bardolph invokes menacing portents; like Hotspur, the prince deflates his rhetoric with a medical image: “Hot livers and cold purses” (line 307). “Choler, my lord, if rightly taken” (line 308), responds Bardolph, with mounting anger. “No, if rightly taken, halter” (line 309) is the prince's answer, an anticipation (like “I do”) of the sudden change into seriousness that marks his vow (“I do, I will”) to banish Falstaff later in the scene. The language of portents—and the danger of trifling with them—recurs with multiple irony in III.ii as the king describes his own miraculous popularity:

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But, like a comet, I was wond’red at;
That men would tell their children, “This is he!”
Others would say, “Where? Which is Bolingbroke?”


Verbal echoes (“seldom seen” / “wond’red at”) link the king's speech back to Hal's soliloquy; Hal promises to imitate, not a comet, but the sun. Association back to the tavern scene and the Welsh scene suggest links between the king and Bardolph, Glendower, Falstaff, and the meteors of civil war.

Bardolph's “choler” and the “halter” awaiting him have another proleptic function, too, in suggesting the fate that awaits the choleric Hotspur. Hotspur's temper flares and spoils his teasing of Glendower: “I think there's no man speaks better Welsh. I’ll to dinner” (III.i.50). The lame joke heightens the tension, and as Mortimer vainly attempts to make peace, Hotspur recovers to get off his best joke yet:

Glendower: I can call spirits
from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why so can I, or so can
any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

(lines 53-55)

Glendower's alliance with the powers of darkness—treated lightly in II.iv but no joke to Henry and his messengers in I.i and I.iii—is here openly mocked. If Falstaff as a “white-bearded Satan” (II.iv.440) anticipates the Welsh magician, Hotspur imitates Hal. He forthrightly dismisses the evil old man—“O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!” (line 62)—just as Hal promises to banish plump Jack. To Mortimer, this is “unprofitable chat” (line 63).

Glendower, however, shifts from demonic boasts to military ones. His account of his victories over Henry comes straight out of the chronicles (although, again, we can quibble about dates: one of the defeats has yet to happen). In effect, he has been shamed into telling truth. Hotspur has won the first point, but Glendower now shifts strategies: “Come, here is the map” (line 70). The negotiations that follow take on a distinctly Faustian coloring.

For Shakespeare has clothed the historical Glendower in diabolic robes. From the first, the “shameless transformation” performed by the Welsh women has had its overtones of witchcraft; Mortimer's marriage is narrated by Henry in a way that suggests enchantment. In Glendower's conflicting claims that he is self-taught (“Where is he living … which calls me pupil or hath read to me,” lines 44, 46) and that he was “trained up in the English court” (line 123), we can hear an echo of the equivocating Lucifer of the mystery plays, who instead of framing ditties with the other angels conspires against God's throne and falls from the sky like a meteor or comet.12 Hal, as Prince of Wales, “never promiseth but he means to pay” (V.iv.42); Glendower's “promises are fair” (III.i.1), but he never arrives at Shrewsbury. The chronicles tell us he was never expected there; in Shakespeare, “overruled by prophecies” (IV.iv.18), he deliberately stays at home. Glendower's language, too, is charged with images of night and chaos. The conspirators “must steal and take no leave” (III.i.93) from their wives: we may recall Falstaff's perverse proposal to rename thieves “Diana's foresters … minions of the moon … under whose countenance we steal” (I.ii.27). “The moon shines fair, you may away by night,” promises Glendower, later in the scene (III.i.140). He emphasizes the wild passion of Hotspur's and Mortimer's wives; their tears of parting become an apocalyptic “world of water shed” (line 94).

Thus, through charged language, echoes of medieval tradition, and distortion of source material, Owen Glendower becomes transformed into a devil. The process is analogous to the creation of Falstaff from padding and old theatrical traditions.13 The next action of the scene, the quarrel over the map, also has a long tradition behind it. From Gorboduc on, division of the kingdom had been an unpleasant thing for Elizabethan theatergoers to watch. When Richard II, in Woodstock, asks his sycophants to “reach me the map” (IV.i.220) so that he can divide the plundered realm among them, he marks himself an irresponsible leader, following in the foolish steps of Gorboduc and the King Leir of chronicle and stage. “All this division business is fictious,” fulminated A. P. Rossiter in his edition of Woodstock. So is this division: the signers of the real Tripartite Indenture “planned to slice the country into petty kingdoms,” but Hotspur, already dead, was not among them.14 Yet it is Hotspur in this scene who quarrels most, sacrificing much audience sympathy as he behaves like a greedy child, even to the point of endorsing Worcester's inflammatory suggestion of diverting the channel with “a little charge” (line 112). Disregard for the unity of the land, dramatized by dividing the map and urging explosive alterations, evokes all the horror of civil war.

After a seemingly pointless discussion of poetry with Hotspur, Glendower gives way, and Hotspur praises himself as a sharp bargainer: “But in the way of bargain, mark ye me, / I’ll cavil on the ninth part of a hair” (lines 137-38). The Faustian folly of this is clear enough, and the discussion of court poetry condemns Hotspur yet further. Glendower may be a fallen court poet, but Hotspur's repudiation of his language is too broad. The problem with his insensitivity becomes clear after Glendower has left to fetch the ladies—and “haste the writer” (line 141) of the pact. In his impatience, Hotspur derides the Welsh prophecies as “skimble-skamble stuff” (line 152). To a Tudor audience, however, the Welsh tradition is not to be taken lightly, and Hotspur has failed to realize how dangerously misapplied it is in this situation. Misreading of Merlin is no longer possible after Henry VII.15

But Hotspur's error is greater than this. He goes on to recount dozing off while Glendower chanted “the several devils' names / That were his lackeys” (lines 155-56). This is dangerous neglect at any time. Mortimer's praise of his “worthy” father-in-law (“profited / in strange concealments … bountiful / As mines of India,” lines 164-67) is full of exotic menace. Yet Mortimer is under Glendower's spell—as we see later on—and he has it backwards:

I warrant you that man is not alive
Might so have tempted him as you have done
Without the taste of danger and reproof.

(lines 171-73)

Reproof will come at Shrewsbury. And the temptation remains at hand: playing Mephistophilis to Glendower's Lucifer is Worcester.

His only previous contribution to the scene has been the proposal to turn Trent with explosives. Otherwise he has stood silent by, watching.16 Now he moves in to instruct Hotspur in “good manners” (as Hotspur calls them). His instruction anticipates the lesson in Machiavellian image management that the king will offer Hal, a prince who, as we know from the soliloquy, needs no such instruction. Hal's skillful offense is part of a program; his fault serves as foil to a planned and promised reformation. Hotspur's faults taint rather than set off his goodness, and Worcester must warn him of the impression they make:

The least of which haunting a nobleman
Loseth men's hearts, and leaves behind a stain
Upon the beauty of all parts besides,
Beguiling them of commendation.

(lines 184-87)

Again we see the king's confrontation with his son played out in rehearsal, as a kind of parody. For while Worcester enacts Henry's attitude towards Hal in his chiding of Hotspur, Hotspur utterly rejects the kind of self-awareness Hal comes to embody in the play. He brusquely dismisses Worcester: “Well, I am schooled. Good manners be your speed” (line 188). Sitting up late with Glendower he “cried ‘Hum’ and ‘Well, go to,’ / But marked him not a word” (lines 156-57). Where Hal is acutely aware of the moral dangers that surround him, Hotspur is wilfully blind.

The entrance of the wives marks a complete change of pace and mood in the scene. Hotspur ceases to challenge Glendower's preeminence, and the Welsh magician dominates the stage. A non-Welsh-speaking audience must rely for information upon their eyes as the Welsh lady speaks: what they see is a strange triangle indeed. Mortimer and the Welsh lady gaze at each other, hold hands, kiss. Glendower, between them, interprets and controls. His daughter's grief, singled out for our notice by Glendower, and Mortimer's despairing passion (“O, I am ignorance itself in this!” line 210) emphasize the young couple's total dependence on the old wizard. The language of Mortimer's bondage is conventionally erotic:

                                                            thy tongue
Makes Welsh as sweet as ditties highly penned,
Sung by a fair queen in a summer's bow’r,
With ravishing division, to her lute.

(lines 205-8)

The language also evokes the dispute about courtly lyric earlier in the scene, and the pun in line 207 offers a perversely Spenserian echo. Division, a word central to the play and the scene for its political significance, is here applied to music, sensuality, ravishment.

Mortimer is under a spell, bewitched. As Glendower describes the effect the lady's song will have upon him—“Charming your blood with pleasing heaviness” (line 215)—Mortimer's response links his sensual bondage to the indenture: “With all my heart I’ll sit and hear her sing. / By that time will our book, I think, be drawn” (lines 220-21). Spell and contract merge; Glendower calls for music. The abrupt reminder of the political purpose for this gathering switches our attention back to the Percies: Hotspur, his wife, and uncle Worcester have been present on the stage throughout.

As an onstage audience, they transform the love scene and the love song into a cautionary play-within-a-play. Mortimer, tearful, uxorious, lyrical, is a far cry from the images of him as valiant and noble (according to Hotspur) or rebellious and treacherous (according to the king) that were promulgated in I.iii. The vanity and folly of a conspiracy to restore his title is hammered home. In the previous scene, we have seen Hal “depose” Falstaff and “banish” him; here we see Mortimer, “next of blood” though he may be, utterly lost to vanity. The language barrier insists upon his helplessness; Hal's language—“I do, I will”—is the emphatic and solemn language of a vow in which word and deed agree. The echo of marriage vows in the tavern scene—in effect, Hal vows to divorce Falstaff and marry his kingdom—receives added emphasis in the stage picture of Mortimer's absorption into Glendower's enchanted, empty realm.

Mortimer's problems with Welsh highlight Hal's fluency, his potential of becoming (in Joseph A. Porter's words) “a many-tongued monarch.” Language jokes dominate the last moments of the Welsh scene, just as they did the first. As the Percies mock the lovesickness of the other couple, Glendower illustrates the power of his words by calling for music. David Woodman has it that Glendower hereby “silences” Hotspur with his magical prowess, but Hotspur chatters on, unconcerned.17 His only response is another Welsh joke: “Now I perceive the devil understands Welsh” (line 228). In this context, the relevance of Hotspur's double-edged sex banter and volubility on the subject of a “good mouth-filling oath” (line 252) becomes both clearer and more complex. Kate's refusal to sing (“Not mine, in good sooth,” line 244) echoes Hal's refusal to continue playing along with Falstaff. Hotspur's jests raise once again that abundance of doubts about the connection between word and deed, promise and performance, that plagues the play from the very beginning. In fact, King Henry's “holy purpose—now twelve month old”—introduces the play only to be forgotten, thrust aside by news of civil strife. Hal's vow to redeem himself and his country plays off against this first unkept promise, as does Hotspur's demand in the third scene that his uncle and father redeem their “banished honors.” The quarrel at the beginning of III.i—like Hotspur's quarrel with the king over the denial of his prisoners and like the exposure of Falstaff's lies in II.iv—is animated by warring notions of language as power and language as vanity.

In Glendower, as in the resourceful Falstaff, these apparent oppositions merge. As he is a magician, his language is incantatory and demonstrably spellbinding; as he is an ally in the rebel cause, he is boastful and unreliable. The paradox is emphasized by verbal and theatrical pointers that link Glendower to an alter ego, the Father of Lies, a presence who lurks behind Falstaff as well. The suggestion that Hotspur has signed a damnable pact is playfully made by Glendower himself:

Come, come, Lord Mortimer. You are as slow
As hot Lord Percy is on fire to go.
By this our book is drawn; we’ll but seal,
And then to horse immediately.

(lines 260-63)

Hotspur hurtles headlong to destruction. Hal's oaths in the next scene are validated by the empty contract of the Tripartite Indenture.

But not for long: Shakespeare does not neglect in the final scene the ambiguities he has labored so hard to rouse here. Hal's triumph in deed over Hotspur and his eulogy over the fallen Falstaff are both swallowed up by the fat man's resurrection. Furthermore, Falstaff's outrageous tale of dueling counterfeits makes the prince into Falstaff's “factor / To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf” (III.ii.147-48). Falstaff's appropriation of the corpse of Hotspur parodies the most serious promise of the royal interview, and Hal permits the transfer of honors to take place: “For my part, if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have.” (V.v.153-54). The prince's retreat into falsehood sabotages the neat equations of the moralized spectacle in which he has bid farewell in turn to Hotspur (vanity of spirit) and Falstaff (vanity of the flesh).18

The technique of speaking pictures, iconic images, moralized spectacle, that Shakespeare inherited from medieval and Renaissance traditions of theatrical practice and theory is here used with uncommon force against itself.19 Each moment seems potent with emblematic resonance, loaded with significances religious, political, historical, and yet the lessons apparently to be drawn are confuted and questioned by the action of the rest of the play. In the Welsh scene, there is an iconic center in which two moments of strong visual impact play off against each other: the quarrel over the map and the love scene between Mortimer and the Welsh lady. Each draws upon a tradition in visual and verbal art. The map scene reaches back into a homiletic tradition as an emblem of the “Serpent of division”;20 the splitting of a single Edenic Britain by vanity and ambition into warring parts is the essence of the Leir story, of Gorboduc, and of the map scene in Woodstock. The love scene is equally traditional: the pastoral bower in which Mortimer is invited to repose is the same abode of sensual self-abandonment that Guyon must destroy in book 2 of the Faerie Queen. The unchaste chatter of Hotspur and Lady Percy reinforces the picture of Glendower's castle as a place of incontinence. These lessons, the one political and the other moral, work together to show in different ways the folly and evil of rebellion. The “polyphonic” or “prismatic” complexity of technique forbids the drawing of simple conclusions from the scene.21 Rather, the actions of the characters take place in a context charged with multiple historical and religious meanings.

The centerpiece of the learning experience in III.i is Glendower. He produces the map; he introduces the ladies. He “stages” both parts of the scene, even to the point of announcing the moral of each. We are invited to see him at once as a damnable magician and a lyrical framer of ditties. As a creature compound of vanities, Glendower should be dismissed, shamed, banished by the telling of truth. Hotspur knows this, but he blindly rushes on; Hal, acutely conscious of his own moral status, elects to gild Falstaff's lies at the end. And the chaos of Wales frames the whole play.

Shakespearean history, as we see it in this scene and in 1 Henry IV as a whole dramatic experience, is history moralized even as the act of moralization is sharply questioned. The key technique is the emblematic scene, with its host of traditional associations, but Shakespeare, like the banished duke in As You Like It, is of two minds about its efficacy. “Did he not moralize the spectacle?” asks the duke of the lords who tell the story of Jaques and the deer (II.i.44). The lessons Jaques draws from the deer are trenchant, the activity of extracting them ridiculously compulsive. Similarly, the Welsh scene of 1 Henry IV demands and confutes moralized interpretation. Hotspur palters with the devil; Mortimer is in his thrall. Together these would-be princes are associated with Glendower's monstrous imposture. Hal's vow to his father in the royal interview plays off against this foil and against the tavern scene; but with equal force these two rehearsals for the true prince's self-revelation call into question its spontaneity and authenticity. Somehow, too, Hotspur retains his attractiveness, even though he dies irrepressibly vain. Glendower and Wales remain to be tamed. Falstaff, his banishment promised in II.iv and the spectacle of his death moralized in V.iv, rises again, graced with the prince's lies.


The evocation of moral patterns and rhetorical lessons is more straight-forward and less qualified in Shakespeare's earlier history plays. Nonetheless, even in 1 Henry VI the lessons of history are put to severe tests. A key scene in this play is II.iii, in which the nature of Talbot's heroism receives emblematic demonstration when the countess is surprised to find herself face to face with “this weak and writhled shrimp” (II.iii.23). But Talbot matches his unconventional appearance with a startling revelation of his true greatness:

You are deceived, my substance is not here;
For what you see is but the smallest part
And least proportion of humanity.
I tell you, madam, were the whole frame here,
It is of such a spacious lofty pitch
Your roof were not sufficient to contain’t.

(lines 51-56)

This powerful speech identifies the heroic ideal outside of Talbot's body and in his humanity; the gigantic whole to which he refers is a community, a united, fighting England, represented on stage by the troops who answer his call on the horn. The demonstration is, however, futile. From the play's first scene the “whole frame” has threatened to disintegrate from the pressure of faction, as the nobles quarrel over Henry V's bier. The abandonment of Talbot by York and Somerset (IV.iii) gives the lie to Talbot's noble vision; in a last, grating irony, Shakespeare recapitulates the Auvergne scene after Talbot's death.

This time it is the English messenger, Lucy, who makes the mistake of identifying Talbot with Hercules:

But where's the great Alcides of the field,
Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury,
Created for his rare success in arms
Great earl of Washford, Waterford, and Valence,
Lord Talbot of Goodrig and Urchinfield,
Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdun of Alton,
Lord Cromwell of Wingfield, Lord Furnival of Sheffield,
The thrice victorious Lord of Falconbridge,
Knight of the noble order of Saint George,
Worthy Saint Michael, and the Golden Fleece,
Great Marshal to Henry the Sixth
Of all his wars within the realm of France?


Again, a French woman, wily and deceitful, boasts over the feebleness of Talbot's body, but with a difference, for Talbot now belongs to the community of the dead:

Here’s a silly stately style indeed!
The Turk, that two and fifty kingdoms hath,
Writes not so tedious a style as this.
Him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles,
Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet.

(lines 72-76)

Here the mirror-scenes that are the basic building block of Shakespearean drama cast a gruesome reflection. Talbot's generous and human heroism, his recognition of himself as a small part of a great and glorious endeavor, is recalled just as it is brutally confuted by the structural similarity of the two moments.

In another basic dramatic strategy, scenes play off, not against a memory of previous scenes, but against traditional scenic patterns. Emrys Jones demonstrates parallelisms between York tormented on the molehill in 3 Henry VI and the crucifixion plays in the old mystery cycles.22 Humphrey, in 2 Henry VI, gives a morality-play coloring to his demise: “Virtue is choked with foul ambition,” he warns the king (III.i.143). He portrays his doom as a theatrical one:

But mine is made the prologue to their play,
For thousands more, that yet suspect no peril,
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy.

(lines 150-52)

When Warwick confronts the king and the conspirators with Humphrey's body—and through the technical vividness of his language forces the audience to see it as well—the metaphoric choking of virtue by ambition becomes concrete:

But see, his face is black and full of blood;
His eyeballs further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly, like a strangled man.


A rhetorical trope becomes a dramatic reality.

The grisly images of flyblown Talbot and strangled Humphrey are epitomes of the plays in which they appear; what is striking about a mature historical play like 1 Henry IV is the evocation, as we have seen in III.i, of multiple epitomizing images of this kind. The damnation of Hotspur is acted out as a kind of cautionary drama for Hal, who also trifles dangerously with Satan; but Hotspur becomes himself audience to the morality play of Mortimer's bondage. Traditional patterns and images refuse to stay put as they do in the earlier history plays. Hal, Hotspur, Mortimer, and Glendower merge as pretenders to princehood; Falstaff, King Henry, Worcester, and Glendower merge as misleaders of youth. The clear rhetorical lesson that each scene seems to offer is undercut and questioned even as it is taught.

This dramatic complexity is not unique to the histories, but it is historical in its very nature. The revolution in Renaissance historiography in which Shakespeare's history plays figure prominently centers around the problem of how to moralize the past. The medieval position, as enunciated in Augustine's City of God, is strongly providential: history is the arena of God's judgment; the falls of proud kings are cautionary tales played out in a divine theater before His watchful eye. Undeserved sufferings are merely felt to be undeserved; if we cannot understand why bad men prosper, it is because we do not have God's omniscience. The humanist challenge to Augustinian providentialism came from Machiavelli and in England from historians and antiquaries like Bacon and Selden. Though perceived as such in the sixteenth century, Machiavelli's attitude is not basically incompatible with a Christian view. Accepting the impossibility of detecting with certainty God's judgments before the Last Day, Machiavelli searched history for mortal lessons, examples of successful and unsuccessful statecraft, the nuts and bolts of politics. Shakespeare's historiography incorporates elements of both attitudes.23 Actions in the world of 1 Henry IV are, as we have seen, charged with religious significance, but it is a world governed by manipulation, deception, and division. Just as Shakespeare's theater is a mixed medium—a secular, professional, illusionistic theater with roots in a religious, amateur, typological tradition—so is the chronicle history he used for his sources. However providential their rhetoric, the authors of Holinshed and other historians, especially Hall and Polydore Vergil, have a strong partisan bias and a worldly mistrust of the professed piety of their characters.24 Because of its scriptural tradition, providential history is necessarily the history of God's chosen people or favorite nation; the old language provides theoretical justification for the emerging doctrine of centralized national authority.

Renaissance historians invoked and revoked providential explanations at will, usually in response to the political preferences of their patrons. The divinely ordered and hierarchically arranged Elizabethan world picture that has been so severely debunked by recent critics remained, through the seventeenth century, a useful propaganda tool, even as contemporary historians departed more from the humanist or providential models and patterned their craft upon the new sciences.25 In Shakespeare's history plays we find the same kind of coexistence: hard analysis of policy and character takes place sub spaeculo aeternitatis. Both the political folly and the damnability of rebellion receive equal stress.

The one factor that tends to sabotage serious discussion of Shakespeare as a dramatic historian is his cavalier attitude towards his sources. In III.i, he dramatizes a meeting that never took place, confusing it with an agreement reached years later. Mortimer is a conflation of two people, himself and his uncle; the ages of principal characters have been readjusted at will. Hotspur, in history a little older than the king, becomes the same age as his son. The reasons generally given for these readjustments stress their antihistorical nature: dramatic economy demands a single Mortimer; dramatic impact demands a negotiation between Hotspur and the Welsh leader; dramatic construction demands that the prince and his rival be of the same age. But the historians from whom Shakespeare drew his material were guilty of the same faults: the drawing of parallels and analogies, the allegorization of historical personages, the telescoping of a lifetime into a fable.

We should be chary of seeing these rhetorical strategies as medieval holdovers; Plutarch's parallel lives of the Greeks and Romans served as a model for humanist historians. Machiavelli's Discourses mined Roman history for instructive analogies; Tacitus's Annals were understood to “shadow” in their accounts of earlier tyrannies the more recent depredations of Domitian.26 In a sense, Shakespeare's alterations are in keeping with contemporary ideas of acceptable historical practice. The pointing up of lessons through traditional homiletic devices, where Shakespeare, unlike the historian, has a whole popular stage tradition behind him, is responsible history writing, as is the drawing of connections between seemingly unlike personages in different eras. The evocation of the Welsh prophecies in III.i is as historical in impulse as the co-optation of Arthurian legend by Polydore Vergil; legendary material received serious consideration even from those seventeenth-century historians who, like Milton, denied its historicity.27

Thus if it is critically dangerous to describe, in terms of a world picture, what the Elizabethan audience believed, Tillyard's system nonetheless helps us to understand how they believed. The mirror-scenes and verbal anticipations and echoes that animate Shakespeare's plays were used by his contemporaries as well; the tendency to draw homiletic conclusions from juxtaposed parallel lives seems pretty nearly universal. Shakespeare merely heightens it to an unheard-of degree. Each scene in 1 Henry IV is, as we have suggested, a little play in its own right, grounded in morality tradition;28 once we begin to look at these playlets closely, emblematic units within each begin to proliferate like Chinese boxes. Hotspur becomes audience to the drama of Glendower's enchantment of Mortimer; Hal's soliloquy uncomfortably suggests that he is consciously playing the roles of lusty Juventus, Prodigal Son, warrior-prince that we see him play.29

One might expect this self-conscious theatricality to heighten an audience's sense of the artificiality or fictiveness of Shakespearean history. But what instead results is a sense of the essentially fictive quality of historical endeavor itself. For Shakespeare turns his audience's tendency (whether the audience is considered to be Elizabethan or modern) to rationalize and moralize the spectacle before them against itself. Falstaff's destruction of Hal's paradigmatic triumph over vanity insists on the intractability of life. The historian's desire to find articulate moral patterns in the past—indulged in throughout the play by the audience—remains unsatisfied. Hal must reform all over again in Part 2, and in Henry V the epic, historical, narrative voice of the Chorus is severely challenged by the very actions it glorifies and presents.30

The desire to make order out of the past is most horribly exploited in King Lear. Lear relies more heavily than any of the tragedies upon chronicle tradition, and the most striking feature of the play as history is Shakespeare's total rejection of the story as the tradition invariably presents it.31 The shifting of the Tripartite Indenture ahead in time to include Hotspur is a pardonable lapse; the killing of Cordelia is not. All of the sources—and they reach back to ancient legends of Brute—allow, where there is a good daughter or son, for the king's reunion with the good child. And Shakespeare's play forces its audience to expect this traditional ending, just as Kent and the Gentleman, in III.i, seem to expect the civil war between the sons-in-law that the tradition describes but the play does not provide.

The emblematic description of Cordelia as a redemptive presence—“There she shook / The holy water from her heavenly eyes” (IV.iii.30)—and its fulfillment in the kneeling together of father and daughter in IV.vii, are presented with such poetic and dramatic power as to make its refutation unconscionable. Lear's vision of life in prison is a return to that speechless moment of reunion in: “When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness” (V.i.10-11). It is a vision outside time and politics, similar to Lear's earlier vision of retirement as an “unburdened crawl toward death” (I.i.41). “Take them away,” Edmund orders after this speech (V.iii.19); the reminder that the world exists in time and is governed by governors is blunt and brutal. The delays, the false endings, the ceremonious circumlocutions of Edgar's self-vindication all drag on until—“Great thing of us forgot!”—Albany (V.iii.237) and the audience remember that this elaborate tying up of loose ends is not to the main point. The theatrical and religious ironies of Kent's “Is this the promised end?” (V.iii.264) have been so extensively explored that only a word on their historical resonance is in order.

The desire, on the part of all the “good” characters in the play, to vindicate the gods and prove them to be just tempts them into providential readings of the sufferings they endure. Albany's response to the death of Cornwall—“This shows you are above, / You justicers” (IV.ii.78-79)—is a reflex, like Edgar's attempts to provide stoic rationalizations for his plight and cure his father's despair. The patterns Albany, Kent, and Edgar seek to apply to the play's experience are theatrical, conventional, homiletic, and, most importantly, historical.32 The reunion of Lear and Cordelia, and the restoration of Lear to his throne is the “promis’d end” of history itself. Shakespeare permits the reunion. But it is not so much Edmund's unscrupulousness that sentences Cordelia to death as Edgar's long drawn-out morality play of restoration and Albany's moralization of the deaths of Goneril and Regan as a “judgment of the heavens.” History itself—truth itself, for this is what Cordelia embodies from the first—is destroyed, “ended,” by moralizing it; silent Cordelia monopolizes our eyes (“Look there, look there,” V.iii.312) while Edgar (at least in the Folio) articulately (and falsely) moralizes the spectacle: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” (V.iii.325). The paradox of the experience of Lear is that somehow the play's failure to fulfill its historical pattern seems more “true” than the pattern itself. Tate's Lear, which, after all, does go back to the source in restoring a happy ending, is now derided, the old Chronicle History of King Leir unread.

The lessons of history, both political and religious, pale in a context that holds that the teaching and deriving of lessons from experience is as foolish an endeavor as dividing a kingdom or seeking to quantify love. Elements of this tragic rejection of historical practice can be found in the history plays as well. In the first tetralogy, the plays explore a period in history that the Tudor apologists and chroniclers had understood as a kind of morality drama about the need for obedience to lawful monarchs and the dangers of civil strife. Such lessons do indeed seem to be taught in the three Henry VI plays, but Richard III poses special problems. Wilbur Sanders has complained, “If [Shakespeare] was planning to exemplify the simplified monarchic theory of Tudor propaganda, it was a singularly unhappy choice of subject. One might as well try to justify papal infallibility by writing a play about the Avignon schism.”33 His affinities with the ever-popular Vice of morality tradition alter utterly the monstrous usurper of More's Richard III. Shakespeare's Richard performs the same crimes, but delights the audience while doing so; his loss of zest upon gaining the kingship loses the audience's sympathy. The theatrical experience of the play challenges the historical lesson: where the chroniclers celebrate the coming of Richmond as an end to civil unrest, Shakespeare leaves the audience flat.

The tension between theatrical experience and historical moral is higher in the second tetralogy. Richard II's image of twin buckets in a well (IV.i.185) provides an epitome of the dialectical pressure of the play: Shakespeare provides us with a vacillating, vain, corrupt, and contemptible king through the first half of the play and then reverses his strategy, transforming these faults, not into virtues, but into irrelevancies. Bolingbroke's peremptory “lopping off” of Bushy and Green (II.iv) is a literal, historical anticipation of the highly figural garden scene (III.iv). Following as it does upon the execution, the homiletic lesson the Gardener draws from his “commonwealth” seems reductionist. As in the writing of history, the event precedes the moral; and the two do not really match.

The multiple ironies of 1 Henry IV come to a climax on the battlefield with the proliferation of counterfeit kings and with Falstaff's counterfeit death. The patterns of restoration and reformation that the play, its sources, and its central actor, the prince, have promised from the outset are fulfilled only to be overturned. Rumor, “stuffing the ears of men with false reports” (I.i.8), introduces Part 2; the affirmations of Hal's heroism in the first play give way to the chicanery of Prince John in Gaultree Forest. The unreliability of Rumor, the falsehood of John, the misunderstanding between prince and king when Hal mistakes his father for dead and takes his crown, all spin out of the retrospective central scene in which Henry and Warwick discuss the uncertainties of history and the inexorability of time. Henry's vision of history is apocalyptic:

O God! That one might read the book of fate
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea!


The threat of watery chaos, embodied, as we have seen in 1 Henry IV, in Falstaff and Glendower, is immanent, from the beginning, in the book of history—a book that in Henry's speech is both Genesis and Revelation, a chaos of beginning and end. But Henry's religious reading of Richard's prophecy is answered by Warwick's secular, historical perspective:

There is a history in all men's lives,
Figuring the nature of the times deceased,
The which observed, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, which in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.

(lines 80-85)

The terms of discussion here at the center of 2 Henry IV echo Renaissance debates about history. Henry's language is providential, scriptural; Warwick explains Richard's prophecy in secular, Machiavellian terms.

The second part of Henry IV, then, brings to the surface questions latent in the first part and central to a discussion of historical drama. Warwick's historical counsel seems to answer Henry's immediate question about prophecy, but a far larger question goes unanswered: “Are these things then necessities?” (III.i.92). Henry's portrayal of himself as a humble agent of providence—“But that necessity so bowed the state / That I and greatness were compelled to kiss” (lines 73-74)—begs judgments that historians, and audiences of history plays, are bound to make. Whether the four plays were designed as a tetralogy or not, certainly this scene looks back on the events of Richard II and 1 Henry IV, and the king's self-image here is not altogether borne out by his actions in the earlier plays. But the mood of retrospection and resignation evoked in the scene is so powerful, and the king's despair so palpable, that the repetition of his futile purpose—“We would, dear lords, unto the Holy Land” (line 108)—draws compassion.

The question whether it is possible to understand a life lived, like Henry's, in the political arena in religious terms is important not only to Shakespeare but to all Renaissance historians. Humanist historians, following Machiavelli's example, eschewed religious judgments, with the consequence, in Sanders's rather harsh words, that they “abdicated a whole province of historical thought—the province of ultimate significance.”34 Rejection of moral, traditional patterns of understanding, based upon Christian typology, leads too easily to a vision, like Henry's, of a watery world of chance and flux. Henry's despair arises from the knowledge that in Christian terms his acts are sins demanding expiation and that in secular terms the fact that they can be seen as political necessities offers no consolation or explanation of their importance. If, in Shakespeare's histories, the moral patterns of traditional judgment are contradicted by the flux and variety of life itself, life, although constantly threatening to dissolve into Henry's chaos, does not do so. Henry does die in “Jerusalem.”

Henry V picks up these speculations on historical understanding more explicitly through the demands the Chorus makes of the audience. Here the challenge is not latent in the play's design (as in Richard II and 1 Henry IV) or engaged primarily by a character (as in 2 Henry IV), but is explicitly thrown into the spectator's lap. The prologue's demand that we supply the scenery for this pageant insists upon the vanity of the whole project:

                                        But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object.

(lines 8-11)

Traditional apologies for history plays, like Heywood's, relied upon the audience's identification with the heroes of the past, defined in an illusionistic way:

What English prince should hee behold the true portrature of
that [f]amous king Edward the third, foraging France, taking so great a king
captive in his owne country, quartering the English Lyons with the French
flower-delyce, and would not bee suddenly inflam’d with so royal a spectacle,
being made apt and fit for the like atchievement. So of Henry the fift.(35)

The preconceptions here deserve some scrutiny: Heywood assumes, as Sidney does in his famous discussion of the usefulness of tragedy, that the proper audience for a history play is a royal one, and that the play's lessons will lead to imitative action.36 Shakespeare's prologue toys with the figure, invoking this ideal—“a kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene” (prologue, 3-4)—and debunking it. The stage is a wooden O; the actors professionals of the trade; the audience, at best, made up of “gentles.” And it is the task of their “imaginary forces” to make the action seem important.

Thus we have, as many critics have pointed out in different ways, two plays going on: the Chorus introduces as glorious, epic, and brilliant, actions that belie the buildup. Again, as in the previous history plays, tension is drawn between the events themselves and the ways in which they are interpreted. Here, however, the burden of interpretation falls upon the audience itself; the simple contrast the Chorus paints between “true things” and “mock’ries” is not that simple—radiating out into questions about relationships between staged illusions of reality and historical truths, between historians' accounts of the past and the events themselves, between epic inflation and comic deflation.37 In its explicit questioning of the assumptions implicit in such formulations of the usefulness of heroic historical dramas as Heywood's, Henry V is a fitting end to the series of Lancastrian plays. But its explicitness poses certain theatrical problems. Where, in 1 Henry IV, the desire to perceive actions as morally and aesthetically resonant according to preconceived patterns is simultaneously stimulated and confuted, here the Chorus's demands are blunt and unmediated. Instead of being forced to reenact the experience of making sense of the past, the audience is asked only to place the Chorus's formulations and the events it witnesses side-by-side.38 “Behold, as may unworthiness define, / A little touch of Harry in the night” (lines 46-47), urges the Chorus to act IV: what we see instead of the king bestowing a “largess universal, like the sun” (act IV, chorus, line 43) is the king skulking about the camp in disguise, quarreling with Bates and Williams and getting the worst of it, and bemoaning the “hard condition” of royalty in language reminiscent of Henry IV's despair. The irony is as blunt as the ironies of the first history plays. In 1 Henry IV the sense that life simultaneously arranges itself into morally articulate patterns and confutes them animates the whole play; Henry V is dominated instead by the skepticism about the usefulness of moral history and moralized spectacle that later achieves its fullest expression in King Lear.

Shakespeare's discontent with historical practice has political as well as philosophical dimensions. Henry V, like Edward IV, caused problems for historians who wanted to depict the years between the deposition of Richard II and the coronation of Henry VII as an uninterrupted dark age of civil war. Prince Hal in 1 Henry IV prefigures in some ways Henry Tudor; here in Henry V, on the other hand, the analogy is drawn to Essex, “from Ireland coming / Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword” (act V, chorus, lines 31-32). The change in perspective is significant. One need not agree with Evelyn May Albright's vision of Shakespeare's audience as a circle of Essex supporters to recognize the topicality of the reference. Where the reference to contemporary politics in the other Lancastrian plays is oblique, these lines draw attention to themselves. The relationship between the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the Essex rising is lost in the murky reaches of Privy Council deliberations; we know the actors revived Richard II at the request of Sir Gilly Meyrick, one of Essex's followers, and that they were not punished for it.39 But before dismissing Henry V as partisan propaganda, we should recognize that the two opposed readings are latent in the words themselves. Rebellion can be broached (“transfixed”) or broached (“set on foot, started, introduced”) on Essex's sword: wordplay of this kind may bespeak caution on Shakespeare's part, or the pun may be designed to frustrate any attempt to read the play as propaganda at all.

The issue of contemporary reference itself is explicitly raised in the play, suggesting that the selection of the double-edged word may not be merely playful. The pedant Fluellen is a military historian and a drawer of parallels: “If you mark Alexander's life well, Harry of Monmouth's life is come after it indifferent well; for there is figures in all things” (IV,vii.29-30). The analogies are ridiculous; the only one that strikes home is the one that Fluellen has most trouble with, that between Alexander's drunken murder of his old friend Cleitus and Hal's sober dismissal of the drunkard Falstaff. Through Fluellen, Shakespeare mocks the contemporary practice of using history as a source of specious heroic parallels, yet Fluellen's failure to remember Falstaff's name suggests that the parallel has an unpleasant validity. When we remember that Essex was likewise paralleled to Alexander by his supporters, we recognize that Shakespeare is again teasing the tendency to draw historical analogies even as he critiques it.40

The devious double meaning of broached and the simultaneous debunking and suggesting of historical analogies through Fluellen partakes of the doubleness of a play that is at once patriotic pageant and antiwar satire. Instead of resolving its complicated political vision, the play retreats into domesticity as King Henry woos Katherine. But there is no real conflict between the public and private man in this play: just as, after the debate with Bates and Williams, Henry presents himself as a king in a private moment, here he plays the role of bluff, wooing soldier almost to excess. Critics who become indignant at the king's apparent lack of a private self miss the point: Hal has become a wholly public man.41 Like Alexander, he is essentially unknowable but infinitely adaptable to different situations; he is a figure, a rhetorical device.

The protean nature of King Henry V disappoints because the prince of the earlier plays could be seen making morally significant choices; here none occur. The reasons for invading France are so obscure as to be ludicrous; victory is foreordained. In the prologue to the play, the Chorus, celebrating the victory before it occurs, promises the fulfillment of the kind of clear historical pattern that Shakespeare undermines in the earlier plays. The series of triumphs that culminates in the wooing of Katherine is qualified only by the epilogue, reminding us of the infant Henry VI:

Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown.

(lines 11-13)

In 2 Henry IV, Glendower dies and Falstaff is rejected; their destructive powers are subsumed into the conventional historiography of Henry V. Instead, Shakespeare's unease with historical patterns shows itself in his deviousness about contemporary applications and in his opaque protagonist. In both respects, Henry V anticipates the last history play, Henry VIII, more clearly than might be expected.


The controversy over this late play's authorship reaches beyond the metric tests applied by Spedding, Alexander, and Partridge (with widely varying results) to debate about the structure, mood, and historiography of the play. Ornstein, the strongest modern proponent of Fletcherian authorship, derides those who, like Foakes, Kermode, and Felperin, portray Henry “as the Prospero of the history plays”: “Critics cannot debate, … whether Henry is compassionate or callous, noble or contemptible; they can only debate whether the amorphousness and ambiguity of his characterization are artistically defensible or appropriate.”42 Henry VIII shares the opacity of Henry V; the late play, like its predecessor, refuses us an understanding of the public man.

More explicitly and more belligerently than Henry V, the play goes beyond ambiguous portrayal of the king to challenge, not the players' ability to stage the glories of the past—as in the Henry V prologue—but the audience's ability to make imaginative sense out of it. “I come no more to make you laugh” (line 1), says the Prologue, dismissing out of hand comparison between this play and the comical histories in which a disguised Henry VIII has been appearing recently upon the stage.43 “Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow, / We now present” (lines 4-5), runs the promise; the Prologue insistently warns the audience not to laugh:

                                        For, gentle hearers, know
To rank our chosen truth with such a show
As fool and fight is, beside forfeiting
Our own brains and the opinion that we bring
To make that only true we now intend,
Will leave us never an understanding friend.

(lines 17-22)

Linked to the solemnity and sobriety of the Prologue is the play's “truth”: unlike the merry, bawdy plays it displaces, in Henry VIII, as the subtitle reminds us, All is True; all we need do is sit quietly and watch.

We are even told explicitly how to understand what we see:

                                                            Think ye see
The very persons of our noble story
As they were living. Think you see them great,
And followed with the general throng and sweat
Of thousand friends. Then, in a moment, see
How soon this mightiness meets misery.

(lines 25-30)

The pattern is moralistic, traditional, and homiletic. The falls are emblematic and instructive. The audience is not asked, as in the Lancastrian plays, to indulge in its own search for historical meaning; the meaning is already distilled.

Yet the complicated expression of the players' intention—“the opinion that we bring / To make that only true we now intend”—is curiously ambiguous. It can suggest the author's and actors' belief that the play will contain only true facts. Or the lines can be read as a solipsistic insistence that the audience must accept whatever “opinion” the actors dramatize as true. The second reading suggests mere perverseness; yet, comparing the promises of the Prologue to the practice in the play, even Tillyard complained of the Prologue's “wanton lies.”44

Despite its demands that the audience weep and its delineations of a tragic de casibus structure for the play, the Prologue introduces a play whose basic rhythm is comic: the falls of the mighty are subsumed into the more glorious process of the birth of Elizabeth. The last challenge is particularly grating: “And if you can be merry then, I’ll say / A man may weep upon his wedding day” (lines 31-32). Whether or not Henry VIII was designed as a commemoration of Princess Elizabeth's wedding, the wedding of Henry and Anne Boleyn is the central event of the play.45 The scenes devoted to this wedding do belie the Prologue by demanding a mixed response of pity and mirth. The pageantry of Anne's coronation procession (IV,i) and the Third Gentleman's description of the full ceremony take place immediately after Wolsey's fall and just before Katherine's farewell to life. Furthermore, the Gentlemen in IV.i remind us of Buckingham's fall (“’Tis very true, but that time offered sorrow / This, general joy,” lines 6-7), of Katherine's sickness (line 35), and of the king's seizure of Wolsey's palace (lines 94-96). All this sorrow is displaced by more timely mirth. “These are stars indeed,” sighs the Second Gentleman as the countesses bring up the rear of the procession. “And sometimes falling ones,” quips the first, drawing for his bawdy remark a sharp “No more of that” (lines 54-55). This levity is coupled with jests about the divorce—“I cannot blame his conscience” (line 97)—that verge on poor taste.46 In fact, both laughing and weeping are the only possible responses to this wedding day. The sad falls of Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey are mentioned in the same breath as the falling stars of the court. In its stress on the uniform solemnity of the tale, the Prologue seems to forget that the play will ask us to rejoice in the royal wedding and celebrate the birth of the royal child.

The discrepancy here is too fundamental to be the result of mere sloppiness. There are other instances in which the promises of the Prologue are disregarded. “Those that come to see / Only a show or two,” we are assured, “may see away their shilling / Richly in two short hours,” (lines 9-10, 12-13); the affinity between the pageantry of Henry VIII and the spectacular staging of court masques has received much discussion from critics.47 But the play offers as well some examples of pageantry foregone: the opening scene contains Norfolk's lengthy descriptions of the shows and masques accompanying the peace between Henry and Francis. He stresses the visual splendor of the event, dubbing himself “ever since a fresh admirer / Of what I saw there” (lines 3-4). Seeing is believing, as the Prologue suggests, and chivalric fiction is validated by spectacle in Norfolk's account of the passage at arms:

                                                            they did perform
Beyond the thought's compass, that former fabulous story,
Being now seen possible enough, got credit,
That Bevis was believed.

(lines 35-38)

“O you go far,” marvels Buckingham; like the audience, he is staggered, not by sumptuous spectacle, but by sumptuous description. Similarly, we are not permitted to view the glorious coronation of Queen Anne, though we do see the procession pass by. But the Third Gentleman did see it, and he teases his interlocutors:

1 Gent.: God save you sir.
Where have you been broiling?
3 Gent.: Among the crowd i’th’Abbey,
where a finger
Could not be wedged in more. I am stifled
With the mere rankness of their joy.
2 Gent.:                                         You saw
The ceremony?
3 Gent.: That I did.
1 Gent.: How was it?
3 Gent.: Well worth the seeing.
2 Gent.: Good sir, speak it to us.


Again, the spectacle is spoken, not seen. There is pageantry aplenty in the play, but these descriptions of more splendid pageants again challenge the blunt declarations of the Prologue.

If the Prologue's statements about the play's uniform seriousness and visual splendor are undercut, we may expect qualifications of the more basic promises, that the play will “draw the eye to flow” (line 4) with pity and that

                                                            Such as give
Their money out of hope they may believe
May find here truth too.

(lines 4-6)

The play’s whole design puts these impulses in conflict: in order to celebrate appropriately the birth of Elizabeth, we must believe in the “truth” of Henry’s scruples about his first marriage, scruples that are openly ridiculed by the courtiers. The strong appeal of the discarded Katherine herself forces us to question, if not the legitimacy, the justice of her divorce.

A more jarring conflict between pity and belief animates the scenes of Buckingham's fall; II.i particularly merits close attention as wholly characteristic. Like most of the scenes in Henry VIII, it is a set piece, an emblematic playlet. The Gentlemen, on stage at the beginning of the scene, discuss Buckingham's trial; the unhappy duke enters, delivers his famous farewell orations, and departs; the Gentlemen complete the frame by remaining behind and discussing the impending divorce. We are set up to expect a morally instructive play-within-a-play, an interlude for reflection, like III.i of 1 Henry IV, or the simpler emblematic scenes in the earlier histories. The sense of metadramatic Chinese boxes is heightened by the presentation, again through secondhand narrative, of the trial of Buckingham. As in the later case of Anne's coronation, the Gentleman is forced to rely for information on one eyewitness:

2 Gent.: Were you there?
1 Gent.: Yes indeed was I.
2 Gent.: Pray speak what has happened.
1 Gent.: You may guess quickly what.


The coyness of the First Gentleman anticipates that of his counterpart in IV.i; so does the eagerness of the listener. The audience, like the Second Gentleman, is convinced that Wolsey “is the end of this” (line 40), but the First Gentleman, who appears to be wholly sympathetic to Buckingham, also seems to accept the conviction upon its merits. “The great Duke / Came to the bar,” he reports,

                                        where to his accusations
He pleaded still not guilty, and alleged
Many sharp reasons to defeat the law.
The king's attorney, on the contrary,
Urged on the examinations, proofs, confessions,
Of divers witnesses.

(lines 11-17)

The series stresses the orderly progression of evidence presented by the crown. Buckingham's “sharp reasons,” on the other hand, have as their purpose “to defeat the law.” His defense begins to crumble when he demands that the witnesses be “brought viva voce to his face” (line 18):

All these accused him strongly, which he fain
Would have flung from him, but indeed he could not;
And so his peers upon this evidence
Have found him guilty of high treason. Much
He spoke, and learnedly for life; but all
Was either pitied in him or forgotten.

(lines 24-29)

The accusations stick to the duke; it is hard to reconcile the Gentleman's account of the just and orderly trial with the notions of Wolsey's malicious manipulations that the earlier scenes have encouraged. Buckingham's eloquence evokes from his peers only pity; the charges still stand.

The Gentlemen step aside, becoming an audience in their own right, as we are asked to judge for ourselves Buckingham's skill as an orator; Henry himself has warned us that “the gentleman is learned, and a most rare speaker” (I.ii.111). The duke's entrance is staged with full pomp. The Second Gentleman recalls that the commons call Buckingham “the mirror of all courtesy” (line 53), and on this highly charged phrase the duke's procession enters. The Gentlemen stress the conventional, theatrical quality of what we are about to witness:

1 Gent.: Stay there sir,
And see the noble ruined man you speak of.
2 Gent.: Let’s stand close
and behold him.

(lines 53-55)

Discussion of the proofs urged by eyewitnesses at the trial gives way to our own witnessing; we are presented, not with the course of the king's justice in the trial, but with Buckingham's flowery self-exoneration.

Buckingham's farewell is a controlled oratorical display, a self-dramatization that explicitly fits him into the pre-existing pattern of “noble ruined man,” leading up to an emblematic conclusion: “And when you would say something that is sad, / Speak how I fell” (lines 135-36). The appeal throughout is to the pity of “all good people” (line 55)—both the audience onstage and, by extension, the audience in the theater—yet the tone frequently descends to bitter self-pity as Buckingham snobbishly recalls that he was betrayed by his own servants:48

Yet I am richer than my base accusers,
That never knew what truth meant: I now seal it;
And with that blood will make ’em one day groan for it.

(lines 104-6)

Coming hard upon the torrent of forgiveness Buckingham directs at Lovell—“I as free forgive you / As I would be forgiven: I forgive all” (lines 82-83)—the remark is jarring; throughout the speech Buckingham both forgives and denigrates his accusers:

The law I bear no malice for my death,
’Thas done upon the premises but justice:
But those that sought it I could wish more Christians.
Be what they will, I heartily forgive ’em.

(lines 62-65)

The forgiveness here, too, is short-lived; speculation on his enemies' ambition leads Buckingham to portray himself as a wronged Abel: “For then my guiltless blood must cry against ’em” (line 68). Buckingham's unscrupulous and inconsistent employment of religious figures lends an air of falsehood to his exculpations.

But Buckingham's challenge to the process of the king's justice is not merely emotional. His definition of truth clearly conflicts with the law's. To the duke, truth consists in loyalty; as a result, his servants “never knew what truth meant,” although from the account we hear of the trial it appears that they did not lie. His offer of his own blood to “seal” (line 105) his oaths confirms the archaic notion of truth as troth.

Since Buckingham sees truth in terms of social fealties, he depicts his betrayal as an inversion of the social order. “A beggar's book / Out-worths a noble's blood,” he complains earlier (I.i.117-18), as Wolsey passes by reading his surveyor's testimony. Buckingham's oration attacks the version of “truth” arrived at by the law—in a process the audience is not permitted to witness—with a strong emotional appeal to the truth of blood, breeding, and sworn oaths. The speech displaces the narrative of the trial purely by dint of its theatrical appeal to attractive aristocratic abstractions.

The First Gentleman responds as Buckingham would desire: “O this is full of pity!” (line 137); the Second Gentleman is less swayed by the duke's rhetoric: “If the duke be guiltless, / ’Tis full of woe” (lines 139-40). On this note the subject of Buckingham is dismissed, and the two rush on to close the scene with gossip about Katherine's fall. Their talk is again charged with confusion about truth.

The First Gentleman dismisses rumors of a separation as idle, and in fact forbidden by royal order; the Second disabuses him. “But that slander, sir, / Is found a truth now” (II.i.153). The Gentleman's difficulties in distinguishing truth from scandal in this case match the audience's difficulties in resolving the contradictory truths of Buckingham's appeal, juggling the false promises of the Prologue, and reconciling a discordant sympathy for Katherine with the play's triumphant mood. Felperin has expressed doubts as to “whether Shakespeare is not ironically hinting that we revise our conventional notions of historical truth, even of mimetic truth itself,” in the play's subtitle, All Is True; confusion about the word itself is a major part of our experience of the play.49 The disparity between limited, human, emotional truths and providence's ultimate purposes animates the discordant demands made especially by the fall of Katherine.

“And every true heart weeps for’t,” says the lord chamberlain of the queen's dilemma (II.ii.38). At her hearing, Katherine protests her truth—her fidelity and love: she has always been a “true and humble wife” (II.iv.21). The word true figures significantly in Henry's own testimony:

That man i’th’world shall report he has
A better wife, let him in naught be trusted
For speaking false in that. … 
                                                            She’s noble born,
And like her true nobility she has
Carried herself towards me.

(lines 132-34, 139-41)

Her first appearance in the play is on her knees, as a suitor on behalf of the subjects “of true condition” (I.ii.19) who oppose the onerous taxes imposed on them by Wolsey.

Yet Katherine's “truth,” unlike Buckingham's, is distinguished by her high regard for candor. Her main objection to Wolsey at her trial is that he is “not / At all a friend to truth” (II.iv.82). Before her death, she reiterates this judgment:

His own opinion was his law: i’th’presence
He would say untruths, and be ever double
Both in his words and meaning.


When Griffith, her gentleman-usher, offers to point out Wolsey's good qualities, however, she willingly listens and concludes by accepting Griffith's assessment:

After my death I wish no other herald,
No other speaker of my living actions
To keep mine honor from corruption,
But such an honest chronicler as Griffith.
Whom I most hated living, thou hast made me,
With thy religious truth and modesty,
Now, in his ashes, honor: peace be with him!


Her rapid change of attitude has been attacked as Fletcherian, but the sudden shift is typical of the play's structure, and it dramatizes an important feature of the play's historiography.

Katherine is swayed by an argument that is based closely upon the facts of Wolsey's public career; her condemnation of the man centers upon his malice towards her and failure to match his promises with performance. Griffith's account of Wolsey, which follows closely the evaluation of the cardinal in Holinshed, is tempered with charity. Both accounts are true, in different senses of the word, as are the Gentleman's account of Buckingham's trial and the duke's self-dramatization.

Katherine's problem becomes the audience's because of the way in which Shakespeare manipulates our own responses to Wolsey. First presented as “lofty and sour” (IV.ii.53), he moves through the early parts of the play with ruthless Machiavellism; he orchestrates the frustrating “dilatory sloth and tricks of Rome” (II.iv.235) that hinder the divorce; he amasses a vast personal fortune “indeed to gain the Popedom / And fee my friends in Rome” (III.ii.212-13). In all ways a conventional Italianate cardinal, Wolsey has no call upon our sympathy.

Yet his fall is sympathetically depicted: stripped of his titles, Wolsey piously meditates upon the vanity of worldly pursuits. To Cromwell, he discloses his new state of mind:

Never so truly happy, my good Cromwell.
I know myself now, and I feel within me
A peace above all earthly dignities,
A still and quiet conscience.


Discordant as this image of the cardinal turned hermit may be, more jarring yet is the language in which Wolsey asks a blessing upon his successor:

                                                            May he continue
Long in his highness' favor, and do justice
For truth's sake and his conscience.

(lines 395-97)

Both words have by now been so abused in the play—mostly by Wolsey himself—as to be utterly meaningless.

Wolsey's advice to Cromwell, similarly, founders in self-contradiction. Cromwell's promise of loyalty to “so good, so noble, and so true a master” (line 423) brings tears to his eyes; Wolsey, like Buckingham, appeals blatantly for pity as he presents himself and paints the lesson of his case. He teaches Cromwell a curious “way … to rise in / A sure and safe one” (lines 437-38): “fling away ambition!” (line 440). The preposterous paradox in the moral compounds the ambiguities that already encircle ideas of truth in this play. The ideal of service that Wolsey now recommends to Cromwell is the path that he admits he “miss’d” (line 338): he has not been true to his master. He urges Cromwell to make his goals “thy country's / Thy God's and truth's” (line 447-48); his famous last words resound with like irony:

Had I but serv’d my God with half the zeal
I serv’d my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.

(lines 455-57)

An exemplary lesson, but patently false. Throughout the play Wolsey has been shown to be disloyal, hypocritical, overweeningly ambitious. His advice to Cromwell includes the admission of disloyalty to the monarch. His aspiration to the papacy, not his enemies, stripped him of his glories.

The cardinal's evaluation of his moral situation (a favorite showpiece for declamatory actors) is totally unreliable. After urging Cromwell to shun ambition and serve the king well, Wolsey sees himself as a loyal servant undeservedly cast off and condemns all worldly service. The scene's last lines, in which Wolsey takes his “hopes” (line 459) to the court of Heaven are again paradoxical. The ultimate effect is to force a suspension of judgment: like Surrey and the lord chamberlain, we must balance sympathy for Wolsey with recognition of his guilt and moral confusion. Katherine's response to Wolsey's death and Griffith's chronicle is a dramatization of this desired balance. With Wolsey as with Buckingham, we are confronted with a homiletic, “stagey,” pious farewell to the things of this world that we cannot endorse at face value. Buckingham's forgiveness founders in curses; Wolsey is unable to avoid courtly double-talk.

Both, as well, have been convicted in accordance with the king's justice; their unacknowledged guilt silently confutes their pathetic appeal. Similarly, in Katherine's case, the justice of the divorce, upheld by Cranmer and other “learned and reverend fathers of his order” (IV.i.26) is acknowledged without question. Whatever resentment Katherine feels is expressed not against the decree but rather against Henry's unkindness as a husband. Nor is justice allowed to miscarry in Cranmer's trial. Assured of his innocence, the king suspends Gardiner's persecutions.

But Cranmer's danger points to weaknesses in the processes of justice themselves. The king himself warns him:

Your enemies are many and not small; their practices
Must bear the same proportion, and not ever
The justice and the truth o’th’question
Carries the due o’th’verdict with it.


The phrase not ever is certainly disturbing: the king can mean that verdicts do not always reflect truth, or that they never do. At any rate, all Cranmer can do is throw himself on the king's mercy; and the king, convinced by his tears of his “true heart” (V.i.152-53; V.ii.208), presents him with the fairy-tale ring that later saves him. Called into doubt here are the very principles of orderly procedural justice that, despite pathetic appeals to the contrary, have shaped our responses to the falls of Buckingham and Wolsey and have allowed us to accept without question the divorce and remarriage of the king. The result is a deepening confusion, in which, somehow, the right ends are still achieved.

Henry sweeps aside the charges against Cranmer out of sheer faith in the man, just as questions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, truth and falsehood, are all forgotten in the final scenes. Warring sympathies are overridden. Inconsistencies of characterization force the audience simply to accept the people before them as unknowable. Most problematic is Henry himself. He sways from the awesome to the comic, the majestic to the clumsy. Again the Prologue's promise of a solemn, true story is proved inadequate: the monarch is shown to be doing in a casual, whimsical manner things that will eventually prove important.50

Thus the play's pageantry and descriptions of pageantry seem to glorify the past, while comic moments, like the sessions between Anne and the Old Lady and the preparations for the christening, debunk and belittle famous events and people. The result is a presentation of the complicated religious and political issues of the age that is oblique, tangential, vague. The atmosphere of nostalgia and forgiveness breathed by the falling characters—Buckingham, Wolsey, Katherine—befogs the play's historiography. Ribner accuses Shakespeare of “slavishly” following Holinshed, while Felperin finds that he “departs from history” here “more radically” than ever before.51 Both are right: in Henry VIII the chronicles are extensively used, but radically rearranged. Shakespeare celebrates the stability and continuity of the monarchy in a manner even more providential than that of the Tudor chronicles. The deliberate and ironic evocation of uncertainties about the nature of truth, the contradictory and incomprehensible behavior of the characters, the distortion of source material into a grand pattern, all lead an audience into a kind of historical despair from which the only release is total acceptance. The Prologue's lies demand that we be skeptical of what we see; the play's pageantry demands that we believe its affirmations without question. Katherine's pious response to Griffith's dialectical account of Wolsey epitomizes the process: she forgives him as we forgive history itself for the messy way in which Elizabeth has been brought to light.

The implications of this passivist historiography are worth some consideration. Isaiah Berlin has distinguished two primary ways in which history can be seen to fulfill its function of instruction: either through providing examples of choices made by men in the past for the benefit of those who must make choices in the present, or through claiming to uncover the immutable laws that govern human action with an ultimate view to revealing the future.52

The first complex of attitudes can be readily associated with Machiavelli and the humanist historians; the second, with providential chroniclers. We have shown how both attitudes balance and qualify each other in 1 Henry IV and the rest of the Lancastrian plays; in Henry VIII, characters' actions seem irrelevant to the unfolding of the great, happy event. To Berlin, such an assumption of historical inevitability makes moral evaluation of human activity impossible, since it denies the possibility that individual actions can alter the real picture (except to the extent of clarifying or obfuscating an immanent truth). The result is a complacency that expresses itself in visionary and skeptical terms. Where Hotspur in III.i of 1 Henry IV is shown in the action of choosing bondage to Glendower, Henry VIII never chooses Anne Boleyn. The divorce is inevitable; the king's conscience is a joke; Katherine's plight is sad. Shakespeare refuses to explore the religious, moral, or historical ramifications of the divorce; what makes this play most disturbing, of course, is the fact that recognition and evocation of historical issues in their full moral complexity is the hallmark of Shakespeare's mature dramatic style.53

The antihistorical attitude of the play is, however, not totally anti-Shakespearean. The skepticism about historical understanding that leads, in King Lear, to total refutation of source and tradition, motivates the deliberate confusion of the audience in Henry VIII. The play demands that we believe what we see and then presents us with a series of lies and contradictions; it is a theatrical conundrum, like the living statue of Hermione in The Winter's Tale or, like the double Cesario at the end of Twelfth Night, “a natural perspective, that is and is not” (V.i.209). The ending of 1 Henry IV holds comic and tragic ways of understanding in a precarious balance: Hotspur is dead, Falstaff rises, and the morality play of the prince's reformation is proved both true and false. Shakespeare permits history to validate traditional patterns of moral understanding even as he sees human life as infinitely variable. Falstaff embodies the chaotic energies that challenge articulate arrangement of the past; his resurrection suggests that historical arrangement of life's raw material can be as fictive as playacting.54Lear takes this further: Cordelia's death and Edgar's lame moralizations demonstrate that the fables that organize and give meaning to life falsify human suffering. Henry VIII, like the comedies and late romances, urges an audience to experience the folly, not the horror, of judging. The theatrical miracle of Elizabeth's birth, like the comic resurrections of Hermione and Sebastian, redeems time; its mysterious operations have healed the wounds of history.55

Shakespeare's providentialism, in Henry VIII, is not the propagandist whitewash Felperin suspects or the consummation of Tudor myth that Tillyard celebrates; rather it is the result of a skepticism about history so searching that, incapable of discovering any truth that is not relative, it blurs over moral and factual distinctions to assert that “all is true.” No one in Henry VIII is a morally responsible agent; the contrast to the charged atmosphere in which decisions are made in 1 Henry IV is extreme. Where the earlier play succeeds in suggesting both that human life is significant on a cosmic scale and that our conventional ways of expressing this significance are untrue to experience, Henry VIII refuses to pass judgment. History is fate; conceding the ultimate happy issue, we are set free to concentrate upon the feelings of the individuals caught up in the process without attributing to their actions any significant consequences. The result is a total denial of Renaissance notions of the utility and validity of history through a skeptical juxtaposition of history's truths to the variousness and unknowability of life itself. The pageants of Henry VIII, like Stuart court masques, translate politics onto an idealized, abstract plane.561 Henry IV forces its audience to reenact the historian's efforts to make sense out of life; Henry VIII simply declares the significance of the event and presents, as spectacle, the joys and sufferings of characters who have no moral agency at all. History is full of surprises in the earlier play; the ending of Henry VIII is a foregone conclusion.

The career of Shakespeare himself, then, runs from the creation of the history play in the first tetralogy, through its fulfillment in the Lancastrian plays, to its dissolution into pageant and spectacle in Henry VIII. Shakespeare's skepticism about the ability of historical understanding to master the chaos of human experience leads, at once, to the greatness of 1 Henry IV and the pettiness of Henry VIII. As a dramatist, Shakespeare challenges and defeats his historical sources by staging, with full credibility, events that did not occur in the recorded past but that must have occurred if human experience is at all coherent. Hotspur signs the Tripartite Indenture; Lear loses Cordelia. The suggestion that poets communicate a higher truth than mere historians is a commonplace in Renaissance Platonism.57 Shakespeare puts it to the test, like so many other ready formulations, in the mature history plays; in Henry VIII he allows the fictive spectacle wholly to override mere historical truth.

Shakespeare's mistrust of his sources is symptomatic of a movement away from historical material not only in his own career but in all of seventeenth-century English drama. In fact, as historical discipline is defined more clearly by its practitioners through this period, dramatists show themselves less and less interested in historical subjects for plays. Those who do dramatize the past—Ford, Orrery, Banks, Rowe—do so in a manner more reminiscent of Henry VIII than of 1 Henry IV: skeptical, spectacular, nostalgic, and pathetic. The alternative of a humanist historical drama was essayed only, with characteristic force and perverseness, by Ben Jonson and George Chapman, whose plays about Roman and French histories are learned attempts to bring the new art of history to the English stage.


  1. 1 Henry IV and all other Shakespeare plays are quoted from William Shakespeare, The Complete Works: The Pelican Text Revised, Alfred Harbage, gen. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969). All subsequent act, scene, and line references cited in the text are from this edition.

  2. Mark Rose's analysis of Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, Belknap Press, 1972) draws its language from the visual arts, with the triptych as a primary analogy. Bernard Beckerman describes the plays' centers as “climactic plateaux,” to distinguish them from the explosive turning points of well-made plays, in Shakespeare at the Globe (New York: Collier, 1966), pp. 40-45. Hereward Price's idea of mirror-scenes has been highly influential: see his “Mirror-scenes in Shakespeare,” in J. Q. Adams Memorial Studies, ed. J. G. McManaway et al. (Washington, D.C.: Folger Library, 1948), pp. 101-13, and Construction in Shakespeare, University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1951).

  3. See, for example, John Russell Brown's discussion of the 1951 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play, in which he describes the scene as giving “a still center in personal affection, to the round of wars, distrust, and self-aggrandizement,” in “Theatrical Research of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries” (Shakespeare Quarterly [hereafter cited as SQ] 13 [1967]: 451-61), or Arthur Colby Sprague's comments on the Welsh scene in Shakespeare's Histories: Plays for the Stage (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1964), pp. 64-65. Robert B. Pierce, curiously, comments on “the charming domesticity of the rebel camp” in Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971), p. 183. The tendency seems to be to treat the scene as a kind of intermission. Rose, in his discussion of the play, insists upon the centrality of II.iv and neglects III.i (Shakespearean Design, pp. 81-82).

  4. James E. Hirsh notes parallels in structure between the final scene of 1 Henry IV and III.i of Richard II; in both, the Welsh dilemma suggests that “the work goes on; holiday has not yet arrived. Henry presumably recalls that past but is still condemned, at least by Shakespeare, to repeat it” (The Structure of Shakespearean Scenes [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981], p. 131). News of Glendower's death accompanies Henry's last, and weariest, reiteration of his wish to march upon the Holy Land in 2 Henry IV: “And were these inward wars once out of hand, / We would, dear lords, unto the Holy Land” (III.i.108).

  5. James Black, “Henry IV: A World of Figures Here,” in Shakespeare: The Theatrical Dimension, ed. Philip C. McGuire and David A. Samuelson (New York: AMS Press, 1979), p. 176. This is not utterly unqualified, for Black sees in the play a “pendulum of spoken thesis and seen antithesis” (p. 172).

  6. The discrepancy in the account is pointed out by Kenneth Muir in The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 91-103, with no comment on whether the jumbling is Hotspur's, Glendower's, or Shakespeare's.

  7. Quoted in Arthur Granville Bradley, Owen Glyndwr and the Last Struggle for Welsh Independence (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1901), pp. 121-22.

  8. W. Garmon Jones, “Welsh Nationalism and Henry Tudor,” Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Society, 1917-18, p. 32: “Henry appealed to the ancient historic memories of the age, to the past that is ever present with the Celt; he was ‘mab y darogan,’ in whom the prophecies were to be fulfilled; he was the long-promised hero who was to deliver the race from the intolerable yoke of the Saxon; he was the prince in the true Brutus succession, the descendant of Cadwaladr who was to wear the iron crown of Britain.” Jones provides a good discussion of the king's Welsh propaganda; for a more general discussion of Henry's “Britishness,” see Henry A. Kelly's account of the genesis of Tudor myth in Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).

  9. Black, “Henry IV,” p. 179.

  10. Geoffrey Bullough points out that the sources give an earlier date for the Tripartite Indenture, but Hotspur is still not part of it: Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 4:165. Peter Saccio, in Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), regrets this transposition: “2 Henry IV is thereby left a little thin in political substance,” he complains (p. 52).

  11. Robert P. Merrix and Arthur Polacas, “Gadshill, Hotspur, and the Design of Proleptic Parody,” Comparative Drama 14 (1980): 299-311. See also John Shaw, “The Staging of Parody and Parallels in 1 Henry IV” (Shakespeare Survey 20 [1967]: 61-73), for another way of describing the device: “It works without strain theatrically as a kind of ‘double exposure’ instantaneously modifying and ultimately enriching the playgoer's experience of the play” (p. 71). Lawrence L. Levin mentions Bardolph's nose as an inverse parody of Hotspur's confrontation with Glendower in “Hotspur, Falstaff, and the Emblem of Wrath,” ShakS 10 (1977): 58.

  12. Emrys Jones, in Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), describes the use of this kind of “scenic paradigm” drawn from tradition: “when converting his source material into scenic form, the dramatist must already possess the rudiments of a dramatic vocabulary, a repertory of expressive figures and devices which can be used in new combinations according to his needs” (p. 23). The idea that the mystery plays may provide such a repertory is more fully argued by Jones in The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977): “it is the mystery plays that are our first history plays” (p. 85). See also Glynne Wickham, Shakespeare's Dramatic Heritage (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969).

  13. Morality play elements in Falstaff were first pointed out by John Dover Wilson in The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944) and were emphasized by E. M. W. Tillyard in Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1946), p. 265, passim. Bernard Spivack expands this treatment in “Falstaff and the Psychomachia,” SQ 8 (1957): 449-59, and in Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958). More recently, Alan C. Dessen has explored intensively the morality tradition's staying power: see Elizabethan Drama and the Viewer's Eye (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977); “The Intemperate Knight and the Politic Prince: Late Morality Structure in 1 Henry IV,ShakS 7 (1974): 147-71; and “Homilies and Anomalies: The Legacy of the Morality Play to the Age of Shakespeare,” ShakS 11 (1978): 243-58.

  14. Woodstock: A Moral History, ed. A. P. Rossiter (London: Chatto and Windus, 1946), p. 227; Saccio, Shakespeare's English Kings, p. 52.

  15. The Welsh chronicler Ellis Griffith tells a cautionary story about Glendower's assumption that he, and not Owen Tudor and his line, was the promised deliverer of Wales. The abbot of Valle Crucis, out for an early morning stroll in the hills, met Glendower. “‘You are up betimes, Master Abbott,’ said Owen. ‘Nay, sire,’ came the answer, ‘it is you who have risen too soon—by a century!’” Quoted from Glanmor Williams, Owen Glendower (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 60.

  16. See Richard David's account of the Royal Shakespeare Company 1975 production, directed by Terry Hands, in which Worcester's “sour presence” added “fatality” to the scene, in Shakespeare in the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 5.

  17. Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), p. 115. For Porter the conversation between Mortimer and his wife dramatizes “the proliferation of tongues in the Babel story” (p. 53). David Woodman describes the potency of Glendower's incantations in White Magic and English Renaissance Drama (Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973), p. 47. For another view of Glendower as benign and potent, see Anthony Harris, Night's Black Agents: Witchcraft and Magic in Seventeenth-Century English Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980), pp. 139-40.

  18. Robert B. Pierce sees the affirmation here as unqualified: “Hal stands above the bodies of Hotspur and Falstaff, the two half-men whom he has transcended” (Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 195). Black finds a pat resolution impossible. Alvin Kernan, too, discusses some of the problems that the morality substructure of the ending of I Henry IV raises rather than resolves: “Hal may be Lusty Juventus, counselled by Vices and Virtues, gradually learning to be the true prince and the savior of the commonwealth, but Vices and Virtues like Falstaff and Hotspur speak with such ambiguous voices that it is difficult to tell which is which, and ‘the mirror of all Christian kings’ is so complex a character, and the nature of rule so mixed a business, that we are left wondering whether the restoration of the kingdom represents a triumph of morality or of Machiavellian politics” (The Playwright as Magician: Shakespeare's Image of the Poet in the English Public Theater [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979], p. 116). James Calderwood offers some interesting speculation on the theatrical implications of the ending in Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), in which Falstaff figures “as a rebel against realism” who “threatens a secession of the theatrical from the mimetic aspects of the play” (p. 88). Edward Pechter's speculations are more concrete in their application to the theater: “In the vulgar hawking terms of modern mass entertainments: if you liked part one, you’ll love part two” (“Falsifying Men's Hopes: The Ending of I Henry IV,MLQ 41 [1980]: 230).

  19. See especially John Doebler, Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures: Studies in Iconic Imagery (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), and Martha Hester Fleischer, The Iconography of the English History Play (Salzburg: Salzburg Studies in English Literature, 1974), for discussion of visual aspects (in addition to authors cited before, like Price, Rose, Dessen, Emrys Jones, and Wickham). Alice-Lyle Scoufos discusses traditional Christian imagery in Shakespeare's Typological Satire: A Study of the Falstaff-Oldcastle Problem (Athens: University of Ohio Press, 1979). More sophisticated is Howard Felperin's treatment of morality materials in Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977): “the older models embedded in the plays cast life as a drama of salvation and damnation, and the repudiation of those older models guarantees that there will be no clear-cut cases of salvation and damnation. The older models raise the questions; their repudiation insures a multiplicity of responses to them” (p. 65). For a more theoretical approach, see Albert Cook, Shakespeare's Enactment: The Dynamics of Renaissance Theater (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976).

  20. Emrys Jones discusses the relationship between The Serpent of Division (a prose tract by Lydgate), Gorboduc, and their possible influence on the Henry VI plays in Origins, p. 124.

  21. Hereward Price uses the image: “Shakespeare's art is polyphonic, or it would, perhaps, be better to say prismatic; he decomposes his truth into many shades of color” (Construction, p. 36).

  22. Emrys Jones, Origins, p. 282.

  23. Herschel Baker offers the best discussion of the problems of providentialism in the seventeenth century: see The Race of Time (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), pp. 59-70, and The Wars of Truth: Studies in the Decay of Christian Humanism in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952), pp. 12-25. C. A. Patrides, in The Grand Design of God: The Literary Form of the Christian View of History (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), argues that English historians had “such a preference for explicit formulations of the providential theory of history that indirect statements were avoided or, if made, were amended as soon as possible” (p. 73). See also Robert Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain: From Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966). For the contributions of antiquaries to the debate, see May McKisack, Medieval History in the Tudor Age (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

    For good discussions of Shakespeare's position in this complicated picture see Moody E. Prior, The Drama of Power (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), and M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London: Arnold, 1961). Reese expresses the dilemma this way: Tudor historians tried “to hold simultaneously theories of history and society that were on the one hand practical and on the other hand providential” (p. 56). Also useful is Karen Hermassi's treatment of Shakespeare in terms of The City of God in Polity and Theatre in Historical Perspective (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977). John Wilders handles the issue of the Elizabethan world picture and Tillyard's Tudor myth gracefully in The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 53-78, as does Pechter in “Falsifying Men's Hopes.” Robert Merrix argues in “Shakespeare's Histories and the new Bardolators” (SEL 19 [1979]: 179-96) that repudiation of Tillyard has gone far enough. Eamonn Grennan argues for a closer linkage of Shakespeare with the humanist historians in “Shakespeare's Satirical History: A Reading of King John,ShakS II (1978), 23-37, and “‘This story shall the good man teach his son’: Henry V and the Art of History,” Papers in Language and Literature 15 (1979): 370-82.

  24. See especially Henry A. Kelly, Divine Providence, and Peter Saccio, Shakespeare's English Kings. Wilders offers a telling quote from Hall on the matter of portents: “But such conjectures for the most part, be rather of mens phantasies, then of divine revelacion” (The Lost Garden, p. 69).

  25. See, for example, Aubrey Williams's discussion of the persistence of the world-as-theater image in An Approach to Congreve (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 19-57. Chief debunkers of Tillyard are Kelly—“the providential aspect of the Tudor myth as described by Mr. Tillyard is an ex post facto Platonic Form” (Divine Providence, p. 298)—and Robert Ornstein in A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972). Merrix points out in “Shakespeare's Histories” that if Ornstein sees Tillyard as inordinately influenced in his theories by England's experience of the Second World War, Ornstein's work shows an inordinate influence of the American experience of Vietnam. The most flexible engagement of the issues raised by the critics of Tillyard, Irving Ribner (The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare [New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965]), and Lily B. Campbell (Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy [San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1958]) has been that of Wilbur Sanders, who raises important questions in The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968). See also David L. Frey, The First Tetralogy: Shakespeare's Scrutiny of the Tudor Myth (The Hague: Mouton, 1976).

  26. See J. R. Mulder, The Temple of the Mind: Education and Literary Taste in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Pegasus, 1969), and B. N. DeLuna, Jonson's Romish Plot (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), for discussions of the general practice of parallel-drawing.

  27. See Baker, The Race of Time, p. 89.

  28. “His typical scene is a miniature play with its internal logical structure, its beginning, middle, and end” (Price, Construction, p. 21).

  29. Wilders: “The winner in this game of deception is Hal, who deliberately impersonates the prodigal son and feigns the false impression he knows his subjects have formed of him in order that, eventually, they will be convinced by his equally contrived reformation” (The Lost Garden, p. 90). Thomas F. van Laan, in Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), offers a more orthodox view of Hal and Falstaff as “players”: “Falstaff's is a world for playing roles for pleasure, as many as possible, and the more innovative the better; the emphasis falls on the skill of the playwright-actor. In the heroic world, however, such role-playing would be unequivocally evil. There the ideal consists of finding one's proper role from an approved list of existing possibilities and striving to fulfill it satisfactorily by obeying its dictates. In Falstaff's world, all roles are possible because none is crucial. In the heroic world, only certain roles can be tolerated, and one of them, that of king, matters more than all the others” (p. 150). Side by side these two confirm Grennan's lively image: “Shakespeare is constantly catching his audience in a noose of equal and opposite sympathies” (“Satirical History,” p. 34).

  30. Grennan describes the Chorus as the voice of “official history,” translating the play to the audience and “in reality censoring what they see and how they interpret it” (“‘This Story …,’” p. 371); see also Edward I. Berry, “‘True Things and Mock’ries’: Epic and History in Henry V,JEGP 78 (1979): 1-16: “Henry V, then, is epic history only if we accept the phrase as oxymoron” (p. 16).

  31. See Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, for the sources themselves; Marie Axton, in The Queen's Two Bodies (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977) discusses Lear in the context of Gorboduc, Brute, and other predecessors, pp. 137-42.

  32. Felperin, Shakespearean Representation, p. 94: “the air of contrivance that hangs about the Gloucester action is pervasive and it smells of morality.” See also Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), and Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972)—each of whom devotes an interesting chapter to the frustration of comic impulses in King Lear—and the richly suggestive King Lear in Our Time of Maynard Mack (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972).

  33. Sanders, The Dramatist, p. 76.

  34. Ibid., p. 117.

  35. From the Apologie for Actors, as quoted by David Riggs in his valuable study Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 8; see also Riggs's discussion of Heywood, pp. 8-14.

  36. Hamlet makes the same assumption: Claudius recognizes his guilt from the play, but does not, like the proverbial murderers and tyrants of Sidney's theory, reform; he becomes more dangerous.

  37. See Grennan's distinction between Pistol's “outlawed comedy” and the Chorus's “official history” (“‘This Story …,’” p. 379); see also Edward I. Berry, “‘True Things. …’” Marie Axton argues that “the eloquent disagreements of critics over its tone seem to me to underline the very real ambiguity which is the essence of figural history. A performance of the play will depend upon faith, not so much in the historical person of Henry V as in the body politic” (The Queen's Two Bodies, p. 114).

  38. The idea of “reenactment” comes from R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 282 ff. Grennan argues that we do perform such reenactment and gain “some final insight into the natures of the two principal and, as it turns out, complementary ‘makers’ of history—the king, maker of res gesta, and the official historiographer, maker of res scripta” (“‘This Story …,’” p. 371).

  39. Evelyn May Albright, “The Folio Version of Henry V in Relation to Shakespeare's Times,” PMLA 43 (1928): 722-56, and “Shakespeare's Richard II and the Essex Conspiracy,” PMLA 42 (1927): 686-720. Albright's readings of the plays and of the political situation were challenged by Ray Heffner in “Shakespeare, Hayward, and Essex,” PMLA 45 (1930): 754-80. The paper war between them is neatly summed up by Peter Ure in his edition of Richard II (London: Methuen, 1956).

  40. Richard Levin, in New Readings vs. Old Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), sees Fluellen's salmons as pure red herrings and devotes his considerable skill to debunking “King James versions” that find contemporary parallels in unlikely plays. His skepticism is refreshing, but Shakespeare's joke would not have much point if it were directed at a modern scholarly practice and not a habit in which members of his audience, sometimes sloppily, indulged.

  41. James Winny, in The Player King: A Theme of Shakespeare's Histories (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), argues that critical problems about Henry's conscience show that Shakespeare is losing interest in history: “At the point where uncertainty over established values begins to obtrude upon Shakespeare's interest in man's political identity, the matter of the English chronicles can no longer provide the groundwork of his imaginative interest” (p. 214). But Shakespeare's whole career shows that kind of uncertainty; and Ornstein's portrayal of Henry as a self-satisfied prig is also unsatisfactory. Calderwood calls Harry's a “corporate royalty” (Metadrama, p. 160) and says, rather wistfully, “I do not suppose that Shakespeare was entirely happy with Harry, but I think he may have regarded him as an ideal English king without feeling he was an ideal character” (p. 142 n. 6).

  42. Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage, p. 211. See also James Spedding, “Who Wrote Shakespeare's Henry VIII?Gentleman's Magazine 34 (1850): 115-30; Peter Alexander, “Conjectural History, or Shakespeare's Henry VIII,Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association 16 (1930): 85-120; A. C. Partridge, The Problem of “Henry VIII” Reopened (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949); R. A. Foakes, ed., Henry VIII (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957); Frank Kermode, “What is Shakespeare's Henry VIII About?” Durham University Journal II (1948): 48-55; Howard Felperin, “Shakespeare's Henry VIII: History as Myth,” SEL 6 (1966): 225-46. An interesting discussion of the authorship problem can also be found in Clifford Leech, The John Fletcher Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), pp. 154-57.

  43. For a good discussion of disguised kings, see Anne Barton, “The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History,” in The Triple Bond, ed. Joseph G. Price (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), pp. 92-117, and “He That Plays the King: Ford's Perkin Warbeck and the Stuart History Play,” in English Drama: Forms and Development (Essays in Honour of Muriel Clara Bradbrook), ed. Marie Axton and Raymond Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. 69-93.

  44. E. M. W. Tillyard, “Why Did Shakespeare Write Henry VIII?Critical Quarterly 3 (1961): 27.

  45. See Foakes's introduction to his Henry VIII edition, pp. xliii ff.

  46. Ornstein finds “titillating jests” about the king's conscience wholly unworthy of the author of Henry V (A Kingdom for a Stage, p. 220).

  47. See, for example, Edward I. Berry, “Henry VIII and the Dynamics of Spectacle,” ShakS 12 (1979): 229-46; Larry S. Champion, “Shakespeare's Henry VIII: A Celebration of History,” South Atlantic Bulletin 44 (1979): 1-18; Ronald Berman, “Henry VIII: History and Romance,” English Studies 48 (1967): 112-21; H. M. Richmond, “Shakespeare's Henry VIII: Romance Redeemed by History,” ShakS 4 (1968): 334-49; in addition to other authors cited above.

  48. Ornstein describes the portrayal of Buckingham as a “masterpiece of artistic equivocation” (A Kingdom for a Stage, p. 210), designed by Fletcher “to intrigue and tantalize his audience, not to explore the mysterious paradoxes of human personality” (p. 209).

  49. Felperin, “Shakespeare's Henry VIII,” p. 231. The evidence for the alternative title is printed in Foakes, ed., Henry VIII, pp. 180ff.

  50. Frank V. Cespedes, in “‘We are one in Fortunes’: The Sense of History in Henry VIII” (English Literary Renaissance 10 [1980]: 413-38), calls this “historical irony” (p. 416); Tom McBride sees Henry as “both romantic hero and Machiavellian prince” in “Henry VIII as Machiavellian Romance” (JEGP 76 [1977]: 33).

  51. Ribner, English History Play, p. 249; Felperin, “Shakespeare's Henry VIII,” p. 227.

  52. Isaiah Berlin, “Historical Inevitability,” in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 41-118.

  53. Hence the numerous attempts of critics to reclassify the play in terms of other genres: historical romance, masque, etc.

  54. See Calderwood's paradoxical treatment of Falstaff's theatricality in Metadrama, pp. 73 ff.

  55. Cespedes uses a traditional comic vocabulary to describe Elizabeth's birth as “a ‘holiday’ in the midst of history's grim and implacable business” (“‘We are one,’” p. 437); see also Lee Bliss, “The Wheel of Fortune and the Maiden Phoenix of Shakespeare's King Henry VIII,ELH 42 (1975): 1-25, and Robert W. Uphaus, “History, Romance, and Henry VIII,Iowa State Journal of Research 53 (1979): 177-83.

  56. For court masques, see Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), and Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court, 2 vols. (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973): “The Caroline masque provides us with a remarkable insight into the royal point of view, whereby the complexities of contemporary issues were resolved through idealizations and allegories, visions of Platonic realities” (1:51).

  57. For Sidney, history, “being captived to the truth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from well-doing and an encouragment to unbridled wickedness” (A Defense of Poesy, in Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973], p. 90). Bacon neatly reverses the conventional elevation of poetry over history while at the same time seeming to endorse it: “So as it appeareth that poesy serveth and conferreth to magnanimity, morality, and to delectation. And therefore was it ever thought to have some participation of divineness, because it doth raise and erect the mind, by submitting the shew of things to the desires of the mind; whereas reason doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things” (The Advancement of Learning, in Works, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 15 vols. [Boston: Taggard and Thompson, 1860-64], 6:203). In De Augmentis, he reveals his position more bluntly: “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and other writers of that class, who openly and unfeignedly declare or describe what men do, and not what they ought to do” (Works, 9:211).

Further Reading

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Bergeron, David M. “Shakespeare Makes History: 2 Henry IV.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 231-45.

Argues that 2 Henry IV demonstrates an unusual “self-consciousness” about history, and examines the ways in which the characters in the play are used by Shakespeare to analyze as well as construct history.

Hart, Jonathan. “Temporality: Drama vs. History.” In Theater and World: The Problematics of Shakespeare's History, pp. 97-158. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Studies the relationship between historical time and the dramatic treatment of time in Shakespeare's second tetralogy, demonstrating the views of time held by the plays' major characters and arguing that each king strives to control time.

Hawkins, Sherman. “Structural Pattern in Shakespeare's Histories.” Studies in Philology 88, No. 1 (Winter 1991): 16-45.

Argues that the eight history plays may be connected by a structural pattern that allows for them to be viewed as individual and unique, as well as part of a larger unit.

Jones, Robert C. “1 Henry IV: ‘Is Not the Truth the Truth?’” In These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories, pp. 95-110. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Analyzes the view of history in Henry IV, Part One, and maintains that while the topic is treated with some skepticism, the play's overall attitude toward history remains largely hopeful.

Sterling, Eric. “The Battle between Words and Swords: Breaking Ideological Barriers in Shakespeare's Richard the Second.” In The Movement Towards Subversion: The English History Play from Skelton to Shakespeare, pp. 119-39. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1996.

Examines the portrayal of history in Richard II and argues that Shakespeare depicts Richard as a worse king than historical evidence suggests.

G. K. Hunter (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Truth and Art in History Plays,” in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 42, 1989, pp. 15-24.

[In the following essay, Hunter studies the way in which Elizabethans viewed the treatment of history in history plays.]

Since the First Folio says that Shakespeare wrote history plays I think there is a great deal to be said for assuming not only that he did so but did so in the plays thus designated and no others; let evidence precede definition. It is true of course that the evidence available is mixed; Elizabethan generic vocabulary is notoriously spongy: contemporary title pages give us such hybrids as The Tragedy of Richard II, The Tragedy of Richard III, The History of Troilus and Cressida, The True Chronicle History of King Lear, A Pleasant Conceited History called The Taming of a Shrew. The Folio's generic divisions seem to belong, however, to a different mode of discourse: F1 is a company volume, and I have no doubt that its division of plays into Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies reflects company understanding of the repertory, and so, I take it, the understanding of that good company man, William Shakespeare.

Academic critics inevitably prefer definitions to be less blandly empirical, for what space for dazzling reinventions, for pulling rabbits out of hats, not to mention a name in lights, is left available by so preconditioning an acceptance? As professional systematizers we like to be seen to generate our definitions from general principles and our first chapters from titles such as ‘What is a history play? Some problems and answers’. Irving Ribner, for example, in what remains by far the most thorough treatment of the Elizabethan genre, starts by asking how the purposes of history were understood in the period and then calls any play that fulfils any of these purposes a ‘history play’, and so includes under the rubric such works as Gorboduc, Cambyses, and Tamburlaine—plays that can make no claim to appear in the Heminges and Condell list.

Heminges and Condell offer us no formal definition; what one can derive from their list is the sense that this genre must be defined, above all, by its subject matter: a history play is a play about English dynastic politics of the feudal and immediately post-feudal period—is, you might say, ‘a play about barons’. No doubt they had noticed that the audience in a theatre has a relationship to stories about its own national identity in the intelligible past which is different from its relationship to other stories.1 Several much-quoted testimonies of the period confirm this view of the role of history plays in the culture of the time.2 But little attempt has been made to interrelate the emotional effect on the Elizabethan or other self-consciously English audience, thus described, to the aesthetic structures of the plays themselves. The usual point made is that these are plays of patriotism—a patriotism that can be linked historically to a national mood following the defeat of the Armada in 1588. But the point would be more convincing if the plays were more than occasionally jingoistic and xenophobic, were not so largely concerned with the malignities and incompetences of English governments; patriotism is part of the story but it cannot be the whole story. A more satisfactory answer to the problem can be derived, I believe, from the general thought (contemporary and modern) that such historical narratives must be ‘true’, as against other kinds of plays which can be acknowledged and responded to as feigned or fictive.

The paradoxical idea of an invented true history is one that is difficult to get into focus, and there is some evidence from the sixteenth century of the unease that was generated by a genre that undoubtedly existed but could not be fitted into the categories or vocabulary available. The Induction to the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women (printed 1599) shows us Comedy, History, and Tragedy in dispute for the possession of the stage. History enters the scene as if he has a role to perform, armed with the accoutrements of war (a drum and an ensign), but no space is provided in the play for the deployment of these signifiers. The axis of the dispute remains stolidly binary: to Tragedy the opponent is ‘slight and childish’ Comedy; for Comedy it is extremist and hysterical Tragedy. History is relegated to the unfortunate role of a neuter in a family quarrel; between the alternative trajectories of death and happiness no third possibility is allowed.3 The one Induction of the period which tackles the status of History in a more positive vein is, unsurprisingly, the one attached to an early history play, the anonymous True Tragedy of Richard III (printed 1594). This play begins with a conversation between Poetry and Truth:

poetry. Truth, well met!
truth. Thanks, Poetry. What makes
thou upon a stage?
poetry. Shadows
truth. Then will I add bodies to
the shadows.
Therefore depart and give Truth leave
To show her pageant.
poetry. Why, will Truth be a player?
truth. No, but Tragedia-like for
to present
A tragedy in England done but late
That will revive the hearts of drooping minds.(4)

What we seem to see here is a degree of self-consciousness about the claim that this history play is a ‘true tragedy’. Poetry can only (as in Plato) offer ‘shadows’, but Truth can give substance to poetic shadows by showing things that actually happened, what ‘the Chronicles make manifest’ (line 21). As a player or fictionalizer, Truth has to allow herself to appear ‘Tragedia-like’ in order to secure the effects described in the last line quoted, but the recentness of the events and faithfulness to the chronicles may serve to counteract the danger that poetry necessarily means lies.

The sense, clearly expressed in the Induction to The True Tragedy of Richard III, that truth has to be invoked to justify history plays, appears as a recurrent feature of the word as it turns up among Elizabethan play titles. I have discovered thirteen uses of the word ‘true’ among titles of plays published between 1573 and 1616, four times attached to plays about English history, four times to plays about Ancient British history (always as ‘true chronicle history’), three times to plays about Roman history, and twice to plays about recent notorious murders (both called ‘lamentable and true’).5 Of course the word ‘true’ found in such contexts is, like other words in title pages, a piece of advertising copy, not a scientific description; what I take to be significant is therefore only the fact that this was the word found recurrently appropriate for advertising plays about history. The word is significant only because it designates a set of claims against a set of received expectations. ‘Truth’ in these terms may be said to be a word that indicates the rhetorical precondition or mode of history.

A reader today, given the anti-positivist slant of modern thought, might expect that truth of this kind would require a characteristic formal structure before the plays involved could impose their values on the audience. If the Heminges and Condell implication of a third genre is to be sustained in terms of a particular theatrical effect, then the cause (‘truth’) of that effect can hardly be left as an inert slice of chronicle subject matter unaffected by the shaping process which alone will allow it to achieve the telos proposed. Setting the genre side-by-side with Tragedy and Comedy makes this issue particularly hard to avoid. For these others are genres marked by well-known and recurrent formal characteristics. Can the history play justify its place in this row by its possession of comparable qualities requisite to convey its claim to ‘truth’, its particular hold on an audience's attention, its mode of catharsis?

Most twentieth-century criticism has sought to deal with such questions by allegorizing both history and the mimetic process. The Tudor understanding of history, we are often told, turned individual reigns and individual successes and failures into exemplary instances of the intervention of God (or of the Capitalist System—God under another name) in the daily affairs of men. In particular, the eight plays of Shakespeare that run a continuous course from Richard II to Richard III are said to present a pattern of divine punishment for national apostasy in which the Tudor audience could identify itself as the final inheritor of God's forgiveness once the pattern had been completed. Inside the plays of the sequence, consequently, we must look through individual lives and personal relations so that we may understand their places on the giant wheel of historical necessity (Jan Kott's ‘Grand Mechanism’).6 ‘Truth’ in these terms is identified as the shape of the divine purpose. That there is something of this in the plays need not be denied; but the experience of seeing or reading Shakespeare's history plays, or (more pertinently) of being deeply moved by them, owes very little to this mode of conceptual organization. And this is not, incidentally, what Elizabethan title pages mean when they use the word ‘true’, which refers there rather to the ‘truth’ of factual detail, authenticated by the witness of the Chronicles.7

Modern scholars usually tell us that the Chronicles (particularly Edward Hall's) are marked by an overall design that controls their presentation of detail. But to read continuously in the Chronicles is to discover that they exemplify less the grand historical design than the complexity, dispersal, randomness, even incomprehensibility of actual happenings. We are regularly told about the genealogical tree on the title-page to Hall's Chronicle as a kind of aerial map of the dynastic conflict that ‘explains’ the history of this period. But when we turn over the page and actually begin to read in Hall (or better still in Holinshed) word by word and page by page, then we must descend from the hot-air balloon of theory that floats above history and see events from the level of the human eye, share in the bemusement and mistakennness that characterizes the ‘truth’ of historical experience as here retailed. In his dedication to Burghley Holinshed says that the reading of his volumes will ‘daunt the vicious’—I find that the reading daunts nearly everyone—and ‘encourage worthy citizens’. But in telling his story Holinshed fails to show that history points a moral in either of these directions. And when he does risk causal moralization, that too appears random and particular rather than generally explanatory. Thus when Edward IV arrives at York and swears on the sacrament that he has invaded England only to claim his rightful dukedom of York, Holinshed comments as follows:

For this wilful perjury (as has been thought) the issue of this king suffered (for the father's offence) … And it may well be. For it is not likely that God, in whose hands is the bestowing of all sovereignty, will suffer such an indignity to be done to his sacred majesty and will suffer the same to pass with impunity.8

The tentativeness of the judgement here, as well as the limitation imposed on the connection made, are both entirely characteristic of the author. What Holinshed wrote was, in his own phrase, a ‘collection of histories’; the pluralism attaches both to the variety of sources drawn on and to the collaborative effort that went into the production, and both these point away from explanatory clarity. We are much indebted to all these authors for the legal documents that they report in extenso, giving the actual statements drawn up for Humphrey of Gloucester or Jack Cade (for example). But the authentic words given represent only what these men wanted to be believed, tendentious opinions contradicted by the equally ‘true’ or authentic documents prepared in rebuttal by Henry Beaufort or the government of Henry VI. The wie es eigentlich gewesen ist is nowhere invoked as a unifying perspective, and indeed one might say that the closer the chroniclers bring us to the documentation of the past the more obscured becomes the overview.

The chroniclers' annalistic method of year-by-year accounting further reinforces the general effect of one-thing-after-another randomness. In this mode the idea of an individual's purposive career is difficult to sustain; even though Holinshed sometimes signals ahead with ‘as will hereafter appear’ and similar locutions, his ‘hereafter’ is, like God's, mostly invisible. What is entirely and continuously obvious is that life in feudal England is most adequately represented as a series of individual raids on the inarticulable: a castle is besieged here or there and then retired from when a larger army appears on the horizon; the Scots do their annual thing, try to burn Carlisle or Berwick, drive away cattle, then give up when the weather gets too bad (or too good); the price of wheat rises and falls, a high wind destroys houses, people try to avoid taxes and get hanged, drawn, quartered, beheaded, burned, massacred—random events suffered by individuals continually trying to derandomize them, including Holinshed himself, who offers us the guidance of ‘some say’, ‘others allege’, ‘it is reported that’, but makes little or no sustained effort to assess accuracy or probability. And when the absence of explanatory connection is particularly blatant he throws up his hands in a gesture that might be despair or might be piety, as when he says of the usurpation of Bolingbroke that he cannot make sense of it: ‘But … the providence of God is to be respected and his secret will to be wondered at … For as in His hands standeth the donation of kingdoms, so likewise the disposing of them consisteth in His pleasure.’9 Or again when, after the second battle of St. Albans, he notes that all the advantages seemed to lie with the Lancastrians: ‘But what Man proposeth God disposeth’.10 In such cases a providential pattern emerges, but not as an overall explanation, only as a justification for the humanly inexplicable.

A dramatist who makes his way through such actual chronicles—and we should remember that Shakespeare could not lay his hands on a copy of Shakespeare's Holinshed—has to achieve his design by means of rigorous exclusion and reshaping. But if I am right in assuming that the ideal of truth to the experience of life in the past remains a defining quality of the Elizabethan history play, then the process of streamlining a watertight cause-and-effect kind of structure can easily carry the history play beyond its telos, for the demonstration of Art inevitably diminishes our acceptance of Truth.11 And this takes us back to the comparison between Comedy, History, and Tragedy with which I started. Tragedies and Comedies operate inside efficient and well-tested modes of artful unification. It has sometimes seemed as if the history play could not achieve such unity unless it fell into the artful mode of one or the other of its siblings. This was an agreed and probably an inevitable view among neoclassical critics, whose respect for Art allowed variations from the canon of Tragedy and Comedy only as consequences of ignorance or boorishness (‘common … among our rude ancestors’, Dr Johnson assumed).12 The earliest systematic critic of Shakespeare, Charles Gildon, is interestingly specific on this issue.13 He calls history plays ‘draughts of the lives of princes, brought into dialogue’, and goes on to note that ‘since these plays are histories, there can be no manner of Fable or Design in them’. Dr Johnson seems to defend history plays from the full rigour of such neoclassical rules: ‘his histories, being neither comedies nor tragedies are not subject to any of their laws’; but by agreeing with the principles of the neoclassical position he leaves little or nothing worth defending. He calls the history plays ‘a series of actions with no other than chronological succession and without any tendency to introduce or regulate the conclusion … a history might be continued through many plays; as it had no plan it had no limits … Nothing more is necessary … than that the change of action be so prepared as to be understood … no other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be sought.’14 In the jargon of the Russian Formalists and their acolytes, such plays exhibit fabula but no sjužet: they are mere transcripts of chronology, and chronology provides the only articulation they possess.

It takes very little reading in Shakespeare's historical sources to learn what nonsense this is. But the general issue is not so easily disposed of. History plays are not shaped by the formal closures of death or marriage; they allow the open-endedness of history itself to appear—when one king dies another king emerges; time and politics grind on with a degree of indifference to the life-cycles of individuals. But to say that Richard II, Richard III or King John are simply tragedies that are poorly unified because open-ended is clearly inadequate as a description. The dialectical relation between Art and Truth seems central enough to require a further effort to define the conditions of history plays, preferably in their simplest and most unsophisticated forms, whether as Shakespeare employed them or as Shakespeare inherited them.

F. P. Wilson has famously remarked that ‘there is no certain evidence that any popular dramatist before Shakespeare wrote a play based on English history’.15 If that is to be believed, then Henry VI is, however sophisticated in itself, the great originating event in the history of the history play. But should one believe it? There are in fact two extant Elizabethan history plays with a powerful claim to anticipate Henry VI—one (Dr Legge's Richardus Tertius) clearly dated 1579, the other (the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry V) probably to be dated before 1588; and it seems reasonable to argue (I intend to do so) that these plays give us a glimpse of dramaturgical control of history in the process of formation. Legge's play is not, of course, that of a ‘popular dramatist’ and so by definition may be excluded from Wilson's chronology, but the idea that it cannot therefore tell us anything about popular drama seems much too categorical. As for The Famous Victories of Henry V, Wilson does refer to it but seems to be denying it a place in the story by the curious argument that it is too bad a play to count. He calls it ‘a play of incredible meanness in the form in which it has come down to us, written in bad prose, one imagines, because the compiler could not rise to bad verse’.16 Even bad plays, one is bound to respond, can influence good dramatists. And as for ‘certain evidence’ in the matter of Elizabethan theatrical chronology, if this is our criterion we had better cede the territory as quickly as possible, for there is no ‘certain’ way of defending it.

My aim here is not, however, to argue for or against chronology or to specify influences on Shakespeare or even to deny Shakespeare's originating power, but only to question his power to originate ex nihilo—a question, I note in passing, that even God cannot always avoid. In what follows I wish to use these plays only to illustrate the conditions attached to history playwriting outside the Shakespearian orbit, to exemplify what I have called the central dilemma in the genre—the contradiction (or at least tension) between truth to the experience of the past and the fictional or artful means by which such material can be unified and so given general significance.

Dr Legge, unsurprisingly, given his status as Master of Caius and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, undoubtedly found his material (the reign of Richard III) convenient on at least two counts. The reign of Richard III was one of the few reigns that could be presented in political detail without offending the Queen: and Vice-Chancellors, as we all know, have to be very tender of the susceptibilities of their political mistresses. More important from our point of view is the fact that this material lent itself very easily to the formal literary organization that current scholarly opinion most heartily approved. Tyrant-tragedy provided the staple of the Senecan and Italian Humanist tragic repertory. Both the pseudo-Senecan Octavia Praetexta (then accepted as genuine) and the Ecerinus of Albertino Mussato (usually called ‘the first modern tragedy’)17 deal with the careers of recently dead tyrants (Nero and Ezzelino da Romano) seen from the point of view of the subsequent administration, in modes of formal and political organization that could easily be adapted to fit the case of Richard of Gloucester. Indeed this process of aestheticization or adaptation had begun to be applied to Richard soon after his reign ended. Sir Thomas More, in his Suetonian history of the English Nero copied by all the chroniclers, presents a system of explanation for the events of Richard's kingship that Legge did not have to modify. In More he could find that everything in Richard's reign happened as it did because of the kind of person Richard was. His will, or rather his obsession, his manipulative drive, undiverted by social loyalties to brother, mother, wife, benefactor, comrade-in-arms, can be shown directing the passive world around him to the ends he alone foresees. All the others, Hastings, Brackenbury, the Queen Mother, Buckingham, are cajoled, bribed, terrified, deceived, magnetized into compliance; in themselves they seem to lack positive aims or understandings and therefore must be destined to be victims. In these terms we have a quasi-Senecan scenario already in place.

Yet in dealing even with so well digested a tract of modern history Legge faced methodological problems. Evidently he found it impossible to ignore the un-Senecan modernity of the political forces present in Richard's reign, the complex of voices, resistancies, uncertainties that More reveals. The Senecan form is not only static but also heavily retrospective; it is this that gives emotional density to the exchanges of the small family groups, whose shared life together stretches back through history into myth and legend, accumulating the crimes and resentments that eventually explode in the present. But Legge's history must be prospective. His play cannot end in Senecan mayhem and Stoic acceptance of a malign universe but must carry us through the complex web of English political life and show how it slips out of Richard's manipulative control, so leaving space for Henry Tudor, the Christian deliverer, to descend from the flies and take over the system.

In rendering modern political conditions with a degree of documentary truth Legge is, in fact, obliged to betray the unifying formalism of classical tragedy. The vast extent of his three-part play, the mass of its characters, its geographical range across the English landscape, the continual improvisation the protagonist has to engage in to answer new unexpected resistances—all these factors point away from the form he sought to imitate. The play thus becomes significant in the context I am sketching less as an achievement than as a model of the tensions and contradictions inherent in the genre, especially that contradiction between desire to fulfil the trajectory of the protagonist's plot (in the classical manner) and acceptance of the random points of resistance and diversion that his drive was bound to find in any ‘true’ picture of modern politics.

My second model play—The Famous Victories of Henry V—deals with the same issues from a totally different angle. In Richardus Tertius the chorus civium is shown as disbelieving, reluctant, sullen, and needing to be manipulated, in this de haut en bas treatment, by dazzling displays of rhetoric and chicanery. In The Famous Victories on the other hand the ruler's power is seen as operating not from above but from below; it is presented as a natural outgrowth from the life of the Folk, so that his rhetoric is simply their rhetoric played back to them, with appropriate magnification. The Cambridge play invites its audience to a distanced observation and analysis of political techniques. The popular play offers no such distance: it invites its audience to identify with a man like themselves, with the same emotions and values, though with more space to deploy them. To make this point the author, in a move that must remind us of Shakespeare, shows us Henry V first of all as a down-to-earth Hal, as a bully-boy gang leader who eventually becomes a bully-boy national leader, not too much change of attitude being required. The famous ‘conversion’ of Hal into Henry, his embracing of the Lord Chief Justice and turning away his riotous companions suggests that here, as in Shakespeare, the action is divided by a change of viewpoint and a new set of values into two distinct and differentiated parts, and critics often tell us that this is how we ought to look at The Famous Victories. But a reading of the play in its own terms rather than those of Shakespeare gives us a different profile. It is true that the newly crowned king turns away his evidently well-born boon companions, Ned, Tom, and Jocky Oldcastle. But these are not the figures who represent the ‘true’ underworld of The Famous Victories, which is carried not by deboshed gentlemen but by the genuine proletariat of Dericke, John Cobler, and Cuthbert Cutter (usually known as ‘The Thief’). Ned, Tom, and Jocky disappear from the play after Henry comes to the throne, but for Dericke and company the underworld ethos has never represented a holiday in the slums that can be put behind one, but is life itself. Their inevitable mode of existence is simply transferred, when Henry becomes king, from petty criminality in London to the equally criminal milieu of the private soldier in a foreign war (shades of Brecht!). It is true that the Lord Chief Justice is established in England; but the rest of the cast meanwhile removes to France, and there king and commoners carry on with the old populist pleasure of exploiting the formalistic, the smug and self-satisfied, the self-important, by a witty if brutal realism. The exploitables are now French aristocrats rather than London moneybags, but the attitude of the exploiters remains the same. Dericke and the Cobler end their war by retailing their Schweik-like capacity to minimize fighting while maximizing booty. They share with us their ingenious plan to use the funeral procession of the heroic Duke of York as a foolproof method of getting their stolen goods back home. Clearly we are not meant to be shocked but rather amused by their cynical exploitations of convention. When they get home, they tell us, they will show what they have learned in France by burning down Dericke's house, preferably with his wife inside. At the same time, and in a not altogether different vein, we see a ferociously genial King Henry backslap his ‘good brother’ the French king, his nobles, and his daughter into surrender and matrimony. This is overhand, not underhand; but the same sense that it all grows out of the anti-formalist or ‘realist’ English way pervades both social levels.

In spite of the coming and going of its large cast of characters, the indeterminacy of the many social levels it contains, the disjointed and episodic nature of its action, The Famous Victories of Henry V is, tonally speaking, a remarkably unified play. We may not like the tone—F. P. Wilson has eloquently registered his distaste for it—but we must allow that by assimilating the king and the national destiny to the life of the Folk this play solves the contradiction that appears in Richardus Tertius between the personal career of the monarch (dramatic) and the political life of the nation (historical). For the public life of the country is treated in The Famous Victories as a simple extension of the (shared) private life of camp and tavern. On the other hand we may well feel that the unification of muthos and ethos has been bought here at too high a price. And it is true that political life, as presented in this version, has not enough complexity to challenge our imagination or to represent the problems that a real politician must face.

In their startlingly different ways then, one clinging to the mode of high tragedy, the other to that of low comedy, both Richardus Tertius and The Famous Victories of Henry V show the problem of linking historical ‘truth’ to a seriously unified plot, in both cases one controlled by a dominant monarch whose will and ambition create the context within which historical development is to be understood. But neither author can be said to have secured that very delicate balance between such opposites in a history play—a balance that may be as much social as aesthetic—where the potentials for tragedy and comedy are combined in a manner that transcends both. What both plays can convey to the modern reader is rather the nature of the coordinates within which a history play must exist (and will exist), vectors moving on one axis through the ‘truth’ of content towards formlessness, and on the other axis moving through the necessities of form and order towards unhistorical fictional closure. Like other kinds of art, the history play advances by playing ‘true’ disorder against the promise of an order that can only emerge as fiction.18 Where the history play differs from more traditional forms, such as tragedy and comedy, is mainly in the nature of the balance it sets up between these two opposed forces. In comedy and tragedy the knowledge that the life depicted does not exactly fit into the artful pattern, is not resolved by the artful closure, is only a minor though recurrent counterpoint, an enrichment of the dominant harmony. In the history play, however, the awareness that life cannot be resolved by art is much more powerful. Here in consequence the power to control and complete that pattern is held at a much more tentative level; the authorial or interpretative stance must be more heavily infected by irony, as has been pointed out by David Riggs in his admirable account of the Henry VI plays.19

And so we reach Shakespeare. What I take to be genuinely creative and originating in the Henry VI plays (creative, that is, in generating all the other weak-king plays of the early nineties) is the perception that only by placing an inadequate monarch in the centre of the play can this ironic or detached viewpoint be used to fulfil the tragicomic potential of modern history's indeterminate and destabilized worlds. Only so can an audience enjoy both a detached analysis of political activity (as in Richardus Tertius) and the pleasure of participating in the world of The Famous Victories where (as a recognizable truth) things are liable to happen without anyone anticipating them.

And having reached Shakespeare it is time to stop. My purpose has been to set out the generic conditions within which the texts that Heminges and Condell call history plays can exist. To show how these conditions are exploited is a larger task which belongs to another time and no doubt to another person.


  1. Coleridge, I find, has made the same point in an uncharacteristically succinct manner: ‘In order that a drama may be properly historical it is necessary that it should be the history of the people to whom it is addressed’ (Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1930), vol. 1, p. 138).

  2. Nashe praises historical subject matter ‘wherein our forefathers' valiant acts … are revived, and they themselves raised from the grave of oblivion and brought to plead their aged honours in open presence: than which, what can be a sharper reproof to these degenerate effeminate days of ours?’ (The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1904), p. 212). Heywood says: ‘What English blood, seeing the person of any bold Englishman presented, and doth not hug his fame and honey at his valour … as if the personator were the man personated? … What coward, to see his countrymen valiant would not be ashamed of his own cowardice? What English prince, should he behold the true portraiture of that famous king Edward the Third … would not be suddenly inflamed with so royal a spectacle, being made apt and fit for the like achievement?’ (E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1923), vol. 4, p. 251).

  3. In many ways this Induction can be seen to pick up and sharpen the generic implications of an earlier Induction—that to the anonymous Soliman and Perseda (1590)—where Death, Fortune, and Love conduct a very similar dispute, Death demanding a tragic conclusion, Love demanding comic happiness and Fortune (the process of change) appearing as an unstable intermediary between the other two.

  4. Malone Society Reprint, ed. W. W. Greg (Oxford, 1929), lines 7-16.

  5. The relevant title-pages are as follows:

    1592 The Lamentable and True Tragedy of M. Arden of Feversham in Kent.

    1594 The Wounds of Civil War. Lively set forth in the true tragedies of Marius and Sylla.

    1594 The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York.

    1594 The True Tragedy of Richard III.

    1600 The First Part of the True and Honourable History of the Life of Sir John Oldcastle.

    1602 The True Chronicle History of the Whole Life and Death of Thomas, Lord Cromwell.

    1605 The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters.

    1606 Nobody and Somebody: with the true chronicle history of Elydure.

    1607 The Tragedy of Claudius Tiberius Nero … Truly represented out of the purest records of those times.

    1608 M. William Shakespeare: His True Chronicle History of the Life and Death of King Lear and his Three Daughters.

    1608 A Yorkshire Tragedy. Not so new as lamentable and true.

    1608 The Rape of Lucrece. A true Roman tragedy.

    1615 The Valiant Welshman, or the true chronicle history of … Caradoc the Great.

    One may add to these two later history plays where the word has a continuing but somewhat more oblique function:

    (1) Shakespeare's Henry VIII—apparently known when first performed (1613) as All Is True.

    (2) Ford's The Chronicle of Perkin Warbeck: A Strange Truth (1634).

  6. See Shakespeare Our Contemporary, translated by Boleslaw Taborski (New York, 1964).

  7. See particularly the title-page of The Tragedy of Claudius Tiberius Nero cited in note 5 above.

  8. The Third Volume of Chronicles [London, 1587], p. 680.a.65ff.

  9. Holinshed, p. 499.b.64ff.

  10. Holinshed, p. 661.a.31.

  11. For a general discussion of this issue see Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London and New York, 1968).

  12. Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Bertrand Bronson and Jean M. O’Meara (New Haven, Conn., 1986), p. 226.

  13. ‘Remarks on the Plays of Shakespeare’, printed in vol. 9 of Rowe's edition of Shakespeare (London, 1710), pp. 302-3. He further remarks that it is ‘the misfortune of all the characters of plays of this nature that they are directed to no end, and therefore are of little use; for the manners cannot be necessary, and by consequence must lose half their beauty. The violence, grief, rage and motherly love and despair of Constance [in King John] produce not one incident, and are of no manner of use; whereas if there had been a just design, a tragic imitation of some one grave action of just extent, both these characters being formed by the poet [Constance and Falconbridge] must have had their manners directed to that certain end, and the production of these incidents which must beget that end.’

  14. Rowe, ‘Remarks on the Plays’, pp. 16, 22.

  15. Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare (Oxford, 1953), p. 106.

  16. Wilson, Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare, p. 106.

  17. Edited by L. Padrin (Bologna, 1900). There is a serviceable translation by Joseph R. Berrigan: Mussato's ‘Ecerinus’ and Loschi's ‘Achilles’ (Munich, 1975).

  18. Compare Philip Edwards's Threshold of a Nation (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 112-13, where, discussing the Epilogue to Henry V, he speaks of the dramatic resolution of the play's tensions as ‘belonging to the experience of art’, concluding ‘Shakespeare reminds us of the existence of the two worlds, art and history, without compromising either.’

  19. Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: ‘Henry VI’ and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 1971). Riggs notes: ‘What finally distinguishes the early histories from their antecedents is the fact that only Shakespeare manages to accept the contradictions between individual aspiration and ethical convention in a spirit of conscious irony’ (p. 29); and again (speaking of the episodic structure of Henry VI), ‘the sequence of episodes provides us not with a conventional plot based on historical materials, but rather with a continuous commentary on an irreducible set of historical facts’ (p. 95).


Shakespeare's Historicism: Visions and Revisions


Shakespeare's Representation of Women