Germaine Greer

For those people who believe that propaganda cannot be art, or that propaganda in support of causes of which they disapprove, such as loyalty to the monarchy, to a religious sect, or willingness to die for one's country, cannot be good art, the history plays will raise serious difficulties, which are only partly resolved if we decide to treat them as self-contained poetic entities or psychological studies of individual kings and nobles. For one thing, we will have to ignore a good deal of commentary presented by nameless characters, by representative characters, and by lay figures who appear for one important speech and are never seen again. For another, we will have difficulty with ghosts and portents, prophecies and curses, and we will have to ignore anachronistic contemporary references. King John, for example, contains various elements which have less to do with history than with propagandist intention—anti-papal (III. i), anti-Spanish (II. i. 23, 26; III. iii. 2, V. i. 65, V. ii. 151, 154, V. vii. 117), and pro-Elizabethan, in the parallels between John and Elizabeth—yet it is by no means crass or over-simplified. The complexity of the issues is never minimized, but thrown into dramatic relief by the selection of incidents and manipulation of sympathy. While we are drawn into the psychology and dynamic of conflict, at the same time dogmatism and faction are shown to be inappropriate responses, always involving more error than justification.

By the time he wrote Henry V (1598-9) Shakespeare must have been aware that the illusion of unity in English society could no longer be sustained. It was no longer in the power of the dramatist to hold the imagination of all, literate and illiterate, powerful and powerless. The development of the indoor theatres with their greater scenic resources and their prurient interest in matters sensational and intimate rather than public-spirited and universal had divided the Globe's audience while other entertainments vied for the groundlings' half-pence. The most talented newcomers to write for the theatre had a different viewpoint at once loftier and more limited.

In 1598 a play of Ben Jonson's had been accepted for performance by the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Curtain. Jonson had been imprisoned in 1597 for his part in the seditious play The Isle of Dogs, the playing of which resulted in the closing of all the London theatres from luly to October. Less than a year later he was tried at the Old Bailey for killing one of Henslowe's players in a duel. He was convicted and escaped hanging only by pleading benefit of clergy. He was branded on the thumb and all his possessions confiscated by the Crown. He was practically unemployable in the theatre, but with the playing of Every Man in His Humour by Shakespeare's company his fortunes were reversed. It is therefore hardly to his credit that when he revised Every Man in His Humour he added a censorious prologue which could be thought to apply specifically to Shakespeare:
Though need make many poets, and some such
As art and nature have not better'd much;
Yet ours for want hath not so loved the stage,
As he dare serve the ill customs of the age,
Or purchase your delight at such a rate,
As, for it, he himself must justly hate:
To make a child now swaddled to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years, or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster's long jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.
Jonson dismisses the whole epic theatre, together with the chorus that 'wafts you o'er the seas', the deus ex machina descending from the clouds, depictions of hell-fiends surrounded by fireworks, and, significantly enough, tempests made by shaking shot in a sieve or playing drum-rolls. Jonson is concerned with 'realism' or 'truth to life,' but Shakespeare deliberately eschewed this more insidious kind of illusion, knowing that the truest poetry was the most feigning. The apology he makes in Hemy V is an inverted boast of his power to transport audiences to a vantage-point from which they could oversee and interpret their own history, and of their willingness to be so transported.
And so our scene must to the battle fly,
Where, 0 for pity! we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-dispos'd in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see;
Minding true things by what their mock'ries be. (IV, Chorus, 48-53)
The historical dramatist had worse to fear than the sneers of the literati. No play would be licensed if it was thought to meddle in matters of politics or religion. When The Book of Sir Thomas More was submitted to the Master of the Revels, he stipulated that the scene of the insurrection of the Lombards be deleted from the play. The deposition scene was removed from Richard II both on stage and in the printed quartos by about 1597, and the 1600 quarto of Henry IV Part II contained extensive revisions. A comparison of the 1594 quarto of Henry VI Part II with the version in the First Folio shows that all possible references to the Irish question, Elizabeth's legitimacy, rebellion, or to particular noble families had at some stage been deleted from the text.

The licensing authorities could sniff out political and religious allegory in the most unlikely places. The old queen loved theatre; indeed she was herself a hieratic figure in an allegorical pageant of queenship which became more elaborate as she grew feebler. As she strained royal privilege to raise money for the war with Spain and parliamentary pressure for reform began to intensify, the common people were racked by a concatenation of visitations of plague, poor harvests, a wave of new enclosures, and economic recession. Fear of popular rebellion culminated in the law of 1595 prohibiting assemblies. The historical playwright had a clear brief; if he was not prepared to put together chronicles which would unite his audiences in their duty to God and the Crown, he had better stick to some other medium. In order to avoid the pitfalls of historical playwriting, it was not enough to refrain from trampling the Queen's corns. The playwright had to approach the struggle to subdue the tangle of confusing anecdote knowing what lesson he wanted it to teach and prepared to discard, distort, and invent in order to present his own version of the meaning of history.

Shakespeare's principal sources for the histories are Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577, 1587) and Edward Hall's The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and York (1548). Neither is followed to the letter. Shakespeare suppresses matters irrelevant to his dramatic purpose, inverts the order of events, creates important roles for individuals of no historical importance, and telescopes lifetimes into single scenes. Critics and scholars once presumed that Shakespeare had simply amplified Holinshed's Chronicle in a more or less unsystematic fashion. Gradually more painstaking sifting of Tudor historiography showed that he had consulted virtually all of the available sources, including some which existed only in manuscript, some never translated from the French or Latin, and some which had never been written down at all but survived by oral transmission. His method was not to evaluate all in order to select one and follow it consistently, but to pick and choose from mutually conflicting accounts the versions of individual events which best suited the dramatic depiction of his vast theme, the making of the Tudor monarchy out of the chaos of the Wars of the Roses.

When Shakespeare digests and transmutes material gathered from both written and verbal sources, the resulting compound is subject not only to the imprint of his personality but the exigencies of theatrical exposition. We find in a Shakespearian history as we find in Brecht's Galileo that the climactic episodes have been set in a framework of commentary. Where Brecht uses song or projected words upon a screen, Shakespeare is more likely to use choric characters who may utter highly wrought poetic speeches of some length only to disappear for the rest of the play. In Henry V he elaborates the commentary into a Chorus which is more than ever Brechtian in that it constantly refers to the historic reality beyond the diminished shadow which is all that the play can present. For Brecht the characters themselves are less important than the historical dialectic that they represent; the same is true of Shakespeare, but the concept of history is very different. His historical theatre must first of all create an epic dimension, using every resource, not only drums, trumpets, banners, heraldry, and high-sounding words, but the imagination of the audience. The protagonist is England, manifest not only in the noble individuals who represent the body politic, the anointed kings, but in the audience itself. The point is made in many different ways, that king and people interdepend, that each individual is a microcosm of the state, that states like the souls of men must be redeemed.

In an age when religious zeal turned brother against brother, the drama sought to reunite the people and raise public morale. Shakespeare was remarkably successful in managing potentially inflammable material so as to send audiences home excited and gratified rather than anxious about the deteriorating political situation and increasing instability of the Elizabethan order, but the plays are neither insipid or jingoistic. Shakespeare demonstrates his own version of the truism that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are compelled to repeat them; by signs, portents, and prophecies, events to come are foreshadowed while past causes are also tied in to present action, in each of the eight plays covering the two hundred years between the revolt of the Percys and the accession of Henry VII. None is easy watching: not only must audiences follow attentively the fortunes of war expressed in emblematic skirmishes of a handful of soldiers with banners, drums and trumpets, and wooden swords, they must trace the endless permutations of subtle themes, constantly resurfacing in altered forms. The weaving together of the huge themes of right and wrong rule, of kingship as a divine office and a Machiavellian political institution, of the reciprocal duties of ruler and ruled, against such a vast panorama is only possible in the theatre and then only in poetic drama.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.