Historicising Shakespeare


The benefits of teaching Shakespeare from a new historicist or a cultural materialist perspective in Romania do not need defending. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of the students' awareness and tolerance of difference and how the employment of such approaches counteracts the homogenizing discourses still prevailing in Romanian education. What also needs stressing, however, is the cultural specificity of Western oppositional readings of Shakespeare and the necessity for operating adjustments and negotiations when adopting these critical perspectives.

Of particular help to Romanian students are the fresh, iconoclastic views they offer. Western radical theories could be referred to and compared with local theatrical practices to provide incentives for a more provocative and explorative engagement with the Shakespearian text. This would make for the introduction of a discontinuity in the tradition of obedient veneration of canonized figures in classrooms. It would encourage Romanian students to believe in the possibility of introducing change by questioning established meanings and by generating new meanings.

Plays such as Henry V that appear to endorse triumphalist, nationalistic positions can provide interesting exercises in readings against the grain; An important goal to pursue in such readings is to stimulate the students' desire to question the discourses legitimating heroic figures and to increase their awareness of the existence of alternatives to a given set of actions. One of my favourite exercises is the investigation of the uses that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king make of history in Henry V scene 2, act one.

The Archbishop turns to history in order to legitimize Henry's claims for France. Recourse to history involves both archives and narratives of the past, such as the glorious feats performed by Henry's ancestors, Edward III and his son the Black Prince. Like the divine design of nature referred to in the famous beehive metaphor, history is invoked as an authority: it provides the objective, hard-core truth upon which kings can build their policy. Under this guise—the play shows us— history provides the legitimacy of acts of violence that have dire consequences for the population.

In scene 2, the one who questions this use of the official discourse on the past is none other than the king himself. Anxious not to compromise his "image", Henry warns the Archbishop to:

…take heed how you impawn our person

How you awake our sleeping sword of war.

We charge you in the name of God take heed,

For never two such kingdoms did contend

Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops

Are everyone a woe, a sore complaint

`Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords

That makes such waste in brief mortality. (1.2 21-28)

The king is, of course, shrewdly trying to shift the burden of responsibility on the Archbishop, who assumes the position of the historiographer. The warning does, however, raise important questions and indirectly arrests the flow of action. The historiographer is admitted to being fallible, to committing fatal errors either in the research of the historical past or in the narratives in which the facts are presented. The absolute quality of the historical truth is thus seriously hedged in. Information on the debates around the adequacy of historical accounts in the Elizabethan period can indicate that the historical truth was not taken for granted in Shakespeare's time. Parallels can be established between Bale and of course Foxe, Hal and Holinshed. (Patterson 1995, 1996). Shakespeare's own "preposterous" reversal of the chronological ordering from Hall and Holinshed in Henry V should be emphasized (Parker: 1996:41-42). Contextual information thus lends weight to Henry's doubts about the impartiality and accuracy of the Archbishop's reading of the archives: " And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord./ That you should fashion, wrest or bow your reading" (1.2. 13-14)

The students could be encouraged to study the extent to which the play encourages a radical view of history one which according to Benjamin, can " blast open the continuum of history". (Benjamin: 262) Henry's comment upon the effects of historiography projects a different version of the history of the wars between England and France, a version that no longer subscribes to the celebratory and jingoistic discourse Canterbury and Elly have been employing. Henry's warning suggests a vision of history that no longer endorses the perspective of the victors or of the "heroic" martial figures, as it foregrounds the wanton bloodshed and the sacrifice of innocent (common?) people that such military pursuits inevitably entail. Is Henry here ventriloquising William and anticipating the latter's gruesome image of "all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle [that] shall join together at the latter day and cry all…" (4.1. 124-125)?

The official discourse on history and on political and military action is therefore interrupted and challenged at the very centre of authority. For a short moment the spectator can entertain the hope that Henry might opt for a different line of action, that there was an alternative to the historical events.

I think that Romanian students can benefit from lingering on such examples of fissures and contradictions in the dominant discourse. A new historicist reading of the lines quoted above would, of course, emphasize the fact that Henry is actually behaving like a Machiavellian prince who raises such subversive questions only to contain them later on. Henry may very well be just hypocritical in venting any fears or scruples, since the Archbishop's ensuing demonstration of the legitimacy of the war against France is made on the king's request and is part of a bargain the Archbishop made in order to save the property of the church. This line of argument is not only absolutely necessary to an adequate reading of the play; it is also helpful in demystifying the aura around Henry V.

A reading along Greenblatt's line should also include the objections that cultural materialists have brought to this perspective, namely that it cancels out the possibility of resistance to power. (Belsey 1991) These objections fully resonate with our anxiety in the face of the Romanian students' mistrust in the possibility of resistance and their consequent disaffection with both politics and history. It follows that negotiations and adjustments to "local" requirements are necessary when employing new historicist and cultural materialist readings. These negotiations counter the potential tendency that these radical readings should impose themselves as the dominant global critical discourse on Shakespeare.

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Comments to: Mãdãlina NICOLAESCU
Last update: August 2002
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