The Play of History

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250 pp

By focusing on Shakespeare's plays as a mode of historical inquiry, the authors of this arresting study explore the many levels in which Shakespeare used history to show the process of change and its controvertible consequences. Emphasizing the new historiography that flourished in British intellectual life between 1580 and 1640, they assert that his view of history-a view founded on ideological confrontation-was revealed in Shakespeare's works. Shakespeare is recognized as a dramatist interested in depicting history for its own inherent drama rather than as a product of the divine.

Grouping the plays by place and period, Holderness, Potter and Turner alternately show now Shakespeare reveals medieval England, pre-Norman Scotland and Republican Venice-each its own world with differently perceived social formations, laws and economic and military structures. They describe how Shakespeare endowed each society with its own characteristic language and ideologies, thus portraying the great issues of morality and religion within the historical process rather than outside it.

In discussing Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, King Lear, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, the authors reveal the historical cast of Shakespeare's imagination. They argue that traditional views of Shakespeare's dramas which discuss the plays in terms of the recovery of an initially dislocated order are short-sighted, and they assert that the characteristic pattern of Shakespeare's works in one of transition-transition perceived as historical process and change. For it was not only history itself that interested Shakespeare but the change that resulted from historical confrontation, commonly within the two great patriarchal structures of family and state.

The authors show how the plays focus upon common stress points such as the struggle for power and property between aristocratic houses and monarchical states, clashes between military and civilian interests within the state and the conflicts over succession and inheritance provoked by the law of primogeniture. They demonstrate how Shakespeare charted not only the passages history had taken but also the passages it did not take, giving voice and meaning to what had been lost, denied, defeated or unrealized.