Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
David B. Downing
Since the Historicist trend of Shakespeare Studies started in the mid-20th century, there has been a consistent debate over how medieval/religious/centripetal or modern/secular/centrifugal Shakespeare is in a set of eight plays he composed concerning the 15th-century history of England, called the “histories” by the compilers of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623). To be precise, there has been a dialectical debate going on for over half a century. On the one hand, there are prominent literary critics and theorists of the mid-20th century like Tillyard, Campbell and Ribner who locate Shakespeare’s histories within the Providentialist tradition of the late Tudor era which is heavily invested in medieval religious and political ideas. On the other hand, literary critics and theorists of the late 20th century like Greenblatt, Sinfield and Rackin mostly, to different degrees, see Shakespeare as a manifestation of the early modern Machiavellian approach to politics. However, the issue on which they all have a consensus is that what Shakespeare presents in his histories is a totalizing idea of politics: the former see it in terms of a medieval/religious nature and the latter in terms of a modern/secular nature.
My contention is that Shakespeare is a transitional figure who demonstrates dilemmas, ambivalences and even paradoxes on different levels; and that is why any attempt at locating him and his histories in only one ideology or clear set of ideas proves suspect to me. Indeed, as S. K. Heninger has perceptively put it, a residual “epistemology of faith” coexisted throughout the period with an emergent “epistemology of empiricism,” but “neither was privileged over the other.” Accordingly, throughout the history plays Shakespeare presents a host of contending and at times contradictory worldviews. It is in fact through the recurrence of certain Providential and Machiavellian ideas/motifs/themes/epistemes that the eight plays can be linked together, making them a rather collective entity – though still full of tension and conflict.
Perhaps the most consistent motif that the history cycle demonstrates is change itself: the fall of one kind of “order” and the rise of another. What falls is the medieval political authority. This destroys the feudal system and the old nobility and leads to almost a century of chaos. Instead of that religious medieval order, a precarious religio-secular nationalism emerges. However, it is still much tempered with a receding medieval political theology. And this latter order is still the order of the day in Shakespeare’s time. Indeed, it is my contention that through the history cycle Shakespeare in fact depicts this very paradoxical order of his contemporary late sixteenth-century England, and not the epistemology of the fifteenth century when the stories of the plays actually occur.
We can see in the plays that the fall of the old order does not take place once and for all, and neither does the rise of the new order. In fact, they keep receding and proceeding throughout the histories, even at times commingling, as they do in the chronicles on which they were based. Therefore, in my opinion, a realistic model to survey Shakespeare historically would be the one that takes into account the fact that there is no one dominant worldview or ideology in the histories; and that the residual and the emergent orders keep in constant conflict.
The epistemological outcome of this ongoing alternation is that “progress” is not linear. It is not even incremental, i.e. constantly going forward by degrees. Progress is indeed a “recurring” process that clearly manifests itself in the receding and proceeding philosophical/theological/political epistemes that exist in the history cycle. In other words, progress keeps happening, but it is more like the movement of tides – ebbs and flows – that eventually look forward but which do not happen smoothly or predictably. It is this recurring progress of English political thought during the late Tudor era that I want to establish in my dissertation through an extensive and multifaceted study of Shakespeare’s history plays.
Parchizadeh, Reza, "The Recurring Progress of English Political Thought in Shakespeare’s Histories" (2018). Theses and Dissertations (All). 1664.