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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: April ::
Re: How Shakespeare Invented History
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0697  Tuesday, 4 April 2000.

From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Monday, 3 Apr 2000 19:30:45 -0400
Subject: 11.0674 How Shakespeare Invented History
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0674 How Shakespeare Invented History

In response to this illuminating article, I would just like to second
Anthony Burton's sentiments regarding not dismissing the historical
connotations of the setting of the drama.  We are not, after all,
dealing with a culture that was uninterested in history.  Their
interest, especially among literary men, bordered on obsession, and
Shakespeare was a man of his time in that respect.  Is it likely that
his ransacking of the historians was a purely utilitarian mining for
plot lines?  Must it not reflect some personal fascination with
historiographers, whom he emulated extensively?  If so, would not this
fascination inevitably intrude into his conceptualization of character
and plot? This seems to me to go without saying, and I therefore can't
see how separating historical elements from dramatic character can
produce anything other than a partial reading of character.

I believe, although I suppose there is no general consensus to the
effect, that the conventional use of history in literature was as
allegory of the present, and the game was to find historical moments
that seemed best to serve as analogies in the poet's task of
contemporary cultural criticism.  I have found the readings of Homer
that read the events surrounding the Trojan War as allegorical of
tensions in the culture of Homeric Greece, and of Sophocles that read
the plague at Thebes as allegorical of the plague at Periclean Athens
the most convincing.  Whether or not the stoicism of Brutus or
absolutism of JC has anything to do with issues confronting the
Elizabethans, what I read as the conventional function of historical
tragedy and epic continually and inescapably begs the question.

Clifford Stetner
http://phoenix.liu.edu/~cstetner/cds.htm

>THE TELEGRAPH, LONDON
>Saturday 1 April 2000
<snip>
> We contend that far from developing a
>single ironic view of English history, Shakespeare's real view is
>fragmented, kaleidoscopic, highly complicated, even random at times; it
>reflects as much his own development as an artist as it does a
>considered view of history, and almost certainly says as much about the
>politics of his own age as that of the period he was writing about.
<snip>
>
 Shakespeare is telling the story of his
>race.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Shakespeare was
>creating the story of his race.  And while doing so he was inventing the
>very idea of history as we have come to understand it.  Like subsequent
>historians, Shakespeare's sense of the past was partly a reflection of
>the world in which he lived.
<snip>
>The cycle will still have its Greek echoes, with the curse of the
>deposition in Richard II resonating from generation to generation, until
>its expiation and final redemption in Richard III.  But it will ask a
>disturbing and profound question, of immense importance as we leave the
>bloodiest century in human history.  Can culture prevent barbarity?  Can
>political sophistication, humanism, wit, music, drama, philosophy
>safeguard against the forces of depravity?
>
>I am thinking particularly of the beginning of the 20th century, when
>imperialism, whether it be German, Russian, Italian or even British, was
>not only unable to respond to the fanaticism that followed, but has been
>shown to have engendered the very contradictions that gave life to such
>inhumanity.  We can also look to Eastern Europe and the Balkans for
>further evidence.  We have seen Henry VI's bloody Battle of Towton
>regularly enacted on our TV screens over the past 12 months.
 

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