The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0382 Friday, 17 September 2012
Date: September 14, 2012 6:30:27 PM EDT
Subject: The Archbishop’s Oration and the Tudor Myth
A paper I’ve been working on for some time concerns the appropriate means—if any exist—of staging the Archbishop of Canterbury’s oration before King and court at the beginning of Henry V, Act I, Sc. 2.
The points I need clarified, although not necessarily germane to the main dramaturgical argument, have to do with the presence or absence of the Archbishop, Henry Chichele, at the King’s ‘great parliament’ in Leicester at which the oration was supposedly given (according to the Chronicles). Essentially, Shakespeare took the speech and refashioned it in choice iambic pentameter, changes not a whit of its content.
Yet I’ve heard it said that the Archbishop was not in fact at Leicester, and did not give the speech; I do not know where the Chronicles’ derived it. It is mentioned the Foxe’s martyrology that the speech was given, but only its general import.
I have lost the reference, but I seem to recall that as part of a furbishing the Tudor myth, an author—Champion? Campion?—somewhere around 1540 essentially invented the speech and the circumstances of its oration. This seems to be a very vexed issue, and I am not a Shakespearean scholar. Can anyone enlighten me about this supposed history in or around 1540. I know a bit about Polydore, but not much, and it was not he who promulgated the pseudo-history, if such it be.
Corollary questions, and I do not know if they can ever be answered: Did the Holinshed chroniclers take what they set down as received truth, or know they were fibbing. And what was Shakespeare’s view of the events the Chronicles set down, notably the speech? Did he know that he was stroking the Tudor myth, so to speak, that the speech was never given; or did he suppose that the speech was well and truly spoken.
Again, my central interest is the internal consistency within the play, and rendering the arcane and prolix oration into some semblance of meaning and dramatic interest for a contemporary audience, the members of which I would suppose had little interest in the sundry Blithids, Irmengards, Pepins, of the tangled French succession. Still, for the sake of reasonably good scholarship, it would be nice to know whether the speech did take place, did not take place, or is simply, or complexly still a ‘vexed question from a historical point of view.
I do believe that despite its length, prolixity, and arcane subject matter, Shakespeare intended that audiences should receive it, attend to it as seriously and soberly as did the king and court as described by Holinshed’s chronicles. Reading in between the lines, there seems no great occasion for mirth arising from an oration which was supposed to furnish the king with the rationale for a bloody and expensive war. The most one would suppose of mirth would be a wintry smile or so at the Bishop’s words, original or in the play, that his reasoning was ‘clear as the summer sun’. Which makes any comedic reading, such as Aylmer’s in the Olivier film the cheapest of cheap shots.
Any help would be greatly appreciated on the historical points.
Harvey Roy Greenberg MD