How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage: Power and Succession in the History Plays 
by Peter Lake.
Yale, 666 pp., £25, November 2016, 978 0 300 22271 5
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Does Peter Lake​ ever sleep? Even at 666 pages this is not the longest of his books, which descend on the study of the decades around 1600 like a great waterfall. There are no signs of fatigue, no inanimate sentences. Behind the loosely conversational manner of his prose lies a precision of thought and structure. How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage, an amiably but inherently contentious book, is easier to dissent from than to put down. Lake has the bravest and most problematic of subjects. By ‘politics’ he means the politics of Shakespeare’s time: the struggles of power and principle he sees reflected in the plays Shakespeare wrote under Queen Elizabeth. The greater part of the book explores the plays about English history: the six King Henry plays and two King Richard plays, which relate the origins and course of the Wars of the Roses, and King John. But there are also extensive discussions of the contemporary political pertinence of Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and even The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The detection of real-life parallels in Shakespeare has a long and often embarrassing history. The practice was sufficiently entrenched by 1880 to be parodied by Swinburne, who proposed that Romeo was a satirical representation of the queen’s aged counsellor Lord Burghley, ‘the first and perhaps the strongest evidence’ being the ‘impossibility of discovering a single point of likeness’, for ‘this would naturally be the first precaution taken by a poor player who designed to attack an all-powerful minister.’ There will be no end to the embarrassment, for the correspondences can be no more disproved than proved, there being no evidence outside the plays with which to test conclusions derived from them about Shakespeare’s political outlook or connections, if he had any. Equally, there is nothing to say whether his audiences detected topical analogies in them.

Lake’s book is distant in spirit from the fruitcake theories. He knows the limits of the evidence, which no scholarship can traverse. Rarely can the subjunctive mood have been so hard-worked. We are told repeatedly how Shakespeare’s spectators, or ‘some’ of them, ‘may’ or ‘might’ or ‘may well’ or ‘might well’ have responded to the plays or to scenes in them. The book is unavoidably an exercise not in proof but in grounded speculation (or mostly grounded: Lake does have his aberrant moments, especially when Shakespeare’s disagreeable strong women remind him of Elizabeth). Lake’s is one of those subjects where hypothesis, for all its limits, is our only route into issues that it would be a default on human curiosity to neglect.

This is the most enterprising account of the histories since E.M.W. Tillyard’s Shakespeare’s History Plays in 1944. They are highly dissimilar books, partly because Tillyard was, as he said, ‘no historian’ and because Lake is, as he says, ‘not a literary critic’, but also because of a long revolution of interpretative perspective. Tillyard set the revolution in train but it eventually displaced his thesis, and to Lake he seems a remote figure. Shakespeare’s History Plays, together with Tillyard’s earlier The Elizabethan World Picture (1942), not only permeated literary criticism but gave literature an entry into historical writing. By emphasising the Tudor notions of political and social hierarchy that he saw reflected in the plays, Tillyard inadvertently gave succour to the postwar growth of Marxist and other progressive interpretations of the period. He also undermined, albeit slowly, practices of literary study, characterised by the New Criticism, that were ascendant when he was writing and that disdained the banality of political facts, at least when they were deployed in the interpretation of literature.

Not that Shakespeare’s History Plays has many facts in it. Tillyard was interested in the intellectual background to Tudor politics, not how the system actually worked. The only event he referred to was the attempted Spanish invasion of 1588, which he mentioned solely to refute the theory that the history plays were about it. Yet his readiness to take Shakespeare’s fact-based dramas as seriously as the invented worlds of the tragedies and comedies posed a fundamental challenge. To Tillyard, ‘recent history and its lessons were … what the French Revolution and the doctrines that accompanied it were to Wordsworth, or Godwinism to Shelley.’ The boldness of his claim becomes clear when we set it beside the almost simultaneous announcement by the influential critic John Palmer that Shakespeare was ‘forced’, by the public demand for plays about political figures, ‘to take the political field’.

Tillyard’s book helped rescue the three Henry VI plays, the works with which Lake seems most at ease. The trilogy may look like apprentice-work next to the more variegated series that gives us Richard II, Bolingbroke, Falstaff and Hal, but it is only by that comparison that it suffers. It was the historical sweep of the Henry VI plays, the working out of a pattern of national breakdown, that engrossed Tillyard. His influence was strengthened by a landmark production by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford in 1963, the year after his death, that demonstrated the trilogy’s theatrical potency and established its place in the repertory. The production followed Tillyard’s interpretation and the RSC added Richard III to the sequence, in line with his argument that it ‘can never come into its own till acted as a sequel to the other three plays’.

This claim was only a half-truth, buttressed by the RSC with some heavy editing of the texts. Even so, the productions caught a public mood. Coinciding with an eruption of political satire on page and stage, they signalled the spread of political consciousness in society at large after the anaesthetised postwar years. This has proved a lasting development: politics has been brought into the mainstream of literary criticism, though it has mostly been chattering-class politics, short on information. The New Historicism substituted abstractions for scholarship and held a mirror not to Shakespeare’s time but to its own. Lake’s concentration on concrete politics is very different. Each play is related not merely to the general historical background but to a subtly drawn political context.

Swinburne protested, as many have, that the identification of ‘political allusions’ in Shakespeare could never take us anywhere near the centre of his art. The interpretative revolution has failed to show how art and politics come together. But that is not Lake’s concern. For him, Shakespeare is a source, not a voice. His poetry might as well be prose. It does not matter to his thesis whether Shakespeare’s choices of subject matter, and the way he decided to interpret it, were determined by artistic impulses or personal convictions, or by pressures of patronage or the box office. To him, the primary interest of the plays is as a witness and guide to the preoccupations of the huge number of Londoners who watched his plays. Early last year Lake published another book, Bad Queen Bess?, which found evidence of wide public engagement with national politics in the controversies provoked by a series of illicitly published tracts against Elizabeth’s misrule.* His new book rests on the assumption that Londoners brought those political interests to the theatre.

Certainly, dramatic content has never been more attuned to political mood, though Shakespeare’s age has a rival in the present one, when it seems impossible to turn on a television without encountering a fictional representation of political skulduggery or corruption. Elizabethan perceptions of the world of politics were no more flattering. Historians of the later years of Elizabeth’s reign discern an atmosphere of political disintegration and evaporating public morality, of despair and venom and secret contrivance. Not just the regime, but also the nation, seemed in peril. Was the queen being duped by Machiavellian counsellors ready to sell the nation to a foreign power? Was the constitutional unaccountability of the Crown not a recipe for tyranny? Did the half-heartedness of the pursuit of war against Spain not risk the destruction of the nation’s security and religion? Intensifying those anxieties was a more fundamental one: divisions over the succession to the childless queen threatened to plunge England into the kind of civil and religious war that had engulfed France and the Netherlands and left them vulnerable to foreign conquest.

The ostensible subject of Shakespeare’s histories is the past, not the present. They followed a theatrical vogue for the depiction of foreign times. Lake may miss drama’s capacity to take an audience out of its own world, but he is right to insist that in the 16th century no past could be wholly foreign. As is now widely recognised, the Tudor mind was so impressed by the repetitiveness of history that it instinctively sought enlightenment in historical patterns and parallels. Most political thought was historical thought, and a great deal of it drew lessons from the convulsions of the Wars of the Roses. Few now doubt that the historical plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries alerted their audiences to present-day analogies. So when Shakespeare’s English histories portrayed Machiavellian politicians, or showed national disaster arising from the inept conduct of war abroad, or described civil strife over the occupancy of the throne, Lake believes that their audiences would have been ready to relate them to their own political worries. He might have extended his scope from the watching of the plays to the reading of them, since they entered public consciousness through print as well as – perhaps at least as much as – performance.

Lake’s leading role goes to the only politician alive at the time who is unmistakably alluded to by Shakespeare: Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, to whose return from his military campaign of 1599 against the insurrection in Ireland, ‘bringing rebellion broached on his sword’, the Chorus of Henry V looks forward. The incompetence of Essex’s own rebellion two years later, which brought him to the scaffold, has occluded the charismatic stature he possessed in his lifetime. He was a dashing, if flawed, military leader, who demanded the thorough prosecution of the Spanish war and the rallying of national and Protestant feeling behind it. Aiming to replace the temporising, and in his eyes treasonous, statesmen around the queen, he offered the hope, however misguided, of the country’s reform and deliverance. The sentiment was nourished by his extensive patronage of writers, though we can’t tell if Shakespeare was (or aspired to be) among them.

The most striking parallel with Essex that Lake finds in the plays is between the earl’s predicament at the siege of Rouen in 1591-92, when he believed his enemies at home to be undermining his and the nation’s cause, and the calamitous faltering of the war effort against France in Henry VI Part 1, a play which, ‘among other things’, was ‘a highly topical piece of propaganda … intended to intervene’ in an ‘immediate political context’. In art and life alike ageing and corrupt politicians were seen to be stifling the virtue and valour of a younger generation. Lake believes Shakespeare ‘bought in hard’ – from whatever motive – to ‘the Essexian project’. Mischievous jabs at Essex’s rival Lord Cobham in The Merry Wives demonstrate Shakespeare’s involvement in court rivalries and his ‘popularity with the Essex group’. Yet Lake’s Shakespeare wasn’t a mere apologist for Essex. Lake believes that in other plays he mingles praise of Essex with sometimes ‘withering’ criticism.

Another important thread, at least in the first half of the book, is supplied by the tracts Lake discussed in Bad Queen Bess?, most of which were written by Roman Catholics. Until recently, the Protestant bias of English historiography obscured the inflammatory and destabilising contribution to late Elizabethan politics of a succession of Catholic writers, William Allen and Robert Parsons (or Persons) among them, who were bent on destroying or discrediting the regime, or securing a successor to Elizabeth who would reintroduce or at least tolerate their religion. Lake is not impressed by the recent claim that Shakespeare was a Catholic. He does not insist that Shakespeare wrote with the tracts in mind, only that they, and the impact they had, are signs of public concerns that the plays also addressed. He finds Shakespeare sometimes in agreement with the Catholic arguments, sometimes opposed to them. But the more complex the relationship between the plays and the polemic sounds, the less tangible it looks, and the more arbitrary seems the plucking of these tracts from the wealth of political and historical commentary of the time as a guide to the plays. Shakespeare can always be relied on to remind audiences and readers of their own experiences and preoccupations – he even has a way of reminding academics of their latest research projects. I discovered this early in my career, when, watching a production of Julius Caesar, I was startled to notice how exactly the play caught the characters and predicaments of a group of 17th-century politicians I was studying, and was abashed to realise that I would have taken the play to be about them had it not been written sixty years earlier.

There are more solid comparisons to be made than with the Catholic tracts. If there is a means of tracing Shakespeare’s choices, artistic or political, it is by setting the histories beside his starting point, the available narratives and chronicles of the medieval past, and seeing where he agrees with them, and where other writers chose differently. Lake makes intermittent use of that method, with some fascinating results, especially in his comparison of King John with the treatment of the reign in Holinshed’s Chronicles and with the play to which Shakespeare’s is closely related, The Troublesome Reign of King John. But he bypasses two of the prominent narratives of the period covered by Shakespeare’s other English histories, works on which Tillyard dwelled: the chronicle of Edward Hall, which was a key source for Shakespeare, and Samuel Daniel’s The Civil Wars, in verse, which may have been.

No one would charge Lake with bardolatry. Tillyard, warning against a tendency to assume that Shakespeare’s views are the ones most eloquently expressed by his characters, gave as an example of ‘the kind of great poetry’ to which we are prone to ‘surrender without reserve’ Hotspur’s ‘By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap/To pluck bright honour from the pale-fac’d moon.’ The temptation would not beset Lake, who in a far from unique moment of cheerful indelicacy calls this Hotspur’s ‘rant about honour’. (In the ‘sceptered isle’ speech rebuking Richard II, John of Gaunt gives his king ‘an earful’.) Shakespeare’s politicians, shorn of their interior worlds, become mere political animals. The approach has its benefits: Lake is a penetrating guide to the histories as studies in the rules and calculations of power. Sometimes he presents the political messages as detachable from the thrust of a play. Although Shakespeare ‘deliberately distributed’ them ‘throughout the text’ of Titus Andronicus, and made them visible to more discerning viewers, they were ‘neither inherent to the structure of the play nor essential to its interpretation’ and it was ‘quite possible to experience the play without noticing any of them’. That they are unnoticed by later generations does not weaken Lake’s case.

But can art​ and politics be so easily separated? I suspect that some of Lake’s insights imply more about Shakespeare’s art, and are thus of more general interest, than he realises. He writes for the academic community: for a section of it, for readers who are content both with the cerebral analysis of literature and with the boundaries of his field. He calls learned articles or recovered documents that have made a specialist splash ‘famous’, while points that are familiar to the same readership are ‘of course’ true. There is a world elsewhere.

Take King John. In Lake’s judgment, John’s reign was such contested historiographical terrain, and had such stark parallels with modern crises, that to choose it for a play was inescapably to engage with the controversies of the day. John quarrelled, as Elizabeth did, with the pope, and his reign was afflicted by problems of royal succession analogous to those that burned in Shakespeare’s time. Lake thinks the play an ‘unequivocally’ partisan intervention in the debates of its time. The controversies expounded by Lake may have helped make the play commercially attractive. Perhaps they explain, or help to explain, why Shakespeare interrupted the composition of the two sequences he set in a later medieval period to write a single play about an earlier time. But if King John was suited to contemporary preoccupations, how do we decide that it sought to shape them?

In the opening scene the king debates his entitlement to the throne with the ambassador of the French Crown, on whose support for the rival candidate, Arthur, the plot will turn. John claims his rule is vindicated by dynastic ‘right’ and by his ‘strong possession’ of the throne, to which his mother, Eleanor, is prompted by her ‘conscience’ to reply in an aside: ‘Your strong possession much more than your right’. She knows Arthur to be the legitimate claimant. Lake swoops on the exchange, which is ‘intended deliberately to locate the play in the midst of’ the debates about the Elizabethan succession. There was a legitimate claimant to Elizabeth’s throne, James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots. He inherited it when, to general surprise, the succession was settled in 1603 without a civil war or foreign invasion. When the play is placed alongside other contributions to the succession debates, Lake argues, its emphases place it firmly on James’s side.

It is not difficult to imagine Eleanor’s riposte bringing a frisson to the auditorium. Her words recall another aside in another opening scene, in Henry VI Part 3, which may also have prompted intakes of breath by politically informed spectators: the king’s admission that ‘my title’s weak.’ Eleanor’s is a mood-shaping line. The shaping may have a political purpose, but it has an artistic one too. The thematic and atmospheric coherence of a Shakespeare play always relies on what we might call a moral economy – a set of rules by which the characters expect human conduct to be determined or judged, even if they themselves question or break them. The economy varies from one play, or sequence of plays, to another. The distinctive feature of King John is the feebleness of the sanctions of deference. In the other histories, the characters invoke the gods or are awed by majesty and rank; Eleanor’s reply, by cutting through her son’s pretensions, helps prepare us for the blunt realism of a play that is thin on divinity, where kings are addressed as mere men, and where the bastard Faulconbridge can sweep the claims of hierarchy aside.

Or take Richard II. Like others before him Lake remarks on a peculiarity of the play. The king’s enemies Bolingbroke and Northumberland attribute his tyranny to the sway of his evil counsellors, Bushy, Bagot and Green, who have ‘misled a prince, a royal king’ and are summarily executed on those grounds at Bolingbroke’s command. Yet what we are told is at odds with what we are shown. In accounts of Richard’s reign by contemporaries of Shakespeare the evil counsellors are to the fore, but they are peripheral to the action of the play. The discrepancy between words and facts, if the audience notices it, will affect its judgment not only of Richard but of his enemies, especially the enigmatic Bolingbroke.

Lake has an explanation. In Shakespeare’s time there were, as even moderately informed spectators would have known, two ways of criticising tyranny or misgovernment. The first, daring and rare, was to blame misrule on the ruler. The usual, and safer, route was to claim that the offending monarch had been diverted from virtuous paths by evil advisers and could be restored to them by the advisers’ removal. It was the likelier argument to win support and is the one deployed by Richard’s enemies, who need all the support they can get. Tillyard, who did not notice the discrepancy, took Bolingbroke’s eloquent denunciation of the counsellors, which he called ‘a very fine speech’, to be heartfelt. But if Lake is right it follows that the earl’s indignation is either simulated or self-deceiving. That does not mean the scene must be played that way, for it is a defining feature of Shakespeare’s art that his characterisations will sustain any number of interpretations in performance. But Lake’s point may indicate how it would have been played in Shakespeare’s time, or even how Shakespeare envisaged its enactment.

Here too, however, an aspect of the play seized on by Lake looks different when we think, not of the Elizabethan preoccupations that he sees Shakespeare feeding or responding to, but of the larger patterns of his writing. Having come to Shakespeare from the Catholic tracts, which used history ‘to conduct their critique of the Elizabethan regime as a conspiracy of evil counsel’, he takes Shakespeare to be exploring the same theme through the histories. Yet aside from Richard II’s subordinated advisers – and the wicked barons of the Henry VI plays, who are more like the overmighty subjects than the counsellors of a ruler whose de facto abdication has left no king to counsel – there are no evil counsellors in Shakespeare. It is a conspicuous omission. Machiavellian or treasonous advisers are a staple feature of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, figuring, for example, in Marlowe’s Edward II, Robert Greene’s The Scottish History of James the Fourth, Thomas of Woodstock (an anonymous play about Richard II), and Ben Jonson’s Roman play, about which Lake has written acutely elsewhere, Sejanus His Fall. By contrast, none of Shakespeare’s miscreant kings – the two Richards, Claudius, Lear, Macbeth, Leontes – yields to bad advice. Other playwrights might have shown Claudius being manipulated by Polonius. It was not for want of artistic aptitude that Shakespeare chose not to. Iago supplied the model for a number of manipulative advisers depicted by other playwrights, who applied his unsavoury characteristics, as Shakespeare did not, to the field of politics.

Counsellors do figure in the lives of almost all Shakespeare’s tyrants, but as providers of honest or prudent advice that their masters, bent on self-destructive paths, reject. The pleas of Gaunt, of John’s barons, of Kent, of a succession of advisers in The Winter’s Tale, of Alonso’s counsellors in The Tempest, are spurned. Surely what draws Shakespeare to his tyrants is not Elizabethan political debate but the subject’s scope for tragedy. Rejecting the opportunities for rescue offered by good counsellors, and without any pressure from bad ones, the kings make their wilful and solitary ways to disaster.

Is Shakespeare the best author for Lake’s thesis about the political engagement of theatregoers? Though Lake never presents him as a merely partisan writer, the thought of an even intermittently side-taking Shakespeare will exercise readers who see a contrast with, say, the opinionated texts of Jonson, Marston or Chapman. Those playwrights got into trouble with the authorities for treating contemporary issues, but Shakespeare did not. He had no part in the movement that drew the most sophisticated parallels between past and present: the revival of Tacitus, patronised by Essex and introduced to the stage by Jonson’s Sejanus. It would have been logical for Shakespeare, having written Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, to complete another trilogy by setting a play in the early Roman Empire, Tacitus’s field and the territory of Sejanus. Instead, he went back to the early Rome of Coriolanus. One did not need to be a Tacitean to apply historical lessons to an understanding of the present. But Tillyard, alert to Tudor applications of the past, doubted whether the repetitiveness of history was high among Shakespeare’s interests. Isn’t one of the difficulties with Shakespeare, for those who seek to situate him amid the theatrical practices and thinking of his time, that he wasn’t just better but different?

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