A Frisson in the Auditorium

Blair Worden

  • How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage: Power and Succession in the History Plays by Peter Lake
    Yale, 666 pp, £25.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 22271 5

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’.

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[*] Bad Queen Bess? Libels, Secret Histories and the Politics of Publicity in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I was reviewed by Stephen Alford in the LRB of 17 November 2016.