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Shakespeare's Historiography

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posted on 2021-11-12, 11:10 authored by Ewens, Robert Leslie

This study explores, in a sixteenth century context, the historical thought and consciousness of a selection of Shakespeare's English history plays. Looked at in relation to contemporary historiographical works, it is concluded that the plays in question qualify as a form of dramatic historiography both transitional and progressive in nature. The study, after considering some aspects of Tudor historiography relevant to Shakespeare and his drama in the introductory chapter, goes on in Chapter One to explore Shakespeare's Henry VI sequence. My discussion finds that the interaction of the roles and requirements of both dramatist and historian has two important results: firstly an emerging awareness of the impossibility of presenting the historical "truth"; and secondly an appreciation that the (re)construction of a linear historical narrative (dramatisation), especially when developed from diverse Chronicle accounts, requires the dramatist/historian's critical and historical judgement concerning probability. Also observed in this chapter is the drama's capacity for making character as much a part of history as event. In Chapter Two Shakespeare's Richard III is juxtaposed with its main source, Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III. These texts provide a springboard for discussion of the tradition of oral history and the problems associated with its use as a source for authoritative historiography, and the apparent resemblance between the historian's and lawyer's pursuit of the "truth". The methods and principles of the courtroom are intimately related to those used by the dramatist/historian. The final chapter couples the anonymous history play Edward III with Shakespeare's most sophisticated history, Henry V. In this chapter I first discuss the growing sixteenth century distinction between poetry (the medium of the history play) and historiography. The history presented in Edward III is interrupted and disrupted by the "poetic" interlude of King Edward's residence at the Countess of Salisbury's castle; I argue that the play (ironically, given its own status as verse drama) privileges "history" at the expense of "poetry". In Henry V, in contrast, there is evidence of a conceptual shift in the use and perception of history. Here, also, is found the full realisation of the ineluctable evasiveness of historical "truth" through the contradictory accounts of the Chorus and the stage action, and the opacity of King Henry.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Walker, Kim