Few academic disciplines exist isolated from history – it is, in its broadest sense, inherently interdisciplinary. This is particularly pronounced in the 'Humanities', a grouping of subjects bound together by a critical focus upon human histories, rituals, texts and images.
The interconnection of history with the study of law, religion, art, drama, philosophy and, the focus of this piece, literature, raises crucial issues both historiographical and methodological. Such issues have the potential to enrich all disciplines and to provoke controversy – often constructively. This is certainly the case when placing Shakespeare 'in history'.
Despite producing a prolific number of 'Histories' and introducing generations of schoolchildren to the triumphs and strife of England's ruling houses, Shakespeare has never been considered much of a historian. His are Histories written to the politics and culture of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, alive to potential resonance while conscious of official scrutiny, cut and crafted to popular taste, riots of pageantry, swordplay and slapstick. From King John and Richard II through to Richard III and Henry VIII, Shakespeare's 'History' is one unbound by rigid adherence to established 'fact' or verisimilitude – by a need authentically to reproduce the past – in marked contrast to the preoccupation with authenticity that dominates the Shakespeare industry today. Shakespearean History, a generic category separate from, but intersecting with, Comedy and Tragedy, instead revels in the possibilities presented by linguistic paradox, visual disjunctions and outright anachronism. History is shaped to inform and overlap with the contemporary.
Henry IV Part I is a useful example. As with many of the Histories this, one of the most popular of all Shakespeare's plays, is based firmly on the relevant sections in the second edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of 1587, and dramatises Henry IV's troubled stewardship of the realm following his usurpation of Richard II as he confronts rebellious nobles and a wayward son. Not only does Shakespeare – following Holinshed – conflate two Mortimers into one, and alter the age of Hotspur in order to make him a legitimate rival to Prince Hal, but the comedic tavern environment of Eastcheap belongs more to the late 16th century than to the early 15th century of the play's ostensible setting. As too does the preoccupation with an inviolable English nationhood (extended yet further in Henry V), in which the very earth of England becomes a maternal source of identity for her 'children',(1) while the Welsh present an opposing image of sorcery and alien savagery, offering potential parallels to Elizabeth I's campaigns in Ireland.
Shakespeare's willingness to adapt – perhaps even distort – the history of his sources should come as no surprise. History had no use unless it could service the needs of the present, as can be seen in the celebrated portrayal of Richard III, a disfigured Machiavel whose deserved deposition comes at the legitimate hand of Henry, Earl of Richmond, the grandfather of Shakespeare's queen and founder of the Tudor dynasty. This is not to suggest, however, that Shakespearean History functioned simply as a bulwark to royal authority – it might also open up the possibility of challenging such authority, as happened when rebels under the Earl of Essex commissioned a performance of Richard II (featuring the deposition of a monarch) to accompany their own rebellion in early 1601.
Examples such as this suggest that for both Shakespeare and his audiences history was a malleable thing, acquiring different meanings in different contexts. However, if there are problems with identifying Shakespeare as a historian, these pale in comparison to the problems Shakespearean critics have had with history. Following the 'theory wars' of the 1980s a mainstream formalist approach to Shakespeare, which emphasised the 'literariness' of a work's language and form, was replaced by two theoretical movements primarily concerned with history and sharing a great deal of common ground: the New Historicists and the Cultural Materialists.
A considerable amount of scholarly ink has been spilt scrutinising their differences (differences that will consequently not concern me in detail here), yet as ways of understanding literature and history they are broadly in agreement. Both draw upon Marxist materialism, as refracted through post-1968 French philosophy – most importantly Michel Foucault – and the work of the critic Raymond Williams. Foucault's championing of an 'archaeology of knowledge' and his guiding preoccupation with the mechanics of power, exemplified in his Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison,(2) were crucial starting points.(3)
Such work was particularly influential upon Stephen Greenblatt, the leading proponent of New Historicism, who controversially signalled his approach to early modern literature by writing, in Sinfield and Dollimore's Political Shakespeare, that 'there is subversion, no end of subversion, only not for us'.(4) New Historicists sought to understand a text both in history and of history, in relation to the social, economic and political circumstances in which it was forged, received and understood.
In the case of Cultural Materialism, subsequent reception of a text, and the process by which a text became canonical – hence the central importance of Shakespeare – was of equal significance. Both approaches also attempted to challenge the prevailing ethos by emphasising the deliberate reclamation of previously marginalised figures in early modern writing, and particularly in Shakespeare, leading to work on issues of sexuality and gender and on ethnicity and religion that would reconnect texts isolated by Formalist criticism to the politics and preconceptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean England and the wider world.
This was an attempt to rethink literary history, and the place of the literary within history: as Alan Sinfield has remarked, the Cultural Materialist project involves 'writing histories that are not immanent; that are not limited by the essentialist assumptions and expectations that collect around the category of the literary'.(5) Critics of such approaches have pointed to what they perceive as an absence at the heart of this historicist undertaking – history itself. Some have argued that such work contains no methodological or theoretical coherence, nor a valid conception of history; that New Historicists such as Greenblatt used little more than anecdote to conjure grand theories of culture.(6) In this sense it is simply reductive – inevitably so, since literary critics are not historians.
Others complained of a loss of the literary, a relativist flattening of all writing into 'texts' leading to the disappearance of the singularity of a literary work into a dark historical void. Certainly recent years have seen the developing sophistication of what is now an orthodox historicism, a response to such 'history anxieties'. These include a tightening of historical focus to consider, as Andrew Hadfield has written, 'the sorts of issues which characterised political discussion' in this period rather than attempt to impose modern theoretical constructs that reduce complex cultural interactions to either simply a challenge to, or reinforcement of, the prevailing hegemony.(7)
The loss of the literary into the supposed blandness of the historical has been addressed most recently by the development of Historical Formalism, an attempt to place a Formalist focus upon the language and aesthetics of the literary within a historical context.(8) Certainly in the past decade Shakespearean historicists have shed both the capitals and the 'New', and have come to different accommodations with history – some call themselves Cultural Historians, some Historians of Ideas, others simply historicists. But few would call themselves historians, so clearly some of the mystery of 'the Literary' remains.
In terms of this problematic relationship between history and Shakespearean scholars, perhaps the most intriguing development of the last few years has been the advent of Presentism. As laid out by Ewan Fernie in his Spiritual Shakespeares (9) and more completely by Hugh Grady, Terrence Hawkes and others in Presentist Shakespeares,(10) Presentism argues for an enabling engagement between the critic and the text in history; that there can be no historical past 'uncontaminated' by present concerns, and that an endless and inescapable dialogue between past and present can generate ironies through which we can gain new understandings of texts and their function.
Fernie argues that 'Presentism relinquishes the fantasy of restoring Shakespeare's artistry to the earliest conditions of its realisation in favour of embracing its true historicity as something irreversibly changing in time'[J1] .(11) This does not seem a great distance away from earlier Cultural Materialist concerns, but is deliberately positioned against prevailing historicism, since 'backward-looking historicism is in no position fully to exploit what difference the past can make now'.(12) Shakespeare's drama and poetry, for a variety of reasons ever relevant, is the obvious centrepiece for such an approach.
Developments such as Presentism and Historical Formalism in Shakespeare studies point to the vitality as well as the difficulty of critical engagements with history. How does a play-text almost continually re-edited, taught, produced, referenced, read and enjoyed over four centuries, written by the 'man of the millennium', sit in history? It is neither simply a historical document, nor is it simply transcendental (as some would have it). The ongoing relevance of such questions indicates that we are unlikely to escape Shakespeare's problems with history.
Dr Matthew Dimmock is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Sussex