restricted access 'The detested blot': the representation of the northern English in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One
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'The detested blot': the representation of the northern English in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One* This article interrogates the representation of northern England in Shakespeare's 1 Henry TV. Defining the region as the English counties that lay beyond the River Trent,1 it endeavours to demonstrate that Shakespeare's portrayal of the North is determined not only by an historical past (no matter how problematical) but, more importantly, also by the political and social 'realities' of the period in which the play was produced. In arguing that there exists a direct correlation between the North as constructed in 1 Henry IV and the status of the region in Elizabethan society, I propose that the play is not only a representation of the past, but an expression of the cultural and geographical divisions within England during the 1590s. Clearly there are dangers in such assumptions. Yet, if one turns to the mass of historical data such as state papers, private correspondence, geographical descriptions, and chronicles, there appears to be no shortage of contemporary anecdotal evidence and commentary on the contrast between the North and South of England.2 Although access to this information during the 1590s was limited to those with time, wealth, and literacy skills, the perception of the North expressed in such discourse was not the exclusive preserve of the educated or ruling elite. Indeed, one finds similar I would like to thank Dr Charles Edelman for his advice and encouragement during the preparation of this paper. * The counties, prior to government reorganization in 1974, of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham, Northumberland, Westmorland, and Cumberland. 2 Both contemporary writers and modern historians frequently refer to the otherness of the North in sixteenth-century England. For contemporary examples see Calendar of State Papers Foreign Series 1569-1571, p. 159, and Calendar of State Papers: Domestic Addenda 1569-1571, p. 77. Camden's observations on the county and people of Northumberland also provide an interesting insight into the status of the region during the last decade of the century: see William Camden, Brittania (1695): a facsimile of the 1695 edition published by Edmund Gibson, New York, 1971, p. 847. For recent studies of the region in the Tudor period see Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641, Oxford, 1965, pp. 201-30; Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth 1, London, 1988, pp. 48-62; and J. B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth 1558 to 1603, Oxford, 1936, pp. 103-12. P A R E R G O N ns 13.1, July 1995 26 G. Cattle sentiments expressed in that most public form of cultural exchange—the Elizabethan popular theatre. In the opening scene of the play, the attempt to mount a crusade is thwarted by the defeat of an English army by the Welsh, and the arrival of 'uneven and unwelcome news/... from the north' (1.1.50-51).3 Accordingly, the theatrical representation of northern England (and Wales) is associated with disaffection and opposition that shatters the 'ideal' of a unified state, where . . . mutual well-beseeming ranks, March all one way, and be no more oppos'd Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies. (1.1.14-16) Even before the break between the king and the Percies, the northern region is identified as a problematical zone that threatens the prevailing social order. In 1 Henry IV the rebellion led by the Percies is motivated by two issues: Henry's demand for the prisoners taken at the battle of Holmeden,4 and support for Mortimer's claim to the throne. However, these issues are, as Ornstein suggests, the 'occasion rather than the cause'^ of the divisions within the ruling elite. More appropriately, the conflict between the crown and the northern English is part of a larger ideological struggle, between a monarchy seeking to extend its power, and an aristocracy struggling to maintain its independence. Like many history plays of the period, Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV interrogates what is, in one respect, a form of colonialism, 'the expansion of royal hegemony in the English-Welsh mainland . . . [an] expansive thrust . . . into the dark corners' of the realm.6 Politically, this process was complete by the 1590s. However, there still existed a recognizable and...