- Shakespeare’s Tudor History: A Study of “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.”
Tom McAlindon is interested in history as both subject and methodology. In the opening chapter of this learned and lucidly written book on 1 and 2 Henry IV, he proves that a knowledge of history is as important for the scholar's understanding of his own critical perspective as for understanding the contexts of the plays he examines. Offering a rich and complex critical history of the play's two parts, McAlindon recuperates the work of important but long-forgotten nineteenth-century critics and suggests ways that their work often anticipated more recent criticism. He argues that the discovery of a grand cyclical design in Shakespeare's histories, which critics today blithely attribute to E.M.W. Tillyard, may in fact be traced to Schlegel (1811) and to his admirer Hermann Ulrici, who in 1839 interpreted the histories dialectically as a dramatization of the problematic relationship between feudalism and Christianity, and who believed that "Shakespeare's . . . understanding of his own time [derived] from his awareness that the roots of contemporary crises . . . lay in the past" (9). Ulrici's insistence on a complex unity in the two parts of Henry IV—a unity based not on plot but on theme, analogy, and contrast—was revived in the twentieth century by formalist critics who focused on [End Page 114] the plays' structural organicism, and his dialectical reading of the histories adumbrated in fundamental ways the interpretations of much later Marxist critics.
Likewise, McAlindon argues that recent focus on the histories as sites of resistance to an authoritarian regime is presaged by another nineteenth-century critic, Richard Simpson, whose scrutiny of topical religious and political contexts in "The Political Use of the Stage in Shakespeare's Time" (1874)1 fashioned Shakespeare as an oppositional dramatist and the histories as subversive of Tudor orthodoxy (12). McAlindon traces a line from Simpson to critics such as Lily B. Campbell and Tillyard, who also studied the histories in the light of Elizabethan politics (although with more conservative ideological biases) and to another group of critics—Theodore Spencer, Hiram C. Haydn, and Robert Ornstein—who, exploring the contradictions within Shakespeare's cultural heritage, cast doubt on the claim that he believed in a hierarchical world order and countered the view of his histories as unequivocal Tudor propaganda.
Critics of the past twenty years, McAlindon asserts, prompted "by a Foucauldian sense of history as a series of ruptures, no less than by a revolt against the liberal-humanist values of earlier critics" (23), have tended to dismiss previous criticism as "Tillyardian" and thus to ignore the diversity of approaches taken by two centuries of critics, some of whom, ironically, anticipated new historicist and cultural materialist readings. McAlindon's recuperation of this important work by critics provides an illuminating corrective to our understanding of the reception of Shakespeare's history plays generally, and his discovery of critical through-lines is scholarship of the highest order. It is only unfortunate that in his determination to chastise poststructuralists for their oversights, he himself ignores some significant discoveries that scholars such as Barbara Hodgdon, Jean E. Howard, David Scott Kastan, and Phyllis Rackin have made about the other cultural histories—those of marginalized figures such as working women and wives, the denizens of the tavern, the Gloucestershire justices and recruits, and the Welsh—which are inscribed in the Henry IV plays and which would seem to enrich, rather than contradict, his attempt to recover the plays' religious and political history.
In the second chapter, McAlindon turns to history as subject and addresses the ways in which Shakespeare's histories should be read in the context of post-Reformation debate. He argues that the two parts of Henry IV are deeply imbricated in the religious and political controversies that kept England on the verge of anarchy throughout the sixteenth century. He locates the chief source of unrest in the ongoing strife between Catholics and...