- Shakespeare and the Nobility: The Negotiation of Lineage
Given the importance the privileged classes of Shakespeare's world placed on lineage, it would be understandable if they were anxious about a common play-wright appropriating their ancestors' lives as a source of popular entertainment. Furthermore, given the power and touchiness of early modern aristocrats, it would be understandable if a playwright of the era avoided depicting patricians' progenitors. Shakespeare, however, chose to depict the ancestors of a considerable number of Elizabethan aristocrats, often unflatteringly, but the only evidence we have that he got into any trouble doing so concerns the Oldcastle-Falstaff episode. Catherine Grace Canino attempts to explain this paradox in Shakespeare and the Nobility, an examination of the first tetralogy, arguing that Shakespeare "consistently modified and revised the portrayal of [aristocrats'] ancestors with the status of their descendants in mind" (19).
Canino examines not only 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI and Richard III, but also The First Part of the Contention . . . and The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York. She discusses the Staffords, Dukes of Buckingham; the de la Poles and Greys, Dukes of Suffolk; the Nevilles, Dudleys, and Westmorlands, Earls of Warwick; the Talbots, Earls of Shrewsbury; the Cliffords, Earls of Cumberland; the Stanleys, Earls of Derby; and two men representing "the gentry" : Sir William Lucy and Sir James Fiennes, Lord Saye. For each family, she discusses the chroniclers' treatment of the ancestor(s) involved in the Wars of the Roses, the behavior of the family's Elizabethan representatives, and Shakespeare's dramatic treatment of the ancestors. [End Page 1417]
Although Canino sees Shakespeare's treatment of the Elizabethan aristocrats' ancestors as part of a pattern, the pattern is not one of consistent appeasement. Although she believes that in Richard III Shakespeare enhances the character of Stanley, while representing Buckingham as comparatively naïve and innocent, and ultimately a victim, and that in 3 Henry VI he inserts scenes that partially redeem the appalling behavior of John, Lord Clifford, she maintains that in other instances Shakespeare denigrates aristocratic characters. For example, Canino suggests that Shakespeare intentionally diminishes Lord Talbot in 1 Henry VI in order to mock his descendent the Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, who was having trouble with his wife. But is it likely that Shakespeare would diminish his play's hero in order to antagonize an aristocrat?
Furthermore, Canino arguably undercuts her argument that a concern for descendents' opinions influenced Shakespeare's depictions in her discussion of Suffolk, often considered the greatest villain of 1 and 2 Henry VI. Although the family had died out and the title was extinct, so that Shakespeare had, for once, a free hand, Canino asserts that Shakespeare extenuates Suffolk's villainy through motivating it by love. Whether or not love serves as mitigation for this character, family cannot have served as motivation, which raises the question of whether the same is true for other characters.
Canino argues that "it is the noble classes that dominate [Shakespeare's] plays" (222) and it is true that aristocrats constitute many of the significant characters in a majority of the plays, although it might be argued that royalty —which Canino generally distinguishes from the nobility —dominates many of the histories and tragedies; in fact, when she argues that childless members of the peerage hope to be remembered on their own terms, most of her examples are royal, including Hamlet, Cleopatra, Richard II, and Henry V. On the other hand, it seems questionable whether Shakespeare's focus on the nobility is due, as Canino suggests, more to the specific circumstances of the nobility in Shakespeare's period than to the common —not to say universal —fascination with the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" (which Canino does acknowledge as a factor). It does not appear necessary to assume that Shakespeare "had a particular understanding of the historical moment that lay beneath the aristocratic sensationalism" of the 1590s (226); he may simply have recognized the dramatic potential in this history...