Shakespeare's Early History Plays: Politics at Play on the Elizabethan Stageby Donald G. Watson, and: These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Historiesby Robert C. Jones (review)
- Comparative Drama
- Western Michigan University
- Volume 26, Number 2, Summer 1992
- pp. 177-182
- Additional Information
REVIEWS Donald G. Watson. Shakespeare's Early History Plays: Politics at Play on the Elizabethan Stage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. Pp. xiii + 177. $30.00. Robert C. Jones. These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. Pp. xvii + 172. $24.00. Twenty years ago, writing about Shakespeare's histories meant tilting with Tillyard's encompassing "Tudor myth"; today, such projects are always already framed by new historicist and cultural materialist arguments as well as by the agreements and distinctions between them, matters for vigorous debate over the last decade. Appearing at a time when those working in Shakespeare and Renaissance studies have been accommodating their critical practice to incorporate various strands of poststructuralism , these two studies map out strikingly different negotiations with and around such methodological currents. Watson's rout follows a modified new historicist track. A preface explains his attempt to "explore both the connections between the theatricality of the stage and the theatrical staging of Elizabethan power and the always potentially subversive expression of a dramatic, historical, and improvisational view of reality in Shakespeare's early history plays within a highly theatrical, iconic, and ideological culture" (p. xiii); an introductory chapter ("Theatre, History, Politics") and a conclusion ("Paradox, Play, Politics") rehearse pertinent political and cultural contexts. Although these contexts inflect his readings, Watson's particular interest in the plays' "theatrical dimensions" lies in integrating an "audience-centered " criticism with a more "traditional" interpretive approach; as it turns out, his methodology slips in and out between new historicist and Tillyardian strategies. Ignoring work such as the collection edited by Philip C. McGuire and David Samuelson (Shakespeare: The Theatrical Dimension, 1979), Gary Taylor's To Analyze Delight (1985) and Harry Berger, Jr.'s Imaginary Audition (1989) as well as Edward Rocklin's notions of "performable interpretation," Watson skirts a growing body of criticism on the practical as well as theoretical relations between theatrical and textual constructions and reception dynamics. For Watson, the material theater is trustworthy only insofar as it sends readers back to reexamine the text. Although the audiences he imagines consist of Elizabethan rather than present-day spectators, once he turns to individual plays, he quotes from reviews—primarily, though not exclusively, of the 1977 RSC productions of the Henry VI plays (initially misidentified as directed by Trevor Nunn, not Terry Hands)—to support his readings of the dynamics of comic response. Indeed, Watson's primary concern is finding laughter in the histories. Heroism and laughter, he argues, constitute opposed categories that keep "the darkness of history from completely engulfing [1 Henry VI]" 177 178Comparative Drama (p. 56). That play reveals "the fragility of orderly rituals of state" as well as "the theatrical nature of politics" (p. 38): its "darkly comic" spectacles of factionalism turn to farce; Henry VI himself is a "sadly comic" figure; and Joan's witchcraft generates "a strange kind of chauvinistic laughter" which later turns to "grotesque horror" (p. 43). Dramatizing a savage world beyond ceremony and chivalry populated by unsympathetic characters, Part 2 becomes a nightmare for Henry VI and Margaret as well as for audiences and remains deeply ambivalent about social unrest, hierarchical relations, and questions of anarchical conflict— most obviously when "the battle for the right to occupy the stage mirrors naturally the struggles for power in the larger social world beyond the auditorium" (p. 57). Focusing on the Peter-Horner scene (I.iii), the Simpcox affair (H.i), and Cade's rebellion (IV.ii-IV.viii), Watson argues that bringing on lower-class characters who are "theatrically unfamiliar" generates farcical effects and "grotesque comedy"; in each case, a movement from "safe" to "horrible" laughter underscores the social discontents shaping everyday lived experience. Watson finds 3 Henry VI a play "beyond ideology" (which seems to mean that the disorders of civil war radically undermine ideology); and, as with Parts 1 and 2, his reading synchronizes with Terry Hands' production, where ritual atrocities turn laughter against the audience and hence result in grisly comedy. Dramatizing the problematic nature of politics by means of "mutilated rituals, diabolical interventions [and] ideological fictions" ensures, says Watson, that the audience will "recoil from the sophisticated...