- The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s “Chronicles” ed. by Paulina Kewes, Ian W. Archer, and Felicity Heal
This book is a major boon for Shakespeare specialists, who should have it in their institutional library, if not on their personal bookshelf. The Handbook will be indispensable to those who read Holinshed’s Chronicles as background to Shakespeare’s history plays, but the essays also provide a trove of information about religion, politics, patronage, the making of books, the writing of history, intellectual developments in late sixteenth-century England, and a host of other topics that are useful and important for those who read, teach, and write about Shakespeare.
To be sure, the book has comparatively little to say about Shakespeare the man or his writing. The editors were “keen to avoid undue emphasis on Shakespeare”(xxxvi), and they note that “it is to Holinshed’s advantage that in recent years Shakespeare has been, if not exactly sidelined, at least placed in a wider cultural context” (xxxiii). Among the forty new essays gathered here, only three deal with Shakespeare, and the titles of only fourteen of his plays appear in the index, with those that derive from Holinshed being most prominent: nine history plays, Cymbeline, King Lear, and Macbeth. The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale are mentioned once each.
Had Holinshed witnessed what happened to the Chronicles in the eighteenth century, he might well have echoed Prospero to Miranda: “What, I say, / My foot my tutor?” (The Tempest, 1.2.472–73). The Chronicles tutored Shakespeare, the writer of history plays, but after Holinshed’s eclipse as a historian in the seventeenth century, the Chronicles eventually came to light again very much as Shakespeare’s foot. Writing about Shakespeare’s history plays in 1753, Charlotte Lennox observed that “the facts are all extracted from Holingshed,” although she noted that the poet “has not scrupled to violate sometimes the Truth of History.”1 Lennox’s sense of historical fact and truth and of what Holinshed provided all [End Page 221] belong to her own time and place, but the point is that Lennox was the among the first of many who turned to Holinshed from Shakespeare, using the chronicler to illuminate something by the playwright. In this respect, Lennox rediscovered Holinshed as an appendage of Shakespeare.
The rise of bardolatry probably had something to do with the eighteenth-century assessment of two sixteenth-century writers, but however it arose, the assessment persists, at least among Shakespeare scholars. Stephen Booth probably offered the first serious challenge by focusing on Holinshed first with his 1968 Book Called Holinshed’s Chronicles. The Handbook also points to a richly informative web site, the Holinshed Project (www.cems.ox.ac.uk/holinshed), sponsored by the editors of the Oxford Handbook, along with the indispensable Henry Summerson, research assistant to the Project, who the editors acknowledge to be “probably the only man alive who can boast to have read every word of both the 1577 and 1587 Chronicles” (vi). This is no mean feat, given the estimate of 3.5 million words in the 1587 version alone. Summerson contributed two essays to the Handbook, part of a third, and a summary of his archival research on the life of Raphael Holinshed, providing the first substantial information about the man whose name the Chronicles bear.
The most influential reevaluation of Holinshed has been Annabel Patterson’s 1994 Reading Holinshed’s “Chronicles,” which is very much on the minds of the contributors here. More frequently mentioned in the Handbook is her observation that the Chronicles are “multivocal.”2 Her claim is not the obvious one that “Holinshed” was really multiple authors. Holinshed nowhere pretends to be sole author, and he died after publication of the 1577 edition, so he was not responsible for the much-expanded 1587 collection, which added even more authors and a new general editor, Abraham Fleming. Patterson argues that many authors and diverse points of...