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REVIEWS Robert Ornstein. A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shake­ speare’s History Plays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Pp. vii + 231. $11.00. Interest in Shakespeare’s history plays has increased greatly in recent years, in part because events in our own time make us aware of the complexities of history and of political motivation. About thirty years ago Tillyard and L. B. Campbell challenged the nineteenth-century view of these plays as mere pageants and argued for their importance as vehicles of Tudor doctrines supposedly being espoused by Shakespeare, but this view in turn has been questioned by various critics who see Shakespeare as having insights of his own, not bound by the propaganda stance of Tudor officialdom. Professor Ornstein’s book follows up this trend, questioning effectively not only Shakespeare’s alleged conformity to Tudor myth but also whether the chronicler Hall explicitly supports the version of it formulated by Tillyard. Hall’s great theme, as Ornstein summarizes it, was not retribution but rather England’s achievement of nationhood and reconciliation after a period of desert wandering due to emulous rivalries like those of Italy’s Guelphs and Ghibellines. An introductory chapter on “The Artist as Historian” argues for the uniqueness of Shakespeare’s sense of history by instancing points on which the dramatist varied from the Chronicles and they from each other. Shakespeare’s selecting and improvising give evidence of an inde­ pendent mind that thought critically. In an age when Elizabeth’s policies were often opposed by a Puritan party, and on the other hand by sup­ porters of the Old Faith, Shakespeare knew that political issues are more complex than the Homilies allow, and perceived that Tudor royal­ ism harbored contradictions and expediencies. Many of us, I think, can agree with Ornstein’s contention this far. However, his wayside assertion that no Morality play “influence” can be found in early Elizabethan history plays such as The Troublesome Reign of King John or Shake­ speare’s 1 Henry VI seems questionable. The unShakespearean Trouble­ some Reign, surely, contains in John’s deathbed speech some conspicuous Protestant moralizing. And although 1 Henry VI is not similarly didactic, its exposure of the false-shepherd in Joan, and of Henry’s pledge-breaking in order to marry an enticing “Helen,” carries morality implications. That the history play is a new genre need not mean that Shakespeare’s insight is independent of some very traditional moral norms, indirectly indicated. Ornstein acknowledges the possibility that “our” modern sensibility may at times distort response to Shakespeare’s implications, yet he feels 211 212 Comparative Drama that the artwork alone must be relied on to enlarge our perspective sim­ ply through its own compelling truth. I think he himself does catch much of this truth acutely and well, by virtue of his refined alertness to the text (and often by building on John Palmer’s prior shrewdness of ob­ servation)— as, for instance, when analyzing at length the characters of Richard III, Richard II, Bolingbroke, and Prince Hal. In these passages, and others, Ornstein’s book often delights with its clearly phrased per­ ceptions. The bishops in Henry V, for example, are “tactful men [who] will neither impugn the King’s motives nor examine too closely their own reasons for supporting his intended campaign.” Suspecting that his miraculous redemption was “humanly contrived,” they “slowly and obliquely” work their way through praise of him to an urging of his cause. And he, in turn, is adept at finding “scapegoats on which to place the burden of moral responsibility,” alike in the council scene and at Harfleur and when ordering prisoners killed. Such commentary is trenchantly accurate. To it one might add, however, that the Chorus reference to Agincourt’s “brawl ridiculous” could be Shakespeare’s covert estimate, and that he may be characterizing the age’s de-Christianization by beginning with bishops who have given up hope in genuine miracle. Did not Shakespeare know that miracle is at the heart of Christianity and that history without it suffers the vanity of a substitute legerdemain? The limitations of Ornstein’s “esthetic” approach are notable, chiefly, when he finds in King John...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 211-213
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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