The current tendency to explain everything from election results to the breakdown of the family in terms of media influence attests to the belief that the communicating practices of a culture play decisive roles in the outcomes of human endeavors. In analyzing the nature of these influences and the characteristics of the outcomes, some communications theorists and historians focus on the effects of a medium's form while others attend to its content. Content-analyses most often deal with controversial subjects such as violence, erotica, propaganda or political messages, while effects-analyses focus on the social, psychological or cognitive alterations that result from the use or exposure to a given medium.
Examinations of the impact of the printing press, for instance, have led to a wide range of conclusions: from Claude Levi-Strauss's contention that literacy favors despotism, through Jack Goody and Ian Watt's more moderate view that literacy contributes to social stratification, to Eric Havelock's conclusion that literacy has been a democratizing influence in human history. Similarly, examinations of the impact of television have led critics like Neil Postman and Joshua Meyrowitz to claim that this medium has contributed to the deterioration of social institutions, while Jib Fowles and Henry Perkinson hold that television has been a positive force in the growth of human understanding.
Yet the thought that communications media deserve scrutiny is hardly a new idea. Four centuries ago a prominent social critic in Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare, embedded in his plays a critique of the effects and uses of print media and literacy, both of which were rapidly reshaping social practices in 16th-century England.
My purpose in this essay is to argue that Shakespeare's understanding of communications and the media of his times entitles him to recognition as a formidable media commentator. First, I will illustrate the scope of Shakespeare's presentation of media and literacy issues by presenting a wide range of examples from all the dramatic forms in which Shakespeare wrote and by showing that his concern is sustained for the full span of his career. Second, I will focus specifically on one play (Henry IV, Part II) which functions as a kind of case study of Shakespeare's interest in particular media practices. In this way, I hope to make an updated and concrete contribution to what previous researchers have already identified as Shakespeare's concern with media issues, and thus by way of providing a context for my discussion I will first provide an overview of this scholarship.
Some of the most influential contemporary communications theorists have noted Shakespeare's use of media themes. Harold Innis commented on the relationship between the printing press and Shakespeare's plays (Bias 55, Empire 148) and Marshall McLuhan, in his usual sweeping fashion, noted that, "A fairly complete handbook for studying extensions of man could be made up from selections from Shakespeare" (Understanding 3). In fact, McLuhan opens The Gutenberg Galaxy with a description of King Lear as Shakespeare's alarmed response to the impact of print. He says that the play is an "almost scholastic demonstration of the need for a ratio and interplay among the senses as the very constitution of rationality" (13), a delicate balance which had been disrupted by printing. In a similar vein, Walter Ong has discussed at length the impact of print and literacy upon mental functions, observations with particular pertinence to Shakespeare's most literate characters such as Hamlet, Angelo and Romeo.
Literary scholars and practitioners of the rehistoricizing enterprise have also directed attention to Shakespeare's treatment of communications issues. Donna Hamilton, for example, situates the plays in the political context of the court patronage system during a time in which, she claims, "writing was understood to be a chief means for reifying authority" (103). Similarly, Annabel Patterson takes the position that Shakespeare should be viewed as a powerful cultural critic whose span of interest included the reading, writing and educational practices of his time and place.
The commercial aspects of 16th-century media practices have also been examined by critics like Arthur Marotti and Edwin Miller who have noted that the press introduced a new patron into the media mix: the reading public. From the beginning of the Gutenberg age the presence of a public readership whose interests sometimes differed from those of court and church patrons created conflicts which have continued to bedevil publishing decisions to this day.
Representing yet another perspective, both Lawrence Stone and David Cressy have examined changes in educational practices and their relationship to literacy, with Cressy drawing our attention to the 16th-century debate in England over the question of whether literacy improved one's chances of attaining salvation. In a more extended vein, one conclusion reached by David Olson in his studies of literacy and its historical origins is that although it is an illusion to think that literacy generates objectivity, literacy nonetheless, "provides us with the concepts for interpretation and reflection" (Mind 33).
Writing from the perspective of feminist theory and with an eye on material culture, Linda Woodbridge has insightfully drawn together material from pre-Gutenberg oral traditions and details from the history of the sewing crafts and cloth-manufacturing industries to identify relationships among print's emergence, quilting and dramatic structure. Although she does not cite McLuhan, she seems to echo him when she claims that print, "embodying the principle of breaking down into small units...seems an obvious impetus to these new structural habits in literature and music" (20).
Drawing upon a rich variety of disciplines, the thriving practice of "Shakesperotics," to use Gary Taylor's catchy phrase (6), has produced valuable insights into the ways that cultural circumstances in Elizabethan England such as commercial practices, education and politics influenced theater productions and the contents of the plays produced. Equally, students of literacy and the effects of changes in media ecologies have improved our ability to reinterpret historical phenomena, enabling us to have a greater understanding of the workings of both oral and literate cultures. Just as contemporary media theorists and policy makers are struggling to understand the effects of the current shift from word-based to image-based media, others are continuing to ask what it meant in the 16th century to be moving from image and oral communications practices to a greater emphasis on printed materials.
In this way, our own concerns mirror those of the historical periods we study, and thus I would like to introduce my own analysis by observing that just as nearly every 20th-century North American seems to have opinions about television, so given the dramatic events of the 16th century one might well expect that Elizabethan citizens would have thought about literacy, printing and images. Of these 16th-century observations about media, perhaps the most well known is Francis Bacon's Aphorism 129 concerning the nature and impact of the discoveries of his time:
We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients; namely printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world so that no empire, sect, or star appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries. (135)
Consider too, the widely published, vituperative exchanges between Thomas More and William Tyndale about words and images (recently reexamined by David Daniell in his extensive biography of Tyndale), Luther's well-known arguments, the stripping of the altars and destruction of icons, the bonfires of books, the execution of printers and translators and, most important of all, the distribution, first clandestine and eventually state sponsored, of vernacular Bibles. All these factors contributed to an atmosphere in which one could hardly be unaware that there was something about books that warranted attention.
Although use of the word …