Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays

Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays

Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays

Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays

Synopsis

In "Shakespeare's Politcal Drama, "Alexander Leggatt concentrates on the ordering and enforcing, the gaining and losing, of public power in the state, in the English and Roman histories. He sees Shakespeare not as the propogandist for a myth of order, but as concerned both with things as they are and with things as they ought to be. Leggatt sees each play as a fresh experiment, so that what emerges is not a single homogeneous view of Shakespearean politics but a series of explorations of differing material.

Excerpt

I should begin by stressing the limits of this study. There is, of course, political interest everywhere in Shakespeare. Macbeth and Hamlet are concerned with kingship, Measure for Measure with law, The Tempest with power. Cymbeline has surprising things to say about war, peace, and international relations generally. Everywhere there are rulers, laws, contracts, questions of authority and obedience. The range widens if, as frequently happens these days, the term ‘political’ is defined to include any act with a social dimension. In this light there is a political dimension in the relations of the sexes in The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It, or of parents and children in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But if everything is political then nothing is, for the word has lost its edge. I want to concentrate on what is political in a more narrow, traditional sense: the ordering and enforcing, the gaining and losing, of public power in the state. And I want to concentrate on those plays of Shakespeare’s that are most directly concerned with that, rather than with more private emotional, moral, or spiritual issues. A simple test is to observe the different weights given to England in Richard II and to Scotland in Macbeth: both matter, of course, but England matters more. At the end of Richard II the business of the play is only half done, for though Richard is dead England is still in disorder. At the end of Macbeth the business is fully done, for that business was to explore the fate of the hero. Scotland has been restored, but we do not feel compelled to think further about its fate, any more than we think of Cyprus under Cassio. With this kind of distinction in mind, I have chosen to study Shakespeare’s English history plays and his Roman plays—which are also history plays, though the term is not so often used of them.

It is now customary for a critic dealing with the English histories in particular to begin with a ritual attack on E. M. W. Tillyard’s Shakespeare’s History Plays (1944). I think we have had enough of this.

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