Shakespeare's History Plays

Shakespeare's History Plays

Shakespeare's History Plays

Shakespeare's History Plays


Shakespeare's history plays are central to his dramatic achievement. In recent years they have become more widely studied than ever, stimulating intensely contested interpretations, due to their relevance to central contemporary issues such as English, national identities and gender roles.

Interpretations of the history plays have been transformed since the 1980s by new theoretically-informed critical approaches. Movements such as New Historicism and cultural materialism, as well as psychoanalytical and post-colonial approaches, have swept away the humanist consensus of the mid-twentieth century with its largely conservative view of the plays.

The last decade has seen an emergence of feminist and gender-based readings of plays which were once thought overwhelmingly masculine in their concerns. This book provides an up-to-date critical anthology representing the best work from each of the modern theoretical perspectives. The introduction outlines the changing debate in an area which is now one of the liveliest in Shakespearean criticism.

R.J.C. Watt is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee.


The theoretically-informed criticism of recent decades has perhaps had more impact on the history plays than on any other part of Shakespeare’s work. Critical interpretations have been revolutionised since the break-up of a humanist consensus which dominated thinking in the mid-twentieth century. A largely conservative view of the history plays has been comprehensively swept away by New Historicism and cultural materialism, by feminist and gender-based studies, by psychoanalytical and post-colonial criticism, and by a more rigorous and selfaware political criticism.

The problematising of the concept of history itself is one feature that characterises recent work and sets it apart from what went before. In post-modernism particularly, the past comes to be seen as always already mediated, constituted as a text and in texts rather than objective, factual and unproblematically knowable. In consequence, ‘history’ has been largely replaced by ‘histories’ and ‘story’ has ceased to be history’s less authoritative cousin. Such developments place Shakespeare’s histories at the centre of one of the most interesting and important cultural shifts of our times. Moreover, as is now widely recognised, Shakespeare is the site of constant interpretative struggles for the cultural prestige which goes with his name. This too has made the history plays a frequent focus of contention, since they can be recruited to partisan accounts of Britishness or Englishness – supposedly quintessential national values and identity – and hence to all kinds of contemporary argu">1. Introduction

Picture the scene: anthropologist and novelist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, notebook and pencil in hand, trailing her friend’s dog Misha through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her aim: to find out what this dog does when it is outside the human home. Her starting-point: wonder. She writes:

Here was a dog who never fell through the ice on the Charles
River, a dog who never touched the poison baits set out by
certain citizens for raccoons and other trash-marauders, a
dog who was never mauled by other dogs. Misha always came
back from his journeys feeling fine, ready for a light meal and
a rest before going out again. How did he do it?     (2003: 2–3)

These “dogological studies”, as she terms them, form the basis of her bestselling book The Hidden Life of Dogs, and offer, I think, an extreme version of the great fascination for pets shared by so many in Western culture today. Thomas’s travelling through the city streets after a dog is asking a question that other pet owners have also asked themselves: how can we come to know this other being that is simultaneously in our home and utterly alien?

Here is not the place to retell Thomas’s stories; as with many texts mentioned in what follows, you might want to read them for yourself if you haven’t already. What is of particular interest to me is the fact that Thomas’s study seems on the surface to rely on what she sees. And yet, without recognizing it explicitly, the answers . . .

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