Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Bloodlines and Blood Spilt: Historical Retelling and the Rhetoric of Sovereignty in Shakespeare's First Tetralogy

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Bloodlines and Blood Spilt: Historical Retelling and the Rhetoric of Sovereignty in Shakespeare's First Tetralogy

Article excerpt

And some doe make of so much asmuch, as true Philosophers and Hystoriographers, vvhose office is to tell things as they vvere done vvithout either augmenting or diminishing them, or svvaruing one iote from the truth. VVhereby it apeareth that the hystoriographers ought not to fayne anye Orations nor any other thing, but truly to reporte euery such speech, and deede, euen as it vvas spoken, or done.1

In his 1574 treatise The true order and method ofwryting and reading Hystories, itself a translation of two earlier Italian texts, Thomas Blundeville follows Cicero's injunction from Book II of De Oratore that historians must always tell the truth.2 Historical truth, however, is an elusive goal and the many manifestations of historical representation in the sixteenth century- chronicles, pageants, poetry, drama-engage with this problem in different ways.3 The 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicle, for instance, demonstrates an overwhelming tendency toward inclusion-interpolating multiple chronicle accounts, Acts of Parliament, and other supporting documents- "presenting the past less as a straightforward sequence of events than as a succession of possibilities based upon conflicting evidence."4 In the meantime, texts such as A Mirror for Magistrates, particularly in its earlier editions, address the process of writing history, including questions of bias in source material. Shakespeare's first tetralogy, comprising the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, adds a further layer of meaning to this discourse by physically staging not only the rise and fall of kings during the civil wars of the previous century-wars that cast an ominous shadow over the entirety of the sixteenth century-but also the speech acts that define and redefine fraught notions of kingship, dynastic legitimacy, and the writing of history itself.

Beginning in 1534 with An act whereby divers offenses be made high treason, parliamentary statutes under Henry VIII forbade any spoken or written criticism of the Royal Supremacy and, by extension, the monarchy in general, on pain of attainder. The Statute Against Seditious and Heretical Books (1555) under Queen Mary I and the Act Against seditious words and rumours (1580) under Elizabeth I continued this trend. Developing in parallel with these increasingly stringent regulations on speech was the growing intellectual interest in the teaching potential of historical exempla, a humanist-driven movement that had a major impact on the education of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, among many others. The idea of historical precedents, of using history to understand virtue and avoid vice, can be traced back to history's roots in the classical study of rhetoric. Although these uses of history were by no means ignored during the medieval period-there was, after all, an entire genre devoted to teaching princes how to rule using historical examples, and writers such as Christine de Pizan were well-known for putting accepted sources under increasing scrutiny-the advent of printing technology allowed them to become more widely known and implemented.

Over the course of the sixteenth century, chroniclers and other historical writers came to the forefront, putting their names on their texts in contrast to their anonymous, silent predecessors, and with their names, acknowledging their own biases and their own place within the narrative. This left them open to criticism not only from other chroniclers, but also from ministers, magistrates, royal officials, poets, and dramatists. Polydore Vergil, for example, came under strong criticism for his sceptical attitude toward Geoffrey of Monmouth and the mythical genealogy of British monarchs tracing back to Brutus of Troy-although some of those negative reactions may have reflected his being a member of the Catholic clergy. In light of the uses to which chronicle histories were being put during the English Reformation- Henry VIII's invocation, for instance, of "dyvers sundrie olde autentike histories and cronicles" as precedent for the lack of papal jurisdiction in England in the 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals-the unstable political capital generated by references to historical events and precedents was to be approached with caution. …

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