Fancy's Images: Contexts, Settings, and Perspectives in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

By Charles R. Forker | Go to book overview

6 Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays as Historical-Pastoral

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.

-- Hamlet

The critic who invokes the failing mental powers of Polonius in matters of literary terminology no doubts risks impaling himself upon the point of his own irony. Nevertheless, the risk is worth taking, for there is a sense in which the old counselor's words go beyond their immediate context to describe the modes of Shakespeare's own artistic practice. Elizabethan drama is nearly always "impure art,"1 and Polonius's final category is more applicable than has generally been recognized to Shakespeare's ten plays on English kings from 1 Henry VI to Henry VIII. It is the "pastoral" element in these histories that I want specifically to discuss in this chapter, but perhaps, by way of laying the necessary foundation, I may be permitted a few general comments on the unity of the history plays as a group and the generic principles that appear to inform that unity.2

Although the individual plays have their own dramatic unity and have been acted independently ever since they were first presented at the Globe,3 it is obvious from the arrangement in the Folio, where they are grouped according to the chronology of reigns, that their plots and characters are related and that they share common thematic and political interests. All the plays are crowded with action, compose a more or less continuous drama covering roughly a century and a half of political and military history, and therefore project an image of great temporal and spatial extent. Because the emphasis is political, they usually present ambiguous conflicts between characters or groups of characters who represent opposed systems of value, partial or complementary mixtures of good and evil, so that our moral sympathies necessarily hover between the different sides of an issue. In all the plays, too, Shakespeare raises the complex question of order in both its political and metaphysical aspects.

The so-called Tudor myth with its orthodox teleological and providential assumptions about the movement of history might support the idealistic position that political order

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