Monday, February 13, 2017

Shakespeare's Political Stage

The Wall Street Journal posts a review of Peter Lake's new book about Shakespeare's history plays (subscription required). A couple of quotes, good and bad:

The beautiful poetry and powerful drama of Shakespeare’s plays are what first enchant us, but we should not neglect their intellectual substance, especially their political themes. With “How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage,” Peter Lake takes up the history plays in particular, offering subtle and insightful readings and showing us that politics was indeed a central concern of Shakespeare’s. He also shows the ways in which Shakespeare used his plays to respond to the continuing changes in the Elizabethan political scene.

A professor of history at Vanderbilt University, Mr. Lake focuses on kings, queens and princes rather than on peasants, workers, apprentices, vagabonds, fugitives and the other “marginalized” groups that are the darlings of the so-called New Historicists, who have dominated Shakespeare criticism for decades. After so many studies by amateur historians in literature departments, it is a relief to see a trained historian at work on Shakespeare. . . .

The reviewer, Paul A. Cantor, notes that Shakespeare is reflecting on Elizabethan politics, not just the history of Plantagenet England. For example:

In Mr. Lake’s attempts to relate the plays to Elizabethan politics, he often convincingly demonstrates that Shakespeare was reacting to particular incidents or to the developing controversies of his day. His analysis of the Puritan elements to be found in the character of Falstaff is genuinely eye-opening. He shows that Falstaff appropriates “distinctively puritan modes of discourse for his own corrupt purposes.” Trying to get Prince Hal to join him in a highway robbery, Falstaff sounds just like a Puritan preacher as he enlists the help of a friend to persuade the heir apparent: “God give thee the spirit of persuasion and him the ears of profiting, that what thou speakest may move and what he hears may be believed.”

More generally, Falstaff’s efforts to invert the values of the conventional political world—to have “thieves” renamed “men of good government”—call to mind precisely the tendencies Shakespeare’s contemporaries criticized in the Puritans. Mr. Lake writes: “A central strand in contemporary anti-puritan polemic held that the puritan platform for further reformation in church and state would, if implemented, in fact, turn the world upside down,” much as Falstaff wants to do. Here Mr. Lake is able to draw upon solid historical evidence. But be forewarned: If you don’t already know what a Lollard was or who John Wycliffe was, you’re going to have a hard time following the argument.

That last sentence gives you the hint of the problem with the book, according to Cantor: The author doth presume too much, methinks (or rather, hethinks):

At 650 densely packed pages, “How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage” can be a daunting read. It is extremely repetitious and could have been reduced by about a third of its length without much loss of content. Mr. Lake writes a clear, jargon-free prose, but his style is not exactly graceful, and he plunges readers into all sorts of historical controversies without offering sufficient background or instruction, neglecting to explain, for example, the fine points of Christian theological disputes or the complexities of the Lancaster, York and Tudor dynasties. And as with all studies of Shakespeare’s histories, Mr. Lake’s could have used a genealogical chart or two, to help a novice reader tell all the Richards, Henrys, Edwards and Marys apart. Nevertheless, anyone interested in Shakespeare should make the effort to read this book. Even someone intimately familiar with the plays will discover much that is new, from details of historical background to interpretations of specific passages.

No comments:

Post a Comment