Legendary fathers, transient victories, and ambivalent histories: continuity and development in Shakespeare’s exploration of authority and resistance from Henry VI Part One to Hamlet
Brake, Steven Ian
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The thesis explores the development of Shakespeare’s political ideas, in particular his exploration of authority, and the legitimacy of resistance towards it, in the two English history tetralogies (as well as the self-contained history, King John), and examines the ways in which this protracted engagement with the question of kingship – and governance more generally – informs his turn to tragedy towards the end of the 1590s. The thesis argues that criticism has tended to downplay the importance of the first tetralogy in the Shakespeare canon (particularly the Henry VI plays), and as a corollary it has overlooked the important continuities that can be traced from Shakespeare’s earliest engagement with politics to his treatment of power in Julius Caesar and Hamlet. The thesis sees the history plays as essentially paradoxical and ambivalent. Shakespeare presents the past as both a shining example to which each succeeding generation must aspire, but also as a legacy which they are powerless to fulfil, while he treats the dynastic conflicts of the Houses of York and Lancaster as essentially intractable, with each new pretender to the throne – however legitimate his claim – undermined by a host of legal, moral, and pragmatic considerations. It is a central contention of the thesis that it was Shakespeare’s failure satisfactorily to resolve the intractable political conflicts of the first tetralogy which prompted him to confront a similar set of questions in King John, before returning to them yet again in the more highly acclaimed second tetralogy. The thesis concludes by arguing that far from representing a breach with his history plays, the tragedies are continuous with them. So rather than identifying the ‘origins’ of Hamlet either in Shakespeare’s reaction to the fall of Essex or the death of his son, Hammet, in 1596, it is more persuasive to see the play as arising from the debates and problems which were initially addressed in the first tetralogy.