In Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (1989), Annabel Patterson reappraised Shakespeare’s social attitudes especially towards working people or, as Sir Thomas Elyot put it, ‘the multitude, wherein be contained the base and vulgar inhabitants not advanced to any honour or dignity’. In contrast to such sweeping condescension, Patterson claimed that Shakespeare was ‘one of our first cultural critics, in the sense of being capable of profound, structural analysis’ (p. 9). Furthermore, his work was deeply responsive to the pressures, prejudices and predicaments experienced by commoners. Patterson contributes a lively afterword to this excellent collection that returns to and reopens some of the questions posed by her work, issues that have not been at the forefront of Shakespearean criticism in the intervening period. In his introduction to the volume, Chris Fitter makes a compelling case that this represents a neglected opportunity. A generation of social historians has transformed understanding of the range and depth of early modern political life, and Fitter provides a valuable overview of the key conclusions reached by their research. If the dominant culture of the period defined class relationships in terms of paternalism exercised from above to ensure deference from below, a substantial body of work has shown how commoners challenged this aspiration. They did so, most notably, in terms of the values associated with ‘commonwealth’ which, according to David Rollison’s essay, was ‘the political keyword of Tudor-Stuart England’ (p. 69). To be sure, the implications of this term were contested, but one of its crucial emphases stressed the overriding importance of the common good and this sustained popular agency. A new understanding of politics as involving continuous interaction between commoners and elites has been one of the signal achievements of this continuing historical research along with a growing recognition that, as the editor concludes, ‘The politically thinkable in Shakespeare’s England traversed an astoundingly wide discursive spectrum’ (p. 25) What new perspectives does this suggest for Shakespeare’s plays? A number of leading historians and literary critics take up this question in the 10 essays that follow, including the editor’s discussion of King Lear’s harrowing account of homelessness and hunger and the indifference of authority to such destitution. Other contributors consider the politics of the history plays. Peter Lake examines the cultivation of popular support on all sides of the ‘succession crisis’ in the late 1590s to show how this produced competing accounts of the polity. In Richard II and in the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare offers his own detailed and demystifying portrayal of how ‘popularity politics’ sought to address and enlist the populace. Paola Pugliatti finds further evidence of demystification, as well as popular scepticism, in both 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, notably in their often sardonic and unillusioned treatment of war. The social historian Andy Wood turns to Shakespeare’s earlier historical drama, especially 2 Henry VI, alongside other plays, to consider the representation of protest and rebellion during the ‘hungry 1590s’. He emphasizes how artisanal labour also functioned as a political category within dramatic texts—‘a set of metaphors … to think about social relations’ (p. 99)—that could articulate anger at inequality, assert plebeian honour and express nostalgia for more equitable social conditions. Stephen Longstaffe also considers the representation of popular protest in 2 Henry VI but from the perspective of the play’s textual history. His essay discusses the different versions of the Cade scenes to be found in the Quarto text of 1594 and in the longer Folio text, both of which may derive from a lost ‘parent’ source. In a fascinating account of the differences between these two versions, Longstaffe argues that the Quarto text represents a ‘company version’ of the play that reflects its theatrical performance and is notably more sympathetic to Cade. Unlike the Folio, the Quarto text is far less invested in associating his rebellion with the rhetoric of violent destruction, class antagonism and radical social change. The distance between Cade and his followers may have been further reduced in performance given that the leading role was likely played by the popular comic actor Will Kemp. This may have further intensified the carnivalesque potential of these scenes and their expression of enduring popular grievances and aspirations may have offered ‘hope in hard times’ (p. 143). In two essays on the Roman tragedies bleaker accounts are offered of popular experience. Markku Peltonen returns to the topic of popularity in relation to Julius Caesar’s portrayal of the rhetorical arts. The principal audience for the latter was widely understood to be the common people and the play contrasts, in this respect, Antony’s successful, if incendiary, populism with Brutus’ doomed attempt to reason with and pacify the citizens of Rome. In both instances, the play is seen to take a pessimistic view of the fate of rhetoric in political life. In a richly contextualized reading of Coriolanus, David Norbrook considers the reception of Livy’s portrayal of popular upheaval and how this was interpreted by republican thinkers like Machiavelli, as well as those interested in theories of a mixed polity such as Shakespeare’s contemporary Gabriel Harvey. Coriolanus is read as more ambivalent in its response to this material: its ‘caustically ironic and destabilizing vision’ allows for conflicting readings (p. 211). Both Thomas Cartelli and Jeffrey S. Doty turn to the widely influential work of the anthropologist James C. Scott on ‘public’ and hidden’ transcripts. In a resourceful reading of the speech (and silences) of the citizens and the scrivener in Richard III, Cartelli shows the importance of a shrewd and unillusioned ‘civic consciousness’ in the play. Doty’s excellent essay on The Tempest explores the play’s attentiveness to the damaging effects of subordination on Ariel and Caliban as well as Prospero’s gradual recognition that his domination of others has made him into ‘a reactionary, hardened and unsocial being’ (p. 248). This collection demonstrates how dialogue between historians and literary critics can be convened and it provokes further thought on how its implications might be developed. There are inevitable areas of selectivity of focus that others might address. In a male-dominated collection, priority is also given throughout to male voices in Shakespeare, and this is doubtless compounded by the almost exclusive focus on historical and tragic modes. However, these essays demonstrate how the insights and approaches of social history can inspire new critical readings as well as the range of historical testimony offered by Shakespeare’s plays. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 8, 2018
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