Shakespeare’s stories of power do more than retell history
By Charlotte Scott
What can Shakespeare’s studies of power and politics tell us about the present? Dr Charlotte Scott, of the University of London, explains why Shakespeare’s history plays, such as Richard III, continue to fascinate audiences today.
When Shakespeare moved to London in the late 1580s, the public theatre had only been in existence for about 15 years. The first purpose-built theatre (so-called after the Greek word, theatron, meaning ‘viewing place’) was erected in 1576 and was an almost instant success. Known simply as the Theatre, it was established by James Burbage, whose son Richard would become one of Shakespeare’s most prominent and successful actors. It began showing a range of performances largely developed from a religious tradition of plays, where stories from the Bible were re-enacted for the moral and spiritual edification of the audience. Beyond church plays, the private performances for the aristocracy, or the young lawyers at the Inns of Court, there was little in the way of Elizabethan ‘entertainment’. When Shakespeare arrived in the capital, however, he started work as an actor and quickly understood the huge potential of a developing industry.
Lord Pembroke’s Men
When Shakespeare joined the successful company of actors called Lord Pembroke’s Men (later the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), he started writing to an already very popular tradition – the history play. It was of great appeal to the public, since it provided an electric mix of chronicle history and moral commentary, telling familiar stories of the past with a theatrical relish that could exaggerate the villains and celebrate the heroes. In fact, history plays were central to the development of the stage hero, so that when Richard III, famous for his bloody and murderous journey to kingship, is finally vanquished, we, like the Elizabethans, celebrate that victory as good over evil. In this way, the history play became a powerful place to ask questions of the past, but also the present, such as what makes a good king, and what are the priorities of governance – warfare, economic stability, imperial expansion, religious security? In many ways, of course, these are the same questions we still ask of our politicians today.
The history plays
When Shakespeare began to write his history plays in the 1590s (numbering ten in all, including Henry VIII, or All is True, which he wrote much later in 1613) he did his research and he recounted the history that his audience knew. Largely consulting two main sources, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles On England, Scotland and Ireland (1577) and Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), Shakespeare dramatised the struggles for power and precedent that had dominated English history over the period known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485). Yet great drama is about more than re-telling a story: it is about making that story affect you so that you confront questions about who you are and what you feel. Great stories are about surprises, as well, but not necessarily in action – although Shakespeare would surprise us with sudden narrative changes, too, as when he wrote King Lear. But not all of Shakespeare’s twists are so obvious: in Richard III, for example, that most notorious of kings, who had his young nephews brutally murdered in their beds, Shakespeare develops something different. Most people who had gone to see the play in the mid-1590s would have known what to expect: the story of a ‚foul bunch-back’d toad’ murder his way to monarchy. What they would not have expected, however, was to like him.
Shakespeare’s greatest dramas endure precisely because he asks us to put ourselves in other people’s positions. All theatre is about empathy, and all enduring theatre is about the extent to which such empathy makes us question who we are and what we would have done in certain situations. We do not approve of Richard’s homicidal behaviour, nor do we celebrate it, but there is a part of everyone who is on his side. This is Shakespeare’s great gift. Whatever stories Shakespeare takes on, and however many times they may have been told, he always surprises us because he makes us rethink our expectations and our prejudices, even within the context of our own moral traditions. At the end of Henry VI, Part 3, which relates events leading up to Richard III, Shakespeare has Richard, at this point the Duke of Gloucester, admit:
Then since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.
I had no father, I am like no father;
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word, “love”, which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in other men like one another
And not in me – I am myself alone (5.6.78-84)
We know that Richard does, of course, have a father and also a brother; but what this speech tells us is something much more: he is isolated and therefore feels incapable of either love or kinship. ‘I am myself alone’ is one of the greatest revelations of villainy precisely because Richard denies any social responsibility or the bonds of community. But because he speaks so directly, eloquently and painfully, he is not, in fact, alone. Whether we want to be or not, we are with Richard, and it is entirely thanks to Shakespeare that we are.
This is an edited version of an article by Dr Charlotte Scott which was published on the British Council’s Voices Magazine blog in April 2016.. Dr Charlotte Scott is Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare at Goldsmiths, University of London.