Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Commentary on Shakespeare's Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337-1485

The author of Shakespeare's Kings, John Julius Norwich, is terrible as an interpreter of Shakespeare's plays, but he is good in his narration of the historical events taking place during the lives of Shakespeare's kings. And since the number of Norwich's interpretations of the plays is minimal, the book can be labeled a good one (with a major reservation about this type of historical narration, which I will address later).

Starting with Edward III of England (Norwich claims that Edward III was also written by Shakespeare), Norwich takes us through the turbulent reigns of Richard II (deposed by the noble Bolingbroke, soon to be Henry IV), Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III.

Norwich writes a chapter about each king and then writes a chapter about how the king and the events taking place during his reign are portrayed by Shakespeare. What is remarkable, Norwich maintains, is Shakespeare's historical accuracy. He is not inaccurate in the essentials; what he does do is compress time, combining events that happened over hundreds of years into a shorter span.

If one is familiar with these plays, Norwich's literary interpretations can be quite irritating. For instance, he blithely asserts that Richard III is the best of the historical plays. Why? Any one of the plays – Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part 2, or Henry V is superior to the earlier Richard III. In addition, Norwich's confident statement that Hotspur is the noblest character in Henry IV Part 1 overlooks what Shakespeare is doing with Prince Hal. Hotspur has an excessively macho view of honor, a kind of death wish: "Die all, die merrily." Falstaff has an excessively cowardly view of honor: "Discretion is the better part of valor." Only Prince Hal maintains a balance between the doomsday mentality of Hotspur and the cynical cowardice of Falstaff.

But there are many good things about Norwich's history. For one thing, he supports the traditional view of Richard III against Yorkist revisionists such as Josephine Tey. His findings support the views of Thomas More and Shakespeare: Richard III was the murderer of Edward IV's two sons and a thoroughly evil man and ruler. Interestingly enough, Bolingbroke (Henry IV) emerges as the noblest of kings, and yet some would say (not me) that he is the one who started the War of the Roses when he usurped Richard II. I would assert that Richard started the conflict when he abandoned the Christian view of monarchy, which views the monarch as a caretaker for Christ, and adopted the Asiatic and despotic view of monarchy, wherein the king views the whole Kingdom as his personal possession. When Richard indiscriminately started confiscating the lands of his subjects, he in essence abdicated the crown. Bolingbroke had the heart and courage to force him to pay the consequences. Up Lancaster, down York!

The real danger of a book like this is that one can get the impression that Shakespeare's history plays are worth reading because his plays are "essentially" accurate. Not so! One should not read the Shakespeare history plays for mere history; they have an importance beyond history – they are metaphysical plays about men and women with immortal souls.

I had an excellent 'facts and figures' history teacher in college who claimed that any true student of history had to be an atheist. "Any objective view of history forces one to that conclusion," he said. And when reading Norwich's history, one can see what my teacher meant. All the political machinations, all the bloodshed, and for what? For nothing. The pageant of the English kings looks like a glorified demolition derby with no ultimate purpose. But when we read Shakespeare's plays we see a spiritual presence moving in history. Prince Hal might die young and Bolingbroke might never achieve a secure kingdom, but in Shakespeare's plays, father and son share a moment that lifts us out of mere historical time into another dimension, a spiritual one:

O my son,
God put it in thy mind to take it hence,
That thou mightst win the more thy father's love,
Pleading so wisely in excuse of it!
Come hither, Harry, sit thou by my bed;
And hear, I think, the very latest counsel
That ever I shall breathe. God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head:
To thee it shall descend with better quiet,
Better opinion, better confirmation;
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth. It seem'd in me
But as an honour snatch'd with boisterous hand,
And I had many living to upbraid
My gain of it by their assistances;
Which daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed,
Wounding supposed peace: all these bold fears
Thou see'st with peril I have answered;
For all my reign hath been but as a scene
Acting that argument: and now my death
Changes the mode; for what in me was purchased,
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort;
So thou the garland wear'st successively.
Yet, though thou stand'st more sure than I could do,
Thou art not firm enough, since griefs are green;
And all my friends, which thou must make thy friends,
Have but their stings and teeth newly ta'en out;
By whose fell working I was first advanced
And by whose power I well might lodge a fear
To be again displaced: which to avoid,
I cut them off; and had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.
More would I, but my lungs are wasted so
That strength of speech is utterly denied me.
How I came by the crown, O God, forgive;
And grant it may with thee in true peace live!

My gracious liege,
You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be:
Which I with more than with a common pain
'Gainst all the world will rightfully maintain.

And this is why Norwich's history is mere bagatelle compared to Shakespeare's history plays. That Norwich clearly doesn't understand the importance of Shakespeare's plays is indicated when he claims, toward the end of the book, that religion doesn't play a big part in Shakespeare's plays because Jesus Christ is not mentioned much. Unbelievable! Shakespeare is trying to write about reality. He sees a spiritual dimension in human beings that points toward Him, but he would be false to his profession if he had the characters walking around asking each other if they had been 'born again.' The reason Shakespeare's plays still resonate with us today is because he enables us to see reality clearly. We need vision more than a sermon. The former leads us to the living God, and the latter leads us to an idea about God.

Walter Scott followed in Shakespeare's footsteps. He writes about historical events but also supplies the spiritual undergirdings of the various events. And without those undergirdings, history is just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing! And of course that is what the empiricist always concludes about European history – it signifies nothing. (As a matter of fact, that's why European history is only treated as a cautionary tale about the evils of being a white man.) But Shakespeare and Scott are divers. They go below the surface of European history and come to the surface again with a treasure that is of infinite value, the living God.

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