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Essay: E.M.W. Tillyard on Shakespeare

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  • Published: 20 July 2022*
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E.M.W. Tillyard wrote in his 1944 work entitled Shakespeare’s History Plays that ‘the Tudors, to suit their ends, encouraged their people to look on the events that led to their accession in a special way.’ The marriage of the houses of York and Lancaster which ended the period of civil strife known as the Wars of the Roses was portrayed as ‘the providential and happy ending of an organic piece of history.’ Tillyard argues that Shakespeare in his English history plays subscribes to this so-called Tudor Myth: the tradition in historiography and literature of depicting the 16th century as a golden age of prosperity in stark contrast with the violence and anarchy of the preceding century, with this period of prosperity being brought about by God’s providence. I would instead argue that Shakespeare does not entirely subscribe to this providential view of history that underpins the Tudor Myth; but rather, Shakespeare uses his plays to explore opposing views of historical causality, and he crucially does not arrive at such a concrete conclusion as Tillyard proposes. Shakespeare provides us with a view of England’s recent history that does not offer as conclusive an affirmation of such a unified providential, Elizabethan worldview as Tillyard posits. Tillyard dismisses too eagerly the various instances where Shakespeare challenges providential historiography, and therefore undermines the degree to which his plays can be read as conforming to the Tudor Myth. The playwright therefore subscribes to the Tudor Myth to a significant extent, but he does not do so without posing this view significant challenges, challenges to which Tillyard does not pay due attention.

Tillyard finds in Shakespeare’s history plays a ‘universally held’ and ‘fundamentally religious’ scheme that is governed by ‘God’s providence’ which arrives at the ‘acknowledged outcome’ of ‘Elizabeth’s England.’ In Tillyard’s view, Shakespeare subscribes absolutely to the Tudor Myth and the providential conception of history that it implies. But Shakespeare is much less certain about the conflict between opposing views of history than Tillyard acknowledges. These uncertainties are manifested in the history plays through, in part, the dramatisation of Machiavellian forces that appear to shape the course of history in a way that is contrary to a providentialism. There is evidence to suggest that Shakespeare viewed history as a spectacle of Machiavellian Realpolitik. His English historical cycle forces the audience to question whether events are the result of providential design or, for example, the result of weaknesses in the various kings’ characters or even simply misfortune. Shakespeare’s history plays, when taken as a whole, do not offer a conclusive argument for the superiority of any singular theory of historical causation.

Nevertheless, it is possible to interpret events as though they were brought about by providential design; Shakespeare offers both sides of the debate as to which view of historical causation is authoritative, and therefore on some level arguably appears to subscribe to the Tudor Myth.

Tillyard argues that Shakespeare’s tetralogies map out the great period of disorder and chaos that ensues as God’s punishment for England’s transgressions, before the eventual forgiveness by God which manifests through Henry VII, where prosperity is restored under the Tudor monarchy. Hall and Holinshed were Shakespeare’s principle chronicle sources for this ‘Tudor Myth’ view of recent history. As in Hall, the reign of Richard II marks the beginning of England’s descent into an extended period of suffering until eventual redemption through the accession of the Tudors by Henry VII. Shakespeare begins with Richard II wherein the king’s deposition by Henry Bolingbroke marks the beginning of a descent into disorder within the providential narrative. The Henry IV plays continue to depict a fallen world of chaos and struggle where Hal deals with the issues of authority after usurpation has taken place. England’s condition grows even worse in the Henry VI plays of the first tetralogy, before the final redemption in Richard III.

Tillyard finds that Shakespeare regularly reminds us of the ways in which history shapes the present, and as Hall says, the fact that ‘King Henry the Fourth was the beginning and root of the great discord and division.’ In 1 Henry VI, Mortimer tells his nephew that ‘Henry the Fourth, grandfather to this king,/ despos’d his nephew, Edward’s son,/ the first-begotten and the lawful heir.’ With this, we are reminded of the controversy surrounding Henry VI’s legitimacy as his authority rests upon his grandfather’s deposition of a ruler who was rightfully king, albeit an ineffectual leader. Indeed, Shakespeare reminds us of the arguable illegality of Richard II’s deposition by Bolingbroke on multiple occasions. The Duke of York in 2 Henry VI, who asserts he should be king, claims that Henry IV ‘seiz’d on the realm, depos’d the rightful king’ and that ‘harmless Richard was murder’d traitorously.’ With this, York voices the basis of the providential narrative, as it was the crime of the usurpation of a rightful king that triggered God’s punishment in the Tudor conception of history. In the culminatory play of the second tetralogy (which details events preceding the first), Henry prays to God before the Battle of Agincourt to ‘think not upon the fault/ my father made in compassing the crown.’ Henry is awarded a victory and a mainly successful reign, but God is still unforgiving: England suffers with the king’s early death. Some characters in the play therefore give voice to a providential view of history, that God is retributive for the actions of Henry IV, and therefore suggesting that Shakespeare perhaps subscribes to the Tudor Myth to some degree.

God’s sadness for the usurpation and murder of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke in Richard II appears to haunt the rest of the plays. Tillyard argues that by 1 Henry VI, England is cursed: Henry V has died prematurely, dissension is fomenting amongst ambitious nobles, and war is looming in France. Joan of Arc can be read as a means by which God inflicts his retribution, instead of being seen as an independent agent of witchcraft. In this interpretation, God inflicts chaos and division upon England through Joan; and the death of Talbot, Shakespeare’s symbol of English nobility and order, represents God’s most severe act of punishment so far.

The course of England’s ruin progresses in 2 Henry VI. Divinely-wrought dissension and disorder develops at home. Crucially, emphasis shifts somewhat from the tribulations of the nobility to also include other classes of society; the commonwealth in its entirety is suffering God’s punishment. Warwick describes the resentment among the common people towards the nobility after the murder of the popular Duke of Gloucester: ‘the Commons, like an angry hive of bees/ that want their leader, scatter up and down/ and care not who they sting in his revenge.’ The threat of outright rebellion by the working classes is set against a backdrop of deceit and mistrust amongst the ruling classes, as Buckingham warns Lord Saye to ‘trust nobody, for fear you be betrayed.’ Dissension from above therefore has consequences for the lower rungs of society, and Shakespeare paints the nobility as being corrupted by the vices of pride and ambition. When Gloucester is wrongly accused of treason, he portrays the court, and by extension England, in woeful terms whilst warning Henry: ‘these days are dangerous./ Virtue is choked with foul ambition,/ and charity chased hence by rancor’s hand;/ foul subornation is predominant,/ and equity exiled your Highness’ land.’ For Tillyard, this is the post-fall England: the England that is being punished dearly for Henry IV’s sinful usurpation of the throne. God himself is responsible for ‘equity’ being ‘exiled,’ leaving behind poisonous ambition amongst the upper classes that will have dire consequences as the providential narrative continues and the punishment worsens.

More generally, the play arguably highlights the degree to which Shakespeare gives voice to providential cause-and-effect within the action of a single play. Henry prays to God that he may enact retribution for the murder of Gloucester: ‘oh thou that judgest all things, stay my thoughts/ […] some violent hands were laid on Humphrey’s life./ If my suspect be false, forgive me, God,/ for judgement only doth belong to thee.’ Tillyard notes that with this we are invited to watch out for God’s judgment upon the orchestrators. And his judgment is swift: Cardinal Beaufort dies agonising over his tortured conscience; and Suffolk is captured off the coast of Kent and is executed by the ship’s captain. Shakespeare therefore reminds us of God’s active role in history, upon which the Tudor Myth presupposes.


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