William Shakespeare's history plays : ideologically conformist or politically subversive?

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Maloney, Raymond
Issue Date
BA in English Literature and Drama
Dublin Business School
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William Shakespeare's plays and their formal construction are particularly rich, dense and complicated. His plays offer complex interpretive choices and constantly throw up questions about our critical and theoretical frameworks. This Final Year Project is an examination of Shakespeare's second tetralogy of History plays. It sets out to identify some of the main interpretive choices the plays offer to audiences and proposes a reading of the sequence, in terms of a progressive evolution and complication of Shakespeare's dramaturgy that can be read politically. From the relatively conventional chronicle history form of Richard II, telling history as the story of Kings and aristocrats, we move to a dramatically more complex and inclusive historical picture in the Henry IV plays, which include within the frame of history, an increasing heterogeneity of voices and class perspectives that undermine the notion of history as a monologic narrative of those in power. Henry V offers us another type of complication, apparently returning us to the conventional chronicle history form, and seemingly offering us a propagandistic myth of English national greatness and destiny, while at the same time offering a simultaneous deconstruction of the very thing it seems to glorify. Through formal devices like ironic juxtaposition and inconsistent, hypocritical repetition, Shakespeare implicitly critiques what traditionally many have seen as the thing he exalts, namely the former Kings of England in general, and particularly the reign of King Henry V. In many ways this Final Year Project is an attempt to appropriate the second tetralogy of history plays, for an essentially modernist or Brechtian aesthetic and dramaturgy. The drive of this Final Year Project is mainly to examine whether Shakespeare was a politically subversive writer, or merely a spokesperson for the dominant ideologies of his time, or just an apologist for the authority figures of his time. I strongly lean towards the idea that Shakespeare was an implicitly subversive and political writer, despite the censorship prevalent in his Elizabethan society, and this Final Year Project will make textual reference to the plays themselves to back up this assertion.