Sunday, July 16, 2006

2 Henry VI - Can't Get a Date


In 2 Henry VI Mike sees "the seeds of Shakespeare's fascination with the powers and limitations of language." Gil argues that the play shows "greater muscle in both the lines and the drama itself" and that the play shows greater unity than 1 Henry VI, revolving around the Duke of York. Ernst follows with a catalog of rhetorical speeches that demonstrate "the ascendancy of rhetoric over character and politics." I put the play down and think 'I'm with Ernst; I find it difficult to believe Shakespeare wrote this before Part 1.' And I am comfortable with our assessment, that this play shows "maturation" of language and structure and characterization over the previous play, because we perceive that these aspects arrive with greater force in this play than in Part 1.

But I am also discomfited. And I would love to see an article on the dating of the early plays and the complications associated with that dating. I'm sure the result of my reading it would be a deeper understanding of my own ignorance. This is not a complaint: I am excited by the observations we have made and continue to make not only of each play on its own but in context with those we have read before and those we already know. When Ernst wrote "I am altogether ready to side with those who claim that Shakespeare wrote the better part of all these plays and did so in the order in which we are reading them," I agreed. And yet that order is artificial, based ― however informed it may be ― on speculation.

I guess I'm having a small crisis of confidence. I am fascinated with the idea of discerning the mind of William Shakespeare, his maturation, his evolution of craft and content, as we progress through our approximation of his career. Yet I find myself wondering which of my criticisms and observations are valid, textually supportable, and worth considering, and which are mere construct, reflecting a "text" ― and therefore an author ― that doesn't really exist.

I've noticed, for example, that every authority I look to has a different order for the early plays, some with coherent rationale, some not (see Harold Bloom). With no hard evidence regarding the birth order of Shakespeare's works, all of us ― amateur and decorated scholar alike ― are left to speculate, to draw legitimate though tentative conclusions based, to name a few factors, on the mumbo jumbo of literary psychoanalysis (see my assessment of the immaturity of the person writing Love's Labor's Lost),

  • on the detection of possible allusions to contemporary events, plays, and people (consider our discussion of Titus Andronicus and its relationship/reaction to Kyd and Marlowe's revenge tragedies, and our use of Nashe's Pierce Penniless (1592) to both date and discuss 1 Henry VI),
  • on the cross-reference of performance records (which one might suggest introduces another nagging variable as much as defines a play's creation date),
  • on the quantity and quality of pre-publication revision Shakespeare may have done (and as we know 18 of the 36 plays published in the first folio appeared in print there for the first time),
  • and on the amount of extra-Shakespearian sources that finds its way into each text making the previously mentioned assessments less reliable (did Will Kemp ad-lib a passage and write it in his promptbook, thereby sealing its inclusion in the posthumously published folio?).

Thus, we are critically safe when we are reading particular lines, but as we move to the relationship of passages to play or to the relationship of one play to the next, does not the integrity of the text matter? And when we invoke Shakespeare, is it important that he actually be there?

With the Henry VI plays we have an added difficulty. Bad Quartos! (When they make a movie about this, Harvey Keitel will play Shakespeare.) Apparently, two of the plays, 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI, were previously published, anonymously, in inferior forms as 1) The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster and 2) The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, respectively. These latter may be by Shakespeare, or they may not. Or he may have written them, badly, then revised them years later. Or they may be "memorial reconstructions" by fellow actors of Shakespeare's actual plays. And I'm not even going to get into the plagiarism argument which suggests that he copied Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3 from the Contention plays, or the sillier Oxfordian argument that smirkingly declares that the whole confusion comes about because Shakespeare was himself … a Shakespeare stealer!

(According to Gwynneth Bowen, from whose 1972 article, "Purloined Plume," I became aware of these different points of view, Shakespeare may have simply been one of those actors who produced memorial reconstructions but unlike the others he managed to get his name on subsequent publications. Bowen calls this "a kind of squatter's right." Sigh.) Lest we write these labyrinthine quibbles off to the lunatic fringe of Bardology, Herschel Baker in the Riverside Shakespeare devotes hundreds of words in his Henry VI introduction to these questions of authorship and the relationship between the Contention plays and what we now read as 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI.

It makes my head ache. One of the things I am enjoying most about our discussion is the inter-textual criticism, the connections that arise between works, and your prodigious talents in helping me see these works in the context of Shakespeare's complete works. Maybe the actual specific order of the plays doesn't matter, and it is possible to consider them in terms of early, middle, and late plays? Maybe I juke around the possible contributions of Greene, Peele, Marlowe, Fletcher, et. al., and emendations by editors, and insertions by actors, and mis-remembering by compilers, and corruption from Bad Quartos, and take Shakespeare to be not the man but the thing I hold in my hand, the text, regardless of its origins? Is that ignorant?

I'm sure I've missed something that will put me at ease. I want to talk about the power and limitations of language, the muscle of Shakespeare's lines, the ascendancy of rhetoric. But I seem to have floated off in a small bark and temporarily lost my oars.

Send wind,

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