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Shakespeare and concepts of history: the English history play and Shakespeare's first tetralogy

Davall, Nicole Elizabeth 2014. Shakespeare and concepts of history: the English history play and Shakespeare's first tetralogy. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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Divided into three large chapters, this thesis explores sixteenth-century concepts of history, considers how those concepts appear in Elizabethan history plays on English history, and finally looks at Shakespeare’s first tetralogy of history plays. The aim of the thesis is to consider in some detail the wider context of historical and dramatic traditions in Tudor England to gain a better appreciation of how they influenced possible readings of Shakespeare’s early history plays. Chapter One looks at how medieval approaches were modified in the fifteenth century. St. Augustine’s allegorical method of biblical exegesis made it possible to interpret history from inside the historical moment by allowing historically specific incidents to stand for trans-historical truths. However, the sixteenth-century chronicle tradition shows an increasing awareness of the difficulties of interpreting history. Chapter Two looks at early English history plays outside of the Shakespearean canon. History plays borrowed the conventions of comedy, tragedy and the morality play to provide frameworks for interpretation. Nevertheless, early histories such as Kynge Johan, Edmund Ironside, Famous Victories, Edward III, The True Tragedy, and The Troublesome Reign did not fit comfortably within established dramatic modes, leading to history’s gradual recognition as a separate genre. Chapter Three looks at the contribution Shakespeare’s plays made to the developing genre. The un-unified dramatic structure of the Henry VI plays denies the audience a stable framework within which to interpret events. In Richard III, a clear tragic framework appears, but is undermined by a strong thread of irony that runs through the play. History appears in the tetralogy as a repetitive cycle of violence perpetuated by characters’ attempts to memorialise the past while failing to learn from it. The crisis presented by history is the necessity of acting on partial information, while the promise of fuller understanding is projected into an unknowable future.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Status: Unpublished
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 30 March 2016
Last Modified: 29 Oct 2016 01:30

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