Paola Pugliatti. Shakespeare the Historian. London and New York: Macmillan and St. Martin's P, 1996. xi+265 pp. ISBN 0 132 12840 1 Cloth.
Michael T. Siconolfi
Gonzaga University

, Michael T. "Review of Shakespeare the Historian." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 15.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-3/rev_sic2.html>.

  1. In Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, the dilettante Emperor of Austria accosts Mozart after a performance of one of his operas with the minor cavil that though the opera was first-rate, there were simply "too many notes." Although his majesty was wrong, he would score better in evaluating Professor Paola Pugliatti's book: though often first-rate, there are too many notes--and the reader is "bethump'd with words."

  2. Writing from the University of Florence, Professor Pugliatti divides this work into three parts. Her first section provides an overview of the varied historiographies that have grappled with the history plays of Shakespeare, plays that constitute almost one-third of his writings; the second and third sections re-work some of her earlier published material on political and topical elements in these plays.

  3. The author has canvassed some recent work in the historiography of Tudor politics, and the first part of the book is a compendium of much of what has been accomplished in this area: the lengthy end-notes are impressively daunting. Her central idea comes from a reworking of some the older ideas of Larry Champion and Michael Hattaway about these plays. One might wish, however, for some more recent citations from the work of Leeds Barroll, Donald Watson, and John D. Cox in this area of Shakespearean studies. Nevertheless, she cogently presents the history plays as indirect criticisms of his contemporary source material; as such, they present a polyvalent perspective on the historical events Shakespeare recreated for his variegated audience and show how sensitive he was to the complexity of both past and present political realities.

  4. Presuming the text of the plays to be an unstable artifact, Professor Pugliatti probes further and convincingly shows that social and political nuances at the time of a play's production were never tidy. These complex background nuances contextualize and interpenetrate the aesthetic experience and vice-versa. This is a valid and fruitful approach although one might wish the author a little more diffident about gleaning Shakespeare's political attitudes or intentions.

  5. Professor Pugliatti explores how the London audience for these popular histories took them as truthful and accurate depictions of their national heritage. Such popularity was also of keen interest to the Tudor power structure. The Privy Council in 1599 assumed direct jurisdiction over all history publications. And they were prudent to do so: the "Tudor Myth" always needed ample shoring up in print. But Pugliatti establishes that Shakespeare's genius proved him to be ahead of his time in reading the Tudor historians much more critically than many of his contemporaries both in the government and in the theatre. Should one agree with her, one could make a case that he employed redaktiongeschichte somewhat before continental Biblical scholars used this fruitful methodology.

  6. Picking up on A.P.Rossiter's ideas about ambivalence in the histories, this book explores the dialectical structure of juxtaposition and ironic texture central to these plays. The complex "polyphony" of allusions in the text to then current political events nuances the providential or Tillyard-esque tradition quite effectively. Thus a character like the loyal and forthright Sir Walter Blunt in the first part of Henry IV is rendered somewhat ambiguous by an equally blunt and forthright Vernon from among the rebel forces. Pugliatti further demonstrates that part of this "conscious unclarity" of the facts in both the historical texts and in the plays was in part due to the rhetorical tradition of copia and exempla that descended from Erasmus and Puttenham. But Shakespeare does something more than provide echoes of traditional exempla like some sort of historical emblem book. Instead, he offers up an ever shifting modulation of events that constantly alters what was sounded before.

  7. Though her discussion of Henry IV is quite thoughtful in the second part of the book, and though she makes a great deal of the multiple senses of time in that play, she has oddly omitted the work of Ricardo J. Quinones in his seminal treatise on the renaissance's "discovery" of time. Still less satisfying is her section on the chorus in Henry V and the oddly organized chapters on Richard III, Henry VI, and Jack Cade. Strangely, there is not a full-blown treatment of Richard II, a play that surely should offer a litmus test of this whole idea of nuanced "perspectivism" in the plays.

  8. And one looks for, but does not find developed in any significant way, the intriguing parallel of how the public stages on the Bankside and the courtly staging of events at Westminster equally mimed dramatic presentation of greatness. Surely this greatness was equally finessed by spin doctors on both shores of the grandfatherly Thames.

  9. While the reader is grateful for the summary of the scholarship in this area, the prose style leaves one slightly queasy with its constant shifting of points of view. Worse, turgid and interminable sentences--the likes of which have not been seen since Macaulay--are hard to digest in this era where the sound bite has affected us more than we realize. This is a difficult book to read. Such a prose style, however, is quite the linguistic norm in scholarly work written in Italian, but provides simply "too many notes" for the English-speaking reader.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(JD, LH, RGS, 29 January 1998)