Prophecy in Shakespeare's English History Cycles

Rooney, Lee
Prophecy in Shakespeare's English History Cycles. PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

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Prophecy — that is, the action of foretelling or predicting the future, particularly a future thought to represent the will of God — is an ever-present aspect of Shakespeare’s historical dramaturgy. The purpose of this thesis is to offer a reading of the dramas of Shakespeare’s English history cycles — from 1 Henry VI to Henry V — that focuses exclusively upon the role played by prophecy in representing and reconstructing the past. It seeks to show how, through close attention to the moments when prophecy emerges in these historical dramas, we might arrive at a different understanding of them, both as dramatic narratives and as meditations on the nature of history itself. As this thesis seeks to demonstrate, moreover, Shakespeare’s treatment of prophecy in any one play can be viewed, in effect, as a key that can take us to the heart of that drama’s wider concerns. The comparatively recent conception of a body of historical plays that are individually distinct and no longer chained to the Tillyardian notion of a ‘Tudor myth’ (or any other ‘grand narrative’) has freed prophecy from effectively fulfilling the rather one-dimensional role of chorus. However, it has also raised as-yet-unanswered questions about the function of prophecy in Shakespeare’s English history cycles, which this thesis aims to consider. One of the key arguments presented here is that Shakespeare utilises prophecy not to emphasise the pervasiveness of divine truth and providential design, but to express the political, narratorial, and interpretative disorder of history itself. It is also argued that any conception of the English history plays that rejects homogeneity and even consistency must also acknowledge that prophecy, as a form of historical narrative in essence, cannot be expected to manifest itself in the same ways in each drama throughout Shakespeare’s career. In this sense, the purpose of this thesis is to show that Shakespeare not only uses ‘prophecy’ to construct ‘history’: as a dramatist, he also thinks through ‘prophecy’, in various ways and from multiple perspectives, in order to intensify and complicate our sense of the complexity and drama of history itself. This thesis treats the English chronicle plays in order of composition and performance. While the Introduction contextualizes concepts of prophecy in the early modern period, and its relationship to history in particular, chapters 1–3 address the Henry VI plays and Richard III, with chapters 4 and 5 examining Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV. Henry V is addressed in the Conclusion. The inclusion of the second cycle of histories, rarely interrogated by critics in relation to prophecy, is crucial to the approach taken by this thesis. Unlike previous studies, this thesis privileges prophecy in both the earlier and the later histories, not least because its perceived absence from the plays of the second cycle is capable of informing our understanding of Shakespeare’s historical dramaturgy more generally. What is at stake in this reading of prophecy in Shakespeare’s English histories, both locally in the plays themselves and more generally across the cycles, are questions of causality, identity (both personal and national), monarchy, and the art of theatre itself.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: Date: 2014-09 (completed)
Subjects: ?? PR ??
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 27 Aug 2015 12:02
Last Modified: 17 Dec 2022 01:05
DOI: 10.17638/02003748