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The End of History?

The Doubtful Conclusion of Shakespeare’s English Historical Plays
Jean-Marc Chadelat


La conclusion dramatique de la série shakespearienne des pièces historiques anglaises s’achève par la prédiction d’une révélation de vérités cachées et d’une ère de paix et de prospérité sans fin. Mais cette apocalypse annoncée par l’archevêque de Cantorbéry dans Henri VIII relève d’une téléologie sécularisée du temps qui souligne son ambivalence problématique. Dans l’ensemble de la série, l’idée que l’histoire de l’Angleterre est orientée vers l’achèvement d’un processus et la révélation d’une finalité ne laisse pas de susciter une attente tenace. Par ailleurs, l’écart séparant l’ordre chronologique des règnes et l’ordre d’écriture des œuvres suggère une forme de déterminisme à l’œuvre dans l’histoire. L’affirmation du libre arbitre mise dans la bouche de plusieurs personnages est presque toujours démentie par la prise de conscience rétrospective d’un dessein qui excède la volonté ou l’intelligence humaine et à l’accomplissement duquel les actions des hommes concourent. Toutefois, les spectateurs n’assistent ni à une véritable apocalypse ni à une résolution finale. La fin déconcertante des pièces historiques anglaises n’offre en effet qu’un faux-semblant de régénération et Henri VIII, contrairement à l’Apocalypse biblique, ménage une fin ouverte sur l’avenir. Il en résulte que l’accomplissement indéfiniment ajourné de la prophétie d’une fin imminente de l’histoire et d’une révélation des choses cachées prend un sens à la fois futuriste et symbolique.

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Texte intégral

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit
(King James Bible, Ecclesiastes 7: 8).

  • 1 The allusions to the Bible, in the order in which they appear in Thomas Cranmer’s speech, can be fo (...)
  • 2 Thomas Cranmer’s mention of ‘terror’ closing the enumeration of royal ‘servants’ reminds the specta (...)

1In the closing scene of Henry VIII, composed by Shakespeare at the end of his career with the likely collaboration of John Fletcher, Thomas Cranmer sings the praises of Princess Elizabeth who “Though in her cradle, yet now promises / Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings, / Which time shall bring to ripeness” (King Henry VIII (5.4.18-20). As Gordon McMullan remarks in the introduction to his edition of the play, the notion that time is bound to grow into a state of ripeness calls attention to an apocalypse ─ secularized as it is in a play where the temporal unity of the polity foregrounds the eternal bliss of the afterlife ─ and “implies that truth, though at present obscured, will be revealed to all at the day of judgment” (McMullan, 68). The words spoken by Thomas Cranmer provide an indirect echo of the Latin tag veritas filia temporis (Truth is the daughter of time) and relate directly to the subtitle of the play “All is True” whatever may be understood by this rather cryptic formulation applied to a dramatic work composed for the theatre where the rule of pretence is in order and truth is to say the least elusive. Teeming with biblical reminiscences,1 the archbishop’s vision of the future portrays England as a promised land flowing with milk and honey, and Elizabeth’s reign as a felicitous time that would not cease with her demise: “Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror, / That were the servants to this chosen infant, / Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him” (King Henry VIII 5.4.47-49). The rapturous encomium of the enthusiastic prelate presents the accession of James Stuart as the confirmation of the preceding reign and the continuation of a paradisiacal era.2 History is not construed in these lines as an unstable process whose outcome is always provisional and often unpredictable but as a foreseeable development resulting in the self-realization of England. What is remarkable in the conclusive speech of the archbishop is the conflation of the end of history ─ as purpose and as conclusion ─ with an unending time of peace and plenty. The predictive devolution of Elizabeth’s blessings to her successor renders the historical process perfunctory and gives credit to the sovereign for the unfailing service of truth. The smooth continuity from one monarch to the next implies the denial of a disruptive history and asserts a secular teleology of time based on a rational conception of progress and the concomitant satisfaction of desires.

  • 3 For a reading of the play as anything but apocalyptic in its treatment of time and narrative, see C (...)

2The revelation of truth and the day of judgment anticipated by the archbishop of Canterbury ─ and ironically apprehended as a remembrance of things past by the audience in 1613 when the play was first performed ─ are remarkably anti-climactic if we refer these predictions to the tribulations of Israel and the dissolution of the world as they are portrayed in the last book of the Bible. 3 Like other prophetic texts in the First Testament, the book of Revelation is above all concerned with eschatology. The splendor of the New Jerusalem evoked in the last two chapters presupposes the destruction of the old world decreed by God to fulfill his plan and lavishly described through the prism of an otherworldly vision. Unlike its dramatic counterpart in Henry VIII, the end of time recounted in several books of the Scriptures is depicted as the excruciating conclusion of a ruthless war waged by Satan against God who maintains the high spirits of his army through the rewarding promise of the Second Coming and the inevitable triumph of divine justice.

A Retrospective Prophecy

  • 4 For an approach of genre in the biblical light of an aesthetic theory defining both poetic art and (...)

3Political prophecies were an important genre in Tudor and Jacobean England. 4 Their impact on the population at large was eagerly scrutinized ─ and feared ─ by the successive monarchs who were anxious about their safety: the prophecies of doom circulated in the realm by word of mouth could prove after all to be self-realizing predictions at the expense of law and order, eventually endangering the throne. Alistair Fox remarks that under Henry VIII, at the lower end of the social scale, prophecies became “an instrument whereby ordinary Englishmen could objectify their feelings about the course history was taking” (89-90). The reaction of the authorities was to suppress the prophecies which could be hazardous and to support those which could be used “to create a myth of destiny which foreshadowed, and perhaps even promoted, the later idea of England as the elect nation” (Fox 78). The ultimate aim of such a manipulation was of course to induce the listeners and the readers of these predictions “[to] see past and future political disturbances as part of an apocalyptic pattern with a happy outcome” (Fox 91). At first sight, the “happy outcome” that Thomas Cranmer so obligingly describes to the Tudor sovereign is more akin to the “peace and prosperity” or the “physical security” evoked by Francis Fukuyama in his celebrated essay (xxiii, 312, 329) than to the Day of Judgment and the end of the world mentioned in the conclusive book of the Bible. Far from the revelation of the meaning of human history and the simultaneous advent of the kingdom of Heaven foretold in several scriptural verses, the archbishop’s political prophecy rests on the belief that reason and welfare will eventually prevail for the benefit of England under the benevolent sway of sanctified rulers. The secular undertones are unmistakable in Henry’s reaction to Thomas Cranmer’s words of wonder:

O lord archbishop,
Thou hast made me now a man. Never before
This happy child did I get anything. (King Henry VIII (5.4.62-64)

4Saying this on the occasion of Elizabeth’s christening, the most carnal and self-centered of Shakespearean kings rejoices over the birth of an heiress and asserts his newly acquired manliness at the end of a play abounding in references to procreation and nature.

5The “wonders” for which Henry expresses his gratitude to the archbishop were articulated by Renaissance writers as a “sign of revulsion [or] of ravishment”, an ecstatic feeling experienced as “a primary or radical passion” (King Henry VIII (5.4.55), see Greenblatt, 16-17). Apparitions of the king in the play, like manifestations of God in the Bible, are reported from several sources to produce wonder. In a dramatic work such as Henry VIII as well as in a religious ritual, a sense of wonder is promoted by the authorial need to arrange for a dialectic oscillation between revelation and concealment. The use of the theatrical point of view to suggest divine omnipotence and omniscience is similar ─ if not equivalent ─ in the book of Revelation as in Shakespeare’s play. In setting out to write a masque with a godlike central character as a concluding work for a long sequence of earlier histories, it is likely that Shakespeare had the last book of the Bible at hand and the prophetic parallel he was to draw in mind. Instead of presenting a story of events that unfold sequentially within a stable representation of the world ─ or, for that matter, of history ─, the book of Revelation and Henry VIII are experienced by viewer or reader as a series of living tableaux, animated emblems or dream visions which belong to the genre of masque and feature a specific instability.

6Although commentators have been aware for a long time of the difficulty of determining the genre of this play, “its emphasis on the visual and on ritual, together with the context of entertainments for the marriage of Elizabeth and Frederick, has led several critics to examine the relationship between Henry VIII and the court masque” (McMullan, 108). The word “apocalypse” derives from a Greek term which signifies the removal of a veil or a mask. In the Bible, the Apocalypse claims to reveal the hidden meaning and outcome of history in the form of a vision bestowed by God upon John the Prophet. The vision is conveyed as a pageant of grandiose scenes of catastrophe and deliverance performed for the seer within a heavenly court to which he has been supernaturally transported. By contrast, Thomas Cranmer’s prophecy is a stale prediction looking forward to a future which has already been registered and remembered as past. One of the most puzzling features of Shakespeare’s English plays is “the way in which our knowledge is manipulated by the playwright” to elicit a response affecting “our observation, interpretation, and evaluation” of what we see (Garber, 306). Because the end was written and staged before the beginning, the outcome of history was a foregone conclusion to the audiences who saw the plays of the second tetralogy (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, Henry V) after those of the first tetralogy (1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, Richard III) and already knew the end of the story dealing with the Hundred Years’ War abroad and the Wars of the Roses at home.

7Was Shakespeare’s vision of history dependent on his creative urge coupled with the expectations of the public so that the only end he had in mind when composing the plays on English kings was to supply a lucrative demand, to seize an opportunity for preferment and to justify the legitimacy of the Tudors? Or did he have from the very beginning of his career as a playwright, which probably coincided with the writing of the three parts of Henry VI, a deliberate plan that he was to carry out through the enactment of a dissident interpretation of English history? Did he envisage history as a meaningful process whose end was other than the arbitrary interruption imposed by an artist on his material for dramaturgical and/or ideological purposes?

  • 5 For a critical opinion of Tillyard’s reading see Brockbank, 73-99 ; Kelly, 300-306 ; Patrides, 79-8 (...)

8The difficulty in answering these diverging queries is that there are as many persuasive arguments to tip the scales on one side or on the other. Shakespeare’s biographers have long drawn attention to various facts which corroborate the profile of a down-to-earth playwright endowed with a business-like attitude to his art and trade (Burgess, 17, 96, 103, 194, 208-210). It would certainly be naive to account for Shakespeare’s composition of so many historical plays by supposing a disinterested taste for chronicles mingled with a conformist political stance. In the 1970s, a batch of publications consistently ─ and successfully ─ took issue and found fault with the proponents of the thesis first expounded by E. M. W. Tillyard in a highly influential book where the author contended that Shakespeare’s apprehension of English history, inspired mainly by the chronicle of Edward Hall, followed a cyclical pattern which can be summed up as the committal and expiation of a heinous crime ─ the deposition and execution of Richard II ─ resulting in military defeat in France and civil war in England (Tillyard, 234-244). 5 But as the theory goes, Providence is there to set things right so that a collective punishment is visited on a sinful kingdom nurtured in violence and hardened to compassion through the perverted will of Richard III, who acts as the rod of God’s wrath and reconciles the reign of an evil king with the rule of a benevolent Divinity. At last, God forgives the sacrilegious act performed against his anointed representative and brings the chastisement to an end by granting England the honor of being ruled by the Tudor dynasty and the attendant restoration of peace, justice, and order. Regardless of their ideological affiliation, all of E. M. W. Tillyard’s critics reject the belief in providential order and political orthodoxy which is supposed to inform the plays. Not only does this reading silence the dissident voices heard on the quiet and ignore the diversity of opinions expressed on the margins but also wrongly imply that the political scene and social consensus of Elizabethan England was both uniform and unchallenged.

An Apocalyptic Ending

9Antony Hammond aptly summarizes the issue at stake in Richard III and the tetralogy of which it is the conclusion in his statement that “there is achieved in Richard III a profound sense of a great episode concluded, and a great opportunity beginning. These feelings are the achievement of art, not of political theory nor of history” (Hammond, 119). There can be no doubt that the spectacle of Richard of Gloucester’s irresistible seizure of power, and the vision of quiescent citizens enduring his vicious rule to its bitter end while the truculent prince is left with the world to “bustle in” before he brings the kingdom to destruction by his relentless energy owes more to Shakespeare’s art than to historical evidence whichever interpretation one puts on the facts (King Richard III (1.1.152). The formulation of and solution to the problem of tyranny laid out by the plot is not primarily political or ethical, Shakespeare reshaping his material and contriving his play to show that incomprehensible evil forces ultimately exhaust themselves as history follows a mysterious course where the contribution of human agents to the operation of time is more than uncertain and indeterminate. The issue is thus to know what brings about the end of that painful process and which meaning can be assigned to it in the historical sequence as a whole. If not a mythical dénouement celebrating the advent of the Tudors as a new golden age putting an end to a troubled history, should one envisage the demise of Richard as the defeat of the Antichrist resulting in the victory of the Earl of Richmond presented as the Savior of England (Prior, 45)? To what extent is the biblical paradigm vindicated by the representation of the end purveyed by Shakespeare in the dramatic sequence? Does Shakespeare unreservedly countenance the restoration of England to grace following the suicidal self-destructiveness of Richard? Or does he discount the providential design underlying the tyrant’s fall as an ideological tenet associated with the understanding of history served by the chroniclers and questioned by the plays as an authorized version of the past fostering the repressive measures taken to curb dissent and the denunciation of political disobedience as an abominable sin?

  • 6 As a non-dramatic later illustration of this theme, Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans (1650-55) hig (...)

10The creation and production of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III before the plays which go back in time to examine the roots of the conflict between Lancaster and York that was to disrupt England on the death of Henry V and lead to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses justifies at first glance a reading of chronicles simultaneously piecemeal and incoherent (Rackin, 27). In contrast with Edward Hall’s and E. M. W. Tillyard’s cyclical interpretation of history, which can be schematically labeled medieval and conservative, Shakespeare’s representation of history seems to depart from tradition and espouse ambivalence, more often than not challenging the spectators to choose either of two contradictory interpretations of the same fact, the same character or the same play (Rossiter, 50-51). But it also puts the spectator of these plays in a position where “the ordering of the present time” is shown to be dependent on the “happy end” forecast by Philip the Bastard, half-brother to Robert Faulconbridge in King John, who claims that the “labour” of time will be brought with “very little pains” (King John (5.2.77, 3.2.9-10). The relevance of a “painless” temporal process is more than debatable in view of Shakespeare’s enactment of history and generally of his tragedies, but the idea that English history will eventually have a conclusion casting light on what is preceding underpins the whole sequence of plays and arouses a persistent expectation6. In King John, the least paradox is not that in adapting his sources to the stage, Shakespeare has “violated facts” on a large scale and subordinated his material to “the truth of character” so that the play “has been called his most unhistorical play” (Melchiori, 9-17 ; Smith, 166-175). The obstetrical figure used by the Bastard sounds highly conventional to a modern mind eager to distinguish between dead metaphors and genuine inventions or poetic gems. Corny though it may be, the image of a gravid historical process pregnant with meaning and ultimately delivered of truth runs throughout the plays as a recurrent motif and points to the belief that the “seeds of time” (Honigmann, xxxi) cannot be looked into although they are bound to bear fruit in the end. As a result, the partial viewpoint offered by each play on a temporal, political or psychological level is encompassed by a global perspective whereby every character, event or theme falls into place and fulfills a function which is dependent on the performance of the whole. In this sense, Shakespeare invites the spectators to contemplate the succession of events and the variety of characters from the standpoint of a creator who surveys his creation in the light of a perpetual present not unlike God who sees everything sub specie aeternitatis.

11Whether one agrees or not to see the plays on English history as a providential cycle of retribution and regeneration ending in Tudor glory, the language of providentialism which can be heard from the beginning to the end of the sequence ─ not unambiguously of course ─ serves less to reinforce a political interpretation of Shakespeare’s intentions than it suggests the subordination of historical time to a transcendental scheme providing a hermeneutic framework whereby the plays can be seen as the elements of a whole endowed with a meaning and a purpose.

A Directional History?

12Each of the ten plays of the Shakespearean canon dealing with English history, to which the anonymous Edward III has lately been added on the grounds of internal evidence mainly (Melchiori, 9-17 ; Smith, 166-175), has a structure, a style and a self-sufficiency which explain why they were continually performed separately at the time of their composition as they still are on most occasions now. However, their obvious proximity to each other in historical matter and dramatic sequence can hardly be overlooked or underestimated. The many links which have been noted on different levels between the several plays of the two tetralogies denote a dramatic continuity which cannot be ascribed to mere chance or authorial negligence (Law, 168-187). As Marjorie Garber rightly asserts, these plays problematize the relationship between historical time and theatrical history in a disconcerting way: “The first tetralogy predicts the second; the second also predicts the first”. The sheer extent of the cross-references suggests that the idea of the two tetralogies and presumably of the whole series took shape in Shakespeare’s creative mind as early as his first adaptation of the chronicles to the theatre. As David Kastan contends, the links doubtless reveal the action of each play “as a mere segment of an ongoing temporal process” (Garber, 323 ; Clemen, 25-35). Whether or not the compilers of the First Folio published in 1623 were right to group all the English histories together in the order, not of their writing, but of the succession of the events they represent, this interpretive preconception has determined how these plays have been read and understood ever since. For many critics and directors until now the sequence enacts a patriotic legend or communal epic celebrating the English nation and extolling the Tudor dynasty at a turning point of the evolution of England when the improbable defeat of Spain, the relinquishment of continental ambitions and the incipient call of the sea opened up new prospects for overseas trade and offered an outlet for overflowing energies. It is not uninteresting to note that Heminge and Condell, who compiled the 1623 Folio, placed what is probably Shakespeare’s last singled-authored play, The Tempest, at the beginning of the volume and so invited us to wonder at the “brave new world” and encounter the “many goodly creatures” of the play as a preamble to the exploration of the world created by the Bard of Avon (The Tempest (5.1.186/185). Even that monument to Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation inverts the beginning and the end, giving pride of place to a conclusive work functioning as the introduction to the Folio and suggesting that the reading experience need not be subject to the order of composition.

13One may wonder along the same lines whether 1 Henry VI was composed as the prelude to a trilogy dealing with the sorely inadequate Lancastrian king and the march of events to the civil war or as a prequel exploiting for “ironic and challenging effect the narrative roots of an already familiar story” (Burns, 5)? If we agree with Edward Burns that “the play is not so much a component of a historical epic as an ironic meditation of what history is” (6), we cannot avoid the feeling that 1 Henry VI invites the spectators and the readers to examine the uncertain relation of cause and effect and estimate the disruptive forces in a kingdom on the wane where the notions of purpose and governance are unsettled and misleading. The three parts of Henry VI stand apart in the sequence of English plays mainly because of the way in which the vexed question of authorship ─ most likely unsolvable given the documents at our disposal ─ and the estimation of their literary worth have overshadowed a range of interpretive issues related to the consistency in plot and theme of the other plays in the first tetralogy (Cox & Rasmussen, 1-5). A dazzling conclusion to the tetralogy, Richard III is the most performed of Shakespeare’s histories whose astonishing protagonist displays aspects of himself and reveals alternative selves in the last two parts of Henry VI. The close connections with the preceding plays manifest the unity of conception of the first tetralogy which appears on stage as on page as a cycle representing the origins of the Wars of the Roses and the unleashing of crude violence exhausting itself through unlimited warfare with the baneful reign of Richard and his self-inflicted destructive hatred (Siemon, 39-44). Although Richard III is not implied by 1 Henry VI as the necessary outcome of a prospective apprehension of English history, retrospectively the play is the ineluctable conclusion of the tetralogy and, beyond, of the sequence of eight plays beginning with Richard II’s deposition and Bolingbroke’s usurpation. As Antony Hammond remarks, the tetralogy “begins with a sense of loss: Henry V is the great absent character at the beginning. Richard III ends with a great gain, the new hero who will restore the golden age” (Hammond, 115-116).

The End As Paradigm

  • 7 There is today a consensus of opinion among scholars to acknowledge the probability that Shakespear (...)
  • 8 The same question arises for the second tetralogy (R2, 1H4, 2H4, and H5) and particularly for the t (...)

14Whereas the Earl of Richmond’s victory at Bosworth, represented by Shakespeare at the end of Richard III, ushers in the Tudor dynasty and the myth associated with it, the nobles gathered around Henry V’s coffin in the initial scene of 1 Henry VI mourn the death of their hero and remember with nostalgia the glorious reign of the warrior king who conquered France anew, rivaling his chivalrous ancestor Edward III for outstanding military prowess and bettering him for theatrical repute. 7 There is no certainty that 1 Henry VI was composed as the first part of a cycle of three plays representing the infamous defeat in France and the inglorious division of England which are to spawn the monstrous Richard of Gloucester and lead to the egregious tyranny of Richard III. 8 Nor can it be cogently argued that the understanding of the story of 2 Henry VI or 3 Henry VI depends whatsoever on the previous knowledge of facts represented in this play. Though Shakespeare may not have envisaged the serial order suggested by the Folio of 1623 to conceive or stage the sequence of English histories, one cannot put aside the numerous links between the plays of the series and the anachronistic prophecies looking to the past or the future. It would be unwise to ascribe the impression of dramatic continuity solely to the “complex cross-referencing different from the modern scholar’s linear, text-based, author-centred reading” created by a “general knowledge of the story and the experience of attending many plays by different writers on related themes” (Burns, 86). One scene in Henry V acknowledges the narrative of 1 Henry VI and strikes a significant contrast that cannot be reduced to mere cross-referencing. This is the death at Agincourt, in chivalrous communion with the dying duke of Suffolk, of Edward of Norwich ─ known as Aumerle in Richard II though Shakespeare doesn’t remind the audience of the connection between his present and his past ─, the last duke of York before Richard Plantagenet is later reinstated to the dukedom by Henry VI (Part 1 (3.1.171-175). Edward’s death on the battlefield of Agincourt, which departs from the sources, is contrasted with the pathetic deaths of the Talbots ─ father and son ─ and the selfish conduct of the reinstated duke of York, whose lack of cooperation with and persistent grudge to the duke of Somerset eventually lead to Talbot’s unnecessary sacrifice and the ensuing loss of France. This invented parallel is quite complex but rather than assuming that Shakespeare returns in Henry V to the material of an earlier play in order to “construct the new play in revisionary reference” (Burns, 85) to 1 Henry VI, are we not justified instead in supposing that the chronologically earlier though dramatically later play celebrating a decisive victory against a foreign enemy as well as the cohesion of a nation cemented by common objectives prepares the audience to the future dislocation of the kingdom ─ already suggested in Henry V through the conspiracy plan thwarted by the monarch before he embarks for France ─ left in the hands of a child? Do we not have grounds for believing that the origin of the chaos luridly represented in the three parts of Henry VI lies in the impossibility to sustain the political creed ─ in words as in deeds ─ of the victor of Agincourt in a kingdom where the defense of the common good has been relentlessly undermined ─ replaced? ─ by personal ambitions and private malice?

15The memory of a dramatically earlier play, reactivated by the obvious links contrived by Shakespeare, induces the audience to apply what they remember of 1 Henry VI to the plot of Henry V so that the reversal of the chronological ordering from the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed helps to disclose “what is suppressed or only elliptically suggested in the margins of the rebellion scene of Henry V” (Parker, 41), namely that the embryonic nation forged by Henry V’s undeniable charisma and political energy cannot outlive its main architect whose success is shown to depend more on his personal qualities and a war of diversion than on stable institutions established by the king or a communal adhesion to timeless values. What this deliberate reversal of perspective engineers is rather to draw attention to the instability and relativity prevailing below the conspicuous appearance of things in a kingdom where the germs of decay undercut ─ even underlie ─ the triumphant reign of a self-assertive monarch whose precious legacy to his young son ─ the new conquest of France by a reunited England ─ is mere window-dressing. As the epilogue of Henry V notifies the public in a proleptic allusion to a historical future which has already been represented on stage, “Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King / Of France and England, did this king succeed” and only managed to lose “the world’s best garden” and make “his England bleed” (King Henry V (Epilogue, 9-10/7/12).

  • 9 The popularity of the work is well attested by the 1525 edition of a metrical version made in 1410 (...)

16The main effect of the discrepancy between the chronological order of kings and the successive composition of plays is to suggest a form of determinism at work in the historical process which doesn’t rule out the efficiency of human agency though it “reinforces a sense of historical inevitability” (Garber, 305). The issue at stake is how human free will and God’s providential rule can be reconciled in a universe where predetermination and free choice are simultaneously propounded by characters holding antinomic views on man’s ability to shape history rather than yield to circumstances. The classic exposition of that debate can be found in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy ─ whose influence should not be played down in Renaissance England9 ─ where the author argues that the apparent conflict can be resolved only by an understanding of God’s knowledge which is beyond comparison to man’s knowledge. By contrast with the temporal world subject to change, God is eternal and immutable so that his knowledge transcends the world of time. He sees future events as happening before his eyes in an everlasting present. From the viewpoint of divine knowledge all future events will be necessary, but of their own nature some will be necessary and some freely chosen so that the free choices made by human agents shall be foreseen by God. As a consequence, human will and providential rule are not only compatible but also necessary to further God’s salvation plan and prepare mankind for the Day of Judgment Boethius (110-114).

Temporal Ends Vs. The End Of Time

17Most historical characters in the sequence either pursue a temporal end ─ when they are not time-servers ─ or wait for ─ even expect ─ the end of time, ie their own deaths and/or the destruction of the world. On the one hand, King John, Philip of Faulconbridge, Henry V, Jack Cade and Richard III throw themselves headlong into action to consolidate their present position, seek a material advantage or achieve a temporal goal. In King John, the eponymous character balks at no dishonorable act or abject thought to remain king of England. He betrays a materialistic conception of power and “tries to find everyone’s price” (Honigmann, lxviii), thus setting an example for the Bastard of Richard I, Philip Faulconbridge, who notices how the noblest purpose is degraded into mere benefit by “That smooth-fac’d gentleman, tickling commodity” (King John (2.1.573). Whereas the Bastard is an ambitious cynic whose purpose in life is to worship gain and advance himself, the sole aim of John’s struggle is to keep his crown at all cost and substitute a Machiavellian practice of statesmanship for the primacy of Christian ideals. His demise testifies to the spiritual failure of a king whose unending punishment in Hell is the reward of an inordinate lust for power. Whether one regards Henry V as “national epic, with a heroic king, or as anti-war satire, dominated by a self-interested hypocrite” (Dutton, 362), the predominance of temporal affairs is a crucial aspect of the play which is highlighted by the protagonist’s obsession with time and his spurious display of piety. Henry’s invocations of the Almighty are subservient to his military conquest of France and the political end of his fight in favor of which he “weighs time / Even to the utmost grain” (King Henry V 2.4.137-138). Shakespeare’s depiction of Cade’s rebellion focuses on material prosperity and egalitarian claims, deliberately ignoring the religious hopes and moral expectations which were common to all medieval revolts and could be found in the sources (Knowles, 90). Richard III presents himself as a “self-professed hypocrite” who “holds conscience in contempt, treats religion as a functional tool and delights in strategic manipulation” (Siemon, 8). Furthermore, Shakespeare makes it clear that although Richard is a matchless tactician who takes advantage of his victims’ weaknesses to attain his ends, his only plan ─ regarded as the only ideal of his existence ─ is to seize the crown and prevent any rival from claiming it for himself.

  • 10 . About Katherine’s character, see McMullan, 120-136.

18By contrast with these interested characters who consider their self-fulfillment as an end in itself, Richard II, John of Gaunt, Edmund of Langley, Henry VI, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Katherine give up any worldly ambition after conceding their personal defeat and wait with a patient resignation for their own ends as a welcome release from pain. Confronted with a rebellion that he is unable to quell, Richard II falls into dejection and adopts an attitude of self-abasement which induces him ─ like Henry VI ─ to accept death as an escape from a painful reality that he cannot cope with in a regal manner. Both kings are willing to meet their ends to win a crown in heaven where Katherine of Aragon, in the last play of the series, hopes to be welcomed after her humiliating repudiation and impending death. Her angelic vision, which Shakespeare did not find in Holinshed’s chronicle, confirms the dramatic portrait of a spiritual exile and a woman of faith who is unjustly repudiated by the king of England and receives from spirits “clad in white robes” a divine revelation of what beckons in the other world: “They promised me eternal happiness” (King Henry VIII (4.2.82/90). 10 The significant insertion of Katherine’s dream in the epilogue of the sequence with its prefiguration of beatitude and glimpse of Heaven points to the unsettling fact that the worldly ends of Henrician England ─ not to mention its self-indulgent sovereign ─ where Anne Bullen stands for procreative energy and Princess Elizabeth represents hope for the future are subsumed into the eternal life enjoyed by the resurrected subjects of the kingdom of God and alluded to in 3 Henry VI by Queen Margaret when she is taking her leave of Oxford and Somerset whom she hopes “To meet with joy in sweet Jerusalem” (King Henry VI Part 3 (5.5.8).

Is This The Promised End?

19The bold assertion of free will uttered by the most active characters is more often than not weakened by the retrospective awareness that voluntary decisions and willful deeds were instrumental in promoting forces and achieving a design beyond human control and intelligence. Probably the most emblematic example of such a subverted interpretation of the past in view of a present reconsideration is provided by Henry IV on his deathbed when he is looking back over what he accomplished as a rebel to accede to the throne in Richard II. Whereas the duke of York, regent of the realm in the absence of King Richard, vehemently blames the banished earl who has come back to England “in braving arms” to “cut out his way” to the crown, knowing “the strongest and surest way to get” what he is craving for, Henry IV broods at the end of his troubled reign on the “revolution of the times” and acknowledges the necessity of the law presiding over the “chance of things / As yet not come to life” (King Richard II (2.3.143/144, 3.3.221); King Henry 4 Part 2 (3.1.46/83-84). The alleged divining power of Richard’s prophecy of division is explained away by Warwick who rests his debunking of the prediction on a modern conception of time superseding providential history with the workings of human causality. Whether or not Shakespeare planned the sequence of plays along organic lines, the artificial devices, comic vein or celebratory tone concluding the two tetralogies do not provide a satisfactory resolution of the plot and operate instead as a contrived denial of the entropic dimension of the historical process. Intermingled with an emphatic assertion of hopefulness and harmony, the exultant mood at the end of King John, Edward III, Henry V, Richard III or Henry VIII contrasts with the war-cries, the words of anguish and the moaning of victims that can be heard throughout the sequence as the hallmark of the tragedy of centuries which Shakespeare identifies with human history. The discrepancy between the dramatic succession of events and the utopian mood conveyed as the story draws to a close is widened by the overwhelming tension between the ending of the plays and the purpose of history.

20In all these plays with the possible exception of the first two parts of Henry VI, the unfolding of the plot is strenuously directed towards the completion of a process and the revelation of a meaning. In King Lear, when the protagonist comes back on stage carrying the dead body of Cordelia the incomprehensible brutality of his horrendous fate elicits the following interrogation from the earl of Kent: “Is this the promised end?” (King Lear (5.3.262). In the historical plays, the same uncertainty lingers throughout and surrounds the end as ending and as purpose. In spite of Queen Elizabeth’s vision of “the end of all” in Richard III (2.4.57), the spectators are denied access to a genuine apocalypse offering a revelation of things as well as a sense of closure. In spite of the unmistakable similarities between the historical plays and the book of Revelation, several critics have surmised that Shakespeare’s works bear witness to the rejection of the biblical idea of an end to history “in an age too late for apocalypse, too critical for prophecy” (Kermode, 88); that he tried “to turn responsibility for the shaping of history over to man and thereby secularize the Christian prophecy” (Wittreich, 195); or that he was translating the biblical story “in an age when Apocalypse was in the air, while the traditional images of it were being mere images” (Marshall, 114).

Ambivalent Ends And Uncertain Renewals

21Eventually, the inconclusive ending of the plays cuts both ways and strengthens the ambivalence of their meaning. On the one hand it suggests that history can be apprehended as a logical process whereby the (un)expected outcome of human actions carried out for some purpose is somehow compatible with free will. On the other hand, it signifies that political issues and ethical conflicts do not admit a historical solution which is likely to bring an answer to the questions raised by the victims and the victors alike. The partial understanding of the historical process evinced by human agents who wonder about its direction and their responsibility is connected with their inability to grasp the past and the future from a global perspective allowing them to see the whole picture. Confined to the present, the apprehension of time shared by John, Bolingbroke-Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III or Henry VIII gives precedence to the attainment of ambitions over the realization of hopes flourished to enlist popular support for an ideological cause as much as to offer an appealing picture of the world to come. Far from the regenerative ending of most tragedies or comedies, the unsettling end of historical plays is deceptively restorative. The repetitive pattern and cyclical construction at the foundation of the sequence seems to imply a conception of time devoid of sense and purpose where the beginning and the end conjoin into an endless continuum marked by its predictable evolution and precluding a cataclysmic termination.

22As a work about endings as well as origins, providence as well as progeny, Henry VIII ─ similar in this respect to Henry V with its staging of a providential victory and the promise of a fertile union ─ enacts a plot to correct what has been mistaken, restore what has been usurped and finish what has been incomplete. In a way this is the story told by the Revelation of St John, of the earthly kingdoms being ruled again by their legitimate king, and of a return to Paradise where history is concluded. As final books in the larger sequences they conclude, the Apocalypse and Henry VIII share a retrospective and critical dimension in relation to earlier works. The last historical play of the sequence, like the final book of the Scriptures, takes a retrospective stance and reconsiders issues which had preoccupied Shakespeare from the earliest history plays composed at the beginning of his career. Although the attention of the viewer is constantly drawn to the flesh and blood existence of a robust king whose spiritual and moral aspirations are deliberately sidestepped, the text of Henry VIII unmistakably identifies the Tudor sovereign with the God of Revelation in the words that refer to him, in the powers attributed to him, and in utterances he makes himself. A distinctive feature of his protagonist that Shakespeare may well have found in the medieval mystery plays which were not forgotten in his own age is the imagining and representing of God “in the character of a courtly prince or king, passionate, aristocratic, authoritarian” (Kolve, 254).

  • 11 This sense of incompleteness significantly mirrors the “un-end” of the prologue of the dramatic seq (...)

23As Gordon McMullan notes in the section of his introduction devoted to the centrality of truth in the play, “the prophecy with which the play closes appears to promise a decisive break from the nightmare of cyclical history” represented by Shakespeare in the sequence. The apocalyptic framework of the prophecy articulated at the end of Henry VIII seems to be borne out by the many similarities with the book of Revelation. Like God, Henry fully realizes his omnipotence and casts out his enemies as the plot unfolds. However, one main difference stands out at the end, contrastively illuminating both texts. Unlike God, who seals up history in the last book of the Bible, Henry leaves the final outcome of events open: “This oracle of comfort has so pleased me / That when I am in heaven I shall desire / To see what this child does and praise my maker” (King Henry VIII (5.4.65-67). Contrary to the assertion of finality concluding the book of Revelation and insisting on the completeness of the Bible (Revelation 22: 18-19) and despite the self-assurance of Cranmer’s prediction with its reference to the mythical phoenix’s resurrection from its ashes, the predominant feeling experienced by the spectators is a sense of inconclusiveness crowning the representation of a disunified history at the close of a play for which Shakespeare provides no genuine ending11. The apocalyptic vision proposed at the end of Henry VIII proclaims instead a confusing ambivalence reverberating through the whole sequence of historical plays. As suggested in the last scene, the future outlined by Cranmer is to take place simultaneously within the bounds of time and outside temporal limits as a preternatural, everlasting present. The archbishop’s acknowledgment of ageing and mortality is inseparable from the unveiling of the true religion and the perpetuation of a godly reign which are to confer a timeless blessing on innumerable generations to come. The birth of Elizabeth celebrated by the prelate in declamatory style has a twofold status as secular event with a dynastic significance and as the spiritual advent of a messianic era: “This day, no man think / ’Has business at his house, for all shall stay: / This little one shall make it holiday” (King Henry VIII (5.4.17-19). Offering two contradictory views of the same occurrence and serving as an emblem of the play as well as the sequence in its entirety, this dual perspective affords the spectators and the readers the promise of an imminent end under the guise of its never-ending deferment.

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1 The allusions to the Bible, in the order in which they appear in Thomas Cranmer’s speech, can be found in 1 Kings 10: 1-9 (describing the arrival of the Queen of Sheba to test Solomon’s wisdom), 1 Kings 4: 20, 25 (describing the prosperity and safety enjoyed by the Hebrews during Solomon’s reign), Micah 4 (describing the future glory of Jerusalem), Isaiah 65: 21-22 (describing how everyone shall reap the fruit of their labor in the New Jerusalem), Psalm 97: 2 (describing how God is surrounded by clouds and darkness), Zephaniah 1: 15 (describing the day of obscurity and darkness when the world shall be destroyed by God), and Genesis 17: 4, 6 (describing how Abram shall be the father of many nations and kings).

2 Thomas Cranmer’s mention of ‘terror’ closing the enumeration of royal ‘servants’ reminds the spectators of the unquestionable distinction between the post-historical Paradise of Elizabeth and James and the prehistoric Garden of Eden of the Book of Genesis to the detriment of the former.

3 For a reading of the play as anything but apocalyptic in its treatment of time and narrative, see Cespedes, 413-438, and Dean, 175-189.

4 For an approach of genre in the biblical light of an aesthetic theory defining both poetic art and spiritual truth, see Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, especially the chapters on political prophecies and their contested interpretations, 31-71, and 111-144.

5 For a critical opinion of Tillyard’s reading see Brockbank, 73-99 ; Kelly, 300-306 ; Patrides, 79-82 ; Ornstein, 16-31 ; Frey, 153.

6 As a non-dramatic later illustration of this theme, Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans (1650-55) highlights the tension between the initial phase of a process and its illuminating conclusion or the temporal experience of life and the spiritual quest of the poet. On this, see Martinet, 1-13.

7 There is today a consensus of opinion among scholars to acknowledge the probability that Shakespeare had a hand in the anonymous play Edward III, which celebrates the chivalry of the king of England and the gallantry of the Black Prince ─ his eldest son ─ on the battlefields of France along with the self-confident identity of characters in a heraldic play filled with ritual where the meaning of emblematized signs is warranted by a tradition of spiritual values.

8 The same question arises for the second tetralogy (R2, 1H4, 2H4, and H5) and particularly for the two parts of Henry IV. Did Shakespeare intend a sequence of two plays from the outset or did he undertake 2 Henry IV as an unpremeditated addition to 1 Henry IV in response to the outstanding success on the stage of the former? Most scholars now believe that 2H4 is more likely to be a commentary than a continuation of 1H4 so that the two plays should not be seen and performed as a unified, continuous sequence. One thing is sure however: whether or not
2H4 was in Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote 1H4, the reverse is doubtless suggested by the many flashbacks we find in the later play besides their shared subject and similar structure. The result of this is a significant shift from the possibility of historical and/or dramatic closure to the potential interpretations ─ including contradictory ones ─ elicited from the open-ended hermeneutics of the plays. On this see Kastan, 17-23.

9 The popularity of the work is well attested by the 1525 edition of a metrical version made in 1410 by John Walton and the English rendering of Elizabeth I whose hasty translation is by no means unexceptionable.

10 . About Katherine’s character, see McMullan, 120-136.

11 This sense of incompleteness significantly mirrors the “un-end” of the prologue of the dramatic sequence (in the chronological order of kings). See Champion, 173-185. On the challenge offered by the play to Elizabethan and Jacobean historiographies, see Kamps, 105.

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Jean-Marc Chadelat

Lettres Sorbonne Université (CRLC EA 2021)
Jean-Marc Chadelat is associate professor at Lettres Sorbonne Université in Renaissance Studies. His main field of research encompasses the antagonism of temporal power to spiritual authority as the matrix of the modern times in the political and religious spheres. He is particularly interested in the study of that conflict in Shakespeare’s dramatic works. He wrote more than thirty articles on that question and a 2016 book entitled Shakespeare’s English Historical Plays: History as Revelation published by Honoré Champion in French.
Maître de conférences à Lettres Sorbonne Université et spécialiste de la Renaissance anglaise, Jean-Marc Chadelat travaille sur l’opposition du pouvoir temporel à l’autorité spirituelle à l’origine de la modernité politique et religieuse ainsi que sur la réfraction littéraire de ce conflit dans l’œuvre dramatique de Shakespeare. Il a publié plus d’une trentaine d’articles relatifs à cette problématique. En 2016, un ouvrage intitulé Les Pièces historiques de Shakespeare: l’histoire comme révélation est paru chez Honoré Champion.

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