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Essexian Essentialism

Historian Peter Lake professes too much. The author of How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage: Power and Succession in the History Plays insists that he is “not a literary critic” and “this is not, in fact, a work of literary criticism.” Maybe not, but this book hinges on the analysis of important plays. In other words, Lake sure acts like a literary critic.

His difficulty, then, is that a historical account of how Shakespeare put politics on the stage strains against the seminal distinction between poetry and history that Aristotle framed in The Poetics. Sir Philip Sidney got the gist of the matter, transmitting Aristotle to the Elizabethans when The Defence of Poesie appeared posthumously in 1595:

Poetry is philosophōteron and spoudaioteron, that is to say, it is more philosophical and more studiously serious than history. His reason is, because poesy dealeth with katholou, that is to say, with the universal consideration, and history with kathekaston, the particular: “now,” saith he, “the universal weighs what is fit to be said or done, either in likelihood or necessity . . . and the particular only marks whether Alcibiades did, or suffered, this or that.”

Aristotle’s argument, which Matthew Arnold revived in his greatest essay, “The Study of Poetry” (1880), has been condemned in our time by politicized academics who deny the very existence of universal, human nature. So the meaning of Shakespeare’s permanence is currently off limits.

If Shakespeare had lacked the rhetorical ability to transcend faction, he would not occupy his central place in the Western literary canon. Yet Lake’s Shakespeare is essentially a creature of faction, a political animal devoted to the earl of Essex. He writes that the Bard “was and remained decidedly connected in Essexian circles . . . Shakespeare had form as an Essex man.”

When all is said and done (and that takes a long time in this very long book), the university distinguished professor of history, professor of the history of Christianity, and Martha Rivers Ingram Chair of History at Vanderbilt enriches and expands our sense of Shakespeare’s political whereabouts over the course of the 1590s and into the last days of Elizabeth’s reign. He shuttles with beelike industry between the history plays and the political situation in England at the time of their writing. Inevitably, though, his obsessive pursuit of Essex’s presence within the plays leads to a reductive mode of literary analysis.

Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex, dominates Lake’s readings of 1 and 2 Henry IV, Henry V, Julius Caesar—as well as Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, both of which he defines as history plays. Essex was a major player in the politics of the Elizabethan fin de siècle. Soldier, scholar, and poet, he clashed often with the Queen who favored him, until a half-cocked rebellion resulted in his beheading in 1601.

Essex stood out for his nationalistic war-mongering, particularly with regard to Catholic Spain. He invested heavily in the succession hopes of James VI of Scotland, though discussion of the matter was officially taboo. Popular to a fault, he forged his influential faction across denominational lines, attracting mainstream puritans as well as Catholics who pledged fealty to England first. Essex’s friend and Shakespeare’s patron, the earl of Southampton, was known for his Catholic sympathies. I would add that recent work by R.H. Winnick, showing that Southampton’s name, Henry Wriothesley, is anagrammatically (and abundantly) inscribed in the sonnets, lends support to the socio-historical dimension of this book.

In Lake’s account, Shakespeare’s attachment to Essex followed upon an initial period in the early 1590s when the young playwright was associated with Lord Strange’s Men—roughly the period of 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and Richard II. During this first phase, Shakespeare is said to inhabit “much the same intellectual and thematic world” as Catholic writers eager to impact the looming succession crisis, exiles and recusants who “pictured the Elizabethan regime as a conspiracy of evil counsel.”  Lake observes that Catholic conspiracy theorists interpreted English history so as to undermine the foundations of the Protestant establishment and its lawful succession, leading the establishment to respond in kind by theorizing the existence of a massive Catholic conspiracy against the state, so that what emerged were “two sets of conspiracy theories; different accounts of the same events, each an inverted mirror of the other.”

Around 1595 (that is, around the time when Sidney’s Defence appeared), Shakespeare entered into his second phase, called “distinctly Essexian” by Lake. Shakespeare continued to address the same issues of monarchical legitimacy that had spiced up his earlier histories with their daring and subtle topicality. But now he no longer trafficked in the broadly Catholic-propagandist critique of the Protestant regime; in joining the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, he aligned himself with Essex’s big tent nationalism.

Lake interprets Henry V as Essexian “fantasy.” Why? Because it is preoccupied with

how far an individual, even of surpassing political gifts, could decisively shape events, and, more particularly, how far that individual might effectively combine the politics of honor and military prowess, of popularity, monarchical legitimacy, and latterly of faction, in order to restore legitimacy to a polity stripped thereof by a combination of usurpation and regicide, tyranny and misrule.

For the Shakespeare of Henry V, then, Essex was England’s savior. In support of his thesis, Lake capitalizes on the famous allusion to Essex as “the General of our gracious Empress,” spoken by the Chorus at the beginning of Act Five, when Henry returns in triumph to London. Detailed attention is paid here to Henry’s chameleon powers of adapting to diverse rhetorical situations. Lake shows with formidable precision how Henry, as a force for national unity, fuses in his person a host of valuable talents inherited from Hotspur, Falstaff, and that protean schemer Prince Hal.

In order to link his broadly Machiavellian readings of King John and Richard II to 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, Lake advances such terms as the “iron law of political necessity,” the “commodification of politics,” and the “demystifying” of monarchical power. He illuminates the post-Erasmian, modern political realism of these plays—but there are those Aristotelian limits. Squeezing Falstaff into his Essexian framework, Lake shrinks the fat knight into a mere vehicle of Shakespeare’s “rabid anti-puritanism.” We may sense that the permanent appeal of Falstaff is betrayed by such a view: the universal has been eclipsed by the particular.

The likelihood of Machiavellian political spectacle eliciting the moral disapproval of Elizabethan theatergoers is not lost on Lake, who regularly achieves moments of balanced perspective that distinguish him from any number of Shakespearians who are self-servingly burdened by their animus against Christianity. But still, Lake’s tendency is to diminish the role of Christian conscience and eschatology in the world of the plays.

In this respect, he glosses over the providential background that persists—like staffage in a painting—throughout 1 and 2 Henry IV as well as Henry V. We may feel that, by any fair measure, Falstaff’s endless skein of Biblical references would have touched a certain nerve, calling to mind questions of providence and judgment—not in Lake’s reading. As for the miracle of Agincourt, it may strike us as highly unlikely that anyone in Shakespeare’s audience doubted the providential import of the English victory. Nonetheless, Lake pursues his modernizing endgame: “whether and how far to attribute [Henry V’s] success to the providential intervention of God is left almost entirely up to the audience to decide.” This is like saying, “whether and how far to attribute David’s success against Goliath to the providential intervention of God is left almost entirely up to the audience to decide.”

Lake’s third Shakespearean phase encompasses Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Troilus and Cressida. The anti-political turn of this phase reflects Shakespeare’s “increasingly savage disillusion” with the hopes that animated the Essex project.

As the historian builds his contextual and thematic bridges from Henry V through Julius Caesar to Hamlet, he readmits the providential frame. Not until Hamlet, though, does he admit even a hint of universality, of concern for the human condition, as part of Shakespeare’s design. Throughout, the earl of Essex continues to dominate Lake’s readings of individual plays. Lake’s ambidextrous catching of “contemporary resonances” suits the historian’s art. But to talk of Brutus as “good Essex” and Cassius as “bad Essex,” or of Hamlet as both Essex and “anti-Essex,” or to reprise the same Jekyll-and-Hyde distinction by identifying Essex both as Hector and as Achilles is, from the standpoint of the literary critic, more particular than it is true.

The case is stronger for such identifications in the brutal satire of Troilus and Cressida than in the works upon which Shakespeare’s immortal fame may be said to rest. For all his impressive research, important things go wrong in Lake’s readings of Julius Caesar and Hamlet. Lake writes that Cassius dies “nobly, at his own hand, for the cause of ‘liberty’.” This misses the point entirely. Cassius’s suicide is, first and foremost, an epochal blunder, caused by his misreading of the situation in front of him: “Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything” (5.2.84). To quibble, Lake is mistaken to refer to “Brutus’s Tarquin-slaying ancestor.” He should consult his Livy. To quibble again: Lake compares Hamlet’s sailing to England with Essex’s sailing to Ireland, but the sea voyage occurs in the play’s sources, in Belleforest and Saxo.

Much more seriously, Gertrude is not “left blissfully unaware . . . of her own desperately dangerous situation.” She begs her son, in the world’s most famous bedroom scene, “Oh, Hamlet, speak no more! / Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grainèd spots / As will not leave their tinct.”

But the unkindest cut of all occurs when Lake, intent as always on Essex and his problems, midwifes a bizarrely sexless Hamlet. Put another way, certain immutable facts of life, facts which troubled Shakespeare deeply, appear to transcend the “political imaginary.”

Lake is too excellent a thinker to be adequately represented by the following statement about Henry V, though he is its author:

What is at stake here is . . . a political effect or series of effects, perhaps even (in part at least) a series of illusions, worked by this-worldly political means, and in particular through Henry’s manipulation of what we might, somewhat anachronistically, call ideology, or, rather more historically, rhetoric.

This collapse of rhetoric into ideology marks a decisive turn away from the poetic and the universal.

For Shakespeare, literature was a form of rhetoric, an intensely complex art of audience engagement. The rhetoric that Shakespeare practiced invited his auditors to be on the alert for folly posing as wisdom, and for wisdom hidden behind a mask of earthly folly. It was often the task of Shakespeare’s fools, including Falstaff, to goad and test the audience in this respect. If we could see these plays on the Elizabethan stage, outdoors in full daylight, we would find this kind of rhetorical incitement being practiced frequently, not just by fools, but by all the best actors, especially through the personal eye contact that occurred during soliloquies and asides.

For Lake, by contrast, it was Shakespeare’s politics that played a key role in “calling into being the various publics that made up the so-called ‘post-reformation public sphere’.” On Lake’s account, a minority of the audience was able to decode Shakespeare’s political messages; moreover, the “effects of such thought processes were very likely to be both individuating and privatizing, rather than collective and public.” So the kind of individuation that Lake has in mind is not based on a universalizing, rhetorical game of pro and con reasoning that offered any and all sane persons a way to respond across a wide range of discriminations and intellects. Rather, politics becomes the privileged means to the kind of individuation that really counts. Such insistence on politics is true of faculty at most universities. But if literary criticism ever revives again, people may see that Shakespeare had something more in mind.

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