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Ian Iracheta

Facultad de Filosofa y Letras


Letras Inglesas, Colegio de Letras Modernas
Universidad Nacional Autnoma de
Mxico

Teleological and Anti-Teleological Readings of Shakespeares History Plays


Introduction: Twentieth-century criticism provides us with two distinct and contradictory

interpretations of Shakespeares histories: on the one hand, we have E. M. W. Tillyard, who

argues in Shakespeares History Plays that dramatic works concerned with English history, as

well as other late sixteenth-century forms of historiography, catered to the specific purpose of

legitimising Elizabeth Is rule. He proposes a teleological reading of Shakespeares history plays

that places a heavy emphasis on the glorious moment in which Richmond defeats Richard III at

the Battle of Bosworth Field.


On the other hand, we have critics like Jan Kott, who argues in Shakespeare Our

Contemporary that the depiction of political uprisings, depositions and victories in Shakespeares

plays is meant to provide us with a picture of historical stagnation. Everything remains the same,

history is a wheel that keeps on turning, without ever arriving anywhere. I must note that the

circular historical logic proposed by Kott has been influential in many modern productions of

Shakespeare; a clear example of this, as Smith points out, is Michael Boyds 2007 RSC mise-en-

scne of the history cycle, in which the scenery featured a representation of what Kott called 'the

image of the Grand Mechanism', embodied by a giant metal staircase. (Richard III).
Thesis statement: the way in which we think about the plays is what tips the balance. In terms

of dramatic performance, they are anti-teleological. As printed text, specifically that of the Folio,

they are teleological.


It has often been pointed out that the order in which the histories are presented in the

Folio of 1623 is an argument for the Tudor Myth, however, I intend to go beyond that and

analyse some subtler ways in which this is achieved.

1) Paratextualelements:thetitlesoftheseplayschangealotbetweenQandF.Mostnotableis

theuseofthehonorificKinginthefrontispiecesofsomeoftheseplaysinF.Thetitles

themselvesplayoutasaselfcontainednarrative.WehaveKingRichardII,butonlyHenry

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Ian Iracheta
Facultad de Filosofa y Letras
Letras Inglesas, Colegio de Letras Modernas
Universidad Nacional Autnoma de
Mxico

IV, and Henry V, and Henry VI, and Richard III. It is not until King Henry VIII that

legitimacyinkingshipisrestored.Thequartos,ontheotherhand,tendtogivethetitleof

Kingtoeveryoneoftheeponymouscharactersinquestion.
2) Theplaysalsochangeintermsofspeechprefixesandscenedirections.
3) ThisimpliesaneditorialeffortperhapseffectedbytheeditorsofFandnotShakespeare

himself.
4) TheyearinwhichFisprintedisalsoquiterevelatory,asthecrisisofsuccessionhasbeen

solved,andtheaverageEnglishmancouldlookbackontheTudordynastywithoutthinking

aboutthepoliticalproblemtheyhadcreated.

Line of approach: Documental comparison between the texts of Q1-6 and F1 of Richard III and

other history plays. Also a brief discussion on the differences between text and performance in

Shakespeares time.
References:
Grene, Nicholas. Shakespeare's Serial History Plays. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP,
2002. Print.
Kott, Jan. Shakespeare, Our Contemporary. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.
Print.
Shakespeare.KingRichardIII.Ed.JamesR.Siemon.London:Bloomsbury
ArdenShakespeare,2009.
Smith,Emma.HenryIVPartI.Audioblogpost.ApproachingShakespeare.
Oxford,9/09/12.Web.21/09/16.
Smith,Emma.RichardII.Audioblogpost.ApproachingShakespeare.
Oxford,9/09/12.Web.21/09/16.
Smith,Emma.RichardIII.Audioblogpost.ApproachingShakespeare.
Oxford,9/09/12.Web.21/09/16.
Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays New York: Macmillan, 1946.
Print.

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Ian Iracheta
Facultad de Filosofa y Letras
Letras Inglesas, Colegio de Letras Modernas
Universidad Nacional Autnoma de
Mxico

Tillyard proposes what he calls the Tudor Myth as the key to the understanding of these plays.

The argument goes something like this: Richard II was the rightful king, and was illegally, even

blasphemously deposed by Henry Bolingbroke; afterwards followed a long line of illegitimate

kings, and it was not until Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field that

order was restored.


On the other hand, critics like

After all, we should remember that Henry Tudors claim to the throne was indeed quite weak: he

was the posthumous son of Henry VIs half-brother Edmund Tudor and his wife, Margaret

Beaufort, great-great-granddaughter of Edward III through John of Gaunt and his mistress1 and

(later) third wife, Katherine Swynford (Siemon 130). For comparison, Richard III claim to the

throne was less complicated (if we leave out the murders): he was quite simply the fourth-

surviving son of Richard, Duke of York (Siemon 128), and his proximity to the throne is

evidenced by his carrying the surname Plantagenet.

The mention to the divine right of kings are gone.

How would the plays be advertised?

Would there be pamphlets, placards, banners, would anyone ever see the title? Or is it a thing.

The plays were performed daily with a different play every day; because the plays changed daily

they needed some way to advertise what was to be shown that afternoon, so flags were put up on

the day of the performance which sometimes displayed a picture advertising the next play to be

performed. Color coding was also used to advertise the type of play to be performed - a black

flag meant a tragedy, white a comedy, and red a history (Elizabethan Era).

1
Emphasisadded.
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Ian Iracheta
Facultad de Filosofa y Letras
Letras Inglesas, Colegio de Letras Modernas
Universidad Nacional Autnoma de
Mxico