At a time when so much has been said about the principle of order and of the hierarchies in English literature of the Renaissance tradition, it is not likely that anyone will question my conclusion that Shakespeare’s Histories with their constant pictures of disorder cannot be understood without assuming a larger principle of order in the background.

With these words, E. M. W. Tillyard (1889-1962) opened his conclusion of Shakespeare’s History Plays in 1944. (The initials, by the way, stand for Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall). In this book, Tillyard puts forward his famous interpretation of Shakespeare’s history plays as revolving around a principle of divine providence. The disorder of the Wars of the Roses is contained within a divine scheme in which God scourges England for the deposition of Richard II by Henry IV, and order is restored with the Tudor reign. “Behind disorder is some sort of order or ‘degree’ on earth, and that order has its counterpart in heaven” (16).

Tillyard was wrong, of course, in his assertion that no one would question his conclusion. Some of his reviewers in the years of the Second World War already found his pattern of order too monolithic, but in the 1970s and 1980s Tillyard’s works became the focus of the new historicism’s objections to older kinds of historicism. These newer forms of historical literary criticism disagreed with Tillyard’s view of Shakespeare as uncritically supportive of the historiography of the Tudor monarchs, and emphasized moments of subversion of this absolutist Tudor Myth.

I’ve been rereading Tillyard’s book on the history plays this weekend, and I realised how much we are still indebted to his work. Not to his idea of a monolithic Elizabethan world view, of course, in which everyone knew his or her place in the divinely ordered great chain of being. But in a way, although their answers tend to be contrary, the questions that the new historicism asks of literary texts are quite similar to Tillyard’s questions. The notions of subversion or containment, of order and disorder, of support or subversion of absolutist monarchy, are still central in criticism of the history plays today. Greenblatt comments that Shakespeare’s history plays “have been described with impeccable intelligence as deeply conservative and with equally impeccable intelligence as deeply radical” (Shakespearean Negotiations, 23). This is not a very deep observation, and I am sure there must be intelligent evaluations of Tillyard’s legacy, but I found it strange to realize that sixty years on, we are still concerned with such the same questions Tillyard asked. Can we fit sixty years of historical criticism on two sides of the same coin?


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