Shakespeare's materialist drama : text as history in 1 Henry VI and Coriolanus
The relationship between literature and history forms the central
problematic of this thesis. Specifically, I address the question:
How can Shakespeare's plays be best understood today when they are
read and performed in circumstances which differ in so many important
respects from those for which they were written. The audiences which,
in the expectations of the dramatist, and in performance, formed an
integral part of the work, no longer exist; while the audiences which
do exist are structured in their relation to, and their perception of,
the plays by economic and ideological forces which are substantially
It is my contention that a dialectical approach within the perspective
of historical materialism offers the best available solution
to this problem. To this end, the initial focal point of my analysis
is Pierre Macherey's notion of the historical unconscious. Within
this theoretical space, I will analyse the labour of elaboration undertaken
by Shakespeare in transforming his source material into plays.
These transformations will be shown to produce specific historical effects
within the work which relate to particular elements of late Elizabethan
and early Stuart class society.
These effects within the work, which constitute the historical
unconscious of the plays, will Simultaneously form the basis of a
reconstruction from and for the present. The appropriate theorist here
is Bertolt Brecht, who, in his work as adaptor of classical plays, sought
to understand the works in their period prior to adapting them tor
re-presentation before a modern audience.
I have chosen to concentrate on two of Shakespeare's plays:
1 Henry VI and Coriolanus which are most probably his first and last
history plays. In the case of 1 Henry VI, I will straightforwardly
analyse the dramatist's source transformations in context, at the same
time comparing Shakespeare's reconstruction with the chronicle accounts.
My approach to Shakespeare's Coriolanus, however, is more wideranging,
involving as it does three distinct historical periods. First,
I will consider the original version of the historical legend of Caius
Martius Coriolanus in The Roman Antiguities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
Despite the substantial re-writing of Dionysius' account by Plutarch
this is basically the same narrative structure which became available
to the Elizabethans through the translations of Jacques Amyot and
Thomas North. Second, I will analyse Shakespeare's transformations of
North in their socio-historical context, and compare them with the
original version and its context. Finally, Shakespeare's play, reconstructed
for his early Stuart audiences, compared with Dionysius'
account, will be contrasted with the theory and practice of Brecht in
his adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. This work will then in
its turn provide a basis for evaluating the question of the historicity
of the present study.