Shakespeare’s Philosophy of History Revealed in Detailed Analysis of Henry V and Examined in Other History Plays

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This study begins with a careful reading of Henry V, and argues that the play’s representation of Henry as a consciously Machiavellian prince, who wages an unjust foreign war to bring about domestic peace, elicits complex responses to the king that are comprehensible within a single interpretative framework. The ‘history’ dramatized in Henry V and in all of Shakespeare’s plays that deal with the causes or consequences of political revolutions is made intelligible by Shakespeare’s philosophy of history, a view mainly Machiavellian, that dramatizes all post-revolutionary modes of government and warfare as inescapable necessities that have fallen from superior ‘past’ worlds, irrecoverable but eliciting nostalgia for a mythological, medieval world, a nostalgia embraced by the Elizabethan and Jacobean establishment to maintain its power through a putative continuity with an imaginary medievalism. The plays elicit that nostalgia in order to criticize it in acts of subversion that are not, as the New Historicists claim, contained.


"This is an ambitious book that takes on a big and fascinating question ... did he [Shakespeare] have a coherent philosophy of history? ... The cornerstone of Dr. Rebholz’s argument is a new and compelling interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It puts meticulous scholarship in the service of fresh and convincing ideas. It offers a major revaluation of Shakespeare’s histories, one that will find a wide readership among students of Shakespeare and of early modern England." – Professor David Riggs, Stanford University

“This fine study of Shakespeare’s King Henry V is timely both in the specialist context of academic discourse and controversy about the play itself, and Shakespeare’s other historical plays, English and Roman, and in a broader debate about the relation of history and historical fictions to the political life of Shakespeare’s age and our own. It confronts head-on a number of currently approved theoretical positions, notably the insidious relativism which assumes that ‘any historical criticism that seeks meanings that are correct pursues an illusion.’” – Emeritus Professor G. R. Proudfoot, King’s College, London

“Shakespeare is perhaps the most dazzling, complex, mystifying writer in modern times, and, over a lifetime of reading, seeing, and teaching the plays, Dr. Rebholz has found many ways to make the complexity intelligible and coherent ... I believe this is an important book which will make a strong contribution to Shakespeare scholarship. It is a classic example of critical thinking at its best. It’s a splendid introduction to Shakespeare’s plays for students, actors, and intelligent readers everywhere.” – Professor Richard D. Sylvester, Colgate University

“Dr. Ronald Rebholz has written a scholarly, provocative, and readable book.” – Beatrice Batson, Shakespeare Special Collection, Buswell Library

Table of Contents

Preface by Douglas L. Peterson
1. Henry V’s Representation of the Perfect Machiavellian Prince
2. Past and Present in Shakespeare’s Philosophy of History
3. Providential and Human Causation in Shakespeare’s Philosophy of History
4. The Relationship of the History Plays to Politics in the Reigns of Elizabeth and John
Conclusion: From Baseball to Branagh

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