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Oral-visual contradiction : seeing and hearing in Shakespeare’s history plays

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posted on 04.03.2014, 16:48 by Sonia Davi Suman
Scholarship in the latter half of the twentieth century did much to rehabilitate Shakespeare’s early histories into the canon. Discarded on the grounds of collaborative authorship or lack of unity, the Henry VI trilogy has perhaps suffered the most. This dissertation brings together sensory and historiographical theories in order to demonstrate that the first tetralogy exposes the limitations of historical narrative. Historical ‘truth’ is easily distorted: initially through the individual’s failure to interpret sensory information and then through the writer who records those events. These fundamental questions about the credibility of knowledge and truth remain a central concern throughout the second tetralogy, King John and Henry VIII. The questionable truth-telling powers of sight and sound independent from one another are a recurring motif in Shakespeare’s histories; skewed perception or selective hearing can have disastrous consequences. Motives are frequently ambiguous and the plays abound in trial scenes that are never satisfactorily resolved. Often the audience are invited to accept a ‘truth’ that contradicts the evidence of the play either in its text, its performance or in comparison to contemporary history plays. Henry VIII, with its titular claim that ‘All is True’ alongside glaring historical omissions, is an example of the early modern obsession with paradox. Cranmer’s highly selective presentation of a glorious untroubled future, though clearly not true, is a satisfying and restorative narrative. A similar contradiction reveals itself in my case study of preaching at St Mary Spital. At this event, preachers and City Fathers collude in a highly selective presentation of London as a charitable and exemplary city, though this may well have been contradicted by other visual evidence on the occasion. Both plays and sermons thus presented the paradox of a fictive narrative that could be openly contradicted, but that simultaneously provided consolation.



Knight, Sarah

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Department of English

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University of Leicester

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