The Plays & Players: “The Abstract and Brief Chronicles of the Time”

Lillian Winstanley wound up her book Hamlet and the Scottish Succession (1921) with this statement: 

“The final conclusion I arrive at is that it is not advisable to think our study of Shakespeare’s plays complete without careful reference to the history of his own time.”

Well, that’s the point of this blog site!  Our universities and colleges need to bring the History Department and the Literature Department closer together.   In the case of the private Sonnets to Southampton written for both him and posterity, I contend, the overlap of literature and history is complete.

I reproduce here a Comment today from Sander Fredman, quoting from another Winstanley book [Sander: Which one?) where “she describes her method”:

“Let me choose as a parallel case to the method I desire the Higher Criticism of the Bible.  There was a time not so very long ago when the Bible was assumed to be essentially true and equally intelligible for all men at all times and, as Ruskin puts the matter, it was so ordained by God in order that we might all understand it. Now this was a very simple and, granting the assumption of a Divine Author, a very logical way of regarding the matter. But let me point out that it was only logical in the cause of a Divine Author for no other could be supposed to be so far above space and time. No educated person, however, now thinks of regarding the Bible in that way. The Higher Criticism has taught us to concern ourselves with each book of the Bible individually, to ask ourselves first and foremost at what date each book was written and under what circumstances and what it would mean for the men of that age. Now in the case of the Bible, if anywhere, it might be logical to divorce it from space and time; but the principle of relativity being accepted even there, what is there to hinder us from applying it in the case of Shakespeare? He cannot be more divine than the Bible!’

She then reminds the reader that there were no newspapers for the Elizabethans and Jacobeans; people attended those early performances not only to be entertained but to further their knowledge of quite recent history. The censorship was the star chamber. Thus the need for disguise in what Winstanley called “symbolic mythology’’, which meant for Shakespeare using Plutarch, Saxo Grammaticus, Holinshed, and in the case of “King Lear’’ pre-Christian tales.

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

Thanks, Sander, for sharing this with us.   As Hamlet tells Polonius, the actors and their plays were the newspapers and CNN of their time:

“Let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.  After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.”

Sander adds:

“The Lilian Winstanley quote on her methodology is from Macbeth, King Lear & Contemporary History: Being a Study of the Relations of the Play of Macbeth to the Personal History of James I, the Darnley Murder, and the St. Bartholomew Massacre, and also of King Lear as Symbolic Mythology

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