The use and effect of mythical figures in Shakespeare's history and Roman plays

MacKenzie, Clayton George (1982) The use and effect of mythical figures in Shakespeare's history and Roman plays. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

The thesis sets as its task an examination of both the use and effect of mythological figures in the History and Roman plays, excluding Titus Andronicus and Henry VIII. By "figures" we understand references of any sort that may contribute to or detract from the broad mythological designs the plays seek to develop. The argument of the thesis falls into two phases-the first covering the History plays, the second the Romn plays. The plays of the First Tetralogy and King John are experimental in so far as Shakespeare manipulates, with varying success, a wide range of mythically propertied material. These plays, from a mythological viewpoint, do not stand as remarkable achievements of coherence of vision, but they do reveal a double potential. Firstly, the meaning of some of Shakespeare's imagery and allusion hinges on a mechanism of "two-way" significance in which a single figure assumes competing or contradictory connotations. And, secondly, these differing interpretations appear to fall into two well-defined, though not unrelated, mythological schemes: the English mythology and the anti-mythology. The English myth conceives of a paradisial England, free of civil war and committed to a policy of foreign conquest. The anti-mythology describes an England torn asunder by internal strife and wholly lacking in the heroic qualities of the English mythology. In Richard II. Shakespeare continues the development of the myth/anti-myth plan by extending its significances in both directions. We are invited to associate an idyllic and. happy England with a second Eden-a world in which the values of the English mythology find full dominion. Conversely, an England held under the sway of the anti-mythology may be seen as a lost paradise. A "two-way cluster of myth figures, drafted from the earlier plays, but here pressed into more thoughtful and cohesive service, articulates each of these English worlds. Having presented his vision of a myth-paradise, the dramatist turns, in the Henry IV plays, to a search for a myth hero who might suitably inhabit the heroic landscape. The guest is confused, though, by the claims of counterfeit heroes. Prince Hal is the true, but hidden, hero. He rises to push aside the bogus mythographers, and stands, at the threshold of Henry V. as the just representative of an ordered, commitment to the dicta of the English mythology. Yet, while our acquaintance with that mythology in earlier plays ought to commend to us every aspect of the foreign military enterprise in Henry V. the text of the play itself betrays a certain reticence in that respect. Some of the figures that ostensibly serve the English myth are endowed with anti-mythological undertones, and the events of the play leave us with the saddening sense of a second Eden irrevocably lost. In the political world of Julius Caesar's Rome, it is the effectiveness of reputation, manufactured out of words and. token actions, that defines the individual's success or failure. This process of "synthetic" mythologisation is central to the second phase argument of the thesis. In Antony and Cleopatra we are aware, as well, of the artificial character of mythologisation in the Roman world, but such artificiality comes under increasingly pejorative scrutiny. Against the dour military bias of the Roman perspective, Shakespeare advances a fresh and vibrant mythology. The new myth emerges as a tenuous ideal, founded upon half-truths and the imagination, but admirable in its celebration of a human bond of love independent of conventional Roman mythologies. By way of contrast, Coriolanus works from the assumption that the Roman ethos is a desirable ideal. A Classical motif identifies and equates familial and national obligations, and., though the hero's departure from Rome might seem to herald the disruption of these bonds, the recurrence of the motif alerts us to his enduring Roman loyalties. These loyalties find open expression in Coriolanus' commendable, but fatal, restatement of fidelity to his mother before the gates of Rome.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Adviser: T F Wharton
Keywords: British & Irish literature, Theater history
Date of Award: 1982
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:1982-72118
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 17 May 2019 12:55
Last Modified: 17 May 2019 12:55
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/72118

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