Henry V may well extol the potential of English or 'British' nationhood especially as it is inspired by charismatic kingship; an audience's enthralment at this spectacle is undoubtedly sustained by influential acts of memory. Any attempt to develop a unifying tradition of remembrance is shattered in the mourning play by the melancholy recollection of loss, unfulfilled promises and the unappeased wants that follow in the wake of historical endeavour. For Walter Benjamin, the mourning play was a form of historical drama: 'the historical subject was particularly suited to the Trauerspiel,' although it was equally committed to a free handling of plot. One specific aspect of Benjamin's analysis of Trauerspiel lies in the distinction between 'first' and 'second nature'. This has a crucial bearing on the vision of history disclosed within The Life of Henry the Fift and within other Shakespearean histories especially in terms of their treatment of memory.
In the Renaissance, the archetype for history was the classical muse Clio, a much-painted figure in an era when the 'history painting' was one of the predominant genres in European visual art. One Renaissance dramatist and poet who never made reference to Clio was William Shakespeare. This book is about official and unofficial versions of the past, histories and counter-histories, in Shakespeare's works and their subsequent appropriations. It builds on a long period in which those of us working in literary and theatre studies have developed an awareness of the extent to which conventional recreations of the past are mediated through the fictionalising structures of narrative. The book explores how the history plays construct counter-historical representations of the dead. It argues that the 'dislocutionary' threat of grief and the performance of the suffering body is a version of the kind of spectator/spectre relationship drawn in any ritualised encounter with the cult of the ancestor. The book combines four historicist readings which explore counter-histories in the early modern period. It examines the relationship between Shakespeare's history plays and alternative dynastic histories. The book also explores questions of history and identity, particularly as they can be configured through performance. It challenges the view that women become progressively marginalised across the histories by arguing that Shakespeare's warlike women enact a power onstage which forces us to rethink official, patriarchal history.