Anyone acquainted with contemporary politics recognizes the immense amount of pageantry, pomp, and theater displayed in political life, from stage-managed political conventions, to inaugurals full of solemn oaths and speeches, to the blare of trumpets announcing the arrival of the president, followed by “Hail to the Chief”. Lesser and innumerable examples abound, even in a day and age when theater is a lesser art (at least measured by the numbers of patrons and artists). But in the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, the play was the thing to capture anyone’s attention, including the English populace that Elizabeth ruled (and that ruled her).
I expected this book (2014) to focus on the works of Shakespeare since Wills has thrice before published books on Shakespeare topics: Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1995), Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (2011), and Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater (2011). However, while Wills does spend some time on Shakespeare—including an especially enlightening discussions of Taming of the Shrew and Henry V—this book addresses the wider cultural milieu. Wills explores how the need to hold and wield political power in Elizabethan England uses theater, poetry, and public spectacle to influence popular perceptions. Indeed, entire lives seem dedicated to gaining and maintaining the audience, whether it's the courtiers seeking the approval of Elizabeth, such as Essex, or Elizabeth herself courting her subjects. Wills writes:
A self-dramatizing trait is so common in plays of the time [referencing various rulers portrayed in Shakespeare's plays] that we must suspect it is more than mere personal foible, in the character or the playwright —more even than the convention of theatrical characters being theatrical. The best indicator of this is that the most grandiose self-presenters are men and women who seek or hold power. And power, after all, must always find a way to project its claims onto the people it would control.
Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 94-97). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills notes that “performance theory” now addresses not only the particulars of production, but also the why and wherefore of the efforts. He states:
Performance has become an ever widening and ever -deepening concept. It can indicate all the ways a society enacts meaning. It can apply to speech acts as primarily enacting rather than signifying— the “performative speech” of J. L. Austin. It can mean the achievement of identity by adopting a role— the “performativity” of Judith Butler. There is such a sprawl of performance theory that it is necessary to narrow the focus to see what is distinctive about Elizabethans’ way of dramatizing their culture’s meaning. I will try out three approaches, to see if they help concentrate on Elizabethan self-dramatizations. The three are the theater -state of Clifford Geertz, the emblem systems of the Warburg School, and the process rites of Victor Turner.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 115-122). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Based on these theoretical foundations, Wills considers Elizabeth’s predicament: “Elizabeth was an anomaly— as a female ruler, unnatural; illegitimate by birth; disowned by her royal father; not sure of marriage or issue; not allied by family with other rulers; caught precariously between entrenched religious factions at home and abroad”. Kindle Locations 259-260. Not an easy situation. And one that required her to jealously guard her prerogatives and to cultivate popular support in every way. Wills notes:
The expenditure of so much effort, thought, and money on these great theatrical enterprises [plays, masques, and festivals] must have seemed justified in the reign of a queen known for parsimony. These were not frivolous games or ornaments. They were the expression of a transition period trying to articulate its own meaning to itself. The communal effort had to mobilize all the resources that are suggested by Geertzian sacred rites, Warburgian iconology, and Turnerian liminality. It was a society’s way of fighting for its life. There are many meanings discoverable in Christopher Haigh’s oracular statement about Elizabeth: “Her power was an illusion— and an illusion was her power.”Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 231-236). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
From these premises, Wills dives into the Elizabethan world that seems quite alien to us, although it continues to intrigue us. From me as a school boy reading about Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake as swash-buckling adventurers to movie-goers intrigued by films depicting Elizabeth, who has been portrayed by actresses from Sarah Bernhardt to a Cate Blanchet, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Vanessa Redgrave (of late!), the public has an appetite for this foreign time. But for all its foreignness—like the plays of Shakespeare that we still devour—it all has a feel of familiarity as well.
Wills is just the person to perform this reconnaissance. His depth of learning from things ancient Greek and Latin to contemporary America, including his ability (and patience) to cull the relevant texts, makes him an expert guide. And for all his worldly knowledge of the intrigues of our lives, he doesn’t play the cynic. Remarking on what seems to us to be the overweening flattering and fawning aimed at Elizabeth, he finds non-trivial ends:
One may think the endless tributes to Elizabeth nothing but an elephantiasis of flattery. But Spenser [author of The Faerie Queene] was using his poem to shape an ideal of the England he wanted to see as the final product of Reformation. England, tested against the template of Faerie Land, should become Faerie Land. Which means the queen should become the Faerie Queene. As A. Bartlett Giamatti put it, “He wishes to influence her as he deifies her, to shape the state as much as to construe the state’s ruler as a model for the individual.”Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 409-413). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills even defends the courtiers, with their literary guides Castiglione and Machiavelli, from charges of simple flattery:
Courtly praise was, admittedly, a pose. Even Castiglione’s courtliest of virtues, sprezzatura, is the ability to conceal effort under a pose of effortlessness. And restraint (Niccolò Machiavelli’s rispetto) is a way to get things by reining in one’s urgency (Machiavelli’s impeto) after them. Thus some New Historicists see “subversion” (their favorite word) under the professed love of Elizabeth’s courtiers. It is certainly true that there was endless jostling of her courtiers for favor, position, property, family advancement, or one’s religious preference, all under the “colour” of ardently professed love. But even in seeking these favors, men strengthened her power to grant them. One does not keep coming back for reward to an enfeebled source.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 413-419). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Those who see nothing but selfish interest in all human action cannot explain why, for some causes, good and bad— nationalism, racism, religion, patriotism— people sacrifice themselves. Of course, selfish aims can be masked as all these “higher” goals. But dissimulation of selfishness, faction, or zealotry is a social lubricator, and in some cases an essential one. It must, admittedly be a plausible pretense. To work, make-believe must be believable , and an array of talents, political and poetic, labored the illusion into place for Elizabeth.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 423-427). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Following these introductory observations that set the perspective for Wills’s project, he delves into details, and in particular, into Shakespeare. He writes authoritatively and convincingly about gender, dealing with the problematic Taming of the Shrew in a way that makes sense of it and that is quite contrary to many popular conceptions. He takes umbrage at the treatment given the play in such productions as the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (directed by Zeferelli). Wills notes:
There is nothing more boring than the brute-on-brute wrestling match of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor— as if they were still playing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—in Franco Zeffirelli’s production. Ann Thompson rightly prefers John Cleese’s insouciant approach, all the while blowing Kate verbal kisses in Peter Hall’s version. The anger Cleese puts on is all directed at others, whom he takes to be insulting his goddess, offering her inferior food or clothes. By doing so, of course , he satirizes her own beating of her sister and her servants— a sign of her changing character comes when she pleads that he stop beating the servant.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 861-866). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills quotes Germaine Greer at length on the character and relative merits of Bianca, Kate, and Petruchio:
Kate is a woman striving for her own existence in a world where she is a stale, a decoy to be bid for against her sister’s higher market value, so she opts out by becoming unmanageable, a scold. Bianca has found the women’s way of guile and feigned gentleness to pay better dividends; she woos for herself under false colors, manipulating her father and her suitors in a perilous game which could end in her ruin . Kate courts ruin in a different way, but she has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio, who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping . He tames her as he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. Lucentio finds himself saddled with a cold, disloyal woman, who has no objection to humiliating him in public. The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality: Bianca is the soul of duplicity, married without earnestness or good will. Kate’s speech is the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend , and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever). The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 923-934). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition, quoting Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (Bantam, 1972), 220– 21.
To my mind, Wills’s consideration of Henry V provides the most intriguing insight. Wills counters interpretations of this play running back to Harold Goddard (The Meaning of Shakespeare, in which I’ve found great merit), Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt, and the New Historicists in general. In short, the later critics see Henry V as a war-monger. Wills sets out the problem:
Most of Shakespeare’s kings are terrible people. They often attain the crown by murder, then keep on murdering to retain it. When a king like Henry VI is not evil, he is a simpleton . To get sympathy , the arrogant King Lear has to go crazy. Once, Shakespeare did try to create a wise and good king, but critics will not allow him to do it. Audiences in the past used to believe the play’s Chorus when he called Henry V “this star of England,” but now we know better. We see Henry V for what he really is—a cruel and lying war criminal, believing none, deceiving all, cut off from decent human feeling. The king may have fooled his own play’s Chorus, but he can’t get away with it at the Modern Language Association, where convened scholars have spent years peeling away this king’s lies to reveal the cold deceiver under them.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1683-1689). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills notes that those who deprecate Henry (Hal) tend to glorify Falstaff. But to my naïve mind, Falstaff has always, in the end, seemed a lout. Intriguing, but in the way that cynics and manipulators can be—for a while—as comic relief. I’d never really felt that Harold Bloom’s glorification of Falstaff made sense. Now I know I have an ally (and one that I trust). After performing his takedown of the glorification of Falstaff and denigration of Henry/Hal for rejecting his wayward days, others go after Henry as a warmonger, starting with Goddard and moving into the much more recent New Historicists. Wills reminds us that he (Wills) is a pacifist, rather disarming potential critics from labeling him a warmonger, but Wills appreciates that we’re talking about a different world. He writes:
Much of modern criticism is justifiably antimilitaristic. Militarism is an evil in our time, and it should be opposed at any time. But this causes problems in studying a culture that was not only militaristic but monarchical and imperialist . This gives the sixteenth century a number of problems it could not be expected to solve (such as getting rid of monarchs or living with the dream of a United Nations). And it is anachronistic to compare too simply our militarism and that of Elizabethan England, which had no standing army.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1917-1920). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills explicates the place of honor in this society:
Keeping mutual obligation alive was a matter of honoring honor. This involved dangerous self-importance and boasting in the contenders for honor, which are deplorable . But to empty out the concept of honor would have unstrung every nerve of Elizabethan society. Today’s intellectual class cultivates self-doubt as a virtue. It has difficulty understanding a culture in which that trait was not esteemed. Some cultures, we forget, cultivate self-confidence, and did it productively. Even now we suspect that successful men and women are usually self-confident. A man can be humble like Bach, or bitter like Swift, or pessimistic like Johnson, but retain enough self-regard to fuel creative energies. And whole civilizations— Periclean Athens, Renaissance Venice, and Elizabethan England— were hypertrophically confident. That does not mean they were incapable of self-criticism. It means they were not crippled by it. T. S. Eliot, whatever his other shortcomings, was a great reader of Tudor and Stuart drama, and he said that its basic social commitment was one of affirmation.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1926-1939). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills concludes this section with a quote from Henry’s heart-felt musings on the eve of Agincourt (well presented by Kenneth Branagh in his film, in my opinion). Wills compares Henry’s imperfections with those of Lincoln:
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,Since that my penitence comes after all,Imploring pardon. [H5 4.1.303– 5]But no earthly power is immaculately conceived. America’s birth was flawed by its induration of slavery. Lincoln’s rise was through many compromises with the slave power, including his promise in the First Inaugural not to tamper with its bases in the South. The instinct of most patriots is to deny the flawed beginnings, or to think that a gesture of penitence is sufficient to make the stain disappear. It is a mark of the realism of Shakespeare’s patriotism in this play that Henry does neither. He does not simply throw up his hands and resign the tainted power. But he does not pretend the stain is not there. He will, instead, do all he can to blunt its effects by doing better than his father had the chance to do. It is all that a Washington or a Lincoln could pledge. Shakespeare has not written a defense of brutal imperialism in Henry V. He has made his protagonist a searching king, a self-questioning one, acting in an imperfect world without any illusions about that fact. Yet nothing Hal/ Henry does can find acceptance among his dogged denigrators.Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 2486-2495). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Only when we better understand this context can we appreciate the subtleties and nuances of Henry. The critics, in professing their dislike of war and authority must denigrate the whole enterprise of the play, which, as Wills shows in detail, makes no convincing sense. Reading and appreciating this part along (along with his consideration of Taming) makes that book worthwhile. But there’s more.
As Shakespeare wrote, around him great changes in religion occurred. Astrology was a prominent endeavor (reference to the stars can be found in most of Shakespeare’s plays), while some Jesuits and other Catholics were drawn and quartered for their faith. It was not an easy time. All of these changes presented challenges to Elizabeth. As she dealt with these changes in the world concerning religion, war, and profit, she had to deal with the dramatic and capable men who orbited around her. Wills spends time and attention on these men who played a significant role in the era. His consideration of the several of the great figures, Phillip Sidney, Lord Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Prince Henry (son of King James) makes for entertaining reading, as we get mini-biographies of these dashing figures. (I would like to have learned more about Francis Bacon, who remains on the periphery of the stories.) Men like Sidney, Essex, and Raleigh were adept with pens as well as swords and ships.