Date of Award


Level of Access

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Burton N. Hatlen

Second Committee Member

R. Tony Brinkley

Third Committee Member

Paul Bauschatz


In Shakespeare's historical plays, we find the traditional and politically "top-heavy" historic events of monarchs, aristocrats and patriarchs, of national and international politics and of wars, civil and foreign. This is the type of practice that E.P. Thompson was challenging when he coined the polemic phrase "history from below." It is necessary, Thompson says, to rethink historiography as a means of creating national identity because of its inherent lack of sociopolitical objectivity, particularly with respect to class. "It is one of the peculiarities of the English," he writes, "that the history of the 'common people' has always been something other than-and distinct from-English History Proper."' In other words, English History has not been the history of the English per se, but rather the history of only the most powerful political, cultural and economic persons and events to affect the country; little room remains for the so-called common people. Thompson goes on to say that "in English History Proper the people of this island . . . appear as one of the problems Government has had to handle." Indeed, Shakespeare's sources seem to bear this out; however, his plays demonstrate a certain social sensibility that recognizes plebeian characters in ways that markedly deviate from the source material. For example, all of Shakespeare's more or less non-revolutionary inhabitants of Eastcheap are the author's own creation and do not occur in Holinshed or Hall. Jack Cade, who leads a violent insurrection against the aristocracy, however, does. In Shakespeare, English History Proper seems to be enriched by the inclusion of fair and peaceable representations of plebeian classes in a way that increases the dramatic effect of the plays. This part of Shakespeare's technique is especially prominent in his second historical cycle. It is in these plays that we most see these types of figures in circumstances unlike those afforded us by traditional historiographers. Despite their requisite comic antics, we are allowed to see common people as fleshed out characters who are defined not by their "antagonism to orthodoxy," but as integral components of a nation. This technique affords us both a fair if not realistic or accurate literary representation of the third estate and the opportunity to witness the political squabbling of the monarchy and aristocracy through the eyes of those who must inevitably fight the wars begun at court. Ibid. Shakespeare's aesthetic sensibility apparently includes a consciousness of the social contradictions inherent in his culture and the limits of any historical worldview that prioritizes economic and political power and ignores the reality of the third estate. This quality infuses the plays with a sense of the social and moral consequences of absolutist monarchy as a subjective ideology. The playwright seems to have been at least tacitly aware that the people whom his society and its historical records considered socially, politically and economically ineffectual actually did have a considerable and very real efficacy in the historical trajectory that created the Elizabethan world. Shakespeare felt it necessary to include them in his public reenactment of the creation of that world-which is to say, in his own historiographic project.