It’s a Crying Schama (1 of 2): Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 2

In Part 1 of his series Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Simon Schama asserted that in his Elizabethan plays Shakespeare forged the English national self-image, or something—it was never quite clear what. In Part 2, he discusses the Jacobean Shakespeare and, despite his protestations, draws a portrait of Shakespeare as a courtier a little too close to the king to be genuinely interesting. Not unlike a certain other courtier; and indeed Schama’s real problem is that he commits the original sin of Shakespeare interpretation, reading the plays as easily identifiable transcriptions from Shakespeare’s biography.

This second episode is called “Hollow Crowns” and sets forth the argument (among other things; it’s a bit confused) that once James succeeded Elizabeth and Shakespeare’s company became the King’s Men, Shakespeare, now the “royal playwright,” used his new proximity to the crown to examine the nature of kingship, specifically whether kings are like the rest of us. (At this point I desperately wanted Ernest Hemingway, or at least his ghost, to appear and slap Schama on the belly with a big wet fish.) Not to worry: Shakespeare did not lose the common touch with which he created the English self-image in Schama’s first episode.

Put like this, Schama’s position is either banal or crazy. Banal if the suggestion is that many (hardly all) of Shakespeare’s middle-period works are about kings; crazy if it’s that they are specifically about and directed to the reigning monarch, James I.

The episode begins with another of those blasts of b-roll, this time of various royals doing royal things, including Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, while Schama voices over: “Are they really like us?” His answer is that the repetitive message of Henry V, Richard II, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear is that they are mad or sociopaths until they are brought down to our level. Schama doesn’t seem to notice a contradiction between his earlier picture of the canny writer who almost alone stayed out of trouble with the authorities and the “royal playwright” who just can’t resist thrusting his stick into that hornet’s nest. Surely James especially could not have taken a play about a sociopathic king lightly.

Never mind. Let’s look at Schama’s first comparison. Elizabeth’s great speech to her troops at Tilbury. The exposition starts with yet more b-roll of a rainy London night. (Damn film noir for making rainy nights such a lazy shorthand for emotional lows.) It’s the 1590s and Elizabeth is in decline from her high point, her speech to the troops massed to defend against the Armada at Tilbury. Perhaps, Schama speculates, it was seeing Elizabeth in decline tha led Shakespeare to write a play celebrating her at Tilbury. And what play would that have been? Henry V, of course.

Now the b-roll changes to footage of the Blitz, George VI touring the damage in mufti, and Churchill proclaiming England will never surrender, and if you can’t see the St. Crispian’s Day speech lumbering down Broadway you haven’t seen many BBC cultural specials. The visuals create loose associations between the three monarchs sharing danger with their people; fair enough, but Schama goes further to claim that Elizabeth and Henry, at least, were conveying the message: “I’m one of you!” The theme of Elizabeth’s reign, he says, was the link between crown and people (tell that to the Catholics); that aside, Schama goes still further to claim that the resemblance of the St. Crispian’s day speech to Elizabeth’s address “cannot have been a coincidence” and that Henry is one of us, as shown by the humanizing scene in which he goes out in disguise among his troops the night before Agincourt.

Much of the reading here isn’t exactly wrong—much is pretty obvious—but the conclusions are daft. I linked above to the Tilbury speech as posted by our friends at, and I recommend taking a moment to read it; it’s very short. I don’t see Elizabeth saying anything like “I am one of you”—quite the opposite, I take her to be saying “Even though I am not one of you—and have the body of a weak and feeble woman—I come here today to stand with you. That’s what a monarch does.” And Henry’s reference to “this band of brothers” means nothing more than that the warriors at Agincourt (unlike Elizabeth, including himself) are about to undergo a shared experience that will mark them as apart from ordinary “gentlemen in England now abed.” Not so much “I’m one of you” as “You’re a little more like me than those other guys because we’re about to fight together—but that doesn’t mean you are really at all like me.”

I find Schama’s discussion of the night before Agincourt a little better. The idea of the king going in disguise to learn what his subjects think is a very, very old one, and it doesn’t indicate any identification of the ruler with his people. The ruler is pretending to be one of the people, and inherent in the trope is the possibility that the people aren’t fooled. In this very scene it is entirely possible that the soldier Michael Williams knows he is speaking to the king when he delivers the “I am afeard that there are few die well that die in a battle” (IV.i.141-142) speech that Schama cites. (Yes, Williams later says “Your Majesty came not like yourself” (IV.viii.50), but his life is at stake.) On the other hand, it is Henry himself who says, in his disguise as “Harry Le Roy”, that

I think the King is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop they stoop with the like wing.

The message is indeed that kings are like ordinary people—but the fact that it is the king himself saying this introduces the familiar edge of irony whose detection is not one of Schama’s strengths.

In fact, Schama, like most commentators, misses the irony and double-sidedness at the core of the Henriad. Most idolize Falstaff and many, like Schama and Bloom, exalt him as some sort of larger-than-mortal life force at the same time as they hold up King Henry V as a model of kingship, at least on St. Crispian’s Day. The problem is that Henry V becomes the king he is in Henry V because of his rejection of Falstaff, his rejection of “all the world.” The greatness of his kingship can therefore scarcely rest in his identification with the common people. Schama is particularly subject to this criticism because he’s working on such a crude level. Falstaff = Spirit of England; Henry’s rejection of Falstaff therefore = rejection of the spirit of England; Henry’s position as iconic King of England and victor at Agincourt = his identification with the plebs who are England. Those can’t all be true together. And it looks as if Hal made the right move in banishing Falstaff, doesn’t it?

This is the general problem that arises from the most important passage in all of Shakespeare, Hal’s “I do. I will,” and Schama simply doesn’t have the analytical tools to answer it.

And so, after an anachronistic discussion of Richard II (which was entered in the Stationers Register in 1597, though Schama is now into the seventeenth century), Elizabeth dies and James I, decidedly not a man of the people, comes to the throne, appointing Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as the King’s Men. Here is where Schama, who has been eccentric, sometimes obnoxious, but not so far from the truth as to be worthless, goes completely off the rails. Since the following is the most important point in my critique of Schama, I’m not going to bury the lede, but start a new post with it.

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