Once Upon a Time: On Margreta de Grazia’s “Four Shakespearean Period Pieces”

July 14, 2021   •   By Rhodri Lewis

Four Shakespearean Period Pieces

Margreta de Grazia

THE PUBLISHER TELLS US that Margreta de Grazia’s Four Shakespearean Period Pieces “offer[s] fresh insights on the reading, editing, and staging of the author at the heart of our literary canon.” Emma Smith says that its “critical readings are revelatory, zinging with insight and larger intellectual context, and reverberating with ongoing challenges for humanistic scholarship in our own times.” Stephen Greenblatt says that it is “an exercise of scholarly demolition, at once relentless, resourceful, and cunning,” and that it will “shake the grand house of literary criticism.” I like it, too. It is an unusually intelligent piece of work, tackling a series of difficult questions with elegance and economy. It does not answer all of these questions satisfactorily, but the overall effect is quickening. One takes one’s leave of Four Shakespearean Period Pieces, as I have now done twice, with the feeling of being smarter — more critically sophisticated — than was previously the case. 

The book has two main focal points: the representation of time in Shakespeare’s plays, and the ways in which our own imperfectly examined beliefs about the nature of time and temporality have led us to represent, and frequently to misrepresent, Shakespeare’s dramatic achievement. De Grazia divides her book into four chapters. The first considers some of Shakespeare’s many anachronisms, such as the mechanical clocks that strike the hour in the Rome of Julius Caesar. The second turns to chronology — the orderly passage of time threatened by anachronism — and to the ways in which Shakespeare’s body of work unsettles it. The third chapter complements the second and uses Shakespeare to reexamine the validity of historical periodization: not so much the orderly passage of time in itself, as the orderly succession of internally coherent periods (or eras or epochs or ages), through which we have habitually sought to make the passage of time intelligible. The fourth and final chapter draws on all that has come before to offer a Shakespearean perspective on the significance of the historical period to which we in the 21st century have often been said to belong: secularized, or secularizing, “modernity.”

De Grazia has long been concerned with the relationship between modernity and secularization. In 1980, she published an influential article on “The Secularization of Language in the Seventeenth Century,” and in her brilliantly plotted “Hamlet” Without Hamlet (2007) she was about as open to questions of the play’s religiosity as she was to the conviction that Hamlet’s troubled inwardness is an avatar of modern individualism. Her Hamlet does not experience peripeteia (a sudden reversal or change in circumstances) or anagnorisis (a recognition, often brought about by peripeteia, that one has been on the wrong track), either in the approved tragic manner or in the fashion of, say, St. Augustine in his Milanese garden. He simply goes on wanting what he thinks is materially his: the Danish territories that, with his mother’s connivance, his uncle now possesses. When Doomsday is mentioned (in the graveyard scene) it signifies not as the Christian apocalypse, but as the revolutionary moment at which the feudal land grab made possible by William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book will be overturned. For de Grazia, Shakespeare’s Denmark is modern in the particular sense suggested to Goethe by the conquering Napoleon: a world in which it is politics that shapes our destinies, not providence.

Four Shakespearean Period Pieces shows de Grazia rethinking some of these positions. Although she does not repudiate them as such, there is an unquestionable change in emphasis. A determination to understand what exactly is at stake in laying claim to modernity, to secularity, and to historical periodization of any sort. 

Shakespeare’s anachronisms provide de Grazia with her starting point. She makes the compelling argument that, by having the protagonists of Troilus and Cressida talk about Aristotle (despite the fact that the play is set some 800 years before the young Aristotle turned up in Plato’s classroom), he does not blunder in the fashion of Mel Gibson and his army of kilt-wearing Scots in Braveheart. Instead, de Grazia puts the case that, like Homer before him, Shakespeare was a kind of presentist. The Trojan War was as far back as the early moderns believed non-Biblical history to go (the lack of written sources made anything that took place before this conflict pre-historical). And with the distant past irretrievably gone, what mattered was the ability to make its likeness speak to the audiences of Troilus and Cressida, be they theatrical or bookish, in a language they understood: “Aristotle is unknown to the play’s Homeric Trojans and Greeks, but not to its audience,” she writes.

De Grazia calls this “discrepancy between what the characters know and what the audience knows […] not anachronism but irony.” She doesn’t spell out what this irony entails, but it manifestly has something to do with our predisposition to the fanciful when seeking to reassure ourselves of our insight or authority. It is not obviously more absurd for the Trojan Hector to make sense of his world through Aristotle, or for the Greek Ulysses to assert the natural order of things by paraphrasing Cicero, than it is for Shakespeare’s audiences to flatter themselves for grasping things on account of their facility with Aristotelian or Ciceronian philosophy. (In this chapter on anachronism, a deft meta-stylistic touch: de Grazia gives the wrong publication dates for several of the works on which she touches.)

If Shakespeare’s anachronisms make a mockery of historical accuracy (and of historical accuracy as a criterion through which to assess his work), the canon of his works, in de Grazia’s hands, speaks against chronology as an aid to literary interpretation. Co-authorship, revision, adaptation, mediation through players, pirates, and printers — all subvert the urge to tell a story of Shakespeare’s artistic progress from The Two Gentlemen of Verona or perhaps The Taming of the Shrew at some point in the late 1580s to the co-written The Two Noble Kinsmen about 25 years later. 

We do not know when exactly Richard III or All’s Well That Ends Well or Coriolanus were written; we do not know whether Macbeth or King Lear was written first; we do not know whether the different texts of Hamlet and King Lear as they now survive are the result of revisions (by Shakespeare or another), or whether they simply speak to human error in transmission; we don’t really know whether Macbeth in its entirety is Shakespeare’s own work. And so on. De Grazia reminds us that to pretend otherwise is to indulge the Romantic fetish for Shakespeare as a solitary artist-genius rather than a practical man of the theater and the world. When Shakespeare’s former colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell compiled the first edition of his complete works seven years after his death, they arranged the plays by genre (comedy, history, tragedy) and took no interest at all in the order of their composition or performance. To borrow a line from Raymond Chandler, chronology is just another way of asserting the austere simplicity of fiction over the tangled woof of fact (or, better, of historical contingency — as Chandler would certainly not have put it). That it does so while pretending to respect things as they are makes it insidious as well as seductive. 

Something of the kind is also true of historical periods. These have their own long story, from Hesiod, Ovid, and the Babylonian Talmud down to the stadial history that preoccupied the philosophical historians of the Enlightenment and the different stages of production within Marx’s schema of historical materialism. De Grazia shows that it was only from the late 18th century onward that Shakespeare’s plays were staged with a view to recreating the worldviews of the scenes they depict (Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus being performed in rigorously Roman style rather than in a mash-up of whatever costumes the playing company thought best), and uses this knowledge to unpick the competing notions of modernity suggested by Heidegger, Hans Blumenberg, and Fredric Jameson. The ways in which the temporal instability of the Shakespearean stage dissolves boundaries between the ancient, medieval, and modern worldviews helps — if not quite paradoxically, then at least a little aslant — to define modernity as a state of mind. Within it, the imposition of meaning through periodization (“late capitalism,” the Anthropocene, etc.) can be acknowledged both as an exercise in artifice and as a feature of the human condition that, precisely because it now seems ineradicable, must be understood.


In her final chapter, de Grazia concentrates on King Lear and the apocalypse. That is, on the “promised end” at which Kent, Edgar, and Albany clutch in uncomprehending horror when confronted by the spectacle of Lear and the lifeless Cordelia. If it is in some places undercooked, this is also the best and most ambitious part of a very good book. De Grazia builds on Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending to propose that King Lear reveals the process in which modernity translates into secular terms a range of ideas and beliefs that originally signified within a Christian context; but as she takes pains to spell out over several pages, she differs from Kermode in her explanation of how this translation came about. 

The argument, versions of which are shared by many different secularization narratives, runs as follows. In King Lear, the apocalypse signifies not as the end of days, but as an idea with which distressed protagonists are able to process the events in which they have been caught up. The play thereby testifies to the power of dramatic art to perform the work of secularized religion, giving shape and a kind of meaning to the sufferings that hedge the experience of living in the world. No longer providential and preordained, the apocalypse becomes fictive, allowing humankind to make its peace with a historical epoch that now stretches forth without divinely imposed limitation. Modernity is born.

Or so one might think. In fact, de Grazia invites us to view the picture from a different angle. She observes that King Lear cannot be read as a post-Christian work without doing it undue interpretative violence. This is because it takes place in a determinedly pre-Christian world, long before the incarnation of God-the-son and long before the good news of the revelation (the etymological sense of which, as de Grazia notes, is identical to that of apocalypse) would arrive on the shores of the British Isles. What de Grazia’s King Lear presents us with instead is an essay in quasi-typological prolepsis, in which features of the religion revealed in the New Testament are foreshadowed in the fictional world of Lear’s Albion. In this case, the Christian doctrine of the apocalypse, with its promise of eternal beatitude for the faithful after the world has been destroyed, is foreshadowed by the emotional and spiritual needs of Kent, Edgar, and Albany at the climax of the play’s action.

The rub is that King Lear is a work of tragedy, a space in which the teleology of Christian belief carries no charge. Here, things do not make theological or philosophical sense, and the only order that can be imposed is artistic. So, de Grazia ends up endorsing secularization, but does not want us to see in it a repudiation of Christian naïveté or credulity. Rather, she sees Shakespeare’s secularized religiosity as an offshoot of works like John Foxe’s Latin play Christus Triumphans (1556). Foxe’s text, written and published in exile from the Roman Catholic England of Mary I (in a central plot line, it turns out that the Pope is Antichrist), struggles to “transfer” the events of the last days and the second coming to the theater. Its chief difficulty is that, for all the color provided by the Book of Revelation, the events in question had not yet happened: Foxe had to foreshadow them with all the theatrical art at his disposal, and to do so without getting into thorny exegetical or doctrinal territory with his fellow believers.

Treating Foxe less as a source than as a comparator, de Grazia concludes that the “apocalyptic comedy” of his Christus Triumphans and the “apocalyptic tragedy” of King Lear “turn on the same elusive promise of the end.” Except that they demonstrably do no such thing. They merely sound as if they might. In King Lear, apocalyptic thinking is another of the fictions to which the dramatis personae turn in trying at once to comprehend that which the world throws at them, and to remake it in the image of their own preoccupations. After raising the possibility that the world may be about to end, Kent, Edgar, and Albany drop it and return to their personal and political concerns — anything other than getting sucked into the desolation before them. In so doing, they deprive us in the audience of the wherewithal to do the same. Juxtaposed with King Lear, Foxe’s use of Christian eschatology as a structural principle starts to look pat, not to say complacent: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” 

De Grazia insists that “when King Lear looks secular, it is only pretending. It is making a show of irreligion. Its secular effects are theatrical.” But the same is necessarily true of all its effects — religious, irreligious, and otherwise: art is the illusion of reality. What makes King Lear’s religious effects stand out is that Shakespeare draws attention to their fictionality. In addition to the apocalyptic gestures of the final scene, consider what becomes its parodic inversion of the pietà in the spectacle of Lear cradling the dead-and-not-to-be-resurrected Cordelia. Or, if allusions to devotional art seem a little far-fetched, take the impoverished and compassionately charitable figure of Poor Tom, manifestly intended to resemble a foreshadowing of Christ. He speaks and acts only with the freedom of pretense, his miracles are conjuring tricks, and the character who plays him (Edgar) actually believes that his father deserved his eye-gouging as punishment for begetting a child out of wedlock (“The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us”). It’s complicated.

There is, in short, a sense in which de Grazia tries to have her cake and to eat it. Secular modernity, yes, but not that sort of secular modernity. I am in sympathy with this approach, but her evident dissatisfaction with Kermode is a puzzle, not least because their accounts have so much in common. One has modern fiction emerging out of the acknowledgment, in works like King Lear, that the doctrines with which we have attempted to mitigate the sense of our own mortal finitude have always been fictive. The other has modernity emerging from the Christian worldview, with plays like King Lear differing only by degrees from the likes of Christus Triumphans, and with a version of secularization occurring as a collateral by-product of the creative process. Both are continuity stories, and although one of them is better than the other at accounting for the complexities of King Lear, their kinship remains.

At the end of her introductory chapter, de Grazia puts her finger on what might be a more fundamental difficulty with her approach: anachronism depends upon the existence of a chronological order that, on de Grazia’s account, is make-believe. One cannot be anachronistic without a clear sense of chronos to violate. De Grazia knows this but goes ahead and uses anachronism as a tool with which to make a range of points about the ways in which Shakespeare’s drama functions — particularly the ways in which it destabilizes linear chronology. Something of the kind is also true of the ways in which she treats periodization and secularization.

In other words, de Grazia argues for the primacy of the tangled woof, but finds that she cannot do without the simplicities of analytical and/or narrative structure. She writes: “Reliance on disciplinary heuristics, it is hoped, need not preclude their critique. One can live in a glass house and still throw stones.” Like so much else in Four Shakespearean Period Pieces, this self-defense is nimbly managed. But I wish that she had said much more about her thoughts on “heuristics” (why, for instance, must they be “disciplinary”?), as also about the kinds of glass — and the kinds of throwing — that she has in mind. 

Another way of putting the dilemma that de Grazia poses herself might be to say that she is committed to two apparently contradictory clusters of belief. First, that chronology, periodization, and the narratives of secular modernity that depend on them are transparently fictional constructs. Second, that works of literature like the plays of Shakespeare are best understood as representing the worldviews of the historical period in which they were written. The dilemma is one with which Kermode also grapples in his Sense of an Ending, and I wonder if one of the ideas discussed there might not offer a useful medium through which to establish concord between the urge to historicize and the awareness that literary art, as Four Shakespearean Period Pieces so lucidly demonstrates, cannot be constrained to history alone.

For Kermode, the key is the theological notion of the aevum. This perpetual order of time was devised in the 13th century to account for the nature of angels (created, but thereafter immortal). It was taken to lie outside the historical world that would be destroyed in the apocalypse, and was similarly distinct from eternity as inhabited by God the creator. Hocus-pocus on one level, but once established, the aevum transformed the theoretical frameworks within which it was possible to discuss a range of phenomena that would otherwise have been constrained to the finitude of history: the institutions of the law and the church, the characters of peoples or nations, empires, and — above all — the institution of monarchy (a particular king’s mortal body will die; his body politic will live on).

One perhaps unintended consequence of this innovation was that transcendence and perpetuity themselves became worldly phenomena. And as Kermode observes, “this kind of fiction” quickly became identified with literary endeavor: “It facilitates a different, more flexible attitude to life as it seems to be when you look at the whole picture from your place in the middest.”

By being taken to exist on a temporal plane outside the ordinary run of things — a self-consciously fictive plane, but even so — literary writing came to have a place that, expanded by its 1,500-year encounter with the various manifestations of Christianity, enabled its readers and spectators to behold not only the stories that they told themselves to get through the day, but also their absolute need so to do. Shakespeare puts aspects of late 16th- and early 17th-century history on the stage, to be sure, but the cultivated perpetuity of his art allows him to do a lot more besides. We need to be flexible, and to make a virtue of our flexibility, if we are to keep up with him.


Rhodri Lewis teaches English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University.