Introduction: Be Our Ghost
Michel Foucault commented on the power of fi lm to shape perceptions of the past, “Memory is actually a very important factor in struggle . . . if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism.”2 Or as George Orwell memorably wrote in 1984, “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”3 Nearly four hundred years earlier, a different sort of popular entertainment, Shakespeare’s plays, dramatized this idea with unmatched complexity and power. Not merely particular ways of shaping and recollecting late medieval English history from less memorable sources, namely, printed chronicles, Shakespeare’s history plays also stage vigorous explorations of the shifting and tenuous partnerships between historical memory and forgetting, changing religious practices and doctrine, social stability, the power of the English state, and nationhood. A distinguishing feature of Shakespeare’s later histories, beginning with King John, is the prominent role he assigns to the need to forget and the opportunities that issue from forgetting. For plays ostensibly designed to recover the past and make it available to the present, they devote remarkable attention to the ways in which states and individuals alike passively neglect or actively suppress the past and rewrite history. Nearly every prominent feature of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy-for instance, Richard II’s strangely occluded opening
and its marginalizing of Ireland to the bizarre treatment of the Lollard martyr Oldcastle, the side trip to the English countryside to witness its climate of unrelieved nostalgia, and even Henry V’s apparent triumph over the unruly forces of memory in the last play in the cycle-bears testimony to the growing accent on erasure and on rewriting in Shakespeare’s staging of English history.