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At Folger, England Emerges From the Myths of Time

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In 1588, the Spanish Armada that threatened Elizabethan England was undone by a storm. Seventeen years later, the infamous Gunpowder Plot, an effort by angry Catholics to blow up Parliament, failed when the conspirators panicked and were captured. These close calls with fate were rapidly put to good propaganda use by the rulers of England, and there emerged a persistent new theme in early 17th-century politics: Providence was looking out for Britain.

A new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library called "History in the Making" is an episodic survey of how history and current events were managed, manipulated and mythologized in the years before and after the career of William Shakespeare. It also surveys the politicized and even tendentious historical works that Shakespeare drew upon in his plays, works that were often convenient, dynastic fictions in favor of the Tudor ruling family. And it continues well past the death of Shakespeare, through the middle of the 17th century, ending with the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.

Organized by guest curators Alan Stewart and Garrett Sullivan, the new show is presented as a series of vignettes. The curators, mercifully, have not drawn superficial connections between the political mythmaking of four centuries ago and the rapid-fire spin wars of the current political campaign. But the contents of almost every one of the display cases in this engaging show might easily be reduced to a familiar, topical theme: origin myths, scapegoats, God's will, internal enemies, favored sons.

You are left with the sense that while it's dangerous to draw too many connections, the basic strategies of propaganda remain much the same.

Contemporary analogies to the case of Sir Philip Sidney, for example, mostly fall short. Sidney was the ideal courtier, dashing and literate, an ambitious soldier and a poet of considerable skill. After he was killed fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands in 1586, the state pulled out all the stops for a grand funeral and interment at St. Paul's Cathedral. It's tempting to think he had what we would call rock-star status, or that he was somehow Robert F. Kennedy and James Dean and Martin Luther King Jr. all rolled into one.

But he wasn't. Rather, Sidney was a convenient establishment figure, whose life could be held up as exemplary by a state that needed to stuff its pantheon with admirable heroes. Sidney's death does, however, feel familiar in the almost manic need for contemporary figures to bask in his reflected glory. The extravagance of the 1587 funeral was documented in a series of 28 engraved plates designed by Thomas Lant. These popular mementos of a famous bit of pomp were, according to at least one contemporary account, pasted together end to end, and placed on rollers. The result was a long scroll that showed a seemingly endless parade of courtiers and religious figures and politicians who turned out to mourn the young Sidney (he was just 31 when he died).

The Folger curators have created a facsimile of that scroll, alongside the original drawings, and the effect of turning its connected pages is a bit like watching the endless parade of scripted sympathy one sees on the television after a major political figure dies. You can smell the shallow sincerity of these forgotten political players all these centuries later.

A cycle of sonnets by Sidney was published after his death, and it is likely that those poems influenced Shakespeare's forays into the form. But the exhibition doesn't make too many efforts to keep attention focused on the Bard. Shakespeare is a presence mainly in the parts of the show that focus on efforts to construct a convenient historical narrative. The exhibition begins, for instance, with the Brutus myth, the fantasy that Brutus, a descendant of the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas, is the real founder of Britain. Famous Shakespearean kings (Lear, Cymbeline) were said to be Brutus's descendants. The power of the myth, which cleaned up the far less splendid and much messier reality of early English history, connected an aspirant empire to a glorious past one.

Shakespeare's direct role in mythmaking is presented in two separate cases, one devoted to Richard III, the other to Falstaff. In the case of Richard III, Shakespeare was dramatizing a villain who had already been amply villainized by previous historians, Thomas More the most prominent among them. Richard was the last of the great Plantagenet line, which had ruled England for centuries before the Tudors violently displaced it. By making Richard into a humpbacked, child-killing psychopath, Shakespeare was merely underscoring the most unpleasant elements of a historical narrative that had already dipped deeply into slander and fantasy.

Yet even when Shakespeare is regurgitating the bad history of others, he leaves us so mesmerized as to be almost indifferent to the real Richard -- who scholars argue was a man of the late Middle Ages of not more than average cruelty, and not the caricature one finds in Shakespeare.

England, in the 17th century, was also looking to rewrite its religious history to justify the breach with Catholicism initiated by Henry VIII and to give its homegrown Protestantism a more historically satisfying sheen. Thus, the line between civil and religious mythmaking often grows fuzzy. After the foiled Gunpowder Plot, the deliverance was marked as a red-letter day in the English Book of Common Prayer, and to this day, on Nov. 5, the English celebrate (though with considerably less religious rancor) the foiling of the "papist" conspiracy.

The providence motif, the conviction that England was particularly blessed to escape so many near-disasters, connected internal political threats, external military challenges and the religious question in one grand narrative of blessed Britishness. In one engraving, from 1696, William III is directly protected from an assassination attempt by the eye of God, beaming down on him. The title of the image: "Triumphs of Providence Over Hell, France & Rome."

It is curious, and even refreshing, to see such thorough self-confidence in the face of threats. Our own response, to real attacks, foiled ones and perhaps imaginary ones as well, has been far more nervous. Some American religious leaders with substantial fundamentalist followings have descried not the benevolent eye of God but His vengeance in events such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and have used external threats to enliven internal animosities and bigotry.

But English self-confidence was not unshakable. England suffered two serious blows in the back-to-back Great Plague and Great Fire, and her religious leaders were happy to connect the dots for the faithful. Various sermons and tracts published immediately after the fire attempted to define the religious causes for two such terrible misfortunes.

The curators struggle with the perennial problem of exhibitions based on documents: how to give their themes visual presentation. But there are a few dusty tomes and other documents that are worth the pilgrimage for their rarity or curiosity value. There are etchings of London, before and after the Great Fire, by Wenceslaus Hollar; a copy of Holinshed's "Chronicles" (which provided Shakespeare with reams of material); and a 1571 copy of the Gospels in Anglo-Saxon (evidence of attempts to give English Protestantism a deeper, more extensive native history).

"History in the Making" is the stuff of books, or even libraries, not small exhibitions. But they have narrowed their focus, successfully, to about 14 central motifs. Familiarity with them will leave the visitor with a solid grounding in the politics of an age that includes not just Shakespeare but also Elizabeth, Marlowe, Milton and the religious fanatics who founded the colonies that eventually became our nascent empire.

History in the Making: How Early Modern Britain Imagined Its Past is on view at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., through May 17. Admission is free.

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