Performing "This England": Cycles of Shakespeare's English Histories in the Postwar Era

Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2009

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This project shows how Shakespeare’s English histories have been problematically made into cycles on the postwar English stage, and how those theatre cycles reveal changing attitudes to the history plays and to English national identity. The tradition of performing history cycles developed while the culture was intensively exploring new meanings of both “This England” and Shakespeare’s plays themselves. We should expect the politics of these productions to reflect their times, and so they do, but often in unexpected ways. The political or social stances advocated by producers (company managers, directors, actors, and designers) as expressed in interviews, books, programs, advertising campaigns, and other ancillary materials often operate in tension with, or even contradiction to, what is presented on stage. This project shows that tension at work in the major history cycles produced in the UK in the postwar period, a period that encompasses the end of consensus, Thatcherism, devolution, the formation of the vii vii European Union, the emergence of New Labour, and the “War on Terror.” Specifically, I analyze celebratory cycles associated with the Festival of Britain (1951), the RSC’s influential “The Wars of the Roses” (1963-64); the English Shakespeare Company’s own, iconoclastic “The Wars of the Roses” (1986-89); the RSC’s millennial, devolutionary “This England” (2000-01); and the RSC’s retrospective, surprisingly traditional “The Histories” (2007-2008). Drawing on sources including performances and their ancillary records, I examine modes of both production and consumption, addressing issues of nationalism, current affairs, cultural policies, theatre practice, and state subsidy of the arts, while bringing a literary sensitivity to the playtexts themselves. Cycle productions have played a pivotal role in creating and shaping the postwar Shakespearean performance establishment. Theatre companies have used the histories to declare themselves to be the premier interpreters of Shakespeare and the cultural torch-bearers of English national identity. The history cycle form is therefore deeply connected to the manipulation of the public perception and reception of the plays themselves. My argument reveals the institutional and political, but perhaps especially the emotional and ideological means by which this connection has been created, questioned, or reinforced from the postwar years to the present.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Lara Bovilsky

Committee Members

Joseph Loewenstein, Robert Henke, Marina MacKay, Julia Walker, Steven Zwicker


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