Georgic Sovereignty in Henry V

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Over twenty years ago, James C. Bulman made the striking claim that Virgil's Georgics provided one of the ‘deep sources’ for Shakespeare's understanding of historical life in his first and second tetralogies. Scholarship had long recognized a sporadic pattern of allusion to the Georgics throughout these plays, especially in Henry V. Indeed, in the latter work, Shakespeare returned to the original text of Virgil's poem rather than its first complete English translation made by Abraham Fleming in 1589 or the versions of its topoi found in vernacular writings such as Thomas Elyot's The boke named the governour (1531) and John Lyly's Euphues and his England (1580). However, Bulman's argument extended beyond conventional studies of sources and influences. His suggestion was that the political sensibility expressed in these plays was essentially Virgilian, more specifically georgic in character. This can be detected in both their imagery, where conflict is portrayed recurrently in terms of its drastic effect on husbandry, and in their ambivalent mode of political reflection. In both Virgil and Shakespeare, the laborious struggle to restore prosperity to the blighted land is presented as heroic, yet this endeavour is shadowed throughout by an awareness that political stability is desperately hard to maintain.
This article makes a new claim about the significance of the Georgics that helps both to reappraise the neglected relationship between Virgil and Shakespeare and to shed new light on the political significance of one of these history plays, Henry V. My argument is that a more detailed examination of georgic idioms in the play reveals how it contributes to the urgent contemporary debate on political sovereignty. This aspect of Henry V is also shaped, in turn, by two contrasting viewpoints that affect profoundly its reception of Virgil’s poem: the divergent accounts of sovereignty offered, firstly, by the period’s foremost theorist of the subject, Jean Bodin, and, second, by its foremost sceptic, Michel de Montaigne. Understanding the significance of these conflicting views reveals both what is at stake in Shakespeare’s political curiosity about the Georgics and how this informs the dramatic process of the play.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationShakespeare's English Histories and their Afterlives
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9780511780004
ISBN (Print)9780521769150
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2010


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