“Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”
In his 1589 treatise The Arte of English Poesie, George Puttenham diagnosed the limited ability of humans to perceive history. The past, according to Puttenham, is that which “we are not able […] to attaine to the knowledge of, by any of our sences.” History is defined by its inalienable absence. It exists only in forms of textual or pictorial representation, such as prose works, poetry, and illustrations, or in embodied acts such as storytelling and theatrical playing. In sixteenth-century England, these forms flourished as varying responses to a heightened awareness of the absence of history, an awareness that the intellectual ambitions of the Renaissance precipitated. Of all the forms of history, performance alone supplies a pretense of sensual contact with the vanished past through the bodies that move and speak on stage. The history plays that I consider in this book, from the repertory of the Queen's Men and by Shakespeare, grew out of a vibrant Elizabethan historical culture, and they in turn helped to shape a new historical outlook. These works suggest a distinctive consciousness of history, one that understands the generation and production of historical narratives as driven by a sense of longing for contact with the past, a desire that is doomed from the start to remain unfulfilled. The historical consciousness I see at work on the late-sixteenth-century stage thus comprehends the pleasures of history as rooted in a dialectic of presence and absence, for the performance of history provides an experience of “pastness” that is necessarily ephemeral.