Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
Most of this article teases out Shakespeare’s ideas about pasts, and sets those ideas in verbal and intellectual context. The latter part is therefore directly concerned with the implications of periodization, and the long history of recruiting period appellations to suit the present. I am particularly concerned with the consequential estrangement of a ‘Middle Ages’, because I believe we are moving to an intellectual position where ignorance encourages sweeping generalization. Our over-arching tri-partite model (Antique, Medieval, Modern) threatens to turn convenient strategies into unexamined certainties and anachronisms. To begin with a polemical contradiction: there were no Middle Ages but we cannot do without them. In the sense we think we know, ‘Middle Ages’ is, like Shakespeare’s birthday, a modern invention; the ‘middles’ of our inherited period label were shifting signifiers whose denotations and connotations changed with passing time. Shakespeare wrote about what we call a middle ages, but which he did not, because he could not. When we discuss history, or Shakespeare’s history, or ‘history plays’, we are constantly caught in the problem of using the word-to-be-defined as part of the definition, and Shakespeare is part of what created that definition. Thus, if we go looking for ‘a middle ages’, in the OED, for example, we will certainly find one, but we may then fail to see what we think we recognize. Shakespeare may have written about events which we think happened in the middle ages, but he cannot so have conceptualized them. Our middle ages were still in the future. Shakespeare refers to a ground bass of pastness which is not our sense of historical periodization – but it is not a continental European sense either.