Theatre may have started as an organizing force, an excuse for fellowship and ritual in the ancient world, such as what we know of its development in Ancient Greece. It was a way for a community of shared interests, leading to more than a collection of individuals – culture, with shared interests and a past in common, allowing for them to more easily relate to each other. This is the first step toward a literate community with a shared heritage and cultural landscape, a few steps shy of the organizing factor behind the formation and preservation of culture through shared past and a shared present. This is how modern societies relate themselves to their society, as groups form around shared passions and interests.
The final and most important step of the organizational effect that is so potent in good historical fiction is its reach. Academic histories, such as it is, has often relegated to academics and students while historical fiction appeals to lay audiences and anyone who just so happens to enjoy a good book set during Tudor England, or a Netflix series on Marco Polo. It makes the world of academia seem less foreboding, and is welcoming the viewer into the past; it is a disguised academia, in that it is entertaining in ways that simply academic histories often are not. It gives everyone an access to history in a way that allows for empathy, for the poor among us to empathize with the rich, and the rich the struggles of the poor; what emerges is a sum total of a people and its character; their hopes, values, fears and regrets. It does more than tie a people together. It forms the basis of a collected consciousness; it gives us heroes to admire and attempt to follow, and villains to despise and, shamefully, get a measure and bit of understanding about the darker side of human nature and ourselves.
The collected mythology of a culture is a projection of their unconscious, and through that we get a glimpse into who they were. You can get a better sense of who the English were at the turn of the 16th century through the works of Shakespeare than you can from historians, since historians recount the deeds of the extraordinary, and writers recount the deeds of the ordinary as well and, ironically, it is more extraordinary to read. Shakespeare was able to use the past as a lens to focus on the very real religious schism of his age, something Kip Marlowe would do also do in his Satanic drama in Dr Faustus.
In plundering the more traditional histories recounted in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare was able to create an anatomy of the era, examining the lowborn and the high and mighty, giving the newly excommunicated England a sense of who they were and what their stories would be. ‘An island unto itself’ is vaguely reminiscent of Richard III’s line in Act V, Scene VI of Henry VI: ‘I am myself alone.’ Shakespeare did this in a way that Holinshed never could, by making history into something poetic and resonant, and–most importantly–entertaining. This is not to discredit Holinshed; I just couldn’t imagine a crowd of theatre patrons thrilling at the recitation of the following as a dramatic soliloquy:
“The situation of our region, lieng ne’ere unto the north, dooth cause the heate of our stomaches to be of somewhat greater force: therefore our bodies doo crave a little more ample nourishment, than the inhabitants of the hotter regions are accustomed withall, whose digestive force is not altogether so vehement.”
The same is true of Homer and Virgil, whose characters and struggles are as revealing as Livy’s formal histories, all of which serve to give us an idea about the character of the age — the people living then and there, as a lot is to be gleaned from the comparisons of Livy’s accounts of the Second Punic War with Polybius’. (Citation: Hannibal’s War by J. F. Lazenby). Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid have long stood in for lack of historical sources, giving us, if not the true account of history as it happened, but, as Graves explains through Livy in I, Claudius: ‘It is important to capture the true spirit, of history, to give life to the characters and people, more than it is to be slavishly devoted to the tedium of dry fact.” Which his companion, Pollio, immediately rebuffs.
Future historians will learn more about the character of Americans in the early 21st century from the books of Jacopo della Quercia than traditional historians, as he has been a part of a resurgent academia that lends itself to humor and is therefore more accessible to lay audiences (including myself). His articles and works, such as The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy and License to Quill, afford us a perspective not possible through traditional histories, and succeed as history and entertainment, offering a unique, rare insight into the character of the modern world–by using the past to look into the character of the age and toward the future, in a manner very analogous to Shakespeare; and in doing so manages to reveal the intrigue and obsessions of the modern world–in an age where we look for the truth in fiction and for the fiction in popular accounts of truth, which is often the case in a culture of conspiracy, which I have linked above for review.
Dry histories, such as those of Holinshead, Polybius, Livy, Cassius Dio, and Seutonius will never succeed in the way that Shakespeare’s plays have, or in the same way that Robert Graves’ Claudius books will, which drew from Seutonius’ The Twelve Caesars (itself the subject of much debate about the authenticity of its accounts) and the works of Polybius, Livy, and Cassius Dio, as Robert Graves writes in the foreword to Claudius the God. There is a unique way by which we find truth in fiction, and through finding this truth, either about society or about human nature, it expands our ideas about the past and our place in the present.
These pieces of literature may exist outside our sphere of influence, and are ultimately beyond our control, but when we put those pieces together, from history and entertainment and culture, the end result is a reflection of who we are; it is the building of the mirror, and it is in this reflection, these glimpses into our motivations and desires, our fears and neuroses, the impulses behind our thoughts and beliefs–this is what literally defines us. It is the microcosm, the smaller creature in contrast to the macrocosm, the larger organism that is the culture, of which we individuals are merely individual cells.