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Speaking History: Linguistic Memory and the Usable Past in the Early Modern History Play

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)519-540
Number of pages22
Issue number4

King's Authors


In this essay, Lucy Munro focuses on a very specific example of the way in which the present made the past a reality: the imitation of archaic words and styles in the history plays of Shakespeare, Thomas Middleton, Anthony Munday, and others. All speakers of English—no matter their social status—came into contact with old words, and dramatists capitalized on the capacity that these fragments of earlier practices had to conjure the past in the present. Unlike the modern historical novel, however, early modern history plays do not aim to represent the past in a verisimilar manner. Instead, works such as Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV and Henry V mingle archaism with neologism so as to critique particular perspectives and modes of behavior in both the historical past and the present day. Manipulating linguistic memory, they suggest that the past was open to appropriation and revision, not only by elite writers but also by the popular stage and its spectators.

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