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Invisible giants: Making Make-Believe Real by Garry Wills

Making Make-Believe Real by Garry Wills cover
Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time
by Garry Wills
Yale University Press
414pp
$39.95 AU
Published June, 2014
ISBN 9780300197532

Garry Wills is a great American political essayist and historian whose imagination has always been set on fire by the power of the word in the time of Elizabeth I. In his new book, he writes about it at length. And it is an extraordinary thing to try to imagine the Elizabethan moment and do justice to the majesty of its artistic achievements: to do justice not only to Shakespeare and the remarkable group of writers who have a striking family resemblance to him (despite their originality and their lesser achievements), but to the assemblage of resplendent and sinister figures, from the Queen down, who gave such a sense of glamour and eloquence to a period when the scaffold loomed and the axe fell. This was a period characterised by extreme dynastic insecurity and all-but-internecine religious tension, overseen by a childless female monarch, who would eventually have to leave her crown to the son of Mary Queen of Scots, whom she had executed, and whose reign was characterised by the success of its religious settlement: the establishment of that via media between Protestantism and Catholicism that became Anglicanism.

It was a nightmare period at the same time that it was a period of the high dream, and indeed of Britannia’s greatest feats of dreaming. Think of the way the greatest composer of the age, William Byrd, Elizabeth’s court composer, set to music a variant on Edmund Campion’s scaffold statement, taken from Paul – ‘We are put on display before God, angels and men’ – into his Latin motet Deus Venerunt Gentes. As Garry Wills observes:

Even more striking is the fact that Byrd, the court musician, retired to a country home near a Catholic estate where he could attend Mass regularly. He was risking not only his livelihood but his life, and his music deepened with new emphasis on the words of Scripture and the liturgy culminating in … his magnum opus, the Gradualia (settings of the changing Catholic Mass texts called ‘stages’ –‘graduals’).

Is there a more profound artistic tribute to chivalrous heroism in Elizabeth’s time?

Campion, the Jesuit martyr, is one of the heroes of Making Make-Believe Real, and Wills indicates the strange attraction between this very lyrical and eloquent apologist for the Old Church and the supreme Protestant knight Sir Phillip Sidney, the Rupert Brooke and (as Wills says) the James Dean of his day. Sidney died of his festering wounds, sustained fighting in the Netherlands against the Spanish forces of Counter-Reformation. Campion was hung, drawn and quartered. Wills proposes that if Sidney was the perfect Protestant knight,

then Campion was the perfect Catholic knight. They were both born performers but performers of sincerest intent each rushed recklessly to his death.

Campion, who is the subject of a biography by Evelyn Waugh, never preached treason against the Queen, and he speaks from the drear and terrible pages of Reformation history with great beauty and gravity and grace:

If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I, having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigor, I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us His grace and set us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at least be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.

Wills adds:

When Campion mounted the scaffold, about to die, he was asked whom he was praying for. He answered: ‘For Elizabeth, your Queen and my Queen, unto whom I wish a long, quiet reign with all prosperity.’

A long, quiet reign with all prosperity? Well, Elizabeth ruled England for 40 years and she faced down the Spanish Armada in a way that was bound to create its own mythology. And there is no point in trying to dispute the ineradicable grandeur of the woman who could say:

Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too. And think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field …

That’s 1588, the year Elizabeth withstood the majesty of Catholic Spain and the prime date in any mythography of the period. Shakespeare was 24 and not far from packing his swag for the theatres of London, which he would dominate like a comet – well, at any rate, like a bright particular star. How Ben Jonson must have thought of him, as Bing Crosby was to say of Sinatra: ‘a singer you only get once in a lifetime – but why did it have to be my lifetime?’

Yet listen to Jonson’s voice and you can see how he could propagate a tribe. Here he is muttering with casual dismissive relish of wasted time:

What a deal of cold business doth a man misspend the better part of life in! In scattering compliments, tendering visits, gathering and venting news, following feasts and plays, making a little winter- love in a dark corner.

It’s different from the brazen mastery of the Queen’s clarion call, and even the self-consciousness of Shakespeare on the chronicle of wasted time. But then language is a screen through which we see bright and terrible things in this Elizabethan moment.

Patrick Cruttwell was right many years ago to say that the Elizabethan moment was an appropriate term for the period that stretches from the accession of Elizabeth I to the English Civil War in the 1640s and the closing of the theatres. And it is often remarked that the period we especially treasure is as much Jacobean as it is Elizabethan. King Lear and The Winter’s Tale come after the old Queen’s death; so does the great revision of the Bible, the Authorised Version we know as the King James, the greatest of the non-Shakespearean plays (apart from Marlowe’s), the sermons of Donne and those concentrated masterpieces that we know as the Holy Sonnets: ‘Death be not proud’, ‘Batter my heart three-person’d God’, and the rest of them.

This may seem to take us a long way from Elizabeth and Gary Wills’s preoccupations. But the great Tilbury Speech of self-characterisation is one indication of why the Queen’s personality has an ungainsayable vividness, and why the ongoing cult of her, which has its expression in her impersonators, from Bette Davis and Flora Robson to Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett, is not simply a consequence of displaced Victorian bardolatry, Francis Drake-ism, and a quaint archaic belief that queens create great ages.

The jury of history is out about Elizabeth’s settlement and the Anglican via media. Harry Levin, the Harvard professor of comparative literature, who wrote a significant book about Hamlet and a study of Christopher Marlowe, said once that Shakespeare’s England was Anglican on the surface, but Catholic in its deeper modes of feelings. This contrasts with the judgement of the former Jesuit poet and critic Peter Levi, a man who had a deep feeling for historical resonance, who said in his book about Shakespeare that Elizabethan England had very successfully eliminated its Catholic traces.

It is as a Catholic that Gary Wills attempts to come to grips with Elizabethan England. He attempts to elucidate what he takes to be the theatre of its politics.  It is in some ways an odd endeavour for the famous liberal political commentator of the New York Review of Books, who also won the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992). Wills has been an enthusiast for the Elizabethans, introducing editions of Chapman’s Iliad and Odyssey, and writing with fervour about the Ciceronian rhetoric in Julius Caesar, one of the most dazzling bits of clairvoyant homage in the whole of literature; but his greatest feat as a writer for a general audience is his political journalism, which has a wisdom and an eloquence, a dispassion and intensity, that is unrivalled.

What is a bit odd about Making Make-Believe Real – this learned attempt to, among other things, bring together Wills’ apprehension of politics with his favourite literary period – is that it is so sketchy. His subject is one that has been very much in the air in the last twenty-odd years: the devolution from Catholicism to Anglicanism, with a heightened awareness, since Eamon Duffy’s Stripping the Altars (1992), that the sixteenth-century Catholic Church in England was in fact self-reforming, Erasmian, and deeply in tune with the society it served.  Henry VIII conceived of  his Church of England as essentially Gallican – that is, as a church after the French model, where the power of ecclesiastical appointment to the episcopate lay with the Crown, but where the liturgy and theology were essentially traditional and Catholic, despite the break with papal authority.

No one can deny the tumult and the tension Elizabeth inherited in matters of religion. During the reign of her brother Edward VI (1547-1553), the child-king who took the throne at the age of ten and died when he was sixteen, Protestantism in general, and Calvinism in particular, had been massively accentuated in the Church of England. Under Mary – ‘Bloody Mary’ as historical memory, Protestant in inflection, would call her – there were the burnings. (Mary’s husband, Phillip II of Spain, a man who knew an inquisition when he saw one, thought they were a bit excessive.) And there is no denying that when Elizabeth came to power, Catholics, and particularly Jesuits who came back from Douai and Rheims preaching disloyalty to the Protestant queen, were persecuted, with many dying hideously.

As Wills indicates, the Queen’s attitude was complex. There is a bit of doggerel, traditionally attributed to the young Elizabeth, which sounds very like an affirmation of faith in transubstantiation, the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, so that they become substantially the body and blood of God, while retaining the ‘accidents’ of their appearance:

’Twas Christ the word that spake it.
The same took bread and brake it,
And as the Word did make it,
So I believe and take it.

This sounds very traditional and very Roman to Catholic ears. Though Wills glosses it via Hooker’s argument for the primacy of a (pre-corrupt) Church, and regardless of whether she wrote it or not, it shows how deep orthodoxy ran in this land where both papists and puritans were at once tolerated and persecuted.

One difficulty with Making Make-Believe Real is that this book about the imaginative use of propaganda is not itself very imaginative. The term ‘make-believe’ dates from the early-nineteenth century and originally had the sense of pretence. Its most famous twentieth century use (as a verb) was Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric to the Jerome Kearne song from Showboat ‘Only Make-Believe’ (‘Only make-believe I love you’). Wills says:

I try in this book to look at the various kinds of imaginative construction that went into her reign, at its make-believe love, make-believe monarchy, make-believe religion, make-believe locales and make-believe war. If there had not had been belief in these aspects of her reign, there would have been no reign.

So this is the sort of book, Old Historicist in its empirics, but making gestures towards a New Historicist terminology, that wants to talk about how a Virgin Queen – a perilously unmarried female monarch – could project herself as an infinitely desirable Queen of Love and the object of an elaborate courtly cult of flirtation, while also presenting herself on other occasions as a sort of substitute for the Virgin Mary, in as much as she was the head of a recently formed breakaway church, which had deep memories of a Christianity strongly associated in terms of public piety with the Mother of God.

Wills is good at articulating subtle distinctions in the way Elizabeth negotiated the detail of the religious question. She wanted to make it clear to aristocratic Catholic families – and to Catholics in general – that as long as their religion was conformable to their acting like loyal subjects, they were not at risk. On the other hand, she was capable of flying into a rage when she found a statue of the Virgin Mary on someone’s grounds. She ordered that it be burnt and that the owner be prosecuted. Wills indicates such things without much of a consistent attempt either to dramatise them or to indicate the coherence of this whole exercise in symbolic politics. His method is schematic and point-making, a rehearsal of sub-divided problems, so that the theoretical method seems crypto-literary even when the primary interest involves matters of historical fact viewed in the light of a kind of meta-history.

Nor does it help that Wills is attracted to literary epigram as a historical illumination, without being an especially dab hand at it himself. When he quotes Chesterton –  ‘The Tudors had begun to persecute the old religion before they had ceased to belong to it’, or ‘The mass of common people loved the Church of England without having decided what it was’ – the quotations burn a hole in the page. The triumphalist essentialism of the great essayist and paradox-maker not only mocks the rather pedestrian historiography, but also seems implicitly to contradict the method.

Wills’s tendency to be outshone by other people’s epigrammatic concision is notable even when he is in the vicinity of a straight historian of yesterday such as J. E. Neale: ‘A Virgin Queen – a woman without the aid and comfort of a husband – was a phenomenon as yet beyond the imagination of sixteenth century mankind.’ These fragments seem more illuminating than great tracts of Wills, which is very odd given how supple he is when he writes about America, and particularly contemporary American politics. In practice, for all his talk about liminality and Clifford Geertz, this is an attempt to write an angled history by a man who is deeply erudite about the detail of the period he is elucidating, but who doesn’t have the literary critical equipment that should go hand in hand with his method.

Wills provides a long, more or less unhelpful discussion about Elizabeth and Richard II. Everyone knows the story of how during Essex’s rebellion his people arranged for Shakespeare’s play to be performed and the Queen thundered to her council: ‘Know ye not that I am Richard?’ Wills is more interested in telling us that ‘chrism’ was anathema to a Protestant monarch because it betokened the authority of the Pope. We then get a quite laborious account of how the performance of the play could not possibly have been an incitement to rebellion. Here is a characteristic bit of Wills:

What did go on then? The play’s performance was not part of a plan, since there was no plan, at least no planned plan. The would-be planners came back from the play late on Saturday and shortly found that the game was out of their hands. Essex was abruptly summoned to appear before the Privy Council. This cannot have been because some court’s agents were at the theatre and reported to higher authorities who instantly deciphered its meaning. Essex, previously detained, had been under surveillance for a long time and the traffic of allies at his house had led to mounting concerns. He was summoned to explain that, not to comment on a play he did not even attend.

Surely ‘at least no planned plan’ gives the game away. That Essex’s uprising was a mess scarcely invalidates the idea behind the topical performance of a play in which an inept and shrill monarch, however histrionically glittering and sympathetic, is replaced by a man for whom ruling a nation is second nature.

Things get worse when Wills wants to tell us about Shakespeare and claim that Falstaff is just an old blackguard and Henry V is the model of all Christian kings. The stretch of plays from Richard II to Henry V is the greatest representation of something like history in our literature. It is astonishing (well, it’s sad) that someone so in thrall to the Elizabethan achievement could be so tin-eared when it comes to drama. Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest comic character and it is no coincidence that he stands apart from the main action of Henry IV, even though he is constantly implicated in it. When he gives his great speech on honour and concludes ‘What is this honour? A word’ – and goes on to ask the question, ‘Who has it?’ – he answers: ‘He who died o’ Wednesday.’

And we hear with a peculiar ironic plangency, even as the presiding comic perspective is of a world of earth and bread and cheese, the fact that great blindingly brave boys of men like Hotspur, who would pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon are, at one level, simple causalities of their ideal – someone who died on Wednesday. The grotesque but also risky and unsteady humour of Falstaff giving Hotspur a wound in the thigh and then hoisting Hotspur’s carcass onto his fat back is all part of the richness and complexity of this portrait of an amoral figure, who is necessarily caught in the web of morality, simply because it is the web of mortality.

‘Peace, Doll, be not a deathshead to me, bid me not remember mine own end,’ Falstaff says to Doll Tearsheet when she says he should stop fighting o’ days and foining o’ nights and patch up his old body for heaven. Why on earth does Wills think that Orson Welles got the great Jeanne Moreau to play Doll? And why did Welles imbue his own Falstaff with a deep understated strain of melancholy and call his film of Henry IV – in honour of the great dialogues with Shallow – Chimes at Midnight? ‘We have heard the chimes of midnight, Justice Shallow.’

When Kenneth Tynan said as a young man, and reasserted as a middle-aged one, that if he had a few hours to live he would choose to spend them watching Ralph Richardson as Falstaff and Laurence Olivier as Shallow doing those scenes of common garden old folks’ talk about the tricky sunlit past and the shadowed future, it was no coincidence that he chose to frame them in the context of death. It was said of Richardson’s Falstaff that he always heard the drums of death between the comedy. When Hal, now the newly crowned Henry V, rejects Falstaff, he says: ‘Remember that the grave gapes thrice wider for thee than for other men.’ Shallow says to Falstaff when he attempts to laugh off Hal’s kingly brutality by dismissing it as a ‘colour’, a put-on thing: ‘A colour I fear you will die in, Sir John.’ And he does. Nym, one of the barflies who, unlike Falstaff, survives into Henry V, declares: ‘The King has killed his heart.’

As indeed he has. Yes, you can say that Falstaff, with all the negativity of his comic imperviousness, is incompatible with the urgent glamour and headlong heroism of Henry V. That is true. But think of the way Shakespeare reserves one of his most stupendous theatrical effects for the humdrum prose transfigured to staggering heights in Mistress Quickly’s great elegy, her narration of Falstaff’s death. It is, in its way, the most Greek thing in the whole Shakespearean corpus; it is his equivalent to a messenger’s speech in Sophocles. And how typical that the overt medium should be that of comedy.

I have always been grateful to the teacher who told me that Lewis Theobald’s emendation must be right because ‘a babbled of green fields’ is clearly Falstaff reciting the twenty-third psalm: ‘He leadeth me over green pastures’. The line is Mistress Quickly’s uncomprehending relation of how Falstaff prayed. There is the same fathomless ambiguity and depth of comedy in Falstaff’s cry of ‘God! God!’ and Mistress Quickly’s saying that she ‘bid him not think of such things’. Falstaff – as the great character he is – is all about not thinking about such things, choosing not to remember. As he says to the Chief Justice, the disease of ‘not marking’, of not paying attention, is his defining condition.

What a thing of wonder it is that Shakespeare should give this moment of anti-rhetoric to Mistress Quickly, to one of the simpletons, like Bottom, who because of the very impoverishment of their intelligences inherit the earth. This greatest of all speeches in Henry V also echoes the description in Plato of the death of Socrates: ‘And all was as cold as any stone.’ At the end of the first part of  Henry IV, when he thinks Falstaff is dead, Hal says that his loss would be great if he ‘were much in love with vanity’. Well, isn’t it strange that it is this vain jester who gets his requiem and his requiescat in the midst of all the brutal beauty of Henry V?

In his great inspirational Crispin’s speech before Agincourt, Hal says: ‘It yearns me not if men my garments wear but if it is a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.’ What is honour? A word. Who has it? He who died in a tavern among poor, dumb, criminal people. And Lazarus, once a beggar, will lead him into Paradise. Hal breaks Falstaff’s heart by not allowing for a moment that Falstaff might have a heart to break. He has Bardolph hanged for stealing a pyx from a church. That’s war, you say. He has his prisoners killed because that is a strategy of war. He calls down on the citizens of Harfleur the prospect of their daughters raped, their babies spitted on spikes. He does not perpetrate these things or rejoice in them. He threatens with them in the process of thundering the high and mighty rhetoric of war, which is his vibrant song. Hal knows, like General Sherman, that the glory of war is all moonshine. War is hell. But he likes that moonshine; he is willing to exalt in that hell.  It was Robert E. Lee, in a quotation cherished by Colin Powell, who said: ‘It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.’

How typical of Shakespeare’s sidelong unemphatic genius that the naive Welshman Fluellen, so enamoured of the disciplines of war, should realise the parallels between Henry V and Alexander the Great, who both killed their best friends. It doesn’t qualify their stardom, the sheer magnetism that is part of their glory. And it is certainly true that Shakespeare places us at a minimal distance from the lustre of Henry V’s presence. Henry is (as Garry Wills testifies) mesmerizingly brilliant and heroical and grand – ‘This star of England,’ as the Chorus says.

But Henry V is a play in which Shakespeare does not just have Choruses mouthing easy and obvious truths; he has messengers from the taverns of London. And they don’t tell of the glories of Saint Crispin’s Day, and how he who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. They speak, stumblingly and stupidly – there is no other way to speak if you say what you feel and not what you ought to say – of the chimes of midnight. They speak of how the only thing worth honouring is the fat old rogue who died the other night, who had lived like a wastrel, which is to say like a bird of the bloody air, or like a lily (God help us) of the field, because he thought a boy who loved him (if that’s what you want to call it) would do great things for him when he came into his kingdom:

Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

None of which is to deny that Hal, as Henry V, becomes a dream of a king. He is a supreme matinee idol, a war hero without peer, the greatest of all masters of the battle cry. Garry Wills is in no way wrong that Henry V is a star. But it is interesting that some of the starriest actors who have played him have had peculiar instincts about what made him tick. Lawrence Olivier said he thought Henry V was a bad man for leading his country into a needless war; Richard Burton said he played him as a religious maniac. The fact that their performances do not appear like that should not mislead us into false simplicities.

It is a worry that Wills, who has written so wisely and brilliantly about the politics of America over the decades, is so flatfooted when it comes to this kind of thing, so that when he tilts at William Hazlitt and Harold Bloom (whose personal best is his account of Falstaff), he seems not like Quixote imagining giants, but like a Sancho Panza who has somehow stumbled into terrain where there are Giants indeed, though not visible to him.

Wills seems oddly ill-equipped for the task he has set himself. Clearly, it can be like holding a mirror up to a mirror, the idea of anatomising the dramatic rhetoric with which the Elizabethans and Jacobeans attempted to spin their webs of language in order to enact a politics of destiny. But what riches and what difficulty in trying to catch this wind. This is the touchstone period for modern anglophone civilisation. This is the age when people from the Queen down talked like characters from Shakespeare because they were.

Wills is understandably irritated by the polemics and opportunism and merely academic engagement of some of the New Historicist scholars. But he also, as an Old Historicist, tries to outdo them at their own game and ends up, as often as not, sounding at once mundane and obvious. He points out the ways in which Renaissance England was sustained by a set of dramatic illusions. At some level of empirical magnitude, this could take the form of Drake and Hawkins needing to be privateers most of the time because there was no royal navy, no national sea force to draw on – the great English sailors were, in military terms, opportunistic amateurs. But while this is interesting, it is rather factitiously related to his central theoretical point. The myth was bound to circumscribe the reality, even as it sustained it. Nor is it easy to break through the magic of that – for want of a better term – Shakespearean Circle.

It’s no wonder that Gary Wills sees politics as theatre in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. It is the supreme costume drama of our collective imagining and the greatest documentary poetic drama of popular history. This is testified to by everything from Schiller’s homage to Shakespeare – not only in adapting Macbeth and giving dramatic form to what would have been unspeakably recent history in Mary Stuart but in the elaborate indebtedness of his whole dramaturgy – to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, to Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R (with its Adrian Mitchell scripts), to Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth, to Shakespeare in Love and the perceived power and glory of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall sequence, which is, among a thousand other things, a lapsed Catholic’s revenge on the saintly Thomas More of Bolt’s play and an anti-clerical, down-with-the-Charterhouse-monks take on the Reformation.

If we are literary types, we come at this period of English history, which reaches its bloody and tumultuous and dramatic culmination in the English Civil War, through the lens of T. S. Eliot’s brilliant modernist apologetics, which were partly an apologia for his vision of the world. It was Eliot who perpetuated the myth of this bloody and dramatic period, this supremely interesting time, as a period of undissociated sensibility, when the mind that had suffered no fissuring through a God-annihilating rationalism or a mind-abandoning romanticism, could see all things as one. You could smell a rose or ponder philosophy from the vista of a unitary consciousness, as seems to happen in the poetry of Donne and Jonson.

But it is an unhappy thing to generalise from art back onto life. In our own time, or rather that of our grandparents, Russia had in Stalin, a ruler as absolute as Elizabeth, and greater poets in Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam and Pasternak than the West could dream of. The connection between the atrocious suffering and the greatness of the art does not seem entirely farfetched. There is a gap which is not historically or politically determined, but is inevitably historically coloured, between the poetry of Celan, in which the black milk of daybreak rises from the camp oven, and Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’ with its intimations of how your mum and dad fuck you up.

Does art always come out of the society that sustains it, and if it does are there always shadowlines of implicit commentary? No doubt only riddlingly. If it does at all, then The Godfather sequence of Francis Ford Coppola came out of the world of Nixon’s America, and the two great Jacobean plays of John Webster – The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil – which are immeasurably more Machiavellian and brutal in their depiction of courts and power plays than anything in Shakespeare, testify to the realities of Garry Wills’s make-believe world.

One of the incidental irritations of Wills’s book is that he is forever making analogies that point to his home turf: the American politics he has written about so brilliantly. At one point, he says that the kind of thing he is talking about with Elizabeth is a bit like the Camelot myth that was perpetrated by Arthur Schlesinger and others about the Kennedy Administration. In fact, what he has to say is reductive. He ignores, for instance, the intensity of John F. Kennedy’s devotion to that part of the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot (it is not, as Wills says, ‘a play’) first seen on Broadway in 1960, with Richard Burton as King Arthur and Julie Andrews as Guinevere. Wills suggests the Camelot cult did not have much reference to T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), on which Lerner based his book of the show. He seems to have forgotten that in Kennedy’s Cuban Missile speech he uses the very phrase about ‘Might is not Right’ that Richard Burton used on the New York stage – and which Richard Harris would use in the film – and which does indeed derive from The Once and Future King. And the dead king motif, magnified to the point of myth by the assassination, inevitably wove its Le Morte D’Arthur mist round Jack Kennedy. It is there in the funeral with Jackie veiled and the riderless horse; it is there in the great – isn’t it the greatest? – of the Warhols, celebrated by Peter Schjeldahl; it is there in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). And perhaps the idea of Excalibur, and the hand that comes up so mysteriously when Bedivere casts the sword into the lake, is the symbol of the rex quondam rexque forturus motif in democratic American politics, touching both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Camelot contenders both.

It is weird that as great a political intelligence and as wise a head as Garry Wills should not have made more of the Elizabethan-Jacobean horror show and the way it has come back to us as a form of myth, Shakespearean in its colour and scope, its pity and terror. Perhaps the fatal error was to think of the great dramatic Queen – such a flaming provocation to every kind of representation of good and evil, of everything glamourous and sinister – and all her silky black-cloaked courtiers with their gnomes and daggers, as in some self-conscious sense drama queens. They would have accepted the idea of themselves as poor players. They would have accepted the idea of themselves as gods. They knew every art of deception and every magic of rhetoric, but in the end ‘spin’ is too thin a notion for their colossal acts of self-definition. The idea of individuality, that extraordinary Renaissance humanist passion to represent the very image and lineament of the individual, gives us the Tudor Holbeins at the court of Henry and the Van Dycks at the court of Charles I; and it is the impulse towards headlong drama and self-expression, which has such a pulse of life and death, that ensures Garry Wills’s schemas are left far behind any full-blooded popular piece of history writing, any well-shaped chunk of Antonia Fraserism, that simply tells the story.

Of course, it is a legitimate technique to come at a momentous stretch of history through what is essentially a set of essays, which is what Wills does to somewhat pallid effect. It was the technique Edmund Wilson used when he wrote Patriotic Gore (1962) and made what were in origin and style a set of New Yorker articles – about Mary Chesnut, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Jeb Stewart, and the rest of them – into a set of extraordinary bloodstained windows on the American Civil War – a mighty subject he could never have encompassed directly. The book is a masterpiece made up of vignettes comparable in the steadiness of its perspective and the brilliance of its compression, though not its subject matter, to Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. How strange that Garry Wills, who can write so grandly and so compassionately about the America that it is before his eyes, should lose that vision and poise when his gaze turns to the mighty, awful time of Elizabeth and Shakespeare.