Posted on 2017/11/30 by

The Healthy Evolution of Order to Mess in Research

This short paper examines whether the advice we receive on writing research questions is too hygienic and definite, and evaluates the contention of John Law in his article ‘Making a Mess with Method’ that success in research may require a new philosophy that accepts ambiguity and even failure. Law exhorts us to take a wider view of the challenges in research and uses Hamlet’s criticism of Horatio’s thought process in support of his argument (Law 14).

Law’s observations resonate strongly with me when I compare the research on particular Shakespeare history plays for my MA thesis with the one I am starting to write for my PhD (Appendixes 1&2). For the MA paper I took no obvious advice, except for my own perception of its becoming misdirected, and re-writing half of it prior to the first draft I submitted to my supervisor, and taking her advice on the need to revise some arguments and content. The subject was The 1390’s Henriad as a lens for 1590’s contemporary events. I may have unwittingly followed the precepts of the York University advice, and I did look at the alternative arguments, but I never let them disturb my planned hypothesis. My determination was to show that Shakespeare was more interested in these history plays entertaining the theatre audiences with what Michael Bristol describes as ‘show business’ than making too obvious allusions to contemporary politics that put many of his contemporaries in jail or to the torture (Bristol xi). My process of writing very much followed Patrick Biddix’s suggestions in his ‘Writing Research Questions,’ but ignored some of his ‘variables.’  I did not include the audience, or its demographics, locate most of the action on the south bank of the Thames with the consequences of that, consider the effect on the different strata of society within those audiences, or examine their political affiliation and how this might affect the ‘lens.’ Even without the benefit of Law’s advocacy of lawlessness in research, I was aware of the inadequacy of the quality of my research. If we add Law into the equation, then I was guilty of repressing mess, looking for guarantees, convincing myself I had clean data, inserting my own preconceived bias, producing a hygienic essay, and buying into what Law calls common-sense realism (2,11). Worse, after checking with a professor in the history department, I realised I had not referenced an essential work on interpreting Holinshed (a major source for these history plays of Shakespeare[i]), and had cited what she called a ‘television historian’ to support the evidence that Henry IV starved Richard II to death in Pontefract Castle[ii].

The best tip that I received on researching is not in either of the York or Biddix articles, but fits in very well with John Law’s precepts. Former professor of English at McGill, Michael Bristol, said that he counselled all his students to start writing; that would direct the research. This is helpful, because it enables the research and writing to proceed in an organic fashion, unconstrained by preconceived ideas or direction. It enables me to see a mistake in my PhD proposal. The inclusion of ‘Shakespeare’s plays did elucidate political problems in Elizabeth I’s time, but my position is that their theatricality was more crucial than their politics,’ presumes that I have already taken a position, and that is not now the case. My process, on the contrary, is to begin writing and researching on what the audiences were like for Shakespeare’s history plays in the late 1590’s, and how they differed from or were similar to the audiences of the new Globe theatre of today. There is very little empirical evidence, but the research is already rewarding, investigating how spectators behaved, what their social composition was, how they reacted to boy actors in the acting parts of young women, how the spoken text differed from our own times, and how much prior knowledge the audience had of the histories, and where the information came from. The information is very messy, and the natural instinct, that has to be suppressed, is to cudgel the ‘facts’ into order. There are few facts or truth. Even eye-witnesses from history, or chroniclers, have their own position or bias. The respected Geoffrey Bullough[iii] includes parts of Froissart’s 1523-5 chronicles as a possible source for Shakespeare’s Richard II, but as G.C.Macaulay notes, Froissart seems to know nothing of the expedition to Ireland or of the treachery of Northumberland, and apparently thinks that Flint Castle was in the hands of Richard (Macaulay note 462). According to Froissart, at the Welsh fortress, Richard permits Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, to enter with a retinue of twelve. ‘Nowe consider what daunger therle of Derby was in, for the kyng than might have slayne hym and suche as were with hym, as easely as a byrde in a cage,’ but Richard does not, he collapses, ‘all his spyrites were sore abashed,’ and agrees to go to London with Bolingbroke. (Bullough v3 428). Shakespeare is not deceived by this, and writes a dramatic end to the king’s life, while Froissart has to admit, ‘how he dies and by what means, I could not tell when I wrote this chronicle’ (Macaulay 472). In my MA essay I treated Froissart’s interpretation as ‘truth’; it was unchallenged. Now I see the value of Law’s advocacy of not needing to always resolve an argument. Ambiguity, indefiniteness, and fuzziness are acceptable (Law 5).

There is a work in the Richler collection that echoes Law’s resistance to proceeding by reality in research, and it is an anthology. By definition a collection or grouping, compiled at the whim of the author, it is a collection within the Collection, and it is by definition ‘messy’. There is no argument to resolve, cohesiveness is difficult to discern, the compiler’s voice is missing, except in the brief introduction, and it fits well into Law’s description of a slippery phenomenon (5). Both the personal selection of the anthologiser, and the personal nature of the items included, cause a pleasant fuzziness in the reader. Richler’s Writers on WWII is wide-ranging in its compass. As Richler comments in his introduction, it also had an organic, illogical growth. His original idea was to include only novelists and poets, but he soon decided to add diarists and journalists like himself.  He admits that his decisions about what to include were messy, and his only criteria were what was excellent, what was well written and what was witnessed. In Richler’s own description, his anthology is more like the mosaic defined in the OED as the process of producing pictures or patterns by cementing together small pieces of stone, glass ,etc., of different colours (Richler xxviii-xxix) . The fuzziness and various colours of his textual mosaic are reflected in the various covers of the different UK, USA hard and soft cover editions (Appendix 3). One cover emphasises the battle of Britain, the Blitz and the involvement of Russia, another the contrast of Enola Gay that dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima, another an aerial dogfight that results in a crash; the different editions do not have coherence. Richler covered a multitude of locations, times, and subjects, drawing on his own collection of books and memories of books and articles he had been assembling for three years and enough, he admits, for three volumes (Foran 557, Richler xxix). The author had his own ideas for the anthology, but as his biographer relates, his daughter Martha and Carmen Callil encouraged him to think more widely, or messily, about the war’s participants, and this led to the inclusion of items about women, Japanese writers, German witnesses and a Russian diarist (568). Richler relaxed his border controls, as Law suggests (Law 14). There is even an excerpt about honour, when in William Manchester’s GoodBye Darkness, the private comments on the self-inflicted death of an over-enthusiastic new lieutenant, rather as Sir John Falstaff describes the uselessness of honour at the battle of Shrewsbury: ‘Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead’ (Richler 371, 1HenryIV 5.1.134-6).

The meaning of ‘honour’ leads back to the way John Law suggests we should decode meaning in our research. There are no guarantees in genuine research, there is no clean data, it is impossible to eliminate bias, and lack of clarity may be a benefit (Law 2,3). Hygienic investigation can impede good detective work. What we need to accept is not truth, but degrees of truth, partial truth, along the lines of Dr. Lotfi Zadeh’s fuzzy logic. It is not important for example how Richard II died, whether by starvation, so as not to leave a mark on his body, or as Shakespeare decided, struck down by the fictitious Sir Piers Exton in his prison cell; it is the fact that Henry IV tainted his own reign by ordering the murder of an anointed king, and this news became widespread.

So, I await the verdict from my supervisor, whether my first two PhD thesis draft chapters are heading in the right direction. If the answer is positive, I will explore what I feel are the prequels to the Henriad, and what the audiences might have acquired in terms of prior knowledge. Should this come from the Henry VI series of three plays or the two plays on King John[iv]? And how relevant are they, in the light of some critics’ claims that in some respects the relevance is either too obvious or insignificant? It looks like an interesting but messy time ahead!

[1] Patterson, Annabel M. Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.

[1] Schama, Simon. A History of Britain. 3 Vol. New York: Hyperion, 2000; 2002. Print.

[1] Geoffrey Bullough, Professor of English Language and Literature, King’s College, London author of the four volume Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1962)

[1] Anon. The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England of 1591 and Shakespeare, William. The Life and Death of King John of 1596


Appendix 1

The 1390’s  Henriad as a lens for 1590’s contemporary events.


This essay examines Richard II, 1& 2Henry IV and Henry V from the point of view of Shakespeare’s allusions. Many critics support the view that the poet was continually commenting through his histories, on contemporary events and issues. This paper takes the position that while it was difficult for the author to avoid this kind of comment, and his audiences may have expected it, Shakespeare’s primary object was to entertain the public through drama.  For this reason, he revised his sources in his own way for dramatic effect. Another deterrent to overt political or religious allusions was the Elizabethan censor. The authorities jailed many of his fellow authors during Shakespeare’s lifetime for overstepping the bounds of what was not always obviously permissible. The Bard was particularly discrete on the topic of religion and careful about political issues.

The paper will concentrate more on the plays of Richard II and Henry V than the two parts of Henry IV because in the first two plays, the monarchs’ characters are more clearly drawn, and the fictitious Falstaff occupies half of each of the latter plays.

Where Shakespeare’s lens is particularly effective is in reflecting in these plays the uncertainties of the fifteen-nineties: famine, rural unrest, an army in Ireland and the prospect of civil war over the weak succession. At the same time, the playwright quietly argues for progress.  He demonstrates in Richard II that manipulation could change the monarchy without serious bloodshed, in Henry IV that a troubled kingship can still educate a king-in-waiting and in Henry V that fortunes wheel favours the bold.  The peaceful passing of the regal torch from Elizabeth I to James I and VI in 1603 proved Shakespeare prophetic.

Appendix 2

An investigation into the historical consciousness of the audiences of particular late Elizabethan plays, to show how far this served as a careful testing ground for contemporary public policy.

I am interested in studying 1590’s theatrical literature and the historical chronicles that inform it. I plan to use the works of sixteenth century playwrights and their sources as my entry into the subject.

Prior scholarship on this subject is limited (see appendix 1), making my research unique and significant. Using both a new historicist and the reception theory lens of Hans-Robert Jauss, I intend to explore the historical consciousness of the audiences of particular late Elizabethan history plays, to show how far this served as a careful testing ground for contemporary public policy. Using the examples of theatrical productions and the influence of historical narrative, I explore what the theatre brings to the telling of history through its communal reception, sense of the present moment, multiplicity of voices, interpretation and dramatic intensity. To this end, I will use both the chronicles of Hall, Grafton, Holinshed and others, and the available scholarship on the history-writing in this period.  I will also relate the current libel and censorship laws to this theme, to illustrate why playwrights made their veiled comment so oblique.

As part of my research, I plan to take a revisionist look at the sources for Shakespeare’s Henriad plays in the 1960 volumes of Geoffrey Bullough, and provide my own interpretation of the ideas expressed by critics like Lily Campbell in her 1968 Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. Shakespeare’s plays did elucidate political problems in Elizabeth I’s time, but my position is that their theatricality was more crucial than their politics. Annabel Paterson’s Reading Holinshed’s Chronicle will be one of my guides and I will take into account recent scholarship, like John Guy’s 2016 Elizabeth: the Forgotten Years.

Appendix 3

Works Cited and Consulted

“How to Write a Research Question.” Web. Accessed 20 Oct 2017 <http://www.yorku.caCBR/ResearchQuestionInfoSheet.doc>.

Biddix, J. Patrick. “Writing Research Questions.” Web. Accessed 20 Oct 2017 <>.

Bristol, Michael D. Big-Time Shakespeare. London; New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare.  London: Routledge and Paul, 1957; 1975. Print.

Foran, Charles. Mordecai: The Life & Times. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010. Print.

Froissart, Jean, John Bourchier Berners, and G. C. Macaulay. The Chronicles of Froissart. London: Macmillan and Co. 1899. Print.

Law, John. “Making a Mess with Method.” Web. Accessed 20 Oct 2017 <>.

Richler, Mordecai. Writers on World War II: An Anthology. Toronto: Viking, 1991. Print.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.










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