Politics and Play in Early Modern England

Just thinking aloud [ablog?] …

“Other phenomena of the Elizabethan political world might also be considered as phenomena of the casuistical mode in which people were driven by conscience to do things that they would in other circumstances consider improper. […] Casuistry provides the framework within which we can understand a world in which even the most conformist of people might be driven to acts of disloyalty.” [Glenn Burgess, British Political Thought 1500-1660, pp. 126-127]

A Mirror for Princes?

Burgess’s overview of Reformation and post-Reformation political thought in the British Isles is, by the author’s own admission, a little idiosyncratic: the thinkers he includes, and those he excludes, will no doubt continue to lead to great debate in the review pages. But it represents a convincing portrait of an age in which the central political question was one of obedience, to whom it was owed and from where it was derived. The issues of monarchy whuch Burgess shows writers returned to again and again run through the period and the islands from Buchanan to Lilburne: is the monarch divinely or temporally sanctioned (most commonly, an arcane and ambiguous mixture of the two was devised), and, either way, how far does that writ stretch? Essentially, is anyone allowed to resist the monarch’s authority, and if so under what circumstances?

The theatre of the period is rich with responses to, and instances of, this vexing question: Marlowe’s Edward II prefers Gaveston to governance, and is duly overthrown; Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is pitted against wounded and riotous courtiers; and Henry V, in no fewer than three plays, is put under a lens by Shakespeare, and for every rousing St Crispin’s Day has a moment of cold and unflattering disavowal (of Falstaff, of his father). What is interesting about each of those examples, but especially Shakespeare’s, are the personal elements at play. Shakespeare’s Henry V is not just shown on the throne, but shaping himself for it; Prince Hal is first seen as a dissolute, scheming, human adolescent. This personal dimension is not covered by Burgess for obvious reasons, but it seems fundamental to the battle over the monarch’s mystique which he sees in the philosophy, and which scholars such as James Loxley have seen in, for instance, the poetry of the 1640s.

In his Soul of the Age, Jonathan Bate in unapologetic in placing Shakespeare at the heart of the controversies of his day: “He lived between the two great cataclysms in English history: the break from the universal Roman Catholic church and the execution of King Charles I. His plays were made possible by the first and helped to create the conditions that made possible the second.” [pg. 18]  Bold stuff, but Bate’s ultimate argument seems fair enough: in examining the personal lives of lords, ladies and kings, Shakespeare and his theatrical contemporaries were rendering the authority of mysticism untenable. Kevin Sharpe has suggested that “the playhouses of the 1630s did something to substitute for the absence of parliaments” [Criticism and Compliment, pg. 32]; the political role of theatre surely had a longer pedigree, and a deeper effect, than merely that.


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