Shakespeare

Shipwrecked Courtier: Nostalgia and Courtiership in Twelfth Night and The Book of the Courtier

[7-10 minute read]

Above my fortunes, yet my state is well.

I am a gentleman. – Viola, Twelfth Night

Viola, the shipwrecked woman of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, finds herself separated from her twin brother in a foreign land. Vulnerable, she must find means for supporting herself and dons the disguise of a eunuch named Cesario to serve Duke Orsino. The neighboring grieving Duchess, caught off-guard by Cesario’s unexpected presence of beauty and eloquent speech, seeks to uncover Cesario’s origins as s/he enters the court. She inquires about Cesario’s “parentage,” and s/he responds, “I am a gentleman” (1.5.222-24).[1] I read Viola’s embodied construction of the gentleman named Cesario within the tradition of courtiers and courtly service culture. I ask, why is the courtier, as an eroticized figure of civilized society, wrapped up with notions of reconstructing lost times and places? I explore this question in the deployment of Castiglione’s figuration of the ideal humanist courtier within The Book of the Courtier in Viola/Cesario’s embodiment of an English gentleman in Twelfth Night. I argue that Shakespeare’s re-imagination of Castiglione’s ideal Italian humanist courtier in Twelfth Night is demonstrative of the affective entanglement between courtiers, nostalgia, and sovereigns; thus, offering the potential for alternative queer futures.

The influence of Castiglione’s The Courtier as a political model for negotiating status within the court can be seen impacting the English imagination throughout Tudor England. This ideal humanist courtier even makes an appearance in Sir Thomas Elyot’s Governor, which was published only three years after Castiglione’s dialogue. Thomas Hoby translates The Courtier into English by 1561, and its influence on contemporaneous works is reflected in Roger Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570).[2] The ideal humanist courtier, as composed by Castiglione, began circulating throughout England during Henry VIII’s reign, carried into Elizabeth’s England, and became the preferred mode of conduct for English gentleman.[3] Within this context, Twelfth Night provides evidence that the form of the courtier exceeds textuality; the courtier draws upon past models of comportment, textual and performative, to elicit a sense of wonder and desire from sovereigns.

Viola carries on from the shipwreck at the opening of Twelfth Night towards a better life only after she disguises her appearance, such that others perceive her as a male courtier. Attempting to resuscitate a vestige of her lost brother, Viola draws upon Sebastian’s comportment for her employment as a courtier, “in this fashion, color, ornament/ For him I imitate” (3.4.322-23). Viola nostalgically draws upon the comportment of her lost brother as the model for her citational performativity “in this fashion” not only to succeed in securing her fortunes, but also to collapse the temporal separation between Sebastian and herself.

The figure of the gentleman in Viola’s performance of Cesario mirrors Castiglione’s ideal humanist courtier. Employed by Orsino, Cesario/Viola is sent to Duchess Olivia’s court to deliver the Duke’s declaration of love. Olivia, shocked at the eloquence of Cesario/Viola’s speech and comportment, asks him about his social status. Cesario describes himself to Olivia as a gentleman that has done well. His assurances to Olivia that he has already succeeded as a courtier – in that he is “above” his “fortunes” – is reminiscent of Cesare Gonzaga’s summary in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier: “he who has grace finds grace” (Castiglione 30). Cesario’s use of the word “fortune” is indicative that it is through his grace of speech, beauty, and conduct that he has been able to ascend this far.[4]

Cesario has done so well because he has already captured Orsino’s interest with his graceful abilities. Cesario taunts Olivia with allusions to his prior success of becoming Orsino’s beloved, inflaming his prestige as a courtier in her imagination. Olivia rehearses to herself, almost trancelike, Cesario’s many favorable attributes such as his “tongue” for his rhetorical powers, his “face” for his youthful and feminine appearance, his “limbs” which are of lovely shape, his “actions” that are demonstrative of his capabilities, and his “spirit” that proves his morality. Strikingly, Olivia embeds Cesario with the same corporeal physicality and neo-platonic idealism that is found of Castiglione’s ideal humanist courtier. Indeed, Olivia admits that she gives a “fivefold blazon,” connecting Cesario to the chivalric tradition that the courtier and English gentleman pulls upon.

Viola’s disguise as her brother is a form of performative nostalgia that provides the material basis for her hope of a better future and puts into effect the circulation of queer desire. Olivia’s desire for Cesario brings the Duchess out of her mourning, hopeful for a future in which she is wed to this female dressed as male courtier. The promised, yet unfilled, union between Cesario and Orsino at the end of Twelfth Night suggests an alternative queer future as well. The Duke summons the male courtier, “Cesario, come -/ For you shall be, while you are a man;/ But when in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen.” (5.1.362-65). Orsino lingers over the idea of having Cesario as a beloved, and refuses to call, or perceive, Cesario as female until he has changed back into Viola’s clothes. As long as Cesario stays within the garb of a courtier then there still exists an alternative queer ending to Twelfth Night, one in which Viola’s clothes are never found and Cesario remains Orsino’s beloved.


[1] All references to Twelfth Night are from Bruce Smith’s edited edition.

[2] Linda Salamon reads affinities between The Courtier and The Scholemaster to argue that The Courtier influenced its design in “The Courtier and The Scholemaster.”

[3] See Bryson, Anna. From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England; Kelso, Ruth. The Doctrine of The English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century.

[4] Shakespeare uses the word “grace” as defined by good “fortune” in Two Gentlemen of Verona (3.1.146) (OED 6)

“They may pass for excellent men:” Audience and Interpretative Labor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[5-7 minute read]

Last week, I discussed Hamlet’s metatheatrical play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, in an attempt to discuss what Hamlet’s attitudes towards acting could tell us about the relationship between theater and audience. This week, I would like to shift gears and discuss a different moment of metatheatricality in Shakespeare: the performance of The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with my previous examples, Midsummer has an investment in the relationship between actor and audience, particularly as it pertains to moments of interpretation relative to an imagined, unchanging ‘text.’ Here though, that interrogation would seem to lack the political stakes that characters like Hamlet and individuals like Elizabeth I associated with the theater. Rather, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are presented with the possibility that an audience’s ability to interpret a text against an implied authorial voice does not represent a threat to the theater as an institution. Instead, this moment represents an instance of productive labor that allows audience and playwright to work in unison.

Among the many subplots moving through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a great deal of time is spent with the “Rude Mechanicals,” a band of Athenian lower-class craftsmen preparing a play for the upcoming wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens. The performance is framed as comically inept. From its treatment of the staging to the acting, the text of Midsummer’s invites mockery of the Rude Mechanicals’ stage play. The performance, which dominates the fifth act of the play,[1] becomes a spectacle of failure as the onstage audience of the performance mocks and jeers at the actors in what amounts to a four-century old version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. While the Rude Mechanicals are not Hamlet’s boisterous clowns, they seem aligned with his idea of the overly zealous actor who would threaten to “out-Herods/ Herod,” and thus cause the audience to fail in understanding the gravity of the play’s printed text.[2] The original Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy drawn from the pages of Ovid, and invokes the same vaunted high artistic sources in which Hamlet finds his text. Unlike The Murder of Gonzago within Hamlet, Pyramus fails to produce its desired effect and the narrative is transformed into farce.

Rude MechanicalsShakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals

To this end, it is important to consider not only the metatheatrical performance undertaken in A Midsummer’s, but also its metatheatrical audience. Theseus and his cohort are very aware of their role as audience members, and the beginning of Act V serves as a justification for why the Duke allows this performance to go on in the first place. Central to this is Duke’s assertion that he and his fellow audience members are serving as a magnanimous corrective to the failure of the mechanicals; they act as individuals who know the play will be awful but will watch it nonetheless, because their presence will solve the problem of the mechanical’s ineptitude, and thus ‘fix’ the play. The Duke, being informed of how awful the play will likely be, remarks “[t]he kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. / Our sport shall be to take what they mistake.”[3] Taking what they – the performers – mistake implicitly frames Theseus’s goal as one of interpretative labor, in which he and his fellow audience members will correct the problems arising from the inability of the mechanicals to ‘properly’ perform tragedy.

This is however, made significantly more complex by how the performance of A Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe does not fail in a metatheatrical sense. In other words, although the Rude Mechanicals fail to properly perform tragedy within the logic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the live audience is compelled to join in with Theseus and his royal audience. We laugh with them and the comedy of Midsummer becomes successful, even if it is at the expense of lower-class actors failing to produce real affective tragedy. We take it upon ourselves to participate in Theseus’s reinterpretation of the play and in doing so, we too find pleasure the kind of corrective interpretation that Theseus promises when he claims to “take what they mistake.” The audience is not a passive figure tasked with correctly taking in the meaning of the tragedy, as that is not the real stakes in the final moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead, the on-stage audience are active participants in the construction of the play and in doing so, provide a bulk of the pleasurable comedy. We, as the audience in the theater, are brought to laugh with the on-stage audience and in doing so, we aren’t failing to properly interpret Pyramus and Thisbe; we are correctly interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is the central metatheatrical tension in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s, and it is this tension between text and performance that creates the comedy of the final act.

Now, the political stakes in the reinterpretation of tragedy into comedy are much lower than the stakes of an early modern audience member reinterpreting a play like Richard II as pro-usurpation. However, the function of this examination, and the function of all my discussions this month has been to interrogate the ways in which early modern drama addresses and complicates the role of the audience as an active and passive portion of the space of the theater. I began this month in the present day, examining the suggestion that audiences failing to properly interpret the ‘meaning of a play’ might in turn serve as a threat to the institution of the public theater. From there, I spoke to two similar discourses present in early modernity, each suggesting how various audiences’ differing interpretation of a play might have dire political consequences. I close then, on a more ‘productive’ moment of misinterpretation, wherein the audiences’ ability to reject the ‘meaning of a text’ is not imagined as an undesirable response. At the conclusion of this series of blogposts, I hope to have made visible the complex relationship early modern theater had with its own interpretative communities, and the ways in which many of those vexed relationships remain present in our own relationship with the artistic productions of the past.


[1] The rest of the key plot points have been wrapped up by the beginning of the fifth act.

[2] Hamlet III.ii.x14-x15. Of note here, Bottom does pride himself in his ability to play a tyrant, an attitude he attempts to comically transfer off the stage during rehearsal.

[3] A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.95-96.

“Dumbshows and Noise:” Hamlet and The Problem of Audience

[5-7 minute read]

During Act 3 of Hamlet, while preparing the travelling players for the evening’s performance, Hamlet provides the actor’s company with a lengthy speech concerning the proper methods of acting he would like them to employ. During the speech, he makes a note on clowns, saying “and let those that play/ your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;/for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to/ set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh/too.[1] Here, Hamlet urges caution to the players: their clown should speak only those words written upon the page, lest his frantic ad-libbing set the audience to laughter, and risk missing “some necessary/question of the play be then to be considered.”[2] This moment reminds the audience of how seriously Hamlet takes the theater and how he believes the supremacy of the page should define the worth of theatrical performance. Hamlet’s worry is that that clowns and fools pose a threat to the political power of drama. Given the political implications of Hamlet’s play, the worry here is that a particularly boisterous fool may risk causing the entire theatrical endeavor to come crashing down. Moving too far from the text, or otherwise reducing its importance as a single-authored object of reverence, threatens to rob it of its political weight, and reduce it to airy nothingness.

William KempeWilliam Kempe: Shakespeare’s first fool and likely the reason that this speech exists

Particularly key here is the sense that ‘some quantity of barren spectators’ will become wrapped up in the clown’s performance. Clowns were understood to be figures of the theater beloved by the commons; they were the wild antic-makers who, along with the jigs and songs that would accompany a public theatrical performance, successfully brought London’s poorer audiences into the theaters. This moment of directly – and assertively – attacking the figure of the fool is explicitly transformed into a jab at the kinds of audiences who would enjoy the labor of the clown and in turn, would rob the text of its dignity. Here, the assault on the fool is an instrument for critiquing the baser kinds of audiences who enjoyed the fools’ antics above the artistic merit of the tragic monologue. While Hamlet extends this beyond the antics of the clown (also critiquing players whose voices remind him of the town-crier), the thrust of the speech remains in the suggestion that the theater is a site of high art that must not be threatened by actors who would “split the ears of the groundlings, who/ for the most part are capable of nothing but/ inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”[3] A key component of this critique is misdirection; in other words, this critique emphasizes a playwright’s worry that his audience will fail to understand the gravity of the text, and will instead allow themselves to be enamored by disposable and unimportant moments that are not worthy of artistic labor. Within this speech, the antipathy towards the unwashed masses and their inability to properly relate to the artistic production of the theater is palpable, and framed through rhetoric reminiscent of critiques leveled against mass public audiences in virtually any contemporary moment.

This sense of the importance of the play is complicated by the performance Hamlet is discussing. While in the last few weeks we looked at texts that were assumed to have represented political leaders on stage, Hamlet’s intent is explicit, as he notes “the play’s the thing,/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[4] Hamlet is certain of the play’s ability to foreground the reality of Denmark’s corruption, despite the incongruity separating The Murder of Gonzago from the text of Hamlet. Hamlet’s audience, both on the stage and in the theatre, is meant to understand that the goal of the play is to “hold a mirror up to nature[5] — and this in turn will reflect the rank villainy that has seeped into the Danish court. While Hamlet is not hoping that his play will stir a popular revolt,[6] he is assuming the play itself will have the power make the invisible sins lingering within the state visible, and furthermore, force a moment of confession and revelation to justify his act of regicide. His speech to the player kings also suggests a belief that if the play is not treated with the necessary reverence for the art form, it will be prone to fail. The stakes of this performance as so much greater than the enjoyment and applause of Hamlet’s hypothetical barren spectators, and so must be presented with the proper audience in mind.

While there is reason to be hesitant in ventriloquizing the voice of Shakespeare through Hamlet, it is worth considering the ways that this discourse was present during the period, and the ways in which Hamlet’s advice has become part and parcel with the discourse surrounding the theater in our contemporary world. As the theater has become a stable and lauded artistic institution, clowns and dumbshows in Shakespearean tragedies nevertheless remind us of their popular origins. As I noted in my first post this month, there was a sense among defenders of Julius Caesar (2017) that it was a case of audiences simply missing the “question of the play.” Those who then missed the question became like the lowly personages Hamlet critiques here, incapable or unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the dramatic representations put before them, and wasting energy in focusing on the wrong part of the text or performance. Though these complaints are not framed in the same language Hamlet proposes, the premise that underscores them remains worth considering. In our contemporary affirmation of the theater as weighty and serious art capable of enacting the kind of political labor early modern audiences feared, there is a danger that we have also affirmed Hamlet’s suggestion. Perhaps, this assertion also bolsters the belief that groundings, past and present, and their inability to fully understand the weight of artistic representation, act as a threat to the value of the theater as an institution. This becomes a highly contentious notion regarding who can enjoy the theater and what it means to ‘watch a play properly,’ lest we become the clown-loving audiences Hamlet chides. At its heart, these debates all return to the relationship between the theater and the general public, and this is the subject that I will explore in my final post this month.


[1] Hamlet III.ii.39-43.

[2] Ibid, 43-44.

[3] Ibid, 11-13.

[4] Hamlet, II.ii, 633-634.

[5] Hamlet, III.ii. 23.

[6] By contrast, Laertes does lead a popular revolt.

“I am Richard II, Know Ye Not That”: Drama and Political Anxiety in Shakespeare’s London

[5 minute read]

In last week’s post, I talked about the public reaction to a 2017 performance of a 1599 play featuring the execution of a Roman Consul who had been made-over to look like a contemporary politician. This week, I will be looking at the performance of a 1597 play that took place in 1601, similarly featuring the execution of a monarch perceived to look like a contemporary politician. During the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, a time now remembered as one of the heights of English dramatic production, there was a common belief that the theater was dangerous because it was a kind of art that could easily reach a broad, popular audience. The theater ripe for criticism: it was seen as a den of vice and disease,[1] and as a threat to public decency, particularly as it involved the interpretative labor of a population that might be spurred to sin or rebellion by the content performed upon the stage. This led to a wide range of so-called ‘anti-theatricalist’ literature, which sought to condemn the worst excess of the theater and its audiences. Writers denounced the theater as tempting audiences in the same way “[t]he deceitful physician gives sweet syrups to make his poison go down the smoother: the juggler casts a mist to work the closer: the siren’s song is the sailor’s wreck.”[2] The central worry was that audiences were being lured in by representations of sin, heresy and disobedience.

frontimage“The schoole of abuse contayning a pleasaunt inuectiue against poets, pipers, players, iesters, and such like caterpillers of a common wealth”

As a result of this fear – and combined with a general culture of political repression – the public theater was heavily scrutinized by the Elizabethan regime. Political authorities engaged in a number of censorship practices designed to limit writing that could be considered seditious, particularly restricting and suppressing any play dealing with “either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal.”[3] Playwrights were arrested on suspicion of treason, and several, including Thomas Kyd, were tortured. Most of these convictions dealt with religious heresy during Elizabeth I’s crackdown on Catholicism. However, locating these efforts within the space of the theater suggested that individuals within positions of power shared a skepticism concerning the theater.[4] The underlying assumption that a play might incite audiences to open treason carries with it a powerful statement about the relationship between dramatic representation, interpretation and political anxieties. As a part of the public bureaucracy, this also constrained playwrights to working around censorship laws to avoid losing their license to perform.

EssexRobert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex

While these fears surrounding the theater certainly seem exaggerated, the persistent belief that the theater might be a site of political subversion did have significant real-world ramifications. The most famous case of the theater intersecting with open political rebellion during Shakespeare’s contemporary moment was likely the Essex Rebellion in 1601. One-time court favorite Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, attempted a coup in London with the intent of shifting power in the English courts towards his own party. A small part of this coup involved paying a substantial amount of money to the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (a play written several years earlier) on the days leading up to the rebellion, seemingly hopeful that a play about the deposition and overthrow of a weak monarch by a powerful usurper would win support for the imminent coup. While it seems odd to think that a performance of a play might have had any impact on public opinion, Elizabeth I shared a similar fear, once remarking “I am Richard II, know ye not that,”[5] tying herself to the deposed monarch and commenting on the frequency of the play’s production. Here, the stakes of interpretation and the willingness of a population to read Richard II as a seditious text is not merely a historical curiosity; rather, it was part of the logic justifying state control over the theater, and greatly impacted the way playwrights navigated the politically vexed world of the Elizabethan stage.

None of this is to suggest that the controversy I discussed last week carries the same stakes as it did in the Elizabethan era. What I hoped to demonstrate in this blog post is that discourses surrounding how politics are represented on the stage (and the associated issues of audience reaction and interpretation) are baked into the very DNA of early modern drama, particularly as writers attempted to navigate an outwardly hostile social landscape. Given the place that certain theatrical works, such as those of Shakespeare, occupy in the contemporary cultural landscape, it is worthwhile to think about the context in which these texts were first produced, and how it shaped their content – especially as we continue to repurpose these texts to service our own anxieties in the contemporary political moment.


[1] This was true both metaphorically, as opponents of the theater saw them as examples of public sickness and distress, but also literally, as fears of epidemics and plagues saw the closure of theaters to prevent viral outbreaks among London’s poorer population.

[2] Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579.

[3] Queen Elizabeth I, proclamation “Prohibiting Unlicensed Interludes and Plays, Especially on Religion or Policy” qtd. http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/literature/publishing/censorship.html

[4] It is also worth remembering that to work against the teachings of the Church of England during the late 16th century was viewed as a state crime, as religion was a matter of state identity.

[5] There is debate over whether this anecdote is apocryphal, though the general distress at the political power of the theater was not invented, even if this quote was.

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him:” Shakespeare and the Politics of Interpretation

[5-7 minute read]

During my last month writing for Metathesis, I talked about the contemporary desire to find political meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. Then in June, Shakespeare in the Park staged a performance of Julius Caesar in which the actor playing Caesar consciously invoked the image of President Trump, mimicking his vocal affectation and his mannerisms. This performance was met with public backlash, as voices responded with anger at the idea of a publicly funded art institution staging the assassination of the sitting President. As someone who studies early modern drama, it was a surreal moment to see the nation spend a few days in the middle of Summer having a conversation focused on how to properly interpret Act 3 of Julius Caesar. For a moment in June 2017, the text of a play from 1599 about the death of a Roman Consul in 44 BC was at the heart of a public debate over the relationship between art and politics.

Image 1Per the performance, this was a Caesar who could stab a man on fifth avenue and not lose a supporter.

Most surprising to me was the outpouring of reactions to the controversy that framed it as one over interpretations of the play. These responses attempted to announce, as clearly as possible, that Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence – and they were built upon textual arguments and close-readings.[1] These responses, from sources like The Guardian and The New York Times to The AV Club and The Atlantic, centered on the idea that a sufficiently skillful reading of the text of Julius Caesar would clear up any confusion over whether or not the production supported the actions of the Roman conspirators. By extension, this assumption meant a skillful reading would also appropriately address – and perhaps deflate – any anger of what the play was perceived to say about President Trump. For these responses, the portion of the public angry about the performance was simply missing the point of the play, or as Atlantic frames it, it was a case of “[m]isplaced [o]utrage.” The Guardian piece brings in Stephen Greenblatt to explain how dissenters are missing “the point of the play.” Even the statement by the theater itself is built partially on this premise, stating “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.” Invoking the authorial voice of Shakespeare alongside their own production decisions, the statement reads as not only a defense of artistic integrity, but also a pointed claim: at the heart of the controversy is a misreading of Julius Caesar.

Now, these responses also seem intent on producing a singular interpretative lens through which to view the play. These readings gloss over the idea that while one can read Julius Caesar as a play that is deeply skeptical about the conspiratorial action of figures like Cassius and Brutus, it can also be read as a play in which a demagogue exploits a mob of Roman citizens and preys upon their anger and resentment to compel them to destructive violence. This notably includes a scene in which the mob tears a poet to shreds because they dislike his verses, an equally prescient interpretation. However, for me, the fascinating aspect of these responses lies less in the specific interpretations that they provide for Julius Caesar, and more in the underlying assumption that the entire ordeal stemmed from a debate over the textual meaning of Act 3 of Julius Caesar, with the accompanying suggestion that this would be cleared up through the authoritative voices of individuals who were simply better readers. This move signals an important divide in how the various voices in the conversation conceptualize the place of the stage (and other arts) in public discourse. Shakespeare, these responses seem to imply, is more in danger of being misread than anything else. The political undercurrents of the play are not dangerous; rather, the possibility that they will be misunderstood is dangerous and that must be warded against.

Central to this conversation is the implication that the theater is a site of political tension and that the interpretation of this tension can be, and often is, a deeply political act. This is certainly not a new debate. For another examination of the relationship between theater and the present administration, see Ashley O’Mara’s Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion. Tensions surrounding the theater and the role of drama in the Anglophonic world date back to the foundation of the first public theaters and in my next post, I’m going to explore how debates over the place of the theater in public political life have evolved since Shakespeare’s work were first performed on the London stage.


[1] Putting my own personal interpretative cards on the table: Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence. Also, it should be noted that the original story that generated anger around the performance neglected to mention that the play in question was Julius Caesar.

Evan Hixon is a third-year Ph.D. student in the English Department. His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations. His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“Report Me and My Cause Aright:” Hamlet and the Political Power of Dramatic Narrative

During the final scene of Hamlet, the titular prince makes use of his dying breaths to command two things of Horatio.  First, he commands Horatio to affirm that Fortinbras “has his dying voice” (5.2.393) thus giving him legitimacy to take the throne of Denmark.  Second, he orders Horatio to tell Fortinbras the story of Hamlet’s actions that have led up to this point in the play.  Horatio obliges and the final fifty lines serve to wrap up the political loose ends of the text and casually confirm that Fortinbras will be the new king of Denmark, signaling the cleansing of Danish politics in the wake of Claudius’s death.

Death_of_Hamlet_-_Henry_Selous.jpg

Hamlet is far from unique in the way that it concludes with a significant regime change signifying the exorcizing of a dangerous political force that has brought ruin upon the state.  Richard III, King Lear, and Macbeth all end with the destruction of a familial line and the flourishing possibility that something better will take its place.[1]  These plays, despite their tragic conclusions, at the very least offer up the possibility of a hopeful future, one in which a new regime can cleanse the state of the problems created by that which was there previously.  However, in Hamlet this requires the figure of Horatio to dramatize the events of the play to Fortinbras, both to validate Hamlet’s actions as well as affirm the legitimacy of the new monarchy.  While Horatio may be commanded to speak the truth, the language of his final speech is decidedly a language which seeks to paint Hamlet in a positive light and affirm the moral and political validity of his act of regicide, suggesting that the full version of his recollection will emphasis Claudius’s schemes and the moral punishment that he has justifiably received.  It is, in part, Horatio’s story and its valorization of Hamlet’s actions which will assist in smoothing the transition from a Danish monarch to a Norwegian monarch.

The language of these final fifty lines has a decidedly meta-theatrical tone, treating the bloody court as a stage that must be cleared for a new audience of nobles who will hear Horatio’s tale.  In the conclusion of Hamlet, the power of theatrical narrative is deeply connected to the authorization of a new political regime in Denmark.  A bloody and chaotic act of revenge and regicide, concluding with the destruction of the former Danish monarchy, can be understood by the surviving nobles and their anxiety surrounding the future of Danish politics can be eased with the power of Horatio’s telling of Hamlet’s narrative, which will ideally give the nobles cause to welcome Fortinbras and acknowledge his “rights of memory in this kingdom” (5.2.433).  It is not a triumphant ending, yet it is one which leverages the capacity of storytelling to make sense of what appears to be a senseless shift in political power, occurring almost at random.

I bring up this commentary on the role of narrative story telling at the conclusion of Hamlet as it seems to speak to the main thrust of my commentary during this month of blog posts.   While we may not be as explicit as Shakespeare makes Horatio, I have been examining ways in which we utilize and manipulate the form of dramatic narrative as a way of understanding the political reality in which we live.  Horatio does this rather transparently, using his privileged voice as a recorder of the events of Hamlet to justify and validate the actions of Hamlet, thus soothing the anxiety of a foreign takeover that would be felt by the fictional audience of nobles as well as the literal London audience watching the fictional state of Denmark’s fall.  Further, Horatio has the luxury of an actual audience having witnessed the events that preceded the final moments of the play.  However, the examples I have looked at this month seem to function in a similar capacity, interpreting and rewriting Shakespeare’s texts in order to make sense of the text and provide a clear and understandable narrative which will ease, or at the very least explain, an anxiety that the audience is feeling about their political moment.   We may never see Horatio explain Hamlet to Fortinbras, but his final lines imply that he will be both figuratively and literally reinterpreting the text of Hamlet in order to make sense of a moment of political disorder and potential unrest.  In this way, Horatio becomes a representative of the kinds of narrative reinterpretations that I have been looking at this month, as he seems to literalize the act of using a theatrical text to understand and justify a particular political problem (here, the question of what will become of the Danish monarchy).

My work as a scholar primarily focuses upon these moments in which the theater served as a site for negotiating political anxieties and it is fascinating to see the early modern theater still being mobilized as a site that affords audiences a space to work through their concerns regarding the state of the political landscape.  In pieces such as the Stephen Greenblatt op-ed that inspired this topic, there remains a sense that dramatic narrative offers up the possibility for easing political anxiety.  If we are worried about how a tyrant might come to power, we need only read Richard III to understand how to arm ourselves against him.  While this is neither unique to Shakespeare, nor is it as powerful of a site as it once was, the idea that a careful enough examination of theatrical texts can lead to a deeper understanding of political problems and their solutions seems to remain strong.

Owing to his privileged place within our cultural imaginations, there seems to be a conscious desire to make Shakespeare relevant to our contemporary political tribulations.[2]  As an educator who plans on having to teach the political elements of Shakespeare’s works, this desire carries with it a sense that narrative offers something unique for teaching students about thinking through current anxieties.  Many universities still require some level of exposure to Shakespeare’s works, so there is a strong impulse to communicate a sense of contemporary relevance for the cluster of students who might not be particularly interested in the political affairs of 16th century monarchs; one of the ways in which we do this is precisely through the constant reimagining of Shakespeare’s works in order to make them more immediately relevant to our own political moment, and this is not an impulse that I would imagine will become less relevant as time passes.  Ideally, this series of blog posts has shed some new light on the difficulties that must be overcome if we are to utilize Shakespeare and other writers to understand contemporary political problems without completely abandoning the idea that there is some merit to turning towards past narrative to help us understand present day politics.

[1] In Macbeth and Richard III that something new takes the form of a family line which legitimized the then ruling monarch.  Another example of how difficult it can be to disconnect Shakespeare’s plays from his own political reality.

[2] This is by no means only true of political concerns, as Shakespeare is often mobilized in this vein to help us understand any number of contemporary issues.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of peace between Rome and its enemies.[1]  In the 1930s, the play was briefly banned in France over the perception that the narrative, one of a powerful war hero brought low whose attempts to govern are destroyed by a population that is given too great a voice, could be too easily understood as pro-fascist.[2]  Likewise, the play was heavily critiqued in post-war Germany for being too militaristic and doing too much to celebrate the image of the glorious warrior brought low by his own fellow citizens, demonstrating that during times of particular political anxiety, Coriolanus tends to return to the public eye.

Fiennes Coriolanus.jpg

Fiennes’ Coriolanus

In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a version of Coriolanus which brings to the forefront a number of key political questions raised by the text.  The production ostensibly takes place in a setting meant to be associated with Rome, as indicated by its title cards and maintenance of the play’s language and characters, but the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, with modern dress and a presentation of warfare that is modeled after military conflicts from the last two and a half decades.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus centralizes the impact that his time at war had upon Coriolanus, bringing to the production an interpretation that focuses on a post-9/11 investment in the state in which soldiers return from war.  It transforms the play into a meditation on the impact that war has, both on the individual and the society that sends those individuals to fight. Fiennes also modernizes the political crisis occurring in Rome.  In his version, Brutus and Sicinius, for instance, are presented as wealthy political insiders whose appearance and actions invoke a modern discourse of class struggle and income inequality, framing them as clearly distinct from the much poorer citizens whom they manipulate into banishing Coriolanus. Critical of both the actions of Coriolanus and the state of perpetual warfare that has impacted both the tragic hero and the citizens of Rome, Fiennes’s vision of the play attempts to utilize Shakespeare’s tragedy as a site for contemplating then-contemporary issues of war and its impact upon citizens.

Earlier this month I quoted Thomas Marc Parrott’s criticism that we could not think of Shakespeare as having an opinion on democracy, and while he certainly wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on the kind of representative democracy that we are most familiar with, the text of Coriolanus does not shy away from examining the idea of the consent of the governed.  It is a play in which a civilian rabble becomes the tool of a small cabal of aristocrats who oust Coriolanus, and the early scenes of the play present the rabble as easily strung along by learned Roman rhetoricians, suggesting the dangers of placing too much authority within the hands of the population.  In addition, if we are to read Coriolanus as a tragic hero, even one brought low by his pride, we must at least entertain his suggestions that the populace of Rome is making a grand error in banishing him, as they are banishing one of their betters, a belief that Coriolanus returns to time and time again.  This is, perhaps, a moment in which it is worthwhile to remember that in Elizabethan England debates over the merits of the consent of the governed and democratic rule were often very pessimistic about the capacity of the citizens of a nation to govern themselves.

Fiennes seems to deny this somewhat pessimistic attitude towards the populace’s complicity in the tragedy of Coriolanus with his presentation of the assorted Roman citizens.  His version centralizes their plight and their desire to resist a Roman system that denies them access to food, with an opening scene framing Roman defense of its grain supply as a militarized police force led by a fatigue-wearing Coriolanus beating back hungry protesters.  While the argument that we are meant to side with the citizens in Shakespeare’s play is by no means unfounded, Fiennes’ invocation of contemporary political struggles against state sanctioned violence leverages a very modern understanding of political crises in order to frame Coriolanus as a tragically flawed individual.  We read Coriolanus’s speech concerning the instability, intemperance, and ignobility of the citizens as proud, unfounded, and misguided in large part because of the visual language of this scene, rather than extracting that interpretation wholesale from the original text that Fiennes recites.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

There is, in this vision of Coriolanus, a certain desire to collapse the current and the historical, both to demonstrate a series of momentarily important political ideas but also to point towards their seeming timelessness nature.  An implicit idea present in Fiennes’ Coriolanus is that the lessons of the text of Coriolanus have a specific relevance that transcends the historical moment of its original production.  This, however, requires Fiennes to traffic in a language of visual and political iconography that makes these lessons legible to a modern audience far removed from the world of the Roman aristocracy.  I bring this up not to denigrate Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but to suggest that the act of attempting to find specific modern lessons in these plays necessarily requires us to reconstruct Shakespeare’s texts to suit our current political climate and we must remain aware of this practice of reconstructing Shakespeare when we attempt to garner political lessons from his plays.

The function of this examination of Coriolanus isn’t to produce a unified reading of the play’s political message, but rather to demonstrate how malleable that message becomes when we attempt to understand it with contemporary eyes.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not a more or less valid representation of Shakespeare’s text, but it is transparently bringing a highly modern perspective to the text in order to make its political commentary clear.  This does not invalidate the things that Fiennes’ production can teach us about the political questions that inform Coriolanus, but it demonstrates the ways in which any attempt to parse out the lessons of a text necessarily brings to bear our own political investments upon that text.  This is true for the audiences in the first half of the 20th century who saw the play uncomfortably courting with fascism, and it is true in the case of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which attempts to use that same text to understand a set of more contemporary questions about war, social dissidence, and the consent of the governed.

[1] This is, admittedly, a highly abridged account of Coriolanus.  A full treatment of the play’s richly complex handling of issues such as the construction of masculine identity, the role of motherhood in the lives of individuals and the state or its examinations of the costs of war alone would consume an entire blogpost.

[2] Coriolanus is far from the only play that has garnered attention for how it might help us understand fascism.  For a particularly unsubtle example, see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

“In Troy There Lies the Scene”: Teaching Students to Think about Shakespeare

While teaching Troilus and Cressida this semester, one of the assignments that my students were tasked with was to write an essay on the ways in which the play made visible or commented upon an issue that was facing 16th century England.  Students were given a brief lesson on the political and social troubles of early modern England, then they were told to construct an argument which would demonstrate a line of continuity between Shakespeare’s reading of the Trojan War and the contemporary troubles facing London audiences.  Underlying this assignment was an assumption that looking at this play would offer students greater access to the historical problems facing theater goers in the 16th century, but also that these were deliberate inclusions within the play that theater going audiences would have picked up on.  At the time, I didn’t think about it, but looking back on it, this assignment was constructed to teach students to look for ways in which art teaches us lessons about the contemporary historical moment, even when the subject matter that the text is drawing from frames itself as temporally distant.  While not a perfect parallel, we were teaching students to think of Shakespeare’s texts as “containing” veiled contemporary commentaries that could be unearthed with through and careful examination.

This is not to suggest that such an endeavor isn’t worth having students undertake.  Troilus and Cressida, itself being a reworking both of legend of the Trojan War as well as a somewhat explicit reimagining of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, does examine many of the political concerns that would be of interest to a contemporary British audience and it deliberately reworks a number of the issues that Chaucer raised in his 1380 poem.[1]  The play, for instance, features an early monologue during which Ulysses pontificates on the nature of social hierarchy and the dangers that would result if the political hierarchy (that places Ulysses at the top) were called into question.  Pleading for order and stability within the Grecian camp, he suggests that “[t]ake but degree away, untune the string,/ And hard what discord follows.  Each thing meets/ In mere oppugnancy”.[2] This speech, regardless of whether we read it as a critique of Ulysses’ support for a system that benefits him at the expense of others or we read it as an endorsement of Ulysses views on the importance of a stable social hierarchy, would be of particular relevance to an Early Modern audience with very real concerns about the stability of the English monarchy.[3]  Here, Shakespeare is mobilizing a shared cultural literary memory to begin to think through the very different political conditions of Early modern England, or at the very least, this is the move that we ask our students to identify Shakespeare making.

This is a mode of processing the past that Shakespeare would return to frequently.  Owing to strict censorship laws and tightening government control over the theater, any attempt to address the contemporary political climate in Tudor and Stuart England needed to be moved outside of the present moment.[4]  This created a practical explanation for Early Modern playwrights use of the past as a site to understand their own historical moment.   While we give students the tools to understand these historical contexts and the reasons that Shakespeare might use Ulysses as a voice to critique or affirm the status quo, there is still a sense in which we are teaching students to approach literature as a site in which truths about a contemporary world can be made visible to an audience regardless of setting or surface level content.  This isn’t meant to be understood as a value judgement against this approach to teaching literature, as I think there is a value in thinking about how this mode of teaching students allows us to think of Shakespeare as both an author who lived in a very specific historical moment and a writer who is still worth reading four hundred years after his death.

This is, however, not quite the same thing as turning to Shakespeare to understand our contemporary political moment.  I feel that the assignment I’ve described lays the ground work for logics that allow us to see our historical moment in Shakespeare, but to see our world in Shakespeare, we need to impose parts of our world upon Shakespeare (or any literary text).  Just as Shakespeare brought a 16th century world view to Troilus and Criseyde in order to make Chaucer’s Trojan epic more contemporarily relevant, we too bring a 21st century worldview to Shakespeare so that we can make visible the elements of the text that help us make sense of our contemporary political moment.  Sometimes, this is done rather explicitly, as with modern retellings of the play or adaptations which make significant thematic changes.  Other times, the move is subtler, simply directing readers to carefully examine a specific element of the plays so that our contemporary experiences can be more easily written onto them, as I see happening in Greenblatt’s op-ed piece on Richard III.  Next week, I plan to examine some examples of repurposing Shakespeare for political purposes in order to continue thinking about the various ways in which contemporary audiences turn to Shakespeare as a means of understanding the political world in which they live.

[1] Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is much more cynical than Troilus and Criseyde, and it is much more explicit it its rejection of a greater spiritual order that will render political conflicts on earth less meaningful.

[2] Troilus and Cressida I.iii.113-115

[3] Dating Shakespeare’s plays is difficult, but Troilus and Cressida was likely written either near the very end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign or near the beginning of James I’s.

[4] Shakespeare frequently addressed this problem by setting his plays in the Pre-Tudor past or on the European continent.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes:” Using Shakespeare to Understand Contemporary Politics

“Living when he did, Shakespeare could no more be democratic or anti-democratic then he could be a motorist.”

                  ­-Thomas Marc Parrott, Twenty-Three Plays and Sonnets

On October 8th, Stephen Greenblatt wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times which sought to argue that through a detailed close reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, we could better understand the state of the 2016 US Election.  He argues that Richard III represents a play in which Shakespeare dramatizes the rise of a tyrant into power through the consent of the governed, despite how apparent his evil was to everyone around him.  In this argument, Richard III becomes a cautionary tale, one that teaches its audience a lesson about the dangers of political complacency and the abdication of one’s responsibility as a political subject, whether that political subject is a low ranking early modern aristocrat or a swing-state voter in 2016.  The politics of this particular editorial are fairly transparent, but what interests me is the mobilization of Shakespeare’s Richard III as an exemplum of a political reality that remains relevant to readers over four centuries after Shakespeare’s death.  Here, a play about the rise of a usurping king and a political rebellion against an absolute monarch becomes a lesson about the importance of active and informed participation within a system of democracy that would be incomprehensible to even the few republics of Early Modern Europe, let alone the subjects of the English Monarchy.

Here, I don’t intend to criticize Greenblatt’s reading of the play, but I am more invested in the underlying impulse, specifically the implication that Shakespeare, if approached properly, can reveal grand truths about the state of our current lives.   Greenblatt goes so far as to conclude his editorial by claiming, “Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny ability to reach out beyond their original time and place and to speak directly to us.  We have long looked to him, in times of perplexity and risk, for the most fundamental human truths.”  Variants of this appeal seem to represent a justification for the continued study of Shakespeare.  In this model, Shakespeare becomes a unique literary site for understanding the world around us, and if we can simply read a play like Richard III well enough, we can understand the issues in our current historical moment that would appear inexplicable.

Richard III is an interesting case study for complicating this desire to find timeless political truths within the canon of Shakespeare.  Richard III, despite being a play about an English king, is not really a history in the sense that we might understand the word today.  The play itself draws heavily upon carefully crafted bits of Tudor propaganda which sought to validate the current ruling regime in England.  The play, which documents the fall of the tyrant Richard III, implicitly celebrates the rebellion of King Henry VII, first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of the sitting Queen Elizabeth I.  The play’s framing of King Richard as a child-murdering, usurper is itself a theatrical decision grounded in a series of incredibly specific contemporary historical circumstances.[1]   This is not to say that we can’t learn anything of value for a play like Richard III, but it should serve as a constant reminder that the political world that Shakespeare occupied and the political world in which we live are so radically different as to be nearly unrecognizable.

richard-iii-hunchback

Anthony Sher’s 1984 Richard III, in line with Shakespeare’s text, frames King Richard as a monstrous caricature of political evil.

As a graduate student working on the political discourses that were in circulation during Shakespeare’s life, this intellectual movement is one that I find fascinating because it simultaneously highlights and collapses the gulf that exists between our world and the world of Shakespeare.  In my own work, I examine the political anxieties which gripped Shakespeare’s England in an attempt to better understand the ways in which the institution of the theater helped negotiate those problems.  Here, four hundred years later, it is more than a little mystifying to see a major publication print an op-ed piece in which a renowned scholar makes a near identical move, utilizing the institution of the early modern theater to address a political anxiety gripping the country in 2016.

My posts this month will seek to delve deeper into this mode of reading Shakespeare as a window through which we better understand our contemporary world.  While I don’t intend to provide a definitive answer to the question of just how much we can learn about politics merely by reading plays about politics, I do hope to offer insight into why Shakespeare’s political plays are thought to remain relevant exemplum for teaching political lessons.  However, before turning towards the strengths and deficiencies of this model, I feel it will be worthwhile to look at the longer history of turning towards the past to learn about the political present.  This belief that by turning to the fictions and lessons of a long forgotten age that we strive to see as a mirror of ourselves is not a unique quality of modernity.  Next week, we will look at the ways in which thinkers in the Early modern world looked towards their own imagined past as a way of understanding their specific historical moment.

[1] This narrative surrounding Richard III’s history has been remarkably hard for historians to dispel, as these very specific examples of Tudor propaganda remain ingrained in cultural memories surrounding the real Richard III.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.