“The Rights and Wrongs of Resistance”: Shakespeare and Politics

Andrew S. Brown on Peter Lake’s How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage

On February 7, 1601, William Shakespeare was enlisted into a paid protest against the policies of a misguided leader and a group of corrupt advisers. Or so, at least, runs one possible reading of a specially commissioned production of his 1595 play Richard II at the Globe theater in London.

The performance’s financial backers were supporters of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who had recently fallen out of favor with Queen Elizabeth I after a failed military venture in Ireland. Its subject, as most spectators of the play would have been acutely aware, was the deposing of a legitimate but ineffectual monarch by a virile, charismatic soldier and aristocrat: a relative outsider to power who nonetheless swiftly turns it to his advantage.

These spare documentary details, confessed under questioning by the actor Augustine Phillips (who noted that the players had been offered an extra forty shillings for the unusual request), have long suggested to literary historians that this performance of Richard II was just one of many devices by which the disgraced Essex attempted to cultivate popular support and reassert his influence with the queen—efforts which would ultimately lead to his execution for treason in the same year.

But the keen political charge that had attached itself to the play through this performance did not die with Essex. A contemporary manuscript source reports that the queen, her eye falling upon a document that mentioned the doomed Richard, was heard to utter “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” and to lament that “this tragedy was played forty times in open streets and houses.” The potential analogy between Elizabeth and Richard—a connection by no means explicit in Shakespeare’s text, which is as critical of the usurper Bolingbroke as it is sympathetic to the hapless monarch—had apparently taken on a viral currency of its own, in the mind of the queen if not necessarily in those of her subjects.

Such anecdotes demonstrate one particularly direct means by which theater might be made politically relevant: through disguised but still legible references to topical debates, persons, and issues. This drive to identify parallels between Shakespeare’s works and contemporary historical events has periodically animated the field of Shakespeare studies, vexed as it is by the almost total lack of biographical information about the playwright himself. It is also an approach to staging and interpreting plays that, as the controversy surrounding a recent production of Julius Caesar illustrates, remains with us today. The strength of Peter Lake’s How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage: Power and Succession in the History Plays lies precisely in its ability to keep these immediate references in view while also testing and extending the theoretical boundaries of what it might mean for drama to be political at all.

Lake is best known as a historian of the “post-reformation public sphere,” a term which aims to encapsulate how the ways in which people thought, talked, and wrote about topics of general interest were fundamentally transformed by the twinned historical developments of European religious fragmentation and a steady growth in the production and circulation of printed texts. And indeed, this book opens with a frank caveat that it will not provide a coherent literary-critical reading of political images or themes within Shakespeare’s body of work. What it does offer, by contrast, is a comprehensive account of the expansive networks of political thinking, activity, and conversation with which the playwright might have engaged over the course of his career.

Its inventive method is set forth in an extended opening section that places Shakespeare’s works within a broader narrative of the period’s political developments. Here, Lake sketches out both the dimensions of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century public sphere and the large-scale political intrigues that fueled its fevered experiments in genre and argumentation. The spine of this narrative is the “Elizabethan succession crisis”: a phenomenon that, as he acknowledges, is best characterized not so much as a discrete event but rather as a decades-long series of debates over the appropriate way for councilors and subjects to address the queen’s unwillingness to name an heir to the throne.

Some of the matter generated by these anxieties over the royal succession took the form of so-called “secret histories”: sensationalized accounts that claimed to expose the hidden machinations of England’s rulers. Most audaciously, a series of pamphlets composed by Catholic authors and circulated via semi-licit publishing ventures asserted that the queen was being duped into ceding her rightful powers and alienating England’s international allies by a web of sycophants, thereby paving the way for an eventual government takeover by religious radicals. As if to confirm these conspiracists’ greatest fears, the regime struck back not merely through violence or censorship but by responding in kind; even the esteemed administrator William Cecil, Lord Burghley sponsored (and perhaps penned) a set of ripostes disguised as replies from anonymous concerned citizens.

Without making the (probably unproveable) assertion that Shakespeare was himself a closet Catholic, and therefore uniquely sympathetic to those positions marginalized by England’s imperfect Protestant consensus—a possibility recently mined for dramatic effect by the television series Will—in the following sections Lake outlines significant and often surprising similarities between this polemical, hyper-partisan media landscape and the playwright’s much-vaunted capacity to comprehend and express all sides of a given issue within his works.

These discussions freely range across Shakespeare’s many history plays, with few attempts to organize them into a linear, chronological narrative or to produce a portrait of a single historical moment (the latter approach is nicely exemplified by James Shapiro’s work in A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606). The term “history play” is here taken in its broadest sense to signify not only his well-known dramatizations of England’s recent past, as in the sequence of monarchical Henry VI and Henry IV plays that dominated the public theater in the 1590s, but also those works that staged ancient or otherwise foreign histories for London audiences.

Among the features that these professional entertainments share with the impassioned volleys of religious polemic, Lake argues, is a basic understanding of how history works, and of what it is for. Whether on the stage or the furtively circulated page, “history” is never merely a neutral representation of past events: an aim which not even the most monumental printed histories from this period, like Raphael Holinshed’s multivolume Chronicles, set out to achieve. Rather, it comprises an endlessly malleable body of material that could be excerpted in private notebooks, referred to in conversation or debate, laboriously recopied or reprinted, and otherwise interpreted to address the circumstances of a given moment or to make a salient political point—precisely as did the antiquarian who recorded Elizabeth’s woeful self-comparison to Richard in 1601.

Richard II itself looms large in the analysis here, serving as it does to initiate a series of plays that reflect ambivalently on the legacy of seizing power and the failures of even the most competent rulers to achieve their aims. Across the span of several chapters (the book contains twenty-five), Lake deftly interweaves a reading of how Shakespeare’s plays linger curiously or disconsolately over the pressure points of royal succession with a history of debates on whether England should embrace a system of quasi-elective monarchy, in which the people themselves might select new leaders under certain circumstances. It is a mark of the book’s extraordinary reach that readers can follow Lake in tracing this and similar topics across decades, and through various genres and media that might, in a less thorough account, be treated as distinct or unrelated. Here, a single line of argument can extend from pseudonymous pamphlets accusing Lord Burghley of undermining royal power, through the fraught transfers of leadership portrayed in King John or Julius Caesar, and finally surface once more in Hamlet’s electrifying scene of Laertes bursting into the throne room, ringed by armed followers, to demand an audience with the king.

What unites all of these examples, in Lake’s valuable phrase, is not their place within a grand narrative of “Political Thought” but their contributions to a sustained practice of labile “political thinking.” As the conclusion to the book underscores, most plays from the period simply did not aspire to serve as definite “position papers” on political questions. When they did so, they most often resembled works like the 1561 tragedy Gorboduc, written by the politicians Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton with the possible aim of encouraging the young queen to marry. How, then, are we finally to understand the manifold ways in which Shakespeare’s plays not only drew inspiration from the post-Reformation public sphere, but also assumed an increasingly active role in reshaping it?

There are a few instances in which the playwright’s work does appear to offer some kind of muted commentary on specific persons or events. One notable case Lake recounts is that of Sir John Falstaff (the comic lodestar of the Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor), whose characterization may have prompted a noble descendant of the character’s original namesake, the religious reformer John Oldcastle, to issue a complaint. But even here the critical waters remain muddied by the existence of a now-lost play, more daringly titled Sir John Oldcastle, which may or may not bear a relationship to Shakespeare’s own portrayal of the fat knight.

Perhaps fittingly, however, it is not Falstaff but the Earl of Essex who figures most prominently in this account of the legacy of Shakespeare’s political drama. One of the book’s many achievements is to show how the stage might have registered the ascendancy, tragic climax, and prolonged fallout of what is described in several places as “the Essexian project”: the goal of the Earl and his followers to use all of the period’s discursive tools and modes, including the public theater itself, to gain insight into contemporary political events and to guide them toward their own benefit and the well-being of the state. That the project was a short-term failure by almost any measure is of little consequence for Lake, who suggests that later Shakespearean works like the 1602 Troilus and Cressida represent sober, sophisticated reflections on the new forms of political activity that might emerge from its ruins.

The book ultimately contends that these plays helped call into being precisely those communities of reception that would later puzzle over their suggestive, evasive allusions and significances. In doing so, it enriches our understanding both of Shakespeare as a political playwright and of the public sphere that englobes us still.

Andrew S. Brown is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Yale University, where his research examines how Renaissance playwrights engaged with emerging theories and institutions of representative government. Other interests include book history, Shakespearean performance and editing, law and literature, and the history of gender and sexuality.