Shakespeare "never became a 'citizen of London' in the
accepted legal and political sense of his time," but "the discourse and
disposition of London citizens imbue his plays" (1). Thus begins John
Archer's book on 'citizen language' in the plays of William Shakespeare,
a contribution to the field of Shakespeare studies that stands out in
its erudition, clarity, and genuine originality of approach. Organized
into three concise chapters that combine close reading, etymological analysis,
and London historiography, Citizen Shakespeare posits a succinct
argument for the need to reassess the language of Shakespeare's drama
in terms of the hopes, fears, jokes, and colloquialisms that constituted
the culture of London freemen and their wives in the early modern period.
Chapters are divided by genre. In Chapter 1, "Comedy:
Civil Sayings," Archer considers the degree to which plays like Measure
for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors,
and The Merchant of Venice might be seen as participating in the
'city' or 'citizen' comedy sub-genre. The emphasis in this analysis is
deliberately shifted away from issues of dramatic plot, setting, and theme,
to hone in instead on "the allusive and metaphorical language the characters
speak" (23). Redirecting the critical focus in this way, Archer shows
how Shakespearean comedy as a whole was intrinsically concerned with citizenship
status, particularly as it is defined against the status of the London
alien. Archer draws on an impressively broad knowledge of urban culture
to argue his position, ranging from education and pageantry to the multifarious
commercial practices of various citizen and alien communities within London.
"History: Civil Butchery" is the title of Chapter 2, and
here the author offers nothing less than "a complete rereading of urban
language and representation in all of Shakespeare's history plays" (71).
Although ostensibly concerned with elite politics and questions of royal
power, Shakespeare's histories, Archer maintains, harbor "an underworld
of citizen speech that brings the plays closer to many of their original
London audiences than the hieratic stage action at first suggests" (71).
A number of significant observations ensue: Bolingbroke speaks a markedly
popular and urban idiom prior to ascending the throne in Richard II;
Falstaff's plentiful comments on meat in the Henry IV plays produce
a "varied evocation of the butcher's trade" (103); and Henry V's
use of bee imagery, a conventional trope for monarchical polity in early
modern England, is actually deployed in an older, Virgilian sense, one
that is urban, not royal, and meant to conjure up the notion of the lawful
The final chapter, "Tragedy: What Rome?" traces the disassociation
of military from artisanal forms of citizenship across Shakespeare's Roman
tragedies. Particularly compelling here is Archer's reading of Coriolanus,
a drama in which this process of disassociation is "arguably the principal
burden of the play" (142). The tribunes of Coriolanus emerge from
Archer's analysis as captivatingly kaleidoscopic characters, embracing
aspects of the typical early modern livery-company magistrate, as well
as of the Roman politician.
The sheer number of plays that Citizen Shakespeare
manages to address in its three chapters is remarkable, and all the more
so considering that the book never feels rushed, cursory, or trite as
a result of its expansiveness. For its numerous fresh and original re-readings
of familiar Shakespearean plays alone, Citizen Shakespeare recommends
itself to scholars of early modern drama. However, the most significant
aspects of this book lie in some of the broader implications of its scholarship.
By uncovering a submerged layer of citizen language in the plays of Shakespeare,
Archer's study problematizes common suppositions about the playwright's
prevailing alignment with, and interest in, elite politics and aesthetics.
Also, in turning to the presence of communal forms of identity in the
plays, Citizen Shakespeare queries the viability of the characterological
modes of interpretation that still dominate the world of Shakespeare criticism,
something described by Archer as "an anachronistic liberal individualism"
For its astute analyses of individual plays, its nuanced
rethinking of communal vs. individual notions of identity, and the daring
challenges it issues to some of our most fundamental assumptions about
Shakespeare and his art, Citizen Shakespeare is a book that will
need to be read by anyone serious about the study of English Renaissance
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).