John Archer. Citizen Shakespeare: Freemen and Aliens in the Language of the Plays. Early Modern Cultural Studies, 1500 - 1700. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005. xii+211pp. ISBN 1403966664.

Kevin Curran
McGill University

Curran, Kevin. "Review of John Archer, Citizen Shakespeare: Freemen and Aliens in the Language of the Plays". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 5.1-6<URL:>.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. "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 city-state.

  4. 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.

  5. 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" (5).

  6. 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 drama.

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    © 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).