Oliver Arnold challenges the tendency amongst early modern
literary scholars to conflate theatre and power. He traces the origin
of this equation to Stephen Greenblatt's seminal argument, but suggests
that it has been 'merely transmitted rather than tested or developed'
by subsequent critics (27); it has also been 'silently but significantly
altered.' Greenblatt 'limits the claim he makes for theatrical power'
- it is a primary expression, an essential mode, a crucial agent - however,
later critics according to Arnold posit that 'there is nothing outside
of theatrical power' (27-8). His study attempts to make this conflation
of theatrical and political representation problematic. This is achieved
through a fresh examination of 'Shakespeare's republican dramas...his
most rigorously political works' and a careful consideration of the political
functions fulfilled by the House of Commons as evident 'in the raising
of taxes and the making of statute law' (24). Arnold believes this provides
an important corrective to 'the new historicist map of early modern political
culture' which 'has very seldom stretched beyond crown and court' (24).
He begins by examining issues of absorption and representation
in the House of Commons during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. Despite
the fact that MPs figured their 'home' at St. Stephen's Chapel in Westminster
'as a public structure' where the people were 'deemed personally present'
(through their representatives) 'they used St. Stephen's to secure unprecedented
isolation from the public and to maintain secret proceedings' (47). Political
representation, in effect, prevented those represented from acting for
themselves. Several MPs, for example, cautioned James that 'many millions
of people, are representatively present in us of this house of Commons'
(69); this was a political rather than a legal fiction, but Arnold suggests
'political fictions, unlike legal fictions, tend to forget their own fictionality'
(69). The fiction that the House of Commons truly represented the English
people could only be maintained if they were barred from viewing the operations
of the assembly; if they were not, the frequency of absenteeism threatened
to undermine it. In an interesting aside, Arnold touches upon 'the intersections
between early modern theological and political constructions of representation'
(73-4). Following Hans-Georg Gadamer's theory that the Christian doctrine
of the incarnation completely reconfigures the concept of representation,
Arnold observes that the English theory of 'representative presence' was
developed in an era when the nature of the Eucharist was a matter of passionate
controversy: 'Representation...no longer means 'copy'...but 'replacement'...what
is represented is present in the copy' (74). By turning the Commons 'into
the body of the whole realm itself,' this 'incarnationist construction'
effectively 'excludes the people from the political institution they supposedly
empower' (74). And, despite the occasional selflessness of MPs - Arnold
quotes a 'beautiful' and 'heartfelt' example (74) - the Commons becomes
accountable to nothing outside itself, as the public it purports to represent
is, on this argument, contained by it.
The remainder of the study provides a close analysis
of several of Shakespeare's historical plays in order to further the overall
argument. Chapter Two explores the first tetralogy, tracing Jack Cade's
'usurpation of parliamentary legislation' as 'the tyrannical answer to
Henry [VI]'s abdication of the monarch's special role in Parliament' (90).
However, in an adroit turn, Arnold suggests that Cade transcends the 'contradictions
of parliamentary representation' by practising 'a politics of total presence'
(97-8). Cade's power is dependent on popular support, but he never attempts
to speak for the people: 'he articulates his aims...and submits himself
in his own person to the people in theirs....they are free to abandon
him' (97). Arnold draws a direct parallel with the politics of the popular
dictator, Julius Caesar, whose power, like Cade's, ultimately resides
in the people.
Chapter Three considers the charged relationship between
political representation, property and rape in Titus Andronicus and
The Rape of Lucrece. Arnold argues that attributing Shakespeare's
jumbling of 'tribunes, senators, and emperors' together in Titus Andronicus
to poor history is mistaken, rather he is attempting to show that 'political
representatives and emperors, Brutuses and Tarquins, are doubles rather
than opposites' (118). If one accepts the argument, it renders Shakespeare's
drama more politically radical than the suggestion that he gives eloquent
expression to the voices of the common people. The rape of Titus's daughter
Lavinia and her subsequent silence - it is postulated - 'figures the alienation
of the people's voices' in the play (118). The only 'articulate plebeian'
(133) is an illiterate Clown who, like Lavinia, is a pawn 'in Titus's
political machinations' (134). His illiteracy means that he is unable
to 'access the way Titus represents him' and the Clown 'metonymically
embodies the ghostly people of Rome' (134). In this play 'all representation
ends tragically' and Arnold claims that the Clown's fall, because of his
inability to read, 'implicates Shakespeare's audience' (134): it is a
'distinctly English story,' for 'one could escape the hangman by reading
a few lines of Scripture in Latin' (134, 136); the Clown, however, was
unable even to say the simple grace taught in children's catechisms.
Chapter Four focuses upon Julius Caesar, assessing
the intersections between theatrical performance, popular dictatorship
and republicanism. Here Arnold directly critiques the equation between
theatre and monarchic politics. The economic foundation of the professional
theatre means that it functions better as a model for popular politics
- in 'theaters and popular dictatorships,' unlike the republican government
symbolised by Brutus or the representative model offered by the House
of Commons, 'the people never fully and irrevocably yield their power
to judge' (165). The final chapter incorporates a reading of Coriolanus
and examines the transition from demos to electorate. In a move
that we might now expect, Arnold argues that Shakespeare's tribunes 'who
claim to stand, speak, and act for the people, are decidedly modern representatives'
(191); a rebellion designed to perfect 'the Roman Republic' is transformed
by Shakespeare into one 'that ends in the establishment of political representation'
(192); this was, perhaps, because he feared that 'the representatives
of the people might be oppressive masters rather than guardians of liberty'
(214). Though it is not the most scintillating read, this study provides
a carefully researched and reasoned analysis of power and political representation
in Shakespeare; it also makes an important case for the centrality of
the House of Commons in understanding the way such themes figure in his