Oliver Arnold. The Third Citizen: Shakespeare's Theater and the Early Modern House of Commons. Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 2007. 308pp. ISBN 9780801885044.

Alison Searle
University of Sydney

Alison Searle . "Review of Oliver Arnold, The Third Citizen: Shakespeare's Theater and the Early Modern House of Commons."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 9.1-5<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-3/revarno.htm>.

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 historical plays.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).