Early Modern Literature and Culture

Ruminations

I’m driving a two-door 2001 gold grand am. The air conditioning no longer works after the transmission broke, wooden clothes pins and duct tape secure the windows. It must be August because I’m heading towards the city public library to flip through stacks of CD cases for a Canadian indie pop album. Is a locality with less than 10,000 residents a city? A town, maybe.

We had spent the summer in South-West Michigan working on the shores of a lake, teaching children about ecology. Cold mornings on the peninsula gave us the perfect excuse to have the kids make fire; transformation of endless consummation. A taurus, I don’t remember if I knew at the time. People thought we were dating, but that would be too simple of an explanation for how close we became. Over the years I would make trips to see you, and you’ll be the one to come find me when I move to New York.

As the disc sinks into the dashboard I imagine that the oncoming sounds will ease your absence.

Reading Disc

00:01

When there is nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire

The story is about two ex-lovers who smile as they are reintroduced by a distant friend. They share a taxi without saying a word – he can’t remember her name. The listener learns that it has been awhile since they’ve seen each other as the song progresses. There seems to have a been an inarticulable gap in their relationship when they were close. They fail to tell the same story of what they were; eithers experience of the relationship too excessive, or strikingly absent.

The melody belies the confidence that the two try to assert at the end of the song. Listeners know that something has been lost here, although neither persona can+ name it. The continual repetition of “I’m not sorry there’s nothing to say,” in face of the untranslatability of that which they lost, fills the space between them.

Freud says that melancholia differs from mourning in that it involves the loss of an ideal – a love object. The problem for the melancholic, Freud continues, is that they understand whom has been lost, but not what has gone missing; outside of their conscious awareness. Actually, what the object-loss has been eclipsed; the melancholic experiences the sense of ego-loss as libidinal energy withdraws into the ego once it’s severed from the love object; through insistent communication the melancholic becomes self-deprecating.

 

You asked me to move to New Jersey to take care of the house and I felt myself turn into a statue as the ground gave way beneath my feet.

 

Is this the nothing left, that prompts [us] to set [ourselves] on fire?

I am reminded of Donne:

But O, it must be burnt ; alas ! the fire

Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore

And made it fouler ; let their flames retire,

And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal

Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal

  • Holy Sonnets V.

One of the competing beliefs on melancholia in the Early Modern was that it was both a physical and spiritual disease. Already Freud’s obsessive fear and sorrow can be read. Gallenic tradition tells us that the melancholic has an excess of black bile; this could either be addressed by balancing the humors or through correcting the thought of the melancholic. Donne tells us that it is the ‘black sin’ that has lead the speaker wish to ‘drown [their] world with [their] weeping earnestly.’ Tears are not enough to cleanse the wound for the speaker – a husk calling to be burnt.

Is that what happens to our desire?

Firewood destroyed the same instant our passions realize.

 

You gifted me stones forged de la tierra, and a lantern that has never held a light.

 

Baudrillard says that objects provide an access point for understanding the inner life of a person; objects as external structuring devices of the psyche. They mediate a historical narrative of the relations between the owner, their ideologies, and other bodies.

 

What do you see when you look around your room?

I’m left with languid memories of late mornings when I still listened to the old fool.

The planets that I take note of this week are Saturn and Venus – Kronos and Aphrodite. While Venus resumed its direct progression on April 15th, we will have almost one-hundred and thirty more days of Saturn retrograde. Mediated reflections on the love that we’ve known and now is gone – the sharp crash of reality that we try to prevent.


Tyler Smart, an MA student in English at Syracuse University,  is primarily interested how space produces certain subjectivities, locally and transculturally, in literary and cultural imagination. Other research interests include cross-cultural influences, queer theory and the history of sexuality, subjectivity, phenomenology, eco-criticism, and post-humanism.

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Coda: Converting Art — Literature During Political Repression

I went to the Early Modern Conversions Symposium at the Folger Shakespeare Library with a hypothesis about the role of conversion in some of my own research. In the process of reading for my qualifying exams, I’ve noticed that Mary Magdalene keeps showing up in Early Modern literature — especially poetry or devotional prose written by men who had experienced some kind of religious conversion in their lives. Before they wrote about Mary Magdalene, some — like Henry Constable — converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, while others — like the Protestant Henry Vaughan and the Catholic Robert Southwell, S.J. — underwent intra-denominational conversion, wherein they reformed their professional and literary aspirations in order to sharpen their focus on the divine.

On the face of things, Mary Magdalene’s recurrence throughout decades of English literature is not an unexpected fact: biblical subjects were popular ones in Early Modern poetry on both sides of the Reformation. What renders this a curious fact is the history of Mary Magdalene’s representation in earlier English literature. Before the English Reformation, Mary Magdalene was the star of the famous and often-produced Digby mystery play fittingly called Mary Magdalene.

As I wrote earlier, Elizabeth banned the production of any religious subjects on stage, let alone mystery plays, which once had been one of the most essential ways of communicating Catholic religious principles and traditions to a mass, generally illiterate, audience. It’s not surprising that Mary Magdalene’s story had been a popular one to stage: in a conflation of a few gospel narratives, Mary Magdalen was a prostitute who extravagantly repented of her sexual sins by washing Christ’s feet with her tears and hair and anointing him with expensive perfume; having transferred her love for sex to love for Christ, she appears as one of the women who remains with Christ at his crucifixion, and she weeps at the tomb when she sees that her beloved’s corpse has gone missing. Her narrative is highly visual, full of erotic tension, and contains just the right amount of inspiration porn to urge a religious audience to convert their hearts like Mary.

Domenico Tintoretto’s The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1598, a painting depicting a half-naked woman praying amid reed mats, a skull, a crucifix, a book, and a bowl. Her brown curls are fabulous.]

“Thank you, God, for a good hair day today.”

Without the legal means to stage truly biblical conversion stories like these, Elizabethan and Jacobean literary artists necessarily had to find other media in which to work. A genre like poetry or devotional prose offered an interesting advantage over the essay or the sermon: they had connotations of intimacy, not publicity. Published collections, if they were published in the author’s lifetime, were often prefaced by long, exaggerated declamations of humility insisting that the author’s friends or a sense of duty had made them publish it against their own great reservations — not because they had designs on exposing the masses to a Catholic aesthetic. Even Southwell (who, as a Jesuit missionary, did have designs on converting the hearts of his audience) declared in the dedication of his devotional prose work “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears” that he wished to “alter the object” of men’s “[p]assions … and loves” — a perfectly nondenominational desire to reform (sexual) desire.

Political restrictions on public expression also impacted how writers conceived of their private faith, shifting their attention to the interior experience of spiritual self-reformation over its external manifestation — no sackcloth and ashes here, but rather serious reflection on what it means to have conformed one’s heart to God’s will, a thought process often articulated in literary words. The Mary Magdalene depicted in these converts’ writing is not the same Mary Magdalene of the mystery plays. Yes, she converts herself from sex worker to saint, and her desire for Christ supplants her lust for flesh, but as a convert her personality doesn’t really change: her affection for Christ is still highly eroticized as she longs for his resurrected body, and she still has a predilection for the sensory and sensual. Perhaps Mary Magdalene’s conversion is not dramatized precisely because, to these Early Modern converts concerned with what makes a convert, the elements of interest in her story do not reside in the spectacular outward gestures of her conversion — her tears and perfumes and kisses — but rather her interior motivation to make these gestures and to convert her soul.

Titian’s Noli me tangere, c. 1512, a painting depicting a bearded man, trying to hold his shroud on with one hand with a staff in his other, as a woman in red and white crawls toward him, her right hand raised; a village on a hill and farmland are in the background.]

But “Noli me tangere” brings new meaning to “No touch-y.”

Indeed, in contrast to the transfiguration fulfilled in the body of the risen Christ, Mary Magdalene undergoes an internal metamorphosis with no impact on her body. In his poem to her, Vaughan exclaims, “How art thou changed!”, before observing that “thy beauty doth still keep / Bloomy and fresh” (my emphasis). The idea that she can be changed, while still looking exactly the same, speaks to an understanding that profound conversions do not always have visible consequences. Instead, Mary Magdalene’s conversion changes her interiority: marveling at the profound effects that her love for Christ has on her character, Southwell asks, “Can it thus alter sex, change nature, and exceed all art?” — even the art of theatrical representation.

In a complex way, Early Modern political repression of certain artistic genres helped change not only which art was most useful to understanding one’s faith but also how artists used that art to understand their political and spiritual conditions. Elizabethan and Jacobean artists still did not have much choice about how they wrote, as not even poetry was completely safe: the Jesuit Henry Walpole was run out of England for writing a poem celebrating Edmund Campion, a Jesuit martyr, and the poem’s printer infamously had his ears cut off for publishing it. But even under repression, artists find ways to capture the changing world.


Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

Legalizing Repression: “Muslim Registries” and English Recusants

On my last day at the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium — blissfully unaware that nazis were meeting just down the Washington Mall — I spent part of my lunch break with the Folger’s rare books and manuscript collections. I didn’t have long to submit my request the afternoon before, so I did a quick catalogue search and picked documents almost at random authored by the Surrey Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants, an organization I knew nothing about but whose name held promising keywords. Not until I sat down in the Paster Reading Room and pulled the manuscripts from their grey envelopes did I realize the history I was holding in my hands. These sixteenth-century documents contained lists of indicted recusants, sent to local and national English authorities for the purpose of tracking and condemning religious and political treason.

As the threat of “Muslim registries” continues to linger after American lawmakers announced their support for such a tracking database, a number of writers have traced the connection of this desire for legalized discrimination/preemptive criminalization to other moments in recent history: the Bush administration’s NSEERS program, the Japanese internment, and the Holocaust. Each of these campaigns relied heavily on information processing, especially the collection of personal data which the state then weaponized against a domestic population. Modern computerized data processing certainly facilitated repression in these cases, and still promise to in the case of “Muslim registries,” but the roots of counting and criminalizing a whole class of people stretch much further back in history.

The Post-Reformation English state expended a great deal of resources on identifying, harassing, and condemning those who had failed to convert to, or had converted from, the state religion — the Church of England. Attendance at Church of England services was mandatory, and tracking attendance was one of the chief means of tracking non-conformists, including Anabaptists, Arminianists, Familists, but chiefly Catholics. Failure to attend resulted in fines, and also raised suspicions (as did too-frequent refusal of communion). Other religious transgressions were considered high treason: harboring a priest, facilitating the celebration of mass, or simply being a priest within England’s borders. High treason carried the death penalty and the forfeiture of property which would have benefitted one’s living descendants. Authorities could conduct raids on a household at any time in search of priests, vestments, and nonconformist texts and paraphernalia; the household would have to pay the authorities for the cost of the search.

Because there was no difference between the English church and the English state, transgression against the Church of England was transgression against the whole nation. Catholics were vilified as devilish foreign agitators, automatic enemies of the English people determined to replace the English monarch with the Whore of Babylon (otherwise known as the pope); other non-conformists were similarly foreignized and othered, in spite of their being born in English territory.

welshman

Welshman who claimed he was Christ, tho.

 

The documents I looked at in the Folger’s collection show how the English state orchestrated the tracking and regulation of religious nonconformity at every level. In Surrey, the Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants recorded the indictments of local residents who failed to appear in church. One severely damaged handwritten document from 1572 describes the early days of the Commission, when it was formed at the express order of the Privy Council (Elizabeth’s inner circle, a kind of cabinet), and the bureaucratic tracking measures put in place in order to regulate and eliminate their impact on the security of the Protestant English state.

Image One.jpg

Another handwritten document (L.b. 241), on a sheet of parchment folded into its own envelope, was a 1581 arrest warrant for Jane Honyall, who had been a recusant for four years and was a suspected Catholic. This was one of a series of three documents pertaining to Hornyall; the other two (L.b. 199 and L.b. 208, respectively) concern the vicar and churchwardens of Egham, who were compelled to be witnesses to her years-long absence and also confirm that there were “no other recusants, massing priests or Jesuits in the parish” — lest the queen’s authorities suspect a cell of rebel Catholics was growing under the churchmen’s noses. Hornyall’s warrant includes three signed seals, quite literally officially sealing her fate.

Image Two.jpg

Later, in a 1582 document (L.b. 219), the fully-fledged Commission listed in handwritten columns of indictments who had been convicted or released through the intercession of the Privy Council, and who had been imprisoned or “conformed” (officially repented and returned to church).

Image Three.jpg

Other documents in the More Family of Losely Park, Surrey, collection — from which the above documents come — include official descriptions of the finances of different recusants and their ability to pay the fines levied against them.

That’s because this kind of tracking and regulating of minorities is never really about “domestic security” — hardly so. “Domestic security” uses an imaginary threat of foreign (or foreignized) “others” to mask policies that socially and financially benefit an elite few — usually, the financially and ethnically elite, although in England’s case religion came to operate as a kind of ethnic identity which conversion never truly erased. By inventing an overwhelmingly generalized set of policies, the elite secure the participation of the majority of the population in executing and sustaining those policies, even if only the elite continue to benefit from them. Before Nazi Germany legislatively stole property from Jews, the US from the First Nations and Japanese-Americans, and Israel from Palestinians, Elizabethan England systematically deprived English Catholics of their stake in England. Serial fines could slowly drain Catholic families of their financial resources, and a family member convicted of treason could deplete a family of everything all at once. John Gerard, an English Jesuit who survived to write about his mission work in England, described how many poor Catholics were dependent on the charity of the remaining property-owning Catholics who had so far escaped retribution. The property of persecuted Catholics of course would have gone back to the use of the Crown, not the people.

US Muslim-tracking policies — whether their targets are new immigrants who have to periodically check in with federal authorities or lifetime citizens covertly observed at their local university or place of worship — troublingly echo the technological and ideological systems of repression that supported the imprisonment, impoverishment, and death of minorities in our national and global history. Though the medium may have been different — handwriting instead of digital text, personal witness rather than metadata tracking — the method is nothing new.

Photos of manuscripts appear courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

A row of stage crew and actors in eighteenth-century-style costumes stands on a stage; an actor stands in front of them reading from a small piece of paper; the shadowed heads of audience members are visible in the foreground.]

Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.” — Brandon Victor Dixen

On the Friday night after our first full day of the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium, I did quite possibly the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done: from my hotel room near the Capitol Building, I spent an hour calling my representatives in support of the Affordable Care Act and against Jeff Sessions, and turned on the original cast recording of Hamilton.

At the same time, in our nation’s original capital, New York City, a very special performance of Hamilton was underway — the performance attended by the recently-declared Vice-President Elect Mike Pence. There, in the Richard Rodgers Theater, was everybody’s least favorite advocate of gay “conversion” therapy. Theater, and conversion.

The coincidence wasn’t lost on any of us attending the symposium. I spent the night constantly refreshing my Twitter feed, watching the NYC audience react emotionally — applauding when Rory O’Malley’s King George sang “Do you know how hard it is to rule?” in Pence’s direction, chanting “Immigrants: we get the job done” with the cast, and cheering when Brandon Victor Dixon’s Aaron Burr implored Pence to “uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us.” Other colleagues watched the outraged and troubling reaction from Trump and Pence (respectively) on loop in the morning news in the hotel exercise room. Back at the Folger, we started the next day with the Conversion Project’s Stephen Wittek (McGill) reminding us of the increasing importance and timeliness of our research on the peculiar power of theater — its ability to bind together strangers in a common visceral experience and convert their hearts.

Theater is a powerful phenomenon, both for the Early Moderns and for us today. It combines words and flesh live on the stage to lead an audience through a physically unmediated and very immediate communal experience. Because of its power to affect and effect, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theater was heavily regulated. Anti-theatrical commentators like William Prynne and Philip Stubbes argued that theater’s ability to create lifelike verisimilitude in representing the murder of kings and the seduction of maidens helped stir audience members to wrath and lust, leading them to commit acts of treason and to join after-show orgies. Elizabeth I wasn’t quite as suspicious of theater as these writers, but she still ensured that a limited number of performances licenses were distributed to cautiously censored texts, preventing audiences from getting too many ideas about regicide or, crucially, schismatic beliefs.

Representation of Christianity — whether of biblical narratives or of wedding rites — was outright forbidden on the Early Modern English stage. Partly, this was meant to suppress the performance of mystery plays: once involving entire towns in their production as an act of worship, they were made illegal as too idolatrous or just too Catholic to allow lest they facilitate communities’ ideological schism from the Church of England. Partly, representation of the thing on the stage was thought to make possible the thing itself in the real world. If Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was reported to conjure real demons at one of its performances, performing England’s Catholic past threatened to make that ideological past the reality of the present. As religious-studies scholar Torrance Kirby (McGill) observed in his paper on the rhetorical theater of St. Paul’s Cathedral sermons, by the turn of the seventeenth century, one’s religion was no longer determined by “sacrament” or heritage, but rather one’s susceptibility to a “culture of persuasion.” The theater was too powerful a persuader to remain unregulated if the crown wanted the Church of England to remain the church of state.

Perhaps, when Trump demanded that addresses like the Hamilton cast’s “not happen” and Pence intimated that the theater wasn’t an “appropriate venue” for Dixon’s speech, their subconsciouses understood that theatrical power to persuade; perhaps that’s why they would have theater censored in their respective ways. But for those of us who value free speech and the powerful world of (in Dixon’s words) “different colors, creeds and orientations” that the production of Hamilton imagines, the theater is one especially important setting that will still endeavor to convert hearts in the new administration.


Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

A row of people with their right hands raised; some hold documents and small American flags in their left hands; spectators crowd on the steps behind them.

Un/natural Citizens: Naturalization and Conversion

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President …” (US Constitution)

“Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress” (USCIS)

November 2016. In the week after the election, when white supremacists were convening in Washington, DC, a group of scholars gathered on the other side of Washington at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where we discussed the politics of conversion in Early Modern theatre. Throughout the symposium, a collaboration with McGill’s Early Modern Conversions project, the past pressed heavily on the current political situation in America — 425 years later and an ocean away. This month, I will share some of the more powerful moments that resonated with me, in the city where laws and policies that will impact our future will be made.

But first, a detour. Like most Americans, my family comes from immigrants: some from seventeenth-century England, some from twentieth-century Lebanon, and everywhere in between. In one post-election conversation, a relative who recently earned their US citizenship expressed dismay that they could run for a senatorial office but could never become president. As we all know from the “birther” controversy, the US Constitution declares that only a “natural born citizen” can serve as president. Constitutional scholars and courts repeatedly interpret that phrase as referring to only a person granted so-called “birthright citizenship” — generally, someone born in the US or to an American parent.

In theory, for the Founding Fathers, that provision would have prevented England from planting a foreign-born US citizen who would get elected President and reunite America with England against the will of the American people …

meet-the-pr-firm-that-helped-vladimir-putin-troll-the-entire-country

But who needs a foreign-born naturalized citizen to sabotage a nation, right?

 

… However, this constitutional clause continues to make so-called “naturalized citizens” in effect second-class citizens by mere accident of their birth. Though these former foreign nationals are given all the ordinary rights and privileges of “natural-born” citizens, the extraordinary eligibility for presidency remains exclusive to those with “birthright citizenship.” There remains an assumed latent threat inherent in the foreign location of their birth.

This conversation reminded me of the research on English Jewish converts to Christianity presented by Steven Mullaney (University of Michigan) at the Folger. From the eleventh into the eighteenth century, the Domus Conversorum (“House of Converts”) in London housed and boarded Jews who converted to Christianity and found themselves displaced from their former communities. With financial support from the state, converts lived together in pseudo-monastic community. Though they took no vows, they remained apart from the rest of the world — among neither their Jewish nor their born-Christian brethren. They existed in an in-between state in an in-between space.

Home for converted Jews, or Domus Conversorum, Oxford

“Home for converted Jews, or Domus Conversorum, Oxford” from J.R. Green’s A Short History of the English People (Macmillan, 1892).

Like the conversos of Inquisition-era Spain, Jewish converts in Early Modern England were treated as inherently suspicious, their fidelity always under question. Even though they had embraced what the English political system deemed to be the only true faith, in so doing they walked away from their heritage and family, which could be read as an essential act of betrayal. Anyone that could play the turncoat once was presumed to be inclined to do it again. One never fully shook their former identity. Thus, residents at the Domus Conversaron remained sequestered where they never got the opportunity to fully integrate into the English Christian community. In the wider English cultural imagination, there was always a threat that the converted Jew would revert to their former way of being.

The same applies to many naturalized American citizens, especially those whose otherness is visible or audible in their body. Though the constitutional ban on achieving the presidency might be the only explicit demarcation of naturalized citizens’ second-class citizenship, that contingency extends into the day-to-day operations of American political culture. Any naturalized citizen who has been asked where they’re “really” from has experienced the contingency of their status as an American, as if the Americanness they chose to adopt were somehow less real, less essential than the nationality they were born into.

Much of the xenophobic rhetoric lobbed around during and since the 2016 election, calling for Latinx-Americans to “go back where they came from” and for Muslim-Americans to seek out the terrorists in their communities, marks the limits of citizenship even for natural-born citizens whose allegiances are expected to be somewhere outside the invisible borders of America. Their American roots are anticipated to be shallower than those of white Christian Americans, more readily excavated or corrupted. Like the residents of the Domus Conversaron, their doubted loyalty to the nation alienates them from American political systems and their perpetual alienation prevents them from ever fulfilling white America’s artificial criteria for full Americanness. They remain in-between.


Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

“Report Me and My Cause Aright:” Hamlet and the Political Power of Dramatic Narrative

During the final scene of Hamlet, the titular prince makes use of his dying breaths to command two things of Horatio.  First, he commands Horatio to affirm that Fortinbras “has his dying voice” (5.2.393) thus giving him legitimacy to take the throne of Denmark.  Second, he orders Horatio to tell Fortinbras the story of Hamlet’s actions that have led up to this point in the play.  Horatio obliges and the final fifty lines serve to wrap up the political loose ends of the text and casually confirm that Fortinbras will be the new king of Denmark, signaling the cleansing of Danish politics in the wake of Claudius’s death.

Death_of_Hamlet_-_Henry_Selous.jpg

Hamlet is far from unique in the way that it concludes with a significant regime change signifying the exorcizing of a dangerous political force that has brought ruin upon the state.  Richard III, King Lear, and Macbeth all end with the destruction of a familial line and the flourishing possibility that something better will take its place.[1]  These plays, despite their tragic conclusions, at the very least offer up the possibility of a hopeful future, one in which a new regime can cleanse the state of the problems created by that which was there previously.  However, in Hamlet this requires the figure of Horatio to dramatize the events of the play to Fortinbras, both to validate Hamlet’s actions as well as affirm the legitimacy of the new monarchy.  While Horatio may be commanded to speak the truth, the language of his final speech is decidedly a language which seeks to paint Hamlet in a positive light and affirm the moral and political validity of his act of regicide, suggesting that the full version of his recollection will emphasis Claudius’s schemes and the moral punishment that he has justifiably received.  It is, in part, Horatio’s story and its valorization of Hamlet’s actions which will assist in smoothing the transition from a Danish monarch to a Norwegian monarch.

The language of these final fifty lines has a decidedly meta-theatrical tone, treating the bloody court as a stage that must be cleared for a new audience of nobles who will hear Horatio’s tale.  In the conclusion of Hamlet, the power of theatrical narrative is deeply connected to the authorization of a new political regime in Denmark.  A bloody and chaotic act of revenge and regicide, concluding with the destruction of the former Danish monarchy, can be understood by the surviving nobles and their anxiety surrounding the future of Danish politics can be eased with the power of Horatio’s telling of Hamlet’s narrative, which will ideally give the nobles cause to welcome Fortinbras and acknowledge his “rights of memory in this kingdom” (5.2.433).  It is not a triumphant ending, yet it is one which leverages the capacity of storytelling to make sense of what appears to be a senseless shift in political power, occurring almost at random.

I bring up this commentary on the role of narrative story telling at the conclusion of Hamlet as it seems to speak to the main thrust of my commentary during this month of blog posts.   While we may not be as explicit as Shakespeare makes Horatio, I have been examining ways in which we utilize and manipulate the form of dramatic narrative as a way of understanding the political reality in which we live.  Horatio does this rather transparently, using his privileged voice as a recorder of the events of Hamlet to justify and validate the actions of Hamlet, thus soothing the anxiety of a foreign takeover that would be felt by the fictional audience of nobles as well as the literal London audience watching the fictional state of Denmark’s fall.  Further, Horatio has the luxury of an actual audience having witnessed the events that preceded the final moments of the play.  However, the examples I have looked at this month seem to function in a similar capacity, interpreting and rewriting Shakespeare’s texts in order to make sense of the text and provide a clear and understandable narrative which will ease, or at the very least explain, an anxiety that the audience is feeling about their political moment.   We may never see Horatio explain Hamlet to Fortinbras, but his final lines imply that he will be both figuratively and literally reinterpreting the text of Hamlet in order to make sense of a moment of political disorder and potential unrest.  In this way, Horatio becomes a representative of the kinds of narrative reinterpretations that I have been looking at this month, as he seems to literalize the act of using a theatrical text to understand and justify a particular political problem (here, the question of what will become of the Danish monarchy).

My work as a scholar primarily focuses upon these moments in which the theater served as a site for negotiating political anxieties and it is fascinating to see the early modern theater still being mobilized as a site that affords audiences a space to work through their concerns regarding the state of the political landscape.  In pieces such as the Stephen Greenblatt op-ed that inspired this topic, there remains a sense that dramatic narrative offers up the possibility for easing political anxiety.  If we are worried about how a tyrant might come to power, we need only read Richard III to understand how to arm ourselves against him.  While this is neither unique to Shakespeare, nor is it as powerful of a site as it once was, the idea that a careful enough examination of theatrical texts can lead to a deeper understanding of political problems and their solutions seems to remain strong.

Owing to his privileged place within our cultural imaginations, there seems to be a conscious desire to make Shakespeare relevant to our contemporary political tribulations.[2]  As an educator who plans on having to teach the political elements of Shakespeare’s works, this desire carries with it a sense that narrative offers something unique for teaching students about thinking through current anxieties.  Many universities still require some level of exposure to Shakespeare’s works, so there is a strong impulse to communicate a sense of contemporary relevance for the cluster of students who might not be particularly interested in the political affairs of 16th century monarchs; one of the ways in which we do this is precisely through the constant reimagining of Shakespeare’s works in order to make them more immediately relevant to our own political moment, and this is not an impulse that I would imagine will become less relevant as time passes.  Ideally, this series of blog posts has shed some new light on the difficulties that must be overcome if we are to utilize Shakespeare and other writers to understand contemporary political problems without completely abandoning the idea that there is some merit to turning towards past narrative to help us understand present day politics.

[1] In Macbeth and Richard III that something new takes the form of a family line which legitimized the then ruling monarch.  Another example of how difficult it can be to disconnect Shakespeare’s plays from his own political reality.

[2] This is by no means only true of political concerns, as Shakespeare is often mobilized in this vein to help us understand any number of contemporary issues.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of peace between Rome and its enemies.[1]  In the 1930s, the play was briefly banned in France over the perception that the narrative, one of a powerful war hero brought low whose attempts to govern are destroyed by a population that is given too great a voice, could be too easily understood as pro-fascist.[2]  Likewise, the play was heavily critiqued in post-war Germany for being too militaristic and doing too much to celebrate the image of the glorious warrior brought low by his own fellow citizens, demonstrating that during times of particular political anxiety, Coriolanus tends to return to the public eye.

Fiennes Coriolanus.jpg

Fiennes’ Coriolanus

In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a version of Coriolanus which brings to the forefront a number of key political questions raised by the text.  The production ostensibly takes place in a setting meant to be associated with Rome, as indicated by its title cards and maintenance of the play’s language and characters, but the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, with modern dress and a presentation of warfare that is modeled after military conflicts from the last two and a half decades.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus centralizes the impact that his time at war had upon Coriolanus, bringing to the production an interpretation that focuses on a post-9/11 investment in the state in which soldiers return from war.  It transforms the play into a meditation on the impact that war has, both on the individual and the society that sends those individuals to fight. Fiennes also modernizes the political crisis occurring in Rome.  In his version, Brutus and Sicinius, for instance, are presented as wealthy political insiders whose appearance and actions invoke a modern discourse of class struggle and income inequality, framing them as clearly distinct from the much poorer citizens whom they manipulate into banishing Coriolanus. Critical of both the actions of Coriolanus and the state of perpetual warfare that has impacted both the tragic hero and the citizens of Rome, Fiennes’s vision of the play attempts to utilize Shakespeare’s tragedy as a site for contemplating then-contemporary issues of war and its impact upon citizens.

Earlier this month I quoted Thomas Marc Parrott’s criticism that we could not think of Shakespeare as having an opinion on democracy, and while he certainly wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on the kind of representative democracy that we are most familiar with, the text of Coriolanus does not shy away from examining the idea of the consent of the governed.  It is a play in which a civilian rabble becomes the tool of a small cabal of aristocrats who oust Coriolanus, and the early scenes of the play present the rabble as easily strung along by learned Roman rhetoricians, suggesting the dangers of placing too much authority within the hands of the population.  In addition, if we are to read Coriolanus as a tragic hero, even one brought low by his pride, we must at least entertain his suggestions that the populace of Rome is making a grand error in banishing him, as they are banishing one of their betters, a belief that Coriolanus returns to time and time again.  This is, perhaps, a moment in which it is worthwhile to remember that in Elizabethan England debates over the merits of the consent of the governed and democratic rule were often very pessimistic about the capacity of the citizens of a nation to govern themselves.

Fiennes seems to deny this somewhat pessimistic attitude towards the populace’s complicity in the tragedy of Coriolanus with his presentation of the assorted Roman citizens.  His version centralizes their plight and their desire to resist a Roman system that denies them access to food, with an opening scene framing Roman defense of its grain supply as a militarized police force led by a fatigue-wearing Coriolanus beating back hungry protesters.  While the argument that we are meant to side with the citizens in Shakespeare’s play is by no means unfounded, Fiennes’ invocation of contemporary political struggles against state sanctioned violence leverages a very modern understanding of political crises in order to frame Coriolanus as a tragically flawed individual.  We read Coriolanus’s speech concerning the instability, intemperance, and ignobility of the citizens as proud, unfounded, and misguided in large part because of the visual language of this scene, rather than extracting that interpretation wholesale from the original text that Fiennes recites.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

There is, in this vision of Coriolanus, a certain desire to collapse the current and the historical, both to demonstrate a series of momentarily important political ideas but also to point towards their seeming timelessness nature.  An implicit idea present in Fiennes’ Coriolanus is that the lessons of the text of Coriolanus have a specific relevance that transcends the historical moment of its original production.  This, however, requires Fiennes to traffic in a language of visual and political iconography that makes these lessons legible to a modern audience far removed from the world of the Roman aristocracy.  I bring this up not to denigrate Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but to suggest that the act of attempting to find specific modern lessons in these plays necessarily requires us to reconstruct Shakespeare’s texts to suit our current political climate and we must remain aware of this practice of reconstructing Shakespeare when we attempt to garner political lessons from his plays.

The function of this examination of Coriolanus isn’t to produce a unified reading of the play’s political message, but rather to demonstrate how malleable that message becomes when we attempt to understand it with contemporary eyes.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not a more or less valid representation of Shakespeare’s text, but it is transparently bringing a highly modern perspective to the text in order to make its political commentary clear.  This does not invalidate the things that Fiennes’ production can teach us about the political questions that inform Coriolanus, but it demonstrates the ways in which any attempt to parse out the lessons of a text necessarily brings to bear our own political investments upon that text.  This is true for the audiences in the first half of the 20th century who saw the play uncomfortably courting with fascism, and it is true in the case of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which attempts to use that same text to understand a set of more contemporary questions about war, social dissidence, and the consent of the governed.

[1] This is, admittedly, a highly abridged account of Coriolanus.  A full treatment of the play’s richly complex handling of issues such as the construction of masculine identity, the role of motherhood in the lives of individuals and the state or its examinations of the costs of war alone would consume an entire blogpost.

[2] Coriolanus is far from the only play that has garnered attention for how it might help us understand fascism.  For a particularly unsubtle example, see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

“In Troy There Lies the Scene”: Teaching Students to Think about Shakespeare

While teaching Troilus and Cressida this semester, one of the assignments that my students were tasked with was to write an essay on the ways in which the play made visible or commented upon an issue that was facing 16th century England.  Students were given a brief lesson on the political and social troubles of early modern England, then they were told to construct an argument which would demonstrate a line of continuity between Shakespeare’s reading of the Trojan War and the contemporary troubles facing London audiences.  Underlying this assignment was an assumption that looking at this play would offer students greater access to the historical problems facing theater goers in the 16th century, but also that these were deliberate inclusions within the play that theater going audiences would have picked up on.  At the time, I didn’t think about it, but looking back on it, this assignment was constructed to teach students to look for ways in which art teaches us lessons about the contemporary historical moment, even when the subject matter that the text is drawing from frames itself as temporally distant.  While not a perfect parallel, we were teaching students to think of Shakespeare’s texts as “containing” veiled contemporary commentaries that could be unearthed with through and careful examination.

This is not to suggest that such an endeavor isn’t worth having students undertake.  Troilus and Cressida, itself being a reworking both of legend of the Trojan War as well as a somewhat explicit reimagining of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, does examine many of the political concerns that would be of interest to a contemporary British audience and it deliberately reworks a number of the issues that Chaucer raised in his 1380 poem.[1]  The play, for instance, features an early monologue during which Ulysses pontificates on the nature of social hierarchy and the dangers that would result if the political hierarchy (that places Ulysses at the top) were called into question.  Pleading for order and stability within the Grecian camp, he suggests that “[t]ake but degree away, untune the string,/ And hard what discord follows.  Each thing meets/ In mere oppugnancy”.[2] This speech, regardless of whether we read it as a critique of Ulysses’ support for a system that benefits him at the expense of others or we read it as an endorsement of Ulysses views on the importance of a stable social hierarchy, would be of particular relevance to an Early Modern audience with very real concerns about the stability of the English monarchy.[3]  Here, Shakespeare is mobilizing a shared cultural literary memory to begin to think through the very different political conditions of Early modern England, or at the very least, this is the move that we ask our students to identify Shakespeare making.

This is a mode of processing the past that Shakespeare would return to frequently.  Owing to strict censorship laws and tightening government control over the theater, any attempt to address the contemporary political climate in Tudor and Stuart England needed to be moved outside of the present moment.[4]  This created a practical explanation for Early Modern playwrights use of the past as a site to understand their own historical moment.   While we give students the tools to understand these historical contexts and the reasons that Shakespeare might use Ulysses as a voice to critique or affirm the status quo, there is still a sense in which we are teaching students to approach literature as a site in which truths about a contemporary world can be made visible to an audience regardless of setting or surface level content.  This isn’t meant to be understood as a value judgement against this approach to teaching literature, as I think there is a value in thinking about how this mode of teaching students allows us to think of Shakespeare as both an author who lived in a very specific historical moment and a writer who is still worth reading four hundred years after his death.

This is, however, not quite the same thing as turning to Shakespeare to understand our contemporary political moment.  I feel that the assignment I’ve described lays the ground work for logics that allow us to see our historical moment in Shakespeare, but to see our world in Shakespeare, we need to impose parts of our world upon Shakespeare (or any literary text).  Just as Shakespeare brought a 16th century world view to Troilus and Criseyde in order to make Chaucer’s Trojan epic more contemporarily relevant, we too bring a 21st century worldview to Shakespeare so that we can make visible the elements of the text that help us make sense of our contemporary political moment.  Sometimes, this is done rather explicitly, as with modern retellings of the play or adaptations which make significant thematic changes.  Other times, the move is subtler, simply directing readers to carefully examine a specific element of the plays so that our contemporary experiences can be more easily written onto them, as I see happening in Greenblatt’s op-ed piece on Richard III.  Next week, I plan to examine some examples of repurposing Shakespeare for political purposes in order to continue thinking about the various ways in which contemporary audiences turn to Shakespeare as a means of understanding the political world in which they live.

[1] Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is much more cynical than Troilus and Criseyde, and it is much more explicit it its rejection of a greater spiritual order that will render political conflicts on earth less meaningful.

[2] Troilus and Cressida I.iii.113-115

[3] Dating Shakespeare’s plays is difficult, but Troilus and Cressida was likely written either near the very end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign or near the beginning of James I’s.

[4] Shakespeare frequently addressed this problem by setting his plays in the Pre-Tudor past or on the European continent.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes:” Using Shakespeare to Understand Contemporary Politics

“Living when he did, Shakespeare could no more be democratic or anti-democratic then he could be a motorist.”

                  ­-Thomas Marc Parrott, Twenty-Three Plays and Sonnets

On October 8th, Stephen Greenblatt wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times which sought to argue that through a detailed close reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, we could better understand the state of the 2016 US Election.  He argues that Richard III represents a play in which Shakespeare dramatizes the rise of a tyrant into power through the consent of the governed, despite how apparent his evil was to everyone around him.  In this argument, Richard III becomes a cautionary tale, one that teaches its audience a lesson about the dangers of political complacency and the abdication of one’s responsibility as a political subject, whether that political subject is a low ranking early modern aristocrat or a swing-state voter in 2016.  The politics of this particular editorial are fairly transparent, but what interests me is the mobilization of Shakespeare’s Richard III as an exemplum of a political reality that remains relevant to readers over four centuries after Shakespeare’s death.  Here, a play about the rise of a usurping king and a political rebellion against an absolute monarch becomes a lesson about the importance of active and informed participation within a system of democracy that would be incomprehensible to even the few republics of Early Modern Europe, let alone the subjects of the English Monarchy.

Here, I don’t intend to criticize Greenblatt’s reading of the play, but I am more invested in the underlying impulse, specifically the implication that Shakespeare, if approached properly, can reveal grand truths about the state of our current lives.   Greenblatt goes so far as to conclude his editorial by claiming, “Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny ability to reach out beyond their original time and place and to speak directly to us.  We have long looked to him, in times of perplexity and risk, for the most fundamental human truths.”  Variants of this appeal seem to represent a justification for the continued study of Shakespeare.  In this model, Shakespeare becomes a unique literary site for understanding the world around us, and if we can simply read a play like Richard III well enough, we can understand the issues in our current historical moment that would appear inexplicable.

Richard III is an interesting case study for complicating this desire to find timeless political truths within the canon of Shakespeare.  Richard III, despite being a play about an English king, is not really a history in the sense that we might understand the word today.  The play itself draws heavily upon carefully crafted bits of Tudor propaganda which sought to validate the current ruling regime in England.  The play, which documents the fall of the tyrant Richard III, implicitly celebrates the rebellion of King Henry VII, first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of the sitting Queen Elizabeth I.  The play’s framing of King Richard as a child-murdering, usurper is itself a theatrical decision grounded in a series of incredibly specific contemporary historical circumstances.[1]   This is not to say that we can’t learn anything of value for a play like Richard III, but it should serve as a constant reminder that the political world that Shakespeare occupied and the political world in which we live are so radically different as to be nearly unrecognizable.

richard-iii-hunchback

Anthony Sher’s 1984 Richard III, in line with Shakespeare’s text, frames King Richard as a monstrous caricature of political evil.

As a graduate student working on the political discourses that were in circulation during Shakespeare’s life, this intellectual movement is one that I find fascinating because it simultaneously highlights and collapses the gulf that exists between our world and the world of Shakespeare.  In my own work, I examine the political anxieties which gripped Shakespeare’s England in an attempt to better understand the ways in which the institution of the theater helped negotiate those problems.  Here, four hundred years later, it is more than a little mystifying to see a major publication print an op-ed piece in which a renowned scholar makes a near identical move, utilizing the institution of the early modern theater to address a political anxiety gripping the country in 2016.

My posts this month will seek to delve deeper into this mode of reading Shakespeare as a window through which we better understand our contemporary world.  While I don’t intend to provide a definitive answer to the question of just how much we can learn about politics merely by reading plays about politics, I do hope to offer insight into why Shakespeare’s political plays are thought to remain relevant exemplum for teaching political lessons.  However, before turning towards the strengths and deficiencies of this model, I feel it will be worthwhile to look at the longer history of turning towards the past to learn about the political present.  This belief that by turning to the fictions and lessons of a long forgotten age that we strive to see as a mirror of ourselves is not a unique quality of modernity.  Next week, we will look at the ways in which thinkers in the Early modern world looked towards their own imagined past as a way of understanding their specific historical moment.

[1] This narrative surrounding Richard III’s history has been remarkably hard for historians to dispel, as these very specific examples of Tudor propaganda remain ingrained in cultural memories surrounding the real Richard III.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Machiavelli’s “Small Volume”: The Legacy of the Stage Machiavel (29 April 2016)

“Bearing in mind all the matters previously discussed, I ask myself whether the present time is appropriate for welcoming a new ruler in Italy, and whether there is matter that provides an opportunity for a few-seeing and able man to mold it into a form that will bring honour to him and its inhabitants.”

-Machiavelli

As we’ve been considering the seemingly timeless quality of the figure of the stage Machiavel, it is worth remembering that the archetype is drawn from a series of highly specific moments in history.   The quote at the top of the page reminds us that Machiavelli is writing during a period of intense civil unrest in Italy, following a major foreign invasion and the dissolution of a number of seemingly stable governments and it was written as a gift for a single man—Lorenzo de’ Medici.[1]  Even so, while English audiences found themselves largely disinterested with Machiavelli’s specific appeals to Italian cultural history or his interest in the maintenance of armies and auxiliaries, there was something about the Florentine that caught fire in the cultural imagination of England.  Through stage representations, his political ideas were spread to a population that would have otherwise had little access to them,[2] and the staging tropes that helped to disseminate a basic overview of Machiavellian thought have remained with us ever since.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at popular representations of Machiavellian politics with an eye turned towards the ways in which contemporary audiences share the same fascination with Machiavelli that defined early modern representations.  For the last 400 years, Anglophonic audiences have been fascinated by attempts to understand Machiavelli’s political beliefs, and I have only touched upon a small sample of the most popular contemporary representations.  The goal here has been less to say anything about Machiavelli’s actual politics than to examine the process by which cultural understandings of those politics end up in our popular fiction.  The stage Machiavel offers an interesting case study for examining the ways in which popular representations of political philosophy can make those theories more accessible and the ways in which those same representations can participate in shaping public discourse concerning those theories.   While printers would eventually receive license to legally print The Prince in England, decades of being represented as a ruthless stage villain certainly colored the reading practices of English audiences.

This in turned has dramatically impacted our cultural perception of virtually everything connected to Machiavelli.  Period fiction set during the early 16th century frequently turns to him as a ready-made villain in the same way that Christopher Marlowe utilized Machiavelli to introduce The Jew of Malta.[3]  He has appeared as a character in texts ranging from Showtime’s The Borgias to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II.

Machaivelli%2c The Borgias

Machiavelli in The Borgias

Just as his name became shorthand for a duplicitous schemer, his person has entered into the stable of stock historical villains.  Just as stage representations of Machiavellianism would brand any act that was remotely morally questionable as Machiavellian, modern pop culture representations label any act of political scheming as inherently connected to Machiavellian thought.  Even though the characters that I examined in the last few weeks of posts frequently display a number of profoundly non-Machiavellian beliefs,[4] the image of the stage Machiavel still informs the way in which we understand those characters.

In closing up my month of blog posts, I hope to have demonstrated the ways in which the tropes of the early modern stage have remained with us throughout the past five centuries.  In the wake of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it becomes worth considering the ways in which it isn’t simply the texts of the early modern theatre that have stuck in our imaginations.  While we certainly imagine Machiavellianism differently than audiences did in the 16th century, many of the same questions and concerns still exist in the fiction that we create.  We may not be interested in the complex history of English kingship that exists in The History of Henry IV part 1, but we do still have an investment in the questions that the play asks about how a ruler should act.  While representations of Machiavellianism are not the only entry point into understanding the continuities that exist between early modern and contemporary practices of representation, the stage Machiavel does provide a fairly clear example of an early modern stage trope that continues to capture our imagination well into the 21st century.

[1] The Prince was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

[2] The Prince could not be legally published in England during the 16th century and literacy rates were fairly low.

[3] This habit of making Machiavelli a central character in narratives about 16th century Florence dates back to the mid-19th century at the latest, as George Eliot’s Romola features extended cameos by a pre-Prince Machiavelli.

[4] I noted last week that Machiavelli would likely have hated Frank Underwood for being a self-invested conspirator.  Beyond this, Cersei Lannister would likely be chided for her absolute disregard for the opinions of the populace and the fact that so few people actual trust Peytr Baelish suggests that he lacks the fox-like qualities that Machiavelli lauds in his schemers.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.