Politics

“I am Richard II, Know Ye Not That:” Drama and Political Anxiety in Shakespeare’s London

[5 minute read]

In last week’s post, I talked about the public reaction to a 2017 performance of a 1599 play featuring the execution of a Roman Consul who had been made-over to look like a contemporary politician. This week, I will be looking at the performance of a 1597 play that took place in 1601, similarly featuring the execution of a monarch perceived to look like a contemporary politician. During the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, a time now remembered as one of the heights of English dramatic production, there was a common belief that the theater was dangerous because it was a kind of art that could easily reach a broad, popular audience. The theater ripe for criticism: it was seen as a den of vice and disease,[1] and as a threat to public decency, particularly as it involved the interpretative labor of a population that might be spurred to sin or rebellion by the content performed upon the stage. This led to a wide range of so-called ‘anti-theatricalist’ literature, which sought to condemn the worst excess of the theater and its audiences. Writers denounced the theater as tempting audiences in the same way “[t]he deceitful physician gives sweet syrups to make his poison go down the smoother: the juggler casts a mist to work the closer: the siren’s song is the sailor’s wreck.”[2] The central worry was that audiences were being lured in by representations of sin, heresy and disobedience.

frontimage“The schoole of abuse contayning a pleasaunt inuectiue against poets, pipers, players, iesters, and such like caterpillers of a common wealth”

As a result of this fear – and combined with a general culture of political repression – the public theater was heavily scrutinized by the Elizabethan regime. Political authorities engaged in a number of censorship practices designed to limit writing that could be considered seditious, particularly restricting and suppressing any play dealing with “either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal.”[3] Playwrights were arrested on suspicion of treason, and several, including Thomas Kyd, were tortured. Most of these convictions dealt with religious heresy during Elizabeth I’s crackdown on Catholicism. However, locating these efforts within the space of the theater suggested that individuals within positions of power shared a skepticism concerning the theater.[4] The underlying assumption that a play might incite audiences to open treason carries with it a powerful statement about the relationship between dramatic representation, interpretation and political anxieties. As a part of the public bureaucracy, this also constrained playwrights to working around censorship laws to avoid losing their license to perform.

EssexRobert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex

While these fears surrounding the theater certainly seem exaggerated, the persistent belief that the theater might be a site of political subversion did have significant real-world ramifications. The most famous case of the theater intersecting with open political rebellion during Shakespeare’s contemporary moment was likely the Essex Rebellion in 1601. One-time court favorite Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, attempted a coup in London with the intent of shifting power in the English courts towards his own party. A small part of this coup involved paying a substantial amount of money to the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (a play written several years earlier) on the days leading up to the rebellion, seemingly hopeful that a play about the deposition and overthrow of a weak monarch by a powerful usurper would win support for the imminent coup. While it seems odd to think that a performance of a play might have had any impact on public opinion, Elizabeth I shared a similar fear, once remarking “I am Richard II, know ye not that,”[5] tying herself to the deposed monarch and commenting on the frequency of the play’s production. Here, the stakes of interpretation and the willingness of a population to read Richard II as a seditious text is not merely a historical curiosity; rather, it was part of the logic justifying state control over the theater, and greatly impacted the way playwrights navigated the politically vexed world of the Elizabethan stage.

None of this is to suggest that the controversy I discussed last week carries the same stakes as it did in the Elizabethan era. What I hoped to demonstrate in this blog post is that discourses surrounding how politics are represented on the stage (and the associated issues of audience reaction and interpretation) are baked into the very DNA of early modern drama, particularly as writers attempted to navigate an outwardly hostile social landscape. Given the place that certain theatrical works, such as those of Shakespeare, occupy in the contemporary cultural landscape, it is worthwhile to think about the context in which these texts were first produced, and how it shaped their content – especially as we continue to repurpose these texts to service our own anxieties in the contemporary political moment.


[1] This was true both metaphorically, as opponents of the theater saw them as examples of public sickness and distress, but also literally, as fears of epidemics and plagues saw the closure of theaters to prevent viral outbreaks among London’s poorer population.

[2] Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579.

[3] Queen Elizabeth I, proclamation “Prohibiting Unlicensed Interludes and Plays, Especially on Religion or Policy” qtd. http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/literature/publishing/censorship.html

[4] It is also worth remembering that to work against the teachings of the Church of England during the late 16th century was viewed as a state crime, as religion was a matter of state identity.

[5] There is debate over whether this anecdote is apocryphal, though the general distress at the political power of the theater was not invented, even if this quote was.

Advertisements

Facebook and Uncanny Identity

I’m sitting in a meeting at the LGBT Resource Center. It’s Monday night, a few weeks past now. They have a large comfy couch, free pizza, brightly colored artwork on the walls, posters for other events. It’s only six in the evening, but I’m exhausted. Not the I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep-because-coursework kind of tired, but the soul-weary exhaustion that has been my constant companion since November. I’ve tried to put it into words, what I’m feeling. There’s spoon theory, or empathy overload, but neither of those encompasses what I’m feeling now. I’ve dealt with chronic depression and anxiety my entire adult life, and it’s never been like this before, not to this extent and not for this long. So I’m sitting in a meeting for Queer-folk and allies on campus, hoping that being around some other humans where I don’t have to appear fully competent and on top of things will help.

They ask us to share a rough spot and a bright spot from our week. Rough spot, for the first time in a while, is a quick answer for me. Usually, it’s been a toss-up between any number of novel and horrifying developments, but this week it’s simple: The rough spot was turning on my phone and seeing the repeal of bathroom protection for Transgender students. I cried, staring at my phone, at the headline that one of the default news apps decided to plaster across my unlock screen. I cried for the teenagers who will face even more bullying in their school halls, I cried over the lives that will be lost because it’s not really about bathrooms but about basic humanity and decency, I cried over the level of ignorance and hate that would drive someone to make such a ruling about a group of marginalized young people who we should all be working to protect. When I shared my sadness, the faces in the room mirrored back what I imagine mine looks like now on a daily basis, weary sadness.

Finding a bright spot has become incredibly simple for me over the past few months. Did I get out of bed? Did I make it through the ten minutes of time I allot myself each morning to check out my social media and news apps to see what latest violence has been done against marginalized groups? Did I feed myself? Did I attend or teach class? Those actions are a bright spot each day, moments when I didn’t let despair sit on my chest like too-deep water. These moments of caring for myself, for my queer body in this hostile environment, are small, empowering moments of radical resistance in my day-to-day. I showed up. It’s my bright spot. There are nods and half-smiles in response.

As we circle the room, the concerns change: several foreign students are concerned about the attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ individuals in their home countries. What might it mean for them to be denied a job in the U.S. after completing their degree? Another student is struggling with a family member who purposefully misgenders them and says that they will always be their dead gender (I can’t help but hear the rhetoric surrounding the bathroom bill echoing through my head). Another student is concerned about the example of Gay-ness presented by Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulus, the virulently hateful and, allegedly, pedophilic poster-child for acceptable Alt-Right Queerness. The concerns are different. The exhaustion is the same.

Each person in this room is exhausted, emotionally empty, rattled and just a few moments from tears. But why?

***

I’ve been trying to sort it out since late-December, reading the think-pieces and the status updates from my friends, attending rallies and marches and poster-making sessions. The sadness and tired hangs everywhere, but I still couldn’t figure it out. So I did what so many academics do, I compartmentalized it, allowed that part of my mind to fill up with pertinent data, waited for a late night “Ah-hah” moment when it finally clicked. It didn’t. I moved on, left it to simmer in some back part of my brain, focused on reading theorists, and grading essays, and getting out of bed in the morning. I left the sadness and its answer for a different day.

I started listening to musicals. I’ve been a bit behind the curve, so Hamilton was a new and heart-wrenching beauty in my life. I wept the first time I listened to the soundtrack. It was good to cry.

Next, my brother suggested I listen to the soundtrack for Fun Home. (He blessedly warned me that it might hit close to home in some ways. He was right.) I listened to Alison Bechdel’s coming-out story about her life again, this time accompanied by music instead of the panels of the graphic novel where I first encountered it. I remember watching a video of Bechdel creating one of those panels, taking Polaroid pictures of herself to use as reference. The time and effort that went into each panel was astonishing. The music from the play recreated that experience of her writing and drawing the graphic novel, that astonishment and awe. I was hooked.

After spending the majority of late-January and February listening to the soundtrack on repeat, a question popped into my head. What was it like for Bechdel to see her own life played out on stage in front of her? Luckily, Alyssa Abbott asked the same thing of Bechdel shortly after the show’s first performance in 2013 in an interview for The Atlantic (which can be found here. Two statements from Bechdel struck me as she described her experience of seeing the show: she described seeing her own life on stage as “very strange and surreal” and also described the experience of seeing the show with her brother’s and aunt—“There were no words. We just let it wash over us.” I couldn’t peg down why those statements struck me as particularly important, but I stored them away in the random bits of knowledge part of my brain that may one day make me a Jeopardy star.

***

Their importance came a week ago, when discussing a project for one of my classes involving the subject of the uncanny. Stephen King describes terror as “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.” This description has been used by Lucy Hunter, a contributing editor for Critic magazine out of the Otago University Students’ Association, in her article “Journey into “The Uncanny Valley”” (which you can visit here). When discussing experiences of the uncanny, Hunter describes the “Uncanny” as “the sensation of something being both strange and familiar. It helps explain the reason why some things scare us, while others just creep us out. The uncanny is not simply a matter of the mysterious, bizarre, or frightening: it involves a kind of duplicity (both in likeness and deception) within the familiar. A disturbance of the familiar.”

Finally, with this idea of the uncanny bouncing around in my head, it all clicked. Alison Bechdel’s statements about watching the play of her life had hit me because she described it as “very strange and surreal,” and experience that had to “wash over” her and her family. These were moments when the familiar elements of her life has been disturbed, replaced by the interpretation of the playwright and the actors and the musicians, a strong resemblance, but not the same. This was my every day experience looking at the headlines on my phone or the posts on my Facebook wall. The headlines identified me: “Millennials say ‘Not My President’,” “Trump Repeals Obama-Era Transgender Protections,” “Radical Left Professors Poison University Campuses.” These were terms I had used for myself, modes of constructing who I was, but they had replaced me in the narrative. These headlines had walked into my house, taken me out and left a replica in my place, an ill-informed idealist, a supposed predator, a target for hate and ire.

They came so quickly, these stories of horrific ignorance and self-centered greed, invading every moment of my life, from my Facebook wall, to my classroom discussions, to chats with colleagues and mentors in the halls. Me, who I had thought of myself as, was existing out there somewhere, an uncanny version for people to then assign back on to me with the same words I had used as a method of empowerment and self-realization. But these things that they said were not me. I may be an empathic idealist, but I pride myself in remaining informed, I am not a predator, I am kind and compassionate, I am not a rabid automaton of Leftist-rhetoric set on indoctrinating young minds in my classroom, I am a hard-working teacher who values pedagogy and the success and growth of my students. These headlines made a straw man of me, dressed it in my clothes, and trampled it to bits with their rhetoric, and I could not stand as my own witness. I could only offer my testimony in noxious comment sections and wait for the flame-war to ensue.

I was left to feel the weight of these events, so far outside my realm of immediate influence, wash over me with no time to process. Every event comes now in a rapid fire stream, so many executive orders, and bills before Congress, and life-shattering decisions tossed about like pawns in a game of Chess, meant for sacrifice and violence.

***

 The night at the LGBT Resource Center provided some very essential insight for me.

The media available to me for self-expression had been insufficient. Posts about my experiences on social media were met with affirmations from my colleagues and friends, who felt the same way, and virulent declarations of degradation from others; I should “grow up,” my life “sure must have been easy if this Presidential election is enough to break [me],” and “I sure hope you never have to face any real hardship in your life.”

My attempts to witness about the trauma of existing in this moment felt hollow. How do you provide testimony about a violence that exists not in blood spilled but in existence denied? Laverne Cox put it so much more pointedly than I had been able to when speaking about what the bathroom bill meant for transgender people on MSNBC: “When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities — it’s about us existing in public space,” she said. “And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing — about erasing trans people.”

I felt not only useless to witness for myself, but useless to help those who are without voice in this moment. Not all trauma is equivalent. I am in a place of privilege where my white skin, my social class, my vocation, my regional location, and even my ability to still pass as female in public spaces has granted me protections that are not available to so many others who exist in a far more marginalized space than myself. I want to make space for them, to open the floor and hold the haters at bay and let them scream out their truths about themselves, witnessing to their own trauma and terror in a country that has robbed them of their right to humanity and existence.

In this political moment, there has been both erasure and replacement of me as a non-binary, trans, millennial in the education field. And until that night at the LGBT Resource Center, I had had no way to witness about it in a way that felt real, to talk to others who had the same expressions on their faces that greeted me in the mirror before I plastered a smile on my face each morning. But in that room, it started to come together, the kernel of knowledge in the swirl of emotion and struggling thoughts. In that room, I could hold space for others, I could be the listening ear that is so essential for those testifying about their experiences. In that room, I could witness while others held space for me.

***

So what does it all mean? I’m living in a strange world where my life is related back to me and my value and identity determined by people in rooms hundreds of miles from me, and then blasted out over the media that permeates my life. It’s uncanny, and terrifying, and emotionally exhausting, yes, but I’ve got a framework for it now, a way of understanding where this feeling comes from, for me at least. And for me, as a scholar, having that framework to understand is usually my first step to finding a solution.


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

HIGH ENERGY: Political Feeling on /r/The_Donald

[A Gulf of Feeling]

A while back a woman named Kellyanne Conway took to the airwaves to explain why the man she works for, President Donald J. Trump, began his administration with an easily verifiable lie about the size of his inaugural peni-I mean crowd. Her interviewer, Chuck Todd, asked why the president would choose to initiate his official relationship to the public and the press with such an apparently petty moment of self-aggrandizement. What followed was a defining moment of national incredulity when Kellyanne suggested that the press had one set of facts and spokesperson Sean Spicer gave the world some of his own “alternative” ones.

Except not everyone was incredulous. As has been the story for much of last year’s election and the first month of Trump’s presidency, there is an enormous gap in feeling between Trump’s supporters and his detractors on the things he says. I say “feeling” because the distance between the pro- and anti-Trump camps is primarily a sentimental one. Kellyanne’s alternative facts are divisive not because they are in and of themselves outrageous, but because they have failed to inspire a universally incredulous response from the electorate. One common criticism of the left as it exists in the United States is that it lacks imagination for the future – since the sixties it has had a hard time seeing political possibility outside the confines of global capital and centrist organizing. Trump’s win has highlighted a different failure of the left’s imagination, however: a failure to imagine how someone – anyone – could be ok with the Donald as president.

To be clear, there have been many, many attempts to explain the Donald’s continuing and often mystifying support. You’ve likely encountered some of these explanations: the growing legitimacy of white supremacy as public discourse, the rising tide of authoritarian fascism, electoral meddling by foreign powers, the backlash of a disenfranchised white working class against a global economy that has passed them over, the failure of feminism as an intersectional project, etc. etc. There is good reason to spend time considering each of these lines of argumentation, and it seems likely that to a certain extent, they each help us understand why Mr. Trump won the election. Where they do not help us, however, is in understanding what sustains the intense support the Donald still enjoys from a certain subset of his online constituents despite what has been by virtually all accounts a disastrous first month in office. President Trump rides on communities of support whose defining attributes are not a shared set of ideological tenets but a carefully cultivated mélange of highly motivating feelings expressed through a sophisticated, fluid, and often arcane vocabulary.

What follows then is an attempt to use one of the more prominent gathering places for Trump supporters online – reddit.com/r/the_donald – to think about that seemingly unbridgable affective gap between “us,” the incredulous ones, and “them,” the hardcore “centipedes”[1] that have for nearly a year given rabid Trumpish fandom pride of place on one of the Internet’s most frequently visited destinations. A couple quick caveats. First, I do not believe that the folks on /r/the_donald represent the majority of Trump voters, and I am uninterested in trying to forge that connection. Trump’s popularity has always been driven by a hardcore minority and a relatively passive bunch of hangers-on who either out of Clinton-phobia or belief in the dogmas of “business sense” went along for the ride. Minority or majority, either way, their high visibility, high impact discursive tactics have always been the driving source of Trump’s reactionary brand of populism, and therefore warrant our attention. Second, this piece is in no way an attempt to build a bridge across that gap of sentiment. There are more than enough white liberal dudes already calling for the abandonment of “identity politics” in order to recapture the centrist voter, as though we must accept institutional racism and misogyny as the cost of doing business in democratic governance. Instead, by exploring and accounting for the affective economies of Trumpish Internet communities, I hope to help us understand the limits of reasoned debate in our political climate, the emptying of language in the era of the Donald, and the seductive appeal of belonging to hype.

[NSFC: Not Safe For Cucks]

CUCKOLD

NOUN: the husband of an adulteress, often regarded as an object of derision

VERB: (of a man) make (another man) a cuckold by having a sexual relationship with his wife. (of a man’s wife) make (her husband) a cuckold.

Of the unlikely linguistic phenomena surrounding Trump’s ascendency, the resurrection of cuckold, or “cuck,” out of the Chaucerian haze to prominence might seem the most baffling. And yet on /r/the_donald, cuck has become a crucial tool for managing the affective relation between themselves and the rest of the world. To talk about cucks in the Donald’s world is to apply the shame of being un-manned to those who have not yet realized the glorious truth of God Emperor Trump[2]. To be a cuck is to be a dupe; it is to be made a bitch of by those you trust. Cuck is the opposite of woke or red-pilled. If you are a cuck you cannot be trusted in even the most basic cognitive or social tasks and you are probably a degenerate yourself – why else after all would you fail to secure your own wife? Must be because your dick doesn’t work, or worse, because you are a faggot.

Cuck collapses a rather run-of-the-mill political accusation, that your opponents are easily manipulated and blind, into a broader ecosystem of hypermasculine sexual prowess. Nowhere is this clearer than in the tagging system for posts on /r/the_donald. Reddit uses tagging to inform users about the content of a link before they click it, and moderators of individual subreddits are empowered to create their own sets of tags that cater to the specific needs of that community. One of the more popular tags on /r/the_donald is NSFCucks: Not Safe For Cucks. This, of course, plays on the widely used acronym NSFW (Not Safe For Work) which generally denotes pornographic material that your workplace might find objectionable. Like pornography, which purports to tell a naked truth, NSFCucks material offends by violating the norms that guide a cuck’s belief system. Material tagged NSFCucks is material the community deems to be “triggering,” like this post where a member of the community brags about firing seven employees who participated in this week’s #DayWithoutImmigrants protests. [Link: https://www.reddit.com/r/The_Donald/comments/5uk6md/i_fired_7_employees_across_3_different_states/%5D This is the second marker of the cuck: misguided empathy. Community member TrumpIsAHero asserts his non-cuck status by brushing off the tears of his newly fired employees with one word: “SAD!”

The many flexible applications of “cuck” have the added effect of securing a tight loop of mutual re-affirmation. To frame gullibility as emasculating shame is to ensure that a community never allows itself to be put in a position of admitting wrong. The intellectual superiority of /r/the_donald is secured not by strength of argumentation or even repetition of dogma, but by an emotional ecosystem built around expelling, deriding, and exposing the cuck in all his embarrassing nakedness. This is why trolling has been an essential tool of the online Trumper – it ensures at all costs that the cuck stays outside of their midst while soliciting moral and intellectual indignation that confirms the in-group beliefs about how cucks behave. You can see this commitment to trolling the cucks as a foundational community ethos as easily as organizing /r/the_donald by all-time upvoted posts, all of which were therefore visible on /r/all, the website’s public facing front page. The vast majority are simply pictures of Donald Trump’s face with headlines like “CAN’T STUMP YOUR PRESIDENT TRUMP” or “Hey admins, we found a picture of your wife’s boyfriend’s president!”

Finally, this discursive economy causes /r/the_donald to have some strange and surprising infatuations in apparently unrelated arenas. For instance, the recent disputes between popular YouTuber PewDiePie, Google, and Disney has made quite a stir on /r/the_donald. [Link: https://www.reddit.com/r/The_Donald/comments/5u6nro/pewdiepies_channel_just_pretty_much_red_pilled/] After PewDiePie’s recent “Death To All Jews” stunt for his Youtube channel, Google and Disney cut official ties with the entertainer, a move that folks at /r/the_donald believe exposes their own cuckishness to millennials who now will see social justice issues for what they are: shallow, meaningless political correctness enforced by oversensitive SJWs that can’t take a joke.

[WINNING]

It isn’t all negative affect and insults in Trumpland, however. In fact, much of /r/the_donald can only be described as HIGH ENERGY, yet another of the subreddit’s many content tags. And as effective as cuckoldry is at conjuring the feels of a strong community, it is this notion of high energy that goes the farthest in explaining why you might feel a little mad like I now do after spending some time visiting these communities online.

HIGH ENERGY describes the momentum of the movement. It speaks to a kind of manifest destiny that underwrites communities like /r/the_donald who see their rise to power as a sort of karmic reckoning for the accumulation of wrongs perpetrated by SJWs, the liberal media, and the corrupt Democratic establishment. HIGH ENERGY always smacks of inevitability. It can also be a sort of community resource to be shared among like minded movements, as in “Brexit, take my HIGH ENERGY,” and in this way HIGH ENERGY signifies the broader linkage of authoritarian, xenophobic movements across the globe. Your post might be HIGH ENERGY if it gets to the top of Reddit by gaming their algorithm. Your post might also be HIGH ENERGY if it screenshots a particularly zesty tweet from the new Commander-in-Chief.

HIGH ENERGY posting asserts victory before it happens, and in the assertion, brings victory into the present. It’s not so much an act of faith as of radical prophecy. Trust in the Donald because he has already won. You can see that he has already won (and will continue to win) by how much the community asserts that winning in the now. You can see already the way this inverts the cuck, whose emasculation at the hand of feminists and identitarians have left him with low energy, while loyalty to Trump promises a pathway to recaptured virility. This is what is meant by Make America Great Again. As long as America is low energy, as long as it has been cucked into submission by things apology tours and Black Lives Matter, it will languish, impotent and frail. HIGH ENERGY is the prescription. It is winning by fiat, and it is why Bill Maher’s brand of platform-providing liberal discourse can never counter a movement like the Donald’s. It is why we did not in fact share a moment of national incredulity at Kellyanne Conway’s interview. It is why for many in the center and on the left this entire election has felt so jarring, like they don’t recognize the world they live in anymore. Where we might want to think of policy and governance as a question of facts, argumentation, clash, and money, places like /r/the_donald wash all of that away with a seemingly unassailable network of feeling.

To belong on /r/the_donald you don’t need to hold any particular policy position at all. Holding policy positions is simply a strategic error to the online Trumper because it exposes you to a world of argumentation and a mode of knowledge production that works for the cucks. Much better to model your communities on Donald’s own style of debate, which is to say, not a style of debate at all, but a relentless assertion of supremacy. There was no shared moment of national incredulity because there has been a sea change in what politics consists of. There is a gulf of sentiment because one group, the incredulous ones, believes they derive feeling from reason, and the other asserts, prima facie, the feeling as ground zero. If there is to be a sustained resistance, and if it is to be at all effective instead of ending in yet another splintering of the leftists, liberals, and centrists of our country, we have to begin with some assertions of our own.

[1] A self-assigned designation for Trump supporters online. Derives from episode 4 of the Can’t Stump the Trump Youtube series.

[2] One of many favored designations for President Trump on /r/the_donald


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D candidate at Syracuse University where he writes about video games and other things.

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.

Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, toward the end of our class’s unit on “Thrills, Sensations, and the Ethics of Nonfiction,” I assigned my students the University of Chicago’s Welcome Letter to the Class of 2020 alongside Sara Ahmed’s thought-provoking “Against Students” (June 2015). The former, a document separately decried or praised as patronizing and oppressive or timely and appropriate, comes from a private University that prides itself as “one of the world’s leading and most influential institutions of higher learning,”[1] and has a notorious reputation among academics for fostering an ultra-competitive – and potentially hazardous – environment for its students.

Following a word of congratulations, the letter states:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

A number of think pieces had their say, and the talking heads gave comment. In response, educators and administrators from various institutions defended their policy of creating safe spaces and giving trigger warnings; using the same terminology, they all argued for the same purpose: academic freedom and “moral responsibility.” Proponents of the University of Chicago’s pedagogical stance lauded this strike against so-called “political correctness,” insisting that incoming students should stop expecting a protective safety net to cushion controversial speech and difficult issues. Safe spaces, it was implied, or outright declared, are a cocoon of muffled sensitivities freshmen ought to have outgrown by their first semester of college.

Ahmed’s piece, while predating the University of Chicago’s letter by almost a year, exposes similar “sweeping” generalizations made in critiques of higher education, while laying bare the ideological contradictions the letter claims to espouse. Students who are often blamed as oversensitive, coddled, and otherwise too entitled to address “difficult issues” bear the brunt of critique in the wider battle of, and backlash against the dreaded brand of PC-neoliberalism. In actuality, those who oppose trigger warnings often do so at the expense of marginalized groups and students as a whole, and not in service of a wider range of critical discussion.

“The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that describes offendability as a form of moral weakness and as a restriction on “our” freedom of speech. Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive…

This is how harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.”

Rhetorically, those who use this toxic, masculinist mantra to “man up and quit being so offended” imagine its directed audience as a bunch of whiny, thin-skinned spoiled brats. It has become a “no guts, no restriction of hateful speech, no glory” approach modified for instructional spaces. Unsurprisingly, it represents yet another attack upon we Millennials of the generation of participation trophies; we special snowflakes-turned-Social Justice Warriors; we who dare protest for a minimum wage of $15/hour, refuse to consider any human being “illegal,” and demand equal rights under the law for an ever-expanding catalogue of identities, intersectionalities, and sexualities.

PC.png

The thing about we who make it our job to deal in words is that we know what they say about us. Sometimes, we respond with sarcasm and memes.

Apparently, to many, intellectual boldness – or the tricky concept of free speech in general – is incompatible with thoughtfulness, compassion, or the necessity of imagining and reflecting upon the consequences of such speech. But at its core, intellectual efforts rest upon a foundation of empathetic engagement, curiosity, and responsible efforts to give voice to those who have previously been silenced.

For the most part, we who teach are expected to keep personal politics out of the classroom. Each student ought to have their say, and must not fear their grade may suffer due to a difference of religious, political, or personal ideological belief. The classroom is a place for critical engagement and analytical inquiry, but it should not act as a place of conversion, or the base of any particular soapbox.

On the other hand, we introduce students to the concept of ideology, and invite them to critically question previously held beliefs; we encourage students to critique ideas, and not the individual espousing them. Disagreement should not deter discussion, so long as speech remains respectful and productive. We are all here to learn, is the unspoken catchphrase of the liberal arts education, and we learn best when we question what it is we think we know.

I presented the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to my class without trepidation – not because I expected every student to agree with the material, or to contest it straight away; rather, their job was to consider the rhetorical strategies being employed, and foster an interpretive reading based upon textual evidence. Thus far, we had studied texts through the framework of social critique and purposeful writing, interrogating the usefulness of nonfiction texts that have outlived their writers. We questioned the boundaries of truth and fiction, fantasy and reality, and spent a good portion of the semester discussing the importance of readers’ ethical responses to texts presenting themselves as unproblematic, factual, and objective. They held productive class discussions on tone-policing, white privilege, and the conflation of violence with sensational journalism and the commodification of wartime horror. These students, most of them incoming freshmen, rose quickly to the challenge of tackling these subjects, with vigor and great respect for the material, and one another.

The students of this generation “aren’t snowflakes, and they don’t melt,” Yale professor Steven Berry writes, in admiration of the resiliency of students who were still able to attend class and complete an exam the morning of November 9th. The same resiliency we admire in our students becomes so much more difficult to embody when we, students and scholars and educators alike, consider how much more dangerous our world has suddenly become.

Ten days after the U.S. election, eight hundred sixty-seven hate incidents were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of these occurring in K-12 schools. Since then, an organization named Turning Point USA, which purports to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish,” has created a Professor Watchlist, with profiles of “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls” – the majority of those listed professors being women and persons of color.

post-election-hate

“Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election” Source: Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election

Without giving into paranoia, the project of providing safe spaces appears more daunting than ever. Despite this, while the classroom may not be a pulpit or a soapbox, it nevertheless remains a platform for instruction. Our determination to forge ahead despite fear and anger represents both the privilege and the burden of educating with empathy, and an ethical responsibility we owe to ourselves, and those we aim to instruct.

[1] This quote comes from the University of Chicago’s Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Chicago); the university’s homepage and admissions proudly greets visitors as “a private, nondenominational, culturally rich and ethnically diverse coeducational research university…committed to educating extraordinary people regardless of race, gender, religion, or financial ability.” (http://www.uchicago.edu/)


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

“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.

“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.

Hated, Feared and Loved: Popular Representations of Nicollò Machiavelli (8 April 2016)

“A controversy has risen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa.  My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

-Nicollò Machiavelli

The word Machiavellian, denoting a duplicitous schemer or an unscrupulous politician entered into the English language in 1566,[1] decades before a formal English translation of Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, would be legally available for the general population.

evan1

Picured: An unscrupulous politician

 

In England, Machiavelli’s reputation proceeded him and this led to a tremendous interest in the early modern consciousness concerning exactly how his more controversial ideas should be handled.  He became the era’s go-to reference point for political duplicity, amoral scheming and atheism.  Historical villains were rechristened as followers of the Florentine and an entire theatrical archetype was invented to leverage an emerging public discourse which framed anything associated with Nicollò as a ready-made symbol of evil.

evan2

Richard III, as understood by Tudor propaganda

This series of blogposts intends to examine not only the historic and literary history of representations of Machiavellianism, but also more contemporary representations and discourses, which remain closely connected to many of the same rhetorical movements and ideas that informed 16th century repudiations of Machiavelli.   While we may not have the same relationship to the Florentine as Elizabethan audiences did, we still express many of the same doubts and fears about men and morality that Machiavelli ignited in the early part of the 16th century.

Early modern representations of Machiavelli took the worst excerpts they could draw from The Prince and ran with them.  Marlowe, Shakespeare, Kyd, and countless other dramatists exploited the public fear of the Machiavellian image to construct dozens of scheming political climbers that would populate some their most famous plays.  Villains such as Claudius, Iago, Edmund and Richard III would become closely tied to the image of the Machivel. Tapping into a cluster of fears among English play goers, early modern representations of Machiavellianism tended to emphasis its amorality, its belief in justified cruelty and its connection to Southern Europe.[2]  While some of these writers may have had some amount of sympathy for elements of Machiavelli’s politics, when invoking the man himself, few popular representations of Machiavellianism offered any sympathy or nuance.   In the early days of representation, the figure of the Machiavel had lived up to his prodigious reputation.

Despite a long history of being transformed into a symbol of unrepentant villainy and amorality, Machiavelli still seems to inhabit a special place in our consciousness.  The word attached to his name still possesses tremendous currency, as we use it to discuss any number of politicians,[3] fictional characters,[4] sports personalities,[5] among countless others.  Further, in a political environment which sees increasing public support coalescing behind anti-establishment rhetoric and campaigning, here understood to represent politicians who don’t outwardly appear to ‘treat politics as a game,’ or who appeal to a sense of honesty and integrity that implicitly suggests that this integrity represents a break from the norm, a sizable population seems to be looking at modern institutions with the same wary eyes with which Machiavelli’s philosophical detractors wished to view their own world in the waning years of the 16th century.   Part of the fear that early modern audiences saw in Machiavelli was in his suggestion that politics was a game of misdirection and manipulation, a place where liars and cheaters stood above moral men.  As a result, Machiavelli was never far from the political fiction of his time, and the last four centuries seem to have done little to remove him from our imaginations.

One need to look no further than the recent resurgence of political thrillers to see that this suspicion still underlies a section of our popular culture in much the same way that it informed the popular culture of early modern England.  Richard III, the deformed usurper of Shakespeare’s The History of Henry VI Part III, who wishes to “set the murderous Machiavel to school,” (III.ii.193), bares more than a passing resemblance to modern popular figures such as Frank Underwood or Petyr Baelish,[6] whose political machinations drive the plots of their respective series.

evan3

As political schemers, intent on raising themselves through the ranks by whatever means necessary, figures like Baelish and Underwood are cut from the same cloth that gave Anglophonic culture villains like Iago and Lorenzo.  While the pop culture Machiavel is still villainous, there is some newfound pleasure to be found in watching the devious and duplicitous anti-heroes maneuver their way into power.  The popularity of series that make explicit their Machiavellian theme suggests that there exists a disconnect between the way that audiences are conceptualizing real world politics and the way that we choose to stage and consume fiction about politics.   The next in this series of posts will look in greater detail at a few case studies to examine how Machiavellian political thought is being fictionalized in contemporary popular culture.

[1] “Machiavellian, n. and adj.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/view/Entry/111832?redirectedFrom=Machiavellian (accessed April 05, 2016).

[2] Despite being framed by writers as an atheist, Machiavelli is frequently connected to the other big early modern fear coming out of Italy, the Catholic Church.

[3] Virtually every candidate in the 2016 primary cycle has been compared to or compared against Machiavelli in some capacity.

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22537324

[5] http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/the-infinite-mercy-of-bill-belichick

[6] Between the Lannisters, Tyrells, Martells and Lords Baylish and Varys, the political subplot of HBO’s Game of Thrones could best be described as a contest between a dozen Machivels trying to out maneuver one another.


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.