reading

“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.

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“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him:” Shakespeare and the Politics of Interpretation

[5-7 minute read]

During my last month writing for Metathesis, I talked about the contemporary desire to find political meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. Then in June, Shakespeare in the Park staged a performance of Julius Caesar in which the actor playing Caesar consciously invoked the image of President Trump, mimicking his vocal affectation and his mannerisms. This performance was met with public backlash, as voices responded with anger at the idea of a publicly funded art institution staging the assassination of the sitting President. As someone who studies early modern drama, it was a surreal moment to see the nation spend a few days in the middle of Summer having a conversation focused on how to properly interpret Act 3 of Julius Caesar. For a moment in June 2017, the text of a play from 1599 about the death of a Roman Consul in 44 BC was at the heart of a public debate over the relationship between art and politics.

Image 1Per the performance, this was a Caesar who could stab a man on fifth avenue and not lose a supporter.

Most surprising to me was the outpouring of reactions to the controversy that framed it as one over interpretations of the play. These responses attempted to announce, as clearly as possible, that Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence – and they were built upon textual arguments and close-readings.[1] These responses, from sources like The Guardian and The New York Times to The AV Club and The Atlantic, centered on the idea that a sufficiently skillful reading of the text of Julius Caesar would clear up any confusion over whether or not the production supported the actions of the Roman conspirators. By extension, this assumption meant a skillful reading would also appropriately address – and perhaps deflate – any anger of what the play was perceived to say about President Trump. For these responses, the portion of the public angry about the performance was simply missing the point of the play, or as Atlantic frames it, it was a case of “[m]isplaced [o]utrage.” The Guardian piece brings in Stephen Greenblatt to explain how dissenters are missing “the point of the play.” Even the statement by the theater itself is built partially on this premise, stating “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.” Invoking the authorial voice of Shakespeare alongside their own production decisions, the statement reads as not only a defense of artistic integrity, but also a pointed claim: at the heart of the controversy is a misreading of Julius Caesar.

Now, these responses also seem intent on producing a singular interpretative lens through which to view the play. These readings gloss over the idea that while one can read Julius Caesar as a play that is deeply skeptical about the conspiratorial action of figures like Cassius and Brutus, it can also be read as a play in which a demagogue exploits a mob of Roman citizens and preys upon their anger and resentment to compel them to destructive violence. This notably includes a scene in which the mob tears a poet to shreds because they dislike his verses, an equally prescient interpretation. However, for me, the fascinating aspect of these responses lies less in the specific interpretations that they provide for Julius Caesar, and more in the underlying assumption that the entire ordeal stemmed from a debate over the textual meaning of Act 3 of Julius Caesar, with the accompanying suggestion that this would be cleared up through the authoritative voices of individuals who were simply better readers. This move signals an important divide in how the various voices in the conversation conceptualize the place of the stage (and other arts) in public discourse. Shakespeare, these responses seem to imply, is more in danger of being misread than anything else. The political undercurrents of the play are not dangerous; rather, the possibility that they will be misunderstood is dangerous and that must be warded against.

Central to this conversation is the implication that the theater is a site of political tension and that the interpretation of this tension can be, and often is, a deeply political act. This is certainly not a new debate. For another examination of the relationship between theater and the present administration, see Ashley O’Mara’s Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion. Tensions surrounding the theater and the role of drama in the Anglophonic world date back to the foundation of the first public theaters and in my next post, I’m going to explore how debates over the place of the theater in public political life have evolved since Shakespeare’s work were first performed on the London stage.


[1] Putting my own personal interpretative cards on the table: Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence. Also, it should be noted that the original story that generated anger around the performance neglected to mention that the play in question was Julius Caesar.

Evan Hixon is a third-year Ph.D. 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.

Feeling the Affects

To some degree, all of our posts this month have flirted with affect. Whether it’s waking up dazed in confused in graduate school or exploring the significance of melancholia, memory, and reverberating energies, all of these topics point to a larger picture of attempting to understand and read feeling in texts and our daily lives. This week, we’d like to revisit how we’ve engaged with discourses of emotion and feeling in the past. In the following post, Noelle will give a brief overview about [SOMETHING ABOUT VICTORIANS BEING ANXIOUS ABOUT FEELING], and Tyler will focus on [SOMETHING ABOUT HUMANS AND MATERIALS]. Together, these posts reveal how two graduate students attempt to navigate trying to understand what we feel, how/if texts feel, and what we can attempt to say about it.

Mechanics of Victorian “Nervousness”

As a Victorianist, I spend a lot of time talking about nineteenth-century, and specifically Victorian, anxieties. So much of my time is devoted to this in fact that recently, when I was telling someone about research I’m currently doing for a seminar paper, they replied by saying, “So, is your research interest Victorian anxiety because you relate, or…?” As it turns out, my research interests do not center around Victorian anxiety disorders. However, I am very interested in the ways the phrase “nervous energy” is explicitly or implicitly invoked across discourses in the Victorian era.

To make the statement that Victorians were anxious because they were forced to witness and experience THE transition into modernity seems like a fallacy because a “fear of modernity” is noticeable throughout history. There is always something new, changing, incomprehensible and, therefore, ominous on the horizon. So, a general fear of modernity itself may not be the best way to explain the “nervousness” of the Victorians.

Because most of my research up until this point has focused on nineteenth-century anxieties surrounding affectation and performance, much of my time has been spent trying to understand the apparently problematic nature of inauthenticity and fake or forced feeling. My “obsession” with Victorian anxieties began with an interest in Victorian sensation fiction. Specifically, how period critiques of the genre called the incitement of fake feeling—the genre’s need and ability to “make the public’s flesh creep”—one of sensation fiction’s worst offenses.

More recently, a conference paper I presented on performance in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park focused on the problem of theatricality and acting (i.e., faking feeling) and mediation—more specifically, the ways in which mediation affects the performance and interpretation of feeling. While this paper focused on how the body and printed text can be used to mediate and remediate affect, a recent line of inquiry (as stated in a previous post) has gotten me thinking about Victorian “new” media’s relationship to affect and feeling. Although I’ve encountered arguments describing the “nervousness” of the Victorian era when looking at various elements of Victorian popular culture (such as sensation fiction and theatre), I came across the phrase “nervous energy” multiple times while reading about Victorian new media. This phrase might help elucidate the Victorians’ relationship to and anxieties surrounding modernity.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan has used the phrase “the affect of the electric age” to describe twentieth-century changes in aesthetic and social interaction. Though he is writing roughly a century later, this phrase can be used to reference the problem of energy (gas, steam, electricity) beginning to permeate Victorian life in much the same way fears of affectation appear to. If criticisms surrounding nineteenth-century sensation fiction and theatre often described feeling as a contagion that could infect bodies and attack nerves, electricity might necessarily be a hypermediated, physical manifestation of this anxiety.

This thought leaves me with many thoughts and questions, but I’ll wrap up this section with just a few: If nervous energy and feeling can infect bodies and attack nerves, is it possible to understand electricity functioning in a similar way if media are interpreted as mechanical bodies? How might the concept of affective economies be applied to media, if at all? What might a comparison of Victorian new media/technology, sensation fiction’s (female) readers, and the figure of the (female) occultist medium reveal if we think of energy as something that is able to possess and control fleshy or mechanical bodies?

In the next week, I’ll be attempting to tackle some of these questions in a seminar paper. I’m not quite sure how I feel, but I’m hoping it’s affective.

Objects and Bodies

I’m a person that spends most of their time thinking about objects, space, and bodies. Even though there are similarities between objects and bodies, I still choose to separate the two. For instance: both move through cultural spaces, both can seem ‘out of place’, and both are manipulated for labor. I admit that the separation itself at first feels as if I am privileging the human over the inhuman. Except separating the two also allows for us to partially divest that which has been considered human from the body; creating lacunas that must necessarily be filled by that which is nonhuman.

While writing this I am listening to Porter Robinson’s, “Worlds: The Movie” and am having a memory of their performance at Electric Forest. People often refer to the festival and its [s]p(l)ace as ‘Forest’. Of course it has a different meaning for everyone, but I’ve come to understand this experience as a celebration of the (in)organic. There you will find a horse made of CDs in a small clearing, and more towards the center you might find a technicolor cloud installation among the branches of trees.

As a scholar, I seek to understand the relations between humans, materials, and art. This has led me to consider questions of media, remediation, and affect. To be clearer, I am interested in which ways the individual, susceptible to its environment, is affected by objects. I’m now entangled not only in considering the techne of affectation, but also in questioning how affect circulates between materials and bodies. Readers can find similar concerns being worked through in the modernist novel, Nightwood.

My obsession with Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood during the first semester made my cohort convinced that my dossier was going to be on melancholy. The extent to which Nightwood had affected me also affected my cohort – to put it in another way, we sensed something. How might a text not only contain affect, but also infect readers with affect? Strange discusses the melancholic affect within Nightwood as it relates to the incapacity of figural language that over represents, and occludes, sensation to mediate the truth (134). Parsons suggests that it is not just the text, but the narrative form that’s also structured in such a way that melancholia permeates (169). I consider Nightwood an affective object. However, what makes Nightwood an object of fascination for me is that the objects within Nightwood are affective as well (as mentioned last week). But, as a return to how we sensed something while in the presence of Nightwood: should we not call this, as Noelle has suggested, resonance? Further, what does thinking about the mediation of affect as ‘resonance’ afford in contrast to thinking of affect as an epidemiological phenomenon of ‘infection’?

I took breaks while writing this to watch the video of Worlds on YouTube. I’ve been thinking about which ways I resonate with this particular virtual object. Porter has commented that he created this album as a way to channel his feelings of nostalgia. This is interesting when you consider the fact that the video is compiled of videos from various performances, uploaded by disparate users and edited into a narrative that is just over an hour long. We can draw connections between the reasons for why the video was created, to fix the memory of an enjoyed performance from the past, and the emotion of nostalgia itself. I question whether the nostalgia I’m feeling is in fact my own feeling, or if it’s a resonate affect of this virtual object.

Parsons, Deborah. “Djuna Barnes and Affective Modernism.” The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel. Ed. Morag Schiach. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 165-177.

Strange, Martina. “’Melancholia, melancholia’; Changing Black Bile into Black Ink in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.” in Hayford Hall: Hangovers, Erotics, and Modernist Aesthetics. Edited by Podnieks and Chait. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 133-49, 2005.


Noelle Hedgcock is an MA student in English at Syracuse University. Her research and teaching interests focus on nineteenth-century British literature and culture.

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.

Slow and Steady Wins The Race (Unless You Prefer to “Spritz”): Debunking the Myth of Faster = Better (So You Can Feel Better About Yourself) (16 Oct. 2015)

In my first year of graduate school I discovered I was not as strong of a reader as I had fancied myself to be. I discovered the amount of pages to read every week was massive in comparison to undergrad, which wouldn’t be so bad if this were still high school English and I was reading Huckleberry Finn or watching the Leonardo DiCaprio adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.  But instead, I found myself hunkering down with texts like Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I’m not surprised that within the first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school I found myself pleading for help on Facebook.  I treated my peers like they were Google and stated simply and interrogatively: “It has taken me 4 hours to read 100 pages.  Is this normal? Help!”

Among the advice bestowed upon me was a solitary link to a website for Spritz – a new app designed to help the fledgling reader reach his/her peak reading performance levels using technology that surpasses traditional reading methods, which, though proven to work for thousands of years, are burdensome and as a result are becoming quickly outdated.  Spritz is designed to liberate the human eye by increasing the focalization of the “Optimal Recognition Point,” the magical spot in each word the brain encounters, registers, and then quickly obtains meaning before moving on to the next. As the Spritz website claims, it is the “saccade” – the movement of the eye that occurs as it moves from one word to the next – that slows down the reading process.  The algorithm is thus as follows: Reduce the “saccade” effect; increase your reading speed.

lianaImage1

The Original Spritz. (Also a proven reading aid and arguably the more pleasurable.)

The app accomplishes this in an almost painfully obvious way.  Each word flashes on the screen sequentially, in keeping with a steady WPM that users set for themselves.  According to the website, “Removing eye movement associated with traditional reading methods not only reduces the number of times your eyes move, but also decreases the number of times your eyes pass over words for your brain to understand them. This makes Spritzing extremely efficient, precise, convenient and comfortable.”  I can see the meme now:  A photo of a disgruntled but glowing youth, hands clutching the side of her head and crumpling her hair in despair, the caption ruthlessly blaring: MOVING MY EYES IS SO UNCOMFORTABLE. I CAN FEEL THEM SPASMING, OR AM I JUST BLINKING? – #firstworldproblems. Now our eyeballs, relieved of the burden of moving from left to right, can do the work of reading without actually working, much in the same way we can now do the work of sit-ups with our “Belly Burner Weight Loss Belts” without ever having to move a muscle.

It’s a comparison worth making for more than a laugh: Spritz is advertised as “the best way to engage with content in the digital age” and the results it boasts are claims that warrant scrutinizing.  What is different about our “digital age” other than the fact that we prefer pixels to the paper page? We have our Nooks and iReaders, true enough, but does the digital version of Pride and Prejudice create the need to read faster simply because it’s digitized?

The creators of the app concede that there are other ways of improving one’s reading skills that have also been proven to work, but they require a lot of time, effort, and patience, unlike the magic of Spritz, which only requires less time, no effort, and seems to cater to the chronically impatient.  Increasing one’s deep knowledge within a field, for example, helps to increase reading speed.  But increasing deep knowledge is time-consuming because it requires reading, often books, and at the same measly WPM rate you can barely manage already, and therefore slowly, slower than the time it takes you to read a text message or scroll through Facebook status updates or invent a clever hashtag to your latest Sunday Selfie.

lianaimage2

Just saying.

Scanning the reviews in Apple’s app store, I’ve found users who praise Spritz endlessly for the way it has allowed them to “keep up”––students in summer classes boast how efficiently they can speed through their reading rather than slog through it and what I suspect are businessmen are elated they’re able to “keep up with current company.” For these users at least, reading has been stripped of its former inherent pleasure and has instead become a taxing task endured for rewards extraneous to the act itself.  To me it smacks of Marx’s notion of the “objectification of labor,” which argues that “the worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates” (71). In other words, the more “stuff” produced creates value in the thing being produced––the commodity (the iPhone, the latte, the Netflix)––and its reciprocal effect is the “devaluation of the world of men,” or the people who do the producing, to the status of commodity too (The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 71).  As a result, “labour’s product confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer” (71).

Although it’s important to keep in mind that Marx is speaking of industrialized labor in particular, this insight can also be applied to the phenomenon of Spritz: Instead of dealing with the deplorable conditions of factory labor directly, we are witnessing an era that is suffused in a highly increased value of the world of things and perhaps at the expense of what makes us human.  We too become commodities or “objects,” are asked to maximize our performance in order to prove ourselves valuable to our economy.  The fact that so many users cite their jobs in their reviews as the motivating factor behind their use of Spritz is a strong indicator of this. It isn’t for pleasure that they’re reading.  For many avid users, reading itself appears to either have been, continues to be, or become “something alien.”

lianaimage3

The obvious retort to this post is “So what? What’s wrong with getting ahead? Aren’t you English grad students always griping about how no one ever really reads anymore?” The answer is equally as obvious: Reading faster will not make you wiser.  And as to the question of who should care, the answer should be everyone, given that the literacy rate in the United States hasn’t changed in the past ten years; 21% of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level while 19% of newly minted high school graduates can’t read period.  That statistic only accounts for illiteracy that admittedly are not Spritz’s demographic, which is precisely what makes its existence so vexing.  Apps like Spritz offer the promise of improvement for a) people who don’t really need it, who are at a level where they can improve on the relative literacy they’ve already achieved and b) partially distract from the real impediment––a lack of investment in the humanities, English especially, specifically at the primary and secondary level and in low-income neighborhoods perpetually given the educational short shrift, while at the same time c) promoting a mode of reading that encourages a lack of critical thinking by emphasizing reading more instead of reading better, not to mention d) the fact that this reflects an overall obsession in our culture with “more, more, more” instead of “better” in a crucial time and place in which the collective desire for better is exactly what we need.

On a personal level, I came to a realization that soothed my performance-obsessed conscience. It was not that I was incapable of reading faster and therefore was somehow deficient; it was that I believed in the joy of reading slowly so as to understand completely, and to the extent I resisted the app and what it stood for, and to the extent I came to be aware of what reading had now become––a product of my own labor––I began to understand my own alienation.

I’m told often that I have a tendency to over-read situations as a symptom of my overdeveloped critical thinking skills, and while this may be true in certain (usually romantic) situations, I have found it to usually be beneficial.  Like, for example, the time I found Spritz’s own study that supposedly proves the merits of the app, stating that reading comprehension using the app is “comparable” to that of traditional reading – roughly 82% of the text comprehended using traditional methods vs. 77% using Spritz.  77% could be construed as comparable to 82%, but only if you’re stretching it (or reading it on your Spritz app at 550 wpm).  That’s a 5% difference but, you know, only if you care to take the time to notice.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.