Shipwrecked Courtier: Nostalgia and Courtiership in Twelfth Night and The Book of the Courtier

[7-10 minute read]

Above my fortunes, yet my state is well.

I am a gentleman. – Viola, Twelfth Night

Viola, the shipwrecked woman of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, finds herself separated from her twin brother in a foreign land. Vulnerable, she must find means for supporting herself and dons the disguise of a eunuch named Cesario to serve Duke Orsino. The neighboring grieving Duchess, caught off-guard by Cesario’s unexpected presence of beauty and eloquent speech, seeks to uncover Cesario’s origins as s/he enters the court. She inquires about Cesario’s “parentage,” and s/he responds, “I am a gentleman” (1.5.222-24).[1] I read Viola’s embodied construction of the gentleman named Cesario within the tradition of courtiers and courtly service culture. I ask, why is the courtier, as an eroticized figure of civilized society, wrapped up with notions of reconstructing lost times and places? I explore this question in the deployment of Castiglione’s figuration of the ideal humanist courtier within The Book of the Courtier in Viola/Cesario’s embodiment of an English gentleman in Twelfth Night. I argue that Shakespeare’s re-imagination of Castiglione’s ideal Italian humanist courtier in Twelfth Night is demonstrative of the affective entanglement between courtiers, nostalgia, and sovereigns; thus, offering the potential for alternative queer futures.

The influence of Castiglione’s The Courtier as a political model for negotiating status within the court can be seen impacting the English imagination throughout Tudor England. This ideal humanist courtier even makes an appearance in Sir Thomas Elyot’s Governor, which was published only three years after Castiglione’s dialogue. Thomas Hoby translates The Courtier into English by 1561, and its influence on contemporaneous works is reflected in Roger Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570).[2] The ideal humanist courtier, as composed by Castiglione, began circulating throughout England during Henry VIII’s reign, carried into Elizabeth’s England, and became the preferred mode of conduct for English gentleman.[3] Within this context, Twelfth Night provides evidence that the form of the courtier exceeds textuality; the courtier draws upon past models of comportment, textual and performative, to elicit a sense of wonder and desire from sovereigns.

Viola carries on from the shipwreck at the opening of Twelfth Night towards a better life only after she disguises her appearance, such that others perceive her as a male courtier. Attempting to resuscitate a vestige of her lost brother, Viola draws upon Sebastian’s comportment for her employment as a courtier, “in this fashion, color, ornament/ For him I imitate” (3.4.322-23). Viola nostalgically draws upon the comportment of her lost brother as the model for her citational performativity “in this fashion” not only to succeed in securing her fortunes, but also to collapse the temporal separation between Sebastian and herself.

The figure of the gentleman in Viola’s performance of Cesario mirrors Castiglione’s ideal humanist courtier. Employed by Orsino, Cesario/Viola is sent to Duchess Olivia’s court to deliver the Duke’s declaration of love. Olivia, shocked at the eloquence of Cesario/Viola’s speech and comportment, asks him about his social status. Cesario describes himself to Olivia as a gentleman that has done well. His assurances to Olivia that he has already succeeded as a courtier – in that he is “above” his “fortunes” – is reminiscent of Cesare Gonzaga’s summary in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier: “he who has grace finds grace” (Castiglione 30). Cesario’s use of the word “fortune” is indicative that it is through his grace of speech, beauty, and conduct that he has been able to ascend this far.[4]

Cesario has done so well because he has already captured Orsino’s interest with his graceful abilities. Cesario taunts Olivia with allusions to his prior success of becoming Orsino’s beloved, inflaming his prestige as a courtier in her imagination. Olivia rehearses to herself, almost trancelike, Cesario’s many favorable attributes such as his “tongue” for his rhetorical powers, his “face” for his youthful and feminine appearance, his “limbs” which are of lovely shape, his “actions” that are demonstrative of his capabilities, and his “spirit” that proves his morality. Strikingly, Olivia embeds Cesario with the same corporeal physicality and neo-platonic idealism that is found of Castiglione’s ideal humanist courtier. Indeed, Olivia admits that she gives a “fivefold blazon,” connecting Cesario to the chivalric tradition that the courtier and English gentleman pulls upon.

Viola’s disguise as her brother is a form of performative nostalgia that provides the material basis for her hope of a better future and puts into effect the circulation of queer desire. Olivia’s desire for Cesario brings the Duchess out of her mourning, hopeful for a future in which she is wed to this female dressed as male courtier. The promised, yet unfilled, union between Cesario and Orsino at the end of Twelfth Night suggests an alternative queer future as well. The Duke summons the male courtier, “Cesario, come -/ For you shall be, while you are a man;/ But when in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen.” (5.1.362-65). Orsino lingers over the idea of having Cesario as a beloved, and refuses to call, or perceive, Cesario as female until he has changed back into Viola’s clothes. As long as Cesario stays within the garb of a courtier then there still exists an alternative queer ending to Twelfth Night, one in which Viola’s clothes are never found and Cesario remains Orsino’s beloved.

[1] All references to Twelfth Night are from Bruce Smith’s edited edition.

[2] Linda Salamon reads affinities between The Courtier and The Scholemaster to argue that The Courtier influenced its design in “The Courtier and The Scholemaster.”

[3] See Bryson, Anna. From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England; Kelso, Ruth. The Doctrine of The English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century.

[4] Shakespeare uses the word “grace” as defined by good “fortune” in Two Gentlemen of Verona (3.1.146) (OED 6)


“They may pass for excellent men:” Audience and Interpretative Labor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[5-7 minute read]

Last week, I discussed Hamlet’s metatheatrical play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, in an attempt to discuss what Hamlet’s attitudes towards acting could tell us about the relationship between theater and audience. This week, I would like to shift gears and discuss a different moment of metatheatricality in Shakespeare: the performance of The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with my previous examples, Midsummer has an investment in the relationship between actor and audience, particularly as it pertains to moments of interpretation relative to an imagined, unchanging ‘text.’ Here though, that interrogation would seem to lack the political stakes that characters like Hamlet and individuals like Elizabeth I associated with the theater. Rather, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are presented with the possibility that an audience’s ability to interpret a text against an implied authorial voice does not represent a threat to the theater as an institution. Instead, this moment represents an instance of productive labor that allows audience and playwright to work in unison.

Among the many subplots moving through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a great deal of time is spent with the “Rude Mechanicals,” a band of Athenian lower-class craftsmen preparing a play for the upcoming wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens. The performance is framed as comically inept. From its treatment of the staging to the acting, the text of Midsummer’s invites mockery of the Rude Mechanicals’ stage play. The performance, which dominates the fifth act of the play,[1] becomes a spectacle of failure as the onstage audience of the performance mocks and jeers at the actors in what amounts to a four-century old version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. While the Rude Mechanicals are not Hamlet’s boisterous clowns, they seem aligned with his idea of the overly zealous actor who would threaten to “out-Herods/ Herod,” and thus cause the audience to fail in understanding the gravity of the play’s printed text.[2] The original Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy drawn from the pages of Ovid, and invokes the same vaunted high artistic sources in which Hamlet finds his text. Unlike The Murder of Gonzago within Hamlet, Pyramus fails to produce its desired effect and the narrative is transformed into farce.

Rude MechanicalsShakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals

To this end, it is important to consider not only the metatheatrical performance undertaken in A Midsummer’s, but also its metatheatrical audience. Theseus and his cohort are very aware of their role as audience members, and the beginning of Act V serves as a justification for why the Duke allows this performance to go on in the first place. Central to this is Duke’s assertion that he and his fellow audience members are serving as a magnanimous corrective to the failure of the mechanicals; they act as individuals who know the play will be awful but will watch it nonetheless, because their presence will solve the problem of the mechanical’s ineptitude, and thus ‘fix’ the play. The Duke, being informed of how awful the play will likely be, remarks “[t]he kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. / Our sport shall be to take what they mistake.”[3] Taking what they – the performers – mistake implicitly frames Theseus’s goal as one of interpretative labor, in which he and his fellow audience members will correct the problems arising from the inability of the mechanicals to ‘properly’ perform tragedy.

This is however, made significantly more complex by how the performance of A Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe does not fail in a metatheatrical sense. In other words, although the Rude Mechanicals fail to properly perform tragedy within the logic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the live audience is compelled to join in with Theseus and his royal audience. We laugh with them and the comedy of Midsummer becomes successful, even if it is at the expense of lower-class actors failing to produce real affective tragedy. We take it upon ourselves to participate in Theseus’s reinterpretation of the play and in doing so, we too find pleasure the kind of corrective interpretation that Theseus promises when he claims to “take what they mistake.” The audience is not a passive figure tasked with correctly taking in the meaning of the tragedy, as that is not the real stakes in the final moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead, the on-stage audience are active participants in the construction of the play and in doing so, provide a bulk of the pleasurable comedy. We, as the audience in the theater, are brought to laugh with the on-stage audience and in doing so, we aren’t failing to properly interpret Pyramus and Thisbe; we are correctly interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is the central metatheatrical tension in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s, and it is this tension between text and performance that creates the comedy of the final act.

Now, the political stakes in the reinterpretation of tragedy into comedy are much lower than the stakes of an early modern audience member reinterpreting a play like Richard II as pro-usurpation. However, the function of this examination, and the function of all my discussions this month has been to interrogate the ways in which early modern drama addresses and complicates the role of the audience as an active and passive portion of the space of the theater. I began this month in the present day, examining the suggestion that audiences failing to properly interpret the ‘meaning of a play’ might in turn serve as a threat to the institution of the public theater. From there, I spoke to two similar discourses present in early modernity, each suggesting how various audiences’ differing interpretation of a play might have dire political consequences. I close then, on a more ‘productive’ moment of misinterpretation, wherein the audiences’ ability to reject the ‘meaning of a text’ is not imagined as an undesirable response. At the conclusion of this series of blogposts, I hope to have made visible the complex relationship early modern theater had with its own interpretative communities, and the ways in which many of those vexed relationships remain present in our own relationship with the artistic productions of the past.

[1] The rest of the key plot points have been wrapped up by the beginning of the fifth act.

[2] Hamlet III.ii.x14-x15. Of note here, Bottom does pride himself in his ability to play a tyrant, an attitude he attempts to comically transfer off the stage during rehearsal.

[3] A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.95-96.

“Dumbshows and Noise:” Hamlet and The Problem of Audience

[5-7 minute read]

During Act 3 of Hamlet, while preparing the travelling players for the evening’s performance, Hamlet provides the actor’s company with a lengthy speech concerning the proper methods of acting he would like them to employ. During the speech, he makes a note on clowns, saying “and let those that play/ your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;/for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to/ set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh/too.[1] Here, Hamlet urges caution to the players: their clown should speak only those words written upon the page, lest his frantic ad-libbing set the audience to laughter, and risk missing “some necessary/question of the play be then to be considered.”[2] This moment reminds the audience of how seriously Hamlet takes the theater and how he believes the supremacy of the page should define the worth of theatrical performance. Hamlet’s worry is that that clowns and fools pose a threat to the political power of drama. Given the political implications of Hamlet’s play, the worry here is that a particularly boisterous fool may risk causing the entire theatrical endeavor to come crashing down. Moving too far from the text, or otherwise reducing its importance as a single-authored object of reverence, threatens to rob it of its political weight, and reduce it to airy nothingness.

William KempeWilliam Kempe: Shakespeare’s first fool and likely the reason that this speech exists

Particularly key here is the sense that ‘some quantity of barren spectators’ will become wrapped up in the clown’s performance. Clowns were understood to be figures of the theater beloved by the commons; they were the wild antic-makers who, along with the jigs and songs that would accompany a public theatrical performance, successfully brought London’s poorer audiences into the theaters. This moment of directly – and assertively – attacking the figure of the fool is explicitly transformed into a jab at the kinds of audiences who would enjoy the labor of the clown and in turn, would rob the text of its dignity. Here, the assault on the fool is an instrument for critiquing the baser kinds of audiences who enjoyed the fools’ antics above the artistic merit of the tragic monologue. While Hamlet extends this beyond the antics of the clown (also critiquing players whose voices remind him of the town-crier), the thrust of the speech remains in the suggestion that the theater is a site of high art that must not be threatened by actors who would “split the ears of the groundlings, who/ for the most part are capable of nothing but/ inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”[3] A key component of this critique is misdirection; in other words, this critique emphasizes a playwright’s worry that his audience will fail to understand the gravity of the text, and will instead allow themselves to be enamored by disposable and unimportant moments that are not worthy of artistic labor. Within this speech, the antipathy towards the unwashed masses and their inability to properly relate to the artistic production of the theater is palpable, and framed through rhetoric reminiscent of critiques leveled against mass public audiences in virtually any contemporary moment.

This sense of the importance of the play is complicated by the performance Hamlet is discussing. While in the last few weeks we looked at texts that were assumed to have represented political leaders on stage, Hamlet’s intent is explicit, as he notes “the play’s the thing,/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[4] Hamlet is certain of the play’s ability to foreground the reality of Denmark’s corruption, despite the incongruity separating The Murder of Gonzago from the text of Hamlet. Hamlet’s audience, both on the stage and in the theatre, is meant to understand that the goal of the play is to “hold a mirror up to nature[5] — and this in turn will reflect the rank villainy that has seeped into the Danish court. While Hamlet is not hoping that his play will stir a popular revolt,[6] he is assuming the play itself will have the power make the invisible sins lingering within the state visible, and furthermore, force a moment of confession and revelation to justify his act of regicide. His speech to the player kings also suggests a belief that if the play is not treated with the necessary reverence for the art form, it will be prone to fail. The stakes of this performance as so much greater than the enjoyment and applause of Hamlet’s hypothetical barren spectators, and so must be presented with the proper audience in mind.

While there is reason to be hesitant in ventriloquizing the voice of Shakespeare through Hamlet, it is worth considering the ways that this discourse was present during the period, and the ways in which Hamlet’s advice has become part and parcel with the discourse surrounding the theater in our contemporary world. As the theater has become a stable and lauded artistic institution, clowns and dumbshows in Shakespearean tragedies nevertheless remind us of their popular origins. As I noted in my first post this month, there was a sense among defenders of Julius Caesar (2017) that it was a case of audiences simply missing the “question of the play.” Those who then missed the question became like the lowly personages Hamlet critiques here, incapable or unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the dramatic representations put before them, and wasting energy in focusing on the wrong part of the text or performance. Though these complaints are not framed in the same language Hamlet proposes, the premise that underscores them remains worth considering. In our contemporary affirmation of the theater as weighty and serious art capable of enacting the kind of political labor early modern audiences feared, there is a danger that we have also affirmed Hamlet’s suggestion. Perhaps, this assertion also bolsters the belief that groundings, past and present, and their inability to fully understand the weight of artistic representation, act as a threat to the value of the theater as an institution. This becomes a highly contentious notion regarding who can enjoy the theater and what it means to ‘watch a play properly,’ lest we become the clown-loving audiences Hamlet chides. At its heart, these debates all return to the relationship between the theater and the general public, and this is the subject that I will explore in my final post this month.

[1] Hamlet III.ii.39-43.

[2] Ibid, 43-44.

[3] Ibid, 11-13.

[4] Hamlet, II.ii, 633-634.

[5] Hamlet, III.ii. 23.

[6] By contrast, Laertes does lead a popular revolt.


“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.

[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.


“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.

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.