Elizabethan England

“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

Legalizing Repression: “Muslim Registries” and English Recusants

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

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

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

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

welshman

Welshman who claimed he was Christ, tho.

 

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

Image One.jpg

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

Image Two.jpg

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

Image Three.jpg

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

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

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

Photos of manuscripts appear courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.