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The Republican Dilemma: Rhetoric, Violence, and Representation in Early Modern England


This dissertation argues that English literature refigured the central dilemma of Renaissance republicanism: should tyranny be met with submission or with violence? For poets and playwrights, I contend, representation offered a third way. Faced with the twin specters of tyranny and civil war, writers like Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, and Robert Herrick imagined new forms of political representation that might effectively balance rulers against ruled. “Poesy” was itself the vehicle for this political critique. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, there was no distinct concept of political representation. Members of parliament instead borrowed the mimetic vocabulary of neoclassical rhetoric and poetics to describe their own acts of representation. That vocabulary, however, affirmed a clear hierarchy: word over image, representation over represented. Neoclassical theorists asserted the aesthetic and even epistemological primacy of their poetic representations, while MPs used the fiction of popular presence to efface the constituents whom they supposedly represented.

I argue that literature contested this absolutist construction of representation. If the hierarchical tropes of neoclassical poetics proved influential, so too did other models of literary—and political—representation. From the narrative and ideological “variety” of Sidney’s Arcadia to the clamorous commons of Shakespeare’s histories to the polyvocal poetry of Herrick’s Hesperides, English literature could represent an embodied, and at times radically inclusive, politics of participation. Even Ben Jonson, who in his Roman plays struggled to defend the hierarchies of neoclassical representation, solicited popular judgment by writing for the commercial theater. In these writers’ “feigned commonwealths,” however, enfranchisement often seems like the effect or cause of bloodshed; and in England’s own commonwealth, ideological polarization and ultimately civil war threatened to dissolve the barrier between speech and violence altogether. Yet from the Renaissance to the present, the possibility of separating rhetoric from violence has remained the positive condition of republicanism, and the promise of literature.

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