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Authority from his majesty : drama and popular politics in early modern England

  • Author(s): Higgins, John C.
  • et al.

My dissertation draws on recent methodological and theoretical developments in social history in order to rethink the political significance of formal experimentation in early 17th century English theater. Specifically, I argue that formal experiments in four Jacobean plays should be read as participating in a process whereby early modern rulers and the people they ostensibly commanded negotiated and struggled over the meanings of dominant political discourses and the legitimate uses of governing institutions. Recent social historical work on "popular politics" has drawn attention to the fact that local officials and private citizens both manipulated tropes of authority and obedience and appropriated governing institutions - including the militia, the jury trial and the public execution - in order to meet their own political needs rather than those of the court. By focusing on popular political activity, I reconsider the new historicist claim that, "Power in early modern England was performative," in order to emphasize the participatory, contested nature of performance as a social activity, and the overdetermined, negotiated nature of the period's political hegemony. The plays that I analyze not only include characters and images drawn from popular political life but also actively participate in this negotiation by appropriating dominant governing discourses and institutions for the benefit of the players and playwrights and the entertainment of diverse audiences. In each chapter, I engage in an intertextual analysis that reads a single, experimental play in conversation with different historical texts - including pamphlets, chronicle histories and trial records - that record and respond to the appropriation of authority. The first chapter reads Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster in relation to divine right treatises, political rumors and popular protests. The second chapter reads Shakespeare's Measure for Measure as a manipulation of the dominant legal discourse surrounding justice and mercy. The third chapter places John Webster's The White Devil into conversation with legal rituals like trials and public executions. The final chapter reads Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair alongside various texts describing the demographic changes to the early modern London metropolis and the struggles of the city government to manage these changes

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