- “All Language Then Is Vile”: The Theatrical Critique of Political Rhetoric in Nathaniel Lee’s Lucius Junius Brutus
Nathaniel Lee’s Lucius Junius Brutus seems to demand a political interpretation. By 1680, when the play was probably written and certainly first performed, the widespread and apparently unifying enthusiasm which had greeted the restoration of the monarchy two decades earlier had given way to a “series of complex, intense, factional intrigues” which contemporaries feared might lead to another civil war. 1 Unresolved conflicts over the relative powers of the crown and Parliament and over the degree of toleration the re-established Church of England would extend to Catholics and to Protestant dissenters crystallized in the late 1670s in two bitterly divisive sociopolitical phenomena, known in historical shorthand as the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. When Lucius Junius Brutus appeared, the nation had been gripped for two years by nearly hysterical fears generated by the continuing (and, historians now believe, perjured) revelations of the Popish Plot informers, who spun a lurid tale of Catholic plans to assassinate Charles II, infiltrate the nation under the reign of his Catholic brother and heir James, and reestablish Catholicism through the persecution of Protestants. By 1680, the testimony of the informers had resulted in the trial and execution of several alleged plotters. 2 The religious fears and hostilities stirred up by the Plot helped to generate popular support for Parliamentary opponents of Charles; a major focus of their efforts to assert the rights and powers of Parliament was an attempt to pass and force Charles to assent to a Bill of Parliament excluding James from the line of succession. Although 1680 is probably too early to use the term “party” in the modern sense to describe the political groupings that struggled over this issue, the political labels of “Tory” and “Whig” were coming into common use to describe the complex and still-fluid alliances of those who supported the king and those who opposed him. 3 It was in this period as well that the word “mob” was invented to describe the crowds who demonstrated in the streets and organized mass petitions, political actions that harked back— [End Page 337] alarmingly for some, proudly for others—to the popular movements preceding the Civil War.
In this feverish political atmosphere, Lucius Junius Brutus takes as its subject the revolution which overturned the monarchy of the Tarquins and established the Roman republic; Brutus himself was traditionally renowned as a hero of republican liberty for the steely devotion to the state he displayed in executing his own sons for treason against the republic. The figure of Brutus, as a symbol of republicanism, was, in fact, employed in propaganda efforts during the exclusion crisis by both Whigs and Tories. And in this explosive political climate, the play was certainly regarded by Lee’s contemporaries as political: one or more of them “informed” the Lord Chamberlain that the play contained “Scandalous Expressions & Reflections vpon ye Government,” which prompted him to ban it from further performance. 4
Despite these strong inducements toward reading the play as engaged with contemporary politics, critics cannot agree on its political content. The main strand of criticism has seen the play as strongly pro-Whig. John Loftis, for example, considers the play “a Whig manifesto,” “a statement of the Whig constitutional position during the Exclusion controversy.” 5 Those who argue this position emphasize the political views articulated by Brutus, his endorsement of republican principles and condemnation of royal tyranny; his speeches are, in this view, a mimetic representation of the political views of contemporary Whigs and his actions an allegory of Whig political aspirations. Certainly, the language of the play is imbued with the political rhetoric of the period, in speeches such as Brutus’s appeal to the Roman populace as “a free-born people” (2.1.192) or in his arraignment of Tarquin for
Invading fundamental right and justice, Breaking the ancient customs, statutes, laws, With positive power and arbitrary lust.(2.1.179–81)
As Richard Ashcraft cogently remarks, a poet “really has to want to use words like petitioner, arbitrary power, prerogative, or the Good Old Cause, since they do not...