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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and Republicanism
  • Heather James (bio)
Shakespeare and Republicanism. By Andrew Hadfield . Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv + 364. $80.00 cloth.

In this study of the relationship between politics and literature in Renaissance England, Andrew Hadfield raises the timely and challenging question of how republican thought is to be identified and explored in the writings of Shakespeare. This study's signal innovation is its effort to bring to Shakespearean studies the political questions usually reserved for elite genres, such as history, tragedy, and epic poetry. Shakespeare and Republicanism consequently argues that we lose a vital strand of literary and political history if we cordon off Shakespeare's dramatic and poetic work from the cultural and intellectual context in which scholars have studied the rise of Tacitean history in the 1590s, the poetry and politics of the Leicester-Sidney circle, and epic poetry in the anti-imperial tradition of Lucan. The book ambitiously aims to close the gap between Shakespeare, whose political opinions so often seem to be a matter of speculation and conjecture, and his contemporaries, whose learning and ideas seldom generate the same aura of mystery. Hadfield goes about this project by asserting a strong analogy between the classical and Venetian tales, topoi, and exemplars in Shakespeare's work and the language and ideas associated with classical republicanism and its revival in Italian humanist thought. To this strand of political thought—traced by J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner—he adds the period's more radical political interest in resistance theory, or the just causes of regicide.

Shakespeare and Republicanism opens with a brief for interpreting Shakespeare's plays in light of contemporary discourses that were critical of the English Crown and Constitution. The book draws its mandate from the call to historicize and contextualize. It also contains a polemic against political readings with ideological or rhetorical ties to modern critical theory. In Hadfield's view, Shakespeare scholars identify political commitments in the poetry and plays more closely with [End Page 127] critical methodologies than with Shakespeare himself. The Marxist, feminist, and cultural materialist studies of the 1980s and 1990s are accordingly assumed to do less to politicize Shakespeare than to inoculate him from the more radical traditions of his own day. This is a debatable claim, which the book makes quickly before moving on to a quite useful chapter on the succession of political ideas that has led scholars to debate the republicanism of the 1590s. This chapter, which will be of particular help to graduate students and advanced undergraduates, gives lively and succinct accounts of the ideas and argumentative strategies of political treatises written or translated in late sixteenth-century England: included are Thomas Starkey, Sir Thomas Smith, George Buchanan, Henry Saville, and a host of synthesizers, as well as the traditions of the Mirror for Magistrates, Polybian history, and the Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos. A second and related chapter focuses on a range of literary texts that cultivate analogous political themes and images, with particular attention to Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Lodge, and plays written in the anti-imperial and epic vein of Lucan. These paired chapters neatly illustrate the close association of literary and dramatic production and the development of political thought in the late Elizabethan period. Unlike Howard Baker's seminal 1939 Induction to Tragedy, they emphasize political critique over counsel.

The first interpretive chapter on Shakespeare takes up the riveting example of civil war in the first tetralogy, which Hadfield suggestively reads as Shakespeare's version of Lucan's Pharsalia. One does not need to believe that Renaissance poets divided up the career models of ancient Rome—making Spenser the English Virgil, Marlowe the English Ovid, and Shakespeare the English Lucan—to see the appeal of reading Shakespeare's volatile and yet undeniably artful set of history plays in terms of Lucan's experiment with the representation of civil war. The model of Lucan, who looked back in anger at the Civil War and especially the role of Julius Caesar in bringing down the aristocratic values of the Roman Republic, provides an exciting and coherent template for reading the apocalyptic violence of the Henry VI plays and Richard...


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pp. 127-130
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