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  • The Uneasy Republicanism of Thomas Kyd's Cornelia
  • Curtis Perry

This essay attempts to intervene, through a reading of Thomas Kyd's closet drama Cornelia (1594), in a series of ongoing debates about the place of classical republicanism within the political mentality of late Elizabethan England. Though argument concerning this topic has lately come to the fore among literary critics, the questions involved are essentially questions out of intellectual history in that they center on the cross-pollination and mutual interference of ideas. There is no question but that Elizabethan political thought included a number of strands that overlap with what we might intuitively think of as republicanism. These range from the radical, such as imported resistance theories justifying tyrannicide and stressing the limits of royal authority, to the utterly conventional, such as the discourse of native liberties protected by the ancient constitution or concerning the superiority of England's mixed government, in which the monarch ruled in tandem with parliament and common law. The question has been whether or how these possibly disparate strands should be knit together. For associating them and bestowing upon them the umbrella term republicanism creates implications about their cumulative coherence and thus about their significance within English political thought. It is one thing to note that there are a number of quasi-republican ideas in circulation, and another altogether to argue, as Andrew Hadfield has done, in his ambitious 2005 book, Shakespeare and Republicanism, that republicanism "set the political agenda in Shakespeare's England."1

Such questions are of course complicated further by the kinds of data—fictions, poems, plays—that literary critics tend to use as evidence, since the nature of the relationship between the stories people tell one another and their political thought can be difficult in practice to pin down. Cornelia, a play set during the Roman civil wars, against the backdrop of Caesar's victories and the end of the republic, is one of numerous early modern narratives dealing with the rise and fall of the Roman republic. This story was felt to be relevant to the Elizabethan present, obviously, but that in itself does not necessarily mean that English writers or [End Page 535] their audiences saw their own political milieus as republican. Nevertheless, topical fictions, precisely because they are not tied to the specific constitutional terms of contemporary political debate, offer the richest possible data set about the operation within these debates of other historically specific exempla. I want to suggest that Cornelia, though never widely enough read in its own day to be considered representative, can be an especially revelatory document in this regard, offering us an unusually rich and complex snapshot of the way republican motifs operated in relation to other kinds of political thought during the waning years of Elizabeth's reign.2

Kyd translated Cornelia from the French neoclassical play Cornélie by Robert Garnier. In taking up Garnier's work, Kyd—already best known as the author of the Elizabethan blockbuster The Spanish Tragedy (1587)—was imitating the fashionable aristocratic tastes of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, whose own translation of Garnier's Marc Antoine had been printed in 1592.3 Cornelia was never meant to be performed, so the undertaking marks a striking departure from Kyd's earlier, popular plays. The change of direction almost certainly has to do with Kyd's own straitened circumstances: he adopts a conspicuously elite style of drama in a bid for aristocratic patronage, for he was in desperate need of support when he wrote the play.4 In May 1593, during the course of the same Privy Council investigations that culminated in the murder of his associate Christopher Marlowe, Kyd was found holding "atheistical" papers. He claimed they were Marlowe's, but was imprisoned and probably tortured, and his surviving letters from this period complain of the resulting loss of patronage. Cornelia is dedicated to the Countess of Sussex, Lady Bridget Fitzwalter, whose husband, Robert Radcliffe, the 5th Earl of Sussex, was related to the Sidney family and closely allied with the Earl of Essex.5 Whether this represents a bid on Kyd's part to renew old patronage ties or to find new ones, there...


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