- Nonrepresentational Politics
Is representative democracy worthwhile? Not really, Oliver Arnold suggests in The Third Citizen. In this painstaking, lively, and piercing book, the author makes his case not with reference to the present moment but by attending to the rhetoric of the House of Commons and to Shakespeare’s attitudes toward it. Arnold believes his approach needful for several reasons, ones that begin as disciplinary concerns, then ramify outward. One reason is the continued influence of New Historicism and its focus on “the subjectivity, ideology, and culture peculiar to monarchy” (25). Another is the tendency of revisionist historians to accord the early modern Commons a passive role, that of a mere department of the crown. A third is the practice of “new Whig” critics who refute new historicists and revisionist historians alike by shifting focus from the crown to the people who opposed it in hopes of protoliberal empowerment.
For Arnold, all three approaches—emphasizing as they do the political hierarchy’s top or bottom—neglect a crucially important discourse that was emerging within the Commons and that articulates what the author calls “the politics of representation.” To be sure, Elizabethan and Jacobean knights and burgesses were elected to their seats in the Commons as were generations of previous members of Parliament (MPs), but the notion that MPs represented the people, [End Page 483] Arnold points out, was novel: “the claims [MPs] made to represent and speak for thousands of people were ‘ modern’ and unprecedented” (15). In focusing on the words of monarchs and the commonwealth’s members but not of members of parliament, historians and literary critics alike have largely ignored a concept of artificial personhood—according to which an MP speaks not just for himself but for and even as the people—that was born in Shakespeare’s time and is integral to our thinking about representative democracy today.
Arnold sees Shakespeare adopting a radical position on representative politics. Arnold argues that “[t]he Whigs’ attempt to make Shakespeare our liberal contemporary” (11) is misguided—not because Shakespeare was an absolutist, or regarded the English people with contempt, or was a republican rather than a true democrat, but because he portrays political representation as itself tragic. This is so because being represented deforms and disempowers the enfranchised subject, who is asked to hold a number of counterintuitive, crippling beliefs: for example, “that he was representatively present at the political center (that he was at once home in Shropshire and present in St. Stephen’s Chapel in London),” “that he empowered himself by empowering others,” and “that he attained a political voice by allowing others to speak for him” (7). Shakespeare rejects each of these beliefs: “In Shakespeare’s canon,” Arnold writes, “there is not a single exception to this rule: when they invest representatives with their voices, the people lose both power and their capacity to articulate cogently their aims and desires” (12). In speaking for and even as the people, political representatives make those people disappear (13). Arnold believes that his turn to the birth of representational rhetoric—and especially to Shakespeare’s critique of it—is particularly timely, for we now take that rhetoric for granted: “[E]arly modern observers,” Arnold writes, “. . . may have something disquieting to tell us, the subjects of a representationalism so entrenched as to seem virtually natural and inevitable.” Sharing in Shakespeare’s wisdom, we might see how sinister this entrenchment is, might “consider whether the most fundamental contradictions and ideological misrecognitions of political representation in its primitive form have been exorcised from, or simply work more effectively in, its perfected form” (19).
The Third Citizen opens with a lengthy introduction followed by a full chapter that focuses—largely through parliamentary proceedings—on the self-conception of the House of Commons, then moves into chapter-length readings of the First Tetralogy, Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece, Julius Caesar, and, lastly, Coriolanus. Each [End Page 484] chapter takes extended recourse to historical materials, and the contexts in which Arnold charts Shakespeare...