- Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought ed. by David Armitage, Conal Condren, and Andrew Fitzmaurice, and: Political Theology and Early Modernity ed. by Graham Hammill and Julia Reinhard Lupton
The category of the political is an equivocal notion embracing two contradictory ideas. Politics, derived from Greek polis, is conceived as a science of the public good that aims at understanding the structure and administration of a city-state. In this account, a well-ordered polity is the fundamental condition of possibility for human flourishing. This sense of politics explores ideas about public life and government, along with proposals for the distribution of power in society. The contrasting sense of politics as an unprincipled struggle for power emerges with the publication of Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe in 1532. Viewed this way, politics takes sides or follows some sort of party line. This is nicely captured in the maxim “no difference can be too small,” since partisan strife is characteristic of every polity, whether we are talking about a national election or about meetings of the local PTA.
Given the dialectical richness of politics as a term, it is not surprising that literary scholars have taken an interest in the political implications of texts they set out to interpret. Politics might not be the first thing to come to mind when you are reading one of John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, but for genres organized on a larger scale, a political response is virtually unavoidable. Edmund Spenser and John Milton wrote political treatises and held political office. William Shakespeare, by contrast, did neither of these things, but his works are thematically political in both senses of the term I have identified. Political interpretation of one kind or another has been a going concern among professors of English literature ever since Charles Mills Gayley’s Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America was published in 1917. The style of historical criticism we now associate with figures like Arthur O. Lovejoy and E. M. W. Tillyard was nothing if not political in its virtual obsession with hierarchical order. This school of criticism persisted for generations, only to be supplanted by the equally political styles of new historicism and cultural materialism. With such a long history of productive research and publication, one might think that the topic would by now have been exhausted. The recent publication of the two volumes reviewed here shows that this is very far from the case.
Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought, edited by David Armitage, Conal Condren, and Andrew Fitzmaurice, and Political Theology and Early Modernity, edited by Graham Hammill and Julia Reinhard Lupton, are collaborative efforts developed from one-off colloquia focused on well-specified research agendas. Because each of the topics was very carefully thought out and because the organizers were able to select a strong line-up of contributors, both volumes exhibit admirable unity of purpose. Both are examples of genuine collaboration; the intellectual [End Page 96] rewards of proceeding in this fashion are considerable. I’m impressed with the high standard of the scholarship and the originality of the insights presented in both publications. Unfortunately, it impossible to do justice to each of the essays, other than to say that they all make valuable contributions to our understanding of early modern history and culture. What I hope to do instead is to provide a kind of broad overview for each volume as a whole, commenting wherever I can on specific essays as a way to bring out the complexity of each of these two admirable projects.
There have been many studies of Shakespeare in relation to the political thought circulating in his own society. The collection of essays assembled by Armitage, Condren, and Fitzmaurice provides us with a far richer and more finegrained account...