- Staging Authority in Caroline England: Prerogative, Law and Order in Drama, 1625–1642 by Jessica Dyson
With its focus on the often overlooked riches of the Caroline stage and its attention to the period’s central political and legal debates, Jessica Dyson’s Staging Authority in Caroline England: Prerogative, Law and Order in Drama, 1625–1642 makes a worthy contribution to recent scholarship on the early modern theater. Dyson’s work is especially useful for its clear, efficient discussions of the historical contexts as well as the theoretical lineaments of Caroline disputes about monarchical authority and for its close readings of the language and stakes of these debates in the period’s drama.
Dyson’s introductory chapter effectively establishes her interest in the Caroline theater as a “forum” for the period’s competing articulations of royal prerogative and common law as they took shape against King Charles I’s increasingly personal rule (2). She identifies her approach to the drama as more “oppositional” than those of influential critics such as Martin Butler, but she is careful to insist that playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Richard Brome, Philip Massinger, John Ford, or James Shirley offered challenges not to Charles’s “position as monarch” but rather to “his ability to act above, beyond or outside the established laws of the country” (9). In these challenges, she adds eloquently, their drama diagnosed a dynamic by which Charles I, “in over-asserting kingly and central authority,… raise[d] the possibilities of destabilization, fragmentation and disintegration of legitimate legal authority” (13).
Chapter 1, “Rights, Prerogatives and Law: The Petition of Right,” investigates the acute constitutional issues driving the 1628 Petition of Right and their enactment on the stage. She reads the petition, which crystallized the competing interests of Parliament and King in matters of taxation and martial law, as a symbol of widespread fear of royal absolutism and of a concomitant loss of traditional liberties. She then examines plays that juggle these concerns, arguing that Ben Jonson’s The New Inn “advocates the balance of subjects’ rights against a moderated, if not curtailed, royal prerogative” (20) and that Richard Brome’s The Love-Sick Court offers not only the predictable critique of self-interested courtiers and their bad counsel—readings offered by Butler and Matthew Steggle—but also a more “pointed political statement” about “the usefulness of parliaments” and the necessity of calling them (44).
Chapter 2, “Shaking the Foundations of Royal Authority: From Divine Right to the King’s Will,” surveys contemporary accounts of royal authority—theories of divine right, of designation, and of contract—and then charts Philip Massinger’s [End Page 243] representations, over the course of three plays, of this authority and its relation to the law. She traces an arc of declining divinity: from king as undeniably a god with extra-legal power in The Roman Actor to king as undeniably mortal, willful, and fallible in The Emperor of the East and The Guardian. Although the theoretical background here is cogent, some of the specific readings are overly literal in ways that undermine the idea of a declining divinity; it may be true that Domitian in The Roman Actor is presented as a divine ruler and that his extra-legal prerogative “is not denied” (66), but the play neither condones nor reinforces this position—it seems to put it into question in order to insist on Domitian’s very human status and passions. Dyson’s treatment of The Guardian, which sees the outlaw Severino as a critique of, rather than a substitute for, absolute power, is more assured and convincing.
The third chapter, “Debating Legal Authorities: Common Law and Prerogative,” sets the common law center stage, as a legitimate alternative to the will of the monarch as the foundation of authority in the realm. Dyson consults a selection of sources, from medieval to modern, to emphasize period views of the common law’s precedence and rationality. She then turns to a series of plays by Richard Brome to “examine the ways...